Empire Falls by Richard Russo


  “I believe you have the registration in your hand.”

  “Expired last month.”

  “I’ll have to take care of it.”

  The cop didn’t register this remark, instead pointing at the inspection sticker on the windshield. “Your inspection’s also past due.”

  “I guess I’ll have to take care of that, too.”

  No opinion on this either. “So what are you doing here, Mr. Roby?” the officer said, as if he were asking this question for the first time.

  “I used to live in that house,” Miles said, indicating which one.

  “Used to. But not now.”

  “That’s right.”

  Miles then caught a glimpse of something red in his rearview mirror and turned in time to see Jimmy Minty’s red Camaro pulling up behind him. Jimmy, who’d grown up next door, was about the last person Miles would have wanted to catch him parked just here. When Jimmy rolled down his window, the young cop abruptly walked back to the Camaro. Miles watched their conversation in the mirror, smiling when the officer took off his dark glasses. In such situations, apparently only the ranking officer got to keep his glasses on. The conversation was short, then Jimmy Minty did a U-turn and headed back down the street in the direction he’d come from. The young officer, clearly disappointed, watched him go, then returned to Miles and handed back his license and registration. “Might be a good idea to take care of these today,” he said, the confrontational edge gone from his voice now.

  “You’re not citing me?”

  “Not unless you think I should, Mr. Roby.”

  Miles put the license back in his wallet, the registration back in the glove compartment.

  Now that they were pals, the cop seemed anxious that there should be no hard feelings. “You lived in that house there?”

  Miles nodded, slipping the Jetta in gear.

  “Huh,” the young cop said. “Looks haunted.”

  THE MOTOR VEHICLES DIVISION office was being run out of the Whiting mansion, or rather “the Cottage,” a large outbuilding nestled in a grove of trees behind the main house. This arrangement was only temporary, until renovations at the courthouse, whose domed roof had partially collapsed after last winter’s ice storm, were completed. Since then, justice—never swift in Empire Falls—had ground to a virtual halt. Except for traffic court, most legal matters were being processed out of nearby Fairhaven, whose docket had grown so crowded with the legal business of both towns that everything from building permits to property disputes to small claims to assessments was backed up for months. Even the simplest legal transactions, like Miles’s uncontested divorce, seemed endlessly bogged down. Since he hadn’t wanted the divorce to begin with, he wasn’t terribly troubled. In fact, last spring he’d hoped the holdup might cause Janine to reconsider, though by now he knew that she was determined to marry the Silver Fox, and that somehow she held this legal delay, which had ruined her plans for a summer wedding, against Miles. So determined was she to marry Walt Comeau the moment her divorce became final that Miles had begun to suspect that in some part of her brain, the workings of which still mystified him, Janine realized that this second marriage was some pure folly she needed to commit quickly, lest she come to her senses first.

  Miles parked in the small lot between the main house, now headquarters of the Dexter County Museum and Historical Society, and the cottage, which housed, in addition to the temporary DMV, the permanent offices of the Empire Falls Planning and Development Commission, which over the last decade had become something of a joke, since no one had developed anything in Empire Falls during that period, nor was anyone planning to. Mrs. Whiting, as director of the board, kept an office there, however, and when Miles saw her Lincoln parked in the lot, he hurried across the lawn, head down, in the hope that she wouldn’t spy him out her window. He’d been avoiding “the State of the Grill” since his return from vacation, and despite the restaurant’s improved business, he was even more reluctant than usual to spend an afternoon going over receipts and making projections.

  Safely inside, he joined a short line and awaited his turn at a window marked AUTO REG. The entire mahogany counter, he realized, had been transported from the courthouse, and would no doubt be ferried back again. The other furnishings, including the paintings and photographs of Whiting males that decorated the walls, all belonged to the museum collection. Miles studied these men while he waited. For direct lineal descendants they didn’t look all that much alike except, Miles decided, for one feature. Even as young men, they appeared prematurely old, or maybe just distinguished, their hair white, their brows chiseled in cogitation. Or perhaps they were reflecting with satisfaction that the history of Empire Falls, indeed of Dexter County, was little more than the history of their own family.

