Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


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  HE PULLED UP in front of Miss Beryl’s again just as the first rays of sunlight winked through the trees in Sans Souci Park. Carl, who’d removed his ruined loafers and muddy socks, seemed in no hurry to get out, so Sully turned the engine off and the two men sat there, confusing the hell out of Rub, who was doing frantic laps around the truck bed, loosing short bursts of urine all the while. Where did it all come from? Sully marveled. Wadding his socks up into a ball, Carl wiped away at the inside of the windshield, ostensibly to remove the streaks of dried dog piss, but in reality making an opaque brown hurricane pattern on the glass. “Look,” he said, clearly pleased with his effort, “a perfect shitstorm.”

  “Thanks,” Sully said.

  “Don’t mention it,” he replied, tossing his socks out the window, followed by his shoes. “Why don’t you firebomb this thing and get yourself a decent rig?”

  Two years, but probably closer to one. What would Sully want with a vehicle that was in better shape than he was?

  “You know,” Carl went on, “until tonight it never occurred to me that you and Raymer are actually brothers under the skin. Surely the chief of police can afford a better car than that beater of a Jetta he drives.”

  “Maybe he likes it,” Sully said. “Could be there are a few things about you that he doesn’t understand, either. Did you ever think of that?”

  “I know one thing. That man is seriously off the fucking rails.”

  They’d parted company back at the cemetery, with Raymer promising to go home and get some sleep. Sully wasn’t sure he’d do any such thing. Carl was right. There was something manic and untethered about him. He’d seen men with that same look who, after prolonged battle, continued to function, sometimes at a high level, but in a more profound respect had simply abdicated. Lost men, not at all sure they even wanted to be found.

  “And there’s no radio in that car,” Carl added. “I looked.”

  “Yeah?” Sully said.

  “Yeah.”

  Sunlight streaked through the trees just then, its sudden glare making Sully squint. Leaning forward to peer at it from around his shitstorm, Carl said, “Amazing, isn’t it, when you think about it, how the world keeps on turning, no matter how fucked up things get?”

  In Sully’s opinion it’d be more amazing if it stopped, but he understood his friend’s sentiment. Because it was something the way things kept grinding with no apparent reason or need, indifferent to life and death and all else, too. He thought about that stopwatch Will had now returned to him; its second hand just kept ticking away, seemingly content with its circular journey, forever in the same direction. That said, the mechanical world probably wasn’t so different from its living inhabitants, most of whom, Sully included, went about their lives, most days, taking it all for granted. His own happiness, such as it was, had always seemed rooted in his willingness to let each second, minute, hour and day predict the next, today no different from yesterday except in its particulars, which didn’t amount to much. Most mornings, he’d be rising about now, hauling himself out of bed, shaving and washing up, then heading downtown to help Ruth open the restaurant. Could something so fundamental, so ritualized, ever really be changed?

  Maybe Ruth was right and the reason he showed up at Hattie’s every morning was that he didn’t know what else to do, where else to go. Naturally he would have liked to tell her that wasn’t true, that of course he still felt the old affection for her. Wasn’t the fact that there was no other woman in his life proof of that? He couldn’t imagine there ever would be, not at this late juncture. Surely that had to mean something. But then he thought of Raymer, wild eyed, out at Hilldale, repeating “It’s got to be here” over and over again, an expression of personal need that the world simply refused to validate.

  So maybe it was time to try something different. Maybe his mornings at Hattie’s were, under the guise of being helpful, just selfish. If Ruth’s husband, for reasons known only to him, suddenly wanted her back, and if his wife was disposed to feel more tenderly about him than she had in the past, who was he to come between them? If Janey was sick of waking up every morning to the sound of Sully’s voice, no doubt a constant reminder of the damage his affair with her mother had done to their family, could he blame her? And though he would have liked to deny it, he had done damage. Ruth’s son Gregory, Janey’s brother, had left town right after high school, and he’d almost surely known what was going on. So if he was going to Hattie’s out of some old habit, wasn’t it his responsibility to break it? After all, Hattie’s wasn’t the only place in town where a man could order a plate of eggs and shoot the shit.

