Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “I thought Charice and I were friends,” he told Dr. Qadry. “I even thought…”

  “What?”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  “And now you think you aren’t friends?”

  He shrugged.

  “Maybe you’re wrong.”

  “But probably not.” She’d followed Jerome’s gurney, not his.

  “Okay, I can see how uncomfortable this is making you,” she said, and he took this as permission to rise. “It was good of you to spare me a few minutes. I hope you won’t try to communicate further with Mr. Bond.”

  She stood as well, offering her right hand, then remembered and, embarrassed, held out her left. “Failure of imagination,” she apologized. “Amazing how often it comes down to that.”

  At the door it occurred to Raymer that there was one thing he wanted to ask. “Have you ever treated anybody who’d been struck by lightning?”

  She blinked, then shook her head. It pleased him to see her so completely wrong-footed. “Why?”

  “I just wonder what something like that would do. What effect it would have?”

  “Well,” she said, “human beings are mostly water and electrical impulses. A sudden surge like that, even if it didn’t…fry you?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Well, there’s nowhere in the body the current wouldn’t go.”

  “Do you think it could put something inside you that wasn’t already there?”

  “Like what?”

  “Like thoughts that aren’t yours?”

  “Doubtful.”

  He nodded. “What about afterward? Would things go back to normal, eventually?”

  He was surprised to see how seriously the woman was regarding him. “You’ll have to let me know,” she said.

  —

  LEAVING THE HOSPITAL, Raymer heard a metronomic banging sound coming from the parking lot but paid it no mind. A cab was idling out front, so he got in and gave the driver Jerome’s address. Once he fetched his car, he’d drive back to Bath, check in to one of the interstate motels and catch a few hours’ sleep. In the morning, semi-rested, he’d decide how to proceed. The longer he thought about it, the more inclined he was to just leave everything and make a clean getaway. If there was such a thing.

  “Hold on a minute,” he said as the driver put the taxi in gear. Because standing in the middle of the parking lot, directly beneath a streetlamp, was a man Raymer recognized, even from behind, as Gus Moynihan. He was leaning forward, with his elbows on the roof of his car and his forehead resting on the frame. Only when he got closer was Raymer able to make out what he was using to make the banging sound: Alice’s phone. “Gus?” he said, causing him to straighten up guiltily.

  “Doug,” he said, quickly putting the handset behind his back. “What are you doing here?” Even in the poor light Raymer could see that his eyes were red and puffy. Raymer held up his bandaged hand. “Oh,” he said, “right.”

  Had the mayor been thinking clearly, he would’ve asked why, for such a complaint, Raymer hadn’t been treated in Bath, but he obviously wasn’t tracking. Something bad must’ve happened, bad enough to make him forget that Raymer had stood him up for all those interviews on the evening news.

  “Gus,” he said, “is Alice okay?”

  “Yes, she’s fine,” he said, forcing a smile, but it soon crumpled. “No, that’s a lie, actually. She’s not fine. Alice…has never been fine.”

  “What happened?”

  “She took some pills.”

  “I’m sorry. Is she—”

  “She’ll live. They pumped her stomach in Bath. Unfortunately, there’s no mental health unit there,” he laughed bitterly. “Yet another amenity Schuyler Springs offers that we don’t. Anyway, she’s resting. That’s what they say, right? Resting comfortably? Words in lieu of truth. As if a mind like hers could ever rest.” He shook his head and looked off into the distance. “Tomorrow she’ll be admitted to the state mental hospital in Utica. The last time she was there I promised her she’d never have to go back.”

  “Maybe they’ll be able to—”

  “Yeah, but Doug? The thing is, I thought I could help her. I mean, wasn’t that the whole idea? Me, helping? The man she was with before…” He let the thought trail off. “I thought I could do a better job, but instead I ended up making everything worse.”

  “How is it your fault if Alice is sick?”

