Sadie wanted to do the dishes after the meal she called supper and I called dinner, but I told her to go on and pack her overnight case instead. It was small and blue, with rounded corners.
“My knee can stand up to a few dishes. You need to hit the road now if you want a full night’s sleep.”
Ten minutes later the dishes were done, my fingertips were pruney, and Sadie stood at the door. With her little bag in her hands and her hair curling around her face, she had never looked prettier to me.
“Jake? Tell me one good thing about the future.”
Surprisingly few things came. Cell phones? No. Suicide bombers? Probably not. Melting ice caps? Perhaps another time.
Then I grinned. “I’ll give you two for the price of one. The cold war is over and the president is a black man.”
She started to smile, then saw I wasn’t joking. Her mouth dropped open. “Are you telling me there’s a Negro in the White House ?”
“Yes indeed. Although in my day, such folks prefer to be called African-Americans.”
“Yes. I am.”
“Oh my God!”
“A great many people said that exact thing the day after the election.”
“Is he. . doing a good job?”
“Opinions vary. If you want mine, he’s doing as well as anyone could expect, given the complexities.”
“On that note, I think I’ll drive back to Jodie.” She laughed distractedly. “In a daze.”
She walked down the ramp, put her case in the cubby that served as her Beetle’s trunk, then blew me a kiss. She started to get in, but I couldn’t let her go like that. I couldn’t run — Dr. Perry said that was still eight months away, maybe even a year — but I limped down the ramp as fast as I could.
“Wait, Sadie, wait a minute!”
Mr. Kenopensky was sitting next door in his wheelchair, bundled up in a jacket and holding his battery-powered Motorola in his lap. On the sidewalk, Norma Whitten was making her slow way down toward the mailbox on the corner, using a pair of wooden sticks more like ski poles than crutches. She turned and waved to us, trying to lift the frozen side of her face into a smile.
Sadie looked at me questioningly in the twilight.
“I just wanted to tell you something,” I said. “I wanted to tell you you’re the best damned thing that ever happened to me.”
She laughed and hugged me. “Ditto, kind sir.”
We kissed a long time, and might have kissed longer but for the dry clapping sound on our right. Mr. Kenopensky was applauding.
Sadie pulled away, but took me by the wrists. “You’ll call me, won’t you? Keep me. . what’s that thing you say? In the loop?”
“That’s it, and I will.” I had no intention of keeping her in the loop. Deke or the police, either.
“Because you can’t do this on your own, Jake. You’re too weak.”
“I know that,” I said. Thinking: I better not be. “Call me so I know you got back safe.”
When her Bug turned the corner and disappeared, Mr. Kenopensky said, “Better mind your p’s and q’s, Amberson. That one’s a keeper.”
“I know.” I stayed at the foot of the driveway long enough to make sure Miz Whitten got back from the mailbox without falling down.
She made it.
I went back inside.
The first thing I did was to get my key ring off the top of the dresser and pick through the keys, surprised that Sadie had never shown them to me to see if they’d jog my memory. . but of course she couldn’t think of everything. There were an even dozen. I had no idea what most of them went to, although I was pretty sure the Schlage opened the front door of my house in. . was it Sabattus? I thought that was right, but I wasn’t sure.
There was one small key on the ring. Stamped on it was FC and 775 . It was a safe deposit box key, all right, but what was the bank? First Commercial? That sounded bankish, but it wasn’t right.
I closed my eyes and looked into darkness. I waited, almost sure what I wanted would come. . and it did. I saw a checkbook in a faux alligator cover. I saw myself flipping it open. This was surprisingly easy. Printed on the top check was not only my Land of Ago name but my last official Land of Ago address.
214 W. Neely St. Apartment 1
I thought: That’s where my car got stolen from.
And I thought: Oswald. The assassin’s name is Oswald Rabbit.
No, of course not. He was a man, not a cartoon character. But it was close.
“I’m coming for you, Mr. Rabbit,” I said. “Still coming.”
The phone rang shortly before nine-thirty. Sadie was home safe. “Don’t suppose anything came to you, did it? I’m a pest, I know.”
“Nothing. And you’re the farthest thing in the world from a pest.” She was also going to be the farthest thing in the world from Oswald Rabbit, if I had anything to do about it. Not to mention his wife, whose name might or might not be Mary, and his little girl, who I felt sure was named April.
“You were pulling my leg about a Negro being in the White House, weren’t you?”
I smiled. “Wait awhile. You can see for yourself.”
The DAVIN nurses, one old and formidable, the other young and pretty, arrived at 9:00 A.M. sharp. They did their thing. When the older one felt that I had grimaced, twitched, and moaned enough, she handed me a paper envelope with two pills in it. “Pain.”
“I don’t really think—”
“Take em,” she said — a woman of few words. “Freebies.”
I popped them in my mouth, cheeked them, swallowed water, then excused myself to use the bathroom. There I spat them out.
