Lost Souls at the Neptune Inn


By Betsy Carter

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When an elusive Southern stranger arrives in 1960s New Rochelle, three generations of women are forever changed.
When the heart finds its home, anything is possible.
Geraldine, Emilia Mae, and Alice Wingo couldn't be more different from each other. Geraldine is a fiery beauty, turning heads while running the local bakery with her devoted husband, Earle-but she never quite takes to motherhood. Her daughter, Emilia Mae, spends her life chasing her mother's affection and goes looking for love in all the wrong places. So when she gives birth to her own daughter, Alice-the girl with the quick laugh and music running through her veins-she vows to do things differently.
Then, Dillard Fox, a handsome stranger with a Southern drawl sails into town, bringing with him a gentle warmth that draws in all three of the Wingo women. Emilia Mae, never thinking she'd find true love, builds the kind of happy life with Dillard that neither of them ever expected. Geraldine slowly learns to be kinder to her difficult daughter, and young Alice may have found the father figure she always wanted. But everyone has their secrets, and the one that Dillard has been carrying all of these years threatens to upend their idyllic family.
Over the course of their lives, these three women navigate their relationships with each other and the changing world around them. Filled with Carter's characteristic wit, this charming, wise novel is a paean to love-any way you can find it.


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But home was a dream
One I'd never seen till you came along.

—Jason Isbell
"Cover Me Up"

Part 1

Like a piece of shattered glass, New Rochelle slips into New York with its jagged southern coastline butting against the Long Island Sound. The winters are colorless and cold, and the Sound turns a discouraging metallic green. But in springtime, cherry blossoms and lilacs perfume the air. The Sound becomes a tropical blue, hospitable to the sailboats that pour into its waters. On land, the flouncy three-story Queen Annes and plainspoken Cape Cods come alive with the sounds of lawn mowers and the smells of fried chicken.

In this congenial suburb, Geraldine and Earle Wingo ran the bakery founded by her parents, Shore Cakes, the oldest bakery in town. The smell of melting butter and cinnamon oozed from its whitewashed façade, strawberry shortcakes and chocolate cookies filled the shelves, and its walls were covered by photographs of New Rochelle sunsets and various shots of a humpback whale that once swam so far inland that the New York Times even sent a photographer.

Both her parents were gone now, but Geraldine still had her mother's Italian looks: olive complexion, midnight black hair and dark whirlpool eyes. With her feisty nature, she was the opposite of soft-spoken Earle, whose pale blue eyes played like chimes against his milk-white skin and wavy blond hair.

The young Wingos' story seemed a happy one in a happy place, hardly worth telling, until, on an early March afternoon in 1929, as the sky turned black and a hollow wind blew through town, Geraldine gave birth to a girl baby.

Geraldine was in labor for three hours, easy as these things go.

After that, "easy" went the way of the wind.

Chapter 1

It was Earle who wanted a baby.

At twenty, Geraldine wasn't ready to give herself up to a child.

Once the prom queen of New Rochelle High, she tended to herself with the fastidiousness of a cat. Each day, she massaged Pond's cold cream into her skin and dabbed 4711 cologne onto her wrists and neck. She brushed her hair with one hundred strokes and spread Vaseline over her fire-red lipstick. With her curvy figure, held in place by a girdle, Geraldine enjoyed the way men's eyes blanketed her with something more than admiration, and she blushed when they told her that she smelled like gardenias. Why on earth would she give all that up for a child? In her vanity and wanton thoughts, she defied God and the Catholic Church.

Earle was an Episcopalian. He found it funny the way Geraldine crossed herself before having sex, and the clatter she'd make rubbing her fingers over those old beads of hers. Did she really think all that confessing would make God overlook the silk stockings and garters she wore?

She told Earle and her priest that her reasons for not wanting a child were practical. "The bakery's starting to make money, and we've just bought our first house. Let's not rock the boat."

