Straight Man by Richard Russo


  My threat to brain Tony Coniglia stirs a memory in Teddy, who says enthusiastically, “You should have been with Hank and me yesterday afternoon,” unaware that June is switching glasses with him. Then he recounts, Teddy-style, how we were forced off the road by Paul Rourke’s Camaro, how there was almost a fistfight right there on the shoulder of the road. I can tell that in the twenty-four hours since the event, Teddy has come to think of this melodramatic account as true. I can also tell he’d like me to back him up.

  “Were you there?” I ask innocently, just to see the look on his face. I mean, he’s known me for twenty years and knows better than to involve me in one of his stories. “Oh, right,” I say. “I remember now.”

  “Thanks a lot,” Teddy says, wounded, bleeding. And he’s lost his margarita to boot, he notices. Now we need another pitcher, and if he acknowledges this need, he’ll have to pay for it, something he’d rather not do. Only when June offers him a thin smile, draining the last of his drink, do I feel regret.

  “Can we get some more of those clams?” Missy wants to know.

  “Ah!” Tony says. “The sea.” As if what he means by this phrase is something very different from what the words denote.

  When Missy Blaylock gets up and heads for the women’s room, Tony watches her full, round hips. “I’m not easy,” he reminds us, “but I can be had.”

  “No,” June says, unpleasantly. “You’re easy.”

  “It’s true,” Tony sighs ruefully before catching a waitress and ordering more clams and another pitcher of margaritas.

  CHAPTER

  12

  It’s later than it should be, and I’m farther gone than I should be, and the moment when I might have exerted my free will, held up my hands, and shouted “No más!” to the cheering crowd is long past. I seem to recall trying to say “No más” at one point, only to discover that this turned the cheering crowd into a jeering crowd. And so, I’ve decided that it is the will of the people that I remain part of the festivities.

  That was then. Now we’re heading to Tony’s house, and “we” are Tony and Missy Blaylock and William Henry Devereaux, Jr. We three are wedged into the front seat of Tony’s Nissan Stanza. Tony and Missy would not hear of my reclining quietly in the backseat. No, I must be Porthos to their Athos and Aramis. We must be all for one in the front seat as the Stanza climbs dutifully up the dark, deserted streets toward Tony’s house, which abuts the woods high in the Railton hills, beyond which the slope becomes too severe to clear and build on. Missy is stroking the inside of my thigh, but I attach no significance to this, because she’s stroking the inside of Tony’s more meaningfully, and cooing at him too, nibbling his earlobe. I suspect that Missy is wired in parallel, so that her right hand does whatever her left is doing. Apparently she can’t rub the inside of Tony’s thigh with her left hand without doing the same to mine with her right. The front seat of the Nissan, designed for two, not three, makes it difficult to keep affection discreet.

  “Green,” I announce, when the traffic light we’ve been stalled at changes.

  “Envy,” Missy coos. She and Tony have been playing a word association game, and Missy must have concluded that I want to play too.

  “Green light,” I explain.

  “The Great Gatsby,” Tony answers confidently. “That’s an easy one.”

  I see no way out of this, except to point at the traffic signal above us, which turns yellow as Tony looks up.

  “Moon,” Missy says, locating the moon. “Green moon. The moon is made of green cheese.”

  I shake my head.

  “Sounds like moon?” Missy wants to know.

  The light turns red. Tony puts the Stanza in gear. We proceed through the red light.

  “I give up,” Missy says.

  “Me too,” I tell her.

  “You can’t give up,” she objects. “It’s your clue.”

  “Here we are,” Tony says, pulling into his driveway.

  “Jeez,” Missy says. “Do I have to pee.”

  We all get out. Missy trips along the slate path and up the steps, stamping her feet impatiently until Tony locates the right key. There’s only one bathroom in Tony’s house, and since waiting is out of the question, I go around the corner and drip on his hydrangeas.

