Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Do you think Justin would win?” Candace wondered idly, as if this were a conundrum, on the magnitude of Superman versus the Incredible Hulk.

  “Against Zack or Bobby?” Tick asked, though it made no difference, since Justin stood no chance against either.

  “Zack,” Candace clarified. “I don’t think Bobby’d fight Justin. He just wanted to get it on with Zack because he heard Zack’s tough.”

  Even sheltered from the worst of the wind, it was still cold—and getting dark too, though it wasn’t yet four o’clock. Still, coming here had been a good idea. Tick could feel her spirits gradually picking up. Her shoulder still hurt from being dragged by her backpack, but what happened had frightened more than injured her. And, as was often the case, talking to Candace buoyed her spirits, though she did wonder if the mere fact that somebody was worse off than you was a proper basis for friendship. Both girls were silent for a while, listening to the water slide by at their feet.

  “When you and Zack were together,” Candace finally said, “did you ever play the gun game?”

  Tick studied Candace’s expression and saw the fear in her eyes. “Once,” she admitted.

  “He said you used to play it all the time. He was trying to get me to.”

  Zack called it “Polish Roulette,” which was supposed to be a joke. He’d broken one of his father’s revolvers open and shown Tick there were no bullets in the cylinder. Then you were supposed to put the barrel of the gun against your head and pull the trigger. The idea, as he explained it to Tick, was to see how rational you were. If you knew by the evidence of your own senses that the gun wasn’t loaded, then you had nothing to fear. Except it was still a gun and your mind couldn’t forget that. “It’s a rush, though,” he admitted, grinning at her, “ ’cause, like, what if you were wrong and there was one bullet in there you missed?”

  “Don’t you hate it when you find out people are lying to you?” Candace said, apparently referring to Zack’s claim that he and Tick had played the game all the time.

  “Candace,” Tick said, “promise me you’ll never do it?”

  “Okay.” She shrugged, her fear apparently evaporating the instant she shared the story with her friend.

  “No, I mean it,” Tick said. “Promise me right now, or we’re not friends anymore.”

  “Okay, okay,” Candace said, more seriously now. Then: “We’re friends? I can tell people we’re friends?”

  “Sure. Why not?” Seeing how badly Candace wanted that made Tick wonder whether it would have made a difference if she’d told John Voss the same thing. What if all everybody needed in the world was to be sure of one friend? What if you were the one, and you refused to say those simple words?

  It was nearly dark now, and when they started back toward the riverbank a movement on the shore attracted their attention. About fifty yards upstream, right where the river began to bend toward Empire Falls, stood a group of men in suits, huddled and shivering but attentive. They seemed to be listening to a woman Tick recognized as Mrs. Whiting, who owned the Empire Grill and, according to her father, most everything else in town. Just barely visible through the bare autumn trees, a white limousine idled on the roadway, and it was this that had caught Candace’s eye. “Wow,” she sighed. “How’d you like to ride in one of those someday?”

  What Tick noticed, however, was that the woman had noticed them as well. And even though she and Candace were standing close together on a big rock, somehow she was certain that Mrs. Whiting was smiling not at Candace but at her.

  SLOW, TICK DECIDES. Things happen slow. She isn’t quite sure why this understanding of the world’s movement should be important, but she thinks it is. It could even be the reason that guy Bill Taylor isn’t a very good painter. His art happens fast, and he’s always talking about how swiftly light changes, about how important it is to “attack” your painting, to get a record of what you’re seeing, because you’ll never see that exact thing again. Tick understands what he means, but can’t help feeling that the opposite is equally true.

  Take her parents. At the time, their separation had seemed a bolt from the blue, though she now realizes it had been a slow process, rooted in dissatisfaction and need—in their personalities, really. Maybe the whole thing had come on Tick suddenly, but in reality her mother’s slow march from eye contact to flirtation to infidelity to divorce to remarriage was a Stairmaster journey whose culmination was probably the beginning of another climb that would prove just as slow and inexorable.

  And that’s the thing, she concludes. Just because things happen slow doesn’t mean you’ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness, aware that speed was trump. “Slow” works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare, which conceals the central fact, that no matter how slow things go, you’ll always be slower.

  The art room has a long bank of windows facing the rear of the school and a huge parking lot that’s never filled except during boys’ basketball games. This afternoon only the first four or five rows of parking spaces are occupied, and from her seat at the Blue table Tick can see straight down a corridor between the third and fourth rows of cars, which means that eight or ten drivers have actually respected the yellow lines painted on the blacktop. Beyond the lot is a gentle, sloping bank and the oval cinder track her father once told her a funny story about. Beyond that, open field runs to a line of trees where the wetlands begin. Here Tick spots an almost imperceptible movement off in the distance between the rows of cars. What it looks like is a small ball bobbing in a gentle breeze on a placid lake, except there’s no water where she’s looking.