  Except, well, it was. Sure, there were the franchise joints out by the interstate exits, but their counters were full of people on their way somewhere else. Which was what Ruth seemed to be suggesting that Sully become. A person headed to Aruba. Why not? was what she wanted to know. He had the money. As he did for a better truck. So why the hell not? Because, he would’ve liked to explain, like the second hand of Will’s stopwatch, his center was fixed, his motion circumscribed by gears he couldn’t see, much less alter.

  Rub, tired of being confined in the back of the pickup for no good reason, gave a sharp yip and leaped out onto the terrace, where he rolled like a well-drilled soldier, regained his feet and darted off toward the trailer. Both men watched him go, feeling, unless Sully was mistaken, something like envy. Was it possible to be jealous of a dog with a half-chewed-through dick? Well, again, why not? Rub was nothing if not an optimist, and optimism, the older you got, became harder to summon and, once summoned, even harder to hold on to.

  “You ever see Toby?” said Carl out of the blue.

  “Why would I see her?” Sully asked, though he’d had a pretty serious crush on Carl’s ex-wife at one point, a decade or so ago.

  “You tell me,” said Carl, who’d been all too aware of the infatuation.

  “Come to think of it, I did one day last fall. Around the holidays, I think.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah, she just stopped by.”

  Carl straightened up. “Stopped by,” he repeated. “To see you.”

  “She thought I might want to list this place,” he said, nodding at Miss Beryl’s house. “She’s in real estate now.”

  Carl relaxed again. “Yeah. I heard she was doing okay. How’d she look?”

  “Terrific,” Sully said, enjoying himself now. “Never better. Sex on a stick.”

  “Fuck you,” Carl said, then sighed. “I can’t believe I drove her into the arms of a hairy-legged lesbian.”

  “She must have something you don’t.”

  “No, she doesn’t have something I do,” Carl corrected. “Or did, until recently.”

  “Give it time.”

  “I don’t know,” Carl mused. “What are men even good for anymore?”

  Since that was precisely the sort of question Sully had studiously avoided asking for his entire life, he thought this might not be a bad time for a change of subject. So he decided to ask about what had been in the back of his mind since Raymer’s pitiful lament out at Hilldale, that without the garage-door opener he’d never know the identity of the supposed boyfriend. “Tell me it wasn’t you,” he said.

  “What wasn’t me?”

  “With Raymer’s wife.” Because if the opportunity had presented itself, Carl wouldn’t have hesitated. Sully didn’t doubt that for a moment. Still, the dozen roses on the grave? The card inscribed Always? For Carl Roebuck those gestures felt out of character, to say the least. On the other hand, you never knew.

  “Fuck no,” he said.

  “You’re sure?” Sully said, though it really wasn’t necessary to ask a second time. Carl might be full of more shit than a Christmas goose, but so far as he knew the man had never lied to him about anything important.

  “What? You think I’m the only pussy hound in this town?”

  “Good,” Sully said. Because maybe he and Raymer weren’t brothers under the sk
in, as Carl had just suggested, but his heart had gone out to the poor bastard.

  Carl had spoken again, he realized. “I’m sorry, what?”

  “I said it wasn’t me, but I know who it was.”

  Carl was staring straight ahead, at the pee-streaked windshield, no doubt waiting for Sully to ask the obvious question. Which he had no intention of doing. Because, he told himself, it was none of his business, but that was a lie. He didn’t ask because he didn’t want to know the answer. Because he was afraid he already did.

  Complicity

  READERS OF the North Bath Weekly Journal generally didn’t look to their hometown paper for real news about Bath. The odd, occasional news item, like this week’s story about the middle school being renamed in Beryl Peoples’s honor, occasionally crept in, but usually the Journal stuck to church socials and spaghetti suppers, weddings and funerals, Little League scores and who made the dean’s list at the community college. The Journal’s real mission, though, was to report the more exciting goings-on in Schuyler Springs, where the harness track offered exotic wagering on trotters and pacers, and new restaurants were launched almost weekly, offering striking, unusual cuisines (Eritrean!) that used colorful, mysterious ingredients (nettles! squid ink!) and wine was served in “flights.” In Schuyler the local bookstore cosponsored famous-author events with the college’s English department, after which you could go next door and dance to a live, punk klezmer (?!) band or catch a movie at the new twelve-screen Cineplex.

