Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “I don’t know, Miles,” Horace said. “You seem to have a special place in that old woman’s heart. Her treatment of you is unique in my experience. The fact that she hasn’t closed the grill down suggests just how deep her affection runs. Either that or she enjoys watching you suffer.”

  Though Miles understood this last observation to be a joke, he found himself—and not for the first time—considering whether it might not be the simple literal truth. Viewed objectively, Mrs. Whiting did appear to cut him more slack than was her custom, and yet there were times when Miles got the distinct impression that she bore him no particular fondness. Which probably explained why he was not all that eager to meet with her now, though he knew their annual meeting could not be postponed for long. Each autumn she left for Florida earlier than the last, and while their annual “State of the Grill” meetings were little more than a pro forma ritual, Mrs. Whiting refused to forgo them; and in her company he could not shake the feeling that for all these years the old woman had been expecting him to show her some sign—of what, he had no idea. Still, he left every encounter with the sense that he’d yet again failed some secret test.

  THE BELL JINGLED above the door, and Walt Comeau danced inside, his arms extended like an old-fashioned crooner’s, his silver hair slicked back on the sides, fifties style. “Don’t let the stars get in your eyes,” he warbled, “don’t let the moon break your heart.”

  Several of the regulars at the lunch counter, knowing what was expected of them, swiveled on their stools, leaned into the aisle, right arms extended in a row, and returned, in a different key altogether, “Pa pa pa paya.”

  “Perry Como,” Horace said when he realized, without actually looking, that the seat next to him at the counter had been filled. “Right on time.”

  “Big Boy,” Walt said, addressing Miles, “you hear the news?”

  “Oh, please,” said Miles, who’d been hearing little else all morning. Over the weekend a black Lincoln Town Car with Massachusetts plates had been reported in the lot outside the textile mill. Last year it had been a BMW, the year before that a Cadillac limo. The color of the vehicle seemed to alternate between black and white, but the plates were always Massachusetts, which made Miles smile. The hordes of visitors who poured into Maine every summer were commonly referred to as Massholes, and yet when Empire Falls fantasized about deliverance, it invariably had Massachusetts plates.

  “What?” Walt said, indignant. “You weren’t even here.”

  “Let him tell you about it,” Horace advised. “Then it’ll be over.”

  Walt Comeau looked back and forth between Miles and Horace as if to determine who was the bigger fool, settling finally on Horace, probably because he’d spoken last. “All right, you explain it. Three guys in eight-hundred-dollar suits drive all the way up here from Boston on a Sunday morning, park outside the mill, hike down to the head of the falls in their black patent leather shoes, then stand there for half an hour pointing up at the mill. You tell me who they are and what they’re doing.”

  Horace set his hamburger down and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Hey, it’s clear to me. They came to invest millions. For a while they were thinking about tech stocks, but then they thought, Hell, no. Let’s go into textiles. That’s where the real profits are. Then you know what they did? They decided not to build the factory in Mexico or Thailand where people work for about ten bucks a week. Let’s drive up to Empire Falls, Maine, they said, and look at that gutted old shell of a factory that the river damn near washed away last spring and buy all new equipment and create hundreds of jobs, nothing under twenty dollars an hour.”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling. Minus the sarcasm, this was pretty much the scenario he’d been listening to all morning. The annual sighting was born, as far as Miles could tell, of the same need that caused people to spot Elvis in the local Denny’s. But why always autumn? Miles wondered. It seemed an odd season to spawn such desperate optimism. Maybe it had something to do with the kids all going back to school, giving their parents the leisure to contemplate the approach of another savage, relentless winter and to conjure up a pipe dream to help them through it.

  “Hey,” Walt said, sounding hurt. “All I’m saying is something nice could happen here someday. You never know. That’s all I’m saying, okay?”

  Horace had gone back to his hamburger, and this time he didn’t bother to put it down or wipe his mouth before speaking. “Something nice,” he repeated. “Is that what you think? That having money makes people nice?”

