Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  The reason Cindy Whiting, then fifteen, had lost her balance and fallen on that occasion was that the operation to repair her damaged pelvis, her fourth, hadn’t worked. The doctors had promised that if she underwent the procedure and then worked hard at her physical therapy, her equilibrium would be much improved, and she’d be less dependent on her walker for support. While there were no guarantees, perhaps by spring she’d be able to step unaided onto the dance floor at her junior prom, in need of no more support than the strong arm of some handsome boy. This was the carrot the doctors dangled before her, and Cindy Whiting had followed it bravely, yet again, into the operating room.

  The procedure, the chief surgeon later concluded, was neither a success nor a failure. If that most important of medical injunctions was recollected—first, do no harm—then clearly Cindy Whiting was no worse off. In fact, over time, some slight improvement would surely be noted. That it was not more successful, the surgeon admitted, had less to do with the operation than with the patient, whom he hadn’t expected to be so easily discouraged, nor so stubbornly averse to physical therapy. The staff reported from the start that neither cajoling nor prodding nor badgering had much effect, that nothing could shake her conviction that the procedure had been a complete failure, that her own efforts would therefore prove futile. Cindy preferred lying in bed and watching television and taking painkillers to being tortured in the physical therapy room. When the distressed surgeon tried to encourage the girl by reminding her of how excited she’d been by the prospect of attending her junior prom, she replied that cripples didn’t get invited to dances.

  Cindy Whiting’s adamant refusal to work at her therapy so frustrated the surgeon that he called her mother in for a consultation. Before the operation, he recalled, one of the things the young woman had most looked forward to was her father’s return from Mexico to be at her side, and he was interested to learn why that hadn’t happened. Fathers, he hinted, were sometimes able to motivate daughters in ways that neither mothers nor doctors could imagine. Cindy, he added, seemed particularly devoted to her father, and this just might work in their favor.

  Mrs. Whiting’s response was not at all what he expected. She began by admitting that she herself was partly to blame for not preparing the surgeon for the operation’s inevitable failure, and then assured him that her husband’s presence would only have made a bad situation worse. Her daughter, she explained, had unfortunately inherited her father’s fundamental weakness of character. Alas, he himself was a man too easily encouraged, too completely seduced by hope, only to be devastated by disappointment. He’d been born to privilege, conditioned to expect that things would go well, and pathetically unable to cope once they started to go wrong. Mrs. Whiting had done everything in her power to curb these tendencies in their daughter, but nature, it seemed, had overruled nurture. Like her father, Cindy was subject to vivid dreams, which she invariably surrendered without a fight. She assured the surgeon that, no, there was nothing further to be done, and that he was not to blame himself.

  The surgeon was not a man who required any such warning. Blaming himself would not, in the normal course of events, have occurred to him. Nor, given his clinical training, was he used to regarding physical failure in moral terms, but as he listened to Mrs. Whiting’s dispassionate profiles of her husband and daughter, he found it difficult not to arrive at a moral judgment, though not one he was inclined to share with her, at least not until his services had been paid in full.

  IF COLD AND DISPASSIONATE, Mrs. Whiting’s analysis of her daughter’s character was not, Grace Roby had to admit, far off the mark. Had Cindy Whiting even a small measure of her mother’s willpower, she might, at least physically, have benefited from her most recent operation. As was often the case with children and their parents, this child possessed a trait immediately recognizable in the parent, except that in the child it had become so twisted as to appear completely new. Both women, Grace soon recognized, were equally stubborn, though their stubbornness manifested itself in radically different ways. In Mrs. Whiting willfulness had become a driving force whose relentless purpose was the removal of all obstacles, large and small, whereas in her daughter it took the form of the intractable, doomed obstinacy with which she approached each and every obstacle. To Grace, who’d always been drawn to the heartbreaking plight of the Whiting girl, it was terrible to witness the workings of human nature in the Whiting household and to acknowledge the all-too-certain outcome of the struggle between mother and daughter.

