Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Miles nodded, feeling the strange truth of this.

  “You can’t possibly judge your ability to control something until you’ve experienced the extremes of its capabilities. Do you understand?”

  He did. Frightened as he had just been, he now felt surprisingly good about sitting behind the wheel of the Lincoln—a different feeling entirely from losing control of the driver’s ed car and ending up in that garage.

  “Power and control,” Mrs. Whiting insisted. “There will be times when you’ll have to put the accelerator down and other times when you’ll have to stand on the brakes. Not very many, but some. Now you know the car, and you know that between those extremes there’s nothing to be frightened of, correct?”

  They were, just then, still pointed downhill, on a piece of high school property not designed for motor vehicles. “Now what?” he asked.

  “Now you get yourself out of this situation you got yourself into. Use your best judgment.”

  Miles nodded, took a deep breath, removed his foot from the brake and coasted out onto the cinder track. Trying to back up the grassy hill seemed like a dicey enterprise, so he simply steered the Lincoln around the oval track, grateful the track team had an away meet that afternoon. He’d nearly completed the entire quarter mile, spotted the tire tracks in the moist grass where he’d descended a few minutes before and was about to follow them back up to the pavement, when he became aware of a voice outside the car, calling, “Hey! Hey! Stop, goddamn it!” and spied in the rearview mirror an apoplectic Mr. Brown chasing the Lincoln on foot. It was hard to know whether he’d been pursuing them all the way around the track or had picked them up at the final turn. In any case, the baseball coach arrived beet-red and winded, and then came around the car and leaned against the hood, blocking Miles’s escape route.

  “Roby!” he wheezed when he saw who was behind the wheel. “I might’ve known.” Miles obliged him by rolling down the window so Mr. Brown could yell at him better. “Goddamn it! What do you think you’re doing? Do you have any idea how much that track cost?”

  At that moment Mrs. Whiting leaned across the seat, causing Mr. Brown to start at the sight of her. “I do,” she assured him. “I paid for it. Now get out of the way.”

  “Jeez, Mrs. Whiting, I didn’t see you there,” the coach cried. “I had no idea—”

  “Did you hear what I said?”

  When Mr. Brown danced out of the way, Miles slowly followed his tire tracks up the hill until the Lincoln bumped back onto the blacktop and his former instructor fell out of sight in the rearview mirror. Cindy Whiting, who’d lapsed into a comatose silence ever since getting into the car, was still there, of course, and she offered up a tentative, almost frightened smile when she felt his eyes on her. In that moment, seeing only the part of her face that extended from her mouth to her eyes framed in the rectangular mirror, Miles thought he saw someone else, someone vaguely familiar, someone he couldn’t quite place.

  “Power and control,” Mrs. Whiting repeated, a smile playing at her lips.



  IT HAD BEEN Miles’s intention to close the restaurant by eleven. The game started at one-thirty, and he wanted to pick Cindy Whiting up shortly after noon in hopes of saving himself some embarrassment. A bigger hypocrite might’ve convinced himself it was Cindy Whiting he was trying not to embarrass, but Miles knew better. His thinking was to get to Empire Field before it got crowded so the two of them could find seats in the lower bleachers on the home-team side. Ascending into the upper reaches of the stands with Cindy’s walker would not only take forever but also would allow everyone in Empire Falls the opportunity to witness and reflect on the fact that Miles Roby was in the company of that poor crippled Whiting girl who’d once tried to commit suicide over him. Also to speculate on whether he was positioning himself to marry all that money once his divorce became final. By Monday morning he’d be overhearing jokes at the restaurant.

  He’d spent much of his virtually sleepless night feverishly climbing and reclimbing these imaginary bleachers, pausing only long enough to replay what Charlene had said to him in the Lamplighter after his brother left, that she’d have let him make love to her except for her fear he’d be disappointed. What he should’ve replied—this came to him at three in the morning—was that he’d take his chances if she would. But that, after all, had been her point. She wasn’t telling him that he might be disappointed, but that he would be, his own certainty to the contrary notwithstanding. She hadn’t offered him a choice accompanied by a stern warning so much as a kind and loving explanation.

