Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Miles tried to think if he knew this Candace Burke. There were several Burke families in town. “What’s she look like?”


  “A lot or a little?”

  “She’s fat like I’m skinny.”

  “In other words, not very?” Miles ventured. In mid-adolescence his daughter was hard to compliment. The truth was that he thought her a heartbreakingly beautiful girl, and often tried to explain that it was her intelligence, her wit, that was keeping her from being more popular with boys. “Which Burke is she, I wonder?”

  Tick shrugged. “She lives with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend down on Water Street. She says we’ve got a lot in common. I think she’s in love with Zack. She keeps saying, ‘Oh-my-God-oh-my-God, he’s so good-looking. How can you stand it? I mean, like, he was yours, and now he’s not.’ ”

  “Did you tell her she’s not missing much?” Even now, months after their breakup, the mere mention of Zack Minty, Tick’s former boyfriend, was enough to make Miles grind his teeth. His fondest hope was that Donny, the boy Tick had met on the Vineyard, would free his daughter from any lingering attraction she might feel for a boy who, like his father and grandfather before him, bore more or less constant watching.

  His daughter’s pause did little to reassure him. “Here’s the thing,” she finally said. “Now that I’m not with Zack anymore, I don’t have a single friend.” Tick’s two best friends had moved away in the last six months.

  “Except Candace,” Miles pointed out.

  “Oh-my-God-oh-my-God!” she squealed in mock horror, “I forgot Candace!”

  “And you forgot me,” Miles pointed out.

  Tick shrugged, serious now. “I know.”

  “And your uncle David.”

  A frown, a shrug, an apologetic “I know.”

  “And your mother.”

  Just a hint of a frown. When he didn’t press further, she let him take her in his arms and surrendered limply to his awkward, overlarge embrace. Usually when Tick felt a bear hug coming, she’d position her body sideways, so one of her shoulders would dig under his breastbone. It was Janine who had explained what was going on, that their daughter’s late-developing breasts were probably sore; her explanation made it clear that Janine herself hadn’t cared all that much for his embraces. “I know we’re not the kind of friends you had in mind,” Miles told his daughter. “But we’re not nobody.”

  A sniffle now, her nose buried deep in his chest. “I know.”

  “You going to write Donny?”

  “What for? I’ll never see him again.”

  Miles shrugged. “Who knows?”

  “Me,” she said, pulling away from him now. “And you.”

  He let her go back to unloading the Hobart. “You got homework?”

  She shook her head.

  “You want me to come back in a couple hours and run you home?”

  “Mom said she’d come by,” she said. “If she forgets, the idiot can do it.”

  “Hey,” Miles said, and waited until she turned around and looked at him. “Go easy. He’s trying. He just doesn’t know how to … be around you.”

  “He could try being dead.”


  “Why can’t you just go ahead and admit how much you hate him?”

  Because he might not be able to stop there, was why. Because when David had suggested murder as a solution to the Silver Fox’s daily visits, Miles had almost been able to imagine it.

  “BIG BOY!” Walt Comeau bellowed when Miles emerged from the kitchen. “Come over here a minute.”

  Walt had taken his outer shirt off now, Miles noticed. He always wore white T-shirts with the logo of his fitness club over the left pectoral, and he always wore them a size too small, so everyone could admire his still-rippling-at-fifty torso and biceps. David had been right, of course. The Silver Fox was about to plant an elbow on the Formica counter and challenge Miles to arm-wrestle.

  “Be right there,” he called, then turned to David, who was handing napkins to Horace to stuff in the dispensers. “You got help tonight?”

  “Charlene,” David said. “I think she just pulled in.”

  “You want me to stop by later?”


  Miles shrugged.

  David grinned at him. “You’re out the back, aren’t you.” “You bet.”

  Behind the restaurant, the first slot, beside the Dumpster, was occupied by Miles’s ten-year-old Jetta, the next one by Charlene’s even more dilapidated Hyundai Excel. He tried to make enough noise in his approach so as not to startle her, but Charlene’s radio was on loud enough that she jumped anyway when he appeared at her door.

