Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Or maybe it was just his surroundings. Paint was peeling off the walls of the men’s room in strips. Last January the pipes had frozen and burst, and whomever Bea had hired to fix them had cut large squares out of the walls in half a dozen different spots, as if hoping to locate the rupture by pure chance. When they were finished, they’d patched the Sheetrock in some places, left gaping holes in others. This crapper, it occurred to Miles, was his hometown in a nutshell. People who lived in Empire Falls were so used to misfortune that they’d become resigned to more of the same. Why repair and repaint a wall you’d only have to deface again the next time the pipes froze? Leaving the holes as is, more or less, meant that next time at least the plumbers wouldn’t have to search for the pipes. Miles quickly calculated what it would cost to make things right, then doubled it, assuming the women’s room would be in similar disrepair, then doubled the number again, just to be on the safe side. On the way back to the bar he poked his head into the kitchen, which hadn’t been used in years, and did another mental tally, concluding that it would probably be cheaper to paper the walls with ten-dollar bills than to turn it back into a functioning kitchen.

  What he was contemplating, he knew, was an act of monumental folly. That he had to do it anyway had come to him an hour earlier on the Iron Bridge. After leaving St. Cat’s he’d driven back downtown with the intention of crossing the bridge and finding answers to the questions he hadn’t been able to resolve on the ladder. Instead he’d parked in front of the shirt factory and walked to where he’d stood as a boy, staring out across the dark expanse of the river at the dim lights of the Whiting hacienda. His mother had made that long journey alone. And not, he was suddenly determined, in vain.

  BACK IN THE BAR, Bea had finally stopped laughing, and the burgers were gone. “Damn, I’m sorry, Miles,” she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “But the idea of Max and that balmy old priest stealing a car and running off to Florida’s about the funniest thing I ever heard.”

  “I suppose it is,” he said morosely, “if they don’t kill themselves, or somebody else.”

  “So what happens now?”

  That was exactly what Miles would’ve liked to know. Father Tom had blown town in the parish station wagon, it was true, but it turned out the six-year-old Crown Victoria was registered in his name, purchased before he began to slide, at least noticeably, into senility. The last few years it had been understood that he wasn’t allowed to drive any more than he was permitted to hear confessions. The problem was that Father Tom dearly loved to do both, and whenever he located the keys Mrs. Walsh and Father Mark had hidden away, he’d take the Crown Vic for a spin, which in his case, was an apt description, because once he tired of his sport and wanted to return home, he was as thoroughly disoriented as a blindfolded five-year-old at a birthday party, which meant he had to be fetched from wherever he was. Sometimes that fetching took a while, inasmuch as he had the car.

  Just as Father Tom’s name was on the wagon’s registration, so was he, at least officially, still the pastor of St. Catherine’s. While Father Mark had taken over the administration of the parish, he was technically the assistant pastor, which meant that even if he wanted to make an issue of the missing money—no more than five hundred dollars, they’d estimated—it couldn’t really be treated as a theft. The money, after all, had been freely given to the church, and its pastor was the church’s duly appointed representative. There were virtually no legal strings attached to it.

  What Father Mark had been unable to figure out was how an old man who needed reminding that the vented side of his undershorts was designed to be worn in the front had managed to get into the parish safe. The only explanation he could come up with was that his fingers must’ve remembered the combination. The old man no longer recalled it, because for the last year he’d been asking Father Mark what it was and getting angry when he wouldn’t tell him. Father Mark could only assume he must’ve come into the den one day and let his fingers’ instinct take over while he sat in front of the safe, dismayed by his inability to remember three little numbers.

  At any rate, if Father Tom and his new best pal were presently southward bound in the Crown Victoria, there wasn’t much anybody could do about it.

