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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 57


  So--what was my next move?

  It was quarter past four, and I decided my next move was visiting Sadie. I started for my car, which was parked on Main Street. On the corner of Main and Houston, just past the old courthouse, I had a sensation of being watched and turned around. No one was on the sidewalk behind me. It was the Depository that was watching, all those blank windows overlooking Elm Street, where the presidential motorcade would arrive some two hundred days from that Easter Sunday.

  8

  They were serving dinner on Sadie's floor when I arrived: chop suey. The smell brought back a vivid image of the way the blood had gushed over John Clayton's hand and forearm before he fell to the carpet, mercifully facedown.

  "Hey there, Mr. Amberson," the head nurse said as I signed in. She was a graying woman in a starched white cap and uniform. A pocket watch was pinned to her formidable bosom. She was looking at me from behind a barricade of bouquets. "There was a fair amount of shouting in there last night. I'm only telling you because you're her fiance, right?"

  "Right," I said. Certainly it was what I wanted to be, slashed face or no slashed face.

  The nurse leaned toward me between two overloaded vases. A few daisies brushed through her hair. "Look, I don't ordinarily gossip about my patients, and I ream out the younger nurses who do. But the way her parents treated her wasn't right. I guess I don't entirely blame them for riding down from Georgia with that lunatic's folks, but--"

  "Wait. Are you telling me the Dunhills and the Claytons carpooled?"

  "I guess they were all palsy-walsy back in happier days, so all right, fine, but to tell her that while they were visiting their daughter, their good friends the Claytons were downstairs signing their son's body out of the morgue . . ." She shook her head. "Daddy never said boo, but that woman . . ."

  She looked around to make sure we were still alone, saw we were, and turned back to me. Her plain country face was grim with outrage.

  "She never shut up. One question about how her daughter was feeling, then it was the poor Claytons this and the poor Claytons that. Your Miss Dunhill held her tongue until her mother said what a shame it was that they'd have to change churches again. Then the girl lost her temper and started shouting at them to get out."

  "Good for her," I said.

  "I heard her yell, 'Do you want to see what your good friends' son did to me?' and honey-pie, that's when I started running. She was trying to pull off the bandages. And the mother . . . she was leaning forward, Mr. Amberson. Eager. She actually wanted to look. I hustled them out and got one of the residents to give Miss Dunhill a shot and quiet her down. The father--a little mouse of a man--tried to apologize for his wife. 'She didn't know she was upsetting Sadie,' he says. 'Well,' I says back, 'what about you? Cat get your tongue?' And do you know what the woman said, just before they got on the elevator?"

  I shook my head.

  "She said, 'I can't blame him, how can I? He used to play in our yard, and he was just the sweetest boy.' Can you believe that?"

  I could. Because I thought I had already met Mrs. Dunhill, in a manner of speaking. On West Seventh Street, chasing after her older son and yelling at the top of her lungs. Stop, Robert, don't walk so fast, I'm not done with you.

  "You may find her . . . overly emotional," the nurse said. "I just wanted you to know there's a good reason for it."

  9

  She wasn't overly emotional. I would have preferred that. If there's such a thing as serene depression, that's where Sadie's head was at on that Easter evening. She was sitting in her chair, at least, with an untouched plate of chop suey in front of her. She'd lost weight; her long body seemed to float in the white hospital johnny she pulled around her when she saw me.

  She smiled though--on the side of her face that still could--and turned her good cheek to be kissed. "Hello, George--I'd better call you that, don't you think?"

  "Maybe so. How are you, honey?"

  "They say I'm better, but my face feels like someone dipped it in kerosene and then set it on fire. It's because they're taking me off the pain medication. God forbid I get hooked on dope."

  "If you need more, I can talk to somebody."

  She shook her head. "It makes me fuzzy, and I need to think. Also, it makes it hard to keep control of my emotions. I had quite the shouting match with my mother and father."

  There was only the one chair--unless you wanted to count the commode squatting in the corner--so I sat on the bed. "The head nurse filled me in. Based on what she overheard, you had every right to blow your top."

