The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  The problem here is that what I left unresolved with my father is not what Gene imagines. He’d been diagnosed during the early years of Vietnam, and when I drove home from college to see him, I had expressed my view that what was happening to him had been happening for years to the entire nation, which had been force-fed moral poison that was now proving fatal. It was autumn and as we took a slow walk I talked constantly until we ended up down by the stream where we leaned on the iron railing, my father staring down into the swirling eddies of the black water beneath us while I looked off through the bare trees at the dark, satanic mill, thinking more about William Blake than about my dying father. “Well,” he finally said, “it’s true they poisoned me. But where would a man like me have been without that mill?” He was too kind to ask what logically followed, which was where I myself would be were it not for my father’s employment. Of course, I acted out my part, lobbing the obvious rhetorical question back at him. Did any one group of men have the right to poison another? Carried in the subtext of this question had been another, more mean-spirited one. I was asking my father what kind of man allowed himself to be poisoned. Wouldn’t such a man deserve his fate?

  I pull a deep painful breath into my bought-and-paid-for lungs. “I don’t know,” I confess to Gene, and boy, is that ever the truth.

  We have stopped walking, in deference to the gravity of our subject, I assume, until I notice the pink towel and the pile of clothes at our feet. Gene is staring off, one hand shading his eyes against the sun, and I’m blinking and grateful for the opportunity to shade my own eyes. Nearly blind, it takes me a while to see Portia, waving, quite a distance out, and it occurs to me that I didn’t warn her about the undertow. I squint into the sun, trying to determine if she’s in trouble, then she stops waving and starts swimming toward us. For what seems a long time, I can’t be sure if she’s making progress or whether there’s a possibility that we might be watching Gene’s young wife drown. “Is she . . .” I begin, preparing mentally to go in after her.

  “Don’t be embarrassed,” he says proudly. “Modest she’s not.”

  That it takes me so long to make sense of this remark suggests that I’ve drunk too much, and that the beer isn’t mixing well with the antibiotics.

  When Portia emerges, dusky but glistening, from the surf, I find myself looking away.

  “Isn’t he sweet?” Portia says, a little unkindly it seems to me, when she notices.

  We turn in early—Gene and Portia pleading road weariness, Clare and I a dawn ferry reservation—and I’ve fallen asleep watching a book program on public television. I can’t have slept more than twenty minutes, but still managed to dream vividly—a predictable symptom, for me, of too much alcohol.

  I’m surprised to find Clare warmly in bed beside me, since when I drifted off she was doing last-minute packing. A small phalanx of suitcases is lined up along the wall by the door. “Too bad you fell asleep,” my wife says. “You were just alluded to.”

  “No kidding?” I say, staring at the television as if some atmospheric residue of this might be lingering on the screen. “In what context?”

  “In a generally favorable context.”

  “I wasn’t accused of selling out?”

  “No, you were accused of a certain realism.”

  “Ah, well, that . . .” I say.

  Dinner had been uncomfortable. Portia, under the influence of Chianti and lobster sauce, was openly critical of Gene, first wondering why he’d published so many books of short stories, then speculating on what it meant that he’s never attempted a novel—“loaded up the shotgun,” as she put it, and gone hunting bigger game. Now, according to Portia, he was even looking for excuses not to write stories. And that, she concluded, is what the mill obsession is really all about—an excuse. “Gene’s always been a good writer,” she concluded, “but not a great one, and that’s what he’s coming to terms with.”

  In fact, her unpleasantness, coupled with Gene’s uncharacteristic reluctance to spar, resulted in the unimaginable—Clare’s rising to his defense.

  “I thought time decided the question of greatness,” she said.

  To which Gene smiled and replied, “Oh, no. I’m afraid Portia decides.”

  After dinner, Gene and I went out onto the deck once more before calling it a night, Portia having already gone upstairs.

  “She’ll be up all night writing now,” Gene said.

  “Really?” I was surprised. “She doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood.”

  “Her rage is a source,” he said, “that I taught her to tap into.” When I said nothing in response, he added, “Hell, it’s the source of our work too, yours and mine both.”

  There it was again, the old camaraderie Gene had first extended nearly three decades ago, the year I arrived to begin my graduate work and he finished his own degree. He was glad I was there, he kept insisting, so there’d be two people who knew what life was really like. It’s what he’s always wanted of me, all these years, an acknowledgment of how similar he and I are.

  Which reminded me of a conversation I’d had with the producer of the script that had paid for the island house. When he approached me, he said I was the only writer he wanted for the project, implying that if I didn’t do it, he might just let the whole thing slip into turnaround. Within a few short months, though, he’d forgotten this lie. When complimenting me on my first draft, he hadn’t neglected to congratulate himself. “I knew you were the guy,” he said. “If you hadn’t done it, I’d have had to go to that Ruggieri asshole. You know him?” When I said I did, he sighed significantly. “He’s an okay writer, but he’s got no fucking sense of humor.”

  I fell asleep in my clothes, so I get up to undress. Clare watches, and when I climb into bed she remarks that the incision doesn’t look as puffy or angry today. Clearly, the antibiotics are working. Why the incision should have become infected to begin with is a great mystery to everyone, my doctors included, but it’s a mystery I’ve been instructed not to worry about. I’m a lucky man, they insist. The tumor was benign.

