Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

  Was this the compromise he was searching for? Quit the job he wasn’t cut out for, but first find out who the opener belonged to and let the rotten bastard know he was busted? If Raymer could solve just this one mystery, he could let go of everything else—responsibility and rectitude, obligation and the fucking Iroquois with their supple moccasins and whatever other happy horseshit Reverend Tunic was running up his spiritual flagpole. Okay, maybe it wasn’t possible to reinvent yourself, but you could move on, right? People did it every day. He didn’t hate Becka for her faithlessness. She was simply, like his career in law enforcement, a mistake. Everyone but he himself seemed to have recognized this from the start. When introduced to the bride-to-be at the rehearsal dinner, Jerome, who’d reluctantly agreed to be his best man when Raymer confessed he had no other close friends, immediately sussed out the situation. “Damn, Dougie,” he said. “You’re marrying up, boy.” Raymer had been pleased by the other man’s enthusiasm and proud that Becka was such a fine-looking woman. And of course it felt good to have his own assessment—that he was a lucky man—confirmed. But trailing in the wake of his friend’s enthusiasm was his unspoken assumption that luck this good was bound to run out.

  “There’s a word,” intoned the reverend, “for those among us who do not each day take up the burden of making the world a better, more just place.”

  That same twelve-year-old girl was nudging her mother now. Look, Mama. Look at that man with his hand in his pocket. What’s he doing, Mama?

  “Do you know what it is? The word is…‘shirker.’ ”

  He’d stopped sweating, Raymer realized, and his soaked, heavy shirt now felt cold and clammy. His knees felt jellied.

  “And those who do so shirk not just responsibility and human fellowship but God himself. Yes, friends, the shirker shirks the divine.”

  And the birker birks the bovine, Raymer thought. The perker perks the povine.

  The girl’s mother was regarding him with disgust, but for once he felt his own much-abused innocence and smiled back at the woman beatifically. Over and over he depressed the metal plate, indulging again the pleasant notion that somewhere a door was rising and falling on the truly guilty.

  “And what of God?” Reverend Tunic wanted to know.

  Good question, Raymer thought.

  “Does God love the shirker?”

  Yes. He loves us all.

  “No!” Tunic emphatically disagreed. “God does not.”

  Well, fuck him, then, Raymer thought, giddy with heat and blasphemy. Shame on God.

  “Because a shirker is a coward.”

  No, God is.

  “A shirker always assumes that the difficult duty of daily living is someone else’s, that the thunderclouds which darken the sun and obscure the light of reason are someone else’s problem.”

  But why should clouds be anybody’s responsibility?

  “No, friends, Barton Flatt was no shirker. Shirking is not his legacy. And as he journeys to his final reward…”

  Dirt? Decomposition? Worms?

  “…we honor him one last time by reaffirming in his presence…”

  His absence, surely.

  “…our faith. In God. In America. And in our fair city. Because only then…”

  Raymer started, suddenly alert, his reverie instantly dispelled. Had he momentarily lost his balance in the heat, or had the ground beneath his feet actually trembled? Apparently the latter, because all those gathered around the open grave had now assumed that classic surfer’s stance, arms akimbo for balance. Even Reverend Tunic, who to this point had seemed untethered to any earthly reality, danced nimbly back from the hole in the ground, as if he’d just been informed that the bell he’d supposed was tolling for another was actually beckoning him.

  Raymer’s first guilty thought was that if the earth shuddered, he himself must be the cause. He’d been silently blaspheming, and God, eavesdropping, had shown his displeasure. Anxious not to incur further disapproval, he was about to offer a silent but heartfelt apology when he heard someone say, “Earthquake.” In general, Raymer much preferred natural explanations to divine ones, but he doubted the ground had shaken long enough—a second at most—to qualify as a quake. It had felt less like a tectonic shift than a concussion, as if somewhere nearby the earth had been impacted. Had the plane he’d been watching earlier fallen from the sky? Had he somehow made this happen by playing with the garage-door opener? He took the remote out of his pocket and studied it, bewildered. Everyone, he realized, was staring at him.

