Authors: Amor Towles
any years before,
Abacus had come to the conclusion that the greatest of heroic stories have the shape of a diamond on its side. Beginning at a fine point, the life of the hero expands outward through youth as he begins to establish his strengths and fallibilities, his friendships and enmities. Proceeding into the world, he pursues exploits in grand company, accumulating honors and accolades. But at some untold moment, the two rays that define the outer limits of this widening world of hale companions and worthy adventures simultaneously turn a corner and begin to converge. The terrain our hero travels, the cast of characters he meets, the sense of purpose that has long propelled him forward all begin to narrow—to narrow toward that fixed and inexorable point that defines his fate.
Take the tale of Achilles.
In hopes of making her son invincible, the Nereid Thetis holds her newborn boy by the ankle and dips him into the river Styx. From that finite moment in time and pinch of the fingers, the story of Achilles begins. As a strapping young lad, he is educated in history, literature, and philosophy by the centaur Chiron. On the fields of sport, he gains in strength and agility. And with his comrade Patroclus, he forms the closest of bonds.
As a young man, Achilles ventures forth into the world, where he proceeds from one exploit to the next, vanquishing all manner of opponents until his reputation precedes him far and wide. Then, at
the very height of his fame and the peak of his physical prowess, Achilles sets sail for Troy to join the likes of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ulysses, and Ajax in the greatest battle ever fought by men.
But somewhere on this crossing, somewhere in the middle of the Aegean Sea, unbeknownst to Achilles, the widening rays of his life turn their corners and begin their relentless trajectory inward.
Ten long years, Achilles will remain on the fields of Troy. Over the course of that decade, the area of conflict will grow smaller as the battle lines draw ever closer to the walls of the besieged city. The once countless legions of Greek and Trojan soldiers will grow smaller, diminishing with every additional death. And in the tenth year, when Hector, prince of Troy, slays the beloved Patroclus, Achilles’s world will grower smaller still.
From that moment, the enemy with all its battalions is reduced in Achilles’s mind to the one person responsible for the death of his friend. The sprawling fields of battle are reduced to the few square feet between where he and Hector will stand. And the sense of purpose that at one time encompassed duty, honor, and glory is now reduced to the single burning desire for revenge.
So perhaps it is not surprising that just a matter of days after Achilles succeeds in killing Hector, a poison arrow lofting through the air pierces the one unprotected spot on Achilles’s body—the ankle by which his mother had held him when she dipped him in the Styx. And in that very instant, all of his memories and dreams, all of his sensations and sentiments, all of his virtues and vices are extinguished like the flame of a candle that has been snuffed between a finger and a thumb.
Yes, for the longest time, Abacus had understood that the great heroic stories were like a diamond on its side. But of late, what had taken up his thoughts was the realization that it wasn’t simply the lives of the renowned that conform to this geometry. For the lives of miners and
stevedores conform to it too. The lives of waitresses and nursemaids conform to it. The lives of the ancillary and the anonymous, of the frivolous and the forgotten.
His life too began at a point—on the fifth of May in 1890, when a boy named Sam was born in the bedroom of a small painted cottage on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, the only offspring of an insurance adjuster and a seamstress.
Like any child, Sam’s first years were spent in the warm circumference of his family. But one day at the age of seven, in the aftermath of a hurricane, Sam accompanied his father to a shipwreck that needed to be assessed on behalf of the insurers. Having journeyed all the way from Port-au-Prince, this vessel had run aground on a shoal off West Chop, and there it remained, its hull breached, its sails in tatters, its cargo of rum washing ashore with the waves.
From that moment, the walls of Sam’s life began to branch outward. After every storm, he would insist upon going with his father to see the wrecks: the schooners, the frigates, the yachts. Whether blown upon the rocks or swamped by a turbulent tide, Sam did not simply see a ship in distress. He saw the world the ship embodied. He saw the ports of Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, and Singapore. He saw the spices and textiles and ceramics. He saw the sailors who hailed from every seafaring nation around the globe.
Sam’s fascination with shipwrecks led him to fantastical stories of the sea, like those of Sinbad and Jason. The fantastical stories led him to histories of the great explorers, his worldview widening with the reading of each additional page. Eventually, Sam’s ever-growing love of history and myth brought him to the ivy-covered halls of Harvard, and then to New York, where—having rechristened himself Abacus and declared himself a writer—he met musicians, architects, painters,
financiers, as well as criminals and derelicts too. And finally, he met Polly, that wonder of wonders who brought him joy, companionship, a daughter, and a son.
