I wasn’t exactly arrested, but I was taken into custody and driven to the Dallas police station in a squad car. On the last block of the ride, people — some of them reporters, most of them ordinary citizens — pounded on the windows and peered inside. In a clinical, distant way, I wondered if I would perhaps be dragged from the car and lynched for attempting to murder the president. I didn’t care. What concerned me most was my bloodstained shirt. I wanted it off; I also wanted to wear it forever. It was Sadie’s blood.
Neither of the cops in the front seat asked me any questions. I suppose someone had told them not to. If they had asked any, I wouldn’t have replied. I was thinking. I could do that because the coldness was creeping over me again. I put it on like a suit of armor. I could fix this. I would fix this. But first I had some talking to do.
They put me in a room that was as white as ice. There was a table and three hard chairs. I sat in one of them. Outside, telephones rang and a Teletype chattered. People went back and forth talking in loud voices, sometimes shouting, sometimes laughing. The laughter had a hysterical sound. It was how men laugh when they know they’ve had a narrow escape. Dodged a bullet, so to speak. Perhaps Edwin Walker had laughed like that on the night of April tenth, as he talked to reporters and brushed broken glass from his hair.
The same two cops who brought me from the Book Depository searched me and took my things. I asked if I could have my last two packets of Goody’s. The two cops conferred, then tore them open and poured them out on the table, which was engraved with initials and scarred with cigarette burns. One of them wetted a finger, tasted the powder, and nodded. “Do you want water?”
“No.” I scooped up the powder and poured it into my mouth. It was bitter. That was fine with me.
One of the cops left. The other asked for my bloody shirt, which I reluctantly took off and handed over. Then I pointed at him. “I know it’s evidence, but you treat it with respect. The blood on it came from the woman I loved. That might not mean much to you, but it’s also from the woman who helped to stop the murder of President Kennedy, and that should.”
“We only want it for blood-typing.”
“Fine. But it goes on my receipt of personal belongings. I’ll want it back.”
The cop who’d left came back with a plain white undershirt. It looked like the one Oswald had been wearing — or would have been wearing — in the mugshot taken shortly after his arrest at the Texas Theatre.
I arrived in the little white interview room at twenty past one. About an hour later (I can’t say with exactitude because there was no clock and my new Timex had been taken with the rest of my personal effects), the same two uniforms brought me some company. An old acquaintance, in fact: Dr. Malcolm Perry, toting a large black country doctor’s medical bag. I regarded him with mild astonishment. He was here at the police station visiting me because he didn’t have to be at Parkland Hospital, picking bits of bullet and shards of bone out of John Kennedy’s brain. The river of history was already moving into its new course.
“Hello, Dr. Perry.”
He nodded. “Mr. Amberson.” The last time he’d seen me, he’d called me George. If I’d had any doubts about being under suspicion, that would have confirmed them. But I didn’t. I’d been there, and I’d known what was about to happen. Bonnie Ray Williams would already have told them as much.
“I understand you’ve reinjured that knee.”
“Let’s have a look.”
He tried to pull up my left pants leg and couldn’t. The joint was too swollen. When he produced a pair of scissors, both cops stepped forward and drew their guns, keeping them pointed at the floor with their fingers outside the trigger guards. Dr. Perry looked at them with mild astonishment, then cut the leg of my pants up the seam. He looked, he touched, he produced a hypodermic needle and drew off fluid. I gritted my teeth and waited for it to be over. Then he rummaged in his bag, came out with an elastic bandage, and wrapped the knee tightly. That provided some relief.
“I can give you something for the pain, if these officers don’t object.”
They didn’t, but I did. The most crucial hour of my life — and Sadie’s — was dead ahead. I didn’t want dope clouding my brain when it rolled around.
“Do you have any Goody’s Headache Powder?”
Perry wrinkled his nose as if he had smelled something bad. “I have Bayer Aspirin and Emprin. The Emprin’s a bit stronger.”
“Give me that, then. And Dr. Perry?”
He looked up from his bag.
“Sadie and I didn’t do anything wrong. She gave her life for her country. . and I would have given mine for her. I just didn’t get the chance.”
“If so, let me be the first to thank you. On behalf of the whole country.”
“The president. Where is he now? Do you know?”
Dr. Perry looked at the cops, eyebrows raised in a question. They looked at each other, then one of them said, “He’s gone on to Austin, to give a dinner speech, just like he was scheduled to do. I don’t know if that makes him crazy-brave or just stupid.”
Maybe, I thought, Air Force One was going to crash, killing Kennedy and everyone else on board. Maybe he was going to have a heart attack or a fatal stroke. Maybe some other chickenshit bravo was going to blow his handsome head off. Did the obdurate past work against the things changed as well as against the change-agent? I didn’t know. Nor much care. I had done my part. What happened to Kennedy from this point on was out of my hands.
“I heard on the radio that Jackie isn’t with him,” Perry said quietly. “He sent her on ahead to the vice president’s ranch in Johnson City. He’ll join her there for the weekend as planned. If what you say is true, George—”
“I think that’s enough, doc,” one of the cops said. It certainly was for me; to Mal Perry I was George again.
Dr. Perry — who had his share of doctor’s arrogance — ignored him. “If what you say is true, then I see a trip to Washington in your future. And very likely a medal ceremony in the Rose Garden.”
After he departed, I was left alone again. Only not really; Sadie was there, too. How we danced, she’d said just before she passed from this world. I could close my eyes and see her in line with the other girls, shaking her shoulders and doing the Madison. In this memory she was laughing, her hair was flying, and her face was perfect. 2011 surgical techniques could do a lot to fix what John Clayton had done to that face, but I thought I had an even better technique. If I got a chance to use it, that was.
I was allowed to baste in my own painful juices for two hours before the door of the interview room opened again. Two men came in. The one with the basset-hound face beneath a white Stetson hat introduced himself as Captain Will Fritz of the Dallas Police. He had a briefcase — but not my briefcase, so that was all right.
The other guy had heavy jowls, a drinker’s complexion, and short dark hair that gleamed with hair tonic. His eyes were sharp, inquisitive, and a little worried. From the inside pocket of his suit coat he produced an ID folder and flipped it open. “James Hosty, Mr. Amberson. Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
You have good reason to look worried, I thought. You were the man in charge of monitoring Lee, weren’t you, Agent Hosty?
Will Fritz said, “Like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Amberson.”
“Yes,” I said. “And I’d like to get out of here. People who save the President of the United States generally don’t get treated like criminals.”
“Now, now,” Agent Hosty said. “We sent you a doc, didn’t we? And not just any doc; your doc.”
“Ask your questions,” I said.
And got ready to dance.
