Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “Raymer’ll have a cow,” the mayor confided smugly, confident that Sully wouldn’t be able to resist putting it to his old nemesis, whose first investment as chief of police had been a wheel boot that he’d used on Sully’s car the same day it was delivered. Later, after Sully and Carl Roebuck figured out how to unlock and steal the boot, he’d purchased two more, only to have these stolen as well. So despite his misgivings, Sully had sold the town his father’s land and put the money into his savings account, the balance of which had now swollen to the point where, despite heroic resolve, he couldn’t possibly hope to drink it up at the Horse during what remained of his life.

  What all this amounted to, in Sully’s estimation, was a cosmic joke. As a poor man he’d always suspected that life’s deck was stacked in favor of those with means. Was it possible that, without intending to, he’d actually become one of them? Was he now and forevermore insulated against adversity? How, exactly, should he feel about that? Other people rose to the challenge and learned to live with good fortune. Why not him?

  The problem was that from the moment that first bonehead triple ran, bad things started happening to people in his immediate circle. First, Miss Beryl had been felled by that final stroke she’d known was coming, and then a year later Wirf had succumbed to renal failure, no surprise there, either. It wasn’t like Sully felt responsible for these sad events, but he’d have gladly returned the money for the pleasure of their continued company, and so a false equivalency was established in his mind between their loss and his gain. Since then, his ex-wife had come loose from her moorings and been institutionalized, and Carl Roebuck, so long a symbol of undeserved good fortune, had lost his wife, his house and, most recently, his prostate gland. If Carl was to be believed, Tip Top Construction had about one swirl around the drain left, after which he’d be officially wiped out. The more bad things that happened to people in Sully’s inner orbit, the more karmically responsible he felt. There was never a causal linkage, of course, but that didn’t alter his sense of complicity. He couldn’t help thinking that he wasn’t meant to have money, that when his luck changed some invisible mechanism of destiny had been knocked out of alignment.

  At least until he’d gone to the VA and gotten his two years, but probably one diagnosis, which had restored order with a vengeance.

  As he and Rub started down the dark driveway, the dog began to emit a low growl that probably meant the neighborhood raccoon was back. Sully’d been meaning to put some skirting around the base of the trailer, knowing how much the creature liked it under there, but when it rained Rub was partial to the space as well, so he’d let it go. “You better come inside tonight,” he said, and Rub, somehow understanding this, trotted up the steps in front of him, still grumbling.

  Inside, Sully turned on the kitchen light and tossed his keys onto the dinette next to the stopwatch Will had returned to him before leaving. It had belonged to Miss Beryl’s husband, the high school’s longtime football and track coach. Sully had given it to the boy when he and his father first arrived in Bath over a decade ago. Poor kid. For months he’d been listening to his parents’ bitter quarrels. Peter’s affair with an academic colleague back home had recently come to light and turned everything in the marriage toxic. Will had understood just enough about what was going on to be terrified about what came next. Having no idea what that might be, he’d become frightened of everything, including his own little brother. With the watch, Sully told him, he could time himself being brave. A minute today, a minute and a half tomorrow and so on. This would make him braver all the time, with the proof right there in the palm of his hand. For some reason it worked. For years the boy took the watch with him everywhere and slept with it on his nightstand. Sully had forgotten all about it. “So what’s this, then?” he asked his grandson, amazed, as he often was in the boy’s presence, at how big he’d grown while somehow remaining the boy he’d been.

  Will had shrugged, embarrassed. “I don’t really need it anymore, I guess.”

  “Nothing scares you these days?”

  “Girls,” he’d admitted.

  “Yeah, but that’s because you’re smart.”

  Another shrug, this time accompanied by a grin. “I thought maybe you could use it.”

  Sully was moved by the gift, but also curious. “What do I have to be scared about?” After his visit to the VA, had his behavior betrayed something? Did his grandson have an inkling of his illness?

  “I guess I just thought it was time to give it back,” Will said, with shrug number three.