  “I gather you didn’t say anything to Gene,” Clare observes.

  “I didn’t see any point,” I tell her, and I know she understands that what I mean by this is, Why give him any fuel?

  We are quiet then, and Clare snuggles close. I’m almost asleep again when she says, “Do you want to go back and shut down that mill?”

  This surprises me. Usually she knows what I want without asking. I’m the one who has to ask.

  “I have no idea,” I tell her. “I’ll think about it, I guess.”

  “Maybe he’ll let it drop,” Clare suggests, zapping the TV with the remote. I’d turned it on fearing raised voices in the next room, though it’s quiet in there now.

  “Gene?” I say. “He’s never let anything drop yet.” We are silent in the darkness for a while. “I had a strange dream,” I confess.

  Clare kisses my shoulder, stroking my belly with her fingernails. “You always dream when you drink too much.”

  I smile. No one knows me better than this woman. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if she knew what I’d dreamt while being alluded to on television, that I was walking along our stretch of beach and stepped on a needle, and then the sand was suddenly bristling with them and I was punctured again and again as I limped home, feeling something new and toxic coursing through my veins.

  The Mysteries of Linwood Hart

  OBJECTS

  When Lin Hart announced his intention to play American Legion baseball, his mother had to swallow her misgivings. For years she’d been referring to him as her little philosopher because he was prone to reveries from which he emerged with some of the strangest questions she’d ever heard, the most recent of which was, Did objects have desires? Like what? she said. A lamp? You’re thinking maybe a lamp wants to shine? “Possesses an active interior life” was how the boy had been assessed at school. Her own assessment was that Lin was the kind of kid you had to remind to look both ways
before crossing the street, not once but every time he left the house; so now that he was riding his bike all over town his mother was hearing automobile horns in her sleep. And why this sudden interest in baseball, anyway, a sport that featured a lot of standing around between pitches, pauses in the action that would encourage his too frequent lapses into abstraction, then injure him with its eruptions of violent action? She just hoped he wouldn’t be picking his nose when the baseball hit him.

  Like so many things, this was his father’s fault. Thomas had got him a baseball glove for Christmas, determined to provide an athletic alternative to the scholarly genes his son had inherited from her family so powerfully that the rough physicality of the Harts had been driven deep into latency. Which was as it should be, as far as Lin’s mother was concerned. If the boy’s Foster blood was settling some genetic argument in favor of something more refined and civilized, this was hardly cause for regret.

  At age ten, Lin himself had not given much thought to these characteristics of his family tree, though he would have conceded he was prone to philosophical rumination. His leisurely reveries, if he thought about them at all, seemed perfectly natural. “Hasn’t it occurred to you,” his mother remarked, her brow knitted in concern after he’d given voice to one of his odd queries, “that somebody would’ve thought of it already if it were true? Millions of people have lived before you. What makes you think you’d be the first to think of something? That’s what I’d like to know. What do you think you are? Special?”

  Lin understood that this was a rhetorical question whose answer was supposed to be “No,” even though, most of the time, he thought it might be “Yes.” It was hard to imagine that all of his personal thoughts had already been thought. When he lay on his stomach in the grass and watched an ant climb up one side of a blade and then down the other, his truest sense of things was that in the world’s long history, no one had ever witnessed this exact event, and he couldn’t help feeling special to have done so. Why shouldn’t his thoughts be special, too? What if he was right to think them, even if no one else had?

  For instance, why shouldn’t inanimate objects be capable of desire? Take leaves. They wanted to dance, didn’t they? He understood that it was caused by wind, of course, but this didn’t explain why they didn’t all get up and dance with each new gust, instead of just certain ones. Leaf A would rise and do its jig while Leaf B, right next to it, wouldn’t even stir. The ones dancing in this gust might rest during the next, and to Lin, this meant they were expressing a desire. And Wiffle balls. Their frantic wiggle after leaping off a plastic bat suggested a similar desire, though his father, who at the moment wasn’t living with Lin and his mother, explained that the symmetrical holes cut into the plastic sphere were responsible for the ball’s erratic and exciting flight. Okay, but to Lin’s way of thinking, the holes merely set free the inner spirit of the ball.

  Baseballs might not want things as badly as Wiffle balls did, Lin allowed, though they were certainly capable of expressing desire. When a ball struck his stiff new mitt, he could feel it searching desperately for an exit. When it hit in the webbing, the ball immediately tried to burrow out the heel, and when it hit in the heel, it seemed to know that it had to climb out through the webbing. Covering one exit with his bare hand merely ensured that the ball would spin and lurch toward freedom in the other. Even if they weren’t as exuberant as Wiffle balls, it was clear that baseballs, left to themselves, preferred not to be caught.

