Authors: Amor Towles
Emmett wasn’t much better than me at listening in class, but he didn’t need to pay heed to this particular lesson. He had learned it long before coming to Salina. He had learned it firsthand by growing up under the shadow of his father’s failure. That’s why he signed those foreclosure papers without a second thought. That’s why he wouldn’t accept the loan from Mr. Ransom or the china from the bottom of the cabinet. And that’s why he was perfectly happy to take the beating.
Just like the cowboy said, Jake and Emmett had some unfinished
business. Regardless of who had been provoked by who, or whom by whom, when Emmett hit the Snyder kid at the county fair, he took on a debt just as surely as his father had when he had mortgaged the family farm. And from that day forward, it hung over Emmett’s head—keeping
up at night—until he satisfied the debt at the hands of his creditor and before the eyes of his fellow men.
But if Emmett had a debt to repay to Jake Snyder, he didn’t owe a goddamn thing to the cowboy. Not a shekel, not a drachma, not one red cent.
—Hey, Tex, I called as I jogged after him. Hold up!
The cowboy turned and looked me over.
—Do I know you?
—You know me not, sir.
—Then what do you want?
I held up my hand to catch my breath before I replied.
—Back there at the courthouse, you suggested that your friend Jake had some unfinished business with my friend Emmett. For what it’s worth, I think I could just as easily argue that it was Emmett who had unfinished business with Jake. But either way, whether Jake had the business with Emmett or Emmett had the business with Jake, I think we can both agree it was no business of yours.
—Buddy, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I tried to be more clear.
—What I’m saying is that even though Jake may have had good reason to give Emmett a beating, and Emmett may have had good reason to take one, you had no cause for all that goading and gloating. Given time, I suspect you’ll come to regret the role you played in today’s events, and you’ll find yourself wishing you could make amends—for your own peace of mind. But since Emmett’s leaving town tomorrow, by then it’ll be too late.
—You know what I suspect, said the cowboy. I suspect you can go fuck yourself.
Then he turned and began walking away. Just like that. Without even saying goodbye.
I admit, I felt a little deflated. I mean, here I was trying to help a stranger understand a burden of his own making, and he gives me the back of his shirt. It’s the sort of reception that could turn you off charitable acts forever. But another of Sister Agnes’s lessons was that when one is doing the work of the Lord, one should be willing to have patience. For just as surely as the righteous will meet setbacks on the road to justice, the Lord will provide them the means to prevail.
And lo and behold, what suddenly appeareth before me but the movie theater’s dumpster filled to the brim with the previous night’s trash. And poking out from among the Coca-Cola bottles and popcorn boxes was a two-foot length of two-by-four.
—Hey! I called once more while skipping down the alley. Hold on a second!
The cowboy turned on his heels and from the look on his face I could tell that he had something priceless to say, something that was likely to bring smiles to the faces of all the boys at the bar. But I guess we’ll never know, because I hit him before he could speak.
The blow was a good crack along the left side of his head. His hat, which went lofting in the air, did a somersault before alighting on the other side of the alley. He dropped right where he’d been standing like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
Now, I had never hit anybody in my life. And to be perfectly honest, my first impression was how much it hurt. Shifting the two-by-four to my left hand, I looked at my right palm, where two bright-red lines had been left behind by the edges of the wood. Tossing it on the ground, I rubbed my palms together to take out the sting. Then I leaned over the cowboy to get a better look. His legs were folded under him and his left ear was split down the middle, but he was still conscious. Or conscious enough.
—Can you hear me, Tex? I asked.
Then I spoke a little louder to make sure he could.
—Consider your debt repaid in full.
As he looked back at me, his eyelashes fluttered for a moment. But then he gave a little smile, and I could tell from the way his eyelids closed that he was going to sleep like a baby.
Walking out of the alley, I became conscious not simply of a welling sense of moral satisfaction, but that my footfall felt a little lighter and my stride a little jauntier.
Well, what do you know, I thought to myself with a smile. There’s serenity in my step!
