Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “I should let you get all the way out there,” she said, pointing at the big wooden ashtray on the coffee table, itself a landfill acquisition, where his keys sat, plain as day.

  Once he was gone, Ruth surveyed the living room. Spread out on the coffee table and sofa were the parts to at least one small appliance—a toaster oven, by the look of it—and, on the nearby love seat, two ancient vacuum cleaners that hadn’t been there this morning, which meant he’d had, for Zack, a good day. At fifty-eight, he was as determined as he’d been at thirty to corner the market in broken, worthless crap, to bring it all home, take it apart and leave the pieces strewn over every flat surface in the house. She’d long ago given up trying to change him, but until recently she’d hoped to reign him in, much as America had once hoped to prevent the spread of communism. On purely philosophical grounds she’d considered her own battle worth waging, but had she really figured it was winnable? The living room before her did not represent mere defeat. She’d been overrun. Blitzed. Routed. How had that happened? Well, one bloody skirmish at a time. A small concession here, a tactical error there, troops deployed to the wrong sector, failures of imagination too numerous to count, leading in the end to spiritual exhaustion, despair and, finally, ignominious surrender. That would about sum it up.

  No doubt her strategy had been flawed from the start. Why inform the enemy of your endgame? Why let him in on what you cared about most, what you meant to defend at all costs? Collect all the crap you want, she’d told her husband, just don’t bring it in the house. Even birds know enough not to shit in their own nests. And with this declaration the long proxy conflict had begun. Its first arena had been the garage, which had two large bays, with room to spare for both their vehicles, or so she’d thought, although the flatbed truck Zack used to haul his shit in was half again as wide as the largest pickup. When the floor-to-ceiling shelving started going up along the interior walls, she’d thought, Overkill. (Failure of Imagination Number One: underestimating both the enemy’s ambition and his tidal persistence.) By the end of that year every last shelf was bowed and groaning under the weight of more and more crap. Then, down the middle of the garage, in the space between their vehicles, came the lawn mowers—push and power—as well as rusty bicycles with flat tires and brake pads dangling from detached cables, assorted posthole diggers and Weedwackers. Suddenly the whole place was so booby-trapped that you had to go slow and pay attention both driving in and then stepping out, because there were land mines everywhere—skateboards, Wiffle balls, Hula-Hoops, even lumps of Play-Doh. Along the exterior walls, dented metal drums appeared. Into the empties Zack poured used oil and grease. The others—some decorated with smiling skulls and crossbones—contained the industrial solvents and toxic chemical baths he needed to remove rust from bike chains and other hardware.

  Even more demoralizing than the junk itself was her husband’s unshakable conviction that it was all valuable, or would be as soon as he could locate the handle, screw, lid, link, cap, clasp, rubber grip or wheel that had gone missing. That what you needed would turn up eventually was one of the central tenets of his scavenging faith. Another was that people who tossed things out because they didn’t work anymore were stupid. That someone would go out and spend good money on a new power mower because the pull rope on the old one snapped off filled Zack with the kind of pure wonder that he was forever attempting to evoke in his unsympathetic wife. To her way of thinking, the fact that people threw away stuff that maybe could be repaired meant they were busy, not stupid, and even if they were stupid it didn’t necessarily require you to get up at five in the morning to go digging through their trash in search of evidence. If they put an old sofa out on the curb, that didn’t mean you had to load it onto the back of your truck and haul it home, all proud of yourself (“I can get that cat-piss smell out”). And it certainly didn’t mean you spent your entire adult life in an activity that, if you succeeded, meant only that you’d relocated the public landfill to your own property.