  “What I worry about most,” Miles admitted to Bea, “is an accident.” His father wasn’t too bad a driver when he was sober, but of course he wouldn’t be sober until their money ran out. Father Tom hadn’t been too bad a driver when he still had his mind, but now he was easily confused and Miles doubted he had much experience of freeway driving—or any driving, really, outside rural mid-Maine. It was hard to imagine the two men would make it to Florida, but then again, they might. In the Keys, once the money ran out, Max would tire of the old priest’s company and probably call St. Cat’s and tell Father Mark where to come and pick him up. Miles just hoped Father Tom wouldn’t return with an ass full of obscene tattoos.

  “By the way,” Bea said, reaching under the bar for a folded newspaper and handing it to Miles, “I saved this for you. It’s an awful nice picture of your mother.”

  “That was good of you, Bea,” he said, but when he glanced down there were twice as many people in the photo as there had been this morning. There were two of his mother and two of Charlie Mayne, and when he looked back up there were two of Bea as well. “Is it cold in here?” he asked, suppressing a shiver.

  Both Beas studied him for a moment, then leaned forward and put a single cool, dry hand on his forehead. “My God, Miles,” she said. “You’re burning up.”

  “Never mind that,” he said, suddenly feeling the same strong sense of purpose that had come to him earlier on the ladder. “I have a proposal for you.”


  MILES WAS A high school sophomore when Empire Textile and its companion shirt factory closed and his mother lost her job. The Whiting family had sold the mill three years earlier to a subsidiary of a multinational company headquartered in Germany. The new owners had very different ideas about how to run the mill, and there were immediate rumors that Hjortsmann International had no real interest in Empire Textile beyond its tax advantages. Under the Whitings, the mill had operated with New England frugality and virtually no debt, whereas the new owners, claiming the need to modernize in order to be competitive with foreign operations, heavily mortgaged every existing piece of machinery in order to expand lavishly. Local workers had questioned the wisdom of this approach from the start. Given the new debt structure, those who knew the operation intimately, including Grace, did not see how the mill could possibly show a profit for many years. Acceptable, perhaps, had the new owners exhibited any signs of patience, but they appeared singularly lacking in this corporate virtue.

  The threat of closure, imagined or implied, sent shock waves through Empire Falls, and when a new labor contract was negotiated, its principal features were longer hours, a new definition of what constituted overtime, the elimination of numerous jobs, pay cuts and diminished benefits. Of course employees grumbled, but they also understood the next year would determine the mill’s very existence. When overall productivity indeed rose nearly 28 percent—remarkable, given the mill’s deteriorating conditions—the workers congratulated themselves that if the mill wasn’t in the black as a result of their concessions, they’d at least managed to guarantee another year or two at their now less personally profitable jobs.

  Which was why they were stunned when Hjortsmann announced that both mill and shirt factory would close anyway. In less than a month the mill was completely looted of its mortgaged machinery, which was disassembled and placed on trucks destined for Georgia and the Dominican Republic. In fact, it took less time for the mill to be emptied than for its employees to understand the truth of their situation, that Empire Textile had been bought for this very purpose, and their heroic efforts to make the mill profitable had simply swelled the coffers of Hjortsmann International. This would never have happened under the Whitings, people said, and a delegation was sent to discuss the possibi
lity of old Honus Whiting and his loyal employees purchasing Empire Textile, but by then the old man was in extreme ill health and his son, C. B., remained in Mexico. Only a few understood the new family dynamic, in which Francine Whiting held the real power. She, not her husband or her father-in-law, had brokered the sale of the mill, quite possibly, some whispered, with a complete understanding of Hjortsmann’s ultimate intention.

  Some employees were offered jobs in Georgia, but few took up the offer to relocate. They had houses and mortgages, and the real estate market was already grim, thanks to the closing of two smaller mills the year before. True, people weren’t sure how they’d pay those mortgages now, but they had kids in school and family nearby that might be able to help a little, and many irrationally clung to the possibility that the mill might reopen under new ownership. They stayed, many of them, because staying was easier and less scary than leaving, and because for a while at least they’d be able to draw unemployment benefits. Others remained out of pride. When the realization dawned that they were the victims of corporate greed and global economic forces, they said, okay, sure, fine, they’d been fools but they would not, by God, be run out of the town their grandparents and parents had grown up in and called home. The fortunate ones were older, their modest houses nearly paid off; close to retirement, they would limp to the finish line, then help their less fortunate sons and daughters as best they could.

