Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  What he didn’t tell his mother was that Cindy often sat by herself at one end of a table designed for twenty students or more, the other end overcrowded with laughing, boisterous kids who seemed purposefully unaware of her existence. To a stranger entering the cafeteria for the first time, it would have appeared that Cindy Whiting was made of different, heavier materials from those that formed her classmates, as if twenty of them were required to balance their end of a teeter-totter. Nor did Miles inform his mother of his own ingenious methods of keeping his promise to her, of leaving the table where he’d eaten lunch with his friends a few minutes before the bell to stop by Cindy’s table for a minute or two; sometimes he timed it so that he arrived just as the bell rang and there was nothing to do besides carry her tray. The terrible truth was that such slender gestures seemed even to Miles, at sixteen, both too much and too little, more than just about everyone else was willing to do but far less than conscience dictated. For he did have a conscience. He became painfully aware of it—a dagger through his stingy heart—each time Cindy beamed her hopeful smile up at him.

  But it wasn’t just Cindy Whiting his mother was obsessed with. Gradually Grace came to dwell on everything that transpired in the Whiting household. She came home worried about bagworms spinning their silky pouches in the hydrangeas. Worried that the shrimp from the supermarket would not be fresh for Saturday’s gathering with the hospital planning board. Worried that the house itself was too isolated across the river, where its inhabitants might prove vulnerable to all manner of miscreants sneaking over the Iron Bridge.

  Though at times vague and abstracted, his mother was doubly grateful to Miles for being such a help to her. He’d learned to cook dinner for himself and his little brother, and she trusted him with enough money to buy such basics as toilet paper, laundry detergent and milk. “I don’t know why I can’t seem to focus anymore,” she confessed to him, when she forgot something at the store or failed to pay the phone bill. “I swear I don’t know where my mind is half the time.”

  Miles knew exactly where it was, though he loved her too much to point out the obvious: his mother had found another family.

  MRS. WHITING SEEMED genuinely fond of him from the start, which surprised Miles, given her views on youth. The woman made no secret of her opinion that teenagers belonged in institutions for the criminally insane, from which they should not be released until the word “cool” had been purged from their vocabulary. She made no secret of her other forceful opinions either. Each afternoon, she pulled up in front of the high school in her Lincoln at precisely 3:35. Classes let out at 3:20, but then all the school buses lined up outside and students from all four grades stampeded out the quadruple doors—a crush of inconsiderate humanity that an unsteady girl had no business in the middle of. By this point in her life Cindy was accustomed to waiting for crowds to disperse. When she traveled anywhere with her mother, they remained with the frightened elderly, the parents with small children, and the emotionally timid, while the strong and swift cleared the aisles. They avoided sales in department stores, queues for ice cream and popcorn at the lake, anything at all that might involve jostling. Over the years Cindy had come to understand that if she was patient, there would be plenty of popcorn and ice cream left over. She could enjoy the same treats that the fleet and well balanced enjoyed. Just not with them.

  So, only after the phalanx of buses departed, crammed with their cargoes of Empire Falls’s Vandals and Huns, Goths and Visigoths, did the Lincoln pull into one of the spaces marked FOR SCHOOL BUSES ONLY. Though grateful to Mrs. Whiting for helping him learn to drive, Miles immediately understood the cost of the instruction. Now, in addition to any lunchtime kindnesses, he was required to spend another ten or fifteen minutes with Cindy after school, as they waited for her mother. Though both were juniors, they had different homerooms, so Miles, after the first wave of students had left, helped Cindy carry her things to the front entrance. In warm weather they sometimes waited outside, until they discovered they would have to endure less ridicule if they stayed indoors.