  Was it possible she was right? In an attempt to resolve the question—and to keep from going back to climbing bleachers with Cindy Whiting—he tried to imagine Charlene following him back to the Empire Grill in her decrepit Hyundai, their slipping in the back door and up the dark rear stairs. That part was easy and delicious in its intimate anticipation. And he had no trouble imagining a kiss there in the dark, or the warmth of Charlene’s body against his own. They’d worked together in close quarters for many years, so he knew her smell, even how her body felt, and he was smart enough not to clutter his fantasy with dialogue. Though Charlene might be a talker, it was easier to imagine silence than to imagine her speaking the words he needed her to say. But then the fantasy failed utterly. When it came time to undress her, he discovered that the woman standing before him wasn’t Charlene at all. She was Cindy Whiting, and not Cindy at her present age but rather as a young woman, approaching him without reservation even in his middle age. “Dear Miles,” she whispered, as if to reassure him it was all right that he’d aged and thickened. “Dear, dear Miles.”

  So, back to climbing and reclimbing the bleachers for another long hour, his failure of imagination even more disheartening than the endless ascent. At least, he told himself, in the bleachers they were both clothed. He finally fell asleep around four, and the alarm went off at five-fifteen. Dopey with exhaustion, he stayed too long in the shower in a vain attempt to wash the long night away, putting himself behind schedule even before the restaurant opened. Worse, the breakfast crowd, which he’d hoped would be small on game day, was large, steady and talkative, full of anticipation and energy. He managed to run the last customers off by eleven, but he didn’t want to leave a mess for David and Charlene and the rest of the evening crew, who’d have their hands full when the Empire Grill reopened at six, so it was past noon before he finished the cleanup, and twelve-thirty by the time he showered off the smell of sausage grease, and one before he picked Cindy up, and one-fifteen before he found a place to park on a side street adjacent to Empire Field, and one twenty-five before they began to climb the cold metal bleachers on the visitors’ side of the field, the only place where there were still seats, and those up near the top. At one-thirty, just as Empire Falls kicked off, they finally completed the climb that Miles had begun in bed twelve hours before. Cindy had left her walker at home, content to use a sturdy cane for balance on one side and sturdy Miles Roby on the other. And by the time he’d stared malignantly at a woman in the top row until she moved down so he and Cindy could sit on the aisle, Empire Falls was already behind 7–0, Fairhaven having returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Miles sat there, sweating and bushed.

  “Oh, Miles, look!” Cindy said. From the top of the bleachers they could see all the way to the river. It was the first weekend in October, and the air was crisp, the leaves approaching their peak, the Knox River sparkling the blue of reflected sky. Empire Falls looked, in fact, like it had been replaced overnight with a better version of itself. Cindy hooked her arm through his, pressing a warm breast against his elbow, and he felt, after too many months of abstinence, a stirring he tried to ignore.

  “You know what I feel like?” she wanted to know, and for a moment the question confused him. Popcorn? Candy? Good God, they’d just sat down. “I feel just like a schoolgirl.”

  Miles knew what she meant. He’d have preferred a schoolgirl too, e
specially if it meant he himself could be a schoolboy. “Too bad all you have is a middle-aged man for company.”

  Unfortunately, levity had never had much effect on Cindy Whiting. She gripped the biceps of his left arm with both hands and said, “Dear Miles,” just as she had last night in his dream. “There’s not a soul on earth I’d rather be with.” And with that she pulled herself up his arm and kissed his cheek wetly, holding on to the kiss until it was interrupted by the clanging sound of her cane as it slipped between the bleachers and rattled to the ground below. “Oh, nuts,” she said happily. “You see what comes of passion?”

  “This,” Miles said, showing her where Timmy had bitten him half an hour earlier, “is what comes of passion.” The puncture marks were still visible, two small white dots. The wound now resembled what it had felt like at the time: a snakebite. In a matter of minutes his whole hand had swollen up like a mitt, though by now the swelling had gone down a little.

  “Poor Miles,” his companion said, stroking the wound gently with the back of her fingers. “Does it hurt?”

