Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Tick gave her uncle a kiss and slid her heavy backpack to the floor with a thud that rattled glasses and coffee cups, then gave her father one of her quick, sideways hugs.

  “Hey, there, Littabit!” Walt bellowed, rotating on his stool and holding out his arms. “How about giving me one of those?”

  Tick acknowledged neither the man nor the noise he’d made. Apparently Walt’s installation of e-mail onto her computer hadn’t earned him any affection points. “New Empire Moment,” she announced to her father. “Have you seen the sign at the Lamplighter?”

  Miles tried to recall whether he’d driven by in the last couple of days, then shook his head.

  “Their new special’s ‘chicken smothered with barbecue sauce.’ ”

  Miles chuckled, wondering if he would have caught this one himself. “Kinder to just chop their heads off, huh?” Then a different thought, since the Lamplighter was out by the Fairhaven Highway. “When were you out there?”

  “A lot of my friends have their licenses now,” she said, pouring a tall Coke for herself and another, he supposed, for John. “Don’t worry. I wasn’t at the motel.”

  “I never thought you were.” He had to smile at the phrase “a lot of my friends.” Not so long ago she’d been telling him she didn’t have any friends. Now she had all kinds, some with driver’s licenses, some as far away as Indiana.

  “Is there any chance we could go to Boston next Sunday? The van Gogh’s only there two more weeks.”

  “I’ll see if your uncle’s willing to flip eggs next Sunday morning.” He paused. “Hey, is there any chance Indiana Jones is planning a trip to Boston anytime soon?”

  “Next Sunday,” she admitted, trying not to smile. Apparently she was as pleased with him for figuring this out as he’d been with her for the smothered chickens.

  “He’s another van Gogh lover, this kid?”

  “Donny,” she said, before disappearing into the back room. Before the door swung shut, Miles glimpsed John Voss kneeling in front of the dishwasher, its door flung wide open and leaking thick clouds of steam. The boy was peering up into its innards, ice pick in hand.

  “THAT’S A HUNDRED-DOLLAR VALUE, Big Boy,” Walt hollered down the counter. The Silver Fox had progressed, all too predictably, from another whipping at gin, to urging Miles to arm-wrestle him. As an inducement he was offering a free three-month membership at his health club, which he maintained would change Miles’s life by improving his self-esteem. Having married Janine, Walt now seemed more determined than ever to compensate her ex-husband for his loss. “Nobody in his right mind would turn down that kind of offer.”

  “Could I convince you to do next Sunday morning?” Miles asked his brother.

  David sighed—with good reason, since he’d had to work double shifts when Miles was in the hospital. Now this. “What’s wrong with Buster? He was just complaining he needs more hours.”

  “I could ask him,” Miles said. In fact, if David said no, he’d have to. “I’m not sure he’d be able to answer the bell after one of his Saturday nights, is the thing.” Buster’s doctor had warned him to lay off the booze until he got his strength back, but not drinking on Saturday night ran contrary to all of the man’s natural inclinations.

  “You know how I hate breakfasts, Miles.”

  “I promised Tick I’d take her to the Museum of Fine Arts,” Miles explained, his voice low so Walt wouldn’t overhear and volunteer his services. “The show she wants to see is ending pretty soon.”


  “Unless you wanted to take her yourself. She’d love that.”

  “No, you go,” David said, opening the oven door and peering at the prime rib roasting slow inside. He’d also prepared a pan of red potatoes in herbs, which Miles picked up and slid onto the rack above the beef. If he hadn’t been there, David somehow would have handled it, using the crook of his arm to cradle one end of the pan, his good hand to grip and guide. His awkwardness was one reason his brother didn’t like to drive long distances, Miles knew. Actually, freeway driving would be easier than the in-town variety, but with only one good hand, David didn’t trust himself in an emergency, especially with Tick in the truck.

  “Since we’re whispering,” David said, “how much longer do you expect to keep Callahan’s a secret?” According to plan, they’d be out of the Empire Grill by Thanksgiving, Christmas at the latest. The problem was that plan was already falling apart, the news from the electrician this morning being only the latest example.

  “As long as possible,” Miles said. “Let it come out in its own time.” He knew what his brother meant, though. It was getting harder and harder to conceal the amount of time they were spending over at Bea’s. And then there were all the phone calls, which Miles tried to conduct in a low voice, because there were usually customers within earshot, but of course nothing attracted their interest more than a confidential tone.

  “I don’t understand,” David said. He’d been cheered by Miles’s unexpected change of heart but troubled by his refusal to explain how it had come about. And his insistence on secrecy made no sense at all. “It’s not like she can do anything, even if she wanted to. For all you know, she’ll be delighted to be shut of this place. You’d do better to come clean. Plus you owe her that much.”

  “Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me what I don’t owe her?” Miles reminded him. “Besides, I’m not so sure there’s nothing she could do, not if she put her mind to it.”

  “If that’s true, wouldn’t you rather know sooner than later?”

  “I’d rather she went away and stayed away for a month or two. I don’t know why she’s hanging around, and I keep thinking maybe it’s us.”

