Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  The odd thing was that before she went to the Vineyard, she hadn’t known what to do about Zack. Summer was one thing, but it was much harder to be friendless during the school year when as a friendless person you were constantly on display. Losing Zack wasn’t so bad in itself. At least she didn’t have to wonder every day what kind of mood he was in, whether he’d be nice or mean, his behavior about as predictable as the wind. So being without a boyfriend was okay, even though she doubted she’d find another anytime soon. What worried her more than losing Zack was losing his friends, the whole Zack network. While they were together, his friends had been her friends, but as soon as they broke up, she discovered the truth: that they were his friends, every one of them. Not that they disliked her. She suspected that a couple of them actually liked her better than they liked Zack, or would’ve been happy to remain neutral, had the rules permitted any such thing. But they didn’t, and Zack wasn’t someone you wanted for an enemy. Right away she’d started getting calls from his friends urging her to get back together with him, hinting that she wouldn’t be welcome in their group otherwise. A couple of the boys sounded almost afraid, like they couldn’t imagine the kind of recklessness she was contemplating. One of the girls even volunteered that Zack might be willing to break up with this new girlfriend if Tick came back, maybe, though it wasn’t for sure.

  Until Martha’s Vineyard she’d seriously considered doing so, but now she was pretty sure she couldn’t. After being with a boy who actually liked her, she was willing to be friendless, at least for now. What saddened her was the cost of this new knowledge. Could it be that getting the taste of affection, so sweet and new, from somebody who wasn’t your father or mother, meant that she’d have to forgo other companionship entirely?

  “I mean, he totally does not care about Heather,” Candace is saying. “You should, like, see the way he treats her.”

  “I know how he treats her,” Tick says, studying her snake critically. What it needs, she decides, is a tongue. “It’s how he used to treat me.”

  “He’s changed,” Candace says, looking at her now. She’s stopped carving entirely and is gathering up her things in anticipation of the bell. Her sudden interest in Tick’s romantic life confirms what Tick has been fearing: that Candace is befriending her because she was specifically commissioned by Zack to sound her out on the subject of a possible reconciliation. Tick has seen blessedly little of him since school began, but that’s because of football practice, which he has to attend every day after classes. If it weren’t for that, he would have been tormenting her nonstop. The other thing saving her is that Zack screwed up so badly last year that he was booted out of the high-track courses. Otherwise he’d be sitting right behind her in chemistry and American lit, and she’d be feeling the weight of his wounded, angry eyes all day long.

  Now that Tick is sure about Candace’s motives it angers her, and before she can consider the wisdom of doing so, she says, “I’ve changed, too. The biggest change is that I don’t like him anymore.”

  Candace’s response to this is to let loose the loudest scream Tick has ever heard. John Voss, at the other end of the table, actually looks up from his egg. Something metallic rattles onto the floor next to Tick’s clog, and Candace, howling oh-my-God-oh-my-God, holds up her hand, which is gushing blood from a deep gash that extends from her thumbnail almost to her palm. The blood is everywhere—down her arm, in the elaborate grooves she’s been carving in the back of her chair, even a small pink drop on Tick’s snake. Looking at all the blood, Tick feels her own left arm begin to throb the way it always does in anticipation of hypodermic needles at the doctor’s office, and at horror movies when somebody gets slashed.

  Candace, still screaming, wraps her thumb in the palm of her other hand and bends rapidly back and forth at the waist like one of those mechanical birds sipping water at an imaginary pool. There’s blood down the front of her unicorn shirt now, and the cowards at the Green table have all gotten up and moved away to the back wall.

  Tick’s left arm now hurts so bad that she’s beginning to feel light-headed, and the whole room takes on an odd sheen, blurred at the edges like a television dream sequence. She leans forward, resting her forehead on the cool metal table and listening to Candace shriek until another voice, sounding far off, joins in and a new pair of feet appear next to Candace’s. Tick identifies them as Mrs. Roderigue’s, and way off she hears the woman shouting, “Take your hand away so I can see, child.” And then, “Who did this to you?”

