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Authors: Amor Towles

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BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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Duchess

W
hen the new boys
would arrive at St. Nick’s, Sister Agnes would put them to work.

If we are asked to apply ourselves to that which is before us,
she would say,
we are less likely to fret over that which is not
. So when they showed up on the doorstep looking a little shell-shocked, a little shy, and generally on the verge of tears, she would send them to the dining room to put out the silverware for lunch. Once the tables were set, she’d send them to the chapel to lay out the hymnals in the pews. Once the hymnals were in place, there were towels to be collected, sheets to be folded, and leaves to be raked—until the new boys weren’t the new boys anymore.

And that’s what I did with the kid.

Why? Because breakfast wasn’t even over before he was asking when his brother would arrive.

Personally, I didn’t expect Emmett to show up before noon. Knowing Charity, I figured he would’ve had his hands full until two in the morning. Assuming he slept until eleven and lingered under the covers, he might make it to Hastings-on-Hudson by two in the afternoon. At the earliest. To be on the safe side, I told Billy he’d be here for dinner.

—What time is dinner?

—Eight o’clock.

—Eight o’clock on the dot? asked Woolly.

—On the dot, I confirmed.

Nodding, Billy excused himself politely, paid a visit to the clock in the living room, and returned with the news that it was 10:02.

The implication was plain enough. There were 598 minutes between now and his brother’s promised arrival, and Billy intended to count every one of them. So as soon as Woolly started clearing the breakfast dishes, I asked Billy if he’d give me a hand.

First, I brought him to the linen closet, where we picked out a fine tablecloth and spread it across the dining-room table, taking care to ensure that it draped over the ends in equal measure. At the four places, we laid out linen napkins, each with a different flower embroidered on it. When we turned our attention to the hutch and Billy observed it was locked, I observed that keys were rarely far from their escutcheons, and reached my hand into the tureen.

—Voilà.

With the hutch’s doors open, out came the fine china plates for the appetizer, main course, and dessert. Out came the crystal for the water and wine. Out came the two candelabra and the flat black case that held the family silver.

Having instructed Billy how to lay out the cutlery, I figured I’d have to tighten up his work once he was finished. But when it came to setting places, it turned out Billy was a natural. It looked like he had positioned each fork, knife, and spoon with his ruler and compass.

As we stood back to admire our work, he asked if tonight was going to be a special dinner.

—Exactly.

—Why is it a special dinner, Duchess?

—Because it’s a reunion, Billy. A reunion of the Four Musketeers.

The kid broke out in a big smile over that one, but then his brow furrowed. With Billy Watson there was never more than a minute between the smile and the furrow.

—If it’s a special dinner, what are we going to eat?

—An excellent question. At the request of one Woolly Martin, we are going to have a little something known as
Fettuccine Mio Amore
. And that, my friend, is as special as it gets.

•   •   •

After getting Billy to write out a shopping list of all the ingredients we would need, we were off to Arthur Avenue, driving at a speed of three hundred questions an hour.

—What’s Arthur Avenue, Duchess?

—It’s the main drag in the Italian section of the Bronx, Billy.

—What’s an Italian section?

—It’s where all the Italians live.

—Why do all the Italians live in one place?

—So they can mind each other’s business.

What’s a trattoria, Duchess?

What’s a paisano?

What’s an artichoke and pancetta and tiramisu?

•   •   •

When we returned a few hours later, it was too early to start cooking, so having confirmed that Billy’s mathematics were up to snuff, I took him into Woolly’s brother-in-law’s office to do a little accounting.

Seating him at the desk with a pad and pencil, I lay down on the rug and rattled off all the expenses that Woolly and I had racked up since leaving St. Nick’s. The six tanks of gas; the room and board at two Howard Johnson’s; the beds and towels at the Sunshine Hotel; and the two meals at the diner on Second Avenue. To be on the safe side, I had him add an extra twenty for future outlays, then tally the whole list under the heading of Operational Expenses. Once we recovered Woolly’s trust from the Adirondacks, these costs were to be reimbursed to Emmett before a single dollar was divvied.

In a separate column under the heading of Personal Expenses, I had Billy include the long-distance call to Salina; the ten bucks for Bernie
at the Sunshine Hotel; the bottle of whiskey for Fitzy; the champagne and companionship at Ma Belle’s; and the tip for the doorman at the Empire State Building. Since none of these outlays were essential to our shared endeavor, I figured they should come out of my end.

At the last second, I remembered the expenditures on Arthur Avenue. You could argue that they belonged under the Operational Expenses since we’d all be eating them together. But with an ah-what-the-hell, I told Billy to put them in my column. Tonight, dinner was on me.

