Straight Man by Richard Russo

  “Tony,” she says, studying me suspiciously now. “Tony Coniglia. The person we’ve been talking about.”

  “Right.” I nod demonstratively, as if this has clarified everything.

  But she must suspect I’m still not up to speed because she says, “Where did you go just then?”

  “What do you mean?” I ask, though I know what she means.

  She exhales a long, deep, thoughtful lungful of smoke. “You should have seen your face.”

  To get back to my office, I must go by the student center and the duck pond. On my way I pass half a dozen students I know, most of whom seem to be looking everywhere but at me. Unless I’m getting paranoid, one student actually changes direction in order to avoid running into me. Is this the result of my television celebrity, I wonder, or am I still wearing the expression alluded to by Bodie Pie? A third explanation occurs to me, and I check to make sure I’ve zipped up after my last vigil at the urinal. I spend a lot of time with my dick outside my fly these days. Maybe it’s begun to feel natural there. But everything seems to be in order.

  When I come around the corner of the student center, I see why so many students are embarrassed to meet my eye. On the very spot where I faced the cameras last night, a large group of protesters have gathered. They’re carrying placards and chanting something I can’t quite make out, because the clucks have joined in quacking and the geese honking and trumpeting, a hell of a din. The TV crew has returned, just pulled up in fact. To my amazement, Missy Blaylock is among them. She climbs out of the van like an arthritic, closes the door softly, leans her broad forehead against its cool metal surface. The sound guy, the same one who last night wanted to know if I was trying to pass a stone, sees me coming and grins. “You’re in a world of shit now, son,” he says. “These animal rights assholes play for keeps.”

  “That’s who they are?”

  “That’s who they are. And they want nothing less than your balls,” he assures me. “And, hey, I’ve gotta ask. What’d you guys do to her last night?”

  We turn and study Missy, who looked up briefly when she heard my voice, groaned once, and went back to cleaving unto the van.

  “I really hate coming here,” she says. “Did I mention that?”

  “I don’t think coming to campus was your mistake,” I point out.

  “Tell me about it,” she agrees. “I’ve got to talk to you about that guy.” She says all of this with her forehead still melded to the van.

  “Okay,” I tell her, “but you know him better than I do.”

  She straightens up, gives me a narrow-eyed look. “And I believe you have a photograph of me that I would like returned.”

  “Okay,” I agree reluctantly. “But I’ve spent the whole morning trying to find just the right frame.”

  When the crew starts carrying equipment over to the pond, I volunteer to help, in the hope that this way I won’t be noticed. When we get closer, I can read the placards the protesters are carrying. The most popular seems to be STOP THE SLAUGHTER, and that’s what the group is chanting. Some of the placards have my grainy, blown-up photograph on them in the center of the now ubiquitous symbol:

  I don’t know who any of these people are, but I have to admire their efficiency, their ability to mobilize so quickly. After all, they’ve only had about fourteen hours to organize this protest, locate a photograph of the villain they intend to symbolize (it’s the photo from my book jacket, I realize), blow it up, nail the poster board to the sticks. And there are probably other organizational difficulties I’ve not imagined.

  As I’m surveying the protesters, it occurs to me that they aren’t all strangers. I recognize one thin, balding young fellow from faculty meetings, though I have no idea what department he’s in. He notices me at the very moment I notice him, and he points me out to two youngish women at his elbow. They observe me through narrowed eyes, pass the information along to the others. You can actually trace the progress of dubious knowledge among their ranks. Some have to be convinced that I’m the same man as the more youthful one pictured on their signs.

  “The jig’s up,” the sound man warns. “You better split.”

  Missy, with no cool truck to lean on here, is massaging her temples with the ball end of her microphone. “Could someone ask them to chant more softly?”

  “Quit fucking with the mike,” her sound guy says. “How can I get a level with you doing that?”

  Missy turns toward him, rubs the microphone vigorously on the seat of her tweed skirt, causing the man to remove his headset hastily.

  I point to one of the protesters who’s carrying a STOP THE SLAUGHTER sign. “You’re too young to remember,” I tell Missy, “but I used to carry a sign like that during Vietnam.”

