Straight Man by Richard Russo


  “Cripes. All right,” Teddy says, pushing his chair back. “I’ll go away.”

  “Oh, sit still,” I tell him, unnecessarily, since Teddy has made no real move to get up. All Teddy’s threats are academic, especially his threats to leave. And maybe he can sense that I’m belatedly ashamed of myself. In driver’s manuals they say that only time can make a drunk man sober, but in my experience shame is also sobering. “Really. Sit.”

  He scoots his chair back in, eager, Occam-like. “How come you’re so pissed off at me?” he wants to know. “I voted for you.”

  “Maybe that’s the reason. Did you ever think of that?” When he doesn’t say anything, I continue. “Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t even go out to dinner on a Monday night in this town without running into half the Railton Campus.”

  This observation has not made things better, I can tell. I meant it to refer to the Rourkes’ presence, but of course it includes Teddy and June as well. And Bodie Pie, who has also overheard it, no doubt.

  “Anyway, forget I said anything,” I tell him. “It’s been a long day. What’s going on with you?”

  Teddy’s face brightens, and I realize he’s been waiting for me to ask something like this. “June and I are going on a cruise,” he says, beaming. “We just decided. We really need to get away for a while. It’s going to cost a lot, but …”

  Tony, I see, has miraculously finished his salad while I’ve been twirling a strip of lettuce on my fork as if it were pasta. He still hasn’t said a word to Teddy, and his expression of malice has, if anything, intensified at the mention of Teddy’s wife. It’s as though he’s tapped into my own surge of inexplicable anger and is surfing this borrowed emotion at its crest, unaware that its owner has slipped mercifully down into the trough. He reaches over, uninvited, and furiously stabs at my cherry tomato, nailing it on the third try, though most of its ruptured insides leak out onto my lettuce. This is too much for Teddy, who slides his chair back for real this time and stands.

  “Do me a favor,” Tony says unexpectedly, his mouth full of my salad, acknowledging Teddy directly for the first time. We all wait until Tony has finished chewing. “Tell that fucking bitch you’re married to that I never laid a finger on that girl.”

  There’s no reason, of course, for Teddy to do this favor. Everyone in the restaurant, including June, who’s just returned from the women’s room, has heard the request. Bodie Pie is trying to attract the attention of a waiter with her credit card. Her companion has not returned to the table.

  Tony now has my entire salad in front of him, and he’s devouring it with startling ferocity. I can’t help but watch, and Teddy, who’s been given every imaginable permission and encouragement to leave, seems rooted to the floor. Only when he looks over at me and our eyes meet and I give him a shrug does he take a wordless leave. The last piece of my romaine lettuce is huge, but rather than stop to cut it, Tony stuffs it into his mouth whole, using his fingers to accomplish his design. This from a man who has the most meticulous, indeed the fussiest manners of any man I know except Finny. This from Tony Coniglia, who accuses me of being a cretin because I doctor clams with cocktail sauce. At the moment, there’s no danger of my exhibiting bad manners. My companion has eaten his own salad, plus mine, and now he’s finishing the bread. Which leaves nothing for me but the condiments, and I’m not even sure I’m entitled to these.

  There’s only one person I can think of who might be able to defuse the present situation, and that’s Jacob Rose. I wish he were here, despite the fact that I know he’d defuse it at my expense. The first thing he’d observe is that I have piss poor luck in restaurants. Most of the time I’m ignored, and even on those occasions that I’m actually served food, I still don’t get to eat it. And I’ve already been warned that I’m going to pay for this dinner.

  When he finishes the bread, Tony looks around for a waiter, but they’ve all made themselves scarce. Both his water and his whiskey glass are empty, and I notice that Tony is sweating profusely, though it’s not warm in the restaurant. Given his history of heart problems, it occurs to me that he might be having an attack, but when I ask him if he’s all right, he gets up from the table, wipes his face, his forehead, and the back of his neck with his cloth napkin, and tosses it onto the chair. “I’ll be right back,” he assures me.