Fritz opened his briefcase and brought out a plastic bag with an evidence tag taped to it. Inside it was my.38. “We found this lying against the barricade of boxes Oswald set up, Mr. Amberson. Was it his, do you think?”
“No, that’s a Police Special. It’s mine. Lee had a.38, but it was a Victory model. If it wasn’t on his body, you’ll probably find it wherever he was staying.”
Fritz and Hosty looked at each other in surprise, then back at me.
“So you admit you knew Oswald,” Fritz said.
“Yes, although not well. I didn’t know where he was living, or I would have gone there.”
“As it happens,” Hosty said, “he had a room on Beckley Street. He was registered under the name O. H. Lee. He seems to have had another alias, too. Alek Hidell. He used it to get mail.”
“Wife and kiddo not with him?” I asked.
Hosty smiled. It spread his jowls approximately half a mile in either direction. “Who’s asking the questions here, Mr. Amberson?”
“Both of us,” I said. “I risked my life to save the president, and my fiancée gave hers, so I think I have a right to ask questions.”
Then I waited to see how tough they’d get. If real tough, they actually believed I’d been in on it. Real easy, they didn’t but wanted to be sure. It turned out to be somewhere in the middle.
Fritz used a blunt finger to spin the bag with the gun in it. “I’ll tell you what might have happened, Mr. Amberson. I won’t say it did, but you’d have to convince us otherwise.”
“Uh-huh. Have you called Sadie’s folks? They live in Savannah. You should also call Deacon Simmons and Ellen Dockerty, in Jodie. They were like surrogate parents to her.” I considered this. “To both of us, really. I was going to ask Deke to be my best man at our wedding.”
Fritz took no notice of this. “What might have happened was you and your girl were in on it with Oswald. And maybe at the end you got cold feet.”
The ever-popular conspiracy theory. No home should be without one.
“Maybe you realized at the last minute that you were getting ready to shoot the most powerful man in the whole world,” Hosty said. “You had a moment of clarity. So you stopped him. If it went like that, you’d get a lot of leniency.”
Yes. Leniency to consist of forty, maybe even fifty years in Leavenworth eating mac and cheese instead of death in the Texas electric chair.
“Then why weren’t we there with him, Agent Hosty? Instead of hammering on the door to be let in?”
Hosty shrugged. You tell me.
“And if we were plotting an assassination, you must have seen me with him. Because I know you had him under at least partial surveillance.” I leaned forward. “Why didn’t you stop him, Hosty? That was your job.”
He drew back as if I’d raised a fist to him. His jowls reddened.
For a few moments at least, my grief hardened into a kind of malicious pleasure. “The FBI kept an eye on him because he defected to Russia, redefected to the United States, then tried to defect to Cuba. He was handing out pro-Fidel leaflets on street corners for months before this horror show today.”
“How do you know all that?” Hosty barked.
“Because he told me. Then what happens? The president who’s tried everything he can think of to knock Castro off his perch comes to Dallas. Working at the Book Depository, Lee had a ringside seat for the motorcade. You knew it and did nothing.”
Fritz was staring at Hosty with something like horror. I’m sure Hosty was regretting the fact that the Dallas cop was even in the room, but what could he do? It was Fritz’s station.
“We did not consider him a threat,” Hosty said stiffly.
“Well, that was certainly a mistake. What was in the note he gave you, Hosty? I know Lee went to your office and left you one when he was told you weren’t there, but he wouldn’t tell me what was in it. He just gave that thin little fuck-you smile of his. We’re talking about the man who killed the woman I loved, so I think I deserve to know. Did he say he was going to do something that would make the world sit up and take notice? I bet he did.”
“It was nothing like that!”
“Show me the note, then. Double-dog dare you.”
“Any communication from Mr. Oswald is Bureau business.”
“I don’t think you can show it. I’ll bet it’s ashes in your office toilet, as per Mr. Hoover’s orders.”
If it wasn’t, it would be. It was in Al’s notes.
“If you’re such an innocent,” Fritz said, “you’ll tell us how you knew Oswald and why you were carrying a handgun.”
“And why the lady had a butcher’s knife with blood on it,” Hosty added.
I saw red at that. “The lady had blood everywhere!” I shouted. “On her clothes, on her shoes, in her purse! The son of a bitch shot her in the chest, or didn’t you notice?”
Fritz: “Calm down, Mr. Amberson. No one’s accusing you of anything.” The subtext: Yet.
I took a deep breath. “Have you talked to Dr. Perry? You sent him to examine me and take care of my knee, so you must have. Which means you know I was beaten within an inch of my life last August. The man who ordered the beating — and participated in it — is a bookie named Akiva Roth. I don’t think he meant to hurt me as badly as he did, but probably I smarted off to him and made him mad. I can’t remember. There’s a lot I can’t remember since that day.”
“Why didn’t you report this after it happened?”
“Because I was in a coma, Detective Fritz. When I came out of it, I didn’t remember. When I did remember — some of it, at least — I recalled Roth saying he was hooked up with a Tampa bookie I’d done business with, and a New Orleans mobster named Carlos Marcello. That made going to the cops seem risky.”
“Are you saying DPD is dirty?” I didn’t know if Fritz’s anger was real or faked, and didn’t much care.
“I’m saying I watch The Untouchables and I know the Mob doesn’t like rats. I bought a gun for personal protection — as is my right under the Second Amendment — and I carried it.” I pointed at the evidence bag. “That gun.”
Hosty: “Where’d you buy it?”
“I don’t remember.”
Fritz: “Your amnesia is pretty convenient, isn’t it? Like something on The Secret Storm or As the World Turns. ”
“Talk to Perry,” I repeated. “And take another look at my knee. I reinjured it racing up six flights of stairs to save the president’s life. Which I will tell the press. I’ll also tell them my reward for doing my duty as an American citizen was an interrogation in a hot little room without even a glass of water.”
“Do you want water?” Fritz asked, and I understood that this could be all right, if I didn’t misstep. The president had escaped assassination by the skin of his teeth. These two men — not to mention Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry — would be under enormous pressure to provide a hero. Since Sadie was dead, I was what they had.
“No,” I said, “but a Co’-Cola would be very nice.”
As I waited for my Coke, I thought of Sadie saying We’re leaving a trail a mile wide. It was true. But maybe I could make that work for me. If, that was, a certain tow truck driver from a certain Fort Worth Esso station had done as the note under the Chevrolet’s windshield wiper had asked.
Fritz lit a cigarette and shoved the pack across to me. I shook my head and he took it back. “Tell us how you knew him,” he said.
I said I’d met Lee on Mercedes Street, and we’d struck up an acquaintance. I listened to his rantings about the evils of fascist-imperialist America and the wonderful socialist state that would emerge in Cuba. Cuba was the ideal, he said. Russia had been taken over by worthless bureaucrats, which was why he’d left. In Cuba there was Uncle Fidel. Lee didn’t come right out and say that Uncle Fidel walked on the water, but he implied it.
