Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  Carl was nodding. “We’ve all been wondering when you’d come clean.”

  “Never was my plan,” Sully admitted. “I wasn’t even going to let them do it, but then I figured what the fuck.”

  Carl was grinning now. “Well, it’s good you reasoned it through so completely. You really think you can work tomorrow?”

  “I guess we’ll find out. Lately I have a bad day, then a couple good ones. Today’s been a bitch, so tomorrow ought to be better. Even if I feel like shit, I should be able to sit on a backhoe.”

  And anyway, why not give it a whirl. During the course of the day something in him had pivoted. The promise he’d just made to Carl—to work something out—was vague and unenforceable, though in Sully’s experience a man’s character required him to make good on such deals. And it made a lot more sense than his earlier promise to Janey—that he’d find Roy and hurt him—a pledge he clearly wasn’t going to make good on. So tomorrow he and Rub would descend into whatever vile, poisonous shit was oozing up from beneath that concrete floor at Carl’s mill. There he’d listen to his friend’s litany of wishes: that they’d stopped for a big ole jelly donut, instead of coming straight to work, that Hattie’s wasn’t closed so they’d have someplace to go for lunch, that he and Sully didn’t always get the crap jobs, that Sully hadn’t gone and renamed his dog Rub. When he was all wished out, Sully would tell him again to wish in one hand and shit in the other, then let him know which filled up first. Things were just the way they were, as they’d always been and always would be, and really—here was the important point—this life wasn’t all that bad, was it? When they knocked off at the end of the day, they’d be welcome at the Horse, even if they did smell like Mother Teresa’s pussy. And once there, whether or not he had an appetite himself, Sully would spring for the big ole cheeseburger Rub had been wishing for all afternoon, maybe get him to call Bootsie and invite her to join them, because when Sully was gone, he was going to need somebody to listen to him. He wasn’t sure Bootsie was the right person for that job, but there didn’t seem to be anybody else. And maybe, now that Sully thought about it, the time had come to let the dog go back to being Reggie again. He could do that much.

  “If you don’t mind, I’m going to make this an early night,” he told Carl, pushing the dregs of his second beer away. Whatever he’d come to the Horse for, he seemed to have gotten it. If he went to bed early and got a decent night’s sleep, he could be at the hospital before dawn and maybe steal a few moments alone with Ruth while the others slept. If he didn’t go home now, Jocko would show up and buy a round, and later someone would suggest a poker game, and on the way home, two or three short hours before dawn, he’d be forced to admit he was the kind of man who could enjoy himself while a woman whose love had saved him more than once lay in a coma.

  “Go,” Carl said. “But first I’d like your opinion about something.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Rub and Bootsie.”

  “Yeah?”

  “You think they’ll have sex when they get home?”

  “Jesus,” Sully said, shaking his head. “You are such a sick fuck.” Though he’d wondered the same thing himself.

  “I don’t know who I feel sorrier for,” Carl said.

  —

  THERE IT SAT.

  Next to the Dumpster, the yellow-and-purple beater that hadn’t been there three hours earlier.

  Sully’d been only a block from home when he thought to check the parking lot out back of the Sans Souci one last time. Now, feeling the fist in his chest clench painfully, he almost wished he hadn’t. Grabbing the tire iron from the dash, he got out but left the truck running, its high beams trained on the back of the hotel. Then he blasted the horn for a full five seconds.

  “Roy Purdy!” he shouted as the sound died away, causing the fist to clench again, harder this time, his wreck of a heart sending him an urgent, unambiguous message. Cease. Desist. “You might as well come on out.”

  When there was no response, he took out Will’s stopwatch and depressed its tiny stem. “You got one minute!”

  Fine, then, he thought when the minute hand had completed its revolution. He’d drive into town, report the vehicle’s location and let Raymer and his crew handle it. Noticing that one of the beater’s rear tires was missing its rubber valve cap, he used the edge of the tire iron to let the air out.

  “The cops’ll be along shortly,” he called when the tire was completely flat. “And that’s for true.”