  Tick idly watches whatever it is bob up and down and then sideways before returning to her still life, which she completed two days ago but still feels is unfinished, she’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because she can’t see how anything so poorly executed could be considered finished. It also bothers her to think that what’s wrong with the painting could be the result of a bad decision made early on. Worse, she’s not sure whether the bad decision was Mrs. Roderigue’s in selecting the ugly peony in the first place, or her own. Her decision to paint the peony in its ugliness is defensible, she thinks, but now she realizes that she’s painted the surrounding flowers as if they were corrupt by association. If making things seem prettier than they are is a lie, then making them seem uglier must be another. She can tinker with the painting, improve it in small ways, but it won’t change the lie at its heart. Only starting over could do that, and it’s too late. Next week they begin a new unit.

  She steals a look at Candace’s painting, and is surprised to see that it’s not bad. Up to this point she’d simply recycled last year’s efforts, not a strategy Tick would have recommended, given that Candace took and failed this same class last year on the basis of this very same work. But Mrs. Roderigue appears to have no memory of any of it, and none of Candace’s work so far has received the grade it got the year before—a fact Tick thinks Mr. Meyer, the principal, might be interested to learn. That Mrs. Roderigue’s grading corresponds rather chillingly to the income level of her students’ parents has—according to her father—already been brought to Mr. Meyer’s attention, which might explain why Candace is faring better this year.

  What impresses Tick most about her friend’s effort is that she’s accomplished exactly what Mrs. Roderigue requested—that is, to remember the peony’s beauty and paint that memory. In a way, the big gaudy pink flower of love is the perfect subject for Candace. Seeing what a good job she’s done, Tick at once feels both happy and sad for her friend. Yesterday, on their way home from the river, she and Candace cemented their friendship with a genuine exchange of secrets. Candace, of course, had used Tick as a repository of secrets all term, but this was the first time Tick reciprocated.

  The secret Candace shared is that she and Justin had sex, which explains why he’s been so quiet in class today and why they exchange shy, scared smile
s, full of gratitude and wonder and regret each time he looks up from his work. What Tick told Candace is that she’s the one who picked up the Exacto knife back in September and that it hadn’t been found in all that time because it was tucked snugly in a side pocket of her backpack. Further, she’s admitted to Candace that the reason she hasn’t returned the knife to the supply closet is that she likes the idea of possessing a weapon, which of course is absurd for a pacifist, as Tick believes herself to be. In truth, every time she takes it out and feels its cool surface, her left arm starts to go numb and she has to put it away before she becomes ill. The thing to do, she knows, is return it to the supply closet at the end of today’s class, but Tick knows she won’t, and she knows the reason is that Zack Minty was released from the hospital late this morning. She passed him in the hall between classes and saw the way he looked at her and Candace. For the last ten minutes she’s been expecting the classroom door to swing open and for Zack to join them at the Blue table. Tick can’t help anticipating bad things, especially after what happened yesterday between her father and Zack’s dad.

  It’s still hard to believe, her father going to jail. According to Uncle David, that’s where he’ll end up once he’s well enough to be released from the hospital. Zack’s dad had wanted to throw him in a cell yesterday when they arrived at the station, but the chief of police had sent them directly to Empire General, where Tick hasn’t been allowed to visit him yet. According to her uncle and Charlene, who’d been waiting for her at the house, the lawyer they hired didn’t think he’d be locked up for long. There was little doubt he’d be arrested, though, and he’d have to post bail. More than anything, according to Uncle David, her father was embarrassed. He didn’t want Tick to see him in his present condition. And he wanted her to know how sorry he was to have botched their trip to Boston on Sunday, though David and Charlene would take her instead. Before she knew it, everything would be back to normal.

  When Charlene and her uncle rose to leave, it occurred to Tick to ask where her mother was. She’d delayed coming home in fear of the inevitable scene. After their altercation on Empire Avenue, her mother would be a basket case, swinging back and forth between anger and worry, and Walt would be lurking in the background, making everything worse.

  The two grown-ups exchanged a clumsy glance that said that this was the very question they’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask. “She’ll be home soon,” Charlene told her. “She’s over at the hospital.”

  “She can visit Daddy, and I can’t?”

  Then they told her that it wasn’t her father Janine was visiting, but Walt, who’d been admitted with a concussion and a broken arm. Reluctantly, they explained how this had come to pass.

  Then another question occurred to her. “Who’s running the restaurant?”

  “We closed it for tonight,” David admitted. “No way around it. You want to come over with us and eat an enchilada? I got about a hundred and fifty of them in the oven.”

  And that’s what they’d done, the three of them. They’d sat in a corner booth with all the restaurant lights off, silently eating enchiladas and watching cars pull into the parking lot, see the sign on the door, and drive off again.

  Meanwhile, Tick did a tally in her mind. In one day her mother had nearly dragged her down Empire Avenue by her backpack; she’d become best friends with Candace Burke; her father had broken Walt Comeau’s arm in a wrestling match, then gotten into a fight with a policeman and ended up in the hospital, from which he’d be taken directly to jail; and a sign had been posted on the Empire Grill reading CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. And that wasn’t counting the horrible events earlier in the week.

  But everything would be back to normal before long?

