The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo

“You forget I’m from Minnesota,” she said, pointing her fork at him. “I spent the first twenty years of my life watching storms. And how was your lazy afternoon, old man?”

  “Fine.”

  “Just fine?”

  “I visited a studio. Took some photos. Like I said.”

  “You should’ve come with me. The path through the forest is strewn with fairy houses.”

  “With what?”

  “Little houses built of bark and leaves and pebbles. By children, I suppose, if you don’t believe in fairies. People leave pennies near the ones they like best. Isn’t that sweet? I can see why Laura loved it here.”

  Martin just stared at her.

  “Well . . . that’s why we came all this way, right? This island was your wife’s favorite place in the whole world, and this is your way of saying goodbye.”

  “I didn’t know you—”

  “I’m not stupid, Martin. I know how much you loved her.”

  But I didn’t. The words were right there to be spoken, and for a heartbeat Martin thought he’d already said them. But if he did, how would he ever stop? How would he keep from adding, Any more than I love you.

  They used Robert Trevor’s flashlight to wind their way up the narrow, pitch-black staircase to locate their room on the third floor. Undressing in the dark, they lay in the canopied bed and watched the sky through the open window. Though the storm had moved out to sea, it still flickered on the distant horizon, and every twenty seconds or so the beam from the lighthouse swept past.

  “What do you think?” Beth said. “Should we stay an extra day?”

  “If you like,” he said. “Whatever you want.”

  “It’s up to you.”

  After a moment he said, “I called Peter while you were out. He needs me to start work earlier, by the second week of rehearsal instead of the third, if possible. He didn’t come right out and say so, but that’s what he wants.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I wouldn’t mind heading back.”

  “Fine with me.”

  “Let’s, then.”

  A few minutes later she was snoring gently in the crook of his arm. For a long time Martin lay in the dark thinking about Robert Trevor’s farm in Indiana, if there was such a place, and the countless versions of Laura he claimed to have stored there. And he thought too about Beth, the poor girl. She had it exactly backwards, of course. This trip wasn’t so much about saying goodbye to his wife as saying hello. He’d fallen in love with her, truly in love, the moment he’d uncrated the painting back in L.A. and seen his wife through another man’s eyes. Just as Joyce had known, somehow, that he would.

  What folly, Martin couldn’t help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well. What absolute folly love was. Talk about a flawed concept. He remembered how he and his junior high friends—all of them shy, self-conscious, without girlfriends—used to congregate in the shadow of the bleachers to evaluate the girls at Friday night dances. The best ones were taken, naturally, which left the rest. “She’s kind of pretty, don’t you think?” one of his friends, or maybe Martin himself, would venture, and then it would be decided, by popular consensus, if she was or she wasn’t.

  That they were leaving in the morning was a relief to Martin. He preferred the West Coast, and he was looking forward to working on Peter’s new picture, which was to star an actress they’d both worked with shortly after Laura’s death. That script had called for partial nudity, and the actress, who’d recently had a baby, fretted constantly about how she would look. “Trust me,” Peter had told her. “Nobody’s going to see anything. They’re just going to think they do. Because this man”—he pointed to Martin—“is an artist.”

  The next evening, the three of them sat on folding chairs watching the dailies of the scene that had so frightened her. They’d shot only three takes, and midway through viewing the first the actress—she was one of the most beautiful women Martin had ever laid eyes on, and never more beautiful than right then—began to relax, intuiting that it was going to be all right. Still, he couldn’t have been more surprised when she took his hand there in the darkness, leaned toward him and whispered, without ever taking her eyes off the screen, “Oh, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

  The Farther You Go

  I’ve cut only a couple of swaths when I have to shut the damn thing down because of the pain. It’s not dagger pain, but deep, rumbling, nausea pain, the sort that seems to radiate in waves from the center of my being. There are those who think that a man’s phallus is the center of his being, but I have not been among them until now.

