Straight Man by Richard Russo


  Lily is also a morning person, and I often overheard her tell our daughters, when they were growing up and full of adolescent self-doubt, that things would look different in the morning, and of course this is wise counsel. Not only do things look different in the morning, they look better, which is not, of course, the same as to say that they are better. Still, if things look more manageable in the sunlight, we are wise, like my father, to greet the new day early, and I suspect now that there were very few moonlit indiscretions he was not able to banish from his thoughts at six in the morning with the aid of a virtuous book of literary criticism and his own sweet child stretched out at his feet, soaking up Britannica by osmosis.

  I am neither a morning person nor, I maintain, my father’s son. After a night of misbehavior I cannot tell when my alarm clock is about to go off. I often don’t immediately recognize the sound of the alarm even after it’s gone off. Neither tea nor literary criticism banishes guilty memory in William Henry Devereaux, Jr., who has dreamed, powerfully and variously, all this night long. Only when the ringing continues after I switch off the alarm do I realize it’s the telephone I’m hearing. By the time I pick up, the line’s dead.

  It occurs to me that Lily has been trying to call. She probably tried to reach me last night until it got too late, and now she’s begun again. Missing me now may even have convinced her that I didn’t come home at all last night, that her prediction has already come true. I’m either in the hospital or in jail.

  I wish she’d call back now, because I’d like to share with her the last of my dreams, in which the new College of Technical Careers building has turned out to be yet another replica of my own house, like Julie’s, this one on a Brobdingnagian scale. It’s the size of the Modern Languages Building, which houses the English department, but it’s my house, Lily’s and mine, monstrously swollen. Same number of rooms, same floor plan, except built for giants. Inside it, I am a little dollhouse person. To go upstairs I have to stand on a chair, hoist myself up the step, pull the chair up behind me with a rope, then repeat the process. The reason I’m mountain-climbing my way upstairs is that Lily has been calling down to me. She wants to explain to me why she thinks I’m so unhappy. Odder still, I can’t wait to hear her explanation, because in the dream I am unhappy. In fact, I’m weeping pitifully as I leap, latch on to, and chin my way up the stairs. Of course, you should have seen those stairs. They were enough to make anyone weep. But now, sitting up in bed, safe in my own human-scale house, the clear light of the guiltless new day streaming in the window, I wish I had not conceded my unhappiness to Lily, even in a dream.

  Occam is whining pitifully at the bedroom door, as if he too has been troubled by dreams, so I invite him in, something I would never do were my wife in residence. He takes in which side of the bed I’m on, comes around to this side, rests his chin on the bed, and sighs meaningfully, as if to suggest what I already know, that this does not promise to be a good day. To delay imagining its details, I turn on the television by remote to a morning news-talk show and scratch Occam’s ears idly, hoping that Lily will call again. Perhaps because I’ve got the sound muted, I don’t immediately comprehend when I see myself brandishing wild-eyed Finny. Adding sound only deepens my confusion. Occam, as a rule not one to be distracted during an ear scratch, perks up at the sound of his master’s voice, looks at the television, then at me. When I don’t have an explanation, he trots over to the television and sniffs it. The big shock comes, at least to me, when the short segment (I’ve been edited more severely this time) concludes and I realize that this isn’t the local news that occurs when the network cuts away. No, it’s the regular Good Morning America crew that’s laughing, almost out of control, before heading into the weather.

  The telephone is ringing again when I step out of the shower. I’m no longer anxious to pick it up, but I do.

  “It’s June,” Teddy’s wife informs me.

  “Hi, June.”

  “How can you associate with that man?” she wants to know.

  “What man?” I say, though I know she’s referring to Tony Coniglia.

  “He’s a debauched old rummy,” she continues, still fuming about last night. “That thing with the clams was sickening. I bet that reporter with the tits is having second and third thoughts.”

  “I wouldn’t know, June. I don’t even know why you’ve called me.”

  “Rachel asked me to,” she admits. “I’m in your office, actually. All the lines in the outer office are tied up. Rachel must have a crush on you, the grief she’s taking on your behalf.”

  “Who from?” I wonder out loud while pausing to consider the pleasant possibility that a woman I’m half in love with might be half in love with me.

  “It’s a long list. She’s even caught hell from the CEO for refusing to give him your home phone.”

  “Tell her to go ahead and give it to him. I’m about to leave here anyway.”

  “She says to remind you about your meeting with Dickie this afternoon. And I’d be prepared for a world of shit when you get here.”

  “Tell Rachel I have to visit the high school, but I’ll be in after that. In fact, tell her I said to take the rest of the day off.”

  “Seriously?”

  “Absolutely,” I say. I don’t want Rachel taking abuse on my account. “Tell her to go home. Tell her I’m putting her in for a raise.”

  “I’ll tell her, but Vegas odds are four to five you won’t last the day.”

  “Then you all get raises.”

  Downstairs, I notice what failed to attract my attention last night, that the message light on the answering machine is blinking. Thanks, I suspect, to my television appearance last night, there are twenty-five messages, a new record. That’s the bad news. The good news is that twenty of them are hang-ups. There’s also one from Billy Quigley, who’s apparently gotten impatient and started talking before the sound of the beep. As a result, his message is one slurred word, “Peckerwood.” My wife’s voice is the only one I care to hear, and it comes late, number 17, in the scheme of things, though I’ve no idea what time that would make it, whether I was standing in front of the urinal at The Tracks, or on the pay phone flirting with Meg Quigley, or eating raw clams, or sitting in Tony’s hot tub with a naked young woman when she called.

  There’s a flatness to Lily’s voice on the tape that suggests she’s intuited all of my misbehavior. Her message is brief, leaving the number and name of the hotel she’s checked into, which explains why she wasn’t at her father’s last night when I tried to reach her there. I try to remember why I thought she’d be staying with her father. Was it something she told me? Something I concluded on my own? The former, I’m pretty sure, but my brain is still marinating in tequila, and it hurts to access my memory function. “Don’t forget you’re visiting my class,” Lily reminds me, last thing before saying good night, as if she’s anticipated, somehow, the state I’ll be in this morning.

  I call the number she’s left, but when the switchboard puts me through to her room, she doesn’t answer. Either she’s already left or she’s in the shower. Consulting my watch, I try to access the part of the brain that handles analytical functions, but it doesn’t seem to be on-line either. When the hotel operator comes back on, I’m visited by an oddly encouraging thought. Maybe the flatness, the regret I’ve detected in my wife’s voice is the result of misbehavior not on my part but rather on hers. I ask the operator to connect me to Jacob Rose’s room, which suggests something about the way the human brain prioritizes duties. I’ve been denied access to memory and analysis, but whatever department handles jealousy and suspicion (intuition?) is offering its services without being asked. After a long moment the operator tells me there’s no Jacob Rose registered in the hotel, but there’s something in her voice. “There’s a Jack Rosen,” she offers.

  “That’s what I said. Jack Rosen,” I explain, and a moment later Jack Rosen’s room is ringing, and the phone is picked up before I can figure the odds that Jacob would us
e this alias. A man answers. He sounds a little like Jacob Rose. Or a little Jewish, anyway, which is not surprising, given his name, whether or not he’s Jacob Rose. “Jacob,” I say. “Thank God I tracked you down.”

  After a beat, “Who is this?”

  “Hank,” I tell whoever I’m talking to. “Who do you think? Put Lily on.”

  “Lily who?”

  All right, so it’s not Jacob Rose, I conclude, hanging up, half disappointed, half puzzled. I don’t think I would have been pleased to discover evidence of my wife’s unfaithfulness, but there would have been something exciting about having made a chilling intuitive leap and had it turn out to be correct. It would have spoken far better of the leaper than to have made the same leap and been wrong, which is what I’ve been.

