Authors: Amor Towles
hat’s a fine job,
said Mrs. Whitney. I really can’t thank you enough.
—It was my pleasure, said Emmett.
They were standing at the threshold of the baby’s room looking at the walls, which Emmett had just finished painting.
—You must be hungry after all that work. Why don’t you come down and I’ll fix you a sandwich.
—I’d appreciate that, Mrs. Whitney. Just let me clean up.
—Of course, she said. But please. Call me Sarah.
That morning, Emmett had come downstairs to find that Duchess and Woolly were gone. Having woken in the early hours, they had driven off in the Cadillac, leaving only a note behind. Mr. Whitney was gone too, having headed back to their apartment in the city without taking time for breakfast. And Mrs. Whitney, she was standing in the kitchen dressed in dungarees, her hair pulled back in a kerchief.
—I promised I’d finally finish painting the baby’s room, she explained with a look of embarrassment.
It didn’t take much convincing for her to let Emmett take over the job.
With Mrs. Whitney’s approval, Emmett moved the boxes of Woolly’s belongings to the garage, stacking them in the spot where the
Cadillac had been. With some tools he found in the basement, he took apart the bed and stowed the pieces beside the boxes. When the room was empty, he finished taping the trim, laid the tarp across the floor, stirred the paint, and went to work.
When you had the job set up right—with the room clear and the trim taped and the floor protected—painting was peaceful work. It had a rhythm about it that allowed your thoughts to quiet down, or fall silent altogether. Eventually, all that you were aware of was the movement of the brush sweeping back and forth, turning the primed white wall to its new shade of blue.
When Sally saw what Emmett was doing, she nodded her head in approval.
—You want a hand?
—I’ve got it.
—You spilled some paint on the tarp over there by the window.
—All right, she said. Just so’s you know.
Then Sally looked up and down the hallway with a bit of a frown, as if she were disappointed there wasn’t another room that needed painting. She wasn’t used to being idle, certainly not as an uninvited guest in another woman’s home.
—Maybe I’ll take Billy into town, she said. Find a soda fountain where we can have lunch.
—Sounds like a good idea, agreed Emmett, placing the brush on the rim of the can. Let me get you some money.
—I think I can afford to buy your brother a hamburger. Besides, the last thing Mrs. Whitney needs now is you tracking paint all through her house.
When Mrs. Whitney went downstairs to make the sandwiches, Emmett brought all the work materials down the back staircase (having
checked his shoes twice to make sure there was no paint on the soles). In the garage, he cleaned the brushes, the paint tray, and his hands with turpentine. Then he joined Mrs. Whitney in the kitchen where a ham sandwich and glass of milk were waiting on the table.
When Emmett sat down, Mrs. Whitney took the chair opposite him with a cup of tea, but nothing to eat.
—I need to go into the city to join my husband, she said, but I gather from your brother that your car’s in the shop and won’t be ready until tomorrow.
—That’s right, said Emmett.
—In that case, why don’t you three stay the night. You can help yourself to what’s in the refrigerator for dinner, and in the morning you can lock the door behind you when you go.
—That’s very generous of you.
Emmett doubted that Mr. Whitney would have welcomed such an arrangement. If anything, he had probably communicated to his wife that he wanted them out of the house as soon as they awoke. Emmett felt his suspicion confirmed when Mrs. Whitney added, almost as an afterthought, that if the phone were to ring, they should leave it unanswered.
As Emmett ate, he noticed that in the middle of the table was a folded piece of paper standing upright between the salt and pepper shakers. Following his gaze, Mrs. Whitney acknowledged that it was Woolly’s note.
When Emmett had first come down in the morning and Mrs. Whitney had told him that Woolly had gone, she had seemed almost relieved by his departure, but a little worried too. As she looked at the note, the same emotions returned to her face.
—Would you like to read it? she asked.
—I wouldn’t presume.
—That’s all right. I’m sure Woolly wouldn’t mind.
Emmett’s normal instinct would have been to demur a second time,
but he sensed that Mrs. Whitney wanted him to read the note. Putting down his sandwich, he took it from its slot between the shakers.
