Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “I’m sorry about this afternoon, Jimmy,” Miles said once they’d shaken hands. “I don’t know what got into me. I’m tired, I guess.”

  “Well, it’s good of you to apologize. I guess I figured this thing between us was going to get worse.”

  “I wouldn’t want that,” Miles said truthfully. “You were right. I don’t need any enemies. I certainly don’t want to make one of you.”

  Jimmy nodded warily. It took him a minute to satisfy himself that there wasn’t any irony or sarcasm in what Miles was saying. “Why don’t you come around and set a minute? Sit, I mean. You were right. I always get that wrong. ‘Sit’ and ‘set.’ Old Lady Lampley used to mark it with her red pen. You remember her?”

  Miles nodded. “I can’t stay long,” he said, going around to the other side of the cruiser. “It looks like the restaurant’s full.”

  “You afraid they can’t handle things without you?” Minty said when Miles slid in and he himself had settled back behind the wheel.

  “No.” Miles shook his head. “I’m more afraid they can.”

  Jimmy nodded, as if this wisdom was too profound to swallow whole. After a beat he said, “This is more like it. Me and you, just talking. Not getting bent out of shape.”

  Miles nodded back. Unless he was mistaken, this was an offer to apologize a second time. Or perhaps to offer a fuller, more satisfactory explanation of their confrontation.

  “So what is this thing between us?” the policeman asked, confirming Miles’s suspicion. “I mean, I understand tired. But that this afternoon? That didn’t seem like tired. It was something, all right, but it didn’t seem like tired. And before with your dad? That didn’t seem like tired either.”

  “What did it seem like?” Miles asked, both curious and hopeful that whatever Jimmy Minty came up with wouldn’t be too close to the truth.

  “That’s what I’ve been parked here trying to figure out.”

  “Look, I shouldn’t have corrected your grammar, Jimmy. That was condescending and mean-spirited. You’re right to be pissed off.”

  The other man didn’t say anything for a second, but then threw his hands up in the air so unexpectedly that Miles flinched. “Ah, to hell with it. You said you were sorry, right?”

  This, Miles noted, was a third opportunity.

  “I saw the kids earlier,” Minty said, regarding him carefully. “Mine and yours. Bunch of others. Heading over to Fairhaven for pizza. Or so they claimed.”

  “I’m not so sure that’s a great idea.”

  “Exactly what I said.” Minty nodded once more. “Then again, two more years and they’ll both be off in college and we won’t have a clue what they’re doing, am I right?”

  “I guess that’s true,” Miles pretended to agree.

  “You ever wish you were young again?”

  “Never,” Miles said, glad he could answer at least one of these questions with unadorned truth. “It was awful.”

  “Oh, I don’t know—”

  “We were stupid,” Miles said, surprised by the depth of his conviction. “I was, anyway.”

  “You know what I was thinking before you showed up? I was remembering how Billy Barnes had me come up to UMO that time. Must’ve been the year after him and me graduated.” He went on to tell Miles about the frat party, or at least the part about the boy with the naked girl over his shoulder. “Boy, that made me mad,” he concluded. “At the time I didn’t even realize.”

  “Well, it was a horrible thing,” Miles agreed, trying not to imagine his own daughter at her first college kegger.

  Jimmy Minty looked at him blankly. “Oh, the girl?” he said, blinking. “Yeah, I guess that was pretty shitty, but what really pissed me off was those frat boys. How they all knew what was going on. The way they treated you like some fucking idiot because they understood and you didn’t. Was it like that where you went?”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling. “I went to a tiny Catholic college, Jimmy. You saw more in your first five minutes on campus than I did in three and a half years.”

  “I don’t mean that,” Jimmy Minty said, growing visibly irritated at not being understood. “I’m not talking about pussy. I’m talking about the way they all make you feel. Like they belong, and you don’t. Like they don’t even have to look at you. Was it like that with the Catholics?”