  Motor functions I have, so I drive into town and stop at my favorite lunch counter for breakfast and the morning newspaper. My appearance on the eleven o’clock news was apparently too late to make the morning edition, but I note that there is a short, one-column article on page seven, below the fold, about the suicide of William Cherry, who lay down on the railroad tracks two weeks ago. Neither his wife nor his children apparently observed any symptoms of discouragement or despair, though they acknowledged that he had grown more remote of late. Other than this he seemed upbeat and full of plans for his retirement.

  The best thing for tequila poisoning is pancakes, so I eat a plate of these, smothered in syrup, then adjourn to the men’s, where I find a private stall with a door that latches, and deposit in the toilet the pancakes, last night’s raw clams, the tequila, and my deep conviction that when William Cherry’s severed head was borne up the tracks by a train in the direction of Bellemonde, no one, not even his loved ones, suspected what was in it.

  Outside, the morning sky is a brilliant blue, and, taking a deep breath, I feel something of my father’s optimism. There’s no denying the beauty of this brisk spring day in Pennsylvania, no denying that I now feel much, much better.

  I arrive at the high school just as the bell between periods rings. I duck into a doorway to avoid being trampled by hordes of young Goths and Visigoths and Vandals, who are running, shoving, slamming into lockers, hurling vicious profanities at each other in the most casual manner, insults which seem not to register. When I was in school such language would have resulted in fistfights and a trip to the principal’s office.

  I spy Harold Brownlow, one of Lily’s colleagues, down the hall. Harold seems to have prevented a mugging, and he’s got a huge black boy pinned up against a bulletin board by means of nothing more lethal than Harold’s own gnarled index finger. “Give the boy back his lunch money, Guido,” Harold warns the big kid solemnly. Guido hangs his head and hands a small white kid a couple bills.

  “I didn’t mean to take his lunch money, Mr. Brownlow,” Guido says. “It was an accident.”

  “I understand, Guido,” Harold says, as the white kid scampers off. “But I don’t want any more accidents, understand?”

  “Okay, Mr. Brownlow,” Guido says, and he lumbers off, looking oddly innocent, as if he himself believes in the concept of accidental extortion.

  When Harold sees me, he grins and comes over.

  “Guido?” I say, watching the big black kid until he disappears through the double doors.

  “Go figure,” Harold says, extending a hand. “I think I speak for the entire staff here at the penitentiary when I say how damn proud of you we all are. Who says there’s nothing good on television?”

  “Too much violence though,” I admit.

  “I thought it was tasteful, but then that’s me,” Harold says. “You heard from Lily?”

  “She called last night, but I was out.”

  “Tell her not to do anything rash,” Harold advises. “My sources inform me there’s been some movement on the school board. People really do want her to stay.”

  “I’ll tell her.”

  “Of course, if she wanted to start something new, I’d understand,” Harold admits sadly. “Time’s winged chariot and all that. When I was her age, I got it into my head somehow I was going to die. I played golf every day all summer, convinced every round would be my last. Cost a fortune.”

  “And here you are.”

  He nods. “Cured my slice, though. You should come out with Marjory and me sometime.” His wife, by coincidence, is Jacob Rose’s secretary.

  “Maybe this summer.”

  “All in your head, golf,” Harold muses. “A thousand and one contingencies.”

  “I’m looking for a game with just one contingency,” I tell him. “Two at the most.”

  “Mind if I ask you kind of a personal question?”

  “Go head, Harold,” I say, though I wish to hell he wouldn’t. Still, nothing is more personal to Harold than golf, and having shared with me his most intimate thoughts on this subject, he may feel I owe him something.

  “Is that vomit on your collar?” he wants to know.

  He shows me where, but it’s beneath my chin, and I can’t see it.

  “Stop at the men’s,” he suggests. “I don’t do so hot when Marge is gone either,” he adds, in an attempt to comfort me, surely. Throwing up on yourself is the kind of thing that can happen to married men our age when our wives are gone, is his logic.