  Now Candace is screaming, “I’m-sorry-oh-my-God-I’m-so-sorry.” Tick, confused, concludes that Candace must be talking to her, apologizing for acting as Zack Minty’s go-between. “It’s okay,” Tick says, or imagines saying, probably, since she’s unable to lift her head from the table to speak. In any case, it’s what she would like to say, because she’s the kind of person who forgives easily, who in fact cannot bear to think of a person wanting to be forgiven and having that forgiveness withheld, and so the words “it’s okay,” spoken or unspoken, ring in her ears along with the rush of her own blood. When it seems the pain in her left arm can’t get any worse without the arm itself exploding, the pain peaks and then everything gradually becomes vague. Tick, now sweating and shivering, fears that for things to right themselves again, she’ll have to cross back through that territory of pain, and the truth is she’d rather not. She’d rather pass out.

  Only when she opens her eyes does she realize she’s been clenching them tightly shut for some time. With her forehead still on the cool edge of the table, she has a view of the floor at her feet. There, between her right foot and her backpack, is the bloody Exacto knife. Candace’s screaming has stopped, and there’s no sign of her pink Adidases. Mrs. Roderigue, who seems to have gone away somewhere and come back again, is urging Tick to raise her head, and this time she discovers that she can. She’s even more surprised to see that the room has emptied and that all the kids are clustered out in the hall, peering in at her. According to the clock on the wall, ten minutes have passed. Mrs. Roderigue is running her thumb along the metal edge of Candace’s chair, apparently trying to locate a surface sharp enough to slice a kid’s thumb open to the bone. The principal, Mr. Meyer, elbows his way into the room, then comes over and puts his hand on Tick’s forehead.

  “I wouldn’t get too close,” Mrs. Roderigue says. “She looks like she might puke.”

  Mr. Meyer reacts visibly to this intelligence, though Tick can’t tell for sure whether he’s startled by that possibility or by his teacher’s crudeness.

  “I think I’m okay,” Tick says, in case it’s the former that’s worrying her principal. “What happened?”

  “You fainted, angel,” Mr. Meyer said, making her like him for the very first time. “The sight of all that—”

  He breaks off his thought, worried perhaps that the word “blood” might have the same effect as the sight of blood. “You want me to call your mom and dad?” He catches himself as soon as he says this, probably remembering that her parents are separated.

  Tick, wiggling the fingers of her left hand, repeats that she thinks she’s going to be all right. The fingers now feel like they’re being poked by a thousand needles, but otherwise there’s no pain, which means she’s going to come out of this in a new place, which is a relief, not having to enter that same dark tunnel of pain again.

  After instructing her to remain where she is, Mr. Meyer takes Mrs. Roderigue aside. Tick is still able to overhear small snatches of their conversation, Mrs. Roderigue explaining how Candace told her she’d sliced her thumb open. Now it’s Mr. Meyer’s turn to examine the back of the chair, turning it upside down, running his own thumb along the metal surfaces tentatively, as if he isn’t sure whether he really wants to solve this mystery or not. Tick reaches under the table, as if for her backpack, picks up the Exacto knife, and slips it into one of the open side pouches.

  When she straightens up, shouldering her backpack, Mr. Meyer takes her gently by the elbow and guides
her toward the door. There she catches a glimpse of Zack Minty out in the corridor and a wave of nausea passes over her quickly, her knees wobbly for a second, and Mr. Meyer catches her around the waist. Normally Tick hates being touched, especially by adults, but this time she’s grateful.

  “The nurse’s room for you, young lady,” Mr. Meyer says, steering her in the right direction. It occurs to Tick then that she and Candace have sink duty this week and they haven’t done their cleanup, which Mrs. Roderigue has made clear is the most important part of the whole artistic process. When she glances back into the room, she sees Mrs. Roderigue standing at the Blue table, as if to suggest that it’s safe to visit Blue now that its artists are all gone. She’s looking at Tick’s snake with an expression of extreme distaste.