  "Maybe, but what good does it do? Mom will never change. She can talk for hours about how having me almost killed her, but she has very little feeling for anyone else. It's lack of tact, but it's lack of something more. There's a word for it, but I can't remember it."

  "Empathy?"

  "That's it. And she has a very sharp tongue. Over the years, it's whittled my dad away to a stub. He rarely says anything these days."

  "You don't need to see them again."

  "I think I do." I liked her calm, detached voice less and less. "Mama says they'll fix up my old room, and I really don't have anyplace else to go."

  "Your home's in Jodie. And your work."

  "I think we talked about that. I'm going to tender my resignation."

  "No, Sadie, no. That's a very bad idea."

  She smiled as best she could. "You sound like Miz Ellie. Who didn't believe you when you said Johnny was a danger." She thought about this, then added: "Of course, neither did I. I never stopped being a fool about him, did I?"

  "You have a house."

  "That's true. And mortgage payments I can't make. I'll have to let it go."

  "I'll make the payments."

  That got through. She looked shocked. "You can't afford to do that!"

  "I can, actually." Which was true . . . for awhile, at least. Plus there was always the Kentucky Derby and Chateaugay. "I'm moving out of Dallas and in with Deke. He's not charging me rent, which frees up plenty for house payments."

  A tear crept to the edge of her right eye and trembled there. "You're kind of missing the point. I can't take care of myself, not yet. And I won't be 'taken in,' unless it's at home, where Mom will hire a nurse to help with the nasty bits. I've got a little pride left. Not much, but a little."

  "I'll take care of you."

  She stared at me, wide-eyed. "What?"

  "You heard me. And when it comes to me, Sadie, you can stick your pride where the sun doesn't shine. I happen to love you. And if you love me, you'll stop talking mad shit about going home to your crocodile of a mother."

  She managed a faint smile at that, then sat quiet, thinking, hands in the lap of her flimsy cover-up. "You came to Texas to do something, and it wasn't to nurse a school librarian who was too silly to know she was in danger."

  "My business in Dallas is on hold."

  "Can it be?"

  "Yes." And as simply as that, it was decided. Lee was going to New Orleans, and I was going back to Jodie. The past kept fighting me, and it was going to win this round. "You need time, Sadie, and I have time. We might as well spend it together."

  "You can't want me." She said this in a voice just above a whisper. "Not the way I am now."

  "But I do."

  She looked at me with eyes that were afraid to hope and hoped anyway. "Why would you?"

  "Because you're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

  The good side of her mouth began to tremble. The tear spilled onto her cheek and was followed by others. "If I didn't have to go back to Savannah . . . if I didn't have to live with them . . . with her . . . maybe then I could be, I don't know, just a little bit all right."

  I took her into my arms. "You're going to be a lot better than that."

  "Jake?" Her voice was muffled with tears. "Would you do something for me before you go?"

  "What, honey?"

  "Take away that goddamned chop suey. The smell is making me sick."

  10
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  The nurse with the fullback shoulders and the watch pinned to her bosom was Rhonda McGinley, and on the eighteenth of April she insisted on pushing Sadie's wheelchair not only to the elevator but all the way out to the curb, where Deke waited with the passenger door of his station wagon open.

  "Don't let me see you back here, sugar-pie," Nurse McGinley said after we'd helped Sadie into the car.

  Sadie smiled distractedly and said nothing. She was--not to put too fine a point on it--stoned to the high blue sky. Dr. Ellerton had been in that morning to examine her face, an excruciating process that had necessitated extra pain medication.

  McGinley turned to me. "She's going to need a lot of TLC in the next few months."

  "I'll do my best."

  We got rolling. Ten miles south of Dallas, Deke said, "Take that away from her and throw it out the window. I'm minding this damn traffic."

  Sadie had fallen asleep with a cigarette smoldering between her fingers. I leaned over the seat and plucked it away. She moaned when I did it and said, "Oh don't, Johnny, please don't."

