Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Silence.

  Thank God. Because one Douglas Raymer, he thought, was all the Douglas Raymer anyone would ever need, including himself. Evidently the second entity, whose rogue electrical impulse he’d detected, hadn’t survived the drier, fresher, cooler air that trailed in the wake of the storm. Good riddance.

  And yet it had been, he had to admit, a very close call. He’d come dangerously close to losing his mind. Hard to believe, but as the storm raged overhead, he’d actually believed that his dead wife, somehow in control of nature itself, was trying to kill him, hurling lightning bolts at him like a vengeful Fury, as if he’d been the one cheating on her instead of vice versa. Insane. He’d nearly killed himself for the sake of a card from a florist, for God’s sake.

  Soaking wet and shivering uncontrollably, Raymer made his zombielike return through the slop, arriving back at the parking lot just as the three-quarter moon scudded out from behind the clouds, so blinding it was a miracle it didn’t dampen all the stars in the sky. The last of the fast-moving storms seemed to have finally broken the back of the heat wave, the temperature plummeting a good twenty degrees. That morning, standing beneath a broiling sun, Raymer had prayed for just such blessed relief, and now that prayer’s answer was delivered, like those of so many prayers, like retribution itself. Unlocking the Jetta, he slid behind the wheel and studied his right claw under the dome light, marveling at its rigor-mortis determination to remain clenched. Using the thumb and forefinger of his good hand, he was able to straighten his frozen pinkie, but every time he let go of it to work on its neighbor, it snapped back into the claw again, and he finally gave up, grateful that no one was around to witness his futile struggles against himself.

  It was going on one, so the sensible thing would be to find someplace to crash, but where? Charice’s? No, not a chance in hell. Even under normal circumstances he would’ve been reluctant to show up on the doorstep of fastidious Jerome, whose upscale Schuyler condo was the ’Stang’s glove compartment writ large. About the only person he could think of who might welcome him at this hour was old Mr. Hynes, but since Raymer had his own apartment at the Morrison Arms that made no sense at all. Besides, after all he’d been through, what he really needed was to be alone for a while, in a hotel room’s bathtub where he could soak his freaky paw in warm water and wait for the tingling in his extremities to subside. By morning, if the hand still hadn’t relaxed, he’d have to haul it into the ER. Follow the biblical injunction and have the fucking thing amputated if it continued to offend him.

  Unable to grip the ignition key, he awkwardly inserted it with his left hand, finally managing to turn it in the ignition. When the engine turned over, the windshield wipers leaped unexpectedly to life, startling the hell out of him, and once he switched them off the radio blared on, loud. He cut the volume and checked the dial, which was tuned, inexplicably, to a country station. Raymer seldom listened to the radio at all, much less to this hillbilly shit. Had someone been playing around in his car? When he snapped the radio off, he noticed an ambient buzzing in his ears that hadn’t been there before. He shook his head vigorously, even more convinced that he’d somehow absorbed some sort of electrical shock back at Becka’s grave. “Hello?” he said again, his voice causing the buzzing to get even louder.

  Then, a moment later, it stopped altogether, and a gravelly voice said, Hello, fuckwad.

  —

  AT THE CEMETERY’S MAIN GATE, instead of turning right onto the highway, Raymer turned left onto the gravel road that separated Hill from Dale, at the other end of which was the rarely used Spring Street entrance. That would lead directly out to the interstate, where he just might, against all odds, find a vacancy at one of the chain motels.

  He’d waited back in the parking lot for over half an hour, praying for the voice in his head to say something else, but instead the buzzing in his ears had returned, only louder. Sleep. Dear God, sleep was what he needed. If he couldn’t find a room out there, he’d conk out in the vast Lowe’s parking lot. And tomorrow he’d hand in his resignation. In the unlikely event anyone objected or wanted to know why, he’d tell them he was hearing voices and going batshit crazy. Maybe he’d drive to Utica, to the state mental hospital, in hopes they could sort him. They hadn’t done shit for the mayor’s wife, but who knew?

