Authors: Amor Towles
t last week’s Sunday service
, Reverend Pike read a parable from the Gospels in which Jesus and His disciples, having arrived in a village, are invited by a woman into her home. Having made them all comfortable, this woman, Martha, retreats into her kitchen to fix them something to eat. And all the while she’s cooking and generally seeing to everyone’s needs by filling empty glasses and getting second helpings, her sister, Mary, is sitting at Jesus’s feet.
Eventually, Martha has had enough and she lets her feelings be known.
, she says,
can’t you see that my idler of a sister has left me to do all the work? Why don’t you tell her to lend me a hand?
Or something to that effect. And Jesus, He replies:
Martha, you are troubled by too many things when only one thing is needful. And it is Mary who has chosen the better way.
Well, I’m sorry. But if ever you needed proof that the Bible was written by a man, there you have it.
I am a good Christian. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe that Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again. I believe that having ascended to heaven, He will come again to judge the quick and the dead. I believe that Noah built an ark and herded every manner of living thing up the gangplank two by two before it rained for forty days and forty nights. I am even willing to believe that Moses was spoken to by a burning bush. But I am
willing to believe that Jesus
Christ Our Savior—who at the drop of a hat would heal a leper or restore sight to the blind—would turn his back on a woman who was taking care of a household.
So I don’t blame Him.
Whom I blame is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and every other man who’s served as priest or preacher since.
From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s
is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before. By his figuring, you have plenty of time for sitting and listening because a meal is something that makes itself. The manna, it falls from heaven, and with a snap of the fingers, the water can be turned into wine. Any woman who’s gone to the trouble of baking an apple pie can tell you that’s how a man sees the world.
To bake an apple pie, you’ve first got to make the dough. You’ve got to cut the butter into the flour, gather it with a beaten egg and a few tablespoons of ice water, let it bind overnight. The next day, you’ve got to peel and core the apples, cut them into wedges, and toss them with cinnamon sugar. You’ve got to roll out the crust and assemble the pie. Then you bake it at 425° for fifteen minutes and 350° for another forty-five. Finally, when supper’s over, you carefully plate a slice and set it on the table where, in midsentence, a man will fork half of it into his mouth and swallow without chewing, so that he can get right back to saying what he was saying without the chance of being interrupted.
And strawberry preserves? Don’t you get me started on strawberry preserves!
As young Billy pointed out so rightly, making preserves is a
venture. Just picking the berries takes you half a day. Then you have to wash and stem the fruit. You have to sterilize the lids and jars. Once you combine the ingredients, you have to set them on simmer
and watch them like a hawk, never letting yourself stray more than a few feet from the stove to make sure they don’t overcook. When they’re ready, you pour the preserves, seal the jars, and lug them into the pantry one tray at a time. Only then can you start the process of cleaning up, which is a job in itself.
And yes, as Duchess pointed out, the canning of preserves is a little
, hearkening back to the era of root cellars and wagon trains. I suppose the very word
is bygone when compared to the blunt precision of
And as Emmett pointed out, it is, above all else,
. Thanks to Mr. Smucker, at the grocery there are fifteen varieties of jam selling for nineteen cents a jar, season in and season out. In fact, jam has become so readily available, you can practically buy it at the hardware store.
So yes, the making of strawberry preserves is time-consuming, old-fashioned, and unnecessary.
Then why, you might ask, do I bother to do it?
I do it
Whoever said that something worthwhile shouldn’t take time? It took months for the Pilgrims to sail to Plymouth Rock. It took years for George Washington to win the Revolutionary War. And it took decades for the pioneers to conquer the West.
Time is that which God uses to separate the idle from the industrious. For time is a mountain and upon seeing its steep incline, the idle will lie down among the lilies of the field and hope that someone passes by with a pitcher of lemonade. What the worthy endeavor requires is planning, effort, attentiveness, and the willingness to clean up.
I do it
Just because something’s new doesn’t mean it’s better; and often enough, it means it’s worse.
is plenty old-fashioned. Getting married and raising children is old-fashioned. Traditions, the very means by which we come to know who we are, are nothing if not old-fashioned.
