Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  Jerome shrugged. “You put Charice out here, she’d have this whole deal organized in about two seconds flat.”

  He was right, too. The station had been a nightmare of inefficiency until Charice arrived, everything in the wrong place. By the time you found what you were looking for, you’d forgotten why you needed it in the first place. Charice had made sense of it all, transforming the department into a well-oiled machine. For which she was universally resented. Not because her coworkers preferred chaos to order—they were cops, after all—but because she’d invaded their turf and changed things without asking for permission or even advice. She could be abrupt to the point of rudeness and clearly didn’t suffer fools gladly, perhaps not a particularly admirable quality when one is surrounded by a dozen of them. Out on the street, Raymer feared, she’d piss folks off even worse. People in Bath weren’t used to being ordered around by sharp-tongued black women. If she got sent out on a call to the Morrison Arms or Gert’s Tavern, she’d be lucky not to get beaten to death with her own baton, and if something like that ever happened, Raymer would have only himself to blame. “I need somebody with good judgment at the station,” he told Jerome, who just shrugged, as if to concede that the chief of police had every right to remain stupid.

  Rejoining them, Gus put a hand on Raymer’s shoulder. “Go home before you pass out again,” he said. “This’ll all get worked out. You can die in the line of duty some other day.”

  “All right,” Raymer agreed, too exhausted and dispirited to protest. Jerome wouldn’t mind dropping him off at the Arms before heading back to Schuyler. There he’d fall into bed and see what happened. Maybe all he needed was a nap. Or possibly he’d just sleep right on through to tomorrow. Or better yet die in his sleep. Maybe his fainting into the judge’s grave had been an omen—that his own end was near. If so, fine.

  “Hey, Jerome,” Gus said as they turned to leave, “you given any more thought to what we discussed?”

  “I’m still thinking,” Jerome told him.

  “Don’t take too long.”

  “Okay, I won’t.”

  What the hell were they discussing that could only be alluded to obliquely in Raymer’s presence? Something he wasn’t supposed to know about, obviously.

  God, did his head hurt.


  PULLING INTO their steep gravel drive and surveying the weedy lot, littered as always with rusting hubcaps, bent rims and other orphaned auto parts, all of them liberated from the landfill and people’s front yards, Ruth wondered what in the world she’d been thinking when she told Sully she meant to start treating her husband better, a resolution she felt right then not the slightest inclination to act upon. At the top of the driveway there was room, theoretically, for two vehicles, but once again Zack had failed to pull his truck over far enough, so halfway up the grade she paused, her foot on the brake, to reflect darkly on the obvious—there was no room for her—and its inescapable metaphorical significance, which begged a fairly basic response: back right out and drive away? Earlier that afternoon, hadn’t she advised Sully to go somewhere, anywhere, so long as it was far off? Didn’t the same apply to her as well? Go, she told herself now, this very minute. It didn’t matter where. Would anyone even notice?

  Well, that was the thing. They would. They’d get hungry. Down at Hattie’s and here at home, people wanted to be fed and expected her to feed them. Though it was only midafternoon, Zack was probably already hungry, wondering what she meant to make for dinner. Was there ever a time when he wasn’t hungry? Where did such constant appetite come from? Nor was it only her husband. At the restaurant, people just ate and ate. It didn’t seem to matter much, if at all, what the food tasted like, provided there was plenty of it, whether mountains of french fries or troughs of slaw. Just as they went about the day’s other necessary tasks, they ate with concentration, determination, conviction. When they were done and you asked them how it was, they looked puzzled. The food was gone, wasn’t it? If something was wrong with it, they would’ve complained. Others responded with a particularly revealing non sequitur. “Full,” as if emptiness were the prevailing condition of their lives, from which eating provided a temporary respite.

  Ironic that Ruth herself had little or no appetite most of the time. Especially these last few days, thanks to the brutal heat and the Great Bath Stench. Who could think of food under such circumstances? If she went away somewhere, would her normal appetites—for food, sex, joy—return, or were those gone for good? Didn’t she owe it to herself to find out?

  Apparently not, because instead of putting the car in reverse she laid on the horn until her husband appeared at the back door in his undershorts and barefoot, rubbing his eyes sleepily. Good, she thought. Midafternoon was his time to fall asleep in front of the television, though he always denied doing this, even when she caught him doing it. He had legitimate reasons for napping, she supposed. A successful scavenger—if that wasn’t an oxymoron—had to be up early, so each morning Zack rose even before she did to open the restaurant. By five he was out the door and picking through the crap people set out on the curb on trash day. Tuesdays and Thursdays in Schuyler, where the best stuff was, other days in surrounding communities that still had trash pickup. By afternoon he was ready for a nap. Ruth, who was never not exhausted, didn’t get to nap, though, so she couldn’t help resenting the stolen hour. That he wouldn’t admit to this theft made her more resentful still.

  “I hear you, I hear you,” he was saying now, trying to smooth down his unruly hair. What sort of man, at damn near sixty, still had a cowlick in the exact spot where so many other men had given in to tonsured baldness? Was it possible that once upon a time she’d found that disobedient thatch endearing? “You can lay off.”

