Read The Lincoln Highway Online
Authors: Amor Towles
Sister Agnes turned a little in her chair so that she could look up at the window. Almost reluctantly, Emmett followed her gaze.
—If you look at the faces of the disciples, you can tell that they remain quite skeptical about what they have just seen.
, they are thinking to themselves,
this must be some kind of hoax or vision
for with our own eyes we witnessed His death on the Cross, and with our own hands we carried His body into the tomb.
But if you look at the faces of the children, there isn’t a hint of skepticism. They look upon this miracle with awe and wonder, yes, but without disbelief.
Emmett knew that Sister Agnes was well intentioned. And given that she was a woman in her sixties who had devoted her life not only in service to the Church, but in service to orphans, Emmett knew when she began her story that she deserved his full attention. But as she spoke, Emmett couldn’t help noting that the yellow, red, and blue patterns from the very window she was describing had moved from
the wall to the surface of the table, marking the progress of the sun and the loss of another hour.
— . . . Then he went up the hill with Emmett’s book bag and broke the window to the kitchen door!
Like one of the boys in the orphanage, Billy was recounting the morning’s events in a state of excitement as Sally maneuvered Betty through traffic.
—He broke the window?
—Because the door was locked! And then he went into the kitchen and got a fistful of spoons and carried them upstairs to the dormitories.
—What did he want with a fistful of spoons?
—He wanted the spoons because he was bringing them your strawberry preserves!
Sally looked over at Billy with an expression of shock.
—He gave them a jar of my strawberry preserves?
—No, said Billy. He gave them six. Isn’t that what you said, Emmett?
Both Billy and Sally turned to Emmett, who was looking out the passenger-side window.
—That sounds about right, he replied without looking back.
—I don’t understand, said Sally, almost to herself.
Leaning forward over the steering wheel, she accelerated in order to pull around a sedan.
him six jars. They might have lasted him from now until Christmas. Why on earth would he hand over the whole batch to a bunch of strangers?
—Because they are orphans, explained Billy.
Sally considered this.
—Yes, of course, Billy. You’re absolutely right. Because they are orphans.
As Sally nodded her head in acknowledgment of Billy’s reasoning and Duchess’s charity, Emmett couldn’t help but note that she’d been plenty more indignant about the fate of her jam than she had been about the fate of his car.
—There, said Emmett pointing to the station.
In order to make the turn, Sally cut in front of a Chevy. When she skidded to a stop, the three of them climbed from the cab. But as Emmett was glancing at the entrance of the station, Billy went to the bed of the truck, grabbed his backpack, and began swinging it onto his back.
Seeing this, Sally exhibited a moment of surprise, then she looked toward Emmett with the narrowed eyes of castigation.
—You haven’t told him? she asked under her breath. Well, don’t expect me to!
Emmett took his brother aside.
—Billy, he began, you don’t need to put your backpack on right now.
—It’s okay, Billy said, while tightening the shoulder straps. I can take it off when we get on the train.
Emmett got down on his haunches.
—You’re not coming on the train, Billy.
—What do you mean, Emmett? Why aren’t I coming on the train?
—It makes more sense for you to go with Sally while I get the car. But as soon as I’ve got it, I’m coming right back to Morgen to pick you up. It shouldn’t take me more than a few days.
But even as Emmett was explaining this, Billy was shaking his head.
—No, he said. No. I can’t go back with Sally, Emmett. We have already left Morgen and we are on our way to San Francisco.
—That’s true, Billy. We are on our way to San Francisco. But right now, the car is on its way to New York. . . .
When Emmett said this, Billy’s eyes opened wide with revelation.
—New York is where the Lincoln Highway begins, he said. After we take the train and find the Studebaker, we can drive to Times Square and start our journey from there.
Emmett looked to Sally for support.
She took a step forward and put a hand on Billy’s shoulder.
—Billy, she said in her no-nonsense tone, you are absolutely right.
Emmett closed his eyes.
Now it was Sally he was taking aside.
—Sally . . . , he began, but she cut him off.
—Emmett, you know that there is nothing I would rather do than keep Billy at my side for another three days. As God is my witness, I would be happy to keep him for another three years. But he has already spent fifteen months waiting for you to return from Salina. And in the meanwhile, he’s lost his father and his home. At this juncture, Billy’s place is at your side, and he knows it. And I imagine, by now, he thinks that you should know it too.
