Empire Falls by Richard Russo

“So, now do you see the way it really was?” Charlie Mayne nudged him. “You’re the one who killed your mother, not me.”

  HE AWOKE A MAN, with no idea how long he’d slept on that crooked porch. The fog was still thick and there were voices in it, though he couldn’t tell where they were coming from. At first whoever was talking seemed to be over at the next cottage, but then the voices shifted in the direction of the main house.

  “Probably just somebody fishing off the point.”

  “In this?”

  “It’s a beater with Maine plates. Who around here’s got Maine plates?”

  After a while the voices receded, and Miles, embarrassed, walked quickly back to the Jetta. Another car was parked by the gate, but whoever it was had chosen not to block him in, so Miles did a three-point turn and headed toward home. Not just across the island, either, for he suddenly knew that his brother was right. It was time to return to Empire Falls, to his life. Better to be a man there, his “Sojourner” dream had shown him, than a boy here.

  Max was standing in Peter and Dawn’s kitchen in his undershorts, scratching himself thoughtfully. “That was David,” he said.

  “Who was David?”

  “On the phone.”

  “I wasn’t here when it rang, Dad.”

  “I know,” Max said. “That’s why I’m telling you. David said to tell you the Whiting woman died yesterday. The old one, not the cripple.”

  “Francine Whiting?”

  “That’s right. Drowned.”

  Miles had to sit down. “That’s crazy.”

  “You don’t believe me, call your brother. I’m just telling you what he said.”

  “Drowned?”

  “In the river, he said. Call him back if you don’t believe me.”

  Miles shook his head, trying to imagine the world without Mrs. Whiting in it. Who would keep it spinning? he wondered.

  “Anyway, I should go back for the funeral,” his father declared. “You hear what I said?”

  “Why?”

  “Because you look like you didn’t.”

  “No. Why would you go to her funeral?”

  Max was grinning broadly now. “You never listen to me. Just ’cause I’m sempty don’t mean you can just ignore me, you know.”

  “Why do you want to go to that woman’s funeral, Dad?”

  “Because we’re related. The Robys and the Robideauxs. Like I been telling you. I bet you she left me a little something.”

  THEY PACKED THEIR THINGS that night and closed up the house next morning, having called Peter and Dawn about their change of plans. Miles also called Callahan’s, hoping to speak to his brother, but it was Janine who answered. “We’re on our way back, if that’s all right with you.”

  “There’s plenty of room at the house,” she told him, sounding weary. “Walt’s moved back to his own place.”

  “I’m sorry to hear it, Janine.”

  “Don’t be. I’d take him for everything he’s worth, if he was worth anything. Has Tick forgiven me?”

  “What for?”

  No response to this. “Have you forgiven me?”

  “Again, what for?”

  “Just so you won’t be surprised when you see me, I’ve gained a lot of weight.”

  “I’ve lost a lot.”

  “Just to piss me off, or what?”

  “See you soon, Janine.”

  They’d just turned out of the driveway—Tick in the backseat with her headphones on, Max up front in the passenger seat—when the glove box door flopped open.

  “You never got this fixed, huh?” Max observed, proceeding to rummage through its contents.

  “I don’t think it can be,” Miles said, smiling to think how long ago it seemed that Max had broken it.

  “Don’t be an idiot,” his father said, confident in his opinion that anything could be fixed, and only mildly disappointed that the glove box had yielded no currency.

  EPILOGUE

  WHEN C. B. Whiting was summoned back to Empire Falls after living more or less happily in Mexico for nearly a decade, he was determined to fulfill his destiny as a Whiting male, or, more precisely, to be the first in his male line to get that destiny right. His grandfather Elijah would’ve have died a happy man had he succeeded in beating his wife to death with a shovel, but he waited too long, and by the time he realized that this homicide was his true destiny, he was no longer up to the task physically, whereas the old woman was still spry. Though he gave her a good chase, she kept eluding him, and after several wild swings with the shovel he sat down exhausted, she disarmed him, and that was that.