  “Jesus, Miles,” she croaked in the clenched-toothed manner of pot smokers, once she’d rolled down the window. Sweet smoke escaped along with an old Rolling Stones song. “Give me a coronary, why don’t you? I thought you were that asshole cop.” Meaning Jimmy Minty.

  “Sorry,” Miles said, though in fact he wasn’t entirely displeased. Most women saw Miles coming and said so. Janine clearly had. “Don’t imagine you snuck up on me, Miles, because you didn’t,” she’d told him after accepting his proposal of marriage. That proposal had certainly taken him by surprise, and he’d taken this as an indication that Janine might be surprised too, but she wasn’t. The World’s Most Transparent Man, she called him. “Don’t ever consider a life of crime,” she advised. “You decide to rob a bank, the cops will know which one before you do.”

  “How did things go last week?” he asked Charlene.

  “Slow,” she said. “Dinners picked up, though.”

  “They’ve been picking up.”

  “Some of the college kids are filtering back in.”

  Dinners were a relatively new thing. Until a year ago the restaurant was open only for breakfast and lunch, but David had suggested opening for dinner on weekends and trying to attract a different clientele, an idea opposed by Mrs. Whiting, who feared that they’d lose their old tried-and-true customers. Miles had managed to convince her that, for the most part, tried-and-true was done and gone. In the end she’d grudgingly consented, but only after being reassured that they wouldn’t ask for an advertising budget or make any changes in the breakfast and lunch menus or pester her for expensive redecoration to accompany the newer, more sophisticated dinner service.

  At David’s suggestion they began by inviting students who wrote restaurant reviews for the college paper to a free meal. The college was seven miles away, in Fairhaven, and even Miles hadn’t believed that many students would make the trek, not when their parents were already shelling out more than twenty-five grand a year for tuition, room and board. But apparently there was money left over. When students started frequenting the Empire Grill, the cars parked out front—some of them, anyway—were BMWs and Audis. Summer had slowed some after this luxury fleet returned to Massachusetts and Connecticut, but Friday and Saturday nights still did well enough to justify staying open. David’s other brainstorm was also working out: during the week the restaurant now catered private parties.

  “You and David think you can handle tonight okay?”

  “In our sleep. Rehearsal dinner for twenty people.”

  “Okay,” Miles said, not quite able to conceal his disappointment at not being needed.

  Charlene, seeming to understand all this, changed the subject. “You and Tick have a good vacation?”

  “Great,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t been so enthusiastic, actually. Now Walt’s thinking about opening a fitness club on the island.”

  “I saw his van out front,” she said. “You want me to go in there and wither his dick?”

  “Feel free,” Miles said, knowing that it was well within her power. Charlene, at forty-five, was still more than enough woman to produce the same effect among the smug jocks from the college. “I’m out of here, anyway.”

  “You shouldn’t let him run you off, Miles.”

  “I’m grateful he shows up. Wasn?
??t for him, I’d probably never leave the premises.” Since he and Janine separated, Miles had been living in the apartment above the restaurant. The plan had been to fix it up, make it livable, but after six months he still hadn’t done much. Half the available living space was still occupied by cardboard boxes from the storage room in the basement, supplies that had been moved upstairs years before when the river flooded. Miles also suspected something was wrong with the apartment’s heating system, since in cold weather he often woke up with headaches, feeling groggy and half asphyxiated. Last April he’d even considered asking Janine if he could sack out in the back bedroom for a while until the headaches went away, but when he went over to ask her, he discovered the Silver Fox had all but moved in. Better to asphyxiate above the Empire Grill, he’d decided.

  “Well, if you’re going somewhere, I wish you’d leave and let me finish this joint,” Charlene told him.

  “Go ahead and finish. Who’s stopping you?”

  “You. You know I don’t feel comfortable smoking dope around you.”

  Since this was a vaguely insulting thing to say, Miles felt compelled to ask why.

  “Because you’re the kind of man who can never quite manage to conceal his disapproval.”