What Emmett actually knew was that he needed to get to New York and find Duchess as quickly as possible, and that having Billy along wasn’t going to make the job any easier.
But in one important respect, Billy had been right: They had already left Morgen. Having buried their father and packed their bags, they had put that part of their lives behind them. It would be something of a comfort for both of them to know that whatever happened next, they wouldn’t have to go back.
Emmett turned to his brother.
—All right, Billy. We’ll go to New York together.
Billy nodded in acknowledgment that this was the sensible thing to do.
After waiting for Billy to retighten the straps on his pack, Sally gave him a hug, reminding him to mind his manners and his brother. Then without giving a hug to Emmett, she climbed in her truck. But once she had turned the ignition, she beckoned him to her window.
—There’s one more thing, she said.
—If you want to chase your car to New York that’s your own
business. But I have no intention of spending the next few weeks waking up in the middle of the night in a state of worry. So a few days from now, you need to give me a call and let me know that you’re safe.
Emmett began to express the impracticality of Sally’s request—that once in New York, their focus would be on finding the car, that he didn’t know where they’d be staying, or whether they’d have access to a phone . . .
—You didn’t seem to have any trouble finding the means to call me at seven this morning so I could drop whatever I was doing and drive all the way to Lewis. I have no doubt that in a city as big as New York, you’ll be able to find another telephone and the time to use it.
—Okay, said Emmett. I’ll call.
—Good, said Sally. When?
—When will you call?
—Sally, I don’t even—
—Friday then. You can call me on Friday at two thirty.
Before Emmett could respond, Sally put the truck in gear and pulled to the depot’s exit, where she idled, waiting for a break in the traffic.
Earlier that morning when they had been preparing to leave the orphanage, Sister Agnes had bestowed on Billy a pendant on a chain saying it was the medallion of Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. When she turned to Emmett, he worried that she was about to bestow a medallion on him too. Instead, she said there was something she wanted to ask him, but before doing so, she had another story to tell: the story of how Duchess had come into her care.
One afternoon in the summer of 1944, she said, a man of about fifty had appeared at the orphanage door with a scrawny little eight-year-old at his side. Once the man was alone with Sister Agnes in her office, he explained that his brother and sister-in-law had died in a car crash, and that he was the boy’s only surviving relative. Of course, he
wanted nothing more than to care for his nephew, especially at such an impressionable age; but as an officer in the armed forces, he was due to ship out for France at the end of the week, and he didn’t know when he would return from the war or, for that matter, if he would return at all. . . .
—Now, I didn’t believe a word this man had to say. Never mind that his unkempt hair was hardly befitting an officer in the armed forces and that he had a lovely young girl waiting in the passenger seat of his convertible car. It was plain enough that he was the boy’s father. But it is not my calling to concern myself with the duplicity of unscrupulous men. It is my calling to concern myself with the welfare of forsaken boys. And let there be no doubt about it, Emmett, young Daniel was forsaken. Yes, his father reappeared two years later to reclaim Daniel, when it suited him to do so, but Daniel didn’t know to expect that. Most of the boys who come into our care are truly orphans. We have boys whose parents died together of influenza or in fires, whose mothers died in childbirth and fathers died at Normandy. And it is a terrible trial for these children who must come of age without the love of their parents. But imagine becoming an orphan not by calamity, but by your father’s preference—by his determination that you have become an inconvenience.
Sister Agnes let that sink in for a moment.
—I have no doubt that you are angry with Daniel for taking liberties with your car. But we both know that there is goodness in him, a goodness that has been there from the beginning, but which has never had the chance to fully flourish. At this critical time in his life, what he needs more than anything else is a friend who will stand reliably at his side; a friend who can steer him clear of folly and help him find the way to fulfilling his Christian purpose.
—Sister, you said you were going to ask me something. You didn’t say you were going to ask something of me.
The nun studied Emmett for a second, then smiled.
—You are absolutely right, Emmett. I am not asking you this. I’m asking it of you.
—I have someone to watch over already. Someone who is my own flesh and blood and who is an orphan in his own right.
She looked at Billy with an affectionate smile, but then turned back to Emmett with undiminished intent.
—Do you count yourself a Christian, Emmett?
—I’m not the churchgoing sort.
—But do you count yourself a Christian?
—I was raised to be one.
—Then I imagine you know the parable of the Good Samaritan.
—Yes, sister, I know the parable. And I know that a good Christian helps a man in need.
—Yes, Emmett. A good Christian shows compassion toward those who are in difficulty. And that is an important part of the parable’s meaning. But an equally important point that Jesus is making is that we do not always get to
to whom we should show our charity.
When Emmett had come to the end of his driveway shortly before dawn, he had turned onto the road knowing that he and Billy were unencumbered—free of any debts or obligations as they began their life anew. And now, having traveled just sixty miles from home headed in the wrong direction, he had made two promises in as many hours.
Once the traffic finally subsided and Sally took a left out of the station, Emmett expected her to turn and wave. But leaning forward over her wheel, Sally punched the gas, Betty backfired, and they both headed west without a glance in his direction.
Only as they sped out of sight did Emmett realize he didn’t have any money.
hat a day, what a day
, what a day! Emmett’s car may not have been the fastest one on the road, but the sun was high, the skies were blue, and everyone we passed had a smile on their face.
After leaving Lewis, for the first one hundred and fifty miles we had seen more grain elevators than human beings. And most of the towns we passed through seemed to be limited to one of everything by local decree: one movie theater and one restaurant; one cemetery and one savings and loan; in all likelihood, one sense of right and wrong.
But for most people, it doesn’t matter where they live. When they get up in the morning, they’re not looking to change the world. They want to have a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, put in their eight hours, and wrap up the day with a bottle of beer in front of the TV set. More or less, it’s what they’d be doing whether they lived in Atlanta, Georgia, or Nome, Alaska. And if it doesn’t matter for most people where they live, it certainly doesn’t matter where they’re going.
That’s what gave the Lincoln Highway its charm.
When you see the highway on a map, it looks like that Fisher guy Billy was talking about took a ruler and drew a line straight across the country, mountains and rivers be damned. In so doing, he must have imagined it would provide a timely conduit for the movement of goods and ideas from sea to shining sea, in a final fulfillment of manifest destiny. But everyone we passed just seemed to have a satisfied sense
of their own lack of purpose
. Let the road rise up to meet you
, say the Irish, and that’s what was happening to the intrepid travelers on the Lincoln Highway. It was rising up to meet each and every one of them, whether they were headed east, headed west, or going around in circles.
—It was awfully nice of Emmett to loan us his car, said Woolly.
—It was at that.
He smiled for a moment, then his brow furrowed just like Billy’s.
—Do you think they had any trouble getting home?
—No, said I. I’ll bet you Sally came racing over in that pickup of hers, and the three of them are already back in her kitchen eating biscuits and jelly.
—You mean biscuits and preserves.
I did feel a little bad about Emmett having to make the journey to Lewis and back. If I’d known he kept his keys above the visor, I could have saved him the trip.
The irony is that when we set out from Emmett’s house, I had no intention of borrowing the car. By then I was looking forward to taking the Greyhound. And why not? On the bus you get to sit back and relax. You can take a nap, or make a little conversation with the shoe-leather salesman across the aisle. But just as we were about to make the turn toward Omaha, Billy piped up about the Lincoln Highway, and next thing you know, we were on the outskirts of Lewis. Then when I came out of St. Nick’s, there was the Studebaker sitting by the curb with the key in its slot and the driver’s seat empty. It was as if Emmett and Billy had planned the whole thing. Or the Good Lord. Either way, destiny seemed to be announcing itself pretty loud and clear—even if Emmett had to make the round trip.
—The good news, I said to Woolly, is that if we keep up this pace, we should be in New York by Wednesday morning. We can see my old man, zip out to the camp, and be back with Emmett’s share before he misses us. And given the size of the house that you and Billy cooked
up, I think Emmett’s going to be glad to have a little extra cabbage when he lands in San Francisco.
Woolly smiled at the mention of Billy’s house.
—Speaking of our pace, I said, how long until we get to Chicago?
The smile left Woolly’s face.
In Billy’s absence, I had given him the job of navigating. Since Billy wouldn’t let us borrow his map, we had to get one of our own (from a Phillips 66, of course). And just like Billy, Woolly had carefully marked our route with a black line that followed the Lincoln Highway all the way to New York. But once we were under way, he acted like he couldn’t get that map into the glove compartment fast enough.
—You want me to calculate the distance? he asked with an unmistakable sense of foreboding.
