Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “They could probably use some help inside,” Miles told his father, fully expecting Max to take a powder. The old man had money in his pocket and he probably was eager to head over to Callahan’s or the Olde Mill Pub. “We’ve got a new busboy on tonight, but he won’t be up to this crowd.”

  “I could use the extra scratch,” Max said, falling in step and causing Miles to make a mental note to keep an eye on him tonight. His father hated work but loved crowds, probably because chaos created many more opportunities than order.

  “Put on a clean shirt before you go out front,” Miles reminded him.

  “I’ve worked here before, you know.”

  “And an apron,” Miles said. “And wash your hands.”

  “Wash my hands so I can bus dirty dishes?”

  The back room was thick with steam, and Tick was stacking dishes when her father and grandfather entered.

  “How’s it going, darlin’?” Miles said.

  “Okay,” she told him. “The Hobart’s acting up.”

  Miles smiled and gave her a kiss on top of the head, breathing her in, this kid who wasn’t a kid anymore but still smelled like one. Everything about his daughter seemed just about right, including the way the second thing she said often contradicted the first. Things were going okay. Except they weren’t.

  “Do the best you can and I’ll look at it later. How’s your friend John doing?”

  “Okay,” she said. “A little slow. You shouldn’t have started him on a weekend night.”

  “Grandpa’s going to give him a hand,” Miles said as Max stepped out from the storeroom buttoning a starchy white shirt two sizes too big for him. Coming up behind her, he circled his arms around her tiny waist and pulled her against him. Tick, Miles knew, was fond of her grandfather, but not his embraces, and would’ve told him so if she could’ve devised a way of doing it without hurting his feelings. Miles had tried to explain that Max probably didn’t have feelings in the conventional sense, but she couldn’t quite accept that, preferring to believe that he kept them hidden away somewhere. And who knew? If Max did harbor genuine feelings for anybody, Miles conceded, they were for his granddaughter.

  “How’s my girl?” Max wanted to know.

  “Your beard’s scratchy, Grandpa. Plus you smell.”

  “So do you,” Max said. “The difference is you’re young and you smell good. When I was your age, all the girls used to tell me I smelled like a ripe apple.”

  “Ripe I can believe,” Miles said, handing his father a rubber dish tub. “Just the dishes. Charlene catches you swiping her tips, she’ll gut you like a fish.”

  Max followed him out through the swinging door. “Down in the Keys, waitresses share their tips with the busboys.”

  “Suggest that to her, why don’t you?” Miles grinned, knowing full well that Max was neither so brave nor so foolhardy.

  “All right, then,” David said when he heard their voices. “The cavalry has arrived.”

  “What do you need?” Miles asked.

  “Help Charlene,” David suggested. “She’s trying to hostess and wait tables both.”

  Four parties were waiting in the tiny foyer, three of them probably from the college in Fairhaven. Miles seated a couple in a freshly cleared booth, then started a waiting list. A waiting list at the Empire Grill? If this continued he’d have to add that damn “e” to “Grill,” just like Walt Comeau kept suggesting. Three tables were finishing up at once, so Miles manned the register, then filled Charlene’s drink orders. He saw David watching and read his thought: how many of these Cokes and ice teas would have been four- and five-dollar glasses of wine if they had the license?

  “That old man takes so much as a dime off one of my tables,” Charlene said in lieu of a hello, “I’m going to castrate him.”

  “I already warned him,” Miles assured her, pleased that Charlene’s threat so closely paralleled the one he’d imagined. She looked tired but fully capable of carrying out her threat, and, to Miles, as beautiful as the girl who’d already been waitressing for several years when he, at age fifteen, started work at the Empire Grill.

  “You got here just in time,” she said. “When was the last time we had a rush like this?”

  “It’s all David’s doing,” Miles said. “Who knew Dexter County would go for flautas?”

  Charlene shouldered a large silver tray stacked with plates. “We’re going to need that corner booth, Miles,” she said. “Those are Tick’s friends in there now.”

