Authors: Amor Towles
oolly’s sister came into
the kitchen like a ghost. Appearing in the doorway in her long white robe and crossing the unlit room without a sound, it was like her feet didn’t touch the floor. But if she was a ghost, she wasn’t the harrowing sort—one of those that howl and moan and send shivers down your spine. She was the forlorn sort. The kind of ghost who wanders the halls of an empty house for generations, in search of something or someone that no one else can even remember. A visitation, I think they call it.
Yeah, that’s it.
Without switching on the light, she filled the kettle and turned on the burner. From the cabinet she took out a mug and a tea bag and set them on the counter. From the pocket of her robe, she took out a little brown bottle and set it beside the mug. Then she went back to the sink and stood there looking out the window.
You got the sense that she was good at looking out the window—like maybe she’d gotten a lot of practice. She didn’t fidget or tap her feet. In fact, she was so good at it, so good at getting lost in her thoughts, that when the kettle whistled it seemed to catch her by surprise, as if she couldn’t remember having turned it on in the first place. Slowly, almost reluctantly, she left her spot at the window, poured the water, picked up the mug in one hand and the little brown bottle in the other, and turned toward the table.
—Trouble sleeping? I asked.
Caught off guard, she didn’t cry out or drop her tea. She just gave the same little expression of surprise that she had given when the kettle whistled.
—I didn’t see you there, she said, slipping the little brown bottle back in the pocket of her robe.
She hadn’t answered my question about whether she had trouble sleeping, but she didn’t need to. Every aspect of the way she moved in the dark—crossing the room, filling the pot, lighting the stove—suggested this was something of a routine. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to learn that every other night she came down to the kitchen at two in the morning while her husband slept soundly, none the wiser.
Gesturing back toward the stove, she asked if I’d like some tea. I pointed to the glass in front of me.
—I found a little whiskey in the living room. I hope you don’t mind.
She smiled softly.
—Of course not.
After taking the seat opposite mine, she trained her gaze on my left eye.
—How does it feel?
—Much better, thanks.
I had left Harlem in such high spirits that when I got back to Woolly’s sister’s house, I’d completely forgotten the beating I’d taken. When she answered the door and gasped, I practically gasped back.
But once Woolly had made the introductions and I had explained the spill I’d taken in the train station, she got a cute little first aid kit out of her medicine cabinet, sat me here at the kitchen table, cleaned the blood off my lip, and gave me a bag of frozen peas to hold over my eye. I would have preferred using a raw steak like a heavyweight champ, but beggars can’t be choosers.
—Would you like another aspirin? she asked.
—No, I’ll be all right.
We were both quiet for a moment as I took a sip of her husband’s whiskey and she took a sip of her tea.
—You’re Woolly’s bunkmate . . . ?
—So, was it your father who was on the stage?
—He was under it as often as he was on it, I said with a smile. But yeah, that’s my old man. He started out as a Shakespearean and ended up doing vaudeville.
She smiled at the word
—Woolly has written to me about some of the performers your father worked with. The escape artists and magicians . . . He was quite taken with them.
—Your brother loves a good bedtime story.
—Yes, he does, doesn’t he.
She looked across the table as if she wanted to ask me something, but then shifted her gaze to her tea.
—What? I prompted.
—It was a personal question.
—Those are the best kind.
She studied me for a moment, trying to gauge whether or not I was being sincere. She must have decided I was.
—How did you end up at Salina, Duchess?
—Oh, that’s a long one.
—I’ve barely started my tea. . . .
So, having poured myself another finger of whiskey, I recounted my little comedy, thinking: Maybe everyone in Woolly’s family liked a good bedtime tale.
It was in the spring of 1952, just a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday, and we were living in room 42 at the Sunshine Hotel, with pops on the bedsprings and me on the floor.