What an extraordinary passage were those first years in Manhattan! When Abacus experienced firsthand the omnivalent, omnipresent, omnifarious widening that is life.
Or rather, that is the first half of life.
When did the change come? When did the outer limits of his world turn their corner and begin moving inexorably toward their terminal convergence?
Abacus had no idea.
Not long after his children had grown and moved on, perhaps. Certainly, before Polly died. Yes, it was likely at some point during those years when, without their knowing it, her time had begun to run out while he, in the so-called prime of life, went blithely on about his business.
The manner in which the convergence takes you by surprise, that is the cruelest part. And yet it’s almost unavoidable. For at the moment when the turning begins, the two opposing rays of your life are so far from each other you could never discern the change in their trajectory. And in those first years, as the rays begin to angle inward, the world still seems so open, you have no reason to suspect its diminishment.
But one day, one day years after the convergence has begun, you cannot only sense the inward trajectory of the walls, you can begin to see the terminal point in the offing even as the terrain that remains before you begins to shrink at an accelerating pace.
In those golden years of his late twenties, shortly after arriving in New York, Abacus had made three great friends. Two men and a woman, they were the hardiest of companions, fellow adventurers of the mind and spirit. Side by side, they had navigated the waters of life
with a reasonable diligence and their fair share of aplomb. But in just these last five years, the first had been stricken with blindness, the second with emphysema, and the third with dementia. How varied their lot, you might be tempted to observe: the loss of sight, of lung capacity, of cognition. When in reality, the three infirmities amount to the same sentence: the narrowing of life at the far tip of the diamond. Step by step, the stomping grounds of these friends had shrunk from the world itself, to their country, to their county, to their home, and finally to a single room where, blinded, breathless, forgetful, they are destined to end their days.
Though Abacus had no infirmities to speak of yet, his world too was shrinking. He too had watched as the outer limits of his life had narrowed from the world at large, to the island of Manhattan, to that book-lined office in which he awaited with a philosophical resignation the closing of the finger and thumb. And then this . . .
This extraordinary turn of events.
A little boy from Nebraska appears at his doorstep with a gentle demeanor and a fantastical tale. A tale not from a leather-bound tome, mind you. Not from an epic poem written in an unspoken language. Not from an archive or athenaeum. But from life itself.
How easily we forget—we in the business of storytelling—that life was the point all along. A mother who has vanished, a father who has failed, a brother who is determined. A journey from the prairies into the city by means of a boxcar with a vagabond named Ulysses. Thence to a railroad track suspended over the city as surely as Valhalla is suspended in the clouds. And there, the boy, Ulysses, and he, having sat down by a campfire as ancient as the ways of man, began—
—It’s time, said Ulysses.
—What’s that? said Abacus. Time?
—If you’re still coming.
—I’m coming! he said. Here I come!
Rising to his feet in a copse of woods twenty miles west of Kansas City, Abacus scrambled through the underbrush in the dark, tearing the pocket from his seersucker jacket. Breathlessly, he followed Ulysses through the break in the trees, up the embankment, and into the boxcar that was destined to take them who knows where.
mmett was asleep.
Billy could tell that Emmett was asleep because he was snoring. Emmett didn’t snore as loudly as their father used to snore, but he snored loudly enough that you could tell when he was sleeping.
Quietly, Billy slipped out from under the covers and climbed down onto the rug. Reaching under the bed, he found his backpack, opened the upper flap, and removed his army surplus flashlight. Being careful to point the beam at the rug—so he wouldn’t wake his brother—Billy switched the flashlight on. Then removing Professor Abernathe’s
Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers
, he turned to chapter twenty-five and took up his pencil.
If Billy were going to start at the very beginning, he would go back to the twelfth of December 1935, the day that Emmett was born. That was two years after their father and mother had married in Boston and moved to Nebraska. It was during the Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt was president, and Sally was almost one year old.
But Billy wasn’t going to start at the very beginning. He was going to start
in medias res.
The hard part, as Billy had explained to Emmett in the train station in Lewis, was knowing where the middle was.
One idea that Billy had was to start on the Fourth of July 1946, when he and Emmett and their mother and father went to Seward to watch the fireworks display.