  His grandson was well aware of his intentions, because he’d never made any secret of them. “Young Charles, if you only knew what went on in that carriage house,” the old man confided when the boy was still young enough to spend his days climbing trees on the Whiting estate. “If you had any idea how awful a bad woman can be, you’d become a priest rather than take any such chance.” When C.B. pointed out that they weren’t Catholics, Elijah allowed that this was true, but noted that the Romans were always eager for converts.

  Honus Whiting never attempted to murder his wife, so far as C.B. knew, though he did admit on his son’s wedding day that he’d denied, on average, one homicidal impulse every day of his married life. That very day, in fact, he’d already been visited by three particularly strong ones and it wasn’t noon yet. When C.B. asked if his mother’s extensive travel didn’t help, his father shook his head. Knowing that she was alive somewhere was enough to sour everything. In later life the old man got some relief when his wife took up residence in their Back Bay apartment, but then one day, without warning, she announced her intention to quit Boston and return to the Whiting estate, which filled her husband with terrible grief and even worse trepidation. “I can’t help feeling it’s her or me,” he confessed one night after several brandies—prophetically, as it turned out.

  Actually, Honus was naturally inclined to prophecy. For years he’d been saying his wife was going to be the death of him, though everyone understood him to mean his financial death. For most women, he was fond of explaining, contemplating a purchase of something extravagantly expensive was a process that consisted of several stages, and for which there could conceivably be more than one outcome. Whereas his wife went from “Oh, isn’t that pretty” to “It would look wonderful over the mantel” to “Ship it very carefully” in a single breathtakingly fluid motion, skipping entirely, for efficiency’s sake, the notion of its cost.

  One afternoon not long after Honus, then deep into his seventies, had suffered a minor stroke and was released against his will into the care of his wife, he got up from a chair too quickly and, suddenly feeling woozy, grabbed on to the nearest piece of furniture to steady himself. This happened to be a tall mahogany cabinet with glass doors, the shelves of which displayed many of his wife’s prized globe-trotting purchases. Since he was alone in the house, no one ever knew exactly what happened, but C.B. suspected that when his mother’s treasures began to topple from their shelves, his father, excited by the prospect of destroying in one stroke so much of what his wife held dear to her acquisitive heart, might’ve held on to the cabinet longer than was absolutely necessary to restore his equilibrium, and that his weight finally brought the entire piece down upon him, crushing what little of his life remained. He lay there for hours, buried in the shards of his wife’s extravagance, until his failure to answer the dinner bell resulted in a search.

  So when C. B. Whiting was summoned back from the life he’d made for himself in Mexico, where he’d had as much money as he needed—far more, really, given the value of the peso—and a beach nearby, not to mention a woman who for five years had lived with and loved him, and a little boy who was his son in all but name, and the leisure to write a poem should the idea for one ever come to him, he understood that his best self was about to be taken away for a second time. He had little doubt that he would eventually adjust to its loss, as he had before; no, the difference was
that now he was less inclined to make the sacrifice. The first time he had trusted that what his father wanted him to do was probably for the best, whereas now he was simply being informed that he was no longer permitted to be happy. And informed not by someone he loved but by the one person he loathed above all others in the world, the woman he’d promised to love, honor and obey all of his days, till death did they part. On the flight home he considered his grandfather and his father and then concluded, so be it. Meaning death. Namely hers.

  In Boston he was met by a limousine driver, an agreeable fellow who didn’t at all mind waiting in Fairhaven while C.B. shopped for a present for his wife. If the driver thought it strange that he should have chosen a pawnbroker for the occasion, he kept his misgivings to himself.

  His deliberations did not take long. When the shopowner asked what sort of handgun he had in mind, C.B., having developed over his fifty-nine years a healthy respect for his own incompetence, replied, “Something foolproof.” The pawnbroker produced a clean, basic revolver, showed him how to load and unload it, then watched him practice with dummy cartridges, until he was certain C.B. had the hang of it, and finally reminded him that the gun wouldn’t fire with the safety on unless you were counting on the safety being on, in which case it just might. It also wouldn’t fire without bullets, so C.B. put a small box of them in one jacket pocket and the revolver in the other.

