From the Dallas Morning News, April 11, 1963 (page 1):
RIFLEMAN TAKES SHOT AT WALKER
By Eddie Hughes
A gunman with a high-powered rifle tried to kill former Maj. General Edwin A. Walker at his home Wednesday night, police said, and missed the controversial crusader by less than an inch.
Walker was working on his income taxes at 9:00 PM when the bullet crashed through a rear window and slammed into a wall next to him.
Police said a slight movement by Walker apparently saved his life.
“Somebody had a perfect bead on him,” said Detective Ira Van Cleave. “Whoever it was certainly wanted to kill him.”
Walker dug out several fragments of the shell’s jacket from his right sleeve and was still shaking glass and slivers of the bullet out of his hair when reporters arrived.
Walker said he returned to his Dallas home Monday after the first stop of a lecture-tour called “Operation Midnight Ride.” He also told reporters. .
From the Dallas Morning News, April 12, 1963 (page 7):
MENTAL PATIENT SLASHES EX-WIFE, COMMITS SUICIDE
By Mack Dugas
(JODIE) 77-year-old Deacon “Deke” Simmons arrived too late on Wednesday night to save Sadie Dunhill from being wounded, but things could have been much worse for the 28-year-old Dunhill, a popular librarian in the Denholm Consolidated School District.
According to Douglas Reems, the Jodie town constable, “If Deke hadn’t arrived when he did, Miss Dunhill almost certainly would have been killed.” When approached by reporters, Simmons would only say, “I don’t want to talk about it, it’s over.”
According to Constable Reems, Simmons overpowered the much younger John Clayton and wrestled away a small revolver. Clayton then produced the knife with which he had wounded his wife and used it to slash his own throat. Simmons and another man, George Amberson of Dallas, tried to stop the bleeding to no avail. Clayton was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr. Amberson, a former teacher in the Denholm Consolidated School District who arrived shortly after Clayton had been disarmed, could not be reached for comment but told Constable Reems at the scene that Clayton — a former mental patient — may have been stalking his ex-wife for months. The staff at Denholm Consolidated High School had been alerted, and principal Ellen Dockerty had obtained a picture, but Clayton was said to have disguised his appearance.
Miss Dunhill was transported by ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where her condition is listed as fair.
I wasn’t able to see her until Saturday. I spent most of the intervening hours in the waiting room with a book I couldn’t seem to read. Which was all right, because I had plenty of company — most of the DCHS teachers dropped by to check on Sadie’s condition, as did almost a hundred students, those without licenses driven into Dallas by their parents. Many stayed to give blood to replace the pints Sadie had used. Soon my briefcase was stuffed with get-well cards and notes of concern. There were enough flowers to make the nurses’ station look like a greenhouse.
I thought I’d gotten used to living in the past, but I was still shocked by Sadie’s room at Parkland when I was finally allowed inside. It was an overheated single not much bigger than a closet. There was no bathroom; an ugly commode that only a dwarf could have used comfortably squatted in the corner, with a semi-opaque plastic curtain to pull across (for semi-privacy). Instead of buttons to raise and lower the bed, there was a crank, its white paint worn off by many hands. Of course there were no monitors showing computer-generated vital signs, and no TV for the patient, either.
A single glass bottle of something — maybe saline — hung from a metal stand. A tube went from it to the back of Sadie’s left hand, where it disappeared beneath a bulky bandage.
Not as bulky as the one wrapped around the left side of her head, though. A sheaf of her hair had been cut off on that side, giving her a lopsided punished look. . and of course, she had been punished. The docs had left a tiny slit for her eye. It and the one on the unbandaged, undamaged side of her face fluttered open when she heard my footsteps, and although she was doped up, those eyes registered a momentary flash of terror that squeezed my heart.
Then, wearily, she turned her face to the wall.
“Sadie — honey, it’s me.”
“Hi, me,” she said, not turning back.
I touched her shoulder, which the gown left bare, and she twitched it away. “Please don’t look at me.”
“Sadie, it doesn’t matter.”
She turned back. Sad, morphine-loaded eyes looked at me, one peering out of a gauze peephole. An ugly yellowish-red stain was oozing through the bandages. Blood and some sort of ointment, I supposed.
“It matters,” she said. “This isn’t like what happened to Bobbi Jill.” She tried to smile. “You know how a baseball looks, all those red stitches? That’s what Sadie looks like now. They go up and down and all around.”
“You don’t get it. He cut all the way through my cheek to the inside of my mouth.”
“But you’re alive. And I love you.”
“Say that when the bandages come off,” she said in her dull, doped-up voice. “I make the Bride of Frankenstein look like Liz Taylor.”
I took her hand. “I read something once—”
“I don’t think I’m quite ready for a literary discussion, Jake.”
She tried to turn away again, but I held onto her hand. “It was a Japanese proverb. ‘If there is love, smallpox scars are as pretty as dimples.’ I’ll love your face no matter what it looks like. Because it’s yours.”
She began to cry, and I held her until she quieted. In fact, I thought she had gone to sleep when she said, “I know it’s my fault, I married him, but—”
“It’s not your fault, Sadie, you didn’t know.”