  In Ruth’s considered opinion, hers was a winning argument, but for some unknown reason, instead of pressing it, she’d instead granted a concession—Major Tactical Error—by reminding herself that every man needs a hobby, especially someone like Zack who might otherwise be tempted to stay home watching TV in his skivvies and collect unemployment or unearned disability. And it wasn’t like he fought her on every little thing. He was capable, at times, of reason. When she told him to open his own bank account, he did; and when she warned him never to touch the money in their joint account to finance his purchases at flea markets and yard sales, he agreed. Every now and then she checked to make sure he was abiding by that stipulation and damned if he wasn’t. To hear him tell it, he never bought anything for fifty cents that he didn’t eventually sell to somebody else for a dollar, which might even be true for all she knew. As long as he stayed out of her hair, what did she care? This had been her thinking. Let him fill up the fucking garage. As long as there was room for their vehicles…

  Then one day she came home, and his truck was parked outside. In his bay, upside down, rested a long wooden canoe with a hole in the bottom. Her own bay, cramped and crowded now, was vacant, but upon pulling in she discovered she couldn’t open the car door, thanks to a ropeless toboggan—it was mid-August!—that hadn’t been there in the morning and now lay lengthwise against the shelving. She was about to resort to her horn when Zack appeared in the rearview mirror. “I meant to move that,” he said, standing the toboggan up on one end so she could get out. “That boat’ll be gone by next week,” he added.

  “Yup,” she agreed. “There’ll be three more of something else, though.”

  He smiled, apparently pleased she understood. “The business is growing,” he said.

  “I’m sorry, the what?” Because she’d gotten used to describing all this as a hobby, and embedded in that word was the concession she’d granted.

  “I’m in business here,” he told her. “Ma thinks it’s a good idea to ramp things up.”

  “Well, there you go, then.”

  “I’m getting a sign made,” he added, as if this was his trump card.

  “You can’t find one out at the dump?”

  “It wouldn’t be mine.” That was the thing about Zack. He always answered her questions, even the ones that were snide, mocking criticisms, as if they were serious.

  Later that night she warned him again. “Not so much as one rusty wing nut in my house.”

  “It’s Ma’s house,” he said. “We just live here.”

  “Well, thanks for reminding me.”

  “It will be. I ain’t sayin’ it won’t. I’m just sayin’—”

  “I know what you’re saying.”

  “You could take an interest,” he said, sounding plaintive, and she felt her hardened heart soften a little. “In what I do, I mean.”

  “I’m exhausted, Zack. I work three jobs.”

  “I work, too. You’re not the only one.”

  No, just the only one who makes money. Did he know that this was on the tip of her tongue? Maybe. Probably.

  The following week a snowmobile appeared in her bay. “It’ll be gone in a day or two,” he assured her.

  “Where am I supposed to park?”

  “It’s summer,” he pointed out, not unreasonably.

  By the time winter rolled around, though, her bay was crammed, from floor to ceiling. After a blizzard camouflaged both their vehicles under a foot and a half of snow, he told her, “I’m looking at sheds.” Right, she thought. As if invading armies ever gave back conquered territory. The garage was now Poland. Occupied.

  The next theater of war had been the yard itself. They had over an acre of land, but except for where the house and garage stood, and a small lawn, most of it was wooded. At first a few miscellaneous, awkwardly shaped items—a rowing machine, its oarlocks missing, a large collection of mismatched fireplace utensils—were partially hidden among the trees and bushes, but before long other crap appeared, such a
s the outboard motor that materialized one day like the world’s ugliest lawn ornament. Had the time come to make a stand? Probably, but in truth Ruth decided she didn’t really care (Alert! Conflict Fatigue!). Unlike many women, Ruth had never much concerned herself with appearances, and where they lived, a good half mile out of town, there were no neighbors to complain about them ruining the neighborhood and driving down property values. Moreover, it was about this time that she’d taken Hattie’s over from its previous owner, a woman roughly her own age who’d fled to Florida after her mother, the original Hattie, died. A businesswoman now, Ruth began to separate her homelife from the restaurant. Mother Ruthless was still out at the county nursing home, but her speech had improved a little, and when they brought her home for holidays and special occasions it was clear that she still considered this her very own shithole and looked forward to the day when she’d be able to return and claim it. Her doctors had privately assured them that this would never happen, that she would always require round-the-clock nursing, but for the time being the house was still in her name, whereas Hattie’s was in Ruth’s. Let the old woman croak on her own schedule, she told herself. Then dig in and fight your fight. Sure, it was disheartening to see the property overrun with weeds—with so much shit everywhere, you couldn’t mow it—but the perimeter of the house had not been breached, and that, she reminded herself, was the important thing (Grave Tactical Error! Never surrender your DMZ!). Evenings, after the sun went down, were the worst. Then the taller items in the yard, the ones he’d left leaning up against trees, put Ruth in mind of troops massing at the border. Could there be any doubt of their intention to invade?

