Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “I’d let you hire me at the restaurant if I could come out and work the counter now and then,” Max said. “There’s nothing to flipping a burger, you know. And I like talking to people.”

  “I’d have to run you through the Hobart first,” Miles told him. “Rinse some of the crumbs out of your beard. You don’t seem to understand that people come into the Empire Grill to eat, and you’re a walking appetite suppressant.”

  “I may be sempty,” his father continued without missing a beat, “but I can still climb like a monkey.”

  Back to painting the church again. The old man was nimble, Miles had to admit, both of foot and of conversation. Miles had given up trying to corner him long ago.

  Max’s persistence about the church was curious, though. Thirty years ago, when Father Tom had hired another contractor to paint St. Catherine’s, his father had vowed never to set foot on the grounds again. Of course he hadn’t set foot inside for a decade anyway, leaving his wife and son (David wasn’t yet born) to attend services. The way Max saw it, though, was that everything his wife and son did, they did under his aegis, and the contractor Father Tom had hired was a damn Presbyterian, not even remotely connected to the parish. Maybe Max wasn’t a practicing Catholic himself, but he was married to one who practiced every minute of her life, even though she had it all down pat. Also, he’d bred another little Catholic, and that should have counted, too.

  Still, Max had been true to his pledge, which now caused Miles to wonder. Was his desire to help paint the church some kind of oblique regret? Miles had never known his father to indulge regret in any form, though he’d had more than his fair share of opportunities. After all, Max had made a poor effort at being a father and an even poorer one at being a husband. In truth he wasn’t even much of a house painter. He didn’t like to scrape, and he laid the paint on thick and sloppy. He preferred sitting in bars to painting houses, and so, to proceed from the former to the latter, he liked to work fast, even in circumstances that cried out for deliberation. He painted windows shut and couldn’t be bothered to wipe the glass off with a rag if he’d managed to swipe it with a brush.

  In any other man his age a desire to paint the church might have represented nothing more than a longing to spend some time with his neglected son, but Miles doubted this was the case with Max, who’d never given much evidence of enjoying the company of either of his sons, though he did appreciate anyone who’d spring for a donut so he could put the price of the donut toward a pack of cigarettes. No, the only conclusion that Miles could come to was that old age generally played havoc with your personality. Father Tom, for instance, who had always assigned the hearing of confessions to the junior priests, now, in his dotage, pleaded with Father Mark to let him hear just a few. If the younger priest wasn’t vigilant on Saturday afternoons, he’d look up and find the old priest had disappeared and then would have to hurry across the lawn between the rectory and the church to the dark confessional, where the old man would be patiently awaiting further revelations from his parishioners, curious now, in his old age, about what people were up to, and eager to share what he’d learned. It was from Father Tom that Miles first learned his wife was carrying on with Walt Comeau.

  “I’ll tell you another thing, too. Once I’m up on a ladder, I don’t get scared like some little girl.”

  “Works both ways, Dad,” Miles reminded him. “You can’t hurt my feelings either.”

  “Never meant to,” the old man said, exhibiting a kind of straightforward insincerity that was, in its own way, endearing. “When did you become such a damn sissy about heights, is what I’d like to know? I’m sempty and I can still climb like a monkey. And you’re what?”

  “Forty-two.”

  “Forty-two.” Max stubbed out his cigarette, as if at least the question of his son’s age had been established beyond question. “Forty-two and afraid to climb a stepladder. I fell two damn stories once and I’m not scared.”

  “Finish your coffee, Dad,” Miles said. “I need to get back to the restaurant.”

  “I fell off a scaffold over on Division Street—two damn stories—and landed on my ass in the middle of a rosebush. Try that sometime. That don’t mean I’m afraid to climb a ladder anymore.”