  After a few minutes, he noticed Jimmy Minty’s red Camaro pull into the lot. Leaving the car idling, the police officer got out and came toward the cottage, angling off the walkway that led to Motor Vehicles and proceeding across the lawn to the back of the building. Miles followed his progress until a man behind him in line tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out that it was his turn. At the window he wrote out the check for his new tags and slipped it through the opening. When the woman on the other side of the glass smiled and said, “Hello, Miles,” he recognized her as a girl he’d gone to high school with. Marcia, according to her name tag. Which was more likely, he wondered, that he and Marcia should have lived so long in such a small town without running into each other, or that he and Jimmy Minty would cross paths twice in half an hour?

  “You keep this car another year or two and we’ll have to pay you to register it,” the clerk observed when she saw the amount of the check he’d written out.

  “That would be fine with me, Marcia,” Miles told her, hoping she’d conclude that he’d remembered her name across the long span of years.

  “Here’s your new chickadee plates,” she said, pushing a pair through the opening.

  “What was wrong with the lobster ones?”

  “People from out of state made fun of them. Said the lobsters looked like cockroaches.”

  Miles studied the new plates, which didn’t strike him as much of an improvement, though the lobsters had looked like cockroaches. “I hope this doesn’t mean we have to start eating chickadees.”

  “It may come to that, if things don’t start looking up,” she said. “I hear there might be a buyer for the mill, though.”

  Miles considered asking where she’d heard this. After all, the Planning and Development Commission office was only a few feet away, so it was possible she might have overheard something genuine. More likely, however, was that she’d overheard somebody standing in this very line, somebody who’d had coffee that morning at the Empire Grill.

  Through another window Jimmy Minty could now be seen standing on the doorstep of the Empire Falls Planning and Development Commission office, conversing with someone who, because of the angle, wasn’t visible, though Miles immediately concluded that it had to be Mrs. Whiting. The policeman’s body language told the story; he was listening with much the same attitude as the younger policeman had listened to him half an hour earlier, and this time it was Minty who removed his dark glasses. Miles watched as he nodded once, twice, three times, apparently at specific instructions. Was it Miles’s imagination, or did Minty glance quickly into the Motor Vehicles office and then away again, as if he’d been told not to?

  “Don’t you think?” Marcia was saying.

  “I’m sorry,” Miles said, returning his attention to her. “Don’t I think what?”

  “I said it’s about time our luck changed around here.”

  “It sure is,” Miles agreed. Assuming it’s luck that’s the problem, of course. Which he privately doubted. The problem with trying to gauge mathematical probability was that it presupposed the circumstance you were observing was governed by chance.

  Outside, Jimmy Minty nodded one last time before recrossing the lawn to his idling Camaro and pull
ing back out onto Empire Avenue. Miles waited until he’d turned the corner before tucking his new license plates under his arm and heading for the door. Before he could complete his escape, though, Marcia’s phone rang and he heard her say, “Yes, it is,” and then call his name. He thought he might just keep going, pretending not to hear. Then he thought again.

  MRS. WHITING was on the phone when he knocked and entered, but she acknowledged his presence by pointing to a chair. Miles, however, was reluctant to sit down before scanning the room for the old woman’s frequent companion, a vicious black cat named Timmy. Miles was allergic to cats in general and Mrs. Whiting’s in particular. It was a rare encounter between the two that didn’t leave Miles striped and puffy.

  Mrs. Whiting smiled and put her hand over the phone. “You can relax,” she assured him. “I left Timmy at home.”

  “Are you sure?” Miles wondered, still far from at ease. The cat in question, in Miles’s opinion, possessed many borderline supernatural abilities, including a talent for materializing at will.

