Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Do I look okay, Cora?” He held out the piece of ear he’d torn off for her inspection. When she let out a yelp and took a hasty step back, he flung the thing as far as he could out into the lake, where it plopped harmlessly, floated for a second, then sank out of sight. “Where’d that beer go?”

  She was sniffling again. “I was keepin’ it cool for you,” she said, pointing to where she’d wedged it, upright, between two rocks.

  “Get it for me,” he said.

  “Okay, Roy,” she said, but before she could haul her fat ass over there, a small wave, probably from some motorboat, lapped up against the shoreline and knocked the can over, the beer foaming out.

  “Bring it here,” he told her.

  “It spilled, Roy.”

  “Bring it here, I said.”

  When she did, he flung the can out into the lake, and it hit not far from where his ear had landed, bobbing there.

  “Bring me another.”

  She did. “I’m sorry I do things wrong, Roy,” she said, her lip quivering.

  He popped the fresh beer, drank it half down, then sat on the end of the dock, looking out at the still-bobbing beer can. “Don’t just stand there looking dumb,” he told her. “Sit your ass down.”

  She sat next to him, warily. “You don’t have to pay me back,” she said.

  “I know I don’t.”

  “I’m real sorry about your ear.”

  “Me too.”

  “You aren’t mad at me?”

  “Hell yes, I’m mad at you,” he said, though he wasn’t, or not as mad as he’d been earlier. For some reason his rage had leaked away with all that blood. At least she’d quit mouthing him.

  “I try,” she told him. “I try real hard.”

  He just shrugged. He was seeing the whole ear business more clearly now. “Ain’t none of this your doin’,” he admitted. That’s what ole Bullwhip would say if he was here. It was Roy’s own damn fault for letting an old cripple like Sully sneak up on him. Cora might be dumb as a rock, but she wasn’t the one who hit him with a fucking skillet, and it wasn’t her fault the fucking drugstore didn’t have the right clips. They probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. What he’d needed to do was to get the fucking ear sewed back on, but that hadn’t been an option, and that wasn’t her fault, either. Okay, the Cheetos were her fault. She should’ve gotten Pringles like he fucking told her, but even there she had a point. It was her money.

  They sat quietly for a while until Cora said, “Is it real nice in there?”

  “In the camp?” he said, finishing his beer. He was going to have to pace himself, he realized, if he hoped to make it through the day. Both the beer and the painkillers he had left. What he meant to do later was gradually becoming clear to him. “Pretty nice, I guess. Go take a look, if you want. You see something you like, take it.”

  “I’d rather just sit here with you, real quiet,” she said, putting her hand on top of his. Roy didn’t like to be touched by ugly women and normally wouldn’t have permitted this, but for some reason he did now. “I can imagine all the nice things they got. I always like things the way they are in my head, you know?”

  Actually, he had no fucking idea what she was talking about, though it did call to mind his old man, who’d always maintained that wanting things was a waste of time. To him, though, it wasn’t so much that you’d be disappointed when you didn’t get what you wanted as that you would be when you did. Roy remembered the day his father made sure that message was plain as could be. They were driving home from somewhere and stopped at a diner, taking seats at the counter. The menus they were given had pictures of the food: majestic bacon-and-turkey club sandwiches, enormous meatball heroes, turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes slathered in gravy, an open-faced steak sandwich on triangles of toast. At twelve Roy was always starved. “Can I—?” he began, but his old man had noticed where he was looking.

  “No,” he said. “Order off the kids’ menu.” Because stuff there was cheaper, Roy knew. A boiled hot dog. A thin grilled-cheese sandwich that would come burned. Kiddie spaghetti.

  As a rule Roy didn’t argue, because that just got him cuffed or worse. Out in public, though, he could sometimes lodge a small protest, so when the waitress came over to take their order he said, just loud enough for her to hear, “I think I’m too old for the kids’ menu.”

  “How old are you?” she said, giving Roy a wink to let him know she was on his side, though his father noticed.

