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Mercedes Street. It stank, of course--in 1962, most of central Texas smells like a malfunctioning refinery--but the odors of shit and sewage were absent. The street was crumbling but paved. And there were no chickens.
I looked across the field and saw a guy in a sport coat loud enough to scream. He was trotting up and down the sidelines with earphones on his head and what looked like a salad bowl in his hands. His glasses reminded me of someone. At first I couldn't make the connection, then I did: he looked a little like Silent Mike McEachern. My own personal Mr. Wizard.
"Who's that?" I asked Deke.
Deke squinted. "Damn if I know."
Coach clapped his hands and told his kids to shower up. He walked over to the bleachers and clapped me on the back. "Howza goin, Shakespeare?"
"Pretty good," I said, smiling gamely.
"Shakespeare, kick in the rear, that's what we used to say when we were kids." He laughed heartily.
"We used to say Coach, Coach, step on a roach."
Coach Borman looked puzzled. "Really?"
"Nah, just goofin witcha." And sort of wishing I'd acted on my first impulse and scooted out of town after supper. "How does the team look?"
"Aw, they good boys, they goan try hard, but it won't be the same without Jimmy. Did you see the new billboard out there where 109 splits off from Highway 77?" Only he said it seb'ny-seb'n.
"Too used to it to notice, I guess."
"Well, have a look on the way out, podna. Boosters done it up right. Jimmy's mama 'bout cried when she saw it. I understand I owe you a vote a thanks for gettin that young man to swear off the drinkin." He removed his cap with the big C on it, armed sweat from his forehead, put it back on, and sighed heavily. "Probably owe that fuckin nummie Vince Knowles a vote a thanks, too, but puttin him on my prayer list is the best I can do."
I recalled that Coach was a Baptist of the hard-shell variety. In addition to prayer lists, he probably believed all that shit about Noah's sons.
"No thanks necessary," I said. "Just doing my job."
He looked at me keenly. "You ought to still be doing it, not jerking off over some book. Sorry if that's too blunt, but it's how I feel."
"That's all right." It was. I liked him better for saying it. In another world, he might even have been right. I pointed across the field, where the Silent Mike look-alike was packing his salad bowl into a steel case. His earphones were still hanging around his neck. "Who's that, Coach?"
Coach snorted. "Think his name is Hale Duff. Or maybe it's Cale. New sports guy at the Big Damn." He was talking about KDAM, Denholm County's one radio station, a teensy sundowner that ran farm reports in the morning, country music in the afternoons, and rock after school let out. The kids enjoyed the station breaks as much as the music; there would be an explosion followed by an old cowboy type saying, "K-DAM! That was a big 'un!" In the Land of Ago, this is considered the height of risque wit.
"What's that contraption of his, Coach?" Deke asked. "Do you know?"
"I know, all right," Coach said, "and if he thinks I'm gonna let him use it during a game broadcast, he's out of his sneaker. Think I want ever'one who's got a radio hearin me call my boys a bunch of goddam pussies when they can't deny the rush on third and short?"
I turned to him, very slowly. "What are you talking about?"
"I didn't believe him, so I tried it myself," the Coach said. Then, with mounting indignation: "I heard Boof Redford tellin one of the freshmen that my balls were bigger than my brains!"
"Really," I said. My heartbeat had picked up appreciably.
"Duffer there said he built it in his goddam garage," Coach grumbled. "Said when it's turned up to full gain, you can hear a cat fart on the next block. That's bullshit, accourse, but Redford was on the other side of the field when I heard him make his smart remark."
The sports guy, who looked all of twenty-four, picked up his steel equipment case and waved with his free hand. Coach waved back, then muttered under his breath, "The gameday I let him on my field with that thing will be the day I put a Kennedy sticker on my fucking Dodge."
It was almost dark when I got to the intersection of 77 and 109, but a bloated orange moon was rising in the east, and it was good enough to see the billboard. It was Jim LaDue, smiling with his football helmet in one hand, a pigskin in the other, and a lock of black hair tumbled heroically over his forehead. Above the picture, in star-spangled letters, was CONGRATULATIONS TO JIM LADUE, ALL-STATE QUARTERBACK 1960 AND 1961! GOOD LUCK AT ALABAMA! WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU!
