Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “True,” Sully said, “but Birdie’ll wipe it up.”

  “How about if I move over one?” Jocko suggested, sliding down simultaneously.

  This, of course, was exactly what Rub had been hoping for. Yet as he stood regarding it, all he could do was reflect bitterly, as he had occasion to do each and every day, on the terrible disappointment of getting what you thought you wanted, only to discover it wasn’t, that you’d been cheated out of something you couldn’t even name.

  “Everything all right now?” Sully said when he climbed aboard.

  Rub shrugged. Everything was not all right, though he would’ve been hard-pressed to explain exactly what was wrong. Part of it was his terrible, almost visceral need for Sully. It was this, together with the knowledge that yet again his friend had forgotten him, that had driven him up into the tree that afternoon, half hoping he’d have an accident with the chain saw. If instead of the tree’s limb he managed to prune one of his own, Sully would blame himself, wouldn’t he? If he was the one to find Rub’s severed leg at the base of the tree? Surely then he’d realize it was all his fault. Eager to atone, he’d toss Carl Roebuck out of the old lady’s house and move Rub in, so he could be sure his friend had everything he needed. They’d eat meals and watch TV together. Over time Bootsie would come to regret how mean she’d been to him, and she, too, would want to move in, but Sully would draw the line at that. It would be just the two of them. Their days would be full of long hours, plenty of time for Rub to tell Sully whatever he wanted, and Sully, chastened, would be devoted to getting him back on his feet. Well…foot. Okay, Rub wasn’t crazy about the idea of losing a leg, but if that was the price of friendship, what choice did he have but to pay it? Sully’s pal Wirf had gotten along fine on one leg, and if he could be happy on just the one, then Rub supposed he could, too.

  But unfortunately there’d been no accident. The tree surgery had gone off without a hitch, unless you counted Rub’s being stranded in the tree for hours, thirty feet off the ground with no hope of getting down, as a hitch. At some point, though, certain facts, as hard and uncomfortable as the severed nub of tree limb he was sitting on, began to intrude on his pleasant dismemberment fantasy. For instance, if Rub had managed to sever his own limb, he’d likely have bled out long before Sully showed up and discovered his leg at the base of the tree. In fact, the leg probably would’ve disappeared. That close to the dump there were plenty of feral animals around, and one of them would likely have dragged this prized discovery off into the woods. In all probability what Sully would find at the base of the tree was Rub himself, because when he passed out, from pain or loss of blood, he’d almost certainly tumble from his perch onto the hard ground below, and if he wasn’t dead already, the fall would kill him. In the wake of such real-world considerations came equally cruel psychological realities. When, for instance, had he ever known Sully to blame himself for anything? If Rub had maimed himself, Sully would place the blame squarely on him for being an idiot. Nor would he kick Carl Roebuck out of the old lady’s house. It wouldn’t be Sully who nursed Rub back to health but a resentful Bootsie, who’d probably grow tired of her duties after a few days and smother him with a pillow so she could go back to reading her romance novels. And even if he somehow avoided this fate and recovered, he’d be chasing Sully all over Bath on one leg instead of two.

  “Well?” Sully was saying. “You good now, or do you need some other fucking thing to make you happy?”

  Rub sighed. “I just wisht they’d hurry up with my burger.”

  Sully nudged him, like he always did when attempting to improve Rub’s mood.

  “What?” said Rub, who didn’t necessarily want his mood improved until he improved it himself.

  “You said ‘burger.’ ”

  “So?”

  “Usually, you say ‘buh-buh-burger.’ ”

  Rub didn’t want to, but he could feel himself giving in, and when Sully nudged him a second time he smiled sheepishly. Because it was good to have a barstool, and not just any stool but the one he’d been coveting. And he had said “burger,” without stumbling. There was no word that gave him more trouble, probably because he loved burgers and would’ve been content to eat nothing else for the remainder of his days. For some reason he recalled his father’s question all those years ago: Why don’t you just give up? That, he realized, was what he’d been feeling up in the tree that afternoon. That maybe he should just give up.

