Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

Raymer gave up trying to figure it all out. Maybe Jerome wasn’t snakebit, but he seemed to have surrendered his rationality completely. “Look,” he said, “I can’t stand here and reason with you. I’ve gotta go find that snake.” (It was unlikely, it occurred to him, that he’d ever again have reason to utter these two statements sequentially.)

  “I hope it sinks its fangs right in your buttocks,” Jerome said.

  “You mean bites me in the ass?”

  “You take my meaning perfectly.”

  Heading back to the Morrison Arms, Raymer again called Charice on the radio. “Come see to your brother.”

  “I thought you said he’d gone back to Schuyler.”

  “Somebody vandalized the ’Stang,” he explained. “Don’t ask me why, but he’s got it into his head that I did it.”

  “Uh-oh,” she said. “I’ll be right there.”

  For some reason this assurance occasioned in Raymer an unexpected wave of relief. Which was beyond nuts. He was drunk on duty and his headache had returned with a vengeance and he was about to confront a venomous reptile. What possible difference could it make that Charice was on her way? And why, he wondered, did he at this particular moment find himself picturing the butterfly tattooed on her backside? Hadn’t he expressly forbidden himself to do this very thing? Okay, so the brain was a strange, unruly organ. His own probably stranger than most. Though not, thankfully, as strange as Jerome’s. Something about Charice’s reaction a moment ago suggested she wasn’t entirely surprised by her brother’s irrationality. He made a mental note to ask her about that.

  At the curb he paused, looked in both directions, and then, because it was, at least for the time being, still his job to serve and protect, he moved forward.

  Impulse

  HANGING UP the pay phone in the hospital lobby, Roy Purdy went outside to wait for his mother-in-law in the bruising heat, his neck immobilized in a stiff brace, one arm in a sling. He was in better spirits than might’ve been predicted for someone who’d just escaped a freakish death. Some people might have been chastened by the experience, or at least unnerved enough to seriously contemplate their mortality. A religious man might even have considered the possibility that God had hand-delivered him a warning: that his act needed cleaning up right quick, before the real boom got lowered.

  Roy, however, was neither religious nor easily chastened. If any deity meant to communicate with him, it would need to speak louder and more clearly. Because if a person was to attach meaning to that collapsing wall, might not he conclude just as sensibly that God, or luck, or the cosmos, or whatever was out there deciding shit, was disposed in his favor? Maybe even had his back? Had his best interests at heart? His mouthy mother-in-law had expressed the view that bad luck trailed him, but then she’d always held him in low esteem, so naturally she’d think so. But no, sir. The more Roy thought about it, the more inclined he was to agree with the hospital staff, which to a person had marveled at his good fortune. Not only was he alive when he could’ve been dead, but there was every indication he was going to come out of this smelling like the proverbial rose. According to the ER doctors, he’d be good as new in no time. Meanwhile, he’d find himself a lawyer willing to work on spec and sue everybody connected with that renovation, as well as the whole town. At the very least he’d end up with a new vehicle to replace the piece-of-shit beater the wall had pancaked. Add to this his pain and suffering. Who knew? There might be a huge pile of cash waiting for him. Better yet, the pretense of looking for work could now be safely dispensed with. He’d be on the workmen’s-comp gravy train for the foreseeable future, living the life of Riley, whoever the fuck he was. Maybe he’d find out. See if he could do ole Riley boy one better.

  Moreover, though painful, the present was almost as gratifying to contemplate as the future. Everything in the ER was free. The bastards had known it was going to be, too, the moment he was wheeled in. The woman who’d typed his information into her computer had given him the hairy eyeball. No insurance. No job. No prospects. Residing at the Morrison Arms. Sure as shit, somebody else would be picking up the tab on this one. That did Roy’s heart good. Hell, they hadn’t even charged him for the pain pills. They were good ones, too, the kind he’d be able to sell for top dollar, not that generic shit. Yessiree, a man inclined to look on the bright side—and Roy was one—had plenty to look at. Nobody wanted a fractured collarbone, but once you had one, why not make it to your advantage? Sure, it represented a short-term setback. For the next few weeks he’d be a sore motherfucker with a limited range of motion from the shoulders up, but maybe that was a blessing in disguise. He’d been of a mind to start crossing names off his list but, really, where was the hurry? Cooling his jets and thinking things through might not be such a bad idea.

