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Queen of the Underworld
By Gail Godwin
Random House Gail Godwin
All right reserved.
Now I had graduated on this bright June Saturday in 1959 and few were the obstacles left between me and my getaway train to Miami--obstacles that nevertheless must be cunningly surmounted.
"Emma, you ride in front with Earl," said Mother, as expected. "I'll sit in back and reminisce a little more about my time here in Paradise."
"Oh?" challenged Earl. "What does that make the rest of your life, then, a comedown?"
"The rest of my life is still in progress," Mother lightly countered, making room for herself among my college leftovers that were going back to the mountains with them. "Ask me again in thirty or forty years."
We began the winding descent out of Chapel Hill as, seven years earlier, the three of us, with my mother's new husband at the wheel, had begun another descent into a new life. Only this time, they would be dropping me off within the hour at the Seaboard Station in Raleigh. My journey as part of this family unit would soon be at an end. Happily, my train to Miami left at one fifteen, so a farewell lunch had been out of the question, a circumstance diminishing that much further the chance of a last-minute blowup with Earl.
But still I was on my guard, for already he was making those engorged throat noises that preceded a sermon. I did not dare glance back at Mother for fear of catching her eye. An exchanged look of sympathy or, God forbid, a mutual smirk might still explode everything sky-high, as it had done plenty of times before. My job was to look respectfully attentive without rising to his bait. I folded my hands in my lap and faced front, focusing on the road ahead. Windows on both sides were open to let in the breeze, and the capricious little whomp-whomps of hot air provided a divertimento against Earl's opening sally and helped me keep my own counsel.
Sacrifices had been made. If I would ever stop to think about other people. Empathy and gratitude not my strong suits. Had never known what it was to apply myself on a daily basis. Hadn't been required of me. Had been raised to think that the world revolved around me and that I could coast along without making much of an effort. Not completely my fault. Had been indulged too much for my own good by teachers as well as family. But now I was going into the real world where I would have to knuckle under and deliver the goods like everybody else.
"Though why you should choose to go off half-cocked to a place like Miami remains a mystery to your mother and me. Your dean told us the Charlotte Observer wanted you, but he said you'd had your heart set on Miami ever since you went down for that interview at Christmas. I said, well, we were the last to know she went to Miami for Christmas. She told us she was staying in the dorm to catch up on her work. We didn't learn the truth till February."
Damn and blast you, I thought. You have a single conversation with my dean, who adores me, and you make me out a liar.
"I didn't want to say anything to anyone until I knew I had the job," I cautiously replied.
"I told the dean, she doesn't even know anybody in Miami--"
I don't know anybody in Charlotte, either, I refrained from saying.
"She knows Tess," put in Mother from the backseat. Tess was her old college roommate from Converse. "Tess will be meeting her train tomorrow morning."
"So why didn't she stay with Tess at Christmas, when she went down for that interview?" His voice had edged up a decibel.
"Well, I guess she wanted to stay with someone else at Christmas," Mother neutrally suggested.
Of course I had told them, after the fact, with whom I'd stayed. Or rather I had presented an acceptable configuration of the way in which this family I had worked for last summer had offered me hospitality. Not that any configuration of the Nightingales would ever be acceptable to Earl.
"Well, I guess there's just no accounting for some people's taste, but to move down there to be with that tribe . . ." Menacing pause before the refrain: "When her dean said the Charlotte Observer would have taken her."
The voice rolled on, but so, I congratulated myself, did the car. Every mile we achieved was one mile nearer to my release. We had not veered off the road or had a flat tire and nobody had backhanded me to start a black eye for my first day at work.
Think of it as a scene early in a novel, I told myself: The stepfather picks one last fight with the daughter who has not appreciated him. The mother in the backseat, wedged among her daughter's boxes, knees tucked under her like a college girl, is forgiving of the wild little breezes that mess up her hairdo because they mute his voice. There will be plenty more of it to listen to on their long drive back to the mountains. Whose novel was this going to be? Not the stepfather's; the writer might never grow the empathy for that one. Not the mother's, either, though it catches in the daughter's throat to see the youthful way the older woman is clasping her knees, wrapped in her own memories of Chapel Hill, when she still expected to get everything she wanted. If it was going to be the daughter's, there would be some choked-back sobs in the mother's embrace at the train station, one last stoic offering of the daughter's mouth for the imposition of the stepfather's kiss, and then they would be gone on the next page.
When, as a last-minute taunt, Earl, in the act of setting down my suitcases inside my roomette, asked if I thought I had "money to burn" for this exclusive little compartment with its own washroom and pull-down bed, I suppressed the perfect comeback that it was indeed a "burnt offering" of my graduation monies to thank the gods for my escape from him. At long last I had learned that it was never too late for a black eye when saying goodbye to certain people.
Alone in my luxury cubicle, I relaxed for the first time in months, allowing the train's diesel engine to take over the job of getting me to my destination. Woods pinked with afternoon June light alternated with tobacco fields and tin-roofed drying barns. As we shot through a dreary little hamlet, a character offered herself for my perusal: a girl born and raised in this flyblown place who had dreams of going somewhere and one day wakes up on her deathbed, a forgotten old maid who has never left town, and hears this very train hurtle by. She feels the diesel cry in the marrow of her bones and in her last conscious moment believes she is aboard. She savors all the sweetness of having gotten out, and she expires with a rapturous smile on her face for no one to see but the undertaker.
