Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “I did speak to him about it,” Janine finally said, staring at her reflection in the window. “He said …” Here she paused again, as if she herself could hardly credit what she was about to report. “He said he’s not sure that real estate here is that good an investment right now.”

  “Really,” Miles said. “He figured that out?”

  “He says he doesn’t want to tie up his money until he’s sure about his next move.”

  “When will that be?”

  “I don’t know, Miles. I really don’t,” she admitted, suddenly dropping the pretense of being angry. “Have you ever noticed the way he scratches his chin when he plays cards? When he’s trying to figure out what Horace is holding? It’s almost like time stops. Like you’re watching a still life.”

  “Janine—”

  “I mean, who knows? One minute he’s talking about expanding the club, putting in more indoor tennis courts, then the next he’s saying we should build a place out by the lake. There’s a half acre of waterfront property he’s had his eye on, but when I ask him where exactly, he gets all secretive, like I’m going to blab to somebody who’ll buy it out from under him. Every time I try to pin him down about anything, he gets that sly expression, you know? The one he always gets right before Horace gins him.”

  “Janine.”

  She continued staring at her reflection, as if meeting his eye would amount to some terrible admission. When she finally did, there were tears, and it occurred to Miles that there might be something she wasn’t telling him. Something she wasn’t sure of herself.

  “What, Miles?”

  “Are you having second thoughts?”

  She wiped the corner of one eye with the strap of her leotard and gathered her defiance again, causing Miles to wonder, as he had on and off for two decades, what there was about this combative stance that Janine found so attractive.

  “No. Don’t worry,” she assured him. “I’m going through with it. I promise. This time next month all you’ll owe is child support.”

  “I never said I wanted you to go through with anything,” Miles reminded her, suddenly feeling the kind of tenderness toward his ex-wife that occasionally crept up on him when he wasn’t paying strict attention.

  “It’s not Walt and me I’m worried about. What I still don’t even begin to understand is us.”

  “You mean how we managed to make such a mess of everything?”

  Janine made a face at him. “Hell, no, Miles. That part’s easy. We messed things up because we didn’t love each other. What I’d like to know is why. I mean, I told you why I didn’t love you. Everything you did during the last twenty years that pissed me off, I told you about.”

  Miles couldn’t help but smile. True, Janine’s list of his shortcomings was long, comprehensive, and subject to constant revision.

  “Now here we are almost divorced and I’m getting set to marry somebody else, and you still haven’t told me why you didn’t love me. Does that seem fair? I mean, if you were ever inclined to get married again—which I don’t recommend—you’d at least know what to do different, right? Because I was honest with you.”

  “What do you want, Janine? A list of marital grievances? You took up with Walt Comeau, for God’s sake.”

  “Well, sure, throw that in my face.”

  Now it was Miles’s turn to study his reflection in the glass. The man who stared back at him looked exasperated.

  “It’s not fair, and you know it,” she continued. “I mean, sure, fine. I took up with Walt, so you’ve got a gripe. But I took up with Walt because you didn’t love me. I know it hurt your feelings, me falling in love with him, but you shouldn’t pretend you were in love with me, Miles, because we both know you weren’t.”

  “What’s my part in this conversation? If you’re going to speak for both of us—”

  “Are you telling me you loved me, Miles? If that’s what you want to tell me, say it. I’ll shut up so you can.” When he looked down at his hands, she said, “I didn’t think so.”

  She was right, of course. In the deepest sense, he hadn’t loved her. Not the way he’d intended to. Not as he’d sworn he would before God and family and friends, and this simple truth embarrassed him too deeply to allow for anything like analysis. No, he hadn’t loved her, and he didn’t know why. He also didn’t know what to call whatever it was that would’ve prevented him from telling her, even if he had known. If you didn’t call it love, what did you call the kind of affection that makes you want to protect someone from hurt? What was the name of the feeling that threatened to swamp him now, that made him want to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be all right. If not love, then what?

  Still, she was right. Because whatever it was he felt for this woman whose life had been joined to his for so long, whatever it was certainly couldn’t be confused with desire and need and yearning. Miles knew that much, if only because he’d tried his best to confuse them.

  “Why are you tormenting yourself, Janine?” he said. “If Walt makes you happy, what else matters?”

  She studied him for a minute, then gave up. “Beats the shit out of me,” she admitted, forcing a smile. “I guess I’d just like to hear you say I’m not a horrible person.”

  “I never said you were a—”

  “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Miles,” she said, sliding out of the booth. “You never said anything.”

  “HE KEEPS SAYING he can climb like a monkey,” Miles told his brother. They were upstairs in his apartment above the restaurant, and it was nearly eleven o’clock. Miles, a lifelong insomniac, would be awake by five anyway, but he couldn’t help resenting that if he should ever be visited by a decent night’s sleep, he’d have to interrupt it to open the restaurant. David, who’d taken a small club soda from the mini-fridge, set it down on the floor and moved a huge box of toilet paper off the sofa so he’d have a place to sit. The Sox were on TV, a late game from the West Coast.

