Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  THE BACK DOOR, like the front, was locked. Otto shouldn’t have tried it, but he did. After all, what would he have done if it was unlocked? Enter without invitation? After knocking several times, loudly, he went back down the porch steps and stood in plain sight, calling up to what he hoped was the old woman’s bedroom window, identifying himself and trying to look harmless and unthreatening in case she was peering out from behind the curtains. It occurred to him that perhaps she had heard him ringing the bell out front, perhaps had even looked out from behind the thick curtains that shrouded the front windows and, seeing a stranger there, become terrified. He even imagined her lying in a heap just inside the door, a stroke victim, and himself the cause. How would he go about explaining that? After all, there were no papers for the old woman to sign, simply his cold, intellectual curiosity, the need to know the answer to a question posed by a cruel prankster: Where is John Voss’s grandmother? As if that were any of Otto Meyer Jr.’s business.

  Standing in the middle of Charlotte Owen’s weedy lawn and staring up at the dark, curtained window, Otto could feel, despite the cold air, clammy perspiration tracking down his right side from his armpit. His nerve failing him, he was about to leave when he noticed the rusty iron stake. Because of the contour of the ground, only the top of it was visible from the base of the porch, but coming closer he could see that attached to it was a sturdy chain and at the end of the chain a metal clasp. Otto Meyer looked around for the canine suggested by these details, but there was no doghouse nearby, no water bowl back on the porch. And, of course, no dog had barked when he rang the bell. He kicked aside a clump of something that might have been an ancient, fossilized dog turd, or perhaps just a clod of earth. Otherwise, the ground was bare.

  Funny how the mind works, Otto considered. This time when he turned back to the house and stared at the curtained second-floor window, he was sure he hadn’t given Charlotte Owen a stroke by ringing her doorbell and pounding insistently on her back door. Charlotte Owen was not home, and hadn’t been for some time. The boy was living in the house alone. A stake in the ground with a chain attached didn’t prove any of this. Probably, Otto had to admit, it didn’t even suggest it. But he was certain all the same.

  At the foot of the porch he found a stone that was about the right size. The thing to do was call the cops, of course, but that might mean Jimmy Minty, and Otto had had enough of the Minty family for one day. If it turned out he was wrong and the whole thing backfired, he could always claim he’d heard the old woman inside, calling for help. A wind had in fact sprung up, and the moaning it made in the surrounding trees did sound a little like an old woman’s lament. Feeble, but it would have to be his story. If he was wrong. Except he wasn’t. Strange, too, that being sure had settled his stomach.

  Once again he climbed the back steps. At the door he didn’t hesitate before breaking the small pane of glass nearest the doorknob and reaching through the jagged opening to let himself in.

  THE EMPIRE GRILL had a Closed sign hanging in the window, but when Miles saw it was Otto Meyer he went over and unlocked the door. “All right, all right,” he said. “I’ll stand for school board, but I’m telling you right now I don’t have time to campaign.”

  “Thanks,” Otto said as Miles closed and relocked the door behind them. “You won’t have to campaign, I promise. When people see you’re on the ballot, they’ll make their mark right by your name.”

  Over at the counter Otto recognized a couple of the regulars Miles allowed to hang around drinking coffee after the lunch crowd cleared out. Horace Weymouth, the reporter who usually covered the school-budget wars was there, and Walt Comeau, who owned the club out by the strip mall and who’d just married Miles’s ex. It was a little on the chilly side in the restaurant, but Walt had stripped down to his white cotton T-shirt. Maybe it was warmer over by the grill.

  “Big Boy!” Walt Comeau bellowed. “Get back over here. Let’s settle this right now. No more running away.”

  Miles ignored him. “You want a cup of coffee, Meyer?”

  Otto laid a hand over his stomach. “Have a heart, will you?”

  “Glass of warm milk?”

  He started to say no, then reconsidered. “You know what? I hope you weren’t joking, because that sounds wonderful.”

