Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  In a minute she was back, wincing again. “There’s nothing in your shirt, Daddy.”

  Which meant that Max, standing innocently outside, had foxed him again, even though Miles had seen it coming back in the car. Telling his father he wasn’t going to get the twenty, of course, had been exactly the wrong thing to do. Of course, it wasn’t much more than Max had earned, so that wasn’t the issue. It was that once again, the old man had gotten his way. Not only was he helping paint the church after Miles had told him he couldn’t, but now, in effect, Miles had paid him under the table for working at the restaurant.

  This time when David offered the ten, Miles let Tick take it.

  “Do you suppose he has any conscience at all?” he asked after his daughter was gone.

  “Sure he does,” David said, turning his empty soda glass upside down in the nearest tray. Then, after a thoughtful beat: “No slave to it, though, is he?”


  “WHY ON EARTH did you want to go and hire that comatose boy?” was what Charlene wanted to know when Miles slid in beside her. It had been Miles’s idea that the three of them—he and David and Charlene—celebrate over a drink. When he’d rung out the register in the restaurant, he was stunned by how well they’d done.

  There was a half full glass of seltzer-with-lemon sitting next to Charlene’s scotch, so Miles supposed his brother was around somewhere. Also, unless he was mistaken, that was Horace Weymouth anchoring the far end of the bar. It had taken until nearly eleven-thirty to close the restaurant, and the Lamplighter was one of the few places still open in Dexter County where they could be reasonably sure they wouldn’t run into Max. Unless Miles missed his guess, that probably explained Horace’s presence as well.

  Certainly it wasn’t the ambience. The Lamplighter’s lounge reminded Miles of a Midwestern Holiday Inn. There was a small woman with a lot of hair noodling something almost recognizable on a piano on the other side of the dark room. From their half-moon booth only the woman’s hair was visible, and her phrasing on the piano suggested that she was determined to get through each song without making a mistake. Was it possible, Miles wondered, that she was related to Doris Roderigue?

  He was the last to arrive because he’d given John Voss a lift home. The boy had toiled through a mountain of pots and pans without speaking a word to anyone all evening. His morose silence had thrown Charlene for a loop. To Charlene, a talker, nothing was more unnatural and perverse. Her secret as a waitress was her ability to disarm people, to get them talking no matter who they were: school kids, the girls from the Academy of Hair Design, long-haul truckers, professors from the college. With John Voss, though, she’d made exactly no progress. “The last man that didn’t have any more to say to me than that was the one who tried to rape me in the parking lot, if you recall.”

  Miles did recall, in fact, though the incident was now twenty-some years old. For years it had fueled a disturbingly vivid teenage fantasy in which Miles, then a busboy and dishwasher, came out the back door with a bag of trash for the Dumpster, interrupting the attempted rape and heroically driving Charlene’s knife-wielding attacker off into the night. Actually, the real attacker hadn’t wielded any sort of weapon, but Miles had furnished him with one for dramatic purposes. Even at the time he’d known that his fantasy was not entirely innocent, or even decent, despite its moral structure and heroic resolution. His discovery of the struggling pair in the parking lot was always highly precise. He never arrived before Charlene’s assailant had made significant progress, enough, that is, to expose her milky breasts. Had Miles actually come upon such a struggle in back of the Empire Grill, of course, he wouldn’t have been able to see anything in the pitch-dark parking lot, but in his imagination the scene was sufficiently illuminated for his purposes. The first time he indulged the fantasy, he merely glimpsed Charlene’s naked torso, but in each successive reenactment he lingered longer on the sight until, finally, sickened, he gave up the scenario altogether, aware that even though he’d cast himself in the role of hero, he’d in fact come to identify with Charlene’s attacker, sharing his heartsickness at the knowledge that no girl this beautiful would ever come to him voluntarily.

