Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “You promise?”

  “And get a couple six-packs,” he added. “We’ll go out to the reservoir.”

  “Really?”

  “And some Pringles.”

  She sighed, beaten. “Okay.”

  He was asleep, or maybe passed out from the pain, before she was inside the CVS. Then she was back again. He could tell she’d been gone for more than a minute, but not much more. And she didn’t look scared like she would’ve if she ratted him out. She had two big plastic bags full of stuff that she put on the seat between them.

  “Let me see that orange juice,” he said.

  She handed him the large plastic bottle, its contents ice cold, just the way he liked it. He was so parched that he drank half of it straight down before remembering the painkillers. Shaking the remaining pills into his palm, he counted eight. Returning four to the vial, he swallowed the others with the remaining juice and tossed the empty container into the backseat. “What?” he said.

  Cora was back in behind the wheel and staring at him. “You said I could have one.”

  “You can,” he said. “When half your fuckin’ ear’s hangin’ by a thread.”

  “I like how they make me feel,” she explained. “And you said.”

  “You know how to get to the lake?”

  She nodded.

  “Then go, before the beer gets warm.”

  Still she just sat there. “It come to almost twenty dollars.”

  “It did fuckin’ not.”

  She showed him the receipt. Seventeen bucks and change. “Okay, so what?”

  “And the other afternoon at Gert’s was almost thirty.”

  “That was your treat.”

  “Then pay me for this, at least.”

  “When we get to the lake.”

  “Now, Roy.”

  “The beer’s gettin’ warm, girl. You know I don’t like warm beer.”

  She turned the key in the ignition. “What you don’t like is spendin’ your own damn money.”

  No argument there. He’d lifted a couple twenties from Janey’s purse while she slept, so he could afford to give Cora one of them, but that was the thing about money: you never knew how much you were going to need. In Roy’s experience, the deeper the shit you found yourself in, the more it cost to dig yourself out, and at the moment he was hip deep. One thing was for true. He’d gotten his last free cup of coffee at Hattie’s. He done killed the golden goose. Well, not killed her, exactly, but good as. No more day-old pie for ole Roy. It had been worth it, though, the thrill of shutting that bigmouthed bitch the fuck up, wiping that superior look off her face. He could still feel his knuckles throbbing pleasurably. Later, he’d take his list out and draw a satisfying line through her name.

  Cora was studying him sadly now. “Janey’s never gonna take you back, Roy,” she said. Like this was what they’d just been talking about. Like she hadn’t pulled this brand-new subject right out of her ass.

  “What’d I say to you about that?” Roy’d told her last week at Gert’s that he didn’t want to hear Janey’s name coming out of her mouth. In fact, it was when she brought Janey up that he’d decided the beer was Cora’s treat.

  “I’m just sayin’.”

  “Anyway, what the fuck do you know about it?”

  Cora put the car in reverse and checked the rearview. “You should start being nice to me. I’m the one that likes you, not her.”

  “Well, if she don’t like me, how come she fucked me?”

  Cora hit the brake and looked at him, her eyes like little slits. “Fucked you when?”

  “Last night.”

  “You’re lyin’.”

  “I’m gonna take a nap,” he told her. The painkillers were kicking in, giving things that gauzy feel. “Wake me up when we get to the lake.”

  He closed his eyes and kept them closed while he counted to twenty. When he opened them again the vehicle was in motion, about to pull out of the CVS lot. Cora was crying, and that made him happy. He hadn’t been sure she’d believe him about Janey. Roy could hardly believe it himself, but clearly she did, which meant she’d try even harder now to please him. He doubted he’d have much further use for her, but you could never tell.

  Drifting off, he thought again about Janey, how nice she’d fucked him. It was like she’d been in jail, too, just like him, and starved for it like he was. They’d always been good in bed, and she’d admitted as much. Okay, she hadn’t agreed to getting back together, but she hadn’t said they wouldn’t, neither, not till Mama Bitch started egging her on this morning. Anyway, she’d been his again, if only for a couple hours. Even if it was just because she was horny, like she said.

