Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  “Yes, well, that makes sense,” Mrs. Whiting grudgingly acknowledged. “And yet—”

  “And yet what?”

  She appeared to lose her train of thought, but only momentarily. “And yet ‘we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ ” The old woman was smiling at him knowingly, and Miles, who recognized the final line of The Great Gatsby, felt an intense obligation to reveal neither this nor the slightest curiosity about her intention.

  When the phone rang, both were visibly relieved. Mrs. Whiting picked up the receiver and waved good-bye in one efficient motion, dismissing Miles without further ceremony.

  A hell of a way, Miles thought, to treat someone you’d just encouraged to run for mayor.


  WHEN JANINE FINISHED her last aerobics class, she showered quickly and drove over to the Empire Grill, circling the block to make sure Miles wasn’t there. Even though the divorce was dragging on forever, the whole thing had been amicable enough. In fact, she’d liked Miles better these last nine months since they’d decided to separate than at any time in the previous twenty years. Still, she had no desire to see him right now, especially not in the company of her fiancé. It was genuinely weird the way Walt had begun hanging out at the grill, a place he’d totally avoided when they were sneaking around.

  Pulling in and parking next to Walt’s van, she made a point of not looking at the stenciled logo, not wanting to admit that it was beginning to irritate her. THE SILVER FOX. What sort of man would write that on his car? For Janine this question was neither idle nor rhetorical. She was going to marry Walt Comeau as soon as the divorce was final, and part of her wanted to know the answer to that question before she became half owner of the vehicle and sole owner of the driver.

  Then again, some questions were better left unanswered. She knew Walt pretty well, certainly better than she’d known Miles. Back when they got married, she hadn’t even known who she was, her own self, never mind her intended. At least now Janine knew who Janine was, what Janine wanted, and, just as important, what Janine didn’t want. She didn’t want Miles, or anyone who reminded her of Miles. She didn’t want to be fat anymore, either. Never, ever, again. Also, she wanted a real sex life, and she wanted to act young for a change, something she hadn’t been able to do when she actually was young. She wanted to dance and have men look at her. She liked the way her body felt after dropping all that weight, and by God she liked to come. For Janine, at forty, orgasms were a new thing and she damn near lost her mind every time she had another, or when she contemplated how close she’d come to going her whole life without experiencing that singular, incomparable, tingling, explosive, mind-bending thrill. The first one had so caught her by surprise that at the height of the wave she went someplace very far away, then returned, sobbing in Walt’s arms, having concluded she’d never get to go there again, though he assured her she would and then made sure that she did. Damn, she remembered thinking. I mean, DAMN.

  It was Walt Comeau who’d taught her about herself and her body’s needs, though she was beginning to realize that even Walt’s views on the matter were oversimplified. To his way of thinking, what her body needed was lots of exercise and lots of Walt. Janine herself was wondering if her body might not benefit from a little travel. She didn’t mind working out at Walt’s own club, but she’d read somewhere about a spa out in the desert near Tucson, Arizona, that specialized in women’s bodies. “Luxurious” was the word the brochure used, and now that Janine was beginning to feel luxurious about her body she thought she deserved a week or two at a place like that. It was expensive, sure, but Walt was always going on about all his money, and she kept hoping to talk him into honeymooning there. And once Tick graduated from high school, what would prevent them from relocating to a warmer climate? After living in Maine all her life, it’d be nice to be someplace where the sun came out and stayed out. Walt was always talking about opening up a new health club, so why not Sedona or Santa Fe? If what she heard was true, the desert Southwest was like California. People kept fit and healthy and wore bathing suits that were basically symbolic of clothing. If Walt didn’t want to at least check it out, Janine wouldn’t mind going by herself for a week. She’d liked the look of the Latino masseurs in the brochure. Which seemed a little ungrateful, she had to admit. After all, Walt had been the one who woke her up, who helped her locate herself, the person she really was. And he also located that wonderful spot, found it right away, the one Miles never suspected the existence of. Now here she was thinking about Latino masseurs.

