Authors: Amor Towles
fter driving a mile
down the winding dirt road, Emmett began to suspect he had taken a wrong turn. The man at the filling station, who knew the Wolcotts by name, had told Emmett that he should continue along Route 28 for another eight and a half miles, then take a right onto the dirt road bordered by white cedars. Emmett had measured the distance on the odometer, and though he wasn’t certain what white cedars looked like, the road he came upon was lined with evergreens, so he took the turn. But a mile later, there was still no sign of a residence. Luckily, the road wasn’t wide enough for Emmett to turn around, so he drove onward and a few minutes later came upon a large timber house at the edge of a lake—beside which was parked Woolly’s car.
Rolling to a stop behind the Cadillac, Emmett got out of the Studebaker and walked toward the lake. It was late in the afternoon and the water was so still its surface perfectly reflected the pine trees on the opposite shore and the disparate clouds overhead, giving the world an illusion of vertical symmetry. The only sign of movement was from a great blue heron that, having been disturbed by the closing of Emmett’s car door, had taken flight from the shallows and now was gliding silently about two feet above the water.
To Emmett’s left was a small building that appeared to be some kind of work shed, because resting nearby on a pair of sawhorses, awaiting repair, was an overturned dory with a breach in its bow.
To Emmett’s right was the house overlooking the lawn, the lake, and the dock. Along its front was a grand porch with rocking chairs and a wide set of steps descending to the grass. There would be a main entrance at the top of those steps, Emmett knew, but on the other side of the Cadillac was a path bordered by painted stones that led to a stoop and an open door.
Climbing the steps, Emmett opened the screen and called inside.
Hearing nothing, he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him. He found himself in a muck room with an array of fishing rods, hiking boots, slickers, and skates. Everything in the room was neatly put away except for the Adirondack chairs that were stacked in the middle of the floor. Over a rifle cabinet hung a large hand-painted sign with a checklist entitled
Closing the House.
Remove firing pins
Take in rockers
Take out garbage
Leaving the muck room, Emmett entered a hallway, where he stopped, listened, and called again for Woolly and Duchess. Receiving no response, he proceeded to poke his head into various rooms. While the first two seemed untouched, in the third a cue and several balls had been left on the felt of the pool table, as if someone had stopped a game in midplay. At the hallway’s end, Emmett stepped into a high-ceilinged living room with various arrangements of couches and chairs, and an open staircase that led to the second floor.
Emmett shook his head in appreciation. It was one of the finest rooms that he had ever seen. Much of the furniture was in the Arts and Crafts style, fashioned from cherry or oak, perfectly joined and discreetly detailed. Over the center of the room hung a large light
fixture that, like the lamps, was shaded with mica, ensuring that the room would be cast in a warm glow once evening fell. The fireplace, the ceilings, the couches, the staircase had all been built larger than normal, but they were in proportion to each other and remained in harmony with a human scale, such that the room seemed at once cozy and generous.
It wasn’t hard to understand why this house had maintained such a privileged position in Woolly’s imagination. It would have maintained a privileged position in Emmett’s, had he had the luxury of growing up in it.
Through a pair of open doors Emmett could see a dining room with a long oak table, and down the continuation of the hallway he could see doors leading to other rooms, including a kitchen at the end. But if Woolly and Duchess had been in one of those rooms, they would have heard him calling. So Emmett headed up the stairs.
At the top of the steps, the hallway led in both directions.
First, he checked the bedrooms to his right. Though they differed in terms of size and furnishings—some with double beds, some with single beds, one with a pair of bunks—they all shared a rough simplicity. In a house like this, Emmett understood, one wasn’t meant to linger in one’s bedroom. One was meant to join the family downstairs for breakfast at the long oak table, then spend the rest of the day out of doors. None of the rooms showed any sign of having been used the night before, so doubling back, Emmett headed for the other end of the hallway.
As Emmett walked, he glanced at the photographs on the wall, intending to give them only passing consideration. And yet he found himself slowing his pace, then stopping altogether in order to study them more closely.
