Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Zack knew this was coming, of course. He’d put off responding to the remark so it would seem like it didn’t mean shit to him. “How the fuck do you figure that? I’m the one that taught him.”

  “Yeah, but he’s better at it. You flinch.”

  “The fuck I do.”

  “You flinch, every time.”

  “Right. Like you’d know. You’re too chicken to play, even.”

  Justin shrugged, wiping his fingers on his pants.

  Zack would have liked to drop the subject, but couldn’t. “The reason he doesn’t flinch is he doesn’t have a brain. He’s too stupid to be scared.”

  “You’re the one who’s always saying there’s nothing to be scared of,” Justin reminded him, examining the orange streaks on his baggy chinos with mild regret. “That’s why we’re all supposed to play, right?”

  “It’s a rush, okay? What I’m saying is, he’s so fucking stupid he doesn’t even get the rush.” Justin didn’t look convinced. “Anyway, fuck you. You don’t play, you don’t get to criticize.”

  “I played once. It’s a dumb game.”

  “A dumb game that made you piss your pants,” Zack snorted.

  One thing was for sure. Zack was going to have to sit down and reevaluate his whole friend situation, which was going from bad to worse. It wasn’t that long ago he’d had pretty cool friends. Now he was surrounded on all sides by losers. This was what happened when you didn’t pay attention.

  Some of it couldn’t be helped, of course. Zed and Thomas had moved away with their parents, and they’d been the best of the bunch. Then a couple other friends decided they wouldn’t have anything to do with him anymore, though they never said why. Like he couldn’t figure it out when they started hanging out at the country club pool and playing fag sports like tennis and golf. Which left him with pretty slim pickings, like Justin Fucking Double Dibble. He’d actually been pretty cool in junior high, but now it was like he didn’t give a shit anymore. He’d been a pretty decent basketball player, but he wouldn’t even try out for the team, which was fucking stupid because he probably would’ve made it. Anymore all he wanted to do was eat junk food and play video games and whack off to that porn shit he was always downloading off the Net.

  Next year would be better. As one of the few sophomores on varsity, Zack had been admired, if not completely accepted or welcomed by the older guys, especially the seniors. At times it almost seemed like they’d heard something about him before they even met him, something that made them suspicious. He’d thought it’d be different after the Fairhaven game, but Coach had fucked him over by giving the starting linebacker job back to Billy Wolff after his ankle healed. Like that was all it took for him to forget who made the hit that turned the whole fucking game around. Coach hadn’t come right out and said it, but Zack was pretty sure he blamed Zack for all the bad publicity. The Fairhaven quarterback hadn’t played since, and in the paper last week it said his parents were taking him to Boston to see if they could find out why his headaches wouldn’t go away. Zack could’ve told them why. The headaches wouldn’t go away because then the pansy would have to play again. One good shot had separated the kid from his desire to play football.

  A late hit, they were calling it now, after they’d watched the game film, which didn’t even really show it, since the camera had followed the flight of the ball. Coach got asked about it in an interview and said the tape wasn’t conclusive, but in the locker room before the last game he’d given a speech about wanting all good clean hits, and a lot of the guys had glanced over at Zack, and then down at the floor. Which had pissed him off so much he’d immediately gotten into a shoving match with a kid on the opening kickoff, resulting in offsetting penalties. He’d spent the rest of the game at the very end of the bench. Coach hadn’t even looked his way, except to shake his head. So maybe things would be better next year, and maybe they wouldn’t.

  Zack studied the house, now visible in silhouette through the trees. Which was weird, if you thought about it. The Voss kid, who at first hadn’t wanted them to give him a ride home the other night, and then didn’t want them to turn down the dirt drive, claimed his grandmother was sick and shouldn’t be disturbed. But the house had been dark, just like it was now. Was the old woman so fucked up she couldn’t get out of bed to switch on the light, or so completely out of it she didn’t know when it was night?

  “So what’s the deal with Tick?” he said, without looking at his passenger. “She got something going with this John Voss?” The reason he wanted Justin along, he now recalled, wasn’t just to have somebody keep watch. He wanted to think this whole situation through one more time. Double Dibble was in art class and sat at the same table with Tick and John Voss—and that fat pig Candace—so maybe he could help Zack out a little.

