Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Standing there on the curb, Rub understood the full extent of his abandonment, which went beyond hours and days and weeks and also beyond physical proximity. Back when he and Sully had worked together, when they stood side by side, forty-plus hours a week, what Rub had enjoyed most was sharing his deepest, most intimate reflections about life and what would make it better on a minute-to-minute, real-time basis. Could he bear that loss? Possibly. But only if he believed Sully missed their friendship, too, even if maybe a little less. But what if Sully didn’t miss him at all? No sooner did this possibility occur to him than he was visited by an even-darker thought. What if Sully had gotten him the cemetery job to be rid of him?

  “I’m headed out there now if you want a lift,” Jocko had offered, but Rub, feeling gutted, turned away so the other man wouldn’t see his tears spill over. Here was the terrible truth he hadn’t wanted to see: he was on his own.

  We’re all on our own, Dummy. No exceptions.

  “But—” Rub began.

  Besides, you’re exaggerating. It’s not like I abandoned you.

  Not completely, no. When Sully’s luck first changed, that had been Rub’s worst fear—that Sully would just move away, to someplace nicer, warmer, where Rub couldn’t follow. But so far he’d shown no such inclination. Sometimes out at Hilldale, Sully’s truck would pull up outside the tool shed on Friday afternoons as Rub was closing up, and they’d head for beer at the Horse like they used to. Other times he’d drive out to where he and Bootsie lived, and together they’d drive back into town and eat breakfast at Hattie’s and after that stop in at the OTB. But not often enough. Rub needed to know when Sully was coming, otherwise he’d wonder all day if he was. Only every night and every day would be often enough.

  Noticing, finally, how dejected and listless Rub had become, Sully had tried to explain how he was staying home more now, not wasting so much time carousing. He wanted to set a better example for his grandson. It wasn’t good for the boy to see him coming home shitfaced every night after the bars closed, getting his name in the police log for some damned foolishness or other. Rub wanted to believe him. He truly did. But from small things Sully let drop, it seemed he was still a regular at the Horse. Suspicious, Rub sometimes called and asked for him, but Birdie, the regular bartender, recognized his stammer. She always claimed Sully wasn’t there, hadn’t seen him for days, in fact. But then Rub had heard her say similar things to the wives of men sitting right in front of her, so he could easily imagine her raising an eyebrow in Sully’s direction and him shaking his head no, just like these other men did.

  “I just wisht you weren’t always in such a hurry,” Rub said weakly. He hated it when Sully went silent. It was bad enough when what he said was untrue or unfair, but silence was even worse, because to Rub that either meant he’d lost interest or didn’t think what Rub was trying to explain merited any response. These days Sully always seemed to be in a hurry, anxious to be off to the next place, as if he was being pursued by something neither of them could name. Was that how things would be this afternoon? Not if Rub could help it. Pruning the offending tree limb wouldn’t take more than half an hour, but he was determined to make an afternoon of it. With Bootsie safely at work and Sully’s son and grandson away, they could pull up a couple of lawn chairs and Rub could tell him all the things he’d been storing up, each thought leading to the next and then the next, until he’d covered all of it. Whereas if he sensed Sully was in a hurry, the words would get all jammed up in the back of his throat.

  That had been the worst thing about being Sully’s friend: having to share him. At Hattie’s, the OTB, the White Horse Tavern? It didn’t matter. The cruel arithmetic of their friendship was such that while Sully was Rub’s only friend, Rub was one of Sully’s many. In addition to his son and grandson, both of whom Rub resented deeply, though he knew he wasn’t supposed to, there was Carl Roebuck, whom he resented even more. As their former employer, he had exactly no claim on Sully’s affection but seemed to have it anyway. And then there was Ruth, down at Hattie’s. Sully claimed they weren’t carrying on anymore, but if that was true, why was she still his friend? The list went on and on. Birdie out at the Horse and Jocko and all the other regulars. Also Sully’s Upper Main Street ladies, elderly widows who lived in decaying Victorians and counted on Sully to bring them to the hairdresser and fix their faulty plumbing, though they never paid him. Why did any of these people come in for a share?

