Straight Man by Richard Russo

  He shrugs, studying me. “You might. I wouldn’t have.”

  The glass door slides open then, and the second Mrs. R. comes back out with a third deck chair. Her face is beet red, and she emits the kind of snorting sound pot smokers make when they can’t hold it in any longer. Rourke studies his wife impassively while she sets up her chair on the other side of the deck. “Life always pays you back,” he remarks. And you don’t have to know him all that well to know he’s thinking about his first wife, a lovely, unintellectual woman he belittled into leaving him, thus creating space for the second Mrs. R. I slide back my deck chair and stand.

  “By the way, is that mutt of yours loose?”

  “Occam? No. He’s in the house.”

  “I thought I saw him in Charlene’s garden earlier. There must be another white shepherd around. How the hell did you slip past all the reporters?”

  “You know me, Reverend,” I tell him. “Just when you think I’m cornered …”

  He nods, as if to suggest he knows all too well how slippery I can be. “Herbert’s calling for a strike vote this afternoon.”

  “With a week left in the term?”

  “To prevent the seniors from graduating,” he explains. “That’s as close to real political clout as we can muster.”

  “Herbert on his department’s list?”

  “So he says.”

  I nod, risk a grin. “Not a bad list, sounds like.”

  I’m standing next to the railing, the long drop to the road behind me, so I’m glad when he smiles back. “I thought it was excellent, top to bottom. I could almost vote for it, in fact.”

  Another snort from the second Mrs. R. A thin trail of marijuana smoke is tracking upward from her corner of the deck.

  When I get to the bottom of the stairs, I call back up. “Hey?” From where I stand, I can see only my colleague’s feet up on the railing. “I have this idea that maybe the fourth is one of us two?”

  “I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” the voice of my old enemy condescends. “You’ll luck out some way.”

  “What are you in such a good mood about?” my daughter wants to know when I turn up at her kitchen door as she’s about to leave for work.


  “You,” she explains. “You’re grinning.”

  “I’ve been excommunicated. The pope and his Vatican goons are hot on my trail. Find me a fast horse and saddle it up. Meanwhile, I need to borrow your shower,” I tell her, pausing to look her over, this kid whose diapers I used to change. She looks like she’s passed a dark, thoughtful night and emerged from the experience in better shape than she’d have predicted.

  “Go ahead,” she says. “You paid for it.”

  “I did?”

  Julie nods sheepishly. “The money you and Mom loaned us? So we could finish the kitchen and master bath? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”

  “I’m not sure I ever knew.”

  She studies me knowingly. If she’s spent the night trying to figure things out, at least she’s succeeded in pegging me. “That’s one of your great fictions, isn’t it? That Mom never tells you anything. That way you can pretend there are things going on behind your back, things you don’t approve of.”

  “There are things going on I don’t approve of,” I tell her.

  “Right,” she says. “Like you wouldn’t have loaned us the money when we needed it. Like you’re too reasonable, too logical. Like Mom’s the one with the heart and you’re the one with the brain. That’s your public posture. Except everybody knows better. Remember the day I fell off my bike when I was little? Remember how you cried?”

  “How you cried, you mean.”

  She shakes her head. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. Why can’t you admit you cried? You cried, Daddy.”

  “Well,” I admit.

  “I only cried until it stopped hurting,” she reminds me. “You couldn’t stop. I was afraid to look in the mirror when I got home. I thought it must be horrible. I expected to see half my face gone. I kept looking in the mirror for the part that made you cry.”

  “You were my daughter,” I remind her.

  “I know,” she says. “I understand. It’s just …”

  I wait for her, wishing I could help out, but in truth I feel as helpless now as I felt then when her back wheel slid in the gravel, then caught, and she flew over her handlebars. Was that how my mother felt there on the cellar stairs, when she pulled me to her and told me we would forget? At the time it felt like the opposite, to me. Until now it hasn’t occurred to me to imagine what it felt like to her.

  “I left you a message yesterday.”

