Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Honus Whiting had intended, of course, for his son to take up residence in the Whiting mansion as soon as he took a wife and old Elijah saw fit to quit the earth, but a decade after C.B. abandoned Mexico, neither of these events had come to pass. C. B. Whiting, something of a ladies’ man in his warm, sunny youth, seemed to lose his sex drive in frosty Maine and slipped into an unintended celibacy, though he sometimes imagined his best self still carnally frolicking in the Yucatán.

  Perhaps he was frightened by the sheer prospect of matrimony, of marrying a girl he would one day want to murder.

  Elijah Whiting, now nearing one hundred, had not succeeded in killing his wife with the shovel, nor had he recovered from the disappointment. The two of them still lived in the carriage house, old Elijah clinging to his misery and his bitter wife clinging to him. He seemed, the old man’s doctor observed, to be dying from within, the surest sign of which was an almost biblical flatulence. He’d been turning the air green inside the carriage house for many years now, but all the tests showed that the old fossil’s heart remained strong, and Honus realized it might be several years more before he could make room for his son by moving into the carriage house himself. After all, it would require a good year to air out even if the old man died tomorrow. Besides which, Honus’s own wife had already made clear her intention never to move into the carriage house, and she lately had become so depressed by the idea of dying in Maine that he’d been forced to buy her a small rowhouse in Boston’s Back Bay, where she claimed to have grown up, which of course was untrue. South Boston was where Honus had found her, and where he would have left her, too, if he’d had any sense. At any rate, when Charles came to him one day and announced his intention to build a house of his own and to put the river between it and Empire Falls, he understood and even approved. Only later, when the house was revealed to be a hacienda, did he fear that the boy might be writing poems again.

  Not to worry. Earlier that year, C. B. Whiting had been mistaken for his father on the street, and that same evening, when he studied himself in the mirror, he saw why. His hair was beginning to silver, and there was a certain terrier-like ferocity in his eyes that he hadn’t noticed before. Of the younger man who had wanted to live and die in Mexico and dream and paint and write poetry there was now little evidence. And last spring when his father had suggested that he run not only the shirt factory but also the textile mill, instead of feeling trapped by the inevitability of the rest of his life, he found himself almost happy to be coming more completely into his birthright. Men had starting calling him C.B. instead of Charles, and he liked the sound of it.

  WHEN THE BULLDOZERS began to clear the house site, a disturbing discovery was made. An astonishing amount of trash—mounds and mounds of it—was discovered all along the bank, some of it tangled among tree roots and branches, some of it strewn up the hillside, all the way to the top. The sheer volume of the junk was astonishing, and at first C. B. Whiting concluded that somebody, or a great many somebodies, had had the effrontery to use the property as an unofficial landfill. How many years had this outrage been going on? It made him mad enough to shoot somebody until one of the men he’d hired to clear the land pointed out that for somebody, or a great many somebodies, to use Whiting land for a dump, they would have required an access road, and there wasn’t one, or at least there hadn’t been until C. B. Whiting himself cut one a month earlier. While it seemed unlikely that so much junk—spent inner tubes, hubcaps, milk cartons, rusty cans, pieces of broken furniture and the like—could wash up on one spot naturally, the result of currents and eddies, there it was, so it must have. There was little alternative but to cart the trash off, which was done the same May the foundation of the house was being poured.

  Spring rains, a rising river and a bumper crop of voracious black flies delayed construction, but by late June the low frame of the sprawling hacienda was visible from across the river where C. B. Whiting kept tabs on its progress from his office on the top floor of the Whiting shirt factory. By the Fourth of July the weather had turned dry and hot, killing off the last of the black flies, and the shirtless, sunburned carpenters straddling the hacienda roof beams began to wrinkle their noses and regard one another suspiciously. What in the world was that smell?

