Empire Falls by Richard Russo

“Tell me what?”

  “You’re going to have a baby brother, is what.”

  When his father lifted the newspaper again, Miles ate the entire sandwich and drained the glass of milk without speaking. It took that long for the world to rearrange itself, for the facts to realign, for them to convey a new understanding of the way of things. The world, he now understood, was a physical, not a moral order. Nobody got sick and died as a consequence of sinning. He’d been suspecting as much, but now saw it clearly and realized that part of him had known it all along. People got sick because of viruses and bacteria and children—things like that—not as a result of islands or men like Charlie Mayne. What Miles took from this knowledge was mostly relief, and when he spoke he was aware of something new either in or behind his voice, a new attitude, sort of. “You don’t know that,” he told his father.

  “I don’t, huh?” Max said, trading sports for the funnies.

  “It could be a baby sister.”

  His father chuckled, probably at Peanuts. “Mostly boys in our family.”

  “Then we’re due for a girl,” Miles said.

  “That’s not how it works. It’s not like flipping a coin.”

  “What’s it like, then?” It seemed to Miles that it was exactly like flipping a coin, and he didn’t see any reason to let his father skate on such dubious logic just because he was a grown-up.

  Max studied him, grinning again, though Miles wished he wouldn’t. “It’s more like rolling dice,” he explained. “Except they don’t have numbers. There’s six sides to a cube, right? In our family ‘boy’ is written on about five sides of the cube. ‘Girl’ is only written on one. So, if you had to bet with your own money, which would you bet on?”

  Miles did some calculations. After a minute he said, “How many kids does Uncle Pete have?” His father’s older brother had moved out west—to Phoenix, Arizona—two decades earlier.

  “Four,” said his father. “All boys.”

  Miles nodded. “And you’ve got me.”

  “You’re a boy too, last time I looked.”

  “That’s five in a row,” Miles pointed out.

  Outside, footsteps sounded on the back porch: Grace, returning from church. Both Miles and his father glanced up at the kitchen window when she passed. This week her bouts of morning sickness had been less severe, and while she wasn’t looking as radiantly beautiful as she had on Martha’s Vineyard, neither did she appear as frightened and despairing as when they’d first returned.

  “Girl was on the sixth side, right?”

  Max considered this while Grace, who’d taken an umbrella with her just to be safe, hung it up in the outside hall. “You’re becoming a regular pain in the ass, you know that?”

  They were both grinning now, and it occurred to Miles that the strange emotion he was feeling might be pride, though he wasn’t positive whether he was proud of himself or proud of his father. He was pretty sure that becoming a pain in Max’s ass was an acknowledgment of some sort, maybe even of fondness.

  When Grace came in from the hall, she seemed to intuit that father and son were sharing something important, because she sat down between them and reached to put a hand on both of theirs, and for a long moment nobody said anything. It was the first time since they’d returned from Martha’s Vineyard that Miles felt that maybe things would be okay, that they would return to normal, or at least what was normal for them. If he felt any regret, it was that Max would never get to see Grace in that white dress, since she’d donated it to Goodwill earlier in the week.


  THE HOUSEKEEPER at St. Cat’s, Mrs. Irene Walsh, was finishing up the pots and pans from the Sunday dinner it hadn’t even been worth her while to cook. Father Mark, guilty about having eaten so little and feeling the need of a little human companionship, even in the gruff form of Mrs. Walsh, had offered to help clean up, but she’d rebuffed him. He’d just make more work for her by putting things away where they didn’t belong, and tomorrow she wouldn’t be able to find a thing. She could tell she’d hurt his feelings, which was fine with her.

