Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  In Bill Roderigue, a local insurance man, she’d found her ideal mate, an infinitely patient fellow who never seemed to weary of her sense of thwarted superiority. Miles, after serving several terms on the school board, knew most of Tick’s teachers and made it a matter of policy not to speak ill of them, regardless of how ignorant and narrow-minded they were, but with Doris Roderigue he was often tempted to make an exception. During the last five years he’d run up against her on numerous occasions—about curriculum, about books held in the library, about staffing—but since the day he’d invited her, in public meeting, to explain a single difference between the work of Andrew Wyeth and Jackson Pollock and then used her startled confusion to suggest an explanation for why art history was not included in her courses, she’d steered clear of him. According to Tick, the woman was steering clear of her as well, by putting her at the table composed of the least motivated students in the class and then pretending the table didn’t exist.

  “Keep in mind,” Miles reminded her, “it’s not you she objects to, it’s me. She probably thinks I’m trying to get her fired.”

  “Are you?”

  “Teachers can’t be fired unless they molest their students,” Miles told her. “Doris hasn’t been molesting anybody, has she?”

  But Tick had turned her attention back to her dinner, pushing the ingredients around on her plate thoughtfully, as if considering a better, more artistic use for food.

  “Has she made any specific criticisms of your snake?”

  “That’s the thing,” Tick said happily, again wielding her fork as a baton. Lately all her statements were preceded by variations on “the thing.” Here’s the thing. That’s the thing. The thing is. “I think what she doesn’t like about my snake is that it reminds her of real snakes.”

  “That’s one possibility,” Miles agreed. The other that occurred to him was more Freudian, though he didn’t think his teenage daughter needed to start worrying about sexual repression just yet.

  “Which is interesting,” Tick went on, “because it means that the better I draw the snake, the more it will remind her of what she hates, and the worse grade I’ll get. Hence”—this word was another of Tick’s new rhetorical devices—“if I want a good grade, my strategy should be to draw the snake badly.”

  “Or not draw a snake,” Miles felt compelled to point out.

  “Except our assignment was to draw our most vivid dream, and that’s my most vivid dream.”

  “I understand,” Miles said. “But you mistrust your teacher’s judgment about the merits of your snake, correct?”

  “Correct.”

  “Hence”—Miles grinned—“you might as well distrust the wisdom of the assignment, right? Draw her an angel. Mrs. Roderigue would be cheered to think you’re dreaming of angels.” This was no guess, either. Doris Roderigue, who’d never seen the sense of separating church and state, openly encouraged work with religious themes.

  “But I’m dreaming of snakes.”

  “What you’re dreaming about is none of her business,” Miles pointed out, a little surprised by his growing anger at the thought of trusting the development of his daughter, or any smart kid for that matter, to the likes of Doris Roderigue.

  “Want to know what your real problem is?” said Charlene, who had passed their booth several times during this conversation and apparently overheard enough to feel qualified to contribute. Charlene hadn’t been a small-town waitress all her life for nothing. She entered into the conversations of diners with both confidence and a sense of entitlement. Last spring David and Miles had each suggested this might not be a good idea with their new evening clientele, especially with the professors, who probably weren’t accustomed to having their thinking clarified by waitresses. Nor were they likely to tip anyone who’d belittled their logic. Charlene had briefly considered the wisdom of this advice, but in the end rejected it. For one thing, she said, having listened to their conversations, many of the professors badly needed a little clarification. For another, she was confident that despite their carefully trimmed beards, their pressed chinos and tweed jackets, college professors tipped in the same fashion as other men—according to cup size. She was doing very well by them, thanks all the same. “Your real problem,” she told Tick, “is that you’re dreaming instead of eating. Shall we let your father in on your secret?”

  “The thing is”—Tick began, pointing the tines of her fork at Charlene, who surprised both father and daughter by snatching the fork and pointing it back at Tick, who leaned away in mock fear.

  “And don’t give me ‘the thing is.’ ”

  “What secret?” Miles said.

  Charlene handed the fork back to Tick, then put her hands on her hips and regarded him as you would a favored pet, perhaps a dog that’s found a place in your heart even though you’ve owned other, smarter dogs. “The purpose of this whole conversation has been to distract you from the obvious fact that Tick isn’t eating her dinner. Again.”

