Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  The problem with this theory was that it presupposed Sully wanted to die, which he was pretty sure wasn’t true. Earlier, when Carl was explaining the job he meant to offer Rub, work that nobody in his right mind would want, Sully had actually felt a twinge of jealousy that he was at a loss to explain, even to himself. If the source of the vile gunk bubbling up through the floor of the mill was from the rendering plant, mucking it out would be beyond disgusting. No one, including Sully, could possibly enjoy such labor. Nor was he so full of self-loathing as to believe, consciously or not, so far as he knew, that he deserved such an appalling job. What appealed to him, as near as he could tell, was its necessity. That was the thing about the work he and Rub used to do: nasty as it was, it all needed to be done. And once completed, it provided satisfaction, and even pleasure, in inverse proportion to the hardship endured. Sheetrocking in weather so cold you couldn’t feel your fingers until you misjudged where they were and hit them with a hammer was hardly fun, but it felt good when you finally came in out of the cold. The long shower afterward, hot as you could stand it, felt better still, and sliding onto a barstool at the Horse an hour later? Perfection. The day’s labors, safely sequestered in the past, somehow made the beer colder, and if the beer was cold enough you didn’t mind that it was cheap or that cheap beer was your lot in life. And come Friday, hunting Carl Roebuck down and forcing him to go deep into his trouser pocket for that fat roll of twenties and fifties, watching while the son of a bitch grudgingly peeled them off one after the other until you were finally all square, until he paid you what you’d damn well earned, well, what could be more satisfying than that? Until fairly recently that had been Sully’s life and, no, he wasn’t tired of it, just of being forced by age and infirmity to the sidelines, which, face it, happened to everyone. It was simply his turn.

  And yet. Once again he studied his landlady and she him. Be honest, she seemed to be saying. In response, Sully assumed, to the old question about regret for not having done more with the life God had given him. Which was another way of asking whether he wished it had amounted to more than throwing up drywall in the bitter cold and digging trenches under the blazing sun, more than sliding onto an endless succession of barstools and getting into beer-fueled arguments about whether or not there was such a thing as sex addiction. Was it the dubious worth of such an existence that had caused him to momentarily doubt its reality earlier? How would killing Roy Purdy, or inviting Roy to kill him, render his existence any less pointless?

  “Listen,” he told Ruth. “I’ll lay off him, if that’s what you want.”

  “Want? What I want is for something heavy to fall out of the sky on his pointed head. How come God never lowers the boom on the Roy Purdys of the world?”

  Since there was no chance this could be a serious question, he offered no opinion. “Anyway,” he said, “don’t worry about me. I’m just in a funk.”

  “Funks have causes, too,” she said. “When does Peter get back?”

  Ah, so she had an angle. Good. This meant she’d be less likely to ferret out the truth. “Tuesday, I think. Why?”

  “Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

  “No, he’s pretty set on leaving.” Then, she gave him a look. “What?”

  “How upset would you be if I told you I’ve never really warmed to him?”

  “Well, Ruth, he is my son.”

  “Maybe I just wish he’d act like it.”

  “He probably wishes I’d acted more like a father when he was a kid.”

  “And there’s no statute of limitations on that gripe?”

  “I don’t know. Should there be?”

  “I don’t know either,” she admitted. “We all fuck up, though.” Here she nodded in the direction of her daughter’s apartment.

  “That we do,” he agreed. “Actually, I think Peter’s mostly forgiven me. Most of the time we get along pretty well.”

  Which was true. Though Peter seemingly remained baffled by how two such different human beings could possibly be related by blood, their relationship had grown easier these last few years. The eighteen months or so they’d worked together before Sully finally retired had helped. Maybe Peter still didn’t understand what made his father tick, but at least he understood the rhythm of Sully’s days, not to mention his nights. And for his part Sully’d been pleasantly surprised to learn that Peter wasn’t nearly as soft as he looked, that he had no quarrel with hard physical labor, even if it didn’t seem to satisfy or speak to him all that deeply.

