Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Plus she’s a nice girl,” Otto said. Which was true, and when Miles didn’t deny it, he added, “Plus she likes you. Better than anybody.”

  “That’s the worst part,” he admitted, meeting his friend’s eye.

  “No. The girl you love just rode off on the back of a motorcycle,” Otto said. “That’s the worst part.”

  “Screw you, Otto,” Miles suggested.

  “Plus we could double,” his friend continued. “Anne wouldn’t mind.” Anne Pacero was his date. “I bet she’d like to get to know Cindy better. It’d be okay.”

  Imagining all of this, Miles had to look down. “What if she thinks I like her or something?”

  “You do like her.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  Now it was Otto’s turn to look down, and Miles tried to think if anyone else his own age had ever suggested doing the right thing because it was the right thing. Under different circumstances, Miles thought, he might’ve been grateful to Otto for risking a moral point of view. Maybe he was grateful even in the present circumstances. What he would have liked to explain to his friend was just how needy and hungry this girl was, how she lived in a dream world, how the smallest kindnesses engendered and sustained her fantasies. But as he struggled to find a way to express this, he saw how close he was to describing his own yearning for Charlene Gardiner, who indeed had ridden off into her future without saying good-bye to him or scooping up the quarter he always left for a tip.

  After dinner that evening, once his brother had gone to bed and Miles had gotten out his homework, Grace came into the dining room where he’d spread his textbooks across the table. “I want you to go to St. Luke’s,” she said.

  A small Catholic college not far from Portland, it was the most costly of the schools he’d applied to. In addition to St. Luke’s he’d sent forms off to the University of New Hampshire and the University of Vermont and, without his mother’s knowledge, the University of Maine. He remained convinced that when the time came, she’d be forced to acknowledge reality. “Mom …,” he began.

  “I went to St. Cat’s this afternoon,” she said.

  Miles sighed deeply. My God, he thought. She’s praying for out-of-state tuition.

  “Father Tom knows people at the college,” she said, reassuring him at least a little. “He thinks with your record there’s a good chance of a scholarship. He said the parish might even be able to help with your books. And it’s where you want to go.”

  What he felt like asking—no, screaming—was, What does wanting have to do with anything? Instead he simply nodded. It was what he wanted.

  “We’ll find the money,” she insisted, taking his hand. “Do you trust me?”

  Is it possible to say no to such a question? “Okay, Mom,” he said, almost too brokenhearted by her faith to speak.

  “Good,” she said. “And now I have a favor to ask of you.”

  And it occurred to him that perhaps wanting something really badly might not always be the most foolish thing a person could do in this world. Because that afternoon when he returned home from the grill, at about the time his mother was crossing back over the Iron Bridge into Empire Falls, he’d called Cindy Whiting. “Oh, Miles,” she’d said, her voice immediately rich with tears. “Dear, dear Miles.”


  OTTO MEYER JR. listened to the recorded message that told him the number he was dialing was no longer in service, hung up, and reached for the big plastic bottle of antacids he kept in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. Every principal he knew kept something in the lower right-hand drawer, something to get him through the day, and Otto comforted himself that there were far worse things he could be hiding. Unscrewing the lid, he shook four or five tablets into the palm of his left hand and chewed them somberly. Before replacing the bottle, he counted how many remained through the wide round opening. Nineteen, it looked like. Not enough to last the week, not the way this week was going. Which meant a trip in to the Fairhaven Wal-Mart, where he could buy another family-size bottle of generic equivalents, five hundred a batch for practically nothing. The pharmacist swore they were identical to the national brands, but Otto had his doubts. More and more of the damned things were required to settle his stomach.

