Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  But no sooner had he parked in front of the main house, climbed out of the Jetta, and started toward the front door than the precise nature of Mrs. Whiting’s surprise became clear, and it stopped Miles dead in his tracks. The far door of the two-car garage, the one that usually remained shut, now stood wide open, revealing in its bay the old beige Lincoln with its wheelchair license plate. At this sight, Miles Roby, a grown man, had to summon every ounce of intestinal fortitude he possessed to mount the steps and ring the bell instead of getting back in his car and leaving a thick patch of burning rubber on the asphalt. Which was precisely how Max would’ve handled the situation, Miles knew, and standing dutifully at the front door, he wondered, as he often had throughout his adult life, what it was in his character that prevented him from embracing his father’s cheerful, sensible cowardice in the face of unpleasantness. Max had exactly zero desire to suffer himself, and even less to share the suffering of others. To his way of thinking, this reluctance required neither excuse nor explanation. It was the people who enjoyed suffering who had some explaining to do.

  Before Miles could come to any conclusion as to why his father’s excellent instinct for self-preservation had been left out of him, the door grunted open and there was Cindy Whiting, struggling as she always had struggled from the time she was a child, to get out of her own way, to wrestle into compliance the mangled body that had thwarted her so relentlessly. She’d graduated, Miles noted at once, from the canes she’d been using the last time he saw her—maybe five years ago?—to a sturdy, four-legged aluminum walker. She must have made the transition fairly recently, because she didn’t seem to have mastered the contraption yet. Either that or opening a door from behind such a device was sufficiently difficult that you could spend a lifetime getting the hang of it. In order to reach the doorknob you probably had to place the walker right up against the frame, but then the walker itself would prevent the door from opening, except in short, clumsy, humiliating stages, one thump at a time.

  “Cindy,” Miles said through the half-open doorway, feigning surprise and delight. “I had no idea you were home.”

  Her eyes were already full of tears. “Oh, Miles,” she exclaimed, covering her mouth with her free hand, overcome with emotion. “I so wanted to surprise you. And I have, haven’t I?”

  “You look wonderful,” Miles said—an exaggeration, perhaps, though she did look surprisingly healthy. She’d put on about ten pounds, and the weight had heightened her color. Cindy Whiting would never be beautiful, but she could’ve been attractive if she’d had good advice and not been drawn to dowdy clothes and hairstyles at least a decade too old for her. At twenty she’d already begun to resemble the spinster. At thirty she’d settled into the role. Now, at forty-two—Miles knew because they were born on the same day in the Empire Falls hospital—she seemed to have discovered some hint of womanliness, or even forgotten girlishness.

  “Come in,” she said, “and let me get a look at you.” But when he stepped forward, he stubbed his toe against the walker, causing Cindy once again to grab hold with both hands.

  “I’m still the picture of grace, as you can see,” she said, illustrating her point by pretending to lose her balance, and Miles, who throughout his life had practiced a necessary hard-heartedness toward her, felt something in him soften. Since she was a teenager she’d tried to deflect her tragic awkwardness with self-mockery, chiefly pratfalls, which she never seemed to realize didn’t make a very good joke. For one thing, these make-believe spasms were indistinguishable from her real ones, and they invariably sent people lunging to catch her. Worse, her feigned stumbles sometimes resulted in actual ones, and then she often fell even more violently than she would have had it occurred naturally. Her wrists, Miles knew, were full of surgical pins, but apparently her need to mock herself was greater than her fear of broken bones.

  In a similar circumstance Miles would’ve given another woman a hug, but then, another woman would’ve understood that she was supposed to let go, that the hug meant nothing more than “Hello, it’s been a long time.” This woman would have used the opportunity to clutch him like grim death, sobbing moistly, her makeup dissolving into his shirtfront, “Oh, Miles. Oh, dear, dear Miles.” The last time he’d seen her, she’d raised her two canes into the air like a TV cripple at an evangelical revival, and pitched forward into his terrified embrace, forcing him to hug her almost as tightly as she was hugging him to keep her from slithering down his trunk to the ground. Which was why he was grateful—God forgive him, he was!—for this new aluminum contraption that allowed him to lean forward and give her a chaste peck on the cheek, to him a more successful greeting than he might’ve expected from someone who’d been in love with him since grade school and, as proof, had twice attempted suicide, citing Miles as the reason.