  WHATEVER’S BOBBING OUT THERE, Tick notices, is still bobbing, but closer now. What it looks like is a human head, though of course that makes no sense. She watches curiously to see whether it will resolve itself as sense or remain nonsense, and she’s just about to bet on the latter—an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the irrational world, where people she knows, like her father, become people she doesn’t know, where the whole world tilts and solid things become as liquid as objects in a Dalí painting, where human heads disassociated from their bodies are borne along on waves of windblown grass—when this particular bobbing head resolves itself before her eyes, tilting the world back again, though not completely. Because the head, she realizes, belongs to John Voss, and in fact it’s not bobbing on water or waves of grass, but rather on his shoulders. What she’s been observing is the boy’s natural, loping stride as he approaches the school, crossing the distant field, and then the cinder track, his body hidden below the curvature of the land. Only when he reaches the gentle incline where her father once lost control of Mrs. Whiting’s new Lincoln do the boy’s neck, shoulders and torso become visible, a recognizably human form. And then just as suddenly he changes course and vanishes entirely behind the rows of cars, gone so completely that Tick wonders if she’s imagined him there.

  The best evidence that what she’s seen is real is that her left arm has gone numb.

  WHAT SHE REALIZES when he enters, a sixteen-year-old boy with a grocery bag folded under his arm, is how relieved she’d been by his disappearance. Though terribly ashamed to feel this, she can’t deny it. One look at him now—head down, shoulders hunched forward, resolutely silent, as if he thinks he can walk into art class and take up where he left off—brings back to her the thought she’d tried so hard to ignore last week, which she was too embarrassed to admit even to her father: that everyone is better off with this boy gone.

  Not that he is the cause of all this trouble, because she knows he isn’t. He’s not even really to blame for what happened with his grandmother. In a way, John Voss is like Jesus—blameless, perhaps, but nevertheless the center of all the trouble. If Jesus had gone away, things in Galilee would have returned to normal, just as her father promised they soon would here in Empire Falls. So, as Tick sees John again—and she’s the first to, because she’s been watching the classroom door, waiting for it to open—a wish escapes before she can call it back, that he should disappear again, this time for good. Dead? Is that what she means? She hopes not. No one could want this boy, this child who had dangled from a laundry bag inside a dark closet, not to exist. Merely for him not to exist here, because here has proven to be the wrong place. She feels like Jesus’ disciples must’ve felt. They never wanted him crucified, of course, but what a relief it must have been when the stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb, sealing everything shut so they could go back to being fishermen, which they knew how to do, rather than fishers of men, which they didn’t. No wonder they didn’t recognize him later on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t want to, any more than Tick wants to welcome this poor boy back into their midst.

  Except for being blameless, John Voss is not, of course, at all like Jesus. What has he ever been but a silent, sullen, angry burden that no one, including Tick, has wanted to shoulder? Outside of her father, who’d given him a job, and Tick, who’d given him the bare minimum of kindness, the only person who’d showed him any generosity was his grandmother, and he’d repaid that kindness by tossing her lifeless body onto the landfill as if it were a threadbare rug. No, his disappearance has been a blessing, allowing the whole horrible story to recede from public consciousness. True, for the last five days everyone in Dexter County was looking for him, but the truth is, nobody hoped to find him. Is there a term for that? Tick wonders. The thing everyone is searching for and hoping not to find? The thing you’re secretly glad has made a clean getaway, lest you yourself be blamed should it ever be located?

  John Voss moves deliberately across the room to the Blue table and stops just a few feet from Tick, no doubt confronting the fact that there’s no place for him to sit. In fact, starting the day after his disappearance, there’d been one less chair at this table, representing, Tick realizes, everyone’s secret wish. Mrs. Roderigue, she notes, has risen from behind her desk and act
ually seems to be contemplating a journey across the room. Everyone else is just staring, dumbfounded.

  Without looking at anyone, John sets his folded grocery bag down on the table with a dull thud. Now that he’s close, Tick can smell him. It’s the same rancid smell he’d had back in September before he started working at the restaurant. His clothes are wet and caked with dirt, his hair knotted with bits of leaves and twigs. The room is silent. Tick can feel nothing on the left side of her body. She reaches down to her backpack, where in one of the side pockets there is, in addition to the Exacto knife, the extra sandwich she’s brought along every day this week in case the boy showed up.

  Justin Dibble is the first to speak. “Hey, John,” he says, as if this were a normal day, just another class. “What’s in the bag?”

  At first he doesn’t appear to hear. When he finally reaches into the bag and takes out the revolver, it seems to Tick that he may have done so in response not to Justin but to a voice in his own head. The revolver looks like an antique, or maybe a stage prop, with its wooden grip and long barrel. He points it and pulls the trigger without hesitation, and then Justin Dibble vanishes in the roar. He simply isn’t sitting there anymore. Mrs. Roderigue, halfway across the room, stops next to the vase of still-life flowers, unable to move forward or back or even to scream, and before the echo of the first explosion dies there are two more and Mrs. Roderigue drops to her knees, a large peony blooming on her bosom, the vase tumbling off the table and shattering on the floor.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]