Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  He felt his mother stop walking and regard him in the darkness. “What gave you that idea?”

  PERHAPS BECAUSE THERE WAS no one else, the person Miles thought they must be waiting for was his father, even though his mother and Max had had a huge fight earlier in the week before her surprise announcement that she was going to Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, after the argument Miles hadn’t even seen his father before they left Empire Falls, though this was not terribly unusual. Max often disappeared without notice after such disputes, possibly imagining that his absence would teach Grace a lesson. Sometimes, though more often in winter than in summer, he’d disappear for months, heading down to the Keys, where the weather was warmer and he could pick up work painting houses or crewing on the schooners that took tourists on sunset sails. He didn’t send money home when he was gone, nor did he consider this an abandonment of his wife and child. To Max’s way of thinking, his being gone meant Grace had one less mouth to feed and, more significant, no bar bill to pay out of her salary at the Empire Shirt Factory. This, far from abandonment, was something of a financial windfall, and he was not shy about reminding her of that whenever she might be tempted to feel herself ill-used.

  Of course, Max would disappear in the summertime, too. The best prospects for house painters were on the coast in places like Camden and Blue Hill and Castine, where rich people from Massachusetts had summer homes and the money to repaint them at the first sign of flaking. Even better, these people, not being local, wouldn’t necessarily know of Max’s aversion to scraping—indeed, to all of the more time-intensive aspects of any task. Nor were they likely to discover he’d painted their windows shut until after he was long gone. By the time they’d discovered his shoddy work in Boothbay, he’d be painting someone else’s windows shut in Bar Harbor. To fire an unreliable painter in season on the coast of Maine was hard, because chances were good he’d have to be replaced by an even shoddier one. During July and August, poor Mainers held a distinct advantage over the rich, which was why these two months were particularly satisfying to Max Roby.

  So when Max disappeared the day after the most recent blowup, Miles assumed he’d simply hitched a ride to the coast. He’d earn some money, get himself fired when the time was right, then join them here on the island for the last few days of their vacation. They had never gone on a vacation without Max before, which was why Miles expected his father to turn up eventually. His mother twice went up to the main house to make phone calls, and she had to be calling somebody. When she returned, she seemed downcast, which Miles took to mean that his father was either tied up with work or still miffed. Miles himself was relieved. His mother had instinctively understood that they didn’t belong at Summer House, but his father felt welcome everywhere, even when he clearly was not. If Max were to join them, he’d set up shop at the end of the bar and make fun of the gold-buttoned, blue-blazered men and their hefty, lilac-scented wives until he got eighty-sixed. On his way out he’d likely drop his pants and moon the lot of them.

  Late one afternoon, just two days before Miles and his mother were to leave, Miles was showing off in the surf and ignoring his mother’s pleas to come in and dry off for dinner, when he noticed that she wasn’t really paying attention, even when he called to her. These last few days he’d learned to enjoy her alarm when a particularly demonstrative wave would crash over him and wash him up on the beach. In fact, since arriving on the island, she’d been a ready audience for all his foolishness, but at the moment she had her back to him, shading her eyes against the sun, and when he followed her gaze he saw a solitary figure up on the bluff, backlit by the late-afternoon sun, staring down at the beach. Almost everyone else had already packed up their things and headed up the twisting, sandy footpath, and when the man on the bluff appeared to wave, Miles looked around and found no one else he might be waving to. He looked back at his mother just as she dropped the hand that had been shading her eyes. Had she waved back at the man? Probably not, he decided, when she turned away from the bluff and called again for Miles to come in.

  “Who was that?” he asked when his mother began toweling him off.

  “Who was who?”

  Back at the cottage, she insisted that he shower before they went out to dinner, and when he emerged, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Grace told him to go back and put on a nicer shirt and a pair of long pants and real shoes, not sneakers. Tonight they were going to eat in Summer House’s main dining room. She herself was going to wear the new white dress she’d bought in the village.