  “So,” he said clumsily, in the throes of a rhetorical dilemma that not many people, he suspected, had ever faced: what precisely to say to a woman who has attempted to end her life on your behalf. “How are you, Cindy?”

  “Well, Miles,” she replied. “I’m so, so well. The doctors are amazed,” then adding, as if aware of the implausibility of this, “They say it’s a miracle. It’s as if my psyche just suddenly decided to heal. I haven’t had any setbacks in …”

  Here she stopped to think, apparently doing the math in her head, though Miles had no idea what numbers she might be adding or subtracting, whether they were large or small, representing days, weeks, months or years. While she calculated, Miles took in the entry hall and living room of the Whiting home and felt, as always, vaguely uncomfortable. While the rooms were spacious, the ceilings were low, creating in Miles, a large man, not so much a sense of claustrophobia as of a great weight bearing down. Mrs. Whiting was a collector, and the walls were covered with original art, but most of the paintings, he thought, were not well displayed. The larger pieces overpowered the walls on which they hung. Even his own favorites, some smaller John Marins, looked out of place, outdoor Maine scenes held captive indoors against their will. Conspicuously missing were family photos, all of which Mrs. Whiting had donated to the old Whiting mansion downtown. Neither Whitings nor Robideauxs were anywhere in evidence.

  “Anyway,” Cindy Whiting said, apparently having given up, “it seems I’m to begin life again, like a normal person, at age thirty-nine. You may congratulate me.”

  “That’s wonderful news, Cindy,” Miles said, swallowing this outrageous lie whole. Miles, having been born on the same day, was the one person in the world not likely to forget how old she really was. On the other hand, her desire to be thirty-nine instead of forty-two might, he supposed, be evidence that what she’d told him was true, that something in her psyche had healed. After all, shaving off a few years was something normal women were known to do. Maybe Cindy had learned to replace big lies—for instance, that Miles Roby was in love with her, or one day would be—that had compromised her sanity with smaller, more harmless and optimistic ones. Like imagining that one sunny day you’ll wake up able to climb a ladder and paint a church steeple, right up there in the middle of the blue sky. It could happen.

  “Where will you live?”

  These words were no sooner out than Miles realized they formed a hurtful question, which he hadn’t intended.

  “Why, right here, of course. Where else?”

  “Of course. That’s not what I meant,” he quickly lied. “I guess I was wondering if you’d live with your mother or—”

  “Only until I can find a place of my own,” she said, smiling at the thought. “A grown woman should be able to come and go as she pleases, don’t you think? Entertain who she pleases?”

  Before Miles could offer an opinion on the conduct of grown women, there was a loud hissing sound behind him, and he didn’t need to turn around to know that his nemesis had joined them. The cat had been called Timmy from kittenhood, when, despite her actual gender, she was still thought to be male because of her aggressive viciousness. The tiny animal—soaking wet, its fur
matted, its yellow eyes wild with fright and rage—had appeared one morning on the Whiting patio, where it howled so balefully that Cindy Whiting, home on a furlough from the state facility in Augusta, had taken it in and nursed it to health. Someone presumably had tossed the kitten into the river somewhere upstream, expecting it either to drown or be dashed on the rocks at the falls. A scrap of burlap had been attached to one of its talons, suggesting that Timmy had started her river journey in a sack—perhaps, to judge from the depth of her psychosis, in the company of her siblings. At any rate, once she got her strength back, Timmy was one pissed-off little critter, whose single ambition in life seemed to be to shred the world around her. Neutering seemed a good idea, though, the vet she was taken to for castration had quickly pointed out, an impractical one, given her gender.

