Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Exasperated, Jerome grabbed the pill bottle, deftly lined up the arrows, popped the cap, shook out two capsules and handed them to Raymer, who swallowed them without benefit of liquid.

  “Where’s the cotton ball?” Jerome now demanded.

  Raymer just looked at him.

  “You know, the little cotton ball they always put in the mouth of the bottle?”

  “Like any sensible person, I threw that away two seconds after I opened it.”

  “They put that there for a purpose, Doug.”

  “Right,” he agreed. “To make it harder to get the pills out.”

  “No, to keep them fresh.”

  “Explain to me how that would work, Jerome.”

  He would’ve put the cap back on if Raymer hadn’t held the bottle tight, shook free a third pill and gulped it down.

  “From a liability standpoint it’s lucky the car was a beater, is what I’m saying,” Charice explained. “It could’ve been a new Lexus or a BMW. The driver might’ve come straight from the showroom. Whereas—”

  “Charice. Was anyone injured?”

  “The driver got a broken arm. Possibly other injuries, according to Miller.”

  “Miller,” Raymer repeated. “So basically we have no idea. The guy could be dead.”

  “No, he’s at the hospital. You didn’t see him there?”

  “Do me a favor, Charice? Call the city engineer and see if the traffic light at the hospital intersection’s working properly. We’ve been sitting here for like ten minutes.”

  No response. She could go mute when asked to perform tasks that fell outside her normal purview.

  “So a couple days later the guy runs into the doctor on the street,” Jerome continued, apparently having concluded from his sister’s silence that she was off doing as instructed. “He’s limping along…can barely move. That’s how long it’s been since he defecated. The doctor can’t believe it. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Those pills didn’t work?’ ”

  “You want to hear the strange part?” Charice interrupted.

  Raymer closed his eyes and rested his head against the seat back, trying to gauge how much longer the painkillers would take to kick in. “Stranger than the part where the factory wall falls on a passing motorist for no reason?”

  “Oh, I’m sure there’s a reason, Chief,” Charice assured him. “Things don’t just happen for no reason. We just don’t know what it is yet.” No question, she and Jerome were twins. They both believed in a world where cotton balls had a purpose.

  “There’s a competing theory, Charice. There are people—smart people—who believe that everything happens for no reason.”

  “Yeah, okay, but guess who was driving that car?”

  “Charice.”

  “It’s going to make you very happy.”

  “Well, it can’t be Jerome, because he’s sitting right next to me.”

  “Get serious. Take a guess.”

  “Okay, Donald Sullivan.”

  “That’s not very nice,” Charice said, clearly taken aback.

  Raymer had to admit she was probably right. It wasn’t nice. But Barton Flatt was already dead, and he honestly couldn’t think of anybody else he wanted to be the victim of a freak accident.

  “Roy Purdy,” she blurted, apparently unable to keep the good news to herself any longer.

  “Why would I be happy about that?”

  “Because he’s an asshole.”

  Okay, maybe he was a little happy. He’d run into Roy at the Morrison Arms the day after his release. The creep had moved in with a sad, overweight woman named Cora, who’d apparently fallen for him, and he couldn’t have been more smarmy and obsequious. In jail Roy had found religion, or so he claimed. Before, he’d apparently used his time behind bars to hone his criminal skills, but in this stint his Bible-study and psychology classes had allowed him to emerge as a wholly new and improved man. The old Roy, he’d assured Raymer, was dead and gone. All he could hope was that people wouldn’t hold that Roy against him. He was anxious that Raymer in particular didn’t harbor any ill will about when they were kids and Roy used to bully him relentlessly. None of that had been personal, he explained. He’d just been looking for somebody to take out his anger on. This last spell, with the help of an older con, he’d learned to let go of all that anger. It was rage that had stolen his whole damn life, and with the help of his newly acquired anger-management skills he meant to steal it right back. Perhaps not the best metaphor for a career thief, Raymer remembered thinking. Still, he supposed it was possible the man had truly been reformed. What undermined this likelihood was the note of pride in his voice when he recalled those middle-school days when he’d been the endless scourge of timid boys like Raymer.

