Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  “I guess you liked that all right, then,” Ruth said, clearing Roy’s plate.

  “Not bad for day-old,” he said, rubbing his small paunch. “We good here?”

  “Aren’t we always?”

  Roy evidently had no opinion on this subject. “Tell Janey I’m sorry I missed her.”

  Sully saw his eyes settle on the door from the diner to the attached apartment where his ex-wife lived with Tina, their daughter.

  “She doin’ okay, then?” he asked. “Everything all right?”

  “She’s just fine, Roy,” Ruth said flatly. “So’s your daughter, if that’s of any interest.”

  This last Roy appeared not to hear. “Tell her there wasn’t no need for that restraining order. I’m a changed man.”

  “She’ll be glad to hear that. Keep your distance just the same.”

  “Like I told the judge, it ain’t easy in a town this size.”

  Ruth nodded. “That why you hang around the parking lot out at Applebee’s around closing time, waiting for her to get off?”

  “I do that?”

  “Somebody said they saw you.”

  Roy swiveled on his stool to look at Sully now, acknowledging his presence for the first time, then swiveled back again. “Tell her soon as I find a job I’m gonna start making things up to her, and that’s for true.”

  “Maybe you’d have better luck job hunting someplace else,” Ruth suggested. “Albany, maybe, or New York City. Someplace with more opportunities.”

  “Oh, don’t worry,” Roy said, getting to his feet and taking half-a-dozen toothpicks from the cup by the register. “I’ll find something right here in town one of these days.”

  Sully opened up the paper to the classifieds and put on his reading glasses. “Here’s something that’d suit you to a T, Roy,” he offered.

  “Sully,” Ruth said, with an edge in her voice that a wise man would have paid attention to.

  “Wife beater needed,” Sully pretended to read. “Entry level. Minimum wage to start but plenty of opportunity for advancement. Only highly motivated self-starters need apply.”

  “Sully,” Ruth repeated.

  “Hey, that’s a good one,” Roy said. “You make that up on the spot or you been thinkin’ about it all morning, waitin’ for me to come in here so you could say it?”

  Sully ignored both this and Ruth, who was glaring daggers at him as well. “Yeah, but here’s what I don’t understand,” he told Roy. “Carl Roebuck was just talking about needing somebody to clean up that ruptured sewer line. How come you didn’t speak up? Let him know you were looking for work?”

  Roy rose from his stool. He’d removed a toothpick from its scarlet cellophane and was chewing on it thoughtfully. “How come you don’t like me, Sully?” he said. “I never done nothin’ to you.”

  “Hold on, here’s another,” Sully said, as the other man moved toward the door. “Wanted. Experienced petty thief. Night shift. Ex-con preferred.”

  “I guess you don’t think people can change, then,” Roy said, his hand on the doorknob, the bell above tinkling in anticipation.

  “They do, sometimes,” Sully conceded, refolding the paper carefully, so his landlady was faceup again. Was it his imagination, or had her expression changed? Become ever so slightly more disapproving? “Mostly they get worse, though, is the problem.”

  “Maybe I’ll surprise you,” he said. “I been meanin’ to ask, though. How you like livin’ in my trailer?”

  Sully snorted, though he knew what Roy was getting at. “Your trailer?” Because it had once been Roy’s, or rather his and Janey’s, a gift from Ruth and her husband when Janey was pregnant and she and Roy were newly married and without a place to stay. They’d parked it out back of Ruth’s and lived there until Roy got arrested out at the Sans Souci with a truckload of stolen TVs and furniture. Later, after Roy was sent downstate that first time, Ruth bought the trailer back so Janey would have enough money to move to Albany and begin a new, improved Roy-free life. She’d been beyond incredulous when Sully offered to take it off her hands. “What do you mean you’re going to live in it?” she wanted to know. “You’ve got a nice big house on the prettiest street in Bath.”

  “Don’t worry. I don’t want it back,” Roy assured him. “They say them things is firetraps. I been reading up. Fall asleep with a lit cigarette some night and up in smoke you’ll go.”

  Sully met his stare and held it for a full beat before saying, “Is that for true?”

