Authors: Amor Towles
As he neared the end of the book, Emmett came to a stop on two pages that were blank.
—Looks like they forgot to print a chapter.
—You missed a page.
Reaching over, Billy turned the page back. Here again the leaves were blank except that at the top of the left-hand page was the chapter title:
Billy touched the empty page with a hint of reverence.
—This is where Professor Abernathe invites you to set down the story of your own adventure.
—I guess you haven’t had your adventure yet, said Emmett with a smile.
—I think we’re on it now, said Billy.
—Maybe you can make a start of setting it down while we’re waiting for the train.
Billy shook his head. Then he turned all the way back to the very first chapter and read the opening sentence:
It is fitting that we begin our adventures with the story of Swift-Footed Achilles, whose ancient exploits were forever immortalized by Homer in his epic poem
Billy looked up from his book to explain.
—The causes of the Trojan War began with the Judgment of Paris. Angered that she was not invited to a banquet on Olympus, the goddess of discord threw a golden apple on the table with the inscription
For the Fairest
. When Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite each claimed the apple as their own, Zeus sent them to earth, where Paris, a Trojan prince, was chosen to resolve the dispute.
Billy pointed to an illustration of three loosely clad women gathered around a young man sitting under a tree.
—To influence Paris, Athena offered him wisdom, Hera offered him power, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the wife of King Menelaus. When Paris
chose Aphrodite, she helped him spirit Helen away, resulting in Menelaus’s outrage and the declaration of war. But Homer didn’t begin his story at the beginning.
Billy moved his finger to the third paragraph and pointed to a three-word phrase in Latin.
—Homer began his story
in medias res
, which means
in the middle of the thing
. He began in the ninth year of the war with the hero, Achilles, nursing his anger in his tent. And ever since then, this is the way that many of the greatest adventure stories have been told.
Billy looked up at his brother.
—I am pretty sure that we are on our adventure, Emmett. But I won’t be able to make a start of setting it down until I know where the middle of it is.
oolly and I were
lying on our beds in a HoJo’s about fifty miles west of Chicago. When we had passed the first one, right after crossing the Mississippi into Illinois, Woolly had admired the orange roof and blue steeple. When we passed the second one, he did a double take—like he was worried that he was seeing things, or that I had somehow lost my bearings.
—No need to fret, I said. It’s just a Howard Johnson’s.
—A Howard Who’s?
—It’s a restaurant and motor lodge, Woolly. They’re everywhere you go, and they always look like that.
—All of them?
—All of them.
By the time Woolly was sixteen, he had been to Europe at least five times. He’d been to London and Paris and Vienna, where he’d wandered the halls of museums and attended the opera and climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower. But while on his native soil, Woolly had spent most of his time shuttling between an apartment on Park Avenue, the house in the Adirondacks, and the campuses of three New England prep schools. What Woolly didn’t know about America would fill the Grand Canyon.
Woolly looked back over his shoulder as we passed the entrance to the restaurant.
—Twenty-eight flavors of ice cream, he quoted in some amazement.
So when it was growing late and we were tired and hungry and Woolly saw a bright blue steeple rising above the horizon, there was just no escaping it.
Woolly had spent plenty of nights in hotels, but never in one like a Howard Johnson’s. When we came into the room, he examined it like a private detective from another planet. He opened the closets, startled to find an ironing board and iron. He opened the bedside drawer, startled to find a Bible. And when he went into the bathroom, he came right back out holding up two little bars of soap.
—They’re individually wrapped!
Once we had settled in, Woolly turned on the television. When the signal came up, there was the Lone Ranger, wearing a hat even bigger and whiter than Chef Boy-Ar-Dee’s. He was talking to a young gunslinger, giving him a lecture on truth, justice, and the American way. You could tell the gunslinger was losing his patience, but just when he was about to reach for his six-shooter, Woolly turned the channel.
Now it was Sergeant Joe Friday in a suit and fedora giving the exact same speech to a delinquent working on his motorcycle. The delinquent was losing his patience too. But just when it looked like he was going to hurl his ratchet at Sergeant Friday’s head, Woolly turned the channel.
Here we go again, I thought.
Sure enough, Woolly kept switching the channel until he found a commercial. Then after lowering the volume all the way, he propped his pillows and made himself comfortable.