  No longer bothering with the recommended dosages, for months he’d been “nuking” his problem stomach at the first sign of a flare-up. The number of antacid tablets he chewed these days was based on the size of the problem that was making the acid in his stomach churn and then rise in his throat until he could taste it on the back of his tongue. Last week, after learning that one of his best teachers had gone home after school and beaten his wife so badly she had to be hospitalized, he’d recommended about a dozen tablets and followed his recommendation to the letter. When he went to visit the man’s wife in the hospital the next day and she looked out at him from between the slits of eyes swollen nearly shut, he went downstairs to the gift shop and bought a roll of the national brand and recommended to himself that he eat about half of them right there in front of the cash register. The next day he paid a visit to the teacher at his home, where he found the man sitting in his kitchen staring at a handgun that lay on the dinette table—which suggested that the correct dosage was the other half. Now this John Voss thing.

  The third note had appeared in his mailbox this morning, though there was no way of knowing whether it had been put there today or late yesterday afternoon, after the staff had gone home. Like the others, this one consisted of a single sentence, typed, then printed out, he had no doubt, on a machine in the media center. Where is John Voss’s grandmother? No salutation. No signature.

  The first had appeared in his box on Friday, and Otto had paid no attention, assuming it to be the work of a crank, several of whom worked regular hours under his jurisdiction. The second appeared in the center of his desk on Monday morning, and at first glance he thought it was the same one, until he remembered wadding the original up and throwing it away. When he asked Gladys, his secretary, who’d put it on his desk, she shook her head and said, “What note?” In response to the second note Otto ate an antacid and asked for John Voss’s file, and now—with the third note and the file spread out before him—he asked Gladys to find out where the boy was during sixth period.

  The answer—in the cafeteria, eating lunch with Christina Roby—Otto might have remembered if he’d thought about it. He himself was responsible for this arrangement, which, Allah be praised, seemed to be working. Well, actually, he had no idea whether it was working or not, except that he generally heard about it when things didn’t work, especially when what wasn’t working was something he’d instigated, in which case he heard about it over and over. The only new development he could recall was the boy’s dishwashing job at the Empire Grill, certainly a positive sign. True, the kid remained generally unresponsive to teachers and other external stimuli, but Otto had noticed an improvement in his appearance these last few weeks. He seemed cleaner, his hair less matted, his thrift-store wardrobe less bizarrely mismatched. Was it possible he’d fallen in love with Christina Roby? Otto supposed it was. After all, the link between romance and personal hygiene was well established, and he remembered how he himself had begun to bathe after falling in love, back in tenth grade, with the beautiful Charlene Gardiner. So, maybe. They were working together. They were in the city art show together. They had lunch together all by themselves. Might all of this have caused a romantic constellation to form in the boy’s otherwise comatose mind?

  Poor Christina, he couldn’t help thinking as he swallowed the last of the chalky antacid and then went directly to the cafeteria, where he found not just these students, but also a third, Zack Minty.

  THE BIG BOTTLE of antacids that Otto Meyer kept in his desk drawer at school did not represent his entire stash. He kept an additional three or four rolls in the glove box of his Buick, and of course he also had a jar on his nightstand at home. Parked in front of the ramshackle house out on the old landfill road, chewing a c
ouple of tablets in preparation for his interview with the boy’s grandmother, he noted that the air was almost cold enough to bear snow.

  In another month the four o’clock mornings would begin again. On days when snow was predicted, Otto and the principals of the elementary and middle schools would be up early, groggily watching the weather channel and listening to the state weather service on the radio. By five-thirty they would have to decide whether it was too dangerous to put the buses on the road. Parents, for the most part, were eager for their kids to go to school, because otherwise they would have to figure out what to do with them. Before attending to these necessary arrangements many parents liked to call Otto Meyer Jr. at home and convey their impression that he was a fucking idiot, a lazy, no-good bastard angling for a reason to take a day off of work, as if it weren’t enough he had the whole summer. If Otto was in the shower and his wife answered, they told her instead. The parents who were the angriest and most abusive on snow days were generally not the ones who had to worry about missing a day of work to attend to their children. Rather they were the same parents who signed their kids up for the free-lunch program and sent them to school inadequately clothed, but who could afford answering machines so they never had to waste time talking to principals and bill collectors.