When I returned to the kitchen, the older nurse said: “Good progress. Don’t overdo.”
“The assholes who beat you up.”
“Uh. . not yet.”
“Doing something you shouldn’t have been doing?”
I gave her my widest smile, the one Christy used to say made me look like a game-show host on crack. “I don’t remember.”
Dr. Ellerton came for lunch, bringing huge roast beef sandwiches, crispy french fries dripping in grease, and the promised milkshakes. I ate as much as I could manage, which was really quite a lot. My appetite was returning.
“Mike talked up the idea of doing yet another variety show,” he said. “This time to benefit you. In the end, wiser heads prevailed. A small town can only give so much.” He lit a cigarette, dropped the match into the ashtray on the table, and inhaled with gusto. “Any chance the police will catch the mugs who tuned up on you? What do you hear?”
“Nothing, but I doubt it. They cleaned out my wallet, stole my car, and split.”
“What were you doing on that side of Dallas, anyway? It’s not exactly the high-society part of town.”
Well, apparently I lived there.
“I don’t remember. Visiting someone, maybe.”
“Are you getting plenty of rest? Not straining the knee too much?”
“No.” Although I suspected I’d be straining it plenty before much longer.
“Still falling asleep suddenly?”
“That’s quite a bit better.”
“Terrific. I guess—”
The phone rang. “That’ll be Sadie,” I said. “She calls on her lunch break.”
“I have to be shoving off, anyway. It’s great to see you putting on weight, George. Say hello to the pretty lady for me.”
I did so. She asked me if any pertinent memories were coming back. I knew by her delicate phrasing that she was calling from the school’s main office — and would have to pay Mrs. Coleridge for the long-distance when she was done. Besides keeping the DCHS exchequer, Mrs. Coleridge had long ears.
I told her no, no new memories, but I was going to take a nap and hope something would be there when I woke up. I added that I loved her (it was nice to say something that was the God’s honest), asked after Deke, wished her a good afternoon, and hung up. But I didn’t take a nap. I took my car keys and my briefcase and drove downtown. I hoped to God I’d have something in that briefcase when I came back.
I motored slowly and carefully, but my knee was still aching badly when I entered the First Corn Bank and presented my safe deposit box key.
My banker came out of his office to meet me, and his name clicked home immediately: Richard Link. His eyes widened with concern when I limped to meet him. “What happened to you, Mr. Amberson?”
“Car accident.” Hoping he’d missed or forgotten the squib in the Morning News ’s Police Beat page. I hadn’t seen it myself, but there had been one: Mr. George Amberson of Jodie, beaten and mugged, found unconscious, taken to Parkland Hospital. “I’m mending nicely.”
“That’s good to hear.”
The safe deposit boxes were in the basement. I negotiated the stairs in a series of hops. We used our keys, and Link carried the box into one of the cubicles for me. He set it on a tiny wedge of desk just big enough to hold it, then pointed to the button on the wall.
“Just ring for Melvin when you’ve finished. He’ll assist you.”
I thanked him, and when he was gone, I pulled the curtain across the cubicle’s doorway. We had unlocked the box, but it was still closed. I stared at it, my heart beating hard. John Kennedy’s future was inside.
I opened it. On top was a bundle of cash and a litter of stuff from the Neely Street apartment, including my First Corn checkbook. Beneath this was a sheaf of manuscript bound by two rubber bands. THE MURDER PLACE was typed on the top sheet. No author’s name, but it was my work. Below it was a blue notebook: the Word of Al. I held it in my hands, filled with a terrible certainty that when I opened it, all the pages would be blank. The Yellow Card Man would have erased them.
I flipped it open. On the first page, a photograph looked back at me. Narrow, not-quite-handsome face. Lips curved in a smile I knew well — hadn’t I seen it with my own eyes? It was the kind of smile that says I know what’s going on and you don’t, you poor boob.
Lee Harvey Oswald. The wretched waif who was going to change the world.
Memories came rushing in as I sat there in the cubicle, gasping for breath.
Ivy and Rosette on Mercedes Street. Last name Templeton, like Al’s.
The jump-rope girls: My old man drives a sub-ma-rine.
Silent Mike (Holy Mike) at Satellite Electronics.
George de Mohrenschildt ripping open his shirt like Superman.
Billy James Hargis and General Edwin A. Walker.
Marina Oswald, the assassin’s beautiful hostage, standing on my doorstep at 214 West Neely: Please excuse, have you seen my hubka?
The Texas School Book Depository.
Sixth floor, southeast window. The one with the best view of Dealey Plaza and Elm Street, where it curved toward the Triple Underpass.
I began shivering. I clutched my upper arms in my fists with my arms tightly locked over my chest. It made the left one — broken by the felt-wrapped pipe — ache, but I didn’t mind. I was glad. It tied me to the world.