  “Here comes your burger now,” Sully said as the door to the kitchen swung open and Janey emerged. She set Rub’s plate of food in front of him, along with a fork and knife wrapped in a paper napkin.

  “You again,” she said, regarding Sully.

  “Me again,” Sully agreed.

  “Spreading cheer wherever you go.”

  Which meant she’d been privy to the whole business with Spinmatics Joe. By the time he arrived at Hattie’s in the morning, Ruth would know all about it. On the other hand, there was no law that he had to go there. Hadn’t Ruth given him full permission to stay away just a few hours ago? “I try,” he told Janey weakly, but she was already bustling back into the kitchen.

  “Try harder,” she suggested, the kitchen door swinging shut behind her.

  She had a point. Today, he’d goaded two profoundly ignorant men to within an inch of violence. Both dickheads but the point remained: for what? Had he succeeded in getting them to lose their tempers, they’d have made short work of him. He was too old for bar fights, but even if he weren’t, what had he been trying to accomplish? Each time the urge had been pressing enough to suggest a purpose, but now, once his dander settled, he couldn’t imagine what it might’ve been.

  Next to him, Rub sighed. His burger sat before him untouched.

  “What’s the matter now?” Sully said.

  “There’s no buh-buh-buh—”

  “Bacon?”

  “Bacon,” Rub repeated flawlessly.

  Next to Rub, Jocko was chuckling. “Weird,” he said. “He’s really got a thing about that word.”

  “ ‘Bacon’?” Sully said, assuming he must be talking about Rub.

  “No, Joe,” he explained. “ ‘Hispanics.’ Poor bastard just can’t say it.”

  “Hispanics,” Rub repeated clearly, even though he’d decided, as he always did in the end, to make the best of things and taken a big bite of burger. “That’s not so fuh-fuh-fuh—”

  “So fuckin’ hard to say?” Sully suggested.

  “Fuckin’ hard to say,” Rub agreed.

  Sully couldn’t help smiling. For some reason, when Rub’s mood improved, Sully’s often did, too, as if their emotions were wired in parallel.

  “Because he could just say ‘spics,’ ” Jocko continued. “That would solve the problem.”

  “Or one of them,” Sully offered.

  Rub apparently agreed, too, because he thumped his tail on the floor.

  Embers

  RAYMER AWOKE TO a sensation he remembered both vividly and fondly, Becka running her fingers lightly through his thinning hair, barely touching his scalp, mere proximity causing the hair to lift in yearning toward her touch. He smiled, enjoying the feeling, unwilling to open his eyes. There’s something I need to tell you, she murmured.

  I know, he told her. I’m going bald.

  Because this had been her favorite thing to inform him about in moments of intimacy back when they were still in love, as if the shower drain hadn’t already eloquently confirmed that diagnosis. How am I going to do this when you don’t have hair?

  There’ll be plenty on the sides, he always assured her. I’ll comb it over.

  You will not.

  I’ll get implants.

  Negative.

  Then you’ll just have to—

  Find another man—this one with hair. Yes, that’s what I’ll have to do.

  This was how he expected the conversation to go now, so he was surprised when her tone grew serious. No, something else.

  What? he sai
d, and when she didn’t immediately respond, he added, You can tell me.

  Then listen.

  Of course neither Becka nor anyone else was actually speaking to him. Becka had come down the stairs like a Slinky and was dead. His hair was just stirring in the lovely breeze. When at last he opened his eyes, he saw the truth of this. There was no Becka. He was alone in the dark. Unable to accept this truth, he closed his eyes again, willing her return, because in addition to running her fingers through his hair, she’d whispered something to him, something he hadn’t quite caught but that seemed important.

  Whatever she’d wanted him to know, it was gone and so was she. Opening his eyes again, he saw he was being observed by a single red eye, something that, before he could bring it into focus, then closed. Did cobras have red eyes, he wondered. Was it coiled there at the foot of his bed? He realized he should care, but somehow couldn’t rouse any sense of urgency. Had it already bitten him? Was that why he was having so much trouble waking up, its lethal venom already coursing through his veins? Was his death approaching? Was that what Becka had needed him to know? Was that why she’d visited him? If so, fine. All he wanted, really, was to lie here awhile in this delicious breeze. When his hair stirred again, he saw that the snake had reopened its red eye. In fact, a second eye winked open to stare at him until the breeze died and both eyes closed. Then they were open again, glowing a deeper red this time, though when a third eye opened, Raymer came fully awake. He didn’t know much about cobras, but he was pretty sure they didn’t have three eyes.