  Say what you want about the joint, incarceration did afford you time to reflect. On Roy’s most recent stay, working in the prison laundry, he’d come to recognize—with the help of a grizzled old con by the name of Bullwhip—that he had a problem with impulse control. Oh, Roy was capable of sound, careful planning, but then he’d glimpse an unexpected opportunity and all his preparation would sail right out the window. Next thing he knew he was being cuffed and shoved into the backseat of a squad car. “Impulse control,” Bullwhip assured him knowingly. “I know whereof I speak. You and me’s cut from the same bolt of cloth.” Normally Roy didn’t like anybody identifying flaws in his character, but Bullwhip appeared so sorrowful and sympathetic that he decided to give the man a pass. Because even Roy had to admit there was some truth in the man’s reluctant diagnosis. If Roy continued to allow himself the luxury of acting on every passing whim, the best he could hope for was to square up with one or two people on his list, whereas he was determined to get even with every single one of them. And Bullwhip was right. That was going to require patience.

  From his shirt pocket he took the small spiral notebook he always kept handy and thumbed it open to the most recent entry, five names in all. At the restaurant he’d told that asshole Sully he kept two lists—people he owed and people who owed him—but in fact there was just the one. No need to keep track of the second batch. He couldn’t think of a single soul who’d be on it. Sure, his mother-in-law was coming to give him a lift back into town and, yeah, she gave him a cup of coffee and a shitty pastry every now and then, but she’d taken far more from Roy than she’d ever given him. He couldn’t name what she’d robbed him of exactly, but it was something essential, something a man couldn’t do without. By holding him in such low regard, she’d shortchanged him, and wasn’t that thievery? If you were lucky enough to have a good opinion of yourself—which Roy did—and everybody else was forever undermining it, saying things that chipped away at your confidence, how was that not theft? When he was a boy, his father had warned him how it would go. If you had something good, you could be sure some fuckwad would be eyeing it, trying to figure out how to take it away from you. And if they did make off with it, what choice did you have but to take it back? To get even? His old man hadn’t been worth much, but he got that right. If Roy was a thief—and yeah, okay, he was a thief—who’d made him one? All those jerk-offs, that’s who.

  No, payback was the only list Roy kept. In the old days, back before he met Bullwhip, it had seemed like everybody he ever met was on it, or should be, but anymore it was short enough to keep in his head. He preferred this shit in writing, though. That was another trick he’d learned from old Bullwhip, who’d been a list-making fool. Write down every last name, he’d advised him. See if that don’t make the person more real. Written-down names, he explained, were a hedge against weakness, against time itself, which would, as the saying goes, heal all fucking wounds. It also led to forgiveness, which Roy wanted no part of. In jail, where time was about all you had, Roy went through a good half-dozen notebooks of forty-five pages each, front and back, five to seven names per page, depending. People whose future suffering he was passionately committed to. Usually the same names, only their sequence subject to revision.
When he got out two weeks ago—early, thanks to institutional overcrowding—the first thing he did was steal a new spiral notebook from the Rexall, and he’d spent part of every day since studying and revising his lists to ensure that his incarcerated thinking had been valid, and for the most part he was gratified to conclude that it was. The final entry, composed that very morning, read:

  BITCH

  MAMA BITCH

  NIGGER COP

  SULLY

  OLD WOMAN

  Okay, that last entry did give him pause. This was the old woman’s first appearance, and he’d put her there on a whim. He’d seen her picture in the newspaper and read that the middle school was going to be renamed in her honor this very weekend. For Roy, she raised an interesting philosophical issue: could you settle a score with a dead person? The same problem had come up before in connection with his old man. “I thought you told me he was dead,” Bullwhip objected when Roy brought the matter up. You couldn’t square up with a dead person, Bullwhip maintained, for the simple reason that the dead were past fucking with. That’s what dead really meant, if you thought about it. Beyond caring. At rest. Roy supposed he could see the other man’s point. After all, many of his own most satisfying score-settling fantasies involved putting people in the ground, so if that’s where they were already, why bother? On the other hand, dead people could prosper. Look at Elvis. Earning more money dead than he ever did alive. People loved him more now than before. Same with the old woman. She’d been buried in Hilldale for nearly a decade, but people still remembered her letters to the editor, and the paper had reprinted some of these. Miss Beryl, the article concluded, is still very much with us.