“I knew there was something not right about him. And still I went ahead. I think mostly because my mother and father wanted it so badly. They haven’t come yet, and I’m glad. Because I blame them, too. That’s awful, isn’t it?”
“While you’re serving up the blame, save a helping for me. I saw that goddam Plymouth he was driving at least twice dead on, and maybe a couple of other times out of the corner of my eye.”
“You don’t need to feel guilty on that score. The state police detective and the Texas Ranger who interviewed me said Johnny’s trunk was full of license plates. He probably stole them at motor courts, they said. And he had a lot of stickers, whatdoyoucallums—”
“Decals.” I was thinking of the one that had fooled me at the Candlewood that night. GO, SOONERS. I’d made the mistake of dismissing my repeated sightings of the white-over-red Plymouth as just another harmonic of the past. I should have known better. I would have known better, if half my mind hadn’t been back in Dallas, with Lee Oswald and General Walker. And if blame mattered, there was a helping for Deke, too. After all, he had seen the man, had registered those deep dimples on the sides of his forehead.
Let it go, I thought. It’s happened. It can’t be undone.
Actually, it could.
“Jake, do the police know you aren’t. . quite who you say you are?”
I brushed back the hair on the right side of her face, where it was still long. “I’m fine on that score.”
Deke and I had been interviewed by the same policemen who interviewed Sadie before the docs rolled her into the operating room. The state police detective had issued a tepid reprimand about men who had seen too many TV westerns. The Ranger seconded this, then shook our hands and said, “In your place, I would have done exactly the same thing.”
“Deke’s pretty much kept me out of it. He wants to make sure the schoolboard doesn’t get pissy about you coming back next year. It seems incredible to me that being cut up by a lunatic could lead to dismissal on grounds of moral turpitude, but Deke seems to think it’s best if—”
“I can’t go back. I can’t face the kids looking like I do now.”
“Sadie, if you knew how many of them have come here—”
“That’s sweet, it means a lot, and they’re the very ones I couldn’t face. Don’t you understand? I think I could deal with the ones who’d laugh and make jokes. In Georgia I taught with a woman who had a harelip, and I learned a lot from the way she handled teenage cruelty. It’s the other ones that would undo me. The well-meaning ones. The looks of sympathy. . and the ones who can’t stand to look at all.” She took a deep, shuddering breath, then burst out: “Also, I’m angry. I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite ?”
I took her in my arms. The unmarked side of her face was hot and throbbing. “I don’t know, honey.”
“Why are there no second chances?”
I held her. When her breathing became regular, I let her go and stood up quietly to leave. Without opening her eyes, she said, “You told me there was something you had to witness on Wednesday night. I don’t think it was Johnny Clayton cutting his own throat, was it?”
“Did you miss it?”
I thought of lying, didn’t. “Yes.”
Now her eyes opened, but it was a struggle and they wouldn’t stay open for long. “Will you get a second chance?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
That wasn’t the truth. Because it would matter to John Kennedy’s wife and children; it would matter to his brothers; perhaps to Martin Luther King; almost certainly to the tens of thousands of young Americans who were now in high school and who would, if nothing changed the course of history, be invited to put on uniforms, fly to the other side of the world, spread their nether cheeks, and sit down on the big green dildo that was Vietnam.
She closed her eyes. I left the room.
There were no current DCHS students in the lobby when I got off the elevator, but there were a couple of alums. Mike Coslaw and Bobbi Jill Allnut were sitting in hard plastic chairs with unread magazines in their laps. Mike jumped up and shook my hand. From Bobbi Jill I got a good strong hug.
“How bad is it?” she asked. “I mean”—she rubbed the tips of her fingers over her own fading scar—“can it be fixed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you talked to Dr. Ellerton?” Mike asked. Ellerton, reputedly the best plastic surgeon in central Texas, was the doc who had worked his magic on Bobbi Jill.
“He’s in the hospital this afternoon, doing rounds. Deke, Miz Ellie, and I have an appointment with him in”—I checked my watch—“twenty minutes. Would you two care to sit in?”
“Please,” Bobbi Jill said. “I just know he can fix her. He’s a genius.”
“Come on, then. Let’s see what the genius can do.”
Mike must have read my face, because he squeezed my arm and said, “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think, Mr. A.”
It was worse.
Ellerton passed around the photographs — stark black-and-white glossies that reminded me of Weegee and Diane Arbus. Bobbi Jill gasped and turned away. Deke grunted softly, as if he’d been struck a blow. Miz Ellie shuffled through them stoically, but her face lost all color except for the two balls of rouge flaming on her cheeks.
In the first two, Sadie’s cheek hung in ragged flaps. That I had seen on Wednesday night and was prepared for. What I wasn’t prepared for was the stroke-victim droop of her mouth and the slack wad of the flesh below her left eye. It gave her a clownish look that made me want to thump my head on the table of the small conference room the doctor had appropriated for our meeting. Or maybe — this would be better — to rush down to the morgue where Johnny Clayton lay so I could beat on him some more.
“When this young woman’s parents arrive this evening,” Ellerton said, “I will be tactful and hopeful, because parents deserve tact and hope.” He frowned. “Although one might have expected them sooner, given the gravity of Mrs. Clayton’s condi—”
“Miss Dunhill, ” Ellie said with quiet savagery. “She was legally divorced from that monster.”
