Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Actually,” Cindy continued, “she expects poor James to be on call.”

  “Your mother expects everyone to be on call.”

  “I won’t tell her you said that,” she said, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze.

  “You can if you like,” he said cheerfully.

  “Dear Miles,” she said. “You’re the only person she allows to talk back to her. Did you know that?”

  “Not that it gets me anywhere.”

  “She thinks of you as a son, you know.”

  He couldn’t help chuckling at this. “Yeah. A son she’s always been disappointed by.”

  “He was so unhappy,” Cindy said, as if this new remark flowed naturally from his. Letting go of his hand, she stepped closer to the monument and traced her father’s engraved name with her index finger. Compared to the monuments marking the graves of the other Whiting males, C.B.’s was the runt of the litter, though cut in the same style and basic shape as the other, larger stones that marked the nearby graves of Honus and Elijah. Its being significantly smaller gave the impression that his stone alone had not grown after being planted, as if the corpses of his predecessors had already sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The dead marigolds only furthered this impression. “Mother says he was a weak man who never wanted to be a Whiting but still enjoyed the money and privilege. Did you know he had a whole other family in Mexico?”

  “No, I didn’t.” In fact, he found it fairly shocking.

  “After he … well, after he died, Mother got a letter from the woman. She wanted money, of course. For herself and the little boy they had. She told my mother they’d been very happy, but I don’t believe that. It was Mother who wouldn’t allow him to come home.”

  Miles nodded, wondering if she’d come to this conclusion out of desperate need. As a boy he’d often wondered why Max would disappear for months at a time, leaving him and his mother, and later his brother, to their own devices, so he assumed that Cindy Whiting had probably asked the same questions and perhaps even blamed herself, as Miles had. If she believed her father wanted to come home, it was probably because he told her so in Christmas and birthday cards. At the same time, it occurred to Miles that a man who’d built a hacienda in central Maine might find himself right at home in Mexico. “Did she ever say why?”

  “She said he’d been a bad boy. Those were her exact words,” she recalled bitterly. “I used to beg to visit him in Mexico, but she wouldn’t allow that either. ‘Your father’s been a bad boy. He didn’t want his family and now he can’t have one.’ ”

  The smell of urine was starting to get to Miles. “Is it a good idea to be out here in this chill?”

  “You mean me?”

  Miles gave a faint, helpless nod.

  “Dear Miles, you’re so sweet to worry,” she said, squeezing his hand again, “but I’m past all that now. Even my doctors say so. I want to live my life now, not end it. Especially with things looking up.” Meaning himself, Miles feared. “We can go back, though, if you want.”

  They returned to the car, as Miles knew they would, by the path that took them past his mother’s grave. There against her headstone sat an identical pot of marigolds, except these were flourishing, their yellow petals bright and healthy-looking.

  “It’s as if even the flowers know they’re marking the grave of a good person,” Cindy said sadly. “Do you think that’s silly, Miles?”

  “Yes, I do,” he confessed. “But I know what you mean.”

  BUSTER SNORTED AWAKE, looking like a man who belonged in one of the Empire Gazette photographs, among the missing persons. Miles dug the check he’d been holding onto since the first of September from under the cash register’s drawer and handed it to Buster, who studied it for a moment and then asked, “My fired?”

  Miles poured him a cup of coffee and another for himself. “I was planning to put an ad in the paper tomorrow morning,” he admitted. “You were AWOL quite a while. What’s wrong with your eye?”

  This was only the most obvious of the many questions Miles might’ve asked. Buster was pale, emaciated, filthy and looked dispirited, embarrassed and sick as a dog. Moreover, his eye was swollen shut and oozing pus at the corner. Miles felt certain that any number of stories were in the offing by way of explaining his sorry condition. He made a mental note not to let Buster and Max work the same shift until the former had a chance to put himself back together. The sight of either man would give anybody misgivings about the food, but the two of them together would send people running for the parking lot.

