Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  One thing Miles had decided for sure was that he wouldn’t attempt the steeple, nor would he allow his father to, though the old man was game. Miles had hoped maybe he might summon the courage to do it himself if he went slow, and earlier that week, after sending Max home, he’d borrowed the key from Father Mark and climbed up the narrow stairs into the belfry. Miles could feel the dread welling up as he climbed, but he was okay as long as he remained in an enclosed, windowless space. Once he pushed open the trapdoor and tried to stand in the belfry, though, he knew that painting the steeple was flatly out of the question. He knew he’d never be able to climb a ladder this high, or stand on a platform either, not without hanging on to whatever was handy with both hands. In fact, he’d not been able to rise further than his knees there in the steeple, knowing that if he stood it would be possible to tumble over the waist-high railing. Even from this penitent posture he’d caught a quick glimpse of the landscape below, extending all the way across the river to Mrs. Whiting’s house and beyond, and suddenly he wondered whether Cindy Whiting, if she could see him frozen in this cowardly posture, clutching the railing with both hands, might not be able to rid herself of her lifelong affection. It had taken him half an hour to find the courage to back down into the hole and pull the trapdoor shut over his head.

  “Max is the one doing most of the talking,” Miles observed in response to his friend’s question about what the two old men could possibly be talking about.

  “Confessing his sins, do you think?”

  That possibility hadn’t occurred to Miles, though it made immediate sense. Max was a terrible braggart, and the old priest deeply resented being barred from the confessional. The one would prove a treasure trove of stories of the very sort the other seemed to hunger for. Max’s confessions would be colorful, dramatic, various and educational, lacking little save repentance, but, Miles wondered, were demented priests still vested with the power to forgive sins anyway? Max had always been blessed in his ability to pass through life without ever suffering consequences, and it’d be just like him to find a loophole now in the form of a priest willing to forgive his myriad sins without requiring contrition.

  “You may be on to something,” Miles admitted, now studying the old men more carefully. Max was talking and gesturing, the priest nodding enthusiastically.

  “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. I suspect your father is heaven-sent. Just what Tom needs.”

  “Max Roby? On a mission from God?”

  “Think about it. Tom’s always been an old-school pastor. The emphasis for these guys has always been avoiding sin.”

  “That’s old-fashioned?”

  Father Mark shrugged. “To the extent you never have to come to terms with your own humanity. What wisdom would a truly blameless man have to offer us sinners? What comfort could he provide?”

  “Something tells me this isn’t party-line Catholicism you’re espousing here.”

  “Depends on who’s throwing the party,” the other man admitted. “You know what I mean, though. Tom’s never exactly been a warm, understanding presence among his flock. Like a lot of the old-timers, he’s always seen himself as an enforcer. Dirty Harry with a collar. On your knees, punk. Fifty Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys—and don’t let me catch you even thinking about that again or I’ll have to get really rough.”

  “People used to like that,” Miles pointed out. He remembered liking it himself, as a boy, thinking there was someone out there who was above it all, who knew what was right and whose job it was to see to it that you did too.

  “Maybe,” Father Mark said. “My point is, Tom could stand some humanizing.”

  “In that case,” Miles allowed, “he’s talking to the right man.”

  “CHEAP BASTARD,” Max said, counting the bills Father Mark had given him before stuffing them into the front pocket of his paint-splattered pants. The passenger seat and floor of the Jetta were now paint-flecked, thanks to Max’s refusal to change into clean clothes when they quit for the day. He made no distinction between work clothes and other clothes, and since he had started helping Miles at St. Cat’s, the old man’s shirts and pants and shoes were all paint-smudged. When people pointed this out, he offered his customary “So what?” Few men, Miles reflected, lived so comfortably within the confines of a two-word personal philosophy.

  “Did you even say thank you?” Miles asked as they pulled out of the driveway.

  “Why should I?” Max said. “I worked, didn’t I?”

  “I told you we were working for free and you agreed.”

  “That doesn’t mean he can’t give me money if he feels like it. You’re the fool, not me.”