  No, if you wanted news about Bath, you had to subscribe to the Schuyler Springs Democrat, a daily that prided itself on hard-hitting investigative journalism, at least where its neighbors were concerned. For example, the Great Bath Stench, unreported in the Journal, had been the Democrat’s front-page news all last summer, as were Hilldale’s ongoing problems (“Dead on the Move in Bath,” one headline read, as if a zombie movie were being reviewed). Considered newsworthy this year were the long delays and cost overruns out at the Old Mill Lofts, a project that grew sketchier by the day and to which Mayor Gus Moynihan, despite recent efforts to distance himself, was inextricably tied.

  And of course all of these headaches were in addition to Gus’s wife, who was in yet another downward spiral. That evening Alice had gotten so agitated over dinner that he’d called the doctor, who agreed to Gus’s request and prescribed a sedative. Given her exhaustion and the strength of the drug, she was unlikely to awaken before noon.

  There had always been an ebb and flow to Alice’s madness, whole weeks, even months, where she’d be, or at least seem, at peace. She’d read or paint or just stare out the window into the dark Sans Souci woods. Then, for no apparent reason, she’d be on the move again, manic, jittery, wandering from room to room in their big rambling house like somebody looking for a lost object. Gus had learned to read the signs: the nervous twitch at the corner of what had before been a perfectly placid smile; books she’d previously been engrossed in that suddenly no longer held her interest; the tiny, precise brushstrokes of her paintings becoming looser, more careless, less tied to the reality she’d been trying to capture, as if the link between brain and brush had been severed.

  He knew Alice could feel the sea change as well, the poor woman, when her anxiety returned yet again. Small, familiar sounds, instead of soothing her, would startle the hell out of her. Whatever was in pursuit seemed always to be in her peripheral vision, vanishing the second she turned to face it. To Gus, it seemed like she was remembering, in stages, something best forgotten completely. When he asked if anything was troubling her, she usually offered him a blank look, as if he were speaking German. Once, when he inquired what she was looking for, she responded, “Me?” He couldn’t help wondering if she didn’t know what he was talking about or if she’d actually answered him: it was herself she was in search of. Eventually, when the house proved too confining, she’d fly the coop, and he’d start getting reports of her in town, seemingly everywhere at once, freaking everybody out with that damn phone.

  Yesterday, she claimed to have seen someone who’d frightened her, but when he asked who it was, she again looked at him blankly, like he was supposed to know. “Kurt?” he asked. Because it was possible. The man had been gone for nearly a decade and had no reason that Gus could imagine to return. Alice shook her head. “Kurt went away,” she explained, as if this departure might be something that had escaped Gus’s attention. Who knew? Maybe it was Raymer she was alluding to. He was the one who’d found her in the park that morning and brought her home. Usually she recognized him as her friend Becka’s husband and understood that he represented no threat or danger, but men in uniform often scared her, and Raymer had been in his dress blues, so she might not’ve recognized him.

  Nothing troubled Gus more than this spooky phone business. These days the phone was her constant companion, her link to something as necessary as her next breath. Sometimes, when they were having a quiet meal, the phone would “ring,” and she’d rise, cross the room, take it out of her bag and “answer” it. She seemed to remember their long-standing rule about no calls during dinner, so she’d lower her voice and say, “I can’t talk now,” and return it to her bag. Other times she would listen patiently to whoever she dreamed was speaking, her eyes welling with tears. “Oh, dear,” she’d finally say, “then it’s even worse than we thought.” Sometimes he wondered if he himself was the subject. “He doesn’t know,” she’d whisper before pausing to listen for a while. “Of course he has a right to, but what if it destroys him?” Sometimes her conversations were so compelling that Gus would get caught up in them, half believing there really was someone on the line and wanting very much to know what the other person was saying. It was all so profoundly unsettling that he was considering taking the phone away from her.

