Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

“Why?”

  “Because I’m curious to see if you can.”

  What would he do after he lost Tip Top Construction, the company his father built and loved? The company he himself always loathed but had never managed to divest himself of.

  Now Cary’s standing right where the guy in the Stetson was a moment earlier, and damned if he isn’t visited by the same blinding revelation! He, too, spins toward the camera, his face aglow with understanding.

  “What do you think I should do?” Carl asked.

  “What you’ve always wanted to,” Toby told him.

  “What’s that?”

  “Poor Carlos,” she said, as if to a child, and then she was gone, the line dead.

  So much for that idea. No, the truth was simple and clear. He was all kinds of broke.

  There were footsteps in the gravel below, so Carl went over to the window expecting to see Sully limping up the driveway. If so, did he have any choice but to ask? How would he broach the subject? What we were talking about this morning, your offer? Of a loan? Well, actually, here’s the thing…

  Except it wasn’t Sully. The man’s back was to him, so it took him a moment to recognize the balding blond head below as Raymer’s. Taking something from his trouser pocket, he pointed it at the garage door. The remote they’d been looking for out at Hilldale? How the hell had he found that? When the door didn’t budge, he took several steps closer and tried again. Carl thought about calling down and telling him that the door wouldn’t open with that or any other device for the simple reason that no automatic opener had ever been installed. Instead, fascinated, he stood at the window and watched as Raymer discovered this for himself, pulling the door up by its handle, peering inside, running his hand along the frame where the metal tracking would’ve been had there been any and then, dejected, closing the door again. Sighing visibly, he put the remote between his teeth and, staring off into space, dug vigorously at his swollen, bloody right palm with the fingernails of his left hand, which, for some reason Carl couldn’t begin to comprehend, seemed to give him some kind of relief. Though perhaps not, because when he took the device from between his teeth, he threw back his head and howled like an animal caught in a trap. Then with all his might he hurled the remote toward the street.

  If this was an invasion of the man’s emotional privacy, Carl couldn’t help himself. When Raymer moved back down the driveway like a zombie, he hastened to the other end of the apartment so he could watch him from the windows fronting the street. There he saw Raymer get into the police SUV parked at the curb, and when the engine roared to life Carl expected him to pull away, but instead he got out again, crossed the street, retrieved the remote from Mrs. St. Peter’s lawn and slipped it back into his trouser pocket.

  When Raymer finally left, Carl continued to peer down into the street. He was pretty sure he understood what he’d just witnessed. Raymer had suspected Sully’s son of being his wife’s lover, and now he realized he was wrong. Carl, knowing who the guilty party was, could’ve put an end to the poor guy’s suffering, but it was none of his business, was it? Still, it made him wonder if somebody of his own acquaintance was observing his every mistake while remaining unseen and unwilling to help. Wouldn’t it be a kick in the nuts if that was how things worked? If we each knew things that other people needed desperately to know, yet were forever clueless about how to help ourselves?

  Back in the living room, Audrey, trying to escape Walter Matthau, has run into a theater and managed to get herself trapped onstage in the prompter’s box. Somehow Cary Grant, dumbfuck right to the end, has entered the building through a different door and is down below the stage, looking up at all the trapdoors. As Matthau, revolver in hand, crosses the stage, telling Audrey he knows right where she is, that the jig is up and that she might as well come on out, Cary tracks his footsteps by sound alone. Along the wall is a bank of levers used to spring those various doors open. But which one to pull?

  This time, too, Toby answered on the first ring. “I figured out what I want,” he told her.

  “What’s that, Carlos?”

  “To be more like my father,” he said. The old man had been married to his mother all those years until she died and never remarried, and never, to Carl’s knowledge, even looked at another woman. He expected Toby to laugh, but instead she said, “Your wish is granted.”

  Matthau, always the squirrelliest of men, is standing directly in front of the prompter’s box. All you can see of Audrey is her big, terrified eyes, maybe the most beautiful eyes Carl had ever seen. He was glad she isn’t destined to die, that Cary’s down below and, though truly a dumbfuck, he will somehow guess which lever he needs to pull. Though Carl knew all this, the suspense was still unbearable.