Wasn’t that classic Woolly? In the car he was mesmerized by the sound of advertisements without their pictures. Now he wanted to watch the pictures of advertisements without their sounds. When the commercial break was over, Woolly turned off his light and slid down so he could lie with his hands behind his head and stare at the ceiling.
Woolly had taken a few more drops of medicine after dinner and I
figured they’d be working their magic right about now. So I was a little surprised when he addressed me.
—Hey, Duchess, he said, still looking at the ceiling.
—On the Saturday night at eight when you and me and Emmett and Billy are sitting at the table by the jukebox, who else will be there?
Lying back, I looked up at the ceiling too.
—At Leonello’s? Let’s see. On a Saturday night you’d have a few of the top dogs from city hall. A boxer and some mobsters. Maybe Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, if they happen to be in town.
—They would all be at Leonello’s on the same night?
—That’s the way it goes, Woolly. You open a place that no one can get into, and everybody wants to be there.
Woolly thought about this for a minute.
—Where are they sitting?
I pointed to a spot on the ceiling.
—The gangsters are in the booth next to the mayor. The boxer is over by the bar eating oysters with some chantoosie. And the DiMaggios are at the table next to ours. But here’s the most important part, Woolly. Over there in the booth by the kitchen door is a small balding man in a pinstripe suit sitting all by himself.
—I see him, said Woolly. Who is he?
. . .
—You mean the owner?
—And he sits by himself?
—Exactly. At least, in the early part of the evening. Usually, he settles in around six o’clock before anyone else is in the place. He’ll have a little something to eat and a glass of Chianti. He’ll go over the books and maybe take a call on one of those phones with the long cord that they can bring right to your table. But then around eight, when
the place is starting to hum, he’ll polish off a double espresso and make his way from table to table.
How is everybody tonight?
he’ll say, while patting a customer’s shoulder.
It’s good to see you again. You hungry? I hope so. ’Cause there’s gonna be plenty to eat.
After giving the ladies a few compliments, he’ll signal the bartender.
Hey, Rocko. Another round over here for my friends.
Then he’ll move on to the next table, where there’ll be more shoulder patting, more compliments for the ladies, and another round of drinks. Or maybe this time, it’s a plate of calamari, or some tiramisu. Either way, it’s on the house. And when Leonello’s finished making his rounds, everybody in the place—and I mean everybody from the mayor to Marilyn Monroe—will feel like tonight is something special.
Woolly was silent, giving the moment its due. Then I told him something I had never told anyone before.
—That’s what I would do, Woolly. That’s what I would do, if I had fifty grand.
I could hear him roll over on his side so he could look at me.
—You’d get a table at Leonello’s?
—No, Woolly. I’d open
Leonello’s. A little Italian place with red leather booths and Sinatra on the box. A place where there are no menus and every table is spoken for. In the booth by the kitchen, I’d have a little dinner and take some calls. Then around eight, after a double espresso, I’d go from table to table greeting the customers and telling the bartender to send them another round of drinks—on the house.
I could tell that Woolly liked my idea almost as much as he liked Billy’s, because after he rolled on his back he was smiling at the ceiling, imagining what the whole scene would look like almost as clearly as I could. Maybe even more so.
Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll get him to draw me a floor plan.
—Where would it be? he asked after a moment.
—I don’t know yet, Woolly. But once I’ve decided, you’ll be the first to know.
And he smiled at that too.
A few minutes later, he was in Slumberland. I could tell because when his arm slipped off the edge of the bed, he left it hanging there with his fingers grazing the carpet.
Getting up, I returned his arm to his side and covered him with the blanket from the bottom of the bed. Then I filled a glass with water and placed it on the nightstand. Though Woolly’s medicine always left him thirsty in the morning, he never seemed to remember to put a glass of water within reach before drifting off to sleep.
When I had turned off the TV, undressed, and climbed under my own covers, what I found myself wondering was
Where would it be?
From the beginning, I had always imagined that when I had my own place it would be in the city—probably down in the Village on MacDougal or Sullivan Street, in one of those little spots around the corner from the jazz clubs and cafés. But maybe I was on the wrong track. Maybe what I should be doing is opening in a state where they don’t have a Leonello’s yet. A state like . . . California.
Sure, I thought. California.
After we had picked up Woolly’s trust and driven back to Nebraska, we wouldn’t even have to get out of the car. It would be just like this morning with Woolly and Billy in the back seat, and me and Emmett up front, only now the arrow on Billy’s compass would be pointed west.
The problem was that I wasn’t so sure about San Francisco.
