Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “Oh-my-God-oh-my-God,” Candace whimpers, and Tick reaches out to the boy just before the fourth deafening shot. She isn’t sure if she has actually touched him, but apparently she has because John Voss slowly turns to look at her. Both of them are standing now, though she cannot remember rising to her feet. Behind her she hears or imagines hearing the classroom door open and other kids running out, something she wishes her own legs would allow her to do. She can feel her vision narrowing the way it does when she’s about to lose consciousness. She looks over at where Candace was sitting, but the girl is no longer there and she hopes this means that she has either fled or ducked under the table. She wants for Candace not to be harmed, now that they’re friends.

  It occurs to Tick that Zack Minty’s stupid game has prepared her for this moment. She faces John Voss as bravely as she can, knowing it will all be over soon. Her vision has now narrowed to the point where she can barely make him out, his face bloody, his eyes almost sad. When he speaks, his voice comes from a long way off. “This is what I dream,” he tells her, in answer to the question she asked him so long ago. Then he squeezes the trigger, and she hears what she is certain will be the last sound she will ever hear, and feels herself thrust backward into blackness.

  CHAPTER 31

  ACROSS TOWN, Miles Roby was sitting at the edge of the hospital bed compiling a mental list of all the people to whom he owed an apology when one of them, his former mother-in-law, walked in, sat down in a chair just inside the door and burst out laughing. Miles studied Bea through his good eye, the other still fused shut with mucus and blood and swelling. Finally she stopped and caught her breath. “I’m sorry, Miles,” she sighed. “I’m not laughing at you.”

  As lies went, this one seemed particularly feeble to a man dressed in a hospital gown so threadbare it verged on transparence. He had a room designed for two all to himself, so it wasn’t like there was anybody else for his former mother-in-law to be laughing at. At first the other bed had been occupied by none other than Jimmy Minty, causing Miles to wonder if some sort of perverse hospital policy required men who’d beaten each other up to share lodgings afterward. Actually, it was more Jimmy Minty who’d beaten Miles up, which was why the policeman had been released, and Miles, with bruised kidneys and a cracked rib, two broken teeth and blood in his urine, was left behind, still groggy with medication, to be laughed at by visitors. He’d had half a dozen between last night and this morning, though the visits were a little hazy, thanks to the painkillers the night before. David and Charlene had been to see him, of course, and Father Mark had brought the news that it was at last official: Sacré Coeur and St. Catherine’s would become one parish. He himself was awaiting reassignment, he didn’t know where; someplace even colder and farther north, he was guessing. Even Janine had stopped in briefly. It was just like him, she said, to finally go and do something interesting after she divorced him. She also asked if he realized that with his two broken teeth, he was beginning to look like Max. At least she’d kept Tick away, for which he was grateful.

  An hour ago he’d asked the nurse for another of the yummy painkillers he’d been given last night, but she’d smiled and said, “Oh, no, I don’t think so,” as if she knew perfectly well that he’d been a very bad boy to enjoy it so much. By way of compensation she provided him with two entirely inferior Tylenol Threes, but his head still felt like a yo-yo suspended on the end of a malicious child’s string. A few minutes before Bea entered the room in a gale of laughter, three ambulances housed in the garage directly below his room—a design flaw, surely—screamed out of the hospital en route to God knew where—their sirens loud enough to explode his head. All of which, he knew, was pretty much what he deserved.

  “I just stuck my head in down the hall,” Bea finally explained. “You should see the goddamn rooster.”

  Walt Comeau’s name was near the top of the list of people Miles owed apologies to, of course, and the reason he was sitting on the edge of the bed rather than lying down was that he’d been contemplating whether, if he took it slow, maybe with the aid of the walker he’d used earlier to go to the bathroom, he might be able to make it down the hall to where David and Charlene had told him the Silver Fox was convalescing. Miles thought it might cheer Walt to view the sorry condition of the man who’d broken his arm and given him a concussion.

