Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  —

  POOR, KIND, addled woman.

  Who was to blame? It would’ve been nice to blame Kurt, and most of the time Gus did. Other times, like now, he gauged his own complicity. He knew, of course, that Alice’s difficulties predated him, and maybe even Kurt, who claimed she’d been a feral young woman in college, her mind splintered from dropping acid, but Gus doubted Alice had ever been truly wild. She might have experimented with drugs—it was the seventies, after all—but only at someone else’s instigation, and he suspected Kurt of being her personal Svengali. What a piece of work that man had turned out to be. Hiring him—Gus himself had cast the deciding vote—had been a tragic mistake. To make matters worse, he’d been warned. Two of his search committee colleagues had sensed something wrong, something didn’t add up, but it wasn’t anything they could put their finger on, so Gus had reminded them that vague misgivings were sometimes just prejudice in disguise. He’d certainly looked good on paper. True, he hadn’t published much, but he was professionally active, attending numerous conferences and giving papers, and he appeared to know the biggest names in political science personally. His letters of recommendation were among the strongest Gus had ever seen.

  One night, though, shortly after Kurt’s campus visit, Gus had gotten a call at home. “You do not want to hire Professor Wright,” the caller said without preamble. Gus’s first thought was that this must be one of his search committee colleagues, but it sounded like a long-distance call. When Gus said, “Who is this?” the man said that wasn’t important. What mattered was that he understand that Kurt Wright was evil. Gus remembered actually chuckling at this. Who in the academy used such language? There, words like “evil” had long ago been replaced by others like “inappropriate.” The caller, whoever he was, must be unhinged. “Well,” Gus told him, “yours seems to be a minority view. His letters of recommendation—”

  “I wrote one of those,” he was told.

  “You—”

  “We want him out of here,” the man said. “In a year or two you will, as well. In fact, you’ll be writing a letter just like mine.” And with that the line went dead. Gus had immediately dialed the number displayed on the caller ID, but it just rang and rang.

  Gus, who had only a few more years before retirement, was living at the time in one of the college-owned duplexes on campus. He was visiting friends in San Francisco when Kurt and Alice arrived in Schuyler, and by the time he returned they’d moved into the other half of his unit. He met Alice when he pulled in. Unaware that mail typically didn’t come until late in the afternoon, she was out at the curb checking the box. Gus was immediately enchanted; she was so tall and graceful and loose limbed. He’d always liked women, even older women, who wore their hair long. His own mother had done so, well into her seventies. He introduced himself as one of her husband’s new colleagues in the poli-sci department and welcomed her to the neighborhood, which was mostly faculty. She seemed a tad skittish but listened intently to everything he said, and she had one of the most beautiful smiles he’d ever encountered, though its timing felt slightly off, its trigger more internal than connected to unfolding, real-time events.

  The next morning her husband called to invite Gus over for a glass of wine on their back patio later that afternoon. “Thanks for picking up the phone, by the way,” Kurt said after they shook hands. Though a good twenty years younger than Gus, he had a black beard so uniformly thick that it looked fake, like a cheap disguise, and made him appear middle aged. While they chatted, he poured two glasses—why only two? Gus wondered—and handed him the one that had slightly less in it.

  “I’m sorry?” he said, confused. “For picking up the phone?”

  “I think your advocacy helped us jump the line,” Kurt said, gesturing to their half of the duplex.

  Actually, Gus had been puzzled about that. The duplexes, though nothing all that special, were much in demand because of their campus location. Also, they were relatively cheap compared with housing in Schuyler’s open market. How had these newcomers landed one? He was about to say he hadn’t made any calls on their behalf, but then, for some reason, he didn’t. Was it because of that warning? Did some cowardly part of him want to be on evil’s good side, if that’s what this man turned out to be? The patio door opened just then, and Alice—how lovely she looked, Gus recalled thinking—appeared with a tray containing fruit and cheese and crackers. “And you’ve already met my Alice,” Kurt said, which for some reason seemed to confuse her. Had she forgotten Gus so quickly? Setting the tray down, she managed to nudge the wine bottle, which teetered and was about to fall when Kurt caught it. Half the crackers went onto the deck. “I’m sorry,” she said, more to her husband than to Gus, who squatted to help her pick them up. “I’m such a klutz,” she confided. “Someone should shoot me.”

  “That seems a tad extreme,” Gus said, expecting a smile at the understatement, but she was anxiously looking up at Kurt, perhaps to see if he shared Gus’s view. There was no telling and she nipped back into the kitchen.

  When they finished the bottle, a nice chardonnay, Kurt went inside. Alice hadn’t returned, and Gus wasn’t sure what to think. Right from the start, there’d only been two glasses. Was she unwell? Why didn’t Kurt feel the need to explain her absence?

  “So, you’ve been here how long?” Kurt asked when he returned with another bottle. There was just a hint of accusation in the question, so Gus answered cautiously as his host expertly uncorked the new bottle.

  “Almost thirty years,” he admitted. “I didn’t intend to stay so long.”