  A muscle twitched on Roy’s cheek, and for a moment Sully thought Roy might barrel down the counter, but he stayed where he was. “That’s for true,” he repeated, smiling. “You know what I got up here, Sully?” Roy continued, pointing at his right temple.

  “Well,” Sully replied, “thanks for teeing it up for me.”

  Roy ignored this, the look on his face causing Sully to wonder what it must be like to go through life never getting the joke, to smile only when nothing was funny.

  “A ledger,” Roy informed him seriously. “On one side’s all the people I owe. Other side’s the ones that owe me. This morning, right here, I added one piece of cherry pie and a cup of coffee on the side I owe. Some people forget their debts, but not me.”

  Sully nodded. “I’m curious. Who’s on the side that owes you?”

  “One day it’ll be you,” he said confidently. “When I make things right? On that day you’ll owe me an apology, and I mean to collect it. I’ll come by some night. I know right where you park my trailer. I’ll bring us a six-pack. We’ll drink a beer or two, you and me, and you can admit how you had me all wrong. If I was you I’d start practicing, ’cause it’s gonna happen.”

  “Well, I’ve got just the one good leg, Roy, so I don’t think I’ll stand around on it waiting for that blessed day.”

  “Oh, it’ll come, all right. Some night there’ll be a knock on your door and it’ll be me. And that’s for true, too.”

  “Unless I fall asleep with that lit cigarette first.”

  “Hey, there you go!” Roy said, pointing his index finger at Sully like he’d just guessed right in a game of charades. “That sure could happen, too.”


  “I BELIEVE,” Reverend Tunic warbled, a hint of Martin Luther King Jr. in his cadence now, “that by our fair city Judge Barton Flatt meant for us to understand that this place we call home is not just comely but fair as in ‘just,’ that our community is a model of rectitude, an exemplar of…”

  Here he looked heavenward, as if for an elusive word or abstract concept, apparently finding it in a jet’s vapor trail at thirty thousand feet.

  “Of righteousness,” he concluded.

  Raymer, looking up as well, felt both dizzy and nauseated, his knees suddenly liquid in the heat. How nice being on that plane would be. In his mind’s eye he could see himself disembarking at its unknown destination, magically dressed for some other line of work. Something he’d be good at. Some new life undreamed of by Becka and Judge Flatt, even by Miss Beryl. Or, for that matter, by himself.

  “How, then, we may ask,” Reverend Tunic continued, his gaze still fixed on the heavens, “do we make the great man’s dream a reality? How do we ensure that our fair city is the celestial one of his profound conviction?”

  What in the world had possessed him to become a policeman in the first place? Had the attraction been law enforcement’s emphasis on rules? As a boy he’d always found rules comforting. They implied that life was governed by basic principles of fair play, guaranteeing him his turn at bat. And that was important, because he’d already witnessed among his peers too many kids who refused to play fair unless compelled to do so by adults. The rules he’d appreciated most were simple and unambiguous. Do this. Don’t do that. People appreciate clarity, don’t they? Being a policeman, then, would be about order, about implementing the will of the people, about the common good. Right. In actuality, the job had taught him that, far from being comforted by rules, most people were irritated by them. They i
nsisted that even the most sensible, self-explanatory regulations be justified. They demanded exceptions in their own unexceptional cases. They were forever trying to convince him that the rules they’d run afoul of were either stupid or arbitrary, and Raymer had to admit that some of them truly were. Worse, all manner of citizens suspected that laws were enacted expressly to disadvantage them. Poor people concluded that the deck was stacked against them, rich ones that a reshuffle would ruin both them and civilization. Becka, when in the right mood, would argue that marriage was an institution designed to enslave an entire gender, and at times her rhetoric got so personal that you’d have thought Raymer himself had been a member of the original matrimonial planning committee. Back at the Academy the rule of law had made a kind of sense, at least in its broad strokes. Anymore, Raymer wasn’t so sure. So go, he thought. Just get on a plane and leave. Because after Becka’s death something had happened to him. His faith in his profession had eroded, and in light of this, what was keeping him here?

