Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  Somehow Miles didn’t buy it.

  THEY PARKED BEHIND the Dumpster and entered the grill, as always, through the back door. Every day this week, whether coming or going, Miles had half expected to see the Voss boy pacing the lot, staring down at his feet and looking expectant and wary, hungry and lost. When the news of the boy’s grandmother broke and he disappeared, Horace Weymouth, feeling guilty about having kept the secret and no longer seeing that much harm could be done, finally told Miles what he’d witnessed out at the old house last month. The howling dog had been chained to the stake, and the boy himself had also been emitting terrible, throaty noises, as he beat it with a stick. The animal, trying desperately to escape, raced around in ever-shortening circles of panic, the chain bunching up around the stake until it was completely gathered in a ball and the side of the dog’s head was held flat to the ground. Even then the poor thing had tried to get away, strangling itself in the process. Only when it finally understood the hopelessness of flight did the boy toss the stick away and begin trying to soothe the terrified creature, staying well clear of its frightened, snapping jaws until it began to calm down and whimper pitifully. Then the boy himself got down on all fours, crawling closer and closer, cooing at the animal, gently stroking its wounded flanks, until the dog finally forgave his attacker and licked his face. Horace realized that the boy was weeping and begging the animal’s forgiveness, still careful, though, because it was bewildered and conflicted, and something would cause it suddenly to quit licking and snap. Then it would resume its whimpering, the boy all the while cooing, “I know, I know,” as if in perfect understanding.

  It was, Horace said, the most horrifying and heartbreaking thing he had ever seen. His first impulse was to report what he’d witnessed—and knowing what he knew now, he wished he had. But he’d seen the boy around town, and knew something of his family and his standing at the high school, and Horace himself knew what it felt like to be considered a freak. Had he reported what he’d seen, the boy probably would’ve been removed from his grandmother’s home and sent to the juvenile correctional facility in Sunderland, a truly gruesome place.

  Horace also told Miles something that had not made it into the news reports: that in the same area of the landfill where Charlotte Owen’s decaying remains were uncovered, they’d also found the bodies of several dogs, each exhibiting signs of having been tortured or beaten to death.

  Miles had shared none of this with his daughter, of course, knowing how upset she already was by the boy’s disappearance, but he did tell her about the laundry bag and made her acknowledge, for her own safety, what he believed to be true—that John Voss was a tragically abused boy, that something in him was broken and that simple kindness might not be enough to fix it. Tick had nodded in something less than complete agreement and in the end he wasn’t sure how much of it had taken root. The whole conversation reminded him of the one earlier that year about the separation that would ultimately end in his and Janine’s divorce. In both cases his daughter’s greatest need had seemed to be for him to stop talking.

  Horace and Walt were playing gin when Miles and David came in. Walt had already stripped down to his white-ribbed muscle shirt. How many of these, Miles wondered, did the man own?

  “Hello, Walt,” he sighed. “Hi, Horace. Buster.”

  “No more double shifts,” Buster said. Though his eye had cleared up almost completely, he looked like a man who’d spent every last nickel of his strength and energy.

  “You want to go home?”

  “And never come back,” Buster added, stripping his apron off over his neck.

  “Just let me take a quick shower,” Miles said. “Then you can split.”

  “You see that white limo, Big Boy?” Walt wanted to know. “The one with the Mass plates?”

  Miles nodded.

  “Drove right down the middle of Empire Avenue all the way to the mill. Don’t tell me there isn’t something in the works, neither. Go outside and sniff. You can still smell the money in the air.”

  Through the front window, Miles saw Charlene’s Hyundai, its signal blinking while she waited to make her turn into the lot. There would be six on tonight, Miles serving as host and floater, David at the stove with an assistant for salads and desserts, Charlene and another girl working the floor, plus the new busboy he’d hired to replace John Voss. For the Empire Grill, a full crew. At Bea’s, with nearly three times as many tables, they’d have to double or triple their staff. David would have to train at least one other person how to cook noodles twice, and Charlene had already volunteered. That was fine with Miles, though he hated to lose her on the floor, which she owned like no one else. Ironically, Charlene was the one who’d been looking forward to hustling drinks, which would double her tips. Still, he understood that at forty-five, after twenty-some years and God knew how many miles up and down the floor of the Empire Grill, she wanted and possibly needed a change.

