Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Last week Mrs. Roderigue gave her students the Bill Taylor assignment of watching Painting for Relaxation in order to discuss the great man’s technique in class on Monday. To the teacher’s grave disappointment, Tick alone had watched, though she’d forgotten it was homework and saw the program only because she usually did. Bill Taylor’s show, despite its title, contained more genuine suspense than anything else on television. At times—say, with only ten minutes left—it didn’t seem possible he could finish the day’s painting, but you were always wrong to wager against a man who wielded a brush with such vigor. Sometimes he finished with only seconds to spare, without even enough time for a proper good-bye to his television audience, but somehow he always completed his painting. Tick isn’t sure how to feel about this. The fact that he always finishes adds to the suspense each week, but sometimes Tick finds herself hoping something will happen to prevent him, like a gust of wind tipping over his easel and scattering his brushes; but then she feels guilty for wishing failure on this poor man, which is sort of like going to an auto race hoping to see an accident. Tick would’ve been interested to know John Voss’s thoughts on Bill Taylor, but she doubts there is a television at his grandmother’s house.

  “So, Christina,” said Mrs. Roderigue, clearly disappointed to have to carry on this important conversation with her least favorite student, “how would you describe Mr. Taylor’s style?”

  Tick knew the correct answer, of course. The word Mrs. Roderigue had in mind was of the sort that might’ve been printed on one of those scenic postcards that Bill Taylor painted from. A word like “sublime.” Why not give it to her?

  Instead, she said, “Fast.”

  THE MOST DISTURBING THING Tick has learned about Mrs. Roderigue is that she’s related by marriage to the Mintys, which may be why Zack always has a hall pass bearing her signature. This allows him to leave his study hall once or twice a week to join her and John Voss in the cafeteria. Ever since Tick made it clear that she’s not interested in being his girlfriend, Zack has intensified his ridicule of the other boy to such a degree that she’s considering telling Mr. Meyer what’s going on. Even with a pass Zack has no business being in the cafeteria or having a key to let himself in, and she knows that if the principal got wind of it, Zack would get in trouble, maybe even be suspended from the football team. She’s also debated telling her father, except she’s afraid of what he might do, given how much he despises Zack’s father.

  She should do something, she knows, for John Voss’s sake, but at times he almost seems to feed on the abuse, and if he won’t do anything in his own defense, why should she? And so, for now, she has decided on a policy of appeasement, feeling that even though her influence on Zack is greatly diminished, she still has some, and she fears, too, that if she told him she didn’t even want to be his friend anymore, he’d be capable of far worse.

  Tick is fully aware of the dangers inherent in this policy, since they’re studying World War II in European History, and the consensus seems to be that Hitler should’ve been confronted sooner. Tick doesn’t disagree, exactly, but she’s mystified why her classmates seem so blind to the costs of open hostility. Last week they were shown a movie that began with the D day invasion of Normandy, and even before the first American soldier, a boy not much older than Tick, had been shot in the head when the big doors to the amphibious troop transports were lowered into the surf, Tick felt her left arm growing numb and she had to rest her forehead on the cool desktop to keep from being ill. Ten minutes into the film Mr. Meyer had come in and helped her out of the classroom.

  So, for now, anyway, appeasement. And if she’s wrong? At the bottom of her backpack is the stolen Exacto knife she hasn’t yet returned to the supply closet, though she’s had countless opportunities. Sometimes, when Zack’s tormenting John Voss in the cafeteria or, like today, visiting art class on some flimsy pretext so his friend Justin Dibble can join in the sport, Tick imagines pulling out the knife and swiping it across his wide, stupid forehead.

  “So, John,” her former boyfriend is saying, “how’s your grandmother? She doing okay?”

