Authors: Amor Towles
From the age of four, Billy had admired them. Sometimes when Emmett would come home from school, he would find Billy standing on a chair beside the bureau talking to himself in the language of a fighter pilot. So when Billy turned six, Emmett and his father hung the planes from the ceiling over Billy’s bed as a birthday surprise.
Emmett continued down the hall to his father’s room, where he found the same evidence of tidiness: the bed made, the photographs on the bureau dusted, the curtains tied back with a bow. Emmett approached one of the windows and looked out across his father’s land. After being plowed and planted for twenty years, the fields had been left untended for just one season and you could already see the tireless advance of nature—the sagebrush and ragwort and ironweed establishing themselves among the prairie grasses. If left untended for another few years, you wouldn’t be able to tell that anyone had ever farmed these acres at all.
Emmett shook his head.
Bad luck . . .
That’s what Mr. Obermeyer had called it. A bad luck that was too great to surmount. And the banker was right, up to a point. When it came to bad luck, Emmett’s father always had plenty to spare. But Emmett knew that wasn’t the extent of the matter. For when it came to bad judgment, Charlie Watson had plenty of that to spare too.
Emmett’s father had come to Nebraska from Boston in 1933 with
his new wife and a dream of working the land. Over the next two decades, he had tried to grow wheat, corn, soy, even alfalfa, and had been thwarted at every turn. If the crop he chose to grow one year needed plenty of water, there were two years of drought. When he switched to a crop that needed plenty of sun, thunderclouds gathered in the west. Nature is merciless, you might counter. It’s indifferent and unpredictable. But a farmer who changes the crop he’s growing every two or three years? Even as a boy, Emmett knew that was a sign of a man who didn’t know what he was doing.
Out behind the barn was a special piece of equipment imported from Germany for the harvesting of sorghum. At one point deemed essential, it was soon unnecessary, and now no longer of use—because his father hadn’t had the good sense to resell it once he’d stopped growing sorghum. He just let it sit in the clearing behind the barn exposed to the rain and snow. When Emmett was Billy’s age and his friends would come over from the neighboring farms to play—boys who, at the height of the war, were eager to climb on any piece of machinery and pretend it was a tank—they wouldn’t even set foot on the harvester, sensing instinctively that it was some kind of ill omen, that within its rusting hulk was a legacy of failure that one should steer clear of whether from politeness or self-preservation.
So one evening when Emmett was fifteen and the school year nearly over, he had ridden his bike into town, knocked on Mr. Schulte’s door, and asked for a job. Mr. Schulte was so bemused by Emmett’s request that he sat him down at the dinner table and had him brought a slice of pie. Then he asked Emmett why on earth a boy who was raised on a farm would want to spend his summer pounding nails.
It wasn’t because Emmett knew Mr. Schulte to be a friendly man, or because he lived in one of the nicest houses in town. Emmett went to Mr. Schulte because he figured that no matter what happened, a carpenter would always have work. No matter how well you build
them, houses run down. Hinges loosen, floorboards wear, roof seams separate. All you had to do was stroll through the Watson house to witness the myriad ways in which time can take its toll on a homestead.
In the months of summer, there were nights marked by the roll of thunder or the whistle of an arid wind on which Emmett could hear his father stirring in the next room, unable to sleep—and not without reason. Because a farmer with a mortgage was like a man walking on the railing of a bridge with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. It was a way of life in which the difference between abundance and ruin could be measured by a few inches of rain or a few nights of frost.
But a carpenter didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the weather. He
the extremes of nature. He welcomed the blizzards and downpours and tornadoes. He welcomed the onset of mold and the onslaughts of insects. These were the natural forces that slowly but inevitably undermined the integrity of a house, weakening its foundations, rotting its beams, and wilting its plaster.
Emmett didn’t say all of this when Mr. Schulte asked his question. Putting his fork down, he simply replied:
—The way I figure it, Mr. Schulte, it was Job who had the oxen, and Noah who had the hammer.
Mr. Schulte gave a laugh and hired Emmett on the spot.
For most of the farmers in the county, if their eldest came home one night with news that he’d taken a job with a carpenter, they would have given him a talking-to he wouldn’t soon forget. Then, for good measure, they would have driven over to the carpenter’s house and given him a few words—a few words to remember the next time he had the inclination to interfere with the upbringing of another man’s son.
But the night Emmett came home and told his father he had secured a job with Mr. Schulte, his father hadn’t grown angry. He had listened carefully. After a moment of reflection, he said that Mr. Schulte
was a good man and carpentry a useful skill. And on the first day of summer, he made Emmett a hearty breakfast and packed him a lunch, then sent him off with his blessing to another man’s trade.
And maybe that was a sign of bad judgment too.
When Emmett came back downstairs, he found Mr. Ransom sitting on the porch steps with his forearms on his knees and his hat still in his hand. Emmett sat beside him and they both looked out across the unplanted fields. Half a mile in the distance, you could just make out the fence that marked the beginning of the older man’s ranch. By Emmett’s last accounting, Mr. Ransom had over nine hundred head of cattle and eight men in his employ.
—I want to thank you for taking in Billy, Emmett said.
—Taking in Billy was the least we could do. Besides, you can imagine how much it pleased Sally. She’s about had it with keeping house for me, but caring for your brother’s another matter. We’ve
been eating better since Billy arrived.
—Just the same. It made a big difference to Billy; and it was a comfort to me knowing that he was in your home.
Mr. Ransom nodded, accepting the younger man’s expression of gratitude.
—Warden Williams seems like a good man, he said after a moment.
—He is a good man.
—Doesn’t seem like a Kansan. . . .
—No. He grew up in Philadelphia.
