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“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.
I stepped off my final Greyhound at the Minot Avenue station in Auburn, Maine, at a little past noon on the twenty-sixth of November. After more than eighty hours of almost nonstop riding, relieved only by short intervals of sleep, I felt like a figment of my own imagination. It was cold. God was clearing His throat and spitting casual snow from a dirty gray sky. I had bought some jeans and a couple of blue chambray workshirts to replace the kitchen-whites, but such clothes weren’t nearly enough. I had forgotten the Maine weather during my time in Texas, but my body remembered in a hurry and started to shiver. I made Louie’s for Men my first stop, where I found a sheepskin-lined coat in my size and took it to the clerk.
He put down his copy of the Lewiston Sun to wait on me, and I saw my picture—yes, the one from the DCHS yearbook—on the front page. WHERE IS GEORGE AMBERSON? the headline demanded. The clerk rang up the sale and scribbled me a receipt. I tapped my picture. “What in the world do you suppose is up with that guy?”
The clerk looked at me and shrugged. “He doesn’t want the publicity and I don’t blame him. I love my wife a whole darn bunch, and if she died sudden, I wouldn’t want people taking my picture for the papers or putting my weepy mug on TV. Would you?”
“No,” I said, “I guess not.”
“If I were that guy, I wouldn’t come up for air until 1970. Let the ruckus die down. How about a nice cap to go with that coat? I got some flannel ones that just came in yesterday. The earflaps are good and thick.”
So I bought a cap to go with my new coat. Then I limped the two blocks back to the bus station, swinging my suitcase at the end of my good arm. Part of me wanted to go to Lisbon Falls right that minute and make sure the rabbit-hole was still there. But if it was, I’d use it, I wouldn’t be able to resist, and after five years in the Land of Ago, the rational part of me knew I wasn’t ready for the full-on assault of what had become, in my mind, the Land of Ahead. I needed some rest first. Real rest, not dozing in a bus seat while little kids wailed and tipsy men laughed.
There were four or five taxis parked at the curb, in snow that was now swirling instead of just spitting. I got into the first one, relishing the warm breath from the heater. The cabbie turned around, a fat guy with a badge reading LICENSED LIVERY on his battered cap. He was a complete stranger to me, but I knew that when he turned on the radio, it would be tuned to WJAB out of Portland, and when he dragged his ciggies out of his breast pocket, they would be Lucky Strikes. What goes around comes around.
“Where to, chief?”
I told him to take me to the Tamarack Motor Court, out on 196.
“You got it.”
He turned on the radio and got the Miracles, singing “Mickey’s Monkey.”
“These modern dances!” he grunted, grabbing his smokes. “They don’t do nothing but teach the kids how to bump n wiggle.”
“Dancing is life,” I said.
It was a different desk clerk, but she gave me the same room. Of course she did. The rate was a little higher and the old TV had been replaced by a newer one, but the same sign was propped against the rabbit ears on top: DO NOT USE “TINFOIL!” The reception was still shitty. There was no news, only soap operas.
I turned it off. I put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door. I drew the curtains. Then I stripped and crawled into bed, where—aside from a dreamlike stumble to the bathroom to relieve my bladder—I slept for twelve hours. When I woke up, it was the middle of the night, the power was off, and a strong northwest wind was blowing outside. A brilliant crescent moon rode high in the sky. I got the extra blanket from the closet and slept for another five hours.
When I woke up, dawn lit the Tamarack Motor Court with the clear hues and shadows of a National Geographic photograph. There was frost on the cars pulled up in front of a scattering of units, and I could see my breath. I tried the phone, expecting nothing, but a young man in the office answered promptly, although he sounded as if he were still half-asleep. Sure, he said, the phones were fine and he’d be happy to call me a taxi—where did I want to go?
Lisbon Falls, I told him. Corner of Main Street and the Old Lewiston Road.
“The Fruit?” he asked.
I’d been away so long that for a moment it seemed like a total non sequitur. Then it clicked. “That’s right. The Kennebec Fruit.”
Going home, I told myself. God help me, I’m going home.
Only that was wrong—2011 wasn’t home, and I would only be staying there a short time—assuming, that was, I could get there at all. Perhaps only minutes. Jodie was home now. Or would be, once Sadie arrived there. Sadie the virgin. Sadie with her long legs and long hair and her propensity to trip over anything that might be in the way… only at the critical moment, I was the one who had taken the fall.