  Mrs. Walsh was not an unkind woman, but she harbored an essentially medieval worldview. Her father had been an army man with a theological bent, and from him she’d learned all about the Great Chain of Being, which, as explained by her father, was not unlike the military’s chain of command. God was at the top, and below Him His angels, ranked according to their angelic social class, then the pope, his cardinals, bishops, priests and so on. Mrs. Walsh was comforted by the notion that being a housekeeper to two priests was no closer to the bottom of the chain (occupied by rocks and other inanimate objects) than it was distant from the top. Keeping men of God clean and well fed was honorable if not exalted work, and if others were chosen by God for more exalted work, then there must’ve been good reasons. To aspire to that which was beyond one’s designated station in life was a sin, she believed, and in the end, all the strivers and the enviers would come to know the Truth, that up and down the Great Chain there was but one duty and that was to do God’s will. A priest’s duty was to be the best priest he could be, just as a housekeeper’s was to be the best housekeeper.

  Just as annoying as the ones who were always striving to be above their stations in life, to Mrs. Walsh’s way of thinking, were the falsely humble fools like Father Mark, who was always slumming in her kitchen, wanting in his ignorance to help out, grabbing dishcloths to wipe down countertops, encouraging her to go home before her work was completed. Poor discipline was what it amounted to, and her father would have agreed. Mrs. Walsh had adored her father, who nonetheless never paid her much mind. A military man, he devoted most of his time to lecturing his sons, whose temperaments were decidedly unmilitary. The more he stressed discipline, the wilder they became, and he died believing that no one had heard a single word he’d said, which was not true. His daughter had been listening. Mrs. Walsh believed, as he had, that society did well to honor distinctions, and she regretted that so many people in today’s world seemed intent on blurring them. The young ones like Father Mark were the worst. They put great store in kindness, which was all well and good, but old Father Tom, gone balmy as a magpie, was still more priestly than all the young ones put together, and he’d never once in all the years she’d worked for him felt compelled to lay a hand on a single one of her pots.

  “I think that’s Mr. Roby who just pulled in,” Mrs. Walsh observed from where she stood at her sink.

  “How about his father? Is Max with him?”

  “Just Mr. Miles. And all he’s doing is sitting there.”

  In the kitchen doorway Father Mark smiled, his first of the day. He could guess what his friend was doing. He was looking up at the unpainted steeple, wondering what cruel code embedded in his genes prevented him from climbing ladders like normal human beings.

  “Well, you’ve been waiting for him,” the housekeeper said. “Are you going to tell him?”

  Ah, Mrs. Walsh, Father Mark wanted to say. There is much to learn from you. She was no great thinker, Mrs. Walsh, but she did like to get things resolved, and you had to admire that. Find out. Do it. Don’t turn it around in your hand to examine its many facets. The problem with the contemplative life was that there was no end to contemplation, no fixed time limit after which thought had to be transformed into action. Contemplation was like sitting on a committee that seldom made recommendations and was ignored when it did, a committee that lacked even the authority to disband.

  Mrs. Walsh was right. The present circumstance needed to be dealt with, and what’s more, it needed to be dealt with by Father Mark, who’d wasted too much time already. The title of the feverish sermon he’d given at the early Mass that morning had been “When God Retreats.” He had composed it partly in the car last night on the way home from the coast, and partly during a sleepless night, and partly in the pulpit as he delivered it. It had not gone as badly as he’d feared it might, and his intention had been to repeat “When God Retreats” at the late Mass, but when
he returned to the rectory between services he discovered that Father Tom was gone.

  Actually, Mrs. Walsh had discovered the old priest’s disappearance when she arrived shortly after eight-thirty, by which time Father Tom was usually up and anxious to be fed. On Sundays Mrs. Walsh made him French toast. Then, after the old man’s chin began to glisten with maple syrup, she set about preparing the noon meal for the two of them, usually a ham or a roast chicken or, as today, a New England pot roast, a task made no easier by having a sticky, senile priest underfoot. True, she preferred the crazy old priest to the sane young one, but Father Tom did bear more or less constant watching, especially when Father Mark wasn’t around. That was one thing the young priest was good for, she had to admit. On Sundays, knowing the other one was across the lawn giving his lame sermons, Father Tom could get mischievous. One morning when he came into her kitchen, Mrs. Walsh had caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye without noticing anything amiss. When she served him his French toast, she did think something was odd about the way he regarded her, as if he was relishing some joke that had escaped her. But Mrs. Walsh found this highly unlikely, she herself being a perfectly sane fifty-three-year-old married woman and the old father being pretty much completely batshit.

