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Authors: Amor Towles

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BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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—But why is it cursed?

—Why is it cursed! Have you never heard the tale of Macbeth? The black-hearted Thane of Glamis? What? No? Well then, my boy, make some room, and I shall bring you into the fraternity!

Professor Applenathe’s
Compendium
was set aside. And as Billy got under the covers, I switched off the light—just as my father would have when he was about to tell a dark and grisly tale.

Naturally enough, I began on the fen with the three witches bubbling, bubbling, toil and troubling. I told the kid how, spurred by the
ambitions of the Missus, Macbeth honored the visit of his king with a dagger through the heart; and how this cold-blooded act of murder begot another, which in turn begot a third. I told him how Macbeth became tormented by ghostly visions, and his wife began sleepwalking the halls of Cawdor while wiping the specter of blood from her hands. Oh, I stuck the courage to the sticking place, all right!

And once the trees of Birnam Wood had climbed the hill of Dunsinane, and Macduff, that man of no woman born, had left the regicide slain upon the fields, I tucked Billy in with a wish of pleasant dreams. And as I retreated down the hall, I took a bow with a gentle flourish when I noted that young Billy had gotten out of bed to switch the light back on.

Sitting on the edge of Emmett’s bed, what struck me immediately about his room was all that wasn’t in it. While there was a chip in the plaster where a nail had once been lodged, there were no pictures hanging, no posters or pennants. There was no radio or record player. And while there was a curtain rod above the window, there were no curtains. If there had been a cross on the wall, it could well have been the cell of a monk.

I suppose he could have cleared it out right before going to Salina. Putting his childish ways behind him, and what have you, by dumping all his comic books and baseball cards in the trash. Maybe. But something told me this was the room of someone who had been preparing to walk out of his house with nothing but a kit bag for a long, long time.

The beams from Mr. Ransom’s headlights swept across the wall again, this time from left to right as the truck passed the house on its way to the road. After the screen door slammed, I heard Emmett turn off the lights in the kitchen, then the lights in the front room. When he climbed the stairs, I was waiting in the hall.

—Up and running? I asked.

—Thankfully.

He looked genuinely relieved, but a little worn out too.

—I feel terrible putting you out of your room. Why don’t you take your bed and I’ll sleep downstairs on the couch. It may be a little short, but it’s bound to be more comfortable than the mattresses at Salina.

In saying this, I didn’t expect Emmett to take me up on the offer. He wasn’t the type. But I could tell he appreciated the gesture. He gave me a smile and even put a hand on my shoulder.

—That’s all right, Duchess. You stay put and I’ll join Billy. I think we could all use a good night’s sleep.

Emmett continued down the hall a few steps, then stopped and turned back.

—You and Woolly should switch out of those clothes. He can find something in my father’s closet. They were about the same size. I’ve already packed things for Billy and me, so you can take what you want from mine. There’s also a pair of old book bags in there that you two can use.

—Thanks, Emmett.

As he continued down the hall, I went back into his room. From behind the closed door, I could hear him washing up, then going to join his brother.

Lying down on his bed, I stared at the ceiling. Over my head were no model airplanes. All I had was a crack in the plaster that turned a lazy curve around the ceiling lamp. But at the end of a long day, maybe a crack in the plaster is all you need to trigger fanciful thoughts. Because the way that little imperfection curved around the fixture was suddenly very reminiscent of how the Platte River bends around Omaha.

Oh, Omaha, I remember thee well.

It was in August of 1944, just six months after my eighth birthday.

That summer, my father was part of a traveling revue claiming to
raise money for the war effort. Though the show was billed as
The Greats of Vaudeville
, it might just as well have been called
The Cavalcade of Has-Beens
. It opened with a junkie juggler who’d get the shakes in the second half of his act, followed by an eighty-year-old comedian who could never remember which jokes he had already told. My father’s bit was to perform a medley of Shakespeare’s greatest monologues—or, as he put it:
A lifetime supply of wisdom in twenty-two minutes
. Wearing the beard of a Bolshevik and a dagger in his belt, he would lift his gaze slowly from the footlights in search of that realm of sublime ideas located somewhere in the upper right-hand corner of the balcony, and thence wouldst commence:
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks . . .
and
Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .
and
O reason not the need! . . .

From Romeo to Henry to Lear. A tailor-made progression from the moonstruck youth, to the nascent hero, to the doddering old fool.

As I recall, that tour began at the Majestic Theatre in glamorous Trenton, New Jersey. From there, we headed west, hitting all the bright lights of the interior from Pittsburgh to Peoria.

