Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Go ahead and split if you want,” David told him. “He’ll be wanting to arm-wrestle you in a minute.”

  Miles shrugged. “I think he just comes in to let me know there’s no hard feelings.”

  This elicited a chuckle. “About the way he stole your wife?”

  “Some sins trail their own penance,” Miles said softly, after glancing toward the back room, where Tick could be heard loading dirty dishes into the ancient Hobart. One of the few things Miles and Janine had been able to agree on when their marriage came apart was that they wouldn’t speak ill of each other in front of their daughter. The agreement, Miles knew, worked much to his advantage, since most of the time he had no desire to speak ill of his ex-wife, whereas Janine always appeared to be strangling on her wretched opinion of him. Of course, all the other agreements they’d arrived at—such as letting her stay in the house until it sold and the one that gave her the better car and most of their possessions—worked pretty much in Janine’s favor, which left Miles staggering with debt.

  “Tick really had a good time?”

  Miles nodded. “You should’ve seen her. She was like her old self, before all the shit started raining down on her. She smiled for a solid week.”


  “She met a boy, too.”

  “That always helps.”

  “Don’t tease her about it, now.”

  “Okay,” David promised, though it was one that would be hard for him to keep.

  Miles took off his apron and tossed it in the hamper by the door. “You should take a week yourself. Go someplace.”

  His brother shrugged. “Why invite disaster? I’m down to one arm as it is. I ever let myself go someplace fun, I might start misbehaving, and then I’d have to flip your burgers with my toes.”

  He was right, of course. Miles knew his brother had been sober since the afternoon three years ago when, returning from a hunting trip up in The County, David, drunk, had fallen asleep at the wheel and run his pickup off a mountain road into a ravine. Airborne, the truck had hit a tree and there parted company with its unseatbelted driver, the vehicle careening a good hundred yards down the ravine and coming to rest well out of sight in the thick woods. David, thrown free of the cab, had gotten snagged by his hunting vest in the upper branches of a tree and hung there, some fifty feet above the ground, drifting in and out of consciousness, his arm shattered in several places and four ribs fractured, until he was discovered half frozen the next morning by a group of hunters, one of whom had stationed himself beneath the very tree David improbably dangled from, unable to utter a sound. If his bladder hadn’t given way, as David was fond of remarking, he’d still be twisting there in the frigid wind, a sack of tough L.L. Bean outerwear full of bleached bones.

  That lonely, hallucinatory night had proved more effective than all the therapies he’d undergone in the various substance abuse clinics he’d been admitted to over the previous decade. His old Empire Falls drinking buddies, most of whom were still roaring around Dexter County in beer-laden snowmobiles, occasionally sought David out, hoping to nudge him gently off the wagon by reminding him how much more fun the drinking life was, but so far he’d resisted their invitations. The year before, he’d bought a small camp in the woods off Small Pond Road, and he said that whenever he felt the urge to stare at the world through the brown glass of an empty beer bottle, all he had to do was walk outside on his deck and look up into the pines and listen again to the horrible sound the wind made in their upper branches. Miles hoped this was true. He’d been estranged from his brother at the time of the accident, and continued to observe David warily, not doubting his brother’s intention to reform, just his ability. He still smoked a little dope, Miles knew, and probably even had a small marijuana patch out in the woods, like half his rural Maine neighbors, but he hadn’t had a drink since the accident and he still wore the orange vest that had saved his life.

  Miles surveyed the restaurant, trying to see what he’d left undone. One week away had been sufficient to make it all seem unfamiliar. He’d spent most of yesterday trying to remember where things went. Only when he got busy and didn’t have time to think did his body remember where they were. Today had been better, though not much. “Okay,” he said. “You think of anything you need?”

  David grinned. “All kinds of stuff, but let’s not get started.”

  “Okay,” Miles agreed.

  “You should think about it, Miles,” David said from his knees, where he was checking stores under the counter.

  “About what?”

  His brother just looked up at him.

