“Excerpts from a Report of the Commission”
It is the summer of ’65, the lip of the Apocalypse, on the cusp without knowing it, and you have not left me. Skirts are rising everywhere, stage curtains to the mysterious, hints of thigh and lower necklines, the Pill invented. The world winks, poised with promises, a Playboy centerfold beckoning to a high school graduate unaware of Sexual Politics and Primal Therapy, who practices instead, on the back seat of an old Corvair at the local drive-in movie theater, a simpler ideology. “No.” “Yes.” “No.” “Yes.” — is the only dialectic I know; and the only time that stops is the dashboard’s broken clock; home late, arguing with parents, breath mints hastily chewed to mask the Smirnoff’s and orange juice.
It is the summer of ’65 and the Beach Boys are my oracle; theirs is a difficult message to follow, though, in landlocked Pennsylvania — no waves to ride, no T.M. yet to pacify, the Maharishi still in India. It’s summer, but my father still must ride the 8:10 train to Philadelphia, still responds with a delicate sneer to my mother’s well-intentioned pieties, to the Surgeon General and the New Frontier. He pretends to be broken in, worn and comfortable like the leather strap he clings to as the train shimmies through suburbia, but there are secrets in his eyes — heresies, bacchanalia. And Eddie Carlson, he rides too, but in his car, a souped-up Pontiac Firebird, a teased-haired girlfriend beneath his arm. Best friends in grammar school, we don’t do much together any more, but haven’t yet been made aware that class oppression is our separator; and unemployed, Eddie waits, patches of rubber to mark each day, for greetings from the U.S. government.
Because it’s the summer of ’65, summer of guns and butter, of college boom and color television, body counts instead of lottery numbers; and you have not left me. We haven’t even met. The parish paragon, you are saving yourself in some small town outside of Buffalo, consciousness unraised, a fanatic worshipper of Kennedys, polishing the gem of your virginity, dressed in a Catholic school uniform, your knees not showing. Meanwhile, tourists by the car and busful, carefully avoiding the surrounding ghettos, unaware though of their racism, solemnly march like Canterbury pilgrims through the cemetery at Arlington and bow before an eternal flame memorial.
A good year, ’65, summer’s fruition for the welcome-home babies of World War II generation; coming of age, losing our virginity, sleep-walking our way into anarchy. Life’s a beach party, a Pepsi commercial, a home movie of the holidays with clowning children and flinching mothers, caught by surprise in their hair curlers. Who would have guessed? Who then, replaying the film, frame by frame, backward and forward, could have discerned the evidence: the reticular plots, the rampant evil, cancer’s seed cells, love already doomed before the lovers have even met? Who could have seen, in that vague shadow on the window’s ledge, the murderous intent of an assassin’s rifle?
Exhibit 2b-324: a child’s worn catcher’s mitt. Its thumb is split, its leather dried and cracked, the inside rotted from sweat, its Del Crandall signature barely legible as though the abraded inscription on an ancient statue. To the best of my recollection, I receive Exhibit 2b-324 when I’m eleven years old, on a Saturday afternoon in the spring of ’59, spring of Little League and presidential primaries, Joe Kennedy out following the hustings, buying his son the nomination. My father buys me a catcher’s mitt and, while taking a break from raking our lawn, presents it to me. He is his eyes that afternoon, no flickering sneers, no resigned cynicism, animated and intense, a keeper of mysteries. He cradles the glove in his hands as if it were some family totem or a royal diadem on a satin pillow whose transfer requires this special ritual, fatherly advice for the heir apparent. He smiles — unaware that is gift is a sexist one, unaware that he is oppressing me with this age-old macho knowledge he brings: how to break a glove in by rubbing it again and again, pausing to take in the commingled, exquisite scent of calfskin and linseed oil; how to admire a thing well-made, not just with your eyes but with your hands, your fingertips, the feel and flex, the sensual caress of softened leather.
He is his eyes that afternoon; the years of silence have been broken through. We sit together on the back steps, immense cumulus clouds passing overhead; our raked piles of splintered twigs, of dead grass and cracked leaves, lay abandoned, spring’s ritual of readying the lawn delayed for a moment. For not yet aware of the fascist character of American sport, we, my father and I, are discussing the intricacies of the foul tip, of picking runners off second base, how to dig a curve out of the dirt, all the lore and craftsmanship of catching a baseball game. And when we’re finished and the time has come to transfer the glove from father to son, he holds Exhibit 2b-324 above my hands, and pausing, gives me his final words, both a benediction and a warning, a standard of truth and an invocation of responsibility:
“You have to take care of a glove like this.”
