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Authors: Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway (34 page)

BOOK: The Lincoln Highway
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Duchess

O
n Friday at half past one,
I was standing in front of the hutch in Woolly’s sister’s dining room admiring the orderly arrangement of her china. Like the Watsons, she had place settings that were worthy of being handed down, and perhaps already had been. But here were no teetering towers of coffee cups, no thin layer of dust. Sister Sarah’s china was arranged in perfectly aligned vertical stacks, and each plate had a little circle of felt to protect its surface from the plate above it. On a shelf under the china was a long black case that contained an equally orderly arrangement of the family silver.

Locking the hutch’s lower cabinet, I put the key back where I’d found it: in the tureen that was on display in the middle of the middle shelf. The lady of the house clearly had a nice sense of symmetry, which was no less laudable for being easy to decipher.

Wandering down the hall from the dining room, I satisfied myself that I had visited every room on the ground floor, then headed up the back stairs.

Over breakfast, Sarah had explained that she and Dennis would be spending the weekend at their apartment in the city because they had dinner engagements on both nights. When she added that she needed to head in before noon in order to run a few errands, and Woolly suggested that he come along to keep her company, Sarah looked at me.

—Would that be all right? she asked. If Woolly joined me in the city for a few hours?

—I don’t see why not.

So it was settled. Woolly would drive in with Sarah, and I would come later in the Caddy to pick him up on our way to the Circus. When I asked Woolly where we should meet, naturally he suggested the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square. Shortly after eleven, they pulled out of the driveway and headed for the city, leaving me with the run of the house.

For starters, I went into the living room. Pouring myself a finger of scotch, I put Sinatra on the hi-fi and kicked up my feet. The record was one I’d never heard before, but Ol’ Blue Eyes was in fine form, singing an assortment of lightly swinging love songs with full orchestration including “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

On the cover of the album, two pairs of sweethearts were out for a stroll, while Sinatra leaned against a lamppost by himself. Dressed in a dark gray suit with a tilted fedora on his head, Sinatra was holding a cigarette so loosely between two fingers it looked like he might drop it. Just seeing the picture made you want to smoke, and wear a hat, and lean on lampposts all by your lonesome.

For a moment, I wondered whether Woolly’s brother-in-law had bought the record. But only for a moment. Because, of course, it must have been Sarah.

Cuing up the record for a second time, I poured myself a second whiskey and meandered down the hall. According to Woolly, his brother-in-law was something of a Wall Street wunderkind, though you wouldn’t have known it from his office. There was no ticker tape, or whatever they used nowadays to tell them what to buy and sell. There were no ledgers or calculators or slide rules. In their place was ample evidence of the sporting life.

On a shelf right across from the desk—where Dennis could easily
see it—was a stuffed fish mounted on a post, forever turning its mouth toward the hook. On the shelf above the fish was a recent photo of four men having just finished a round of golf. Luckily it was in color, so you could take note of all the clothes you would never want to wear. Scanning the faces of the golfers, I picked out the one who seemed particularly smug and figured that was Dennis. To the left of the shelves was another photograph hanging above two empty J hooks that jutted from the wall. This photo was of a college baseball team with a two-foot trophy on the grass.

What there wasn’t was a picture of Woolly’s sister. Not on the wall, not on a shelf, not on the wunderkind’s desk.

After rinsing out my whiskey glass in the kitchen, I found what I guess you’d call a pantry. But it wasn’t like the one at St. Nick’s, stacked from floor to ceiling with bags of flour and cans of tomatoes. This one had a little copper sink with a copper counter, and vases in every imaginable color and size, so that Sarah could perfectly display every bouquet of flowers that Dennis would never bring her. On the brighter side, Dennis had made sure that the pantry had a specially designed cabinet in which to store a few hundred bottles of wine.

From the kitchen I proceeded to the dining room, where I surveyed the china and silver, as previously reported; I stopped in the living room to recork the whiskey and switch off the phonograph, then headed upstairs.

