Straight Man by Richard Russo


  It’s eight-thirty in the morning. I’ve slept through the night, and Phil Watson’s confident prediction has come to pass. I don’t feel nearly as good as I felt coming off the triumph of my donkey basketball game and the news that my blood work has come back negative. No tumor. The painkillers I’ve been given have worn off, though I have a prescription for Tylenol 3s in my pocket. I refused one at the hospital, and I regret it now, listening to Angelo explain why he was in jail and had to be bailed out by my wife, who is driving the three of us out to Allegheny Wells. As soon as I get home I’m going to have to pop a pill and look for Occam, who’s gone missing. I should have believed Paul Rourke when he told me he’d seen the dog in a neighbor’s garden, but I didn’t. How he got out of the house is a mystery, but my guess is that some member of the media, not believing that I wasn’t home, and finding a door unlocked, must have poked his head inside to call my name. My sincere hope is that this person got a good groining.

  The other mystery is why our money was required to get Angelo out of jail. I suspect he probably could have made his own bail, but he’s too stubborn to spend money this way. He’s lonely at home, and residing at the courthouse gave him people to talk to. Retired from the force for almost a decade, he still knows half the cops in Philadelphia. It was probably old home week in the slammer. Now it appears he’s going to live with us until his court date later in the summer. Lily has already impressed upon him that our rural life will be very different from what he’s used to in Philly. Very few people will come knocking on our door in Allegheny Wells, and there should be no need to shoot them. Any of them.

  “But they insist, right?” Angelo continues. “Raschid has come by a couple times when I was hither, or maybe yon, so I’m a little in arrears, payment-wise. Just give us the fuckin’ money, they say, which makes me think I’m right, this seven-foot Negro is no brother of Raschid’s, who is always a polite boy, like I said. So I tell them, fine, wait right here a second, like I’m going to get the money. I go get something all right, but it ain’t the money. My pump action is what I get. I keep it right in the hall closet for unforeseen circumstances like this one. I’m gone maybe five seconds, and when I get back I show them what I’ve brought with me. I explain to them again, still polite, about my lifelong policy of not giving money in either large or small amounts to seven-foot-tall Negroes I’ve never seen before. This time the two eight-foot Negroes, they seem to understand this practice whereas they didn’t before, but the one who claims to be Raschid’s brother, he’s still giving me the look, like he hasn’t noticed what I’m holding. He wants to know where do I get off pointing such a thing at him when all he’s trying to do is collect money I owe. I say to myself, This fuckin’ kid was born without ears. Maybe I should feel sorry for him, going through life deaf. But, so there’s no misunderstanding, I go through the whole thing again, except louder this time so I’m sure he can hear me.

  “I tell him that I have this pump action in my hands because, though it breaks my heart to admit it, this is now a necessary thing where I live. I even take the time to give him some historical perspective on the situation. I explain how when my daughter was little we used to let her ride all over the neighborhood on her bicycle, because back then it was safe. This was before the days when seven-foot-tall Negroes you’ve never seen before showed up on your stoop demanding money. This was before there was prostitutes and crack dealers on every other corner and every fourth or fifth car was a pimpmobile with dark windows. I tell them the reason I’m taking time to explain all this is because they’re too young to remember. Back then, I was the only guy in a ten-block radius who had a gun in his house, and the only reason I had one was because I was a cop. Now everybody on the block’s armed to the teeth. I tell them it ain’t none of my business, but I wouldn’t go up on any more porches if I was them. I describe some of the advanced weaponry that resides behind some of the doors we can see from my porch.

  “The two eight-foot Negroes, they’re backing down the porch steps slow. They started backing up as soon as they saw the pump action, so there’s at least some intelligence there. But Raschid’s brother, he stands his ground. He tells me to lower the shotgun and he’ll go, like he’s talking to some moron. Lower the shotgun and he’ll go, my ass. But this is what he actually says to me. If I don’t lower the shotgun, he ain’t going nowhere. He tells me this like he’s the one holding the shotgun on me. Which I do not fucking believe. I think to myself, This poor fucking giant Negro is not only born without ears, he’s confused in his head. He can’t tell the difference between a shotgun pointed at his middle and one hanging on the wall above the fireplace, but he’s about to learn. I tell him I’ll count to three and I’ll do it nice and loud on account of he was born without ears. I know everybody understands this situation because the two eight-foot Negroes have backed all the way down the steps and out through the gate and they’re calling to their friend to come on before I do this thing I’ve promised to do. They keep calling to him, even while I’m counting, Come on, nigger—a word they use on each other which my own daughter don’t allow me to say in her presence—what’s wrong wit you? they want to know. This crazy old bastard’s gonna cut you in half.