  Worse than the new busboy’s failure to say a damn word, Charlene went on, was that he wouldn’t even look at her when she was talking. “I swear to God, I could be standing in front of that boy stark naked,” she said, “and all he’d look at would be the floor.”

  This was true, no doubt, though Miles again recalled Zack Minty’s overly slick social skills, coming to the same conclusion as he had earlier—that this kid was profoundly untrustworthy. Maybe John Voss had a lot to learn, but the Minty boy had at least as much to unlearn. Both, it occurred to Miles, were long shots.

  “I probably shouldn’t have hired him,” Miles admitted, and he wouldn’t have, but for Tick. According to his daughter, the boy lived alone with his grandmother, and she’d deduced from his ill-fitting, thrift-shop clothes that they were desperately poor. What he was eating for lunch smelled like cat food, and all this week she’d asked Miles to make an extra sandwich for her to take to school. Tonight, the boy had not wanted to accept a ride home, but it was late and Miles had insisted. The ramshackle house the boy directed him to was on the outskirts of town, not far from the old landfill and a good quarter mile from its nearest neighbor. The place had been completely dark when they pulled into the dirt drive, and anyone passing by would’ve concluded, if they’d even noticed the house so far back off the road, that it must be deserted except, maybe, for varmints under the floors and birds in the rafters. No car was in evidence, and the boy said that his grandmother must have gone to bed early and forgot to leave the light on.

  “He worked hard, though,” Miles pointed out.

  Charlene admitted this was true. “I’ll just have to get him to smoke a doobie with me some afternoon. Loosen him up.”

  David then slid into the booth on the other side of Charlene. “I wouldn’t go around corrupting the local youth any more than you absolutely have to, Charlene,” he advised, taking a sip of his seltzer. “Officer Minty’s got his eye on you as it is.”

  Charlene snorted. “On you, you mean. Not me.”

  Miles studied first his brother, then the woman he’d been more or less in love with for twenty-five years. Their quick, easy exchange suggested he was missing something. It was the same way he often felt on Martha’s Vineyard around Peter and Dawn, who, like most married couples, had developed a kind of verbal shorthand, a system of quick allusions that required no further referencing. This was just one more way, Miles supposed, that his own marriage had fallen short. He and Janine had always had trouble making themselves understood to each other, even when they spoke in complete paragraphs. It was Janine’s position that if they hadn’t fucked that dozen times or so, there would’ve been no reason for them to go through the motions of divorce. They could have just had the marriage annulled, the church’s acknowledgment that in twenty years no intercourse of any significance, sexual or even verbal, had taken place between them.

  Settling on his brother, Miles asked, “Why would Jimmy Minty have his eye on either of you?”

  “Didn’t you know?” David grinned. “Charlene here is my distributor.”

  “I don’t get it,” Miles said. “Why would Jimmy Minty think that?” If true, this wasn’t funny.

  “That’s not the half of it,” David continued. “According to Jimmy, I’m a major grower. I’ve cornered the whole damn pot market in central Maine. I caught him tramping around the woods behind my place yesterday trying to find my patch.”

  This really wasn’t funny either, though David seemed to think it was. “What’d you do?”

  “I suggested he wear orange, this being moose season.”

  “Miles is right, David. You shouldn’t fuck with him,” Charlene said, as if, despite this advice, she fully understood the impulse. “He’s a cop. It’s not like these guys have a sense of humor.”

  David shrugged. ??
?Actually, we got along fine. I invited him in for a cup of coffee so he could tell me about all his suspicions. Turns out he’s fond as hell of us Robys, our families going all the way back to the old neighborhood and all. Hell, his kid’s sweet on Miles’s kid.”

  David was good enough at mimicking Jimmy Minty’s smarmy voice and obsequious mannerisms that Miles could feel the rage rising from the pit of his stomach. Clearly, the policeman had paid no attention to Miles’s warning to stay out of his family’s affairs. Worse, to judge from what David was saying, he’d taken the warning as a challenge.

