Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “You do?”

  But he was looking past Raymer at Jerome, at the wheel of the ’Stang. “That a brother in there, driving this pretty red car?”

  “Say hi to Jerome,” Raymer told him, leaning back in his seat to afford the old man a better view.

  “Whoo-wee! They ain’t gon come repo that, is they?”

  “Over my dead body,” Jerome assured him. Raymer half expected him to unholster his pistol to demonstrate just how seriously he’d defend his rig. Fortunately, the weapon stayed out of sight.

  “Whoo-weee!” Mr. Hynes hooted again.

  “Power’s out at the Arms, then?” Raymer said.

  The old man nodded. “Black as night in there. Black as me. Blacker.”

  So much for the idea of a long afternoon nap, Raymer thought. His apartment, claustrophobic under the best of circumstances, would be a furnace without his small window-unit AC; even this exhausted, he doubted he’d be able to sleep in such stifling conditions. Across the street, though, the tippy martini glass in the window of Gert’s Tavern was illuminated, which meant that it either had power or a backup generator. Half of the regulars—mostly deadbeat dads, disability scam artists, derelicts and assorted dickheads—fell asleep with their heads on the bar. Maybe Raymer would be allowed to do the same.

  “Aren’t you hot, Mr. Hynes,” Raymer inquired, “sitting here in the sun? It’s over ninety degrees out.”

  “Yeah, but I’m over ninety my own self. Me and the heat, we cancels each other out.”

  “Okay, but you gotta promise me you’ll go find some shade if you start feeling light-headed. Heat like this is dangerous for an elderly person like yourself.”

  “You forget I come up from down south. Heat don’t mean nothin’ to me.” He was clearly more interested in the Mustang and its driver than Raymer’s advice. “What that set you back,” he asked, “that pretty red car?”

  “You don’t want to know,” Jerome told him, easing off the brake.

  “See, that’s where you wrong,” Mr. Hynes insisted. “I do want to know. That’s how come I ask.”

  —

  GERT’S WAS DARK and cool and smelled like it always did, of stale beer and overmatched urinal cakes. Not, for some reason, like the Great Bath Stench. Half-a-dozen solitary midafternoon drinkers were there when Raymer and Jerome walked in, but the sight of the police chief in the company of a tall black man with a bulge under his arm scattered them like oil on water. When the front door swung shut behind the last of them, Gert, an enormous man in his midseventies with a shaved head and a hairy chest, strolled over. He’d spent most of his youth in the joint, though for the last thirty years or so, since buying the tavern, he’d managed to stay out of trouble. Raymer had heard that he dispensed advice, along with rotgut whiskey and cheap beer, to the town’s petty criminals, who liked to run their nitwit schemes past him so Gert could point out their more obvious flaws.

  “Well, well,” he said, “look at you.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “You’re killing me here,” he said, nodding almost imperceptibly in Jerome’s direction. “You know that, right?”

  If Jerome registered the insult, he gave no sign. “Name’s Jerome,” he said, extending his hand across the bar; Gert looked surprised, but took it. “Are you the proprietor of this excellent establishment?”

  “I own the joint, if that’s what you mean,” Gert said.

  “Sir, you take my meaning perfectly.” He peered down the bar at the draft sticks. “Do you serve any microbrews?” Jerome’s usual watering hole was an upscale bar in Schuyler, whose screwball name for some reason eluded Raymer. Becka had dragged him there a couple times.

  “What-oh-brews?” Gert said.

  “All righty, then,” Jerome sighed, squinting at the sticks. “A Twelve Horse ale, if you would.”

  Raymer said he’d have the same, and when Gert went off to draw their beers, he volunteered, much to his surprise, “I’m thinking about resigning.” He hadn’t planned to say anything of the sort. Certainly not to Jerome, who would rat him out to Charice. And certainly not in Gert’s, where such an announcement could circulate widely.

  “You’re just having a bad day,” Jerome consoled him.

  “They’re all bad,” he replied. “Today’s especially bad, but every last one of them sucks.”

  “You’re conflating two issues—your job and your grief.”

