Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “I probably can’t really say that, though,” he admitted, scratching his belly again. “ ’Cause maybe I did. When I grabbed him, I was thinkin’ about what he just said—‘How who is?’—like he’d already forgot about what he done to Ruth. Plus all those times he hit our Janey. So maybe I tossed him harder than I had to. Before tonight, I never wanted to hurt nobody. I like to get along with people, mostly.”

  “Why burn the trailer?”

  Zack rested a hand on his cowlick, holding it down for a minute, though it popped right back up again when he dropped his hand. “He must’ve found Sully’s gas can out in the garage, since it was sittin’ right there on the kitchen table with a box of matches. I figure he must’ve planned to hit Sully with the hammer when he came in, then burn the place. Make it look like an accident.”

  “So you thought you’d do the same thing?”

  He appeared to consider the possibility, as if he no longer had access to his earlier intention and the best he could offer was an educated guess. “You ever kill anybody?” he said, pointing at Raymer’s gun, the butt of it peeking out from his jacket.

  “No,” Raymer said. “Never.”

  “You don’t think normal afterwards,” he said. “It’s all different. Most of the time I can figure out what to do. It might not be what you’d do, but I kind of know what’s right for me.”

  Raymer nodded.

  “Kill somebody and it’s like…you can’t figure out what comes next, ’cause you ain’t you anymore. You can’t really even remember who you were. All there is is what you just did. That’s the best I can explain it. I just did what he was plannin’ to do.”

  “How’d you manage to burn yourself?”

  “That was this guy’s fault,” he said, pointing at the dog, who’d tired of doing circles and figure eights and plopped down on his stomach midway between them, as if he couldn’t decide which one was more likely to issue a command. “Roy’d locked him in the bathroom, and I kind of forgot about him. I’d just struck the match when I heard him whine, and I must’ve just stood there with it lit, because when I looked down my sleeve was on fire. Must’ve spilled some gas on it. Anyway, I got the shirt off, but when I dropped it, the whole place went up.” He squatted in front of the dog, who rose and licked the man’s left hand. “I just grabbed you and got us out of there before we both burned up, didn’t I?”

  Raymer couldn’t think of anything else to ask except the obvious. “You aren’t going to give any trouble, are you?”

  “Me? No.”

  This he believed. “Well, let’s stop at the hospital and get that arm looked at. But tomorrow you’ll have to come down to the station.”

  Zack nodded. “You think they’ll believe me about what happened? That it was an accident?”

  “Well, I do.”

  “What’ll they do to me?”

  “That I can’t tell you,” Raymer admitted. “You picked the right man to kill, though.”

  “That’s what I got to get straight in my head,” he said. “From now on I’m gonna be somebody that killed somebody else.”

  Raymer couldn’t help feeling sorry for the guy. He didn’t look like he’d be getting used to that idea anytime soon.

  Cured

  “UP,” said the older nurse, yanking back Sully’s bedclothes. He’d been warned this was coming, just a few minutes ago, he thought, but the clock said three-thirty, so they’d let him sleep for an hour. Mighty big of them.

  “Have a heart, lady,” he told her. “Four hours ago I was dead.” Not exactly true, but close enough. “A life-threatening cardiac event” was how they were describing what happened in the driveway, one he wouldn’t have survived if Mrs. St. Peter, one of the elderly Upper Main Street widows that he’d ferried to doctor and hairdresser appointments, hadn’t called the police station to report a Peeping Tom, which she did at least once a week. An officer named Miller had been sent to her house, right across the street from Miss Beryl’s, and he’d seen Sully stagger up the driveway like a drunk and then collapse. The protocol would have been to call for an ambulance, but Miller apparently saw an opportunity for heroism and dragged him out to the street, stuffed him into the back of his cruiser and raced him to the hospital, siren blaring, quite possibly saving his life in the process.

  “Okay,” the nurse said when he’d managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed. “So far, so good. Catch your breath a minute.”

