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Below were side-by-side photos of two bare-chested beefcakes with their gloved fists held up in the accepted fashion. One was young and unmarked. The other guy looked a lot older, and as if he’d had his nose broken a few times. The names were what stopped me, though. I knew them from somewhere.
“Don’t even think about it,” Deke said, shaking his head. “You’d get more sport out of watching a dogfight between a pit bull and a cocker spaniel. An old cocker spaniel.”
“Tommy Case always had a ton of heart, but now it’s a forty-year-old heart in a forty-year-old body. He got him a beergut and he can hardly move at all. Tiger’s young and fast. He’ll be a champ in a couple of years if the matchmakers don’t slip up. In the meantime, they feed him walking tank-jobs like Case to keep him in trim.”
It sounded to me like Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed, but why not? Sometimes life imitates art.
Deke said, “TV you pay to watch in an auditorium. Boy-howdy, what next?”
“The wave of the future, I guess,” I said.
“And it’ll probably sell out—in Dallas, at least—but that doesn’t change the fact that Tom Case is the wave of the past. Tiger’ll slice him like coldcuts. Sure you’re okay with this Grange thing, George?”
That was a strange June. On one hand, I was delighted to be rehearsing with the troupe that had put on the original Jamboree. It was déjà vu of the best kind. On the other hand, I found myself wondering, with greater and greater frequency, if I had ever intended to strike Lee Harvey Oswald from history’s equation in the first place. I couldn’t believe I lacked the guts to do it—I had already killed one bad man, and in cold blood—but it was an undeniable fact that I’d had Oswald in my sights and let him go. I told myself it was the uncertainty principle, and not the fact of his family, but I kept seeing Marina smiling and holding her hands out in front of her belly. I kept wondering if he might not be a patsy, after all. I reminded myself he’d be back in October. And then, of course, I asked myself how that would change things. His wife would still be pregnant and the window of uncertainty would still be open.
Meanwhile, there was Sadie’s slow recovery to preside over, there were bills to pay, there were insurance forms to fill out (the bureaucracy every bit as infuriating in 1963 as in 2011), and those rehearsals. Dr. Ellerton could only show up for one of them, but he was a quick study and hoofed his half of Bertha the Dancing Pony with charming brio. After the run-through, he told me he wanted to bring another surgeon on board, a facial specialist from Mass General. I told him—with a sinking heart—that another surgeon sounded like a grand idea.
“Can you afford it?” he asked. “Mark Anderson ain’t cheap.”
“We’ll manage,” I said.
I invited Sadie to rehearsals when the show dates grew close. She refused gently but firmly in spite of her earlier promise to come to at least one dress rehearsal. She rarely left the house, and when she did, it was only to go into the backyard garden. She hadn’t been to the school—or in town—since the night John Clayton cut her face and then his own throat.
I spent the late morning and early afternoon of July twelfth at the Grange Hall, running a final tech rehearsal. Mike Coslaw, who had settled as naturally into the role of producer as he had that of slapstick comedian, told me the Saturday-night show was a sellout and tonight’s was at ninety percent. “We’ll get enough walk-ups to fill the place, Mr. A. Count on it. I just hope me and Bobbi Jill don’t mess up the encore.”
“Bobbi Jill and I, Mike. And you won’t mess up.”
All of that was good. Less good was passing Ellen Dockerty’s car turning out of Bee Tree Lane just as I was turning in, and then finding Sadie sitting by the living room window with tears on her unmarked cheek and a handkerchief in one fisted hand.
“What?” I demanded. “What did she say to you?”
Sadie surprised me by mustering a grin. It was lopsided, but not without a certain gamine charm. “Nothing that wasn’t the truth. Please don’t worry. I’ll make you a sandwich and you can tell me how it went.”
So that was what I did. And I did worry, of course, but I kept my worries to myself. Also my comments on the subject of meddlesome high school principals. That evening at six, Sadie inspected me, reknotted my tie, and then brushed some lint, real or imagined, from the shoulders of my sport coat. “I’d tell you to break a leg, but you might just go and do it.”