  Grace had never before encountered a woman quite like her new employer, and she quickly realized that to completely withhold her admiration was impossible. After months of close observation, Grace finally discovered her great trick. Mrs. Whiting remained undaunted for the simple reason that she never, ever allowed herself to dwell on the magnitude of whatever task she was confronted with. What she possessed was the marvelous ability to divide the chore into smaller, more manageable tasks. Once this diminishment was accomplished, her will became positively tidal in its persistence. Each day Mrs. Whiting had a “To Do” list, and the brilliance of that list lay in the fact that she was careful never to include anything undoable. On those rare occasions when a task proved more complicated or difficult than she’d imagined, she simply subdivided it. In this fashion, the woman never encountered anything but success, and each day brought her inexorably closer to her goal. She might be delayed, but never deterred.

  Her daughter, on the other hand, was forever being deterred. Temperamentally unable to master her mother’s simple trick, Cindy Whiting immediately envisioned the entirety of what lay before her and was thus in one deft stroke overwhelmed and defeated by it. She wasn’t so much a dreamer, Grace came to understand, as a believer, and what she believed in, or wished to, was the possibility of complete transformation. At some point in her young life she’d come to believe that the whole world, the totality of her circumstance, would have to change if change was to do her any good. Therefore, what she sought was nothing short of a miracle, and it was in these terms that she’d judged her most recent operation. On Monday she would enter the hospital as a caterpillar; on Tuesday she would emerge a butterfly. Not long after the anesthesia wore off, the girl would’ve concluded that not only had no transformation taken place, none whatsoever was under way.

  Did this disappointment make her foolish, even stupid, as her mother suggested? Grace thought not. After all, her whole world had undergone a complete transformation in the terrible instant when, as a little girl, she’d been run over and dragged by that car, an event that had taught her how quickly everything could change and that the stroke accomplishing such change is swift, powerful and beyond human comprehension. She was simply waiting for it to happen again.

  BY MEMORIAL DAY, having worked for Mrs. Whiting for just under six weeks, Grace expected every day to be let go. With the garden in and her employer recuperating faster than doctors had predicted, Grace suspected that before long Mrs. Whiting would see no justification for her continued employment. Not that her salary would make any difference to a wealthy woman, but still. Her employer didn’t miss a trick when it came to money, and she seemed to know within pennies how much people needed to survive. The sum she’d offered Grace to come to work for her was so close to the bare minimum she desperately needed that she half wondered if the woman had somehow sneaked into her house and watched her juggling bills at the kitchen table.

  One afternoon in the garden, Mrs. Whiting was leaning on her cane and directing Grace, who looked up from her knees and said, “I hope, Mrs. Whiting, that when the time comes you don’t need me anymore, you’ll be able to give me two weeks’ notice so I can find another job. I can’t afford to be without work for long.” Even for a day, she thought to herself.

  Mrs. Whiting was wearing a straw hat, and she regarded Grace from beneath its broad brim. Was it a smile that played along her lips? “Where will you find work in Empire Mills? There wouldn’t seem to be much in the way of opportunity.”
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br />   “Still,” said Grace, who understood that challenge all too well, “I’ll have to look.”

  “Well, that’s enough for today,” Mrs. Whiting announced. She’d been on her feet most of the afternoon, and although Grace had done most of the actual labor, Mrs. Whiting was clearly tired, having only recently been liberated from her wheelchair. Grace got to her feet and helped her employer back into the chair. “You don’t have to worry about looking for other employment just yet. You’ve been a great assistance to me these weeks.”

  Grace considered this vague reassurance. “But will there be work for me,” she asked, “once you’re fully recovered?”

  “Let’s sit in the gazebo for a few minutes,” Mrs. Whiting suggested, causing Grace to regret her decision to raise the issue this afternoon. That morning she’d left David in bed with a severe cold, and she was hoping to return by midafternoon. She’d even mentioned this desire to Mrs. Whiting, who seemed effortlessly to have forgotten it.