  Kurt poured him a glass, his third, then another for himself. As with the first two, he gave Gus slightly less. Had someone told him that Gus couldn’t handle his liquor, or were the pours purely coincidental? Gus decided they must be. After all, inviting him over in the first place was an act of generosity, and this wasn’t a cheap chardonnay.

  “Thirty years here?” Kurt said, incredulously. “In Schuyler Springs?”

  Okay, Gus thought, maybe this wasn’t Ann Arbor or Madison, but still. Had the man already weighed Schuyler’s merits and found them wanting? “It’s become home, I guess,” he offered weakly, deciding then that when he finished this glass, there would be no fourth.

  “Still, it can’t have been easy, right?”

  Why was the man smiling in such a peculiar way? “I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

  Kurt shrugged. “I wouldn’t have thought there’d be much of a gay community here.”

  Gus’s profound surprise slowed his reaction. “There isn’t,” he said finally. “But then I wouldn’t really know because I’m not gay.”

  “Oh.” He shrugged again, without the slightest hint of apology. “I guess I just assumed.”

  Why? Because he was unmarried? Because he’d just returned from San Francisco? Gus found the unwarranted assumption particularly galling, since when he’d first arrived here one or two of his new colleagues had leaped to the same conclusion, based on what, Gus couldn’t imagine, then or now. Were there still people at the college who doubted his sexual orientation? He felt himself flushing.

  The man’s wife was still nowhere in evidence. “I hope Alice is okay,” he ventured. Yes, he was eager for a change of subject, but her continued absence was strange, wasn’t it? Had Kurt brought out only two wineglasses because he never intended for her to join them? Perhaps even instructed her not to?

  “With her one never knows,” her husband said, the lack of concern in his voice sending a chill up Gus’s spine. “As you’ll discover, neighbor.”

  Gus set his wine down. To whom it may concern, he thought. I cannot recommend my esteemed colleague Kurt Wright highly enough. The short time he’s spent at our college has been utterly transformative.

  —

  NOT LONG AFTER the Wrights appeared in Schuyler, the social fabric of Gus’s department began to fray. Longtime friends started falling out over misunderstandings that would eventually be traced back to something Kurt had said.
Rumors began to circulate. The one about Gus being gay, for instance, suddenly seemed to attain new currency. Nor were such untruths the worst of it. Gus’s best friend on the faculty appeared in his office one day, her eyes nearly swollen shut from crying, wanting to know why he’d betrayed her confidence. A decade earlier she’d explained to him that she and her husband had a brain-damaged child they’d finally decided to institutionalize, a decision that had nearly destroyed them and their marriage. When Gus assured her that he’d never repeated this to a soul, she refused to believe him, claiming that he was the only person she had ever told. By Thanksgiving, everyone in the department seemed to know something horrible about everyone else, and Gus’s once-sociable colleagues had begun to teach their classes and go home, skipping committee meetings and begging off their usual Friday afternoon happy hour at a tavern near campus. “What’s going on over in poli-sci,” a friend in the history department asked him. “You guys used to be the life of the party.”

  Kurt turned out to be a man of numerous interdisciplinary interests, and he quickly got to know faculty from several other departments, where he was surprisingly popular. Apparently he was a gifted mimic who did spot-on impressions of his colleagues in political science. “You’ve never heard him do you?” said an old friend of Gus’s from the English department. “You should get him to,” she enthused. “It’s truly hilarious.”

  When he asked her why, she grew embarrassed. “Does he make me sound gay?” he said.

  “Well, yeah, but—”

  “But what?”

  “That’s how you sound.”

  “I sound gay.”

  “Not lilting or anything, just, you know…”

  Later that week he ran into Charlie, the guy from the dean’s office who handled campus housing. “I’ve been wondering,” he said, “how Kurt Wright managed to land the other half of the duplex I’m in. Wasn’t there a waiting list?”

  He looked surprised. “Well, your taking up his case like that certainly didn’t hurt.”

  “Me?”

  “And of course Alice’s medical condition allowed us to do an end run around the waiting list.”

  “Charlie,” Gus said. “I never wrote Wright any recommendation.”

  “Like I told you at the time, there was no need. The phone conversation was good enough for me.”

  “But we never spoke on the phone.”

  The guy’s expression changed. “That’s not funny, Gus. I bent all kinds of rules for you. If you and Kurt had some kind of falling-out, I’m sorry, but I’m not booting him and his wife out of their home. I’m surprised you’d want me to.”

  “I don’t,” Gus assured him. “I’m just saying. If you talked to someone claiming to be me—”

  “It was you, Gus. Don’t you think I know your voice after thirty years?”

  “Charlie—”

  “Besides, think about it. You can’t do Kurt dirt without harming your sister.”

  “My sister?” Gus repeated.

  “Well,” Charlie conceded. “Okay, your half sister.”

  That weekend Gus waited at the front window for Kurt to leave, then went next door and rang the bell. He had to ring it several times before Alice came to the door, dressed in a thin robe. As always, she didn’t seem to quite recognize him.

  “I hate to bother you, Alice,” he told her, “but would it be okay if I came in?”

  “I’m sorry,” she said. Why was the woman always apologizing? “Kurt’s not here.”

