Authors: Amor Towles
—Now tell me, Billy, said the professor—once we were all irreparably ensconced—what brings you to New York?
As conversations go, it was a classic opener. It was the sort of question that any New Yorker would ask a visitor with a reasonable expectation of a one- or two-sentence reply. Like
I’m here to see my aunt
We have tickets for a show
. But this was Billy Watson, so instead of one or two sentences, what the professor got was the whole megillah.
Billy started back in 1946, on the summer night that his mother walked out on them. He explained about Emmett’s doing the hitch at Salina and his father dying of cancer and the brothers’ plan to follow the trail of a bunch of postcards so that they could find their mother at a fireworks display in San Francisco on the Fourth of July. He even explained about the escapade and how since Woolly and I had borrowed the Studebaker, he and Emmett had to hitch a ride to New York on the Sunset East.
—Well, well, well, said the professor, who hadn’t missed a word. And you say that you traveled to the city by freight train?
—That’s where I began your book for the twenty-fifth time, said Billy.
—In the boxcar?
—There wasn’t a window, but I had my army surplus flashlight.
—When we decided to go to California and make a fresh start, Emmett agreed with you that we should only carry what we could fit in a kit bag. So I put everything I need in my backpack.
Having leaned back in his chair with a smile, the professor suddenly leaned forward again.
—You wouldn’t happen to have the
in your backpack now?
—Yes, said Billy. That’s just where I have it.
—Then, perhaps I could inscribe it for you?
—That would be terrific! exclaimed Woolly.
At the professor’s encouragement, Billy slid off the high-back chair, took off his backpack, undid the straps, and removed the big red book.
—Bring it here, said the professor with a wave of the hand. Bring it over here.
When Billy came around the desk, the professor took the book and held it under his light in order to appreciate the wear and tear.
—There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye, he confessed to Billy, than a well-read copy of one of his books.
Setting the book down, the professor took up his pen and opened to the title page.
—It was a gift, I see.
—From Miss Matthiessen, said Billy. She’s the librarian at the Morgen Public Library.
—A gift from a librarian, no less, the professor said with added satisfaction.
Having written in Billy’s book at some length, the professor applied his signature with a great big theatrical flourish—since when it comes
to New York City, even the old guys who write compendiums perform for the back row. Before returning the book, the professor flitted once through the pages as if to make sure they were all there. Then letting out a little expression of surprise, he looked at Billy.
—I see that you haven’t filled in any of the
chapter. Now, why is that?
—Because I want to start
in medias res
, explained Billy. And I’m not sure yet where the middle is.
It sounded like a kooky answer to me, but it left the professor beaming.
—Billy Watson, he said, as a seasoned historian and professional teller of tales, I think I can say with confidence that you have already been through enough adventures to warrant the beginning of your chapter! However . . .
Here, the professor opened one of his desk drawers and took out a black ledger just like the one that he’d been working in when we arrived.
—Should the eight pages in your
prove insufficient for recording your story in its entirety—as I am almost certain they will—you can continue in the pages of this journal. And should you run out of pages in it, drop me a line, and I shall happily send you another.
Then, after handing over the two books, the professor shook Billy’s hand and said what an honor it had been to meet him. And that, as they say, should have been that.
But after Billy had carefully put away his books, cinched the straps on his backpack, and taken the first few steps toward the exit, he suddenly stopped, turned, and faced the professor with a furrowed brow—which with Billy Watson could only mean one thing: more questions.
—I think we’ve taken up enough of the professor’s time, I said, laying a hand on Billy’s shoulder.
—That’s all right, said Abernathe. What is it, Billy?
Billy looked at the floor for a second, then up at the professor.
—Do you think heroes return?
—You mean like Napoleon returning to Paris, and Marco Polo returning to Venice . . . ?
—No, said Billy shaking his head. I don’t mean returning to a place. I mean returning in time.
The professor was quiet for a moment.
—Why do you ask that, Billy?
This go-round, the old scrivener definitely got more than he bargained for. Because without taking a seat, Billy launched into a story that was longer and wilder than the first one. While he was on the Sunset East, he explained, and Emmett had gone looking for food, a pastor who’d invited himself into Billy’s boxcar tried to take Billy’s collection of silver dollars with the intention of tossing Billy from the train. In the nick of time, a big black guy dropped through the hatch, and it ended up being the pastor who got the old heave-ho.
