Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “Who’s not here?” Carl said.

  “Rub,” Sully said. “The person you’re looking for.”

  “Says who?”

  “Fine,” Sully said. “We’ll change the subject. What’s this yellow slime I’m hearing about over at the mill?”

  “What yellow slime?” Carl said, and anyone who didn’t know better would have testified his innocence was genuine.

  Sully did know better. “The lake of gunk you found yesterday. On top of which all those rich assholes are going to be living.”

  At this Carl released a deep sigh. “You shouldn’t listen to rumors.”

  “Okay,” Sully said agreeably. “But I have no idea where Rub is.” Actually Sully expected him any minute now. Fridays were half days out at Hilldale, and he generally hitched a ride into town and came looking for Sully, hoping to get him to spring for a cheeseburger, then listen to him talk well into the evening, tough duty, given his worsening stammer.

  “Forget Rub,” Carl insisted. “I didn’t even mention him. I asked you a simple question.”

  “Ruth,” Sully said, pointing at the clock above the counter, “it’s 11:07. Let’s see how long it is before he wants to know where Rub is.”

  “A simple question you haven’t answered.”

  The bell over the door jingled then as Roy Purdy, Sully’s least-favorite person in all of Bath, came in. Unlike Carl, Roy Purdy looked exactly like what he was. Newly released from a downstate medium-security prison, Roy was a poster-boy ex-con: skinny, cheaply tattooed, sallow skinned, stubbled, fidgety, stupid. To hear him tell it, good behavior was the reason given for not making him serve his full sentence, which made Sully wonder what that standard must be in the joint if Roy, who’d proven incapable of good behavior his entire life, could qualify. “What question was that?” he asked Carl.

  Carl sighed mightily. “I know it’s hard, but try to pay attention. I’m asking how often you think about sex. Once a day? Once a month?”

  “Not as often as I think about murder,” Sully admitted, regarding Carl meaningfully before allowing Roy, who’d settled onto a stool at the far end of the counter, to come into focus. Though he hadn’t looked in his direction, Sully felt certain that Roy was keenly aware of his presence. Ruth, who had even less use for Roy than Sully, nevertheless grabbed the coffeepot and a clean mug, then headed back toward him.

  “How’s our girl?” Roy asked as she poured the coffee they both knew he wouldn’t pay for.

  “You mean my daughter?”

  “I mean my wife.”

  “Your ex-wife. She didn’t marry you again, did she?”

  “Not yet,” Roy said.

  “No, I imagine not,” Ruth went on. “Especially if it’s true what we heard.”

  “What you heard?”

  “That you’re shacked up with a woman named Cora over at the Morrison Arms?”

  “I’m sleeping on her couch is all. Till I got the scratch for my own place. She ain’t nothing to me, Cora ain’t.”

  “You tell her that, Roy? Is that how she understands it?”

  “I can’t help what other people think,” he said, eyeing the pastries on the back counter. Ruth wouldn’t offer him free food, but before long he’d figure out how to ask her for some. She’d give him a hard time at first, though in the end she’d cave. Where her ex-son-in-law was concerned, Ruth seemed committed to a doomed policy of appeasement, which was why, since Roy reappeared in Bath two weeks earlier, Sully’d been mulling over an alternative course of action modeled more on George Patton than Neville Chamberlain.

  When she returned to their end of the counter, Ruth noted where Sully’s dark gaze had settled and snapped her fingers in front of his face, causing him to lean back on his stool again. “I hope you don’t think what’s going on down there is any business of yours,” she noted.

  “I’m glad it’s not,” Sully told her. “If it was, I’d know how to deal with it, though.”

  “I ask,” Carl was saying, still single-minded, “because I think about it every ten seconds or so. It’s worse now than before.” By this he meant before the recent prostate surgery that had left him, for the time being at least, both impotent and incontinent without—he maintained—diminishing in the slightest either his sex addiction or his ability to pleasure women. The existence of said addiction was something Sully had yet to concede, though he and Carl had been debating it since the night almost a decade earlier when Carl had come into the Horse with a rolled-up magazine and swatted Sully on the back of the head with it by way of hello. Climbing onto an adjacent barstool, he’d opened the magazine to the article he wanted him to read, smoothing it out for him on the bar. “You know what I am?” he said, his usual smug expression amplified.