  When I’m finished I follow them inside and find Tony in a small room off the kitchen toward the back of the house. I suspect he’s gone there so he’ll not have to listen to Missy tinkle in the preternatural quiet of the empty house. Against one wall is an expensive computer, monitor, laser printer, all set up on designer computer furniture. Tony purchased the whole rig from a remainder catalog at what he described enthusiastically as incredible savings. The problem is that the various components cannot be induced to work together, and all of the university’s so-called computer experts have failed to bring his system on-line. Each has a different explanation of what’s wrong, what’s needed to fix the mess. When I see that Tony has wheeled his old Smith-Corona electric typewriter into the corner, a sad admission of defeat, I wonder if Russell, my son-in-law, might be able to help out.

  “It’s like visiting the room of a dead child,” he admits so seriously that I am almost moved.

  “You were fornicated,” I agree.

  We hear a distant flush, and Tony arches an eyebrow. “Do you ever wish you were single and good-looking?” he wants to know.

  He’s grinning at me in the dark, and I can’t help grinning back.

  “I’m on-line and ready to interface,” he says proudly. “I bet it’s been a long time since you’ve even booted up.”

  Since it’s close enough to touch, I hit the ON switch of Tony’s computer, which goes directly into high gear, whirring away with great urgency. What appears on the monitor is wonderful. Every symbol on the keyboard is represented, and they fill the screen from margin to margin, the entire nonsense text scrolling upward. Every line that disappears at the top is replaced by another at the bottom, all of it total gibberish. I’m grateful that William of Occam didn’t live to see this.

  “You call this interfacing?” I say.

  He sighs. “It casts into serious doubt the old theory that an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters would eventually write the Great American Novel, doesn’t it?”

  We watch for a while until Tony turns the machine off, and in the silence we hear Missy, somewhere distant, squeal with delight. She has discovered, it turns out, the hot tub on Tony’s back deck. At the kitchen window we watch Missy undress, which she does with remarkable drunken efficiency. When she’s completely naked, she spies us at the window, two middle-aged men, and puts her hands on her ample hips and cocks her head as if to say, “Well?”

  Tony waves at her. “Pay attention,” he nudges me. “You’re never too old to learn.”

  CHAPTER

  13

  When I say I’m going home, I’m persuaded to stay for one beer. This persuasion takes place at several levels. At the basest of these I’m persuaded because there’s a pretty, naked young woman in the Jacuzzi, even if the effect of her beauty is marred somewhat by the fact that the rich steam rising off the surface of the hot tub is uncaking and separating her television makeup. Her face now resembles a low-budget horror movie mask, the idea of which is to suggest skin peeling away from bone. I’m also persuaded to stay where I am in the hot tub by the fact that since we’ve all climbed in it’s begun to rain. Sleet, really. I hunker down. Below the water I’m feeling relief. The water temperature seems to have alleviated some of the pressure in my urinary tract.

  Having agreed to keep them company for one beer only, I don’t seem to be making much headway on that one beer. It takes me far too long to realize that the reason for this is that it’s sleeting at about the same rate I’m drinking, so the glass is filling at the same rate I’m emptying it.

  Twice since we’ve climbed into the tub, the phone has rung and Tony has left Missy and me alone in the burbling water. It’s a pretty noisy hot tub, and t
hat, together with the drumming of the freezing rain on the deck, has discouraged conversation. Tony has been equal to the challenge and regaled us with all kinds of stories and the sorts of unrelated arcane bits of knowledge that enchant his students, but when the phone rings a third time, he leaves behind a silence that Missy and I don’t even attempt to fill. It’s only the third call that causes me to be curious about who’s calling Tony at two-thirty in the morning. I can see his head and thick shoulders through the kitchen window. He’s turned his back to us, as if he suspects that Missy or I possess lip-reading capabilities. If it’s Missy he’s worried about, there’s no need, for I note that she’s snoring peacefully, her head back on the tile, her lips parted slightly, her chest rising and falling to the beat of her respiration. Sleet is actually dancing off her forehead.

  Inside, Tony hangs up the phone, stares at it for a second, then takes the receiver off the wall-mounted hook. I wait for him to punch in a number, but instead he opens a kitchen cabinet and places the receiver inside. “Problem?” I inquire when he returns, since, under the circumstances, not asking would seem more unusual than asking.

