Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  In a sense he’d left home even earlier. As a high-school junior he tried out for football, and Clive Peoples, Miss Beryl’s husband and North Bath’s coach, impressed by his recklessness, took him under his wing. He and his wife, who’d been his eighth-grade English teacher, opened their home to him, and by senior year he was spending more time in their Upper Main Street home than he did on Bowdon Street. Sully tried his best to earn his keep and repay their many kindnesses, shoveling their sidewalks and driveway in the winter, mowing their lawn in the summer and, in autumn, raking the mountain of leaves that fell from the ancient elms that lined their street, duties that otherwise might have fallen to their son, Clive Jr., a soft boy four years younger than Sully who seemed happy enough for him to assume the role of older sibling. Less work for him, in effect. Sully was not only clever with tools but also unafraid of starting jobs he wasn’t sure he knew how to finish, and the elder Clive was delighted by how handy he was becoming. It was Miss Beryl who understood his motivation. Any task that kept Sully away from Bowdon Street was worth undertaking. He’d enlisted right after graduation, telling neither of his parents until it was time for him to report. Though his mother might’ve seen it coming, she didn’t have a clue.

  “You’re leaving?” she repeated, stunned by his announcement, as he stood there in the kitchen, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. The look on her face was the same one she always wore in the instant before one of his father’s ringing head slaps.

  “You’re staying?” he replied heartlessly.

  She glanced nervously into the front room, where his father sat with the drapes drawn, as usual, the television on but the sound turned down. Sully couldn’t remember the last time they’d spoken but was certain the old man, despite his typically feigned disinterest, was listening. “Why would I leave?”

  What she was really asking, of course, was: Where would I go? How would I live? Who would pay? Having no answers to these questions, he told her what she already knew. “He treats you like a dog. Worse.”

  Again, she glanced fearfully into the front room. “He just has a bad temper, is all.”

  “No, he’s mean and stupid and a coward. And that’s before he starts drinking.” Thinking, Come out here, old man. Come out here and take your medicine if you don’t like what I’m saying. Ready to set down the duffel bag and go at it right there in the kitchen, if necessary.

  “Deep down,” she said, “he loves us.”

  “No, he doesn’t.”

  She lowered her voice. Pleading. “If I leave, he won’t have anybody.”

  “He doesn’t deserve anybody.”

  She took his hand, then. “You don’t have to be hard,” she said, “just because the world is.”

  No? he thought. Because he’d come to the exact opposite conclusion. America would soon be at war, and he would be in it. Hard would be what was called for, he knew that much. Which was why he’d kissed her goodbye that morning but left without so much as glancing into the front room, already the kind of hard his mother hoped he wouldn’t become.

  It wasn’t, unfortunately, the kind that would have allowed him to slip out of town without saying goodbye to Miss Beryl. He thought about it, though. Unlike her husband, she hadn’t been enthusiastic when she learned Sully had enlisted. When he asked her why, whether she thought the coming war was wrong, she’d replied that all wars were, to one degree or another, but it wasn’t that, not really. And while she feared he might be killed, this wasn’t it, either. What truly frightened her, she explained, was the violence he would be doing to himself. He wasn’t just placing himself at risk; he was putting his self at risk, the same self that Thoreau thought was worth defending and protecting, the self whose primacy Emerson had argued for. (They’d read “Civil Disobedience” and “Self-Reliance” in her eighth-grade class.) The young, she claimed, were always being asked to risk who they really were, deep down, before they’d even had the opportunity to become acquainted. In her view it was wrong to ask them to gamble something they didn’t even know they possessed, much less what it might be worth. “Also,” she added, “I fear you may have enlisted for the wrong reasons.”

  “Why do you think I did?” he asked, curious as to how well she understood him.

  “I suspect”—she sighed—“because you’re young and you didn’t know what else to do.”

