The Whore''s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  “How much do you have in your checking account?” I ask our daughter.

  She blinks.

  “How much?” I say.

  “Not a lot,” she says. “There’s never much. A couple hundred dollars maybe.”

  “Write me a check,” I say. “I’ll take him to the airport.”

  “You want me to pay for it?” Julie says.

  “You want me to?”

  “Hank—” Faye starts.

  But I’m not about to budge on this one. I’ll loan her money later, or give it to her if I have to, but if she wants Russell on a plane, she’s going to experience at least the appearance of paying for it.

  Julie fetches the checkbook from the drawer in the kitchen. Though she hates the idea, she writes the check anyway. I look it over, then slip it in my pocket.

  “He’s at the bedroom window staring at us,” Julie whispers. “Don’t look.”

  I don’t intend to.

  It’s forty-five minutes to Bradley International. I tell Russell to take it easy. After all, it’s not like we’re trying to catch any particular flight. Where I will send Russell is one of the many things we have not discussed. Why he has struck my daughter is another. More than anything, I’m afraid he’ll tell me what’s wrong with my daughter, and why their lives together went wrong.

  I know too much already. Knew, in fact, as soon as I saw my house taking shape on their lot, knowing that this wasn’t Russell’s idea, that if Russell had his way they’d be living in New Haven in an apartment, spending their money in restaurants, on the occasional train into New York, the theater, maybe, or a cruise around the island. The sort of things you have a ticket stub to show for when you’re finished. It would take him a decade or so to want something more permanent, and even then it would be against his better instincts. He didn’t need a house right now and he certainly didn’t need a replica of mine. When we drove away, he hadn’t even looked back at it.

  I know all this better than he does. He probably imagines that whatever it is that’s between him and Julie is more immediate. He may even think he’s a bad lover or a bad person. I doubt he likes what he’s thinking as the Connecticut countryside flies by and recedes behind us liked a welched promise. I’d asked if he minded driving, and he said why should he. Why indeed? It’s his car.

  “It’s funny,” he finally says when we hit I-91.

  “Please, Russell,” I beg him. “Don’t tell me what’s funny.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it won’t be.”

  “What’s funny is . . . I’m relieved.”

  “See what I mean?”

  “No, seriously,” he says. I suspect he doesn’t know what serious means, though he’s learning. “Ever since last night I’ve been trying to figure out some way to punish myself. Now I can leave the whole thing in your capable hands. You’re about the most capable man I’ve ever known, Hank. I don’t mind saying it’s been a bitch competing with you.”

  I can’t think what to say to this, but I have to admit, now that I’ve heard him out, that it is funny. “I hope you won’t misconstrue my running you out of town as not liking you, Russell.”

  We both smile at that.

  “Were you and Faye ever unhappy?” he asks.

  “Together or separately?”

  “Together.”

  “Sure.”

  He thinks about this for a minute. “I bet that’s not true,” he says. “I bet you’re just saying it for one of your famous philosophical reasons, like happiness just isn’t in the cards for human beings, the sort of thing guys like you say to college students in your late afternoon classes before you go home and spend a happy evening in front of the television.”

  There is a curious mixture of wisdom and naïveté in this observation, and it makes me even sadder to be putting Russell on a plane.

  “Julie always says that’s what she had in mind for us. To be as happy as you guys.”

  Once again I am aghast at how little my daughter knows me, at what a desert her imagination must be. What does she see when she looks at me? When I look at myself, the evidence is everywhere. I know now why she didn’t come to see me at the hospital. It was the nature of my operation. It wasn’t that she couldn’t imagine me with cancer. She couldn’t imagine me with a dick. That I am a man has somehow escaped her, which is why she doesn’t think twice about bending over in front of me in her peasant blouse. And maybe it’s even worse than that. If she has never thought of her father as a man, can she imagine herself as a woman?

  Russell’s car rides smoothly enough, but like most small Japanese models there is a low-level vibration that comes from being close to the earth and the buzzing engine. When the nausea I felt atop the lawn mower returns, I close my eyes and will it away, hoping that Russell will conclude I’ve fallen asleep.