  “Ten,” he answered before Roy could. Because that’s what it said on the menu: kids ten and under.

  “He looks older,” the waitress said.

  Roy saw his old man stiffen and give the woman a long, dark look. Down the counter, though, were some guys dressed in button-down shirts and ties, the kind of men his father always steered clear of, as if he suspected they were judges and one day he’d have to stand before them in court, and Roy saw him register their presence now. He’d make no scene here, Roy realized. “You gonna tell this young lady what you want,” his father said, “or make her guess?”

  “What can I have?” Roy said.

  The waitress was older than his father but apparently liked being referred to as “young” and had decided to be playful. “Yeah, Dad. What can he have?”

  His father seemed to decide something on the spot. “Whatever he wants,” he said, loud enough for the men down the counter to hear.

  “Really?” Roy said, incredulous. Never before had he been given such freedom.

  “Just don’t order more than you can eat.”

  The open-faced steak sandwich, as pictured, was thick and red in the center and served with a mountain of thin crispy-looking fries. “Even this?” he said, pointing at it, the most expensive item on the menu.

  “Why not?” his father said, though Roy noticed his smile didn’t sit quite right on his face, as if it were masking another emotion entirely. “But you gotta eat it all. Every last bite.”

  “Looks like he’s just the man for the job,” said one of the guys in ties, grinning and jovial. Roy himself shared the man’s confidence. Like he was indeed just the boy to tuck away a man-size steak.

  When the food came, though, it was a different cut of meat from the one on the menu. Worse, it was cooked gray all the way through, tough as shoe leather, and the thick, crinkle-cut fries were doughy and cold. Roy immediately wished he’d ordered a cheeseburger, like his father, but he knew better than to say so, or that the steak wasn’t at all like the one in the picture. He kept hoping his father would notice the difference and complain about it, but he didn’t. When he finished his burger, he pushed the plate away, then pretended to read a section of newspaper somebody had left on the counter. Roy could tell he was watching him, though, out of the corner of his eye. “Every last bite,” his old man repeated under his breath when Roy showed signs of slowing down.

  “There’s gristle.”

  “That too,” he said, the forced smile gone now, the menace in his voice unmistakable. Maybe it was this that drew the waitress back down the counter. From the look on her face, she’d met men like his father before and hadn’t enjoyed it.

  “Hey, good job!” she said, whisking the plate away—who’d want to eat those last few pieces of gristle?—before his father could object. “How about a hot-fudge sundae?”

  “Sure,” his father said before Roy could say he was too full. “And make sure he gets a cherry on top.” He rose, then, and sauntered back to the restrooms.

  The sundae was huge. Roy managed to choke down a couple bites, including the cherry, though through all the sweetness he could still taste the sour meat, and soon realized he was finished. There was simply no more room in his stomach. When his father came back and saw the waste, there’d be trouble. Maybe not here in the restaurant, but later, in the car, or maybe at home, the belt. What was keeping him? Roy wondered. He leaned back on his stool, expecting to see him come out of the lavatory, but he didn’t.

  The waitress working the co
unter now had her head together with the one who was waiting on the booths, and Roy thought he heard the phrase “out the back.” The big man in the filthy apron who ran the grill was called over, and after Roy’s waitress said something, he went into the men’s room, emerging a moment later and shaking his head at her. She then came over to where Roy sat staring at the sundae he couldn’t eat another spoonful of and wondering if he’d be able to hold back the hot tears he felt forming.

  “I shoulda known,” she said, and when he made no reply, just swallowed hard, trying to keep the food down, she showed him the check, the amount circled at the bottom. “What am I supposed to do with this?” He knew what his father would’ve told her she could do with it, but he was only twelve, and it’d be several years before he’d be brave enough to offer any such suggestion. “They’re gonna dock my pay for this,” she told him. Everyone at the counter was watching them now, as well as the people in nearby booths. “Come on, Darla,” one of the tie-wearing men objected, “it ain’t the kid’s fault,” and apparently she felt the truth of this because she seemed to soften a little. “You live around here?” she asked.

