Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Francine was a bright, ambitious young woman, newly graduated from Colby College, some ten years C. B. Whiting’s junior, and until the day her family closed the deal to sell her future husband the Robideaux Blight, she’d never laid eyes on him, though of course she’d heard of him. C.B. himself had graduated from Colby, as had his father and grandfather, whereas Francine was the first Robideaux to continue her education beyond high school. Thanks to a scholarship, she had emerged from Colby no longer recognizable as a Robideaux in deportment, speech or mannerism, which disturbed and angered her family, who never would have allowed her to attend college had they known how contemptuous of them she’d be upon her return. A poor girl among rich ones, Francine Robideaux had carefully observed and then adopted their table manners, fashion sense, vocal idiosyncrasies and personal hygiene. At Colby she’d also learned to flirt.

  In the soft light of his lawyers’ book-lined offices, C. B. Whiting, who had not looked seriously at a woman since returning to Maine, liked the look of Francine Robideaux. He also appreciated that she was a Colby graduate and admired that she appeared to understand that he was snookering her family and didn’t necessarily object. Every time he glanced at her, every time she spoke, he was more impressed, for the girl seemed able to convey, without contradiction, that she was observing him carefully, even as other of her mannerisms suggested that maybe, so far as she was concerned, he wasn’t even in the room. Maybe he was there and maybe he wasn’t, depending. To resolve the issue of whether he was there or not, he resolved to marry her if she would have him.

  Well, as it turned out, she would. They were wed in September, leaving C. B. Whiting the rest of his days on earth to try to remember what exactly it was about the look of Francine Robideaux that had so appealed to him in the soft light of the lawyers’ offices. In natural light she looked rather pinched, and in the manner of a great many women of French Canadian ancestry, she lacked a chin, as if someone had already pinched her there. He also came to understand that marrying Francine Robideaux would not answer as conclusively as he’d hoped the question of whether or not he was actually in the room. On that late afternoon in August when he lit a cigar in celebration, his wife-to-be at his side, C. B. Whiting studied his fiancée carefully. Whiting men, all of whom seemed to be born with sound business sense, each invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life’s noble endeavor, a woman who would remain bound to her husband with the same grim tenacity that bound nuns to the suffering Christ. Fully cognizant of his family history, C.B. had been understandably wary of matrimony. From time to time his father would remind him that he would have need of an heir, but then C.B. regarded his father and grandfather and wasn’t so sure. Why not put an end to the awful cycle of misery right there? What was the purpose of producing more Whiting males if they were predestined to lives of marital torment?

  And so C. B. Whiting scrutinized Francine Robideaux, trying to envision some future day when he might want to beat her to death with a shovel. Thankfully, he was unable to call such a scene into vivid imaginative life. About the best he could do was contemplate the possibility that it had been unwise to go to war with God. If He could deliver unto you an unwanted moose, what was to prevent Him from delivering something even worse. Say, for instance, an unwanted woman. This would have been a worrisome contemplation had he not wanted this woman. But he did want her. He was almost sure of it.

  His bride-to-be had other thoughts. “That would be a fine place for a gazebo, Charlie,” she observed, indicating with her thin index finger a spot halfway down the bank. When Charles Beaumont Whiting did not immediately respond, Francine Robideaux repeated her observation, and this time her future husband thought he detected a slight edge to her tone. “Did you hear what I said, Charlie?”

  He had. In truth, though he had no objection to gazebos in general, he was not entirely taken with the idea of erecting one as an architectural companion to a hacienda. This aesthetic reservation was not, however, the cause of his hesitation. No, the reason he hadn’t responded was that no one had ever called him Charlie. From boyhood he had always been Charles, and his mother in particular had been adamant that the fine name she’d given him was not to be corrupted with more common nicknames, like Charlie or, even worse, Chuck. For a brief time, in college, his friends had called him Beaumont, and in Mexico he’d been Beau. More recently, his business acquaintances mostly referred to him as C.B., but they did so reverentially and would never have presumed to address him as Charlie.

  Clearly, the time to set the record straight was now, but as he considered how best to suggest his preference for Charles over Charlie, he became aware that “now” had already passed into “then.” Strange. Had anyone else called him Charlie, he’d have corrected that person before his or her voice had a chance to fall, but for some reason, with this woman whom he had asked on bended knee to be his bride, he’d delayed. A beat passed, and then another and another, until Charles Beaumont Whiting realized that he was mute with a new emotion. At first he noted only its unpleasant sensation, but eventually he identified it. The emotion was fear.

  “I said …” his wife-to-be began a third time.

  “Yes, dear. An excellent idea,” Charles Beaumont Whiting agreed and in that fateful moment became Charlie Whiting. Later in life, he was fond of remarking, rather ruefully, that he always had the last word in all differences of opinion with his wife, and that—two words, actually—was, “Yes, dear.” Had he known how many times he would repeat that phrase to this woman, how it would become the mantra of their marriage, he might well have recollected the river’s invitation and committed himself to its current then and there and followed the moose downstream, thereby saving himself a great deal of misery and the price of the handgun he would purchase thirty years later for the purpose of ending his life.