  If only he just hadn’t stenciled those stupid words on the side of the van, Janine thought as she got out of her Blazer. Probably “stupid” wasn’t the right spin. They weren’t stupid so much as boastful, she decided, heading for the front door of the restaurant. Besides, wasn’t it Walt’s cockiness that had attracted her in the first place? The fact that he was so different from Miles, who was so docile? Her mother, of course, still loved Miles and sided with him on all occasions, referring to Walt as “that little banty rooster.” “Miles is modest for good reason, Ma, believe me,” she assured her mother. A mean thing to say, maybe, but true, and it hinted at what there was no way to discuss with Bea—the whole sex thing. Her mother, Janine felt certain, was one of those poor women who’d managed to do what Janine herself had damn near done. She’d lived her entire adult life from one end to the other without a single orgasm. When Bea died, it would be possible to say truthfully that she went before she came. Not Janine. If she’d been the sort of person to stencil anything on the side of a van, it’d be something more like, SHE CAME BEFORE SHE WENT. Which meant, she supposed, that she and Walt Comeau were made for each other, and she ought to quit thinking about the strong hands of Latino masseurs.

  “Hey, babe,” she said, sliding onto a stool next to the man she’d be married to next month, if her idiot lawyer was to be believed. Unless the roof of the Fairhaven courthouse fell in too, which wouldn’t surprise Janine one bit, not the way everything had been conspiring against her right from the start, when she made the mistake of telling that priest with the Alzheimer’s all about herself and Walt, figuring he’d forgive her and then forget all about it. Everyone said he couldn’t remember twice around, which was why they’d finally had to hire the younger priest. Except that this time the old guy remembered three or four times around. He told Miles everything she’d said in the confessional and then, forgetting he’d told him, told him again the next day.

  Still, now that it was almost over, Janine figured it was probably just as well the old nitwit had squealed on her. At the time she’d been confused about what she wanted, or else she wouldn’t have gone to a priest at all. Once everything was out in the open, it occurred to her that what she wanted was Walt and for the two of them to make up for all the sex she’d been cheated out of. If that meant everybody thought she was a slut, including her daughter and her own mother, then they could just think whatever they wanted. In a sense it was good she and Walt got caught, because if they hadn’t, Walt, being a man, probably would’ve been just as happy to keep on with the hanky-panky. It was Janine who hadn’t liked all the sneaking around, and getting caught had at least set the legal ball rolling, which was something. Keeping it rolling had required all her energy, except for what she kept in reserve for sex and the Stairmaster. The last nine months had proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: you can’t beat city hall the same year its roof falls in.

  Walt was intently playing gin with Horace, so he didn’t notice when she came in. Another thing that was beginning to bother Janine was the way Walt knitted his brow over anything that taxed his intellect. Quite a lot did, Janine had to admit, so she had plenty of opportunity to study her least favorite expression. Walt was wearing it now as he looked up from his hand to study his opponent, as if the solution to whatever perplexed him might scroll across Horace’s broad forehead, disgusting cyst and all. At moments like this, his brow tightly knit, his eyes narrowed, Walt
Comeau always looked like he was trying to figure out not how his opponent happened to be winning so much as how he was cheating, and Janine wondered if this sly, distrustful expression might be responsible for his nickname. Certainly it always made Janine want to take him aside and explain exactly how he was being cheated. “He’s smarter than you, Walt,” she’d have liked to tell him. “He’s cheating you by remembering what cards you’ve played and what cards he’s played. That’s how he knows what’s left in the deck. He pays attention to what you’re doing, and to what it means. It’s not a damn marked deck, and he doesn’t have an accomplice, and there’s no mirror behind you reflecting your cards. He’s just smarter than you. It might not be fair, but he is.”

