Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  When she wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve and took a deep breath before getting out of the car, Tina said, “You’re the hurt one, Grandma, not me.”

  —

  THEY WENT IN through the back, Ruth propping the heavy door open to help air the place out. Deliverymen would start arriving soon. In the back room, with the dishwasher and the small walk-in cooler, she noted that Cleary had been in and mopped the floors. He was a drinker and not to be depended upon, especially after Friday nights. Sometimes on Saturday mornings she’d find him stretched out on the long stainless-steel drainboard, but last night he’d mopped up and even emptied the trash. “I could use a hand unless you have homework to do,” Ruth said.

  “It’s the weekend.”

  “Did you finish that book you were supposed to read? Animal House?”

  “Animal Farm,” she said. “Animal House is a movie.”

  “Did you finish it, is what I asked.”

  The girl just looked at her. She’d answered the question already, was her point.

  “You could start by unloading the Hobart,” Ruth told her. Last thing out the door, she always ran a load. If they were busy this morning, she’d need every available mug.

  Out front, she put the coffee on and filled the grill with bacon and sausage links in orderly phalanxes. It was her practice to cook them halfway, then return them to the grill as individual orders came in. If Sully were here, he’d have grabbed a hunk of yesterday’s stale bread and used it to soak up the sputtering grease. Though he claimed to have no interest in cooking, Ruth had never seen a man more comfortable in a kitchen. He seemed to intuit its rhythms, to know when she’d need to sidle by him in the confined space between the grill and counter, whereas her husband, both at home and in the restaurant, always managed to be standing in front of whatever door—fridge, oven, pantry—she needed to open. His size was part of it, of course, but he was simply incapable of anticipating what came next, even when the operative sequence was entirely predictable and unfolding right before his eyes. While Sully, even when he had his back to her, was able to sense where she was and why, and he’d take a small step forward or back that allowed her to get where she wanted to go. He had similar instincts in bed, which had been nice. If only, she often thought, he was as emotionally prescient. But of course men had to be told things, repeatedly. And even then…

  When Tina, hands wet from the dishwasher, came out with a double tray of water glasses and coffee mugs, she momentarily lost her grip and managed to bang them all against the counter, rattling everything. “Easy,” Ruth snapped. She had an order in to her Albany restaurant-supply house, but until it was delivered, she was short on glasses and couldn’t afford to break any.

  “Sorry,” the girl said, aggrieved.

  “You will be if you wake your mother up.” She knew Janey had taken a shift out at the Horse last night and would’ve laid dollars to donuts that she’d gone out drinking afterward, knowing that Tina was spending the night with her and Zack. She watched her granddaughter stack cups and glasses on the shelf and wondered whether, a few years down the road, she’d have a child of her own, one Grandma Janey would find herself watching. This possibility was so depressing that she turned her attention back to the splattering grill, flipping the bacon and sausage links with her long spatula. In her peripheral vision she noticed Tina, returning to the back room with her empty trays, stop in her tracks. “Grandma?”

  “What?”

  When she didn’t answer, Ruth looked up and saw that the door leading to her daughter’s apartment was open. In it stood Roy Purdy, barefoot and shirtless, his jeans slung so low that a few wisps of curly pubic hair were visible above the beltline. His pale chest sported the tattoo of a sword, the tip of which disappeared comically beneath his foam neck brace. His face was still grotesquely swollen, and his eyes were dilated. How long had he been standing there watching them?

  “Not much of a welcome,” he said, apparently to his daughter, though his eyes remained on Ruth. “Aren’t you going to give your poor old dad a hug?”

  Ruth stepped in front of her granddaughter. Still holding the long spatula, she was tempted to use this lethal instrument to extend his insolent smirk from ear to ear. “What’re you doing here, Roy?”

  “Well, Ma, I guess you could say I’m here by invitation.”