  The shady gazebo was cool. A temporary ramp made the building wheelchair-accessible, and Mrs. Whiting sat with her back to the house so she could look out over the river. Grace sat at an angle, facing the Iron Bridge downstream. When she heard the patio door slide open, she saw Cindy struggle out onto the patio. It was some seventy yards down the lawn to the gazebo—a journey the girl would not risk, not so soon after her operation, though she regarded Grace and her mother with what appeared to be genuine longing.

  “What’s to be done, do you suppose?” Mrs. Whiting finally said. She might have been musing about Empire Mills itself, for she was studying the now abandoned mills, their two large smokestacks looming against the late-afternoon sky. Grace heard the sliding door again and saw Cindy Whiting struggle back inside.

  Her mother took off her straw gardening hat and placed it on the small round table between them. “You’ve grown fond of my daughter,” she said.

  “Yes,” Grace freely admitted.

  “Would you think me entirely unnatural if I told you I’m not, particularly?” She smiled then. “You don’t have to answer, dear girl.”

  Grace was glad not to have to share her thoughts about one of the sadder human relationships she’d ever encountered. It was as if mother and daughter had somehow managed to disappoint each other so thoroughly that neither one was at all vested in the other anymore. They were like ghosts, each inhabiting different dimensions of the same physical space, so different that Grace half expected to see one pass through the other when their paths crossed. Cindy, coming upon her mother unexpectedly, acted as if she’d just remembered a question she’d been meaning to ask, only to realize she’d already asked it many times over and been given the same dispiriting answer. Mrs. Whiting, when she noticed her daughter at all, seemed merely annoyed. Sometimes they stared at each other in silence for so long that Grace wanted to scream.

  “She’s such a dear soul,” Grace ventured. “Her suffering—”

  “Lord, yes, her suffering,” Mrs. Whiting agreed, as if commiserating with Grace, not her daughter. “It’s positively endless, isn’t it?”

  “She’s not to blame, surely?”

  “It’s hardly a question of blame, dear girl,” Mrs. Whiting explained. “It’s a question of need. You’ll come to understand that what my daughter needs is not what she thinks she needs. You look at her and imagine she needs sympathy, whereas she needs strength. You’d be wise not to let her cling to you, unless of course you enjoy the sensation. Some people do.”

  It took Grace a moment to understand that she was being gently chided. “There are worse things than being clung to, aren’t there?”

  “Perhaps,” the other woman acknowledged, as though none came to her off the top of her head. “Tell me. What does your family think of your being away from them so much?”

  “David misses me, I think,” Grace said. “He’s still so little. He doesn’t—”

  “And the older boy?”

  “Miles? Miles is my rock.”

  “And your husband?”

  “Max is Max.”

  “Yes,” Mrs. Whiting agreed. “Men simply are what they are.”

  Grace looked over the Iron Bridge. After a moment, she said, “Will we ever speak of him?”

  “No, I think not,” Mrs. Whiting answered, as easily as if she’d been offered some ice cream.

  Which did not surprise Grace. They’d barely mentioned him the afternoon she’d first crossed the river to perform her penance. Grace had merely asked Mrs. Whiting’s forgiveness and assured her that it was over between her and Charlie, that she was sorry for what she’d done, for what she’d tried to do.

  “Will he ever return?”

  “To Empire Mills?” Mrs. Whiting seemed to find the question odd. “I hardly think so. As a young man he always wanted to live in Mexico. Did you know that?”

  “Yes.”

  She could feel the other woman’s eyes on her now. Yes, of course it would mean something to Mrs. Whiting that her husband had shared his intimate dreams. “He seems quite happy there,” she said, as if to suggest that in this happiness they’d both been betrayed.

  “Does he ever—”

  “Speak of you? I don’t believe so, but of course he wouldn’t, not to me.”

  “Does he know?”

  “About our present arrangement? Yes. When I told him he seemed to appreciate the irony in it.”

  Grace took this in in silence.

  “Have you any further questions before we put this subject forever to rest?”

  Grace shook her head.

  “Excellent. If my husband should ever attempt to contact you, I expect you to inform me. Will you do that?”

  Grace hesitated for only a moment. “Yes.”

