Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  If Miles saw him coming across the lawn, he gave no sign, even when Father Mark waved. He was looking up at St. Catherine’s, just as Father Mark had imagined in Mrs. Walsh’s kitchen that he would be, but the expression on his face was nothing like what the priest would’ve predicted. He looked like a man seeing the church and steeple for the first time, almost like a man who’d never seen either one before and was having a hard time imagining what the purpose of such a structure might be.


  SUNDAY AFTERNOONS during the NFL season were almost enough to restore a person’s faith in the bar business. Of course, if Bea believed her customers, what her own bar needed was one of those wide-screens like they had out at the Lamplighter. Bea’s doubts about this need ran deep and philosophical. For one thing, people rarely knew what they wanted. Despite their certainty that they did know, she’d never seen much compelling evidence, and since giving her customers what they said they wanted would cost her fifteen hundred dollars, she continued to tell them she was considering it. True, her Sunday-afternoon clientele bitched at her more or less constantly about the little black-and-white TV she brought out of mothballs for football season, setting it up on a back shelf usually reserved for bottles of expensive scotches and bourbons for which there’d never been much call, even when people had jobs.

  In Bea’s view, her patrons’ need to piss and moan about something was more profound and real than their need for wide-screen television. The thing about the black-and-white set, they said, was that it created an imbalance. If you were lucky enough to be located on a stool at the good end of the bar, you got to watch the game in color on the regular TV; down at the other end you watched in black and white and the draft beers weren’t any cheaper for the inconvenience, either. Plus, on Saturdays and Sundays it could get crowded, everybody elbowing up close to the bar. People’s change got mixed up. When you spun off your stool to go to the head, you were liable to spill the beer of the man standing behind you, and by the time you returned he’d have retaliated by claiming your stool. Then he’d tell you to your face he thought you’d left. If Bea would spring for a big-screen TV, they argued, they wouldn’t all have to crowd within a foot of one another.

  What her customers didn’t seem to understand was that deep down they enjoyed being bunched up, just as they enjoyed the jostling and the spilled beer and the stolen barstools. They enjoyed holding their urine as long as they could and then asking the guy on the next stool to save theirs until they got back, knowing full well he wouldn’t, even after he promised to. They didn’t know it, but they even liked the little black-and-white TV, though they were right, it did have a shitty picture. But there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with imbalance. What was life but good barstools and bad ones, good fortune and bad, shifting from Sunday to Sunday, year to year, like the fortunes of the New England Patriots. There was no such thing as continual good fortune—or misfortune, except for the Red Sox, whose curse seemed eternal.

  Besides, a new wide-screen TV wouldn’t get rid of the imbalance. There’d still be a good television and one shitty one. The only difference was that what people had thought of as the good big one now would become the shitty little one. Worse, the quickest way to beget a new desire, Bea knew, was to satisfy an old one, and each new desire had a way of becoming more expensive than the last. If she was foolish enough to gratify her customers’ current demands, who knew what they’d dream up next?

  Another reason not to invest in a wide-screen TV was Walt Comeau, who bugged her more than all her other patrons combined. He’d stopped by for part of the Patriots’ game today and, as usual, refused to let up. He had a gigantic TV in his health club and said Bea was a damn fool if she didn’t buy one just like it. “You like it so much, go watch football there,” she suggested. In her opinion, Walt Comeau had altogether too many suggestions for a man who drank seltzer water and never left a tip. She just hoped her idiot daughter wasn’t marrying him for his money, because Bea had known her share of Walt Comeaus over the years and she knew how stingy they could be. The way she had this one pegged, Janine was going to have to fight for every bent nickel.

