Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “Kind of a shame the rivalry game’s so early in the season,” he observed.

  Miles nodded, noncommittal. “I thought a rivalry was when you win some and they win some.”

  Fairhaven had won about the last ten. Both high schools had suffered declining enrollments over the past two decades, but Empire Falls’s decline was much steeper, having already dropped from triple-A to double-A, and it was about to drop again to class B. Fairhaven, more stable because of the college and a couple of smaller mills that had somehow managed to stay open, had retained Empire Falls on its schedule but insisted the game be played earlier in the season, as a tune-up for more important contests. For Empire Falls—in the tradition of jilted lovers everywhere— it remained “the game.”

  Otto Meyer Jr. nodded, watching Empire Falls break their huddle and lumber up to the line of scrimmage. “I don’t get it,” he admitted. “Our kids are too big and mean and stupid to get pushed around like this every year.”

  Another roar went up as he said this. Fairhaven had recovered a mishandled snap and was back in business.

  “Damn,” Meyer said, shaking his head. “Hey, speaking of getting pushed around, will you please stand for school board again? The damn fundamentalists are going to ban every library book worth reading if I don’t get some help. You can’t leave the good fight to the Jews, you know. This is Maine, and there aren’t enough of us to go around. Besides which, some of your people are worse than the snake-handlers.”

  Which was true enough. Many Catholics, Miles hated to admit, were trying to out-Jesus their evangelical brethren, though he liked to think Sacré Coeur Catholics were more prone to this than St. Cat’s.

  “I’ll think about it,” Miles said. “I swore I wouldn’t after my last stint, but—”

  “God,” Meyer blurted. “Just listen to us. Talking about damn school board. Only yesterday we were those kids out there.”

  “So long, Meyer,” Miles said. “I’d like to chat longer, but my date dropped her cane under the bleachers.”

  This provoked a wide grin. “I thought that was Cindy Whiting I saw you with. You want to know the truth? I was kind of surprised to see what an attractive woman she’s become.”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling. Meyer was one of the kindest men he knew, and this was his way of suggesting that if Miles was contemplating marrying all that money, it was okay with him. And, as often happened when he ran into Meyer, Miles wondered why they hadn’t been better friends over the years. Their mutual fondness hadn’t diminished since they were kids, and Miles often got the impression that Meyer could use a friend. One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he’s made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.

  It took Miles a few minutes to locate the right section of bleachers, where it smelled as if several decades’ worth of elderly high school football fans had been secretly draining their colostomy bags from above. He was sick to his stomach by the time he found the cane leaning improbably against one of the metal supports. Had someone propped it up like that? Could the thing actually have landed that way? By putting one foot into the crotch of one of the supports and pulling himself up, Miles was just able to tap the bottom of the bleacher seat Cindy was perched on. When she bent over to receive the cane, he could see her face, and it was so full of hope and joy that Miles was tempted to remain where he was. Or, better yet, to bolt. Once the game was over, surely someone would see her sitting there alone at the top of the visitors’ section and bring her home.

  BY THE TIME he returned with a couple of sodas Miles found that his prayer for someone to notice Cindy Whiting had been answered in the way God will sometimes respond to a request that’s carelessly phrased. Her companion was Jimmy Minty, and they both waved at Miles as he climbed the bleachers toward them, swallowing hard to keep down the memory of what David had told him last night, that Jimmy Minty had been watching the Empire Grill.

  “How come you’re setting over here with the bad guys?” Jimmy wanted to know. He was in street clothes and he seemed eager to shake hands, though Miles held a Coke in each. “You ashamed of your own hometown?”

  “We got here late,” Miles explained, sliding past both the policeman and Cindy, then staring at the same woman who hadn’t wanted to budge earlier until she finally moved down again. Fairhaven, he noticed, had added another field goal, making the score 17–zip. “That forced us to sit over here with the winners,” he added, just barely emphasizing the “i” in “sit.”

  “I wouldn’t say this one was over just yet,” Minty quickly countered. “My boy Zack’s playing a pretty good game. I never seen a kid so fired up as he was this morning.”

  “He’s on the team?” Miles said.

  This time the policeman flinched. He was almost certain Miles knew that, in which case his chain was being pulled.

  “Which one is he?” Cindy wanted to know, as innocent as her companion was pretending to be and far more interested.

  Jimmy Minty put a hand on her shoulder and leaned close so they could both sight along his extended arm and out past his index finger, all the way across the field to number fifty-six, now on the bench while the Empire Falls offense tried to figure out what to do with the ball.

  “What position does he play?”

  “He plays linebacker, Miss Whiting,” he explained, his hand still resting between her shoulder blades. “That’s on the defense. Which is why he’s setting over there on the bench just now. It’s his job to patrol the line of scrimmage. Make tackles on running plays. Rush the quarterback when he throws. You have to be pretty smart to play linebacker, and I expect there’ll be some interest in him if he keeps on like he’s going. From colleges, I mean. He doesn’t have the size to play pro, and I won’t have him eating steroids. I told him, I ever catch you swallowing anything you can’t buy at the mall, I’ll bust your ass as quick as a kid with a kilo of crack cocaine.”

  “I didn’t know they sold crack by the kilo,” Miles said.

  “However it’s sold,” Jimmy Minty allowed. “Zero tolerance is what I’m saying.”

  “How come you’re not working the game today?”

  “In uniform, you mean? Well, Miles, I don’t work crowd control anymore. Most of the guys you see at the gates and out in the parking lot are rent-a-cops.” He took a slender walkie-talkie out of his sport coat pocket and showed it to them. “I am on duty, though. Nothing like the Empire Falls/Fairhaven game to spark a rumble.”

  A rumble? Miles smiled, trying to recall the last time he’d heard the term. If you could control the urge to kill Jimmy Minty, he was entertaining enough, unless you liked your humor intentional.

  “This section seems pretty law-abiding,” Miles said, “but I promise to come find you if a fight breaks out.”

  Jimmy Minty chuckled unpleasantly, confident now that he was being made fun of. “Either that or you could just quell the disturbance yourself.” He nudged Cindy with his elbow to include her in the joke. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that, would you Miss Whiting? Ol’ Miles here, quelling a disturbance?”

  Below them, the Empire Falls punter was again trotting onto the field.

  “Damn,” Minty said. “Another three and out. Our defense is going to be plum tuckered out by halftime.”

  It was indicative of Empire Falls’s team that the thing it did best was punt, and the boy who did all the kicking took this moment to launch one that traveled about sixty yards in the air. Unfortunately, it settled securely into the arms of Fairhaven’s punt returner before the first Empire Falls players got more than twenty yards downfield, and before they had a chance to make much more progress in the direction of the ball carrier it became necessary to turn around again because he’d sprinted past while they were trying to shed their blocks. It was the punter himself who finally pushed the returner out of bounds at the Empire Falls thirty, and once again the tired defense trucked onto the field, Zack Minty trying to buck up
his teammates by cuffing them on the back of their helmets and barking his signals as Fairhaven’s offense broke huddle and approached the line of scrimmage.

  Jimmy Minty again put his hand on Cindy Whiting’s back and pointed down at the field. “That’s my Zack there,” he said. “Now we’re on defense. They got the ball.”

  No doubt smelling blood, the Fairhaven quarterback took the snap, drifted back into the pocket and spotted a receiver streaking down the sideline. The pass he threw was a beautiful, arcing spiral, and virtually everyone, including the officials, turned to follow its flight. Miles, however, saw what Jimmy Minty saw. Number 56 for Empire Falls, a full two beats after the ball left the quarterback’s hand, put first his helmet and then his shoulder pad into his kidney. Locking his arms around the quarterback’s thighs, he lifted the boy off the ground and drove him into the turf so hard his head bounced twice.

  The elder Minty leapt to his feet. “Yeah!” he cried, shaking his fist in the air. “Oh, yeah! Did you see that hit?” He was pointing excitedly. Cindy, however, as Miles had good cause to remember, was not the best of students. She’d followed the flight of the ball, and even now, despite Jimmy Minty’s insistence, she seemed reluctant to look where he directed.

