Authors: Amor Towles
Emmett replaced the volume and headed for the door.
—Did you find what you were looking for?
Having passed the reference desk, Emmett turned to face the librarian. With her eyeglasses now resting on her head, Emmett saw that he had been wrong about her age. She was probably no older than thirty-five.
—I did, he said. Thank you.
—You’re Billy’s brother, aren’t you?
—I am, he said, a little surprised.
She smiled and nodded.
—I’m Ellie Matthiessen. I could tell because you look so much like him.
—Do you know my brother well?
—Oh, he’s spent a lot of time here. At least, since you’ve been away. Your brother loves a good story.
—He does at that, agreed Emmett with a smile.
Although as he went out the door, he couldn’t help but add to himself:
for better or worse
There were three of them standing by the Studebaker when Emmett returned from the library. He didn’t recognize the tall one on the right in the cowboy hat, but the one on the left was Jenny Andersen’s older brother, Eddie, and the one in the middle was Jacob Snyder. From the way that Eddie was kicking at the pavement, Emmett could tell that he didn’t want to be there. Seeing Emmett approach, the tall stranger nudged Jake in the side. When Jake looked up, Emmett could tell that he didn’t want to be there either.
Emmett stopped a few feet away with his keys in his hand and nodded to the two men he knew.
Emmett considered offering Jake an apology, but Jake wasn’t there for an apology. Emmett had already apologized to Jake and the rest of the Snyders. He’d apologized in the hours after the fight, then at the station house, and finally on the courthouse steps. His apologies hadn’t done the Snyders any good then, and they weren’t going to do them any good now.
—I don’t want any trouble, said Emmett. I just want to get in my car and go home.
—I can’t let you do that, said Jake.
And he was probably right. Though Emmett and Jake had only been talking for a minute, there were already people gathering around. There were a few farmhands, the Westerly widows, and two boys who had been biding their time on the courthouse lawn. If the Pentecostal or Congregational church let out, the crowd would only grow. Whatever happened
next was sure to get back to old man Snyder, and that meant there was only one way that Jake could let the encounter come to its conclusion.
Emmett put his keys in his pocket, leaving his hands at his side.
It was the stranger who spoke up first. Leaning against the door of the Studebaker, he tilted back his hat and smiled.
—Seems like Jake here’s got some unfinished business with you, Watson.
Emmett met the gaze of the stranger, then turned back to Jake.
—If we’ve got unfinished business, Jake, let’s finish it.
Jake looked like he was struggling with how to begin, like the anger that he’d expected to feel—that he was
to feel—after all these months was suddenly eluding him. Taking a page from his brother’s book, he started with a question.
—You think of yourself as quite a fighter, don’t you, Watson?
Emmett didn’t reply.
—And maybe you are something of a fighter—as long as you get to hit a man unprovoked.
—It wasn’t unprovoked, Jake.
Jake took half a step forward, feeling something closer to anger now.
—Are you saying Jimmy tried to hit you first?
—No. He didn’t try to hit me.
Jake nodded with his jaw clenched, then took another half step.
—Seeing as you like to take the first swing so much, why don’t you take the first swing at me?
—I’m not going to take a swing at you, Jake.
Jake stared at Emmett for a moment, then looked away. He didn’t look at his two friends. He didn’t look at the townspeople who had gathered behind him. He turned his gaze in order to look at nothing in particular. And when he turned back, he hit Emmett with a right cross.
Given that Jake hadn’t been looking at Emmett when he went into motion, his fist glanced off the top of Emmett’s cheek rather than
hitting him squarely in the jaw. But he made enough contact that Emmett stumbled to his right.
Everyone took a step forward now. Eddie and the stranger, the onlookers, even the woman with the stroller who had just joined the crowd. Everyone, that is, but Jake. He remained where he was standing, watching Emmett.
Emmett returned to the spot where he’d been the moment before, his hands back at his side.
Jake was red in the face with some combination of exertion and anger and maybe a hint of embarrassment too.
—Put up your fists, he said.
Emmett didn’t move.
—Put up your goddamn fists!
Emmett raised his fists high enough to be in the stance of a fighter, but not so high as to defend himself effectively.
This time, Jake hit him in the mouth. Emmett stumbled three steps back, tasting blood on his lips. He regained his footing and advanced the three steps that would bring him back within Jake’s reach. As he heard the stranger egging Jake on, Emmett halfway raised his fists and Jake knocked him to the ground.
