Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Passed out, Raymer thought, though there was no reason to complete the sentence. “You scared me,” he said. “I was afraid you were…”

  He let his own thought trail off, because for some reason the garage door was descending. Turning, Raymer expected to see someone standing in the doorway that led into the kitchen and pressing the button, but nobody was there. Again his knees jellied—the same vertigo that had hit him at Gert’s. Looking back at Jerome, he saw his eyes were streaming, his shoulders shaking.

  “How could you?” was what he wanted Raymer to explain.

  “I didn’t,” Raymer said, getting annoyed. How many times did he have to tell him it was Roy Purdy? And come on. Wasn’t the ’Stang really just another fucking car? It was people’s lives, not automobiles, that got fucked up beyond repair. He was about to tell Jerome to get a goddamn grip, but now that his eyes had fully adjusted to the cavelike dark, something caught his attention. The rental’s rear seats were down, and the entire vehicle was crammed with cardboard boxes and suitcases and stereo equipment and mounds of clothes. “You going somewhere, Jerome?”

  He stifled a sob and nodded resentfully.

  “Where?”

  “Away.”

  Again the garage door lurched into motion, this time lumbering upward.

  “To where?”

  “Away from you,” Jerome said. His gaze was fixed on that bloody hand, as if the wound there was so disgusting, like a ruptured goiter, that he couldn’t bear to be anywhere near it. Raymer, embarrassed, hid it behind his back.

  “Because really,” Jerome was saying, still going on about the fucking ’Stang, “it’s hard to believe anybody could be so cruel…”

  From outside came the sound of a car racing up the quiet, residential street at unsafe speed. Raymer turned away from Jerome just in time to see Charice’s car rock to a halt at the curb. She’d tried to raise him on the radio several times while he drove to Jerome’s, pleading with him to tell her where he was, but he’d ignored her. Now here she was, leaping out of the car and sprinting toward them as if the building was on fire. Never mind. He didn’t care why she was here. He was just insanely happy to see her. In fact, his heart did a somersault, which could only mean one thing—that even without meaning to he’d moved on from Becka, the only other woman who’d ever made his heart behave like that. Was it even remotely possible that the sight of him might someday inspire in Charice, or any woman, such profound joy?

  But suddenly she froze in the middle of the driveway, looking first at her brother, then Raymer, then Jerome again. “Don’t,” she pleaded. “Dear God, please don’t.”

  Don’t what? Raymer thought, but when he looked down he saw what must have upset her so. At some point, without realizing it, he’d apparently taken the remote out of his pocket so he could use its sharp edge to dig at the infected wound. The device was wet and sticky with fresh blood, and the pain was simply breathtaking. Apparently Jerome also wanted him to quit, because he’d taken his gun out and was pointing it at him. “No more,” he said, his eyes wide with terrible determination. “I can’t bear it.”

  “Don’t, Jerome,” Charice was saying. She’d come closer but was still outside the garage.

  Jerome had begun to tremble, the gun in his hand shaking visibly. Raymer understood the situation was serious—pointing a loaded firearm at another human being always was—but he still had to suppress a powerful urge to giggle, recalling Jerome’s favorite pose, copied from the Goldfinger movie poster, where 007, his long-barreled pistol pointed skyward, left hand cradling his right elbow, was the epitome of suave confidence in the face of danger.

  “I told you!” Jerome was saying to his sister. “Didn’t I tell you he knew? He’s known all along!”

  Known what? Raymer thought, but the garage door was descending again, in response, yes, to the bloody remote in his hand, just as it had been doing since he arrived. Stunned that this could be so, he watched the door motor closed and then turned guiltily back to Jerome, as if he were the one with some serious explaining to do. After a moment the light went out, leaving Raymer and Becka’s lover alone in the unfathomable dark.

  “We were so in love,” Jerome said. “You have no idea.”

  Congratulations, said Dougie. Well played.

