Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “Are you sick?” he asked, suddenly afraid.

  “I wish I were,” she said, with a rueful smile. “Then I could look forward to getting well.”

  He noticed that as she spoke, she was idly scratching a patch of red skin on her forearm.

  “Don’t worry,” she added. “I’m not dying or anything.”

  Miles was going through the picnic basket. The instant she told him not to worry, he’d taken her advice and quit. “There’s a lot more stuff today,” he informed her, holding up a small jar of what appeared to be inky little ball bearings.

  This news seemed to cheer her, and Grace rose from the table and threw open the curtains over the kitchen window and stood in the bright sunlight that flooded the room. She stood there for a long moment, her eyes closed, seeming to soak in the sun’s rays with something like a smile forming on her lips. For a woman who’d spent the last hour on her hands and knees in front of the commode, Miles thought she looked very beautiful, and he decided to forgive her for last night.

  After all, it was their last day on the island.

  THEY’D NOT BEEN at the beach for more than half an hour, though, when Charlie Mayne showed up. Miles was pleased to note that he had scrawny, white, almost hairless legs, and when he pulled his sweatshirt over his head Miles saw a pale, concave chest with a few strands of coarse black hair encircling his nipples. Though his mother was not a large woman, Miles now realized, seeing them side by side, that she was a full size larger than Charlie. Last night, especially in the sports car, he’d seemed average-sized, but today, as he settled onto a corner of their blanket, he looked downright puny. Surely, Miles thought, his mother would notice this and send him packing.

  “Didn’t they make you a lunch basket?” she inquired.

  “Alas, they did not,” said Charlie, who didn’t look concerned.

  “Then you’ll share ours,” Grace told him. To look at her now, you’d never guess how sick she’d been an hour earlier. Nor did she display any inclination toward sending Charlie Mayne away.

  “You’ll be pleased to learn, however, that I’ve not come completely empty-handed.” And from the pocket of his swimming trunks he took out a long white tube, showed it to Grace, and then tossed it to Miles, who fielded it with his mitt.

  Grace clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, Charlie, you’re a lifesaver!”

  “That’s me,” he agreed.

  “They told me up at the main house that they were all out,” she said, motioning for Miles to bring her the tube of ointment.

  “I drove in to Edgartown this morning,” Charlie explained while Grace applied the poison ivy cream to Miles’s legs and stomach, then to her own forearms and a patch Miles hadn’t noticed before, on her upper thigh. “In fact, I got the last tube at the drugstore. Apparently this is a banner year for poison ivy all over the island.”

  Charlie Mayne watched her massage the cream into her thigh until he noticed Miles, who had yet to say hello, staring intently at him, and then turned his attention to the picnic basket. When he found the inky-looking jar, he held it up for Miles’s inspection. “Ever tasted caviar, big guy?”

  Miles shook his head, still feeling tricked on the subject of specialty foods by last night’s snail. He made a mental note to refuse the caviar when it was offered, not because it wouldn’t be good, probably, but because Charlie Mayne would be doing the offering. Last night he’d been pleased to be recognized as a person who appreciated the finer things. This morning, everything had changed. In fact, he now wished he’d refused the ointment, because he could already feel it cooling the patches of infected skin, and stubbornly pretended that he preferred the itching.

  “I also found us a great place for dinner,” Charlie was saying to his mother. “But you have to promise to wear that white dress again.”

  His mother had put on sunglasses and rolled onto her back. “It’s the only one I have.” She laughed, and Miles could feel his anger returning. Without even discussing it with him, she was letting Charlie Mayne come to dinner with them.

  “I want to eat at the Thirsty Whale tonight,” Miles said, nudging her foot with his. “I want steamer clams.”

  His mother sighed contentedly. “Just feel that sun,” she purred.

  Miles nudged her foot again. “Did you hear me?” He could tell, even through the sunglasses, that her eyes were closed.

  She didn’t open them when she spoke. “No, I didn’t hear you,” she said. “And if you continue to be rude, I won’t hear you then, either.”