But in the late twenties, a childless woman was considered as odd as an unmarried man in his thirties. Geraldine saw how the ladies patted down their hair and ran their tongues over their teeth before speaking to Earle—beautiful Earle. She knew he had other choices. So, grudgingly, she allowed herself to get pregnant, and in 1929, just before the country slid into a depression, Geraldine gave birth. Earle wanted to name their daughter Shirley Mae, after his mother. But Geraldine insisted on Emilia, her grandmother's name. They compromised and called her Emilia Mae.

During the first two months of her life, Emilia Mae howled in colicky pain for hours each day. Earle spent his time at the bakery, leaving Geraldine to wash, feed, diaper, and try to console the inconsolable baby. Geraldine tried everything—rocking chair, castor oil rubs, singing lullabies—but nothing quieted Emilia Mae. Sleep-deprived and desperate, Geraldine took the baby's screams as an affront. Often, she'd run out the door as if her house were ablaze with her daughter's shrieks. No one had told her how a baby would claw at her, body and mind, how she would be lucky if she had time for a shower, much less to run a brush through her hair once or twice.

Earle would come home from work by six thirty. He'd sit with Emilia Mae writhing in his arms and sing to her in his sweet high-pitched voice. She was a chunky baby with light strawberry hair and narrow chestnut eyes that defied you to look away from her. He'd kiss her ample tummy, and nibble on her ears. He'd tell her what a precious girl she was and how her tiny ears smelled like butter cookies straight from the oven. Because he loved her so much, he said, he would try not to eat them. Of course she smells like butter cookies fresh from the oven, Geraldine thought. I spent the last hour cleaning up Emilia Mae's vomit and bathing her. Earle can afford to be all goo-goo-eyed over this baby. If I saw Emilia Mae only two or three hours a day, slept seven hours a night, and had normal days of talking with real people, I could be damned goo-goo-eyed as well.

By June, whatever hormonal gumbo had kept Geraldine afloat had been sucked dry by the baby's constant wailing. Before Earle even took his jacket off at night, Geraldine would shove the baby at him and demand: "You take her. I've had enough."

Emilia Mae was two months and twelve days old when Earle and Geraldine sat across from each other one Saturday morning. Earle had just looked in on Emilia Mae. "She's sleeping like an angel."

"An angel, pph." Geraldine made a spitting noise.

"Let me ask you a question," he said.

One of the things that attracted Geraldine to Earle was his lack of guile. What he said was what he meant, and mostly what he meant was as uncomplicated and well intentioned as a priest's sermon on Christmas Eve. So it never occurred to her that with this question, Earle was about to wheel in a heap of trouble that would sit between them for years.

He put his elbows on the table and leaned toward her. "You do love this baby, don't you?"

It was a rhetorical question, and Geraldine could have nodded or said "Mmm hmm" and left it at that. But she'd been up half the night with Emilia Mae. Her hair was dirty, and her eyes were tiny as apple seeds. She wore her lavender robe, the one with calla lilies embroidered on it, the one that was so sexy and fluid against her skin that Earle hadn't been able to keep his hands off her whenever she wore it. Now it was stained with breast milk and crusts of spit-up, and Earle hadn't laid a finger on it or her since Geraldine's belly was big enough to bend the calla lilies out of shape. In short, Geraldine, who had enough guile for both of them, didn't bother to phrase her answer in order to please Earle. Instead, she spoke what she felt. "I would love this baby if she didn't make me feel like a monster, or if for one moment, I felt she loved me back and didn't bawl her eyes out every time I came near her. If she let me sleep through the night or gave me a moment to shower or fix my hair, that would be nice." Her voice was harsh as the sound of raked rocks. "I know she's your precious lamb. That's because by the time you get here, she's exhausted herself from carrying on all day with me. Then she lies in your arms like a rag doll, and you go all moony. You get to go to work, put on clean clothes, talk to other grown-ups—the things normal people do." She stood up in front of him and outlined her body with her hands. "This is how I look on a good day. This is not normal."

Earle spoke quietly. "C'mon honey, give it time. She'll grow out of whatever this is. Everyone has trouble adjusting in the beginning."