  Still, since there was nothing in the world Mrs. Walsh despised more than a joke she might be the butt of, she’d stopped dressing her chicken to eyeball him sitting there at the table. He was dressed in a freshly laundered, standard priest-issue, short-sleeved black shirt with a starched white collar, and his usually unruly white hair had been brushed flat. She even noticed that his shoes had been spit-shined and his black linen socks were a match. If a joke was hidden anywhere on Father Tom’s person she couldn’t locate it, so she returned to cramming handfuls of stuffing into her roasting chicken. Only when the old father rose from the table and brought his plate over to the drainboard—for him an uncharacteristically helpful gesture—did she see that he was wearing no trousers. So today when she’d entered the rectory and the old father wasn’t in immediate evidence, she went looking for him, suspicious that more mischief was afoot.

  His bedroom door was shut, and when Mrs. Walsh knocked, calling his name and demanding that he open up or else she’d fetch the young one, she half expected a bare-assed, shrivel-dicked old clergyman to open the door and grin at her. While Mrs. Walsh did not look forward to this prospect, neither did it frighten her. At fifty-three she was through with the foolishness of men’s genitals. In fact, it had been many years since she had cared what hairy things dangled between their pale, scrawny legs. She now considered the fact that she had ever cared a kind of temporary lunacy and was thankful that her madness had been short-lived, not terribly virulent, and ultimately cured by marriage, as God intended.

  The door remained closed to her threats, which left Mrs. Walsh no alternative but to enter without invitation. The door was unlocked and revealed, when she pushed it open, an empty room. Mrs. Walsh made sure it was empty, getting down on her hands and knees, a maneuver she would have preferred not to perform on her inflamed joints, to look under the bed. Her thought was that an aging priest balmy enough to appear pantless in her kitchen might just be playing hide-and-seek. But no one was under the bed and there was no place else in the spartan quarters large enough to conceal a child, much less a full-grown man with the mind of a child.

  Neither did the old priest seem to be anywhere else in the rectory. Mrs. Walsh checked every room and every closet in the house, and even took a flashlight down into the cellar, a damp, horrid place that still had coal bins and plenty of dark corners for a demented old priest to hide in. She had just about satisfied herself that Father Tom had risen early and defied orders by going out for a walk, or perhaps sneaked over to the church and hidden in the confessional so he could spy on the young one and listen in on whatever liberal nonsense he was spouting from the pulpit, when something occurred to her and she hurried back upstairs to his room.

  He still wasn’t there, but more to the point, his bed did not appear to have been slept in. Of course it was possible he’d made it after getting up, as he’d done all his life until his mind began to go, but now he mostly forgot. Yesterday, Saturday, had been Mrs. Walsh’s day to change the bedding for both fathers, and when she pulled back the cover and examined the sheets beneath, they felt and smelled freshly of Clorox. Not so much as a hint of stale, flatulent old clergyman.

  But it wasn’t the bed that provided the real clue. It was the wastebasket, and Mrs. Walsh nearly walked right by it without noticing. The basket she’d emptied just yesterday was now nearly full again, and what it was nearly full of was the small, mint-green envelopes used by parishioners to conceal from other parishioners just how niggardly their weekly offerings were. Every last envelope, no doubt collected from Saturday evening’s five-thirty Mass, had been torn open and then tossed into the wastebasket. Also within the metal cylinder were checks that had been enclosed in the envelopes. What Mrs. Walsh registered immediately was the complete absence of legal tender.

  When the young one came loping across the lawn after early Mass, Mrs. Walsh was waiting for him, arms folded across her matronly bosom. Where another woman might’ve been thrown into a tizzy by this point, Mrs. Walsh had remained composed. She now bore the expression of a person who knew that someone’s head was going to roll and whose comfort derived from the sure understanding that it would not be her own.

  “Good morning, Mrs. W.,” Father Mark said in the kitchen door, his excellent spirits no doubt due to the fact that his sermon, at least in his view, had gone well. “Is that your famous New England pot roast I’m smelling?”