Suddenly, the world was out of kilter, sloping away at a thirty-degree angle. To get onto his knees, Emmett had to support himself with both hands on the pavement. As he pushed himself upward, he could feel the heat of the day rising up from the concrete through his palms.
On all fours, Emmett waited for his head to clear, then he began to stand.
Jake took a step forward.
—Don’t you get up again, he said, his voice thick with emotion. Don’t you get up again, Emmett Watson.
When Emmett reached his full height, he started to raise his fists, but he hadn’t been ready to stand, after all. The earth reeled and angled upward, and Emmett landed back on the pavement with a grunt.
—That’s enough, someone called out. That’s enough, Jake.
It was Sheriff Petersen pushing through the onlookers.
The sheriff instructed one of his deputies to pull Jake aside and the other to disperse the crowd. Then he got down on his haunches to assess Emmett’s condition. He even reached out and turned Emmett’s head so he could get a better look at the left side of his face.
—Doesn’t seem like anything’s broken. You gonna be all right, Emmett?
—I’m gonna be all right.
Sheriff Petersen stayed on his haunches.
—You gonna want to press charges?
The sheriff signaled to a deputy that he could let Jake go, then turned back to Emmett, who was sitting on the pavement now, wiping the blood from his lip.
—How long have you been back?
—Didn’t take long for Jake to find you.
—No, sir, it didn’t.
—Well, I can’t say as I’m surprised.
The sheriff was quiet for a moment.
—You staying out at your place?
—All right then. Let’s get you cleaned up before we send you home.
The sheriff took Emmett’s hand in order to help him off the ground. But as he did so, he took the opportunity to look at Emmett’s knuckles.
The sheriff and Emmett were driving through town in the Studebaker with Emmett in the passenger seat and the sheriff behind the wheel, moving at a nice easy pace. Emmett was checking his teeth with the tip of his tongue when the sheriff, who had been whistling a Hank Williams song, interrupted himself.
—Not a bad car. How fast can she go?
—About eighty without shaking.
But the sheriff kept driving at his easy pace, taking wide lazy turns as he whistled his tune. When he drove past the turnoff to the station house, Emmett gave him a quizzical glance.
—I thought I’d take you to our place, the sheriff explained. Let Mary have a look at you.
Emmett didn’t protest. He had appreciated the chance to get cleaned up before heading home, but he had no desire to revisit the station house.
After they’d come to a stop in the Petersens’ driveway, Emmett was about to open the passenger-side door when he noted that the sheriff wasn’t making a move. He was sitting there with his hands on the wheel—just like the warden had the day before.
As Emmett waited for the sheriff to say whatever was on his mind, he looked out the windshield at the tire swing hanging from the oak tree in the yard. Though Emmett didn’t know the sheriff’s children, he knew they were grown, and he found himself wondering whether the swing was a vestige of their youth, or the sheriff had hung it for the benefit of his grandchildren. Who knows, thought Emmett; maybe it had been hanging there since before the Petersens owned the place.
—I only arrived at the tail end of your little skirmish, the sheriff began, but from the look of your hand and Jake’s face, I’d have to surmise you didn’t put up much of a fight.
Emmett didn’t respond.
—Well, maybe you thought you had it coming to you, continued the sheriff in a tone of reflection. Or maybe, having been through what you’ve been through, you’ve decided that your fighting days are behind you.
The sheriff looked at Emmett as if he were expecting Emmett to
say something, but Emmett remained silent, staring through the windshield at the swing.
—You mind if I smoke in your car? the sheriff asked after a moment. Mary doesn’t let me smoke in the house anymore.
—I don’t mind.
Sheriff Petersen took a pack from his pocket and tapped two cigarettes out of the opening, offering one to Emmett. When Emmett accepted, the sheriff lit both cigarettes with his lighter. Then out of respect for Emmett’s car, he rolled down the window.
—The war’s been over almost ten years now, he said after taking a drag and exhaling. But some of the boys who came back act like they’re still fighting it. You take Danny Hoagland. Not a month goes by without me getting a call on his account. One week he’s at the roadhouse in a brawl of his own making, a few weeks later he’s in the aisle of the supermarket giving the back of his hand to that pretty young wife of his.
The sheriff shook his head as if mystified by what the pretty young woman saw in Danny Hoagland in the first place.
