Authors: Amor Towles
If proximity in age had proven a liability with the first man, Emmett decided he’d make the most of the difference in age with the second.
—Excuse me, sir, he said, with deference.
Turning, the man looked at Emmett with a friendly smile.
—Hey there, son. What can I do you for?
As Emmett repeated the story about his uncle, the man in the jumpsuit listened with interest, even leaning a little forward as if he didn’t want to miss a word. But once Emmett finished, he shook his head.
—I’d love to help ya, fella, but I just fix ’em. I don’t ask where they’re headed.
As the mechanic continued down the street, Emmett began to accept that he needed a whole new plan of action.
—Hey there, someone called.
Emmett turned to find it was the panhandler.
—I’m sorry, Emmett said, drawing the pockets out of his pants. I’ve got nothing for you.
—You’re misunderstandin’, friend. It’s me who’s got somethin’ for you.
As Emmett hesitated, the panhandler wheeled himself closer.
—You’re lookin’ to hop a freight train headed for New York. That about it?
Emmett exhibited a little surprise.
—I lost my legs, not my ears! But listen: If you’re tryin’ to hop a train, you’re askin’ the wrong guys. Jackson wouldn’t stomp on your foot if your toes were on fire. And like Arnie says, he just fixes ’em. Which is no small matter, mind you, but it’s got everythin’ to do with how a train is runnin’, and nothin’ to do with where it’s goin’. So there’s no point in askin’ Jackson or Arnie. No, sirree. If you want to know how to hop a train to New York, the guy you should be talkin’ to is me.
Emmett must have betrayed incredulity, because the panhandler grinned and pointed a thumb to his chest.
—I worked for the railroads for twenty-five years. Fifteen as a brakeman and ten in the switchin’ yard right here in Lewis. How do you think I lost my legs?
He pointed to his lap with another smile. Then he looked Emmett over, though in a more generous manner than the young workman had.
—What are you—eighteen?
—That’s right, said Emmett.
—Believe it or not, I started ridin’ the rails when I was a few years
younger than you. Back in the day, they’d take you on if you was sixteen; maybe fifteen, if you was tall for your age.
The panhandler shook his head with a nostalgic smile, then he leaned back like an old man who was sitting in his favorite living room chair, making himself comfortable.
—I got my start on the Union Pacific lines and worked the southwest corridor for seven years. I spent another eight workin’ for the Pennsylvania Railroad—the largest in the nation. In those days, I spent more time in motion than I spent standin’ still. It got so when I was home, when I’d get out of bed in the mornin’ it would feel like the whole house was rollin’ under my feet. I’d have to hold on to the furniture just to make my way to the bathroom.
The panhandler laughed and shook his head again.
—Yep. The Pennsylvania. The Burlington. The Union Pacific and Great Northern. I know all the lines.
Then he was quiet.
—You were talking about a train to New York, Emmett prompted gently.
—Righto, he replied. The Big Apple! But are you sure about New York? The thing about a freight yard is you can get to anywhere you’ve thought of, and plenty of places you haven’t. Florida. Texas. California. How about Santa Fe? You been there? Now that’s a town. This time of year, it’s warm durin’ the day and cool at night, and it’s got some of the friendliest
you’ll ever meet.
As the panhandler began laughing, Emmett worried he was losing the thread of their conversation again.
—I’d love to go to Santa Fe at some point, Emmett said, but for the time being, I need to go to New York.
The panhandler stopped laughing and adopted a more serious expression.
—Well, that’s life in a nutshell, ain’t it. Lovin’ to go to one place and havin’ to go to another.
The panhandler looked left and right, then he wheeled a little closer.
—I know you were askin’ Jackson about an afternoon train to New York. Now that would be the Empire Special, which leaves at one fifty-five, and she’s a beauty. Runnin’ at ninety miles an hour and stoppin’ only six times, she can make it to the city in under twenty hours. But if you want to
to New York, then you don’t want to ride the Empire Special. ’Cause when she reaches Chicago, she takes on a carload of bearer bonds headed for Wall Street. She never has fewer than four armed guards, and when they decide to remove you from the train, they don’t wait for it to come into a station.
The panhandler looked up in the air.
—Now, the West Coast Perishables, she comes through Lewis at six o’clock. And she ain’t a bad ride. But this time of year, she’ll be filled to the brim and you’d have to board her in broad daylight. So you don’t want the Perishables neither. What you want is the Sunset East, which will be comin’ through Lewis shortly after midnight. And I can tell you exactly how to board her, but before I do, you’ll have to answer me a question.
—Go ahead, said Emmett.
The panhandler grinned.
—What’s the difference between a ton of flour and a ton of crackers?
When Emmett returned to the passenger terminal, he was relieved to find Billy just where he’d left him—sitting on the bench with his backpack at his side and his big red book in his lap.
When Emmett joined him, Billy looked up with some excitement.
—Did you figure out which train we’re going to hitch a ride on, Emmett?
—I did, Billy. But it doesn’t go until shortly after midnight.
Billy nodded to express his approval, as if shortly after midnight was exactly when it should go.
—Here, said Emmett, taking off his brother’s watch.
—No, said Billy. You wear it for now. You need to keep track of the time.
While strapping the watch back on, Emmett saw that it was nearly two.
—I’m starving, he said. Maybe I’ll take a look around and see if I can scrounge up something for us to eat.
—You don’t have to scrounge up something, Emmett. I have our lunch.