Theory 4a: “The Blueblood, Banker, Think Tank, Media, and Mantra Conspiracy.” There exists a group, a certain wealthy and influential set of individuals, primarily but not exclusively American, who have been placed by insidious design in sensitive positions throughout society, certain key positions whose power when haphazardly applied would be benign, but when coordinated by a centralized, secret, and self-serving organization, becomes the single predominant force in the country and, therefore, the world. This group, The Group, which includes among its members some of the most prominent families in America (I need only mention the Rockefellers), deliberately plants its followers and their fellow travelers within the intelligentsia and the media, and through their consequent manipulation of public opinion, through the planned obsolescence of popular values and philosophies, creates an endless series of new markets for their corporations.
Incense, herbal tea, natural food packaging, radical posters, men’s hair salons, Far eastern religious textbooks and icons — who do you think, behind all the middleman and holding companies, actually controls these new goods and services? Who do you think has cleverly cornered the spiritual commodities market? It’s this group, The Group; they’re the ones who hire opinion-shapers and import gurus from India in order to instigate these new social and religious movements; they’re the ones who promote disruptive philosophical notions, breaking up our marriages; who support the sale of poisonous products, giving cancer to our fathers; who start the wars, killing our best friends from grammar school; and all so we’ll be lonely and frightened and caught up in a crisis of belief and therefore vulnerable to these new movements and their attendant line of goods and services. Who do you think — their warehouses already stocked with potentially profitable, black-rimmed photographs and bronze bust paperweights — sent Lee Harvey Oswald up to that sixth-floor window?
It’s the fall of ’67 and we count our education by the number of assumed truths we’ve rejected, by the lies we’ve inherited. Skirts have come off, replaced by faded jeans; fraternity pins by lace and beads; grass is in, but surreptitiously, politicians not aware that their sons and daughters are smoking it. It’s fall, but with a son in college, my father still must ride that 8:10 train to Philadelphia, still hides those secrets in his eyes while pretending to blend in with briefcase-toting Republicans. A vast silence begins to descend, my father’s version of the generation gap. He has nothing to say when I come home for the holidays; doesn’t respond to my outraged challenges, to my uncut hair and downy moustache; instead, smiling sadly, chain-smokes pack after pack of Viceroy cigarettes. Meanwhile, Eddie Carlson is home on leave before they ship him overseas. Back straight, head shaved, able to kill in ten different ways, he is a man now and walks around town with a curious dignity, as if he’d been given the gift of prophecy, as if like my father, he’s been told the secrets.
Because it’s the fall of ’67, fall of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, of Jimi Hendrix and Owsley acid, head shops springing up everywhere, Peace and Love in Haight-Ashbury; and you have not left me. We haven’t even made love. I circle you like a medieval castle, the forbidding guard of your Catholicism, its insulating moat and walls, the rack of conscience in its torture tower. No longer the parish paragon, you are still saving yourself, but for what, for whom, you do not know. The belief is gone, but the guilt remains — guilt, fear, and a wallet photo of J.F.K. I storm, retreat, use Trojan horse strategies; attack with pleadings, reason — unaware, though, that I’m oppressing you, unaware that desire is bad karma, illusory and unsatisfying.
Because it’s the fall of ’67 and skirts barely cover pubic hair, the frontier of the New Morality; because virginity has become reactionary, and we have access to a mountain cabin. It is, to the bet of my recollection, a perfect night, crisp and star-bright; grass is smoked, a long walk taken, hot chocolate sipped before an open fire; then to the bedroom arm in arm, clothes shed slowly, shyly but without alarm. I’m calmer, less pressing, and moving slowly, you don’t resist me, my desire so pure, so focused that it seems almost meditative, this moment I’ve been waiting for. Pulling the covers back, stripping away the medieval restraints, I pause for a moment to take you in; and to the best of my recollection, I love you then as I have never loved before and never will again, awe-struck by your nakedness. But I’ve been taught the fine art of admiring the beautiful; been shown the responsibilities attendant to it, and I say to myself as a reminder, a pledge: You have to take care of a woman like this… respect her, cherish her. And later, you lie beside me silently for a moment, distant, so distant, hair sprayed across the pillow, your lips moving soundlessly as if praying for atonement. Then you begin to cry, but quietly, to grieve this loss with dignity, death to a certain kind of idealism, your childhood shed on the sheets. Watching you, I reach out, moved to tears myself, and with my arms around you, whisper again and again like the counted phrases of a rosary penance: “It’s all right—I won’t hurt you. It’s all right—I won’t hurt you.”