  Then all at once reality returned in a rush of sensory data and memory. In the dream he’d been home in bed, but in reality he was out on Charice’s back porch—it’d been too hot to eat indoors—where he’d fallen asleep when she went inside to fetch dessert. Full of delicious grilled lamb and red wine, he’d meant to just rest his eyes for a minute. God, those lamb chops! How many had he devoured? Seven? Could he really have eaten so many? Why hadn’t he stopped at…Jesus, even four was probably too many. Because they were so delicious. That’s why. There’d been a lovely bottle of red wine as well—no, wait—two bottles. He’d been tipsy even before they’d started to eat.

  Dear God, what a day! That afternoon at Gert’s he’d rediscovered beer and now, tonight, red wine. Delicious. As thick and bloody and textured as the lamb. Becka preferred white wine, so they’d drunk that, but red…wow! Why had he stopped drinking red wine? But on this particular evening the better question was, why hadn’t he stopped? Had he swilled an expensive bottle of red wine that was meant to be sipped? How much had the meal cost her? Loin lamb chops, over ten bucks a pound, easy. Why hadn’t he asked Charice to stop at the liquor store on the way so he could contribute something to their feast?

  And just that quickly, misgiving morphed into full-blown panic. What had he done? At what point had the whole evening gone south? Idiocy, after the fact, resisted precision. That he’d somehow managed to ruin a perfectly wonderful evening was obvious. Why hadn’t he seen that wreck coming? The overwhelming sense of well-being that had come over him sitting there on a hot summer night in the company of an attractive young woman really should have been a dead giveaway. When in his entire life had such profound contentment ever presaged anything but catastrophe? The very fact that at some point in the evening he’d stopped being scared shitless of Charice should have been a further tip-off. Because Charice was a scary woman. If you weren’t scared of her, you weren’t paying attention.

  And speaking of…where was she? What had happened to her? She’d gathered up their greasy plates, his piled high with those little Gothic T-bones—had he actually picked them up with his fingers and gnawed on them? really done that?—and brought them into the kitchen. Had he offered to help, or even stood up to open the screen door? He couldn’t remember, so probably not. No, he’d just sat there like a lump, sated, drunk, beached, his chin glistening. The kitchen phone had rung, he remembered that, and Charice had answered it, taking the receiver on its long cord into the next room. It was her receding voice (No, it’s okay…listen to me…it’s just like I said…as usual, you’re getting all worked up over nothing) that had led him to think that it wouldn’t hurt to close his eyes for just a minute. When she returned to the kitchen and hung up the phone, he’d hear her, surely. He’d fallen asleep to the sound of fat bugs pinging against the screen door, the kitchen lights blazing.

  Now that same kitchen was ominously dark.

  Off to the south, the sky lit up, briefly illuminating the low clouds, then darkened. Low rumbling followed, a thunderstorm tracking up the Northway. Still a ways off, but Raymer could already feel the electricity in the air. When the breeze came up again, stronger this time, the coals at the bottom of the Weber kettle—what was left of them—glowed red, snake eyes again. Wondering what time it was, he consulted his wrist, which was bare. He could picture the watch he’d hoped to find there on his desk at the station. Why hadn’t he put it back on when they left? Why had he taken it off in the first place? Could he guess at the time by the coals in the Weber? When he’d fallen asleep the briquettes were still pulsing angrily. All that remained now were a few marble-sized embers about to expire. How long did it take for coals to completely burn down? A couple hours? More? The street was pitch dark. Was that because it was three in the morning, or had the downtown power outage spread? For some reason it seemed vital to ascertain how much time had elapsed, as if that would clarify how much trouble he was in.