  Certainly he hadn’t been surprised when Peter went back to teaching, and it made sense that he spent most of his free time these days in Schuyler with his academic friends. Every now and then, though, he’d wander into the Horse, where he’d wink conspiratorially at Birdie before sliding onto the stool next to Sully, and there he’d remain, seemingly content, until last call, which pleased Sully. Peter’s relationship with his own adolescent son was fraught at times, and while he never asked for advice about how to handle the boy—and Sully knew better than to offer any—he seemed grateful for his father’s willingness to listen and commiserate. There were even times when Sully thought he might be growing on his son, that Peter was contemplating not just forgiving but forgetting—a possibility that seemed to have occurred to Peter as well, though every time it loomed as their ultimate destination, he pulled back, as if from a hot stove. In turn Sully feared that in some respects his son remained as deep a mystery to him as ever, as mysterious as he himself must have seemed to his own father, as baffling as Will, at times, appeared to Peter. Was this just how this deal worked? How things had to be?

  What Sully gradually had come to comprehend was his son’s unhappiness, rooted deeply in his sense of personal failure. That made little sense to Sully, who thought Peter had done all right for himself. After all, he taught at Schuyler’s prestigious liberal arts college, and three years earlier, when the editor of the school’s glossy but failing alumni magazine had retired, Peter had taken it over and breathed new life into the publication. Also his movie, book and music reviews were regular features in Albany’s alternative newspaper. Though now middle aged, he was still good looking, and his easy charm a steady magnet for mostly younger women. And he’d raised a son who’d graduated in January, six months ahead of his high school classmates, and spent the spring semester taking college courses in Schuyler. In the fall he would enroll as a second-semester freshman at Penn on a full scholarship. Much to be proud of here, Sully figured.

  Peter, of course, saw all this through a different lens. His once-promising career had never recovered from being denied tenure at the state university that had originally hired him. Now, as an adjunct instructor, he was a distinctly second-class academic, and thanks to the unforgiving nature of that world he would forever remain one. His salary was a fraction of what his full-time, tenured colleagues were making, and he had no job security. He was writing reviews, not books or scripts. His marriage had failed, and thanks to Charlotte, his vindictive ex-wife, he seldom saw his troubled middle son. Nor did it take long for the new women in his life to realize that, beneath his easy charm, he was bitter and discontented.

  What Sully had the hardest time doping out was how Peter expected leaving Bath would improve any of this. He understood that with Will heading off to college, things were changing, and it made sense that he’d want to live close to his son. And, sure, there were more teaching opportunities in an urban setting, but if he moved to New York City, which seemed to be the plan, there’d also be more competition, wouldn’t there? And his cost of living would easily triple, probably even worse. But when Sully’d raised these issues, Peter—no surprise—took it poorly. “Dad,” he said, “once Will’s gone, why would I stay here? To take care of you in your old age?” Which hadn’t been what Sully was suggesting at all. He’d wanted Peter to understand that there was no need to rush off if he didn’t want to, that Sully himself was content to remain in the trailer if Peter wanted to stay on in Miss Beryl’s large downstairs fl
at. That way Will could come home on vacations. In fact, he was willing to sign the house over to Peter then and there. It’d be his one day anyway, maybe sooner than he imagined. “What would I do with this house, Dad?” Sell it when the time seems right, Sully had suggested, but Peter had just smiled that knowing smile of his that always annoyed Sully to the nth degree, the one that implied Sully was trying to put one over on him.

  On the other hand, could he really blame Peter for being suspicious of his motives? If Carl Roebuck ever moved out of the upstairs flat, which Sully himself had occupied while his landlady was alive, it would make sense for him to move back in, and he could see how that might make Peter nervous. Maybe he had no intention of letting Peter or anybody else take care of him, but his son couldn’t know that. He was probably thinking ahead to the day when he’d fall and break a hip or have a stroke and end up in a wheelchair. He couldn’t blame Peter for wanting to be far away when any of that shit happened.