  “Spider bite,” Buster said, gingerly daubing pus onto the corner of a napkin. Miles had to look away. His stomach was never that great in the morning. “There’s a weird-looking boy standing outside,” Buster said. “Claims he works here.”

  Miles went around the counter to the front door, where John Voss stood motionless on the steps, hands in his pockets. Yesterday afternoon’s warmth seemed a distant memory. This morning it was winter in the air. The boy glanced up when he heard the lock turn in the door, then quickly back at the ground.

  “He does work here,” Miles told Buster, as he returned to the counter. “He’s our new busboy.”

  “Looks more like a damn serial killer.”

  “You’re the one who looks like a serial killer,” Miles pointed out. “He’s on the quiet side, but so far he seems like a pretty good worker.”

  Both men looked over at the door, aware that John Voss had not come in, perhaps, Miles surmised, because he hadn’t been specifically told to. Sure enough, when he returned to the door, John Voss was right where Miles had left him, apparently awaiting an invitation. “You can come in,” Miles told him.

  The boy nodded, scurrying inside with surprising speed. Miles followed him into the back room. “You can start on the pots,” he said, pointing at the large stack left over from the night before. They’d been understaffed again, and Miles had said just to leave them soaking, knowing the new boy was coming in early. Besides, Sunday was a short day. The restaurant opened only for breakfast, though so few showed up it was hardly worth the effort. With Friday and Saturday nights doing so well, it made sense to close and give everyone a day off. That would also allow him to attend Sunday-morning Mass, which he missed. Most weeks he found a way to slip out long enough to catch the five-thirty on Saturday afternoon, but for an old altar boy, that wasn’t quite the same. Yesterday, thanks to his late-afternoon cemetery tour with Cindy Whiting, he’d missed Mass entirely, leaving him feeling slightly unmoored this morning.

  Recalling Horace’s strange warning on Friday night, as well as Otto Meyer’s gratitude for his having given the boy a job, Miles studied John Voss as he filled the sink and began work, trying to imagine what the rest of this strange boy’s life would be like. He was off to such a poor start that, to Miles, he seemed destined to become the subject of a future query. Does anybody know the boy in this photograph? That is, if he ever made it into a photo. It was the Zack Mintys who got into the newspapers. On the other hand, who knew? The boy might turn out to be the next Bill Gates. “Congratulations, by the way,” Miles said. When the boy stopped scrubbing but didn’t look up: “I heard you had a painting selected for the art show.”

  “Tick, too,” he said, still without looking up, though Miles could see his eyes darting nervously, as if fearful that volunteering so much information all at once might have dire consequences.

  Out front again, Miles flipped the rows of bacon. He always cooked it about three quarters in advance of actual orders, then crisped it to suit his customers. While his stomach was feeling better, the odd feeling of standing on railroad tracks, awaiting an approaching train, was still there—the result, perhaps, of another largely sleepless night. He and David had closed up at ten-thirty, and Miles, exhausted, had gone upstairs and fallen asleep with his clothes on, television remote in hand, before he could even turn the set on. He’d awakened with a start from a nightmare in which he’d been searching for Cindy Whiting’s cane beneath t
he Empire Field bleachers, but instead he found Tick, curled up asleep among the hot dog wrappers and empty Styrofoam cups. Except she wasn’t asleep. He realized this in the instant before his violent twitch sent the television remote skittering under a pallet containing boxes of paper towels. His watch said it was midnight, too late to call, but before he could talk himself out of his panic, he’d already dialed his old telephone number. Janine answered on the first ring.

  “Did Tick make it home okay?” he blurted.

  “Miles,” she said, as if she had a long list of people she allowed to call her at this time of night, and he wasn’t on it.

  “Is Tick back?”

  “Not yet.”

  “It’s midnight, Janine.”

  “I know what time it is, Miles. Is something the matter?”

  “Would you mind calling me when she gets home?”

  “You didn’t answer my question.”

