Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Who knew? Maybe Bath was bad luck. Out at Hilldale the dead were resurfacing after decades in the ground, a triumph of the past over the present. How could you expect people to imagine a better future when Great-Great-Grandma Rose launched herself out of the poisoned earth, seemingly in protest. In town the ground was so full of yellow pus that when it rained, the air became not just disgusting but probably toxic. On what basis could you tell people they were wrong to concede defeat? Or convince them that every problem has a solution when those you offer in good faith turn out to be so rickety and jerry-rigged that they tumble down in the street? How do you get a community to believe in itself, in its own fundamental goodness, when in its midst there are people who secretly fill apartments with illegal poisonous reptiles? How do you keep everyone else from peering into their own flawed hearts and seeing vipers stirring there?

  The other thing that Kurt had understood was that Gus wouldn’t be able to resist the challenge of fixing Alice. Not only would he want to repair whatever was wrong with her, he’d confuse his compassion for a damaged soul with love. Okay, he’d tried. Give himself that much credit. Like Bath, however, there was more wrong with Alice than he’d realized, and nothing he’d tried had worked. Though he hated to admit it, he’d bitten off more than he could chew, and now he was gagging. This sin had a name: pride. Nothing now remained but what pride goeth before.

  From somewhere outside the park came the squeal of brakes, and Gus winced, expecting the crashing sound of torn metal and shattered glass. When none came, he pictured Alice crumpled on the pavement. Would it be a blessing? The question was just there, shocking, vile. How could he think such a thing? What kind of man permits such a thought, even in passing?

  The police scanner crackled, then was silent.

  —

  ONE AFTERNOON, not long after he’d called on Alice, Gus returned home to find a man seated back on the patio, staring off into the woods with his feet up on the table. It took him a moment to recognize Kurt without his beard. He watched him for a moment from behind the drape, trying to decide what the chances were that his visit here was related to his own next door. Pretty good, he concluded. Also pretty good that Kurt had heard him drive up and was only pretending to be lost in thought.

  Hearing the patio door slide open, he looked up and offered Gus his unpleasant smile, though he neither rose nor lowered his feet.

  “Glass of wine?” Gus offered.

  “I thought you’d never ask.” His point being that it’d been nearly a year since he’d invited Gus over, an invitation that had never been returned.

  He opened a bottle of white and brought it outside, along with three glasses. “Would Alice like to join us?”

  “It would be better if she didn’t.”

  Gus poured wine into two glasses and left the third sitting there on the table. He made sure one pour was slightly more than the other and handed that one to Kurt, who chuckled and said, “You noticed that.” A manila folder with Gus’s name on it sat in the center of the table. “People generally do notice things,” Kurt continued, “especially when you direct their attention, but they act on very little. Then they wonder why their lives are so full of regret.”

  Gus took a sip of wine and winced. Was the bottle corked, or was he tasting the acid that was suddenly in the back of his throat? Probably the latter, since Kurt didn’t seem to notice.

  “For instance, you knew right from the start that something was wrong with Alice, but did you bother to ask? Did you own your curiosity and say, Kurt, buddy, what’s wrong with that fucking woman? Did she get dropped on her head as a kid, or what?”

  “What is wrong with Alice, Kurt?”

  “The fuck should I know?” he said, picking up the third, unused glass and examining it closely, as if for smudges. “Something, though, wouldn’t you agree?”

  Gus felt a surge of anger at this, followed by a welcome jolt of courage. “Okay, then, what’s wrong with you?”

  At this Kurt tapped the empty glass against the edge of the table. It didn’t shatter, but a crack now zigzagged from rim to stem. “Kurt’s not a very nice man, is he,” said Kurt, and it was true, he did do Gus’s voice amazingly well.

  And just that quickly Gus’s courage was all used up. “Please don’t do that,” he said weakly, meaning the mimicking, not breaking the glass.

  The other man had leaned toward him confidentially. “If you need a friend,” he said, “I’m right next door.”

  “I said don’t.”

  Kurt shrugged and poured more wine into his own glass.

  “What do you want, Kurt?”

