Authors: Amor Towles
um de-dum de-dum,
Woolly hummed as he took another look at the map in his lap.
Performance is sweeter, nothing can beat her, life is completer . . .
Oh, hum de-dum de-dum.
—Get out of the road! someone yelled as they passed the Studebaker with a triple honk of the horn.
—Apologies, apologies, apologies! replied Woolly in reciprocal triplicate, with a friendly wave of the hand.
As he angled back into his lane, Woolly acknowledged that it probably wasn’t advisable to drive with a map in your lap, what with all the looking up and looking down. So keeping the steering wheel in his left hand, he held the map up in his right. That way he could look at the map out of one eye and the road out of the other.
The day before, when Duchess had secured the Phillips 66 Road Map of America at the Phillips 66 gas station, he handed it to Woolly, saying that since he was driving, Woolly would have to navigate. Woolly had accepted this responsibility with a touch of unease. When a gas station map is handed to you, it’s almost the perfect size—like a playbill at the theater. But in order to read a gas station map, you have to unfold and unfold and unfold it until the Pacific Ocean is up against the gear shift and the Atlantic Ocean is lapping at the passenger-side door.
Once a gas station map is open all the way, just the sight of it is likely to make you woozy, because it is positutely crisscrossed from
top to bottom and side to side by highways and byways and a thousand little roads, each of which is marked with a tiny little name or tiny little number. It reminded Woolly of the textbook for a biology class that he had taken while at St. Paul’s. Or was it St. Mark’s? Either way, early in this volume, on a left-hand page was a picture of a human skeleton. After looking carefully at this skeleton with all of the various bones in their proper places, when you turned to the next page fully expecting the skeleton to disappear, the skeleton was still there—because the next page was made of see-through paper! It was made of see-through paper so that you could study the nervous system right on top of the skeleton. And when you turned the page after that, you could study the skeleton, the nervous system,
the circulatory system with all of its little blue and red lines.
Woolly knew that this multilayered illustration was meant to make things perfectly clear, but he found it very unnerving. Was it a picture of a man or a woman, for instance? Old or young? Black or white? And how did all the blood cells and nerve impulses that were traveling along these complicated networks know where they were supposed to go? And once they got there, how did they find their way home? That’s what the Phillips 66 road map was like: an illustration with hundreds of arteries, veins, and capillaries branching ever outward until no one traveling along any one of them could possibly know where they were going.
But this was hardly the case with the place-mat map from Howard Johnson’s! It didn’t have to be unfolded at all. And it wasn’t covered with a confusion of highways and byways. It had exactly the right amount of roads. And those that were named were named clearly, while those that weren’t named clearly weren’t named at all.
The other highly commendable characteristic of the Howard Johnson’s map was the illustrations. Most mapmakers are particularly good at shrinking things. The states, the towns, the rivers, the roads, every single one of them is shrunk to a smaller dimension. But on the
Howard Johnson’s place mat, after reducing the towns, rivers, and roads, the mapmaker added back a selection of illustrations that were
than they were supposed to be. Like a big scarecrow in the lower left-hand corner that showed you where the cornfields were. Or the big tiger in the upper right-hand corner that showed you the Lincoln Park Zoo.
It was just the way the pirates used to draw their treasure maps. They shrunk down the ocean and the islands until they were very small and simple, but then they added back a big ship off the coast, and a big palm tree on the beach, and a big rock formation on a hill that was in the shape of a skull and was exactly fifteen paces from the X that marked the spot.
In the box that was in the lower right-hand corner of the place mat, there was a map within the map, which showed the center of town. According to this map, if you took a right on Second Street and drove an inch and a half, you would arrive at Liberty Park, in the middle of which would be a great big statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Suddenly, out of his left eye, Woolly saw the sign for Second Street. Without a moment to spare, he took a sharp right turn to the tune of another honking horn.
—Apologies, he called.
Leaning toward the windshield, he caught a glimpse of greenery.
