The gnome did indeed have a flag, but not an American one. Not even the Maine flag with the moose on it. The one the gnome was holding had a vertical blue stripe and two fat horizontal stripes, the top one white and the bottom one red. It also had a single star. I gave the gnome a pat on his pointy hat as I went past and mounted the front steps of Al’s little house on Vining Street, thinking about an amusing song by Ray Wylie Hubbard: “Screw You, We’re from Texas.”
The door opened before I could ring the bell. Al was wearing a bathrobe over pajamas, and his newly white hair was in corkscrew tangles — a serious case of bedhead if I’d ever seen one. But the sleep (and the painkillers, of course) had done him some good. He still looked sick, but the lines around his mouth weren’t so deep and his gait, as he led me down the short stub of a hall and into his living room, seemed surer. He was no longer pressing his right hand into his left armpit, as if trying to hold himself together.
“Look a little more like my old self, do I?” he asked in his gravelly voice as he sat down in the easy chair in front of the TV. Only he didn’t really sit, just kind of positioned himself and dropped.
“You do. What have the doctors told you?”
“The one I saw in Portland says there’s no hope, not even with chemo and radiation. Exactly what the doc I saw in Dallas said. In 1962, that was. Nice to think some things don’t change, don’t you think?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Sometimes there’s nothing to say. Sometimes you’re just stumped.
“No sense beating around the bush about it,” he said. “I know death’s embarrassing to folks, especially when the one dying has nothing but his own bad habits to blame, but I can’t waste time being delicate. I’ll be in the hospital soon enough, if for no other reason than I won’t be able to get back and forth to the bathroom on my own. I’ll be damned if I’ll sit around coughing my brains out and hip deep in my own shit.”
“What happens to the diner?”
“The diner’s finished, buddy. Even if I was healthy as a horse, it would be gone by the end of this month. You know I always just rented that space, don’t you?”
I didn’t, but it made sense. Although Worumbo was still called Worumbo, it was now your basic trendy shopping center, so that meant Al had been paying rent to some corporation.
“My lease is up for renewal, and Mill Associates wants that space to put in something called — you’re going to love this — an L.L. Bean Express. Besides, they say my little Aluminaire’s an eyesore.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I said, and with such genuine indignation that Al chuckled. The chuckles tried to morph into a coughing fit and he stifled them. Here in the privacy of his own home, he wasn’t using tissues, handkerchiefs, or napkins to deal with that cough; there was a box of maxi pads on the table beside his chair. My eyes kept straying to them. I’d urge them away, perhaps to look at the photo on the wall of Al with his arm around a good-looking woman, then find them straying back. Here is one of the great truths of the human condition: when you need Stayfree Maxi Pads to absorb the expectorants produced by your insulted body, you are in serious fucking trouble.
“Thanks for saying that, buddy. We could have a drink on it. My alcohol days are over, but there’s iced tea in the fridge. Maybe you’d do the honors.”
He used sturdy generic glassware at the restaurant, but the pitcher holding the iced tea looked like Waterford to me. A whole lemon bobbed placidly on top, the skin cut to let the flavor seep out. I choked a couple of glasses with ice, poured, and went back into the living room. Al took a long, deep swallow of his and closed his eyes gratefully.
“Boy, is that good. Right this minute everything in Al World is good. That dope’s wonderful stuff. Addictive as hell, of course, but wonderful. It even suppresses the coughing a little. The pain’ll start creeping in again by midnight, but that should give us enough time to talk this through.” He sipped again and gave me a look of rueful amusement. “Human things are terrific right to the end, it seems like. I never would have guessed.”
“Al, what happens to that. . that hole into the past, if they pull your trailer and build an outlet store where it was?”
“I don’t know that any more than I know how I can buy the same meat over and over again. What I think is it’ll disappear. I think it’s as much a freak of nature as Old Faithful, or that weird balancing rock they’ve got in western Australia, or a river that runs backward at certain phases of the moon. Things like that are delicate, buddy. A little shift in the earth’s crust, a change in the temperature, a few sticks of dynamite, and they’re gone.”
“So you don’t think there’ll be. . I don’t know. . some kind of cataclysm?” What I was picturing in my mind was a breach in the cabin of an airliner cruising at thirty-six thousand feet, and everything being sucked out, including the passengers. I saw that in a movie once.
“I don’t think so, but who can tell? All I know is that there’s nothing I can do about it, either way. Unless you want me to deed the place over to you, that is. I could do that. Then you could go to the National Historical Preservation Society and tell them, ‘Hey, guys, you can’t let them put up an outlet store in the courtyard of the old Worumbo mill. There’s a time tunnel there. I know it’s hard to believe, but let me show you.’”
For a moment I actually considered this, because Al was probably right: the fissure leading into the past was almost certainly delicate. For all I knew (or he did), it could pop like a soap bubble if the Aluminaire was even joggled hard. Then I thought of the federal government discovering they could send special ops into the past to change whatever they wanted. I didn’t know if that were possible, but if so, the folks who gave us fun stuff like bio-weapons and computer-guided smart bombs were the last folks I’d want carrying their various agendas into living, unarmored history.
The minute this idea occurred to me — no, the very second —I knew what Al had in mind. Only the specifics were missing. I set my iced tea aside and stood up.