Sadie, with her unmarked face.
She was home.
That morning’s taxi driver was a solidly built woman in her fifties, bundled into an old black parka and wearing a Red Sox hat instead of one with a badge reading LICENSED LIVERY. As we turned left onto 196, in the direction of The Falls, she said: “D’ja hear the news? I bet you didn’t—the power’s off up this way, ennit?”
“What news is that?” I asked, although a dreadful certainty had already stolen into my bones: Kennedy was dead. I didn’t know if it had been an accident, a heart attack, or an assassination after all, but he was dead. The past was obdurate and Kennedy was dead.
“Earthquake in Los Angeles.” She pronounced it Las Angle-ees. “People been sayin for years that California was just gonna drop off into the ocean, and it seems like maybe they’re gonna turn out to be right.” She shook her head. “I ain’t gonna say it’s because of the loose way they live—those movie stars and all—but I’m a pretty good Baptist, and I ain’t gonna say it’s not.”
We were passing the Lisbon Drive-In now. CLOSED FOR THE SEASON, the marquee read. SEE YOU WITH LOTS MORE IN ’64!
“How bad was it?”
“They’re saying seven thousand dead, but when you hear a number like that, you know it’ll go higher. Most of the damn bridges fell down, the freeways are in pieces, and there’s fires everywhere. Seems like the part of town where the Negroes live has pretty much burnt flat. Warts! Ain’t that a hell of a name for a part of a town? I mean, even one where black folks live? Warts! Huh!”
I didn’t reply. I was thinking of Rags, the puppy we’d had when I was nine, and still living in Wisconsin. I was allowed to play with him in the backyard on school mornings until the bus came. I was teaching him to sit, fetch, roll over, stuff like that, and he was learning—smart puppy! I loved him a lot.
When the bus came, I was supposed to close the backyard gate before I ran to get on board. Rags always lay down on the kitchen stoop. My mother would call him in and feed him breakfast after she got back from taking my dad to the local train station. I always remembered to close the gate—or at least, I don’t remember ever forgetting to do it—but one day when I came home from school, my mother told me Rags was dead. He’d been in the street and a delivery truck had run him down. She never reproached me with her mouth, not once, but she reproached me with her eyes. Because she had loved Rags, too.
“I closed him in like always,” I said through my tears, and—as I say—I believe that I did. Maybe because I always had. That evening my dad and I buried him in the backyard. Probably not legal, Dad said, but I won’t tell if you won’t.
I lay awake for a long, long time that night, haunted by what I couldn’t remember and terrified of what I might have done. Not to mention guilty. That guilt lingered a long time, a year or more. If I could have remembered for sure, one way or the other, I’m positive it would have left me more quickly. But I couldn’t. Had I shut the gate, or hadn’t I? Again and again I cast my mind to my puppy’s final morning and could remember nothing clearly except heaving his rawhide strip and yelling, “Fetch, Rags, fetch!”
It was like that on my taxi ride to The Falls. First I tried to tell myself that there always had been an earthquake in late November of 1963. It was just one of those factoids—like the attempted assassination of Edwin Walker—that I had missed. As I’d told Al Templeton I majored in English, not history.
It wouldn’t wash. If an earthquake like that had happened in the America I’d lived in before going down the rabbit-hole, I would have known. There were far bigger disasters—the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed over two hundred thousand—but seven thousand was a big number for America, more than twice as many fatalities as had occurred on 9/11.
Next I asked myself how what I’d done in Dallas could possibly have caused what this sturdy woman claimed had happened in LA. The only answer I could come up with was the butterfly effect, but how could it kick into gear so soon? No way. Absolutely not. There was no conceivable chain of cause and effect between the two events.
And still a deep part of my mind whispered, You did this. You caused Rags’s death by either leaving the backyard gate open or not closing it firmly enough to latch… and you caused this. You and Al spouted a lot of noble talk about saving thousands of lives in Vietnam, but this is your first real contribution to the New History: seven thousand dead in LA.
It simply couldn’t be. Even if it was…
There’s no downside, Al had said. If things turn to shit, you just take it all back. Easy as erasing a dirty word off a chalkb—
“Mister?” my driver said. “We’re here.” She turned to look at me curiously. “We’ve been here for almost three minutes. Little early for shopping, though. Are you sure this is where you want to be?”
I only knew this was where I had to be. I paid what was on the meter, added a generous tip (it was the FBI’s money, after all), wished her a nice day, and got out.