She was wearing her old jeans and a smock top that camouflaged—a little, anyway—her weight-loss. I found myself remembering the pretty dress she’d worn to the original Jodie Jamboree. Pretty dress that night with a pretty girl inside it. That was then. Tonight the girl—still pretty on one side—would be at home when the curtain went up, watching a Route 66 rerun.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Wishing you were going to be there, that’s all.”
I was sorry as soon as it was out, but it was almost okay. Her smile faded, then came back. The way the sun does when it passes behind a cloud that’s only small. “You’ll be there. Which means I will be.” She looked at me with grave timidity from the one eye her Veronica Lake flip left visible. “If you love me, that is.”
“I love you plenty.”
“Yes, I guess you do.” She kissed the corner of my mouth. “And I love you. So don’t break any legs and give everybody my thanks.”
“I will. You’re not afraid to stay here alone?”
“I’ll be okay.” It wasn’t actually an answer to my question, but it was the best she could do for the time being.
Mike was right about the walk-ups. We sold out the Friday night performance a full hour in advance of showtime. Donald Bellingham, our stage manager, lowered the houselights at 8:00 P.M. on the dot. I expected to feel a letdown after the nearly sublime original with its pie-throwing finale (which we intended to repeat on Saturday night only, the consensus being that we wanted to clean up the Grange Hall stage—and the first couple of rows—just a single time), but this one was nearly as good. For me the comedy highlight was that goddamned dancing horse. At one point Dr. Ellerton’s front-half cohort, a wildly overenthusiastic Coach Borman, almost boogied Bertha right off the stage.
The audience believed those twenty or thirty seconds of weaving around the footlights was part of the show and heartily applauded the derring-do. I, who knew better, found myself caught in an emotional paradox that will probably never be repeated. I stood in the wings next to a nearly paralytic Donald Bellingham, laughing wildly while my terrified heart fluttered at the very top of my throat.
The night’s harmonic came during the encore. Mike and Bobbi Jill walked to center stage, hand in hand. Bobbi Jill faced the audience and said, “Miz Dunhill means an awful lot to me, because of her kindness and her Christian charity. She helped me when I needed help, and she made me want to learn how to do what we’re going to do for you now. We thank you all for coming out tonight and showing your Christian charity. Don’t we, Mike?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You guys are the best.”
He looked stage left. I pointed to Donald, who was bent over his record player with the tone arm raised, ready to stick the groove. This time Donald’s father was going to know damned well that Donald had borrowed one of his big-band records, because the man was in the audience.
Glenn Miller, that long-gone bombardier, launched into “In the Mood,” and onstage, to rhythmic clapping from the audience, Mike Coslaw and Bobbi Jill Allnut flew into a jet-propelled Lindy far more fervent than any I had ever managed with either Sadie or Christy. It was all youth and joy and enthusiasm, and that made it gorgeous. When I saw Mike squeeze Bobbi Jill’s hand, telling her by touch to counterspin and shoot through his legs, I was suddenly back in Derry, watching Bevvie-from-the-levee and Richie-from-the-ditchie.
It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning.
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
Mike and Bobbi Jill danced in their time, and their time was 1963, that era of crewcuts, console televisions, and homemade garage rock. They danced on a day when President Kennedy promised to sign a nuclear test ban treaty and told reporters he had “no intention of allowing our military forces to be mired in the arcane politics and ancient grudges of southeast Asia.” They danced as Bevvie and Richie had danced, as Sadie and I had danced, and they were beautiful, and I loved them not in spite of their fragility but because of it. I love them still.
They ended perfectly, hands upraised, breathing hard and facing the audience, which rose to its feet. Mike gave them a full forty seconds to pound their hands together (it’s amazing how fast the footlights can transform a humble left tackle into fully fledged pressed ham) and then called for quiet. Eventually, he got it.
“Our director, Mr. George Amberson, wants to say a few words. He put a lot of effort and creativity into this show, so I hope you’ll give him a big hand.”
