Authors: Amor Towles
But Jimmy Snyder didn’t have to know you. He liked running people down whether he knew them or not. And it didn’t matter for what. It could have been for the clothes you were wearing, or the food you were eating, or the way your sister crossed the street. Yes, sir, it could have been about anything, as long as it was something that got under your skin.
Stylistically speaking, Jimmy was one for framing his insults as inquiries. Looking curious and mild, he’d ask his first question to no one in particular. And if that didn’t hit a sore spot, he’d answer the first question himself, then ask another, circling ever inward.
Isn’t that cute?
was the question he’d posed when he’d seen Emmett holding Billy’s hand.
I mean, isn’t that the cutest thing you ever saw?
When Emmett realized that Jimmy was referring to him, he brushed it off. What did he care if he was seen holding his younger brother’s hand at the county fair. Who wouldn’t be holding the hand of a six-year-old boy in the middle of a large crowd at eight in the evening?
So Jimmy tried again. Shifting gears, as it were, he wondered out loud whether the reason Emmett’s father hadn’t fought in the war was because he’d been 3-C, the Selective Service classification that allowed farmers to defer. This struck Emmett as an odd taunt given how many men in Nebraska had received the 3-C designation. It struck him as so odd that he couldn’t help but stop and turn around—which was his first mistake.
Now that Jimmy had Emmett’s attention, he answered the query himself.
, he said,
Charlie Watson wouldn’t have been 3-C. ’Cause he couldn’t grow grass in the Garden of Eden. He must have been 4-F.
Here, Jimmy turned a finger around his ear to imply Charlie Watson’s incapacity to reason.
Granted, these were juvenile taunts, but they had begun to make Emmett grit his teeth. He could feel the old heat rising to the surface of his skin. But he could also feel that Billy was tugging at his hand—maybe for the simple reason that the fiddling contest was about to begin, or maybe because, even at the age of six, Billy understood that no good could come from engaging with the likes of Jimmy Snyder. But before Billy could tug Emmett away, Jimmy took one more crack at it.
, he said,
it couldn’t have been because he was 4-F. He’s too simple
to be crazy. I suppose if he didn’t fight, it must have been because he was 4-E. What they call a conscientious
Before Jimmy could say the word
, Emmett had hit him. He had hit him without even letting go of his brother’s hand, extending his fist from his shoulder in one clean jab, breaking Jimmy’s nose.
It wasn’t the broken nose that killed him, of course. It was the fall. Jimmy was so used to speaking with impunity that he wasn’t prepared for the punch. It sent him stumbling backward, arms flailing. When his heel caught on a braid of cables, Jimmy fell straight back, hitting his head on a cinderblock that was bracing the stake of a tent.
According to the medical examiner, Jimmy landed with such force that the corner of the cinderblock dug a triangular hole an inch deep into the back of his skull. It put him in a coma that left him breathing, but that was slowly sapping his strength. After sixty-two days, it finally drained the life out of him altogether, as his family sat at his bedside in their fruitless vigil.
Like the warden said:
The ugly side of chance
Sheriff Petersen was the one who brought the news of Jimmy’s death to the Watsons’ doorstep. He had held off on pressing charges, waiting to see how Jimmy would fare. In the meantime, Emmett had maintained his silence, seeing no virtue in rehashing the events while Jimmy was fighting for his life.
But Jimmy’s pals did not maintain their silence. They talked about the fight often and at length. They talked about it in the schoolhouse, at the soda fountain, and in the Snyders’ living room. They told of how the four of them had been on their way to the cotton-candy stand when Jimmy bumped into Emmett by mistake; and how before Jimmy even got the chance to apologize, Emmett had punched him in the face.
Mr. Streeter, Emmett’s attorney, had encouraged him to take the stand and tell his own version of events. But whatever version prevailed, Jimmy Snyder was still going to be dead and buried. So Emmett
told Mr. Streeter that he didn’t need a trial. And on March 1, 1953, at a hearing before Judge Schomer in the county courthouse, after freely admitting his guilt, Emmett was sentenced to eighteen months at a special juvenile reform program on a farm in Salina, Kansas.
In another ten weeks, the fairgrounds wouldn’t be empty, thought Emmett. The tent would be raised and the stage rebuilt and the people would gather once again in anticipation of the contests and food and music. As Emmett put the Studebaker in gear, he took little comfort from the fact that when the festivities commenced he and Billy would be more than a thousand miles away.
Emmett parked along the lawn at the side of the courthouse. As it was Sunday, only a few stores were open. He made quick stops at Gunderson’s and the five-and-dime, where he spent the twenty dollars from his father’s envelope on sundries for the journey west. Then after putting his bags in the car, he walked up Jefferson to the public library.
At the front of the central room, a middle-aged librarian sat at a V-shaped desk. When Emmett asked where he could find the almanacs and encyclopedias, she led him to the reference section and pointed to various volumes. As she was doing so, Emmett could tell that she was scrutinizing him through her glasses, giving him a second look, as if maybe she recognized him. Emmett hadn’t been in the library since he was a boy, but she could have recognized him for any number of reasons, not least of which was that his picture had been on the front page of the town paper more than once. Initially, it was his school portrait set alongside Jimmy’s. Then it was Emmett Watson being taken into the station house to be formally charged, and Emmett Watson descending the courthouse steps in the minutes after his hearing. The girl at Mr. Gunderson’s had given him a similar look.