  Of course her daughter kept insisting it was the sex she was interested in, her snide tone of voice suggesting that her mother would do well not to even try understanding something so foreign to her own experience. Bea was not nearly as ignorant of these pleasures as Janine imagined, but she thought the sex would have to be pretty much off the charts to offset the Silver Fox’s other shortcomings, and somehow she doubted that having sex with a man whose legs were as skinny as Walt’s would be all that great. Yesterday, at the game, Bea had wondered if something was wrong between the lovebirds, half hoping there was. Maybe her daughter would see the light before it was too late. But that was wishful thinking, she now realized. Even if Janine did see the light, she’d never admit it. Stubbornness and spite had been the twin linchpins of her personality ever since she was a little girl, and Bea had given up trying to change her mind years ago. Janine was the sort of person who, by granting too many opportunities, took all the pleasure out of saying “I told you so.”

  By the time the afternoon’s second game wound down to the two-minute warning and the network was threatening another edition of 60 Minutes, Bea once again had Callahan’s to herself. In another hour or so, after they’d had a chance to go home and eat dinner, a few men would straggle back in to watch the night game, though it usually was a piss-poor matchup, attractive to diehards only. The good news was that diehards were Empire Falls’s strong suit, and Bea counted herself among them. A sensible woman would’ve sold the tavern years ago and used the money to move into the assisted-living retirement community that had opened over in Fairhaven and sat three quarters empty because it was so expensive nobody could afford it. Bea could use some damn assistance in her living, and the idea of putting her swollen feet up grew more attractive every day. Someone to rub them now and then would be especially nice. She’d paid a visit to the Dexter Woods open house last spring and while the place was nice enough, what struck her most was that just about everyone who lived there required a hell of a lot more assistance than she did. They needed assistance walking, assistance bathing, assistance peeing, assistance cutting their meat, assistance chewing it, and Bea had a mortal fear of getting out there and becoming like the rest of them. Still, she had half a mind to check the place out again, in case anybody’d moved in who could navigate the empty corridors without the aid of an aluminum walker.

  At seven-thirty about the last person she expected to see, Miles Roby, came in with a big bag of Dairy Queen hamburgers and fries. Until last year, when he and Janine split up, Miles had been a Sunday-evening regular, arriving with enough burgers and fries for himself and Janine and Tick and Bea. Max, who had a keen nose for sniffing out anything free, also often turned up regularly. Tonight it looked like Miles brought at least enough to feed that crew, though it was just the two of them and no reason Bea could think of why he should have imagined otherwise. “How’d you know how hungry I was?” she said, setting a tall beer down in front of her son-in-law and drawing another for herself. Actually, she was hungry, though she hadn’t been aware of it until he started unloading the food. There were half a dozen burgers, as many bags of fries, even some melting ice cream in plastic dishes. “Who else were you expecting?”

  “I don’t know,” Miles sighed.

  “Your daughter won’t eat beef anymore, and your wife won’t eat anything. Ex-wife. Whatever she is besides a pain in the ass. I don’t know how she expects her daughter to become an adult woman when she can’t manage it herself.”

  “I think she’s a little scared of getting married again,” Miles said, “now that it’s getting close.” His relationship with Bea had always been strange. From the beginning he’d always taken Janine’s side with her mother, just as she’d taken his with her own daughter. Miles wasn’t sure this lack of loyalty was entirely healthy, though he was relieved she didn’t blame him for their failed marria
ge. Surely Janine had filled her mother in on his every fault, but if so Bea didn’t seem to hold any of it against him, and he was grateful for this as well.

  “Considering the man she’s marrying,” Bea said, “I’d say she’s right to worry.”

  “Well,” Miles said around a mouthful of burger, “maybe it’ll work out.”

  “You okay, Miles?” she asked, looking him over. He had a haunted expression and paint flecks in his hair, she noticed, and his right hand sported several angry-looking blisters. “You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet, as my late husband used to say.”

  “Yeah, I’m fine,” he told her, though in truth he was feeling a little light-headed, probably because he hadn’t eaten anything today. The food would help. He’d spent the afternoon thinking things through as he worked on the church, and that had helped a little too. Since this morning, he’d felt as if he’d been hit by the train he’d sensed bearing down on him when he saw his mother’s picture in the newspaper. Now he felt like maybe it had somehow missed him, that it had roared past merely inches away, its thundering force rendering him almost unconscious until it passed. What he was feeling now was the pull of its wake.