  Though he was young, he hadn’t liked being reminded of it, and he enjoyed even less that this tiny, bent woman who’d been so kind to him should also be so wise and, not just wise, but wise to him as well. Somehow she always managed to outflank him, which gave him little choice but to retreat into youthful bravado he didn’t really feel. “I just think,” he told her, “that somebody needs to hand Adolf his hat.” In response, she’d given him that kind, knowing smile of hers, the one that said she understood him perfectly, as always.

  All that had been the week before he left. Now, when he arrived at their house, Coach Peoples was sitting on the porch reading the newspaper. Setting down his duffel, Sully climbed the porch steps and they shook hands.

  “So you’re off, then,” the coach said, prolonging the handshake.

  “Yes, sir.” Sully nodded.

  “Off to hand Adolf his hat.”

  Which made Sully smile. Miss Beryl had repeated what he’d said to her, and not unkindly, he felt certain.

  “She’s inside, Sully,” Clive Sr. told him, giving him a look that said all too clearly that he understood how difficult—okay, impossible—this goodbye was going to be, that women in general and this one in particular wanted not just everything you had but also, and especially, what you didn’t have and never would. And in return they’d offer what you didn’t want or had no use for or, even worse, was good for you. Which was precisely what Miss Beryl did when she looked up and saw him standing there in the kitchen doorway. “Might I entice you with a cup of tea?” she said, as if young men his age had a long, storied history of being so enticed.

  “I hate tea,” he told her for the umpteenth time, but then, not wanting to hurt her feelings on this special occasion, he relented. “Okay, maybe just this once.”

  It did seem to cheer her, that and the fact that he took a seat at the kitchen table. “Cream and sugar?”

  “Will that make it taste like beer?”

  “Donald,” she said, setting the steaming cup down in front of him. “How I hate to see you go.”

  “I know. You said.”

  “I’m sorry. I had no business trying to talk you out of your decision. I’d forgotten how stubborn you are.”

  No point arguing that, so he didn’t. He took a sip of tea, made a face and pushed the cup away. “Good God.”

  But she was serious now. “You must tell me. How did you leave things at home?”

  He looked around the kitchen. “This is more my home than that place,” he said.

  “Oh, your poor mother,” she said.

  “I would never say that to her,” Sully assured her.

  “I know, Donald, but if you think it, she feels it. Don’t you know that?”

  “How can I not feel what I do feel?”

  “You have a point there.”

  He smiled. “I do?”

  “You do,” she said. “You often do. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. Dare I ask how you parted with your father?”

  “With him in one room and me in another.”

  She gave him a puzzled look. “Do you understand forgiveness?”

  “The concept, I guess.”

  “I mean how it works.”

  “Somebody’s an asshole and you tell him it’s okay?”

  “That’s a willful misrepresentation.”

  “As in untrue?”

  “As in half true.”

  “Well, at least I got half. Why are you smiling like that?”

  “Because I’m going to miss your company,” she said.

  “I’ll miss yours, too,” he told her. “And Coach’s.”

  “But mine a bit more.?
??

  He turned to look over his shoulder, to make sure the man was still out on the porch and not standing behind him, awaiting his answer. “I guess,” he said, surprised to realize it was true and a little ashamed for what felt like a betrayal of a man who’d treated him more like a son than his own father ever had.

  “We don’t forgive people because they deserve it,” she said. “We forgive them because we deserve it.”

  “I guess that’s something I don’t understand.”

  She shrugged. “Guess what? I don’t, either. It’s true, though.”

  “Maybe I’ll feel more forgiving when I get back.”

  “You do know that there’s such a thing as being too late?”

  He did, but with a young man’s comprehension, confident but incomplete. “You’re smiling again,” he told her.

  She pointed at his cup. “You drank your tea.”

  It was true. He didn’t remember doing so, nothing beyond that first awful taste, but the cup was empty, and in his chest there was now a warm glow.

  “One day you’ll know yourself,” she predicted. “Your self, I mean to say.”

  “You think so?”

  “Yes,” she said, gathering their cups. “I do.”