  In addition to feeling free to enter into the conversations of her customers, Charlene, a full-service waitress, never shirked from reminding people that there was no excuse for wasting good food when other people were going hungry. She was particularly vigilant with Tick, who after her checkup last spring was declared underweight. Not that Tick was the only one whose eating habits drew Charlene’s notice and comment. She’d been on Miles’s case for years, pointing out his tendency to pick listlessly at things instead of sitting down to a proper meal. Over the years he’d fallen into the classic restaurateur’s trap of eating his mistakes—the extra order of fries, the under- or overcooked burger—and not just when he was hungry but whenever they occurred. Tonight, for instance, that bowl of David’s bisque, simply because it finished off the pot. It was Charlene’s opinion that if Miles could bring himself to toss out every stray french fry that fell onto the counter, he’d weigh no more than his brother, David, who was gaunt and sinewy.

  “It’s not nice to tell a person’s secrets, Charlene.” Tick frowned. “I don’t go around telling your secrets.”

  “That shows you’re smart,” Charlene said.

  “She hasn’t done that bad a job,” Miles said weakly, indicating Tick’s plate. True, she’d flattened out her food, artfully carving out an area in the middle to suggest that where there had once been food, there now was none. Still, Miles guessed that at least a third of the portion David had served her was gone.

  “No, Miles,” Charlene said. “You’re the one who hasn’t done such a bad job. You ate your own bisque and for the last fifteen minutes you’ve been picking at Tick’s dinner. Don’t tell me you haven’t, either, because I’ve been watching you.”

  Well, it was true Miles had been picking at his daughter’s food a little—surprised, as always, by how tasty David’s specials were.

  “I can’t help it if I’m not hungry, Charlene,” Tick said, pushing her plate away now that there was no point in continuing the charade. “It’s not a person’s fault if they’re not hungry.”

  Charlene pushed the plate back in front of her. “Yes, it is,” she said. “That’s exactly whose fault it is. Kate Moss is yesterday’s news, kid. Eat.”

  When she was gone, Tick speared a small hoisin-covered scallop and bit it in half, surrendering a half-guilty grin to her father.

  “Charlene has secrets?” Miles said hopefully. It pleased him that she’d been watching him, hinting as it did at the possibility—admittedly remote—of an affection that transcended their long friendship. She’d been between boyfriends for some time, and Miles’s divorce would soon be final, so maybe. And for years she’d been claiming that Miles was exactly the sort of man she’d fall in love with if she had any sense at all—a good man, straight and true, who, with the slightest encouragement would love her all the days of his life. So again, maybe.

  Unfortunately, Charlene had also admitted, even after four failed marriages, her abiding preference for bad men whose insides were all twisted up in knots, and who cleared o
ut the minute the going got tough. They had fast cars and drove them recklessly, and this was something she actually liked about them. There was no telling what would happen if she ever hooked up with a man like Miles, but she suspected she’d end up being mean to him, probably even meaner than Janine had been, which was going some. “I just don’t think I could go through life at your speed, Miles,” she told him once. “Don’t you ever want to just put the pedal down to the floor and just see what it feels like?” Therefore, probably not.

  “Everybody has secrets except you, Daddy,” Tick was saying.

  Miles considered this, then said, “What makes you think I don’t have a few?”

  His daughter didn’t answer right away. “It’s not like you don’t have any,” she explained, for once leaving her fork at rest. “It’s just that everybody figures them out.”

  “I think you’re just repeating what your mother always says about me.”

  “I’m repeating what everybody says about you. Because it’s true. I’m more like Mom,” she added somberly, as if this were something she wasn’t particularly proud of. Since he and Janine had filed for divorce, Tick had begun cataloging her differences and similarities to each of her parents, perhaps thinking this genetic road map might make her own destiny more navigable. “I’ll be good at keeping secrets. If I cheated on my husband, nobody would ever know.”

  Miles opened his mouth, then shut it again, wondering as he often did if there was another sixteen-year-old like this one anywhere else in the world. “Tick,” he finally said.