  “I got it,” I tell my daughter. It’s not easy, but I meet her eyes. “You left it for the wrong person, though. Russell’s ready to shoulder most of the blame, you know. Why not talk to him?”

  “Because I’m too much like you. I have a public posture to preserve. I changed the locks. Now I’m the one who can’t get out. Funny how that works, huh?”

  “Maybe if somebody explained that to him?”

  “Will you see him?”

  “I might.” I still have the number he gave me, though for some reason I don’t tell her this.

  “So how come you need to shower over here?” it finally occurs to her to ask, and I can’t help smiling at her. Even as a child, Julie was essentially uncurious. You could walk in the door with an aardvark on a leash and she wouldn’t ask why, and I suspect this lack of curiosity was, more than anything else, the reason Julie was never much of a student. Ninety percent of answering questions is anticipating which ones will be asked, having a sense of what’s important, being interested enough in something to pose the questions for yourself in advance. Julie, I would guess, has never guessed a test question in her life.

  And I know what Lily would say if she were here. She would remind me that Julie is a product of her experience. In the world we provided her, she felt safe and protected. She knew we wouldn’t ask her any trick questions or make unreasonable demands. She didn’t have to peer nervously around corners, or check constantly over her shoulder. If her mother or I came in with an aardvark on a leash, she could rest assured there was a reason, and this certainty made the explanation unnecessary. Julie, my wife would insist, is living evidence of our skill in parenting, that rare adult who doesn’t see the world as a dangerous, treacherous place. She expects to be loved, to be rewarded for her efforts, to be treated generously. She had tenure as a child and now expects it as an adult. Until this thing with Russell, she’s been optimistic. Her optimism has been tested of late, by their not having enough money and probably by other things too, but it hasn’t occurred to her until recently that things might not work out.

  “Julie,” I say. To this little girl. To this novice adult.

  When I’ve showered, I locate a pair of Russell’s undershorts and some socks. I also swipe his one blue, button-down oxford dress shirt. It’s a bit big in the torso, short in the sleeve, but it will look fine beneath my tweed coat. I also find a new disposable razor, forgotten in the back of the medicine cabinet, and a bottle of Christmas gift aftershave. I have always liked Russell and sometimes even felt more instinctive understanding of him than of my own daughter. We’re a lot alike, is what I’m thinking, dressed as I am in his clothes.

  Using the telephone in his kitchen, I dial the number he left me in case I needed to reach him. It’s a woman who answers, and when I recognize her voice I hang up without even saying hello. It’s only then that I remember the telephone call she made from my office, the intimacy in her voice, reporting my whereabouts, to Russell, who was waiting for me in the parking lot. I look up her number in the phone book, compare it with the one Russell gave me. Why shouldn’t Meg Quigley answer? It’s her number I just dialed.

  I make a note of the address. It’s in the student ghetto, a neighborhood full of big, old houses that have been subdivided into seedy flats. This late in the spring term, the sidewalks, even on weekday mornings, are s
trewn with beer cans, and every third sloping porch sports a dented silver tub large enough to hold a full keg of beer. Student life is no different, my Ivy League colleagues tell me, at Dartmouth and Princeton.

  I pull into the driveway next to the house Meg’s living in and just sit there for a few minutes, hoping one or the other of them will look out the window, see me there, and come down so I won’t have to go up. But the windows are shaded and still, and I know this plan is doomed. When the screen door of the house next to Meg’s swings open, a young man dressed in jeans and a baseball cap and no shirt emerges, scratching his stomach and yawning. I recognize him as Bobo from my comp class. It’s probably not a good thing that I can’t remember Bobo’s real name. It suggests that I may have been unfair to him in other ways. I’ve just about decided that this must be the case when Bobo ambles over to the side of the porch, turns his baseball cap around backwards, yanks himself out of his fly, and arcs an impressive stream over the porch railing and onto the door of the car parked in the drive below, the one I’ve pulled in next to. I’m pleased to observe that when I get out of my car Bobo soils himself getting back into his jeans.

