Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “It doesn’t have anything to do with you,” she assured him. “If I’d been there, it would’ve been me he suspected. And believe me. I have been there.”

  Raymer must’ve looked dubious, because she’d continued. “You know your problem?” she said, pointing a glistening steak knife at him. It was a question she asked him at least once a day, which annoyed him less than the fact that every day she provided a different answer. “You think you’re the only one who’s messed up.”

  “Yeah?” he’d replied, unsure why having her point out yet another human failing of his should be so pleasurable. Maybe it was because tonight her tone was not only nonjudgmental but almost, well, affectionate. For a moment he nearly expected her to put down her steak knife, reach across the table and take his hand.

  “Whereas,” she told him, “everybody’s messed up.”

  “Even you?”

  “Okay, not everybody,” she conceded. She’d smiled then, and he must have smiled as well, because she said, “I know it’s been a rough year since…but you’re going to be okay, you know. If you just let yourself.”

  It had been, now that he thought about it, the very nicest moment in a thoroughly wonderful evening. How was it even possible for things to devolve so quickly? How would he ever make it up to her?

  “Charice?” he said. “I want to pay you for the lamb chops. Is that okay? And the wine? That was expensive, wasn’t it? I know your salary. I mean, I know everybody’s salary, not just yours. But I had a really nice time. I want to make sure you know that. I don’t blame you for being mad. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. Or passed out. Whatever I did. But I’m really sorry, so would you please, please, let me in so I can go home?”

  In the silence that followed, Raymer could feel himself slipping into one of his maudlin fugue states.

  “I’m thinking about resigning, Charice,” he heard himself say. “Did you know that? I know you’re keeping a list of all the things I do wrong, so I guess I don’t have to explain why. I wish I was better at my job. I do. I wish I was better at everything. Anyway, I just want you to know…”

  He stopped. What did he want her to know?

  “Okay,” he sighed. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the station, then.”

  Her apartment was on the top floor of an old two-family house, the residences configured, as near as Raymer could tell, identically. Directly below her second-story porch was another just like it. Peering over the railing into the darkness below, he tried as best he could to gauge the distance to the ground, impossible to do except when the sky lit up again, providing him with the briefest of snapshots. The problem was that the land the house sat on sloped downward from the street—sharply at the rear of the house—toward a dry creek bed. The shortest distance to the ground was at the front of the porch, but there he’d be dropping onto either a sidewalk that ran alongside the house or the neighbor’s paved driveway. A kid could probably do it, might even enjoy the thrill, while Raymer would probably break a femur. The ground would be softer off the rear of the porch, but the drop was an additional three or four feet there, and given the slope he might land awkwardly and tumble into the ravine below. Better to climb down, surely, than to leap.

  The porch was supported, front and back, by two sturdy-looking columns. Would it be possible for a man his size to shinny down one of these? Maybe, if he absolutely had to. Which he did. He decided against the front column because, if he lost his grip, it would be unforgiving concrete he’d land on, though from the rear he’d most likely drop into a large hedge, where he might well become entrapped or even impaled. No doubt about it: a smart man would stay right where he was, curl up into a ball and ride out the storm on the porch. Deal with Charice’s wrath in the morning. The sky lit up again, the storm closer now. He swung one leg over the railing.

  Rotten wood, even when painted over, has the soft, porous feel of a badly told lie, and as Raymer began his cautious descent, his brain registered this alarming development even before the column, when he wrapped his legs around it, began to pull away from the porch floor it supported. In that instant a number of things ran through his mind, among them the realization that the last twenty-four hours were providing him with a graduate seminar in floors and ceilings and roofs and load-bearing support, an education that might very well be the death of him. Knowing that the column he was clinging to was no longer tethered securely to anything, he immediately felt the wisdom of clambering back up top. He still had one hand on the porch floor, but to haul his carcass over its lip he would need both hands, and even then he wasn’t sure he was strong enough. Still, what other choice did he have? He couldn’t very well just let go. When he reached up with his free hand and grabbed hold of a plank, however, it had the same punky feel as the column, and a split second later the handful of rotten floorboard came away in his hand, and the moment after that he lost his grip with his other hand, which meant he was now connected to the house by his legs alone. So, he thought, this is how it ends.