  “It’s stupid,” he admitted. In fact, the sound of his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s voice, even its cosmic annoyance, was reassuring. “I was asleep. In this dream … she was hurt …”

  Her voice relented a little. “I’m sure she’s fine, Miles. Her deadline is midnight. She’ll be home soon.”

  “Call me anyway?” he asked. “And tell Walt I’m sorry about phoning so late.”

  “You want me to wake him up, or tell him in the morning?”

  The annoyance had ratcheted back up a couple of notches, but not, apparently, at him. “Morning would be fine.”

  “Good,” she said. “A man his age needs his rest.”

  What in the world was this about? Then again, Miles reminded himself, he didn’t really want to know. And yet. “Is everything okay, Janine?”

  “Everything’s peachy, Miles. Just peachy. Why do you ask?”

  “Call me when she gets in, okay?”

  “You don’t want to talk to me, is that what you’re saying?”

  “Are you”—he paused—“drinking, Janine?”

  “Maybe a little. Is that all right with you?”

  “It’s none of my business.”

  “You got that right,” she said. Then, after a beat: “I mentioned it to Walt about the house again. I told him I wanted to buy out your share as soon as we’re married.”

  “What was his response to that?”

  “You ever watch a cow chew a cud?”

  “You don’t have to marry him, you know.”

  “Yeah, well, I want to, okay?”

  “Sure. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t have to.”

  “I know, Miles. As far as you’re concerned, I can do anything I damn well please—including go to hell, right?”

  Conversations like this one, Miles realized, were the price of poor impulse control. “Janine.”

  “That Cindy Whiting you were with at the football game?”


  “If you married her, it wouldn’t matter about this shitty little house. You’d own half the damn town. You could pay for Tick’s college and move away and never have to see me again.”

  Unless Miles was mistaken, she was now quietly weeping, her hand over the phone.

  “Janine …”

  Muffled silence for a long beat, then: “They just pulled in, okay?”


  “Your daughter’s safe. I’m looking out the window at her right now. Go back to sleep.”


  But she’d hung up.

  “ANYHOW, CAN I have today off?” Buster wondered, as if to suggest that he’d had an even worse night than Miles.

  Miles deposited the prepped bacon into a stainless-steel tub. “I insist,” he said. “In fact, I really don’t want you coming in until that eye quits draining.”

  “I bet I have to get the fucker lanced,” Buster said morosely, as if life offered up little more than a string of such horrible necessities. “I don’t know why I keep going up into the Allagash. People think there’s nothing going on up there, but they’re wrong. There’s all kinds of shit happening, all of it bad.”

  Miles bladed most of the lake of bacon grease into the trough with the side of his spatula, then added some chopped onions to the grill.

  “You have any idea how high the rate of alcoholism runs up in The County?” Buster said urgently.

  “Normally, or when you’re visiting?”


  “Pretty bad?”

  “Worse,” Buster said, as if prepared for a lowball estimate. “Of course, up there near the border, they don’t share in the rest of the state’s prosperity.”

  Miles turned around to study his fry cook for the merest trace of irony.

  “I guess I could eat a couple strips of that bacon,” Buster said. “Maybe an egg.”

  Miles scrambled two of them and set them on a plate along with some bacon and the toast. Buster dug in with better appetite than Miles would’ve imagined possible for a man with yolk seeping out of one eye. “You shouldn’t have waited for me,” he said when he pushed his cleaned plate away. “You should have given my job to somebody else.”

  “I know that,” Miles admitted.

  “You’re too softhearted,” Buster continued. “People take advantage of you.”

  “I know that, too,” Miles admitted, hoping to terminate the analysis.

  Outside, he glimpsed Charlene’s rusted-out old Hyundai as it turned off Empire into the lot, and for the first time in more than twenty years her proximity failed to cause Miles Roby’s heart to leap, as if Buster’s exhausted, pus-leaking defeatism had been subtly transmitted over the Formica counter and somehow entered Miles’s own bloodstream. Buster had set his coffee cup down on the newspaper, which acted as an inky sponge, and by the time Miles moved the cup onto the counter, the ring it left had ruined his mother’s face.

