Authors: Amor Towles
hen they emerged from
the station at Carroll Street, Emmett knew he had made a mistake in bringing his brother.
His instincts had told him that he shouldn’t do it. Townhouse hadn’t been able to remember the exact address of the circus, so it was probably going to take some legwork to find it. Once Emmett was inside, he was going to have to find Duchess in the crowd. And once he found Duchess, there was the possibility, however remote, that Duchess wouldn’t hand over the envelope without raising some sort of nonsense. All in all, it would have been smarter to leave Billy in the care of Ulysses, where he’d be safe. But how do you tell an eight-year-old boy who has wanted to go to the circus all his life that you intend to go to one without him? So at five o’clock, they descended the steel staircase from the tracks and headed for the subway together.
Initially, Emmett took some comfort from the fact that he knew the right station to go to, knew the right platform, knew the right train, having already made the journey to Brooklyn once, albeit in error. But the day before, when he had switched from the Brooklyn-bound train to the Manhattan-bound train, he had never left the station. So it was only when they came out of the Carroll Street stop that Emmett got a sense of how rough this part of Brooklyn was. And as they worked their way through Gowanus into Red Hook, it only seemed to get worse. The landscape soon became dominated by long, windowless warehouses abutted by the occasional flophouse or bar. It hardly
seemed the neighborhood for a circus, unless they had raised a tent on the wharf. But as the river came into view, there was no sign of a tent, no flags, no marquees.
Emmett was about to turn back when Billy pointed across the street to a nondescript building with a small, brightly lit window.
It turned out to be a ticket booth occupied by a man in his seventies.
—Is this the circus? Emmett asked.
—The early show’s started, the old man said, but it’s two bucks a head just the same.
When Emmett paid, the old man slid the tickets across the counter with the indifference of one who’s been sliding tickets across a counter all his life.
Emmett was relieved to find the lobby more in keeping with his expectations. The floor was covered in a dark, red carpet and the walls painted with figures of acrobats and elephants and an open-jawed lion. There was also a concession stand selling popcorn and beer, and a large easel advertising the main event:
The Astounding Sutter Sisters of San Antonio, Texxxas
As Emmett gave their tickets to the usherette in the blue uniform, he asked where they should sit.
—Anywhere you like.
Then after giving Billy a wink, she opened the door and told them to enjoy the show.
Inside it was like a small, indoor rodeo with a dirt floor surrounded by an oval bulwark and twenty rows of stadium seating. By Emmett’s estimate, the hall was only a quarter full, but with the lighting trained on the oval, the faces of the audience members weren’t easy to make out.
As the brothers sat on one of the benches, the lights dimmed and a spotlight illuminated the ringmaster. In keeping with tradition, he was dressed like a master of the hunt, with leather riding boots, a bright red jacket, and top hat. Only when he began to speak did Emmett realize he was actually a woman wearing a false moustache.
—And now, she announced through a red megaphone, returning from the East where she mesmerized the Raja of India and danced for the King of Siam, the Circus is proud to present the one, the only, Delilah!
With an extension of the ringmaster’s hand, the spotlight shot across the oval to a gate in the bulwark through which an enormous woman in a pink tutu came riding the tricycle of a child.
As the audience erupted into laughter and bawdy cheers, two seals with old-fashioned police helmets strapped to their heads appeared and began to bark. Off Delilah went, pedaling frantically around the oval as the seals gave chase and the crowd egged them on. Once the seals had successfully corralled Delilah back through the gate, they turned and acknowledged the audience’s appreciation by bobbing their heads and clapping their fins.
Next, two cowgirls rode into the ring—one dressed in white leather with a white hat on the back of a white horse, the other all in black.
—The Astounding Sutter Sisters, called the ringmaster through her megaphone as they trotted around the arena waving their hats to the cheers of the crowd.
After circling the arena once, the sisters began performing a series of stunts. Riding at a reasonable speed, they swung themselves from one side of their saddles to the other in perfect synchronicity. Then, while riding at a faster clip, the Sutter in black leapt from her horse to her sister’s and back again.