  “That’s hilarious, dear boy,” she replied, then resumed her conversation on the phone. Their twenty-year relationship, Miles often thought, could be summed up in those four words. From the beginning, when Miles and her daughter, Cindy, were in high school together, Mrs. Whiting had referred to him as “dear boy,” though Miles doubted he was particularly dear to her. And she was forever pronouncing things he said “hilarious,” despite a demeanor that suggested she didn’t find them even remotely funny.

  The Planning and Development Commission office, which Miles had never entered before, was large, and along one whole wall sat a scale model of downtown Empire Falls, so obviously idealized that he didn’t immediately recognize it as the town he’d lived his whole life in. The streets were lined with bright green toy trees, and the buildings so brightly painted, the streets so clean, that Miles’s first thought was that this was an artist’s notion of what a future Empire Falls might look like after an ambitious and costly revitalization project. Only closer inspection revealed that the model represented not the future but the past. This, Miles realized, was the Empire Falls of his own childhood, and he noticed several businesses along Empire Avenue that had been razed over the last two decades, leaving in real life a rash of excess parking lots. The Empire Grill, neglected in real life, in miniature looked as if Mrs. Whiting had given Miles every penny he’d ever asked for.

  A small silver plate on the base read: “EMPIRE FALLS, CIRCA 1959.” The actual town, of course, had never looked quite so prosperous. Even in 1959 the brick walls of the textile mill and the shirt factory—bright red on the model—had gone rust brown, even black in some places, with weather and soot. And the river that ran past them on the model had been rendered sky blue. Now that’s hilarious, Miles thought. Surely the only time in the last hundred years that the Knox had run blue was when the textile mill was dumping blue dye into it. Even more hilarious was the idea that such a nostalgic past should have found a home in the town’s planning and development office. Evidently the commission’s plan was to turn back the clock.

  Elijah Whiting, whose stern portrait overlooked the model, failed to see the humor in any of this. Like the Whitings in the other room, old Elijah wore a grim expression, and he had the same weakness about the mouth. They all reminded Miles of someone, though he couldn’t imagine who.

  When Mrs. Whiting said good-bye and hung up, she did it so perfunctorily that Miles couldn’t help wondering whether she’d really been on the phone or was just using the pretense to study him. Around her, this feeling of being scrutinized was not unusual. She now rotated in her chair, leaned back and regarded Elijah Whiting. “They were all mad as hatters, you know. In one way or another. You can see it lurking behind the eyes, if you look.”

  Miles did look, though he didn’t see what he was supposed to. There was a quality of zealousness perhaps, of bigotry maybe, but not of insanity.

  “You probably heard the stories about this distinguished ancestor when you were a boy?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “He’s said to have chased his wife around this very room with a shovel, intent on bashing in her skull.”

  “Surely nothing like that ever happened here,” Miles said, indicating the model, in which only the Whiting estate didn’t look different in quality from its appearance in real life. It suddenly occurred to Miles that Mrs. Whiting herself must have commissioned it. By idealizing the rest of the town, she had successfully obscured the truth—that its wealth and vitality had been bled dry by the generations of a single family. A cynical interpretation, perhaps, but it also explained why the house C. B. Whiting had built across the river was not represented on the model at all. Across the Iron Bridge was virgin wilderness, all lush trees and rolling hills.

  “Seeing you standing there gives me an inspiration,” the old woman said, though Miles doubted, even before she continued, that her sudden intuition would be anything like his own. “You should be mayor.”

  “Of the model?” Miles smiled. “I could just about afford that.” Being mayor of Empire Falls was a full-time job with a part-time salary, though it was often remarked that past mayors had found ways to supplement their income.

  “You’re too modest, dear boy. I’ve often thought you should run for political office.”

  Miles decided not to remind her that he’d run for school board twice and been elected.

  “Are you offering me the job?”

  “You overestimate the extent of my influence, dear boy.” She smiled. “You’re rather like your mother in that respect. But then, people are forever confusing will with power, don’t you find? I have a theory about why, if you’re interested.”