Once Billy had all the numbers down and he’d double-checked his sums, I encouraged him to take out a fresh sheet of paper and transcribe the two tallies. At a suggestion like that, most kids would have wanted to know why after doing the job once, they had to do it all over again. But not Billy. With his instinctive preference for the neat and tidy, he took out a new piece of paper and began duplicating his work with the same precision that he had laid out the forks and knives.

When he was finished, Billy nodded his head three times, giving the tally his patented seal of approval. But then his brow furrowed.

—Shouldn’t it have a title, Duchess?

—What did you have in mind?

Billy thought about it for a second while biting the end of his pencil. Then after writing it out in big capital letters, he read:

—The Escapade.

Now, how do you like that?

•   •   •

When the expense report was finished, it was after six o’clock—time to start cooking. After laying out the ingredients, I taught Billy everything that Lou, the chef at Leonello’s, had taught to me. First, how to make a basic tomato sauce from canned tomatoes and a soffritto (
What’s a soffritto, Duchess?
). Once that was on the stove, I showed him how to properly dice the bacon and properly slice the onion. Taking out a saucepan, I showed him how to properly sauté them
together with the bay leaves. How to simmer them in white wine with oregano and pepper flakes. And finally, how to stir in one cup of the tomato sauce, and not a teaspoon more.

—The important thing now, I explained, is to keep an eye on it, Billy. I’ve got to go to the washroom, so I want you to stand right where you are and occasionally give it a stir. All right?

—All right, Duchess.

Handing Billy the spoon, I excused myself and headed for Dennis’s office.

Having said that I didn’t think Emmett would be here by two, I’d thought for sure that he’d be here by six. After quietly closing the door, I dialed Ma Belle. It took her twenty rings to answer, but after giving me an earful about the etiquette of calling someone while they’re in the middle of their bath, she brought me up to speed.

—Uh oh, I said as I hung up the phone.

Having done one accounting with Billy, I found myself doing another on my own: With Emmett already a little peeved about the Studebaker, I had hoped to make it up to him by giving him the night with Charity; but clearly that hadn’t gone as planned. How was I supposed to know that Woolly’s medicine was so strong? Then to top it all off, I’d forgotten to leave an address. Yep, I thought to myself, there is a distinct possibility that when Emmett arrives, he’ll be in a bad mood. Assuming, that is, that he can find us . . .

Returning to the kitchen, I discovered Woolly staring at the spice rack and no one tending the sauce. That’s when things began to accelerate.

First, Woolly went off on reconnaissance.

Then the telephone rang and Billy reappeared.

Then Woolly returned with word of a wrong number, Billy announced it was nearly eight, and the doorbell rang.

Please, oh please, oh please, I said to myself as I dashed down the hall. With my heart in my mouth and Billy hot on my heels, I swung
the door open—and there was Emmett in a clean set of clothes, looking only a little worse for wear.

Before anyone had a chance to speak, the clock in the living room began to chime the hour of eight.

Turning to Billy, I stuck out my arms and said:

—What’d I tell you, kid?

Emmett

A
t the start of
Emmett’s junior year, the new math teacher, Mr. Nickerson, had presented Zeno’s paradox. In ancient Greece, he’d said, a philosopher named Zeno argued that to get from point A to point B, one had to go halfway there first. But to get from the halfway mark to point B, one would have to cross half of that distance, then halfway again, and so on. And when you piled up all the halves of halves that would have to be crossed to get from one point to another, the only conclusion to be drawn was that it couldn’t be done.

Mr. Nickerson had said this was a perfect example of paradoxical reasoning. Emmett had thought it a perfect example of why going to school could be a waste of time.

Just imagine, thought Emmett, all the mental energy that had been expended not only to formulate this paradox, but to pass it down through the ages, translating it from language to language so that it could be scratched on a chalkboard in the United States of America in 1952—five years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier over the Mojave Desert.

Mr. Nickerson must have noticed Emmett’s expression at the back of the classroom, because when the bell rang, he asked Emmett to stay.

—I just want to make sure you followed the argument this morning.

—I followed it, said Emmett.

—And what did you think?

Emmett looked out the window for a moment, unsure of whether he should share his point of view.

—Go ahead, encouraged Mr. Nickerson. I want to hear your take.

All right then, thought Emmett.

—It seemed to me a long and complicated way of proving something that my six-year-old brother could disprove in a matter of seconds with his own two feet.

But as Emmett said this, Mr. Nickerson didn’t seem the least put out. Rather, he nodded his head with enthusiasm, as if Emmett was on the verge of making a discovery as important as Zeno’s.

