Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  David Roby would wonder later how a man in his brother’s condition was able to do what he did, to gather up his daughter into his arms and in that none-too-gentle bear hug of his, carry her out the door and away. Later, Miles himself would remember Jimmy Minty’s comment as they were leaving. “We gonna let him just walk out of here?”

  And Bill Daws’s response. “You tend to your own kid, Jimmy. Let’s all just tend to our own kids, okay?”


  IN EARLY APRIL it turned warm, and Miles could see from the weather map in the newspaper that the unseasonable temperatures extended all the way up into Maine, which had endured a particularly brutal winter, one nor’easter after another, dropping a foot of new snow every week. He’d spoken to his brother after the last of these, and David reported that as of April Fool’s Day half the residents of Empire Falls still had little red flags attached to their car antennas so they could be seen as they backed out their driveways between towering snowbanks. The town’s budget for snow removal had been exhausted in late January.

  “Business will pick up soon,” David added. It had been slow most of the winter, partly due to the weather, partly because after the Empire Grill closed, a lot of their customers, especially those from the college in Fairhaven, were slow to follow them to Bea’s tavern, despite the ads they’d finally taken out in the school paper. “We could use you, sooner than later.”

  “Sorry,” Miles told him, “I don’t think so.”

  “How’s Tick?” his brother asked, both men aware that this hadn’t really changed the subject.

  “Good,” Miles told him. “Better every day.”

  “She doesn’t want to come home?”

  The truth was, she did. Just last week she’d asked if they could visit during Vineyard High’s spring break, and had she claimed to miss her mother, Miles might’ve given in. But what she had in mind was to visit Candace, who remained hospitalized, and John Voss, who only last month was declared incompetent to stand trial and remanded to the state mental hospital in Augusta. Miles wasn’t sure that either of these visits was a good idea just yet.

  In the months since the shooting, Tick had come to terms with the broad outline of what had happened that last afternoon. That John Voss had shot and killed Justin Dibble and Doris Roderigue, that he’d also shot Candace Burke in the neck, the bullet nearly severing her spine. She understood, too, that he’d then turned on Tick and would’ve shot her too if Otto Meyer Jr. hadn’t stepped between them. She even knew that the boy had then turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger several times but that only one bullet remained in the chamber—a bullet as old as the gun itself, his long-dead grandfather’s service revolver—and it had not fired.

  This much Tick understood, but what Miles didn’t know was how much of this understanding was reinforced by memory. Though she’d had terrible nightmares for nearly two months, she wouldn’t talk about them, so he didn’t know if it was remembered horror she was experiencing or dream analogies. Over time he told her what he thought was important for her to know. He told her that Candace was alive as soon as he heard this news from his brother. And much later he told her about Otto, who once had lunged from the backseat of the car to save the baseball team from Miles’s inexperience at the wheel, and who had now saved Tick’s life at the cost of his own. Other things he kept silent about. Even now, in April, his daughter had given no indication of recalling that when John Voss had pointed the revolver at Candace, Tick had reached out and cut him from eyebrow to ear with an Exacto knife. Nor what happened when she returned to consciousness and saw Zack Minty leaning over her, how she’d sliced open his palm with the same weapon.

  No, if she’d managed to repress these details, they could stay repressed. Coming back from the abyss had been a long haul, and he refused to risk a relapse by returning home too soon. He hadn’t even wanted to enroll her at the high school on Martha’s Vineyard in mid-January—and still wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing. Her new teachers, like everyone else, knew of the events in Empire Falls, but somehow didn’t connect them to her. They seemed fond of Tick and suspected she was intelligent, but didn’t know what to make of her vagueness and lapses of attention. Miles chose not to enlighten them.