  “What?” Miles repeated.

  David shrugged, went back to searching under the counter.

  “Number one, I can’t afford it. At least not until I can sell this place. Number two, Janine’d never let me take Tick, and Tick is the one thing I won’t let her have. And number three, who’d look after Dad?”

  His brother stood, a mega-pack of napkins wedged under the elbow of his bad arm, a reminder that Miles had forgotten to fill the dispensers. “Number one, you don’t know if you can afford it because you never found out how much it cost. The owner might be open to a little creative financing for the right buyer. Number two, you could win Tick in court if you were willing to go there and duke it out. You’re not the one who has to worry about being found an unfit parent. And number three, Max Roby is the most self-sufficient man on the face of the earth. He only looks and acts helpless. So when you say you can’t, what you really mean is that it wouldn’t be easy, right?”

  “Have it your way, David,” said Miles, who didn’t feel like arguing. “Give me those.”

  But when he reached for the napkins, his brother turned deftly away. “Go.”

  “David, give me the damn napkins,” Miles said. It was an easy job for a man with two good hands, a hard one for somebody with only one, and it did not escape Miles’s attention that this seemed to be his brother’s point. It would be difficult, but he’d do it anyway. For a man who’d hung by his vest fifty feet up in a tree and nearly frozen to death as a result of his own stupidity, David had always been strangely impatient with the failings of others.

  “Go on. Get out of here.”

  Miles shook his head in surrender. “Did he come in at all last week?”

  “Max? Three afternoons, actually.”

  “You didn’t let him near the register, I hope?” Their father could not be trusted around money, though Miles and David had argued for years about the boundaries of his dishonesty. In Miles’s opinion, there weren’t any. David thought there were, even if they were not always easy to locate. For instance, he believed Max would take money out of his sons’ pockets, but not out of the restaurant’s cash register.

  “I did pay him under the table, though.”

  “I wish you wouldn’t,” Miles said.

  “I know you do, but why not pay him the way he wants? What difference does it make?”

  “For one thing it’s against the law. For another, Mrs. Whiting would have a cow if she thought I was doing anything off the books.”

  “She’d probably prefer it, if she understood there’d be more money left over for her.”

  “Possibly. It might also start her wondering. If I play fast and loose with the government, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with her, too.”

  David nodded the way you do when you’ve been given an inadequate explanation and decide to accept it anyway. “Okay, I got another question for you,” he said, looking directly at Miles. “What makes you think that woman is ever going to give you this restaurant?”

  “She said she would.”

  David nodded again. “I don’t know, Miles,” he said.

  ONLY ONE TUB of dirty lunch dishes remained, but it was a big one, so Miles lugged it into the kitchen and set it on the drainboard, stopping there to listen to the Hobart chug and whir, steam leaking from inside its stainless steel frame. They’d had this dishwasher for, what, twenty years? Twenty-five? He
was pretty sure it was there when Roger Sperry first hired him back in high school. It couldn’t possibly have much more life in it, and if Miles had to guess when it would give out, it’d probably be the day after the restaurant became his. He’d spoken to Mrs. Whiting about replacing it, but a Hobart was a big-ticket item and the old woman wouldn’t hear of any such thing while it was still running. When Miles was feeling generous, he reminded himself that seventy-something-year-old women probably didn’t enjoy being told that things were old and worn-out, that they’d already lived years beyond a normal life expectancy. In less charitable moods, he suspected his employer was shrewdly determined to time the obsolescence of every machine in the restaurant—the Hobart, the Garland range, the grill, the milk machine—to her own ultimate demise, thus minimizing her gift to him as much as possible.

