Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “I’ll tell him I got struck by lightning.”

  “Too far-fetched.”

  “It’s true. I was struck by lightning.” Okay, not on her porch, but he might’ve been if he hadn’t climbed down. “Now there’s something wrong with me.” Seared into the palm of his hand, where he’d grabbed the florist’s card, was the perfect image of the staple used to attach it to the green cellophane. He’d tried his best to scrub it off in the shower but managed only to inflame the spot. Now it itched as if there were, just below the skin, a real staple. “Something else wrong with me,” he corrected.

  “Like what?”

  “I feel…funny.”

  “Funny odd or funny ha-ha?”

  “There’s this constant buzzing in my ears. And I’m having strange thoughts.”

  “For instance.”

  Like, maybe I’m in love with you? He couldn’t say that, of course. He tried to think of another example, something odd but not so deeply bizarre that she’d conclude he’d lost his marbles completely.

  Before he could come up with anything, she asked, “Is someone with you? Your voice sounded weird just then. I mean, apart from what you said.”

  Wait, had he spoken out loud? Actually told Charice he was in love with her? Just a few minutes earlier Mr. Hynes accused him of talking to himself. Could it be true? “Umm…that’s the other thing,” he admitted. “These random thoughts that are just there in my head? Apparently I say some of them out loud.”

  “I’ma add that to my list,” she said. “All this weird shit. In fact, I’m doin’ it right now ’fore I forget. Chief says…he’s in love with me.”

  “You left out the word ‘maybe.’ ”

  “You write it down your way, I—”

  “You’re doing it again, Charice,” he said.

  “Doing what?”

  “Using that black voice.”

  “I’ma write that down, too.”

  “Last night you—”

  “You were different last night, too,” she said, all trace of the dialect now gone.

  Suddenly their evening together, which had begun so well and ended so catastrophically, was with him again. He’d promised himself to put it out of his mind, but here he was thinking about it anyway, awash in humiliation. “Can I ask?” he said. “What happened?”

  “I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”

  “Charice.”

  “That phone call I got? Was from Jerome. Asking me to take him to the hospital. He thought he was having a heart attack.”

  “Is he okay?”

  “They kept him overnight for observation. A panic attack, they think. He’s had them before.”

  A car went by, tooting its horn at Mr. Hynes. When Raymer looked up, a man was just coming out the back door of Gert’s Tavern with a bag of trash in each hand. A car was parked next to the Dumpster where the Mustang was vandalized yesterday. From where Raymer sat, only one taillight and a section of fender was visible, not enough to identify the make or model. From where Mr. Hynes was sitting, though, the whole car would be in view, and it came to Raymer again that he might well have seen whoever keyed the ’Stang.

  “Charice?” he said, returning to the matter at hand. “I thought you were mad at me about the lamb chops.”

  “Say again?”

  “I ate all your lamb chops. I was a pig.”

  “Of course you ate my lamb chops. You were invited for dinner. Jerome would’ve ate ’em all. I’d’ve been lucky to get one.”

  “I guzzled your expensive wine and fell asleep.”

  “Shows what you know, if you think that swill was expensive.”

  “So you’re not really mad at me?”

  “Of course I’m not.”

  “Then why’d you lock me out on the porch?”

  “Lock you out?”

  “The door was locked.”

  “No, it just sticks when it’s humid. You have to lift up at the same time you push or pull.”

  Now that she mentioned it, he remembered that when she first let them out onto the porch, she’d not only lifted the handle but kicked the bottom of the door.

  “I left you a note,” she said.

  “You did?”

  “Put on the table right in front of you. Said I didn’t know how long I’d be, but to wait if you wanted to.”

  “It must’ve blown away,” he said, recalling how still it had been when he dozed off, how the breeze had come up by the time he awoke. “The kitchen was all dark.”

  “The bugs were swarming. Like a hundred of them on the screen.”

