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    JFK Reshot

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by davidm, Dec 5, 2013.




    JFK Reshot

    By David Misialowski

    About 17,350 words​

    I. Yesterday


    1. The Chiffons


    What if?

    What if you had a flattop haircut, rather than a doo-wop ‘do? What if you were the man in the gray flannel suit, instead of the boy in the black leather jacket?

    What if you weren’t you?

    Then I wouldn't love you.

    And I do love you, my rebel without a pause.

    “Linda!”

    The hatpin of her mother’s voice burst with a bang the daydream bubblegum balloon above Linda’s head.

    “Help me in the kitchen, please. And turn down that awful radio or I'll take it away from you, and give it to the Goodwill store. So help me God, I will!"

    “Yes, ma’am, I’m talking about Armour Star broad-breasted turkeys.”

    The radio ad reminded Linda that next Thursday was Thanksgiving. Uncle Charlie would be at the table, watching her. Buzz-cut hair, jug-handle ears, fat red neck. As always he would be wearing his Texas Ranger uniform, and he would watch her silently from above the drumstick raised to his teeth, his gaze crawling like Texas fire ants all over her broad-breasted flesh, making it unpleasantly tingle behind her blouse and bra. Those wanton eyes.


    What did they want?


    "Succulent white meat," the announcer supplied helpfully, hawking the turkeys and adding, "plenty of dark meat, too." A little later: “See the Wheeler Dealer, won’t ya?” Rex Jones, the deejay on the Mighty 1190, was pattering about a movie. A few hours earlier, on Mike Wallace's CBS News morning program, she had seen a segment that had practically stopped her heart: The Beatles.


    "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!"


    And those dish-mop 'dos! Was hair like that legal?


    The reporter, a condescending old fuddy-duddy named Alexander Kendrick, had said: "This is Beatleland, formerly known as Britain. Beatlemania has seized the teenage population, especially the females. Some of the girls can write, and they belong to the Beatles fan club."


    Linda was the first person in the sixties to trust no one over thirty.


    The Bitch appeared in the doorway, reached for the radio and turned it off.


    “Ma-aahm!"


    “Linda, I told you to clean up your room. It looks like the Dickens!" The Bitch eyeballed the pictures on the wall above Linda’s bed and grimaced like someone who had just tasted wormwood and gall.


    Photos of movie stars and pop singers snipped from magazines graced the wall of gall, and a picture of President Kennedy was at the center of them all. Like the sun in the saddle of the solar system, the grinning JFK exerted the gravitational pull of his famed charisma on the other pictures, which revolved around him in graceful pictorial homage.


    Mother had voted for Nixon.


    “Well, which is it, Mom? Clean or cook? I can’t do both at the same time. Besides, I’m sick.”


    “I don’t believe you, young lady. You’re not sick! Jesus knows you lied to me this morning about being sick, to get out of going to school. He told me you lied.”


    “Mom, doesn’t Jesus have more important things to worry about, like Communism in our politics, fluoride in our water and Negroes in our neighborhoods?”


    “Jesus can hold more than one thought in his head, Linda. He's God! Now clean your room first, and then help me in the kitchen. Stop acting like some shiftless colored girl. God helps those who help themselves!”


    The Bitch left. Linda dragged herself out of bed and began tidying her room, but she also switched the radio back on. So the Bitch no longer believed that Linda was sick. Linda thought: You can’t fool The Bitch for too long. With the help of Jesus, she sees and knows all.


    Therefore, Linda reasoned, it was a good thing that The Bitch didn’t know (yet) about The Monster.


    The radio: "And away we go, on the Rex Jones Show!”


    Linda caught her reflection in the mirror above her dresser. It froze her. I’ve got my Mom’s face, she realized for the first time in her sweet sixteen years of life.


    Yes, I’ve got her face, except without the bags and wrinkles and fury, without the lips ever pursed in bitter resentment at her lot in life, her divorce foremost. But every other feature was right there, waiting to grow old, to break through the oh-so-temporary smooth mask of youth, the lake of the mirror striving to suck her in and drown her. In you I will drown a young girl. That line, where had she heard or read it? In English class?


    The radio:


    I have a boyfriend
    Met him a week ago



    The Chiffons!


    He’s my forever
    Last night he told me so



    This was their song.


    “Quit stomping around in there! What are you, an elephant?"


    She turned up the radio.


    "Turn down the radio!"


    He's the boy that I adore
    Never felt like this before
    And I know-oh I'll never let him go-ohhhh!



    The phone in the living room rang.


    Linda quit dancing and clapped a hand to her mouth. Somehow she knew: It was Bobby.


    She dashed into the living room and snatched up the phone, which was on a coffee table alongside Mom’s two-foot-tall tattletale Confederate Jesus with the electronic halo and light-up eyes. She babbled into the phone, “Hello who is it I’m sorry you have the wrong number goodbye!”


    “Hey, baby. Wanna ride?”


    “I’m sorry, Bobby, but you have the wrong number."


    “Linda, who are you talking to?”


    Linda clapped a hand over the phone’s earpiece and offered her mother a big, shit-eating grin: “Wrong number, Mom.” But then she put the phone back to her ear.


    Jesus stirred to life and announced: “I am the way, the truth and the light. Vote for Barry Goldwater in 1964.” Its halo switched on, lights beamed from its eyes and it raised a stigmatized palm from which red ink leaked. It was robed in the Confederate battle flag. Mom had picked up the battery-powered plaster grotesquerie at a flea market in Fort Worth in '61. It had a motor and a tape recorder inside, and evidently was the creation of some crackpot inventor in love with the Lord and the Lost Cause. Confederate Jesus then added, addressing Linda’s Mom: “Keep an eye on your daughter, Mrs. Bellum. I know I do. I told you she lied about being sick. She’s quite a sneak, and, I reckon, a little whore in the making.”


    Uncle Charlie, The Bitch’s brother and the Texas redneck Ranger, had recorded and stocked the spool tapes inside the statue.


    Linda nearly burst into tears, but her mood picked up when she heard the Voice again: “I’ll pick you up in an hour, baby. Tell the Bitch you got glee-club practice.” Bobby named their usual secret romantic rendezvous point down by the Trinity River.


    In her empty bedroom, a newsman on the unheard radio cut off the Chiffons and rattled out with breathless staccato urgency:


    “-- This KLIF News bulletin, from Dallas: Three shots reportedly were fired at the Kennedy motorcade near the downtown section.”


    2. Tommy Roe


    Bobby Dusky hung up the pay phone at the road shoulder. He slipped back behind the wheel of his souped-up cherry-red hotrod with the dual exhaust valves and four on the floor, turned the key and put the car in gear. He resumed aimlessly cruising the back roads between Dallas and Fort Worth. An unseasonably warm day in Big D, near 70. Torrid Texas sun. Hot winds rode out of the scrublands, the green and golden Johnson grass. He caught sight of his eyes in the rear-view mirror. Those dark and dreamy eyes, Linda called them. Eyes to die for. He preened, patting his coiffed Elvis-like ducktail, and then he turned on the radio: KLIF, The Mighty 1190. Fifty-thousand pulse-pounding watts radiating outward all across Texas. He could see the station’s massive broadcast towers rising over the Trinity River floodplain. Tommy Roe was singing “Everybody."


    Everybody
    Everybody



    “Everybody's blue when they’re lonesome,” Bobby supplied the next lyric in a sullen voice.


    “Here is a further report, after we have just received word that shots had been fired at the Kennedy motorcade…”


    He turned up the volume.


    “KLIF News is on its way to Parkland Hospital to confirm reports that someone had been wounded in the firing of shots in the Kennedy motorcade in downtown Dallas. Stay tuned for breaking news."


    Everybody's had the blues…



    Linda had returned to her room. Tommy Roe was singing “Everybody” on The Mighty 1190.




    The Bitch was back. Linda was lounging on her bed, one leg hiked up over the other, and she was flipping through Teen Magazine. Flip, flip, flip.


    “Linda, who was on the phone?"


    Flip, flip. Flip.


    Flip.


    “Linda, who--"

    “President Kennedy, Mom. He wants a date. That’s why he came to Dallas. But he’s trying to figure out how to ditch Jackie.”


    Linda had pretended to be sick so she could skip school and head downtown for the motorcade. She had decided that if she shook JFK’s hand, she would never wash her hand again. Later she understood that she couldn’t stay home from school because she was sick while leaving it to watch JFK. Mother was a bitch but she wasn’t dumb.


    Everybody’s blue when they’re lonesome.

    -- Here is a further report, after we have just received word that shots had been fired --



    But The Bitch reached over and turned off the radio a second time, silencing the bulletin that Bobby was listening to at that moment while cruising.


    “Mother!”


    “Young lady, this is colored music."

    “Mom, Tommy Roe ain’t colored.”


    “Isn’t.”

    “What?”


    “Isn’t. Not ain’t.


    “Omigawd.”


    “Now, who is Tommy Roe? Is that who was on the phone? Is he a classmate? Does he want to ruin you?”


    “Mom, if I tell you who was on the phone, will you get lost?”


    “Linda! How dare you talk to your mother like that!"


    “MOTHER!”


    “Very well, Linda. Tell me who was on the phone, and you can have your radio back. Deal?”


    Linda had an inspiration. She decided on a new strategy–-reverse psychology, she thought they called it. She guessed that if she told The Bitch the truth, The Bitch wouldn’t believe it.


    “I have a boyfriend, Mom. That’s who was on the phone. His name is Bobby Dusky, a Polack. They call him The Monster cuz he scares the daylights outta everyone and he’s got a monster hotrod, a bitchen setta wheels. His mom and dad are rummies. They're on the dole. He’s 17. He’s also a dropout and a Jaydee. We’re planning to drive away to Hollywood and get hitched. Then I’ll write for the movies, and he’ll star in the movies I write for. Kay? Can I have the radio back now, please? A deal’s a deal.”


    On the road, Bobby was still listening to his radio in slack-jawed amazement.


    When the second bulletin ended, Rex Jones came back on and said, just as if nothing unusual were going on: “Oh, yeah, that was Tommy Roe singing Ev-erybody! That song has been number WON on the Top 40 for about the fourth day in a row!”


    A tom-tom Indian beat followed, a moody backdrop to uptempo horns introducing the familiar Hamms Beer jingle:


    As refreshing as a glass of sky-blue water
    That’s the big fresh taste that Hamms has captured



    Bobby pondered the shocking news. “Glee-club practice,” he now thought, might lack sufficient force to get Linda out of the house and into his arms.


    He hatched a plot.


    For the second time in less than ten minutes, he pulled to the side of the road. Another pay phone.


    Linda had turned the radio back on. The bulletin had ended, and she had not heard it. She sat on her bed, shaking her head in amazement. Her trick had worked. The Bitch hadn’t believed a word of her story, even though it was true.


    "So you want to be a writer for the movies?” The Bitch had scoffed. “These are the fantasies you want to write about?”


    “Yes, Mom, I like make-believe. I’ve even got a screenplay in mind of a giant mouth that never shuts up, make-believe but based on a true story.”