  And just that quickly, Douglas Raymer, chief of police, was furious, because wasn’t this the very problem he’d been trying to articulate earlier, the trouble with police work in a nutshell? Responsibility, justice, love, rectitude, legacy. Words with about as much substance as a vapor trail. A pompous windbag in an embroidered silk tunic could make a tidy living pretending by means of florid rhetoric to know all about such things. But let the ground shake beneath your feet, and it was cops people turned to for answers. Like it was their job to explain the fundamental instability of the world. Like they knew how to shore it up.

  Gus Moynihan, the mayor, had grabbed him by the elbow. “Raymer?” he said, apparently puzzled by the device in his hand, a good mile from the nearest garage. “The damn ground just vibrated like a cheap dildo. You gonna just stand there?”

  That didn’t seem like such a bad idea, actually. If it was an earthquake, he couldn’t imagine a better place to be than in the middle of vast, flat Dale, where there was nothing within a hundred yards tall enough to fall on them. Still, for the time being at least, he was the police chief, and action of some sort was probably in order. The thing to do, he decided, was to call Charice. She usually had answers or plenty of suggestions and, when these ultimately failed, sympathy, though even this was often laced with sarcasm. Slipping his radio off the metal hook on his belt, Raymer pressed TALK, pausing only half a beat to wonder what sort of experience Gus Moynihan had with cheap dildos, or expensive ones for that matter, before saying, “Charice? You there?”

  No response.

  The mourners were all talking at once, and now Raymer thought he heard somebody say, “Meteor.” Had a meteor struck the station? Killed Charice right there at the switchboard?

  The mayor started tapping Raymer’s radio with his index finger. “That would probably work better if you turned it on.”

  Which was true. He’d turned the radio off when the service began, not wanting the damn thing to bark at him during the homily. He turned it back on, and Charice immediately said, “Chief?”

  “I’m here,” he said, though this didn’t actually feel true. His extremities were tingling, as if whatever made the ground shudder had entered through his toes and was trying to get out through his fingertips and ears. He turned away from the cacophony of voices so he could hear better.

  “You better come on back to town,” she was saying. “You aren’t going to believe what just happened.”

  “Was it a meteor?” he ventured, in motion now, though his legs felt as heavy and rooted as tree trunks.

  “What?” Charice said.

  “Doug?” the mayor called to him, but Raymer held up his hand. Couldn’t the man see he was busy?

  “Was it a meteor?” he repeated.

  “Doug!” Despite its urgency, the mayor’s voice seemed miles away now, though Raymer had moved only a few feet.

  “You okay, Chief?” Charice wanted to know.

  In fact, Raymer’s field of vision seemed inexplicably to be shrinking. In the foreground was the radio he was speaking into, and in the blurry distance the gleaming backhoe. Everything else was shrouded in gauze.

  Then, with his next step, the ground simply wasn’t there, and even before he could account for its absence it was back again with a bang, the noise, impossibly loud, somehow inside his head. Had he managed to discharge his weapon again, as he had that day with Sully? Where, he wondered, might this bullet land?

  You know my thoughts on a
rming morons, Judge Flatt chuckled from inside his nearby casket.

  Then, nothing.

  Exit Strategies

  WHEN THE LITTLE BELL over the door stopped tinkling and Sully saw how Ruth was glaring at him, he almost wished Roy Purdy would return. Back when he and Ruth were more than just friends that same look would’ve meant that he could forget about sex for a while. These days his punishment was less certain and therefore more ominous. “Well,” she said finally, “you’re right about one thing.”

  “Really? I didn’t mean to be.”

  “People generally do get worse.” Clearly, it wasn’t Roy who’d prompted this observation. “What is wrong with you?”

  Before he could answer, the men’s room door opened and Carl emerged, a dark stain spreading down the inseam of one pant leg. In the weeks following his surgery, he’d worn the recommended diaper but confided to Sully that doing so was humiliating, so he quit as soon as he began regaining control of his urinary function. The problem was that occasional incontinence persisted, mostly at night and first thing in the morning. Feeling like he had to go, he’d stand patiently in front of the commode waiting for water that wouldn’t come, at least until he pulled up his pants, which seemed to be the signal for his unruly urethra to cut loose. Which was evidently what had just happened.

