Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

“Wait,” said Arnie. “Somebody dug up Judge Flatt?”

  “Of course not,” Gus told him. “Doug’s just exhausted and confused. Look at him. The man’s hallucinating.”

  “Yeah, but do we want him on television?” Roger asked, not unreasonably.

  “He just needs some antibiotics to bring his fever down,” Gus said. “That and a nap. He can sleep in the car. He’ll be fine. In fact, show the reporters your hand. Tell ’em it’s a snakebite. They’ll eat it up.”

  Just then Raymer heard his name being called and saw Miller hurrying toward him excitedly. “Guess what?” he said.

  “You found the wheel boots?”

  “In the maintenance shed. Right where you said they’d be. How’d you know, Chief?”

  “You can stop calling me that. I just resigned.”

  Miller looked genuinely terrified at this news, as if it meant he himself would now be given the position. Which probably would happen in the fullness of time. It had happened to Raymer, after all. “You can’t resign, Chief.”

  “That’s what I just told him,” Gus said, and Miller nodded eagerly, happy to have his judgment confirmed by someone in authority.

  “Just watch me,” Raymer said.

  Roger was now wincing like people do at a horror movie whose plot involves a chain saw.

  “What?” Raymer said.

  “Stop scratching it!” the other man screamed.

  —

  YOU SHOULD THINK about it, said Dougie.

  What?

  Going on TV.

  No chance.

  Just let me do the talking.

  Yeah, right.

  It was tempting, though. Not that he considered himself a hero. But it did buoy his spirits to think that Gus was willing to pretend he was one on live television. They wouldn’t be telling any outright lies. If Joe Gaghan survived his injuries, then Raymer had, in fact, saved a life. By all accounts the life of a complete fucking asshole, but still. At least his mother would be happy. It was also true that he really had done some solid police work in locating William Smith. Okay, he hadn’t, as Gus suggested, pulled it off single-handedly. It was Dougie who’d led him, practically by the nose, from evidence to inference to hypothesis to solution, by asking all the right questions. And when Raymer had been paralyzed by the sight of the serpent, it was Dougie who’d snatched it and put it back in the box. Still, he’d used Raymer’s hand, so that was something.

  We’re a team, said Dougie, who as usual was eavesdropping. That’s how you should think of it. As a partnership.

  Except you don’t exist, Raymer replied. You’re an electrical charge, and as soon as I finish here I’m heading to Gert’s and drinking beer for the rest of the afternoon and evening. And every time I go to the head I’m going to piss a little bit of you onto the urinal cakes. That’s how you should think of it.

  Where are we going? Dougie wanted to know.

  You know where.

  Yeah, but why?

  Fuck off, Raymer barked, surprised that his voice sounded more like Dougie’s than his own. Leave us alone.

  Becka’s grave looked different now. The rose petals that had blanketed the ground last night had mostly blown away, the few remaining now brown and curling in the sun, along with the denuded, thorny stems. Farther down the row, under a hedge, Raymer spotted the plastic cone that had held the roses her boyfriend had left there. Always, Peter Sullivan had written. Why not name him? Raymer had made the identical pledge to the same woman before God and family and friends, both he and Becka swearing I do, only to discover a few short years later that they didn’t. With her death Always had transitioned to Nevermore for all three of them.

  The sky above was a deep, reassuring cloudless blue that Raymer found gratifying. In the unlikely event that Ghost Becka actually existed, if she was still intent on frying him, she’d have a hell of a time manufacturing a charge out of such benign atmospherics. Best not to taunt her, though, so he just said, “It’s me, Becka. I’m back. How about that, right? Two visits in twenty-four hours after none for…” He paused here, deciding on a new tack. “I’ve been doing some soul-searching, and I just wanted you to know…” But this thought trailed away as well.

  What did he want her to know? That he forgave her? (He wasn’t sure about this.) That he understood? (Did he?) And did he even know for a fact that she’d fallen for Sully’s son because he was smart and good looking and educated and could talk about all the things Becka had been so hungry to discuss? Maybe it was none of that. Maybe it was just hot sex. Also, he didn’t have any evidence that it was Peter Sullivan. Better to stick to what he did know.