—I’ll tell you what, Woolly: Why don’t you forget about Chicago and find us a little something to listen to on the radio.
And just like that, the smile was back.
Presumably, the dial was normally set to Emmett’s favorite station, but we had left that signal somewhere back in Nebraska. So when Woolly turned on the radio, all that came through the speaker was static.
For a few seconds, Woolly gave it his full attention, as if he wanted to identify exactly what kind of static it was. But as soon as he began to turn the tuner, I could tell that here was another of Woolly’s hidden talents—like the dishes and the floor plan. Because Woolly didn’t just spin the dial and hope for the best. He turned it like a safecracker. With his eyes narrowed and his tongue between his teeth, he moved that little orange needle slowly across the spectrum until he could hear the faintest hint of a signal. Then slowing even further, he would let the signal gain in strength and clarity until he suddenly came to a stop at the incidence of perfect reception.
The first signal Woolly landed on was a country music station. It was playing a number about a cowboy on the range who’d either lost
his woman or his horse. Before I could figure out which, Woolly had turned the dial. Next up was a crop report coming live to us all the way from Iowa City, then the fiery sermon of a Baptist preacher, then a bit of Beethoven with all the edges sanded down. When he didn’t even stop for
, I began to wonder if anything on the radio was going to be good enough. But when he tuned into 1540, a commercial for a breakfast cereal was just beginning. Letting go of the knob, Woolly stared at the radio, giving the advertisement the sort of attention that one would normally reserve for a physician or fortune-teller. And so it began.
Oh, how this kid loved a commercial. Over the next hundred miles, we must have listened to fifty. And they could have been for anything. For a Coupe DeVille or the new Playtex bra. It didn’t seem to matter. Because Woolly wasn’t looking to buy anything. What captivated him was the drama.
At the beginning of a commercial, Woolly would listen gravely as the actor or actress articulated their particular dilemma. Like the tepid flavor of their menthol cigarettes or the grass stains on their children’s pants. From Woolly’s expression, you could see that he not only shared in their distress, he had a looming suspicion that
quests for happiness were doomed to disappointment. But as soon as these beleaguered souls decided to try the new brand of this or that, Woolly’s expression would brighten, and when they discovered that the product in question had not only removed the lumps from their mashed potatoes but the lumps from their life, Woolly would break into a smile, looking uplifted and reassured.
A few miles west of Ames, Iowa, the commercial that Woolly happened upon introduced us to a mother who has just learned—to her utter dismay—that each of her three sons has arrived for supper with a guest. At the revelation of this setback, Woolly let out an audible gasp. But suddenly we heard the twinkling of a magic wand and who should appear but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee with his big puffy hat and even
puffier accent. With another wave of the wand, six cans of his Spaghetti Sauce with Meat appeared lined up on the counter ready to save the day.
—Doesn’t that sound delicious, Woolly sighed, as the boys on the radio dug into their dinner.
—Delicious! I exclaimed in horror. It comes out of a can, Woolly.
—I know. Isn’t that amazing?
—Whether it’s amazing or not, that is no way to eat an Italian dinner.
Woolly turned to me with a look of genuine curiosity.
—What is the way to eat an Italian dinner, Duchess?
Oh, where to begin.
—Have you ever heard of Leonello’s? I asked. Up in East Harlem?
—I don’t think so.
—Then you’d better pull up a chair.
Woolly made a good faith effort to do so.
—Leonello’s, I began, is a little Italian place with ten booths, ten tables, and a bar. The booths are lined with red leather, the tables are draped with red and white cloths, and Sinatra’s playing on the jukebox, just like you’d expect. The only hitch is that if you walked in off the street on a Thursday night and asked for a table, they wouldn’t let you sit down for supper—even if the place was empty.
As one who always loves a conundrum, Woolly’s expression brightened up.
—Why won’t they let you sit down for supper, Duchess?
—The reason they won’t let you sit down, Woolly, is because all the tables are taken.
—But you just said the whole place was empty.
—And so it is.
—Then taken by whom?
—Ay, my friend, there’s the rub. You see, the way that Leonello’s works is that every table in the place is reserved in perpetuity. If you’re
one of Leonello’s customers, you might have the table for four by the jukebox on Saturdays at eight. And you pay for that table every Saturday night, whether you show up or not, so no one else can use it.
I looked over at Woolly.