  Grace Roby was one of the few who might’ve been tempted to head south, but to her the offer was not extended. When Miles’s brother was born, she’d taken a year off and then returned to work part-time until he was old enough to attend kindergarten. Though she’d worked at the shirt factory longer than most of the people who were offered the relocation deal, the hiatus meant that she didn’t have the required consecutive years of service to qualify. After searching for work for more than a year and exhausting her unemployment benefits, Grace had just about concluded that they would have to move away from Empire Falls anyway, perhaps to the Portland area, when she received an unexpected phone call from a man named William Vandermark.

  What Mr. Vandermark, who worked for a Boston firm, begged to inquire was whether Grace would be interested in full-time employment as a personal aide to a woman who’d fallen during the winter and broken her hip. She would be confined, for some time, to a wheelchair, and in this diminished capacity was unequal to the task of managing a large house and garden. What the lady would require, for possibly up to a year, was a reliable person upon whom she might depend for a wide variety of services. She would need assistance keeping the house in order and putting in her spring flower and vegetable garden. Bookkeeping, letter writing, and other business skills would come in handy as well. Also, there was a child who would need attending to. Hours might be long one week, short the next, and if Grace chose not to reside at her employer’s house, she would have to be “on call” around the clock. Finally, and Mr. Vandermark was cautious in his phrasing here, the position would no doubt require a certain strength of character, since the woman in question was considered by some to be “difficult.”

  Grace, then in her late thirties, was confident of her mettle. She’d held down a responsible position for all those years at the Empire Shirt Factory, and of course she’d been married to Max Roby for two decades, a test of character if ever there was one. It was almost as if the job description had been written with her in mind. Still, there was something odd about Mr. Vandermark’s remarking on the woman’s character, and so Grace, who had already decided to accept the offer, admitted that she had no training as a nurse and wondered why the woman didn’t hire a professional. Mr. Vandermark seemed to have anticipated this question, and he reminded Grace that while a professional nurse might be advantageous in some respects, they generally frowned on housework, were indifferent letter writers and unskilled with accounts, and he’d never known one to garden. He didn’t entirely conceal his opinion that, indeed, no one person could reasonably be expected to function in so many capacities. Also, he added, a professional nurse would likely have to be hired from someplace like Portland or Lewiston, and his client preferred not to have a stranger in her house.

  “Wouldn’t I be a stranger?” Grace asked.

  “Actually, no,” Mr. Vandermark explained. “I believe you are known to the lady, and she to you.”

  When he paused, Grace intuited in that moment the house, the woman, the circumstances, the entire truth.

  · · ·

  DURING THE YEARS that Grace worked for Mrs. Whiting, Miles saw his mother lose the last bloom of her womanhood. Though not yet forty, she would never again buy a dress like the one she’d worn on Martha’s Vineyard for Charlie Mayne, and gradually men’s heads stopped rotating to look as she passed them on the street. Before going to work for Mrs. Whiting she had attended Mass every day and in the early-morning light that filtered through the stained-glass windows of St. Catherine’s, a hint of her former beauty remained, but she emerged into the gray day looking gaunt, drained of both vitality and desire, despite her conviction that Mass gave her strength and hope for the future. To Miles, his mother was beginning to resemble the handful of other women, widows mostly, in their sixties and seventies, who attended daily worship.