“Yes, quite, I stand corrected. At any rate, you are her friends, and I believe you deserve less tact and more truth.” He looked dispassionately at one of the photographs, and tapped Sadie’s torn cheek with a short, clean fingernail. “This can be improved, but never put right. Not with the techniques now at my disposal. Perhaps a year from now, when the tissue has fully healed, I might be able to repair the worst of the dissymmetry.”
Tears began to run down Bobbi Jill’s cheeks. She took Mike’s hand.
“The permanent damage to her looks is unfortunate,” Ellerton said, “but there are other problems, as well. The facial nerve has been cut. She is going to have problems eating on the left side of her mouth. The droop in the eye you see in these photographs will be with her for the rest of her life, and her tear duct has been partially severed. Yet her sight may not be impaired. We’ll hope not.”
He sighed and spread his hands.
“Given the promise of wonderful stuff like microsurgery and nerve regeneration, we may be able to do more with cases like this in twenty or thirty years. For now, all I can say is I’ll do my best to repair all the damage that is repairable.”
Mike spoke up for the first time. His tone was bitter. “Too bad we don’t live in 1990, huh?”
It was a silent, dispirited little group that walked out of the hospital that afternoon. At the edge of the parking lot, Miz Ellie touched my sleeve. “I should have listened to you, George. I am so, so sorry.”
“I’m not sure it would have made any difference,” I said, “but if you want to make it up to me, ask Freddy Quinlan to give me a call. He’s the real estate guy who helped me when I first came to Jodie. I want to be close to Sadie this summer, and that means I need a place to rent.”
“You can stay with me,” Deke said. “I have plenty of room.”
I turned to him. “Are you sure?”
“You’d be doing me a favor.”
“I’ll be happy to pay—”
He waved it away. “You can kick in for groceries. That’ll be fine.”
He and Ellie had come in Deke’s Ranch Wagon. I watched them pull out, then trudged to my Chevrolet, which now seemed — probably unfairly — a bad-luck car. Never had I less wanted to go back to West Neely, where I would no doubt hear Lee taking out on Marina his frustrations over missing General Walker.
“Mr. A.?” It was Mike. Bobbi Jill stood a few paces back with her arms folded tightly beneath her breasts. She looked cold and unhappy.
“Who’s going to pay Miss Dunhill’s hospital bills? And for all those surgeries he talked about? Does she have insurance?”
“Some.” But nowhere near enough, not for a thing like this. I thought of her parents, but the fact that they still hadn’t shown up yet was troubling. They couldn’t blame her for what Clayton had done. . could they? I didn’t see how, but I had come from a world where women were, for the most part, treated as equals. 1963 never seemed more like a foreign country to me than it did at that moment.
“I’ll help as much as I can,” I said, but how much would that be? My cash reserves were deep enough to get me through another few months, but not enough to pay for half a dozen facial reconstruction procedures. I didn’t want to go back to Faith Financial on Greenville Avenue, but I supposed I would if I had to. The Kentucky Derby was coming up in less than a month, and according to the bookie section of Al’s notes, the winner was going to be Chateaugay, a longshot. A thousand on the nose would net seven or eight grand, enough to take care of Sadie’s hospital stay and — at 1963 rates — at least some of the follow-up surgeries.
“I have an idea,” Mike said, then glanced over his shoulder. Bobbi Jill gave him an encouraging smile. “That is, me n Bobbi Jill do.”
“Bobbi Jill and I, Mike. You’re not a kid anymore, so don’t talk like one.”
“Right, right, sorry. If you can come back into the coffee shop for ten minutes or so, we’ll lay it on you.”
I went. We drank coffee. I listened to their idea. And agreed. Sometimes when the past harmonizes with itself, the wise man clears his throat and sings along.
There was a whopper of an argument in the apartment above me that evening. Baby June added her nickel’s worth, wailing her head off. I didn’t bother to eavesdrop; the yelling would be in Russian, for the most part, anyway. Then, around eight, an unaccustomed silence fell. I assumed they’d gone to bed two hours or so earlier than their usual time, and that was a relief.
I was thinking about going to bed myself when the de Mohrenschildts’ yacht of a Cadillac pulled up at the curb. Jeanne slid out; George popped out with his usual jack-in-the-box élan. He opened the rear door behind the driver’s seat and brought out a large stuffed rabbit with improbable purple fur. I gawked at this through the slit in the drapes for a moment before the penny dropped: tomorrow was Easter Sunday.
They headed for the outside stairs. She walked; George, in the lead, trotted. His pounding footfalls on the ramshackle steps shook the whole building.
I heard startled voices over my head, muffled but clearly questioning. Footfalls hurried across my ceiling, making the overhead light fixture in the living room rattle. Did the Oswalds think it was the Dallas police coming to make an arrest? Or maybe one of the FBI agents who had been keeping tabs on Lee while he and his family were living on Mercedes Street? I hoped the little bastard’s heart was in his throat, choking him.
There was a flurry of knocks on the door at the top of the stairs, and de Mohrenschildt called jovially: “Open up, Lee! Open up, you heathen!”
