Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  The sudden crash into and up over the curb had the salutary effect of painfully freeing Mr. Brown’s wrist from the seat, which in turn allowed him to be flung against the door, his bullet-shaped head spiderwebbing the window glass. Able at last to locate the elusive brake pedal, he was still unable to employ it, having been stunned senseless by the impact. So it was that Miles’s old friend Otto Meyer Jr. (the team’s second-string catcher) saved the day by lunging forward over the slumped body of the driver’s ed teacher and depressing the brake by hand. The car came to a screaming, skidding halt about a foot from the back wall of the garage, looking for all the world as if it had been Miles’s intention to park there from the start.

  “Is the car in Park?” Otto asked, his voice sounding strange down there in the passenger-side foot well.

  Miles put the car in Park. “Thanks, Otto,” he said.

  “That’s okay,” Otto said. “Pull me back up, all right?” The other two boys in the back obliged, and Miles then noticed that the pinky finger on Otto’s left hand was bent back at a rather unnatural ninety-degree angle. Otto himself noticed this when he switched the ignition off and the bent finger encountered the turn signal. “Darn,” he said, showing it to Miles, without the slightest ill will, before passing out.

  UNLIKE OTTO MEYER JR., Mr. Brown did harbor a grudge, and he nursed it long after the impressive knot above his temple had receded. If he’d had his way, Miles would’ve been kicked out of driver’s education, at least until he learned to drive. It wasn’t just that he was such a lousy driver, Mr. Brown explained to the principal, or that the damn kid had nearly killed them all. Mr. Brown also had a baseball team to consider, one he hoped to take to the state tournament this year, a squad that now, thanks to Miles Roby, featured a shortstop with a sprained wrist on his throwing hand and a catcher with a broken pinky on his glove hand. Half his damn team was taking driver’s ed, and he saw no reason to risk certain injury and possible death or dismemberment by putting them in an automobile with a boy who didn’t have any better sense than to jump a curb, fly over a lawn and careen into a stranger’s garage. And how could he coach effectively with all these headaches he’d been getting now since the accident? No, he wanted Miles Roby out of the class and furthermore hoped some sensible policy might be enacted to ensure that, in the future, any kid who signed up for driver’s education had some vague idea of what to do behind the wheel.

  The principal at the time was Clarence Boniface, who was generally disliked because he wasn’t from Empire Falls or anywhere near Empire Falls. He’d been hired in preference to several local, in-house candidates, including Mr. Brown himself, because Mr. Boniface could boast (although he didn’t) an advanced degree and considerable administrative experience as the assistant principal of a large high school in Connecticut. In his two years at the helm of Empire Falls High, he’d proven himself to be serious, dutiful and competent. He was a good listener and slow to take offense—both excellent and necessary qualities in a high school principal, though they failed to gain him acceptance with the majority, who had determined he was an asshole even before he arrived. In any event, he listened soberly to his baseball coach’s solution to the “Roby kid problem,” waited patiently until he was sure Mr. Brown had finished making his case and then burst into violent laughter that rapidly became a full-blown fit of hysteria from which he could not be rescued. He hooted, then howled. His face grew red, tears streamed down his cheeks, and he soon was gasping for air. His secretary, greatly alarmed, brought him a glass of water, but he was shaking too badly to drink it.

  In the end they had to lay the principal facedown on the carpet, where at first he flopped about like a bass on the floor of a boat, then curled into a fetal position and lay inert, with just enough energy left to whisper, “Oh, God, oh, God. I’m so sorry, Mr. Brown. I never meant … I’m so sorry … I haven’t laughed like that since I was a child … my uncle used to tickle me until I wet my pants.” Finally he was able to sit up and lean back against the wall. “I must have been suppressing that laugh since the day I moved here,” he concluded.

