Straight Man by Richard Russo

  “June, are you in there?” Gracie raises her voice to the door.

  “No, I’m right here.” I hear June’s voice down the hall. A door closes, June coming out of her office, locking the door behind her. “And I heard that crack crack, Jacob.”

  “Crack crack? Who who? Me me?”

  “Come away from there, Teddy,” I hear June say. “We’re going home.” I can picture this. Teddy, keeping a vigil outside my office door, awaiting my return. Somebody’s gone inside, reported that my satchel is still there, which means that I must be around.

  “I can’t understand it,” he says. “Where can he have gone?”

  Apparently all the commotion has distracted Teddy from his own problems.

  “He’s probably playing handball with that defiler of young womanhood.”

  “Racquetball,” her husband clarifies.

  “I’m telling you,” Gracie says. “He was up in the ceiling.”

  “Jesus,” Jacob says.

  “That piece of paper dropped out of the ceiling.”


  “It came out of the ceiling,” Gracie repeats. “I saw it drop. It fell right past me.”

  “You people are all certifiable,” Jacob says.

  “I really need to use the little girls’ room,” Gracie says. “I’m not kidding.”

  “Oy,” June says. “I knew that somewhere in this country there had to be a woman who still uses the term ‘little girls’ room.’ ”

  “Use the little boys’,” Jacob suggests. “There’s nobody in there. We’ll stand guard.”

  “Check for me,” Gracie says. “Make sure.”

  I hear the men’s room door creak open and then shut again. “All clear,” Jacob says.

  Then the door opens, shuts, and opens again more violently. “Goddamn you, Jacob,” Gracie says. There’s a soft thud, as of a purse making contact with a dean. “Finny’s in there with his dick in his hand, as you well know.”

  “I didn’t think you’d mind Finny,” Jacob says, aggrieved innocent again.

  “Damn,” Gracie says, jiggling the women’s room door one more time, just in case she was hallucinating before. “All right. I’m going to use the one downstairs.”

  I hear the men’s room door open again. Finny exiting.

  “I’m sorry, Finny,” Gracie says. “I didn’t see anything.”

  “Now you’ve really hurt his feelings,” Jacob says.

  It’s the double doors I hear swinging open now, signaling Gracie’s exit.

  “I can’t understand where he can have gone to,” Teddy says again.

  “He’s insane,” Finny says. “Last week I caught him outside my classroom door, making faces at my students.”

  “He certainly seems to have captured your imaginations,” Jacob says. They’re all moving down the hall now. “Gracie believes he’s in the ceiling. You’re seeing him outside your classroom.”

  “If we had a dean who took things seriously …,” Finny begins.

  “He’d have killed himself years ago,” Jacob finishes.

  “Maybe I should drive out to Allegheny Wells and check on him,” Teddy proposes halfheartedly.

  I hear an office door open and close somewhere down the hall.

  “Jacob,” Billy Quigley says. “Are you aware that Gracie is going around telling people that you two are getting married?”

  “I asked our pal Hank to be best man,” Jacob tells him by way of rebuttal. “But if he’s going to kill ducks and crawl around in the ceiling, I may need to rethink my options.”

  “I don’t think he killed that goose,” Teddy says, with what sounds like real regret.

  “Surely you don’t think he’s too squared away? Too emotionally stable?” Paul Rourke’s voice.

  “What are these pink spots that go all up your sleeve?” Jacob wants to know, apparently of Finny.

  “You can see them?” Finny says, clearly alarmed.

  “Not really. Only in a certain light,” Jacob assures him.

  “Isn’t Gracie still married?” Billy Quigley says, reassuring me, since this was my first question too. Their voices are growing distant.

  “Only in the legal sense,” Jacob assures him, and then the double doors at the end of the corridor open and close on their conversation.

  I cautiously unlock the women’s room door and peek out. The corridor is deserted, quiet. I study the double doors at the end of the corridor through which my colleagues have passed. Each of these doors contains a small rectangular window, but they’re too far away and the lighting is too dim for me to see whether these windows contain faces. I take a chance, slip out of the women’s room and quickly down the hall and into my office, where I gather my satchel and my workshop stories for tomorrow. Then down the back stairs.