  Having devoted the last five months to her recovery, he only recently had begun to feel confident that she would make it all the way back. The part of the island where they were staying was mostly uninhabited during the winter, and rather than walk on the deserted beach or along the windy bike path, on weekends Miles had taken to driving into Edgartown, where they took long walks among the narrow, quiet streets, stopping at shops and galleries and the library, anyplace there were people and distraction. The shooting, he understood, had rendered his daughter’s world dangerous, and it was his belief that only the repetition of bad things not happening would restore her former relationship to it. Progress had been so slow at first that he’d started to doubt the wisdom of his plan. An angry conversation overheard in a restaurant would sometimes be enough to set her sobbing and shaking. But gradually she began to stabilize. One day in late February, they’d stopped in at the fish market, where a hand-lettered sign was affixed to the lobster tank: DON’T TOUCH THE MALE AND FEMALE LOBSTERS. “So,” she asked the man behind the counter, “exactly which lobsters can we touch?” It had taken all of Miles’s willpower not to seize her in his arms and dance a jig out the door and right up the middle of the street.

  So when she asked last week why he was so dead set against going up to Empire Falls over the break, he’d lied, reminding her that he might very well be arrested. The dread possibility of being separated from him was still sufficiently scary for her to drop the idea immediately. He felt guilty playing on this fear, but what choice did he have? Predictably, his brother had been a tougher sell. The last time they spoke on the phone, David asked point-blank if they were remaining on the island for Tick or for himself. “Have you thought about Janine?” he asked. “This hasn’t been all that easy on her either, you know.”

  Miles couldn’t dispute that fact. Not after putting their daughter in the Jetta and speeding away from the shooting as if he had legal custody, as if the child’s mother had no right to a voice in the decision. At the time, of course, he’d thought of nothing but escape. During the long, bleak Vineyard winter, though, he’d had the opportunity to think everything through, and the thinking had changed exactly nothing. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel bad for his ex-wife, who didn’t deserve this, and of course he was grateful to her for not coming after him with cops and lawyers. Six months after their flight from Empire Falls, he still hadn’t spoken to Janine, nor had Tick. In fact, he’d told only David where they were, though he assumed Janine knew. Once things had calmed down, she’d have figured it out, and if she’d called Peter and Dawn they’d have told her.

  That had been their sole stipulation. Of course, they said, he could have the house for as long as he needed it. They’d seen the news, and agreed with Miles that the best thing for Tick might very well be to get her out of there, away from the school, the reporters and all the rest of it. But they’d both refused to lie to Janine. Fortunately, she hadn’t called, and neither had anyone else, like Horace Weymouth or Father Mark, both of whom were likely to have figured out where they’d gone. Maybe not exactly where, but it was a small island, especially when emptied of tourists.

  He couldn’t help smiling at the idea of David, who’d barely spoken to Janine since she took up with Walt, being the one to point out his arrogant disregard for her. According to David, she’d gone through a transformation of her own, quitting her job at the health club and coming to work as a hostess and waitress at her mother’s restaurant, where she’d put back on most of the weight she’d Stairmastered off during the previous year. She had little to say about her marriage, which David suspected was already rocky. The Silver Fox had made the transition from the Empire Grill to the new Callahan’s smoothly enough, but he no longer stripped down to his muscle shirt and
wouldn’t play gin with Horace anymore. If he was tempted to observe that his wife was gaining weight, he controlled the impulse, which was smart.

  “I can’t get used to you siding with Janine,” Miles told his brother.

  “Don’t be a jerk,” David said. “I’m siding with Tick. I think you enjoy having her all to yourself. You like having her need you. Keep it up and she always will.”

  “She’s never going to get her hands on my daughter,” Miles told him.

  Silence on the other end for a beat. “I assume we’re now talking about Mrs. Whiting?”

  “We are,” Miles said, not so much embarrassed by his vague pronouncement as by how easily his brother could translate it.

  “Miles, I have to tell you, I think you’ve gone a little crazy on this subject. She left town a week after you did. She’s been gone all winter. Her house is for sale.”

  “Let me know when it sells.”

  “She’s already unloaded most of her commercial real estate, right down to the Empire Grill. She’s made a fortune on the Knox River project, and since Bea turned down her offer and got a lawyer, she’s left us alone. She’s pulling out, Miles.”