  He said he did.

  “Can you get home on your own?” When he nodded, she said, “Well, then, git.”

  Out in the parking lot, in the space where they’d parked, now empty, Roy vomited up everything, the cherry recognizable in the mess, and immediately felt better. The good news was that the diner was right on Route 9, which meant he could either walk or hitchhike the four miles home. He decided to walk, because it’d take longer and maybe his father would think that was punishment enough. Pushing himself down the busy road, he toyed with the idea of being angry at his father for playing such a low trick on him but decided in the end that it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Besides, it was the waitress he was really mad at, her “I shoulda known” that he wasn’t able to forgive, as if the mere sight of him and his father was warning enough. That and the look she gave him when the man down the counter had taken his side. Like she could see his whole pitiful life stretched out before her, causing him to ball his hands into fists.

  Still, it had been a valuable lesson. His father was right: wanting things that weren’t worth wanting or wishing things were different was a waste of time. Women like Cora—all women, probably—could never understand that, even when the evidence was staring them right in the face. Cora had some dumb-ass idea of Roy in her mind that she preferred to Roy himself. No doubt that asshole treated her nice. Told her she was pretty when she could see for herself that she wasn’t. Told her she was a good mom when she probably left the fucking kid alone in his playpen with a full diaper and crying his fucking little eyes out. Dream Roy didn’t stick her with the check. He even shared his meds. Whereas the real Roy? The one sitting with her on the dock? Well, that Roy saw things for true. He knew the steak in the picture wasn’t real, any more than Dream Roy was real. Just as he knew that later this afternoon, after the beer was gone, only one of them would be getting back into Cora’s shit-bucket car.

  Though he’d only been twelve, he congratulated himself on not blaming his old man. He hadn’t gone more than half a mile when he heard a horn toot and his father pulled up alongside the curb, motioning for him to get in. “So,” he said, “you learn anything back there?”

  Roy nodded.

  “All right, then,” his father said. Pulling back into traffic, he seemed satisfied with how everything had worked out. He wasn’t angry anymore, Roy could tell, which meant no belt when they got home.

  “She was pretty mad,” Roy said, “that waitress.”

  “Maybe next time she’ll mind her own damn business,” his father said. “Think twice before she opens that big, fat mouth of hers.”

  They were silent for a while until Roy said, “Everybody stared at me.” In fact, he could still feel their eyes on him as he slid off his stool and moved to the front door and out into the parking lot.

  “I bet they did,” his father said. “But here you are. You didn’t die.”

  Which was true. There he’d been, and here he still was.

  “Pass them Cheetos,” he told Cora. Actually, he kind of liked Cheetos, except they made your fingers all orange.

  The bag, he noticed, when she handed it to him, was half empty. She’d gone to town on it when he was in the camp pulling his fucking ear off. He thought about saying something about that, curious to see if he could make her cry one more time, but in the end—again—he decided not to. Instead, he ate a handful of Cheetos. “These aren’t too bad,” he admitted.

  She smiled at him, orange lipped.

  Gert Gives the Matter Some Thought

  SULLY WAS STANDING by the window when Janey came in, her eyes swollen nearly shut from crying. This early in the morning, the waiting room of the emergency unit was empty except for Sully and Tina, Ruth’s granddaughter, who so far as he could tell wasn’t really there herself. He’d never had much luck with the girl. She didn’t respond to teasing, and with girls her age he didn’t have many other rhetorical strategies. He would try to engage her, but she always stared at him vaguely, like you look at a television screen when your mind has wandered elsewhere. This was different, of course. Tina sat perfectly still, staring off into some middle distance. In fact, she was so motionless that he kept glancing over to make sure she was breathing.

