Read The Lincoln Highway Online
Authors: Amor Towles
—An escapade . . . , said Emmett.
—We’ve been calling it that for lack of a better word, I said. But it’s a good deed, really. A sort of mitzvah. In fact, it’s the fulfillment of a dying man’s wish.
As I began to explain, I looked from Emmett to Billy and back again since the two seemed equally intrigued.
—When Woolly’s grandfather died, he left some money for Woolly in what they call a trust fund. Isn’t that right, Woolly?
—Now, a trust fund is a special investment account that’s set up for the benefit of a minor with a trustee who makes all the decisions until the minor comes of age, at which point the minor can do with the money as he sees fit. But when Woolly turned eighteen, thanks to a little bit of fancy jurisprudence, the trustee—who happens to be Woolly’s brother-in-law—had Woolly declared temperamentally unfit. Wasn’t that the term, Woolly?
—Temperamentally unfit, Woolly confirmed with an apologetic smile.
—And in so doing, his brother-in-law extended his authority over the trust until such a time as Woolly should improve his temperament, or in perpetuity, whichever comes first.
I shook my head.
—And they call that a
—That sounds like Woolly’s business, Duchess. What does it have to do with you?
—With us, Emmett. What does it have to do with us.
I pulled my chair a little closer to the table.
—Woolly and his family have a house in upstate New York—
—A camp, said Woolly.
—A camp, I amended, where the family gathers from time to time. Well, during the Depression, when the banks began failing, Woolly’s great-grandfather decided he could never entirely trust the American banking system again. So, just in case, he put a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in cash in a wall safe at the camp. But what’s particularly interesting here—even fateful, you might say—is that the value of Woolly’s trust today is almost exactly a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
I paused to let that sink in. Then I looked at Emmett directly.
—And because Woolly’s a man who’s big of heart and modest of needs, he has proposed that if you and I accompany him to the Adirondacks to help him claim what is rightfully his, he will divvy up the proceeds in three equal parts.
—One hundred and fifty thousand dollars divided by three is fifty thousand dollars, said Billy.
—Exactly, I said.
—All for one and one for all, said Woolly.
As I leaned back in my chair, Emmett stared at me for a moment. Then he turned to Woolly.
—This was your idea?
—It was my idea, Woolly acknowledged.
—And you’re not going back to Salina?
Woolly put his hands in his lap and shook his head.
—No, Emmett. I’m not going back to Salina.
Emmett gave Woolly a searching look, as if he were trying to formulate one more question. But Woolly, who was naturally disinclined to the answering of questions and who’d had plenty of practice in avoiding them, began clearing the plates.
In a state of hesitation, Emmett drew a hand across his mouth. I leaned across the table.
—The one hitch is that the camp always gets opened up for the last weekend in June, which doesn’t give us a lot of time. I’ve got to make a quick stop in New York to see my old man, but then we’re heading straight for the Adirondacks. We should have you back in Morgen by Friday—a little road weary, maybe, but on the sunny side of fifty grand. Think about that for a second, Emmett. . . . I mean, what could you do with fifty grand? What
you do with fifty grand?
There is nothing so enigmatic as the human will—or so the headshrinkers would have you believe. According to them, the motivations
of a man are a castle without a key. They form a multilayered labyrinth from which individual actions often emerge without a readily discernible rhyme or reason. But it’s really not so complicated. If you want to understand a man’s motivations, all you have to do is ask him:
What would you do with fifty thousand dollars?
When you ask most people this question, they need a few minutes to think about it, to sort through the possibilities and consider their options. And that tells you everything you need to know about them. But when you pose the question to a man of substance, a man who merits your consideration, he will answer in a heartbeat—and with specifics. Because he’s already thought about what he would do with fifty grand. He’s thought about it while he’s been digging ditches, or pushing paper, or slinging hash. He’s thought about it while listening to his wife, or tucking in the kids, or staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. In a way, he’s been thinking about it all his life.
When I put the question to Emmett, he didn’t respond, but that wasn’t because he didn’t have an answer. I could see from the expression on his face that he knew
what he’d do with fifty thousand dollars, nickel for nickel and dime for dime.
As we sat there silently, Billy looked from me to his brother and back again; but Emmett, he looked straight across the table like he and I were suddenly the only people in the room.
—Maybe this was Woolly’s idea and maybe it wasn’t, Duchess. Either way, I don’t want any part of it. Not the stop in the city, not the trip to the Adirondacks, not the fifty thousand dollars. Tomorrow, I need to take care of a few things in town. But on Monday morning, first thing, Billy and I are going to drive you and Woolly to the Greyhound station in Omaha. From there you can catch a bus to Manhattan or the Adirondacks or anywhere you like. Then Billy and I will get back in the Studebaker and go on about our business.
Emmett was serious as he delivered this little speech. In fact, I’ve never seen a guy so serious. He didn’t raise his voice, and he didn’t
take his eyes off me once—not even to glance at Billy, who was listening to every word with a look of wide-eyed wonder.
And that’s when it hit me. The blunder I’d made. I had laid out all the specifics right in front of the kid.
Like I said before, Emmett Watson understands the whole picture better than most. He understands that a man can be patient, but only up to a point; that it’s occasionally necessary for him to toss a monkey wrench in the workings of the world in order to get his God-given due. But Billy? At the age of eight, he probably hadn’t set foot out of the state of Nebraska. So you couldn’t expect him to understand all the intricacies of modern life, all the subtleties of what was and wasn’t fair. In fact, you wouldn’t
him to understand it. And as the kid’s older brother, as his guardian and sole protector, it was Emmett’s job to spare Billy from such vicissitudes for as long as he possibly could.