Written in Woolly’s hand and addressed to
, the note said that Woolly was sorry for muddling things up. Sorry about the napkins and the wine. Sorry about the phone in the drawer. Sorry to be leaving so early in the morning without having the chance to say a proper goodbye. But she shouldn’t worry. Not for a minute. Not for a moment. Not for the blink of an eye. All would be well.
Cryptically, he concluded the note with the postscript
: The Comptons ate their cabbage in the kitchen!
—Will it? Mrs. Whitney asked when Emmett set the note down on the table.
—Will all be well?
—Yes, replied Emmett. I’m sure it will.
Mrs. Whitney nodded, but Emmett could see that this was less an expression of agreement with his reply than of gratitude for his reassurance. For a moment, she looked down into her tea, which must have been tepid by now.
—My brother wasn’t always in trouble, she said. He was Woolly, of course, but things changed for him during the war. Somehow, when Father accepted his commission in the navy, it was Woolly who ended up at sea.
She smiled a little sadly at her own witticism. Then she asked if Emmett knew why her brother had been sent to Salina.
—He told us once that he had taken someone’s car.
—Yes, she said with a bit of a laugh. That was it, more or less.
It happened when Woolly was at St. George’s, his third boarding school in as many years.
—One spring day in the middle of classes, she explained, he decided to walk into town in search of an ice cream cone, of all things. When he arrived at the little shopping center a few miles from campus,
he noticed there was a firetruck parked at the curb. Having looked around and found no signs of any firemen, he became convinced—in a way that only my brother can become convinced—that it must have been forgotten. Forgotten like—oh, I don’t even know—like an umbrella on the back of a chair, or a book on the seat of a bus.
With a smile of affection, she shook her head, then continued.
—Eager to return the firetruck to its rightful owners, Woolly climbed behind the wheel and went looking for the station house. Around the town he drove with a fireman’s hat on his head—as it was later reported—tooting the horn for any children he passed. After circling for God knows how long, he found a station house, parked the engine, and walked all the way back to campus.
The affectionate smile that Mrs. Whitney had been wearing began to fade now as her mind leapt forward to all that followed.
—As it turned out, the firetruck had been in the parking lot of the shopping center because several of the firemen were in the grocery store. And while Woolly was driving around, a call came in for a stable that was on fire. By the time the engine from a neighboring town arrived, the stable had burned to the ground. Thankfully, there were no people hurt. But the young stable hand who was on duty alone couldn’t get all of the horses out of the building, and four of them died in the fire. The police tracked Woolly back to the school and that was that.
After a moment, Mrs. Whitney pointed to Emmett’s plate in order to ask if he was finished. When he said that he was, she cleared it along with her cup to the sink.
She was trying not to imagine it, thought Emmett. Trying not to imagine those four horses trapped in their stalls, whinnying and rising on their hind legs as the flames grew closer. Trying not to imagine the unimaginable.
Though her back was now to Emmett, he could tell from the movement of her arm that she was wiping away tears. Deciding that he
should leave her in peace, Emmett tucked Woolly’s note back in its spot and quietly pushed back his chair.
—Do you know what I find so strange? Mrs. Whitney asked, still standing at the sink with her back to Emmett.
When he didn’t respond, she turned, wearing a mournful smile.
—When we’re young, so much time is spent teaching us the importance of keeping our vices in check. Our anger, our envy, our pride. But when I look around, it seems to me that so many of our lives end up being hampered by a virtue instead. If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit—a trait that is praised by pastors and poets, a trait that we have come to admire in our friends and hope to foster in our children—and you give it to some poor soul in abundance, it will almost certainly prove an obstacle to their happiness. Just as someone can be too smart for their own good, there are those who are too patient for their own good, or too hardworking.
After shaking her head, Mrs. Whitney looked at the ceiling. When she looked down again, Emmett could see that another tear was making its way down her cheek.
—Those who are too confident . . . or too cautious . . . or too kind . . .
Emmett understood that what Mrs. Whitney was sharing with him was her effort to understand, to explain, to make some sense of the undoing of her bighearted brother. At the same time, Emmett suspected that tucked in Mrs. Whitney’s list was an apology for her husband, who was either too smart, too confident, or too hardworking for his own good. Perhaps all three. But what Emmett found himself wondering was what virtue did Mrs. Whitney have too much of? The answer, his instincts told him, though he was almost reluctant to admit it, was probably forgiveness.
nd this was my
favorite rocking chair, said Woolly to no one.