  Then, without warning, instead of the anticipated assault on the fortress, there was an unexpected pullback, indeed a sharp reduction in tensions across the entire theater of conflict. Roy got himself arrested for burglary and was sent downstate to serve his time, freeing Janey to move to Albany in search of a new life. That meant the trailer they’d been living in reverted to her parents. Eight hundred additional square feet of storage space. Not a lot, but enough to take some of the pressure off. Next, buoyed by the increasing popularity of his monthly yard sales, Zack decided to hold one every week. For a time it felt to Ruth like some sort of Zen balance—shit-in and shit-out, at roughly the same rate—had been achieved. The yard and nearby woods were suddenly less cluttered. Were the invaders being redeployed? Sent home? That’s how it felt. Suddenly she could breathe again, having fought to a noble draw. They could begin to disarm and enjoy the peace. Turned out, though, the domino theory was just that: a theory. But honestly, she thought later, did she ever really believe the war was over? She must’ve. Otherwise, why would she have sold the trailer to Sully? Having just inherited his landlady’s house on Upper Main Street, he needed it like he needed a hole in the head. But Zack was talking about upgrading to a shed, claiming the money they got from the trailer would pay for it, so why not? (In war, as in the courtroom, never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to.)

  The day Sully was to haul off the trailer and the new shed was to be delivered, Ruth put in an extra long day at Hattie’s. Despite having waitressed her entire adult life, she was still learning the business end of running a restaurant. Even when she managed to close on time—afternoon coffee drinkers were hard to expel—she still had to spend another hour or two prepping for the next morning, ringing out the register, going over the receipts. Plus they’d had a problem in the ladies’ room that afternoon, so she had to wait for the plumber to finish fixing the toilet before she could lock up and head home. In fact, it’d been such a perfect bitch of a day that she’d forgotten the shed completely until she made the turn into her driveway and saw the gleaming metal reflecting the evening sunlight through what remained of the trees. Shed? The fucking thing was almost as big as the house and had all the charm of an airplane hangar. Worse, she knew what Sully’d given them for the trailer, and that would’ve barely paid for the doors.

  At the top of the drive Zack’s truck sat in its usual place, and next to it, in her spot, was Sully’s pickup. The two men, together with Rub Squeers, were on the ground, leaning back against the new shed, drinking beer and looking for all the world like Larry, Moe and Curly. Putting her car in park and turning the ignition off, she chose for the time being to remain where she was. Seeing her husband and lover sitting there so naturally, like best friends, gave her the bends. So did the mountain of tree stumps nearby. From where she sat she counted fourteen of them.

  “I sold them stumps,” Zack said when she finally got out and stood staring at them, shaking her head in disbelief. As if they represented her only possible objection to their radically altered landscape.

  “Who’d buy a tree stump?”

  He offered her his trademark crooked smile. “People buy some strange stuff,” he said.

  “I can see that,” she said, regarding the enormous metal structure. “Funny how the subject of cutting down our trees to make room for that monstrosity never came up when we were discussing all this.”

  “We—”

  “Or the size of the shed you were thinking about.”

  “I told you it was bigger than the trailer.”

  “So’s Yankee Stadium.”

  When he only shrugged, she said, “Where’d you get the money?”

  “Like I said—”

  “Where’d you get the money?” she repeated, with enough edge in her voice to suggest he take care answering.