—What you’re saying, Emmett, if I understand you, is that Zeno appears to have pursued his proof for argument’s sake rather than for its practical value. And you’re not alone in making that observation. In fact, we have a word for the practice, which is almost as old as Zeno:
Sophistry
. From the Greek
sophistes—
those teachers of philosophy and rhetoric who gave their students the skills to make arguments that could be clever or persuasive but which weren’t necessarily grounded in reality.

Mr. Nickerson even wrote the word out on the chalkboard right below his diagram of the infinitely bisected journey from A to B.

Isn’t that just perfect, thought Emmett. In addition to handing down the lessons of Zeno, scholars have handed down a specialized word, the sole purpose of which is to identify the practice of teaching nonsense as sense.

At least that’s what Emmett had thought while standing in Mr. Nickerson’s classroom. What he was thinking as he walked along a winding, tree-lined street in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson was maybe Zeno hadn’t been so crazy after all.

That morning, Emmett had come to consciousness with a sensation of floating—like one who’s being carried down a wide river on a warm
summer day. Opening his eyes, he found himself under the covers of an unfamiliar bed. On the side table was a lamp with a red shade that cast the room in a rosy hue. But neither the bed nor the lamplight were soft enough to mollify the ache in his head.

Emitting a groan, Emmett made an effort to raise himself, but from across the room came the patter of bare feet, then a hand that gently pressed against his chest.

—You just lie there and be quiet.

Though she was now wearing a simple white blouse and her hair was pulled back, Emmett recognized his nurse as the young woman in the negligee who, the night before, had been lying where he was lying now.

Turning toward the hallway, Charity called out,
he’s awake
, and a moment later Ma Belle, dressed in a giant floral housedress, was standing in the doorway.

—So he is, she said.

Emmett hoisted himself up again, this time with more success. But as he did so, the covers fell from his chest and he realized with a start that he was naked.

—My clothes, he said.

—You think I’d let them put you in one of my beds while dressed in those filthy things, said Ma Belle.

—Where are they . . . ?

—Waiting for you right there on the bureau. Now, why don’t you get yourself out of bed and come have something to eat.

Ma Belle turned to Charity.

—Come on, honey. Your vigil here has ended.

When the two women closed the door, Emmett threw back the covers and rose carefully, feeling a little uneasy on his feet. Crossing to the bureau he was surprised to find his clothes freshly laundered and neatly folded in a pile, his belt coiled on top. As Emmett buttoned his shirt, he found himself staring at the painting he had noticed the
night before. Only now he could see that the mast was at an angle not because the ship was leaning into a high wind, but because it was foundering against the rocks with some sailors hanging from the rigging, others scrambling into a dory, and the head of one bobbing in the high white wake on the verge of being either dashed upon the rocks or swept out to sea.

As Duchess never tired of saying:
Exactly
.

•   •   •

When Emmett exited the bedroom, he made a point of turning to his left without looking down the vertiginous succession of doors. In the lounge, he found Ma Belle in a high-back chair with Charity standing at her side. On the coffee table were a breakfast cake and coffee.

Dropping onto the couch, Emmett ran a hand over his eyes.

Ma Belle pointed to a pink rubber bag on a plate beside the coffee pot.

—There’s an ice pack, if you’re partial to them.

—No thanks.

Ma Belle nodded.

—I never understood the attraction myself. After a big night, I wouldn’t want a bag of ice anywhere near me.

A big night, thought Emmett with a shake of the head.

—What happened?

—They gave you a mickey, said Charity with a mischievous smile.

Ma Belle scowled.

—It wasn’t a mickey, Charity. And there was no
they
. It was just Duchess being Duchess.

—Duchess? said Emmett.

Ma Belle gestured at Charity.

—He wanted to give you a little present. In honor of finishing your time at that work farm. But he was worried you might get a case of the jitters—what with your being a Christian and a virgin.

—There’s nothing wrong with being a Christian or a virgin, Charity said supportively.

—Well, I’m not so sure about that, said Ma Belle. Anyway, in order to set the mood, I was supposed to suggest a toast and Duchess was going to put a little something in your drink to help you relax. But the little something must have been stronger than he thought it was, because once we got you into Charity’s room, you spun around twice and out went the lights. Isn’t that right, honey?

—It’s a good thing you landed in my lap, she said with a wink.

Both of them seemed to find this an amusing turn of events. It just made Emmett grind his teeth.

—Oh, don’t get all angry on us now, said Ma Belle.

—If I’m angry, it’s not with you.

—Well, don’t get angry with Duchess either.

—He didn’t mean no harm, said Charity. He just wanted you to have a good time.

—That’s a fact, said Ma Belle. And at his own expense.

Emmett didn’t bother pointing out that the intended good time, like the champagne the night before, had been paid for with his money.

—Even as a boy, said Charity, Duchess was always making sure that everybody else was having a good time.

—Anyway, continued Ma Belle, we’re supposed to tell you that Duchess, your brother, and that other friend . . .

