Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  But he might drop her down a slot. He might just sleep on it to see how it felt. Tomorrow, if he changed his mind, he could just put her right back on the top line. No harm done.

  Reassured, Roy took out the pen he’d swiped from the emergency room and drew a line through each name and began a new page that offered a more up-to-date testimony to his feelings.

  The top line now read: SULLY.

  —

  “SO,” SAID A RASPY VOICE, close at hand, and when he looked up from the notebook his mother-in-law was leaning across the front seat of her sedan to stare at him. Had he dozed off? How long had she been there? Like most sneaky people, Roy hated being snuck up on. Especially when the person in question was acting like you had no clothes on.

  “Ma,” he said, getting stiffly to his feet, surprised by how much that hurt. The painkillers they’d given him at the hospital were already wearing off. He’d planned to sell the rest of them at Gert’s, but now he was thinking he might set aside a few for his own use. “I didn’t see you pull up.”

  Ruth nodded. “If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn you were in deep thought.”

  Roy got in slowly, gingerly, wincing as he closed the door. “There you go,” he said, offering her the biggest smile he could muster under the circumstances, hoping to disguise the hostility that her presence always provoked. “Selling me short again.”

  “Is that what I’m doing, Roy?”

  “It is,” he said. “And that’s for true. One day you’ll finally get it.”

  “Work faster,” she said. “I’m getting old.”

  “You and your boyfriend both,” he said. He knew she and Sully had quit that, but he couldn’t resist the jab. “He’s always shortchanging me, too. I must be an easy target.”

  “I guess you are,” she said, pulling away from the curb. At the traffic light, though, she looked over at him with something akin to concern. “You hurting bad, Roy?”

  He shrugged. “They give me some pills.”

  It was a very long light. After they’d been sitting there in silence for what seemed like forever, he said, “You look like you got something on your mind.” Because that’s exactly how she looked.

  “Yeah?”

  “Might as well go ahead and spill it.”

  “Okay,” she said, studying him again, that direct look of hers making him squirm. “What would it cost to make you go away?”

  “Go away where?” he said. Not that he had the slightest intention of doing any such thing. He was curious about what she might propose, though.

  “We don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “The house has been refinanced twice for your daughter’s eye operations, and the restaurant…” She let that trail off. “But I might be able to put my hands on enough money to get you a one-way ticket out of Bath. Maybe a few bucks left over to give you a fresh start. First and last months’ rent on an apartment or something.”

  “A fresh start where?” he said, still curious.

  “You decide.”

  “Schuyler?”

  “That’s only three miles away, Roy. You’ve been arrested there half-a-dozen times. What kind of fresh start would that be?”

  “Albany?”

  “You’ve been arrested there, too.”

  “Just the once.”

  “Roy.”

  “Far away, you mean, then.”

  “That would be best.”

  “For who?”

  “Everybody.”

  “I go far away, I don’t get to see my wife and kid.”

  Ruth sighed. “It’s just the two of us here, okay? There’s no need for me to bullshit you, or for you to bullshit me. We both know you don’t care about Tina.”

  “We do? We both know that?”

  “Did you even send her a birthday card this year? You don’t have to answer, because I know you didn’t.”

  “How was I supposed to buy her a birthday card when I was incarcerated?”

  “You weren’t in jail then, Roy. See? That’s my point. You don’t even know when her birthday is. It was last week.” When he offered no rejoinder, she continued, “And you don’t have a wife. You have an ex-wife.”

  The light finally changed and she made the turn, heading back toward town. Roy let her think he was considering the offer for a minute, then said, “Till death do us part. We said the words, her and me both. You was there.”

  “She’s moved on, Roy. That’s what you need to do. If you stay here in Bath, this doesn’t end well.”

  “You can see the future?”

  “Enough to know she’s not coming back to you, Roy. Not ever.”

  “She might.”

  “No.”

