Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Yes, I am aware that life is hard for some people,” Mrs. Whiting conceded, as if she’d heard this sentiment expressed somewhere before and supposed it might be true. “Still, I’ve always believed that people largely make their own luck. And you needn’t smile at that, Miles Roby.” For once she sounded almost sincere. “You think I married my luck, but that conclusion is both unkind and unthoughtful, and it does you no credit. There’s a world of skill and timing involved in marrying the right person. Especially when the girl in question comes from the Robideaux Blight.”

  “By way of Colby College,” Miles felt compelled to add, since being reminded of this was likely to annoy her. People who imagine themselves to be self-made seldom enjoy examining the process of manufacture in detail.

  “Dear me, yes,” Mrs. Whiting agreed, missing only half a beat. “Let us not forget Colby and the liberating effects of higher education. Though it doesn’t liberate everyone, does it?”

  Meaning himself, Miles understood. One of Mrs. Whiting’s great skills was rolling with the punches. Whenever she absorbed a blow, she came back out swinging. Miles settled in, prepared for his drubbing.

  “Still, a wise marriage is a rare thing, don’t you think?” she asked. “Most people make a complete hash of it. They marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can’t even remember what they were a few short months after they’ve pledged themselves forever. To the unhappily married, what it was that possessed them remains a lifelong mystery, though to observers their reasons are often painfully obvious. For instance, I’d wager you have no idea why you married.”

  Miles nodded. “You mean you’d bet if you could find somebody to bet with.”

  “So you admit you have no idea!” she cried. “Lovely. Now then, shall I tell you?”

  “No thanks.”

  “Come, come, dear boy, aren’t you the least little bit interested?”

  In truth, he was. Or would’ve been, had he believed Mrs. Whiting possessed any genuine insight. What she wanted to share with him, he felt sure, was her mean-spiritedness. “So, why did I marry, Mrs. Whiting?”

  “Oh, good,” she said. “I thought for a moment there you were going to be a party pooper. You married out of fear, dear boy.” Timmy again shook her head violently, as if to suggest she wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “Shall I go on?”

  “I thought fear was the reason men didn’t get married.”

  “Don’t be absurd. Just because people are forever saying silly things, that doesn’t make them true.”

  “So what was I afraid of?” Miles heard himself ask.

  “You really don’t know?” She smiled. Timmy yawned widely, as if to suggest that even she could answer this one. “Oh, my, it’s true. You don’t, do you? Well, then. This gives us the opportunity to test the old adage that the truth will set you free. I’ve never quite believed it myself, but—”

  “Mrs. Whiting—”

  She leaned toward him and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You married, dear boy, to escape an even worse fate. I suspect you’re ashamed of this, but really, you shouldn’t be. You may not know this about yourself, but what I’m about to reveal to you is quite true, I assure you. By nature you instinctively seek out the middle road, midway between dangerous passion and soul-destroying indifference. Your whole adult life has been a study in deft navigation, and I don’t mind telling you I’ve long admired the way you’ve charted your course. You chastise yourself—and don’t pretend you don’t, because I won’t believe you—for making a poor marriage, but that’s foolishness. You merely saved yourself, and self-preservation is the design feature we all have in common. Bravo, is what I say.”

  “Saved myself from what, Mrs. Whiting?”

  “Oh, surely you suspect, given so immediate a reminder. Think, dear boy. Remember. You willingly entered a bad marriage to save yourself from a worse one. You feared that if you didn’t marry soon, you’d find yourself at the altar with my daughter, because you were certain those were your mother’s wishes. You had enough of your father in you to cut yourself the best deal you could that didn’t involve the more elegant solution of simply running away. The Greyhound terminal was still operating in Empire Falls twenty years ago, but that would never have been an option for Grace Roby’s son. All those catechism classes convinced you that no one gets away scot-free. So you attained that safe middle ground. Maybe you couldn’t have what you wanted most, which was that girl with the knockers who still works for you at the restaurant—am I right?—but you were clever enough to avoid what you feared most, which was a poor crippled young woman, who was suicidally in love with you and whose pitiful devotion would’ve made your life one long, hellish exercise in moral virtue.”