But time was running out. Earle could tell that whatever initial love Geraldine might have felt for her daughter was drying up. In a desperate attempt to cure the colic, Earle began adding Pepto-Bismol to Emilia Mae's bottles when Geraldine wasn't looking—a drop or two here and there.

Late one afternoon, after Emilia Mae had been wailing for two hours and filled three diapers with inky liquid diarrhea, Geraldine scooped her out of the crib and held her overhead like a trophy. The gesture only made Emilia Mae scream louder. That's when Geraldine noticed her tongue. She dumped Emilia Mae back into her crib and ran to the living room, where she telephoned Earle at the bakery: "Come home immediately," she shouted, her voice panicked.

"Is everything all right? The baby? Did something happen?"

"The baby is alive. But no, everything is not all right. Nothing I care to discuss on the telephone. Please, come home now."

Earle ran the ten blocks home and threw the door open. "What's wrong?" Geraldine thrust Emilia Mae into his arms and pried open her mouth. "That," she said, pointing to the baby's tongue. "That's what's wrong!"

"What am I looking at?" asked Earle. "I don't see anything."

"Are you blind? Do you not see the color of her tongue? Look again!"

Earle lifted Emilia Mae so she was facing him. "Oh, it's black. I see it now. I'm sure it's completely normal."

"Normal? Are you crazy? A baby with a black tongue is not normal." Her voice rose with each sentence. "You know who has a black tongue, don't you?"

"I have no idea," said Earle.

"The devil, that's who."

"Oh Geraldine, you don't really believe that, do you?"

"I most certainly do. How else can you explain it?"

"I'm guessing there are at least twenty other explanations, none of them having to do with the devil. Jeez, Geraldine, you take this church stuff too seriously."

"You don't know a Goddamn thing about my church stuff. But I'm telling you, we are seeing the work of the devil in our child."

Emilia Mae was sobbing now, a low, sorrowful wail different from her colicky screams. Her mother's voice was shrill, and her father was holding her too tight. It was as if she knew she was swaddled in trouble.

"Tell you what," said Earle, trying to keep his voice calm. "I'll take her to Dr. Rogan just to make sure everything's okay. Why don't you stay here and get some rest?"

"That old guy won't know any more than we do," said Geraldine.

"I'll take my chances," said Earle, as he bundled up the baby.


Dr. Rogan examined Emilia Mae while Earle told him how Geraldine saw the devil's work in the baby's black tongue. Dr. Rogan waved his hand as if sweeping away cigarette smoke. "Bah, she'll be fine."

He asked Earle what they fed her. "Have you added anything to her formula? Juice, medicine, anything like that?" Earle thought for a moment and mentioned the Pepto-Bismol. He told Dr. Rogan how he'd given Emilia Mae a spoonful now and again to quiet her colic.

Dr. Rogan had a pale, wide face with squinty gray eyes. His lips were always pressed together, as if he was trying to puzzle something out. It was startling when he opened his mouth wide enough for Earle to see his bridgework and let out a guffaw. "There's your devil. I'm afraid the culprit is the Pepto-Bismol." When he pulled himself together, he told Earle that Pepto-Bismol contained a chemical that, when combined with sulfur in saliva, formed a black compound called bismuth sulfide. "You tell that wife of yours that the devil, in this case, is her own husband." He laughed again. "Next time Emilia Mae goes colicky, try a hot water bottle on her stomach. The colic should go away within a month. Pepto-Bismol! The devil! Honestly, I thought I'd heard everything."

When Earle came home, he told Geraldine that he'd been feeding the baby small doses of Pepto-Bismol. "Dr. Rogan says that stuff can turn a tongue black. He had a good laugh about the whole devil thing."

"Well, Dr. Rogan may think that's hilarious, but he doesn't live with this child."

"Oh, Geraldine. Come now, she'll be fine. Dr. Rogan says it will just last a few more weeks."

Geraldine's body went slack. "All that screaming, it's gotten to me. I can't seem to do anything right with her. Why didn't you tell me about the Pepto-Bismol?" She started to cry. "Really, I'm at my wit's end."