  Since it seemed to be a real math problem, for a time Rub had put his faith in subtraction. When Sully’s landlady died, Rub imagined he’d be first in line for the old woman’s share of his friend’s time and affection, but somehow that hadn’t happened. And he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up a year later when Wirf, Sully’s lawyer and boon drinking companion, had passed but again, no dice. Indeed, every time someone in his friend’s inner circle died or moved away, it was as if Sully himself was proportionately diminished, so there was never a net gain. This fall Will would head off to college, and Peter claimed that when this happened he, too, would be leaving town, news that once upon a time would’ve buoyed Rub’s spirits, but no longer.

  You should’ve listened to your mother.

  “You nuh-nuh-nuh—”

  I nuh-nuh-nuh?

  “You n-never even met her.”

  She told you what would happen, though. You just didn’t believe her.

  Even after all these years Rub didn’t like to think about his mother, who’d tried her best for him. As a child he’d been slow to talk, going on three before he uttered his first word. He’d been named Robert, after his father, but she wanted to call him Rob, since her husband was Bob. But Rub had struggled with the sound, indeed with many sounds, and before long it became clear that his speech would be seriously impeded. It took him so long to spit out the R sound that he was exhausted, and what followed sounded more like ubb than obb, so his mother had decided to just go with that. Later, seeing how lonely and friendless Rub was at school, where his stammer made him the butt of endless jokes, she’d recommended Jesus, who she claimed was the most important friend to have, though she couldn’t have anticipated Sully. Sometimes she took Rub to the ramshackle church she visited on Sundays where they talked about Jesus and the rapture at the end of the world, but one week a man brought snakes, and Rub was so terrified that after that his mother left him home with his father. And Jesus became, for him, just the man on the calendar.

  Every month there was a new one to contemplate—January Jesus, June Jesus, December Jesus—with all these as constant and reliable as the seasons, as ubiquitous as time itself. Though Rub’s circumstances grew increasingly dire as the months unfolded, Calendar Jesus always bore the same beatific expression. Even carrying the heavy cross, his head crowned with jagged thorns, his palms punctured (a discrete drop of bright red blood on each), Jesus remained serene, and Rub, an anxious child, hoped that when he grew up, he, too, would find such grace in the face of hardship, that his more or less constant longing would yield to tranquil acceptance. Of course this wasn’t to be, and twenty years later when he accidentally punctured his own left palm with a nail gun, he discovered that if you weren’t the Son of God (or at least a distant cousin) serenity in the face of that kind of pain was not an option.

  His poor mother. Most of the time she bore a kind, faraway expression that made Rub wonder if she could read the future and if that was why she worried about him so much. But maybe it was her own future, her own loneliness, she was contemplating, not his. Though he and his father were right there, to Rub she seemed every bit as forlorn as he was, and for this he blamed himself. While he knew he was just a boy and no proper companion for a grown woman, he felt guilty anyway. She never left the house except to go to church, for which his father religiously ridiculed her. You might as well believe in the Easter Bunny, he liked to tell her, which was how Rub had come to understand there wasn’t one. Because he loved his mother and knew it was what she wanted, he tried praying to Calendar Jesus for a
while. She’d taught him how, but obviously he wasn’t doing it right, because when he finished saying the words he wasn’t filled to overflowing with the Savior’s love, like she said he’d be, but even more empty and alone than before. His father? Rub knew it was a sin, but he hated the man even as he loved him, for his nasty laugh and his refusal to ever have a kind word for anyone. In the end, though, he came around to his father’s view with respect to Jesus, after which the Son of God assumed a status more or less equivalent to the Bunny with whom he shared a holiday.