  “Some things never change,” she says. She actually thinks she’s agreeing with me.

  Her comment, more than any fear for my personal safety, convinces me that it is probably time for me to leave. The protesters have begun to link arms, forming a semicircle around the ducks and geese, daring evil to approach. They’ve altered their chant, and now they’re shouting directly at me: STOP DEVEREAUX. STOP THE SLAUGHTER. Finny (the goose, not the man), perhaps made claustrophobic by so much protection, breaks through the line of defense and trumpets loudly and off key.

  “There,” the sound man says, confident he’s got his level. “We’re ready.”

  At the far edge of the crowd, which has now swelled to about a hundred and fifty people, I spot Dickie Pope and Lou Steinmetz. Lou looks grim but prepared for action if things get out of hand. Dickie is grinning at me, for some reason. In fact, he’s pointing with his index finger at the sky. When I look up, I half-expect to see buzzards, but it’s not that. In the forty-five minutes since I left his office, the sky has darkened. The clouds directly overhead look positively ominous.

  • • •

  Alone in the men’s room down the hall from my office, I have a lot to think about and plenty of time. Picture it, a fifty-year-old man with a purple nose, his heavy, limp dick in hand, and, it must be confessed, a rather heavy heart as well. What’s he thinking there at the urinal? He is thinking, in truth, about himself. About William Henry Devereaux, Jr. There are other things a man like me might think about, but at this moment I am unavoidably the subject of my own dubious contemplation, and I’ve got my reasons. I have myself in hand, as it were. And yet here, I’m also surrounded by me in the numerous, merciless men’s room mirrors. The drawn and settled William Henry Devereaux, Jr., who looks back at me invites comparison with the light, bouncing Prince Hal nailed to sticks outside and waved angrily at the duck pond. If all this me weren’t enough, I am also in my own pocket, in the sense that my book is there, the one I stole from Dickie Pope’s office. Me, me, and more me. So much me. And so little.

  Standing here, I become aware of a low, droning sound, like a far-off vacuum cleaner, and I feel a distant tingling in the extremities. I can’t help wondering if the brief temporal ellipses I’ve been suffering these past few days are a sign of approaching illness, but I remind myself that they aren’t all that different from the sort of thing that used to happen all the time when I was working on the book that now occupies my jacket pocket. Lily, whenever she noticed that I’d disappeared during a conversation at the dinner table, used to chide me for being physically present but emotionally absent without leave. And my daughter Karen told me years later that she could always tell by looking at me whether I was really there or off in some other world, revising fictional reality. If it’s not illness, could it be that there’s another book nagging at me? Would I even recognize one now, after so long? If a new book were clamoring for attention, what should I do? I am no longer, if indeed I ever was, a romantic with respect to authorship. Bad books call to authors with the same haunting siren song as good ones, and there’s no law that says you have to listen, not when there’s an ample supply of cotton for the ears. On that note I zip.

  Outside, the hall is empty, so I slip into my office through m
y private door, close it quietly, turn on my small Tensor desk lamp rather than the overhead, hoping for a few moments of peace. Here, the low, droning sound I kept hearing in the men’s room is more pronounced. Then, all of a sudden, it’s gone. I shake my head but can’t bring it back. I see that Rachel has found me a new blotter, so I take young Hal out of my jacket pocket and, instead of shelving him as intended, I open to the first page and begin to read. I’m only a few sentences into the text when Rachel’s voice crackles over the intercom, causing me to jump about a foot. “Are you in there?” she wants to know. Which me? I wonder. Young Hal, the wide-ranging outfielder? Or the tenured first baseman with warning-track power? Rachel sounds worried, like it’s the door of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory she’s been listening at.

  “I’m thinking about writing another book, Rachel,” I tell her.

  “Really? That’s great?”

  The droning is back, as if triggered by my assertion. It sounds like distant thunder now. Rolling. Rumbling. The storm Dickie pointed to in the sky seems to have arrived.

  “You have some messages?” Rachel informs me.

