Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “And of course,” Miles added, “Peter and Dawn spoiled her the whole time.”

  “Worse than you do?”

  “By a mile,” Miles said, chewing a cookie. Oddly, his appetite was never better than in the late afternoon here at St. Cat’s. Surrounded by food all day at the restaurant, he often forgot to eat, whereas here, if he didn’t pay attention, he’d finish the entire plate of cookies. “Or about as badly as I’d spoil her if I had the means. They spoiled us both, actually. Good food. A twenty-dollar bottle of wine with dinner every night.”

  “Must’ve been strange not having Janine there.”

  “She was invited,” Miles said, surprised at the note of defensiveness in his voice.

  “Never said she wasn’t, Miles.”

  “There was plenty to occupy my thoughts without her. Their place is on a stretch of private beach, and every other woman was sunbathing in the nude. When we’re not there, I suspect Peter and Dawn do too. If she had a tan line, I sure couldn’t see it.”

  “How about Peter?” Father Mark asked. “Did he have a tan line?”

  “Didn’t occur to me to look,” Miles said, smiling.

  Father Mark smiled back. “Miles, you’re a true Manichaean. You seek out Mass in the morning and your friend’s wife’s tan line in the afternoon. Anyway, what is it they do again?”

  “Write television sitcoms. By next week they’ll have shut everything up and flown back to L.A. You should see the house that just sits there vacant ten months out of the year.”

  Father Mark nodded but didn’t say anything. Given the priest’s political leanings, Miles knew that he didn’t approve of personal wealth, much less conspicuous consumption.

  “Peter said an odd thing, actually,” Miles continued, even though he’d made up his mind not to tell anyone about this. “He said he and Dawn were astonished Janine and I stuck it out as long as we did, considering how miserable we were together. They’d been admiring for years the way we kept trying to work through our problems.”

  Father Mark smiled. “Remember, though, people from L.A. have pretty minimal expectations when it comes to coping with marital difficulties.”

  Miles shrugged, conceding this. “I guess I was just surprised that people saw us that way.”

  “Mismatched, you mean?”

  Miles considered. “Not really that so much. More that people saw us as unhappy. I wasn’t all that unhappy … or I didn’t know I was. So it’s strange to have friends conclude something like that. I mean, if I was so unhappy, wouldn’t I know?”

  “Possibly,” Father Mark replied. “But not necessarily.”

  Miles sighed. “Janine knew. I have to give her that. At least she knew how she felt.”

  At this point both men heard the shuffling of slippered feet in the hall. Father Mark closed his eyes, as if at the advance of a migraine. A moment later Father Tom, his gray hair wild, his collar askew, entered and fixed Miles with a particularly menacing glare.

  “You want to join us, Tom?” Father Mark suggested, no doubt hoping to head off trouble. “I’ll make you a cup of hot cocoa if you promise to behave.”

  Father Tom usually loved hot chocolate, especially when he didn’t have to make it himself, but it appeared he was thirstier for a good confrontation. “Where did that evil bastard come from?” he growled.

  Miles, also eager to placate the old priest, had been trying to get to his feet so he could offer to shake hands, but standing up proved no easy maneuver, since both the booth and the table were stationary.

  “This is no evil bastard, Tom,” Father Mark said calmly. “This is Miles, our most faithful parishioner. You baptized him and you married his parents.”

  “I know who he is,” Father Tom said. “He’s a peckerhead and his mother was a whore. I told her so too.”

  Miles sat back down. This wasn’t the first time the old man, inspired by only God knew what, had taken one look at Miles and offered a poor opinion of his moral character, though he’d never before insulted the memory of Miles’s mother. This was clearly an old man’s dementia talking, but for the second time that afternoon Miles fleetingly considered how satisfying it would be to send another human being into the next world. This time, a priest.

  “Look at him. Look at that face. He knows it’s true,” the old man said, taking in Miles’s paint-spattered overalls. “He’s a filthy degenerate is what he is. He’s tracking his filth into my house.”

  Father Mark sighed. “You’re wrong all around, Tom. First, it’s not your house.”

  “Is too,” he said.

  “No, the house belongs to the parish, as you’re well aware.”

  Father Tom seemed to consider the unfairness of this arrangement, then finally shrugged.

  “And Miles isn’t a degenerate,” the younger priest said. “He’s covered with paint because he’s painting the church for us, remember? For free?”

  The old man squinted first at his colleague, then at Miles. Always a frugal man in the extreme, Father Tom might have been expected to be mollified by this news, but instead he continued to glare fiercely, as if to suggest that no good deed could disguise the fundamental evil of Miles’s heart. “I may be old,” he conceded, “but I still know a peckerhead when I see one.”

  Father Mark, his patience exhausted, slid out of the booth and took him by the shoulders, rotating him gently but firmly. “Tom,” he said, “look at me.” When he continued to glare at Miles, Father Mark placed the tips of his fingers on the old man’s stubbled chin, turning his head. “Look at me, Tom.”

  Finally he did, and his expression instantly morphed from disgust to shame.

