Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “Laugh, I thought I’d die,” Raymer said, straight-faced. “I’m surprised Charice didn’t tell you all about it back when it happened.”

  The mention of his sister seemed to be just what Jerome needed to regain his composure. “The thing you don’t realize about Charice is that the woman is completely devoted to you, man.”

  The door to the men’s room opened, and Gert emerged, eyes down. Climbing back onto his stool, though, he made the mistake of looking up, and the mere sight of Raymer was enough to send him scurrying back to the men’s room.

  “Jerome,” Raymer said, “not a day goes by that your sister doesn’t threaten to sue me. She’s keeping a list of all the actionable things I do and say. If I resigned, she’d do the happy dance on the station steps.”

  “You could not be more incorrect,” Jerome said, with startling gravity after so much hilarity. “You underestimate her. Keeping her back at the station when she should be out on the street. She can think rings around Miller.”

  “That’s damning with faint praise,” Raymer said. “Anyway, my point is she thinks I’m a fool.”

  “You are a fool,” Jerome said, again surprising him. “So am I. So’s just about everybody we know, dude. I mean, look around. Who’s not a damn fool most of the time?”

  “Yeah,” Raymer said, “but there’s a difference between being a fool and looking like one.” From inside the men’s room came more strangled laughter. “Look, I know you’re a fool, Jerome. You don’t have to convince me of that. You’re in love with a fucking car.”

  At this Jerome’s eyes narrowed, as if Raymer had crossed a very serious line.

  “But still, people don’t laugh at you.”

  “That’s because I refuse to tolerate disrespectful behavior. I dress well. I speak well. I have excellent posture. I’ve got a great apartment. I drive the ’Stang. People take one look at me and decide to fuck with somebody else. And of course I’m armed. People do respect that, especially in a Negro male.”

  “Yeah, but this is exactly what I’m talking about,” Raymer insisted. The second beer was kicking in, and he felt a terrible drunken urgency to make Jerome understand. “I’m armed, too. Maybe I don’t take my gun out and wave it around like some people, but it’s right here on my hip where everybody can see it. In all the years I’ve been a cop, I’ve unholstered my weapon only once, and the man I pointed it at coldcocked me. I might as well have been holding a Q-tip. Don’t tell me shit like that happens to a man whose true destiny is police work.”

  “Doug,” Jerome said, “people voted for you. Okay, maybe they’ve had some fun at your expense, but they voted for you, man.”

  “They were probably thinking of all the crimes they could commit,” he said miserably. “Things I’d never get to the bottom of. If I found any evidence against them, I’d lose it.”

  “Only in your imagination—which I have to say is deeply weird—was that garage-door remote evidence of anything.”

  Raymer took a deep breath, the way you do before saying or doing something you know better than to say or do. “Tell me something. Why do you think she married me in the first place?”

  “Beats me,” Jerome said, as if he’d already given the matter a lot of thought and felt no need to hesitate at all.

  “Thanks.”

  “Dude. You’re seeking a rational explanation for an irrational behavior. Why do people fall in love? Nobody knows. They just do.”

  Raymer had heard this opinion voiced more than once, but was it true? He knew exactly why he’d fallen in love. Becka was beautiful and sexy and clearly out of his league. He supposed, in hindsight, that last attribute should have been a red flag. It might’ve been a good idea to ask what she saw in him that other women had been so completely blind to. But who, confronted with such good fortune, asks sensible questions? If a girl like Becka wanted you, you’d be an idiot not to want her back, wouldn’t you?

  “But…you were surprised, right?” Raymer said, recalling Jerome’s reaction when he first introduced him to Becka. “Admit it. You thought, Wow! This woman’s going to marry Raymer?”

  Jerome shrugged. “Sure. That’s correct.”

  “Thanks again.” Dejected, he rose and went back around the bar. “Gert,” he called. “I’m drawing myself another beer.”

  This produced a muffled grunt of acknowledgment, so he laid another two bucks on the bar.

  “Okay, I was surprised,” said Jerome when he returned, “but you’re imagining things. I didn’t think she was too good for you…not exactly.”

