Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “None,” Miles confessed.

  “That’s because she’s still alive,” David told him. “She’s in a nursing home in Fairhaven, in her nineties. If Mrs. Whiting lives that long, you’ll be sixty-five when you inherit the grill. That’s if she gives it to you. And that’s not even the worst part, Miles. You claim you’re sticking it out for Tick, but do you know what that kid’s going to be if you aren’t careful? She’ll be the next manager of the Empire Grill.”

  “Over my dead body,” Miles said.

  His brother got to his feet and smiled, clearly having seen this coming. “Good. Now we’ve come full circle. That’s what Mom always said about you.”

  David tossed his empty soda bottle into the trash can by the door. “Look, I’m sorry I said anything. I should go home. I already know how this is going to end.”

  For a moment Miles thought that he was referring to their discussion, but then he realized that David probably meant the ball game. The Sox held a slender one-run lead in the seventh, and history, both recent and not so recent, suggested it wouldn’t hold up. September was a bad month for New England baseball fans. You could spend most of it searching in vain for reasons you were so optimistic back in April. Next April was when you’d remember them.

  “When’s Buster coming back?” David wondered, referring to the grill’s other fry cook, who’d commenced his bender the day Miles returned from Martha’s Vineyard.

  Miles doubted his brother really cared about Buster. David was just anxious that they not part angry. His question was designed to restore the usual equilibrium. “I’ll see if I can hunt him down tomorrow.”

  “We’re going to need another waitress and busboy, too.”

  “I know. I’ll get on it.”

  “Okay,” David said, starting out, then stopping, one hand on the doorknob. “What was Janine all upset about tonight?”

  “I don’t know,” Miles said, meeting his brother’s eye. The simple truth. “Cold feet, probably.”

  David nodded. “I should hope. Given the man she intends to marry, she ought to be cold all the way up to her barrettes.”

  “I don’t think women wear those anymore, do they?” It’d been so long since Miles had loosened a woman’s hair that he’d lost track.

  “Funny thing, though,” David said, still standing in the doorway.

  Miles studied him, dead certain that what came next would not be funny in the least.

  “The two of you sitting there in that booth tonight looked more like lovers than you ever did when you were married.”

  “Funny?” Miles said sadly. “That’s hilarious.”

  Mrs. Whiting’s refrain, he realized.

  David was all the way down the back stairs when Miles remembered something and hurried after him. His brother was backing his pickup out of his space behind the restaurant, a complicated maneuver for a man with only one good arm, when Miles rapped on the window.

  “Listen,” Miles began, “tell me to mind my own business …”

  “Okay, I will,” David promised.

  “Are you growing marijuana out there at the lake?”

  His brother snorted. “Why, Miles? Do you want some?”

  Miles didn’t see why this seemed so damned funny, but he let it go. “Jimmy Minty thinks you are, is the reason I mention it.”

  “Jimmy Minty thinks?”


  “Why tell you?”

  “He characterized it as a friendly warning, since we’re all old friends. I sort of told him to fuck off. I also told him I didn’t think you were.”

  David nodded. “You see him, tell him I said thanks for the tip.”

  When his brother started rolling the window back up, Miles rapped on it again. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “Are you growing marijuana out there?”

  David smiled. “Mind your own business.”

  “You always talk about Mom as if I was the only one she had plans for. That’s not true, you know.”

  David nodded. “I know exactly what she wanted me to do, because she told me before she died.”

  Something in Miles sensed a trap, but since it was his brother who’d set it, he decided to walk right in. “What was that?”

  “Look after your brother,” David said, backing out.


  “WHO’S THAT just came in?” Max Roby wanted to know when he felt the air change in the tavern. Sitting at the far end of the bar, he heard the front door swing shut with a dull thud. Whoever it was had stopped at the cigarette machine, a promising sign. Max leaned back on his stool, squinting across the dark room, trying to make out who it was. Since he’d turned seventy, his eyes weren’t as good as they used to be. Fortunately, he could still climb like a monkey.