  From inside the house Faye heard me shut off the mower, and now she’s come out onto the deck to see why. She shades her eyes with a small hand, scout fashion, to see me better, though the sun is behind her. Ours is a large yard and I’m a long way off. “What’s wrong?” she calls.

  I’d like to tell her. It’s a question she’s asked on and off for thirty years, and just once I’d like to answer it. My dick is throbbing, I’d like to call out, and if we had any neighbors within hearing, I believe I would, so help me. But to prevent that we’ve bought two adjacent lots. Regrets? I’ve had a few. I mow their yards and my own.

  “Nothing,” I call to Faye. It’s my standard line. Nothing is wrong. Go ahead, just try to find something that’s wrong. If something were wrong, I constantly assure her, I’d say so, always amazed at how readily this lie springs to my lips. I’ve never in my life told her when anything was wrong, and I have no intention of telling her about my throbbing groin now. She already spent a thousand dollars we didn’t really have on a riding mower simply because the doctor insisted I not “overdo it” so soon after the operation. It didn’t occur to her that for a man recovering from prostate surgery, sitting on top of a vibrating engine might not be preferable to gently guiding a self-propelled mower. I can hardly blame her for this failure of imagination since it didn’t occur to me either until I was aboard and in gear.

  I start up the mower again and cut a long loop back to the base of the deck, stopping directly below her and turning the engine off for good.

  “You’re finished?”

  “You can’t tell?” I say, looking back over the yard. I appear to have cut a warning track around a fenceless outfield, and am now sitting on home plate.

  “Why are you perspiring?”

  It’s true. There is autumn in the air, and no reason whatsoever to be sweating, cast about as I might. “It’s a beauty,” I say, slapping the steering wheel affectionately. “Worth every penny. How much was it again?”

  “I just got off the phone with Julie,” she says.

  This does not sound good to me. Our daughter seldom calls without a reason. She and her husband, Russell, owe us too much money to enjoy casual conversation. They’re building a house half a mile up the road from our own. “Where?” I asked last year after Faye broke the news that they’d purchased a lot. “Here? In Connecticut? In Durham?” I was certain that some kind of trust had been violated. Could it be that we’d loaned them the money without a distance clause in the contract? We’d been prudent enough to ensure against neighbors on either side, but we were so focused on the threat of strangers that we failed to take family into account. Another failure of imagination.

  Faye bends over the railing and holds out a delicate hand for me—half grateful, half suspicious—to take. “I know this is the last thing in the world you need, but I think you should go over there. Today,” she adds, in case there’s a shred of doubt in my mind that whatever this is about, it’s serious.

  “What,” I say.

  Now that she has my attention, she seems reluctant to do anything with it. She’s looking for the right way to say it, and there is no right way. I can tell that much by looking at her.

  “Julie says . . . Russell hit her.”

  I am shocked, though I’ve known for some time that their marriage wa
s in trouble. To make matters worse, Russell has recently quit a good job for what he thought would be a better one, only to find that several large loans needed to start up the project he’s to direct have not, as promised, been approved. It could be weeks, he admits. Months.

  “I’m not sure I believe Russell would hit Julie,” I tell Faye.

  “I do,” she says in a way that makes me believe it too. When my wife is dead sure, she’s seldom wrong, except where I’m concerned.

  “What am I supposed to do? Hit him?”

  “She just wants to see you.”

  “I’m right here.”

  “She thinks you’ll be angry.”

  “I am angry.”

  “No, that she didn’t come to see you in the hospital. She feels guilty.”

  “She didn’t know I’d be grateful?”

  “She thought you’d be hurt. Like you were. Like I was.”

  “Thirty years we’ve been married and you still confuse me with yourself,” I tell her. “I didn’t want Julie at the hospital. I didn’t want you at the hospital. Heart surgery would’ve been a different story.”

  “There are times I think you could use heart surgery. A transplant, maybe. This is our daughter we’re talking about.”