  Mr. Brown had no idea what the man had or had not been suppressing, but he didn’t like being laughed at in general, and certainly not by someone from Connecticut, and having his principal cleanse his soul at his own expense made him furious. Rising from his chair, he glared down at Mr. Boniface, who remained right where he was, his back against the wall, looking like a man on the wrong end of a firing squad. “You think this is funny?” Mr. Brown said, pointing to his own narrowed right eye. “You think seeing double’s funny?”

  He had more to say, too, but Mr. Boniface was now holding his aching ribs and pleading with his baseball coach. “Stop … please … Mr. Brown, I’m begging you … I can’t take it … you’re killing me.…”

  Which left Mr. Brown no alternative but to storm out of the office, having arrived at a firm resolution henceforth to oppose Mr. Boniface in anything the principal favored, whenever the opportunity arose, no matter the cost, a resolution that strengthened over the next month whenever he encountered Mr. Boniface in the corridor and saw his shoulders begin to shake in recollection of the Roby incident. Mr. Brown was in no mood to share his good humor. The note he received from his principal the day after their meeting was curt and unambiguous: You will continue to instruct Miles Roby in driver’s education, a course for which there has never been a prerequisite. In the future I hope you will be able to give him, and every other Empire Falls student who wishes to learn to drive, your complete and undivided attention.

  A year later, when Mr. Boniface died suddenly of a massive embolism, Mr. Brown boycotted the funeral, remarking to friends, “Who’s laughing now?” He seemed not to understand the significance of the fact that he himself wasn’t laughing when he said this.

  SO MILES, after a poor beginning, was allowed to continue. Mr. Brown let it be known, however, that he was playing the rest of the game under protest, and he actually seemed disappointed that the remainder of the spring term passed without further incident. In truth, he seldom allowed Miles behind the wheel except in the most straightforward situations, nor was he allowed to attempt parallel parking. When the class ended, Mr. Brown informed Miles that he would be receiving a failing grade and further claimed that in all the years he’d spent teaching students to drive, he’d never run into one with less God-given talent. He sincerely hoped that Miles would proceed through life on foot.

  Mr. Boniface, aware that of all the vindictive, hateful, small-town morons on his faculty, Mr. Brown was the most lethal, had anticipated this result, so when he received Mr. Brown’s grade sheet, he invited Miles to drive him home in his own car. For both parties it was a nervous trip, but they arrived safely at the principal’s home, where both realized at the same moment that now Miles would have to walk all the way across town, so they switched places and the principal drove the student home.

  “You say you’ve had no opportunity to practice all term?” Mr. Boniface inquired.

  Miles, ashamed to admit there was currently no family car, said this was true.

  “Mr. Brown has given you a failing grade,” the principal said.

  “Well”—Miles shrugged—“I did almost kill him.”

  “Still,” Mr. Boniface said, as if contemplating the long list of extenuating circumstances that might make killing Mr. Brown forgivable, “I’ll speak to him.”

  He followed up on that promise immediately, phoning Mr. Brown at home. “In twenty-five years I’ve never changed a teacher’s grade, but I’m about to change one of yours unless you change it yourself.”

  Mr. Brown didn’t have to ask who they were talking about. “The Roby kid fails,” he said. “He damn near killed me.”

  “I’ve thought a lot about that,” the principal replied wistfully. “Believe me.”

  Mr. Brown was normally not very quick on the uptake, but he caught this inference immediately. “Yeah? Well, you’re stuck with me. And we both know you don’t have the authority to
change any teacher’s grade.”

  “And you’ll be stuck with Miles Roby. If you fail him, he’ll have to repeat the course. Have you thought about that?”

  Mr. Brown had not. Until now, no one had ever needed to take the course over again.

  “And a lot of your ballplayers are frankly marginal in terms of academic eligibility. It’d be a shame if James Minty, for instance, turned out to be ineligible for his senior year. There’s a good chance Gladys will be his English instructor next year. In fact, there’s a very good chance.” Gladys was Mr. Boniface’s wife, and whenever Mr. Brown was foolish enough to commit anything to writing, Gladys corrected its grammar and spelling and returned it to him.