  “You could be right,” Miles said, though he didn’t believe it for an instant.

  “If it’s Jimmy Minty you’re worried about, don’t bother. He’d have to sober up to cause any trouble, and he’s shitfaced over at the Lamplighter every night.”

  Actually, Miles was aware of this development. Among the many newspaper clippings his brother had sent him through the winter, most having to do with the new Knox River Restoration Project, there were several detailing Officer Minty’s travails, and they came with annotations in Charlene’s small, careful hand. Not long after the shooting, which was national news until an even worse incident had occurred out West, Jimmy’s wife showed up in Empire Falls with her new fiancé and a downstate lawyer, who served her husband with divorce papers containing allegations of emotional and, in one instance, physical cruelty, the exact nature of which she threatened to make public if he chose to contest either the divorce or the custody arrangements detailed in the supporting documents. A week later, when she returned to Seattle, where she now lived, she took her son, Zack, with her.

  Minty might have fought this had another problem not presented itself simultaneously. Bright and early one morning, before he’d even finished shaving, the county sheriff arrived at his door with a search warrant and a team of uniformed officers who apparently knew exactly what to look for. In record time they found several items—expensive stereo speakers, a new microwave, a VCR—for which Minty could provide no proof of ownership, and from which the identifying serial numbers had been expertly removed. He claimed he’d paid cash for the items in question down in Portland and hadn’t saved receipts, and he was highly insulted by the suggestion that items of identical description had disappeared in a series of nocturnal thefts from several local merchants. This story might’ve worked if he hadn’t missed one I.D. number on the inside of a laser printer, the very one stolen from Knox Computer a couple of months earlier. Investigators also confiscated the key-making machine they found in his basement, along with a key ring bristling with what were described as master or skeleton keys. While he hadn’t been indicted, the allegations turned up in the newspaper, after which he resigned from the force. According to David, he’d put his home on the market in hopes of covering his legal fees and was presently living as a caretaker at the Whiting hacienda.

  “He came into the tavern a couple of weeks ago, actually,” David added. “Said Zack had written wanting to know how Tick was. He also said to tell you no hard feelings.”

  Again Miles had to smile. “That’s awfully good of him. He kicked the shit out of me.”

  “True,” David conceded. “His nose didn’t heal right, though. He looks like he misplaced his own and borrowed the one he’s got now off a corpse. It’s kind of gray. Still, I think if you were to lie and tell him you’re sorry, that’d be it.”

  “I am sorry,” Miles said, though he had reservations about Jimmy Minty’s capacity for forgiveness. “I keep telling you, it’s not Minty. I know her, David. Maybe it’s taken me a lifetime, but I do.”

  “Okay, then,” David said, “explain it to me.”

  Miles had no intention of doing so, well aware of how paranoid it would sound. Among the other clippings he’d received from his brother was a story about the purchase of St. Cat’s by a Massachusetts investment group, which planned to convert the church into four three-story condominiums. The most extravagant of these featured a Jacuzzi in the steeple Miles had never worked up the courage to paint. Architectural plans illustrated the future purpose of the building where Miles and his mother had attended Mass, and there were small photos of Father Tom (pre-dementia) and Father Mark, both of whom were now residing at Sacré Coeur. Perhaps there was no justification for Miles’s belief that the real buyer of the church was Mrs. Whiting, or that she would maintain a residence in one of the condos, so as to spend at least part of the year living in the heart of something he’d loved before she managed to seize and corrupt it. Power and control, again. And no matter how little basis he could claim for this belief, he truly did believe it.

  “Look,” David said, “I’m glad Tick’s getting better. But has it occurred to you that you’re getting worse?” When Miles didn’t respond, he continued. “It’s not going to be much of a victory if you save her and destroy yourself.”

  “It’s a trade I could live with,” Miles told him, aware that it was this precise bargain that his mother had made, or attempted.

  “And I could understand that—if you had to. But what if this martyrdom isn’t necessary? Tell me who’s won then—you or her?”