“No. Absolutely not. Uh-uh.”
He took this calmly. I could say it was because he was stoned on OxyContin, but I knew better. He could see I didn’t mean to just walk out no matter what I said. My curiosity (not to mention my fascination) was probably sticking out like porcupine quills. Because part of me did want to know the specifics.
“I see I can skip the introductory material and get right down to business,” Al said. “That’s good. Sit down, Jake, and I’ll let you in on my only reason for not just taking my whole supply of little pink pills at once.” And when I stayed on my feet: “You know you want to hear this, and what harm? Even if I could make you do something here in 2011—which I can’t — I couldn’t make you do anything back there. Once you get back there, Al Templeton’s a four-year-old kid in Bloomington, Indiana, racing around his backyard in a Lone Ranger mask and still a bit iffy in the old toilet-training department. So sit down. Like they say in the infomercials, you’re under no obligation.”
Right. On the other hand, my mother would have said the devil’s voice is sweet.
But I sat down.
“Do you know the phrase watershed moment, buddy?”
I nodded. You didn’t have to be an English teacher to know that one; you didn’t even have to be literate. It was one of those annoying linguistic shortcuts that show up on cable TV news shows, day in and day out. Others include connect the dots and at this point in time. The most annoying of all (I have inveighed against it to my clearly bored students time and time and time again) is the totally meaningless some people say, or many people believe.
“Do you know where it comes from? The origin?”
“Cartography. A watershed is an area of land, usually mountains or forests, that drains into a river. History is also a river. Wouldn’t you say so?”
“Yes. I suppose I would.” I drank some of my tea.
“Sometimes the events that change history are widespread — like heavy, prolonged rains over an entire watershed that can send a river out of its banks. But rivers can flood even on sunny days. All it takes is a heavy, prolonged downpour in one small area of the watershed. There are flash floods in history, too. Want some examples? How about 9/11? Or what about Bush beating Gore in 2000?”
“You can’t compare a national election to a flash flood, Al.”
“Maybe not most of them, but the 2000 presidential election was in a class by itself. Suppose you could go back to Florida in the fall of Double-O and spend two hundred thousand dollars or so on Al Gore’s behalf?”
“Couple of problems with that,” I said. “First, I don’t have two hundred thousand dollars. Second, I’m a schoolteacher. I can tell you all about Thomas Wolfe’s mother fixation, but when it comes to politics I’m a babe in the woods.”
He gave an impatient flap of his hand, which almost sent his Marine Corps ring flying off his reduced finger. “Money’s not a problem. You’ll just have to trust me on that for now. And advance knowledge usually trumps the shit out of experience. The difference in Florida was supposedly less than six hundred votes. Do you think you could buy six hundred votes on Election Day with two hundred grand, if buying was what it came down to?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Probably. I guess I’d isolate some communities where there’s a lot of apathy and the voting turnout’s traditionally light — it wouldn’t take all that much research — then go in with the old cashola.”
Al grinned, revealing his missing teeth and unhealthy gums. “Why not? It worked in Chicago for years.”
The idea of buying the presidency for less than the cost of two Mercedes-Benz sedans silenced me.
“But when it comes to the river of history, the watershed moments most susceptible to change are assassinations — the ones that succeeded and the ones that failed. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria gets shot by a mentally unstable pipsqueak named Gavrilo Princip and there’s your kickoff to World War I. On the other hand, after Claus von Stauffenberg failed to kill Hitler in 1944—close, but no cigar — the war continued and millions more died.”
I had seen that movie, too.
Al said, “There’s nothing we can do about Archduke Ferdinand or Adolf Hitler. They’re out of our reach.”
I thought of accusing him of making pronounal assumptions and kept my mouth shut. I felt a little like a man reading a very grim book. A Thomas Hardy novel, say. You know how it’s going to end, but instead of spoiling things, that somehow increases your fascination. It’s like watching a kid run his electric train faster and faster and waiting for it to derail on one of the curves.
“As for 9/11, if you wanted to fix that one, you’d have to wait around for forty-three years. You’d be pushing eighty, if you made it at all.”
Now the lone-star flag the gnome had been holding made sense. It was a souvenir of Al’s last jaunt into the past. “You couldn’t even make it to ’63, could you?”
To this he didn’t reply, just watched me. His eyes, which had looked rheumy and vague when he let me into the diner that afternoon, now looked bright. Almost young.
“Because that’s what you’re talking about, right? Dallas in 1963?”
“That’s right,” he said. “I had to opt out. But you’re not sick, buddy. You’re healthy and in the prime of life. You can go back, and you can stop it.”
He leaned forward, his eyes not just bright; they were blazing.
“You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live. ”
I know the basics of suspense fiction — I ought to, I’ve read enough thrillers in my lifetime — and the prime rule is to keep the reader guessing. But if you’ve gotten any feel for my character at all, based on that day’s extraordinary events, you’ll know that I wanted to be convinced. Christy Epping had become Christy Thompson (boy meets girl on the AA campus, remember?), and I was a man on his own. We didn’t even have any kids to fight over. I had a job I was good at, but if I told you it was challenging, it would be a lie. Hitchhiking around Canada with a buddy after my senior year of college was the closest thing to an adventure I’d ever had, and given the cheerful, helpful nature of most Canadians, it wasn’t much of an adventure. Now, all of a sudden, I’d been offered a chance to become a major player not just in American history but in the history of the world. So yes, yes, yes, I wanted to be convinced.