"I know, honey," said Earle, wrapping his arms around his wife. "I'm sorry. I was only trying to help."

"I'm trying too, Earle, I really am."

"I know you are. She's an infant. Her tummy hurts. She wants us to make it go away. But she can't tell us, she can only cry. That's what babies do when they hurt. She needs your love."

"I love her, I do. I just don't like her very much."

"You're a good mother, you really are. Remember, only a few more weeks."

"A few weeks seem like forever," said Geraldine, wiping her nose on Earle's jacket. "Anyway, no more Pepto-Bismol, okay?"

"Deal," said Earle. "Can we just love this child and go back to being Mr. and Mrs. Earle Wingo?"

Geraldine leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'd like that." She smiled. "I'll do my best."

Chapter 2

Geraldine tried.

She sang to Emilia Mae, songs her mother used to sing to her.

She went back to brushing her hair more than one hundred times a day, but it never got back the gloss of its youth.

She dressed Emilia Mae in lacy bonnets and hand-knit sweaters.

She worked for years to lose the weight she'd put on while pregnant.

She took Emilia Mae to the park each day and pushed her back and forth on the swing.

She tried a fashionable up-do hairstyle, but it made her Romanesque nose jump out of her face.

At night, she read stories to Emilia Mae.

She dabbed on Guerlain, Joy, and Evening in Paris, but no one told her she smelled of gardenias.

She'd read that getting angry made you furrow your brow and cause permanent wrinkles. She tried not to furrow her brow.

Geraldine was older now, old enough for men to pay her no heed other than in a polite way.

She tried to love her daughter, and in a familial way, she did. But she still couldn't forgive Emilia Mae for stealing the part of her that had turned heads and run wild. Even her own husband, who used to come at her with renewed hunger every time they made love, seemed to have lost his appetite for her since Emilia Mae's birth. Emilia Mae had made Geraldine a mother, and for all the poetic things said and written about mothers, no one seemed to think they were sexy.

The next years lurched by like that, with Geraldine intermittently resentful of her daughter and trying to be a mother whose daughter actually liked her. When Emilia Mae was in fifth grade, The Wizard of Oz came out. The first time Earle took Emilia Mae to see it, she gasped when the movie blasted into Technicolor after Dorothy opened the door to Munchkinland. The second time, she went with her friend—really, her only friend—Nina Tyler, and grabbed her arm every time the green Wicked Witch of the West alighted. The third time, she went back with Earle and was thunderstruck by the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. It was like the time she walked by the Touch Up Salon near the bakery and saw herself reflected in their storefront glass, hunched over, a big girl trying to shrink herself. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion took up residence in her imagination as the Oz brothers as she became their leader, Dorothy. At night, Emilia Mae would lie in bed and envision them sitting next to her. They'd have conversations about the day, about school, and how she would speak out in class and bring cupcakes from the bakery to school and make friends with other kids. Although words were never spoken, she always felt that they were cheering her on, and in the morning, she could swear she saw the indentations on her blanket of where the Oz brothers had been sitting.

Not long after, Geraldine came home from the bakery one night and said to Emilia Mae, "I have a surprise for you." She handed her an illustrated copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. "I know how much you like the movie, so I thought you ought to read the book. The pictures are beautiful, take a look."

Emilia Mae couldn't remember a time when her mother gave her a present when it wasn't her birthday or Christmas. The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow agreed with her that this was a sign that her strong Dorothy personality was working. She ran her hand over the cover and slowly turned the thick gilded pages to pictures of lions, dogs, and scarecrows. The book was heavy and smelled like paste and wood. She clutched it to her chest and said: "This will always be my favorite book."

She thought to throw her arms around Geraldine and say, "Thank you, Mommy," but instead she mumbled, "Thank you, Mother."

