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


  Bill did not deign to look at Clarence or me. “Me and Clarence go way back—don’t we, Clarence?”

  “We sure do, friend,” he said, though it didn’t seem to me that Bill was acting very friendly.

  Still looking at my mother, Bill said, “You get enough to eat tonight, big fella, or are you still hungry?”

  “I’m contemplating dessert, Bill. Dessert and some soothing conversation with my new friends here. They came about two thousand miles to watch me have my dinner.” He grinned at me when he said this, and winked as if to suggest that we both knew all there was to know about this character and weren’t all that impressed. “You could pull up a chair and join us, Bill. Take a load off.”

  Bill was standing there rather awkwardly, in fact. There was plenty of room in Clarence’s booth, but Bill seemed to be waiting for an invitation to slide into ours. I couldn’t tell if my mother hadn’t asked him to because she didn’t want him to feel that familiar, or because she hadn’t extended any such invitation to Clarence, who wouldn’t have fit.

  “No,” Bill said. “I just come over to see if this lady would dance one with me. That is, if she’s up to it with all them injuries.” He smiled then, and my mother must have liked it better than I did because she said she would, provided Clarence didn’t mind keeping me company for a minute. Clarence agreed as if he’d been hoping to anyway, so Bill and my mother disappeared through a wide doorway into a large back room where a band had begun to play.

  “What injuries?” Clarence wanted to know, sliding into my mother’s side of the booth. So I gave my version of the story, which—like my mother’s that afternoon at the pool—was almost funny, not the depressing development it really was but just one of those crazy things that happen to you on the road. I even made up a few details, since Clarence seemed to be getting a kick out of it. It took two songs for me to finish, and then our check came. Clarence paid it, on the spot, in cash, explaining that his own meal had been free and it was the least he could do for such hard-luck pioneers. “They got tables in the next room,” he said, getting slowly to his feet. “Let’s go make sure that rascal Bill isn’t pestering your mother.”

  He wasn’t. They were still dancing, or attempting to. Bill was trying to teach my mother the step everybody else was doing, a task made more difficult by the fact that he himself seemed not to have mastered it. He danced stiffly, as if his lower body, between his tight jeans and his cowboy boots, did not have the necessary range of motion. When the song ended, they came over to the table where we were sitting. My mother, who loved to dance and could never convince my father to take her, was flushed with excitement.

  “Anyhow, that’s the two-step,” Bill was saying. “It takes a little getting used to, I guess.” Then he pulled up two chairs. “You still here, Clarence?”

  “Yes, but I’m thinking of taking my leave,” he replied. “Though I might just ask John’s mother to dance one with me before I go. I do enjoy mild exercise after a meal, don’t you know.”

  “I’d be honored, Clarence,” my mother said. “I was just getting the hang of the damn thing.”

  Bill sat down opposite me then. His face seemed pretty sweaty, and he watched my mother and Clarence on the dance floor without bothering to conceal his disgust. Clarence, it turned out, was a wonderful dancer, light and graceful on his feet, and he guided my mother around the dance floor among the other couples as if he had radar. With this huge man at her side, everyone in the room seemed to be watching her, as if what she was doing was as remarkable in its way as what Clarence had done with that Monster steak. And when they executed a complicated move, separated and came back together again in perfect time, my mother threw back her head and howled with delight.

  The only person in the room not sharing her buoyant spirits was Bill, who I realized was now watching only Clarence. “Good,” he said, getting up from the table with his empty beer bottle. “ Have a heart attack, you fat fuck.”

  After the next dance, Clarence and my mother came back to the table just as Bill returned from the bar with another bottle of beer. Nothing for my mother this time, and nothing, of course, for me.

  “You-all have a safe trip now,” Clarence was saying, and again he winked at me. “I hope you’ve seen the last of your troubles. Keep your eyes peeled for coyotes and you’ll be fine,” he added, then extended his hand to Bill. “Always a thrill, William.”

