Straight Man by Richard Russo

  “Anyhow,” he continues. “I knew I couldn’t stay in any house that contained that chair. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but it was the one thing I was most sure of.” He chuckles, like a man who knows that what he’s chuckling at isn’t funny. “You’ll appreciate this, Hank. A man and his wife. Faced off. Ultimatum time. It’s either me or the chair, he says with a straight face. Not, it’s either me or him. Your husband or this other man you’re in love with. That would be a tough one, right? No, I tell her to choose between me and a chair she bought on sale, sixty percent off.”

  “Well, it may have been on sale, but it wasn’t cheap,” I tell Russell. “Three hundred bucks is not a cheap chair.”

  “I’m not sure you’re grasping my point,” Russell admits. “My point is that, when she had a choice between her husband and an inanimate object, she chose the chair.”

  “I understand that, Russell, I do. And I can see where it would hurt your feelings.”

  “She didn’t even hesitate, Hank.”

  “Except it doesn’t prove that she doesn’t love you,” I tell him.

  “She just loves the chair more? Is that what you’re telling me?”

  “Actually, I was going to say it proves she knows where to plant the knife. She doesn’t really prefer the chair. She just knows how much it will hurt you if she acts like she does.”

  He hangs his head. “I know,” he admits. “By the time I packed my bag and came back downstairs, I could see everything had changed. She’d put the chair off to the side. She had tears in her eyes, and she was standing in front of the door. We could have made it all up right there. It was my inch to give, and I couldn’t give it. I didn’t hate her anymore. In fact, I wanted to take her and make love to her right then.”

  “Careful, Russell,” I warn him. I know he’d like me to understand, to chart his emotional trajectory, but this is my daughter we’re talking about.

  “I wanted my marriage and I wanted my wife. Hell, I even liked the damn chair. It’s not a bad-looking chair or anything.”

  “She’s got her mother’s good taste,” I admit.

  “But like you said, she’d hurt my feelings, and I wanted to hurt her back. And I felt this strange … rush. She’d tried to run this bluff, see, and I’d called it. She’d lost, and now it was time for her to learn her lesson. So instead of …”

  I wait awhile for him to finish, but he doesn’t. “Right,” I say, because I hate to see him struggling for something I understand already. Hell, I could finish this story for him.

  “So I went over to where she was standing in front of the door and told her to get out of the way. I remember it didn’t even sound like my voice. I kept wondering, who are these people? And I was still thinking, I can stop all this right now.”

  “But you didn’t.”

  “No,” he says. “When she wouldn’t get out of the way, I set the bag down and took her by the shoulders.”

  He held his hands out before him in the dark, seeing her there.

  “Then … I don’t know. She must have tripped over the bag. I heard a crash, and when I turned she was on the floor. She’d fallen into …”

  He stops, unable to continue.

  “The chair,” I say.

  He stares over at me through moist, confused eyes. “No, the stereo cabinet.”

  “Oh, sorry,” I say. In my writing workshop I’d have explained to my students why, for symmetry, it had to be the chair.

  Russell isn’t interested in symmetry. “I kept thinking, this isn’t right. She can’t have fallen. All I’d done was move her aside. Maybe I was a little rough, but I didn’t push or shove her. What was she doing down there on the floor?”

  Again, I wait for him to continue, until I realize that this is the end of his story. He hasn’t reached any conclusions about these events because he hasn’t moved past the moment when he turned and saw Julie on the floor and imagined himself responsible, even though he didn’t quite see how he could be. As I’ve listened to him relate what happened, the thing that’s puzzled me is that he hasn’t asked how Julie is, and the deeper he’s plunged into his story, the more I’ve feared the reason for this was that he didn’t care. Now I suspect it’s something else. The image of Julie on the floor has burned onto the retina of his mind’s eye. It hasn’t occurred to him that she might be okay, because every time he thinks of her, he sees her there, on the floor, one hand clutching the already damaged eye. There simply is no after. If I asked him where he thought Julie was right now, the question would confuse him. Intellectually, he knows that days have passed, but where Julie is for Russell is right where he left her. Probably he went to her, tried to see how bad she was hurt, tried to take the hand away from her eye, but by then the dramatic focus of the scene would have shifted. A few minutes earlier it was his scene, and he could have altered its course had he chosen. Now it was her scene to play out as she chose. Her decision, to exclude him, was the same as his own decision to punish her.

  And now his life has turned mysterious. Because it can’t go forward, he can only keep going over and over how he got where he is. “Anyway,” he says. “I wanted you to hear my side. I know you have to believe Julie, but …”

  “Listen, Russell,” I begin, without the vaguest idea how I’ll continue.

  “I want you and Lily to know that I’m going to pay you back every nickel of the money you loaned us. I mean, even if Julie and I don’t make it.”


  “It may be a while,” he admits ruefully, this son-in-law of mine who’s been out of work since last fall. “I mean, maybe this has gotten me jump-started, finally. I’ve got to do something, even if it’s wrong.”

  “People often say that before they do the wrong thing, Russell.”

