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Authors: Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway (19 page)

BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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—Four score and seven years
, he said.
Four score and seven years ago.

There was more sniggering from the younger cousins, followed by another shush from his grandmother.

Remembering that Sarah had said if he got nervous he should look over the heads of the family, Woolly raised his eyes to the moose head on the wall. But finding the gaze of the moose unsympathetic, he tried looking instead at his shoes.


Four score and seven years ago
 . . . , he began again.


Our fathers brought forth
, Sarah softly prompted.


Our fathers brought forth
, Woolly said looking up at his sister.
Our fathers brought forth on this countenance.


On this continent . . .


On this continent a new nation. A new nation . . .


 . . . Conceived in Liberty
, said a friendly voice.

Only it wasn’t Sarah’s voice. It was the voice of cousin James, who had graduated from Princeton a few weeks before. And this time, when Woolly renewed his recital, Sarah and James joined in.


Conceived in Liberty
, the three of them said together,
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal
.

Then other relatives who in their time had been tasked with reciting Mr. Lincoln’s Address added their voices. Then joining the chorus were members of the family who had never been required to recite the Address, but who had heard it so many times before that they too knew it by heart. Soon, everyone at the table—including Great-grandpa—was reciting; and when all together they said those grand and hopeful words that the
government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth
, the family burst into a round of cheering like the room had never heard.

Surely, this was the way that Abraham Lincoln had meant his Address to be recited. Not as a little boy standing alone at the head of a table in an itchy coat, but as four generations of a family speaking together in unison.

Oh, if only his father could have been there, thought Woolly, wiping a tear from his cheek with the flat of his hand. If only his father could be here now.

After Woolly had battled away the blues and finished paying his respects to the president, he went back the way he’d come. This time, when he reached the fountain, he was careful to walk
counterclockwise
around its circumference until he reached the sixth path.

No path looks quite the same in both directions, so as Woolly progressed, he began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. Perhaps he had miscounted the number of paths when he had counterclockwised the fountain. But just as he was considering retracing his steps, he saw the man in the floppy hat.

When Woolly gave him the smile of recognition, the man gave him the smile of recognition back. But when Woolly gave him a little wave, the man didn’t return it. Instead, he reached into the baggy pockets of his baggy jacket. Then he formed a circle with his arms by placing the fist of his right hand on his left shoulder and the fist of his left hand on his right shoulder. Intrigued, Woolly watched as the man began moving his hands down the length of the opposing arms leaving little white objects at every consecutive inch.

—It’s popcorn, Woolly said in amazement.

Once the pieces of popcorn extended from the top of his shoulders to the top of his wrists, ever so slowly the man began to open his arms until they were stretching out at his sides like . . . like . . .

Like a scarecrow! Woolly realized. That’s why the man in the floppy hat had seemed so familiar. Because he looked exactly like the scarecrow in the bottom left-hand corner of the place-mat map.

Only, this man wasn’t a scarecrow. He was the opposite of a scarecrow. For once his arms were fully extended, all the little sparrows which had been milling about began to flutter in the air and hover near his arms.

As the sparrows pecked at the popcorn, two squirrels that had been hiding under a bench scurried to the gentleman’s feet. His eyes wide, Woolly thought for a moment that they were going to climb him like a tree. But the squirrels, who knew their business, waited for the sparrows to knock the occasional piece of popcorn from the gentleman’s arms to the ground.

I must remember to tell Duchess all about this, thought Woolly as he hurried along.

For the Birdman of Liberty Park seemed just like one of those old vaudevillians that Duchess liked to tell them about.

But as Woolly emerged onto the street, the joyful image of the Birdman standing with his arms outstretched was replaced by the much less joyful image of a police officer standing behind Emmett’s car with a ticket book in hand.

Emmett

E
mmett woke with a
vague awareness that the train was no longer moving. Glancing at Billy’s watch, he could see it was shortly after eight. They must have already reached Cedar Rapids.

Quietly, so as not to wake his brother, Emmett rose, climbed the ladder, and stuck his head through the hatch in the roof. Looking back, he could see that the train, which was now on a siding, had been lengthened by at least twenty cars.