  “It’s Horace Weymouth,” Bea Majeski told him from behind the bar. “Leave him alone.”

  Bea was just now pondering whether to close Callahan’s for the night. It was going on midnight, and her only customer was Max Roby, who you couldn’t really call a customer because he perpetually hovered at his hundred-dollar credit limit. Truth be told, most of Bea’s customers were the same. They’d pay down their tabs by ten or twenty bucks in the afternoon, then drink them back up to a hundred by closing time. Unless she got lucky and one of them handed her a twenty and keeled over on the spot, every goddamn one of these deadbeats was going to die owing her a hundred dollars. Even the stiff that had handed her the twenty would owe her eighty. About the only trade Callahan’s got anymore was from the Empire Towers, the subsidized senior citizens’ housing facility down the block. First of the month, after they got their checks, the geezers would stream in. They’d drink old-fashioneds and sidecars for a few days, but by the tenth or so, they’d have blown their booze allotment and Bea wouldn’t see any of them again until the first. Except for Max Roby. He also lived over at the Towers, but he turned up regardless. At least the geezers didn’t start fights, she told herself. Again, except for Max Roby.

  “In fact,” Bea told him now, suspecting that her previous instructions might be interpreted too narrowly, “leave everybody alone.”

  “Invite him down here,” Max suggested. “I could use some company.”

  Bea glared at him. “What’d I just say?”

  “How’s that bothering anybody? I like Horace.”

  “Me too,” Bea said, studying him in the entryway hunched over the cigarette machine, madly pulling at the levers now. He’d clearly abandoned his own brand for whatever the machine might deign to give him. “Which is why I told you to leave him alone. A man ought to be able to come in here without you bumming cigarettes and draft beers.”

  Out in the entryway, the machine surrendered a pack of some brand or other, which Horace bent down to scoop out of the trough. When he raised up again and turned toward the bar, he caught sight of Max, the only customer, seated at the far end, where Bea always parked him because he smelled rancid and was a pain in the ass. This sight occasioned a small hitch in Horace’s giddy-up, a split second’s hesitation, during which a man might consider his options. Like leaving. Other men had been known to turn promptly on their heels upon spying Max, but all his life Horace had been victimized by his own good manners. A reporter for the Empire Gazette for going on thirty years, he’d seen humanity from every angle. Most people, he concluded, were selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal, utterly irredeemable shit-eaters, but he’d also observed that these same people were highly sensitive to criticism. Max Roby was an exception, but Horace nonetheless couldn’t bring himself to hurt the man’s feelings. Which meant he also couldn’t plop down at the opposite end of the bar. That strategy wouldn’t work anyway, since the exact same conversation would ensue, with Max shouting it.

  “What’d it give you this time?” Max said in an idly curious tone when Horace slid onto a nearby stool, leaving one between them as a buffer zone, however inadequate. Horace tried to imagine the situation whereby someone would come in and fill that vacancy. It’d have to be a
stranger. A blind stranger. No sense of smell, either.

  “Chesterfields,” Horace said, examining the pack before placing it on the bar alongside a twenty-dollar bill. Bea poured him a draft and slid an ashtray in front of him, leaving the twenty where it was, for now. “You want one, Max?”

  “Sure,” he said, leaning over to snatch the pack, then deftly peeling off its slender ribbon, thumbing up its flip top, discarding the foil and removing two cigarettes.

  Horace noted that Max had taken two, not one, but said nothing, just as Max had known he wouldn’t. “You might as well draw one for my friend here,” he told Bea. “He’s got that thirsty look.”

  Bea did not approve of Horace’s generosity, but she complied with his request. “Working late?” she asked.