  “God, I’m such an idiot. Go ahead and write that down, too, if you want.”

  “Already did.”

  He knew she hadn’t, though. Was she writing any of it down? Or was this list of hers just a running gag, like the Heinz one he shared with Mr. Hynes?

  “Charice?” he said. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

  “What? I’m black, so I have to be superstitious?”

  “Charice.”

  “No.”

  “No to which?”

  “No, I don’t believe in ghosts.”

  “Because Becka visited me last night. Twice.”

  “Your dead wife visited you.”

  “Out on your porch, the first time. She came to me in a dream.”

  “How does you dreaming about Becka make her a ghost?”

  “Later, in the cemetery, she tried to kill me.” He’d been wondering what a statement like this would sound like out in the open air. Now he knew. Batshit.

  “What do you mean, ‘later, in the cemetery’? What were you doing out there?”

  “I went to apologize.”

  “To a dead woman. In the middle of the night.”

  “You make it sound kind of crazy.”

  “Where you were struck by lightning. Even if you were, how’s that Becka?”

  He sighed. “I really have lost my mind, haven’t I.”

  A quick negative response would’ve been welcome, but none was forthcoming. Finally she said, “You had a bad day.”

  “Today’s going to be another. Should I go visit Jerome?”

  “No,” she said quickly. “Absolutely not.”

  “He still thinks I keyed his car?”

  “Probably. When he gets like this…” In the silence that followed, he could hear her concern.

  Nor did he blame her. He’d never seen anyone come quite so unglued as Jerome had. He remembered the relief he felt turning away from him and heading back to the Morrison Arms, even if it meant coming face-to-face with a cobra. Raymer replayed the short journey again, stepped off the curb and heard screeching brakes, the animal-control vehicle rocking mere inches from his left knee, again saw the people milling around in the parking lot. Roy Purdy had been among them, he recalled. It wasn’t just the neck brace that had made him stand out, or even that he’d been working so hard to blend in. It was that, for a brief moment, everyone else in the crowd was facing the Arms. Roy was looking at Gert’s, then spun away when he saw Raymer.

  All at once the buzzing in his ears was gone. Got him, said Dougie.

  “Got who?” Charice said.

  Raymer ignored her. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Charice?”

  She hesitated before answering. “Like what?”

  “Does the mayor want Jerome to run against me for chief of police, because—”

  “No, it’s nothing like that.”

  “What’s it like?”

  “Thing is, I’m not supposed to know. Nobody’s supposed to.”

  “But you do.”

  “No secrets between me and Jerome. I wish there were.”

  “How about you and me, Charice? Are there secrets between us?”

  “Okay, but you didn’t hear this from me. The muckety-mucks in Schuyler and Bath are talking about consolidating services. Police. Fire. Garbage collection.”

  “Bath doesn’t have garbage collection.”

  “It will. The id
ea is to get rid of redundancies. One administration. A single chain of command.”

  “Firing people.”

  “Trimming expenses.”

  “Firing people.”

  “Becoming more lean and efficient.”

  “Firing people. So how does Jerome fit in?”

  “He’d oversee the transition. That was his master’s thesis.”

  Raymer, who didn’t usually leap to cynical conclusions, did so now. “Perfect fall guy, when it doesn’t pan out. No wonder he’s having panic attacks. When people find out who’s behind all this efficiency, somebody’s going to—”

  “Shoot him,” Charice finished the sentence for him. “Right. That possibility has also occurred to him. He’s actually thinking about moving back to North Carolina.”

  “Would you go, too?” he said, suppressing the urge to beg her not to.

  “Come out from behind this desk, you mean? Go someplace else where I could maybe do some real police work?”

  It made Raymer’s head swim, all of it. “Will Bath even have a chief of police?”

  “Unclear.”

  “And Gus supports this?”

  “His idea, is my impression. Remember his campaign slogan? Let’s be Schuyler Springs?”