  —

  HE AWOKE when the wheels of Cora’s shit-bucket left the pavement. Sitting up, he saw they’d just pulled in to the campground’s dirt lot. It was still only nine in the morning but hot already, and even this early there were half-a-dozen other cars there. By noon the lot would be full, the beach full of brats in water wings screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, look at me.” Or worse, “Mommy, look at that man’s ear!” Fuck that shit. The shoreline was dotted with camps, most of them unoccupied this early in the season, for as far as the eye could see. “Take that dirt road,” he told her, pointing.

  “You can’t go in there,” Cora objected. “See the sign? Where it says PRIVATE?”

  He could see it fine, not that he gave the tiniest little shit. “Private’s what we’re looking for,” he told her. “Someplace we can drink our beer in peace.” He’d only been asleep the fifteen minutes it took to drive here, but he was feeling better now, the pulsing pain in his ear and cheekbone more muted. He’d also awakened with the beginnings of a plan, and that always made him cautiously optimistic, even if his plans seldom panned out. No matter. He enjoyed making them anyway, thinking them through, admiring how they were going to work until something came along and fucked them all up.

  Cora, he saw, had stopped crying. “It’s nice back in here,” she admitted, inching the car slowly along the rutted one-lane path. As Roy had foreseen, only every sixth or seventh camp looked occupied, with a car angled off in the trees, a motorboat bobbing at the end of a dock, wet bathing suits pinned to a clothesline strung between trees. With the windows rolled down it was cool among the tall pines, the air rich with the scent of their needles. Only once did they encounter cars coming from the opposite direction. Cora pulled over to the right as far as she could and tooted a hello at the other driver, smiling broadly as the two vehicles squeezed by each other.

  “Don’t be drawin’ no attention,” Roy scolded her, though, really, when he thought about it, why the fuck not? They were in a half-purple, half-yellow car, after all. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to be noticed.

  “How about right here,” Cora wanted to know when they came to a stretch where the camps were all dark and deserted looking. “We could sit out on that deck.”

  “Keep goin’.”

  “Why?”

  “ ’Cause I said so.”

  They continued on, and when he looked over at her, damned if she wasn’t crying again.

  “You ever wonder how come some people have all the luck?” she croaked.

  To Roy that was like wondering why the sky was blue. It just was.

  “How come Janey gets to look like she does and I got to look like me?”

  “Try not eatin’ everything in sight,” Roy suggested.

  “I don’t, Roy. And I’ve tried diets. They don’t work. I bet Janey doesn’t even have to diet.”

  “I’m not gonna tell you again about not sayin’ her name.”

  “But that’s what I mean, Roy. She gets to be her and be all lucky and I don’t even get to say her name. And I’m the one bein’ nice to you.”

  “She was nice to me last night, and that’s for true.”

  “One night.”

  Roy shrugged.

  “It’s not fair, is what I’m sayin’.”

  “What ain’t?”

&n
bsp; Sniffling, she wiped her eyes. “All of it,” she explained. “The way things are.”

  Roy would have liked to agree with her, having come to the same conclusion on any number of other occasions, but you couldn’t go around agreeing with a bitch as dumb as this one without being dumb yourself.

  “Take you,” she continued. “You only just got out of prison and now they’re gonna send you back. Other people do bad things. Politicians and them. They don’t go to jail.”

  “Some do.”

  “But mostly it’s us, Roy. People like you and me. We’re the ones get blamed. You know it’s true. Some rich lady? They don’t take her kid away. They take one look at me and say I’m unfit. They look at you and off you go to jail. Don’t that make you mad?”

  Dumb-ass women make me mad, Roy thought. You in particular.

  After a while she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if one of these little places was ours?” He couldn’t tell if she’d shifted gears or was on the same subject. “We could live there and nobody’d bother us.”

  “These places ain’t even insulated. You’d freeze your ass off, is what you’d do.”

  “I bet some are.”

  “They aren’t, I’m telling you. Try listenin’ when people tell you shit.”