And it must have showed. Because when I emerged from the alley and said howdy to the two old men passing by, they both said howdy back. And though on the way into town, ten cars had passed me before the mechanic picked me up, on the way back to the Watsons’, the first car that came along pulled over to offer me a ride.
he funny thing about a story
, thought Woolly—while Emmett was in town, and Duchess was on a walk, and Billy was reading aloud from his big red book—the funny thing about a story is that it can be told in all sorts of lengths.
The first time Woolly heard
The Count of Monte Cristo
, he must have been younger than Billy. His family was spending the summer at the camp in the Adirondacks, and every night his sister Sarah would read him a chapter before he went to bed. But what his sister was reading from was the original book by Alexander Dumas, which was a thousand pages long.
The thing about hearing a story like
The Count of Monte Cristo
from the one-thousand-page version is that whenever you sense an exciting part is coming, you have to wait and wait and wait for it to actually arrive. In fact, sometimes you have to wait so long for it to arrive you forget that it’s coming altogether and let yourself drift off to sleep. But in Billy’s big red book, Professor Abernathe had chosen to tell the entire story over the course of eight pages. So in his version, when you sensed an exciting part was coming, it arrived lickety-split.
Like the part that Billy was reading now—the part when Edmond Dantès, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, is carted off to spend the rest of his life in the dreaded Château d’If. Even as he is being led in chains through the prison’s formidable gates, you just know that Dantès is bound to escape. But in Mr. Dumas’s telling, before he regains
his freedom you have to listen to so many sentences spread across so many chapters that it begins to feel like
are the one who is in the Château d’If! Not so with Professor Abernathe. In his telling, the hero’s arrival at the prison, his eight years of solitude, his friendship with the Abbé Faria, and his miraculous escape all occur on the very same page.
Woolly pointed at the solitary cloud that was passing overhead.
—That’s what I imagine the Château d’If looked like.
Carefully marking his place with his finger, Billy looked up to where Woolly was pointing and readily agreed.
—With its straight rock walls.
—And the watchtower in the middle.
Woolly and Billy both smiled to see it, but then Billy’s expression grew rather more serious.
—Can I ask you a question, Woolly?
—Of course, of course.
—Was it hard to be at Salina?
As Woolly considered the question, far overhead the Château d’If transformed itself into an ocean liner—with a giant smokestack where the watchtower once had been.
—No, said Woolly, it wasn’t so hard, Billy. Certainly not like the Château d’If was for Edmond Dantès. It’s just that . . . It’s just that every day at Salina was an every-day day.
—What’s an every-day day, Woolly?
Woolly took another moment to consider.
—When we were at Salina, every day we would get up at the same time and get dressed in the same clothes. Every day we had breakfast at the same table with the same people. And every day we did the same work in the same fields before going to sleep at the same hour in the same beds.
Though Billy was just a boy, or maybe because he was just a boy, he seemed to understand that while there is nothing wrong with waking up or getting dressed or having breakfast, per se, there is something fundamentally disconcerting about doing these things in the exact
same fashion day in and day out, especially in the one-thousand-page version of one’s own life.
After nodding, Billy found his place and began to read again.
What Woolly did not have the heart to tell Billy was that while this was unquestionably the way of life at Salina, it was also the way of life in many other places. It was certainly the way of life at boarding school. And not simply at St. George’s, where Woolly had most recently been enrolled. At all three boarding schools that Woolly had attended, every day they would wake up at the same time, get dressed in the same clothes, and have breakfast at the same table with the same people before heading off to attend the same classes in the same classrooms.
Woolly had often wondered about that. Why did the heads of boarding schools choose to make every day an every-day day? After some reflection, he came to suspect that they did so because it made things easier to manage. By turning every day into an every-day day, the cook would always know when to cook breakfast, the history teacher when to teach history, and the hall monitor when to monitor the halls.
But then Woolly had an epiphany.
