Authors: Amor Towles
—Oh, Duchess, he said with such disappointment.
Within the hour, I was at the police station. As a minor committing his first offense, I was a good candidate for being released into my
father’s care. But given the value of the old clown’s watch, the crime wasn’t petty theft. It was grand larceny. To make matters worse, there had been reports of a few other thefts at the Sunshine Hotel, and Fitzy claimed in a sworn statement that he had seen me coming out of one or two rooms in which I didn’t belong. As if that weren’t enough, the people from child services discovered—to my father’s utter shock—that I hadn’t been to school in five years. When I appeared before the juvenile judge, my father was forced to admit that as a hardworking widower he was not in a position to protect me from the malevolent influences of the Bowery. For my own good, all agreed, I should be placed in a juvenile reform program until the age of eighteen.
When the judge delivered his decision, my father asked if he could offer a few words of advice to his wayward son before I was carted away. The judge acquiesced, probably assuming that my father would take me aside and be quick about it. Instead, my old man stuck his thumbs under his suspenders, puffed out his chest, and addressed the judge, the bailiff, the peanut gallery, and the stenographer. Especially the stenographer!
—As we part, my son, he said to one and all, my blessing goes with thee. But in my absence carry with you these few precepts: Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. And this above all: to thine own self be true. For then it must follow, as night follows day, that thou cannot be false to any man. Farewell, my son, he concluded. Farewell.
And as they led me from the room, he actually shed a tear, the old fox.
—How terrible, said Sarah.
And I could see from her face that she meant it. Her expression had suggestions of sympathy, indignation, and protectiveness. You could just tell that whether or not she became happy in her own life, she was bound to be a wonderful mother.
—It’s okay, I said, trying to ease her distress. Salina wasn’t all that bad. I got three meals a day and a mattress. And if I hadn’t gone there, I never would have met your brother.
When I followed Sarah to the sink to clean my empty glass, she thanked me and smiled in her generous way. Then she wished me good night and turned to go.
—Sister Sarah, I said.
When she turned back, she raised her eyebrows in inquiry. Then she watched with that same muted surprise as I reached into the pocket of her robe and removed the little brown bottle.
—Trust me, I said. These won’t do you any good.
And when she walked out of the kitchen, I stuck the bottle in the bottom of the spice rack, feeling like I’d done my second good deed of the
n Friday at half past one,
Woolly was standing in his absolute favorite spot in the store. And that was really saying something! Because at FAO Schwarz, there were so many wonderful spots to stand in. Why, to get to this spot, he had to pass through the collection of giant stuffed animals—including the tiger with the hypnotizing eyes, and the life-size giraffe whose head nearly hit the ceiling. He had to pass through motorsports, where two boys were racing little Ferraris around a figure-eight track. And at the top of the escalator, he had to pass through the magic set area where a magician was making the jack of diamonds disappear. But even with all of that to see, there was nowhere in the store that made Woolly quite as happy as the big glass case with the dollhouse furniture.
Twenty feet long with eight glass shelves, it was even bigger than the trophy case in the gym at St. George’s, and it was filled from bottom to top and side to side with perfect little replicas. On the left side of the case was a whole section dedicated to Chippendale furniture—with Chippendale highboys and Chippendale desks and a dining-room set with twelve Chippendale chairs neatly arranged around a Chippendale table. The table was just like the one that his family used to have in the dining room of their brownstone on Eighty-Sixth Street. Naturally, they didn’t eat at the Chippendale every day. It was reserved for special occasions like birthdays and holidays, when they would set the table with the best china and light all the candles
in the candelabra. At least, that is, until Woolly’s father died; and his mother remarried, moved to Palm Beach, and donated the table to the Women’s Exchange.
Boy, had his sister Kaitlin gotten mad about that!
How could you,
she had said to their mother (or sort of shouted) when the moving men appeared to pick up the set.
That was Great-grandma’s!
, replied his mother.
What could you possibly want with a table like that? Some fusty old thing that seats a dozen people. No one even
dinner parties anymore. Isn’t that right, Woolly.
At the time, Woolly hadn’t known whether people gave dinner parties or not. He still didn’t know. So he hadn’t said anything. But his sister had said something. She had said it to him as the moving men carried the Chippendale out the door.