  “No, not exactly.”

  “It was more like…”

  Raymer waited for him to split the hair he was squinting at in his mind’s eye.

  “It’s more like you two weren’t interested in the same things. I mean, Becka liked to work out and listen to jazz and read and travel and drink good wine and dance and—”

  “Stop.”

  “What?”

  “You’re just rephrasing my original question in a way that makes me feel even worse.”

  “But she married you. She must’ve seen something she liked. Same with your job. People voted for you. They saw something, too.”

  “You said the two weren’t related.”

  Jerome sighed. “I was wrong about that. They’re related, okay? Satisfied now?”

  From behind the racing form, Gert grumbled, “I voted for you.”

  Gert voted? “Seriously?” Raymer said. “Why?”

  “I don’t recall,” he said. “But I did.”

  Now Raymer sighed again, unsure how to feel. He scrolled back through the conversation, troubled by something Jerome had said. “Becka liked to dance?”

  Jerome made a face. If he knew this, Raymer should’ve known, too, was the point intended. Toward the end Becka’s primary grievance was his inattention, his knack for missing things that were “right in front of his face,” like that extra “not,” things he’d see plainly if he just opened his eyes. Including, apparently, her unhappiness. So yes, his failures as a husband did dovetail neatly with his failings as a policeman. Of course they were related.

  “I should’ve danced with her,” he said, the very idea sending a new wave of despair coursing through him. Because she really was a good dancer, sensual and provocative in the movement of her hips, always just a little slower than the music seemed to call for. He could practically see it now, like a video playing in front of him.

  “Do you even know how to dance?” Jerome wondered.

  “I could’ve learned.”

  Jerome looked doubtful. “Stop punishing yourself. Bottom line? You weren’t rich, so it must’ve been love. It just didn’t last.”

  “Yeah, but why not? It’s not like I changed. I didn’t trick her. Right to the end, I was the same guy she married.”

  “Maybe that’s it. Maybe she wanted you to change. Grow. Try new things. Expand your horizons.”

  “She was my horizon. I was supposed to be her horizon.”

  “That’s asking a lot.”

  “No, she found a new horizon instead, and now I’ll never find out who he was.” Three beers. Every time. Just like clockwork. Drunk, maudlin, pathetic. “If I knew who this horizon was, maybe I’d know what was wrong with me, horizon-wise. Suppose I meet somebody new? How do I keep from doing the same thing and losing her, too.”

  “Maybe it was something you didn’t do.”

  “Like what?”

  “I’m the wrong person to ask.”

  “The right one’s dead.”

  “Ask Charice, then.”

  “How would she know?”

  Jerome shrugged. “She’s a woman?”

  “Chief?” said Charice at that very instant, her voice startlingly near on the radio. For a moment it felt to Raymer as if she’d been privy to their entire conversation and had finally decided to add her two cents’ worth. “Are you at the Arms? Because you need to get out of there.”

  “I’m across the street.”

 
A moment of confused silence, and then: “The only thing across the street from the Morrison Arms is Gert’s.”

  “That’s where we are.”

  “We?”

  “Jerome and me.”

  “My brother is at Gert’s Tavern? With the lowlifes and scumbags and derelicts? That Gert’s?”

  “The mouth on that chippie,” Gert grumbled from down the bar.

  “Why would I have to get out of the Arms?”

  “There’s a cobra loose.”

  “A cobra? Like…from India?”

  “Right.”

  “So what’s a cobra doing in upstate New York?”

  “Evidently one of your fellow residents sells exotic reptiles.”

  “Who?”

  “Don’t have the gentleman’s name just yet, Chief.”

  “But selling poisonous snakes is—”

  “Illegal, yes.”

  Actually, insane was what he was going to say.

  “It seems that one of the cages got knocked over in the dark, and the snake escaped. It chased him down the corridor and out into the street.”

  “Good,” Raymer said.

  “I need to use the gents’,” Jerome said, sliding off his stool.