  “The good thing is I know now that I can’t make her happy. That’s what hitting her meant, I think. It was what I was thinking when I hit her. That I’d never make her happy. It pissed me off, because I always thought that was something I could do.”

  “You’re very young, Russell,” I tell him.

  For some reason this observation also pisses him off and he looks over as if he’s thinking about hitting me. “You can be one cold son of a bitch, you know that, Hank? You’re just the kind of guy who’d kick a man out of his own house, take him to the airport in his own car, put him on a plane and figure he had a right to. The only reason I’m going along with this shit is because you look half dead. One little poke in the stones and I could leave you alongside the road for the undertaker.”

  “There,” I say after a respectful moment of silence. “I guess you told me.”

  Bradley is crowded so we have to take the shuttle from a distant parking lot to the terminal. Then we walk a little and I begin to feel better again, waiting in line at the ticket counter, Russell behind me with his two suitcases.

  When it’s my turn, an earnest young woman wants to know how she may serve me. How do people keep such straight faces, I wonder. “Where can you go for two hundred dollars?” I ask her. “One way.”

  “Sir?”

  I repeat my question.

  “Lots of places. Boston. New York. Philadelphia . . .”

  “Nothing west of the Mississippi?” Russell asks.

  She shakes her pretty head. The farther you go, the more expensive it gets. Such is life, she seems to imply.

  “Tough luck, Hank,” Russell says.

  “How about Pittsburgh?” I suggest, noticing that a flight’s leaving in half an hour. I think of a woman I know who lives there, or did once. We met at a convention a dozen or so years into my marriage. My one infidelity. She had recently been divorced, and we made love more or less constantly for three days. Then she returned to Pittsburgh as I did to Faye, and I’d never heard from her again. For several years I stopped going to academic conventions, afraid that she would be there and I would prove faithless a critical second time. Lately, though I feel no real desire for her, she’s been on my mind.

  “Pittsburgh,” Russell shrugs. “Why not.”

  There are only twenty-five minutes to departure, so we head for the gate.

  “You can split if you like,” Russell says. “You have my word I’ll get on the plane.”

  In fact, I don’t trust him. In his shoes, I would not get on the plane. Or maybe I’d get on and then off again, circling back to the departure lounge to watch whoever was seeing me off wave as the plane taxis down the runway. No, I intend to see him onto the plane, and then see it airborne. After that, if he wants to get off it’s his business.

  Blessedly, the gate is not far. I’m not looking forward to driving back home. I almost asked Faye to come with us, but that would’ve left Julie home alone. It occurs to me it’s not just the drive I’m dreading.

  “When you get there,” I say, facing Russell, “let me know how to contact you. We’ll need your signature to get you and Julie out from under the house.”

 
“Sometimes I think it’s the house that killed us,” he admits without much conviction, as if it’s one of a dozen equally plausible explanations he’s considered in the last twenty-four hours.

  “At least you don’t have to go back to it,” I say.

  He gives a rueful laugh, then turns somber. “I wish you’d let me take the car,” he says suddenly. “It’s really not fair that I should end up in a strange city and not even have a way of looking for a job. I mean, I’ve been a shit and everything, but—”

  In truth, I hadn’t thought of this. Failures of imagination abound. And now that he’s brought the unfairness of it to my attention, I know I can’t put him on that plane.

  “I swear to Christ,” he says. “If you let me take my car, I’ll go far away. Farther than Pittsburgh.”

  Right now, he seems about the most generous person I’ve ever known. After all, he doesn’t need my permission. The keys I’m holding are his keys. They fit the ignition to his car. Only a combination of generosity and scalding guilt can account for the fact that he hasn’t put up a fuss. By hitting Julie he has unmanned himself, losing everything but kindness. And I am suddenly sure he’ll do as he says.

  A voice comes over the intercom announcing that those needing assistance will be boarded first, then passengers traveling with small children. I hand Russell his keys.