  Why hadn’t Charice come out, jostled him awake and sent him the fuck home? Had she tried and been unable to rouse him? What if he hadn’t just been dozing? What if he’d passed out? Given the day he’d had and the fact that he’d gone nearly twenty-four hours without food, it was possible. He had, he knew, no head for alcohol. Back when he was married and had too much to drink, Becka had complained bitterly that it was impossible to wake him once he’d fallen asleep. Which meant that Charice had to be beyond pissed off, and who could blame her? He’d devoured her lamb chops and guzzled her expensive red wine and passed out before she could bring out dessert. Served him right to wake up alone and befuddled in the dark. Tomorrow, down at the station, Charice would no doubt add tonight’s boorish, unforgivable behavior to her long grievance list.

  Rising, he tried the screen door, which didn’t budge. Seriously? He was locked out? The breeze came up again, chilling him this time. He knocked softly. No answer. Louder. “Charice?”

  Silence.

  Wow. Was she really angry enough to lock the door on him? Why would she do that? Immediately, he had the answer. A man who would behave as he had tonight might just be capable of even worse behavior. When he awoke from his drunken stupor, he might come into her bedroom in the middle of the night, determined to take advantage of her. Which was ridiculous. He’d never do such a thing, but how was she to know that?

  “Charice?” he called again, surprised by the desperation that had crept into his voice. “Please?”

  More silence. To this point he’d been proceeding under the assumption that she’d gone to bed, but another, even more ghastly possibility now occurred to him. Maybe she was sitting in the dark of the front room, enjoying his suffering. If so, calling her name would do no good. And even if she was asleep, did he really want to wake her? No, but guess what? He didn’t want to be outside during an electrical storm, either. The porch was covered, but the sloping roof had to be twelve feet above him. Wind would drive the rain horizontally, and he’d be drenched to the skin in short order. Lightning would probably locate the metal dome of the Weber grill and then look for other grounding opportunities, which Raymer himself, soaking wet, would provide.

  “Charice?” he called, louder now, cupping his hands, trying to direct the sound inside so as not to wake the neighbors. “I’m really sorry, okay? I don’t blame you for being upset. But could you let me in? All I want is to go home.”

  Was this an insulting thing to say? Probably. He half expected to see a yellow ribbon of light come on under her be
droom door, followed immediately by an angry woman pulling on a bathrobe. What’s that supposed to mean? All you want is to go home. Now you’re full of lamb chops and Cabernet, you got no further use for me? Is that what you’re sayin’? ’Cause, I’ma add that to my list.

  Strange that in his imagination Charice should again be speaking in her teasing “black” voice, the one she used with him on the radio. During the course of the evening the syntax and vocal inflections that seemed to place her in a geographical and racial context had melted away. She’d sounded more like her brother, minus Jerome’s inflated diction. Or was he just making that up? At one point he’d almost asked, but the subject had then turned to Jerome and how he’d come so completely unglued over the attack on the ’Stang. Though loyal to her brother, she’d admitted to being concerned about his state of mind. He’d always been high strung, she said, and obsessive, as Raymer had observed. Apparently, he’d been employing a come-hither-leave-me-alone strategy with people since he was a boy. He’d always wanted friends, and later lovers, but also was repelled by intimacy and, at times, even proximity. Careful to cultivate an air of strident self-sufficiency, he was, according to Charice, extremely vulnerable. Raymer had taken all of this in, but was unsure how much to believe. Jerome had, on various occasions, given him to understand that Charice had moved to upstate New York so he’d be close by if she needed him, but tonight she’d hinted that the opposite was true—Jerome being comforted to have her close by. He’d been in therapy, she confided, for more than a decade. He took antianxiety medications that sometimes worked as intended but at other times made him even more anxious.

  “Yeah, sure, okay,” Raymer said, more than willing to grant her general diagnosis, as well as the symbiotic nature of their relationship as twins, but he was still puzzled by the particulars of what he’d witnessed that afternoon. “Why would he think I’d ever do something like keying his car? And not just key it. Shred its canvas top and leather seats. Pee in it.”

 
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