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Authors: Amor Towles

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BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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When Billy was three weeks old, Mrs. Ebbers—whose children had children of their own—began to come every day to help keep house and see to Billy’s needs while Emmett’s mother tried to regain her strength. By April, Mrs. Ebbers was coming just in the mornings, and by June, she wasn’t coming at all. But over dinner on the first of July, when Emmett’s father asked with some enthusiasm what time they should head out for Seward, Emmett’s mother said she wasn’t sure she wanted to go.

Looking across the table, Emmett didn’t think he had ever seen his father so heartbroken. But as was his way, Emmett’s father pushed ahead, buoyed by a confidence that wasn’t overly inclined to learn from experience. On the morning of the Fourth, Emmett’s father made the
picnic dinner. He pulled down the hatch and climbed the narrow ladder in order to retrieve the basket from the attic. He put Billy in the basinet and brought the truck around to the front door. And when at one o’clock he came inside and called,
Come on, everybody! We don’t want to lose our favorite spot!
Emmett’s mother agreed to go.

Or rather, she acquiesced.

She climbed in the truck and didn’t say a word.

None of them said a word.

But once they arrived in Seward and had made their way to the center of the park and his father had billowed out the checkered cloth and begun to take the forks and knives from their troughs, Emmett’s mother said:

—Here, let me help.

And in that moment, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from them all.

After putting out the red plastic cups, she laid out the sandwiches that her husband had made. She fed Billy the apple sauce that her husband had thought to pack, and rocked Billy’s basinet back and forth until he fell asleep. As they drank the wine that her husband had remembered to bring, she asked him to tell some of those stories about his crazy uncles and aunts. And when, shortly after nightfall, the first salvo exploded over the park in a great distending spray of colored sparks, she reached out in order to squeeze her husband’s hand, and gave him a tender smile as tears ran down her face. And when Emmett and his father saw her tears, they smiled in return, for they could tell that these were tears of gratitude—gratitude that rather than relenting to her initial lack of enthusiasm, her husband had persisted so that the four of them could share in this grand exhibition on this warm summer night.

When the Watsons got home, as Emmett’s father brought in the basinet and the picnic basket, Emmett’s mother led him upstairs by
the hand, tucked him tightly under his covers, and gave him a kiss on the forehead, before going down the hallway to do the same for Billy.

That night Emmett slept as soundly as any night in his life. And when he woke in the morning, his mother was gone.

•   •   •

With a final look at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, Emmett returned the postcards to their envelope. He spun the thin red thread to seal them inside, and stowed them in Billy’s backpack, being sure to tightly cinch the straps.

That first year had been a hard one for Charlie Watson, Emmett remembered as he took his place beside his brother. The trials of weather continued unabated. Financial difficulties loomed. And the people of the town, they gossiped freely about Mrs. Watson’s sudden departure. But what weighed on his father the most—what weighed on them both—was the realization that when Emmett’s mother had gripped her husband’s hand as the fireworks began, it hadn’t been in gratitude for his persistence, for his fealty and support, it had been in gratitude that by gently coaxing her from her malaise in order to witness this magical display, he had reminded her of what joy could be, if only she were willing to leave her daily life
behind.

SEVEN
Duchess

I
t’s a map!
exclaimed Woolly in surprise.

—So it is.

We were sitting in a booth at the HoJo’s waiting for our breakfast. In front of each of us was a paper place mat that was also a simplified map of the state of Illinois showing major roads and towns along with some out-of-scale illustrations of regional landmarks. In addition, there were sixteen Howard Johnson’s, each with its little orange roof and little blue steeple.

—This is where we are, Woolly said, pointing to one of them.

—I’ll take your word for it.

—And here’s the Lincoln Highway. And look at this!

Before I could look over to see what
this
was, our waitress—who couldn’t have been more than seventeen—set our plates down on top of our place mats.

Woolly frowned. After watching her retreat, he nudged his plate to the right so that he could continue studying the map while he pretended to eat.