  The boy doesn’t acknowledge this question or even look up from his painting. The class is now working in watercolor, Bill Taylor’s favorite medium, and Mrs. Roderigue, apparently weary of her students’ subject matter, has brought a vase of flowers and set it up in the center of the room, temporarily rearranging her color-coded tables into a large U so everyone has a good view of the floral arrangement. In this new symmetry, since all of the tables are identical, there’s no differentiating Blue from Red until someone sits down, thereby establishing the table’s identity for the day. Every day this week Tick and the Voss boy have arrived early and established a different table as Blue, today choosing the one closest to Mrs. Roderigue’s desk. This was Tick’s idea, actually. She was curious to see what lengths the woman would go to in order to avoid paying Blue any attention. So far—and the period only has ten minutes to go—Mrs. Roderigue hasn’t even looked in their direction except when Zack entered a few minutes ago and sat down next to Candace.

  Though obviously Zack doesn’t belong here, Tick is just as glad to be ignored by their teacher. She finds it difficult to paint anything with someone watching over her shoulder, and of course she’d feel duty bound to ignore any artistic advice of Mrs. Roderigue’s, anyway. Since she described Bill Taylor’s style as fast, she’s sensed that the woman’s opinion of her, never high, has fallen precipitously. “Is that a smart-aleck answer?” she’d demanded. Tick assured her that it was not, but the teacher continued to look insulted on her idol’s behalf.

  What Tick wonders now is whether she’ll be accused of doing a smart-aleck painting. At the center of the bouquet is a monstrous peony, probably purchased on sale at the supermarket. By Tuesday its curling petals had begun to collect at the bottom of the vase, infusing the room with the faint but unmistakably sweet odor of corruption and imminent death. Tick knows that what Mrs. Roderigue intended is for her students to paint the peony as it had appeared on Monday when it was still beautiful, at least to her way of thinking. In Tick’s opinion there was something extravagantly excessive about the peony from the start, as if God had intended to suggest with this particular bloom that you could have too much of a good thing. The swiftness with which the fallen petals began to stink drove the point home in case anybody missed it. As a rule, Tick leans toward believing that there is no God, but she isn’t so sure at times like this, when pockets of meaning emerge so clearly that they feel like divine communication. She realizes it’s entirely possible that this is simply Tick communicating with Tick, but she is willing, largely in deference to her father, who believes in God and wishes she did too, to keep an open mind.

  Her apprehension about the watercolor has to do with her decision to depict not the peony’s beauty but rather its rancid decay. The other smart-alecky thing is that she’s painting the shapes of her fellow students, the ones who are facing her as they paint the flowers, into the background. While this hasn’t been strictly prohibited, Tick’s pretty sure Mrs. Roderigue hasn’t intended for anyone to see beyond the flowers themselves. She will also not be pleased to see that Tick has painted one of the tables green, the one next to it brilliant red, or that behind them is the boxy, hovering shape of the teacher herself.

  “You’re one lucky dude, John,” Zack’s saying. “Having a grandmother to take care of you, I mean.”

  Tick cannot help but turn and stare at him, though she doesn’t indulge this need for more than a second. With John Voss sitting there, of course, there’s no way to say the obvious—that if he weren’t spectacularly unlucky, his parents would be taking care of him. In fact, for the last few days, for reasons Tick doesn’t understand, Zack has been taking every opportunity to insert the boy’s grandmother into every conversation. Saying what a fine woman she must be. And how he’d like to meet her sometime. Didn’t they think she’d make a good subject for Community Heroes, a monthly feature on the local TV channel? E
arlier in the week, when Zack first suggested this in the cafeteria, John Voss had looked up from the sandwich Tick had brought for him, and the expression in his pale, watery eyes had confused her, even frightened her, though she couldn’t say why. Now he seems to have removed himself and gone to a place even farther away.

  “Hey,” Zack says, nudging Candace, off on a new tack now. “I’ve thought of a good name for Tick’s new boyfriend.”

  Except for the fact that there’s a boy she likes who lives in Indiana, Tick has revealed nothing about Donny, not even his name, so in retaliation for her secrecy, Zack has come up with this new name game.

  “Hickman,” he says, snorting loud enough for everyone over at the Red table to hear. “Get it? I mean, the boy’s from fucking Indiana!”

  For the last few days he’s been openly flirting with Candace, trying to make Tick jealous. Strange, when Zack did this with other girls last year, she simply couldn’t control her own feelings of hurt and betrayal, even rage. Not giving a shit, she’s decided, is like the defrost option on a car’s heater that miraculously unfogs the windshield, allowing you to see where you’re headed. It’s now Candace, poor girl, whose windshield’s all foggy. She broke up with Bobby, the boy who may or may not have been in jail, even citing Zack as the reason why. According to Candace, Bobby’s “out” now, and rumor has it he’s coming to Empire Falls to find this Minty asshole who stole his girl and kick his ass. Clearly, she can’t quite believe her good fortune to have Zack Minty interested in her—which shows she’s not entirely stupid, Tick thinks, since he isn’t. What he’ll do is continue flirting with Candace until he’s sure that Tick really doesn’t care, and then he’ll tell people it was all just a joke. What Tick’s coming to realize is that in some way Zack’s never been interested in her either, though not, she suspects, in the same way he’s not interested in Candace. While part of her would like to understand this better, the other part is glad she doesn’t.

  “Oh-my-God-oh-my-God … I’ve got it!” Candace shrieks. Whatever she’s got is just too great. She can hardly stand it. “Is it okay if I say it?” she asks Tick. She’d like to be forgiven in advance of her disloyalty. She’s been asking her all day if it’s okay that she and Zack are maybe going to start hanging out. Now she’d like to be sure it’s okay if she participates in this new “Let’s Make Fun of Tick’s New Boyfriend” game.

  “Knock yourself out,” Tick tells her, not wanting to deny Candace pleasure. If her windshield weren’t all fogged up, she’d see heartbreak speeding right at her, its high beams on.

  The bell is going to ring in just a few minutes and what Tick would like to know is whether her painting is finished. That’s one of the many things Bill Taylor is always so sure about. She’d also like to know whether Mrs. Roderigue will recognize herself looming out of focus behind the Red table.

  “Goober,” Candace says with a peal of laughter. “Goober Hickman.”

  Zack Minty turns to regard her, deadpan. “That’s really funny. Laugh, I thought I’d die,” he says, and the girl’s laughter dies in her throat.

  “It’s as funny as what you said,” Justin Dibble offers, causing Tick to glance in his direction. She catches his eye for a split second before he looks away. She has long suspected he’s fond of Candace, that his teasing her has been intended as a courtship ritual. Since Zack began flirting with Candace earlier in the week, Justin has been wearing an expression of hurt and betrayal, though he hasn’t openly broken ranks until now. Tick wonders what the cost of his doing so will be.

  Zack may be pondering the same question, because he does not register his friend’s challenge except to include him when he turns his attention back to silent John Voss. “Let’s let John Voss decide,” he suggests. “Hey, John. The subject is Tick’s new boyfriend. Which is the funnier name? Hickman or Goober?”

  John Voss raises his eyes to look at Tick, and it occurs to her that this may be the first time he’s heard about Donny. He quickly drops his eyes again, but before he does, Tick sends him a look she hopes will suggest that it doesn’t matter if he wants to answer.

  “Okay, how about this?” Zack says, when the boy doesn’t respond. “Which do you think your grandmother would think is funnier?”

  The bell rings then, and Minty shoves his chair back and stands up, pausing for a moment to tower over John Voss, who seems not even to have heard the bell. Candace quickly gets to her feet too—girl on a string—and after a beat they head for the door together, Justin watching them go through narrowed eyes.

  “Ask her for us, okay, John?” Zack calls over his shoulder.

  Her painting, Tick decides, is finished. For the same reason that Bill Taylor’s paintings are always finished. Because the hour is up.


  HE RECOGNIZED HER VOICE immediately, though it had been nearly four years, at his high school graduation, since he’d heard it last. “Hello, dear boy,” she said, and the “hello” was all it took, the “dear boy” merely confirming and intensifying his visceral reaction. Was this what criminals in the Witness Protection Program felt like when they were recognized on the street by a former associate? “I’ve been trying to reach you for days. I’m afraid you’d better come home.”

  Just that quickly, everything in his life changed. How long had it taken to make the arrangements? Fifteen minutes? Had he spoken or merely listened? Later, he was unable to reconstruct much of the conversation, but he had not resisted. Of that much he was sure. After all, he wasn’t in the Witness Protection Program. He was Miles Roby, and his mother was dying.

  The reason Mrs. Whiting hadn’t been able to reach him was that his roommate, Peter, and his girlfriend, Dawn, had convinced him to join them on Martha’s Vineyard over the long Columbus Day weekend. It was Indian summer in southern Maine, and it would be even warmer in Massachusetts. Besides, wasn’t it Miles who was always telling them how beautiful the island was? (He’d told them about the Vineyard so that they’d understand that he’d been somewhere besides Empire Falls.) Except that he couldn’t really afford it, there was no reason not to go. He’d already made an excuse not to go home over the long weekend, telling his mother that between his regular classwork and his editorial responsibilities at the school literary magazine, he was swamped. It occurred to him now that when they’d spoken on the phone last week, she’d sounded almost relieved.

  He’d gotten good at coming up with excuses to avoid Empire Falls and, since his sophomore year, had managed to spend very little time there. Peter’s parents owned a seafood restaurant on the Rhode Island coast, and the last two summers Miles had worked for them—in the kitchen the first year, out front as a waiter the second. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant. They served mostly clam and shrimp baskets to tourists, but the money was good and Miles had very few expenses. He’d been allowed to stay for free in a spare bedroom that had been Peter’s older brother’s, so he was able to save nearly all of his earnings for tuition. Peter’s parents seemed to like him, and he liked them too, especially their easy affection for each other and their common cause when it came to doing things in the restaurant, always making each other’s tasks lighter, their eyes constantly feeling out the other from across the room.

  His experience at the Empire Grill stood him in good stead, and he’d made himself indispensable, unlike Peter, who seemed determined to convince his parents that he was entirely dispensable. He was always wanting days off to go to the beach or to visit the three different girls he was stringing along, one of whom was Dawn. If Peter’s parents hadn’t forced Miles to take a day off now and then, usually a slow Monday or Tuesday evening, he would’ve worked straight through the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. When they offered him time off to go home, they accepted his excuses without actually believing them. Peter, Miles suspected, had explained that his parents were poor and that the money he was earning was nothing short of a godsend.

  The truth was that Miles had come to dread even the rare, brief, unavoidable visits to Empire Falls
. He hadn’t been a college freshman for more than a few weeks before deciding that this was where he belonged, among people who loved books and art and music, enthusiasms he was hard-pressed to explain to the guys lazing around the counter at the Empire Grill, talking the Bruins and the Sox. Even harder to accept—did he even understand it himself?—was his increasing sense of estrangement from his own family. Getting to know his roommate’s parents so well, witnessing how much they loved each other, he’d seen clearly for the first time that his own parents’ marriage, far from a sacred union, was a kind of sad mockery, a realization that made him especially angry with his mother. He’d have been angry with his father, too, except there wasn’t much point, since Max wouldn’t notice, for one thing, and wouldn’t care, for another.

  Grace’s feelings, however, could be hurt, so Miles hurt them by suggesting in various subtle ways what a fool she was for not leaving a man like Max. Anyone so foolish, he implied, probably deserved what she got. Could leaving have resulted in more misery than staying had? He was even prepared to tell his mother she’d have done better to run off with that Charlie Mayne fellow they’d met when he was a boy. At least the two of them might’ve been happy, instead of everybody being miserable. Except for Max, of course, who remained Max in any scenario.

  The problem was that Grace hadn’t obliged him by saying what he’d expected her to, never once claimed to have sacrificed her own happiness for his and his brother’s—a claim he felt sure he himself would’ve made, had the shoe been on the other foot. Stranger still, Grace had simply smiled at his characterization of her “not leaving” Max. “I wonder what you mean by that, Miles,” she’d asked him, and of course he immediately saw what she meant. How do you go about leaving a man who was so seldom around to begin with? Why would you? “Do you mean that I didn’t divorce him?” Well, yes, that was what he’d meant, though his shrug was intended to suggest that he’d meant that and a lot more. She responded by regarding him patiently until he finally saw the truth, then concluded the issue for him. “Have you ever seen a husband and wife more completely ‘put asunder’ than your father and me?”

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