  Justin shrugged. “She just feels sorry for him.”

  Zack considered this possibility. True, Tick was like that, big-hearted when it came to losers. She had this idea she was going to be an artist, but unless Zack missed his guess, she’d probably end up opening a home for three-legged dogs. He’d recently seen a story on TV about some shit-for-brains woman in California who took in wounded animals of every description, even big fuckers that ate like fifty pounds of dog food a day, and let them limp and hop around her ranch like an army of spastics. Instead of begging donations to feed them, what she should’ve asked for was enough bullets to put them out of their misery. “So how come she got him a job at her old man’s restaurant?”

  Justin shrugged, clearly thinking he’d just answered that question. Getting the kid a job was something you might do if you felt sorry for him. “She’s in love with some kid she met on vacation, is what I heard,” Justin answered instead. “He lives in Indiana or someplace.”

  “Or someplace? Like, one or the other? If not Indiana, then someplace? You sure about that? You sure it’s not, like, someplace else?”

  “I’m just saying what I heard.”

  “Heard from who?”


  “The blow-job queen.”

  “Hey,” Justin said, “she wants to give me a header, I’ll take it.”

  “That’s because you got no standards,” Zack explained.

  “You telling me you wouldn’t like to nuzzle those tits?”

  “She’s a fat cow, is what I’m telling you.”

  “Big tits isn’t the same as fat.” Justin appeared to have strong, confident views on this particular subject. “Fat is stomach and waist and thighs. Big tits is a whole different thing.”

  Zack wasn’t terribly interested in this abstract physiology argument, or any of Double Dibble’s other opinions, either. So what if Tick was in love with some faggot from Indiana or Someplace? Like he was supposed to care? Zack was fast coming around to his father’s point of view on the subject of girls, who seemed to inhabit this earth for the sole purpose of fucking with your head. “They’re not happy unless they get under your skin,” was how his father had explained it, back when he was trying to make Zack understand about his mother and all the trouble and why she left. “They never come at you straight,” his father went on, “like a man would. They just nick away at you, a little nick here, a little nick there. At first you don’t even think you’re bleeding, then the next thing you know you’re a quart low, maybe two.” But they had you over a barrel too, his father always added. What could you do, turn into a fag?

  “What do you bet we find a bunch of queer magazines under his bed?” Zack said. This possibility had come to him last night, and he’d been turning it over in his mind all day. Until they’d played the game, Zack had figured the kid for a total wimp. Now he didn’t know what to think, because Justin was right—the kid hadn’t flinched. He’d held the barrel right to his temple and pulled the trigger, like it was nothing. Of course, if he was a queer, that made sense. He probably figured he was better off dead anyway, so what the fuck.

  “What do you mean we? I already told you I’m not breaking into any house.??

  “It’s not breaking in if you have a key. If we get caught, we’ll just say the door was unlocked and we just stopped by to see if our buddy John wanted to hang out. No big deal.”

  “He’s gonna freak when he finds out.”

  “Why? What’s he so afraid of?” This fucking kid who didn’t flinch.

  “He’s probably, like, ashamed or something.”

  “Ashamed or something? What’s that, like Indiana or Someplace?”

  “Maybe his grandmother’s this crazy lady who pisses in her stockings or talks in tongues and shit. I don’t like anybody meeting my parents, either. My old man raises up on one cheek to fart. His corduroy chair’s got this smell you wouldn’t believe. My mom sleeps till noon and wanders around in her robe all day.”

  “I’m sure they’re real proud of you, too,” Zack said.

  CROUCHING LOW, they crept along the treeline toward the dilapidated house in the pale light of an almost full moon. In the car, Zack had doubted both his purpose and his resolve, but being on his feet and moving made him feel strong and sure. Justin, the pussy, had wanted to wait in the car, but Zack had insisted he come this far. If a passerby stopped and asked Justin what he was doing just sitting there in the dark, he’d piss his pants and blow the whole thing.