  His breathing, actually, was pretty good. The best it had been in months. They’d told him at the VA that if he didn’t die on the table he’d feel a lot better immediately, but he’d forgotten what a lot better felt like, when oxygen really penetrated his lungs. “Does my doctor know you’re treating me like this?”

  “Any dizziness?”

  “No.”

  “Feel like you might faint?”

  “No.”

  “Okay, then, on your feet, mister.”

  Up he went. Wobbly for a second, then steady. The older nurse at his left elbow, the younger at his right. “I feel this draft,” he told them.

  “That’s because you’re bare-assed,” the boss lady told him.

  “I thought that might be it,” he said.

  When he went to touch his chest, she said, “Don’t,” and swatted his hand away.

  “What’d they put in there, a hockey puck?”

  “It feels bigger than it really is. You’ll forget it’s even there.”

  “When?”

  “Let’s walk.”

  “Where?”

  “Down the hall. Then back. You think you can make it?”

  “I think we should go dancing, you and me.”

  “Where?”

  “Wherever you want. But first you have to give me back my pants.”

  “How do you feel?”

  Good. Good was how he felt. Which was strange in itself. “What ward are we on?”

  “Intensive care. They’ll move you to a regular room tomorrow.”

  “I have a friend who might be on this ward. Her name’s Ruth?”

  “Came in in a coma?”

  The past tense stopped him.

  “She woke up,” the nurse told him. “She’s going to make it.”

  “How far is her room?”

  She pointed to the end of the corridor. “Can you make it that far?”

  “Let’s go.”

  —

  SITTING IN THE CHAIR at Ruth’s bedside, he woke up with her gaze on him and rain pattering against the window behind him. The wall clock said four-thirty, so he’d dozed there for half an hour. She’d been asleep when they arrived, but Sully talked the nurses into letting him wait there for a while. He must’ve nodded off as soon as they left.

  If anything, Ruth looked worse than she did yesterday. The swelling in her lower face had spread right up to her hairline, the bruising more vivid. But the eye that seemed glued shut the day before had partially opened. Most important, unlike Vera earlier that evening, Ruth was really there, present in her badly damaged body, actually in the room with him. He’d promised the nurse that he wouldn’t try to get to his feet without help, but now he did so without too much effort. Though there was discomfort in his chest where they’d inserted the internal defibrillator, it was nothing like the agony of the last few days. Leaning on the raised railing of the bed with one hand, he took Ruth’s with the other.

  “Okay, you win,” he said. “We’ll go to Aruba.”

  She started to smile, but he could see the pain in her eyes. No more jokes, then.

  “How about us two going down for the count at the same time, huh?”

  She blinked once, slow and deliberate. Yeah, how about that?

  “Janey and Tina were here all day. Zack, too.”

  Another long blink.

  “I’m sorry I’ve been so…,” he began, then stopped. “I’m sorry I made you worry about me. They wanted to do this down at the VA weeks ago,” he said, laying a hand on his chest.

  Yes.

 
; “You’re out of the woods, too. You know that, right?”

  Yes. She knew.

  “Maybe while we’re here they’ll fix everything. Make us young again.”

  Her head moved to the side ever so slightly.

  “You don’t want to be young again? Me neither. Make do with being alive, I guess.”

  Yes.

  He wanted to, he realized. Live, that is. For a while longer, anyway. For the last month or so he’d been wondering if maybe he’d lost his taste for it, but apparently not. Rub would have to muck out the basement of the old mill by himself, but he’d manage. So would Carl, at least until Sully could get back on his feet.

  “Well,” said a voice behind him. “Look who’s up and disobeying orders.”

  The older nurse was standing in the doorway. “Uh-oh,” he told Ruth. “The gig is up. This one’s going to throw me under the bus for sure.”

  Small pressure from Ruth’s hand. Small, but not imaginary. Then they both let go.

  A middle-aged man was leaning against the door to Sully’s room when the two nurses escorted him there, and it took Sully a moment to recognize his son. “You’re back,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you until Tuesday.”