  At least the inevitable crisis might be drawing near, and the next few days could reveal where they were headed. Sometimes—who knew why?—Alice’s inner turbulence would calm, and she’d return to her easel, her brushes, her tranquil blues and greens and yellows, but it was far more likely that they were now on that all-too-familiar downward trajectory that would end in Utica, at the state mental hospital. It was the waiting he hated most. It was like attending a child with a fever, watching it climb dangerously, praying for it to break, fearing it wouldn’t, knowing you were helpless to affect the outcome.

  All of which was why Gus had spent a sleepless night. He’d gone to bed early in hopes of putting a merciful end to the god-awful day, but his thoughts were on a loop. It still boggled his mind that one whole side of the old mill could have collapsed into the street. And on the same day a lethal reptile whose natural habitat is India escapes from the Morrison Arms? Nor was he able to dispel from his mind the image of his damn fool of a police chief pitching forward into Judge Flatt’s open grave, sending up that plume of dust. No doubt all three of these stories would be prominently featured in the Schuyler paper. Dear God, they’d have a field day! Every time it seemed he might drift off, another thunderstorm rolled through, and Gus was wide awake again. He was the one in need of a sedative. Why hadn’t he asked for one? When one pile-driving clap of thunder shook the house, he rose and went to check on Alice, but she appeared to be sleeping soundly. Nor did the ringing telephone wake her later.

  The calls started shortly after the last of the storms, and they kept on throughout the night, mostly from citizens wanting to know when the fuck they were going to get their power back. The biggest mistake Gus had made in running for mayor—what on earth had possessed him?—was to make his home phone number public. The idea, as best he could recall, had been to come across as a genuine public servant, open and accessible to his constituents. It quickly became apparent, however, that most of the people who wanted to talk to him, especially in the middle of the night, were drunk or insane or both, so once he was safely elected he got an answering machine to screen the loonies and used his unlisted cell phone for people he actually wanted to talk to. His recorded message for everyone else stated tha
t each call was important to him (a lie) and that he would return the call at his first opportunity (another). It stunned him how long people would vent. Several callers reported strange otherworldly sightings: cows in the fields with their twitching tails brightly aglow, or a mystical blue orb perched atop the bayonet of the Union soldier statue on the library lawn, or stone crosses ablaze at their points out at Hilldale. Was something satanic afoot? one caller wanted to know. Sophomoric, in Gus’s opinion, was more like it. With less than two weeks of school left, they’d entered prime prank season. If stone crosses were burning, it was because some nitwit had doused them in lighter fluid and set a match to them. In the morning he’d have Raymer check with the hospital to see how many teenagers had been treated for burns.

  There were other less spectral goings-on as well. The mother of a man known around town as Spinmatics Joe called to say that her son had gone out to the White Horse Tavern and not come home, leading her to suspect foul play. She gave Gus to understand that some rabid liberals had it in for her boy because he dared to speak the truth about the minorities and homosexuals and them who were taking over everything to the point where you couldn’t really even call this America anymore. The final lunatic had called shortly after five to report grave robbers digging up Judge Barton Flatt’s grave. Though the idea was ludicrous, just in case, he’d called the station, and an officer named Miller was dispatched to investigate. He found nobody at the crime scene, but a hundred yards from the Spring Street entrance he came upon something even more bizarre and disturbing. An enormous section of earth large enough to accommodate a mature tree and its vast, shriveled root system, as well as half-a-dozen caskets, some of them very old, had somehow detached itself from its surroundings, slid down the slope made muddy by the torrential rains and now sat like an island in the middle of the goddamn road.

  Which was why, when the mayor looked out his bedroom window and saw the sky lightening in the east, he gave up on sleep. Better to rise and meet the day head-on. Rather than wait for the Democrat to be delivered midmorning, he’d drive into Schuyler, grab a hot-off-the-press copy and take his inevitable shellacking over an expensive cappuccino at the new Starbucks everybody was talking about. Three-fifty seemed like a lot to pay for coffee, but he heard they had nice leather chairs, and he could sink into one of those to read the bad news about his town in relative peace among hipper Schuyler folks who saw nothing so terribly wrong with small extravagances. By the time he returned to Bath and his own unhip constituents, the bad news would feel comfortably old hat. He dressed quietly and was halfway out the door before it occurred to him to check on Alice one more time, and it was then he discovered she was gone.

 
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