  Actually, even these were not the worst. The very worst, Otto Meyer thought as he studied the dilapidated house, were the ones you never saw, the ones who seemed to exist only as narratives prepared by state caseworkers for files that followed kids from school to school in a feeble attempt to prepare teachers and administrators for what they were up against. According to the file he reviewed before driving over here, John Voss’s parents, who’d disappeared beneath the bureaucratic radar nearly five years ago, had been small-time Portland drug dealers and habitual abusers who discovered after having children what a nuisance they could be when serious business was being transacted. When John was a little boy, it had been their habit to stuff him into a laundry bag, pull the string tight and hang him on the back of the closet door, where he could kick and scream to his heart’s content. After a while he always calmed down, and then they could have some peace. The trouble with the silence was that sometimes they’d forget all about him, fall asleep and leave him hanging there all night.

  Otto did not normally think of himself as philosophically or politically confused, but after rereading this file he found himself deeply conflicted about whether or not John Voss’s parents should be summarily executed, assuming they could be located. On the one hand, he had never favored capital punishment, reasoning that it didn’t really solve the problem it was intended to address, but in this instance the problem it would solve—quite elegantly, he thought—was the disgust he felt at the idea of sharing the world with these two particular people.

  Not that he considered himself an ideal parent. Far from it. He and Anne had indulged their son, Adam, beyond reckoning, and as a result the boy was showing signs of a distinctly unrealistic worldview. He seemed, for example, to believe the world was kindly disposed toward him as a matter of course. Otto had been ineffectual in the area of discipline for too long, but now, he suspected, it was too late to start doing things differently. Earlier in the year when he’d caught his son at a party that featured both alcohol and drugs, he’d told the boy he was grounded until further notice. Adam nearly busted a gut laughing on his way out the door. The word Adam himself applied to his father’s parenting skills was “clueless,” and Otto had come to accept this as his due. He didn’t like to think where his failure had begun, because whenever he tried to, he could taste that failure commingling with minty antacid on the back of his tongue. The simplest conclusion was that he’d gone into parenthood with an overly modest game plan, by promising himself he would never be the living torment to his son that his own father had been to him. In this, apparently, he’d succeeded. Adam seemed genuinely fond of both his parents without feeling the slightest obligation to listen to anything they said. His customary “Right, Dad” did not, Otto now understood, connote agreement or even comprehension.

  Anne was of the opinion that all this was quite natural, that what her husband was always trying to explain to her as he lay in the dark unable to sleep—that they’d somehow failed to prepare their son for the real world—was silly. Adam suffered from nothing more serious than adolescence, a disease that would eventually pass, like a particularly virulent episode of chicken pox: ugly to look at but temporary and certainly not life-threatening. The boy knew he was loved, she reminded him, which struck Otto as the last feeble hope of the truly clueless parent. They’d made every mistake in the book.

  No, Otto thought as he climbed the rickety porch steps and rang the bell. Somehow he and Anne had managed to raise their son without stuffing him into laundry bags or bringing him up in a house as haunted as this one.

  The boy had warned him that he might have to ring the bell several times. His grandmother was hard of hearing and her bedroom, which she seldom left anymore, was all the way in the back. The principal had lied, of course, in explaining that he had some papers she needed to sign. The boy had offered to get her signature that evening, but he’d said no, he wanted to speak with her personally, in case there was anything the school could do to help—a terrible lie, now that he thought about it. The boy’s eyes had darted here and there nervously, never making contact with his own, but he seemed more anxious and embarrassed than panicked. Yes, it was true, he confessed, his grandmother had disconnected the phone last spring, to spare the expense; the only calls they ever got were nuisance ones anyway. When Otto asked whether she’d considered how unsafe it might be to live so far out of town without a telephone for emergencies, he’d replied, “That’s what I’m for. Emergencies.”

