Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “I’ve never heard any of this,” Miles said truthfully. “When did he tell you that?”

  Charlene ignored his question. “His point is you could all learn something from the others, and you’d be better off. Take the way your father’s been left out of you entirely. That’s a shame.”

  Miles tried to consider this seriously. “Charlene,” he said, “I can honestly say this is the first time anybody’s ever urged me to be more like Max.”

  “I don’t think David wants you to be a lot more like your father, just enough so—”

  “I wouldn’t be such a shit-eater,” Miles finished the thought for her.

  “Oh, Miles, don’t be that way. Don’t take everything so much to heart. All David means is that your dad always knows what he wants. And a split second after he figures that out, he’s got a plan to get it. Probably a dumb plan, but he’s like a little bulldog on a pork chop until you give him what he wants or he finds a way to take it when you aren’t looking. David just thinks if you had a little more of that in you, you could figure out what you want and come up with a plan and …”

  When her voice trailed off, Miles heard the two martinis speak in a voice distantly resembling his own. “Actually,” he said carefully, “it’s worse than he imagines.”

  When Charlene didn’t say anything right away, he took her silence to mean that it was all right for him to continue.

  “When I went to Mrs. Whiting’s last week? When I was supposed to come back with a liquor license? David was right. I did leave with my tail between my legs. What he doesn’t know is that I didn’t exactly leave empty-handed.”

  Another silence, and Miles could not bear to look up from his martini. “What I came away with—” He sighed, his voice barely audible even to himself. “Was a date with Cindy Whiting. For tomorrow, in fact. We’re going to the football game.”

  Confessing this was so painful that he’d forgotten he was holding Charlene’s hand until she gave his a squeeze. “That’s really sweet, Miles. That poor woman could use a little joy in her life. I think it’s a real nice thing you did.”

  “To my brother it will be further evidence of my natural propensity for shit-eating.”

  “He went too far tonight, Miles. I’m sure he’ll apologize tomorrow.”

  “He’s wrong about one thing,” he said, meeting her eye this time, “if he thinks I don’t know what I want.”

  Though he hadn’t intended it, the statement had the effect of making them both aware of the fact that they were holding hands in a dark booth, Miles, a man not yet divorced, and Charlene, a woman divorced many times over. To save her both embarrassment and the need to respond, he let go of her hand, though it would have pleased him to sit there holding it all night. To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’s heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

  “Oh, Miles, goddamn it,” she said. “It’s not like I don’t know you’ve had a crush on me forever. And you know how fond I am of you. You’re about the sweetest man I know, really.”

  He couldn’t help but smile at this. “That’s another of those qualities that’s not very attractive in a man, isn’t it.”

  “No”—she took his hand again—“it’s very attractive, actually. And you know what? I’d take you home so we could make love, except I couldn’t stand how disappointed you’d be. And you wouldn’t be able to conceal it, either, not with that face of yours.”

  When she reached for her coat, Miles slid out of the booth, then helped her on with it. “If I thought you wouldn’t be disappointed,” he told her as they headed for the door and the waiting night, “I’d insist.”

  “It would be nice if we could get that damn liquor license, Miles,” Charlene said when they were outside and she was unlocking the door to her Hyundai. “If I was making decent money, I could put this wreck out of its misery.”

  “I haven’t given up,” Miles said, surprised to discover that he hadn’t. And it came to him that a smart man might take Cindy Whiting out to dinner at the restaurant tomorrow after the game and make her an ally in this cause. If he was going to go around falling on grenades all the time, there was no law saying some good couldn’t come of it.

  He was about to get into his own car and drive home when he heard the door at the Lamplighter’s entrance bang shut and saw Horace coming toward him.

  “Thanks for the drink,” Miles said, shaking his hand. “I get stopped for drunk driving on the way home, I’m going to tell the cops whose fault it is.”