  “Fuck him,” Raymer barked, surprised at how strong his feelings were about this.

  The long moment of silence this occasioned made him wonder if maybe Gus was actually standing there next to Charice’s desk. Had he been listening to the whole conversation? Maybe he and Charice had made some sort of pact to keep tabs on him.

  “Chief?” she said.

  “Yeah?” he said, clearing his throat.

  “Was that you? Who just said ‘Fuck him’?”

  “I don’t know,” he admitted.

  —

  “YOU AGAIN,” the man said, when Raymer reappeared. “I thought you was gone.”

  “You know Roy Purdy, Mr. Hynes? Moved into the Arms a couple weeks ago?”

  “What he look like?”

  “Skinny. Tattoos,” Raymer said. “His neck’s in a brace.”

  “Live with that nice Cora woman?”

  “I wondered, did you see him over at Gert’s yesterday?”

  “People here all hangin’ out at Gert’s. I don’t pay ’em no mind.”

  “I meant out back. In the parking lot. You’ve got a good view of that from here.”

  “So?”

  “Remember the tall black man I was with yesterday?”

  “One with that shiny red car? Somebody ruint his paint job, I heard.”

  “Did you see who did that, Mr. Hynes?”

  “My eyes don’t do too good from a distance.”

  “How about closer up, though. You were sitting right about where you are now. You didn’t by any chance see Roy Purdy come walking out of that alley, did you?”

  “Would I be getting the boy in trouble if I said so?”

  Raymer thought about lying but decided not to. “It’s possible,” he said.

  “Good,” said Mr. Hynes. “ ’Cause I ’spect he the one peein’ in the stairwell.”

  That sounded about right to Raymer as well.

  “I got it narrowed down,” the old man said. “It either him or you.”

  —

  A LUNATIC. That’s what he looked like in the grainy newspaper photo. Taken from the kitchen window below Charice’s, it caught Raymer at the moment the column detached from the porch above, his surprise at this unexpected turn of events having registered at just that instant. He’d been shinnying down, of course, but judging from the photo, he might as easily have been climbing up, a home-invading burglar. His bruised, swollen face looked like some sort of visual prediction of the damage done by a fall that hadn’t yet occurred. The caption read: What’s up, Chief?

  Studying himself, a middle-aged man clinging for dear life to a load-bearing post, he again recalled the question Miss Beryl had pestered him with on his essays all those years ago: Who is this Douglas Raymer? Who, indeed? Three-plus decades later he still had no answer for her. Worse, he had just forty-eight hours to come up with one. At the moment all three sides of the old woman’s beloved rhetorical triangle remained blank. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say about his former teacher, couldn’t bring his audience into sharp focus. How many of these people would even remember her? Would those few who did think of her fondly? If so, would they hold his many personal and professional failures against her? After all, if she was such a great teacher, how had she managed to turn out a man who campaigned for chief of police on the slogan We’re not happy until you’re not happy?

  Tossing the newspaper into the wastebasket, he looked up and saw the cobra, hooded and erect, atop a nearby filing cabinet. He stared at it transfixed, then hit the intercom. “Charice?” he said.

  She came on the speaker immediately. “Chief? I didn’t see you come in.”

  “I snuck in the back. Could you come in here a minute?”

  When the door opened two seconds later, he pointed at the cobra. “How’d that get in here?”

  “Huh,” she said, going over to it.

  “Try harder,” he suggested.

  “It looks very real.”

  “That was my thought. My heart’s still pounding.”

  She took the statue down and examined it. “Ceramic?”

  “If you say so. This office was locked yesterday when I left.”

  “Hold on,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. “Are you saying I put it there?”

  “I’m asking who else has a key.”

  “Chief. Cops work here. And know how to unlock doors without keys.”

  “I don’t,” he pointed out, for the record.

  “I’m not talking about you,” she said, leading Raymer to question was this a compliment or an insult. “Also, lots of criminals are in and out of this station. Might’ve been one of them.”