  By the time he returned to Upper Main Street, though, the fist in his chest had become an anvil on top of it, and he knew he’d never make it down to the station. He’d have to call instead from Peter’s flat. If he could make it that far.

  Pulling up at the curb in front of Miss Beryl’s, he turned off the engine, but then, unable to catch his breath, he just sat there. Two years, but probably one? Two hours, but probably one, was more like it. The truth he’d been unwilling to face all day was simplicity itself: he was finished. Back at the Horse he’d somehow managed to convince himself that his choice was between keeping his promise to Janey and helping Carl out of his jam, though he now realized this was an illusion, a fiction. The anvil sitting on his chest was the only reality.

  Get out of the truck, old man, he told himself when he was able to draw at least a little oxygen into his lungs. You can manage that much. After that, the short walk up the drive and then three small steps onto the back porch. Make one call to the station, then another to 911 for an ambulance. Not because it would save him, but so nobody he cared about would have to find him. He thought about Rub, who’d need to be let out of the trailer soon. After the 911 call, if he had strength and breath enough, he’d telephone the Horse and get Carl to do that.

  Move, he told himself, because he was still in the truck, still thinking about what needed to be done instead of doing it. Perhaps for the first time in his life thinking was easier, less painful, than doing. One more reason to believe the end was near.

  He’d made it halfway up the drive when Miss Beryl’s long-ago question popped into his head, unbidden as always. Does it ever trouble you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you? Even now he couldn’t say for sure. Was it supposed to? Had he been wrong to take such pleasure in always doing things the hard way? And to banish self-doubt and regret before they could take root? Had it been selfish of him to make sure that his destination at the end of the day was a barstool among men who, like himself, had chosen to be faithful to what they took to be their own natures, when instead they might have been faithful to their families or to convention or even to their own early promise?

  Not often, he’d told Miss Beryl. Now and then.

  She’d immediately registered the change in him when he returned from overseas, no doubt sensing that his newfound ability to distance Sully from Sully would become his great skill in life. He’d always been bullheaded, of course, but the war had taught him to move forward, and as he saw it this meant putting one foot in front of the other, to keep going when other men stopped, to grind it out.

  Except that now, almost to the back door of his son’s flat, everything tilted, and he was on his knees on the hard ground, and a moment later there was gravel under his chin.

  So, he thought. This was how it ended, how it had to end. The day had finally come when putting one foot in front of the other was simply fucking impossible, when the forward motion he’d depended on his entire life failed him and he it. On your feet, Soldier, he commanded himself, but his body was all done taking orders. The entire world, it seemed, was now reduced to silence and pain, the latter intense, the former unendurable. With the last of his strength he took out his grandson’s stopwatch. The ticking, when he depressed the stem, was loud and strong, a comfort, though it was also, he realized, the sound of time running out.

  Footsteps approached, but Sully didn’t hear them.

  Normal

  BY THE TIME he finished the last of the hospital’s paperwork, sig
ning all the necessary documents left-handed, with an untalented child’s scrawl, it was going on midnight. Thanks to a megadose of antibiotics, Raymer’s rationality, or what remained of it, had returned, and with it his normal depression. Hard to believe, but six short hours earlier, at Gert’s, he hadn’t had a care in the world, didn’t give a tiny little shit about anything. He might need to have his right hand amputated? So what? Even Jerome—wild eyed and completely off the rails—pointing that gun at him had failed to focus his mind. The idea that he might actually pull the trigger, sending both Raymer and vile, sneaky, manipulative Dougie into oblivion, had felt more liberating than terrifying. Freed from reason, he’d been free of cares, whereas now, reason restored, item number one on his agenda was putting the town of Bath and its myriad humiliations in his rearview mirror.