  Miles studied him carefully. Dusk was falling, and even in the dim light of the front seat, Miles could see that the man’s face was red with recollected outrage. Something about the combination of innocence and urgency in his question suggested the latter stages of intoxication, though the policeman displayed none of the other symptoms. It was as if Minty had posed the question in his mind all those years ago and hadn’t had the opportunity to ask it until now. For this reason Miles took his time answering.

  “There were times when I felt out of place, I suppose,” he admitted. “Times I felt inadequate, especially at the beginning. There were lots of kids from Boston, even Portland, big-city kids who knew plenty of things I didn’t. But then at some point you realize you don’t feel so incompetent anymore. One morning you wake up in your dorm room and think, this is my bed I’ve been sleeping in. That’s my desk and those are my books and this is my world. After that, it’s home that starts feeling strange.”

  The other man had been listening carefully, and Miles realized that, despite his care, what he’d just said had confirmed some dark suspicion Minty couldn’t, or wouldn’t, let go of. “So I didn’t stay long enough, is what you’re telling me.”

  “Well, one night … one party—”

  “You’re saying if I’d stayed longer, I would’ve become one of those frat boys.”

  Actually, Miles had no doubt of it. By his sophomore year, Jimmy Minty would have been the boy with the naked girl over his shoulder, but he knew better than to say this. “No—”

  “Well, then I’m glad I didn’t stay.”

  “Jimmy—”

  “No, fuck it, Miles. I’m trying to tell you something here, okay? You mind if I tell you something, or do you know it all?”

  Again Miles paused before answering. “There’s no reason to get worked up, Jimmy. You asked me a question and I answered it.”

  “Now, just shut up a minute. Here’s the deal. I’m not getting worked up, okay? I’ve been worked up since this afternoon. You think you can make fun of me in front of Miss Whiting and a bunch of other people, then come over here and say you’re sorry when there’s nobody around to hear you, and that squares things. And you know what? It would’ve, except I saw that look on your face when I mentioned your daughter and Zack. I saw it, all right. Don’t tell me I didn’t, okay, because that’s just insulting me all over again.”

  Miles put his hand on the door handle. “I’m sorry I upset you, Jimmy.”

  “No, you just set here a minute. Take your hand off that door ’til I finish.”

  Miles did as he was told.

  “I’m trying to tell you that’s what’s between you and me, not some bullshit like how tired you are. See, this town doesn’t seem strange to me. It never did, not for one second. After that night in Orono? When I crossed that bridge into Empire Falls, right then was about the happiest minute in my whole damn life. You can laugh all you want, but it’s true.”

  “I’m not laughing, Jimmy—”

  “See, I cared who won that football game today. Maybe people like you think that makes me a nobody, but you know what? I don’t give a fuck. Mr. Empire Falls? That’s me. Last one to leave, turn out the lights, right? This town is me, and I’m it. I’m not one of those that left and then came back. I been here all long. Right here is where I been, and it’s where I’ll be when the sun comes up tomorrow, so if you—”

  “I never said—”

  “Thing is, Miles, people in this town like you. A lot of people. You got friends, even some important friends. I admit it. But here’s something that might surprise you. People like me too. Something else? I got friends. Might surprise you to
hear we even got some of the same friends. You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in. They see their first girlfriend. They see the first high school football game they ever went to. You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives. They hear you talk and maybe they’re thinking the same thing you are, except they can’t say it like you do and they know they won’t ever get any credit. They see you and your buddy the principal with your heads together, deciding how things are gonna be, talking the way you talk and making your little jokes, and they know they’ll never get no place with either one of you, not ever. But me? Maybe they just might get someplace with me, and that’s why they like me. That’s why I’ll probably be the next chief of police. They like my attitude, I guess you could say. And you know what? An attitude like yours? An attitude like yours leads to things.”

  Miles had finally had enough. “Are you threatening me, Jimmy?” he asked. “Because you aren’t the chief of police yet. Does Bill Daws know who’s taking his job?”