  “Grab a seat.”

  “Okay if we sit over there?” He motioned to the far booth, which a group of girls with large, elaborate hairdos was just vacating.

  Miles nodded. Otto said hello to the girls, one or two of whom he recognized from their thinner high school days, then slid into the booth. While Miles took care of their check and let them out, he consolidated their plates and coffee cups, wiping the table clean with a lipstick-smudged napkin.

  “That was quick,” he said when Miles handed him his milk, warm in its glass.

  “The beauty of the microwave,” Miles admitted, sitting down.

  “Big Boy!” Walt bellowed again.

  Miles sighed. “Be right there.”

  “What’s all that about?” Otto couldn’t help asking, since the very idea of Walt Comeau in Miles Roby’s restaurant was strange enough.

  “He’s always trying to get me to arm-wrestle him.”

  “Why?”

  “You’d have to ask him. It seems to have something to do with his belief that one of us isn’t a real man. You know what? You don’t look so hot.”

  Otto shrugged. “Your new busboy working today?”

  “John? He was supposed to come in for a couple hours to clean up the lunch stuff, but he hasn’t turned up. Until today he’s been real reliable.”

  “If he shows up, I’d appreciate your giving me a call.”

  “Okay,” Miles said. “Is he in some kind of trouble, Meyer? None of my business—except for Tick.”

  “She here?”

  “At home. I just talked to her.”

  “Good,” Otto said. “I just feel sick about this, Miles. I’m the one who asked her to be nice to the kid.”

  Miles sat up straighter in the booth. “You better tell me, Meyer.”

  Now Otto sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe everything’s all right. I’m going to have to get to the bottom of it, though.”

  “Big Boy! Name that tune.” Walt spun off his stool and danced his crooner’s jig as he came toward them singing:

  Never dreamed anybody could kiss thataway,

  Bring me bliss thataway,

  What a kiss thataway!

  What a wonderful feeling to feel thataway,

  Tell me where have you been all my life.

  “Go away, Walt,” Miles said. “I’m having a conversation here.”

  “Okay, I’ll give you one hint,” Walt said. “Who do I always sing?”

  Miles just stared at him, and what occurred to Otto Meyer was that if Miles had worn that expression while talking to him, he by God would have done as he was told.

  Instead Walt slid into the booth on Otto’s side. “You know something? I’ll admit it. I might give him shit all the time, but I love this guy. That’s the truth. Can you believe he actually came to my wedding? Pure class is what that is. But I’m still gonna whip his ass arm wrestling.” And with that he reached across the table and gave Miles a friendly cuff on the side of the head. Then, noticing that Horace Weymouth was making for the door, Walt called after him, “Where you sneaking off to?”

  Horace, ignoring him, nodded to Miles. “No court in the land would ever convict you,” he said.

  FIVE MINUTES LATER they had the place to themselves, and since there was nothing to do but address the situation, Otto Meyer explained that the boy’s legal guardian was not in residence at the house out on the old landfill road. That the old woman’s clothes were hanging in the bedroom closet, the house was full of furniture, the kitchen with pots and pans. That there was nothing to indicate that Charlotte Owen had abandoned the boy, as his parents had done. And yet she wasn’t there. “I think the boy’s living out there by himself,” he concluded. “I think he has b
een for some time.”

  “Could she be in the hospital?”

  “I thought of that,” Otto Meyer said. In fact, before coming to the Empire Grill he’d returned to his office and made several phone calls. “Charlotte Owen was admitted to Dexter Memorial in Fairhaven last April with pneumonia, released two weeks later. She hasn’t been readmitted since.”

  “Still, there’s—”

  “That’s not all. There hasn’t been any electrical power or telephone service since the end of March, and when I turned on the tap in the kitchen, the faucet was dry.”

  “Well, good God, Meyer, she can’t have died. It’s the sort of thing people hear about. It makes the newspaper.”