  That wasn’t the only thing he’d come to understand about the woman he’d loved since high school. He also knew that she and his brother were lovers and probably had been for some time, having agreed to keep this secret in order not to hurt his feelings. David would’ve argued for honesty, but Charlene would have said no, not yet. The realization had come to him in stages, beginning back in September at the Lamplighter when he came in and saw Charlene sitting alone in the half-moon booth. Right next to her draft beer sat David’s glass of tonic, the two drinks forming a tableau of intimacy, even in the absence of one of the drinkers. Later, when she’d followed his brother outside, Miles had watched through the window, and something about the way they’d stood together in the parking lot registered without him even knowing. He glanced down the counter at him now, as he, too, followed Charlene’s turn into the restaurant, smiling until he felt his brother’s gaze, then meeting Miles’s eye. Yes? Miles asked by raising his eyebrows. Yes, his brother nodded.

  They might have had more to say on the subject, but the phone rang just then. “Miles Roby?” said a voice Miles didn’t recognize.

  “Yeah.”

  “Did you know your wife’s on upper Empire Avenue screaming obscenities and kicking in the side of your Jeep?”

  “Here,” Miles said, handing the phone to the Silver Fox. “It’s for you.”

  WHEN HE GOT OUT of the shower, the phone was ringing again, his private line this time. Janine, he thought. He’d not wanted to divorce his wife, and as their final dissolution drew nearer, it had occurred to him that he might actually miss hearing her piss and moan and rant and rave and sob her heart out. For as long as he’d known her, Janine had kept up a pretty constant head of steam, and in truth he’d been looking forward to having Walt Comeau assume the responsibility for releasing her valve. He had no idea what had caused Janine to stop in the middle of Empire Avenue and terrorize her own car, but he was certain her new husband deserved first crack at it. Unfortunately, all Walt had done was grow pale and set the phone back down.

  But this time he was wrong, though he almost would’ve preferred it to be Janine on the phone.

  “You finish painting the church yet?” his father demanded once Miles had accepted the charges. Had Max lost his mind completely or simply forgotten he’d begun their last phone conversation with this precise question?

  “No, Dad, I haven’t.”

  “Good. You don’t want to work for those people.”

  He knew better than to ask, but couldn’t help himself. “What people, Dad? What are you talking about?”

  “Those Vatican goons come right into Captain Tony’s and lifted Tom right off his barstool by the elbows.”

  “Vatican goons?”

  “Right,” Max said, apparently relieved that they had a good connection. “That was yesterday. I haven’t seen him since. The sissy one find his station wagon?”

  Miles told him he had, for once refusing to be baited. Earlier in the week, Father Mark had bummed a ride to the coast to retrieve the parish’s Crown Victoria.

  “R
ight where I told you it was, I bet.”

  “Do I understand this, Dad?” Miles said. “You want credit for telling me where you left the stolen car?”

  “I didn’t steal anything.”

  “No? How about that twenty you took out of my shirt pocket?”

  Max ignored this. “So, where do you suppose they took him?”

  “Someplace safe, where he can be looked after.”

  “He was safe right where he was. We were looking after him. I thought this was supposed to be a free country. Or don’t you Catholics believe in freedom?”

  “Did you want something, Dad?”

  “You could send down some money if you felt like it. You wouldn’t believe the price of beer down here. Ain’t even the season yet.”

  Translation: with Father Tom gone, he’d lost his meal ticket. And immediately following this, another thought. “How’d they know where to find him?”

  “Who?”

  “Your Vatican goons.”