  Roy’s initial reaction had been that this was total bullshit, but the longer he thought about it, the more he wondered. What if some part of a person remained after they died, refusing to quit the scene? Like in that movie Janey dragged him to, the one with that sexy white bitch and the bigmouthed black one and the faggot with all the hair. What if some essence of the old woman lingered, still attached to this person or that place, still trying to improve everybody’s grammar and get them to see things her own stupid way. If so, then didn’t it stand to reason that she’d be disappointed when her hopes were finally dashed?

  He also thought having her on the list rounded things out. He liked the symmetry of a five-person list and also liked that she was connected to three of the others. For some reason Sully had been a favorite of hers, and once, when Janey had done some fucking thing that made him crazy, and he’d gone looking for her with his deer rifle, the old witch had hidden her and the brat in that big house of hers on Upper Main Street, the same place Sully now parked Roy’s own trailer behind. He finally got somebody to tell him where they were holed up, but he’d somehow gotten mixed up on the street number (his first mistake), so he’d stood out on the sidewalk yelling, “Come out of there, you dumb fucking cunt!” (his second), and when she didn’t come out he’d lost it completely and proceeded to shoot out the windows of the wrong fucking house, scaring the shit out of the wrong goddamn old lady (the fucking trifecta). “Oh, you got it bad, son,” Bullwhip had chuckled when Roy described what had happened. “You got it bad as me.”

  Which was true enough. When his blood was up, Roy just did shit. Didn’t think, just did, figuring there’d be time to deal with anything else later. The problem—here again Bullwhip was the dude who’d put his finger on it—was that all too often later arrived in mere minutes, as had been the case that day. One minute flat for the damn cops to respond to reports that a crazy man armed with a rifle was shouting obscenities, not out front of the Morrison Arms where you’d expect it, but on Upper Main where you wouldn’t, and then another minute for the bastards to disarm and cuff Roy and stuff him rudely in the back of their cruiser.

  Once again he savored all these names. Janey was on top, of course, like always. Out of sight, out of mind was how it was with her. Every time he went to jail, she’d forget they were made for each other and do something stupid. The first time she sold their trailer and took the brat and moved to Albany so he couldn’t find her when he got out. Like that would ever fucking work. The next time he went in she filed for divorce. Mama Bitch had probably put her up to it, but still. Then a few weeks before he got out, she shacked up with some guy in Schuyler, as if that was going to keep him away. Bullwhip had advised him to go slow, not to give in to his natural desire to beat the living shit out of Janey to get her thinking straight again. Because that would just send him right back inside. Take your time, he said. Enjoy your freedom. Maybe get a job. When things are on an even keel, that’s the time to pay her a visit, talk to her all calm and smiling. Tell her you mean to make things right with her. Tell her you got a job and you mean to win her back. Buy her something nice, or take her out to dinner.

