Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Alice regarded him strangely, as if stumped by the question, then smiled, having evidently decided that, despite his policeman disguise, he was someone she actually knew. Pressing the spot on the phone where the answer/hang-up button would’ve been if it really was a cellular phone, she slipped it in her bag. “Becka says hello,” she told him, causing a chill to run up Raymer’s spine even as a bead of sweat trickled down. This wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned being in touch with his dead wife.

  “Tell her I said hi back.”

  Alice sighed and looked away, as if embarrassed. “So many men.”

  It took Raymer a moment to realize they weren’t talking about Becka anymore. She was looking at the columns of names on the memorial.

  “Boys, most of them,” he said.

  “Yes, boys. My son is there.”

  Which was untrue. She and Gus were childless. She’d been married before, but his understanding was there’d been no offspring from that marriage either.

  “War is a terrible thing.”

  “Yes,” he agreed. Three names in the Vietnam grouping belonged to classmates of his.

  “Becka wanted children.”

  “No,” he said, remembering the only time they’d discussed it. Becka had been adamantly opposed, so he’d pretended he didn’t want any, either. “I don’t think she did, actually.”

  “I’ll ask her next time.”

  “Can I give you a lift home, Alice?”

  “Should I go home?”

  “Gus said you should,” Raymer told her. A lie, though it’s what he would have said had he been aware she’d slipped her leash again.

  “Gus loves me,” she said, as if reporting a curious, little-known fact.

  They rose and Raymer walked her over to his Jetta and helped her inside. They didn’t speak again until he pulled in to the driveway of the old Victorian where she and Gus lived, the last house on Upper Main, across from the entrance to Sans Souci Park. Before getting out, she turned to face him. “I keep trying to remember who you are,” she said.

  —

  “WHERE IN THE WORLD did they find this guy?” Raymer whispered to Gus.

  The clergyman delivering the eulogy actually looked a bit like Alice. He had shoulder-length hair, and the intricate, multicolored stitching on his gauzy, flowing tunic suggested…what? That he had a girlfriend? That he embroidered in his spare time instead of watching sports on TV? There was something viscerally repellent about him, Raymer decided, though it took him a minute to figure out what. With no shirt collar visible above the neckline of the tunic, neither cuffs at the wrist nor socks at the ankle, he gave the impression of being naked underneath his glorified shift, and Raymer was visited by an unwanted vision of the man’s dark, swinging genitalia.

  “For more than four decades,” Reverend Tunic intoned, “Judge Barton Flatt was the voice of justice and reason in our fair city. That was the phrase he used to describe this place we all hold dear. Our fair city.”

  Raymer stifled a groan. He was reasonably confident that His Honor had never once uttered any such words. In fact Flatt had exhibited little affection of any kind, except for an abstract concept he called “small-town justice,” which he claimed to dispense. How that differed from other kinds of justice Raymer never had the temerity to ask, but he suspected it meant “likely to be reversed in a higher court.” Proud of his maverick reputation, the judge had rendered his verdicts with the resigned air of a man who knew all too well that other legal minds would in the fullness of time see things differently. Our fair city? Raymer didn’t think so.

  Dear God was it hot. He could feel distinct rivulets of perspiration tracking down his chest, between his shoulder blades and from beneath his armpits, all this moisture puddling in his bunched-up jockeys. At the bottom of the open grave, which was a good six feet deep, was a patch of shade that Raymer found himself genuinely longing for. That far down it would be cool and fresh smelling. How pleasant it would be to just crawl in and curl up, to rest in such coolness. Okay, there were probably finer things for a man to desire, but in all honesty he couldn’t bring any of them to mind. His encounter with poor Alice, and her referencing Becka out of the blue, had caused his spirits—already near low ebb—to plummet further. Since his wife’s death a year ago—okay, fine, so he would think about her—he simply hadn’t been himself. Most mornings, even after a good night’s sleep, he woke up feeling so dull and lethargic that he had to talk himself into getting out of bed. Also, his appetites were on the fritz. His sex drive had disappeared completely, and down at the station Charice often had to remind him to eat. Grief, was how she explained it, but Raymer had his doubts. Sure, he’d loved Becka once, loved her with his whole heart, and the way she’d died was indescribably horrible, but now he was mostly just curious to know who she’d been about to run off with.

