“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” Isak Denisen
Emma was a shy girl and she wore thick glasses, and though she couldn’t have imagined it, she would grow into an incredible beauty.
In the colder weather, she loved to wrap a blanket around her shoulders, her back to the radiator, and read. The first books she read were the Pippi Longstocking chapter-books that her grandmother in Gothenburg had sent her.
Neither her mother nor father were devoted readers, but the front-room bookcase held many treasures. On the bottom shelf she found the illustrated Anne of Green Gables story. She told her mother that she was sad when she had finished the book; this girl, made of “spirit and fire and dew,” had become a companion and a friend.
Emma didn’t see herself as a heroine. She was a strong girl, but she knew she’d never be able to lift a horse, like Pippi; nor did she have a suitcase filled with gold. And she didn’t think herself capable of making unhappy people happy, as Anne could.
And she sensed that a heroine would not allow her mother to say, “come along, now,” and pull her by the hand, against her wishes, to visit with the churchgoers in the vestibule after Sunday service, or to shake the thin, veiny hands of the bent old ladies they saw at the grocery store. She bristled at her mother’s ways and looked to her father for help, but he was gone more and more.
After the war, Emma’s father had returned to school, studied agronomy, and got on with Valley Manufacturing, a small Omaha farm equipment manufacturing firm. The company made an auspicious foray into irrigation systems and perfected the center-pivot sprinkler in the early 1950’s, coincident with the great drought that crept in slowly then swept like fire through the plains and the southwestern states; it devastated crops and ruined many good ranchers and farmers. Joe Hult, quiet and well-spoken, an unlikely salesman, was pressed into sales service; the farmers in these ravaged states greeted him as a messiah. When he returned home from his travels he’d bring Emma a gift, most often a book.
He struck a rich lode when he brought home Emma’s first Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol; she recounted the fable, chapter by chapter, at the dinner table, and when she finished that book, he gave her others–Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, and more. When he could no longer find a Dickens’ title with kids on the cover, he asked the woman at the bookstore for help: she suggested The Diary of a Young Girl. That was the winter that Emma turned thirteen.
She had not expected to find such a normal girl in these pages and it broke her heart to read Anne Frank’s letters–to think that a girl her age was forced to hide in a room, invisible to the world, denied her dancing and flirting. Sadder still, because Emma knew how Anne’s story ended. She didn’t think she could be as brave as Anne, but she hoped she could teach herself to write as well, to describe things so clearly. Reading the Diary prompted Emma to write in her own journal.
In an early entry she wrote that maybe she was a hero; after all, she did share a hero’s keen sense of adventure. She dreamed of flying to Gothenburg; certainly she’d visit grandma, then she’d bundle her backpack and go see all of Sweden; then on to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward, the fields of Cavendish and the coastal islands out in the cold North Atlantic.
Her parents read the daily news, but Emma found the newspaper oppressive: the cartoons weren’t funny and the constant beat of bad news–the racial strife, the riots and the firebombs; the daily body count, and boys not much older than her coming home in bags; and the endless reports on the loss of the railroad and meat-packing jobs that created another, even deeper bitterness in her town, made her glad to retreat to her stories. She re-read The Catcher in the Rye and wondered if she might take a train to New York and ride the bus to Central Park; she wasn’t sure she’d have the nerve to get into a cab.
The more she read, the smaller and more provincial her hometown seemed. She dreamed of the sea and Stockholm and the tree-lined canals of Amsterdam, and she imagined herself exploring London and New York. It was her sophomore year and she was reading Gatsby, that radiant story about disaffected midwesterners marooned out on Long Island, and she knew she would leave Omaha the first good chance she got.
In the spring of that year Bobby Kennedy came to campaign in Omaha. The cameras adored him but Emma thought he looked slight and out of place in Omaha. That was the spring when the center was again giving way; troubles in Paris and Prague, and bombs over southeast Asia. Springtime rolled into the hot summer of Street Fighting Man and the bloody convention in Chicago.
It was near the end of that year when Emma’s friend Sue invited her to Lizzie’s house–Lizzie’s parents were gone for the weekend, and some of the boys came over too. One of the boys brought with him a baggie of grass and rolling papers and a new album he wanted to hear. They sat in a circle in the family room and smoked their joints and played the new album over and over again.
Emma thought she would know the music because she knew the Brown Eyed Girl song from the radio, but she’d never heard anything like this before. She retreated to a chair closer to the turntable and listened to the music. She closed her eyes for a while. She felt the bass throbbing within her and her mind took flight with the flutes, and the flutes became violins. The words of the songs held no meaning; the singer’s voice was just another instrument, eerie and beautiful. The album played several times more and a boy sat beside her and took her hand. “Why so sad?” he asked.
