Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “I do own a Volkswagen Jetta.”

  “There you go. And you got a key that starts your car.”

  “Charice—”

  “Here’s what you don’t know ’cause you’re not a criminal. Your key? The one to your car? Probably starts half-a-dozen other VWs, maybe even an Audi or two. Anything German. And that’s just here in Schuyler County. Never mind Albany. Or the rest of New York State.”

  As was often the case, Raymer was puzzled by Charice’s logic. “So you are a criminal, since you do know this?”

  “I know because I know lots of criminals. ’Cept for me and Jerome”—this was her brother—“our family’s mostly crooks. I got a cousin in Georgia did time for auto theft? He broke into this car and set off the alarm and got himself collared. Tragic part? Turned out he had a key that fit the ignition. Wasn’t any need to break in, even.”

  “He was a car thief. He got caught and went to jail. This is tragic how?”

  “Plus,” Charice added, undeterred, “how’s it gonna look, the chief of police standing outside citizens’ houses, trying to open their garages? God’s own fool is what you’re gonna look like.”

  In this she’d been proven correct. Early the following morning Raymer had begun his investigation in his and Becka’s old neighborhood, sort of as a control. After all, it was unlikely that she’d been having an affair with someone on their block, in which case she’d have walked, not driven. But he was curious to see if Charice was right and the device might open some innocent doors. He’d gone up one side of the street and back down the other without setting a single door aflutter. He’d even tried his and Becka’s old condo on the off chance the remote was a spare he’d forgotten about. Returning to the Jetta, he found a man in a bathrobe waiting for him. “So what’s this about, then?” he said, pointing at the remote, his brow knit with dark suspicion.

  “Police business,” Raymer told him, a feeble explanation people sometimes accepted.

  “How’s trying to open my garage door police business?”

  Raymer repeated what Charice had told him about how these remotes work, implying that his interest was official, that he himself was concerned because “your remote could open my garage door and let you into my house.”

  “Except I wasn’t pointing mine at your house. You were pointing yours at mine.”

  “I was speaking hypothetically,” Raymer told him.

  “I wasn’t,” the man said.

  The following day he’d made the mistake of telling Charice about this encounter. “What’d I tell you?” She seemed unnaturally adamant on the subject, though with her it was hard to tell. Charice was pretty adamant about most subjects. “Throw the damn thing away. You want that garage-door remote to mean adultery. Which it doesn’t. Plus you’re ignoring the real problem.”

  His mental health, she meant. In Charice’s oft-stated opinion, Raymer was clinically depressed. “I mean…look at where you live,” she said, as if the apartment house he’d moved into after fire-saleing their condo settled the matter. Okay, sure, the Morrison Arms was crappy subsidized Section Eight housing in the equally crappy south end of town. The Moribund Arms, people called it. And yes, half the serious calls that came into the station involved the Arms via drug dealing, loud music playing in the middle of the afternoon, urgent reports of domestic violence, somebody off his meds shouting obscenities in the courtyard at no external referent, even the occasional gunshot. For all Raymer knew, actual arms were sold there. The way he figured it, though, living at the Morrison Arms saved time going to and fro. Wasn’t it also possible that his very presence would reduce the number and seriousness of incidents there? He had to admit there’d been no quantifiable evidence of this so far. Neither the residents nor their guests seemed frightened of him or, for that matter, even inconvenienced by him. Worse, his own apartment had been burgled twice, both crimes still unsolved, though his tape player had turned up at a pawnshop in Schenectady so reasonably priced, Raymer thought, that he’d bought it back.

  “Jerome’s right,” Charice insisted, still on the subject of Raymer’s yearlong funk. Her brother had nearly as many opinions about what was wrong with Raymer as she herself did. “Ever since Becka died, you been punishing yourself. Like it was your fault, like it was you steppin’ out on her. That’s what all this is about—you punishing your own self.”

  “When I find out who the guy was,” Raymer assured her, holding up the remote, “it’s not me that’s going to get punished.”

  “Right. You find out who it was—who you think it was, because his garage door goes up—and you shoot him and go to prison. You tell me who’s the big loser in that scenario.”

