Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bobs once, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chunks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who lies neither often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. The snorters, like Mrs. Roderigue, and the barkers, like Walt Comeau, are the worst.

  “John has the same scheduling difficulty you had because of art class,” Mr. Meyer continues, studying her to see how this second lie will play, his Adam’s apple bobbing again. John Voss has no such scheduling difficulty, Tick knows. Except for computer studies, at which the boy is reportedly brilliant, he’s in all low-track classes, and art fits this program like a glove.

  When Tick remains silent, Mr. Meyer breaks into a nervous sweat. What is this—two comatose kids? If coming to the aid of floundering liars weren’t against Tick’s religion, she’d be tempted to toss him a rope. She hasn’t forgotten his kindness the afternoon that Candace sliced her thumb open with the Exacto knife, and she hasn’t forgotten that she repaid his kindness and concern with duplicity by slipping the knife into her backpack, where it has remained ever since.

  “Actually, I have a favor to ask you, Christina,” Mr. Meyer continues, his Adam’s apple stationary now, so this part of it must be true. He nods at the door. “John Voss is a very unhappy boy. More unhappy than anyone suspects, I fear.”

  He’s lowered his voice another notch, perhaps worried that the unhappy boy might find out about his unhappiness and be unhappier still. “There is an element in our school that finds in this unfortunate young man an excellent candidate for ridicule and even worse forms of cruelty.”

  He pauses to study Tick here, hoping maybe that she’ll contradict him by testifying that no such element exists. About this, he would very much like to be wrong. “We have a good school here,” he quickly adds, as if fearful that his criticism has gone too far. “But not everyone …” As his voice trails off, his Adam’s apple starts bobbing again, confirming Tick’s belief that omissions, too, can be lies, perhaps the most dangerous ones.

  “What John Voss needs,” Mr. Meyer says, placing a hand on her shoulder, “is a friend.”

  Tick would like not to, but she takes an involuntary step backward anyway. She doesn’t like being touched by adults. The Silver Fox, who is forever dragging a paw across the top of her head when he passes by, has no idea how badly this gesture makes her want to shower and wash her hair.

  Mr. Meyer notices the reflex and quickly removes his hand. “I don’t mean …”

  Tick waits patiently for the man to explain what he doesn’t mean.

  “It’s not that you should be best pals or anything like that,” he says, mopping his glistening forehead with a cloth handkerchief. “I’m just thinking how … nice it would be for that boy to know there’s somebody his own age who doesn’t …”

  Consider him a maggot, Tick thinks, since completing the sentence isn’t all that hard. She completes it a few other ways, too, substituting snail, rodent, cockroach, lizard, toad for maggot, while Mr. Meyer continues to wrestle mightily with the dilemma of teen cruelty.

  “You may have heard that some boys assaulted him in the cafeteria yesterday,” he says, abandoning completely his lie about having at long last found Tick a suitable lunch companion. When Tick nods, almost imperceptibly, he continues. “This is the second such incident in recent …”

  Now even common words used to denote time—days? weeks? months? what?—seem to have deserted him. Mr. Meyer looks hopefully at Tick, as if she may be able to supply the needed information. Or perhaps he is awaiting her promise that, should he entrust the unfortunate John Voss to her company, she herself will be able to withstand the apparently universal impulse to beat the boy up.

  Or else, just possibly, the principal is aware how big a favor it is that he’s asking. He’s been trying to pretend it’s a small, good thing, but they both know better. He’s asking someone on one of the lowest rungs of the high school’s social ladder—a person nearly as friendless as the boy she’s to befriend—to descend to the very bottom of the ladder itself, into the damp darkness where those dwell who have no hope or recourse but to wait patiently for their eventual rescue in the form of graduation (if applicable), college (ditto), a job (in Empire Falls?), marriage (implausible) or death (finally).

  “Maybe you could elicit the help of one or two of your friends,” Mr. Meyer suggests, as if it’s suddenly occurred to him that this job is too big for a skinny, already unpopular kid. “Maybe the girl from Mrs. Roderigue’s art class? The one who cut herself?”

  Tick can’t help but smile at this, recalling Candace’s horror at being jokingly linked with John Voss. “Candace?”

  “Yes, Candace,” Mr. Meyer agrees quickly, thrilled that Tick should recognize the very girl he is referring to, or perhaps simply relieved that Tick has at last uttered a sound in his presence. “Or whoever,” he adds just as quickly, so as not to seem like he’s telling her how to do her job.

  “Okay, I’ll try,” Tick hears herself promise, feeling her heart plummet. Nor does it cheer her to see the weight of moral responsibility lifting off Mr. Meyer’s thick, round shoulders and descending onto her own slender, bony ones. The man seems to stand straighter, having set this responsibility down, and suddenly looks as if he’d like to skip down the corridor, whistling all the way. But then his face clouds over again and Tick suspects that she’s misjudged him. “The Minty boy …,” he begins.

  “Zack?” Tick says. There’s only one Minty boy.

  “Is he a friend of yours?”

  “He used to be.”

  Mr. Meyer nods thoughtfully, then glances toward the cafeteria. “That boy’s suffering … I don’t mean to say that Zachary Minty participates directly, but I don’t think any of this could happen without his encouragement. But perhaps I’m being unfair to him.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about being unfair to Zack.” Tick regrets these words as soon as they’re out, perceiving that they amount to an implied alliance or, worse, a shared worldview between herself and the principal. She senses, too, that going into battle with Mr. Meyer at her side would be a lot like going into battle alone.

  Clearly, though, her remark has restored the man’s happiness. “How are you and Doris getting along these days?” he asks, using Mrs. Roderigue’s Christian name as the gesture of intimacy that seals their deal.

  “Great,” Tick says, swallowing hard, since she can see no advantage in telling the truth: that she’d as soon the woman were dead.

  BACK INSIDE THE CAFETERIA, Tick decides that the most attractive of her options is to pretend the conversation with Mr. Meyer never took place. For one thing, the principal will quickly forget that he has asked this favor of her, if he hasn’t already. He’ll likely remember their agreement only if he runs into her in the next day or so, and she’s confident of her ability to steer clear of him, given her anonymity in the halls of Empire High. Unless their eyes actually meet, he won’t notice her; if their eyes should meet, the worst that can happen is that he will remember, in which case he’ll ask what kind of progress she’s made. And Tick knows how easily adults are satisfied with vagaries. A shrug of the shoulders and a “Not bad
, I guess” will usually do the trick.

  Almost as attractive as this scenario, which risks little and requires less, is another. She can go over to the boy and say, “So, you want to eat lunch together?” She can make clear from the tone of her voice that she’s been put up to this by Mr. Meyer and is merely making good on a promise extracted under duress. This second option has the added advantage of being the truth, assuming that’s ever an advantage. The point is, the boy will want no part of her charity, and that will be the end of it. After all, he did select a table on the other side of the cafeteria, and if that gesture wasn’t clear enough, he chose a chair facing away from her. In all probability he wants no more to do with her than she does with him.

  By far the least attractive possibility is to make an honest effort, and at first Tick thinks that she won’t, that it’s simply too much to ask. The only problem is that while John Voss has aimed himself away from her, she, unfortunately, is facing him, and she does not relish the idea of spending the rest of her lunch period staring at the victim’s accusing back. Having eaten half the chicken salad sandwich her father made for her at the restaurant that morning, she has no interest in the rest. What she’d planned to do with the last twenty minutes of the period was read another chapter of her Picasso book, which she’d finished last week and which so inspired her that she’d immediately begun again. She simply marveled at how content the man was to be different, to go his own way, self-reliantly, as Emerson said you should in that essay they’d read back in the first week of English class. It’s a pretty neat trick, that, and Tick would like to learn how it’s done, though she knows the book doesn’t reveal the how of it, at least not on first reading. Still, just knowing that such self-confidence is possible is reassuring to her, and reading a few pages during lunch would help her make it through the afternoon.

  But in order to concentrate, she’d have to get up and change seats so that her back would be to John Voss’s back. When she gets up from her chair to do precisely this, she’s surprised to discover herself shouldering her backpack, picking up her lunch leftovers, and making her way across the cafeteria. At the boy’s table, when she sets her backpack down with a thud on one of the plastic chairs, he looks partway up, maybe to chin level, then back at his food. He’s eating what looks like tuna fish from a plastic container; whatever it is, its odor is particularly strong. Tick herself is well on her way to becoming a vegetarian, and most meat and fish smell rancid to her.

  “I liked your egg,” she offered, an awkward opening gambit.

  “You don’t have to talk to me,” the boy says quickly and rudely, so rudely, in fact, that Tick considers herself absolved of further moral obligation. Where he gets off offering her an attitude she can’t imagine. No wonder he gets the shit kicked out of him every other day. But instead of retreating, she pulls out a plastic chair, then sits and stares until he looks up again, almost, but not quite, meeting her eye. Already she’s made progress, it occurs to her. The boy has actually spoken, which means he’s not a mute.

  “Maybe I want to,” she says, quickly swallowing the lie, Meyer-fashion, and allowing just a touch of rudeness to edge into her own tone. “Maybe I feel like telling you I liked your egg.”

  “Uh-uh,” he responds, shoveling the oily, stringy lunch substance into his mouth, causing Tick to wonder what it would be like to kiss a boy after he’d eaten something so disgusting. “He told you to.” The boy allows the pronoun to hang there in the air. It’s as if, for John Voss at least, Mr. Meyer is still in the cafeteria with them. Spooky. Also, each time the boy glances up, his eyes hesitate for a split second on Tick’s sandwich before dropping again to his own ghastly fare.

  “So how come you dream about eggs?” she finally decides to ask.

  “I don’t dream about eggs.” What a dumb thing to dream about, his tone of voice seems to suggest. Each time he speaks, the shock of hearing his voice at all takes her by surprise: it’s a perfectly normal, if somewhat angry-sounding, voice, and there’s nothing so very odd about it except that before now she’s never heard him use it. His voice, Tick concludes, is the one normal thing about this otherwise deeply weird boy.

  “Well, the assignment was to paint your most vivid dream,” she reminds him.

  “I never dream,” he says. “So I couldn’t do the assignment.”

  “Everybody dreams.”

  He meets her eye for the first time now, reminding her of something, she can’t quite think what. “You’re one person,” he says, as if to suggest that’s just as well, that he wouldn’t have wished her to replicate.

  “True,” she allows. “So?”

  “So how does that qualify you to know what everybody in the world does or doesn’t do?”

  Tick, having already had this conversation with her father, feels pretty confident of the intellectual terrain. “It’s called an inference,” she says. If she were certain she could speak with such authority in class, she wouldn’t be so quiet. “I infer that no two snowflakes are alike. I don’t have to examine every one.”

  The boy doesn’t miss a beat. “That’s not a very good example,” he says, as if he, too, may have had a similar conversation before. “When you say that I must dream because you do, you’re inferring that nobody can be different from you, not that everybody must be similar.” His eyes fall on her Picasso book. “Wasn’t he different?”

  This she’d have to think about. “In degree,” she decides, pleased to discover that this is what she actually believes, not just something she’s saying to keep from losing an argument. She’s even more pleased to see her companion shrug as if it didn’t matter. Tick herself has shrugged enough to know that this is what you do when it does matter. Or, more precisely, she infers that one of his shrugs means more or less the same thing as one of hers. “So how come you’re thinking about eggs?”

  He shrugs again, as before, so Tick pays particular attention when he says, “It’s just something my mom said once. If chickens had any idea what was in store for them, they’d stay where they were in their eggs.”

  Ah, a philosophical position.

  “She was actually frying eggs at the time,” the boy continued. “I’m not sure she understood that those particular eggs were never going to become chickens. My mom wasn’t all that smart—according to Grandma, anyhow.”

  Tick hesitates, then decides to ask. “Is your mother dead?”

  “That’s a possibility,” he says, as if it were a matter of scientific curiosity only.

  Tick tries to puzzle this out. She likes to understand things, hates to admit when she doesn’t, especially if she suspects she’s missing something obvious. Another leading question just might result in ridicule, however, so she waits until it becomes clear that John Voss has said all he intends to say on this subject. “I don’t get it,” she finally admits.

  “You don’t get it,” he snorts, the contemptuous kind of response that keeps people from even bothering.

  Angry now, Tick takes the bit in her teeth and says, “No. I don’t get it.”

  Finally the boy says, “My dad left first. Then my mom remarried, and they left. After that I came here to live with my grandmother. Now do you get it?”

  He’s finished his lunch by now, the smell of it still thick in the air between them. When his eyes pause again on Tick’s half-eaten sandwich, she says, “I can’t finish this. You can have it if you’re still hungry.”

  “I’m full,” he says, but he doesn’t look even remotely full, so Tick watches his Adam’s apple, expecting to see it bob. The boy has a long, thin neck and an Adam’s apple that juts out from beneath his pale skin like the edge of something foreign and jagged. Tick can tell from the rash on his neck that he’s recently begun to shave and doesn’t really have the knack yet. He can handle his upper lip and his chin, but not the less regular topography of his pimply neck, where the hair is tougher and grows at unpredictable angles. There are individual hairs he’s apparently been missing for weeks, because they have begun to cu

  When the boy’s eyes flicker at something over her shoulder, Tick glances at the cafeteria door, where Zack Minty’s face is framed, motionless, in one of the small rectangular windows. She nearly flinches, since something about the stillness of the face in the tiny window suggests that it’s been there for a long time, observing them. She’s just about to tell her companion not to worry, that the cafeteria door is always locked after fifth period, when Zack flings it open and saunters inside. Some people, Tick thinks, should never be entrusted with keys, and Mr. Meyer is one of them. Having unlocked the door to let John in, he’s forgotten to lock it back up again, this after lecturing Tick at the beginning of their solitary lunch arrangement that this door must remain locked, that she wasn’t to open it for any of her friends.

  As the door clangs shut, Zack Minty pauses dramatically, as if to give both his former girlfriend and Empire High School’s favorite object of derision time to consider the absurdity of imagining that he of all people could ever be kept out of anyplace he wanted into. In no apparent hurry to join them, he wanders over to the bank of vending machines, hitting each button on the soda machine with the heel of his palm and waiting for something to drop. When nothing does, he places a hand on each side of the machine and leans on it, as if the effort of having made so many simple requests and the disappointment of having been refused have been too much for him. He rests his forehead against its smooth surface for a long beat, then begins to rock the whole thing back and forth until it slams into the wall and there’s the sound of breaking glass inside. Letting the machine fall back into place, he waits. Still nothing.

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