Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

“Oh.”

  “Are you? Sad?”

  Raymer wasn’t sure how to respond. There was a dim-witted earnestness about Miller that he found both endearing and infuriating, kind of like coming across an old photo of yourself, smiling ear to ear, happy as a pig in shit. The possibility that such happiness won’t and can’t last, that its source is genetic foolishness, hasn’t occurred to you yet, but it will.

  “Because you shouldn’t be,” Miller said, an out-of-character confidence creeping into his voice.

  “Why not?”

  “Because you’re the chief.”

  For the moment that was true, though Raymer felt certain the question that had been dogging him of late—whether to resign—would soon be moot. When it became widely known that someone trafficking in lethal reptiles, handguns and drugs (yes, Justin had been right; weed, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers had indeed been found in 107’s bathroom) had been living for months in the Morrison Arms, where the chief of police also lived, that would be that.

  “Look, Miller, I appreciate—”

  “You’re the chief,” Miller repeated, downright adamant now. “Everybody’s got to do what you say.” Clearly, giving orders was the end Miller desperately hoped to achieve without first understanding the means. Had Raymer himself ever wanted that? To tell people what to do?

  “Nobody does what I say, actually,” Raymer assured him. Charice routinely ignored his orders if she considered them unwise. Likewise, her brother. Even old Mr. Hynes felt free to ignore his advice. When an armed white man in a position of authority couldn’t even get black people to take him seriously, well, it said something, didn’t it?

  “I do,” Miller said. Which was true. Until he learned to think, Miller had little choice but to remain a model of literal-minded obedience.

  “And I appreciate it,” Raymer said, anxious to draw this conversation to a close. “Well, good night, then.”

  “Chief?” said Miller, evidently just as anxious to prolong it.

  “What, Miller?”

  “Am I going to get fired?”

  Raymer paused, unsure what he was asking: if the day would ever come when Raymer would have to terminate him, or if plans to do so were already afoot? “Why do you ask?”

  “I knew it,” Miller said, dropping his head miserably. “It’s Officer Bond’s brother, isn’t it?”

  “Jerome?”

  “He’s coming to work for us?”

  “No.”

  Miller looked dubious. “Then why’s he always hanging around?”

  “I’ve asked myself the same question,” Raymer admitted, recalling that afternoon’s conversation between Gus and Jerome at the mill. Was Jerome considering some sort of offer? The mayor pressing him for an answer? At the time Raymer, his head throbbing mercilessly, hadn’t given the matter much thought. Gus always had something going on. But maybe Miller was onto something. Was Raymer to be replaced—by Jerome? Had Jerome surmised that Raymer had found out about the plot against him and keyed the ’Stang in retaliation? If so, what part had Charice played in all this? Had she invited him to dinner in the hopes of figuring out what, if anything, he knew? That phone call she’d received just as he was drifting off on the back porch? Her casual tone had suggested she was talking to a girlfriend with boy trouble. (What had she said? As usual, you’re getting all worked up over nothing.) But what if it was Jerome who’d called, wanting to know what she’d learned? That made a kind of sense, except that Charice hadn’t seemed particularly curious during dinner. She’d spent more time trying to explain her brother’s bizarre behavior than questioning Raymer about his own.

  “I wonder where she went?” Miller said, what seemed to Raymer a completely out-of-left-field question.

  “Who?”

  “Charice. Officer Bond.”

  “She went somewhere?”

  “Her car wasn’t in the drive just now.”

  This was true, Raymer realized. Her Civic hadn’t been there. He’d been so focused on her destroyed porch he hadn’t really taken in the car’s absence and what that might mean. A wave of relief washed over him then, because among other things it meant that when he’d been pleading with Charice to let him back in the house, she hadn’t even been there. Nor had she heard his truly lame offer to reimburse her for the lamb chops or his pitiful admission that he was a terrible cop and a worse chief of police. She must’ve left shortly after receiving that phone call. Maybe she’d come to the screen door to explain that she’d be back shortly, seen him blissfully asleep and switched off the kitchen light so as not to disturb him. Maybe she’d locked the screen door to indicate he wasn’t supposed to leave until she returned. Okay, that last part made no sense, but maybe there was still some small piece of the puzzle he was missing. The important thing was that maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t pissed at him after all—although it was also true that in this same scenario she didn’t know he’d managed to ruin her landlord’s porch totally. Maybe, he thought happily, they’d conclude it had been destroyed by that lightning strike.

