Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  She also seemed to want him to understand that what she’d done was precisely what he’d blamed her for not doing. She not only had walked away from the life he considered her to be trapped in but also had acquired another new whole family, or hadn’t he noticed? And it was the second family, he realized, not the first, that was the true source of his confusion. On each dreaded vacation from St. Luke’s he’d witnessed his mother’s increasing absence from their own home, even when she was present in the house. It was as if they’d both gone off to college, not just him. And just as his real life was now at St. Luke’s, his mother’s real life now lay across the river with Mrs. Whiting and her daughter. Miles had seen all this coming even back in high school, but he’d looked away, because on the surface, things weren’t so very different. His father, as far back as Miles could remember, had always been either gone or on his way to the nearest pub.

  The difference now was that Grace no longer cared. Nor did she seem to comprehend the difficulties her own absence was causing. Right before her eyes David was turning from a sickly, sweet-mannered child into a healthy, angry, troubled adolescent, a transition that appeared to puzzle and sadden Grace without moving her to action. With each visit to Empire Falls it became clearer to Miles that his brother was, in essence, an abandoned child who was developing his own survival strategies, one of which was to ape his father’s careless indifference and self-sufficiency. Miles could tell just by looking at David that he was one of those kids who featured in faculty negotiations each fall. The teacher who got stuck with David Roby would want to be compensated with two or three good students of his or her own choosing. “He’s just trying to get attention,” Grace told the high school principal when David got into trouble, and then more trouble, and then worse trouble. She said the same thing to Miles when she explained over the phone what his brother had done this time. She seemed genuinely lost and brokenhearted about the boy, but in the rueful way you might worry about a niece or nephew you’d always been fond of, but who was, after all, your sister’s child and not your responsibility.

  But Grace also seemed unaware of what was happening to herself. With each passing season, she grew more gaunt, more ghostlike. When he asked if she wasn’t feeling well, she told him she was just going through the change early. Some women did. Far from being troubled by this, Grace seemed almost grateful. Was it possible that only a dozen years ago this same woman was still in radiant bloom, that in her white summer dress she’d turned the head of every man on Martha’s Vineyard? That Grace seemed to have no recollection of that woman was enough to break his heart. Enough to make him find excuses to stay away. Enough to enter, had the opportunity been offered, the Witness Protection Program. It hadn’t yet occurred to him that this was precisely what college is.

  “SHE’LL BE FURIOUS,” he warned Mrs. Whiting on the phone, after it was all decided. First thing in the morning he would see the dean of students, explain the situation and take a leave of absence. Mrs. Whiting would send a car for him, and by midafternoon he’d be at his mother’s bedside. Grace would remain at home for the time being and continue with her chemotherapy and radiation treatments—was it possible that these had begun nearly six weeks ago and Grace hadn’t told him?—but eventually she would be moved to Mrs. Whiting’s single-floor house, where it would be easier to care for her. Neither Grace nor anyone else in the Roby family had had health insurance since she lost her job at the shirt factory, but Mrs. Whiting told him not to worry about medical bills. Old Roger Sperry, it so happened, was also ill, and needed help at the Empire Grill. If Miles was willing to gradually take over and run the restaurant for a year or so, until they could find and train a new manager, Mrs. Whiting would see to it that Grace had what she needed. Eventually, of course, he would return to school and finish his degree. “She’ll hate us both, Mrs. Whiting. You do realize that?”

  “You always did worry about the oddest things, dear boy,” the old woman replied nostalgically. Miles had no idea what she meant by this remark and was afraid to ask. “Your mother will no doubt be angry at first, but she will never find it in her heart to hate you. Whether or not she hates me is rather beside the point, don’t you think?”

  “What about—?”

  “My daughter?” Mrs. Whiting guessed, rather uncannily, Miles thought. “She’ll want to be here, of course. You know how devoted she is to your mother. Far more than to her own, I dare say. And when she finds out you’ll be here.… Still, I suppose she might be kept in Augusta for the most part, if you’d prefer.”

  “Mrs. Whiting,” Miles said, “why would I want that?”

  In response to this, silence. Meaning that he shouldn’t ask questions he didn’t want answered.

  “I understand she’s doing better?” Miles ventured. The summer before last he’d received an envelope at the restaurant in Rhode Island, addressed to him in his mother’s small, neat hand. Folded carefully inside a single sheet of Grace’s pale green note paper—Cindy is not doing well, she’d written. A card from you would mean the world—was a newspaper clipping. C. B. Whiting’s obituary from the Empire Gazette stated that Mr. Whiting, who had recently returned from Mexico, had died at home as the result of an accidental gunshot wound, the weapon having discharged while he was cleaning it.

  Miles would not learn the truth for nearly two months. He’d come home on Labor Day for the briefest of visits—registration at St. Luke’s started on Tuesday—and mentioned C. B. Whiting’s accident to his father. “What accident?” Max had snorted, then chuckled. “You put a loaded gun to your head and pull the trigger, the hole the bullet makes is no accident.”