Take a good hard look, Woolly
, she said.
Because you’ll never see a table like that again.
So he had taken a good hard look.
But as it turned out, Kaitlin had been wrong. For Woolly had seen a table like that again. He had seen it right here in the display case at FAO Schwarz.
The furniture in the display case was arranged chronologically. So as you moved from left to right you could travel all the way from the Court of Versailles to a living room in a modern-day apartment, with a phonograph, and a cocktail table, and a pair of Mies van der Rohe chairs.
Woolly understood that Mr. Chippendale and Mr. van der Rohe were held in the highest esteem for the designs of their chairs. But it seemed to him that the men who made these perfect little replicas deserved at least as much esteem, if not more. For to make a Chippendale or van der Rohe chair in such tiny dimensions surely had to be harder than to make one you could sit on.
But Woolly’s favorite part of the case was all the way over to the right, where there was a series of kitchens. At the top there was what
was called the Prairie Kitchen, with a simple wooden table and a butter churn and a cast-iron frying pan on a cast-iron stove. Next came the Victorian Kitchen. You could tell this was the sort of kitchen in which a cook did the cooking because there was no table or chairs at which to sit and eat your supper. Instead, there was a long, wooden island over which hung six copper pots in descending order of size. And finally, there was the Kitchen of Today, with all the wonders of the modern era. In addition to a bright white stove and a bright white refrigerator, there was a table for four with a red Formica top and four chrome chairs with red vinyl seats. There was a KitchenAid mixer, and a toaster with a little black lever and two little pieces of toast. And in the cabinet over the counter, you could see all the little boxes of cereal and the tiny cans of soup.
—I knew I’d find you here.
Woolly turned to discover his sister standing at his side.
—How did you know? he asked in surprise.
—How did I know! repeated Sarah with a laugh.
And Woolly laughed too. Because, of course, of course, he knew exactly how she knew.
When they were younger, every December Grandma Wolcott would take them to FAO Schwarz so that they could each pick out their own Christmas present. One year, as the family was getting ready to leave with all of their coats buttoned and all of the big red bags filled to the limit, they realized that in the midst of the holiday bustle, young Woolly had somehow gone missing. Members of the family were dispatched to every floor, calling out his name, until Sarah finally found him here.
—How old were we then?
She shook her head.
—I don’t know. It was the year before Grandma died, so I suppose I was fourteen and you were seven.
Woolly shook his head.
—That was so hard. Wasn’t it?
—What was so hard?
—Choosing a Christmas present—from here of all places!
Woolly waved his arms about in order to encompass all of the giraffes, Ferraris, and magic sets in the building.
—Yes, she said. It was very hard to choose. But especially for you.
—And then after, he said, after we had picked out our presents and Grandma had sent the bags home with the driver, she would take us to the Plaza for tea. Do you remember?
—We would sit in that big room with the palm trees. And they would bring those towers with the little watercress and cucumber and salmon sandwiches on the lower levels, and the little lemon tarts and chocolate eclairs on top. And Grandma would make us eat our sandwiches before we ate the cakes.
—You have to climb your way to heaven.
Yes, that was it. That’s what Grandma used to say.
As Woolly and Sarah came off the escalator onto the ground floor, Woolly was explaining his brand-new notion that the dollhouse-chair makers deserved just as much regard, if not more, than Mr. Chippendale and Mr. van der Rohe. But as they were approaching the front door, someone was shouting urgently behind them.
—Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!
When Woolly and his sister looked back to see the source of the commotion, they discovered that a man with a very managerial appearance was chasing after them with a hand in the air.
—Just a moment, sir, the man called as he worked his way definitively in Woolly’s direction.
Intending to wear an expression of comic surprise, Woolly turned
to his sister. But she was still watching the man approach with a slight hint of dread. A slight but heartbreaking hint.
Reaching them, the man paused to catch his breath, then addressed Woolly.
—I apologize most sincerely for the shouting. But you’ve forgotten your bear.
Woolly’s eyes opened wide.
He turned to his sister, who looked at once mystified and relieved.
—I’d forgotten the bear, he said with a smile.
A young woman who had been trailing after the manager now appeared, holding a panda that was almost as big as she was.
