Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  Just over the Massachusetts line he pulled off the interstate at one of the Haverhill exits and drove around until they found a strip mall with a Kmart. Only when he told her he’d be inside for just a minute and Tick began to shake in terror did he finally understand. She’d had to use the bathroom all the way back in Kennebunk, but she’d been afraid to go inside by herself, afraid for Miles to be out of her sight. “It’s okay,” he reassured her. “You can come with me.”

  And so they’d gone inside together, Tick clutching his hand. The store was nearly empty, an hour or so from closing, but they still attracted considerable attention, what with Tick reeking of urine and Miles with his bruises and one eye still swollen completely shut. In addition to a package of underwear and a pair of cheap jeans—he made sure of the size by checking the tag on the back of the pair Tick was wearing—he also picked up a roll of paper towels, a package of sponges, some upholstery cleaner and a big bottle of generic ibuprofen. Since leaving Maine, his head and body aches had returned with a vengeance, and he knew he wouldn’t make it all the way to Woods Hole without some relief. He chose the men’s room over the women’s, found it to be empty, and locked the door behind them. Inside, he opened the package of underwear, bit the tags off the jeans, opened the paper towels and wet a handful, instructing Tick to use one of the stalls and clean herself up as best she could. He promised to stand right in front of the door where she could see his feet beneath the partition, and he talked to her the entire time, stopping only to chew a disgusting handful of the ibuprofen.

  At the register he got an extra plastic bag for Tick’s soaked jeans and then paid for everything, having had the presence of mind to save the wrappings so they could be run through the price scanner. This foresight didn’t seem to impress the checker, who regarded Miles with unconcealed disgust and Tick with heartfelt sympathy, as if to suggest that she understood what this was all about.

  Out in the parking lot again, Miles half expected the cops to arrive before he could finish sponging urine out of the passenger seat. He was about to pull away when he noticed a bank with an ATM kiosk. There he took out three hundred dollars, the maximum allowable for one day. That left about another three hundred in the account. After that, who knew?

  TWO DAYS AFTER the phone conversation with his brother, Miles found himself nursing a cup of coffee in a window booth at a chowder house in Vineyard Haven. Thanks to a teachers’ in-service, Tick had only a half day of school, and when he looked up from the dregs of his coffee, he was visited by a startling hallucination. Stumping up the street toward him, looking for all the world like a man who knew where he was headed, was Max Roby, who couldn’t possibly know anything of the kind, since Miles knew for a fact that he’d never set foot on the island. His father was on the opposite side of the street, but when he was about half a block away, the old man suddenly tacked across the street, giving the impression that he knew his son was not only on this island (improbable) but in this building (impossible). Since there was no way he could’ve known, it followed that he didn’t, but Miles was still surprised when Max passed by the chowder house entrance. In fact, his father stopped only when Miles rapped on the window.

  A moment later Max Roby, late of Key West, Florida, slipped into the booth opposite his son, late of Empire Falls, Maine.

  “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Miles said, staring at him.

  “I figured I’d run into you,” Max said, looking pleased with himself.

  “You did?”

  “Maybe not this quick,” Max allowed, though he seemed not to fully appreciate, as Miles did, the long odds involved in the present circumstance.

  “We’re staying on the other side of the island, Dad,” Miles explained, exasperation already creeping into his tone in a conversation not yet one minute old. “Most weeks I don’t even come into town except to buy groceries. This is the first time I’ve ever been in this restaurant, and I just happened to be sitting in the only window booth.”

  “I’ve been lucky lately,” Max said, as if to suggest there was no reason he shouldn’t be, given the general tenor of his life to this point. “I tell you I won the lottery down there in Florida?”

  This was the kind of question Max loved to ask, one for which the answer was obvious to both parties, and one it was best just to ignore—a trick Miles had never mastered. “No, Dad. We haven’t spoken in six months. You didn’t know where I was. So, how could you have told me?”

  “Oh, I knew where you were,” Max assured him. “Just because I’m sempty doesn’t mean I’m senile. Old men got brains too, you know.”

  Miles rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “You’re telling me you actually won the lottery?”

  “Not the big one,” Max admitted. “Not all six numbers. Five out of six. Pretty good payoff, though. Over thirty thousand.”

  “Dollars?”

  “No, paper napkins,” Max said, holding one up. “Of course dollars, dummy.”

  “You won thirty thousand dollars.”

  “More. Almost thirty-two.”

  “You won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

  Max nodded.

  “You personally won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

  Max nodded, and Miles considered whether there might be yet another way to ask the same question. Usually, with Max, phraseology was crucial.

  “Me and nine other guys from Captain Tony’s,” Max clarified after a healthy silence.

  “You each won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

  “No, we each won three thousand. Ten guys go in on a ticket, and you have to divvy up the winnings.”

  Now, it was Miles’s turn to nod. Wheedling the truth out of his father was one of the few pleasures of their relationship, and Max took equal pleasure in withholding it. “How much do you have left?”

  Max took out his wallet and peered inside, as if genuinely curious himself. “I got enough to buy lunch. I’m not cheap, like some people. I’m not afraid to spend money when I got it.”