  When Bill just looked away, Clarence refused to take offense, apparently content to shake hands with my mother and me. When he disappeared into the men’s room, my mother turned to Bill and said, “That was rude.”

  He had a toothpick in his mouth that he was rotating thoughtfully, and this would’ve reminded me of my father and his metal washer except that Bill was clearly turning over a mean, ugly thought. “Well, Clarence is a pervert,” he said, bringing my mother up short. “I wouldn’t want him hanging around any kid of mine, but maybe that’s just me.”

  “I don’t believe you,” my mother said, but the glance she threw me suggested a frightened confusion.

  “Okay,” Bill said, friendly again. “Suit yourself.”

  “I intend to,” my mother said, and then, to me, “Let’s go, sweetie.”

  “Let’s part friends, anyhow,” Bill suggested. “Dance one more with me, okay? Sweetie here can wait through one dance, can’t you, sweetie?”

  When my mother looked at me, I could tell she didn’t want to, but God help me, I nodded for her to go ahead, suddenly sick with rage that she was allowing this to happen. I could think of nothing more humiliating than to be called “sweetie” by a man like Bill, and to know he could get away with it and there wasn’t a thing in the world I could do. I hadn’t felt such self-loathing in months, since I’d sat alone in the boys’ room at school after eating all those mustard packets.

  It was a slow song that the band was playing, and on the dance floor Bill kept pulling my mother toward him as she kept pushing him away. I couldn’t watch. I knew it was my job to march out onto the dance floor and rescue her, but I also knew that I was only a boy. Worse, I had a terrible feeling that it wouldn’t have made any difference if I’d been ten years older. I was a coward at twelve, and a coward I would always be. My throat constricted with the knowledge of who I was and what.

  “Let’s go,” my mother prodded me in the side, the dance suddenly, finally, over, her voice containing an even greater urgency than that first morning of our journey— now so impossibly long ago—when I sat sleepily on the edge of my bed. “Move.”

  Outside in the parking lot, I pulled away from her and darted between a car and a pickup truck, where in the dark I fell to my knees and let my dinner rise. I don’t know how long it took to bring everything up from inside me, to put it out there on the ground where I knelt like a sick dog, stunned and weak. I don’t know how many times my mother whispered, “Hurry, John! You have to hurry!” It was only after she stopped that I realized we were no longer alone in the parking lot, that Bill had come up behind her and was blocking the patch between the parked vehicles. When I finally got to my feet, the rancid taste of the vomit still on my tongue, he said, “Stay right where you are, sweetie, while I have a word with your mother.”

  He had her up against the car now with his back to the restaurant, so he never saw Clarence strolling amiably across the lot toward us, looking like a man who had it in mind to help someone change a flat tire. But I saw him. Hurry, Clarence, I pleaded silently. Hurry!

  “So, here we are, Little Miss Cock Teaser,” Bill was saying to my mother.

  “I’m going to scream,” she warned him, but the fear in her voice was terrible.

  “Nah, don’t do that,” Bill said. “Just tell sweetie here what kind of woman you are. Just so he knows.”

  Hurry, Clarence!

  He turned to me then. “You know what a pussy is, sweetie?” he said, then reached up under my mother’s skirt and grabbed her between the legs. She went up on her tiptoes and her mouth opened like she was going
to scream, but there was no sound. She was looking past him, off into the dark desert beyond the parking lot, as if at some betrayal she could not name, whose existence she had not suspected.

  “This here in my hand is pussy. Course you’ll probably grow up liking the other, like your fat friend.”

  Bill didn’t know Clarence was close enough to hear this but must’ve sensed something, because he turned just as Clarence arrived.

  “You stay the fuck out of this, Clarence,” Bill said, but he let go of my mother and she slumped back against the car, sliding right down to the ground, clutching herself, whimpering, her knees together, her ankles splayed out on the pavement, her skirt up around her waist.