  “I called this guy in Atlanta today,” he says. “Last summer he offered me this great job there, terrific money. But we were building the house, so I said no.”

  “This is a story I’ve heard before.”

  “I don’t think so, Hank,” he says. “I never even told Julie.”

  I just grin at him in the dark.

  “Oh, I get it,” he says. “It’s a familiar story, you mean. How does it turn out?”

  “I forget,” I tell him. I and the majority of my colleagues in the English department are how it ends. There’s no need to depress him further.

  “The job he wanted me to take before is gone, of course,” he continues. “But he says he thinks he can scare something up.”

  “In Atlanta.”

  “That’s where the company is, Hank. Atlanta. If the company were in Railton, this whole story would be different.” Now that he’s got Julie out of his mind’s eye, Russell is his mischievous, slightly mocking self again.

  “I understand that, Russell.”

  “Good. I thought maybe you’d nodded off there for a minute.”

  I assure him I’ve been hanging on every word.

  “Anyway. If this guy calls back, I guess I’ll take the job. If I can scrape together plane fare.”

  The phone rings inside. “That must be Lily,” I tell him, “calling to offer you the money.”

  “She’s always right there,” he admits. “You lucked out.”

  We listen to the phone ring.

  “Aren’t you going to answer that?” Russell wants to know, as the machine picks up.

  After a few seconds we hear a voice leaving a message. With the closed patio door between us and the machine, I can’t tell who it is.

  Russell gets to his feet. “I guess I’ll let you go back to your life. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention Atlanta to Julie.”

  I promise him I won’t.

  “And thanks for everything,” he says, looking around the deck. “I always feel right at home here for some reason.” He surveys my house with more affection than I’ve ever seen him view his own. “You lied about the wasps though,” he says, pointing at the eaves where a nest would hang if we had truly identical houses.

e shake hands. “Promise me you won’t leave without seeing Julie,” I tell him, because I suspect that this is his plan.

  “I’ll call her,” he says. “I don’t think she wants to see me.”

  “You should go see her anyway,” I tell him. He needs to see that she’s all right. That she isn’t on the floor anymore. That she won’t be going around for the rest of her life with one hand over her eye. “Lily will be back tomorrow, sometime. You can meet over here if you want.”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  “Where are you staying?”

  “With a friend.”

  I hand him a slip of paper and a pen. “Leave me a number where I can reach you if I have to.”

  He’s reluctant, but he does as he’s told.

  “Aren’t you going to tell me how you managed to fall in the sewer earlier?”

  I consult the stars for dramatic effect. “I fell asleep and wet my pants. Then I got embarrassed and hid in the ceiling above my office.”

  He shrugs. “You don’t want to tell me, just say so, Hank.”

  “Maybe some other time,” I suggest. Later, I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with something more plausible than the truth. Sure, I’m out of practice, but The New York Times once said of young William Henry Devereaux, Jr., son of the famous literary critic, that his stories had “taken firm root in the garden of realistic fictions.”

  “My feelings are kind of hurt,” Russell admits. “I mean, I told you everything.”

  “Not everything, Russell,” I say. “We never tell everything.”

  He looks surprised to learn that I know this. Like maybe it’s his secret. What does he think a man like me does for a living?



  Russell has been gone maybe twenty minutes when a car pulls in at the foot of our road. I track its headlights through the trees as it snakes up the incline past my neighbors’ houses. When it passes the driveway of the last of these, it can mean only one thing. I am to have a visitor.

  I momentarily hope it’s Lily, returning early to surprise me, but I know it isn’t. You’re married to a woman as long as I’ve been married to Lily, you get to know not only the sound of her vehicle but the sound that vehicle makes with her at the wheel. I’ve watched my wife come up this hill hundreds of times, and I know this is not she. It’s not Lily’s car, not her speed, not her headlight pattern. This is someone who’s been here before, but not for a while, at least not at night, who remembers how sharp the turns in the road are without remembering exactly where they are, who has to go slow enough to really watch. I fear it’s Teddy Barnes come to celebrate my victory, to ask if it’s true, what Gracie said about my being in the ceiling, to plan further strategy, to find out if Lily’s returned and bring her up to date on her husband’s lunacy. Or, worse, he may want to talk about his wife and Orshee.

  Telling Occam to stay, a command he occasionally obeys, I get up and turn on the outside lights, then go over to the railing in time to see Tony Coniglia, one of the very few people in the world whose companionship I might actually enjoy tonight, get out of his car. “You are not answering your phone,” he observes. “And you’re not returning calls, as that lying machine of yours promises.”

  He’s carrying a bottle. Occam woofs down at him.

  “I myself have had a dozen calls for you tonight,” Tony informs me. “Your colleagues say you disappeared after the department meeting. They seem to think you might be hiding out at my place.”

  “You know the kind of company I keep. If it weren’t for erroneous conclusions, these people would never arrive at any at all.”

  He hasn’t made any move to join me on the deck. Instead he’s leaning against the grille of his car. The night has grown quiet, and I can hear the ticking of his engine as it cools. The temperature has fallen since Russell left. Occam circles himself twice, collapses onto the deck, sighs, and puts his head back down on his paws.

