Authors: Amor Towles
Billy nodded in acknowledgment of Woolly’s good sense, so Woolly continued making suggestions, warming to his subject as he went along.
—You should have a porch with an overhanging roof so that you can sit under it on rainy afternoons, or lie on top of it on warm summer nights. And downstairs there should be a study, and a great room with a fireplace big enough so that everyone can gather around it when it snows. And you should have a secret hiding place under the staircase, and a special spot in the corner for the Christmas tree.
There was no stopping Woolly now. Asking for paper and pencil, he swung his chair around next to Billy’s and began drawing a floor plan in perfect detail. And this wasn’t some back-of-the-napkin sort of sketch. As it turned out, Woolly drew floor plans like he washed dishes. The rooms were rendered to scale with walls that were parallel and corners at perfect right angles. It gave you a zing just to see it.
Setting aside the merits of a covered porch versus a four-car garage, you had to give Woolly credit on the dreaming front. The place he imagined on Billy’s behalf was three times the size of the one the kid had imagined on his own, and it must have struck a chord. Because when Woolly was done with the picture, Billy asked him to add an arrow pointing north and a big red star to mark the spot where the Christmas tree should go. And when Woolly had done that, the kid carefully folded the floor plan and stowed it away in his pack.
Woolly looked satisfied too. Although, when Billy had cinched the straps nice and tight and returned to his chair, Woolly gave him his sad sort of smile.
—I wish I didn’t know where my mother is, he said.
—Why is that, Woolly?
—So that I could go and look for her just like you.
Once the dishes were clean and Billy had taken Woolly upstairs to show him where he could shower, I did some poking around.
It was no secret that Emmett’s old man had gone bust. But all you had to take was one look around the place to know it wasn’t from drinking. When the man of the house is a drunk, you can tell. You can tell from the look of the furniture and the look of the front yard. You can tell from the look on the faces of the kids. But even if Emmett’s old man was a teetotaler, I figured there had to be a drink of something somewhere—like maybe a bottle of apple brandy or peppermint schnapps tucked away for special occasions. In this part of the country, there usually was.
I started with the kitchen cabinets. In the first, I found the plates and bowls. In the second, the glasses and mugs. In the third, I found the usual assortment of foodstuffs, but no sign of a bottle, not even hiding behind the ten-year-old jar of molasses.
There wasn’t any hooch in the hutch either. But in the lower compartment was a jumble of fine china covered in a thin layer of dust. Not just dinner plates, you understand. There were soup bowls, salad plates, dessert plates, and teetering towers of coffee cups. I counted twenty settings in all—in a house without a dining-room table.
I seemed to remember Emmett telling me his parents had been raised in Boston. Well, if they were raised in Boston, it must have been on the top of Beacon Hill. This was the sort of stuff that is given to a Brahmin bride with every expectation it will be handed down from one generation to the next. But the whole collection could barely fit in the cupboard, so it certainly wasn’t going to fit in a kit bag. Which sort of made you wonder . . .
In the front room, the only place to stow a bottle was in the big old desk in the corner. I sat in the chair and rolled up the top. The writing surface had the normal accessories—scissors, a letter opener, a pad and pencil—but the drawers were cluttered with all sorts of things that had no business being there, like an old alarm clock, a half a deck of cards, and a scattering of nickels and dimes.
After scraping up the loose change (waste not, want not), I opened the bottom drawer with my fingers crossed, knowing it to be a classic stowing spot. But there was no room for a bottle in there, because the drawer was filled to the brim with mail.
It didn’t take more than a glance to know what this mess was all about: unpaid bills. Bills from the power company and the phone company, and whoever else had been foolish enough to extend Mr. Watson credit. At the very bottom would be the original notices, then the reminders, while here at the top, the cancellations and threats of legal action. Some of those envelopes hadn’t even been opened.
I couldn’t help but smile.
There was something sort of sweet in how Mr. Watson kept this assortment in the bottom drawer—not a foot away from the trash can. It had taken him just as much effort to stuff the bills inside his desk as it would have to consign them to oblivion. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was never going to pay them.
My old man certainly wouldn’t have gone to the trouble. As far as he was concerned, an unpaid bill couldn’t find its way into the garbage fast enough. In fact, he was so allergic to the very paper on which bills were printed, he would go to some lengths to ensure that they never caught up with him in the first place. That’s why the incomparable Harrison Hewett, who was something of a stickler when it came to the English language, was occasionally known to misspell his own address.
But waging a war with the US Postal Service is no small affair. They have entire fleets of trucks at their disposal, and an army of foot
soldiers whose sole purpose in life is to make sure that an envelope with your name on it finds its way into your mitts. Which is why the Hewetts were occasionally known to arrive by the lobby and depart by the fire escape, usually at five in the morning.
, my father would say, pausing between the fourth and third floors and gesturing toward the east.
Rosy-fingered dawn! Count yourself lucky to be of its acquaintance, my boy. There are kings who never laid eyes upon it!
Outside, I heard the wheels of Mr. Ransom’s pickup turning into the Watsons’ drive. The headlights briefly swept the room from right to left as the truck passed the house and headed toward the barn. I closed the bottom drawer of the desk so that the whole pile of notices could remain safe and sound until the final accounting.