  He glanced down at his boxers and was shocked to see they were tented.

  Crazy Like a Fox

  THE SERPENT THREAT REMOVED, Gert’s was mobbed and every booth occupied, the bar three deep, two bartenders going flat out. Raymer’s timing was good, though. The couple occupying the darkest booth along the far wall, the one he most coveted, away from all the mayhem, were insulting each other at high volume. “I’m not the one that’s fucking crazy,” the man shouted. “You’re the one that’s fucking crazy.” Someone down the bar shouted, “You’re both fucking crazy,” leaving the angry couple no choice but to form a temporary alliance, bellowing in perfect unison, “Fuck you!” A second later, though, they were squaring off again, and whatever the man said next—Raymer didn’t quite catch it—must’ve tripped the woman’s switch, because she lunged across the booth, knocking over their pitcher of beer, and punched him in the face, the blow landing with enough force that his head rebounded off the back of the booth. “Don’t,” Raymer told her when she drew her fist back, about to let fly again. “I’m serious. Don’t do it.”

  “Give me one good fucking reason,” she said, her features contorted into a mask of unreason, so Raymer showed her the badge that he now realized he should’ve given Gus along with his resignation letter. He still had his revolver, too, as well as his radio, though he’d left the latter in the car, not wanting Charice to interrupt his drinking.

  “She assaulted me,” the man whined, a thin trickle of blood leaking from one nostril. “You’re my witness.”

  “Because he’s a goddamn asshole,” the woman explained, as if establishing a companion’s generally rum character was a time-honored defense in cases of physical assault.

  “Pay your tab on the way out,” Raymer told them, then stood aside so they could sheepishly vacate their booth.

  “See what you went and done?” the man told his date when he saw Raymer slide in.

  Gert came over and wiped off the table with a smelly rag. “Jesus,” he said, noticing his ruptured fruit of a hand.

  Outside in the parking lot, Raymer had discovered that the sharp-edged garage-door opener, though useless at Sully’s, was the perfect tool for digging at the inflamed, itchy edges of the wound, which had taken over his entire palm. Thin red cobwebs now crept up his wrist. He slid his hand out of sight under the table. “What was that beer I was drinking when I was in here the other day?”

  “You mean yesterday afternoon?”

  “That was yesterday?” Raymer said. Because it felt like last week.

  “Twelve Horse ale.”

  “Right,” he agreed, Jerome’s low opinion of it now coming back to him. “I’ll have one of those. In fact, bring me two. I’m going to murder the first in about two seconds.”

  When Gert left, Raymer raised up on one haunch to regard the puddle of beer he was sitting in. At least he hoped it was beer.

  “On the house,” Gert said when he returned, sliding two bottles of Twelve Horse and a glass in front of him. “I heard you saved the life of one of my regulars.”

  “Thanks,” Raymer said, sliding the glass back to him, then draining half the first beer in one go. It tasted every bit as wonderful this afternoon as it had yesterday. Since turning in his resignation, he’d been wonde
ring what he might do next. Suddenly his path seemed clear. He would become an alcoholic. He would sit in dark, smelly bars like this one in the middle of the afternoon drinking cold, cheap beer. “I should probably tell you,” he said to Gert. “That as of this afternoon I’m officially unemployed. I might not be able to pay my tab.”

  Gert made a sweeping gesture that took in his entire establishment. “Welcome to the fucking club.”

  In three more swallows he’d finished the first beer and settled into grateful ownership of a large booth all by himself, confident that not a single raucous drunk wanted any part of his company. With his uninjured left hand he rolled the cool empty bottle over his forehead, the exquisite pleasure of this proving that—yes indeedy—he was running a fever. That said, he’d felt worse, even quite recently. He seemed to have moved beyond exhaustion to whatever came next. The primal scream he let loose over at Sully’s must’ve dislodged something. Dougie? That would be nice. Because that guy, he’d concluded, was an asshole. Somehow he managed to bring out both the best and worst in his host, making Raymer at once a better cop and a much-worse human being. Admittedly, he never would’ve tracked William Smith down without Dougie’s help, and good had come of that, but it was also Dougie who’d encouraged him to dig up Judge Flatt for no sound purpose and it was also under his influence that he’d punched out an innocent (albeit obnoxious) motorist. Nor was Dougie as smart as he seemed to think he was. Without a shred of evidence, he had encouraged Raymer to believe that Becka’s boyfriend was Peter Sullivan, which, granted, he’d been all too willing to accept. And maybe worst of all, after Raymer demonstrated some actual maturity by crafting an agreement that benefited both Ghost Becka and himself, the bigmouth had reneged on the deal. So if he’d somehow managed to expel Dougie with that primal scream—he’d been silent ever since, and the buzzing in Raymer’s ears had stopped—so much the better.