  So profound was his exhaustion that when Raymer came to the ten-foot mound of earth sitting in the middle of the blacktop and blocking both lanes—as if lowered from the sky—he pulled up and stared at it, unsure if what he was looking at was even real. Could it be, like the voice in his head, a figment of his insanity? At the top of the hill stood a gnarled tree, mostly dead from the look of it, tipped over at an absurd angle, exposing its root system to the open air. In the moonlight, the whole thing put him in mind of an absurdist painting, its details dreamlike, their deliberate inclusion meant to induce wonder. The most bizarre of these was the oblong box protruding from the soil at pavement level where something ornate and silvery, a handle of some sort, reflected Raymer’s headlights. It took a minute for the composition to add up to a casket whose lid, he now saw, was askew. Above, a good fifty yards up the hillside, a great gash in the slope suggested that there, until recently, the hill itself and the tree and the casket had all resided.

  In other words, what he was looking at had a rational explanation. His eyes weren’t playing tricks. All the trees in the Hill section were old, and many were dying, literally falling over. The torrential rains had loosened the hummocky ground, causing this section to pull loose and slalom right down to the road. The external world was what it was and operating as it always had. Tomorrow, when citizens asked the chief of police What the hell? he’d have a comforting explanation ready. Though reassured that he hadn’t come completely untethered from reality, Raymer nevertheless found himself overwhelmed with sorrow. He was, he realized, actually weeping, gently at first and then more violently, his shoulders quaking with sobs. It was as if mundane and mechanistic things were suddenly revealed to have been specifically designed with an eye toward maximum cruelty and guaranteed suffering. Bad enough that our relationships with the living should always be undermined by fear and venality and narcissism and a hundred other things, but it seemed especially awful that we couldn’t be faithful even to the dead. We put them in the ground with expressions of love and admiration and eternal devotion, promising never to forget, though then we did, or tried to. The old judge they’d buried just this morning was already receding from the collective memory. Nobody except Raymer remembered his poor mother anymore, and when he was gone it would be as if she never existed. No wonder the dead protested. No wonder their caskets came lurching up out of the ground, their lids awry, as if to say, Remember me? Remember all your promises? Poor Becka. If she was angry at him, could he blame her? He hadn’t even made any of the usual promises. He’d put her in the ground because he was her husband and that was his duty, but he’d been unwilling to forgive or forget her perfidy. Tonight, he now realized, he’d managed to get things exactly backward. It was his anger at Becka that was metastasizing into something lethal, not hers at him. She wasn’t vengeful beneath the ground; he was vengeful above it, his rage fueled by the corrosive knowledge that someone else had loved her better and more truly than he ever did. Another man had made solemn promises and, as the bouquet of roses testified, even kept them.

  The buzzing in his ears stopped abruptly.

  Oh, listen to yourself. Do you have any idea how pathetic you are?

  Sorry, what’s that?

  Well, how would you describe yourself?

  Unable to decide whether he was the accused or the accuser, Raymer was speechless in his own defense.

  Be honest, for once, then.

  Honest?

  I know, a brand-new concept.

  Go fuck yourself.

  Okay, but think twice about that.

  I know who I am.

  At this, much hilarity. You don’t have a fuckin’ clue. The old lady was right. His voice c
hanged here. Who is this Douglas Raymer? Who is this Douglas Raymer? A perfect impersonation of Miss Beryl back in eighth grade. God, you kill me, you really do.

  Raymer waited for the laughter to stop, which it finally did.

  Okay, so, this black chick, the voice continued. You say you know yourself? Then explain to me why you’re messing around with her?

  Raymer could feel his shoulders shrug. He thought about Charice, what a nice evening it had been when it seemed as if she liked him. He couldn’t remember the last time he enjoyed himself nearly so much. I don’t know, he admitted.

  Sure you do.

  It’s complicated.

  It isn’t. Try being honest.

  Well, he thought. Right now I could really use a friend…

  See? That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I’m talking about. What you want is to see the butterfly on her ass.

