Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Tick watches this entire exhibition with more fascination than fear. Meanwhile, John Voss seems to have slipped back into his coma. When Zack gives up on the machine and comes over, pulling out a chair next to Tick, she digs three quarters out of her pocket and slides them in front of him. Zack hasn’t looked at her yet, but is staring at John Voss as if searching in vain for a reason for this kid’s existence. Eventually he notices the quarters, though he can’t seem to compute a reason for them either.

  “What’s this?”

  “I thought you wanted a soda,” Tick says.

  “Nooooo,” he replies, fingering one of the coins and walking it across his knuckles. He once tried to teach Tick this trick, and she knows how proud it makes him. Sitting so close, it’s clear that he’s grown a couple inches over the summer, but more than that, he’s bulked up, causing Tick to wonder if he’s on steroids. He’s definitely dumb enough, but last spring he swore to her he wouldn’t, though their breaking up might’ve absolved him of this promise.

  He’s still good-looking, though, she has to admit, good-looking enough to make her wonder, as she did all last year, what he wants with her. He could have a really cool girlfriend if he wanted one. Candace isn’t the only one who considers him a major hunk.

  “I didn’t want a soda,” he explains. “What I wanted …”

  The quarter continues to dance over his knuckles.

  “… was a free soda.”

  And with this the quarter, which had come to rest between his thumb and forefinger, shoots across the table and hits John Voss in the forehead, hard, just above the left eyebrow. The boy barely flinches, though it had to hurt. When Zack reaches for a second quarter, Tick sweeps both remaining coins into a side pocket of her backpack, where she hears them click against the Exacto knife she keeps meaning to slip back into the supply cupboard in art class the next chance she gets.

  “So,” Zack says, “who’s this? Your new boyfriend?”

  “No,” Tick says, maybe just a little too quickly, since Zack is quick to smirk. “We were just talking. And you’re not supposed to be in here.”

  Zack shrugs and goes back to staring at John Voss. A red spot has appeared where the quarter struck the boy’s forehead, and Zack may be wondering, as Tick is, how he can keep from rubbing it.

  “The door wasn’t locked,” Zack says. “And I have a hall pass.” He shows her the pass, signed by Mrs. Roderigue, which in itself is a minor mystery, since he doesn’t have a class with her. But then, Zack always has whatever is required. It’s one of the more amazing things about him, actually, and Tick is surprised to have forgotten this over the summer. Last year, whenever they went to a movie, he’d have two tickets without having to go to the box office. If one of his friends showed up unexpectedly, he’d produce a third ticket. Or a fourth. Always secretive about how such things came to him, he’d just smile under direct questioning. He apparently liked to foster the impression that people who were loyal to him would be taken care of.

  Sliding the pass back into his pocket, he turns to the boy. “Why don’t you go away?” he suggests.

  John Voss treats this as one of the best ideas he’s heard in ages, practically jumping to his feet and gathering his things.

  “My old girlfriend is going to explain why she doesn’t like me anymore.”

  The strangest part of this statement is that it appears heartfelt. Zack’s point, if she understands him correctly, is that big, stupid, cruel people have feelings too, and she’s hurt his.

  Tick watches the boy walk to the far corner of the cafeteria and sit down with his back to them. She hadn’t expected much in chivalry from this kid, but she’s still surprised by such unapologetic cowardice. He’s apparently come to accept humiliation as his lot in life, perhaps even made it his friend.

  “Billy Wolff sprained his ankle in practice,” Zack says. “That means I’m starting outside linebacker this weekend. You going to the game?”

  “I don’t know,” Tick says. The stench of the boy’s food has departed with him, mostly, though the plastic container is still there on the table, its lid sealed shut. The fishy smell has been overpowered by Zack’s cologne, and Tick notices that during the summer he, too, has taken to shaving daily. Either his stubble is less resistant, or else he’s mastered the technique that has eluded John Voss. “The gang’s going to hang out afterward,” he says. “You want to come?”