  Outside, darkness is falling, for which I’m grateful. I sneak out of Modern Languages and cut across the lawn toward the back lot where my Lincoln awaits. This late in the evening there are only a half dozen cars in the two-acre lot, and maybe it’s odd that there should be another car parked right next to mine, but I don’t pay any attention. It’s been too long a day to confront minor riddles, slight statistical anomalies. There’s nobody in either car anyway. I can see that from fifty yards away. I unlock mine, get in, insert the key in the ignition. In my peripheral vision, I see the car next to me rock gently and a head pop up. I draw the conclusion that William of Occam would draw. Surely William was once a young man, subject to the impulses of spring, especially a late-arriving one. No doubt I’ve interrupted a young couple who thought they would be safe way out here in the back lot. They wish now they’d waited for it to be completely dark. I find reverse and start to back out. When a horn toots, I can’t help looking over at the car next to mine, and in it I see my son-in-law Russell’s bristly head framed in the window. I put the Lincoln in park, and Russell gets out, stretching and yawning. I lean over, unlock the passenger door. He gets in, still rubbing his eyes.

  It’s the smell that wakes him up. “Whoa!” he says, looking over at me, startled. He hasn’t closed the door yet, so the dome light is on and he can get a good look. “Jesus, Hank. What the hell happened to you? Don’t tell me another poet.”

  “Teaching English isn’t the clean work it used to be,” I explain. “Most people don’t realize.”

  He’s leaning out, gulping air. “Sorry,” he says, and he sounds genuinely sorry too. “I’ve got a hair-trigger gag reflex. I lose it if I smell cabbage cooking.”

  “How about oral sex?” It occurs to me to ask this.

  “Oh, God, Hank.” He’s still hanging out the door, this fastidious son-in-law of mine, who may or may not have given my daughter a shiner. “Have a heart.”

  “I mean in general. I’m not talking about you and me.”

  He gets out of the car again. He really does look sick.

  “What are you doing here, Russell?”

  “Waiting for you. I have been for over an hour. I thought we could go have a beer someplace. Talk.”

  “Okay. Let’s.”

  He peers in at me to see if I’m serious.

  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to shower and change my clothes first though.”

  “I insist.”

  “You want to follow me out to the house?”

  He hesitates. “Will Julie be there?”

  “Could be. I doubt it though. I think she’s back in hers. Yours. Now that the locks have been changed.”

  “I don’t think I’m ready to see her,” he says.

  “You’re married to her, Russell. You may have to see her again.” I doubt he even registered the information about the locks.

  He’s still peering in at me, grimacing. “You really got like that teaching?”

  Russell follows me out to Allegheny Wells. It’s fifteen minutes of solitude for each of us. He probably uses his fifteen minutes to consider the implications of the fact that he plans to seek marital advice from a fifty-year-old man who kills ducks and wets his pants. I use
my own solitude to consider what may well be my worst character flaw, the fact that in the face of life’s seriousness, its pettiness, its tragedy, its lack of coherent meaning, my spirits are far too easily restored. Darkness is very nearly complete by the time we arrive in Allegheny Wells. Our headlights do little more than pierce the epidermis of the Pennsylvania woods that border the narrow blacktop. In their deep, dark interior, it’s easy to imagine wolves roaming, gathering into packs, circling, closing in, howling and slathering. They may even be close enough to hear me chuckling.

  When I’ve showered and dressed, I find Russell outside, camped in a deck chair, Occam snoring peacefully alongside. The tape on my message machine looks pretty close to full, its green light blinking in rapid-fire bursts. I consider it, but I hate to ruin my good mood by pressing play and allowing my colleagues to share their thoughts with me. Most of them just want to tell me what happened in the department meeting, but hell, I was there. It’ll be interesting to compare their versions with each other and with the truth but, frankly, not that interesting, so I put on a jacket and join my son-in-law on the deck. The wolves I imagined closing in earlier seem to have found other distractions. I sniff the air for evidence of lupine presence, find none. Perhaps in the shower I’ve removed the scent they’ve been following.