  Mrs. Whiting was brushing her lap off now, Timmy apparently having jumped down at some point, though Miles didn’t recall seeing her do it.

  “So, here you are, moping about, doing your duty in daily penance instead of celebrating your achievement, as any sensible person would. And I do wish you’d say something instead of just sitting there looking gut-shot. Believe it or not, it was not my intention to hurt your feelings.”

  “What was your intention?”

  “To give you a badly needed heads up, dear boy. To point out that despite your considerable skill, you’re back in the soup. You’re about to become a bachelor again, are you not? Surely you don’t imagine that this … situation and my daughter’s return to beautiful Empire Falls are entirely coincidental?”

  No, now that he thought of it, he didn’t.

  “To be frank, I’m more than a little curious to see how you’ll handle this business the second time around.”


  She looked at him over the rim of her glasses. “Oh, please, spare me that tone of moral superiority. That you get from your mother. Frankly, it was the one tiresome, disagreeable trait in an otherwise charming woman. She couldn’t bring herself to be openly critical, but she was forever using that very same tone. No doubt she shared your mistaken opinion that my intellect is cold and uncaring, whereas in fact it is simply lively. A lively intellect, so much admired in a man, is seldom tolerated in a woman—or am I mistaken?”

  “Am I mistaken, or is this your daughter we’re talking about?”

  “Actually, I thought we were speaking about you. I feel my daughter’s plight, dear boy, and have done so all her life. Believe this or not, as you choose. But forgive me for speaking the truth here and pointing out that her predicament, though poignant, is not—compared to your own—terribly interesting. Fate intervened at an early age, and since her accident, my daughter’s life has been largely determined by forces beyond her understanding and control. Pity and fear, if I recall correctly, are the appropriate emotional and moral responses. But once fate takes the reins and free will is thrown from the saddle, there’s really little to be said, is there? You, on the other hand, are an actor, however reluctant, on life’s stage. Not everyone gets to choose, as you once did. And now you get to choose again. Don’t tell me you don’t find that extraordinary. I’m not saying I envy you, but I am curious. Will you choose the same, or differently? Most of your original options remain open. You could marry again—for instance, that girl with the knockers. After all, there’s that tiny voice in your head, the one you always turn a deaf ear to, which is forever asking, ‘Don’t I deserve a little happiness? Haven’t I been a good boy long enough?’ But then there’s the other voice, the one your mother was so instrumental in forming, that accuses you of selfishness, of not thinking of others … like poor, crippled Cindy Whiting. Doesn’t she deserve a little happiness? And this time around, you might just listen to that voice, because it’s the one that feels moral, or would if it didn’t trail those nagging considerations of self-interest—because of course the money that would accompany such a marriage would be nice and you’re tired of straining to make ends meet. Who wouldn’t be? If you started feeling too guilty, you certainly could tell yourself you wer
e doing it for your daughter, who’ll soon be ready to go off to college, and isn’t she the one who really matters? Oh, dear me, it is complicated. No surprise that people are always trying to simplify life. What’s that question our evangelical brethren are always asking? ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ What, indeed?”

  The breeze shifted then, and Miles caught another rancid whiff off the river, whether from the near bank or from the Empire Falls side he couldn’t tell.

  “Something tells me you have some advice for me.”

  She sighed. “I fear not, dear boy. Beyond clarifying your dilemma, I’m afraid I can offer very little indeed. Alas, there’s only one thing I’m quite sure of.”

  “And that is?”

  “My daughter may have suggested to you that her doctors believe her to be well?”

  Miles nodded.

  Mrs. Whiting, eyebrows arched, shook her head.

  IT WAS NEARLY THREE in the afternoon before Miles drove back across the Iron Bridge into Empire Falls. The day had gone gray by the time he pulled in behind the Rectum, the clouds framing the accusing steeple now heavy with rain. Which was not the worst of it. Seated on the porch steps, in apparently pleasant conversation, sat the old priest, Father Tom, and Max Roby, who looked up and grinned when his son switched off the Jetta’s ignition. After a few minutes, Miles having made no move to get out of the car, Max shuffled over and motioned for him to roll down the passenger-side window. Evidently Max felt safer with the entire width of the car between them.

