Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Well, my snake painting got picked for the art show.”

  This was news to Janine, as well as the fact that Tick had painted a snake. What was not news was her daughter’s treatment of her in public. There was an empty seat on Janine’s left, the one Walt had vacated, but of course Tick wanted no part of that. For one thing, Walt had touched it, so as far as Tick was concerned it was contaminated. At home she no longer used the upstairs bathroom, for the same reason. She preferred to go all the way down to the basement to shower in the dingy, unfinished bathroom off what had once been the rec room and was now crammed with all the shit Miles didn’t have room for in his apartment. About a thousand yard-sale books, basically, which Walt was forever ragging her about, saying how nice it would be to have the use of the room. They could put a stationary bike down there and maybe even a Stairmaster so they—she, he seemed to mean—could work out while they watched television at night.

  It was bad enough that Tick couldn’t stomach Walt, but lately she didn’t want anything to do with anything Walt had touched, including Janine. Whenever Janine got too close, she’d wrinkle her nose and say, “Yuck. I can smell his aftershave on you.” Which she definitely couldn’t smell, not first thing in the morning, after Janine had taken her shower. No doubt about it, they were headed for a showdown, probably before the wedding, for which Tick had refused to be the maid of honor, even after Janine had asked her nicely.

  What Janine was gradually coming to understand was that her daughter was a formidable, clever opponent. Naturally, she had her father wrapped around her little finger—that was to be expected. But what baffled Janine was Walt. Even though Tick rarely exhibited anything but contempt for him, she somehow managed things so that he took her side in most disputes.

  “I thought that teacher didn’t like your snake,” Bea was saying. More news to Janine.

  “They brought in some professor from Fairhaven to be the judge,” Tick explained. “He and Mrs. Roderigue got in an argument out in the parking lot. She told us the next day that Mr. Meyer was just trying to quote-unquote undermine her authority. Like she has any.”

  “You caused all that trouble by painting a snake?”

  “Art’s controversial, Grandma.”

  “Excuse me,” Janine said, leaning forward so she and her daughter could glare at each other. “At least say hello, okay? I’m not just somebody you sneak past without so much as a how-do- you-do.”

  “I didn’t sneak past,” Tick said. “You weren’t paying attention.”

  “I’m paying attention now, and you still haven’t said hello.”

  “Tell your mother she should put a sweatshirt on,” Bea said. “Tell her she looks cold.”

  “You do look cold, Mom.”

  “Tell her she’s got goose bumps,” Bea suggested.

  Now Janine glared at her mother. “Remind me to invite you to the next football game.”

  “Your mother’s in a pissy mood,” Bea explained. “She wanted me to climb all the way up to the top of the bleachers on my aching feet, and I wouldn’t do it.”

  “It’s true I’m in a pissy mood, Beatrice. And it’s true you aren’t helping matters, but you’re far from the cause, so don’t flatter yourself.”

  “She’s also embarrassed because I brought my hemorrhoid cushion to sit on,” Bea added.

  Also true. What kind of person would announce that particular affliction to the whole damn world? “Mother,” Janine said, “you can show the people in the next row your actual hemorrhoids for all I care.”

  “It’d almost be worth it, just to see the look on your face,” Bea snorted, not fooled for a minute.

  Her daughter still hadn’t said hello, of course, but Janine suddenly felt overcome not by anger but by sadness. Her eyes filled with tears, and she had to look away before anyone noticed. That morning, just before she and Walt had left for city hall, the mail had arrived, much earlier than usual for a Saturday, probably so the carrier could finish his route and make it to the game, and among the junk flyers and bills there was a small envelope addressed in a precise adolescent hand to Christina Roby, postmarked somewhere in Indiana. Impatient because Walt was dragging his feet again about going down to city hall, Janine had tossed the letter on the hall table and forgotten about it, though she recalled it when they returned. Now she had only to look at her daughter to know its contents were responsible for Tick’s glow.

  What called up the tears was the realization that her daughter would share exactly none of this with her. Hell, she wouldn’t even have heard of this boy if Miles hadn’t said something about him, clearly assuming she knew all about him. Since the separation, Tick had withdrawn all confidences, along with every outward sign of affection. Which hurt, of course, though Janine assured herself that her daughter would tire of this melodramatic attitude. After all, young girls needed their mothers. So far, though, Tick had shown no signs of relenting. Simple civility seemed a strain, and Janine suspected that even this was the result of a promise made to her father.