I make preserves in the manner that was taught to me by my mother, God rest her soul. She made preserves in the manner that was taught to her by her mother, and Grandma made preserves in the manner that was taught to her by hers. And so on, and so forth, back through the ages all the way to Eve. Or, at least as far as Martha.
And I do it
For what is kindness but the performance of an act that is both beneficial to another and unrequired? There is no kindness in paying a bill. There is no kindness in getting up at dawn to slop the pigs, or milk the cows, or gather the eggs from the henhouse. For that matter, there is no kindness in making dinner, or in cleaning the kitchen after your father heads upstairs without so much as a word of thanks.
There is no kindness in latching the doors and turning out the lights, or in picking up the clothes from the bathroom floor in order to put them in the hamper. There is no kindness in taking care of a household because your only sister had the good sense to get herself married and move to Pensacola.
Nope, I said to myself while climbing into bed and switching off the light, there is no kindness in any of that.
For kindness begins where necessity ends.
aving come upstairs after supper
, I was about to flop down on Emmett’s bed when I noticed the smoothness of the covers. After freezing in place for a moment, I leaned over the mattress to get a closer look.
There was no question about it. She had remade it.
I thought I’d done a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. But Sally had done a better one. There wasn’t a ripple on the surface. And where the sheet gets folded at the top of the blanket, there was a four-inch-high rectangle of white running from one edge of the bed to the other as if she had measured it with a ruler. While at the base, she had tucked in the covers so tightly that you could see the corners of the mattress through the surface of the blanket, the way you can see Jane Russell through the surface of her sweater.
It was such a thing of beauty, I didn’t want to disturb it until I was ready to go to bed. So I sat on the floor, leaned against the wall, and gave some thought to the Watson brothers, as I waited for everyone else to fall asleep.
Earlier that day when I had gotten back to the house, Woolly and Billy were still lying out on the grass.
—How was your walk? asked Woolly.
—Rejuvenating, I replied. What have you two been up to?
—Billy has been reading me some of the stories from Professor Abernathe’s book.
—Sorry I missed that. Which ones?
Billy was in the middle of running down the list when Emmett pulled into the drive.
Speaking of stories, I thought to myself . . .
In another moment, Emmett was going to emerge from his car a little worse for wear. He was certainly going to have a fat lip and some bruises; he might even have the beginnings of a shiner. The question was how was he going to explain them? Did he trip on a crack in the sidewalk? Did he tumble down a set of stairs?
In my experience, the best explanations make use of the unexpected. Like:
I was crossing the lawn of the courthouse admiring the sight of a whip-poor-will perched on the branch of a tree when a football hit me in the face.
With an explanation like that, your listener is so focused on the whip-poor-will up in the tree, they never see the football coming.
But when Emmett walked over and a wide-eyed Billy asked what had happened, Emmett said that he’d run into Jake Snyder while in town, and Jake had hit him. Just like that.
I turned to Billy, expecting an expression of shock or maybe outrage, but he was nodding his head and looking thoughtful.
—Did you hit him back? he asked after a moment.
—No, said Emmett. Instead, I counted to ten.
Then Billy smiled at Emmett, and Emmett smiled right back.
Truly, Horatio, there are more things in heaven and Earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Shortly after midnight, I poked my head into Woolly’s room. From the sound of his breathing, I could tell that he was lost in his dreams. I crossed my fingers that he hadn’t taken too much of his medicine before going to bed since I was going to have to roust him soon enough.
The Watson brothers were sound asleep too, Emmett flat on his back and Billy curled on his side. In the moonlight I could see the kid’s book on the foot of the bed. If he happened to stretch his legs, it might drop to the floor, so I moved it to the spot on the bureau where his mother’s picture should have been.
I found Emmett’s pants hanging over the back of a chair—with all of its pockets empty. Tiptoeing around the bed, I squatted at the bedside table. The drawer wasn’t more than a foot from Emmett’s face, so I had to ease it open inch by inch. But the keys weren’t there either.
—Harrumph, I said to myself.
I had already looked for them in the car and in the kitchen before coming upstairs. Where in the hell could he have put them?