  “I just wanted to tell you I risked my life today. Apprehended a criminal. Also saved somebody’s life, or so they tell me. Oh, and I figured out where Sully stashed those wheel clamps. I told you it was him. Anyway, for once you would’ve been proud of me.”

  Silence. He half expected a little sarcasm from Dougie, but none was forthcoming.

  “I don’t think I ever made you proud back when you were alive. I feel bad about that. Maybe you wouldn’t have been all that proud of me even today. Because mostly, I admit, I’m still the same, well, the same guy you married. I still make a mess of things. I just wanted you to know that—for me?—this has been a pretty good day. The first really good one since you died. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m through blaming you for finding somebody…better. So I think it’s time, you and me, we made a deal.”

  He gave her time to…what? Provide some kind of sign?

  “Because I think I finally figured out what you want, and why you’ve been so upset with me. I think you want your privacy. Is that it, Becka? You want me to not know what was in your heart? You want to keep that secret.”

  He paused here, again giving her time to consider.

  “Anyhow, that’s my deal. If you’re interested. You get to keep your secret and I get to figure out what comes next. Would that work for you? I think maybe I know who the man is. But I won’t bother him, I promise. I won’t ask him how it happened. Which one of you it was. Because, you’re right, it’s none of my business. So…what do you say?”

  There was the smallest breath of breeze just then, gently lifting Raymer’s hair as it had on Charice’s porch. He felt himself smile.

  “Chief Raymer?”

  The voice was so near that he assumed it must be Dougie doing a weird impression, but he turned and saw it was Rub Squeers. He was holding something, and it took Raymer a moment to realize what it was.

  “I fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-found this yesterday—” said Rub, perspiring with the effort of speech. “At the buh-buh-buh-buh—”

  “Bottom of the grave?”

  “Bottom of the grave,” Rub agreed, clearly relieved to be understood.

  Raymer took the remote from him.

  When the other man was gone, Raymer stood with his back to Becka’s grave, turning the device over in his hands. Once again the breeze lifted his hair.

  But when he turned around again, it was Dougie who spoke in a voice that sounded just like Raymer’s own, No deal, toots.

  After all, it wasn’t like he and Becka had shook on it.

  Charade

  HAVING SLEPT THROUGH most of the day, Carl Roebuck awoke with a start at two-thirty in the afternoon with his hand in his boxers. Sadly, such lunacy was becoming the new normal. Unable to fall asleep most nights until it was nearly time to get up, he arrived on the job a sleepwalker, blinking, addled, unable to focus. A triple espresso wouldn’t have kept him awake, not that there was anyplace in Bath where you could get one of those. When his crew broke for lunch Carl usually went home with the idea of taking a catnap on the couch, but once there he’d fall into a sleep so profound that even his brand-new cellular telephone, placed a few feet away on the coffee table, its ringer on high, couldn’t rouse him. Quitting time was five-thirty, and he usually made it back to the job site in time to check on the day’s progress, assess new hazards and prioritize, with the help of his job foreman
, tomorrow’s challenges, which, like today’s, would likely go unmet.

  This morning, after the Hilldale fiasco, Carl had promised himself that this day would be different. After showering off the mud, he put on a fresh pair of boxers and turned on the morning news with every intention of getting his sorry ass in gear as soon as it was over. It was Saturday, normally not a workday, but given the week’s events at the mill—which was now officially a clusterfuck—there was much to be done, all of it urgent. First, he needed to locate Rub Squeers and get him started mucking out the yellow shit that was seeping up from the basement floor so that on Tuesday the masons could start rebuilding the collapsed wall, and his regular crew could get back to work on renovations. Convincing Rub to work on a holiday weekend wouldn’t be easy unless Sully was somehow involved. For the privilege of spending the whole day with his best friend in the whole wide world, Rub wouldn’t just stand in liquid shit, he’d eat it. Sully, on the other hand, would require a lot of convincing, and even then, there was the question of whether he was capable. Lately, Carl was beginning to wonder if something was seriously wrong with him, some medical condition he was keeping secret. Any exertion at all left him gasping for breath. This morning he’d been okay once aboard the backhoe, but he’d had a hell of a time climbing up onto it and getting back down later. And they’d only worked for an hour. Could Sully manage eight or ten, two days in a row, if that’s what it took? Even three? How much of that vile, viscous shit was down there? They wouldn’t know until they knew. The only thing he was certain of was that it’d be double time the whole ride, and double time had a way of turning two days’ work into three. And where was he going to find the money to pay them?