  Janine surreptitiously blotted her eyes on the sleeve of the sweatshirt in her lap and thought, Okay, to hell with it. She’d earned her last chance at happiness and by God she was going to make the most of it. Anybody who didn’t approve, well, just too damn bad, and that included her daughter, the little shit. She could just go ahead and keep her secrets. See if anybody cared. To prove she could pull off this posture, Janine turned her back on both her daughter and her mother.

  Down below, the Fairhaven and Empire Falls players were trotting back onto the field, halftime over. Janine did her best to act interested and upbeat, yet she couldn’t help thinking how soon these limber cheerleaders, now doing back flips, would be married and then pregnant by these same boys or others like them a town or two away. And how swiftly life would descend on the boys, as well. First the panic that maybe they’d have to go through it alone, then the quick marriage to prevent that grim fate, followed by relentless house and car payments and doctors’ bills and all the rest. The joy they took in this rough sport would gradually mutate. They’d gravitate to bars like her mother’s to get away from these same girls and then the children neither they nor their wives would be clever and independent enough to prevent. There would be the sports channel on the tavern’s wide-screen TV and plenty of beer, and for a while they’d talk about playing again, but when they did play, they’d injure themselves and before long their injuries would become “conditions,” and that would be that. Their jobs, their marriages, their kids, their lives—all of it a grind. Once a year, feeling rambunctious, they’d paint their faces, pile into one of their wives’ minivans and, even though it cost too much, head south to take in a Patriots game, if the team didn’t finally relocate somewhere to the south where all the decent jobs had gone. After the game, half drunk, they’d head home again because nobody had the money to stay overnight. Home to Empire Falls, if such a place still existed.

  In their brief absence a few of the more adventurous or desperate wives would seize the opportunity to hire a sitter and meet another of these boy-men, permanent whiskey-dicks, most of them, out at the Lamplighter Motor Court for a little taste of the road not taken, only to discover that it was pretty much the same shabby, two-lane blacktop they’d been traveling all along, just an unfamiliar stretch of it that nonetheless led to pretty much the same destination anyhow.

  Janine was sitting next to her own destiny, of course, and that destiny was itself perched on a damn hemorrhoid cushion. “Oh, leave the child alone, Walt,” she heard her mother say, and she then saw through her tears that her husband-to-be had returned, no doubt sneaking down the row behind her just as Tick had done. Apparently he’d given his stepdaughter a kiss on top of the head and been handed his usual rebuff by way of thanks.

  “What makes you think a pretty fifteen-year-old girl wants to be kissed in public by an old goat like you?” Bea asked him.

  “ ’Cause I’m a good-looking old goat,” said Walt, whose sense of himself as a desirabl
e male was not easily tilted. After a minute, though, he sensed trouble and came sideways down the row and settled onto the end of the bench next to the somebody whose whole damn world had just gotten tilted, but good. Unless he was mistaken, those were tears in her eyes, tears that she was trying to conceal by pulling her sweatshirt on over her head. The only thing to do was cheer her up, so he began crooning an apropos lyric of Perry Como’s.

  “The way that we cheered / Whenever our team / Was scoring a touchdown,” he warbled, nudging her, in the idiotic hope of getting her to sing along.

  Perfect, Janine thought. At last she finally understood her husband-to-be’s infatuation with Perry Como, which had nothing to do with the singer’s good looks, charm, or silvery foxiness. The fucker was simply Walt’s contemporary.

  “You know what I wish?” she said without even looking at him. “I wish all of you would just leave me alone.”

  “Time can’t erase / The memory of,” Walt continued, not taking her warning seriously, the dumb SOB. “These magic moments / Filled with love.”

  That was the saddest part of all, Janine thought, now thoroughly awash in self-pity. She couldn’t think of a single magic moment filled with love in her whole sorry life, and here she was, trying as hard as she could to deny it, closing in on over-the-hill.

