Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  Ah, two days on that magical island offered almost enough beauty and happiness to justify one’s existence. And how close they’d come to making it work! It still took his breath away, imagining it, a lifetime with this woman. Even now he would’ve jumped at the chance, though the drawn, emaciated woman standing with his wife on the other side of the patio door, apparently examining the garden, was almost unrecognizable as the one true love of his life. A single glance was enough for him to know what his years in Mexico had been like for her. The penance he’d once assumed for himself, he’d allowed her to perform in his stead. His wife, he was shocked to acknowledge, was now by any objective standard the more attractive woman.

  Of the three women, Francine became aware of him first, and in her thin smile he understood his folly in believing he would succeed where his father and grandfather, both better men, had failed. It was as if she knew all about the gun in his pocket, knew, too, how useless it had become.

  Then Grace looked up, and in her expression was the understanding he feared the most: that he had not suffered terribly these years since Martha’s Vineyard, that he had found a way to be happy with another woman, another little boy. No doubt she’d sensed it that final night on the island, when she had come to him in his cottage and they’d made love and talked about the future, and about the past. As he’d always imagined, she heard his confession and took what he’d done to his own child into her wonderful, forgiving heart and redeemed him. Only later, when they made plans to flee their lives and begin another together, and when she realized he meant for it to be just the three of them—himself, Grace and Miles—and had thought to leave his daughter behind or, worse, neglected to think of her at all, did he manage to ruin everything. He tried his best to cover the mistake, suggesting that he’d had no idea Grace would be willing to take Cindy with them, but the damage was done. In that moment she’d seen him as a man prepared to abandon a child. Maybe she didn’t immediately understand what effect such knowledge would have, but C. B. Whiting did.

  The child he would’ve left behind, who so many years before had to be convinced that her memory of the crippling accident was incorrect, was the last to notice his homecoming, perhaps seeing some movement reflected in the glass. Cindy alone was glad to see him. She spun, nearly losing her balance, and lunged toward him crying, “Daddy!” And in that word he heard a second, far better purpose for the weight in his pocket.

  BY TAKING HIS OWN LIFE when he did, C. B. Whiting robbed himself of the opportunity to become, in his remaining years, a somewhat less deluded man. Had he lived, he might gradually have learned that his wife was not quite the monster he believed her to be, that for her, affection was not impossible so much as unnatural and difficult, that she resembled the soil her family had tended for so long before selling out: blighted, but not entirely barren. And had he lived long enough to see his beloved Grace grow ill and die, had he found the courage to help her along in this journey, he might have come to understand that he’d expected too much of her good heart, which being human was fragile, imperfect and destined to fail. That his poor opinion of himself would have changed is unlikely, however, and it might have been this realization that compelled him to quit the earth.

  One thing is certain. By ending his life when he did, C. B. Whiting died in the mistaken belief that like his forebears, he had failed to kill his wife, which wasn’t entirely true. Had he lived, it would have surprised and perhaps even cheered him to learn that he actually had sealed her doom the year he proposed to her, not long after the dead moose washed up on his bank. That was the summer his engineers warned him that dynamiting the Robideaux Blight and cutting a new channel might increase the severity of floods, to which the river was already prone. In fact, afterward the river did become less manageable, though none of its previous floods came close to matching the one that occurred the spring that Miles and Tick Roby were still living on Martha’s Vineyard. More snow had fallen that winter than the previous three combined, and when an early thaw came that first week in April—temperatures reaching into the seventies all the way to Canada—the snow melted in torrents and the Knox River roared through Empire Falls ten feet above flood stage, halfway up the tall first-floor windows of the old textile mill, which was in the process of being converted to a brew pub on the ground floor and the lavish offices of a credit-card company above. At the river’s crest, half of downtown was underwater, including the old Empire Grill.

  There was less damage on the other side of the river, where the bank was steeper. While the water never reached the Whiting hacienda, it did wash the gazebo clean away. Why Francine Whiting was in it at the time, of course, was impossible to know. Perhaps she imagined that so long as she herself commanded this stage, the river would never have the temerity to approach. She was not, like her daughter, a believer in swift, powerful, life-changing forces, and she might not have recognized this one when it arrived. Or perhaps she simply got trapped, a sudden surge of water cutting her off from the house.

