Authors: Amor Towles
—Thanks, I said, turning toward the trunk.
—Do you think it’s possible . . . ? Do you think I might . . . ?
Generally, I don’t like to tinker with another man’s habits. If he wants to get up early and go to mass, let him get up early and go to mass; and if he wants to sleep until noon wearing last night’s clothes, let him sleep until noon wearing last night’s clothes. But given that Woolly was down to his last few bottles of medicine and I needed help with the navigation, I had asked him to forgo his midmorning dose.
I took another glance at the liquor store. I had no idea how long it was going to take for me to get in and out. So in the meantime, it was probably just as well if Woolly was lost in his thoughts.
—All right, I said. But why don’t you keep it to a drop or two.
He was already reaching for the glove compartment as I headed to the back of the car.
When I opened the trunk, I had to smile. Because when Billy had said that he and Emmett were heading for California with what little they could fit in a kit bag, I figured he was speaking figuratively. But there was nothing figurative about it. It was a kit bag, all right. Setting it aside, I folded back the felt that covered the spare. Nesting beside the tire, I found the jack and handle. The handle was about the width of a candy cane, but if it was strong enough to crank up a Studebaker, I figured it would be strong enough to open a country door.
Picking up the handle with my left hand, I went to fold the felt back in place with my right. And that’s when I saw it: a little corner of paper sticking up from behind the black of the tire, looking as white as an angel’s wing.
t took Emmett half an hour
to find his way to the gates of the freight yard. While the passenger and freight lines were adjacent, they had their backs to each other. So even though their respective terminals were just a few hundred yards apart, to get from the entrance of one to the entrance of the other, you had to walk a circumventing mile. The route initially took Emmett along a well-groomed thoroughfare of shops, but then over the tracks and into a zone of foundries, scrapyards, and garages.
As he followed the wire fence that bordered the rail yard, Emmett began to sense the enormity of the task before him. For while the passenger terminal was just large enough to accommodate the few hundred travelers who arrived or departed from this midsized city in a day—the freight yard sprawled. Fanning out over five acres, it encompassed a receiving yard, a switching yard, wheelhouses, offices, and maintenance areas, but most of all, boxcars. Hundreds of them. Rectilinear and rust-colored, they were lined end to end and row by row for almost as far as the eye could see. And whether they were slotted to head east or west, north or south, laden or empty, they were exactly as common sense should have told him they would be: anonymous and interchangeable.
The entrance to the yard was on a wide street lined with warehouses. As Emmett approached, the only person in sight was a middle-aged man
in a wheelchair positioned near the gates. Even from a distance, Emmett could see that both of his legs had been cut off above the knee—a casualty of the war, no doubt. If the veteran’s intention was to profit from the kindness of strangers, thought Emmett, he would have been better off in front of the passenger terminal.
In order to assess the situation, Emmett took up a position across the street from the gates, in the doorway of a shuttered building. Not far behind the fencing he could see a two-story brick building in relatively good repair. That’s where the command center would be—the room with the manifests and timetables. Naively, Emmett had imagined that he would be able to slip into the building sight unseen and cull the information he needed from a schedule posted on a wall. But just beyond the gates was a small building that looked very much like a guardhouse.
Sure enough, as Emmett was studying it, a truck pulled into the entrance and a man in uniform emerged from the house with a clipboard in order to clear the truck for admission. There wasn’t going to be any slipping or culling, thought Emmett. He would have to wait for the information to come to him.
Emmett glanced at the dial of the army surplus watch, which Billy had loaned him. It was quarter past eleven. Figuring he would get his chance when the lunch hour came, Emmett leaned back in the shadows of the doorway and bided his time, his thoughts returning to his brother.
When Emmett and Billy had entered the passenger terminal, Billy was all eyes, taking in the high ceilings and ticket windows, the coffee shop and shoe shine and newsstand.
—I’ve never been in a train station before, he said.
—Is it different than you expected?
—It’s just as I expected.
—Come on, said Emmett with a smile. Let’s sit over here.
Emmett led his brother through the main waiting area to a quiet corner with an empty bench.