  “So, when you see Rub?” he said, oblivious. “Tell him I’m going to need both him and his backhoe.”

  “That isn’t his, actually,” Sully reminded him. “It belongs to the town.”

  “We could borrow it, is my thinking,” Carl said, and as he slid back onto his stool Sully caught an acrid whiff of fresh urine.

  “What happened to your own backhoe?” he said.

  “Out at the yard,” Carl said. “Temporarily disabled.”

  There was a towel draped over the oven door, so Sully rose and moved around the counter, a risky maneuver with Ruth so pissed at him. He was grudgingly permitted to come around when he had business there and she was in a good mood, but not when he didn’t and she wasn’t. “I’m sure your pal the mayor would rent it to you.”

  “Yeah, probably, but I’d prefer that no money changes hands.”

  “Having worked for you, I know that preference all too well.”

  “So,” he said, while Sully wiped up an imaginary spill on the counter between them, “you really don’t think about sex anymore?”

  “Not often.”

  “Good,” Carl said, to all appearances genuinely relieved. “I’d like to think that when I’m as old as you, all that will be over.”

  “What makes you think you’ll ever get to be my age?” Then, lowering his voice, he said, “Here, you might need this.” And pushed the towel toward him meaningfully.

  Carl gave him a what-the-hell look, then saw. “Jesus,” he said, spinning off his stool as if the soaking had occurred right that second, not two minutes earlier in another room entirely. Sully saw Ruth process the whole thing even faster than Carl, who now regarded Sully angrily, as if he suspected he’d been the one who peed on him. Sully, for his part, somehow felt as if he had.

  “A towel’s no good,” Ruth said when Carl commenced vigorously buffing his chinos. “Come with me,” she said, motioning for him to follow her, which he reluctantly did, his face flushed beet red.

  When the door into the apartment closed behind them, Sully was left alone in one of his favorite places in the world, in a silence so profound that he could hear the coffeepot’s metallic, clocklike ticking at the far end of the counter. Outside, the only visible movement was the oppressive heat rippling the window glass. As he waited for a car to pass, or someone to come out of the hardware store, or a dog to trot across the street, anything, he was visited by a profound disorientation, as if what he’d assumed to be real had just been revealed as a movie set where he was the only actor, the rest of the cast and even the crew having gone home. For the day? The weekend? Or had the movie wrapped and nobody bothered to tell him? When even the coffeepot stopped clicking, Sully felt his chest fill with something like panic. Had he just had the heart attack he’d been warned was coming? Was this what the cessation of life felt like, experienced from the inside? Everything stops, except consciousness continues merrily about its business, dutifully bearing witness.

  “Hey,” said a voice he recognized as Ruth’s until he blinked and saw it was Janey, her daughter. Over the years, their voices had become so similar that anymore he had a hard time telling them apart. Her apartment door was now ajar, and from inside came the high-pitched whine of a small appliance. “Earth to Sully.”

  “Hey yourself,” he said, embarrassed but grateful, too, because the sound of her voice had set everything back in motion. Across the street a man strode purposefully out of the hardware store, and up the block a car alarm went off. At the VA he’d been warned about the possibility of brief “narrative disruptions,” even hallucinations. Thanks to the arrhythmia, the brain sometimes got too much blood, at other times too little.

  “You’re getting weirder every day, you know that?” Janey said, pouring herself some coffee. There were dark circles under her sleep-encrusted eyes, through which she regarded Sully with unfeigned disinterest. “And speaking of weird, how come Carl Roebuck’s in my bathroom using my hair dryer on his crotch?”

  “Well,” Sully said, letting the word dangle because Janey was possibly the only woman in Bath who didn’t know about Carl’s predicament.

  “Men,” Janey said, making Sully complicit in whatever lunacy this might be.

  “Hey,” said Ruth, returning now and gazing at her daughter. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t come into the restaurant in your bathrobe.”