  “Yes, I do,” Sully said, without looking at the magazine. “In fact, I’ve told you what you are on several occasions. You must not’ve been listening.”

  “According to this,” Carl said, stabbing the magazine with his forefinger, “I’m a sex addict. It’s a medical condition.”

  “What you are,” Sully assured him, “is an anatomical description.”

  Sully’s friend Wirf, who happened just then to occupy the stool on Sully’s other side, was apparently intrigued, though, because he took the magazine and began reading.

  “And I’ll tell you something else,” Carl continued. “According to medical experts, what I deserve is sympathy.”

  “Wirf,” Sully said, rotating on his barstool to better observe his friend, who continued to read carefully. “What do you think Carl deserves?”

  That rare lawyer who was less interested in law than justice, Wirf took even joking references to the latter seriously and could always be counted on for both perspective and sound judgment. “A dose of the clap,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “Also, perhaps, the grudging admiration of men like me and you.”

  Carl and Wirf then clinked beer bottles across Sully, leading Sully to regret, as he often did, drawing his unpredictable companion into barroom arguments.

  “Sully’s just jealous,” Carl observed when Wirf went back to reading the sex-addiction article, “because stupidity isn’t classified as a medical condition.”

  “Actually, I believe it is,” said Wirf, not looking up.

  “But not one worthy of sympathy.”


  “Or respect.”

  “Certainly not.”

  Poor Wirf. To Sully’s mind, the world had been less just and true since he left it. Also less fun. “When I’m gone,” he’d told Sully more than once, “you’re going to discover how hard it is to find another one-legged lawyer who’s always in a good mood,” and this had proven true.

  “Of course you think about sex every ten seconds,” Sully told Carl now. “You stay up all night watching porn.” Since losing his house, Carl had been living in Sully’s old apartment over Miss Beryl’s. When Sully, who now lived in the trailer out back, got up to pee in the middle of the night, he could see lewd images reflected in Carl’s upstairs window.

  “I like porn,” Carl said, with the resigned air of a man who’d long ago given up trying to even understand his own behavior, much less modify it.

  Sully didn’t doubt that he did enjoy porn, but he guessed there was more to it. Carl’s urologist had warned him it could be anywhere from six months to a year before he could achieve erections again, and there was no guarantee even then. He suspected it was mostly fear that drove Carl to sit up half the night watching smut, ever on alert for a stirring in his boxers.

  “The production values are getting better,” Carl continued. “Ruth? Tell him I’m right.”

  “Hey, Ma?” Roy Purdy called from down the counter. “If it’s between me and the garbage can, I’d eat that last piece of day-old.”

  This was in reference to the single slice of cherry left in yesterday’s pie dish. Sully couldn’t help smiling at Roy’s tactic. Begging for something even as you establish that it’s of no value means you’re not only
more likely to get it but also—and here was the real beauty—you wouldn’t owe much of a debt of gratitude to the person who gave it to you.

  “Throw it away,” Sully advised, loud enough for Ruth, and maybe Roy, to hear.

  The effect of this was both predictable and immediate. Ruth slid the pie onto a saucer and banged it down in front of her son-in-law, arching her eyebrow at Sully so there’d be no mistaking the consequence of his opening his big fat mouth. “I’d eat that dry ole piece of crust too,” Roy told her, pointing a yellow finger at the shard of pastry burned to the dish.

  “They didn’t feed you downstate?” Ruth said, prying it loose with a knife.

  Roy dug in, using his fork like a small shovel. “Not well,” he said around a mouthful of pie, “and that’s for true.”

  Carl leaned toward Sully and lowered his voice confidentially. “Earlier? I couldn’t help noticing that when I explained how it’s worse now than before, Ruth didn’t say before what? Don’t you find that strange?”