  MILES LOOKED IN VAIN for steamer clams on the menu at the Surf Club. In fact there was nothing he recognized, including the language many selections were written in, which his mother informed him was French. To Miles, none of this boded well. There was no advantage that he could see to dressing up in long pants and a stiff shirt and shoes to eat indoors on a white tablecloth, when they might’ve been dressed comfortably and seated under one of the colorful umbrellas outside the Thirsty Whale and eating steamer clams in English. He especially resented the long pants, because he was itchy on his calves and thighs. The day before, on the way up the footpath from the beach, he’d tossed himself a pop fly and had to chase it into the thicket, and this afternoon in the shower he’d noticed patches of rough red skin. When he got out, he rubbed them with one of the rough white towels that were delivered to the cottage each day, rubbed the dry skin past the point of ecstasy to where it began to glow and hurt. Now these same patches were itching again, and he couldn’t get at them. Even worse, his mother had given him a long list of dos and don’ts, saying this was an adult dinner. It was going to last a long time, which was a good thing. He wasn’t to fidget or scratch. He hadn’t even been allowed to bring his mitt along.

  Miles had to admit that he’d never seen his mother look more beautiful than she did tonight. Her skin had darkened during their week on the beach, but she’d been careful not to burn, and her new white dress made a fine contrast of fabric and skin, and the fact that she was wearing perfume made him wonder if maybe his father would be joining them after all, though that didn’t make sense, not with only one more day on the island.

  The dining room was nearly full, yet strangely quiet. Miles couldn’t remember ever seeing so many people in one room making so little noise. Piano music was coming from somewhere, barely audible, and over it you could hear the noise of cutlery. When Miles examined the menu and observed that there were no steamer clams, Grace leaned forward and whispered that he would have to keep his voice down. At the next table was seated a man with white hair and sad eyes, sipping a cocktail and looking at his own menu. Like half the men in the dining room, he wore a navy blue blazer with gold buttons, and he had smiled at Miles and his mother when they sat down. In fact, every man in the room had managed to turn and look at Grace, though most immediately pretended it was something else that had caught their attention. When the white-haired man heard Miles remark on the absence of steamer clams, he lowered his menu and leaned toward them. “I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion,” he said, “but I suspect your charming companion might like the Clams Casino. They’re excellent here.”

  Miles studied the man as he spoke, trying to judge his age. Because of his fine white hair, Miles at first thought he must be old, but his face was smooth, and the longer Miles looked at him the younger he seemed. He was older than Grace, of course, though Miles couldn’t tell how much older. The way his mother returned his smile also suggested that he wasn’t just some old man. “What do you think, Miles?” she said. “Do you trust this gentleman?”

  Miles weighed this question carefully. It should’ve been an easy one but somehow wasn’t, and before he could decide, the man got the attention of a passing waiter and ordered half a dozen of the Clams Casino, telling Grace, “Don’t worry. If he doesn’t like them, I do.”

  To Miles’s surprise, his mother entered into a conversation with the man, explaining that clams of any sort were a new experience for her son and that since discovering them he di
dn’t want to eat anything else.

  The man smiled. “Sounds like he’s going to have a taste for the good things in life.”

  “Well, we’re on vacation,” Grace said, introducing herself and Miles, then hesitating. “Do you mind my asking if you’re eating alone?”

  “Alas.”

  “Maybe you’d like to join us?”

  “I’d be delighted,” the man said, “though I seem to have the larger table. Why don’t you and Mr. Miles join me at mine?”

  This suggestion was no sooner made than two waiters appeared to put the plan into effect. Miles, at first, was not thrilled with the idea, until the man asked what his favorite sport was. Since arriving, Miles had been acutely aware of how many men would have introduced themselves to his mother if Miles himself had not been there to dissuade them. But this appeared to be a different sort of fellow altogether, and so, when asked about his favorite sport, Miles said baseball and then, without further encouragement, launched into the story of his amazing catch the week before. When he finished, he told the story all over again, in case the man had missed any of its nuances. The tale carried them through their appetizers quite nicely, he thought. As predicted, Miles liked these new clams a lot, though he was disappointed not to get a whole bucket of them like at the Thirsty Whale.