It was ironic to see how little attention Woolly paid to his breakfast, given how much attention he had paid to ordering it. When our waitress had handed him the menu, he looked a little unnerved by its size. Taking a breath, he set about reading the descriptions of every single item out loud. Then, to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, he went
back to the beginning and read them again. When our waitress returned to take our order, he reported with self-assurance that he was going to have waffles—or make that scrambled eggs—only to switch to the hotcakes when she was turning to go. But when his hotcakes arrived, having decorated them with an elaborate spiral of syrup, Woolly ignored them at his bacon’s expense. I, on the other hand, who hadn’t even bothered to glance at the menu, made quick business of my corned beef hash and sunny-side ups.

Having cleaned my plate, I sat back and took a look around, thinking if Woolly wanted to get a sense of what my restaurant was going to be like, he need look no further than a Howard Johnson’s. Because in every respect it was going to be the opposite.

From the standpoint of ambience, the good people at Howard Johnson’s had decided to carry the colors of their well-known rooftop into the restaurant by dressing the booths in bright orange and the waitresses in bright blue—despite the fact that the combination of orange and blue hasn’t been known to stimulate an appetite since the beginning of time. The definitive architectural element of the space was an uninterrupted chain of picture windows, which gave everyone an unimpeded view of the parking lot. The cuisine was a gussied-up version of what you’d find in a diner, and the defining characteristic of the clientele was that with a single glance you could tell more about them than you wanted to know.

Take the red-faced fellow in the next booth who was wiping up his yolk with a corner of whole wheat toast. A traveling salesman, if ever I saw one—and I’ve seen a lifetime supply. On the family tree of unmemorable middle-aged men, traveling salesmen are the first cousins of the has-been performers. They go to the same towns in the same cars and stay at the same hotels. In fact, the only way you can tell them apart is that the salesmen wear more sensible shoes.

As if I needed any proof, after watching him use his command of
percentages to tally his waitress’s tip, I saw him annotate the receipt, fold it in two, and stow it in his wallet for the boys back in accounting.

As the salesman stood to go, I noticed from the clock on the wall that it was already half past seven.

—Woolly, I said, the whole point of getting up early is to get an early start. So why don’t you tackle some of those hotcakes while I go to the john. Then we can pay the bill and hit the road.

—Sure thing, said Woolly, while pushing his plate another few inches to the right.

Before going to the men’s room, I got some change from the cashier and slipped into a phone booth. I knew that Ackerly had retired to Indiana, I just didn’t know where. So I had the operator look up the number for Salina and put me through. Given the hour, it rang eight times before someone finally answered. I think it was Lucinda, the brunette with the pink glasses who guarded the warden’s door. Taking a page from my father’s book, I gave her the old King Lear. That’s what my father would use whenever he needed a little help from someone on the other end of the line. Naturally, it entailed a British accent, but with a touch of befuddlement.

Explaining that I was Ackerly’s uncle from England, I told her that I wanted to send him a card on Independence Day in order to assure him there were no hard feelings, but I seemed to have misplaced my address book. Was there any way that she could see to helping a forgetful old soul? A minute later, she returned with the answer: 132 Rhododendron Road in South Bend.

With a whistle on my lips, I traveled from the phone booth to the men’s room, and who should I find standing at the urinals but the red-faced fellow from the neighboring booth. When I finished doing my business and joined him at the sinks, I gave him a quick smile in the mirror.

—You, sir, strike me as a salesman.

A little impressed, he looked back at me in the reflection.

—I am in sales.

I nodded my head.

—You’ve got that friendly man-of-the-world look about you.

—Why, thanks.

—Door-to-door?

—No, he said, a little offended. I’m an account man.

—Of course you are. In what line, if you don’t mind me asking.

—Kitchen appliances.

—Like refrigerators and dishwashers?

He winced a little, as if I’d hit a sore spot.

—We specialize in the smaller electric conveniences. Like blenders and hand mixers.

—Small but essential, I pointed out.

—Oh, yes, indeed.

—So tell me, how do you do it? When you go into an account, I mean, how do you make a sale? Of your blender, for instance?

—Our blender sells itself.

From the way he delivered the line, I could tell that he had done so ten thousand times before.

—You’re too modest, I’m sure. But seriously, when you speak of your blender versus the competitions’, how do you . . . differentiate it?

