Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “Imagine that?” Mrs. Neuman said. “You live to be eighty-some-odd-years old, and one day the good Lord decides you’re all done, and your own grandson takes you out to the dump and leaves you there. I swear to heaven, I just don’t know anymore.”

  “Me either, Mrs. Neuman,” Janine said, picking up the phone to dial Amber, who was always looking for extra hours.

  “Must’ve just slung that poor old woman over his shoulder,” the woman said, slinging her own workout bag over her own round shoulder, where it slipped off again halfway to the women’s locker room door. “Probably what’ll happen to me if it’s that one grandson of mine that finds me.”

  “Not unless he rents a forklift,” Janine muttered, as the door swung shut behind her. “Get here as quick as you can,” she snapped into the phone when Amber agreed to come in and finish Janine’s shift, “before I do something I’ll regret.”

  This exact opportunity presented itself the moment she hung up, when the workmen’s comp table called for another round of light beers, which they believed they could drink all afternoon without getting drunk or gaining weight, this despite the fact that they left drunk every afternoon, their heavy beer guts sloshing. The worst of the lot was Randy Danillac, who had been a year ahead of Janine, though he had no recollection of her in high school, though she’d stared at him dreamily for two straight years. She suspected that not one of these goldbricks was actually injured, but most at least had the decency to pretend. Danillac just preferred working two or three days a week instead of the full five, so he collected comp from one Empire Falls contractor and worked off the books for another in Fairhaven. According to medical affidavits, he was supposedly unable to stand up straight, a condition that didn’t prevent him from playing racquetball whenever he could find an opponent who didn’t mind being called names after every point.

  “Why, thank you, darlin’,” he said when she delivered their round of light beers. He looked her over good, too, something she normally wouldn’t have minded, then gave her one of his crooked smiles. “Married life seems to agree with you. Nothin’ like gettin’ it regular, is there?”

  When he said this, Janine finally glimpsed the appeal of the irony her ex-husband was always trying to get her to appreciate while she was trying to get him to appreciate sex. Irony was one of the many things wrong between them right from the start. Janine simply wasn’t the sort of woman—and she freely admitted this—who benefited from constantly having the concept of irony explained to her. Yet in the present instance the irony of her high school devotion, through her entire sixteenth and seventeenth years, to a man who grew up to become about the worst cheating rat bastard in town—well, it was inescapable. No, that wasn’t ironic. It was the fact that he’d finally noticed her and wanted to screw her that was ironic.

  “You know what, Randy?” she said. “You can just eat me, okay?” And she was out the door before it occurred to him to take her up on the offer.

  THE SAD TRUTH, Janine had to admit as she drove over to the Empire Grill, was that she’d gone and divorced a man she could talk to and married one she couldn’t. Her need to talk to somebody right this second probably qualified as yet another irony. As was the realization that she missed Miles’s calm, quiet ways. Since the separation she’d grown nostalgic about them, and since marrying Walt, she’d begun to recall her old life with Miles with a wistful fondness, which she had to remind herself was simple lunacy. Sure, Miles had been a good listener, and a listener was exactly what she needed at this particular moment, but what they never told you was that good listeners could be maddening as hell. He had to weigh everything you told him, as if making sure that he understood every last nuance was the only thing standing between him and offering a perfect solution. Either that or he’d treat her like she was just talking to hear herself talk, which also drove her batshit. She’d tried explaining all this to her mother once, which was a mistake. For a bartender Bea wasn’t much of a listener, as quick with a diagnosis as Miles was slow. “What you don’t realize,” her mother told her, “is that it’s really you driving yourself batshit. You can’t ever be content with anything, even for a minute. Miles doesn’t say anything because there isn’t a damn thing to say.”