  Except somehow it didn’t. The column, instead of wrenching completely free of the upstairs porch, as he might’ve expected, pulled away from the house a groaning inch at a time, allowing Raymer to wrap his arms around it and hang on for dear life. Then, amazingly, given that the post was no longer attached to the porch it was supposedly supporting, it stopped moving altogether. For the moment, though fifteen feet off the ground, he was stable. Unfortunately, the upstairs porch, at least to judge by the grinding sounds above, was not. Looking up, he saw the structure begin to sag. After which he saw nothing at all, because there was suddenly a blinding flash of light, incredibly close, that Raymer’s brain decoded as lightning, so he shut his eyes tight, bracing for the inevitable sizzle and thunderclap. This never came, but what did, again from above, was a rapid-fire crackling sound, the spindles of the upstairs railing snapping like twigs while the entire structure slumped even more dramatically. Having no desire to see all that come crashing down on him, Raymer kept his eyes sealed tightly shut and waited for the impact, but this didn’t come, either. It was as if the world’s effects had been abruptly hewn from their causes. When he finally did open his eyes, he discovered that his circumstance was far less perilous than he’d imagined. Yes, the column had completely detached from the upstairs porch, but it remained affixed, somehow, to the downstairs one, forming a radical V. By loosening his grip, he was able to slide right down it, then gently drop those last few harmless feet to the ground.

  His mistake was remaining on the spot to marvel at the geometry of the column and the fact that the upstairs porch, despite its now-treacherous slope, somehow remained aloft. He heard the rattle of plastic wheels but didn’t put two and two together until the Weber kettle hit the splintered section of railing and capsized. As often happens in such situations, luck was on Raymer’s side until it wasn’t. The kettle’s dome, which might’ve killed him, landed with a dull thud behind him, then rolled down into the ravine. Even the rain of ashes and the last of the burning embers wouldn’t have been terribly problematic if he hadn’t been looking up.

  But of course he was.

  —

  RAYMER HAD GONE only a couple blocks when he heard the familiar burp of a police siren. Turning, he made out one of North Bath’s three squad cars inching along behind him, close to the curb. Then the spotlight came on, finishing the job of blinding him that the falling ash had begun. He figured it had to be Miller at the wheel. Who else would be dumb enough to treat the boss like a common perp?

  “That you, Chief?”

  Sure enough, it was Miller’s voice. “Turn that fucking thing off,” Raymer told him, hands up to shield his burning eyes.

  When blessed darkness returned, he went over to the vehicle, and the passenger window rolled down. “Why are you still on duty?” he asked Miller.

  “Pulling a double,” he explained. The look on his face was astonishment bordering on, for some reason, fear. “What’s that you got all over you?”

  Raymer ignored this. “
Why are you here?”

  “Like I said—”

  “No, I mean here. On this street…this block. As opposed to anywhere else.”

  “Responding to a call. Guy reported seeing a heavyset Caucasian man attempting to—”

  “That was me.”

  Miller nodded but was clearly troubled. “Actually, Chief? Right now you look more like…”

  “Like what?”

  “Like, well, a Negro-type individual.”

  “You mean a black man?”

  Miller sighed deeply. “Chief?” he said. “I’m not really understanding any of this. Am I supposed to?”

  “Go on back to the station, okay? Forget this ever happened.”

  When the window rolled back up, Raymer returned to the sidewalk and resumed walking, his eyes still smarting from the ash. At the end of the block he realized the cruiser was still creeping along the curb behind him. Again the window rolled down.

  “Chief?”