  “You’re a damn fool, is why,” Buster said, suddenly angry. He stared as Miles blotted the newsprint with a napkin and then, after a long beat, he began to cry. “I’m sorry, Miles,” he said after a minute. Maybe he’d heard the back door open and close and knew that in another minute Charlene would join them. She was far too beautiful a woman to cry in front of. “I don’t know what come over me. I really don’t.”

  “Go on home, Buster,” Miles said without looking up from the photo, where, though his mother was no longer recognizable, he’d spotted a detail that he hadn’t noticed before. There was no doubt about it now. Something was approaching. The tracks he was standing on were vibrating with the force of it, yet he was powerless to move away as much as a step. He sensed rather than saw Buster slide off his stool and disappear, and he had no idea how many times Charlene, standing at his elbow, had to say his name before he was able to meet her alarmed, questioning eyes. “Are you all right?” she wanted to know. “You look weird.”

  Had she gotten there a few seconds sooner, she’d have seen him put the tip of his index finger over the lower half of C. B. Whiting’s bearded face, but even then she wouldn’t have understood what it meant—that the face now staring back at him was not C. B. Whiting’s, as identified by the staff of the Empire Gazette, but Charlie Mayne’s.


  BY THE TIME the bus finally pulled into the Fairhaven terminal, the promise Miles had made to his mother earlier that morning—to say nothing about Charlie Mayne—was beginning to weigh on him. He hadn’t imagined that a promise made in safety on a ferryboat docked in Vineyard Haven could grow as weighty as this one had in a matter of hours. In Woods Hole they’d boarded a bus to Boston, where they’d changed to another heading north to Maine. In Portland they’d changed again, this time to a bus whose destination was Fairhaven, which was literally the end of the line. Empire Falls itself, of course, had recently become one stop beyond the end of the line when bus service was suspended the year before, and there was talk now of closing the Fairhaven terminal, which consisted of a window at the rear of the smoke shop and a small designated parking area around back. Grace had parked the Dodg
e there when they left for Martha’s Vineyard a week earlier, though that seemed much longer ago now. Neither she nor Miles was surprised to discover it missing upon their return. To Miles it was as if they’d been away forever, so long that a car left unattended might simply dematerialize, like water in the bottom of a glass. To Grace it meant that Max was out of jail.

  Though a short distance, Fairhaven to Empire Falls was a long-distance call, and Grace had to make several before she was able to reach someone willing to come fetch them. They waited in a coffee shop across the street and, since it was well past dinnertime, Grace insisted that Miles eat something, even though he claimed he wasn’t hungry. The fumes from all the buses, combined with the fact that he’d soon be seeing his father again, had made him sick to his stomach, but when the hot dog came it smelled good and he ate the whole thing, Grace watching him sadly as she drank her coffee. When it came time to pay and Grace opened her billfold, Miles saw there was just enough to cover what they’d ordered. Unless his mother had money squirreled away in another compartment, they’d made it back home, or almost home, with only loose change to spare. Which led Miles to wonder what his mother had planned to do if Charlie hadn’t showed up and started paying for things.

  The woman who came to bring them back to Empire Falls was younger than Grace and very homely, Miles thought, and she drove a car that was in even worse shape than their Dodge. Miles, of course, was relegated to the backseat with the luggage. The trunk wouldn’t open, the woman said, and Miles couldn’t help thinking how different everything had become in a single day. This time last night he and his mother had been flying across the island in Charlie’s slick canary-yellow sports car after consuming a dinner that had cost (Miles had sneaked a look at the check) more than fifty dollars. Tonight, his hot dog had cost thirty-five cents, his mother’s coffee a quarter, and even then they’d barely been able to afford it.

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