  “Tom,” Father Mark said, “remember what we talked about before?”

  If so, he showed no sign, as he studied Father Mark through red, rheumy eyes.

  “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well today, but this sort of behavior is intolerable. You owe our friend an apology.”

  To Miles, Father Tom resembled nothing more than a scolded child, convinced against his better instincts by a loving parent that he’d been a bad boy. He glanced back at Miles to see if it was possible to owe such a man an apology, then returned to Father Mark’s stern gaze. The two men stared at each other long enough to make Miles squirm, but finally Father Tom turned to Miles and said, “Forgive me.”

  Miles didn’t hesitate. “Of course, Father Tom. I’m sorry, too.” And he was sorry. Satisfying or not, it wouldn’t have been a good thing to kill an elderly priest, which also suggested it was not a good thing to wish for.

  “There,” Father Mark said, “that’s better. Isn’t it nicer for all of us when we’re friends?”

  Father Tom appeared to consider this extremely dubious, again studying Miles for several long beats before shaking his head and shuffling out of the room. Miles couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard one more “peckerhead” escape the old man’s lips out in the hallway.

  Father Mark continued to stare at the doorway as the sound of shuffling slippered feet receded. The expression on the younger priest’s face wasn’t quite as tolerant as one might have expected of a clergyman.

  “It’s okay,” Miles assured him. “Father Tom and I go way back, you know. He’s not himself.”

  “You think not?” Father Mark asked.

  “It’s not his fault that stuff comes out.”

  “True,” Father Mark said. “Interesting that it’s there to begin with, though. I understand why it’s coming out, but how do you suppose it got in there?”

  “Well …”

  “I know.” Father Mark grinned. “An eternal question, answered in Genesis. Still, I’m sorry he said what he did. I have no idea where he comes up with such things. He probably doesn’t even remember your mother.”

  Miles forced himself to consider this possibility. True, the old man’s mind was gone. The problem was, it wasn’t completely gone, and Father Tom’s eyes, especially when he was angry, often appeared to be ablaze with both intelligence and memory. “Actua
lly, she’s been on my mind lately,” Miles said, adding, “I have no idea why.” Though he did know. It was the Vineyard that had done it, just as it did every summer.

  Outside, the rain had begun again, steadier now beneath the low sky. Miles pushed his empty coffee cup toward the center of the table.

  “Well, it doesn’t look like I’m painting anything today,” he said, sliding out of the booth. Somehow the plate of cookies was empty, and Miles could feel the last of them lodged uncomfortably in his gullet.

  Together, the two men went out onto the porch, where they stood listening to the rain.

  “How many more days do you have on the north face?” Father Mark asked, contemplating the church.

  “A couple,” Miles said. “Maybe tomorrow and the next day if the weather clears.”

  “You really should stop right there,” Father Mark advised. “I’ve been hearing more rumblings from the diocese. We may be out of business before long. I suspect poor Tom’s the only thing that’s saved us until now.”

  For more than a year now, rumors had persisted that St. Catherine’s Parish would be combined with Sacred Heart, on the other side of town. Empire Falls, once sufficiently endowed with Catholics to support both, had been losing religious enthusiasm along with its population. Now the only reason for two parishes was simply that Sacré Coeur, as Sacred Heart was still known to most of its French Canadian parishioners, required a French-speaking pastor. Otherwise, the parishes could’ve been combined years ago. Father Mark suspected that Sacré Coeur would be the survivor and that he would be shipped elsewhere. He didn’t speak French, whereas Father Tibideaux was bilingual.

  What hadn’t been resolved was what to do with Father Tom. While there were homes for elderly, retired priests, especially for those in ill health, his dementia, which vacillated between the obscene and the downright blasphemous, made the diocese cautious about placing him among elderly but otherwise normal clergymen, most of whom had served too long and too well to have their faith tested further in their final years by a senile old man whose favorite word was “peckerhead.” Besides, Father Mark was able to handle the old priest, who had lived in St. Cat’s rectory for forty years and was comfortable there. In a sense it was his house, just as he maintained. Also, there were words worse than “peckerhead,” and if the diocese tried moving Father Tom he might start using them. Hearing him carry on had already converted several of St. Catherine’s Catholics, some to Episcopalianism, a few others to fearful agnosticism, and the bishop didn’t want to risk his contaminating other priests. No, the diocese seemed to believe that they had the Father Tom situation under control, and until recently they’d shown no inclination to break containment.

  “Have you gotten any sense of where you might be assigned?” Miles asked.

  “Not really,” Father Mark said. “I suspect they’re not through punishing me, though.” He had a doctorate in Judaism, and the perfect position for him would be at the Newman Center of a college or university. That was the sort of post he’d held in Massachusetts before he made the mistake of joining a group of protesters who climbed the fence of a New Hampshire military installation and got arrested for whacking away at the impervious shell of a nuclear sub with ball peen hammers—an act that Father Mark had considered symbolic but that the base commander, a literalist, had interpreted as an act of sabotage and treason. Not that this protest had been Father Mark’s only offense. In addition to teaching and pastoring at the university’s Newman Center, Father Mark had also hosted a Sunday evening radio show, during which he had drawn his bishop’s ire by counseling loving monogamy for a young male caller “regardless of the boy’s sexual orientation” and further advising him to trust God’s infinite understanding and mercy. Apparently, what happened to young, overeducated, rumored-to-be-gay priests who’d landed cushy campus gigs and doled out liberal advice was that they got packed off to Empire Falls, Maine, probably in hopes that God would freeze their errant peckers off.