When the shakes finally passed, I loaded the unfinished book manuscript, the precious blue notebook, and everything else into my briefcase. I reached for the button that would summon Melvin, then dummy-checked the very back of the box. There I found two more items. One was the cheap pawnshop wedding ring I’d purchased to support my cover story at Satellite Electronics. The other was the red baby rattle that had belonged to the Oswalds’ little girl (June, not April). The rattle went into the briefcase, the ring into the watch pocket of my slacks. I would throw it away on my drive home. If and when the time came, Sadie would have a much nicer one.
Knocking on glass. Then a voice: “—all right? Mister, are you all right?”
I opened my eyes, at first with no idea where I was. I looked to my left and saw a uniformed beat-cop knocking on the driver’s side window of my Chevy. Then it came. Halfway back to Eden Fallows, tired and exalted and terrified all at the same time, that I’m going to sleep feeling had drifted into my head. I’d pulled into a handy parking space immediately. That had been around two o’clock. Now, from the look of the lowering light, it had to be around four.
I cranked my window down and said, “Sorry, Officer. All at once I started to feel very sleepy, and it seemed safer to pull over.”
He nodded. “Yup, yup, booze’ll do that. How many did you have before you jumped into your car?”
“None. I suffered a head injury a few months ago.” I swiveled my neck so he could see the place where the hair hadn’t grown back.
He was halfway convinced, but still asked me to exhale in his face. That got him the rest of the way.
“Lemme see your ticket,” he said.
I showed him my Texas driver’s license.
“Not thinking of motoring all the way back to Jodie, are you?”
“No, Officer, just to North Dallas. I’m staying at a rehabilitation center called Eden Fallows.”
I was sweating. I hoped that if he saw it, he’d just put it down to a man who’d been snoozing in a closed car on a warmish November day. I also hoped — fervently — that he wouldn’t ask to see what was in the briefcase on the bench seat beside me. In 2011, I could refuse such a request, saying that sleeping in my car wasn’t probable cause. Hell, the parking space wasn’t even metered. In 1963, however, a cop might just start rummaging. He wouldn’t find drugs, but he would find loose cash, a manuscript with the word murder in its title, and a notebook full of delusional weirdness about Dallas and JFK. Would I be taken either to the nearest police station for questioning, or back to Parkland for psychiatric evaluation? Did the Waltons take way too long to say goodnight?
He stood there a moment, big and red-faced, a Norman Rockwell cop who belonged on a Saturday Evening Post cover. Then he handed back my license. “Okay, Mr. Amberson. Go on back to this Fallows place, and I suggest you park your car for the night when you get there. You’re looking peaky, nap or no nap.”
“That’s exactly what I plan to do.”
I could see him in my rearview as I drove away, watching. I felt certain I was going to fall asleep again before I got out of his sight. There’d be no warning this time; I’d just veer off the street and onto the sidewalk, maybe mowing down a pedestrian or three before winding up in the show window of a furniture store.
When I finally parked in front of my little cottage with the ramp leading up to the front door, my head was aching, my eyes were watering, my knee was throbbing. . but my memories of Oswald remained firm and clear. I slung my briefcase on the kitchen table and called Sadie.
“I tried you when I got home from school, but you weren’t there,” she said. “I was worried.”
“I was next door, playing cribbage with Mr. Kenopensky.” These lies were necessary. I had to remember that. And I had to tell them smoothly, because she knew me.
“Well, that’s good.” Then, without a pause or a change of inflection: “What’s his name? What’s the man’s name?”
Lee Oswald. She almost surprised it out of me, after all.
“I. . I still don’t know.”
“You hesitated. I heard you.”
I waited for the accusation, gripping the phone hard enough to hurt.
“This time it almost popped into your head, didn’t it?”
“There was something,” I agreed cautiously.
We talked for fifteen minutes while I looked at the briefcase with Al’s notes inside it. She asked me to call her later that evening. I promised I would.
I decided to wait until after The Huntley-Brinkley Report to open the blue notebook again. I didn’t think I’d find much of practical value at this point. Al’s final notes were sketchy and hurried; he had never expected Mission Oswald to go on so long. Neither had I. Getting to the disaffected little twerp was like traveling on a road littered with fallen branches, and in the end the past might succeed in protecting itself, after all. But I had stopped Dunning. That gave me hope. I had the glimmerings of a plan that might allow me to stop Oswald without going to prison or the electric chair in Huntsville. I had excellent reasons to want to remain free. The best one of all was in Jodie this evening, probably feeding Deke Simmons chicken soup.
I worked my way methodically through my little invalid-friendly apartment, collecting stuff. Other than my old typewriter, I didn’t want to leave a trace of George Amberson behind when I left. I hoped that wouldn’t be until Wednesday, but if Sadie said that Deke was better and she was planning to come back on Tuesday night, I’d have to speed things up. And where would I hide out until my job was done? A very good question.
A trumpet-blast announced the network news. Chet Huntley appeared. “After spending the weekend in Florida, where he watched the test-firing of a Polaris missile and visited his ailing father, President Kennedy had a busy Monday, making five speeches in nine hours.”
