Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “She was standing in the doorway when I got there, so yeah, probably. You don’t remember?”

  “It’s all murky,” Janey admitted. “I remember screaming for him to stop. His fist hitting Ma over and over. Then you coming in. That look on your face. But it’s like it’s all happening underwater.”

  “You’re lucky,” said Sully, whose own recollection was all too vivid, as if playing on a color video in his brain: Ruth’s battered, bloody, ruined face almost unrecognizable, her eyes meeting his for just that split second before rolling back in her head. “Are they saying anything, the doctors?”

  “They’re not using the word ‘coma,’ but she’s still unconscious, so…”

  “They don’t come much tougher, though,” Sully said. “She’ll fight.”

  “I know, but, Jesus, Sully, he knocked out half her teeth. Broke her nose, fractured both cheekbones…”

  She allowed him to draw her into his arms then, and he held her until she sobbed herself out. At one point he glanced over at the doorway, half expecting to see Zack come in. Their embrace was innocent enough, but Sully couldn’t help wondering if that’s how it would appear to her father. He recalled Carl’s observation about the world still turning no matter how fucked up things got. No matter how we fuck them up was what he’d meant because, face it, things didn’t fuck themselves up. Sully’s chest, he realized, felt heavy, though what it was heavy with—sorrow, fear, rage—wasn’t immediately clear.

  “I keep remembering what I said to her yesterday,” Janey said, finally stepping back. “About how it’s always my jaw that gets broke. Like it was her turn, or something. And that’s what happened.”

  “Yeah, but you didn’t cause it,” he said. “It wasn’t you that beat her unconscious.”

  “No”—her eyes hardening—“but I fucked the man who did. And then I just watched. I screamed for him to stop, but I didn’t do anything. I let her take my beating.”

  “She wanted to. Why do you think she came between you?”

  “I’m gonna find that son of a bitch and kill him. I swear to God.”

  “No, you’re going to take care of your daughter. Leave Roy to me.”

  “You have no idea where he is, even.”

  “I’ll find him,” he said, glancing at the girl again and hoping she was still checked out. “Your dad still doesn’t know what’s happened?”

  “I left a message on the machine at home in case he’s still on his rounds. He’s probably out in the shed.”

  “I’ll swing by the house.”

  “Would you?”

  “Right now, in fact.”

  He was halfway out of the room when he heard her say, “When you find Roy?”


  She came over to where he stood and whispered directly into his ear, “Hurt him. Promise me you’ll hurt him bad.”


  ZACK MUST’VE HEARD Sully’s truck turn in to the drive, because by the time he shifted it into park he was standing in the shed’s open doorway, wiping his hands on a rag. He had on greasy jeans and a threadbare plaid shirt, his gut hanging out over his belt, his cowlick in full bloom. If the word “doofus” didn’t already exist, Sully often thought, you’d have to invent it to properly describe him. When he didn’t get out of the truck, Zack came over, looking worried. “You okay?”

  Sully held up his hand, and the other man waited patiently for him to regain his breath. “There,” he finally said, though that one word used up all the air in his lungs. The heaviness he’d felt in his chest back at the hospital was even more intense now. The pressure came in waves, making it difficult to inhale. The last one washed over him as he turned in to the drive, a real doozy, but it was almost past now. “Just let me sit a minute.”

  “Sit all day,” Zack said, good-natured as always, this man whom Sully had wronged for so long. He’d stayed away these last couple weeks, afraid that Zack would have a two-man job he’d been putting off, some sleeper-sofa that needed to be lugged out of the shed and into the bed of the truck, work Sully simply wasn’t up to in his present condition. “I got no place to be.”

  “You do, actually,” Sully told him, and again was out of breath. “Ruth,” he finally managed.

  Zack cocked his head. “She all right?”

  Sully held his hand up again, waiting for the last wave to draw back down the beach. “She’s in the emergency room.”

  Hearing this, Zack looked more perplexed than anything, like maybe he suspected Sully was playing a trick on him. “You sure?”