  “Keep moving,” the older nurse prodded, “before you fall over.” She looked at Peter. “Is he always like this?”

  “Stubborn, you mean? Ornery? Cantankerous? Impossible?”

  When the nurses had Sully tucked back into bed and they were alone, Peter said, “I can’t leave you alone for two minutes, can I.”

  Sully ignored this. “I’ve got a job for you. I’d do it myself, but it could be a couple days before they let me go back to work.”

  Peter was grinning at him.

  “What?”

  “Nothing.”

  “You know where Rub lives?”

  “Did he move?”

  “Pick him up at seven. You know how to operate a backhoe?”

  “Better than you.”

  “Yeah?”

  “In my sleep.”

  “What?” Sully asked, because Peter was still grinning at him.

  “I missed you, too,” he said.

  “Good,” Sully told him, pleased to hear it. “I wasn’t sure you would.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. The oxygen, bless it, ran right through him. “How’d you know where I was?” it occurred to him to wonder, opening his eyes again when Peter didn’t respond.

  The room was dark. Apparently he’d slept. Had he imagined the conversation with his son? No, he decided, it had been real. There was a hint of gray in the eastern sky. Another day, he thought. Sunday, in fact, and him around to see it. Imagine that.

  —

  IT HAD BEGUN to rain. Not violently, like the night before, but steadily, another drenching. Unless Raymer missed his guess, more of Hill would slalom into Dale by morning, Bath’s dead slip-sliding, in clear violation of their unspoken covenant, into the terrain of the living.

  He parked behind the station and let himself in the back door. He would be inside just long enough to lock his gun and badge and SUV keys in the large bottom drawer of his desk so he wouldn’t have to come in tomorrow. He was turning the bolt when he heard a sound, and there, standing in the doorway, was Charice, her eyes swollen from crying. Tears for Jerome, of course, Raymer thought bitterly.

  “There’s some things I need to say before you sneak off,” she told him, tossing his gym bag, which he’d left in her car the night before, onto the sofa.

  Sneak off, he thought, hearing in that phrase a judgment. Well, he was sneaking off, wasn’t he, so maybe he deserved it. He motioned to a chair. “There’s no need to apologize—”

  “Good,” she said, sitting down, “because I’m not.”

  Raymer sat across from her, his desk and so much more between them. Charice, who was seldom at a loss for words, was silent so long that he began to wonder if she’d changed her mind and decided she had nothing to tell him after all.

  “The first thing you have to understand,” she said at long last, “is that from the time we were little I’ve kept Jerome’s secrets. After our parents died, it was him and me against the world, you know? He was my protector. I was an adult before it finally occurred to me that I was protecting him more than he was me.”

  “When did you learn? About him and Becka?” In other words, for how many days, weeks and months had she sided with her brother when she might’ve sided with him?

  “I knew from the start,” she told him, with unmistakable defiance. “He couldn’t wait to tell me. Like I said, him and me against the world. That’s the next thing you need to understand. Jerome? For him, this was no fling. It was love.”

  Raymer didn’t doubt it, since his words were still ringing in his ears. We were so in love…You have no idea…Do you even know what it’s like to love somebody…I mean really love somebody…Do you even know what love is? And of course that single word on the florist’s card: Always. This had been seared into his brain much like the staple had been into his palm.

  “He’d had a lot of girlfriends,” she continued, “but love was a completely new experience—and it was complicated by this crazy idea he had.”

  “Which was?”

  “He believed she’d cured him.”

  “Of what?”

  “Of everything. Of being Jerome. All his obsessions and anxieties? Gone. He didn’t need to perform his rituals anymore. The counting, touching, reciting, sanitizing. He might not act like it, but—deep down?—Jerome’s the most anxious, insecure man you’ve ever met.”

  No, Raymer thought. I am. By far.

