The Lincoln Highway -review and synopsis


The bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility and master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction returns with a stylish and propulsive novel set in 1950s America

In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the work farm where he has just served a year for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his eight-year-old brother and head west where they can start their lives anew. But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future.

Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’s third novel will satisfy fans of his multi-layered literary styling while providing them an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes.

June 12, 1954The drive from Salina to Morgen was three hours, and for much of it, Emmett hadn’t said a word. For the first sixty miles or so, Warden Williams had made an effort at friendly conversation. He had told a few stories about his childhood back East and asked a few questions about Emmett’s on the farm. But this was the last they’d be together, and Emmett didn’t see much sense in going into all of that now. So when they crossed the border from Kansas into Nebraska and the warden turned on the radio, Emmett stared out the window at the prairie, keeping his thoughts to himself.
When they were five miles south of town, Emmett pointed through the windshield.
—You take that next right. It’ll be the white house about four miles down the road.
The warden slowed his car and took the turn. They drove past the McKusker place, then the Andersens’ with its matching pair of large red barns. A few minutes later they could see Emmett’s house standing beside a small grove of oak trees about thirty yards from the road.
To Emmett, all the houses in this part of the country looked like they’d been dropped from the sky. The Watson house just looked like it’d had a rougher landing. The roof line sagged on either side of the chimney and the window frames were slanted just enough that half the windows wouldn’t quite open and the other half wouldn’t quite shut. In another moment, they’d be able to see how the paint had been shaken right off the clapboard. But when they got within a hundred feet of the driveway, the warden pulled to the side of the road.
—Emmett, he said, with his hands on the wheel, before we drive in there’s something I’d like to say.
That Warden Williams had something to say didn’t come as much of a surprise. When Emmett had first arrived at Salina, the warden was a Hoosier named Ackerly, who wasn’t inclined to put into words a piece of advice that could be delivered more efficiently with a stick. But Warden Williams was a modern man with a master’s degree and good intentions and a framed photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt hanging behind his desk. He had notions that he’d gathered from books and experience, and he had plenty of words at his disposal to turn them into counsel.
—For some of the young men who come to Salina, he began, whatever series of events has brought them under our sphere of influence is just the beginning of a long journey through a life of trouble. They’re boys who were never given much sense of right or wrong as children and who see little reason for learning it now. Whatever values or ambitions we try to instill in them will, in all likelihood, be cast aside the moment they walk out from under our gaze. Sadly, for these boys it is only a matter of time before they find themselves in the correctional facility at Topeka, or worse.
The warden turned to Emmett.
—What I’m getting at, Emmett, is that you are not one of them. We haven’t known each other long, but from my time with you I can tell that that boy’s death weighs heavily on your conscience. No one imagines what happened that night reflects either the spirit of malice or an expression of your character. It was the ugly side of chance. But as a civilized society, we ask that even those who have had an unintended hand in the misfortune of others pay some retribution. Of course, the payment of the retribution is in part to satisfy those who’ve suffered the brunt of the misfortune—like this boy’s family. But we also require that it be paid for the benefit of the young man who was the agent of misfortune. So that by having the opportunity to pay his debt, he too can find some solace, some sense of atonement, and thus begin the process of renewal. Do you understand me, Emmett?
—I do, sir.
—I’m glad to hear it. I know you’ve got your brother to care for now and the immediate future may seem daunting; but you’re a bright young man and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Having paid your debt in full, I just hope you’ll make the most of your liberty.
—That’s what I intend to do, Warden.
And in that moment, Emmett meant it. Because he agreed with most of what the warden said. He knew in the strongest of terms that his whole life was ahead of him and he knew that he needed to care for his brother. He knew too that he had been an agent of misfortune rather than its author. But he didn’t agree that his debt had been paid in full. For no matter how much chance has played a role, when by your hands you have brought another man’s time on earth to its end, to prove to the Almighty that you are worthy of his mercy, that shouldn’t take any less than the rest of your life.
