Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Who’s people?” Not even bothering to ask who the him was. Well, people had been talking for years, including, unless she was mistaken, her now-incarcerated son-in-law.

  He recited the name of the motel.

  “And you believe them?”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “Good,” she told him. “Don’t.”

  “I just don’t like to hear it,” he said. “If I’m hearing it, Ma’s hearing it.”

  Oh, her again. “She can’t think any worse of me than she already does.”

  “Kids talk at school, too. You want them saying things to Janey?”

  “What are we discussing here? What you just told me you didn’t believe?”

  “All I’m saying is I don’t like to hear it.”

  “Yup. You already said that.”

  Once he left, she played back the conversation over and over until she began to grasp what he was telling her. She could have Sully. Sully could have her. They just had to be more discreet. Be happy, she told herself, and part of her was. But it also meant that her husband didn’t think she was worth fighting for, and how was that supposed to make her feel? Or that Zack, for whatever reason, was forging his own relationship with Sully? Or the fact that in his life she was only the second most important person named Ruth?

  Sully was right about one thing. It’d taken Zack a while to fill the shed. Years, as it happened. But then came the day when she passed the kitchen window and was surprised to find that the view was partially obscured by an aluminum ladder he’d left leaning up against the wall. A stiff wind the day before had knocked a shutter loose, so he probably was fixing it. But in the following weeks other things turned up leaning against the house—a pair of snow skis, a dresser with no drawers, a wrought-iron bench. She could almost feel the pressure each inanimate object was exerting on the skin of the house. All this shit wanted in. Then one afternoon she came home to find that first vacuum cleaner disassembled on the living room floor. It was possible that repairing whatever was wrong with it was simply taking longer than he’d planned. Maybe he meant to have the mess cleaned up by the time she got home. But there was another explanation that made even more sense. His mother had died the week before.

  Ruth remembered how it’d been when Saigon fell, the last Americans climbing onto the embassy roof to await the choppers that would ferry them home.

  Home? The bitch of it was, Ruth was already there.


  IN THE KITCHEN that was finally hers and yet somehow wasn’t, Ruth ratcheted open the window over the sink. Outside, Zack had moved his truck and was now pulling her car up beside it. A nice gesture, except that in order to get behind the wheel he’d have to push the seat back as far as it would go and would never remember to pull it up again for the simple reason that that would mean he’d done two things in a row right, and in all the years they’d been married that hadn’t happened yet.

  She was still at the sink, staring out into the yard, when he came back in, scratching his belly thoughtfully. In pursuit of an elusive thought, most men scratched the location where they imagined it might be hiding, but not her husband. “Sorry,” he said weakly. “I was going to do those.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” she said, putting the rubber stopper over the drain and turning on the tap, all the fight having suddenly drained right out of her. When she reached under the sink for dishwasher soap, there wasn’t any.

  “You have a bad day?”

  “Nope,” she said. “It was just peachy. Like all my days.” On the wall was a chalkboard he’d picked up at a yard sale, and on its tray a tiny sliver of chalk. She started to write dishwasher soap on the slate but saw it was already there, in her own handwriting, so instead she wrote chalk.

  “What’s the matter, then?”

  Two responses immediately suggested themselves: everything and nothing. Both true, neither accurate. “I just…”

  “Just what?”

  “Just once I’d like to come home and find…”


  A new life. It would be nice to come home some afternoon and find a whole new life. Yet how crappy a wish was that? Pretty crappy, she had to admit. Was she actually wishing her husband dead? Not really, or at least she didn’t think so. What she had in mind was more along the lines of a parallel universe in which he’d never existed in the first place. Because how great would it be, after a long day at the restaurant, to come home to a quiet house? To call out a lusty hello and hear no answer? Heaven. Instead of foraging in the fridge for something to cook her husband for dinner, she could just make herself an enormous bowl of popcorn and eat it while reading a book on a sofa that was neither grease spotted nor redolent of male. Later, getting sleepy, she’d put the book down, look around the room and instead of revulsion she’d feel…what? Satisfaction. Contentment. Herself, her nature, her daily life—everything in sync. Minus Zack and his clutter, these same rooms would be spare, even stark. She didn’t crave better, more expensive possessions, just fewer of them. Less of everything, really. The world she’d create for herself would be sparse and orderly and clean.

  Earlier, when she suggested to Sully that he go to Aruba, she hadn’t just randomly picked that island out of the Caribbean hat. During a thaw that winter, when the crusty, dirt-speckled snowbanks were being tunneled out by torrents of diuretic brown water, she’d made the mistake of pausing in front of a Schuyler Springs travel agency, the windows of which—the heartless bastards—were full of island-vacation posters. Inside, she scanned a thick, three-ringed binder full of blue resorts. The one she liked best, in Aruba, featured suites with enormous, white-tiled bathrooms. There were billowing white sheers over French doors that opened onto a long stretch of empty sand, the surf beyond so close you could almost hear it. A shower with no door, nor curtains, just silver shower heads coming down out of the ceiling. Across from each was a gleaming white vanity, perfect for a woman traveling alone.