  “Miller,” Raymer said, impressed that the man had actually noticed the missing car. “You may make a cop yet.”

  “Really?”

  “You should stop stalking Officer Bond, though.”

  “I know,” he said. “You probably think I’m a creep.”

  “No, but she would.”

  He nodded sadly. “Chief?” he said. “You think she’d go out with somebody like me?”

  Not really wanting to answer this question, Raymer sought clarification. “You or somebody like you?” Because Raymer himself, he had to admit, was “like” Miller: perpetually bewildered and self-conscious and full of self-loathing. So yeah, it would’ve been nice to be able to say that Charice could conceivably fall for somebody like Miller, if not Miller himself.

  The breeze came up just then, lifting Raymer’s hair as it had done on Charice’s porch, and yet again he felt, or imagined he did, Becka’s proximity, her need to communicate something to him. He even had a glimmer of what it might be.

  Miller was looking glum. “Would I get fired? If I asked her out and she said yes?”

  “It’s against the rules for me to date her, not you. I’m her boss. Whereas you…” Raymer struggled to locate the exact language needed to describe a relationship between Charice and Miller that didn’t exist and hopefully never would.

  “I’m nothing,” he said, finally putting the cruiser in gear. “I know.”

  Rub’s Penis

  DURING THE LONG SECOND ACT of Sully’s life, he’d made it a point not only to be present for last call most nights but also to go on record as objecting to the concept as arbitrary and puritanical. These days, however, his third act well under way, though his core belief hadn’t changed, his behavior had. At seventy, in what at least his doctors believed to be terminally failing health, Sully had reluctantly come to suspect that misbehavior was a younger man’s sport. He’d played it longer than most, though, and tonight, thanks to Ruth’s heartfelt permission to stay away from Hattie’s for a while and the fact that his breathing had inexplicably improved as the day progressed, he fell gratefully and effortlessly back into the routine that had suited him so well for so long. As the thunderstorms rolled through, dimming lights and flinging rain at the walls outside, Sully reflected, and not for the first time, that there was no better place to be during violent weather than on a barstool. In any weather, for that matter.

  The Horse remained lively until close to midnight, when the last of the storms headed north and word started to circulate that the power was back on in town. People began to drift out into the (finally!) cool night, leaving behind Birdie and Sully and Jocko and the Rubs. When Janey finished her shift Sully offered to buy her a drink, but she just looked at him like he was insane. What the fuck was this? Like maybe he was hoping to take up with her, now that her mother wasn’t interested anymore? Nothing could have been further from Sully’s mind, but her instinct was probably right. How would it have l
ooked if she accepted his offer of a drink and settled onto the stool next to him? Besides, Rub wasn’t done with his litany of wishes yet. Having spent his afternoon in a tree, he seemed even needier than usual, if that was possible, so Sully let him get it all out of his system.

  Half an hour before last call Carl Roebuck strolled in with a very drunk young woman roughly Janey’s age on his arm. She was exactly the sort Carl always seemed to attract: dim-witted or pretending to be, large breasted, oversexed. “Let’s play poker,” he suggested, taking out his wallet and counting the bills therein. “Ninety-eight dollars,” he said, slapping them on the bar. “And not just any ninety-eight dollars. My last ninety-eight dollars in the world.”

  “Show of hands,” Sully said. “Who here feels sorry for Carl?”

  “Let this be a lesson to you,” Carl told his companion, when she alone raised her hand. “This is the wrong fucking place to come if you’re looking for sympathy.”

  “On the other hand,” Birdie said, handing him his usual Maker’s, “if you’re looking for alcohol…”

  Apparently in response to the poker game idea, the young woman stood on tiptoe to whisper into his ear, all too audibly, “I thought you said you were going to take me home and fuck me.”

  Birdie snorted at this. “You must be from out of town,” she said.