  Instead of answering, he took the handset out from behind his back and stared at it. Then, without warning, he hit himself in the forehead with it. Hard. Then twice more before Raymer, caught off guard, could yank it away from him. One of the blows, Raymer saw, had cut through his eyebrow, which now bled freely.

  “Don’t you see?” he said. “I took it away from her. I told her all those imaginary conversations were making her sick. That if she didn’t want to go back to Utica, she had to give it to me.”

  “And you think that’s why she swallowed those pills?”

  He didn’t answer, just stared at his bloody hands. “I’m bleeding,” he said. “Good.”

  “Hold still,” Raymer told him. “Tilt your head back. That’s a deep wound, Gus. You need stitches.”

  “Better yet,” he said. “You know what my problem is? In a nutshell? I always think I can fix things. The whole town of Bath. Turns out I’m the one in need of repair.” He nodded at the phone. “Can I have that back?”

  “Not if you’re going to hit yourself again.”

  “I won’t,” he promised. “I’ll go back inside and leave it on her bedside table. They say she’ll sleep until morning, but if she wakes up in the middle of the night it’ll be there for her.”

  Raymer reluctantly handed it over.

  “Here’s what I’d like to know. Why did I do such a thing? Why did I take it from her. Actually, I think I know. It made me angry that when she got scared and the world made no sense, it was never me she came to.”

  “I’m not sure I follow,” Raymer allowed.

  “It was like she knew I didn’t have what she needed. To her, talking to someone who didn’t even exist, on a phone that wasn’t even connected, gave her more comfort than I ever did. I think maybe that’s what I couldn’t bear.”

  “You want to know what I think?” Raymer said, astonishing himself that he not only had an opinion but also wanted to share it.

  “I would, actually,” Gus told him, weeping openly now. “Especially if you think better of me than I do of myself. I’d really like to hear that. Do you think you could say something along those lines and make me believe it?”

  What Raymer had intended to say, and what over the course of the last forty-eight hours he was coming to understand, was that it was a shame, indeed a crying shame, though probably not a crime, to be unequal to the most important tasks you’re given. That was true of just about everyone Raymer knew, including himself. All his life, it seemed to him, he’d come up short, but his shortcomings were not, he hoped, criminal. And who knew? Maybe telling Gus something like that would be helpful. On the other hand, he seemed to want something else entirely, and Raymer found he could deliver that as well. “In the end I think things are going to work out,” he said. “I think Alice loves you more than you know, and I think you love her. I think this time the Utica doctors will know what to do. There’ll be a new medication to try, or there’ll be somebody new on staff who understands. I think that in no time she’ll be back here with you. I also think it’s possible for us to be better people tomorrow than we are today.”

  He had no idea, of course, whether any of these things were true, in whole or in part. Still, what possible good could come of believing otherwise?

  —

  HE WAS ON the interstate, halfway back to Bath, when he noticed an orange glow on the horizon and then, between the trees, what looked like the tip of a tiny flame. His first thought, given last night’s weird atmospheric disturbances, was that this, despite the star-filled sky, must be yet another. Turning on the police band, he le
arned there was in fact a fire on Upper Main Street in Bath.

  Unlike houses, trailers didn’t take long to burn, and by the time Raymer arrived, there wasn’t much left of Sully’s. The fire department had managed to keep the flames from leaping to Miss Beryl’s house, though the clapboards were scorched black right up to the eaves. About the only thing recognizable in the trailer’s smoking rubble was the commode Raymer had fallen asleep on early that morning, waiting for Sully to return home.

  Mark Diamond, the fire chief, noticed him and came over. “There’s a body,” he said.

  Raymer nodded, because of course there would be. “Has the coroner been notified?”

  “Expected momentarily.”

  “No other injuries?”

  Diamond shook his head. “The son lives downstairs, but according to the neighbors he’s away. Carl Roebuck rents the upstairs flat, but he isn’t home, either.” He frowned then. “Somebody said you resigned.”

  “I did.”

  “Over this new plan I keep hearing about? To merge our services with Schuyler’s?”