  Outside, a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot, and Miles saw it was Jimmy Minty at the wheel. He could feel the cruiser’s front bumper actually nudge the side of the building, causing the Formica booth, as well as its ashtrays, to shudder. Instead of getting out, Jimmy—in uniform today—just sat there, his lips moving as if in conversation with an invisible companion. Only when he leaned forward to hang up the receiver did it dawn on Miles that he’d been talking into his radio. This made three times in two days that their paths had crossed. Coincidentally. Well, it was possible.

  “I could help you rig the platforms at least,” his father was saying. “That way you’d know you were standing on something solid.”

  “I know how to rig scaffolding, Dad.”

  “I should hope so,” Max said. “I’m the one taught you how, in case you forgot.”

  “I didn’t forget.”

  “I let you help, if you recall. If your mother’d known she’d have had a fit, but I let you help anyway. Now I need some traveling expenses and you tell me to take a hike.”

  “I never said—”

  “I gotta pee,” his father said disgustedly, sliding out of the booth, as if the conversation, not the coffee, had caused this unfortunate need to relieve himself.

  The restroom door had no sooner closed behind Max than Jimmy Minty slipped into the booth, setting his shiny black hat on the table. His red hair was going a little gray at the temples, Miles noticed.

  The waitress set a cup of coffee in front of him. “I wish you wouldn’t run into that wall every time you pull in, Jimmy,” she said. “You scare the hell out of people. One minute they’re drinking coffee and minding their own business, and the next minute you’re parkin’ in the booth with them. It’s not like the side of this damn building’s invisible. The idea is to stop before you get to it.”

  “You need to get a couple of those concrete curbs out there.” Minty smiled. “I bet I’m not the only one who taps that wall, Shirley.”

  “No,” she admitted. “You’re just the only one who hits it every time.”

  When she stepped away, the policeman shrugged. “Hey, Miles. I thought that was your Jetta out there. You should’ve spent the extra for the undercoating. What would it have run you—couple hundred?”

  It never took Jimmy Minty long to turn any conversation to one about money. He particularly liked to draw Miles’s attention to whatever was wrong with any of his possessions, such as rust on the Jetta, of which there was plenty. Miles had long suspected that Jimmy Minty considered him some kind of yardstick by which he might measure his own economic well-being. The oddest thing about this, Miles thought, was that it seemed a direct extension of their childhoods on Long Street. Jimmy Minty had always taken careful inventory of Miles’s belongings, wanting to know how much everything cost and where it was purchased. If they got similar Christmas presents, Jimmy liked to explain why his was better, that it had been purchased smarter and cheaper because his dad knew where to go—even if the toy in question was obviously a cheap knockoff. After detailing the advantages of his present, he’d suggest they switch, just for a while; often, before Jimmy returned it, Miles’s toy would get broken.

  Even thirty years later Miles could still remember the relief he felt when his mother took him out of the public grade school and enrolled him at Sacred Heart, where Jimmy—the family was not Catholic—could not follow. Gradually, though they remained neighbors, the boys’ lives began to drift apart, and by the time they were thrown together again in high school, they had different lives, different friends. Of course, Jimmy’s, as he explained to Miles, were better. After graduation he did a stint in the service while Miles was away at college, and by the time Miles returned to Empire Falls, Jimmy was newly married and
living in Fairhaven. He visited his parents, though, and after Miles and Janine got married he made overtures about striking up their old friendship, something Miles didn’t particularly desire, since the grown-up Jimmy Minty had the same way of taking inventory behind his eyes, only now he was comparing wives. For the last decade, they had seldom seen each other, except in moving vehicles or when Jimmy had a new toy he wanted to show off in the Empire Grill. The last time—a year ago—he’d ordered a steak and then lingered at the counter drinking coffee until Miles deigned to notice the red Camaro parked out front. On any such occasion Jimmy would assure Miles that he was doing all right for himself, despite having been denied opportunities like college. If he kept his nose clean, he didn’t see any reason he shouldn’t be the next chief of police of Empire Falls. His son, Zack, though—he was going to have it made.