  “You’d rather have a wall fall on a harmless old coot like Sully,” Charice said, “than on a true lowlife like Roy Purdy. That’s just sick.”

  Truth be told, Raymer had no idea why Sullivan had occurred to him first. He’d resented the man for so long it’d become a habit, he supposed. “Well,” he said in his own defense, “it’s Sully that stole our three wheel boots, remember.”

  “We don’t know that,” Charice countered.

  “Sure we do,” he said. “What we don’t know is how. Or where he hid them. What’d you find out about the traffic light?”

  “Nothing yet. How long would you say it was before it finally turned green?”

  “We’re still sitting in front of it.”

  “Really? All this time?” She sounded impressed.

  “Goodbye, Charice.”

  Jerome was grinning at him. “And the guy says, ‘Are you kidding me, Doc? I might as well have shoved them up my ass for all the good they did me.’ ”

  Raymer waited a beat, then said, “Green.”

  “Huh?”

  He pointed, but by the time Jerome looked, the light had turned yellow, and before he’d let his foot off the clutch it was red again.

  Raymer still hadn’t put the cap back on the pills, so he tapped a fourth into his palm.

  “Is that a good idea?” Jerome said. “Four extra-strength Tylenols, all at once?”

  Maybe not. In the ER they’d refused him painkillers until they were sure he hadn’t suffered a concussion. Two extra-strength Tylenols might put him in a coma; four could kill him. Good, Raymer thought. At least death would cure his headache. He could feel angry blood pulsing through the constricted vessels to his brain and the beat of his broken heart.

  Because why not admit it? He wasn’t over her. Becka. Okay, so she’d made a fool of him. At the time she went down those stairs like a Slinky she’d been carrying on with somebody, maybe even somebody he knew. What was it the note said? Try to be happy for us. Like maybe he knew the guy. Probably not, though. Men just fell in love with her at first sight. On the spot. Just as he had. Anyway, face it. Charice was right. He was still fucked up. Here was Jerome just trying to help out, maybe take his mind off things, and Raymer, in turn, was wishing that wall had fallen on him instead of Roy Purdy.

  “You have to admit it’s pretty funny,” Jerome said, apparently in reference to the suppositories joke.

  “Laugh? I thought I’d die,” Raymer said, which was literally true. He was squirming now, shoving the bottle out of sight into his pocket. A couple dozen capsules were rattling around in there like tacks, and he was afraid if he didn’t put it away he might just swallow them all at once and be done with everything forever. The problem was that the bottle was too big; even if he succeeded in forcing it into his trousers, it would produce a comic bulge. This reminded him of the girl out at Hilldale who stared at him as he absentmindedly fingered the—

  “Turn right,” he said, too loud, startling Jerome.

  “What—”

  “Go through the light! Hurry.”

  But of course they were too late. By the time they arrived back at the cemetery, Judge Flatt’s grave had not only been filled in, the whole plot had been manicured. Both the yellow backhoe and Rub
Squeers were gone. Raymer dropped to his knees in the moist earth, beneath which, under the old asshole’s casket, lay the garage-door opener. He’d been holding it in his hand when he fainted. Which meant his last chance to solve the riddle of his wife’s infidelity was gone, along with it his final opportunity to prove himself a real policeman and not just a joke. Something like a howl escaped his throat then, and the resulting pain in his skull was beyond belief. He gripped his head between his elbows to keep it from exploding.

  Jerome put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I guess those Tylenol aren’t working, huh?”

  No, they weren’t. Not even a little. In fact, he might as well have shoved them up his ass.

  —

  THE STILL, STAGNANT AIR in the vicinity of the Old Mill Lofts was the sort of yellow that normally presages a tornado, and the smell was staggering—yesterday’s stench on steroids. Raymer swallowed hard, trying to keep his roiling stomach in check. As they were driving over here, Charice had radioed again to say there was yet another problem. As if things weren’t bad enough, Carl Roebuck’s crew of merry idiots, jackhammering the concrete floor, had hit an underground power line, knocking out a nearby transformer and leaving most of Bath without electricity. At the station and out at the hospital, they’d converted to the backup generator.