  Of the two interviews, the one with the Voss boy had been less disturbing than the one with Zack Minty.

  “How did you get into the cafeteria?” the principal asked once they were back in his office.

  “It was open.”

  “No, it’s locked after fifth period.”

  “They must’ve forgot.”

  “Shall I call Mrs. Wilson?”

  “Go ahead. Anyway, it was open.”

  “Did you get your friends to let you in?”

  “It was open.”

  “It was not open.”

  Sullen, then. Just sitting there, this boy who would clearly make it through his entire adult life without resorting to antacids. Smug. Self-satisfied. A Minty, through and through. The boy’s grandfather William kept his freezer full of illegal deer and moose meat, and was a wife beater back when that particular crime was still considered a private matter. A shifty, brutal, lifelong scofflaw, in and out of jail for the sorts of petty crimes that suggested more a lack of imagination than an unwillingness to commit more serious offenses, he was also, according to rumor, the man the Whitings had turned to when one of their mills was in danger of going pro-union and they’d needed a couple of key heads cracked. As for the father, the shady Jimmy Minty, now rumored to be the town’s next police chief, he collected two paychecks, one official, the other under the table from Francine Whiting. And now this late hit artist, young Zack, another apple that hadn’t fallen far from the tree. In Otto’s opinion, he would wind up a lawbreaker like his grandfather or a corrupt enforcer like his father, but he’d be trouble either way. Unless the unlucky girl he married shot him—as Jimmy’s wife had threatened on several occasions, before she ran off—he’d escape justice entirely.

  The principal picked up the hall pass the boy had flourished. “What class do you have with Mrs. Roderigue?”

  “I don’t have one with her.”

  “Then why would she give you a pass?”

  “I guess she likes me.”

  “Why would she do that?”

  “Why would she like me?”

  Actually, that was exactly what Otto wanted to know, but he decided to rephrase the question. “No, why would she give you a hall pass?”

  A shrug. “We
go to the same church. Plus she’s my aunt or something. My mother’s sister is her brother’s wife. Whatever that is.”

  “What that is, is no reason to give you a hall pass. Did you forge her signature?”

  “No way I’d do that.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because you could find out.”

  “Not because it would be wrong?”

  “That too, I guess.”

  “I don’t want to see you in that cafeteria again during sixth period. Agreed?”

  Another shrug.

  “Do you understand? I’ll be checking.” Suddenly, he had a brainstorm. “Did you write this?”

  Zack Minty leaned forward, took the page and read it, then handed it back with what might have been a trace of a smile. “No.”

  Of course he had. Otto was suddenly certain of it. John Voss’s grandmother had a name, Charlotte Owen, and whoever wrote the note didn’t know this and either had no idea how to find out or was too lazy. A kid, then. This kid. “Not the kind of thing you’d do?”

  After expressing great perplexity at this question, he shook his head, “No.”

  “Because it would be wrong, or because you’d get caught?”

  “How would I get caught?”

  “Why do you and your friends torment John Voss?”

  “We don’t.”

  “What do you get out of it?”

  “I said we don’t.”

  As Otto started out of the building, the class bell rang and he saw Doris Roderigue standing in the doorway to her classroom. “Don’t ever let me catch that Minty kid with another hall pass signed by you,” he told her, not caring particularly whether any students overheard or not. When she began to say something, he handed her the hall pass. “Never again. Is that understood?”

  Outside, he just sat in the Buick until he calmed down. He didn’t give a hoot about Doris Roderigue, but the Minty boy’s last words were still ringing in his ears. When he was told he could leave, he’d gotten to his feet slowly, as if disappointed that their conversation had come to an end. He was limping, Otto noticed—no doubt to remind the principal that he played football and had been injured for the greater glory of Empire High. At the door the kid stopped and looked off at an oblique angle. “Where is John Voss’s grandmother?” he said, as if the odd nature of the question had just occurred to him. “Huh.”

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