Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “You’re not skulking off without one last dance,” she said, her face flushed, and she dragged Miles out to the middle of the floor. The band, determined to have equally deafening music fill the room even in their absence, was playing recorded music through their guitar amplifiers. To Miles’s additional discomfort, almost everyone at the reception stopped and turned to watch them dance. People somehow seemed to feel that they were witnessing a touching moment.

  “I warned you you were going to hate this,” Janine said.

  “I don’t, really,” he lied. “The music’s a little loud, is all.”

  She appeared unconvinced. “You should’ve brought somebody,” she said. “Charlene would have come if you’d asked her.”

  Though Miles could have done without the pitying tone, he was moved to consider the possibility that his ex-wife appeared, somewhat belatedly, to imagine the possibility that he might be lonely. “She’s working, actually.”

  “So you give her the damn night off. You’re the boss, Miles. You could close the restaurant if you wanted to.” After twenty years of marriage and then some, he was still amazed by how quickly this woman could shift emotional gears from solicitude to annoyance.

  “Janine,” he sighed, “if you’re trying to make me feel better about your being another man’s wife, you’re doing a good job.”

  At which her eyes teared up, causing him to apologize as she wept gently onto his shoulder, convincing onlookers that what they were witnessing went well beyond touching. It was damned inspirational. Even the Silver Fox himself got misty-eyed.

  These sudden tears on the dance floor had not taken Miles by surprise. The week leading up to the wedding had been full of them, resulting in a series of hellish negotiations, several of which Miles had undertaken from his hospital bed. First, Janine had wanted him to give her away, a notion so bizarre that Miles had a laughing fit before he realized she was serious. She had immediately flushed red with anger and hurt. “I just thought it’d be nice if the whole thing was amicable,” she snapped. “What’s so wrong with that?”

  Amicable. He’d repeated the word, recalling his high school Latin. Amicus, meaning “friend,” the second noun they’d declined (the first was agricola, “farmer,” which Miles had found odd, as if it were being suggested that in the normal course of events you’d have more use for the word “farmer” than for “friend”).

  “How about if I just turn up and smile a lot?” he suggested. “Wouldn’t that be amicable enough?”

  His ex-wife’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll just give my own damn self away.” Which struck Miles as a pretty accurate representation of what had transpired anyway.

  If Janine had given in easily on the matter of his participation, it was because, Miles was to learn later, she had a bigger, more important battle to wage, and she needed his help if she was to have any hope of winning it, for her daughter had no more desire to play a dramatic role in her mother’s wedding than Miles did. But here Janine was determined. “I swear to God, Miles, you better talk her into being my bridesmaid. I know you can, so I’m telling you right now that you’d better get busy.”

  Miles tried to reason with her. “You can’t force her into doing something she doesn’t want to do, Janine.”

  To which she replied, “I’m not forcing her, Miles. In fact, I gave her a choice. She can either do it or she can wish she had.” Then she’d burst into tears right there in the hospital room, bawling her eyes out until Miles caved in and promised to try.

  In fact, Janine had sobbed so pitifully that Miles thought she was suffering some kind of breakdown. “You know I don’t have a single woman friend in the whole world, Miles.” She snuffed her nose, having by now worn herself out with crying. “If she won’t be my bridesmaid, I’ll have to ask my mother. Don’t make me do that, Miles. I know what you must think of me after all that’s happened, but if you ever cared for me, don’t make me stand there between Beatrice and Walt on my wedding day. The judge’ll probably get confused and marry the two of them.”

  The deal Miles had brokered with his daughter was complex, but its principal features were that she would be her mother’s bridesmaid and pretend to enjoy herself, provided that afterward, at the reception, she wouldn’t be required to dance with the Silver Fox. Also, Miles promised to take her to Boston to see the van Gogh exhibit at the MFA, something he’d have done anyway. He found out later she’d struck a separate deal with her mother to get their computer hooked up to an e-mail server.