—Thank you both, said Woolly, taking the bear in his arms. Thank you ten times over.
As the two employees returned to their stations, Sarah turned to Woolly.
—You bought a giant panda?
—It’s for the baby!
—Woolly, she said with a smile and a shake of the head.
—I considered the grizzly and polar bears, Woolly explained, but they both seemed a little too fierce.
By way of illustration, Woolly would have liked to raise his claws and bare his teeth, but his arms were too full of the panda.
His arms were so full of the panda that he couldn’t get through the revolving door. So the man in the bright red uniform, who always stands guard at the entrance of FAO Schwarz, leapt into action.
—Allow me, he said gallantly.
Then he opened the unrevolving door to let the brother, sister, and bear onto the little terrace that separated the store from Fifth Avenue.
It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining down on all the horse carriages and hot-dog carts lined along the edge of Central Park.
—Come sit with me a moment, said Sarah, in a manner that suggested a serious conversation was coming.
A little reluctantly, Woolly followed his sister to a bench and sat down, placing the panda between them. But Sarah lifted the panda and put it to her side so that there was nothing between them.
—Woolly, she said, there’s something I want to ask you.
As she looked at him, Woolly could see in her face an expression of concern, but also an expression of uncertainty, as if suddenly she wasn’t sure that she wanted to ask him whatever it was that she had wanted to ask, after all.
Reaching out, Woolly laid his hand on her forearm.
—You don’t have to ask me something, Sarah. You don’t have to ask me anything.
Looking at her, Woolly could see the feeling of concern continuing to struggle with the feeling of uncertainty. So he did his best to reassure.
—Questions can be so tricky, he said, like forks in the road. You can be having such a nice conversation and someone will raise a question, and the next thing you know you’re headed off in a whole new direction. In all probability, this new road will lead you to places that are perfectly agreeable, but sometimes you just want to go in the direction you were already headed.
They were both silent for a second. Then Woolly squeezed his sister’s arm from the excitement of an additional thought.
—Have you ever noticed, he said, have you ever noticed how so many questions begin with the letter
He counted them off on his fingers.
—Who. What. Why. When. Where. Which.
He could see his sister’s concern and uncertainty lifting for a moment as she smiled at this fascinating little fact.
—Isn’t that interesting? he continued. I mean, how do you think that happened? All those centuries ago when words were first being
coined, what was it about the sound of the
that made the word coiners use it for all of the questions? As opposed to, say, the
? It makes you feel sort of sorry for
, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s a pretty big burden to carry. Especially since half the time when someone asks you a question with a
, they aren’t really asking you a question. They’re making a statement in disguise. Like, like . . .
Woolly adopted the posture and tone of their mother.
—When are you going to grow up!
Why would you do such a thing!
What in God’s name were you thinking!
Sarah laughed, and it was good to see her do so. Because she was a great laugher. She was the absotively best laugher Woolly had ever known.
—All right, Woolly. I’m not going to ask you a question.
Now she was the one who reached out a hand to take a forearm.
—Instead, I want you to make me a promise. I want you to promise me that after your visit, you’ll go back.
Woolly wanted to look down at his feet, but he could feel her fingers on his forearm. And he could see in her face that though her concern remained, the expression of uncertainty was gone.
—I promise, he said. I promise . . . that I’ll go back.
Then she squeezed his forearm just as he had squeezed hers, and looking like a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, she leaned back on the bench, so he did the same. And as they sat there beside the panda, they found themselves looking across Fifth Avenue—right at the Plaza Hotel.
With a big smile, Woolly stood and turned to his sister.
—We should go have tea, he said. For old times’ sake.
—Woolly, Sarah said with a slump of the shoulders. It’s after two o’clock. I still need to pick up my dress at Bergdorf’s, have my hair done, and get back to the apartment so I can change in time to meet Dennis at Le Pavillon.
—Oh, blah, blah, blah, said Woolly.
Sarah opened her mouth to make another point, but Woolly picked up the panda and waggled it back and forth in front of his sister.
—Oh blah, blah, blah, he said in a panda’s voice.
—All right, said Sarah with a laugh. For old times’ sake, let’s have tea at the Plaza.