Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Jesus,” Bootsie said, shaking her head. “Look at that crazy little fucker.”

  “Rub!” Sully called to him. “Knock it off!” The dog whined once and went still.

  Sully strongly suspected that something further was expected of him where Bootsie was concerned, some act of kindness or understanding of which he was incapable, but before he could think of some other lame thing she said, “Pizza. I just decided that’s what I’m hungry for.”

  “They deliver out here in the boonies?”

  “You have to order at least a large.”

  “All right, then,” Sully said, everything settled now. A minute ago they’d been faced with a thorny existential dilemma, possibly spiritual in nature, only to have it unexpectedly redefined as an urge that only a delivery pizza could satisfy.

  As Sully made his way over to the truck, though, the screen door slammed, and a moment later there was a loud crash. His first thought was that Bootsie had tripped and fallen, but then he realized that the pyramids of dishes in the kitchen must’ve collapsed. He heard Bootsie say, “Fine. Terrific. You think I fucking care?” It took him a moment to realize it was the mess she was talking to. At some point she’d have to separate what was broken from what was merely gross, toss the shards of glass and ceramic into the trash and return whatever could be used another time into the sink. But not tonight. That was what she was announcing to the cosmos. Sully thought about going back inside and offering to help clean up, then reconsidered. Granted permission to flee, you’d be a fool not to.

  When he opened the truck’s door and the dome light came on, the scene that presented itself shouldn’t have surprised him but still did. Rub, having backed up against the passenger-side door as far as he could, now stood quaking with fear, his canine knees knocking together like a cartoon dog’s. A small drop of urine glistened at the tip of his bright red penis, presumably the very last drop in the entire dog. The seat was soaked, as were the dash and steering wheel and even the windshield. Sully turned on the wipers to confirm that the moisture was on the inside, and it was. “Rub,” he said quietly, in case he was wrong about the dog being empty. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

  Then there it was again, nearby, that same goddamn mewling. He thought about going back to the house to alert Bootsie that something sick or injured, probably a raccoon, had crawled under the house. Maybe Rub had seen or sensed it there and that’s what had driven him batshit in the truck. But then the porch light went out and the mewling stopped, so Sully decided to let it go. The other Rub was probably at the Horse already, waiting for him to show up, and he’d mention it to him then. Tomorrow, after they’d taken care of the tree branch, they could shine a flashlight under the porch and see what had taken up residence there. From where he sat, his keys dangling in the ignition, Sully could just make out the shape of the branch where it lay on the ground. Odd that Rub hadn’t sectioned the fallen limb, a five-minute job, tops. Had the chain saw fritzed? Was that why he left it sitting out in the open for someone to steal? Rub wasn’t normally careless with tools.

  On the other hand, life was full of mysteries, none more perplexing than human nature itself. His conversation with Bootsie, on top of the earlier one with Ruth, had left him feeling both exhausted and useless. Maybe Ruth was right and he should find a beach somewhere. He’d always wanted to, at least back when he couldn’t afford it. Why not go someplace now, when he could? Tonight, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to drive out to the Horse, though he knew he would. Turning the key, he put the truck in reverse and backed out. When the headlights swept over the felled branch, Sully imagined, for some reason, that Rub was lying dead beneath it, which would account not only for his absence but also the fact that he hadn’t finished the job. This morbid scenario dovetailed nicely with Sully’s growing conviction that ever since his luck turned, it was his friends who were paying the price. All that bad karma had to go somewhere. Except, no. Of course Rub wasn’t lying beneath the branch. He would’ve been holding the chain saw when the limb fell, not standing beneath it. Sully turned on his high beams though, just to be sure, before backing on out. When the headlights caught the base of the tree, the length of rope attached to the handle of the chain saw registered in Sully’s brain, but he was out in the road and shifting the vehicle into drive before the fragmentary visual and auditory evidence cohered. Even so, he had to sit there, engine idling, for a good minute until he could make himself believe it.