  “That your dad I saw with you?” Jimmy wondered now, nodding toward the men’s room.

  “You know it was. You sat right there”— Miles nodded through the window at the cruiser—“staring at us.”

  “The light was reflecting off the glass,” Minty said. “It could’ve been anybody.”

  “Hell of a guess, then.”

  “Sorry about yesterday,” he said, apparently in reference to the young police officer who had interrogated Miles on Long Street. “New kid. Still learning the ropes. Good thing I happened by, though. You talk back to him or something?”

  “Not even remotely.”

  Minty shrugged. “Well, you pissed him off somehow. Good thing I turned up when I did.”

  This second reference to his good fortune, Miles realized, was intended as another chance for Miles to express his gratitude. That he should fail to take advantage of it was visibly disappointing, but Jimmy seemed determined to get over it.

  “Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?” he said. “The old neighborhood?”

  Miles tried to navigate their talk into the calmer waters of generality. “The whole town, for that matter.”

  Jimmy Minty’s surprised, even hurt expression suggested that he considered this indictment of Empire Falls far too sweeping. “I still like it here,” he said. “I can’t help it, I just do. People say there are better places, but I don’t know.” He paused in case Miles wanted to rattle off a list of supposedly better places. “Long Street, though. That’s different. I get called up there all the time these days. Nothing but wife beaters and drug dealers anymore.”

  “Wife beaters aren’t anything new,” Miles reminded him, since Jimmy’s own father, William, had been known to settle marital differences in this fashion.

  Jimmy ignored him. “Hell, the place you were parked out front of is the biggest drug house in town.” He lowered his voice now. “We’ve been monitoring who goes in and out for a while. I guess Officer Pollard thought you were there to make a score.”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling. “Somebody should tell him he’ll have better luck, evidence-wise, if he waits until suspects come out, instead of busting them on the way in.”

  “That’s what I told him. You gotta admit, though, that Jetta of yours does look like a drugmobile.”

  “Really? How’s that?”

  Minty shrugged. “No offense, but it’s the kind of vehicle the owner won’t mind that much if it’s impounded.”

  “I’d mind. It’s the only car I own.”

  Jimmy Minty looked like he could just kick himself. “Damn. I guess I hurt your feelings.”

  “Not at all.” Miles smiled.

  The other man puzzled over how this could be for several full beats. “You want to know a secret?”

  The honest answer to this was no, so Miles said nothing.

  “What you were doing over there yesterday? I do the same thing, sometimes.”

  “What’s that?”

  “You know. Just drive over, sit in the car and try to figure it all out.”

  “All what out?” Miles asked, genuinely curious.

  Minty shrugged. “Life, I guess. The way things turn out. I guess some people would think it’s pretty weird, me ending up a cop.”

  “Not me, Jimmy.”

  Minty studied him carefully, perhaps suspecting an insult. “My dad and all, is what I meant. It’s true. He did slap my mom around a little. That’s what you meant a minute ago, right? And I guess we did have a freezer full of meat out back that wasn’t always taken in season. Shit like that. But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it, even though now, looking back, I can see where he crossed the line. Anyway, a cop’s what I turned out to be, weird or not. God probably had a hand in it, I guess.”

  “I suppose it’s possible.”

  Jimmy nodded. “Take you. If your mother hadn’t got sick when she did, you probably never would have come back here at all, am I right?”

  Miles allowed that this, too, was possible.

  “That’s what I mean. Sometimes I drive over to the old neighborhood and just sit there.” He paused. “I always think about your ma. Pretty awful way for anybody to die.”

  “Can we change the subject?” Miles said.

  “Hell, yeah.” Jimmy Minty straightened up and shook his head. “I don’t know what got me started on all this. Seeing you just sitting there yesterday, I guess, and thinking how we used to be friends. All that water over the dam. How’s that cute little girl of yours?”

