Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Maud—the young woman who’d picked them up at the station—talked pretty much the entire way to Empire Falls, catching Grace up on all that had happened. Once again there was a rumor that the mill was going to be sold, this one fueled by the fact that C. B. Whiting had gone off on Thursday without telling anyone where, causing people to speculate that he’d gone to Atlanta or some other place down south to put the finishing touches on the sale. If true, it meant that some of them wouldn’t have jobs at the shirt factory much longer, especially those like Grace and Maud, who worked in the office. New management would bring in their own people for those positions, and it was common knowledge that Southerners worked for even less than Mainers. The fledgling union was already talking strategy. And Max, she added, her voice low so Miles wouldn’t overhear, was again a free man. He’d been over to the mill looking for Grace earlier in the week.

  Maud seemed not to notice Grace’s silence in response to all of this, and they were nearly to Empire Falls before it occurred to the young woman to inquire how their vacation had been. “What’s it like being on an island?” she wanted to know, reminding Miles that until a week ago he’d believed islands to be strips of land somehow floating on the water that surrounded them. That’s what they looked like on maps, and before arriving on Martha’s Vineyard he’d wondered if the ground beneath your feet would feel as solid as it did on “real” land. If everyone on an island were to move to one side, would it tip over? He knew that couldn’t be possible, but still he’d been glad to see just how solid everything felt when they stepped off the ferry. It was returning home, he now understood, that made everything so tippy.

  · · ·

  HIS FATHER WASN’T HOME when Miles and his mother got there, and neither was the Dodge, but there was a note attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. He’d gone to paint a house in Castine and would be back by the end of the week. Miles located the crumpled note in the trash where Grace had tossed it, smoothed it out and read it start to finish, surprised that it said pretty much what his mother had said it did, no more, no less. It seemed to Miles that a man who’d sat in jail for a week while his wife and son vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard would’ve come out with more to say. With so much time to think, he might have grown sorrowful, or angry, or determined, or reformed. His father had apparently rejected all of these options and come out of jail determined to paint somebody’s house in Castine. Miles himself was not alluded to in the note—a relief, since it had occurred to him that Max might regard him as his mother’s accomplice. Until a few days ago Miles had not suspected the existence of men like Charlie Mayne who might, if given a chance, steal another man’s wife, and judging from the note, his father still hadn’t tumbled to that possibility either; or if he had, he didn’t blame Miles for not being up to the task of protecting his mother’s virtue.

  Once back in Empire Falls, Miles and Grace didn’t really need either Max or the Dodge. Miles could bike to baseball practice or wherever else he needed to go, and she walked to work in the morning. Like most of the women in the main office, she brown-bagged her lunch to save both money and time. If you ate a quick sandwich at your desk, you could go home at four-thirty instead of five. C. B. Whiting, the mill’s owner, still hadn’t returned on Monday, so every evening that week the phone rang and rang, girls from the office wanting to know if Grace, who was generally acknowledged to be first among equals at the main office, had heard anything new.

  By Friday Max had not returned as promised, and it became clear to Miles that Grace was falling into a deep depression. The reason, he felt certain, had little to do with the possibility that she might lose her job and even less with her husband’s continued absence. She was thinking, Miles could tell, about Charlie Mayne and his promise that everything would work out. Each time the phone rang in the evening, Grace leapt for it, her face bright with hope, only to collapse when she recognized the voice of Maud or another of the office girls flush with another rumor. According to one, C. B. Whiting had returned at last, but immediately left again. Twice Miles observed his mother making phone calls herself, then quickly hanging up.

  On Monday of the second week, old Honus Whiting, C.B.’s father showed up unexpectedly and called a general meeting of all the mill’s workers, announcing that for the immediate future he himself would again be in charge of Empire Manufacturing. He knew there had been a lot of speculation that the mill was being sold, but he wanted everyone to know that the rumors were untrue. On the contrary, another Whiting mill was being opened in Mexico, and C.B. would be temporarily relocating there to get the new operation up and running. Francine Whiting, C.B.’s wife, who recently had learned she was pregnant, would join her husband in Mexico next month, once suitable accommodations could be made ready, and she would winter there, returning in the spring to have the baby, which everyone hoped would be a male heir to guide Whiting Enterprises International into the next century. The employees of all three mills listened to what the old man had to say, and when he was finished they went back to work. Not much of what they’d heard sounded anything like the truth.

  That evening Miles returned late from baseball practice and found his mother sobbing on the bed in the room she shared with her husband, at least when Max was around to share it, and Miles immediately suspected she’d gotten the phone call she’d been waiting for from Charlie Mayne. She called in sick the next day, and the next. Mornings she was sicker than she’d been on Martha’s Vineyard, and evenings she could barely be coaxed out of the bedroom long enough to fix something for supper. By the end of the week Miles was truly alarmed. Grace had such a wild, desperate look in her eyes that he began to hope for his father’s return, something he’d been dreading because of all the questions that would inevitably get asked. Worse than needing to keep all the secrets he felt entrusted with was the knowledge that his father would want answers to other questions as well, answers Miles himself did not possess. But day after day, neither Max nor the Dodge turned up.