  “I know, I know,” Otto admitted, finishing the last of his warm milk. That had been another of his calls, to the county courthouse. No death certificate had been filed in the name of Charlotte Owen. No elderly woman’s body awaited identification at the morgue. “Keep talking. You’re making me feel better.”

  “There has to be some explanation.”

  Otto pushed the empty glass over to where he’d stacked the girls’ dishes and cups. “I know that too. The problem is, the one I keep coming up with is that Charlotte Owen died last spring after she returned home to a house with no heat, and that boy hasn’t told a soul.”

  “Then where is she, Meyer?”

  For a moment Otto considered telling his old friend about the three letters he’d received asking this very question, but he decided against it. Odd how the meaning of the question changed entirely depending on whether it referred to a living woman or a dead one.

  But there was one thing Miles did have a right to know, and that was about the laundry bag. “You didn’t hear this from me,” he began, aware that he was violating the confidentiality of a student’s file. By the time he finished, Miles had gone as white as his apron.

  IT WAS AFTER MIDNIGHT when Otto Meyer got home. The first thing he did was go into his son’s room, where Adam lay asleep. As usual, he’d gone to bed without turning off his computer. The screen saver he’d chosen some time ago was a human skull that grinned out at the world before fragmenting, then dissolving, then coming back together to grin anew. Otto, exhausted and suddenly on the verge of tears, shut it off and then sat there in the dark for a few minutes, watching his son breathe by the light that filtered in from the hall.

  Later, when he entered the bedroom he shared with his wife of twenty-two years, Anne was asleep with the television on, tuned to one of the Bangor stations now off the air, but where the story had run on the eleven o’clock news. Tomorrow? He didn’t even want to think about that. In a few short hours the lawn outside would be crawling with reporters. He undressed quickly and slid into bed next to his wife, who woke up and took his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I meant to stay awake.”

  “Tomorrow,” he said, “if you think of it, will you call David Irving and see if you can get me an appointment?”

  “Your stomach?”

  No need to answer this.

  “They still haven’t located the boy?”

  “They will tomorrow.”

  “What will happen to him?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “What will happen to us?”

  “We’ll survive,” Otto told her. She was right, of course. This was the sort of thing high school principals lost their jobs over—and probably, though he would never say this to Anne, should lose their jobs over. “It’ll start early,” he told her, giving her hand a squeeze before reaching up to turn out the lamp. “We should sleep if we can.”

  What he meant was that she should. Sleep was pretty much out of the question for him, exhaustion or no exhaustion. In the dark bedroom the events of the afternoon and evening grew even more vivid.

  It was Bill Daws he had called with his suspicions, even confessing that he’d broken into the old woman’s house. When he’d finished, the police chief said simply, “Meet me there.”

  He’d waited out in the car while Daws and Jimmy Minty and another policeman searched the entire premises. Otto had not himself gone into either the attic or the cellar, of course, but even taking into account that there was no light in the house to search by, it had taken a very long time to ascertain officially what everyone seemed to know from the beginning. Bill had had a radiation treatment that morning and when he came back out of the house with Minty, both men silent, he did not look well. Minty went over to his cruiser and talked on the radio.

  “Well,” Bill Daws said, “I suppose the good news is that we don’t know for sure that she isn’t off visiting her sister or something.”

  Otto was grateful to hear this possibility given voice. It was the very straw he’d been clinging to.

  “I got a bad feeling, though,” the police chief added.

  “Me, too, Bill, me, too.”

  “Anyway, neither one of them’s here, so why don’t you go on home?”

  He nodded, understanding that the only reason Bill Daws had wanted him there at all was in case the boy turned up. “I was thinking I’d go back in to school.”

  “Whatever.”

  “Did you notice that stake out back?”

  “I did.”

  “What do you make of it?”

  “I’m trying not to think about it,” Daws admitted. “Listen, if this thing turns out bad, like I think it’s going to, we won’t be able to keep it quiet.”