But apparently, the pastor, the silver dollars, and the last-minute rescue weren’t even the point of the story. The point was that the black guy, whose name was Ulysses, had left behind a wife and son when he crossed the Atlantic to fight in the war and had been wandering the country on freight trains ever since.
Now, when an eight-year-old boy is spinning a yarn like this one—with black men dropping through ceilings and pastors being thrown from trains—you might think it would test the limits of someone’s willingness to suspend his disbelief. Especially a professor’s. But it didn’t test Abernathe’s in the least.
As Billy told his story, the good professor resumed his seat in slow motion, carefully lowering himself into his chair, then gently leaning back, as if he didn’t want a sudden sound or movement to interrupt the boy’s story, or his own attention to it.
—He thought he was named Ulysses for Ulysses S. Grant, said Billy,
but I explained to him that he must be named for the Great Ulysses. And that having already wandered for over eight years without his wife and son, he was sure to be reunited with them once his ten years of wandering were complete. But if heroes don’t return in time, Billy concluded with a touch of concern, then maybe I shouldn’t have said that to him.
When Billy stopped speaking, the professor closed his eyes for a moment. Not like Emmett does when he’s trying to hold in his exasperation, but like a lover of music who has just heard the ending of his favorite concerto. When he opened his eyes again, he looked from Billy to the books along his walls and back again.
—I have no doubt that heroes return in time, he said to Billy. And I think you were perfectly right to tell him what you did. But I . . .
Now it was the professor who looked at Billy with hesitation, and Billy who encouraged the professor to continue.
—I was just wondering, if this man called Ulysses is still here in New York?
—Yes, said Billy. He is here in New York.
The professor sat for a moment, as if working up the courage to ask a second question of this eight-year-old.
—I know it is late, he said at last, and you and your friends have other places to be, and I have no grounds on which to ask for this favor, but is there any chance that you might be willing to bring me to him?
t was on a trip to greece
with his mother in 1946, while standing at the foot of the Parthenon, that Woolly first gained an inkling of the List—that itemization of all the places that one was supposed to see.
There it is
, she had said, while fanning herself with her map when they had reached the dusty summit overlooking Athens.
The Parthenon in all its glory.
In addition to the Parthenon, as Woolly was soon to learn, there were the Piazza San Marco in Venice and the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence. There were the Sistine Chapel and Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey.
It was something of a mystery to Woolly where the List came from. It seemed to have been compiled by various scholars and eminent historians long before he was born. No one had ever quite explained to Woolly
one needed to see all the places on the List, but there was no mistaking the importance of doing so. For his elders would inevitably praise him if he had seen one, frown at him if he expressed disinterest in one, and chastise him in no uncertain terms if he happened to be in the vicinity of one and failed to pay it a visit.
Suffice it to say, when it came to seeing the items on the List, Woolly Wolcott Martin was Johnny-on-the-spot! Whenever he traveled, he took special care to obtain the appropriate guidebooks and secure the services of the appropriate drivers to get him to the appropriate sights at the appropriate times.
To the Colosseum, signore, and step on it!
he would say, and off they would zip through the crooked streets
of Rome with all the urgency of policemen in pursuit of a gang of thieves.
Whenever Woolly arrived at one of the places on the List, he always had the same threefold response. First was a sense of awe. For these were not your run-of-the-mill stopping spots. They were big and elaborate and fashioned from all sorts of impressive materials like marble and mahogany and lapis lazuli. Second was a sense of gratitude toward his forebears since they had gone to all the trouble of handing down this itemization from one generation to the next. But third and most important was a sense of relief—a relief that having dropped his bags at his hotel and dashed across the city in the back of a taxi, Woolly could check one more item off the List.
But having considered himself a diligent checker-offer since the age of twelve, earlier that evening when they were driving to the circus, Woolly had something of an epiphany. While the List had been handed down with consistency and care by five generations of Wolcotts—which is to say, Manhattanites—for some strange reason it did not include a single sight in the city of New York. And though Woolly had dutifully visited Buckingham Palace, La Scala, and the Eiffel Tower, he had never, ever, not even once driven across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Growing up on the Upper East Side, Woolly had had no need to cross it. To get to the Adirondacks, or Long Island, or any of those good old boarding schools up in New England, you would travel by way of the Queensborough or Triborough bridges. So after Duchess had driven them down Broadway and circled round City Hall, it was with a palpable sense of excitement that Woolly realized they were suddenly approaching the Brooklyn Bridge with every intention of driving across it.