  “Not from Schuyler Savings.” That’s where their joint account was.

  Mother Ruthless, then. Even in the nursing home, still calling the shots.

  Sully was looking increasingly uncomfortable. “Why don’t you grab a beer and join us?” he suggested.

  “I just might,” she said, her mood veering dangerously. As tired as she was, she had little doubt she could make short work of any one of these men in a drunken brawl, but all three at once gave her pause. Also, who was to blame here, really? She’d allowed herself to be outflanked by three idiots, one her husband, the other her lover, and the third, unless she was mistaken, a man who was more in love with her lover than she was but didn’t know it and probably never would. “If one of you gentlemen would care to get me one.”

  Sully nudged Rub. “Dummy. Go get Ruth a beer.”

  “Why me?” Rub wanted to know. To Ruth, he had the look of someone who’d done his beer arithmetic already and knew that if Ruth drank one, it would be his she was drinking.

  “Because I’m tired and I’ve got a bum knee,” Sully told him.

  “Why not him?” Rub wanted to know, indicating Zack, whose wife, after all, this was.

  “He bought the beer,” Sully reminded him. “Or you could just tell her to get her own beer. If you think that’s a good idea.”

  Rub glanced at Ruth and saw that it wasn’t, then he got to his feet and went inside.

  “So,” Ruth said, still looking at the shed. Dear God was it ugly. “Was there a larger model you could’ve bought?”

  Zack nodded. “One,” he said.

  “But you restrained yourself.”

  “Wasn’t enough room for it.”

  “You sure? There’s still a couple trees you didn’t chop down.”

  He looked at Sully now. “What’d I tell you?” Like it was the two of them who were in cahoots, not Sully and her. “I told you it was them trees she’d be sore about.” Like he was some sort of expert on what she thought and how she felt. Like being married for thirty years meant intimacy. Taking him in, sitting there so pleased with himself for having gotten what he wanted, she was glad he didn’t know what was in her heart, because it would’ve wiped that stupid grin off his face.

  “It’ll take him a while to fill it, anyway,” Sully said later that night. After Zack went to bed, they’d met at their usual Schuyler motel. Once asleep, her husband never woke up until the alarm went off in the morning, so it was pretty safe.

  “You’re trying to make me feel better,” she
told him, “and that can’t be done.” Though in truth, sex had made her feel at least a little better, like it always did. Sully had known without asking that she’d need him that night. Most of the time he could be as dumb as every other man, though every now and then he was also capable of something like prescience. Give him credit for something else, too. He’d worked all day on his bum knee, and given how exhausted he clearly was, the last thing he needed was a roll in the hay. He might’ve begged off, but he didn’t.

  “So how long were you two scheming about this?” she asked him.

  “Scheming?”

  Because even if the crew from the manufacturer was responsible for erecting the structure itself, everything else—hauling the trailer over to Sully’s, chopping down all those trees, pulling up the stumps and grading the cratered earth in time to take delivery of the shed—had to have gone off with military precision. “That was about a week’s worth of work you did since five o’clock this morning.”

  “We went at it pretty hard,” he said as he massaged his knee, which had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

  “All done behind my back,” she said.

  “He asked me to help.”

  “So what’re you saying? The two of you are friends now?”

  “I don’t know. He doesn’t have any others that I’m aware of.”

  “There’s me.”

  Sully arched his eyebrow at this but offered no comment.

  “And Mother Ruthless.”

  “I don’t think she’d have been much help pulling up stumps.”

  And just that quickly she was close to tears. “I guess I thought you were all mine.”

  “You want me to beg off, next time he asks?”

  “No,” she said, though the ground under her feet had suddenly shifted, and part of her was screaming, Yes!

  The next day, Zack came into the restaurant as she was closing up, something he seldom did. She’d never told him he wasn’t welcome there, but somehow he knew that Hattie’s was her domain, just like the garage and now the shed were his. “People are saying they saw you and him last night,” he told her.

 
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