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


  Gaining entrance to the dubious society proved disappointing, though of course I was unable to admit this even to myself. No group in my junior high school had a wilder reputation than my new friends, but as far as I could tell, it was largely unearned. They had let on—and of course it was believed—that during the summer they’d stolen a car and taken a joy ride down the coast to Old Orchard Beach where they’d drunk beer and met some high school girls who came across and they’d all spent the night on the beach.

  This was exactly the kind of adventure I feared and longed for. I hadn’t hung out with my new friends very long, however, before I began doubting that the episode ever happened. Either they’d lied or they only had the one joy ride in them. I was beginning to suspect that the most daring act they’d ever performed was peeing on my chinos back in October. By now, they seemed to look to me for inspiration, and increasingly I was responsible for the execution as well. I not only had to conceive of the smoke bomb in the tailpipe, but I also had to buy it with my own money and put it there. I was given to understand that it wasn’t cowardice that infected my companions, but rather that they had records from their many run-ins with the cops. One more bust would land them in reform school, whereas I had years of credit stored up as a result of having been such a little pussy for so long. They were therefore determined that we should get on equal terms. Once we were all equally at risk, they’d start kicking ass again. Until then, we’d restrict ourselves to what we called small, random acts of senselessness—the lighted M-80 shoved through the mail slot, the burning bag of fresh dogshit on the WELCOME mat, sugar in the neighbor’s gas tank.

  But these were not what had me looking for an escape. The day before, on an impulse that frightened me into something like wakefulness, I had picked up a stone and thrown it, hard as I could, at a mangy dog that had just lifted its leg to pee on the tire of a parked car. My intention had been, I thought, to scare the animal off, to teach it caution, but I knew the moment I released it that the stone was too heavy, and I knew the moment I released it that it would neither miss the dog nor nick it on the flank. Suddenly aware of us, the animal put its hind leg back down and turned just in time to catch the stone right between the eyes, dropping without a sound. “Jesus, Dernbo,” my companions said as one. By the time we ran, blood was oozing thickly through the fur.

  “Let’s haul ass,” somebody advised. We were right there in the open on a quiet street, and it seemed impossible that what I’d done had not been witnessed. I stayed where I was, though, kneeling mesmerized beside the animal, amazed by the rise and fall of its narrow chest, its continued respiration. And after a few moments the dog jerked back to consciousness with a whimper, its rear legs twitching, and then it was on its feet, weakly licking my outstretched hand with the same look of stupid, affectionate confusion I’d seen on the face of old Mr. Conlan, our next-door neighbor, when he discovered that somebody had sugared his gas tank. It was that look I was hoping to leave behind as my mother and I climbed the hill that led out of town, reducing the whole village until it fit neatly into the round frame of the side-view mirror.

  At Brunswick we got on the interstate and made a bee-line for the New Hampshire border. To get across the state line suddenly seemed imperative to my mother, as if Maine had no extradition treaty with New Hampshire.

  “You think he’ll come after us?” I asked, a possibility that had been on my mind all morning.

  “Your father?” she said with a snort.

  I studied her. “What do you think he’ll do?”

  “Remarry,” she said, checking the mirror again, which made me turn around and look too, even though I had no idea what to look for. We had the Ford, so if he was chasing us, it would be in a car we’d have no way of recognizing. When we crossed the Piscataqua Bridge, my mother still didn’t relax, as I’d hoped she would, though she did say, as if talking to herself, “Okay, okay.”

  “You know the best thing about New Hampshire?” she said as we flew by the Portsmouth exits. “There’s only about ten miles of it before you’re in Massachusetts. In another fifteen minutes we’ll be two complete states away from a certain hardware store owner of our acquaintance.”

  I squinted at her logic, knowing that my duty was to accept it. “We’re not any farther away just because this part of New Hampshire’s skinny,” I pointed out, studying the appropriate page on the Triple A map.

  “Don’t be a smart-ass,” she said. “You know what I mean.”

  “I don’t,” I assured her. It seemed important right then to disagree with her, perhaps because she was counting on me as an ally and I didn’t want to be taken for granted. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  I could tell, without having to look up from the map, that she was studying me. “I didn’t have to bring you with me, you know,” she finally said.

  “All I said was—”

  “I heard you,” she assured me. “Loud and clear.”

  This was not a long conversation, but it was long enough if one of the speakers was driving a car and staring the other speaker down instead of keeping her eyes on the road.

  A few minutes later we passed a sign welcoming us to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “There,” she said. “See?”

  Sure enough, Massachusetts was right where she said it would be, and we were now two complete states away from my father.

  After an hour or so, we stopped for gas, and my mother had the attendant, who wasn’t much older than I was, check the oil. I watched him. He opened the hood, stood there for several beats out of respect, then slammed it shut again.

  “It’s cheaper to pump our own,” I said.

  “That’s true, sweetie, but we can’t afford to break down.” She’d taken the map book from me and was running her index finger along our route.

  “Could you not call me that?” I said. I didn’t mind it in private, just in social situations like the present one, when a teenager with a real job was hovering at the periphery of our conversation.