  Something with No Name

  ROY WAITED FOR full dark before returning to town and stuck to the back roads. By now every cop in Schuyler County had to be on the lookout for Cora’s turd-bucket. His plan was to park on a dead-end street a couple blocks from Sully’s place, but then he remembered the service road through Sans Souci Park that ended at a small maintenance lot out back of the hotel. There, Roy figured, the car might sit unnoticed for a week or more. Not that he really gave a shit. After tonight he wouldn’t have any further use for it.

  The old hotel loomed massively in the dark when Roy pulled in, and for a few minutes he just sat there, listening to the engine cool and staring at the fucking thing. He couldn’t help it. The place just messed with his head and always had. Close to three hundred rooms, it had. Back before the springs ran dry, the hotel was always full of rich morons coming from all over to “take the waters.” But really, how could that be? Sure, that was back before TV, when nobody had fuck all to do, but Roy still couldn’t fathom it. If it were beer bubbling up out of the ground, maybe, but water? “Yeah, but you got to remember,” Bullwhip explained when he told him about all this shit. “People crazy, and that’s a fact. Want what everybody else wants, even if it don’t make no sense. Take tulips…”

  That was how it always went with Bullwhip. One minute you were talking about one thing, and before you knew it the subject was tulips. The man knew all kinds of worthless crap. Most of the time you couldn’t tell whether he was pulling your leg or talking for true. But according to him, there’d been this stretch over in Europe when everybody went crazy for tulips. Like there was anything you could do with a fucking tulip. Suddenly they all had to have some, and that made them expensive. People swapped gold and silver for tulips. “No fuckin’ way,” Roy had objected, but Bullwhip was adamant. “Read up on it,” he said, as if you could go to the prison library and find a fucking book about tulips.

  Still, it did make you think. If you could make all these Europeans want tulips—people who couldn’t even agree on what fucking language to talk in—then maybe you could sell them water. Invent some crazy-ass story about how this was special water that would cure whatever the fuck ailed you. People wanted to believe shit. Take God. It was obvious to Roy that God was all bullshit. If you were God and you wanted people to believe in you, it just stood to reason you’d show your face every now and then. Instill some goddamn fear. Get people to toe the fucking line. Otherwise, everybody who wasn’t completely stupid would draw the same conclusion. Roy found himself wondering if Bullwhip believed in God. If he was still there in the lockup, he could ask him before long.

  Staring at the place, he felt, in addition to incredulity, something akin to nostalgia. For an all-too-brief period, the Sans Souci had been his principal source of income, a sweet deal while it lasted. This guy he knew, Garth, had been hired as a night watchman during one of the hotel’s renovations. “You wouldn’t believe all the shit comin’ in there every fuckin’ day,” he told Roy one afternoon when they were both drunk. Brand-new furniture and fancy mirrors and televisions and stereo systems, arriving faster than they could be inventoried, just sitting there stacked in the original boxes. “Careless,” Roy had observed. “Somebody could rip it all off, and they wouldn’t even notice.” Garth was basically a pussy and refused to participate in actual theft, but for a share of the profits he thought maybe he could manage to forget to lock up the service entrance. Just be smart, was all he asked. Don’t take too much, and not all of the same shit. A TV or two, but not six. Couple videocassette players. A few paintings, maybe, if Roy saw any he liked. If anybody thought stuff was fucking vanishing, Garth would hear about it, and they’d lay low for a spell.

  Which w
as how they played it there at the beginning, Roy carting away no more than would fit easily in his van. But after a month or two, with no alarms going off, he thought they needed to revise the strategy. Because who the fuck was Garth to say how they’d do it? He wasn’t the one taking all the chances. Every time Roy slipped in that back door he risked somebody seeing his van parked where it shouldn’t be. Why not aim for one big final score? He considered proposing this new tactic to Garth, then thought twice. Better to just make an executive decision.