  Still, if Peter moved to New York, Sully would miss hearing his footfalls on Miss Beryl’s porch and the ticking of his car engine as it cooled in the drive, miss having him show up unexpectedly and slide onto that stool at the Horse. And of course he’d miss his grandson, too. He actually had more in common with Will, which his father no doubt sensed. The boy may have inherited Peter’s intelligence, good looks and charm, but he was also tough, a talented three-sport athlete. In his junior year, he was the starting middle linebacker on the varsity football team, and Sully had secretly smiled when it became clear that Will enjoyed hitting people as much as he had himself. The boy’s tackles were always clean, never intended to injure, but they loosened molars just the same. What pleased him most about the boy’s physicality was that when he’d arrived in Bath a decade earlier he’d been afraid of his own shadow.

  Peter seemed proud of his son’s toughness, too, but not, unless Sully was mistaken, unambiguously so. And while he was happy that Will loved Sully, he seemed less anxious for his son to admire or emulate him. Any youthful enthusiasm he expressed for how his grandfather navigated the world Peter considered his duty to temper, lest the romance of the tool belt and barstool take root. Indeed, by leaving Bath before Will reached legal drinking age, Peter might be trying to ensure that the stool next to Sully’s at the Horse would not be part of Will’s inheritance.

  All of this, Sully supposed, was what Ruth objected to, the reason she couldn’t quite, as she put it, warm to his son.

  “If you’re in a funk, why not go away for a while? Take a vacation,” she suggested. “A change of scenery might be just what you need.”

  “A vacation from what? I’m retired.”

  She shrugged. “I don’t know. From Bath. From the Horse. From this place.” Here she made a sweeping gesture. “Maybe from me. From Peter, for that matter. How can he miss you if you won’t go away?”

  How could she miss him if he wouldn’t go away was what she also seemed to be saying. “Where would I go?” he said, curious about what she had in mind.

  “Pick a place,” she said. “Aruba.”

  He snorted. “What the fuck would I do in Aruba?”

  “What are you doing here?”

  “You mean in Bath?”

  “No, I mean here. As in this minute. This restaurant.”

  Sully’s need to speak in his own defense took him by surprise. “I thought I was helping out.” Helping her open the place most mornings, filling in at the grill or busing dishes, as needed. “But if I’m in your way…”

  “You’re in your own way, Sully,” she told him. “As always. You know I appreciate the help but…” This time when she touched his cheek, the effect wasn’t nearly so pleasant, perhaps because he was pretty sure this gesture’s source was pity.

  “Okay, Aruba it is,” he said. “You can come along, since you think it’s such a great idea. Let Janey run this show for a week or two.” She could, too. Janey might be a royal pain in the ass, but she had her mother’s work ethic. Three or four day shifts a week at Hattie’s and another four or five nights at Applebee’s, the occasional stint out at the Horse when one of Birdie’s regulars called in sick.

  Ruth was grinning at him now. “Should we invite my husband?”

  “I wouldn’t, personally, but if it’s important to you…”

  She massaged her temples, as if at the approach of a migraine. “He’s been acting so weird lately.”

  “Really? How?”

  “He’s being thoughtful. Almost…considerate,” she explained. “It’s messing with my head. I’ll look up and there he is, staring at me, like he’s just noticed I’m there.” She shrugged, and her expression looked for all the world like shame, though it couldn’t be, could it? In all the years they’d been lovers, Ruth had never given any indication of being ashamed of the no-good they were up to. She didn’t hate her husband, and even early on, when she and Sully were hot and heavy, she never talked about leaving him. But neither, so far as Sully knew, had she ever felt like she was betraying the man. It was Sully himself who sometimes felt guilty, because Zack, though a total doofus, wasn’t a bad guy. “I’m trying to be nicer to him,” she admitted. “I tried the same thing thirty years ago and it didn’t work, but it might now.”

  “So,” Sully said, letting the word trail off and allowing both what she was saying and not saying to come into focus, “is it because of Roy Purdy that I shouldn’t come in here anymore, or Zack?”

