Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  She studied him for a long moment. “I had this terrible thought,” she said slowly, “that maybe you’d noticed my car and realized I was home.”

  “Cindy—” Miles began.

  “I can bear it that you don’t love me, Miles,” she said. “I’ve borne it all my life. But if I thought I made you want to run away …”

  “We’re old friends,” he assured her. “I don’t want to run away from you.”

  She gave him a smile in which hope and knowledge were going at it, bare-knuckled, equally and eternally matched. No, there was a God after all, Miles concluded, as he took his leave of her. This misery was His plan for us.

  Instead of thinking about God, what Miles should have been doing was paying attention to Timmy the Cat, because when he reached to slide the screen door open, Mrs. Whiting chose that moment to stop ringing her bell, thus releasing Timmy from her trance. In that same instant her deep, throaty purring stopped, and she reached for Miles, striping the back of his hand.

  “Oh, Timmy,” Cindy Whiting said when she saw what the cat had done, “you’re such a little pill!”

  “HAS IT EVER occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?” Mrs. Whiting said when Miles sat down opposite her in the gazebo. In asking this question the old woman managed to convey, as with all such queries, that she was not anticipating a response that would enlighten her. Whereas some people’s attitude suggested that perhaps they knew something you didn’t, Mrs. Whiting’s implied that she knew everything you didn’t. She alone had been paying attention, so it was her duty to bring you at least partially up to speed.

  She was elegantly dressed, especially for the backyard. If Cindy was already beginning to look dowdy, Mrs. Whiting herself—her hair cut and styled expertly, her tweed jacket and moleskin slacks smartly tailored, her wrists alive with jewelry, not scar tissue—looked like a woman who’d been enough of a good sport to give old age a try but then decided against it, much preferring youth. Somehow she’d negotiated for its return, not all at once, of course, but rather gradually, a minute, an hour, a day at a time, the clock hands ticking backward until, presumably, she arrived at a satisfactory vantage. Even spookier, Mrs. Whiting also radiated—Miles had no idea how—a sexuality that was alive and ticking. Something about her knowing smile hinted that she’d gotten laid more recently than Miles had, and that she knew it. As if she might even have considered him, briefly, as a sexual partner, then rejected the notion.

  At the moment she had positioned herself in a patch of weakening September sun, leaving Miles the chilly chair in the shade. Taking note of the arrangement, he couldn’t help recalling his brother’s observation that, far from dying, Mrs. Whiting was living, while those around her were relegated to a kind of limbo. With his back to the river, Miles’s view was of the sloping lawn and gravel path, bordered in white brick, that wound its way up to the house. Had she wished to, Mrs. Whiting might have widened the path, perhaps even paved it, so her crippled daughter would also have access to the gazebo. After all, it was the nicest architectural feature of the property, especially on a sunny afternoon, although today he thought he caught a whiff of something rancid in the air.

  “I suspect that’s occurred to anyone who’s ever seen a river, Mrs. Whiting,” he said. After his conversation with Cindy, Miles was in no mood for abstract philosophy. The silver bell sat on the table between them, and Miles had to suppress a strong impulse to toss it into the river. Not the River of Life, either. The old woman must have read his thought, because she picked up the bell and set it down again on her side of the table, well out of his reach.

  “My late husband …,” Mrs. Whiting began, then stopped. “Did you ever meet him?”

  “I don’t think so.” Miles had been away at college when C. B. Whiting had put a bullet in his brain. In this very gazebo, they said. In fact, whenever he met Mrs. Whiting out here, he made a conscious effort not to look too closely for evidence of the gunshot, a small piece of missing latticework, perhaps, or a bullet-splintered rafter.

  The old woman studied him for a moment, then shrugged. The ease with which she summoned the memory of a man who’d taken his own life—her husband, for God’s sake—always amazed him. It was almost as if she expected other people to be made uncomfortable by such recollections of him, not herself. “You probably did without knowing it. He wasn’t the sort of man you’d notice unless you knew he had money.”

