Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “You see, Jimmy, I asked my son to let me help him paint our old church, so I’d have the money to go down to the Keys, but for some reason he won’t hire me. I can still climb like a monkey, too.”

  Having slid a five-dollar bill onto the table, Miles stood to go. “You’re sure you don’t want a lift home, Dad? I’m not coming back for you, so don’t bother calling me at the restaurant.”

  “I don’t intend to call you,” his father assured him. “Besides, Jimmy Minty here can give me a lift in the cruiser.”

  “Actually, that’s against the rules,” Minty said. He was looking even more boxed in now that Miles had vacated his side of the booth. That left him and Max sitting way too close, and he knew how this would look to other people, two men crammed together like that on the same side of a small booth, one of them with crumbs in his beard.

  “Hell, I can understand that,” Max conceded, waving good riddance to Miles and looking like a man who had no intention of moving. “Rules are rules. They may be dumb, and the people you hire to enforce them may be dumber yet, but what can you do? The law’s the law. There’s no law says a man’s own son can’t help him out when he needs it, that’s all I’m saying. Ain’t no law against that.”

  OUTSIDE, Miles got into the car and turned the key in the ignition, determined to ignore the knocking on the window of the donut shop. His father, having made his point, now decided to unmake it, since the truth was that he probably did want a lift somewhere. Besides, he hadn’t hit Miles up for a loan yet. Sitting in the Jetta, pretending not to hear the frantic knocking, Miles supposed he understood his father’s thinking better than Max did himself. The thing to do was put the car in reverse, back out of the parking space and drive off. Teach the old man a lesson. Maybe because he was grateful to Max for giving Jimmy Minty such a hard time, he gave up the pretense and acknowledged hearing the knocking on the window. He was immediately glad that he did, for the scene framed in the window was priceless. In order to rap on the glass, Max had to lean across the booth in such a way that his moist, fragrant armpit was practically covering the policeman’s face. Miles couldn’t help but smile. He was grateful for his father’s existence, just as Minty had told him he should be. Sighing, he waved for Max to come along, which the old man would do, Miles knew, in his own sweet time.

  His feet flat on the floor beside the Jetta’s pedals, Miles felt some give in the metal beneath the worn carpet, which suggested that the rust was eating away at the chassis. Minty was right about that, too; he should’ve sprung for the undercoating. As he watched the two men slide out of the booth, he realized that Jimmy Minty hadn’t been telling the truth about light reflecting off the donut shop window. Everything on the other side of the glass possessed the stark clarity of an Edward Hopper painting, which meant that Jimmy had pretended to be unable to see what had been plainly visible. A silly lie. A lie so small and to so little purpose that it suggested to Miles a way of life, a strategy for confronting the world, and this was further reason—if any was needed—to doubt the truth of everything the man had said inside. As Minty paid the bill at the register and Max bought a pack of cigarettes from the machine, Miles tasted something on the back of his tongue. Too much coffee mingling with stomach acid, probably. Either that or anger mingling with fear. Miles swallowed hard, forcing down whatever it was.

  The two men pushed through the door onto the sidewalk, and Miles noticed that both had acquired toothpicks. “You’re okay, Jimmy,” Miles heard his father say. “I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth. I’d rather have a complete idiot for a son than an ingrate.”

  Instead of getting into the cruiser, Minty came around the Jetta and motioned for Miles to roll down the window. “Take a little walk with me,” he suggested, his voice low, confidential.

  “I really need to get back to the restaurant,” Miles told him.

  “Won’t take a minute.”

  “Go ahead,” Max said. “I’ll just sit here by myself and wait. You go with Jimmy Minty and swap secrets.”

  Miles followed the policeman over to his patrol car, where he rolled the toothpick in his mouth as if considering how to begin. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but we go back a long ways,” he said. “I was going to mention it back inside, but then your old man came back and I didn’t want to worry him.”

  “What is it, Jimmy?”

  “Here’s the deal,” Minty said, working his toothpick. “There’s a lot of dope around town right now. Tell your brother to be careful.”