“I thought he was nuts, but I liked his family.” That much was true. I did like his family, and I did think he was nuts.
“How did a professional educator such as yourself come to be living on the shitass side of Fort Worth in the first place?” Fritz asked.
“I was trying to write a novel. I found out I couldn’t do it while I was teaching school. Mercedes Street was a dump, but it was cheap. I thought the book would take at least a year, and that meant I had to stretch my savings. When I got depressed about the neighborhood, I tried to pretend I was living in a garret on the Left Bank.”
Fritz: “Did your savings include money you won from bookies?”
Me: “I’m going to take the Fifth on that one.”
At this, Will Fritz actually laughed.
Hosty: “So you met Oswald and became friendly with him.”
“Relatively friendly. You don’t become close buddies with crazy people. At least I don’t.”
Lee and his family moved out; I stayed. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from him saying he and Marina were living on Elsbeth Street in Dallas. He said it was a better neighborhood and the rents were cheap and plentiful. I told Fritz and Hosty that I was tired of Mercedes Street by then, so I came on over to Dallas, had lunch with Lee at the Woolworth’s counter, then took a walk around the neighborhood. I rented the ground-floor apartment at 214 West Neely Street, and when the upstairs apartment went vacant, I told Lee. Kind of returning the favor.
“His wife didn’t like the place on Elsbeth,” I said. “The West Neely Street building was just around the corner, and much nicer. So they moved in.”
I had no idea how closely they would check this story, how well the chronology would hold up, or what Marina might tell them, but those things weren’t important to me. I only needed time. A story that was even halfway plausible might give it to me, especially since Agent Hosty had good reason to treat me with kid gloves. If I told what I knew about his relationship with Oswald, he might spend the rest of his career freezing his ass off in Fargo.
“Then something happened that put my ears up. Last April, this was. Right around Easter. I was sitting at the kitchen table, working on my book, when this fancy car — a Cadillac, I think — pulled up, and two people got out. A man and a woman. Well-dressed. They had a stuffed toy for Junie. She’s—”
Fritz: “We know who June Oswald is.”
“They went up the stairs, and I heard the guy — he had kind of a German accent and a big booming voice — I heard him say, ‘Lee, how did you miss?’”
Hosty leaned forward, eyes as wide as they could get in that fleshy face. “What?”
“You heard me. So I checked the paper, and guess what? Someone took a shot at some retired general four or five days before. Big right-winger. Just the kind of guy Lee hated.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I knew he had a pistol — he showed it to me one day — but the paper said the guy who shot at Walker used a rifle. Besides, most of my attention was taken up by my girlfriend by then. You asked why she had a knife in her purse. The answer is simple — she was scared. She was also attacked, only not by Mr. Roth. It was her ex-husband. He disfigured her pretty badly.”
“We saw the scar,” Hosty said, “and we’re sorry for your loss, Amberson.”
“Thank you.” You don’t look sorry enough, I thought. “The knife she was carrying was the same one her ex — John Clayton was his name — used on her. She carried it everywhere.” I thought of her saying, Just in case. I thought of her saying, This is an in-case if there ever was one.
I put my hands over my face for a minute. They waited. I dropped them into my lap and went on in a toneless Joe Friday voice. Just the facts, ma’am.
“I kept the place on West Neely, but I spent most of the summer in Jodie, taking care of Sadie. I’d pretty much given up on the book idea, was thinking about reapplying at Denholm Consolidated. Then I ran into Akiva Roth and his goons. Wound up in the hospital myself. When they let me out, I went to a rehab center called Eden Fallows.”
“I know it,” Fritz said. “Kind of an assisted living thing.”
“Yes, and Sadie was my chief assistant. I took care of her after her husband cut her; she took care of me after Roth and his associates beat me up. Things go around that way. They make. . I don’t know. . a kind of harmony.”
“Things happen for a reason,” Hosty said solemnly, and for a moment I felt like launching myself over the table and pummeling his flushed and fleshy face. Not because he was wrong, though. In my humble opinion, things do happen for a reason, but do we like the reason? Rarely.
“Near the end of October, Dr. Perry okayed me to drive short distances.” This was a blatant lie, but they might not check it with Perry for awhile. . and if they made an investment in me as an authentic American Hero, they might not check at all. “I went into Dallas on Tuesday of this week to visit the apartment house on West Neely. Mostly on a whim. I wanted to see if looking at it would bring back some more of my memories.”
I had indeed gone to West Neely, but to get the gun under the porch.
“Afterward, I decided to get my lunch at Woolworth’s, just like in the old days. And who should I see at the counter but Lee, having a tuna on rye. I sat down and asked him how it was going, and that was when he told me the FBI was harassing him and his wife. He said, ‘I’m going to teach those bastards not to fuck with me, George. If you’re watching TV on Friday afternoon, maybe you’ll see something.’”
“Holy cow,” Fritz said. “Did you connect that with the president’s visit?”
“Not at first. I never followed Kennedy’s movements all that closely; I’m a Republican.” Two lies for the price of one. “Besides, Lee went right on to his favorite subject.”
“Right. Cuba and viva Fidel. He didn’t even ask why I was limping. He was totally wrapped up in his own stuff, you know? But that was Lee. I bought him a custard pudding — boy, that’s good at Woolworth’s, and only a quarter — and asked him where he was working. He told me the Book Depository on Elm Street. Said it with a big smile, as if unloading trucks and shifting boxes around was the world’s biggest deal.”
I let most of his blather roll off my back, I went on, because my leg was hurting and I was getting one of my headaches. I drove home to Eden Fallows and took a nap. But when I woke up, the German guy’s how-did-you-miss crack came back to me. I put on the TV, and they were talking about the president’s visit. That, I said, was when I started to worry. I hunted through the pile of newspapers in the living room, found the motorcade route, and saw it went right by the Book Depository.
“I stewed about it all day Wednesday.” They were leaning forward over the table now, hanging on every word. Hosty was making notes without looking down at his pad. I wondered if he’d be able to read them later. “I’d say to myself, Maybe he really means it. Then I’d say, Nah, Lee’s all hat and no cattle. Back and forth like that. Yesterday morning I called Sadie, told her the whole story, and asked her what she thought. She phoned Deke — Deke Simmons, the man I called her surrogate father — then called me back. She said I should tell the police.”
Fritz said, “I don’t mean to add to your pain, son, but if you’d done that, your ladyfriend would still be alive.”