  Which was why she was driving over to the Empire Grill instead of to Callahan’s. Better to talk to a man with no answers than a woman with all the wrong ones. Miles was also far less likely to say I-told-you-so, her mother’s favorite words. “Well, for heaven’s sake, Janine,” she could hear her mother say after she’d explained her discovery this morning that the Silver Fox, who was forever rubbing his chin in contemplation of his next move, whose only concern seemed to be timing, didn’t even have enough capital to invest in a week’s vacation out in Arizona, where they had all those good-looking Latino masseurs to rub you down with oil. “Whatever made you think that Walt Comeau did have two nickels to rub together?” her mother would ask, pure know-it-all that she was.

  At least Miles could be counted on to sympathize with a person, to register surprise at the fact that Walt didn’t even own the building that housed his health club but rented it from that damn Whiting woman who owned the Empire Grill and half the town. Her husband also rented most of the equipment in the exercise room. Hell, there wasn’t a single aspect of the operation that wasn’t leveraged to the hilt. There were even two mortgages on that little piece-of-shit house he was renting out since he’d moved in with her. And if he actually owned that parcel out on Small Pond Road, where he was always thinking out loud they might build a camp one of these days, when the time was right, then Harold DuFresne down at Empire Fidelity didn’t know a damn thing about it—and he would, too, since everything else the Silver Fox “owned” was held by Harold as collateral on the health club. Walt had even borrowed money for the ring and the half-assed weekend honeymoon on the coast, during which it should’ve occurred to her, if she’d had a brain in her head, why Walt liked sex so much. It was free.

  How in the world, she wanted to know, had she managed to put herself into a situation where the person she most wanted to unburden her soul to was the man she couldn’t wait to leave so she’d be free to create the mess? These were all ironies, no doubt about it, and she hated every one of the fuckers, even before she turned onto Empire Avenue and saw the Silver Fox’s van parked in front of the restaurant. Which meant she couldn’t very well have her talk with Miles, not with her husband sitting there at the counter. Life was secrets, as the horrible Mrs. Neuman said, and for better or worse—stupid words she’d said not once but twice—she was wed to both the Silver Fox and secrets she had to keep. He’d known all along, of course, that when Janine found out she’d just have to swallow everything whole. Worse, she knew the time to begin was right now. Just park next to her husband’s van, go inside and pretend that “getting it regular” agreed with her. Stand next to Walt and watch him lose their pennies to Horace at gin, then slip her hand in his trouser pocket and reassure herself of the one thing the dumb son of a bitch did have to offer.

  Maybe tomorrow she’d be able to. In fact, she’d have to. But not right this minute, she decided. No, she knew where the steak knives were kept, and if she went in there right now, she might race around the counter, pull one out and cut off her nose to spite her face. Janine drove on past the restaurant.

  Since the town’s only unmarked police car wasn’t in its usual spot in the alley next to the closed Firestone shop, Janine did a squealing U-turn and headed back up Empire the way she’d come. She’d gone about four blocks when she noticed the tall, skinny figure of her daughter making her solitary way up the street, leaning forward as usual under the weight of her backpack. When Janine tooted and pulled over to the curb, her daughter regarded the Jeep suspiciously, as if the Silver Fox might be scrunched down in the backseat somewhere. She came up to the car reluctantly.

  “Where you headed?” Janine said when she’d rolled down the window and her daughter tentatively bent forward to peer inside.

  “Grandma
’s.”

  “Climb in.” Janine leaned across to open the door, ignoring her daughter’s expression, which suggested that she’d just been ordered to push the vehicle up the street. Opening the rear door, Tick turned and backed into the opening, resting the bottom of her backpack on the seat and then walking out from under it, a maneuver so graceful and practiced that Janine’s eyes filled with tears. At that age, she hadn’t simply been overweight, but also clumsy, always tripping and bumping into things. Tick had the kind of grace you were born with, that you couldn’t starve or Stairmaster yourself into, that you probably didn’t even recognize unless you lacked it. “What’s at Grandma’s?” Janine asked.