  “What are you doing here, Dad?” Miles said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips.

  “Waiting on you.”

  “What for?”

  “I’ve been waiting on you for two hours.”

  Old Father Tom was still sitting where Max had left him, but he now fixed Miles with his baleful gaze. Though the old man’s lips were moving, he was too far away for Miles to guess whether any of the words they were forming might be “peckerhead.”

  “Let’s go to work,” Max suggested.

  “It’s about to rain,” Miles said, pointing at the sky.

  “Maybe not,” Max said.

  “It’s going to rain,” Miles assured him.

  “You should’ve come earlier,” Max said. “The sun was out.”

  “I know.”

  “You don’t need to pay me for the two hours I was waiting.”

  “I don’t have to pay you for anything.”

  Max considered the unfairness of this, then stared down at the Jetta. “What happened to your car?”

  “None of your business,” Miles told him, preferring not to explain. When he’d walked up to the Jetta in the drive outside the Whiting house, he saw a darting movement and suddenly remembered that he’d left the passenger-side window partway down. The car’s interior was now full of tiny floating particles of foam from the shredded passenger seat.

  “Don’t get mad at me,” Max said. “I didn’t do it.”

  “I know that.”

  “I didn’t make those clouds, either. I didn’t do anything. I’m just an old man.”

  Miles studied his father, whose stubble had a strange orange tint. “Your beard’s full of food. Cheetos?”

  “So what?”

  He had a point, and Mrs. Whiting, Miles sadly reflected, was probably right. People were just themselves, their efforts to be otherwise notwithstanding. Max was just programmed to be Max, to have food in his beard. Looked at from another angle, it probably was admirable that his father never battled his own nature, never expected more of himself than experience had taught him was wise, thereby avoiding disappointment and self-recrimination. It was a fine, sensible way to live, really, much more sensible than Miles’s manner as he went about his business, disappointed by his failure to scramble up ladders, blaming himself for his wife’s infidelity, perversely maneuvering himself into situations that guaranteed aggravation, if not outright distress. Maybe, as the old lady had suggested, it was all that catechism, its rote insistence on subordinating one’s will to God’s, so many of these lessons administered by the now senile priest who was seated a few yards away and giving him the evil eye. What in the world could these old goats have been discussing, Miles wondered.

  “Mrs. Whiting says you called her again,” Miles said.

  Max shrugged. “So what?”

  “You said you wouldn’t.”

  “No, I didn’t,” he said with breathtaking dishonesty. Max firmly believed there was a brief statute of limitations on all promises. “Her and I are related, you know. The Robys and the Robideauxs. Same family.”

  “You don’t know that,” Miles said. “You just wish it. Besides which, it doesn’t give you any right to call her up late at night begging for money.”

  “She never answers during the day,” Max explained. “She lets her machine pick up.”

  “People like you are the reason other people get answering machines to begin with,” Miles told him. “In fact, people like you are driving a lot of modern technology.”

  “All I wanted was enough money to get down to the Keys. If you’d cough it up, I wouldn’t have to ask her. You’re a closer relative than she is, you know.”

  “She says if you call again, she’ll sic the cops on you.”

  Max nodded thoughtfully. “They’ll probably send that Jimmy Minty. My God, he was a stupid kid.”

  Not as stupid as yours, Miles would’ve liked to confess. Leaning over, he rolled up the window, effectively concluding the conversation, and got out. At least outside the air wasn’t drifting with foam particles. Miles walked around and opened the passenger-side door to study the shredded seat, then wisely turned and walked away from the whole mess. After all, the destroyed cushion wasn’t the worst of it. Because leaving the Whiting house he’d done something so perverse that even now, fifteen minutes later, it nearly took his breath away. What, he wondered, had he been thinking?