  Which was why he so seldom had any, Miles might have pointed out. Instead he said, “So, Dad, what are you doing here?”

  “I come up with the Lila Day as far as Hilton Head, but they were laying over for a month or two, so I caught a bus to Boston, then another to Woods Hole, then the ferry to here,” he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder. “My duffel bag’s in a locker down at the wharf.”

  “That’s how you got here, Dad,” Miles said. “You sort of left out the why.”

  Max shrugged. “There some kind of law against a man visiting his son and granddaughter?”

  Miles, who on many occasions would’ve voted for such legislation, had to admit there wasn’t any yet.

  “I thought maybe I could cheer her up,” he said. Miles must have looked doubtful, because he added, “I do cheer people up sometimes, you know. There was a time when I even used to cheer your mother up, believe it or not.”

  “When was this?”

  “Before you were born,” Max admitted. “She and I had a lot in common there at the start.”

  “And I spoiled it?”

  “Well,” Max said thoughtfully, “you didn’t help any, but no, it wasn’t you. Not really.”

  “What, then?”

  His father shrugged again. “Who knows? I’ll tell you one thing, though. It’s a terrible thing to be a disappointment to a good woman.”

  “I know a little something about that myself,” Miles admitted, since they seemed, for the first time ever, to have entered confession mode.

  Max lip-farted. “What—Janine? She was born unhappy. There’s no comparing her and your mother. Give Grace anything to be happy about, and by God she was happy. If she’d met that woman’s husband first, instead of me, everything would’ve been different.”

  Miles couldn’t help smiling. That had long been his own estimate of the situation, but even so he was surprised that his father had come to the same conclusion.

  “ ’Course, then there would’ve been no you.”
r />   “Not a tragedy.”

  “And no Tick.”

  Right, no Tick either.

  “Well, I’d have missed the both of you.” Max was grinning at him. “Her especially.”

  “If we walk up the street,” Miles said, glancing at his watch, “we can meet her bus. After that, you can buy lunch for the both of us.”

  “You look like you could stand a good meal,” Max said as they rose from the booth. “How much weight you lost since I seen you?”

  “I don’t know,” Miles said. “A lot, I guess.”

  “You don’t have the cancer, do you?”

  “No, just a kid. Some people worry about them.”

  “You think you can hurt my feelings, but you can’t,” Max assured him, not for the first time.

  As he and his father headed up the street, it occurred to Miles that the unlikely event he’d feared over thirty years ago had at last come to pass: his father had come looking for him on Martha’s Vineyard.

  TRUE TO HIS PROMISE, Max did cheer them up. Tick had always enjoyed her grandfather’s company and he hers. Watching them together had always fascinated Miles, and now, belatedly, he began to understand their mutual ease. Like Miles, his daughter would point out Max’s offenses against hygiene, but her tone was different, and for the first time Miles saw that the same observation from him sounded more like a moral statement. Trailing behind was always an implied imperative—that Max should do something about it—that would, of course, provoke a man like his father to dig in his heels. When Tick said, “You’ve got food in your beard, Grandpa,” it was clear she was merely providing a service. If he wanted food in his beard, that was his business. When he said, “So what?” she just shrugged. Or, if what was stuck in his beard was particularly grotesque, like that morning’s crusted egg yoke, Tick would merely grab a napkin, instruct her grandfather to hold still and gracefully remove it, a gesture that never failed to make Max smile beatifically. His father, Miles had long suspected, was basically a lower primate. He enjoyed being groomed.

  A few days after Max’s arrival, after Miles had walked Tick up the dirt lane to where she caught the school bus, he returned to the house and wrote his sleeping father a note saying he was spending the morning reading in the Vineyard Haven library, something he’d been doing since Tick got settled into school. It was a beautiful little building, and he’d find a quiet corner near Special Collections, read until he grew hungry, pick up a sandwich at a restaurant nearby and then return for as much of the afternoon as remained until school let out. Before long he knew the names of all three librarians, one of whom had confessed that she’d taken him for a professor or a writer researching a book. He’d smiled and told her no, he was by trade a short-order cook, but her remark burrowed deep because what she’d mistakenly imagined was indeed what he’d once hoped to be, and was preparing to be when Grace fell ill. He and Peter and Dawn had been the most talented writers on the literary magazine, and while those two had no more reason to think they’d end up writing TV sitcoms than Miles did to believe he’d graduate to flipping burgers at the Empire Grill, at least his friends now occupied the same quadrant of the galaxy they’d dreamed that they’d one day inhabit. But to be told, at forty-three, that he looked like what he’d meant to be only increased Miles’s sense of personal failure.

  Here on the island, especially once Max showed up, it was impossible not to think of his mother, and the Grace he found himself remembering was still angry with him for betraying his destiny. Many days, only the sight of his daughter stepping off the bus, looking and acting more like her old self every day, had kept him from sinking into a profound depression. Thankfully, seeing Tick alive and well was enough to confirm his sense that his best destiny in life was as this child’s father.