  “Dr. Devereaux,” he says nervously. “I didn’t see you sitting there.”

  He really is stunned by my sudden appearance, I can tell. He hugs his bare chest, as if somebody’s just this second whispered into his ear that it’s cold outside. What he’d like to know, and what he’s too hungover to figure out, is how much power I might wield over him in the present circumstance. He knows I have the authority to grade his compositions and make these grades stand despite his protests, and for all he knows I may have other powers too. I can see the wheels turning in Bobo’s slow brain. I’ve caught him with his dick in his hand in broad daylight peeing on somebody’s car. On the other hand we’re not on campus, which means I may be outside my legal jurisdiction. What the hell am I doing here? is what he’d love to know. He’s trying to think of a way to ask.

  “I’m curious,” I tell him, because I am. “Why is it necessary to turn your hat around backwards in order to pee forwards?”

  Bobo entertains this question with high seriousness, as if I’d just asked him to explain the disappearance of the Fool after Act Three of King Lear. “It isn’t,” he finally explains, without much confidence, it seems to me.

  “Kind of a precaution?” I suggest, confusing him further, though he agrees that this is what it must be. “You have a nice day, Bobo,” I tell him.

  “You too, Dr. Devereaux.”

  Meg’s flat is on the second floor, and I meet her on the stairs. Her hair is wet, and normally I would find this intimate detail attractive in Meg, but today she stirs little in me besides misgiving.

  “You the cowardly person who called and hung up fifteen minutes ago?” she wants to know, suggesting that I’m not the only person on this staircase suffering misgivings.

  “I wasn’t expecting to hear your voice,” I explain.

  “I can’t believe he gave you my number. He must have forgot you and I knew each other.”

  “Must have.”

  We both become aware at the same moment how awkward it is for us to be talking on the landing of a dark hallway. “Look,” she says, not meeting my eyes now. “I’ve got the feeling he’d like to stay. And I really need him to go, okay?”

  “He’ll be gone within the hour,” I assure her.

  “He’s a sweet man, but I’m friends with Julie too.”


  “I mean, it’s not like the sex is a big thing,” she explains, “but I feel weird about the deception part.”

  “I can understand how you would.”

  “Well, the door’s unlocked,” she says, turning away and heading down the stairs. She stops suddenly, as if she’s just realized something. “You’re really pissed, aren’t you?”

  “Maybe sex is a bigger thing with me,” I say. What I don’t say is that right now I’m very glad I didn’t share that peach with her.

  She seems to understand this without my saying it. “You’re just like my old man,” she says, shaking her head on the way out, “only sober.”

  Meg’s flat, at least the living room, is typical graduate student chic, decorated as if to suggest that she still hasn’t made up her mind whether to drink or read. Everywhere there are candles, half burned, dripping colorful wax down the necks of wine and liquor bottles. There are about two tons of books stacked on boards spaced atop concrete blocks. A quick scan of the books’ spines reveals that many of her favorite authors are ones who also couldn’t decide whether to drink or write. Her copy of William Henry Devereaux, Jr. (funny the way it leaps off the shelf) is wedged in between a Frederick Exley and a Scott Fitzgerald.

  Finding Russell fast asleep in the tangle of Meg’s sheets, I jiggle the bed with my foot until he wakes up. He’s even more surprised to see me than Bobo was. He’s so surprised, in fact, that he looks around to make sure of his whereabouts. It would be strange enough to wake up in his own bed and see his father-in-law standing over him, but in Meg Quigley’s bedroom, with him in Meg’s bed, my presence makes no kind of sense.

  “See what I meant last night?” I say. “Nobody tells everything.”

  This is definitely anger I’m feeling right now, and I’d like it to be righteous anger, but it’s hard to feel that toward a man whose undershorts you’re wearing.

  “Get dressed,” I suggest. “Take a shower first.”

  He makes no immediate move to do as he’s told, despite the clarity and simplicity of my directions. “Are you going to leave,” he finally asks, “so I can?”

  Unbelievable. “What, are you shy, Russell?”