  “Come on up.”

  “I will,” Tony says, without showing any such inclination. “I’m trying to solve a mystery first.”

  “Okay, I’ll bite,” I tell him. “What mystery?”

  “There’s vomit on the hood of your car,” he points out.

  He’s parked right next to me, and now that I look, I see he’s right. This, it occurs to me, is my father’s fault. But for his books taking up space in the garage, my car would have been safely inside.

  Tony goes over to examine the mess. “Fresh, I’d say. A good forensic team would put the time within the hour.”

  I can’t help grinning.

  Tony trots up the deck stairs, goes in through the sliding door to the kitchen, and returns with two glasses, handing me one. “Alcohol,” he says conspiratorially, holding up the bottle for my inspection. It’s a fifth of very expensive Kentucky sour mash, about two-thirds full. Even in the poor light of the deck I can see that Tony’s eyes are bloodshot, that he’s started on this bottle without me. “When this bottle is gone, I know a place where we can score another.”

  He sets the bottle down, leans forward, hands on the railing, peers down at the hood of my car. “Whoever was sick,” he says, “was sitting in this chair.” He examines his hands for further evidence, brushes them off on his pants legs before pouring two heavy shots of whiskey. I take a sip, and it’s everything you could hope for. Billy Quigley, were he here, would weep religious tears.

  Tony is studying me, deadpan. “He was a small man. Left-handed. He walked with a limp. He served in India. So much is obvious, but beyond this I can tell you nothing except that he may have recently eaten asparagus.”

  While Tony has been investigating this mystery, I’ve solved one that’s been on the periphery of my thoughts all afternoon. Seeing Tony has somehow caused the penny to drop. The girl I saw in the back of the police car this afternoon is the same one I saw last Thursday night when I left Tony’s, the big girl who wasn’t afraid when I came out of the trees at three in the morning, who told me I wasn’t him. The “him” she referred to, I now realize, is Tony, and I also comprehend that it was to his house that she was heading. I remember the phone calls that kept getting Tony out of the hot tub, as well as the fact that after the last one he left the phone off the hook, which must have made her decide to come see him. And I remember Missy Blaylock’s insisting, this afternoon, that I ask Tony about what happened at his house after I left. My final intuition is that it must have been Tony’s class the girl crashed this afternoon, causing the police to remove her from campus, the ramifications of which caused Tony to cancel our scheduled racquetball match. William of Occam would be pleased with my deduction, which accounts for the major facts, is contradicted by none of them, and is not unnecessarily complex. All my theory lacks is reasons, human motives, the truth behind the known facts. The former novelist in me wonders this: How close could I get to the deeper truths, proceeding from the factual outline?

  Not very, probably. Tony’s mock investigation of the vomit on the hood of my car suggests how wide is the gap between known facts and a genuine understanding of their meaning. How could he be expected to intuit Russell and Julie, the breakup of their marriage, the failure of their love. What ails people is never simple, and William of Occam, who provided mankind with a beacon of rationality by which to view the world of physical circumstance, knew better than to apply his razor to the irrational, where entities multiply like strands of a virus under a microscope. Russell is not a small man, he’s not left-handed, he hasn’t served in India, he doesn’t walk with a limp, and he probably hasn’t eaten asparagus recently, but past a certain point, almost any set of random details stand about as good a chance of being true as any other.

  The limitations of intuition, of imagination, are what make one-book authors of men like William Henry Devereaux, Jr., I fear, and perhaps this is why I am envious of Rachel tonight. For though I told my agent that I was not jealous, the truth is that I am. Not of her success. The envy I feel has less to do with accomplishment or valida
tion than with the necessary artistic arrogance that these breed. Usually all questions, Rachel, tonight, will feel like she got some of the answers right, saw some of the patterns clearly enough to detail them convincingly. She will consider the possibility that the leaky vessel of her talent may be seaworthy after all. Instead of being dictated to by the waves of doubt that threaten to swamp all navigators, she’ll turn bravely into the wind. The moment she does is the moment I envy.

  Tony is peering at me strangely, and I realize I’ve just suffered another ellipsis. As I usually do when this happens, I consult my watch to see if I can ascertain how long I’ve been away. And as usual I’m prevented from arriving at a valid conclusion by not having noted when the ellipsis began.

  “Pay attention,” Tony says, “because we’re about to embark on an intricate topic.”

  I’m glad to hear this. Nothing could please me more than to be assured that Tony has come armed with a subject, prepared to hold forth.

  “I’ve been considering the mystery of human affection,” he says, by way of preamble.

  I nod. “You’ve moved on. Last week you were thinking about fornication.”

  “I’m thinking of giving up fornication,” he says, deadpan, as always.

  “The act or the subject?”

  “Both. There wasn’t much point in discussing the subject with you, and I’ve concluded that the act may be coming between me and my true vocation, which is religious.… You laugh.”

  “Now you’re saying you have a lot to offer God?”

  “I happen to have the loftiest spiritual dimension of any person you know,” Tony insists. “Are you aware that I attend Mass every day of the week?”

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