Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Yeah, fine,” he said, straightening up, trying to look like a man who might just—what the fuck?—go to Aruba, instead of one with two years left but probably one. “I just felt light-headed. The heat after air-conditioning probably.” And maybe that’s all it was, because he started feeling better as soon as he said it.

  Then Carl Roebuck emerged onto the sidewalk, his chinos dry again and his chipper spirits restored. Apparently with the hair dryer going and the bathroom door closed, the concussion that had captured the town’s attention had escaped his own. He nudged Sully and lowered his voice confidentially. “Guess what I was thinking about the whole time I was in there blow-drying my dick,” he said, only then fully registering the commotion in the street. “Hell, what’s going on?”

  Sully was surprised to discover he had a working hypothesis. He pointed at the yellow-brown cloud that was now expanding and drifting slowly in their direction like some dust storm in an old western. “I got a question for you, Dummy,” he said. “What’s over there?”

  But the blood had already drained from Carl’s face. Sully could tell he sure wasn’t thinking about sex anymore.


  “YOU FAINTED into the grave?”

  Charice’s voice crackled with a mixture of radio static and disbelief. Sympathy would come later, Raymer knew, probably when she saw him. Saw the damage. Which in the warped mirror on the wall opposite where he sat, bare-assed, draped in a flimsy paper johnny, was pretty damn impressive. His broken nose was swollen hideously, and both eyes were slits.

  He’d been told a doctor would be in to see him shortly, but that was nearly half an hour ago, and the examination room’s air-conditioning was in brutal contrast to the sweltering heat outside. His head throbbed dully, but apart from that he didn’t feel too bad, and certainly not as bad as he looked. The light-headed, elsewhere feeling he’d suffered prior to losing consciousness out at Hilldale was gone, as was the dizziness. He was tempted to just get dressed and leave, but instead of hanging up his sweaty uniform, he’d made the mistake of draping it over the AC unit. Putting it back on would be like donning a frigid, wet onesie. He shivered at the thought.

  “Into the grave,” Charice repeated, apparently willing to concede the truth of what he was telling her but still unable to wrap her mind around what had happened. “Like…on top of the casket?”

  “No,” he explained, “His Honor was still aboveground.”

  “Why are you in the emergency room?”

  “It was my face that broke the fall. But never mind that. Tell me again what happened out at the mill.” Because Charice wasn’t the only one having trouble processing recent events. “The whole building actually—”

  “So you, like, slumped forward and rolled into the grave?”

  “I fainted, Charice. Okay? You know that matting they edge graves with? They say I tripped over that, but I don’t really remember. Ask Gus. He saw the whole thing.”

  And would be thrilled to recount the whole shitshow. According to the mayor, Raymer’s knees hadn’t buckled or anything. Rather, he’d gone down like a tree. “One minute you were standing there and the next it was—timber! You went into that hole like it was dug to your exact specifications. You were just gone. You know like when you try to stuff a cat in a bag? How there’s always a leg sticking out?”

  Raymer had just blinked at him. Why would he have ever put a cat in a bag? Was Gus confessing to having drowned kittens at some point? Why did he imagine this was an experience other people would be familiar with?

  “It wasn’t like that at all,” Gus insisted. “You went in clean and neat. There was just the one sound you made when you hit bottom and then the plume of dust. I don’t think I ever saw anything like it, and I was in Korea.”

  Korea, where he’d spent the last seven months of the conflict, was Gus’s particular touchstone. It was one of the few times he’d been out of upstate New York for an extended period, and his experience on that misbegotten peninsula, even more than his graduate work in government, was the reason he believed himself qualified to be mayor of North Bath. Was it over there he’d done his cat stuffing?

  “Charice,” he told her sternly. “I want to hear about the mill, all right? Because I don’t understand how that could happen. How does a whole building just…fall down?”

  “Not the whole building,” she said, “just the north wall. The one facing Limerock Street.”

  “The other walls are still standing? How can that be?”

  “I’m just telling you what I was told.”

  “By who?”

  “Miller’s on the scene.”


  “Jerome’s there, too.”