  She was releasing him, he realized with a shock, to the looming war. Was it her affection, he wondered, that made him feel afraid for the first time? That made him want to stay here in her warm kitchen? He couldn’t, of course, and they both knew it. The die had been cast, and he himself had rolled it.

  Word of his father’s death came when he was in England during the final days of preparation before Normandy. News of his mother’s didn’t reach him until Paris. When he returned stateside, what seemed like a hundred years later, he’d visited their side-by-side graves. Just the once, though. Because standing there in Hilldale he’d felt nothing, which meant, he supposed, that Miss Beryl had been right; there was indeed such a thing as being too late. Normandy, the hedgerows, the Hürtgen Forest, the camps and finally Berlin…they all added up to this: too late. Had he found himself in war, as young men were often thought to do? Perhaps. He’d acquitted himself well in battle, proven competent in the face of fear. But had he also lost something he wasn’t sure he possessed to begin with? Had his self, the one Miss Beryl was worried about, been harmed? He remembered the look on her face when she first saw him again, an expression comprising relief and the old affection, but also a recognition that the boy who’d gone away to war both was and wasn’t the man who returned from it.

  —

  IT WAS MOST LIKELY a waste of time, and Sully, suddenly feeling unequal to the task he’d set for himself, thought about just letting it go. If Roy Purdy was here at the Sans Souci, the half-purple, half-yellow beater most likely would be in the lot. Still, it was possible he’d just had the Cora woman drop him off, so Sully took the tire iron just in case. The hotel’s delivery door was locked tight, and there was no sign of forced entry, so he methodically surveyed the perimeter, checking doors at various entry points and looking for broken windows. It took him close to half an hour, and by the time he returned to the lot, exhausted, another vehicle was there, a late-model Lincoln Town Car. Its owner was a large, soft-looking man who appeared to be in his early to midsixties. He wore reflecting sunglasses and a dark, carefully trimmed beard, probably to disguise his weak chin. Bald on top, he’d let his hair grow long on the back and sides and gathered it in a ponytail. He was bending down to scratch Rub’s ears, causing the dog to emit tiny, euphoric blasts of urine.

  He straightened up when he saw Sully approaching with a tire iron and looked relieved when he tossed it into the truck. “Cute little mutt,” he said. “Shame about his…”

  “Dick?”

  “Yeah. How’d it get like that?”

  “He chews on it.”

  “You can’t make him stop?”

  “I haven’t tried,” Sully said, opening the driver’s door. “It’s his dick.”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “Let’s go, Dummy,” Sully said, stepping aside so Rub could scrabble up onto the seat.

  “I’m thinking about buying this place,” the man said, taking off his dark glasses.

  It was on the tip of Sully’s tongue to say, Bully for you, but he held it.

  “Well, not for myself,” the man added, as if Sully had challenged his statement. Without the glasses he looked vaguely familiar. “I represent a developer.”

  “Right,” Sully said, getting into the truck to signal his complete disinterest in whatever the hell this guy was doing there.

  “Time-shares,” he continued, apparently oblivious. “You’re familiar with the concept?”

  “Not really,” Sully said, turning the key in the ignition. The man’s disappointment made him look even more familiar. “Do I know you?”

  Was that a smile? The man’s beard shifted, so maybe. Or was it a grimace?

  “You might’ve seen me in town. I’ve been around a couple days, talking to people. Getting the lay of the land, so to speak. You live around here?”

  Sully nodded.

  “You like it?”

  He shifted into reverse, determined to make his getaway. “Never really thought about it,” he said. “It’s home, is all.”

  “Home,” the man repeated, as if Sully had said something profound. “Right.”

  Sully backed up, did a three-point turn and returned to the service road, where he glimpsed the man in his rearview. Shifting into reverse, he backed into the lot. The man strolled over and said, “Hi, Sully.”

  He extended his hand through the open window. “Hello, Clive.”

