Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Given the swift approach of this new storm, however, would sleep even be possible? Exhausted though he was, he was feeling pretty wide awake. And even if he did manage to drift off, wouldn’t the first clap of thunder thwart him all over again? On the other hand, maybe sleep wasn’t the only means of summoning her. If she was a ghost and near to hand, maybe she’d just appear to him? If she did, what would he say? He supposed he might begin by apologizing for not having visited before now, that a better man would’ve grieved her loss instead of allowing himself to be consumed by the betrayal she’d been contemplating when she came down those stairs like a Slinky. Because for her to have fallen in love with someone else, she’d first have had to fall out of love with him, and he must’ve had some role to play in that. And while he was apologizing, now might also be a good time to admit he never should have married her in the first place, knowing as he always had that he didn’t deserve a woman as beautiful and smart and self-confident and talented and full of life as she was. Of course Becka would stray. How could she not?

  The trouble with such abject groveling as an opening conversational gambit with a dead woman was that Becka would immediately identify its source as self-loathing, the very thing she’d always liked least about him. If after death some part of the old Becka remained, and he—face it, the aggrieved party—begged her forgiveness, he could all too easily imagine her dismayed response: Christ on a crutch, don’t tell me you’re still at it? But how was he to entreat her if not with kindness and understanding and forgiveness?

  The only thing he could be certain of was that if Becka was a real ghost, then the conversation—whatever its content and form—had to take place tonight. Tomorrow morning her visitation at Charice’s would feel like a dream, and he’d interpret that dream accordingly, in the context of his own emotional need—his subconscious inventing her so that she could inform him it was okay to have feelings for another woman and to act on them. And tomorrow, in the cold light of day, sure, why not? Tonight, though, in the intimate dark, he wanted Becka to be real, to have come to him out of her own need, not his. Here in Hilldale he wanted more than cheap parlor tricks of his own devising.

  Though of course all of this was assuming he survived the next half hour. Crazy, but he’d been treating the approaching storm as if it were a friendly presence, lighting his path to Becka’s grave, yet now that it was upon him—directly overhead, in fact—there was nothing friendly about it. A bolt of lightning sizzled audibly overhead a split second before illuminating his surroundings, and in that heartbeat, before everything went black again, he saw the ground was pocked with splotches of dull red. It took a moment for him to understand what he’d seen, that the earth beneath his feet was strewn with petals, all that was left of the beautiful bouquet of roses he’d noticed that morning. Which meant he was close. Becka’s grave was nearby. With any luck the next lightning flash would tell him which one was hers.

  What came instead was the rain, all at once and furious, just like the earlier downpour in town, except now there was no dry police cruiser to duck into, no dim-witted Officer Miller to distract him from the deluge. What on earth had possessed him to come out here? he wondered, awed for the second time in an hour by nature’s fury. Why hadn’t he waited for the storm to pass in the comfort of the Jetta? In a matter of seconds he was drenched to the skin, the last of the charcoal ash leaching out of his hair, running in rivulets under his collar, down his back and into the waistband of his boxers. It occurred to him then that if this was a ghost story he was in the middle of, here was how it would end: in the morning he would be found, cold and dead, at the foot of Becka’s grave. Because in a ghost story Becka wouldn’t have summoned him to Hilldale in an electrical storm to tell him that all was forgiven. No, her ghost would be vengeful. She would’ve brought him here—Raymer swallowed hard—to kill him.

  Still, if the knowing, sentient universe was waiting for that fatal symmetry, couldn’t he deny it by remaining right where he was? He had no idea who lay interred beneath these rose petals, but he doubted whoever it was had anything against him, certainly no reason to call terrible vengeance down upon him. The ruined bouquet of roses suggested this was the grave of a woman—someone’s beloved wife or sister or daughter. It didn’t really matter who she was, so long as she wasn’t…

  REBECCA WHITT RAYMER.