  “Why I’m like my mother,” Miles asked, finally taking his seat, “or why people confuse will with power?”

  “The latter,” she said. “After all, there’s nothing very mysterious about why you take after your mother, is there. Your father isn’t exactly the sort of man who inspires imitation. No, people confuse power with will because so few of them have the foggiest idea what they want. Absent any knowledge, will remains impotent. A limp dick, as it were.” She regarded him, eyebrow arched. “The lucky few who happen actually to know what they want are said to have will-power.”

  “That’s all it takes?”

  “Well, let’s call it a necessary beginning.”

  Miles allowed himself to settle into his chair. More than anyone he knew, Mrs. Whiting had the ability to draw him into conversations he otherwise would have avoided. The reason seemed to be that her conclusions were invariably antithetical to his own. “So you think human beings are meant to know what they want?”

  Mrs. Whiting sighed. “That word ‘meant’ suggests you’re up to your old tricks, dear boy, casting everything in a religious light. That won’t do if you intend to be mayor.”

  “I don’t,” he pointed out. “Certainly not of Empire Falls in 1959.”

  “But that’s where you’re foolish, dear boy. Most Americans want it to be 1959, with the addition of cappuccino and cable TV.”

  “That’s what they want, or what they think they want?” The person he was thinking of was Janine. His soon-to-be-ex-wife was never uncertain about what she wanted, just disappointed by its eventual acquisition. Miles himself had been an example. The Silver Fox, though he didn’t yet suspect it, would be another.

  “That’s not a particularly helpful distinction, is it? What is wanting but thinking? But for the sake of argument, let’s accept your terms and begin at the beginning. Adam and Eve. They knew what they wanted, did they not?”

  “I doubt it,” Miles said, also for the sake of argument. “Until it was forbidden.”

  “Precisely, dear boy. But once it was forbidden, they suffered no such doubts—am I correct?”

  “No. Just regrets.”

  “Do you imagine that refusing the forbidden fruit would’ve made them happier? Would that have eliminated regret or merely redefined it?”<
br />
  She had a point. “I guess we’ll never know.”

  “I certainly won’t, dear boy, but like our progenitors, I’ve not resisted many temptations. You, on the other hand …” She dangled the thought. Mrs. Whiting had never made any secret that she considered Miles a case study in repression. “Did you have a nice vacation?”

  “Wonderful,” he said, eager for the old woman to understand that fine times could be had by others.

  Mrs. Whiting studied him carefully, as if suspicious that his enthusiasm masked a falsehood. “You return there every summer, don’t you.”

  “Just about.”

  “Has it occurred to you to wonder why?”

  “No,” he told her. When not insinuating that he was repressed, the old woman liked to imply that despite his intelligence, his views were parochial, the result of his having traveled and seen so little. Like many rich people, she seemed not to understand why the poor didn’t think to winter in Capri, where the weather was more clement. Nor did it strike her as unfair to suggest as much to a man who for twenty years had tended one of her businesses while she traveled. “I’ve got friends who have a house there,” he continued, leaving unsaid what Mrs. Whiting no doubt understood perfectly well—that only charity made even so modest a vacation possible.

  Actually, it was Miles who had introduced Peter and Dawn to the Vineyard all those years ago, during college. They’d all been poor then, and when they pooled their resources that fall they’d had just about enough to pay for the ferry crossing. They’d slept on the beach, illegally, beneath the cliffs at Gay Head, confident that after Labor Day they wouldn’t be rousted by the island police, who probably numbered no more than half a dozen. It was during this weekend on the island, Miles suspected, that Peter and Dawn had fallen in love, first with the island and then with each other. Since then they’d considered Miles instrumental to their happiness and were grateful to him for it. Even if their affection for each other had begun to wear thin, as he feared, clearly they both still loved the Vineyard. He couldn’t imagine either one of them conceding the house in a divorce settlement.

 
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