  You know what? You’re not a good person.

  Finally. Now we’re getting somewhere.

  Raymer opened the car door and vomited lamb chops and asparagus and red wine onto the ground, hoping he’d expelled whatever had taken up residence in his head along with the contents of his stomach. No such luck.

  Feel better? the voice wanted to know when he shut the door again.

  I do, yes.

  After a pause, I’m not your enemy.

  You’re hardly my friend.

  That remains to be seen.

  Leave me alone. Go back where you came from.

  I’m where you came from.

  No, you rode in on a bolt of lightning. When this tingling stops, you’ll be gone.

  No.

  Raymer swallowed hard and tasted the rancid truth of this.

  So, I gotta ask: aren’t you even a little curious?

  About what?

  About what’s on the card, you dope.

  My hand won’t open, Raymer said, holding up his claw to where anyone could see it, as if he weren’t completely alone.

  Try again.

  This time, sure enough, the fingers slowly began to flex, his skin suddenly alive with a thousand pinpricks. Inside his fist was the crumpled florist’s card, which he smoothed out, as best he could, on his pant leg, then held it up to the light. GILCHRIST’S FINE BLOOMS, it said in raised letters. Below this was the ubiquitous wing-footed Mercury, bouquet in hand.

  Turn it over.

  Raymer opened the door and vomited again, mostly dry heaves this time.

  Quit stalling.

  Can I tell you something? Raymer asked.

  Anything.

  I’m so tired of being everybody’s fool.

  He expected to be laughed at, but he wasn’t. I’m here to help.

  Raymer regarded the card, thinking about the choice he was being given. When I know, will things be different?

  Let’s find out.

  What if they’re even worse?

  Turn the fucking card over.

  Raymer did. There was just one word, scripted in what Raymer guessed must’ve been an elegant hand before the ink ran. There looked to be five or six letters. The first was clearly an A, the second, most likely, an l. Alfred? Alton? No, the other legible letter—second from the last—seemed to be a y. Allen, but spelled with a y? Finally it came to him. It wasn’t a man’s name at all, just the word Always.

  Well, said Dougie. I don’t know about you, but I find that very disappointing.

  And then the buzzing was back.

  Grave Doings

  WHEN SULLY ARRIVED HOME, a car he didn’t recognize was parked at the curb. There were no lights on in Miss Beryl’s house, at least none that was visible from the street. Standing on the front seat, his paws on the dash, Rub had also noted the unfamiliar vehicle, barked at it, then turned to regard Sully. “I see it,” Sully told him. “Shut up before I whack you one.” The dog cocked his head, puzzled. Sully’d never laid a hand on him, but his threats, always delivered with conviction, were hard to ignore completely. The strain of not barking caused him to let loose a short burst of urine on the glove box.

  “Let’s go,” Sully said, getting out, but Rub had already scrabbled past him.

  Strange that after so many years Sully still thought of the house as Miss Beryl’s. He’d lived in the apartment upstairs so long that he still forgot sometimes and went up the back stairs only to find the door locked. If Carl, who lived there now, was home and heard his approach, he’d holler, You don’t fucking live up here, you idiot. And though Peter and Will had been living in the downstairs flat for the last seven years, at times Sully was still surprised to see one of them emerge instead of his former landlady. Lately, the house filled him with unease, and that was even stranger. It was a fine property, one of the best on the street, which in turn was one of the best streets in Bath. Had he any wish to sell it, the place was worth a small fortune. This was in part due to his grandson, who kept the lawn mowed and edged, the hedges neatly trimmed. Since moving in, he and his father had painted the place twice and undertaken repairs and improvements in return for reduced rent. Sully hadn’t wanted to charge them anything at all, but Peter wouldn’t hear of it. As a result, the house looked better now than when Miss Beryl was alive and depending on Sully to keep it spruced up.