Don’t get me wrong. Frisco’s a town with plenty of atmosphere—what with the fog drifting along the wharf, and the winos drifting through the Tenderloin, and the giant paper dragons drifting down the streets of Chinatown. That’s why in the movies someone’s always getting murdered there. And yet, despite all its atmosphere, San Francisco
didn’t seem to warrant a spot like Leonello’s. It just didn’t have the panache.
But Los Angeles?
The city of Los Angeles has so much panache it could bottle it and sell it overseas. It’s where the movie stars have lived since the beginning of movie stars. More recently, it’s where the boxers and mobsters were setting up shop. Even Sinatra had made the move. And if Ol’ Blue Eyes could trade in the Big Apple for Tinseltown, so could we.
Los Angeles, I thought to myself, where it’s summer all winter long, every waitress is a starlet in the making, and the street names have long since run out of presidents and trees.
Now that’s what I call a fresh start!
But Emmett was right about the kit bag. Making a fresh start isn’t just a matter of having a new address in a new town. It isn’t a matter of having a new job, or a new phone number, or even a new name. A fresh start requires the cleaning of the slate. And that means paying off all that you owe, and collecting all that you’re due.
By letting go of the farm and taking his beating in the public square, Emmett had already balanced his accounts. If we were going to head out west together, then maybe it was time for me to balance mine.
It didn’t take me long to do the math. I’d spent more than enough nights in my bunk at Salina thinking about my unsettled debts, so the big ones rose right to the surface, three of them in all: One I would have to make good on, and two I would have to collect.
mmett and Billy moved
quickly through the scrub at the base of the embankment, headed west. It would have been easier going were they to walk on the tracks, but the notion of doing so struck Emmett as reckless even in the moonlight. Stopping, he looked back at Billy, who was doing his best to keep up.
—Are you sure you don’t want me to carry your backpack?
—I’ve got it, Emmett.
As Emmett resumed his pace, he glanced at Billy’s watch and saw that it was quarter to twelve. They had left the station at quarter past eleven. Though the walking had been harder than Emmett had anticipated, it seemed like they should have been at the pine grove by now, so he breathed a sigh of relief when he finally saw the pointed silhouettes of evergreens up ahead. Reaching the grove, they took a few steps into its shadows and waited in silence, listening to the owls overhead and smelling the scent of the pine needles underfoot.
Glancing again at Billy’s watch, Emmett saw that it was now eleven fifty-five.
—Wait here, he said.
Climbing the embankment, Emmett looked down the tracks. In the distance he could see the pinpoint of light that emanated from the front of the locomotive. As Emmett rejoined his brother in the shadows, he was glad they hadn’t walked on the tracks. For even though to Emmett’s eye the locomotive had seemed a mile away, by
the time he reached his brother, the long chain of boxcars was already flashing past.
Whether from excitement or anxiety, Billy took Emmett’s hand.
Emmett guessed that fifty cars raced by before the train began to slow. When it finally rolled to a stop, the last ten cars were right in front of where Emmett and Billy were standing, just as the panhandler had said they would be.
So far, everything had happened as the panhandler had said it would.
What’s the difference between a ton of flour and a ton of crackers?
That’s what the panhandler had asked Emmett back at the freight yard. Then with a wink he had answered his own riddle:
About a hundred cubic feet.
A company that has freight traveling back and forth along the same route—he went on to explain in his good-natured way—was generally better off if they had their own capacity so they weren’t exposed to fluctuations in price. Since Nabisco’s facility in Manhattan received weekly deliveries of flour from the Midwest and sent weekly deliveries of finished goods back to the region, it was sensible for them to own their own cars. The only problem was that there are few things more dense than a bag of flour, and few things less so than a box of crackers. So while all of the company’s cars were full when they headed west, on the way back to New York there were always five or six that were empty and that no one bothered to secure.
From the free-rider’s perspective, the panhandler pointed out, the fact that the empty cars were hitched at the back of the train was particularly fortuitous, because when the engine of the Sunset East arrived in Lewis a few minutes after twelve, its caboose would still be a mile from the station.
Once the train had stopped, Emmett quickly scaled the embankment and tried the doors of the closest cars, finding the third one unlocked. After beckoning Billy and giving him a boost, Emmett climbed inside
and pulled the door shut with a loud clack—throwing the car into darkness.