Skipping over the room where Woolly and I had spent the night, I poked my head into another guest room, then what looked like a sewing room, before coming upon a bedroom that was being painted.

In the middle of the room, someone had pulled the protective tarp off the boxes that were stacked on the bed, exposing them to the hazards of the light blue paint. This didn’t seem the sort of thing that Woolly’s sister would do, so I took the initiative of putting the tarp back in place. And what did I discover leaning against the bedframe but a Louisville Slugger.

That must have been what was resting on those J hooks in Dennis’s office, I thought to myself. He had probably hit a home run fifteen years ago, and he had hung the bat on the wall so he could be reminded of the fact whenever he wasn’t looking at his fish. But for some strange reason, someone had brought it here.

Picking it up and weighing it in my hands, I shook my head in disbelief. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

In shape and principle, a Louisville Slugger couldn’t be that different from the clubs our ancestors used to subdue wildcats and wolves. And yet, somehow it seems as sleek and modern as a Maserati. The gentle tapering of the shaft that ensures a perfect distribution of weight. . . . The lip at the base that catches the heel of the hand to maximize the strength of the swing without allowing the bat to slip from your grasp. . . . Carved, sanded, and polished with the same devotion that’s brought to the crafting of violins and ships, a Louisville Slugger is simultaneously a thing of beauty and a thing of purpose.

In fact, I challenge you to name a more perfect example of form following function than when Joltin’ Joe, having rested the barrel of a bat on his shoulder, suddenly sets his body in motion in order to greet the projectile that’s headed toward him at ninety miles an hour and send it hurtling back in the opposite direction with a satisfying crack.

Yep, I thought to myself. You can forget your two-by-fours, your frying pans, and your whiskey bottles. When it comes to dispensing justice, all you need is a good old American baseball bat.

Walking down the hall with a whistle on my lips, I used the tip of the bat to push open the door of the master suite.

It was a lovely, light-filled room in which there was not only a bed, but a chaise longue, a high-back chair with a footstool, and a matching pair of his and her bureaus. There was also a matching pair of his and her closets. In the one on the left was a long line of dresses. Most of them were as bright and elegant as their owner, although tucked in
the corner were a few skimpy numbers that I was almost too shy to look at, and she was certainly too shy to wear.

In the second closet were shelves with neatly folded oxford shirts and a hanging pole with a collection of three-piece suits progressing from tan to gray to blue to black. On a shelf above the suits was a row of fedoras arranged in a similar progression.

The clothes make the man
, or so the saying goes. But all you have to do is look at a row of fedoras to know what a bunch of baloney that is. Gather together a group of men of every gradation—from the powerhouse to the putz—have them toss their fedoras in a pile, and you’ll spend a lifetime trying to figure out whose was whose. Because it’s the man who makes the fedora, not versa vice. I mean, wouldn’t you rather wear the hat worn by Frank Sinatra than the one worn by Sergeant Joe Friday? I should hope so.

In all, I figured that Dennis had about ten fedoras, twenty-five suits, and forty shirts, for mixing and matching. I didn’t bother calculating all the potential combinations of outfits. It was plain enough to the naked eye that were one to go missing, no one would even notice.

Emmett

O
n Friday at half past one,
Emmett was approaching a brownstone on 126th Street.

—Here we go again, said the fair-skinned black youth who was leaning on the railing at the top of the stoop.

When the fair-skinned one spoke, the big one who was sitting on the bottom step looked up at Emmett with an expression of welcome surprise.

—You here for a beating too? he asked.

As he began to shake with a noiseless laughter, the door to the building opened and out came Townhouse.

—Well, well, he said with a smile. If it isn’t Mr. Emmett Watson.

—Hey, Townhouse.

Townhouse paused for a moment to stare at the fair-skinned one, who was partially blocking his way. When he begrudgingly stepped aside, Townhouse came down the stoop and took Emmett’s hand.