Could such a woman still exist in the late nineteen-fifties, even in rural North Carolina? Why not? Maybe I would write this existential pastorale with its O. Henry–ish ending in the evenings when I got home from my newspaper job. It was the sort of thing that might get me published in a literary quarterly, especially one of the Southern ones, which abounded in stories about trains passing and nothing much ever happening at home. My plan was to become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then, in the evening and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side, if I could manage both.
I began to lower myself into the environs of the old maid's unlived life until I started feeling queasy. Despite my desperate desire to be published, I knew this was a warning signal to get out of there. Letting yourself be trapped in the wrong story was another way of succumbing to usurpation. Goodbye, old girl, someone else will have to tell your boring tale.
I took first call for the dining car and sat down to a spotless white tablecloth and a red rosebud in a silver vase. Perfect icons for my new beginning. Like an antidote to my ditched character back in the roomette, a smart, suntanned woman in an Army officer's uniform slowly materialized through the haze of my nearsightedness. Her gaze lit on me, she murmured something to the waiter, and the next thing I knew she was asking if she might join me.
"Please do." I heard myself switching into my well-brought-up mode, even though I had been counting on dining alone and savoring my getaway some more.
Her brass name tag read "Major E. J. Marjac." She introduced herself as Erna Marjac. When I said "Emma Gant," she remarked on the similarity of our first names, which would have annoyed me had she not had such a warm smile (and beautiful teeth in the bargain) and had she not looked so straightforwardly charmed by the prospect of having dinner with me. By the time she had ordered from the menu, without the usual female shilly-shallying, I knew I envied her self-command and I resolved to use this opportunity to further my development.
She asked where I was headed, and I said I was going to Miami to be a reporter on the Miami Star.
"Really? You seem so young. I thought you were a student."
"I was until noon today. I just graduated from the university at Chapel Hill."
She laughed, exposing the beautiful teeth again. "You aren't wasting any time, are you? We ought to celebrate. May I treat you to some wine, Emma?"
"Thank you, that would be nice."
Major Marjac signaled the waiter. "What would you like?"
"Oh, whatever you're ordering will be fine." Having grown up in beer-and-bourbon land, I hadn't a clue.
"Well, since we're both having red meat, a half bottle of this Côte du Rhône will go down well. If we'd chosen the chicken, I would have suggested the Blue Nun."
My first lesson in wines.
She told me she'd just completed a very successful recruiting tour and was heading for some R & R with a friend in Pensacola before reporting back to duty at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
"What do you do on a recruiting tour?"
"I show a film about the opportunities the Army offers to women today and then I have interviews the rest of the day. I'm very good at assessing character and signing up the best ones, but this time I broke my own record. Thirty-seven young women from fifteen states will be reporting for duty at Fort McClellan by the end of the month."
I might have been number thirty-eight, I thought, had I not had my hiring letter from the managing editor of the Miami Star tucked in my purse. But then, of course, I wouldn't have been on this train.
Major Marjac's character-assessing gaze gave me a stamp of approval. "You're fortunate, Emma, you started ahead of the game. But for many young women, we offer the only hope of independence."
Over wine and dinner she told me stuff about code breaking and weaponry, and about the physical ordeals the new recruits would undergo: gas chambers and such. I strained hard to retain everything in case I decided at some future point to write a story about a girl in her last year of high school, desperate to escape her circumstances: she passes this window with a sign, army recruiting women today, and inside is handsome Major Marjac with her welcoming smile.
When we said goodbye--she would be getting off at Jacksonville before dawn--the Major gave me her card.
"Slip this into your wallet, Emma. If things don't meet your expectations at the Star, drop me a line. With your college degree you could go straight into officers' training."
I asked the porter to make up my roomette for sleeping and was in bed before dark, swaying with the train's motion, mellow from Major Marjac's Côte du Rhône. When I was in my pajamas, I raised the shade again so I could get the maximum benefit from the experience, lying straight as a mummy in my little coffin-bed of rebirth, hurtling through one town after another where people steeped like old tea bags in their humdrum lives, speeding farther away by the minute from Earl-dom and all the other bottlenecks I had narrowly squeezed through.
It both gratified and goaded me that I had come across to an observant recruiter as one of those sleek, fortunate ones who "started ahead of the game." Wasn't that the image that I had cultivated? Yet, when so much lay hidden, I got no credit for my struggle, did I? When Major Marjac had proudly confided, "Weaponry is opening up to women in an unprecedented way," I couldn't help inventorying my own arsenal to date, the weapons best suited to my personality under duress: guile, subter-fuge, goal-oriented politeness, teeth-gritting staying power, and the ability, when necessary, to shut down my heart. Forces had been mobilizing inside me for the past eleven years to do battle with anything or anybody who might try to usurp me for their own purposes again.
"Usurp" had become my adversarial verb of choice ever since I had seized upon it from a History of Tudor England course to trounce my archenemy, the dean of women, in my Daily Tar Heel column. ("With her latest Victorian edict, Dean Carmody has, quite simply, usurped the rights of every Carolina coed.") After that column, perfect strangers would call out familiarly as I crossed the campus: "Hey, Emma! Any-body been usurping you lately?" I delighted in the powers of the Fourth Estate. My twice-weekly column, "Carolina Carousel," carried a mug shot of me with flying hair, cagey side glance, and my best don't-mess-with-me smirk.
And the more I meditated on it, the more the "usurp" word compounded in personal meanings. Not just kingdoms and crowns got usurped. A person's unique and untransferable self could, at any time, be diminished, annexed, or altogether extinguished by alien forces. My soon-to-be twenty-two years on this earth had been an obstacle course mined with potential or actual usurpers.
Since day one, it seemed, I had been confronted by them in one form or another.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Excerpted by permission.
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