—Can I help you find anything in particular? the librarian asked after a moment.
—No, ma’am. I’m all set.
When she retreated to her desk, Emmett pulled the volumes he needed, brought them to one of the tables, and took a seat.
For much of 1952, Emmett’s father had been wrestling with one illness or another. But it was a flu he couldn’t shake in the spring of ’53 that prompted Doc Winslow to send him to Omaha for some tests. In the letter Emmett’s father sent to Salina a few months later, he assured his son that he was
back on his feet
well on the road to recovery
. Nonetheless, he had agreed to make a second trip to Omaha so that the specialists could do a few more tests,
as specialists are wont to do
Reading the letter, Emmett wasn’t fooled by his father’s folksy assurances or his wry remark on the penchants of medical professionals. His father had been using mollifying words for as long as Emmett could remember. Mollifying words to describe how the planting had gone, how the harvest was coming, and why their mother was suddenly nowhere to be found. Besides, Emmett was old enough to know that the road to recovery was rarely lined with repeat visits to specialists.
Any doubts as to Mr. Watson’s prognosis were swept aside one morning in August when he stood up from the breakfast table and fainted right before Billy’s eyes, prompting a third trip to Omaha, this one in the back of an ambulance.
That night—after Emmett had received the call from Doc Winslow in the warden’s office—a plan began to take shape. Or to be more accurate, it was a plan that Emmett had been toying with for months in the back of his mind, but now it was in the forefront, presenting itself in a series of variations that differed in timing and scope, but which always took place somewhere other than Nebraska. As his father’s condition deteriorated over the fall, the plan became sharper; and when he died that April, it was clear as could be—as if Emmett’s father had surrendered his own vitality to ensure the vitality of Emmett’s intentions.
The plan was simple enough.
As soon as Emmett was out of Salina, he and Billy were going to pack their things and head to some metropolitan area—somewhere without silos or harvesters or fairgrounds—where they could use what little remained of their father’s legacy to buy a house.
It didn’t have to be a grand house. It could be a three- or four-bedroom with one or two baths. It could be colonial or Victorian, clapboard or shingled. What it had to be was in disrepair.
Because they wouldn’t be buying this house to fill it with furniture and tableware and art, or with memories, for that matter. They’d be buying the house to fix it up and sell it. To make ends meet, Emmett would get a job with a local builder, but in the evenings while Billy was doing his schoolwork, Emmett would be setting the house right, inch by inch. First, he’d do whatever work was needed on the roof and windows to ensure the house was weather tight. Then he’d shift his attention to the walls, doors, and flooring. Then the moldings and banisters and cabinets. Once the house was in prime condition, once the windows opened and closed and the staircase didn’t creak and the radiators didn’t rattle, once every corner looked finished and fine, then and only then would they sell.
If he played his cards right, if he picked the right house in the right neighborhood and did the right amount of work, Emmett figured he could double his money on the first sale—allowing him to invest the proceeds in two more run-down houses, where he could start the process over again. Only this time, when the two houses were finished, he would sell one and rent out the other. If Emmett maintained his focus, within a few years he figured he’d have enough money to quit his job and hire a man or two. Then he’d be renovating two houses and collecting rent from four. But at no time, under any circumstances, would he ever borrow a dime.
Other than his own hard work, Emmett figured there was only one thing essential to his success, and that was to pursue his plan in a metropolitan area that was big and getting bigger. With that in mind,
he had visited the little library at Salina, and with volume eighteen of the
open on the table, he had written down the following:
Population of Texas
When Emmett had the Texas entry in front of him, he hadn’t even bothered to read the opening paragraphs—the ones that summarized the state’s history, its commerce, culture, and climate. When he saw that between 1920 and 1960 the population would more than double, that was all he needed to know.
But by the same logic, he should be open to considering any large growing state in the Union.
As he sat in the Morgen library, Emmett removed the scrap of paper from his wallet and set it on the table. Then he opened volume three of the encyclopedia and added a second column.
Population of Texas
Population of California
Emmett was so surprised by California’s growth that this time he read the opening paragraphs. What he learned was that its economy was expanding on multiple fronts. Long an agricultural giant, the war
had turned the state into a leading builder of ships and airplanes; Hollywood had become the manufacturer of dreams for the world; and taken together, the ports of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco amounted to the single largest gateway for trade into the US of A. In the 1950s alone, California was projected to grow by more than five million citizens, at a rate of close to fifty percent.
The notion that he and his brother would find their mother seemed as crazy as it had the day before, if not crazier, given the growth of the state’s population. But if Emmett’s intention was to renovate and sell houses, the case for California was indisputable.
Emmett returned the scrap to his wallet and the encyclopedia to its shelf. But having slid the third volume back in its slot, Emmett removed the twelfth. Without sitting down, he turned to the entry on Nebraska and scanned the page. With a touch of grim satisfaction, Emmett noted that from 1920 to 1950 its population had hovered around 1.3 million people, and that in the current decade it wasn’t expected to increase by a soul.