As I was mulling this over, the beam from a set of headlights swept across the room as a vehicle pulled into the Watsons’ drive and rolled to a stop.
Quietly, I headed down the hall and paused at the top of the stairs. Outside I heard the door of the vehicle open. After a moment, there were footsteps on and off the porch, then the door closed and the vehicle drove away.
When I was sure that no one had woken, I went down into the kitchen, opened the screen door, and stepped out onto the porch. In the distance I could see the lights of the vehicle headed back up the road. It took me a moment to notice the shoebox at my feet with big black letters scrawled across the top.
I may be no scholar, but I know my own name when I see it, even by the light of the moon. Getting down on my haunches, I gently lifted the lid, wondering what in God’s name could be inside.
—Well, I’ll be
hen they pulled out
of the driveway at five thirty in the morning, Emmett was in good spirits. The night before, with the help of Billy’s map, he had laid out an itinerary. The route from Morgen to San Francisco was a little over fifteen hundred miles. If they averaged forty miles an hour for ten hours a day—leaving time enough to eat and sleep—they could make the trip in four days.
Of course there was plenty to see between Morgen and San Francisco. As their mother’s postcards attested, there were motor courts and monuments, rodeos and parks. If you were willing to drive out of your way, there were Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, and the Grand Canyon. But Emmett didn’t want to waste time or money on the journey west. The sooner they got to California, the sooner he could get to work; and the more money they had in hand when they got there, the better a house they would be able to buy. If they began frittering away what little they had while in transit, they’d have to settle for buying a marginally worse house in a marginally worse neighborhood, which, when the time came to sell, would result in a marginally worse profit. As far as Emmett was concerned, the faster they crossed the country the better.
Emmett’s primary worry when he’d gone to bed had been that he wouldn’t be able to rouse the others, that he’d waste the first hours of daylight getting them up and out the door. But he needn’t have
worried. When he rose at five, Duchess was already in the shower and he could hear Woolly humming down the hall. Billy had gone so far as to sleep in his clothes so he wouldn’t have to get dressed when he woke. By the time Emmett took his place behind the wheel and retrieved his keys from above the visor, Duchess was already in the passenger seat and Billy was sitting beside Woolly in the back with his map in his lap. And when, shortly before dawn, they turned out of the driveway, not one of them cast a backward glance.
Maybe they all had reasons for wanting to make an early start, thought Emmett. Maybe they all were ready to be someplace else.
As Duchess was sitting in front, Billy asked if he wanted to hold the map. When Duchess declined on the grounds that reading in cars made him queasy, Emmett felt a little relieved, recognizing that Duchess didn’t always pay the closest attention to details, while Billy was practically born to navigate. Not only did he have his compass and pencils at the ready, he had a ruler so he could calculate mileage off the one-inch scale. But when Emmett signaled a right-hand turn onto Route 34, he found himself wishing that Duchess had taken on the job, after all.
—You don’t need to switch on your signal yet, said Billy. We need to go straight for a little longer.
—I’m turning onto Route 34, Emmett explained, because that’s the fastest way to Omaha.
—But the Lincoln Highway goes to Omaha.
Emmett pulled onto the shoulder and looked back at his brother.
—It does, Billy. But it takes us a little out of the way.
—A little out of the way of what? asked Duchess with a smile.
—A little out of the way of where we’re going, said Emmett.
Duchess looked into the back seat.
—Just how far is it to the Lincoln Highway, Billy?
Billy, who already had his ruler on the map, said it was seventeen and a half miles.
Woolly, who had been quietly looking at the scenery, turned to Billy with an awakened curiosity.
—What’s the Lincoln Highway, Billy? Is it a special highway?
—It was the first highway to cross America.
—The first highway to cross America, repeated Woolly in awe.
—Come on, Emmett, prodded Duchess. What’s seventeen and a half miles?
It’s seventeen and a half miles, Emmett wanted to reply, on top of the hundred and thirty that we’re already going out of our way in order to take you to Omaha. But at the same time, Emmett knew that Duchess was right. The added distance wasn’t much to speak of, especially given how disappointed Billy would be if he insisted on taking Route 34.
—All right, he said. We’ll go by way of the Lincoln Highway.