  “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

  “No. We don’t have to wait. It’s not like a roulette wheel. We don’t have to wait for it to stop spinning. You keep hurting her, Roy. Started out, you gave her a fat lip, then a shiner. Next you knocked out a tooth, then you broke her jaw. Last time you slammed her head into a concrete wall. You don’t need a crystal ball to see where this is headed. It ends when you kill her.”

  “Me? Kill Janey?”

  “Oh, you won’t mean to. You never mean to hurt her. But that doesn’t stop you from doing it. To hear you tell it, it’s more her fault than yours. She provokes you. Tells you to fuck off or calls you a name or something.”

  “Girl’s got a mouth on, and that’s for true,” Roy conceded. “Maybe she’s the one you should be talking to. Tell her to shut it.”

  “It’s you I’m talking to, Roy,” she said. “If I let you stay, I end up with a dead daughter, and you go back to prison for good. You understand what I’m saying? No winners.”

  “If you let me stay.”

  “Whatever you’re planning?” she said. “I can’t allow it. I won’t.”

  They were in town now, and as his mother-in-law pulled into the Morrison Arms, Roy caught a glimpse of something shiny and red in the parking lot behind Gert’s. The old nigger who always sat in the lawn chair was waving his flag at them. Ruth waved back, then pulled into a parking space. Roy was curious to know what she thought his plan was. Women always claimed to know what he was thinking. Janey maintained she could watch thoughts scrolling across his forehead, which was bullshit. If she could do that, she’d know when to duck, and she never did. Ruth was different, though. She did often seem to know what was on his mind, more or less, and she never believed any of his bullshit. That was fine. Roy never expected her to. He mostly said things just to see how people would react. When it came to being taken seriously, he had low expectations. One of the paradoxes Roy had long ago stopped worrying about was that even though he didn’t expect people to believe anything he said, it stoked his rage when they didn’t. When he told them he was a changed man, why didn’t they pause, even for a second, to wonder if that might be true? Okay, sure, it wasn’t, but it could’ve been, right? To people like Sully and Ruth, he was just the one thing, when, for all they knew, he might’ve been something else, too. How could they be so damn sure?

  “So, what kind of money we talkin’ about here?” he asked, keen to hear what she imagined it would take to buy him off. Also, how desperately she wanted to be rid of him. Which she would never be. His mind was made up on that score. That nasty chuckle she’d let escape on the phone guaranteed he was going nowhere.

  “I could probably come up with three thousand,” she told him.

  He put on what he hoped was a poker face. “Not much of a fresh start, is it?” he said. “That kind of money, you could start and be all done the same day.”

  “It’s not a fortune,” Ruth allowed, “but it’s all I can offer you, and it’s free. I thought that might appeal to a man who hates honest work as much as you do. Somebody who never seems to have the price of a cup of coffee.”

  “Five would be more interesting than three,” he said, though it wasn’t true. Five was just a bigger number, not a more interesting one. The only interesting part was how she??
?d react.

  “I don’t have five to give you.”

  “You could borrow it. You and Sully are still tight. He come into the old lady’s money…”

  “I’m not asking Sully.”

  He shook his head. “Just trying to help you get to five.”

  “You should think about it, Roy.”

  “The five or the three?”

  “The three. I’ll look into the five, but it’s three I can offer you.”

  “Suppose I was to take the three,” he said, enjoying himself now. “I’m not saying I will. But just suppose. I take the three and go someplace for that fresh start. Suppose I spend your three and find out I don’t like it there and come back.”

  “The deal is you don’t come back.”

  “Yeah, okay, but we’re just supposing, right? So suppose I get to thinking how much I preferred my stale ole life to my new fresh one. What’s to keep me from coming back?”

  “We’re going to shake on it. You and I.”

  “So it’s like my…word of honor.”

  “Call it whatever you like, so long as you stay gone.”

  “Something in this deal of yours kinda goes against human nature,” he said. “That’s what I’m getting at. Say you give me the three. Free money, like you say. But if I break my word and come back, maybe you’ll give me another three? Or this time maybe the five? Where’s my…what’s the word I’m looking for?”

  “Incentive?”

  “That’s it. That’s the word. My incentive to stay gone. I’m not saying I’d come back after we shook hands on it. But then again, I might.”

