Straight Man by Richard Russo


  In the four hours we’ve been here, I’ve accomplished a good deal besides getting drunk. I’ve made half a dozen phone calls and another half a dozen trips to the sour men’s room. I’ve called all three of the women that four hours’ worth of tequila guzzling have convinced me I’m in love with. First Lily, who, I tell myself, is really the only woman I’m in love with. She’s told me that she’s staying with her father, and I’ve called his number, once from home and again from the pay phone here at The Tracks. Since I spoke to him last, Angelo has gotten himself a message machine. Why is something I’d like to ask him if somebody would pick up. He never leaves the house and has no known friends or associates. All his police force pals are either dead or living in Florida. What use has a friendless man who never leaves the house for an answering machine? The message is pure Angelo though. “You got Angelo’s place. I’m not saying I’m here. I’m not saying I’m not here. You got something to say to me? Now’s the time.” When I called from home I left a message for Lily to call me and let me know she got in safely, but then I left, so I don’t know if she’s called. There’s a way, I’m sure, to get my messages off my own machine from here at The Tracks, but it involves a secret code number I forgot thirty seconds after inventing it.

  “Pick up, Angelo, if you’re there,” I tell him this time, my second call. “It’s Hank Devereaux.” My voice sounds strange, though, and it occurs to me that Angelo might not believe me. Tequila lowers my voice and adds gravel. To Angelo, I may sound now more like the sort of man he wished his only daughter had married. I’ve always been fond of Angelo despite his not having much use for me. I don’t take it personally. I try to remember he doesn’t have much use for anyone who goes through life unarmed. When this same man arms himself with words Angelo doesn’t understand, he likes him even less.

  I should be glad nobody’s home. By threatening on camera to kill a duck a day until I get my budget, I’ve become a hero to the members of my entourage, but I know my wife would not be among my admirers if she were here. Which raises the question of why I’m so anxious to tell her about it, why I’m so disappointed she won’t be around to catch me on the local news. The other person I wish were around is Jacob Rose, who also would not be pleased to learn what I’ve gone and done. I recall that he not only left me in charge (a joke, granted) but instructed me to do nothing (another joke) in his absence. When it occurs to me that the two people I’d like most to tell about my misbehavior are by coincidence both out of town, I’m visited by a disturbing yet strangely exhilarating thought. That it may not be a coincidence. No sooner does this possibility occur to me, shooting its small, tender roots into the fertile soil of my long disused creative imagination, than I’m visited by a powerful image of the two of them, my friend and my wife, together in a hotel room in Philadelphia. The picture is at once more focused and believable than the vision I had yesterday of Lily and Teddy, perhaps because Jacob and Lily have always been such good friends. She counseled him through his disastrous affair with Gracie, through his divorce from Jane, through the disappointment of Gracie’s sudden decision to marry Mike Law. For the last decade Jacob has been the loneliest man I know (with the possible exception of Mike Law), and such loneliness has been known to weaken scruples. Is it because I like my narratives to hang together that I’m encouraged by the plausibility of this scenario? But it takes two to tango, and the other dancer in the scenario is my wife, a woman I know.

  My next call is to Meg Quigley, who answers on the first ring. “Call your father and get him to watch the local news,” I suggest, telling her which channel. “You might watch it yourself, actually.”

  “Where are you?”

  “Some dive,” I tell her.

  “It sounds like The Tracks,” she says. “All those model trains.”

  “How does a nice Catholic girl like you know such places?” I ask her, though I remember quite well the dive I fetched her from last year, the afternoon she wanted me to undress her and put her to bed.

  She ignores my question. “Why don’t you call him yourself?”

  “He behaves badly this time of night. He calls me names.”

  “You sound drunk.”

  “By the way,” I tell her, “you ruined my blotter.”

  “Good,” she says.

  “I’m flattered, Meg, really,” I tell her. “Its just that …”

  But she’s hung up.