  Miles, bad as he was, had been a far better card partner. He had no poker face at all, and he couldn’t help looking surprised when Lady Luck smiled on him and disappointed when she didn’t, but at least he was more often a step ahead of the game than a step behind, like the Silver Fox. To Janine, one of life’s crueler ironies was that Miles, who often could locate the Queen of Spades two tricks into a game of hearts, hadn’t been able to find her spot in twenty years of marriage.

  Janine counted Mississippis and got to ten before Walt decided what to discard, which ginned Horace nicely. Walt, ever curious, turned over the card Horace had laid facedown, groaning when he saw what it was. “You lucky bastard,” he said. “That was my damn gin card.”

  “I knew that, Mr. Comeau,” Horace explained, totaling up the points he’d caught Walt with. “Why do you suppose I wouldn’t give it to you?”

  Thus released from his torment, Walt rotated on his stool and took in the woman who would soon be his wife, breaking into a wide grin. This, Janine realized as Walt looked her over, was why she was marrying the man. He might be a beat slow—all right, several beats slow—but damn if he wasn’t always glad to see her. He always drank her in with what seemed to be fresh eyes, and she didn’t really care if the reason for this might be short-term memory deficiency. Walt’s appreciation made her glow inside, opening her up, allowing her spot to unfold like the soft petals of a flower so obviously that even Miles could have found it, not that he’d ever have the opportunity again. “Hey, good-lookin’,” Walt said. “Good thing Big Boy isn’t here. He’d commit hari-kari seeing how good you look.”

  Having given voice to this pleasantly dark thought, Walt turned to Horace for a second opinion. “How’d you like to go through the rest of your life knowing you had a woman this beautiful and lost her?”

  Horace was either still totaling up their score on his notepad or pretending to, forcing Walt to rotate back on his stool. “Let me guess,” he said. “One twenty-two.”

  Well, sure, okay. Here was another thing that irritated Janine, this constant public guessing game about her weight. Not that she wasn’t proud of having dropped the fifty pounds. And she knew, too, that Walt did it because he was proud of her. Still, it reminded her a little of that midway trick back when she was a girl, the booth where they guessed people’s weights. “One twenty-three.” Pleased in spite of herself, she grinned at him. “But can we not have this conversation in public?”

  “One twenty-three?” Walt bellowed. “I’m going to get that scale in the women’s locker room checked out.” Again he rotated on his stool and nudged Horace. “How about it, though? One twenty-three. Guess how much she weighed when we met.”

  “I’d be real careful,” Janine advised Horace, who looked like he didn’t need to be warned.

  “Don’t be like that,” Walt said. “You should be proud.” Then, rotating back to Horace, “Mid one-eighties.”

  “You want anything, Janine?” David called over his shoulder from where he was browning a roast. Without, of course, actually looking at her.

  “No, I’m fine,” she told him. “Tick almost done back there?”

  “Pretty close.” Still not looking up from his work, the prick.

  “Tell her I’m here, okay?”

  “She knows you’re here.”

  The implication being what—that the kid could smell it when she came in? Or that Janine’s appearance altered the whole atmosphere?

  “Can you believe this woman?” Walt now asked. “No, I sure wouldn’t want to be that brother of yours, knowing I let a woman this good-looking get away from me.”

  “She’s a beauty, all right,” David agreed.

  “Hear that?” Walt said, nuzzling Janine’s neck. “Everybody says the same thing.”

  Janine had heard what her brother-in-law said—heard it a lot clearer than the Silver Fox had, and she leaned away from his cold nose. At home she might’ve enjoyed the affection, but not here, especially with people making sarcastic remarks. To show David who was boss, she got up and went around the counter to the register, hit No Sale, and the drawer flew open.

  “I’m changing a fifty here, David,” she called. “That all right with you? Since I’m a former employee and all-around beauty queen?”

  “If it’s all right with Miles,” he said. “I just work here.”

  Which pissed her off even more. “You can come over and watch if you want.”

  Charlene stepped up just then, snatched the fifty, and quickly made change out of the drawer, then slammed it by way of punctuation. “How you doin’, Janine?”