    “You’ll write for the movies over my dead body, Linda. I’ll make you believe that.”


    After delivering this verdict, the Bitch had yet again stormed off back to the kitchen. The velvet-voiced radio announcer now intoned: “Somewhere in Texas, someone is opening, and enjoying, a Hamms Beer every three seconds.”


    Linda thought that a beer would hit the spot right this very second. Maybe she and Bobby could bribe some square who had a valid ID to buy them a six-pack. They could drink it in Bobby’s car while smoking his Pal Mals and talking about their future in the flicks. Then they’d neck. As always Bobby would try for home but she’d call him out. She retained umpire rights in this ball game. Twice she had let him steal third base but that was as far as she wanted him to go for now. She wasn't quite ready for the Grand Slam.


    In the living room the phone rang again. She flew off her bed and out the door. The Bitch said, “Not this time, sweetheart” and she snatched the phone from its cradle and barked into it, “Hello? Is this Tommy Roe? Do you want to ruin my daughter?”


    “Mrs. Bellum, my name is Bobby Dusky, and I'm your daughter’s boyfriend.”


    In Linda’s empty bedroom and in Bobby’s unoccupied car, the unheard radios issued the third bulletin in the last ten minutes: “Shots definitely were fired at the presidential motorcade.”


    3. Another Black Smear


    Bobby smirked at the dead phone in his hand. Linda’s Mom had hung up on him halfway through his introductory remarks.

    So far, so good.

    He got back in the car, turned up the radio and waited for the next bulletin:

    “What had been a smooth trip to Big D for President Kennedy, his wife, and other officials; Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, has turned into another black smear!”

    Bobby nodded, thinking of the recent placard attack right here in Big D on Adlai Stevenson. Birchers. Segregationists. The nuts.

    In Linda’s empty bedroom, the unheard radio was blaring, “…another black smear!”

    It was the fourth KLIF bulletin of the afternoon. Bobby had heard two of them, but Linda neither of them. She was in the living room, having a showdown with Mom.

    “So it’s true. You really do have a boyfriend. And he’s a Polack, too. A Polack. Why not a colored boy, too, while you’re at it, Linda, I mean, why not?"

    “Stop it, Mom!”

    “And the rest of it is true, too? He’s just a good for nothing! A dropout! A wrong number, you said. A wrong number, indeed! Is he a Communist, too? He’s a Communist, isn’t he, Linda?"

    “All teenage boyfriends are Communists,” the statue fluidly intoned.

    Linda turned away.

    “Get back here!” The Bitch seized Linda by the shoulders and whirled her around, so that they were face to face.

    “So it is true.”

    “Yes. It’s all true. And not only that, I’m going to meet him in about an hour, and we’re going to ride. Ride! Ride! Ride!” Dig it, mom? Maybe I’ll even ride with him in the backseat!”

    Linda turned away again, but The Bitch grabbed her by the crook of her arm and hissed, “Get back here, you--you little whore. Your Uncle Charlie is right about you!” But Linda broke free and fled to her bedroom, shrieking back over her shoulder: “Bitch! Bitch! You’re a Goddamned bitch! I hate you! I wish you were dead! Bitch!”

    Linda slammed the door shut, locked it and crossed her arms over her chest, shaking with fury. She turned up the radio full-blast. A jingle was playing:

    Hooray! It’s Aunt Jemima Day!


    Fist bangs on the door. Rattling of the doorknob.

    Wonderful! That’s how to start your day!

    Linda had been shocked, then angry, then furious, when she realized that Bobby was talking to the Bitch on the phone. Oh, Bobby, how could you?

    “Open the door, Linda.”

    Dig in while they’re hot!

    “Linda!”

    Butter ‘em up a lot!

    “Open the door.”

    Have you had your Jemima today?

    “Linda!”

    ” --Joe Long, Mobile Unit Four, 1190; we’re trying to confirm police reports that President Kennedy and Governor Connally were wounded, perhaps tragically ... three shots …

    BANG! BANG! BANG!

    … pierced the atmosphere…”

    Bobby was heading toward his rendezvous with Linda and, as he now thought, with destiny.

    He knew that Linda had a schoolgirl crush on JFK. And he knew that if JFK had died--as Bobby, intuitively, knew had happened from the very first shocking bulletin that he had heard--then Linda would need comforting. She would especially need some comfort, Bobby thought, because now that Linda’s Mom knew that Linda had a Jaydee boyfriend called The Monster, why, Linda’s Mom probably wouldn’t be in a very comforting frame of mind, would she?

    He grinned, and thought about his private version of JFK’s New Frontier, that virgin terrain inside Linda’s jeans.

    He was determined to be its first pioneer.


    4. The Shadow of Death


    “You’re lying again.” They were back in the living room.

    “Mom, I just heard it on the radio. They shot the president.”

    “That’s the radio you listen to, Linda, nothing but colored music and hillbilly beer jingles and Godless giveaway contests and who knows what. It’s a hoax, you little fool! Everyone knows that nothing is real unless it is on TV.”

    Linda turned on the TV. Walter Cronkite.

    “... open limousine ... three shots ... Parkland Hospital... “

    “Serves the nigger lover right!” The Bitch sawed out after a moment’s pause, her voice hissing like that of a Texas rattlesnake. “Hope they got Jackie, too!” But her eyes were big and crazy and she looked pole-axed, positively off her nut. The world most decidedly was not behaving in an orderly, predictable fashion today, the way that the Bitch wanted it to behave. Today, the world looked like the Dickens.

    Linda bolted toward the front door, but The Bitch grabbed her and yanked her back. Then she slapped Linda across the face so hard that Linda’s ears rang.

    Linda clamped a hand to her face, tasting blood, and with her other hand she snatched Jesus off the end table and held Him above her mother’s head. Her mother cowered in fear.

    What if.

    Two little words that have always packed a big punch.

    What if?

    But she didn’t do it.

    Instead she dashed it to the floor, where the head broke off just as the statue was saying, “Vote for Goldwater, and for freedom, in --” It was silenced in mid-slogan. Then she darted out the door. From behind her she heard a strangled cry: “Why, you little clod! You killed our God!”

    Bobby cruised to their rendezvous point. He saw Linda sprinting toward him, her form rising and resolving out of the wavering heat, a silhouette under a blowtorch Texas sun. Hot winds rode. Trees lashed and moaned. Heady scent of mesquite. He reached across from the driver’s seat and pushed open the door and she jumped inside. She shut the door and he hit the gas. The car took off with a screech of rubber on asphalt. It vanished into a heat mirage.


    5. Death

    “The president is dead,” the man on the radio said.

    “Oh, Bobby!”

    Linda flung her arms around him and burst into tears.

    They had parked. Her head was on his shoulder, her back heaving as she sobbed and his arms were around her. She could not see his salacious grin, his eyebrows dancing up and down like those of Groucho in You Bet Your Life. The secret word “dead” had been said and the duck was about to come down.

    Comforting time, in earnest. Shed a tear.

    In the New Frontier.

    II. Today


    1. Yesterday


    “Jack! Jackie!”

    JFK pushed back his big shock of chestnut hair and then tossed off a crisp wave, almost a salute, at the people thronging the street to his right, and then he bestowed upon them his dazzling but also slightly impish and somehow ironical rakish grin, an expression suggesting that he had just finished having congressional relations with Marilyn Monroe but you had not. Jackie was waving stiffly at the people to her left. Smiling fixedly, she too was thinking about Jack and Marilyn, but her thoughts, unlike his, were not happy ones. She wore a pink suit with a matching pillbox hat and white gloves. She had endorsed legislation to wear sunglasses in the Big D glare but JFK had vetoed this bill, saying that people needed to see her eyes. "And keep smiling," he had said. "No matter what." A powerful, hot wind lashed at them, and JFK struggled to keep his radiant red coif from unraveling and running randy riot, while Jackie clutched at her hat to keep it from blowing off her head and she began to have nervous premonitions about the wild wind and heat and the madly cheering mob that was too close and too foreign for her own tastes and comfort, this hillbilly hoi polloi. "We're going into Nut Country today," JFK had said at the hotel, and at his wife’s shocked expression the President had scoffed, "Jackie, if someone wants to take a shot at me with a rifle from a tall building there's nothing anyone can do about it, so why worry about it?"

    The motorcade was halfway down Houston Street, moving toward the Book Depository building.

    BANG!

    The cheeks of Nellie Connally, the governor’s wife, puffed out, and her eyes violently rounded. She slumped forward.

    BANG!

    The driver slumped over the steering wheel, his foot falling on the brake. The car meandered to a halt.

    Two misses.

    The assassin pinned with the crosshairs of his rifle JFK, who had lost his Cheshire grin and now wore a quizzical expression, one elbow still propped casually yet somehow imperiously on the door frame. Regal even in death.

    BANG!

    Jackie’s screams tore the air.

    “Jack, Jack, what are they doing to you? I’ve got your brains in my hands!”

    INCOMING

    He heard the ringtone: “Everybody” by Tommy Roe

    .Lowering his Carcano rifle, the assassin looked to his right and saw atop a box of books his MorphPhone displaying the familiar ping. He picked it up and switched it on. She was looking up at him from his hand, her face in 3D. I’ve got you in the palm of my hand, baby, he thought. Just like the old days.

    “Wazzup, baby?”

    “How are you today, Bobby? Just checking. You know I like to check from time to time.”

    “Hungover, babe, and drunk.”

    “Should I be surprised?”

    “I don’t care.”

    “You should care, Bobby. Everybody has to care.”

    He thumbed up the morphware and a moment later the face was softened: the crow's feet flattened, the wrinkles around the pursed lips limned into oblivion, the hair undone from its cruel clasps and made long and new again. In mere seconds the 3D face had migrated from age sixty-six to sixteen.

    Bobby yanked off the funnel that covered his mouth. He reached for a Hamms beer on another box of books, tore off the ring top and guzzled. White foam oozed out of the corners of his toothless, beard-bedraggled maw, which stuck out from under the black, leather-like head that he wore, with the goggling black eyes like two Magic Eight Balls except without eights.

    “What would you do without me, Bobby?”

    “Don’t think I ain’t doin' without you, Linda.”

    “Listen, what are you eating?”

    “Hamms beer. It’s as refreshing as a glass of sky-blue water."

    “That’s bad, Bobby.”

    “What? That Hamms beer is refreshing?”

    “No. That you’re drinking it.”

    “I just killed JFK again.”

    “Oh, God.”

    “I killed him fifty times yesterday.”

    “Bobby, why do you want to kill JFK?”

    He began to speak, but she cut him off: “I don’t want to hear about it, Bobby. I’m almost sorry I bought you that Godforsaken thing and paid for the operation. You’re wearing it now, aren’t you?" Evidently she had the picture viewer of her MorphPhone switched off, probably because she couldn't bear to look at him.

    "It's just make-believe, Linda."

