On a quiet afternoon at the Empire Grill diner, Miles Roby, the proprietor and fry cook, is looking out the window. His life has not been easy. His father rarely provided his mother Grace with any financial support for him and his brother David. Instead, Grace Roby worked long hours at the local shirt factory to pay the bills for her family. Miles had dreams of attending college, but those dreams were deferred when his mother discovered she had cancer and Miles came home to take care of her. Moreover, Miles’s wife has recently left him. The one hope that remains to him is the promise that the owner of the Empire Grill, Francine Whiting, made to him twenty years ago: that when she dies, he will inherit the diner. Even this hope is fading. Owning the diner seemed like a good idea to the younger Miles, but the closed storefronts along his street suggest that the Grill may not be worth owning by the time he inherits it.
Miles’s daughter Christina, nicknamed Tick, shortly arrives, burdened by her heavy bookbag, and solemnly greets her father and her uncle David. She pointedly ignores Walt Comeau, who comes to the Grill only to taunt Miles with the fact that Walt seduced Miles’s wife Janine away from him. Tick is nearly as glum as her father, primarily because, having broken up with her abusive boyfriend Zack, she is no longer accepted by his friends and has to sit with other social rejects such as the emotionally disturbed John Voss. Her one friend, Candace, is shallow and oblivious to Tick’s feelings. While Tick feels comfortable working at her father’s diner, she wonders if she will ever feel positive about growing up in a town that seems to be dying.
Today is the day that Miles has to visit Francine Whiting and provide her with the Grill’s financial details. For many years, his profit and loss statement has reflected far more loss than profit. As Miles walks to the Planning and Development Commission Office, he wonders why Mrs. Whiting has allowed him to remain open. Most of the businesses she has acquired over the years, including the shirt factory, the mills, and many others, have closed their doors after unsuccessfully struggling to realize a profit. This year’s meeting, like the ones before, ends without any resolution: The Grill will remain open for another year. Miles thinks that he should be happy about keeping his job, but, in his sadness over his divorce and his anxiety over his daughter’s growing distance from him, he feels trapped. He thinks about the history of Empire Falls and the factory’s former owner, C. B. Whiting, who had planned such a bright future for the little town.
Miles is unaware of the full extent of C. B.’s influence on his life. His mother’s boss, Whiting became attracted to Grace Roby just after Miles was born, and he sought for years to win her heart. C. B.’s marriage was unpleasant for the aging playboy, and Grace’s prettiness was impossible for him to ignore. The summer that Miles was nine, Whiting took both Grace and her son to Martha’s Vineyard for a week, hoping to persuade Grace to leave her husband and accompany Whiting to a new life in Mexico. Grace would have acquiesced and escaped her drunken husband Max had she not been pregnant with another child at the time. Whiting was willing to accept Miles, but two children would have been too many...
(The entire section is 1358 words.)