  “Yeah, but how do you know? You been in any?”

  Actually, he had. He’d robbed close to a dozen camps on this very road one winter and would’ve hit a bunch more if he hadn’t run into bad luck. He’d parked his van on a paved driveway next to one place around nightfall, and while he was inside he came upon a bottle containing five, six fingers of top-shelf whiskey. Not enough to bring home, really, just too good to leave behind. It was mid-December, and with the power off the camp was freezing, but there was a big overstuffed chair with its own little ottoman thingy, and he had on long johns and a parka, so he put his feet up and finished the shit off, drinking it slow and right out of the bottle, feeling the heat of the amber booze spread from his chest to his extremities. He made a mental note not to fall asleep, even as he did so. He couldn’t have dozed for more than half an hour, then at some point it began sleeting, and by the time he meant to leave, the pavement was a sheet of ice. He hadn’t noticed the driveway’s gentle slope down toward the water. The van was rear-wheel drive, and when he put it in reverse the wheels just spun and spun. He wasn’t going anywhere unless he called for a tow, and he couldn’t very well do that. Another night he’d have probably just gone back inside and spent the night and tried again in the morning, but since it was supposed to snow like a bitch, his only choice was to hoof it out to the main road in the freezing rain. Good thing he did, too, because that night they got close to two feet, which meant his van full of stolen shit was going to stay right where it was for the foreseeable future.

  He was sick for a good week, but as soon as he felt a little better, he went over to Gert’s and presented his circumstance to him as a hypothetical situation. Gert had never had much use for Roy, but he was good at problems. He listened carefully and finally said, “Report the vehicle stolen,” taking Roy by surprise. “The only people out there in the winter are cross-country skiers,” Gert explained, “and how do they know the camp’s owner didn’t leave the vehicle there. We get a midwinter thaw, you hike back in and see if the engine starts. If somebody reports it to the cops before you can get it out, you can say whoever stole the vehicle must’ve done the burglaries. They’ll know it was you, but they probably won’t be able to prove it.”

  Roy thanked him for the advice, which seemed both sound and rigorous. All damn winter it snowed, and no real thaw, either, but that April he got a lift out to the reservoir and hiked back in. Sure enough, the van was right where he’d left it—except, just his luck, a motherfucking tree had fallen on it. When he told this last part, Gert just rubbed his bald head thoughtfully and said, “That’s the trouble with crime. There’s always that falling tree you don’t predict.” Roy could see his point, but he still thought Gert was selling crime short, blaming it for something that wasn’t really its fault. That tree you couldn’t foresee, well, it fell on the innocent as often as it did on the guilty. He himself was a case in point. Right now his neck wasn’t in a brace because he’d been doing something illegal, only because he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shit fell. Trees. Walls. Fucking meteors. Why blame all that on crime? Still, there was no denying Gert had been right about the rest of it. Seeing who the van was registered to, the cops knew it was Roy who’d stolen all that stuff, too, but they couldn’t prove shit, and his having reported the van’s theft wrong-footed them, too. Besides, the people who owned all those camps were mostly from somewhere else, so who gave a fuck?

  “I bet some of them got woodstoves,” Cora was saying, determined to believe they could survive an upstate New York winter in an uninsulated camp on a frozen lake, miles away from their nearest neighbor. “When it gets cold, you just put a log in it and sit around and play games and be all nice and warm.”

  “They’d find you in the spring,” Roy assured her. “Or the half of you raccoons didn’t eat after you froze to death.”

  Cora sighed mightily, clearly baffled by his reluctance to join her in such a pleasant fantasy. “Don’t you like dreamin’, Roy? About things bein’ better? I know it’s just make-believe, but so what? Don’t you like imaginin’ how nice it’d be to have things, like maybe one of these camps, or a new car to go places in?”

  “Hell, girl, I’m imaginin’ shit right now. Like how happy I’d be if you’d give that jaw of yours a fuckin’ rest.” By now they’d driven around to the far side of the reservoir. He pointed up ahead. “Pull in there.”