I walked out to fresh applause. I shook Mike’s hand and gave Bobbi Jill a peck on the cheek. They scampered offstage. I raised my hands for quiet and launched into my carefully rehearsed speech, telling them Sadie couldn’t be here tonight but thanking them all on her behalf. Every public speaker worth his salt knows to concentrate on specific members of the audience, and I focused on a pair in the third row who looked remarkably like Ma and Pa in American Gothic. This was Fred Miller and Jessica Caltrop, the schoolboard members who had denied us use of the school gym on the grounds that Sadie being assaulted by her ex was in bad taste and should be ignored, insofar as possible.
Four sentences in, I was interrupted by gasps of surprise. This was followed by applause—isolated at first but quickly growing to a storm. The audience took to its feet again. I had no idea what they were applauding for until I felt a light, tentative hand grip my arm above the elbow. I turned to see Sadie standing beside me in her red dress. She had put her hair up and secured it with a glittery clip. Her face—both sides of it—was completely visible. I was shocked to discover that, once fully revealed, the residual damage wasn’t as awful as I had feared. There might be some sort of universal truth there, but I was too stunned to suss it out. Sure, that deep, ragged hollow and the fading hash marks of the stitches were hard to look at. So was the slack flesh and her unnaturally wide left eye, which no longer quite blinked in tandem with the right one.
But she was smiling that charming one-sided smile, and in my eyes, that made her Helen of Troy. I hugged her, and she hugged me back, laughing and crying. Beneath the dress, her whole body was thrumming like a high-tension wire. When we faced the audience again, everyone was up and cheering except for Miller and Caltrop. Who looked around, saw they were the only ones still on their fannies, and reluctantly joined the others.
“Thank you,” Sadie said when they quieted. “Thank you all from the very bottom of my heart. Special thanks to Ellen Dockerty, who told me that if I didn’t come here and look y’all in the eye, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. And most thanks of all to…”
The minutest of hesitations. I’m sure the audience didn’t notice it, which made me the only one who knew how close Sadie had come to telling five hundred people my actual name.
“…to George Amberson. I love you, George.”
Which brought down the house, of course. In dark times when even the sages are uncertain, declarations of love always do.
Ellen took Sadie—who was exhausted—home at ten-thirty. Mike and I turned out the Grange Hall lights at midnight and stepped into the alley. “Gonna come to the after-party, Mr. A? Al said he’d keep the diner open until two, and he brought in a couple of kegs. He’s not licensed for it, but I don’t think anyone’ll arrest him.”
“Not me,” I said. “I’m beat. I’ll see you tomorrow night, Mike.”
I drove to Deke’s before going home. He was sitting on his front porch in his pajamas, smoking a final pipe.
“Pretty special night,” he said.
“That young woman showed guts. A country mile of em.”
“Are you going to do right by her, son?”
“I’m going to try.”
He nodded. “She deserves that, after the last one. And you’re doing okay so far.” He glanced toward my Chevy. “You could probably take your car tonight and park right out front. After tonight, I don’t think anyone in town’d bat an eye.”
He might have been right, but I decided better safe than sorry and hoofed it, just as I had on so many other nights. I needed the time to let my own emotions settle. I kept seeing her in the glow of the footlights. The red dress. The graceful curve of her neck. The smooth cheek… and the ragged one.
When I got to Bee Tree Lane and let myself in, the hide-a-bed was in its hiding state. I stood looking at this, puzzled, not sure what to make of it. Then Sadie called my name—my real one—from the bedroom. Very softly.
The lamp was on, casting a soft light across her bare shoulders and one side of her face. Her eyes were luminous and grave. “I think this is where you belong,” she said. “I want you to be here. Do you?”
I took off my clothes and got in beside her. Her hand moved beneath the sheets, found me, and caressed me. “Are you hungry? Because I have poundcake if you are.”
“Oh, Sadie, I’m starving.”
“Then turn out the light.”
That night in Sadie’s bed was the best of my life—not because it closed the door on John Clayton, but because it opened the door on us again.
When we finished making love, I fell into the first deep sleep I’d had in months. I awoke at eight in the morning. The sun was fully up, the Angels were singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” on the radio in the kitchen, and I could smell frying bacon. Soon she would call me to the table, but not yet. Not just yet.