  Miles turned toward the restaurant. Tick was working in the back room tonight, so he’d give her a hand. He also wanted to check in and see how John Voss was doing, and made a mental promise not to fire the new kid no matter how big a mess he was making of his new responsibilities.

  “Of course I can see where you’d be embarrassed to take money,” Max said. “You climb up two rungs onto a damn ladder and you’re hanging on for dear life.”

  “You want me to drop you off somewhere, Dad?”

  “He’s a queer, you know,” Max said. “That young one?”

  “Where did you get that idea, Dad?”

  “That’s what the geezer told me,” Max added hastily. “I wouldn’t know myself one way or the other.”

  “Father Tom’s senile, Dad. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

  “Oh, I noticed right away,” Max said. “I like him better this way. But knowing you, you probably approve.”

  Miles squinted over at his father. “Of senility?”

  “No, of queers,” Max clarified. “We were talking about queers.”

  “No, you were saying you thought Father Mark was gay, and I was saying you don’t know what you’re talking about. As usual.”

  “Queer’s what I said, not gay. You’re just mad because you didn’t get paid and I did.”

  “No, Dad, I’m not. I’m thrilled, in fact. Maybe you can make it through the weekend without hitting me up for a loan.”

  “Everybody’s got needs,” Max said, leaning forward to push the button on the glove box. “Just because I’m sempty don’t mean I’ve stopped eating, you know.”

  “You should remember those end-of-the-month needs when you’re sucking down beer at the beginning of the month,” Miles suggested. “You mind telling me what you’re doing?”

  “Your glove box won’t open.”

  “You know why, Dad? Because it’s locked.”

  “Locked?” Max looked flabbergasted. Just yesterday it hadn’t been locked when he went through it and removed the sawbuck that had gotten him through until payday. He clearly regarded finding the glove compartment locked now as a disappointing development. Like arriving someplace for dinner, assuming you’d be welcome, and finding your place setting in the cupboard.

  “It’s locked to keep out people who have no business being in there,” Miles explained.

  If Max was offended by this inference, he didn’t show it. Instead he leaned forward, feeling under the dash. “That little lock wouldn’t keep anybody out,” he said. To illustrate, he thumped a spot underneath with the heel of his hand and the glove box popped open. “A guy down in the Keys taught me that,” he said, clearly pleased that he’d been such a good student. “I could show you if you want.”

  Miles pulled over to the curb, put the car in Park, leaned across his father and rummaged through the sprung compartment until he located the twenty he’d put there in the morning as a hedge against emergency. The bill safely in his shirt, he pulled back into the street.

  Max studied his son’s shirt for a moment, as if to memorize the exact location of the pocket for future reference. “You never take advantage of all the things I’ve learned in life,” he said. “A man doesn’t get to be sempty without learning a thing or two, you know.” When Miles failed to respond, he added, “Or maybe you think you know everything alr
eady.”

  “I know you’re not going to get this twenty-dollar bill,” Miles said, glancing over at him. Max shrugged, as if to suggest that only time would tell. He reminded Miles a little of Harpo Marx, who wouldn’t dispute the ownership of a twenty because he knew something you didn’t when you put it in your pocket—that the bill was on a string. In fact, the resemblance between his father and Harpo was so uncanny just then that Miles patted his pocket to make sure the bill was still there. “You’d have swiped it, too, wouldn’t you? Even though you got paid five minutes ago and the money’s still warm in your pocket, all you can think about is what might be in my glove box since the last time you looked.”

  Max ignored this. He’d taken out the real-estate booklet again and was leafing through the pages of million-dollar houses on the Vineyard like a prospective buyer. “Wasn’t it you who was just telling me I should remember my future needs?”

  At the red light, Miles stopped, grabbed the pamphlet, stuffed it back in the glove compartment and slammed the door shut. No doubt about it. Max could bullshit God Himself. In fact, Miles wondered if God would even know what He was up against. When the time came, he hoped He would attend to the matter first thing in the morning, because at the end of a long day, Vegas odds would make Max the runaway favorite.