The door opened. I donned my earphones but heard nothing. Then, just as I was deciding to try the mike in the Tupperware bowl, either Lee or Marina turned on the lamp with the bug in it. It was working again, at least for the time being.
“—for the baby,” Jeanne was saying.
“Oh, thank!” Marina said. “Thank very much, Jeanne, so kind!”
“Don’t just stand there, Comrade, get us something to drink!” de Mohrenschildt said. He sounded like he’d had a few belts already.
“I only have tea,” Lee said. He sounded petulant and half-awake.
“Tea’s fine. I’ve got something here in my pocket that’ll get it up on its feet.” I could almost see him wink.
Marina and Jeanne lapsed into Russian. Lee and de Mohrenschildt — their heavier footfalls unmistakable — started toward the kitchen area, where I knew I’d lose them. The women were standing close to the lamp, and their voices would cover the conversation of the men.
Then Jeanne, in English: “Oh my goodness, is that a gun ?”
Everything stopped, including — so it felt — my heart.
Marina laughed. It was a tinkling little cocktail-party laugh, hahaha, artificial as hell. “He lose job, we have no money, and this crazy person buy rifle. I say, ‘Put in closet, you crazy eediot, so it don’t upset my pregnance.’”
“I wanted to do some target-shooting, that’s all,” Lee said. “I was pretty good in the Marines. Never shot Maggie’s Drawers a single time.”
Another silence. It seemed to go on forever. Then de Mohrenschildt’s big hail-fellow laugh boomed out. “Come on, don’t bullshit a bullshitter! How’d you miss him, Lee?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“General Walker, boy! Someone almost splattered his Negro-hating brains all over his office wall at that house of his on Turtle Creek. You mean you didn’t know?”
“I haven’t been reading the papers just lately.”
“Oh?” Jeanne said. “Don’t I see the Times Herald over there on that stool?”
“I mean I don’t read the news. Too depressing. Just the funnypages and the want-ads. Big Brother says get a job or the baby starves.”
“So you weren’t the one who took that potshot, huh?” de Mohrenschildt asked.
Teasing him. Baiting him.
The question was why. Because de Mohrenschildt would never in his wildest dreams have believed a pipsqueak like Ozzie Rabbit was the shooter last Wednesday night. . or because he knew that Lee was? Maybe because Jeanne had noticed the rifle? I wished with all my heart that the women weren’t there. Given a chance to listen to Lee and his peculiar amigo talk man-to-man, my questions might have been answered. As it was, I still could not be sure.
“You think I’d be crazy enough to shoot at someone with J. Edgar Hoover looking over my shoulder?” Lee sounded like he was trying to get into the spirit of the thing, Josh Along with George instead of Sing Along with Mitch, but he wasn’t doing a very good job.
“Nobody thinks you shot at anybody, Lee,” Jeanne said in a placating voice. “Just promise that when your baby starts to walk, you find a safer place than the closet for that rifle of yours.”
Marina replied to this in Russian, but I’d glimpsed the baby in the side yard from time to time and knew what she was saying — that June was walking already.
“Junie will enjoy the nice present,” Lee said, “but we don’t celebrate Easter. We’re atheists.”
Maybe he was, but according to Al’s notes, Marina — with the help of her admirer, George Bouhe — had had June secretly baptized right around the time of the Missile Crisis.
“So are we,” de Mohrenschildt said. “That’s why we celebrate the Easter Bunny!” He had moved closer to the lamp, and his roar of laughter half-deafened me.
They talked for another ten minutes, mixing English and Russian. Then Jeanne said, “We’ll leave you in peace now. I think we turned you out of bed.”
“No, no, we were up,” Lee said. “Thanks for dropping by.”
George said, “We’ll talk soon, Lee, eh? You can come to the country club. We’ll organize the waiters into a collective!”
“Sure, sure.” They were moving toward the door now.
De Mohrenschildt said something else, but it was too low for me to catch more than a few words. They might have been get it back. Or got your back, although I didn’t think that was common slang in the sixties.
When did you get it back? Was that what he said? As in when did you get the rifle back ?
I replayed the tape half a dozen times, but at super-slow speed, there was just no way to tell. I lay awake long after the Oswalds had gone to sleep; I was still awake at two in the morning, when June cried briefly and was soothed back to dreamland by her mother. I thought of Sadie, sleeping the unrestful sleep of morphine at Parkland Hospital. The room was ugly and the bed was narrow, but I would have been able to sleep there, I was sure of it.
I thought about de Mohrenschildt, that manic shirt-ripping stage actor. What did you say, George? What did you say there at the end? Was it when did you get it back? Was it cheer up, things aren’t so black? Was it don’t let this set you back? Or something else entirely?
At last I slept. And dreamed I was at a carnival with Sadie. We came to a shooting gallery where Lee stood with his rifle socked into the hollow of his shoulder. The guy behind the counter was George de Mohrenschildt. Lee fired three times and didn’t hit a single target.
“Sorry, son,” de Mohrenschildt said, “no prizes for guys who shoot Maggie’s Drawers.”
Then he turned to me and grinned.
“Step right up, son, you may have better luck. Somebody’s going to kill the president, why not you?”
I woke with a start in the first weak light of day. Above me, the Oswalds slept on.