  “You’re repeating everything I say.”

  “Your brother Jerome.” He worked for the Schuyler Springs PD and served as a liaison officer between the department and the college and the mayor’s office, doing exactly what Raymer wasn’t sure, except that he was required to be on television a lot, either attempting to explain the inexplicable or obfuscate the perfectly clear.

  “It’s his day off, so he stopped by the station. He’s got this joke he wants to tell you. When the call came in about the mill, he figured we could use a hand.”

  Raymer sighed. “Why’s he acting like this?” Because lately, Jerome had become increasingly solicitous about Raymer’s welfare, always stopping by the station on some pretense, telling him jokes and calling him buddy.

  “He’s worried about you.”


  “I’m worried about you.”


  “Chief,” she said, as if the answer to this question was so obvious it needn’t be voiced. His head was hurting worse now. Probably because of the fall, but possibly not. His head often hurt when he talked to Charice. “I mean, imagine, okay?”

  “Please,” he begged. Charice was forever asking him to imagine this or that, usually something extremely unpleasant. Like trying to put a cat in a bag, or some other Korean-type activity. “Please don’t.”

  “Imagine you’re in a great big room with ten thousand other guys.”

  “Actually, I’m in a small room, all by myself.”

  “And the guy in charge says, ‘Okay, show of hands. Who’s passed out at a funeral—’ ”

  “Stop, please.”

  She ignored him, of course. Charice believed, for some reason, that a vivid imagination was the true path to understanding. “Passed out,” she repeated, “right into an open grave.”

  “Desist,” he told her. “This is a direct order I’m giving here.”

  “Yours would be the only hand in the air,” Charice noted. “That’s all I’m saying.”


  “Make it a hundred thousand guys, if you want. A million. It’s still just you with his hand up, Chief.”

  “Actually, I wouldn’t have my hand up either,” Raymer said, reluctantly giving in to her scenario. “Why would I admit something like that in front of ten thousand other guys?”

  “Imagine if you lied, you’d be electrocuted.”

  “I’ve got a better idea. Imagine you work for me and you have to do what I say. Tell Jerome I don’t want to hear another stupid joke. Also, remind him he has no jurisdiction in Bath.”

  “I’ll tell him, but you know Jerome.”

  “I do. Also his sister. Two peas in a pod.” The metaphor was particularly apt in their case, as they were twins. “Have Miller come pick me up at the hospital.”

  “He’s busy at the scene. Where’s your own car?”

  “Out at the cemetery. Gus wouldn’t let me drive.”

  “I’ll call Jerome then. He won’t mind.”

  “Don’t,” he told her. “Do not call Jerome. I swear to God if he comes out here I’ll shoot him on sight.”

  “Then you’ll have exactly zero friends. All you got now is him and me, and I won’t be your friend no more if you shoot my brother, ’cause that wo
uld be unnatural.”

  “Anymore,” he said. “You won’t be my friend anymore.”

  “There you go again. Making fun of how I talk. I’ma add that to my list.” Charice claimed to be compiling a list of all the workplace shit he gave her. It had several distinct, if, to Raymer’s mind, overlapping categories of abuse: illegal, immoral, actionable, insulting, bigoted and just plain wrong. She hadn’t showed him the list but claimed it was growing and pretty comprehensive.

  “Do you have any idea how bad my head hurts right now, Charice?”

  “That’s why they took you to the hospital. To get yourself checked out. Stay there, why don’t you. Jerome can handle things.”

  “Miller, you mean. Miller can handle things. It’s Miller on our payroll, not Jerome.”

  “Chief, we both know Miller can’t handle anything. Don’t matter whose payroll he’s on.”

  “I don’t care,” Raymer said. “Send somebody out to get me. Anybody but your brother, okay? And make sure whoever it is brings that big bottle of extra-strength Tylenol I keep in my desk. And a Diet Coke. Come yourself if you have to.”

  “Oh, I get it. This is a test, right? Last week you chew my ass out for leaving the switchboard to pee, and now you want to see if I learned my lesson.”