I leaned back in my chair and gave the nod of common understanding.
—Say no more, Emmett. I read you loud and clear.
After supper, Emmett announced that he was walking over to the Ransoms to see if his neighbor would come jump his car. As the house was a mile away, I offered to keep him company, but he thought it best that Woolly and I stay out of sight. So I remained at the kitchen table, chatting with Billy while Woolly did the dishes.
Given what I’ve already told you about Woolly, you’d probably think he wasn’t cut out for doing dishes—that his eyes would glaze over and his mind would wander and he’d generally go about the business in a slipshod fashion. But Woolly, he washed those dishes like his life depended on it. With his head bent at a forty-five-degree angle and the tip of his tongue poking between his teeth, he circled the sponge over the surface of the plates with a tireless intention, removing some spots that had been there for years and others that weren’t there at all.
It was a wonder to observe. But like I said, I love surprises.
When I turned my attention back to Billy, he was unwrapping a little package of tinfoil that he’d taken from his knapsack. From inside the tinfoil he carefully withdrew four cookies and put them on the table—one cookie in front of each chair.
—Well, well, well, I said. What do we have here?
—Chocolate chip cookies, said Billy. Sally made them.
While we chewed in silence, I noticed that Billy was staring rather shyly at the top of the table, as if he had something he wanted to ask.
—What’s on your mind, Billy?
—All for one and one for all, he said a little tentatively. That’s from
The Three Musketeers
, isn’t it?
Having successfully identified the source of the quotation, you might have imagined the kid would be pleased as punch, but he looked despondent. Positively despondent. And that’s despite the fact that the mere mention of
The Three Musketeers
usually puts a smile on a young boy’s face. So Billy’s disappointment rather mystified me. That is until I was about to take another bite, and I recalled the all-for-one-and-one-for-all arrangement of the cookies on the table.
I put my cookie down.
—Have you seen
The Three Musketeers
—No, he admitted, with a hint of the same despondency. But I have read it.
—Then you should know better than most just how misleading a title can be.
Billy looked up from the table.
—Why is that, Duchess?
—Because, in point of fact,
The Three Musketeers
is a story about
musketeers. Yes, it opens with the delightful camaraderie of Orthos and Pathos and Artemis.
—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis?
—Exactly. But the central
of the tale is the means by which the young adventurer . . .
— . . . by which D’Artagnan joins the ranks of the swashbuckling threesome. And by saving the honor of the queen, no less.
—That’s true, said Billy, sitting up in his chair. In point of fact, it is a story about four musketeers.
In honor of a job well done, I popped the rest of my cookie in my mouth and brushed the crumbs from my fingers. But Billy was staring at me with a new intensity.
—I sense that something else is on your mind, young William.
He leaned as far forward as the table would allow and spoke a little under his breath.
—Do you want to hear what I would do with fifty thousand dollars?
I leaned forward and spoke under my breath too.
—I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
—I would build a house in San Francisco, California. It would be a white house just like this one with a little porch and a kitchen and a front room. And upstairs, there would be three bedrooms. Only instead of a barn for the tractor, there would be a garage for Emmett’s car.
—I love it, Billy. But why San Francisco?
—Because that’s where our mother is.
I sat back in my chair.
—You don’t say.
Back at Salina, whenever Emmett mentioned his mother—which wasn’t very often, to be sure—he invariably used the past tense. But he didn’t use it in a manner suggesting that his mother had gone to California. He used it in a manner suggesting that she had gone to the great beyond.
—We’re leaving right after we take you and Woolly to the bus station, added Billy.
—Just like that, you’re going to pack up the house and move to California.
—No. We’re not going to pack up the house, Duchess. We’re going to take what little we can fit in a kit bag.
—Why would you do that?
—Because Emmett and Professor Abernathe agree that’s the best way to make a fresh start. We’re going to drive to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, and once we get there, we’ll find our mother and build our house.
I didn’t have the heart to tell the kid that if his mother didn’t want to live in a little white house in Nebraska, she wasn’t going to want to live in a little white house in California. But setting the vagaries of motherhood aside, I figured the kid’s dream was about forty thousand dollars under budget.
—I love your plan, Billy. It’s got the sort of specificity that a heartfelt scheme deserves. But are you sure you’re dreaming big enough? I mean, with fifty thousand dollars you could go a hell of a lot further. You could have a pool and a butler. You could have a four-car garage.
Billy shook his head with a serious look on his face.
—No, he said. I don’t think we will need a pool and a butler, Duchess.
I was about to gently suggest that the kid shouldn’t jump to conclusions, that pools and butlers weren’t so easy to come by, and those who came by them were generally loath to give them up, when suddenly Woolly was standing at the table with a plate in one hand and a sponge in the other.
—No one needs a pool or a butler, Billy.
You never know what’s going to catch Woolly’s attention. It could be a bird that settles on a branch. Or the shape of a footprint in the snow. Or something someone said on the previous afternoon. But whatever gets Woolly thinking, it’s always worth the wait. So as he
took the seat next to Billy, I quickly went to the sink, turned off the water, and returned to my chair, all ears.
—No one needs a four-car garage, Woolly continued. But I think what you will need is a few more bedrooms.
—Why is that, Woolly?
—So that friends and family can come visit for the holidays.