Emma shook her head. “I don’t want to hold hands,” she said, and the boy pulled away. She’d smoked pot several times but this was the first time she felt it, and her words sounded strange to her. She wondered if she looked strange.
“You always so quiet?” the boy asked.
“Elle a chaud au cul.”
“Nothing. L-H-O-O-Q. Something Marcel Duchamp liked to say.”
The boy moved away from her and Emma thought she’d like to go home. She would go home and have a cup of hot cocoa and pull the quilt around her shoulders and lean against the fins of the warm, steamy radiator and finish her Zola novel, Nana, about the wanton society of the second empire. The smoke had dried her eyes and her contact lenses felt like talons pinching her eyes. She thought it would feel good to cry, flush her eyes and put on her glasses.
She went away to school, and though she met a group of girls from Chicago, most of the kids in the dorm came from Omaha, and life in Lincoln seemed a mere continuation of high school. She hadn’t gone far enough away.
She had a hazy notion she might like to teach, so she thought she’d study Literature in a more disciplined way. What she found was that analyzing, or worse, deconstructing fiction, scrubbed the joy of reading it; she feared her treasured prose was being hijacked by the scholars. The literary theories of the time bored her as greatly as her first and second year required courses. The guilt of cutting classes faded, and she learned she could gain passing grades with minimal effort.
Winter mornings she’d pull on her flannel long-johns and wrap herself up in her blanket. She liked to lean against the wall near the window and read; some mornings she’d get high. She would shun her Pushkin and Dostoevsky and their dark tales of gloomy St. Petersburg, and read as she had always read. She read Out of Africa and so savored the book’s company she searched for everything Karen Blixen had written. Her friend at the used-book store gave her an out-of-print copy of West with the Night that she devoured. The stories of these tough, spiritual women eased her restlessness and rendered hope at a time when she knew she was stumbling.
The one class Emma wouldn’t skip was taught by a seraphic Irishman whose Bible was Joyce’s Ulysses. Emma would talk with Professor Byrne after class just to hear him speak, his words like song in that lovely lilting brogue. She fell in love with Joyce’s Dublin and bought a map of the city and charted Bloom’s wanderings on that day in Dublin almost seventy years earlier. She wasn’t sure about her feelings toward Bloom, but she knew she would’ve liked Stephen.
She met Peter in Professor Byrne’s class and he chided her about her map. She didn’t like it that he made her self-conscious about the map and she tucked it into the back of her book.
“No reason to put it away,” he said.
“I’ve always loved maps–when I was a kid I smoothed my hand over the bumpy surface of my globe, and I searched for those mysterious maps of the night sky. But I think some people don’t understand the secrets they hold–maybe you’re one of them?”
Peter claimed he was passionate about maps and Emma didn’t believe a word of it. She asked what he was really passionate about and his answer seemed more genuine: reading and writing. Emma came to learn that Peter was a minor celebrity in the Lit circles at school for the several articles he had placed in the Register, his hometown newspaper, but more especially for the prescient short story he had published in the Denver Quarterly about a farm-boy who is whipped by his father for hiding in the grain cart.
They sat close to each other in class and sought each other after class, and there were weekend nights Emma stayed over at Peter’s apartment. She liked to be away from the dorm.
Already he had told her about the novel he would write–a coming-of-age story about a callow midwestern kid who steals his step-father’s pickup truck one night and points it west toward Wyoming; at first he was surprised, then hurt, that nobody came after him: no sheriff’s flashing lights, no pissed-off step-father. So he just kept going.
Peter’s bildungsroman would tell the tale of the towns the kid passes through and the characters he meets; the jobs he suffers for survival and the disconsolate one-night stands. He meets a girl who teaches him the craft of tie-dye and he fashions this skill into an art and sells his T-shirts up and down the coast. He makes real money but he tires of the hustle. He’s still not sure what he’s looking for.
“Does he go back home?” Emma had asked.
“I don’t think so,” Peter said. “I think he takes his T-shirt haul and buys an unfinished-furniture store–in one of those small coastal towns north of San Diego. Maybe he becomes mayor of the town. A big shot.”
The school year ended and Peter didn’t await the graduation ceremony. He packed his pickup and drove the meandering trail his agonist would take; he’d make notes along the way. He promised Emma he would call once he settled.
