Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Letting you flirt, uninterrupted, with Butterfly Girl, he said. Then, after a pause, She’s playing you like a fiddle.

  Again, how the fuck would you know?

  You just don’t get it, do you? What you know, I know. That’s the deal.

  I trust her, Raymer insisted.

  It’s your funeral.

  A horn honked, and in his rearview mirror Raymer saw that another car had pulled up behind him. Distracted by his conversation with Dougie, he’d evidently sat through a green light. He waved back at the guy in apology.

  Then he decided to try a different tack. If I asked you a question, would you answer me honestly?

  Ask away.

  Becka’s lover? Do you know who he is?

  Sure. So do you.

  Sully’s son, right? All those times she claimed she was out with her theater friends at that wine bar…Adfinitum?

  Infinity.

  She was actually meeting him.

  Raymer had seen Peter Sullivan around town. Good looking. Well dressed, in that tweedy college fashion. Clearly educated. Did something out at the college, Raymer didn’t know exactly what. Definitely the sort of man Becka would’ve been drawn to. They could talk about books and plays and art and music. The kind of guy she should’ve married to begin with, who’d help her understand what a mistake she’d made in ever taking up with Douglas Raymer.

  The driver behind him was honking his horn again, though Raymer ignored him.

  Anyway, here’s what I’m coming to realize, Dougie. So what? Fine. I don’t care.

  Bullshit.

  I thought I did, but if this with Charice…

  Finish one lunacy, please, before you begin another.

  Becka’s dead. It’s all finished. Not finding that garage-door remote was a sign. Charice is right. It’s time to move on.

  More honking, louder now, the guy really laying on the horn. Raymer felt like his head might explode.

  Dougie gave him a Bronx cheer. Listen to yourself.

  Yeah? Well, listening to you almost got me killed.

  You think you can be shut of me that easily?

  Maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe I’m stuck with you. But that doesn’t mean you give the orders. I’m in charge here, not you.

  Now the horn was one long, steady blast. Raymer closed his eyes, but this only seemed to intensify the sound, as if the horn was right in his own car. The light was green again, but it turned red before he could step on the gas. The driver behind him was apoplectic, his fat face beet red with rage as he kept laying on the horn, urging Raymer through the intersection. Rolling down the window, the man poked his head out and shouted, “Hey, asshole! What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

  The change that registered on the man’s face when Raymer got out of the SUV and came toward him was gratifying to behold, rage segueing into misgiving and then pure fright. His window hummed up again, and the door lock thunked. Slapping his badge up against the windshield with his left hand, Raymer motioned with his right for him to roll down his window. The guy looked from the badge to Raymer’s face, then back to the badge and finally to the ugly stigmata on his palm, as if trying to resolve conflicting testimony. That this was obviously a policeman seemed reassuring enough for him to roll the window back down and offer Raymer a sheepish, toothy grin, which vanished under the impact of Raymer’s fist. The man’s head swiveled violently to the right, spittle flecking the passenger-side window, and he slumped forward in the seat, his body held upright by the seat belt. When Raymer saw that the man’s eyes had rolled back in their sockets, he felt a surge of well-being. This, it occurred to him, was how Sully felt all those years ago when he’d punched him in the face. Why, he wondered, had he denied himself the pleasures of physical violence for so long? It was a shame, in fact, that there was only one belligerent asshole in the car, because it would’ve felt good to coldcock a few more. The static in his ears was almost as loud as the honking had been, but as he went back to his car he found himself happily humming a tune from a couple decades earlier and recalled the lyric: I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.

  The light was green again, so he put the SUV in gear and proceeded cautiously through the intersection. The car behind him didn’t budge, grew smaller in the mirror and, when Raymer turned onto the Bath road, disappeared altogether. After he’d gone about half a mile, the buzzing quieted, and he pulled over on the shoulder and adjusted the rearview so he could examine in its rectangle the face that had so frightened the asshole back there. If he’d shown that face to Becka, he wondered, would she have stayed in love with him? Was this what women wanted? Even what he wanted?