  “No,” he said, jerking his hand away and rubbing it vigorously against his corduroy knee. “It itches like hell.” What it reminded him of, he realized, was the poison ivy he’d contracted all those years ago on the Vineyard, and like that itch, this one returned, worse than before, the moment he quit scratching.

  “Stop, silly. You’ll make it swell up even worse.”

  “I don’t care,” Miles told her, digging at it with his fingernails now. Actually, he did care. He was fervently hoping that the swelling would go down by evening so he wouldn’t have to admit to his brother that once again he’d come back from Mrs. Whiting’s wounded. It was hard to believe that the animal had managed to surprise him yet again. Miles had been on the lookout, too, dropping his guard only as they were about to leave. Cindy had asked him to hand her a scarf hanging in the hall closet, the door of which was ajar. Reaching inside, Miles saw the scarf on a hook above a tier of shelves and glimpsed a quick movement, too late to withdraw his hand.

  “See?” Cindy observed when he stopped scratching. “You’ve only made it worse.”

  “It feels better, actually,” Miles lied, thinking that with a scalpel he could make it feel better still. “If I need a tetanus shot, I’m going to bill your mother.”

  That had been one good thing about this visit to the hacienda. Since Mrs. Whiting was away—in Boston, according to her daughter—David couldn’t blame him for not broaching the liquor-license issue.

  “You’ll never guess where I found the little pill last week,” Cindy said, in reference to Timmy. “She’d disappeared the day before and when I went to the cemetery, there she was, sitting on Daddy’s gravestone.”

  Miles frowned at her. Did she expect him to believe this?

  “Of course I’d brought her with me before, so she knew which one it was. You don’t believe me, I can tell.”

  Actually, Miles wasn’t sure which was harder to credit, that the cat of her own volition visited C. B. Whiting’s grave or that Cindy herself did. He knew Mrs. Whiting well enough to doubt she ever paid respects to a man whose memory she’d done everything she could to erase, which meant her daughter would have to make the journey on her own. Miles couldn’t help admiring the effort if not necessarily the motive. He himself had visited his mother’s grave only once, and the experience had struck him as little more than an opportunity for melodrama. What was one supposed to do, standing there at the foot of a grave? Carry on a conversation with its headstone? Plant some flowers? He’d felt more distant from his mother at her graveside than he did standing over the stove at the Empire Grill, or passing by the old shirt factory, or kneeling in her favorite pew at St. Cat’s. Even at the Whiting hacienda where she’d finally died, his mother came to him unbidden, and for that reason seemed far more real. Visiting her grave amounted to a kind of summons, and it didn’t surprise him that his had gone unanswered. He’d vowed at the time that if it turned out there was life after death he certainly wouldn’t linger around his hole in the ground waiting for visitors.

  “I put flowers on your mother’s grave, too,” Cindy continued. “I always do. Did you know that, Miles?”

  “No, I didn’t,” Miles said, feigning interest in what was happening on the field below.

  “It’s a terrible thing to say, but she was more dear to me than my own mother. When she was sick, and you were away—”

  Miles rose to his feet. “I better go down and get that cane before somebody makes off with it.”

  She looked up at him through moist eyes. “Nobody’s going to steal a cane, Miles.” Then, noting his distress, “I’m sorry. It’s such a beautiful day, and I didn’t mean to make you feel bad—”

  “You didn’t,” he assured her. “I’ll be right back.”

  “I’ll wait right here, then,” she said, with the same self-deprecating laugh she’d had as a girl.

  By the time he got to the foot of the bleachers, a roar went up and Miles saw that Fairhaven had scored another touchdown. When the noise subsided, he heard his name being called. The caller turned out to be Otto Meyer Jr., who was leaning up against the chain-link fence. Otto was one of those men who manage to look, as adults, uncannily the same way they had as kids, and Miles never could look at him without seeing a suffering nine-year-old standing all alone on a pitcher’s mound. His father was a pushy local life-insurance salesman whose self-importance had demanded that his namesake be a pitcher, even though the coach, Mr. LaSalle, had seen in the boy a natural catcher. A natural second-string catcher (which the boy would later become in high school). But Otto Meyer Sr. was adamant, and so his son had been made a pitcher, though Mr. LaSalle refused to put him into games that were not already decided, and sometimes just for the game’s final out, with, say, a seven- or eight-run lead. Otto Meyer Jr., however, made the most of that one out, usually facing at least half a dozen batters in order to record it. Worse, he had to sit on the bench each game and listen to his father heckle from the stands, until the coach finally relented and sent Otto Junior to the mound. Though the old man had died of an embolism almost a decade ago, Otto still looked haunted. His own son, David, was on the football team, and Meyer attended even away games, though he never shouted either encouragement or criticism. In fact, he never even took a seat in the stands, but instead moved from one side of the field to the other and from end zone to end zone. When Miles asked him why he did this, just to see if he knew the reason, Otto explained that he got too nervous in one place. Miles knew better. His attending every game without being anywhere in evidence was a gift to his son, who could then live the game.