A helicopter—Marine One —descended while a waiting crowd cheered. The next shot featured Kennedy approaching the crowd behind a makeshift barrier, brushing at his shaggy hair with one hand and his tie with the other. He strode well ahead of the Secret Service contingent, which jogged to keep up. I watched, fascinated, as he actually slipped through a break in the barrier and plunged into the waiting mass of people, shaking hands left and right. The agents with him looked dismayed as they hurried after.
“This was the scene in Tampa,” Huntley continued, “where Kennedy pressed the flesh for almost ten minutes. He worries the men whose job it is to keep him safe, but you can see that the crowd loves it. And so does he, David — for all his alleged aloofness, he enjoys the demands of politics.”
Kennedy was moving toward his limo now, still shaking hands and accepting the occasional lady-hug. The car was a top-down convertible, exactly like the one he’d ride in from Love Field to his appointment with Oswald’s bullet. Maybe it was the same one. For a moment the blurry black-and-white film caught a familiar face in the crowd. I sat on my sofa and watched as the President of the United States shook the hand of my former Tampa bookie.
I had no way of knowing if Roth was correct about “the syph” or just repeating a rumor, but Eduardo Gutierrez had lost a lot of weight, his hair was thinning, and his eyes looked confused, as if he wasn’t sure where he was or even who he was. Like Kennedy’s Secret Service contingent, the men flanking him wore bulky suit coats in spite of the Florida heat. It was only a glimpse, and then the footage switched to Kennedy pulling away in the open car that left him so vulnerable, still waving and flashing his grin.
Back to Huntley, his craggy face now wearing a bemused smile. “The day did have its funny side, David. As the president was entering the International Inn ballroom, where the Tampa Chamber of Commerce was waiting to hear him speak. . well, listen for yourself.”
Back to the footage. As Kennedy entered, waving to the standing audience, an elderly gentleman in an Alpine hat and lederhosen struck up “Hail to the Chief ” on an accordion bigger than he was. The president did a double take, then lifted both hands in an amiable holy shit gesture. For the first time I saw him as I had come to see Oswald — as an actual man. In the double take and the gesture that followed it, I saw something even more beautiful than a sense of humor: an appreciation for life’s essential absurdity.
David Brinkley was also smiling. “If Kennedy’s reelected, perhaps that gentleman will be invited to play at the Inaugural Ball. Probably ‘The Beer Barrel Polka’ rather than ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Meanwhile, in Geneva. .”
I turned off the TV, returned to the sofa, and opened Al’s book. As I flipped to the back, I kept seeing that double take. And the grin. A sense of humor; a sense of the absurd. The man in the sixth-floor window of the Book Depository had neither. Oswald had proved it time and again, and such a man had no business changing history.
I was dismayed to find that five of the last six pages in Al’s notebook dealt with Lee’s movements in New Orleans and his fruitless efforts to get to Cuba via Mexico. Only the last page focused on the lead-up to the assassination, and those final notes were perfunctory. Al had no doubt had that part of the story by heart, and probably figured that if I hadn’t gotten Oswald by the third week of November, it was going to be too late.
10/3/63: O back in Texas. He and Marina “sort of” separated. She at Ruth Paine’s house, O shows up mostly on weekends. Ruth gets O a job at Book Dep thru a neighbor (Buell Frazier). Ruth calls O “a fine young man.”
O living in Dallas during the work-week. Rooming house.
10/17/63: O starts work at Dep. Shifting books, unloading trucks, etc.
10/18/63: O turns 24. Ruth and Marina give him a surprise party. O thanks them. Cries.
10/20/63: 2 nd daughter born: Audrey Rachel. Ruth takes Marina to hosp (Parkland) while O works. Rifle stored in Paine garage, wrapped in blanket.
O repeatedly visited by FBI agent James Hosty. Stokes his paranoia.
11/21/63: O comes to Paine house. Begs Marina to reunite. M refuses. Last straw for O.
11/22/63: O leaves all his money on dresser for Marina. Also wedding ring. Goes from Irving to Book Dep with Buell Frazier. Has package wrapped in brown paper. Buell asks about it. “Curtain rods for my new apartment,” O tells him. Mann-Carc rifle probably disassembled. Buell parks in public lot 2 blocks from Book Dep. 3-min walk.
11:50 AM: O constructs sniper’s nest on SE corner of 6 th floor, using cartons to shield him from workers on other side, who are laying down plywood for new floor. Lunch. No one there but him. Everyone watching for Pres.
11:55 AM: O assembles & loads Mann-Carc.
12:29 PM: Motorcade arrives Dealey Plaza.
12:30 PM: O shoots 3 times. 3 rd shot kills JFK.
The piece of information I most wanted — the location of Oswald’s rooming house — wasn’t in Al’s notes. I restrained an urge to throw the notebook across the room. Instead I got up, put on my coat, and went outside. It was nearly full dark, but a three-quarter moon was rising in the sky. By its light I saw Mr. Kenopensky slumped in his wheelchair. His Motorola was in his lap.