  “Goodbye, Charice. In five minutes I’m going to be on that bench outside the hospital. Main entrance, not emergency. Somebody better be there.”

  Head throbbing at a good beat now, he slid off the examination table and wobbled over to his clothes on the air conditioner. His jockeys, no surprise, were not only still soaked with sweat, but also very, very cold. Imagine—he could almost hear Charice say—what it’d feel like to pull those on. Like a wet bathing suit, all nasty and cold…up there in your private place. He closed his eyes and pulled them on and Charice was right, that was exactly how it felt.


  HE’D NO SOONER PARKED himself on the bench outside the hospital’s main entrance than Jerome’s cherry-red Mustang convertible pulled up and stopped on a dime, tires screeching, chassis rocking. Jerome himself was at the wheel, of course. Nobody else was allowed to drive the ’Stang, not even Charice, who didn’t even want to, but hated on general principle being told she couldn’t. Her brother’s explanation—that this was the car made famous in Goldfinger, the one the blonde chick drove before Oddjob decapitated her with his magic bowler—only pissed her off even more, because it wasn’t really an explanation so much as a description, the kind of thing you’d say if you wanted to make certain you were both talking about the same vehicle. Raymer wasn’t sure he understood Jerome’s reasoning either. Part of it was that he didn’t want to risk wrecking his ’Stang, but Raymer suspected that what he really hated was the idea of somebody readjusting the seat. He was tall—six foot six—and had very long legs. Another driver would have to move the seat forward in order to reach the pedals, which meant he’d have to readjust it later, and what if he couldn’t find that exact comfortable position again, the one where his knees were ever so slightly flexed, his arms perfectly straight and the perfect distance from the wheel? He was similarly fussy about a lot of things. He really didn’t want people to visit his apartment, either. It wasn’t the company he objected to. Indeed, he seemed to enjoy it, but people were forever picking things up and then setting them down in the wrong place. And he particularly hated for people to use his bathroom. “I can’t help it,” he explained. “I don’t like other people defecating where I do.” “Obsessive-compulsive” was the term Charice used to describe his fastidiousness, claiming he’d been like that even as a child.

  When it came to the ’Stang, though, he was beyond any diagnosis. Raymer could tell he didn’t even like having anybody in the passenger seat, but he was willing to make exceptions for good-looking women. And since Raymer hardly fell into that category, he had to wonder if Charice hadn’t had to twist her brother’s arm to get him to fetch him at the hospital. He hoped so, because if Jerome had volunteered his services it would confirm what he’d lately been sensing—that he was behaving more and more strangely.

  Rolling down the window, he said, as he always did, absolutely deadpan, “The name is Bond. Jerome Bond.” Part of the joke was that his and Charice’s last name was actually Bond. “Are you bleeding?” he wanted to know. “Because these are genuine-leather seats.”

  Raymer made no move to rise from the bench.

  “You gonna get in?”

  “I’m still thinking.”

  “There’s your problem right there,” Jerome said. Like his sister, he spent far too much time diagnosing Raymer’s problems. “Best nip that habit right in the bud, bud. Man starts thinking this late in life, no previous experience or proper guidance, there’s no telling where it could lead.”

  “I told Charice I’d shoot you on sight if you showed up here, so what do you do?”

  “Yeah, but see? I already got the drop on you.” Jerome’s left hand, on which he wore a special fingerless driving glove, gripped the wheel. When he raised his right, it held his revolver. Raymer sighed. It was a joke, sure, but to Raymer’s way of thinking Jerome unholstered his weapon way too often. He never pointed it at anyone, of course, preferring to strike the classic James Bond pose, with the barrel pointed straight up, but he seemed to enjoy reminding people he was armed and that as a cop, black or not, he was allowed to be. “Come on and get in, before any blood gets shed.”

  Raymer rose, went around the car and opened the door, pleased to see that Jerome’s revolver had disappeared back into its holster, or at least so he assumed. Still, he hesitated before getting in, because there was nothing Jerome liked more than peeling out the split second Raymer’s ass hit the seat, the passenger door still open. “See that sign? QUIET? HOSPITAL ZONE? MAXIMUM SPEED FIFTEEN MILES PER HOUR?”