—You with me so far?
—I’m with you, he said.
And I could tell he was.
—Let’s say you’re not a customer of Leonello’s, but you’re lucky enough to have a friend who is, and this friend has given you the use of his table when he’s out of town. When Saturday night rolls around, you put on your best duds and head up to Harlem with your three closest friends.
—Like you and Billy and Emmett.
—Exactly. Like me and Billy and Emmett. But once we’re all settled and we’ve ordered a drink, don’t bother asking for menus.
—Because at Leonello’s, they don’t have them.
I really had Woolly with that one. I mean, he let out a bigger gasp than he had during the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee commercial.
—How can you order dinner without a menu, Duchess?
—At Leonello’s, I explained, once you’ve taken your seat and ordered your drinks, the waiter will drag a chair over to your table, spin it around, and sit with his arms on its back so that he can tell you exactly what they’re serving that night.
Welcome to Leonello’s
, he’ll say.
Tonight for starters we got stuffed artichokes, mussels marinara, clams oreganata, and calamari fritti. For the first course we got linguine with clams, spaghetti carbonara, and penne Bolognese. And for the main course, chicken cacciatore, veal scallopini, veal Milanese, and osso buco.
I took a quick glance at my copilot.
—I can see from your expression that you’re a little daunted by all this variety, Woolly, but worry not. Because the only dish that you have to order at Leonello’s is the one the waiter hasn’t mentioned:
Fettuccine Mio Amore
, the specialty of the house. A fresh-made pasta that’s tossed in a sauce of tomatoes, bacon, caramelized onions, and pepper flakes.
—But why doesn’t the waiter mention it, if it’s the specialty of the house?
—He doesn’t mention it
it’s the specialty of the house. That’s the way it goes with
Fettuccine Mio Amore
. Either you know enough to order it, or you don’t deserve to eat it.
I could tell from the smile on Woolly’s face that he was enjoying his night at Leonello’s.
—Did your father have a table at Leonello’s? he asked.
—No, Woolly. My old man didn’t have a table anywhere. But for six glorious months, he was the maître d’, and I was allowed to hang out in the kitchen, as long as I didn’t get in the way.
I was about to tell Woolly about Lou, the chef, when a truck driver came barreling around us with a shake of the fist.
Normally, I would have replied with a bite of the thumb, but when I looked up to do so, I realized I had gotten so wrapped up in the telling of my tale, I had let our speed drop to thirty miles an hour. No wonder the trucker was out of joint.
But when I punched the accelerator, the little orange needle in the speedometer dropped from twenty-five to twenty. When I pushed the pedal to the floor, we slowed to fifteen, and when I pulled onto the shoulder, we rolled to a stop.
Turning the key off and on, I counted to three and pushed the starter to no effect.
Fucking Studebaker, I muttered to myself. It’s probably the battery again. But even as I thought this, I realized the radio was still playing, so it couldn’t be the battery. Maybe it had something to do with the spark plug . . . ?
—Are we out of gas? asked Woolly.
After looking at Woolly for a second, I looked at the fuel gauge. It too had a thin orange needle, and sure enough, the needle was sitting on the bottom.
—So it would seem, Woolly. So it would seem.
As luck would have it, we were still in the Ames city limits, and not far up the road I could see the flying red horse of a Mobil station. Putting my hands in my pockets, I withdrew what change was left from Mr. Watson’s desk drawer. After accounting for the hamburger and ice cream cone I’d purchased back in Morgen, it amounted to seven cents.
—Woolly, you wouldn’t happen to have any money on you?
—Money? he replied.
Why is it, I wondered, that people born with money are always the ones who say the word like it’s in a foreign language?
Getting out of the car, I looked up and down the road. Across the street was a diner beginning to get busy with the lunch crowd. Next was a laundromat with two cars in the lot. But farther up the way was a liquor store that didn’t look like it had opened yet.
In New York City, no liquor store owner worth his salt would leave cash on the premises overnight. But we weren’t in New York City. We were in the heartland, where most of the people who read
In God We Trust
on a dollar bill took the words literally. But on the off chance there wasn’t any money sitting in the till, I figured I could grab a case of whiskey and offer a few bottles to the gas station attendant in exchange for filling the tank.
The only problem was how to get in.
—Hand me the keys, would you?
Leaning over, Woolly removed the keys from the ignition and passed them through the window.