  On the other hand, why undertake such an arduous journey to apologize to one person when there was another candidate right there in front of you? “Bea,” Miles said, hanging his head, “I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”

  “Don’t be,” she said. “He had it coming.”

  “Not that,” Miles assured her. His voice had a strange echo inside his head, like an overseas call being bounced off a satellite. “The tavern. I should’ve seen it coming. What she’d do, I mean.”

  Bea took his hand then, studying his still-swollen fingers. “Speaking of the bar, I got an offer on the place this morning.” She looked up at him. “You don’t seem that surprised.”

  “Mrs. Whiting?”

  She shrugged. “It came from a law firm in Boston, by way of a local realtor, but yeah, that would be my guess.”

  “Good deal?”

  “Probably thirty or forty grand more than it’s worth.”

  “You should take it.”

  “I know. Maybe I will.” She looked him in the eye, long and hard.

  “Do.”

  She nodded. “Still, I’m thinking, fuck her.”

  Now there was something going on out in the hall. First shouting and then a doctor, two nurses and an orderly went by at a dead run.

  “I’m not sure F. Lee Bailey could win a pitched battle against that woman,” Miles said, feeling a terrible exhaustion set in at the thought of her. “Not in Dexter County, anyway.”

  “How do you know?” Bea said. “It’s been twenty years since anybody tried.”

  “For good reason.”

  Bea got to her feet then, clearly disappointed. “Well, I better go before I tire you out. Just tell me one thing, though. Wouldn’t you rather go out in a blaze of glory?”

  He couldn’t help but smile. “Look at me, Bea,” he said, though she already was. “I just did.”

  WHEN SHE WAS GONE, Miles went over to the window and stood there looking across the parking lot and through a line of bare trees to where the gray river flowed.

  He’d had one other visitor. Last night, sometime. He couldn’t remember exactly when. Maybe early this morning. He’d drifted off into a narcotic sleep and awakened with a start to find Cindy Whiting sitting at his bedside. Her appearance had stunned him almost as much as her presence. She looked, Miles couldn’t help thinking, astonishingly like her mother. Or rather the way Miles imagined Mrs. Whiting might look after a long illness, assuming there existed a virus with the temerity to use her for a host. It was hard to tell how much weight Cindy had lost since the football game—what, three weeks ago? Her face was pale and gaunt, the flesh along her upper arms sagging.

  “You’re awake,” she said.

  “How long have you been here?”

  “A while,” she admitted. “Do you know what I was just thinking about? How strange it is that you and I happened to be born on the same day in this very hospital.”

  “Almost the same hour.”

  “For a long time I thought of it as a sign. That we were meant to be together. And that almost happened, didn’t it, Miles?” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “Do you remember the time we kissed?”

  He did. It had been an impulse born of confusion, but still, impossible to either call back or erase from memory. God knew, over the years he’d tried. It had happened the night before Grace, in the final stages of her illness, was moved from the Whiting home to the hospital, where she would live another forty-eight hours, most of them in a coma. June was hot that year, and at Grace’s insistence Max, newly returned from the Keys, had taken David to the coast with him two weeks before, ostensibly to help on the house-painti
ng crew, but in fact so he wouldn’t have to watch his mother die. Roger Sperry’s illness had already killed him, and Miles, who’d been home since the previous October, was working long hours at the Empire Grill. He was grateful for the distraction, and lengthened the hours whenever possible, though he was ashamed of himself for leaving school to be with his dying mother, only to hide out at the restaurant, no more prepared at twenty-one to watch his mother die than David was at twelve. What little strength Grace had left she used to express her anger—it was rage, really—about his decision to leave St. Luke’s. Even though the academic year was finished—he’d driven down for Peter and Dawn’s graduation the month before—and though it was pointless for her to be angry over something that no longer pertained, Grace, in her confusion and pain, clung to her anger as if that alone might keep her alive. Didn’t he realize, she kept asking, that the mere sight of him only increased her suffering? As her condition worsened, he delayed his visits as much as possible, often arriving at the Whiting house at a time when, according to the rhythms of her illness, she was likely to be asleep or heavily sedated with morphine.