Easter Sunday afternoon found me back in Dealey Plaza, sitting on a park bench, looking at the forbidding brick cube of the School Book Depository, and wondering what to do next.
In ten days, Lee was going to leave Dallas for New Orleans, the city of his birth. He would get a job greasing machinery at a coffee company and rent the apartment on Magazine Street. After spending two weeks or so with Ruth Paine and her children in Irving, Marina and June would join him. I wouldn’t follow. Not with Sadie facing a long period of recovery and an uncertain future.
Was I going to kill Lee between this Easter Sunday and the twenty-fourth? I probably could. Since losing his job at Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall, he spent most of his time either in the apartment or handing out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets in downtown Dallas. Once in awhile he went to the public library, where he seemed to have given up Ayn Rand and Karl Marx in favor of Zane Grey westerns.
Shooting him on the street or at the library on Young Street would be a recipe for instant incarceration, but if I did it in the upstairs apartment, while Marina was in Irving, helping Ruth Paine improve her Russian? I could knock on the door and put a bullet in his head when he opened it. Done deal. No risk of shooting Maggie’s Drawers at point-blank range. The problem was the aftermath. I’d have to run. If I didn’t, I’d be the first person the police would question. I was the downstairs neighbor, after all.
I could claim I wasn’t there when it happened, and they might buy that for awhile, but how long would it be before they discovered that the George Amberson of West Neely Street was the same George Amberson who just happened to be at a scene of violence on Bee Tree Lane in Jodie not long before? That would merit checking, and checking would soon reveal that George Amberson’s teaching certificate came from a degree-mill in Oklahoma and George Amberson’s references were phony. At that point I’d very likely be arrested. The police would obtain a court order to open my safe deposit box if they found out I had one, and they probably would. Mr. Richard Link, my banker, would see my name and/or picture in the paper and come forward. What would the police make of my memoir? That I had a motive for shooting Oswald, no matter how crazy.
No, I’d have to run for the rabbit-hole, ditching the Chevy somewhere in Oklahoma or Arkansas, then taking a bus or train. And if I made it back to 2011, I could never use the rabbit-hole again without causing a reset. That would mean leaving Sadie behind forever, disfigured and alone. Of course he ran out on me, she would think. He talked a good game about smallpox scars being as pretty as dimples, but once he heard Ellerton’s prognosis — ugly now, ugly forever — he headed for the hills.
She might not even blame me. That was the most rotten possibility of all.
But no. No. I could think of a worse one. Suppose I got back to 2011 and discovered that Kennedy had been assassinated on November 22 after all? I still wasn’t positive Oswald was on his own. Who was I to say that ten thousand conspiracy theorists were wrong, especially based on the few scraps of information all my haunting and stalking had gleaned?
Maybe I’d check Wikipedia and discover the shooter had been on the grassy knoll, after all. Or on the roof of the combined jail and county courthouse on Houston Street, armed with a sharpshooter’s rifle instead of a mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano. Or hiding in a sewer on Elm Street and watching for Kennedy’s approach with a periscope, as some of the wilder conspiracy buffs claimed.
De Mohrenschildt was a CIA asset of some kind. Even Al Templeton, who was almost positive that Oswald had acted alone, acknowledged that much. Al was convinced he was just a little asset, passing on bits of South and Central American tittle-tattle to keep his various oil speculations afloat. But what if he was more? The CIA had loathed Kennedy ever since he refused to send in American troops to back the beleagured partisans at the Bay of Pigs. His graceful handling of the Missile Crisis had deepened that loathing; the spooks had wanted to use it as a pretext to end the cold war once and for all, because they were positive the ballyhooed “missile gap” was a fiction. You could read much of this in the daily papers, sometimes between the lines of the news stories, sometimes stated baldly in the op-ed essays.
Suppose certain rogue elements in the CIA had talked George de Mohrenschildt into a much more dangerous mission? Not killing the president himself, but recruiting several less-than-balanced individuals who would be willing to do the job? Would de Mohrenschildt say yes to such an offer? I thought he might. He and Jeanne lived big, but I had no real idea how they supported the Cadillac, the country club, and their sprawl of a house on Simpson Stuart Road. Serving as the cutout, a dead-short between a targeted U.S. president and an agency that theoretically existed to do his bidding. . that would be dangerous work, but if the potential gain were big enough, a man living above his means might be tempted. And it wouldn’t even have to be a cash payoff, that was the beauty of it. Just those wonderful oil leases in Venezuela, Haiti, and the DR. Also, such work might appeal to a grandiose strutter like de Mohrenschildt. He liked action, and he didn’t care for Kennedy.
Thanks to John Clayton, I couldn’t even eliminate de Mohrenschildt from the Walker attempt. It was Oswald’s rifle, yes, but suppose Lee had found himself unable to fire it when the time came? I thought it would be just like the little weasel to choke at the critical moment. I could see de Mohrenschildt snatching the Carcano out of Lee’s trembling hands and snarling, Give it to me, I’ll do it myself.
Would de Mohrenschildt have felt capable of making the shot from behind the garbage can Lee meant to use as a sniper’s bench? One line in Al’s notes made me think the answer was yes: Won skeet-shooting championship at country club in 1961.