He was standing on the porch, a little while after Duchess had gone to the general store. Giving the chair a push, he listened to the thwapping of its rockers as it rocked back and forth, noting how each individual thwap came closer and closer together as the back and forths became smaller and smaller, until they stopped altogether.
Setting the chair in motion again, Woolly looked out at the lake. For the time being, it was so still you could see every cloud in the sky reflected on its surface. But in another hour or so, right around five o’clock, the afternoon breeze would begin to pick up and the surface would ripple and all the reflections would be swept away. Then the curtains in the windows would start to stir.
Sometimes, thought Woolly, sometimes at the end of summer when the hurricanes roamed the Atlantic, the afternoon breeze would grow so strong that the bedroom doors would all slam shut and the rocking chairs would rock themselves.
After giving one last push to his favorite chair, Woolly went back through the double doors into the great room.
—And this is the great room, he said, where we would play Parcheesi and complete jigsaw puzzles on rainy afternoons . . . And this is the hallway . . . And this is the kitchen, where Dorothy made fried chicken and her famous blueberry muffins. And that’s the table where we ate when we were too young to dine in the dining room.
Removing from his pocket the note that he had written while sitting at his great-grandfather’s desk, Woolly tucked it neatly between the salt and pepper shakers. Then he left the kitchen by means of the only door in the house that swung back and forth.
—And here is the dining room, he said, gesturing to the long table around which his cousins and aunts and uncles would gather. Once you were old enough to eat in here, he explained, you could sit in any seat you wanted as long as it wasn’t the seat at the end of the table, because that’s where Great-grandpa would sit. And there is the head of the moose.
Exiting the other dining-room door, Woolly reentered the great room, where, after admiring it from corner to corner, he picked up Emmett’s book bag and began climbing the stairs, counting as he went.
—Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate.
At the top of the stairs, the hallway shot off in both directions, east and west, with bedroom doors on either side.
While there was nothing hanging on the wall to the south, on the wall to the north were photographs everywhere you looked. According to family legend, Woolly’s grandmother had been the first person to hang a photograph in the upstairs hallway—a picture of her four young children, which she put right above the side table opposite the stairs. Soon after, a second and third photograph were hung to the left and right of the first photograph. Then a fourth and fifth were hung above and below. Over the years, photographs had been added leftward and rightward, upward and downward, until they radiated in every direction.
Setting down the book bag, Woolly approached the first photograph, then began looking at all the others in the order that they had been hung. There was the picture of Uncle Wallace as a little boy in his little sailor suit. And there the picture of his grandfather out on the dock with the tattoo of the schooner on his arm, getting ready to take his twelve o’clock swim. And there the picture of his father
holding up his blue ribbon after winning the riflery contest on the Fourth of July in 1941.
—He always won the riflery contest, said Woolly, while brushing a tear from his cheek with the flat of his hand.
And there, one step farther from the side table, was the one of Woolly with his mother and father in the canoe.
This picture was taken—oh, Woolly didn’t know for sure—but around the time that he was seven. Certainly before Pearl Harbor and the aircraft carrier. Before Richard and “Dennis.” Before St. Paul’s and St. Mark’s and St. George’s.
Before, before, before.
The funny thing about a picture, thought Woolly, the funny thing about a picture is that while it knows everything that’s happened up until the moment it’s been taken, it knows absotively nothing about what will happen next. And yet, once the picture has been framed and hung on a wall, what you see when you look at it closely are all the things that were
to happen. All the un-things. The things that were unanticipated. And unintended. And unreversible.
Wiping another tear from his cheek, Woolly removed the photograph from the wall and picked up the book bag.
As with the chairs around the dining-room table, there was one bedroom on the hallway that you weren’t allowed to sleep in because it was Great-grandpa’s. Everyone other than Great-grandpa would sleep in different bedrooms at different times depending on how old they were, or whether they were married, or how early or late in the summer they happened to arrive. Over the years, Woolly had slept in a number of these rooms. But for the longest time, or what seemed like the longest time, he and his cousin Freddy had slept in the second to last room on the left. So that’s where Woolly went.