    “It’s the thought that counts, Bobby, the killing thought. Even a thought can be a sin because--“

    “Cut the Christ crap, Linda. I'm a crip. You may be born again, but I’m not. I’m a dead man walking, except I can't walk.”

    Wounded silence.

    “Relax, Linda. If I was really going to kill anyone I’d kill myself.” He soldiered on through the ensuing battlefield of silence, old soldier he: "Or maybe kill my neighbor. Some new neighbors just moved in next door, Linda. They have twin boys. About 10 years old. Fat little bastards, just like their Dad. Dad’s a prosecutor. Big shot. The kids mock me. Sometimes they chant outside my window: 'Monster, monster man, freak!' They throw rocks at my house.”

    “Bobby, do you look out the window at people? Like the twins?”

    “When they throw rocks? Sure, Linda. What do you expect me to do? I chase them away."

    “Bobby, when you look out the window, are you wearing your What If?”

    “I try never to take it off.”

    “Bobby, the whole point of your ...”

    “Yeah, I know. It lets me walk again. Big deal.”

    “Bobby, I was reading how you can upgrade for free to a miniaturized version of your What If. They’ve evolved. And, of course, they’re also being bred. You don’t need to wear its skin or head or hands and you don’t need the brain in the box. You don't even need to use the tentacle and the hole. These days, you can install an entire What If in a pair of glasses. It's called Wireless What If, or WiWi for short. You can ..."

    “I dig the skin, baby. It’s like S&M gear. Sexy!”

    “Bobby, you shouldn’t spend so much time in it.”

    “Why not?”

    “You could catch the virus.”

    “In that case my worries would be over. They’d put me in a rubber room and we’d call it quits.”

    “Listen, I’m pinging out.”

    “Bye-bye.”

    “Bobby?”

    “What?”

    “Jesus loves you.”

    “Glad somebody does. Linda?”

    “What?”

    “Everybody’s blue when they’re lonesome, baby.”

    After pinging out, he looked up and saw the calendar on the wall, above another stack of books in the sixth floor of the Book Depository Building. The date was Nov. 21, 2013.

    The Monster whirred around in his hot rod–-his motorized wheelchair--and then rolled away from the window overlooking the Kennedy kill zone.

    2. The Monster

    Bobby stripped off his gear, and drank four beers. After lunch, he put the gear back on. He closed his eyes, and in his mind Tommy Roe was again singing “Everybody.” It had topped the charts in the third week of November ’63, on the eve of the Beatles-led British invasion that changed everything.

    Everybody.

    Anybody?

    Nobody.

    He crushed an emptied beer can in his hand and hurled into a wastebasket. Another dead soldier.

    He heard a familiar staccato rattling across the linoleum siding of his house.

    He yanked off the head and hands, rolled to a window, looked out and saw his backyard: the foot-tall grass poking up through tangled mats of weeds, the tumbledown garage, and the ruins of his 1963 hotrod sagging slump-shouldered on cinderblocks, the tires deflated, the windows broken, the headlights smashed, the grillwork leering in the late afternoon sun and the cherry-red paint faded to a sickly, Pepto-Bismol pink. Presiding over these ruins like an Ent gone bad was the dead oak tree with its fantastic crown of zigzagging branches and its two knothole eyes in the trunk, side by side like the eyes of his What If.

    He spotted the brats. He rolled back to his bedroom, and put the head and hands back on. Then he rolled back to the window, opened it and yelled through the curled funnel of the mouth that covered his, “Get away from my house, you little creeps!” He voice came out buzzing and barking, a frightening, inhuman sound.

    “Monster, monster man, freak!” The twins launched another fusillade. The rocks rattled across the side of his house.

    Bobby pointed one of the big black hands that he wore at the twins. It would, he knew, look like a gun.

    “Get off of my property, you punks, or both of you are gonna bite it.”

    The brats let their hands fall to their sides and the rocks pattered down. They backed away, mouths ajar.

    “Count of three, and then I fire! One!”

    The boys bolted for the fence.

    “Two!”

    They vaulted it.

    “Three!” Screaming, the boys tumbled over each other and vanished into their own house.

    Bobby slammed down the window and rolled back into his bedroom. Still wearing the head, skin and hands, he used the tentacle to reconnect with the brain in the vat. The Lincoln Continental swung into view. He pulled the trigger, but the shot went astray.

    He fired again.

    Jackie’s pink pillbox hat flew upward end over end before coming down on the road.

    He fired again.

    The driver hit the gas.

    He shot for hours.

    At dusk his doorbell rang.

    INCOMING


    3. The Prosecutor

    “That’s him.”

    Standing on the porch were the twins, their father the prosecutor and a cop. The prosecutor was jabbing a finger at Bobby and ranting, “He smells like a distillery, and looks like a terrorist!”

    Bobby had removed the head and hands, but had left on the skin: scaled, black and pulsating. His nipples showed through holes in the chest.

    “He's a pervert, officer. He's wearing S and M gear!”

    “That’s just a skin, sir. This gentleman owns a What If.”

    The prosecutor gawped at Bobby, and then he saw it: The shaved patch on his temple and the hole, ringed in gold, in his head. It was the insertion point for the wire-thin tentacle that connected his brain to that of the What If.

    “That’s even worse,” the prosecutor quailed in genuine distress. “Those things are evil. They aren’t even contiguous. They have body parts all over the place. They're illegal aliens, officer! Arrest them!"

    “Some assembly is required, sir," the cop replied equably. "That comes with the instructions and warranty. Look, Hawaii isn't contiguous, either.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “I own a What If myself, sir,” the cop said in his bland monotone, but there was a slight, challenging edge to his voice. The prosecutor's eyes got big as the officer tilted up his cap to show the gold-ringed hole in his own temple, identical to Bobby's. The prosecutor began to say something, but bit his tongue.

    “They’re cheap now,” the cop noted in a conversational tone of voice. “Price has really come down. You can get a starter What If for $39.95, sir. At the Target Store. That’s where I got mine. Fits in your glasses. You ought to get one. These babies make your dreams come true.”

    “I have Googlespex, officer, the whole world, the real world, in my glasses, and made by good old human know-how, thank you very much!”

    But the poker-faced cop had turned from the prosecutor and he asked Bobby in his bland, nonjudgmental monotone: “Is true, sir, that you pointed a gun at these kids?”

    “It’s a toy gun, officer.”

    “Wuz not!” the brats bawled.

    “Actually, officer, it was just one of the hands of my What If. You know what they look like. Like guns.”

    “It was a gun!” the brats bawled with snot-nosed conviction.

    “Did the kids tell you, officer, that they were trespassing in my backyard, and throwing rocks at my house? They do it all the time.”

    The cop regarded the prosecutor. “Is that true, sir?”

    “He’s lying! My kids are darlings. They take after their Dad!” He patted their heads. They looked smug.

    “I tell you what, Mr.--“

    “Fury,” the prosecutor snapped. “Buddy Fury. They call me ‘The Fury' even though I'm everybody's buddy.” Buddy Fury wanted to run for office and now he reflexively attempted to add a little levity to his presentation, but his anger swallowed it up, his last name eating his first name.

    “Mr. Fury, why don’t you let me have a little talk with this gentleman, Mr.--"

    “Dusky,” Bobby said. “Bobby Dusky. But they call me the Monster. If you’re wondering about my hotrod”--he gestured helplessly at the motorized wheelchair in which he was marooned--"I was shot in the spine during the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive. That would be all the way back to 1968, on the Way Back Machine.”

    The officer turned back to the prosecutor and said: “Let me have a nice talk with Mr. Dusky, sir, and see if I can’t handle things. How’d that be?”

    “Arrested!” the Fury fulminated. “I want him arrested, officer. He waved a gun at my two piles of joy. He could have killed them. He wore a mask.”

    “A mask?”

    “He doesn’t have it on now, but he wears a big mask and a helmet with two goggle eyes and a curling funnel mouth. It’s terrifying. It scares the shit out of my boys. No wonder people call him the Monster. Arrest him!”

    “Sir, that’s the head.”

    “What?”

    “The head of his What If. He has an early version. What If 1.0. You sure don't see too many of those babies anymore.”

    The Fury spluttered, and the officer held up placating hands. “Mr.--“

    “The whole neighborhood wants him out, officer, his property condemned! Have you seen his backyard? It’s a fire trap. He’s bringing down my property values!”

    As the father ranted, one of the twins covertly stuck out a tongue at Bobby.

    The cop’s voice rose just a register above his monotone as he said, “That’s enough.”

    The prosecutor fell stormily silent, and glared at the cop with the smoldering and theatrical indignation that he ordinarily affected when a judge cut him off in court. Playing to the audience, the jury. But who was the jury now? Easy: his kids. The officer said: “You understand, Mr. Fury, that Mr. Dusky here is a wounded Vietnam veteran? An American hero?”

    “I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christmas on the Cross, officer. He’s bringing down my property values.”

    “Mr. Fury?”

    “What?”

    “Why don’t you go back inside your house with your kids and let me have a little talk with Mr. Dusky. And while you’re at it, sir, why don’t you”--and the cop calmly deployed a vulgarity for self-intercourse, in a tone of voice suggesting that he was inviting Fury to dinner.

    Fury looked astounded. He was momentarily mute. Then he made a sudden move toward the cop, who took a step back and laid a hand on his holster.

    “I’ll have your badge, officer. Your badge! Understand?”

    “That’s fine, you can have my badge, Mr. Fury.” He flashed it. “There you are. Write down the name and number.”

    The Fury, flummoxed, patted his pockets.

    “I don’t have a pen or--or paper.” He turned to his brats and said, “Bubba? Billy? Do you have--“ But the boys of Buddy, Bubba and Billy, shrugged, and then looked down indifferently and kicked at the porch with their designer sneakers.

    “Never mind!” The Fury yelled. “I’ll memorize the number. I’m used to memorizing things, officer: I’m a prosecutor!” Then he leaned forward and made a big show of scrutinizing the name and number on the badge. When he was done he straightened, glared again at the cop and then, yanking his kids by their hands, stalked off Bobby’s porch. Pausing, he looked back over his shoulder and said to Bobby: “As for you, Mister Monster, you’ll be hearing lots more from me. This is personal, now. Personal, see? This is war."

    4. The Cop

    “Why are you so kind to me, officer ...”

    “Nelson. Ed Nelson.”

    “What’s wrong, Officer Nelson?”

    “Nothing.”

    “Something must be wrong, the way you’re looking at me.”

    “It’s nothing. It’s just that ... nothing.” The cop took a step back from Bobby’s thousand-yard stare. He found something hauntingly familiar, yet wholly elusive, in those tragic eyes.

    Then the cop stared, stunned, into the shambles of the house.

    Like streamers from a party long abandoned, dust-darkened cobwebs sagged from one end of the ceiling to another. The springs had sprung out of the couch, like decapitated jacks in the box. A blackened and defunct fireplace, resembling the burned-out mouth of hell, was filled with crushed beer cans: dead soldiers. Plastic trash bags full of garbage were piled everywhere.