  Tick wishes she didn’t, but the truth is she does. Only three weeks into the fall semester and she’s already tired of being friendless. She misses her friends, if that’s what they really are, or at least being part of something. Maybe someday she’ll be self-contained like Picasso, but not yet. After meeting Donny on Martha’s Vineyard she vowed she’d never fall back in with Zack Minty, because it wasn’t worth it. And she’s no fool. She knows it won’t be long before he’ll start belittling her again, undermining her slender confidence, making fun of the things she cares about, saying Picasso was a fag. Worse, he’ll be trying to make her jealous by flirting with prettier girls. Tick understands herself well enough to know she’s prone to jealousy. She doesn’t like this about herself and would change it if she could, but she doesn’t know how. After a while, Zack won’t be content to belittle her and make her jealous. He will begin to treat her like shit, and there won’t be any way out, because by then she’ll begin to believe the things he’s saying. And even that isn’t the worst. Tick doesn’t even like to think about the worst, though last spring before they broke up Zack promised nothing like that would ever happen again.

  “Candace is going,” Zack adds, as if—who knows—this might be just the enticement needed.

  “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe.”

  “Maybe,” he repeats after taking a deep breath, as if the concept of “maybe” needed to be mixed liberally with oxygen before being swallowed. He picks up the plastic lunch container and pries up the corner with his thumb, and the air is suddenly rancid again. “I’ve changed a lot since last spring,” he says.

  “So Candace tells me,” she says, in case he’s wondering if his message was conveyed. The smell makes her want to gag, though Zack doesn’t seem to notice.

  “It just makes me really angry that you won’t give me another chance,” he blurts out. They’ve had this conversation before, of course. Zack believes fervently, devoutly, in second chances. Also third and fourth chances. Tick suspects this issues from his devotion to sports, where repeated losses and even the most grotesque behavior never prevent you from playing again. You can get suspended for a game or two, but there’s no such thing as a lifetime ban; so to his way of thinking, he’s served his suspension and now it’s her fault for trying to impose a greater penalty than the league has the authority to enforce. When he says it makes him angry, he isn’t kidding. She can tell. Nor does his anger strike the boy as evidence against him. Who wouldn’t be angry, is what he’d like to know. This is some kind of unfair, after all. A guy made you this angry, you’d knock him on his ass, and if he got up, you’d go at it. Later, you’d shake hands and it’d be over. With girls you never get anywhere because nothing ever really gets settled. They say maybe, which might as well be fuck you.

  Frustrated, he now wishes he hadn’t sent John Voss away, Tick can tell. “I got an idea,” he says. “Let’s invite your new boyfriend to come along. Hey, Dickhead!”

  No response from the boy.

  “Is he deaf,” Zack says, almost pensively, “or does he think there are two dickheads in here?”

  There are two, and Tick comes very close to saying so. Instead she says, “Don’t, Zack. Leave him alone.”

  “Hey, Dickhead,” Zack calls again. “Don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking to. Turn around.”

  The boy rotates in his chair without looking at them. As always, he studies the floor.

  “That’s better,” Zack says.

  “Zack,” Tick says, wishing that the sound of her voice didn’t contain so much pleading, “don’t be mean.?

  “What’s so mean about asking him if he wants to hang out after the football game? How’s that mean?”

  “That’s not what you’re doing.”

  “It isn’t?” he says. “You’re telling me I don’t know what I’m doing? You know what I’m doing better than me?”

  “Just leave him alone.”

  “Listen up, Dickhead,” Zack says. “No hard feelings, okay? What’s your name, anyway?”

  The boy glances up briefly, then down again.

  “His name,” Tick says softly, “is John Voss.”

  “Hey, John Voss! You want to hang with us after the game?”

  Does the boy make a sound? Tick can’t tell. Apparently Zack Minty can’t either, because he looks at her, then back at the boy. “Hey, John Voss. Was that a yes, or what?”

  This time they both hear him say, “Okay.”

  “You hear that?” Zack says to Tick. “It’s okay with John Voss.”

  “If you leave him alone,” Tick says, “I’ll go, okay?”