  If he’d had any inkling of her intention to leave him the house, he’d have done his best to talk her out of it. He’d never before owned anything more valuable than a motor vehicle, and that suited him to a T. The old woman must’ve known he had little desire to become a property owner so late in the overall scheme of things, that it might well prove a burden. Had she hoped it would force him to accept a long-overdue and entirely unwelcome new role as a responsible adult? Possibly. More likely, though, she’d just meant to thank him for the moral support he’d offered when her son, Clive Jr., skipped town in the wake of the Ultimate Escape Fun Park fiasco. His unseemly departure, together with the small strokes she was suffering, had left her fragile, ashamed and disengaged, as well as increasingly housebound. Hearing Sully’s footfalls upstairs had comforted her. She also knew Sully’s son and grandson had unexpectedly returned to his life and that down the road the house might provide them with a place to live. Which meant that in due course the house would become Peter’s. It probably pleased her to think that Sully, who would have had nothing to leave his son, now had something tangible to pass on. She could never have predicted Peter’s disinterest in any such inheritance or that eventually Sully would see her gift as a regrettable psychic turning point.

  Though to be fair, Sully’s luck had already begun to turn before this inheritance. It was Peter who bet that first winning triple. Until his son’s arrival, things had been going more or less according to form. Badly, in other words. In fact, Sully had been in the middle of one of those exhilarating stupid streaks that had characterized so much of his adult life. This one had culminated with a straight right hand, delivered right on the button, to then officer Raymer’s nose, dropping him like a sack of potatoes in the middle of Main Street and resulting in a warrant for Sully’s arrest. He’d spent most of that holiday season in jail. While he was incarcerated, the 1-2-3 trifecta he’d been playing every day for decades—what Carl Roebuck called his bonehead triple—had finally run. Missing out on it would have been about par for Sully’s course, but Peter, on Sully’s drunken instructions, had continued to make the wager at the OTB, so the winnings were waiting for him when he got out. Not exactly a fortune, but enough to return him to the economic knife edge he’d been teetering on for as long as he could remember, the most he could reasonably hope for. But then a month later the same trifecta hit again, its payoff even bigger, and at age sixty-one Sully had done something so completely out of character that he’d wondered, even at the time, if cosmic repercussions might follow: he’d opened a savings account. After all, he had a grandson now (three, actually, though the other two lived with their mother, Peter’s ex-wife, in West Virginia), and one day Will would need money for college. Sully hadn’t contributed a penny to Peter’s own education,
so this was the least he could do.

  Even after that second windfall, he’d continued to cling stubbornly to his conviction that his newfound luck couldn’t last. After all, his stupid streaks had always run with the regularity of European trains. Another was bound to heave into view momentarily, after which he’d be back in the soup, broke and busted up and without prospects, his natural condition. But no. Later that year, his landlady died and left him the house.

  Nor was even this the end. The final stroke of good fortune—or at least Sully had hoped it would be—was more unnerving than all the others combined, because its ultimate source was Big Jim Sullivan, Sully’s drunk, abusive, long-dead father. As a final fuck you to the old man, Sully had intentionally let the family house on Bowdon Street, the scene of so many painful memories, fall into ruin until the town finally had no choice but to condemn and raze it; that, Sully had imagined, would finish things off. He’d given exactly no thought to the weedy, unattractive half acre the house sat on, assuming the land itself, awkwardly situated, would be next to worthless. But one of Gus Moynihan’s campaign promises had been to build a bike path through the town of Bath and out through sprawling Sans Souci Park, on the other side of which it would hook up with the Schuyler Springs path, the idea being to link their unlucky community to Schuyler’s historically more fortunate one. The proposed route, the only one that made any sense, ran straight through Sully’s half acre, which the town planned to spruce up with park benches and a marble water fountain. Sensing Sully’s reluctance to sell, but not its source, the mayor had sweetened the deal by promising Rub Squeers a custodial job out at Hilldale. And when even that didn’t produce the desired effect, he offered to void all of Sully’s parking violations, which he’d been collecting for years and which were now the equivalent of a small line item in the town’s annual budget.

 
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