The warden put the car in gear and turned into the Watsons’. In the clearing by the front porch were two cars—a sedan and a pickup. The warden parked beside the pickup. When he and Emmett got out of the car, a tall man with a cowboy hat in his hand came out the front door and off the porch.
—Hey there, Emmett.
—Hey, Mr. Ransom.
The warden extended his hand to the rancher.
—I’m Warden Williams. It was nice of you to take the trouble to meet us.
—It was no trouble, Warden.
—I gather you’ve known Emmett a long time.
—Since the day he was born.
The warden put a hand on Emmett’s shoulder.
—Then I don’t need to explain to you what a fine young man he is. I was just telling him in the car that having paid his debt to society, he’s got his whole life ahead of him.
—He does at that, agreed Mr. Ransom.
The three men stood without speaking.
The warden had lived in the Midwest for less than a year now, but he knew from standing at the foot of other farmhouse porches that at this point in a conversation you were likely to be invited inside and offered something cool to drink; and when you received the invitation, you should be ready to accept because it would be taken as rude if you were to decline, even if you did have a three-hour drive ahead of you. But neither Emmett nor Mr. Ransom made any indication of asking the warden in.
—Well, he said after a moment, I guess I should be heading back.
Emmett and Mr. Ransom offered a final thanks to the warden, shook his hand, then watched as he climbed in his car and drove away. The warden was a quarter mile down the road when Emmett nodded toward the sedan.
—Mr. Obermeyer’s?
—He’s waiting in the kitchen.
—And Billy?
—I told Sally to bring him over a little later, so you and Tom can get your business done.
Emmett nodded.
—You ready to go in? asked Mr. Ransom.
—The sooner the better, said Emmett.
•   •   •
They found Tom Obermeyer seated at the small kitchen table. He was wearing a white shirt with short sleeves and a tie. If he was also wearing a suit coat, he must have left it in his car because it wasn’t hanging on the back of the chair.
When Emmett and Mr. Ransom came through the door, they seemed to catch the banker off his guard, because he abruptly scraped back the chair, stood up, and stuck out his hand all in a single motion.
—Well, hey now, Emmett. It’s good to see you.
Emmett shook the banker’s hand without a reply.
Taking a look around, Emmett noted that the floor was swept, the counter clear, the sink empty, the cabinets closed. The kitchen looked cleaner than at any point in Emmett’s memory.
—Here, Mr. Obermeyer said, gesturing to the table. Why don’t we all sit down.
Emmett took the chair opposite the banker. Mr. Ransom remained standing, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. On the table was a brown folder thick with papers. It was sitting just out of the banker’s reach, as if it had been left there by somebody else. Mr. Obermeyer cleared his throat.
—First of all, Emmett, let me say how sorry I am about your father. He was a fine man and too young to be taken by illness.
—Thank you.
—I gather when you came for the funeral that Walter Eberstadt had a chance to sit down with you and discuss your father’s estate.
—He did, said Emmett.
The banker nodded with a look of sympathetic understanding.
—Then I suspect Walter explained that three years ago your father took out a new loan on top of the old mortgage. At the time, he said it was to upgrade his equipment. In actuality, I suspect a good portion of that loan went to pay some older debts since the only new piece of farm equipment we could find on the property was the John Deere in the barn. Though I suppose that’s neither here nor there.
Emmett and Mr. Ransom seemed to agree that this was neither here nor there because neither made any effort to respond. The banker cleared his throat again.
—The point I’m getting to is that in the last few years the harvest wasn’t what your father had hoped; and this year, what with your father’s passing, there isn’t going to be a harvest at all. So we had no choice but to call in the loan. It’s an unpleasant bit of business, I know, Emmett, but I want you to understand that it was not an easy decision for the bank to make.
—I should think it would be a pretty easy decision for you to make by now, said Mr. Ransom, given how much practice you get at making it.
The banker looked to the rancher.
—Now, Ed, you know that’s not fair. No bank makes a loan in hopes of foreclosing.
The banker turned back to Emmett.