  “Hell, the last thing in the world he wants is trouble,” David was saying. “That’s how come he was out in my woods. Just trying to head off trouble. You know the way he looks at it? He figures his duty is to be a good neighbor first and a police officer second.”

  Charlene guffawed. “What’d you say to that?”

  David shrugged. “I may have told him I thought he was an asshole first, last and in between. I may have hurt his feelings.”

  “This is not funny,” Miles said, meaning it.

  “So I guess you didn’t see his car parked across the street from the restaurant tonight?” David said, meeting his brother’s gaze.

  Miles hadn’t seen any police cars that night, not that he was sure he’d have noticed if there had been one, busy as they were. “The cruiser?”

  “No, his car,” Charlene said. “The red Camaro.”

  Miles just looked at her.

  “I’m sorry, Miles. I can’t help it,” she said. “You know I always notice guys in fast cars.”

  He turned his attention back to his brother. “Are you growing marijuana?”

  “Mind your own business, Miles.”

  “It is my business, David,” he said, feeling a lifetime’s worth of resentment welling up dangerously. Every time he allowed himself to imagine that his brother had finally turned the corner, that ingrained irresponsibility would surface again. “Minty probably thinks you’re dealing out of the restaurant. Probably that’s why the dimwit thinks we’ve gotten busy.”

  “We are dealing out of the restaurant, Miles,” David said, suddenly serious and more than a little pissed, as if he too had just recalled something about his brother’s character that he despaired would never change. “What we’re dealing is flautas. And you know what? I was just talking to Audrey back in the kitchen and she said this place was slow tonight. So was the Eating House out on Ninety-Two. The only restaurant in Dexter County that did any volume tonight was the Empire Grill. Instead of worrying about Jimmy Minty watching the restaurant and me growing weed, think about this. Even on a slow night this place will outgross us, because they’ve got a liquor license. We did good tonight, Miles, but we’ll never do any better, because we can’t fit in any more tables, and we can’t fit any more people at the tables we’ve already got. The only way for us to have a real restaurant and make a real living is to sell booze. And don’t tell me about Mrs. Whiting, either,” he added, eerily anticipating the name that was forming on Miles’s lips, “because I don’t want to hear it.”

  “Well, the Empire Grill is her—”

  But David had grabbed his coat off the back of the booth and was sliding out. “She summons you two or three times a year to make sure you’re right where she left you. You say, Mother May I? and she says, No, You May Not, and then you put your tail between your legs and back out the door, and that’s the end of it. All those years of Catholic school have damaged you, Miles. They taught you obedience. Somebody says you can’t have something and you just accept it.”

  “David—” It was Charlene who tried to break in now, but David was having none of it.

  “Has it ever occurred to you that every time you return from that woman’s house you have scratch marks on you?” To illustrate, he reached down and grabbed Miles’s wrist, holding his brother’s hand up to the light. The scratch he’d gotten from Timmy the Cat had scabbed over and was even uglier now. It looked like a trench filled in with sand. “Have you ever thought about what that means?”

  “That she has a psychotic cat?” Miles ventured.

  “No. That’s not what it means. It means she’s toying with you. You’re like a moth she’s stuck through the chest with a pin. Every now and then she takes you out and watches you flail around for a while, then she puts you away again.

  “And don’t tell me you’re not the only one with scratch marks, either,” David continued, which was exactly what Miles had been about to point out. “I know half the town has scratch marks. I know she owns most of what’s worth owning in Empire Falls. But my point is that she owns you only because you let her. You could wiggle off that pin if you wanted to.”

  “David,” Charlene tried again.

  “I mean, it just breaks my heart to watch this. Every year you go off to that island to visit your dreams for two whole weeks. Think about it, Miles. A little island, another world, miles away, at safe yearning distance. Something you can desire without ever being expected to strive for. And you know what? That’s not even the sad part. The sad part is that you don’t love Martha’s Vineyard. It was Mom who loved it. She’s the one who went there and fell in love, Miles, not you. You were just a little boy who tagged along, who got to ride in the little yellow sports car. And you’re still that little boy.”