  She glanced down when Fairhaven kicked off to Empire Falls, whose kick returner received the ball cleanly and sprinted upfield. When he successfully negotiated the first wave of would-be tacklers and the field began to open up before him, everyone in the stands stood to see if he would go the distance, everyone except for Janine, who knew without looking that he wouldn’t, and who, still seated, felt the crush of all the excited people stamping their feet and hollering in the rows above her. Janine understood about her mother’s aching feet and why she hadn’t wanted to climb all the way to the top as Janine had begged her. But damn, she’d hoped to get farther up than this.


  JIMMY MINTY parked the cruiser right across the street from the Empire Grill, where Miles couldn’t help but see it when he returned. He’d been sitting there for a while now, pondering the whole Miles Roby situation, but for some reason his mind had wandered onto Billy Barnes, whom he hadn’t seen in years. Why Billy should pop into his head, today of all fucking days, he had no idea, since it was Roby he felt like pounding to a bloody pulp. For all Jimmy knew, Billy Barnes could be dead. He wasn’t playing pro hockey, that was for sure. Jimmy still followed the NHL closely, and knew his old buddy had never made it, though everybody in Dexter County swore that he would. Of course, even if he had, Billy would be washed up by now. Why was it, then, that Jimmy still half expected to see him turn up on the ice some night during a Bruins game?

  So what had the kid who couldn’t miss ended up doing? Jimmy Minty couldn’t help wondering. What did you do when you were good at just one thing, after it turned out you weren’t as good as you thought? Well, if you were smart, you probably did what Billy Barnes had done. You disappeared. Why hang around a place where all anybody remembered was that you hadn’t made it? So how come? is what everybody would want to know, and who could blame them? Jimmy wouldn’t have minded asking Billy Barnes that himself. Sure, there were people who wouldn’t ask, but you’d see the question on their faces anyhow. After you said good-bye and started to walk away, you’d see them bend over and whisper something to their kid, and you’d know what it was. That guy back there? That was Billy Barnes. The best from around here to ever strap on the blades. Couldn’t miss. Except he did.

  “Ambition,” Jimmy heard his father say. “It’ll kill you every time.”

  William Minty had been dead for years, but his lectures had survived him. His only son, watching the parking lot and the street near the Empire Grill fill up with cars, could play them back in his mind more or less verbatim. “They got it all figured out,” the old man would announce from the threadbare old armchair he piloted in the evening. His father was always solemn and silent over dinner, but once in the living room, with Walter Cronkite on the television, he grew talkative. Cronkite, Jimmy suspected from his father’s knowing nod, was one of the ones who had it all figured out.

  “Figured what out?” he’d found the courage to ask, just that once.

  His father regarded his son with curiosity, as if he couldn’t figure out how any kid of his could be so stupid. He nodded at the TV again. “All of it,” he explained, then stared long and hard at Cronkite. “In school they tell you it’s a free country, I bet.”

  Jimmy couldn’t deny that he’d heard this opinion expressed on more than one occasion.

  “Yeah, well, don’t you believe it. They got the whole thing figured out, believe me, and they’ve thought of everything. Who they’ll let you marry. Where you and her are gonna live. How much the rent’s gonna be. How much money you’ll make. Which ones are gonna die in their wars. All of it. You think you got a say? Think again.”

  Jimmy thought all this figuring had to be pretty complicated. It would require a lot of organization, and making everything come out right couldn’t be easy. You’d have to depend on a lot of the same people his father complained couldn’t manage to get you your unemployment checks on time, wouldn’t you? He suggested as much to his father.

  “Yeah? Well, don’t you worry,” his father assured him. “If you don’t believe me, watch this know-it-all tell you how it is every night for about twenty years, then see if you don’t think they’ve got it all figured.”

  From where Jimmy sat in the living room he was able to see the Roby house across the driveway. Many evenings Miles’s mother would pass behind their living room window, sometimes stopping to pull the curtains shut. At nine years old, Jimmy had thought Mrs. Roby the prettiest woman he’d ever seen, including girls, and he wondered what it would be like to live in the same house as her. He guessed maybe it’d be different if she was your own mother, but he couldn’t imagine not having the hots for Mrs. Roby, no matter whose mother she was. He’d caught his father looking across the way a couple times, too. Jimmy had even made the mistake of telling Miles how lucky he was having her for a mother, all to himself, most of the time, Mr. Roby being gone as much as he was home. He’d also asked Miles if he’d ever seen his mother naked, hoping for a description, and Miles hadn’t spoken a word to him for a week, until he apologized, which Jimmy was quick to do, because he was afraid Miles would tell his mother that he was a dirty boy.