  It had been his intention, had he not fallen asleep and wasted the whole damn day, to join Sully at Hattie’s for breakfast and give him the opportunity to repeat his offer of a loan. Though Carl was reluctant to accept help from a man who’d been saying for years that it was only a matter of time before he succeeded in completely bankrupting his old man’s business, the idea of paying Sully with his own money did have a certain appeal. Could it really be considered Sully’s, though? Over the last week or so Carl had lost over five hundred dollars to him playing poker at the Horse, which meant the money Sully’d be loaning him to pay them with had very recently been in his own pocket. Would this be like paying them double time twice? It was all very complicated, and trying to resolve the conundrum had made his head hurt. Which was why he’d closed his eyes, and now it was seven fucking hours later and his head still hurt.

  There was a Cary Grant movie on TV, the one with Audrey Hepburn. Her recently deceased husband has left her an airline bag that everyone believes contains something—a key? a combination? a code?—worth a million dollars. Except the actual contents of the bag appear worthless. Carl had seen the movie several times and remembered it was the stamp on an envelope that everyone was overlooking. That’s where they were in the movie right now, the bag’s contents spread across the bed in a Paris hotel room, Audrey and Cary picking through the combs and toothbrushes and other useless shit. “The stamp, stupid,” Carl told them, though the first time he saw the movie he hadn’t tumbled to the stamp’s value, either. Cary Grant, in Carl’s considered opinion, was even dumber than he himself would’ve been had Audrey been coming on to him in that hotel room. At the very least he would’ve had the sense to sweep all that crap onto the floor and have hours of sex with her, even if she was too skinny. They could always resume the search later, and so what if they never did figure out it was the stamp? At least they’d have gotten laid, which would’ve been something.

  But that was it in a nutshell. People just couldn’t gauge their own circumstances with anything like objectivity. Okay, sure, Audrey and Cary were in a pickle. In addition to being ignorant of the stamp’s significance, they had an American embassy official and three murderous if charismatic thugs breathing down their necks—and speaking of necks, Audrey’s really was exquisite. Still, the way Carl saw it, they had each other for company, and if you had to be in trouble somewhere, there were worse places than Paris. Carl’s own circumstances, except for the thugs, were much worse, having neither stamp nor girl nor, for that matter, a working dick should some girl magically appear. He was alone in North Bath, New York, so really there was only so much sympathy you could extend to these people.

  At least he didn’t think he had the stamp. Was it possible that, like the characters in the movie, he did possess something whose value he was overlooking? If so, what? It didn’t have to be worth a million. Fifty thousand would suit his immediate purposes. Okay, in the end he’d probably need a million, though 50K would tide him over until the end of next week, when his next loan payment came due and he yet again had to make payroll. Was a measly 50K so much to ask for? He looked around the flat for something worth fifty grand, but Toby, his ex, had taken everything worth taking. If not what, then who? Gus Moynihan, after bailing him out on two occasions, had made it clear he didn’t intend to ever do so again. Sully, since his luck changed, was sitting on some cash. Probably not as much as he needed, though. Who else did he know that might have that kind of dough? Somebody who might be willing to part with it. Who thought giving it to Carl Roebuck would be a good idea.

  She answered on the first ring. “Schuyler Properties. This is Toby.”

  “Hey, babe, it’s me.”

  “No,” she told him. “Absolutely not.”

  “Absolutely not what?”