  “You aren’t letting this divorce get you down, are you?” Bea said, wadding up the paper of her first hamburger and opening a second. She’d spoken to her daughter earlier in the day, and Janine had apparently heard from her lawyers that the divorce decree would be issued the first part of the week. She expected she’d told Miles as well—maybe this was what had him looking gut-shot. “You should just enjoy your freedom for a while,” she suggested, recalling that she’d seen him with the Whiting girl at the football game yesterday. “Try not to do anything foolish until you’re sure you’re thinking straight.”

  “After which I can do something foolish?”

  “You know what I mean,” Bea said, chewing thoughtfully. “Damn. If I had somebody to eat with every night, I’d weigh five hundred pounds. Most nights I either forget completely or just eat one of those damned eggs.” She waved her burger toward the gallon jug of pickled eggs swimming in brine on the back bar. “Your father and I are about the only ones who’ll eat them.”

  “Speaking of Max,” he said, “I don’t suppose he’s been in today.”

  Bea shook her head, contemplating, Miles could tell, a third hamburger. “When the door opened, I half expected it to be him. He usually shows up Sunday nights.”

  “Not tonight, I don’t think,” Miles told her. Before going to the Dairy Queen, he’d stopped by Max’s apartment and knocked on the door, to no avail. A woman down the hall said she’d seen him carrying a duffel bag out of the building the night before. That, combined with the brochure Father Mark had found in the old priest’s wastebasket, dispelled any doubts about what had become of the two old men. “Apparently he found a ride down to the Keys.”

  “Who with?”

  Miles smiled. “Can you keep a secret?”

  Bea snorted. “Did I tell you what you were in for if you married my daughter?”

  “No,” Miles conceded.

  “Well, then,” she said, as if that settled the matter.

  IN THE MEN’S ROOM Miles examined the five swollen, painful blisters he managed to give his right hand during the course of the afternoon. He had an hour’s worth of painting left on the west face, but instead of finishing up, he’d gone around to the south side and begun to scrape, an activity more in harmony with his mood. It felt far more satisfying to be peeling something away, creating ugliness before restoring beauty. He’d scraped until dark, until he could barely see the scraper on the end of his arm, until the blisters formed and filled with fluid, scraped hypnotically until he’d gone beneath the bottom layer of paint in some places, and then deeper still, gouging out rotting wood, half expecting blood to bead up where he’d punctured the church’s skin.

  As darkness fell, after scraping everything he could reach from the ground he’d set up the ladder and climbed higher than he dared in the daylight. He’d felt strangely serene on the ladder, reaching farther and farther out to where the paint had bubbled and cracked. Even as he moved up and out, he felt the opposite sensation, as if he were progressing down and in, through the protective paint and into the soft wood. A powerful and dangerous illusion, he knew, though he couldn’t shake the feeling that if for some reason he were to step off the ladder, he wouldn’t tumble to the ground but step onto the side of the church, as if its pull had supplanted gravity. Now, standing at the sink of the men’s room at Callahan’s, his hands shook to think of it.

  What he had been peeling back with his scraper, he now understood, was not so much paint as years, all of his boyish misperceptions, most of which he’d never seriously questioned. Charlie Whiting. Even with photographic evidence, it was still easier to think of the man in the photo as Charlie Mayne. How many times over the years had he seen photographs of C. B. Whiting in the Empire Gazette, yet never recognized the man he and his mother had met on Martha’s Vineyard? Of course, the man they’d met there was clean-shaven, but still. Had Grace not been in the same photo, Miles doubted he would’ve identified him even this morning. He’d simply followed her gaze and finally seen the truth. Or part of the truth. How long had they been in love before Martha’s Vineyard? Certainly they had only pretended, for Miles’s benefit, to meet for the first time there in the dining room of Summer House, and surely Grace had bought the white dress in anticipation of Charlie Whiting’s arrival—itself so magically fortuitous, occurring just as Grace was running out of money. Miles recalled that even at the time he’d sensed his mother was waiting for someone; his father, he’d assumed, because who else was there?