  Because she certainly would be traveling alone. She had no desire whatsoever to go there with Sully or her husband or any other man, including Brad Pitt. To allow a male into a bathroom that pristine would be a desecration.

  “Are you guys fighting?”

  Neither Ruth nor her husband had heard their granddaughter approach. Only when Zack yipped in surprise and danced out of the doorway did Tina become visible. To Ruth it was unnerving how silently she moved through their home, the only member of the family who could descend those creaky back stairs without making a sound. Was she like that at school, too? Was that why her teachers never seemed to pay her any attention? The remedial classes she was always placed in were full of rowdy, hyperactive boys, so probably they were just happy to have one kid who neither demanded nor seemed to expect anything from them.

  “Where’d you come from?” Zack asked her. Because obviously she’d been upstairs all along.

  “We covered that this spring in health, actually,” she told him. That was the other unnerving thing about her granddaughter. Ruth could never be sure when she was joking. A lot of what the girl said was funny, but her delivery was always deadpan, and sometimes when Ruth laughed, she looked blank or even hurt. “For two whole weeks.”

  “I must not’ve heard her come in,” Zack said, clearly embarrassed to have told Ruth earlier that she wasn’t in the house.

  At this Tina winced. “We had a conversation, Grandpa.” She had a special affection for her grandfather, Ruth knew, and she clearly hated to throw him under the bus. “You asked me why I was home early. I said because of the holiday.”

  “Oh,” Zack said sheepishly, “right. Memorial Day. What else did we talk about?” He was scratching his stomach again, genuinely curious.

  Tina wrinkled her nose. “It smells in here,” she said. Her bad eye, the one that had been operated on half-a-dozen times, obedient when she’d entered the kitchen, now wandered off as if in search of what stank. When she was tired or upset, it seemed to have an agenda all its own.

??s your grandma’s fault,” Zack told her, his loopy grin widening. “She shouldn’t never feed me rice.”

  “I shouldn’t feed you at all.”

  “You also asked how school was,” Tina said. “I lied and said good. Like always.”

  “Can we skip this today?” Ruth suggested, drying her hands on a dishcloth. “About how much you hate school?”

  “Summer school will be even worse. Do I really have to go?”

  “Yes. So you can graduate. On time.”

  “I’d rather come work for you.”

  “You already do.” After a fashion. She helped out in the kitchen for a few hours on Saturday mornings during the rush, scrubbing pots, loading and unloading the Hobart.

  “Out front?”

  “To be a waitress, you have to talk to people.”


  “That’s what they come in for, most of them. You can’t just drop plates down in front of customers and walk away. Especially the wrong plates.” Which she’d done when Ruth had let her wait on a table or two.

  Tina shrugged. “They just switch their plates.”

  “They shouldn’t have to.”

  Also you’d have to look people in the eye, Ruth thought, and was immediately ashamed. Whenever she allowed herself to contemplate her granddaughter’s future, it was always the physical disability she focused on, and that wasn’t remotely fair. It reminded her of that story kids still had to read in school, the one where the guy kills an old man because of his “vulture eye,” then chops him up and hides him beneath the floorboards. That’s what people wanted to do with abnormalities: put them somewhere out of sight. Under the floor or back in the steamy kitchen, where people wouldn’t have to see them. This sweet, slow girl? Hide her away so she won’t get hurt. Hide her well enough and long enough and maybe she won’t ask the question you don’t know how to answer: Who will ever want to love me?

  “I could bus tables.”

  “You want to clear people’s dirty dishes for the rest of your life?”

  “You do.”

  “Exactly. You want to end up like me?” Because wasn’t she herself an object lesson in how hard it was, even if you kept your wits about you, to arrive at the right place when you started out in the wrong one?

  “Besides,” Zack said, “if you work for Grandma, who’s going to be my helper?”

  Which she’d been, on weekends during the school year, and also summers and vacations, for the last several years. Together they made the rounds of local yard sales and flea markets. Mostly they were looking for broken small appliances that could be easily repaired if you knew how, but also for items people didn’t know the value of, which you could buy cheap and sell dear to the right buyer. For all the problems Tina had at school, she always remembered where her grandfather put things and would go fetch the item in question if someone expressed interest. Either that or she’d say, “You sold that last week, Grandpa. To the woman with the pink hair?” And she was always right.

  “I meant a paying job,” she told him now.

  “Hey, don’t I pay you?” Zack said. “What about the Tina Fund?” Each week he gave her a few bucks for spending money, but also made a contribution—he was pretty vague about how much—to what they’d originally designated as her college fund, until it became clear that college wasn’t in the cards.

  “How much is in it?”

  “That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” he told her, his standard kidding reply.

  “How can I find out, if you won’t tell me?”

  “You’re richer than you’d guess, is all I’m sayin’.”

  Ruth cleared her throat. “Does your mom know you’re staying with us tonight?”

  “She doesn’t care.”

  “Of course she does.”

  The girl shrugged.

  “She’s your mother. She loves you.”

  “She’s always yelling at me.”

  “That’s normal. When your mother was your age, she and I fought every day.”

  “You still fight every day.”