—The nature of a loan is that it requires the repayment of interest and principal on a timely basis. Even so, when a client in good standing falls behind, we do what we can to make concessions. To extend terms and defer collections. Your father is a perfect example. When he began falling behind, we gave him some extra time. And when he got sick, we gave him some more. But sometimes a man’s bad luck becomes too great to surmount, no matter how much time you give him.
The banker reached out his arm to lay a hand on the brown folder, finally claiming it as his own.
—We could have cleared out the property and put it up for sale a month ago, Emmett. It was well within our rights to do so. But we didn’t. We waited so that you could complete your term at Salina and come home to sleep in your own bed. We wanted you to have a chance to go through the house with your brother in an unhurried fashion, to organize your personal effects. Hell, we even had the power company leave on the gas and electricity at our own expense.
—That was right kind of you, said Emmett.
Mr. Ransom grunted.
—But now that you are home, continued the banker, it’s probably best for everyone involved if we see this process through to its conclusion. As the executor of your father’s estate, we’ll need you to sign a few papers. And within a few weeks, I’m sorry to say, we’ll need you to make arrangements for you and your brother to move out.
—If you’ve got something that needs signing, let’s sign it.
Mr. Obermeyer took a few documents from the folder. He turned them around so that they were facing Emmett and peeled back pages, explaining the purpose of individual sections and subsections, translating the terminology, pointing to where the documents should be signed and where initialed.
—You got a pen?
Mr. Obermeyer handed Emmett his pen. Emmett signed and initialed the papers without consideration, then slid them back across the table.
—That it?
—There is one other thing, said the banker, after returning the documents safely to their folder. The car in the barn. When we did the routine inventory of the house, we couldn’t find the registration or the keys.
—What do you need them for?
—The second loan your father took out wasn’t for specific pieces of agricultural machinery. It was against any new piece of capital equipment purchased for the farm, and I’m afraid that extends to personal vehicles.
—Not to that car it doesn’t.
—Now, Emmett . . .
—It doesn’t because that piece of capital equipment isn’t my father’s. It’s mine.
Mr. Obermeyer looked to Emmett with a mixture of skepticism and sympathy—two emotions that in Emmett’s view had no business being on the same face at the same time. Emmett took his wallet from his pocket, withdrew the registration, and put it on the table.
The banker picked it up and reviewed it.
—I see that the car is in your name, Emmett, but I’m afraid that if it was purchased by your father on your behalf . . .
—It was not.
The banker looked to Mr. Ransom for support. Finding none, he turned back to Emmett.
—For two summers, said Emmett, I worked for Mr. Schulte to earn the money to buy that car. I framed houses. Shingled roofs. Repaired porches. As a matter of fact, I even helped install those new cabinets in your kitchen. If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to go ask Mr. Schulte. But either way, you’re not touching that car.
Mr. Obermeyer frowned. But when Emmett held out his hand for the registration, the banker returned it without protest. And when he left with his folder, he wasn’t particularly surprised that neither Emmett nor Mr. Ransom bothered seeing him to the door.
•   •   •
When the banker was gone, Mr. Ransom went outside to wait for Sally and Billy, leaving Emmett to walk the house on his own.
Like the kitchen, Emmett found the front room tidier than usual—with the pillows propped in the corners of the couch, the magazines in a neat little stack on the coffee table, and the top of his father’s desk rolled down. Upstairs in Billy’s room, the bed was made, the collections of bottle caps and bird feathers were neatly arranged on their shelves, and one of the windows had been opened to let in some air. A window must have been opened on the other side of the hall too because there was enough of a draft to stir the fighter planes hanging over Billy’s bed: replicas of a Spitfire, a Warhawk, and a Thunderbolt.
Emmett smiled softly to see them.
He had built those planes when he was about Billy’s age. His mother had given him the kits back in 1943 when all Emmett or his friends could talk about were the battles unfolding in the European and Pacific theaters, about Patton at the head of the Seventh Army storming the beaches of Sicily, and Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron taunting the enemy over the Solomon Sea. Emmett had assembled the models on the kitchen table with all the precision of an engineer. He had painted the insignias and serial numbers on the fuselages with four tiny bottles of enamel paint and a fine-haired brush. When they were done, Emmett had lined them up on his bureau in a diagonal row just like they would have been on the deck of a carrier.