  Janine had been right, of course. As things stood, there was no room for Tick here, even though he’d been toying with the idea earlier that evening, trying to make it work. He could move all the grill supplies back down into the basement until the river flooded again and the restaurant started taking on water. If he cleared out all that stuff, there would be room for both of them, except that a girl Tick’s age needed more than space. She needed a room of her own with a door she could close, even slam, when necessary. Miles’s apartment, which hadn’t been occupied since Roger Sperry died, was basically one big room. Except for the door you entered by, there was only one other, to the bathroom, and even that didn’t close tight. Tick deserved better. Sure, with a little work and expense he could make it nicer, but it would still be a shabby second-floor flat above a place of business.

  For all of that, he knew that his daughter would jump at the chance to get out of her mother’s house. She despised living under the same roof as Walt Comeau. Though it wasn’t a whole lot bigger, the little cottage behind the bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard would be plenty big for the two of them, if he could ever figure out how to afford it.

  “Everything he does,” David remarked from the sofa, “he does like a monkey.” Regarding their father, David was unsentimental. “You’re right not to let him on any ladders, though. Don’t let him con you into feeling sorry for him.”

  “I’ll try. But he’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old,” Miles said, trying to explain away the foolish emotion. Feeling sorry for Max Roby was certainly all of that.

  “Pretty good night,” David said, shaking his longish hair. The effect of wearing a hairnet through an eight-hour shift was that you looked like you were still wearing one even after you took it off.

  “Better than pretty good,” said Miles, who’d rung out the register. “Looks like Thursdays might fly.”

  “I’m not sure we’ve got our costs in line.”

  “I doubt we’re too far off.”

 
“You do know the next logical step, don’t you?”

  “Yes, I do,” Miles said. This was an old conversation. Pointless, too, like so many of his conversations with his brother, going all the way back to when their mother was still alive. Strange. He and David were closer now, since his brother’s crippling accident, than ever. Before, both men had pushed their conversations until their words burst into flame, rekindling age-old resentments, reopening old wounds. There was nearly a decade’s difference in their ages, and their life experiences were radically dissimilar. Miles had grown up before their mother became ill, David after. Perhaps just as important, they’d always been temperamental opposites: Miles careful and thoughtful, like their mother; David energetic and restless, like Max. Since the accident, though, all this seemed to matter less, though it troubled Miles that their newfound intimacy seemed to depend on their having so little to say to each other. They passed the baton of the restaurant back and forth with an almost effortless minimum of talk. Often their communication seemed almost ritualistic. David would report to Miles that he’d locked up, understanding that Miles already knew this, but also that he expected to hear these words, probably was waiting to hear them, needing them to provide some kind of closure that the day wouldn’t otherwise have.

  “Wouldn’t need to be a full liquor license,” David said. “Beer and wine would do it.”

  “Mrs. Whiting won’t go for it, though.”

  “She’d rather lose money?”

  Odd, but Miles had the feeling this might be the precise, literal truth. It violated logic, of course. Why be content to squeak by on the slenderest of profit margins when there was an opportunity for more substantial gain? Mrs. Whiting was a practical and ruthless businesswoman who had recognized the exact moment at which to sell each of the three Whiting mills, who had never before exhibited the slightest patience with borderline businesses. Yet for more than a decade she’d seemed content to let the Empire Grill limp along toward its inevitable extinction. In the absence of any other rational explanation, Miles had almost concluded that it must be a matter of affection. But for whom? Miles himself? It was possible, he supposed. Horace, as clever and cynical an observer as the local scene offered, had concluded as much, so maybe. If not for Miles, for the Empire Grill itself? Unlikely, since the old woman hadn’t set foot in its shabby premises in twenty years. The other possibility, which Miles kept returning to, was the old woman’s fondness for Miles’s mother, who had worked for Mrs. Whiting until she fell ill. So again, maybe.

  “Reason with her,” David urged him. “Tell her people won’t eat spicy Mexican and Asian food without beer. And they like wine with Italian.”

  “I’ll try,” Miles said. “But don’t get your hopes up. She’s not stupid, but for some reason she doesn’t like change. Maybe it’s just old age. Maybe she doesn’t want to be bothered. Anyway, it’s her business.”

  David pondered this obvious truth while a Red Sox batter hit a towering fly ball that was caught on the warning track. Then, studying his empty club soda, as if trying to recollect why a man like himself would drink soda water instead of beer, he said, “Want to hear another idea?”

  No, was the simple truth. It had been a long day, and Miles was too tired and dispirited by his conversation with Janine to think. “Sure,” he said. “What?”

  “Go talk to your mother-in-law.”

  “Bea? Why?”

  “Think about it, Miles. It makes sense.”

