Read The Lincoln Highway Online
Authors: Amor Towles
—But 1894 and 1895 will be very hard to find. I was lucky to find 1893.
Billy looked up at his brother.
—Have you been thinking about California, Emmett?
—I have been thinking about it, but I need to think about it a little bit more.
As Billy turned his attention back to the silver dollars, Emmett looked around his brother’s room for the second time that day, once again taking in the collections that were neatly arranged on their shelves and the planes that hung over the bed.
—Billy . . .
Billy looked up again.
—Whether we end up going to Texas or California, I think it may be best if we plan to travel light. Since we’ll be making something of a fresh start.
—I was thinking the same thing, Emmett.
—Professor Abernathe says that the intrepid traveler often sets out
with what little he can fit in a kit bag. That’s why I bought my backpack at Mr. Gunderson’s store. So that I’d be ready to leave as soon as you got home. It already has everything in it that I need.
—I’m headed out to the barn to check on the car. You want to come?
—Now? asked Billy in surprise. Hold on! Wait a second! Don’t go without me!
Having carefully laid out the silver dollars in chronological order, Billy now swept them up and began pouring them back into the tobacco tin as quickly as he could. Closing the lid, he put the tin back in his backpack and the backpack back on his back. Then he led the way downstairs and out the door.
As they crossed the yard, Billy looked over his shoulder to report that Mr. Obermeyer had put a padlock on the barn doors, but Sally had broken it off with the crowbar she kept in the back of her truck.
Sure enough, at the barn door they found the bracket—with the padlock still secured to it—hanging loosely on its screws. Inside, the air was warm and familiar, smelling of cattle though there hadn’t been cattle on the farm since Emmett was a boy.
Emmett paused to let his eyes adjust. Before him was the new John Deere and behind that a battered old combine. Proceeding to the back of the barn, Emmett stopped before a large, sloping object draped with canvas.
—Mr. Obermeyer took off the cover, said Billy, but Sally and I put it back.
Gripping the canvas by the corner, Emmett pulled with both hands until it was piled at his feet, and there, waiting just where he’d left it fifteen months ago, was a powder-blue, four-door hardtop—his 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser.
After running his palm along the surface of the hood, Emmett opened the driver’s door and climbed inside. For a moment, he sat with his hands on the steering wheel. When he’d bought her, she already had 80,000 miles on the odometer, dents in the hood, and cigarette burns in the seat covers, but she ran smoothly enough. Inserting and turning the key, he pushed the starter, ready for the soothing rumble of the engine—but there was silence.
Billy, who had been keeping his distance, approached, tentatively.
—Is it broken?
—No, Billy. The battery must be dead. It happens when you leave a car idle for too long. But it’s an easy thing to fix.
Looking relieved, Billy sat down on a hay bale and took off his backpack.
—You want another cookie, Emmett?
—I’m fine. But you go right ahead.
As Billy opened his backpack, Emmett climbed out of the car, stepped to the rear, and opened the trunk. Satisfied that the upright lid blocked his brother’s view, Emmett pulled back the felt that covered the recess in which the spare tire rested and gently ran his hand around its outer curve. At the top, he found the envelope with his name on it, right where his father had said it would be. Inside was a note in his father’s script.
Another handwritten missive from another ghost, thought Emmett.
By the time you read this, I imagine the farm will be in the hands of the bank. You may be angry or disappointed with me as a result, and I wouldn’t blame you for being so.
It would shock you to know how much my father left me when he died, how much my grandfather left my father, and how much my great-grandfather left him. Not simply stocks and bonds, but houses and paintings. Furniture and tableware. Memberships in clubs and societies. All three of those men were
devoted to the Puritan tradition of finding favor in the eyes of the Lord by leaving more to their children than had been left to them.
In this envelope, you will find all that I have to leave you—two legacies, one great, one small, both a form of sacrilege.
As I write this, it shames me some to know that in leading my life as I have, I have broken the virtuous cycle of thrift established by my forebears. But at the same time, it fills me with pride to know that you will undoubtedly achieve more with this small remembrance than I could have achieved with a fortune.
With love and admiration,
Your father, Charles William Watson
Attached to the letter by a paper clip was the first of the two legacies—a single page torn from an old book.
Emmett’s father wasn’t one to lash out at his children in anger even when they deserved it. In fact, the only time Emmett could remember his father expressing unmitigated ire toward him was when he was sent home from school for defacing a textbook. As his father made painfully clear that night, to deface the pages of a book was to adopt the manner of a Visigoth. It was to strike a blow against that most sacred and noble of man’s achievements—the ability to set down his finest ideas and sentiments so that they might be shared through the ages.