“Wait. You haven’t heard the whole story.” Neither had I, of course; I was making up sizable chunks of it as I went. “I told her and Deke no cops, because if Lee was innocent, he’d really be screwed. You have to understand that the guy was barely holding on by the skin of his teeth. Mercedes Street was a dump and West Neely was only a little better, but that was okay for me — I’m a single man, and I had my book to work on. Plus a little money in the bank. Lee, though. . he had a beautiful wife and two daughters, the second one just newborn, and he could hardly keep a roof over their heads. He wasn’t a bad guy—”
At this I felt an urge to check my nose and make sure it wasn’t growing.
“—but he was a world-class fuckup, pardon my French. His crazy ideas made it hard for him to hold a job. He said when he got one, the FBI would go in and queer things for him. He said it happened with his printing job.”
“That’s bullshit,” Hosty said. “The boy blamed everyone else for problems he made himself. We agree on some things, though, Amberson. He was a world-class fuckup, and I felt sorry for his wife and kids. Sorry as hell.”
“Yeah? Good for you. Anyway, he had a job and I didn’t want to lose it for him if he was just running his mouth. . which was a thing he specialized in. I told Sadie I was going over to the Book Depository tomorrow — today, now — just to check up on him. She said she’d come with me. I said no, if Lee really was off his rocker and meant to do something, she could be in danger.”
“Did he seem off his rocker when you had lunch with him?” Fritz asked.
“No, cool as a cucumber, but he always was.” I leaned toward him. “I want you to listen to this part very closely, Detective Fritz. I knew she meant to go with me no matter what I told her. I could hear it in her voice. So I got the hell out. I did that to protect her. Just in case.”
And this is an in-case if there ever was one, the Sadie in my head whispered. She would live there until I saw her again in the flesh. I swore I would, no matter what.
“I thought I’d spend the night in a hotel, but the hotels were full. Then I thought of Mercedes Street. I’d turned in the key to 2706, where I lived, but I still had a key to 2703 across the street, where Lee lived. He gave it to me so I could go in and water his plants.”
Hosty: “He had plants ?”
My attention was still fixed on Will Fritz. “Sadie got alarmed when she found me gone from Eden Fallows. Deke did, too. So he did call the police. Not just once but several times. Each time, the cop who took his call told him to stop bullshitting and hung up. I don’t know if anyone bothered to make a record of those calls, but Deke will tell you, and he has no reason to lie.”
Now Fritz was the one turning red. “If you knew how many death threats we had. .”
“I’m sure. And only so many men. Just don’t tell me that if we’d called the police, Sadie would still be alive. Don’t tell me that, okay?”
He said nothing.
“How did she find you?” Hosty asked.
That was something I didn’t have to lie about, and I didn’t. Next, though, they’d ask about the trip from Mercedes Street in Fort Worth to the Book Depository in Dallas. That was the part of my story most fraught with peril. I wasn’t worried about the Studebaker cowboy; Sadie had cut him, but only after he tried to steal her purse. The car had been on its last legs, and I had a feeling the cowboy might not even come forward to report it stolen. Of course we had stolen another one, but given the urgency of our errand, the police would surely not file charges in the matter. The press would crucify them if they tried. What I was worried about was the red Chevrolet, the one with tailfins like a woman’s eyebrows. A trunk with a couple of suitcases in it could be explained away; we’d had dirty weekends at the Candlewood Bungalows before. But if they got a look at Al Templeton’s notebook. . I didn’t even want to think about that.
There was a perfunctory knock on the door of the interview room, and one of the cops who had brought me to the police station poked his head in. Behind the wheel of the cruiser, and while he and his buddy had been going through my personal belongings, he had looked stone-faced and dangerous, a bluesuit right out of a crime movie. Now, unsure of himself and bug-eyed with excitement, I saw he was no more than twenty-three, and still coping with the last of his adolescent acne. Behind him I could see a lot of people — some in uniform, some not — craning for a look at me. Fritz and Hosty turned to the uninvited newcomer with impatience.
“Sirs, I’m sorry to interrupt, but Mr. Amberson has a phone call.”
The flush returned to Hosty’s jowls full force. “Son, we’re doing an interrogation here. I don’t care if it’s the President of the United States calling.”
The cop swallowed. His Adam’s apple went up and down like a monkey on a stick. “Uh, sirs. . it is the President of the United States.”
It seemed they cared, after all.
They took me down the hall to Chief Curry’s office. Fritz had me under one arm and Hosty had the other. With them supporting sixty or seventy pounds of my weight between them, I hardly limped at all. There were reporters, TV cameras, and huge lights that must have raised the temperature to a hundred degrees. These people — one step above paparazzi — had no place in a police station in the wake of an assassination attempt, but I wasn’t surprised. Along another timeline, they had crowded in after Oswald’s arrest and no one had kicked them out. As far as I knew, no one had even suggested it.
Hosty and Fritz bulled their way through the scrum, stone-faced. Questions were hurled at them and at me. Hosty shouted: “Mr. Amberson will have a statement after he has been fully debriefed by the authorities!”
“When?” someone shouted.
“Tomorrow, the day after, maybe next week!”
There were groans. They made Hosty smile.
“Maybe next month. Right now he’s got President Kennedy waiting on the line, so y’all fall back !”
They fell back, chattering like magpies.
The only cooling device in Chief Curry’s office was a fan on a bookshelf, but the moving air felt blessed after the interrogation room and the media microwave in the hall. A big black telephone handset lay on the blotter. Beside it was a file with LEE H. OSWALD printed on the tab. It was thin.
I picked up the phone. “Hello?”
The nasal New England voice that responded sent a chill up my back. This was a man who would have now been lying on a morgue slab, if not for Sadie and me. “Mister Amberson? Jack Kennedy here. I. . ah. . understand that my wife and I owe you. . ah. . our lives. I also understand that you lost someone very dear to you.” Dear came out deah, the way I’d grown up hearing it.
“Her name was Sadie Dunhill, Mr. President. Oswald shot her.”
“I’m so sorry for your. . ah. . loss, Mr. Amberson. May I call you. . ah. . George?”
“If you like.” Thinking: I’m not having this conversation. It’s a dream.
“Her country will give her a great outpouring of thanks. . and you a great outpouring of condolence, I’m sure. Let me. . ah. . be the first to offer both.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.” My throat was closing and I could hardly speak above a whisper. I saw her eyes, so bright as she lay dying in my arms. Jake, how we danced. Do presidents care about things like that? Do they even know about them? Maybe the best ones do. Maybe it’s why they serve.
“There’s. . ah. . someone else who wants to thank you, George. My wife’s not here right now, but she. . ah. . plans to call you tonight.”
“Mr. President, I’m not sure where I’ll be tonight.”
“She’ll find you. She’s very. . ah. . determined when she wants to thank someone. Now tell me, George, how are you ?”