—It’s good to see you.

—It’s good to see you too.

—I gather they let you out a few months early.

—Because of my father.

Townhouse nodded in an expression of sympathy.

The fair-skinned one was watching the interaction with a sour expression.

—Who’s this then? he asked.

—A friend, Townhouse replied without looking back.

—That Salina must have been one friendly place.

This time Townhouse did look back.

—Shut up, Maurice.

For a moment, Maurice returned Townhouse’s stare, then he looked up the street in his sour way while the jovial one shook his head.

—Come on, Townhouse said to Emmett. Let’s take a walk.

As the two went down the street together, Townhouse didn’t say anything. Emmett could tell that he was waiting to gain some distance from the others. So Emmett didn’t say anything either until they had turned the corner.

—You don’t seem that surprised to see me.

—I’m not. Duchess was here yesterday.

Emmett nodded.

—When I heard he’d gone to Harlem, I figured he was coming to see you. What did he want?

—He wanted me to hit him.

Emmett stopped and turned to Townhouse, so Townhouse stopped and turned too. For a moment, they stood eye to eye without speaking—two young men of different race and upbringing, but of similar casts of mind.

—He wanted you to hit him?

Townhouse responded in a lowered voice, as if he were speaking in confidence, though no one was within earshot.

—That’s what he wanted, Emmett. He’d gotten some idea in his head that he owed me something—because of the switching I took from Ackerly—and if I gave him a few pops we’d be even.

—What’d you do?

—I hit him.

Emmett looked at his friend with a touch of surprise.

—He didn’t give me much of a choice. He said he’d come all the
way uptown to settle the score, and he made it clear he wasn’t leaving until it was settled. Then when I hit him, he insisted I hit him again. Twice. He took all three in the face without even raising his fists, at the foot of the stoop where we were standing a minute ago, right in front of the boys.

Emmett looked away from Townhouse, considering. It wasn’t lost on him that five days before he had taken a similar beating to settle a score of his own. Emmett wasn’t prone to superstitions. He didn’t favor four-leaf clovers or fear black cats. But the notion of Duchess taking three punches in front of a gathering of witnesses gave him a strange sense of foreboding. But that didn’t alter what needed to be done.

Emmett looked back at Townhouse.

—Did he say where he was staying?

—No.

—Did he say where he was going?

Townhouse paused for a moment, then shook his head.

—He didn’t. But listen, Emmett, if you’re set on finding Duchess, you should know that you’re not the only one looking for him.

—What do you mean?

—Two cops were here last night.

—Because he and Woolly skipped?

—Maybe. They didn’t say. But they were definitely more interested in Duchess than Woolly. And I got the sense there might be more to it than hunting down a couple of kids who’ve gone over the fence.

—Thanks for letting me know.

—Sure. But before you go, I’ve got something you’re going to want to see.

•   •   •

Townhouse led Emmett eight blocks away to a street that seemed more Hispanic than black—with a bodega and three men playing dominoes out on the sidewalk as a Latin dance number played on a radio. At the
end of the block, Townhouse came to a stop across the street from a body shop.

Emmett turned to him.

—Is that
the
body shop?

—That’s it.

The shop in question was owned by a man named Gonzalez, who had moved to New York from southern California after the war, with his wife and two sons—twins who were known in the neighborhood as Paco and Pico. From the time the boys were fourteen, Gonzalez had them working in the shop after school—cleaning tools, sweeping floors, and taking out the trash—so they would gain some understanding of what it took to earn an honest dollar. Paco and Pico got the understanding all right. And when at the age of seventeen they were given the responsibility of closing up on weekends, they got into a little business of their own.

Most of the cars in the shop were there because of a loose fender or a dent in a door, but otherwise in good working order. So on Saturday nights, the brothers began renting out the cars in the shop to the boys in the neighborhood for a few bucks an hour. When Townhouse was sixteen, he asked out a girl by the name of Clarise, who happened to be the best-looking girl in the eleventh grade. When she said yes, Townhouse borrowed five bucks from his brother and rented a car from the twins.

