Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  AFTER LEAVING CLIVE JR. at the Sans Souci, Sully dropped Rub off at the trailer with bowls of food and fresh water and spent the rest of the afternoon making the rounds of places where a man like Roy Purdy might surface, but no one had seen him. Somebody reported spotting the Cora woman’s car at the reservoir, so he drove out there, went up and down the dirt parking lot and didn’t see it. He stopped in at Gert’s twice more, but he swore neither Roy nor Cora had shown up. Over the course of the afternoon it had come home to Sully that his search might be an empty gesture, the sort of thing a man does to convince himself that doing anything at all, even the wrong thing, is preferable to doing nothing. Staying in motion was easier than sitting vigil at the hospital, rotating in and out of Ruth’s room with her daughter and granddaughter and husband, staring at her ruined face, waiting for her to open her swollen eyes, fearing she wouldn’t ever again.

  So by early evening, exhausted and with nothing to show for his efforts, Sully reluctantly concluded there was nothing further to be done, at least not by him. If Roy and that woman were still in the area, they’d eventually surface. If they’d fled, her car would soon give them away. When he passed the county home for the third time that day, it occurred to him that maybe he should do something difficult. See if the path of maximum resistance yielded different results than the more familiar path of least.

  “Are you family?” the woman at reception wanted to know when Sully told her who he was there to see.

  “Not exactly,” he told her. “We used to be married, though.”

  She was squinting at her computer screen now. “It says here that her husband is deceased.” She peered at him over the rims of her glasses, as if to inquire whether he was claiming to be dead.

  “That’s her second husband, Ralph,” he explained. “I’m Donald Sullivan.”

  “Sullivan,” she repeated. “There’s a Peter Sullivan on her visitor list. Also a William.”

  “Our son,” he said. “And grandson.”

  “But no Donald.”

  “I understand. There wouldn’t be.”

  “But you want to see her.”

  Well, not really, but he didn’t contradict her.

  She returned to her screen. “Do you understand that your ex-wife is nonresponsive?”


  “By which I mean she doesn’t recognize anyone.”


  “And even if she did recognize you, she no longer has the power of speech. You won’t be able to converse.”

  Well, we never could. “I understand,” he told her.

  The woman studied him carefully. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.”

  That makes two of us.


  BEFORE GRANTING HIM permission to see his ex-wife, the nurse on the dementia wing prepared Sully for what—rather than who—he would find. The person he’d come to see wasn’t really here anymore, she informed him. Today had been one of her good days, actually, but that just meant he was unlikely to witness the agitation and, often, anger that characterized the latter stages of her illness. He might glimpse in the odd physical gesture some vestige of the woman he’d been married to, though anything beyond that would be his imagination at work. She was no longer capable of eating solid food, didn’t even understand what food was for and was as content to chew on a wristwatch as a carrot. He wasn’t to give her anything to eat or drink, as swallowing no longer came naturally, and she might gag.

  The volunteer who showed Sully to Vera’s room couldn’t have been over seventeen. “I’ll wait out here in the hall,” she said.

  When the door swung shut behind him and Sully saw the mummylike, slack-jawed creature that once had been Vera, he nearly lost his nerve. His ex-wife had been situated in her wheelchair so she could look out the window at the central courtyard, where several picnic tables formed a circle around a concrete fountain, which happened to be dry. Was it always? Sully wondered. Was water a danger in this place? “Hello, old girl,” he said, his voice sounding strange, unnatural, like someone speaking in a room without furniture. Her eyes flickered in his direction when he pulled up the chair, then quickly returned to some unfocused middle distance. Beneath her thin housecoat, Sully could tell, little remained but skin and bones. When it entered his mind that this was the same woman who’d been his lover when they were both young, he quickly banished the thought, feeling embarrassed, indeed unclean, that it should have occurred to him even fleetingly. Most alarming was her hair, which Vera had always permed to a fare-thee-well, not a strand out of place. Now it looked natural, real hair at last, and yet wholly unnatural for her.