I told him I was all right, which I was not. He promised to see me at the White House very shortly, and I thanked him, but I didn’t think any White House visit was going to happen. All during that dreamlike conversation while the fan blew on my sweaty face and the pebbled glass upper panel of Chief Curry’s door glowed with the supernatural light of the TV lights outside, two words beat in my brain.
I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.
The President of the United States had called from Austin to thank me for saving his life, and I was safe. I could do what I needed to do.
Five minutes after concluding my surreal conversation with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Hosty and Fritz were hustling me down the back stairs and into the garage where Oswald would have been shot by Jack Ruby. Then it had been crowded in anticipation of the assassin’s transfer to the county jail. Now it was so empty our footsteps echoed. My minders drove me to the Adolphus Hotel, and I felt no surprise when I found myself in the same room I’d occupied when I first came to Dallas. Everything that goes around comes around, they say, and although I’ve never been able to figure out who the mysteriously wise sages known as “they” might be, they’re certainly right when it comes to time-travel.
Fritz told me the cops posted in the corridor and below, in the lobby, were strictly for my own protection, and to keep the press away. (Uh-huh.) Then he shook my hand. Agent Hosty also shook my hand, and when he did, I felt a folded square of paper pass from his palm to mine. “Get some rest,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”
When they were gone, I unfolded the tiny square. It was a page from his notebook. He had written three sentences, probably while I was on the phone with Jack Kennedy.
Your phone is tapped. I will see you at 9 P.M. Burn this & flush the ashes.
I burned the note as Sadie had burned mine, then picked up the phone and unscrewed the mouthpiece. Inside, clinging to the wires, was a small blue cylinder no bigger than a double-A battery. I was amused to see that the writing on it was Japanese — it made me think of my old pal Silent Mike.
I jiggered it loose, put it in my pocket, screwed the mouthpiece back on, and dialed 0. There was a very long pause at the operator’s end after I said my name. I was about to hang up and try again when she started crying and babbling her thanks for saving the president. If she could do anything, she said, if anyone in the hotel could do anything, all I had to do was call, her name was Marie, she would do anything to thank me.
“You could start by putting through a call to Jodie,” I said, and gave her Deke’s number.
“Of course, Mr. Amberson. God bless you, sir. I’m connecting your call.”
The phone burred twice, then Deke answered. His voice was heavy and laryngeal, as if his bad cold had gotten worse. “If this is another goddam reporter—”
“It’s not, Deke. It’s me. George.” I paused. “Jake.”
“Oh, Jake,” he said mournfully, and then he started to cry. I waited, holding the phone so tightly it hurt my hand. My temples throbbed. The day was dying, but the light coming in through the windows was still too bright. In the distance, I heard a rumble of thunder. Finally he said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. But Sadie—”
“I know. It’s on the news. I heard while I was on my way to Fort Worth.”
So the woman with the baby carriage and the tow truck driver from the Esso station had done as I’d hoped they would. Thank God for that. Not that it seemed very important as I sat listening to this heartbroken old man try to control his tears.
“Deke. . do you blame me? I’d understand if you do.”
“No,” he said at last. “Ellie doesn’t, either. When Sadie made up her mind to a thing, she carried through. And if you were on Mercedes Street in Fort Worth, I was the one who told her how to find you.”
“I was there.”
“Did the son of a bitch shoot her? They say on the newscasts that he did.”
“Yes. He meant to shoot me, but my bad leg. . I tripped over a box or something and fell down. She was right behind me.”
“Christ.” His voice strengthened a bit. “But she died doing the right thing. That’s what I’m going to hold onto. It’s what you have to hold onto, as well.”
“Without her, I never would have gotten there. If you could have seen her. . how determined she was. . how brave. .”
“Christ,” he repeated. It came out in a sigh. He sounded very, very old. “It was all true. Everything you said. And everything she said about you. You really are from the future, aren’t you?”
How glad I was that the bug was in my pocket. I doubted if they’d had time to plant listening devices in the room itself, but I still cupped my hand to the mouthpiece and lowered my voice. “Not a word about any of that to the police or the reporters.”
“Good God, no!” He sounded indignant at the very idea. “You’d never breathe free air again!”
“Did you go ahead and get our luggage out of the Chevy’s trunk? Even after—”
“You bet. I knew it was important, because as soon as I heard, I knew you’d be under suspicion.”
“I think I’ll be all right,” I said, “but you need to open my briefcase and. . do you have an incinerator?”
“Yes, behind the garage.”
“There’s a blue notebook in the briefcase. Put it in the incinerator and burn it. Will you do that for me?” And for Sadie. We’re both depending on you.
“Yes. I will. Jake, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“And I’m sorry for yours. Yours and Miz Ellie’s.”
“It’s not a fair trade!” he burst out. “I don’t care if he is the president, it’s not a fair trade!”
“No,” I said. “It’s not. But Deke. . it wasn’t just about the president. It’s about all the bad stuff that would have happened if he had died.”
“I guess I have to take your word for that. But it’s hard.”
Would they have a memorial assembly for Sadie at the high school, as they had for Miz Mimi? Of course they would. The networks would send camera crews, and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in America. But when the show was over, Sadie would still be dead.
Unless I changed it. It would mean going through everything again, but for Sadie I’d do that. Even if she took one look at me at the party where I’d met her and decided I was too old for her (although I would do my best to change her mind about that). There was even an upside: now that I knew Lee really had been the lone gunman, I wouldn’t have to wait so long to dispatch his sorry ass.
“Jake? Are you still there?”
“Yes. And remember to call me George when you talk about me, okay?”
“No fear there. I may be old, but my brains still work pretty well. Am I going to see you again?”
Not if Agent Hosty tells me what I want to hear, I thought.
“If you don’t, it’s because things are working out for the best.”
“All right. Jake. . George. . did she. . did she say anything at the end?”
I wasn’t going to tell him what her final words had been, that was private, but I could give him something. He would pass it on to Ellie, and Ellie would pass it on to all Sadie’s friends in Jodie. She’d had many.
“She asked if the president was safe. When I told her he was, she closed her eyes and slipped away.”
Deke began to cry again. My face was throbbing. Tears would have been a relief, but my eyes were as dry as stones.
“Goodbye,” I said. “Goodbye, old friend.”
I hung up gently and sat still for quite some time, watching the light of a Dallas sunset fall red through the window. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, the old saying has it. . but I heard another rumble of thunder. Five minutes later, when I had myself under control, I picked up my debugged phone and once again dialed 0. I told Marie I was going to lie down, and asked for an eight-o’clock wake-up call. I also asked her to put a do-not-disturb on the phone until then.
“Oh, that’s already taken care of,” she said excitedly. “No incoming calls to your room, orders from the police chief.” Her voice dropped a register. “Was he crazy, Mr. Amberson? I mean, he must have been, but did he look it?”