  “You probably think he wanted me to move here so he could look after me, right? Not true. Whenever he has one of his panic attacks, I’m the only one who can help. Before I packed it in down home, I had a life. I was engaged to be married.”

  “And you let that go?”

  “Did I have a choice?”

  Of course you did, Raymer thought, but he couldn’t help being moved by the fact that she thought she didn’t.

  She chuckled mirthlessly, shaking her head. “That James Bond stuff? ‘The name is Bond’ ”—she was doing her brother’s voice now, and it was spooky how well she nailed it—“ ‘Jerome Bond.’ He did that as much for himself as for other people, the poor guy. But then just about everything he does is for other people.”

  “And Becka cured him?”

  “That’s what he believed.”

  “And what do you believe?”

  She shrugged. “A man who has to clean the bathroom twice a day his whole adult life suddenly doesn’t have to? The change was pretty dramatic. He kept saying, ‘For the first time in my life, I feel…well, as in not ill. When I’m with her I feel safe.’ I told him how crazy that sounded. I mean, here he was, six-six in his socks, strong as a bull, a pro at martial arts. And Becka was maybe five-eight? A hundred and twenty pounds? She made him feel safe? But you couldn’t talk to him. He felt what he felt. When she was around, he wasn’t tied up in his usual knots.”

  “That’s exactly how she made me feel,” Raymer admitted.

  “We fought, Jerome and me. For the first time in our lives. You wouldn’t believe how we fought.”

  “Why?”

  “Lots of reasons,” she said, causing Raymer to wonder if he might be one of them. It would’ve been nice to think he’d meant that much to her, at least. “I wasn’t a big fan of Becka’s.”

  “Really?” he said. “Why not?” Because everybody seemed to love her.

  “Because Becka was all about Becka,” she said, her expression now hard. Raymer started to object, but she didn’t let him. “Didn’t you ever notice how she always charmed people one at a time?”

  Her custom, at a party or restaurant, of culling one person from the group, of getting him to turn his back on someone else, of enticing him to follow her into the kitchen or out onto the patio, where it would be just the two of them? Yes, of course. Who knew this habit better than Raymer? Hadn’t it stoked the
jealousy that was always present in the back of his mind? Though, really, he’d reason with himself, was there anything so wrong about making every one of the people she singled out feel special?

  “Remember,” Charice was saying, “how important it was for her to be able to touch people? How if you moved just out of physical range, something happened behind her eyes? It was almost like she couldn’t be sure you were still you.”

  The night of that hateful dinner, every time Raymer looked down that table, his wife was placing a lovely hand on old Barton’s mottled one. Here again, though, he’d blamed himself, assuming that he must’ve disappointed her somehow, or in a thousand ways, and made her ravenous for the company of other, more interesting people.

  “That was her great talent. Making everybody love her. She couldn’t help herself. She was as compulsive about that as Jerome had been about cleaning his bathroom. Men, women, old, young? None of that really mattered to her. It was seduction, yes, but I don’t think it had much to do with sex. It was about adoration. The more obsessively people loved her, the more alive she felt. Jerome, being Jerome, was the mother lode.”

  Not the mother lode, Raymer thought. Because before Jerome there’d been Douglas Raymer. Not to mention poor Alice Moynihan, who used to stake out their town house, waiting for Raymer to leave in the morning so she’d have Becka all to herself. And it was Becka, to this day, she was talking to on her phone, Becka that her husband had taken away from her when he demanded she surrender that handset.

  “I warned Jerome the day would come when she’d replace him just like she was replacing you.”

  “But he didn’t believe you.”

  Her eyes had filled. “He said I was just jealous of his happiness. Because if they were together, then I’d be alone. He told me to go on back home. He didn’t need me anymore. So much for him and me against the world.”

  “Did you ever think about telling me?” Which of course was a less pathetic version of the question he really wanted to ask: So you’re saying I didn’t factor in at all?

  “You haven’t been listening. I always keep Jerome’s secrets,” she said, her features hardening again. “Besides, he was going to tell you himself.”

 
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