  At times, the secret desires of inanimate objects were clearer than people’s yearnings, adults’ in particular. Before his father moved out, Lin would wake up in the night and hear him asking his mother, “What do you want from me, Evelyn? Could you tell me that? Just what the hell do you want?” Lin listened hard, but he was pretty sure his mother never answered this question. Sometimes he’d come upon her unawares and she’d be staring off at nothing and shaking her head and muttering to herself, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Lately, she’d taken to listening to a popular record by Jo Stafford, who sang about how the wayward wind was a restless wind that yearned to wander. If you didn’t put the skeletal arm of the Victrola directly over the spindle, the record would just keep playing, over and over, which seemed to suit her fine. According to what she said, his father couldn’t answer that question either. Sure, he could be charming, she admitted, and fun to be around, but when it came to knowing what he wanted out of life, he didn’t have Clue One. Were all grown-ups like this?

  MR. CHRISTIE

  Of all the adults Lin knew, though, his American Legion coach was the most perplexing. During the week Mr. Christie painted houses for a living and always wore paint-splattered overalls and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. On Sundays, hatless and bald except for the pale fringe around his ears, he looked so different that for a long time Lin hadn’t realized that the two men were one and the same. Dressed in his starched white shirt, clip-on tie and a sport jacket, his smooth cheeks scented with aftershave, what did Mr. Christie want when he reached the long-handled collection basket all the way down the pew to where Lin and his mother sat? If it was just their weekly offering, why did the basket linger there, as if he secretly was hoping for something else?

  When the eight rosters had been announced and Lin had learned that he’d be playing for Elm Photo, Mr. Christie’s team, he’d immediately wondered if the coach had asked for him. He hoped so. Maybe their church relationship meant that Mr. Christie would grant his wish to play center field. The form that came in the mail and required his mother’s signature had inquired what position each boy hoped to play. Lin’s father, who now had an apartment over the barbershop downtown and saw him only on weekends, had said the best player usually played center field, so he’d signed up for that. He wasn’t sure he’d be the best player, but thought he probably would be, because he loved the sport and saw himself in his mind’s eye ranging gracefully under a blue sky, high fly balls settling into his new glove. In preparation for American Legion, he’d been playing backyard Wiffle ball all spring long with the neighborhood kids. Afterward, every night in his bedroom, he tossed a baseball-sized rubber ball over his shoulder and then lunged after it, imagining his soft tosses as hard-hit line drives. With each dive he landed full-length on his bed, where he bounced hard but always managed to hang on to the ball. He’d have played this game much longer, making one game-saving catch after another, except all that thudding got on his mother’s nerves and after a while she’d call “Enough!” up the stairs and warn him what would happen if he broke his box spring.

  That he might not be the best player on Mr. Christie’s team occurred to him only when he arrived for practice that first day and saw that he was one of the smallest boys there. Playing catch, they seemed to be hurling the baseball at each other as hard as they could, and it made an angry, popping sound in their mitts. They were all public school boys Lin didn’t know. He attended the small Catholic grade school in town. His father had not approved of this, but his mother taught in the public schools and knew what went on there; she had insisted that their son enroll in St. Mary’s. As new boys arrived, they propped their bikes up against the chain-link fence, slipped their soft fielder’s mitts off their handlebars and joined the double line, leaving Lin to marvel at how easy it was for them. He kept hoping some other kid from St. Mary’s would turn up, but none did. So he leaned up against the fence and just watched, waiting for an invitation, though not one of the other boys so much as glanced in his direction.

  When Mr. Christie arrived in his pickup truck, the first thing he did was gather his team into a semicircle and read from the forms they’d filled out several weeks before. It quickly became apparent that every boy wanted to be pitcher or shortstop or outfielder. “Lin Hart, center field,” Mr. Christie read from Lin’s form. Was it his imagination or did some of the other kids grin at one another knowingly when he raised his hand? Actually, center field hadn’t been one of the choices listed on the form. He’d drawn a line through “outfield” a
nd penciled in “center field” for the sake of clarity. If Mr. Christie found this amusing, he didn’t let on. In fact, he gave Lin the same friendly smile he offered all the other boys, never letting on that he knew Lin from church.

  “How come you’ve got a girl’s name?” one of the boys asked.

  “That’s L-Y-N-N,” Mr. Christie explained. “Lin here is L-I-N. Short for Linwood, would be my guess.”

  Lin, red-faced, nodded his head, grateful to Mr. Christie for intuiting his full name and for not making a big deal out of the other boy’s insult. “Well, Lin, we can try you out in the outfield if that’s what you want, but you look to me like a natural second baseman.”

  Lin shrugged, torn between his original idea and the fact that his coach had recognized some special quality in him. Besides, something about Mr. Christie’s tone of voice suggested that a second baseman wasn’t such a bad thing to be, not if that’s what you were naturally. From where they were all sitting along the first baseline, center field looked a long way off, much farther from home plate than it was playing Wiffle ball in somebody’s backyard, and Lin wasn’t sure he could throw a baseball that far. He told Mr. Christie he supposed second base would be fine.

  “That a new glove you got there, Linwood?” the coach asked, beaming at him.

  “Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it,” his father had said when Lin tried the glove on. They’d gone out for spaghetti at Rigazzi’s on Christmas Eve and this was where he’d opened his present. Try as he might, Lin couldn’t get the mitt to close.

 
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