  Finally I call Rachel. I decide to make this one short. The phone I’m calling from is next to the men’s room, the door of which keeps swinging open and shut, like desire, offering up the stale odor of over-matched urinal cakes. It’s a boy’s voice that answers. Confused, I try to remember Rachel’s kid’s name.

  “Shouldn’t you be in bed?” I say. It’s ten-thirty, after all. Jory. Suddenly his name is there.

  “Who the fuck is this?”

  I’ve about made up my mind to mention this kid’s mouth to his mother when it dawns on me that I must be talking to the boy’s father. Has he moved back in? Have he and Rachel reconciled? I feel a deep, melodramatic loss at this possibility, similar to the loss of Meg Quigley. “Cal?” I say. “Hank Devereaux, Cal. I’m sorry to bother you. Department business,” I add, like a guilty man.

  Silence. Then a distant door opening, a room or two away. Then the boylike voice, muffled but clear enough to make out. “Hey. Telephone. Your fan club.”

  Another silence. Longer. Then Rachel’s voice on the line, incredulous. “Hello?”

  “Rachel,” I say to this dodo’s wife. “I’m a swine for calling so late. Tell Cal I’m sorry.”

  “No, it’s okay? I was in the tub?”

  I’m visited by a vivid mental picture of this, which is banished by the opening of the men’s room door and a fresh blast of urinal cakes. “Listen,” I say. “Take tomorrow off.”

  “Tomorrow?”

  “Off,” I say. “Right.”

  “Why?”

  “I have this feeling it’s going to be a bad day.”

  “I can’t afford to?”

  “I’ll see you’re paid,” I assure her. “Watch the news at eleven.” I tell her which channel.

  “Okay?” she says, sounding genuinely frightened. In fact, I’m not sure I know anybody who’s as frightened all the time as Rachel.

  “Tell Cal I’m sorry I called so late.”

  “Okay?”

  And then it comes over me. “You and he back together? None of my business, I know, but …”

  “No?”

  “Good. In fact, tell him to go screw himself. Tell him I don’t like him even a little.”

  Now that I’m out of women to be in love with, I visit the men’s room, where, standing before the long trough, limp dick in hand, my dribbling is hot and painful. Here I have the leisure to consider life’s fundamental injustice. As the result of merely contemplating adultery, my father’s most conspicuous sin, I’m being visited by my father’s malady. For most of my adult life I’ve considered his periodic battles with kidney stones a kind of karmic justice. What more appropriate judgment on a man who can’t keep his dick in his pants, his seed in his dick? But this logic, taken in conjunction with my own predicament, I now realize, can only lead me in a direction I don’t wish to go. Am I to genuflect before that odd New Testament notion that to think a sin is to commit it? Am I no different from my father because I think to do what he did? A hateful and perverse philosophy, surely, and one that makes the world needlessly complex. Against such lunacy William of Occam became a reluctant heretic. No. Simplicity and justice require that thought and deed not be carelessly elided.

  Still, thoughts are not nothing. I recall the way Rachel’s voice did not fall when she said good night to me. Of course this may mean only that she doesn’t know what to call me in front of her idiot husband. Or perhaps she doesn’t know what to call me at this time of night, when neither of us is at the office. Or she just doesn’t know what to call me, period, which means she doesn’t know what to call our relationship. A
nd who can blame her? “Hank,” I tell her, I tell Rachel, who again stands before me in the mirror above the urinal, fresh from her bath, wearing nothing but a towel, which is about to drop when another voice intrudes.

  “No, you’re Hank,” says the man who’s joined me at the trough. “I’m Dave. The sound guy, remember?”

  And his urine explodes against the porcelain with a force that makes me weak in the knees with envy.

  “What are you trying to do?” he wants to know. “Pass a stone?”