  On Saturday afternoon of the third week, the door to his parents’ bedroom opened and Grace appeared in a dark dress that Miles hadn’t seen her wear since the funeral of a neighbor who’d been killed on the swing shift at Empire Paper last spring. She wore no jewelry or makeup, but she’d done up her hair and would’ve looked nice, Miles thought, if she hadn’t lost so much weight. An entirely different sort of nice from the nice way she’d looked in her white summer dress on the island, when all the men had turned to stare, but nice, still. When she announced that it had been more than a month since either of them had been to confession, she met Miles’s eye meaningfully.

  Though it was a sunny afternoon in late August, several nights during the week had been chilly, and Miles noticed during their silent walk to St. Catherine’s that a few of the uppermost leaves on the elms had already begun to turn. Grace didn’t seem to notice this or anything else; she looked like a woman marching to her own execution. She’d timed their arrival so they would be the last of the afternoon’s penitents. Miles, she insisted, should enter the confessional first and, when he finished, say his penance quickly and wait for her outside. As always, they hoped for the new young priest, but as luck would have it, when Miles slid onto the kneeler inside the dark confessional and the velvet curtain was pulled back on the other side of the latticework, Father Tom’s dark silhouette was revealed, and the older priest’s stern voice urged him to recount his sins so that they might be forgiven.

  Miles had received his first communion the year before, so of course he knew that to conceal one mortal sin was to commit yet another. Since returning from Martha’s Vineyard he’d grown certain that he, not just his mother, had somehow sinned there, though he wasn’t sure what sort of sin it was or how to explain it to the man on the other side of the lattice. He knew he’d betrayed his father by promising to keep his mother’s secret, just as he was certain that if he broke that promise he would be betraying her. In either case it was a sin to try to keep a secret from God, who already knew. Why exactl
y it was necessary to confess what God already knew had been explained in religious instruction by the very man who now sat on the other side of the lattice, but the delicate logic of it was confusing to Miles at the time and eluded him entirely now. He had come to confession armed with a list of sins he hadn’t committed, sins he hoped were equal in magnitude to whatever he was concealing, and he further hoped God would understand that his reticence about coming clean didn’t stem from any desire to make himself look good. Father Tom listened to his litany of substitute sins and offered penance with the air of a man who is convinced not so much of the truth of what he’s just heard as of the general human depravity in which such behavior has its origins. At the altar railing Miles knelt and said his Our Fathers and Hail Marys and was about to leave when he heard the confessional door open and saw his mother following Father Tom into the sacristy.

  He sat on the steps outside for half an hour, and when his mother finally appeared her face was ashen. He guided her home as you might lead a blind woman, and when they arrived she went directly into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. The next morning, Sunday, they went to Mass, but during the sermon Grace became ill and after instructing Miles to stay where he was, she stumbled down the side aisle, one hand over her mouth, and out the side door. Perhaps anticipating this, she had wanted to sit nearer the rear of the church than was their custom, but even so, people turned to watch her stagger out, and it seemed to Miles that Father Tom made matters worse by pausing in his sermon until the church door swung shut behind her. There was an Esso station a block up the street, and Miles suspected his mother had gone there to be sick, but when communion began she still had not returned. Miles waited, then joined the very end of the line, though painfully aware that he should not receive the host. He’d lied in confession yesterday, and knew better than to invite God into his impure body. On the other hand, since he had gone to confession, it would seem strange if he didn’t take communion, so he received the wafer on a tongue so dry with guilt and shame that instead of dissolving, it remained there like a scrap of thin cotton cloth. He was still trying to swallow the host when he felt his mother slide back into the pew next to him, looking pale and weak. When she took his hand and squeezed hard, it seemed that what she was trying to convey to him was exactly what he feared most, that she was going to die as a result of what she’d done on Martha’s Vineyard. She’d caught something there and brought the illness home with her. Going to confession yesterday hadn’t made her better, so Miles wondered if she, too, had lied to the priest, if at the moment she’d realized it was Father Tom, who knew her, instead of the younger priest, she decided to keep her secret. Father Tom must have suspected as much and made her go with him into the sacristy, but even there she must have refused to tell him about Charlie Mayne.

  Miles was aware that this scenario was problematic. For one thing, his mother had gotten sick days before Charlie Mayne showed up; but he reasoned that maybe she’d made up her mind in advance to do whatever they’d done, and that was where the sin had begun, in the wickedness of a thought, as he’d learned in religious instruction. Maybe getting sick had been a warning from God that she’d chosen to ignore. This, then, was the price of her short-lived happiness.

  When they returned home from Mass, Miles half expected his mother to retire to the bedroom, but instead she told him she had to go out. When he asked her where she was going, she said only that there was something she had to do.

  Miles knew it was wrong, but he followed her. Since on Sunday there were few people on the street, Miles was careful lest she turn around suddenly and catch him, but it soon became clear that she was too preoccupied to notice anything. When she got to the shirt factory, Miles thought for a moment that this was her destination, and that she intended to go inside, but after pausing there for a minute, she continued on. At the Iron Bridge, to his surprise, she turned left onto the pedestrian walkway, and there was no way he could follow without making his presence known. When Grace was halfway across, the truth came to him. She intended to jump. He was so sure of it that when she didn’t, when she walked right past the place where you’d jump if you were going to, Miles still couldn’t banish the idea.