I made my way down the ramp and limped over. “Mr. K? All right?”
For a moment he didn’t answer or even move, and I was sure he was dead. Then he looked up and smiled. “Just listenin to my music, son. They play swing at night on KMAT, and it really takes me back. I could lindy and bunny-hop like nobody’s biz back in the old days, though you’d never know to look at me now. Ain’t the moon purty?”
It was bigtime purty. We looked at it awhile without speaking, and I thought about the job I had to do. Maybe I didn’t know where Lee was staying tonight, but I knew where his rifle was: Ruth Paine’s garage, wrapped in a blanket. Suppose I went there and took it? I might not even have to break in. This was the Land of Ago, where folks in the hinterlands often didn’t lock their houses, let alone their garages.
Only what if Al was wrong? He’d been wrong about the stash-point before the Walker attempt, after all. Even if it was there. .
“What’re you thinkin about, son?” Mr. Kenopensky asked. “You got a misery look. Not girl trouble, I hope.”
“No.” At least not yet. “Do you give advice?”
“Yessir, I do. It’s the one thing old coots are good for when they can’t swing a rope or ride a line no more.”
“Suppose you knew a man was going to do a bad thing. That his heart was absolutely set on it. If you stopped a man like that once — talked him out of it, say — do you think he’d try it again, or does that moment pass forever?”
“Hard to say. Are you maybe thinking whoever scarred your young lady’s face is going to come back and try to finish the job?”
“Something like that.”
“Crazy fella.” It wasn’t a question.
“Sane men will often take a hint,” Mr. Kenopensky said. “Crazy men rarely do. Saw it often back in the sagebrush days, before electric lights and phones. Warn em off, they come back. Beat em up, they hit from ambush — first you, then the one they’re really after. Jug em up in county, they sit and wait to get out. Safest thing to do with crazy men is put em in the penitentiary for a long stretch. Or kill em.”
“That’s what I think, too.”
“Don’t let him back to spoil the rest of her pretty, if that’s what he aims to do. If you care for her as much as you seem to, you’ve got a responsibility.”
I certainly did, although Clayton was no longer the problem. I went back to my little modular apartment, made strong black coffee, and sat down with a legal pad. My plan was a little clearer now, and I wanted to start fleshing in the details.
I doodled instead. Then fell asleep.
When I woke up it was almost midnight and my cheek ached where it had been pressed against the checked oilcloth covering the kitchen table. I looked at what was on my pad. I didn’t know if I’d drawn it before going to sleep or if I had wakened long enough to do it and just couldn’t remember.
It was a gun. Not a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, but a pistol. My pistol. The one I’d tossed beneath the porch steps at 214 West Neely. It was probably still there. I hoped it was still there.
I was going to need it.
Sadie called in the morning and said Deke was a little better, but she intended to make him stay home tomorrow, as well. “Otherwise he’ll just try to come in, and have a setback. But I’ll pack my bag before I leave for school tomorrow morning and head your way as soon as period six is over.”
Period six ended at ten past one. That meant I’d have to be gone from Eden Fallows by four o’clock tomorrow afternoon at the latest. If only I knew where. “I look forward to seeing you.”
“You sound all stiff and funny. Are you having one of your headaches?”
“A little one,” I said. It was true.
“Go lie down with a damp cloth over your eyes.”
“I’ll do that.” I had no intention of doing that.
“Have you thought of anything?”
I had, as a matter of fact. I’d thought that taking Lee’s rifle wasn’t enough. And shooting him at the Paine house was a bad option. Not just because I’d probably be caught, either. Counting Ruth’s two, there were four kids in that house. I might still have tried it if Lee had been walking from a nearby bus stop, but he’d be riding with Buell Frazier, the neighbor who’d gotten him the job at Ruth Paine’s request.
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“We’ll think of something. You wait and see.”
I drove (still slowly, but with increasing confidence) across town to West Neely, wondering what I’d do if the ground-floor apartment was occupied. Buy a new gun, I supposed. . but the.38 Police Special was the one I wanted, if only because I’d had one just like it in Derry, and that mission had been a success.
According to newscaster Frank Blair on the Today show, Kennedy had moved on to Miami, where he was greeted by a large crowd of cubanos. Some held up signs reading VIVA JFK while others carried a banner reading KENNEDY IS A TRAITOR TO OUR CAUSE. If nothing changed, he had seventy-two hours left. Oswald, who had only slightly longer, would be in the Book Depository, perhaps loading cartons into one of the freight elevators, maybe in the break room drinking coffee.
I might be able to get him there — just walk up to him and plug him — but I’d be collared and wrestled to the floor. After the killshot, if I was lucky. Before, if I wasn’t. Either way, the next time I saw Sadie Dunhill it would be through glass reinforced with chickenwire. If I had to give myself up in order to stop Oswald — to sacrifice myself, in hero-speak — I thought I could do that. But I didn’t want it to play out that way. I wanted Sadie and my poundcake, too.