  Also apparently expelled at the same time, unfortunately, was his judgment. Because face it: instead of sitting here guzzling beer, he should be at the hospital getting his hand amputated. Would Charice think poorly of him and find him less attractive as a one-handed man? he wondered. To feel so disconnected from his own well-being was mildly alarming, but this was more than compensated for by the fact that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t give one tiny little shit about anything. Was this what freedom felt like? If so, bring it on. All he was missing, he decided, was someone to tell how perfectly happy he was.

  On the wall between the two restrooms was a pay phone, a suspiciously thin Schuyler County phone directory dangling from it by a chain. Half the pages had been torn out, but he was in luck, the number he needed having been left behind. “Jerome,” he said when the man finally answered, his voice sounding groggy. How best to engage somebody probably still suffering the lingering effects of powerful sedatives? “I know who keyed your car,” Raymer told him.

  “I do, too,” Jerome replied dully.

  Raymer paused only briefly to puzzle over his lack of interest, then continued. “It was this asshole named Roy Purdy.”

  “No,” Jerome said. Not contentious, just confident. “It wasn’t him.”

  “Actually,” Raymer said, “we’ve got a witness.” Though this wasn’t quite true. All Mr. Hynes had seen was Roy emerging from the alley, but still.

  The silence on the other end of the line lasted so long that Raymer wondered if he’d somehow missed the telltale click of his having hung up. Finally, Jerome said, “You. You keyed the ’Stang.”

  Raymer let out an exhausted sigh. “Why would I do that, Jerome? I mean, we’re friends, right? Why would I?”

  “I have to go now,” Jerome said.

  “Don’t hang up,” Raymer said, surprised by the angst in his voice. “Hold on a minute, okay? There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Something I have to come clean about.”

  “You hate me. You keyed the ’Stang.”

  “No, Jesus, will you listen?”

  “I know what you’re going to say.”

  “No you don’t. I think…I might have feelings for your sister.”

  “Now you’re trying to fuck with my head.”

  “That’s not true,” Raymer said. “Why would you even think that? I mean, is that so weird? You said yourself that she was devoted to me. I should’ve realized how I felt about her sooner but…I don’t know…it’s just been really hard to let go of Becka. Hard to, well, to forgive her, I guess. Because she could’ve come to me, right? Explained how things were? Why she didn’t love me anymore? Told me who the other guy was? She could’ve done all that, right?”

  “I have to go now,” Jerome repeated.

  Raymer was visited by a sudden intuition. “Jerome? Are you drunk?”

  “Maybe a little.”

  “Charice told me about last night…”

  “ ’Bout me slipping my moorings?” he said. “It’s true. Came straight unglued, ole buddy. Guess why.”

  “Sure, Jerome. Because I keyed your car. Except I didn’t, okay? That’s what I’m trying to explain, if you’d just listen. It was this asshole Roy Purdy. He’s a racist dickhead, okay? He probably saw us go into Gert’s and—”

  “I have to go now.”

  “Look, how about I come over? I’ll bring a six-pack of one of those microswills you like. We can talk this through.”

  “No,” he said. “Definitely not.”

  “What if I promise not to use your bathroom,” Raymer said, recalling what Charice had told him about that.

  There came a muffled, whimpering sound. Could Jerome actually be crying?

  “Or we could go out someplace,” Raymer offered. “We could go to that wine bar in Schuyler. Adfinitum.”

  “ ’Finity,” Jerome blubbered.

  “Right. Would you like that? I can be there in twenty. Jerome?”