  It was C. B. Whiting himself who discovered the bloated body of a large moose decomposing in the shallows, tangled among the roots of a stand of trees that had been spared by the bulldozer that they might provide shade and privacy from anyone on the Empire Falls side of the river who might be too curious about goings-on at the hacienda. Even more amazing than this carcass was another mound of trash, which, though smaller than its carted-off predecessor, was deposited in the same exact area where a spit of land jutted out into the river and created in its lee a stagnant, mosquito- and now moose-infested pool.

  The sight and smell of all this soggy, decomposing trash caused C. B. Whiting to consider the possibility that he had an enemy, and kneeling there on the bank of the river he scrolled back through his memory concerning the various men he, his father and his grandfather had managed to ruin in the natural course of business. The list was not short, but unless he’d forgotten someone, no one on it seemed the right sort. They were mostly small men of smaller means, men who might’ve shot him if the opportunity had presented itself—if, for instance, he’d wandered into their neighborhood tavern when they had a snoot full and happened to be armed. But this was a different quality of maliciousness. Somebody apparently believed that all the trash generated in Dexter County belonged on C. B. Whiting’s doorstep, and felt sufficient conviction to collect all that garbage (no pleasant task) and transport it there.

  Was the dead moose a coincidence? C.B. couldn’t decide. The animal had a bullet hole in its neck, which could mean any number of things. Perhaps whoever was dumping the trash had also shot the moose and left it there on purpose. Then again, the animal could conceivably have been shot elsewhere by a poacher; in fact, an entire family of poachers, the Mintys, lived in Empire Falls. Maybe the wounded animal had attempted to cross the river, tired in the attempt, and drowned, coming to rest below the hacienda.

  C. B. Whiting spent the rest of the afternoon on one knee only a few feet from the blasted moose, trying to deduce his enemy’s identity. Almost immediately a paper cup floated by and lodged between the hind legs of the moose. The next hour brought a supermarket bag, an empty, bobbing Coke bottle, a rusted-out oil can, a huge tangle of monofilament fishing line and, unless he was mistaken, a human placenta. All of it got tangled up with the reeking moose. From where C. B. Whiting knelt, he could just barely see one small section of the Iron Bridge, and in the next half hour he witnessed half a dozen people, in automobiles and afoot, toss things into the river as they crossed. In his mind he counted the number of bridges spanning the Knox upstream (eight), and the number of mills and factories and sundry small businesses that backed onto the water (dozens). He knew firsthand the temptation of dumping into the river after the sun went down. Generations of Whitings had been flushing dyes and other chemicals, staining the riverbank all the way to Fairhaven, a community that could scarcely complain, given that its own textile mill had for decades exhibited an identical lack of regard for its downstream neighbors. Complaints, C.B. knew, inevitably led to accusations, accusations to publicity, publicity to investigations, investigations to litigation, litigation to expense, expense to the poorhouse.

  Still, this particular dumping could not be allowed to continue. A sensible man, Charles Beaumont Whiting arrived at a sensible conclusion. At the end of a second hour spent kneeling at the river’s edge, he concluded that he had an enemy all right, and it was none other than God Himself, who’d designed the damn river in such a way—narrow and swift-running upstream, widening and slowing at Empire Falls—that all manner of other people’s shit became Charles Beaumont Whiting’s. Worse, he imagined he understood why God had chosen this plan. He’d done it, in advance, to punish him for leaving his best self in Mexico all those years ago a
nd, as a result, becoming somebody who could be mistaken for his father.

  These were unpleasant thoughts. Perhaps, it occurred to C.B., it was impossible to have pleasant ones so close to a decomposing moose. Yet he continued to kneel there, the river’s current burbling a coded message he felt he was on the verge of comprehending. In truth, today’s were not the first unpleasant thoughts he’d been visited by of late. Ever since he’d decided to build the new house, his sleep had been troubled by dreams that would awaken him several times a night, and sometimes he found himself standing at the dark window of his bedroom looking out over the grounds of the Whiting mansion with no memory of waking up and crossing the room. He had the distinct impression that the dream—whatever it had been about—was still with him, though its details had fled. Had he been in urgent conversation with someone? Who?

