Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “How my gonna get my ass out yonder?”

  “I can get somebody to give you a lift,” Raymer assured him. “Hell, I’ll take you out there right now.” Charice wouldn’t mind a short detour.

  The old man shook his head. “Too late. Already had my dinner. Old people got poor digestion. Eat early. Pass my bedtime, too.”

  Raymer sighed. “Mr. Hynes?”


  “You like doing things your own way, don’t you?”

  “Eighty-some-odd years I been at it.”

  “If I let you stay here, are you gonna tell on me? If that snake crawls into your bed and bites you, are you gonna throw me under the bus? Tell people I said you could stay?”

  “Snake’s halfway back to India by now,” said Mr. Hynes. “You said so your own self.”

  “That’s true, I did, but I’m wrong about a lot. When I say the snake’s gone, I mean probably. I mean it’s gone unless it isn’t. If I’m wrong, it’s you that gets bit, not me. So why don’t you let me give you a ride out to the Holiday Inn? It’d make me feel a whole lot better.”

  “Thank you. I ’preciate it, but I’ll take my chances. You can come check up on me in the mornin’. See if I’m dead or alive. If I’m dead, you can say I toad you so.”

  To Raymer that sounded like the last word, so he pulled the apartment door shut behind him, and together they started down the stairs, Mr. Hynes clutching the railing with one hand and Raymer’s elbow with the other, his fingers like talons, his grip fierce. “Somebody been peeing in here,” he observed, sniffing the air. “White man.”

  “You can tell?”

  “Yup. A whitey for sure.”


  “ ’Cause the only black person livin’ here is me, and I use my own facility.”

  Odd, Raymer thought as they descended, how the human touch could serve to banish fear. In the company of this frail old man, there was suddenly no reason to fear some cobra. Outside, a horn tooted. At the bottom of the stairs, Raymer said, “You sure you’re going to be okay here?”

  “Be fine. Goin’ to bed. That a black gal I see you with out there?”

  So he’d watched them pull in, then. Saw Charice under the Honda’s dome light when he got out of the car. He hadn’t climbed the stairs because he thought Raymer was a burglar. No, he was curious, just as he’d been about Jerome that afternoon. “You don’t miss much, Mr. Hynes.”

  “Wish I was younger,” he said. “Give you a run for your money.”

  “You’ve got the wrong idea. She works for me,” he explained. “Plus I’m ten years older than she is. More.”

  “So what?”

  “Also, she could do a lot better,” he added, thinking again of Becka, who’d evidently come to that same conclusion.

  “So what?” the old man repeated. “Every woman I been lucky with coulda done better than me. When it comes to men, gals ain’t always thinkin’ straight. A man do well to remain alert to the possibility.”

  “She doesn’t even like me, Mr. Hynes. She’s keeping a list of all the things I do wrong so she can sue me later.”

  “Could be love.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  The man shrugged. “Pass my bedtime,” he repeated.

  “I’ll have somebody come by and check on you in the morning,” Raymer promised.

  “Have her do it. Maybe she got a thing for old men. You never know,” he cackled, waving goodbye. “Get me a good night’s sleep, just in case.”

  Raymer watched as Mr. Hynes shuffled down the dark corridor, one hand along the wall to steady himself. He tried to imagine his days, sitting outside in a lawn chair, hour upon hour, waving a little American flag at passersby. He recalled what Jerome had said earlier at Gert’s—that taking the time to talk to a lonely old man really was what police work was all about. He would’ve liked to believe Jerome was right, though a better policeman wouldn’t have allowed Mr. Hynes to remain at the Morrison Arms tonight. He’d have ignored his preference and made the man safe.

  “I was about to go in there after you,” Charice said when he emerged from the building. “What took you so long?”

  “I packed a bag,” he said, holding it up.

  When they got into the car, she left her door open so the dome light stayed on and arched an eyebrow at him. “You think you’re stayin’ over? You think lamb chops is just the first course?”

  “God no, Charice,” he said, feeling himself flush.