The last stop was a one-week residence at the Odeon in Omaha. Tucked somewhere between the railway station and the red-light district, it was a grand old Deco spot that hadn’t had the good sense to turn itself into a movie theater when it still had the chance. Most of the time while we were on the road, we stayed with the other performers in the hotels that were suited to our kind—the ones frequented by fugitives and Bible salesmen. But whenever we reached the final stop on a tour—that stop from which there would be no forwarding address—my father would check us into the fanciest hotel in town. Sporting the walking stick of Winston Churchill and the voice of John Barrymore, he would saunter up to the front desk and ask to be shown to his room. Discovering that the hotel was fully booked and had no record of his reservation, he would express the outrage appropriate to a man of his station.
What’s that! No reservation! Why, it was none other
than Lionel Pendergast, the general manager of the Waldorf Astoria (and a close personal friend), who, having assured me that there was no other place in Omaha to spend the night, called your offices in order to book my room!
When the management would eventually admit that the presidential suite was available, Pops would concede that, though he was a man of simple needs, the presidential suite would do very nicely, thank you.

Once ensconced, this man of simple needs would take full advantage of the hotel’s amenities. Every stitch of our clothing would be sent to the laundry. Manicurists and masseuses would be summoned to our rooms. Bell boys would be sent out for flowers. And in the lobby bar every night at six, drinks would be ordered all round.

It was on a Sunday in August, the morning after his last performance, that my father proposed an excursion. Having been hired for a run at the Palladium in Denver, he suggested we celebrate by having a picnic on the bank of a meandering river.

As we carried our luggage down the hotel’s back stairs, my father wondered whether perhaps we should augment our festivities by bringing along a representative of the gentler sex. Say, Miss Maples, that delightful young lady whom Mephisto, the cross-eyed magician, had been sawing in half every night in the second act. And who should we find standing in the alley with her suitcase in hand, but the buxom blonde we’d just been discussing.

—Tallyho! said my father.

Ah, what a delightful day that turned out to be.

With me in the rumble seat and Miss Maples up front, we drove to a large municipal park on the edge of the Platte River, where the grass was lush, the trees were tall, and the sunshine glistened on the surface of the water. The night before, my father had ordered a picnic of fried chicken and cold corn on the cob. He had even stolen a tablecloth right out from under our breakfast plates (try that one, Mephisto!).

Miss Maples, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five,
seemed to delight in my old man’s company. She laughed at all his jokes and warmly expressed her gratitude whenever he refilled her glass with wine. She even blushed at some of the compliments he had stolen from the Bard.

She had brought along a portable record player, and I was put in charge of picking the records and cuing the needle as the two of them danced uncertainly on the grass.

It has been observed that that which comforts the stomach dullens the wits. And surely, no truer words have ever been said. For after we had tossed the wine bottles into the river, packed the phonograph into the trunk, and put the car in gear, when my father mentioned that we needed to make a quick stop in a nearby town, I thought nothing of it. And when we pulled up to an old stone building on top of a hill and he asked me to wait with a young nun in one room while he spoke to an older nun in another, I still thought nothing of that. In fact, it was only when I happened to glance through the window and spied my father speeding down the driveway with Miss Maples’s head on his shoulder that I realized I’d been
had.

NINE
Emmett

E
mmett woke to the
smell of bacon frying in a pan. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d woken to the smell of bacon. For over a year, he’d been waking to the complaint of a bugle and the stirring of forty boys at six fifteen in the morning. Rain or shine they had forty minutes to shower, dress, make their beds, eat their breakfast, and line up for duty. To wake on a real mattress under clean cotton sheets with the smell of bacon in the air had become so unfamiliar, so unexpected, it took Emmett a moment to wonder where the bacon had come from and who was cooking it.

He turned over and saw that Billy was gone and the clock on the bedside table read 9:45. Swearing softly, he climbed out of bed and dressed. He had hoped to get in and out of town before church let out.

In the kitchen, he found Billy and Duchess sitting across from each other—and Sally at the stove. In front of the boys were plates of bacon and eggs, in the middle of the table a basket of biscuits and a jar of strawberry preserves.

—Boy are you in for a treat, said Duchess when he saw Emmett.

Pulling up a chair, Emmett looked toward Sally, who was picking up the percolator.

—You didn’t have to make breakfast for us, Sally.

By way of reply, she set down a mug on the table in front of him.

—Here’s your coffee. Your eggs will be ready in a minute.

Then she turned on her heels and went back to the stove.

Duchess, who had just taken a second bite from a biscuit, was shaking his head in appreciation.

—I’ve traveled all around America, Sally, but I’ve never had anything like these biscuits. What’s your secret recipe?

—There’s nothing secret about my recipe, Duchess.

—If there isn’t, there should be. And Billy tells me you made the jelly too.

—Those are preserves, not jelly. But yes, I make them every July.