—Here we go, he said. Here we go.
A minute later he was there.
Pulling to the curb, he opened his door and it was nearly taken off by a passing sedan.
Closing the door, Woolly skootched over the seat, climbed out the passenger side, waited for a break in traffic, and dashed across the street.
In the park, it was a bright and sunny day. The trees were in leaf,
the bushes in bloom, and the daisies sprouting up on both sides of the path.
—Here we go, he said again as he went zipping along.
But suddenly the daisy-lined path was intersected by another path, presenting Woolly with three different options: go left, go right, or go straight ahead. Wishing he’d thought to bring the place-mat map, Woolly looked in each direction. To his left were trees and shrubs and dark-green benches. To his right were more trees, shrubs, and benches, as well as a man in a baggy suit and floppy hat who looked vaguely familiar. But straight ahead, if Woolly squinted, he could just make out a fountain.
—Aha! he shouted.
For in Woolly’s experience, statues were often found in the vicinity of fountains. Like the statue of Garibaldi that was near the fountain in Washington Square Park, or the statue of the angel on top of that big fountain in Central Park.
With heightened confidence, Woolly ran to the lip of the fountain and paused in the refreshing mist to get his bearings. What he discovered from a quick survey was that the fountain was an epicenter from which eight different paths emanated (if you included the one that he’d just come zipping along). Fending off discouragement, Woolly slowly began working his way clockwise around the fountain’s circumference, peering down each of the individual paths with a hand over his eyes like a captain at sea. And there, at the end of the sixth path, was Honest Abe himself.
Rather than zip down this path, out of respect for the statue Woolly walked in long Lincolnian strides until he came to a stop a few feet away.
What a wonderful likeness, thought Woolly. Not only did it capture the president’s stature, it seemed to suggest his moral courage. While for the most part, this Lincoln was depicted as one might expect, with
his Shenandoah beard and his long black coat, the sculptor had made one unusual choice: In his right hand, the president was holding his hat lightly by the brim, as if he had just removed it upon meeting an acquaintance in the street.
Taking a seat on a bench in front of the statue, Woolly turned his thoughts to the day before, when Billy was explaining the history of the Lincoln Highway in the back of Emmett’s car. Billy had mentioned that when it was first being constructed (in nineteen something-something), enthusiasts had painted red, white, and blue stripes on barns and fenceposts all along the route. Woolly could picture this perfectly, because it reminded him of how on the Fourth of July his family would hang red, white, and blue streamers from the rafters of the great room and the rails of the porch.
Oh, how his great-grandfather had loved the Fourth of July.
On Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, Woolly’s great-grandfather hadn’t cared whether his children chose to celebrate the holiday with him or went off to celebrate with somebody else. But when it came to Independence Day, he did not abide absenteeism. He made it perfectly clear that every child, grandchild, and great-grandchild was expected in the Adirondacks no matter how far they had to travel.
And gather they did!
On the first of July, family members would start to pull up in the driveway, or arrive at the train station, or land at the little airstrip that was twenty miles away. By the afternoon of the second, every sleeping spot in the house was taken—with the grandparents, uncles, and aunts in the bedrooms, the younger cousins on the sleeping porch, and all the cousins who were lucky enough to be older than twelve in the tents among the pines.
When the Fourth arrived, there was a picnic lunch on the lawn, followed by canoe races, swim races, the riflery and archery contests, and a great big game of capture the flag. At six o’clock on the dot there were cocktails on the porch. At half past seven the bell would be rung
and everyone would make their way inside for a supper of fried chicken, corn on the cob, and Dorothy’s famous blueberry muffins. Then at ten, Uncle Bob and Uncle Randy would row out to the raft in the middle of the lake in order to launch the fireworks that they had bought in Pennsylvania.
How Billy would have loved it, thought Woolly with a smile. He would have loved the streamers on the fence rail and the tents among the trees and the baskets of blueberry muffins. But most of all, he would have loved the fireworks, which always started with whistles and pops, but would grow bigger and bigger until they seemed to fill the sky.