    “My boyhood home,” Bobby apologized. “An inheritance. From parents who hated me. Two low-class drunks. Like me. My dad used to beat me, till one day I beat him back. But who else would they give the house to? It’s tough to keep up in my condition, when you’re all alone and a crip. Why are you so kind to me, officer?”

    “Why wouldn’t I be, sir?”

    “No one is. I’m messed up in the head. That’s what my old lover said when she left me, my high school sweetheart. Blame Nam. Officer Nelson, I’m a monster. I’m all in pieces.”

    “My only son, Ed Jr., was killed in the War on Terror, sir. In Kashmir. He was blown up by an I.E.D. An improvised explosive device.”

    The cop became grimly reflective, saying: “He ended up all in pieces, too, just like these What Ifs. They say his four limbs flew off in different directions, and his decapitated head was impaled on a fence post.”

    A painful silence followed, and the cop finally said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Sorry for being so graphic.” He added, sounding sheepish and maybe ashamed: “It’s why I got my What If. Inside its brain, I can be with my son. He was never killed.

    “I don’t understand."

    “The What Ifs show us how things really are. It’s ironic how they’re called ‘What Ifs.’ They don't show us What If. They show us What Is."

    “I still don't get it.”

    “I’m adopted, and my adoptive parents are dead, and now so is my only son. I never knew my biological parents. All in all I’d like to think that way things really are, aren’t. If you don’t mind my asking, sir, why did you get your What If?”

    “So I can walk again, just like you can be with your son. Our dreams come true. By the way, officer, I'm no hero. I got shot in the spine in the Mekong Delta after I threw away my rifle and cut and run."

    A little later, Bobby blew off JFK’s head.

    He was drinking heavily, and craved his bed.

    Over time, he had developed a strange idea: failing to kill JFK the last time he was on the sixth floor of the Book Depository building for the night would be wrong. He became superstitious about it, almost paranoid.

    Failing to kill JFK the last time before yanking the What If's tentacle out of the hole in his head, he had decided, would be like ... well, like tampering with history.

    Almost like changing it.

    His judgment clouded by alcohol, he began recklessly spewing gunfire yet again at Dealey Plaza, from which came screams of terror and the sounds of brakes grinding and cars slamming into one another. He clicked off mad shots at the russet-haired profile of the president, who was clutching at his throat. The Lincoln Continental sped away under the triple overpass.

    Bobby yanked the tentacle out of his head and passed out, drunk.

    JFK had escaped, his head intact.

    Bobby slept through the night and most of the next day. When he awoke, it was dusk again. He looked around his lonely room, and the very air seemed charged with meaning. His flesh tingled. Things, somehow, were different.

    Then he knew.

    "My God," he said aloud. He began drinking.

    Later, he pinged Linda.

    5. Golden Anniversary

    “Hi, Bobby. You never ping me. You sound drunk.”

    “You sound sad about that, Linda.”

    “About you being drunk? Or never pinging me?”

    “Both.”

    “I am sad about both, Bobby.”

    “Linda, we’re no longer lovers. Why should I ping you?”

    “For the same reason that I ping you?”

    “Which is?”

    “Because ... I still care about you?”

    “You mean, you still love me?”

    “Bobby, we’re two old people, not kids. What happened, happened. Let it be. Just like the Beatles said.”

    "You know what day this is, don't you, Linda?"

    "Oh, indeed, Bobby. Fifty years ago this very day."

    “Linda, remember that old game show, ‘I’ve Got a Secret?’ Well, I’ve got a secret too. You asked me why I keep killing JFK inside the What if.”

    “Why?”

    “Superstition. JFK’s real death that day allowed me to succeed in Project Get Inside Linda’s Pants.”

    “You owned up to that years ago, Bobby.”

    “Well, I guess your Bobby baby ain’t got no more secrets to keep from you, Linda. How ‘bout you? You got any secrets you been keeping from me all these years?”

    Bobby's ears pricked at the ensuing silence.

    Bobby pressed on: “What I didn’t count on was you getting knocked up.”

    “It was a sin, Bobby. We've been over this a million times.”

    “You really have become your Mom, haven’t you, Linda? You were always afraid of that happening. The face in the mirror.”

    “I hurt my Mom. She was never the same, after that. She got crazy.”

    “She was always off her rocker.”

    “Shut up, Bobby.”

    “But the fact that your Mom--The Bitch, that’s what you used to call her, right?”

    “Shut up, Bobby!“

    “Was a nice rock-ribbed fundy Christian, didn’t stop her from getting you a nice, safe, secret, illegal abortion, did it, Linda? Murdering our child.”

    “Bobby, it doesn't matter anymore.”

    “Linda?”

    "What?"

    "You loved me.”

    “Yes, I did love you. Then.”

    “Now.”

    Silence.

    “Here you are, divorced just like your mom was. All alone ... Linda?”

    “What, Bobby? You’ve plunged the knife in. Now twist it.”

    “Our lives were just tragic wastes. I got cut down in Vietnam, in a pointless war, and left a cripple. Your mother forced you to kill our child. Then when we were both old enough to live our own lives, you abandoned me. You couldn’t deal with a crip full of rage, a Vietnam vet. ‘Messed up in the head,’ you said. Like it was my fault. Yet you loved me even when you left me, and you love me still. You just admitted it. Your silence is your confession. It speaks loud, Linda. Sometimes silence screams.”

    "Bobby, we're talking about stuff that happened decades ago. Let it go."

    "I can’t let it go. It’s all I’ve got."

    "Bastard," she sighed. "Mother was right about you."

    “You’re drinking, too, aren’t you, Linda? You’re slurring your words.” Neither of them had their Morph viewers on, only the audio, so Bobby couldn't see her drinking. But he could hear her slurring. "That's your secret."

    “Yes, Bobby, I’m drinking. Martinis, if you want to know. Happy now?” She tinkled the ice in her glass. "Hear it? So there's a secret for you."

    “Linda?”

    “What?”

    “Maybe it’s not too late for us to get back together and--“

    She tipsily laughed. Bobby inwardly seethed.

    “Linda. Let me explain.”

    “Bobby?”

    “What?”

    “Everyone says JFK’s assassination changed world history. But it really changed our history.”

    “Right.”

    “Because if he hadn’t been shot that day, or at least if he hadn’t died, your little scheme wouldn’t have worked out.”

    “No. In fact, had JFK not been shot, I wouldn’t have called that second time, and revealed to your mother who I was. That was part of the plan. To get you out of the house and into my arms.”

    “If he hadn’t been shot, I probably never would have left the house. None of this would ever have happened. I never would have gotten pregnant. Everything would have been completely different.”

    "But what if--“

    “What if! I think about what ifs all the time, Bobby. Like everyone things: What if JFK had never been assassinated? The world would have been better, everyone thinks. Maybe. Maybe not.”

    “Nobody thinks about what if, Linda, unless they don’t like what is.”

    “Bingo, Bobby. Congratulations on finding me out. Another secret.”

    “Take two, Linda.”

    “What?

    “JFK Reshot.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “Let’s reshoot that scene, staring with fifty years ago. Let’s do it over. Let’s rewrite the script. You and me, baby. A collaboration.”

    “What are you talking about, Bobby? Life is not a movie. What happened was not in a script.”

    “Want to bet?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “If JFK had not been assassinated, then the Vietnam War would never have happened. Which means I wouldn’t have been shot, either. And that means I wouldn’t be in a wheelchair, and we’d still be together.”

    She laughed contemptuously. “You don’t know that, Bobby. Nobody knows what might have happened."

    “No, Linda, I do know what might have happened.”

    “How?”

    "Because it what might have happened, did happen."

    "Excuse me?"

    "JFK was never assassinated."

    Silence.

    "It's all a conspiracy, a big con job perpetrated for the last fifty years for evil purposes by the powers that be -- by what we used to call The Man, back in the day. And these days, the Man is named Buddy Fury. My neighbor. You might say he's the Man made manifest."

    "What in God's name are you talking about, Bobby?"

    "JFK got nicked in the neck, that's all. Flesh wound. The money shot, the head shot, missed."

    Silence.

    “Linda, the What Ifs show us What Is. How things really are."

    "You've got the virus, Bobby. I warned you. It's in your brain. It's rewiring your neurons to give you false memories. They should ban those Satanic things."

    "And you know what? On December 1, 1963, just nine days after he dodged death in Dallas, JFK unleashed a top-secret project called Operation AMWORLD. America World. The idea was to avenge the Bay of Pigs by backing a Mafia-financed coup against Castro, and then sending in the Marines to support it. It was part of a deal."

    "Deal? What deal?"

    “The U.S. takes back Cuba, and the Soviets take Vietnam. A wink-wink, nod-nod deal. It was brilliant. That’s why the Vietnam War never happened. And because JFK was the hero who brought Cuba back to the Free World, he was insulated from charges of weakness when he let Vietnam go to the Reds in '65 after he beat Goldwater in a landslide in '64."

    “Bobby, it’s all make-believe."

    “Make-believe? What is your whole life but make-believe? You and your make-believe plaster battery-powered Jesus. You wanted to write for the movies. You never did. But baby, this is like a movie you never imagined. JFK lived. He served two full terms. It was the Golden Age."

    “But none of it’s real!"

    “Why not? You mean that this so-called real world we’re marooned in, that I'm marooned in, is real just because everyone says so? If the world, or worlds, inside the What Ifs are just elaborate hallucinations, then so is our world, Linda. The only difference between its worlds and ours is that this so-called real world of ours is a consensual hallucination. But reality is not decided by popular vote, Linda.”

    “Oh, Bobby, for God’s sake!”

    "You can have your world if you want it, Linda. But it's not my world anymore. And it doesn't have to be yours, either. Join me."

    "Join you?"

    “Join me. Our memories will be jointly reconstructed, and we'll remember spending our lives together as the lovers we were meant to be. We'll be happy and not sad. We'll live in the world in which JFK was never shot and therefore I was never shot and I can still walk."

    "What in God's name do you want me to do?"

    "Get your own What If and join me in the reconstructed past.

    "No."

    "Why not?"

    "That thing is a sin."

    "You really have become your mother, haven't you, Linda?”

    "Besides, Bobby, I am happy."

    He activated the picture viewer of his Morph and pinned her in the act of raising a martini to her lips. Bobby told her what he saw.

    "You bastard," she snarled, hastily putting the martini aside with a shaking hand. Then: “Prove it, Bobby. You never got shot? Then get up out of your wheelchair and walk. Here, I'll turn on my own picture viewer and watch. This I'd like to see." She turned it on and zeroed in on him. He looked at her with fury, frustration and resolution.

    "All right, I will!"

    He lurched out of his wheelchair, and crashed to the floor. He raised his head, nose bloodied. He groaned more from the humiliation than the pain.

    "See?" Linda gloated. "It's too late for us, Bobby. Too late. I told you that. May God have mercy on your soul. Goodbye." She pinged out.

    He struggled back into his hotrod, pulling himself up with his muscular arms while his withered legs in his flaccid jeans trailed behind him like two giant wet noodles.