  “One of our daughters,” I correct her. “The other one is fine. So’s our son.”

  “So is Julie.”

  I would like to believe her, but I’m not so sure. Before the wedding, I’d wanted to take Russell aside and ask him if he knew what he was doing. In time Julie might turn out fine, as well as the other two, but she somehow wasn’t quite ripe yet. Not for the colleges she’d been in and out of. Not for a husband. Not for adult life.

  As I am not ripe for intervention. My daughter may not be an adult, but she’s acting like one—getting married, having houses built, borrowing money. And I don’t, on general principle, like the idea of trespassing once people have slept together, because they know things about each other that you can’t, and if you think you’re ever going to understand what’s eating them, you’re a fool, even if one of them happens to be your own daughter. Especially if one of them happens to be your own daughter.

  “We cannot tolerate physical abuse,” Faye says. “You know I’m fond of Russell, and it may not be all his fault, but if they’re out of control, we have to do something. We could end up wishing we had.”

  I would still like to debate the point. Even as Faye has been speaking, I’ve been marshaling semivalid reasons for butting out of our daughter’s marriage. There are half a dozen pretty good ones, but I’d be wasting my breath.

  “Julie thinks they should separate. For a while, anyway,” Faye says. “That makes sense to me. She wants to insist, and she wants you to be there.”

  I’m not thinking of Julie now but of my own parents. If I want your help, I’ll call you in, I remember telling my father during the early days of my own marriage when we had no money and things seemed worse than they really were. Maybe it’s that way with Julie and Russell. Maybe things seem worse than they are. I wish for that to be the case, almost as fervently as I wish I hadn’t been called in. But I have been.

  I start out on foot, explaining to Faye the exercise will do me good, though in truth I just don’t want to sit on top of another motor. Julie and Russell’s house is only a half mile up the road, and up until the operation I’d been running two miles a day—usually in the opposite direction. Seeing their house rise up out of the ground has been an unsettling experience, though for some time it did not occur to me why, even when I saw the frame. Only when the two decks were complete—front and back—did it dawn on me why they’d wanted to use my contractor. My daughter is building my house.

  “Well of course they are,” Faye said when I voiced this suspicion. “You should be flattered.”

  “I should?” I said, wondering exactly when it was that I’d stopped being the one who saw things first.

  “Theft being the sincerest form of flattery. Besides, they’re a mile away. It’s not like people are going to think it’s a subdivision.”

  “Half a mile,” I said. “And what bothers me is that Julie would want to build our house.”

  Their mission tile is already visible, but halfway up the hill I have to stop and let the nausea pass. Off to the side of the road there’s a big flat rock that looks like a feather bed, so I go over and stretch out. It takes every bit of willpower I can muster not to unzip and check things out. Instead, I lie still and watch the moving sky. When I finally stand up again, I’m not sure I can make it the rest of the way, though this is the same hill I was running up a few months ago when I was fifty-one. Now I’m fifty-two and scared that maybe I won’t be running up that many more hills. The doctors have told me they got what they were after, but I’m aware of just how little the same assurances meant in my father’s case. After the chemotherapy, they sent him home with a clean bill of health and he was dead in two months.

  Nevertheless, I do make the top of the hill. Up close, the house looks like a parody, but that’s not Julie and Russell’s fault. They simply ran out of money—their own, ours, the bank’s. The grounds aren’t landscaped and the winding drive is unpaved. There are patches of grass and larger patches of dirt. Not wanting to ring the doorbell, I go around back, hoping to catch sight of Julie in the kitchen. I want to talk to her first, before Russell, though I have no idea what I will say. I’m hoping that in the past half hour she will have changed her mind about inviting me into their lives. Maybe I’ll see her at the window and she’ll flash me a sign. I’m willing to interpret almost any gesture as meaning that I should go straight back home.