Removing his backpack, Billy sat down and slid over to make room for Emmett, but Emmett didn’t sit.
—I need to go find out about the trains to New York, Billy. But it might take a little while. Until I get back, I want you to promise you’ll stay put.
—And keep in mind, this isn’t Morgen. There’s going to be plenty of people coming and going, all of them strangers. It’s probably for the best if you keep to yourself.
—But if you want to find out about the trains to New York, why don’t you ask at the information window? It’s right there under the clock.
When Billy pointed, Emmett looked back toward the information window, then he joined his brother on the bench.
—Billy, we’re not going to be taking one of the passenger trains.
—Why not, Emmett?
—Because all of our money is in the Studebaker.
Billy thought about this, then reached for his backpack.
—We can use my silver dollars.
With a smile, Emmett stayed his brother’s hand.
—We can’t do that. You’ve been collecting those for years. And you only have a few more to go, right?
—Then what are we going to do, Emmett?
—We’re going to hitch a ride on one of the freight trains.
For most people, Emmett figured, rules were a necessary evil. They were an inconvenience to be abided for having the privilege of living in an orderly world. And that’s why most people, when left to their
own devices, were willing to stretch the boundaries of a rule. To speed on an empty road or liberate an apple from an untended orchard. But when it came to rules, Billy wasn’t simply an abider. He was a stickler. He made his bed and brushed his teeth without needing to be asked. He insisted that he be at school fifteen minutes before the first bell, and he always raised his hand in class before speaking. As a result, Emmett had thought a lot about how he was going to put this, eventually settling on the phrase
hitch a ride
in the hope it might diminish any qualms his brother was sure to have. From Billy’s expression, Emmett could see that he had chosen well.
—Like stowaways, Billy said, a little wide-eyed.
—That’s right. Like stowaways.
Patting his brother on the knee, Emmett rose from the bench and turned to go.
—Like Duchess and Woolly in the warden’s car.
Emmett paused and turned back.
—How do you know about that, Billy?
—Duchess told me. Yesterday after breakfast. We were talking about
The Count of Monte Cristo
and how Edmond Dantès, imprisoned unjustly, escaped from the Château d’If by stitching himself into the sack that was meant for the body of Abbé Faria, so that the unwitting guards would carry him out of the prison gates. Duchess explained how he and Woolly had done almost the exact same thing. How, unjustly imprisoned, they had hidden in the trunk of the warden’s car and the warden had unwittingly driven them right through the gates. Only Duchess and Woolly weren’t tossed in the sea.
As Billy related this, he spoke with the same excitement that he had shown when describing for Sally the incident at the orphanage—with the broken window and fistful of spoons.
Emmett sat down again.
—Billy, you seem to like Duchess.
Billy looked back in perplexity.
—Don’t you like Duchess, Emmett?
—I do. But just because I like someone doesn’t mean I like everything they happen to do.
—Like when he gave away Sally’s preserves?
—No. I’m all right with that one. I meant other things. . . .
As Billy continued to stare back at him, Emmett searched for an appropriate example.
—You remember Duchess’s story about going to see the movies?
—You mean when he would sneak out the bathroom window and jog across the potato fields.
—Right. Well, there’s a little more to that story than Duchess related. He wasn’t just a participant when it came to sneaking into town, he was the instigator. He’s the one who came up with the idea and who would rally a few of the others whenever he wanted to see a movie. And for the most part, it was like he said. If they slipped out on a Saturday night around nine, they could be back by one in the morning, leaving no one the wiser. But one night, Duchess was eager to see some new western with John Wayne. Since it had been raining all week and it looked as if it might rain some more, the only one he could convince to go was my bunkmate, Townhouse. They weren’t halfway across the fields when it started to pour. Though they were getting drenched and their boots were getting stuck in the mud, they pushed on. But when they finally got to the river, which was riding high because of the rain, Duchess just sat down and quit. He said he was too cold, too wet, too tired to go farther. Townhouse figured he’d come that far, he wasn’t turning back. So he swam across, leaving Duchess behind.
Billy was nodding as Emmett spoke, his brow furrowed in concentration.