  Still, his feeling that his mother was resting uneasily in her grave caused Miles’s lie, on this particular morning, in the note he’d written to his father. Instead of driving into Vineyard Haven, he pointed the Jetta across the island toward Summer House, where he and his mother had stayed so many years ago. Though it was only a ten-minute drive from Peter and Dawn’s place, he’d never returned there, neither during the long winter, nor on the many vacations he and Janine and Tick had taken over the years. In fact, the first time they visited Peter and Dawn, he’d told Janine that Summer House didn’t exist anymore, lest she want to see it.

  But it did exist, and as he drove through the village, virtually deserted in the off-season, the details flooded back over him. The Thirsty Whale, where he’d greedily devoured clams, was still a restaurant, but under another name and closed until Memorial Day. The village itself was somehow both larger and smaller than he remembered it. There were more buildings, and they seemed closer together, and the epic distance back to their cottage when he was sleepy and full of buttery clams wasn’t much more than a hundred winding yards.

  The gate was down across the dirt road that wound up the bluff among the beach shrubs, so Miles had to park and walk. The main inn, with its sweeping, wraparound porch, was exactly as he remembered it, and so, too, the cottages below, their rose trellises already greening in the warmer weather. He quickly found the one they’d stayed in, the name “Sojourner” above the door, the strange word returning to him across the decades on a wave of memory. Peering in the dusty window at what had been his tiny bedroom, he half expected to see his mitt sitting on the nightstand where he’d left it. Indulging such nostalgic emotions made him feel more than a little foolish, and they probably would be of little use in explaining why he’d ignored the NO TRESPASSING sign at the gate. Still, having come this far, he decided to complete the journey, which meant following the path down to the beach. Here, too, the beach grass was greening up, spring here already in full stride, nearly a month ahead of central Maine. The beach itself was still deserted, so he sat down for a while where he thought his mother had spread their blanket, and studied a fogbank resting a couple hundred yards offshore. Whose ghost did he expect to encounter here, he wondered—his mother’s, or that of his boyhood self?

  He didn’t become aware that the fog had moved in until he turned around and saw it had nearly engulfed the bluff, which now was visible only in vague, blurry outline. By the time he located the path again, the mist was so thick he was able to orient himself only by watching the ground at his feet, and once up the cliff he found “Sojourner” again by literally blind luck. From its front porch neither the main house nor the nearest cottage, where Charlie Mayne had stayed, was visible. As he rested there on the step—a grown man now, whether he felt like one or not—he realized it was Charlie Mayne’s ghost he’d come to commune with. Miles and his mother had left the island together that morning thirty years ago, returning to their lives in Empire Falls, and she now lay buried in the town cemetery. It was Charlie Mayne they’d left behind on the dock as the ferry steamed away, so of course it was appropriate that he should be here still. Even recognizing his face in the photograph of C. B. Whiting couldn’t change that. It was Charlie Whiting who lay buried up the hill from his mother, but Charlie Mayne was a different sort of man entirely, and it was he whom Miles wished to summon for questioning.

  So when the man emerged through the mist and sat down next to him on the porch step, Miles looked him over carefully and saw that it was indeed clean-shaven Charlie Mayne and not bearded C. B. Whiting. Still elegant and silver-haired, Charlie had not aged at all, nor was there a bullet hole in his right temple from the day that other fellow took a pistol he’d purchased in Fairhaven down to the river with him.

  When Miles saw the man’s familiar sad expression, he said, “My mother died, Charlie.” He didn’t want him to think she was inside “Sojourner” putting on her white dress so they could all go out to dinner.

  Charlie Mayne nodded, as if to suggest that, of course, this is exactly what would’ve happened.

  “She waited for you,” Miles said, when he didn’t speak.

  “I meant to come. I wanted to.”

  “Then why
didn’t you?” Miles asked, having wondered for over thirty years.

  “When you’re older, you’ll understand. There are things that grown-ups intend and want to do, but somehow just can’t.”

  This explanation made Miles feel like a boy again, and when he spoke it was with a ten-year-old’s whine. “But you got steamer clams in a restaurant that didn’t even have them on the menu.”

  “Well, steamer clams are different,” Charlie Mayne explained.

  Which made Miles even more petulant. “You killed her,” he said. “You killed my mother.”

  “No,” Charlie Mayne said. “I’m afraid your mother died of cancer.”

  “How do you know? You weren’t there. You never came. You made her happy, then you broke your promise, and she died.”

  “What was I supposed to do?”

  “What you said.”

  “I tried.”

  “No, you didn’t.” He was crying now, as he hadn’t since he was a boy, the kind of crying that did some good. “She never stopped waiting for you.”

  “You’re wrong about that. She did stop. Don’t you remember? You’re the one who never forgot.” Charlie Mayne reached over then and tousled Miles’s hair.

  When Miles looked down he saw he was a boy, that he’d never been anything else, that his life as a husband and father had been a dream. “I hate you,” he sobbed.

  “And I you,” Charlie Mayne replied kindly.

  “Why? I’m just a boy.”

  “Because if it hadn’t been for you, your mother and I could’ve run away together like we wanted to. You were the reason.”

  “It’s not true,” he cried, knowing it was.

 
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