  Horace nodded. Tonight had been a beaut. For starters he’d had to cover the school board meeting in Fairhaven, one of his least favorite assignments; this one had progressed rapidly from civil to uncivil to angry to plain insulting, stopping just short of fisticuffs. Then, on the way home, his car had broken down on a seldom-used back road out by the old landfill. There was only one house within a radius of about a mile, and Horace, hoping to use the phone to call for a tow, had walked up the long dirt driveway and there, around back of the dark old house, had secretly witnessed something that had rattled him to the core, something that went far beyond the selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal, utterly irredeemable shit-eating behavior he was used to and sent him stealing back out to the road, as if he himself and not that sad, alarming boy had been the guilty party. As he walked nearly three miles into town, what he’d witnessed was with him every step, and it made him glad of companionship now, even if one of his companions was Max Roby.

  “You should get that thing removed,” Max suggested, glancing at the fibroid cyst on Horace’s forehead.

  “What thing?” Horace said, his standard reply to such comments, which were more frequent than anyone would imagine.

  “I’m always afraid it’ll explode when I’m talking to you,” Max said, draining half of his beer in one sudden motion. It hadn’t been Max’s intention to gulp so much, but he’d been perched there on his barstool, dry, for a hell of a while. A bar could become a desert when you were broke, its beer spigots a mirage. When you finally arrived at the oasis you could tell yourself not to drink too deeply, but a body parched so long by the desert sand has its own needs, its own devices, and Max was just glad his body hadn’t demanded the whole glass Horace had bought him. The idea now was to be patient and adjust himself to the pace of the man he hoped to continue drinking with. If he tried to push Horace by draining his own glass too quickly, the other man would feel pressured and leave, then Max would be smack-dab in the middle of the desert again. Horace had a car and, if so motivated, could just get up and walk out and drive to the Lamplighter, a place where Max wasn’t welcome—even if he had a way to get there, which he didn’t, unless he walked or hitched. The first he refused to do, the second he never had much luck at, owing, if his son Miles was to be believed, to his personal appearance.

  This lack of transportation was beginning to get Max down. They’d taken away his license three years ago when he ran over the mayor’s daughter’s dog, strengthening his conviction that a man’s prospects in life were determined by luck and politics. In a town overrun by mangy curs, it was a damned unlucky man who ran over a purebred fox terrier owned by the mayor’s eight-year-old brat. Any other victim wouldn’t have had the political wherewithal to pull Max’s records and get him declared a public menace. A luckier fellow would’ve run over a stray mutt and been proclaimed a public benefactor—they’d have probably given him a job at the humane society, where they allowed animals a week, two at the outside, to get claimed, after which they got the needle.

  No, Max knew all about luck. He knew, for instance, what bad luck was always followed by. Worse luck. Not a month after losing his license, he’d left Callahan’s around closing time one night and, nodding off at the wheel, had driven into a ditch, where the car’s frame snapped in half, leaving him no choice but to walk back to Callahan’s and report the vehicle stolen. Also leaving him in the condition in which he now found himself—a man not only without a license, which was inconvenience enough, but also without a car, which made it a full-blown dilemma. An old man without wheels was a pitiful thing. People could get up and leave and you couldn’t follow them, and they knew you couldn’t, which meant they were more likely to do just that. Winter was just around the corner, too. High time he got himself down to Key West, where you didn’t freeze your ass off and you didn’t need a car, since the bars were all lined up one right after another, and almost everybody either walked or rode bicycles.

  Max sighed, staring at his now empty glass, considering the unfairness of it all. “What would it cost you to have it removed?” he wondered out loud, touching his forehead where his own cyst, if he’d had one, would have been located. Horace was sitting there nursing his beer, which made Max even more resentful. “A couple hundred bucks?”

  Horace shrugged, exchanging a glance with Bea, who was getting ready to give Max the boot, he could tell. “Hard to say.”

  Max stifled a bitter laugh. “Why? You never looked into it?”

  “Never did.”

  “I sure would’ve,” Max said. “That son of a bitch was growing out of the middle of my forehead, I’d have looked into it pronto.”

