Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  They’d had a simple civil ceremony and departed immediately for a honeymoon in Italy. That winter he’d made an offer on the old Victorian on Upper Main and spent a small fortune renovating it. When they returned stateside it was to this house, the old duplexes now rented to other faculty. Alice professed to love the house, but he could tell it was so big that it intimidated and maybe even frightened her. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of having separate bedrooms, though he’d explained there was no reason for both of them to be awakened by town business in the middle of the night. After a time, the old anxieties began to return. “I just get like this sometimes,” she said when he asked what was wrong, why she was so agitated. “But he’s gone,” he objected. After all, Kurt was the root cause of her problems, wasn’t he? If not him, then who?

  That fall—he was in his final year of teaching—he got a call from the campus police. Alice was causing a disturbance at her old duplex where she seemed to believe she still lived. “You’re not my husband, are you?” she exclaimed when he arrived there to gather her in, her tone suggesting it wasn’t so much that she questioned being married to him as that he hadn’t measured up to her preconceived idea of what a husband was supposed to be.

  —

  THIS MORNING, sitting on their bench in Sans Souci Park, what troubled Gus most was what he’d never know. What was it Kurt had said? That if he played his cards right he could have what he wanted, or imagined he wanted? Well, had he played his cards right, or had Kurt played them for him? The choices had seemed to be his when he made them, but now he wasn’t so sure. To the other man’s credit, he’d kept his word and hadn’t returned to Schuyler, at least so far as Gus knew. He doubted it was him that Alice had seen today. It was possible she hadn’t seen anybody. When she was spiraling out of control, what his wife saw in her head was more real to her than the world that entered through her senses. Absent evidence to the contrary, he’d continue to believe they’d seen the last of Kurt Wright. The other thing he’d never know was whether a good man was all that Alice needed. Because he himself wasn’t a good man. He knew that now for a certainty. He’d meant not just to be good to Alice but also for her, but she’d been better for him and his career than he for her. Sensing her innate kindness and fragility, people were drawn to her, and they appreciated how protective he was of her. By some strange calculus, this had actually translated into votes. Kurt, of course, had foreseen that it would.

  He’d played his cards right, he decided. He’d gotten what he imagined he wanted.

  —

  LONGMEADOW, a relatively new subdivision of mostly two-story town houses, was weirdly familiar to Gus. Had some young faculty member at the college won tenure years ago and, too poor to crack the Schuyler market, concluded that buying here was better than paying rent? The developer had planted trees and shrubs, but sales had been slow, and some of the plantings had shriveled and died of neglect. Though the units appeared to be fully occupied now, to Gus it looked like the kind of neighborhood that would never achieve what realtors liked to call maturity. It would segue directly from new to shabby.

  He’d been afraid that Alice might be gone by the time he got there, but no, she was right where she’d been sighted on the stone bench outside the rundown community center, having one of her imaginary phone conversations. She was wearing the same long, flowing skirt she wore most days, along with one of her blousy tops, for which he was grateful. When she woke up agitated, she’d sometimes leave the house in just her robe and slippers or, worse, her nightgown. Pulling into the lot, he turned off the ignition and, since she was too wrapped up in her conversation to have noticed his arrival, just sat there, watching, trying to calculate how much of what he was witnessing was his fault. After a while, though, he got out and joined her on the bench. Seeing him, she said, “I’ll have to call you back,” and put the handset in her bag. “Is something wrong?” she asked him.

  “No,” he said. “I’m just glad I found you.”

  She blotted his wet cheeks with her sleeve. It was as much intimacy as they’d shared in a long time. They’d had little enough, God knew. His fault, not hers, though in the end maybe not his, either. Maybe God’s, or nature’s. How in the world were you supposed to know?

  “Are you sad?” she said, taking his hand.

  “Maybe a little,” he admitted.

  “Why?”

  “Because I want you to be well.”

  “I am well.”

  “Good.”

  “Sometimes I get sad, too,” she admitted. She was studying the nearest town house, and suddenly it dawned on Gus why the street seemed so damned familiar. Raymer and his wife had lived here, perhaps in that very place—what the hell was her name, Becky? Jesus, his brain was turning to mush. No, Becka. She’d slipped on a rug at the top of the stairs and broken her neck when she fell, the poor woman. Raymer still blamed himself, you could tell. Maybe blaming yourself was just something men did.

  “She told me things,” Alice said, still staring at the town house. Odd how she could sometimes read his thoughts.

  “Like what?”

  “What was in her heart.”

  Now Gus studied her carefully. Was she criticizing him for keeping what was in his own heart a secret?

  “Was it Kurt you saw earlier today? The man who scared you?”

  “Kurt’s gone.”

  Gus was crying again. He could feel the tears. “Poor duck,” he said. “You get so confused, don’t you.”

  “Do I?”

  They rose, and she followed him obediently to the car, but as he helped buckle her in, she kept looking past him at the Raymers’ former home. “You’re going to be okay,” he promised her.