But I was also afraid.
“What if it went wrong?” I drank down the rest of my iced tea in four long swallows, the ice cubes clicking against my teeth. “What if I managed, God knows how, to stop it from happening and made things worse instead of better? What if I came back and discovered America had become a fascist regime? Or that the pollution had gotten so bad everybody was walking around in gas masks?”
“Then you’d go back again,” he said. “Back to two minutes of twelve on September ninth of 1958. Cancel the whole thing out. Every trip is the first trip, remember?”
“Sounds good, but what if the changes were so radical your little diner wasn’t even there anymore?”
He grinned. “Then you’d have to live your life in the past. But would that be so bad? As an English teacher, you’d still have a marketable skill, and you wouldn’t even need it. I was there for four years, Jake, and I made a small fortune. Do you know how?”
I could have taken an educated guess, but I shook my head.
“Betting. I was careful — I didn’t want to raise any suspicions, and I sure didn’t want some bookie’s leg-breakers coming after me — but when you’ve studied up on who won every big sporting event between the summer of 1958 and the fall of 1963, you can afford to be careful. I won’t say you can live like a king, because that’s living dangerously. But there’s no reason you can’t live well. And I think the diner’ll still be there. It has been for me, and I changed plenty of things. Anybody does. Just walking around the block to buy a loaf of bread and a quart of milk changes the future. Ever hear of the butterfly effect? It’s a fancy-shmancy scientific theory that basically boils down to the idea that—”
He started coughing again, the first protracted fit since he’d let me in. He grabbed one of the maxis from the box, plastered it across his mouth like a gag, and then doubled over. Gruesome retching sounds came up from his chest. It sounded as if half his works had come loose and were slamming around in there like bumper cars at an amusement park. Finally it abated. He glanced at the pad, winced, folded it up, and threw it away.
“Sorry, buddy. This oral menstruation’s a bitch.”
He shrugged. “If you can’t joke about it, what’s the point of anything? Now where was I?”
“Right. It means small events can have large, whatchamadingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later — or four hundred — there’s an earthquake in Peru. That sound as crazy to you as it does to me?”
It did, but I remembered a hoary old time-travel paradox and pulled it out. “Yeah, but what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?”
He stared at me, baffled. “Why the fuck would you do that?”
That was a good question, so I just told him to go on.
“You changed the past this afternoon in all sorts of little ways, just by walking into the Kennebec Fruit. . but the stairs leading up into the pantry and back into 2011 were still there, weren’t they? And The Falls is the same as when you left it.”
“So it seems, yes. But you’re talking about something a little more major. To wit, saving JFK’s life.”
“Oh, I’m talking about a lot more than that, because this ain’t some butterfly in China, buddy. I’m also talking about saving RFK’s life, because if John lives in Dallas, Robert probably doesn’t run for president in 1968. The country wouldn’t have been ready to replace one Kennedy with another.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“No, but listen. Do you think that if you save John Kennedy’s life, his brother Robert is still at the Ambassador Hotel at twelve-fifteen in the morning on June fifth, 1968? And even if he is, is Sirhan Sirhan still working in the kitchen?”
Maybe, but the chances had to be awfully small. If you introduced a million variables into an equation, of course the answer was going to change.
“Or what about Martin Luther King? Is he still in Memphis in April of ’68? Even if he is, is he still standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at exactly the right time for James Earl Ray to shoot him? What do you think?”
“If that butterfly theory is right, probably not.”
“That’s what I think, too. And if MLK lives, the race riots that followed his death don’t happen. Maybe Fred Hampton doesn’t get shot in Chicago.”
He ignored me. “For that matter, maybe there’s no Symbionese Liberation Army. No SLA, no Patty Hearst kidnapping. No Patty Hearst kidnapping, a small but maybe significant reduction in black fear among middle-class whites.”
“You’re losing me. Remember, I was an English major.”
“I’m losing you because you know more about the Civil War in the nineteenth century than you do about the one that ripped this country apart after the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. If I asked you who starred in The Graduate, I’m sure you could tell me. But if I asked you to tell me who Lee Oswald tried to assassinate only a few months before gunning Kennedy down, you’d go ‘Huh?’ Because somehow all that stuff has gotten lost.”
“Oswald tried to kill someone before Kennedy?” This was news to me, but most of my knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came from an Oliver Stone movie. In any case, Al didn’t answer. Al was on a roll.
“Or what about Vietnam? Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation. Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level. He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed off when he stood in front of the cameras and said ‘Bring it on.’ Kennedy might have changed his mind. Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that. Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher’s bill that high if Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas?”
“I don’t know. And neither do you, Al.”
“That’s true, but I’ve become quite the student of recent American history, and I think the chances of improving things by saving him are very good. And really, there’s no downside. If things turn to shit, you just take it all back. Easy as erasing a dirty word off a chalkboard.”
“Or I can’t get back, in which case I never know.”
“Bullshit. You’re young. As long as you don’t get run over by a taxicab or have a heart attack, you’d live long enough to know how things turn out.”