    So it was a lie.

    Yet the new memories of the JFK '60s that were relentlessly crowding out his old memories were so vivid and life-like: images of the ice-cube-cool JFK flashing his famous grin to a cheering crowd after dodging death devil-may-care in Dallas. The Marines wading ashore in Cuba just nine days later. The fall of Havana, the cheers of America, and later, in 1965, the fall of Saigon to the Cong.

    JFK in Moscow in 1966, shaking hands with Khrushchev to end the Cold War. JFK signing into law the Civil Rights Act. JFK, with Jackie at his side, beaming while entertaining the Beatles at the White House, Jack's own hair now shaggier and covering the tops of his ears. Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin frolicking on the moon in '69, a joint Soviet/U.S. mission. The free-wheeling, mini-skirted, go-go sixties were in full swing without the albatross of Vietnam and with JFK at the helm, the way that things had been meant to be before that wild card Oswald had thrown a spanner into the works and seemed to show that history had no meaning or arc bending toward justice or toward anywhere at all. Bobby Kennedy elected in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. his running mate. A better world, a much better world.

    Sadly, it was a sham.

    But he asked himself: was that the only way history could have gone, had JFK lived?

    Or could there have been other ways?

    He asked himself: suppose I had shot him in the back instead of the neck, or missed him entirely, or not pulled the trigger at all? Suppose I had killed Jackie and not Jack?

    How would history have happened?

    The Butterfly Effect. He had once read about it somewhere. A small change here can cause big changes there.

    He thought about his What If: Just how many worlds are in this goddamned thing, anyway?

    He closed his eyes and pictures from the real-world 1960s paraded before his mind’s eye: AMWORLD, evidently, had never taken place because of Kennedy's death, or maybe the newly installed president, LBJ, had learned of it and had vetoed the scheme. So here again, in his mind's eye, was JFK’s head exploding in the infamous Zapruder film; the soldiers later slogging like driven hogs into the bloody quagmire of Nam; the college campuses in turmoil and the inner cities aflame. These vivid images paraded before his mind like posters in a torchlight parade, but now they were competing with the equally vivid images of the new but evidently bogus history that was reconstructing his memory bank. The two histories were fighting for supremacy in his crazy mind. But the fact that he was still marooned in his wheelchair was a brutal reality check, he glumly supposed, telling him that reality was real, just as Linda had insisted, and that the What Ifs were, indeed, What Ifs, and not, as Officer Nelson had guessed, the What Ises.

    “A slum of a decade,” someone had once called the real '60s. JFK killed in ’63, King and RFK murdered in ’68. He himself face-down in the Mekong muck that same year, a bullet in his back and his spine severed. A slum of a decade the '60s, and one bitch of year, 1968.

    But later that same year, in the cruel real life that he could not escape, a ray of hope, though too late for him: Humphrey had edged Nixon in a cliffhanger. HHH, shortly after his Inauguration, unilaterally ended the war, courageously telling the American people on TV that victory was impossible and that the war's commencement had been a hideous mistake. He reminded the public of what JFK himself had told Walter Cronkite in a televised interview just a few weeks before Dallas: "I don't think we can win" in Vietnam.

    But HHH in the real world, unlike JFK in the What If, did not have the political cover of some other victory, like JFK’s victory in Cuba, to cover his political ass. Hubert was toast after cutting and running in Nam--saddled with the albatross of “only president ever to lose a war”--and of course the retro Ronnie Reagan defeated Hubert by a landslide in ’72.

    Then Ronnie launched the short but brutal war to oust Castro from Cuba and avenge America’s honor in having lost in Vietnam. Went on to victory in '76 and outsize glory: the Reagan Revolution of the 70s. Oh, the ironies of history. If only JFK had lived, none of this would ever have happened.

    He wondered: What if the What If spoke? What would it say?

    The What Ifs never spoke. Not since they had arrived in a flash of light and then a rain of fire out of the sky in '95, their pieces strewn across the continents and waiting to be deconstructed and reverse-engineered and finally bred and put to use for making human dreams come true. Bobby wasn't smart enough to understand much about it, but snatches of that momentous time in the mid-90s came back to him: The What If ship, itself alive, a living machine, had been covertly monitoring earth since the late Pleistocene. It had stored in its memory banks everything that had ever happened on Earth for the last 12,000 years, and, in addition, it had computed, and stored, every possible counterfactual conditional: Everything that could have happened, but didn't. That is, every possible event with "a non-zero quantum probability," the experts said, and although that phrase stuck in Bobby's mind, he still had no idea what it meant. "The world," the experts had said, "is a wave function. You compute probabilities of what happens in your own parochial branch by squaring the amplitude of the wave function. But provided that the probabilistic outcome is greater than zero, it follows that everything that can happen, does happen, in some branch of the quantum multiverse." That's what they said. That's one of the things that they had learned from reverse engineering the What Ifs. Bobby didn't get any of it. But the words stuck in his mind.

    Then after thousands of years something went catastrophically wrong, and the ship exploded. The whole night sky lit up briefly, brighter than a hundred suns, and then the pieces began raining down on the earth.

    "These babies make your dreams come true!" the first commercials had said around the millennium, after the What Ifs had been sufficiently reverse-engineered to market them, starting with What If 1.0, which Bobby owned.

    Bobby decided to shoot JFK again.

    The Lincoln Continental made the big, sweeping turn from Houston onto Elm.

    He waited till the limo was on Elm and then he fired. A spark of light flared on the pavement, just beyond the hood of the car. He fired again.

    JFK’s balled hands flew to his throat.

    The driver looked back over his shoulder. John Connally was tumbling into Nellie's arms: the Magic Bullet, nailing both the president and the governor. Nellie grabbed him.

    Bobby fired again.

    The windshield shattered. The car sped up, JFK slumping into Jackie's arms but his head intact. The limo vanished under the triple overpass.

    Bobby looked down at the What If’s right hand that he wore, that hand that so resembled a gun, the hand that had terrified the Fury twins Bubba and Billy.

    Actually, come to think of it, it was a gun: it was his old service revolver from his war days.

    Maybe the twins had been right after all. Maybe he had trained a gun on them.

    He didn't know what to think anymore. He felt himself beginning to crack apart at the seams. What was real and what was not?

    He didn't know.

    He opened the gun and looked inside the chamber. It held one ancient but still potent bullet. He closed the gun and rolled the chamber like a roulette wheel. He pressed the muzzle to his temple, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

    Click.



    6. The Sound and the Fury

    Buddy Fury was in his basement den, wearing his Googlespex. The wraparound shades transported him into a hall of mirrors in which, in the cascading cataract of ones and zeroes from everywhere on earth and from outer space too, he was able, like Narcissus at the river, to see only his own reflection.

    His shirt was open and his stockinged feet were propped up on a leather footrest. He leaned back in his recliner.

    He patted his big bare beer belly, making hollow thunks on it. His tattoo was showing. His wife hated it, but he didn’t care. She had borne him two boys, the family heirs sprung from his family jewels, and The Fury knew that if the incubator ever got to be a serious pain in the ass he could kick the menopausal old bitch to the curb and buy a younger bustier trophy wife.

    He was going into politics and he knew that he would need a more telegenic twat to parade before the public. He fancied eventually running for president. He was that good.

    The tattoo on his belly was a red, white and blue target. Its bull’s eye was his naval, an outie.

    He had acquired the tattoo when he was a young man because as he was struggling his way up through his profession he wanted to remind himself that he was a moving target and that if he slipped his enemies would nail him. Life was short and it was war and he would win.

    His Googlespex were showing a special on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK in one rectangle while several other boxes floated about, competing for attention on the inner walls of the concave lenses of the wraparounds. Along the bottom of the shades a stock ticker updated The Fury on his investments and in the upper right quadrant of the spex a titcam focused on the naked breasts of a comatose celebrity who was famous for being famous and who, before ODing on drugs, had contracted to show her big ol' bazoomas on camera 24/7 even while asleep, unconscious or dead. She had received 10 million dollars from Reality TV to do this and her show was the No. 1 hit in the whole World Wide World.

    Suddenly all the other rectangles winked out and a single scene flooded the wraparounds: The midnight-blue Lincoln Continental proceeding at a stately 15 miles per hour from left to right, then passing behind the green road sign. The russet hair reappeared, and then the fists were balled at the throat. Pink-clad Jackie looked at the stricken Connally, and then at JFK. She reached for him with her white-gloved hands, and tried to tear his rigid arms away from his throat.

    Then his head blew up. Gout of red.

    Oh my God, one could read Jackie's lips in the silent film, as she vaulted onto the trunk of the car and was met by Agent Clint Hill, who was clambering up from behind, a tenuous foothold on the bumper. Waving at her to get back.

    A voice-over: "Sometimes little hinges swing big doors.”

    The Fury nuked the Zapruder film by blinking his eyes. Then by twitching his nose he expanded another rectangle, which displayed his favorite home-made porn video.

    He unzipped his trousers, and relished the video of himself in the dungeon. He wore leather and wielded a whip. His victim, some high-priced whore whom he had hired at an upscale brothel in Fort Worth, was on her naked knees, begging for mercy. He showed her no mercy. He called her “the world” and then he whipped the world until it bled.

    But his thoughts kept drifting back to yesterday’s encounter with the freak next door and the cop. Things had not gone according to the plan that he had so meticulously scripted, the way that he always carefully crafted his closing remarks to a jury. Ever since yesterday the jury of his kids had been curiously reticent, as if they had become privy to some sordid secret about their dad: chronic impotence, perhaps, or terminal stupidity. And their verdict was their silence. It infuriated the Fury.

    He had been humiliated in front of the jury of his kids. That was what had happened, sure it was. The sound of that encounter rang in his ears. He had been found guilty.

    That was unacceptable.

    He removed the spex, rose, buttoned his shirt, zipped up his fly and buckled his belt. Then he put his shoes back on and ambled upstairs.

    He walked into his kitchen, and gazed out at his neighbor’s backyard. Moolight washed over that wilderness.

    Wifey and Kiddies were out. He was alone with his thoughts.

    The prosecutor reviewed the bill of indictment against the defendant, Robert (Bobby) Dusky:

    Count One: He’s a monster.

    Count Two: He and that cop humiliated me in front of my kids.

    Count Three: He owns a What If. What Ifs are bad.

    Count Four: His backyard is a jungle. It is driving down my property value.

    What if a fire started in it?

    What If, indeed.

    He had kerosene in his garage.


    7. When I Made the Worlds

    After Linda had cut Bobby off on her Morph, she looked in the mirror.

    “Hi, Mom."

    “Here you are, Linda. You’ve really made a mess of your life. And you’re drinking! Well, I could have predicted all this. I knew you would turn out rotten. Godless!”