As he pulled back onto the road, he could almost hear his brother nodding in affirmation that this was a good idea.
For the next seventeen and a half miles, no one said a word. But when Emmett took the right at Central City, Billy looked up from his map in excitement.
—This is it, he said. This is the Lincoln Highway.
Billy began leaning forward to see what was coming, then looking over his shoulder to see what they’d passed. Central City may only have been a city in name, but having dreamed for months about the journey to California, Billy was taking satisfaction from the handful of restaurants and motels, pleased to find they were not unlike the ones on their mother’s postcards. That he was headed in the wrong direction didn’t seem to make much difference.
Woolly was sharing in Billy’s excitement, looking at the roadside services with new appreciation.
—So this road stretches from coast to coast?
—It stretches almost from coast to coast, corrected Billy. It goes from New York City to San Francisco.
—That sounds pretty coast-to-coast, said Duchess.
—Except that the Lincoln Highway doesn’t begin or end at the water. It begins in Times Square and ends at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
—Is it named for
Lincoln? Woolly asked.
—It is, said Billy. And there are statues of him all along the way.
—All along the way?
—Boy Scout troops raised money to commission them.
—There’s a bust of Abraham Lincoln on my great-grandfather’s desk, said Woolly with a smile. He was a great admirer of President Lincoln.
—How long has this highway been around? asked Duchess.
—It was invented by Mr. Carl G. Fisher in 1912.
—Yes, said Billy. Invented. He believed the American people should be able to drive from one end of the country to the other. He built the first sections in 1913, with the help of donations.
him money to build it? asked Duchess in disbelief.
Billy nodded in earnest.
—Including Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt.
—Teddy Roosevelt! exclaimed Duchess.
—Bully, said Woolly.
As they made their way eastward—with Billy dutifully naming every town they passed—Emmett took satisfaction that at least they were making good time.
Yes, the trip to Omaha was going to take them out of their way, but having gotten an early start, Emmett figured they could drop Duchess and Woolly at the bus station, turn the car around, and easily make Ogallala before dark. Maybe they’d even make it as far as Cheyenne. After all, at this point in June they would have eighteen hours of light. As a matter of fact, thought Emmett, if they were
willing to drive twelve hours a day and averaged fifty miles an hour, they could make the whole trip in under three days.
But that’s when Billy pointed to a water tower in the distance with the name Lewis painted across it.
—Look, Duchess. It’s Lewis. Isn’t that the city where you lived?
—You lived in Nebraska? Emmett asked, looking at Duchess.
—For a couple of years when I was a kid, Duchess confirmed.
Then he sat up a little in his seat and began looking around with heightened interest.
—Hey, he said to Emmett after a moment. Can we swing by? I’d love to get a look at the place. You know, for old times’ sake.
—Duchess . . .
—Oh, come on. Please? I know you said you wanted to be in Omaha by eight, but it seems like we’ve been making pretty good time.
—We’re twelve minutes ahead of schedule, said Billy after looking at his surplus watch.
—All right, said Emmett. We can swing by. But just for a look.
—That’s all I’m asking.
When they reached the edge of the city, Duchess took over the navigation, nodding at the passing landmarks.
—Yes. Yes. Yes. There! Take that left by the fire station.
Emmett took the left, which led into a residential neighborhood with fine houses on nicely groomed lots. After a few miles, they passed a high-steepled church and a park.
—You take that next right, said Duchess.
The right led them onto a wide, curving road interspersed with trees.
—Pull over up there.
Emmett pulled over.
They were at the bottom of a grassy hill on the top of which was
a large stone building. Three stories high with turrets on either end, it looked like a manor.
—Was this your house? asked Billy.
—No, said Duchess with a laugh. It’s a school of sorts.
—A boarding school? asked Woolly.
—More or less.
For a moment they all admired its grandeur, then Duchess turned to Emmett.
—Can I go in?
—To say hi.
—Duchess, it’s six thirty in the morning.
—If no one’s up, I’ll leave a note. They’ll get a kick out of it.
—A note for your teachers? asked Billy.
—Exactly. A note for my teachers. What do you say, Emmett. It’ll only take a few minutes. Five minutes tops.