  The very name on the stone at his feet that he himself had grudgingly paid for. This was what that lightning flash had revealed, and when the world went dark again her name remained as sharp before him as a photographic negative. Rebecca Whitt Raymer. The thunderclap that followed the lightning strike shook the ground so violently that the wire cone used to hold the flowers in place tipped forward at a forty-five-degree angle in the loosened soil, as if offering him the thorny, denuded stems. The green cellophane that had served as a sheath was now flapping wildly in the wind, the small florist’s card somehow still affixed.

  This, then, Raymer thought, dropping to his knees in the mud, was how Becka meant to communicate with him. An obscene giggle erupted at the thought. There would be no dream, no conversation. The florist’s card would contain a name. Raymer would read that name and finally would know. After which the lightning would find him. The knowledge he’d sought arriving in tandem with death. Perfect. Biblical in its justice, when you thought about it. The end of his selfish, foolhardy quest would be the end of him. Fair enough. Because he’d been, as always, an idiot. It wasn’t even knowledge he’d sought. There would have been some dignity in that. No, he’d been willing to settle for information, a lesser thing entirely. He’d wanted, and still did want, her boyfriend’s name. His identity. Beyond that he had given the man himself little real thought. Until just now, when he realized that these once-lovely red roses had been for Becka, it hadn’t occurred to him that maybe he wasn’t the only one haunted by her, still in love with her, unwilling or unable to move on. How had that obvious truth eluded him so completely? How many other failures of imagination had he been guilty of?

  The one that troubled him most was Becka herself. In the short time they’d been married had he ever asked about what she was feeling or thinking, whether she was happy? There had been moments, especially toward the end, when he suspected something must be wrong, but she always denied it when he inquired, claiming that she just had a case of the blues, that she’d wake up feeling more cheerful in the morning. And he’d been all too happy to be reassured. Why dig deeper?

  As was invariably the case with Raymer, such specific self-doubts and accusations led to other, more global ones. Was it possible to be a good cop, a good husband or a good man when you were disinclined to imagine the inner lives, in particular the suffering, of others? Wasn’t this just basic empathy? Was it empathy she’d gone looking for and found in the man whose name was on the florist’s card? Had he taken the trouble to understand her more deeply than Raymer ever had? Or was empathy just the tip of the iceberg? Raymer supposed he could stand it if the man was taller or trimmer or better looking, but was it possible the fucker also possessed intelligence, wit, elegance and grace? Was he everything he himself was not?

  That, then, was what it all came down to: vanity. He simply had to know, even if it cost him his life. That was why it seemed he had no choice but to reach out and grab the florist’s card, which he did just as the wind tugged the green cellophane free of the wire mesh. The information he was after was now literally within his grasp, but in that very instant the sky was cleaved by yet another shaft of lightning, and he felt a searing heat in his right palm, as if the little card had somehow burst into flame. He felt a desperate howl building deep in his chest and knew he would have to cut loose either the howl in his throat or the card in his fist. The howl, then, he decided, and it merged with the thunderclap as if the two had the same source.

  He couldn’t tell how long he’d been howling, but when it was over, he felt a profound change to his being, his psyche. An odd sensation, not unlike vertigo, like something essential had been
hewn in two. He’d entered the cemetery as Douglas Raymer, a man who for a very long time, maybe his whole life, had been going doggedly through the motions. Now he felt a second presence, as if the skin and bones that had until then belonged to him, and him alone, now played host to another. Douglas Raymer, wholly familiar, was still here, the same boy Miss Beryl had thrust books at, that had been bullied by boys like Roy Purdy and later mocked by scofflaws like Sully and ridiculed from the bench by Judge Flatt. Who had run for public office on the promise that he wouldn’t be happy until those he served were unhappy. A fool, face up to it. A fool and a milquetoast who was forever banging on about becoming a better cop, a better husband, a better man.