  It was Cindy Whiting—having returning to Empire Falls herself from Augusta—who had been his mother’s constant nurse and companion. Miles often found her crying quietly at Grace’s bedside when he arrived after closing the restaurant. On the night Cindy was now recalling, his mother was awake when he appeared, and upon seeing him in the doorway she’d simply turned her head and looked away, a gesture so eloquent in its futility that it had backed him out into the hall. Cindy had risen to follow him, leaning heavily on her cane in order to close the door quietly behind her. Her eyes were swollen with her own suffering, and it hadn’t seemed so wrong for him to take her in his arms. When she raised her head to his, they’d kissed, and where was the harm in a kiss so full of need? He should have broken it off, of course, but he hadn’t, the moment proceeding recklessly until he slid his hand up under her sweater, then under her brassiere, cupping her breast, feeling her shudder against him. They’d remained like that until there was a moan of pain from inside the room, and Cindy whispered, “I’ll be right back,” and returned to his mother’s bedside.

  Poor, crippled girl, she could do nothing quickly, however, and by the time she returned, he was gone.

  “Yes, I remember,” he told her, blinking at the memory.

  Then she said something that surprised him. “You do know I’ve had lovers, don’t you, Miles?”

  “I’m glad, Cindy,” he said, feeling himself redden with embarrassment, because, no, he hadn’t suspected this.

  “I wanted you to know, because I’m leaving tomorrow. The truth is, I don’t do very well at home. I never have. There’s a man in Augusta who cares for me, and I like him well enough. It’s not a wonderful life, but I can see clearly there, and it’s important for me to see things clearly. I want you to know about this man, because you always imagine me unhappy, and that hurts my feelings. It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy. It hurts you to think that my life is a misery, so you don’t think of me at all. You don’t call me to find out how I’m doing, because you think you already know. It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy … that I might like to share it with you.”

  “I’m sorry, Cindy.”

  When it was clear he was unable to choke out any more than this, she said, “Is it so terrible for you to know I’ll always love you?”

  “No, of course not. It’s just that I’ve been such a poor friend to you, Cindy, right from the start.”

  “It’s true you always managed to hurt my feelings worse than all the others, but that was only because I had feelings for you. You never meant to hurt me. Not ever. I know that.”

  She got to her feet then.

  “Remember how you used to try to get me to understand poems?”

  He nodded.

  “Actually, I understood a lot more than you thought. It was just so much fun watching how frustrated you’d get.”

  “Thanks a lot.”

  “I’m more like my mother than you know.”

  “No one’s like your mother.”

  At the door she stopped, then turned back to regard him. “She’s not finished with you, Miles,” she said. He nodded.

  “I know.”

  IT TOOK HIM A WHILE, but he managed to dress, not wanting to traverse the corridor, which was strangely deserted, in his hospital gown. The door at the near end of the hall had just slammed shut, and the sound of people running and shouting still echoed in the stairwell. The nurses’ station was abandoned, and somewhere nearby a two-way radio barked loudly, but with too much static for the words to be comprehensible. He’d made it about halfway down the corridor when the double doors at the end swung open, and Bill Daws, the chief of police, looking pale, stepped through them. “I was down in radiology when the call came in, Miles,” he said.

  This explained why a man who was usually so meticulous about his appearance now stood before him with his shirt only half tucked in.

  “You better come with me,” he added.