  Russell informs me that the phone has rung several times since I was in the shower. I ignore this, pull up a chaise longue. “There’s beer in the fridge,” I tell him.

  “Like hell,” he says. “I looked.”



  I consider this. “Does Julie drink beer?”


  “Since when?”

  “Since she was sixteen, like everybody else,” Russell assures me. Sons-in-law like knowing things their fathers-in-law don’t. They like sharing what they know.

  The evening is surprisingly warm. Still too cool to sit outside without a jacket, but warm enough to imagine summer. On such nights as this Lily and I have, over the years since we built the house, welcomed the approach of summer this way, by enduring the mild discomfort of a reluctant spring, substituting promise for reality, knowing our days are headed in the right direction. Tonight, a fast-moving cold front is forecast to pass through central Pennsylvania. Temperatures are predicted to plunge, though by tomorrow warmer weather will return.

  Russell observes me stroking the arms of my chaise longue fondly. “Deck furniture was one of the things we were going to buy before the money ran out,” he tells me.

  When I don’t say anything to that, he continues tentatively, “Tell me honestly. Do you like your house?”

  “I don’t think much about it, Russell. I guess I like it well enough. We’ve had a comfortable existence since we built.” If Lily were here, she’d explain that I’m like most men, oblivious to my surroundings. But I do like the fact that the house we built has lots of windows, plenty of light. And I like being far enough away from the university that I can’t be called in to campus every time somebody leaves the lights on.

  “I ask,” Russell says, “because I’ve never hated anything so much in my life.”

  “You hate my house, Russell?”

  He looks over at me in the dark. “My house,” he clarifies.

  “But they’re identical,” I remind him. “I can’t help feeling you’ve insulted my house.”

  Russell wisely ignores this. “I hate the house itself,” he continues. “I hate the furniture. I even hate all the things we’d have if the money hadn’t run out.”

  “Next you’ll be saying you hate my daughter.”

  I expect a quick denial, and I don’t get it. “Here’s what I don’t understand,” he says. He’s choosing his words very carefully, as well he might. He knows I’m fond of him but doesn’t know how much this will count for in the overall scheme of things. He’d like my fondness for him to be trump in this game, but he suspects it isn’t. Or maybe it’s just that what he has to say is hard. “You and Lily aren’t … acquisitive,” he says finally.

  Again, I’m not sure how to respond to this. His compliment trails an insult, as he well knows. How did two people like Lily and me manage to raise such an acquisitive daughter? is what he wants to understand. He actually seems to want me to explain it to him. What I’d like to explain is that I don’t think Julie in her heart of hearts is all that acquisitive either. She’s just unhappy and frustrated and she hasn’t yet discovered how to “be” in the world. Unsure what to desire, she simply wants. Or this is the conclusion I’ve come to. A father’s too generous theory, perhaps. Applied evenly, it might be a rationale for acquisitiveness in general, not just in my daughter. Who is truly at home in the world? Who is sure what to desire? Well, lots of people, I answer my own question. Lots of people know exactly what they want. I just can’t believe Julie is one of them. I can’t believe my daughter’s soul is so easily purchased.

  “You want to tell me how she got that shiner, Russell?” I ask, before our discussion becomes too abstract.

  “She didn’t tell you?”

  “Last Friday she said you shoved her,” I tell him. “This morning she suggested maybe that wasn’t the full story.” These are approximate statements I’m making to him actually. Julie neither told nor suggested anything to me this morning. She told my machine, while I stood by, paralyzed, and listened.