  When he turned the corner and the town house was no longer in sight, she began to calm down, but just then her phone rang, if only in her mind. It took her a moment to locate the handset in her bag. “Hello,” she said. “Oh, yes, hi.”

  And something occurred to Gus for the first time. In the fiction of these conversations, Alice never called anyone. He never heard her say, Hi, it’s me. I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time. I was just thinking how long it’d been since we last talked. No, it was always someone calling her. She was the needed one, the one who would listen without judging or arguing. The wise, trusted friend. The person you turn to when the chips are down. “You’re being too hard on yourself,” he heard her say now. “I know how difficult it is,” she continued, “but the important thing is to remember you’re not alone. I’m right here.”

  Electricity

  THE SHORT DRIVE to Hattie’s was the best part of Ruth’s day, twelve selfish, quiet minutes to herself. This was true even when she had her granddaughter with her, like today. After all, being with Tina was a lot like being alone. How such a still, silent child could have come from a long line of mouthy women was a mystery. But then life was full of such puzzles.

  Including electricity. Last night Zack’s shed had been struck by lightning with such force that it had ruptured a seam in the roof. The sound of the accompanying thunder had been apocalyptic, levitating all three of the house’s occupants off their separate beds. A moment later Tina, blinking sleepily, had appeared at Ruth’s bedroom door, looking for all the world like her mother at that age. Ruth had never seen a kid so terrified of thunderstorms.

  “It’s okay, Two-Shoes,” Ruth said, using her pet name from when she was little. “You can come in.” And so she’d crawled into bed next to her and was instantly asleep again. A moment later, it was Zack in the doorway. “Come see this,” he said, and so she went into his room, whose rear window overlooked the shed. At the apex of the roof where the lightning had struck, a strip of corrugated tin now stood up like a sentinel, and at its tip was an eerie blue flame that was somehow burning steadily in the gale. When the skies opened and the rain came down in sheets, they expected the flame to be doused, but it continued to burn like a mirage, rain leaping off the metal roof all around it, until gradually the flame faded and disap
peared, at which point Ruth realized that she and Zack were holding hands, something they hadn’t done in years. What they did next they hadn’t done in even longer.

  Zack had awakened at five on the dot, dressed quietly and gone downstairs to make himself a cup of instant coffee, his usual routine. Ruth, half awake and already deeply regretting what had transpired, found this adherence reassuring, suggesting as it did that her husband wasn’t placing too much importance on what had happened between them. With any luck he understood that, like the lightning strike itself, this bout of sex was an anomaly, statistically improbable, unlikely to happen again in their lifetimes. When was the last time she’d even been in this room? She wouldn’t even clean it. She was willing to wash his sheets with her own and those from Tina’s room whenever she stayed over, provided he strip the bed himself and bring everything down to the basement. After they were laundered, she left the sheets and pillowcases outside in the hallway, and he made the bed himself. Why had she even followed him in here last night? What had led him to believe that sex was remotely possible? The fact that she hadn’t withdrawn her hand from his as they watched the blue flame? And why had he wanted her to see that in the first place? Sure, it was a strange sight, almost miraculous, but why her? Tina was normally his appreciative audience. Had he stopped in her room first, seen she wasn’t there and only then come to Ruth’s? Somehow, she didn’t think so. He hadn’t seemed interested in waking the girl. No, the flame was something he’d wanted to show Ruth. That watching it had led to sex seemed as surprising to him as it was to her. It hadn’t been great, but it hadn’t been nothing, either, and this morning, nothing was what she very much wanted it to be.

  When she heard his truck back down the steep drive, grinding the gears when he shifted from reverse into second—seeing little to be gained by first—and head toward town, she lay awake for a few minutes, still trying to make some kind of sense of what had happened and why. Was it just that she’d been celibate for so long? Or was there some connection between the blue flame they’d seen atop the shed and the long dormant, barely guttering flame of their dimly recalled intimacy? Stirring the curtains was a lovely breeze, fresh and delicious, the essence of not-yet-arrived morning, and she might’ve lazed there a bit longer except she heard the alarm go off in her own room and didn’t want Tina to find her in Zack’s, since she might tell her mother, who in turn would want to know all about it, her curiosity further stoked because it was none of her damn business.

  At some point during the night Tina must have awakened and shuffled back to her own room because the bed was now empty. Later, after Ruth had showered and was joined in the kitchen by her groggy granddaughter, the girl claimed to have no memory of the jolting thunderclap or of coming to her bed, and Ruth then wondered if the entire sequence of events—from lightning strike to blue flame to sex—had actually happened or was just a particularly vivid dream. Outside, though, the black scorch mark on the roof was visible even in the dark, and the strip of corrugated tin still stood erect, so at least that part was real.

  “Can we go by Main Street?” Tina asked when they hit the outskirts of town.

  “Why not,” Ruth said, though they were running late and this was several blocks out of the way. Actually, she wasn’t anxious to get to the restaurant. Having told Sully it might be best for him not to come by so much, she now thought she’d miss him if he took her advice to heart. Hard on the heels of that worry came another. Had Sully died in the night? Was that what the blue flame atop the shed had been about—announcing his departure from the world? Had some part of her understood it even then? Just yesterday she’d been thinking how nice it would be to live in a world without men. Had that daydream somehow set something in motion? Was what had happened between her and Zack a grim acknowledgment that he was now the only man in her life?