  Puzzled by his abrupt exit, Raymer watched him go. “Okay,” he told Charice, “here’s what you do. Get on the horn with animal control—”

  “Already did. They’re on the way.”

  “So am I.”

  “How about I put Miller on the desk and join you.”

  “No,” Raymer told her. “I need you there.”

  “Chief?” she said. “I ever tell you about the tattoo on my ass?”

  “No, Charice. That I would’ve remembered.”

  “Butterfly. Tiny little thing. If you don’t let me out from behind this switchboard, it’s gonna be a pterodactyl by the time I’m forty.”

  Then she was gone, the radio silent. I am not, Raymer thought, heading for the door, going to think about the butterfly on Charice’s ass. I will not.

  “Funny gal,” said Gert, lowering his paper at last. “I just remembered why I voted for you.”

  “And?”

  “You seemed sort of…” He was clearly groping for the right word. “Normal.”

  Raymer nodded. “Normal?”

  “Yeah, sort of,” Gert repeated, shrugging. “Rare in law enforcement. In my experience.”

  Stepping outside was like being bludgeoned, by the heat and stench and blinding sunlight. Raymer paused to let his eyes adjust. He wobbled, then righted himself. Across the street a crowd was milling around in front of the Morrison Arms, many of them residents Raymer recognized. These were his neighbors, he reflected, and while he didn’t like to be unkind, they were not attractive people on the whole. He’d known several of them since grade school, and they hadn’t looked too good back then either. Amazing, when you thought about it, how much of human destiny was mapped out by the third grade. A man wearing a neck brace, with his right arm crooked in a sling, caught his attention because he, too, looked familiar. When their eyes met, the man quickly turned away, and in this furtive gesture Raymer recognized Roy Purdy, who only hours ago had been pulled from his flattened car by a Jaws of Life machine. Was it possible he’d already gotten treated and been released from the hospital?

  Raymer was about to cross the street when he heard the door open behind him. “I think I’m just going to head on back to Schuyler,” Jerome said. Tone-wise, he seemed to be trying for nonchalance, but it didn’t ring quite true. And though he’d had just the one beer, he didn’t look right, either.

  “Jerome?” Raymer said, visited by a sudden intuition. “Are you scared of snakes?”

  “Me?” he said, then waited a beat. “Nah.”

  “Because you look kind of—”

  “Some snakes, sure,” he grudgingly admitted. “I mean…”

  “What?”

  “Look,” he said, clearly annoyed he had to explain himself. “There are three things a snake shouldn’t be able to do. It shouldn’t swim. It shouldn’t climb trees. And it sure as hell shouldn’t stand up like a vertebrate.” He actually looked relieved, having gotten all this off his chest.

  “I think cobras can do only one of those things,” Raymer noted.

  “One’s enough,” Jerome said, refusing to look him in the face. “Go ahead and laugh,” he finally said. “I don’t care.”

  “I’m not laughing,” Raymer said. “I’m just…I don’t know…surprised, I guess. I always figured you were—”

  “Brave? I would follow you into a hail of gunfire, brother, but I don’t do serpents. Sorry.”

  “Chief?” his sister chirped from Raymer’s hip.

  “What now, Charice? I’m kind of busy here.”

  “Jerome still with you?”

  Jerome shook his head.

  “No, he’s headed back to Schuyler. Why?”

  “Just wanted you to know you can’t count on him for backup. That boy’s petrified of garter snakes.”

  Not true, he mouthed. Unconvincingly, given the speed at which he was backpedaling.

  “I’ve got this, Charice.”

  Though in truth, he was no great fan of reptiles himself. He was glad he had a snootful of Twelve Horse ale, which, combined with the rush of seeing Jerome unexpectedly fearstruck, gave him the necessary courage to turn back to the Morrison Arms and step into the street, though the immediate result was a blaring horn and screeching tires as the Schuyler County Animal Control van came to a rocking halt only inches away, sending him up onto his tiptoes.

  The driver appeared to be in his midtwenties, and when he poked his head out the window, he looked vaguely familiar. “That was close,” he said. “I’m Justin. We met last year?”