I sat silent, looking down at my lap and thinking. Al let me. At last I raised my head again.
“You must have read a lot about the assassination and about Oswald.”
“Everything I could get my hands on, buddy.”
“How sure are you that he did it? Because there are about a thousand conspiracy theories. Even I know that. What if I went back and stopped him and some other guy popped Kennedy from the Grassy Hill, or whatever it was?”
“Grassy Knoll. And I’m close to positive it was all Oswald. The conspiracy theories were all pretty crazy to begin with, and most of them have been disproved over the years. The idea that the shooter wasn’t Oswald at all, but someone who looked like him, for instance. The body was exhumed in 1981 and DNA tested. It was him, all right. The poisonous little fuck.” He paused, then added: “I met him, you know.”
I stared at him. “Bullshit!”
“Oh yes. He spoke to me. This was in Fort Worth. He and Marina — his wife, she was Russian — were visiting Oswald’s brother in Fort Worth. If Lee ever loved anybody, it was his brother Bobby. I was standing outside the picket fence around Bobby Oswald’s yard, leaning against a phone pole, smoking a cigarette and pretending to read the paper. My heart was hammering what felt like two hundred beats a minute. Lee and Marina came out together. She was carrying their daughter, June. Just a mite of a thing, less than a year old. The kid was asleep. Ozzie was wearing khaki pants and a button-down Ivy League shirt that was all frayed around the collar. The slacks had a sharp crease, but they were dirty. He’d given up his Marine cut, but his hair would still have been way too short to grab. Marina — holy Christ, what a knockout! Dark hair, bright blue eyes, flawless skin. She looks like a goddam movie star. If you do this, you’ll see for yourself. She said something to him in Russian as they came down the walk. He said something back. He was smiling when he said it, but then he pushed her. She almost fell over. The kid woke up and started to cry. All this time, Oswald kept smiling.”
“You saw this. You actually did. You saw him. ” In spite of my own trip back in time, I was at least half-convinced that this had to be either a delusion or an outright lie.
“I did. She came out through the gate and walked past me with her head down, holding the baby against her breasts. Like I wasn’t there. But he walked right up to me, close enough for me to smell the Old Spice he was wearing to try and cover up the smell of his sweat. There were blackheads all over his nose. You could tell looking at his clothes — and his shoes, which were scuffed and busted down at the backs — that he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but when you looked in his face, you knew that didn’t matter. Not to him, it didn’t. He thought he was a big deal.”
Al considered briefly, then shook his head.
“No, I take that back. He knew he was a big deal. It was just a matter of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up on that. So there he is, in my face — choking distance, and don’t think the idea didn’t cross my mind—”
“Why didn’t you? Or just cut to the chase and shoot him?”
“In front of his wife and baby? Could you do that, Jake?”
I didn’t have to consider it for long. “Guess not.”
“Me either. I had other reasons, too. One of them was an aversion to state prison. . or the electric chair. We were out on the street, remember.”
“Ah is right. He still had that little smile on his face when he walked up to me. Arrogant and prissy, both at the same time. He’s wearing that smile in just about every photograph anybody ever took of him. He’s wearing it in the Dallas police station after they arrested him for killing the president and a motor patrolman who happened to cross his path when he was trying to get away. He says to me, ‘What are you looking at, sir?’ I say ‘Nothing, buddy.’ And he says, ‘Then mind your beeswax.’
“Marina was waiting for him maybe twenty feet down the sidewalk, trying to soothe the baby back to sleep. It was hotter than hell that day, but she was wearing a kerchief over her hair, the way lots of European women do back then. He went to her and grabbed her elbow — like a cop instead of her husband — and says, ‘Pokhoda! Pokhoda!’ Walk, walk. She said something to him, maybe asking if he’d carry the baby for awhile. That’s my guess, anyway. But he just pushed her away and said, ‘Pokhoda, cyka!’ Walk, bitch. She did. They went off down toward the bus stop. And that was it.”
“You speak Russian?”
“No, but I have a good ear and a computer. Back here I do, anyway.”
“You saw him other times?”
“Only from a distance. By then I was getting real sick.” He grinned. “There’s no Texas barbecue as good as Fort Worth barbecue, and I couldn’t eat it. It’s a cruel world, sometimes. I went to a doctor, got a diagnosis I could have made myself by then, and came back to the twenty-first century. Basically, there was nothing more to see, anyway. Just a skinny little wife-abuser waiting to be famous.”
He leaned forward.
“You know what the man who changed American history was like? He was the kind of kid who throws stones at other kids and then runs away. By the time he joined the Marines — to be like his brother Bobby, he idolized Bobby — he’d lived in almost two dozen different places, from New Orleans to New York City. He had big ideas and couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t listen to them. He was mad about that, furious, but he never lost that pissy, prissy little smile of his. Do you know what William Manchester called him?”
“No.” I didn’t even know who William Manchester was.
“A wretched waif. Manchester was talking about all the conspiracy theories that bloomed in the aftermath of the assassination. . and after Oswald himself was shot and killed. I mean, you know that, right?”
“Of course,” I said, a little annoyed. “A guy named Jack Ruby did it.” But given the holes in my knowledge I’d already demonstrated, I suppose he had a right to wonder.