  I sigh. These messages, it occurs to me, are the cotton for my ears that I thought to make use of back in the men’s room. The academic memo, the voice message, the e-mail (which I don’t receive) taken together are the cotton plugs that drown out the siren’s song. At first resentful, we scholar-sailors come to be grateful for them.

  “Sing them out, Rachel,” I tell her bravely, though I see jagged rocks ahead. “And don’t spare my feelings. Give them to me straight, kid. I can take it.”

  “Herbert Schonberg called twice?” The union rep I’ve been evading for days. “He says he intends to see you this afternoon if he has to track you with bloodhounds?” It occurs to me now that I’ve been dodging him for the wrong reason. I’ve assumed he wanted to bust my chops about the various grievances filed against me, including the most recent one, Gracie’s, but now I realize it’s about Dickie’s tidal wave.

  “Boring stuff, Rachel. You can do better.”

  “The dean called again? Long distance? He said thanks a lot? He said you’d understand?”

  And I do. My shenanigans, their timing, are not a good advertisement for Jacob. I’ve disobeyed his strict orders to do nothing in his absence. I may have knocked him clean off the short list. Jacob and I go back a long way, and if I’ve botched his escape from Railton, I’ll deserve to lose his friendship.

  “What do you say we go back to the boring ones, Rachel?” I suggest.

  Rumble rumble rumble. I lean back in my swivel chair and study the ceiling tiles, which actually appear to be vibrating. “Your daughter called?”


  “She wanted to know if you could come out to the house this afternoon?”

  “No,” I tell Rachel, the wrong person. “Out of the question.”

  “She sounded like she was crying?”

  “Do you have her number?”

  Rachel says she does.

  “Call her back. Ask her if she was crying.”


  “Okay, I agree. Bad idea. Bad boss. Call her back and let me talk to her.”

  I close young Hal. Just as well.

  “I’m getting their machine?” Rachel’s back on the intercom.

  “I’ll pick up,” I tell her.

  I listen to Russell’s voice message, and at the beep, say, “It’s me, darlin’. Pick up if you’re there.” I wait several beats. “Okay, it’s almost noon. I’ll try to come by later.”

  Suddenly, she’s on the line. “Okay,” she says, sounding remarkably like her mother, and then just as suddenly she’s hung up. I call again, get the machine, wait, tell her to pick up, listen to dead air until the machine clicks off. What the hell is this about? Melodrama, knowing Julie.

  I get back on the intercom with Rachel, a sensible woman. “Let’s take a long lunch,” I suggest. “We’ll drive out to the Railton Sheraton. If we’re together there won’t be anybody to take these messages.”

  “Sorry? Today’s my sexual harassment lunch?”

  Sexual harassment lunch? “Okay, I’ll bite.”

  “It’s for all the department secretaries?” she explains. “Sort of a workshop?”

  “What sort of food do they serve at a sexual harassment lunch?” it occurs to me to ask.

  “Nouvelle cuisine?” she suggests. Near as I can remember, this is the first joke Rachel’s ever made around me.

  “It’s come to this,” I tell her. “Now I’m playing straight man to my own secretary.”

  “You’re really going to write another book?”

  The idea seems to have completely dissipated. “Probably not,” I admit, adding, before she can object, “Is that thunder we’re hearing?”

  “Asbestos removal.”

  Relieved to discover that my external reality matches Rachel’s, at least in this one respect, I study the ceiling tiles, which are vibrating, damn them.

  “It’s our turn? They’re detoxing the whole building?”

  “God,” I say. “Animal rights thugs guarding the pond, sexual harassment lunches, the detoxing of Modern Languages. Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

  Ambient crackling from the intercom. Indicating what? Puzzlement at my Buffalo Springfield allusion? It’s true what they say. Ours is a fragmented culture. If I wrote another book, who would read it?

  In the outer office, I hear the phone ring, hear Rachel answer. Then she returns to the intercom. “Professor Schonberg’s on his way up?” she says. “I’d hurry? I’d take the south stairs?”