  Ridicule was nothing new to Cindy Whiting, of course. During grade school, her classmates’ cruel pantomimes of her lurching gait resembled that of the monster in the old Frankenstein movies, holding his arms out from his sides for balance. The Whiting Walk, they called it, and there were contests to judge whose rendition was best. During recess it was not unusual to see three or four boys practicing at the same time, stumbling into the slide or the swing set, bouncing off any objects at hand. The Whiting Walk was such soul-satisfying fun that it carried over into junior high, until the day a girl from the high school, Charlene Gardiner, who was there because her little brother had forgotten his lunch money, came upon a group of boys following the Whiting girl down the corridor, all of them doing their Whiting Walk. When Cindy turned around, they pretended awkward innocence. Seeing this, Charlene Gardiner had become furious and asked the boys in a tone of withering contempt whether they thought they’d ever grow up.

  Among the boys at the junior high there was no one whose disapproval carried greater weight than Charlene Gardiner’s, since she possessed the choicest set of melons in all of Empire Falls, no contest. One of the boys in the hall that day, Jimmy Minty, having seen her in a bikini at the lake the previous summer, had spent the whole fall semester recounting the experience of watching her bend over to pick up her tube of suntan lotion. To have your maturity questioned by Charlene Gardiner was definitely a scrotum shrinker, and from that moment on, the Whiting Walk became uncool and all its former practitioners were convinced that they had, as requested, grown up.

  Which perhaps explained why it came as such a tremendous relief that first spring afternoon when Cindy Whiting and Miles Roby were observed together as they waited for her mother to rescue them. Sure, it was still uncool to make fun of Cindy Whiting by herself, but as part of a couple she was again fair game, even though Miles was the ostensible object of this new derision. Boys who already had their driver’s license would roar out of the parking lot, honking their horns and leaning out their windows to shout sexual encouragement to him, as he sat there with Cindy Whiting on a stone bench gifted to the school by the class of ’43.

  Even more satisfying was to moon them, though this happened only once because the mooners themselves were victimized by bad luck and poor timing. Their intention had been a limited, tactical strike against the two losers on the bench, but no sooner had they framed their pimply asses in the windows of a speeding car than Mr. Boniface emerged unexpectedly from the building, his attention drawn by the honking horn. The view he was treated to stopped him in his tracks, and he watched until the car careened around the corner and out of sight. The wiggling asses might have belonged to anyone, of course, but Mr. Boniface recognized the car and thus quickly identified and suspended the appropriate scholars. Their bad luck was exacerbated by the principal’s assumption that he was their intended target, a misapprehension they were hard-pressed to correct. There didn’t seem to be an adequate way of explaining that they hadn’t meant to moon him, but rather a crippled girl.

  Even waiting inside the building did not inoculate Miles and Cindy Whiting against ridicule, of course. One afternoon the entire varsity baseball team—trailed by a grinning Mr. Brown—trotted out of the locker room, chanting “Go, Roby, go! Go, Roby, go!” all the way out to the baseball diamond.

  In truth, this jeering had a more profound effect on Miles than on Cindy Whiting, who either didn’t understand its import or was pretending not to. “What do they mean, ‘Go, Roby, go’?” she wondered innocently, causing Miles, who’d flushed crimson when the varsity trotted by, to glow even more hotly.

  Miles, hoping to keep Cindy from reiterating her declaration of love, took to directing their conversations to neutral academic subjects and often helped her with her homework, especially English, which happened to be his best subject and her worst. To Miles, her incomprehension had less to do with stupidity than with stubbornness. For some reason she an
grily blamed each and every author in their literature text for her inability to deduce their intention and meaning, and when Miles tried to explain a troublesome passage or concept, her face became a mask of resentment and frustration. Poetry in particular infuriated her. To her way of thinking it was like pig Latin, designed for the sole purpose of allowing those in the know to enjoy the discomfort of those who weren’t. Miles suggested that poems weren’t really written in code, and that they weren’t nearly as difficult as she was making them, but in fact even simple, obvious metaphors threw her for a loop, and more sophisticated forms of figurative language filled her with angry indignation.

  “It’s simple,” Miles said one afternoon. “It’s called personification. The speaker of the poem is comparing death to a coachman. ‘Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me.’ ”

  “If that’s what she means, why doesn’t she just say it?”