Do you remember the scene? Do you remember that fall of ’67? The quilt-covered bed, the luxuriant spray of your auburn hair, my soft voice pressed against your ear above an embroidered, tear-stained pillowcase? Would you have cried then if you had been shown the evidence, if you had seen the later headlines on the rancid gossip sheets? Would you have waited all those years outside of Buffalo, knees locked beneath school uniforms, if you had thought, as you do now, that in the back bedrooms of the White House, your Saint Jack was balling gangster molls? And would I have bothered to comfort you, would I have ever spent all that time laying siege on your virginity if I had thought, as I do now, that Libras are incompatible with Scorpios?
Exhibits 3c-42, 43: two black-and-white photographs. Both old, both creased, both posed pictures of groups of people; but there the similarities end. One, the larger, is of children, boys and girls, in loose rows, smiling or shy as the case may be according to their on-camera personalities; the other of men in uniform, heads shaved and backs stiff, rows straight, not a smile to be found on any face. One a picture of my fourth-grade class, the other a photo of an army platoon. Only with a second, closer look, with a kind of photographic analysis, can the true connection be seen, the one face that’s duplicated: in the back row of both pictures, Eddie Carlson’s pallid visage.
In fourth grade, I see Eddie every day, best friends who play together; after he’s drafted, we meet only once, and then by accident at a local bar, both of us home for the holidays. Ours is an uneasy reunion, army khakis versus campus denim, army crew cut versus pony tail, we sip beer across a formica-top table like enemy soldiers in neutral territory. I slump, embarrassed and a bit guilty, Eddie sits up straight, detached, ironic. The army’s changed him: he’s quieter now and has acquired a strange half-smile that reminds me of my father’s, full of secrets, private humor. Eyes averted, we drink our beers, occasionally moved by shared memories: hey, remember the time we stole the ballpoint pens, the times we snuck into the reservoir, the endless touch football games, two on two, the Weinberg twins against me and you; remember how we’d practice our plays well past dusk, me trying to catch your passes in the dark; how we learned each other’s every move, the best pass combination in the grammar school . . .?
But nostalgia can only carry us so far, the silence growing longer and longer, until we’re eventually forced to turn to the war, the war Eddie will be fighting shortly. Even then, though, Eddie doesn’t change; even then he retains his strange new aura of stoicism, reporting to me the date of his departure as matter-of-factly as a secretary confirming a business appointment. Amazed by him, I blurt out finally:
“But aren’t you scared? Aren’t you frightened at all?”
Eddie watches me silently for a moment, watches me in the same way my father does when I’m arguing a point at the dinner table — from a distance, from a different dimension, like some enlightened one who is sadly noting my ignorance. Then, without saying a word, he reaches into his pocket and hands me that black-and-white photograph of his army platoon.
“We had this sergeant,” Eddie eventually says, lost in the story before it begins. “The biggest asshole I ever met. Sgt. Garth was his name and any one of us would’ve cut his balls off if we’d had the chance. He’s the one who trained us for combat; he’s the one who told us, grinning from ear to ear, that they were definitely shipping us over to Nam. It was just a minute or two before this picture was snapped—he said he was telling us then to make certain we’d be smiling for the photograph. And then, while we waited at attention, just having heard that we were heading for combat, he decided it was time to play a little game with us. Walking back and forth in front of the platoon, he pointed to each of us one by one, and like some love-sick girl plucking on a flower, called out loud his singsong predictions: “’You’ll come back on your feet . . . . You’ll come back in a box. . . . You, on your feet. . . . You, in a box. . . . On your feet. . . .In a box. . . . On your feet. . . . In a box. . . . On your feet. . . . ‘”
Eddie hesitates; his finger, which has been stabbing the air as he imitates the sergeant’s game, points at me suddenly.
“In a box.”
I wait, pinioned by his finger, arrow of fate; a long moment passes before Eddie’s arm droops, before freed from the story’s spell, he sips from his beer and nods his head.