  “Later,” Carl whispered back. Then, to Birdie, “Say hello to Jennifer, who’d like a Cuba libre, that is, if you can stop making fun of other people’s tribulations long enough to make her one. As you deduced, Jennifer here hails from Lake George and is not fully cognizant of certain extremely personal matters.”

  Jennifer scrunched her shoulders. “I love the way he talks,” she said.

  “Yeah, me too,” Birdie said, pouring rum over ice.

  Rub, as he always did with Carl’s girlfriends, commenced staring at Jennifer’s chest, his expression identical to the one he always wore when contemplating big ole bacon cheeseburgers. Seeing she had his undivided attention, Jennifer extended her hand in greeting. “Hi!” she said. “What’s your name?”

  Rub normally didn’t have much trouble with his R’s, but he did now. Embarrassed by his stammer, Jennifer quickly turned her attention to the other Rub. “Oh, look!” she squealed. “A puppy! Isn’t he cute?”

  “Would you like to have him?” Sully said.

  Jennifer seemed to regard this as a joke. “What’s his name?”

  “Rub,” Sully said, causing her to blink at the man she’d just met. Had there been some misunderstanding? He and the dog had the same name? If she asked the name of the tall man in the pharmacist’s smock, would it, too, be Rub? What kind of place was this?

  When Rub, excited to hear his name, stood up and wagged his whole hind end, Jennifer took a quick step back, visibly alarmed by his bloody erection. “What’s wrong with Rub’s penis?” she wanted to know, causing the other Rub to blush deeply.

  “He chews on it,” Sully explained.

  “Doesn’t that hurt?”

  “You’re asking me?”

  “Nights like this,” said Jocko as they filed into the back room, “I feel the need of a one-legged lawyer.” Sully had been thinking the same thing, and together they raised their glasses in the direction of Wirf’s prosthesis, which since his death had occupied the place of honor on the mantel. They took their seats around the poker table, Rub careful as always to sit next to Sully. Jocko located the chips and assumed the role of banker, Carl being too dishonest, Sully too careless. The dog circled around several times, sighed, curled up at the base of his master’s chair and returned to gnawing.

  “How would you like to own half a construction company?” Carl asked Sully.

  “That would depend on who owns the other half.”

  “Assume it’s your best friend in the world.”

  Sully elbowed Rub, who’d gone back to staring at Jennifer’s boobs. “Hey, Dummy. Do you own a construction company?”

  Carl ignored this while Rub beamed. “Assume this best friend isn’t going to be able to make payroll next week. Assume that wall collapsing this afternoon was the last fucking nail in his coffin. Assume he’s about to be sued by everyone from the mill’s investors to the town of Bath to the asshole ex-con who happened to be driving by at the exact wrong moment.”

  Carl of course was always claiming imminent financial ruin, but could it possibly be true this time, Sully wondered. “Let’s assume instead,” he suggested, “that everybody but you saw this day coming for a long time. Assume the friend you now want to be your partner has been warning you about it for the last fucking decade.”

  “Assume,” Carl replied, “that this friend’s an asshole for picking this particular moment to say I told you so.”

  “Assume this same friend’s a fucking prince for not bringing up the fact that you’re six months behind on your rent.”

  Jennifer was taking all this in with growing alarm. “Are you two having a fight?”

  “Not really,” Sully told her. “I am going to take his last hundred bucks, though.”

  “He would, too, if I’d let him,” Carl agreed.

  “High card deals,” said Jocko, setting the deck down in the middle of the table.

  “That would be me,” Sully said, leaning forward to turn over the ace of spades.

  Carl sighed. “Fuck me,” he said.

  And Sully, feeling as you sometimes do when the world aligns in your favor, proceeded to do just that.

  A Sundering

  RAYMER STARTED UP the Jetta and, just in case Miller was watching in his rearview, put the car in reverse so his taillights would pulse. When the cruiser pulled out onto the two-lane blacktop and headed back toward town, he put his car back in park and turned the engine off. Rummaging around in the glove box, he located the flashlight he kept there, but naturally the batteries were dead. A sign, if ever there was one, to cease and desist, to put a merciful end to this bloody, god-awful day. Tomorrow would arrive soon enough and with it numerous opportunities for further lunacy. Hadn’t he already crammed a good hundred pounds’ worth of shit into today’s fifty-pound sack? Go home, he told himself.