If I killed Oswald and Kennedy died anyway, it would all be for nothing. And then what? Rinse and repeat? Kill Frank Dunning again? Save Carolyn Poulin again? Drive to Dallas again?
Meet Sadie again?
She would be unmarked, and that was good. I would know what her crazy ex-husband looked like, dye-job and all, and this time I could stop him before he got close. Also good. But just thinking about going through all of it again exhausted me. Nor did I think I could kill Lee in cold blood, at least not based on the circumstantial evidence I had. With Frank Dunning, I’d known for sure. I had seen.
So — what was my next move?
It was quarter past four, and I decided my next move was visiting Sadie. I started for my car, which was parked on Main Street. On the corner of Main and Houston, just past the old courthouse, I had a sensation of being watched and turned around. No one was on the sidewalk behind me. It was the Depository that was watching, all those blank windows overlooking Elm Street, where the presidential motorcade would arrive some two hundred days from that Easter Sunday.
They were serving dinner on Sadie’s floor when I arrived: chop suey. The smell brought back a vivid image of the way the blood had gushed over John Clayton’s hand and forearm before he fell to the carpet, mercifully facedown.
“Hey there, Mr. Amberson,” the head nurse said as I signed in. She was a graying woman in a starched white cap and uniform. A pocket watch was pinned to her formidable bosom. She was looking at me from behind a barricade of bouquets. “There was a fair amount of shouting in there last night. I’m only telling you because you’re her fiancé, right?”
“Right,” I said. Certainly it was what I wanted to be, slashed face or no slashed face.
The nurse leaned toward me between two overloaded vases. A few daisies brushed through her hair. “Look, I don’t ordinarily gossip about my patients, and I ream out the younger nurses who do. But the way her parents treated her wasn’t right. I guess I don’t entirely blame them for riding down from Georgia with that lunatic’s folks, but—”
“Wait. Are you telling me the Dunhills and the Claytons carpooled ?”
“I guess they were all palsy-walsy back in happier days, so all right, fine, but to tell her that while they were visiting their daughter, their good friends the Claytons were downstairs signing their son’s body out of the morgue. .” She shook her head. “Daddy never said boo, but that woman . .”
She looked around to make sure we were still alone, saw we were, and turned back to me. Her plain country face was grim with outrage.
“She never shut up. One question about how her daughter was feeling, then it was the poor Claytons this and the poor Claytons that. Your Miss Dunhill held her tongue until her mother said what a shame it was that they’d have to change churches again. Then the girl lost her temper and started shouting at them to get out.”
“Good for her,” I said.
“I heard her yell, ‘Do you want to see what your good friends’ son did to me?’ and honey-pie, that’s when I started running. She was trying to pull off the bandages. And the mother. . she was leaning forward, Mr. Amberson. Eager. She actually wanted to look. I hustled them out and got one of the residents to give Miss Dunhill a shot and quiet her down. The father — a little mouse of a man — tried to apologize for his wife. ‘She didn’t know she was upsetting Sadie,’ he says. ‘Well,’ I says back, ‘what about you? Cat get your tongue?’ And do you know what the woman said, just before they got on the elevator?”
I shook my head.
“She said, ‘I can’t blame him, how can I? He used to play in our yard, and he was just the sweetest boy.’ Can you believe that?”
I could. Because I thought I had already met Mrs. Dunhill, in a manner of speaking. On West Seventh Street, chasing after her older son and yelling at the top of her lungs. Stop, Robert, don’t walk so fast, I’m not done with you.
“You may find her. . overly emotional,” the nurse said. “I just wanted you to know there’s a good reason for it.”
She wasn’t overly emotional. I would have preferred that. If there’s such a thing as serene depression, that’s where Sadie’s head was at on that Easter evening. She was sitting in her chair, at least, with an untouched plate of chop suey in front of her. She’d lost weight; her long body seemed to float in the white hospital johnny she pulled around her when she saw me.
She smiled though — on the side of her face that still could — and turned her good cheek to be kissed. “Hello, George — I’d better call you that, don’t you think?”
“Maybe so. How are you, honey?”
“They say I’m better, but my face feels like someone dipped it in kerosene and then set it on fire. It’s because they’re taking me off the pain medication. God forbid I get hooked on dope.”
“If you need more, I can talk to somebody.”
She shook her head. “It makes me fuzzy, and I need to think. Also, it makes it hard to keep control of my emotions. I had quite the shouting match with my mother and father.”
There was only the one chair — unless you wanted to count the commode squatting in the corner — so I sat on the bed. “The head nurse filled me in. Based on what she overheard, you had every right to blow your top.”
“Maybe, but what good does it do? Mom will never change. She can talk for hours about how having me almost killed her, but she has very little feeling for anyone else. It’s lack of tact, but it’s lack of something more. There’s a word for it, but I can’t remember it.”
“That’s it. And she has a very sharp tongue. Over the years, it’s whittled my dad away to a stub. He rarely says anything these days.”
“You don’t need to see them again.”
“I think I do.” I liked her calm, detached voice less and less. “Mama says they’ll fix up my old room, and I really don’t have anyplace else to go.”
“Your home’s in Jodie. And your work.”
“I think we talked about that. I’m going to tender my resignation.”