  Returning the mirror to its proper position, he was looking straight at his palm. The ghost staple was still visible at its center, but the red, swollen, probably infected area around it had doubled in size and now resembled a bullet wound. He scratched it, hard.

  Harder. What ecstasy.

  Tell me again, said Dougie. Who’s in charge here?

  Home

  WITH THE HOTEL SHUTTERED, the road through Sans Souci Park was blocked off, but a narrow, unpaved and rutted service road ran just inside the stone wall that bordered the property. A PRIVATE: NO TRESPASSING sign was nailed to a tree at the entrance. When Sully ignored it, Rub cocked his head and regarded him dubiously. “I see it,” Sully told him. There were times when he suspected the little fucker could read.

  In response the dog sneezed violently.

  “I don’t want to hear it. Just sit there and behave, or I’ll take you back and lock you in the trailer.”

  Rub sneezed again, even louder, perhaps indicating that he considered this an empty threat, which it was.

  The road wound through the tall pines for a good half mile before running into an empty small parking lot behind the hotel. Disappointed not to find the multicolored car he was looking for, Sully pulled in to the lot and parked anyway.

  “Twenty minutes,” he told Rub, figuring that if he could read maybe he could tell time as well. “If you’re not back by the time I’m done, I’m leaving you here. Understand?”

  Rub appeared to, because he commenced leaping with joy, his skull encountering the cab’s roof with a bang, which had to hurt, though apparently not enough to prevent further leaps with the same results.

  “Stop, before you kill yourself,” Sully said, leaning across him to open the passenger door. “Twenty minutes!” he called as Rub disappeared around the corner of the hotel, with the whole of Sans Souci Park to race around in.

  Alone now, he turned the engine off and let the past wash over him. Strange, when he thought about it. The park was no more than a hundred yards from Miss Beryl’s house, but it had been years since he’d been on the grounds. As a boy, at least for a time, there’d been no place he loved more.

  After an earlier incarnation of the hotel closed, his father had been hired by the estate as its principal custodian and caretaker. It was his job to make sure that the weather wasn’t blowing in through some broken window, that burst pipes and other problems were promptly reported, the damage contained. The most valuable furniture and fixtures had been put in storage or sold off when the hotel closed, but there was still plenty of stuff worth stealing, and it was Big Jim’s job to provide a visible presence to discourage thieves and late-night partiers out in the woods, where they left their empty whiskey bottles behind. It was also his job, or so he told Sully and Patrick, his older brother, to run off local boys who, if they were allowed to, would scale the wrought-iron fence and chew up the elegant lawns with their football games. There was no part of his job that Big Jim took more seriously than putting the fear of God into those lawless little bastards.

  Sully and his brother, on the other hand, were given the run of the property. Mostly that meant exploring the woods, pretending, as boys will, to get lost, though in reality this was impossible. The park’s many trails eventually wound through the trees and back to the hotel, and you couldn’t walk more than half a mile in any direction without
encountering the stone wall or a perimeter fence that in turn would lead you to either the Schuyler entrance at one end or the Bath entrance at the other. In foul weather, though, if their father was in an expansive mood, he allowed them indoors and gave them more or less free rein to explore the hotel, so long as they didn’t break anything. In the ballroom, where the remnant furniture was gathered into one corner and draped with sheets, their favorite activity was to get a running start and slide in their socks across the burnished floor, until one day Patrick caught a nail that gashed his foot from toe to heel, earning him thirty-some stitches. The library sported a massive pool table with leather pockets, useless to them until one day they managed to pick the lock on a nearby closet containing several cue sticks, a rack, a bridge and a set of balls minus, for some reason, the eight. Because the floor had a slight slope, over time the table’s surface had gone several bubbles off of plumb, which Sully and his brother learned to accommodate and even enjoy. Hit your shots with just the right speed and touch, and you could actually bend your ball around another inconveniently in its path and let gravity pull it into the corner pocket. Because he learned to play on this table, Sully imagined that the incline was part of the game’s design, and years later, when he took it up again, he had to relearn the game completely. He never did love playing on a level surface nearly as much, minus the thrilling element of gravity.

