Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  As if to confirm this fear, another car pulled up next to the curb on the other side of the street, and yet another man in a tweed coat got out. Why did they all have to wear a uniform, these college professors? The woman with this guy was a dead ringer for the first one; if they had a plain-looking-woman contest, these two would tie for seventh place, unless there was a swimsuit competition, and then they’d tie for ninth. His father had been right about that part, of course. You didn’t get to marry the one you wanted. You married the best of whatever was left. Tweed married tweed, flannel got flannel. As to whether ambition killed you every time, Jimmy Minty had his doubts.

  Professors. Maybe that was why he’d recollected Billy Barnes. After high school, Billy had gone off to the University of Maine on his hockey scholarship. He joined a frat house and invited Jimmy up to Orono one weekend for a party, so he could see for himself what he was missing out on. It turned out to be one hell of a party, all right, and it was already in full swing by the time Jimmy Minty got there. Actually he’d arrived earlier in the evening, but then drove around, trying to work up enough nerve to knock on the frat house door. In fact, he’d finished a six-pack before deciding what the hell. When he finally rang the bell, the door was answered by a big guy who had a sixteen-ouncer in his left hand and a passed-out, bare-assed girl slung over his right shoulder, her long dark hair hanging straight down, almost to the big kid’s knees, her blue jeans and panties bunched around her ankles. Jimmy, trying to pretend that this wasn’t such an unusual sight, explained that he was a friend of Billy Barnes, and the big kid said, “Like I give a shit. Grab yourself a brew. You want a sniff?”

  “What?” Jimmy said, feeling angry and confused.

  “Dollar a sniff,” he explained, and then another guy came over and stuffed a wrinkled bill into his frat brother’s shirt pocket, which Jimmy now noticed was full of them. This new kid asked Jimmy to step out of the way, then grabbed and lifted the girl’s ankles so her knees rested on his shoulders. Then he leaned forward, inhaling deeply. “That,” he said when he’d finished and let the girl’s legs drop, “is one sweet pussy.”

  “So,” the big frat kid said to Jimmy Minty, who hadn’t moved. “You want a sniff, or are you just going to stand there staring?”

  “I was looking for Billy Barnes,” Jimmy Minty reminded him.

  The kid nodded in drunken comprehension. “Nice ripe pussy and you’re looking for Billy Barnes.” He shrugged. “To each his own.”

  Well, it was a pretty wild party. Jimmy drank a beer from one of three identical kegs, wondering if that was all he’d be allowed, not being a member of the fraternity. It was hard to imagine you’d get more than one freebie by dropping Billy Barnes’s name, but apparently he was wrong. When he went back to the kegs, one of the frat boys tripped the spigot, without ever looking at him, as if it were the proximity of the empty cup he was acknowledging and not the person holding it. The beer flowed through the tap slowly, and the boy kept talking to a girl (this one fully clothed) without feeling the need to check on Jimmy’s cup. When he interrupted their conversation to ask if he’d seen Billy Barnes, the frat kid frowned and said, “Who?”

  When he woke up the next morning, Jimmy’s head ached so bad that for a long time he just lay still, not even daring to open his eyes. He was vaguely aware of having spent a restless night, chased from one nightmarish dream to another. When he finally opened his eyes, he was in a strange room. Staring at the ceiling was about all he could manage, because even the slightest movement resulted in wave after wave of rolling nausea and pain. It was quiet, though, and from this he deduced that he was alone. Relieved, he closed his eyes and must’ve gone back to sleep, at least for a while, because when he opened them again the headache, while still nauseating, didn’t seem quite as intense.

  What worried him was that whoever this room belonged to was likely to show up at any time and demand to know what Jimmy was doing in here. He wouldn’t even know who Jimmy was unless by chance this happened to be Billy Barnes’s room, and what were the odds on that? He couldn’t remember much of what happened the night before, but he did recall asking after his old friend over and over and getting the distinct impression that Billy wasn’t held in particularly high esteem by his frat brothers. Not that this surprised him all that much, since Billy didn’t have many friends in high school either, except on the hockey team, and that was only because he could skate circles around just about anybody in Dexter County.

  At any event, if this wasn’t Billy’s bed, Jimmy thought he’d better vacate it as soon as possible, so he closed his eyes one last time, counted to three, sat up, and swung his legs onto the floor. Then he closed his eyes again and waited for the crashing waves of pain in his head to subside. When they did, he immediately saw two things in the dim early-morning light. The first was that he was naked, which put him in mind of the bare-assed girl everybody had been paying to sniff the night before, and in a wild intuitive leap he wondered if something of the sort might’ve happened to him after he passed out. Had he been removed to this bedroom and stripped naked and offered up as a male specimen to curious female partygoers? No doubt he’d have lost the contents of his stomach right then if he hadn’t noticed the second thing, which substituted cold fear for nausea. The dingy white sheet he’d been sleeping on was splotched wetly pink all the way up to the pillow, and when close examination revealed the sticky wetness to be exactly what he feared—blood—he vaulted quickly to his feet and backed away from the bed until he bumped into the far wall. This caused another terrific wave of pain in his head, this one so intense that he slid down the wall into a sitting position, where he remained, his knees drawn up to his chest, his hands clasped around his ankles, his forehead resting against his knees. Again he closed his eyes and considered the blessing of darkness, the marvelous way it could subtract the whole world.