  “I’ll change the grade,” Mr. Brown said.

  “And you owe Miles Roby an apology.”

  “Never,” said Mr. Brown. Not for a dozen Jimmy Mintys. Not for a thousand.

  “Consider what it means to hate a sixteen-year-old boy,” the principal suggested. “Consider what it means for a teacher to hate a student.”

  “What’s so bad about that?” Mr. Brown wanted to know. “You hate me, don’t you?”

  Mr. Boniface, a fair man, conceded the point.

  MILES HAD JUST ABOUT given up on the idea of trying for his license anytime soon when his mother returned from work one evening and told him that Mrs. Whiting had offered to serve as his interim instructor. Even more incredibly, she’d proposed they use her new Lincoln to practice with. Miles was so surprised by the offer that he couldn’t think of a reason to refuse it, which he would have liked to do. It had nothing to do with Mrs. Whiting, whom he’d met only briefly, and everything to do with her daughter, Cindy.

  In matters of affection, the rules of engagement at Empire High were detailed yet unambiguous, an extension of procedures established in junior high, a set of guidelines that couldn’t have been any clearer if they’d been posted on the schoolhouse door. If you were a girl and your heart inclined toward a particular boy, you had one of your girlfriends make inquiries from one of that boy’s friends. Such contact represented the commencement of a series of complex negotiations, the opening rounds of which were handled by friends. Boy’s friend A might report to Girl’s friend B that the boy in question considered her a fox, or, if he felt particularly strongly, a major fox. Those experienced in these matters knew that it was wise to proceed cautiously, since too much ardor could delay things for weeks. The girl in question might be in negotiations with other parties, and no boy wanted to be on record as considering a girl a major fox only to discover that she considered him merely cool. Friends had to be instructed carefully about how much emotional currency they could spend, since rogue emotions led to inflation, lessening the value of everyone’s feelings. Once a level of affection within the comfort zone of both parties was agreed upon, the principals could then meet for the exchange of mementos—rings, jackets, photos, key chains—to seal the deal, always assuming that the seconds had properly represented the lovers to begin with.

  As a cripple, of course, Cindy Whiting had no friends, thus romance could not begin. Had she not been run over by a car as a little girl, she might have been at or near the top of the social pyramid, her parents being rich and her pedigree beyond question, but while no one wished to be unkind, facts were facts and Cindy was a cripple. It wasn’t as if anyone was glad she was a cripple, simply that it was impossible to pretend she wasn’t when she was. Without a second, she had no choice but to speak on her own behalf, which she did one day in the cafeteria when Miles stopped at her table to carry her lunch tray up to the window. “I love you,” she said without preamble.

  Miles had a procedural predicament of his own, aside from Cindy Whiting. He did have friends—boys like Otto Meyer Jr., whose pedigree, like Miles’s own, was dubious but not impossible—who might successfully, if clumsily, mediate an emotional attachment, but Miles had made the mistake of falling in love outside the system, with a girl named Charlene Gardiner, who worked as a waitress at a greasy spoon downtown and was three years his senior. The system simply wasn’t designed to lend assistance to anyone foolish enough to fall in love outside its clearly defined parameters, which meant that Miles Roby, like Cindy Whiting, was on his own.

  He knew that Charlene Gardiner was no more in love with him than he was with Cindy Whiting, but that did not stop him from seeking out her company, even if that meant merely watching her forlornly from a booth at the Empire Grill, so nearly every day, he’d convince Otto Meyer Jr. to meet him there after school. Thus he knew that havoc would be wreaked if he accepted Mrs. Whiting’s offer of after-school driving lessons. He’d be swept out of Charlene Gardiner’s orbit and drawn into Cindy Whiting’s. And once in her gravitational pull, he knew he’d be on his own, adrift. His mother would be no help at all. The cutthroat savagery of high school romance inspired in nearly all adults a collective amnesia. Having survived it themselves, they locked those memories far away in some dark chamber of their subconscious where things that are too terrible to contemplate are permanently stored. The more skilled you were at the game in high school, the more deeply your guilty recollections were buried. This was the reason parents so often worried vaguely about their high school children, yet balked at inquiring after the details of their social lives. Heartbreak, they reassured themselves, was “all part of growing up.”