  Saying this, Miles thought to check the parking lot for Jimmy Minty’s Camaro, but it was nowhere in evidence. Though this wasn’t to say that Jimmy Minty wasn’t sitting somewhere out beyond the reach of the parking lot’s lights.

  “Sorry about the commotion in there, too,” Miles said, knowing that Horace was far too well mannered to ask what it was all about, or even to allude to it, for that matter. It was strange, Miles now realized, for a man who instinctively respected people’s privacy to become a reporter. Too bad it didn’t happen more often.

  Horace was groping in his pockets for his keys. “Family,” he said, as if this one word accounted for all aberrant behavior.

  “Where’s yours?” it occurred to Miles to ask. The man came into his restaurant nearly every day, but Miles knew very little about him.

  “My family?” Horace looked surprised. “Everywhere. We don’t stay in touch. That sounds sadder than it is, actually.”

  “It does sound sad,” Miles admitted.

  “I’m not a big believer in all that myself,” he admitted. “Blood. Kinship. So what?”

  “Home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Miles said, quoting Frost.

  The newspaperman unlocked his car, got in, thought for a second, then looked up. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

  Miles smiled and said good night, then went around to unlock the Jetta. He was about to get in when he heard the passenger-side window of Horace’s car roll down and saw Horace leaning toward him. “Speaking of taking people in,” he said, “you keep an eye on that new boy you hired.”

  “Okay,” Miles said. “You want to tell me why?”

  Horace thought about it. “Not at the moment,” he concluded, then added, “Don’t ever become a reporter.”


  IN THE FALL of Miles Roby’s junior year, his father, flush with summer house-painting money, bought a secondhand Mercury Cougar, the idea being that Miles would soon be old enough to get his license. By Thanksgiving, however, Max himself had received three speeding tickets and run over a cat. Miles had been with him for the latter and seen, as Max had not, the animal streak under the wheels, and he’d turned in time to see the cat continue to run frantically around its own head, which had been flattened by one of the Cougar’s rear wheels.

  “What the hell was that?” Max said a few seconds after he felt the thump. He’d been leaning forward, one hand on the wheel, the other pressing the lighter to the tip of his cigarette.

  “Cat,” Miles sighed, disappointed in himself for not seeing the animal in time to alert his father and save its life. When he rode anywhere with his father, Miles always felt a deep kinship with anything alive that couldn’t run as fast as Max drove, which, since there were no cheetahs in Maine, was just about everything.

  On general principle his father was dead set against swerving to avoid obstacles. If, for instance, they were traveling on the highway behind a semi and the semi blew a tire, throwing a large curve of retread into their lane, Max ran over it, claiming it was more dangerous to try to swerve around it, which for all Miles knew might have been true. What he suspected, however, was that Max enjoyed running things over and seeing what happened to them. Once, the year before, in the car Max had purchased before the Cougar, they’d encountered a cardboard box sitting square in
the middle of their lane on a narrow county road. Since no one was coming toward them and no one was following, and since there was plenty of time to slow down and maneuver around the box—indeed, had Max suffered an uncharacteristic fit of good citizenship, there would’ve been time to pull over, get out and drag the box onto the shoulder—Miles was surprised when his father actually accelerated into it. He braced for something like an explosion, but the box, thankfully empty, was sucked under the car, where it got caught in the drive-shaft and made a hell of a racket for a hundred yards or so before it flapped away, mangled and reduced to two dimensions, into a ditch.

  “What if that box had been full of rocks?” Miles asked.

  “What would a box full of rocks be doing sitting in the middle of the road?” Max wondered back, pushing in the cigarette lighter on the dash and patting his shirt pocket for his pack of Luckies.

  Miles was tempted to reply, “Waiting for an idiot to hit it doing sixty miles an hour,” but he said instead, “If it had been full of rocks we might both be dead.”

  Max considered this. “What would you have done?”

  Miles sensed a trap in this innocent question, but at fifteen he continued to play the hand he’d been dealt, confident he had enough to trump with. “I might’ve stopped to see what was in the box before I hit it.”