But even as Woolly was having this wonderful memory, his expression grew somber, for he had almost forgotten what his mother would refer to as
The Reason We’re All Here
: the recitations. Every year on the Fourth of July, once all the food had been set out, in lieu of grace, the youngest child older than sixteen would take his or her place at the head of the table and recite from the Declaration of Independence.
When in the course of human events
We hold these truths to be self-evident
, and so forth.
But, as Woolly’s great-grandfather liked to observe, if Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams had the vision to found the Republic, it was Mr. Lincoln who had the courage to perfect it. So, when the cousin who had recited from the Declaration had resumed his or her seat, the youngest child older than ten would take his or her place at the head of the table in order to recite the Gettysburg Address in its entirety.
When that was completed, the speaker would take a bow and the room would erupt into an ovation that was almost as loud as the one that followed the finale of the fireworks. Then the platters and baskets would go zipping around the table to the sound of laughter and good cheer. It was a moment that Woolly always looked forward to.
Looked forward to, that is, until the sixteenth of March 1944, the day that he turned ten.
Right after his mother and sisters had sung Happy Birthday on his behalf, his oldest sister, Kaitlin, had felt it necessary to note that come the Fourth of July, it would be Woolly’s turn to stand at the head of the table. Woolly was so unnerved by this bit of news that he could barely finish his piece of chocolate cake. Because if Woolly knew anything by the age of ten, it was that he wasn’t any good at rememorizing.
Sensing Woolly’s concern, his sister Sarah—who seven years before had given a flawless recitation—offered to serve as his coach.
—Memorizing the Address is well within your grasp, she said to Woolly with a smile. After all, it’s only ten sentences.
Initially, this assurance heartened Woolly. But when his sister showed him the actual text of the speech, Woolly discovered that while at first glance it might
to be only ten sentences, the very last sentence was actually three different sentences disguised as one.
—For all intents and porpoises (as Woolly used to say), there are twelve sentences, not ten.
—Even so, Sarah replied.
But just to be sure, she suggested they start their preparations well in advance. In the first week of April, Woolly would learn to recite the first sentence word for word. Then in the second week of April, he would learn the first and second sentences. Then in the third week, the first three sentences, and so on, until twelve weeks later, just as the month of June was drawing to a close, Woolly would be able to recite the entire speech without a hitch.
And that’s exactly how they prepared. Week by week, Woolly learned one sentence after another until he could recite the speech in its entirety. In fact, by the first of July he had recited it from beginning to end, not only in front of Sarah, but by himself in front of the mirror, at the kitchen sink while helping Dorothy do the dishes, and once in a canoe in the middle of the lake. So when the fateful day arrived, Woolly was ready.
After his cousin Edward had recited from the Declaration of
Independence and received a friendly round of applause, Woolly assumed the privileged spot.
But just as he was about to begin, he discovered the first problem with his sister’s plan: the people. For while Woolly had recited the Address many times in front of his sister and often by himself, he had never recited it in front of anybody else. And this wasn’t even anybody else. It was thirty of his closest relatives lined up on opposite sides of a table in two attentive rows, with none other than his great-grandfather seated at the opposite end.
Casting a glance at Sarah, Woolly received a nod of encouragement, which bolstered his confidence. But just as he was about to begin, Woolly discovered the second problem with his sister’s plan: the attire. For while Woolly had previously recited the Address in his corduroys, his pajamas, and his bathing suit, not once had he recited it in an itchy blue blazer with a red-and-white tie gripping at his throat.
As Woolly pulled at his collar with a crooked finger, some of his younger cousins began to giggle.
—Shh, said his grandmother.
Woolly looked back to Sarah, who gave him another friendly nod.
—Go ahead, she said.
Just as she had taught, Woolly stood up straight, took two deep breaths, and began: