Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  But the real reason for hauling Bea along to the game was so that for once she could be the solution to a problem instead of its source. The plan was, she’d call her mother, say they were running late down at the club, and have her go over to Empire Field early and grab three spots, as close as possible to the fifty-yard line and all the way up at the top, so they’d have a good view. And also so everybody’d have a good view of Janine in her new white jeans and halter when she and Walt climbed up the bleachers filled with men who’d never once asked her out when they were boys, and with the women they’d asked instead. Most of these wide loads now took up the better part of two seats, so let them have a good look too. Janine had learned from all those hours on the Stairmaster that the only time a woman in the right getup is going to look more intoxicating than when she’s going up stairs is when she turns around and goes back down them.

  But of course everything had conspired to spoil her entrance, which only went to prove what Janine already knew: that no matter how well you planned something, God always planned better. If He was feeling stingy that day and didn’t want you to have some little thing you had your heart set on, then you weren’t going to get it and that was all there was to it. And today, for some reason, God didn’t want Janine Roby—soon-to-be-Comeau—to have the entrance they both knew she deserved. Bea had gone early, but she’d put the three cushions down on seats only a third of the way up the bleachers, because anymore her feet always hurt from standing all day, and so did her lower back from wrestling kegs, and she didn’t see any reason to be all the way up there in the nosebleed section anyway. Had Janine thought about it, she would’ve foreseen all this, but she’d been concentrating instead on the effect of her outfit.

  Still, it wasn’t really her mother’s refusal to follow simple instructions that spoiled the plan. The truth was, Janine was still reeling from this morning’s surprise. Sixty! Down at the county clerk’s office, Walt had produced a folded copy of his birth certificate, which he kept trying to smooth out with the palm of his hand, and when the woman at the window asked him to read the date of birth printed on it, he’d silently pushed the document across the counter toward her instead. Janine should’ve known right then and there that something was up. Actually, she should have been suspicious already, after all those weeks she’d been trying to get him down there to file for their marriage license so that when her divorce finally came through they wouldn’t have to waste any more time on paperwork. His first excuse was that he couldn’t find the damned certificate, and then twice last week he’d managed to futz around at the club until the clerk’s office was closed. Only today did she understand his reluctance. He’d almost gotten away with it, too. The woman had silently typed the date of Walt’s birth on the application, then slid his birth certificate back through the slot in the window. Had she folded it before doing so, Janine never would have spotted the faded date printed there: April 10, 1940.

  1940?

  “What the hell is that?” she said, pinning the document to the counter with the tip of her index finger to prevent the Silver Fox from folding and returning it to his pocket, a maneuver he seemed anxious to execute, and when their eyes met, his expression was the same one he used when he thought he’d pulled a fast one on Horace at gin. “Is that some kind of misprint?” she demanded. The funny part was, if he’d told her that it was a misprint, she probably would’ve believed him, because there was no way Walt Comeau looked any sixty.

  Janine located him now, down on the sideline. It was coming up on halftime, and he was talking to Horace, who was moving a long metal pole with chains up and down the field. Being down there on the field was pure Walt, of course. If there was someplace he wasn’t supposed to be, that’s where you’d find him. He never went into the Empire Grill until it was getting ready to close. For some reason he liked the sound of the door locking behind him and the idea that other people would want in too and wouldn’t be able to get in. He’d swivel around on his stool and see who it was pulling up outside, only to be disappointed by the Closed sign. He liked the whole damned concept of “inside,” as in inside information, claiming it was the only kind that was worth anything and letting on that he was in sole possession of loads of it. Which, now that Janine thought about it, probably was why he never surrendered any. If you told somebody, you’d just let it outside.

  The good news was that Walt didn’t even look the fifty he’d admitted to before this morning. He looked mid-forties, a few years older than Miles and Janine herself, and his being fifty, so she’d thought, was something to be proud of. Janine had considered it inspirational, in fact. If her future husband could look that good at fifty, then Janine had another solid decade of wearing tight jeans and thin halters without looking ridiculous. But sixty! Sixty was no inspiration. It was a damn deception, and it had occurred to Janine at the moment her index finger pinned Walt’s birth certificate to the countertop that what she was doing amounted to trading in a man who couldn’t keep a secret for a man who not only could but did. And he wasn’t just keeping his secrets from other people, he was keeping them from her too.

  Which he denied, naturally, claiming he thought she’d known that he was sixty all along. He even showed her his driver’s license, which said the same damn thing. “When did I ever tell you I was fifty?” he asked her on the courthouse steps. Well, it was true she couldn’t exactly remember a specific occasion, a direct lie sworn under oath, but she hadn’t invented the goddamn thing, either. How many times over the last year had they joked about the decade’s difference between their ages, and he’d just stood there grinning—the Silver Fox!—and never once correcting her, never once saying, “I got news for you, darlin’, we’re not talkin’ one decade here, we’re talkin’ two.”

  “What’s the difference?” he said as they drove home, pretending not to understand why she was so upset. “You know what great shape I’m in. I’ve got the body of a forty-year-old man. You’ve said so yourself. Where’s the problem?”

  “The problem is you lied to me, Walt,” Janine said, realizing that of course this too was a lie, and hating herself for it. That he had lied was the reason she should’ve been upset with him, but it wasn’t. The reason she was upset was that she’d been looking forward to at least twenty years’ worth of spirited, vigorous sex, having largely missed out on the last twenty by being married to Miles. But by the time she was sixty she’d be humping an octogenarian, or trying to. Discovering the Silver Fox’s correct age also explained why on a couple of recent occasions Walt—who for a small man was well hung, God love him—had required considerable manual assistance to get out of the gate. What if in a few short years all her well-hung man did was hang? Janine glanced over at her mother, to whom she hadn’t breathed a word of this because she knew how hard Bea would laugh. She was, after all, another tragic example of how much God seemed to enjoy frustrating the shit out of women.

  “If you’re cold, why not put on that sweatshirt?” Bea wanted to know.

  Janine had brought a sweatshirt along for later in the afternoon, in case it turned chilly, which it had done already. “You see, Beatrice? You answered your own question. I’m not cold.”

  “Yeah? Well, your nipples tell a different story.”

  Janine regarded her mother murderously before responding and refused to look down at her thin cotton halter. “Don’t trouble yourself about my nipples, okay, Mother? I happen to be enjoying the sun on my shoulders, if that’s okay with you. We probably aren’t going to see a warm day like this again until the middle of goddamn May, so leave me alone.”

  Her plan, Janine had to admit, was flawed from the start. She hadn’t thought much past her entrance, which—even if it had gone as planned—would’ve lasted no more than five minutes, after which she’d be stuck with her mother’s company for three hours. There was some kind of law that applied to situations like this one. The law of something-something. Never mind, it would come to her. Either that or she’d forget the question, which would be j
ust fine too.

  Sixty, though. That was going to take a while to forget. Janine knew from experience that it was a lot easier to forget a thousand things you wanted to remember than the one thing you wanted to lose sight of. Again she spotted Walt on the sideline. Since she’d learned this morning that the Silver Fox was sixty, he was beginning to look sixty, which was just plain nuts, she knew. How could a man who didn’t look fifty yesterday suddenly look sixty today just because of a date printed on a piece of yellowing, folded paper. It wasn’t rational. But when Walt Comeau turned around, peered up into the stands to where Janine and her mother were sitting and started waving, all Janine could see was that thing on his neck. What the hell was that—a wattle? Why hadn’t she ever noticed it before?

  “Who’s that woman sitting over there with Miles?” her mother wanted to know. She hadn’t noticed the Silver Fox waving up at them and certainly wasn’t waving back.

  “Where?” said Janine. Miles with a woman? She promised herself not to be jealous unless it turned out to be Charlene.

  “Right across from us, except way up top.”

  That figured, Janine thought. God must have gotten His wires crossed, as usual. Somebody named Roby had wanted seats high in the bleachers, so He gave them to Miles.

  “Looks like that Whiting girl,” Bea said as Janine scanned the crowd for someone who looked like her soon-to-be-ex-husband. “It’d serve you right, too. You divorce that good man and he marries into the richest family in central Maine and then lives happily ever after and you get the little banty rooster.”

  “Diminishing returns,” Janine said, regarding her mother with undisguised malice.

  “What?”

  “The law of diminishing returns. I was trying to remember that a minute ago, and you just reminded me.”

  Her mother squinted at her now, as if, despite her daughter’s proximity, Bea was having trouble bringing her into focus. “I swear, Janine. It’s not just weight you’ve lost.”

  Janine ignored this, having gone back to searching the stands. It took her another minute to locate him, because she was looking for a couple, and instead he appeared to be part of a threesome, the third person being that policeman Miles particularly disliked. The one she’d seen parked across from the restaurant one evening last week, just sitting there. Jimmy Minty. She watched him get to his feet and start to say something, but then a roar went up and Janine saw that there’d been a fumble down on the field. By the time she spotted Miles and the Whiting woman, if that’s who it was—Janine had to admit she was going to have to get her eyes checked real soon, since she couldn’t see for shit anymore—the policeman had disappeared into the crowd. Was it her imagination, or had they been squabbling right before the fumble?

  “I hope Miles hasn’t gone and done something to piss off that Minty boy,” said her mother, whose eyesight apparently was fine. “He’s his old man reincarnated, and William Minty was as purely sneaky and mean as they come. He was the only man your father and I ever eighty-sixed for life.”

  Janine again regarded her mother, surprised to feel something like fear on Miles’s behalf. Fortunately, fending off that emotion wasn’t too hard. After all, Miles Roby was no longer Janine’s problem, and she forced herself not to look back toward him and the crippled woman, who, if she was seeing right, had hooked her arm through his. She returned her attention to the Silver Fox, who now had an audience of three out-of-work millworkers and was feeding them some line of bullshit or other. She could tell, because he was standing with his feet and arms wide apart, the way he always did when he was telling a story, as if from a pitching deck on high seas. Yes, it was Walt, not Miles, who was about to become her problem—unless she changed her mind in one hell of a hurry, which she was not going to do, she decided, for the simple reason that she wouldn’t allow her mother the satisfaction of an I-told-you-so. She would marry Walt, all right, just like she’d been threatening, even if it was true that he’d planned to keep his old age a secret. Even if he did have a wattle.

  It was that Whiting girl across the way, though. Now that her mother had identified her, Janine was sure of it. Not that Cindy was a girl anymore. She looked like she’d put on some weight, which for her was a good thing. The last time Janine had seen her she looked like somebody in the last days of a prison hunger strike. It was possible they actually were dating, of course, but the more Janine thought about it, the more she feared that this was some kind of a predicament that Miles had gotten himself into, and she couldn’t help wondering how. She knew he was terrified of the woman, who’d been in love with him and even tried to kill herself over him, an idea Janine had always considered comical. In her opinion, being married to Miles was what inspired thoughts of self-annihilation. Failing to marry him should’ve been cause for celebration in any sensible woman. Of course, Cindy Whiting, by all accounts, was not a sensible woman, which was why she’d spent half her adult life in institutions. What in the world could have induced Miles to lower his guard this way? Well, he was a master at trapping himself, of course, but Janine still would’ve liked to know how he’d managed it this time. In fact, she felt a strong urge to call him up after the game and ask. Since their separation, what she found herself missing most were little things, like listening to Miles try to explain how he’d yet again got himself talked into doing what he’d just sworn never to do again. He wasn’t going to run for school board ever again; then, ten minutes later he’d cave in because Otto Meyer had asked him. As if that explained anything. As if there were no way to predict in advance that of course “Oscar” Goddamn Meyer would ask him. As if Otto Meyer were the sort of man you couldn’t say no to, when in fact everybody said no to him, including his staff, who were supposed to do what he told them. Or take American Legion baseball. He was all done umpiring. Never again. That was in the morning. By afternoon, after all the coaches got together and begged him, just until they could find somebody else, he’d agree to one more year. Right. It was pathetic, really, and when Janine decided to divorce him, she’d added watching-Miles-get-suckered-into-doing-things-he-didn’t-want-to-do-and-swore-he-wouldn’t-do to the long list of things she wouldn’t miss. And at first she didn’t. It was only lately …

  Walt was a different breed of cat entirely, of course, never one to draw a line in the sand and then rub it out two minutes later, and this had attracted her from the start. The problem though, she had to admit, was that Walt wouldn’t commit either to doing or not doing much of anything. The secret of his success, he was fond of reminding her, was keeping all his options open. There were times when zigging was called for, but on further reflection you might want to zag. One of his favorite expressions was “You know, a smart man might just …” and then he’d explain just what a smart man might do. In the beginning Janine imagined these statements were actually connected in some way to his intentions. Like—they’d sell the house he owned and use the money to buy Miles out of their house. Nobody was going to come out of this divorce with much, but Miles was taking the worse beating, and it embarrassed the hell out of her when Walt just changed his mind. He’d quietly found a renter for his own house and now was consistently vague about how the whole thing would work out, money-wise. Once they were married, was the rent money going into their account or his? Miles, she feared, would never see the first dime.

  In fact, now that she thought about it, Walt hadn’t said diddly about his finances in general, though of course this would change, by law, the minute they were married. Janine was more than a little curious about how much money there really was, and one of the ways she rationalized their shafting Miles was by promising herself to make sure he got his fair share later, once she could write checks against their joint account. There was the health club, of course, and now the rental house, and she’d gotten the impression he owned a couple other properties. She didn’t know what they were, exactly, or even where. Lately he’d been talking about building a club in Fairhaven, which despite being twice the size of Empire Falls boasted only
two small, seedy gyms. But then he’d also been considering expanding the Empire Falls facility, doubling the size of the fitness section now that area doctors were beginning to send workmen’s comp patients in for rehab. A smart man, Walt speculated, might add a few more indoor tennis courts, since the one they had was booked more or less constantly. But in all the time they’d been together, the Silver Fox had not yet turned even one of these mights into a would.

  Janine’s reflections were interrupted by the appearance of her daughter, who’d managed to slide unnoticed down the row behind them and sat down next to her grandmother, who promptly gave her a big hug of the sort that she no longer allowed Janine to administer.

  “How’s life, Tickeroo?” Bea asked.

  “Okay.”

  Her daughter looked, Janine had to admit, positively radiant in the early October sun. The poor child still didn’t have much of a chest, and no hips at all, but she was going to end up with a model’s build, no doubt about it. Not that she deserved it. Earlier that year when Janine had suggested she take some modeling classes, Tick had sneered that maybe she would, after her lobotomy. Which had pissed Janine off even before she looked up the word “lobotomy.”

  “Just okay?” Bea said, as if she also had noticed how radiant her granddaughter looked today.

 
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