  Miles sighed, supposing this must be true. Janine had always said the same thing. Odd, though, the way other people saw you. Miles had always thought of himself as a model of tolerance.


  FATHER MARK, returning late in the afternoon from visiting his parish shut-ins, found Miles around back of St. Catherine’s staring up at the steeple. As a boy Miles had been a climber, so fearless that he’d driven his mother into paroxysms of terror. When it was time for dinner, she’d come looking for him, always searching at ground level, which delighted him—he loved to call down to her from the air, forcing her to look up and locate him among the blue sky’s tangled branches, her slender hand rushing to cover her mouth. At the time, he’d concluded she lacked the gift of memory, always expecting him on the ground when time after time he was in the air. Now a father himself, he knew how frightened she must’ve been. She hadn’t looked up because there were too many trees, too many branches, too many dangers. Only when Miles swung safely down and landed at her feet was she able to smile, even as she scolded him into a promise she knew he would never keep. “You’re a born climber,” she’d admit on their way home. “What heights you’ll scale when you’re a man! I don’t dare even think.”

  Now it was Miles who didn’t dare even think. Of climbing, anyway. Somewhere along the line he’d become terrified of heights, and the idea of painting the steeple made him weak in the knees.

  “When I was a little boy,” Father Mark said, “I used to think God actually lived up there.”

  “In the steeple?” Miles said.

  Father Mark nodded. “I thought when we sang hymns we were calling to Him to come down and be among us. Which of course we were. But the literal proximity was reassuring.” The two men shook hands. Miles had changed into his paint-spattered clothes but hadn’t started in yet, so he was still dry. The sky, in the time since Miles left the grill, had grown ominous. “God Himself, a couple stories up … so close.”

  “I was just thinking how far away it is,” Miles admitted. “But then I was contemplating painting it.”

  “That does makes a difference,” Father Mark said.

  “Actually I wasn’t contemplating painting so much as falling.”

  Interesting, Miles thought. Like himself, Father Mark, as a child, had been reassured by the imagined proximity of God, whereas adults, perhaps because they so often were up to no good, took more comfort from His remoteness. Though Miles didn’t think of himself as a man up to no good, he did prefer the notion of an all-loving God to that of an all-knowing one. It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man, just as parents had responsibilities other than raising their children? Miles liked the idea of a God who, when He at last had the opportunity to return His attention to His children, might shake His head with wonder and mutter, “Jesus. Look what they’re up to now.” A distractible God, perhaps, one who’d be startled to discover so many of His children way up in trees since the last time He looked. A God whose hand would go rushing to His mouth in fear in that instant of recognition that—good God!—that kid’s going to hurt himself. A God who could be surprised by unanticipated pride—glory be, that boy is a climber!

  An idle, daydream deity, this, Miles had to admit. In truth, when God looked down upon His mischievous children, they were usually up to far worse than climbing trees.

  If there were such a deity, though, and if He’d ever feared that Miles would hurt himself, He could quit worrying anytime now. For all his early promise, Miles had scaled no heights, and now, at forty-two, he was so afraid of them that he cowered near the steel doors of glass elevators, reluctant to move back away from them and let others step on.

  “I thought we agreed you weren’t going to attempt the steeple,” Father Mark said.

  “We did, I guess.” Originally, Miles had imagined that by painting the church himself, he could save the parish a lot of money, but both contractors he’d spoken to about painting just the steeple wanted to charge nearly as much for that as they would have for the entire building. Annoyed that he proposed to do the safe, easy part himself, they let him know that the part he didn’t want was the part nobody wanted, and that was the part that cost you. The truth of this stung. “The trouble is,” Miles told his friend, “every time I look up there, it’s an accusation.”

  “So don’t look up.”

  “Fine advice for a man of the spirit to give,” said Miles, looking up and feeling at that moment a drop of rain.

  Father Mark had also looked up and also felt a drop. “Let’s go over to the Rectum and have a cup of coffee,” he suggested. “You can tell me about your vacation.”

