Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  The winter before, Rub had found the poor half-starved creature limping along the icy roadside and brought him home, thinking to keep him. Unfortunately, Bootsie, who easily topped three hundred pounds, was offended by anything skinny, so no dice. A clairvoyant, at least where her husband was concerned, she saw all too clearly that the wretched animal’s care and feeding would devolve to her, so she informed Rub that in her house there was a one-mangy-cur limit, leaving him to ponder that philosophy’s arbitrariness, grapple with its metaphorical implications and finally do the arithmetic. So that’s how Sully, whose strong suit wasn’t caring for things, had reluctantly taken the extra cur in. The name on his tag was REGGIE, but Sully removed the tag, renamed him and settled in to enjoy the resulting confusion. When both Rubs were around, he liked to issue commands to see if either would obey. When the dog barked, Sully would say, “Quiet, Dummy,” causing both dog and man to regard him expectantly, neither sure who was being spoken to, neither wanting to guess wrong, the look on their faces identical. When the human Rub made the mistake of answering, Sully would say, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

  The canine Rub was relatively young in years but old in experience, most of it, Sully suspected, awful. Consequently, this Rub’s youth, energy and congenital optimism were in constant conflict with his memories, which dictated extreme caution and, if that wasn’t sufficient, flight. After six months of Sully’s benign neglect, he still started violently at sudden loud noises, and if his new master forgot and raised his voice, he’d empty his bladder on the spot. The dog seemed to love him, though, and when Rub wasn’t peeing on things, Sully was able to return his dumb affection. Until recently he’d let Rub tag along wherever he was going, including Hattie’s, but the animal had recently picked up a genital parasite somewhere and had taken to chewing on his dick. Unsurprisingly, the sight of his bloody, masticated little pud put people off their feed. When he was on the premises, you couldn’t give away link sausages.

  Even with the sun down, it was too hot to leave Rub in the truck with the windows up, so he leaned across and rolled down the one on the passenger side. “Stay,” he repeated. “You hear me?” Because Rub was eyeing this potential escape route with almost human longing. “If I come outside and you’re not in this truck, I’ll leave you here for the coyotes.” Which also frequented the dump.

  Rub sighed again, even more mightily this time. Sully could read the thought bubble over his head: If you don’t want me to jump out, why open the window?

  “Don’t pee in here, either.”

  Climbing out of the truck, Sully thought he heard a low mewling nearby, but when he paused to listen, he couldn’t hear anything. Had an animal been struck by a car and crawled off into the trees or under the house to die? He stood there, waiting for it to start up again, though the only sound borne in on the hot breeze was that of interstate traffic. Halfway up the porch steps he heard scrabbling and turned to see his dog standing on the seat now, front paws on the open window frame, in launch position. “Rub!” Sully called. “I swear to God, if you’re not in that truck when I come back out, I’m gonna grab that shovel out of the back and beat you with it.” Apparently Rub took this threat seriously, because he whimpered and disappeared back inside the cab. Probably pissing all over the seat, Sully thought ruefully. He hadn’t meant to shout.

  From somewhere—closer now?—the same mewling resumed. Had the wind shifted? Or was the sound coming from under the porch? Sully considered going back down the steps and peering underneath, but the thought of shining eyes peering back at him out of the darkness wasn’t terribly appealing, so when the sound stopped again, he figured to hell with it.

  He’d been hoping, as he always did when he dropped by the Squeerses’ house, that he’d find Rub there alone, but the Subaru in the drive, its engine still ticking, meant Bootsie, whose car it was, had arrived home from work shortly before, and indeed it was she, clutching a fistful of junk mail, who answered his knock. She was still in her uniform, her thinning brown hair still clutched in the hairnet she wore to serve food in the hospital cafeteria.

  “You,” she said, seeing who it was.

  “Yup,” Sully agreed. “Sorry to disappoint.”

  But she’d already turned away, leaving him to come inside and close the screen door behind him. “I keep hoping it’ll be Harrison Ford, but it never is.”