There was a pot barbecue on the lawn at 214 West Neely, and a new rocking chair on the porch, but the shades were drawn and there was no car in the driveway. I parked in front, told myself that bold is beautiful, and mounted the steps. I stood where Marina had stood on April tenth when she came to visit me and knocked as she had knocked. If someone answered the door, I’d be Frank Anderson, canvassing the neighborhood on behalf of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (I was too old for Grit ). If the lady of the house expressed an interest, I’d promise to come back with my sample case tomorrow.
No one answered. Maybe the lady of the house also worked. Maybe she was down the block, visiting a neighbor. Maybe she was in the bedroom that had been mine not long ago, sleeping off a drunk. It was mix-nox to me, as we say in the Land of Ago. The place was quiet, that was the important thing, and the sidewalk was deserted. Even Mrs. Alberta Hitchinson, the walker-equipped neighborhood sentry, wasn’t in evidence.
I descended from the porch in my limping sidesaddle fashion, started down the walk, turned as if I’d forgotten something, and peered under the steps. The.38 was there, half-buried in leaves with the short barrel poking out. I got down on my good knee, snagged it, and dropped it into the side pocket of my sport coat. I looked around and saw no one watching. I limped to my car, put the gun in the glove compartment, and drove away.
Instead of going back to Eden Fallows, I drove into downtown Dallas, stopping at a sporting goods store on the way to buy a gun-cleaning kit and a box of fresh ammo. The last thing I wanted was to have the.38 misfire or blow up in my face.
My next stop was the Adolphus. There were no rooms available until next week, the doorman told me — every hotel in Dallas was full for the president’s visit — but for a dollar tip, he was more than happy to park my car in the hotel lot. “Have to be gone by four, though. That’s when the heavy check-ins start.”
By then it was noon. It was only three or four blocks to Dealey Plaza, but I took my sweet time getting there. I was tired, and my headache was worse in spite of a Goody’s Powder. Texans drive with their horns, and every blast dug into my brain. I rested often, leaning against the sides of buildings and standing on my good leg like a heron. An off-duty taxi driver asked if I was okay; I assured him that I was. It was a lie. I was distraught and miserable. A man with a bum knee really shouldn’t have to carry the future of the world on his back.
I dropped my grateful butt onto the same bench where I’d sat in 1960, only days after arriving in Dallas. The elm that had shaded me then clattered bare branches today. I stretched out my aching knee, sighed with relief, then turned my attention to the ugly brick cube of the Book Depository. The windows overlooking Houston and Elm Streets glittered in the chilly afternoon sun. We know a secret, they said. We’re going to be famous, especially the one on the southeast corner of the sixth floor. We’re going to be famous, and you can’t stop us. A sense of stupid menace surrounded the building. And was it just me who thought so? I watched several people cross Elm to pass the building on the other side and thought not. Lee was inside that cube right now, and I was sure he was thinking many of the things I was thinking. Can I do this? Will I do this? Is it my destiny?
Robert’s not your brother anymore, I thought. Now I’m your brother, Lee, your brother of the gun. You just don’t know it.
Behind the Depository, in the trainyard, an engine hooted. A flock of band-tailed pigeons took wing. They momentarily whirled above the Hertz sign on the roof of the Depository, then wheeled away toward Fort Worth.
If I killed him before the twenty-second, Kennedy would be saved but I’d almost certainly wind up in jail or a psychiatric hospital for twenty or thirty years. But if I killed him on the twenty-second? Perhaps as he assembled his rifle?
Waiting until so late in the game would be a terrible risk, and one I’d tried with all my might to avoid, but I thought it could be done and was now probably my best chance. It would be safer with a partner to help me run my game, but there was only Sadie, and I wouldn’t involve her. Not even, I realized bleakly, if it meant that Kennedy had to die or I had to go to prison. She had been hurt enough.
I began making my slow way back to the hotel to get my car. I took one final glance back at the Book Depository over my shoulder. It was looking at me. I had no doubt of it. And of course it was going to end there, I’d been foolish to imagine anything else. I had been driven toward that brick hulk like a cow down a slaughterhouse chute.
I started awake at dawn from some unremembered dream, my heart beating hard.
That you’ve been lying to her about all the things you claim not to remember.
“No,” I said. My voice was rusty with sleep.
Yes. She was careful to say she was leaving after period six, because she doesn’t want you to know she’s planning to leave much sooner. She doesn’t want you to know until she shows up. In fact, she might be on the road already. You’ll be halfway through your morning therapy session, and in she’ll breeze.
I didn’t want to believe this, but it felt like a foregone conclusion.
So where was I going to go? As I sat there on the bed in that Wednesday morning’s first light, that also seemed like a foregone conclusion. It was as if my subconscious mind had known all along. The past has resonance, it echoes.