  “Ah, to hell with you,” Walt said, dismissing both men with a single wave of his hand. “Here’s what I’d like to know, though, smart-ass. How can you sit here and eat one greasy hamburger after another, day after goddamn day? Don’t you have any idea how bad that junk is for you?”

  Horace, who had one bite of burger left, put it on his plate and looked up. “What I don’t know is why you have to ruin my lunch every day. Why can’t you leave people in peace?”

  “Because I care about you,” Walt said. “I can’t help it.”

  “I wish you could,” Horace said, pushing his platter away.

  “Well, I can’t.” Walt pushed Horace’s platter even farther down the counter and took a worn deck of cards out of his pocket, slapping it down in front of Horace. “I can’t let you die before I figure out how you’re beating me at gin.”

  Horace polished some hamburger grease into the countertop with his napkin before cutting the deck. “You should live so long. Hell, I should live so long,” he said, watching the deal, content to wait until he had his whole hand before picking up any cards. He always gave the impression of having played all these hands before, as if the chief difficulty presented by each one was the boredom inherent in pretending over and over again that you didn’t know how everything would eventually play out. By contrast, when Horace dealt, Walt picked up each card on the fly, identifying it eagerly, each hand promising an entirely new experience.

  “Nope,” he now said, arranging the cards in his hand one way, then another, uncertain as to which organizing principle—suits or numbers—would be more likely to guarantee victory. “I’m your best friend, Horace. You just don’t know it. And I’ll tell you something else you don’t know. You don’t know who your worst enemy is, either.”

  Horace, who seldom seemed to move more than a card or two before his hand made sense, rolled his eyes at Miles. “Who might that be, Perry?” Horace asked, the way a man will when he already knows what’s coming. It wasn’t just these gin hands he’d played before.

  Walt nodded at Miles. “It’s Big Boy here,” he said, to no one’s surprise. “You keep eating his greasy burgers, you’re going to look just like him, too, if you don’t have a coronary first.”

  “You want some coffee, Walt?” Miles asked. “I always feel better about you undermining my business after I’ve coaxed eighty-five cents out of you.”

  “You need more customers like me,” Walt replied, tossing a twenty on the counter. Among the many things Miles held against the Silver Fox was his compulsion to break large bills at every opportunity; even if his wallet was full of singles, he always paid for his coffee with a twenty or a fifty. Occasionally, he’d try to get Miles to break a hundred, enjoying the sport of Miles’s refusal. “A cup of coffee costs you … what? A dime? Fifteen cents? And you get almost a buck for it, right? That’s eighty-five cents profit. Not too shabby.”

  Miles poured each man a cup, then took Walt’s twenty to the register. There was no point calling the Silver Fox on the intentional vagaries of his arithmetic. “After I refill it four or five times, how much have I made then?”

  When the bell over the door jingled again, Miles glanced up and saw his younger brother enter, a newspaper tucked under his ruined arm. Noting where Walt Comeau was seated, he located a stool at the other end of the counter. When Miles poured him a cup of coffee, David, who had already unfolded the front section and begun reading, met his eye and glanced down the counter at Walt
Comeau before returning to his paper. For the most part the brothers understood each other perfectly, especially their silences. This one suggested that in David’s view Miles had not returned from his vacation any smarter than he was before he left.

  “You’re pretty well prepped,” Miles said, referring to the private party David was catering that evening. “I brought you back a couple jars of that lobster paste for bisque.”

  David nodded, pouring milk into his coffee with his good hand. “Tell me something,” he said. “Why do you allow him in here?”

  “It’s against the law to refuse service.”

  “So’s murder,” David said, picking up the newspaper again. “It’d be an elegant solution, just the same.”

  Miles tried to imagine it. Assuming he could get ahold of a handgun, what kind of man, he wondered, would walk up to another human being—even Walt Comeau—and squeeze another death into the world? Not Miles Roby, concluded Miles Roby.

  “Hey,” his brother said when Miles started back down the counter, “thanks for the paste. How was the Vineyard?”