  “Next time I’ll bring my whip. Where’s Dummy?”

  “I thought he was with you. Didn’t I just hear you threaten to beat him with a shovel?”

  “Nah, that was the dog,” he said, which seemed to satisfy her. “I haven’t seen your husband. I waited for him at Hattie’s, but he never turned up.”

  “I thought you two were taking down that branch today,” she said, tossing the junk mail into a wicker basket the size of a bassinette that must have contained about a month’s worth. Everything in the Squeerses’ house overflowed, the sink with dirty dishes, the garbage can with smelly trash, the living room sofa with the romance novels Bootsie borrowed by the gross from the library. According to Rub, she read at least one a night.

  “You’re right, we were,” Sully confessed. Last night, just before leaving the Horse, they’d agreed to meet here at noon. Sully was to bring his ladder. He’d even thrown it in the back of the truck when he got home, but by morning he’d forgotten his promise. Even noticing it there that morning had failed to jog his memory. Much as he hated to admit it, such lapses were becoming routine. Had Rub spent the whole afternoon waiting for him? Where was he now?

  Bootsie, head cocked, was regarding him dubiously over the rim of her reading glasses. He’d paused in the dining room to lean on a chair. “What’s with that?” she wanted to know.

  “With what?”

  “You’re breathing like you just ran a marathon.”

  Not quite, but close. Four little porch steps. Heart thumping in his chest like a sledgehammer. “I’ll be all right in a minute.”

  “Are you like this all the time now?”

  “Nah, it comes and goes. Tomorrow I’ll wake up fine.” He hoped.

  “You still smoking?”

  “I can’t remember the last time I bought a pack of cigarettes,” he told her.

  “Okay, but that’s not what I asked. You think you’re talking to somebody who’s never bummed a smoke?”

  No surprise that she hadn’t gone for his head fake. He had pretty much given up cigarettes during the day, but at night, out at the Horse, he’d cadge a few from Jocko or Carl Roebuck. “No,” he told her, “but I might be talking to somebody who should mind her own business.”

  “Yeah?” she said, fixing him with her trademark stare.

  “I didn’t say I was,” he clarified. “Just that I might be.”

  She held his gaze a moment longer, then let him off the hook. “Men,” she said, causing Sully to wonder—and not for the first time—why so many women deemed him the personification of the whole infuriating male gender, an attitude he found it particularly hard to swallow coming from Bootsie and Ruth, given the men they were married to.

  “I gotta get out of this uniform,” she said, heading up the stairs. “It’s rubbed me raw everywhere.”

  He didn’t care to contemplate this chafing. With Bootsie, everywhere covered a lot of territory. In the kitchen, he sat down heavily in the only chair at the dinette that wasn’t piled high with crap, and after a moment his breathing returned to normal. One day, possibly quite soon, it wouldn’t. He knew that. What he couldn’t decide was how to feel about it. He still had three or four good days to every bad one, but his VA cardiologist said that ratio wouldn’t hold. Four would become three, then two, then one. Eventually they’d all be like today. That was assuming things happened slowly, which they might not.

  From upstairs came a groan of pure pleasure, and before Sully could prevent it he was visited by an unwanted image of Bootsie stepping out of her uniform and examining the day’s abrasions. How often did he think about sex? Too fucking often.

/>   “What’s this I heard about the old mill falling down?” she hollered, her voice penetrating the ceiling.

  “Just the wall nearest the street,” Sully called upward.

  “Yeah, but how does something like that happen?” she asked.

  So, speaking through the ceiling, he told her what he’d learned over the course of the afternoon, how Carl, meaning to shore everything up again later, had severed the building’s collar ties and floor joists, leaving the long wall that bordered the sidewalk free to topple into the road on top of Roy Purdy, who conveniently happened to be driving by. Sully, who’d spent the morning daydreaming pleasantly about how he might murder Roy, couldn’t decide whether or not to feel guilty. If he hadn’t goaded Roy with his fake want ads, delaying his departure by a minute or two, the man likely would’ve passed through the area before the wall collapsed. Had Sully’s idle woolgathering somehow been mistaken for a prayer and answered? God’s answering prayers now? Since when?