  “She is saying it,” Miles said, pointing to the line. The girl’s failure to grasp something so simple mystified him. If anyone might be expected to have a feeling for Emily Dickinson, he’d have bet it would be Cindy, but she refused to even look at the page. The poem had made her feel inferior, so she wanted nothing more to do with it. Staring at the line in question would only deepen her conviction that there could be no justification for this or any other poem. “Why doesn’t she say it so I can understand it?” she insisted.

  Miles thought it might be wise not to answer this question, and so he said, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice, “Well, do you understand it now that I’ve explained it?”

  “No,” she assured him mulishly and, as if to dissuade him from any further attempts at enlightenment, she emphatically closed the book, shoved it into her canvas bag, struggled to her feet, took up her cane and hobbled across the hall to the lavatory.

  In her anger and haste, however, she hadn’t completely closed the bag, and Miles noticed a thin paperback that didn’t look anything like a schoolbook wedged sideways among the texts. He had no business going through her things, but he couldn’t help wondering what sort of reading might appeal to someone so militantly resistant to the subtleties of language. The cover, depicting a summer camp setting with two giggling teenage girls sneaking off into the woods after a pair of beckoning teenage boys, looked innocent enough. It resembled those books aimed at seventh-grade girls, the kind read aloud at slumber parties, so Miles was surprised to discover that its contents, at least on the page whose corner was turned down, were mildly pornographic. The passage his eye fell on had two girls, presumably the same ones depicted on the cover, secretly watching half a dozen boys roughhousing in the river. The boys were all naked, and one of them, Jules, was particularly worthy of their attention. “The thing between his legs, so strange and so thrilling, made Pam’s pussy pucker,” Miles read. This sentiment certainly required no gloss. He managed to slip the book into the canvas bag just as Cindy stepped back into the hall.

  “And what’s more,” she said, apparently taking up the discussion right where they’d left off, “I don’t believe you really understand those poems either. I think you’re just pretending.”

  “Fine,” Miles said, no longer interested in arguing the merits of poetry. The dreadful fact of the matter was that the passage he’d read, its ridiculous alliteration aside, had given him an erection, and there was something about knowing that Cindy Whiting read and presumably enjoyed such books that made the situation worse. When she settled onto the bench next to him, it was as if she was suddenly sitting there naked, and he recalled that her expression when they’d been surprised last week by the mooners, their bare asses and dangling genitals framed in the car windows, had not been exactly what he’d expected.

  “I think you’re all just pretending,” she continued obstinately. “And why are you looking at me like that?”

  But at that moment a horn tooted outside, and they saw the black Lincoln idling at the curb. Miles pivoted when he stood and rearranged himself behind his books, but then a strange thought crossed his mind: what the Lincoln reminded him of was Death’s coach in Emily Dickinson’s poem.

  UNDER MRS. WHITING’S TUTELAGE, Miles’s driving showed steady improvement, much of which was attributable to his very first lesson. After they switched seats, Miles had just pulled cautiously away from the curb when Mrs. Whiting told him to pull over again. “Dear boy,” she said, “are you always like this?”

  The question, compounded by the way she was looking at him, caused Miles to feel an inadequacy that transcended automotive matters, as though her question hinted at some larger character flaw. “Like what?” he heard himself ask.

  “Like paralyzed with fear.”

  “This is a very nice car,” he pointed out.

  “Ah, there it is,” she replied, pleased with herself for discovering … who knew what? She was still regarding him fixedly, causing Miles to wonder if the conversation would right itself soon, or just continue to defy his comprehension. His mother had warned him that Mrs. Whiting would be like no one else in his experience, and now he understood her inability to explain in detail.