  Russell nods, gets to his feet, and leans over the railing of the deck, peering down in the dark, at I can’t imagine what. When the breeze shifts, I catch a distinct whiff of lupine presence. I’m expecting Russell to speak when I see his body heave violently, and he begins to retch off the side of the deck. Occam awakens, gets quickly to his feet, goes over to survey the situation, then turns and looks at me expectantly. Humans have a more complex response to regurgitation than animals do, and I’d like Occam to understand this. I’d like for him to understand that we people do feel natural sympathy for someone in this sort of distress, even as we choose to limit our personal involvement. I try to convey all this to my dog in a look, but he’s having none of it, I can tell. He’d like to do something. If he could think what, he wouldn’t mind getting his paws wet. He can always lick them dry later. Wet paws are a small thing when weighed against suffering. What’s wrong with me? is what he’d like to know. Well, I’ve just showered, for one thing. Still, he’s right. I should do something. So I go inside and get a swatch of paper towels and return with them when it feels safe. Russell is still standing at the rail, but his body has stopped heaving. I hand him the paper towels, which he accepts gratefully. “I warned you about my gag reflex,” he says. “I’ve felt like doing that all day. I wonder if I’m coming down with something.”

  He collapses back into his deck chair. Occam sniffs the paper towels. There’s no aspect of this entire proceeding he doesn’t want to understand.

  “What’s down there anyway?” Russell wants to know, indicating whatever is below the spot where he lost the contents of his stomach. I haven’t turned on the exterior lights, so beyond the deck, which is illuminated by the kitchen light, it’s pitch black.

  “Don’t worry about it,” I tell him.

  He uses a clean paper towel to wipe his forehead. “I feel better,” he confesses.

  “I bet.”

  He looks over at me and offers up a weak grin. “Do you realize that during the last hour we’ve managed to entirely gross each other out?”

  “Male bonding, they call it.”

  “It works,” he shrugs.

  This is a funny, touching thing for Russell to say, and I am touched, though the emotion is complicated by the fact that I too have a hair-trigger gag reflex.

  “I appreciate the fact that you haven’t gone ballistic over all this, Hank. All weekend I’ve been thinking you probably wanted to kill me. I guess that’s why I had to see you. To find out.”

  “I harbored a violent thought or two,” I assure him. Now that we’ve bonded, I wouldn’t want him to get the idea that I’m incapable of
righteous fury, that my daughter can be knocked about with impunity, just because her father’s an English professor and in theory a pacifist. Not that I ever really believed that Russell knocked Julie around. Some damn thing has happened though, and apparently he’s going to tell me what. Whether what he’ll tell me is true, whether I’d recognize the truth if I heard it, these are other questions. I can tell one thing. Whatever Russell means to tell me is either a difficult truth or a difficult lie. He doesn’t launch right in. He’s scratching behind Occam’s ears, and the animal’s limbs are palsied with pleasure.

  “She came home with this chair,” Russell finally says, his words small in the dark, and again I imagine wolves gathering in the woods behind the house. “For the guest room. As if we could afford to have guests. She’s telling me she got this great deal because the store is going into bankruptcy. Sixty percent off. Only three hundred dollars.”

  He stops scratching Occam to rub his own temples with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. His right hand contains the wadded up paper towels. I can tell he’d like to toss them over the railing, but he doesn’t.

  “The idea of buying something at a bankruptcy sale …,” he begins, then stops and laughs bitterly. “I mean, you’ve got no idea how strapped we are, Hank.”

  He shakes his head, a lost man. “Actually, that’s a dumb thing to say, after all the money you guys have loaned us.”

  I nod, agreeing about something, I’m not sure what. “How much money have we loaned you?” I ask, genuinely curious.

  “Too much,” he says, leaving me in the dark, where, if Lily were here, she would say I belong. “Anyhow, I felt something in me snap,” he explains, staring out over the tops of the trees. The darkness is so complete that the trees and the sky blend into each other.

  “I looked at her and that chair and I did hate her, Hank. I’m ashamed to admit it, but right that second, I did. Lately, I’ve mostly hated myself for being out of work when she was working, but right then I hated her worse, and God it felt good to hate her more, that look on her face when she brought in the chair.”

  He’ll allude to her face, but not her eye, I think, and for this I am grateful. I know the expression he’s referring to, and I know the way that old injury drags the one side of Julie’s face down, making her look like a stroke victim. It’s a thing she can’t help, so Russell won’t mention it. He’s too decent to enter that detail in evidence before her father, even though it’s the thing that contains and represents what he most wants me to understand. What he wants me to understand is how, under the right circumstances, a person you love can be ugly, repulsive.

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