  So Jimmy thought about what his father was telling him about Walter Cronkite and the rest having it all figured out, and he hoped his father was wrong. He didn’t like the idea of having somebody else decide who he’d marry. That was a choice he’d hoped to make himself, and he intended to marry someone who looked as much as possible like Mrs. Roby. Or maybe Mrs. Roby herself—later, when he was old enough, if her husband died or disappeared completely. “Nobody can figure out everything,” Jimmy ventured hopefully.

  “No?” his father said, watching Cronkite carefully, so the other man wouldn’t be able to put anything over on him. “Well, maybe not everything. But they got the main things covered, that’s for goddamn sure. And don’t you ever doubt it, neither.”

  In a nutshell, his father’s philosophy about how to deal with these people was not to appear ambitious. Don’t call attention to yourself, was his advice. Keep your eyes open for opportunities, but don’t get greedy. Steal small. Make sure if you’re caught, they don’t catch you with much. Remember “the bother principle,” as he called it. “They won’t bother you over little things,” was the way his father explained his own thefts. Couple loins of venison turn up in your freezer down in the cellar? Who’s going to bother you? Two or three big freezers full of hijacked deer? Too much. In fact, the bother principle could gauge the risks of just about any situation. You happen to find a key that opens the lock to somebody’s storeroom? Lucky you. You lift the occasional bottle of cheap rye? Who’s going to bother you over that? Chances are they don’t even count the bottles of the cheap stuff,
or if they do and one goes missing, maybe they miscounted. The brand-name booze and case lots? Those they counted. Those they looked for. Better to steal the cheap one. When it’s gone, steal another. You got the key, you keep the key. You tell exactly no one. If you don’t get greedy, that key stays useful. You steal big, they change the lock, and now you don’t have a key anymore. Keys were one of William Minty’s hobbies. He made them down in the basement on a machine he’d got for a song when Olerud’s Hardware went bankrupt.

  Jimmy bolted upright when an old Volvo pulled up alongside the cruiser and proceeded to parallel park in the space behind it. He watched the driver get out, go around and open the door for the woman in the passenger seat. She was nicely dressed, but nothing much to look at. The man was dressed in chinos and a tweed sport coat over a light-blue shirt with a button-down collar, and he was carrying something in a brown paper bag. Jimmy Minty disliked him immediately, probably even before he’d gotten out of the car. Not many men would parallel park if they had to start out next to a cop car. Whoever this asshole was—a professor by the look of him—he was pretty fucking sure of himself. He and his plain-Jane woman crossed Empire Avenue without so much as a glance in his direction, and when they disappeared inside the Empire Grill Jimmy turned in his seat so he could see the inspection sticker displayed on the windshield. Valid, unfortunately.

  His watch read six-thirty. Jimmy had figured Roby would be back at the restaurant by now. It didn’t take that long to drive across the Iron Bridge, deposit Cindy back at the Whiting house and return. Unless ol’ Miles managed to get himself invited inside. Though the possibility was not entirely pleasant, Jimmy had to smile. Mrs. Whiting was in Boston, he happened to know, so maybe Miles and her daughter were going at it on the sofa right now, Roby slipping it to her. That experience he was welcome to.

  A pickup truck, its horn honking, careened around the corner onto Empire Avenue. Four high school kids were wedged into the cab—no way more than two of ’em could be belted—and three more were standing up in the bed, the tallest blowing one of those long plastic horns. The driver, spotting the cruiser at the last second, stood on the brakes hard enough to cause the boys in the back of the cab to hang on for dear life, and the horn soared out over the side and rattled up the street after them, coming to rest under Jimmy’s car. He considered going after them, reading the damn-fool driver the riot act, maybe even issue a ticket, but then decided against it. They were just kids, full of piss and vinegar after the big game. They’d gotten a good scare when they saw him and lost their horn to boot. They’d probably go slow now, at least for a while. Besides, if he chased after them, he’d lose his parking space for sure.

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