“No, Sadie, no. That’s a very bad idea.”
She smiled as best she could. “You sound like Miz Ellie. Who didn’t believe you when you said Johnny was a danger.” She thought about this, then added: “Of course, neither did I. I never stopped being a fool about him, did I?”
“You have a house.”
“That’s true. And mortgage payments I can’t make. I’ll have to let it go.”
“I’ll make the payments.”
That got through. She looked shocked. “You can’t afford to do that!”
“I can, actually.” Which was true. . for awhile, at least. Plus there was always the Kentucky Derby and Chateaugay. “I’m moving out of Dallas and in with Deke. He’s not charging me rent, which frees up plenty for house payments.”
A tear crept to the edge of her right eye and trembled there. “You’re kind of missing the point. I can’t take care of myself, not yet. And I won’t be ‘taken in,’ unless it’s at home, where Mom will hire a nurse to help with the nasty bits. I’ve got a little pride left. Not much, but a little.”
“I’ll take care of you.”
She stared at me, wide-eyed. “What?”
“You heard me. And when it comes to me, Sadie, you can stick your pride where the sun doesn’t shine. I happen to love you. And if you love me, you’ll stop talking mad shit about going home to your crocodile of a mother.”
She managed a faint smile at that, then sat quiet, thinking, hands in the lap of her flimsy cover-up. “You came to Texas to do something, and it wasn’t to nurse a school librarian who was too silly to know she was in danger.”
“My business in Dallas is on hold.”
“Can it be?”
“Yes.” And as simply as that, it was decided. Lee was going to New Orleans, and I was going back to Jodie. The past kept fighting me, and it was going to win this round. “You need time, Sadie, and I have time. We might as well spend it together.”
“You can’t want me.” She said this in a voice just above a whisper. “Not the way I am now.”
“But I do.”
She looked at me with eyes that were afraid to hope and hoped anyway. “Why would you?”
“Because you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The good side of her mouth began to tremble. The tear spilled onto her cheek and was followed by others. “If I didn’t have to go back to Savannah. . if I didn’t have to live with them. . with her . . maybe then I could be, I don’t know, just a little bit all right.”
I took her into my arms. “You’re going to be a lot better than that.”
“Jake?” Her voice was muffled with tears. “Would you do something for me before you go?”
“Take away that goddamned chop suey. The smell is making me sick.”
The nurse with the fullback shoulders and the watch pinned to her bosom was Rhonda McGinley, and on the eighteenth of April she insisted on pushing Sadie’s wheelchair not only to the elevator but all the way out to the curb, where Deke waited with the passenger door of his station wagon open.
“Don’t let me see you back here, sugar-pie,” Nurse McGinley said after we’d helped Sadie into the car.
Sadie smiled distractedly and said nothing. She was — not to put too fine a point on it — stoned to the high blue sky. Dr. Ellerton had been in that morning to examine her face, an excruciating process that had necessitated extra pain medication.
McGinley turned to me. “She’s going to need a lot of TLC in the next few months.”
“I’ll do my best.”
We got rolling. Ten miles south of Dallas, Deke said, “Take that away from her and throw it out the window. I’m minding this damn traffic.”
Sadie had fallen asleep with a cigarette smoldering between her fingers. I leaned over the seat and plucked it away. She moaned when I did it and said, “Oh don’t, Johnny, please don’t.”
I met Deke’s eyes. Only for a second, but enough for me to see we were thinking the same thing: Long road ahead. Long road.
I moved into Deke’s Spanish-style home on Sam Houston Road. At least for public consumption. In truth, I moved in with Sadie at 135 Bee Tree Lane. I was afraid of what we might find when we first helped her inside, and I think that Sadie was, too, stoned or not. But Miz Ellie and Jo Peet from the Home Ec Department had recruited a few trustworthy girls who had spent an entire day before Sadie’s return cleaning, polishing, and scrubbing every trace of Clayton’s filth off the walls. The living room rug had been taken up and replaced. The new one was industrial gray, hardly an exciting color, but probably a wise choice; gray things hold so few memories. Her mutilated clothing had been whisked away and replaced with new stuff.
Sadie never said a word about the new rug and the different clothes. I’m not sure she even noticed them.
I spent my days there, cooking her meals, working in her little garden (which would sicken but not quite die in another hot central Texas summer), and reading Bleak House to her. We also became involved in several of the afternoon soaps: The Secret Storm, Young Doctor Malone, From These Roots, and our personal favorite, The Edge of Night.
She changed the parting in her hair from the center to the right, cultivating a Veronica Lake style that would cover the worst of the scarring when the bandages eventually came off. Not that they would for a long time; the first of her reconstructive surgeries — a team effort involving four doctors — was scheduled for August fifth. Ellerton said there would be at least four more.
I would drive back to Deke’s after Sadie and I had our supper (which she rarely did more than pick at), because small towns are full of big eyes attached to gabby mouths. It was best that those big eyes should see my car in Deke’s driveway after the sun went down. Once it was dark, I walked the two miles back to Sadie’s, where I slept on the new hide-a-bed sofa until five in the morning. It was almost always broken rest, because nights when Sadie didn’t awaken me, screaming and thrashing her way out of bad dreams, were rare. In the daytime, Johnny Clayton was dead. After dark he still stalked her with his gun and knife.