  “Come on out here where I can get my hands on you, Bill,” Clarence said flatly. He was far too big to fit between the two vehicles.

  To this day I have no idea why, but Bill did what he was told, stepping forward sullenly, like a kid, to receive his punishment. Clarence grabbed him by the throat, banged the back of his skull against the cab of the pickup, then lifted him by the seat of his trousers and tossed him into the bed of the truck, where he landed like a sack of potatoes and lay still.

  “There,” Clarence said, brushing off his hands the way he’d done when he’d finished his steak and pushed his plate away.

  The next day, as we sped across the desert into Arizona, we surrendered a lot of pretense, my mother and I. So far we’d been taking turns buoying up each other’s flagging spirits, but it was suddenly as if we were sharing the same pool of emotions and the water in that pool had gone cold. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her that wasn’t accusatory, and I had the distinct impression she was somehow disappointed in me. When the silence became insupportable, I took out the AAA map book and thumbed through its pages dully, noting Carlsbad Caverns, south of us, without interest. We flew past scenic vistas—lava beds and Indian reservations—without even slowing.

  And I was not surprised when at Flagstaff my mother turned down the highway toward Phoenix, where my grandparents lived. It made me bitter to think that we’d never make it to California, that we were not bound for freedom and never had been. This whole trip was nothing more than a joy ride, like the one my junior high friends had taken, and now I could understand their reluctance to talk about it. No doubt it had been a shabby thing, devoid of glory.

  And I could see how our own joy ride would conclude. My grandparents would be expecting us when we arrived, my mother having telephoned from Joplin. She’d make a show of rebellion, refusing to return to her life in Maine, insisting she was through with all that, including my father. But they would point out that we had no money, that California was a scary place to live, especially for a woman on her own. She wouldn’t say, as she had to Bill, that she wasn’t alone, because she knew she was now, if she hadn’t known all along. A twelve-year-old boy could protect her only from people who meant her no harm in the first place. “What day is it?” it occurred to me to ask.

  “What difference?” my mother said.

  “Date, I meant.”

  She looked me over for a minute, blankly, then returned her attention to the road. So I did it myself, counting the days forward in my head, starting with the day we left Maine. If my count was correct, then yesterday had been my birthday. I wasn’t a twelve-year-old boy. I was thirteen. But like my mother said. What difference?

  All of this was long ago. More than twenty years now, and as I think back on our joy ride that spring, it seems far more remarkable than it did at the time, and what followed more remarkable still. My father did not come for us, as I’d imagined he would. He couldn’t afford to close the hardware store for that long, and it was cheaper for us to sell the Ford and fly back. He met us at the airport in Bangor, proclaiming it was the most wonderful thing in the world that we were back, and he hadn’t been himself even for a minute while we were gone. And that was that.

  My mother was from then on a dutiful wife, at what cost to herself one can only guess, and I choose not to. When he was diagnosed with cancer, she nursed him faithfully through long months of chemotherapy and radiation, and when he died, her heart was broken. This, I’ve come to conclude, is what people mean when they refer to life as a great mystery.

  After returning to Maine, my mother and I seldom referred to our flight, and over the years she came to insist that it had been nothing more than a vacation. We’d gone to visit my grandparents. My father simply couldn’t get away from the store. After he became ill, this fiction became especially necessary—even essential, as I learned only after his death when, still stunned by the loss, I tried to open the subject of our betrayal so many years before. Probably it was forgiveness I was after, but if so, I’d come to the wrong person, because I’d never seen my mother as angry as she was when I suggested we’d actually wanted to break free of him all those years ago, that we’d made fun of him halfway across the country. She seemed to have forgotten entirely all the conversations I’d overheard during the days we spent at the trailer park in Phoenix, when she’d confessed to my grandparents that she’d fallen in love with a wild and beautiful man who, though he didn’t love her the way she loved him, had made her understand that her marriage to my father was little more than slavery. She had a wonderful spirit, he’d told her. She deserved to be free.