  In the men’s room I address the business of my soiled collar with paper towels and tap water. I also try to think of something to say to Lily’s “rocks.” About the only people to visit the low-track kids, she says, are reformed drug abusers and promoters of safe sex. Kids like these are told what to avoid, not what to aspire to. And she warned me to be prepared for straightforward, unsophisticated questions. Give them honest answers, she advised, though she may not have anticipated that they’ll be asking me about the spot on my collar.

  Her rocks are rumbling nervously when I enter the classroom. I see Lily has found a couple copies of Off the Road, which are making the rounds without sparking much interest, though one tough-looking young girl in the front row squints at me suspiciously, turns the book over, and studies the author photo, then me again. What the hell happened to you? is what she’d like to ask, I can tell.

  “Hey,” says a skinny black kid, “you the dude from TV.”

  At this they look me over with renewed interest. “The duck guy,” somebody says.

  “We done that shit, you know what’d happen to us?” somebody else wants to know.

  And they’re off. I can see why Lily likes these kids. In two seconds flat they’ve got their own conversation going. Everybody’s talking but me. I’m the Rosetta stone they’re trying to translate, and they don’t want any help just yet. After a while though they remember their manners. Lily probably reminded them, last thing, that I’m their guest, that they’re supposed to behave, that they’re not to hurt me.

  “So,” says Guido, the accidental extortionist, from the back row. “How much money you make on this book?”

  When I pass Orshee’s office on the way to my own, his door is open, and he invites me in. His office, one of the worst on the English department floor, overlooks the parking lot, and no doubt he has seen me coming. He’s dressed in jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and a thrift shop sport coat, sort of academic grunge. The look isn’t all that different from the one sported by people like Jacob Rose and William Henry Devereaux, Jr., back when we were ourselves young campus radicals. The resemblance, I’m always relieved to note, ends there. There are very few books in my young colleague’s office, but he’s rigged up a small TV with a built-in VCR. His bookshelves are stacked with videotapes, each one full of recorded, decade-old sitcoms, which he plays throughout the day, even when he’s consulting with students. His research on these same shows he publishes, for environmental reasons, in electronic magazines, thereby sparing himself the criticism that his essays are not worth the paper they’re printed on. At the moment he’s researching an episode of a sitcom that, if I remember correctly, was called Diff’rent Strokes. I angle the chair I’ve been offered so th
at my back is to the screen.

  “This was a seminal show,” Orshee informs me, with what appears to be genuine excitement.

  “A seminal sitcom?” I say. “High praise.”

  If he knows I’m tweaking him, he doesn’t rise to the bait.

  “Conservative white America’s great race fantasy. Young black males, nonthreatening and loving. Old white guys who care about the black community. It’s great stuff.”

  As I listen to him, it occurs to me that Orshee was probably the kid who got his lunch money extorted in high school by some demographic relative of Guido’s. Here at the college he’s safe at last. Nobody’s even allowed to make fun of his ponytail.

  “I’m thinking about doing a special topics course next year, maybe compare a couple of episodes of Diff’rent Strokes with Huckleberry Finn. You know, like, the great American racist novel? Show how white attitudes haven’t changed, how the basic fantasy’s still intact today? June thinks it’s a good idea.”

  Something about the sound of June Barnes’s name in Orshee’s mouth reminds me of the rumor I keep hearing about my young colleague and Teddy’s wife.

  “I thought you didn’t want them reading books,” I say. “Writing being a phallocentric activity and all that.”

  He locates a remote among his papers and presses pause, freeze-framing the cherublike face of the little black kid who starred in the show. “I’m not against books. You can get in a rut with them though.”

  “I know. I’ve been in that rut since I was thirteen.”

  He blinks. “You didn’t learn to read till you were thirteen?”

  “I didn’t love to read until about then. It’s the love that makes the rut.”

  “Right,” he nods seriously. “Hey, what’s it like living out in Allegheny Wells?”

  “There’s cable,” I assure him. “Some people have satellite dishes.”

 
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