  And then she was in motion. “Out of my way,” she said, pushing past him into the apartment, where in the murky bedroom Janey lay splayed on top of the sheets, naked. Dead, was Ruth’s first impression, and for a moment Janey was her little girl again, toddling around on fat little legs, arms outstretched and crying Up! Up! He’s finally killed her, she thought. But then she smelled the sex in the airless room and saw that her daughter was not only breathing but gently snoring. There was an empty bottle of Southern Comfort, Roy’s revolting liquor of choice, on the nightstand. Turning on the harsh overhead light, Ruth kicked the mattress, hard.

  “What?” Janey said, bolting upright and squinting at her. “Fuck.”

  “What’s he doing here?” Ruth said, pointing the glistening spatula at Roy, who’d drawn himself a glass of water out front before following her back into the apartment.

  Janey looked at him and groaned, then turned to Ruth. “Don’t start, Ma,” she said, sliding under the top sheet and pulling it up to her chest. “I’m warning you, okay? Just don’t.”

  “Too late. I’ve already started.”

  Roy thumbed the cap off his prescription pill bottle expertly and shook a capsule into his palm, then washed it down with the entire glass of water, his Adam’s apple bobbing dutifully.

  “He needed a place to stay, all right?”

  “They’re not letting nobody back into the Arms till they find that damn snake,” Roy said, looking around aimlessly for a place to set down the glass.

  “I’m not talking to you, Roy,” Ruth told him. “I’m talking to my dimwit daughter.”

  “Right,” Janey said. “I’m stupid. You’re smart; I’m stupid.”

  “What would you call it? You take out a restraining order against this man, then invite him into your bedroom?”

  “That’s right, Ma. I did,” Janey said, the bit in her teeth now. “And you know what? I fucked him, too.”

  “She sure did,” Roy corroborated. “Like old times, right, babe?”

  Ruth turned on him. “Which ones, Roy? When you punched her in the face? Banged her head into the wall and gave her a concussion? Those the old times you’re talking about?”

  He ignored all of this, staring at Janey. “So tell her.”

  She was sitting there, massaging her temples, her breasts exposed again, the sheet having fallen. “Tell her what, Roy?”

  “You know. How we’re gonna be getting back together. Be a family again, like before, only better.”

  Janey regarded him with undisguised disbelief. “Don’t be a complete moron, Roy. Of course we’re not getting back together.”

  “Singin’ a different tune last night, girl. You forget already?”

  “It was a good fuck, Roy. That’s all I said. I was horny, okay?”

  “Well, there you go. More where that came from.”

  Janey stared at him for a long, incredulous beat, then addressed her mother. “Okay, fine. It was stupid letting him in, but you know how scared I get when there’s lightning.”

  “Lightning,” Ruth repeated. “The man beats the shit out of you—”

  “All that’s in the past,” Roy said, scratching himself below the beltline of his jeans, then inspecting his fingernails.

  “Did you notice,” Ruth said to Janey, “how he balled up his fist when you contradicted him just now? Did you? You think he’s through whaling on you just because he says he is? Last time you were in the hospital for three days. And it’s lightning that scares you?”

  “A person can’t help what they’re scared of,” Janey said, but clearly at least some of what Ruth had said was getting through. Either she’d seen Roy clench his fist or tr
usted that her mother had. “And he didn’t beat me up. You can see that, right?”

  “That doesn’t mean he’s not going to.”

  “All that’s in the past,” Roy said, his new mantra, though the hand not holding the water glass was a fist again. “And that’s for true.”

  “It was just the once,” Janey said, apparently referring to the sex, not the previous beatings. “He knows that.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong, girl. I don’t know no such thing.”

  “Well, then you are a fucking moron, Roy.”

  “What’s that you just called me?” he said.

  “Get out of here, Roy,” Ruth said, “before we call the cops.”

  “Who’s gonna do that?” Roy wanted to know. “You? Or her?”

  It was then that Ruth remembered her granddaughter out in the restaurant, hearing all this, no doubt, probably cowering in a neutral corner like she used to do when she was little and these same two people started screaming at each other until the hitting started. “You need to go, Roy. Before this gets worse.”

  “Whose fault would that be? You’re the one give her that mouth.”