Emmett glanced at the clock in the dash.
—All right, he said. Five minutes.
Grabbing the book bag at his feet, Duchess climbed out of the car and jogged up the hill toward the building.
In the back seat, Billy began explaining to Woolly why he and Emmett needed to be in San Francisco by the Fourth of July.
Turning off the engine, Emmett stared through the windshield, wishing he had a cigarette.
Duchess’s five minutes came and went.
Then another five.
Shaking his head, Emmett chastised himself for letting Duchess go into the building. No one drops in anywhere for five minutes, whatever the time of day. Certainly no one who liked to talk as much as Duchess.
Emmett got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side. Leaning against the door, he looked up at the school, noting that it was
made from the same red limestone that they had used to build the courthouse in Morgen. The stone probably came from one of the quarries in Cass County. In the late 1800s, it had been used to build city halls, libraries, and courthouses in every town for two hundred miles. Some of the buildings were so similar in appearance that when you went from one town to the next it felt like you hadn’t gone anywhere at all.
Even so, there was something that didn’t seem quite right about this building. It took Emmett a few minutes to realize that what was odd was that there wasn’t a prominent entrance. Whether it had originally been designed as a manor house or school, a building this grand would have had a fitting approach. There would have been a tree-lined drive leading up to an impressive front door.
It occurred to Emmett that they must be parked at the back of the building. But why hadn’t Duchess directed them to drive up to the front?
And why had he taken the book bag?
—I’ll be right back, he said to Billy and Woolly.
—Okay, they replied, without looking up from Billy’s map.
Climbing the hill, Emmett made his way toward a door that was in the center of the building. As he walked, he was feeling a growing sense of irritation, almost looking forward to the dressing down he would be giving Duchess once he found him. Telling him, in no uncertain terms, that they didn’t have time for this sort of nonsense. That his uninvited appearance was already an imposition and that the trip to Omaha was taking them two and a half hours out of their way. Five hours when you accounted for there and back. But these thoughts went out of Emmett’s head as soon as he saw the broken pane—the one closest to the doorknob. Easing the door open, Emmett stepped inside, shards of glass crunching under the soles of his boots.
Emmett found himself in a large kitchen with two metal sinks, a ten-burner stove, and a walk-in refrigerator. Like most institutional
kitchens, it had been put in order the night before—its counters cleared, its cabinets closed, and all of its pots hung on their hooks.
The only sign of disorder, other than the broken glass, was in a pantry area at the other side of the kitchen, where several drawers had been pulled open and spoons were scattered on the floor.
Passing through a swinging door Emmett entered a paneled dining room with six long tables like you’d expect to find in a monastery. Adding to the religious aura was a large stained-glass window that was casting patterns of yellow, red, and blue on the opposite wall. The window depicted the moment that Jesus, risen from the dead, displayed the wounds in His hands—only, in this depiction, the amazed disciples were accompanied by children.
Exiting the dining room’s main doors, Emmett stepped into a grand entrance hall. To his left was the impressive front door that he’d expected, while to his right was a staircase made of the same polished oak. Under different circumstances, Emmett would have liked to linger in order to study the carvings on the door panels and the balusters of the staircase, but even as he was noting the quality of the workmanship, he heard sounds of commotion coming from somewhere overhead.
Taking the steps two at a time, Emmett passed over an additional scattering of spoons. On the second-floor landing, hallways led in opposite directions, but from the one on the right came the unmistakable sound of children in turmoil. So that’s the way he went.
The first door Emmett came to opened on a dormitory. While the beds were arranged in two perfect rows, their linens were in disarray and they were empty. The next door led to a second dormitory with two more rows of beds and more linens in disarray. But in this room, sixty boys in blue pajamas were clustered in six raucous groups at the center of each of which was a jar of strawberry preserves.
In some of the groups, the boys were dutifully taking turns, while in others they were fighting for access, stabbing their spoons into the
jam and transferring the contents into their mouths as quickly as possible, so they could get another crack at the jar before it was empty.
For the first time, it occurred to Emmett that this wasn’t a boarding school. It was an orphanage.