  Her eyebrow elevated even farther now. “What do you mean, ‘God no’? Like you wouldn’t think of staying, even if you got invited? Is that what ‘God no’ means?”

  “No, Charice,” he said. “All I meant was…”

  She was grinning at him now, which meant she’d been toying with him again, as with the fake menu of fried chicken and collard greens.

  “I just wish you wouldn’t be so mean to me,” he said.

  “I know,” she said. “I wish I wouldn’t, too. I just can’t help myself, I guess.”

  “Please try.”

  “I know one thing,” she said, turning the key in the ignition and closing the door. “Next time I’m coming in with you. No more sitting out in the parking lot, wondering if you’re lying snakebit on the floor in there.”

  He looked over at her, but with the light out it was impossible to read her expression. It would have been nice to believe that maybe this was the beginning of a friendship, but how could you be friends with a woman if you never knew when she was making fun of you? At least with Becka, he told himself, then stopped. Had he completed the thought, it would’ve been: he’d known where he stood. But that wasn’t true. He hadn’t known where he stood with Becka. He’d just imagined he did.

  “There might not be a next time,” he told Charice, something like an intention forming in the part of his skull where his headache had been earlier. Until that moment he hadn’t even been aware that it was gone. “I’m thinking about moving.”

  On, he thought. He was thinking about moving on.


  FOR A WEEKDAY NIGHT, the White Horse was busy, its booths all occupied by out-of-towners, half of whom were talking on cellular telephones. Where most were headed—Lakes George, Placid, Schroon and Champlain—they’d have no service. Those headed up the interstate to Montreal wouldn’t have reception for a good three hours. So many downstaters heading north this early in the season should’ve been good news for Birdie, whose sweat equity made her co-owner of the establishment, but in fact she looked like someone who was about to burn her half to the ground. Weird how every single woman Sully knew—Ruth, Janey, Bootsie and now Birdie—was on the warpath, as if they’d all received the same gender-coded message on the wind. “Perfect,” Birdie said, glancing up and watching Sully and the two Rubs come inside. “Now my night is complete.”

  Sully slid onto the only vacant stool, right next to Jocko, who was still wearing his Rexall pharmacy smock, and slapped a couple twenties on the bar to ensure his welcome. “Is it me,” Sully said, “or is she happier to see us in the winter, after all the rich tourists have split?”

  “Actually,” Jocko said, “I’ve never felt particularly welcome here in any season.”

  “Sit, Rub,” Sully said, and the dog curled up beneath his stool.

  “Where?” said Rub, realizing as he did that he had fallen for the joke yet again.

  “What can I get you, Rub?” Birdie asked.

  He sighed. In the two decades he’d been drinking at the Horse, his order had never varied even once. Why couldn’t she just bring him what she knew he wanted?

  “A buh-buh-buh—”

  “Beer,” Sully translated.

  “What kind?”


  “Budweiser,” Sully said.

  “Anything else?”

  Rub looked at Sully, who’d sometimes spring for a burger, sometimes not. “Go ahead,” he told him. “You’ve had a hard day.” Which meant it wouldn’t be long before he
launched into the story he’d promised driving over not to tell.

  “A buh-buh-buh—”

  “Burger,” Sully said.

  “Anything on it?”



  Jocko’s shoulders were shaking now. “Jesus, you people are cruel,” he said.

  “And cheese,” Rub added, since he liked cheese and the word was easy to say.

  Birdie turned to Sully. “You?”

  “Just a draft.”

  “You should eat something. You look terrible.”

  “No appetite,” he confessed, which was strange, because he’d been hungry earlier. Probably Bootsie and her syringe. Otherwise, he was actually feeling better, his chest less heavy, his breathing easier than it had been all day. “What’s got your knickers all in a twist?”

  Birdie shot him a don’t-get-me-started look and then got started. “Buddy called in drunk again, an hour before his shift, so I had to scramble to find a cook.”

  A waitress emerged from the kitchen just then, a silver tray balanced on her shoulder, and before the door swung shut behind her Sully caught a glimpse of Janey working the grill.