  “What, Miller?”

  “Is this some kind of test? If the call that came into the station was about you, shouldn’t I be, like, questioning you?”

  A fat drop of rain hit Raymer in the forehead, then another. There was an odd odor in the air. Strong. Nauseating. More thunder rumbled, very close now. “Instead of the station, how about driving me out to Hilldale,” he suggested. “I left my car there this morning. You can interrogate me on the way.”

  “Sure, Chief,” Miller said, clearly excited by this opportunity.

  Raymer had no sooner gotten in than the heavens opened with astonishing fury. “Wow,” Miller said, impressed by how the wind-driven torrents of rain rattled on the roof of the squad car and streamed down the windshield in wavy sheets. From outside the car there came a hissing sound, followed instantly by a clap of thunder so loud that Miller hit his head on the roof of the car when he levitated. “That was close,” he said. They both tried to peer out the back window, but with the rain you couldn’t see much. Raymer agreed, though. The lightning strike had to have been very close.

  Miller took his hands off the metal steering wheel and made no move to put the vehicle in gear. When the rain finally let up enough to be heard, he said, like a man pretending that a thought had just occurred to him when in reality it’d been troubling him for a while, “Hey, doesn’t Charice, you know, Officer Bond, live around here somewhere?”

  “If you say so,” said Raymer, who was about as good as Miller was at pretending not to know something.

  Miller nodded, then went back to staring at the water streaming down the windshield.

  “Look,” Raymer said, relenting a little. “Officer Bond invited me over for dinner, okay?”

  Unless Raymer was mistaken, it certainly wasn’t okay with Miller. “Isn’t that—”

  “Against the rules? Probably. That’s all, though. We just had dinner out on her back porch.”

  Miller was sniffing. “What’s that smell?”

  Raymer was wondering the same thing. The nauseating odor was stronger in the car than it had been in the street. Different from the Great Bath Stench, but right up there on the unpleasantness meter.

  “Chief?”

  “What?”

  “Are you on fire?”

  “Why would I be—”

  “Look that way a sec.”

  When Raymer turned his head, Miller yelped, grabbed a rolled-up magazine from the dash and commenced swatting the back of his head and neck with it, hard. Finally recognizing the smell as his own burning hair, Raymer let the other man have at him, though the blows rained down with such surprising ferocity that he had to wonder if his officer wasn’t driven by more than one motive.

  “Am I out?” Raymer inquired, when the hitting finally stopped.

  “I think so,” Miller told him. He cracked the door open enough for the dome light to come on, then used the end of the magazine to investigate Raymer’s hair where it was longish and thick and curled up in the back. “Something might’ve gone down the back of your shirt, though.”

  Raymer leaned back against the seat and immediately felt a burning sensation between his shoulder blades, as if somebody’d just stubbed out a cigarette there.

  The odor of burning hair was still thick in the car. “Didn’t you feel it?” Miller wanted to know.

  “No, I didn’t. A man who knows he’s on fire will take steps.”

  Miller nodded thoughtfully. “So what’d you have?”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “For dinner. You and Officer Bond.”

  “Lamb chops.”

  “Wow. What else?”

  “Asparagus.”

  “Mmmmm. Just the two of you?”

  “Just us two.”

  “So, are you—”

  “No.”

  “You’re just good—”

  “Not even.”

  “Because you sounded like you were having a good time. You were both laughing and all.”

  Raymer was glad to have Miller confirm that things had been going well until they went badly, but the comment begged a couple fairly obvious questions. “Miller?”

  “Yeah, Chief?”

  “Do you have a crush on Officer Bond?”

  Miller looked away, guilty. Even with only the dome on, Raymer could see that he was glowing red with embarrassment. “Me?”

  “If you heard us laughing out on the porch, then you were there, which means you already knew where she lived when you asked me just now. Also, it was only a minute or two between when I climbed down from that porch and you showed up. Which means you were already in the neighborhood when the call came in.”