  “I just came by to see if you were still mad at me,” he said. That was what he’d been dreading, of course—that Vera’s resentment, nurtured over the long span of years, might persist after every other aspect of her personality had faded away, but he saw now that he’d been fearing the wrong thing. Had she been furious with him, at least she would’ve been Vera. “You must be pretty tired of all this,” he said, looking around the spare, institutionally impersonal room, this most house-proud of women. Though it wasn’t her surroundings that he meant so much as existence itself. “I know I would be.”

  Her expression didn’t change.

  Then a door on the far side of the courtyard opened, and a small child burst forth, a girl, soon trailed by a young woman who had to be her mother. Vera’s eyes registered the movement but with nothing akin to cognition or pleasure. A moment later the grandmother, clearly the genetic baseline for the other two generations, appeared in the open doorway. Somewhere inside, Sully suspected, was the great-grandmother all three were visiting.

  Not knowing what to do with his hands, he shoved them into his pockets and felt Will’s stopwatch, which he took out and studied. “This look familiar?” he said, holding it out in front of Vera. “Remember that Thanksgiving?”

  Peter, who’d come with his then-still-intact family, had invited Sully for dinner but neglected to tell Vera, never dreaming that he’d actually show up. Everybody in the house was quarreling: Peter and his wife, Vera and Ralph, Will and Wacker, his little brother. Sully had shown up just as the shit started hitting the fan. Will had actually climbed out the bathroom window, stowing away in the back of his truck. After beating his own hasty retreat, Sully found him under a tarp hiding from his feuding parents and little brother, the source of his terror. That was the night Sully’d been inspired to give him the stopwatch so he could time himself being brave.

  Outside, in the courtyard, it took the mother two trips around the fountain to capture the squealing little girl and return with her to the grandmother, who gathered up the wriggling child, and then all three went back inside, leaving Sully alone with a woman who wasn’t there. When the fist in his chest clenched, he closed his eyes against the discomfort until it loosened.

  “Here’s something you might get a kick out of,” Sully said, returning the watch to his pocket. For some reason he was determined to talk to Vera as if she were actually there. “Turns out I’ve got this heart problem. Don’t laugh. I do have one. I only know because it’s fritzed.”

  Had she really been present, Vera no doubt would have observed that it never had worked properly, a criticism that Sully could accept as a given.

  “I’ve got a while yet,” he told her. “A year or two, they say, but they’re full of shit. Could be any day, is what it feels like. They want to put this thing in my chest. A defibrillator. They claim it would keep me going awhile longer, assuming I don’t die on the table. The question that stumps them is why. I can’t work. These days I just mostly get in the way. So what’s the point?”

  This time when he glanced over at her he got the very distinct impression the ward nurse had warned him about, the sense that an interior light had come on. A second later, though, it was extinguished again, and all that remained was the physical husk.

  “Got you stumped, too, huh?” The shadows in the courtyard were lengthening. ?
??Don’t worry,” he told her, “I’ll figure it out. Meanwhile, what do you say we sit here a minute, just you and me. I don’t think we ever did that, did we? Just sit anywhere quietly?”

  He awoke to a light touch on his wrist, and for a fraction of a second he was sure it was Vera, though of course it was the girl from the hallway coming to tell him that visiting hours were over. Like last call in a bar, he thought. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.


  SATURDAY NIGHT and once again the Horse was hopping, but the stool next to Carl Roebuck was vacant for Sully to climb aboard. “You’re in a good mood,” Sully said, once his friend swiveled to face him.

  “I bet you could figure out why, if you put your mind to it.”

  Sully was about to say he had no fucking clue why a man so far up Shit’s Creek would be in such good spirits, then he realized that he did. “Congratulations. You’re not going to show me, I hope.”

  “It’s not hard right this second,” Carl admitted. “In a million years you wouldn’t guess who gave it to me.”

  “Give me a hint,” Sully demanded. “Man or woman?”