“So you see, there’s no reason for me to be scared. ‘Cause I’m charmed, one of the lucky ones; ‘cause Sergeant Garth guaranteed that I’ll be coming back on my feet.”
Eddie pauses and, glancing at me, that strange half-smile flickers across his features—the key, the qualifier to all that he means. Nodding to me, he twirls his beer between his fingertips:
“And you can always believe what an officer tells you.”
There’s a pause. I wait, but we’re no longer occupying the same space, Eddie Carlson fading away, propelled inward by his half-smile, by his sad and private ironies. And that’s when I first make the connection, when I first remember our old class picture. . . . fourth-graders then, a team of best friends, quarterback and end, all those nights well past dusk, practicing to beat the Weinberg twins; I could catch his passes on faith, on faith in the dark, I knew his moves so well—perfect timing on a down-and-out. But could someone then have foreseen, studying our class photo with the latest techniques, the splitting up of that perfect team, the separate ways we all would drift, the boys and girls of Miss Jensen’s class? Could someone have foretold, marching before us like Sgt. Garth, what for each fourth-grader the future would hold? Or predicted this reunion, its silences and separation, Eddie with his head shaved, drifting away as though he were already heading for Southeast Asia; knowing the secrets, smiling at them, but not able, not permitted, to reveal them to me?
Theory 8e: “The Avenging Angel or Lone Gunman.” There exists a single individual who is following me—perhaps some retired member of the C.I.A., a Cold War cowboy on a personal rampage; perhaps just some small-town loser bent on revenge—but in any case a single man, no co-conspirators, no ultimate motive beyond his own pathology. Although his identity remains elusive, this single man’s biography will fit a predetermined pattern: deprived childhood, weak or absent father figure, poor academic record but not a discipline problem, generally inept in social relations, very probably afflicted with sexual dysfunction. Those few who do remember him at all will describe him as a shy man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who minded his business and paid his rent on time; but beneath that innocuous and reserved exterior boils a cauldron of resentment and psychotic anger, a man trying to cope with a lifetime of failure.
Perhaps he’s someone I’ve known all my life, a classmate I taunted in seventh grade, a war veteran who resents my draft evasion; perhaps it’s a case of mistaken identity or a simple irrational hatred of my being. But whatever the case, he, this single man, this lone gunman, has latched onto me as the psychotic projection of his own inadequacies, as the secret cause of all his failures. And he follows me now, year in year out, an avenging angel grown thin on his own malevolence, killing my father, my friends, all the people and ideas that I want to believe in; an unseen sniper who pumps bullet after bullet into the corpse of my happiness.
It is the summer of ’70, the pit of the Apocalypse, bottomed out without knowing it, and you have not left me. Everyone has died or been assassinated; Dr. King, Sharon Tate and Ho Chi Minh, Czech democracy, the Lyndon Johnson presidency, heir-apparent Bobby Kennedy—another bullet in the corpse of your idealism; more nationally televised funerals with zoom close-ups of grieving widows. Despite the sergeant’s guarantee, despite Richard Nixon’s secret plan, Eddie Carlson has not come home from the war—neither on his feet nor in a box; has become instead an ambiguous acronym, an M.I.A. in perpetual suspension. Disappointments add up; protests change nothing; Chappaquiddick now a household word, there’s no one left we can trust anymore.
Because it’s the summer of ’70, the country’s last fling at radicalism, the old decade fading away, the Beatles splitting up while Arab oil sheiks get their game together; and we’re not yet aware that radical chic will become passé, that law schools will absorb the revolutionaries. Son and daughter of a liberated age, showing solidarity with the poor of the city, we decide to move in together, taking a two-room apartment in a slum near campus. I hawk papers and volunteer time at a welfare agency; you finish school and protest the Cambodia invasion. Dishes pile up; money is short; sex begins to lose its allure between housework squabbles and cockroach wars. On a day in July, I come home to find you sitting on the bedroom floor before a tilting pile of record albums; silent, eyes red, strands of dampened hair clinging to your cheeks, you toy with the black arm band you’ve worn since the Kent State killings on May the fourth. The first thought that enters my head as I rush toward you, panicking, is that someone’s been assassinated.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
You look up, body slumped, and say in an oddly distracted voice, “Haven’t you noticed yet?”
You gesture vaguely, limp with resignation. I scan the room quickly—the rumpled bed, piles of dirty clothes, sunlight streaming through our soot-smeared window. Then, finally, I notice it, not what’s there but what’s missing, our one and only valued possession.