  “Then I broke a glass in the ice and did this cleaning it up.” She held up her left hand, swaddled with half-a-dozen overlapping Band-Aids between thumb and forefinger.

  “I wondered why my pinot grigio was pink,” Jocko said, holding his glass up to the light.

  “Yeah, sure,” Sully said, “but what kind of man drinks that to begin with?”

  “A confident man? A man with no need to demonstrate his masculinity?”

  Sully rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that must be it.”

  “Then Bridget lets a table of eight skip out on steak dinners and five bottles of wine.”

  The guilty waitress just then happened by on her way to the kitchen. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “I’ve got twice the number of tables I should, and you know it.”

  Birdie ignored her. “It’s still two full weeks before my summer staff shows up, half of which probably found other jobs and never bothered to tell me.”

  Rub, who disliked standing when everybody else had a seat, was eyeing a four-top booth that two couples were getting ready to vacate. He’d been hoping to find the Horse deserted, so he could have Sully all to himself. If he could convince him to move to the booth, he could tell him about Raymer fainting in the heat and falling headfirst into the judge’s grave. The story would appeal to Sully, who’d probably commandeer it as his own immediately. By this time tomorrow night he’d have told half the town. But he was an inspired storyteller, so Rub wouldn’t mind the theft. In fact, he enjoyed watching one of his stories evolve in Sully’s hands until he himself, its source, had disappeared completely. These days his own storytelling was undermined by his stammer, as well as by his conviction that a story had to be true. Sully was hampered by neither Rub’s condition nor his strictness. He shamelessly embellished, invented, reshaped and tailored every narrative, emphasizing with each new version the elements that provoked the most laughs or stunned disbelief in previous tellings, eliminating other elements that unexpectedly fell flat. At first he might credit Rub as his source, but as he grew more confident, he’d relate the story as if he himself had been the sole eyewitness. With Sully’s best efforts, Rub sometimes wished he’d been there to enjoy the events his friend was describing, until he remembered he actually had been.

  Tonight, of course, he had a vested interest in Sully taking up the story of the police chief keeling over into that grave, because if Sully wasn’t regaling everybody in the Horse with the police chief’s idiocy, he’d be reporting Rub’s humiliating afternoon in the tree. His only hope was to replace the story he didn’t want told with a better one. “There’s a buh-buh-booth over there,” he said, pointing to it.

  “Hang on,” Sully told him, his voice lowered. “I think a barstool’s gonna open up here in a minute.”

  Because on the other side of Jocko sat none other than Spinmatics Joe, who’d been Sully’s least favorite person in all of Bath until Roy Purdy made his triumphant return. Joe usually drank at Gert’s, where a beer and a bump was a buck cheaper and only stumbling distance from the Morrison Arms. What’s more, a man could freely express the most dim-witted opinions there without fear of ridicule. The Horse, not exactly highbrow itself, was generally tolerant of stupidity, but on any given night it was possible to cross an invisible line and find yourself an object of scorn and derision when you’d been counting on, if not approval, a little forbearance.

  “Oh, Jesus Lord, Birdie,” Jocko said, having overheard what Sully whispered to Rub. “Here we go again.”

  She shrugged. “I can’t run him, Sully, not until he actually does something.”

  “You could eighty-six him on general principle.”

  Jocko snorted at this. “If that rubric were indiscriminately applied, who would remain?”

  “Only people who use words like ‘rubric,’ ” Sully conceded, “and drink pinot grigio.”

  “If he misbehaves,” Birdie assured him, “it’ll be my pleasure.”

  “He’s about to,” Sully assured her.

  “Ah, fuck,” said Jocko under his breath.

  “That you, Joe?” Sully said, leaning forward for a direct line of sight. Jocko leaned back obligingly.

  “You know it is, Sully,” replied the man in question, nodding at him in the mirror that ran along the backbar. “You don’t gotta ask.”

  “I thought it was you,” Sully went on, nodding genially. “I left my glasses at home and haven’t seen you for a while. I thought you might be your brother.”

  “I don’t have no goddamn brother.”

  “Well, your parents probably thought you were enough. So, how are things down at the Arms these days?”