  “Put it this way, Roy. It’s not really your word of honor I’d be putting my faith in. If you were ever dumb enough to come back here—”

  But before she could give voice to what Roy was reasonably certain would be some sort of threat, one of the exterior doors to the Morrison Arms flew open, and a fat, balding man dressed in nothing but a pair of threadbare briefs that sagged revealingly in the crotch bolted from the building as if pursued by the devil. The gravel parking lot was littered with shards of broken beer and whiskey bottles. Nobody in his right mind would traverse it in bare feet, but clearly that didn’t include this lunatic. He chugged past Roy and his mother-in-law with the kind of grim determination that suggested he’d weighed the dangers of what lay before him against those that lay behind and was unimpressed by the former. There was no sign of pursuit, so once he reached the sidewalk Roy expected him to stop or slow down, but he just kept churning until he disappeared around the corner onto Limerock.

  Roy was first to recover. “People like you think they can read the future,” he said, “but they can’t. Not unless you want to tell me you seen that comin’.”

  “No,” she admitted, “but if you told me I’d see a naked man run out of an apartment building in Bath, New York, I think I could’ve predicted which one it’d be.”

  Since Roy was pretty sure they weren’t going to agree about predicting the future, he opened the door and with great care—because he really did ache all over—got out of the car. From inside the Arms came a shriek, then another. Cora, the woman he was living with, raced outside with surprising speed and agility for somebody her size. Then two more women, one holding an infant, came out squealing. Ruth had started to pull away but stopped and rolled down her window. “What’s going on?” she asked.

  “There’s a damn snake in there,” Cora said. “Big one.”

  Roy was interested in the possibility that what she was saying might be true, despite its unlikelihood. He knew there were timber rattlers out in the woods, but what would one of those be doing in town, inside the Morrison Arms? He supposed the smart move was to find something with a long handle—a broom or a rake, maybe—and go in and find out, but there was something else he needed to do first, something he’d told himself to remember and then forgot all about it.

  “Think about my offer, Roy,” his mother-in-law said.

  “I will,” he lied. Though it didn’t look like she believed him, she rolled up the window anyway and pulled out into the street.

  Cora came over then. “Oh, Roy, look at you!” she said. “I heard you was hurt—”

  He held a finger up to stop her. “Dummy up a minute,” he told her. “I’m trying to remember something.”

  “Sure, Roy,” she said. “I was just—”

  “Got it,” he said suddenly.

  “Where you goin’?” she said when he turned away from her. “To Gert’s? Can I come? I got some money…”

  But he’d stopped listening. Over at the curb he had a direct view of the parking lot, where he’d seen that flash of red when they got here. Seeing what it was, he smiled, then frowned, recognizing with some apprehension the approach of an impulse, the very kind that, up to this point in his life, he’d shown not the slightest ability to control. He thought of how old Bullwhip had identified Roy’s problem and told him what to do different. Well, he was one to talk. He’d gotten out a few months before Roy, and after six weeks he was right back in again. When Roy asked what happened, all he’d said was, “I saw me an opportunity.”

  More agitated people were streaming out of the Arms now, but Roy paid them no mind. His whole brain was pulsing red.

  Don’t, he told himself.

  Then he did.

  Boogie

  THE BAREFOOT, HALF-NAKED MAN who’d bolted from the Morrison Arms that afternoon was Rolfe “Boogie” Waggengneckt (Boogie Woogie, his last name being unpronounceable). He fled straight up the center of Limerock Street, right past the now-three-sided mill. By then, midafternoon, the crowd had largely dissipated, but Carl Roebuck’s crew and the NiMo guys were still there, as was Officer Miller, who was providing a police presence. These men all paused to watch, slack jawed, as Boogie motored past. Though middle aged and woefully out of shape, he had run track in high school, and in his ramrod posture, churning arms and fluid stride you could glimpse the runner he’d once been. Propelled by stark terror, he made it farther and faster than anyone, including himself, would’ve predicted, though compared with youth and rigorous physical conditioning fear is a poor fuel, thin and easily burned through, even when there’s a lot of it. So when Boogie’s tank was finally empty, he stopped like a windup toy and sat down in the middle of the street, utterly spent and aware at last of the spectacular pain in his shredded feet.