And below, in red letters that seemed to scream:
Two days later, I walked into Satellite Electronics and waited while my host sold an iPod-sized transistor to a gum-chewing kid. When he was out the door (already pressing the little radio's earpiece into place), Silent Mike turned to me. "Why, it's my old pal Doe. How can I help you today?" Then, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper: "More bugged lamps?"
"Not today," I said. "Tell me, have you ever heard of something called an omnidirectional microphone?"
His lips parted over his teeth in a smile. "My friend," he said, "you have once more come to the right place."
I got a phone put in, and the first person I called was Ellen Dockerty, who was happy to give me Sadie's Reno address. "I have the telephone number of the rooming house where she's staying, too," Ellen said. "If you want it."
Of course I did, but if I had it, I would eventually give in to temptation and call. Something told me that would be a mistake.
"Just the address will be fine."
I wrote her a letter as soon as I hung up, hating the stilted, artificially chatty tone but not knowing how to get past it. The goddam broom was still between us. And what if she met some high-rolling sugar daddy out there and forgot all about me? Wasn't it possible? She'd certainly know how to give him a good time in bed; she had been a fast learner and was as agile there as she was on the dance floor. That was the jealous-bone again, and I finished the letter in a rush, knowing I probably sounded plaintive and not caring. Anything to tear through the artificiality and say something honest.
I miss you, and I'm sorry as hell for the way we left things. I just don't know how to make it better now. I have a job to do, and it won't be done until next spring. Maybe not even then, but I think it will be. I hope it will be. Please don't forget me. I love you, Sadie.
I signed it George, which seemed to cancel out any poor honesty I'd managed. Beneath it I added Just in case you want to call, and my new telephone number. Then I walked down to the Benbrook Library and posted the letter into the big blue mailbox out front. For the time being it was the best I could do.
There were three pictures clipped into Al's notebook, printed off various computer sites. One was of George de Mohrenschildt, wearing a banker-gray suit with a white hankie in the breast pocket. His hair was combed away from his brow and neatly parted in the accepted executive style of the time. The smile that creased his thickish lips reminded me of Baby Bear's bed: not too hard, not too soft, just right. There was no trace of the authentic crazy I would soon observe ripping his shirt open on the porch of 2703 Mercedes Street. Or maybe there was a trace. Something in the dark eyes. An arrogance. A touch of the old fuck-you.
The second picture was of the infamous shooter's nest, constructed of book cartons, on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
The third was of Oswald, dressed in black, holding his mail-order rifle in one hand and a couple of leftist magazines in the other. The revolver he would use to kill Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit during his fucked-up getaway--unless I stopped him--was tucked in Ozzie's belt. This picture would be taken by Marina less than two weeks before the attempt on General Walker's life. The location was the enclosed side yard of a two-apartment building at 214 West Neely Street in Dallas.
While I marked time waiting for the Oswalds to move into the shack across the street from mine in Fort Worth, I visited 214 West Neely often. Dallas most assuredly sucked the big one, as my 2011 students were wont to say, but West Neely was in a slightly better neighborhood than
A young couple with three children currently lived upstairs at 214. After they moved out, the Oswalds would move in. It was the downstairs apartment that concerned me, because when Lee, Marina, and June moved in above, I wanted to be below.