  The man’s name was Charlie Mayne, and he spelled it out loud so as to differentiate it from the state where Miles and his mother resided. For some reason Miles’s mother seemed surprised by the name, though Miles thought it suited him well enough. While Miles had been devouring his clams, Charlie Mayne busied himself with expertly extracting what looked like large pencil erasers from inside curved shells that reminded Miles of something, though he couldn’t think what. During the week he’d spent hours combing the beach for shells, but he hadn’t found any that looked like these.

  “Like to try one?” the man said when he saw Miles studying them.

  The pencil erasers didn’t look all that appetizing, but then again they didn’t look any worse than steamer clams with their little sheathed black penises, so Miles tried one. The thing turned out to taste pretty much as he would have predicted—a chewy little devil but tasty too—and when he was offered another, he promptly accepted, though Grace protested that the first gift was more than sufficient. “Not at all,” Charlie Mayne insisted. “I’m enjoying this as much as he is. Should we tell him what he’s eating?”

  He was grinning at Miles’s mother now, and Miles noted that his eyes remained sad even when he smiled, and when his mother returned his sad smile with one of her own, it occurred to Miles that they made a couple in some strange way that Grace and his father did not.

  “Some secrets are best kept, Mr. Mayne,” his mother said. “At least for a while.”

  But Miles, who sensed that Charlie Mayne was a man who’d cave under tough cross-examination, kept after him to say what the pencil erasers were until Charlie gave in and told him he’d eaten an escargot. This was such a disappointing revelation that Miles suspected he was being lied to and, moreover, that his mother was in on it. If that was true, it was all in good fun, of course, but to think that his mother might take Charlie Mayne’s part against him was still disquieting. But it turned out not to be a lie after all; when their menus were returned so they could order a main course, Miles saw the item in question listed under appetizers: Escargot du maison, served in their shells, with garlic butter. And it occurred to him that Charlie Mayne had been right, having taken one look at Miles before and concluding that here was a boy who’d grow fond of the finer things in life.

  After they finished their dinner and Charlie Mayne made the bill simply disappear, with no money changing hands, he asked if they’d seen the rest of the island. Grace explained they hadn’t left the grounds of Summer House except to walk to the village, and Charlie (as Miles now thought of him) consulted his watch and then proclaimed there might still be time if they hurried. When they asked what he was referring to, he just smiled and said they’d see.

  They hurried. Or, rather, Charlie hurried. He drove a little bright-yellow sports car with just enough room for himself and Miles’s mother in the two front seats, a stick shift between them, and Miles squeezed into a narrow space behind them. They flew across the island, Charlie taking the curves at thrilling speed. With the top down, his longish hair flowed out straight behind him like a wild white mane. He offered Grace a canvas sailor hat, which she managed to keep on only by clamping it down with one hand. Miles kept expecting her to ask Charlie to slow down. She had a fit whenever Max sped, but for some reason she didn’t object now. At least Miles didn’t think she did. With the top down, the wind was roaring so loudly that he couldn’t hear anything being said in the front seat. It felt like the corners of his eyes were actually being drawn back along his cheeks by the speed, and he wondered if he’d look Chinese by the time they arrived at wherever they were going.