“The stereo? . . . Ripped off?” I pause, but you don’t have to answer the obvious. “But how did they . . . ?” I turn around, about to check the door.
“Don’t bother—I let them in.”
“You let them in?”
“Oh yeah,” you say, your features coming alive with sarcasm, “they were brothers—you know, fellow long-hairs, sons of the Revolution; hitched all the way from Philly for tomorrow’s demonstration. And Sister Sucker here offered them a place to crash. But then I had to pick up some posters from Shelly, left the brothers alone for fifteen minutes . . .” You pause, tears filling your eyes one more time; picking up a record, you smash it on the floor. “Bastards!”
“Hey, it’s all right; we can . . . “
But you brush away my comforting hand, still prefer your castle walls. Recovering by yourself, drying your eyes with the sleeve of your blouse, you say suddenly: “You know Billy Raskind?”
“Jan’s old boyfriend? What’s he got to do with . . .”
“He’s hooked on smack.”
I blink at you, confused; you’re not making sense, in shock, I think. But then, suddenly, I understand what’s happening, why this time is different—one straw too many; you’re adding up betrayals like some arguing attorney.
“And Tragg, another of our brothers?—he made enough profit dealing dope to his friends to buy a hundred acres in the Berkshires last week.”
A bitter glance in my direction and then you look away again. Moments pass, empty, silent; I have no rebuttal even if you wanted one. You reach up slowly and remove your arm band, dropping it beside the broken album.
“I’ve been thinking,” you say softly then, the sarcasm drained from your voice, you close your eyes. I freeze, afraid; hear that drawbridge creaking shut on me. “I’ve been thinking that I want to get away.”
I hesitate, too much at stake. “From me?” I hear myself say.
You look up, consider the question; a moment passes, nothing certain; then, the verdict: you shake your head. “From here,” you say, taking my hand. “From all this shit.”
My father, gaunt and slumped, an open-ended parenthesis, only nods, eyebrows rising another notch, when he’s informed that we’re planning to join a communal farm. My mother worries about dirt and trichinosis; your mother threatens to disown you, her letters wrapped in catechism pamphlets. But it’s the summer of ’70 and disappointments don’t last; armed with new plans, revived ideals, we rebound with enthusiasm. Turning inward, to ourselves, our friends, the ones we trust, we’re counting on building an alternative life, miles from the city where things went wrong.
Yes, it’s summer all right, August twenty-third, to the best of my recollection around 7 P.M., the sun a wash of split crimson, settling in the gaps between the mountains, a single star already risen and set like a gem in the cobalt blue of the eastern horizon. We stand, hand in hand, on the crest of a hill, ourselves set in the day’s-end silence and solitude, below us a rock-pocked pasture with its encroaching thickets and dark green grasses and dead stump statues like crouching shepherds. Just arrived, on the brink of a new day, a new decade, this new life we plan to forge together. Just arrived and the air seems to breathe renewal, anything possible, the cool damp grasses and evening breezes of a land far removed from corrupt religion and political betrayal—we’ve escaped; free, we think; a second chance for the two of us. Just the first night of this farm life we’ve chosen for ourselves, and awed, we wait, daring to hope, hand in hand on the crest of a hill, learning the subtle shades that night can take in the pastured valleys of the Green Mountains.
Do you remember the scene, that August night in 1970? Do you see it as I do now, as the last happy frame in our tragic film—Jack and Jackie, smiling king and queen, in the back seat of their limousine, waving to the cheering Dallas crowds, unaware that a sniper’s taking aim? We stand, hand in hand, the grasslands below, the sky color-streaked, not able to see the assassin’s shadow in the distant trees or the still foreboding in the sunset’s peace; not able to discern the sad secret within all things, no ironic half-smile to mask our features. Because it’s the summer of ’70 and we’ve not yet planted our crops too late or wrenched our backs on the rock-strewn land, not yet had serious discussions with our communal family about the “incestuous” infidelity that’s running rampant. Because his Holiness has not yet arrived in America and my father’s not taken his physical exam and Eddie Carlson still exists in the hope of his parents and on honor lists. Because you have not left me. Instead, together, on the crest of a hill, on the brink of our future, we wait, a liberated couple coming of age, armed with the right ideals for the wrong decade.