Lisbon Falls was as stinky as ever, but at least the power was on; the blinker at the intersection was flashing as it swung in the northwest wind. The Kennebec Fruit was dark, the front window still empty of the apples, oranges, and bananas that would be displayed there later on. The sign hanging in the door of the greenfront read WILL OPEN AT 10 A.M. A few cars moved on Main Street and a few pedestrians scuttled along with their collars turned up. Across the street, however, the Worumbo mill was fully operational. I could hear the shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH of the weaving flats even from where I was standing. Then I heard something else: someone was calling me, although not by either of my names.
“Jimla! Hey, Jimla!”
I turned toward the mill, thinking: He’s back. The Yellow Card Man is back from the dead, just like President Kennedy.
Only it wasn’t the Yellow Card Man any more than the taxi driver who’d picked me up at the bus station was the same one who’d taken me from Lisbon Falls to the Tamarack Motor Court in 1958. Except the two drivers were almost the same, because the past harmonizes, and the man across the street was similar to the one who’d asked me for a buck because it was double-money day at the greenfront. He was a lot younger than the Yellow Card Man, and his black overcoat was newer and cleaner… but it was almost the same coat.
“Jimla! Over here!” He beckoned. The wind flapped the hem of the overcoat; it made the sign to his left swing on its chain the way the blinker was swinging on its wire. I could still read it, though: NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT UNTIL SEWER PIPE IS REPAIRED.
Five years, I thought, and that pesky sewer pipe’s still busted.
“Jimla! Don’t make me come over there and get you!”
He probably could; his suicidal predecessor had been able to make it all the way to the greenfront. But I felt sure that if I went limping down the Old Lewiston Road fast enough, this new version would be out of luck. He might be able to follow me to the Red & White Supermarket, where Al had bought his meat, but if I made it as far as Titus Chevron, or the Jolly White Elephant, I could turn around and thumb my nose at him. He was stuck near the rabbit-hole. If he hadn’t been, I would have seen him in Dallas. I knew it as surely as I knew that gravity keeps folks from floating into outer space.
As if to confirm this, he called, “Jimla, please!” The desperation I saw in his face was like the wind: thin but somehow relentless.
I looked both ways for traffic, saw none, and crossed the street to where he stood. As I approached, I saw two other differences. Like his predecessor, he was wearing a fedora, but it was clean instead of filthy. And as with his predecessor, a colored card was poking up from the hatband like an old-fashioned reporter’s press pass. Only this one wasn’t yellow, or orange, or black.
It was green.
“Thank God,” he said. He took one of my hands in both of his and squeezed it. The flesh of his palms was almost as cold as the air. I pulled back from him, but gently. I sensed no danger about him, only that thin and insistent desperation. Although that in itself might be dangerous; it might be as keen as the blade of the knife John Clayton had used on Sadie’s face.
“Who are you?” I asked. “And why do you call me Jimla? Jim LaDue is a long way from here, mister.”
“I don’t know who Jim LaDue is,” the Green Card Man said. “I’ve stayed away from your string as much as—”
He stopped. His face contorted. The sides of his hands rose to his temples and pressed there, as if to hold his brains in. But it was the card stuck in the band of his hat that captured most of my attention. The color wasn’t entirely fixed. For a moment it swirled and swam, reminding me of the screensaver that takes over my computer after it’s been idle for fifteen minutes or so. The green swirled into a pale canary yellow. Then, as he slowly lowered his hands, it returned to green. But maybe not as bright a green as when I’d first noticed it.
“I’ve stayed away from your string as much as possible,” the man in the black overcoat said, “but it hasn’t been entirely possible. Besides, there are so many strings now. Thanks to you and your friend the cook, there’s so much crap.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” I said, but that wasn’t quite true. I could at least figure out the card this man (and his wet-brain forerunner) carried. They were like the badges worn by people who worked in nuclear power plants. Only instead of measuring radiation, the cards monitored… what? Sanity? Green, your bag of marbles was full. Yellow, you’d started to lose them. Orange, call for the men in the white coats. And when your card turned black…
The Green Card Man was watching me carefully. From across the street he’d looked no older than thirty. Over here, he looked closer to forty-five. Only, when you got close enough to look into his eyes, he looked older than the ages and not right in the head.
“Are you some kind of guardian? Do you guard the rabbit-hole?”
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