  To Miles, Timmy’s gender seemed less the issue than her metaphysical nature, which appeared to be less feline than demonic. Horace Weymouth, who in his capacity as an Empire Gazette reporter had interviewed Mrs. Whiting at her residence more than once, swore that Timmy was the old woman’s familiar, and Miles, who noted that the cat’s sudden appearance often coincided with the mention or advent of Mrs. Whiting, was inclined to agree.

  Since Timmy had no testicles to snip, she’d been returned home intact and relegated to the basement with her litter box and a week’s supply of food, to see if this dark confinement might provide her an opportunity to reflect that her new owners weren’t to blame for any past inhumane treatment. It did not. In fact, the animal did not take kindly to imprisonment, which might have reminded her of the inside of the burlap bag. There was a small gap between the floor and the bottom of the basement door, and from the top step Timmy was able to reach underneath and rattle the ill-fitting door about as loudly as a full-grown man would have been able to do with his hand. At first no one had been willing to believe that a small, angry cat could make such a racket all by herself, but every night Timmy shook the door until she was let out; then, to celebrate her freedom, she began shredding the upholstery on the dining room chairs. At the end of a week, Mrs. Whiting instructed the housekeeper to go to the drugstore and buy herself and Cindy and Mrs. Whiting earplugs. Good ones.

  That night, even with the earplugs, they’d heard Timmy screaming and rattling the door to the basement, but sometime after midnight the noise ceased, and the three congratulated themselves that the animal’s spirit was finally broken. The next morning, when the housekeeper came into the kitchen to release the—she imagined—now tame and chastened cat, she got the shock of her life. Indeed, she could not quite believe what she was staring at. The animal’s head, blood-fanged, was upside down on the tile floor under the bottom of the cellar door, its two front paws seemingly pinned to the floor when the door had come crashing down. That was the conclusion the poor housekeeper came to, based on the evidence of her senses. She knew, of course, that the door couldn’t have come crashing down. This door swung open and shut on two copper hinges just like all the others. But with the cat’s bloody head and paws motionless underneath it, the door appeared to have operated like a garage door, rising into and descending from the ceiling. It had apparently come slicing down like a guillotine when Timmy had attempted to cross the threshold. So powerful was this optical illusion that the woman’s reason was unable to conquer it until Timmy moved. Alas, the resulting apparition of a now squirming, bloody, disembodied, undead cat head sent the woman shrieking from the house.

  What had happened, it was later deduced, was that the poor woman had interrupted Timmy’s escape. Since midnight the cat, ignoring her bleeding gums, had methodically chewed her way through the bottom of the door. The housekeeper had entered the kitchen just when the hole had gotten large enough for Timmy, squirming on her back, to poke her horrible head and part of one shoulder through. At the housekeeper’s sudden appearance, she’d frozen in surprise.

  It had been, no doubt, a ghastly sight, though only slightly more ghastly than the one Miles was treated to now. Timmy’s teeth were not bloody from having chewed through a door, but she’d pulled her lips back and was making sure Miles could see every razor-sharp tooth. Her fur was standing straight up, and her back was arched in the manner of B-movie cats when a ghost, visible to pets but not humans, has just entered the room. Miles, no ghost, instinctively backed away.

  “Oh, Timmy,” Cindy Whiting said, risking her precarious balance to bend down and stroke the beast. “Quit that. Can’t you see it’s only Miles?”

  At this, Timmy proceeded to hiss and spit even more emphatically. As Miles, who knew from experience that the owners of savage pets seldom offered much in the way of protection from them, began looking around for a weapon, he heard a distant bell ringing somewhere in the rear of the house. When he turned back toward Timmy, the cat had vanished.

  “That’s Mother,” Cindy said, nodding in the direction of the bell. “She must’ve heard you pull up, and now she’s impatient.”

