Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  In her considered opinion Raymer was far too self-conscious. “Not everything’s about you,” she liked to say, making him sound narcissistic. She was right, though. He did have a bad habit of internalizing things. Take, for instance, the judge’s two dramatic resignations. Could it be coincidence that he’d tendered the first of these the very day Raymer was elected police chief? And that his second came exactly four years later when he was reelected? Yes, Becka assured him; it not only could be a coincidence, it most assuredly was. Over the last two decades, the poor man had battled three separate cancers, first a tumor on his lung, then some particularly aggressive cells in the prostate and finally a small but malevolent nodule attached to his brain stem, a malignancy that for a time seemed merely to focus his ferocious intellect, to sharpen his wit and tongue, neither of which in Raymer’s view had required further honing. In fact, he had just about concluded that cancer wasn’t the lethal killer it was cracked up to be when word came that the old man had lapsed into a coma and then, a few days later, that he was finally gone.

  About which Raymer was surprised to have mixed feelings. On one hand, he’d never again be fixed by that scrotum-shrinking judicial gaze of disapproval. Nor, except in memory, would he be called names by this figure whose opinion carried such weight. But if the spirit lived on, as many people believed, didn’t that mean Judge Flatt would consider Raymer an idiot for all eternity? How fair was that? Was he really so ungifted? True, he’d never made stellar grades in school. Though he’d been orderly and never caused trouble, his teachers all seemed relieved at the end of the school year when he moved up a grade with his peers and became someone else’s burden. Only Miss Beryl, who kept drawing her triangles and asking him who he was in the margins of his compositions, had seemed to feel something like affection for him, though even here Raymer couldn’t be sure. The old woman was forever shoving books at him, and while another boy might have considered these gifts encouragement, he had wondered if they might instead be punishment for some misdeed he hadn’t noticed.

  The cover of one book, he recalled, pictured a bunch of people hanging out of a hot-air balloon. To him the illustration had looked all wrong. The colors of the balloon were too bright, and the humans in its tiny dangling basket looked happy to be trapped there when common sense suggested they’d be scared shitless. Another book seemed to be about a group of explorers who’d entered the bowels of the earth through a volcano. What the hell was she trying to tell him? That he should consider going someplace far away? That up or down really didn’t matter so long as he just went?

  He’d thanked her for each book, of course, but at home he’d hidden them all on the top shelf of his closet where his tiny mother, unless she stood on a chair, couldn’t spot them and brood about where they’d come from. Throughout his childhood she’d harbored a deep-seated fear that he’d end up a thief, like her own father, and whenever he came into possession of anything she herself hadn’t given him, she immediately demanded to know where he got it. If his explanation struck her as suspicious or implausible there would be trouble—the same screaming and crying and crazy hair tearing that had finally driven his father away. The whole hair-pulling thing particularly frightened Raymer, because hers was already so thin you could see her pale scalp, and he didn’t want to be the only kid in town with a bald mother.

  “They’re going to come and take you away,” she warned him over and over, her eyes swollen and red rimmed and wild. “That’s what they do with thieves, you know.”

  Then she’d fix him with that look of hers, waiting for him to absorb the truth she was telling him, after which she’d sigh mightily and stare into the distance, into memory, at the central event of her own childhood. “They took my father. Came right up on the porch and knocked on our door. I begged Mama not to open it, but she did and they came inside and just took him.” She’d relive the awful moment for a long beat, then return to her son and the present for the inevitable postscript. “How he cried! How he begged them not to take him!” The clear implication was that, when the time came, Raymer would likewise blubber and beg the policemen not to cart him off to jail. Though he’d never stolen anything and had no desire to, he hadn’t been able to entirely discount the possibility of what she foresaw so clearly. His plan, if you could call it that, was to keep from wanting anything bad enough for stealing it to become a serious temptation.

  Many of the books Miss Beryl had given him were old and musty smelling, their pages dog-eared, the sort of books you wanted to give away, but others were in better condition, a few brand-new. Often the name Clive Peoples Jr. was inscribed on the flyleaf. When he asked Miss Beryl about these inscriptions, she told him this was her son, but he was all grown up now, a banker. Something about how she said this suggested that either Clive the boy or Clive the man had disappointed her. Had he, too, failed to master the rhetorical triangle? Raymer’s heart went out to the kid. Imagine having her for a mother, your whole life a giant margin for her to ask her impossible questions in.

  Still, he felt bad about only pretending to read the books she’d given him, and he wished he could’ve figured out how to get her to stop. He also wished she’d quit asking him about the ones he claimed to have read. Why couldn’t she be more like his other teachers, who looked at him blankly the following fall when he said hello to them outside Woolworths, having in a matter of months forgotten his existence entirely? Old Lady Peoples, he feared, forgot exactly nothing, and she had no intention of forgetting him.

