Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “When did you start going down there?” Horace asked.

  “Winter of ’sixty-nine.”

  “Then you didn’t sit next to Hemingway,” Horace said. “He killed himself in ’sixty-one.”

  Max tried to remember if he’d heard this. He was pretty sure he already knew Hemingway was dead. He’d snuck into the writer’s house with a group of tourists—what, twenty years ago?—and he seemed to recall there’d been some mention of Hemingway being dead. He wasn’t home, at any rate. What had impressed Max most about the house was all those cats, most of which had an extra digit that looked like a thumb on their front paws. He didn’t think a thumb was all that attractive on a cat, though these old toms looked like they could pick up a glass of beer just like a human being did, the way that damn thumb curled around. According to the tour guide, the great writer’s cats were much revered; at any rate, they sure had the run of the place. That was what Max liked about the Keys, that pretty damn near everything was tolerated, including Max himself, whose decrepit state, much derided up North, was considered down there the natural, indeed, the inevitable, state of man. In Key West Max was often taken for a local, the ones they called Conchs, and such misguided tourists would happily buy him drinks. Hemingway, being famous, probably never had to buy his own drinks. Which raised an interesting question.

  “Killed himself? Why would he do that?”

  “Probably just woke up one morning and felt the futility of the whole thing,” Horace guessed.

  “What futility?”

  Horace studied his companion. “People have been known to come to that conclusion about their existence, you know. Hell, not all that long ago, the richest man in central Maine blew his brains out right here in Empire Falls.”

  C. B. Whiting, he meant. Charles Beaumont. Charlie. “Twenty-three years ago March,” Max said, aware as soon as the words were out of his mouth that both Horace and Bea were staring at him.

  “How in the world would you know that?” Bea said.

  Max shrugged, as if to suggest that people had a right to know anything they wanted to, this being a free country. Anyway, C. B. Whiting’s killing himself wasn’t even the weird part, to Max’s way of thinking, and he’d thought about it plenty during the past two-plus decades. No, the weird part was that Whiting had taken the time and trouble to come all the way back to Empire Falls when he could have just shot himself in Mexico, where he was living at the time. On the other hand, Max allowed, draining the rest of his beer, a man who’d decided to shoot himself in the head probably wasn’t thinking too clearly in the first place.

  His glass empty again, Max looked over at Horace’s, which was still half full. Max supposed he could try pushing his glass at Bea again, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. You only got one insult-beer per night with Bea, who afterward could insult you for free. Talk about futility.

  “You and I should go down there someday,” he suggested to Horace. “The women all walk around half naked. They don’t mind if you look, either. There’s this one bar down there where the girls take off their bras and panties and nail ’em to the ceiling. You should see it. I’m free, anytime you want to go.”

  “I don’t think so,” Horace said, pushing the twenty toward Bea and signaling to Max Roby his intention to make this a one-draft night. “I might get depressed. Shoot myself in the head.”

  Max saw the gesture and was gravely disappointed. Miffed, too. “Try to miss that thing on your forehead,” he advised. “What a hell of a mess that would make.”

  AFTER HORACE LEFT, Max downed the last swallow of beer in the other man’s glass and then, annoyed with himself for indulging morbid thoughts, gave himself over to the problem of whom he might entice to accompany him southward. The ideal candidate would own a car and not expect much in the way of gas money from Max. Once in Florida, things would be easier. Once he found a place to stay, he’d get somebody at the Empire Towers to send him his government check at the first of each month. It worried Max a little, the way money evaporated in the Keys. Sun, Max supposed—shining all the while, making you sweat, and it was the sweating made you thirsty. Beer was more expensive down in Florida, but Max much preferred how they served it, with a fresh slice of lime wedged right into the mouth of the sweating bottle. If a man wasn’t careful, he could drink the bottom right out of a Social Security check by mid-month, and then he’d have to scam like mad till the first.