  She didn’t look up. “What should I call you—Conan?”

  Which meant she’d found the comic books I’d hidden on the top shelf of my bedroom closet. “My name?” I suggested.

  “All right, John Dern,” she said. “Here’s the plan. We’re getting off the interstate for a while. See some of this country, since we got to drive through the whole damn thing anyway.”

  Now I watched her. “I thought you said he wouldn’t come after us.”

  “He won’t,” she assured me, watching the cars roar by up on the interstate. “He might report the car stolen, though. Technically it’s his.”

  “Technically,” I repeated.

  “I think of it as half mine. Everything in marriage should be half and half, don’t you think?”

  “That makes me half his,” I pointed out.

  “Everything except you, sweetie,” she said. “You hungry?” It was noon and we hadn’t even eaten breakfast. “There’s a Burger Doodle across the street if you’re starving.”

  Burger Doodle was her name for any fast food outlet, and she held them all in contempt. “Personally,” she said, “I’m too psyched for food. I’m gorging myself on freedom. I’m dining on air. Doesn’t the air taste different today, sweetie?”

  She was right. Where we were sitting, it tasted like diesel exhaust. When I offered no opinion, she started the car and put it in gear, then looked over at me. “Doesn’t the air taste different today, John Dern?”

  “I’m starved,” I said, though I wasn’t. The gasoline fumes were nauseating me. “We didn’t even have breakfast.”

  She sighed, staring across the road at the golden arches.

  She ordered me two cheeseburgers, fries and a large Coke. For herself, just coffee, but before long she took a French fry, then another. When I began to slow down, midway through the second burger, she pointed a long, drooping fry at me and said, “I hope you’re enjoying this. Because we’re not Burger Doodling all the damn way to California.”

 
We made it, that first night, to Waterbury, Connecticut. My mother’s mood stayed buoyant the entire afternoon, as if she really was high on the pure oxygen of freedom. But she crashed shortly after we checked in and I think it was our room that did it. She’d opted for the smallest of several motels near the exit. “Independently owned and run,” she explained. “They’re always cleaner and cheaper and better than the chains.” It might’ve been cheaper, but the room also was tiny and dingy, and bands of lines scrolled down the television screen on every channel. When I came out of the bathroom, I caught her counting our money at the end of one of the beds, and based on the look on her face I guessed that we’d spent more than she’d planned to that first day.

  But there was a fancy-looking restaurant across the street, and she insisted on having dinner there to celebrate our first night of freedom. She got dressed up in high heels and a short skirt. Her eyes looked even more Egyptian. Twice she tried striking up a conversation with a man sitting alone at the next table reading a Wall Street Journal. “I’ve been in friendlier towns,” she remarked to me, loud enough for him to overhear.

  “This isn’t a town,” I said, twirling my spaghetti. “It’s an exit.”

  At the next table the businessman curled his lips.

  “What made me think you’d be good company on this trip?” my mother wondered aloud.

  After we walked back across the intersection, my mother felt our car was “too conspicuous” so she moved it around back.

  For some reason I awoke in the middle of the night thinking about the dog I’d stoned, the long odds of its turning right when I threw, how dazed and stupid the animal had been to conclude I was its friend. All of which scared me so bad I couldn’t stay in bed. From the window you could see the off-ramp and hear the traffic rumbling down the highway. Despite the hour, cars were streaming into the bright Mobil station across from our motel. Despite my mother’s assurance that my father wasn’t the sort of man who’d follow us, it occurred to me, there in the rank darkness of our grungy motel room, that maybe she’d misjudged him. After all, neither of them seemed to suspect what kind of boy I was, their own son. And my father never would’ve guessed my mother was the sort of woman who’d just up and go, leaving him a one-word explanation. So maybe he was a different man than she— or either of us—knew. He could be closer than we imagined. Maybe this man we didn’t know was right across the street, gassing up a borrowed car and getting ready to cruise the parking lots of all the motels. Maybe we were all in for some surprises.

  Over the next few days we fell into a routine that was more leisurely and less contentious. We stopped whenever AAA or a highway billboard alerted us to some interesting attraction nearby. My particular interest was caves, and we made wide detours to visit a number of these, including a great one in New York State where you took an elevator down into the cavern and then got a boat ride. My mother was taken with places where you could climb up and look out over where you’d been and were heading toward, where she could feel the wind of freedom in her hair. We stopped at every scenic overlook, and she told me about a rotating restaurant at the top of some thirty-story building in California where we’d have a three-hour dinner and see everything there was to see. One afternoon in Ohio we saw the top half of a festively decorated hot-air balloon through the trees, and my mother immediately decided we had to take a ride in it. But the next exit was miles down the highway, and then we got lost trying to backtrack. When we finally found it, we discovered it wasn’t a working hot-air balloon at all, just an advertising gimmick tied to a pole in the parking lot of a car dealership.