  Miracle of miracles, she did as she was told, parking alongside a camp that looked unoccupied. There were others nearby, but you could barely see them through the trees, and there wasn’t a single vehicle in sight. An invisible loon called out over the water, and the breeze whispered in the upper reaches of the pines. Cora was looking around, confused. “I don’t get it,” she said. “Why we had to come all this way.”

  Jesus, was she stupid.

  —

  “WHAT THE FUCK are these?” he said, holding up the package of clamps that was at the bottom of the second CVS bag.

  They were seated on the rickety dock now, their feet dangling in the water. The cove they’d chosen was narrow and secluded. The few camps visible across the reservoir were the size of the little green houses on a Monopoly board. A motorboat appeared out in the middle of the lake and just as quickly disappeared again. Roy had already chugged one beer and opened another. Cora was still sipping her first. They’d submerged the other nine beers in the cool water under the dock.

  Cora winced. “Them butterfly clips you wanted?”

  Well, yeah, that’s what the fucking package said they were, but any damn fool could see they weren’t what Roy needed for his ear. “These here are paperclips, dumb ass.”

  “They was out of the others,” Cora explained. “I told the man what you wanted, and he showed me where they’d be, but they was all gone.”

  “So you bought these fuckin’ things?”

  Cora shrugged. “I thought maybe one of the smaller ones, if you had a little bit of cloth or a paper towel?”

  He just looked at her. “I ought to throw you right in the fuckin’ lake is what I ought to do.”

  “I done the best I could, Roy. They didn’t have them others, okay? They probably would’ve at the Rexall, but you didn’t let me go in there.”

  “I suppose they didn’t have no Pringles neither?” he said, holding up the big bag of Cheetos she’d bought.

  “I like Cheetos,” she said. “Besides, it was my money, so my choice.”

  “Well, I ain’t paying you back for none of this shit.”

  “Fine,” she said. “Don’t eat the Cheetos, then. Go hungry. You can just sit there and feel sorry for yourself.” When he got to his feet, she said, “Where you goin’?”

  “The fuck do you care?” he said. Her id
ea to wrap his ear in something soft before securing it with the clip was dumb, but he didn’t have a better one.

  “You gonna break in, Roy?”

  “Maybe it’s unlocked.”

  It wasn’t, of course, but the wood was punky, and a couple good kicks sprung it clear of the frame.

  “You’re gonna get us in trouble, Roy,” she called from the dock.

  “I’m already in fuckin’ trouble, Cora.”

  The only mirror in the whole fucking place was the cloudy one in the dark bathroom. Apparently the owners weren’t planning to use the place until later in the summer, because the electricity still hadn’t been turned on. The tiny room had just one small window, high up, and even when he pulled the curtain back he could barely see a thing.

  Removing the smallest of the butterfly clips from the package, he squeezed the metal wings, opening its jaw as far as it would go, pried it open farther with his thumbs, then tested it on his good ear. Still too goddamn tight. The next-larger size looked more promising, but it was sturdier, too, and he wasn’t able to bend the frame by hand. Inserting its open mouth against the edge of the sink and putting his weight on it did the trick, though, and he felt the metal give. Unfortunately, now the gap was too wide, and it fell right off his good ear. Fucking bitch. There was a threadbare washcloth draped over the towel rack, so he tore it in half, then in half again. If he could wrap the ear first, then secure it with the clamp…After several excruciating tries, he somehow managed to wrap the ear without passing out. As soon as he touched the makeshift bandage with the clip, though, it unraveled. Fucking, fucking, fucking woman. There was only one other solution he could think of. It took him a while to talk himself into it, though. “On the count of ten,” he said out loud, taking the dangling part of his ear between his thumb and forefinger. When he got to five, though, he thought, What’s so fuckin’ special about ten?

  And pulled.

  —

  CORA WAS STILL on the dock but standing now, clearly scared shitless, when he emerged from the camp, holding a swatch of paper towels, already soaked with blood, to what little remained of his ear. “I heard you screamin’, Roy. You okay?”

 
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