  Ever since Miles had confessed his boyhood confusion about the words “rectory” and “rectum,” Father Mark—as delighted by the mistake as Grace Roby had been—had preferred this nomenclature, even though it sometimes slipped out when it shouldn’t. Such as earlier that summer when at the end of Mass he invited the parishioners to join him and Father Tom for lemonade on the lawn behind the Rectum.

  St. Cat’s rectory was one of Miles’s favorite places. It was bright and sunny in all seasons, warm in the winter, breezy in the summer, but probably it had more to do with the fact that Father Tom—now retired but still living in the rectory—had never allowed children there. Nor had Miles’s mother ever been invited in, for that matter, so perhaps it was the exclusion that added to the attraction. All of the rooms on the bottom floor were large and high-ceilinged, with tall, uncurtained windows that allowed passersby a glimpse of the privileged life inside. The Rectum’s dining room, which fronted the street, had an oak dining table long enough to seat twenty guests, though when Miles and his mother walked by late on Saturday afternoons after having had their confessions heard, the room was occupied only by Father Tom, seated regally at one end, and his housekeeper, Mrs. Dumbrowski, hovering in attendance. Back then there had been two, sometimes three, priests in residence, but on Saturdays Father Tom liked to take his evening meal early and would not wait for the younger priest, who invariably drew the late confessions. Miles’s mother always remarked when they passed on how sad this seemed, but Miles didn’t see anything so very odd in the practice and couldn’t help wondering why it so upset his mother. By the time they’d returned home, his father would already have finished eating his sandwich and departed on foot for the neighborhood tavern.

  To young Miles, the forbidden rectory, so full of warmth and light and wood and books, seemed otherworldly, and he imagined that a man would have to be very rich to be a pries
t. The romance of the profession had stayed with him for a long time. He’d seriously considered Holy Orders well into high school, and there were still times when he wondered if he’d missed his calling. Janine had wondered too. To her way of thinking, any man with no more sex drive than Miles Roby possessed might better have just gone ahead and embraced celibacy and been done with it, instead of disappointing poor girls like herself.

  Father Mark and Miles never had their coffee in the dining room he’d admired as a boy, preferring instead the kitchen with its cozy breakfast nook, a booth not unlike those along the front windows of the Empire Grill. Father Mark put a plate of cookies on the Formica table, then poured each of them a cup of coffee. Though it was only the first week in September, already autumn was in the air, rustling the lace curtains of the open window. The drizzle had stopped as soon as they entered the Rectum, but the sky remained dark. The daylight was dwindling early, giving Miles less time to work on the church. Most afternoons he managed to leave the grill by three, but by the time he changed clothes and set up the ladder, it was at least three-thirty. By six, on cloudy days, the light was failing and it was time to quit. Of course the real culprit wasn’t the abbreviated day so much as the lengthening coffee conversations with Father Mark, who now slid into the booth opposite Miles. “You look like your vacation did you some good,” he observed.

  “It did. And there’s a nice chapel in Vineyard Haven. I drove in to Mass most mornings. Tick came with me, and that was even better.”

  The one good thing about her parents’ breakup, Tick was on record as observing, was that at least she didn’t have to go to church anymore now that her mother had replaced Catholicism with aerobics. In fact, Tick considered herself an agnostic, a philosophical position that allowed her to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Miles knew better than to force her to go, and had not done so on the Vineyard, which made him even more pleased when she dragged herself out of bed, still half asleep, in the mornings to accompany him. By the time Mass was over, she was fully awake and they would enjoy a muffin together at an outdoor café before heading out-island to Peter and Dawn’s house and the rest of their lazy day at the beach. Back in Maine he’d asked whether she thought she’d start going to church again now that she was back in the habit, but she didn’t think so. It was easier to believe in God, she said, or at least the possibility of God, on Martha’s Vineyard than it was in Empire Falls. Miles knew what she meant, understood the bitter irony. Half the cars in the Vineyard chapel’s lot were either Mercedes or Lexuses. No surprise that their owners believed that God was in His heaven.

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