  After that first day, we avoided Burger Doodles in favor of truck stops almost exclusively at lunchtime. “Truckers do this for a living,” my mother explained. “They know all the best places.” So we parked between semis and ate huge, open-faced turkey sandwiches and mashed potatoes or chicken-fried steak. I noticed that my mother enjoyed the way the men swiveled on their counter stools when we came in. “It’s a good thing I’ve got you with me, sweetie,” she said more than once as we studied our menus, feeling the warm stares and hearing the soft murmuring of road-weary men her age and older, and I thought there was just a shade of regret in her voice. Still, the fact that I was there made me feel tough and important, like a man who maybe could protect a woman, not just torment dogs and old people.

  Nights we splurged, as my mother put it, at the nicest restaurants we could find in the vicinity of the motel. Often we’d have the place to ourselves, our entrance interrupting some intimate conversation between the cocktail waitress and the bartender. When there was no one interesting to look at, we’d haul out the AAA book and search the maps for attractions. “There isn’t much real life this close to the highway,” my mother observed sadly, checking her white lipstick, another new touch, in the mirror of her compact. “The good stuff’s all hidden away, where only the locals can find it.”

  With each passing day we worried less about being pulled over for driving a stolen car. We were paying for everything in cash, so as not to leave a trail, and my mother chortled each afternoon when we got off the highway. About the only precaution we still took was to park around back of the motel at night, usually in the darkest corner. Which is how—in Joplin, Missouri, at a Holiday Inn supposedly owned by Mickey Mantle— the Ford was a sitting duck for vandals, who took what the police said must’ve been a sledgehammer to the windshield.

  When we came out with our suitcases the next morning, the car was alive with glass. To make matters worse, this was on a Sunday morning, which meant we had to wait an extra day to make repairs. The motel manager pretended as best he could to be solicitous, and he did lend us a small whisk broom to sweep the broken glass off the seats. His mistake was to wonder out loud why we’d parked in the remotest corner of the huge lot. My mother had been looking for somebody to blame, and now she had her man. By the time she finished, she’d questioned his intelligence, his management skill, even his parentage. She’d also expressed her grave reservations about the Holiday Inn chain, the city of Joplin and the rest of Missouri, which she’d never admired in theory and liked still less in reality. Moreover, she doubted Mickey Mantle had ever stepped foot inside the place.

  The manager was a small man, and it was clear he hadn’t much experience in being dressed down by a woman as good-looking and angry and eastern as my mother. And she may well have been the first woman he’d ever seen wearing white lipstick. At any rate, he accepted her criticisms quite calmly, until the Mickey Mantle part. The Mick certainly did own this Holiday Inn, he begged to inform her. He came here all the time, and there were photographs in the lobby to prove it. Furthermore, it wasn’t fair, in his opinion, to judge the whole state of Missouri on the basis of what happened one Saturday night in the furthest reaches of a single parking lot.

  “That’s another thing,” my mother said, when the manager made the mistake of letting his voice drop. “What’s this Missour-uh stuff? That’s an ‘i’ at the end of the word, right?” By now we were back in the lobby, and my mother, spying a motel notepad on the desk, tore off a sheet, circled the word “Missouri” and underlined the end of it three times. How, she wanted to know, could the letter “i” be reasonably pronounced “uh”?

  “Madam,” the little man pleaded, “what does this have to do with your automobile?”

  My mother was ready for this. “It just goes to show that people who can’t pronounce the name of the state they live in should never be given a public trust,” she said, and then told him we’d need a room for the night and that she expected it to be free of charge. Informed that a large convention of Baptists had booked the entire inn, and had already begun to arrive, she said, “Well, un-book it, Missour-uh, unless you want your snake handlers treated to some words they’ve never heard before, right here in the damn lobby.”

  So we returned to the same room we’d had the night before, where my mother crashed, as she often did after an outburst. “Watch some TV, sweetie,” she told me, and wi
thin ten minutes she was fiercely asleep, her face clenched tight, her teeth grinding audibly. She didn’t wake up until afternoon, and even then she was groggy and lethargic. I was sitting at the window, looking out into the parking lot. Our car, minus its windshield, was barely visible through the torrential rain that had been pounding down for half an hour. All the anger that had animated her that morning had now leaked away, replaced by something akin to grief.

  “Why?” she said, looking out the window over my shoulder. Nothing had been stolen from our car, and that’s what was troubling her, that this had been a purely malicious act. “What sort of person would do such a thing?” She seemed to have no idea she was sharing a room with a person who just might be able to explain it to her. After a minute she closed the drapes and turned the TV back on. Then she found some hotel stationery and started doing some calculations. Finally, she wadded these up and tossed them in the wastebasket. “What’s all this going to cost?” she wondered, her eyes brimming.

  By the time we went to dinner, her spirits were, if anything even lower. She’d showered and put on a normal-length skirt and neither eye makeup nor lipstick. The dining room was full of Baptists and every time we heard the word “Missouri,” it was pronounced exactly as the manager had said it.

  My mother sighed and contemplated her menu as if it were printed in a foreign language. “We’ve died and gone to hell, sweetie,” she said in the voice she used for not-strictly-private observations.

 
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