  “I think Peter and Dawn might be calling it quits,” Miles told him.

  David didn’t look very surprised, or interested, for that matter. The idea of old college friends seemed to bore him, perhaps because David himself had never gone beyond high school, except for a single semester at the Maine Culinary Institute.

  “I could be wrong,” Miles continued. He hated the idea of Peter and Dawn divorcing, which, if true, would take some getting used to. In fact, he still wasn’t used to the idea of his own divorce. “It was just an impression.”

  “You didn’t answer my question,” David observed, without looking up from the paper.

  Miles tried to remember. Had there been a question? More than one?

  “How … was … the Vineyard?”

  “Oh, right,” Miles said, aware that this was precisely the sort of thing his soon-to-be ex-wife always complained of: that he never really listened to her. For twenty years he’d tried to convince Janine that this wasn’t the case, or at least wasn’t precisely the case. It wasn’t that he didn’t hear her questions and requests. It was more that they always provoked a response she hadn’t anticipated. “I’m not ignoring you,” he insisted, to which she invariably replied, “You might as well be.”

  “Well?” his brother wanted to know. About the Vineyard.

  “Just the same,” Miles told him. Of all the places in the world he couldn’t hope to afford, the Vineyard was his favorite.

  “YOU KNOW WHAT you need in here, Big Boy?” Walt called from down at his end of the counter. Every time he lost another hand of gin to Horace, he thought of some further improvement for the Empire Grill.

  “What’s that, Walt?” Miles sighed, filling salt shakers at mid-counter.

  “You need to stop with this swill and start serving Green Mountain Coffee.” In his own opinion Walt was on the cutting edge of all that was new and good in the world. In his fitness club, which he was forever hounding Miles to join, promising washboard abs, he’d recently introduced protein shakes, and he thought these might prove to be a hot item at the grill as well. Miles, of course, had ignored all such suggestions, thereby reinforcing Walt’s contention that he was a congenitally backward man, destined to run a backward establishment. Walt expressed this view pretty much every day, leaving unanswered only the question of why he himself, a forward man in every sense of the word, chose to spend so much time in this backward venue.

  “I bet you couldn’t pass a blind taste test,” said Horace, who usually took Miles’s part in these disputes, especially since Miles appeared reluctant to defend himself against the relentless assaults on his personal philosophy.

  “You kidding? Green Mountain Coffee? Night-and-day difference,” Walt said.

  When the bell above the door tinkled again, Miles looked up and saw that this time it was his daughter, which meant that unless someone had given her a ride, she’d walked all the way up Empire Avenue from the river without his noticing. For some reason, this possibility unnerved him. Since he and Janine had separated, a separation of a different sort had occurred between himself and Tick, the exact nature of which he’d been trying for a long time to put his finger on. He wouldn’t have blamed his daughter if she’d felt betrayed by his agreeing to divorce her mother, but apparently she didn’t. She’d understood from the start that it was Janine’s idea, and as a result she’d been much tougher on her mother than on Miles, so tough that simple fairness had required him to remind her that the person who wants out of a marriage isn’t necessarily the cause of its failure. He suspected, however, that whatever had changed in their relationship had more to do with himself than with his daughter. Since spring he couldn’t seem to get Tick to stand still long enough to get a good fix on her. She was maturing, of course, becoming a young woman instead of a kid, and he grasped that there were certain things going on with her that he didn’t understand because he wasn’t supposed to. Still, it troubled him to feel so out of sync. Too often he found himself needing to see her, as if only her physical presence could reassure him of her well-being; yet when she did appear, she seemed different from the girl he’d been needing and worrying about. The week they’d spent together on the Vineyard had been wonderful, and by the end of it he’d felt much more in tune with Tick than at any time since he and Janine had separated. But since they’d come home, the disconnected feeling had returned with a vengeance, as if losing sight of her might lead to tragic consequences. Even now, instead of relief he was visited by an alternative scenario—the screech of tires somewhere down the block, Tick’s inert body lying in the street, an automobile speeding away, dragging her enormous backpack. Which had not happened, he reminded himself, quickly swallowing his panic.