  “Just move the truck,” she told him.

  “I am,” he said, limping down the porch steps and onto the rough gravel. Where in this enormous hulk of a man was the skinny boy she married? One hundred and twenty pounds he’d been, soaking wet. At eighteen his mother was still buying his trousers—Ruth should’ve given more careful consideration to what this might mean—in the boys’ department. Now he was three fifty if an ounce. “Filling out his frame,” his mother, herself a very large woman, had called it when he finally turned that genetic corner and started putting on weight. These days he also filled whole doorframes, most of which he had to turn sideways to get through. “What do you think I’m doing?”

  “I think you’re walking around outdoors in your undershorts.”

  “So what? There’s nobody here but us.”

  “Unless Tina was to come walking up the drive?”

  “She’s seen me before.”

  Ruth massaged her temples. “Just move the truck.”

  “I am,” he repeated. “Okay?”

  She watched him climb in behind the wheel and then, a moment later, get out again, making a jingling motion with his right hand, which she interpreted as keys, or in this case the lack thereof. Since they lived out of town, where there was almost nobody to steal the truck, he usually just left them dangling in the ignition, but apparently not today. Since his search might take a while, she reluctantly turned her own engine off, got out and followed him inside.

  The house where they’d lived their entire married lives had belonged to his parents or, rather, his mother, his father having died when Zack was still a boy. That old bag’s name was also Ruth—Mother Ruth, they called her, to avoid confusion, though she’d quickly dubbed her “Mother Ruthless.” Right from the start the woman made it clear that she held her daughter-in-law-to-be in low regard. The day they were introduced—Zack had brought her to this very house to meet her—Ruth, suffering from a combination of morning sickness and terror, had immediately asked if she might use the bathroom. Even with the door closed, she heard the cruel question: “Did you have to pick the homeliest girl in the whole school to knock up?”

  Zack later dismissed the incident as unimportant. “Don’t pay no attention to her,” he scoffed. “S
he don’t mean nothin’.”

  “You might’ve stood up for me.”

  He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her close. “Didn’t I say you had a great body? Anyway, she’ll like you better after the baby’s born.” Which showed how little he understood his mother. Give her credit, though, Mother Ruth had at least loved the baby, even though Janey was Ruth’s spitting image. And of course she would have hated whoever Zack had knocked up. Her husband dead, and helpless to navigate the world outside her home, she was determined to keep a tight grip on what she had left, and that was her only son. Through him, and through his devotion to her, she meant to rule what remained of her world, and to this end she did everything in her power to undermine her new daughter-in-law. Among other things, that meant never letting her forget whose house she was living in or that she’d arrived there pregnant and without any domestic skills. Ruth hadn’t learned to cook at home, and Mother Ruthless obviously didn’t like having anyone else in her kitchen. “How’s she supposed to learn if you won’t teach her nothin’,” Zack asked when Ruth begged him to intervene. Eventually, she had grudgingly copied out on notecards the recipes for a few of Zack’s favorite meals. They never turned out right, though. The recipes either left out key ingredients or were unclear about technique or got the proportions wrong, which made Ruth look like a very slow learner indeed. “He likes his mother’s cooking better, don’t you, sweetie,” Mother Ruth cooed after each new failure, and Zack had to admit he did. Only after Ruth finally tumbled to the fact that her culinary efforts were being sabotaged, and compared the notecard recipes with others in cookbooks she’d checked out of the library, did she begin to improve. Before long she was a better cook than Mother Ruth, who was lazy and gravitated to canned and frozen ingredients, even when fresh ones were available. Still, Ruth had known better than to openly challenge her, so the woman remained boss of her kitchen until she finally suffered the stroke that put her in the county nursing home. Not a moment too soon, in Ruth’s view, because the kitchen hadn’t been the only battleground. “You know she’s stepping out on you,” the old woman told her son when some busybody informed her about Ruth and Sully. By then, of course, she and Zack had been married going on twenty years.

  “Mind your own business, Ma,” Zack replied, having heard the rumors already.

  “I told you she was a tramp from the start,” the old woman continued, as if Ruth had been cheating since day one. On this day, though, she was simply standing in the next room, listening.

  “You don’t know nothin’ about it, Ma. You’re just repeating gossip.”

  “You know it’s true as well as I do,” his mother said. “You just don’t want to admit it.”

  “What I want,” he told her, “is to not hear no more about it from you.”

  That was about as close as he ever came to taking Ruth’s side where his mother was concerned. After the stroke he visited her faithfully at the nursing home, usually late Sunday afternoons after his garage sale. With one memorable exception, Ruth refused to accompany him. A Sunday off was rare for her, and she had no intention of spending any part of it with a hateful old woman whose animosity had only deepened every single year. After her stroke, Zack was the only person who could understand her garbled speech, and the one time Ruth went along to visit, Mother Ruth had grabbed him by the wrist to pull his face down next to hers. What she whispered was gibberish to Ruth, though Zack evidently understood, because he removed her hand and said, “How many times I gotta tell you, Ma? I don’t wanna hear it.”