  “You noticed him,” Miles couldn’t help pointing out.

  “True”—she chuckled—“and I just explained why. At any rate he was no more foolish than most men, I suppose, and yet you’ll never guess what he was up to when I met him. He was actually engaged in altering the flow of this very river. Spent a small fortune dynamiting channels and building guide walls and levees upstream, not to mention bribing state officials to allow all of this, simply so trash wouldn’t collect along our bank. He died imagining he’d succeeded, too, so how’s that for folly?”

  Miles shrugged, far too miffed with the old woman to pretend much interest in the arrogance of the rich.

  “But now the river’s gone back to doing what it wants, and what it wants is to wash up dead animals and all manner of trash on my nice lawn. That’s the lovely odor you noticed when you sat down. Which is my point. Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice. People speak of selfishness, but that’s another folly, because of course there’s no such thing. It’s a point I could never make your dear mother comprehend. In her own way she was like my late husband, except it was always human rivers she was trying to redirect.”

  Miles pretended to examine the scratch Timmy had given him on the back of his hand, a ragged tear that had already puffed up along its length, stinging and itching at the same time. It was probably true that Grace Roby had been foolish enough to believe she could change lives. No doubt she’d married Max with this very idea in mind. There was a difference, though. Her purpose was never to change the course of rivers so the garbage wouldn’t wash up on her shores. He considered making this distinction to Mrs. Whiting and immediately thought better of it. “You might’ve mentioned that Cindy was home,” he said.

  “She wanted to surprise you,” the old woman said, bending down to pick up something underneath the round table. To Miles’s astonishment, it was Timmy the Cat. There were times when he suspected there must be two of the little beast, since she never seemed to pass from one place to another but simply materialized in the middle of things. The screen door, Miles noted, was still shut. How had she gotten out, then crossed the wide expanse of manicured lawn without his noticing?

  Miles wiped away the blood with his handkerchief, eyeing Timmy warily and wondering, as he always did, why anyone would keep such a homicidal animal when there was a perfectly good river right out their back door. Timmy’s previous owner had had the right idea. At the moment, however, Timmy looked anything but homicidal. She burrowed under her mistress’s bosom and began to purr loudly, studying Miles with feline indifference, her eyelids closing slowly, as if heavy with sleep, then opening again to reveal urine-yellow orbs. “Which of them scratched you, my daughter or this one?”

  “I wish to God you’d put her down,” he said, having offered on numerous occasions to attend to the task himself. “And I don’t mean on the ground, either.”

  “Dear boy”—the old woman smiled—“when you’re upset, you’re careless with your pronouns. I assume you’re referring to the cat. Do correct me if I’m mistaken.”

  Miles sighed. “I’m afraid I’ve upset her. I didn’t mean to—”

  “Poor Miles,” Mrs. Whiting said. “You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Surely you know you’re not responsible for my daughter’s sad life. You were just a little boy when she had her accident.”

  In fact, that terrible event was one of his earliest and most vivid memories. Miles hadn’t seen the child run over, but peo
ple had talked about the accident for weeks, and the images lingered much longer in his horrified mind. The car had struck and then dragged the little girl, crushing both of her legs and fracturing her pelvis. She’d sustained serious head trauma as well, slipping into a coma shortly after she was hospitalized, and for several weeks it had appeared that she would surely die.

  The authorities conducted a frantic and prolonged search for the bright green Pontiac that had been reported speeding away from the scene. Miles still remembered how everyone in Empire Falls who owned a Pontiac had fallen under suspicion. At first it was assumed that the driver was probably local, because the accident took place on the Whitings’ side of the Iron Bridge. Back then there hadn’t been much on that side of the river except the Whiting property and the country club. Jimmy Minty’s father had owned a beat-up old red Pontiac at the time, and he always parked it in the shared driveway between his house and the Robys’, a reminder that he owned a car and they did not, at least most of the time. Max was always buying cars, but he seldom made payments on them, so they were invariably repossessed. When Miles was a boy he figured it was these repossessions that caused his father to disappear, and when he asked his mother if Max had been repossessed along with the car, the remark had delighted her and made him feel foolish for having made a joke he couldn’t understand.