  “It’s a thought,” Miles said. Janine’s mother owned not just the dying tavern, Callahan’s, but the building in which the tavern was housed, which meant that Mrs. Whiting, if she felt betrayed and decided to be vindictive, would have little recourse. No, there was no need for David to explain his thinking here. If Mrs. Whiting didn’t want to spring for a liquor license and give them a fighting chance, move the whole kit and caboodle across town. Bea’s place was bigger, too, which meant they’d have room to grow.

  “You’d be doing Bea a favor. She’s going under by degrees. You could save her and yourself at the same time.”

  “I don’t have the money to buy her place, David.”

  “Offer to go partners. She provides the liquor license, you provide the food service.”

  “And what do I do when you leave?”

  “Am I going somewhere?”

  “Well.”

  “Don’t ‘well’ me, Miles.”

  “You get bored with things. And then you split. I don’t mean that as a criticism. There’s no reason you shouldn’t. You don’t have a family. I just don’t have the luxury, is all.”

  “So you’re saying I’m the reason you won’t consider Bea’s place?”

  “I’m not saying I won’t consider it,” Miles said. “I admit, it’s a thought.”

  “I wish you wouldn’t say it like that,” David told him. “It sounds dead already.”

  Miles didn’t respond right away, not until he could speak without irritation. When the last Red Sox batter of the inning finally struck out with men on first and third, Miles said, “I owe her, David.”

  “Owe who?”

  “Mrs. Whiting. Isn’t that who we were talking about? Maybe Janine and Tick and I haven’t had a terribly prosperous life, but it hasn’t been bad, either. The restaurant has struggled, obviously, and God knows we’ve struggled right along with it, but we’ve kept our heads above water, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of people around here. Mrs. Whiting could’ve closed the place down years ago, and where would that have left us? You want me to thumb my nose at her? And there’s something else, too. I was away at college for three years, and every time I really needed money, Mom sent it. Where do you think Mom found five hundred dollars every semester for books and fees?”

  David considered this. “You think it was from Mrs. Whiting?”

  “She didn’t get it from Max. Who else was there?”

  “I don’t know,” David admitted, “but at least we’re finally talking about the right person.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “It means when you said you owed her, that’s who I thought you were talking about. Mom. If you were saying you owed her, that would have made some sense.”

  “I don’t need you to tell me how much I owe her, David.”

  “Yeah? Well, there’s only one way to pay off that debt, big brother. And I’m sorry, but you do need reminding about the way things were. Mom never wanted you to come back. Your getting out of here was her life’s work. You know that better than I do. If she borrowed money from Mrs. Whiting, you can bet she paid it back in full. Services rendered. She practically raised that woman’s daughter. And if she knew you’d ended up forty-two and running the Empire Grill, she’d turn over in her grave.”

  Miles rubbed his temples with his thumbs, feeling the first aura of a headache coming on. “I’m sure you’re right that she’d be disappointed,” he conceded, knowing too that “disappointed” was too lame a word for it. “Brokenhearted” was more like it. “No doubt I’ve shamed her. I feel like I have, believe me. But the one thing I don’t think I’d have to explain to Grace Roby is that a kid comes first. Maybe I was wrong to come back, but I’ve got Tick now, and I can’t put her in jeopardy. I won’t.”

  “And you imagine I would? You think I’d advise you to?”

  “Isn’t that what you’re doing? Last week you were all for that bookstore I can’t afford on Martha’s Vineyard. Now you want me to make Mrs. Whiting my enemy by going into business with Bea. Have you ever looked at that kitchen? Do you have any idea how much fixing it up would cost?”

  “Between us we could—”

  Miles couldn’t listen. “David, if you want to go into business with Bea, then go. I give you my blessing.”

  His brother nodded slowly, as if this whole conversation had already taken place numerous times and there were just one or two minor details he’d failed to memorize. “All right,” he said finally. “Since I’ve already pissed you off, I’ll try th
is one more time and then give up. I know you’ve got Tick, Miles. And I know you’re in a tight spot. In fact, I’m even more worried about the spot you’re in than you are, because it’s worse than you think. What I’m trying to say is that it isn’t going to get any better. That woman’s got you on a treadmill, Miles. You’re running so hard all the time just to keep up that you can’t see it. It’s what Mom feared. It’s what she knew would happen if you—”

  “Tell me something,” Miles interrupted. “Why do you hate Mrs. Whiting so much?”

  “Look,” he said, “it’s not a question of hating her. You think she’ll give you the restaurant like she promised, and then you’ll sell it and get out, right?” When Miles didn’t say anything, he continued, “Except Mrs. Whiting isn’t dying, Miles. You know what she’s doing instead? She’s living. In Italy for a month when it suits her. In Florida during the winter. Santa Fe in the late spring. You’re the one that’s dying, Miles, a day at a time. Do you have any idea how old Mrs. Whiting’s mother was when she died?”

 
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