  Zack Minty was back on his feet, quickly turning downfield, but the Fairhaven quarterback was still sprawled motionless on the grass, either hurt or aware that his services weren’t required just now, the ball having come down in his receiver’s arms for a touchdown. The Fairhaven coach, who’d also seen the late hit, now stormed onto the field, pointing alternately at his quarterback and at Zack Minty, who stood with his hands on his hips, staring off at Fairhaven’s end-zone celebration and shaking his head. One of the officials farthest from the play trotted up the field, nodding his head and pointing at number 56. The officials held a brief caucus, at the end of which the referee took out his yellow flag and tossed it at the Minty boy’s feet.

  “Aw, let ’em play, ref!” Jimmy Minty yelled, an unpopular sentiment here in the visitors’ stands. “This ain’t badminton!”

  “Is he hurt?” Cindy asked, since the Fairhaven quarterback still hadn’t moved.

  “Nah, he just had his bell rung, is all,” Minty assured her. “He just needs to set there a minute. Get his bearings.”

  The celebration over, the crowd now focused its attention on the injured quarterback. After a minute he managed to sit up, then finally stumbled to his feet, his arms draped across the shoulders of his coach and a teammate. When the three of them started for the sidelines, number 56 hurried over and insisted on taking the place of the assisting player. The Fairhaven coach looked like he was going to object, but in the end he allowed Zack Minty to sling the arm of his still woozy quarterback over his shoulder pad and help bear the rubber-kneed boy off the field.

  Watching this, Jimmy Minty’s eyes filled with tears. “That boy’s a class act,” he said, nodding at the tableau unfolding below them. “That there’s why we have kids, eh, old buddy?”

  Miles, too, was moved by the scene, though he was unable to share Jimmy’s specific emotion. Once the boy was propped safely on the bench, there was a smattering of polite applause, until Zack Minty trotted back onto the field and was greeted with a thunderous ovation.

  “That’s the kind of lick that turns football games around,” Jimmy Minty told Cindy, his hands cupped at her ear so she could hear what he was anxious that she understand amid the roar.

  It was the kind of hit that turned more than games around, in Miles’s opinion, and suddenly the policeman’s continued presence seemed intolerable. “Is there something you wanted to talk to me about, Jimmy? Or did you just come up here because you were plum tuckered out from quelling disturbances and looking for a place to set?”

  It was Cindy Whiting who reacted first. She turned to him and blinked, sorely puzzled, it seemed, to hear Jimmy Minty’s phrases coming out of Miles Roby’s mouth. Minty also heard—Miles was sure of that—but he stared down at the field for several seconds longer before turning toward him. Miles saw that the emotion that had welled up over his son’s “sportsmanship” had drained out of his eyes, which now were hard and empty. “I apologize for your friend here, Miss Whiting,” he said, turning back to Cindy. “Miles and me go way back, but for some reason it embarrasses him that we were friends. He always feels better after making a joke or two at my expense. Which I don’t mind—not one or two, anyway. A man who goes away to college and comes home with a diploma has earned that right, I guess, and I figure I’m a big enough man to take a little lip, as long as it’s not too much.”

  Miles started to say something, then stopped. There was too much phony sentiment being expressed here to respond to any single part of the speech, though of course Miles knew that for a man like Jimmy Minty trumped-up emotion was indistinguishable from the genuine, heartfelt variety. So he satisfied himself with correcting one fact. “I never got any diploma, Jimmy.”

  “That’s right, you didn’t,” Jimmy readily conceded, which might’ve suggested that Miles had fallen into a trap, had Jimmy Minty been smart enough to set one. Too bad Max wasn’t with them, Miles thought. The old man was just what the situation called for. He’d be innocently inquiring whether everybody in the police department was issued live ammo or did the dummies get blanks. Where was Max, anyway? Miles wondered. It was unlike his father to miss a home game. He usually worked them like a pickpocket, which in a sense he was, putting the touch on every other person he ran into.

  “Please convey my best wishes to your mother for me, Miss Whiting,” Minty said before turning back to Miles. “You really want to know what I come up here for, Miles? I come up here to tell you I got things all straightened out with your brother, so you don’t have to worry. I come up here to say there’s no hard feelings. I knew you were mad at me last week, and I didn’t want any bad blood between old friends. Because that’s what we used to be, Miles. Friends. Used to be. Maybe we aren’t friends anymore, but that’s because of you, not me. You don’t want to be friends, that’s okay. But I’ll tell you one thing. You don’t want Jimmy Minty for an enemy.”

  A roar went up on the field just then, and Miles looked up to see Zack Minty emerge from a pile of bodies and hold the ball up with both hands, first to the stands on the Empire Falls side of the field, then to the Fairhaven fans, an in-your-face gesture that whipped the hometown fans into an even wilder frenzy. The boy seemed to know right where his father was, and when Jimmy saw what had just transpired, he too raised both arms into the air, a mirror image of his son’s gesture, lacking only a second football. Even Cindy seemed to understand that something significant had occurred, and she let go of Miles to join in the celebration, madly clapping her hands together. After all, Miles reflected, there was only her whole life to suggest that this physical abandon might be a mistake. But then again, was it not her whole life that Cindy Whiting was hoping to escape for a few short hours this one particularly lovely Saturday afternoon in early October, lovelier still for the hint of winter in the air? Then Miles saw her lose her balance and pitch forward, and he caught her arm, but Cindy Whiting wasn’t a girl anymore, and Miles’s grip wasn’t good enough to prevent what would’ve happened had Jimmy Minty not turned back to give Miles one last look and seen her coming toward him in time to catch her. The look of terror on her face remained there even after she was secure in the policeman’s arms, where she continued flailing, as if in her imagination she hadn’t been caught at all, but was tumbling, head over heels, down to the bottom of the bleachers.

  Only when she was seated and calm again, clutching Miles’s sore left arm with both hands, Jimmy Minty having disappeared into the crowd below, did Miles recall the clattering sound he’d heard when Cindy pitched forward, and see that her cane had once again fallen to the ground below.

  CHAPTER 16

  Sixty was all Janine Roby—soon-to-be-Comeau—could think. Sixty, sixty, sixty, sixty.

  Down on the field, the game was stalled because one of the Fa
irhaven players—their quarterback, she heard somebody say—had been injured. She couldn’t see much from where she sat, and she wasn’t that interested anyway. She’d sat through most of the first half without really watching. Her only interest in the game was that this was the one everybody turned out for. When she was in high school, she’d missed every damn Fairhaven game because she was fat and her mother made her wear stupid clothes and nobody ever asked her out. She’d been savoring the ironic, vengeful sweetness of this particular event for weeks, imagining it in every detail, praying the weather would stay warm enough that she could wear her new white jeans and halter top, which she indeed was wearing, even though it was a little chilly. Walt, who pretended to be a big football fan, mostly just enjoyed strutting around at any social event that didn’t require a jacket and tie; he’d even wanted to get there early, but Janine had nixed that goddamn idea right off the bat. What she had in mind was an entrance, which meant that everybody else had to be in their damn seats. The only problem there was that if everybody had already taken their seats, there’d be no seats left open.

  Like most conundrums, though, this one was hardly insoluble, and eventually Janine thought of her mother. For some time she’d been trying to think of ways to get the old bat to like the Silver Fox a little better. She and Walt were getting married, after all, and by the time of the ceremony, she hoped, her mother would at least have stopped referring to him as “that little banty rooster.” Maybe if Bea had a good time at the football game, it would occur to her that Walt hadn’t spoiled it, and that would be a beginning. An afternoon in Bea’s company might do Walt some good, too. The Silver Fox didn’t have anything against her that Janine knew of, but he did seem to have trouble remembering Bea’s existence. Every time Janine mentioned her mother, Walt’s eyes narrowed and he regarded her suspiciously, as if she’d been keeping this person a secret from him. As if he hadn’t been keeping the biggest damn secret of all from her.

 
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