  “If I was you,” Max offered, “I’d start courting that crippled Whiting girl.”

  “And you wonder why I never come to you for advice,” Miles said. He had absolutely no intention of revealing that he and Cindy Whiting were going to the homecoming game tomorrow. Perhaps Max would forget about the game and not go. Perhaps no one would see them there together and report back to the old man. Perhaps pigs would fly.

  Max didn’t say anything until Miles failed to dodge a pothole and the glove box door dropped open again. “If all I had to do to get my hands on ten million dollars was marry a cripple, I’d marry her.”

  “I know you would, Dad. Then you’d leave her.”

  “No, I wouldn’t,” Max said, fiddling with the lock mechanism. “I might take a vacation or two when I felt like it, though.” He closed the door again, but it immediately popped open.

  Miles just looked at him until the light turned green.

  “You had a screwdriver in there, I could probably fix that for you,” Max offered.

  “You already fixed it great, Dad,” Miles said, accelerating through the intersection and recalling that Mrs. Whiting herself had pointed out how much easier his life would be if he married Cindy. “Just do me a big favor and don’t fix anything else, okay?”

  Max crossed his legs and stared out the window, the sprung door of the glove box resting on his knee. He contented himself with this view for about a minute, then pulled out the real-estate guide again. “You married that cripple, you could buy this place you want so bad.”

  “Dad?” Miles said. “Could you not refer to her that way?”

  “What way?”

  “As a cripple. Could you not do that?”

  “What should I call her?”

  “How about this? Don’t call her anything. In fact, I can’t think of any reason for you to refer to her at all. She’s nothing to either one of us.”

  Max paused. “Same family. The Robys and the Robideauxs.”

  “Don’t start in again,” Miles warned him. “You’ve got even less chance of getting your hands on their money than you have of getting the twenty in my shirt pocket.”

  When Max didn’t say anything to this, Miles again discreetly checked his shirt pocket to make sure the old man didn’t have it already. The bill crinkled reassuringly against the fabric.

  “I knew a guy in the Keys used to call himself a cripple all the time,” his father said. “ ‘Max,’ he’d say. ‘Don’t ever be a cripple.’ ”

  “Good God,” Miles said.

  “Don’t get mad at me, is all I’m saying,” his father said. “It wasn’t me that ran over her.”

  “No,” Miles agreed, “you were lucky. All you hit was the mayor’s little dog.”

  “Unlucky, you mean,” Max said. “It was his daughter’s, not his. Ran out right in front of me—couldn’t have been helped even if I was sober. Happened right over there.” Max pointed at a quiet, shady neighborhood of once elegant homes, most of which, lately, had gone slightly to seed. One of them, Walt Comeau’s, had a For Sale sign out front.

  “No, I meant lucky,” Miles insisted. “If it had been a child, you wouldn’t have been able to help that, either. You got off easy.”

  “Would’ve been less fuss over a lot of kids,” Max recalled. “You’d think I had run over a child the way everybody carried on.”

  “I don’t—”

  “If your mother was still with us, she’d tell you to marry that crippled girl, same as me. And if she told you to …”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling at this. Mrs. Whiting had used the same tactic.

  “… you’d do it. Then we’d have ten million to split up.”

  “That’s what you think,” Miles said. “If Mom was still alive, she and I would have ten million. You’d be shit out of luck.”

  Max considered this possibility. “You know, the way you don’t like me, I’m surprised you won’t pay me to go away. I would, you know. I had five hundred dollars in my pocket, I’d head down to the Keys right now. That’s all I’d need.”

  “Then how come you’re always calling me for money when you’re there?”

  “You’re my son. You’re supposed to help me out a little every now and then.”

  Again, Miles couldn’t help smiling. “Did it ever occur to you that you’ve got it backward, Dad? Aren’t parents the ones who are supposed to help their kids?”

  “Works both ways,” Max said.

  “Not in this family,” Miles assured him. “In this family it only works one way and we both know which way that is.”