It was in the first semester of his second junior year (the one at St. Mark’s). On his way from physics down to the gymnasium, he happened to notice the dean of students getting out of a taxi in front of the schoolhouse. As soon as he saw the taxi, it occurred to Woolly what a pleasant surprise it would be were he to pay a visit to his sister, who had recently bought a big white house in Hastings-on-Hudson. So, jumping in the back of the cab, Woolly gave the address.
You mean in New York?
the driver asked in surprise.
I mean in New York!
Woolly confirmed, and off they went.
When he arrived a few hours later, Woolly found his sister in the kitchen on the verge of peeling a potato.
Were Woolly to pay a surprise visit to any other member of his family, they would probably have greeted him with an absolute slew
of whos, whys, and whats (especially when he needed 150 dollars for the taxi driver, who was waiting outside). But after paying the driver, Sarah just put the kettle on the stove, some cookies on a plate, and the two of them had a grand old time—sitting at her table and discussing all the various topics that happened to pop into their heads.
But after an hour or so, Woolly’s brother-in-law, “Dennis,” walked through the kitchen door. Woolly’s sister was seven years older than Woolly, and “Dennis” was seven years older than Sarah, so mathematically speaking “Dennis” had been thirty-two at the time. But “Dennis” was also seven years older than himself, which made him almost forty in spirit. That is why, no doubt, he was already a vice president at J.P. Morgan & Sons & Co.
When “Dennis” discovered Woolly at the kitchen table, he was a little upset on the grounds that Woolly was supposed to be someplace else. But he was even more upset when he discovered the half-peeled potato on the counter.
When is dinner?
he asked Sarah.
I’m afraid I haven’t started preparing it yet.
But it’s half past seven.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, Dennis.
For a moment, “Dennis” looked at Sarah in disbelief, then he turned to Woolly and asked if he could speak to Sarah in private.
In Woolly’s experience, when someone asks if they can speak to someone else in private, it is difficult to know what to do with yourself. For one thing, they generally don’t tell you how long they’re going to be, so it’s hard to know how deeply you should involve yourself in some new endeavor. Should you take the opportunity to visit the washroom? Or start a jigsaw puzzle that depicts a sailboat race with fifty spinnakers? And how
should you go? You certainly need to go far enough so that you can’t hear them talking. That was the whole point of their asking you to leave in the first place. But it often sounds like they may want you to come back a bit later, so you need to be close enough to hear them when they call.
Doing his best to split the hair down the muddle, Woolly went into the living room, where he discovered an unplayed piano and some unread books and an unwound grandfather clock—which, come to think of it, was very aptly named since it once had belonged to their grandfather! But as it turned out, given how upset “Dennis” had become, the living room wasn’t far enough away, because Woolly could hear every word.
You were the one who wanted to move out of the city,
“Dennis” was saying.
But I’m the one who has to get up at the crack of dawn in order to catch the 6:42 so that I can be at the bank in time for the investment committee meeting at 8:00. For most of the next ten hours, while you’re here doing God knows what, I am working like a dog. Then, if I run to Grand Central and I’m lucky enough to catch the 6:14, I just might make it home by half past seven. After a day like that, is it really so much to ask that you have dinner waiting on the table?
That’s the moment the epiphany came. Standing there before his grandfather’s clock listening to his brother-in-law, it suddenly occurred to Woolly that maybe, just maybe, St. George’s and St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s organized every day to be an every-day day not because it made things easier to manage, but because it was the best possible means by which to prepare the fine young men in their care to catch the 6:42 so that they would always be on time for their meetings at 8:00.
At the very moment that Woolly concluded the recollection of his epiphany, Billy reached the point in the story when Edmond Dantès, having successfully escaped from prison, was standing in the secret cave on the isle of Monte Cristo before a magnificent pile of diamonds, pearls, rubies, and gold.
—You know what would be magnificent, Billy? You know what would be absotively magnificent?
Marking his place, Billy looked up from his book.
—What, Woolly? What would be absotively magnificent?
—A one-of-a-kind kind of day.