Exhibit 6d-13: two typewritten pages, stapled together, their contents single-spaced in pica-size letters. A document, apparently contractual in nature, its numbered articles subsumed under capitalized headings (Finances, Fidelity, Household Responsibilities), its language legalistic (“. . . the party of the first part and the party of the second part do hereby and herewith enter into agreement . . . “), its contents finalized by two dated signatures. They’re our signatures, yours and mine, Exhibit 6d-13 the “marriage” contract which you’ve drawn up in place of taking vows.
Because it’s the spring of ’73, and not yet aware that this is just a “phase,” the necessary unleashing of your repressed anger, you no longer trust me; instead analyze my every word and action for the latent sexism you’re certain infects me. No longer the parish paragon or even the Catholic liberal, you spit on the altars where you used to worship, on Teddy Kennedy and the Virgin Mary, while agonizing over your inability to feel comfortable with lesbianism. The communal farm deserted, we’ve moved to the city, to food co-ops and consciousness raising, to a contract detailing who on what day will water our azaleas. You take a seminar on Volkswagen repair; I learn how to patch holes in my pants. You begin law school at night; I join a men’s group and learn how to cry—for I’ve not yet been shown that the feminist revolution is a Western illusion, that man and woman like yin and yang, though spiritually equal, must take opposite forms.
Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, Eddie Carlson’s father has started a letter campaign, trying to reify the M.I.A.s; and for the first time in fifteen years, my father has stopped riding the 8:10 train—he’s not allowed to, sent home by a company doctor for a battery of tests at the local hospital. As I’m told this over the phone, I sense the incipient hysteria behind my mother’s optimism, the shadows of panic in her frequent pauses; but when I ask her if I should come home, her nervous laughter cuts me off: “No need to, no need to.” There is, though, and the morning of the day that the tests are to be completed, I know it—because I haven’t slept at all that night, because I don’t want to be told over long-distance telephone, because you have to take care of the people you care about.
And so I leave for Pennsylvania, arriving there in the late afternoon, wet from my six-hour hitch in the April rain, shoulders sore from my backpack’s weight. No one seems home; no one answers my calls as I enter the back door, through the kitchen and into the dining room, pausing on the threshold of my father’s study. There, I see him; ten feet away, my father sits in his favorite chair, bathrobe-wrapped, staring out a window and across the street to a seven-room house that mirror-images our own. Beside him, atop a card table, lie the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—uncompleted, unsolved. I wait while my father stares out, knowing not to speak, knowing that the time will come for him to acknowledge my presence there; I wait until the silence of the room is so complete that I can hear my mother’s muffled crying from an upstairs bedroom. Then, finally, he turns toward the door, and with his secret eyes crowned by slightly arched brows, his lips flickering his painful half-smile, he says to me: “I should have believed the Surgeon General.”
Two days later, you return to our apartment from a law school class and find me sitting on the living room sofa—alone, lights out, backpack still unpacked, staring out. Neither of us speaks for a moment; standing in the doorway, you let your book bag slide to the floor.
“How did it go?”
“He’s dying,” I say, surprised by it, the idea, the phrase, it’s the first time I’ve said it aloud, and I’m tentative, startled by the words themselves, repeat them again as if practicing some exotic foreign idiom. “He’s dying.”
There’s a pause and the pause is too long; by the time you start across the room, I’ve already imagined your internal response, a silent condemning analysis—macho-trapped, unable to express my emotions well, something like that—reduced to just another example to be discussed on Wednesday night by your women’s group. You’re beside me in a moment’s time, but the comforting hand I’d been waiting for arrives too late. I push it away.
“I’d like to be alone, I think.”
Yes, it’s the spring of ’73, spring of John Dean and Gordon Liddy, and my father still smiles and you still sleep in my bed and Eddie Carlson still lives in the hopes of his parents. But they’re already there to be seen if we only knew how to read—the sentences of death, the endings predestined, assassins conspiring in their snipers’ nests. The writing’s already on the wall on that April day that I hitch home: on two typewritten pages stapled together, the strangled syntax of a love that’s dying; on every pack of Viceroy cigarettes, the Surgeon General’s printed warning.
Theory 9a: “The Void.” There is no one following me; no plots exist. Nothing matters; nothing makes sense. Answers are illusions, questions foolish; you can’t assassinate what’s never been.
The Buddha is ten pounds of flax.