  I met Deke's eyes. Only for a second, but enough for me to see we were thinking the same thing: Long road ahead. Long road.

  11

  I moved into Deke's Spanish-style home on Sam Houston Road. At least for public consumption. In truth, I moved in with Sadie at 135 Bee Tree Lane. I was afraid of what we might find when we first helped her inside, and I think that Sadie was, too, stoned or not. But Miz Ellie and Jo Peet from the Home Ec Department had recruited a few trustworthy girls who had spent an entire day before Sadie's return cleaning, polishing, and scrubbing every trace of Clayton's filth off the walls. The living room rug had been taken up and replaced. The new one was industrial gray, hardly an exciting color, but probably a wise choice; gray things hold so few memories. Her mutilated clothing had been whisked away and replaced with new stuff.

  Sadie never said a word about the new rug and the different clothes. I'm not sure she even noticed them.

  12

  I spent my days there, cooking her meals, working in her little garden (which would sicken but not quite die in another hot central Texas summer), and reading Bleak House to her. We also became involved in several of the afternoon soaps: The Secret Storm, Young Doctor Malone, From These Roots, and our personal favorite, The Edge of Night.

  She changed the parting in her hair from the center to the right, cultivating a Veronica Lake style that would cover the worst of the scarring when the bandages eventually came off. Not that they would for a long time; the first of her reconstructive surgeries--a team effort involving four doctors--was scheduled for August fifth. Ellerton said there would be at least four more.

  I would drive back to Deke's after Sadie and I had our supper (which she rarely did more than pick at), because small towns are full of big eyes attached to gabby mouths. It was best that those big eyes should see my car in Deke's driveway after the sun went down. Once it was dark, I walked the two miles back to Sadie's, where I slept on the new hide-a-bed sofa until five in the morning. It was almost always broken rest, because nights when Sadie didn't awaken me, screaming and thrashing her way out of bad dreams, were rare. In the daytime, Johnny Clayton was dead. After dark he still stalked her with his gun and knife.

  I would go to her and soothe her as best I could. Sometimes she would trudge out to the living room with me and smoke a cigarette before shuffling back to bed, always pressing her hair down protectively over the bad side of her face. She would not let me change the bandages. That she did herself, in the bathroom, with the door closed.

  After one especially terrible nightmare, I came in to find her standing naked by her bed and sobbing. She had become shockingly thin. Her nightgown was puddled at her feet. She heard me and turned around, one arm across her breasts and the other hand over her crotch. Her hair swung back to her right shoulder, where it actually belonged, and I saw the swollen scars, the heavy stitching, the fallen, rumpled flesh over her cheekbone.

  "Get out!" she screamed. "Don't look at me like this, why can't you get out?"

  "Sadie, what is it? Why did you take off your nightgown? What's wrong?"

  "I wet my bed, okay? I have to change it, so please get out and let me put some clothes on!"

  I went to the foot of the bed, grabbed the quilt that was folded there, and wrapped it around her. When I turned one end up in a kind of collar that hid her cheek, she calmed.

  "Go in the living room and be careful you don't trip on that thing. Have a smoke. I'll change the bed."

  "No, Jake, it's dirty."

  I took her by the shoulders. "That's what Clayton would say, and he's dead. A little piss is all it is."

  "Are you sure?"

  "Yes. But before you go . . ."

  I turned down the makeshift collar. She flinched and closed her eyes, but stood still. Only bearing it, but I still thought it was progress. I kissed the hanging flesh that had been her cheek and then turned the quilt up again to hide it.

  "How can you?" she asked without opening her eyes. "It's awful."

  "Nah. It's just another part of the you I love, Sadie. Now go in the other room while I change these sheets."

  When it was done, I offered to get into bed with her until she fell asleep. She flinched as she had when I'd turned down the quilt and shook her head. "I can't, Jake. I'm sorry."

  Little by slowly, I told myself as I plodded across town to Deke's in the first gray light of morning. Little by slowly.

  13

  On April twenty-fourth I told Deke I had something I needed to do in Dallas and asked him if he'd stay with Sadie until I got back around nine. He agreed willingly enough, and at five that afternoon I was sitting across from the Greyhound terminal on South Polk Street, near the intersection of Highway 77 and the still-new, fourlane I-20. I was reading (or pretending to read) the latest James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me.

  At half past the hour, a station wagon pulled into the parking lot next to the terminal. Ruth Paine was driving. Lee got out, went around to the rear, and opened the doorgate. Marina, with June in her arms, emerged from the backseat. Ruth Paine stayed behind the wheel.

  Lee had only two items of luggage: an olive-green duffel bag and a quilted gun case, the kind with handles. He carried them to an idling Scenicruiser. The driver took the suitcase and the rifle and stowed them in the open luggage hold after a cursory glance at Lee's ticket.

  Lee went to the door of the bus, then turned and embraced his wife, kissing her on both cheeks and then the mouth. He took the baby and nuzzled beneath her chin. June laughed. Lee laughed with her, but I saw tears in his eyes. He kissed June on the forehead, gave her a hug, then returned her to Marina and ran up the steps of the bus without looking back.

  Marina walked to the station wagon, where Ruth Paine was now standing. June held her arms out to the older woman, who took her with a smile. They stood there for awhile, watching passengers board, then drove off.

  I stayed where I was until the bus pulled out at 6:00 P.M., right on time. The sun, going down bloody in the west, flashed across the destination window, momentarily obscuring what was printed there. Then I could read it again, three words that meant Lee Harvey Oswald was out of my life, at least for awhile:

  NEW ORLEANS EXPRESS

  I watched it climb the entrance ramp to I-20 East, then walked the two blocks to where I'd parked my car and drove back to Jodie.

  14

  Hunch-think: that again.

  I paid the May rent on the West Neely Street apartment even though I needed to start watching my dollars and had no concrete reason to do so. All I had was an unformed but strong feeling that I should keep a base of operations in Dallas.

  Two days before the Kentucky Derby ran, I drove to Greenville Avenue, fully intending to put down five hundred dollars on Chateaugay to place. That, I reasoned, would be less memorable than betting on the nag to win. I parked four blocks down from Faith Financial and locked my car, a necessary precaution in that part of town
even at eleven in the morning. I walked briskly at first, but then--once more for no concrete reason--my steps began to lag.

  Half a block from the betting parlor masquerading as a streetfront loan operation, I came to a full stop. Once again I could see the bookie--sans eyeshade this forenoon--leaning in the doorway of his establishment and smoking a cigarette. Standing there in a strong flood of sunlight, bracketed by the sharp shadows of the doorway, he looked like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting. There was no chance he saw me that day, because he was staring at a car parked across the street. It was a cream-colored Lincoln with a green license plate. Above the numbers were the words SUNSHINE STATE. Which did not mean it was a harmonic. Which certainly didn't mean it belonged to Eduardo Gutierrez of Tampa, the bookie who used to smile and say Here comes my Yanqui from Yankeeland. The one who had almost certainly had my beachfront house burned down.

  All the same, I turned and walked back to my car with the five hundred I'd intended to bet still in my pocket.

  Hunch-think.

  CHAPTER 24

  1

  Given history's penchant for repeating itself, at least around me, you won't be surprised to find out that Mike Coslaw's plan for paying Sadie's bills was a return engagement of the Jodie Jamboree. He said he thought he could get the original participants to reprise their roles, as long as we scheduled it for midsummer, and he was as good as his word--almost all of them came on board. Ellie even agreed to encore her sturdy performances of "Camptown Races" and "Clinch Mountain Breakdown" on the banjo, although she claimed her fingers were still sore from the previous go-round. We picked the twelfth and thirteenth of July, but for awhile the issue was in some doubt.

  The first obstacle to be surmounted was Sadie herself, who was horrified at the idea. She called it "taking charity."

  "That sounds like something you might have learned at your mother's knee," I said.