  “Whatever you want. Money, I assume.”

  “It could be sex.”

  “It’s working again?”

  One night after the operation, he’d gotten drunk and called her, hoping for sympathy, or at least not derision. “Not yet,” he admitted. “Soon, though.”

  “You hope?”

  “Well, hope’s all I’ve got left. You took everything else.”

  “I had a much-better lawyer than you did.”

  “Mine was free, though.” Better than free, actually. Feeling bad about losing in court, Wirf had loaned Carl some money, then died before he could repay it.

  “You still see Sully around?”

  “Pretty much every day. We went grave robbing just last night.” He thought this admission would surely stir Toby’s curiosity, but they’d been married too long. She was familiar with his narrative head fakes and seldom fell for them. “He mentioned you the other day, actually.”

  “Remind him that I want to list his house. In fact, if you convince him to put it on the market, I might consider loaning you some money. How much were you thinking?”

  “Fifty.”

  “Dollars?”

  “Grand.”

  “You always were a stitch.”

  “Yeah? Well, what you always were rhymes with stitch. I keep hearing about what a kick-ass realtor you’ve become.” Indeed, every time she sold another million-dollar property in Schuyler, someone felt obliged to give him the details. “Besides, if you sell Sully’s house I’m out on the street. Why would I help you make me homeless?”

  “I don’t know, Carlos. I really don’t.”

  He couldn’t help smiling at this. “Hey,” he said.

  “Yeah?”

  “It’s been years since you called me that.” It had been her pet name for him back when they were first married and she still went for his head fakes pretty much every time. Back when he could still laugh her into the sack. Back when she used to love him. Before he gave her so many reasons not to.

  “Yeah, well…”

  “Here’s a crazy idea,” he said.

  “If it’s yours, it’s bound to be.”

  “We should go out sometime, you and I.”

  “That’s well beyond crazy.”

  “Sylvia wouldn’t like it?” Sylvia Plath was his nickname for her poet girlfriend. Not entirely apropos, of course, since Plath was a suicide, not a lesbian, at least so far as Carl knew. But he didn’t have a large store of information about women poets, and Plath had to work better t
han Emily Dickinson, who wasn’t a lesbian, either, so far as he knew.

  “We split up, actually.”

  “No shit? How come?”

  “Same reason you and I did.”

  “She cheated?”

  “Yup.”

  “She’s an idiot,” he told her, only a little surprised to discover he meant it.

  “Just her? Not you?”

  “No, me too.”

  “You really need fifty thousand?”

  Suddenly, unexpectedly, he was ashamed. “Nah,” he said. “Really, I’m good. I was just calling to see how you’re doing.”

  “Oh.”

  “Which is? I mean, after Sylvia?”

  “You mean, am I ready to come running back to you?”

  Which was, he realized, kind of what he meant. Or even exactly. “Would that be so terrible?”

  “Yeah, it really would.”

  “I guess,” he admitted. “So, who’s next?”

  “Maybe nobody.”

  “But if. Like, would it be a man or a woman?”

  “Yup. One or the other.”

  On TV, one of the charismatic villains, dressed incongruously in a Stetson, is strolling past the crowded booths of the Paris stamp bazaar, himself clueless. All of a sudden he stops. There’s a quick series of shots, all close-ups of stamps, accompanied by pulsing music. Then tight on the actor as he spins toward the camera. Eureka! Cary Grant’s observing all this from afar, still in the dark. Dumb fuck, Carl thought. Dumb, stupid fuck. Too dumb to live, really, though Carl knew he would. He doesn’t deserve Audrey. Or any woman, really. Well past his prime, he’s making do on charm borrowed from his own youthful self. Maybe even he knows this, and maybe that’s why he didn’t take her back at the hotel when he had the chance.

  “So what happens next?” Toby wanted to know, confusing him. Was she watching the movie, too?

  “After what?”

  “After you lose the company.”

  So, yeah, of course she was onto him. Didn’t take that head fake. “Maybe I won’t.”

  “For the sake of argument, let’s assume you do.”

 
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