  It had taken Roy about an hour to find out where she was living in Schuyler. He’d never been comfortable there, especially the closer you got to the college. The sorority girls all looked at him like he was a bug, and their boyfriends steered them away as if he was contagious. He brought the deer rifle with him but left it in the trunk of the car, pleased to realize that he was exercising the kind of restraint that would make Bullwhip proud, though he hadn’t taken any of his other advice. The douchebag Janey’d shacked up with had an apartment just off campus on the street where all the frat houses were, and she opened the door before Roy could even knock. She looked hot. Hotter than ever. “Saw you coming, Roy,” she said. “Story of your life, right?” But then he caught a glimpse of the douchebag in the kitchen, hanging up the phone. He had one of those well-trimmed beards that Roy would’ve liked to sandpaper off. And just that quick Janey was on the floor, blinking up at him, her jaw broken. The scumbag still had his hand on the phone. That’s how fast it all happened. The dumbfuck should’ve stayed in the kitchen, but instead he rushed into the front room where Roy stood over Janey, waiting for her to get up so he could punch her again. He actually looked surprised when Roy punched him, too, which made Roy laugh because how could you be surprised when the person who punched you had just punched your girlfriend like two fucking seconds before? Then the cops were there—that’s who the douchebag was calling—and pulling Roy off the guy. The nigger cop, the same one he’d seen driving the red Mustang around town, was one of them, and in no time Roy was secured in the back of the cruiser. There was worse to come. Roy wasn’t used to being manhandled by black people, but having one laugh at him was really the shits. When it was discovered that he’d been released from prison less than twenty-four hours earlier, the nigger cop laughed that this had to be a new redneck record. He and all the other cops at the station had a great time yukking it up. It was this merriment at his expense, together with the flashy red car, that vaulted Sambo onto Roy’s list and kept him there.

  Strange, the effect that laughter had on him, how it made the whole world go red. Most men, given the choice, would rather be made fun of than have the shit kicked out of them. Not Roy. He had, he knew, an amazing tolerance for physical pain. He’d gotten beat up more than once in the joint, and while it wasn’t a pleasant experience the bruises healed. Even the broken bones. The guys that came at him in the joint mostly didn’t even know him, and it was all business, nothing personal. They were there and you were there and shit happened, you couldn’t always tell why. Being laughed at was different. Those wounds refused to scab over and never really healed. You never forgot the words themselves or who said them. Roy couldn’t remember the last time BITCH wasn’t on the top line, and he hated the thought of dropping Janey down, even one notch, but damn if Sully hadn’t gotten under his skin this morning, making that shit up from the want ads to get him to do something stupid that would land him back in jail. He’d come pretty close, too. That Sully was living in his trailer was a different kind of joke at Roy’s expense, and this didn’t sit well either. No question. He was definitely going to have to settle up with Sully.

  The question was how, and that would require serious t
hought. Most people were easy. You just had to figure out what they wanted. Robbing them of their heart’s desire wasn’t very hard. With other people it was more a question of what they feared. But again, it was usually pretty simple. If you asked, half the time the dumb fucks would tell you. Desire and fear. That’s what made you vulnerable. With Sully the problem was that he didn’t seem to want much, and supposedly he was some kind of fucking war hero, which meant he wouldn’t be easy to frighten. Once, years before, he’d tried to take Sully down a peg by telling his retarded father-in-law about him and Ruth, how they were going at it right then in a nearby motel, even giving the idiot the room number, but all he did was tell him to mind his own business. This time he’d have to figure a whole different approach. He heard Sully had given up those shenanigans now that Ruth was dried up and worthless, like all women got eventually. Served them right, too. They only ever had just the one thing a man would want and then came the day they didn’t even have that.

  Janey was no different, Roy thought, staring at the word BITCH atop his list. There were times, when he was feeling softhearted, that he wondered if it was strictly necessary for him to square up with her at all. Why not just sit back and let nature run its course? But no, that was crazy thinking. She’d earned that top spot, hadn’t she? By testifying against him in court, even though the law said she didn’t have to? He’d thought about that performance every day when he was locked up, about how he wouldn’t even be there except for her. Planning what she had coming to her when he got out was the only thing that made life in the joint bearable.

  He wasn’t over her, though. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but he wasn’t. In the joint his hatred had been pure, but as soon as he laid eyes on her again he knew there was still something between them. Though she might be homely like her mother, he liked the way she looked in that Applebee’s uniform, Janey all but busting out of hers. If she played her cards right, there was no need for her to be on his list at all. Seeing her again, he thought he could maybe forgive her. If she came up to him and said, “Hey, Roy,” and traced one of her long fingernails along the line of his jaw, like she used to do, he just might. Instead she had to go and slap him with that fucking restraining order before he could even say hello. So, no going soft now.

 
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