Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  The editorial had struck a chord and made a mayoral candidate of its author. Even his opponents had to admit that Gus and his cronies, many of them “from away,” had run a clever campaign. Let’s BE Schuyler Springs was the gist of it. Instead of competing with their obnoxious neighbor, why not take advantage of its proximity? Half the people who came to the racetrack and performing arts center in the summer had no place to stay and ended up in hotels as far away as Schenectady. Why shouldn’t they stay in Bath? Okay, the Sans Souci Hotel and Resort with its nearly three hundred rooms had run into legal difficulties fueled by local resentment when it became known that the new owners would be using downstate contractors and labor for almost everything. The old hotel’s lavish renovations had cost far more and taken much longer than expected, causing it to miss much of the summer-tourist trade that first season, and the locals had steadfastly rebelled against the prices at its fancy restaurant.

  But that didn’t mean its basic concept was flawed, or so the Moynihan crowd had argued. Instead of throwing up roadblocks to entrepreneurship, the town should have offered tax breaks and other incentives. Same deal with restaurants. During the short summer season, desperate, hungry travelers even mobbed the Horse, so why not entice a young chef or two up from New York City. Find out what the hell ramps were and serve them, if that’s what people really craved. It wasn’t like Schuyler Springs had cornered the world ramps market and refused to share. Overnight, the new byword was “partnering.” Whenever possible, Bath would partner not only with odious Schuyler Springs and moneyed downstaters but also with local entrepreneurs in projects of exceptional merit.

  One of these locals was Carl Roebuck, who most people were surprised to learn was an entrepreneur, having known him all their lives as a con man and an asshole. Carl’s father, Kenny, they’d liked. He’d built Tip Top Construction from nothing by working fourteen-hour days. Like so many men of his generation, he hoped his son wouldn’t have to work quite so hard. On that score he had no legitimate worries. In college Carl learned to drink and seduce women and spend his father’s money and loathe all things Carhartt, especially the brand’s connotations of hard, honest labor. Returning home, he gave no indication that he meant to work at all if he could help it.

  After his father’s unexpected death, he couldn’t help it, but he was lazy and did shoddy work and nearly lost the company when the Ultimate Escape Fun Park went belly-up. He hadn’t been directly involved in that doomed venture, but he’d gotten wind of it early and purchased for virtually nothing a tract of adjacent land he figured would eventually be needed for parking. There, using federal dollars, he set about erecting a dozen low-income housing units and awaited the groundbreaking of the fun park, after which he intended to sell the parcel, improvements and all, at extortionary profit. But then, at the eleventh hour, financing for the park had fallen through, and Carl, who’d seen no reason to build his units to code, thinking nobody’d ever live in them, had been stranded with a dozen substandard duplexes whose brand-new roofs already leaked, whose porous basements sucked sulfurous moisture from the nearby wetlands every time it rained and whose moldy walls sported earthquake-sized fissures. It had taken most of the last decade to extricate Tip Top Construction from the resulting quagmire of litigation. To save it, Carl had to sell his house and half the heavy-construction equipment on his lot—the half, he privately lamented, that still worked. He hadn’t minded losing the house because at the time his wife, Toby, was divorcing him and would have ended up with it anyway, but still. It had been a decade of painful misfortune from which Carl had learned, as far as anyone could tell, exactly nothing.

  His current project, snakebit from the start, was the conversion of the long-abandoned shoe factory on Limerock Street. The concept of the Old Mill Lofts was so dumb—or so the conventional wisdom had it—that it took your breath away. Ever since it was announced, people had been writing in to the North Bath Weekly Journal pretty much nonstop, decrying its abject lunacy and its complete and utter waste of taxpayer (“partnered”) dollars. Even assuming you could accomplish the planned renovations—a point no one conceded—and could also drive out the army of rats that reportedly had taken up residence in the building’s nether regions, and then could fix the roof that’d been leaking for forty years, who in Bath could afford to live there? The cheapest units on the ground floor were supposed to start at around a quarter of a million dollars, the larger units on the top floor going for three times that. Those were Schuyler prices.