  “I was wondering about Jerome. If maybe this was his idea of a joke.”

  “Jerome has an alibi. He was at the hospital all night. Sedated. Besides, like I told you. Jerome’s scared to death of snakes. Even ceramic ones.”

  “Maybe he had an accomplice.”

  “So I am a suspect?”

  “I’d like to rule you out.”

  “I got an alibi, too. Last night? I was with the chief of police himself.”

  “Not all night.”

  “Damn straight,” she agreed.

  “And you got here before me this morning.”

  “Chief?”

  “Yes, Charice.”

  “I don’t know where the fucking snake came from.”

  “Would you write my Beryl Peoples tribute for me? For the middle-school rededication? Because if you’d do that, in return I’d be willing to believe you had nothing to do with this.”

  “Not a chance. Never even met the lady.”

  They regarded each other with what seemed to Raymer like a bottomless well of mutual disappointment, until she finally said, “Put who back where he was?”

  “Sorry?”

  “When I told you that you were on the front page of the Dumbocrat, you said you’d put him back where he was.”

  “I did?”

  “Somebody called the station early this morning. And the mayor, too. Reporting that Judge Flatt was being disinterred.”

  “Really?”

  “Means ‘dug up.’ ”

  “I know what it means, Charice.”

  “And you did admit to being out there at Hilldale getting zapped by lightning.”

  “Charice?”

  “Yeah?”

  “You’d make a good cop.”

  “What I been saying.”

  “What else was in the log?”

  She went out and came back in with it. “You want everything?”

  “Just the meaty parts.”

  “All in all, a wild night. The mayor’s wife went AWOL again. We found her, though.”

  “Where this time?”

  “Lon
gmeadow Estates.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah, why?”

  “That’s where Becka and I used to live.” He remembered coming out of the condo in the morning and seeing her loitering across the street, anxious for him to leave for work so she and Becka could have coffee. He’d told her many times that she didn’t have to wait outside, to just ring the bell whenever, but the next morning she’d be there again, patiently awaiting access to her best friend. Possibly her only friend. For some reason Becka had refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Alice Moynihan was increasingly untethered from reality, preferring to believe that she was just odd, overly sensitive, like a psychic, to things other people never even noticed. Was it possible that Becka had paid her a visit last night as well? Why else would she return to Longmeadow Estates after so long? “What was she doing out there?”

  “Talking on her phone.”

  “Bless her heart. Okay, what else?”

  “Mrs. Gaghan called again. Said her son went out drinking at the White Horse last night and never came home.”

  “That would be Spinmatics Joe?”

  “One and the same.”

  “What’d you tell her?”

  “Not what I wanted to. Also, there was an A and B over at Hattie’s an hour ago. Guess who?”

  Dougie knew immediately, and a second later so did Raymer. “Roy Purdy.”

  “Except this time it wasn’t the ex-wife he beat up. It was her mother.”

  “Ruth, right?”

  “Messed her up pretty bad.”

  “Is he in custody?”

  She shook her head. “Slipped out in the confusion when the ambulance got there. Apparently he got injured in the scuffle himself.”

  “With an officer?”

  “No, your old friend Sully showed up in the nick of time. Brained him with a skillet.”

  “Good,” Raymer said, surprised for perhaps the first time in his life to think of his old nemesis with straightforward affection. Something was nagging at him, though, having to do with their adventure out at Hilldale that hadn’t seemed right. Not important right now, of course. “I’m pretty sure it was Purdy who keyed Jerome’s car, by the way. I saw him in the vicinity. When we pick him up, have the arresting officer check his keys for red paint in the grooves.”

  “He can’t have got far. He doesn’t have a vehicle after yesterday.”

  “Yeah, but there’s a woman at the Arms he’s tight with. Cora something. Make sure she didn’t loan him her car. Put out an APB on it if she did. Where are we with animal control?”

 
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