  As she did every afternoon, Tick gave Walt Comeau wide berth, pretending not to see the arm he stretched out to her. “Hi, Uncle David,” she said, rounding the far end of the counter and giving him a peck on the cheek.

  “Hello, Beautiful,” David said, helping her off with her backpack, which thudded to the floor of the restaurant hard enough to make the water glasses and salt and pepper shakers jump along the lunch counter. “You gonna be my helper today?”

  “Whatcha got in that pack, Sweetie Pie? Rocks?” Walt Comeau called the length of the counter.

  Rather than acknowledge his existence, Tick went over to Miles and buried her face in his apron, stretching her arms around his waist and hooking her fingers at his back. “I’ve got Abba in my head,” she told him. “Make them go away.”

  “Sorry,” Miles told her, drawing his child to him, feeling the smile spread across his face at her nearness, at her confidence in his ability to dispel the bad magic of old pop groups. Not that she was a child anymore, not really. “Did you hear them on the radio?”

  “No,” she admitted. “They’re his fault.” Meaning Walt. And with this accusation she pulled away from her father and grabbed an apron.

  The reason it was Walt Comeau’s fault was that Janine, Tick’s mother, played “Mama Mia” and “Dancing Queen” in her beginning and intermediate aerobics classes at Walt’s fitness club, then hummed these same songs at home. Only her advanced steppers were deemed ready for the rigors of Barry Manilow and the Copa Cabana.

  “Your dad says you had a good time on the Vineyard?” David said when Tick passed by on her way to the kitchen with a tub of dirty dishes.

  “I want to live there,” she confessed, like someone who saw no harm in confessing a sin she was never likely to have the opportunity to commit. “There’s a bookstore for sale on the beach road, but Daddy won’t buy it.” The door swung shut behind her.

  “How much?” David wondered, tossing down his paper, grabbing a clean apron and joining his brother at mid-counter. He still had partial use of his damaged hand, but not much strength and very little dexterity. “Save me half an hour and tie this, will you?”

  Miles had already set down the salt shakers he was filling.
  “So?” David said when the knot cinched.

  “So what?”

  “How much was the bookstore? God! How come you can recite twenty-five consecutive breakfast orders and not remember a simple question I asked you two seconds ago?”

  “More like a book barn, actually,” Miles said, since that was what it had once been. There’d been enough room downstairs to sell new books and set up a small café, since people seemed to think those belonged in bookstores now. The upstairs could be cleaned up and devoted to used books. There was even a small cottage on the property. The same couple had owned and run the business for about twenty years but now the wife was sick, and her husband was trying to talk himself into letting it go. Their kids didn’t want any part of it after going away to college.

  “How come you know all that and not the price?” David wondered when Miles finished explaining.

  “I didn’t actually see the listing. Peter just pointed the place out. I don’t think he knew the asking price. He isn’t interested in running a bookstore.”

  “They got a fitness club over there, Big Boy?” Walt wanted to know.

  “I don’t know, Walt,” Miles told him, trying to sound neutral about the idea. If anything in the world could ruin the island for him, it would be Walt Comeau’s presence. Of course, the idea of a blowhard like the Silver Fox anywhere outside of Empire Falls was absurd, but Miles didn’t dare laugh. A year ago Walt had joked that if Miles wasn’t careful he was going to steal his wife, and then he’d gone ahead and done it.

  Walt scratched his chin thoughtfully, while contemplating a discard. “I figure my club here’s doing pretty well. Practically runs itself. Now might be a good time to expand.” He sounded as if his only obstacle was the matter of timing. The Silver Fox liked to imply that money was never a consideration, that every bank in Dexter County was eager to loan him whatever capital he didn’t have. Miles doubted this was true, but it might be. He’d also doubted that his soon-to-be-ex-wife was the sort of woman to be taken in by Walt Comeau’s bravado, and he’d certainly been wrong about that.

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