  Around back, I remember there are no steps up to the deck, which is uniformly three feet off the ground on all sides. I’m looking around for a makeshift ladder when Julie comes out onto the deck, sliding the glass door shut behind her. Except for not knowing how I might join her up there, my plan seems to be working.

  “I didn’t think you were coming,” she says.

  “Hand me one of those deck chairs,” I tell her.

  She does, and I step up onto it. When she offers a hand, I take that too, putting my other one on the rail to heave myself up. Julie is wearing a peasant blouse, and when she leans over I see that she is wearing no brassiere. There have been other times when, against my will, I have been subjected to the sight of my daughter’s bare breasts, and I wonder if this casual attitude of hers might be one of the problems she has with Russell. He might not like the idea of his friends becoming so intimately acquainted with her person over the onion dip. According to Faye, Karen, our oldest, has always kept one lone brassiere handy around the house for our visits. There is much to be said for hypocrisy.

  “He’s asleep on the sofa,” Julie says. “Neither of us slept much last night. He finally zonked.”

  She smiles weakly, and when she turns full-face, I get a better view of her eye, which sports a mouse. The cheek beneath is swollen, but so is the other, perhaps from crying. Her complexion, which a year ago had finally begun to clear up, is bad again. Then, suddenly, she’s in my arms and I can’t think about anything but the fact that she is my daughter. If I’m not going to be much good at blaming Russell, at least I’m certain where my loyalties must be, where they have always been.

  Finally, she snuffs her nose and steps back. “I’ve gotten some of his things together. He can pack them himself.”

  “You’re sure about this?”

  “I know I should be the one to tell him—”

  “But you want me to,” I finish for her. “Stay out here then.”

  She promises, snuffs again. I go in through the sliding door.

  I know right where to find Russell. It’s my house they’re living in, after all, and their sofa is right where ours is. Russell, in jeans and a sweatshirt, is sitting up and rubbing his eyes when I come in. Oddly enough, he looks glad to see me.

  “Hank,” he says. “You don’t look so hot.”

  “You’re the first to notice,” I
tell him. He wants to shake hands and I see no reason not to.

  “I shouldn’t be sleeping in the daytime,” he says, with what sounds like real guilt.

  Or punching my daughter, I consider saying. But there’s no need, because it’s beginning to dawn on him that my unexpected appearance in his living room is not mere happenstance. He peers out through the kitchen window. Only Julie’s blond head is visible on the deck outside.

  “So,” he says, “you’re here to read me the riot act.”

  “Russell,” I say, suddenly aware of how absurd this situation is. “I’m here to run you out of town.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean I’m going to give you a lift to the airport.”

  “You can’t mean that.”

  “Russell, I do.”

  A car pulls up outside and we both look to see who it is, probably because whoever it is will upset the balance of our conflict. One of us will have an ally. I do not expect it to be Faye, but that’s who it is, and when Russell sees this, his face falls, as if my wife’s mere presence has convinced him that I am fully vested and authorized to banish him from his own property.

  When Faye rings the bell, I open the door and tell her to go around back and join Julie. She wants to know how things are going. I say I just got here. How could I have just got here, she wants to know. I tell her to go around back.

  “This is nuts,” Russell says.

  There’s nothing to do but agree, so I do, and then I tell him that Julie has gathered a few of his belongings and he should get packing. Russell looks like he can’t decide whether to cry or fly into a rage, but to my surprise he does as he’s told.

  Once he’s gone off down the hall, I realize that with Julie and Faye out back, I have no one to talk to and nothing to do. It seems wrong to turn on the TV or browse through their books. I can hear Russell in the closet of one of their bedrooms, and I figure he’s looking for either a suitcase or a gun. I sit down to wait, then remember something and get up. Julie has helped her mother up onto the deck and is crying again. I study the pair of them before stepping back outside. From the rear they look remarkably similar, almost like sisters. I look for something of myself in Julie and find precious little. When Faye notices me standing there at the window, I join them on the deck.

 
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