  Miller stared at the still-streaming windshield. “God, I hate myself,” he said miserably. “Sometimes I drive by. Just to make sure she’s okay, you know?”

  “Does she know about this?”

  He shook his head. “Please don’t tell her?”

  “Why don’t you just ask her out sometime?”

  “Scared, I guess.”

  “Well, she is pretty terrifying,” Raymer agreed.

  “Plus I don’t think she likes me.”

  “Don’t you want to find out?”

  “Only if she does,” he said. “And there’s the…other thing.”

  “What other thing?”

  “It’s not that I’m prejudiced. It’s just that…”

  “She’s a Negro-type individual?”

  Miller closed the car door, probably so the dome light would go out and Raymer wouldn’t see the tears spill over, which he did anyway. “Seeing the two of you together, laughing and having such a great time, it made me realize I didn’t care. That could’ve been me up there eating lamb chops if I wasn’t such a…”

  He was so clearly in distress that Raymer couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. “Miller,” he began.

  “So it doesn’t bother you? Her not being…like us?”

  “Do you mean her being a woman or being black?”

  “Yeah,” he said. Both. “But aren’t you afraid people will make jokes?”

  “People make jokes about me already. I’m used to it.”

  Miller nodded soberly.

  “Anyway, it’s not like that between Officer Bond and me, so there’s nothing to make jokes about. Okay? Everything clear now?”

  “Except the part about why you climbed down off her porch,” he said. “Was that some kind of…wager?”

  “Yes,” Raymer told him, “it was.”

  Miller looked uneasy about this explanation, though he himself had advanced it. “And why do you look like a Negro? Was that a wager, too?”

  “No, this was an accident involving a Weber grill.” He started to explain further but decided against it. “And now I think you’ve investigated the incident fully. Good work.”

  “Really?”

  “Absolutely.” The rain was finally letting up. “Can we go to the cemetery now?”

  Miller put the car in gear, made a three-point turn and headed back up the street. In the distance, there wer
e fire sirens. When they passed Charice’s, Raymer said, “Hold on a second.”

  Miller stopped.

  “Point your spotlight up there.”

  Miller did as he was told, and Raymer couldn’t believe his eyes. In addition to the impressive damage he himself had caused, the porch was now scorched black and smoldering.

  “Must be where that lightning hit,” Miller said. When his boss didn’t respond, he regarded him strangely. “Chief? You don’t look so good.”

  In truth, he didn’t feel so good, either. His sense that Becka had visited him on that porch was still strong. He could still feel her fingers on his scalp, her whispering there was something she needed to tell him. If he hadn’t awakened when he did? And if he hadn’t climbed down from up there? He might be a toast-type individual.

  —

  BY THE TIME they arrived at Hilldale the rain had stopped, but there was more heat lightning to the south, and once again the rumble of distant thunder, another storm tracking in their direction. In the summer they sometimes bore down like this, relentless, one after the other, all night long.

  The cemetery’s lot was a muddy lake, in the middle of which sat Raymer’s Jetta. When Miller pulled up next to it, he thanked him for the lift and instructed him to use the rest of his shift to stake out the Morrison Arms on the off chance that William Smith might return, though Raymer would’ve bet his life they’d seen the last of him.

  “Chief?” Miller said, when he started to get out of the cruiser. “You gonna be all right?”

  Raymer was touched by his concern. “I’ll be fine after I get some sleep.”

  “Okay, it’s just…”

  “Just what?”

  “You look kind of…”

  While he searched for the right word, Raymer considered the possibilities: Dispirited? Rode hard and put up wet? Chewed up and spit out? Or did Miller just mean to reiterate that, covered in ash as he was, he still resembled a Negro-type individual?

  “Sad,” Miller finally said.

  “Sad as in pathetic, or sad as in sorrowful?”

  “Sad as in unhappy.”

 
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