More than anything, Emilia Mae wanted to call Geraldine Mommy. She wanted to love her mother. If she loved me, I know I could love her, she thought. But with Geraldine's severity and disapproval, Emilia Mae could never find a way in. When she was sick or scared or lonely, she'd think, "I want my mommy." But there was never a mommy there, just a perfectly coiffed trim woman with red lipstick whose hard eyes reflected back to Emilia Mae what she thought her mother saw: a chubby girl, with unkempt curly hair and her father's pallor.

Emilia Mae longed to have her mother stroke her cheek, touch her in the soothing way that mothers touched their children, but Geraldine didn't seem interested in those things. Emilia Mae thought her mother was pretty. She knew how to get things done. She could be funny. People noticed her. She was all those things, but she wasn't a mommy. Emilia Mae took The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to her room and learned more about Dorothy, who lived on the sun-bleached prairies of Kansas with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Aunt Em, she read, had once been a young pretty wife, but the sun and wind "had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled, now."

That night, she discussed it with the Oz brothers. Maybe Aunt Em was sad. New Rochelle wasn't sun-bleached, but the Tin Man said that there were other things that could take away a person's sparkle and glow. Emilia Mae thought about this for a long time. Maybe her mother was sad, too, because she had a daughter who was boring, who never really said very much. The Scarecrow suggested she could change all that. How she could talk up more, be braver. The Cowardly Lion said that if Dorothy was brave enough to face the Wicked Witch of the West, surely Emilia Mae could try harder to make a good impression. To be noticed. Emilia Mae agreed. Her mother would like to have a daughter who got noticed.

Earle always tried to give Emilia Mae enough love for both him and Geraldine, but by the time she was a teenager, the girl had taken her sadness inside and locked the door. On weekends, she helped Geraldine and Earle out at Shore Cakes. She unloaded deliveries, swept up, and carried pans of cakes and rolls from the baking room to the store. One morning a little girl pointed to a butterscotch square behind the glass shelf and started crying that she wanted it. The girl's mother took out her purse and counted out her change. She didn't have enough money. The girl cried harder. Geraldine must have seen what happened. She went over to the mother and said, "We've just started making those squares, and I'd love to know how children like them. Mind if I use your daughter as a guinea pig?"

Geraldine handed the girl a butterscotch square and said, "I hope you like this, sweetheart, I made it just for you."

Emilia Mae had never heard her mother use that tone of voice with her. Geraldine had never called her own daughter "sweetheart." It made Emilia Mae want to shake her mother and cry out, "I'm a sweetheart, too!" She had noticed how her mother elongated her neck and batted her eyes at the male customers and spoke in a sweet, condescending voice to the women. The only way she could think of to punish her was to act just the opposite. "All that stupid small talk, 'how are you,' 'you look pretty today,'" she told her mother. "It gets you nowhere. If someone wants an apple pie, I'm happy to tell them everything about the apple pie but I don't see why I have to also discuss the weather or their new shoes."

Geraldine rubbed her neck. "You know, Emilia Mae, we're selling more than cakes and bread here, we're selling at-mos-phere, a happy, welcoming at-mos-phere."

Emilia Mae rolled up her sleeves. "You've got the good looks and personality, so you handle the at-mos-phere," she said. "I'll take care of the cakes and bread."

Geraldine smiled at her daughter. "Holy moly," she said. "You're starting to sound like me."

Emilia Mae and the Oz brothers took that as a sign that she was making inroads.

After the first semester of ninth grade, Emilia Mae's English teacher wrote on her report card: Emilia Mae is an excellent student, but she keeps to herself. She seems to be an unhappy child. May I schedule a conference with the school social worker?

Geraldine tried to hold back her anger when she read those words but could feel her brow furrowing. "I'm going to tell that Mrs. Morris a thing or two," she told Earle.

"What can you say?" he asked. "At least she's an excellent student, but right now, Emilia Mae is an unhappy child. There's no denying that. It's a phase. Let it be."

"Earle, Emilia Mae is not just an unhappy girl. She's a loner who's carrying around an extra ten pounds on her body. She doesn't need a social worker; she needs to quit eating and make some friends. This is about discipline, not some fancy social worker."