  He appeared to think about it. “What do I want? It might be hard for you to believe, but the truth is I never know for sure. I try to live in the moment. Right now, for instance? This little bit of time we’re sharing? Is very rewarding. Honestly, the look on your face when you heard your voice, your words, coming out of my mouth? Wonderful. You didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

  “You really are evil, aren’t you.”

  “Hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” When Gus blinked at this, Kurt continued, “You do not want to hire Kurt Wright…We want him out of here…”

  Gus felt a wave of nausea wash over him. For a moment he thought he might faint. “That was you.”

  “Well, I thought you deserved a heads-up.”

  “How did you learn to do voices?”

  “Same way you get to Carnegie Hall, pal. Practice, practice, practice. I record important phone calls. All I need is a sentence or two. Man or woman, doesn’t matter. Children are tougher.”

  “Except my conversation with Alice wasn’t over the phone. I was in the room with her. You weren’t.”

  “Yeah, pretty darned sneaky there, Gus. Waiting until I left? But I forgive you. Anyway, sometimes when I go out, I leave a tape running. Not that I distrust Alice. She’d never. But honestly? Some of the things that woman says when she’s alone are fucking priceless.”

  “Why are you telling me all this?” Because a sane person wouldn’t, would he?

  “Every artist wants to be appreciated, is part of it,” Kurt said, pouring again. “But also I’m easily bored. Take now. Rich though this experience has been—and I’m not just talking about you here, don’t flatter yourself about that, but also the college, this whole fucking upstate New York backwater—it can’t help getting old. The planning is always fun, but the execution? At some point the law of diminishing returns always kicks in, and things become rote. I’ve been bored with you and yours for a while now.”

  “I’m sorry to be such a disappointment.”

  “Hey, not your fault. You were way overmatched. Anyway,” he said, pushing the manila folder toward him. “I need a couple small favors, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

  Inside the folder was a preaddressed, stamped envelope, as well as a one-page letter of recommendation, marked SAMPLE.

  “I warned you about this, too, if you recall,” Kurt said. “You can disregard that letter, if you want. I only include it for possible talking points. But by all means use your own—what’s the word I’m looking for? Voice, that’s it. However, as this new post I’m about to be offered is administrative, I’d take it as a personal favor if you stressed how well I play with others.”

  “Should I really use that phrase? ‘Play with others’?”

  “Knock yourself out. Nobody will hear the double meaning until it’s too late. And don’t trouble your conscience over all this. When I’m hired, which I will be, it won’t be because of your recommendation. As you know, these things are pretty pro forma, a hedge against regret—for which, it inevitably turns out, there is no hedge.”

  Gus held up the envelope. “Aren’t you concerned I’ll call this Janet Applebaum and tell her all about you?”

  Kurt waved this off. “No need. Already done. Trust me. The good woman has been forewarned, and in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, I think she may have concluded that the person warning her was deranged,
just as you did.”

  “You are deranged.”

  “Jeez,” he said, emptying the last of the bottle into his glass. “I’ve drunk the lion’s share of this, haven’t I?”

  Gus took a sip from his glass. The wine tasted better now, the fear-induced nausea having pretty much passed, leaving in its place little but sadness. “What’s wrong with Alice, Kurt? What have you done to her?”

  “You give me too much credit. It’s true I may have undermined her confidence from time to time, but I never told her anything about herself that she didn’t already know. Like most people, Alice was complicit every step of the way. But I doubt any permanent damage has been done. If she had a good man, she’d be right as rain.”

  “Instead she’s got you.”

  “Poor Alice,” he agreed. “I think she’s fond of you. She has no idea you’re gay, of course.”

  “I’m not, Kurt.”

  He shrugged, as if the point wasn’t worth arguing over. “Next you’ll be telling me you have no political ambitions.”

  To this, Gus offered no response.

  “Jesus,” Kurt said, rubbing his temples. “I can actually see your mind working. You’re thinking, Good guess—right? Every English professor has a novel in his desk drawer; every poli-sci prof wants to prove that those who teach can sometimes do?”