  “So, are you going to be okay?” Janine wanted to know, confusing him for a moment. Did she mean while she was away on her honeymoon? “Did they ever figure out what was wrong with you?”

  They had not. He’d made it back to his apartment that Sunday evening, but later, when his brother came over (after Bea had phoned, asking him to check), Miles was delirious. At the emergency room, his raging temperature and delirium, subsequent to eating fast-food burgers, suggested an E. coli infection or, possibly, viral meningitis. He’d been admitted to the hospital and kept there for several days under close observation, even though his fever broke the next morning and by Monday afternoon he was clearly on the mend. By the end of his stay, the half dozen doctors who’d examined him and done his blood work were no closer to a diagnosis. As medical men they’d not sought a spiritual explanation, and Miles was disinclined to ask whether the symptoms they’d been treating might result from his having been visited by ghosts.

  AS WAS HIS CUSTOM as a single man, Walt Comeau now burst into song in the doorway of the Empire Grill. “Too many nights,” he crooned, his arms outstretched to embrace the world. “Too many days / Too many nights to be alone.”

  “Can it,” suggested David, who had neither gone to the wedding nor sent regrets.

  Walt paused briefly, as if this request were the title of a song not in his repertoire. Then he began anew, though at a lower volume, dancing down the counter. “Please keep your heart / While we’re apart / Don’t linger in the moonlight when I’m gone.”

  From down the counter came a couple of halfhearted “Pa-pa-pa-payas.”

  “My God, Big Boy!” Walt said, sliding onto his usual stool next to Horace, who’d arrived early enough to eat his bloody burger in peace. “How could you let a woman like that escape?”

  Walt and Janine had checked into a bed-and-breakfast on the coast that was running a special off-season rate. Janine, Miles happened to know, had been hoping for Aruba.

  “Don’t let the stars get in your eyes, Foxy,” Horace advised, wiping the counter between them with his dirty napkin in preparation for their gin game.

  “Don’t let the moon break your heart, either,” Buster added without turning around. His first shift since returning to town was nearly over, and he was pouring vinegar onto the hot grill, where it sputtered and foamed and hissed. The air was full of it for a few seconds, enough to get everyone at the counter teared up, but just as quickly it was gone, with an implicit promise that anything so intensely horrible would by design pass swiftly.

  “Where were you last Saturday?” Walt called down the counter to David. “You missed one hell of a party.”

  What Miles had heard was that after he left, his ex-wife had danced several strong men into a state of exhaustion, got very drunk, and then berated the band when they finally quit and began packing up their instruments.

  David folded his newspaper and rose to his feet, reaching for a clean apron. “Something about the occasion just didn’t stir me,” he explained.

  “Gin,” said Horace, laying down his hand and taking up the tablet they used to keep score. “Honest, ain’t he?” he said, more to Miles than to Walt.

  “Jealous is what he is,” Walt said happily, the gin not having registered fully. “He and Big Boy are both jealous. They’d like to kid me that they aren’t, but I know better.”

  “That must be it,” Horace agreed. “You going to tell me how many points I caught you with, or do you want me to estimate
?”

  Walt now stared at the hand Horace had laid down. “You can’t have gin already.”

  “Name one way that isn’t gin.”

  The Silver Fox laid his own hand down and began counting to himself.

  “I’ll make it easy for you. Fifty-two plus the gin is seventy-two,” said Horace, writing it down. “I hope you don’t mind me beating you quicker than usual today. I’m driving over to Augusta for the school budget vote, so I don’t have time to toy with you.”

  “Seventy-two,” Walt said, completing his own count.

  “Open this for me, will you?” Buster said, handing Miles a gallon jar of pickles and rubbing his wrist. Buster’s eye had quit draining, but it was still horrible to look at, red and swollen nearly shut. He looked like he’d lost about thirty pounds since summer. Lyme disease, according to his doctor. “I don’t seem to have any strength anymore.”

  Horace shook his head. “Thirty-five years’ worth of jerking off with that hand, you’d think he could open a jar of pickles.”

