Authors: Amor Towles
—Eighteen eighty-six, the pastor whispered.
Quickly, he took another from the pile. Then another, and another. 1898. 1905. 1909. 1912. 1882!
Pastor John looked at the boy with an expression of fresh appreciation, for he had not spoken lightly when he called the contents of his tin a collection. Here was not simply a country boy’s savings. It was a patiently gathered sampling of American silver dollars minted in different years—some of which were likely to be valued at more than a dollar. Perhaps
more than a dollar.
Who knew what this little pile was worth?
Pastor John didn’t, that’s for sure. But once he was in New York, he would be able to find out easily enough. The Jews on Forty-Seventh Street would certainly know their worth and would probably be willing to buy them. But they could hardly be trusted to give him a fair price. Perhaps there was literature somewhere on the value of the coins. Yes, that was it. There was always literature on the value of items that collectors liked to collect. And as luck would have it, the main branch of the New York Public Library was right around the corner from where the Jews plied their trade.
The boy, who had been quietly repeating the same word over and over, was beginning to raise his voice.
—Easy now, said Pastor John, in admonition.
But when he looked at the boy—rocking in place with his rucksack in his lap, far away from home, hungry and headed in the wrong direction—Pastor John was struck by a pang of Christian sympathy. In a moment of exhilaration, he had imagined that God had sent the boy to him. But what if it was the other way around? What if God
him to the boy
? Not the God of Abraham, who would sooner strike down a sinner than call him by name, but the God of Christ. Or even Christ Himself, the One who assured us that no matter how often we have strayed, we can find forgiveness and even redemption by redirecting our steps toward the path of virtue.
Perhaps he was meant to help the boy sell his collection. To bring him safely into the city and to negotiate with the Jews on his behalf to ensure that he wasn’t taken advantage of. Then John would bring him to Pennsylvania Station, where he would put him on the train to California. And in exchange, all he would ask for was a nominal offering. A tithe, perhaps. But under the lofty ceiling of the station, surrounded by fellow travelers, the boy would insist they split their windfall down the middle!
Pastor John smiled at the thought of it.
But what if the boy had a change of heart . . . ?
What if in one of the shops on Forty-Seventh Street, he suddenly objected to his collection’s sale. What if he were to hold the tin to his chest as tightly as he held his rucksack now, proclaiming to any who would listen that the coins were
. Oh, how the Jews would enjoy that! How they would relish the chance to call the police, point their fingers at a pastor, and have him carted away.
No. If the Good Lord had intervened, it was to bring the boy to him, and not the other way around.
He looked to William with an almost sympathetic shake of his head.
But as he did so, Pastor John couldn’t help but take note of just how tightly the boy gripped his rucksack. Pulling it against his chest, he had wrapped both arms around it, tucked up his knees, and lowered his chin as if to make it invisible to the naked eye.
—Tell me, William. What else do you have in that bag of yours . . . ?
Without rising, the boy began to slide back across the boxcar’s rough and dusty floor without letting up on his grip.
Yes, remarked the pastor. Look how he holds it to his chest even as he edges away. There is something else in that bag, and so help me, I shall know what it is.
As Pastor John rose to his feet, he heard the squeak of metal wheels as the train began to move.
Perfect, he thought. He would liberate the bag from the boy and the boy from the boxcar. Then he could travel to New York in the safety of his own solicitude with a hundred dollars or more.
With his hands extended, Pastor John took a small step forward as the boy came up against the wall. When the pastor took another step, the boy began to slide to his right, only to find himself wedged in the corner with nowhere to go.
Pastor John softened his tone from one of accusation to one of explanation.
—I can see that you do not wish me to look in your bag, William. But it is the Lord’s will that I should do so.
The boy, who was still shaking his head, now closed his eyes in the manner of one who acknowledges the approach of the inevitable but who wishes not to witness its arrival.
Gently, John reached down, took hold of the rucksack, and began to lift it away. But the boy’s grip was fast. So fast that when John began to lift, he found he was lifting the bag and the boy together.