From the age of four, Billy had admired them. Sometimes when Emmett would come home from school, he would find Billy standing on a chair beside the bureau talking to himself in the language of a fighter pilot. So when Billy turned six, Emmett and his father hung the planes from the ceiling over Billy’s bed as a birthday surprise.
Emmett continued down the hall to his father’s room, where he found the same evidence of tidiness: the bed made, the photographs on the bureau dusted, the curtains tied back with a bow. Emmett approached one of the windows and looked out across his father’s land. After being plowed and planted for twenty years, the fields had been left untended for just one season and you could already see the tireless advance of nature—the sagebrush and ragwort and ironweed establishing themselves among the prairie grasses. If left untended for another few years, you wouldn’t be able to tell that anyone had ever farmed these acres at all.
Emmett shook his head.
Bad luck . . .
That’s what Mr. Obermeyer had called it. A bad luck that was too great to surmount. And the banker was right, up to a point. When it came to bad luck, Emmett’s father always had plenty to spare. But Emmett knew that wasn’t the extent of the matter. For when it came to bad judgment, Charlie Watson had plenty of that to spare too.
Emmett’s father had come to Nebraska from Boston in 1933 with his new wife and a dream of working the land. Over the next two decades, he had tried to grow wheat, corn, soy, even alfalfa, and had been thwarted at every turn. If the crop he chose to grow one year needed plenty of water, there were two years of drought. When he switched to a crop that needed plenty of sun, thunderclouds gathered in the west. Nature is merciless, you might counter. It’s indifferent and unpredictable. But a farmer who changes the crop he’s growing every two or three years? Even as a boy, Emmett knew that was a sign of a man who didn’t know what he was doing.
Out behind the barn was a special piece of equipment imported from Germany for the harvesting of sorghum. At one point deemed essential, it was soon unnecessary, and now no longer of use—because his father hadn’t had the good sense to resell it once he’d stopped growing sorghum. He just let it sit in the clearing behind the barn exposed to the rain and snow. When Emmett was Billy’s age and his friends would come over from the neighboring farms to play—boys who, at the height of the war, were eager to climb on any piece of machinery and pretend it was a tank—they wouldn’t even set foot on the harvester, sensing instinctively that it was some kind of ill omen, that within its rusting hulk was a legacy of failure that one should steer clear of whether from politeness or self-preservation.
So one evening when Emmett was fifteen and the school year nearly over, he had ridden his bike into town, knocked on Mr. Schulte’s door, and asked for a job. Mr. Schulte was so bemused by Emmett’s request that he sat him down at the dinner table and had him brought a slice of pie. Then he asked Emmett why on earth a boy who was raised on a farm would want to spend his summer pounding nails.
It wasn’t because Emmett knew Mr. Schulte to be a friendly man, or because he lived in one of the nicest houses in town. Emmett went to Mr. Schulte because he figured that no matter what happened, a carpenter would always have work. No matter how well you build them, houses run down. Hinges loosen, floorboards wear, roof seams separate. All you had to do was stroll through the Watson house to witness the myriad ways in which time can take its toll on a homestead.
In the months of summer, there were nights marked by the roll of thunder or the whistle of an arid wind on which Emmett could hear his father stirring in the next room, unable to sleep—and not without reason. Because a farmer with a mortgage was like a man walking on the railing of a bridge with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed. It was a way of life in which the difference between abundance and ruin could be measured by a few inches of rain or a few nights of frost.
But a carpenter didn’t lie awake at night worrying about the weather. He welcomed the extremes of nature. He welcomed the blizzards and downpours and tornadoes. He welcomed the onset of mold and the onslaughts of insects. These were the natural forces that slowly but inevitably undermined the integrity of a house, weakening its foundations, rotting its beams, and wilting its plaster.
Emmett didn’t say all of this when Mr. Schulte asked his question. Putting his fork down, he simply replied:
—The way I figure it, Mr. Schulte, it was Job who had the oxen, and Noah who had the hammer.