  “Now, normally I don’t like being called a crazy old bastard by giant Negroes, but in this instance here I figure, fine. At least the two eight-footers are in touch with the reality of the situation, and anyway I’ve called them some names too, so we’re even. What’s fair is fair, and they are trying to help, right? They keep calling to the seven-footer while I’m counting, saying, Come on, man, this crazy old bastard, et cetera, et cetera. They call him by his name, which is another screwball name like Raschid, which took me forever and a fucking day to remember. Le-Something, they call him. You know how they do? They take a real name and add Le? LeRon. LeBill. LeBob. LeBruce. Some goddamn thing like that. LaFonso. That’s my favorite. Alphonso, a name that already exists, they don’t want no part of. LaFonso. That’s an improvement, right? But I figure, it’s their name. Call him LePutz for all I care. Personally, I think LaFonso’s not a very nice thing to do to a kid. Like he’s not going to have enough problems in life if his name’s Harry, right? No, let’s name him LeHarry. Anyway, I’ve just got the hang of Raschid, and here comes LeBig-Brother.”

  I glance over at Lily, who I can tell would pay cash money for this story to be over. She’s heard it before. How many times I don’t know. I reach over and give her hand a squeeze. I try not to be too cheered by all this, though I know that Angelo’s presence is a good thing for me. Every time my wife spends time with her father, my own stock rises. I hate to think of him staying with us for an entire summer, but by the time he leaves, I’m going to look pretty good to Lily. In a few short days my wife will be burying her face in my neck and choking back tears of frustration and guilt and terrible love.

  I feel for her, but I also wish my fiction-writing students were here. Angelo could teach them something about the nature of suspense. He’s had this narrative shotgun cocked, safety off, for a long time, but he’s a patient storyteller. He’s got time slowed down, and even though we’ve known from the beginning of the story that he’s going to pull the trigger, we’re still waiting to find out if he will. Real time, on the other hand, is moving along briskly. We’re already halfway home to Allegheny Wells, the Pennsylvania countryside sliding by gracefully, well outside the field of Angelo’s narrative vision.

  “So finally I get to three, which I say loud enough for even a seven-foot Negro with no ears to hear. And here’s LeBrother. He hasn’t moved a goddamn inch. And I’m thinking, What’s wrong with this kid? Does he have a fucking death wish? Because if he does, he’s come to the right place. But I’m also thinking, You’ve got to admire the kid’s balls, even if he is confused in his head. And the more I look at him, the more I see he does look like Raschid, and I think maybe he is the kid’s brother after all. I mean, he could be, right? I don’t know if Raschid has a brother, but he could have, and if he does, this cou
ld be the kid. He might just be an exceptionally tall, impolite, confused, deaf, big Negro brother. How the hell do I know? Right this second I almost wish I didn’t have the shotgun in my hands, because I’ve got this weird feeling that it’s holding me instead of me holding it. Stupid, I know, but that’s how it felt.”

  “I bet,” I say, because his voice has fallen and he seems to be inviting comment.

  But something about the way I say this pisses Angelo off. The very sight of me has mildly pissed Angelo off for about twenty-five years, so I’m not surprised. He doesn’t much care for educated, professional people of any stripe, and my particular stripe elicits in Angelo his deepest misgivings. On his misgivings meter, I’m right up there with seven-foot-tall Negroes.

  “You bet,” he repeats. “Let me tell you something, pally. You live where I live, nine times out of ten, you’re glad you’ve got the shotgun. You only regret not having the shotgun once. After that, no more regrets for you. You’ve already had your last regret.”

  Lily’s grip on the steering wheel has tightened, and in her white knuckles I see a truth I’ve long known—that the world is divided between kids who grow up wanting to be their parents and those like us, who grow up wanting to be anything but. Neither group ever succeeds.

  “Where was I?” Angelo wants to know.

  “Three,” I remind him.

  “Right,” he continues. “So here’s big LeBrother and here’s me, and neither of us back off an inch. This much I learned as a cop. If you aren’t going to use a gun, don’t even take it out. You aren’t going to use it, it’s worse than useless. I know better, but this is the situation I’ve got myself into with this seven-foot Negro. Truth?” Angelo pauses here, as if to suggest he’s about to reveal something shameful about himself. He can barely bring himself to say it. “I don’t want to shoot this kid. I don’t know what he’s doing still standing there, but there he is, big as life, after I’ve said three. The two eight-footers are now flat on their bellies on the sidewalk with their hands over their ears, praying out loud. They’ve gone from give-us-the-money-you-crazy-old-bastard to Sweet-Jesus-Sweet-Jesus-Sweet-Jesus in the amount of time it took me to say a Hail Mary after confession during baseball season, and I’m thinking, There’s two things I can’t do here. I cannot cut this stubborn, confused LeBrother in half. Don’t ask me why. I just can’t. I’m taking my life in my hands if I don’t, but I figure, so be it. I mean, maybe the world won’t stop if there’s one less giant Negro kid in it, but on the other hand, I don’t see it slowing down all that much if Angelo Caprice stops breathing all of a sudden. The same thing applies to me as to him, the difference being that I’m seventy-three next year and this kid is—what?—twenty? I mean, if I’m twenty or thirty years younger, maybe I look at it differently, right? Even if I’m fifty, I got good, useful years left. At fifty, I’m still strapping on a forty-five and going out in the morning and coming home at night if I’m lucky. But I’m seventy-three and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m still useful. Most days I get up, I don’t even shave. Her mother would be ashamed, but I figure, Who the hell’s gonna see me? If I go out, I shave, if I don’t, fuck it.”