I put my hands behind my head and looked at the ceiling, mildly stunned at how stupid—how almost willfully blind—I’d been since the day I’d allowed Lee to get on the bus to New Orleans without doing anything to stop him. Did I need to know if George de Mohrenschildt had had more to do with the attempt on Edwin Walker than just goading an unstable little man into trying it? Well, there was actually quite a simple way to determine that, wasn’t there?
De Mohrenschildt knew, so I would ask him.
Sadie ate better than she had since the night Clayton had invaded her home, and I did pretty well myself. Together we polished off half a dozen eggs, plus toast and bacon. When the dishes were in the sink and she was smoking a cigarette with her second cup of coffee, I said I wanted to ask her something.
“If it’s about coming to the show tonight, I don’t think I could manage that twice.”
“It’s something else. But since you mention it, what exactly did Ellie say to you?”
“That it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and rejoin the parade.”
Sadie stroked her hair against the wounded side of her face—that automatic gesture. “Miz Ellie’s not known for delicacy and tact. Did she shock me, busting in here and telling me it was time to quit lollygagging? Yes she did. Was she right? Yes she was.” She stopped stroking her hair and abruptly pushed it back with the heel of her hand. “This is what I’m going to look like from now on—with some improvements—so I guess I better get used to it. Sadie’s going to find out if that old saw about beauty only being skin deep is actually true.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“All right.” She jetted smoke from her nostrils.
“Suppose I could take you to a place where the doctors could fix the damage to your face—not perfectly, but far better than Dr. Ellerton and his team ever could. Would you go? Even if you knew we could never come back here?”
She frowned. “Are we speaking hypothetically?”
“Actually we’re not.”
She crushed her cigarette out slowly and deliberately, thinking it over. “Is this like Miz Mimi going to Mexico for experimental cancer treatments? Because I don’t think—”
“I’m talking about America, hon.”
“Well, if it’s America, I don’t understand why we couldn’t—”
“Here’s the rest of it: I might have to go. With or without you.”
“And never come back?” She looked alarmed.
“Never. Neither one of us could, for reasons that are difficult to explain. I suppose you think I’m crazy.”
“I know you’re not.” Her eyes were troubled, but she spoke without hesitation.
“I may have to do something that would look very bad to law-enforcement types. It’s not bad, but nobody would ever believe that.”
“Is this… Jake, does this have anything to do with that thing you told me about Adlai Stevenson? What he said about hell freezing over?”
“In a way. But here’s the rub. Even if I’m able to do what I have to without being caught—and I think I can—that doesn’t change your situation. Your face is still going to be scarred to some greater or lesser degree. In this place where I could take you, there are medical resources Ellerton can only dream of.”
“But we could never come back.” She wasn’t speaking to me; she was trying to get it straight in her mind.
“No.” All else aside, if we came back to September ninth of 1958, the original version of Sadie Dunning would already exist. That was a mind-bender I didn’t even want to consider.
She got up and went to the window. She stood there with her back to me for a long time. I waited.
“Can you predict the future? You can, can’t you?”
I said nothing.
In a small voice she said, “Did you come here from the future?”
I said nothing.
She turned from the window. Her face was very pale. “Jake, did you?”
“Yes.” It was as if a seventy-pound rock had rolled off my chest. At the same time I was terrified. For both of us, but mostly for her.
“How… how far?”
“Honey, are you sure you—”
“Yes. How far?”
“Almost forty-eight years.”
“Am I… dead?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. This is now. And this is us.”
She thought about that. The skin around the red marks of her injuries had turned very white and I wanted to go to her, but I was afraid to move. What if she screamed and ran from me?
“Why did you come?”
“To stop a man from doing something. I’ll kill him if I have to. If I can make absolutely sure he deserves killing, that is. So far I haven’t been able to do that.”
“What’s the something?”
“In four months, I’m pretty sure he’s going to kill the president. He’s going to kill John Ken—”
I saw her knees start to buckle, but she managed to stay on her feet just long enough to allow me to catch her before she fell.