Mr. Schulte gave a laugh and hired Emmett on the spot.
For most of the farmers in the county, if their eldest came home one night with news that he’d taken a job with a carpenter, they would have given him a talking-to he wouldn’t soon forget. Then, for good measure, they would have driven over to the carpenter’s house and given him a few words—a few words to remember the next time he had the inclination to interfere with the upbringing of another man’s son.
But the night Emmett came home and told his father he had secured a job with Mr. Schulte, his father hadn’t grown angry. He had listened carefully. After a moment of reflection, he said that Mr. Schulte was a good man and carpentry a useful skill. And on the first day of summer, he made Emmett a hearty breakfast and packed him a lunch, then sent him off with his blessing to another man’s trade.
And maybe that was a sign of bad judgment too.

When Emmett came back downstairs, he found Mr. Ransom sitting on the porch steps with his forearms on his knees and his hat still in his hand. Emmett sat beside him and they both looked out across the unplanted fields. Half a mile in the distance, you could just make out the fence that marked the beginning of the older man’s ranch. By Emmett’s last accounting, Mr. Ransom had over nine hundred head of cattle and eight men in his employ.
—I want to thank you for taking in Billy, Emmett said.
—Taking in Billy was the least we could do. Besides, you can imagine how much it pleased Sally. She’s about had it with keeping house for me, but caring for your brother’s another matter. We’ve all been eating better since Billy arrived.
Emmett smiled.
—Just the same. It made a big difference to Billy; and it was a comfort to me knowing that he was in your home.
Mr. Ransom nodded, accepting the younger man’s expression of gratitude.
—Warden Williams seems like a good man, he said after a moment.
—He is a good man.
—Doesn’t seem like a Kansan. . . .
—No. He grew up in Philadelphia.
Mr. Ransom turned his hat in his hand. Emmett could tell that something was on his neighbor’s mind. He was trying to decide how to say it, or whether to say it. Or maybe he was just trying to pick the right moment to say it. But sometimes the moment is picked for you, as when a cloud of dust a mile up the road signaled his daughter’s approach.
—Emmett, he began, Warden Williams was right to say that you’ve paid your debt—as far as society is concerned. But this here’s a small town, a lot smaller than Philadelphia, and not everyone in Morgen is going to see it the way the warden does.
—You’re talking about the Snyders.
—I am talking about the Snyders, Emmett, but not just the Snyders. They’ve got cousins in this county. They’ve got neighbors and old family friends. They’ve got people they do business with and members of their congregation. We all know that whatever trouble Jimmy Snyder happened to find himself in was generally of Jimmy’s own making. In his seventeen years, he was the engineer of a lifetime of shit piles. But that don’t make any difference to his brothers. Especially after they lost Joe, Jr., in the war. If they were none too pleased that you got just eighteen months in Salina, they were in a state of righteous fury when they learned you’d be let out a few months early because of your father’s passing. They’re likely to make you feel the brunt of that fury as much and as often as they can. So while you do have your whole life in front of you, or rather, because you have your whole life in front of you, you may want to consider starting it somewhere other than here.
—You’ve no need to worry about that, said Emmett. Forty-eight hours from now, I don’t expect Billy and me to be in Nebraska.
Mr. Ransom nodded.
—Since your father didn’t leave much behind, I’d like to give you two a little something to help you get started.
—I couldn’t take your money, Mr. Ransom. You’ve done enough for us already.
—Then consider it a loan. You can pay it back once you get yourself situated.
—For the time being, observed Emmett, I think the Watsons have had their fill of loans.
Mr. Ransom smiled and nodded. Then he stood and put his hat on his head as the old pickup they called Betty roared into the driveway with Sally behind the wheel and Billy in the passenger seat. Before she had skidded to a stop with a backfire out of the exhaust, Billy was opening the door and jumping to the ground. Wearing a canvas backpack that reached from his shoulders to the seat of his pants, he ran right past Mr. Ransom and wrapped his arms around Emmett’s waist.
Emmett got down on his haunches so he could hug his little brother back.