  What Max needed was an honest-to-God live one—somebody with a little dough who was looking to have a good time and didn’t know how. Horace, whom Max had initially cast in this role, wasn’t right, the more he thought about it. Just as well he hadn’t warmed to the idea. He couldn’t imagine trying to explain that damned knot on the man’s forehead everywhere they went. Women, especially, would want to know the story of that purple veiny son of a bitch, at least enough to be reassured it wasn’t contagious.

  Ten years ago there were any number of people Max might’ve talked into making the trip, but the years had taken a heavy toll. Many of Max’s favorites were dead, others were in nursing homes, still others had just gotten too damned old in spirit, which Max flatly couldn’t understand; he’d just turned seventy, he felt about fifteen, and had all his life.

  A woman might make an interesting traveling companion, and here again, ten years ago he wouldn’t have had to go looking very far. In a town like Empire Falls, somebody’s wife was always ready and willing to fly the coop if approached in the right way, and Max found himself wondering what in hell had happened to all the good women. Most of the old ones had got religion, and the younger ones could do better than Max Roby and let him know as much, in case he had any doubts. Which was also probably just as well. Women, generally speaking, had a lot of needs. They needed to stay in nice places, and needed to pee every time you turned around, and needed to keep you abreast of what they were thinking pretty much constantly. But they didn’t understand money needs at all. Like when you ran out. Then there was the philosophical issue of why you’d even want to bring one someplace when there’d be plenty of women already there when you arrived. Coals to Newcastle, if you thought about it. Max liked the women in the Keys. Life seemed to have made them realists, not dreamers. Also, they seemed to grasp instinctively how men like Max ended up men like Max, and not to hold it against them.

  “Wake up, Max,” Bea said, interrupting his reverie, and for a moment he concluded that she’d been eavesdropping on his thoughts. On the TV above the bar he was surprised to see that the ball game had been replaced by the postgame show. Yet again the Sox were losers. “Go home,” Bea told him.

  “What time is it?” Max asked, squinting at the clock positioned halfway down the bar. If there was one thing he hated, it was a bar that closed early.

  “One o’clock,” Bea told him. “You’ve been asleep for an hour.”

  “I wasn’t asleep, I was thinking,” Max said.

  “Yeah? Well, you’re the only man I know who snores when he’s thinking.” She switched the TV off, leaving Max just enough light to make his way to the front door. “You drank those last two beers too fast, old man. They did you in.”

  “I drank them just right,” he assured her. There was only one wrong way to drink beer, in Max’s opinion, and that was the way Horace had done it, letting it get warm and then leaving some of it in the glass. When Max left beer, it was in the urinal. “I gotta pee,” he said, heading for the gents’.

  “Then do it in your own place,” Bea told him, steering him toward the front, hard and heartless woman that she was. “You only live down the block.”

  True, perhaps, but down the block was too far. The Empire Towers were set way back off the street, Max’s studio apartment was on the sixth floor, and the elevator was slow; he knew from experience that when it was most urgent that he do so, he sometimes couldn’t slip his key into the lock cleanly.

  Fortunately, the alley alongside Callahan’s was unoccupied, and Max used the brick wall of the tavern to excellent advantage.
When he finished, he felt energized, suddenly unwilling to call it a night. A fine, almost foglike mist hung in the air, and Max decided it was a good night for a stroll, so he set off across town, the whole of Empire Falls rolled up and quiet. He didn’t run across a single car or pedestrian the entire way to the cemetery, where he located without difficulty, even in the dark, his wife’s grave. He stood at the foot of it without moving for so long that anyone passing by on the other side of the tall, wrought-iron fence could fairly have concluded he was a statue. Gradually the gentle mist turned to rain, and still the old man, hatless, remained at the foot of the stone marked GRACE ROBY, the stone his sons had placed there when she died, when Max was down in the Florida Keys consorting with a different sort of woman entirely, the sort he should’ve found right at the beginning. Strange that he should feel so content and peaceful in Grace’s company now, since he never had when she was alive, so full of hopes and dreams it hurt to look at her. Max catnapped on his feet a while longer, then woke up feeling refreshed, if soaked through. Also, he had to pee again, which necessity he announced aloud to his wife and the other silent sleepers. One of these was Charles Beaumont Whiting, who, like the great Hemingway (if Horace was to be believed), must have woken up one morning impressed by the futility of his existence, a feeling Max doubted he’d ever understand. Life was a lot of things, including disappointing from time to time, but still.