  Since it’s the men’s room I assume he’s heading toward, I don’t try to stop him, but instead he goes over to Teddy and June’s table, where they too have been unsuccessful in getting their waiter to bring them their check. There isn’t a single waiter in the dining room, and I make a mental note not to overtip this evening. Courage isn’t something you normally require in a waiter, but this entire crew is far too timid to prosper.

  June tries to get up when she sees Tony approaching, but she’s too late, and anyway Tony is holding up his hands in surrender. At least I think it’s surrender. He doesn’t have anything in either hand. He slides into the booth next to June.

  Suddenly Bodie Pie is at my elbow. “Is this scene going to get better or worse?” she wants to know.

  I gesture for her to sit down, but she declines. “I have no idea what’s got into him,” I confess.

  She nods. “I warned you about this last Friday.”

  “When?”

  “When you were out picking daisies. He hasn’t told you about it?”

  “Nope,” I tell her. “He’s working up to it though.” It’s when I say this that I realize it’s true. This is precisely where we’ve been heading all night. “If he doesn’t pass out first. If I don’t pass out first.”

  “You aren’t driving, are you?”

  “Hell no.”

  She shakes her head. “That damn Jesuit is right. You never tell the truth, do you?”

  “Well …”

  “Call me if you need a lift,” she says. “Here he comes again.”

  Tony is indeed weaving his way toward us, hangdog now, no longer dangerous, though the other diners are not sure of this, and the dining room is full of the sound of people scraping in their chairs to give him plenty of room. I see he’s picked up Teddy and June’s check, which is a good way of saying you’re sorry to Teddy. There may be no good way of saying you’re sorry to June.

  “Professor Coniglia,” Bodie says. “How lovely to see you this evening.”

  “Professor Pie,” Tony says, taking her hand gallantly, kissing it. “May I call you Sweetie?”

  In the few minutes he’s been gone, he’s located his old self. Mock-charming, outrageous, impossible to take seriously.

  “It’s my night to offend everyone,” he explains.

  “Between us,” Bodie says, taking her hand back as soon as she’s decently able, “you’re right about Juney. She’s a bitch on wheels. And she won’t forget.”

  “Well, then,” Tony says, raising my water glass in a toast to good fellowship, “she’ll just have to remember.”

  Our dinners arrive then, all the waiters having returned to the dining room at once, and Bodie takes her leave. “I have to admit,” Tony says. “That’s one classy lesbian.”

  I’m astonished to discover that I have an excellent appetite for my prime rib, which has arrived sweet and bloody. Tony picks at his trout, then finally asks if he can have a taste of my dinner. When I start to carve off a portion, he stops me. “Just the fat,” he explains, leaning over to take the piece he wants from the tail. He chews it with something akin to religious ecstasy.

  We do not want what’s good for us.

  CHAPTER

  31

  Her name was Yolanda Ackles, and she’d been a longtime resident at the nearby Hereford Clinic until it was decided that she should be main-streamed. One of the first things Yolanda did after she settled into her new apartment at the Railton Towers was sign up for classes on campus. She was encouraged to do this by her counselor, who assured her that the state would pay. The counselor’s only other advice was for her to stay on her medication: “Don’t forget what happens to you wh
en you start skipping.”

  The problem with the medication was that it made everything fuzzy and abstract and gray. Still, Yolanda appreciated the fact that her meds allowed her to go among other people, who would treat her, when she was medicated, much like they would treat any other big-boned, over-weight girl with straight, mouse-brown hair, who lumbered across floors so heavily that objects rattled and the surfaces of liquid in glasses boiled. It was a relief not to be viewed as someone with special problems. She sat in the rear or off to the side in her classes, and she took lots of notes, though these often did not make sense to her later. She studied her professors meticulously for signs of kindness, and she was often more interested in these signs than in what her teachers had to say about cell division. She did not sign up for any classes with women professors.