I carried her to the bedroom and went into the bathroom to wet a cloth in cold water. When I returned, her eyes were already open. She looked at me with an expression I could not decipher.
“I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Maybe not,” she said, but she didn’t flinch when I sat down next to her on the bed, and made a little sighing noise of pleasure when I began to stroke her face with the cold cloth, detouring around the bad place, where all sensation except for a deep, dull pain was now gone. When I was done, she looked at me solemnly. “Tell me one thing that’s going to happen. I think if I’m going to believe you, you have to do that. Something like Adlai Stevenson and hell freezing over.”
“I can’t. I majored in English, not American History. I studied Maine history in high school—it was a requirement—but I know next to nothing about Texas. I don’t—” But I realized I did know one thing. I knew the last thing in the betting section of Al Templeton’s notebook, because I’d double-checked. In case you need a final cash transfusion, he’d written.
“I know who’s going to win a prizefight at Madison Square Garden next month. His name is Tom Case, and he’s going to knock out Dick Tiger in the fifth round. If that doesn’t happen, I guess you’re free to call for the men in the white coats. But can you keep it just between us until then? A lot depends on it.”
“Yes. I can do that.”
I half-expected Deke or Miz Ellie to buttonhole me after the second night’s performance, looking grave and telling me they’d had a phone call from Sadie, saying that I’d lost my everloving mind. But that didn’t happen, and when I got back to Sadie’s, there was a note on the table reading Wake me if you want a midnight snack.
It wasn’t midnight—not quite—and she wasn’t asleep. The next forty minutes or so were very pleasant. Afterward, in the dark, she said: “I don’t have to decide anything right now, do I?”
“And we don’t have to talk about this right now.”
“Maybe after the fight. The one you told me about.”
“I believe you, Jake. I don’t know if that makes me crazy or not, but I do. And I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Her eyes gleamed in the dark—the one that was almond-shaped and beautiful, the one that drooped but still saw. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, and I don’t want you to hurt anybody unless you absolutely have to. And never by mistake. Never ever. Do you promise?”
“Yes.” That was easy. It was the reason Lee Oswald was still drawing breath.
“Will you be careful?”
“Yes. I’ll be very—”
She stopped my mouth with a kiss. “Because no matter where you came from, there’s no future for me without you. Now let’s go to sleep.”
I thought the conversation would resume in the morning. I had no idea what—meaning how much—I would tell her when it did, but in the end I had to tell her nothing, because she didn’t ask. Instead she asked me how much The Sadie Dunhill Charity Show had brought in. When I told her just over three thousand dollars, with the contents of the lobby donation box added to the gate, she threw back her head and let loose a beautiful full-throated laugh. Three grand wouldn’t cover all of her bills, but it was worth a million just to hear her laugh… and to not hear her say something like Why bother at all, when I can just get it taken care of in the future? Because I wasn’t entirely sure she really wanted to go even if she did believe, and because I wasn’t sure I wanted to take her.
I wanted to be with her, yes. For as close to forever as people get. But it might be better in ’63… and all the years God or providence gave us after ’63. We might be better. I could see her lost in 2011, eyeing every low-riding pair of pants and computer screen with awe and unease. I would never beat her or shout at her—no, not Sadie—but she might still become my Marina Prusakova, living in a strange place and exiled from her homeland forever.
There was one person in Jodie who might know how I could put Al’s final betting entry to use. That was Freddy Quinlan, the real estate agent. He ran a weekly nickel-in, quarter-to-stay poker game at his house, and I’d attended a few times. During several of these games he bragged about his betting prowess in two fields: pro football and the Texas State Basketball Tournament. He saw me in his office only because, he said, it was too damn hot to play golf.
“What are we talking about here, George? Medium-sized bet or the house and lot?”
“I’m thinking five hundred dollars.”
He whistled, then leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over a tidy little belly. It was only nine in the morning, but the air-conditioner was running full blast. Stacks of real estate brochures fluttered in its chilly exhaust. “That’s serious cabbage. Care to let me in on a good thing?”
Since he was doing me the favor—at least I hoped so—I told him. His eyebrows shot up so high they were in danger of meeting his receding hairline.