  After jerking the truck back into the driveway, he switched off the ignition again and reached across Rub for the flashlight he kept in the glove box. Fearing the batteries might be dead, he tested it on the dog, who looked away, as if embarrassed by where all this was leading. “You already figured this out, didn’t you,” Sully said, and Rub didn’t deny it. “All right, then. Let’s go get him down.”

  Eager as the dog had been to get out of the truck before, he seemed reluctant to now, but he obeyed his second command and scooted down off the seat and trotted over to the base of the tree, Sully following, his flashlight playing at the trunk, to which, he now saw, several scraps of wood had been nailed, a makeshift ladder. “Hey, Rub,” he said when the beam found his friend, sitting with his back to the trunk on what remained of the limb he’d sawed off, who knew how many hours ago. Even in the dark, Sully could see his friend’s eyes were swollen from crying. “What’re you doing up there?”

  “Guh-guh-guh,” Rub began, but quickly gave up.

  “Go away?” Sully guessed.

  “Yeah, go away,” he said. For some reason Rub was always able to say whatever had just been stuck in the back of his throat once Sully himself said the words, as if he knew how to say it in German or French, just not English. If Sully guessed wrong, though, Rub’s struggle would continue.

  “Okay,” Sully said, “but how long do you plan on staying up there?”



  “Yeah, forever.”

  “That’s not a very good plan, Rub.”

  The other Rub barked, evidently agreeing.

  “In fact, it’s even dumber than climbing up there by yourself in the first place.”

  Difficult though it was to credit, Sully could now see the whole skein of events. Rub, fed up with waiting, finally nailing those wood scraps to the trunk; then climbing up. No doubt he’d attached one end of the rope to his belt after tying the chain saw to the other end so he could hoist it up. Probably he’d hoped he could sit or stand on the branch below the one he meant to saw off, which from the ground might’ve looked possible. Once up in the tree, though, he would’ve realized it wasn’t. If he sat on the lower limb, he couldn’t quite reach the one above; and to stand on it he’d need three hands—the first to steady himself against the trunk and the other two to operate the chain saw. Up there, he’d have seen that his sole option was to sit on the branch he was going to saw off, with his back pressed against the trunk. (Even Rub wasn’t dumb enough to sit on the severed part that was about to fall off.) Only then, after the limb had dropped—okay, sure, Sully was hypothesizing here—and he lowered the chain saw down to the ground by means of the rope, did it occur to Rub that he was now stuck. With nothing to grab on to, he couldn’t rise from his sitting position. Without the branch now lying on the ground, he couldn’t lean forward and rotate around to face the trunk. Nor, with his back to it, could he lower himself down to the next branch and from there to the nearest rung of the makeshift ladder.

  “Yeah?” Rub was saying. “Well, go fuh-fuh-fuh—”

  “Fuck myself?”

  “Yeah, fuck yourself.”

  “Hey,” Sully said. “Don’t blame me. You did this to yourself.”

  “You wuh-wuh-wuh—”

  “I know. I was supposed to come help you, but I forgot. I’m sorry.”

  The consequence of this apology, of course, Sully might’ve predicted. Rub began crying again, that same mewling sound he hadn’t recognized before as human sorrow. Not wanting t
o witness it, Sully turned off the flashlight. “Stay, Rub,” he told the dog, before heading back to the truck for the ladder.

  Human Rub’s voice followed him from the tree. “Where the fuh-fuh-fuh-fuck am I gonna go?”

  “I wasn’t talking to you,” Sully told him.

  Sock Drawer

  “WHAT DO YOU mean no snake?” she wanted to know.