She received a couple postcards, one from Coeur d’Alene, the other from San Jose. On the second he had written: have seen much, even jumped a freighter with a band of hobos. Met a fortune-teller who taught me how to tie-dye. Novel coming into focus–look out, Phillip Roth! And true to his word, when he had landed in a town called Leucadia, he called her. The new school year would begin soon and Emma wasn’t certain she would return. She wasn’t sure what she would do. So when Peter asked her to join him in Leucadia, she said yes.
She promised her mom and dad she would continue her education out west and her dad took her car to the dealership for service, a new battery and tires. She waved good-bye as she pulled away, but wouldn’t look in the rear-view mirror; she didn’t want to see her dad cry.
Peter had rented a small furnished cottage on Jasper Street that was close to the ocean. He arranged his desk at the front window: notebooks and pencils, his Smith-Corona and novels–Kesey and Kerouac and Henry Miller, all open to underlined passages. Emma bought an ivory muslin material and fashioned curtains for his window.
They indulged their initial freedom–afternoons in bed together and evenings of bourbon and smoke. He told her about the trust, a thousand dollars a month, from his father’s accidental death; he said he’d cover the rent and utilities and she agreed to buy groceries.
When the space in the cottage became too close, Emma was happy to take a job at the Hydra waiting tables. She would leave well before her shift, some days to explore the coast, other days to perch on her favorite rock at Moonlight Beach, and read. She wanted to give Peter the quiet he needed to write.
She noticed the novels piling up on his desk–Augie March, Breakfast of Champions and Cannery Row. From the rocker in the bedroom where she read at night she could hear him pacing at the window and leafing again through the novels on his desk. The typewriter was mostly mute. She had stopped asking him how the writing was going.
There was the night he gathered all his pencils, sat back in the chair and fired them, dart-like, against the far wall. The racket drew Emma out of her rocker and she watched from the hallway. “Might be time for a night off,” she said. They lay down together, and afterward, held hands.
“Should we think about going back home?” she asked. “You could go to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop–maybe that would help you.”
He turned away from her and sat on the edge of the bed. “I like it here–and I have zero interest in going back to school. I don’t need a goddamn workshop. And I really don’t need to go back to Iowa.”
When Peter received his trust check that month he paid the rent and lighted out for Joshua Tree. The following month he packed his Henry Miller novels and took off for Big Sur. Each time he returned, the typewriter chirped briefly back to life.
Emma wondered if his collection of characters and encounters hadn’t instead become the objective. She wanted to tell him there was likely no magic on the road, that she doubted he’d be blinded with revelation and light like Saul on his way to Damascus. No, the novel would have to be created, born of his imagination (she was certain Cervantes hadn’t rode a neurasthenic nag halfway across Spain). But the right words, or the right time never came, and she thought less of her Quixote analogy each time it crossed her mind.
Peter planned a trip to Colorado–he had witnessed much on the northern route, across Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon, but felt it critical that he also know the southern course, down through Colorado and Arizona. He said he’d be gone a couple weeks.
“That means I’ll be alone at Christmas,” Emma said.
“Christmas isn’t that big a deal,” he said. “You’ll be alright.”
She missed school and the women she had met in the dorm. She missed Nebraska in winter and the stillness of the snow on farmer’s fields; she missed the little decorative lights and the redolence of a Christmas tree in the house. She weighed the idea of getting a small tree, but the tree would look too lonely, and anyway, she had no ornaments. Maybe she would bake some Christmas cookies and call her mom and dad.
She wasn’t so sure she would be alright. She knew now it had been a mistake to have followed Peter out to California. She didn’t feel well and she stopped drinking the whiskey and smoking pot. She had her books, and they supplied their solace.
When Peter returned he raved about the poet he had met in Denver. She was brilliant and she was beautiful. Emma didn’t have much to say about his Denver poet, nor did she say anything about her pregnancy that had ended; she suffered the hurt of its termination alone. Soon it would be time to move on, and she couldn’t even summon anger about the Denver poet. She only asked that he not talk to her about his brilliant new friend again.
The winter rains ended and the house felt more claustrophobic; she only wanted to be there to sleep. She volunteered at Project Zoe, a temporary home for troubled teens, in Oceanside. Her work there filled the weekend nights, and she liked her co-workers and the kids. She befriended Suzanne, the director at Zoe, and confided in her.
A Friday night in late May, she was walking the rounds and noticed a boy rifling through the drawers of a night table in a room where he didn’t belong. She came up behind him and called his name, and the boy startled. Cornered, he took the lamp from the night table and swung it; the thick base of the lamp struck Emma below her left eye and tore open her skin. Suzanne took her to the hospital for the stitches she’d need to close the wound.
Emma allowed herself to cry on the ride back to Leucadia. A few tears even seeped from her closed eye. “I had this crazy thought that I’d be happier than I am,” she told Suzanne. “I cry now at the smallest things.”