  THE DONUT SHOP in Empire Falls had always been one of Max Roby’s favorite places because of its smoking policy, which was, “Go ahead. See if we care.” Miles wondered what his father was going to do next year when all Maine restaurants would by law become smoke-free. For the present there was still a cigarette machine by the door, and with only eight booths and a counter with half a dozen stools there could be no nonsmoking section, which pleased the old man even more than being allowed to light up. Max was the kind of guy who created his own atmosphere, and he took particular pleasure, it seemed to Miles, in knowing that other people had to breathe his air when he was done with it. Actually, smoking was only one manifestation of this phenomenon. Max had always enjoyed breaking his own containment. He liked to stand close to people when he talked; and when he was eating, food had a way of becoming airborne. Now, at seventy, he’d developed a sweet tooth. He would’ve eaten chocolate bars if his teeth had allowed it, but half of them were gone and the other half loose, so he settled for sugar donuts. By the time Max was finished with one, Miles, who usually just drank coffee, often found his entire shirtfront dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

  Many years ago, Miles had asked his mother what had attracted her to a man with such disgusting personal habits, and she’d replied that his father hadn’t always been this way, certainly not as a young man. Miles loved his mother and would’ve liked to believe her, but it wasn’t easy. All her life she’d been a woman who, once she gave her heart, would ignore anything dismaying, but Miles suspected she’d learned to overlook Max entirely in order to stay married to him. Still, by the time Miles asked, she was clearly mortified by her choice of a mate. “You’d never guess it to look at him now,” she told her son, “but your father had the most infectious smile.”

  Infectious Miles could believe. Like most kids, when Miles and his brother were growing up, they brought a great variety of illnesses home from school—chicken pox, mumps, measles, routine colds and flus. David proved particularly susceptible to whatever was going around, and stayed sick longer than Miles did, but neither boy could be described as sickly, except when their father brought something home and shared it with them. Then everyone but Max himself went down for the mandatory eight count. Whatever the virus, it became several degrees more deadly in his pulmonary system until he finally reintroduced it into the atmosphere by means of his explosive sneezes. Max regarded covering his mouth as irrational behavior. The way he looked at it, you might as well cover your ass with your hand when you farted. See how much good that did.

  Miles watched his father light a fresh cigarette with his old one before crushing out the butt in the ashtray he’d managed to half fill in twenty minutes. Miles studied his father’s mouth, trying to imagine a full set of white teeth and that infectious grin, but it was no use. One of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, Miles had long believed, was what women found attractive about certain men. Apparently women all over the world wanted to have sex with Mick Jagger, or at least had wanted to once upon a time. Others had not found Max Roby repulsive. Miles couldn’t help admiring women for their ability to dismiss the evidence of their senses. If that’s what explained it. If it wasn’t simply that from time to time they were unaccountably drawn to the grotesque.

  Outside, it was drizzling again, as it had the day before, just hard enough to make painting impossible. Half an hour earlier, Miles, heading back to the restaurant, had seen his father sitting on one of the benches outside the Empire Towers, talking to an old woman who seemed to be wondering what she’d done to deserve his company and how she might avoid making the same mistake in the future. “Just keep driving,” Miles had said out loud, even as he pulled the Jetta over and tooted the horn. No good deed, he reminded himself as Max hopped up from the bench and came toward him across the newly seeded lawn, goes unpunished.

  Nor would this one, Miles added to himself, studying his father across the booth. “You’ve got crumbs in your beard, Dad,” he pointed out. “Did you know that?” Max shaved only every third or fourth day, and he never ironed the clothes he abandoned in the communal dryers of the Towers complex until one of the other residents removed and returned them. The result was a web of crazy pleats and wrinkles in everything he wore.

  “So what?” the old man wanted to know, drawing in another lungful of smoke, then expelling it off to the side in deference to Miles, who didn’t smoke. As if the air weren’t blue all around them. As if Miles and David hadn’t smoked the equivalent of a pack a day since they were babies whenever their father was around.

  “You look like an idiot is what,” Miles told him. “People are going to take one look at you and conclude you’re as senile as Father Tom.” Actually, next to Max, Father Tom looked positively elegant.