  “I didn’t mean that about you being a cold son of a bitch, Hank,” he says as we start back to the terminal.

  “And you’d never poke me in the stones,” I add, smiling.

  At the sliding doors we shake hands, and I watch him lug his two suitcases across the huge parking lot. I don’t feel too bad about him. Almost anyplace he ends up will be better than where he is now.

  I’m left standing there holding an airline ticket to Pittsburgh that will need to be cashed in. Then I’ll have to call Faye and admit to her what I’ve done. She will have to come collect me. It seems too much to ask—of either of us, so instead I head back to the gate. I arrive just in time to see the Pittsburgh flight airborne. “You’re too late,” says a young man in an official airline blazer.

  “I guess so,” I tell him. In fact there’s no doubt about it. Odds are that she’s no longer in Pittsburgh. She’s probably married again by now, not that it matters, really. I only wanted to see her at some restaurant with half-moon booths where I might tell her about my surgery. For some reason I’m convinced that my brush with mortality would matter to her, and that I’d feel better after confessing to someone that I fear the nausea, that I consider it prophetic, a sign that some terrible malignancy remains. I remember her body and the way we made love, and I guess I was hoping that she would remember my body too. Maybe she would be afraid for me in the way I want someone to be afraid.

  Back in the terminal I feed coins into the pay phone, dial and let it ring a dozen times before hanging up and trying Julie’s number, which does the same thing. I’m too tired to be sure what this means. Probably Faye has given our daughter a sedative. Perhaps I have caught my wife in transit between houses. I wait a few minutes and try my house again, wondering if I’ve forgotten our number.

  Whoever I’m dialing is not home. I go outside onto the terminal ramp and am about to ask a taxi driver how much it would cost to take me to Durham when Faye pulls up right in front of me, so I get in.

  “I got to thinking about it,” she says, “and realized you’d give him the car.”

  I just look at her, wondering if she might also have intuited that I just missed getting on a plane to Pittsburgh, that I had a lover fifteen long years ago who I want to tell things I can’t tell my wife.

  “You think I don’t know you after thirty years?” she says, as if in answer to my unspoken question.

  “Not intimately,” I tell her.

  “Hurry up and mend then,” she says.

  Night is coming and most of the trip back will be in the dark, but the car is warm and there will be no harm if I fall asleep. Faye knows how to get us home.

  Joy Ride

  We left early in the cold gray morning before I was entirely awake. My mother draped the clothes I was supposed to wear over a chair. My job was to get into them. Her job was to do everything else—pack the suitcases, throw them into the trunk of the car, write my father a note. When she came back to check on me and found me sitting at the edge of the bed, one shoe on, one shoe off, staring into space, she barked “Move!” so loudly that I jumped. And when even this failed to jump-start me, she kept saying, over and over, “Go go go go go go,” which made me stare at her, stupid and a little frightened too. She came over to me then, getting down on her knees so we were face to face, and said, “Move, sweetie. We’ve got to move.”

  When I was finally dressed, I found her in the kitchen, trying to compose a note to my father, looking like she was in a one-shoe-on, one-shoe-off stage of composition. When she became aware of me standing there, she scratched one big word in capital letters on the tablet and held it up proudly. GOODBYE, it said. “That just about sums up the whole deal,” she said. “You got anything to add?” I shook my head. “You’ve still got sleep in your eyes, sweetie,” she said, then worked her thumbs expertly in the corners of my eyes as I tried to back away. I was twelve and fully competent, in my view, to do this myself. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go, before he comes home and finds us and the note both.”

  In the car she dropped a spiral notebook into my lap. When I opened it, I discovered it was a series of maps provided by the AAA Automobile Club. Each map covered a small area of roughly a hundred miles, and our route had been traced in yellow magic marker. When you turned the page, the next map picked up where the last left off, the yellow route highlighted across the new page. “You’re the navigator,” my mother said, turning the key in the ignition. I must have looked doubtful, because she added, “I can’t do this all by myself, sweetie.”