  “No. Nothing to do with that.” His attention kept returning to the smoking ruin of Sully’s trailer. Feeling a sudden, unanticipated surge of emotion for a man who, until today, had only been a thorn in his side. “I was with him last night,” he told Diamond. “We were never friends, but I asked him for a favor. A pretty big one, actually. And damned if he didn’t pitch in.”

  “That’s Sully, all right,” Diamond sadly agreed. “Lately, though, he had the look.”

  “Of what?”

  “The one people get when they’re not long for this world.”

  It was true. Out at Hilldale, Raymer’s focus had been elsewhere, but he remembered how pale Sully’d looked on the backhoe, how much trouble he’d had climbing onto it and then down again.

  “Gotta go,” Diamond said. One of his crew was calling to him. “One other thing? Even though you resigned? One of the neighbors said he heard voices in the driveway not long before the fire started, and when we arrived one of my guys thought he smelled accelerant. I’ve asked for a canine unit.”

  That jogged Raymer’s memory. “Any sign of his dog?”

  “In the burn? No. No canine remains. Just the one human skeleton.”

  “You’re sure?”

  “Be pretty hard to miss.”

  Walking back up the driveway, Raymer kicked something solid that felt like a stone but sounded metallic. It took him a moment to find it in the dark. A stopwatch. Sully’s? There’d been one on the kitchen table that morning, he remembered, and Sully’d put it in his pocket when they left. Had he accidentally dropped it when he got back home and came up the drive? No, it was too heavy. In the night’s stillness he’d have heard it hit the gravel. Maybe he couldn’t spot it in the dark and figured he’d look again in the morning. Possible, but again Raymer doubted it. It was supposed to rain again later that night. He wouldn’t have left it lying there on the ground, not when he had a flashlight in the truck.

  The crowd had begun to disperse by the time the coroner arrived. He and Diamond, their shoes covered with plastic, were standing in the middle of the burned trailer, studying the body’s charred remains. “Raymer,” said the coroner. “I heard you resigned.”

  He ignored this. “Can you guess the victim’s height?” he asked. “Based on…that?”

  “I’ll be able to tell you within an inch or two tomorrow,” he said. “Right now, I’d be guessing.”

  “Okay, so guess,” he said. Diamond seemed puzzled by all this.

  The man cocked his head. “Five-seven? Five-eight?”

  “Guess again,” Diamond said. “Sully was a good six feet.”

  Raymer’s radio barked static. “Chief?” the night dispatcher said. “You there?”

  “Yup.”

  “That yellow-and-purple vehicle we’ve been looking for finally turned up. Parked out back of the Sans Souci. We figure Roy Purdy must be holed up inside.”

  “Not possible,” Raymer told him.

  “Why not?”

  From where Raymer stood, just outside the shell of the trailer, he could make out a blackened human foot. “Because then he’d be in two places at once.”

  —

  HE COULD HEAR the dog barking from the foot of the steep drive. The husband’s big flatbed was parked at the top. What the hell was the man’s name? Suddenly it was there: Zack. Cutting his lights, Raymer pulled up and parked behind the truck. There were lights on in the house, which suggested that despite the lateness of the hour and the circumstances, somebody was awake in there. Ruth, his wife, was in critical condition at the hospital, so it was probably Zack, the man he’d come to arrest. There could be someone else, though. They had a granddaughter who sometimes stayed with them, but he guessed she’d be at the hospital, too, along with her mother. Raymer hoped so. He didn’t want to have to cuff the man in front of his loved ones. Getting out of the car, he thought about double-checking his .38 to make sure it was loaded and the safety was on, then decided not to bother. He wouldn’t be able to grip it with his bandaged right hand, and it would be useless in his left.