  Despite her difficulty in processing information, her inability to differentiate between important and less important facts, her tendency to mishear, to get sidetracked, to mistake irony for its opposite, she managed to do comparatively well, earning mostly C’s and the occasional B in her course work. As long as she stayed on her medication, she could compete with the hungover, the lazy, the drug-addled, the terminally bored.

  There was no need for her counselor to remind Yolanda about what happened when she started skipping her meds. She had not forgotten. In fact, she remembered fondly. It was like there was suddenly wind for her sails after months of breathless calm. Properly medicated, Yolanda felt becalmed on a flat lake where others nearby were sailing about merrily, wind snapping in their sails, and she could hear the sound of their laughter and catch, every now and then, a scrap of joyous conversation. Was it fair that there should be wind on one part of the lake and not on the other?

  Skipping her medication caused the sails of her own small craft to billow like the others, allowed her to join in the merriment, tacking in and out among the other revelers, the wind in her hair and her clothing. The low gray sky went high and blue, the air so clear that Yolanda could almost see in the high cirrus clouds the face of a benevolent God. She was still alone, of course, but it was exhilarating to move, and the laughing people from nearby boats waved to her in a manner that made her feel welcome, even though it was impossible in such a wind to do much more than wave and smile.

  This was what it felt like to Yolanda on days when she skipped her medication, and this was why there was no danger of her forgetting her counselor’s warning. And she knew he was right. If she stayed off her meds too long, the warming winds grew too strong, ripping her fragile sails to shreds and driving her onto the rocks of the Hereford Clinic, a thing Yolanda did not want. Still, even that was not so much worse than the return of the dreaded calm of the medication, of seeing the other boats sail merrily off, of realizing that the other revelers had been waving not to her but to each other.

  This much I compose in my head as Tony talks. We now have coffee and the whole restaurant to ourselves. The sailing metaphor is my own invention, the omniscient telling merely an exercise. These last few years, having limited my creative endeavors to the op-ed page of The Rear View, I’ve had little opportunity to indulge omniscience, though I continue to teach it, out of duty, to my fiction writers, even as I warn them against it. Omniscience requires a combination of worldly experience and chutzpah, in more or less equal measures, a technique I’m drawn to now in advancing middle age, perhaps because, as my wife and daughter never tire of reminding me, I tumble to the truth of things late and would prefer to give the impression that I’ve known all along. By making use of omniscience I may be able to explain to myself life’s mysteries, which I’m not even close to grasping in the first person, a more modest form, even when you’re William Henry Devereaux, Jr.

  “So this girl’s in love with you?” I say.

  “Obsessed,” Tony corrects me. “She claims to hear my voice coming out of the walls at night. She thinks I’m God. She says she’s carrying God’s child.”

  “Jesus,” I say. It slips out before I can think. “So she’s claiming you’ve had sex?”

  “Great sex,” he says sadly, with only the most distant hint of his usual braggadocio. “Sex like nobody’s ever had before. Sex on a whole ’nuther plane.”

  “I should think that the fact that she’s hearing your voice come out of the walls would make her testimony in these matters suspect.”

  “Some people are apparently anxious to believe the worst. Juney’s harassment and sexual misconduct committee is going into full-blown investigative mode. I suspect the whole thing will be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow unless you kill another duck.”

  “Speaking of people anxious to believe,” I say. “Can’t the girl be placed under observation?”

  “We’re hoping. Today’s was the third incident this term. Twice she’s had to be forcibly removed from campus. Usually, though, they just call her therapist, get her back on her meds, and let her go. And there has to be an opening back at Hereford before she can be readmitted.”

  “Thank heaven we’re almost to the end of the term.”

  “That’ll keep her off campus,” Tony concedes, “but she shows up at the house now too. If you’d stayed twenty minutes longer the other night, you’d have met her. One minute the local press and I were alone, and the next there she was, taking off her clothes, about to get in the tub with us. Naturally, the press freaked.”

  “Take a long vacation,” I suggest. “Rent the house to a graduate student for the summer and go somewhere.”