  Miles had been too busy to notice the group of seven high school kids crowded into the booth that the girls from the beauty school usually occupied in the afternoon, and his expression darkened when he saw that one of them was Zack Minty. Now that he thought about it, for the last few days Tick had acted like she was on the verge of telling him something.

  “How you doin’, Mr. Roby?” the Minty boy said in that slow way of his when Miles appeared at the table. Miles knew several of the other kids and liked them well enough. There was also a slightly overweight girl in a unicorn T-shirt and spiky hair of a color not found in nature: this, Miles suspected, must be Candace from art class. “It’s good to see you, sir,” Zack Minty continued. “You need this booth?”

  Why, Miles wondered, were adults so insistent that kids be polite? The ones who were most polite always seemed fundamentally untrustworthy. The others at the table were shy and awkward with adults, unable to make eye contact. Young Minty always looked right at adults in a way that made most of them look away first.

  “I’d appreciate it,” Miles told him. “I think we could manage some free refills over at the counter.”

  “Sure thing, Mr. Roby. My dad said your business was picking up,” the boy said, sliding out of the booth. Standing up, he was nearly as big as Miles, and he seemed to know it. Miles wondered two things. Was he using steroids? And how would his father, who rarely came into the grill, know that business was improving? Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that big a mystery. He’d probably driven by and seen more cars than usual in the parking lot lately. Or somebody could’ve told him. Mrs. Whiting, for example. He still couldn’t help thinking that when he’d seen them talking earlier that month outside the Planning and Development office, they’d been talking about him. A crazy thought maybe, but he couldn’t shake it.

  “You going to the game tomorrow, Mr. Roby?”

  Miles nodded. “We’re closing after lunch.”

  “We might actually kick some Fairhaven butt for once,” Zack said, the other kids at the table seconding this hopeful prediction. “Make Empire Falls proud.”

  “Zack’s starting at running back,” said the girl Miles thought must be Candace.

  “Linebacker,” Zack said, without looking at her, a hint of contempt creeping into his tone, and Miles could tell it registered on the girl. “It’s my big chance to make an impression, though,” he admitted, looking directly at Miles again.

  “Good luck,” Miles said, his voice as neutral as he could make it.

  “Thanks a lot, Mr. Roby. We know the whole town’s behind us.” Then, as Miles began to clean off the vacated booth with a rag: “See you hired some more help.” He nodded in the direction of John Voss as he disappeared through the swinging door into the back room, causing Miles to remember that the Minty boy himself had applied for a part-time job last spring. “He’s a good boy, that John.”

  Miles nodded agreement, though he had no idea whether or not this might be true.

  “You think Tick will be finished in time for a nine-thirty movie?” the girl wondered.

  “I’ll do what I can,” Miles said, and was surprised when this casual assurance elicited a smile that was out of all proportion to the circumstance. Miles recognized it immediately as the same smile Cindy Whiting, at her age, had offered in response to even the smallest kindness. The kind that bespoke a miserable existence.

  “Too bad John can’t come, huh, Candace?” said a skinny boy Miles vaguely recognized.

  “Cut it out!”
the girl yelled, loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to turn and look.

  “Hey,” Miles said, and he was about to add that yelling wasn’t permitted in the restaurant when he saw that the girl’s eyes had instantly filled with tears. My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

  “Okay, Mr. Roby,” Zack Minty said. “Tell Tick not to worry. We’ll stop back by for her. And thanks for the refill offer.”

  When they were gone, Miles set the booth for five, seated the only party of that size in the foyer, and added the names of three more parties to the waiting list. It was an hour before things slowed down enough that he could go into the back room.

  “Your friends said they’d be back,” he told his daughter.

  Tick’s eyes flickered before she could turn away to open the Hobart and extract the plastic tray of steaming glasses. “Okay.”

