Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “What happened to him?”

  “He got hit by a car.”

  “Hey, Dummy,” Sully said, and the dog perked up. “You hear that?”


  CARL, noticing the dried streaks on the windshield, ran his index finger through one, verifying his suspicion that, yes, it was on the inside of the glass.

  “I wouldn’t,” Sully warned him.

  “Wouldn’t what?”

  “Lick that finger.”

  Carl sniffed it instead, then shot Sully a look of unadulterated disgust before rolling down the passenger window. “Who was the last human being to ride in this vehicle besides you?”

  “Rub, I think,” Sully told him. The outside air smelled clean and fresh but still thick with ozone from the storms.

  “Rub’s a dog.”

  “The other Rub.”

  “In this vehicle,” Carl continued, “we witness the sad demise of fundamental Western values. Pride. Order. Personal responsibility. Rudimentary hygiene.”

  “This from a man who pisses himself.”

  “See, that’s the difference between us. I was embarrassed this morning. You, by contrast, think this truck’s normal.”

  That wasn’t entirely true. Every now and then Sully considered giving the cab a good scouring but always decided against it. For one thing, a clean vehicle would only encourage his Upper Main Street ladies to take further advantage of him. Elderly widows, they already relied on him for small handyman jobs, as well as snowblowing their sidewalks and driveways in winter. When their middle-aged children, who mostly lived in Schuyler or the Albany suburbs, weren’t available to take them to the doctor or the supermarket or the hairdresser or out to the new Applebee’s for lunch, it was Sully they turned to. After all, cabs cost money, whereas he could be paid in banana bread. They always began by saying how grateful they were, and what would they ever do without him, but once this pro forma gratitude was entered into the record, they commenced complaining about the condition of his truck, the springs poking up through the truck’s passenger seat and goosing their withered flanks, the floor strewn with sloshing Styrofoam coffee cups, the crowbar on the dash—how did that get there?—that would vibrate and inch toward them menacingly whenever he accelerated.

  Mostly Sully didn’t mind being at their beck and call, as his long afternoons were hard to fill. But the old women chattered at him incessantly, and when he dropped them back home they always wanted to know if he’d be free the following Tuesday, as if that were the sort of thing a man like him would know offhand. They might be old—ancient, many of them—but they wanted what all women had demanded of Sully his entire life: commitment. His determination to remain uncommitted was strengthened with each new request. Besides, why clean the cab if Rub was just going to pee in it again?

  “Okay,” he said. “I got one for you. What kind of man owns a construction company and no work clothes?” Despite Sully’s explicit instructions, Carl was wearing his usual outfit: polo shirt, chinos and what looked to be expensive Italian loafers.

  Carl ignored him, distracted by the sound of Rub’s toenails scrabbling in the truck bed. “You shouldn’t let him ride back there.”

  “He enjoys it,” Sully said weakly, because of course Carl was right. “He’s a dog.”

  “Yeah, but what happens if you have to jam on the brakes? How are you going to feel when he goes flying and gets dead?”

  “You’re right,” Sully said. “On the drive home you can ride back there.”

  When they came to a stop sign, Carl adjusted his side-view mirror so he could study Raymer’s Jetta as it pulled up behind them. “Who the hell is he talking to?”

  Sure enough, when Sully glanced at his rearview, Raymer did appear to be in an animated conversation with somebody. “He must have a police-band radio in there,” Sully ventured. But then he remembered the parrotlike voice on the other side of the bathroom door. So maybe not.

  “Does he seem right to you?” Carl said. “Because to me he looks unhinged. And this business about the garage-door thingy? How does that make any sense?”

  “He seems adamant.”

  “Or just batshit.”

  “He’s had a rough day.”

  Carl snorted at this. “No, I’ve had a rough day.”

  “He fainted into a grave this morning,” Sully said. “Tonight he got struck by lightning.”

  Carl considered this, then shrugged. “Okay, I stand corrected.”