  “Hello, Meyer,” Miles said, the two men shaking hands.

  “I just saw Christina over on the other side. She tell you about her painting?”

  Miles quickly replayed their most recent conversations. “I don’t think so.”

  “It was one of two selected from the sophomore class to be in the citywide art show.”

  “Doris Roderigue picked something of Tick’s?”

  Meyer snorted. “Don’t be an idiot. I brought in a professor from the college to do the judging. Christina didn’t say anything to you?”

  Miles shook his head, at once embarrassed, hurt and proud. Their vacation, he’d come to understand, had represented a brief glasnost during which Tick had offered up a few confidences of the sort she’d routinely surrendered as a child. He hoped such openness would continue, but now, a mere month into the new school year, she’d grown remote again. Probably he himself was at fault, at least partly. He’d registered his objection to the Minty boy much too strongly earlier in the week, and as a result Tick now seemed even more reluctant to share whatever was on her mind. “Lately,” he told Otto, “she seems to hide where I can’t find her. The only way I learn anything is through Q-and-A and then cross-examination. And she tells her mother even less.”

  “She’s in high school, Miles. They all go to ground.”

  They pause
d to watch a busted play, then Miles said, “I think she’s concluded from the divorce that neither one of us is to be trusted. She could be right.”

  “Nope. You’re wrong. She’s a great kid. She just knew you’d find out, eventually.”

  “You think?”

  “Actually,” Meyer confided, “I’m afraid I placed an unfair burden on her a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been regretting it ever since.”

  “The Voss boy?”

  He nodded, looking guilty. “She say something?”

  “Of course not.”

  “I heard you gave him a job. That was awfully good of you, Miles. He’s a troubled boy.”

  “Troubled how?” Miles said, recalling Horace’s cryptic admonition.

  “The kids all love to pick on him for some reason. I wish I knew more. It seems his parents abandoned him. He lives with his grandmother out on the old Fairhaven Highway.”

  “I gave him a lift out there last night,” Miles said, recalling how strange it had been. No light left on, not a sign of life.

  “He was the other sophomore whose work was selected for the art show, incidentally.”

  Miles nodded, swallowing something like fear. Last night, in the restaurant, he’d felt the same apprehension, an unwillingness to have his daughter linked with this unfortunate creature. Now here he was, grudging the boy’s painting being hung next to Tick’s in a school art show. Insane. And even worse, a fundamental breakdown of the charitable impulse. Miles could feel his mother’s sudden presence at his elbow. No need to visit her grave, either. “He seems to be a good worker. I can’t get him to say two words yet, but Charlene’s going to work on him.”

  “I always have a hard time talking around Charlene myself,” Meyer grinned. “She makes me stuh-stuh-stutter.”

  Miles smiled, remembering when as a high school senior, he’d finally confessed to Meyer that he was in love with Charlene, only to have Otto sheepishly admit that he was too, which explained why he’d always been so willing to accompany Miles to the Empire Grill, a decidedly uncool place, to have Cokes after school. There was something touching about his old friend’s admission now. Meyer had, as far as Miles knew, a fine marriage. But like Miles, he’d left Empire Falls only briefly, for college, then again years later for graduate school, which meant that Meyer also shouldered the weight of his childhood and adolescent identity—Oscar Meyer, the weiner, he’d been called. Growing up to become principal of the high school had merely confirmed the worst suspicions of his classmates.

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