His plan was to pack a little picnic and drive Clarise over to Grant’s Tomb, where they could park under the elm trees and gaze out on the Hudson. But as luck would have it, the only car the twins had available that night was a Buick Skylark convertible with chrome finishes. The car looked so good, it would have been a crime to get a girl like Clarise in the front seat and spend the evening watching barges being pushed up the river. Instead, Townhouse lowered the top, turned up the radio, and drove his date up and down 125th Street.

—You should have seen us, Townhouse had said one night at Salina as they lay on their bunks in the dark. I was wearing my Easter Sunday suit, which was almost as blue as the car, and she was in a bright yellow dress that was cut so low in the back you could see half her spine. That Skylark could have gone from zero to sixty in four seconds, but I was driving at twenty miles an hour so we could wave at everyone we recognized, and half the people we didn’t. Down 125th we’d go, cruising past all the finely dressed folk out in front of the Hotel Theresa and the Apollo and Showman’s Jazz Club; and when we got to Broadway, I’d turn her around and drive all the way back. Every time we made the circuit, Clarise would slide a little closer, until there was no more closer to slide.

In the end it was Clarise who suggested they go to Grant’s Tomb to park under the elms, and that’s where they were, making the most of the shadows, when the flashlights of two patrolmen shone into the car.

It turned out that the owner of the Skylark was one of those finely dressed folk in front of the Apollo Theater. Given all the waving that Townhouse and Clarise had been doing, it didn’t take long for the cops to find them in the park. After untangling the young couple, one of the cops drove Clarise home in the Skylark while the other drove Townhouse to the station in the back of the black-and-white.

As a minor who had never been in trouble, Townhouse might have gotten off with a stern talking-to had he given up the twins. But Townhouse was no squealer. When the officers asked him how he happened to be behind the wheel of a car he didn’t own, Townhouse said that he’d snuck into Mr. Gonzalez’s office, slipped the key off the hook, and driven the car off the lot when no one was looking. So instead of the stern talking-to, Townhouse got twelve months in Salina.

—Come on, he said.

Crossing the street, the two passed the office where Mr. Gonzalez was talking on the phone and entered the repair area. In the first bay
was a Chevy with its rear caved in, while in the second was a Roadmaster with a buckled hood, as if the two cars had been on opposite ends of the same collision. Somewhere out of sight, a radio was playing a dance number that to Emmett’s ear could have been the same one he’d heard when they had passed the domino players, though he knew it probably wasn’t.

—Paco! Pico! Townhouse called above the music.

The brothers emerged from behind the Chevy, dressed in dirty jumpsuits, cleaning their hands on rags.

If Paco and Pico were twins, you wouldn’t have guessed so from a glance—the former being tall, thin, and shaggy, the latter stocky and close-cropped. It was only when they broke out into big white-toothed smiles that you could see the family resemblance.

—This is the friend I was telling you about, said Townhouse.

Turning to Emmett, the brothers offered him the same toothy grin. Then Paco gestured with his head toward the far end of the garage.

—It’s over here.

Emmett and Townhouse followed the brothers past the Roadmaster to the last bay, where a car was under a tarp. Together, the brothers pulled back the cover to reveal a powder-blue Studebaker.

—That’s my car, said Emmett in surprise.

—No kidding, said Townhouse.

—How’d it end up here?

—Duchess left it.

—Is it running all right?

—More or less, said Paco.

Emmett shook his head. There was just no making sense of what, when, or where Duchess chose to do what he did. But as long as the car was back in Emmett’s possession and in good working order, he didn’t need to make sense of Duchess’s choices.