—Woolly, said Charity.

—Right, said Ma Belle. Woolly. They’ll all be waiting for you at his sister’s house. But first, you should have something to eat.

Emmett ran a hand over his eyes again.

—I’m not sure I’m hungry, he said.

Ma Belle frowned.

Leaning forward, Charity spoke a little under her breath.

—Ma Belle doesn’t generally serve breakfast.

—You’re damn right, I don’t.

After accepting a cup of the coffee and a slice of the coffee cake in order to be polite, Emmett was reminded that half the time, manners are there for your own good. For as it turned out, the coffee and cake were just what he needed. So much so that he readily accepted the offer of seconds.

As he ate, Emmett asked how the ladies had come to know Duchess when he was a boy.

—His father worked here, said Charity.

—I thought he was an actor.

—He was an actor all right, said Ma Belle. And when he couldn’t get any work onstage, he acted like a waiter or a maître d’. But for a few months after the war, he acted like our ringmaster. Harry could act like just about anything, I suppose. But most of the time, he acted like his own worst enemy.

—In what way?

—Harry’s a charmer with a soft spot for the sauce. So while he could talk his way into a job in a matter of minutes, he could drink his way back out of it almost as quickly.

—But when he was working at the Circus, chipped in Charity, he would leave Duchess with us.

—He’d bring Duchess here? asked Emmett, a little shocked.

—That’s right, said Ma Belle. At the time, he was probably about eleven years old. And while his father was downstairs, he’d work up here in the lounge. Taking hats and pouring drinks for the customers. He made good money too. Not that his father let him keep it.

Emmett looked around the room, trying to imagine Duchess at the age of eleven taking hats and pouring drinks in a house of ill repute.

—It wasn’t like it is now, Ma Belle said, following his gaze. Back then on a Saturday night, the Circus was standing-room-only and we had ten girls working up here. And it wasn’t just the boys from the Navy Yard. We had
society
people.

—Even the mayor came, Charity said.

—What happened?

Ma Belle shrugged.

—Times changed. The neighborhood changed. Tastes changed.

Then she looked around the room a little nostalgically.

—I thought it was the war that was going to put us out of business; but in the end, it was the suburbs.

•   •   •

Shortly before noon, Emmett was ready to take his leave. Receiving a peck on the cheek from Charity and a shake of the hand from Ma Belle, he thanked them for the clean clothes, for the breakfast, for their kindness.

—If you could just give me the address, I’ll be on my way.

Ma Belle looked at Emmett.

—What address?

—The one for Woolly’s sister.

—Why would I have that?

—Didn’t Duchess leave it with you?

—He didn’t leave it with me. How ’bout you, honey?

When Charity shook her head, Emmett closed his eyes.

—Why don’t we check the phone directory, Charity suggested brightly.

Charity and Ma Belle both looked to Emmett.

—I don’t know her married name.

—Well, I guess you’re shit-out-of-luck.

—Ma, chided Charity.

—All right, all right. Let me think.

Ma Belle looked off for a moment.

—This friend of yours—Woolly. What’s his story?

—He’s from New York. . . .

—So we gathered. But what borough?

Emmett looked back without understanding.

—What
neighborhood
. Brooklyn? Queens? Manhattan?

—Manhattan.

—That’s a start. Do you know where he went to school?

—He went to boarding school. St. George’s . . . St. Paul’s . . . St. Mark’s . . .

—He’s Catholic! said Charity.

Ma Belle rolled her eyes.

—Those aren’t Catholic schools, honey. Those are WASP schools. Fancy ones at that. And having known more than my share of their alumni, I’d bet you a blue blazer that your friend Woolly is from the Upper East Side. But which one did he go to: St. George’s, St. Paul’s, or St. Mark’s?

—All of them.

—All of them?

When Emmett explained that Woolly had been kicked out of two, Ma Belle shook with laughter.

—Ho, boy, she said at last. If you get thrown out of one of those schools, to get into another you need to come from a pretty old family. But to get thrown out of two and go to a third? You need to have arrived on the
Mayflower
! So what’s this Woolly character’s
real
name?

—Wallace Wolcott Martin.

—Of course, it is. Charity, why don’t you go in my office and bring me the black book that’s in my desk drawer.

When Charity returned from the room behind the piano, Emmett was expecting her to have a little address book. Instead, she was carrying a large black volume with a dark red title.

—The
Social Register
, explained Ma Belle. This is where everybody’s listed.

—Everybody? asked Emmett.

—Not my everybody. When it comes to the
Social Register
, I’ve been on it, under it, behind and in front of it, but I’ve never been in it.
Because it was designed to list the
other
everybody. Here. Make room, Gary Cooper.

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