  From his bedroom window on the second floor Miles had looked down at the Mintys’ red Pontiac, certain, despite the fact that it was the wrong color, that it must be the car that had run over the Whiting girl. Mr. Minty was a big man with a terrible temper, and he seemed to Miles just the sort to run over a little rich girl. He was forever appearing at their back door—though never when Max was home—and offering meat from his freezer. Grace, who usually invited people in, never did with Mr. Minty, who had a way of looking his mother over that made Miles uncomfortable. In fact, Grace always made sure the screen door was locked when she saw him coming. And here was the murderous vehicle right outside, probably waiting for Miles to cross carelessly behind it. But even as a boy he understood instinctively that his being run over wouldn’t cause nearly the sensation that Cindy Whiting’s accident had.

  And he was right. The fact that it was the Whiting girl had, of course, captured the imagination of everyone in Dexter County. That such a tragedy should visit a family historically shielded from misfortune had occasioned a wave of philosophizing, especially in the mill-workers’ neighborhoods. It just went to prove, people said, that God didn’t play favorites. He didn’t love the rich more than the poor, not really, and it took something like this to demonstrate this oft-doubted truth.

  Grace had not been sympathetic to such talk, which surprised Miles, because she’d always told him that God’s hand could be seen in all things. But she was adamant that it wasn’t God behind the wheel of that Pontiac, which caused Miles to wonder if she was taking God’s side in hopes that when He next decided to loose a little more misfortune upon the world, He’d remember who His faithful were.

  If Mrs. Whiting was right and Miles’s feeling of responsibility for Cindy was exaggerated, he came by it rightly, for in retrospect it seemed to him that his mother had been genuinely unhinged by the accident, as if it had somehow confirmed what she’d always feared—that the world was teeming with dangers. She was forever trying to use the accident to frighten Miles out of his tree-climbing, describing what would happen if he fell and asking if he wanted to be crippled for the rest of his life, like little Cindy Whiting. Of course, this argument made less than perfect sense to Miles, who saw being up in a tree as reducing his chances of being run over by a car. But Grace was determined and inflexible. Because she and Mrs. Whiting had given birth on the same day, in the same hospital, in his mother’s imagination he and Cindy Whiting had become psychic twins, or so he supposed. Right from the start Grace had sent the little Whiting girl birthday and Christmas cards, though Mrs. Whiting, to Miles’s knowledge, never reciprocated. After the accident Grace made sure that he understood they had a special duty toward the crippled child. If Miles had a birthday party, Cindy Whiting had to be invited. If they saw her in town with her mother, Miles was always instructed to go over and say hello. Cindy Whiting, she reminded him over and over, was a brave little girl who’d endured one operation after another. A terrible thing had happened to her, and that meant other people had an obligation to make nice things happen. This, Grace Roby believed, was a person’s duty on earth, God’s plan—spelled out in the Bible, to make life a little more fair—was for us to feed the hungry, to give warm clothing to those who were cold and drink to those who were thirsty. (Max, on his way out the door to his favorite tavern, always seconded this one.) And most important, it was our duty to give love to those who needed our affection. (Max was usually gone by the time his wife got around to the most important point.) In Grace’s opinion it was love that people needed most—more than food and shelter and warmth—and the best part was that love didn’t cost anything. Even poor people could afford to make a gift of it to the rich.

  Though his mother never actually told him so, Miles suspected that something, or maybe a cluster of things, had happened at the hospital when she and Francine Whiting were delivering their babies, something that caused his mother to forge her belief in the psychic link between the newborns. Her logic was not so hard to reconstruct. Two children born within hours of each other into such different circumstances, one rich, the other poor. No doubt the hospital staff would’ve made clear to Grace in a hundred small ways which was the important baby, and such a quiet and thoughtful woman couldn’t have failed to contemplate the very different destinies in store for her child and the child of a woman whose last name was Whiting, even if not so long ago it had been Robideaux. She might even have considered the unfairness of it all and wondered if babies were ever mistakenly switched in their bassinets, fate thwarted by incompetence. Not that such a switch was likely when one child was a boy, the other a girl, but still. How could a woman in Grace’s position not ponder such questions?