  Before he could do that, however, he had to rent a truck and a hitch for his car, buy cardboard boxes and packing materials, clear out his office at the station, then pack up his few possessions at the Arms. Could all that be accomplished in a single day? Was packing and taping boxes even a job he could manage with one hand? The wound of his ruined one, cleaned and freshly wrapped with gauze, throbbing mercilessly despite the prescription painkillers, now resembled a club. Would he be able to hire help on such short notice? Apart from his determination not to spend another night in the Morrison Arms, there was no real hurry about leaving. It wasn’t like he’d be heading anywhere in particular. Where were fools supposed to go? Was there someplace known for welcoming them, where he might blend in with others of his ilk? A place inhabited by middle-aged men who found it impossible to put their deceased wives’ infidelities behind them? Who fell in love again in the manner of teenage boys, too self-conscious and clueless to figure out whether their affections were returned? Was there such a place anywhere in the world?

  When he was finally discharged, a woman was waiting for him in the hallway. She looked to be in her fifties, had short brown hair and was dressed in slacks and a tweed jacket. “I was hoping I might catch you before you left,” she said. “We can talk in my office.” Her nameplate read DR. PAMELA QADRY.

  “Do we know each other?” he said, taking the chair she offered.

  “No,” she said, “but Jerome Bond is my patient.”

  “Oh,” he said. So a shrink, then.

  Poor Jerome. Raymer knew from Charice, of course, that he was prone to panic attacks, though he never would’ve believed that a functioning human being could come as completely unglued as Jerome had done over the last twenty-four hours. Since the keying of the ’Stang he’d become all but unrecognizable. In the ambulance he’d curled up into a fetal position and refused to look at Raymer, preferring to talk to the EMTs. “Do you even know what it’s like to love somebody?” he blubbered to the one trying to take his vital signs. “I mean really love somebody? Do you even know what love is?”

  Raymer, barely coherent himself, his fever raging, the pain in his hand so intense that it bordered on a religious experience, had been assigned his own EMT, a no-nonsense young woman who kept snapping her fingers in front of his face and saying, “Eyes on me, Mr. Man. None of that over there is our business.”

  Which had given Raymer a fit of the giggles. “Actually, it is,” he whispered. “That’s my wife he’s talking about.”

  “Is he going to be okay?” he asked this Qadry woman now.

  “We’ll get to Jerome in a minute,” she said, “but first tell me about your hand.” Like every other woman he knew, she evidently could tell just by looking at him exactly what he didn’t want to talk about.

  “I had a small…abrasion. It became infected. Resulting in blood poisoning.” He crossed his arms in order to slip the hand out of sight. Maybe if the woman couldn’t see it, she’d lose interest.

  “Why didn’t you get it treated sooner?”

  “I didn’t have a chance to.”

  She let that lie just hang in the air, her eyes on him, until he looked down. “I hear you did a lot of damage, digging at it. Do you have an idea why you did that? Hurting yourself so badly?”

  “At first it itched,” he explained. “I don’t think I was even aware I was scratching it.”

  “How does it feel now?”

  “It hurts like hell.”

  “Do you think you’ll start scratching it again?”

  “No,” he said. In fact, the idea made him feel faint. “But about Jerome?”

  She didn’t answer immediately, just kept studying him as if he were a human riddle. “Mr. Bond suffers from an acute anxiety disorder,” she said finally. “Lately it’s gotten worse. He’s been sedated and is in no immediate danger, but he’s not a well man. Is something wrong?”

  Raymer realized he was frowning. “It’s just…I don’t know. Should you be telling me this?”

  “Shouldn’t I be?”

  “Isn’t it sort of…confidential?”

  “I was under the impression you already knew.”

  “His sister, Charice”—he looked down, flushing again—“works for me. She’s worried about him.”

  “How about you, Chief Raymer? Are you worried about him?”

  “Sure.”

  “I ask because he believes you hate him.”

  “Well,” Raymer sighed. “I kind of do. He was having an affair with my wife.”

  “And when did you discover this?”

  “This afternoon.”

  “He says you’ve been tormenting him for weeks. Trying to get him to confess to the affair.”

  “Tormenting him how?”

  “Calling him in the middle of the night.”

  “I can’t remember the last time I called Jerome.” Only when she gave him an odd look did it occur to him that the statement could yield more than one interpretation. “Not counting today, I mean.”