  Miles felt himself instantly bristle, more at the presumed intimacy than the implied accusation. “Why should David be careful?”

  “Hey. I understand. He’s your brother. I’m just saying.”

  “No, Jimmy. What are you saying?”

  “I’m just … nothing. Forget it. I’m just saying. Word to the wise is all.”

  The toothpick still twirled thoughtfully. Miles considered grabbing it and running it through the man’s bottom lip and tying it there in a splintered knot. “And I can’t help thinking how bad your ma would feel if—”

  Rather than punch an armed cop in broad daylight in the middle of Empire Avenue, Miles turned on his heel and strode back to the Jetta. The suddenness of this movement apparently caught his father by surprise as he was rummaging through the Jetta’s glove box. This discovery had the unintended effect of sending Miles back to Jimmy Minty, who hadn’t moved. “Look,” he said, “you don’t know the first thing about my mother, okay, so don’t bring her up in any more conversations.”

  “Hey—”

  “No. Shut up and listen, Jimmy,” Miles said, feeling his fury rise in his throat—the taste was anger, after all, not fear—and the blood pounding in his cheeks. “You … didn’t … know … her. Say it for me, so I know you understand.”

  Jimmy Minty’s face had gone pale. “Hey, okay. I didn’t really know your mother.”

  “Fine,” Miles said, some of the rage draining out of him, replaced by the knowledge that he’d overreacted. “Terrific.”

  “You shouldn’t tell me to shut up, Miles,” Minty said. “Not out here in public like this. This uniform entitles me to some respect.”

  “You’re right,” Miles admitted, flushed with shame yet unwilling to surrender his anger. “You’re right, and I’m sorry. Just don’t pretend you knew my mother.”

  “Hey, I thought she was a great lady. That’s all I was saying—” But he must have seen Miles’s color rising again, because he stopped. “Your brother should be careful is all I’m saying, okay? Everybody knows he’s growing marijuana out there in—”

  “See?” Miles said. “That’s where you’re wrong. Everybody does not know that. I don’t know that, for instance.” Which was true. He didn’t know it, not for sure.

  “How come you’re getting so bent outta shape, Miles? I try to do you and your brother a favor—”

  “No,” Miles interrupted him, feeling suddenly calm. “I don’t believe that. I have no idea what you’re trying to do, Jimmy. I don’t know why I’m suddenly seeing you everywhere I turn lately. I don’t know why my name should come up in your conversation with Mrs. Whiting at the courthouse, either …”

  Minty squinted at this, then glanced away.

  “But I do know you aren’t looking out for my well-being. That much I’m sure of. So from now on, if you want to do me a favor, stay away from me and my family. That goes for your kid too. There are lots of girls in Empire Falls. As far as I’m concerned he can choose any one he likes. There’s just one he can’t have, and that’s Tick.”

  A sly smile began to steal over the policeman’s features, and Miles turned away, fearing the temptation to remove it.

  “How come you don’t like me, Miles?” Minty called after him. “I’ve always wondered why.”

  Miles answered without turning around. “Call it the habit of a lifetime.”

  Back in the Jetta, Miles waited to turn the key in the ignition until Minty’s cruiser disappeared down the avenue.

>   “God, what a prize dunce he was,” Max recalled fondly.

  “He wasn’t stupid, Dad. He was sneaky and mean and envious and dangerous. He still is.”

  “Don’t get mad at me,” his father said. “It’s Jimmy Minty you’re mad at. I’m just a useless old man.”

  Miles put the car in reverse. “Did you find what you were looking for in the glove box?”

  “I borrowed ten dollars,” his father said sheepishly. “I was going to mention it, but you never gave me the chance.”

  “Right.”

  “I was,” Max insisted, perhaps truthfully. He did sometimes tell the truth if it suited his purpose. “If you’d hire me, I wouldn’t have to be broke all the while. If I could make some money, you’d get rid of me for the winter.”