  “Next time you see one of these,” my mother said, indicating the harbor with her thumb, “it’ll be on the other side of the country, a whole different ocean.”

  We lived in Camden, on the coast of Maine, and our plan, according to the AAA map guide, was to drive to southern California and, as my mother put it, to lose my father and lose him good.

  “How come we’re going through town?” it occurred to me to ask. Doing so meant passing my father’s hardware store. “What if he sees us?”

  “What if he does?” she said. “It’s not like he can see the suitcase in the trunk. He doesn’t have X-ray vision. Half the time he can’t see what’s right in front of him.” What was right in front of him, lately, was my mother, trying to pick a fight. Adjusting the rearview mirror so she could see herself, she ran her pinkie across her eyelid; her eyeliner was kind of heavy, and it made her eyes look Egyptian. There’d been other changes these last few months. She was growing her hair out, letting it go straight like the girls on TV. “As far as he’s concerned, I’m taking you to school.”

  We were sitting at the town’s only traffic light, and the hardware store was half a block up the street, a phalanx of bright red lawn mowers lined up in front. It was early April and there was still snow on the ground, but my father liked to encourage people to think spring. Studying the front of the store, I didn’t have to look over at my mother to know she was looking at it too, as if daring my father to emerge. “Green,” I said when the light changed. The car behind us honked before my mother could step on the gas, so she stayed right where she was, rolled down her window and stuck her arm out above the roof to offer a gesture I wasn’t supposed to see. We sat right there until the light turned yellow and my mother punched us through just as it turned red, leaving the driver behind us to sit through another whole sequence. “Sit there, asshole,” she said, smiling into the rearview mirror.

  “You’re swearing a lot this morning,” I pointed out.

  “Why shouldn’t I?” she said. “It’s a free country and I’m a free woman.” When I didn’t say anything, she continued. “It’s not only a free country,
it’s a big one. Big enough for us to get lost in. We’re bound for freedom, sweetie.”

  She was urging the car up the long hill that would lead us out of town and down along the coast to Portland. She had it floored, but the Ford seemed reluctant, and the engine was making a sound like there were marbles inside. “Downshift,” I said.

  She did and the car responded. Then she looked over at me. “You think I’m following your instructions all the way to California, you got another think coming, buddy boy,” she said.

  “I’m the navigator,” I reminded her. “You can’t do this without me.”

  But I could tell she’d lost interest in the conversation. At the top of the hill, I couldn’t help turning around and taking one last look at the village below, at its three white church spires, the blue harbor, the Camden hills beyond.

  “Peyton Place,” my mother snorted, because our town was where that movie was filmed. “What a goddamn laugh.”

  Blowing town was my mother’s idea, but right then it seemed an answer to my prayers, for I had fallen in with bad companions and was trying to impress them by acting crazier than they were. Craziness was something they understood and apparently admired, which was a revelation to me. Whenever I behaved like a lunatic, they clapped me on the back and congratulated me, and I liked their approval. These were the same young thugs, after all, who’d cornered me in the boys’ room, back in the fall, two of them pinning me against the wall while the third peed on my chinos, turning them dark brown at the crotch and down both inseams. Then, for the rest of the morning, I was pointed out in the halls as a seventh grader who still wet his pants. To be admitted into their fraternity was more than just gratifying. These boys had taught me a deep human truth—that it was far better to be admired than peed upon.

  Although not that much better, as I learned over the long winter months. My strategy had been to ingratiate myself further by performing small acts of insanity designed to capture their imaginations. One Monday during fourth period, having forgotten my lunch money, I dined exclusively on ketchup packets, consuming a whole tub of them for the entertainment of my lunch table. “You’re one crazy little fuck, Dernbo,” said the boy who had peed on my chinos, and the admiration I heard in his voice got me through the long, diuretic afternoon. To ensure that everyone understood that I was no flash in the pan, I repeated the performance the following week, this time with mustard, to even more disastrous intestinal consequence.

 
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