  Max managed a ten-count silence. “Five hundred is all I’d need,” he finally said. “Once I get down there, I’m fine. All the tourists think I’m a Conch. You know what a Conch is?”

  “Yeah. It’s the local term for a bum who won’t bathe, right? An old reprobate who wears food in his beard and goes around sponging off strangers.”

  This time Max was quiet for a good twenty beats, causing Miles to look over at him. Experience had taught him that it was impossible to hurt his father’s feelings, but sometimes he worried that one day he’d go too far.

  Finally his father chuckled. “Funny you should mention sponges,” he said. “That’s what they called the old sponge divers. Conchs. They were Greeks, most of ’em. I could maybe swing it on four hundred.”

  Miles had to admit that getting rid of his father for an entire Maine winter for four hundred dollars was tempting—not to mention a bargain. The first problem was that Miles didn’t have it; the second was that he knew Max. You could pay him to go away, but that didn’t mean he’d stay away. No, paying Max to go away would be like giving money to a blackmailer; once he’d determined your ability and willingness to pay, he’d be back. Eventually you’d have to murder him or go broke.

  “Bookstore and café with adjacent two-bedroom cottage. Idyllic setting. Bicycle to town and beaches,” Max read from the ad Miles had circled.

  “Eye-dill-ick,” Miles said slowly, correcting his father’s pronunciation. After returning from Mrs. Whiting’s house earlier in the month, the horror of having asked Cindy out still burning in his mind, he’d made two mistakes, the first out of fear, the second out of carelessness. He’d called the realtor to find out the asking price of the property, and then he’d written it down above the listing. Actually, he’d written only the first three digits, which may have been what was now confusing his father. He hadn’t intended to write anything down, of course, but the figure the realtor had quoted him had taken his breath away, and he’d written down those first three digits to make it seem real. By the time he stopped writing, he’d already known the truth—that even if Mrs. Whiting were to will him the restauran
t, and even if he managed to sell the grill and Janine turned their house at a profit, the sum realized from both sales wouldn’t make the down payment on the Vineyard property. And even if he could finagle the down payment, he’d be saddled with a mortgage he could never meet by selling books and espresso. The broker had offered to put him in touch with the current owners to discuss the whole issue of profitability, but Miles had thanked him anyway and hung up, gut-shot by those first three digits.

  Unfortunately, Miles Roby was not like Walt Comeau, who could easily indulge such a fantasy. Over the last few weeks, the idea of opening a health club on Martha’s Vineyard had actually grown on Walt, who, the more he thought about it, didn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t. If the new club made money, maybe he’d open another on that other island, Nantucket, or whatever. Miles couldn’t keep from admiring the other man’s ability to sustain such pleasant fantasies in the complete absence of plausibility. Walt seemed to know better than to do the numbers and study the odds; such things only squeezed a man’s heart, as surely as a tightening fist.

  “What’s that mean? Idyllic?”

  “It means not a Conch in sight,” Miles told him. “Do me a favor and put that away.”

  To Miles’s surprise, Max complied without comment, even getting the glove compartment door to stay shut somehow. If Miles hadn’t known better, he’d have sworn his father had intuited the significance of the listing and those numbers and what it all must have meant to his son.

  But then Max began to whistle. It took Miles a minute to recognize the bouncy tune, which he hadn’t heard since he was a kid. When Max got to the chorus, he stopped whistling and mouthed the words, just loud enough to be heard, and anybody who didn’t know Max Roby would’ve sworn his mind was drifting elsewhere:

  Git along home, Cindy, Cindy

  Git along home, Cindy, Cindy

  Git along home, Cindy, Cindy

  I’ll marry you someday.

  THERE WERE NO parking spaces in front of the Empire Grill, so Miles parked in back behind the Dumpster, next to Charlene’s Hyundai. People were waiting in the entryway for tables when they drove up, and Miles could tell at a glance that the place was full up. Friday-night Mexican. Shrimp flautas on special.

 
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