Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  As a teacher, what Mrs. Roderigue prides herself most on is her organization. “There are forty of you,” she told the class after they were all seated that first day, “and so it will be imperative that we get organized and stay organized.” Normally classes are not allowed to grow so large, but an exception is made for art—unspoken acknowledgment, Tick suspects, that nobody considers art to be a real course, like history or math. Mrs. Roderigue isn’t even full-time, teaching afternoons at the high school, mornings at the middle school, her teaching strategies identical regardless of her audience.

  For Tick, the interesting thing about Mrs. Roderigue’s color coding is that the tables themselves are all steel gray, so the only way to differentiate Blue from Red that first day was to read the signs—BLUE, GREEN, RED, YELLOW and BROWN, carefully lettered in black ink—taped to each. On the second day all the signs came down and were slipped into plastic baggies before they could be dirtied or wrinkled. Art, she told her students, was the study and practice of order. There was no such thing as Sloppy Art. Artists, she claimed, first had to know where they were, and in Mrs. Roderigue’s class the first thing you learned was whether you were Blue or Green and so forth. If you were Blue, you were supposed to remember where Blue was, though why Blue was Blue, and not, for instance, a number, like “one” or “two,” remained a mystery.

  Nonetheless, at the Blue table, Tick sits next to Candace Burke, who favors trendy, girlie clothes—baggy jeans, tight shirts, pink Adidas shoes. Also, white eye shadow and lots of mascara. Today she’s wearing her unicorn T-shirt. Either she’s got two of these or she washes the one right after she’s worn it. She’d worn it the first day of school and now, Thursday, she’s wearing it again. “Oh-my-God-oh-my-God!” she exclaims, looking at Tick’s painting. “You’re almost done. I haven’t even started. Help me, okay? What’s my most vivid dream?”

  “I don’t know any of your dreams,” Tick points out.

  Candace shrugs, as if to suggest that that makes two of them, but this problem occupies her for no more than a split second. “So how come you’re in here with the morons?” is what she’d really like to know. Though Candace has asked this every day, and been answered too, she either keeps forgetting or else is suspicious of the answers she’s been given. Her persistence reminds Tick of a movie she saw once in which a man was interrogated for hours, asked all sorts of things, but one question, in particular, over and over. His answer was always the same, but his questioners must have suspected something, because they kept coming back to that one question. Finally, they killed him—out of frustration, apparently. You never found out whether the man was telling the truth or not.

  Candace is openly using an Exacto knife she stole during the first day of class, carving the name of her boyfriend, Bobby, into the back of the wooden chair she’s turned around and is sitting in the way older men sometimes do in the Empire Grill. Tick’s proximity to this dangerous-looking instrument and the use to which it is being put are making her more than a little nervous, especially when Candace stops carving and gestures with the blade for dramatic emphasis. Tick half expects her to put the knife to her throat and hiss, “Why are you really in here with the morons? Who sent you? Tell me the truth or I’ll—”

  What Candace is trying to reconcile is that Tick is a high-track kid, whereas she herself and all the rest are “Bones,” kids who take the lower-track versions of required courses like biology along with guaranteed GPA boosters like art. One reason Candace has befriended her, Tick suspects, is that she enjoys showing strangers around Bone World, an academic sphere populated by those who can’t learn grammar or solve math problems and see no reason why they should. The majority are boys, who don’t at all mind being referred to as “Boners.”

  Candace herself prefers “moron.” She confessed to Tick that it’s also her mother’s favorite word, one she applies to Candace on a wide variety of occasions, such as, “What’s up, Moron?” or “You learn anything in school today, Moron?” or “Hey, Moron, you didn’t walk off with my goddamn car keys again, did you?” or “I swear to fucking Christ, Moron, I catch you in the damn liquor cabinet again, I’m going to take you out of where you are and put you in Mount Calvary with the damn Christians, let you drink the Blood of the Lamb for a while and see how well you like that shit, and I can tell you right now you won’t, so just stay out of my fucking vodka.” As far as Tick can tell, Candace has concluded that the word is a term of endearment applied to kids like herself who happen, everyone seems to agree, to have no future.