Billy was just a baby at the time, so he couldn’t remember what the
trip to Seward had been like. But one afternoon, Emmett had told him all about it. He had told Billy about their mother’s love of fireworks, and the picnic basket in the attic, and the checkered cloth that they would spread on the lawn in the middle of Plum Creek Park. So Billy could use what Emmett had told him in order to describe the day exactly as it was.
But he also had the photograph.
Reaching into his backpack, Billy removed the envelope that was in the innermost pocket. Opening the flap, he slipped out the photograph and held it near the flashlight’s beam
It was a picture of Emmett, Billy in a basinet, their mother, and the picnic basket all in a row on the checkered cloth. Their father must have been the one who took the picture because he wasn’t in it. Everyone in the picture was smiling, and though Billy’s father wasn’t in the picture, Billy could tell that he must have been smiling too.
Billy had found the photograph together with the postcards from the Lincoln Highway in the metal box that was in the bottom drawer of their father’s bureau.
But when Billy had put the postcards in the manila envelope so that he could show them to Emmett when Emmett returned home from Salina, he had put the photograph from Seward in a different envelope. He had put it in a different envelope because he knew that memories of the trip to Seward made his brother angry. Billy knew this because his brother had become angry when he had told Billy about the trip to Seward. And he had never told Billy about it again.
Billy had saved the picture because he knew that Emmett wouldn’t always be angry with their mother. Once they had found her in San Francisco, and she had had the chance to tell them all the things that she had been thinking in the years that they had been apart, Emmett wouldn’t be angry anymore. Then Billy would give him the picture, and he would be glad that Billy had kept it for him.
But it didn’t make sense to start the story there, thought Billy, as he returned the picture to its envelope. Because on the Fourth of July 1946, their mother hadn’t even left yet. So that night was closer to the beginning of the story than it was to the middle.
Another idea that Billy had was to start on the night that Emmett hit Jimmy Snyder.
Billy didn’t need a photograph to remember that night because he had been there with Emmett and had been old enough to remember it himself.
It was on Saturday, October 4, 1952, the last night of the fair. Their father, who had gone with them to the fair the night before, decided to stay home on Saturday. So Emmett and Billy had driven there together in the Studebaker.
Some years, the temperature at the fair can feel like the beginning of fall, but that year, it felt like the end of summer. Billy remembered because as they drove to the fair they had their windows rolled down, and when they arrived, they decided to leave their jackets in the car.
They had left for the fair at five o’clock so that they could get something to eat, and go on some rides, and still have time to find seats near the front of the fiddling contest. Emmett and Billy both loved the fiddling contest, especially when they had seats near the front. But on that particular night, even though they had plenty of time to spare, they never did get to see the fiddlers.
It was while they were walking from the carousel to the stage that Jimmy Snyder began to say his mean things. At first, Emmett didn’t seem to care what Jimmy was saying. Then he began to get angry, and Billy tried to pull him away, but Emmett wouldn’t go. And when Jimmy tried to say one last mean thing about their father, Emmett punched him in the nose.
After Jimmy fell back and hit his head, Billy must have closed his eyes, because he didn’t remember what the following minutes looked like. He only remembered how they sounded: with Jimmy’s friends gasping, then calling for help, then shouting at Emmett as other people jostled around them. And then Emmett, who never once let go of Billy’s hand, trying to explain what had happened to one person after another, until the ambulance arrived. And all the while, the calliope at the carousel playing its music and the rifles at the rifle range going
pop, pop, pop
But it didn’t make sense to start the story there either, thought Billy. Because the night at the fair was before Emmett had been sent to Salina and learned his lesson. So it too belonged in the beginning.
in medias res
, thought Billy, there should be just as many important things that have happened as important things that haven’t happened yet. For Emmett, that meant that he should already have been to Seward to watch the fireworks; and their mother should already have followed the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco; and Emmett should already have stopped working on the farm in order to become a carpenter; and he should already have purchased the Studebaker with his savings; and he should already have grown angry at the fair and punched Jimmy Snyder in the nose and been sent to Salina and learned his lesson.
But the arrival of Duchess and Woolly in Nebraska, and the train ride to New York, and the search for the Studebaker, and the reunion with Sally, and the journey they were about to take from Times Square to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in order to find their mother on the Fourth of July, all of these things shouldn’t have happened yet.
That’s why Billy decided, as he leaned over chapter twenty-five with his pencil in hand, that the perfect place to start the story of Emmett’s adventures was when he was driving home from Salina in the front seat of the warden’s