  Except what did that even mean? Home, at least until he could make other arrangements, was still the Morrison Arms and officially off-limits. If he ignored his own yellow tape and climbed into his own bed, his sleep would likely be haunted by phantoms of the escaped cobra. His other alternatives were nearly as unattractive. He could return to the couch in his office, but he’d be discovered there bright and early by Charice, and given the evening’s events he couldn’t really face that. Like the other residents of the Arms, he had a voucher for a motel room, but so late, with this a holiday weekend, he’d surely be greeted by a NO VACANCY sign.

  As Raymer made his way into Dale on foot, there was renewed rumbling to the south, the low clouds reflecting distant lightning strikes. The air was again full of electricity, the hair on his forearms standing up, just as it had on Charice’s porch (before he destroyed it). With nothing but sporadic lightning to navigate by, he stuck to the path as best he could but managed to stray anyway. The Dale grave markers, set flat to the ground, jutted up just enough to trip him, and twice he went down, the second time hard. Rising slick with mud, he was grateful for the dark. Between the charcoal ash from the Weber and the fresh coat of mud, he could easily imagine what he must look like. It put him in mind of that book Miss Beryl had assigned in eighth grade, the one where a boy comes upon an escaped convict on the marsh. The old woman had made a special point of telling him he would identify with the boy in the story, but after reading that first chapter he’d put the book away and refused to pick it up again. When he failed the test, Miss Beryl, puzzled, had asked him if he’d found the book too difficult. He lied and said yes, because the truth was even more embarrassing. He’d quit because the scene on the marsh had terrified him, and even though the chapter ended with the convict being led away in chains, Raymer had been afraid he would return. It was a long book, one that would
take weeks to read, and he knew he’d spend the whole time worried sick. For some reason he related this story as a lighthearted anecdote to Becka on their honeymoon, though she’d appeared genuinely stricken. “Don’t you see?” she explained. “You cheated yourself.” And maybe she was right, but really, was that such a terrible thing? Didn’t people cheat themselves all the time, over more important things than eighth-grade reading assignments? “Was I right?” he asked her, because clearly she knew the book in question. “Did the convict come back?”

  “Of course he did,” she admitted. She seemed about to say more but thought better of it, which was a shame because in describing the poor kid’s predicament—whether or not to rat the man out—Raymer discovered that he actually did want to know how the story turned out. (Miss Beryl was right—he had identified with that lonely, friendless boy.) Becka’s refusal to satisfy his belated curiosity suggested that even now, so many years later, he didn’t deserve to know. More troubling still was the possibility that this had been her first inkling that their marriage was doomed, that a cowardly boy had grown up to be a cowardly man.

  These were his thoughts as he trudged through marshlike Dale, his shoes ruined, his socks squishy. He wasn’t even certain he was headed in the right direction until the sky lit up obligingly and he saw the old judge’s grave, its fresh mound shrunk considerably by the earlier deluge. Was it really just this morning that he’d stood here listening to that idiot preacher? It felt like last week. Pitch dark descended again, but he had his bearings now, and he had a pretty good sense of where the yellow backhoe had sat and also, a few rows off to the right, where someone had placed that bouquet of red roses.

  When he located Becka’s grave, he would…what? Try to fall asleep again in hopes that she’d return to him in a dream, as she had earlier, and tell him whatever it was she wanted him to know? If she could visit him on Charice’s porch, over a mile away, surely she’d be able to contact him here, mere feet from all that remained of her physical existence. Whatever she wanted to convey had seemed urgent, though after this long, what could it be? The identity of her lover? Okay, but why now? That she’d come to understand in death what had eluded her in life—that it was he, Raymer, and not this other man, who she truly loved? Or that the time had come for him to stop obsessing about her lover’s identity and move on with his life? Maybe the reason she visited him there on the porch, after the lovely evening he and Charice had spent together, was to give him her blessing. It was possible. But so, alas, was its opposite. What if she’d come to warn him about Charice, that he was about to make a terrible mistake?

 
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