  “I didn’t say you shouldn’t come in anymore.”

  “No, you said I should go to Aruba.”

  She didn’t respond right away. “You know what Janey said to me last week?”

  Sully put his index fingers to his temples, closed his eyes and pretended to concentrate. “Wait. Don’t tell me. That I should go to Aruba?”

  “She said, ‘Why is he in here all the time if you guys aren’t screwing anymore?’ ”

  “And you replied?”

  “She also said, ‘Do you know how fucked up it is that most mornings the first voice I hear on the other side of my bedroom wall is my mother’s former boyfriend?’ ”

  “You didn’t answer my question.”

  “I told her it was none of her damn business.” But she wasn’t meeting his eye. “I can kind of see her point, though.”

  “Me too,” Sully admitted.

  “And then there’s Tina.” Her granddaughter. “I know she seems slow, but she’s not stupid. She watches. Takes everything in.”

  “You’re right.”

  She rotated the newspaper so that Miss Beryl was now looking up at her, not Sully. “What do you think?” she said. “Will that no-good son of hers show up?”

  Clive Jr., she meant. Who’d been the driving force behind the Ultimate Escape Fun Park. Who’d invested funds from his savings and loan and encouraged others to do likewise, then skipped town when, at the last possible second, the out-of-state developer pulled the plug, leaving local investors in the lurch.

  “No,” Sully said. “I suspect we’ve seen the last of him.”

  “What?” she said, apparently puzzled by his tone. “You’re feeling sorry for him now? How many times did he try to get his mother to evict you?”

  Over Sully’s smoking, mostly. Clive Jr. had been worried that Sully would go off someplace and leave behind a lit cigarette, burn the house down and Miss Beryl in it. But their ongoing conflict went deeper than Sully’s carelessness, which was real enough. Miss Beryl and her husband, Clive Sr., seeing how miserable Sully’s homelife was, had welcomed him into their home and treated him like a son. Young Clive, their actual son, had to have seen that as an intrusion and might even have felt that they preferred Sully to himself. Later, as adults, they’d never had much use for each other. Sully always referred to Clive as “the Bank” and took genuine pleasure in making him look like a fool in places like Hattie’s. Did the man have any idea that Sully had inherited his mother’s house? Would that corroborate his fear that his mother had favored him over her own flesh and blood?

bsp; “Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age,” he admitted, sliding off his stool and pocketing his keys.

  “Look,” she said, “don’t get the wrong idea. What I said earlier really isn’t about Zack or Janey or Tina. It’s…you really don’t come in here because of me anymore.” When he started to object, she held up her hand. “I’m not saying you don’t care about me. I know you do. But you come here because you don’t know where else to go. Lately you just sit there staring into your coffee, and it breaks my heart. And you—”

  She didn’t get a chance to finish. From somewhere down the street came a loud whomp!, a concussion so forceful that the restaurant’s windows rattled. Two water glasses toppled off the shelf and shattered. A moment later the ground shuddered, as if impacted, making the salt and pepper shakers all along the counter leap and skitter.

  “What the—” Ruth said. She’d grabbed on to the counter to steady herself and was looking to Sully for an explanation he didn’t have. They both remained frozen until Ruth made a beeline for the front door. Sully, who no longer leaped into action, followed, out of breath, by the time he got to the door, his heart pounding. Outside, people were streaming into the street from stores and businesses. A police cruiser roared by, its siren blaring. Jocko, who owned the failing Rexall next door, came over to where he and Ruth were standing, Sully bent over with his hands on his knees.

  “Jesus,” Jocko said, “you don’t suppose it’s the Japs again, do you?”

  A cloud of yellow-brown dust was rising over the rooftops at the lower end of the street, maybe half a mile away. The awful stench that had plagued the town over the last several days was suddenly even more intense, causing the morning’s coffee to rise dangerously in Sully’s throat.

  Ruth had a hand on his elbow now. “Are you okay?”

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