  Gus nudged him, his voice barely audible. “How’s your speech coming?”

  “Almost done,” Raymer assured him, though he hadn’t written a word. Monday’s big event, the capstone of the holiday weekend, the renaming of the middle school in honor of Beryl Peoples, was something else he’d tried unsuccessfully to weasel out of. Somehow Gus had found out he’d been Miss Beryl’s student and had immediately dragooned him into the proceedings. Raymer explained he was a C-plus student at best and could hardly exemplify her teaching prowess. Why not ask somebody who’d at least gotten a good grade? Because the smart kids, Gus informed him, had all moved away, as you’d expect. No, Raymer would have to do it. Earlier in the week he’d sat down with a yellow legal pad and made a couple feeble attempts before giving up. This afternoon he’d try again. If he came up empty, he’d ask Charice to write something.

  “Our…fair…city,” Reverend Tunic repeated in mock wonder. Through rhetoric alone, the man had worked himself into a state approaching rapture, and he opened his arms wide, as if to embrace all of Bath, though at the moment his only constituency, apart from the handful of wilting mourners, were those in graves that extended in all directions as far as the eye could see. “As we lay this giant of a man to rest, perhaps we should pause to reflect on what he meant by those words.”

  Giant of a man? Five foot six, a hundred and forty pounds, tops. Raymer could’ve clean and jerked this particular giant and given him a good, long toss. In fact, on more than one occasion, he’d imagined doing that very thing.

  “Did he mean that here in Schuyler County we’re blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and an embarrassment of resources? Of mountains and lakes and streams and springs?”

  Springs? Why bring them up? In Bath they’d all run dry.

  “Of cool, dense forests where once trod swift, silent Iroquois in their soft, supple moccasins?”

  Iroquois? Raymer’s heart sank. If fucking Indians were creeping into the judge’s eulogy, on what possible grounds might anything else be deemed irrelevant?

  “I believe he did,” declared Reverend Tunic. “But was this all he meant?”

  Raymer was willing to stipulate that this was the sum total of the deceased’s intention if that meant they could all go home, but no such luck.

  “I for one believe that this was not all.”

  Was it conceivable that this doofus represented an actual church somewhere? He seemed more the start-your-own-religion sort of guy. Or was he some kind of interfaith minister on loan from the college in Schuyler Springs, where he was charged with soothing all the students’ sensibilities in the unlikely event they sobered up long enough to have any. An academic affiliation might explain both his windy nonsense and the confidence with which he delivered it. Still, you had to wonder what sort of instructions he’d been given. Hadn’t anyone informed him that Judge Flatt had been Bath’s foremost atheist? That this was why there’d been no church service? Did he not understand that his appearance here today was a reluctant concession to the man’s status as a public figure and the community’s desire to pay its final respects? (Okay, Raymer himself felt no such need but conceded that o
thers might.) Reverend Tunic, far from comprehending he’d been given an ass-backward task, seemed convinced it was his duty to deliver the same sermon he’d have preached from his own pulpit to honor the passing of his own beloved deacon. Or, at the very least, to ensure that these proceedings would require the same amount of time under the broiling sun as they’d have taken indoors with the AC blasting.

  What would Miss Beryl have made of this dimwit? “When you write,” she’d advised Raymer and his classmates, “imagine a rhetorical triangle.” At the top of their essays she always drew two triangles, the first representing the essay the student had written and the second, a differently shaped one that would supposedly help improve it. As if bringing in geometry—another subject that had given Raymer fits—would clarify things. The sides of the old lady’s triangle were Subject, Audience and Speaker, and most of the questions she scribbled in the margins of their papers had to do with the relationship between them. What are you writing ABOUT? she often wanted to know, drawing a squiggly line up the page to the S that marked the subject side. Even when they were writing on a topic she herself had assigned, she’d insist that the essay’s subject was unclear. Other times she’d query: Just who do you imagine your AUDIENCE to be? (Well, you, Raymer always wanted to remind her, though she steadfastly denied this was the case.) What are your readers doing right now? What leads you to believe they’ll be interested in any of this? (Well, if they weren’t, why had she assigned this subject to begin with? Did she imagine he was interested?)