  Before pulling out, Miles craned his neck forward to look down Empire Avenue, to make sure no traffic was coming. When he and his mother used to walk downtown for a Saturday matinee at the old Bijou Theater, the sidewalks had been so crowded, the street so clogged with vehicles, that pedestrians had to turn sideways to pass by one another. They crossed the street between cars backed up for blocks from the traffic light. Now Empire Avenue was empty all the way down to the old shirt factory (NO TRESPASSING WITHOUT PERMISSION) where Miles’s mother had worked so they could afford the rent on the little house on Long Street, in the dark upper bedroom of which, after her cancer returned the final time, she’d screamed her agony so loudly the neighbors could hear her. Of course Jimmy Minty had heard those screams. Miles himself had heard them all the way down in Portland, in his small Catholic college, and hearing them he’d hurried home, even though she’d begged him not to.

  Looking down the deserted street, Miles couldn’t help feeling that everyone in town must have heard her terrible screams. His brother, a mere boy, had fled into the bottle, his father to the Florida Keys. It was almost possible to believe her screams were responsible for the mass exodus that by now had lasted more than two decades, a panicky flight from her pain that emptied out the town.

  “You can drop me off at Callahan’s,” Max suggested.

  Miles blinked, then turned to stare at his father. “You mean Callahan’s right there?” he said, pointing at the red-brick tavern across the street, his mother-in-law’s place.

  “Right.”

  “For that you wanted a lift?”

  “Maybe I wanted to spend some time with my son. Or is there some law against that, too?”

  Miles sighed. The old man was truly without conscience.

  “How come you’ve got a Martha’s Vineyard real estate guide in there?” his father wondered, pointing at the glove box.

  “Is there a law against that?” Miles said.

  Max ignored this. “Be just like you to move to some island and leave me here without a job. I ever wanted to see you, I’d have to swim.”

  “I’m not going anywhere, Dad. You said so yourself,” Miles reminded him. “It was just a week’s vacation.”

  “You could’ve taken me along, you know. I might like a vacation myself. Did that ever occur to you?”

  Miles pulled across the street into Callahan’s parking lot

  When his father started to get out, Miles said, “Dad, you’ve still got crumbs in your beard.”

  “So what?” said Max, closing the door on the possibility of enlightenment.

  CHAPTER 6

  “I DON’T THINK Mrs. Roderigue likes my snake,” Tick confessed to her father.

  It was a Thursday in mid-September, and on Thursday nights she and Miles always had dinner together, since Janine usually worked the desk at the fitness club until eight and Tick refused to eat with the Silver Fox. At the Empire Grill, Thursday nights also meant Chinese. Tonight David had on special something called Twice-Cooked Noodles with Scallops in Hoisin Sauce. His brother’s more adventurous concoctions always made Miles smile in memory of old Roger Sperry, whose favorite special had always been Deep-Fried Haddock with Tartar Sauce, Whipped Potatoes with Beef Gravy, a side of Apple Sauce and Parker House Rolls. His theory of noodles, which Roger didn’t often put into practice, was to leave them in boiling water until you were sure they were cooked; then you wouldn’t need to cook them again. It was also his firm conviction that there wasn’t much point in fighting a world war if you were going to come home and start serving things in hoisin sauce—whatever that was. That was the sort of thing you’d do if you lost the damn war. (Roger would never have made a distinction between the Japanese, with whom we’d been engaged in armed conflict, and the Chinese, with whom we had not.)

  Miles himself had had some doubts about International Nights when his brother first proposed them as part of his plan to attract out-of-town business—something they’d have to do if the restaurant were going to survive the local economy. For a while Friday and Saturday nights didn’t show a profit, but David had correctly predicted that good, cheap ethnic food would eventually attract students and junior faculty from Fairhaven, who would consider the grill’s worn-out, cigarette-burned countertop and wobbly booths “honest” or “retro” or some damn thing. Tonight was only the second Thursday they’d served Chinese—to augment their Friday Italian and Saturday Mexican—and Miles was pleased to see the restaurant nearly full of people, many of them new faces, who seemed willing to entertain the possibility that noodles might benefit from a second cooking. When a brief lull occurred, David turned away from the stove, leaned on his spatula and searched out Miles’s eye, raising an eyebrow. Not bad? Miles nodded. Not bad.