Pastor John let out a little laugh at the comedy of the situation. It was something that might have occurred in one of the films of Buster Keaton.
But the more Pastor John tried to lift the bag away, the tighter the boy held on; and the tighter he held on, the more clear it became that something of value was hidden within.
—Come now, said John, in a tone that betrayed a reasonable loss of patience.
But shaking his head with his eyes tightly closed, the boy simply repeated his incantation more loudly and clearly.
—Emmett, Emmett, Emmett.
—There is no Emmett here, said John in a soothing voice, but the boy showed no signs of slackening his hold.
Having no choice, Pastor John struck him.
Yes, he struck the boy. But he struck him as a schoolmarm might strike a student, to correct his behavior and ensure his attention.
Some tears began to progress down the boy’s cheeks, but he still wouldn’t open his eyes or loosen his grip.
With something of a sigh, Pastor John held the rucksack tightly with his right hand and drew back his left. This time, he would strike the boy as his own father had struck him—firmly across the face with the back of the hand. Sometimes, as his father liked to say, to make an impression on a child, one must leave an impression on a child. But before Pastor John could set his hand in motion, there was a loud thump behind him.
Without letting go of the boy, John looked over his shoulder.
Standing at the other end of the boxcar, having dropped through the hatch, was a Negro six feet tall.
—Ulysses! exclaimed the pastor.
For a moment, Ulysses neither moved nor spoke. The scene before him may well have been obscured by his sudden transition from daylight into shadow. But his eyes adjusted soon enough.
—Let go of the boy, he said in his unhurried way.
But Pastor John did not have his hands on the boy. He had his hands on the bag. Without letting go, he began explaining the situation as quickly as he could.
—This little thief snuck into the car while I was sound asleep. Luckily, I woke just as he was going through my bag. In the struggle that followed, my savings spilled to the floor.
—Let go of the boy, Pastor. I won’t tell you again.
Pastor John looked at Ulysses, then slowly released his grip.
—You’re perfectly right. There’s no need to admonish him further.
At this point, he has surely learned his lesson. I will just gather up my dollars and return them to my bag.
Fortuitously, the boy did not object.
But somewhat to Pastor John’s surprise, this was not out of fear. Quite to the contrary, the boy, who was no longer shaking his head with his eyes closed, was staring at Ulysses with an expression of amazement.
Why, he has never seen a Negro, thought Pastor John.
Which was just as well. For before the boy regained his senses, Pastor John could gather up the collection. To that end he fell to his knees and began sweeping up the coins.
—Leave them be, said Ulysses.
With his hands still hovering a few inches above the windfall, Pastor John looked back at Ulysses and spoke with a hint of indignation.
—I was just going to reclaim what is rightfully—
—Not a one, said Ulysses.
The pastor shifted his tone to reason.
—I am not a greedy man, Ulysses. Though I have earned these dollars through the sweat of my own brow, may I suggest that we follow the counsel of Solomon and split the money in half?
Even as he made this suggestion, Pastor John realized with some dismay that he had gotten the lesson upside down. All the more reason to press onward.
—We could split it three ways, if you’d prefer. An equal share for you, me,
But while Pastor John was making this proposal, Ulysses had turned to the boxcar’s door, thrown the latch, and slid it rumbling open.
—This is where you get off, said Ulysses.
When Pastor John had first taken the boy’s bag in hand, the train had been barely moving, but in the interim it had gained considerable speed. Outside, the branches of trees were flashing by in what amounted to a blur.
—Here? he replied in shock. Now?
—I ride alone, Pastor. You know that.
—Yes, I remember that to be your preference. But the journey in a boxcar is long in hours and short in common comforts; surely a little Christian fellowship—
—For more than eight years, I have been riding alone without the benefit of Christian fellowship. If for some reason I suddenly found myself in need of it, I certainly wouldn’t be in need of yours.
Pastor John looked to the boy in an appeal to his sense of charity and in the hope that he might come to his defense, but the boy was still staring at the Negro in amazement.