  Max nodded. “What if it was full of rattlesnakes? Then when you opened it, you’d be dead.”

  Miles had not grown up in his father’s intermittent company for nothing. “What would a box full of rattlesnakes be doing sitting in the middle of the road?”

  “Waiting for some dumbbell like you to stop and look inside,” Max said, causing in Miles a deep regret for having held his tongue earlier.

  They’d ridden on in silence for a while until Max observed, like a man who was himself acquainted with regret, at least in its more abstract manifestations, “Your mother’s raising you to be scared of the whole damn world. You know that, don’t you?”

  Miles chose to ignore this. “What if the box had been full of dynamite?” he said, signaling his belief that their discussion might reach a better conclusion if it were a game, and one that didn’t feature his mother.

  Max must have agreed, because they played it all the way home, filling the box with all manner of imaginary things, from marshmallows to armadillos, and arriving home weary with laughter.

  But now, three speeding tickets and a dead cat later, the judge to whom Max tried to explain the tickets (the cat never came up) wasn’t laughing. Actually, it wasn’t the three original tickets that offended him as much as the two Max had added while waiting for his court appearance, which suggested to the judge a significant learning disability. Max had to surrender his driver’s license right there in the courthouse, after which he was instructed to walk home.

  Instead, Max drove, without benefit of a valid license, to the hardware store out by the highway. There he purchased a small cardboard For Sale sign and stuck it on the Cougar’s dash. Then he drove back downtown, parked the car directly in front of the courthouse, and walked home, where he found his son reading a book at the kitchen table. Max Roby generally left matters of moral instruction to his wife, but given the afternoon’s events he was unwilling to miss out on such a powerful teaching opportunity. Joining his son at the kitchen table, he said, “Put that down a minute.”

  Miles, who had been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for his English class, the part where Huck has been kidnapped by his Pap, suffered something like a wave of vertigo by coming up out of the story so suddenly and seeing his own father grinning at him across the table. At this time Max still had all his teeth, except for the two that had been knocked out the summer Miles and his mother visited Martha’s Vineyard.

  “Always remember one thing about cops and lawyers,” Max said. “The worst they can do to you ain’t that bad.” He paused to allow his son to digest this hard-won wisdom. “They like to think they got you by the balls, but they don’t.”

  All of which, Miles guessed, was a continuation of the discussion they’d avoided in the car when Max had observed that Grace was raising him to be afraid of things.

  “You hear what I’m saying?” Max demanded.

  Miles nodded, whereupon Max, his moral duty discharged, arose and left. He might have neither a license nor a car, but he had two good legs, and back then there were half a dozen taverns within easy walking distance. After a day like today, he saw no reason not to visit every last one of them. He did not return that night.

  SO IT WAS that by the time Miles was old enough to get his license, he had no car to practice on, and consequently he was behind from the start at driver’s education, and due to his poor driving skills he was given far less actual driving time than his classmates, when obviously he needed far more. The other kids clearly knew how to drive already. They’d had their learner’s permits for months and drove every day, so for them, the purpose of driver ed was to correct all the bad habits already instilled in them by their parents. The experienced boys all wanted to drive with their elbows out the window, and they liked to demonstrate their sure control over the vehicle by steering it with the palm of one hand. Mr. Brown, the baseball coach and driver’s ed teacher, seemed to view these deficiencies as genetic in nature and modifiable only for the duration of his course. Far more significant to Mr. Brown was that they had logged enough time behind the wheel to avoid posing an immediate threat to Mr. Brown’s own life as he sat beside them in the driver’s ed car, his foot poised above his passenger-side brake.

  Unfortunately, the first time Miles drove this car, with Mr. Brown at his right and three other students in the back, he’d gone no more than a block before he began to feel a sense of self-conscious dread descend upon him like a funeral pall. He wasn’t afraid that he would wreck the car and kill them all, but rather that he would immediately be revealed as a rank beginner. And indeed the snickers from the backseat were immediate. Having never manipulated an accelerator, Miles had no idea what might happen when he pressed down on it. What he feared was that even slight pressure might send the car rocketing forward out of control, and this reluctance caused him to inch down the street at a speed that didn’t even register on the speedometer. When he tried to give it a little more gas, the car bucked.