  “I’d probably be better off to sell it and just go. This is going to put me right at the top of Dickie’s list. Everybody in bio has tenure, and what I’m hearing is that one of us is going to have to go anyway.”

  “You really think they can just start sacking people with tenure?”

  “I think they think they can.”

  “I’m not so sure.”

  “Well, here’s an interesting item,” he says. “Remember how all of us who were coming up on our sixtieth birthdays this year were offered early retirement incentives last summer?”

  I do vaguely recall. If memory serves, Billy Quigley had briefly considered the offer.

  “Well, last week I called personnel to say I might be interested. Guess what I found out?”

  “The offer’s been withdrawn?”

  He nods.

  “For everyone in that situation?”

  “I don’t know. But for me, the offer is no longer on the table.”

  “So you think they’re considering even more economical methods now?”

  “That’s what I think. Also, I’m not sure I have the unqualified support of my dean. He’s wished for a long time that I didn’t have quite so much to offer women.”

  Which makes me wonder if Tony would have my unqualified support if I were dean. “And you think your department has a list?”

  He’s looking me in the eye now. “I think every department has a list. I think English has a list. I’ve heard for a fact that English has a list.”

  “And you heard I drew up this list?”

  “I heard there was a list.”

  At the register I pay for my dinner and Tony’s. He pays for June’s and Teddy’s. I tell him I’m going to make a stop at the men’s room. He offers to wait, but he looks exhausted, bottomed out, and since I may be a while, I tell him to go on home. On a night like this, a man like me fears the truth before he knows it. After my soul-cleansing, chino-soiling pee this afternoon, I’ve returned to dribble mode. I had hoped, of course, that a man who could fill an office swivel chair with urine at five o’clock in the afternoon might be able to relieve himself sensibly at midnight, but I find that I am again backed up, painfully, angrily.

  Outside, snow. As predicted. Even so, amazing.

  It has only just started when I emerge from the restaurant, but it’s coming down heavy in wet, thick flakes. The spot where Tony’s car was parked is already white. Chances are, if it’s snowing like this here in Railton, it’s coming down even harder in Al
legheny Wells, which is higher up.

  At the bottom of Pleasant Street Hill I pull off to the side at the gravel entrance to the railyard and watch another car, the only one I’ve seen since leaving the restaurant, make the long, steep ascent. Halfway up, the car begins to lose traction and the rear end drifts sideways as the wheels spin, but it makes the first plateau, where it stops, as if to summon courage and steel resolve, its brake lights glowing anxious red. It remains there too long though, and I begin to suspect that the car’s driver and I are soul mates. “Now what?” I say out loud, and only when I hear the words spoken does the left blinker come on. Then the car turns into the intersection, inching slowly away from further confrontation. My soul mate gone, I turn my attention to the dark railyard, its flat landscape interrupted here and there by the black silhouettes of boxcars. What they remind me of, strangely, is an urban skyline, except that would mean that the entire city was belowground, only the very tops of its rectangular buildings poking up through the snow. Seen so fancifully, the world tilts and with it my stomach. I close my eyes, and my mother’s words find me across the long decades. “We will forget this,” she assures me.

  Somehow we, or at least I, have managed to remain faithful to that promise. How long was it after my father left before it became clear to me, if not to my mother, that he wasn’t coming back? A year or so in my memory, but it may have been far less. We were still in the same rented university house, which means the year’s lease had not run out. So, perhaps only a few months. With him gone, the house had become engulfed in silence. Strange, since my father was a reader and a writer, and the house was always kept quiet for these sensible pursuits. My mother was a reader too, but I always had the impression that it was my father we were keeping quiet for. But apparently not, because now, with no William Henry Devereaux, Sr., to consider, the house was more deeply, eerily silent than before. After school I became the denizen of its dark, dank cellar, from which my mother always had to call me for dinner. What did I do down there? she always wanted to know. I remember there was no way to explain.

 
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