  “It’s a fuckin’ shithole,” Joe said. “Course I didn’t have no crazy old woman kick off and leave me millions so I could live someplace nice.”

  Sully ignored him. “Well, at least none of those people you don’t like are living there, right?”

  “Ah, shit,” Jocko grunted, knowing full well where this seemingly innocuous conversation was bound. He hadn’t been present the night Joe got his nickname, but everyone in town knew the story. Angered by something he’d seen on the TV hung above the bar, he’d launched into a diatribe about how the fuckin’ Spinmatics were taking over the whole fuckin’ country. How, he wanted to know, could a white man get ahead when all the jobs went to the fuckin’ Spinmatics. “They already took over Amsterdam,” he said, when somebody asked what manner of redneck bullshit he was spouting now. “Y’all better wake the fuck up. They’ll be over here next.” At some point somebody had guessed what he was going on about: Hispanics. The man was talking about Hispanics. So far as Sully knew, Joe had not returned to the Horse once since getting his nickname.

  “I always forget,” Sully was saying. “Who are those folks you don’t like?”


  “Joe,” Birdie warned.

  “No, not them,” Sully said. “The other ones.”

  “Fuck you, Sully,” Joe said.

  From underneath Sully’s stool came a growl.

  “Joe,” Birdie warned again.

  “You know the ones I’m talking about,” Sully said, as if he weren’t really listening. To judge by his tone, anyone would’ve sworn the two men were on the friendliest of terms and that Sully was merely trying to jog his pal’s memory. “Help me out here. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

  There was considerable tittering up and down the bar now, and Joe stiffened at the sound. “You really are a cunt,” he said to Sully’s reflection in the mirror, sending most heads swiveling to look at Birdie. Now here was a word you never heard at the Horse, certainly not when she was tending bar. Rub got to his feet, walked in a tight circle and growled a little louder, his ears stiff.

  “Rub,” Sully snapped.

  “What,” said his friend, still standing patiently behind hi

  As his pet lay down again, Sully said, “Oh, I remember,” as if he just that second had. “The Spinmatics.”

  “And a cocksucker, too,” Joe added, draining off half his beer.

  “Drink up,” Birdie told him. “You’re out of here.”

  “It’s a shame you don’t like them better,” Sully said. “Otherwise, you could get together with three or four and cut some records. Joey and the Spinmatics.”

  Joe apparently suffered from a limited range of invective, because instead of trying out any other names, he took a different tack, raising his glass high in the air, and slowly poured the beer onto the bar. Just as he’d feared, Jocko got the worst of the splatter.

  “You still gotta pay for that,” Birdie said, once this performance was over.

  “Nah, I got it,” Sully said, pushing one of the twenties at her.

  “The whole tab?” She clearly disapproved of this largesse.

  “Why not?” he told her. “Joe and I go way back, don’t we, Spin? No need for hard feelings.”

  Joe, having slid off his stool, stood stock-still, deeply and visibly conflicted. Did they go way back, he and Sully? Was this asshole actually apologizing?

  “Though the truth is,” Sully continued, “I do prefer his brother.”

  At this Joe’s face became a thundercloud, and he balled his right hand into a fist. Rub was on his feet again, and from somewhere deep within his rib cage came a low, guttural rumble that made Joe take note of him for the first time. Though Rub wasn’t a large animal, he appeared fully committed. Joe was anything but, so he relaxed his fist.

  “Rub,” Sully said.

  “Wh-wh-which?” said his impatient friend.

  “Sit!” Sully told him.

  The dog did as instructed.

  “That’s what I’ve been wanting to do,” said his namesake.

  When the door closed behind Joe, Sully turned to face Rub and indicated the now-vacant stool. “Well? What’re you waiting for?”

  Rub wasn’t sure. He had wanted a stool, except this one was next to Jocko, who wasn’t his friend, instead of Sully, who was. He’d go from standing alone to sitting alone. As with most of what he felt deeply, he couldn’t begin to express it, so he just pointed at the puddle on the bar. “It’s all wet.”

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