  MILES WOULD RECALL many of the details only later. Over long weeks and months, they returned the way flashes of lightning illuminate a nocturnal landscape, eventually coming together to form a narrative: the boy, John Voss, statue-like, his face bloody, locked alone and unattended in the backseat of the police cruiser; then, inside the modular addition that housed the art and shop classes, much of the horror visible from the doorway; in the studio itself, a small empty wooden table in the center of the room, at the base of which Doris Roderigue was sprawled, facedown, her legs splayed, her forehead resting in a puddle of water and broken glass; under a nearby table, the body of a boy Miles recognized from the grill, part of Zack Minty’s crowd, with a gaping wound in the head; and finally, slumped up against the wall near the door, one hand resting on his stomach and looking as if he were stricken by a severe attack of dyspepsia, the body of Otto Meyer Jr.

  Miles took in, really took in, none of this at the time, any more than he’d registered the crowd of students outside, some dazed, others crying, interspersed with shell-shocked teachers. Bill Daws had been waved through a blockade hastily set up at the street entrance to the school, but already the first frantic parents were arriving, abandoning their cars in driveways, on lawns, in the middle of the road, anywhere, and then running through backyards and across the school grounds from all directions, heavy, middle-aged women, many of them, some slipping and falling in the wet grass, then grunting back onto their feet again and moving forward, almost completely blinded by tears and a fear the likes of which they’d never known, never even imagined. Miles both saw and did not see any of this, nor did he really see any of the living once he and Bill Daws entered the room where Justin Dibble and Doris Roderigue and Otto Meyer Jr. lay dead. Several policemen and county officials were conversing quietly, as if they had no wish to be overheard by one another or the deceased. Jimmy Minty was among them too, with two black eyes and a metal protective plate over his nose, trying to talk to his son, who kept turning away and finally pushing his father hard with both hands, one of which was wrapped in a bloody bandage.

  Miles was only vaguely aware of the officer who grabbed his elbow to keep him from tromping through the blood and glass and water, or of Bill Daws’s guiding hand on his shoulder—amazingly strong, he would marvel later, for a man so ill. It was Bill who finally asked, his voice filling the room, this man who would himself be dead by Christmas, “Where is this man’s daughter?”

  In the tormented aftermath, what Miles found hardest to forgive himself for was the fact that when they’d entered the room, he walked right past her. She was huddled in the corner, behind the classroom door, he kept reminding himself, trying to be rational about it, though his guilt was too profound to admit reason. He had walked right past her. Wasn’t there something in a father, he asked himself, some extra sense, that should’ve told him right where she’d be? Wasn’t she his only daughter? A
better father would’ve been able to find her blindfolded, in the dark, attracted by the invisible beacon of her suffering. How long did he stand there in that room, his back to her, as if to suggest to this beloved girl that the rest of them were the important ones? This thought would wake him in the middle of the night for months, long after he’d come to terms with the other horrors.

  The young policeman stationed at the door, the same one who’d given Miles a hard time back in September in front of his childhood home, was the one who tapped his chief on the shoulder and said, “Here, sir.” He seemed to notice Miles only after he’d taken a step toward his daughter, urging him, “Be careful.”

  The girl in the corner didn’t look much like Tick, though of course he knew it was. Her expression was one he’d neither seen before nor imagined she was capable of forging. At first he didn’t realize what she was clutching to her chest: an Exacto knife held tightly with both hands, as if its blade were three feet long. And when Miles, perhaps not immediately recognizable with one eye swollen shut and two broken teeth, offered that first movement toward her, his daughter made a flicking motion with the knife, warning him away, and from her throat came a gargling hiss.

  Sinking to his knees before her, he said, “Tick,” his own voice sounding only slightly less strange than hers, the stern voice he rarely used, only when he really wanted her attention. He wasn’t sure it was the right tone or that kneeling there saying her name again and again was the right thing to do, because he had no idea how far into herself she’d withdrawn. He wouldn’t remember later how many times he called to her before her eyes flickered, or how many more before they came into something like focus and she saw him for who he was. In that instant she was suddenly back, and her expression first relaxed, then came apart, and she was sobbing, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” as if she had no idea how far away he might be or else, wherever she’d just been, she’d been counting the number of times he’d spoken her name and was now counting them back to him.

 
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