Stepping inside, Woolly set down the book bag and leaned the photograph of him and his parents on the bureau behind the pitcher and glasses. After looking at the pitcher for a moment, he carried it
down the hall to the bathroom, filled it with water, and brought it back. Pouring water into one of the glasses, he picked it up and moved it to the bedside table. Then after opening a window, so that the breeze could find its way into the room after five, he began to unpack.
First, he took out the radio and placed it on the bureau beside the pitcher. Then he took out his dictionary and placed it beside the radio. Then he took out the cigar box, in which he kept his collection of the same version of different things, and placed it beside the dictionary. Then he took out his extra bottle of medicine and the little brown bottle that he’d found waiting for him in the spice rack and placed them on the bedside table beside the glass of water.
As he was taking off his shoes, Woolly heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway—Duchess returning from the general store. Moving to the doorway, Woolly listened to the screen door in the mudroom open and close. Then footsteps passing through the great room. Then furniture being moved in the study. And finally, the sound of clanging.
It wasn’t a dainty sort of clanging, like that of a cable car in San Francisco, thought Woolly. It was an emphatic clanging like that of a blacksmith who’s beating a red-hot horseshoe on an anvil.
Or perhaps not a horseshoe . . . , thought Woolly with a pang.
Better that it was a blacksmith beating something else. Something like, something like, something like a sword. Yes, that was it. The clanging sounded like an ancient blacksmith hammering on the blade of Excalibur.
With that happier image in mind, Woolly closed the door, switched on the radio, and went to lie down on the bed on the left.
In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks has to climb into three different beds before she finds the one that’s just right for her. But Woolly didn’t need to climb into three different beds, because he already knew that the one on the left would be just right for him. For as in his youth, it was neither too hard nor too soft, too long nor too short.
Propping up the pillows, Woolly polished off the extra bottle of his medicine and made himself comfortable. As he looked up at the ceiling, his thoughts returned to the jigsaw puzzles that they would complete on rainy days.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, thought Woolly, if everybody’s life was like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then no one person’s life would ever be an inconvenience to anyone else’s. It would just fit snugly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete.
As Woolly was having this wonderful notion, a commercial came to its end and the telecast of a mystery show began. Climbing back out of bed, Woolly turned the volume on the radio down to two and a half.
The important thing to understand about listening to a mystery show on the radio, Woolly well knew, is that all the parts designed to make you anxious—like the whispering of assassins, or the rustling of leaves, or the creaking of steps on a staircase—were relatively quiet. While the parts designed to set your mind at ease—like the sudden epiphany of the hero, or the peeling of his tires, or the crack of his pistol—were relatively loud. So if you turned the volume down to two and a half, you could barely hear the parts designed to make you anxious, while still getting to hear all the parts designed to set your mind at ease.
Returning to his bed, Woolly poured all the little pink pills from the little brown bottle onto the table. With the tip of his finger, he pushed them into the palm of his hand, saying,
One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more
. Then washing them down with a big drink of water, he made himself comfortable again.
With the pillows properly propped, the volume properly lowered, and the little pink pills properly swallowed, you might think that Woolly wouldn’t know what to think about, what with Woolly being Woolly and prone to all the old Woolly ways.
But Woolly knew exactly what to think about. He had known that he would think about it almost as soon as it had happened.
—I’ll start in front of the cabinet at FAO Schwarz, he said to himself with a smile. And my sister will come, and we’ll have tea at the Plaza with the panda. And after Duchess meets me at the statue of Abraham Lincoln, he and I will attend the circus, where Billy and Emmett will suddenly reappear. Then we’ll go over the Brooklyn Bridge and up the Empire State Building, where we’ll meet Professor Abernathe. Then it’s off to the grassy train tracks where, sitting by the fire, we’ll hear the story of the two Ulysses and the ancient seer who explained how they could find their ways home again—how they could find their ways home, after ten long years.
But one mustn’t rush, thought Woolly, as the window curtains stirred, and the grass began to sprout through the seams between the floorboards, and the ivy climbed the legs of the bureau. For a one-of-a-kind kind of day deserves to be relived at the slowest possible pace, with every moment, every twist, every turn of events remembered to the tiniest detail.