  On the other side of the judge’s open grave stood a girl of about twelve—one of His Honor’s nieces or grandchildren?—who was staring intently, brow knit, at Raymer’s midsection. She couldn’t know about the garage-door opener in his pocket, of course, but she seemed to have drawn an erroneous inference about what his hand was up to in there. When he removed it, their eyes met, and a sly, knowing smile spread across her otherwise innocent features. Raymer, feeling himself flush, clasped his hands in front of his crotch and looked past her into the distance, his eye once again drawn to that vapor trail. If he went somewhere new, who would he know? Who would know him? What would he do for a living?

  A hundred yards away, off to the side of the unpaved road that separated Hill from Dale, sat the bright yellow backhoe that had no doubt dug the judge’s grave earlier that morning. Raymer recognized Rub Squeers, Sully’s sidekick, sitting in the small patch of shade beside it. Something about his posture suggested that he was weeping. Could he be? Was he, too, remembering a loved one buried nearby? Was he, too, yearning for a new life, a new line of work? Maybe he’d like to swap jobs, Raymer thought, because digging graves, compared with law enforcement, would be both peaceful and rewarding. The dead were past being troubled by the world’s injustice. Nor did they resist order. You could lay them out on a grid by the thousands without a single complaint. Try that on the living and see where it got you. People professed to love straight lines, which provided them, after all, with the shortest distance between two points, but Raymer had come to believe that, deep down, humans preferred to meander. Possibly, he considered, absentmindedly, that’s all Becka had succumbed to—a perfectly natural urge to meander. Perhaps she hadn’t fallen out of love with him so much as she’d become disillusioned by the rigidity of matrimony’s rules: Love, honor, obey. Do this. Don’t do that. Maybe to her, as a policeman, he’d come to represent the straight line she could no longer abide. Was the impulse to meander so terrible? When you did, wasn’t there always the possibility that in the end you’d loop back to where you originally were? Given time, mightn’t Becka have found her way back to him? Maybe it was time, not love, they’d run out of. It was pretty to think so.

  He’d been the one to find her. He’d come home early, something he almost never did, at least not lately, not since things had started to sour between them, gradually at first, then suddenly. They’d argued bitterly that morning before he left for work, what about he couldn’t even remember. Nothing. Everything. Lately, even his most benign observations summoned torrents of sarcasm, tears, anger and disdain. Almost overnight, it seemed, the range of his wife’s negative emotions had multiplied exponentially. To Raymer, though, something about her litany of grievance felt out of whack. That she no longer loved him was beyond question, yet something still didn’t ring true. It was almost as if she was doing scenes from all the plays she knew that featured marital discord. He kept looking for continuity, for what she was angry or bitter about on Monday to reappear on Thursday. But no. It was as if she meant to stampede him with a multitude of unrelated complaints that ranged from the fairly benign and specific—his forgetting to lower the toilet seat—to the more vague and global—his disrespect for her feelings—with every offense, large and small, equally weighted.

  So when he pulled in to their driveway and saw those three suitcases sitting on the porch, he recognized what they meant or were supposed to—she was leaving him—but more than anything the sight struck him as theatrical, almost comic. The front door was half open. Had she forgotten something and gone back inside for it? He remembered crossing the lawn and thinking they’d probably run right into each other there. She’d be surprised for a moment, then determined. And what would he do? Let her go? Keep her by force, at least until he could get to the bottom of whatever was troubling her?

  She was just inside the open door. She’d been hurrying, that much was clear. The rug at the top of the stairs—now in a heap, halfway down—was probably the culprit. Raymer himself had slipped on it more than once. Becka had tasked him with finding a mat to put beneath it, but he kept forgetting, and this, right here, was somehow the consequence. Her forehead was planted on the bottom step, her hair having fallen forward to cover her face, her knees two stairs up, arms behind her, rump in the air. She looked like she’d been swimming the breaststroke from the top of the stairs to the bottom and died before she could get there.