  “Audrey Hepburn. Fully clothed.”

  “I told you porn wasn’t the answer.”

  “Audrey Hepburn,” Carl repeated, his voice full of wonder. “Hey, you think she ever did any porno?”

  Sully just looked at him.

  “Okay, Katharine, then,” Carl said. “Either one. Pick any Hepburn.” When Sully declined to answer, he grew serious. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just heard about Ruth.”

  That had been the worst part of Sully’s day, actually. Everywhere he’d gone people kept telling him how sorry they were, as if they were married, which yet again brought home to him how profoundly he’d intruded into her family. Could he blame Ruth for thinking the time had come for him to move along?

  Birdie set a beer in front of him and said it was on the house. “They find that asshole yet?”

  “Not as of half an hour ago,” Sully told her. There’d been a pay phone in the lobby of the county home, so he’d made a couple calls. One to the police station—learning that Roy Purdy was still at large—and the other to the hospital, where the intensive-care nurse informed him that Ruth’s condition was unchanged. Yes, her husband and daughter and granddaughter were there. He’d been thinking about going over, but decided instead to make them a gift of his absence.

  “The way I heard it,” Birdie said, “he’d have killed her if you hadn’t showed up.” Clearly, she was trying to make him feel better, so Sully didn’t object. Nor did he point out the obvious—that he’d saved Ruth’s life only if she did manage to survive.

  One of the waitresses came over and handed him a folded note that read, in a surprisingly elegant hand: I win this bet. Leaning back on his stool, Sully peered into the dining area and saw Bootsie Squeers all dolled up, waving at him with a smug grin. The tree limb, of course. He’d forgotten, just as she’d known he would. He didn’t immediately recognize the man across the table from her. Did Rub own a sport coat? A shirt with a collar? Shoes that weren’t work boots? “I’ll take their check,” he told Birdie.

  Carl had followed his gaze. “That,” he said, once they were turned back around, “is one homely woman.”

  “Aw, be nice,” Sully said.

  “I was being nice.”

  “Did it ever occur to you,” Sully asked, “that in your next life you might be an unattractive woman?”

  “Or an insect?” Birdie offered helpfully, passing by.

  “Hey, that’s one of the books they tried to get me to read in college,” Carl called after her. “Where the guy wakes up convinced he’s a cockroach?”

  “Guess who I ran into this afternoon,” Sully said when Birdie was out of earshot. “Clive Jr.”

  “You’re shitting me. Here in Bath?”

  “Claims he flew in for the middle-school dedication.”

  “From where?”

  “Someplace out west.”

  “How did he seem?”

  Broken. Unhappy. Haunted. Though at the beginning he’d tried hard to appear otherwise. Oh, sure, he admitted, things had been a little tough, but eventually he’d landed on his feet. He was married, happily, to a woman named Gale, whom he was sorry his mother never had a chance to meet. He’d done some other things for a while, but was finally back in banking, starting out at a small branch office until his work there had been noticed. Now he was at regional headquarters, in charge of special projects. The West was booming, he informed Sully. People living in backwaters like Bath had no idea what the rest of the country was like. He understood now why the Ultimate Escape deal had collapsed. There were just far-better places for investors to invest. He explained all this to Sully with the air of someone who fully expected to be disbelieved, so when Sully said, “Good. I’m happy for you,” he reacted as if Sully was being sarcastic, which wasn’t the case. At least he didn’t think it was.

  “So,” the junior Clive finally said, dropping the boosterism. “A stroke is what I heard.”

  He nodded. “A bunch of little ones, at first. Then—”

  “God lowered the boom.”

  Sully couldn’t help smiling, since this had been one of Miss Beryl’s favorite expressions.

  “No pain, then?”

  “Not so far as I know. Not that she would’ve said anything.”

  “You looked after her?”