It’s the fall of ’76, fall of Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter, red-white-and-blue place mats in every restaurant, Patty Hearst out on bail in her parents’ apartment, town parades instead of protest marches; and you have long since left me. The campuses sleep, Quaaludes are replacing LSD, professional school applications quadrupling. Normalcy reigns everywhere: makeup and gossip columns, college proms and Bloomingdales. Soap operas run on prime-time television; King Kong climbs the World Trade Center; Eldridge Cleaver gives patriotic speeches and is praised in a column by William F. Buckley. Meanwhile, touring the country, paunched and balding like Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys make their third or fourth comeback; and his Holiness proclaims a fast and retreat, a solemn celebration of the Year of the Lemur. Not yet aware of his secret connections to the C.I.A., I follow his Holiness’s sacred orders, shaving my head, meditating each day an hour longer.
1976, October twenty-fifth, called home from the ashram at 9 P.M.; a midnight plane to Philadelphia, an early morning bus to suburbia, rushing up the street past dawdling school children—but it’s already too late. He lies where he’s dies, on the couch of his study, beside a never completed jigsaw puzzle, too weak in the end to push its pieces, my mother forced to move them for him. Just a shell now, a parched pod, its seeds scattered, the mysteries gone—not passed on. And even though I know as Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that suffering and death are unenlightened illusions, even though I’m silently chanting a mantra specially selected for the Year of the Lemur, I begin to sense on that October twenty-fifth a sudden dissolution of centeredness.
It’s the fall all right, late October, just three months away from my thirtieth birthday, the ground still thawed for easier burial. The air’s cool and damp, the cemetery grass soaking our feet, but the rain has stopped; and my mother, black-veiled, holds my arm as we’re preached the promise of eternal life. Before us the coffin, flower-adorned; behind us a platoon of huddled mourners, aunts and uncles, neighbors, business associates. Mrs. Carlson, whose son remains in perpetual suspension, whose husband still writes furious letters to congressmen and editors, stands nearby, wearing grief on her features like a housecoat and slippers.
Only at the end, after the final amen, do I notice your presence there; come late, in the last row of mourners, a fair and handsome business woman beside a fluted, water-stained mausoleum. Kind, a kind thing for you to do; taking the day off, riding the train in from New York, rushing by taxi to the cemetery. And so unexpected, over a year since I’ve had a letter from you, nearly two years since we’ve been together. We approach each other tentatively, like enemy soldiers in neutral territory, embarrassed by the changes we’ve made: you, in your conservative suit, a lawyer now, token conscience for some conglomerate; me with my head shaved, my fingers colored by incense stains, not yet aware that I’m a brainwashed dupe of his Holiness. A couple liberated, a couple separated, come of age, feeding on the strange and bitter fruit of this unexpected decade, making small talk together in a Pennsylvania cemetery. “The sixties are over,” you finally say, trying to explain away my saffron robe and your memo-stuffed briefcase. “Priorities have changed.”
I nod my head (who can argue with that?), glancing away, nothing to say. But you’re not finished yet, come here to confess, to admit that 1973, with its marriage contract and caviling, was not a proud year; a “phase,” you say, the unfortunate but necessary unleashing of your anger. And I apologize too, for my defensiveness, for not fully understanding the changes you were going through. We’re so polite, exchanging our confessions there on the wet grass of the cemetery, on the cool gray day that my father is buried; so polite and shy until my mother calls my name from the waiting limousine. I turn, about to leave, but you reach out, hand to my hand, holding on, squeezing tight—a kind thing for you to do.
“I’m sorry,” you say, your eyes embracing more than the grave. “For everything.”
“I know—me too.”
And we stand there for a moment, holding hands, comfort from a friend for a grieving son—no more than that, the urge long gone. Not even the hurt remains; it’s hard to believe, but everything, even the pain has left. Who could have foreseen that on a fall day in ’76 your touch would mean nothing more than sympathy, that such strong feelings could be so dead?
“But where . . . ?” I begin to say; my mother calls again and I turn away. Duty-drawn, I take a backward step, shaking my head, no words for the question I need to ask.
But you know what I mean, and the slight smile you give me then holds all the answers if only I could decipher it—the same smile my father learned on the 8:10 special to Philadelphia, the same smile Eddie Carlson learned while being trained to kill by the United States Army. Bitter and resigned, mocking and self-mocking all at the same time. Innocence betrayed; irony, the survivor’s stock-in-trade.