For his father to tear a page from any book was a sacrilege. What was even more shocking was that the page was torn from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
—that book which his father held in greater esteem than any other. Near the bottom, his father had carefully underlined two sentences in red ink.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe
is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Emmett recognized immediately that this passage from Emerson represented two things at once. First, it was an excuse. It was an explication of why, against all good sense, his father had left behind the houses and paintings, the memberships in clubs and societies in order to come to Nebraska and till the soil. Emmett’s father offered this page from Emerson as evidence—as if it were a divine decree—that he had had no choice.
But if, on the one hand, it was an excuse, on the other, it was an exhortation—an exhortation for Emmett that he should feel no remorse, no guilt, no hesitation in turning his back on the three hundred acres to which his father had dedicated half his life, as long as he abandoned them in order to pursue without envy or imitation his own portion, and in so doing discover that which he alone was capable of.
Tucked in the envelope behind the page of Emerson was the second legacy, a stack of brand-new twenty-dollar bills. Running his thumb over the crisp, clean edges, Emmett figured there were about 150 in all, amounting to some three thousand dollars.
If Emmett could understand why his father considered the torn page a sacrilege of sorts, he couldn’t accept that the bills were. Presumably, his father characterized the money as a sacrilege because he was bestowing it behind the backs of his creditors. In so doing, he had gone against both his legal obligation and his own sense of what was right and wrong. But after meeting the interest payments on his mortgage for twenty years, Emmett’s father had paid for the farm two times over. He had paid for it again with hard labor and disappointment, with his marriage, and finally with his life. So, no, the setting aside of
three thousand dollars was not a sacrilege in Emmett’s eyes. As far as he was concerned, his father had earned every penny.
Taking one of the bills for his pocket, Emmett returned the envelope to its spot above the tire and laid the felt back in place.
—Emmett . . . , said Billy.
Emmett closed the trunk and looked to Billy, but Billy wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at the two figures in the doorway of the barn. With the late afternoon light behind them, Emmett couldn’t tell who they were. At least not until the wiry one on the left stretched out his arms and said:
ou should have seen
the look on Emmett’s face when he realized who was standing in the door. From his expression, you would’ve thought we’d popped out of thin air.
Back in the early forties, there was an escape artist who went by the name of Kazantikis. Some of the wisecrackers on the circuit liked to call him the half-wit Houdini from Hackensack, but that wasn’t totally fair. While the front half of his act was a little shaky, the finale was a gem. Right before your eyes, he’d get bound up in chains, locked in a trunk, and sunk to the bottom of a big glass tank. A good-looking blonde would wheel out a giant clock as the emcee reminded the audience that the average human being can only hold his breath for two minutes, that deprived of oxygen most grow dizzy after four and unconscious after six. Two officers of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were present to ensure that the padlock on the trunk was secure, and a priest from the Greek Orthodox Church—complete with a long black cassock and long white beard—was on hand should it prove necessary to administer the last rites. Down into the water the trunk would go and the blonde would start the clock. At two minutes, the members of the audience would whistle and jeer. At five minutes, they would ooh and aah. But at eight minutes, the Pinkertons would exchange worried glances. At ten, the priest would cross himself and recite an indecipherable prayer. At the twelfth minute, as the blonde
burst into tears, two stagehands would rush from behind the curtains to help the Pinkertons hoist the trunk from the tank. It would be dropped to the stage with a thump as water gushed across the footlights and into the orchestra pit. When one of the Pinkertons fumbled with his keys, the other would brush him aside, draw his pistol, and shoot off the lock. He would rip open the lid and tip over the trunk, only to discover . . . it was empty. At which point, the orthodox priest would pluck off his beard revealing that he was none other than Kazantikis, his hair still wet, as every single member of the audience looked on in holy amazement. That’s how Emmett Watson looked when he realized who was standing in the door. Of all the people in the world, he just couldn’t believe it was us.
—In the flesh. And Woolly too.
He still looked dumbfounded.
—But how . . . ?
—That’s the question, right?
I put a hand to the side of my mouth and lowered my voice.
—We hitched a ride with the warden. While he was signing you out, we slipped into the trunk of his car.
—You can’t be serious.