  “Go home, Buster,” Miles said. “I’ll finish up here.”

  The fry cook took off his apron, handing it to Miles without argument. “I’ll feel better tomorrow, I promise.”

  “Give that here,” Walt said, meaning the pickle jar. He was already stripping down to his tight, weight lifter’s undershirt, as if playing gin with Horace might require a full, unencumbered range of motion. Despite Walt Comeau’s professed love of all things sexual, Miles suspected there was nothing he enjoyed more than opening a jar someone else had given up on, so he ignored him, located a rubber snaffler, and twisted the lid off the jar.

  “That’s cheating,” Walt complained. “Anybody can open a jar with one of those.”

  “Gin,” said Horace, who again laid down his cards.

  “A damn kid could open a jar with one of those,” Walt told Horace, who for some reason was grinning at him. “What do you mean, gin?”

  “Sixty-nine plus the gin,” Horace explained, writing “89” on the pad between them.

  “Eighty-seven,” Walt said when he’d completed his arithmetic. He pushed the cards toward his opponent in disgust.

  “Count ’em again,” Horace suggested, pushing them back.

  Walt did, and after a minute revised the tally. “Eighty-nine,” he said.

  Horace showed him the pad where he’d written that number down already.

  “It could’ve been you that was wrong,” Walt pointed out. “Did that ever occur to you?”

  Horace shuffled and offered Walt a cut, which he took. “Sure it did,” Horace admitted. “I always prefer to eliminate the more likely scenarios first, though.”

  Walt was too busy picking up his cards, one at a time, and arranging them in his hand to consider this insult. “I hear you’re going to be getting some competition, Big Boy,” he observed, once his hand made enough sense that he could offer up a discard.

  David was at the refrigerator, and when Miles glanced over he saw that his brother hadn’t even broken rhythm. Miles liked to think you couldn’t tell anything from his own demeanor either, but he noticed Horace studying him curiously.

  “How’s that, Walt?” he asked, trying to keep his voice modulated.

  “Janine tells me her mother’s opening up for lunches again over at Callahan’s,” the bridegroom reported, picking up one of Horace’s discards. “Next month sometime.”

  “I wish her luck,” Miles said, meaning it. Actually, he’d spent most of the morning over at Bea’s tavern with an electrician. The news had not been good. There wasn’t an inch of wiring in the kitchen—in the whole building, for that matter—that was up to code, which was fine as long as it was left alone. Renovations, however, as mandated by state law, had to be up to code, which in effect meant that all the old, grandfathered wiring had to be brought up to standard. Neither Bea nor Miles could come up with that kind of money without going to the bank, something neither of them wanted to do, since it would make their plans public. Miles, in particular, was determined to keep them a secret, at least until late October, when Mrs. Whiting usually left for the winter.

  “They used to serve a hell of a pastrami sandwich over there back when her husband was still alive. Must’ve been two inches thick. All you could do to eat it.”

  David lifted a big rack of prime rib, already rubbed with herbs, out of the fridge. When he lost his grip with his bad hand, it dropped the last few inches into the shallow roasting pan and he turned to acknowledge Miles’s look. Yes, he should’ve asked for help; next time he would, maybe. “You actually sprang for a sandwich?” David said, voicing his brother’s thought as well.

  “Tell you what,” Walt said, eyeing his opponent suspiciously. “I’m gonna go down with three.”

  Horace seemed underwhelmed by this maneuver. “Eight minus your three,” he said, showing Walt his hand, then recorded the paltry five points in his own clean column.

  “You had my damn gin card again,” Walt complained. “How come you never give me my gin card?”

  “Because,” Horace explained, “that would make you win and me lose.”

  Miles noticed a police car pass by outside, but couldn’t tell if Jimmy Minty was at the wheel. He watched the car move slowly down the street, half expecting it to stop, do a three-point turn and pull over to the curb facing the restaurant. Three times in the last week he’d seen Minty parked up the street, and the last time it had made him so angry he’d called the chief of police.

  “Why is Jimmy Minty surveilling my restaurant?”