—And last Tuesday? I got hauled out of bed at two in the morning because Danny was standing in front of the Iversons with a pistol in his hand, shouting about some old grievance. The Iversons’ didn’t know what he was talking about. Because, as it turned out, Danny’s grievance wasn’t with the Iversons. It was with the Barkers. He just wasn’t standing in front of the right house. Come to think of it, he wasn’t on the right block.
Emmett smiled in spite of himself.
—Now at the other end of the spectrum, said the sheriff, pointing his cigarette at some unknown audience, were those boys who came back from the war swearing that they would never again lay a hand on their fellow men. And I have a lot of respect for their position. They’ve certainly earned the right to have it. The thing of it is, when it comes
to drinking whiskey, those boys make Danny Hoagland look like a deacon of the church. I never get called out of bed on their account. Because they’re not out in front of the Iversons’ or the Barkers’ or anybody else’s at two in the morning. At that hour, they’re sitting in their living room working their way to the bottom of a bottle in the dark. All I’m saying, Emmett, is I’m not sure either of these approaches works that well. You can’t keep fighting the war, but you can’t lay down your manhood either. Sure, you can let yourself get beat up a time or two. That’s your prerogative. But eventually, you’re going to have to stand up for yourself like you used to.
The sheriff looked at Emmett now.
—You understand me, Emmett?
—Yes, sir, I do.
—I gather from Ed Ransom you might be leaving town. . . .
—We’re headed out tomorrow.
—All right then. After we get you cleaned up, I’ll take a ride over to the Snyders’ and make sure they keep out of your way in the interim. While I’m at it, are there any other people who’ve been giving you trouble?
Emmett rolled down his window and tossed out the cigarette.
—Mostly, he said, what people have been giving me is advice.
henever I come to
a new town, I like to get my bearings. I want to understand the layout of the streets and the layout of the people. In some cities this can take you days to accomplish. In Boston, it can take you weeks. In New York, years. The great thing about Morgen, Nebraska, is it only took a few minutes.
The town was laid out in a geometric grid with the courthouse right in the middle. According to the mechanic who’d given me a lift in his tow truck, back in the 1880s the town elders spent a whole week deliberating how best to christen the streets before deciding—with an eye to the future—that the east-west streets would be named for presidents and the north-south streets for trees. As it turned out, they could have settled on seasons and suits because seventy-five years later the town was still only four blocks square.
—Howdy, I said to the two ladies coming in the opposite direction, neither of whom said howdy back.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a certain charm to a town like this. And there’s a certain kind of person who would rather live here than anywhere else—even in the twentieth century. Like a person who wants to make some sense of the world. Living in the big city, rushing around amid all that hammering and clamoring, the events of life can begin to seem random. But in a town this size, when a piano falls out of a window and lands on a fellow’s head, there’s a good chance you’ll know why he deserved it.
At any rate, Morgen was the sort of town where when something out of the ordinary happens, a crowd is likely to gather. And sure enough, when I came around the courthouse, there was a semicircle of citizens ready to prove the point. From fifty feet away I could tell they were a representative sample of the local electorate. There were hayseeds in hats, dowagers with handbags, and lads in dungarees. Fast approaching was even a mother with a stroller and a toddler at her side.
Tossing the rest of my ice cream cone in the trash, I walked over to get a closer look. And who did I find at center stage? None other than Emmett Watson—being taunted by some corn-fed kid with a corn-fed grievance.
The people who had gathered to watch seemed excited, at least in a midwestern sort of way. They weren’t shouting or grinning, but they were glad to have happened along at just the right moment. It would be something they could talk about in the barbershop and hair salon for weeks to come.
For his part, Emmett looked fantastic. He was standing with his eyes open and his arms at his sides, neither eager to be there nor in a hurry to leave. It was the taunter who looked anxious. He was shifting back and forth and sweating through his shirt, despite the fact that he’d brought along two cronies to back him up.
—Jake, I don’t want any trouble, Emmett was saying. I just want to get in my car and go home.
—I can’t let you do that, replied Jake, though it looked like that’s exactly what he wanted Emmett to do.
Then one of the wingmen—the tall one in the cowboy hat—tossed in his two cents.
—Seems like Jake here’s got some unfinished business with you, Watson.
I had never seen this cowboy before, but from the tilt of his hat
and the smile on his face, I knew exactly who he was. He was the guy who’s started a thousand fights without ever throwing a punch.