  Raymer, groggy, was sitting in the middle of his office sofa, his hands tented over his boxers. He’d worn briefs his whole life until he disrobed in front of Becka that first time and she’d reacted to them with startled revulsion. “Well,” she said, “that’s going to have to change.” Apparently, it was an iron-clad policy: she dated only men who wore boxers. His sleeveless undershirts had to go as well. He hadn’t really minded switching to boxers, though they took some getting used to, given how they bunched up and gapped at the fly, which was why he’d tented his hands over them now. What did it mean that he hadn’t gone back to briefs now that Becka was gone? The sad truth was that during their short tenure together he’d learned to defer to Becka in most matters. She’d switched him from Colgate to Crest, from Listerine to Scope, from Arrid to Right Guard. Free now to return to his own preferences, he discovered that they’d come to match. Maybe that was what marriage meant, except that in theirs it had been a one-way street. He couldn’t think of a single behavior of Becka’s that he had altered in the slightest. But perhaps that was because there was so little he’d wanted to change, whereas she’d evidently viewed him as a fixer-upper from the start, structurally sound, the sort of property you wouldn’t mind owning after you’d completed all the necessary renovations. First, though, you’d have to gut it, which was pretty much how Raymer felt by the end. As if the overhaul of his person was coming in over budget, and the person footing the bills was having serious second thoughts.

  To judge by her expression, the woman standing over him in her off-duty attire—tight jeans and a halter top, in all rather provocative—agreed. It was as if by studying him she could envision all the improvements Becka had tried to make and was calculating how much work remained to be done, what it would cost to finish a job so poorly begun or whether it would make better sense to start over and just gut him again. How was it possible that two women with so little in common had come to share such an unflattering assessment?

  “I mean,” he told Charice, his embarrassment giving way to annoyance, “no…fucking…snake.”

  He and Justin had gone through every apartment in the Morrison Arms, including Raymer’s, plus the common areas. No snake, no trace. Tomorrow, when electricity was restored, it would have to be done again, this time, blessedly, without Raymer’s assistance. Justin had called in additional animal-control personnel from Albany, but even so he wasn’t very hopeful. It was possible the cobra had slithered into a vent or behind a wall, though it wasn’t likely. Thanks to the heat wave, all the windows that didn’t have air conditioners in them had been flung open in hopes of capturing a stray breeze, and the two rear doors on opposite ends of the central corridor had been propped open as well. The snake was long gone, probably into the weedy lot out back. Once it was daylight it, too, would have to be searched. Until then there wasn’t much to be done. The Squeers brothers and the town’s two or three other private trash collectors had already been warned to be careful when upending garbage cans into their trucks. Meanwhile, until the authorities were certain there was no danger, the Arms was off-limits to residents, all of whom had been given vouchers for a night’s stay at one of the inexpensive motels out by the interstate, a significant upgrade as far as they were concerned.

  Raymer himself had a voucher but for the time being had opted for his office sofa. Not wanting anyone to know he was there, he’d snuck into the station through the back door. Dead on his feet, he’d had just enough energy left to shed his sweat-soaked uniform before collapsing onto the couch, too exhausted to go over and make sure the door was locked. So Charice had found him there, enjoying a sleep so profound and dreamless that it bordered on oblivion, the kind of slumber only a very cruel person would interrupt. In fact, the kind of person who, if she was to be believed, had a butterfly tattooed on her rear end.

  “What are you even doing here?” he asked.

  “I work here, same as you. What’re you saying, exactly? It got away, or there was no snake to begin with?”

  The former, he assured her, though the question was understandable. Mass hysteria had been Raymer’s own first thought. Somebody yells Snake! and everybody sees scores of them all over. But that was before he and Justin entered apartment 107. It hadn’t taken Justin long to suss out what was going on in there. No pots, pans, plates, bowls or silverware in the kitchen. Just a ratty couch facing the small television in the living room. A minifridge stocked with cheap beer under the window. The larger kitchen fridge, with most of its shelving removed, had been completely repurposed. Justin had noted the temperature setting and removed the one flat box, holding it out to Raymer and saying, “Snake?” When the shape of the box altered subtly before Raymer’s eyes and he took a quick, involuntary step backward, Justin grinned and returned it to the fridge. “No doubt about it, this guy’s in business.”