“Manchester said that if you put the murdered president on one side of a scale and Oswald — the wretched waif — on the other, it didn’t balance. No way did it balance. If you wanted to give Kennedy’s death some meaning, you’d have to add something heavier. Which explains the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Like the Mafia did it — Carlos Marcello ordered the hit. Or the KGB did it. Or Castro, to get back at the CIA for trying to load him up with poison cigars. There are people to this day who believe Lyndon Johnson did it so he could be president. But in the end. .” Al shook his head. “It was almost certainly Oswald. You’ve heard of Occam’s Razor, haven’t you?”
It was nice to know something for sure. “It’s a basic truism sometimes known as the law of parsimony. ‘All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.’ So why didn’t you kill him when he wasn’t on the street with his wife and kid? You were a Marine, too. When you knew how sick you were, why didn’t you just kill the little motherfucker yourself?”
“Because being ninety-five percent sure isn’t a hundred. Because, shithead or not, he was a family man. Because after he was arrested, Oswald said he was a patsy and I wanted to be sure he was lying. I don’t think anybody can ever be a hundred percent sure of anything in this wicked world, but I wanted to get up to ninety-eight. I had no intention of waiting until November twenty-second and then stopping him at the Texas School Book Depository, though — that would have been cutting it way too fine, for one big reason I’ll have to tell you about.”
His eyes no longer looked so bright, and the lines on his face were deepening again. I was scared by how shallow his reserves of strength had become.
“I’ve written all this stuff down. I want you to read it. Actually, I want you to cram like a bastard. Look on top of the TV, buddy. Would you do that?” He gave me a tired smile and added, “I got my sittin-britches on.”
It was a thick blue notebook. The price stamped on the paper cover was twenty-five cents. The brand was foreign to me. “What’s Kresge’s?”
“The department store chain now known as Kmart. Never mind what’s on the cover, just pay attention to what’s inside. It’s an Oswald timeline, plus all the evidence piled up against him. . which you don’t really have to read if you take me up on this, because you’re going to stop the little weasel in April of 1963, over half a year before Kennedy comes to Dallas.”
“Because that’s when somebody tried to kill General Edwin Walker. . only he wasn’t a general anymore by then. He got cashiered in 1961, by JFK himself. General Eddie was handing out segregationist literature to his troops and ordering them to read the stuff.”
“It was Oswald who tried to shoot him?”
“That’s what you need to make sure of. Same rifle, no doubt about that, ballistics proved it. I was waiting to see him take the shot. I could afford not to interfere, because that time Oswald missed. The bullet deflected off the wood strip in the middle of Walker’s kitchen window. Not much, but just enough. The bullet literally parted his hair and flying wood splinters from the munting cut his arm a little. That was his only wound. I won’t say the man deserved to die — very few men are evil enough to deserve being shot from ambush — but I would have traded Walker for Kennedy any day of the week.”
I paid little attention to that last. I was thumbing through Al’s Oswald Book, page after page of closely written notes. They were completely legible at the beginning, less so toward the end. The last few pages were the scrawls of a very sick man. I snapped
the cover closed and said, “If you could confirm that Oswald was the shooter in the General Walker attempt, that would have settled your doubts?”
“Yes. I needed to make sure he’s capable of doing it. Ozzie’s a bad man, Jake — what people back in ’58 call a louse — but beating on your wife and keeping her a virtual prisoner because she doesn’t speak the language don’t justify murder. And something else. Even if I hadn’t come down with the big C, I knew I might not get another chance to make it right if I killed Oswald and someone else shot the president anyway. By the time a man’s in his sixties, he’s pretty much off the warranty, if you see what I mean.”
“Would it have to be killing? Couldn’t you just. . I don’t know. . frame him for something?”
“Maybe, but by then I was sick. I don’t know if I could have done it even if I was well. On the whole it seemed simpler to just end him, once I was sure. Like swatting a wasp before it can sting you.”
I was quiet, thinking. The clock on the wall said ten-thirty. Al had opened the conversation by saying he’d be good to go until midnight, but I only had to look at him to know that had been wildly optimistic.
I took his glass and mine out to the kitchen, rinsed them, and put them in the dish drainer. It felt like there was a tornado funnel behind my forehead. Instead of cows and fenceposts and scraps of paper, what it was sucking up and spinning around were names: Lee Oswald, Bobby Oswald, Marina Oswald, Edwin Walker, Fred Hampton, Patty Hearst. There were bright acronyms in that whirl, too, circling like chrome hood ornaments ripped off luxury cars: JFK, RFK, MLK, SLA. The cyclone even had a sound, two Russian words spoken over and over again in a flat Southern drawl: pokhoda, cyka.
“How long have I got to decide?” I asked.
“Not long. The diner goes at the end of the month. I talked to a lawyer about buying some more time — tying them up in a suit, or something — but he wasn’t hopeful. Ever seen a sign in a furniture store saying LOST OUR LEASE, EVERYTHING MUST GO?”