  “And would you mind putting out that awful cigar?” Francine Robideaux added.



  THE EMPIRE GRILL was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory. Both had been abandoned now for the better part of two decades, though their dark, looming shapes at the foot of the avenue’s gentle incline continued to draw the eye. Of course, nothing prevented a person from looking up Empire Avenue in the other direction, but Miles Roby, the proprietor of the restaurant—and its eventual owner, he hoped—had long noted that his customers rarely did.

  No, their natural preference was to gaze down to where the street both literally and figuratively dead-ended at the mill and factory, the undeniable physical embodiment of the town’s past, and it was the magnetic quality of the old, abandoned structures that steeled Miles’s resolve to sell the Empire Grill for what little it would bring, just as soon as the restaurant was his.

  Just beyond the factory and mill ran the river that long ago had powered them, and Miles often wondered if these old buildings were razed, would the town that had grown up around them be forced to imagine a future? Perhaps not. Nothing but a chain-link fence had gone up in place of the Rexall, which meant, Miles supposed, that diverting one’s attention from the past was not the same as envisioning and embarking upon a future. On the other hand, if the past were razed, the slate wiped clean, maybe fewer people would confuse it with the future, and that at least would be something. For as long as the mill and factory remained, Miles feared, many would continue to believe against all reason that a buyer might be found for one or both, and that consequently Empire Falls would be restored to its old economic viability.

  What drew Miles Roby’s anxious eye down Empire this particular afternoon in early September was not the dark, high-windowed shirt factory where his mother had spent most of her adult working life or, just beyond it, th
e larger, brooding presence of the textile mill, but rather his hope that he’d catch a glimpse of his daughter, Tick, when she rounded the corner and began her slow, solitary trek up the avenue. Like most of her high school friends, Tick, a rail-thin sophomore, lugged all her books in a canvas L.L. Bean backpack and had to lean forward, as if into a strong headwind, to balance a weight nearly as great as her own. Oddly, most of the conventions Miles remembered from high school had been subverted. He and his friends had carried their textbooks balanced on their hips, listing first to the left, then shifting the load and listing to the right. They brought home only the books they would need that night, or the ones they remembered needing, leaving the rest crammed in their lockers. Kids today stuffed the entire contents of their lockers into their seam-stretched backpacks and brought it all home, probably, Miles figured, so they wouldn’t have to think through what they’d need and what they could do without, thereby avoiding the kinds of decisions that might trail consequences. Except that this itself had consequences. A visit to the doctor last spring had revealed the beginnings of scoliosis, a slight curvature of Tick’s spine, which worried Miles at several levels. “She’s just carrying too much weight,” the doctor explained, unaware, as far as Miles could tell, of the metaphorical implications of her remark. It had taken Tick most of the summer to regain her normal posture, and yesterday, after one day back at school, she was already hunched over again.

  Instead of catching sight of his daughter, the one person in the world he wanted at that moment to see rounding the corner, Miles was instead treated to the sight of Walt Comeau, the person he least wanted to see—the one he could live happily without ever laying eyes on again—pulling into a vacant parking space in front of the Empire Grill. Walt’s van was a rolling advertisement for its driver, who’d had THE SILVER FOX stenciled across the hood, just above the grill, and its vanity plates read FOXY 1. The van was tall and Walt short, which meant he had to hop down from the running board, and something about the man’s youthful bounce made Miles, who’d seen this both in real life and in his dreams just about every day for the past year, want to grab an ax handle, meet the Silver Fox at the door and stave his head in right there in the entryway.

  Instead he turned back to the grill and flipped Horace Weymouth’s burger, wondering if he’d already left it on too long. Horace liked his burgers bloody.

  “So.” Horace closed and folded his Boston Globe in anticipation of being fed, his inner clock apparently confirming that Miles had indeed waited too long. “You been out to see Mrs. Whiting yet?”

  “Not yet,” Miles said. He set up Horace’s platter with tomato, lettuce, a slice of Bermuda onion and a pickle, plus the open-faced bun, then pressed down on the burger with his spatula, making it sizzle before slipping it onto the bun. “I usually wait to be summoned.”

  “I wouldn’t,” Horace counseled. “Somebody’s got to inherit Empire Falls. It might as well be Miles Roby.”

  “I’d have a better chance of winning the MegaBucks lottery,” Miles said, sliding the platter onto the counter and noticing, which he hadn’t for a long time, the purple fibroid cyst that grew out of Horace’s forehead. Had it gotten larger, or was it just that Miles had been away and was seeing it afresh after even a short absence? The cyst had taken over half of Horace’s right eyebrow, where hairless skin stretched tight and shiny over the knot, its web of veins fanning outward from its dark center. One of the good things about small towns, Miles’s mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone; the lame and the disfigured were all your neighbors, and seeing them every day meant that after a while you stopped noticing what made them different.