  THERE WAS A KNOCK on the side window of the cruiser, and when he looked up, Zack had materialized on the other side of the glass. Jimmy rolled down the window and grinned. Lord, the boy was getting big.

  He offered his hand. “Hell of a game, son.”

  They shook awkwardly. “Too bad we run out of time,” said the younger Minty. They’d come back in the second half, tying Fairhaven on a field goal late in the fourth quarter. “We would’ve scored again if we got the damn ball back.”

  “That’s for sure,” Jimmy agreed. “And they were all done scoring on you.”

  “That they were,” the boy said proudly.

  “Where you off to now?”

  Across the street Jimmy Minty’s own Camaro idled throatily, double-parked next to the second professor’s car, and behind the Camaro sat the pickup that had screeched around the corner earlier. There was no one riding in the back now, and only three in the cab. For show, no doubt. The other kids were probably waiting around the corner to get picked up again.

  “Thought we’d drive to Fairhaven for some pizza.”

  “We got pizza right here in Empire Falls, you know.”

  “I know,” Zack said. “But is it okay?”

  “I guess. Who you got with you?” He peered around his son to see who was in the car, but the windows were rolled up, the Camaro’s glass tinted.

  “Justin. Tick Roby. Girl named Candy Burke.”

  His father nodded, waiting. There were four people in the car. He could see that much, even through the tinted windows. “That’s three,” he said.

  His son seemed reluctant to ’fess up to the last rider. “Some kid named John.”

  “John who?”

  “Voss, I think.”

  Jimmy nodded, trying to conjure up what he knew about that name. The kid had got caught shoplifting at the supermarket back in July. Jimmy had let him off with a warning. Not worth the bother. Weird kid, he remembered. Not the sort he would’ve figured his own boy would be hanging around with. “You ever get caught shoplifting, I’ll kick your ass, you know.”

  “I won’t,” the boy promised, ambiguously.

/>   “I still can, you know.”

  “Maybe.” Now the boy was grinning.

  “Maybe, my ass,” Jimmy grinned back. “You might be able to knock me down, but I wouldn’t be like that kid you whacked today. I’d get back up.”

  “I know you would, Dad.”

  “You got enough money?”

  “Yeah.”

  Jimmy Minty nodded, then slipped him a twenty anyway. “Take this. You can give it back if you don’t need it.” Which would be a first. Not that he minded, though. Jimmy didn’t want a kid of his to be short, like he’d always been at that age. Getting a bent nickel out of his father had been an all-day job.

  “You stay out of trouble. This is a bad night for you to be going to Fairhaven, after that game. You get thrown in jail for fighting, I’ll let you sit there.”

  “I’ll remember.”

  “Do.”

  “I’m going now, okay?”

  “How are you and that Roby girl getting along?”

  “Oh, she’s being a cunt as usual, pretending she doesn’t like me.”

  Jimmy considered telling him to watch his language, then decided against it. He’d used that word himself, in reference to the boy’s mother, who was one and who deserved it. Like most of them did, when you came right down to it. “Well, she wouldn’t be her father’s daughter if she didn’t need to come down a peg or two. Don’t take any shit is my advice.” He was just about through taking it himself, actually.

  “I won’t be late.”

  “You wreck that Camaro, I’m not going to give a good goddamn whose fault it was,” Jimmy said, feeling the need for one last warning.

  “We could switch, if you’re worried,” the boy said, wiseass.

  “Go on, before I give you a ticket for double-parking.”

  Zack nodded. Before crossing the street, though, he went around the cruiser and retrieved the plastic horn from the gutter, then trotted over and handed it to the driver of the pickup.

  THE MOST OBVIOUS EXPLANATION for the bloody bed, he’d figured as he sat there with his eyes clamped tightly shut, was that he was still dreaming. After all, he’d been tormented by one terrible dream after another all night, their fragmented contents coming back to him now in flashes. This must simply be the latest installment. When he opened his eyes again, he’d be back in bed, maybe even his own bed, hungover but safe and sane. Except that when he tested this theory, he found himself still seated at the base of the wall in some stranger’s dorm room. The only difference was that he’d begun to whimper. Clearly, a terrible thing had happened here in the night, and since he was alive to witness its aftermath, it stood to reason that the act had not been done to him—though he now noticed that his own skin, here and there, was crusted with blood—but rather by him. For a long time, probably since he was fifteen or sixteen, he’d been indulging dark, violent fantasies before going to sleep at night, and one of these, it seemed, had somehow come to life. He’d persuaded some girl to come up to this room with him last night, and then she’d pissed him off, and he’d killed her. He vaguely remembered trying to convince several different girls to have sex with him the night before. As far as he could remember, none of them had been even remotely tempted, but one of them must’ve said yes. Once again he felt his stomach heave.