So what did Emmett do? Did he let the cowboy unsettle him? Did he tell him to shut up and mind his own business? He didn’t even deign to respond. He just turned to Jake and said:
—If we’ve got unfinished business, let’s finish it.
If we’ve got unfinished business, let’s finish it.
You could wait your whole life to say a sentence like that and not have the presence of mind to say it when the time comes. That sort of level-headedness isn’t the product of upbringing or practice. You’re either born with it or you’re not. And mostly, you’re not.
But here comes the best part.
It turned out that this Jake was the brother of the Snyder kid whom Emmett put out of commission back in 1952. I could tell because he started talking some nonsense about how Jimmy had been sucker-punched, as if Emmett Watson would ever stoop to hitting a man with his guard down.
When the prodding didn’t work, Mr. Fair Fight here looked off in the distance as if he were lost in thought, then, without any warning, hit Emmett in the face. After stumbling to his right, Emmett shook off the blow, straightened up, and started moving back in Jake’s direction.
Here we go
is what everybody in the crowd was thinking. Because Emmett could clearly beat this guy to a pulp, even if he was ten pounds lighter and two inches shorter. But much to the crowd’s dismay, Emmett didn’t keep coming. He stopped on the very spot where he’d been standing the moment before.
Which really got to Jake. His face turned as red as his union suit, and he started yelling that Emmett should raise his fists. So Emmett raised them, more or less, and Jake took another crack at it. This time, he hit Emmett right in the kisser. Emmett stumbled again, but didn’t
topple. Bleeding from the lip, he regained his footing and came back for another helping.
Meanwhile, the cowboy—who was still leaning dismissively on the door of Emmett’s car—shouted,
You show him, Jake
, as if Jake were about to teach Emmett a lesson. But the cowboy had it upside down. It was Emmett who was teaching the lesson.
Alan Ladd in
Frank Sinatra in
From Here to Eternity
Lee Marvin in
The Wild One
You know what these three have in common? They all took a beating. I don’t mean getting a pop in the nose or having the wind knocked out of them. I mean a
. Where their ears rang, and their eyes watered, and they could taste the blood on their teeth. Ladd took his at Grafton’s Saloon from Ryker’s boys. Sinatra took his in the stockade from Sergeant Fatso. And Marvin, he took his at the hands of Marlon Brando in the street of a little American town just like this one, with another crowd of honest citizens gathered around to watch.
The willingness to take a beating: That’s how you can tell you’re dealing with a man of substance. A man like that doesn’t linger on the sidelines throwing gasoline on someone else’s fire; and he doesn’t go home unscathed. He presents himself front and center, undaunted, prepared to stand his ground until he can’t stand at all.
It was Emmett who was teaching the lesson, all right. And he wasn’t just teaching it to Jake. He was teaching it to the whole goddamn town.
Not that they understood what they were looking at. You could tell by the expressions on their faces that the whole point of the instruction was going right over their heads.
Jake, who was beginning to tremble, was probably thinking that he couldn’t keep it up much longer. So this time, he tried to make it count. Finally getting his aim and his anger into alignment, he let one loose that knocked Emmett clear off his feet.
The whole crowd gave a little gasp, Jake breathed a sigh of relief, and the cowboy let out a snicker of satisfaction, like he was the one who’d thrown the punch. Then Emmett started getting up again.
Man, I wish I’d had a camera. I could’ve taken a picture and sent it to
magazine. They would’ve put it on the cover.
It was beautiful, I tell you. But it was too much for Jake. Looking like he might burst into tears, he stepped forward and began shouting at Emmett that he should not get up. That he should not get up, so help him God.
I don’t know if Emmett even heard him, given that his senses were probably rattled. Though whether he heard Jake or not didn’t make much difference. He was going to do the same thing either way. Stepping a little uncertainly, he moved back within range, stood to his full height, and raised his fists. Then the blood must have rushed from his head because he staggered and fell to the ground.
Seeing Emmett on his knees was an unwelcome sight, but it didn’t worry me. He just needed a moment to gather his wits so he could get up and return to the hitting spot. That he would do so was as certain as sunrise. But before he got the chance, the sheriff spoiled the show.
—That’s enough, he said, pushing his way through the gawkers. That’s enough.