Standing on the ladder, his face exposed to the cool morning air, Emmett was no longer stirred by thoughts of the past. What stirred him now was hunger. All he had eaten since leaving Morgen was the sandwich his brother had given him in the station. Billy, at least, had had the good sense to eat breakfast at the orphanage when it was offered to him. By Emmett’s estimation, they still had another thirty hours before reaching New York, and all they had in Billy’s backpack was a canteen of water and the last of Sally’s cookies.

But when the panhandler had told Emmett that they would stop for a few hours on a private siding outside of Cedar Rapids, he’d said it was so that General Mills could hitch some of their cars to the back of the train—cars stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of cereal.

Emmett went down the ladder and gently woke his brother.

—The train’s going to be stopped here for a bit, Billy. I’m going to see if I can find us something to eat.

—Okay, Emmett.

As Billy went back to sleep, Emmett climbed up the ladder and out the hatch. Seeing no signs of life up or down the line, he began working his way to the rear of the train. As the General Mills cars were laden, Emmett knew that they were likely to be locked. He simply had to hope that one of the hatches had been left unsecured inadvertently. Figuring he had less than an hour before they were under way, he moved as quickly as he could, leaping from the top of one boxcar to the next.

But when he reached the last of the empty Nabisco cars, he came to a stop. While he could see the flat rectangular tops of the General Mills cars stretching into the distance, the two that were immediately in front of him had the curved rooftops of passenger cars.

After a moment’s hesitation, Emmett climbed down onto the narrow platform and peered through the small window in the door. Most of the interior was obscured by the curtains that bordered the inside of the window, but what little Emmett could see was promising. It appeared to be the sitting room of a well-appointed private car after a night of festivities. Beyond a pair of high-back chairs with their backs to him, Emmett could see a coffee table covered with empty glasses, a champagne bottle upside down in an ice bucket, and a small buffet on which were the remnants of a meal. The passengers were presumably in the sleeping compartments of the adjacent car.

Opening the door, Emmett quietly stepped inside. As he took his bearings, he could see that what festivities there had been had left the room in disarray. Strewn across the floor were feathers from a busted pillow along with bread rolls and grapes, as if they’d been used as ammunition in a fight. The glass front of a grandfather clock was open, the hands missing from its face. And sound asleep on a couch by the buffet was a man in his midtwenties wearing a soiled tuxedo and the bright red stripes of an Apache on his cheeks.

Emmett considered backing out of the car and continuing over the roof, but he wasn’t going to get a better chance than this. Keeping his eyes on the sleeping figure, Emmett passed between the high-back
chairs and advanced cautiously. On the buffet were a bowl of fruit, loaves of bread, hunks of cheese, and a half-eaten ham. There was also an overturned jar of ketchup, no doubt the source of the war paint. At his feet, Emmett found the case of the busted pillow. Loading it quickly with enough food for two days, he spun it around by the neck to cinch it. Then he took one last look at the sleeper and turned toward the door.

—Oh, steward . . .

Slumped in one of the high-back chairs was a second man in a tuxedo.

With his attention trained on the sleeper, Emmett had walked right by this one without noticing him—which was all the more surprising given his size. He must have been nearly six feet tall and two hundred pounds. He wasn’t wearing war paint, but he had a slice of ham sticking neatly out of his breast pocket, as if it were a handkerchief.

With his eyes half open, the reveler raised a hand and slowly unfolded a finger in order to point at something on the floor.

—If you would be so kind. . . .

Looking in the indicated direction, Emmett saw a half-empty bottle of gin lying on its side. Setting down the pillowcase, Emmett retrieved the gin and handed it to the reveler, who received it with a sigh.

—For the better part of an hour, I have had my eye on this bottle, sorting through the various stratagems by which it might be delivered into my possession. One by one, I had to discard them as ill conceived, ill advised, or defying the laws of gravity. Eventually, I turned to the last recourse of a man who wants something done and who has exhausted every option short of doing it himself—which is to say, I prayed. I prayed to Ferdinand and Bartholomew, the patron saints of Pullman cars and toppled bottles. And an angel of mercy hath descended upon me.