Billy reached into his backpack and took out his canteen, two paper napkins, and two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper with tight creases and sharp corners. Emmett smiled, noting that Sally wrapped her sandwiches as neatly as she made her beds.
—One is roast beef and one is ham, Billy said. I couldn’t remember if you liked roast beef more than ham, or ham more than roast beef, so we decided on one of each. They both have cheese, but only the roast beef has mayonnaise.
—I’ll take the roast beef, said Emmett.
The brothers unwrapped their sandwiches and both took healthy bites.
—God bless, Sally.
Billy looked up in agreement with Emmett’s sentiment, but apparently curious as to the timing of the remark. By way of explanation, Emmett held his sandwich in the air.
—Oh, said Billy. These aren’t from Sally.
—They’re from Mrs. Simpson.
Emmett froze for a moment with his sandwich in the air, while Billy took another bite.
—Who is Mrs. Simpson, Billy?
—The nice lady who sat beside me.
—Sat beside you here?
Emmett pointed to the spot on the bench where he was sitting.
—No, said Billy pointing to the empty spot on his right. Sat beside me here.
—She made these sandwiches?
—She bought them in the coffee shop, then brought them back because I told her I had to stay put.
Emmett set his sandwich down.
—You shouldn’t be accepting sandwiches from strangers, Billy.
—But I didn’t accept the sandwiches when we were strangers, Emmett. I accepted them when we were friends.
Emmett closed his eyes for a moment.
—Billy, he said as gently as he could, you can’t become friends with someone just by talking to them in a train station. Even if you spent an hour together sitting on a bench, you would hardly know anything about them.
—I know a lot about Mrs. Simpson, Billy corrected. I know that she was raised outside Ottumwa, Iowa, on a farm just like ours, although they only grew corn and it never got foreclosed. And she has two daughters, one who lives in St. Louis and one who lives in Chicago. And the one who lives in Chicago, whose name is Mary, is about to have a baby. Her first. And that’s why Mrs. Simpson was here in the station. In order to take the Empire Special to Chicago so that she could help Mary with the care of the baby. Mr. Simpson couldn’t go because he’s the president of the Lions Club and is presiding over a dinner on Thursday night.
Emmett held up his hands.
—All right, Billy. I can see that you’ve learned a lot about Mrs. Simpson. So the two of you may not be strangers, exactly. You’ve been getting acquainted with each other. But that still doesn’t make you friends. To become friends doesn’t take just an hour or two. It takes a bit longer. Okay?
Emmett picked up his sandwich and took another bite.
—How much? asked Billy.
—How much longer do you need to talk to a stranger before they become your friend?
For a moment, Emmett considered wading into the intricacies of how relationships evolve over time. Instead, he said:
Billy thought about this for a moment, then shook his head.
—Ten days seems like a very long time to have to wait to become a friend, Emmett.
—Six days? suggested Emmett.
Billy took a bite and chewed as he considered, then nodded his head with satisfaction.
—Three days, he said.
—All right, said Emmett. We’ll agree that it takes at least three days for someone to become a friend. But before that we’ll think of them as strangers.
—Or acquaintances, said Billy.
The brothers went back to eating.
Emmett gestured with his head toward the big red book, which Billy had set down in the spot where Mrs. Simpson had been.
—What is this book you’ve been reading?
Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers
—Sounds compelling. Can I take a look?
With a touch of concern, Billy looked from the book to his brother’s hands and back again.
Setting his sandwich down on the bench, Emmett carefully wiped his hands on his napkin. Then Billy passed him the book.
Knowing his brother as he did, Emmett did not simply open the
book to some random page. He began at the beginning—the
beginning—by opening to the endpapers. And it was a good thing he had. For while the book’s cover was solid red with a golden title, the endpapers were illustrated with a detailed map of the world crisscrossed by an array of dotted lines. Each of the different lines was identified by a letter of the alphabet and presumably indicated the route of a different adventurer.
Billy, who had put down his sandwich and wiped his hands on his own napkin, moved a little closer to Emmett so that they could study the book together—just as he had when he was younger and Emmett would read to him from a picture book. And just as in those days, Emmett looked to Billy to see if he was ready to continue. At Billy’s nod, Emmett turned to the title page, where he was surprised to find an inscription.
To the Intrepid Billy Watson,
With wishes for all manner of travels and adventures,
Though the name seemed vaguely familiar, Emmett couldn’t remember who Ellie Matthiessen was. Billy must have sensed his brother’s curiosity, because he gently put a finger on her signature.
Of course, thought Emmett. The one with the glasses who had spoken so fondly of Billy.
Turning the page, Emmett came to the table of contents.
—They’re in alphabetical order, said Billy.
After a moment, Emmett turned back to the endpapers to compare the heroes’ names with the letters attached to the various dotted lines. Yes, he thought, there was Magellan sailing from Spain to the East Indies, and Napoleon marching into Russia, and Daniel Boone exploring the wilds of Kentucky.
Having glanced briefly at the introduction, Emmett began turning through the book’s twenty-six chapters, each of which was eight pages long. While each offered a glimpse of the hero’s boyhood, the primary focus was on his exploits, achievements, and legacy. Emmett could understand why his brother could return to this book again and again, because each chapter had an array of maps and illustrations designed to fascinate: like the blueprint of da Vinci’s flying machine and the plan of the labyrinth in which Theseus fought the Minotaur.