The panhandler had said that they could leave the hatch in the roof open for light and air—as long as they were sure to close it when they were approaching Chicago, where an open hatch was unlikely to go unnoticed. But Emmett hadn’t thought to open the hatch before he closed the boxcar’s door, or even to make note of where it was. Reaching out his hands, he felt for the latch so that he could open the door again, but the train jolted forward, sending him stumbling back against the opposite wall.
In the darkness he could hear his brother moving.
—Stay put, Billy, he cautioned, while I find the hatch.
But suddenly there was a beam of light shining in his direction.
—Do you want to use my flashlight?
—Yes, Billy, I would. Or better yet, why don’t you train the beam on that ladder in the corner.
Climbing the ladder, Emmett threw the hatch open, letting in moonlight and a welcome rush of air. Having been exposed to the sun all day, the boxcar’s interior must have been eighty degrees.
—Why don’t we stretch out over here, Emmett said, leading Billy to the other end of the car, where they wouldn’t be so easily seen were someone to look through the hatch.
Taking two shirts from his backpack, Billy handed one to Emmett, explaining that if they folded them over, they could use them as pillows, just like soldiers. Then having refastened the straps, Billy lay down with his head on his folded shirt and was soon sound asleep.
Though Emmett was almost as exhausted as his brother, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep so quickly. He was too keyed up from the day’s events. What he really wanted was a cigarette. He would have to settle for a drink of water.
Quietly picking up Billy’s backpack, Emmett carried it to a spot
beneath the hatch, where the air was a little cooler, and sat with his back to the wall. Unfastening the backpack’s straps, he removed Billy’s canteen, twisted off the cap, and took a drink. Emmett was so thirsty he could easily have emptied it, but they might not have a chance to get more water until they arrived in New York, so he took a second swallow, returned the canteen to the pack, and securely refastened the straps just as his brother would. Emmett was about to set the backpack down when he noticed the outer pocket. Glancing at Billy, he undid the flap and removed the manila envelope.
For a moment Emmett sat with the envelope in his hands as if he were trying to weigh it. After taking a second glance at his brother, he unwound the red thread and poured his mother’s postcards into his lap.
As a boy, Emmett would never have described his mother as unhappy. Not to another person and not to himself. But at some point, at an unspoken level he had come to know that she was. He had come to know it not by tears or open laments, but by the sight of unfinished tasks in the early afternoon. Coming downstairs into the kitchen, he might find a dozen carrots lying on the cutting board beside the chopping knife, six of them sliced and six of them whole. Or returning from the barn, he might find half of the laundry flapping on the line and the other half damp in a basket. Looking for where his mother had gotten to, he would often find her sitting on the front steps with her elbows on her knees. When quietly, almost tentatively, Emmett would say,
, she would look up as if pleasantly surprised. Making room for him on the step, she would put her arm over his shoulder or tussle his hair, then go back to looking at whatever it was that she had been looking at before—something somewhere between the front porch steps and the horizon.
Because young children don’t know how things are supposed to be done, they will come to imagine that the habits of their household are the habits of the world. If a child grows up in a family where angry
words are exchanged over supper, he will assume that angry words are exchanged at every kitchen table; while if a child grows up in a family where no words are exchanged over supper at all, he will assume that all families eat in silence. And yet, despite the prevalence of this truth, the young Emmett knew that chores left half done in the early afternoon were a sign of something amiss—just as he would come to know a few years later that the shifting of crops from one season to the next was the sign of a farmer who’s at a loss what to do.
Holding the postcards up to the moonlight, Emmett revisited them one by one in their westward order—Ogallala, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, Ely, Reno, Sacramento, San Francisco—scanning the pictures from corner to corner and reading the messages word for word, as if he were an intelligence officer looking for a coded communication from an agent in the field. But if tonight he studied the cards more closely than he had at the kitchen table, he studied none more closely than he studied the last.
This is the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park
, it read,
and every year on the Fourth of July it has one of the biggest fireworks displays in all of California.
Emmett had no recollection of telling Billy about their mother’s love of fireworks, but it was uncontestably so. When she was growing up in Boston, his mother would spend her summers in a little town on Cape Cod. While she hadn’t spoken much about her time there, she had described with an old excitement how the volunteer fire department would sponsor a fireworks display over the harbor every Fourth of July. When she was a child, she and her family would watch from the end of their pier. But once she got older, she was allowed to row out among the sailboats that were swinging on their moorings so she could watch the pyrotechnics while lying alone in the bottom of her boat.