  “I’m not trying to be a martyr, David.”

  “Really? You wouldn’t shit a shitter, would you?”


  “Because I’ve been down that road, brother, then off the road and into the fucking trees, and all I have to show for it is a busted flipper.”

  “Actually, you’ve come out of it rather nicely,” Miles pointed out, meaning Charlene, and knowing his brother would catch his drift. The silence on the line suggested he was right, and Miles immediately felt bad about the low blow. “Look, can we leave this alone?”

  “Fine.” Then, after a pause: “Bea wanted me to say hi. Also to remind you that you’re still a fully vested partner in the new Callahan’s.”

  “Tell her thanks for me.”

  “You’re missing out, Miles. That’s all I can say. You wouldn’t believe what’s going on down by the river. The new brew pub’s going to open by the Fourth of July. The credit-card company’s sunk millions into renovating the old mill. The shirt factory’s going to be an indoor mini-mall. Even a few houses are starting to sell.”

  “You sound like a real booster.”

  “Well, there’s no law says good things can’t happen every now and then.”

  If what David had described was an unalloyed blessing, then Miles would be glad. For his brother, for Bea, for Charlene, for all of them. He didn’t expect anybody to share his resentment about the way it was coming about, that once again the lion’s share of the wealth generated would never reach the citizens of Empire Falls. The houses they couldn’t afford to sell last year would be houses they couldn’t afford to buy the next. And it was Francine Whiting, of course, who’d pulled it off, in essence selling the same thing twice, first the mills themselves, then the parcels of riverfront land she’d cleverly retained. And, too, there was an irrational feeling he couldn’t quite dismiss, that all of this new hope and confidence was built on the foundation of a loss everyone was far too anxious to forget. His friend Otto Meyer was a large part of that loss, and the dead boy, Justin Dibble, and, yes, even Doris Roderigue. If Candace Burke survived, perhaps a few years down the road she’d be grateful for a job doing phone solicitation for the credit-card people, a job she could handle from her wheelchair. And there was John Voss, now retur
ned, in a sense, to the dark closet he’d been forgotten in as a child—a loss no one would ever wish to recall.

  But his brother was right, of course. Mrs. Whiting hadn’t shot anybody, and all of the world’s ills could not be laid at her doorstep.

  “You okay for money?” David wanted to know.

  “For now.”

  “What about for later?”

  “Later, David, will just have to take care of itself.”

  MONEY WAS THE ONE THING he’d promised himself early on that he wouldn’t think about. His debts were mounting, naturally, and had been since the afternoon they’d fled town. They hadn’t stopped at either Janine’s house or his own apartment. It would’ve been smart to pack a hasty suitcase, but Miles was afraid that even a brief delay would result in their detention, so they’d left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, bound for a destination that Miles was able to define only as “away.” And since Tick hadn’t asked where they were headed, there was no need to explain.

  By the time they’d gotten onto the interstate at Fairhaven, heading south, her convulsive weeping had stopped and she’d retreated into herself again, her blank silence ghastly, frightening. By the time he pulled over in Kennebunk to gas up, she’d stopped responding to his questions, and he’d had to go around to her side of the car, open the door and forcibly turn her head toward him while he explained that everything was going to be okay, that he was taking her away from that place, that she had to trust him. When he finished, she had nodded, but she looked like she was concentrating as hard as she could just to remember who he was, and her nodding in agreement had the appearance of a guess.

  Back on the highway, it occurred to Miles that they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard, to Peter and Dawn’s summer house. Being able to replace the word “away” with “Martha’s Vineyard” buoyed his spirits irrationally, and so did the notion that the two of them would be hiding out on an island, as if anyone who pursued them would have to swim there. Thinking that the idea of the Vineyard might also improve Tick’s spirits, he told her, but again he suspected it hadn’t truly registered, and when they reached the New Hampshire tollbooth and he looked over at her, she was crying again. A moment later he understood why. She had released her bladder onto the seat.

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