  Charlie Mayne didn’t seem to understand they were having an argument. “So, it’s steamer clams you want?” he said cheerfully, stretching out on his stomach. His back also sported random curly black hairs. About a dozen of them. Ridiculous. “Look at his back,” Miles would’ve liked to tell his mother. Her problem, he was certain, was that she wasn’t paying attention.

  “Then it’s steamer clams you’ll get,” Charlie finished.

  LATE THAT AFTERNOON, when Grace came out of the bathroom freshly showered and dressed in her robe, Miles told her he didn’t want to go out to dinner with Charlie. He wanted for it to be just the two of them. They’d been having fun, he told her, before Charlie Mayne showed up.

  “Yeah?” Grace said, angry so instantly that it scared Miles, as if she’d been just waiting for him to say something like this. “Well, I’ve been having fun since he showed up. What do you think about that?”

  Miles didn’t answer immediately. “Dad wouldn’t like it,” he said, looking right at her.

  “Tough.”

  “I’ll tell.”

  “Fine,” she said, surprising him again, increasing the sensation he’d been feeling all day that everything was adrift. She’d taken out the ointment and was applying cream to her skin. “Then tell.”

  “I will,” he said, knowing it was the wrong thing but saying it anyway.

  “You’ll have to wait till he gets out of jail, though,” she said, her eyes suddenly harder than he’d ever seen them. She hadn’t so much spoken the words as let them out of their cages, and she watched him now as if purely curious as to the effect they’d have. If necessary, she had more of them to turn loose. “You didn’t know that, did you? That your father was in jail.”

  She’d propped one foot up on the kitchen chair to apply the ointment, and when she put that one down and the other one up, her robe gaped and Miles caught a dark glimpse of what he knew he was not supposed to see, what he didn’t see, not really, because his eyes were already filling with tears.

  “You want to know why, Miles? Because last week he was arrested as a public nuisance, that’s why. Not for the first time, either. He becomes a public nuisance every now and then when he tires of being a private one. And I’ll tell you something else, too. You think Max Roby would care if you told him about Charlie Mayne? Think again. Your father cares only about your father. I wish that weren’t so, but it is, and you’re old enough to know it. The sooner you understand it, the better off you’ll be.”

  Finished with applying the ointment, she stood facing him. “And I’ll tell you one more thing while I’m at it. When we get back home, things are going to be very different, so you can prepare yourself for that too.”

  To punish her, when Grace went to change into the white dress, Miles, instead of getting into the shower as instructed, slipped out the back and returned to the now deserted beach beneath the bluff, where he threw towering pop flies as high as he could until an errant, angry throw sent the ball into the waves. Then he just sat down in the sand, pounding the palm of his glove and wishing they’d never come to Martha’s Vineyard. Suddenly he was no longer afraid of ground balls, no matter how sharply struck. If he got hit by one, so what? He understood now what Mr. LaSalle had been trying to teach him all summer. It didn’t matter if you got hit. It didn’t matter if it hurt.

  After a while he heard someone coming down the footpath behind him. When he turned around, he thought it would be his mother, furious, coming to fetch hi
m, but it was Charlie Mayne walking across the sand in a pair of shiny black shoes. He had on a pair of nice pants, and Miles didn’t expect him to sit down, but he did.

  “What happened to the ball?”

  Miles pointed at the waves.

  Charlie Mayne nodded. “You and your mother had an argument?”

  Miles didn’t say anything.

  “She’s an awfully nice person, you know,” Charlie finally said.

  “I know she’s nice,” Miles said angrily, not wanting to be told something he already knew, not by somebody who’d only known his mother for two days.

  “She loves you.”

  “I know,” Miles said.

  “She said for me to tell you she’s sorry about the things she said about your dad. That wasn’t such a good thing to do.”

  Miles shrugged.

  “The thing is,” the man went on, “everyone deserves a chance to be happy, you know?”

  “She is happy.”

  “And there comes a time in your life when you realize that if you don’t take the opportunity to be happy, you may never get another chance again.”

  “She is happy,” Miles insisted.

  “Actually,” he said, “I was talking about me. Your mother is the kind of woman who—well, she’s like the sun suddenly coming out from behind a cloud.”