But first I had one more chore to perform on my used typewriter. An unpleasant one.
November 20, 1963
I have been lying to you. I think you’ve suspected
that for quite some time now. I think you’re planning to show up early today. That is why you won’t see me again until after JFK visits Dallas the day after tomorrow.
If things go as I hope, we’ll have a long and happy life together in a different place. It will be strange to you at first, but I think you’ll get used to it. I’ll help you. I love you, and that’s why I can’t let you be a part of this.
Please believe in me, please be patient, and please
don’t be surprised if you read my name and see my picture in the papers — if things go as I want them to,
that will probably happen. Above all, do not try to find me.
All my love,
PS: You should burn this.
I packed my life as George Amberson into the trunk of my gull-wing Chevy, tacked a note for the therapist on the door, and drove away feeling heavy and homesick. Sadie left Jodie even earlier than I’d thought she might — before dawn. I departed Eden Fallows at nine. She pulled her Beetle up to the curb at quarter past, read the note canceling the therapy session, and let herself in with the key I’d given her. Propped against the typewriter’s roller-bar was an envelope with her name on it. She tore it open, read the letter, sat down on the sofa in front of the blank television, and cried. She was still crying when the therapist showed up. . but she had burned the note, as I requested.
Mercedes Street was mostly silent under an overcast sky. The jump-rope girls weren’t in evidence — they’d be in school, perhaps listening raptly as their teacher told them all about the upcoming presidential visit — but the FOR RENT sign was once more tacked to the rickety porch railing, as I’d expected. There was a phone number. I drove down to the Montgomery Ward warehouse parking lot and called it from the booth near the loading dock. I had no doubt that the man who answered with a laconic “Yowp, this is Merritt” was the same guy who had rented 2703 to Lee and Marina. I could still see his Stetson hat and gaudy stitched boots.
I told him what I wanted, and he laughed in disbelief. “I don’t rent by the week. That’s a fine home there, podna.”
“It’s a dump,” I said. “I’ve been inside. I know.”
“Now wait just a doggone—”
“Nosir, you wait. I’ll give you fifty bucks to squat in that hole through the weekend. That’s almost a full month’s rent, and you can put your sign back in the window come Monday.”
“Why would you—”
“Because Kennedy’s coming and every hotel in Dallas — Fort Worth is full. I drove a long way to see him, and I don’t intend to camp out in Fair Park or on Dealey Plaza.”
I heard the click and flare of a cigarette lighter as Merritt thought this over.
“Time’s wasting,” I said. “Tick-tock.”
“What’s your name, podna?”
“George Amberson.” I sort of wished I’d moved in without calling at all. I almost had, but a visit from the Fort Worth PD was the last thing I needed. I doubted if the residents of a street where chickens were sometimes blown up to celebrate holidays gave much of a shit about squatters, but better safe than sorry. I was no longer just walking around the house of cards; I was living in it.
“I’ll meet you out front in half an hour, forty-five minutes.”
“I’ll be inside,” I said. “I have a key.”
More silence. Then: “Where’d you get it?”
I had no intention of peaching on Ivy, even if she was still in Mozelle. “From Lee. Lee Oswald. He gave it to me so I could go in and water his plants.”
“That little pissant had plants ?”
I hung up and drove back to 2703. My temporary landlord, perhaps motivated by curiosity, arrived in his Chrysler only fifteen minutes later. He was wearing his Stetson and fancy boots. I was sitting in the front room, listening to the argumentative ghosts of people who were still living. They had a lot to say.
Merritt wanted to pump me about Oswald — was he really a damn commanist? I said no, he was a good old Louisiana boy who worked at a place that would overlook the president’s motorcade on Friday. I said I hoped that Lee would let me share his vantage point.
“Fuckin Kennedy!” Merritt nearly shouted. “Now he’s a commanist for sure. Somebody ought to shoot that sumbitch til he cain’t wiggle.”
“You have a nice day, now,” I said, opening the door.
He went, but he wasn’t happy about it. This was a fellow who was used to having tenants kowtow and cringe. He turned on the cracked and crumbling concrete walk. “You leave the place as nice as you found it, now, y’hear?”
I looked around at the living room with its moldering rug, cracked plaster, and one brokedown easy chair. “No problem there,” I said.
I sat back down and tried to tune in to the ghosts again: Lee and Marina, Marguerite and de Mohrenschildt. I fell into one of my abrupt sleeps instead. When I woke up, I thought the chanting I heard must be from a fading dream.
“Charlie Chaplin went to FRANCE! Just to see the ladies DANCE!”
It was still there when I opened my eyes. I went to the window and looked out. The jump-rope girls were a little taller and older, but it was them, all right, the Terrible Trio. The one in the middle was spotty, although she looked at least four years too young for adolescent acne. Maybe it was rubella.
“Salute to the Cap’n!”