Sally was approaching now in a brightly colored Sunday dress with a baking dish in her hands and a smile on her face.
Mr. Ransom took in the dress and the smile, philosophically.
—Well now, she said, look who’s here. Don’t you squeeze the life out of him, Billy Watson.
Emmett stood and put a hand on his brother’s head.
—Hello, Sally.
As was her habit when nervous, Sally got right down to business.
—The house has been swept and all the beds have been made and there’s fresh soap in the bathroom, and butter, milk, and eggs in the icebox.
—Thank you, said Emmett.
—I suggested the two of you should join us for supper, but Billy insisted you have your first meal at home. But seeing as you’re just back, I made the two of you a casserole.
—You didn’t have to go to all that trouble, Sally.
—Trouble or not, here it is. All you have to do is put it in the oven at 350° for forty-five minutes.
As Emmett took the casserole in hand, Sally shook her head.
—I should have written that down.
—I think Emmett will be able to remember the instructions, said Mr. Ransom. And if he doesn’t, Billy surely will.
—You put it in the oven at 350° for forty-five minutes, said Billy.
Mr. Ransom turned to his daughter.
—I’m sure these boys are eager to catch up, and we’ve got some things to see to at home.
—I’ll just go in for a minute to make sure that everything—
—Sally, Mr. Ransom said in a manner that broached no dissent.
Sally pointed at Billy and smiled.
—You be good, little one.
Emmett and Billy watched as the Ransoms climbed into their trucks and drove back up the road. Then Billy turned to Emmett and hugged him again.
—I’m glad you’re home, Emmett.
—I’m glad to be home, Billy.
—You don’t have to go back to Salina this time, do you?
—No. I never have to go back to Salina. Come on.
Billy released Emmett, and the brothers went into the house. In the kitchen, Emmett opened the icebox and slid the casserole onto a lower shelf. On the top shelf were the promised milk and eggs and butter. There was also a jar of homemade applesauce and another of peaches in syrup.
—You want something to eat?
—No, thank you, Emmett. Sally made me a peanut butter sandwich just before we came over.
—How about some milk?
As Emmett brought the glasses of milk to the table, Billy took off his backpack and set it on an empty chair. Unbuckling the uppermost flap, he carefully removed and unfolded a little package wrapped in aluminum foil. It was a stack of eight cookies. He put two on the table, one for Emmett and one for himself. Then he closed the foil, put the rest of the cookies back in his backpack, rebuckled the flap, and returned to his seat.
—That’s quite a pack, Emmett said.
—It’s a genuine US Army backpack, said Billy. Although it’s what they call an army surplus backpack because it never actually made it to the war. I bought it at Mr. Gunderson’s store. I also got a surplus flashlight and a surplus compass and this surplus watch.
Billy held out his arm to show the watch hanging loosely on his wrist.
—It even has a second hand.
After expressing his admiration for the watch, Emmett took a bite of the cookie.
—Good one. Chocolate chip?
—Yep. Sally made them.
—You help?
—I cleaned the bowl.
—I bet you did.
—Sally actually made us a whole batch, but Mr. Ransom said she was overdoing it, so she told him that she would just give us four, but secretly she gave us eight.
—Lucky for us.
—Luckier than just getting four. But not as lucky as getting the whole batch.
As Emmett smiled and took a sip of milk, he sized up his brother over the rim of the glass. He was about an inch taller and his hair was shorter, as it would be in the Ransom house, but otherwise he seemed the same in body and spirit. For Emmett, leaving Billy had been the hardest part of going to Salina, so he was happy to find him so little changed. He was happy to be sitting with him at the old kitchen table. He could tell that Billy was happy to be sitting there too.
—School year end all right? Emmett asked, setting down his glass.
Billy nodded.
—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?
—I did.
. . .
—Aren’t you going to tell me?
Billy shook his head.
—That would be cheating. You have to learn it for yourself.
—Fair enough.
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.
—You were?
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.
—Why’s that?
—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 could 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.
—I remember.
—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.
Rock Springs.
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.

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