    Linda turned from the mirror and looked about the small, tidy townhouse in which she lived alone and lonely. On a shelf was a begrudging inheritance: The confederate Jesus of her youth. But Jesus had fallen silent ever since she had dashed it to the floor and broken its head off its neck, fifty years ago this very day. Her mother had glued the head back on, but Jesus was mute. The halo no longer came on, the eyes did not shine and Jesus did not speak, even though the ancient accusatory tapes remained in their spools in the savior's belly. For some reason neither a fully charged battery nor a plug in an outlet could rouse the Crucified One back to life. Nor could a prayer. Still, he retained his benevolent and awesomely pitying expression. Linda realized that she had accepted Jesus into her life by the very act of accepting ownership of the statue, the dubious prize bequeathed her in her mother’s spiteful and otherwise parsimonious will. And now Jesus was her last hope. The old-time religion was all she had left in life, along with her dry martinis and dubious memories.

    From the other side of the mirror The Bitch sneered, “Here you are, sixty five years old--“

    “Sixty-six, Mom.”

    “--and you’re still in touch with that good for nothing, with that damned … Dickens!”

    Bobby had asked her for a secret of her own. What Bobby didn’t know--because Linda had never told him, all these many years--was that Linda had lied to him about the child that they had conceived in Bobby’s car on that day. She told Bobby that her mother had forced her to have an abortion and she had maintained this fiction ever since, over the years that they had drifted in and out of touch, never fully separating the way that they probably should have for the good of both of them. She had not been permitted to see Bobby during her pregnancy. She had been sent away to live with Uncle Charlie, the Texas Ranger, in Austin. Held there like a prisoner. Snatched out of school. Sequestered in the shadows. A sudden non-person, a community disgrace. Nor had she ever told Bobby that Uncle Charlie had crawled into her bed with her every night. The shadowlands. His vast bulk atop her, the juddering bed, the spasms, the pain! His voice, husky and panting: “Little whore! Look what you made me do!” Bobby had had Vietnam. She had had her own Vietnam, a Vietnam of the jungle of inner space, of idspace, but she had never told Bobby about it, or anyone else. Ever after that, she spoke only to God.

    But God never spoke back.

    The Bitch had forced Linda to bear the baby ("adoption, not abortion: abortion is a mortal sin, the killing of a God-made soul") and then give it up for adoption “to a couple you will not even know, so you will never see your child again, Linda. That is the judgment of God. You should thank me, Linda, for saving you from the mortal sin of murder.”

    "Thank you, Mother.”


    Linda picked up her martini glass while her mother sternly scrutinized her from the other side of the mirror and the ice rattled in the glass because her hand was shaking uncontrollably. She took a sip, put it down and then gave up and reached for the pills.

    While her mother looked on with a smug smile Linda unscrewed the cap. She turned over the vial and let about twenty pills drop into the palm of her trembling hand. She brought the pills to her mouth. She intended to wash them down with the martini. Looking into the mirror at her mother, Linda said: “I’ll see you in Hell, God willing. You bitch.”

    “I’m waiting,” The Bitch replied tartly. “Where do you think I am right now?”

    “Where were you when I made the worlds?”

    She looked down at the pills and then up at the broken Jesus. Those words had come from His direction.

    But Jesus was again mute. Halo off. Eyes unlighted. Still he held out a hand of benediction in her direction. The same everlasting pose he had always had since breaking down. That hand.

    Blood was running down from it.

    The sight of it chilled Linda. She looked away. When she looked back again, there was no blood, or even red ink.

    She saw the scar at the neck.

    Where were you when I made the worlds?

    She turned from the statue and again brought the pills to her mouth and someone said: “Bobby is right, you know. It would be a pretty poor Creator who could create only one world.”

    She jerked her head around to catch the statue in the act of speaking. It was silent, frozen. Eyes blank.

    But the blood from the palm was back and it now pattered down on her carpet, staining it.

    She stared at the blood.

    “Swallow the pills,” her mother goaded her. “Why the hell not? What have you got to live for, Linda? Hurry up. Join me.”

    “You’d better hurry up and go to him,” came the voice from the shelf.

    She did not look in the direction of the voice because she wanted it to continue.

    “At every world, every possible world, only one thing is real, and it’s all you really need. I named what that one real thing is a long time ago, but then again, so did The Beatles.”

    She looked up at the statue. The bleeding had again stopped. It was frozen and silent. Then she looked into the mirror but did not see her mother. She saw only her own reflection.

    She snatched up her Morph and pinged Bobby.

    But he did not ping in. That had never happened before when she pinged him. She felt a chill run down her spine, a premonition.


    She glanced at the mirror again, and there again was her mother, face hag-like and brimming with malice. "He didn't answer your ping," she sneered. "He's probably dead. Maybe he killed himself."

    "Mother, you look like the Dickens." She rose, took the statue off the shelf and told it, "I'm sure you won't mind." Then she swung the statue backward and with all her might hurled it forward. It smashed into the mirror, which blew apart in a spray of shards.

    Then she ran out of the house and to her car parked at the curb.


    8. The Worlds of What If

    JFK’s car turned onto Elm. Bobby fired but missed.

    The car cruised toward the triple overpass while JFK and Jackie waved.

    Bobby fired again.

    Kennedy’s arms flew up, hands balled at his neck.

    Bobby fired again.

    #​

    The Fury, under cover of darkness and carrying a can of kerosene, vaulted the fence that separated his yard from that of The Monster. He approached Bobby’s old car, and poured the kerosene on the tall grass around it.

    #​



    JFK recoiled but didn’t fall.

    Oh for two, Bobby thought morosely. He was drinking, one beer after another. Every few minutes, another dead soldier clattered into the wastebasket. The beer took the edge of fear off of him, giving him numb, dumb, fatalistic courage. He raised the gun to his head, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.

    Click

    Russian roulette. Every time I miss JFK, I put the gun to my head and pull the trigger. OK? Sure. I get three shots and only three shots each try, just like Oswald.

    JFK's limo swung into view, the president tossing off crisp waves. Bobby centered the cross hairs on that russet, handsome profile and pulled the trigger.

    BANG!

    Jackie’s pillbox hat flew into the air, and she slumped into Jack’s lap.

    He shot again, and missed.

    He shot a third time, and missed.

    He raised his service revolver to his head, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then pulled the trigger.

    Click

    Then he tried to kill JFK again, but he couldn’t do it. The shots banged and echoed in the concrete canyons below.


    Bobby raised the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.


    #​


    After pouring the kerosene around the car, Buddy Fury rummaged in his pockets for his lighter. From behind him, he heard the sounds of a car coughing to life. Exhaust belched from the tailpipe. A curl of smoke, the smell of gas. He froze, and began slowly turning around to face what was there.

    He held the can in one hand and the lighter in the other. He ludicrously resembled a Salvation Army Santa holding a bell in one hand and a collection jar in the other.


    The car lit up like a jukebox.

    The radio came on: KAY! ELL! EYE! EFF! Eleven-nineteeee!

    But KLIF, the Mighty Eleven-Ninety, had been off the air for many years. Its broadcast towers were junk monuments to a bygone age.

    A song came on. It was "Everybody" by Tommy Roe, a Number Won hit from decades past, from before the Fury had been born.

    I said, hey, Everybody!
    Everybody’s had a broken heart now!
    Everybody’s had the blues…


    The car's tires inflated. It bounced on the blocks, the music playing.

    Someone was behind the wheel, bathed in the green light of the radio dial.

    The man behind the wheel wore a leather jacket and a greased, duck-tailed haircut. He was flinging his head from side to side in time to the music.

    The Fury dropped the can and the lighter and backed away.

    The man in the car turned to face The Fury while the radio barked out: “Here is a bullet from KLIF news” and then the announcer said that the president had been shot. The man in the car fixed The Fury with a cold stare and said, “You’re next to be shot, fatso. This is war, you said. But I know war. You don’t.” He winked.

    The Fury, eyes big, mouth ajar, kept backing away, beginning to stumble as he did, and then the man shoved open the driver's side door, got out of the car and strode briskly around the front of it, where the grillwork leered in the moonlight, and strode up to Fury, boots crunching.

    But what stood before him was not a man. It somehow resembled the dead oak tree that towered overhead behind it. It was fifteen feet tall, fully assembled. The large black balls of the eyes, like Magic Eight Balls without the eights, protruded outward from a head mounted on a double-helix neck and rotated swiftly on swivels and then peered down fixedly at Fury. A multitude of slimy black appendages fanned out around the What If like a corona of whips. The lower appendages were thicker and anchored it to the earth but they were in motion too, like tree roots that had ripped themselves up from the soil to try walking. Fury truly did believe that the dead oak tree had become animate.

    The What If pointed at Fury. It pointed what looked like a gun.

    The Fury flailed and his feet got tangled up. One of his shoes popped off. He emitted inarticulate grunts and squeaks of panic, and then he turned and ran toward Bobby’s house in a gait that was half run and half hop because he was missing his shoe. He huffed and puffed and then he screamed as if to blow Bobby’s house down.

    #​

    Bobby heard the scream, and jerked awake. He had passed out from drinking.

    He rolled to the window, opened it and saw a fat man silhouetted in the moonlight running toward his house.

    Bobby was in the Mekong Delta. He heard the thud of mortar shells and saw the traceries of light. Then he saw the muzzle flash and the wisp of smoke. He was under attack. He pointed the gun out the window and focused on the figure running toward him. He knew that there was only one bullet left in the chamber so his shot must be true if he were to kill The Man. He said, “Here’s a bullet from KLIF News, fatso,” and then he pulled the trigger.

    BANG!

    9. 1963/2013 (JFK Reshot)

    Officer Ed Nelson was cruising along Elm Street and passing the fabled Book Depository Building when he caught sight of his eyes in the rear-view mirror, flanked by streetlights and the headlights of the cars behind him.

    Something had been preying upon him since yesterday, since he had met Bobby Dusky and looking into the old man’s eyes had felt pity and compassion for him, even sorrow and something close to love. But he thought that he had seen something else in those broken eyes, a tragic secret.

    Now the secret was out, and it curled his toes.

    When he was sixteen, Officer Nelson learned that he had been adopted, but he never knew who his real parents were. His adoptive parents were dead, now. He had never known who his real parents were.

    Who his Dad was.

    Now he knew.

    “Ed? You OK?” Ed’s partner.

    Then the call came over the radio: a shot had been fired, and a man was down. Officer Nelson noted the address, and felt sick to his stomach.

    #​

    Bobby wheeled away from the window in panic. He heard sirens keening. His service revolver slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor.

    Kill JFK or die trying. You bet your life. On the sixth pull of the trigger Bobby had emptied the chamber of the gun, but not into his own head as he had anticipated and hoped. Instead he had shot his neighbor, Buddy Fury, who almost certainly was dead. Fury had been gut shot.

    He heard sirens.

    He ripped aside some curtains, yanked up a shade and threw open a window, expecting to see cop cars bearing down on his house in full moonlight.

    Instead he saw JFK’s limo swinging under his window, in full sunlight. He trained on it his Carcano rifle. Abrahan Zapurder was firing up his camera.

    #​

    Lee Harvey Oswald saw JFK’s car swinging under his window, in full sunlight. He trained on it his Carcano rifle. Abrahan Zapurder was firing up his camera.