  “Finish your story, Dad,” Lily says quietly. “We’re almost home and we’re not bringing this story into the house, okay?”

  “Whatever you say, little girl,” Angelo agrees. “The judge says I gotta do as I’m told or go back to jail, so boss your old man around all you want. Go ahead. Only not too much, okay? Jail wasn’t so bad. Anyhow. On the one hand, I can’t shoot this kid. On the other, I know I can’t not shoot this gun. I’ve said I’m going to shoot it, I’ve gone back into the house to get it, I’ve brought it out and showed it to them, I’ve stressed its importance. Not shooting this gun is no longer an option. You tell somebody you’re going to count to three, by the time you get to three, you better be prepared to do something very like what you said you’d do, or the next time you say you’re going to count to three, you’re going to have a hard fucking time getting anyone to take you seriously. So I don’t have a lot of room to wiggle here. Maybe I never should have counted to three. I don’t know. But now that I’m here, now that I’m at three, I no longer have what you’d call a wide range of options. Also not a lot of time to consider the ones I do have, because after you say three, you got exactly one beat, the same amount of time it took you to get from two to three is the time you now got. The next sound you hear after three is not supposed to be four. It’s supposed to be bang. You don’t hear bang, all bets are off.”

  We have arrived at Allegheny Estates now, and Lily makes the turn up our hill. There’s no cop directing traffic, no traffic to direct, no sign of the media. The William Henry Devereaux, Jr., story has run out of gas, now that the true duck slayer has been identified. “Go slow,” I say to Lily. There are several newly planted spring gardens in our neighbors’ yards. Maybe I’ll spot Occam excavating one of them.

  “So,” Angelo says, winding down now. “In the time I was given, I arrived at an imperfect solution.”

  “Oh, God,” I hear Lily say, and at first I think it’s in response to her father’s characterizing as “imperfect” his lunatic compromise—his raising the shotgun and discharging it into the porch roof, bringing the whole decrepit structure down on himself and LeBrother, so that the neighbors had to dig the two of them out from under the rubble. But then I see a man seated on the steps of our deck, it appears, crying. I don’t immediately recognize him as Finny, because he’s dressed in simple slacks and a button-down shirt, not his usual white suit.

  My first thought is that Finny must be weeping over his own academic fate. Lily has told me this morning that according to The Rear View, the faculty, after learning that Dickie Pope had been canned and that Jacob Rose, a man they’d known and respected for years, would be the new CEO, voted overwhelmingly not to strike, a decision that defeated the position urged by their own union, not to mention the interests of those faculty like Finny who would be directly affected by next year’s budget cuts. In this context I am not surprised to see Finny awaiting the return of his longtime adversary. No doubt he’s concluded, in the naive way of career academics, that a shifting wind will have caused a realignment, that we are now made allies by our shared reversal of fortune. But then I see there’s a white bundle, like a sack of dirty laundry, only flatter, at Finny’s feet. As we draw closer I see that it’s a white sheet, darkly spotted.

  “Anyhow,” Angelo is saying, “to make a long story short—”

  But I have already gotten out of the car and so has Lily. When we arrive at the bottom of the step, I lift up the sheet, though I already know what I will see.

  “I never saw him,” Finny says, struggling to his feet like a very old man, his eyes red, anguished, swollen. “He ran right in front of me.”

  God, as always, is in the details, and I see that Occam’s legs are crusted with mud, which means that he spent his night of freedom miles away at the lake, returning just in time to encounter Finny’s car.

  “I’d come to see Marie,” Finny explains, referring to his ex-wife, who still lives at the bottom of the hill. “She gave me the sheet.”

  I let the sheet fall back. Lily has turned away rather than look. Angelo takes her in his arms, and she lets him, and the sight of this has me right up there in the high ninetieth percentile, affection-wise, for this wonderful woman I have too long taken for granted, as Teddy warned me years ago I was doing.

  “You probably think I did it on purpose …,” Finny croaks.

  “Don’t be an ass,” I tell him. For in fact I have never been more convinced of the string of cause and effect, of the sequence and consequence that is destiny, than I am at this moment. It begins with a comic threat to kill a duck and ends here at my feet. Finny doesn’t know it, but he’s merely acting as the agent of Chance, the nameless footman of the drama. “Another man would have driven away. I might have driven away, Finny,” I feel compelled to add.

  Because the truth is, we never know f
or sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own. Angelo has no more idea what his own story means than he knew what he would do until he did it. How was he to know that he would be visited by such a strange emotion in the very doorway to the home he had guarded for so long? How could he have predicted its consequence? When my poor mother came down into the cellar that afternoon and saw her son standing on a chair, how could she have had any idea that by drawing me to her so fiercely, by saving her son she set in motion our mutual estrangement, for how could we forget such a moment without distancing ourselves from each other, who shared its anguish? Only after we’ve done a thing do we know what we’ll do, and by then whatever we’ve done has already begun to sever itself from clear significance, at least for the doer.

  Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

  EPILOGUE

  For every complex problem there is a

  simple solution. And it’s always wrong.

  —H. L. Mencken

 
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