  But her most mysterious and baffling questions always had to do with the speaker. That side of Raymer’s triangle was always so tiny, and the other two so elongated, that the resulting geometric shape resembled a boat ramp. On each of his essays she wrote Who are you? as if Douglas Raymer weren’t printed clearly at the top of the first page. When questioned about this, her explanation was equally baffling. There was always, she claimed, an “implied writer” lurking behind the writing itself. Not you, the actual author—not the person you saw when you looked in the mirror—but rather the “you” that you became when you picked up a pen with the intention to communicate. Who is this Douglas Raymer? she liked to ask provocatively. (Nobody, he wanted to tell her, perfectly willing to be a nonperson if it meant she’d leave him alone.)

  Because it seemed so important to her, Raymer had tried his best to comprehend the old lady’s triangle, though it remained as deeply mysterious to him as the Holy Trinity’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost. At least that was billed as a profound mystery that you were meant to contemplate, even while knowing that it was beyond human comprehension—a great comfort to Raymer, since it was certainly beyond his. Whereas Miss Beryl’s rhetorical triangle was something he was supposed to understand.

  Today, ironically, more than three decades later, Raymer finally grasped what she had been going on about: Reverend Tunic’s triangle was missing two whole sides. He’d clearly given no thought whatsoever to his audience or its suffering in the punishing heat. Nor did his subject really matter. Judge Flatt himself, of whom the man clearly knew nothing, amounted to little more than a rhetorical opportunity. Worse, to fill the resulting void, the speaker side of the triangle, the one that truly flummoxed Raymer as a kid, was the part Reverend Tunic had down cold. If asked, Who are you? the clergyman would have replied that he was somebody and, to boot, somebody really special. Raymer doubted Miss Beryl would have shared his conviction, but so what? The Reverend Tunics of this world didn’t care. Where did such breathtaking self-assurance come from? Though he loathed the man viscerally, Raymer couldn’t help envying his dead certainty. Untroubled by a single misgiving, this Reverend Tunic obviously considered himself the right man for this job, probably for any job, even before the job was explained to him. He had everything figured out, couldn’t wait to share and seemed to feel there was enough of him to go around.

  By contrast, Raymer had always been tortured by self-doubt, allowing other people’s opinions about him to trump his own so thoroughly that he was never sure he actually had any. As a kid he’d been particularly susceptible to name-calling, which not only wounded him deeply but turned him imbecilic. Call him stupid, and he suddenly was stupid. Call him a scaredy-cat, and he became a coward. More depressing, adulthood hadn’t changed him much. Judge Flatt’s remark about arming morons had hurt his feelings precisely because he’d been sized up correctly. Because, face it, his judgment had failed that day. He’d allowed Donald Sullivan—another bane of his existence—to get under his skin. That was who’d been driving his pickup on the sidewalk in a residential neighborhood, and Raymer had had every right to arrest him. But he shouldn’t have unholstered his weapon, certainly shouldn’t have aimed it, even in warning, at an unarmed civilian, and he certainly had no business flicking the pistol’s safety off and thus compounding his first two errors. He couldn’t remember pulling the trigger but must’ve—a warning shot was how he’d immediately rationalized it, the thought traveling faster than the bullet. Not much faster, though. A split second later came the distant sound of tinkling glass from—miraculously, Raymer still thought—a tiny octagonal bathroom window a block and a half away, beneath which an elderly woman had been seated on her commode. Had she been quicker about her business or more spry in rising when it was finished, she would’ve caught the bullet in the back of her head.