  “The sissy one must’ve told them.”

  “I don’t think so. Do you want to know what I think? I think when the money ran out, you called the diocese.”

  “You just don’t want to send me any money,” Max said.

  “How come I’m always the one you ask? How come you never ask David?”

  “I do better with you. Some people are a soft touch, others got harder bark on ’em. You’re like your mother. David’s more like me.”

  “For a man who couldn’t stay home, you put a lot of faith in genetic logic.”

  “I never doubted your brother was mine, if that’s what you’re getting at. Any more than I doubted you were.”

  That had been what he was getting at, he realized.

  “A man knows what’s his, you know,” Max said. “Tick yours?”

  “Yes.”

  “How do you know? Blood test?”

  Outside on the stairs leading to the apartment, Miles could hear footsteps. Charlene’s, unless he was mistaken, though it wasn’t that hard to imagine them as belonging to his mother, as if she’d somehow been summoned by this conversation to resolve their dispute.

  “How much do you need, Dad?”

  “I’m okay for now,” he said, as if he also had wearied of the present conversation. “I’ll let you know. First of the month, go over to my place and pick up my check and send it down here, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  Miles hadn’t completely shut his door, so Charlene tapped a warning before poking her head inside. Normally, he knew, finding Miles with nothing but a towel wrapped around his middle, she’d have had some smart-ass remark to offer. Not this time. “You better come down,” was all she said before pulling the door closed.

  “BIG BOY!” Walt was calling excitedly. It always bothered him when something was going on at one end of the counter while he was at the other. It seemed to him not entirely a coincidence, perhaps, that Miles and David and Charlene had all gathered down there out of earshot.

  “If I’m not back in an hour,” Miles told Charlene, his voice low and more under control than he felt, “call Brenda. If she can’t, try Janine.” His ex-wife would hostess in a pinch, assuming she’d finished trashing the Jeep.

  “Someone should go see Bea,” David said. “She sounded pretty upset.”

  Not five minutes after Miles and his brother had left Callahan’s, two state inspectors had appeared and within half an hour had shut the place down. The long list of code violations included wiring, which Miles already knew about, filthy, inadequate bathroom facilities—no argument there—and rodent droppings in plain sight in the kitchen area—in plain sight only because Miles had pulled both the refrigerator and the stove away from the wall, something nobody’d done in more than a decade, so he could work on them. The transgressions against health and safety codes continued down the page, some minor and inexpensive to correct, others more substantial and costly. Under “Recommended (But Not Required)” the inspectors had suggested a new roof, noting flashing along the interior walls, and estimating that the cost of the “Required” repairs might run as high as a hundred thousand dollars—twenty thousand more than Bea and her husband had paid for the business thirty years ago.

  “Can you take half an hour?” Miles asked Charlene. At this point David was the one person who couldn’t leave the restaurant.

  She nodded.

  “No more than that,” David warned her. “Thursday’s crowd comes early.” Then, to Miles: “You’re the one who should go see Bea, not Charlene.”

  “I’ll go over there as soon as I finish talking to Mrs. Whiting.”

  “I’ve been begging you to go see her for—”

  “And I just realized you were right,” Miles told him.

  “I’m right now, too,” his brother assured him. “To hell with her. I’ve seen you when you get like this, Miles. You should wait till you’ve calmed down. If I had two good arms, I’d make you.”

  “Be glad you don’t,” Miles heard himself say, then closed his eyes and shook his head, realizing what he’d just said. “I’m sorry—”

  “Until you do something like this to yourself”—David lifted his ruined arm—“you have no idea what sorry is.”

  “David—”

  But his brother had already turned away. “I’ve got a hundred and fifty seafood enchiladas to make,” he said. “Do what you want.”

  Charlene took him by the elbow. “Miles, you don’t even know for sure she’s behind this. It could be a coincidence.”

  Miles shook his head. “A surprise health inspection the same week as the Liquor Control Board?”