  “That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yeah,” Ruth said. “I am.”

  She wasn’t, though. Not really. In truth, the years of conflict with Janey had taken their toll. Now, with Roy back in the picture, it was even worse. That there was no end in sight to their bickering was beyond exhausting to contemplate. Gregory, her son, had been the smart one. He’d joined the military as soon as he was old enough and never came back. He called on Christmas from wherever he was living, but that was about it.

  “Am I going to see my dad soon?”

  Ruth wasn’t surprised by the question. In fact she’d been expecting it, but she still didn’t know how to answer. “Do you want to?”

  Again, the girl shrugged.

  “Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

  A third shrug.

  “You know what a restraining order is?”

  She nodded.

  “You know why your mother got one?”

  She nodded, so shrugs and nods were evidently synonyms. “I’m not supposed to let him in.”

  Ruth and Zack exchanged a glance.

  “If you want to see him, tell me. Or Grandpa. He can visit you here.”

  Her eye wandered off. After a minute she said, “Are you?”

  “Am I what?”

  “Fighting? You and Grandpa?”

  As usual, no transition. Follow the bouncing ball. “We’re trying to decide,” Ruth told her, offering Zack the kind of grudging half smile he could regard as a truce, if he chose to.

  Which he did. “She’s trying,” he told his granddaughter. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

  Ruth had to swallow hard at that. Had it been a decade? Pretty close. He was right, though, about not being much of a fighter. He’d made the mistake of confronting Sully once, early on, and though half his size Sully had backed him down.

  “It’s really hot in my room,” she said. “Can I have a fan?”

  “What’s wrong with the one in the window?”

  “It doesn’t work.”

  “Is it plugged in?” Ruth asked. Because while Tina might be smarter than people gave her credit for, she did often overlook the obvious.

  When the wayward eye wandered off in search of the answer, Zack said, “Why don’t we go check it out? If it’s broke, I got another in the shed.”

  After they were gone, Ruth let herself cry. She was drying her eyes on a dish towel when the phone rang. “Ma?”

  “You’re not supposed to call here, Roy,” she told him.

  “I didn’t know where else to call,” he said, “and that’s for true.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I’m out to the hospital.”

  Naturally, her first thought was Janey. He’d put her in there often enough before. What had happened this time? Had he waited out back of the restaurant? She always parked in the narrow space next to the Dumpster. Had he hidden behind it and surprised her there? Tried to sell her that line of happy horseshit about how he was a changed man, how the two of them belonged together, how their daughter, whom he’d never given a single, solitary thought to, deserved a father. Not that Janey was buying a word he said anymore, but she’d have to mouth off. And giving Roy lip was what always lit his short fuse. What had he done this time? Broken her jaw again? Or worse? Probably. So far, each act of violence was more awful than the last. Had he beaten her unconscious this time? Killed her? Was that what he was calling to tell her?

  “If you’ve hurt her, Roy, I swear to God—”

  “I’m the one that got hurt,” he said. “Busted collarbone. Left elbow’s all fucked up. Concussion.”

  Good, she thought. When news arrived that Roy was about to be released, Zack had found an old hairline-fractured Louisville Slugger at the landfill and given it to Janey to protect herself, should the need arise. Apparently she’d given it to him good.
“Well, you were warned to keep away from her,” she said.

  There was a pause, then, “Wasn’t Janey. A goddamn building fell on me, is what happened.”

  “That was you?” Jocko had come in for lunch and brought her up to speed on what happened out at the old mill, including the part about the passing motorist.

  “My car got totaled. That’s how come I need a lift.”

  “What about your girlfriend Cora? Call her.”

  “I tried. Must not be home.”

  Interesting, Ruth thought, that he didn’t deny she was his girlfriend this time, like he had only hours ago. “Hold on,” she told him. “I’ll find the number for a taxi.”

  “Got no money for one of them.”

  She was about to tell him that was too bad when she remembered what she said to Sully that morning, that she wished something would fall out of the sky on his pointed head. A prayer answered? Not exactly, she decided. Roy was still alive. “Okay,” she said, stifling as best she could a nasty chuckle. “Give me fifteen minutes.”

  “What’s so funny?”

  “Nothing,” she said. “It’s just that bad luck seems to follow you.”

  “That’s for true,” he agreed.

  Not Happy

  “PULL UP BESIDE that old man for a minute,” Raymer said when Jerome made the turn into the Morrison Arms parking lot. Seated in a folding aluminum beach chair on the sidewalk out front, Mr. Hynes was waving a small American flag at passing motorists, some of whom tooted an acknowledgment. Despite the punishing heat he was dressed in his usual threadbare long-sleeved flannel shirt and a ratty wool sweater. “How you doin’, Mr. Hynes?”

  “Fine, fine, fine,” was the reply Raymer had come to expect. To hear him tell it, he was never any other way.

  “How many varieties you got today?” Raymer asked, their long-running joke.

  “Fifty-seven,” Mr. Hynes said proudly, “same as always.”

  “That’s a lot of varieties.”

  “Don’t I know it. What you go and do to yourself?”

  “I fell into a grave.”

  “I believe it.”

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