Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “What if they don’t find it?”

  “According to Justin, it’ll probably just slither off into the woods and die of starvation. Or cross the road and get run over by a car.”

  “Probably, huh?”

  “Or freeze to death when the weather gets cold.”

  “It’s the beginning of summer. We’re in a heat wave.”

  Bending over to tie his shoes, Raymer suddenly felt dizzy, and when he straightened up the room started spinning. He had to grab the corner of the desk to keep from keeling over.

  “Chief?” Charice said, her voice sounding very far off.

  “I’m okay,” he said, blinking her back into focus, his equilibrium slowly returning. “Just a little woozy.”

  “When was the last time you ate?”

  Good question. He’d skipped breakfast and had had no appetite after what’d happened at Hilldale. “Yesterday?”

  “No wonder,” she said. “Okay, then. You’re coming home with me.”

  “Umm…”

  Her eyes narrowed. “What’s that mean, ‘umm’?”

  “I mean, there’s a department rule against fraternizing.”

  “Don’t worry, slick. I got my own rules about that. What we’re talkin’ about is food, not funny business. My damn fool brother was supposed to come over, but he’s too upset over his baby got scratched. So I got a whole fridge full of food and nobody to help me eat it.”

  “Really?” Though still faint, he was hungry.

  “Fried chicken. Collard greens. Black-eyed peas. Grits. Watermelon for dessert.”

  “We’ll have to stop by the Arms so I can change.”

  “Hold on a minute,” she said. “You believed me just now?”

  “Umm.” He felt himself flush darkly. By not picking up on her joke, he’d managed to insult her. “I’m sorry, Charice. I’ve lived right here in Bath my whole life. When it comes to black people, I know you and Jerome. And Mr. Hynes,” he added, remembering the old man.

  “And you think Jerome would eat a single collard green?”

  “I don’t know. I just wish…”

  She waited.

  He swallowed hard, aware that whatever he said next would probably be a mistake, yet another opportunity for his favorite cocktail: two parts humiliation, one part bitter regret, blend until smooth. Drink up. After all, it had been that kind of day. About as bad as any he could remember since the one when Becka came downstairs like a Slinky. He felt his eyes fill with tears. “I wish,” he stumbled, thinking as much about his dead wife as the woman he was now speaking to, “that where women are concerned I didn’t feel like a complete fool every minute of my life.”

  He half expected Charice to tell him, as Becka surely would have, that the solution to that problem was simple: stop behaving like one. Instead, she just held his gaze for a long moment and said, “Lamb chops. Jerome’s favorite. And salad. You like lamb chops?”

  “I do.”

  “You know how to light a fire?”

  “If you mean charcoal, sure.”

  “Chief?” she said. “Could I say something?”

  “Have I ever prevented you from speaking your mind?”

  “This is kind of personal.”

  “It’s all been kind of personal, Charice.”

  “You gotta stop worrying so much about being wrong.”

  This was true, of course. He’d known that much for a very long time. Back when he was a boy, he’d imagined the remedy was to stop being wrong. Being right would lead to the kind of self-confidence that other people seemed to achieve so effortlessly. The better solution, according to his mother, was to quit caring so much. But how? Neither she nor anybody else had been able to help him with that part.

  “I mean, being wrong isn’t such a big deal,” Charice was saying. “We’re all wrong about a hundred times a day.”

  “I’m wrong a hundred times before breakfast.”

  “For instance, I’ve been wrong about you from the start.” Then, when he didn’t respond, she said, “Aren’t you going to ask how?”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “Are you even listening to me?”

  No, he hadn’t been. Not really. He’d been listening to himself. Trapped, as usual, in the maze of Douglas Raymer’s thoughts, with no exit. He scrolled back.

  “How were you wrong about me, Charice?”

  “Now I don’t know if I should even tell you.”

  “But you’re going to. We both know that. You’ve never not told me something you wanted me to know.”

  “That’s true, but I could tell you tomorrow instead of now.” Her hand was on the door and she was smiling again, even more broadly this time.