  Which was pretty much what Gus had been thinking. But really, how could this psychopath know about his long-range plans? He’d never spoken about them to anyone.

  “The house is a good idea,” Kurt said. “The one on Upper Main Street, by the Sans Souci? The one you keep going back to look at? Needs work but, as they say in the biz, it’s got good bones. And Bath prices can only go up.”

  “You’ve been following me.”

  Kurt snorted at this. “You think I’m behind you, Gus? Really? Because what should be coming into focus right about now is how far ahead of you I’ve been, right from the start. But getting back to the house? Good idea. Outsiders seldom fare well in small-town politics. Gotta sink those roots into the community, have some skin in the game. So yeah, make an offer. Use locals to renovate, even if they fuck everything up.”

  Conclusions Gus had already come to. Why did it make him feel better to have a man he viscerally loathed confirm the wisdom of his strategy?

  “Which leaves only the other thing you’ve been mulling over. Will people in a jerkwater town like Bath vote for a gay?”

  “This again.”

  “Hey, it’s not me you have to convince. Good-looking woman at your side just might do the trick, is all I’m saying.”

  Gus put the letter back in the envelope. “You said you had a couple favors.”

  “Right,” he said, sitting up straight and doing a little drum solo on the table with his thumbs. “Almost forgot. If it’s not too much to ask, I was hoping you might look in on Alice while I’m gone. Make sure she’s okay? Moving again so soon is kind of freaking her out. I’m flying out to California the day after tomorrow. I need to find us a place to live, meet my new staff, give them their marching orders, arrange for the movers, a hundred other things. I should be back by the middle of the month, though, and like I said, after that we’ll be out of your hair.”

  Kurt rose, his glass empty now, along with the bottle, and extended his hand. When Gus hesitated, he actually looked hurt. “Come on,” he said, “nobody died. Why be a bad sport? I’d feel better if we parted as friends.”

  Hating himself, Gus shook the man’s hand.

  “I have your promise? You’ll look after Alice while I’m gone?”

  “Yes, that I will do.”

  “You know what,” Kurt said. “You play your cards right, you could come out of this with what you want.” He shrugged, again. “Or what you imagine you want.”

  —

  SO, GUS THOUGHT, in the end it had been a bargain, and Alice herself a plastic chip. Had he sensed this even from the start? Over the next few weeks the exact nature of the covenant took shape. Gus had looked in on Alice, as promised. Though she was even more fretful than usual, she didn’t seem to need him for much beyond a half gallon of milk or a dozen eggs if he happened to be going to the store. He didn’t wonder why their station wagon was absent from the driveway, since Kurt would’ve driven it to Albany to catch his flight and left it in long-term parking. Alice didn’t drive and had no use for it. One morning he asked her why, given that she was trying not to sleep so much, she always kept the place so dark, the drapes drawn tightly shut in the middle of the day. “He likes it like that,” she told him.

  “But Kurt isn’t here,” he pointed out. “How do you like it?”

  She seemed to consider this, her own preference, for the first time. With the drapes pulled back, the apartment flooded with natural light, Gus began to notice things were missing. He’d only been there once before and hadn’t been paying close attention, but hadn’t there been a laptop set up in the kitchen nook? A Bose radio?

  “Has Kurt telephoned you?” he asked the following day. She responded, as if to a trick question, “I don’t think so.” He noticed the phalanx of pill bottles lined up along the kitchen windowsill, all prescription drugs: Paxil, Xanax, a few others.

  “I’m not well,” she explained when he asked what they were for. “They help me to not be so frightened.”

  When Kurt had been gone a week, Gus asked if he might have a look in their bedroom. If Alice saw anything strange in this request, she gave no sign. Some of Kurt’s clothes were hanging from the rod in the closet, but fewer than Gus would’ve expected. His dresser drawers contained underwear and some stray, unmatched socks, a few yellowing handkerchiefs—the sort of things Gus had crammed into the back of his own drawers—but where was the good stuff? Gradually it came to him that what he was looking at was a snake’s shed skin, which in turn caused him to recall something in their final conversation that had barely registered at the time. Twice Kurt had used the phrase “be out of your hair.” The second time he’d said we. The first time he’d used the pronoun I. The first had been a slip. Kurt wasn’t coming back.