At the word
differentiate
, he grew rather grave and confidential. Never mind that he was talking to an eighteen-year-old kid in the bathroom of a Howard Johnson’s. He was gearing up for the pitch now and couldn’t stop himself even if he wanted to.

—I was only half kidding, he began, when I remarked that our blender sells itself. Because, you see, it wasn’t so long ago that all the leading blenders came with three settings: low, medium, and high. Our company was the first to differentiate its blender buttons by the
type
of blending: mix, beat, and whip.

—Ingenious. You must have the market to yourself.

—For a time, we did, he admitted. But soon enough our competitors were following suit.

—So you’ve got to keep one step ahead.

—Precisely. That’s why this year, I’m proud to say, we became the first blender manufacturer in America to introduce a fourth stage of blending.

—A fourth stage? After mix, beat, and whip?

The suspense was killing me.


Puree
.

—Bravo, I said.

And in a way, I meant it.

I gave him another once-over, this one in admiration. Then I asked him if he had fought in the war.

—I didn’t have the honor of doing so, he said, also for the ten thousandth time.

I shook my head in sympathy.

—What a hoopla when the boys came home. Fireworks and parades. Mayors pinning medals on lapels. And all the good-looking dames lining up to kiss any putz in a uniform. But you know what I think? I think the American people should pay a little more homage to the traveling salesmen.

He couldn’t tell if I was having him on or not. So I put a hint of emotion into my voice.

—My father was a traveling salesman. Oh, the miles he logged. The doorbells he rang. The nights he spent far from the comforts of home. I say to you that traveling salesmen are not simply hardworking men, they are the foot soldiers of capitalism!

I think he actually blushed at that one. Though it was hard to tell given his complexion.

—It’s an honor to meet you, sir, I said, and I stuck out my hand even though I hadn’t dried it yet.

•   •   •

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw our waitress and flagged her down.

—Do you need something else? she asked.

—Just the check, I replied. We’ve got places to go and people to see.

At the phrase
places to go
, she looked a little wistful. I do believe if I had told her we were headed for New York and offered her a ride, she would have hopped into the back seat without taking the time to change out of her uniform—if for no other reason than to see what happens when you drive off the edge of the place mat.

—I’ll bring it right over, she said.

As I headed to our booth, I regretted making fun of our neighbor for his attention to receipts. Because it suddenly occurred to me that we should be doing something similar on Emmett’s behalf. Since we were using the money from his envelope to cover our expenses, he had every right to expect a full accounting upon our return—so that he could be reimbursed before we divvied up the trust.

The night before, I’d left Woolly to pay the dinner bill while I checked into the hotel. I was going to ask him how much it ended up costing, but when I got to our booth, there was no Woolly.

Where could he have gotten to, I wondered, with a roll of the eyes. He couldn’t be in the bathroom, since that’s where I had just come from. Knowing him to be an admirer of shiny and colorful things, I looked over at the ice cream counter, but there were just two little kids pressing their noses against the glass, wishing it wasn’t so early in the morning. With a growing sense of foreboding, I turned to the plate-glass windows.

Out I looked into the parking lot, moving my gaze across the shimmering sea of glass and chrome to the very spot in which I had parked the Studebaker, and in which the Studebaker was no longer. Taking a step to my right—in order to see around a pair of beehive hairdos—I looked toward the parking lot’s entrance just in time to see Emmett’s car taking a right onto the Lincoln Highway.

—Jesus fucking shitting Christ.

Our waitress, who happened to arrive with the check at that very moment, turned pale.

—Excuse my French, I said.

Then glancing at the check, I gave her a twenty from the envelope.

As she hurried off for the change, I slumped down in my seat and stared across the table to where Woolly should have been. On his plate, which was back where it had started, the bacon was gone, along with a narrow wedge of hotcakes.

As I was admiring the precision with which Woolly had removed such a slender little slice from the stack, I noticed that under the white ceramic of his plate was the Formica surface of the table. Which is to say, the place mat was gone.

Shoving my plate aside, I picked up my own place mat. As I said before, it was a map of Illinois, with major roads and towns. But in the lower right-hand corner there was an inset with a map of the local downtown area, at the center of which was a little green square, and rising from the middle of that little green square, looking as large as life, was a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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