  “Good,” Miles told him. “Happier than she’s been in a while.” Since she stopped going out with your son was what Miles didn’t say.

  If Jimmy Minty intuited the omission he gave no sign. “Want to know another secret? I gotta think my Zack’s still a little sweet on her,” he said, letting the words hang in the air between them, as if inviting Miles to betray either enthusiasm or aversion. “Of course, with kids you never know. I told him at the time he should have let her down gentler. Treat people the way you want to be treated, is my motto. You can’t go too far wrong. Not that you can tell kids their age anything.”

  Hearing the men’s room door open behind him, Miles allowed himself a half smile. Few social situations were improved by Max Roby’s participation, but this was one of them.

  “I keep telling him if he doesn’t start paying attention to his grades, no college is going to want him, but no, he’s got all that figured out, just like they all do. Not that I blame him, exactly. He looks at me, and I’m doing all right without college—hell, better than all right, really—so he figures what the hell.”

  Jimmy Minty paused again. “What our kids don’t understand is we want even better for them, not just as good. Am I right?”

  Max’s return spared Miles the necessity of agreeing with him.

  “Jimmy Minty,” said Max, sitting down on the bench seat and forcing the policeman to slide down next to the window. Max looked at him with what appeared to be total bewilderment. “My God, what a stupid kid you were growing up.”

  “Go easy, Dad,” Miles said. “He’s carrying a gun these days.”

  “I just hope he’s smarter than he was back then,” Max said, offering a paw to the policeman. “How the hell are you, Jimmy?”

  Minty looked at the proffered hand as if he doubted Max had washed it in the men’s room, but shook it anyway. “How you doin’, Mr. Roby?”

  Speaking to Miles now, as he and Jimmy Minty shook, Max said, “You remember what a stupid kid he was? My God, it was pitiful. I don’t think I can remember another child so untalented.”

  Minty seemed to want his hand back now, but didn’t know how to get it, and Miles shrugged at him as if to suggest he had no idea what possessed his father to act the way he did.

  “It was enough to make you cry,” Max said, finally letting go of the man’s hand.

  Minty seemed to be weighing the dangers and benefits of asking just what he’d done to warrant such a low opinion.

  “I suppose it should be a lesson to us all,” Max observed. “Never give up on a child. ’Cause even the ones you have to tie their shoes for on their wedding day could sur
prise you and end up gainfully employed.”

  Max, with a face almost beatific, delivered this lesson as if to suggest he meant the whole thing as a compliment, causing the officer to knit his brow in confusion. He was almost sure he was being insulted, but not quite.

  Miles, of course, had often seen his father smile and chuckle and slap men on the back, continuing to insult them until they finally had no choice but to punch him. Only the smartest popped him right away. Once Max had established that whatever he said was all in good fun, it was hard to break free of that context. Miles also knew that the target of his father’s ridicule often turned on a dime, so he wasn’t surprised when it did so now.

  “My son here is the opposite,” Max explained. “Always at the top of his class … straight A’s right through school. You’d have sworn he’d go places.”

  Miles sighed, resigned to his inevitable drubbing. Before, Max had insulted Jimmy Minty while looking at Miles. Now, insulting his son, he was, of course, speaking directly at the previous object of his scorn.

  “There’s nothing harder to figure than a kid,” Max was telling him, as if he’d spent the better part of a long, largely contemplative life studying this question. “I’d have bet that Miles here would have grown up to have a good heart. If his father was on his uppers and needed a hand and asked his own son for a job, he’d help pronto. But apparently not.”

  “You about ready to go, Dad?”

  “No, I’m talking to Jimmy Minty. Go ahead if you want.”

  Miles caught the eye of the waitress and signaled for the check.

  “Jimmy here may not have been gifted like you, but I bet you he understands what I’m saying.”

  Minty’s brow furrowed even deeper at this second reference to his intellectual limitations, even though Max had safely located these in the past.

 
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