  Still, Tick wonders if she should voice her objection to the “moron” label before explaining why she happens to be among those thus classified. But since Candace doesn’t appear to expect this, she decides not to. “I like art,” Tick says weakly, just as she has every day this week, aware, as always, that the truth isn’t much of a substitute for a good answer.

  Tick almost didn’t take art because it wouldn’t fit into her schedule, being offered only at times when the high-track kids had required courses, like chemistry and calculus, or were at lunch. When Tick proposed that she could take art if she were allowed to eat lunch in the cafeteria during sixth period, the idea was vetoed until her father went with her to see the principal, Mr. Meyer, who pointed out that the cafeteria closed after fifth period. Even if Tick brought a sandwich with her and got a soda out of the machine, she’d have to eat it all by herself in the big, empty cafeteria, which would be locked after she entered, and she’d be on her honor not to let anyone else in, because there would be no monitor.

  When Mr. Meyer asked Tick if she could live with these provisos, she wondered, as she so often did, at the strange world adults seemed to inhabit. Did they all suffer from some sort of collective amnesia? You had only to look at Mr. Meyer to know that he’d been the kind of fat kid everybody made fun of and that lunch had surely been a torment to him. He’d either gravitated naturally to the leper table or sat by himself at a table designed for sixteen, a target for all the kids overcrowding the cool tables, the tables that were identified as cool by who had a right to sit at them, codes established the first day of school, the rules clear to everyone, no need for color-coding. You had only to look at Mr. Meyer to know he’d spent all his high school years getting hit in the back of the head with all manner of throwable food, yet here he was worried that Tick was going to miss out on the important “socialization” aspects of a good secondary education. Some damn thing must have hit him in the back of his pointed head pretty hard during one of those lunches, Tick decided, because the man honestly seemed to have no recollection of them.

  Therefore, he had no idea how thrilled Tick was at the prospect of eating lunch by herself. She didn’t mind in the least waiting until sixth period to eat her sandwich. School twisted her stomach into knots anyhow, and this way at least she wouldn’t have to endure the humiliation of not having a place to sit. Which certainly would have been her destiny. She’d broken up with Zack Minty over the summer, meaning she would no longer be welcome at the table dominated by his circle. And she knew better than to try to crash one of the cliques at the popular girls’ table. Far better to be alone in an empty cafeteria, Tick thought, than to be alone in a full one.

  “Did you know Craig was going to buy me The Beatles Anthology for my birthday?” Candace wants to know now. “Before I broke up with him, I mean?”

  Tick tries to ignore her. The first assignment is to paint your most vivid dream, and Tick’s is the one where she’s clutching a snake in her fist. The painting is going pretty well. The snake started out looking like an eel, but now it’s less flat, more serpentine, except it’s not as scary as the snake in her dream, which, no matter how tight her grip, manages to squirm up to where it can turn and look at her. In the dream she’s safe as long as she can hold the snake up near its head, but each time it manages to slither through her grip. When it turns to look at her, she wakes up with a start. From this dream Tick concludes that she’s learned something useful: whatever means you harm w
ill look you over first.

  “Are you listening to me?” Candace says.

  “Who’s Craig?” Tick asks, suspecting she’s supposed to know, that he’s somebody Candace has mentioned before, probably more than once. The good news is that Candace never minds repeating boyfriend stories.

  “He’s the one I broke up with for Bobby,” she explains, preferring this subject to the task of beginning her thumbnail sketch, which she will later be required to transfer to a large piece of paper and then, finally, to paint. It doesn’t appear to bother Candace that she’s behind everybody in the class. More interesting, it doesn’t seem to bother Mrs. Roderigue, either. All week long Tick has been expecting the woman to come around to the Blue table, see that Candace has done exactly nothing, and read her the riot act, but so far she’s stayed strictly away, as if she’s already determined that Blue is trouble and therefore doesn’t exist.