When he'd first met Geraldine, Earle had found her fieriness and passion exciting. She was so different from everyone else he knew. It never dawned on him that someday "fiery and passionate" would scorch his marriage and family. He'd thought they'd have a big family, three or four kids, but after Emilia Mae, he knew there'd be no more. By now, her anger and disappointment had worn him down, and he began stretching his hours at the bakery, leaving Emilia Mae and Geraldine to themselves.

"Alright, suit yourself," he said. "Go see her teacher, but I'm telling you, it's going to amount to nothing."

The next afternoon, Geraldine marched into Mrs. Morris's empty classroom. "You absolutely may not schedule a conference with the school social worker," she insisted. "Emilia Mae is not an unhappy girl. She comes from a happy, churchgoing family. Unfortunately, she was born with a difficult nature. Nothing a social worker can do about that. Nature is nature and comes with the package. My husband, Earle, has an outgoing nature. I myself am a people person by nature."

Was that surprise she saw in Mrs. Morris's eyes?


School and the bakery: that was Emilia Mae's life until, one day in December of her fifteenth year, the first thing resembling a miracle blew her way.

Sam Bostwick, the owner of the Neptune Inn, the oldest—and only—inn in the area, walked into Shore Cakes and pulled Geraldine aside. "I have a favor to ask. I'm looking for a charwoman for the inn, someone to clean the rooms, help serve the meals, and keep the place in order, an able-bodied young girl. I'm getting a little long in the tooth to do this by myself. I'll pay handsomely and provide free room and board. If you happen to know somebody, I'd be much obliged if you'd pass along her name to me."

Geraldine covered her mouth with her forefinger and hmmmmmed (Thank you, God), pretending to think about it. She let a respectable amount of time pass before shooting her finger in the air. "Wait a minute…I do happen to know somebody who might fit the bill: my daughter, Emilia Mae. A hard worker, that one, sturdy and capable of anything she puts her mind to." Geraldine believed in truth telling and convinced herself that what she'd told Sam was correct in every sense of the word. Emilia Mae was a hard worker, and Lord knew she was able-bodied. She continued: "This sounds like a wonderful opportunity for her to learn about the real world and get some working experience at the same time. I'd allow her to leave school for a while should she fit the bill."

"I've seen her around here, but don't really know her," said Sam. "Keeps to herself, that one, doesn't she?"

Worried that Sam, like everyone else in town, knew how withdrawn Emilia Mae could be, Geraldine quickly added: "She's grown into quite a young lady, smart and sturdy as a mule. You ought to get to know her."

"Okeydoke, I'll do that," he said. "Will she be here this weekend?"

"Come by Saturday. She'll be here all day."


  • "Carter crafts an endearing, sweeping saga of strangers brought together...The story comes alive through the honesty and raw emotion injected into the characters. Her unflinching look at the characters' imperfections and boundless exploration into their minds makes for an exceptional tale."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A sweeping intergenerational story of the intertwined lives of two people who find themselves staying briefly at the Neptune Inn in New Rochelle, New York... A bittersweet tale that follows the twists and turns of love and loss and the painfulness and joy of life."—Kirkus
  • "One can't help fall in love with each character, mourn each loss, cheer their triumphs, and maybe shed a tear or two."—Library Journal

"A moving story of loss, longing, and perseverance."—Real Simple, A Best New September Release
  • "In this sharply observed historical novel, a web of friendships connect German Jews in pre-Hitler Germany after they emigrate to America. In their complex relationships and struggles both emotional and cultural, we are given insight into life at its most resilient and joyous. An important book to remind us of the humanity in the current wave of immigrants, and how much they have to offer us."—Alice LaPlante, New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind
  • On Sale
    Aug 10, 2021
    Page Count
    336 pages

    Betsy Carter

    About the Author

    The daughter of German immigrants, Betsy Carter is the author of the novels Swim to Me, The Orange Blossom Special, The Puzzle King, and We Were Strangers Once, as well as her bestselling memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On. She is also the creator and editor of NewYork Woman Magazine, and has worked at many other magazines, including Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, and Esquire.

    Learn more about this author