  But the line was so utterly lifeless that Raymer wondered if he’d hallucinated the whole conversation. Because, Jesus, he really was burning up. Putting the receiver back in its cradle, he realized that in the last few minutes Gert’s had taken on a phantasmagoric quality, with hulking, grotesque shapes moving through the tavern’s almost liquid twilight, laughter too loud and not quite in sync with the mouths it issued from. Was he drunk? Was that even possible on one beer? Okay, two beers, he realized when he slid back into the wet booth, because the second bottle of Twelve Horse in his hand was somehow empty, too. Had he drunk the whole thing during his short conversation with Jerome? Suddenly he was frightened, though not of anything he could name. Some kind of slippage, things going too fast, then all of a sudden too slow, tectonic plates sliding along a fault line and giving him vertigo. Placing some bills—it was too dark and he was too messed up to worry about denominations—under the empty bottles, he scooted back out of the booth and stood up, so light-headed he had to grab on to the side of the booth to keep from falling.

  Dougie, he thought with odd satisfaction, was a weak stick. Couldn’t handle his booze worth a lick.

  —

  PULLING UP in front of Jerome’s town house twenty minutes later, Raymer feared, now that he was here, that maybe coming was a mistake. Earlier, when he’d mentioned to Charice that he might swing by to cheer Jerome up, she’d told him without hesitation that it was a bad idea. What if she was right? What if he didn’t want to be cheered up? What if Raymer was exactly the wrong man for the job? If Jerome was determined to believe he’d keyed the ’Stang, how could he convince him otherwise?

  He’d just about decided to return to Bath—his injured hand pulsing to the rhythm of his respiration, his fever still raging—when the garage door rolled up unexpectedly. A green minivan sat in the bay, and Raymer waited for it to back into the street. When it didn’t, he got out and walked up the driveway wondering who the minivan belonged to, then realizing that of course Jerome, suddenly without wheels, must’ve rented it. But a minivan? Jerome? Wasn’t that the automotive equivalent of Twelve Horse ale?

  It was dark inside the garag
e, and the vehicle’s windows were tinted, so at first Raymer didn’t realize Jerome was slumped forward onto the steering wheel. Dead, was Raymer’s first thought. Jerome is dead. Had it been a heart attack just as he was about to back out? Was that possible? How could he be alive one moment and not the next, though when you thought about it, this was true of every human being who’d ever lived. At some point you are, until you aren’t. “Jerome?” he said, his face close to the driver’s window. “You okay?”

  No response. The man’s forehead still slumped on top of the steering wheel. Alive, though, yeah? Raymer couldn’t be sure in such poor light, but his chest did appear to be gently rising and falling. “Jerome?” Raymer said, louder this time, and when he again didn’t stir, he rapped sharply on the glass with his knuckles, and Jerome bolted upright, his eyes wide with panic, his arms straight out before him with his hands perfectly positioned at ten and two on the wheel, his body braced for impact. The shriek he let loose was high and keening and unguarded, the sound of abject terror. It took Raymer a moment to realize what must be happening, that Jerome, jolted awake in the driver’s seat, had concluded the vehicle was in motion, that he’d fallen asleep at the wheel and was at that very instant about to crash into the wall right in front of him. When that didn’t happen, the screaming stopped as abruptly as it had begun, but only for a moment, because then he saw Raymer peering in at him and let loose again, this second screech even more bloodcurdling than the first.

  Raymer waited patiently until he stopped screaming, then opened the door. A bottle of single-malt scotch, a scant two fingers left in the bottom, fell out and shattered on the concrete floor, though his friend didn’t seem to notice.

  “What the hell?” Raymer said.

  Jerome leaned away from him as far as he could—not very, being belted in—as if from someone with exceptionally bad breath. “What?” he muttered.

  “Everything’s all right. You’re in your own garage. You’re safe. Okay?”

  Jerome sat up straighter, though he seemed reluctant to take his eyes off Raymer, like he suspected he was lying to him. Finally, though, he began to take in his surroundings. Yes, it did look like his garage. His vehicle didn’t appear to be moving. He relaxed his grip on the steering wheel, then let his hands fall. “Whoa,” he said, blinking. “I must’ve—”

 
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