  Their arrangement, struck nearly twenty years ago now—another lifetime, it seemed to Miles—when Roger Sperry fell ill, was that he would run the restaurant for the remainder of Mrs. Whiting’s life, then inherit the place. The deal had been struck in secret because Miles knew his mother would object to his dropping out of college in his senior year; for him to mortgage his future in order to be nearby during her illness would surely fill her with not just despair but also fury. Mrs. Whiting herself had seemed aware that their fait accompli was necessary, that once Grace learned of the arrangement she would talk Miles out of this futile gesture and remind him that she was going to die regardless, that compromising his own prospects was so perverse as to render meaningless her sacrifices on his behalf. Miles knew all this too, and so he had conspired with Mrs. Whiting to give her no such opportunity.

  His mother’s illness aside, taking over the Empire Grill had not seemed like such a terrible idea at the time. As a history major, Miles was coming to understand that it was unlikely he’d be able to find a job without a graduate degree, and there was no money for that. He’d started working at the restaurant during his junior year of high school, returning summers and holidays after going away to college, so no aspect of the restaurant’s operation was beyond him; and while the living it promised would be hard, its rewards meager by the world’s reckoning, by local standards he would make out all right. Why not run the joint for a few years and save some money? He could always finish school later. Mrs. Whiting would just have to understand.

  Of course, all that was before the textile mill closed and the population of Empire Falls began to dwindle as families moved away in search of employment. And Miles, being young, did not know, since there was no way he could, that he’d never love the restaurant as Roger Sperry had, or that the other man’s affection for it had long been the primary engine of its survival. Despite his youth, Miles did understand that people didn’t go to places like the Empire Grill for the food. After only two or three training shifts he was a far better short-order cook than his mentor. Roger proudly proclaimed him a natural, by which he probably meant that Miles remembered what customers asked him for and then gave it to them, something Roger himself seldom managed to do. If he intuited any of Miles’s shortcomings, he was too fond of the boy to share them with him.

  Only after taking over the restaurant did Miles begin to realize that his relationship to the patrons of the Empire Grill had changed profoundly. Before, he’d been the smart kid—Grace Roby’s boy—who was going off to college to make something of himself, and thus had been the object of much gentle, good-natured ridicule. The men at the lunch counter were forever quizzing him about things—the operation of backhoes, say, or the best spot to sink a septic tank—they imagined he must be learning about at college. His complete lack of wisdom on these subjects led them to wonder out loud just what the hell they were teaching down there in Portland. Often they didn’t speak to Miles directly, but through Roger Sperry, as though an interpreter already were necessary. After Roger’s death, the food improved in inverse proportion to the conversation. The men at the lunch counter wouldn’t have said as much to Miles, but in their opinion he spent too much time with his back to them, attending to their sputtering hamburgers rather than their stories and grievances and jokes. While appreciative of his competence, they began to suspect that he had little interest in their conversation and, moreover, was unhappy in general. Roger Sperry had always been so glad to see them that he botched their orders; half the fun of the Empire Grill had been razzing him for these failures. Under Miles’s competent stewardship, the Empire Grill, never terribly profitable, had gone into a long, gentle decline almost imperceptible without the benefit of time-lapse photography, until one day it was suddenly clear that the diner was unprofitable, and so it had remained for years.

  Still, Miles often sensed regret in Mrs. Whiting’s demeanor when she recalled her promise to bequeath him the restaurant. Sometimes she seemed to blame him for its decline and wondered out loud why she needed the aggravation of a business that produced so little revenue. But on other occasions—and there had been several of these—when Miles himself had become discouraged and offered the same argument to his employer, Mrs. Whiting quickly retreated and urged him not to give up, reminding him that the Empire Grill was a landmark, that it was the only non-fast-food establishment in town, and that Empire Falls, if its residents were to remain at all hopeful about the future, needed the grill to survive, even if it didn’t thrive.

  Even more mysterious was the feeling Miles had that Mrs. Whiting wasn’t altogether pleased by recent signs that business was picking up. During the past nine months, thanks to a bold initiative by David, the restaurant was actually beginning to turn around, and for several months that spring had actually turned a small profit. When he expressed this optimistic view to Mrs. Whiting, expecting her to be pleased by the modest reversal of fortune, she regarded both the news and its bearer suspiciously, as if she either didn’t believe the numbers with which she was being presented or feared that the Roby boys might be trying to put something over on her.