  During the day, when his mind should’ve been occupied by the incessant demands of two factories’ day-to-day operations, he often and absentmindedly studied the blueprints of the hacienda, as if he’d forgotten some crucial element. Last month, his attention had grown so divided that he’d asked his father to come down from the paper mill to help out one day a week, just until the house was finished. Now, down by the river, his thoughts disturbed, perhaps, by the proximity of rotting moose, he began to doubt that building this new house was a good idea. The hacienda, with its adjacent artist’s studio, was surely an invitation to his former self, the Charles Beaumont Whiting—Beau, his friends had called him there—he’d abandoned in Mexico. And it was this Beau, it now occurred to him, with whom he’d been conversing in all those dreams. Worse, it was for this younger, betrayed self that he was building the hacienda. He’d been telling himself that the studio would be for his son, assuming he would one day be fortunate enough to have one. This much rebellion he’d allowed himself. The studio would be his gift to the boy, an implicit promise that no son of his would ever be forced by necessity or loyalty to betray his truest destiny. But of course, he now realized, all this was a lie. He’d wanted the studio for himself, or rather for the Charles Beaumont Whiting thought to be either dead or living a life of poetry and fornication in Mexico. Whereas he in fact was living a life of enforced duty and chastity in Empire Falls, Maine. On the heels of this stunning realization came another. The message the river had been whispering to him as he knelt there all afternoon was a single word of invitation. “Come,” the water burbled, unmistakable now. “Come … come … come …”

  That very evening C. B. Whiting brought his father and old Elijah out to the building site. Up to this point he’d been secretive about the house without comprehending why. Now he understood. He and Honus sat his grandfather, who hadn’t been out of the carriage house in a month, on a tree stump, where he instantly fell into a deep, restful, flatulent sleep, while C.B. showed his father in and around the frames and arches of the new house. Yes, he admitted, it was going to be some damn Mexican sort of deal. The detached structure, he explained, would be a guest house, which, in fact, he’d decided that afternoon, it would be. The river’s invitation had scared him that badly. When they finished the tour of the hacienda, C. B. Whiting took his father down to the water’s edge and showed him the mound of trash, which had grown since morning, and the moose, which had ripened further. From where they stood, C.B. could see both the moose and old Elijah still asleep but rising up on one cheek every now and then from the sheer force of his gas, and while C.B. couldn’t reasonably hold himself responsible for either, he felt something rise in the back of his throat that tasted like self-loathing. Still, he told himself, the occasional flavor of self-recrimination on the back of the tongue was preferable to throwing away the work of his father’s and grandfather’s lifetimes, and he found himself regarding both men with genuine fondness, especially his father, whom he had always loved, and whose solid, practical, confident presence could be counted on to deliver him from his present funk.

  “It’s God, all right,” Honus agreed, after C.B. had explained his theory about the enemy, and then they watched for a while as various pieces of detritus bobbed along in the current before coming to rest against the moose. The elder Whiting was a religious man who found God useful for explaining anything that was otherwise insoluble. “You better figure out what you’re going to do about Him, too.”

  Honus suggested his son hire some geologists and engineers to study the problem and recommend a course of action. This turned out to be excellent advice, and the engineers, warned Whom they might be up against, proved meticulous. In addition to numerous on-site inspections, they analyzed the entire region on geological survey maps and even flew the length of the river all the way from the Canadian border to where it emptied into the Gulf of Maine. As rivers went, the Knox was one of God’s poorer efforts, wide and lazy where it should have been narrow and swift, and the engineers concurred with the man who’d hired them that it was God’s basic design flaw that ensured that every paper cup discarded between the border and Empire Falls would likely wash up on C. B. Whiting’s future lawn. That was the bad news.