—All right, all right, acquiesced the pastor. Every man has the right to form his own friendships, and I have no desire to impose my company upon you. I will just climb up the ladder, slip out the hatch, and make my way to another car.
—No, said Ulysses. This is the way you go.
For a moment, Pastor John hesitated. But when Ulysses made a move in his direction, he stepped toward the door.
Outside, the terrain did not look welcoming. Along the tracks was an embankment covered in a mix of gravel and scrub, while beyond that a dense and ancient wood. Who knew how far they were from the nearest town or road.
Sensing that Ulysses was now behind him, Pastor John looked back with an imploring expression, but the Negro didn’t meet his gaze. He too was watching the trees flash by, watching them without remorse.
—Ulysses, he pled once more.
—With my help or without it, Pastor.
—All right, all right, Pastor John replied, while mustering up a tone of righteous indignation. I will jump. But before I do so, the least you can do is allow me a moment of prayer.
Almost imperceptibly, Ulysses shrugged.
—Psalm Twenty-Three would be appropriate, said Pastor John in a
cutting manner. Yes, I should think that Psalm Twenty-Three would do very nicely.
Placing his palms together and closing his eyes, the pastor began:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The pastor began reciting the psalm slowly and quietly, in a tone of humility. But when he reached the fourth verse his voice began to rise with that sense of inner strength that is known only to the soldiers of the Lord.
, he intoned with an uplifted hand, as if he were waving the Good Book over the heads of his congregants.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me! Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me!
There were only two verses left in the Psalm, but no two verses could be more apt. With Pastor John in full feather, having built up his oratory to an appropriate pitch, the line
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies
was sure to sting Ulysses to the very marrow. And he would all but tremble when Pastor John concluded:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever!
But Pastor John never got the chance to ring this particular oratorical bell, for just as he was about to deliver the last two verses, Ulysses sent him sailing into the air.
hen Ulysses turned from the door,
he found the white boy looking up at him, his knapsack gripped in his arms.
Ulysses waved a hand at the dollars.
—Gather your things, son.
But the boy didn’t make a move to do as he was told. He just kept staring back without a sign of trepidation.
He must be only eight or nine, thought Ulysses. Not much younger than my own boy would be by now.
—It’s like you heard me tell the pastor, he continued more softly. I ride alone. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’s going to stay. But in half an hour or so, there will be a steep grade and the train will slow. When we reach it, I will lower you into the grass and you won’t come to harm. Do you understand?
But the boy kept on staring as if he hadn’t heard a word, and Ulysses began to wonder if he was simple. But then he spoke.
—Were you in a war?
Ulysses was taken aback by the question.
—Yes, he said after a moment. I was in the war.
The boy took a step forward.
—Did you sail across a sea?
—All of us were overseas, replied Ulysses a little defensively.
The boy thought to himself, then took another step forward.
—Did you leave a wife and son behind?
Ulysses, who stepped back from no man, stepped back from the child. He stepped back so abruptly it would have appeared to an observer that the boy had touched a raw wire to the surface of his skin.
—Do we know each other? he asked, shaken.
—No. We don’t know each other. But I think I know who you are named for.
—Everyone knows who I’m named for: Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, the unwavering sword in Mr. Lincoln’s hand.
—No, said the boy, shaking his head. No, it wasn’t that Ulysses.
—I should think I would know.
The boy continued to shake his head, though not in a contrary way. He shook his head in the manner of patience and kinship.
—No, he said again. You must have been named for the
Ulysses looked at the boy with feelings of growing uncertainty, as one who has suddenly found himself in the presence of the unworldly.
For a moment the boy turned his gaze to the ceiling of the boxcar. When he looked back at Ulysses his eyes were opened wide as if he’d been struck by a notion.
you, he said.
Sitting down on the floor, he opened the flap of his knapsack and withdrew a large red book. He flipped to a page near the back and began to read:
Sing to me, Oh Muse, of the great and wily wanderer
Odysseus, or Ulysses by name
One tall in stature and supple in mind
Who having shown his courage on the field of battle
Was doomed to travel this way and that
From one strange land to the next . . .