    #​


    “Mr. President,” Nellie Connally said conversationally, turning to face JFK, who sat in the seat behind her and to her right. “You can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.”


    “Evidently not!”

    BANG!


    Zapruder was filming.

    BANG!

    JFK’s hands flew up and balled at his neck. He lurched forward and to his left, slumping toward Jackie, who was reaching for him.

    BANG!

    The car's windshield exploded.

    With his camera, Zapruder followed the Lincoln Continental until it vanished under the triple overpass. He knew that the president had been shot. He wondered whether JFK would be able to survive his neck wound because, thank God, the president’s head was intact. The Zapruder film, and history, would never be the same.

    Take Two.

    JFK Reshot.



    III. Alterday


    1. Black Leather Man


    Bobby removed his What If, and rose to his feet. He thought, I can’t walk.

    But he could, and did. He even wiggled his toes in his black leather boots.

    He ambled out of his bedroom, the floorboards creaking under his boots, and toward the front of the house. In the living room the TV was on. “As The World Turns,” the announcer said, and the black-and-white Zenith TV showed a globe spinning while sappy organ music played.

    His mother was sprawled on the sofa, drinking wine.

    “Where the hell are you going?” she asked.

    “Out.”

    “Bum.”

    “Drunk.”

    “Wait till your father gets home.”

    Bobby uttered an obscenity and put on his black leather jacket, which slithered and tightened around him. Eight leathery tentacles drifted around his torso. He barged out the back door. As he did, Walter Cronkite broke into As The World turns and said: "Here is a bulletin from CBS News…" The world turns, indeed.

    His car was marooned in the backyard on cinderblocks, sagging on deflated tires. The derelict hotrod’s grillwork leered in the midday sun. The dead oak stared at him with its two knothole eyes.

    He reached for the driver’s side door and saw a fat man lying beside it, supine in the tall grass. The man’s eyes were half closed, with only the whites showing from under the lowered lids, and his ample fingers, one bearing an expensive gold wedding band, were interlaced over his belly with cat’s cradle composure. He looked like a bourgeois trencherman enjoying a peaceful post-prandial snooze. Hell, why not? Bobby thought. Thanksgiving is next week. This guy is practicing. He listened for some log-cutting snores, but heard none. Then he realized that the man’s chest was not rising and falling, and that ketchup was seeping between his cigar-like fingers.

    Bobby shrugged and hopped into the hotrod and turned the key in the ignition. He pumped the gas pedal, put the roadie in gear and it coughed to life. In the rear-view mirror he saw his dark and dreamy eyes, those eyes to die for, and he ran a hand over his ducktail 'do, admiring his handsome face. He was young again, just seventeen. He snatched a crumpled pack of Pal Mals from his shirt pocket, tapped out one of the cigarettes and let it jut from his jaw. He scraped a match on his boot heel to conjure fire, and lighted up. Puckering his lips, he emitted smoke rings like smoke signals: Linda. Linda. Linda.

    He drove off the cinderblocks, across the tall grass, over the driveway and into the street.

    He pulled to the side of the road and dropped a dime into the curled funnel mouth of a pay What If. After a few rings Linda came on, saying, “Hello who is this I'm sorry you have the wrong number goodbye!” But he made a date with her anyhow and then the line went dead. Moments later he was cruising again.

    He turned on the radio: KLIF, The Mighty 1190.

    --“Here is a further report, after we have just received word that shots had been fired at the Kennedy motorcade…”

    He fiddled with the dial and tuned in to an interview program.

    “Sometimes,” the expert said, “People catch the virus from their What Ifs, and never come back. That’s the danger of these things. When you get it, there's no way to distinguish reality from counterfactual reality."

    Bobby spotted another pay What If and pulled over. He got out of the car and dropped a dime and again called the Bellum household.

    When The Bitch answered Bobby told her that he was Linda’s boyfriend. The Bitch hung up. Bobby got back in the car.

    “What had been a smooth trip to Big D for President Kennedy, his wife, and other officials; Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, has turned into another black smear!”

    There she was, sprinting in the wind, hair fanning out behind her.

    He reached across from the driver’s seat and pushed open the door and she jumped inside. She shut the door, and he hit the gas.

    “President Kennedy has been the victim of an attempted assassination,” the radio announcer said. Linda was in tears. Bobby tried to console her. He drove her to the intimate little spot that they both knew so well and then he reached for her but she pushed him away. “Bobby, how can you think about stuff like that, at a time like this?”

    He reached for the radio to turn it off, but she shot out a hand that stayed his. The announcer said: “Doctors at Parkland Hospital report that President Kennedy has sustained a nonfatal neck wound. The attempt on the president’s life here in Dallas has failed. Repeating, the attempt on the life of the president of the United States here in Dallas has failed!”

    Linda flung her arms around him. “Bobby!” she exulted, tears of joy streaming down her face. “He’s going to be OK! Oh, my God, he’s going to live!”

    “Yeah,” Bobby snapped, thinking of how his elaborate scheme had collapsed. “It’s a magic bullet, I guess.”

    Then he raped her.

    2. Lost and Found

    The squad car skidded to a stop in front of Bobby’s house. Officer Nelson bolted out of it, gun drawn, and scrambled up the grassy knoll to the backyard fence. He saw the man down, sagging against a ruined car on cinderblocks in tall grass, fingers composed over his belly. He immediately recognized Buddy Fury.

    His partner was running up and the ambulance siren was keening. Officer Nelson crouched down and pried apart The Fury’s fingers. He tore open the shirt at the belly and was stunned to see a tattoo of a target, the concentric colored circles radiating outward from a naval that constituted the bull’s eye. That naval had been an outie, but now it was an innie. Blood oozed out of it. Bull's eye.

    The cop felt for a pulse.

    “Dead,” he said, as his partner leaned in.

    They cautiously entered the house by the back. They found Bobby on the floor pulling himself along, his withered legs in his flaccid jeans trailing behind him. His wheelchair had toppled over. He still wore the What If’s head, skin and one of its hands, but the other hand was missing. Officer Nelson looked around and spotted a gun lying on the floor near a window that opened on the backyard. The gun muzzle pointed toward at the window as if to say, “Out there is the guy I shot.”

    Officer Nelson approached Bobby. Behind those goggle eyes were hidden his eyes, and his father's eyes. They were the same.


    3. Apocalypse Now and Then

    Linda’s mother struggled to resurrect Jesus. The Lord had been decapitated, but she had glued the head back onto the neck. Linda was not there. She had evacuated with the others.

    The head was askance and the Lord no longer spoke, moved, or did anything. She had replaced the batteries but that had not helped.

    She kneeled before it.

    “Lord, please speak. Help us. Help me.”

    She had not evacuated with the others because she had placed her faith, and fate, in God. But with Zero Hour at hand, the Lord was mystifyingly mute. Silentium Dei.

    The sky, however, was not silent.

    It screamed.

    Then a mushroom cloud towered over Dallas.


    #​


    Sometimes I wonder what would have happened on that day if things had turned out differently. JFK got a superficial wound. The bullet went through his upper back and then through his neck, missing his spine by an inch. It passed through soft tissue and then went on to hit Governor Connolly. Connolly was hurt far worse than JFK was. The next bullet passed over the president’s head and blew out the windshield. JFK was back on the job within a week and he was a national hero. Next stop, Mount Rushmore. People called the bullet that had gone through him without doing harm the Magic Bullet, and now JFK, whose popularity had been eroding, was called the Magic President. He could do anything he wanted, and did.

    He invaded Cuba.

    That was on December 1, 1963. Operation AMWORLD, they called it. America World.

    I wonder, if he had been killed that day, what would have happened between me and Bobby. I loved your father. I never thought he would rape me. But he did. And you’re the result. I’m sorry to tell you this, Edward, but I finally decided that I owe you the truth, especially now. After what that bastard just did.

    Assassinating President Fury.

    Sure, my problems were small potatoes compared with World War III, which broke out less than two weeks later after The Soviets responded to the invasion of Cuba by seizing West Berlin and then invading West Germany. Thank God we won. It turned out that half the Soviet nuclear arsenal didn’t work. But that didn’t stop them from inflicting tremendous damage on the United States.

    It was terrible about Dallas. Gone in a flash. And then of course Mother did not evacuate with the rest of us, supposing Jesus would save her. We never saw her again, or her statue.

    At least World War III ended in a single afternoon, on Christmas Day no less. The Christmas Holocaust. It didn’t drag on for years like World Wars I and II. Still about one billion people died worldwide, and all the hard years were ahead. A strongman needed to take over, to restore order. Thankfully, the Fury dynasty emerged out of the wreckage. Buddy Fury was our greatest president, and now he’s dead, assassinated by your father, Bobby Dusky, the Monster.

    Fortunately, the Fury boys, Bubba and Billy, will take over now, so we’re in good, strong hands again, even though the boys are said to be drug addicts, rapists and lunatics. Well, no one’s perfect, especially in politics, after all. I mean, look at the feckless JFK.

    We could have lost JFK to Dallas. Instead we lost Dallas to JFK.

    Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what I can do to your country.



    6. Reunion and Revelation

    Linda Bellum drove with constrained urgency, knuckles white on the wheel. Seeking distraction, she turned on the radio. It gave off a sizzle of static.

    She fiddled with the dial, and eventually found a congenial station playing sappy pop hits from the early sixties. But the voices sounded tinny and far away, and were interrupted periodically by hisses and pops and by solid stretches of dead air.

    She imagined that the station was a low-watt, Lone Star transmitter in the redneck hinterlands. She imagined some aging DJ with a beer belly and silver hair tied back in a ponytail reliving his long-lost youth, the glory days as Springsteen called them, spinning the platinum and gold platters of a bygone age and viewing those rotating and retrograde discs through a misty nimbus of nostalgia.

    Gaunt fretwork silhouettes in the moonlight, the abandoned broadcast towers of the long-defunct Mighty 1190 loomed over the Trinity River floodplain like ruined monuments to a lost civilization of broken dreams.

    The radio:

    I have a boyfriend
    HISS a week ago…
    He’s my forever
    Last night he HISS me so…


    Her skin crawled.

    She was trying to decide why she had ever liked such bubblegum crap. She still liked the Beatles, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not even fifty years could change that love affair. Could all those years really change other love affairs?

    When she arrived at Bobby’s house she parked at the curb and then sprang out of the car and hurried to the front door and hammered on it but got no response.

    “Bobby? Bobby!”

    She saw lights on inside, but heard no sound. She rattled the doorknob, but the door was locked.

    She trotted around to the backyard. She heard music.

    Bobby’s ruined hotrod was lit up like a jukebox. The music was pounding out of it: Everybody! Everybody’s had a broken heart now!

    She stared at the car, awed, wondering: How is this possible?

    She pushed open a rusty gate and entered the wild yard. Tall grass, jungle-like, began to swallow her up. She cautiously approached the derelict hotrod.

    When she reached it, she looked inside. The music had stopped. It was dark and silent in that wheeled crypt.