  Max appeared to consider this possibility for a full beat before dismissing it. “You should let me help you out with the church,” he said, reminded of this desire by Miles’s reference to the old priest. Painting the church was a subject Miles considered closed and Max considered wide-open. “I did paint houses for forty years, you know. I’m supposed to go down to the Keys in another month. How do you expect me to do that if I don’t have any money?”

  “I don’t think helping me paint is a good idea, Dad,” Miles said. “Last month you fell off a barstool. I don’t want you falling off any ladders.”

  “That’s different,” his father explained. “I was drunk.”

  “Right,” Miles said. “As I’m sure you’ll be when you fall off the ladder.”

  His father nodded agreeably, and if Miles hadn’t known better he’d have sworn Max had given in.

  But when the old man exhaled this time, he didn’t turn his head.

  “If I had a few bucks in my pocket, I wouldn’t have to hit you up all the time, you know.”

  The waitress appeared, refilled their coffee cups, and departed again in one fluid motion, suggesting to Miles that she was dead set against lingering in Max Roby’s proximity.

  “Did you hear what I said?” his father wanted to know.

  “I heard you, Dad,” Miles answered, emptying a packet of sweetener into his coffee. “But you keep forgetting that I’m painting St. Cat’s for free.”

  His father shrugged. “That doesn’t mean you can’t pay me.”

  “Yes, it does, Dad,” Miles said. “That’s precisely what it means.”

  The last thing Miles wanted was Max working alongside him at the church. Every time Max saw Father Mark, he’d rag him about how cheap Catholics were; he reasoned that since the Vatican was rich, all priests, by virtue of being employed by the Vatican, could write checks at will. How could the church have all those millions stashed away and not be able to afford to pay two poor house painters in Empire Falls, Maine? That’s what he’d want Father Mark to explain. Actually, the question would be rhetorical, since Max would allow Father Mark about two seconds before explaining how the church operated this scam. Every week, he’d argue, you collect money from people who don’t know any better than to give it to you, then you put it in a bank halfway around the world where nobody from Empire Falls, Maine, is likely to look for it, much less find it. If anybody ever asks you for part of it back—say, to have your o
wn damn church painted—you tell them the money’s all gone, that you’re as poor as they are, that you gave the money in question to the bishop, who gave it to the cardinal, who gave it to the pope. “In my next life,” Max would conclude, “that’s who I want to be. The pope. And I’ll do the same thing he does. I’ll keep all the goddamn money.” Miles enjoyed scripting scenes like this, mostly because doing so helped him to avoid them in reality.

  “If you paid me for work,” continued Max, whose rhetoric was more sophisticated than you might expect from a man with food in his beard, “I wouldn’t have to feel worthless. There’s no law says old people have to feel worthless all the while, you know. You paid me, I’d have some dignity.”

  Now it was Miles’s turn to nod and smile agreeably. “I think the dignity ship set sail a long time ago, Dad.”

  Max grinned, then finished stirring his coffee and used his spoon to point at his son, who felt a couple stray drops of coffee fleck his shirtfront. “You’re trying to hurt my feelings,” his father said knowingly, “but you can’t.”

  Miles dabbed a wet paper napkin on the spots. “Besides, Dad,” he said, “anytime you feel like an infusion of dignity, you can come down to the restaurant and wash dishes for a while.”

  “That’s your idea of dignity? Coop your old man up in that little room with no windows for hours, washing dishes for minimum wage? Half of which goes to the government?”

  Which Max would do, eventually, when he got needy enough. Miles was in no hurry to have him give in, either, since the old man was a careless, resentful worker. In his opinion any dish that came out of the Hobart was clean by definition, no matter if it was stained yellow with egg yolk. He hated, even more than the claustrophobic room, Miles’s refusal to pay him under the table. He reckoned that if you could paint a whole house under the table—and he had, all his working life—then you ought to be able to wash a few dishes under there too. In Max’s view, Grace had raised their son to be morally fastidious just to spite him. Had he foreseen such moral inflexibility, he’d have taken more of a personal interest in the boy’s education, but unfortunately he hadn’t noticed until it was too late. His other son, David, had more give to him, thank God.

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