  “I looked in on her, if that’s what you mean.” Every morning he’d poke his head in to see if she needed anything. Either that or she’d thump on the ceiling with her broom handle and he’d come down. Occasionally he let her talk him into drinking a cup of tea with her at the kitchen table, claiming, as always, to hate her beverage of choice. Some days he’d find her confused and know she’d suffered another ministroke, but she knew what they were and what to expect. She wasn’t afraid, so far as Sully could tell. Just puzzled as to why God was taking his own sweet time.

  “I don’t suppose she talked much about me?”

  “No,” Sully told him. “Your name didn’t come up.” Which was true.

  “She could be one tough lady,” Clive said, sullen now. “Not that you’d know anything about that, being her favorite.”

  “Well,” Sully said, “I liked her, too.”

  “That’s the part I could never get. I mean, I can understand her being disappointed with me. I wasn’t her kind of person, not really. Never was. But what made you so special?”

  This, Sully realized, was the reason her son had returned to Bath after a decade elsewhere: to ask that very question. It wasn’t affection or pride in his mother’s being honored that had motivated his return, merely anger. And yes, of course, hurt.

  “I heard about the house,” he said. “I might’ve contested the will. I still could.”

  “No need,” Sully assured him. “If you want the house, it’s yours.”

  He seemed to consider this, but only for a moment. “Nah,” he said. “What do I need with that old pile of sticks?”

  “It’s up to you.”

  “In fact,” he said, his mood having shifted completely, “maybe I’ll just catch an early flight back. I’d forgotten how much I hated this place.”

  “I’m sure Gale will be glad to see you,” Sully told him.

  The look of puzzlement on the man’s face was there only for an instant, but Sully caught it and understood that there was no wife. How much of the rest of it was bullshit was impossible to tell.


  WHEN THE SQUEERSES FINISHED their meal, they stopped by the bar. “Look at you two,” Sully said, rotating on his stool. Bootsie, unless he was mistaken, was actually wearing makeup, and her usually stringy hair looked shampooed and curled. Carl was right, she was no beauty, even when dressed up for a date, but there was something brave about the effort she’d put into looking her best for an evening out at the Horse, of all places, with her husband, of all people.

  “You didn’t have to do that,
Sully,” she told him.

  She was right, too, now that he thought about it. He’d given Rub money to take her out the night before, which meant that he’d paid for the meal twice.

  “Hey, rubberhead,” Carl said, “how’d you like a job tomorrow and Monday?”

  “Tomorrow’s a fuh-fuh-fuh—”

  “Fuckin’ holiday?” Sully guessed.

  “Fuckin’ holiday,” Rub confirmed. “So’s muh-muh-muh—”


  “It’s all double time,” Carl said.

  Rub looked at Sully.

  “Tell him to show you the money first,” Sully advised.

  “Show me the fuh-fuh-fuh—”

  “Fuckin’ money,” Sully finished, grinning at Carl.

  He swallowed hard, met Sully’s eye. “I might need to borrow that,” he said, and Sully calculated what this exchange had cost him.

  “We’ll work something out,” he told him.

  “Yeah?” Carl said, with an arched eyebrow. “It’s a two-man job.”

  “I know,” Sully said. Then, to Rub, who’d broken into a wide grin: “How about I swing by and pick you up? We can haul off that branch, then head over to the mill.”

  “What tuh-tuh-tuh—”

  “Six-thirty. Be ready.”

  “I’m always ready,” Rub protested. “It’s you that’s always—”

  “I know,” Sully told him. “But tomorrow I’ll be on time.”

  “Does this mean—?”

  Sully knew what Rub meant to ask—whether they’d be going back to work together again—and cut him off. “I don’t know what it means,” he said. “Just be ready. We’ll see how it goes.”

  “There’s one thing, though,” he told Carl once the Squeerses were gone. “All I can give you is Sunday and Monday.”

  His friend nodded, waiting.

  “Tuesday I’ve got to go down to the Albany VA for”—he tapped his chest—“a procedure.” He hadn’t intended to say that. Hadn’t really even decided to do the operation until that moment. Somehow, confiding his condition to Vera had led him to say so.

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