    This is the it, she thought. Big Red. The '63 Love Machine.

    Entranced, she slowly walked around the front of the car, past the moonlit leer of grillwork, and when she reached the driver’s side door she tried the handle. At first it resisted, but then the door swung open as though someone inside of the car had pushed it open. A fine film of dust sifted down from the door frame above. Brushing aside ethereal cobwebs, she settled in behind the wheel. For a few moments she gazed blankly out the cracked windshield.

    Then the radio came on in a glow of green.

    Startled, she drew a sharp intake of breath and clapped her hand across her chest. Okay, mighty fine! Away we go, on the Rex Jones Show!


    KAY! EL! EYE! EFF! Eleven-Nineteeee!


    She was stunned. KLIF had been off the air for some thirty years. But the band played on: I have a boyfriend ... this KILF news bulletin from Dallas ... As refreshing as a glass of sky-blue water ... three shots pierced the atmosphere ... Hooray! It’s Aunt Jemima Day! ... trying to confirm police reports that President Kennedy and Governor Connally were wounded, perhaps tragically …

    Some radio station, she decided, was playing the

    original tape of that day from KLIF, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ... But there's no key in the ignition.

    Looking up, she spotted a face in the rear-view mirror, and gasped. She did not recognize it. In the darkness, feebly lit only by the green glow of the radio dial, the face was sixteen years old.

    In you I will drown a young girl.

    The attempt on the life of President Kennedy here in Dallas has failed! Repeating…


    Uncomprehending, she stared at the radio dial.

    The attempt on the life of the President has failed.

    Looking to her right, out the passenger's side window, she saw, above treetops, the junk towers of KLIF. Red lights glowed on them.

    Red lights hadn't glowed on those towers in thirty years.

    Something brushed against her arm. She flung a balled hand to her lips and bit on it. Her head whirled, and her skin crawled. She made out, briefly, a silhouette, a duck-tail, doo-wop swoop of hair, some trick of light and shadow. Goose bumps exploded across her flesh, and then something with eight legs was running up her arm. She swatted the spider away, pushed open the door and bolted from the car, her heart hammering. The radio had gone silent.

    She saw the dead oak tree in the moonlight.

    Two knothole eyes. A vast corona of sprawling branches, like jagged, petrified tentacles. It looked like -- like what some people said a What If would look like, if a What if were fully assembled.

    None ever had been. It had proved impossible to do. If you could fully assemble one of them, the experts had said, then you would personally experience all possible outcomes, the outcomes of every choice and event, even those that were mutually exclusive.

    She looked at the house. Lights on.

    She trotted toward it, and tripped over some obstruction. Looking down, she saw a shoe.

    Curious, she bent down and picked it up. Warm fluid was on it, and it got on her hand. She tossed the shoe aside, and inspected her hand in the moonlight.

    Blood?

    She looked down at the tall grass. Like a snow angel, except in grass, the bulky shape of a human form had depressed the grass.

    Uncle Charlie?

    The grass rustled in a light breeze. Then the ground under it moved a little, a slight tremor perhaps prefiguring an earthquake.

    It moved as if something were trying to rise up from under the earth.

    The ground cracked open, and belly with a target tattooed upon it appeared. Red, white and blue. At the center of it, blood squirted from the perforated naval.

    She swept her hands through her hair and wondered, My God, what is happening here? When she looked down again, she saw only the ground.

    She turned away and jogged toward the house.

    The back door was ajar. She pushed it open.

    She found Bobby in his bedroom.

    A cop was pointing a gun at him.

    Bobby was lying on the floor beside his toppled wheelchair. He was enveloped by his What If. He wore the head, hands and skin, with one gun-like hand pointed at his own head.

    The wire-like tentacles of the What If were wrapped around Bobby, eight of them, swaddling him in a fervid swarming embrace, and her eyes widened in fear.

    The cop kept pointing the gun at Bobby, holding it with both hands but then as if unsure what do next he pointed it at the brain in the box instead and then back at Bobby, at the head of the What If he wore.

    The he pointed it at her. She flinched and took a quick step back. Their eyes met. They both said, “Who are you?”

    Linda gathered her wits and demanded, “What are you doing?”

    Before he could reply she threw herself on Bobby and the What If. The cop said: “I can’t get him out of that thing. I’ve tried, but I can’t. He’s trapped in it.”

    She was kneeling at Bobby’s side, cradling his head that was inside the head of the What If, and she looked up at the cop and asked, “Why are you pointing that gun at him?”

    “I’m not pointing it at him, I’m pointing it at ... at it.” He gestured wildly with the gun at the pieces of the What If strewn about the floor.

    Their eyes met again.

    Linda introduced herself. Then she said with conviction: “I can get it off of him.”

    In fact she was prepared for a struggle. But she pulled the head off of Bobby as effortlessly as she would an unscrewed cap from a bottle of suicide pills. But inside this bottle was life, not death, or so she prayed.

    The cop holstered the gun, picked up the head and set it on a desk.

    Linda cradled Bobby’s freed head and held it to her heart. Her tears rained on him. She lightly slapped his cheek. Slowly he came back from whatever foggy country to which he had been exiled, his eyes focusing. “Linda,” he said groggily. “Linda…”

    “Sssh!” she said, silencing him with a finger to his lips. “It’s OK, now, Bobby. It’s OK. I’m here. I'll take care of you.” She kissed his forehead.

    “I was just checking on him, after my shift ended,” the cop said timidly, self-consciously. He stared at Linda and she at him. She thought, those eyes. “I met him just yesterday.”

    He explained what had happened. Then, after a pause, he said, “His eyes …”

    Linda looked at Bobby’s eyes and then at the cop’s eyes. The cop said: "I'm his son. I'm sure of it." Bobby, semi-conscious, did not hear this.

    "He only had one son," Linda said. "I'm sure of that."

    "How do you know?"

    "Because I'm his only son's only mother."

    Officer Ed Nelson was dumfounded. The cop, she decided, inherited his father's genes. He was Bobby's spit'n'image, when Bobby was about fifty.

    "I shot a man," Bobby said groggily, foggily. "He's lying in the yard, near my car. Buddy Fury. My neighbor. I gut shot him. I killed The Man. At last."

    "There's no one out there," the cop said. "I came in through the backyard, and forced open the rear door when he didn't answer the front door." The cop was addressing Linda, who was looking at the brain in the box on the room's desk. Then the cop regarded the brain, and said reassuringly: "It was just another What If …" he began to say, 'Dad,' but thought it might be one shock too many just now. After a pause he said, "Mr. Dusky. Another What If. What If I shot my neighbor? What if I shot Buddy Fury? Couldn't blame you if you did, quite honestly. You remember I met him yesterday."

    Linda looked up at the room's window, and said in a voice little above a whisper, "There's something … out there. Something."

    "Something?"

    She gently withdrew from Bobby, rose to her feet and walked toward the room's door.

    "Something I have to confront. Something Bobby already confronted, I think. Now it's my turn."

    "Confront what?"

    "History."

    Pausing at the door, she turned to her son and said, "Stay here. I'll be back. I have to do this myself. Your gun won't help."

    "Why not?"

    "Because a gun can kill a man, but not a memory. Other weapons are needed. What they are, I don't know. I may find out."

    In the yard she stood agog before the dead oak tree, not so dead after all.

    It towered to a dizzying height against the full moon. Its branches branched, and those branches branched, and the branches of the branched branches branched. Branches too numerous to count. Forking paths. She knew what those branches were. This was not a tree. This was history. Every branch was a way that history could be. Thousands, millions of branches, a staggering fretwork against the sky, moonlight washing down through the cluttered interstices of history that sometimes interlocked again after separating, the branches dwindling down into twigs and even the twigs had twigs. She swooned before this vertiginous avatar of creation, and What If regarded her with its brooding knothole eyes. Wise old eyes. Even its roots were visible, swelling up through the ground. Mesmerized, she dreamily approached the tree, making her way toward the derelict car and the grass that earlier had been depressed by the shape of a bulky human form, out of which --

    A hand shot up.

    The scream caught in her throat.

    A fat hand had locked around her ankle, the arm sticking up out of the soil under the grass. She recognized at once the tan-colored sleeve.

    It was the uniform of a Texas Ranger.

    With an avalanche-like roar, the vast bulk of Uncle Charlie broke up out of the bowels of the earth, clods of dirt and divots of grass tumbling around him. One eye was missing -- an empty, worm-eaten socket -- and the other was lidless and it goggled up at her with lustful, bloodshot fury. Half his body had rotted away, including the immensity of his stomach, and his mouth was a skeletal row of teeth, but he kept his fat, intact hand locked around her ankle while bouquets of worms writhed in the holes of his jug-handle ears. He spoke through those teeth that were like chattering tombstones: "Come here, you whore. Look what you're making me do, again. Flaunting those tits of yours. It's not my fault. It's your fault." Then he pulled her down on top of him and she threw her hand to her mouth and bit down on it to suppress a scream.

    He had let go of her ankle and draped an arm around her midsection. With his other hand he quested vitally under skirt, trying to seize what he so sought.

    They were sinking slowly under the earth, the ground closing around them. His grip was unrelenting, and the stench of his advanced decomposition overpowering. She panted and struggled and slapped at him, to no avail. Her eyes rose in mute appeal to the unending branches of history that towered overhead, and then her eyes met the knothole eyes of What If.

    "Help me," she pleaded with those empty, impartial eyes. "I thought I could do it myself, but I can't. But no person or persons can help. Only you can. Please help me."


    Uncle Charlie tightened his grip around her midsection with one of his arms. With his other hand he found her panties, and began tearing them off of her.

    The thick, gnarled, ravening roots of history suddenly swarmed up from under the ground and seized the animate corpse of Uncle Charlie with the same fervid, swarming embrace that the wire-like tentacles of Bobby's What If had earlier enfolded him, until she had freed him.

    One of the roots slithered up between her uncle's fat thighs and formed a hand that was made of bark, with five twigs for fingers. The hand closed a fist around his genitals inside his trousers, and tore them off of him. From his mouth made of tombstone teeth, Uncle Charlie ululated.

    Another branch raveled like a noose around her uncle's fat red neck and sawed down into it. Green ichor bubbled out of the swiftly deepening gash.

    The branch beheaded him.


    With an audible pop, the head flew off of the neck like a mammoth champagne cork, arced through the air and then fell back down into the earth. Gouts of the vomit-green ichor pumped out of the shredded hole at the top of the neck.

    The remaining roots swarmed over and sawed down into the rotted, putrescent flesh of her serial rapist and sliced him into throbbing, pestilential puss. Then the roots dragged the dismembered slime back down into the earth. She sprang to her feet and watched in awe as the ground closed up at the tips of her toes, the past buried underneath it.

    She looked up at the tree, its unending tangle of branches making maze-like a silent silhouette against an eerily big moon.

    "Thank you," she said in a shaky whisper, addressing the brooding, silent tree. She met history's eyes, and its eyes met hers.

    Then she turned toward the house and, for the first time, went home.

    THE END
     

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