  When Sully depressed the watch’s stem, the second hand lurched into motion, still anxious to perform after so many years. “You think it’d work for somebody my age?”

  “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “On whether you believe it will, I guess.”

  No doubt about it. He was going to miss the boy. No longer a boy, but…

  Rub was growling again, low and deep in his chest, a sound that usually preceded by a matter of seconds a knock on the trailer’s door, but none came. Nor was the dog standing with his nose to the door, like he usually did when they had a visitor. Instead he was facing the far end of the trailer, his ears flat against his skull. “Hey, Dummy,” Sully said. “What’s wrong with you?”

  Rub glanced up at him guiltily, as if to concede that something might be, but then went back to growling, the hair up on the back of his neck now. A lamp was burning in the living room, one Sully didn’t remember leaving on. The narrow corridor leading to the single bedroom was dark, but looking more closely he noticed a thin crease of light under the bathroom door. Sully, who had nothing any self-respecting thief would want to steal, never locked the trailer, so anyone could’ve walked in. Carl? Possibly, but Sully’d just left him twenty minutes earlier. Ruth? It’d been a hell of a while since she’d paid him an unannounced visit. Peter, returning unexpectedly from the city? No, his car would’ve been in the driveway. The owner of the strange car parked at the curb? It was possible, of course, that nobody was in there, that Sully himself had left the light on that morning. Rub seemed to think otherwise, though, and Sully doubted the little dickweed would be growling if the bathroom was empty or the occupant someone he knew.

  Which gave Sully a chill. What was it Roy Purdy had said at Hattie’s? That he’d stop by some night for the apology he seemed to think he had coming? But that didn’t make much sense, either. Roy’s car had been crushed when the mill collapsed into the street, and Roy himself had been injured.

  There was a heavy flashlight on the countertop. Not the best weapon, but it would have to do. Crossing the living room on tiptoe, Sully put his ear to the bathroom door. From inside came a voice he didn’t recognize. “Fuck her,” it said.

  Sully straightened. Who would be muttering obscenities in his bathroom in the middle of the night? The voice sounded strange. Not exactly human. Had someone stopped by with a gift of a foul-mouthed parrot?

  He turned the knob and pushed the door open.

  At first Sully didn’t recognize the large man slumped forward on the toilet seat, chin on his chest, pants down around his ankles, fast asleep. “Fuck her,” he repeated, then sighed deeply, as if in profound regret.

  “Fuck who?” Sully said, louder than he meant to, causing his visitor to jolt awake and blink up at him.

  “Sully,” said Raymer, his voice sounding completely different now.

  “You’re lucky I didn’t brain you with this,” Sully said, showing him the flashlight.

  “Wow,” Raymer said, blinking up at him. “I was really out. This is kind of embarrassing.”

  Earlier in the evening, Rub had told Sully about Raymer fainting into the judge’s grave, but sitting there on Sully’s commode, covered with dried mud, his eyes blackened and swollen, his hair matted, he looked like something far worse had befallen him. Such as being beaten senseless with a cudgel or dragged behind a car by his feet. “Kind of?” Sully said.

  “Okay, very.”

&
nbsp; “Did you find what you were looking for?” Because the only reason he could think of for Raymer to be in his trailer was that he was searching for the stolen wheel boots.

  But Raymer just cocked his head at this. “Sorry?”

  “What are you doing in my bathroom at three in the morning?” he said, pointing the flashlight at him for emphasis. “And don’t say taking a shit.”

  Raymer shifted his weight on the commode, causing the trailer to groan. “I stopped by to ask a favor,” he said.

  “Of me?” Sully replied.

  Raymer seemed to understand that this explanation might be hard for Sully to credit, given their personal history. “I guess I didn’t know who else to ask,” he said, adding, “Would it be all right I finished up in here?”

  This seemed a reasonable request. “Sometimes you have to flush twice,” Sully warned before closing the door on him.