  Seeing her come toward him, Roy made no move to let her pass. “Step aside, Roy,” she told him.

  And just that quickly she was on the floor, blinking up at him, tasting salt. Janey screamed.

  “There now,” Roy said, pleased, as if he’d just won an argument.

  Try as she might, Ruth was having trouble drawing the various elements of her unfolding experience into a coherent whole. Roy was standing directly over her, his right hand bloody. He’d struck her, she realized, with the empty glass. There was a large bloody shard in her lap.

  “So whose fault is this right here, huh, Ma?” Roy was asking, his voice sounding far off. “Tell me that.”

  “Momma!” Janey was screaming from even farther away. “Don’t, Roy!”

  Ruth had managed to get onto her knees when Roy hit her again, this time with his fist. The back of her head hit the wall, causing very little pain but a frightening explosion of sound.

  Before she could bring things into focus, Roy was on his knees himself, straddling her, and when he drew back his fist, she closed her eyes and thought, Fine. He was punching her, not Janey. If he beat her to death, well even that was okay. He’d finally be put away for good, and Janey and Tina would at last be shut of him. Perhaps because the roaring in her head sounded like surf, she thought again about that gleaming white bathroom in the Aruba brochure, how pristine and perfect it was. Maybe heaven was like that. A clean place, with pure sunshine streaming down from an unseen skylight, the cleansing surf so near you could hear individual waves breaking.

  When Roy’s next punch didn’t arrive and she could no longer feel him astride her, she was suddenly frightened. Had he turned his attention to Janey, or maybe even to Tina? But no. When she opened her eyes, Roy was sitting across from her, his back up against the foot of the bed, looking as dazed and confused as she felt. There was a bright bloom of blood on one ear. Where he’d been standing a minute earlier Sully had magically appeared, holding a skillet. Ruth began to cry, she was so happy. Not because Roy wasn’t going to be punching her anymore or that Janey had been delivered as well, but because Sully was alive. Whatever that blue flame on the roof of the shed had been about, it wasn’t him. She’d been mean to him yesterday, telling him to quit coming by the restaurant so much, to find someplace else, but he’d come anyway. Nor was this the ghost who’d been haunting her lunch counter lately, a geezer staring morosely into his empty coffee cup, his shallow breath an audible rasp. A dying man, it now occurred to her. The man who stood before her here was the Sully of old, fearless, game as hell, fully committed in this necessary moment to the murder of Roy Purdy, fuck the consequences.

  But then he remembered her and their eyes met and he dropped the skillet, no longer interested in Roy. She must’ve drifted away for a moment, because when she returned he was kneeling next to her. When she tried to say his name, he said, “Shhh,” then took her face between his hands, holding her head still, so there was no place to look but at this man she’d taken up with so long ago because she was lonely, lonelier than she’d known a human being could be. She had understood how wrong it was, how doing what they were doing might open the door to some bad things down the road. Had they just now got there? She would’ve liked to ask Sully if he thought that the present scenario could be traced back to what they’d done those many years, because, if so, then Roy was right—it was all her fault. But her mouth refused to work, and whenever she tried to speak Sully kept shushing her. It was all over, he was saying, she was safe now and so were Janey and Tina, that there was nothing to worry about, she was going to be okay and at the hospital they’d fix her up as good as new. She was glad to hear all of this because in truth everything felt very wrong, the kind of wrong you couldn’t ever make right. But then again, what did she know? What the hell had she ever known, really, about anything, even as a girl, when that first boy had touched her breast and she’d let him, because it felt good and she felt good, when most of the time she didn’t. It had taken her years and years to understand that most other people didn’t feel good, either, that the world’s work was to make you feel like it was disappointed in you, that you’d never measure up, not really. But Sully said no, it was all going to be fine, and somewhere in the distance there was a siren that was getting closer, so Ruth closed her eyes and stopped trying to speak and allowed herself to believe every word that Sully was saying.