  The incident had made a pacifist of him. For a good month, until Ollie North noticed something untoward about his bearing and asked to see his weapon, Raymer never even loaded it. Nor would he have thought to wear it if the handbook hadn’t stated specifically that the uniform was incomplete without it. Ollie, even more mortified by Raymer’s unloaded gun than he’d been by the accidental discharge of his loaded one, had explained that if anything was more dangerous than a civilian with a loaded gun it was a cop with an unloaded one. “Do you have a death wish?” he wanted to know. Even as a young patrolman Raymer knew that the correct answer to that was no, but instead of saying that he’d just shrugged, leaving the question hanging.

  What made him so vulnerable to the judgments of others, he’d always wondered, when others got off scot-free? Okay, maybe the dead judge would’ve had little use for this Reverend Tunic. Were he alive to hear his preposterous eulogy, he’d likely have remanded him into custody for character defamation. But to Raymer the two men were more alike than different: neither seemed to worry about being wrong, nor were they inclined to revise their thinking. (Revise, revise, revise, Miss Beryl always recommended. Writing is thinking, and good, honest thinking involves revision.)

  Not judging, though, apparently. Raymer had been summoned to Flatt’s courtroom on numerous occasions, and to his knowledge the man never, ever amended his original verdict. Most recently Raymer had given testimony against a man named George Spanos, who lived on the outskirts of our fair city with his wife and children and a dozen mangy dogs, all of which he beat savagely until they, too, became savages. When Raymer’d gone to arrest him, he’d been bitten three times, twice by dogs and once by a feral child. (The woman, blessedly, had been toothless.) The little boy’s bite wound had become infected, requiring antibiotics, and the dog’s had necessitated a tetanus shot, yet when Raymer limped to the witness stand, Flatt evinced not the slightest sympathy, even though, unlike the earlier incident, Raymer’d been clearly and unambiguously in the right. There, under the magistrate’s studied, theatrical gaze, Raymer couldn’t help feeling that somehow he and the accused had swapped stations. It was he, the chief of police, who was being asked to explain himself. It was understandable, the judge allowed, that he’d been bitten by the dogs. But how in the world, he begged Raymer to explain, had he contrived to get nipped by a child as well? During the entire proceeding Spanos sat next to his lawyer wearing an expression of aggrieved innocence so convincing that Raymer almost believed it. Whereas he himself—and he didn’t require any mirror to see the face he presented to the world—looked like he always looked: guilty as charged. Clearly, Judge Flatt considered him a fool, wh
ich left him no choice but to become one. It was appearances that mattered, and as usual they ran against him. Justice? How could there be any such thing when innocence looked like guilt and vice versa?

  Even more galling than his repeated humiliations in that courtroom was the fact that the old goat had taken a shine to Becka. Not long after they married, she’d by chance been seated next to Flatt at a retirement dinner. The judge always had a keen eye for attractive young women, and after his own wife’s death he’d evidently seen no reason that, as a geezer, he shouldn’t indulge himself in the occasional flirtation with someone else’s. That evening Becka had been provocatively attired, at least by North Bath standards, in a black dress with a plunging neckline. Throughout the dinner she and the judge, who were seated at the far end of the banquet table, conspired like old cronies with a vast store of shared memories. At one point their heads came together, and Becka’s eyes briefly met Raymer’s before she burst out laughing. Naturally, he’d concluded that His Honor was recounting for her amusement the day her damn fool of a husband nearly shot an old lady off her toilet.

  “What a sweetie,” Becka enthused later, strapping herself into the RAV, the seat belt causing her dress to gap and one lovely breast to be fully exposed. Had Flatt been treated to this heartwarming spectacle over the ginger-carrot soup, Raymer wondered. “He couldn’t have been nicer. Why’d you warn me about him?”

  “Well, he did call me a moron,” he reminded her. He’d told Becka about the gun incident early in their relationship, feeling it was probably best that she hear about it from him rather than the Bath grapevine where the story—like so many others where he was the butt of the joke—still had considerable currency. “In front of my boss. In front of the man I’d arrested.”

  “Well,” his wife began, pausing long enough for him to wonder where this was going. (That was ages ago?…I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it?…Can you blame him?) What he hoped she’d say was Actually, he spoke very highly of you, but of course she didn’t. Instead: “I know how much you were dreading the evening, but I had a good time.”

 
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