Looking to Emmett with a grateful smile, he suddenly expressed surprise.

—You aren’t the steward!

—I’m one of the brakemen, said Emmett.

—My thanks all the same.

Turning to his left, the reveler picked up a martini glass that was on a small round table and began carefully filling it with gin. As he did so, Emmett noted that the olive in the bottom of the glass had been speared with the minute hand of the clock.

Having filled the glass, the reveler looked to Emmett.

—Could I interest you . . . ?

—No, thank you.

—On duty, I suppose.

Raising his drink briefly toward Emmett, he emptied the glass at a toss, then considered it, ruefully.

—You were wise to decline. This gin is unnaturally tepid. Criminally so, you might say. Nonetheless . . .

Refilling the glass, he raised it once again to his lips, but this time stopped short with a look of concern.

—You wouldn’t happen to know where we are?

—Outside Cedar Rapids.

—Iowa?

—Yes.

—And the time?

—About half past eight.

—In the morning?

—Yes, said Emmett. In the morning.

The reveler began to tilt his glass, but stopped again.

—Not
Thursday
morning?

—No, said Emmett trying to contain his impatience. It’s Tuesday.

The reveler exhaled in relief, then leaned toward the man who was sleeping on the couch.

—Did you hear that, Mr. Packer?

When Packer didn’t respond, the reveler set down his glass, took a
bread roll from a jacket pocket, and threw it at Packer’s head, accurately.

—I say: Did you hear that?

—Hear what, Mr. Parker?

—It’s not Thursday yet.

Rolling onto his side, Packer faced the wall.

—Wednesday’s child is full of woe, but Thursday’s child has far to go.

Parker stared at his companion thoughtfully, then leaned toward Emmett.

—Between us, Mr. Packer is also unnaturally tepid.

—I heard that, said Packer to the wall.

Parker ignored him and continued confiding in Emmett.

—Normally, I am not one to fret over such things as the days of the week. But Mr. Packer and I are bound by a sacred trust. For sound asleep in the next cabin is none other than Alexander Cunningham the Third, the beloved grandson of the owner of this delightful car. And we have vowed that we will have Mr. Cunningham back in Chicago at the doors of the Racquet Club (that’s racquet with a
q
, mind you), by Thursday night at six, so that we can deliver him safely—

—Into the hands of his captors, said Packer.

—Into the hands of his bride-to-be, corrected Parker. Which is a duty not to be taken lightly, Mr. Brakeman. For Mr. Cunningham’s grandfather is the largest operator of refrigerated boxcars in America and the bride’s grandfather is the largest producer of sausage links. So I think you can see the importance of our getting Mr. Cunningham to Chicago on time.

—The future of breakfast in America depends upon it, said Packer.

—Indeed, it does, agreed Parker. Indeed, it does.

Emmett was raised to hold no man in disdain. To hold another man in disdain, his father would say, presumed that you knew so much about his lot, so much about his intentions, about his actions both
public and private that you could rank his character against your own without fear of misjudgment. But as he watched the one called Parker empty another glass of tepid gin and then draw the olive off the minute hand with his teeth, Emmett couldn’t help but measure the man and find him wanting.

Back in Salina, one of the stories that Duchess liked to tell—when they were working in the fields or biding time in the barracks—was about a performer who called himself Professor Heinrich Schweitzer, Master of Telekinesis.

When the curtain rose on the professor, he would be sitting in the middle of the stage at a small table with a white tablecloth, a single dinner setting, and an unlit candle. From offstage a waiter would appear, serve the professor a steak, pour a glass of wine, and light the candle. When the waiter left, in an unhurried manner the professor would eat some of the steak, drink some of the wine, and stick his fork upright in the meat—all without saying a word. After wiping his lips with his napkin, he would hold a parted thumb and finger in the air. As he slowly closed them together, the flame of the candle would sputter, then expire, leaving a thin trail of smoke. Next, the professor would stare at his wine until it boiled over the rim. When he turned his attention to his plate, the top half of the fork would bend until it was at a ninety-degree angle. At this point, the audience, which had been warned to maintain a perfect silence, was rumbling with expressions of amazement or disbelief. With a raised hand, the professor would quiet the house. Closing his eyes, he would point his palms toward the table. As he concentrated, the table would begin to tremble to such a degree that you could hear its legs knocking against the surface of the stage. Then reopening his eyes, the professor would suddenly swipe his hands to the right, and the tablecloth would shoot into the air, leaving the dinner plate, wine glass, and candle undisturbed.

The whole act was a hoax, of course. An elaborate illusion achieved through the use of invisible wires, electricity, and jets of air. And
Professor Schweitzer? According to Duchess, he was a Pole from Poughkeepsie who hadn’t enough mastery over telekinesis to drop a hammer on his own foot.

No, thought Emmett with a touch of bitterness, the Schweitzers of this world were in no position to move objects with a glance or a wave of the hand. That power was reserved for the Parkers.

In all probability, no one had ever told Parker that he had the power of telekinesis; but they hadn’t needed to. He had learned it through experience, starting from the days of his childhood, when he would demand a toy that was in the window of a shop or an ice cream from a vendor in the park. Experience had taught him that if he wanted something badly enough, it would eventually be delivered into his hands, even if in defiance of the laws of gravity. With what but disdain can one look upon a man who in possession of this extraordinary power uses it to retrieve the remnants of a bottle of gin from across a room without having to get up from his chair?

But even as Emmett was having this thought, there was a delicate whirring and the handless clock began to chime. Glancing at Billy’s watch, Emmett saw with a flash of anxiety that it was already nine. He had completely underestimated how much time had passed. The train could be under way at any moment.

As Emmett reached for the pillowcase at his feet, Parker shifted his gaze.

—You’re not leaving?

—I need to get back to the engine.

—But we were just getting to know one another. Surely there’s no rush. Here, have a seat.

Reaching over, Parker pulled the empty armchair closer to his own, effectively blocking Emmett’s path to the door.

In the distance Emmett heard a hiss of steam as the brakes were released and the train began to move. Shoving the empty chair aside, Emmett took a step toward the door.

—Wait! Parker shouted.

Placing his hands on the arms of his chair, he hoisted himself up. Once Parker was standing, Emmett realized he was even larger than he’d seemed. With his head nearly hitting the ceiling of the car, he swayed in place for a moment, then lurched forward with his hands extended, as if he intended to grab Emmett by the shirt.

Emmett felt a surge of adrenaline and the sickening sensation that time was replaying itself for ill. A few feet behind Parker was the coffee table with the empty glasses and the overturned champagne bottle. Given the unsteadiness of Parker’s stance, Emmett knew without even thinking that if he gave Parker a single push in the sternum, he could topple him like a tree. It was another opportunity presented by chance for Emmett to upend all of his plans for the future with the action of an instant.

But with surprising agility, Parker suddenly slipped a folded five-dollar bill into the pocket of Emmett’s shirt. Then he stepped back and fell into his chair.

—With the utmost gratitude, Parker called, as Emmett went out the door.

Gripping the pillowcase in one hand, Emmett scaled the ladder, moved quickly across the length of the boxcar’s roof, and leapt over the gap to the next car—just as he had earlier that morning.

Only now the train was moving, lurching lightly left and right, and it was gaining speed. Emmett guessed it was traveling at only twenty miles an hour, but he had felt the force of the oncoming air when he’d made the jump between the cars. If the train reached thirty miles an hour, he would need to be moving pretty fast to clear the gap; and if it reached forty, he wasn’t sure he would be able to clear the gap at all.

Emmett began to run.

He couldn’t remember how many boxcars he had crossed earlier that morning before reaching the Pullman. With a growing sense of urgency, he looked up to see if he could pinpoint the car with the open
hatch. What he saw instead was that half a mile ahead, the train was curving over a bend in the tracks.

BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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