  “I know,” he said, and after an awkward moment she stepped back from the door.

  It was dark inside, the shades drawn, only two small lamps turned on. Gus had heard she liked to paint, but how could you paint without light? He looked around for signs of artistic endeavor—sketch pads, colored pencils, an easel—but saw nothing. “I can only stay a minute,” he assured her, wondering why she always seemed so skittish. This visit was, he was starting to realize, a bad idea. He’d come over thinking she might be able to help him understand her husband, what was going on, why he was causing all this trouble and telling such outrageous lies. Did she know, for instance, that he was letting on that she and Gus were related? But all you had to do was look at Alice to know she’d be of little help.

  “Is everything okay over here?” he asked, surprising himself. He hadn’t meant to be so direct.

  She thought about it. “Kurt says I sleep too much,” she admitted.

  He nodded, trying to think of what to ask next. Finally, though he knew the question was out of line, given that he hardly knew her, he said, “Are you happy, Alice?”

  “Happy?”

  “The walls are thin,” he explained.

  She blinked at this, as if she’d taken the statement metaphorically.

  “When Kurt raises his voice,” he said, “I can hear. When you cry, well, I can hear that, too.”

  Her hand went to her mouth. “I make him angry sometimes. I don’t mean to.”

  Gus nodded. “He’s not a very nice man, is he?”

  She thought about it. “I probably do sleep too much,” she said. “I just…can’t seem to stay awake.”

  “Alice?” he said. “If you need a friend, I’m right next door.”

  She turned to stare at the wall that separated her home from his, as if trying to imagine him there on the other side, his ear pressed against the wall.

  “Well,” he said, “I should go. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

  “No,” she said, without much conviction, and followed him to the door. When he opened it, she said, “Gus?”

  He turned back to face her, surprised that she’d used his given name. “Yes, Alice?”

  “Are you?”

  What, gay? Had her husband told her that? “Am I what, Alice?”

  “Happy?”

  “Oh,” he said, feeling slow witted himself now. Well, was he? Because for a split second, when she said his name, his heart had leaped with the startling possibility that he loved her, impossible as that seemed. So, yes, there was a brief welling up of something that might’ve been happiness, before the facts—that he didn’t really know her, that she was another man’s wife, that he was a fool about women and always had been—put that emotion to flight. “No, Alice,” he confessed. “I don’t think so, no.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, as if Gus’s unhappiness was yet another thing that could be traced to some personal failing of her own, one she’d turn her mind to once she’d solved the problem of sleeping so much.

  —

  AS MAYOR, Gus had a key to Sans Souci Park’s main gate. Since the hotel closed, the private estate was, except on special occasions, barred to vehicular traffic. Along the bike path that wound lazily through the grounds, there were cast-iron benches, and Alice liked to sit on the one Gus had donated years earlier that bore their names. He’d hoped to find her there this morning, as the park’s serenity and solitude sometimes had a calming effect on her. Why not just let her sit on their bench as the first rays of sunlight pierced the trees? Here she could talk to her heart’s content on her princess phone without bothering anyone. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there.

  Feeling suddenly bereft, he pulled over, got out and took a seat on the bench himself, leaving the car running and the driver’s-side door open so he could listen to the scanner. Before leaving home, he’d called the police station so they’d be on the lookout. He felt he needed to do something, but what? It was pleasant here on the bench. Closing his eyes, he listened to the breeze in the upper branches of the pines. Just that quickly he was asleep—then he jolted awake again, jittery, wondering if it was the scanner that had awakened him. Had he missed an announcement? That Alice had been located? Through a break in the trees he could make out the old hotel, grand and sad, the rising sun’s rays reflecting off its upper-story windows. The Sans Souci. Without care. An idea sold to people with cares galore. Everybody, basically, with cares in desperate search of cures. People who wanted to believe in magical waters. Lourdes in up
state New York. Come to think of it, he could use a cure himself. Had he ever before felt so much like giving up?

  One of the things Kurt had recognized in him was a buoyant, dim-witted optimism, his faith that anything broken could be fixed. Somehow he’d intuited that Gus meant to challenge the town’s self-defeating, dead-end pessimism, to free it from the imaginary shackles of its unfortunate history. So what if its springs had run dry and Schuyler’s hadn’t? The rest of what ailed the town could be remedied, couldn’t it? Yet he’d badly underestimated what that would require. Something in these people’s natures, he’d reluctantly concluded, was rigid, unalterable. They needed to believe that luck ruled the world and that theirs was bad and would remain so forever and ever, amen, a credo that let them off the hook and excused them from truly engaging in the present, much less the future.

  Were they wrong? Gus was no longer so sure. Maybe they were simply realists. Not a week went by that he didn’t get a call from some downstate developer wanting to get the skinny on the Sans Souci. A potential gold mine, he told them, rich in history and style. People used to come from as far away as Atlanta to take the waters. “But says here it’s located in this Bath place? Not Schuyler Springs?” “We’re sister cities,” Gus would assure them, but he could tell they’d concluded that Bath was the ugly sister, the one who never got asked out and made her own clothes, though all the other girls loved her.

 
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