  Well, Raymer thought, she did have a point, though it was hard to see how a man shot dead could be construed as the winner. Anyway, that wasn’t how this thing would go down. Before there could be any thought of punishment, there’d be an extensive investigation, the painstaking gathering of evidence. The remote would be just one link in a sturdy chain of it, the last link being, he hoped, a confession. Then and only then would he decide on whose ashes would get hauled. He’d tried to explain all this to Charice, but of course she was having none of it. In the three years they’d worked together, he’d never won an argument with the woman and was unlikely to win this one, either.

  On the other hand, maybe she was right. Feeling unsteady in the withering heat, with Becka’s grave no more than fifty yards away, he could feel his purpose waver. It was true. Since losing Becka, he had come unmoored. Somewhere along the line he’d lost not only his wife but his faith in justice, in both this world and the next. Nor was it really about punishment. All he wanted was to know who the guy was. Who Becka had preferred to himself. And even he had to admit that this part was crazy, because the list of men Becka preferred over her husband was probably comprehensive. Charice was probably right about the Moribund Arms, where everything from the puke-green shag carpet to the rust-stained ceiling smelled of stale cooking oil and mold and backed-up plumbing. Poor Charice. She was afraid that if he wasn’t careful he was going to become totally lost and completely befucked. Apparently she couldn’t see that he already was.

  Wishes

  ON THE DIRT SHOULDER of the road that separated Hill from Dale, Rub Squeers sat in the shadow of the backhoe he’d used to dig the old judge’s grave earlier that morning. Left to himself, Rub would’ve let the machine sit right there, but his boss, Mr. Delacroix, said mourners didn’t like to see it beside a freshly dug grave, much less to reflect on the fact that the hole had been dug by such an ugly, unfeeling contraption, and they certainly didn’t like to see someone like Rub Squeers sitting on it, looking impatient for the deceased to get planted so he could finish his work for the day. So Rub, who happened that day to actually be impatient, had driven the backhoe a good hundred yards away and taken a seat in the shade it cast.

  “You know what I w-wisht?” he said out loud. As a boy he’d been afflicted by a terrible stammer. After puberty it had disappeared, but now, for some reason, it was back. Perhaps because the stammer wasn’t quite so pronounced when there was no one around to hear it, he’d recently begun talking to himself or, rather, pretending to talk to his friend Sully.

  What? What the hell do you w-wish now? Which was, he knew, exactly what Sully would’ve said if he’d actually been here. Rub would’ve changed very few things about his best friend—okay, his only friend—but sometimes he wished Sully wouldn’t kid him quite so much. Especially about his stammer. Rub understood that kidding was just how Sully dealt with everybody, that he didn’t mean anything by it. Still, he was tired of it.

  “I w-wisht that guy would stop talking.” The man in the flowing white robe had been jawing for a long time, more than half an hour, Rub was pretty sure. Fridays were half days, and Mr. Delacroix had told him that as soon as he was finished with the judge and returned the backhoe to the shed and locked it, he could leave. “Then everyone would go home and we could finish up.” As if it would be the two o
f them—him and Sully—pushing the mound of dirt on top of the casket, making short work of it like in the good old days.

  Again Sully’s voice was in his head. Don’t wish your life away, Dummy.

  Rub didn’t mind Sully calling him Dummy, recognizing it as a sign of affection. He called most men Dummy and most women, despite their age, Dolly.

  “You know what I really wisht?” Rub continued, ignoring Sully’s advice.

  Wish in one hand and shit in the other. Let me know which fills up first.

  “I wisht you weren’t so forgetful,” Rub said, because lately Sully couldn’t seem to remember twice around, and he wasn’t sure he could bear the disappointment of being forgotten today.

  I won’t forget. I already put the ladder in the back of the truck.

  He’d agreed to give Rub a hand with the tall tree that grew alongside his and his wife’s house, one particular limb scratching at her bedroom window every time the wind blew and driving Bootsie crazy.

  What do you mean, her window?