  And then, after their return to Empire Falls, she’d awaited the fulfillment of Charlie’s promise, only to hear from other employees that C. B. Whiting had been shipped off to Mexico, with his pregnant wife to join him later. Had Grace been shocked to learn—as Miles certainly would have been—that the man who’d exhibited such amazing powers on Martha’s Vineyard had none at home? Or did she conclude that he simply hadn’t found the courage to confront his wife? Had it occurred to her that Mrs. Whiting would have enlisted the aid of her father-in-law—old Honus—and threatened her husband with the loss of his inheritance? Was the announced pregnancy—no child was born after Cindy—nothing more than a story concocted in order to keep Charlie Whiting from abandoning his family? Was it Charlie’s wife or his father who somehow managed to convince him that a solemn oath sworn in private to a desperate woman from the wrong side of the river counted for less than one sworn before family in public? In answer to these desperate questions came nothing but a terrible silence and a second child, since Grace’s, growing inside her, was all too real, leaving her to deal with life as she found it, with who she herself was—a married woman, a mother, a breadwinner, a good Roman Catholic.

  It was St. Cat’s, Miles now understood, that had played the pivotal role in drawing his mother back into the life she’d been trying to escape from with Charlie Mayne. The church in the form of Father Tom had lured her back into what she would’ve abandoned by offering her eternal hope as recompense for her despair. The old priest might’ve been mad even then, Miles had realized as he scraped, ignoring the blisters that were forming. Right inside, in the sacristy—the room’s heavy air thick with stale incense and its open closet full of priestly vestments, Sunday’s golden chalice safely in its nook, surrounded by all the necessary props of religious authority—Father Tom had no doubt explained to Grace the price of absolution. Another priest would have required no more than a full and honest confession before God, but Father Tom would’ve wanted more. Grace would never have decided on her own to make that journey across the river to humiliate herself before the woman she had wronged, whose husband she’d planned to steal. No, that would have been Father Tom’s doing. And of course it was Mrs. Whiting his mother had gone to see that afternoon, Mrs. Whiting whom Miles had seen in the gazebo from the bridge. Why had he never made this obvi
ous connection until now? Tracking her rival’s progress across the bridge, had Mrs. Whiting also wondered if the journey would prove too arduous, if Grace would make it only halfway before being swallowed up by the swirling waters below? Had she seen what boy it was standing there on the other side of the river? Had their eyes really locked, as they had in his memory?

  She’d kept her cold eye on him from the beginning, he now understood, observing this child whose mother had refused to abandon him, even if it cost her only chance at happiness, this child Charlie Whiting would’ve substituted for his own damaged one, had he been allowed to. On the ladder this afternoon as darkness fell, Miles acknowledged that for all his adult life, even when he was away at college, he’d felt the woman’s scrutiny. Sensing for the longest time something behind the mask of her vague affection, he’d never suspected what was concealed there might be the desire for vengeance. Even now he couldn’t be sure. After all, what kind of woman wouldn’t be satisfied by her rival’s death? Was it possible hatred could burrow so deep in the human heart? In a few short hours, after seeing a newsprint photograph, Miles had reimagined the whole world in black and white, but was this, too, a mistake, replacing one oversimplification with another? Perhaps. But now, right now, before he could change his mind again, he felt an overpowering urge to heed his brother’s injunction to do something, even if it was wrong.

  Here in the men’s room, having washed his hands, Miles bit through each of the blisters, draining the milky, built-up fluid. Examining himself in the cloudy mirror, it occurred to Miles that maybe that train hadn’t missed him after all. The face in the warped glass seemed to belong not to a man who had danced nimbly out of harm’s way at the last second but rather to one who had stood his ground between the rails and taken a direct hit.

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