Upstairs, I stuck my head into Billy’s room, where Woolly was already stretched out on the bed. He was humming softly and staring at the airplanes hanging from the ceiling. He was probably thinking about his father in the cockpit of his fighter plane at ten thousand feet. That’s where Woolly’s father would always be for Woolly: somewhere between the flight deck of his carrier and the bottom of the South China Sea.
I found Billy in his father’s room, sitting Indian style on the bedcovers with his knapsack at his side and a big red book in his lap.
—Hey there, gunslinger. What’re you reading?
Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers
—Sounds impressive. Is it any good?
—Oh, I’ve read it twenty-four times.
may not be big enough a word.
Entering the room, I took a little stroll from corner to corner as the kid turned the page. On top of the bureau were two framed photographs.
The first was of a standing husband and seated wife in turn-of-the-century garb. The Watsons of Beacon Hill, no doubt. The other was of Emmett and Billy from just a few years back. They were sitting on the same porch that Emmett and his neighbor had sat on earlier that day. There was no picture of Billy and Emmett’s mother.
—Hey, Billy, I said, putting the photograph of the brothers back on the bureau. Can I ask you a question?
—When exactly did your mother go to California?
—On the fifth of July 1946.
—That’s pretty exactly. So she just up and left, huh? Never to be heard from again?
—No, said Billy, turning another page. She was heard from again. She sent us nine postcards. That’s how we know that she’s in San Francisco.
For the first time since I’d entered the room, he looked up from his book.
—Can I ask you a question, Duchess?
—Fair’s fair, Billy.
—How come they call you that?
—Because I was born in Dutchess County.
—Where is Dutchess County?
—About fifty miles north of New York.
Billy sat up straight.
—You mean the city of New York?
—Have you ever been to the city of New York?
—I’ve been to hundreds of cities, Billy, but I’ve been to the city of New York more than I’ve been to anywhere else.
—That’s where Professor Abernathe is. Here, look.
Turning to one of the first pages, he offered up his book.
—Small print gives me a headache, Billy. Why don’t you do the honors.
Looking down, he began reading with the help of a fingertip.
Dearest Reader, I write to you today from my humble office on the fifty-fifth floor of the Empire State Building at the junction of Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue on the isle of Manhattan in the city of New York at the northeastern edge of our great nation—the United States of America
Billy looked up with a certain level of expectation. I responded with a look of inquiry.
—Have you ever met Professor Abernathe? he asked.
—I’ve met a lot of people in our great nation and many of them from the isle of Manhattan, but to the best of my knowledge, I have never had the pleasure of meeting your professor.
—Oh, said Billy.
He was quiet for a moment, then his little brow furrowed.
—Something else? I asked.
—Why have you been to hundreds of cities, Duchess?
—My father was a thespian. Although we were generally based in New York, we spent a good part of the year traveling from town to town. We’d be in Buffalo one week and Pittsburgh the next. Then Cleveland or Kansas City. I’ve even spent some time in Nebraska, believe it or not. When I was about your age, I lived for a stretch on the outskirts of a little city called Lewis.
—I know Lewis, said Billy. It’s on the Lincoln Highway. Halfway between here and Omaha.
Billy set his book aside and reached for his knapsack.
—I have a map. Would you like to see?
—I’ll take your word for it.
Billy let go of the knapsack. Then his brow furrowed again.
—When you were moving from town to town, how did you go to school?
—Not all worth knowing can be found between the covers of compendiums, my boy. Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.
Billy seemed to consider this for a moment, apparently unsure of whether he should be willing to accept the principle as an article of faith. Then, after nodding twice to himself, he looked up with a touch of embarrassment.
—Can I ask you something else, Duchess?
—What is a thespian?
—A thespian is a man of the stage, Billy. An actor.
Extending a hand, I looked into the distance and intoned:
She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
It was a pretty good delivery, if I do say so myself. Sure, the pose was a little hackneyed, but I put a world of weariness into the
, and I hit that old
with an ominous flare.
Billy gave me his patented wide-eyed look.
—William Shakespeare from the Scottish play, I said. Act five, scene five.
—Was your father a Shakespearean actor?
—Was he famous?
—Oh, he was known by name in every saloon from Petaluma to Poughkeepsie.
Billy looked impressed. But then his brow furrowed once again.
—I have learned a little about William Shakespeare, he said. Professor Abernathe calls him the greatest adventurer to have never set sail on the seas. But he never mentions the Scottish play. . . .
—Not surprisingly. You see, the Scottish play is how theater folk refer to
. Some centuries ago, it was determined that the play was cursed, and that to speak of it by name can only bring misfortune upon the heads of those who dare perform it.
—What sorts of misfortune?
—The worst sorts. At the very first production of the play back in the sixteen hundreds, the young actor cast as Lady Macbeth died right before going onstage. About a hundred years ago, the two greatest Shakespearean actors in the world were an American named Forrest and a Brit named Macready. Naturally, the American audience was partial to the talents of Mr. Forrest. So when Macready was cast in the role of Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House—on the isle of Manhattan—a riot broke out in which ten thousand clashed and many were killed.
Needless to say, Billy was enthralled.