  Eventually the pavement came to an end, and Charlie Mayne pulled the little car onto a dirt road that ended a hundred yards farther on in a sandy lot, where he parked by a log fence at the very edge of a sloping beach. The sun, incredibly large and orange, sat inches above the calm waters of Vineyard Sound, and when the engine died, Miles heard his mother say, “Oh, Charlie, look!” And when Miles asked what it was that they’d hurried to see, both she and Charlie laughed, making him feel foolish, though he noted that he wasn’t the only one not paying strict attention to the sunset. Half a dozen other cars were in the lot, and Miles could see a couple kissing in the nearest one. To his surprise, when he asked his mother if he could go down to the beach, she said sure, so long as he took his shoes and socks off and rolled up the cuffs of his pants and promised not to wade in the surf. “And no more than ten minutes,” she warned him. “It’s going to get dark fast.”

  It did, for which Miles was grateful. The patches of rough skin he’d scratched raw in the shower were now pulsing, and he’d been too cramped in the backseat to really get at them. Once he got out of sight, he intended to scratch himself into ecstasy. So when he scrambled over the dunes he was both surprised and discouraged to discover that the beach wasn’t deserted, as he’d expected. Spaced evenly, as far into the distance as he could make out, were fishermen casting way out into the gentle waves, then furiously reeling in, then casting again. Miles watched them for a few minutes, trying to make sense of it. Max had taken him fishing on the lake once, but there you just dropped a line over the side of the boat and waited for something to pull on it. These men seemed almost to be in a competition to see who could cast the farthest into the waves, and since every cast was a disappointment, they reeled in and tried again. The closest one called out a warning, and Miles saw why a second later when the man drew back his long rod and something silver flashed and whistled through the air behind him and then shot far out into the waves.

  Keeping what he hoped was a safe distance behind the casters, Miles trudged up the beach until he came to a secluded spot among the dunes and the tall sea grass. There he lowered his pants down around his ankles and began scratching. It was too dark to tell for sure, but the splotches of rough, red skin seemed to have doubled in size since his shower. Digging at them with his fingernails was midway between intense pleasure and pain, and he would have kept at it until he bled had he not heard a sound nearby, and then low voices. He quickly pulled up his trousers and hurried away.

  Back up the beach he heard another sound, more like flapping this time, and when he looked down he was surprised to see a large silver fish, bloody at the gills, flopping in the sand at his feet. “Careful,” said a voice a few feet away, where a man crouched, tying a silver lure onto his line. “They got teeth.”

  It was almost completely dark by the time he arrived back at the parking lot, where he found Charlie Mayne’s little car more by the size and shape of its silhouette than anything else. He fully expected his mother to scold him for staying too long on the beach, but he was wrong. There’d been just enough light to see his mother??
?s head resting on Charlie Mayne’s shoulder before they heard him coming.

  THE NEXT MORNING, aware that he’d been dreaming vividly all night long, Miles awakened to the sound of his mother retching into the toilet of the cottage’s tiny bathroom. This was actually the second or third morning he’d heard this, and today he was angry with her, though he hadn’t been when he went to sleep. It seemed to have something to do with catching that glimpse of the two of them in the car, but even more he sensed that during the night things had somehow realigned themselves. His mother’s asking a stranger to join them at dinner did suggest that his own company left something to be desired. Not that he didn’t like Charlie—he did. But Miles found himself angry with the man, too. Charlie, who’d been so attentive during dinner, hadn’t seemed particularly interested in hearing about the gasping silver fish Miles had seen on the beach, and when he exaggerated his peril by telling them he’d nearly been snagged by the lure of one of the surf casters, neither his mother nor Charlie seemed as frightened as he might have wished. Worse, he woke that morning almost nauseous with the understanding that the night before he’d actually eaten a snail.

  He discovered, however, that it was hard to stay mad at someone you love when she’s throwing up in the next room, and so, to preserve the satisfaction of his righteous anger, he went outside with his glove and ball to throw himself pop flies and await the picnic basket from the main house. When it arrived, it was heavier than usual, and he lugged it inside and set it on the breakfast table, where his mother, still in her nightgown, sat with her head in her hands. When she looked up at him, pale and discouraged and clearly exhausted, the anger he’d been trying to protect drained out of him completely.

 
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