“You’re doing fine, Emmie–you really are. The storm-clouds come and go.”
It was the week before the Restaurant re-opened and the sojourners settled into their rooms, and each into their revised persona. Emma shunned that early sociability and kept to herself. She located a couple good FM stations on the radio, and she had her albums–Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan, Little Feat and others. She was comfortable in her room and happy to no longer have to listen for the silent typewriter.
She had sold her car to the junkyard for parts, so she did her exploring on foot. She’d wear her blue-jean jacket against the morning chill, and she found a chocolate-colored floppy hat at the secondhand store on Roosevelt. She turned down its wide brim over her left eye and she hid behind dark, owlish sunglasses. She was unconcerned with her affect; she wanted to see and not be seen.
On Friday she walked the mile or so up Elm Street to the library and thumbed through the National Geographic and Rolling Stone. She walked the fiction aisles, not sure what she was looking for, but certain it was time to forsake the Plath and Virginia Woolf–she would come back to them again at a brighter time. She stopped at Ross McDonald and pulled Underground Man from the shelf and thought an unpretentious detective novel was just the tonic she needed.
The fog was in retreat when she left the library and the daylight warm on her shoulders. She had a new novel she looked forward to reading, and the sun, high in the sky, lifted her heart straight up.
She returned to her room and slipped out of her skirt and into shorts. She took the lone plant she had rescued from the Leucadia cottage and carried it out to the railing of her porch to feed it a cup of water. Olin spotted her from the parking lot and walked over. “You a horticulturist?” he asked.
“Oh. I was afraid you were gonna ask me something else.”
“Sorry. That’s the only big word I know.” He tipped his hat.
“Just watering my plant.”
They both regarded the plant, what appeared to be a peace lily, but without its white bloom; rust colored the margins of its leaves.
“You sure that’s all it needs?” Olin covered his mouth with an arm to hide his smile.
“Hey–don’t make fun of my plant. It never got much light and it had a rough journey here.” Emma watered the plant and stepped back to consider. “I guess it is a little homely,” she said, and turned her smile on Olin. He laughed.
She pushed back her hat and the chin-tie caught on the button at her breastbone, and she took off her sunglasses. The sun lit the color in her hair. “Alright, maybe it needs to be re-potted. Or I could plant it out back–with the poppies that ring around the gazebo.”
“Not the kind you’re thinking of–.”
“How’s your eye–it healing alright?”
“Slowly.” The color of the skin closest to the socket was a tawny yellow and further away, toward her cheekbone and above the eyebrow, the color darkened, scarlet and blue. A scab formed where the skin had been broken.
“Take care of that plant–see you around.”
Saturday morning Olin was knocking on her door. Two of his cohort leaned against the picket fence near the parking lot. “We’re going to smoke some weed–wanna come?”
Emma put down her book. “Why not?” She grabbed her sunglasses and hat and followed Olin out to the parking lot. He introduced her to Wusserman and Rickey, and they crossed in front of the Restaurant toward the railroad tracks. Wusserman told her he liked her hat. “Isn’t that the kind that Joey Heatherton wears?” he asked.
Rickey shook his head. “You are fucking clueless, Wuss–I’ve never seen Joey Heatherton in a hat. Has anyone ever seen her in a hat? I’ve never seen her wear anything she didn’t have to wear. You’re thinking of Brigitte Bardot or Mia Farrow, or someone like that. If you’re thinking at all.”
“Thanks, anyway,” Emma said. “I mean, for the compliment.”
They followed the tracks a half mile south to the windowless husk of a small church. They crawled over a stone portal and sat on the cracked marble steps of what had been the altar. The pews and the chapel’s sacredness had long been spirited away. The many droppings suggested that birds had also found comfortable sanctuary.
Olin lit a joint and passed it around. “Acoustics in here are amazing,” he said, and he whistled. Rickey cawed like a bird and listened for feedback. Emma was glad she had come along.
A big white bird swooped overhead and Rickey grabbed Wusserman and held him in a headlock. “Watch out, Wuss!” he cried. “That bird’s the Holy Spirit and it looks like he wants to shit your head.”
Wusserman pushed himself away. “Not funny,” he said. “Not funny at all. That’s blasphemy and it’s bad luck.”
Sunlight slanted in through the high apertures on the east side of the chapel. “We need some music in here,” Olin said. He lit another joint. “Let’s catch a decent buzz and head over to Mariah’s for pancakes.”