  “How it always goes,” Bullwhip chuckled when Roy recounted the sad tale. How in fact somebody had noticed that shit coming in the front door was going out the back. How they were waiting for him the night he pulled up with the rented U-Haul. How they hadn’t said a fucking word to Garth, since he was their number one suspect. “Human nature,” Bullwhip elaborated. “People greedy. Don’t know when to stop. Don’t know how. It’s stupid.” Normally Roy didn’t like being called stupid, but Bullwhip always seemed to include himself when reflecting upon human frailty. Besides, Roy hadn’t told him the whole truth. Greed had played a role, all right, but the real problem was urine. The hotel’s hundreds of rooms were mostly locked, but every so often Roy would come upon one that wasn’t. The suites boasted king-size beds with mountains of white pillows piled high on pristine white comforters that proved irresistible to Roy pretty much every single time. He knew it was dumb but just couldn’t help himself. Unzipping, he’d arc his stream at the center of the mattress until a bright yellow puddle formed there, after which he felt empty and at peace. Why was leaving your mark so satisfying? That’s what this whole business with Sully was about. Squaring things. Leaving your mark. Making sure people knew you’d been there. That you were just as alive as them.

  Before abandoning Cora’s vehicle, Roy checked himself out in the rearview mirror one last time. It was hard to see with just the dome light, but the swelling on the injured side of his face seemed to have gone down some, the imprint of the skillet a little less pronounced. What was left of his ear had stopped bleeding earlier in the afternoon, and the remaining cartilage was crusting over impressively, as if its intention were to grow a whole new ear. While he’d stand out in the daylight, in the dark he was unlikely to attract much attention. Sully’s place was only a few blocks from the park’s entrance, and if he ran into somebody walking over there he could pull Cora’s Mets cap down over his eyes, maybe even cross the street.

  What worried him more than being recognized and arrested was that he was down to his last three pain pills. He counted them again just to make sure. Not enough to get him through the fucking night. He suppressed the urge to swallow all three now, knowing that would be a mistake. Given his luck he’d fall asleep there, and when Sully came home and found him he’d hit him with another skillet and slice off the other ear. No, this was fucking crunch time, and he needed to show some discipline. He did need one pill, though, right this goddamn minute, to keep from howling like a dog at the moon.

  He swallowed it dry, thinking of Cora. He swore he wasn’t going to, but here he was doing it anyway. Damn, she’d gone down hard. Whoever owned that camp would need a whole new dock, and that was for true. His mistake—he saw it clearly now, like you always do when it’s too late—was trying to explain to that cow what had to happen, that he had no choice in the matter. If he hadn’t been fucked up, he’d have just hit her. Because when you came right down to it, why try to reason with any woman? Didn’t really matter whether she was smart, like his mother-in-law, or dumb, like Cora. They were all incapable of seeing things from a man’s point of view. Basically they wanted everything their own damn way. Still, he wished he hadn’t hit Cora so hard. He hadn’t meant to, or at least he didn’t remember meaning to. It did piss him off how stupid she was, how she didn’t even suspect why he was searching the shoreline for the perfect stone, not too heavy, not too light. “You need to find a flat one,” she kept insisting, having apparently concluded that he got off on skipping rocks across the water. Even when he found what he wanted and explained what it was for, that one clean blow was what he was after, how he didn’t want to punch her like he’d punched his mother-in-law over and over until she lost consciousness, no need for that, even then she just stared at him, like he was speaking a foreign language. “I don’t understand,” she whimpered. “Why do you have to hit me?”

  “Because I can’t trust you, girl.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because I can’t, that’s all. Because as soon as I’m gone, you’re gonna head back along that road and ask the first assholes you run into to borrow the phone so you can call the cops. And by the time I get back to town, they’ll be waiting for me.”

  “I wouldn’t do that, Roy. I swear I wouldn’t.”

  He knew, though, that once he was gone she’d remember everything she’d done to help him and how he’d repaid her by making her hand over the keys to her shit-bucket and stranded her out here by herself with no food and night coming on.

  “I’ll do whatever you want, Roy, I swear,” she pleaded. “I could just spend the night right here. You said yourself how nice it is in there. Then in the morning—”

  “You won’t do no such thing,” he assured her. “You think you will, but five minutes after I’m gone, you’ll be yelling for help and telling everybody about how I ditched you and can you use their fucking phone. Don’t say you won’t, either, because I ain’t stupid.”