—It takes her a whole day, said Billy. You should see her kitchen. There are baskets of berries on every counter and a five-pound bag of sugar and four different pots simmering on the stove.

Duchess whistled and shook his head again.

—It may be an old-fashioned endeavor, but from where I sit, it’s worth the effort.

Sally turned from the stove and thanked Duchess, with a touch of ceremony. Then she looked at Emmett.

—You ready yet?

Without waiting for an answer, she brought over his serving.

—You really didn’t have to go to all this trouble, Emmett said. We could have seen to our own breakfast, and there was plenty of jam in the cabinet.

—I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, Sally said, setting down his plate.

Then she went to the sink and began scrubbing the skillet.

Emmett was staring at her back when Billy addressed him.

—Did you ever go to the Imperial, Emmett?

Emmett turned to his brother.

—What’s that, Billy? The Imperial?

—The movie theater in Salina.

Emmett directed a frown at Duchess, who quickly set the record straight.

—Your brother never went to the Imperial, Billy. That was just me and a few of the other boys.

Billy nodded, looking like he was thinking something over.

—Did you have to get special permission to go to the movies?

—You didn’t need permission, so much as . . . initiative.

—But how did you get out?

—Ah! A reasonable question under the circumstances. Salina wasn’t exactly like a prison, Billy, with guard towers and searchlights. It was more like boot camp in the army—a compound in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of barracks and a mess hall and some older guys in uniform who yelled at you for moving too fast when they weren’t yelling at you for moving too slow. But the guys in uniform—our sergeants, if you will—didn’t sleep with us. They had their own barracks, with a pool table, and a radio, and a cooler full of beer. So after lights-out on Saturday, while they were drinking and shooting pool, a few of us would slip out the bathroom window and make our way into town.

—Was it far?

—Not too far. If you jogged across the potato fields, in about twenty minutes you’d come to a river. Most of the time, the river was only a few feet deep, so you could wade across in your skivvies and make it downtown in time for the ten o’clock show. You could have a bag of popcorn and a bottle of pop, watch the feature from the balcony, and be back in bed by one in the morning, leaving no one the wiser.

—Leaving no one the wiser, repeated Billy, with a hint of awe. But how did you pay for the movies?

—Why don’t we change the subject, suggested Emmett.

—Why not! said Duchess.

Sally, who had been drying the skillet, set it down on the stovetop with a bang.

—I’ll go make the beds, she said.

—You don’t have to make the beds, said Emmett.

—They won’t make themselves.

Sally left the kitchen and they could hear her marching up the stairs.

Duchess looked at Billy and raised his eyebrows.

—Excuse me, said Emmett, pushing back his chair.

As he headed upstairs, Emmett could hear Duchess and his brother launching into a conversation about the Count of Monte Cristo and his miraculous escape from an island prison—the promised change of subject.

•   •   •

When Emmett got to his father’s room, Sally was already making the bed with quick, precise movements.

—You didn’t mention that you were having company, she said, without looking up.

—I didn’t know I was having company.

Sally fluffed the pillows by giving them a punch on either end, then set them against the headboard.

—Excuse me, she said, squeezing past Emmett in the doorway as she went across the hall to his room.

When Emmett followed, he found her staring at the bed—because Duchess had already made it. Emmett was a little impressed by Duchess’s effort, but Sally wasn’t. She pulled back the quilt and sheet and began tucking them back in with the same precise movements. When she turned her attention to the punching of pillows, Emmett glanced at the bedside clock. It was almost ten fifteen. He really didn’t have time for this, whatever this was.

—If something’s on your mind, Sally . . .

Sally stopped abruptly and looked him in the eye for the first time that morning.

—What would be on my mind?

—I’m sure I don’t know.

—That sounds about right.

She straightened her dress and made a move toward the door, but he was standing in her way.

—I’m sorry if I didn’t seem grateful in the kitchen. All I was trying to say was—

—I know what you were trying to say because you said it. That I didn’t need to go to the trouble of skipping church so that I could make you breakfast this morning; just like I didn’t need to go to the trouble of making you dinner last night. Which is fine and dandy. But for your information, telling someone they didn’t have to go to the trouble of doing something is not the same as showing gratitude for it. Not by a long shot. No matter how much store-bought jam you have in the cabinet.

—Is that what this is about? The jam in the cabinet? Sally, I did not mean to slight your preserves. Of course they’re better than the jam in the cabinet. But I know how much effort it takes for you to make them, and I didn’t want you to feel you had to waste a jar on us. It’s not like it’s a special occasion.

—It may interest you to know, Emmett Watson, that I am quite happy to have my preserves eaten by friends and family when there is no occasion to speak of. But maybe, just maybe, I thought you and Billy might like to enjoy one last jar before you packed up and moved to California without saying so much as a word.