  “I wouldn’t ask you to.”

  Dusk had fallen completely, and the two men heard the vehicles before the headlights cut through the darkness into the driveway. The first was some sort of police SUV with a German shepherd pacing anxiously in back. The other was Jimmy Minty’s Camaro, and when Zack got out Meyer noticed again that he was limping. His father went over and they exchanged a few words, the boy glancing over at the principal and shaking his head. Then he got back in the Camaro and drove off, back toward town.

  “What was all that about?” Bill Daws wanted to know when Jimmy Minty joined them.

  “I asked him if he wrote those notes,” Minty explained, looking at Otto. “He didn’t.”

  Bill nodded, said nothing.

  “How come you people want to blame my boy for everything?”

  “What people are those?” Otto said.

  “At the school. You. Coach Towne.”

  Otto turned and looked Bill Daws in the face. “He wrote the notes.”

  “Yeah?” Minty said. “Prove it.”

  “All right,” Bill said in a way that made it clear he’d had enough of this. “See if you can get ahold of somebody at Central Maine Power,” he told Minty, effectively dismissing him. “We’ll need some temporary power at this house.”

  The officer who’d driven the SUV now had the German shepherd on a leash. “Where do you want to start?” he called over. “Here at the house, I guess,” Daws said, his voice dispirited. “It’s over across the way we’ll find her, though.”

  Which meant the police chief had thought of it too, and this relieved Otto’s fears that he might be the only one to whom such a horrible notion had occurred.

  CHAPTER 28

  JANINE GOT THROUGH her midday step class, after which she was supposed to work the desk, checking members in and making the pain-in-the-ass protein shakes they served in the Fox’s Den, the small lounge of half a dozen tables where the workmen’s comp guys—assholes and scam artists every one—liked to hang out after their physical therapy. Janine hated to look at them even on a good day, which this certainly was not, not anymore, not after going to the bank. She was still wobbly about the knees, truth be told—and not because she’d done her advanced step class on an empty stomach, either. The idea of food, normally a sweet, forbidden fantasy, made her stomach roil—with what, she couldn’t imagine.

  “Still no sign of that Voss boy, is there?” Mrs. Neuman, a short woman, had to peer around the cash register to see the TV hung from the ceiling in the Fox’s Den while she waited for Janine to key in her membership number. The noo
n news broadcast was signing off now, urging viewers to stay tuned for the soap that followed.

  It had been five days since the woman’s body had been discovered at the old landfill, though it wasn’t really a body anymore. More of a skeleton, really, according to the newspaper, so little left after six months’ exposure that positive identification would have to await dental records, wherever they might be. Charlotte Owen had outlived not only her friends but also three Empire Falls dentists; the fourth, who apparently had her files, had retired somewhere in Florida. The boy, John Voss, had simply vanished.

  “Just goes to show,” Mrs. Neuman intoned, “life is one big secret. You never even know who’s living right next door.” Which was not entirely apropos, Janine almost told her, since the old woman and the Voss boy hadn’t had any neighbors.

  And anyway, never mind about not knowing who’s next door. Half the time you don’t even know who you’re marrying until you go to pick up your license and happen to see by pure chance how old the fucker really is. Then—talk about your secrets—just when you think you’ve straightened out the whole age thing and go ahead and marry the old fart anyway, against your better judgment, plus the advice of everybody you know, then you go to the bank and try to write a check on your joint account—and whammo! There you are, wondering all over again, just who is this son of a bitch anyway?

  Not that Janine would say any of this to Mrs. Neuman. No more than she’d tell this human medicine ball to stop wasting her time and money at the club. Five days a week Mrs. Neuman showed up at one o’clock, a busy time in the exercise room, and did her leisurely stroll on one of the three working treadmills, reading the free magazines and pissing off the members who were interested in real workouts. At the rate Mrs. Neuman walked the goddamn treadmill, she could get as much good out of sitting in a chair and flipping through TV Guide.

 
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