  Yet this explanation had never felt terribly compelling to Miles. For one thing, if memory served, even before Cindy Whiting’s accident, Grace seemed to consider her own infant the lucky one, the one God had blessed. Why? Miles had no idea. He didn’t know if his mother had been acquainted with Francine Robideaux before she married the richest man in central Maine, but he doubted it, which meant that Grace had no prior reason to suspect that Francine would make a poor mother. Any knowledge she had about the other woman would’ve sprung from their acquaintance at the hospital. Still, Grace had been a close and intuitive observer, and perhaps she’d simply seen the baby girl struggling at her mother’s meager breast and thus projected for her a hungry future. Whatever her reasons, Grace had always pointed the little Whiting girl out as someone important, someone for him to be especially kind to. The accident had not occasioned the connection but merely amplified it, so when the senior prom rolled around and Cindy Whiting didn’t have a date it fell to Miles to invite her—though by then his heart had been lost to a pretty girl named Charlene Gardiner, who was three years older than he and a waitress at the Empire Grill, where Miles had an after-school job busing dishes and washing pots, a girl who seemed to understand how devoted he was to her, who was unfailingly kind and affectionate and never allowed her many boyfriends to joke about him too harshly in his hearing, who sometimes even appeared to take his affection seriously.

  Unfortunately, according to Grace, Miles had no duty to love the Gardiner girl. True, Charlene was about as pretty as girls got in Empire Falls, Grace conceded. Still, she was careful to explain something she said he was too young to comprehend just then, though one day he would. “Charlene Gardiner isn’t really a girl,” she said, causing Miles’s jaw to drop. “I know she’s not that much older, but she’s already a woman and you’re still a boy.”

  Grace might’ve been right about the latter, but she’d been dead wrong about his not understanding that Charlene was a woman. That was what he liked bes
t about her, and his favorite fantasies concerned the various ways in which she might make him a man. Whereas Cindy Whiting, he suspected, would never make him anything but miserable, a prediction that had been borne out over the next thirty years, right up to the present moment.

  When Timmy the Cat raised her head, Mrs. Whiting obliged by scratching her neck. “I suppose I should put you down,” she allowed. “You’re a truly hateful little beast. Still, one does have to admire the intensity of your feelings.”

  “I don’t,” Miles said. “She either scratches or bites me every time I come here.”

  “Oh, it’s not just you, dear boy. She treats everyone who isn’t family with the most exquisite malice. She dug a furrow the length of the mayor’s forearm just last week—didn’t you, sweetheart?”

  “You should hold a raffle,” Miles suggested. “Ten dollars a shot and the winner gets to beat her to death with a baseball bat. We could use the proceeds to help finish off the new wing of the hospital.”

  The old woman clapped her hands in delight. “I don’t know why I’m always so surprised to be reminded of your sense of humor, dear boy.”

  “Did I say something funny?” Miles inquired.

  “You see? There it is again. You must get it from that reprobate father of yours. He called me again when you were gone, by the way. I had to threaten him with the police.”

  “I’ll speak to him.”

  “Does he have any clue what a funny little man he is?”

  “I don’t think so. A lot of it’s lost on me, actually.”

  “And your mother, as well, dear woman. Poor Grace was not blessed with a sense of life’s grand folly.” At this, Timmy shook her head, piston fashion, and studied her mistress in a way that suggested she was following this conversation with interest.

  “Actually, my mother loved to laugh.” Miles hated talking about his mother with Mrs. Whiting almost as much as with Jimmy Minty. “Life may be a grand folly, as you say, but it’s harder to appreciate the joke when you’re always the butt of it.”

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