  But according to Mayor Moynihan, who himself had a down payment on one of the units, the high price tag was precisely the point. The Old Mill Lofts signaled that Bath was back in the game, a town with much to offer. Sure, the project was ambitious, the new administration conceded, but it was hardly unprecedented. Decrepit, abandoned factories were being converted into living and retail spaces all over the country. In fact lofts, like ramps, were all the rage. Better yet, Schuyler Springs, which had never engaged in anything as grubby as manufacturing, had no decrepit old mills to retrofit, so in this respect Bath had a clear advantage. (Yes, the habit of invidious comparison was hard to surrender.)

  The real problem with the Old Mill Lofts, according to others, wasn’t so much the concept as Carl Roebuck himself. The units were being billed as upscale urban-style dwellings, but woven deeply into his character and experience was the desire to do things on the cheap and pocket the difference. Old-guard pessimists grumbled that the town wasn’t so much partnering for tomorrow with a gifted entrepreneur as fronting for yesterday’s known swindler. Some even wondered if Carl might be up to his old tricks, having purchased something seemingly worthless on insider information in hopes of flipping it when its true value became apparent. Maybe the work being done on the mill was just for show. Carl, who was widely rumored to be distracted by health problems, was seldom at the mill when important decisions needed to be made, and when he happened to be on hand, he didn’t seem to care much whether they zigged or zagged. Even those who gave him the benefit of the doubt when it came to his motives still worried that Tip Top Construction, impaired by relentless court judgments and harsh penalties, simply lacked the working capital necessary for a project of this scope. What was left of Carl’s heavy machinery sat rusting out at the yard, fritzed beyond repair. At present he employed only a dozen workers and kept most of them under forty hours a week so he wouldn’t have to pay benefits. Every week rumors circulated that this would be the one where he failed to make payroll.

  The other problem with the new Bath, at least at the moment, was that it stank. Literally. In the Schuyler Springs Democrat—known in Bath as the Dumbocrat—it had been dubbed “the Great Bath Stench,” a phrase that had been picked up in the Albany Times Union. For the last two summers, whenever the thermometer hit eighty-five, a thick, putrid odor blanketed the town, everywhere at once, so you couldn’t even tell where it was coming from. Bath, visitors remarked, wrinkling their noses and quickly getting back in their cars, needed a long one itself. Some argued that the stench originated in the fetid wetlands adjacent to Hilldale Cemetery and was borne into town on summer breezes. Except that the odor was less powerful out there. One local fundamentalist minister thought the problem might be moral in nature. Nearby Schuyler Springs had a substantial and growing gay community, and he wondered from the pulpit if God wasn’t sending a message—an idea that failed to get much traction, begging as it did the fairly obvious question of why God wouldn’t visit olfactory retribution on the actual offenders and not their innocent neighbors. This summer, as if Carl Roebuck didn’t have enough problems, people who lived nearby claimed the stench was emanating from the old mill. But how could that be? The building had been boarded up for decades. There was nothing in it to stink.

  Then yesterday, more bad news. After two straight days of drenching rain, the Tip Top crew discovered a foul, viscous, yellow goo oozing out of a crack in the basement’s concrete floor. Carl, true to form, was for sealing up the crack and forgetting about it, b
ut a Bath selectman insisted on consulting a state inspector, who demanded that Carl jackhammer out a section of concrete and find out what the hell was down there. The town’s sewer line paralleled the front wall of the factory, and while the ooze didn’t look or smell like raw sewage—it in fact was far, far worse—the inspector speculated that maybe the pipe had been invaded at the seam by tree roots. Once inside and fed a steady diet of sewage, roots could grow like tumors and cause the pipe to rupture. At which point whatever was in the line had to go somewhere. Who knew? Maybe there was a reservoir of really awful shit under the mill. Only after the concrete was ripped up would they know what they were dealing with, and how much of it. And whatever was down there would have to be mucked out.