  What he’d done was stop back in the house on his way out and invite Cindy Whiting to accompany him to next weekend’s high school football game. Homecoming, it was. Dear God, he thought now, staring up at St. Cat’s flaking steeple. Why didn’t he just climb the ladder all the way to the top, step off the son of a bitch, and be done with it? The truth was, Mrs. Whiting’s cynical assessment of his character had rattled him. Maybe the old woman didn’t know everything about him, but she knew enough—which made him want to do something to prove her wrong, not just about human nature, but about his nature. He’d wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to act unselfishly, thereby validating his mother’s belief in the necessity of sacrifice. Except he now suspected that by asking Cindy out on what she’d no doubt consider a date, he’d proved the very point he hoped to challenge. The middle road. He’d permitted guilt to maneuver him into offering a weak, hypocritical gesture he was pathetically unprepared to follow through with. Twenty years ago, at his mother’s request, he’d asked Cindy to the prom, and now he’d done almost the same identical thing again, and he could imagine Mrs. Whiting sitting across the river in the gazebo and having a good chuckle at his expense. Once again, she’d played him like a fiddle.

  And the subject of the beer and wine license, which he’d promised his brother he would raise, had never come up.


  THREE WEEKS into the fall semester, Tick looks up when the cafeteria door opens, and the principal, Mr. Meyer, enters with the virtually comatose John Voss in tow. Dressed as usual in a too large black T-shirt with a stretched-out neck, thrift-store polyester golf slacks, and tennis shoes with broken laces, the boy is carrying before him, with both hands, a lumpy, crumpled paper bag, from which Tick deduces that she’s to have a luncheon companion. If “companion” is the right word for a boy Tick has never heard speak. Had Justin not featured John Voss in his constant heckling of Candace, Tick wouldn’t even know what to call him. The guys on the football team, who take special glee in tormenting him, just call him Dickhead. After materializing in their midst—what, two years ago?—John Voss has
remained a mystery. Tick has no idea where he lives, why he’s silent, why he dresses as he does, why he doesn’t respond to external stimuli. Obviously, he doesn’t have a single friend, which makes him unique, since the school’s other pathetic social outcasts have formed a loose society. Actually, the person John Voss most resembles, now that Tick thinks about it, is Tick. At least now that she’s no longer part of Zack Minty’s crowd. If it weren’t for Candace pumping her for information during art class, Tick herself would probably go all day without speaking a word to anyone. For all she knows, in the eyes of the other kids at school she might look as pathetic as this silent boy now standing before her.

  At the moment, he’s staring at the floor, awaiting a command from Mr. Meyer, who, lacking one, studies the boy for a moment as you would a uniformed guard at a wax museum, waiting for him to move so you can be sure he isn’t part of the exhibit. Is it possible, Tick wonders, for a boy to possess less natural grace? He looks like he’s been taking lessons in the art of human movement from a Disney World robot. When Mr. Meyer tells him to take a seat anywhere he wants, he shuffles to the other side of the cafeteria, sits down, and stares at his brown paper bag for an exaggerated beat before opening it and peering inside. Whatever is inside does not immediately motivate him to further action.

  Mr. Meyer continues to watch for a minute, looking especially clueless even for a high school principal. To Tick he resembles a soldier who’s been parachuted into the middle of a battlefield and instructed to make weapons out of whatever materials are at hand. When he motions for her to join him outside in the hall, she reluctantly complies.

  “I’ve found someone to have lunch with you,” Mr. Meyer reports once the door is safely shut between them. Tick can’t help but stare at him. The fundamental dishonesty of adults never fails to amaze her, their assumption that you’ll believe whatever they say just because they’re grown-ups and you’re a kid. As if the history of adults’ dealings with adolescents were one long, unbroken continuum of truth-telling. As if no kid was ever given a reason to distrust anyone over the age of twenty-five. In this instance Mr. Meyer would apparently have Tick believe that in the two weeks since allowing this solitary lunch privilege, he’s been thinking of nothing except finding her a companion. Whereas Tick doubts that she’s crossed his mind until provoked by the larger problem of what to do with this wretched boy, who by virtue of being friendless, voiceless and graceless has become the target of lunchroom bullies who consider it fine sport to hit him in the back of the head with empty milk containers, broken pencils, thumb-shot rubber bands and any other handy missile, launching these objects from all the way across the cafeteria for maximum impact.

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