  “Go on back to Schuyler,” Raymer said when Jerome pulled over to the curb a couple blocks from the now-three-sided mill. Apparently the power outage stopped at the Schuyler Springs city line, right where misfortune historically ground to a halt. After all, if Raymer, whose job it was, wanted no part of these proceedings, what possible interest could they hold for a man whose job it wasn’t? “I can snag a ride back out to Hilldale later.” On the drive into town he realized that his car was still out at the cemetery. At the sight of the judge’s grave, all filled in, he’d been too distraught to think clearly.

  “Nah, I’ll stick around a bit,” Jerome said, getting out and locking the ’Stang. “You don’t look so good.” Raymer, light-headed and jelly kneed, had all he could do to pull himself out of the car’s deep bucket seats.

  What remained of the mill resembled a child’s dollhouse, its long front face thoughtfully removed so its insides could be examined. Officer Miller, flexing authoritatively at the knees, had cleverly stationed himself at the epicenter of activity, where he could serve, so far as Raymer could tell, no useful purpose. A Tip Top Construction truck was parked next to the mound of bricks from the collapsed wall, and those of Carl’s crew who weren’t busy depriving the town of electricity were tossing them into the back. Nearby, the impressively flattened car—how had Roy Purdy escaped with his life?—was being hoisted onto one of old Harold Proxmire’s flatbeds.

  Miller stood observing all this as if it were his responsibility to make sure these jobs were being done properly. “Chief,” he said, clearly surprised to see Raymer approaching. “I thought you were out at the hospital.” Eyeing Jerome suspiciously, he gave his boss a quizzical what’s-he-doing-here look. Low man on the department totem pole, Miller worried constantly about being replaced, and Jerome, already in law enforcement, was a possible candidate. Also, he was black and Charice’s brother. Was there some sort of affirmative action/nepotism afoot here?

  “Mind if I ask what you’re doing?” Raymer said.

  Miller seemed pleased to know the answer to this question. “Providing a police presence, sir,” he said, as if reciting from a manual. “I heard you were at the hospital, so I—”

  “How about moving those people back,” Raymer suggested, pointing at the gawkers that had gathered at the foot of one of the remaining walls. “Could you do that?”

  “Because Charice said you’d sustained an injury out at Hilldale and I was in charge.” Giving orders, he meant. Not taking them.

  “Yet here I am.”

  Miller nodded. Clearly, he would’ve liked to dispute this fact, but how?

  “Miller,” Raymer said, “please move those people back. Now.”

  “You think another wall might fall?”

  “This one did.”

  When he trotted off, Raymer and Jerome joined the mayor, who’d come directly from Hilldale, still dressed in funeral attire, and Carl Roebuck, who was studying some sort of schematic diagram and scratching his head. “What the hell’s a power line doing there?”

  “Providing power?” Gus suggested.

  “Not anymore,” a worker said, resting his gut on a jackhammer.

  “Uh-oh,” said Gus, eyeing the Niagara Mohawk truck that was just then pulling up. “We should’ve waited. NiMo’s gonna ream our asses.”

  “My ass,” Carl corrected.

  “Jesus, look at this,” Gus said, finally noticing Raymer. “They didn’t admit you?”

  “I kind of checked myself out.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I thought you might need me?”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know,” Raymer said, annoyed to be talked to the way he’d just talked to Miller. “That’s what I came to find out.”

  “It’s true I might want to borrow your sidearm,” Gus said. “I’m thinking about shooting Carl here. How you doin’, Jerome?”

  “Mayor,” he said, and they shook hands. Surprised, Raymer wondered how they knew each other. Had he and Gus ever shaken hands?

  “How come shit like this never happens in Schuyler?” was what Gus wanted Jerome to explain.

  “There’s an ordinance against it,” Jerome said.

  Carl rotated the schematic, considering it from a different angle, and offered it to the mayor. “Show me on this where there’s a power line.”

  “Why would I show you on that when I can take you to the actual cable your guys just jacked the shit out of.”

  “What I don’t get,” Jerome said, when Carl headed over to the NiMo crew, “is how a building can stand for a century and then one day tumble into the street.”

  “Well,” Gus sighed, “several things have to happen. First, some imbecile has to sever the collar ties that secure the walls to the roof.”