  The good news was that it didn’t have to be that way. Men of vision had been improving upon God’s designs for the better part of two centuries, and there was no reason not to correct this one. If the Army Corps of Engineers could make the damn Mississippi run where they wanted it to, a pissant stream like the Knox could be altered at their whim. In no time they arrived at a plan. A few miles north and east of Empire Falls the river took a sharp, unreasonable turn before meandering back in the direction it had come from for several sluggish, twisting miles, much of its volume draining off into swampy lowlands north and west of town where legions of black flies bred each spring, followed by an equal number of mosquitoes in the summer. Seen from the air, the absurdity of this became clear. What water wanted to do, the engineers explained, was flow downhill by the straightest possible route. Meandering was what happened when a river’s best intentions were somehow thwarted. What prevented the Knox from running straight and true was a narrow strip of land—of rock, really—referred to by the locals as the Robideaux Blight, an outcropping of rolling, hummocky ground that might have been considered picturesque if your purpose was to build a summer home on the bluff overlooking the river and not to farm it, as the land’s owners had been bullheadedly attempting to do for generations. In the end, of course, rivers get their way, and eventually—say, in a few thousand years—the Knox would succeed in cutting its way through the meander.

  C. B. Whiting was disinclined to wait, and he was buoyed to learn from his engineers that if the money could be found to blast a channel through the narrowest part of the Robideaux Blight, the river should be running straight and true within the calendar year, its increased velocity downstream at Whiting’s Bend sufficient to bear off the vast majority of trash (including the odd moose), downstream to the dam in Fairhaven, where it belonged. In fact, C. B. Whiting’s experts argued before the state in hastily convened, closed-door hearings that the Knox would be a far better river—swifter, prettier, cleaner—for all the communities along its banks. Further, with less of its volume being siphoned off into the wetlands, the state would benefit from the acquisition of several thousand acres of land that might be used for purposes other than breeding bugs. No real environmental movement in the state of Maine would exist for decades, so there was little serious opposition to the plan, though the experts did concede—their voices low and confidential now—that a livelier river might occasionally prove too lively. The Knox, like most rivers in Maine, was already prone to flooding, especially in the spring, when warm rains melted the northern snowpack too quickly.

  A more practical obstacle to C. B. Whiting’s alterations was that the Robideaux Blight had somehow been overlooked when previous generations of Whitings were buying up the river frontage. This parcel was owned by a family named Robideaux, whose title extended back into the previous century. But here, too, fate smiled on C. B. Whiting, for the Robideauxs turned out to be both greedy and ignorant, the precis
e combination called for by the present circumstance. More sophisticated people might have suspected the worth of their holdings when approached by a rich man’s lawyers, but the Robideauxs apparently did not. Their primary fear seemed to be that C. B. Whiting would actually come inspect the land they were selling him, see how worthless it was for farming, the only use they’d imagined for it, and promptly back out of the deal.

  Having no such intention, he purchased their acreage at what they imagined to be an extortionary price, and for years afterward they continued to believe they’d one-upped one of the richest and most powerful men in Maine, whose purchase of the Robideaux Blight just went to prove what they’d always known—that rich people weren’t so damn smart. C. B. Whiting, himself again after coming out of his funk, came to a conclusion every bit as dubious: that he’d trumped not only the Robideauxs, who’d had him over a barrel and were too ignorant to suspect it, but also God, whose river he would now improve upon.

  The dynamiting of the Robideaux Blight some seven miles upstream could be felt all the way to Empire Falls, and on the day in August when the blasting was complete C. B. Whiting knelt on the riverbank before his newly completed house and watched with pride as the freshly energized currents bore off what little remained of the moose, along with the ever-increasing mound of milk cartons, plastic bottles and rusted soup cans, all bobbing their way south toward an unsuspecting Fairhaven. The river no longer whispered despair as it had earlier in the summer. Reenergized, it fairly chortled with glee at his enterprise. Satisfied with the outcome, he lit a cigar, inhaled deeply of sweet summer air, and regarded the slender woman at his side, whose name, by no coincidence, was Francine Robideaux.

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