  “Where to now?” the driver wanted to know when C.B. Whiting climbed into the back of the limo.

  “Home,” C.B. said, loading the revolver. “I’m anxious to see my wife.”

  SO WHAT PREVENTED HIM?

  When the limousine pulled up in the driveway of his former home, C. B. Whiting was neither conflicted about his intentions, nor doubtful of his ability to fulfill them. He had not waited too long, as his grandfather had, nor in his father’s manner had he grown so accustomed over the decades to denying homicidal impulses that he no longer recognized them for what they were. When he stepped out of the car, he felt as certain of his purpose as he ever had about anything in his life, and when he reached into his jacket pocket for the gun—heavy and reassuringly solid in his hand—he felt not the slightest revulsion at the actuality of taking a human life. That what he’d determined to do would be considered a crime by the vast majority of his fellow citizens seemed irrelevant. For one thing, the act he intended was not motivated by malice. Not really. He didn’t want his wife to suffer, as she had caused so many others to suffer. Nor did he want her to feel pain. He merely wanted an end to her existence. He hoped only for a steady hand, so that a single shot would do the trick.

  Again he asked the driver to wait. If he was lucky, they might make it back to Boston before Francine’s body was discovered. If he was very lucky, he might make it all the way to Mexico, where he could disappear with the woman and the boy. But getting away mattered less than making sure he didn’t somehow botch the job. When he opened the door to the house he’d had built so long ago, which had turned out to look so little like a hacienda, really, he could feel his father and his grandfather smiling down upon him.

  NO ONE HAD HEARD the car pull up, and of course C.B. didn’t ring the bell. He had simply let himself into his own house, as men do the world over. Inside, it was so quiet that when he flipped the gun’s safety off with his thumb, he half expected the resounding click to be followed by an explosion, but it wasn’t. Luck, it began to seem, was finally going to smile on a homicidal Whiting male. No doubt he would find his wife outside, probably down at the gazebo. If he quietly slipped out the patio door, he might even be able to make it across the broad lawn before she became aware of his arrival, and he would remove her from the mortal coil without her ever knowing what hit her. The limousine driver, listening to the radio with the windows rolled up, wouldn’t hear the report. Afterward, he surely would wonder why they were returning immediately to Boston, but limo drivers were trained to obey, not question, people who paid them.

  But luck was not on C. B. Whiting’s side any more than it had been on his father’s or his grandfather’s, so when he rounded the corner of the living room and saw the tableau that had been prepared for him, he knew at once that only God—the same God with whom he’d gone to war over the moose—could have arranged it and at the same time have blinded him so completely to the possibility of these three women standing just a few feet apart.

  Cindy was not in Augusta, as he’d imagined, but just inside the patio door, one hand on the handle, as if she intended in that frozen moment to slide the door open and join life on the other side, as if such a thing were possible. He knew, of course, that she was clutching the door handle for support and that this scene bespoke her entire life on the wrong side of one barrier or another, ever since the day so long ago when he’d risen up in impotent rage against his wife, packed a suitcase, tossed it into the trunk and gunned the Lincoln in reverse even before the automatic garage door had raised completely, not caring in the least if he tore it off on the way out. He’d heard nothing and felt only a small bump—not for the first time either, since the child was forever leaving things in the driveway. She liked to rest all of her dolls up against the closed garage door, pleased with how many of them there were, and that was exactly what the bump felt like, except that the doll must’ve gotten caught up under the car. When he pulled out onto the road and felt the second bump, he looked and he saw her in the rearview mirror and thought, indeed, that he’d again run over one of his daughter’s dolls. Except this one was too big. C.B. himself had bought every one of her dolls, and he couldn’t remember any that looked like this.