  I do as I’m instructed, but only after I’ve made a place for young Hal on my crowded bookcase. There isn’t much room, even for such a slender fellow, so I have to wedge him in pretty tight. Speaking of tight, I just make it through the double doors at the south end of the corridor when I hear the doors at the north end clang open. I don’t hear my name. I don’t look back.



  The Railton Campus has a rear entrance that’s seldom used because the road is treacherous in winter, winding and full of potholes in all seasons, and because it doesn’t go much of anywhere but Allegheny Wells, the hard way, over the mountain. The only other reason to head out that direction is to go to the county’s one notorious bar, a roadhouse called The Circle, which sits just outside the city limits and the short arm of Railton law. The Circle offers free pool on Tuesdays, free darts on Wednesdays, wet T-shirt contests on Thursdays, and dances with live country-western bands on Friday and Saturday nights, during which half a dozen fights usually break out in its huge dirt parking lot. If The Rear View is to be believed, the occasional knife is pulled out there in the dark, but weapons more lethal than the pointed toe of a cowboy boot are frowned upon. Lose a fight outside The Circle on a weekend night and chances are you’ve been stomped, not knifed or shot. Saturday morning finds you in the hospital with cracked ribs and mashed cheekbones. You’re probably coughing up blood, but you aren’t dead. The Circle is one of the Railton area bars that Billy Quigley wishes his daughter Meg would spend less time in, the one I fetched her from earlier in the year.

  I’m nearing The Circle when I become aware that I’m being tailgated by a big, shiny, red pickup truck whose driver is honking his horn and making a gesture which, seen in my rearview mirror, may or may not be obscene. My first thought is that the driver of this vehicle is Rachel’s husband, Cal, who’s found a way to eavesdrop on our intercom conversations and become confused by our conversational intimacy, her sexual harassment lunch. But this is a far better-looking truck than I suspect Cal drives. And besides, it can’t very well be Rachel’s husband if it’s Mr. Purty, and that’s who it is, now that I have a chance to look twice. I’m only mildly disappointed. Had I been pulled out of my car and beaten up by a jealous husband who has nothing to be jealous about, I’d be pretty much in the right. Even Bodie Pie’s Bitch Gulch crew would be on my side. Maybe even the majority o
f my own department would sympathize.

  I pull into The Circle’s lot and park beneath the big sign that announces Friday night’s dance, music to be provided by Waylon’s Country Cousins. Mr. Purty, a small man, gives an agile hop down from the cab of the truck, adjusts his hearing aid, and flashes me a grin. “What do you think?” he wants to know.

  I whistle. “New?”

  “Practically. Fifteen thousand miles, is all. Cherry. The dee-lux model. Three-fifty engine. Tow a U-Haul easy. Room for three in the front seat,” Mr. Purty explains, “and I didn’t pay what’s on that sticker either.”

  “I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Purty,” I tell him, noting the price on the sticker. I didn’t know used pickups could cost this much. Or new ones, for that matter.

  “I chewed him way down from there,” he says, unself-consciously.

  “You what?”

  “Got him to come way down,” Mr. Purty explains. “Young kid. Twenties. Played him for two weeks. Every afternoon I come in and look it over, ask him a new question, then leave. Every afternoon, a different question. How many miles to the gallon? You sure it ain’t been in an accident? How firm’s that price? Then I leave. Next afternoon, I’m back. Same thing. Finally, he don’t know whether to eat shit, chase rabbits, or bark at the moon. He didn’t want to give it to me for my price, but he finally had to. Put brand-new tires on it too. Radials, not them recraps.”

  I study Mr. Purty for a sign that he’s made a joke, but nothing. When I’m with him, I often feel like I’m the one who should be wearing a hearing aid. “It’s a beauty,” I tell him, though I know this isn’t the response Mr. Purty is really after. What he really wants is for me to ask him how much below sticker he got the kid to go. Previous conversations with Mr. Purty have revealed that he’s a man obsessed with deals, the kind of man who’d rather have something he doesn’t really want at a heavy discount than the thing he yearns for at full price. Cheap, is the way my mother sums him up.

  “Get in,” he says after a beat. “Have a listen to the stereo.”

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