  Because what other explanation could there be? After all, there was little on the other side of the river but the country club and two or three houses owned by rich people. On the sloping lawn of one of these, the nearest, was a gazebo where a solitary woman sat staring out across the falls. She was too far away for Miles to be sure, of course, but she seemed to be tracking his mother’s progress across the bridge. Perhaps seeing her sitting there had prevented Grace from jumping. Maybe she now intended to jump on the way back.

  Miles waited a few minutes to see if his mother, once she reached the far side, would turn back, but she didn’t. And by the time he finally left his post at the town side of the bridge, it seemed that the woman in the gazebo was staring at him.

  ON LABOR DAY, without warning, Max returned. Miles, out enjoying the last day of his summer vacation, came home at noon for lunch and found the Dodge parked outside and Max, shirtless and berry-brown from a summer’s worth of painting people’s windows shut, sitting at the kitchen table, reading the Empire Gazette as if hoping to find in it news of what Miles and his mother had been up to during his absence. When Miles walked in, his father finished the paragraph he was reading, then looked up and, seeing his son, grinned.

  Miles could see that he was missing a couple teeth. “What happened?” he asked, immediately frightened.

  “What, this?” Max said, sticking his tongue through the new gap. “It’s nothing. I just had a little difference of opinion with a guy, is all. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to pay me about five hundred bucks per tooth.”

  Miles nodded, not so much reassured by his father’s explanation as by his presence. Having dreaded Max’s return, he immediately felt how good it was to have him home. His father had only a couple of speeds, which made him predictable, and Miles was ready for things to be predictable again, even if they were predictably odd. Max might not be like other men, but he was always like himself. Other men, for instance, might get upset over minor car accidents, whereas Max saw fender benders as opportunities. If somebody backed into him in a parking lot, which people did with such regularity as to raise suspicions that Max purposely put himself in harm’s way, Max took his damaged car to a mechanic he depended upon for an inflated estimate, then he’d offer to settle the matter for half the estimate in cash, in return for which consideration, nobody’s insurance company needed to be involved. Meaning the other driver’s, since Max himself was never insured. Once the money was in his pocket, he was disinclined to squander it by fixing up the car. Oh, he might replace a broken headlight, since state law required it, and if a side panel was badly dented, he’d pound it out himself, though the results were generally more grotesque than the original dent. The Dodge had been “repaired” so many times that it resembled something built from scrap on a junk heap.

  Miles had little doubt that his father would realize his dental windfall, just as he knew no dentist was likely to see a penny. What Miles couldn’t know, of course, was that he was witnessing the first stage in the systematic demolition of his father’s body, that by the time Max Roby turned seventy he’d look like a ’65 Dodge Dart that had been totaled on several different occasions.

  At the moment, he had to admit, his father looked the picture of health, his body lean and tanned, and he couldn’t help comparing his sturdy appearance with that of Charlie Mayne, who’d looked so pale and concave on the beach. And he couldn’t help speculating about what would’ve happened if Max had gotten out of jail in time to track them down on Martha’s Vineyard and found them eating caviar out of a picnic basket on the beach. He tried to imagine a fight between his father and Charlie Mayne, but no picture would form. Charlie Mayne was older and clearly no pugilist. Max was tough and durable, but his specialty, Miles was beginning to understand, was not in punching people but
in getting them to punch him, which he was pretty certain Charlie Mayne would never do. More likely, Max would simply have just invited himself to join them, saying, “I like caviar too, you know.” In this dramatic scenario, if anybody ended up throwing a punch, it probably would’ve been Grace.

  “Where’s Mom?” it occurred to him to ask, since the house didn’t feel like she was in it.

  “Over at church, she said,” Max told him. “She left you a sandwich in the fridge.”

  “She goes every morning now,” Miles said, which was true. Since returning from her journey across the river, she’d been to Mass every day and, moreover, she’d signed Miles up to be an altar boy once school started.

  Max grunted. “She must be feeling guilty about something,” he ventured, studying his son.

  To avoid being stared at, Miles went over to the refrigerator and pretended to look for the sandwich, to put a door between his father and his burning cheeks. Slowly, he went about pouring himself a glass of milk and finally brought it to the table with his sandwich.

  “I heard you made a good catch,” his father said, causing Miles to wonder whether he’d been told by Grace or by Coach LaSalle. For his father to allude to the incident now, so long after it had happened, felt weird. It had been a month since he’d put his mitt in the way of that line drive, and it seemed even longer, almost as if it had happened to some other boy.

  “Mom’s been real sick,” he heard himself announce.

  His father had gone back to reading the paper and didn’t look up. Miles was about to tell him again when he said, “They always are at this stage.”

  Miles considered whether to ask, Who did he mean by “they”? At what stage?

  Noticing this silence, Max lowered the paper again, grinning, his gap-tooth smile no less disconcerting this time, though Miles was more prepared for it. “She didn’t tell you?”

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