  “I find you strange,” said Sully, who knew where this was heading.

  “Because that would’ve been the obvious question, unless she already knew what I was talking about.”

  “Hey, Dummy. Look at me. I never told anybody. You did.”

  The night before his procedure Carl had come into the Horse and told Sully about it, swearing him to secrecy. After Sully went home, though, Carl had gotten drunk and told a dozen other men, as well as Birdie, the bartender, which meant that the next day, even before the anesthesia wore off, Carl Roebuck’s broke-dick plight was common knowledge, the talk of the town.

  Not that Sully hadn’t been tempted to tell. After all, Carl’s legendary inability to keep his dick in his pants had ruined several marriages, including his own. Sully’d told him as much that night at the Horse. “Half the married men in Schuyler County are going to see this as simple justice. You do know that, right? You’ve heard of karma?”

  “Like when bad things happen to good people?”

  “No, like when what goes around comes around.”

  “Yeah?” Carl shrugged. “Well, I hope I’m there when it comes around for you.”

  “It already has,” Sully assured him. “What you’re looking at is the result.”

  Though in truth, he hadn’t been sure then and still wasn’t now, even after the VA diagnosis. Had he gotten off easy? During the war he’d somehow managed to be standing in the exact right place while more talented men and better soldiers happened to be standing in the exact wrong one. Often that was right next to Sully. For a while there on Omaha Beach there’d been a new, utterly lethal lottery every few seconds. Through diligence and judgment and skill you could improve your odds of survival, but not by much. All the way to Berlin, the calculus of pure dumb luck had ruled, Sully its undeniable beneficiary.

  But that had been war. When the shooting finally stopped and the world returned to something like sanity and he again had the leisure to reflect, things felt different. There were days he couldn’t help feeling fucked with. If there was a God, his primary source of amusement seemed to be toying with all the poor little bastards he’d without invitation created. Carl himself was a case in point. Give a man a dick, arrange things so that it rules his life, then poison the little gland that makes the dick work and watch what he does. Seen from God’s point of view, maybe this was just good sport, a fleeting release from the monotony of omnipotence. Because if you were God, it stood to reason your real enemy would be boredom. Sully remembered as a kid studying ants on the sidewalk out front of the family house on Bowdon Street after he’d finished eating a melting Popsicle. Hundreds of the little fuckers, maybe thousands, all programmed to perform in unison a task Sully couldn’t fathom. From their well-ordered ranks, he’d select a single ant and prevent it from doing the one thing it clearly wanted to, forcing it left or right with his Popsicle stick, farther and farther away from the moving current of its fellows, marveling that its tiny brain was incapable of processing what was happening. The only sensible play would be to abandon the struggle until the giant who was thwarting its purpose became disinterested and moved on, probably to torment some other poor creature, but clearly the ant was not programmed to desist. It wanted what it wanted. So maybe God was just a kid with a stick—vaguely curious but incapable of empathy for anything so small and insignificant. From Carl Roebuck he’d stolen a tiny gland. From Wirf, he’d first demanded a leg and then, finding the man undiminished, had taken his life. That’d teach him.

  Now it was Sully’s turn. Two years. But probably closer to one. Fine, Sully thought. Does it ever trouble you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you? Not often. Now and then.

  “Okay, fuck you, then,” Carl was saying. “If you don’t want to talk about sex, I better get back to work. For which—okay, I admit it—I am going to need your smelly dwarf. I’ve got a job he’s perfect for.”

  “Ruth,” Sully called down the counter, again pointing to the clock. “Ten after eleven. Three whole minutes it took him.” Then, to Carl, “So tell me about it, this job.” He already had a pretty good idea, but he was interested to hear Carl characterize it.

  “I’ll explain it to him.”

  “Tell me first.”

  “And you’re what? His father?”

  Actually, that was pretty much how Rub thought of Sully, which might be why he felt a kind of paternal responsibility for him that he’d never managed to summon for his own son, who mostly treated Sully like an inexplicable but undeniable genetic fact. “What if that shit you want him to clean up is toxic?”