They talked about their positions at the Restaurant and Emma claimed that she had the best gig of all, as dinner hostess. “That’s cool,” Olin said. “You get to work with us. You’ll send all the good tippers my way, right?”
She wouldn’t have traded her job for any other. No question, some patrons could grouse, especially once the race-meet in Del Mar had recommenced and the wait to be seated spiked. Mr. Wooster had armed Emma with the discretion of free drinks at the bar, but she dispensed these coupons sparingly, and only to those who were well-mannered and polite.
Too, the waiters grew grouchy during the rush, when they felt too many tables had been seated in their station too quickly. Bert would fall helplessly behind and Emma simply smiled at the waiting patrons who pointed at the empty tables in his section. Rickey became frantic, and Gunner was unreasonable: as she walked another party across the dance floor toward his station he’d stretch out his arms, imploring the heavens. “W-Whachya‘ d-doin to me g-girl?” he’d ask. “C-can’t you see I’m j-jammed?”
Emma would seat the party, and if she could not avoid him, or if he followed her back across the hardwood floor, all jabber and stutter, she would stop and explain once again: “this is called the rush, Gunner. Many people come here for dinner at the same time and expect to be seated. You’ve been waiting tables for what, forty years now? I would hope you’d know this by now.” Gunner would shake his head in disbelief–he’d never even imagined such a notion.
She liked working with the guys and she enjoyed sitting at the bar with them after the last party had paid its bill and departed, and she liked having her days off and staying up late at night. The only downside she saw in working dinner over lunch was that she wouldn’t share that bond that working together spawns, with the women of the lunch crew.
Emma clicked with Elyse, who also worked the dinner shift–she served drinks and helped the waiters with their wine orders. Emma admired Elyse and thought her a beautiful and graceful woman. They shared a wavelength and communicated well without talking much, and they covered for each other. Emma learned that Elyse’s only child, a Marine, had been killed in Vietnam; she was certain it was a crushing sadness that had delivered her here to the Rehabilitation Restaurant.
On the good nights Emma viewed the dinner-rush as a test, a puzzle to be solved, and she viewed Station II as her ace-in-the-hole: Jude and his busboy, Cap, had their station wired; they were focused and composed, and they wasted no motion. Restaurant workers easily intuit the better tippers, and Emma could seat the Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, or the shaggier parties, in Station II–without the reprisal of a head-shake or the rolled eyes. Without braggadocio, more as a matter of fact, Jude had told her there were not enough tables in his station for him to fall behind.
It was Jude who had noticed her distress the night she stopped midway across the dance floor and looked at one of the two men she was taking to their table; the man was laughing while Emma stood silent, her eyes narrowed and her lips drawn tight. She led them quickly to a two-top in Bert’s station, dropped the menus at the edge of the table and hastened back to her island at the cashier-stand.
Jude set down his tray and motioned to Cap to serve the dinner he had carried, while he crossed the dance-floor and approached Emma. He saw the tears burning in her eyes.
“What just happened out there?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She rubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. “Guy pointed at my eye and said something really stupid–like ‘it looks like the boyfriend got the better of you in that fight, sweetheart.’ Then his smug laugh made me wanna’ crawl out of my skin.”
“Do we serve assholes in this Restaurant?” Jude asked.
“I’m okay.” She sniffed back a few tears. “Not a big deal.”
Jude took her hand for a moment then strode directly toward the two-top in Bert’s station. He looked at both men, then settled his gaze on the one he had seen laughing. “You owe our hostess an apology,” he said.
“I don’t apologize,” the man said.
“Then you really are an asshole,” Jude said.
“Are you our waiter?”
“I am now.”
The man lifted his chin toward his friend and they stood at the same time and walked out of the Restaurant. When Jude passed back by the cashier-stand he mimicked Ringo’s V-sign: “Peace and love, Emmie,” he said. “I guess we really don’t serve assholes here.”
Several weeks later, it was the Fourth of July, and the Restaurant was bustling. After the initial rush Emma seated a party in Olin’s station and midway back across the dance floor, from the corner of an eye, she noticed Jude gliding across the floor toward her. He spun her gently toward him and she pressed her chest into his. They held each other only briefly.
Martin is graduate of UCSD, where he studied Creative Writing. He has worked in journalism and at many restaurants and bars. He has mopped hospital floors and mown many lawns. He drove the news truck. He has worked the auto trade and sold space on steamships. He has coached kids’ baseball and basketball. He most enjoys writing fiction. The family formerly lived in a rehabbed chicken-coop which sank, and now lives in an exurb of Chicago. He’ll take a deep breath and begin Chapter Ten of his novel-in-progress. Six of the prior chapters have been published in the small literary press.