“Nine cases out of ten that’s just sales-pitch bullshit, but this is the tenth case. And I’m not talking about some discount dollar store bumping to get in, I’m talking about Bean’s, and when it comes to Maine retail, L.L. Bean is the biggest ape in the jungle. Come July first, the diner’s gone like Enron. But that isn’t the big thing. By July first, I might be gone. I could catch a cold and be dead of pneumonia in three days. I could have a heart attack or a stroke. Or I could kill myself with these damn OxyContin pills by accident. The visiting nurse who comes in asks me every day if I’m being careful not to exceed the dosage, and I am careful, but I can see she’s still worried she’ll walk in some morning and find me dead, probably because I got stoned and lost count. Plus the pills inhibit respiration, and my lungs are shot. On top of all that, I’ve lost a lot of weight.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Nobody loves a smartass, buddy — when you get to be my age, you’ll know. In any case, I want you to take this as well as the notebook.” He held out a key. “It’s to the diner. If you should call me tomorrow and hear from the nurse that I passed away in the night, you’ll have to move fast. Always assuming you decide to move at all, that is.”
“Al, you’re not planning—”
“Just trying to be careful. Because this matters, Jake. As far as I’m concerned, it matters more than anything else. If you ever wanted to change the world, this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe.” He leaned forward. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
“It’s a hell of a sales pitch,” I said, “but I don’t need the key. When the sun comes up tomorrow, you’ll still be on the big blue bus.”
“Ninety-five percent probability. But that’s not good enough. Take the goddam key.”
I took the goddam key and put it in my pocket. “I’ll let you get some rest.”
“One more thing before you go. I need to tell you about Carolyn Poulin and Andy Cullum. Sit down again, Jake. This’ll take a few minutes.”
I stayed on my feet. “Uh-uh. You’re used up. You need to sleep.”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Sit down.”
After discovering what he called the rabbit-hole, Al said, he was at first content to use it to buy supplies, make a few bets with a bookie he found in Lewiston, and build up his stash of fifties cash. He also took the occasional midweek holiday on Sebago Lake, which was teeming with fish that were tasty and perfectly safe to eat. People worried about fallout from A-bomb tests, he said, but fears of getting mercury poisoning from tainted fish were still in the future. He called these jaunts (usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but he would sometimes stay all the way to Friday) his minivacations. The weather was always good (because it was always the same weather) and the fishing was always terrific (he probably caught at least some of the same fish over and over).
“I know exactly how you feel about all this, Jake, because I was pretty much in shock those first few years. You want to know what’s a mind-blower? Going down those stairs at the height of a January nor’easter and coming out in that bright September sunshine. Shirtsleeve weather, am I right?”
I nodded and told him to go on. The little bit of color that had been in his cheeks when I came in was all gone, and he was coughing steadily again.
“But if you give a man some time, he can get used to anything, and when the shock finally started to wear off, I started to think I’d found that old rabbit-hole for a reason. That’s when I started to think about Kennedy. But your question reared its ugly head: can you change the past? I wasn’t concerned about the consequences — at least not to start with — but only about whether or not it could be done at all. On one of my Sebago trips, I took out my knife and carved AL T. FROM 2007 on a tree near the cabin where I stayed. When I got back here, I jumped in my car and drove on over to Sebago Lake. The cabins where I stayed are gone; there’s a tourist hotel there now. But the tree is still there. So was what I carved into it. Old and smooth, but still there: AL T. FROM 2007. So I knew it could be done. Then I started thinking about the butterfly effect.
“There’s a newspaper in The Falls back then, the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise, and the library scanned all their microfilm into the computer in ’05. Speeds things up a lot. I was looking for an accident in the fall or early winter of 1958. A certain kind of accident. I would have gone all the way into early 1959 if necessary, but I found what I was looking for on November fifteenth of ’58. A twelve-year-old girl named Carolyn Poulin was hunting with her father across the river, in the part of Durham that’s called Bowie Hill. Around two o’clock that afternoon — it was a Saturday — a hunter from Durham named Andrew Cullum shot at a deer in that same section of the woods. He missed the deer, hit the girl. Even though she was a quarter of a mile away, he hit the girl. I think about that, you know. When Oswald shot at General Walker, the range was less than a hundred yards. But the bullet clipped the wood sash in the middle of a window and he missed. The bullet that paralyzed the Poulin girl traveled over four hundred yards—much farther than the shot that killed Kennedy — and missed every tree trunk and branch along the way. If it had even clipped a twig, it almost surely would have missed her. So sure, I think about it.”
That was the first time the phrase life turns on a dime crossed my mind. It wasn’t the last. Al grabbed another maxi pad, coughed, spat, tossed it in the wastebasket. Then he drew in the closest thing to a deep breath he could manage, and labored on. I didn’t try to stop him. I was fascinated all over again.
“I plugged her name into the Enterprise ’s search database and found a few more stories about her. She graduated from Lisbon High School in 1965—a year behind the rest of her class, but she made it — and went to the University of Maine. Business major. Became an accountant. She lives in Gray, less than ten miles from Sebago Lake, where I used to go on my minivacations, and she still works as a freelance. Want to guess who one of her biggest clients is?”
I shook my head.
“John Crafts, right here in The Falls. Squiggy Wheaton, one of the salesmen, is a regular customer at the diner, and when he told me one day that they were doing their annual inventory and ‘the numbers lady’ was there going over the books, I made it my business to roll on up and get an eyes-on. She’s sixty-five now, and. . you know how some women that age can be really beautiful?”