  Which caused Miles to think back. Some part of his brain had registered that something about the obituary and his mother’s note was odd. It was unlike her to have so little to say about such a tragedy, especially one that touched her second family so directly. And had he thought about it, he might have noted another curious thing. The obituary was long, as befitted an important man, its details filling two columns. At the top of the second was “C. B. WHITING,” in boldface type that resembled the caption to a photo. It hadn’t occurred to Miles when he opened his mother’s letter, or later when his father revealed that the “accident” had been a suicide, to wonder why Grace had clipped around the photo. After all, Miles had never met the man, and wouldn’t have known him, to borrow one of Max’s favorite phrases, from a bag of assholes.

  “And on what basis do you understand that she’s doing better?” Mrs. Whiting said flatly.

  “My mother wrote—”

  “Yes, of course. But then, your mother is as devoted to my daughter as Cindy is to her. If wishing made it so, people the world over would visit our Grace instead of Lourdes.”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling ruefully. The woman still had the ability to nonplus him. In three and a half years at St. Luke’s, he’d never met anyone remotely like her.

  “Mrs. Whiting,” he said, “I owe you an apology.”

  “Whatever for, dear boy?”

  “I haven’t been back home much these last couple years. But when I was there, I should’ve come to see you.”

  “Well, never mind that,” she told him, without, he noted, denying the truth of his assertion. “You’re going to be home now. Aren’t you, dear boy?”

  OF COURSE, part of the reason that Miles hadn’t realized in high school that his mother was undergoing a transformation was that he attributed her increasing vagueness about their own family to years of disappointment and exhaustion and too much responsibility. He noticed—as Max did not, or didn’t appear to—that she was no longer vested in her husband, and he was troubled that Grace was so forgetful about his brother. But she was only rarely vague or distant with Miles himself. More often her concern for his future, far from abstract, bordered on mania. In fact, during Miles’s junior and senior years, Grace had two obsessions, equally powerful. She was determined that Miles would go to college and that Cindy Whiting would attend her senior prom. Each goal seemed like a
long shot to Miles. Together, they might be seen as evidence that Grace was purposely setting herself up for some sort of emotional train wreck.

  And it wasn’t just college she had in mind for Miles. He was to go out of state, which rendered the difficult virtually impossible. Gaining admission to the University of Maine presented no particular problem, and paying for tuition, board and books there was relatively inexpensive. The problem was that word “relative,” because Miles had no idea where even that small sum would come from. Add out-of-state tuition on top of such expenses and the idea became laughable. When he pressed his mother about why distance was so important to her, she surprised him by saying, “So you won’t be able to come home whenever you want to.” The Farmington branch of the U of M was less than forty-five minutes away, the main campus at Orono about an hour. Kids who went there, she explained, often flocked home on weekends, and this, she was determined, he would not do. “I don’t cross that river every day of my adult life so my son can come running back to Empire Falls.”

  He’d heard the phrase “crossing the river” so often during high school that it no longer truly registered. “Why do you think I cross that river every day?” she often asked him when they argued. “Why do you imagine I do that, Miles? I do it so that you won’t have to.” Or, “Do you think I enjoy crossing that river every day? Do you?” The way she asked such questions, her eyes wild, her voice shrill, was not without its comic aspect, at least to a high school boy. She spoke, it seemed to Miles, as if there were no bridge, as if she daily forded the Knox River’s strong current at the risk of being swept over the falls and dashed upon the rocks. But strangely, not crossing the river seemed unthinkable, and when Miles suggested that she look for another job, she reacted as if he’d suggested something not just naive—a job? in Empire Falls?—but also unprincipled, as if hers were the only honest work available. It was as if she’d come to see crossing the river each morning as a deeply symbolic act, and his failure to see the necessity of it illustrated just how little he understood about her, the river and life itself.

  But she was no more obsessed with Miles’s going off to college than she was with Cindy Whiting’s attending her senior prom. The two events were linked in her mind, of equal weight and significance. When his mother began to talk, a full year in advance, about making sure that Cindy had a date, Miles didn’t object because as yet he had no idea how much it meant to her or of the lengths to which she would go to ensure that it came to pass. What he thought Grace had in mind was to use her knowledge of Mrs. Whiting’s friends and acquaintances to locate a suitable date for the poor girl. Surely there must be some second or third cousin somewhere who might be apprised of the situation, convinced of its gravity and pressed into service. Only when his mother asked him to keep an eye out for some shy classmate who might betray any small sign of affection for the girl, did Miles comprehend the precise nature of her delusion: that a date for Cindy Whiting might be found at Empire High, a notion that struck him as only slightly more ridiculous than the idea they might “find” money for out-of-state tuition if they just looked hard enough. Only gradually did the basis for his mother’s confidence dawn on him, and when it did he set about the task of finding some other girl to fall in love with and ask to the prom. If he could manage this, his mother would have to come up with a new strategy, and when she failed, at least he would seem to be blameless. Falling in love, he noticed, was something people accepted as natural, something they couldn’t blame you for.

  THE PROBLEM WAS, he already was in love.