  He’s sitting up in bed now, covers pulled up to his waist. “This isn’t anything, Hank,” he says. “Meg doesn’t mean anything to me.”

  I nod my understanding. “At least your stories are consistent. She just assured me you mean nothing to her either.”

  Russell looks a little hurt to hear this, but he covers it quickly. “It’s just …”

  “It’s kind of like a support system,” I suggest, recalling Julie’s explanation for all the phone calls she made over the weekend. “You shouldn’t try to be the Lone Ranger when you’re hurting.”

  He’s squinting at me now, unsure whether this New Age, talk-show language of mine constitutes mockery. “You look funny,” he says finally.

  “Funny how?”

  “Violent funny,” he acknowledges nervously. “Like you wouldn’t mind killing somebody you were sure deserved it.”

  “Get dressed, Russell,” I tell him again. “Shower first. Then dress. Then pack everything you’ll need in Atlanta for a week or so. Maybe longer.”

  I go back into the living room so he can begin. It’s a tiny apartment with thin walls, and I can’t help hearing his powerful postcoital stream in the toilet bowl. It’s only fair, I suppose. I’ve mocked him, so now he’s mocking me. First Bobo, now Russell.

  I consult my watch, try to gauge how long it will take to drive to the airport and back. I’ve got a lot to do before my workshop at two in the afternoon. I call the office to get Rachel to schedule an appointment with the dean, but instead of Rachel I get her voice mail. Hard to believe, but she seems to have followed a direct order and not reported for duty today. Which means I’m on my own. Thankfully, when I call the dean’s number I get Marjory, not Jacob.

  “I need to see him late this afternoon,” I tell her.

  “I think he wants to talk to you right now,” Marjory informs me.

  “Well, I don’t want to talk to him,” I tell her, but I hear a muffled sound on her end, and then Jacob is on the line.

  “Goddamn it, Hank,” he says before I can hang up on him.

  To pass the time, I count the William Henry Devereaux books on Meg’s bookcase. The final tally is four—three of my father’s, the one of mine. When I hear the shower thunk off, I call Marjory back.

  “Boy, is he pissed at you,” she informs me.

” I tell her. “I’ve been having bad thoughts about him all morning. One right after another.”

  “He’s doing the best he can, Hank.”

  So I tell her the joke about the priest who hires an old woman to play the organ at services. Nine o’clock Mass on Sunday morning, the church is full. Everyone stands for the processional hymn, and the organ thunders to life, but the notes are completely random. Nothing like this has ever been heard in a church before. All through Mass it’s like this, as if a small child has been allowed to experiment on the instrument. After Mass is over, the priest is pretty steamed. Clearly the old woman has lied about knowing how to play the organ. Furious, the priest wants to know what she has to say for herself. “Guess what the old woman replies,” I ask Marjory.

  “I’m doing the best I can?” she guesses, confirming what I and others have long suspected, that she should be dean. “How’s three-thirty this afternoon?”

  I tell her three-thirty is perfection.

  “So,” Russell says when we’ve driven halfway to the airport in silence. “You’re, like, running me out of town?”

  “I think you need to look into this job opportunity in Atlanta, Russell,” I tell him.

  He nods, his hair newly moussed and prickly. “I forgot all about your old man,” he tells me. When I glance over at him and frown, he continues. “Julie told me he was, like, this Olympic adulterer. He left you and your mother and ran off with a grad student, right? In that context I guess I can see why you’re so upset with me.”

  “Shut up, Russell.”

  He ignores this friendly, heartfelt advice. “Still, it’s pretty amazing you think you can just run me out of town like this. I mean, a man in your condition.”

  “What condition is that?”

  He studies me. “You look awful,” he confesses reluctantly. “I could easily overpower you. I could wrest the wheel from your control. I could toss you out and leave you by the side of the road and take your car. You know I could.”

  “Overpower?” I say. “Wrest the wheel?” What kind of language is this?

  “I could,” he says. “You want to know the reason I don’t?”

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