  “I didn’t say I’d cheat on my husband,” she added. “I just said I can keep a secret.”

  Before Miles could respond, the bell above the front door tinkled and Janine materialized in the doorway, as if summoned by her daughter’s allusion. Without pausing for a moment, she headed right for them through the crowded restaurant. Tick, also without turning around in the booth, seemed to know that her mother had appeared, and she slid over next to the window to make room.

  “We weren’t expecting you for another hour, at least,” Miles said when Janine slid into the booth, pulled her sweatshirt over her head and revealed a hot-pink exercise leotard underneath.

  “Yeah, well, here I am, anyway,” she said. “And don’t be staring at my breasts, Miles. We were married for twenty years, and they never interested you that whole time.”

  Miles felt himself color, because he had been staring at them. “That’s not true,” he said weakly. Actually, he wasn’t really all that interested in them now, except for the fact that they were so completely on display beneath her leotard—though this wasn’t a subject he was keen on pursuing in front of their daughter.

  “I just finished up at the club,” Janine explained, “and I’m hot and sweaty and I haven’t even had a chance to shower.” She turned toward Tick. “You ready to go home?”

  “I guess,” Tick said.

  “You guess,” Janine repeated. “Is there somebody who’d know for sure? Somebody we could consult for a definitive answer?”

  “I have to get my backpack,” Tick told her. “You don’t have to be such a bitch every minute, do you?”

  “Yes, I do, little girl,” Janine said, sliding out of the booth so Tick could get out. “You’ll understand why when you’re forty.”

  “You’re forty-one,” Tick reminded her. “Forty-two this January.”

  Miles watched his daughter all the way into the back room, feeling, as he always did these days, a terrible mix of irreconcilable emotions—the shame of his failed marriage, anger at Janine for her part in its dissolution, anger at himself for his own part, and gratitude that they’d managed to be faithful to a bad idea long enough to have this child. He would’ve liked to know if Janine felt any of this, or whether she’d managed to simplify her emotional life by indulging only the regret. Turning back to Janine, Miles caught her sneaking a scallop off Tick’s plate.

  “Damn,” she said, aware that she’d been witnessed. “Damn, that’s good.”

  “I could order you some, Janine,” Miles offered. “It wouldn’t kill you to eat something.”

  “That’s where you’re mistaken, Miles. That’s exactly what it would do. I’m not going to be fat again, not ever.”

  Charlene happened to be passing by at that moment, so Janine handed her the plate. “Do me a favor and get this away from me, will you?” she said, then turned back to Miles. “There’s a word for people like you,” she continued. “ ‘Enabler.’ ”

  There was a word for people like Janine, too, Miles thought, and her own daughter had already applied it.

  “You’re through feeding me, buddy boy. I’ve assumed control of my own body.”

  “Good,” Miles said. “I’m happy for you.”

  If Janine heard any sarcasm in this, she didn’t react to it. In fact, some of her anger seemed to leak away, and when Tick reappeared with her backpack, Janine said, “Why don’t you go on out to the car for a couple minutes. Since I’m here, I want to talk to your father.”

  Tick leaned into the booth to give Miles a kiss. “See you tomorrow, Daddy. Will you have time to proof a paper?”

  “I’ll make time,” Miles said. “It wasn’t very nice to fool me about eating your dinner, though.”

  “I know,” she said without the slightest indication of remorse. “You’re just so easy.”

  Once she was safely through the door, Miles turned back to Janine. “You sure are tough on her lately.” He knew, as soon as he spoke the words, that they were a mistake. For Miles, one of the great mysteries of marriage was that you had to actually say things before you realized they were wrong. Because he’d been saying the wrong thing to Janine for so many years, he’d grown wary, testing most of his observations in the arena of his imagination before saying them out loud, but even then he was often wrong. Of course, the other possibility was that there was no right thing to say, that the choice wasn’t between right and wrong but between wrong, more wrong, and as wrong as you can get. Wrong, all of it, to one degree or another, by definition, or by virtue of the fact that Miles himself was the one saying it.

  “Well, somebody has to be,” Janine said, her hackles now as fully raised as her nipples. “Since she can do no wrong with either her father or her uncle.”