  “Toxic? It’s a ruptured sewer. Disgusting, I’ll grant you, but hardly toxic.”

  “If you don’t know what it is, then you don’t know what it isn’t.”

  Carl rubbed his temples. “I liked you better before you came into money.”

  “No kidding? You liked it back when you had me over a barrel, Sheetrocking sixty hours a week in subzero temperatures?”

  “Forty. You invoiced for sixty. God, those were good times,” Carl sighed, with a far-off, mock-nostalgic expression. “Seeing you Chester into the Horse, caked head to toe with mud and all manner of shit, smelling like Mother Teresa’s pussy? Just looking at you was all I needed to be happy.”

  The weird part was that Sully missed those same days himself, not that he’d ever admit any such thing to Carl.

  “Anyhow,” Carl said, lowering his voice significantly. “The shit’s not toxic, okay?”

  “And you know this how?”

  “Think about it. What’s uphill of the factory?”

  “Nothing,” Sully said, tracing the sewer line up Limerock Street in his mind. “Except the old—”

  “Right,” Carl said. “The rendering plant. Remember why they closed? No, of course you don’t. You can’t remember yesterday. But if you had a memory, you’d recall they got into a spat with the town over back taxes and moved the operation to Mohawk. Gus thinks they flooded that sewer line intentionally. Kind of a parting gift.”

  “Except that was, what? Two years ago? Three?”

  “That’s what threw us off. The theory is the mill needs repointing along the eaves. Every time it rains, water gets inside. Normally that wouldn’t matter, except it drains into the basement floor.”

  Sully nodded, finally understanding. “And the drainage keeps whatever’s down there nice and ripe.”

  “Under ideal conditions,” Carl went on, “say a heat wave after a week of rain…”

  “Double time,” Sully said.


  “Whatever you paid Rub for your last filthy job, he gets double for this.”

  “Oh, sure. That you remember. Extort your old buddy Carl at every opportunity. Why do I even talk to you?”

  “Triple, actually,” Sully said, upon further reflection.

  “Fine, I’ll hire somebody else. You think Rub’s the only halfwit in Bath who needs work?”

  He had a point there. “Okay, then double.”<
br />
  “Deal,” Carl said, far too quickly.

  Sully’d given in too soon, he realized.

  “You think you can talk him into it?”

  “I don’t know. He hates you.”

  Carl rose to his feet. “Tell him you like me,” he suggested, heading for the men’s room. “He has no opinions that aren’t identical to yours.”

  “But I don’t like you.”

  “Sure you do, booby.”

  When the bathroom door swung shut behind him, Sully went back to studying Roy Purdy, who was now thumbing up the last microscopic crumbs of piecrust from his plate. What he’d told Carl earlier was true. These days he did think of murder more often than sex. Roy had arrived back in Bath the same day Sully was given his diagnosis, the two events dovetailing in his mind and encouraging him to weigh his various options for the scumbag’s permanent removal. Running the little prick over with his pickup truck probably made the most sense, though it struck Sully as kind of impersonal. There was a strong possibility Roy wouldn’t fully comprehend what had hit him, and Sully wanted him to know. Sneaking up behind him and braining him with a shovel would probably be more rewarding. The sound of tempered steel encountering Roy’s skull—that melon softness underneath the fractured bone—would be satisfying. Since turning seventy, though, Sully wasn’t as good at sneaking up on people as he used to be, and here, too, Roy might die without knowing who killed him. Maybe the best guarantee that he would know exactly who was putting an end to his sorry existence would be to lace his coffee with rat poison. Some midmornings, after the breakfast rush, Ruth would ask Sully to watch the counter while she ran to the bank, so he could do it then. It’d be gratifying to watch Roy’s face spasm, the realization dawning, too late, that he’d been poisoned and by whom. The difficulty was in knowing how much poison to administer. Too little and he might not die, too much and he might taste it in the first sip, after which Sully might die. Sully’d never really been afraid of death and wasn’t even now that it was approaching on horseback, but he was fully committed to Roy dying first.

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