  Though the danger had passed, Raymer stepped back onto the curb, his heart pounding.

  “I hear this right?” Justin said, sounding skeptical. “A cobra?”

  “That’s my understanding.”

  The young man nodded thoughtfully. “And me without my mongoose.”

  Raymer followed the van across the street as Justin parked as far away from the crowd as possible, then hopped out and pulled from the back a long pole with a wire noose at the end. For some reason its length deepened Raymer’s already serious misgivings. He wished there’d been time for one more beer. “Just how lethal are these things?”

  Justin seemed disinterested. “Do me a favor,” he said, stepping into thick canvas pants that looked like waders. “Go ask those people where the snake was last seen.”

  Before Raymer could do so, though, there came a shriek he’d never heard outside a movie theater, so high pitched that he couldn’t tell whether it was male or female. But what really made no sense was that it wasn’t from inside the Morrison Arms, where the snake supposedly was, but rather from the direction of Gert’s. He froze for a moment as the scream morphed into a terrible keening, then found himself chugging back across the street, once again setting horns blaring and tires screeching. In his peripheral vision he saw Mr. Hynes, flag in hand, struggling to his feet and tipping his beach chair over in the process. And what was that expression he fleetingly glimpsed on Roy Purdy’s bruised, swollen face? A smirk? But there was no time to dwell on such irrelevancies. Because it suddenly came to Raymer who the screamer had to be.

  Raymer found Jerome on his knees in the parking lot, staring straight ahead, slack jawed, unresponsive, and he squatted down next to him. “Where did it bite you?” he said.

  Because as he hurried back across the street a narrative had formed. The cobra, frightened by the noisy crowd, had somehow slithered across the busy two-lane blacktop, probably in search of a hiding place. Had Jerome left one of the ’Stang’s vent windows cracked, or could the serpent have crawled up under the chassis and—

  “Bite me?” he said, still staring off into the middle distance before turning his focus on Raymer. “You bite me.”

  Raymer wrote this bizarre response off to the snake’s venom and told
him, “Don’t worry. It’s gone.” Which was true: no snake was in evidence. Nor was there any sign of snakebite on Jerome’s face or neck or hands. Dear God, had it slithered up Jerome’s pant leg? No way. Jerome wouldn’t be calmly kneeling there with a cobra sliding around in his trousers. Unless the venom had induced more or less instant paralysis. “Jerome,” he said. “Look at me. Where did it bite you?”

  “The ’Stang,” he said, pointing at his car.

  “The snake’s in there?” Raymer said, pleased to have his original narrative confirmed. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad cop after all. He just needed to trust his intuitions. Except Jerome was now regarding him like he was some Asperger’s patient introducing a random subject into a normal conversation. As if snakes had no bearing upon these proceedings at all.

  “There,” he said, his face a rigid mask of revulsion and also, unless Raymer was mistaken, sheer rage. Sighting along Jerome’s index finger, he patiently waited for the snake to make its next move and reveal itself. Why the hell couldn’t he see it? The vehicle sat on a slant, just as they’d left it, athwart two spaces. Except now, he noticed, the bright red paint bore a deep silver furrow that ran the length of the car.

  He stood up and went over for a closer look, approaching cautiously, since his mind was still fixed on the cobra. There was an identical gash along the other side, and the cloth roof was in tatters. When he bent over to peer inside, he was greeted with a powerful scent of urine. Swatches of foam stuffing had exploded out of the slashed leather seats.

  Jerome was still on his knees, glaring at him now. “The ’Stang,” he muttered. “Why?” As if Raymer owed him an explanation.

  “Who knows…,” he started, but when he put a hand on his shoulder, Jerome slapped it away with surprising violence and snapped, “You crazy bastard.” Was it possible that he was somehow blaming him? “I should’ve known,” he said. “You were in there too long.”

  “In where?”

  “The men’s room.”

  Was the man insane? “Jerome,” he said, “why would I want to damage your car?”

  “Why would I want to damage your car?” he mimicked, as if there was a reason and they both knew perfectly well what it was.

 
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