At the time, my old man was what he liked to call
, which just meant that having gotten fired from one job, he had yet to find the next job to get fired from. He was spending his days with his old pal, Fitzy, who was living across the hall. In the early afternoons, they would shuffle off to scour around the park benches, fruit carts, newsstands, and any other spots where someone was likely to drop a nickel and not bother to pick it back up. Then they would head down into the subways and sing sentimental songs with their hats in their hands. Men who knew their audience, they would perform “Danny Boy” for the Irish on the Third Avenue line and “Ave Maria” for the Italians at Spring Street station, crying their eyes out like they meant every word. They even had a Yiddish number about the days in the shtetl that they’d roll out when they were on the platform of the Canal Street stop. Then in the evenings—after giving me two bits and sending me off to a double feature—they would take their hard-earned pay to a dive on Elizabeth Street and drink every last penny of it.
Since the two of them didn’t get up until noon, when I woke in the morning I would wander the hotel looking for something to eat or someone to talk to. At that hour, it was pretty slim pickings, but there were a handful of early risers, and the best of them, without a doubt, was Marceline Maupassant.
Back in the twenties, Marceline had been one of the most famous clowns in Europe, performing for sold-out runs in Paris and Berlin, complete with standing ovations and lines of women waiting at the backstage door. To be sure, Marceline was no ordinary clown. He wasn’t a guy who painted his face and tromped around in oversize shoes honking a horn. He was the real McCoy. A poet and a dancer. A man who observed the world closely and felt things deeply—like Chaplin and Keaton.
One of his greatest bits was as a panhandler on a bustling city street. When the curtain came up, there he would be, navigating a crowd of metropolitans. With a little bow, he would try to get the attention of two men arguing over headlines by the newsstand; with a doff of his
crooked hat, he would try to address a nanny whose mind was on the colicky baby in her care. Whether with a doff or a bow, everyone he tried to engage would go on about their business as if he weren’t even there. Then when Marceline was about to approach a shy young woman with a downcast expression, a nearsighted scholar would bump into him, knocking his hat from his head.
Off in pursuit of the hat Marceline would go. But each time he was about to grab it, a distracted pedestrian would send it skidding in the other direction. After making several attempts at retrieval, to his utter dismay Marceline would realize that a rotund police officer was about to step on the hat unawares. With no other choice, Marceline would raise a hand in the air, snap his fingers—and everyone would be frozen in place. Everyone, that is, except Marceline.
Now the magic would happen.
For a few minutes, Marceline would glide about the stage, skating in between the immobile pedestrians with a delicate smile, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Then taking a long-stemmed rose from the flower vendor, he would present it shyly to the downcast young woman. He would interject a point or two to the men who were arguing by the newsstand. He would make faces for the baby in the pram. He would laugh and comment and counsel, all without making a sound.
But as Marceline was about to make another circuit through the crowd, he would hear a delicate chiming. Stopping at center stage, he would reach into his shabby vest and remove a solid gold pocket watch, clearly a vestige from another time in his life. Popping the lid, he would regard the hour and realize with a doleful look that his little game had gone on long enough. Putting the watch away, he would carefully take his crooked hat from under the fat policeman’s foot—which had been hovering in the air for all this time, a feat of gymnastics in itself. Brushing it off, he would place it on his head, face the audience, snap his fingers, and all the activities of his fellow men would resume.
It was an act worth seeing more than once. Because the first time
you saw the show, when Marceline snapped his fingers at the end, it would seem like the world had gone right back to the way it was. But the second or third time you saw it, you might begin to realize that the world wasn’t
the way it was. As the shy young woman is walking away, she smiles to discover the long-stemmed rose in her hands. The two men debating by the newsstand pause in their arguments, suddenly less sure of their positions. The nanny who was trying so diligently to appease her crying charge is startled to find him giggling. If you went to see Marceline’s performance more than once, all of this you might notice in the seconds before the curtain came down.