  Well, sure, the kid also had a knack for looking at her mother in a way that inspired violence. Grandma, her daughter’s expression now seemed to convey, was at Grandma’s. “It’s quiet there, okay? I can do my homework,” Tick finally explained when it became clear that Janine wasn’t going to pull away from the curb until she got a straight answer. “Nobody bothers me,” she added.

  Nobody like Walt, was what she was saying. Nobody like Janine herself, probably. And no sooner did this thought occur to her than she was visited by a horrible mental picture of her daughter walking down the roadside at night, weighed down as usual, but not by her backpack. This time the load was Janine herself, and her daughter was headed for the dump. Every day this week she’d been meaning to talk with Tick about the Voss boy, who was all over the news and all anybody could seem to talk about, but somehow she’d managed not to. She knew Tick worked with the kid at the grill and they were in the same art class, where they had both been picked for some show. Which she’d been meaning to visit so she could see this snake picture she kept hearing about, but which her daughter hadn’t ever even mentioned. True, Janine had been preoccupied with the wedding, but that wasn’t much of an excuse. On the other hand, it wasn’t much of a reason to imagine Tick hauling her carcass to the dump, either. Still, it was time to start making some of this shit between the two of them right.

  But as Janine began to formulate a question that would broach the subject of the Voss boy, she heard herself ask something easier. “So how come you never tell me any of those funny things you see on signs like you do with your father?”

  Apparently the answer was easy, too. “You never think they’re funny.”

  “Try me.”

  “Nooooo,” her daughter said, making it a multisyllable, singsong word.

  And just that quickly Janine was pissed off again. “I’m not smart enough to see what’s so damn funny, is that it?”

  The little shit actually considered this question seriously before answering. “You always get them. You just never think they’re funny.”

  “Maybe they aren’t.”

  “Then why do you want me to tell you one?”

  “Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’d just like us to be friends, okay? Maybe I might like to take you to Boston for an art show sometime, if you’d ask me instead of your father. Maybe it would cheer me up to know my own daughter liked me.”

  “Walt isn’t cheering you up?”

  Janine pulled over, three blocks short of her mother’s tavern. “Out.”

  “What?”

  Well, at least that got the kid’s attention. She was looking at Janine, scared now, aware she’d gone too far. “Out,” Janine repeated, not wanting to follow through, but feeling she had to. “You want to treat me like shit, you can damn well walk.”

  What she was hoping was that her daughter would not do as she was told—not a lot to hope for, since she almost never did. But of course this time she would. Tick opened the door and got out, leaving Janine fresh out of options, trapped as usual. Rather than watch, she looked away, as if she couldn’t care less, and when she heard the door slam she glanced quickly over her left shoulder to make sure no traffic was coming down Empire Avenue, then jerked the wheel and stepped on the gas, hearing at the same instant her daughter yell, “Stop!”

  Her first thought was that her bluff had worked, that Tick wanted to apologize, but it was a more urgent scream than that, and when she looked back over her right shoulder she took in what had happened in an instant. At the same time Tick had closed the front door, she’d opened the rear one to retrieve her backpack, hooking one of its straps in the crook of her elbow, all of this just as Janine had pulled out—and somehow the pack had gotten wedged between the seat and the floor, yanking Tick off her feet. Only the back of her daughter’s head was visible through the open door, but when Janine got around to the other side of the Jeep, she could see that Tick hadn’t been seriously injured. In fact, thanks to the height of the vehicle, her daughter’s behind was suspended an inch or two above the pavement. To Janine, she looked like a cartoon character whose parachute had failed to open. Nothing about her daughter’s expression was comic, though. Her face had fragmented, then come together again in a mask of pain and fear and struggling rage. “Get away from me!” she screamed when Janine stooped to help unhook the backpack. “Don’t touch me!”

  “Stop this right now, Tick!” Janine snapped, frightened herself. “You’re all right. I’m just trying to help.”

  Then, somehow, her daughter was free and on her feet and walking away, rubbing her shoulder, sobbing as she went.

  “Tick,” Janine called, trying to sound stern, her voice cracking in betrayal. “Come back here. Please, sweetie.”