Doing a quick circuit, Emmett was pleased to find that there were no more dents in the car than when he had bought it. But when he
opened the trunk, the kit bag wasn’t there. More importantly, when he pulled back the piece of felt that covered the spare, he discovered that the envelope wasn’t there either.

—Everything all right? asked Townhouse.

—Yeah, said Emmett, closing the trunk with a quiet click.

Walking toward the front of the car, Emmett glanced through the driver’s window, then turned to Paco.

—Have you got the keys?

But Paco turned to Townhouse.

—We’ve got them, said Townhouse. But there’s something else you need to know.

Before Townhouse could explain, an angry shout came from the other side of the garage.

—What the fuck is this!

Emmett assumed it must be Mr. Gonzalez, annoyed that his sons weren’t at work, but when he turned he saw the one called Maurice marching toward them.

—What the fuck is this, Maurice repeated, though more slowly, punching every other word.

After muttering to Emmett that this was his cousin, Townhouse waited for Maurice to reach them before he deigned to reply.

—What the fuck is what, Maurice?

—Otis said you were going to hand over the keys, and I couldn’t believe it.

—Well, now you can.

—But it’s
my
car.

—There’s nothing yours about it.

Maurice looked at Townhouse with an expression of amazement.

—You were right there when that nutjob gave me the keys.

—Maurice, said Townhouse, you’ve been climbing my tree all week and I’ve had just about enough of it. So, why don’t you mind your own business before I mind it for you.

Clamping his teeth shut, Maurice stared at Townhouse for a moment, then he turned and marched away.

Townhouse shook his head. As a final slight to his cousin, he adopted the expression of one who was trying to remember the important shit he’d been saying before he was so needlessly interrupted.

—You were gonna tell him about the car, Paco prompted.

With a nod of remembrance, Townhouse turned back to Emmett.

—When I told the cops last night that I hadn’t seen Duchess, they must not have believed me. Because this morning they were back, asking questions up and down the block. Like whether anyone had seen a couple of white boys hanging out on my stoop, or driving around the neighborhood—in a light-blue Studebaker . . .

Emmett closed his eyes.

—That’s right, said Townhouse. Whatever trouble Duchess has gotten himself into, it looks like he was in your car when he got into it. And if your car was involved, the cops will eventually get around to thinking that you’re involved too. That’s one of the reasons I stashed it here instead of leaving it on the street. But the other reason is that when it comes to paint jobs, the Gonzalez brothers are artistes. Ain’t that right, boys?


Los Picassos
, replied Pico, speaking for the first time.

—After
we’re
through with her, said Paco, even her own mother wouldn’t recognize her.

The two brothers began laughing, but stopped when they saw that neither Emmett nor Townhouse had joined in.

—How long would it take? asked Emmett.

The brothers looked at each other, then Paco shrugged.

—If we get started tomorrow and make good headway, we could have her ready by . . . Monday morning?


Sí,
said Pico nodding in agreement.
El lunes.

Another delay, thought Emmett. But since the envelope was missing, he couldn’t leave New York until he found Duchess anyway. And
Townhouse was right about the car. If the police were actively looking for a light-blue Studebaker, there was no point in driving one.

—Monday morning it is, said Emmett. And thanks to you both.

Outside the garage, Townhouse offered to walk Emmett back to the subway, but Emmett wanted to know something first.

—When we were at your stoop and I asked where Duchess was going, you hesitated—like someone who knows something that he doesn’t want to admit to knowing. If Duchess told you where he was headed, I need you to tell me.

Townhouse blew some air.

—Look, he said, I know you like Duchess, Emmett. So do I. He’s a loyal friend in his own crazy way, and he’s one of the most entertaining shit slingers whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But he is also like one of those guys who are born with no peripheral vision. He can see everything that’s right in front of him, see it more clearly than most, but the second that something is pushed an inch to the left or right, he doesn’t even know it’s there. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. For him, and for anyone within spitting distance. All I’m saying, Emmett, is now that you’ve got your car, maybe you should let Duchess be.

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