  Atop C. B. Whiting’s nearby grave, his widow had placed a monument to ensure that her husband stayed right where he was. Max unzipped there and reflected that a good, long, soul-cleansing pee was something many men his age were incapable of. Once they turned seventy, they became leaky faucets with slow, incessant drips. Not Max, whose prostate ought to be willed to science. “I hope you’re good and thirsty,” he told old Charlie, then let go.

  Only when he was finished did he look up and notice, perched atop the monument, a stone cat. Odd that he hadn’t noticed this on any of his previous homages to C. B. Whiting, of which there’d been many. The animal looked so lifelike that it gave Max a scare, though not as big as the one he would’ve gotten had he looked closer and seen it was breathing.


  THE SUMMER MILES TURNED NINE, he played second base for the Empire Paper Giants. One of the younger boys on the team, he spent most of the season on the bench watching the older boys, the fearless ones who stayed in front of ground balls no matter how hard they were hit. Coach LaSalle wouldn’t put him in until the late innings, by which time the game was either won or lost—for which Miles was grateful, terrified that the team might lose because of him. When he did finally enter the game and the boys on the opposing team saw him loitering around second base with his too large glove and fearful expression, they’d turn around and bat left-handed, knowing that a ground ball in his direction was as good as a hit.

  All of which changed the last week in July when Miles made a miraculous catch. Actually, he’d been daydreaming at his post when he heard the crack of the bat, and the ball was on him so fast he hadn’t time to duck out of the way, as was his custom. The ball hit his open glove so hard that it lodged in the webbing, spinning Miles completely around and landing him on the seat of his pants. Somehow the glove managed to stay on his hand and the ball in the glove. “Look what I found,” Coach LaSalle said when he trotted in, his tone not so much mean as pleased, and the backslapping congratulations of his teammates gave Miles heart. Though to this point it had been a consistent source of humiliation, Miles purely loved the game of baseball, and he loved even more the idea that he might be an asset to the team instead of a liability. Having caught one ball by mistake, he saw no reason why he shouldn’t start catching others on purpose.

  When his mother announced that they were going away for a week’s vacation, Miles agreed only on the condition that he be allowed to bring his glove. Grace assured him there’d be no place to play on Martha’s Vineyard, but he was determined to practice every day, even if only by throwing himself pop flies on the beach. Besides, his mother admitted she’d never been there herself, so Miles harbored a secret hope they’d be surprised by what they found there. To his way of thinking, if the island was full of rich people, as she claimed, there just might be baseball diamonds everywhere, more than enough for everyone who wanted to play. There were probably leagues set up just for boys like himself who were dragged away against their will, at the worst possible moment, on hastily conceived vacations.

  It turned out his mother was right, though, as Miles could tell from the deck of the ferry as they steamed into Vineyard Haven. But it was clear that his mother hadn’t known exactly what to expect either, because when they docked and she got a good look at the crowds of well-dressed people in expensive-looking cars who’d come to meet the ferry, Miles saw her hand steal to her mouth, as it did when she was afraid or became aware that she’d made a mistake. In fact, she looked like she was considering just remaining there at the railing of the ferry and returning home without even disembarking. It was Miles who spotted the man on the wharf below, waving either at them or at someone near them. Miles had never seen him before, but when he pointed the man out, his mother waved back. “How did you know us?” she asked when the man, who introduced himself as Mr. Miller, met them at the bottom of the ramp.

  “This fella here was the tip-off,” Mr. Miller said, smiling at him. “Ballplayer, eh?”

  Now it was Miles’s turn to admire the man’s apparent prescience—until he remembered he was wearing his mitt, which the soft sea air and salt spray on the lower deck of the ferry seemed actually to be softening. For the first time since his father had given it to him, he was able to close it with one hand.