  “Why would anybody do that?”

  “They were working on the penthouse units, is my understanding. They meant to retie them later.”

  “Still,” Jerome said, “the floor joists—”

  “Those were compromised a couple weeks ago in order to construct the interior stairwells.”

  Jerome nodded seriously, apparently following all this.

  How did normal people know shit like this? Raymer wondered. Or, to rephrase the question: How had he himself managed to live so long and learn so little? “Aren’t you curious?” Becka always said whenever he asked why she was reading this or that. “About the world and how it works? About people and what makes them tick?” He supposed she had a point. Curiosity was probably a good thing, not always a cat killer. Still, what made people tick was no great mystery, was it? Greed. Lust. Anger. Jealousy. You could almost let your voice fall right there. Love? Some people claimed it made the world go round, but he wasn’t so sure about that. Love mostly turned out to be one of those other emotions, or a mixture of them, in disguise. Even if it did exist, Raymer doubted its relevance to much of anything.

  “Carl still might’ve got away with it,” Gus was saying, “if somebody down in the basement hadn’t lit a cigarette and tossed the match into a floor drain.”

  “Gas pocket?” Jerome said, as far ahead of the game as Raymer was behind.

  “Boom,” said Gus, puffing out his cheeks. “Maybe that’s the lesson. You can skate on the first idiocy, and maybe even the second, but the third brings down the wrath of God.” He regarded Raymer then as if he might be the physical embodiment of the principle he’d just articulated.

  Suddenly the smell was just too much. “Excuse me a minute,” Raymer said, turning away. There was a convenient pile of rubble nearby and into this he vomited violently, hands on his knees, reluctant to straighten up until he was sure the worst of the nausea had passed. Everyone, even the NiMo g
uys, who’d been happily cutting Carl Roebuck a new asshole, stopped to watch him retch. Was he throwing up because of the heat and stench, Raymer wondered, or because he was concussed? It would’ve been good to know, but too much trouble to find out. Curiosity trumped yet again.

  When he finally straightened up, Miller, having moved the spectators across the street, had returned to his previous post and was again pointlessly supervising the brick tossing.

  Raymer went over and said, “Miller?”

  “I did what you said, Chief,” he told him, gesturing at the people he’d moved out of harm’s way.

  “Yes, you did,” Raymer agreed. “But look.” The spectators Miller had moved were mostly still there, but half-a-dozen newcomers were now standing right where they’d been.

  “You want me to move them, too?”

  Raymer nodded. “And this time?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Stay there. That’s where the job is. This here”—he indicated the men tossing bricks—“has got nothing to do with us.”

  “He’s not what you’d call gifted, is he?” Jerome remarked when Raymer walked up.

  “No,” he admitted, though for some unknown reason he felt an urge to come to the idiot’s defense. Probably because Miller seemed to have such a hard time grasping the same things that had eluded him as a young patrolman. No doubt he himself had exasperated his boss, Ollie North, as thoroughly as Miller was doing now. Police work, perhaps more than any other profession, attracted people for the wrong reasons—in Raymer’s case, the desire to be useful. You’d be given orders and you’d execute these to the best of your ability. It never occurred to him that part of the job was figuring out, without being told, exactly what the job was. Right from the start Ollie had encouraged him to act on his own initiative, to analyze the scene and figure out what needed to be done. Sure, there was plenty of mind-numbing repetition, but most days, especially in the beginning, you’d encounter something new, and there wasn’t always time for instructions. In their absence, though, young Officer Raymer had found himself assailed by not just the usual raft of self-doubts but also the old ambient feeling of futility that had been his more or less constant companion since he was a boy in a disorderly house that he’d wanted to put right, without having a clue where to begin. He knew nothing about Miller’s background but could recognize in him the same eagerness to please that so often went hand in hand with a reluctance to take chances. At every juncture, Miller had to be told what to do and then what to do next. Having been ordered to move people to safety, he’d done so. Since Raymer didn’t tell him to stay there and see the job through, he’d returned to his earlier post to await further orders. “I keep hoping he’ll grow into the job,” Raymer said weakly.

 
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