  Like so many of his anxieties, this one proved well founded. Throughout high school, Miss Beryl persisted in tormenting him. “What are you reading, Douglas?” she asked whenever their paths crossed, and when he couldn’t come up with a single title, she’d tell him to stop by her house because “I have several books I think will interest you.” Each time he promised he would, though of course he never did. She’d retired from teaching by then, and it was possible she was just lonely, her husband, the high school’s driver’s ed teacher, having been killed in the line of duty a decade earlier, launched through the windshield by a nervous beginner. He was sorry if she was lonely, but that was no fault of his, and he sensed her firm intention to keep posting her queries in the margins of his psyche forever.

  After graduating, he tried a year of community college downstate, but then his mother fell ill and there’d been no money, so he’d returned to Bath. Having lost touch with Miss Beryl, he discovered he was no longer so afraid of her and maybe even missed her a little. More than once he thought about paying her a visit, maybe asking her what she’d meant by giving him all those books. He might even confess that he had no more idea who Douglas Raymer was now than he did in eighth grade. But by this time she’d become Donald Sullivan’s landlady, and he doubted it was possible for the same person to feel affection for two such different men. Fine, he told himself. Let the old woman write in Sully’s margins. See how he likes it.

  It was during this same period that he got a custodial job at the college in Schuyler Springs, and it was there he met an old campus cop who suggested he go to the Academy, which he’d eventually done. A uniform, he then discovered, was the next best thing to an identity, and even Miss Beryl seemed genuinely pleased, if a little surprised, when she saw him in it for the first time. “That outfit seems to have done wonders for your self-confidence,” she told him. “Your mother must be proud.” Actually, unless Raymer was mistaken, his mother was more relieved than proud. His becoming a policeman seemed to have eroded her conviction that he would end up in the clink. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that the two career paths weren’t mutually exclusive.

  Then Becka had come along. Raymer pulled her over for doing fifty in a thirty-five. She had a Pennsylvania license and plates, having moved to Bath just a week earlier. She was an actress, she explained (she was certainly beautiful enough), and she was speeding because she was late for rehearsal in Schuyler Springs and the play’s director was going to be furious. In fact, she might even lose her part.
Was there any chance he could let her off with a warning? God, her smile.

  He wanted to, but no. She’d been traveling at an unsafe speed, and it wasn’t right to let her off just because she was beautiful and had smiled at him and because she managed in handing over her license to touch his wrist. His decision to write her a ticket seemed to genuinely astonish her, and she later admitted that she’d been stopped for speeding any number of times without ever having been given a citation. It had made her wonder what kind of man he was. Three months later when she said, “You know what? You should ask me to marry you,” he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

  How swiftly that sense of good fortune had been undermined. He’d noticed when they left on their honeymoon that Becka’s suitcase was suspiciously heavy, but he was pretty sure that asking her about why would be getting off on the wrong marital foot. When they arrived, though, and he hauled her bag up onto the king-size bed and she released the clasps, several plays and three or four thick novels tumbled out, causing the blood to drain from his face. There’d been lots of books in her apartment, of course, as well as groaning bookcases full of books about acting, as well as novels and plays. It was okay with him that she liked to read. She was a girl, after all, and many of them, like the scrawny ones at the college in Schuyler, were similarly afflicted. But their honeymoon was only for a week. What did she need with so many books? His first horrified thought was that they’d somehow gotten their signals crossed and she meant for the marriage to be platonic. That turned out not to be the case, though after they finished making love, Becka would often sigh contentedly and pick up a book and immediately become engrossed, which made Raymer feel like a short, possibly insignificant chapter. She also read by the pool and on the plane ride back, closing the last of her books just as the wheels touched down.

  At the baggage claim, as they watched other people’s luggage circle and waited for their own to emerge, he decided to ask straight out, “Why do you read so much?”

  At first she didn’t seem to understand the question, or maybe that its source was genuine, profound bewilderment. Shrugging, she replied, “Who knows? Same reason as anybody, I guess. To escape. There’s mine!” she pointed, momentarily confusing Raymer, who thought maybe she’d spied an escape from their marriage, not just her suitcase. Still, she read to escape? Why? Not once during their glorious week of warm sun and fancy food and drink and knee-buckling sex had Raymer wanted to be anywhere other than right where he was.

  “I suppose you know all about the rhetorical triangle,” he said, feeling his eyes fill with unexpected tears. Because naturally she would. Worse, she probably understood it, that and the Holy Trinity and every other abstract concept that had stumped him during his long, tortured childhood and adolescence. Somehow he’d managed to marry someone who’d actually enjoyed school. He could picture his new wife as a kid, sitting there in the front row with her hand raised, practically waving in hopes of being called on, always confident she knew the answer. He could even imagine the expression on her young face—a combination of pity and exultation—when the teacher called not on her but some dullard trying his best to remain invisible in the back row, a boy who almost never knew the right answer and, on those rare occasions that he did, lacked the courage to risk volunteering it.

  “What’s a rhetorical triangle?” Becka asked him, hoisting her suitcase off the conveyor and studying him closely. “Are you…crying?”

  In fact, he was. “I love you,” he explained, which was true but hardly the reason for these tears. What had become powerfully obvious to him was how profoundly, impossibly different they were. He would be wise to enjoy her while he had her, though that wouldn’t last long.