At the sheriff’s instruction, a deputy began dispersing the crowd, waving his arms and telling everyone it was time to move along. But there was no need for the deputy to disperse the cowboy. Because the cowboy had dispersed himself. The second the authorities appeared on the scene, he had lowered the brim of his hat and started ambling around the courthouse like he was headed to the hardware store for a can of paint.
I ambled after him.
When the cowboy reached the other side of the building, he crossed one of the presidents and headed up a tree. So eager was he to put
some distance between himself and his handiwork, he walked right past an old lady with a cane who was trying to put a grocery bag in the back of her Model T.
—Here you go, ma’am, I said.
—Thank you, young man.
By the time granny was climbing behind the wheel, the cowboy was half a block ahead of me. When he took a right down the alley beyond the movie theater, I actually had to run to catch up, despite the fact that running is something I generally avoid on principle.
Now, before I tell you what happened next, I think I should give you a little context by taking you back to when I was about nine and living in Lewis.
When my old man dropped me off at St. Nicholas’s Home for Boys, the nun in charge was a woman of certain opinions and uncertain age named Sister Agnes. It stands to reason that a strong-minded woman who finds herself in an evangelical profession with a captive audience would be likely to avail herself of every opportunity to share her point of view. But not Sister Agnes. Like a seasoned performer, she knew how to choose her moments. She could make an unobtrusive entrance, remain at the back of the stage, wait until everyone had delivered their lines, then steal the show with five minutes in the spotlight.
Her favorite time to impart her wisdom was just before bed. Coming into the dormitory, she would quietly watch as the other sisters scurried about in their habits instructing one kid to fold his clothes, another to wash his face, and everyone to say their prayers. Then when we had all climbed under the covers, Sister Agnes would pull up a chair and deliver her lesson. As you might imagine, Sister Agnes was partial to a biblical grammar, but she spoke with such a sympathetic inflection that her words would silence the intermittent chatter and linger in our ears long after the lights were out.
One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the
Chains of Wrongdoing.
, she would begin in her motherly way,
in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that others have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.
At the time, I didn’t understand what she was talking about. I didn’t understand how your movements could be hampered by a little wrongdoing, since in my experience those who were prone to wrongdoing were always the first ones out the door. I didn’t understand why when someone had done wrong unto you, you had to carry a burden on their behalf. And I certainly didn’t understand what it meant to have serenity in your step. But as Sister Agnes also liked to say:
What wisdom the Lord does not see fit to endow us with at birth, He provides through the gift of experience
. And sure enough, as I grew older, experience began to make some sense of Sister Agnes’s sermon.
Like when I first arrived at Salina.
It was the month of August, when the air was warm, the days were long, and the first crop of potatoes had to be dug from the earth. Old Testament Ackerly would have us working from dawn till dusk, such that when dinner was over, the only thing we wanted was a good night’s sleep. And yet, once the lights were out, I would often find myself stewing over how I’d come to be at Salina in the first place, reviewing every bitter detail until the rooster crowed. On other nights, I would imagine being called to the warden’s office, where he would solemnly deliver the news of a car crash or a hotel fire in which my old man had lost his life. And while such visions would appease for the moment, they would badger me for the rest of the night with a
sense of shameful remorse. So there they were: indignation and guilt. Two contradictory forces so sure to confound, I resigned myself to the possibility I might never sleep soundly again.
But when Warden Williams took over for Ackerly and initiated his era of reform, he instituted a program of afternoon classes designed to prepare us for lives of upright citizenship. To that end, he had a civics teacher come talk about the three branches of government. He had a selectman instruct us on the scourge of Communism and the importance of every man’s vote. Pretty soon, we were all wishing we could get back to the potato fields.
Then a few months ago, he arranged to have a certified public accountant explain the basics of personal finance. After describing the interplay between assets and liabilities, this CPA approached the chalkboard and in a few quick strokes demonstrated the balancing of accounts. And right then, while sitting in the back row of that hot little classroom, I finally understood what Sister Agnes had been talking about.
In the course of our lives, she had said, we may do wrong unto others and others may do wrong unto us, resulting in the aforementioned chains. But another way to express the same idea was that through our misdeeds we put ourselves in another person’s debt, just as through their misdeeds they put themselves in ours. And since it’s these debts—those we’ve incurred and those we’re owed—that keep us stirring and stewing in the early hours, the only way to get a good night’s sleep is to balance the accounts.