  The day the river crested was warm, with a high blue sky, the kind of afternoon, after a long gray winter and several days of warm spring rains, when she could have fallen asleep, the rays of the sun warming her skin. Though no one actually saw her get swept away, downstream in Fairhaven, where the flood damage was even worse than in Empire Falls, an emergency worker on a sandbag brigade near the dam saw what he believed was a woman’s body glide by in the raging water. The corpse hung up briefly at the dam, but out there in the middle of the torrent, lodged at the top of a dam that might collapse at any second, and nothing could be gained by attempting a rescue. Besides, whoever this woman might have been, she was dead now, and under such circumstances the workers would not have been inclined to risk their own lives, even if the spectacle before them hadn’t revealed a ghoulish aspect. For astride the body, crouched at the shoulders of the dead woman, was a red-mouthed, howling cat.

  Together, dead woman and living cat bumped along the upstream edge of the straining dam, as if searching for a place to climb out and over. Bumping, nudging, seeking, until finally a small section of the structure gave way and they were gone.

  ALSO BY RICHARD RUSSO

  BRIDGE OF SIGHS

  Louis Charles Lynch (known as Lucy) is sixty years old and has lived in Thomaston, New York, his entire life. Lucy’s oldest friend, once a rival for his wife’s affection, leads a life in Venice far from Thomaston. Lucy writes the story of his town, his family, and his own life, interspersed with that of the native son who left so long ago and never looked back.

  Fiction/Literature

  MOHAWK

  Mohawk, New York, is one of those small towns that lie almost entirely on the wrong side of the tracks. Dallas Younger, a star athlete in high school, now drifts from tavern to poker game, while his ex-wife, Anne, is stuck in a losing battle with her moth-er over the care of her sick father. Richard Russo explores these lives with profound compassion and flint-hard wit.

  Fiction/Literature

  NOBODY’S FOOL

  Nobody’s Fool follows the unexpected operation of grace in the life of an unlucky man, Sully, who has been triumphantly doing the wrong thing for fifty years. Divorced and carrying on with another man’s wife, saddled with a bum knee and friends who make enemies redundant, Sully now has a new problem: a son who is in danger of following in his father’s footsteps. With humor and a heart that embraces humanity’s follies, this is storytelling at its most generous.

  Fiction/Literature

  THE RISK POOL

  Ned Hall is doing his best to grow up, even though neither of his estranged parents can properly be called adult. His father, Sam, cultivates bad habits so assiduously that he is stuck at the bottom of his auto insurance risk pool. His mother, Jenny, is slowly going crazy from resentment at a husband who refuses either to stay or to stay away. As Ned veers between allegiances to these grossly inadequate role models, Russo gives us a book that overflows with outsized characters and outlandish predicaments.

&nbs
p; Fiction/Literature

  STRAIGHT MAN

  William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the reluctant chair of the English department at an underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. In the course of a week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with the dean, wonder if an adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. At the same time, he must come to terms with the dereliction of his youthful promise and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo—side-splitting, true-to-life, and impossible to put down.

  Fiction/Literature

  THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC

  It’s a perfectly lovely wedding weekend on the Cape, but for Griffin, the middle-aged father of the bride, it marks the beginning of his descent into a failed marriage, a confrontation with his parents’ deaths, and the realization that his life does not measure up to the life he thought he wanted. With moments of great comedy alternating with ones of rueful understanding, That Old Cape Magic is unlike anything Richard Russo has ever written.

  Fiction/Literature

  THE WHORE’S CHILD

  To this irresistible debut collection of short stories, Richard Russo brings the same bittersweet wit, deep knowledge of human nature, and spellbinding narrative gifts that distinguish his best-selling novels. A cynical Hollywood moviemaker confronts his dead wife’s lover and abruptly realizes the depth of his own passion. As his parents’ marriage disintegrates, a precocious fifth-grader distracts himself with meditations on baseball, spaghetti, and his place in the universe. And in the title story, an elderly nun enters a college creative writing class and plays havoc with its tidy notions of fact and fiction.

  Fiction/Short Stories

  VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES

  Available at your local bookstore, or visit

  www.randomhouse.com

  Table of Contents

  Cover

  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Prologue

  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Part Two

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Part Three

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Part Four

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Epilogue

 


 

  Richard Russo, Empire Falls

  (Series: # )

 

 


 

 
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