I remembered the cheated eyes and daemonic snarl. “Oh, yes,” I said. “He certainly did. Eight o’clock, Marie. Nothing until then.”
I hung up before she could say anything else. Then I took off my shoes (getting free of the left one was a slow and painful process), lay down on the bed, and put my arm over my eyes. I saw Sadie dancing the Madison. I saw Sadie telling me to come in, kind sir, did I like poundcake? I saw her in my arms, her bright dying eyes turned up to my face.
I thought about the rabbit-hole, and how every time you used it there was a complete reset.
At last I slept.
Hosty’s knock came promptly at nine. I opened up and he ambled in. He carried a briefcase in one hand (but not my briefcase, so that was still all right). In the other was a bottle of champagne, the good stuff, Moët et Chandon, with a red, white, and blue bow tied around the neck. He looked very tired.
“Amberson,” he said.
“Hosty,” I responded.
He closed the door, then pointed to the phone. I took the bug from my pocket and displayed it. He nodded.
“There are no others?” I asked.
“No. That bug is DPD’s, and this is now our case. Orders straight from Hoover. If anyone asks about the phone bug, you found it yourself.”
He held up the champagne. “Compliments of the management. They insisted I bring it up. Would you care to toast the President of the United States?”
Considering that my beautiful Sadie now lay on a slab in the county morgue, I had no interest in toasting anything. I had succeeded, and success tasted like ashes in my mouth.
“Me, either, but I’m glad as hell he’s alive. Want to know a secret?”
“I voted for him. I may be the only agent in the whole Bureau who did.”
I said nothing.
Hosty seated himself in one of the room’s two armchairs and gave a long sigh of relief. He set his briefcase between his feet, then turned the bottle so he could read the label. “Nineteen fifty-eight. Wine fanciers would probably know if that was a good year, but I’m more of a beer man, myself.”
“So am I.”
“Then you might enjoy the Lone Star they’re holding for you downstairs. There’s a case of the stuff, and a framed letter promising you a case a month for the rest of your life. More champagne, too. I saw at least a dozen bottles. Everyone from the Dallas Chamber of Commerce to the City Board of Tourism sent them. You have a Zenith color television still in the carton, a solid gold signet ring with a picture of the president in it from Calloway’s Fine Jewelry, a certificate for three new suits from Dallas Menswear, and all kinds of other stuff, including a key to the city. The management has set aside a room on the first floor for your swag, and I’m guessing that by dawn tomorrow they’ll have to set aside another. And the food! People are bringing cakes, pies, casseroles, roasts of beef, barbecue chicken, and enough Mexican to give you the runs for five years. We’re turning them away, and they hate to go, let me tell you. There are women out there in front of the hotel that. . well, let’s just say Jack Kennedy himself would be envious, and he’s a legendary cocksman. If you knew what the director has in his files on that man’s sex life, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“My capacity for belief might surprise you.”
“Dallas loves you, Amberson. Hell, the whole country loves you.” He laughed. The laugh turned into a cough. When it passed, he lit a cigarette. Then he looked at his watch. “As of nine-oh-seven Central Standard Time on the evening of November twenty-second, 1963, you are America’s fair-haired boy.”
“What about you, Hosty? Do you love me? Does Director Hoover?”
He set his cigarette aside in the ashtray after a single drag, then leaned forward and pinned me with his eyes. They were deep-set in folds of flesh, and they were tired, but they were nonetheless very bright and aware.
“Look at me, Amberson. Dead in the eyes. Then tell me if you were or weren’t in on it with Oswald. And make it the truth, because I’ll know a lie.”
Given his egregious mishandling of Oswald, I didn’t believe that, but I believed that he believed it. So I locked onto his gaze and said: “I was not.”
For a moment he said nothing. Then he sighed, settled back, and picked up his cigarette. “No. You weren’t.” He jetted smoke from his nostrils. “Who do you work for, then? The CIA? The Russians, maybe? I don’t see it myself, but the director believes the Russians would gladly burn a deep-cover asset in order to stop an assassination that would spark an international incident. Maybe even World War III. Especially when folks find out about Oswald’s time in Russia.” He said it Roosha, the way the televangelist Hargis did on his broadcasts. Maybe it was Hosty’s idea of a jest.
I said, “I work for no one. I’m just a guy, Hosty.”
He pointed his cigarette at me. “Hold that thought.” He unstrapped his briefcase and took out a file even thinner than the one on Oswald I’d spied in Curry’s office. This file would be mine, and it would thicken. . but not as quickly as it would have done in the computer-driven twenty-first century.
“Before Dallas, you were in Florida. The town of Sunset Point.”
“You substitute-taught in the Sarasota school system.”
“Before that, we believe you spent some time in. . was it Derren? Derren, Maine?”
“Where you did exactly what?”
“Where I started my book.”
“Uh-huh, and before that?”
“Here and there, all around the square.”
“How much do you know about my dealings with Oswald, Amberson?”
I kept silent.
“Don’t play it so cozy. It’s just us girls.”
“Enough to cause trouble for you and your director.”
“Let me put it this way. The amount of trouble I cause you will be directly proportional to the amount of trouble you cause me.”
“Would it be fair to say that when it came to making trouble, you’d make up what you didn’t absolutely know. . and to our detriment?”
I said nothing.
He said, as if speaking to himself, “It doesn’t surprise me that you were writing a book. You should have carried on with it, Amberson. It probably would have been a bestseller. Because you’re bloody good at making things up, I’ll give you that. You were pretty plausible this afternoon. And you know things you have no business knowing, which is what makes us believe you’re far from a private citizen. Come on, who wound you up? Was it Angleton at the Firm? It was, wasn’t it? Sly rose-growing bastard that he is.”
“I’m just me,” I said, “and I probably don’t know as much as you think. But yes, I know enough to make the Bureau look bad. How Lee told me he came right out and told you that he was going to shoot Kennedy, for instance.”
Hosty stubbed out his cigarette hard enough to send up a fountain of sparks. Some landed on the back of his hand, but he didn’t seem to feel them. “That’s a fucking lie!”
“I know,” I said. “And I’ll tell it with a straight face. If you force me to. Has the idea of getting rid of me come up yet, Hosty?”
“Spare me the comic-book stuff. We don’t kill people.”
“Tell it to the Diem brothers over in Vietnam.”
He was looking at me the way a man might look at a seemingly inoffensive mouse that had suddenly bitten. And with big teeth. “How do you know America had anything to do with the Diem brothers? According to what I read in the papers, our hands are clean.”
“Let’s not get off the subject. The thing is, right now I’m too popular to kill. Or am I wrong?”
“No one wants to kill you, Amberson. And no one wants to poke holes in your story.” He barked an unamused laugh. “If we started doing that, the whole thing would unravel. That’s how thin it is.”