  Mrs. Whiting was several years older than his mother, he knew, which put her in her mid- to late-forties, but if she looked her age, in some hard-to-define way, she didn’t seem her age. Miles was aware that Grace had been a very beautiful woman, and at times, though less and less frequently now, he would be reminded of her former beauty. In the years since their return from Martha’s Vineyard she had settled into middle age, as had all the mothers of his friends and acquaintances. Strangely, one had only to glance at Mrs. Whiting to know she’d never been beautiful, probably never even pretty. Her daughter, had she not been crippled as a child and made the transition into young womanhood to the awful cadence of ridicule, would have been far prettier. Yet, from the moment she asked if he’d always been so frightened, what the woman seemed to convey to Miles was a kind of sexuality that, at least in his sixteen-year-old eyes, he’d not witnessed before in any woman her age. It was sexual inadequacy, he realized with a shock, that he’d felt when she looked at him, and that caused his cheeks to burn hot with embarrassment.

  “There what is?” he said, regretting the question immediately.

  “Your mother,” she explained. “I didn’t see her at all until you pointed out how nice this car is. Physically you don’t look like our Grace, but you share her timidity.”

  Miles registered the “our Grace” but decided to ignore it.

  “It’s your father you’ve got written all over you, of course,” she said, as if she imagined this to be a common pronouncement, which it wasn’t. “Cindy is her father’s daughter too, aren’t you, dear?”

  This seemed a rather hurtful thing for a mother to say, and Miles glanced in the rearview mirror to see how Cindy Whiting would react to the observation, but her face couldn’t have been more blank. Whether she looked like her father or not wasn’t a question Miles himself had any opinion on, he supposed, never having met C. B. Whiting. According to Cindy, her father now lived more or less permanently in Mexico, where he oversaw a textile mill like the one that had closed in Empire Falls.

  Empire High might have been lacking in many qualities, but it had plenty of parking. There were about a hundred yards of paved parking lot out back, most of it empty by late afternoon. Mrs. Whiting positioned Miles in such a way that the entire stretch lay before him, free of obstacles, nothing beyond the pavement but a gentle, grassy slope, at the base of which was the school’s oval, quarter-mile track. “Okay,” she said, “floor it.”

  Miles wasn’t certain he heard her correctly. “You want me to—”

  “Correct,” she said.

  “I don’t …”

  “As in, depress the accelerator all the way to the floor.”

  Miles considered the request. He was pretty sure there was no possibility of misunderstanding, but still.… He located Cindy’s face again in the mirror, and its expression bore about as much comprehension as he
might’ve expected if her mother had recited a line of Elizabethan poetry.

  The only other car Miles had driven was the driver’s ed vehicle, which was underpowered by design, so he was greatly surprised when the Lincoln leapt forward beneath his foot like a suddenly uncaged animal. When he instinctively let off the gas, she barked, “No! All the way down!” above the roar of the engine, and so this time he did as he was told, the long parking lot flying past, the force of their momentum pushing them back into their seats, until Mrs. Whiting said, “Now would be a good time to stop, dear boy.”

  She was right, too. Nearly out of parking lot, Miles ran out of still more between Mrs. Whiting’s suggestion and the moment when his foot found and depressed the brake. The Lincoln slowed immediately, its tires squealing horribly. Seeing the car slow was gratifying, of course, but the sound of the tires seemed like a bad thing to Miles, and one the car’s owner would surely disapprove of, so he let up on the brake until the screeching stopped, which meant they were still doing about thirty when the pavement ended and they began to bump down the grassy hill all the way to the edge of the cinder track, where they finally came to a complete halt. Miles looked over at Mrs. Whiting, fully expecting her to concur with his last driving instructor that he was indeed a menace behind the wheel, but if she was upset with him, there was no indication. In the back, her daughter was also silent.

  “It might have been preferable to stop back up there,” Mrs. Whiting observed calmly, “but never mind. This will do fine. Now tell me what you just learned.”

  “I’m not sure,” Miles admitted. In fact, he was not sure whether or not he had wet his pants.

  “I am,” said Mrs. Whiting. “You learned what would happen if you did something you were afraid to do. You learned how fast the car would go, and then you learned what it would take to stop it again. You were surprised by both, but you won’t be again.”

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