  “We sure appreciate your making an exception for us,” his mother said as Mr. Miller gathered their bags from the train of luggage bins being off-loaded from the ferry. He seemed to know which ones were theirs without asking, which made Miles wonder if this was because they were shabbier than the others. “I know you don’t normally take children.”

  “Well,” Mr. Miller said, loading the suitcases into the back of a station wagon whose engine had been left running, “you had a friend in high places.” Then he quickly added, “Besides, this young fella’s mostly grown up anyhow, right?”

  It happened they were staying on the other side of the island, near a fishing village, and when Mr. Miller pulled the station wagon into the long, narrow drive that led to Summer House, which sat on a bluff overlooking the ocean, the fear Miles had noticed before on the ferry crept again into his mother’s eyes, and he wondered if she might instruct Mr. Miller to turn around and take them back to the dock.

  In addition to the main inn there were a dozen or so cottages, which Mr. Miller told them were sometimes rented by artists and movie stars. The one Miles and his mother were to occupy was set slightly apart from the rest and had a rose trellis up one side. Miles liked it the best of all the cottages because it was closest to the path that led down the bluff and over the dunes to the beach. They were warned not to stray from the path because of the poison ivy.

  What Grace liked best about the cottage was that in the early morning when the wind shifted, they awoke to the sound of pounding surf. Miles knew how far away the water was, but the waves crashed so hard that every morning he went to the front window to make sure the world hadn’t tilted during the night. He half expected to look out and see the waves foaming right up to the porch steps.

  They stayed out of the inn’s dining room because Grace had gotten a quick glimpse of it when they checked in, enough to know that it would be very expensive and to suspect she didn’t have anything nice enough to wear. The cottage’s galley kitchen was equipped with a small refrigerator, and Grace bought a box of cereal and a quart of milk in the village for their breakfast. By ten o’clock each morning someone from the inn appeared with a wicker basket full of sandwiches, fruit and soft drinks for them to bring to the beach. Only there, among the dunes, did his mother seem truly to relax and enjoy herself.

bsp; At thirty, Grace was an attractive woman, and even in the company of a nine-year-old boy, she was regarded by many of the male guests with admiration open enough to be noted by their wives. One man stopped by their blanket and introduced himself, wondering why the two of them never appeared in the dining room in the evening, even offering to buy Grace a cocktail later that afternoon if she felt like it, and if her young companion could find a way to amuse himself for a while. Grace rested her chin on the knuckles of her left hand, pretending to consider this proposal, while her wedding ring reflected the sun, until the man shrugged and said, “Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying.” She offered no opinion as to whether you could or you couldn’t.

  Evenings, the day’s sun still glowing on their skin, they showered off the sand and salt at their cottage, dressed in shorts and tops and sandals, then strolled down the dirt road into the village for dinner at the least expensive restaurant they could find, a place called the Thirsty Whale, which specialized in takeout but also served food on a small deck under beach umbrellas. A college-girl waitress took a shine to Miles and taught him how to eat steamer clams, which were served in wire baskets along with two cups of liquid. In the first was a hot broth containing juices of the clams themselves, but this, she explained, was really for cleansing them of sand. The second cup contained drawn butter for dipping. The clams were accompanied by a big bowl of oyster crackers. They were expensive, but Grace said it was okay, and Miles ordered them every night, working through the big wire baskets greedily.

  The early-evening sun was usually still strong when they sat down to eat, but by the time they finished, a cool breeze would begin to ripple the umbrella above them, and Miles, full of buttery clams, would become deliciously drowsy, so the walk back to Summer House seemed impossibly long. The few stores in the village stayed open late, and one evening Grace stopped in one to look at a summer dress in the window. By the time she’d tried on one in her size and decided to buy it, Miles had fallen asleep in a chair by the door. On the way back to the cottage in the pitch-dark night, Miles asked a question that, perhaps during his nap, had arisen in him from somewhere. “Mom,” he said, “are we waiting for somebody?”

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