  Dougie Reneges

  THOUGH NOW HALF its former size, the section of Hill sitting in the middle of the road looked only slightly less bizarre under the bright afternoon sun than it had under last night’s full moon. The partially exposed caskets had been dug out of the turf and loaded onto a flatbed, presumably to be interred again somewhere else. Raymer recognized Sully’s odd friend Rub Squeers among the men hacking away with pickaxes and spades at what remained of the wandering hill, no doubt searching for other caskets. Overseeing this work were Mayor Gus Moynihan; the town manager, Roger Graham; and Arnie Delacroix, from Public Works, who was in charge of Hilldale’s day-to-day operations.

  Gus was talking on his cellular telephone but was the first to notice Raymer’s approach. He quickly hung up, slipping the phone into its pretentious little holster. “Here he is,” he proclaimed, “our man of the hour.”

  Unsure how sarcastic this was, Raymer simply said “Here” and handed Gus the envelope that contained his resignation. The other two men were staring at him, slack jawed, so he said, “What?”

  “You look…,” Roger began, then paused, apparently stumped for the right word.

  “Demented?” Arnie suggested.

  “Yes, that’s it,” Roger confirmed.

  Dougie, Raymer figured, staring out at these men. As if Raymer had given him permission to make his presence known and felt.

  “Is that blood on your forehead?” Arnie wanted to know. “And in your hair?”

  “Not to mention on your shirt?” Roger said, pointing at the rust-colored smudges on Raymer’s sleeve.

  Gus was now examining Raymer’s envelope with distaste, because it, too, bore traces of blood.

  “Sorry,” said Raymer, reluctantly showing them the palm of his right hand.

  “Whoa!” All three men stepped back.

  “What is that?” Roger demanded. “A gunshot wound?”

  Raymer couldn’t blame him for thinking so. That’s what it looked like. The swelling was worse than the last time he looked, the skin an angrier red. His fingers looked like overcooked sausages, and the wound itself was oozing. “It’s sort of a burn,” he told them. “It itches.”

  “It’s infected, is what it is,” Gus said, horrified. “Go to the emergency room and have it looked at. That’s an order.”

  “Aren’t you going to read that?” Raymer asked,
proud of his perfect if tiny rhetorical triangle.

  “No need,” Gus said, folding the envelope and putting it in his jacket pocket. “Charice already told me. You can’t quit. Okay, it’s true. This morning when I saw that picture in the newspaper I was ready to carve out your gizzard with a butter knife, but since then you took out a major bad guy single-handedly. Saved a bunch of people on that bus from being snakebit.”

  Raymer, though pleased by the positive spin Gus was putting on those events, was all too aware that the truth was different. William Smith, or whatever his real name might be, was at best a minor bad guy who’d taken himself out. Nor had Raymer really saved anybody from being snakebit. If he hadn’t tried to arrest Smith, the snake would’ve remained safely in the box.

  “And it looks like that man you found out in the woods is going to make it. Joe Whatever. That was first-rate police work. You saved his life.”

  “I’m still quitting, though.”

  If Gus heard this he gave no sign, and before Raymer could prevent him he reached up and put a hand on his forehead. “Jesus, Doug, you’re burning up. Go to the hospital and get on antibiotics for that hand. And eat some ibuprofen. Then go home and make yourself presentable. You can’t go on television looking like Jeffrey Dahmer.”

  “Television?”

  “The evening news shows.”

  “Not a chance. You have my resignation in your pocket.”

  “Never happened. You never wrote it.”

  “I can’t go on TV. I’ll look like a fool.”

  “I’ll be right there with you.”

  “Then we’ll both look like fools.”

  “It’ll be a piece of cake. They’ll ask you what happened and you tell them.”

  “Tell them what?”

  “The truth.”

  “And when they ask me about the photo in the Dumbocrat?”

  “They won’t. I just got off the phone with one of the producers. All they care about is the bus station. They want you to be a hero.”

  “What if they ask me about digging up the judge?”

  “They won’t, I’m telling you.”

 
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