  Miles didn’t say anything to this, but it did remind him of how she’d looked that morning when she’d thrown open the kitchen curtains.

  “She makes everything look new, sort of.” When Miles didn’t say anything to this either, Charlie added, “Anyway, it’d make me happy if I might join the two of you for dinner this evening, but it’s up to you.”

  Miles shrugged.

  Charlie Mayne nodded and waited. Finally he said, “What’s that mean? That shrug?”

  Another shrug.

  “Well,” he said, “I guess it could mean that it’s okay for me to come to dinner. Or it could mean you’d prefer I didn’t. Or it could mean you wish the whole world were different from the way it is, right?”

  Shrug.

  Charlie Mayne nodded again. “Right,” he said. “Gotcha.”

  THEY ATE IN A RESTAURANT called Cock of the Walk, and like the evening before, the man paid more attention to Miles than to his mother. Though steamer clams were not on the menu, Charlie suggested Miles order them anyway, and then winked at the waiter. When they came, it was a mound of clams that no three grown people could’ve eaten, though Charlie seemed to enjoy watching Miles try. “Look at him go,” he said to Grace, who was trying not to be mad at Miles anymore. When she smiled and told him not to eat himself sick, he said not to worry and besides, he wasn’t the one getting sick every morning. Charlie blanched when he said this, and for a few minutes there was only the sound of empty clamshells rattling into the bowl the restaurant had provided for this purpose.

  A couple of times Miles considered that they were enjoying themselves in an expensive restaurant with a man who drove a fancy sports car while his father was sitting in an Empire Falls jail cell, but this thought was only momentarily disconcerting. Whenever he decided he should take his father’s side, he remembered what Charlie Mayne had said about everybody deserving the opportunity to be happy and concluded this was probably true. He understood, too, why his mother might prefer, at least for a day or two, the company of a man who made nice things happen, as Charlie Mayne seemed able to do by mere whim, to that of a convicted public nuisance. At first the news of his father’s being arrested had mortified and humiliated him; but the more he thought about it, the more comforted he felt. Until this afternoon he’d always known that his father was a different sort of man from other boys’ fathers, but he’d had no way of summing him up. Now he did. Max Roby was a public nuisance. Having this short phrase to describe him was better than suspecting that his father was so different and unnatural that nobody had yet invented a way to describe him.

  Only later that night—just before dawn, in fact—did the sadness of all this hit him, and he woke up frightened for reasons he couldn’t name. He seemed to have been dreaming about his father, though he couldn’t remember any details, and now, lying alone in bed, he felt guilty. Surely his father deserved a better summation than “public nuisance.” He wondered if Max would be mad when he got out of jail and found them gone, which got him thinking that maybe he’d already been released and found out, somehow, where they’d gone. Maybe he was on his way right now to gather up his family, to seize them by the wrists and yank them back to Empire Falls where they belonged, with orders to behave themselves and quit eating snails. Miles had just about convinced himself that all of this was possible when in the perfect stillness outside the bedroom window he heard a noise.

  A milky mist had rolled in off the ocean, amplifying sounds, including the far-off ringing of a buoy. Through the parted curtains next to his bed Miles squinted into the mist until he was certain that he’d imagined the sound, but then there came another, a footfall on the gravel path, and then the mist gathered itself around a dark shape coming toward him, and finally the mist became his mother, making her way along the grassy edge of the dirt path, carrying her shoes in one hand and concentrating on her footing. The sight so startled Miles that before he could reconcile seeing his mother outside with his belief that she was asleep in the next bedroom, she looked up and stared right at him, and only then did he let the curtains fall back into place.

  CHARLIE MAYNE DROVE THEM to the ferry in silence and helped them load their bags onto the luggage trolley. Then he got the man at the ramp to let him come aboard without a ticket so he could see Miles and his mother off. It was the thing about him that amazed Miles most, that he would remember longest: the way he could make things happen and get people to do things for him that they never would’ve dreamed of doing for anyone else. If you happened to be with Charlie Mayne, you could eat steamer clams in a restaurant that didn’t even serve them.