It was Ulysses who took a step forward now.
—It’s all here, said the boy, without looking up from his book. In ancient times, with utmost reluctance, the Great Ulysses left his wife
and son and sailed across the sea to fight in the Trojan War. But once the Greeks were victorious, Ulysses set out for home in the company of his comrades, only to have his ship blown off course time and again.
The boy looked up.
—This must be who you were named for, Ulysses.
And though Ulysses had heard his name spoken ten thousand times before, to hear it spoken by this boy in this moment—in this boxcar somewhere west of where he was headed and east of where he had been—it was as if he were hearing it for the very first time.
The boy tilted the book so that Ulysses could see it more clearly. Then he shifted a little to his right, as one does when making room for another on a bench. And Ulysses found himself sitting beside the boy and listening to him read, as if the boy were the seasoned traveler hardened by war, and he, Ulysses, were the child.
In the minutes that followed, the boy—this Billy Watson—read of how the Great Ulysses, having trimmed his sails and trained his tiller homeward, angered the god Poseidon by blinding his one-eyed son, the Cyclops, and thus was cursed to wander unforgiving seas. He read of how Ulysses was given a bag by Aeolus, the Keeper of the Winds, to speed his progress, only to have his crewmen, who were suspicious that he was hiding gold, untie the bag, unleash the winds, and set Ulysses’s ship a thousand leagues off course—at the very moment that the shores of his longed-for homeland had come into view.
And as Ulysses listened, for the first time in memory he wept. He wept for his namesake and his namesake’s crew. He wept for Penelope and Telemachus. He wept for his own comrades-in-arms who had been slain on the field of battle, and for his own wife and son, whom he had left behind. But most of all, he wept for himself.
When Ulysses met Macie in the summer of 1939, they were alone in the world. In the depths of the Depression, they both had buried their
parents, they both had left the states of their birth—she Alabama and he Tennessee—for the city of St. Louis. Upon arriving, they both had shifted from rooming house to rooming house and job to job without companions or kin. Such that by the time they chanced to be standing side by side at the bar near the back of the Starlight Ballroom—both more prone to listen than to dance—they had come to believe that a life of aloneness was all the heavens held in store for the likes of them.
With what joy they came to find otherwise. Talking to each other that night, how they laughed—as two who not only knew each other’s foibles, but who had watched each other fashion them willfully out of their own dreams and vanities and foolhardy ways. And once he had worked up the courage to ask her to dance, she joined him on the dance floor in a manner never to be undone. Three months later, when he was hired as a lineman at the phone company making twenty dollars a week, they were married and moved into a two-room flat on Fourteenth Street, where from dawn till dusk, and a few hours more, their inseparable dance continued.
But then the troubles began overseas.
Ulysses had always imagined that, should the time come, he would answer the call of his country just as his father had in 1917. But when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor in December of ’41 and all the boys began converging on the recruitment office, Macie—who had waited in solitude for so many years—met his gaze with narrowed eyes and a slow-motion shake of the head, as much as to say:
Ulysses Dixon, don’t you dare.
As if the US government itself had been persuaded by Macie’s unambiguous gaze, in early ’42 it declared that all linemen with two years’ experience were too essential to serve. So even as the war effort mounted, he and Macie woke in the same bed, ate breakfast at the same table, and went off to their jobs with the same lunch pails in hand. But with every day that passed, Ulysses’s willingness to sidestep the conflict was being sorely tested.
It was tested by the speeches of FDR on the wireless as he assured the nation that through our shared resolve we would triumph over the forces of evil. Tested by the headlines in the papers. Tested by the neighborhood boys who were lying about their ages in order to join the fight. And most of all, it was tested by the men in their sixties who would look at him on his way to work with sideways glances, wondering what in the hell an able-bodied man was doing sitting on a trolley at eight in the morning while the rest of the world was at war. But whenever he happened to pass a new recruit in his newly issued uniform, there was Macie with her narrowed eyes to remind him of how long she had waited. So Ulysses swallowed his pride, and as the months ticked by, he rode the trolley with a downward gaze and burned his idle hours within the walls of their apartment.