Pointing at the arena, Billy looked up at his brother with an expression of amazement.
—Did you see that?
—I did, said Emmett with a smile.
But when Billy turned his attention back to the action, Emmett turned his to the audience. For the sisters’ act, the lights in the arena had been raised, making it easier for Emmett to search the faces of the crowd. Having completed a first pass to no avail, Emmett looked to his immediate left and began working his way around the oval more
systematically, looking from row to row and aisle to aisle. Emmett still couldn’t find Duchess, but he noted with a touch of surprise that most of the audience members were men.
—Look! Billy exclaimed, pointing at the sisters, who were now standing on the backs of their horses as they rode side by side.
—Yes, said Emmett. They’re very good.
—No, said Billy. Not the riders. Over there in the audience. It’s Woolly.
Following the direction of Billy’s finger, Emmett looked across the arena, and there in the eighth row was Woolly, sitting by himself. Emmett had been so focused on finding Duchess, it hadn’t occurred to him to look for Woolly.
—Good job, Billy. Come on.
Following the wide center aisle, Emmett and Billy circumnavigated the arena to where Woolly sat with a bag of popcorn in his lap and a smile on his face.
—Woolly! called Billy as he ran the final steps.
At the sound of his name, Woolly looked up.
Out of nowhere, here come Emmett and Billy Watson. What serendipity! What a turn of events! Have a seat, have a seat.
Though there was plenty of space for the brothers to sit, Woolly slid along the bench to make more room.
—Isn’t it a great show? asked Billy while removing his backpack.
—It is, agreed Woolly. It most certainly definitely is.
—Look, said Billy, pointing to the middle of the arena, where four clowns had driven four small cars.
Moving behind his brother, Emmett took the empty seat on Woolly’s right.
—What’s that? asked Woolly, without taking his eyes off the sisters, who were now jumping over the cars and scattering the clowns.
Emmett leaned closer.
—Where’s Duchess, Woolly?
Woolly looked up as if he hadn’t the faintest idea. Then he remembered.
—He’s in the living room! He went to see some friends in the living room.
Woolly pointed to the end of the oval.
—Up the steps and through the blue door.
—I’m going to get him. In the meantime, can you keep an eye on Billy?
—Of course, said Woolly.
Emmett held Woolly’s gaze for a moment to stress the importance of what he’d just asked. Woolly turned to Billy.
—Emmett’s going to go get Duchess, Billy. So you and I have to keep an eye on each other. Okay?
Woolly turned back to Emmett.
—All right, said Emmett with a smile. Just don’t go anywhere.
Woolly gestured to the arena.
—Why would we?
Climbing behind Woolly, Emmett made his way around the center aisle to the steps at the top of the oval.
Emmett wasn’t one for circuses. He wasn’t one for magic shows or rodeos. He hadn’t even liked going to the football games at his high school, which were attended by nearly everyone in town. He’d simply never taken to the idea of sitting in a crowd to watch someone do something more interesting than what you were doing yourself. So when he began climbing the steps and he heard the double crack of toy pistols and a cheer from the crowd, he didn’t bother looking back. And when he opened the blue door at the top of the steps and two
more cracks of the pistol were followed by even louder cheers, he didn’t look back then either.
If he had looked back, what Emmett would have seen was the Sutter sisters riding in opposite directions with their six-shooters drawn. As the two passed each other, he would have seen them take aim and shoot the hats from each other’s heads. As the two passed a second time, he would have seen them shoot the shirts off their backs—revealing bare midriffs and lacy bras, one black, one white. And if he had waited just a few minutes more before stepping through the door, he would have seen the Sutter sisters firing their pistols in rapid succession until both of them were galloping on the backs of their horses as naked as Lady Godiva.