  “Where’s yours, I wonder?” she said, scanning the trundling bags, or pretending to, perhaps annoyed by his unmanly public show of emotion. “They went on the plane at the same time. Wouldn’t you think they’d come off together?”

  “It’s probably lost,” he said, suddenly sure of it.

  “Lord, you’re a pessimistic man,” she said, standing on her toes for a better view. Strange that she should be just as certain that his suitcase would materialize any moment as he was that it was gone for good.

  He’d been right, though. His suitcase was lost, and so was he.


  BECKA, he thought, his eyes filling at the memory of that all-too-brief period when they were still in love. Since none of the other mourners were paying him any attention, he decided to risk glancing toward her grave. He knew roughly where it was, but with the stones lying flat here in Dale, he couldn’t tell precisely. Someone had placed a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses on one of the graves in her section, causing Raymer, who’d let the first anniversary of her death go unmarked, to feel a deep pang of belated guilt. Becka was an only child, her parents having died in a car wreck when she was in high school, and her theater friends were mostly too self-absorbed to miss or even remember her. Which left only Raymer to do so, unless you counted Alice Moynihan.

  Or unless you counted the man Becka’d been about to leave him for.

  When Gus nudged him again, a perplexed expression on his face, Raymer realized he’d pulled the garage-door remote out of his trouser pocket and was unconsciously fondling it. Not long after her death, he’d sold Becka’s RAV back to the Toyota dealership where they’d bought it two years earlier. He thought he’d cleaned the vehicle out pretty carefully, but the service department, preparing it for resale, discovered the remote when they pushed the driver’s seat all the way back on its runners. “Bet you went crazy looking for this,” the guy said when he returned it to him at the station. “How it got wedged up under the seat like that’s beyond me.”

  At the time Raymer had naturally assumed the remote was for their own garage. He’d put the town house on the market the day after her funeral, making a mental note to give the remote to the new owners. Then he’d put it in his desk drawer for safekeeping and promptly forgot all about it until a couple weeks ago. The house had sold pretty quickly, and he distinctly remembered handing over two garage-door remotes, along with the door keys, at the closing. So what was this remote?

  “You okay?” Gus whispered.

  “I’m fine,” Raymer whispered back, returning the device to his pocket, though in truth he was feeling light-headed.

  “Quit weaving.”

  Having not realized he was weaving, he quit.

  It was possible, of course, that this weird little mystery had nothing to do with Becka. The RAV had been a demo model with several hundred miles on it when they bought it, so the remote might’ve belonged to a salesman at the dealership. Probably not, though. It hadn’t been dropped. No, it had been hidden deliberately. One of the more serious obstacles to small-town adultery was the problem of what to do with your car. If you left it out at the curb, it would be noticed and maybe recognized. You could leave it a couple blocks away, but people would still conclude you were having an affair; they’d just be wrong about who you were having it with. Better to arrive under the cover of darkness, drive directly into your lover’s garage and lower the door before either you or your car could be identified.

  “What’s that?” Charice had wanted to know when she entered the office unexpectedly and caught him examining the thing as if it were a fossil.

  “A garage-door remote.”

  “I can see that,” she told him, irritation her default mode, at least with him. “I mean, like, what’s the story with this one?”

  He explained where it had been found, in Becka’s RAV, up under the driver’s seat.

  “Throw it away,” she said, without the slightest hesitation.

  “Why?” he asked. Because you could tell at a glance that she’d leaped to the same conclusion he had.

  “I’ll tell you why. Because it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.”

  What we think it does, she meant.

  “Could be she let somebody borrow her car,” Charice continued, “and this other per
son dropped that remote in there.”

  “But if somebody borrowed her car, why would that person have his garage-door opener on him? Wouldn’t that be in his car? Do you carry your remote around in your purse?”

  “I don’t have one. I don’t even have a garage. Also, it’s none of your business what’s in my purse.”

  “Okay,” Raymer said, ignoring her. With Charice you did well to ignore a good portion of what she said. “Then how’d it get wedged up under the driver’s seat?”

  She shrugged. “Could be an innocent explanation, is all I’m saying.”

  He raised an eyebrow at this.

  “Admit it. You been thinkin’ sideways since Becka passed.” Selling the condo, she meant. Moving into the Morrison Arms. Selling the RAV instead of his piece-of-shit Jetta. All three decisions motivated by spite and self-loathing.

  “And anyhow,” Charice went on, standing over him now with her hands on her hips, “suppose you’re right, which you aren’t. You plan to do what, exactly? Go around to every house in Bath and point that thing at all the garages and see which door it opens?”

  That was, in a nutshell, the very plan taking shape in Raymer’s brain, though he was reluctant to admit it to someone so clearly determined to deride it. But was it such a bad idea? After all, Bath was a small place, and he could cover it neighborhood by neighborhood in his spare time. Wouldn’t that just be good, methodical police work, eliminating the innocent from your inquiries?

  “Thing about garage-door openers, Chief? They send out, like, a radio signal, except that one there—the one you’re holding?—that’s not the only remote with the same signal. It’s like the key to your car. Say you own a Volkswagen Jetta.”

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