Then in July of ’43, Macie discovered that she was with child. As the weeks passed, no matter what the news from either front, she began to radiate an inner illumination that would not be denied. She started meeting Ulysses at his trolley stop, wearing a summer dress and a wide yellow hat, and she would hook her arm under his to stroll with him back to their apartment, nodding at friends and strangers alike. Then toward the end of November, just as she had begun to show, she persuaded him against his better judgment to put on his Sunday suit and take her to the Thanksgiving dance at the Hallelujah Hall.
As soon as Ulysses walked through the door, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. For everywhere he turned, he met the eye of a mother who had lost a son, a wife who had lost a husband, or a child who had lost a father, each individual gaze made all the more bitter by Macie’s beatitude. Even worse was when he met the eyes of the other men his age. For when they saw him standing awkwardly at the edge of the dance floor, they came and shook his hand, their smiles tempered by their own manner of cowardice, their spirits relieved to find another able-bodied man to share in the brotherhood of shame.
That night when he and Macie returned to their flat, before they
had even taken off their coats, Ulysses had announced his decision to enlist. Having prepared himself for the likelihood that Macie would grow angry or weep, he expressed his intentions in the manner of a foregone conclusion, a decision that broached no debate. But when he was finished with his talking, she didn’t tremble or shed a tear. And when she responded, she didn’t raise her voice.
—If you have to go to war, she said, then go to war. Take on Hitler and Tojo with one arm tied behind your back for all I care. But don’t expect to find us here when you get back.
The next day, when he walked into the recruiting office, he feared that he’d be turned away as a man of forty-two, but ten days later he was at Camp Funston and ten months after that he was on his way to serve in the 92nd Infantry Division under the Fifth Army in the Italian campaign. All through those unforgiving days, despite the fact that he did not receive a single letter from his wife, he never imagined—or rather, never let himself imagine—that she and the child would not be waiting for him upon his return.
But when his train pulled into St. Louis on the twentieth of December 1945, they were not at the station. When he went to Fourteenth Street, they were not in the flat. And when he tracked down the landlord, and the neighbors, and her friends from work, the report was always the same: Two weeks after giving birth to a beautiful baby boy, Macie Dixon had packed up her things and left the city without leaving word of where she was headed.
Less than twenty-four hours after returning to St. Louis, Ulysses put his bag on his shoulder and walked back to Union Station. There, he boarded the very next train, unconcerned with where it was going. He rode that train as far is it went—to Atlanta, Georgia—and then without setting foot outside the station, he boarded the next train headed in a different direction and rode that one all the way to Santa Fe. That was more than eight years ago. He had been riding ever since—in the passenger cars while his money held out and in the
boxcars once it was gone—back and forth across the nation, never allowing himself to spend a second night in any one spot before jumping the next train to wherever it was bound.
As the boy read on and the Great Ulysses went from landfall to landfall and trial to trial, Ulysses listened in silence, the tears falling from his eyes, unabashedly. He listened as his namesake faced the metamorphical spells of Circe, the ruthless seduction of the Sirens, and the closely knit perils of Scylla and Charybdis. But when the boy read of how Ulysses’s hungry crew ignored the warnings of the seer, Tiresias, and slaughtered the sacred cattle of the sun god, Helios, prompting Zeus to besiege the hero once again with thunder and swells, Ulysses placed a hand across the pages of the young boy’s book.
—Enough, he said.
The boy looked up in surprise.
—Don’t you want to hear the end?
Ulysses was silent for a moment.
—There is no end, Billy. There is no end of travails for those who have angered the Almighty.
But Billy was shaking his head, once again in kinship.
—That isn’t so, he said. Although the Great Ulysses angered Poseidon and Helios, he didn’t wander without end. When did you set sail from your war in order to return to America?