  “Tell me, Charice. I’m sure it’s something I need to know.”

  She lowered her gaze to belt level. “Those shorts. Something very wrong there. I never would’ve pegged you for a boxers man.”

  —

  HER AGED CIVIC wasn’t spacious, but at least the passenger seat had been pushed back as far as it would go. Until now, Raymer hadn’t given much thought to Charice’s private life, though it was suggestive, surely, that the seat’s default mode had apparently been determined by her long-legged brother and not some boyfriend. And Friday nights, when another young woman might have been going out on a date or drinking happy-hour margaritas with girlfriends, she’d been planning on cooking dinner for Jerome. It stood to reason, he supposed. It couldn’t be easy for a young black woman here. Who would she go out with in conservative, lily-white Bath? Her brother—tall, handsome, well dressed and well spoken—wouldn’t lack for social opportunity in Schuyler Springs. A college town, its demographic downstate, liberal, hip, urban. Charice might’ve had an easier time of it over there, though Raymer doubted it. White men, at least in his experience, might be attracted to a good-looking black woman but were much less likely to date her than a black man was to date a white woman. Would Raymer himself have asked Charice out if he hadn’t been married when they met, and if he hadn’t been her boss, and if she wasn’t always busting his balls and threatening to sue him for job-related offenses? Okay, that was too many “ifs” to work through with any confidence. He had been married and he was her boss and she did bust his balls morning, noon and night, and most of the time she seemed at least half serious about suing him.

  And anyway, maybe this was all a crock. What did he really know about her? She lived in Bath, but maybe she partied in Schuyler. Maybe she had a date every night. Maybe half the eligible men in town had seen her butterfly tattoo. What did it say about him that he assumed she had no social life? That supper at home with her brother on Friday nights was something she looked forward to, the high point of her week? Did the fact that she’d invited her middle-aged, depressed honky boss over to eat Jerome’s lamb chops suggest that despondency had set in? Possibly. But wasn’t it also possible that, while he was busy pitying her, she was already pitying him? If he wasn’t careful, he’d find out.

  “There’s a flashlight in the glove compartment,” she said when they pulled into the empty parking lot at the Morrison Arms. Except for a single streetlight farther up the block and Gert’s, which must’ve had a backup generator, the street was pitch black. On a normal Friday night, that dive would’ve been packed, its raucous crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk, but not tonight. Further testimony, apparently, to just how much power an escaped cobra could bring to bear on the collective human imagination.

  Opening the Honda’s glove box, Raymer couldn’t help smiling at the contrast between Charice’s reassuring clutter and her brother’s obsessive neatness. “Did you know Jerome actually special ordered an owner’s manual to his thirty-five-year-old car?”

  Charice sighed and said, “Poor Jerome,” her voice rich with what sounded like genuine pity, though Raymer couldn’t quite gauge its extent. Did she pity her brother generally, because he was Jerome, or just today, undone as he was by the attack on his pride and joy.

  “What’s wrong with him, anyway?”
r />
  “Wrong?” Suspicious now. Protective, too. He reminded himself that they were twins.

  “Why would he think I’d key his car? Can you explain that to me?”

  “I could try,” she said, “but the only real explanation for Jerome is Jerome. Don’t be long,” she added when he got out.

  He didn’t blame her for being nervous. In broad daylight this parking lot was no place for a woman alone. Tonight, the lot empty, the two-story building encircled by police tape, a lethal serpent slithering somewhere in the vicinity, was enough to give anybody the willies. Aware that Charice was watching him, he did his best to imitate nonchalance as he ducked under the yellow tape and entered the building. In the black stairwell that led up to his second-floor apartment, he shivered despite the still-oppressive heat. Though every apartment here had been carefully searched only hours ago, the fact that they hadn’t found it didn’t mean the snake wasn’t in here somewhere. Or so it seemed just then. Sweeping the flashlight’s beam over the stairs, he nevertheless paused every few steps to listen for hissing. In the dark his other senses were magnified, including, unfortunately, his sense of smell. Who, he asked himself, would urinate in an unventilated stairwell in the middle of a heat wave?