  “What if she’s got a shotgun or something?” Justin whispered, when they’d made it as far as the stand of pine trees twenty yards from the back porch.

  “The same crazy old woman who pisses her stockings has a fucking shotgun?”

  “I lived all the way out here with no neighbors, I’d have one.”

  “Why are you such a pussy?”

  He shrugged. “What am I supposed to do while you’re in there?”

  “How should I know? Think about Candace’s tits and jerk off.”

  “Okay,” Justin said, and with that he pretended to do as instructed.

  This was the dangerous part, Zack thought as he moved out across the weedy lawn toward the back of the house. For twenty yards he’d be in the open, visible in the moonlight from both the road and the house. Maybe girls were a mystery, like his father said, but to Zack fear was an even bigger puzzle. The way it came and went. The way it made no sense. That’s what the game was all about, really, and the reason he’d invented it in the first place. If the gun was empty and you knew it, if you’d taken the bullets out yourself and you’d double-checked to make sure you hadn’t missed any, then the fucking thing couldn’t shoot you. If you knew anything in the world at the instant you pulled the trigger, you knew that. Why, then, was it so hard to do? Why, if you weren’t this fucking Voss kid, did you flinch?

  He wished now that he’d never introduced him to the game. Almost wished he’d never invented it. In the beginning it was fun, watching people freak out when they saw you do it. Tick had been the worst. He’d known better, even at the time, than to play the game with her, but he’d gone ahead and done it anyway—though he never expected her to go completely ballistic. Afterward, showing her all over again that the gun was empty, that there hadn’t been any danger at all, only seemed to make her madder, and she’d refused to speak to him until he promised never to play again.

  Now he wished he’d kept the promise. In breaking it, he’d hoped the news would get back to her and she’d realize it was because of how she was treating him. Except the whole thing had backfired. He knew it made no sense, but seeing this Voss kid not flinch had fucked him up somehow. Two nights in a row he’d lain awake thinking about it, knowing this fucking kid had upped the ante to the point where the next step was to spin a real bullet in the chamber, and then they’d see what they were really made of. He could feel that awful necessity growing inside him, and part of him was glad. The other part, the late-at-night part that couldn’t sleep, was scared, probably even more scared than that shit-scared Fairhaven pansy who kept pretending to have headaches. But maybe, Zack thought as he scurried across the lawn toward the porch, there was another way, because there was something inside this house that John Voss feared more than any gun.

  He was almost at the back porch steps when the ground suddenly dipped, which sent him lunging forward to regain his balance, and with his next step he tripped over what felt like some kind of iron rod sticking out of the ground. He went down hard, narrowly avoiding impaling himself on the spike. His shin burned, and through the ripped denim of his jeans he could feel warm blood.

  His first thought was that he’d stumbled into a horseshoe pit, but then he discovered that a thick chain was attached to the top of the spike, the sort of chain that you might find a large dog on the other end of. Or in the house. The possibility of a mean-assed dog hadn’t occurred to Zack until that very moment. He’d just about concluded that this whole idea was too fucked up when his foot brushed against something wooden, and he found there on the ground, against all laws of probability, the very thing he needed if there was a dog: a baseball bat.

  He went up the porch steps as quietly as he could, and when the top riser groaned under his weight, he cringed in anticipation of a volley of barking, but none came. He paused at the back door, listening, but the house was silent, and after a minute he leaned the bat in the corner and took from his pocket the set of keys his father was always boasting would open any door in Dexter County. The third key on the ring worked, and the door swung open into darkness.

  AFTER A FEW MINUTES, it occurred to Justin Dibble that the suggestion his friend had offered in jest wasn’t such a bad idea, so he unzipped his fly and went to work. It took a while, and he had to stop once when a car slowed at the sight of the Camaro parked there on the shoulder, but then sped off in the direction of Fairhaven. Justin had barely finished when he heard a sound and saw a dark figure trotting back across the lawn, and he only just managed to tuck himself in before Zack arrived back at the stand of trees. Justin was afraid that his friend would guess what he’d been up to, but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere. Even in the pale moonlight Justin could see his eyes were gleaming with excitement.

  But all he said was, “This is SO FUCKING GREAT!”


  TICK HAS LEARNED several interesting things about Mrs. Roderigue. For instance, that her favorite painter is Bill Taylor, who has a show, Painting for Relaxation, on the local access channel. Taylor’s specialties are old rowboats and the rocky Maine shoreline, and most of his paintings contain both of these features. Amazingly, he manages to complete a painting, start to finish, during his one-hour time slot, and when he’s on location instead of painting from a photograph or postcard, that hour includes the time it takes him to set up his easel. He prefers to work in watercolors, freely admitting that oils slow him down. He always keeps a battery-operated hair dryer on hand so he can blow-dry the freshly applied paint and save precious seconds.

  In truth, Tick does like to watch him work on TV, and she can’t help but admire the way he attacks the canvas—Taylor’s own phrase—something she knows she has to learn. Where her own strokes are tentative and often fearful, Bill Taylor’s brush never seems to do anything that causes him regret or even misgiving. To Tick it seems as though his arm, wrist, hand, fingers and brush are all an extension of his eye, or perhaps his will. When he does make a mistake, he just chuckles and says, “Never mind. We’ll fix that later,” and sure enough, he does.

  Tick knows there are many secrets she has yet to discover, and she looks forward to the day when she, too, will have dozens of good tricks with which to magically transform mistakes. But what she’d most like to acquire is the whole attitude. Nothing in her experience suggests that mistakes rectify themselves in the fullness of time, and certainly not in an hour. Quite often, it seems to her, there’s good reason to be alarmed by them, the most indelible things on her canvas.

  For instance, she’s made the mistake of being Zack Minty’s friend again, an error in judgment based in part on his insistence that he’d changed, which he has—for the worse. Zack always had a frightening, smoldering quality, as if he might at any
moment burst into flame, but lately he seems already on fire, someone to step back from, though Tick seems to be the only person to notice the difference. John Voss is another mistake, though befriending him was the principal’s idea, not hers. In some ways John is the exact opposite of Zack, a boy whose tiny flame is flickering for lack of oxygen. At first his job at the Empire Grill and their lunch arrangement seemed to be doing some good, but over the last few days he’s become even more suspicious and darkly silent than before. He shows so few signs of life that Tick half expects to look across the Blue table at him and find that he’s stopped breathing.

  Between these two and Candace, who as usual is driving her crazy, she doesn’t like to think what her life would be like if Donny hadn’t finally contacted her with his e-mail address, or if she hadn’t convinced Walt—who she’d have to start being nice to, eventually—to get hooked up to a server. She’ll actually see Donny in less than a week, and when she thinks about this her throat gets full and happiness comes over her so powerfully that she has all she can do to conceal it from her friends. Love is what this happiness feels like.

  What she suspects but would like to know for sure is whether Mrs. Roderigue’s in love with Bill Taylor. Tick has met Mrs. Roderigue’s husband, who is also named Bill, a man who resembles a human bowling ball. The reason their marriage has been so successful, Mrs. Roderigue tells anyone willing to listen, is their shared devotion to the Lord, but Tick imagines Mrs. R. has a secret devotion to Bill Taylor, who is tall and lean and somehow elegant with a full head of unruly hair. To Tick, he resembles one of his own paintbrushes, and she can’t help wondering whether Mrs. Roderigue regrets ending up with a bowling ball when there was a paintbrush not so very far away on the coast of Maine. If so, she’s made a mistake that has not rectified itself in the fullness of time.

  To Tick, Mrs. Roderigue’s love life is not that pleasant to contemplate, but neither is the possibility that there is no such thing as love for certain unfortunate people. She would like to think it’s a possibility, if only as a long shot, for everyone. Mrs. Roderigue certainly speaks of Bill Taylor as if she were in love with him. She says she wonders every year if there might be a budding Bill Taylor among her young apprentices, and yes, from time to time she sees potential, but then in some way or other all of her students seem to fall short. His style, she adds dreamily, may in the end be unique.

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