  To satisfy his curiosity, he went over to the stove and lifted the lid of the kettle she was using to brown the meat. How many times had he been told that such familiarity was not appreciated in her kitchen? Did she poke her head into his confessional and comment upon whatever penance he dispensed?

  “Notice anything missing when you rose this morning?” Mrs. Walsh asked, as he replaced the lid on her pot.

  “No,” said Father Mark warily.

  “Notice anything missing now?”

  Father Mark took in the entire kitchen, which seemed to be pretty much in order. Was the woman suggesting that they’d been burgled in the night, that he’d failed to lock the door when he came in? Whatever her game was, he had no time for it. Father Mark was, as Mrs. Walsh had intuited, still buoyed by the success of his sermon, but he wanted to jot down a couple small improvements before the ten-thirty Mass—always a more critical audience, since they were actually awake. It was imperative that he make his notes before Father Tom wandered in and created his usual chaos. “I’m afraid I haven’t time for guessing games, Mrs. W.,” he said, then rooted around in her drawers until he located a pad of paper and a pencil. “If there’s something missing, I suggest you talk to Father Tom. He’s been hoarding things in his room since he heard the diocese might shut down our humble operation.”

  Slinging himself into the booth, he paused, the tip of the pencil above the paper, sensing that if he did not write down his first thought immediately, it would be lost forever. In this he was correct. “What did you just say?” he asked, looking up, unsure he’d heard his housekeeper right.

  “I said that what’s missing is Father Tom.”

  Father Mark swallowed uncomfortably. “Well, he can’t have gone far,” he offered, his intended certainty sounding rather wishful. “You’re sure he’s not around somewhere?”

  Mrs. Walsh was certain, and told him so.

  “Still, let’s make sure,” Father Mark suggested, rising from the booth.

  “Make you sure, you mean,” she grumbled, but together they searched the house all over again. When they finished, Father Mark returned and searched the church too, aware how fond the old man was of hiding in the confessional.

  The mission a failure, Father Mark and Mrs. Walsh stood on the back porch surveying the church grounds, the priest looking gut-shot, his housekeeper s
mug, their search having revealed nothing but the truth of her theory, which held that the old father had not gone missing this morning between Father Mark’s departure for Mass and Mrs. Walsh’s arrival, but rather sometime last night. Which meant Father Mark was to blame.

  On those rare occasions when he had to leave the rectory in the evening, Father Mark always hired a sitter to watch TV with Tom and make sure he got to bed okay. Mostly he assigned an altar boy to this duty because, after Father Tom had appeared bottomless in Mrs. Walsh’s kitchen, Father Mark hadn’t wanted to risk a female sitter. The boy who’d done last night’s shift had left a note saying the old priest had retired early, at eight-thirty. The boy himself had remained at the rectory until ten, then closed up as instructed and gone home, with the understanding that Father Mark would be home shortly—though, as it happened, the younger priest hadn’t returned until nearly midnight. Nor had he looked in on Father Tom, as he now realized he should have. Tom was a notoriously light sleeper, and Father Mark hadn’t wanted to disturb his slumber. At least that was the lie he’d told himself at the time and now repeated to Mrs. Walsh. What Father Mark had actually feared was not that the old man would be asleep, but that he would be awake and full of curiosity.

  So it was possible, as much as Father Mark hated to admit it, that he’d already been gone for fifteen hours! Particularly worrisome was that no one had called to report seeing Father Tom at large. He’d wandered off before, but he was a well-known figure in Empire Falls and, often as not, he was gathered up and returned to St. Cat’s even before he was discovered to be missing. That fact, combined with his guilt, preyed on Father Mark’s mind, and as they stood there on the back porch, it occurred to him to ask, “Tom can swim, can’t he?” The possibility that the old priest might’ve ended up in the river sent a vivid chill straight through him. If he’d gone into the river below the falls, he might travel all the way to Fairhaven, where the dam would stop him. In the previous century, suicides along the Knox sometimes made it all the way to the ocean.

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