  He emerged thirty seconds later with wet hands. Sully, who’d retreated to the kitchen, tossed him a hand towel. He’d been meaning to put one in the bathroom but kept forgetting—the sort of oversight that made Ruth homicidal back when she was still paying him nocturnal visits.

  “The front door wasn’t locked,” Raymer said, drying his hands, then handing the towel back.

  “It never is.”

  “We knocked.”

  “We?”

  “I meant ‘I.’ ”

  “I’ll take your word for it.”

  “And I really, really needed to pee.”

  “Most men can do that standing up.”

  Raymer shook his head sadly, the picture of dejection. He’d begun absentmindedly scratching the palm of his right hand, Sully noticed. “Have you ever been so exhausted you just…” He let the thought trail off.

  Sully pushed a dinette chair toward him with his foot. “Have a seat.”

  Raymer did, the trailer again groaning and shifting under his weight. “This is like being on a boat,” Raymer observed.

  The two men regarded each other, the air between them heavy with the strangeness of a middle-of-the-night moment that neither could ever have predicted.

  “You know you talk in your sleep?” Sully said.

  Raymer winced. “Really? Just now? What did I say?”

  Lying seemed easiest, so Sully did. “I couldn’t make it out. You sounded like a parrot.”

  Sully expected the other man to be surprised by this detail, but for some reason he wasn’t. Instead he just hung his head, utterly despondent. “Earlier tonight?” he said. “I may have been struck by lightning.”

  “May have been?”

  “I only mention it because there’s a real possibility that I’m fucked up.” Adding, when Sully raised an eyebrow, “More fucked up. Okay, insane.”

  “I’m not sure that would occur to someone who really is,” Sully said, and Raymer looked grateful for his opinion but dubious as to its accuracy.

  “Now I’ve got this voice in my head.”

  Good God, Sully thought. The man really was off the rails. “What’s it say?”

  “Mostly stuff I don’t want to hear. It suggested I come see you. It said you’d help.”

  “Help what?”

  The other man took a deep breath. “Do you know how to operate a backhoe?”

  “It’s not difficult.”

  Raymer nodded. “Where do you stand on unauthorized exhumations conducted under the cover of darkness?”

  “It’s never come up,” Sully admitted. “Let me take a wild guess. Are we talking about Judge Flatt’s grave? The one you fell into this morning?”

  Raymer sighed, clearly dismayed by how far and fast the news of all that had traveled. “I lost something down there.”

  Sully frowned. “Your wallet?” Because, really.

  To judge by the other man’s expression, this was the very question he had been hoping Sully wouldn’t ask. “Uh…something else, actually.” When Sully didn’t respond, he reluctantly continued. “Okay, a garage-door opener.”

  “Those can be replaced, you know. You don’t have to dig up dead people.”

  “My wife…,” Raymer began, then stalled.

  Sully vaguely remembered the story. How the woman had fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. That Raymer had found her.

  “Before she died…she was seeing somebody.” His eyes had filled. “She was about to run off with him.”

  “Who?”

  “I never found out,” he admitted. “I figured he left town, but apparently not. This weekend he put a dozen red roses on her grave.” He handed Sully the crumpled florist’s card.

  Sully squinted at it. “Always, huh?”

  Raymer nodded.

  “Okay, but how do you know he didn’t call in the order and get the flowers delivered? He could be in California for all you know.”

  “No,” Raymer said, far too confidently, it seemed to Sully, because how could he be so sure? “He’s here. I can feel him.”

  All this time he’d been digging at the palm of his right hand with the thumbnail of his left. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

  The question seemed to take him by surprise. He looked at the hand he’d been scratching as if it belonged to somebody else. “It’s nothing,” he said quickly, shoving it into his pocket.

  “Okay, say you find out who the guy is. What then?”

  He shrugged. “Probably nothing. I just want to know.”

  “That’s what you say now. What if you change your mind?”

  “I won’t,” he promised. “Look, I understand if you don’t want to help. No hard feelings. I know what I’m asking sounds kind of crazy.”

  Kind of? Well, yeah. And teaming up with a lifelong adversary, who’d just confessed he was hearing voices? What kind of sense did that make? Still, the idea wasn’t without appeal. Just ten minutes earlier he’d been lamenting how long it had been since his last stupid streak. Was it possible that what Raymer was proposing might just jump-start a new one? Maybe he only needed to forget about two years, but probably closer to one and start acting like the man he’d been for his entire adult life, until good fortune—like Raymer’s lightning strike?—fucked up his circuitry. His grandson had already left, and by the end of the summer his son would be gone as well. What further use had he for model citizenship? “You’re thinking of doing this now? Tonight?”

  “It’s not going to seem like a very good idea in the morning,” Raymer admitted.

  Sully couldn’t remember ever seeing another human being look more utterly abject. And given his friendship with Rub Squeers, that was saying something.

  Sully consulted his watch. Three forty-seven. He repocketed his keys and tested the flashlight to make sure the batteries weren’t dead. Taking a deep breath of his own, he was surprised to discover that it went right down to his stomach. The heaviness in his chest had miraculously vanished. Maybe the two years but probably closer to one was bullshit. These were VA doctors, after all. Not the sharpest knives in the drawer. He’d told Ruth he was just in a funk. A lie, he’d thought in the moment. But what if it was true?

  “Well,” he said, getting to his feet, “we don’t have much time.”

  Raymer looked stunned. “You’ll do it?”

  Sully shrugged. “Hey, if anything goes wrong, I’m with the chief of police.”

  “I’m resigning tomorrow.”

  “How come?”

  “I guess because I’m kind of…unfit?”

  Sully had long thought so, so he was surprised to hear himself demur. “Do you take bribes?” he asked.

  “No,” Raymer said, clearly offended by the suggestion.

  “Do you look the other way when the right people ask you to?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Then you’ve got my vote.”

  Raymer looked surprised. “You vote?”

  “That was more a figure of speech,” Sully conceded, though he did vote in general elections. “Hey, Dummy,” he said to Rub, who’d been lying quietly under the table, g
nawing away. “You want to stay here chewing your dick or go dig up a judge?”

  The dog hopped up and went over to the door, his tail wagging enthusiastically. So maybe the idea wasn’t so dumb after all.

  —

  OUTSIDE, Sully noticed the blue light of Carl’s television reflecting in the windows of his apartment, first a close-up of a woman’s crotch, then a midrange shot of a skinny man with an impressive hard-on. Sully picked up a small handful of pebbles and rattled them off the glass.

  “What are you doing?” Raymer said.

  “This is a three-man job,” Sully said. “I’ll dig the hole, but I’m not climbing down into it on my bum knee.” Also, though his breathing was okay now, that might change. Better safe than sorry.

  Carl appeared at the window, squinting out into the darkness. He must’ve recognized Sully’s silhouette below, because he said, “What do you want now? You already took my last bent farthing.”

  “Get dressed,” Sully told him.

  “You decided to evict me after all?”

  “Not tonight.”

  “Because that would be just like you.”

  “What are you, hard of hearing? Get dressed. Old clothes.”

  “Who’s that with you? Because it looks like Raymer.”

  “It is,” said Raymer, who’d gone back to absentmindedly digging at his palm.

  “Okay,” Carl said, “but only because I’m curious. The sight of you two together beggars the imagination. Give me five minutes.”

  “Two,” Sully said.

  He and Raymer went out to the curb to wait, Rub panting along with them. Sully lowered the truck’s tailgate. “Jump in,” Sully said, and Rub, a talented leaper, did as instructed.

  “He understands you?” Raymer said, clearly impressed.

  “Seems to,” Sully said, raising and latching the tailgate. “You can sometimes lose him with abstract concepts.”

  “When I was a kid we had a dog who chewed himself like that,” he said sadly.

 
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