“‘Romance at short notice was her specialty,’” I said.
“H. H. Munro. Also known as Saki. The story is called ‘The Open Window.’ Look it up. When it comes to the art of creating bullshit on the spur of the moment, it’s very instructive.”
He scanned me, his shrewd little eyes worried. “I don’t understand you at all. That concerns me.” In the west, out toward Midland where the oil wells thump without surcease and the gas flares dim the stars, more thunder rumbled.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“I think that when we trace you back a little farther from Derren or Derry or whatever it is, we’re going to find. . nothing. As if you stepped right out of thin air.”
This was so close to the truth it nearly took my breath away.
“What we want is for you to go back to the nowhere you came from. The scandal-press will gin up the usual nasty speculations and conspiracy theories, but we can guarantee you that you’ll come out of this looking pretty good. If you even care about such things, that is. Marina Oswald will support your story right down the line.”
“You’ve already spoken to her, I take it.”
“You take it right. She knows she’ll be deported if she doesn’t play ball. The gentlemen of the press haven’t had a very good look at you; the photos that show up in tomorrow’s papers are going to be little more than blurs.”
I knew he was right. I had been exposed to the cameras only on that one quick walk down the hall to Chief Curry’s office, and Fritz and Hosty, both big men, had had me under the arms, blocking the best photo sightlines. Also, I’d had my head down because the lights were so bright. There were plenty of pictures of me in Jodie — even a portrait shot in the yearbook from the year I’d taught there full-time — but in this era before JPEGs or even faxes, it would be Tuesday or Wednesday of next week before they could be found and published.
“Here’s a story for you,” Hosty said. “You like stories, don’t you? Things like this ‘Open Window’?”
“I’m an English teacher. I love stories.”
“This fellow, George Amberson, is so stunned with grief over the loss of his girlfriend—”
“Fiancée, right, even better. He’s so grief-stricken that he ditches the whole works and simply disappears. Wants nothing to do with publicity, free champagne, medals from the president, or ticker-tape parades. He just wants to get away and mourn his loss in privacy. That’s the kind of story Americans like. They see it on TV all the time. Instead of ‘The Open Window,’ it’s called ‘The Modest Hero.’ And there’s this FBI agent who’s willing to back up every word, and even read a statement that you left behind. How does that sound?”
It sounded like manna from heaven, but I held onto my poker face. “You must be awfully sure I can disappear.”
“And you really mean it when you tell me I won’t be disappearing to the bottom of the Trinity River, as per the director’s orders?”
“Nothing like that.” He smiled. It was meant to be reassuring, but it made me think of an old line from my teenage years: Don’t worry, you won’t get pregnant, I had the mumps when I was fourteen.
“Because I might have left a little insurance, Agent Hosty.”
One eyelid twitched. It was the only sign the idea distressed him. “We think you can disappear because we believe. . let’s just say you could call on assistance, once you were clear of Dallas.”
“No press conference?”
“That’s the last thing we want.”
He opened his briefcase again. From it he took a yellow legal pad. He passed it over to me, along with a pen from his breast pocket. “Write me a letter, Amberson. It’ll be Fritz and me who’ll find it tomorrow morning when we come to pick you up, but you can head it ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ Make it good. Make it genius. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Romance at short notice is my specialty.”
He grinned without humor and picked up the champagne bottle. “Maybe I’ll try a little of this while you’re romancing. None for you, after all. You’re going to have a busy night. Miles to go before you sleep, and all that.”
I wrote carefully, but it didn’t take long. In a case like this (not that there had ever in the whole history of the world been a case exactly like this), I thought shorter was better. I kept Hosty’s Modest Hero idea foremost in my mind. I was very glad that I’d had a chance to sleep for a few hours. Such rest as I’d managed had been shot through with baleful dreams, but my head was relatively clear.
By the time I finished, Hosty was on his third glass of bubbly. He had taken a number of items from his briefcase and placed them on the coffee table. I handed him the pad and he began reading over what I’d written. Outside the thunder rumbled again, and lightning briefly lit the night sky, but I thought the storm was still distant.
While he read, I examined the stuff on the coffee table. There was my Timex, the one item that for some reason hadn’t been returned with the rest of my personal effects when we left the cop-shop. There was a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. I picked them up and tried them on. The lenses were plain glass. There was a key with a hollow barrel instead of notches. An envelope containing what looked like about a thousand bucks in used twenties and fifties. A hairnet. And a white uniform in two pieces — pants and tunic. The cotton cloth looked as thin as Hosty had claimed my story to be.
“This letter’s good,” Hosty said, putting the pad down. “You come across kind of sad, like Richard Kimball on The Fugitive. You watch that one?”
I’d seen the movie version with Tommy Lee Jones, but this hardly seemed the time to bring it up. “No.”
“You’ll be a fugitive, all right, but only from the press and an American public that’s going to want to know all about you, from what kind of juice you drink in the morning to the waist size of your skivvies. You’re a human interest story, Amberson, but you’re not police business. You didn’t shoot your girlfriend; you didn’t even shoot Oswald.”
“I tried. If I hadn’t missed, she’d still be alive.”
“I wouldn’t blame yourself too much on that score. That’s a big room up there, and a.38 doesn’t have much accuracy from a distance.”
True. You had to get within fifteen yards. So I had been told, and more than once. But I didn’t say so. I thought my brief acquaintanship with Special Agent James Hosty was almost over. Basically I couldn’t wait.
“You’re clean. All you need to do is to get to someplace where your people can pick you up and fly you away to spook neverland. Can you manage that?”
Neverland in my case was a rabbit-hole that would transport me forty-eight years into the future. Assuming the rabbit-hole was still there.
“I believe I’ll be okay.”
“You better be, because if you try to hurt us, it’ll come back on you double. Mr. Hoover. . let’s just say that the director is not a forgiving man.”
“Tell me how I’m getting out of the hotel.”
“You’ll put on those kitchen whites, the glasses, and the hairnet. The key runs the service elevator. It’ll take you to B-1. You walk straight through the kitchen and out the back door. With me so far?”
“There’ll be a Bureau car waiting for you. Get in the backseat. You don’t talk to the driver. This ain’t no limousine service. Off you go to the bus station. Your driver can offer you one of three tickets: Tampa at eleven-forty, Little Rock at eleven-fifty, or Albuquerque at twenty past midnight. I don’t want to know which one. All you need to know is that’s where our association ends. Your responsibility to stay out of sight becomes all your own. And whoever it is you work for, of course.”
The telephone rang. “If it’s some smartass reporter who found a way to ring through, get rid of him,” Hosty said. “And if you say a word about me being here, I’ll cut your throat.”