Mr. Ransom turned his hat in his hand. Emmett could tell that something was on his neighbor’s mind. He was trying to decide how to say it, or whether to say it. Or maybe he was just trying to pick the right moment to say it. But sometimes the moment is picked for you, as when a cloud of dust a mile up the road signaled his daughter’s approach.
—Emmett, he began, Warden Williams was right to say that you’ve paid your debt—as far as society is concerned. But this here’s a small town, a lot smaller than Philadelphia, and not everyone in Morgen is going to see it the way the warden does.
—You’re talking about the Snyders.
—I am talking about the Snyders, Emmett, but not just the Snyders. They’ve got cousins in this county. They’ve got neighbors and old family friends. They’ve got people they do business with and members of their congregation. We all know that whatever trouble Jimmy Snyder happened to find himself in was generally of Jimmy’s own making. In his seventeen years, he was the engineer of a lifetime of shit piles. But that don’t make any difference to his brothers. Especially after they lost Joe, Jr., in the war. If they were none too pleased that you got just eighteen months in Salina, they were in a state of righteous fury when they learned you’d be let out a few months early because of your father’s passing. They’re likely to make you feel the brunt of that fury as much and as often as they can. So while you do have your whole life in front of you, or rather, because you have your whole life in front of you, you may want to consider starting it somewhere other than here.
—You’ve no need to worry about that, said Emmett. Forty-eight hours from now, I don’t expect Billy and me to be in Nebraska.
Mr. Ransom nodded.
—Since your father didn’t leave much behind, I’d like to give you two a little something to help you get started.
—I couldn’t take your money, Mr. Ransom. You’ve done enough for us already.
—Then consider it a loan. You can pay it back once you get yourself situated.
—For the time being, observed Emmett, I think the Watsons have had their fill of loans.
Mr. Ransom smiled and nodded. Then he stood and put his hat on his head as the old pickup they called Betty roared into the driveway
with Sally behind the wheel and Billy in the passenger seat. Before she had skidded to a stop with a backfire out of the exhaust, Billy was opening the door and jumping to the ground. Wearing a canvas backpack that reached from his shoulders to the seat of his pants, he ran right past Mr. Ransom and wrapped his arms around Emmett’s waist.
Emmett got down on his haunches so he could hug his little brother back.
Sally was approaching now in a brightly colored Sunday dress with a baking dish in her hands and a smile on her face.
Mr. Ransom took in the dress and the smile, philosophically.
—Well now, she said, look who’s here. Don’t you squeeze the life out of him, Billy Watson.
Emmett stood and put a hand on his brother’s head.
As was her habit when nervous, Sally got right down to business.
—The house has been swept and all the beds have been made and there’s fresh soap in the bathroom, and butter, milk, and eggs in the icebox.
—Thank you, said Emmett.
—I suggested the two of you should join us for supper, but Billy insisted you have your first meal at home. But seeing as you’re just back, I made the two of you a casserole.
—You didn’t have to go to all that trouble, Sally.
—Trouble or not, here it is. All you have to do is put it in the oven at 350° for forty-five minutes.
As Emmett took the casserole in hand, Sally shook her head.
—I should have written that down.
—I think Emmett will be able to remember the instructions, said Mr. Ransom. And if he doesn’t, Billy surely will.
—You put it in the oven at 350° for forty-five minutes, said Billy.
Mr. Ransom turned to his daughter.
—I’m sure these boys are eager to catch up, and we’ve got some things to see to at home.
—I’ll just go in for a minute to make sure that everything—
—Sally, Mr. Ransom said in a manner that broached no dissent.
Sally pointed at Billy and smiled.
—You be good, little one.
Emmett and Billy watched as the Ransoms climbed into their trucks and drove back up the road. Then Billy turned to Emmett and hugged him again.
—I’m glad you’re home, Emmett.
—I’m glad to be home, Billy.
—You don’t have to go back to Salina this time, do you?
—No. I never have to go back to Salina. Come on.
Billy released Emmett, and the brothers went into the house. In the kitchen, Emmett opened the icebox and slid the casserole onto a lower shelf. On the top shelf were the promised milk and eggs and butter. There was also a jar of homemade applesauce and another of peaches in syrup.
—You want something to eat?
—No, thank you, Emmett. Sally made me a peanut butter sandwich just before we came over.
—How about some milk?
As Emmett brought the glasses of milk to the table, Billy took off his backpack and set it on an empty chair. Unbuckling the uppermost flap, he carefully removed and unfolded a little package wrapped in aluminum foil. It was a stack of eight cookies. He put two on the table, one for Emmett and one for himself. Then he closed the foil, put the rest of the cookies back in his backpack, rebuckled the flap, and returned to his seat.
—That’s quite a pack, Emmett said.
—It’s a genuine US Army backpack, said Billy. Although it’s what they call an army surplus backpack because it never actually made it to the war. I bought it at Mr. Gunderson’s store. I also got a surplus flashlight and a surplus compass and this surplus watch.
Billy held out his arm to show the watch hanging loosely on his wrist.
—It even has a second hand.
After expressing his admiration for the watch, Emmett took a bite of the cookie.
—Good one. Chocolate chip?
—Yep. Sally made them.
—I cleaned the bowl.
—I bet you did.
—Sally actually made us a whole batch, but Mr. Ransom said she was overdoing it, so she told him that she would just give us four, but secretly she gave us eight.
—Lucky for us.
—Luckier than just getting four. But not as lucky as getting the whole batch.
As Emmett smiled and took a sip of milk, he sized up his brother over the rim of the glass. He was about an inch taller and his hair was shorter, as it would be in the Ransom house, but otherwise he seemed the same in body and spirit. For Emmett, leaving Billy had been the hardest part of going to Salina, so he was happy to find him so little changed. He was happy to be sitting with him at the old kitchen table. He could tell that Billy was happy to be sitting there too.