  Most teachers, Tick has learned, feel no great compulsion to confront trouble. They’re never around when drugs are being bought and sold, for example. The mystery of the Exacto knife stolen after the first art class, its theft announced over the loudspeaker during homeroom, would be solved if Mrs. Roderigue ever visited Blue, where Candace openly uses it on her “Bobby” carving. Tick can’t help but wonder if Mrs. Roderigue is as afraid of the knife as she is. Fear, often irrational, of the sort that paralyzes Tick, is something she’d like to think she’ll outgrow. Adults, by and large, seem free of it. Even her Uncle David, whose car wreck nearly severed his arm at the elbow, seems almost carefree when he gets behind the wheel. No, most adults are more like her father, whose fear, if he feels any, has been replaced by a kind of melancholy. Her mother’s a different story, though. Sometimes Tick sees a fleeting look of panic on Janine’s face when she doesn’t know she’s being observed, but then she swallows hard and subdues whatever it is by sheer force of will. That’s a trick Tick would be glad to learn, because dread is her more or less constant companion.

  “So, should I wait for my boyfriend,” Candace wants to know, “or go back with Craig for a couple weeks?”

  Bobby, the one Candace may or may not wait for, is in jail. He was arrested at Fairhaven High, according to Candace, and it was not a righteous bust. Why she thinks this is not clear to Tick. Candace actually seems to believe the cops came for him because he took a dollar from his mother and only paid back seventy-five cents. Supposedly he’ll be released in a couple weeks, in time for homecoming. Tick doesn’t know how much of what Candace tells her is true. She’s not sure, for instance, if the boy is really in jail. Or if he exists at all. Or if the other boy, Craig, ever really promised to buy her The Beatles Anthology. Vagaries of this sort make it hard to give good advice.

  If she’s to be believed, Candace has a very dramatic love life, which is fine with Tick, except that when she has finally exhausted the subject of her own romances she’ll want to know about Tick’s, which are singularly lacking in drama. Or maybe just singularly lacking. On Martha’s Vineyard she’d met a shy boy from Indiana who was visiting friends with his mother while her divorce from the boy’s father became final; if Tick were to steal an Exacto knife and carve a boy’s name in the back of her chair, the name would be “Donny.” When he told her about his father, who was moving to California, his eyes filled with tears. His father was moving right then, that very week, and Donny had been packed off to Martha’s Vineyard, he’d confided, so he wouldn’t have to watch him leave home. Donny also told her he’d have preferred to live with his dad, even though he was the one at fault, for falling in love with another woman.

  Tick told him that this had been pretty much her experience, too; after her parents split up, nobody had asked her who she wanted to live with. Of course, in her case nobody was moving to California, and although she technically was living with her mother, she spent almost as much time with her father. Donny found it hard to believe that Tick’s mother and father still lived about three blocks from each other; his father, apparently, had selected San Diego as his new home because it was as far from Indianapolis as you could get without leaving the continental United States. Tick explained that her parents probably just didn’t have enough money to put much distance between themselves.

  This intimate conversation had taken place on the beach on their last night together, and Donny had taken her hand as they watched the orange sun plunge into the ocean. They hadn’t even found the courage to kiss, and early the next morning when they’d said their good-byes, they’d shaken hands there in front of Tick’s father and Donny’s mother, unsure that anything more would be allowed them, their fingers icy-cold with disappointment.

  Anyway, it wasn’t much of a story to tell someone like Candace, even if Tick was inclined to share it. She suspects it’s mostly evidence of her own stunted emotional and romantic development, as is the fact that she can’t seem to stop thinking about how good it was to sit there on the warm sand in the gathering dusk and just hold hands with a boy she liked. Sure, she wishes now that they’d found the courage to kiss, but at the time they’d both been content. Their mutual understanding, even though it was an understanding of grief, had at first been thrilling, then quietly reassuring, though she doubts Candace would see it that way. She’s already made several references to going down on Bobby. Tick is almost sure she knows what going down on a boy means, and if she’s right, Candace won’t be impressed by an encounter that climaxed with hand-holding.