  Bootsie came back into the kitchen, clad now in one of the brightly colored muumuus she favored, beneath the fabric of which, to Sully’s eye, far too much violent pendulous motion was going on. “What do you want to bet they’ll be saying Carl did it on purpose, for the insurance?”

  “They’re already saying it.”

  “You think he did?”

  “I wouldn’t put it past him,” he admitted, “but no, I doubt it.” Mostly because whenever Carl had dumb ideas, he ran them by Sully first.

  “You want a beer?” Bootsie said, opening the fridge.

  “No, thanks.”

  “Good. We’re out.” Of that and just about everything else, judging by the empty shelves. Just how badly were they struggling financially, Sully wondered. Rub had steady work at the cemetery now, and Bootsie had her food service job at the hospital, but neither was overpaid. He had no idea what they spent their money on, but Rub always seemed to be broke.

  When Bootsie pulled out the drawer under the phone book, Sully quickly turned away, because that, he happened to know, was where she kept her diabetes kit. The last time he made the mistake of watching her sink the needle into her belly, right through the fabric of her muumuu, he’d nearly passed out. In fact, just knowing what was going on behind his back caused sweat to bead on his forehead. “Tell me when you’re done.”

  She chortled, clearly enjoying his discomfort. “For such a tough guy, you sure are squeamish.”

  “If the Second World War had been fought with hypodermic needles, I’d have deserted in basic training.”

  “Well, you can turn around. I’m all done,” she said. He waited, though, not trusting her, until he heard the drawer close again. When he finally ventured to glance, she was surveying the kitchen with the air of someone who was repulsed by the sight without being motivated in the least to do anything about it. “I don’t suppose you know how to fix a dishwasher.”

  “You ask me that every time I’m here,” he told her. “The answer’s still no.”

  “Maybe I could get Carl to come over and detonate the whole kitchen,” she said. “Just blow it to smithereens and start over.” When Sully didn’t offer an opinion, she regarded him through narrowed eyes. “Don’t say it,” she advised.

  “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

  “Yeah, you were. You were going to say that a month from now I’d be right back in the same place.”

  “Not true,” he said. A week from now was more like it.

  “I’m not stupid.”

  “Did I say you were?”

  “No, I guess you didn’t,” she answered. “Must’ve been something I heard in my head.” Going over to the window, she peered out into the darkness. “You ever hear things in your head, Sully?”

  All the time, Dolly, he was about to say, but suddenly she said, “Son of a bitch,” with her voice so full of genuine wonder that he joined her at the window. There, lying on the ground, its outline unmistakable even in the dark, was the tree limb he and Rub were supposed to have lopped off that afternoon. Had the fucking thing fallen of its own accord? No, lying there at the base of the tree was the chain saw Rub had rented the day before. Had he gotten tired of waiting for Sully and borrowed a ladder somewhere else? Their nearest neighbor lived a good half mile away, too far to walk carrying a ladder, even an aluminum one. Had he called a tree-pruning service? Highly unlikely. Not after renting the saw. Besides, Bootsie would whack his peenie if he paid somebody else to do a job he’d promised to take care of himself. It was possible he’d called his cousins, who owned Squeers Refuse Removal, or maybe they’d driven by en route to the dump and offered to lend a hand, but he doubted it. Rub wasn’t on good-enough terms with his cousins to ask a favor, and they weren’t the sort to offer unasked. Sully himself was, so far as he knew, Rub’s only friend.

  “That’s my dimwit husband for you,” Bootsie said, shaking her head in disbelief. “It takes him a month to finally do what I ask him and cut the freakin’ branch down, then he just walks away like the job’s done. What do you want to bet it’s still sitting right there a month from now?”