  Secrets

  MR. HYNES WAS ALREADY at the curb in his folding chair, waving his tiny American flag at passing cars, when Raymer, freshly showered, emerged from the Morrison Arms. As he ducked under his own crime-scene tape, it occurred to him that he, the white chief of police, and Mr. Hynes, an improbably patriotic old black man, were the only two residents who had scoffed at the law. Of course the other tenants, an eclectic assortment of derelicts and petty thieves and deadbeats, were taking advantage of the relatively luxurious accommodations offered by the Holiday Inn at the town’s expense, but still.

  Seeing Raymer approach, Mr. Hynes started to rise, but Raymer motioned for him to remain seated. “How many varieties you got today, Mr. Hynes?”

  He grinned broadly, enjoying their long-running joke. “Fifty-seven. Same as always.”

  “Well, that’s sure a lot of varieties to come up with day after day. How do you manage it?”

  “Hard work. Just have to keep after it when other people quit.”

  Quit, Raymer thought. That was today’s first order of business: write his resignation letter, give his two weeks’ notice. Without the garage remote, his chances of discovering the identity of Becka’s boyfriend were now officially nil. If that asshole Dougie didn’t like it, too bad. After the Hilldale fiasco, he was all done listening to Dougie, who had proven unreliable. But since he probably didn’t exist in the first place, this was like saying that Raymer himself was unreliable, which wasn’t exactly news.

  “How’d you make out with that pretty black gal I seen you with last night?” the old man wanted to know.

  “She works for me, Mr. Hynes. We didn’t make out at all.”

  “Send her on over here, then. You don’t want her, I’ll take her. She could be my fifty-eighth variety, you know what I mean.”

  “I’ll mention you’re available.”

  “I like the look of her. Not all skin and bones like some of ’em. I thought it was her you was talkin’ to earlier.”

  Raymer had no idea what this was in reference to. “Talking to when?”

  “Hour ago, when you come in. I hear you goin’ on about this and that, so I go over to the window thinkin’ it might be her you was talking to, but instead it’s just you arguin’ with your own self.”

  “I think you’re exaggerating, Mr. Hynes. I might have been mumbling, is all.”

  “You need to get you a real person to talk to, is what I’m sayin’. How’d you get all filthy l
ike that?”

  “Grave robbing.”

  “Awright, don’t tell me. See if I care. I got secrets, too. Everybody got secrets.”

  “Anyway,” Raymer said, “I’m glad to see that snake didn’t get you.”

  “Not yet,” he cackled. “I’m too quick for it. Time it stands up, I’m gone. You ’member Satchel? I’m quick like him.”

  “Do me a favor,” Raymer said, resting a hand on the man’s bony shoulder, “and don’t sit out in the sun too long today. It’s nice now, but it’s supposed to get hot again.”

  Mr. Hynes promised he wouldn’t. As he was getting into the Jetta, his radio barked, followed by Charice’s voice: “Chief?”

  He glanced at his watch. Her shift didn’t begin for another hour. This didn’t bode well. “I’m sorry, Charice,” he told her. “But I don’t want to talk about last night, okay? Can you respect my wishes on this? If I offended you—”

  “You seen the paper?”

  “Which?”

  “The Dumbocrat.”

  “No, why?”

  “You made the front page.”

  So someone had seen them out at Hilldale. This boded even worse. “Charice,” he said. “We put him back just like he was.”

  “What? Who’re you talking about?”

  “What’re you talking about?”

  “The photo of you climbing down off my porch. On the front page of the damn newspaper. The man that lives in the flat below me? He’s a photographer. Works for the Dumbocrat. Must’ve run to the printer with that photo in time to make the morning edition.”

  “Oh,” he said, remembering the bright flash of light that had momentarily blinded him as he was shinnying down the column. He’d thought it was just a distant lightning flash, reflecting off the low clouds. “Shit.”

  “Right. I’m about to lose my job, aren’t I.”

  “Of course you aren’t. Listen, I’m heading in now. Be there in five.”

  “The mayor wants to see you.”

  “Lovely.”

  “You’d better come up with a good story.”

 
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