  In fact, tonight it all seemed better than “not bad.” Granted, his first week back from the Vineyard had been tough, but it usually was. Every year he left the island haunted by a profound feeling of personal failure. Was it the island itself that inspired this? Perhaps. More likely it had something to do with Peter and Dawn, who, without intending to, reminded him of who he’d wanted to be when they had all been students together. Of course it was possible that they too were haunted by similar regrets. After all, back when they were undergraduates, Peter had wanted to be a playwright, Dawn a poet. Certainly the way they talked about their profession in television suggested they also wondered if they hadn’t betrayed their original, deeper purpose. Maybe they even indulged the feeling, as Miles sometimes did, that they each must have a double in some parallel universe, happily living the life they’d imagined for themselves in their youth.

  But such self-indulgence was fraudulent. For one thing, Miles couldn’t even be sure anymore if this alternate life was one he’d imagined or just one he’d inherited from his mother’s hopes and wishes. From the time he was a boy, he would look up from a book he was reading to find her quietly studying him. “My little scholar,” she’d say, smiling. Later, in college, he’d been greatly attracted to the exciting life his professors seemed to lead, richly furnished with books and ideas worth arguing over, and he’d thought that maybe his mother was right, that the life of the mind was his own truest destiny. One thing was for sure. He’d never aspired to feeding other professors twice-cooked noodles for a living.

  Over at the counter Charlene was balancing plates up her forearm, and at this distance she might almost have been the girl he’d had a crush on in high school, a girl so womanly at age eighteen that she made Miles, at fifteen, feel about eleven. Looking at her now made it hard for him to claim he’d been an entirely unwilling participant in his own foiled destiny. Yes, he’d been attracted to the life of the mind, and no doubt his mother’s idea of the man she thought he would become had shaped his own image of himself, but when she’d fallen ill and he’d left school to return to Empire Falls and manage the grill for Mrs. Whiting, his doing so had not been entirely altruistic. True, he’d wanted to be near his mother; and yes, his brother was already exhibiting signs of trouble. But he’d also thought of Charlene, calculating that the three years’ age difference wouldn’t matter so much now, at twenty-one and twenty-four. Though he told Mrs. Whiting he wanted to mull over her offer, by the time he’d hung up the phone h
e’d already decided. That summer Charlene’s first husband had run off and left her, and Miles had thought maybe … just maybe. What he had no way of knowing then was that by the time he returned to Empire Falls, Charlene would already be engaged to husband number two.

  No, he certainly had not been an unwilling participant. And, more to the point, if given an opportunity to rewrite the script, he would not be inclined to do so. At least not tonight, in this restaurant that would one day be his, sharing a booth with his daughter, whose destiny would not be tied to Empire Falls—not if he had anything to say about it. That his mother had believed the same thing about his own destiny was vaguely disconcerting, but tonight he couldn’t help feeling fortunate. For the first time in a decade, business was looking up. David appeared to have banished the worst of his demons. Tick, it seemed, would survive the divorce. There was much to be thankful for, even if the balance of things remained too precarious to inspire confidence, so on nights like this one his life seemed almost … almost enough.

  “BUT HERE’S THE THING,” Tick was saying, using her fork as a baton to emphasize a point about her art teacher. Miles, studying the fork, was grateful that, unlike her grandfather, Tick was able to demonstrate ideas without flinging food. “What if she did like it? That’d be even worse. I mean, if she liked it, then I’d wonder what was wrong with it.”

  Miles tried to suppress a smile but couldn’t. His daughter’s grasp of adult situations often staggered him. In this instance, she understood completely what the endorsement of a fool was worth. Miles had gone to high school with Doris Roderigue—Doris Flynn, back then—and he knew her mind had fused shut sometime during Catholic grade school. Nothing had happened since she was twelve that did anything except reinforce the convictions she already held. As a condition for keeping her job, the school district insisted that she attend summer school in Farmington, but these classes did little to shake the woman’s defiant convictions, which she proudly maintained were uncorrupted by the university.

 
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