  “I hope they don’t have any worse duty in mind for you,” Miles said, trying to imagine what such a thing might be.

  Father Mark shrugged, studying the half-painted church. “They can’t really hurt you unless you let them. I certainly don’t regret coming to Saint Cat’s. She’s been a good old gal. And I wouldn’t have missed out on our friendship.”

  “I know,” Miles said. “Me neither.” Then, after a moment, “I wonder what will become of her?”

  “Hard to say. Some of these beautiful old churches are being bought up and renovated into community theaters, art centers, things like that.”

  “I don’t think that would work here,” Miles said. “Empire Falls has even less interest in art than religion.”

  “Still, you’d better quit when you finish the north face. You could be painting Empire Falls’s next Baptist church.”

  THE HOUSE HE GREW UP IN on Long Street had been on the market for more than a year, and Miles was parked across the street, trying to imagine what sort of person would purchase it in its present condition. The side porch, dangerous with rot even when he was a boy, had been removed but not replaced; visible evidence of where it had been wrenched away remained in four ugly, unpainted scars. Anybody who left the house by the back door, the only one Miles had ever used, would now be greeted by a six-foot drop into a patch of poisonous-looking weeds and rusted hubcaps. The rest of the structure was gray with age and neglect, its front porch sloping crazily in several different directions, as if the house had been built on a fissure. Even the FOR SALE sign on the terrace tilted.

  Several different families had rented the house since his mother’s death, none of them, apparently, interested in preventing or even forestalling its decline. Of course, to be fair, Miles had to admit that the decline had begun under the Robys’ own stewardship. On what had once been a tidy, middle-class street, theirs and the Minty place next door were the first houses to prefigure the deterioration of the whole neighborhood. Miles’s father, though a sometime house painter, had been disinclined to paint any house he himself happened to be living in. Summers he was busy working on the coast, and by October he would pronounce himself “all painted out,” though he sometimes could be induced to work for a week or so if the landlord—with whom they had a reduced-rent arrangement contingent upon Max’s keeping the house painted and in good repair—complained or threatened eviction. Resentful of such a strict literal interpretation of their agreement, Max retaliated by painting the house half a dozen different, largely incompatible colors from the numerous leftover, half-empty cans he’d appropriated from his various summer jobs. The Roby cellar was always full of stacked gallon cans, their lids slightly askew, the damp, rotting shelves full of open mason jars of turpentine, the fumes from which permeated the upstairs throughout the winter. Miles was in fourth grade when one of his friends asked what it was like to live in the joke house, a remark he passed along not to his father, who was responsible for its harlequin appearance, but to his mother, who first flushed crimson, then looked as if she might burst into tears, then ran into her bedroom, slammed the door and did. Later, red-eyed, she explained to Miles that what was on the inside of a house (love, she seemed to have in mind) was more important than what was on the outside (paint, preferably in one hue), but after Miles went to bed he heard his parents arguing, and after that night Max never painted the house again. Now its motley color scheme had weathered into uniform gray.

  Miles hadn’t been parked across the street for more than a minute, staring up at the dark, shadeless window of the room where his mother had begun her death march, before a police car wheeled around the corner two blocks up Long and came toward him, swerving across the street and rocking to a halt so close that its bumper was mere inches from the Jetta’s own grill. A young policeman was at the wheel, one Miles didn’t recognize, and when he got out of the cruiser, putting on sunglasses that the gloomy sky didn’t warrant, Miles rolled down his window.

  “License and registration,” the young cop said.
r />   “Is there a problem, officer?”

  “License and registration,” the cop repeated, his tone a little harder this time.

  Miles fished the registration out of the glove box and handed it out the window along with his license. The policeman attached both to the top of his clipboard and made a couple notes.

  “You mind telling me what you’re doing here, Mr. Roby?”

  “Yes, I do,” said Miles, who would have been reluctant to even if he’d had an explanation that made any sense. That a demented priest had called his mother a whore, thereby compelling him to visit the house he’d grown up in, as if his mother, dead these twenty years, might be rocking on the porch, did not strike Miles as the sort of story that would satisfy a man who felt compelled to wear sunglasses on dark, rainy afternoons.

  “Why’s that, Mr. Roby?”

  To Miles, this didn’t sound like a serious question, so he didn’t answer it.

  The young policeman scratched some more on his form. “Maybe you didn’t hear the question?” he finally said.

  “Have I done something illegal?”

  Now it was the cop’s turn to fall silent. For a full minute he ignored Miles, apparently to prove that he too could play this silence game. “Are you aware that you’re driving an unregistered vehicle, Mr. Roby?”

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