Authors: Amor Towles
—School year end all right? Emmett asked, setting down his glass.
—I got a hundred and five percent on my geography test.
—A hundred and five percent!
—Usually, there’s no such thing as a hundred and five percent, Billy
explained. Usually, one hundred percent of anything is as much as you can get.
—So how’d you wrangle another five percent out of Mrs. Cooper?
—There was an extra-credit question.
—What was the question?
Billy quoted from memory.
What is the tallest building in the world
—And you knew the answer?
. . .
—Aren’t you going to tell me?
Billy shook his head.
—That would be cheating. You have to learn it for yourself.
After a moment of silence, Emmett realized that he was staring into his milk. He was the one now with something on his mind. He was the one trying to decide how, or whether, or when to say it.
—Billy, he began, I don’t know what Mr. Ransom’s told you, but we’re not going to be able to live here anymore.
—I know, said Billy. Because we’re foreclosed.
—That’s right. Do you understand what that means?
—It means the Savings and Loan owns our house now.
—That’s right. Even though they’re taking the house, we could stay in Morgen. We could live with the Ransoms for a while, I could go back to work for Mr. Schulte, come fall you could go back to school, and eventually we could afford to get a place of our own. But I’ve been thinking that this might be a good time for you and me to try something new . . .
Emmett had thought a lot about how he would put this, because he was worried that Billy would be disconcerted by the notion of leaving Morgen, especially so soon after their father’s death. But Billy wasn’t disconcerted at all.
—I was thinking the same thing, Emmett.
Billy nodded with a hint of eagerness.
—With Daddy gone and the house foreclosed, there’s no need for us to stay in Morgen. We can pack up our things and drive to California.
—I guess we’re in agreement, said Emmett with a smile. The only difference is that I think we should be moving to Texas.
—Oh, we can’t be moving to Texas, said Billy, shaking his head.
—Because we’ve got to be moving to California.
Emmett started to speak, but Billy had already gotten up from his chair and gone to his backpack. This time, he opened the front pocket, removed a small manila envelope, and returned to his seat. As he carefully unwound the red thread that sealed the envelope’s flap, he began to explain.
—After Daddy’s funeral, when you went back to Salina, Mr. Ransom sent Sally and me over to the house to look for important papers. In the bottom drawer of Daddy’s bureau, we found a metal box. It wasn’t locked, but it was the kind of box you
lock if you wanted to. Inside it were important papers, just as Mr. Ransom had said there’d be—like our birth certificates and Mom and Dad’s marriage license. But at the bottom of the box, at the very bottom, I found these.
Billy tipped the envelope over the table and out slid nine postcards.
Emmett could tell from the condition of the cards that they weren’t exactly old and weren’t exactly new. Some of them were photographs and some were illustrations, but all were in color. The one on top was a picture of the Welsh Motor Court in Ogallala, Nebraska—a modern-looking lodge with white cabanas and roadside plantings and a flagpole flying the American flag.
—They’re postcards, Billy said. To you and me. From Mom.
Emmett was taken aback. Nearly eight years had passed since their mother had tucked the two of them in bed, kissed them goodnight,
and walked out the door—and they hadn’t heard a word from her since. No phone calls. No letters. No neatly wrapped packages arriving just in time for Christmas. Not even a bit of gossip from someone who’d happened to hear something from somebody else. At least, that’s what Emmett had understood to be the case, until now.
Emmett picked up the card of the Welsh Motor Court and turned it over. Just as Billy had said, it was addressed to the two of them in their mother’s elegant script. In the manner of postcards, the text was limited to a few lines. Together, the sentences expressed how much she already missed them despite having only been gone for a day. Emmett picked up another card from the pile. In the upper left-hand corner was a cowboy on the back of a horse. The lariat that he was spinning extended into the foreground and spelled out
Greetings from Rawlins, Wyoming—the Metropolis of the Plains
. Emmett turned the card over. In six sentences, including one that wrapped around the lower right-hand corner, their mother wrote that while she had yet to see a cowpoke with a lasso in Rawlins, she had seen plenty of cows. She concluded by expressing once again how much she loved and missed them both.
Emmett scanned the other cards on the table, taking in the names of the various towns, the motels and restaurants, sights and landmarks, noting that all but one of the pictures promised a bright blue sky.
Conscious that his brother was watching him, Emmett maintained an unchanged expression. But what he was feeling was the sting of resentment—resentment toward their father. He must have intercepted the cards and hidden them away. No matter how angry he had been with his wife, he had no right to keep them from his sons, certainly not from Emmett, who had been old enough to read them for himself. But Emmett felt the sting for no more than a moment. Because he knew that his father had done the only sensible thing. After all, what good could come from the occasional reception of a few sentences written on the back of a three-by-five card by a woman who had willfully abandoned her own children?
Emmett put the postcard from Rawlins back on the table.
—You remember how Mom left us on the fifth of July? asked Billy.
—She wrote us a postcard every day for the next nine days.
Emmett picked up the card from Ogallala again and looked just above the spot where their mother had written
Dearest Emmett and Billy,
but there was no date.
—Mom didn’t write down the dates, Billy said. But you can tell from the postmarks.
Taking the Ogallala card from Emmett’s hand, Billy turned all the cards over, spread them on the table, and pointed from postmark to postmark.