  The guy being “William Smith,” according to Boogie Waggengneckt, who’d never met him and claimed to have learned only the day before what was in the UPS packages he’d been signing for. Nobody else at the Arms seemed to have met the guy, either.

  The bedroom in 107 was heavily curtained, so dark inside that Raymer instinctively flipped the switch, which of course did nothing at all. There was just enough light from the front room for them to make out the cages stacked on the bed and along one wall. When Justin turned on his flashlight, there was a chorus of rattles and hisses, but it was the dark, relentless, ropy movement that caused Raymer to back into the front room, his stomach roiling with rancid Twelve Horse ale. When Justin emerged a few minutes later, carefully shutting the door behind him, he was carrying a blue plastic pail of the sort you’d take to the beach for a small child. This one was full of handguns. “Not just the snake business, either,” Justin said, handing them to Raymer, who examined several of them. The serial numbers, no surprise, had all been filed off. “You’ll find drugs as well, I can almost guarantee it.”

  It had taken them and two additional officers, together with the apartment house’s manager, three nerve-racking hours to complete the search for the missing snake, after which Raymer had ordered the Arms locked down and the entire complex to be surrounded with crime-scene tape.

  “Did I hear you right?” Justin asked him when they were back outside in the parking lot. Justin was still in his waders, leaning against his van and smoking a cigarette. “You live here?”

  Raymer, deeply embarrassed, winced. “I had no idea.” What one of his neighbors was up to, he meant, though it was possible Justin had merely been commenting on the fact that the place was a sty and not the sort of place a police chief would call home.

  “Well, you wouldn’t, necessarily. These guys don’t linger. They set up shop, do their business and get the fuck out of Dodge. Three, four weeks, max.”

  “You’ve run into this before?”

  “Heard about it. Mostly down south.”

  “Why an apartment house instead of someplace out in the sticks?”

  “You’d have to ask them, but cost is a factor, I imagine. Plus rural folks tend to be nosy. Observant. Welfare types mind their own damn business. They got too many problems of their own to worry about the neighbors. If it hadn’t been for the power outage, you probably never would’ve known this guy was even here.”

  “Explain the fridge, then? And the air-conditioning?”

  “Below sixty degrees, snakes basically hibernate. With the AC running, they’d wake up every couple of days, drink some water, go back to sleep. You wouldn’t even need to feed them.”

  “Whereas in ninety-five-degree heat?”

  “Wide awake. Hungry. Pissed off.”

e of it made any sense to Raymer. “Okay, but why?”

  “There’s a growing market for exotic reptiles. Boas don’t make bad pets, actually. Gotta remember to feed ’em, though. One lady down in Florida drove to the market for milk. Gone, like, ten minutes. Came home to this very fat snake in the baby’s crib.”

  Raymer considered sharing this story with Charice now. Maybe she’d go away and leave him alone.

  “So what you’re saying is, it got away?” she wanted to know, still obsessed by the cobra. “Got away where? What if it bites some little kid?”

  “The kid dies.”

  “That’s cold.”

  “We searched until it was pitch dark, okay? What do you want from me?” He intended this to be a rhetorical question, but he could tell she didn’t get it. “Please? Pretty please? Could we continue this conversation after I get dressed?” He pointed at his office chair, over which he’d draped his pants. “If you won’t go away, could you at least hand me those?”

  She did, reluctantly, making forceps of her thumb and index finger. Could you blame her? The waistband was still soggy with perspiration. He’d have to drop the whole uniform off at the dry cleaners.

  “We should be doing something, is all I’m saying,” Charice told him, backing off a little. “Serve and protect, right?”

  “I wish we’d settled on that instead of We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”

  “There you go putting in that extra ‘not’ again.”

  Rising, he turned his back to her, pulled on his trousers and immediately felt better, as only a man who’d never felt comfortable in his God-given body will. “Volunteers are going door-to-door in the neighborhood,” he assured her, “warning people not to let their children play outside until it’s found.”

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