“Holy cow! Why don’t you just chuck your money down a sewer?”
“I’ve got a feeling, that’s all.”
“George, listen to your daddy. The Case-Tiger fight isn’t a sporting event, it’s a trial balloon for this new closed-circuit TV thing. There might be a few good fights on the undercard, but the main bout’s a joke. Tiger’ll have instructions to carry the poor old fella for seven or eight, then put him to sleep. Unless…”
He leaned forward. His chair made an unlovely scronk sound from somewhere underneath. “Unless you know something.” He leaned back again and pursed his lips. “But how could you? You live in Jodie, for Chrissake. But if you did, you’d let a pal in on it, wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know anything,” I said, lying straight to his face (and happy to do so). “It’s just a feeling, but the last time I had one this strong, I bet on the Pirates to beat the Yankees in the World Series, and I made a bundle.”
“Very nice, but you know the old saying—even a stopped clock gets it right twice a day.”
“Can you help me or not, Freddy?”
He gave me a comforting smile that said the fool and his money would all too soon be parted. “There’s a guy in Dallas who’d be happy to take that kind of action. Name’s Akiva Roth. Operates out of Faith Financial on Greenville Ave. Took over the biz from his father five or six years ago.” He lowered his voice. “Word is, he’s mobbed up.” He lowered his voice still further. “Carlos Marcello.”
That was exactly what I was afraid of, because that had also been the word on Eduardo Gutierrez. I thought again of the Lincoln with the Florida plates parked across from Faith Financial.
“I’m not sure I’d want to be seen going into a place like that. I might want to teach again, and at least two members of the schoolboard are already cheesed off at me.”
“You could try Frank Frati, over in Fort Worth. He runs a pawnshop.” Scronk went the chair as he leaned forward to get a better look at my face. “What’d I say? Or did you inhale a bug?”
“Uh-uh. It’s just that I knew a Frati once. Who also ran a pawnshop and took bets.”
“Probably they both came from the same savings-and-loan clan in Romania. Anyway, he might fade five Cs—especially a sucker bet like you’re talking about. But you won’t get the odds you deserve. Of course you wouldn’t get em from Roth, either, but you’d get better than you would from Frank Frati.”
“But with Frank I wouldn’t get the Mob connection. Right?”
“I guess not, but who really knows? Bookies, even the part-time ones, ain’t known for their high-class business associations.”
“Probably I should take your advice and hold onto my money.”
Quinlan looked horrified. “No, no, no, don’t do that. Bet it on the Bears to win the NFC. That way you make a bundle. I practically guarantee it.”
On July twenty-second, I told Sadie I had to run some errands in Dallas and said I’d ask Deke to check in on her. She said there was no need, that she’d be fine. She was regaining her old self. Little by slowly, yes, but she was regaining it.
She asked no questions about the nature of my errands.
My initial stop was at First Corn, where I opened my safe deposit box and triple-checked Al’s notes to make sure I really remembered what I thought I had. And yes, Tom Case was going to be the upset winner, knocking out Dick Tiger in the fifth. Al must have found the fight on the internet, because he had been gone from Dallas—and the sensational sixties—long before then.
“Can I help you with anything else today, Mr. Amberson?” my banker asked as he escorted me to the door.
Well, you could say a little prayer that my old buddy Al Templeton didn’t swallow a bunch of internet bullshit.
“Maybe so. Do you know where I could find a costume shop? I’m supposed to be the magician at my nephew’s birthday party.”
Mr. Link’s secretary, after a quick glance through the Yellow Pages, directed me to an address on Young Street. There I was able to buy what I needed. I stored it at the apartment on West Neely—as long as I was paying rent on the place, it ought to be good for something. I left my revolver, too, putting it on a high shelf in the closet. The bug, which I had removed from the upstairs lamp, went into the glove compartment of my car, along with the cunning little Japanese tape recorder. I would dispose of them somewhere in the scrubland on my return to Jodie. They were of no more use to me. The apartment upstairs hadn’t been re-rented, and the house was spookily silent.
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