  “I mean, Craig’s not so bad, and he loves me and everything … and he really wants to buy me The Beatles Anthology, so, like, what should I do?” Candace wants to know.

  Before Tick can say anything, they’re interrupted by a boy named Justin who’s sitting at the far end of their table.

  “What, Candace?” he says, pretending she’d spoken to him. “You say you want to make out with John?”

  John Voss, also at the Blue table, never even looks up. Of all the kids at Empire High, he seems to Tick the most unknowable, and for this reason he scares her a little. It isn’t so much his strange, thrift-shop clothes or his hair cut in patches, as if he’d done the job himself. It’s his silence. So far this week, he hasn’t spoken a word. Were he not referred to every now and then by Justin, who pretends to narrate the comatose boy’s thoughts, everyone would forget he is even there. John Voss is painting something elaborately filigreed in the shape of an egg, which is also confusing and frightening Tick. Who dreams of eggs? Watching him work makes Tick think of analogies of the sort she encounters on standardized tests. This one would read: John is to Justin as BLANK is to Candace. The answer would be Tick.

  “John says you should come over to his house today after school, Candace. He says he’s got something he’d like to show you.”

  “Shut up, you asshole!” Candace shouts, startling Tick. The panic in her voice results, Tick knows, from Justin’s attempt to link her romantically with this boy who is at the very bottom of the high school’s social hierarchy. Since Candace isn’t so far from the bottom herself, she must guard against any misunderstanding of this sort. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Roderigue,” she says when everyone from Red, Green, Yellow and Brown turns to look at her, “but Justin is always embarrassing me.”

  Mrs. Roderigue has indeed straightened up and is now glaring at Blue, as if everyone at the table were equally responsible for Candace’s outburst. Her disappointment and displeasure seem to include, for instance, Tick herself and John Voss, who still hasn’t even looked up from his egg. “I hope,” the teacher intones, “that we will have no more outbursts from the Blue table.”

  “I said I’m sorry,” Candace responds audibly, rolling her eyes as if to suggest that it’s hard for her to imagine what the woman could possibly want from her that she hasn’t already given.

  “If you require a model for acceptable behavior,” Mrs. Roderigue continues, as if she imagines that this might truly be the problem, “you need look no further than Green.”

  The Green table, Tick notes, is decimated by absenteeism t
oday. Normally it has eight students, but four are missing; two of those present are reading their algebra books in preparation for a test next period, and another is fast asleep with his head on the table. If she didn’t know better, Tick would like to raise her hand and ask Mrs. Roderigue precisely what it is about the Green table that’s so worthy of emulation. Even Candace, using a stolen Exacto knife to carve her jailed boyfriend’s name in ornate letters, memorializing her affection for a juvenile delinquent and thereby defacing school property, comes closer to fulfilling the implied objectives of an art course.

  “So, how come you broke up with Zack Minty?” Candace asks, once Mrs. Roderigue has returned her attention to the creative efforts of the favored Red table.

  “We kind of broke up with each other,” Tick says, which is true in a way. When she’d told Zack she didn’t want to go out with him anymore, he’d said fine, that he didn’t want to go out with her anymore either. Like, who did she think she was, anyway? He’d called the next day to tell her he already had a new girlfriend, naming a girl who seemed to hate Tick, despite their never having exchanged a word.

  “I think you should get back together with him,” Candace says, apparently uninhibited by knowing virtually nothing about the relationship. “I mean, he still really loves you.”

  Tick swallows hard, tries to concentrate on her snake, which suddenly feels wrong in some way she can’t exactly put her finger on. True, it is looking less like an eel, which is good, but there’s something definitely wrong about its proportions, as if the lower part of its body were drawn to one scale and the upper, including its head, to another. She wishes she could justify this as perspective. A lot of bad art, it seems to her, gets excused as intentional.

  “I doubt it,” Tick says, resorting to the absolute, unadorned truth this time.

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