“Salute to the Queen,” I muttered, and went into the bathroom to wash my face. The water that belched out of the tap was rusty, but cold enough to wake me the rest of the way up. I had replaced my broken watch with a cheap Timex and saw it was two-thirty. I wasn’t hungry, but I needed to eat something, so I drove down to Mr. Lee’s Bar-B-Q. On the way back, I stopped at a drugstore for another box of headache powders. I also bought a couple of John D. MacDonald paperbacks.
The jump-rope girls were gone. Mercedes Street, ordinarily raucous, was strangely silent. Like a play before the curtain goes up on the last act, I thought. I went in to eat my meal, but although the ribs were tangy and tender, I ended up throwing most of them away.
I tried to sleep in the main bedroom, but in there the ghosts of Lee and Marina were too lively. Shortly before midnight, I relocated to the smaller bedroom. Rosette Templeton’s Crayola girls were still on the walls, and I somehow found their identical jumpers (Forest Green must have been Rosette’s favorite crayon) and big black shoes comforting. I thought those girls would make Sadie smile, especially the one wearing the Miss America crown.
“I love you, honey,” I said, and fell asleep.
I didn’t want breakfast any more than I’d wanted dinner the night before, but by 11:00 A.M. I needed coffee desperately. A gallon or so seemed about right. I grabbed one of my new paperbacks—Slam the Big Door, it was called — and drove to the Happy Egg on Braddock Highway. The TV behind the counter was on, and I watched a news story about Kennedy’s impending arrival in San Antonio, where he was to be greeted by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Also to join the party: Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie.
Over footage of Kennedy and his wife walking across the tarmac of Andrews Air Force base in Washington, heading for the blue-and-white presidential plane, a correspondent who sounded like she might soon pee in her underwear talked about Jackie’s new “soft” hairdo, set off by a “jaunty black beret,” and the smooth lines of her “belted two-piece shirt-dress, by her favorite designer, Oleg Cassini.” Cassini might indeed be her favorite designer, but I knew Mrs. Kennedy had another outfit packed away on the plane. The designer of that one was Coco Chanel. It was pink wool, accessorized by a black collar. And of course there was a pink pillbox hat to top it off. The suit would go well with the roses she’d be handed at Love Field, not so well with the blood which would splatter the skirt and her stockings and shoes.
I went back to Mercedes Street and read my paperbacks. I waited for the obdurate past to swat me like a troublesome fly — for the roof to fall in or a sinkhole to open and drop 2703 deep into the ground. I cleaned my.38, loaded it, then unloaded it and cleaned it again. I almost hoped I would disappear into one of my sudden sleeps — it would at least pass the time — but that didn’t happen. The minutes dragged by, turning reluctantly into a stack of hours, each one bringing Kennedy that much closer to the intersection of Houston and Elm.
No sudden sleeps today, I thought. That will happen tomorrow. When the critical moment comes, I’ll just drop into unconsciousness. The next time I open my eyes, the deed will have been done and the past will have protected itself.
It could happen. I knew it could. If it did, I’d have a decision to make: find Sadie and marry her, or go back and start all over again. Thinking about it, I found there was really no decision to be made. I didn’t have the strength to go back and start over. One way or another, this was it. The trapper’s last shot.
That night, the Kennedys, Johnsons, and Connallys ate dinner in Houston, at an event put on by the League of Latin American Citzens. The cuisine was Argentinian: ensalada rusa and the stew known as guiso. Jackie made the after-dinner speech — in Spanish. I ate takeout burgers and fries. . or tried to. After a few bites, that meal also went into the garbage can out back.
I had finished both of the MacDonald novels. I thought about getting my own unfinished book out of the trunk of my car, but the idea of reading it was sickening. I ended up just sitting in the half-busted armchair until it was dark outside. Then I went into the little bedroom where Rosette Templeton and June Oswald had slept. I lay down with my shoes off and my clothes on, using the cushion from the living room chair as a pillow. I’d left the door open and the light in the living room burning. By its glow I could see the Crayola girls in their green jumpers. I knew I was in for the sort of night that would make the long day I had just passed seem short; I’d lie here wide awake, my feet hanging over the end of the bed almost to the floor, until the first light of November twenty-second came filtering in through the window.
It was long. I was tortured by what-ifs, should-have-beens, and thoughts of Sadie. Those were the worst. The missing her and wanting her went so deep it felt like physical sickness. At some point, probably long after midnight (I’d given up looking at my watch; the slow movement of the hands was too depressing), I fell into a sleep that was dreamless and profound. God knows how long I would have slept the next morning if I hadn’t been awakened. Someone was shaking me gently.
“Come on, Jake. Open your eyes.”
I did as I was told, although when I saw who was sitting beside me on the bed, I was at first positive I was dreaming after all. I had to be. But then I reached out, touched the leg of her faded blue jeans, and felt the fabric under my palm. Her hair was tied up, her face almost devoid of makeup, the disfigurement of her left cheek clear and singular. It was Sadie. She had found me.