Though the pictures varied in size, all were of people. Among them were portraits of groups and individuals, children and adults, some in motion, others at rest. Taken separately, there was nothing unusual about them. The faces and clothes were ordinary enough. But taken
together, there was something profoundly enviable about this wall of photographs in their matching black frames. And it wasn’t due to the prevalence of sunlight and carefree smiles. It was a matter of heritage.
Emmett’s father had grown up in some version of this place. As he had written in his last letter, what had been handed down in his family from generation to generation were not simply stocks and bonds, but houses and paintings, furniture and boats. And when Emmett’s father chose to tell anecdotes of his youth, there seemed no end to the cousins, uncles, and aunts gathered around the holiday table. But for some reason, for some reason that had never been fully explained, Emmett’s father had left all of that behind when he moved to Nebraska. Left it behind without a trace.
Or almost without a trace.
There were the trunks in the attic with their exotic stickers from foreign hotels, and the picnic basket with its orderly arrangement of utensils, and the unused china in the hutch—remnants of the life that Emmett’s father had relinquished in order to pursue his Emersonian ideal. Emmett shook his head, uncertain of whether his father’s actions should give him cause for disappointment or admiration.
As usual with such puzzles of the heart, the answer was probably both.
Progressing down the hall, Emmett could tell from the quality of the photographs and the style of the clothing that the pictures were moving backward in time. Starting at some point in the 1940s, they receded through the thirties and the twenties all the way into the teens. But when Emmett passed the side table at the top of the stairs, the photographs reversed course and began advancing through the decades. It was when he had returned to the 1940s and was looking with curiosity at a blank space on the wall that Emmett heard the music—music coming faintly from somewhere down the hallway. Passing several of the rooms, he homed in on the sound until he stopped before the second-to-last door and listened.
It was Tony Bennett.
Tony Bennett singing that he would go from rags to riches, if you’d only say you care.
When neither replied, he opened the door.
It was another simply furnished room, this one with two small single beds and a bureau. On one of the beds lay Woolly, his stocking feet extending beyond the end of the frame, his eyes closed, his hands crossed on his chest. On the bedside table were two empty medicine bottles and three pink pills.
With a terrible sense of foreboding, Emmett approached the bed. After saying Woolly’s name, he shook him gently by the shoulder, finding him stiff to the touch.
—Oh, Woolly, he said, taking a seat on the opposite bed.
Feeling the onset of nausea, Emmett turned away from his friend’s expressionless features and found himself staring at the bedside table. Having already recognized the little blue bottle as Woolly’s so-called medicine, Emmett picked up the brown bottle. He had never heard of the medication printed on the label, but he saw that it had been prescribed to Sarah Whitney.
In just this way, thought Emmett, does misery beget misery. For as good as Woolly’s sister was at forgiving, she would never be able to forgive herself for this. As he set the empty bottle back down, from the radio came a jazz number, swinging and discordant.
Rising from the bed, Emmett crossed to the radio and switched it off. On the bureau beside the radio was an old cigar box and a dictionary that could have come from anywhere, but leaning against the wall was a framed photograph that could only have come from the empty space in the hall.
It was a snapshot of Woolly as a boy sitting in a canoe between his mother and father. Woolly’s parents—a handsome couple in their late
thirties—each had a paddle resting across the gunwale, as if they were on the verge of setting out. From Woolly’s expression, you could tell he was a little nervous, but he was laughing too, as if someone outside of the frame, someone on the dock, were making a face for his benefit.
Just a few days before—when they had been outside the orphanage waiting for Duchess—Billy had explained to Woolly about their mother and the fireworks in San Francisco, and Woolly, in turn, had explained to Billy about the Fourth of July celebrations his family would have here at the camp. It occurred to Emmett that this picture of Woolly sitting between his parents in the canoe could well have been taken on the very same day that Emmett had lain between his parents to watch the fireworks in Seward. And for perhaps the first time, Emmett had an inkling of why the journey west along the Lincoln Highway had become so important to his brother.