  So vast and wondrous a property would have been any boy’s dream, but for Sully and his brother it was also a refuge from their unhappy home on Bowdon Street, where their poor mother was a virtual prisoner, too ashamed to leave the house because she often sported a black eye or a fat, busted lip. Big Jim, who gave her these, was by contrast hail-fellow-well-met in all the neighborhood taverns, where, as unofficial lord of the Sans Souci, he held court and dispensed his not-terribly-secret largesse. Given his numerous and varied responsibilities, he considered himself poorly compensated, which in his view justified his lucrative sideline. Despite not offering many amenities—the water and electricity having been turned off in all but a handful of the rooms—he was still able to rent them out by the hour at very reasonable rates, more than doubling his custodial salary. Indeed, on occasion he was said to take women there himself.

  People warned him, of course, that it was just a matter of time before his high jinks were discovered and he got fired, but Big Jim refused to listen. After all, the men he reported to lived in Albany and New York City. Having lived his entire life in Bath, he had a distorted sense of distance. The former, thirty-five minutes away by car since the completion of the Northway, seemed to him well out of range, and the latter might’ve been on the other side of the moon. How could men living so far away know what he was up to? They had their hands full dealing with the warring factions of the family that held a majority stake in the property and couldn’t agree on what to do with it. Better yet, when these same men visited the Sans Souci with a prospective buyer, they always announced their intention many days in advance so Big Jim could make sure everything was shipshape.

  What eluded Sully’s father was that not much ever happened here that they didn’t hear about eventually. What protected him wasn’t so much their cluelessness as the fact that they themselves didn’t own the place. If he had a modest concession going on the side, what did they care? If he acted like a big shot around town, if he was a loudmouth and a braggart and a bore who exaggerated his own importance to the Sans Souci and sometimes treated the hotel as if he owned it, well, it was no skin off their asses. They were either lawyers or in the employ of lawyers, which meant their primary concern was liability. Yes, they wanted Big Jim to keep unauthorized people off the property, but mostly to prevent the possibility of a lawsuit if they got injured. Did they know he was a drunk? Sure. Did they mind? Not particularly. Caretakers of large estates generally ran to alcoholism.

  They did, however, mind that he was a smoker, especially since he’d assured them he wasn’t in his job interview. A century earlier the original Sans Souci had burned to the ground, and while the current owners could agree on little else, they were absolutely determined that their hotel should not burn down until they decided to do it themselves and collect the insurance. Discovering cigarette scorch marks on the furniture, the owners’ representatives repeatedly reminded him that smoking was a firing offense, and each time Big Jim promised to quit, claiming he’d been meaning to anyway and this was the very incentive he needed. And, yeah, sometimes he’d actually try to quit for a week or two. By the time they visited again, though, he’d have relapsed. The pack of Camels would be visible through his thin shirt pocket, and a full ashtray that he’d forgotten to hide would be sitting there in the library, and there were fresh burn marks on the oak bar where he liked to entertain women before leading them off to a room with a bed. Then, yet again, they’d read him the riot act and say this was positively his last warning, that next time he’d be replaced. Plenty of men in Schuyler County were looking for work.

  Why did they give him so many final chances? Well, groveling before men in suits was one of Big Jim’s few real skills. And of course these men were anxious to return to Albany and New York City, so he never had to grovel for long. Though they threatened to check up on him more regularly, he knew they hated visiting the Sans Souci and wouldn’t unless they were forced to. True, this abasement left a bad taste in his mouth, and Sully and his brother knew to steer clear after he’d been dressed down, but the humiliation lasted for only a week or two, after which their father’s sense of well-being and self-worth always returned, along with his boastful arrogance. “Where the hell do they think they’re gonna find somebody who doesn’t smoke?” he would ask rhetorically. “For the kind of money they pay?”

