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Authors: Amor Towles

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BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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—Nothing would make me happier than to let Duchess be, said Emmett, but it’s not so simple. Four days ago, just as Billy and I were about to head to California, he took off with Woolly in the Studebaker, which was problem enough. But before my father died, he put an envelope with three thousand dollars in the trunk of the car. It was there when Duchess drove off, and now it’s gone.

—Shit, said Townhouse.

Emmett nodded.

—Don’t get me wrong: I am glad to have the car back. But I
need
that money.

—All right, Townhouse said, nodding his head in concession. I don’t know where Duchess is staying. But before he left yesterday, he was trying to convince me to join him and Woolly at the Circus.

—The circus?

—That’s right. In Red Hook. On Conover Street right near the river. Duchess said he was going to be there tonight for the six o’clock show.

•   •   •

As the two walked from the body shop to the subway station, Townhouse went the long way around in order to point out landmarks. Not the landmarks of Harlem, but the landmarks of their conversations. Places that had come up in the course of their time together, mentioned as they worked side by side in the fields or lay on their bunks at night. Like the apartment building on Lenox Avenue where his grandfather had kept pigeons on the roof, the same roof where he and his brother had been allowed to sleep on hot summer nights. And the high school where Townhouse had been a star shortstop. And on 125th Street, Emmett got a glimpse of that lively stretch of road on which Townhouse and Clarise had driven back and forth on their ill-fated Saturday night.

In leaving Nebraska, Emmett had little to regret. He didn’t regret leaving behind their home or their possessions. He didn’t regret leaving behind his father’s dreams or his father’s grave. And when he had driven those first few miles of the Lincoln Highway, he had savored the sensation of putting distance between himself and his hometown, even if he was headed in the wrong direction.

But as they walked through Harlem and Townhouse pointed out the landmarks of his youth, Emmett wished that he could return to Morgen, if only for a day, in the company of his friend, so that he could point out the landmarks of his life, the landmarks of the stories that he had told to pass the time. Like the airplanes that he had so painstakingly assembled and that still hung over Billy’s bed; and the two-story house on Madison, the first that he’d helped build in Mr. Schulte’s employ; and the wide, unforgiving land that may have bested his father, but which never lost its beauty in his eyes. And yes, he would show Townhouse the fairgrounds too, just as Townhouse
without shame or hesitation had shown him the lively stretch of road that had led to his undoing.

When they reached the subway station, Townhouse followed Emmett inside and stayed with him right up until the turnstiles. Before they parted, almost as an afterthought, he asked if Emmett wanted him to come along that night—when he went looking for Duchess.

—That’s all right, replied Emmett. I don’t imagine he’ll give me any trouble.

—No, he won’t, agreed Townhouse. At least, not as intended.

After a moment, Townhouse shook his head and smiled.

—Duchess gets some crazy ideas into his head, but he was right about one thing.

—What’s that? asked Emmett.

—I did feel much better after hitting him.

Sally

H
alf the time when
you could use the help of a man, he’s nowhere to be found. He’s off seeing to one thing or another that could just as easily be seen to tomorrow as seen to today and that just happens to be five steps out of earshot. But as soon as you need him to be somewhere else, you can’t push him out the door.

Like my father at this very minute.

Here it is Friday at half past twelve, and he’s cutting his chicken fried steak like he was some kind of surgeon and the life of his patient depended upon every placement of the knife. And when he has finally cleaned his plate and had two cups of coffee, for once in a blue moon he asks for a third.

—I’ll have to brew another pot, I warn.

—I’ve got time, he says.

So I dump the spent grinds in the trash, rinse out the percolator, fill it back up, set it on the stove, and wait for it to simmer, thinking how nice it must be in this relentless world to have so much time at your bidding.

For as long as I can remember, my father has gone into town on Friday afternoon to run his errands. As soon as he’s through with lunch, he’ll climb in his truck with a purposeful look and head off to the hardware
store, the feedstore, and the pharmacy. Then around seven o’clock—just in time for supper—he’ll pull into the driveway with a tube of toothpaste, ten bushels of oats, and a brand-new pair of pliers.

How on God’s green earth, you may rightly wonder, does a man turn twenty minutes of errands into a five-hour excursion? Well, that’s an easy one: by yakking. Certainly, he’s yakking with Mr. Wurtele at the hardware store, Mr. Horchow at the feedstore, and Mr. Danziger at the pharmacy. But the yakking isn’t limited to the proprietors. For on Friday afternoons, in each of these establishments an assembly of seasoned errand runners convenes to forecast the weather, the harvest, and the national elections.

By my estimation, a solid hour is spent prognosticating at each one of the stores, but apparently three hours isn’t enough. Because after predicting the outcomes of all the day’s unknowables, the assembly of elders will retire to McCafferty’s Tavern, where they can opine for two hours more in the company of bottles of beer.

My father is nothing if not a creature of habit so, as I say, this has been going on for as long as I remember. Then suddenly about six months ago, when my father finished his lunch and pushed back his chair, rather than heading straight out the door to his truck, he went upstairs to change into a clean white shirt.

It didn’t take long for me to figure that a woman had somehow worked her way into my father’s routine. Especially since she was partial to perfume, and I’m the one who has to wash his clothes. But the questions remained: Who was this woman? And where on earth did he meet her?