“Dallas,” you say, “Dealey Plaza, just beyond the School Book Depository.”
It’s the fall of ’63, Friday, November twenty-second; in Dallas, at Dealey Plaza, on Elm Street just beyond the Texas School Book Depository; a day of history, of recorded images, pictures imprinted on the nation’s consciousness by the fortuitous camera of Abraham Zapruder. It’s Friday, November twenty-second, 12:30 P.M., a specific frame of the Zapruder film the act already committed, three shots fired, brain tissue splattered on the windshield, on the seats, on the raspberry-colored suit of Jackie Kennedy. The act’s been committed, the New Frontier receding, Camelot invaded, violated, our innocence dying on the back seat of a presidential limousine.
It’s all there to be seen in just one frame of color film, the shock and horror of infamy, the urge to resist reality: the gleaming black curves of the president’s car, a hero’s chariot, flag-adorned; the green grass and flinching spectators; the man himself, slumped and bleeding; and, too, dominating the scene in her raspberry suit and pillbox hat, Mrs. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Fighting back, risking all, either an assassin’s bullet or a calamitous fall, she climbs onto the rear of the speeding car, and reaching out now, tries to retrieve from the rear bumper of the limousine a shorn piece of her husband’s skull. Yes, it’s all there to be seen, such a human response to the tragedy, a perfect image of the country’s yearning—Mrs. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy reaching back, trying to retrieve the jagged pieces of our shattered dream as if she, we, could make it whole again.
It’s then that I appear, a new figure entering the scene, one discovered only recently by the latest photographic enhancement techniques. It’s then that I glide into view, sprinting full speed from the borders of the film, man of the moment, a mythic figure of angular body and lightning reactions, of refined sensibilities and relentless purpose. Come to save a life, a president, a generation’s idealism; an historical revisionist about to redo a decade of our existence. Our every daydream’s reified hero, sprinting up Elm Street in a three-piece suit.
I leap, a striking vision of vigor and grace, onto the rear of the speeding limousine on that Friday afternoon in the fall of ’63, and there, risking all, either an assassin’s bullet or a calamitous fall, I help our First Lady with her singular mission, gathering piece after piece of our shattered leader. From the windshield, from the seats, from the stained skirt of the raspberry suit, his shards are scraped, then placed on the smooth black rear of the limousine, where they are carefully sorted by color and shape—the two of us pausing above them then as above the strewn pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which my father worked on in his deathroom study. And together, through patience and cunning, through the exhausting process of trial and error, we, myself and Jackie Kennedy, precariously balanced on that limousine, do what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the conspiracy theorists have never done: we put Saint Jack back together again. We fit the pieces, solve the puzzle. We assassinate history and rescue the sixties.
And all the crowds cheer, the parade route lined with ecstatic Texans, whistles and waving, blizzards of confetti, a roar of appreciation rising across the nation. Teachers in their classrooms pledging allegiance; farmers in their fields, businessmen in their boardrooms, sighing relief; parish paragons, their knees locked beneath the skirts of their Catholic school uniforms, drying the tears in their eyes. Because it’s the fall of ’63 and we’ve just put Saint Jack back together again, saving the day, turning us away from a mean and vulgar sidetrack of history.
And there will be peace again throughout the land, no need for protest, no anger or hatred, bigotry overcome by our rescued leader: Dr. King, Jack, Ted, and Bobby Kennedy, Governor Wallace and Mary Jo Kopechne, playing game after game of touch football together on the compound lawn in Hyannis Port. And there will be no riots or assassinations, no Viet Nam War to snatch away our neighbors, Eddie Carlson driving up and down our streets, patching rubber irresponsibly, without ever having to learn an ironic half-smile, without ever being reduced to a vague shadow of his parents’ hope. And my father will not have to ride his 8:10 train, will not have to hide those secrets in his eyes while withering away in self-imposed silence; we’ll spend days, whole days together, father and son, bonded by love, on the worn wooden steps of our shaded back porch, talking to each other, uncovering the secrets, fatherly advice for the heir apparent. Because it’s the fall of ’63 and Saint Jack’s been put back together again; and the leaders I revere will not betray me; and the values I believe in will not change; and the people I love will live forever; and through sickness and health and all the necessary phases, through all the crimson-streaked sunsets of Camelot’s days, hand in my hand, you will not leave me.
(Originally published in “The Antioch Review” and collected in The Death of Descartes)