  How long did he stand there, paralyzed? He hadn’t even checked to make sure she was dead, just stood there staring at her, unable to process what he was seeing. Even now, thirteen months later, he cringed to recall his breathtaking incompetence at the scene. What he couldn’t get out of his head was how staged the whole thing looked—Becka’s body impossibly balanced like that, no blood to speak of. To Raymer it resembled a museum diorama whose bizarre purpose was beyond his grasp. She was, after all, an actress, which made what he was witnessing a performance. She couldn’t hold that ridiculous pose forever. If he was just patient, she’d eventually get to her feet and say, Is this what you want to happen to me? Fix that fucking rug!

  But no. It was no performance. Becka was dead. He found the tented note she’d left on the dining room table while he waited for the ambulance. I’m sorry, it said. I didn’t mean for this to happen. Try to be happy for us. It was signed with Becka’s usual capital B.

  She didn’t mean for this to happen? It took him a moment to realize that by “this” she didn’t mean falling down the stairs, or dying, because of course she couldn’t have. No, what she hadn’t meant to do was fall in love. Falling out of love with him was something he could, in time, come to terms with. In point of fact, hadn’t he understood from the beginning that his luck in marrying Becka was too good to last? But falling in love with somebody new? Try to be happy for us? How could that happen when he didn’t know who us was?


  DURING THE LAST THIRTEEN MONTHS the images from that terrible afternoon—Becka dead, the EMTs and investigators trying to work around her on the stairs, her rigored body being maneuvered onto a gurney and then out the front door, the neighbors having gathered outside to watch—had mercifully begun to fade, like photographs left in the sun. Tom Bridger’s words, by contrast, had lost none of their force. Over a forty-year career, Tom had developed a medical examiner’s mordant humor. Arriving on the scene, he’d taken one look at Becka, her forehead seemingly stapled to the bottom step, her rear end in the air, and said, “What the hell did this woman do? Come down those stairs like a Slinky?” He hadn’t intended the remark to be cruel, not realizing the dead woman’s husband was in the next room to overhear it. What made it so awful was its truth. Because Becka had looked for all the world as if she’d done exactly that—Slinkied down the stairs. Which again put Raymer in mind of old Miss Beryl, who, back in eighth grade, famously maintained that the precise word, the carefully chosen phrase, the exact analogy, was worth a thousand pictures. Back then he and his classmates had been convinced she had it backward, but no more. When he r
emembered the horror of that afternoon’s events, the phrase “like a Slinky” still played on a loop in his brain, still made his stomach roil. The words actually had a taste: stomach acid on the back of his tongue. Their meaning had gradually evolved, morphing from horror into anger, then into despair and finally into…what? Lately, when the phrase “like a Slinky” scrolled uninvited across his consciousness, he found himself involuntarily grinning. Why? He certainly didn’t think there was anything funny about what had happened. Even if Becka had been planning to run off with another man, he wasn’t glad she was dead. At least he didn’t think he was. What had happened to her wasn’t justice, poetic or otherwise. Where, then, did the shameful impulse to grin come from? From some dark place in himself? Who, he wondered, as Miss Beryl had so often done, is this Douglas Raymer?

  “My dear friends,” intoned Reverend Tunic, who unless Raymer was much mistaken hadn’t a single friend, dear or otherwise, within earshot, “I submit that it is not the duty of one man, no matter how great and wise, to bring justice and rectitude to the world. No, that responsibility belongs to us all, to each and every one of us…”

  Except me, thought Chief of Police Douglas Raymer. Blinking back perspiration or tears—he couldn’t be sure which—he was beyond weary of all obligation. No, the thing to do was abdicate. Surrender the field. Admit defeat. Become a gravedigger.

  As he’d become lost in the memory of Becka’s tragic end, his hand, he now realized, had unconsciously migrated back into his trouser pocket, where it was again depressing the metal plate of the garage remote. What was the range on these things? he wondered. Was a door—or several doors, if Charice was right—sliding up somewhere in Bath? In Schuyler Springs? In Albany? Raymer found himself smiling at this patently absurd notion, picturing his wife’s lover, the asshole, watching his garage door go up, then down, then up again, and knowing that the man who was making this happen was nearby and armed.

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