  Strange that he should feel so familiar with the second presence even before being introduced, as if he’d known this “other” all his life. Call him…what? Dougie, Raymer decided, because the presence he felt seemed younger, like a kid brother. A mean one. The thing about this Dougie? He absolutely did not give a shit. Not about Becka, not about duty, not about what people thought of him, especially Douglas Raymer, who, in Dougie’s considered opinion, ate far too much shit on a daily basis. Dougie’s inclination, long held in check, was to kick ass and take names. Get the fucking job done.

  It was Dougie who would know what came next. After they looked at the card. After they knew who the son of a bitch was.

  Reincarnation

  ONLY CARL APPEARED disappointed when the game broke up an hour and a half after it started, with all the chips in front of Sully. Jennifer, quickly bored, had fallen asleep on the sofa, and Carl now stood over her with a look of profound sadness. “Have you ever made a rash promise?” he asked Sully.

  “Oh, once or twice,” Sully admitted. “I was married, if you recall.”

  “I’m sorry, baby,” Jennifer purred, when Carl put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not in the mood anymore.” She rolled away from him, under the apparent impression that she was home and in bed.

  “Let her sleep,” said Birdie, who had an apartment above the tavern.

  “Really?” Carl said, looking for all the world like a man who’d just been granted a stay of execution.

  Birdie shrugged. “The register’s locked.”

  Outside, in the parking lot, they waved to Jocko, who tooted goodbye. Carl, nudging Sully, said, “A word in private?”

  Hearing this, Rub’s face darkened. He was about to be dismissed, and he hated that. Worse, he’d be leaving Sully alone with Carl, who seemed to believe they were best friends and sometimes, like tonight, even said so. When Sully handed him the keys to the truck, Rub accepted them reluctantly.

  “It was true, what I said earlier,” Carl told him when they were alone.

  “You’re really broke?”

  “And then some.”

  “I don’t know what you think I can do, but I’ll help if I can.”

  “Nah, I think we’re well beyond that.”

  “What, then?”

  “I am sorry about the rent.”

  “Don’t worry about it.”

  “I’ll clear out if you want.”

  “What’d I just say?”

  Carl shrugged. “Okay.” Then, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

  “You mean like we die and then have to do this fucking thing all over again?”

  “Yeah, like that.”

  “Jesus, I hope not.”

  “I don’t know,” Carl said. “Second time around we might be smarter.”

  “We might be dumber, too.”

  “I might be,” Carl admitted. “I really don’t see how you could be.”

  “Would you want to live again?”

  “Fuck, yeah,” Carl said, rocking back on his heels. “I mean, what a night. Look at that sky.”

  Sully did, and in fact it was beautiful, the air crisp and clean, the sky full of stars and a bright three-quarter moon. He recalled that afternoon at the diner when everything had appeared to stop, and his life had suddenly seemed like the set of a low-budget movie. At the time he’d wondered if maybe that meant he’d had enough, but now he wasn’t so sure. “I hope you’re not going to tell me it’s the stars you’re going to miss when you’re dead.”

  “I don’t know why I even talk to you,” Carl said.

  “I don’t either. Are we done, or is there more to say?”

  Apparently there was. “Why would I do something like that?” he said, genuinely perplexed.

  “Like what?”

  “Promise that girl.”

  “How the fuck should I know? I don’t even understand why I do half the shit I do. I’m supposed to understand you?”

  Carl thought about it. “You really never think about sex anymore?” he said. “Because I just find that so fucking hard to believe.”

  —

  DRIVING BACK TO Rub’s place, Sully handed him the money he’d lost playing cards so Bootsie wouldn’t get pissed off. “How come you didn’t drop when I gave you the knee?” he asked.

  “I had three fuh-fuh—”

  “Fucking queens, I know. But I had a full boat.”

  “Didn’t look like it,” Rub recalled miserably.

  “That was the beauty of it.”

  “Sometimes you give me the nuh-nuh-knee and I drop and then it turns out you got nuh-nuh—”

  “Nothing?”

  “—and it would’ve been my pot.”