  He waves away my suggestion that there’s a problem, though clearly there is something. Still, the sight of Missy Blaylock, naked and fast asleep in his hot tub, is enough to restore his good spirits. “What a picture,” he says, surveying Missy, her breasts buoyant on the surface of the water.

  Actually, it occurs to me that there are two pictures. The other is Tony, who is himself no more self-conscious than he’d be stepping out of the shower in the men’s locker room. He appears to feel neither misgiving nor regret over his tenured paunch and dark, sagging genitals.

  “Stay put,” he says, prancing impishly back into the house. When he returns he’s got a Polaroid camera. Missy, true to her profession, wakes up when she hears the shutter click. Tony takes several pictures, keeping the snapshots dry beneath a towel until they can develop. We huddle together in the tub then and wait for Missy to emerge from photographic darkness. She seems pleased with the result.

  “Are these great boobs or what?” she says, handing me one of the Polaroids. “Jugs like these are just plain wasted in the Railton market.”

  When the rain lets up, I tell Tony and Missy that it’s been great fun, but …

  “It was just one …,” Tony sings.

  “Of those things,” Missy finishes, surprising me that she knows a song lyric of that vintage. Maybe she’s older than she looks. In truth, I don’t care how old she is, and I feel no regret about leaving her with Tony. I locate my clothes, putting the Polaroid that Missy has pressed upon me as a memento of the occasion in my pocket, and dress in the warm kitchen, feeling full of my own virtue.

  It’s only when I get outside that I remember my car is downtown, that for the second time in as many days I’ve been chauffeured somewhere against my will. It’s about a ten-block walk down the hill. When I’ve gone about halfway I realize that I’m full of something all right, but it’s not virtue. There’s a patch of woods on my left, so I duck into the shadow of these to pee. I drip at about the same rate as the branches above, a leisurely process that allows for contemplation. Now that I’m not rubbing haunches with Missy in Tony’s hot tub, I can’t help ruminating on her lament that breasts like hers are wasted in a small media market like Railton, a remark that struck me as funny when she said it but sad upon further reflection. It’s Jacob Rose’s and Gracie’s and Rourke’s and Teddy’s and June’s and perhaps my own position in a nutshell. We have believed, all of us, like Scuffy the Tugboat, that we were made for better things. If anyone had told us twenty years ago that we would spend our academic careers at West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton, we’d have laughed.

  We aren’t laughing now though, and the thought of growing old together is not pleasant, though there’s nothing else for us to do. We might manage to be happy, even here, if the faces around us were new, but we have to look at each other every day, and this reminds us of ourselves and all the opportunities we found compelling reasons not to seize. Finny could have finished his dissertation and didn’t. June, on the strength of a good, well-placed article, had a job offer at a decent university over a dozen years ago, but Teddy had just gotten tenure and the other university couldn’t be talked into taking him as part of a package deal. Later, Teddy got an opportunity to move into administration, which would have been doing both himself and his students a favor, but June, perhaps out of revenge, talked him out of it. Even Gracie’s poetry once showed promise.

  We hadn’t, any of us, intended to allow the pettiness of committee work, departmental politics, daily lesson plans, and the increasingly militant ignorance of our students let so many years slip by. And now in advancing middle age we’ve chosen, wisely perhaps, to be angry with each other rather than with ourselves. We’ve preferred not to face the distinct possibility that if we’d been made for better things, we’d have done those things. Tony is one of the few contented men I know, and at the present moment he’s reaping the benefit of being so sensible. He is no doubt fondling the very breasts that Missy Blaylock believes are wasted in Railton. That she allows him to do so will deepen his conviction that he has a lot to offer women, and he’s far too intelligent to waste time wondering whether, when Missy’s eyes close and she begins to purr, it’s his tequila-marinated affection or her dream of a more upscale market that’s causing her nipples to harden.