  Unlocking his apartment, he pushed the door open slowly, directing the flashlight beam along the perimeter of the floor, looking for movement, half surprised when there wasn’t any. The Arms had a serious roach problem, and despite Raymer’s repeated, aggressive spraying of his apartment’s every recess, the silverfish, centipedes and assorted creepy-crawlies that lived in them all continued to thrive and multiply. When he got up to pee in the middle of the night, the bathroom light sent them scurrying into drains and behind cracked tiles. Normally enough to make your skin crawl, this actually would’ve been welcome now, a signal that the status quo, while disgusting, was still in force. Did exotic reptiles eat cockroaches, he wondered. Had the cobra managed to accomplish in a matter of hours what his dogged spraying had not? This put him in mind of Justin’s story—almost certainly apocryphal—of the woman who came home to find a suspiciously fat boa constrictor in her baby’s crib. Would Raymer find the cobra curled up in the middle of his bed, too cockroach engorged to rear up and hood? From the bedroom doorway, he shined the flashlight first on the bed, then the floor. Both snakeless.

  Entering cautiously, he paused before his dresser, the top drawer of which contained his underwear. Amazing, he thought, just how easily a man’s reason could be stampeded. Because, really, the snake had to be long gone, right? Assuming some motorist hadn’t run over it, the thing could have made it all the way to Schuyler Springs by now, though bad news seldom seemed to head in that direction. One of the few places it simply couldn’t be was in a closed sock drawer. For a snake to scale the dresser, pull open the drawer in question without benefit of an opposable thumb (or hand, for that matter), climb in and then—this was the best part—pull the drawer closed again from the inside without the aid of a handle was beyond impossible in the world Raymer knew and navigated on a daily basis. So why did it seem to him at this particular moment that it in fact had managed this feat? And why, before opening the drawer to find out, did he feel the need to rap it smartly with the flashlight and listen for stirring inside? Because he knew from personal experience that the world was rational until it wasn’t, after which all bets were off. When, without warning, the world pivoted, it became in that instant unrecognizable. There you are, cruising along, confident in your knowledge of how things work, until one afternoon you come home early and there’s your beloved wife on the stairs, her forehead seemingly stapled to the bottom step, the whole of her defying gravity. Suddenly you understand how wrong you’ve been about every last fucking thing, and that you have little choice but to adjust to this terrible new reality. What can’t be undeniably is and will be forevermore. Except here, too, you’re wrong. Because gradually, after the shock wears off, the world returns to its familiar old habits, seemingly satisfied to have thrown you for a giant loop and content to await the return of your complacence so it can slip a venomous snake into your damn sock drawer, thereby demonstrating yet again that it, not you, is in charge and always will be, you dumb fuck.

  Which was why Raymer, normally calm and rational, slowly inched open the drawer that couldn’t possibly contain a snake and yet might anyway. When nothing stirred or struck, he opened it a little more and then a little more still, leaning back in order to make the cobra’s strike more geometrically challenging, until he could be certain of its contents: undershorts, socks and handkerchiefs. Not even a garter.

  Disrobing quickly and kicking his sweaty uniform into the corner (wary of disturbing whatever might be in the hamper), he thought about showering in the dark, then immediately thought better of it. He pulled on a fresh pair of boxers—smiling to think that Charice had correctly intuited his preference for briefs, pleased that a woman her age had given this even a passing thought—and then clean socks, jeans and a short-sleeved, button-down shirt. To avoid having to return later tonight or tomorrow morning, he decided to pack a small bag. That involved getting down on his hands and knees and shining the flashlight under the bed where he kept his gym bag. This he pulled out and shook—for consistency’s sake, because, well, a snake that could access his sock drawer would have no problem unzipping a bag, crawling inside and rezipping it. Into the empty bag he tossed two sets of underclothes and three extra shirts, since he was already sweating through the one he’d just put on.