  It was this necessity that caused Carl to think of Rub Squeers, whose sense of smell had been compromised, people said, by adolescent glue-sniffing, as a consequence of which he could stand hip deep in ripe manure without complaint. Rub lived on the outskirts of Bath with his harridan of a wife, Bootsie, but this time of day he was likely out at Hilldale, where he served as the cemetery’s caretaker. The person who would know was Donald Sullivan, Carl’s friend and, since losing his house, his landlord. Since busting Sully’s balls invariably improved Carl’s spirits, which happened just then to be at low ebb, he decided to pay him a visit.

  —

  SULLY WAS PERCHED on his usual stool at the end of Hattie’s lunch counter. He’d been there since six-thirty, as he was most mornings, helping Ruth through the breakfast rush, though today he’d been pretty much useless, his chest tight as a drum, his breathing shallow. Since then the place had emptied out. Come noon it would be busy again, but that was an hour away. On the counter next to Sully’s empty coffee mug was this week’s North Bath Weekly Journal, folded so that his former landlady’s photo smiled up at him knowingly. Legendary middle-school teacher Beryl Peoples, read the caption. To her many students, Miss Beryl. The “Miss” had hurt the old woman’s feelings, Sully knew. She might’ve been tiny and gnomelike, but she was also a married woman, whether or not her eighth graders could imagine her with a husband. Sully had mostly called her Mrs. Peoples, which she seemed to appreciate, and in return she’d called him Mr. Sullivan, which he didn’t know how to feel about. “Does it ever trouble you,” she once asked him, “that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you?” “Not often,” he replied at the time. “Now and then.” Something about her expression in this newspaper photo suggested that even today, nearly a decade after her death, she was still waiting for a more honest answer. Sorry, old girl, he thought.

  He couldn’t help wondering what she’d think of the weekend’s festivities. She’d always taken a dim view of pomp and circumstance, and he suspected she’d be ambivalent at best about the middle school being renamed in her honor. Nobody’s fool, she would recognize the gesture as politically motivated, another of the new mayor’s dubious initiatives—“Unsung Heroes,” this one had been dubbed—calculated to instill pride in a community long accustomed to self-hatred. The idea was that each Memorial Day someone who’d made valuable contributions to the community would be celebrated. Apparently Miss Beryl had been a unanimous choice for this the inaugural award, which indicated to Sully—and he was confident his old landlady would agree—that the pickin’s were slim. Who would they tab next year?

  It was entirely possible he’d never learn. Two years, the VA cardiologist had given him. Probably closer to one. He’d suspected something was wrong for a while. The shortness of breath, at first on steep stairs, then on any sort of incline, and lately whenever he tried to move even a little fast. Why had he waited so long, the doctors wanted to know. Because, well…admit it, he had no satisfactory answer. Because in the beginning the symptoms came and went? Because he’d be fine for weeks at a stretch, during which he could tell himself it was nothing? Sure, but deep down he’d known, and when the symptoms returned he wasn’t surprised. Even then he probably wouldn’t have gone in if Ruth hadn’t noticed him struggling and badgered him to get it checked out. After two minutes on the treadmill, they’d shut down the stress trial.

  “So what’s the deal?” she’d asked the minute he got back.

  “They think I should quit smoking,” he told her. Which was true, just not the whole truth and nothing but.

  “Really?” she said. “Imagine that. Cigarettes aren’t good for you? Who knew?” She seemed satisfied with the explanation, though. Didn’t grill him like she usually did when she thought he was bullshitting her. Lately, though, he’d caught her staring at him quizzically, so maybe in the intervening two weeks she’d become suspicious.