  “Conflating,” Raymer said. “Isn’t that like giving a blow job?”

  Jerome thought for a moment. “That’s fellating.”

  “Oh.”

  “You need to let her go,” Jerome continued. “Losing that garage-door opener? Best thing that ever could’ve happened.”

  Out at Hilldale, Raymer had told Jerome about the device that now lay at the bottom of Judge Flatt’s grave and how losing it meant he’d never know who Becka had been about to run off with when she came down those stairs like a Slinky.

  Gert set two full glasses in front of them and then, recognizing that his participation in this conversation wasn’t required, retreated the length of the bar and disappeared behind the racing form.

  Raymer drained off about a third of his beer, half expecting his head to detonate from its coldness, but it didn’t. In fact, he could feel the thrumming pain, which four extra-strength Tylenols hadn’t yet touched, begin to recede from right behind his eyes to somewhere deeper in his damaged skull, taking with it the worst of his exhaustion. Maybe sleep wasn’t what he needed after all. Maybe he just needed to get very drunk. Which could be accomplished, he knew from experience, on about three beers. “Oh, yeah,” he gasped, staring at the bubbles, thousands of them, magically appearing at the bottom of the glass and sprinting up to the surface. “This…this is wonderful.”

  “This,” said Jerome, who’d also taken a drink and was making a face, “is horsepiss. I bet all twelve horses peed in this beer and they all had urinary infections.”

  From down the bar and behind the racing form came a discernible grunt.

  Raymer took off his dark glasses and studied Jerome. “God, you’re a snob,” he said.

  Jerome winced at the sight of Raymer’s face, his eyes swollen to slits. “Please put those back on. You know I’ve got a weak stomach.”

  He put the glasses back on. “Okay, but don’t tell me I need to let Becka go,” he said. “You’ve never been married. You’re always dating three girls at a time. You lose one, you’ve got two spares. Plus they’re mostly college girls. Interchangeable. Same exact girl, different major.” According to Jerome, he dated only girls from the college’s three small graduate programs, but Raymer had his doubts. Most of the female population was from the city, and their views regarding tall, handsome black men were on the liberal side. By his own admission Jerome had to beat them off with a stick, though there had to be times, Raymer suspected, when no stick was handy.

  “Yeah, but summer is my slow season. The campus is practically deserted.”

  “Whereas Becka was a woman.”

  “I know that,” Jerome said, sounding surprisingly serious.

  “And please don’t tell me fainting into that grave, breaking my face and losing that garage remote was the best thing that could’ve happened, because that’s just plain insulting.”

  Jerome was fidgety. “You sure the ’Stang’s all right out back?”

  Godalmighty. Despite the blistering heat, he’d carefully put the top up, then double-checked to make sure both doors were securely locked—a car nerd if there ever was one. “Well, you took up two spaces,” said Raymer, who nonetheless wasn’t at all sure it would be okay. The parking lot behind Gert’s was second only to the Morrison Arms in terms of generating calls to the police station. “Only assholes do that, by the way.”

  “Spoken like a man who drives a Jetta and drinks Genesee.”

  Raymer took another long drag of beer and closed his eyes, tracking the fluid down the back of his throat and into his chest. Lord, it tasted good. Becka had preferred
wine, so he’d mostly just gone along. But how the hell had he forgotten beer? He needed nothing else, he decided. Not sleep, not riches, not a woman. Just beer and this cool dark room. He certainly didn’t need Jerome telling him why he should be enjoying anything else. “If you’re so worried about the car, go outside and stand guard. In fact, why don’t you go back to Schuyler and drink microswill at Adfinitum.”

  “Infinity,” Jerome corrected him.

  “Right,” Raymer said, now remembering the posh sign. No words, just the symbol, a drunken 8 lying on its side. “Go there. Because I intend to sit right here and drink horsepiss until the power comes back on across the street. Maybe a little longer.”

  “See, this is what I’m talking about,” Jerome said. “All this shit’s related. You’ve heard of chaos theory? A butterfly flaps its wings in South America and that causes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico?”

  “Connect the dots and win a prize.”