  Miles knew Mrs. Whiting had put the bequest in her will, because she showed him the pertinent section of the document all those years ago. What he didn’t know, of course, was whether, as David cautioned, she had ever amended it. That was possible, of course, but he continued to maintain, at least to his brother, that if Mrs. Whiting said she was going to leave him the restaurant, she’d do so. However, he had to admit it would be entirely in character for the old woman to ensure that the restaurant at the time of the transfer would be worth as little as possible. And in the meantime, it was his own responsibility to keep the Hobart running, with rubber bands, if necessary.

  Tick was seated on the opposite drainboard, listlessly munching a granola bar, waiting for the machine to complete its cycle. “I had an Empire Moment on the way here,” she said, without much enthusiasm. “Not a great one, though. The flower shop. Mixed B.O.K.A.Y.”

  This was a game they’d been playing for nearly a year, finding unintentional humor in the form of gaffes in the Empire Gazette, misspellings in advertisements for local stores, lapses in logic on printed signs like the one on the brick wall that surrounded the old empty shirt factory: NO TRESPASSING WITHOUT PERMISSION. They referred to the pleasure of these discoveries as “Empire Moments,” and Tick was becoming disconcertingly adept at identifying them. Last month, down in Fairhaven, she’d noticed the sign outside the town’s one shabby little rumored-to-be-gay bar whose entrance was being renovated: ENTER IN REAR. Miles was startled that his sixteen-year-old daughter had seen the humor in this, but he was proud too. Still, he wondered if Janine wasn’t right. She’d disapproved of the game from the start, viewing it as yet another opportunity for the two of them to pretend superiority to everyone else, especially herself.

  “Good eye,” Miles nodded. “I’ll look for it.” By rule they always confirmed each other’s sightings.

  “I can do that,” Tick said when she saw her father start scraping dishes into the garbage and stacking them in the plastic rack for the next load.

  “Never doubted it,” her father assured her. “H
ow was school?”

  She shrugged. “Okay.”

  There was precious little Miles would have changed about his daughter, but to his way of thinking far too many things in Tick’s life were “okay.” She was a smart kid, one who knew the difference between first-rate, mediocre and piss-poor, but like most kids her age she seemed bored by such distinctions. How was the movie? Okay. How were the french fries? Okay. How’s your sprained ankle feeling? Okay. Everything was pretty much okay, even when it wasn’t, even when in fact it was piss-poor. When the entire emotional spectrum, from despair to ecstasy, could be summed up by a single four-letter word, what was a parent to do? Even more troubling was his suspicion that “okay” was designed specifically as a conversation stopper, employed in hopes that the person who’d asked the question would simply go away.

  The trick, Miles had learned, was not to go away. You didn’t ask more probing questions, because they, too, would be met with this monosyllabic evasion. The trick was silence. If there was a trick.

  “I made a new friend,” Tick finally elaborated once the Hobart had shuddered to a halt and she’d raised the door to extract the tray of clean dishes.

  Miles rinsed his hands and went over to where Tick was stacking the warm plates. He took one down from the shelf and checked it, relieved to find it squeaky clean. The Hobart would live.

  “Candace Burke. She’s in my art class. She stole an Exacto knife today.”

  “What for?”

  Tick shrugged. “I guess she didn’t have one. She starts all her sentences with oh-my-God-oh-my-God. Like, Oh-my-God-oh-my-God my mascara’s running. Or, Oh-my-God-oh-my-God, you’re even skinnier than last year.”

  This last, Miles suspected, was not a theoretical example. Tick, always stick-thin, was often accused of being anorexic. Last year she’d even been called into the nurse’s office and questioned about her eating habits. In fact, Miles and Janine had been called in as well. This was before Janine herself lost so much weight, so she and Miles, sitting there in the school counselor’s tiny office, did seem to suggest that Tick couldn’t possibly have come by her reedlike body honestly.

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