  The whole truth and nothing but the truth went more like this: A-Fib. Arrhythmia. A racing heart. Brought on by physical exertion. By stress. By nothing at all. Leading to: congestive heart failure. Solution: Open-heart surgery. Quadruple bypass. Not particularly recommended for men his age, whose condition was so far advanced and whose arteries were so obstructed from years of smoking. Any other possibility? A procedure to insert an internal defibrillator to tell the heart when to beat, when not to. Routine process, an hour tops. Small incision. A couple hours later you’re up walking around. The next day you go home. Cured? No. Most likely you’ll still die of congestive heart failure, just not so soon. The other possibility, given your age and physical condition, is that you die on the operating table. If you do nothing? Two years, but probably closer to one. “Your heart could fail at any time,” the cardiologist admitted. “You could die in your sleep.”

  This scenario, Sully gathered, was supposed to scare him into the procedure, but it hadn’t. “Wake up dead?” he said. “That doesn’t sound so bad, actually.”

  Nor had the cardiologist disagreed. But given his age and condition, there was also a distinct chance he could have a major stroke and not die. Spend the rest of his days unable to talk, feed himself or shit of his own volition. Though this could also happen if he didn’t have the surgery, the man had added.

  “If you’re telling me what I should do,” Sully said, “I’m not hearing it.”

  The doctor shrugged. “Most people want the defibrillator. Or their kids do. Or their wives. Are you married, Mr. Sullivan?”

  No. An ex-wife, Vera, no longer in the picture. No longer even in her own picture, really. Poor woman, her grip on sanity had always been relaxed. A couple years ago she’d slipped into dementia and now resided in the county home. Her second husband, Ralph, already lived there, having suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown years earlier, so it would have been a reunion of sorts had Vera recognized him, but she swore she’d never laid eyes on the man before and certainly wouldn’t have married anyone who looked like that. Afterward her decline had been swift. In a matter of months she no longer recognized Peter, her son, or Will, her grandson. Confident she wouldn’t recognize him either, Sully’d paid her a visit, but when she saw him her eyes immediately narrowed, and she began muttering profanities under her breath, looking right at him the whole time. According to the nurses, this was a whole new madness, one he shouldn’t take personally. “You probably just remind her of someone,” one nurse speculated, to which Sully replied, “Yeah, but the person I remind her of is me.”

  So, no. No wife to please.

  His son, then? His grandson? the cardiologist had inquired. Wouldn’t they want him to do the procedure?

  “You’re going to tell them?”

  “You’re not?”

  Probably not. He hadn’t made up his mind completely, but no, he doubted he would. Definitely not Will. No reason to burden the boy, who was off to college in the fall. His son? No real reason to burden him either. If he told anyone it would be Ruth. He’d started to half-a-dozen times, then decided against it. Studying his landlady’s newspaper photo, he wondered if he’d have told her if she were still around.

  “Question,” said a familiar voice at his elbow, making Sully just about jump out of his skin. Attired in his customary Ralph Lauren polo shirt—pink today—and light cotton s
lacks and cream-colored canvas shoes, Carl Roebuck looked, as always, like the owner of an automobile dealership who was late for his tee time. That Sully had been so deep in thought that a man like Carl could sneak up on him was unnerving, and he quickly scanned the room for other potential threats. Carl himself wasn’t dangerous, but whenever he entered the room you did well to check if his appearance had tipped over the edge some otherwise rational person—a woman he’d recently jilted, perhaps, or that woman’s husband, or somebody he owed money to, or maybe just somebody who’d gotten fed up with his never-ending bullshit. With this latter group Sully felt particular sympathy.

  “On average,” Carl said, fixing Sully seriously, “how often would you say you think about sex?”

  Ruth was on her way down the counter now, coffeepot in hand. “I’m curious how he’ll answer this myself,” she admitted, putting a mug in front of Carl. She and Sully had been lovers on and off for more than twenty years, but for the last decade just friends, an arrangement Ruth seemed to resent, even though it had been her idea. His mistake, as near as Sully could make out, was that he hadn’t put up enough of a fight at the time or expressed sufficient regret since. Though she was unlikely to scald him until he answered the question, Ruth, armed with a hot coffeepot, inspired caution, and he instinctively leaned back until she finished filling Carl’s cup and set the pot down on the counter. Only then did he give the other man his complete attention. “He’s not here,” Sully said.

 
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