  “You’re depressed. That’s the problem. You live in a rathole like the Moribund Arms because you’re still grieving. Worse, you punish yourself by drinking cheap beer in a sleazy dive that smells like the locker room of a metropolitan YMCA.”

  From behind the racing form came another grunt.

  “You think your job’s the problem, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

  Raymer finished his beer and clunked the glass down on the bar loud enough to signal that he was in need of another, but when Gert didn’t budge, he slid off his stool and said, “I gotta pee.”

  “Urinate,” Jerome said. “Women pee. Men urinate.”

  “And defecate.”

  “Correct.”

  The men’s room was only fifty feet away, though it was all Raymer could do to make it there, and he arrived too tired to pee standing up. There was no door on the stall, and the toilet seat was beyond disgusting, but he sat down anyway. This release was nearly as thrilling as that first long swig of beer had been. Life’s simple pleasures, he thought, the phrase materializing, ready-made, in his brain. He needed to pay more attention to these pleasures. He wasn’t even finished peeing before he fell asleep on the commode, then jolted awake again. How much time had passed? Had he already started dreaming? About Becka? He stood, hitched up his pants, washed his hands in the filthy sink and then dried them on his pants, the towel dispenser empty, naturally. There was only one word for the face that stared back at him from the cracked, cloudy mirror: gruesome.

  When Raymer emerged, Jerome was right where he’d left him, which suggested he couldn’t have napped for more than a minute or two. “The thing is,” he told Jerome, recalling their aborted conversation, “you can’t even keep your bullshit straight.” His glass was still empty, so he went behind the bar. “First you say it’s all related, then you tell me that my job’s got nothing to do with my depression. So which is it?” Before Jerome could answer, he called down the bar. “I’m drawing myself another beer, Gert.”

  “Help yourself,” came the reply from behind the racing form. “You already drove out all my customers. Empty the till while you’re at it. Put me out of my misery.”

  “It’s not bad enough,” Raymer continued to Jerome, “I have to hear this same shit all day long from your sister—”

  “You’re a good cop, is what I’m saying,” Jerome interrupted, serious again. “Like with that old gentleman across the street. All day long he sits out there on the sidewalk waving his little flag. Every now and then somebody honks. But you stopped to talk to him. That might be the only human contact he’ll have all day.”

  “That’s social work,” Raymer countered. He knew Jerome was trying to pay him a compliment, but for some reason he wasn’t in the mood to accept any. “The police solve crimes. Prevent crimes. Apprehend criminals.”

  “Police work is giving a shit.”

  “So what’re you saying?” Raymer asked. “Because I don’t want a lonely old man to die of heat stroke, that makes me a good cop?”

  “Don’t resign, is what I’m saying. If you do, you’ll be sorry, is what I’m saying.”

  From down the bar, now, a chuckle.

  “Gert,” Raymer called. “What do I owe you?”

  “It’s on the house.”

  “Nope.”

  “Two bucks, then. Call it happy hour.”

  He took two dollars out of his wallet. “I’m putting it here on the register.”

  There came a genial snort. “A cop paying for a beer? The end-times approach.”

  Raymer ignored him. Heading back around the bar, he noticed one of the business cards he’d had printed up special for the last election, wedged into the corner of the mirror along the backbar. Yellowing, curled at the edges and covered with fingerprints, it had to have been there a good year. He tossed it onto the bar in front of Jerome. “Read this and tell me I’m not a joke cop.”

  “Douglas Raymer, Chief of Police,” Jerome read. “We’re not happy until you’re happy.”

  Gert rose from his stool and headed for the restroom, his shoulders shaking.

  “Read it again,” Raymer suggested, sliding back onto his stool.

  “We’re not happy until…” Jerome’s voice trailed off. “Huh,” he said squinting at the card. “We’re not happy—”

  “Until you’re not happy,” Raymer finished.