I thought he was joking about that, but wasn’t entirely sure. I picked up the phone. “I don’t know who this is, but I’m pretty tired right now, so—”
The breathy voice on the other end said she wouldn’t keep me long. To Hosty I mouthed Jackie Kennedy. He nodded and poured a little more of my champagne. I turned away, as if by presenting Hosty with my back I could keep him from overhearing the conversation.
“Mrs. Kennedy, you really didn’t have to call,” I said, “but I’m honored to hear from you, just the same.”
“I wanted to thank you for what you did,” she said. “I know that my husband has already thanked you on our behalf, but. . Mr. Amberson. .” The first lady began to cry. “I wanted to thank you on behalf of our children, who were able to say goodnight to their mother and dad on the phone tonight.”
Carolyn and John-John. They’d never crossed my mind until that moment.
“Mrs. Kennedy, you’re more than welcome.”
“I understand the young woman who died was to become your wife.”
“You must be heartbroken. Please accept my condolences — they aren’t enough, I know that, but they are all I have to offer.”
“If I could change it. . if in any way I could turn back the clock. .”
No, I thought. That’s my job, Miz Jackie.
“I understand. Thank you.”
We talked a little longer. This call was much more difficult than the one with Kennedy at the police station. Partly because that one had felt like a dream and this one didn’t, but mostly I think it was the residual fear I heard in Jacqueline Kennedy’s voice. She truly seemed to understand what a narrow escape they’d had. I’d gotten no sense of that from the man himself. He seemed to believe he was providentially lucky, blessed, maybe even immortal. Toward the end of the conversation I remember asking her to make sure her husband quit riding in open cars for the duration of his presidency.
She said I could count on that, then thanked me one more time. I told her she was welcome one more time, then hung up the phone. When I turned around, I saw I had the room to myself. At some point while I’d been talking to Jacqueline Kennedy, Hosty had left. All that remained of him were two butts in the ashtray, a half-finished glass of champagne, and another scribbled note, lying beside the yellow legal pad with my to-whom-it-may-concern letter on it.
Get rid of the bug before you go into the bus station, it read. And below that: Good luck, Amberson. Very sorry for your loss. H.
Maybe he was, but sorry is cheap, isn’t it? Sorry is so cheap.
I put on my kitchen potboy disguise and rode down to B-1 in an elevator that smelled like chicken soup, barbecue sauce, and Jack Daniel’s. When the doors opened, I walked briskly through the steamy, fragrant kitchen. I don’t think anyone so much as looked at me.
I came out in an alley where a couple of winos were picking through a trash bin. They didn’t look at me, either, although they glanced up when sheet lightning momentarily brightened the sky. A nondescript Ford sedan was idling at the mouth of the alley. I got into the backseat and off we went. The man behind the wheel said only one thing before pulling up to the Greyhound station: “Looks like rain.”
He offered me the three tickets like a poor man’s poker hand. I took the one for Little Rock. I had about an hour. I went into the gift shop and bought a cheap suitcase. If all went well, I’d eventually have something to put in it. I wouldn’t need much; I had all sorts of clothes at my house in Sabattus, and although that particular domicile was almost fifty years in the future, I hoped to be there in less than a week. A paradox Einstein could love, and it never crossed my tired, grieving mind that — given the butterfly effect — it almost certainly would no longer be mine. If it was there at all.
I also bought a newspaper, an extra edition of the Slimes Herald. There was a single photo, maybe snapped by a professional, more likely by some lucky bystander. It showed Kennedy bent over the woman I’d been talking to not long ago, the woman who’d had no bloodstains on her pink suit when she’d finally taken it off this evening.
John F. Kennedy shields his wife with his body as the presidential limo speeds away from what was nearly a national catastrophe , the caption read. Above this was a headline in thirty-six-point type. There was room, because it was only one word:
I turned to page 2 and was confronted with another picture. This one was of Sadie, looking impossibly young and impossibly beautiful. She was smiling. I have my whole life ahead of me, the smile said.
Sitting in one of the slatted wooden chairs while late-night travelers surged around me and babies cried and servicemen with duffels laughed and businessmen got shines and the overhead speakers announced arrivals and departures, I carefully folded the newsprint around the borders of that picture so I could remove it from the page without tearing her face. When that much was accomplished, I looked at it for a long time, then folded it into my wallet. The rest of the paper I threw away. There was nothing in it I wanted to read.
Boarding for the bus to Little Rock was called at eleven-twenty, and I joined the crowd clustering around the proper door. Other than wearing the fake glasses, I made no attempt to hide my face, but no one looked at me with any particular interest; I was just one more cell in the bloodstream of Transit America, no more important than any other.
I changed your lives today, I thought as I watched those present at the turning of the day, but there was no triumph or wonder in the idea; it seemed to have no emotional charge at all, either positive or negative.
I got on the bus and sat near the back. There were a lot of guys in uniform ahead of me, probably bound for Little Rock Air Force Base. If not for what we’d done today, some of them would have died in Vietnam. Others would have come home maimed. And now? Who knew?
The bus pulled out. When we left Dallas, the thunder was louder and the lightning brighter, but there was still no rain. By the time we reached Sulphur Springs, the threatening storm was behind us and the stars were out in their tens of thousands, brilliant as ice chips and twice as cold. I looked at them for awhile, then leaned back, shut my eyes, and listened to the Big Dog’s tires eating up Interstate 30.
Sadie, the tires sang. Sadie, Sadie, Sadie.
At last, sometime after two in the morning, I slept.
In Little Rock I bought a ticket on the noon bus to Pittsburgh, with a single stop in Indianapolis. I had breakfast in the depot diner, near an old fellow who ate with a portable radio in front of him on the table. It was large and covered with shiny dials. The major story was still the attempted assassination, of course. . and Sadie. Sadie was big, big news. She was to be given a state funeral, followed by interment at Arlington National Cemetery. There was speculation that JFK himself would deliver the eulogy. In related developments, Miss Dunhill’s fiancé, George Amberson, also of Jodie, Texas, had been scheduled to appear before the press at 10:00 A.M., but that had been pushed back to late afternoon — no reason given. Hosty was providing me all the room to run that he possibly could. Good for me. Him, too, of course. And his precious director.
“The president and his heroic saviors aren’t the only news coming out of Texas this morning,” the old duffer’s radio said, and I paused with a cup of black coffee suspended halfway between the saucer and my lips. There was a sour tingle in my mouth that I’d come to recognize. A psychologist might have termed it presque vu —the sense people sometimes get that something amazing is about to happen — but my name for it was much more humble: a harmony.
“At the height of a thunderstorm shortly after one A.M., a freak tornado touched down in Fort Worth, destroying a Montgomery Ward warehouse and a dozen homes. Two people are known dead, and four are missing.”
That two of the houses were 2703 and 2706 Mercedes Street, I had no doubt; an angry wind had erased them like a bad equation.