  “She’s in pretty bad shape. Roy beat her up.”

  “Ruth,” Zack repeated, scratching his chin now. “Not Janey.”

  “Janey’s there with her. And Tina.”

  “They okay?” he said.

  “Janey is.”

  “Tina go into one of her trances?”

  Sully nodded.

  “I can usually get her to come out of them things,” he said, not bragging exactly, but clearly proud of his knack.

  “Well, they can probably use your help, then,” Sully said, because, really, what did it take to light a fire under this guy?

  “You say Roy hurt her pretty bad?”

  “Yeah,” Sully admitted. “Pretty bad.”

  “She gonna die, Sully? Because—”

  “I don’t know. But prepare yourself. You’re not going to recognize her. She’s all…” He couldn’t find the words for what she was or possibly imagine how Zack might prepare himself.

  He was now looking over at the shed. Watching him process information in real time gave Sully a window in Ruth’s frustrations with him—she, so preternaturally quick and perpetually waiting for her husband to catch up. Anybody else would have been halfway to the hospital by now, running stop signs, honking at drivers in front of him to pull over. If the world were populated by people like him, there’d be no need for stop signs, speed limits or, probably, laws of any sort.

  “Her and me…,” he began, then paused, his eyes suddenly full. “You see that up there?”

  Sully’d been so intent on the task at hand that he hadn’t noticed the slender shard of metal, a good seven or eight feet in length, that was standing straight up, like a weather vane minus its horizontal arms, on the peak of the shed. At its base, where the lightning had struck, was an enormous scorch mark, which meant they’d been fortunate. Sully’d heard stories of outbuildings that weren’t properly grounded exploding when directly hit by lightning. Many of those were barns filled with hay, but still.

  “Last night, what her and me saw up there?” Zack was saying, his voice full of wonder even now. “You couldn’t hardly believe it. This big ball of light. Fuzzy, like those frosted lightbulbs, but really bright. It sat right there at the tip, balanced, like it might fall off. Like something in a dream that don’t make sense, but there it is anyhow. Something come to visit. Trying to tell us something.”

  Sully didn’t need to follow the sight line from the roof of the shed to Zack’s bedroom window. If he and Ruth both witnessed the glowing orb, they were both standing at the same window. Her bedroom was on the other side of the house. He recalled what Ruth told him yesterday about how strangely Zack had been behaving of late, as if he was really taking her in for the first time in years. Was the miracle Zack was trying so hard to describe the glowing, unnatural orb atop the shed or the fact that he and Ruth had witnessed it together in the middle of the night in a room she had led Sully to believe she never visited?

  “You think maybe it was warning us about what was going to happen? That Roy was going to—”

  “I think you need to go to the hospital.”

  Zack swallowed hard. “What if I’m too late?”

  “I don’t think you will be.”

  “Okay,” he finally agreed, patting his trousers for his keys and shaking his head. When he started for the house, it occurred to Sully to ask, “Roy hasn’t been by here this morning, has he?”

  Zack paused, thoughtfully. “No, I haven’t
seen him since—”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Sully told him, turning the key in the ignition.

  “I heard he’d shacked up with some woman named Cora at the Morrison Arms.”

  “I heard the same thing.”

  Incredibly, he’d stalled again. “Could you ever do something like that? Like he done to Ruth?”

  “No. Of course not.”

  “Me neither,” he said, but he seemed to have something else on his mind, so Sully waited, his foot on the brake. “I always knew about you and her,” Zack said finally.

  “I figured you did,” Sully said, feeling another wave of the heaviness descend upon him.

  “Okay if I showed you something?”

  “Yeah, but—”

  From the back pocket of his jeans he took out a bankbook and handed it to Sully. His expression was one of pride, like a man sharing photos of his grandchildren. “That number there,” he said, pointing to what appeared to be the balance. It was well north of three hundred thousand dollars.

  “Ruth knows about this?”

  He shook his head, pride morphing to shame.

  “That’s a lot of money, Zack. Where’d it come from?” Not that it was any of his business.

  “Buy something for fifty cents, sell it for a dollar.”

  “I understand the principle,” Sully said. “But you’d have to do it over half-a-million times.”

  “Then I must’ve.”

  “Why not tell her?”

  He shook his head. “I kept wanting the number to be even bigger, I guess. She never thought the business was worth anything. Didn’t even think it was a business. She never really thought I was working, at least not like she was, all those years she waitressed, then at Hattie’s. I guess I wanted her to know I was working, too. The bigger the number I could show her—”


  “But that wasn’t it, really,” he continued. “The real reason I didn’t tell her is I promised Ma.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Ruth was right. I know that now. Ma was always trying to drive that wedge between us.”

  “What did you promise?”

  “That I wouldn’t tell Ruth about all this money until she told me about her and you. And now I’ve waited too long. If she dies, I’ll never get to tell her.”

  “Then go,” Sully said. “Hurry.”

  He took a deep breath. “Okay.”

  But when he turned and headed toward the house, Sully called after him, “You know it’s over, right?”


  Sully nodded. “You don’t mind that we’re old friends, do you?”

  “No,” Zack told him. “That’s all right. I’d prefer you didn’t start up again, though.”

  “We won’t,” Sully promised. “It’s been over for a long while. I’m sorry it ever happened.”

  That was one thing that hadn’t changed, Sully thought when Zack disappeared inside. The worst part of his affair with Ruth had always been the lies, both told and implied. And it still was. Because Sully wasn’t sorry for having loved Ruth. For loving her still. Not even a little.


  YELLOW CRIME-SCENE TAPE still stretched across all three entrances to the Morrison Arms when Sully pulled into the lot and parked next to two animal-control vans. He reached under the seat for the tire iron he kept there, felt its reassuring heft, then placed it on the passenger seat so it would be handy. A couple dozen people, residents of the Arms by the look of them, had gathered in the lot, apparently awaiting permission to return to their apartments, though Roy Purdy, no surprise, was not among them. Nor was there any sign of the girlfriend’s half-purple, half-yellow car. Sully had seen the beater around town, and he remembered its driver, too, a morbidly obese woman in her midthirties who usually wore a Mets cap to conceal her balding head. For some reason, he was pretty sure he’d seen both it and her this morning, but where? In the hospital parking lot? Possibly, but somehow that didn’t seem right. Had he passed it going over to Ruth and Zack’s? No, it had to have been earlier. Outside Hattie’s, then, as Ruth was being loaded onto the ambulance? How could the vehicle have registered on him then, in the midst of all that commotion? And yet that was the possibility that felt most right.

  Old Mr. Hynes was there, as usual. Seeing Sully approach, he said, “Donald E. Sullivan, Esquire,” his standard greeting. Sully had no idea where he’d come up with the middle initial, but it wasn’t his. “You don’t look so hot.”

  “I don’t feel so hot,” Sully admitted.

  “How come? Young fella like yourself.”

  “Call it chickens coming home to roost,” Sully told him. “You look all right, though.”

  “ ’Cause I am all right,” the old man cackled. “Don’t no chickens roost on me if I can he’p it.”

  “They’re still looking for that snake, I see.”

  “Still lookin’,” the old man snorted. “Ain’t enough for folks to worry about. Now we got reptiles.”

  “Speaking of snakes,” Sully said, “you know who Roy Purdy is?”

  “Police was by earlier, looking for him. Heard he had himself some trouble earlier this morning.”

  “He’s got more coming if I can find him before they do.”

  “Whack him a good one for me, if you think of it. He like to let fly with that word I don’t ’preciate.”

  “I think I know the one you mean.”

  “Learned it on his daddy’s knee, probably, like most crackers do.”

  “That’s where I learned it,” Sully told him.

  The old man nodded up at him. “James E. Sullivan, Esquire,” he said. “Big Jim, they called the man. I ’member him.”

  “Not fondly, I’m guessing.”

  “They’s worse.”

  “Name five.”

  “You know what you should do, Donald E. Sullivan, Esquire?”

  “Tell me.”

  “You should let the police find that boy. Let them whack him ’stead of you. You look like you the one might get whacked. Fact, you look like you been whacked already.”

  “I’ll be extra careful,” Sully promised.

  “Do that,” the old man said, “and you just might be okay.”


  “JESUS CHRIST,” said Gert, looking up from his newspaper when Sully slid onto a stool at the far end of the bar. “What happened? Did the Horse burn down?”

  “Not that I know of,” Sully told him, blinking, his eyes still blinded by the utter darkness. “Why?”

  “When was the last time you darkened my doorway?”

  “It’s been a while,” Sully admitted. Near as he could tell, he and Gert were alone in the joint, though it sounded like someone was banging around in the kitchen.

  “Why is that?” Gert said. He’d set the newspaper down but made no move to rise from his own stool.

  “You think it could be the service?”

  “Service,” Gert said, as if this were indeed a foreign concept. “So service is what the man wants.”

  “I don’t suppose you’ve got anything for heartburn.”

  “Hah!” the other man said, finally sliding to his feet. “Do I have anything for heartburn.” Coming up the bar he grabbed a plastic tub of Maalox tablets large enough to contain a human head and banged it down in front of Sully. Next came a quart of Pepto-Bismol, then, finally, a fifteen-hundred bottle of generic ibuprofen. From the bar gun he shot a tall glass of water. “Knock yourself out. No charge.”

  Sully chewed a couple Maalox, made a face, then washed down three ibuprofen with the water.

  “No?” Gert said, holding up the Pepto.

  “My mother used to drink that shit by the juice glass.”

  Gert returned all three remedies whence they came.

  “Where the hell is everybody?” Sully said. It was only ten in the morning, but Gert’s alcoholic clientele generally showed little regard for normal drinking hours, and his morning business was usually brisk.

t fucking snake’s got everybody in a tizzy,” Gert said. “It was dead last night, too.”

  Sully nodded. “Your whole crew was out at the Horse. Joe and the rest.”

  “Spinmatics Joe,” Gert chuckled. “His mother’s calling every hour on the hour wanting to know if I’ve seen him. Seems he never made it home last night.”

  “He left the Horse around ten,” Sully told him. “Must’ve gone somewhere else.”

  “Like where?”

  “Good question. There and here are the only two places I know of that’ll serve him, and after last night, it’s just here.”

  “Birdie eighty-six him?”

  “That was my impression, unless she’s changed her mind.”

  “When was the last time you knew that to happen?”

  Years earlier, Birdie and Gert had been a couple, until she gave him his walking papers. Her refusal to take him back struck him as pure inflexibility, a serious character flaw.

  “How about Roy Purdy?” Sully said. “He been in this morning?”

  Gert met Sully’s eye, then shook his head. “I’m sorry about Ruth.”

  “You heard?”

  “It’s all over the street. I wish I could say I’m surprised.”

  “How about that woman he lives with? Any sign of her?”

  “Cora? She was in last night looking for him. Haven’t seen her this morning.” He was studying Sully carefully now. “You look like you need to eat something besides Maalox.”

  He wasn’t hungry, but Gert was probably right.

  “I could probably get Dewey to scramble you a couple eggs,” he offered.

  Sully rolled his eyes. “Dewey.”

  Gert gave him an up-to-you shrug that conceded the validity of Sully’s misgivings. Dewey was Sully’s age, and until midday usually had the shakes so bad he could barely grasp a spatula. Back before Ruth bought Hattie’s, he’d been the regular breakfast cook there, but she’d had to let him go when customers at the counter complained they could smell him even when he was grilling onions. Here at Gert’s he wasn’t ever allowed out of the kitchen, so orders were shouted to him through a closed service window that opened only when he rested a plate of food on the ledge.

  “Dewey!” Gert hollered.

  “What?” came his reply.

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