  They’d been married for less than a year when Rub tired of the marital bed. To escape its rigors, he told Bootsie she snored—she didn’t—and this allowed him to take up residence in the small, dusty, unheated spare room down the hall. There he slept on an old army cot, too narrow and rickety to support a woman of Bootsie’s majestic girth. Rub had explained all this on numerous occasions, but Sully still liked to rib him about it. At any rate, with her husband in the spare room, Bootsie had quickly replaced him with lurid romance novels, one right after another, and it was these from which she was cruelly distracted whenever the wind blew. To her, the scraping of the tree branch on glass sounded like a child—the one she’d once hoped for and was never going to have?—trying to get in.

  What would a child be doing thirty feet off the ground in a tree outside her bedroom window? Sully objected. Rub had wondered the same thing but knew better than to ask. It probably wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes to prune the offending limb, but these days Rub didn’t see as much of Sully as he used to, and he hoped to parlay it into the entire afternoon, assuming Sully remembered in the first place.

  “You know w-what else I wisht?” Rub said.

  What?

  “I wisht things would go back to like they were.” This was a pipe dream, of course. Rub knew it was pointless to wish any such thing, but he couldn’t help himself.

  That’s not how it works, Dummy. Things don’t go backwards just because you want them to. If they did, we’d all be getting younger.

  Which was true, naturally. Like it or not, Sully’s luck had changed. He didn’t have to work anymore, and it had been work, or economic necessity, more than friendship that had made them inseparable for so long. Rub could wish and want and even desperately need until the cows came home, but it didn’t matter. Anyway, don’t be an idiot. You got a good job right here. Why would you want to go back to working for Carl Roebuck?

  He didn’t, not really. Carl had always saved the coldest, wettest, foulest, most dangerous jobs for him and Sully. He’d paid them under the table, too, so they couldn’t really complain. Bad as the work was, though, Rub had loved every minute of it. Standing for long hours knee deep in sewage, so cold he couldn’t feel his fingers, he’d been happy because Sully was right there with him, showing him how things were supposed to go, how to endure and even, at times, prevail. There’d been comfort in the fact that whatever happened to Rub was also happening to Sully. It was like they were on a journey, and his friend knew the best route. If Rub himself was cold and hungry and discouraged and lost, so what? Sully was there to tell him what to do, to listen to his many misgivings, his dreams about how much better everything would be if life was different and cheeseburgers were free.

  You liked it better back when my luck was rotten, is that what you’re saying? When I had to put in twelve-hour days on a bum knee that swelled up like a grapefruit? That suited you better?

  The other thing Rub would’ve changed about Sully was his knack for making Rub feel guilty about stuff. Like it was his fault Sully’d fallen off that ladder and busted his knee. Like Rub was to blame that his trifecta never won once for thirty years straight.

  “No, I just wisht…” But he allowed the thought to trail off. Belatedly and with great reluctance, Rub was coming to understand that life could trick you into wishing for the very worst thing and then grant that wish. Sully was a prime example. Back when they were working for Carl Roebuck, Sully was forever wishing his rotten luck would change, and Rub, who never doubted his friend’s wisdom, had just gone along and wished for it, too, apparently adding some needed torque. When Sully finally won that trifecta, Rub, slow to sense the hitch, simply thought, Good. They wouldn’t have to work for Carl anymore. And had it stopped there, things would’ve been fine.

  Things don’t stop, though, do they? They keep going. Be careful what you wish for.

  “You started it,” Rub replied to this unfair injunction. “I only wished what you did.”

  And how’d that work out?

  Not well, he had to admit. Incredibly, that first trifecta was just the beginning. What Sully had always accused Carl of—being lucky enough to shit in a swinging bucket—was suddenly true of himself, as well. It took several additional strokes of good fortune, but eventually an awful, unthinkable truth came into focus: Sully not only didn’t have to work for Carl Roebuck anymore, he didn’t have to work at all.

  Nor was this the only thing Rub hadn’t seen coming. That Sully could prosper without Rub prospering alongside him was another possibility he’d never really considered. Why would he? Every Friday afternoon for a good decade, he and Sully hunted Carl down—he had a knack for disappearing when he owed you money—to collect their pay. And right there, on the spot, Sully gave Rub his cut. Good weeks, they both did well; bad ones, poorly. It was like they were in a potato-sack race at a picnic, awkward and clumsy but inseparable, their financial destinies interlocked. When Sully’s landlady died and left him her house, Rub half expected to come in for a share, but that didn’t happen. And later, when the city paid Sully all that money for his old man’s property on Bowdon Street, Sully hadn’t offered him part of that windfall, either. Apparently they weren’t for-richer-, for-poorer-type partners after all.