  Just a flicker of fear registered behind Minty’s eyes as he calculated whether he’d gone too far, but then it was gone. “Threatening you?” he said, incredulous. “Threatening you. When did I ever want to be anything except your friend? Tell me that. When?”

  And of course Miles knew that in the twisted, grotesque way of many true things, Jimmy Minty was speaking straight from the heart. It was what he wanted. And he was genuinely mystified as to why he couldn’t seem to have it. Which did not—Miles had to admit as he got out of the car and crossed Empire Avenue—make him stupid. After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?

  CHAPTER 18

  AT FIVE MINUTES TO SIX on Sunday morning a groggy Miles Roby came downstairs to prepare for the breakfast shift and found a man slumped over the counter, his forehead flat on the Formica, as if it had been superglued there. It took a moment for Miles to recognize Buster, his fry cook, back from his annual, heroic bender, which this year looked to have been damn near the death of him. He’d brought along a copy of the Sunday paper, and a fresh pot of coffee was steaming on the Bunn-O-Matic, which suggested that Buster had not entirely forgotten his skills.

  Rather than wake him, Miles fired up the grill and filled its gleaming surface with bacon strips, about three pounds’ worth. When they started to sizzle, he took up the newspaper, the front page of which was devoted almost exclusively to Saturday’s football game, with two photos of Zack Minty: a large one of him brandishing the fumble he’d recovered and a smaller one of him helping the woozy Fairhaven quarterback off the field. The boy had not returned for the second half after the late hit that temporarily knocked him out cold. He’d sat, dazed-looking, on the bench, while Empire Falls chipped away at the score, a field goal here, a touchdown there, until the home team tied the game with a little over a minute to go. No surprise, the Empire Gazette saw the game in pretty much the same light as the hometown fans did, as a humiliating defeat for Fairhaven, which had led at the half by a score of 24–0.

  There was a surprise on the front page of the paper’s lifestyle section. For the last several years, on Sundays, the Gazette had taken to running old photos of Empire Falls and its denizens during their glory days. The series was called “The Way It Was,” and earlier in the summer they’d run a photo of the Empire Grill, circa 1960, with old Roger Sperry looking like he belonged on a lobster boat instead of behind a cash register, and a lunch counter full of working men extending into the background behind him, and the restaurant’s grainy, shadowy booths full of customers. A sign on the back wall advertised a hamburg steak with grilled onions, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and roll for a buck and a quarter. One of the younger men pictured at the counter still came in and always sat on the same end stool, if it was available. For reasons that mystified Miles, the series apparently had a cheering effect on the citizenry. People actually seemed to enjoy recalling that on a Saturday afternoon forty years ago Empire Avenue was bustling with people and cars and commerce, whereas now, of course, you could strafe it with automatic weapons and not harm a soul.

  Some characters in the Gazette photos were identified in the captions, but others became queries. Can you identify this man? This woman? Who were these people and what did they mean to us? the photos seemed to ask. Where have they gone? Why do we remain? “The Way It Was” always caused Miles to feel as if the town itself was awaiting some cataclysm that would finish them all off.

  Today’s photo was of the old Empire Shirt Factory’s office staff, taken in 1966, the year before the factory closed, and the only person in the second row not looking at the camera was a young and beautiful Grace Roby. Miles quickly checked the caption below, relieved to see that his mother was among the identified, because it would have broken his heart to see a “Does anyone know this woman?” affixed to her. Still, seeing his mother so unexpectedly gave Miles a sensation not unlike the one you’d have standing on railroad tracks and feeling, or imagining, the far-off trembling of something large racing your way—not danger, exactly, unless for some inexplicable reason you were duty bound to remain right where you were. Perhaps it was the fact that Grace was not looking at the camera, but rather off at an oblique angle, that suggested she might have been listening to that same distant rumbling. If indeed it was an intimation of her own mortality she was hearing, Miles reflected, it had been closer than she thought.