How truly majestic was its architecture, thought Woolly. How inspiring the cathedral-like buttresses and the cables that soared through the air. What a feat of engineering, especially since it had been built
back in eighteen something-something, and ever since had supported the movement of multitudes from one side of the river to the other and back again, every single day. Surely, the Brooklyn Bridge deserved to be on the List. It certainly had as much business being there as the Eiffel Tower, which was made from similar materials at a similar time but which didn’t take anybody anywhere.
It must have been an undersight, decided Woolly.
Like his sister Kaitlin and the oil paintings.
When his family had visited the Louvre and the Uffizi, Kaitlin had expressed the highest admiration for all those paintings lined along the walls in their gilded frames. As they walked from gallery to gallery, she was always giving Woolly the shush and pointing with insistence at some portrait or landscape that he was supposed to be quietly admiring. But the funny thing of it was that their townhouse on Eighty-Sixth Street had been chock-full of portraits and landscapes in gilded frames. As had been their grandmother’s. And yet, in all those years of growing up, not once had he seen his sister stop in front of one of them in order to contemplate its majesty. That’s why Woolly called it an undersight. Because Kaitlin didn’t notice those oil paintings even though they were right under her nose. That must have been why the Manhattanites who’d handed down the List had failed to include any of the sights of New York. Which, come to think of it, made Woolly wonder what else they had forgotten.
Just two hours later, when they were driving over the Brooklyn Bridge for a second time in one night, Billy stopped speaking midsentence in order to point in the distance.
—Look! he exclaimed. The Empire State Building!
Well, that definitely belongs on the List, thought Woolly. It was the tallest building in the world. It was so tall, in fact, a plane had
actually crashed into the top of it once. And yet, even though it was located right there in the middle of Manhattan, Woolly had never, ever, not even once set foot inside.
As such, when Duchess suggested they go there in order to pay a visit to Professor Abernathe, you might have expected Woolly to feel the same excitement that he’d felt when he realized they’d be driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. But what he felt was a pang of anxiety—a pang that stemmed not from the thought of riding a teeny little elevator up into the stratosphere, but from the tone of Duchess’s voice. Because Woolly had heard that tone before. He had heard it from three headmasters and two Episcopal ministers and a brother-in-law named “Dennis.” It was the tone that people used when they were about to set you straight.
Now and then, it seemed to Woolly, in the course of your everyday life, you are likely to be blessed with a notion. Say, for instance, it’s the middle of August and you’re drifting in your rowboat in the middle of the lake with the dragonflies skimming the water, when suddenly the thought occurs to you: Why doesn’t summer vacation last until the twenty-first of September? After all, the
doesn’t come to its conclusion on Labor Day weekend. The season of summer lasts until the autumnal equinox—just as surely as the season of spring lasts until the summer solstice. And look at how carefree everyone feels in the middle of summer vacation. Not only the children, but the grown-ups too, who take such pleasure in having a tennis game at ten, a swim at noon, and a gin and tonic at six o’clock on the dot. It stands to reason that if we all agreed to let summer vacation last until the equinox, the world would be a much happier place.
Well, when you have a notion like this, you have to be
careful in choosing whom you share it with. Because if certain people get wind of your notion—people like your headmaster or your minister or your brother-in-law “Dennis”—they are likely to feel it’s their moral responsibility to sit you down and set you straight. Having gestured for you
to take the big chair in front of their desk, they will explain not only how misguided your notion is, but how much better a person you’re bound to be once you recognize this fact for yourself. And that was the tone that Duchess was using on Billy—the one that preceded the dispelling of an illusion.
You can just imagine the satisfaction that Woolly felt, the jubilation even, when after elevating all the way up to the fifty-fifth floor, trudging down all the corridors, and squinting at every little plaque, with only two more plaques to go, they came upon the one that read: Professor Abacus Abernathe,
AbC, PhD, Lmnop
Poor Duchess, thought Woolly with a smile of sympathy. Maybe he’s the one who will be learning a lesson tonight.
As soon as they entered the professor’s inner sanctum, Woolly could see that he was a sensitive man, a genial man. And even though he had a high-back chair in front of a big oak desk, Woolly could tell that he was not the sort who would want to sit you down and set you straight. What’s more, he was not the sort to hurry you along because time was money, or of the essence, or a stitch in nine, or what have you.