  Zack is about to call something else to the boy, but when he hears this he stops and looks at Tick with the kind of smile that almost dispels her misgivings. A smile full of … what? Something she needs. She’d like to think it’s love, and maybe love is in there somewhere, though she suspects it’s not the major ingredient. What, then? Gratitude? Relief that on third and long, things were going to work out after all?

  “Hey, Dickhead—I mean John,” he shouts. “You hear that? Tick’s going too! What a great time we’ll all have, right, John?”


  “You aren’t mad at me now, are you? About that quarter? That was a shitty thing, John, I admit. We’re still buddies, though, right?”

  Again, nothing.

  “Just nod your head if we’re still buddies, okay, John Voss?”

  He nods.

  Zack doesn’t even see this because he’s looking back at Tick. He takes her hand and she doesn’t resist. “That’s great, John,” he calls, still looking at her. “Thanks for the second chance, John. I mean it.”

  “Let’s just go, okay?” Tick whispers, not wanting to look over at the other boy. Getting to her feet also gives her an excuse to draw back her hand. As if to second the motion, the bell rings, ending sixth period.

  “Okay, then, John,” Zack calls, picking up the plastic container. “See you Saturday.”

  Together, he and Tick start toward the cafeteria’s double doors. Hoping to prevent him from stopping at John’s table, she reaches out and tugs at his sleeve, but he easily pulls free.

  “I just got one question, okay?” Zack says, tossing the lunch container onto the table in front of the other boy. “Just what the fuck have you been eating?” And suddenly he’s laughing so hard he’s unsteady on his feet. “Because I have to tell you, it smells like something somebody already ate before you got to it, buddy,” he says. “I’d watch out for that in the future, John Voss. No pre-chewed food, okay? That’s my advice.”

  Outside in the corridor, which is already full of jostling students, Zack slumps against the wall. He’s laughing so hard that tears are rolling down his cheeks. Several kids witness this and begin laughing too, though they have no idea why. Which leaves Tick, solemn-faced, in the minority. She’s seen Zack in these moods before, though, and she knows the real danger has passed. He’ll stay manic now for a while, which means she can ask her question without fear.

  “Why do you always have to be such an asshole?” she says.

  Which Zack considers the funniest thing yet. He doubles over, laughing so hard he can barely answer. “I have no idea,” he wheezes, putting his arm around her so they can merge into the stream of bodies. She wishes it weren’t so, but it feels good to have his arm around her, good to be so close to so many kids all headed in the same direction. She knows better than to glance over her shoulder at the small rectangular windows of the cafeteria doors, but she does so anyway and regrets it immediately, wishing she hadn’t glimpsed John Voss taking a hungry bite out of her leftover sandwich.


  JANINE ROBY SAT at the end of the bar at Callahan’s drinking seltzer water with a squeeze of lime and practicing her new signature—Janine Louise Comeau—on a stack of cocktail napkins, while her mother changed a beer keg. Unless the damn courthouse in Fairhaven fell down, which it might, just to thwart her, Janine and the Silver Fox would be marrying soon, and she wanted her signature to be second nature when the time came, not like at the end of the calendar year when you kept writing the wrong year on your checks halfway through January. Or, if you were like her husband, Miles—correction: soon-to-be-ex-husband, Miles—halfway through March. Which made her smile. It was just as well he wasn’t the one who had to adopt a new name and signature, because she doubted he was up to it. If there was a worse creature of habit than her husband—correction: her soon-to-be-ex-husband—Janine sure hadn’t met him. A human rut was what he was, bumping along in his groove from home to the restaurant, from the restaurant to the damn church, from the church back to the restaurant, and from the restaurant back home (back when it was his home). One night, weeks after they’d separated and Miles had moved into the apartment above the restaurant, he’d turned up in her bedroom. It had given her a start, waking up like that and seeing him there at the foot of the bed, looming over her and Walt, and her first thought had been that Miles had come to kill them. Then she saw him pull his shirt over his head and toss it on top of the hamper, and she knew he’d closed the restaurant and made his exhausted way home by rote. He must’ve come to when Janine turned on the end-table lamp, because the light sent him scurrying after his discarded shirt like a burglar. Where another man might have taken advantage of his mistake by acting on the impulse to slit their throats, Janine could tell from the expression on his face that if he’d had a knife, the only throat he’d have slit would have been his own.

  Actually, what Miles reminded her of was the plastic figures of her brother’s hockey game, back when they were kids. The surface of the board represented the ice rink and was full of slots, each one occupied by a stick-wielding plastic figure who moved forward or backward in his slot. This hadn’t been a terribly successful gift. Their parents had concluded that Billy wasn’t old enough for it, because the first thing he did was rip the plastic figures out of their slots, thinking, perhaps, that the game would be more fun if the players could go where they wanted, like real hockey players. How was the kid to know that underneath the board were big, bulging discs that kept the plastic men stable? Once liberated, they looked ridiculous, like a miniature platoon of clubfooted soldiers who happened, incidentally, to be armed only with hockey sticks. Worse, they simply could not be induced to stand up like men. Janine had understood long ago that if you somehow managed to extract her soon-to-be-ex from his ruts with the idea of setting him free, you’d have the same result. Free Miles Roby and he wouldn’t even be able to stand upright.

  “Those cocktail napkins cost money, you know,” Bea said when Janine had gone through about half the stack. Janine could fit about three Janine Louise Comeau’s on the back of each napkin, but only two on the front, thanks to Callahan’s leprechaun logo. “What the hell’s the matter with you, anyhow?”

  Janine took a fresh napkin and signed her new identity on it below the little Irish freak. “I was just thinking of Billy,” she explained. “Remember that hockey game you and Daddy bought him for Christmas?”

  “Yes, I remember it,” Bea said, leaving about half a dozen napkins there on the bar by her daughter and moving the others out of harm’s way. “I remember every toy that child destroyed, which was every single one he touched. It took him about a New York minute to yank those little bastards out of where they belonged. Then he cried until we promised to buy him another one.”

  Janine tuned out most of her mother’s nostalgic recollection. Her little brother had been killed at the age of nineteen when a car he’d jacked up crashed down on him, and she hadn’t meant to think abou
t Billy at all. She’d been happily reflecting on the shortcomings of her husband—correction: soon-to-be-ex-husband, the Human Rut—when Billy just crept in. So, since thinking about her brother had made her sad and depressed, she went back to thinking about Miles, which made her happy and depressed. Depressed because he’d always be Miles, happy because she’d soon be shut of him.

  When she’d finished autographing the rest of the cocktail napkins, Janine consulted her watch. Her afternoon aerobics class was just shy of half an hour away, if she could last that long. For Janine, late afternoon was always the worst part of the day, the stretch she couldn’t handle alone, which was the only reason she visited her mother, who drove her nuts. She knew from experience that once she got back to the gym and got Abba pounding on the big speakers (“Mama Mia! How can I resist him!”), she’d be fine. There was no better appetite suppressant than vigorous exercise, and by the time she finished the high-impact aerobics session at four, and then the low-impact one at five, the worst of her inner demons would be back on the leash. She’d be able to sit down to a reasonable dinner with Walt, who’d taught her how to quit eating when she started to feel full instead of plowing on through until she was sated. After a sensible dinner she’d be content until bedtime, when the hunger dogs would start baying again, but by then she could make them heel because she’d be exhausted from the workouts. And as Walt was always reminding her, exhaustion trumps hunger. There’d also be sex, another excellent distraction.

  Right now, though, she was hungry enough to eat the soggy lime wedge floating in her seltzer. The disgusting pickled pigs’ feet swimming in brine in a gallon jug halfway down the bar actually looked delicious, and Janine could imagine herself getting down on the floor and gnawing on one like a dog, cracking the bone with her back teeth and sucking out the marrow. Her mother, intuiting her misery, put a bowl of beer nuts in front of her, munching a small handful herself to demonstrate how good they were. “Mmmmm,” she said.

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