  Janey, no surprise, didn’t seem to care about her mother’s preferences. “Yeah, and I’d prefer you didn’t bring men into my bathroom before I’m even awake and loan them my hair dryer without asking.”

  “Try waking up before noon, then,” Ruth suggested.

  Janey pointed at the clock, which said 11:29. “It is before noon. And I closed the Bee last night, so how about cutting me a little slack?”

  They faced off for a long beat until her mother relented. “Sorry about the bathroom,” she said, “but Carl had an accident.” She emphasized the name ever so slightly. Remember? she seemed to be saying. What I told you about Carl?

  “Oh, right.” Janey shrugged. “I guess that makes it okay.”

  “That was my thought,” Ruth said. “I’m glad you agree.”

  Janey rolled her eyes to show that she most certainly did not agree but wasn’t going to go to the mat over it, either. “Was that my idiot ex-husband’s voice I heard earlier?” Ruth apparently took this to be a rhetorical question, because she didn’t bother answering. “He’s taking that restraining order real serious.” Turning to Sully, “What’d she give him this time?”

  “Nothing,” Ruth told her, but immediately looked guilty. “A cup of coffee and slice of day-old pie.”

  “Think of him as a dog, Ma. If you feed him, he’s gonna keep coming back.”

  “He hasn’t caused any trouble so far, or even tried to,” Ruth said, glancing at Sully. “Unlike some people.”

  “That’s the thing about Roy,” Janey said, putting her now-empty mug into a plastic busing tub. “He won’t, until he does. But when he does, it’ll be my jaw that gets broke, like always.”

  “He breaks your jaw because you’re always mouthing off.”

  “No, he breaks it because he enjoys breaking it.”

  “Like you enjoy mouthing off,” Ruth said as Janey brushed past her.

  “Well, jeez,” Janey mused, pausing in the doorway to her apartment. “Let’s think a minute. Where the fuck do I get that from?”

  Once she was gone, Ruth turned back to Sully. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said.

  As he’d feared, she was all too willing to pick up their dispute right where they left off. “What don’t you want to hear?”

  “What you’re thinking.”

  Actually, Sul
ly was more than happy to hold his tongue. Through none of his own doing, he was pretty sure the tide had just turned in his favor. Nothing was more likely to return him to Ruth’s good graces than a skirmish with her obstinate daughter, and he seriously doubted, despite being dead game, that Ruth wanted to wage battles on two separate fronts. Apparently he was right, because after he let her win the staredown, her posture relaxed. “Thank you,” she said, like she meant it.

  “You’re welcome,” he told her. “I might’ve had something nice to say, though. Now you’ll never know.”

  She shot him a look that said she was content to take her chances, poured herself some coffee, then pulled up a stool across from him, brushing his cheek with the back of her fingers, more intimacy than they’d shared in months, the gesture powerful enough to dispel what remained of his earlier disorientation. Such as it was, this was his life, not a movie of it.

  “What is wrong with you?” Ruth said. It was the same question she’d asked before, when she was angry, though her tone was totally different now. Then, she’d been referring to how he’d goaded Roy Purdy, but now he wasn’t so sure.

  “He’s dangerous, Ruth.”

  “You think I don’t know that?”

  He wasn’t sure, once he thought about it. Did she?

  “I know you think you’re helping, but you’re not. If he snaps, he’ll put you in the hospital. Or Hilldale.”

  “I might surprise you,” he said, borrowing Roy’s line, though it sounded just as lame coming from him.

  “He’s got forty years on you, Sully. And he won’t fight fair.”

  “I understand that,” said Sully, whose imagined strategies for offing Roy Purdy hadn’t exactly been models of fair play either. “But if he assaults me, he goes back to jail and you’re rid of him.”

  “Yeah, but if he kills you I’m rid of you.”

  Two years. But probably closer to one. Was that what his goading had really been about, some sort of subconscious exit strategy, an attempt to leave life on his own terms instead of waiting for the fatal hiccup of a deteriorating heart? You heard about people committing suicide by speeding on a dark road and locating a convenient tree or swerving into oncoming traffic. So how did Roy Purdy fit into that scenario? Suicide by moron?

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