  Miles was still scanning the room for Timmy the Cat.

  “She’s waiting out in the gazebo,” Cindy explained. “She made me promise to bring you straight out, so you go along.” She began to negotiate a slow, awkward turn with her walker. “I’m slow.”

  “That’s okay,” Miles said, taking her by the elbow, rattled by both the cat and his embarrassing fear of it. The bell continued to ring as they made their slow progress, and when they arrived at the patio door, Miles saw the cat splayed across the inside of the sliding screen, about halfway up, purring loudly, her claws gripping the mesh. The screen was rent in several places, suggesting that this was not the first time Timmy had performed such an acrobatic feat.

  “She just loves the sound of Mother’s bell,” Cindy said sweetly.

  Outside, Miles could see the old woman sitting in the gazebo, facing the river with her back to them and ringing her bell as if she expected the sound to make fish jump at her command. Everyone else certainly did. Why not the fish? Grace Roby had claimed she could hear her employer’s bell ringing in her sleep. Miles again felt his heart soften, considering the saddest truth of Cindy Whiting’s existence: her choice in life was between living at home and answering that bell and remaining at the state hospital in Augusta.

  Miles took a deep breath and turned toward her before heading outside. “Cindy,” he said softly.

  A mistake. Clutching the walker with her left hand, she made a grab for Miles with her right, snagging his shirtsleeve and holding on with amazing strength. “I heard about you and Janine,” she said. “Your divorce. I’m so sorry, Miles.”

  He decided on the simple truth. “Me too.”

  But Cindy didn’t seem to register his tone.

  “You never loved her, Miles,” Cindy told him. “I know you didn’t.”

  “That’s what she claims, too,” he admitted, sad that two women as different as Janine and Cindy should have arrived at the same depressing conclusion.

  Letting go of his shirt, Cindy now caught his fingers in her viselike grip. “I lied, Miles,” she told him, tears starting to spill now. “I’m not sorry about your divorce. It gives me a slender thread of hope—”

  “Cindy—” he said, trying to pull away without upsetting her fragile balance. The bell outside was ringing louder now.

  “I still love you, Miles. You see that, don’t you? It’s the one thing the lithium can’t touch. Did you know that? The drugs wash into your brain and make things easier to bear, but they can’t touch your heart! They can’t alter what’s already there, Miles.”

  She clasped his hand to her breast so he could feel the truth of what she was saying. Now it seemed to Miles that Mrs. Whiting’s bell was playing through a bullhorn inside his head. He tried to withdraw his hand but could not, at least not without toppling Cindy. “I should go—”

  “Don’t, Miles.”

  “Cindy,” he said, more harshly than he’d planned, as he finally broke free and she again grabbed hold of her walker. “Cindy, please.”

  When the walker wobbled, he
caught her by the wrist, the same one she’d slashed twenty years ago. “It’s okay,” she said, visibly gathering herself. “Go.”

  There can’t be a God, Miles thought. There just can’t be. “Cindy,” he repeated.

  “No, go,” she said, backing away now, dragging the walker. “I’m fine.”

  Miles took a deep breath, then heard himself say, “How about I give you a call sometime this week?”

  At this suggestion her face lit up so quickly that Miles briefly suspected he’d been tricked. “Really, Miles? You’ll call me?”

  Now the task was to swallow his annoyance. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, a man with more reasons than he could count.

  “Oh, Miles.” Her hand again went to her mouth. “Dear, dear Miles.”

  Dear, dear God.

  He got as far as the sliding patio door before she called after him. Her expression had darkened into the one he remembered from when she was a girl, a look of terrible recognition. “Miles?”

  “Yes, Cindy?”

  “Outside? When you got out of your car? You stopped and just stood there for a minute. You looked … like you wanted to run away.”

  Miles located the lie he needed. “I realized I’d forgotten some stuff I needed to give your mother. You know how she is—receipts for all expenditures.”

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