  I may have saved Missy from the deadly boredom of “The People Beat,” but it’s Tony Coniglia who has her complete attention now. Having discovered that the bar serves raw clams, he’s ordered several dozen, which arrive on crushed ice with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. When Missy takes a clam, spears it with a cocktail fork, and dips it into the red cocktail sauce, Tony refuses to let her eat it that way. He is adamant, as if some article of his personal credo has been affronted. He wants to show Missy how it’s done, and she looks interested to learn. Holding up a clamshell between thumb and index finger, he squeezes two measured drops of lemon from the wedge. Spurning the cocktail fork, he raises the clam as if it were a communion wafer and allows it to slide off the shell and onto his waiting tongue.

  “Ooooh,” Missy coos.

  “The sea,” Tony says, having chewed twice and swallowed.

  “All right!” Missy exclaims, reaching for a clam.

  Tony cannot allow this. “Don’t rush,” he tells her gravely, as if dangerous, unforeseen consequences may be lurking. He will do one for her. She watches him dress the clam and then, eyes closed, offers her tongue, which quivers in anticipation. Tony takes his time delivering the clam, and Missy shivers when it finally arrives, crossing her arms over her ample bosom, hugging herself. Already I have to pee again.

  “The sea,” Tony says, by way of benediction, when she swallows.

  “Ooooh,” Missy repeats. “That’s good!”

  I spoon about a tablespoon of cocktail sauce onto a clam and eat it.

  “Pay no attention to that man,” Tony warns her seriously. “He can be mildly amusing upon occasion, but in his deepest heart, he is unrefined. He is a cretin.”

  Missy looks me over to see if this can be so. I eat another clam, the same way, not wanting to confuse her. She’s wearing too much makeup, it seems to me, though this may have to do with her work before the camera. Or maybe she has bad skin.

  Tony fixes her another clam, feeds her so that she must hug herself again. “I love your friend,” she confides to me in a stage whisper. Tony grins at me, one eyebrow arched, as if to suggest that he can’t help having this effect on young, large-breasted professional women. “He reminds me of my father,” she says.

  “Is your father alive?” I ask.

  She confesses that he died several years ago.

  “Then I see the resemblance.”

  When a shout goes up, I see myself on the big-screen TV, holding Finny aloft by his slender neck. It’s quick, then I’m gone again, and I realize this is a promo. First, there will be a commercial, then the story.

  “Turn it up!” Missy bellows.

  It takes a minute, but by the time the commercial is over, we have sound. For some reason I don’t look right, standing there, and it’s not the fact that I’m gripping a goose by the neck. Only when the camera pulls in close do I remember that I conducted this interview wearing the fake nose and glasses. I had imagined these to be a more obvious exaggeration of my features, but on television at least they aren’t. The black plastic rims of the glasses don’t look obviously toylike, and the flesh-colored plastic nose just looks big. In close-up, on a large-screen TV, you can see that it’s a fake nose, but I wonder how many people at home watching regular TV’s will conclude that this is the way I look.

  To my surprise, the film editor at the station has cut very little of my unprepared text, and now, sitting here in The Tracks, I deeply wish that he had cut it all. I begin to suspect, for the first time, that the sight of a fiftyish English professor with a stranglehold on a startled, terrified goose may not be funny. When I hear myself repeat my threat to kill a duck a day until I get my budget, the camera zooms in on Finny, whose bulging eyes and flapping wings convey to the folks at home that this wacko means business. But the crowd at The Tracks is howling and applauding, and Missy makes me stand up and take a bow. She locates my spare nose and glasses and makes me put these on so everyone can see it’s the same guy.

  When Dickie Pope, the campus executive officer, and Jack Proctor, our local representative, come on, neither looks amused, but whatever they are saying is drowned out by a chorus of boos. They are only on for about ten seconds, before the producer cuts to the studio news team, dissolved in laughter before they go to another commercial, and another cheer goes up in the bar. I am a hero, it seems.

  To celebrate, I make another trip to the men’s room.