  But these are the thoughts of a dripping man in the dark, dripping woods, and when I finish thinking them I punctuate the process with a good, confident zip of my fly. When I emerge from the shadows, I come face to face with a young woman who’s laboring on foot up the steep, slick sidewalk. She appears to be in her middle twenties, maybe younger. She has a full, pretty face, which seems almost to apologize for the fact that beneath her heavy, quilted winter coat she’s huge. Unaccountably, she’s wearing only rubber flip-flops on her bare feet. Her expression is so open, so unguarded that it reminds me of a begging dog that fully expects to get booted but can’t help licking you anyway.

  “I know you,” this girl says, though she’s not quite looking at me, or at least not at my eyes. “What’s your name?”

  She doesn’t know me, I’m certain, nor do I know her. The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not going to tell her my name. I’ve come out of the woods at three o’clock in the morning, and this girl is no more frightened of me than a wet kitten, and that, oddly enough, makes me frightened of her.

  “What’s your name?” she says again. She pronounces the word name so that it rhymes with mime. And then she repeats the question twice more, barely allowing her voice to drop before beginning again.

  She’s moving toward me now, as if she’d like to reach out and touch my face, and I take an instinctive step backward. “Are you all right?” I ask her, not sure what I mean by the question.

  It’s the sound of my voice, not my question, I think, that stops her. “You’re not him,” she exclaims, her voice full of calm wonder. “You’re not him at all.” All, pronounced owl.

  “No,” I agree. “I’m not.”

  “You’re not him at all,” she repeats, and turns away.

  “Are you okay?” I ask again, rather stupidly, but she has resumed her course up the hill. When her flips-flops skid on a slick patch of smooth concrete, she says, “Oooooh. Slip … er … eee.”

  CHAPTER

  14

  My father, William Henry Devereaux, Sr., whose return to the bosom of his family my mother enigmatically claims I am unprepared for, was always a frighteningly reasonable man, and like most reasonable men, he preferred day to night. Unless he’s changed, he’s still an early riser, usually up, bathed, and dressed by six-thirty. As a boy, I’d frequently find him in his study reading, idly sipping tea in his wing-back reading chair. No matter how early I got up, no matter how late he and my mother had been out the night before, there he’d be. According to my mother, he possessed an uncanny internal chronometer that allowed h
im to wake and turn off the alarm clock mere moments before it would have gone off.

  Anyway, here’s my theory. All men are assailed by doubts. Even those like my father who don’t seem to be. And we are all, I think, more receptive to doubts and fears (and perhaps even guilt) in the dark than we are in the light of day. I don’t think my father cared for these sensations. When I was a boy, of course, I had no way of knowing that the man I found clean shaven and cologned in the book-lined den of the big, old house my parents rented a few blocks from the university might be subject to doubt or fear or guilt. A child’s life is full of these, and I may even have concluded that adulthood represented triumph over them. There were probably mornings when I found him there in his reading chair, sweet-smelling and intent upon the printed page, that he was fresh from some illicit encounter with a young female graduate student mere hours before. Apparently he’d had a number of relationships with young women before he settled on the one in his D. H. Lawrence seminar that he preferred to my mother. I’m sure I took his early rising as a sign of virtue, and probably even understood my mother’s remaining in bed, her eyes defiantly clenched against the new day, as a character defect, especially given the mood she was in when she finally came downstairs around midmorning and peered in at my father and me with an expression that verged upon menace.

  It was my habit on Saturday and Sunday mornings to stretch out on the floor at my father’s feet and pore over the encyclopedia. I knew not to interrupt my father’s reading, risk one of his monumental scowls, so by the time my mother appeared, I was usually starved. “When’s breakfast?” was always my first question to my bathrobed mother, whose already threatening expression always darkened dangerously. I suspect it was those weekend mornings that first led my mother to conclude that I was my father’s son, a conviction she still adheres to. My “when’s breakfast?” by way of hello must have unhinged her, knowing as she did that I’d just spent two or three hours quietly in my father’s company without asking for so much as a glass of water. Who could blame her for not sharing my father’s deep appreciation of the new day?

 
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