  Miles opened his mouth to object, but his wife—no surprise—wasn’t finished.

  “Walt’s no better, either. The worse she treats him, the more he fawns over her.”

  “She’s just a kid, Janine.” Ours.

  Janine picked up an unused spoon, held it like a knife at her temple and made as if to drive it home. “Miles. You’re wrong. First, she’s not a kid. You don’t believe me, just look at her. Try using the eyes you look at other people with. Second, so what? I was never a kid and neither were you. From the time I was old enough to manage it, I was changing diapers. Tick’s led a charmed life, and you know it.”

  “Wasn’t that the idea?” Miles said. “I thought that’s what we meant to do.”

  “Not forever, Miles.”

  What Miles was imagining right now was their daughter watching them, their heads bent forward toward the center of the table so they could lower their voices and still yell at each other. No, this last year of their daughter’s life had been anything but charmed. Maybe the others hadn’t been so wonderful either. “Janine,” he said, feeling suddenly exhausted, “could we not fight?”

  “Nope. That’s what the last twenty years have been about, in case you missed it. Also, every time there’s a problem and the damn school calls somebody, they don’t call you, they call me. I’m the one who has to leave work to deal with it, not you.”

  “I’m not sure that’s fair,” Miles said. “I wish they would call me. If you’d let me have primary custody—”

  “Right. And where would she live? Upstairs? Move the pallets of fryolator grease down to the basement to make a little room for her?”

  “You have a point,” Miles said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his vo
ice. “I am left without a house in all this. Speaking of which.”

  “Don’t.” Janine pointed the spoon at him. “Don’t go there.”

  “Okay,” he agreed, since he’d already gone there and Janine knew it.

  Janine had promised to talk to Walt about the house. The sensible, fair thing, she agreed, would be for Walt to buy out Miles’s share—or what would have been his share if he had one. The settlement would award Janine the house and Miles had been instructed to continue paying half of the mortgage until such time as the property sold or she remarried. Privately, he and Janine had agreed that when the house did sell, they would divide what was left of the equity. The money they’d used for a down payment had been his, but it didn’t amount to that much, and he’d decided not to make an issue of it, or anything else. His instructions to his lawyer had been simple: let her have what she wants. In truth, there was embarrassingly little to quibble over, and even if he’d felt like it, he couldn’t be small with Janine without being small with Tick. Not an option.

  However, the divorce would soon be final, allowing for Janine’s long postponed nuptials, and Miles was beginning to wonder if he should have listened to his lawyer’s advice. Walt Comeau, the lawyer had correctly predicted, would rent his own house and move in with Janine. “Is that what you want? For the man who stole your wife to live with her in your house, sleeping in your bed, all of it rent-free?” Well, of course Miles hadn’t wanted that, but at the time such a scenario seemed far-fetched. What sort of man would behave that way? But then Miles wouldn’t have predicted that Walt Comeau would also become a regular at the grill, dropping in every afternoon to drink coffee and play gin with Horace and offer Miles business tips. Just today he’d suggested that Miles add an “e” to the word “Grill” to make the place sound classier. Every time Walt made one of his proposals, two things occurred to Miles. First, strange as it seemed, was that Walt’s purpose was not to inspire Miles to homicide. Walt Comeau truly believed his suggestions to be valuable. And second, he was probably offering them in lieu of rent. Most people, Miles had come to understand, went about their business logically enough if you granted them a couple fundamental assumptions. No court had ordered Walt to pay rent on Miles’s house, so he wouldn’t. Still, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man whose wife he’d stolen—fair and square, Walt would consider it, the better man having won—and so, even without obligation to do so, he would continue to look for little opportunities to make it up to Miles. In fact, he seemed increasingly determined to help out in any way he could. No doubt he thought his free advice was worth thousands of dollars, yet Miles stubbornly refused to implement any of it. What could you do? Talk about leading a horse to water. No, if Miles were to die in his sleep tonight, Walt would tell every last mourner that he’d tried everything he could think of to turn the Empire Grill into a profitable enterprise. Miles was a hell of a nice guy, he would conclude, but he had no head for business. Nothing about any of this would strike the Silver Fox as outrageous.

 
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