—I know. It’s not what you’d call first-class travel. What with it being a hundred degrees in there and Woolly complaining every ten minutes about having to go to the bathroom. And when we crossed into Nebraska? I thought I was going to get a concussion from the divots in the road. Someone should write a letter to the governor!
—Hey, Emmett, said Woolly, like he’d just joined the party.
You’ve got to love that about Woolly. He’s always running about five minutes late, showing up on the wrong platform with the wrong luggage just as the conversation is pulling out of the station. Some
might find the trait a little exasperating, but I’d take a guy who runs five minutes late over a guy who runs five minutes early, any day of the week.
Out of the corner of my eye I had been watching as the kid, who’d been sitting on a hay bale, began edging his way in our direction. When I pointed, he froze like a squirrel on the grass.
—Billy, right? Your brother says you’re as sharp as a tack. Is that true?
The kid smiled and edged a little closer until he was standing at Emmett’s side. He looked up at his brother.
—Are these your friends, Emmett?
—Of course we’re his friends!
—They’re from Salina, Emmett explained.
I was about to elaborate when I noticed the car. I’d been so focused on the charms of the reunion that I hadn’t seen it hiding behind the heavy equipment.
—Is that the Studebaker, Emmett? What do they call that? Baby blue?
Objectively speaking, it looked a little like a car that your dentist’s wife would drive to bingo, but I gave it a whistle anyway. Then I turned to Billy.
—Some of the boys in Salina would pin a picture of their girl back home on the bottom of the upper bunk so they could stare at it before lights out. Some of them had a photo of Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. But your brother, he pinned up an advertisement torn from an old magazine with a full-color picture of his car. I’ll be honest with you, Billy. We gave your brother a lot of grief about that. Getting all moon-eyed over an automobile. But now that I see her up close . . .
I shook my head in a show of appreciation.
—Hey, I said, turning to Emmett. Can we take her for a spin?
Emmett didn’t answer because he was looking at Woolly—who was looking at a spider web without a spider.
—How are you doing, Woolly? he asked.
Turning, Woolly thought about it for a moment.
—I’m all right, Emmett.
—When was the last time you had something to eat?
—Oh, I don’t know. I guess it was before we got in the warden’s car. Isn’t that right, Duchess?
Emmett turned to his brother.
—Billy, you remember what Sally said about supper?
—She said to cook it at 350° for forty-five minutes.
—Why don’t you take Woolly back to the house, put the dish in the oven, and set the table. I need to show Duchess something, but we’ll be right behind you.
As we were watching Billy and Woolly walk back toward the house, I wondered what Emmett wanted to show me. But when he turned in my direction, he didn’t look himself. As a matter of fact, he seemed out of sorts. I guess some people are like that when it comes to surprises. Me, I love surprises. I love it when life pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Like when the blue-plate special is turkey and stuffing in the middle of May. But some people just don’t like being caught off guard—even by good news.
—Duchess, what are you doing here?
Now it was me who looked surprised.
—What are we doing here? Why, we’ve come to see you, Emmett. And the farm. You know how it is. You hear enough stories from a buddy about his life back home and eventually you want to see it for yourself.
To make my point, I gestured toward the tractor and the hay bale and the great American prairie that was waiting right outside the door, trying its best to convince us that the world was flat, after all.
Emmett followed my gaze, then turned back.
—I’ll tell you what, he said. Let’s go have something to eat, I’ll give
you and Woolly a quick tour, we’ll get a good night’s sleep, then in the morning, I’ll drive you back to Salina.
I gave a wave of my hand.
—You don’t need to drive us back to Salina, Emmett. You just got home yourself. Besides, I don’t think we’re going back. At least not yet.
Emmett closed his eyes for a moment.
—How many months do you have left on your sentences? Five or six? You’re both practically out.
—That’s true, I agreed. That’s perfectly true. But when Warden Williams took over for Ackerly, he fired that nurse from New Orleans. The one who used to help Woolly get his medicine. Now he’s down to his last few bottles, and you know how bluesy he gets without his medicine. . . .
—It’s not his medicine.
I shook my head in agreement.
—One man’s toxin is another man’s tonic, right?
—Duchess, I shouldn’t have to spell this out for you, of all people. But the longer you two are AWOL and the farther you get from Salina, the worse the consequences are going to be. And you both turned eighteen this winter. So if they catch you across state lines, they may not send you back to Salina. They may send you to Topeka.
Let’s face it: Most people need a ladder and a telescope to make sense of two plus two. That’s why it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth to explain yourself. But not Emmett Watson. He’s the type of guy who can see the whole picture right from the word go—the grander scheme and all the little details. I put up both of my hands in surrender.