  Despite the psychological plausibility of this scenario, Jimmy Minty took some solace from the lack of supporting physical evidence. If he’d killed some poor sorority girl, then where was she? He got onto his hands and knees and crawled over to where the bedclothes were balled up at the foot of the bed and lifted them up. No girl there. He then padded around to the other side of the bed. Still no girl. Next he checked out the closet, which was full of all manner of shit except a dead girl. Was it possible he’d tried to kill her and she’d somehow managed to escape? He poked his head out into the hallway, half expecting to see a trail of blood. There was a large foamy stain on the wall, but that almost certainly was beer. He closed the door again.

  Okay, so maybe he hadn’t killed anybody after all. But somebody had bled like a stuck pig all over the bed. Much of the blood was already dry and crusty, like the spots on his knees and stomach and chest. In other places it was still sticky and moist. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Jimmy thought for a moment, then reached down and took a clean corner of the top sheet and wiped a spot of dried blood off his knee, surprised that it stung when he did so and that bright beads of blood began forming slowly along what he now recognized as a tiny cut.

  How wonderful to discover that the blood was his own, that his whole body was covered by tiny, razor-thin cuts! True, it made him weak to consider that so much blood should’ve leaked from his own person, but at least he wasn’t a murderer. He’d planned on applying to the Maine Police Academy, and it wouldn’t look good on his application if he’d gone and killed some girl at a frat party, even if he explained that he was drunk at the time and didn’t remember. It had taken him the better part of a year to come up with the police academy idea, and he didn’t want to have to start all over, even with the leisure of a lengthy prison sentence to develop other career possibilities. No, if the blood was his own, it meant that he could still be a cop—and what the present circumstance called for, it occurred to him, was some detective work. How on earth had he managed to wake up covered with cuts he didn’t remember getting? It was a puzzle.

  He’d heard plenty of stories about wild frat parties, about a bizarre ritual called hazing that the older members inflicted on the pledges. Mostly the pledges were just driven out into the country someplace, their clothing confiscated, and left there to make their humiliating way back to campus. Or else they were forced to drink until they passed out. Maybe something along these lines had happened last night. It was his understanding that in order to be hazed, you first had to pledge the frat, but who knew? Maybe he’d been mistaken for a Sigma Nu pledge. Of course no one had forced him to drink until he passed out. He’d done that all on his own. But he’d awakened completely naked, and that was suggestive. Was it possible that all these tiny cuts had been inflicted on him by drunk frat boys playing a prank? Good Lord, there was even one on his dick!

  The good news was that his clothes were wadded up among the bedclothes, and Jimmy climbed into them gingerly. Movement of any sort opened the various cuts and made them sting all over again, but there was no help for it. The house was still quiet, everyone drunkenly asleep, he assumed, so the thing to do was slip out quietly before anybody else woke up and wondered who the hell he was and what he was doing there. The question was, Should he take the bloody sheets with him? On the one hand, they weren’t his, and he didn’t want to be regarded as a thief. On the other, removing them would be a kindness to the owner of the room, who would therefore be spared the shock and mystification of all that blood. Besides, the whole damn fraternity would probably be convinced a murder had taken place, and when they sobered up somebody might remember it was Billy Barnes’s weird friend they’d let crash in there. That would take some explaining, and Jimmy Minty doubted his ability to do so convincingly when he only partially comprehended what might’ve happened himself. So, best to swipe the sheets.

  When he began to strip the bed he noticed glinting, as if the bloody sheet had been sprinkled here and there with stardust. On closer inspection it turned out to be shards of paper-thin glass. Jimmy studied a tiny shaving that embedded itself in the tip of his thumb when he tried to pick it up. He sat back down on the bed to think it through and, after a minute, raised his head to look at the ceiling. Directly overhead was an empty light fixture. No, not empty. A ragged piece of thin glass jutted out of the socket, all that was left of the exploded lightbulb. No wonder his sleep had been restless. He’d been sleeping in a bed of broken glass.

  The mystery solved, he decided to leave the sheets after all and see if anybody else could follow the clues and solve the mystery. Down the block he found his car right where he’d left it the night before, and he slid gingerly behind the wheel, his buttocks a gr
id of nicks. Right in front of him was another frat house, with two Greek symbols displayed above the door. This got him thinking. The frat he’d gone into the night before had three symbols above the door. “Sigma Nu” was what Billy Barnes had said when he gave Jimmy the address. Would that be two symbols or three? Sig Ma Nu. Three.

  The drive back to Empire Falls was uncomfortable, but Jimmy Minty smiled the whole way, confident he’d make a hell of a fine policeman. He was also glad he’d visited the University of Maine. It took most kids a full four years there to discover their true vocation, but he’d figured it out on his own in just one night.

  THE POLICE CAR, parked in plain sight across the street, was the first thing Miles saw when he returned from the Whiting hacienda. Ignore it, he told himself. The restaurant looked every bit as busy as it had been last night, which meant they could use his help inside. He drove around back, parked in his usual spot beside the Dumpster, and started toward the back door, then thought again, heading around the building and out into the street. Jimmy Minty had opened the door and gotten out of the cruiser before Miles even stepped off the curb, and he looked pretty surprised when Miles stuck his hand out. Maybe a little disappointed, too, because he was none too quick to take it.

 
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