  Ruth had imagined that with the old woman finally out of the house, things would be different, but they weren’t. For one thing she wasn’t really gone, at least not as Zack saw it. He missed her and confessed that some mornings when he came downstairs, still half asleep, he could smell the cinnamon rolls she used to bake. Once or twice he even imagined seeing his mother there, bent over the stove. To him, these were apparently pleasant experiences. Ruth supposed it was fine for a man to love his mother, but his ongoing devotion to such a mean old bat seemed both morbid and unhealthy. Furthermore, she was sick of having to share a home with a woman who (1) hated her and (2) wasn’t even there. To banish Mother Ruth completely, Ruth suggested they remodel the kitchen, which was antiquated and ugly, but Zack, mortified by the suggestion, reminded her that his mother still owned the house. Besides, he said, it would be expensive and they didn’t have the money. The real reason, she suspected, was his fear that in a remodeled kitchen he’d never again smell those cinnamon buns, never see Mother Ruth bending over her stove like she’d done when he was a boy. She couldn’t bear to tell him, of course, that he wasn’t the only one who pictured Mother Ruth in that kitchen. Ruth saw her there, too, every fucking day, which was why she wanted to gut it.

  Today, entering that still-unremodeled kitchen, she was not greeted by the specter of her mother-in-law but rather the ghost of her husband’s lunch, last night’s leftover chicken-with-rice casserole, now converted to ripe midafternoon methane. How, she asked herself, and not for the first time, had she come to marry a man whose single genetic imperative was to break, in every conceivable way, his own containment? She slung the crusty lunch plate and dirty silverware he always left there on the dinette into the sink, the clatter causing him to pause in the doorway with an expression of fear, mixed with guilt and disapproval. Oh, please, she thought, do say something, but instead he just shook his head and continued on into the front room.

  Returning to the dinette with a wet rag, she banged her hip on the corner of the counter hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. How, she wondered, could the room feel even smaller and more cramped now than it had when Mother Ruth was still standing foursquare in its center, impossible to get around, little Janey crawling back and forth between her trunk-sized legs. Why, especially of late, was she always banging into all the sharp corners and edges? Each morning in the shower she saw new ugly bruises on her shins and hipbones. She never banged into things at the restaurant, which was every bit as cramped, and there was more to bang into.

  The front room, where Zack was now pulling on his pants, was dark except for the nervous flickering of the TV (an old Popeye cartoon, one of her husband’s many favorites). On hot days he always kept the place closed up, believing it stayed cooler, so the aroma of flatulence was even more pronounced in here. Feeling her gag reflex kick in, Ruth went from window to window, throwing back the curtains and wrenching the windows up as far as they’d go in their dry, warped frames. She could feel her husband watching her, no doubt puzzling over exactly which bee had invaded her bonnet, but still he said nothing, evidently as determined to avoid a fight as she was to pick one. Only when the last of the windows shrieked up did he finally say, “What’d I do now?”

  She opened her mouth, prepared to let him have it with both barrels, then abruptly changed course. “Is Tina here?” Their daughter tended bar most nights and didn’t get home until late, so their granddaughter more often than not ate dinner with them and slept over. If she was upstairs in the spare bedroom, the kind of fight Ruth had in mind would have to wait.

  “Uhmm?” said Zack, clearly trying to scroll back. Had Tina come in? “I don’t think so…”

  When he started out to move the car, she said “Zipper,” since his shirt was visible in the gap in his fly.

  He yanked it up. “Anything else?”

  “Actually, yeah. Explain something to me,” she said. “Why do you have to take your pants off to watch television.” Because she really did want to know. Her own father had had the same habit, her brothers, too. Marriage, unless she was mistaken, was some kind of trigger, as if the words “I do” were a signal for them to take their pants off the minute they stepped indoors. Say this for Sully. If he took his pants off he had a reason to, and when the reason no longer applied he put them back on again. Why had she been so hard on him today? Until Roy came in, he’d barely said a word. Him just sitting there at the lunch counter staring into his empty coffee cup had made her ev
ery bit as pissed at him as she was at her husband now. Hadn’t she once loved the man? Didn’t she still? And what if, as she suspected, he was sicker than he was letting on? What in the world was wrong with her? In the restaurant, with Sully, just a few hours ago, she’d resolved to treat her husband better; now at home, with Zack, it was Sully she regretted being so hard on. Was it possible her anger had nothing to do with either one of them? Were they simply handy targets, stand-ins for what she should actually be aiming at?

  Zack shrugged at her question about the pants, offering her his lopsided grin.

  “No, really,” Ruth insisted. “I’m dying to know why men have to take their pants off to watch TV.” A fool’s errand, of course, like an ape trying to explain the kind of behavior he engages in out of sheer instinct. You might as well ask him to explain particle physics.

  Naturally, Zack shrugged. “More comfortable, I guess.”

  “How’s that?”

  He shrugged again. “More freedom?”

  “But you don’t take off your shirt. Or your socks.”

  “No reason to take them off.”

  Ruth massaged her temples even harder this time. “Go move the truck.”

  When he headed for the kitchen, she said, “Where are you going?”

  He threw up his hands. “I need to—”

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