  Officer Miller was reluctant to leave his comfy post but reasonably certain that a barefoot man, clad only in undershorts, running up the middle of the street was the sort of thing Chief Raymer would want him to investigate. He approached the man cautiously, in accordance with best practices as detailed in the police manual, a document he’d committed to memory as a hedge against the necessity of having to think on the spot. In his mind’s eye he could actually see the relevant text, which warned officers to be cognizant of the possibility that a fleeing suspect might be carrying a concealed weapon, though in this case that seemed unlikely. Nor did the man appear to be a further flight risk. Boogie’s feet, oozing impressively, looked like someone had gone at them with a cheese grater, and his chest was heaving violently. Clearly he wasn’t going anywhere unless somebody carried him, and so Miller, his confidence growing, turned his attention to the matter of questioning the suspect. Where to begin? He might justifiably raise the issue of public nudity, he supposed, since Boogie’s dark genitals were clearly visible in the gap between his upper thigh and sagging undershorts, but opted instead to address what he considered a more urgent concern. “You can’t just sit down in the middle of the road,” he said.

  Boogie, blinded by tears of anguish, slowly took in the fact that he’d been joined by a uniformed police officer, which meant his situation, already deeply embarrassing, was now officially humiliating. Having little breath with which to speak, he chose his words carefully. “They’re not my snakes,” he said.

  Officer Miller wasn’t sure what sort of response he’d been expecting, but this wrong-footed him completely. Who’d said an
ything about snakes? Was the man on drugs, imagining himself to be pursued by reptiles? His pupils weren’t dilated. Though he reeked of stale beer, he didn’t appear drunk, just adamant. “I’m not going back in there,” he insisted. “You can’t make me.”

  He was, however, willing to go to the hospital, so Miller radioed for an ambulance, which Charice told him to follow so he could take a statement. This did, surprisingly enough, involve snakes. According to Boogie, when the occupant of apartment 107 relocated for three months to the county jail, he’d sublet the place to a man who gave his name as William Smith. While he’d never actually met him, Smith had hired him over the phone at Gert’s Tavern, Boogie’s home away from home. How the man came to know about him was anybody’s guess, but he apparently had gleaned that Boogie was somebody who could be hired for minimum wage, provided the job required no actual work. Smith described himself to Boogie as a traveling salesman and an entrepreneur currently testing several business opportunities in upstate New York. He would likely require Boogie’s services for three weeks, though it was possible, if said opportunities panned out, that the employment could last well into June. Smith further explained that he himself would rarely be in residence. He meant to use apartment 107 primarily to store his inventory.

  Boogie’s duties, as described to him over the phone, could not have been more perfectly suited to his temperament and lack of ambition. He was to sign for packages that would arrive periodically during working hours, Monday through Friday, via UPS. There were rules, however. He was not allowed to have friends over—no problem there, because Boogie didn’t have any—nor was he permitted to entertain women, even less of a problem. His wife had left him over a decade ago, and he hadn’t had a date or any other encounter with a woman since. In fact, he was not to even answer the door unless the person on the other side of it identified himself as a UPS driver. The packages he signed for were to be placed immediately in the large kitchen refrigerator, the shelves of which, Smith explained, had mostly been removed to make more room. There would be, Smith admitted, one minor inconvenience that couldn’t be remedied. Like all the other apartments at the Morrison Arms, 107 had just one bathroom, accessible only through the bedroom, the door to which would be locked at all times. When Boogie needed relief, he would have to go upstairs to his own apartment or, if he didn’t feel like climbing the stairs, use the weedy lot out back. These matters would have to be attended to briskly, lest he miss a UPS delivery. Otherwise, he was welcome to watch TV and drink free beer from the well-stocked minifridge that Smith had thoughtfully provided.

 
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