  “He claims you know exactly when he falls asleep. And you call him then.”

  “How could I know when he falls asleep?”

  “He says you’ve installed secret cameras in his condo.”

  “Really?”

  “When he leaves, you sneak in and go through his things. Pick them up and put them back in the wrong places.”

  “And you believe this?”

  “He believes it.”

  “How do I get in?”

  “Through the garage.”

  Raymer was about to say this was crazy when he remembered he’d done precisely this earlier in the afternoon. Seeing the garage door open just as he pulled up at the curb, he’d assumed Jerome had set it in motion, but now, in light of all that transpired there, he knew better. Using the sharp edge of the remote to dig at his wound, Raymer himself, albeit unwittingly (Dougie, the sneaky little prick, somehow taking over crucial functions), had been the one making the demonic door go up and down. Had some part of him suspected Jerome of being Becka’s boyfriend before today? Well played, Dougie had said when Jerome finally confessed. Was it possible he actually had been tormenting him for weeks without knowing it, as this woman was suggesting? Or had Jerome come untethered all on his own, a victim of grief and conscience?

  “No, I don’t think I did anything like that,” he told Dr. Qadry.

  “You don’t think you did?”

  “Normally, I’m not a cruel person,” he explained. Could the same be said for Dougie, though? After all, that asshole instinctively intuited the worst in everyone. “Though it’s true…”

  “Yes?”

  “That lately I haven’t been…well.”

  “Would you like to tell me about it?”

  He considered the offer, but not for long. “No,” he told her. “I don’t think I would.”

  She nodded, apparently not surprised. “You mentioned Mr. Bond’s sister? Charice? Would you like to talk about her?”

  She’d followed the ambulance in her car, pulling into the emergency room lot just as he and Jerome were being wheeled inside. Raymer remembered wondering which of them she’d stay with, thinking that her decision would tell him everythi
ng he needed to know. As it had. When Jerome’s gurney was wheeled off in one direction, his own in another, their eyes had locked for a brief moment, then she went after her brother.

  Could there be any doubt she’d known all along? Her behavior over the last few weeks, at first so puzzling, was at last beginning to make sense. How she’d tried convincing him that the garage remote didn’t mean anything, arguing that it wouldn’t prove anything, that even if he could find a door it would open, it would prove nothing. At every turn, he now realized, she’d tried to get him to abandon his search for Becka’s lover. She’d made it appear as if his own mental health was her primary concern. For his own good, it was time to move on. But it was her brother she’d been trying to protect. It was Jerome’s fragile grip on sanity, his emotional well-being, not Raymer’s, that worried her. Much as he hated to admit it, Dougie—asshole though he was—had been onto Charice from the start, and Raymer would’ve been smart to heed his warnings.

  The question that plagued him now was, besides Charice, how many other people knew that Becka and Jerome had been lovers? Two? Two hundred? Had the whole town been laughing behind his back? For the longest time he’d been asking himself, Who? Who? Who? As if the man’s identity would satisfy all his need to know. But in fact, knowing who had provided no relief at all, only more questions. Beyond Who, there was How long, not to mention How and When? Had they met at Adfinitum one of those nights when Becka went there with her theater friends? Had Jerome come over and reintroduced himself as Raymer’s best man? Or had she recognized him, a tall, elegant black man sitting alone at the bar, and invited him to join them? How many times did they meet like this before it became clear to others in the group that they were a couple? Did they leave together in the ’Stang or, for the sake of appearances, separately? How frequently did she use that garage remote to slip unseen into Jerome’s condo?

  Almost as disconcerting was this: what did it say about Raymer that he never once suspected Jerome? “Damn, Dougie, you’re marrying up!” had been the first words out of his mouth when Raymer had introduced them. Was it because they were friends that Raymer hadn’t suspected, or because Jerome was black? How were you supposed to tell? Most people seemed to agree that it was impossible to be certain what was in someone else’s heart, but surely that didn’t apply to one’s own. Or was it even more true of one’s own?

 
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