  “I think it might be the source of my intelligence,” Horace told him, winking at Bea. “What if I let somebody cut it off and then discovered it was responsible for all my best ideas?”

  “That’s something Max wouldn’t have to worry about,” Bea said. “Not having a brain.”

  Max treated this insult the way he treated all insults, by pushing his glass forward for a refill. In his experience, after insulting you, people generally felt guilty. It occurred to them that maybe they were selling you short. They wondered if they could do something to make it up to you. This impulse never lasted long, though, so you had to take advantage swiftly. Max had been offering Bea opportunities to insult him all night long, but until this very moment she’d resisted, which meant she hadn’t owed him anything and his glass had remained dry. Now she had no choice but to fill it and grudgingly slide it back in front of him. This time he drained off only a third, which put him in stride with Horace, right where he wanted to be.

  “You ever been to Florida?” Max asked.

  “Once,” Horace admitted. “Back when I was married.”

  “Before that thing started growing out of your forehead, I bet,” Max said, abruptly scooting off his stool. “I gotta pee.”

  Bea sighed when the men’s room door swung shut behind him. “You want me to run his sorry ass?” The only reason she hadn’t eighty-sixed the old fart before now was out of affection for his son Miles, who was about the nicest, saddest man in all of Empire Falls, a man so good-natured that not even being married to her daughter, Janine, had ruined him. What Janine was thinking in trading in a man like Miles for a little banty rooster like Walt Comeau defied imagination. Or at least Bea’s imagination. True, Miles wasn’t sexy and never had been—unless you considered kindness sexy, which Bea always had. Granted, there were men you wanted to sleep with, some men because they got you all hot and bothered, but others, like Miles, you just kind of wanted to do something nice for because they were decent and deserved it and you knew they’d be appreciative and wouldn’t hold it against you for maybe not being so damn beautiful yourself. Bea had tried to explain this to her daughter once, but it had come out all wrong and Janine had misunderstood completely. “That’s mercy-fucking,” she’d said, and Bea hadn’t bothered to argue because her daughter, lately, considered herself an authority on all matters sexual. In fact, she’d grown tiresome on the subject, especially since Bea was just as happy to have that part of her life safely behind her. Saying good-bye to sex was like waking up from a delirium, a tropical fever, into a world of cool, Canadian breezes. Good riddance.
  Miles, though, was the sort of man you could love without completely losing your self-respect, which couldn’t be said for most of them, and certainly not for Walt Comeau.

  “Nah, leave him be,” Horace said. “Max just says what he thinks whenever he thinks it. It’s the people who always pause to consider that I worry about.”

  “He’s an asshole, is what he is.”

  “Well, yeah, there is that,” Horace admitted, as the men’s room door swung open to announce Max’s return. That a man could relieve himself so quickly didn’t seem possible, and both Horace and Bea regarded him curiously as he slid nimbly back onto his stool. The front of his trousers bore traces of urinary haste.

  “Jesus,” Bea said, shaking her head in disgust. “You’re a foul, vulgar old man. When you’re done, give it a shake at least.”

  “You ever been to the Keys?” Max asked Horace, ignoring Bea entirely.


  “Where were you in Florida?”


  “You’d like Key West,” Max assured him. “Hemingway lived there.”

  Horace took a swig of beer and watched Max do the same. The Hemingway tidbit was interesting coming from this particular old man.


  “Right,” Max said, glad to see he’d set the hook properly. Horace, he knew, wrote for the newspaper and might be drawn to another writer the way a normal person might be drawn to beer and warm weather. “Hell of a guy.”

  “You met him?”

  “Everything’s named after him down there. Hemingway this, Papa that. His pals called him Papa, you know.”

  “What I asked was, did you ever meet him?”

  “Who knows?”

  Horace couldn’t help but chuckle. “What do you mean?”

  “I mean, who the hell knows? I drank a lot of beer down there over the years. He could’ve been sitting on the next stool one of those nights. How would I know?”

  “I bet there was at least one stool between you,” Bea said.

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