When you are asked a question—even a question that on the surface seems relatively simple and straightforward—you may have to go quite a ways back in order to provide all the little details that will be necessary for someone to make sense of your answer. Despite this, there are many inquisitors who, as soon as you start providing these essential details, will start to make a face. They’ll fidget in their seat. Then they’ll do their best to hurry you along by pressing you to leap from point A to point Z while skipping all the letters in between. But not Professor Abernathe. When he asked Billy a deceptively simple question and Billy went all the way back to the cradle in order to give a comprehensive reply, the professor leaned back in his chair and listened with the attentiveness of Solomon.
So when Woolly and Billy and Duchess finally rose to take their leave, having visited two of the city’s world-famous sites in a single
night (Check! Check!), and proven the irrefutable existence of Professor Abacus Abernathe, you might have thought that the night could not get any better.
And you’d be wrong.
Thirty minutes later, they were all in the Cadillac—the professor included—driving down Ninth Avenue to the West Side Elevated, another place of which Woolly had never heard.
—You take that next right, said Billy.
As instructed, Duchess took the right onto a cobblestone street lined with trucks and meatpacking facilities. Woolly could tell they were meatpacking facilities because on one loading dock, two men in long white coats were carrying sides of beef off a truck while over another was a large neon sign in the shape of a steer.
A moment later, Billy told Duchess to take another right and then a left and then he pointed to some wire caging rising from the street.
—There, he said.
When Duchess pulled over, he didn’t turn off the engine. On this little stretch, there were no more meatpackers and no more neon signs. Instead, there was an empty lot in which was parked a car without its wheels. At the end of the block, a lone silhouette, stocky and short, passed under a streetlamp, then disappeared into the shadows.
—Are you sure this is it? Duchess asked.
—I’m sure this is it, said Billy while slipping on his backpack.
Then just like that, he was out of the car and walking toward the caging.
Woolly turned to Professor Abernathe in order to raise his eyebrows in surprise, but Professor Abernathe was already on his way to catch up with Billy. So Woolly leapt from the car in order to catch up with the professor, leaving Duchess to catch up with him.
Inside the caging was a staircase of steel that disappeared overhead.
Now it was the professor who looked to Woolly with his eyebrows raised, though more in excitement than surprise.
Reaching out, Billy took hold of a patch of the fencing and began pulling it back.
—Here, said Woolly. Allow me, allow me.
Extending his fingers through the mesh, Woolly pulled so that everyone could slip through. Then up the stairs they went, going round and round, their eight feet clanging on the old metal treads. When they reached the top, Woolly pulled back another bit of fencing so that everyone could slip out.
Oh, what amazement did Woolly feel when he emerged from the caging into the open air. To the south, you could see the towers of Wall Street, while to the north, the towers of Midtown. And if you looked very carefully to the south-southwest, you could just make out the Statue of Liberty—another New York City landmark that surely belonged on the List and to which Woolly had never been.
—Never been, yet! Woolly pronounced in defiance to no one but himself.
But what was amazing about the elevated tracks wasn’t the view of Wall Street or Midtown or even the great big summer sun that was setting over the Hudson. What was amazing was the flora.
While they had been in Professor Abernathe’s office, Billy had explained that they would be going to a segment of elevated railroad that had stopped being used three years before. But to Woolly’s eye, it looked like it had been abandoned for decades. Everywhere you turned there were wildflowers and shrubs, and the grass between the railroad ties had grown almost as high as their knees.
In just three years, thought Woolly. Why, that’s less time than it takes to go to boarding school, or to get a college degree. It’s less time than a presidential term, or the span between Olympics.
Only two days before, Woolly had remarked to himself how terribly
permanent Manhattan remained, despite being marched upon by millions of people every day. But apparently, it wasn’t the marching of the millions that was going to bring the city to its end. It was their absence. For here was a glimpse of a New York left to itself. Here was a patch of the city upon which people had turned their backs for just a moment and up through the gravel had come the shrubs and ivy and grass. And if this is what it was like after just a few years of disuse, thought Woolly, imagine what it will be like after a few decades.
As Woolly looked up from the flora in order to share his observation with his friends, he realized that they had pressed ahead without him, working their way toward a campfire in the distance.
—Wait up, he called. Wait up!
As Woolly rejoined his party, Billy was introducing the professor to a tall black man, the one named Ulysses. Though the two men had never met, both had learned something of the other from Billy, and when they shook hands, it struck Woolly that they did so with solemnity, a great and enviable solemnity.
—Please, said Ulysses, as he gestured to the railroad ties around the fire much as the professor had gestured to the couch and chair in his office.