  Like so many men who resent the authority of others, Big Jim hated for his own to be questioned. Sully and Patrick certainly knew better. The same, however, could not be said of the local boys who ignored the KEEP OUT signs posted at regular intervals along the perimeter fence, signs that ironically provided an additional foothold when they climbed over. Though they were the least of his problems, their father managed to convince himself otherwise, telling anyone who’d listen that if these little assholes were allowed to run rampant, playing football and tearing up the pristine lawns, he’d lose his job. He seemed not to understand that the sport they enjoyed even more than football was goofing on Big Jim Sullivan. Quick and nimble where he was slow, lumbering and—depending on the time of day—inebriated, they taunted him relentlessly into giving chase. When he did, they scattered like roaches to every point on the compass, forcing him to decide which of the bastards to pursue, not that it mattered. There wasn’t a sick wildebeest in this particular herd, nor was Big Jim the lion of his imagination. The boys particularly enjoyed letting him get close. One would pretend to fall or twist an ankle, only to leap away like a gazelle at the last second, scamper over the fence, drop down just out of arm’s reach on the other side and blow Big Jim a rich wet strawberry for his efforts. For them, their pursuer was nothing short of a marvel. How effortlessly their antics brought him to a full boiling rage. What was wrong with the guy? How could he fall for the same tricks every day, seemingly incapable of learning from experience, no matter how recent or vivid? They loved, as only thirteen-year-old boys could, his inept malignancy, perhaps glimpsing in this the greater adult world they were about to enter, where rules were made and enforced by fools of every stripe. Seen in this light, wasn’t mocking Big Jim Sullivan a moral imperative? With the wrought-iron fence between them and him, it must’ve seemed to be.

  Still, how could such fine sport not end badly? How entirely predictable was it that eventually a boy would lose his grip while scaling the fence? And so, one day, it did. An iron spike atop the fence entered a boy’s throat just below his chin and exited his stunned, open mouth. Two of his pals claimed it wasn’t really an accident, that he never would’ve slipped if this large, powerful man hadn’t given the fence a great shake. Big Jim denied this, claiming the wrought-iron
fence was too sturdy and heavy to budge at all. Whatever the truth, the boy hung there like a hooked fish, his arms flailing frantically at first, then dangling, useless and limp, at his sides. The fire department was summoned, and the boy, deep in shock, was finally lifted free of the spike, after several horrible failed attempts. Astonishingly, he survived.

  But the incident was the last straw, and it cost Big Jim his job, making his prediction of what would get him fired seem prescient. To hear him tell it, he lost his job for doing it, and what the hell kind of justice was that? As if in all other respects he’d been a model employee. Nor in the weeks and months that followed was he ever able to understand why the incident occasioned such an outpouring of moral outrage from the community. Given how viciously people turned on him, you’d have thought he’d done something wrong. Now that he was unable to treat them to a room at the Sans Souci, his former friends, ingrates all, behaved as if he were some sort of monster. Clearly, they’d been jealous of his status all along and loved reveling in his misfortune. It was enough to give a man grave doubts about the entire human race.

  Losing his employment at the Sans Souci sparked Big Jim’s final long descent into the bottle. A social drunk before, he became a deeply solitary one afterward—silent, morose, self-pitying, aggrieved. His wife bore the brunt of his moods, as she always had, though Sully absorbed his own share of verbal and physical abuse. “Don’t talk back,” his mother pleaded on the few occasions he stood up for her. “It just makes him worse.” Sully couldn’t see where this was true at all. Cowering and weakness were as likely to provoke and intensify his father’s rages as confrontation. Patrick was a case in point. For reasons Sully could never fathom, he often took their father’s side, despite faring no better than his brother. He was two years older, though, which meant he got to escape the house on Bowdon Street that much sooner. At the time Sully thought his brother a coward for abandoning their mother, but he did the same thing himself when his turn came.

 
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