Gently, Emmett returned the photograph to its place on the bureau. Then after taking one more look at his friend, he went in search of a phone. But as he was heading down the hall, he heard a clanging coming from downstairs.
, he thought.
And the grief that had been welling up inside him was eclipsed by a feeling of fury.
Descending the stairs, Emmett moved quickly down the hallway in the direction of the kitchen, once again homing in on the source of a sound. Stepping through the first door on his left, he entered a room that looked like a gentleman’s office, but in disarray—with books pulled from the bookcases, drawers withdrawn from the desk, and papers scattered on the floor. To Emmett’s left, a framed painting jutted at a ninety-degree angle from the wall, while behind the painting stood Duchess, haplessly swinging an ax at the smooth gray surface of a safe.
—Come on, Duchess encouraged as he hit the safe again. Come on, baby.
—Duchess, called Emmett once.
Then again, more loudly.
Startled, Duchess checked his swing and looked back. But upon seeing Emmett, he broke into a smile.
—Emmett! Boy, am I glad to see you!
Emmett found Duchess’s smile to be as discordant as the jazz number that had come on the radio in Woolly’s room; and he felt the same urgent desire to switch it off. As Emmett moved toward Duchess, Duchess’s expression transitioned from elation to concern.
—What is it? What’s wrong?
—What’s wrong? Emmett said, stopping in amazement. Haven’t you been upstairs? Haven’t you seen Woolly?
Suddenly understanding, Duchess set the ax down on a chair, then shook his head with a solemn expression.
—I saw him, Emmett. What can I say? It’s terrible.
—But how . . . ? blurted Emmett. How could you
—Let him? repeated Duchess in surprise. Do you seriously think if I had known what Woolly intended to do, I would have left him on his own? I’ve been keeping an eye on Woolly since the minute I met him. Not a week ago, I went so far as to take away the last bottle of his medicine. But he must have had another one stashed away. And don’t ask me where he got hold of those pills.
With all his feelings of impotency and rage, Emmett wanted to blame Duchess. He wanted to blame him, badly. But he also understood that it wasn’t Duchess’s fault. And rising up within him, like bile in the throat, came the memory of his own assurance to Woolly’s sister that all would be well.
—Did you call an ambulance, at least, Emmett asked after a moment, hearing his own voice falter.
Duchess shook his head with an expression of futility.
—By the time I found him, it was too late. He was already as cold as ice.
—All right, said Emmett. I’ll call the police.
—The police . . . ? Why would you do that?
—We’ve got to tell somebody.
—Of course we do. And we will. But whether we do it now or later won’t make any difference to Woolly. But it could make a big difference to us.
Ignoring Duchess, Emmett headed toward the telephone on the desk. When Duchess saw where Emmett was going, he scrambled in the same direction, but Emmett beat him to it.
Holding Duchess off with one hand, Emmett picked up the receiver with the other, only to find it silent—the service having yet to be restored for the season.
When Duchess realized the phone was dead, he relaxed his posture.
—Let’s talk this through for a second.
—Come on, said Emmett, taking Duchess by the elbow. We’ll drive to the station.
Steering Duchess out of the office, Emmett walked him down the hallway, barely listening as Duchess tried to make some sort of case for delay.
—It’s terrible what’s happened, Emmett. I’m the first to say so. But it’s what Woolly chose for himself. For his own reasons. Reasons that we may never fully understand and that we have no real right to second-guess. What’s important now is for us to keep in mind what Woolly would’ve wanted.
When they reached the screen door in the muck room, Duchess turned around in order to face Emmett.
—You should have been there when your brother talked about the house he wants to build in California. I’ve never seen Woolly so excited. He could just picture the two of you living there together. If we go to the cops now, I’m telling you, within the hour this place is going to be crawling with people, and we’ll never get to finish what Woolly started.