“Yes,” I said. I was thinking of Christy’s mother, who didn’t fully come into her looks until she was in her fifties.
“Carolyn Poulin is that way. Her face is a classic, the kind a painter from two or three hundred years ago would love, and she’s got snow white hair that she wears long, down her back.”
“Sounds like you’re in love, Al.”
He had enough strength left to shoot me the bird.
“She’s in great physical shape, too — well, you’d almost expect that, wouldn’t you, an unmarried woman hauling herself in and out of a wheelchair every day and getting in and out of the specially equipped van she drives. Not to mention in and out of bed, in and out of the shower, all the rest. And she does — Squiggy says she’s completely self-sufficient. I was impressed.”
“So you decided to save her. As a test case.”
“I went back down the rabbit-hole, only this time I stayed in the Sebago cabin over two months. Told the owner I’d come into some money when my uncle died. You ought to remember that, buddy — the rich uncle thing is tried and true. Everybody believes it because everybody wants one. So comes the day: November fifteenth, 1958. I don’t mess with the Poulins. Given my idea about stopping Oswald, I’m much more interested in Cullum, the shooter. I’d researched him, too, and found out he lived about a mile from Bowie Hill, near the old Durham grange hall. I thought I’d get there before he left for the woods. Didn’t quite work out that way.
“I left my cabin on Sebago really early, which was a good thing for me, because I wasn’t a mile down the road before the Hertz car I was driving came up with a flat shoe. I took out the spare, put it on, and although it looked absolutely fine, I hadn’t gone another mile before that one went flat, too.
“I hitched a ride to the Esso station in Naples, where the guy in the service bay told me he had too damn much work to come out and put a new tire on a Hertz Chevrolet. I think he was pissed about missing the Saturday hunting. A twenty-dollar tip changed his mind, but I never got into Durham until past noon. I took the old Runaround Pond Road because that’s the quickest way to go, and guess what? The bridge over Chuckle Brook had fallen into the goddam water. Big red and white sawhorses; smudgepots; big orange sign reading ROAD CLOSED. By then I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and I had a sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I’d set out that morning to do. Keep in mind that I left at eight A.M., just to be on the safe side, and it took me over four hours to get eighteen miles. But I didn’t give up. I went around by Methodist Church Road instead, hammering that rent-a-dent for all it was worth, pulling up this long rooster-tail of dust behind me — all the roads out that way are dirt back then.
“Okay, so I’m seeing cars and trucks parked off to the sides or at the start of woods roads every here and there, and I’m also seeing hunters walking with their guns broken open over their arms. Every single one of them lifted his hand to me — folks are friendlier in ’58, there’s no doubt about that. I waved back, too, but what I was really waiting for was another flat. Or a blowout. That would probably have sent me right off the road and into the ditch, because I was doing sixty at least. I remember one of the hunters patting the air with his hands, the way you do when you’re telling someone to slow down, but I paid no attention.
“I flew up Bowie Hill, and just past the old Friends’ Meeting House, I spied a pickemup parked by the graveyard. POULIN CONSTRUCTION AND CARPENTRY painted on the door. Truck empty. Poulin and his girl in the woods, maybe sitting in a clearing somewhere, eating their lunch and talking the way fathers and daughters do. Or at least how I imagine they do, never having had one myself—”
Another long fit of coughing, which ended with a terrible wet gagging sound.
“Ah shit, don’t that hurt, ” he groaned.
“Al, you need to stop.”
He shook his head and wiped a slick of blood off his lower lip with the heel of his palm. “What I need is to get this out, so shut up and let me do it.
“I gave the truck a good long stare, still rolling at sixty or so all the while, and when I looked back at the road, I saw there was a tree down across it. I stopped just in time to keep from crashing into it. It wasn’t a big tree, and before the cancer went to work on me, I was pretty strong. Also, I was mad as hell. I got out and started wrestling with it. While I was doing that — also cussing my head off — a car came along from the other direction. Man gets out, wearing an orange hunting vest. I don’t know for sure if it’s my man or not — the Enterprise never printed his picture — but he looks like the right age.
“He says, ‘Let me help you with that, oldtimer.’
“‘Thank you very much,’ I says, and holds out my hand. ‘Bill Laidlaw.’
“He shakes it and says, ‘Andy Cullum.’ So it was him. Given all the trouble I’d had getting to Durham, I could hardly believe it. I felt like I’d won the lottery. We grabbed the tree, and between us we got it shifted. When it was, I sat down on the road and grabbed my chest. He asked me if I was okay. ‘Well, I don’t know,’ I says. ‘I never had a heart attack, but this sure feels like one.’ Which is why Mr. Andy Cullum never got any hunting done on that November afternoon, Jake, and why he never shot any little girl, either. He was busy taking poor old Bill Laidlaw up to Central Maine General in Lewiston.”
“You did it? You actually did it?”
“Bet your ass. I told em at the hospital that I’d had a big old hero for lunch — what’s called an Italian sandwich back then — and the diagnosis was ‘acute indigestion.’ I paid twenty-five dollars in cash and they sprung me. Cullum waited around and took me back to my Hertz car, how’s that for neighborly? I returned home to 2011 that very night. . only of course I came back only two minutes after I left. Shit like that’ll give you jet-lag without ever getting on a plane.