She wasn’t someone in the congregation, I was pretty sure of that. Because on Sunday mornings when we filed out of the service onto the little patch of grass in front of the chapel, there wasn’t a woman—married or unmarried—who gave him a measured greeting or an awkward glance. And it wasn’t Esther who keeps the books at the feedstore,
because she wouldn’t’ve recognized a bottle of perfume if it fell from the heavens and hit her on the head. I might have thought it was one of the women who are known, upon occasion, to stop in at McCafferty’s, but once my father started changing his shirt, he stopped coming home with the smell of beer on his breath.

Well, if he didn’t meet her at church, the stores, or the bar, I just couldn’t figure it. So I had no choice but to follow him.

On the first Friday in March, I made a pot of chili so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking dinner. After serving my father lunch, I watched out of the corner of my eye as he went out the door in his clean white shirt, climbed in his truck, and pulled out of the drive. Once he was half a mile down the road, I grabbed a wide-brimmed hat from the closet, hopped into Betty, and set off on my own.

Just like always, he made his first stop at the hardware store, where he did a bit of business and whiled away an hour in the company of like-minded men. Next it was off to the feedstore and then the pharmacy, where there was a little more business and a lot more whiling. At each of these stops a few women made an appearance in order to do a little business of their own, but if he exchanged more than a word with them, it wasn’t so’s you’d notice.

But then at five o’clock, when he came out of the pharmacy and climbed in his truck, he didn’t head down Jefferson on his way to McCafferty’s. Instead, after passing the library, he took a right on Cypress, a left on Adams, and pulled over across from the little white house with blue shutters. After sitting for a minute, he got out of his truck, crossed the street, and rapped on the screen door.

He didn’t have to wait more than a minute for his rap to be answered. And standing there in the doorframe was Alice Thompson.

By my reckoning, Alice couldn’t have been more than twenty-eight years old. She was three grades ahead of my sister in school and a Methodist, so I didn’t have cause to know her very well. But I knew
what everyone else knew: that she had graduated from Kansas State and then married a fellow from Topeka who got himself killed in Korea. A widow without children, Alice had returned to Morgen in the fall of ’53 and taken a job as a teller at the Savings and Loan.

That’s where it must have happened. While going to the bank was not a part of my father’s Friday routine, he did stop in every other Thursday in order to pick up the payroll for the boys. One week he must have ended up at her window and been taken by her mournful look. The following week I could just imagine him carefully picking his place in line so that he’d end up at her window instead of Ed Fowler’s, and then doing his damnedest to make a little conversation while she was trying to count the cash.

As I was sitting in Betty staring at the house, maybe you’d imagine that I was unsettled, or angry, or indignant that my father should be casting off memories of my mother in order to romance a woman who was half his age. Well, imagine all you like. It won’t cost you nothing, and it’ll cost me less. But later that night, after I’d served the chili, cleaned the kitchen, and switched off the lights, I knelt at the side of my bed, clasped my hands together, and prayed.
Dear Lord,
I said,
please give my father the wisdom to be gracious, the heart to be generous, and the courage to ask for this woman’s hand in holy matrimony—so that someone else can do his cooking and cleaning for a change.

Every night for the next four weeks, I made a similar prayer.

But then on the first Friday in April, my father didn’t come home at seven in time for supper. He didn’t come home while I was cleaning up the kitchen or climbing into bed. It was nearly midnight when I heard him pull into the drive. Parting the curtains, I saw his truck parked at a forty-five-degree angle with the headlights still on as he weaved his way to the door. I heard him walk past the supper I’d left out for him and stumble up the stairs.

They say the Lord answers all prayers, it’s just that sometimes he
answers no. And I guess he answered no to mine. Because the following morning, when I took his shirt from the hamper, what it smelled of was whiskey instead of perfume.

Finally, at quarter till two my father found the bottom of his coffee cup and pushed back his chair.

—Well, I guess I’d best get going, he said, and I didn’t argue.

Once he’d climbed in his truck and pulled out of the drive, I looked at the clock and saw that I had just over forty-five minutes to spare. So I did the dishes, straightened up the kitchen, and set the table. By then it was two twenty. Taking off my apron, I mopped my brow and sat on the bottom step of the stairs, where there was always a nice little breeze in the afternoon, and from where I’d have no trouble hearing the phone when it rang in my father’s office.

And that’s where I sat for the next half an hour.

Standing up, I straightened out my skirt and returned to the kitchen. With my hands on my hips, I looked it over. It was neat as a pin: the chairs tucked in; the counter wiped; the dishes neatly stacked in their cabinets. So I set about making a chicken pot pie. When that was done, I cleaned the kitchen again. Then, even though it wasn’t Saturday, I took the vacuum from the closet and vacuumed the rugs in the living room and den. I was about to carry the vacuum upstairs to see to the bedrooms when it occurred to me that with all the racket a vacuum makes, I might not be able to hear the phone from upstairs. So I put the vacuum back in the closet.

For a moment I stood there just staring at it, all curled up on the closet floor, wondering to myself which of the two of us was designed to serve the other. Then slamming the door shut, I went in my father’s office, sat in his chair, took out his phone book, and looked up the number for Father Colmore.

BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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