  It didn’t do him any good, either, because Charlene Gardiner was a full three years out of high school and the odds of her accepting his invitation to the senior prom ranked right up there with his mother’s wishful thinking about out-of-state tuition and a romance for Cindy Whiting. Still, Miles continued to hope for a miracle. During his junior year he’d taken a job as busboy at the Empire Grill so that he might be near Charlene, and during his senior year he even worked a few hours after school, three or four days a week, for the same purpose. On afternoons when he wasn’t working, he talked his friend Otto Meyer into accompanying him to the restaurant for Cokes and later coffee, which they hoped might make them look older. What confused Miles enough to keep his hopes alive when he might have been more productively engaged in trying to get some other girl to like him was that Charlene Gardiner acted genuinely fond of him, despite the fact that she always had at least one boyfriend her own age or older. Being in high school, Miles had no idea there were girls in the world who might be nice to some boy who’d suffered the misfortune of falling in love with them, even when they couldn’t return the favor. Charlene Gardiner was such a girl. Instead of seeing Miles’s crush on her as an occasion for ridicule—by far the most effective cure for a crush—she managed to convey that both Miles and his infatuation were sweet. She didn’t encourage him to persist in his folly, but neither could she bring herself to treat his devotion as something shabby or worthless. Mockery and contempt Miles would’ve understood and accepted as his due, but affection and gratitude confused him deeply. Gratitude for her kindness clouded his judgment, and the proximity she allowed him was simply too intoxicating to give up, so he convinced himself that her fondness was merely the beginning, that if given the opportunity it would metamorphose quite naturally into love. He made no connection between Charlene Gardiner’s kindness to him and his own kindness to Cindy Whiting, an analogy that might have proved instructive.

  Although his dilemma deepened with each passing day—no closer to finding a girl to ask to the prom, while inching ever nearer to having one “found” for him—Miles took some slender comfort in the fact that Otto Meyer wasn’t making much headway either. He too had family problems. His father, an angry, aggressive man, had recently suffered a stroke, and he returned home from the hospital madder than ever, except that he was no longer able to express his fury. The stroke-flattened side of his face placid and unmoving, the unaffected side red and contorted, about all he could do was shake his huge head with rage and toss strands of spit through the air like a St. Bernard. Though Otto was also smitten by the charms of the beautiful Charlene Gardiner, he was not, like Miles, prone to unrealistic fantasies. Neither was he blind to the charms of girls his own age, so one gray afternoon in early February when they were sitting across from each other in a booth at the Empire Grill, he informed Miles that he’d asked a girl from their class to go to the prom with him and she’d accepted. Miles tried hard not to appear crestfallen. The girl Otto had asked, who years later would become his wife and the mother of his son, was exactly the sort Miles himself should have been looking for. She was pretty, smart, shy and full of fun without knowing quite yet how to express this latent side of her personality. Neither popular nor unpopular, she wore unfashionable clothes at her mother’s insistence and somehow intuited, as certain remarkable young girls will, that there were worse things than not being popular, that life was long, that she would one day have perfectly adequate breasts, that in fact there was nothing wrong with her, never mind what others seemed to think. During the days that followed Otto’s bold invitation, about a dozen boys told him how lucky he was, that they’d been about to ask her themselves.

  Once he was over the shock, it was not hard for Miles to feel happy for his friend—but Otto’s unexpected announcement happened to coincide with another that same afternoon. When Charlene Gardiner stopped by their booth to refill their coffees, she accused them both of not being very observant. She then wiggled the fingers of her left hand in front of them provocatively. They were enchantingly lovely fingers and one was encircled by a tiny ring, the significance of which Miles still hadn’t grasped when a motorcycle pulled up outside with a low, throaty rumble and Charlene made a beeline for the door. The young fellow on the bike—he had longish, windblown hair, a leather jacket and a chin that required frequent shaving—barely had time to unstraddle the bike before Charlene was in his arms, and then he was twirling her in the air and they could hear
her whoop through the plate-glass window. Around and around the young man spun this girl that Miles would continue to long for well after she was married—–first to this biker, then to two other men—even after he himself was married. When the twirling out in the parking lot finally stopped, it was Miles who felt dizzy.

  When Charlene came back inside to ask if she could get off her shift a half hour early, Roger Sperry nodded to her from behind the counter, and before the restaurant door could slam shut, she was on the motorcycle, which had throbbed back to life in anticipation of her return, and just that quickly Charlene Gardiner and her new fiancé were gone. “You’ll never guess who my mother wants me to ask,” Miles said to Otto. They weren’t looking at each other, but at the space outside the restaurant window.

  “Cindy Whiting?” Otto said, and when Miles looked at him he just shrugged. “Your mom called mine last week. I thought maybe you’d suggested me.”

  Miles closed his eyes and let the humiliation of what his mother had done wash over him.

  “It’s okay,” Otto assured him. “I mean, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Cindy’s actually kind of pretty, don’t you think?”

  To Miles, this seemed completely beside the point. All he could think of was the chant he’d lived with since last spring when he was learning to drive: Go, Roby, go! Go, Roby, go!

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