  Why, then, Rub had wondered many times since, had he grieved his father’s passing? Because that’s what boys were supposed to do when their fathers died? Because his mother, who had every reason to be happy that the man was gone, had sobbed so pitifully? How could she possibly miss a man who’d belittled her as naturally as he’d breathed? By the same token, how could Rub himself? One of his clearest memories was of one Sunday morning when his mother had gone off to church, leaving the two of them alone in the house. He could still see the old man sitting in the corduroy armchair that no one else could sit in and watching, with an expression of sneering wonderment, as Rub tried desperately to communicate something of importance, he no longer could remember exactly what. His stammer was always at its worst around his father, words turning to concrete shards in his mouth. Part of the reason he continued to struggle, he now recalled, was that he’d actually managed to get out part of what he wanted to say and mistook his father’s curious expression to indicate interest. But then he saw it wasn’t curiosity at all, simply disgust. “Why don’t you just give up?” was what his father wanted him to explain.

  “How dare you?” said a voice he didn’t recognize. Neither Rub nor his father had heard his mother return. She’d just materialized there in the doorway, and her fury was so focused that she not only sounded but also looked like another woman entirely. He’d never known her to raise her voice to his father before, but here she was, glaring at him, shaking with rage, and in her hand a gleaming kitchen knife. At that moment his mother, who could often calm his stammer by simply resting a cool, dry hand on top of his, looked perfectly willing to kill the man whose verbal abuse she took, day after day, as if it were her due.

  “You,” she went on, the usual quaver in her voice now absent as she pointed the tip of the blade at his father. “You’re the reason he’s like he is.”

  Rub’s father, his mouth open, as if on a hinge, seemed less frightened by this knife-wielding specter than dumbstruck by her words. If so, he was no less stunned than Rub himself, who tried desperately to make sense of what she was saying. He knew all too well that his stammer was worse in his father’s presence, but how could he be to blame for the affliction itself? If Rub’s mouth didn’t work properly, if he couldn’t make it behave, how could it be anyone’s fault but his? Hadn’t his mother always told him it was nobody’s fault? Hadn’t the lady at the university she’d taken him to see—a speech therapist, she was called—concurred? Rub had wondered if they were just trying to make him feel better and, if so, fine. He didn’t object to being let off the hook. But this was different. Had his mother lost her mind? How could his stupid mouth be his father’s fault?

  “You’re a hateful, hateful man,” she continued as Rub looked on in horror. “Your only joy is tormenting the people who love you.”

  His father started to say something, but no sound came out of his mouth, which was just as well because Rub’s mother wasn’t finished. She pointed the sharp end of the knife at Rub now.

  “That boy actually looks up to you, you hateful man. He doesn’t know there’s no such thing as pleasing you. He doesn’t understand that you enjoy watching him suffer. And you know what? Neither do I. So explain it to us. How can it feel good that this boy, your child, is so terrified every waking moment that he wets the bed at night?”

  When Rub heard this, he could only stare at the floor in shame. He had no idea his father knew about the bed. His mother had told him it would be their secret, but clearly she hadn’t kept her promise. You’re the reason he’s like he is, she’d said earlier, and what she must’ve meant by that now crystallized. She wasn’t just talking about his stammer but rather about everything that was wrong with him, his totality as a disappointing boy.

  He also understood something else. His mother’s rage, her willingness not just to defend him but to shift the blame for his failures to his father, were in direct response to his father’s question: Why don’t you just give up? At first he’d assumed he was advising him to pause, calm down, collect himself and begin again from a more tranquil state. After all, that was what his mother and the speech therapist always encouraged him to do. Now, though, thanks to his mother’s fury, he understood that what his father had actually wanted to know was why, given the entirety of his experience, Rub didn’t give up altogether and stop believing in the possibility of good outcomes.

  So again, why grieve the loss of such a man?

  You tell me.

  But Rub couldn’t, any more than he could explain why now, so many years later, he wasted so much time indulging silly, impossible fantasies. Because Sully was right. You couldn’t turn back the clock. Which meant he and Sully would never again be best friends. “Will we?” he said.

  But again Sully was silent.