  Joining her at the drainboard, Miles selected a few glasses at random to hold up to the light. They weren’t as bad as he’d feared, but many of them had tiny, hardened nodes of calcified soap on the outside, which Miles flicked away with his fingernail.

  Taking off his outer shirt, he hung it on a peg by the swinging door and grabbed the ice pick from the top of the Hobart, where it was kept for the more or less constant adjustments the fussy old machine required. When its spray jets clogged—the most consistent problem—the glasses didn’t rinse cleanly, and the ice pick worked as well as anything for unclogging them.

  “I thought you gave Zack Minty his walking papers last spring,” Miles said, his head inside the machine, which made his voice sound hollow.

  When Tick didn’t reply, he turned to look and saw her shrug. “What’s that mean?”


  “That shrug.” He knew perfectly well, of course. It meant that this was none of his business.

  “Nothing,” she said. Further confirmation, if any were needed.

  Miles stuck his head back into the Hobart. Several jets were indeed clogged, and it took about five minutes to do a half-assed job of cleaning them out, good enough to get them through until tomorrow and a more thorough cleaning. By the time he’d put in a new load of dirty dishes, his daughter’s eyes were full and her body and head had bowed, as if under some great invisible weight.

  “Oh, darlin’,” he said, drawing her toward him, as much as she’d allow. “It’s okay.”

  “I know how much you hate him,” she sniffled into his chest.

  “That’s not true,” Miles said. “He’s just a boy. What I do hate is the idea that you’re afraid to tell me things.”

  “There isn’t anything to tell,” she said, pulling away, still not meeting his eye, sullen. “We’re just hanging out. The whole gang. Not just me and Zack.”

  “I gather that was Candace out there?”

  “Was she wearing a unicorn shirt?”

  Miles said she was. “I think she’s got a crush on Zack too.”

  “What do you mean, too? I don’t have a crush on him.”

  “Okay,” Miles said, still uncomfortable with the whole arrangement, but figuring he’d questioned her about as much as he could. “It’s up to you. You aren’t a kid anymore.” Though she was. Okay, more than a kid, maybe. A kid with adult intelligence and maybe even some adult experience, brighter and more trustworthy and responsible and grown-up than most kids her age, but still a kid, Miles knew. He only had to look at her to know that. And not just any kid, either—his kid. His, far more than Janine’s, never mind what the court said. His kid to adore and to protect for a while yet.

  “If I’d even got a letter …”

  Miles was confused until it dawned on him that she was talking about the boy on Martha’s Vineyard.

  “It hasn’t been that long,” he said, though it had been almost a month. An eternity at Tick’s age. “And be fair. You haven’t written him either, right?”

  Another despairing shrug. “What for?”

  No, the truth was that she was both a kid and not a kid. At sixteen, his daughter already understood that the person who makes the first move stands to be the big loser. If she were to write and the boy didn’t write back, that would be even worse. What she was doing, he knew, was accepting the way things were, knowing that she could stand that much but afraid anything worse might be more than she could bear. And he remembered David warning him last week that if he wasn’t careful Tick would succeed him as manager of the Empire Grill.

  He was about to say something more when he realized the atmosphere of the room had changed, and when he turned he saw that John Voss was standing motionless and silent in the doorway with a tub of dirty dishes. He seemed to have simply materialized there, though more likely he’d come in when Miles was headfirst in the dishwasher. If so, how long had he been standing there, with his long, pointed teeth just visible behind his parted lips, looking like a dog who expected to be kicked? No, not a dog, Miles thought. What the boy really resembled was an android in a science fiction movie, something whose battery had about run out. He wasn’t even looking in their direction, but rather off at an oblique angle, his head cocked as if, though his loss of power meant the loss of locomotion, he could still hear. What was there about such helplessness that invited cruelty? Miles had to swallow his impulse to tell the kid to get the hell out. What did he mean, standing there listening to a man’s private conversation with his daughter? Was it possible that anyone this boy’s age could be so completely without social graces that he didn’t know enough to clear his throat, apologize for intruding, or failing either of these, set the damn tub down and back out of the room?