  That had been on Tuesday, the state Liquor Control agent showing up late in the afternoon in response to allegations that Bea was serving minors. A second violation, he warned her as he sat at the bar filling out the paperwork on his clipboard, could result in the loss of her license. When she asked what the first violation was, he’d pointed over to the booth where Tick sat doing her homework. She’d come in just a few minutes earlier, slid into her favorite booth and pushed aside two half-full glasses of beer that Bea hadn’t had a chance to clear away. “You aren’t going to tell me that girl over there is twenty-one, are you?”

  “No, I’m going to tell you she’s my granddaughter and she’s not drinking beer, which you can see for yourself.”

  “She’s sitting at a table with glasses of beer. You know the law, Mrs. Majeski,” he said, initialing the report. “You can appeal, of course. Otherwise, you’ll want to take care of this fine within sixty days.”

  “Where’s Curtis?” Bea said, referring to the regular state guy.

  “I believe the man has retired,” he said on the way to the door. When he got there, he stopped. “Oh, Mrs. Majeski? Good luck on your new restaurant.”

  “No,” Miles now told Charlene. “That’s no coincidence. And next week, when she gets an offer on the place from some stranger, that won’t be a coincidence either.”

  “I know,” Charlene conceded. “I do. It’s just … I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t have a job.”

  “Don’t worry about that,” Miles said, giving her hand a squeeze, sure of this much, anyhow. “Mrs. Whiting isn’t going to close the Empire Grill. She wants it open. She wants us all right here. Or me, at least.”

  Charlene shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

  “I do,” he said, meeting her eye. “It took a while, but I do.”

  “Big Boy!” Walt called again. “Come on down here! Today’s the great day, my friend! No more running!” He had his elbow planted firmly on the counter, his hand open, fingers wiggling.

  He was seeing everything clearly, it seemed to Miles, even Walt Comeau. In marrying Janine, Walt had no doubt hoped to enhance his reputation as a man’s man and a smooth operator. The Silver Fox. Now, a week into his marriage, he was beginning to realize that Janine could very well be his unmanning. Behind all the bravado, Miles could see—almost smell—the man’s panic, which increased noticeably when
he saw Miles coming toward him with a stool, which he set down right across from him on the other side of the counter.

  “Jesus,” Horace Weymouth said, as if he’d just been dealt a hand of gin the likes of which he’d never seen before.

  “Say go, Horace,” Miles commanded without looking at him.

  “Go,” said Horace, and Miles slammed the back of Walt’s hand onto the Formica so hard that three water glasses leapt off it and shattered on the floor, so hard that the Silver Fox’s legs shot straight out and, for a split second, his whole body was parallel to the counter, a victim of a sudden levitation, the stapled hand his only connection to Mother Earth. At that moment Miles released him, and it was his hips that struck the hard linoleum floor first, then the back of his head, then both feet, which bounced just once. Then the Silver Fox lay still, his eyeballs having rolled up in their sockets.

  Miles was already out the door.

  · · ·

  THE GATE WAS STILL OPEN, but Miles parked outside on the street and walked between the stone pillars. In all the years his mother had worked at the shirt factory, he’d never passed beyond the arch, a fact that now seemed astonishing. After Grace’s death, of course, there’d been no reason to come, but as he entered the courtyard, he couldn’t help feeling that he was finally attending to some long-ignored obligation.

  The white limo was still parked there, and on the other side of the brick wall sat Mrs. Whiting’s Lincoln, invisible from the street. Motionless on the shelf behind the backseat was what Miles thought at first glance must be one of those mechanical animals that nodded rhythmic agreement when the vehicle was in motion, but he then realized it was Timmy the Cat. The animal was regarding him curiously, marking his progress along the courtyard and smiling, it seemed, if cats other than the Cheshire variety can be said to smile. When he heard a car door open, Miles saw that the flash of red he’d noticed earlier was Jimmy Minty’s Camaro, which had been blocked from view by the limo.

 
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