  When they passed the Upper Main Street house Sully owned but refused to live in, Tina leaned forward to peer at it. Back in the fall the poor girl had developed a crush on Will, Sully’s grandson. Ruth doubted Will was even aware of it, and he certainly hadn’t encouraged it, but according to Tina he was kind to everyone, even the uncool girls, and not stuck up, like he had a right to be, popular as he was. When he came into the restaurant with his grandfather, he made a point of saying hello. Always using her name and asking how she was. Like it really mattered. So she’d fallen hard. But now he was off to New York City for a summer internship and then college, and she didn’t know when or even if she’d see him again. That she still wanted to drive by the house struck Ruth as particularly heartbreaking.

  Only when they’d gone another couple blocks did it occur to Ruth that Sully’s truck hadn’t been out front, which meant he was up and out early. Sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d be waiting out back of the restaurant when she arrived to open up. If he was there this morning, she’d give him a little grief, but in truth she’d be glad to see him, if only so she could rest easy that the blue flame hadn’t been about him. God, life was a complete mess.

  “You know about sex, right?” Ruth was surprised to hear herself ask.

  Tina turned to regard her blankly.

  “I’m talking to you,” Ruth said. “If you hear me, raise your left hand.”

  Tina raised her right.

  “Very funny,” Ruth told her, though not at all sure she was joking. Her granddaughter had always had trouble distinguishing left from right. Ruth had tried to help her when she was little by taking her wrists and holding both hands straight in front of her, palms out, and explaining that the thumb and index finger of her left hand would naturally form the letter L. Later in the day, she’d tested her on the concept, and Tina dutifully held both hands out in front of her, palms in this time, and confidently identified her right hand as her left. Had she been joking even then?

  “I’m serious,” Ruth said. “Boys want sex. Even the nice ones.”

  Tina regarded her for another long beat, her face still an expressionless mask, then went back to staring out the window, as if neither of them had spoken.

  “You know you can get pregnant, right?” Ruth continued. “You know how all that works?”

  Tina raised her right hand.

  “What’s that mean? That you heard me, or that you have a question?”

  That half smile again.

  “You want to know what I thought when I was your age?”

  Again she raised her right hand.

  “I thought you could get pregnant if a boy touched your breast.” Which was true. She had thought that, though she’d been much younger than Tina. “Then one did.”

  She turned into the alley between the restaurant and the Rexall drugstore. Her daughter’s car was parked behind the Dumpster. There was no sign of Sully’s truck, nor had it been parked in the street. She thought again about the blue flame.

  “Did you?” said her granddaughter.

  “Did I what?”

  “Get pregnant?” There was definitely a smile now.

  “Are you having fun? Messing with Grandma?”

  The girl nodded, her smile broadening. “Was Grandpa the boy?”

  Ruth turned off the ignition. “I hadn’t even met your grandfather yet.”

  “Then who was it?”

  “Just a boy. Nobody you know. He died.”

  “When?”

  “In the war.”

  “Which one?”

  “The one he was fighting in.”

  “Are you mad at me?”

  “No, I’m mad at the war.”

  “Why’d you let him?”

  “Go to war?”

  “No, touch you.”

  “I didn’t let him. He just did.”

  “Did you let other boys?”

  “Why are we talking about me?”

  “I’m trying to learn.”

  “Yeah, right,” Ruth said, putting the keys in her purse, then adding, “It felt good, I guess.” The admission caused her to flush, though she couldn’t decide which version of herself she w
as more ashamed of, the girl she’d been when she first started letting boys feel her up or the one attempting to dissuade her granddaughter from sexual activity. “It made me feel like I mattered. There was nobody else around to tell me I was special, so when boys said I was, I believed them.”

  The smile was gone from Tina’s face now. “So I shouldn’t believe what boys say?”

  “Oh, hell, Two-Shoes, I don’t know. They believe it themselves when they say it, or some of them do. What’s important is how you feel about yourself.”

  “And how do you feel about yourself?”

  “Now?”

  The girl shrugged.

  “Old,” Ruth admitted. “Stupid. Confused.”

  Tina just looked at her.

  “I know what you’re thinking,” Ruth said. “If I’m so stupid and confused, why am I giving you advice?”

  “That’s not what I was thinking.”

  Ruth leaned across the front seat and took her granddaughter in her arms, holding her tight. “I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said, her tears spilling over.

  “Mom says you don’t love Grandpa.”

  “She does, huh?”

  “She thinks you love Sully.”

  “She told you that?”

  She shook her head. “She thinks it.”

  “And you’re a mind reader.”

  The girl nodded seriously.

  “Okay, what am I thinking now?”

  “We’re late.”

  “Good guess,” Ruth said, because that’s what she had been thinking. Day was upon them.

 
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