  How could something like that happen? The question was no sooner asked than answered. C. B. Whiting might have been a weak man—well, in truth, he knew he was a weak man—but he’d never mastered the fine art of self-deception as most weak men do, so when he asked himself how it was possible to forget all about his beloved daughter, he realized that of course this wasn’t the first time, but merely the first to bear consequences. This time it was hatred that had clouded his vision. In the past he’d been just as blinded by love.

  Exactly when had he fallen in love with Grace Roby, now standing outside the patio door? He had noticed her, naturally, at the shirt factory, and then her pregnancy had proceeded in lockstep with Francine’s, but perhaps it was that moment at the hospital, when he saw Grace cradling her baby at her breast, when he was truly lost. It wasn’t simply that she was so tired and beautiful. There was something about her joy in the child, her happiness and gratitude, that allowed him to glimpse the possibility of another, better life and to wonder what if? Both women were kept in the hospital for three days after they gave birth, the maternity ward so full that even a woman with the name Whiting couldn’t get a private room—Thank God! he recalled thinking—and by the time they were released, he would’ve made the trade right then and there, his wife and baby daughter and all his wealth for the opportunity to return with Grace and her infant son to the little rented house she shared with her husband, a fellow who was always flecked with dried paint and seemed to have no idea how lucky he was. The intensity of his passion for this woman—and the shocking vividness of his vision of another life, so tangible and yet remote in what was now the beginning of middle age—made C.B. wonder if he was losing his mind, or if surrendering both Grace and the possibility of happiness might not be too much to bear. Worse, when he drove Francine and his own newborn daughter, writhing and twisting at her mother’s meager breast, across the Iron Bridge and saw the swift water running beneath, he recalled his war with God over the moose and he realized for the first time that God had won, that as an arrogant sinner the only course left to him was penance. Unable to surrender his newfound hope, he knew now that the only way to win Grace Roby would be with God’s permission, and that would be denied until he was worthy of her, which he resolved forthwith to become.

  How long he courted Grace without her even knowing! Weeks into months into years, watching her at work from his glassed-in office on th
e top floor, seeing her on weekends along Empire Avenue with her little boy in tow, her husband always off somewhere painting houses. Grace was the sort of woman whom sorrow actually made more beautiful, and C.B. knew instinctively that except for the little boy, Miles, she had precious little joy in her life.

  He also sensed that when other people experienced sorrow, her heart went out to them, as if the weight of her own burden allowed her to shoulder even more. It was after the accident that left his daughter a cripple that Grace seemed really aware of him, and although he was suffering the torments of the damned, not just over what he’d done but for the lie he’d allowed his wife to tell the police—how coldly and competently she’d invented that speeding green Pontiac!—deep in his heart he was thrilled by the knowledge that at last he’d made contact.

  What an astonishing fantasy his love for Grace Roby had become in the years that followed! How it at once filled and absorbed his days, as her little boy grew healthy as a weed and his own child bravely endured one complicated, unsuccessful operation after another. Grace became for C. B. Whiting a dream not only of love and happiness in life but also of redemption, for he began to see in her the very principle of human compassion, the one person in the whole world to whom he might one day reveal his terrible secret, who would not just understand but forgive. If he were able to tell her, and if she were still able to love him, then wouldn’t this be his salvation? And if such forgiveness were possible in a mortal woman, could less love and forgiveness be expected of God Himself? There were times when such fevered reasoning struck C. B. Whiting as sheer lunacy, and others when it seemed divine truth.

  Regardless, by slow, steady degrees he could feel this woman beginning to fall in love with him. First glances, then gestures, then words and solemn professions, and then, finally, a plan. Francine knew, of course; she probably had suspected from that first day in the hospital. Incapable of anything like love herself, she was expert at sniffing out the disease in others. His and Grace’s plan, which his wife had nearly succeeding in thwarting completely, had been to spend the entire week together on Martha’s Vineyard. He’d imagined it might take that long to convince her, even though he knew her heart now belonged to him. Of course, it was the boy who complicated things. Taking her son away from his father was something Grace would not do lightly, even though the man had done little enough to earn such consideration—and she would never, ever, leave without him.

 
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