  When it was his turn to serve at Mass, one week every two months, Miles accompanied her to St. Cat’s. He disliked getting up so early, but once there, still half asleep as he pulled on his cassock and surplice, he found the experience pleasant enough. For reasons he wasn’t able to articulate, the world seemed a better place and himself a better person for beginning each day at church, and before long he began to attend Mass even when he wasn’t required to serve. Other altar boys quickly learned that Miles would be there to cover for them if they were sick, and after a while they stopped bothering to ask this favor of him. And it was he whom Father Tom became annoyed with, not the boy scheduled, on those rare occasions when Miles himself became ill.

  At St. Catherine’s, Miles came to understand that responsibility could be enjoyable. He wasn’t sure that what he felt there in the warm church, with the day dawning outside, was exactly a religious experience, but he enjoyed the cadence of the Latin Mass and often was jolted out of some reverie just in time to ring the bell at the consecration. He’d recently discovered the existence of a particularly beautiful girl who worked as a waitress at the Empire Grill, and his thoughts too often drifted from the mystery of Christ’s body and blood to the mystery that was Charlene Gardiner, though he tried not to indulge unchaste thoughts during Mass.

  Sometimes at the offertory, after taking the cruets of water and wine to Father Tom, who always insisted they be presented to him handles first, Miles caught a glimpse of his mother, often with his little brother either fast asleep or squirming in the pew beside her, and he’d wonder what she prayed for. His father was the sort of man who required more or less constant prayer, augmented, it was often remarked, by a swift kick in the pants, so it was possible she was praying for him, though it was hard for Miles to imagine the exact nature of a Max Roby prayer. If he happened to be gone somewhere, his mother might conceivably offer up a prayer for him to come home and help out. After all, when Max was in residence, Grace could at least leave little David at home during Mass. But no sooner would such a prayer be answered, and her husband returned to the bosom of his family, than Grace would surely begin to offer prayers for his removal again, Max being more trouble than he was worth. When she and Miles returned from morning Mass they were likely to find David standing up in his crib, clutching the railings with his fat little fists, his cheeks beet-red with rage and grief, weighed down by a sagging, fully loaded diaper while Max slept off the night before in the next room.

  What Miles suspected, though, was that his mother’s prayers had little to do with his father. If she was anything like himself, her prayers sought objects of their own desire much as toddlers chase colored bubbles in the air, and he wondered if his mother’s thoughts drifted off in pursuit of long-lost Charlie Mayne the way hi
s own pursued Charlene Gardiner. But that was pure speculation. Grace hadn’t mentioned the man once since their return from Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, Miles had kept his mother’s secret so well that there were times he had to remind himself there was a secret to keep. He began to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing, and on their way home from Mass one morning—it was probably two or three years afterward—Miles said, “Mom? Do you remember the man we met on Martha’s Vineyard? Charlie Mayne?”

  He expected her to either be or pretend to be surprised, as he would’ve been had such a question come out of thin air so unexpectedly. But Grace answered as if she herself had been contemplating that very thing, or perhaps wondering when he’d get around to asking. “No, Miles, I don’t,” she replied calmly. “And neither do you.”

  GRACE BEGAN WORKING for Mrs. Whiting in late spring, a month after the woman had been released from the hospital—much to the relief of the entire staff, who’d had about enough of her. Mrs. Whiting had recently contributed seed money for a new wing, and everyone was aware of just how important a patient she was, but had it been a democracy the staff would’ve voted as a bloc to take her down to the river at the head of the falls and release the brake on her wheelchair.

  Instead of committing her to the rising waters they gave her into the care of Grace Roby, who trekked across the Iron Bridge above the swift spring torrent each morning shortly after six, rain or shine, to attend two cripples, one temporary, the other permanent. Actually, Mrs. Whiting’s broken hip had been occasioned by her daughter, who’d lost her balance, grabbed onto her mother, who happened to be nearby, and taken both of them down. Cindy, thanks to a lifetime of practice, knew how to fall, whereas Mrs. Whiting, whose equilibrium, both physical and emotional, was not easily tilted and who had not fallen once during her entire adult life, shattered her hip, requiring her to cancel at the last moment her trip to Spain, where she’d rented a villa for the month.

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