Emmett closed his eyes.

—Come to think of it, she continued, I guess I should thank my lucky stars that your friend Duchess had the presence of mind to inform me of your intentions. Otherwise, I might have come over tomorrow morning and made pancakes and sausage only to find there was no one here to eat them.

—I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to mention that to you, Sally. But it wasn’t like I was trying to hide it. I talked about it with your father yesterday afternoon. In fact, he was the one who brought it up—saying it might be best if Billy and I were to pull up stakes and make a fresh start somewhere else.

Sally looked at Emmett.

—My father said that. That you should pull up stakes and make a fresh start.

—In so many words . . .

—Well, doesn’t that just sound delightful.

Pushing past Emmett, Sally continued into Billy’s room, where Woolly was lying on his back and blowing at the ceiling, trying to stir the airplanes.

Sally put her hands on her hips.

—And who might you be?

Woolly looked up in shock.

—I’m Woolly.

—Are you Catholic, Woolly?

—No, I’m Episcopalian.

—Then what are you still doing in bed?

—I’m not sure, admitted Woolly.

—It’s after ten in the morning and I’ve got plenty to do. So at the count of five, I’m going to make that bed, whether you’re in it or not.

Woolly jumped out from under the covers in his boxer shorts and watched in a state of amazement as Sally went about the business of making the bed. While scratching the top of his head, he noticed Emmett on the threshold.

—Hey, Emmett!

—Hey, Woolly.

Woolly squinted at Emmett for a moment, then his face lit up.

—Is that bacon?

—Ha! said Sally.

And Emmett, he headed down the stairs and out the door.

It was a relief for Emmett to be alone behind the wheel of the Studebaker.

Since leaving Salina, he’d barely had a moment to himself. First
there was the drive with the warden, then Mr. Obermeyer in the kitchen and Mr. Ransom on the porch, then Duchess and Woolly, and now Sally. All Emmett wanted, all he needed, was a chance to clear his head so that, wherever he and Billy decided to go, whether to Texas or California or someplace else altogether, he could set out in the right frame of mind. But as he turned onto Route 14, what Emmett found himself dwelling on was not where he and Billy might go, it was his exchange with Sally.

I’m sure I don’t know
.

That’s how he’d replied when she had asked him what might be on her mind. And in the strictest sense, he hadn’t known.

But he could have made a pretty good guess.

He understood well enough what Sally had come to expect. At one time, he may even have given her cause for expecting it. That’s the sort of thing young people do: fan the flames of each other’s expectations—until the necessities of life begin to make themselves known. But Emmett hadn’t given her much cause for expectations since he went to Salina. When she had sent him those packages—with the homemade cookies and hometown news—he had not replied with a word of thanks. Not on the phone and not in a note. And in advance of coming home, he had not sent her word of his pending arrival or asked her to tidy the house. He hadn’t asked her to sweep or make beds or put soap in the bathroom or eggs in the icebox. He hadn’t asked her to do a thing.

Was he grateful to discover that she had chosen to do these things on his and Billy’s behalf? Of course he was. But being grateful was one thing, and being beholden, that was another thing altogether.

As Emmett drove, he saw the intersection with Route 7 approaching. Emmett knew that if he took a right and circled back on 22D, he could reach town without having to pass the fairgrounds. But what would be the point of that? The fairgrounds would still be there whether he passed them or not. They’d still be there whether he went to Texas or California or someplace else altogether.

No, taking the long route wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe letting one imagine for a moment that what had happened already hadn’t happened at all. So not only did Emmett continue straight through the intersection, he slowed the car to twenty miles an hour as he approached the fairgrounds, then pulled over on the opposite shoulder where he had no choice but to give it a good hard look.

For fifty-one weeks of the year, the fairgrounds were exactly like they were right now—four empty acres scattered with hay to hold down the dust. But in the first week of October, they would be anything but empty. They would be filled with music and people and lights. There would be a carousel and bumper cars and colorful booths where one could try one’s hand at pitching or riflery. There would be a great striped tent where, with an appropriate sense of ceremony, judges would convene, confer, and bestow blue ribbons for the largest pumpkin and the tastiest lemon meringue pie. And there would be a corral with bleachers where they would hold the tractor pull and calf roping, and where more ribbons would be awarded by more judges. And back there, just beyond the food concessions, would be a spot-lit stage for the fiddling contest.

It was right by the cotton-candy vendor, of all places, on the last night of the fair that Jimmy Snyder had chosen to pick his fight.

When Jimmy called out his first remark, Emmett thought he must be talking to someone else—because he barely knew Jimmy. A year younger, Emmett wasn’t in any of Jimmy’s classes and didn’t play on any of his teams, so he had little reason to interact with him.

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