  The card had been the mayor’s idea, something to hand out to voters in the run-up to the election. Raymer’s first impulse had been to keep it simple, Douglas Raymer, Chief of Police in raised lettering, but Gus had objected, reminding him that this was a political campaign; it wasn’t enough to just announce his existence. “Tell people who you are and what you stand for,” he advised. “Your vision-for-the-police-department sort of deal.” Raymer supposed he understood what Gus was getting at, but really? Tell people who he was? (Everyone knew him.) What he stood for? (He stood for something?) His vision for the department? (What did that even mean?) And cram all this on a business card?

  “Something catchy,” Gus explained, sensing his misgivings.

  So. A motto, then. He’d come up with several, running each one by Charice, who wrote poetry when the switchboard was slow and had what her brother called sound literary judgment. Here to serve was his first effort, which Charice liked well enough, though under cross-examination she admitted it sounded a little, well, servile. Serve and protect also sounded good, but they both worried the phrase was already copyrighted by some larger, more important police force. On the front lines, they agreed, represented the worst of both worlds, sounding both fearful and belligerent. “Try for something more friendly,” Charice suggested.

  In the end it came down to a toss-up: We’re not happy until you’re happy and If you’re not happy we’re not happy. Charice liked both and saved him some embarrassment by reminding him that “your” wasn’t the same as “you’re” and adding the necessary apostrophes. “They both say the same thing,” Charice said when he pressed for her favorite. “Just pick one.” So he’d scribbled his choice down and dropped it off at the printer.

  He’d passed out about fifty cards before somebody pointed out that the motto printed beneath his name didn’t look right: We’re not happy until you’re not happy, it said. Raymer stared at it, at first unable to see anything wrong. But wait. There was an extra “not.” How had that happened? He called the printer immediately, hoping there’d be cause for righteous indignation but already fearing that it was he, not they, who’d screwed up. “I got what you gave us right here,” the girl told him over the phone. “It says We’re not happy until you’re not happy.” Somehow, he’d managed to merge the two slogans. But hadn’t it looked wrong? Raymer asked. Couldn’t they see it was the exact opposite of what he’d meant to say? This of course was the same argument he’d given Miss Beryl back in eighth grade, and she’d always reminded him that it wasn’t her job to decipher what he meant. It was his job to say what he meant. The girl at the printer’s expressed much the same opinion. No doubt she understood the rhetorical triangle
as well.

  Raymer had managed to repossess most of the cards, but the damage was done. The ones still in circulation either became collectors’ items or were put on public view, like kited checks, in businesses like the White Horse Tavern and Hattie’s Lunch. There was even a rumor the gaffe had been reprinted in The New Yorker, though Raymer doubted that. As far as he knew that magazine wasn’t even sold in Bath, so how would anybody have seen it? Regardless, the local humiliation had been full and sufficient. For weeks people stopped him on the street to inquire if he was happy. Charice encouraged him to just laugh along with the joke. “Say, ‘Not until you’re not,’ ” she advised, but asking him to pull off a double negative under rhetorical duress was like expecting him to perform a triple lutz under Olympic klieg lights. Better to surreptitiously confiscate the cards whenever he ran across them.

  The problem was that the damn things kept turning up, reposted as soon as Raymer stole them. How many of the damn things had he handed out? Fifty or sixty at the outside, but he’d recovered at least that many, probably more. Had somebody ordered a second printing? That was just the sort of thing his old nemesis Donald Sullivan would do. Unfortunately, he lacked proof, and without it Raymer couldn’t bring himself to accuse the man, just as he’d never publicly accused him of stealing not one but three expensive wheel boots. No wonder, earlier in the day, when Charice told him he’d be pleased to learn who the mill’s wall had fallen on, he’d thought of Sully right off.

  When Raymer finished relating the whole sorry saga, Jerome’s rigid expression was that of a man desperately trying to move a constipated bowel. “It’s okay,” Raymer said. “Go ahead.”

  Permission granted, Jerome exploded into laughter so violent that he had all he could do to remain atop his barstool. For Raymer, it was alarming to see a man as tightly wound as Jerome, one so committed to self-control, lose himself so utterly. “We’re not happy until you’re not happy,” he croaked, tears streaming now. “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

  “Great,” Raymer said. “Enjoy yourself.”

  “Oh, come on,” he said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve, “You do have to admit that’s funny.”

 
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