  “More likely it’s development office business,” David said, reasonably enough. “Somebody said she had a bunch of visitors out to her place this week.”

  “Black limos with Massachusetts plates again?”

  “Okay,” his brother conceded. “But if you’re right, and if she’s suspicious and means to cause problems, find out before you start borrowing money and making commitments. When she sees how things are, maybe she’ll relent on that liquor license and you won’t even have to move.”

  “I couldn’t do that to Bea.”

  “No, I suppose not. My point is, the whole thing’s going to come out soon anyhow. You’re no secret-keeper.”

  Miles let this go. Since recognizing “Charlie Mayne” in the newspaper, Miles hadn’t said a word about it to anyone, including his brother, even though his discovery had changed everything. That Sunday morning, he’d felt the knowledge taking root somewhere in his gut and imagined its tentacles probing outward into other parts of his body. Was it that he and his brother had never spoken easily that prevented him from sharing this secret? Of all the subjects they’d been tight-lipped about over the years, their mother had always been right at the top of the list, so maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the possibility that David already knew—that if Miles blurted out the story, his brother would say, Good Lord, Miles, you’re just figuring that out?

  It would’ve been easier to confide in Father Mark, but for some reason Miles hadn’t told him either. In fact, he hadn’t even been back to St. Cat’s since that afternoon he’d scraped the south face and imagined Father Tom sending his mother across the Iron Bridge to perform her penance. Now he wasn’t sure he’d ever go back, not even to the Rectum. For some reason the secret’s tentacles had wrapped themselves around his easy friendship with Father Mark and squeezed all the enjoyment out of it. The priest had visited him in the hospital, but he didn’t stay long and seemed distracted. Their conversation had been as uneasy as it was the afternoon Father Tom had gone missing, when it had seemed that each man was aware of having failed the other by not imagining what these two old men were capable of. If this was a matter of simple embarrassment, in time it would surely go away, but Miles feared it was something more complex. For the moment, he’d concluded that the church—or at least its representati
ve, Father Tom—had been worse than no help to his mother when she desperately needed it, and for now he’d decided to steer his own course, much as Grace had.

  “I shouldn’t butt in,” David said, “but I’ll tell you one more thing. You ought to call that woman.”

  Miles sighed, aware that his brother wasn’t talking about Mrs. Whiting anymore but rather her daughter, who’d called him at the hospital last week and twice since then at the restaurant. He’d managed to fend her off with vague promises of dinner at the Empire Grill as soon as he was recovered, a promise he’d not kept.

  Yet more tentacles here. Was it conceivable that Cindy already knew the truth? Was that the reason she’d taken him to the cemetery, to stand before the two lovers’ graves? Would he even have made the connection in the newspaper the next morning if Cindy hadn’t foreshadowed it? Miles found himself recasting their entire past in light of the cruel possibility that Cindy had known more than he did from the start. He recalled in particular the high school afternoons when they’d waited together for Mrs. Whiting’s black Lincoln to pull up, and how willful the young Cindy had been in her disdain for Emily Dickinson. Out of dark necessity had she become expert at not understanding things she didn’t want to be true? Miles could almost imagine Mrs. Whiting whispering, This woman who’s been so kind to you? She’s the one your father loved, the one he wanted to run off with. This boy you like so much? The very child he preferred to you. Miles remembered, too, that book of Cindy Whiting’s: “How it made her pussy pucker!” Was this, in its own cheap way, helping the poor girl understand how such things could happen between men like her father and women like Grace? Was it possible Cindy herself had fallen in love with Miles because she’d been told he was her father’s preference?

  He tried to reason through these questions toward logical answers, but reason seemed to lead him instead to further questions. Probably, he’d concluded, Cindy’s devotion to her father’s memory suggested that she didn’t know the truth. She seemed to blame his desertion on her mother, not on Grace, whom she remembered with genuine affection. If the two were linked in her mind, it was in their love for herself, not for each other. On the other hand, what was more mysterious and confusing, to child and adult alike, than love? Yes, he should call her. His brother was right. But he wouldn’t, not yet.

  “Listen,” David said, when Miles greeted his recommendation with silence. “Forget I said anything. It’s none of my business, I know.”

  “No,” Miles told him. “It’s good advice. In fact, you’ve been giving me good advice right along. I should’ve been listening.”

  “Well, I never listened to you when I needed to. I just hope you don’t have to hit a tree doing fifty like I did.”

  “Maybe that’s exactly what I need,” Miles said, feeling that in a sense he already had. “You’ve been the one on the ball lately, not me.”

  David shook his head. “It’s not the tree that did it. I was so fucked up for so long that by the time I got straightened out, not many people had any expectations left. I’m not so much on the ball as off the board. No, hitting the tree isn’t a strategy I’d recommend. There are too many people who’ll never really forgive you.”

  Miles would’ve liked to deny the truth of that, at least for himself, but he couldn’t. He’d meant to forgive his brother, maybe even imagined he had. He’d also meant to learn to trust him, but instead merely fell into the habit of waiting for him to fuck up again, even though he hadn’t for a long time.

  “Why don’t you go up and take a nap?” his brother suggested. “You look beat.”