  “David, please,” Charlene pleaded.

  “Don’t, Charlene,” David snapped. “Somebody should’ve said all of this a long time ago.”

  He turned back to Miles. “Yeah, we had a good night, Miles. In fact, we had a great night. The trouble is you’re so blind you can’t see what that means, so I’ll tell you. It means you’ve finally got a chance to take the wheel. So, take it, Miles. Take the damn wheel. If you crash”—he held up his damaged arm—“so what? Do it. If not for yourself, for Tick. She’s soaking up your passivity and defeatism every day. When she’s thirty, she’ll be saving all year long for a two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, because she’ll think it was the place you loved.”

  “David,” Charlene said quietly, “look at your brother. Stop talking for a second and look at him.”

  In fact, by now everyone in the lounge was looking at them. Even the big-haired pianist had stopped playing. David’s voice had risen until it commanded the attention of everyone in the room, a fact he only now became aware of. “Shit,” he said, taking out some money and tossing it on the table. “I’m going home. I’m sorry I spoiled the celebration.”

  “You don’t have to go, David,” Miles heard himself say in a voice he barely recognized.

  “Actually, I do,” he said. “Time I got back and tended to my pot empire.”

  When Miles said nothing and Charlene just shook her head, David leaned forward until his face was only inches from his brother’s. “That was a joke, Miles. I’ve got one plant down in the basement under a heat lamp. Come down and see for yourself, any time you want. Nobody fucks with you over one plant. Not even Jimmy Minty.”

  “YOU KNOW,” Charlene said when she returned to the booth, “if you and your brother talked to each other every so often, you wouldn’t have these blowups. You both store up about a year’s worth of shit, and then you explode.”

  “I didn’t explode,” Miles pointed out. “He exploded.”

  “True,” Charlene admitted. “But tonight was more words than he’s spoken in months, and right now he’d like to have at least half of them back.”

  “You think?”

  “Yes, Miles, I do.”

  Maybe she was right. Following David outside to his pickup, she’d been gone for about fifteen minutes, and Miles would’ve concluded that she’d gone home if he hadn’t peered through the window slats behind the booth and seen the two of them standing in the parking lot, Charlene giving him hell. While she was gone, Horace Weymouth, who must’ve heard most of what David had said, sent over a vodka martini, which Miles drank in about three swallows. Then he ordered two more, sending one back to Horace, who raised his glass in grim ackn
owledgment that the night seemed to call for extraordinary measures. Miles was finishing up the second martini when Charlene reappeared in the booth, noting both the martini glass and the change in his condition.

  “Your brother loves you,” she now explained. “He wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings. He just worries about you, same as you worry about him. You exasperate each other, is all.”

  “He’s got a right, I guess. I exasperate myself sometimes,” he said, immediately regretting the self-pitying tone.

  “That’s kind of his point, Miles. He thinks you should get exasperated with someone else.”

  “Mrs. Whiting.”

  “Yeah, her, but he thinks you’re too nice to people in general. He thinks you eat too much shit.”

  “You think he’s right?” he asked.

  “Oh, hell, Miles, I don’t know. It’s true that you’re about the most cautious man I’ve ever run across. You’re kind and patient and forgiving and generous, and you don’t seem to understand that these qualities can be really annoying in a man, no matter what the ladies’ magazines say.”

  “I haven’t been reading many of those, Charlene,” he assured her.

  “I know you haven’t, hon.” She took his hand. “It’s just, you know … like what David always says about your family.”

  Miles had no idea that David ever said anything about their family. If he’d come to any conclusions about the Robys, he never shared them with Miles.

  “David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there’s, like, one complete person. Your father never thinks about anybody but himself, and your mom was always thinking about other people and never herself. David thinks only about the present and you think only about the past and the future.”

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