  “If you fail to keep your word, I will know,” Mrs. Whiting said. “One look at you would reveal the whole truth.”

  “I’ll keep my word.”

  “I believe you,” Mrs. Whiting said. She seemed satisfied, as if she’d anticipated both the conversation and its outcome. “You’ll work here for the foreseeable future, I imagine,” she continued when Grace got to her feet. “You should know, I’ve grown quite fond of you, dear girl. Perhaps there’s irony in this as well?”

  Grace was unable to think of a suitable response. Might it be possible that what Mrs. Whiting had just said was true? If so, did that mean she’d been forgiven? Or was it possible to be genuinely fond of someone you’d not forgiven? Illogical as this last possibility seemed, it was precisely Grace’s impression.

  PART FOUR

  CHAPTER 23

  “DON’T LOOK NOW,” David said, looking up from his newspaper, “but here comes the happy groom, back from his honeymoon.”

  Indeed the Silver Fox was tripping up the front steps of the grill. Though Miles was not particularly pleased to see him, he couldn’t help but smile at the fact that he hadn’t heard the ticking of Walt’s van when it pulled up out front, a sound that had haunted him for nearly a year. One more way his life had changed for the better since his illness.

  After the wedding, of course, people kept asking how it felt to be a free man. Actually, to Miles’s surprise, it felt pretty good, as if the many delays in the divorce proceedings had exhausted even his capacity for self-recrimination. He’d expected his ex-wife’s wedding to take more of a toll on him, to intensify his feelings of personal failure. After all, he and Janine had promised till death do us part before God and family, and now here she was making the same promise all over again to another man. When the justice of the peace asked if anyone here objected to the proposed union, Miles was a little embarrassed to discover that he didn’t, at least not anymore. He’d always resisted Janine’s naive belief that you could just begin life anew, as if the past didn’t exist, but she seemed to be doing exactly that, which suggested that Miles could too, especially now that he’d made his decision.

  Of course, the jury was still out on Janine’s new life. Miles felt bad that her big day had been such a cut-rate affair. Of course secu
lar weddings always struck him as foreshortened, the ceremony over and done with almost before it began. It took longer to close on a house, and Miles couldn’t help noting that purchasing real estate was viewed, these days, as a more serious occasion, an undertaking with more lasting repercussions. But then, maybe it always had been. It was marriage, after all, that determined the right of inheritance, the orderly devolving of real property from one generation to the next. Perhaps the solemnity that once accompanied marriage was merely a by-product of an even weightier—if not sacred—rite.

  The reception afterward was nearly as depressing. Janine had let it be known that what she wanted was a goddamn party, with a kick-ass band and a big dance floor where people could really cut loose. Where she could cut loose. The entire event seemed designed to illustrate Miles’s many failures as a husband. The whole time they’d been married, she seemed to be saying, she’d been wanting music and excitement and dancing, and now that she was finally shut of Miles Roby, by God she was going to get it.

  For this purpose, the biggest room around, if you pushed back the partition that separated the aerobics room from the Nautilus machines, was at Walt’s health club, so they’d moved the various instruments of torture—Stairmasters and stationary bicycles and treadmills—out of the way and leaned the yoga mats up against the walls, which suggested that some of the revelers might be driving bumper cars. Judging from the size of the area cleared, Miles had the distinct impression that many more people had been invited than attended.

  The band might have been good, for all Miles knew, but they played at a volume calculated to induce the growth of brain tumors. Miles stood off to one side with Bea, whose hemorrhoids were bothering her, and Horace Weymouth, who, as Walt Comeau’s reluctant best man, was stuffed into a shiny tux. Miles hated to stare, but he was pretty sure the web of veins in whatever was growing out of Horace’s forehead was pulsing in time with the bass guitar. Two hours seemed like a decent amount of time for an ex-husband who hadn’t wanted a divorce in the first place to remain at his former wife’s wedding reception, so when the band took its second break Miles found Janine and told her that he was leaving, that he wished her all happiness, that she looked terrific, which she did, though not especially bride-like.

 
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