—July fifth. July sixth. There was no July seventh, but there are two July eighths. That’s because in 1946, July seventh was on a Sunday and the post office is closed on Sunday, so she had to mail two of the cards on Monday. But look at this.
Billy went back to the front pocket of his backpack and took out something that looked like a pamphlet. When he unfolded it on the table, Emmett could see it was a road map of the United States from a Phillips 66. Cutting all the way across the middle of the map was a roadway that had been scored by Billy in black ink. In the western half of the country, the names of nine towns along the route had been circled.
—This is the Lincoln Highway, explained Billy, pointing to the long black line. It was invented in 1912 and was named for Abraham Lincoln and was the very first road to stretch from one end of America to the other.
Starting on the Atlantic Seaboard, Billy began following the highway with his fingertip.
—It starts in Times Square in New York City and it ends three thousand three hundred and ninety miles away in Lincoln Park in
San Francisco. And it passes right through Central City, just twenty-five miles from our house.
Billy paused to move his finger from Central City to the little black star that he had drawn on the map to represent their home.
—When Mom left us on the fifth of July, this is the way she went . . .
Taking up the postcards, Billy turned them over and began laying them across the lower half of the map in a westward progression, placing each card under its corresponding town.
Salt Lake City.
Until the last card, which showed a large, classical building rising above a fountain in a park in San Francisco.
Billy gave an exhale of satisfaction to have the cards laid out in order on the table. But the whole collection made Emmett uneasy, like the two of them were looking at someone else’s private correspondence—something they had no business seeing.
—Billy, he said, I’m not sure that we should be going to California. . . .
—We have to go to California, Emmett. Don’t you see? That’s why she sent us the postcards. So that we could follow her.
—But she hasn’t sent a postcard in eight years.
—Because July thirteenth was when she stopped moving. All we have to do is take the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco and that’s where we’ll find her.
Emmett’s immediate instinct was to say something to his brother that was sensible and dissuasive. Something about how their mother
didn’t necessarily stop in San Francisco; how she could easily have continued on, and most likely had; and that while she might have been thinking of her sons on those first nine nights, all evidence suggested that she hadn’t been thinking of them since. In the end, he settled for pointing out that even if she were in San Francisco, it would be virtually impossible for them to find her.
Billy nodded with the expression of one who had already considered this dilemma.
—Remember how you told me that Mom loved fireworks so much, she took us all the way to Seward on the Fourth of July just so we could see the big display?
Emmett did not remember telling this to his brother, and all things considered, he couldn’t imagine having ever had the inclination to do so. But he couldn’t deny it was true.
Billy reached for the last postcard, the one with the classical building and the fountain. Turning it over, he ran his finger along their mother’s script.
This is the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park and every year on the Fourth of July it has one of the biggest fireworks displays in all of California!
Billy looked up at his brother.
—That’s where she’ll be, Emmett. At the fireworks display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor on the Fourth of July.
—Billy . . . , Emmett began.
But Billy, who could already hear the skepticism in his brother’s voice, began shaking his head, vigorously. Then looking back down at the map on the table, he ran his finger along their mother’s route.
—Ogallala to Cheyenne, Cheyenne to Rawlins, Rawlins to Rock Springs, Rock Springs to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City to Ely, Ely to Reno, Reno to Sacramento, and Sacramento to San Francisco. That’s the way we go.
Emmett sat back in his chair and considered.
He had not chosen Texas at random. He had thought about the question of where he and his brother should go, carefully and systematically. He had spent hours in the little library at Salina turning through the pages of the almanac and the volumes of the encyclopedia until the question of where they should go had become perfectly clear. But Billy had been pursuing his own line of thinking just as carefully, just as systematically, and he could see his own answer to the question with just as much clarity.
—All right, Billy, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you put those back in their envelope and let me take a little time to think about what you’ve said.
Billy began nodding now.
—That’s a good idea, Emmett. That’s a good idea.
Gathering the postcards together in their east-to-west order, Billy slipped them into their envelope, spun the red thread until they were securely sealed, and returned them to his pack.
—You take a little time to think about it, Emmett. You’ll see.
Upstairs, while Billy occupied himself in his room, Emmett took a long, hot shower. When he was done, he picked his clothes off the floor—the clothes that he’d worn both to and from Salina—removed the pack of cigarettes from the shirt pocket, and threw the heap in the trash. After a moment, he threw the cigarettes away too, being sure to tuck them under the clothes.
In his room he dressed in a fresh pair of jeans and denim shirt along with his favorite belt and boots. Then he reached into his top bureau drawer and took out a pair of socks tucked into a ball. Unfolding the socks, he gave one of them a shake until out came the keys to his car. Then he crossed the hall and stuck his head into his brother’s room.
Billy was sitting on the floor beside his backpack. In his lap was the old blue tobacco tin with the portrait of George Washington on it, while on the rug were all his silver dollars laid out in columns and rows.
—Looks like you found a few more while I was away, said Emmett.
—Three, Billy answered while carefully putting one of the dollars in its place.
—How many more to go?
With his index finger Billy poked at the empty spots in the grid.
—1881. 1894. 1895. 1899. 1903.
—You’re getting pretty close.
Billy nodded in agreement.