When the door at the top of the steps swung shut behind him, Emmett found himself at the end of a long, narrow hallway on either side of which were six doors, all of them closed. As Emmett walked its length, the muffled cheers of the crowd began to recede and he could hear a piece of classical music being played on a piano. It was coming from behind the door at the end of the hallway—a door that was illustrated with the large insignia of a bell like the one that was used by the phone company. When he put his hand on the knob, the classical piece slowed and then seamlessly transitioned into a saloon-style rag.
Opening the door, Emmett stood on the threshold of a large, luxurious lounge. Composed of at least four separate sitting areas, the room had couches and chairs upholstered in rich, dark fabrics. On the side tables were lamps with tasseled shades, and on the walls were oil paintings of ships. Stretched out on two facing couches, wearing nothing but delicate shifts, were a redhead and brunette, both smoking pungent cigarettes. While at the back of the room, near an elaborately carved bar, a blonde in a silk wrap leaned against the piano, tapping her fingers in time to the music.
Almost every element of the scene took Emmett by surprise: the
plush furniture, the oil paintings, the scantily clad women. But nothing took him by more surprise than the fact that the person playing the piano was Duchess—wearing a crisp white shirt and a fedora tilted back on his head.
When the blonde at the piano looked to see who had come through the door, Duchess followed her gaze. Seeing Emmett, he ran his fingers once down the length of the keyboard, pounded a final chord, and leapt to his feet with a generous grin.
The three women looked at Duchess.
—Do you know him? asked the blonde in an almost childlike voice.
—This is the guy I was telling you about!
The three women all turned their gazes back on Emmett.
—You mean the one from North Dakota?
—Nebraska, corrected the brunette.
The redhead lazily pointed her cigarette at Emmett with an expression of sudden understanding.
—The one who loaned you the car.
—Exactly, said Duchess.
The women all smiled at Emmett in recognition of his generosity.
Striding across the room, Duchess took Emmett by the arms.
—I can’t believe you’re here. Just this morning, Woolly and I were lamenting your absence and counting the days until we’d see you again. But wait! Where are my manners?
Slipping an arm over Emmett’s shoulder, Duchess led him toward the women.
—Let me introduce you to my three fairy godmothers. Here on my left, we have Helen. The second one in history to launch a thousand ships.
—Charmed, the redhead said to Emmett, extending her hand.
As Emmett reached to take it, he realized that her shift was so
diaphanous, the dark circles around her nipples were visible through the fabric. Feeling the color rising to his cheeks, he averted his gaze.
—By the piano we have Charity. I don’t think I have to tell you how she got her name. And here on my right is Bernadette.
Emmett was relieved when Bernadette, who was dressed exactly like Helen, didn’t bother to extend her hand.
—That’s quite a belt buckle, she said with a smile.
—It’s nice to meet you, Emmett said to the women a little awkwardly.
Duchess turned to face him with a grin.
—This is so great, he said.
—Yeah, said Emmett, without much enthusiasm. Listen, Duchess, if I could have a word. Alone . . .
Duchess led Emmett away from the women, but rather than take him back into the hallway, where they would have privacy, he took him to a corner of the lounge about fifteen feet away.
Duchess studied Emmett’s face for a moment.
—You’re mad, he said. I can tell.
Emmett barely knew where to begin.
—Duchess, he found himself saying, I did not
you my car.
—You’re right, replied Duchess, holding up both hands in surrender. You’re absolutely right. It would have been much more accurate for me to say I borrowed it. But like I told Billy back at St. Nick’s, we were only using it to run that errand upstate. We would have had it back in Morgen before you knew it.
—Whether you took it for a year or a day doesn’t change the fact that it’s
car—with my money in it.
Duchess looked at Emmett like he didn’t understand him for a second.
—Oh, you mean the envelope that was in the trunk. You don’t have to worry about that, Emmett.
—Then you have it?
—Sure. But not on me. This is the big city, after all. I left it at Woolly’s sister’s place, along with your kit bag, where they’d be safe and sound.
—Then let’s go get them. And on the way, you can tell me all about the cops.
—I saw Townhouse, and he says the cops came around this morning, asking about my car.