  Several others in the photograph were people Miles recognized, some dead, some living, some still residing in Empire Falls, others long gone. In one case he thought it was a man he knew well, then realized it had to be the man’s father. And at the end of the first row stood a small, white-bearded man dressed in a three-piece suit, C. B. Whiting himself, proprietor of the Empire Shirt Factory. If anything grim was bearing down on Mrs. Whiting’s husband, he did not as yet seem aware of it. How many years after this photo was taken, Miles tried to remember, did he return from exile in Mexico and put the cold barrel of a revolver against his own pulsing temple? How strange, he thought, that just yesterday he’d stood at the foot of this man’s grave.

  After the game, once the crowd had dispersed and they’d made their slow, careful way back to Miles’s car, Cindy had asked if he’d be willing to take a short walk, and he’d made the mistake of agreeing before asking exactly what she had in mind.

  “I think it’s the prettiest place in town,” his companion said as they followed the well-tended path, Cindy leaning more on her cane now than on Miles, though she did have a firm grip on his elbow just in case. Losing her balance on the bleachers and pitching forward into Jimmy Minty’s arms had unnerved her.

  At her suggestion they’d parked just outside the east gate, the closest one to the Whiting section of the cemetery. Now in the late afternoon, the sky had clouded over and a chilly wind had come up, rustling brown leaves along the path.

  “It is peaceful,” Miles had admitted, sniffing the air. Was it his imagination or was the breeze redolent of cat piss? Since entering the cemetery Miles had seen several cats darting among the stones. They couldn’t possibly be feral, could they? He didn’t like to think what would offer them sustenance in a cemetery. The swelling where the Whiting cat had bitten him had gone down, but the hand began to pulse, inviting another round of scratching. This time Miles decided to resist. A police cruiser rolled silently by on the other side of the cast-iron fence about a hundred yards away, too far to make out whether Jimmy Minty was at the wheel. Cindy also tracked its progress until the cruiser turned onto Elm and headed back toward town.

  When they arrived at the top of the hill, the river was just visib
le in the distance, and a shaft of bright afternoon sun from a break in the clouds electrified the blue water. When they stopped before her father’s grave, Cindy said, “He brings me here sometimes.”

  Miles considered this statement. Knowing his companion’s lifelong distaste for metaphor, he decided she was not claiming that C. B. Whiting drew her to this place by supernatural means.

  “Who?” he decided to ask.

  “James.”

  No help. “James?”

  “James Minty.” Now it was her turn to regard Miles dubiously, as if he were either slow or not paying close attention. He tried to think whether he’d ever heard anyone else call Minty “James,” then gave up.

  “I haven’t been a very good friend, have I?” he confessed, hating to think that with respect to this poor woman he’d remained as stingy as an adult as he’d been as a boy. After all, how much time would it have taken him to bring her to visit her father’s grave on her rare, short visits to Empire Falls.

  “Oh, Miles, you were married,” she said, apparently reading his thoughts.

  There was a large pot of what had once been marigolds on C. B. Whiting’s grave. They’d drooped and gone brown, the pot itself filling with brittle leaves. Here the smell of urine was even more pronounced than it had been before. “I put these here just a few days ago,” Cindy said, bending over precariously to examine the marigolds. “They should have lasted.” She paused. “James works for my mother, you know. I’m sure she paid him for his time.”

  “Works for her how, exactly?” Miles asked.

  “Different ways. He looks after the house when she travels. He helped her put in a security system. Keeps an eye on the old factories.”

  Miles nodded, suppressing a smile. If there was one person in Empire Falls he wouldn’t want to know the intricacies of his security system, assuming he could afford one and had things worth stealing, that person was Jimmy Minty. But perhaps he was being unfair. It was possible Jimmy’d be both grateful and loyal to anyone who treated him decently. And Miles realized too that he’d made a mistake, twice, in provoking him, a mistake it would be either humiliating or impossible to correct.

 
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