  “You worry entirely too much.”

  “Yeah?” Raymer said, cautiously climbing in. “Well, I have my—” Reasons was how he meant to finish his sentence, but Jerome hit the gas, tires squealing, violently thrusting him back into the bucket seat, conking his skull on the headrest with the explosion of a million bright shards.

  “You should only worry about things you have control over,” Jerome was saying as the ’Stang fishtailed out of the parking lot. “The other shit you have to just let go. Otherwise it’s like…a sickness…a cancer that’ll eat away at your guts until one day—”

  “Goddamn, Jerome,” Raymer said. “Please, please shut the fuck up.”

  Then his radio barked. “Chief? Your ride show up?” Unless he was mistaken he heard a chortle.

  “You and I are going to have to have a long talk, Charice,” Raymer told her.

  “Oh, goodie.” And the radio went dead again.

  He regarded Jerome for a moment, then closed his eyes. “Tell me you brought the Tylenol.”

  “Glove compartment.”

  Inside, like a chalice in a tabernacle, sat his big plastic bottle of five hundred Tylenol capsules. The only other thing in the glove box was, incredibly, the owner’s manual. Badly as he needed the painkillers, Raymer couldn’t help himself. Dumbfounded, he took out the manual, which was encased in plastic like a library book. “Who has the owner’s manual to a ’sixty-four Mustang?”

  Jerome looked away, embarrassed, as a normal man might when his secret stash of Penthouses was discovered. “Those things are collectors’ items, man. Hundreds of dollars. I had to special order it.”

  Raymer regarded him. “You special ordered a Mustang owner’s manual.”

  Jerome shrugged.

  “And I have problems?” He tossed the manual back into the glove box for the pleasure of seeing Jerome wince. Later, once he got rid of Raymer, he’d probably pop the compartment open and lovingly recenter the booklet.

  “Okay,” he said when they came to the T-intersection at the end of the long hospital road. The traffic light was red, so he put his left-turn blinker on, toward town, then turned to watch Raymer struggle with the childproof plastic cap on the Tylen
ol bottle. “So this guy goes to the doctor and says, ‘I’m all stopped up. Haven’t defecated in a week.’ ”

  “Defecated,” Raymer repeated, marveling as he often did at how completely Jerome had excised North Carolina from his diction. Charice had as well, though unlike her brother, she enjoyed the vernacular and slid into and out of both dialects with ease. This Raymer found profoundly disorienting, like dealing with a split personality.

  “Shit,” Jerome clarified.

  “I know what it means. In a joke the guy’d say shit or maybe take a crap.”

  “Maybe he’s refined,” Jerome suggested. “Not everybody’s like you. Anyhow, it’s been a week since he defecated, so the doctor writes him a prescription for suppositories.”

  Suddenly, Charice was on the radio again. “Oh, and another thing? When the wall fell down?”

  “Yeah?” Raymer said, both thumbs clawing under the lip of the cap, his face purple with fruitless exertion, the plastic having somehow fused at the molecular level with the bottle itself.

  “You gotta line up the little arrows,” Jerome offered helpfully.

  The problem was Raymer couldn’t really see the damn things, not without his glasses, and he wasn’t about to put them on now. The arrows sort of felt more or less aligned, but maybe not. He tried adjusting them a smidge, but no fucking luck.

  Jerome held out his hand. “You want me to—”


  “You still there, Chief?” Charice wanted to know.

  “I’m here all right.”

  “It fell on a car,” she informed him.

  “A parked car?”

  “Uh-uh. Moving. Apparently that wall came down just as it was passing by. What are the odds, right?”

  Next she’d want him to calculate them.

  “The good news is the vehicle in question was a beater.”

  “Is this a joke, Charice?” Because her twin brother and tag-team partner was sitting right next to him, also telling him a joke, and to Raymer, his head throbbing, it seemed possible the two jokes might be related by something other than the tellers’ desire to torment him. “Are you going to tell me the bad news is that the driver was killed?”

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