  “I won’t, Roy, I promise.”

  “Don’t promise, neither.”

  “I am promising, Roy.” She was blubbering, just like he’d predicted, her lower lip quivering.

  “No, we’re gonna do this my way,” he said, stepping toward her.

  “Don’t, Roy. Haven’t I been nice to you all day? I said I was sorry about them clips. They didn’t have the ones you wanted, I swear.”

  “This don’t have nothing to do with that.”

  “I know I should’ve bought the Pringles like you said.” She was crying in earnest now. “Next time—”

  “There ain’t no next time, girl. Get that through your head. After tonight I’m headed back downstate.” Even if Janey’s mother didn’t die of the beating he gave her, he’d be there a good long while. If she did, maybe for good. “This right here is the last you’ll see of me.”

  “I could come visit you,” she pleaded. “I would, too.”

  Like that would be a fucking treat. “Stand still now,” he said, but when he cocked his fist, she squealed and threw both arms up to protect herself. “You’re just makin’ it worse, Cora. Do like I say.”

  “Don’t hit me, Roy. Please don’t hit me.” Her fat elbows still up in front of her face.

  “This won’t hurt but a minute,” he promised. “It’ll be like going to sleep. When you wake up it’ll be like a hangover. I’ll leave you one of my painkillers. Make you right as rain.” He would do no such thing, of course. He didn’t even have enough pills for himself. “Like I said: tomorrow morning you can hitch a ride back into town, and you can tell everybody what I done. What a bad guy I am. By then it won’t matter.”

  “No, Roy. Please don’t. I’m scared. What if you hurt me bad? What if I don’t wake up?”

  Well, that’d be good news, he thought but didn’t say. Because really? To just go to sleep and not wake up? To be done with all of it? That wouldn’t be such a bad deal, would it? He wouldn’t mind that so much his own self, now that he thought about it. His night with Janey—God, how long ago that seemed—was the best life had to offer him, and that was in the shitter for good. Sure, there’d be satisfaction in crossing Sully’s name off his list. He was definitely looking forward to that. But then what? The minutes and hours and days and months and years stretched out forever with nothing to fill them but Bullwhip’s crazy tulip stories. Unless he’d died, in which case it’d be some other asshole who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, who had to yak all the time because words, no matter how dumb and useless, were better than silence and the thoughts th
at filled that up. Of course Roy supposed it was possible that he had less time than he thought. Life was full of surprises, just like Gert said. The falling tree you didn’t predict, the skillet you didn’t see coming. Whatever. There was no point in dwelling on shit beyond your control. That included most of the shit out there in this world, and that was for true as well. Make the best plan you can, then see how it all works out. That’s all Roy or anybody could do, all he was doing, not that he expected Cora to understand.

  “Be still now,” he told her. “Let’s get this over with.”

  But the fucking woman refused to lower her arms, until finally he said, “Okay, I guess we’ll do it your way, then.”

  “Really?” she said, suspicious.

  “Yeah,” he said, tossing the stone out into the lake. Only when she heard it splash did she lower her arms. God, was she stupid.

  What he couldn’t get out of his mind was the look of dumb gratitude on her face. Or who knew? Maybe it was love. Or something with no name. Whatever it was, it was what he hated most and what allowed him to do what was necessary. Because of course he’d picked up two stones, not one, and the second, the heavier, perfectly round one, was still in his fist.

  He felt bad, though, about hitting her so hard, about how hard she went down, ass first, reducing that dock to kindling, her fat butt in the water, her arms sticking straight up. No chance she could stand up whenever she came to. Nothing to do except shout her head off until somebody heard her. And the whole time she’d be thinking it was because of the clips and the Pringles. He’d told her it wasn’t, but that was the thing with women. You were better off saving your breath. He thought about the waitress at that diner he and his father had stopped by that time, the one who’d given him a look like his whole pitiful life was visible to her. He wondered what had happened to her. Nothing good, he hoped.

 
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