  Miles hadn’t seen much in the way of physical oddity on Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his daughter had vacationed last week. Almost everyone on the island appeared to be rich, slender and beautiful. When he’d remarked on this, his old friend Peter said that he should come live in L.A. for a while. There, he argued, ugliness was rapidly and systematically being bred out of the species. “He doesn’t really mean L.A.,” Peter’s wife, Dawn, had corrected when Miles appeared dubious. “He means Beverly Hills.” “And Bel Air,” Peter added. “And Malibu,” Dawn said. And then they named a baker’s dozen other places where unattractiveness had been eradicated. Peter and Dawn were full of such worldly wisdom, which, for the most part, Miles enjoyed. The three had been undergraduates together at a small Catholic college outside of Portland, and he admired that they were barely recognizable as the students he’d known. Peter and Dawn had become other people entirely, and Miles concluded that this was what was supposed to happen, though it hadn’t happened to him. If disappointed by their old friend’s lack of personal evolution, they concealed that disappointment well, even going so far as to claim that he restored their faith in humanity by remaining the same old Miles. Since they apparently meant this as a compliment, Miles tried hard to take it that way. They did seem genuinely glad to see him every August, and even though each year he half expected his old friends not to renew the invitation for the following summer, he was always wrong.

  Horace picked the thin slice of Bermuda off the plate with his thumb and forefinger, as if to suggest great offense at the idea that onions should be in such close proximity to anything he was expected to eat. “I don’t eat onions, Miles. I know you’ve been away, but I haven’t changed. I read the Globe, I write for the Empire Gazette, I never send Christmas cards, and I don’t eat onions.”

  Miles accepted the onion slice and deposited it in the garbage. It was true he’d been slightly off all day, still sluggish and stupid from vacation, forgetting things that were second nature. He’d intended to work himself back in gradually by supervising the first couple shifts, but Buster, with whom Miles alternated at the grill, always took his revenge by going on a bender as soon as Miles returned from the island, forcing him back behind the grill before he was ready.

  “She’s better than MegaBucks,” Horace said, still on the subject of Mrs. Whiting, who each year spent less and less time in Maine, wintering in Florida and doing what Miles’s long dead Irish maternal grandmother, who liked to stay put, would have called “gallivanting.” Apparently Mrs. Whiting had just returned from an Alaskan cruise. “If I was a member of the family I’d be out there kissing her bony ass every day.”

  Miles watched Horace assemble his burger, relieved to see a red stain spreading over the bun.

  Miles Roby was not, of course, a member of Mrs. Whiting’s family. What Horace referred to was the fact that the old woman’s maiden name had been Robideaux, and some maintained that the Robys and the Robideauxs of Dexter County were, if you went back far enough, the same family. Miles’s own father, Max, believed this to be true, though for him it was purely a matter of wishful thinking. Lacking any evidence that he and the richest woman in central Maine weren’t related, Max decided they must be. Miles knew that if his father had been the one with the money and somebody named Robideaux felt entitled to even a dime of it, he naturally would’ve seen the whole thing differently.

  Of course, it was a moot point. Mrs. Whiting had married all that money in the person of C. B. Whiting, who had owned the paper mill and the shirt factory and the textile mill before selling them all to multinational corporations so they could be pillaged and then closed. The Whiting family still owned half the real estate in Empire Falls, including the grill, which Miles had managed for Mrs. Whiting these last fifteen years with the understanding that the business would devolve upon him at her passing, an event Miles continued to anticipate without, somehow, being able to imagine it. What would happen to the rest of the old woman’s estate was a matter of great speculation. Normally, it would have been inherited by her daughter, but Cindy Whiting had been in and out of the state mental hospital in Augusta all her adult life, and it was widely believed that Mrs. Whiting would never entrust her daughter with anything more than her continued maintenance required. In truth, no one in Dexter County knew much about Mrs. Whiting’s actua
l wealth or her plans for it. She never dealt with local lawyers or accountants, preferring to employ a Boston firm that the Whitings had used for nearly a century. She did little to discourage the notion that a significant legacy would one day go to the town itself, but neither did she offer any concrete assurances. Mrs. Whiting was not known for philanthropy. In times of crisis, such as the most recent flood of the Knox River, she occasionally contributed, though she always insisted that the community match her donation. Similar restrictions were applied to seed money for a new wing of the hospital and a grant to upgrade computers at the high school. Such gifts, though sizable, were judged to be little more than shavings off the tip of a financial iceberg. When the woman was dead, it was hoped, the money would flow more freely.

  Miles wasn’t so sure. Mrs. Whiting’s generosity toward the town, like that she extended to him, was puzzlingly ambiguous. Some years ago, for instance, she’d donated the decaying old Whiting mansion, which occupied a large section of the downtown, with the proviso that it be preserved. It was only after accepting her gift that the mayor and town council came to understand the extent of the burden they’d been handed. They could no longer collect taxes on the property, which they were not permitted to use for social events, and maintenance costs were considerable. Similarly, if Mrs. Whiting did end up giving the restaurant to Miles, he feared that the gift would be too costly to accept.

  In fact, now that the mills were all closed down, it sometimes appeared that Mrs. Whiting had cornered the market on business failure. She owned most of the commercial space in town and was all too happy to help new enterprises start up in one of her buildings. But then rents had a way of going up, and none of the businesses seemed to get anywhere, nor did their owners when they appealed to Mrs. Whiting for more favorable terms.

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