“My first stop was the town library, where I looked up the story of the 1965 high school graduation again. Before, there’d been a photo of Carolyn Poulin to go with it. The principal back then — Earl Higgins, he’s long since gone to his reward — was bending over to hand her her diploma as she sat in her wheelchair, all dressed up in her cap and gown. The caption underneath said, Carolyn Poulin reaches a major goal on her long road to recovery. ”
“Was it still there?”
“The story about the graduation was, you bet. Graduation day always makes the front page in smalltown newspapers, you know that, buddy. But after I came back from ’58, the picture was of a boy with a half-assed Beatle haircut standing at the podium and the caption said, Valedictorian Trevor “Buddy” Briggs speaks to graduation assemblage. They listed every graduate — there were only a hundred or so — and Carolyn Poulin wasn’t among em. So I checked the graduation story from ’64, which was the year she would have graduated if she hadn’t been busy getting better from being shot in the spine. And bingo. No picture and no special mention, but she was listed right between David Platt and Stephanie Routhier.”
“Just another kid marching to ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ right?”
“Right. Then I plugged her name into the Enterprise ’s search function, and got some hits after 1964. Not many, three or four. About what you’d expect for an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. She went to the University of Maine, majored in business administration, then went to grad school in New Hampshire. I found one more story, from 1979, not long before the Enterprise folded. FORMER LISBON RESIDENT STUDENT WINS NATIONAL DAYLILY COMPETITION, it said. There was a picture of her, standing on her own two good legs, with the winning lily. She lives. . lived. . I don’t know which way is right, maybe both. . in a town outside of Albany, New York.”
“Don’t think so. In the picture, she’s holding up the winning daylily and there are no rings on her left hand. I know what you’re thinking, not much that changed except for being able to walk. But who can really tell? She was living in a different place and influenced the lives of who knows how many different people. Ones she never would have known if Cullum had shot her and she’d stayed in The Falls. See what I mean?”
What I saw was it was really impossible to tell, one way or another, but I agreed with him, because I wanted to finish with this before he collapsed. And I intended to see him safely into his bed before I left.
“What I’m telling you, Jake, is that you can change the past, but it’s not as easy as you might think. That morning I felt like a man trying to fight his way out of a nylon stocking. It would give a little, then snap back just as tight as before. Finally, though, I managed to rip it open.”
“Why would it be hard? Because the past doesn’t want to be changed?”
“Something doesn’t want it to be changed, I’m pretty sure of that. But it can be. If you take the resistance into account, it can be.” Al was looking at me, eyes bright in his haggard face. “All in all, the story of Carolyn Poulin ends with ‘And she lived happily ever after,’ wouldn’t you say?”
“Look inside the back cover of the notebook I gave you, buddy, and you might change your mind. Little something I printed out today.”
I did as he asked and found a cardboard pocket. For storing things like office memos and business cards, I assumed. A single sheet of paper was folded into it. I took it out, opened it up, and looked for a long time. It was a computer printout of page 1 of the Weekly Lisbon Enterprise. The date below the masthead was June 18, 1965. The headline read: LHS CLASS OF ’65 GOES FORTH IN TEARS, LAUGHTER . In the photograph, a bald man (his mortarboard tucked under his arm so it wouldn’t tumble off his head) was bending over a smiling girl in a wheelchair. He was holding one side of her diploma; she was holding the other. Carolyn Poulin reaches a major goal on her long road to recovery, the caption read.
I looked up at Al, confused. “If you changed the future and saved her, how can you have this?”
“Every trip’s a reset, buddy. Remember?”
“Oh my God. When you went back to stop Oswald, everything you did to save Poulin got erased.”
“Yes. . and no.”
“What do you mean, yes and no?”
“The trip back to save Kennedy was going to be the last trip, but I was in no hurry to get down to Texas. Why would I be? In September of 1958, Ozzie Rabbit — that’s what his fellow Marines called him — isn’t even in America. He’s steaming gaily around the South Pacific with his unit, keeping Japan and Formosa safe for democracy. So I went back to the Shadyside Cabins in Sebago and hung out there until November fifteenth. Again. But when it rolled around, I left even earlier in the morning, which was a good fucking call on my part, because I didn’t just have a couple of flat tires that time. My goddam rental Chevy threw a rod. Ended up paying the service station guy in Naples sixty bucks to use his car for the day, and left him my Marine Corps ring as extra security. Had some other adventures, which I won’t bother recapping—”
“Was the bridge still out in Durham?”
“Don’t know, buddy, I didn’t even try going that way. A person who doesn’t learn from the past is an idiot, in my estimation. One thing I learned was which way Andrew Cullum would be coming, and I wasted no time getting there. The tree was down across the road, just like before, and when he came along, I was wrestling with it, just like before. Pretty soon I’m having chest pains, just like before. We played out the whole comedy, Carolyn Poulin had her Saturday in the woods with her dad, and a couple of weeks later I said yahoo and got on a train for Texas.”
“Then how can I still have this picture of her graduating in a wheelchair?”
“Because every trip down the rabbit-hole’s a reset.” Then Al just looked at me, to see if I got it. After a minute, I did.
“That’s right, buddy. You bought yourself a dime root beer this afternoon. You also put Carolyn Poulin back in a wheelchair.”