  My mother’s staunch denials angered me, and I let her know it. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember the boot, Mom. How you made me say it until I got it right, that Dad didn’t even have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot.”

  “No, John,” she said. “I don’t. But I’ll tell you what I do remember. I remember that the reason for that trip was you. What I remember was the vicious little monster you were becoming.” She proceeded to remind me about all sorts of things I had no idea she’d ever known: how I’d fallen in with a pack of hoodlums, how I’d stoned a helpless animal, how my father had to pay for the repairs on our neighbor’s car, how—in short, if she hadn’t got me out of Camden when she did, I’d have been arrested and put in reform school like the rest of my so-called friends.

  It’s not the purpose of this narrative to suggest what kind of man I’ve become. I will say this much, though. I was sent to Vietnam during the last hopeless year of that war, and there I learned that I wasn’t the abject coward I felt destined to become starting that night in a New Mexico parking lot. Vietnam provided opportunities for every imaginable cruelty, and these I discovered were not in my true nature. Although it must be said that my mother does consider me cruel, harsh in my recollections. And when we argue about the past, there are times when she can almost convince me.

  But the worst truths are contained in our many silences. Too often the past will cause our eyes to meet furtively, guiltily, as they did one afternoon during the last days of my father’s illness, after he’d returned home from a chemotherapy treatment. “The worst thing about chemo,” he said thoughtfully, in that painstaking manner he had when reporting on some discovery in a dictionary or encyclopedia, “is the metallic taste it leaves in your mouth.” He said this without irony, and then the shiny silver washer appeared on the tip of his tongue.

  Buoyancy

  For some time they’d been sliding from lush green into sepia, summer into autumn. Everywhere there were downed trees, slender birches and lindens caught up on power lines, trunks chainsawed into cross sections and stacked on the roadside, broken limbs, piled up next to gray-shingled houses. Even trees that had survived the hurricane were damaged, their trunks stripped naked and pink under the early September sky. In the wake of their car, brittle leaves danced and twirled along the shoulder of the road like distant memories.

  “Oh dear,” said the professor’s wife, her voice a rich mixture of sadness and disappointment. She’d been worrying the white, scarlike crease of skin on the third finger of her left hand.

  At the wheel, her husband, Paul Snow, eyed her gravely but didn’t say anything, waiting instead for her to elaborate, though he was not surprised when she didn’t.
June had always been given to small exclamations that she left dangling, incomplete, and her “Oh dear’s” were usually the tip of some emotional iceberg. To keep from colliding with them head-on, Professor Snow acknowledged their existence, as he sensed he was supposed to, then navigated around them with care lest his wife reveal the full nine-tenths below the waterline. She’d done so only once, years before, when her litany of lifelong grievances and womanly disappointments had come out in an amazing torrent, beginning with rage against him, but ending in almost unbearable regret and sadness, from which, it now seemed, she had never fully recovered her old self. Their family physician had assured him that his wife’s moods had stabilized, that she was right to wean herself off her medication and he needn’t watch her so carefully anymore. Professor Snow had been relieved to hear this, though it seemed to him that June’s equilibrium was fragile still and could collapse without apparent, immediate cause. It was, of course, the immediate cause he was always trying to locate, having no wish to revisit the remote or universal.

  “What is it?” he said.

  By way of response, his wife failed to entirely suppress a shiver.

  “Perhaps if we opened the windows,” he suggested, rolling his own down and turning off the air conditioner. When the warmer air outside began to swirl through the car, he realized that he himself had been cold for some time. “Is that better, June?”

  “Yes,” she said unconvincingly. “Much.”

  But with the warmer outside air came the rich odor of decaying leaves, and once more Snow felt the disorienting approach of winter and shivered himself. At first he thought his wife hadn’t noticed, because she was looking straight ahead and took such a long time to say, abstractedly, “We’ve come too late, haven’t we.”

 
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