In July of '62, the ground-floor apartment was occupied by two women and a man. The women were fat, slow-moving, and partial to wrinkled sleeveless dresses. One was in her sixties and walked with a pronounced limp. The other was in her late thirties or early forties. The facial resemblance pegged them as mother and daughter. The man was skeletal and wheelchair-bound. His hair was a thin white spray. A bag of cloudy pee attached to a fat catheter tube sat in his lap. He smoked constantly, tapping into an ashtray clamped to one of the wheelchair armrests. That summer I always saw him dressed in the same clothes: red satin basketball shorts that showed his wasted thighs almost to the crotch, a strap-style tee-shirt nearly as yellow as the urine in his catheter tube, sneakers held together by duct tape, and a large black cowboy hat with what appeared to be a snakeskin band. On the front of the hat were crossed cavalry swords. Either his wife or his daughter would push him out onto the lawn, where he would sit slumped beneath a tree, still as a statue. I began to lift my hand to him as I cruised slowly by, but he never raised his own in turn, although he came to recognize my car. Maybe he was afraid to return my wave. Maybe he thought he was being evaluated by the Angel of Death, who made his rounds in Dallas behind the wheel of an aging Ford convertible instead of on a black horse. In a way, I suppose that's what I was.
This trio looked like they'd been in residence awhile. Were they still going to be in residence next year, when I needed the place? I didn't know. Al's notes said nothing about them. For the time being, all I could do was watch and wait.
I picked up my new piece of equipment, which Silent Mike had crafted himself. I waited for my telephone to ring. Three times it did, and I leaped for it each time, hoping. Twice it was Miz Ellie, calling to chat. Once it was Deke, inviting me to dinner, an invitation I accepted gratefully.
Sadie didn't call.
On the third of August, a '58 Bel Air sedan pulled into 2703's excuse for a driveway. It was followed by a gleaming Chrysler. The Oswald brothers got out of the Bel Air and stood side by side, not talking.
I reached through the drapes long enough to run up my front window, letting in the street noise and a lackluster puff of hot, humid air. Then I ran for the bedroom and brought my new piece of equipment out from under the bed. Silent Mike had cut a hole in the bottom of a Tupperware bowl and taped the omnidirectional mike--which he assured me was top-of-the-line--into it, so it stuck up like a finger. I attached the microphone leads to the connecting points on the back of the tape recorder. There was a plug-in for headphones, which my electronics pal had also claimed were top-of-the-line.
I peered out and saw the Oswalds talking to the guy from the Chrysler. He was wearing a Stetson, a rancher's tie, and gaudy stitched boots. Better dressed than my landlord, but of the same tribe. I didn't have to hear the conversation; the man's gestures were textbook. I know it ain't much, but then, you ain't got much. Do you, podna? It had to be a hard scripture for a world traveler like Lee, who believed he was destined for fame, if not necessarily fortune.
There was an electrical socket in the baseboard. I plugged in the tape recorder, hoping I wouldn't give myself a shock or blow a fuse. The tape recorder's little red light went on. I donned the earphones and slipped the Tupperware bowl into the gap between the curtains. If they looked over here they'd be squinting into the sun, and thanks to the shadow cast by the eave above the window, they would see either nothing or an unremarkable white blur that might be anything. I reminded myself to cover the bowl with black friction tape, nevertheless. Always safe, never sorry.
And in any case, I could hear nothing.
Even the street sounds had become muffled.
Oh yeah, this is great, I thought. This is just fucking brilliant. Thanks a pantload, Silent Mi--
Then I noticed the VOL control on the tape recorder was sitting at zero. I twisted it all the way to the + mark, and was blasted by voices. I tore the earphones off my head with a curse, turned the VOL knob to the halfway point, and tried again. The result was remarkable. Like binoculars for the ears.
"Sixty a month strikes me as a little bit steep, sir," Lee Oswald was saying (considering the Templetons had been paying ten dollars a month less, it struck me that way, too). His voice was respectful, tinged by just a trace of Southern accent. "If we could agree on fifty-five . . ."
"I can respect a man who wants to dicker, but don't even bother trine," Snakeskin Boots said. He rocked back and forth on his stacked heels like a man who's anxious to be gone. "I gotta git what I gotta git. If I don't git it from you, I'm goan git it from someone else."
Lee and Robert glanced at each other.
"Might as well go in and have a look around," Lee said.
"This a good place on a fam'ly street," Snakeskin Boots said. "Y'all want to watch out for that first porch step, though, it needs a smidge of carpenterin. I got s'many of these places, and people is s'hard on them. That last bunch, law."
Watch it, asshole, I thought. That's Ivy's people you're talking about.