  “Maybe I will,” Miles said. “You need me tonight?”

  “Well, I’d be a fool to turn down the offer.” David grinned, an offer, Miles understood, in return.

  As he trudged upstairs, the phone in his apartment was ringing. Because they’d just been speaking of her, Miles expected it to be Cindy Whiting, but he was wrong.

  “You done with that church yet?” said the voice at the other end.

  “Hello, Dad,” Miles said. “Where are you?”

  “That job probably ain’t going so quick with me gone and you afraid to climb a stepladder.”

  “I’ve been out of commission, actually.”

  “How come?”

  “I got sick. They had me in the hospital for a couple days.”

  “I wondered where the hell you were. I been calling.”

  “Then Janine and Walt Comeau got married this weekend.”

  “Good for her.”

  “Thanks, Dad,” Miles said. “Listen, did you say where you were? Did I miss that part?”

  “Florida,” Max said, as if everybody knew that much. “You should come down. Good place for a single guy.”

  “Where’s Father Tom?”

  “Down the other end of the bar. He won second place in a Hemingway look-alike contest. He’s got a beard now. Came in all white.”

  “How could you do it, Dad?”

  “Let him grow a beard? Why shouldn’t he?”

  “You know what I mean. How could you take money from a senile priest and run off to Florida and drink it all up?”

  “I never took a dime.”

  “No, you just let him pay for everything, right?”

  Max didn’t deny this.

  Miles rubbed his temples. That these two geezers had made it all that way was truly astonishing. How had they managed to avoid being spotted by the troopers of every state from here to Key West, all of whom had been put on the lookout for a purple Crown Victoria driven by two old men who looked like escapees from a mental hospital? “Is the car still in one piece?”

  “Should be. We left it at the public landing.”

  “What public landing?”

  “In Camden.”

  “Congratulations. Now you’ve lost me.”

  “We come down here on the Lila Day. Me and Tom crewed.”

  “Wait a minute. You want me to believe you and Father Tom crewed a schooner all the way from Camden, Maine, to the Florida Keys?”

  “Not just the two of us, you dummy. Cap’n Jack and four other guys. I’m an old salt, you know.”

  You’re an old something, all right, Miles thought.

  “Tom fell overboard once, but we went back for him. After that he was more careful.”

  Miles tried to imagine the old priest, trussed up in a life jacket, bobbing on the rough water, cold and uncomprehending. He could even appreciate the justice of it, given that the old man had been heartless enough to send Grace on that walk across the Iron Bridge. So why wasn’t he able to take much pleasure from it? “Dad,” he said, “do you have any idea what’ll happen to you if Father Tom gets hurt?”

  “Yep,” his father said, confident he knew the answer to this question better than the man who’d asked it. “Not a goddamn thing.”

  Okay, he was probably right.

  “Why shouldn’t he have a little fun?” was what Max wanted to know, since they were asking questions. “Old men like to have fun too, you know. Down here, people like old men.”


  “They don’t say,” Max admitted. “Tom hears confessions every afternoon at the end of the bar. You should see it.”

  “That’s terrible, Dad.”

  “Why? Think about it.”

  “It’s sacrilegious.”

  “Your mother really messed you up, you know that?”

  And that was all it took, just the one mention of Grace, and suddenly the question was out before Miles could consider the wisdom of asking it. “How come you never told me about Mom and Charlie Whiting, Dad?”

  Max reacted as if he’d been expecting the question for years. “How come you never told me, son?”


  “SO WHAT are we doing here?” Justin Dibble whined, causing Zack Minty to regret, for about the tenth time in the last half hour, inviting him along. Inviting him by promising to kick his ass if he didn’t come. Zack had his reasons for wanting company, but damned if he could r
emember them, and now here was Double Dibble wanting to know the exact thing Zack couldn’t really explain.

  “Waiting for it to get dark,” Zack told him. Which was true. He’d parked the Camaro on the shoulder of the old landfill road in the gathering dusk. The house the Voss kid lived in with his grandmother was just visible through the trees, though. You couldn’t see the car from the house unless you were looking for it.

  “You’re just pissed off ’cause he showed you up,” Justin said, rolling down his window to toss out an empty Cheetos bag.

  “That’s a two-hundred-dollar fine,” Zack pointed out. One of the good things about being a cop’s son was that over time you learned what all the consequences were. That didn’t mean you wouldn’t take a chance anyway, but at least you knew how big a rod they’d stick up your ass if you got caught. To Zack’s way of thinking, some crimes were worth the risk, but it was hard to imagine anybody dumb enough to risk a two-hundred-dollar fine over a sixty-cent bag of Cheetos.

  “How would anybody know it was me?” Justin said, licking his orange fingers.

  “You wipe your hands on my dad’s upholstery, he’ll fuck you up good.”

  Double Dibble kept on licking, the clean fingers glistening, the others still Cheeto-orange. “Nah, your dad likes me.”

  “Not as much as he likes this car,” Zack reminded him. “Not even close.”

  Just one orange finger, the middle one, was extended now. Justin sucked on it provocatively.

  “John Voss showed me up when, dipshit?”

  “Playing the game.”

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