  He paused to do a quick inventory of the truck bed, noting a big red gas can. Even in the moonlight he could see gas had sloshed out of its mouth recently. Only a small amount was left in the bottom. The barking seemed to be coming not from the house but the enormous shed out back, the scorched, mangled roof looking like it had been struck by lightning. The sight of this conspicuous damage caused Raymer to swallow hard. Why hadn’t he himself been reduced to cinders? A padlock was dangling, open, from the latch, and as soon as he opened the shed’s door, Sully’s little dog came bounding out, squealing with delight. Did he recognize Raymer from the cemetery that morning, or did he just love people? Amazing that the animal could be in such high spirits given his condition, one eye swollen shut, the fur on his muzzle singed and matted with blood. Taken together with his half-chewed-off dick, he made a grisly spectacle. “You look like you had a rough night,” Raymer told him, and the dog yipped enthusiastically, as if a little empathy was all he needed to be happy.

  A light came on over the back door then, as well as a floodlight attached to the peak of the shed, illuminating the entire yard. A moment later a man in a sleeveless T-shirt came out and stood on the porch, scratching his enormous belly thoughtfully with his left hand. Raymer had seen the man around town and marveled at the thatch of unruly cowlick that was his distinguishing feature, pretty unusual on anybody but a kid. His right wrist and forearm were awkwardly wrapped in gauze and masking tape. “I been expecting you,” he said, his voice carrying in the darkness.

  “You know why I’m here, then?” Raymer said, approaching the house, the little mutt doing joyous laps around him. He half expected Dougie to advise him on how to proceed, but not a peep. Maybe he was gone for good. That’s certainly what it felt like standing here, quite some distance from the nearest neighbor, with a very large man who’d already killed one man tonight: like he was on his own. “That looks painful,” he said, staring at his bandaged forearm and wondering how badly it was burned.

  “It is,” Zack admitted. “Serves me right, I guess.”

  “How’d you know he was in Sully’s trailer?” Raymer said. “Your son-in-law.”

  “I didn’t,” he said. “I went there to tell Sully she was gonna make it. My wife. She was in a coma, and they kept tellin’ us she might not wake up, but then she did.”

  Raymer, like everybody else in Bath, had heard about Sully’s long affair with Ruth and also that her husband knew all about it. Apparently the fact they’d been sharing her didn’t preclude the possibility of friendship and might even, weirdly, have been its source. Would Raymer and Jerome have arrived at some similar arrangement if Becka had lived? If she’d been killed in a car wreck years later, long after they all knew where they stood with one another, would Raymer’s first thought have been to inform Jerome, since he’d loved her, too? “But when you got to the trailer, Sul
ly wasn’t there.”

  “There weren’t no lights on,” Zack told him, “but I heard this little guy whimperin’ inside, and when I knocked I heard somebody stirrin’ in there. I figured it wasn’t Sully. He’d’ve come to the door. But this guy sounded hurt, so I went in.”

  “The door was unlocked?”

  The man chuckled. “Sully never locked a door in his life. Most of the time he wouldn’t even think to close ’em.”

  “And you found him inside. Your son-in-law.”

  He nodded. “I turned on a light, and there he was in the doorway, rubbing his eyes like he just woke up. He said, ‘This ain’t working out like I planned.’ I asked him what he’d planned and he said, ‘You’re supposed to be Sully.’ We just stood there lookin’ at each other for a minute. Then I said, ‘Aren’t you gonna ask how she is?’ And he said, ‘How who is?’ That was when I seen he was holdin’ that hammer.”

  He showed Raymer his left elbow, which he must’ve used to block the blow, now ballooned up to the size of a knee.

  “You don’t have to talk to me,” Raymer said. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t, not without a lawyer. You know your rights?”

  He shrugged. “I watch TV.” He listened patiently while Raymer recited the Miranda, resuming his story only when that was over. “He got the one blow in, but that was it. Roy ain’t much of a fighter. He likes to punch women. Kick poor defenseless animals. But a big guy like me? I just picked him up and tossed him. The back of his head hit the edge of the counter and that was that. He just laid there, not movin’.”

  “An accident, then.”

  “I never meant to kill him, if that’s what you mean.”

  He seemed to understand, though, that a jury might not want to play ball, given his strong motive for vengeance.

 
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