They went inside. I lost the voices, then got them again--faintly--when Snakeskin Boots ran up the front room window. It was the one Ivy had said the neighbors across the way could see into, and she was a hundred percent correct on that score.
Lee asked what his prospective landlord intended to do about the holes in the walls. There was no indignation in the query, no sarcasm, but no subservience, either, in spite of the sir appended to every sentence. It was a respectful yet flat mode of address he had probably learned in the Marines. Colorless was the best word for him. He had the face and voice of a man who was good at sliding through the cracks. In public, at least. It was Marina who saw his other face and heard his other voice.
Snakeskin Boots made vague promises, and absolutely guaranteed a new mattress for the big bedroom, on account of how "that last bunch had gone and stole" the one that had been in there. He reiterated that if Lee didn't want the place someone else would (as if it hadn't been standing vacant all year), then invited the brothers to inspect the bedrooms. I wondered how they would enjoy Rosette's artistic efforts.
I lost their voices, then got them again as they toured the kitchen area. I was happy to see them pass the Leaning Lamp of Pisa without a glance.
"--basement?" Robert asked.
"No basement!" Snakeskin Boots replied, booming it, as if the lack of a basement were an advantage. Apparently he thought it was. "Neighborhood like this, all they do is ship water. And the damp, law!" Here I lost the vocal track again as he opened the rear door to show them the backyard. Which was not a yard at all but an empty field.
Five minutes later they were out front again. This time it was Robert, the elder brother, who tried to dicker. He had no more success than Lee had.
"Will you give us a minute?" Robert asked.
Snakeskin Boots looked at his clunky chromed-up watch, and allowed as how he could do that. "But I got a 'pointment over on Church Street, so you fellas need to hurry on n make up your minds."
Robert and Lee walked to the rear of Robert's Bel Air, and although they pitched their voices low to keep Snakeskin Boots from hearing, when I tilted the bowl in their direction, I got most of it. Robert was in favor of looking at some more places. Lee said he wanted this one. It would do fine for a start.
"Lee, it's a hole," Robert said. "It's throwin your . . ." Money away, probably.
Lee said something I couldn't make out. Robert sighed and raised his hands in surrender. They went back to Snakeskin Boots, who gave Lee's hand a brief pump and praised the wisdom of his choice. He launched into the
Landlord Scripture: first month, last month, damage deposit. Robert stepped in then, saying there would be no damage deposit until the walls were fixed and the new mattress was installed.
"New mattress, sure," Snakeskin Boots said. "And I'll see that step fixed so the little woman don't turn her ankle. But if'n I fix them walls right off, I'd have to boost the rent by five a month."
I knew from Al's notes that Lee was going to take the place, and still I expected him to walk away from this outrage. Instead, he took a limp wallet out of his back pocket and removed a thin sheaf of bills. He counted most of them into his new landlord's outstretched hand while Robert walked back to his car, shaking his head in disgust. His eyes turned briefly to my house across the street, then passed on, disinterested.
Snakeskin Boots flogged Lee's hand again, then jumped into his Chrysler and drove off fast, leaving a scrunch of dust behind.
One of the jump-rope girls came barreling up on a rusty scooter. "You movin into Rosette's house, mister?" she asked Robert.
"No, he is," Robert said, and cocked a thumb at his brother.
She pushed her scooter to Lee and asked the man who was going to blow off the right side of Jack Kennedy's head if he had any kids.
"I've got a little girl," Lee said. He put his hands on his knees so he could get down to her level.
"Not as pretty as you, nor as big."
"Can she jump rope?"
"Honey, she can't even walk yet." Can't came out cain't.
"Well bullpucky on her." She scooted away in the direction of Winscott Road.
The two brothers turned toward the house. This muffled them a little, but when I cranked the volume, I could still make out most of what they were saying.
"This . . . pig in a poke," Robert told him. "When Marina sees it, she'll be on you like flies on a dog-turd."
"I'll . . . Rina," Lee said. "But brother, if I don't . . . from Ma and out of that little apartment, I'm apt to kill her."