  When I return, the clams are gone and Tony Coniglia, salt-and-pepper hair astir, is dancing with Missy to a hard-driving rock and roll song, the refrain of which goes, “Gimme gimme some lovin’.” They appear to be shouting this at each other, though they can’t hear above the pounding music. Tony, I can’t help noticing, has more range on the dance floor than he does on the racquetball court. In fact, to look at him now, you’d never guess he requires a handicap to be competitive. You’d think he’d be giving me points.

  I see that Teddy and June have joined the revelers at our table, which strikes me as unaccountable until I remember phoning and telling them to watch the news. I don’t recall telling them where I was calling from, but I must have, because here they are. They receive me as a hail-fellow, slapping me on the back. “I always knew you had it in you,” Teddy says, his expression a mix of fear and admiration. Like most academics, he is fascinated by childish, unprofessional conduct. It’s been a long time since he’s behaved outrageously, and he’s half jealous and half glad it’s me and not him. June too seems to be looking at me differently, as though she’s suspected for some time that my reputation as a semi-outrageous and unpredictable character, at least by modest academic standards, was undeserved. “It was great,” she admits. “The look on that duck’s face was priceless.”

  Any new respect I may have gained in June’s eyes, however, is lost when Tony Coniglia arrives from the dance floor with a pretty young woman. Tony and June go way back, and June doesn’t bother to conceal her contempt. This fall, the student magazine she advises printed a strong, unsigned editorial accusing several professors, identified by department, not name, of being sexual predators. One biology professor, it claimed, had a history of treating his classes as “a pool of potential sexual partners.”

  “Goose’s face,” Tony corrects her good-humoredly. He never responded, publicly or privately, to the magazine article, and there’s something in the tone of his voice now that suggests that he might have corrected every statement in the piece just as effortlessly. With a gallant flourish, he pulls out Missy Blaylock’s chair for her, as if to suggest that his most egregious human flaw may be an excess of charm. Missy’s upper lip is dewy from exertion, and there’re the beginnings of dark circles beneath her arms.

  “It was a goose,” Tony continues. “Who but an English professor would threaten to kill a duck a day and hold up a goose as an example?”

  “Duck, goose,” Missy says. “Same idea.”

  Tony throws up his hands.

  “Well, it is,” Missy insists.

  “How come nobody cares about facts anymore?” Tony wonders. “Whatever happened to accuracy? That used to be considered a virtue. Along with fair play.”

  Missy apparently concludes that Tony is making these observations to her, which is understandable, since he’s making eyes at her as he speaks. “I don’t know how to be fair to a goose,” she confesses.

  “By not calling it a duck,” Tony explains, as if to a child.

  Teddy must think it’s a good idea to change the subject, because he says, “To
o bad Lily’s not here.”

  We all look at him.

  “What?” he insists, mostly to me, since I’m chuckling.

  “I don’t get it,” Missy Blaylock says.

  “Teddy’s got a crush on Hank’s wife, Lily,” Tony Coniglia explains happily. “He wishes she were here.”

  In the time it takes to say these few words, all the blood in Teddy’s body locates in his face.

  “Isn’t she his wife?” Missy says, indicating June with her thumb.

  Tony shrugs, admits this is true. “For some reason, he prefers Hank’s.”

  Missy leans forward to examine June, but without Lily for comparison, she can’t resolve the conundrum. She examines each one of us at the table. “Am I missing something?” she wants to know.

  “Volumes,” June says.

  Missy ignores this, turning back to Tony. “I mean, it’s really, like, weird that you’d just say that in front of her,” she explains, again using her thumb as a pronoun reference.

  “It’s not true,” Teddy tries to explain. “It’s a joke. He just likes to cause trouble.”

  Missy’s eyes first narrow as she considers this possibility, then widen with a recollection. “It’s true!” she says. “You’re the one who started everything back at the lake!”

  When Tony looks over at me, I warn him, “If you say pond, I’m going to club you over the head with this pitcher.”

  Seeing the margarita pitcher reminds Tony that his glass is empty. He fills it, then Missy’s, then tops off the rest of our glasses. The margaritas run out just before they get to June, though Tony seems not to notice.

 
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