—All of this would have been fine, continued Emmett, but after Townhouse left, Duchess decided he was too wet, too cold, and too
tired to walk all the way back to the barracks. So he went to the nearest road, flagged down a passing pickup, and asked if he could get a lift to a diner up the way. The only problem was that the driver of the pickup was an off-duty cop. Instead of taking Duchess to the diner, he took him to the warden. And when Townhouse returned at one in the morning, the guards were waiting.
—Was Townhouse punished?
—He was, Billy. And pretty severely, at that.
What Emmett didn’t tell his brother was that Warden Ackerly had two simple rules when it came to
. The first rule was that you could pay the piper in weeks or strokes. You get in a fight in the mess hall and that’s either three weeks tacked onto your sentence or three lashes on your back. His second rule was that since Negro boys were only half as suited to learning as white boys, their lessons had to be twice as long. So while Duchess took four extra weeks tacked onto his sentence, Townhouse received eight strokes from the switch—right there in front of the mess hall with everyone lined up to watch.
—The point is, Billy, that Duchess is full of energy and enthusiasm and good intentions too. But sometimes, his energy and enthusiasm get in the way of his good intentions, and when that happens the consequences often fall on someone else.
Emmett had hoped this recollection would be a little sobering for Billy, and from Billy’s expression it seemed to have hit the mark.
—That is a sad story, he said.
—It is, said Emmett.
—It makes me feel sorry for Duchess.
Emmett looked at his brother in surprise.
—Why for Duchess, Billy? He’s the one who got Townhouse in trouble.
—That only happened because Duchess wouldn’t cross the river when it was riding high.
—That’s true. But why would that make you feel sorry for him?
—Because he must not know how to swim, Emmett. And he was too ashamed to admit it.
Just as Emmett anticipated, shortly after noon some of the railyard’s employees began walking through the gates on their way to get lunch. As he watched, Emmett noted that he couldn’t have been more wrong about where the vet positioned himself. Nearly every man who exited had something for him—be it a nickel, a dime, or a friendly word.
Emmett understood that the men who emerged from the administrative building were most likely to have the information he needed. Responsible for scheduling and dispatching, they would know which boxcars were to be attached to which trains at which times and where they would be headed. But Emmett didn’t approach them. Instead, he waited for the others: the brakemen and loaders and mechanics—the men who worked with their hands and were paid by the hour. Instinctively, Emmett knew that these men would be more likely to see in him a version of themselves and, if not exactly overcome with sympathy, at least reasonably indifferent to whether the railroad collected another fare. But if instinct told Emmett that these were the men he should approach, reason told him that he should wait for a straggler, because even though a working man might be open to bending the rules on behalf of a stranger, he’d be less likely to do so in the company of others.
Emmett had to wait almost half an hour for his first opportunity—a lone workman in jeans and a black tee shirt who looked no more than twenty-five. As the young man paused to light a cigarette, Emmett crossed the street.
—Excuse me, he said.
Waving out his match, the young man gave Emmett a once-over but didn’t reply. Emmett forged ahead with the story he had fashioned, explaining that he had an uncle from Kansas City who was an engineer,
who was scheduled to stop in Lewis sometime that afternoon on a freight train headed for New York, but Emmett couldn’t remember which train it was, or when it would arrive.
When Emmett had first seen this young man, he’d imagined their proximity in ages would play to his advantage. But as soon as he began speaking, he realized he’d been wrong about that too. The young man’s expression was as dismissive of Emmett as only a young man’s expression can be.
—No kidding, he said with a slanted smile. An uncle from Kansas City. Imagine that.
The young man took a drag and flicked his unfinished cigarette into the street.
—Why don’t you do yourself a favor, kid, and head on home. Your momma’s wondering where you’ve gotten to.
As the young man sauntered away, Emmett made eye contact with the panhandler, who had watched the entire exchange. Emmett shifted his gaze to the guardhouse to see if the guard had been watching too, but he was leaning back in his chair reading a newspaper.
An older man in a jumpsuit came through the gates now and stopped to exchange a few friendly words with the panhandler. The man had a cap pushed so far back on his head, it made you wonder why he wore it at all. When he began walking away, Emmett approached.