  Janey made brief eye contact with Sully before going over to her daughter, squatting right in front of her. “Hey, there, Birdbrain,” she said, having apparently decided to attempt good cheer. “You okay?” When the girl’s unfocused gaze didn’t even flicker, Janey grew serious. “Tina, honey. I know you don’t want to, but you have to come back, okay? I know it was real bad, what happened back there, and I know you think you’re safer where you are, but you can’t stay there because it’s not a real place. Remember how we talked about it before? And what the doctor said about how the longer you stay away, the harder it is to come back? There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. It’s just you and me here. And Sully. You’ve always liked him.”

  News to Sully, if true.

  “None of this is your fault, sweetpea. You know that, right? I did a real dumb thing. Made your dad get all mad. But he’s gone now, and nobody’s gonna hurt anybody anymore. You understand? As soon as you come back we can all start making things better, you and me. Grandma, too. And Grandpa’ll be here just as soon as we can find out where the hell he is. Grandpa’s your special friend, right?”

  Tina blinked slowly at the mention of her grandfather, and it seemed to Sully that her eyes started to focus, but then they quickly went blank again. Sully couldn’t blame her. She had only to look at her mother to know that her cheer was forced, her optimism just wishful thinking. Things weren’t going to be okay again for a long time, maybe never.

  Janey gave in. “Okay, sweetpea. You can stay there a little while longer, but after I talk to Sully you’ve got to come back, okay? Then we’re going to start over again, like we do. It always gets better, remember? What comes after down? Up, right? Up’s the only direction left, and that’s where we’re headed, as soon as you come back.”

  When Janey rose, her knees cracked audibly, and it occurred to Sully that the woman coming toward him wasn’t young anymore. Could it be that the last hour had plunged her so deeply into middle age? “Thanks,” she said, joining him where he stood at the window overlooking the parking lot below. “I assume it’s you who brought her here.”

  Sully nodded. When the cops finally arrived at the restaurant, he’d led them back to the apartment only to discover that Roy Purdy had regained consciousness while they were out front with the EMTs and skedaddled. The regulars were milling around by the entrance by the time Sully finished talking to the cops, but they seemed to get the picture when he shook his head and pointed at the CLOSED sign. It was then that he sensed he wasn’t alone inside and found the girl curled up in the fetal position in the far booth. “People forget all about you, don’t they?” he said, sliding in across from her.
When she didn’t respond, he said, “I need to do a few things here. Then we’ll go to the hospital, okay?”

  She nodded, but that was all.

  The first thing to do was turn off the grill and toss out all the bacon and sausage, now reduced to cinders. Out back he found a cardboard box and tore it down, took a Magic Marker and some tape near the register and made another CLOSED sign for the deliverymen who would come to the back. Under the sign on the front door he taped a second: UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. By now Tina was sitting up in the booth. “Can you think of anything else?” he said, but she gave no indication of having heard him. “Let’s go out this way,” he suggested, pointing. The front door was locked; the back would lock behind them.

  In the truck she cocked her head at the brown cyclone Carl had made on the inside of the window. As he drove to the hospital she kept staring at it, and by the time they arrived she’d drifted into the space she now occupied. Unable to rouse her, Sully’d flagged a nurse to help get her out of the truck and into the emergency room. “What’s wrong with her?” the woman wanted to know, and he told her she’d just witnessed an attack on her grandmother. That explanation didn’t seem to satisfy her, and she looked Sully over suspiciously, but he didn’t know what else to say. When she was little Tina had been tested for autism, and Ruth had said that in times of stress—especially when her parents were fighting—she occasionally entered these fugue states, but he’d been under the impression she’d outgrown them. Wrong again.

  “Is she going to be okay?” Sully now whispered to Janey, nodding at the girl. He admired how Janey had just talked to her, a side to Ruth’s daughter he’d never witnessed.

  “Eventually,” she said. “It’s her defense mechanism. When things get too bad, she just checks out. I wish I could do the same thing.”

  “One of the nurses said she was sending in a doctor to examine her.”

  “God,” she said, turning back to look at her daughter. “She saw the whole thing, didn’t she?”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]