  “Just fine, Charl.” She wadded up the bills and stuffed them in her purse, feeling robbed of some vague satisfaction. She hadn’t needed change for the fifty to begin with. The good news, she thought, watching Charlene arranging tables for tonight’s private party, was that, at forty-five, Charlene was finally showing her age. Since her operation she looked tired, and a little fan of lines had appeared at the corners of her eyes and was deepening there. By the look of her, she’d also put on about ten pounds, which made Janine wonder how much longer her soon-to-be-ex-husband would continue mooning over her. That would be a hard habit for him to break, having been at it his entire married life. In matters of the heart, Miles was even more transparent than when he was playing cards. When it came to what he was holding close to his vest, he’d just hang on to it, tight as grim death, and deny it was there, no matter how hard you tried to pry it out of him.

  When Charlene finished rearranging tables, Janine couldn’t help but smile. Another year or two and that’s going to be one fat ass, lady, she thought. Drape it with a sheet and show home movies. This last weekend, Janine had noticed, the college boys returning for the fall semester hadn’t been quite as flirtatious, and this year they actually seemed more interested in their own dates than in peeking down Charlene’s shirt. Next year, even the salesmen who pushed dollies full of canned goods into the back, calling out mock invitations for her to join them in the walk-in cooler for a minute, would stop treating her like she was sex on the hoof. And then that would leave just Miles in love with her—and not really her, either, but the woman she was before she wore out, the woman he still believed her to be, against the testimony of his own eyes.

  There, Janine thought. Now I’ve thoroughly depressed myself. Because the truth was, she liked Charlene, who’d had four bad marriages and her own share of heartache, and never once during the years that Janine and Miles were married had she encouraged his crush, any more than she encouraged the college boys. It was her body that drew them, and she couldn’t help that. While it was pleasurable to consider that Janine was winning her own body war at about the same rate that Charlene was losing hers, Janine was too smart not to see the end of all this, which was that they would both lose. The competition for the love and admiration of men like Walt and Miles would be passed like a torch to some other girl, some kid, really, who’d look at Janine and Charlene and never even suspect that they’d been there and done that. The sad, fucking truth was that no matter who you are, you never, ever, will get your fill.

  In full possession of this wisdom, Janine slipped her left hand beneath the counter and into the front trouser pocket of the Silver Fox, who smiled slyly and slowly rose to the occasion. That Walt w
as fifty did worry her a little. She was getting started late, orgasm-wise, and it’d be just her luck for Walt to shut down early. He wasn’t exactly leaping to attention at the moment, but he was getting there.

  Down at the other end of the restaurant there was a table full of young women from the Dexter County Academy of Hair Design who came in most afternoons a few minutes before closing and hunkered down in the far booth, chattering and whispering and eating pie. Studying these girls, she wondered if one of them might be the next Charlene, the next Janine. A couple were almost pretty if you imagined them without the big hair and the extra pounds that already, in their early twenties, were weighing them down. No, maybe Janine’s days, like Charlene’s, were numbered, but at least there didn’t seem to be much competition on the immediate horizon, which meant that for a while she’d have the field, such as it was, to herself.

  Janine was smiling when the door to the kitchen swung open and her daughter appeared, announcing that she was ready to go home.

  Walt, apparently forgetting there was a friendly hand in his front trouser pocket, damn near leapt off his stool, twisting Janine’s wrist in the process. “There she is,” he cried, ignoring his fiancée’s distress. “There’s our little beauty.”


  IN ART CLASS, the five long, rectangular tables are all color-coded, seven or eight students at each, and Tick has been assigned to Blue. Mrs. Roderigue, the art teacher, is a large woman with a massive shelf of a bosom, of which she appears to have no knowledge. When she enters the classroom and one of the boys says, all too audibly, “Bah-zoooom!,” she never seems to connect her own appearance with this too predictable utterance. Though Mrs. Roderigue is about Tick’s father’s age, she seems older, perhaps because she wears her hair in a style that Tick associates only with elderly women.

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