In the fall of 1929, at the height of his fame in Europe, Marceline was lured to New York by the promise of a six-figure contract for a six-month residency at the Hippodrome. With all the enthusiasm of an artist, he packed his bags for an extended stay in the Land of the Free. But as it so happened, the very moment that he was boarding his steamship in Bremen, the stock market on Wall Street had begun its precipitous plunge.
By the time he disembarked on the West Side piers, his American producers had been ruined, the Hippodrome was closed, and his contract was canceled. A telegram waiting for him at his hotel from his bankers in Paris informed him that he too had lost everything in the crash, leaving not even enough for a safe passage home. And when he knocked on the doors of other producers, he discovered that despite his fame in Europe, virtually no one in America knew who he was.
Now what had been knocked from Marceline’s head was his self-esteem. And every time he leaned over to pick it back up, a passing pedestrian would kick it out of reach. Off in pursuit of it he went, from one sorry spot to the next, until at long last he found himself performing pantomimes on street corners and living in the Sunshine Hotel—right down the hall, in room 49.
Naturally enough, Marceline became a drinker. But not in the fashion of Fitzy and my old man. He wouldn’t go to some dive where he
could relive old glories and air old complaints. In the evenings, he’d buy a bottle of cheap red wine and drink it alone in his room with the door closed, refilling his glass in a smooth, elaborate motion, as if it were part of the act.
But in the mornings, he would leave his door ajar. And when I gave it a tap, he would welcome me with a doff of the hat that he no longer owned. Sometimes, if he had a little money on hand, he would send me out for milk, flour, and eggs and cook us tiny little crepes on the bottom of an electric iron. And as we ate our breakfast sitting on his floor, rather than talk about his past he would ask about my future—about all the places I would go, and all the things I would do. It was a grand old way to start the day.
Then one morning when I went down the hall, his door wasn’t ajar. And when I tapped, there wasn’t an answer. Placing an ear against the wood, I heard the slightest creaking, like someone turning on the bedsprings. Worried he might be sick, I opened the door a crack.
—Mr. Marceline? I said.
When he didn’t reply, I opened the door the rest of the way, only to find that the bed hadn’t been slept in, the desk chair was toppled over in the middle of the room, and Marceline was hanging from the ceiling fan.
The creaking, you see, hadn’t come from the bedsprings. It had come from the weight of his body turning slowly back and forth.
When I woke my father and brought him to the room, he simply nodded his head as if it were what he had expected all along. Then he sent me down to the front desk to have them call the authorities.
Half an hour later there were three policemen in the room—two patrolmen and a detective taking statements from me and my father and the neighboring tenants who’d come poking their heads through the door.
—Was he robbed? one of the tenants asked.
By way of response, a patrolman gestured to Marceline’s desk,
where the contents of his pockets had been laid out, including a five-dollar bill and some change.
—Then where’s the watch?
—What watch? asked the detective.
Everyone began talking at once—explaining about the solid gold pocket watch that had been so central to the old clown’s act that he had never been willing to part with it, not even when he was broke.
After looking at the patrolmen, who shook their heads, the detective looked at my father. Then my father looked at me.
—Now, Duchess, he said, placing an arm over my shoulder, this is very important. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth. When you found Marceline, did you see his watch?
Silently, I shook my head.
—Maybe you found it on the floor, he suggested helpfully. And you picked it up, so it wouldn’t get broken.
—No, I said with another shake of the head. I never saw his watch.
Patting me on the shoulder almost sympathetically, my father turned to the detective and gave the shrug of one who’s tried his best.
—Search them, said the detective.
Imagine my surprise when the patrolman asked me to turn out my pockets and there, among the gum wrappers, was a golden watch on a long, golden chain.
Imagine my surprise, I say, because I was surprised. Stunned. Astounded even. For all of two seconds.
After that, it was plain as day what had happened. My old man had sent me downstairs to the front desk so that he could frisk the body. And when the watch was mentioned by the meddlesome neighbor, my father had draped his arm over my shoulder and given his little speech so that he could slip it into my pocket before he was patted down.