  Passing by the window, he glanced down into the parking lot, empty except for Charice’s Civic, just as its dome light came on and she got out. She was either too hot sitting there or growing impatient with how long he was taking. Something about her posture, how anxiously she surveyed the dark building, suggested a third, albeit remote, possibility: that she was concerned for his well-being. Was it conceivable that what her batshit brother had said that afternoon was true—that Charice was devoted to him? He doubted it. Just as he didn’t believe that Becka had ever once worried about him. At the Academy, all the cadets had been warned about the emotional toll police work can take on marriages. Awakening to sirens at three in the morning, spouses would wonder if tonight was the night they’d get the call they’d been dreading. Your husband’s been shot. He’s in intensive care, stable for now, but you’d better come right away. Of course such nightmare scenarios were mostly urban, and Raymer was unlikely to get shot in Bath. On the other hand, until today the odds of his being bitten by a cobra had seemed considerably long as well. The world was a dangerous place, and Becka must’ve known that on any given day her husband might pull over the wrong car or stop at a convenience store just as some wacked-out dickhead emerged with the contents of the register in his jacket pocket, a Slurpee in one hand and a .45 in the other. Raymer had been prepared to reassure Becka that nothing like that would ever happen to him, but somewhat disappointingly the subject had never come up.

  From where he stood now it was too dark and Charice was too far away for him to see the expression on her face, but it was flattering to imagine that it might reveal something other than her usual profound irritation. When she appeared to look in his general direction, he waved, but as he did she looked away again, and he doubted he’d have been visible in an unlit window anyway.

  In the bathroom he added his shaving kit to the gym bag, then returned to the front room and paused for a moment, trying to think if there was anything else he’d need at the motel that evening. Strange that it should come home to him so powerfully—with the apartment’s squalor far less obvious in the dark—that Charice was right about the Morrison Arms. That he resided by choice in such a shithole spoke volumes about his state of mind, if not his character. Things hadn’t been right, or even close to right, since Becka. Most days he was borderline deranged with something he didn’t identify as either grief or jealousy but that might be a strange hybrid of the two. But did it really matter what was wrong with him? The important thing was that the time had come
to pull himself together. Probably losing that garage-door remote this morning was the best thing that could’ve happened to him. He could see that now. Just let it go. The suspicion, the jealousy, the self-doubt. All of it.

  He was thinking he’d do exactly that when he opened his apartment door and ran smack into the backlit man on the other side of it, his fist raised, mid-knock. The sound that emerged from Raymer’s larynx resembled a bleat as he staggered backward, his heart in his throat, his chest leaping violently. Only when his flashlight hit the floor and skittered away, coming to rest between the dark figure’s feet, did he realize he’d dropped it.

  “Mr. Hynes,” he said when that gentleman bent down, his ancient bones creaking, retrieved the flashlight and handed it back to him. “What’re you doing here?”

  “Thought I heard somebody,” he said. “You still looking for that reptile?”

  “No,” Raymer said, his hand over his heart, which was still thumping wildly. “It’s probably halfway back to India by now.”

  “Thought you was a burglar,” the old man said. “Sneaking around here in the dark like that…”

  “Yeah, but Mr. Hynes?”

  “Uh-huh?”

  “If I was a burglar, what was your plan?”

  “Get a good look at you,” he said. “ ’Dentify you in the police lineup. Send yo’ ass to jail.”

  “But…,” Raymer started, then decided against trying to talk him out of good citizenship. “Mr. Hynes? You’re not supposed to be here. That’s what the yellow tape around the building means. Until we remove that, the building isn’t safe. Especially for a man of your years, all alone in the dark. What if you fell and there was nobody around to hear you call for help?”

  “Me and the dark is old friends,” he said. “Go way back. Before you was born, even.”

  “Didn’t they give you a coupon, Mr. Hynes? So you could stay out at the Holiday Inn tonight? Have dinner at Applebee’s? Paid for by the town of Bath?”

 
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