  Grace Roby was an exception to this rule. For some reason she seemed to have forgotten exactly none of high school’s horrors. By this time she’d been working for Mrs. Whiting for several years, and seeing that woman’s daughter when she came home from school every day only intensified her natural sympathy. “I can’t bear it, Miles,” she confessed one evening. “I can’t stand to see the way that child has been ostracized, the way her heart is broken each and every day. We have a duty in this world, Miles. You see that, don’t you? We have a moral duty!”

  Miles could not disagree with his mother’s conclusion, though he favored the widest possible definition of the pronoun “we.” He was willing to do his share, but according to his calculations, the obligation that was Cindy Whiting, divided among all the citizens of Empire Falls, amounted for each individual to a manageable moral task, one that could be dispensed with by means of the occasional kind word or gesture. He suspected, however, that his mother had something else entirely in mind. Though they never discussed it, he was pretty sure she wouldn’t think much of his willingness to shoulder his “share” of the Cindy Whiting burden and leave the remainder to others. The majority, she would remind him, never do their share. Grace believed that those who could see their duty clearly were required by God to do the heavy lifting for the morally blind. Where Cindy Whiting was concerned, when his mother said “we,” she really meant “he.”

  During this same period, something else was also troubling Miles, something he would’ve been hard-pressed to articulate. Since losing her factory job and going to work for Mrs. Whiting, his mother seemed different, as if she had crossed over into some new place in life. There were few outward signs of this transformation, nothing he could really put his finger on, and though the change had evolved gradually, he sensed it all the same. Grace had come back from Martha’s Vineyard heartbroken, and for a time it seemed to Miles she might never get over Charlie Mayne. But since going to work for Mrs. Whiting his mother had seemed to emerge from her sadness and to inhabit instead some new terrain. She didn’t seem happy so much as content, yet that wasn’t quite it, either. Nor was “resigned” an adequate description, though she did seem to suffer less now. Rather, it was as if she’d been let in on a secret she’d spent her whole life struggling to understand, and this knowledge, while changing little, made things more bearable. At home she appeared less fretful, both with Miles and with his father (on those occasions when Max graced them with his company).

  To Miles, his mother was no less loving than she’d ever been, but something had changed between them as well. Her hours at the Whiting household were long, and when she finally returned home in the e
vening, she arrived as if from another universe, sometimes just sitting at the kitchen table for half an hour, looking around their little house, as if life there were completely strange, mysterious and unaccountable. Sometimes Miles caught her regarding him as if he, too, were a mystery, or a stranger, someone she’d once known well but who had undergone plastic surgery so skillful that she could no longer be sure he was who he claimed to be.

  That she should regard him curiously was natural enough, he supposed. During his junior year he’d shot up several inches and was now taller than both his parents, so perhaps it was his becoming physically a man that confused her. Whereas his boyish, tree-climbing stage had terrified her, she now seemed less afraid for him. Sometimes, though, her expression suggested an ability to foresee some unalterable destiny, one she herself wouldn’t have chosen, and the calmness with which she acquiesced to whatever it was she saw struck him as a little frightening.

  If she regarded her family’s future with greater equilibrium—Grace no longer fretted about money, even though Max’s continued unreliability guaranteed a week-to-week existence—she became consumed with the Whiting family’s affairs. Her concern about Cindy, especially, bordered on obsessive, and she questioned Miles every day about how the girl had seemed at school, though she was aware they had only one class together. Over and over she made Miles promise never to allow Cindy to sit alone at lunch, even though he explained there were days that Cindy never appeared in the cafeteria, or came in late in the company of a teacher, or after Miles had already found a seat and eaten half of his lunch. Sometimes, too, she sat with Mr. Boniface.

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