  Slowly, as if the thrown-back drapes were allowing for all manner of illumination, Alice began to show signs of similar understanding, though she continued to insist that Kurt would shortly return, after which they’d begin their new lives in California. To Gus, such statements felt like trial balloons. Would he contradict her? “Why don’t I cook us dinner tonight?” he suggested one morning before heading in to work. He’d prepare the food in his kitchen and bring it over. They could eat outside on the back patio with the sliding door open so Alice could hear the phone if it rang. “Should I?” she said, clearly tempted when he offered her a glass of wine, and he told her he thought one glass wouldn’t hurt. He also advised her to consult a local physician about how many of the medications she was taking were really necessary. After dessert, when he rose to go back next door, he said, as if the thought had just that moment occurred to him, “How would you like it if I looked after you from now on?”

  She regarded him with an expression that he took to be midway between knowledge and innocence. “You’re a very nice man,” she said, “but what about Kurt?”

  “I can talk to him about that when he comes back.”

  That night he lay in bed thinking about the year he spent in Korea near the end of the conflict. He never lied to anyone about the nature of his service there, but unless asked he didn’t volunteer that he’d spent his time not in combat but in the quartermaster’s office. It was there he’d learned what things were worth, how to manage their flow, how to make friends and get things done for the common good. By the time he returned stateside he was prepared to take full advantage of the GI Bill, and at Albany State he’d learned the intricacies of another elaborate system and what it took to succeed in it. He’d had a rewarding academic life at the college and moved through it honestly, or at least not dishonestly. But when the phone rang he was remembering with great fondness the boy he’d worked with in the quartermaster??
?s office.

  “So,” Kurt said, “how is the lovely Alice?”

  “We had dinner on your patio. She still thinks you’re coming back for her.”

  “But you know better.”

  “Are you two even married?”

  “Lord, no. What gave you that idea?”

  “Your academic vitae, for one thing? For another, she refers to you as her husband?”

  “Oh, right.”

  “So you’re telling me we’ll never see you again.”

  “I don’t intend to return to Schuyler Fucking Springs, if that’s what you mean.”

  “Of course that’s what I mean.”

  “Rest easy,” he said, and for some reason Gus trusted him. “And speaking of easy. Do you have any idea how easy I’m letting you off?”

  Actually, he did have a pretty good idea. “Goodbye, Kurt,” Gus said, but he’d already hung up.

  —

  IN THE INTERVENING DECADE Gus had mostly managed to put Kurt out of his mind. The morning after he was elected mayor, though, he’d located the name of the dean, Janet Applebaum, to whom he’d sent Kurt’s letter of recommendation. It turned out she was no longer in administration, having returned to full-time teaching. “I know who you are,” she said, with thinly veiled hostility, when he identified himself. “Do you have any idea the misery that man caused here?” Careers ruined, apparently. Marriages wrecked. A suicide. “He’s gone, then?” Gus inquired, and the woman said yes, he had been for some time. Last she heard he was in Europe working for…NATO? The UN? She couldn’t remember.

  Feeling slightly ill, he thanked her and was about to hang up when she said, “So…what kind of man does what you did? Knowing what you knew, how could you write that letter?” But there was something in her voice, something besides righteous indignation, that he recognized. “Didn’t you write one just like it yourself?” he asked. The resulting silence was his answer.

  Well, he told himself at the time, if a life had been lost, another had been saved. Once off the majority of her medications, a new Alice had emerged that Gus hadn’t known existed. Not exactly extroverted but fully engaged with the world, not hiding from it in the dark. Before long, the years she’d spent with Kurt began to recede like a bad dream. Gus learned never to bring his name up in conversation, because it always rendered Alice mute, remorseful, he supposed, for the lost years. In the months leading up to their wedding, Alice’s spirits were so buoyant that he allowed himself to believe that Kurt was right, and no lasting harm had been done. All she needed was a good man.

 
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