  “Yeah?” Sully said, watching Rub stuff the bills into his chest pocket. “Well, cheer up. The money usually finds its way back to you.”

  When they pulled into the drive and the headlights swept over the tree limb, Sully said, “When you get off work tomorrow, come find me, and we’ll cart all that off. Don’t forget, either, because I got a bet with Bootsie, and I can’t afford to support you both.” Then when Rub started to get out, he said, “Hey.”

  “What?”

  “What’s the matter with you anyway? You been acting weird all night.”

  Rub began to cry.

  Sully sighed, having known better than to ask. “You upset because I told about you getting stuck up in the tree?”

  Rub stifled a sob. “Everybody laughed.”

  “Well, it was funny. You laughed, too.”

  “I know.”

  “Well then?”

  “I’m nuh-nuh—”

  “Never gonna hear the end of it? That’s probably true.”

  Rub wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I just wisht—”

  “What?”

  Rub sighed. Where to begin?

  “That I’d be nicer to you?”

  He shrugged again, but this was the gist of it, Sully could tell.

  “I wish I would, too,” he said, and for some reason this seemed to cheer Rub up. He always liked it when they agreed, and it didn’t seem to trouble him that with a little effort Sully could probably make both their wishes come true. “And I’m not the only one who could be nicer, you know.”

  Rub looked at him blankly.

  “When I was here earlier, your wife was crying.”

  “Buh-buh-Bootsie?” He looked genuinely terrified now.

  “How many wives you got?”

  “Why?”

  “How the hell should I know? She’s your wife.” Because of course this was an invitation to think about Vera, his own wife, or ex-wife, out at the county home, muttering obscenities under her breath whenever she thought of him. Until recently he’d pretty much banished her from memory, but this was the third time he’d thought about her today. What the hell was that about?

  “Wuh-wuh-what should I do?”

  Sully shrugged. “Who knows? Take her out to dinner or something.”

  He took out the money Sully’d just given him and counted it dubiously.

  “Jesus,” said Sully, handing him another twenty. “Rub!”

  “What?”

  “I wasn’t talking to you.”

  Rub, who’d been riding in the back, leaped out of the truck bed and up into the seat his namesake had just vacated.
<
br />   “I wisht he had some other name,” Rub said.

  “And so does he about you,” Sully told him, putting the vehicle in reverse.

  Hill Comes to Dale

  WHEN RAYMER FINALLY RETURNED to his senses, he was still on his knees at the foot of Becka’s grave, the storm having passed. He had the distinct impression that he’d actually vacated his body for a time, left it to fend for itself, but for how long? A few minutes? Half an hour? The rumbling thunder was now miles to the north, and the rain had stopped, so probably closer to the latter. Taking inventory, he discovered his right hand was cramped painfully into a claw. He shook the damned thing vigorously, trying to restore circulation, but it remained frozen, numb. Had he suffered a stroke? Struggling to his feet, he became aware of an odd, tingling sensation in his extremities—toes, ears and, for some reason, the tip of his tongue. Had he been struck by lightning? Wouldn’t a direct hit have killed him? Reduced him to cinders, in fact? What about an indirect hit? What if lightning struck a tree over in nearby Hill, say, then traveled along the ground in search of somebody dumb enough to be kneeling in the soaking wet in Dale and delivered enough of a jolt to short out a circuit or two but not enough to fry them all?

  “Hello?” he said, trying out his tingly tongue, the word echoing in his skull like it would in an empty drum. Why did he half expect an answer?

  Then he remembered: reaching out for the florist’s card as the sky lit up like broad daylight, the pile-driving peal of thunder as he closed his fist around it, the howl escaping his throat subsumed simultaneously by the thunderclap. And finally the nauseating sense of having been split in two, of a malignant new presence filling up every cell of his body. Dougie, he remembered naming it. “Hello?” he said again, louder this time, akin to a man shaking a shoe and listening for the pebble trapped in its toe. “Dougie?”

 
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