I would go to her and soothe her as best I could. Sometimes she would trudge out to the living room with me and smoke a cigarette before shuffling back to bed, always pressing her hair down protectively over the bad side of her face. She would not let me change the bandages. That she did herself, in the bathroom, with the door closed.
After one especially terrible nightmare, I came in to find her standing naked by her bed and sobbing. She had become shockingly thin. Her nightgown was puddled at her feet. She heard me and turned around, one arm across her breasts and the other hand over her crotch. Her hair swung back to her right shoulder, where it actually belonged, and I saw the swollen scars, the heavy stitching, the fallen, rumpled flesh over her cheekbone.
“Get out!” she screamed. “Don’t look at me like this, why can’t you get out?”
“Sadie, what is it? Why did you take off your nightgown? What’s wrong?”
“I wet my bed, okay? I have to change it, so please get out and let me put some clothes on !”
I went to the foot of the bed, grabbed the quilt that was folded there, and wrapped it around her. When I turned one end up in a kind of collar that hid her cheek, she calmed.
“Go in the living room and be careful you don’t trip on that thing. Have a smoke. I’ll change the bed.”
“No, Jake, it’s dirty.”
I took her by the shoulders. “That’s what Clayton would say, and he’s dead. A little piss is all it is.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. But before you go. .”
I turned down the makeshift collar. She flinched and closed her eyes, but stood still. Only bearing it, but I still thought it was progress. I kissed the hanging flesh that had been her cheek and then turned the quilt up again to hide it.
“How can you?” she asked without opening her eyes. “It’s awful. ”
“Nah. It’s just another part of the you I love, Sadie. Now go in the other room while I change these sheets.”
When it was done, I offered to get into bed with her until she fell asleep. She flinched as she had when I’d turned down the quilt and shook her head. “I can’t, Jake. I’m sorry.”
Little by slowly, I told myself as I plodded across town to Deke’s in the first gray light of morning. Little by slowly.
On April twenty-fourth I told Deke I had something I needed to do in Dallas and asked him if he’d stay with Sadie until I got back around nine. He agreed willingly enough, and at five that afternoon I was sitting across from the Greyhound terminal on South Polk Street, near the intersection of Highway 77 and the still-new, fourlane I-20. I was reading (or pretending to read) the latest James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me.
At half past the hour, a station wagon pulled into the parking lot next to the terminal. Ruth Paine was driving. Lee got out, went around to the rear, and opened the doorgate. Marina, with June in her arms, emerged from the backseat. Ruth Paine stayed behind the wheel.
Lee had only two items of luggage: an olive-green duffel bag and a quilted gun case, the kind with handles. He carried them to an idling Scenicruiser. The driver took the suitcase and the rifle and stowed them in the open luggage hold after a cursory glance at Lee’s ticket.
Lee went to the door of the bus, then turned and embraced his wife, kissing her on both cheeks and then the mouth. He took the baby and nuzzled beneath her chin. June laughed. Lee laughed with her, but I saw tears in his eyes. He kissed June on the forehead, gave her a hug, then returned her to Marina and ran up the steps of the bus without looking back.
Marina walked to the station wagon, where Ruth Paine was now standing. June held her arms out to the older woman, who took her with a smile. They stood there for awhile, watching passengers board, then drove off.
I stayed where I was until the bus pulled out at 6:00 P.M., right on time. The sun, going down bloody in the west, flashed across the destination window, momentarily obscuring what was printed there. Then I could read it again, three words that meant Lee Harvey Oswald was out of my life, at least for awhile:
NEW ORLEANS EXPRESS
I watched it climb the entrance ramp to I-20 East, then walked the two blocks to where I’d parked my car and drove back to Jodie.
Hunch-think: that again.
I paid the May rent on the West Neely Street apartment even though I needed to start watching my dollars and had no concrete reason to do so. All I had was an unformed but strong feeling that I should keep a base of operations in Dallas.
Two days before the Kentucky Derby ran, I drove to Greenville Avenue, fully intending to put down five hundred dollars on Chateaugay to place. That, I reasoned, would be less memorable than betting on the nag to win. I parked four blocks down from Faith Financial and locked my car, a necessary precaution in that part of town even at eleven in the morning. I walked briskly at first, but then — once more for no concrete reason — my steps began to lag.
Half a block from the betting parlor masquerading as a streetfront loan operation, I came to a full stop. Once again I could see the bookie — sans eyeshade this forenoon — leaning in the doorway of his establishment and smoking a cigarette. Standing there in a strong flood of sunlight, bracketed by the sharp shadows of the doorway, he looked like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting. There was no chance he saw me that day, because he was staring at a car parked across the street. It was a cream-colored Lincoln with a green license plate. Above the numbers were the words SUNSHINE STATE. Which did not mean it was a harmonic. Which certainly didn’t mean it belonged to Eduardo Gutierrez of Tampa, the bookie who used to smile and say Here comes my Yanqui from Yankeeland. The one who had almost certainly had my beachfront house burned down.
All the same, I turned and walked back to my car with the five hundred I’d intended to bet still in my pocket.