  Hey, Dummy. Who got you the job here at Hilldale?

  Rub shrugged, chastened. “You did,” he admitted reluctantly.

  All right, then. How about a little gratitude?

  Rub sighed, his eyes filling with tears. He knew he should be more grateful. The cemetery job wasn’t nearly as nasty and backbreaking as working for Carl had been, and it was steady, too. But—

  You just don’t like paying your taxes.

  Coming from Sully (sort of), who had worked off the books his entire life, this criticism was particularly hard to swallow. Yet there was some truth in his charge. Rub did resent the strictures of legitimate employment. Working for the city meant Rub not only had to pay federal and state taxes but also local ones, as well as Social Security and who knew what else. Worse, the government, unaware of his existence for so long, now wanted to know where he’d been all those years, and what was he supposed to tell them? It wasn’t bad enough he had to fork over money that otherwise might have been devoted to cheeseburgers, but the amount of the theft was recorded right there on the stub of his paycheck. Why couldn’t they just let him believe he was taking home the money he’d earned? Why did they have to remind him of exactly how much they’d taken without his permission each and every week? Still, Rub felt compelled to object to Sully’s characterization. “It’s not the taxes,” he said.

  What then?

  “I miss—”

  What?

  Rub swallowed hard.

  What, Dummy?

  “Y-y-you,” Rub managed to choke out, the very thing he could never say when Sully was actually around.

  What do you mean, me?

  Unable to explain, Rub looked away. Down the hill, the man in the white rob
e was still talking. For how long now? Rub glanced at his watch, feeling his spirits plummet even further. Back when he and Sully were partners, he’d never needed to wear a watch. Sully was always right there to tell him what time it was and when they could knock off. On this new job, quitting time was five every afternoon except Friday, and he was supposed to know when that was so he could lock his tools in the shed. He’d been entrusted with several keys he didn’t want, but there was no Sully to hand them to.

  See?

  “What?”

  You’re better off. Now you know what time it is without having to ask.

  Sully was forever making this claim—that Rub was somehow better off without him—as if he expected him to agree one day, which he never would. “I liked it better when you knew.”

  Hey, Dummy. Look at me.

  But Rub couldn’t. How could he bear to look where his friend used to stand and no longer did? Or be told he was better off by the person whose absence made him so miserable?

  Fine. Be that way.

  He still remembered his awful first day on the new job, how lonely it had been, how slowly the hours had passed. When it was finally over, after locking the shed like he’d been taught—

  With your own keys…

  —he’d gone down to the cemetery’s main gate to wait for Sully to pick him up so they could head to the Horse, like always. After forty-five minutes and no Sully, he’d hitched into town to look for him. Jocko was locking up the Rexall. “Hey, man,” he said, when he noticed a forlorn-looking Rub loitering at the curb, “you look like you lost your best friend,” intending the observation as a figure of speech, though for Rub it was anything but.

  “You know where he is?” he asked.

  Jocko consulted his watch. “Six-thirty? Well, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say he’s right where he always is this time of day. In fact, I bet I could guess which stool.”

  Rub was about to tell Jocko he was wrong, that Sully couldn’t be out at the Horse for the simple reason that, if he was, then Rub would be there, too, which he wasn’t. After all, they hadn’t discussed Sully not picking him up. He’d just assumed he would, because otherwise how could their regular evenings proceed? But suddenly he saw he was wrong. Again. He’d been wrong about everything else, and now he was wrong about this. He’d concluded it was only the days that were going to be different now that Sully didn’t have to work anymore, but it was even worse than that. Much worse. If he meant to join Sully at the Horse in the evening, he’d have to get himself there. And when he arrived, Sully would already be seated at the bar, showered and smelling of aftershave, like on the weekends. Before, nobody’d minded when they both showed up looking and smelling like men who worked for a living, but they would mind if Rub alone showed up in that state.

 
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