  It was on the tip of Sully’s tongue to say Like all these dirty dishes? Like that tower of pizza boxes? but he was wise enough to hold it. “Nah, we’ll cart it off tomorrow, I promise,” he assured her.

  Her purse was on the counter, and she pulled out a ten-dollar bill, then stuffed it into a glass on the sink that was crusty with orange juice. “My last ten bucks,” she said, holding up the glass as Exhibit A, “says this time tomorrow that tree limb’s still right there.”

  Which pissed him off. “If you think I won’t take your money—”

  “You won’t win it, is what I think,” she told him, the picture of confidence, and her sly, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is grin annoyed him sufficiently that he peeled two fives from his money clip. “Easy pickin’s,” she said, slipping the bills into the juice glass and setting it on the windowsill behind the teetering pyramid of dishes in the sink. “I know who I’m betting with. I just wish there was something else for us to bet on.”

  “In that case I’ll get out of your hair before you think of it,” he told her, heading for the door. “If Dummy shows up, tell him I’m sorry I stood him up. I’ll be down at the Horse for a bit.”

  He hadn’t made it as far as the living room when she said, “I got a question for you.” When he turned to face her, he saw that her eyes, dry a second ago, were now full—indeed spilling over.

  Jesus, he thought. Not this. Yet again he’d allowed himself to be bushwhacked by a woman’s unhappiness. For this to happen, over and over, he had to be some kind of stupid. It had been going on his whole life, starting with his mother, the poor woman. Being married to Big Jim Sullivan, she came by her despair honestly, God knew. Though Sully wasn’t its cause, he’d nevertheless taken her grief to heart, thereby learning at an early age that responsibility for feminine heartbreak would somehow attach itself to the male closest to hand. That said, he would end up far from blameless in this respect. It wasn’t long after his mother was in the ground that Sully started disappointing women in his own right. One after another, actually, no stopping that runaway train once it got pointed downhill. Sometimes he was the sole source of disenchantment (as with Vera, his ex-wife), other times just a contributing factor (as with Ruth). The thing to do, once you saw it coming, was make tracks, but too often you didn’t. They had a way of sneaking up on you, these disappointed women, dry eyed one minute, leaking prodigiously the next. And frozen in place, like Sully was now, you waited patiently for them to explain your part in their sorrow.

  “What?” he said, because he had to say something and was, like always, curious as to what he’d done wrong this time.

  “How come you never invite me out?”

  He cocked his head at her. “You’re a married woman, Dolly.”

  “The two of you, I mean. You and him. You’re down there most nights, drinking beer. How come you never invite me to come along?”

  “I had no
idea you wanted to,” he said. A lame response, but he was still stuck on you and him. When, exactly, had his best friend’s wife become their shared responsibility?

  “I don’t,” she said, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her muumuu. “That place is depressing.”

  “Well?”

  “A girl likes to be asked occasionally, is what I’m saying.”

  Huh, Sully thought. A girl, unsure why he should be so surprised that this was how Bootsie thought of herself. Because she wasn’t one anymore? Because she was too overweight and unattractive? What bearing did mere facts have when it came to how you saw yourself? If Sully never thought of himself as seventy, even on days like today when he felt eighty, why shouldn’t a lonely married woman who read romance novels every night think of herself as a girl?

  “Okay,” he said. “Maybe next time, if you feel like—”

  “I just said I didn’t want to, all right?”

  They faced each other for a long moment until Rub began barking outside. Good dog!

  Sully coughed. “I’m sorry—”

  “Go,” Bootsie told him, making one hand into a whisk broom and brushing him toward the door. “Forget I said anything, okay? It must be the heat…”

  “It is brutal,” Sully allowed.

  At the front door she turned on the porch light and followed him out onto the steps. To Sully’s amazement, Rub was still in the truck, but Sully’s reappearance drove him into a frenzy of improbable laps inside the cab, as if he were sharing the small space with a vicious ferret. One moment he appeared on the dash, the next he was gone completely, the whole truck quivering from his idiotic exertions.

 
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