  Maybe, Rub thought, there were some things in this world you just needed, against all reason. Maybe his need for Sully wasn’t so very different from his mother’s need for his father, a man who never tired of disparaging her. Because she had needed him, of that Rub was certain. Not long after his father’s death, she stopped going to church and, without warning or explanation, Calendar Jesus disappeared from the kitchen wall, as if with only the two of them in the house they had no further need to mark the passing of days and months. By the time Rub was in middle school, she’d begun to wander off, and people would bring her home dazed and disoriented. Worse, she began to regard Rub, whom she’d been willing to defend with that gleaming knife, as if she couldn’t quite place him. It was the same look Sully sometimes gave him lately. Would what happened to her also happen to Sully? Was his new forgetfulness, his inability to sit still, an omen of what waited ahead? Would Sully, like Rub’s mother, become so abstracted that he’d start wandering off? If so, who would bring him home? Who would remind him who his friends were if he forgot? Would Rub himself be among them?

  Hey, Dummy.

  “What?”

  Quit that.

  It was true, Rub had begun to blubber, which Sully always hated. He’d made the mistake of looking over at the funeral gathering at exactly the wrong moment. The man in the flowing robe had made a sweeping gesture toward the gleaming casket, and in that instant the sun had reflected off its surface to blinding effect, and suddenly Rub knew for a certainty what had perplexed him only a moment before. His mother had still been relatively young when she began to lose her mind. Sully was old. He wasn’t going to wander off. He was going to die. And the worst part was that when the day came it would fall to Rub to dig his best friend’s grave.

  You hear me? Quit.

  “I can’t help it,” Rub blubbered.

  Listen to me.

  “What?”

  Are you listening?

  Rub nodded.

  I’m not going anywhere for a while yet, okay?

  “Promise?”

  How about if I stick around until you’re squared away? How would that suit you?

  Rub nodded. That suited him fine. Because this much he was certain of, just as his mother had been—he was never going to be squared away.

  Not ever.

  Karma

  A BANNER WAS STRUNG across Main Street for the Memorial Day weekend. THE NEW NORTH BATH: PARTNERING FOR TOMORROW. This was the brainstorm of Gus Moynihan, the town’s new mayor, who’d been swept into power the previous year on a tidal wave of born-again optimism, more than a decade after the demise of the Ultimate Escape Fun Park, an economic catastrophe that had ushered in a golden age of self-loath
ing and fiscal pessimism deeply rooted in two centuries’ worth of invidious comparison with Schuyler Springs, its better-looking twin and age-old rival. Schuyler had long possessed everything to which Bath aspired—a vibrant local economy, an educated citizenry, visionary leadership, throngs of seasonal downstate visitors, an NPR affiliate radio station.

  Okay, sure, there’d been some shitty luck involved. Bath’s mineral springs had mysteriously dried up over a century ago while Schuyler’s continued to percolate up enthusiastically from its shale. Schuyler also had a famous thoroughbred racetrack, an acclaimed writers’ retreat and a center for the performing arts, a high-toned liberal arts college (Bath had only a beleaguered two-year community college), as well as a dozen fancy restaurants that served exotic foods like ramps, whatever they were. On the restaurant front, all Bath could boast was its rundown roadhouse tavern, the White Horse, Hattie’s Lunch, a donut shop and a new Applebee’s out by the freeway exit. What all this amounted to, everyone agreed, was a complete economic and cultural rout. For a while the fun park had gotten people’s hopes up, but when they were dashed the collective despair was so profound that the town had even stopped stringing the buoyantly optimistic Main Street banners that had become its dubious trademark, the last of which had read: THINGS ARE LOOKING IN BATH. The gloom had lasted until Gus Moynihan, a retired college professor who was renovating one of the grand old Victorians on Upper Main Street, wrote a guest newspaper editorial decrying the town’s mordant defeatism and criticizing the current Republican administration’s unspoken policies, which could be summed up, he claimed, in nine words: No Spending. None. Ever. On Anything. Under Any Circumstances. Why not string one last banner across the street, he suggested: LET’S EAT DIRT.

 
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