  “He’s not. We got a radar trap set up, is all,” Bill Daws explained. “These damn kids all think that because nobody lives here anymore they can do fifty through the center of town. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s all this about between you and him?”

  “Hard to explain,” Miles admitted.

  “Try.”

  “He seems to remember us being friends once. Maybe we were.”

  “You aren’t anymore.”

  “I know it.”

  “Listen, I’ve been meaning to call you. Unless somebody does something, I’m afraid your ex-friend’s going to be made interim chief when I step down.”

  “You going somewhere, Bill?”

  “It appears I am. I’ve got cancer, though that’s not public knowledge.”

  “My God, Bill.”

  “Hell, I’ve had a good run.”

  “You’re getting treatment?”

  “Sure. Have been for a while. It’s the damn cure that’s killing me. Anyhow, Minty’s got friends in high places,” Bill Daws said, “including a friend of yours. Maybe if you spoke to her. People say she listens to you.”

  “She does,” Miles admitted. “She never does a single thing I ask her to, though.”

  “Still,” Bill Daws said, “you’d be doing the town a favor if you’d try. There’s nothing worse than a bad cop.”

  “Sure there is,” Miles said. “And I’m sorry to hear about it, Bill. Is there anything I can do?”

  “Don’t tell a living soul.”

  This was the first cruiser he’d seen since their conversation, and at the bottom of Empire Avenue it hung a left and disappeared just as Tick turned the corner and headed up the hill toward the restaurant. Maybe it was Miles’s imagination, but lately his daughter appeared to be walking a little straighter under her heavy backpack. The best part of the last couple days, with Janine and Walt honeymooning on the coast, was that he’d stayed with Tick at the house so she wouldn’t be alone at night. He’d slept on the sofa and returned to his apartment before showering, but even so it had seemed pretty strange to be back in what had been his home for so many years. He did his best not to feel bitter about his loss of the place, to simply enjoy his daughter’s company, and most of the time he’d been successful. Tick’s companionship, alas, had been divided unequally between her father and her computer keyboard, which she clicked away at feverishly, the boy she’d met on Martha’s Vineyard clicking back at her from Indianapo
lis. When he’d written her two weeks earlier he’d included his e-mail address, and apparently it was possible for them to talk to each other directly, simultaneously, keyboard to keyboard. Such intimacy. Every now and then, Miles, reading a book in the next room, would hear his daughter chortle at something the boy had typed, and when he looked up, her face would be aglow before the computer screen, a girl clearly in the throes of cyber romance. Could such a thing be called real? Miles decided it could, at least if it lightened the load of her backpack.

  Loping along at her side this afternoon was the tall, awkward figure of John Voss, who was busing David’s private party tonight. They were an odd pair—his daughter and John—but it appeared they were actually conversing, which shouldn’t have seemed odd, but it did. In some ways it was odder that she should be talking to this strange boy at her side than that she should converse nightly with a boy over a thousand miles away by means of a keyboard. When they arrived at the restaurant, John Voss, mute and nervous as always, headed straight for the back room to his dirty pots and pans. He’d been working at the Empire Grill for three weeks now and, as Miles had predicted, had become a good, reliable busboy. There were times on weekends that Miles wished the kid had one more gear, but he worked steadily and efficiently, if not urgently. He followed orders well, and Miles had even taught him how to clean the caked soap out of the Hobart’s spider mechanism. But though he responded when spoken to, it remained impossible to engage him in normal conversation. When Miles gave him his first paycheck, the boy looked at it as if he had no idea what use it might be, and only later did Miles intuit that he had no idea how to convert the check to cash, so Miles escorted him down to Empire National, helped him open a savings account, and showed him how to record his deposits. The boy had managed to convey, however awkwardly, his gratitude, but when he reported for work the next day, he offered Miles neither a smile nor an acknowledgment, as if the day before had not occurred. In the three weeks of their acquaintance, John Voss had not once met Miles’s eye, and even Charlene had made little progress.

 
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