  Yet despite his amazing talent, there were clearly limits to his powers, and as Charlie stood there on the upper deck of the Vineyard ferry, one of the things he couldn’t seem to do was find the words to say whatever it was he wanted to say to Grace. Miles watched him struggle, unaware at the time that his own presence stole half the words away and that the other half were inadequate to the message. His mother, so radiant by candlelight in her white dress the night before, looked pale and fragile in the harsh morning light, and Charlie himself looked haggard and unsure, and for the first time his clothes seemed to hint at the awkward, concave-chested body they contained. He looked, Miles thought, plain old. Which was strange, because that had been his first impression two nights ago, before he’d looked more closely.

  Below them the final passengers were moving in line up the plank, the last of the automobiles being loaded into the belly of the ship. In a moment, Miles could tell, the ramp would be detached and the ferry would pull away from the slip. Finally, Charlie Mayne took Grace by the hand and said, “Look. The thing is, it’s going to take a while.”

  “I know,” she said, looking away from him, off toward Vineyard Haven.

  “Think of Puerto Vallarta.”

  “I will.”

  “Promise me you won’t lose heart.”

  “You need to go,” she said, pointing to the dockworkers below, who had begun to detach the foot ramp.

  He saw that this was true, but took a moment to address Miles. “Maybe we’ll meet again,” he said, offering the boy his hand to shake, and when Miles did, he noticed a big blotch of poison ivy on Charlie’s forearm.

  “Charlie,” Grace said. The ramp was being pulled away now.

  They faced each other. “Grace.”

  “I know,” Grace said. “I know. Go.”

  And then he was off, waving and hollering to the workmen below as he hurried down to the lower deck. Without protest, they wheeled the ramp back into place, and when he’d safely descended, Charlie shook hands with each man, as if, collectively, they’d managed to pull off some complex
and wonderful feat. Then, as the whistle blew and the ferry began to push back from the slip, Charlie Mayne continued to stand there at the very edge of the dock, waving to them. He continued to wave until he was small, pausing only, Miles could tell, to scratch his forearm. Miles couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, left behind on the island without any ointment, with nothing to relieve his suffering. Eventually, then, he realized his mother was no longer at his side.

  The island had disappeared entirely and the thin line of the Cape Cod coast was becoming visible on the horizon when Grace returned to the deck. Miles could tell she’d been sick again, and as she came toward him, wobbly and weak, she looked so little like the figure who had materialized out of the morning mist that he wondered if maybe he’d dreamed it. In case he hadn’t, when she sat down next to him, he said, “I won’t tell Dad. I promise.”

  He knew she’d heard him, but it was as if she hadn’t. She took his hand, and neither of them spoke until the ferry pulled into the harbor at Woods Hole and bumped roughly against the sides of the slip before coming to rest.

  They were standing at the rail, Grace gripping it with white fingers, until she took a deep breath and said, “I was wrong.”

  He started to say something, but she shook her head, stopping him. “I was wrong when I said things were going to be different when we got back home,” she said. “Nothing’s going to change. Not one thing.”

  He hoped she was right, but feared she wasn’t. On the dock below there was a man wearing a Red Sox cap, and seeing this caused Miles to remember that he’d forgotten his mitt. He could see it on the nightstand next to his bed back at the cottage. Right where he’d left it.

  PART TWO

  CHAPTER 9

  EVEN BEFORE Miles crossed the Iron Bridge on his way to Mrs. Whiting’s, he was not in the best of moods. The last several days had been gray and drizzly, too wet to get any painting done at St. Cat’s. This morning the skies had finally cleared, offering the prospect of a long, brilliant afternoon under a high sky the color of a robin’s egg. On a day such as this, Miles thought, a man frightened of heights might just surprise himself and find the courage to paint a church steeple. Or might have if he hadn’t gotten a call from his employer saying she had a surprise for him if he cared to drop by that afternoon. Though he knew better than to get his hopes up, Miles briefly considered the possibility, as he turned between the two stone pillars and into the circular drive, that the old woman had changed her mind about the liquor license. Or maybe she was still thinking he should be mayor and wanted to inform him that she was funding his campaign.

 
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