When Emmett was eight, his mother learned from Mr. Cartwright at the hardware store that the town of Seward—a little more than an
hour from Morgen—had quite a little celebration on the Fourth of July, with a parade in the afternoon and fireworks after dark. Emmett’s mother wasn’t interested in the parade. So after an early supper, Emmett and his parents got in their truck and made the journey.
When Mr. Cartwright had said it was
quite a little celebration
, Emmett’s mother had imagined it would be like any other small-town festivity, with banners made by the schoolchildren and refreshments sold off folding tables by the women of the parish. But when they arrived, she was stunned to discover that the Fourth of July in Seward put to shame any Fourth of July that she had ever seen. It was a celebration that the township prepared for all year and to which people came from as far away as Des Moines. By the time the Watsons arrived, the only parking was a mile from the center of town, and when they finally walked into Plum Creek Park, where the fireworks display was to take place, every square inch of lawn had been claimed by families on blankets eating their picnic dinners.
The following year, his mother had no intention of making the same mistake. At breakfast on the Fourth, she announced they would be leaving for Seward right after lunch. But once she had prepared their picnic dinner and opened the cutlery drawer to take out some forks and knives, she stopped and stared. Then turning around, she walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs with Emmett close on her heels. Moving a chair from her bedroom, she climbed up on it and reached for a short length of string that was hanging from the ceiling. When she pulled the string, a hatch dropped down with a sliding ladder that led to an attic.
Wide-eyed, Emmett was prepared for his mother to tell him that he should wait right there, but she was so intent upon her purpose she mounted the ladder without pausing to deliver a cautionary remark. And when he climbed up the narrow steps after her, she was so engaged in moving boxes she didn’t bother to send him back down.
As his mother went about her search, Emmett surveyed the attic’s
strange inventory: an old wireless that was almost as tall as he was, a broken rocking chair, a black typewriter, and two large trunks covered in colorful stickers.
—Here we are, his mother said.
Giving Emmett a smile, she held up what looked like a small suitcase. Only instead of leather, it was made of wicker.
Back in the kitchen, his mother put the suitcase on the table.
Emmett could see that she was perspiring from the warmth of the attic, and when she wiped her brow with the back of her hand, she left a streak of dust on her skin. After throwing the clasps on the case, she smiled at Emmett again, then opened the lid.
Emmett knew well enough that a suitcase stored in an attic was likely to be empty, so he was startled to find that not only was this one packed, it was packed to perfection. Neatly arranged inside was everything you could possibly need to have a picnic. Under one strap there was a stack of six red plates, while under another, a tower of six red cups. There were long narrow troughs holding forks, knives, and spoons, and a shorter one for a wine opener. There were even two specially shaped indentations for salt and pepper shakers. And in the recess of the lid, there was a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth held in place by two leather straps.
In all his life, Emmett had never seen anything so ingeniously put together—with nothing missing, nothing extra, and everything in its place. He wouldn’t see anything quite like it again, until at the age of fifteen, when he saw the worktable in Mr. Schulte’s shed with its orderly arrangement of slots, pegs, and hooks to hold his various tools.
—Golly, Emmett had said, and his mother had laughed.
—It was from your great aunt Edna.
Then she shook her head.
—I don’t think I’ve opened it since the day we were married. But we’re going to put it to use tonight!
That year they arrived in Seward at two in the afternoon and found
a spot right in the center of the lawn to spread out their checkered cloth. Emmett’s father, who had expressed some reluctance about going so early in the day, showed no signs of impatience once they were there. In fact, as something of a surprise, he produced a bottle of wine from his bag. And as Emmett’s parents drank, Emmett’s father told stories about his penny-pinching aunt Sadie and his absent-minded uncle Dave and all his other crazy relatives back East, making Emmett’s mother laugh in a way she rarely laughed.
As the hours passed, the lawn filled with more blankets and baskets, with more laughter and good feelings. When night had finally fallen, and the Watsons lay on their checkered cloth with Emmett in the middle, and the first of the fireworks whistled and popped, his mother had said:
I wouldn’t have missed this for the world
. And driving home that night, it had seemed to Emmett that the three of them would be attending Seward’s Fourth of July celebration for the rest of their lives.
But the following February—in the weeks after Billy was born—his mother was suddenly not herself. Some days she was so tired she couldn’t even start the chores that she used to leave half done. Other days she didn’t get out of bed.