  Nothing. She just kept on walking. There were maybe half a dozen people on the street, no more, but Janine was sure they’d all witnessed what had happened and now were watching the scene play itself out.

  “Tick!”

  Her daughter whirled then. “Leave … me … alone!” she screamed, loud enough to be heard the length of Empire Avenue.

  The Jeep was still running, of course, her daughter’s backpack still wedged between the seats, and when Janine tried to close the door, it wouldn’t, and then, after she’d given the backpack a swift kick it still wouldn’t, and then Janine herself was sobbing her frustrated heart out and kicking the door of the Grand Cherokee as hard as she could, the only pleasure left to her that of seeing the dent grow and grow.

  And for how long did Janine Roby—no, Janine Comeau—sob and rage and kick in the door of the Cherokee? Until it latched. Not completely, of course, because it couldn’t, not with her daughter’s burden wedged in so tightly, but at least tight enough that it wouldn’t fly open.

  Janine was still shaking when she got back in behind the wheel. What she needed to do was to catch up with her daughter and make this right, by force if necessary, set all of it right, somehow, some way, she didn’t yet know how, but by the time she pulled out onto Empire Avenue again her daughter had disappeared, and it was too late, she realized, with one last sob, too goddamn late.

  CHAPTER 29

  “WHAT DO YOU FIGURE all that’s about?” David wondered when they passed the old shirt factory. They were returning from Bea’s tavern in his pickup, and he slowed as they approached the corner of Empire Avenue. For the first time since the factory closed, at least as far as Miles could recall, the big iron gate was open. Just inside sat a white stretch limo with Massachusetts plates—behind it, Miles caught a glint of red metal. On the steps of the old brick building a group of men in dark suits were listening to a woman Miles immediately recognized as Mrs. Whiting.

  “You don’t suppose the rumors could be true?” Miles said. For weeks now the grill had been alive with talk that a buyer had been found for the textile mill. As usual, Miles had dismissed this as needful speculation. Now, Mrs. Whiting’s presence in the company of these suits would be enough to fuel foolish optimism through a long Maine winter.

  “Be nice if something was going on,” David admitted, turning onto Empire Avenue. “It would also explain why she’s left us alone, if she’s got bigger fish to fry.”

  It was still a bone of contention between them that Miles had not formally notified Mrs. Whiting of their intentions. From the start Miles had allowed that his
brother was probably right, but since that morning last month when he’d recognized Charlie Mayne in the newspaper photograph, he’d grown even more reluctant to confront Mrs. Whiting, as if he had been the one who betrayed her all those years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. And even though it was crazy, he couldn’t shake the conviction that Mrs. Whiting would be able to tell just by looking at him that he’d stumbled onto the truth at last. It had always seemed to Miles that she’d searched his face for signs of some particular understanding whenever they met; then, finding none, she would allow things to proceed as usual. Intellectually, he knew his brother was right, that it was better to have everything out in the open, but his intuition counseled a more furtive course.

  Not that it was much of a secret anymore. He and David were now spending every free minute at Callahan’s, Miles working late into the evenings, doing as much as possible himself, not wanting to start out any further in debt than they absolutely needed to be—especially since Bea was on the financial hook for the renovations, which on an hourly basis were threatening to spiral out of control. Today Miles got Buster to cover both the breakfast and lunch shifts while he struggled to repair the ancient gas stove at Callahan’s, which hadn’t been fired up in twenty years. David, who had to prep and serve Mexican Night at the grill this evening, had spent most of the afternoon setting up accounts with distributors and doing whatever tasks could be managed by a man with one good hand. Neither was trying to conceal his involvement in the reopening of Callahan’s kitchen, though the story for public consumption was that they were just lending an old friend a hand.

  One thing was certain. Mrs. Whiting, who knew everything, couldn’t possibly not know this. Though maybe David was right and she was too busy with development office business to sweat the small stuff.

 
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