  “You can put those on the drainboard,” Miles told him, setting the boy in motion again, his battery not quite dead after all.

  When the door swung shut behind him, the moment seemed to have passed for Miles to say anything further to Tick, though he couldn’t help feeling that the boy’s intrusion had stolen some chance—he had no idea what—they might never have again. Miles himself had felt on the verge of telling her something straight from the heart, about not to end up getting herself trapped, though there must’ve been more to it than that. Whatever it had been, it was gone now.

  When he consulted his watch, he saw that it was nearly nine and that the only wisdom he was confident of imparting to her concerned the Hobart. “Run these glasses through again without soap,” he suggested, since that would finish unclogging the lower jets. “Then you can clean up and go, okay? They said they’d stop back on the way to the movie.”

  Her eyes brightened a little. “Are you sure? Isn’t it still pretty busy?”

  “Nothing your grandfather and I can’t handle,” he assured her. “Go and have a good time.”

  But he must not have completely banished from his consciousness the sight of the Voss boy standing there motionless in the doorway, because he heard himself say something that surprised him. “You want me to let John off too, so he can go with you?”

  She answered almost before he finished asking. “No,” she said, her expression urgent, fearful.

  “Okay,” he said, almost as quickly, surprised at how instinctively he understood that he’d just offered up a really bad idea.

  DAVID WAS LEANING up against the refrigerator drinking a diet cola and surveying the dining room floor when Miles, tying an apron on over his T-shirt, joined him behind the counter. It was still hot by the eight-burner stove, and David wiped his forehead with the shirtsleeve on his bad arm.

  “Hell of a night,” Miles told his brother appreciatively. Every table was still occupied, though no one was waiting to be seated and everyone had been served.

  “It was,” his brother agreed, though not with the enthusiasm Miles might have predicted, causing him to wonder if David was tiring of all this just when it was
about to pay off. That would be entirely in character, of course. Even as a boy David had quickly become bored with things as soon as he’d mastered them. “Good thing you showed up when you did. I don’t know what we would’ve done.”

  “Bad planning on my part,” Miles admitted, though part of his plan had been for him to show up in case they got a rush. “I’ll hire a replacement for Buster this week, I promise, but it looks like we’re also going to need more regular help on weekends from now on. Unless tonight was a freak.”

  “Could be even bigger tomorrow night after the game,” David said. “Did I hear you’re closing early?”

  Miles nodded. “I thought I’d do breakfast, close around eleven, then open again at six for dinner.”

  “Sounds okay.” David nodded. “I might catch the first half of the game myself.”

  “Where’d Dad go?” Miles thought to ask, since Max was nowhere in evidence.

  “Out having a smoke. I told him he could leave at nine. That okay?”

  “Perfect,” Miles said. Nothing could be more like the old man than to take his cigarette break ten minutes before he was getting off. On the other hand, his father had helped out. That was out of character. “He behave out here?”

  “Far as I know. Charlene didn’t hurt him, so I guess everything went okay.”

  Miles nodded. “I’m going to let Tick go, too. She and her friends are going to a movie.”

  “The Minty boy?”

  “I know,” Miles said. “I’m not thrilled about it either.”

  “I didn’t say anything.”

  “You didn’t need to.”

  Right on cue, Tick emerged from the back, pulling a sweater on over her head, the picture of resilient young womanhood. Five minutes before, bedraggled after five hours in the steam, she’d been nearly in tears over the boy from Martha’s Vineyard. Now she was not only recovered but indeed radiant and, to Miles’s way of thinking, heartbreakingly beautiful. “Can I have some money?” She winced.

  Apparently Miles wasn’t the kid’s only heartbroken admirer, because David magically had a ten-dollar bill in his hand. Miles told him to put it away. “There’s a twenty in my shirt pocket,” he told his daughter. “Hanging on the peg by the back door.” But even as he spoke, he had a bad feeling.

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