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. Henryish 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."
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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