  “Roby,” said Mr. Brown, who was staring at him with an expression made up of equal parts fear and incredulity, “don’t you know how to drive at all?”

  Almost immediately Miles discovered himself to be speeding. Actually, it was one of his backseat drivers who noticed, since Miles, his eyes glued to the road ahead, did not dare risk a glance at the speedometer for fear of losing control of the vehicle, which Mr. Brown stressed was the cardinal sin. A good driver, Mr. Brown maintained, would never be in an accident, because a good driver was always in control, and if you were in control there was no such thing as an accident.

  “He’s going forty in a twenty-five,” a backseat driver pointed out.

  Mr. Brown would have noted this himself had he been facing front instead of searching for his seat belt. As a dutiful teacher, Mr. Brown always insisted that his student drivers buckle up before turning the key in the ignition, but he himself seldom wore a belt. His rationale was that he liked to be able to turn around and instruct those in the rear, should an opportunity arise to do so. This was especially true if the backseat happened to be occupied by boys who were members of his baseball team, as was presently the case. Learning that Miles had exactly no experience, however, caused Mr. Brown to reevaluate his position vis-à-vis the seat belt, which had slipped down between the upper and lower seat cushions. By the time one of his ballplayers reported that Miles was speeding, Mr. Brown’s forearm had disappeared up to the elbow in the seam, his hand actually emerging on the other side, where another of his ballplayers noticed it blindly groping for anything that felt like a seat-belt buckle. The boy leaned forward, took Mr. Brown’s hand, and shook it genially. “How you doin’, coach?” he said.

. Brown, sensing the potential for danger, said, “Pull over, Roby.” He’d managed to withdraw his hand from the handshake easily enough, but his wrist got stuck between the cushions and he had to peer over his shoulder to check on the progress of his driver. “I said, Pull over!”

  Miles did as instructed. Had he been told to slow down before pulling over, he’d have done that too, but unfortunately he hadn’t. Therefore, had anyone living on the quiet residential street they were traveling down picked that moment to step outside, he’d have been treated to a strange sight: the Empire High School driver’s education vehicle doing forty miles an hour mere inches from the curb, its instructor facing backward, as if his primary concern was the possibility of pursuit, its backseat passengers pressing back against their seats and its driver patiently awaiting further instructions. Meanwhile, only fifty yards ahead, a car sat parked at the curb.

  Mr. Brown had a brake on his side of the car, of course, but turned as he was, his right wrist still caught between the seat cushions, he seemed unable to determine its exact location, though he pumped vigorously at what he imagined to be the floorboard with his foot. Had the brake been attached to the underside of the glove box where he was pumping, that would’ve stopped the car, but of course it was not, and Mr. Brown’s inability to locate the pedal now threw him into blind panic. Unable to decide whether it was more important to free his wrist or locate the brake, he went frantically back and forth between the two, succeeding in neither, all the while yelling, “Roby! Roby! Goddamn it!”

  As Miles bore down on the parked car, it seemed to him that slowing the vehicle—indeed, stopping it—might be the most advisable course of action, but Mr. Brown’s gyrations confused him. Still unwilling to shift his gaze from the road, he assumed his instructor was in fact hitting the brake to no effect, which meant that the car was unaccountably without brakes, which in turn suggested there wasn’t much point in him hitting his, so he stayed his course alongside the curb until the last possible moment, hoping for further orders. When none came, he whipped the steering wheel to the right, bumped the car up onto the curb, over an aluminum garbage can and onto someone’s lawn. He noticed the address on the mailbox as they sailed by—116 Spring Street—and further noticed that the garage door of 116 Spring Street happened to be open, its bay empty, seemingly in invitation.

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