—I’m with you one hundred percent, Emmett. In fact, I tried to tell Woolly the very same thing in the very same words. But he wouldn’t listen. He was dead set on jumping the fence. He had a whole plan. He was going to split on a Saturday night, hightail it into town, and steal a car. He even pilfered a knife when he was on kitchen duty. Not
a paring knife, Emmett. I’m talking about a butcher knife. Not that Woolly would ever hurt a soul. You and I know that. But the cops don’t know it. They see a fidgety stranger with a drifty look in his eye and a butcher knife in his hand, and they’ll put him down like a dog. So I told him if he put the knife back where he’d found it, I’d help him get out of Salina safe and sound. He put back the knife, we slipped into the trunk, presto chango, here we are.
And all of this was true.
Except the part about the knife.
That’s what you’d call an embellishment—a harmless little exaggeration in the service of emphasis. Sort of like the giant clock in Kazantikis’s act, or the shooting of the padlock by the Pinkerton. Those little elements that on the surface seem unnecessary but that somehow bring the whole performance home.
—Look, Emmett, you know me. I could have done my stretch and then done Woolly’s. Five months or five years, what’s the difference. But given Woolly’s state of mind, I don’t think he could have done five more days.
Emmett looked off in the direction that Woolly had walked.
We both knew that his problem was one of plenty. Raised in one of those doorman buildings on the Upper East Side, Woolly had a house in the country, a driver in the car, and a cook in the kitchen. His grandfather was friends with Teddy
Franklin Roosevelt, and his father was a hero in the Second World War. But there’s something about all that good fortune that can become too much. There’s a tender sort of soul who, in the face of such abundance, feels a sense of looming trepidation, like the whole pile of houses and cars and Roosevelts is going to come tumbling down on top of him. The very thought of it starts to spoil his appetite and unsettle his nerves. It becomes hard for him to concentrate, which affects his reading, writing, and arithmetic. Having been asked to leave one boarding school, he gets
sent to another. Then maybe another. Eventually, a guy like that is going to need
to hold the world at bay. And who can blame him? I’d be the first to tell you that rich people don’t deserve two minutes of your sympathy. But a bighearted guy like Woolly? That’s a different story altogether.
I could see from Emmett’s expression that he was going through a similar sort of calculus, thinking about Woolly’s sensitive nature and wondering if we should send him back to Salina or help him safely on his way. As a quandary it was pretty hard to parse. But then I guess that’s why they call it a quandary.
—It’s been a long day, I said, putting a hand on Emmett’s shoulder. What say we go back to the house and break bread? Once we’ve had something to eat, we’ll all be in a better frame of mind to weigh the whys and wherefores.
Country cooking . . .
You hear a lot about it back East. It’s one of those things that people revere even when they’ve never had any firsthand experience with it. Like justice and Jesus. But unlike most things that people admire from afar, country cooking deserves the admiration. It’s twice as tasty as anything you’d find at Delmonico’s and without all the folderol. Maybe it’s because they’re using the recipes their great-great-grandmas perfected on the wagon trail. Or maybe it’s all those hours they’ve spent in the company of pigs and potatoes. Whatever the reason, I didn’t push back my plate until after the third helping.
—That was some meal.
I turned to the kid—whose head wasn’t too far over the tabletop.
—What’s the name of that pretty brunette, Billy? The one in the flowery dress and work boots whom we have to thank for this delectable dish?
—Sally Ransom, he said. It’s a chicken casserole. Made from one of her own chickens.
—One of her own chickens! Hey, Emmett, what’s that folksy saying? The one about the fastest way to a young man’s heart?
—She’s a neighbor, said Emmett.
—Maybe so, I conceded. But I’ve had a lifetime supply of neighbors, and I’ve never had one who brought me a casserole. How about you, Woolly?
Woolly was making a spiral in his gravy with the tines of his fork.
—Have you ever had a neighbor bring you a casserole? I asked a little louder.
He thought about it for a second.
—I’ve never had a casserole.
I smiled and raised my eyebrows at the kid. He smiled and raised his eyebrows back.
Casserole or no casserole, Woolly suddenly looked up like he’d had a timely thought.
—Hey, Duchess. Did you get a chance to ask Emmett about the escapade?
—The escapade? asked Billy, poking his head a little higher over the table.
—That’s the other reason we came here, Billy. We’re about to set off on a little escapade and we were hoping your brother would come along.