  In good weather the cemetery’s backhoe was kept under the sloping metal awning attached to the maintenance shed. The shed itself was locked, but Sully knew where Rub hid the key. As he inserted it into the lock, he remembered something. “Wait here,” he told his companions, then went quickly inside, shutting the door behind him. It took only a minute to locate the backhoe’s ignition key dangling by a cord from its peg. What he’d remembered just in time was that Raymer’s three missing wheel boots were stashed in here under a tarp. Sully had originally hidden them out at Harold Proxmire’s auto yard in the trunk of a rusted-out Crown Victoria, but such contraband made Harold nervous, so when Rub got the job at Hilldale, Sully’d moved them here, then promptly forgot all about them. He raised one corner of the tarp, and sure enough, there they were, good as new. Tomorrow, he told himself, after he and Rub hauled that tree branch away, he’d transfer them out to Zack’s shed, where it was unlikely anyone would come across them by accident.

  The eastern horizon was graying, which meant they didn’t have much time. Tossing Carl the keys to the pickup, he climbed aboard the backhoe, and Rub leaped up beside him. “Don’t get too far ahead,” he told the other two. “I don’t know where we’re going, and top speed on this thing’s about two miles an hour.”

  As they crept slowly through the cemetery, Sully found himself wishing that Peter was here. His son’s default mode was disapproval, at least where Sully was concerned, but there were also occasions when he let his guard down and surrendered to the madcap spirit of the moment. Once, years earlier, Sully had conscripted him to help steal the Roebuck snowblower. Every time it snowed, Sully would swipe it, only to have Carl steal it back. With each theft they increased their security measures to prevent further larceny. Finally Carl had brought it out to the yard and chained it to a pole. The property was surrounded by a high chain-link fence and patrolled at night by a Doberman named Rasputin. Sully’d knocked the dog out with a handful of sleeping pills inserted in a package of hamburger, but he still needed Peter to climb the fence and liberate the snowblower with the bolt cutters he’d also swiped from Carl. All had gone smoothly, the Doberman off sleeping somewhere (they assumed), until, just as Peter severed the chain, they heard a low growl, and there stood Rasputin within a yard of him, his feet wide apart, his teeth bared hideously. For a long minute he and Peter just stared at each other until the dog began to palsy and froth at the mouth. A moment later, the pills trumped his malice, and he just keeled over in the snow.

  Later, at the Horse, his entire face lit up by an uncharacteristic joyful grin, Peter couldn’t get over it. “That,” he told Sully, “was more intense than sex.” Seeing his son so happy, Sully had wondered if it might represent some kind of turning point. Maybe Peter had finally given himself permission to enjoy life from a less ironic distance. But the next morning he was his old buttoned-up self, clearly ashamed about having allowed himself to be drawn into his father’s foolishness. Too bad, Sully couldn’t help thinking. Though he had no desire for a son made in his own image, he hated to see Peter refuse to acknowledge such a basic truth about himself: that he liked to have fun.

  Arriving at the judge’s grave site, Sully handed the dog down to Carl, who held him at arm’s length, penis facing outward. “Let’s lock him in the truck,” Sully suggested. Rub had a vivid imagination and didn’t always draw clear distinctions between what was alive and what wasn’t. When he saw the backhoe in action, its jaw gulping big mouthfuls of fresh earth, he might get into attack mode.

Carl said, bearing the struggling animal away. “There might still be a surface in there that he hasn’t peed on.”

  Sully was studying Raymer, whose whole demeanor had changed since they’d arrived at Hilldale. Having set these proceedings in motion, he now looked like a man who finally understood their gravity. He was staring at the grave they were about to desecrate, but his gaze, unless Sully was mistaken, was inward. “Hey?” Sully said, swinging the backhoe’s claw into position.

  “What?” Raymer said, snapping out of it.

  Testing the levers that lifted and lowered the inverted scoop, Sully said, “You sure about this? Because what we’re about to do here is—”

  “Criminal?” Carl suggested, returning from the truck. “Deviant? Perverse? Imbecilic?”

  Sully ignored this. “If we get caught,” he told Raymer, “it’s your reputation on the line.”

  “What about mine?” Carl said.

  “That’s hilarious,” Sully told him.

  Raymer glanced around nervously. “Who’s going to catch us?”

  “We won’t know until they show up.”

  Raymer worked his jaw as if he was literally chewing on the problem, then finally stiffened into resolve. “All right. What the hell,” he said, his voice catching and producing that same parrotlike sound Sully’d heard on the other side of the bathroom door. Raymer himself must’ve heard its strangeness, because he immediately cleared his throat, like something foreign and perhaps nasty had gotten lodged in there and he needed to expel it. “We’ve come this far.”

  At this Carl snorted.

  “What?” Sully said.

  “Nothing,” Carl said. “I was just thinking about Napoleon invading Russia.”

  Both Sully and Raymer blinked at this.

  “Also the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and the Vietnam War,” Carl continued. “Not one of those clusterfucks could truly commence until somebody said, What the hell. We’ve come this far.”

  And on that note Sully pushed forward the lever that lowered the backhoe’s claw into the soft earth above the casket of Judge Barton Flatt, who likely would’ve received—had His Honor died in time to qualify for it—the inaugural Unsung Hero award that Sully’s landlady would be getting two days hence. Next year, unless Sully was mistaken, he’d be a shoo-in.


  A FEW MINUTES LATER the backhoe’s steel teeth located Judge Barton Flatt’s casket with a fingernails-on-the-blackboard screech. All three men winced. “Relax, Your Honor,” Sully called down into the hole. “It’s just me, not God.”

  After that, though, he worked more carefully. A backhoe wasn’t exactly a precision instrument, however, and it was still too dark to see very well, so a minute later when he managed to jostle the casket again he wasn’t surprised.

  “Jesus,” Carl said. “Don’t rupture the fucking thing.”

  Sully, who feared precisely this, paused the backhoe. “Let’s find the edges,” he suggested. He always kept a broom in the back of the truck, so Raymer went to fetch it. “Grab the rake while you’re at it,” Sully called after him. “And a couple shovels.”

  Raymer answered in his parrot voice, saying something Sully couldn’t make out. Carl cocked his head at the sound and raised an eyebrow at Sully, who just shrugged.

  Once the outline of the casket was exposed, Sully was able to work around it, deepening the hole and providing enough space for one man to stand at the foot and another along one side. When he switched the ignition off and the machine shuddered into silence, it was quiet except for Rub’s excited yipping in the pickup. “Okay, girls, in you go,” Sully said, climbing down and taking the flashlight from Carl.

  “You’re not coming?” Carl said wryly, lowering himself into the hole.

  “Yeah, that’d be great,” Sully said. “All three of us down there and nobody to pull us up.”

  “I hope you’re not claustrophobic,” Carl said to Raymer when he, too, dropped into the hole.

  To which Raymer replied, “I am, actually.”

  Carl paused to regard him. “What the hell’s wrong with your voice?”

  Raymer cleared his throat. “It’s a recent thing.”

  “You sound like you should be testifying from behind a screen.”

  Directing the flashlight’s beam down into the hole, Sully noted that the casket’s burnished surface now bore two deep parallel scratches, and when Carl grabbed on to one of the ornate handles, it came off in his hand. “Nice work,” he said, handing it up to Sully, who tossed it onto the pile of excavated dirt.

  At first, even with Carl and Raymer tugging on it, the casket refused to budge, as if it contained not the body of a man wasted away to nothing by radiation and chemotherapy but a cache of gold bullion. Then all at once it came loose with a sucking sound, its contents shifting audibly inside. “You know what?” Carl said. “I just decided I want to be cremated.”

  “I’ll try to remember,” Sully told him.

  “So what’s the plan, boss?” Carl said. “Haul it out?”

  “Nah, just stand him up,” Sully said.

  “Which end would you guess is his head?” Carl wondered, scratching his own.

  “The narrow end should be the feet,” Sully offered.

  “It’s a perfect rectangle, dimwit.”

  “Then I couldn’t tell you.”

  When the two of them, grunting and muttering, succeeded in wrestling the casket into an upright position, Sully handed Carl the flashlight, and he directed its beam at the section of earth below on which the box had lain. “Okay,” Raymer said, dropping to his knees. “It should be right here.”

  “Which is more than could be said for us,” Carl replied. “What I don’t get is what makes you so sure the fucking thing’s even down here.”

  “It has to be,” Raymer said, running the flat of his hand over the dirt. “I’m almost sure it was in my pocket when I passed out.”

  “Yeah, but afterward you went to the hospital, right? Maybe it fell out of your pocket there.”

  “There was no carpet on the floor of the examination room. I’d have heard it fall.”

  “Unless it happened in the ambulance.”

  That scenario had occurred to Sully as well, but Raymer seemed not to be listening. “Come on, come on!” he was saying, parrot voiced again, sifting handfuls of earth through his fingers now. Thanks to the rains, the dirt at the bottom of the hole was quickly turning to slop. “It’s got to be here.”

  Carl shot Sully a look that indicated it not only didn’t have to be, it wasn’t.

  “Raymer,” Sully said, “you’re only making matters worse. Use the rake.” Which he handed down.

  The distinct possibility that they were on a fool’s errand with him the fool seemed finally to be dawning on Raymer, who went at the moist earth with the rake like a man possessed, but after a few minutes it was clear even to him that there was no such device in the hole. Carl took the rake from him and handed it back up to Sully. “I don’t understand,” Raymer said. “This makes no sense.”

  “Here’s an idea,” Carl said. “We could dig up these other people. See if it’s under their caskets.”

  Raymer regarded him blankly, as if this suggestion had been made in earnest.

  “Are we done here?” Carl said, reaching a hand up to Sully, who grabbed it and pulled him out.

  When Raymer made no move to follow suit, Sully said, “You just gonna stay down there?”

  “I might as well,” he said miserably. “In fact, I might better. You should just cover me over. Put me out of my misery.”

  “Raymer,” Sully said quietly. “Enough of this.”

  He said something that Sully didn’t catch.

  “Say again?”

  “I said…now I’ll never know.”

  When Sully glanced at Carl, he was surprised that his expression was closer to pity than exasperation.

  “Go sit down,” Sully told Raymer, after he and Carl managed to haul him up and out. “You don’t look s
o hot.”

  Taking a seat on the pile of excavated dirt, he put his head in his hands.

  Sully and Carl returned their attention to the upright casket.

  “Just tip him back down?” Carl said. “Or walk him?”

  “If we tip him back he’ll be upside down for eternity.”

  “You think that matters if you’re dead?” Carl said.

  “It would to me.”

  “Yeah,” Carl snorted. “Like you’ve ever known which end is up.”

  Together they corner-walked the casket to the other end of the hole, then slowly lowered it as far as they could reach, after which they had no choice but to let the elevated end drop the last few feet. The resulting thud caused all three men to cringe.

  “This is a terrible thing we’ve done,” Raymer said in his own voice now. He’d picked up the silver casket handle and was turning it over in his hands. “We violated a man’s grave. And for what?”

  Sully understood how he felt. To this point his spirits had been relatively high, and if the remote had been there it might’ve justified, sort of, the madness of the entire endeavor. By the time they’d recounted the story at the Horse a few times, its lunacy would seem inspired. Whereas now…

  Only Carl seemed unchastened. “Raymer,” he said. “His Honor didn’t mind. He was dead. Do you know what ‘dead’ means?”

  “And in the meantime,” Sully said, climbing back aboard the backhoe, which he would now return to the shed, “we’re not done here. I’d rake that dirt,” he suggested to Carl, indicating the mound of earth Raymer was sitting on, “just in case it got scooped up somehow.”

  Raymer shook his head. “It would’ve been under the casket.”

  “You’d think,” Sully admitted. “Let me see that thing a minute,” he said, pointing at the silver casket handle Raymer was fondling.

  He looked puzzled by the request but got to his feet and handed it up to Sully, who promptly tossed it into the hole, where it rattled off the casket. “Hey,” he said, pointing at the eastern sky. “New day.”

  Raymer looked where Sully was pointing, but his blank expression suggested he was looking for something that just wasn’t there.

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