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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 64


  I made it to the bed on my belly, using a swimming motion. Once I was there I managed to haul myself up again, using my right arm and right leg. The left leg held me, but I was losing flexion in the knee. I had to get out of there, and right away.

  I must have looked like Chester, the limping deputy from Gunsmoke, as I made my way out of the bedroom, across the kitchen, and to the front door, which hung open with splinters around the lock. I even remember thinking Mr. Dillon, Mr. Dillon, there's trouble down at the Longbranch!

  I crossed the porch, seized the railing in my right fist, and crabbed down to the walk. There were only four steps, but my headache got worse each time I jolted down another one. I seemed to be losing my peripheral vision, which couldn't be good. I tried to turn my head to see my Chevrolet, but my neck didn't want to cooperate. I managed a shuffling whole-body pivot instead, and when I had the car in my sights, I realized driving would be an impossibility. Even opening the passenger side door and stowing the gun in the glove compartment would be an impossibility: bending would cause the pain and heat in my side to explode again.

  I fumbled the .38 out of my pocket and returned to the porch. I held the stair-rail and underhanded the gun beneath the steps. It would have to do. I straightened up again and made my slow way down the walk to the street. Baby steps, I told myself. Little baby steps.

  Two kids came sailing up on bikes. I tried to tell them I needed help, but the only thing to come out of my swollen mouth was a dry hhhahhhh sound. They glanced at each other, then pedaled faster and swerved around me.

  I turned to the right (my swollen knee made going left seem like the world's worst idea) and began to stagger down the sidewalk. My vision continued to close in; now I seemed to be peering out of a gunslit, or from the mouth of a tunnel. For a moment that made me think of the fallen smokestack at the Kitchener Ironworks, back in Derry.

  Get to Haines Avenue, I told myself. There'll be traffic on Haines Avenue. You have to get at least that far.

  But was I going toward Haines, or away from it? I couldn't remember. The visible world was down to a single sharp circle about six inches in diameter. My head was splitting; there was a forest fire in my guts. When I fell, it seemed to be in slow motion, and the sidewalk felt as soft as a feather-pillow.

  Before I could pass out, something prodded me. A hard, metallic something. A rusty voice eight or ten miles above me said, "You! You, boy! What's wrong with you?"

  I turned over. It took the last of my strength, but I managed. Towering above me was the elderly woman who'd called me a coward when I refused to step in between Lee and Marina on The Day of the Zipper. It might have been that day, because, August heat or no August heat, she was once more wearing the pink flannel nightgown and the quilted jacket. Perhaps because I still had boxing on what remained of my mind, her upstanding hair today reminded me of Don King instead of Elsa Lanchester. She had poked me with one of the front legs of her walker.

  "Ohmydeargod," she said. "Who has beaten you?"

  That was a long story, and I couldn't tell it. The dark was closing in, and I was glad because the pain in my head was killing me. Al got lung cancer, I thought. I got Akiva Roth. Either way, game over. Ozzie wins.

  Not if I could help it.

  Gathering all my strength, I spoke to the face far above me, the only bright thing left in the encroaching darkness. "Call . . . nine-one-one."

  "What's that?"

  Of course she didn't know. Nine-one-one hadn't been invented yet. I held on long enough to try one more time. "Ambulance."

  I think I might have repeated it, but I'm not sure. That was when the darkness swallowed me.

  17

  I have wondered since if it was kids who stole my car, or Roth's goons. And when it happened. At any rate, the thieves didn't trash it or crash it; Deke Simmons picked it up in the DPD impound lot a week later. It was in far better shape than I was.

  Time-travel is full of ironies.

  CHAPTER 26

  During the next eleven weeks I once more lived two lives. There was the one I hardly knew about--the outside life--and the one I knew all too well. That was the one inside, where I often dreamed of the Yellow Card Man.

  In the outside life, the walker-lady (Alberta Hitchinson; Sadie sought her out and brought her a bouquet of flowers) stood over me on the sidewalk and hollered until a neighbor came out, saw the situation, and called the ambulance that took me to Parkland. The doctor who treated me there was Malcolm Perry, who would later treat both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald as they lay dying. With me he had better luck, although it was a close thing.

  I had sustained broken teeth, a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, a fractured left knee, a broken left arm, dislocated fingers, and abdominal injuries. I had also suffered a brain injury, which was what concerned Perry the most.

  I was told I woke up and howled when my belly was palpated, but I have no memory of it. I was catheterized and immediately began pissing what boxing announcers would have called "the claret." My vitals were at first stable, then began sliding. I was typed, cross-matched, and given four units of whole blood . . . which, Sadie told me later, the residents of Jodie made up a hundred times over at a community blood drive in late September. She had to tell me several times, because I kept forgetting. I was prepped for abdominal surgery, but first a neurology consult and a spinal tap--there's no such thing as CT scans or MRIs in the Land of Ago.

  I'm also told I had a conversation with two of the nurses prepping me for the tap. I told them that my wife had a drinking problem. One of them said that was too bad and asked me what her name was. I told them she was a fish called Wanda and laughed quite heartily. Then I passed out again.

  My spleen was trashed. They removed it.

  While I was still conked out and my spleen was going wherever no longer useful but not absolutely vital organs go, I was turned over to Orthopedics. There my broken arm was put in a splint and my broken leg in a plaster cast. Many people signed it over the following weeks. Sometimes I knew the names; usually I didn't.

  I was kept sedated with my head stabilized and my bed raised to exactly thirty degrees. The phenobarbital wasn't because I was conscious (although sometimes I muttered, Sadie said) but because they were afraid I might suddenly come around and damage myself further. Basically, Perry and the other docs (Ellerton also came in regularly to monitor my progress) were treating my battered chump like an unexploded bomb.

  To this day I'm not entirely sure what hematocrit and hemoglobin are, but mine started to come back up and that pleased everybody. I had another spinal tap three days later. This one showed signs of old blood, and when it comes to spinal taps, old is better than new. It indicated that I had sustained significant brain trauma, but they could forgo drilling a burr-hole in my skull, a risky procedure given all the battles my body was fighting on other fronts.

  But the past is obdurate and protects itself against change. Five days after I was admitted, the flesh around the splenectomy incision began to turn red and warm. The following day the incision reopened and I spiked a fever. My condition, which had been downgraded from critical to serious after the second spinal tap, zipped back up to critical. According to my chart, I was "sedated as per Dr. Perry and neurologically minimally responsive."

  On September seventh, I woke up briefly. Or so I'm told. A woman, pretty despite her scarred face, and an old man with a cowboy hat in his lap were sitting by my bed.

  "Do you know your name?" the woman asked.

  "Puddentane," I said. "Ask me again and I'll tell you the same."

  Mr. Jake George Puddentane Epping-Amberson spent seven weeks in Parkland before being moved to a rehab center--a little housing complex for sick people--on the north side of Dallas. During those seven weeks I was on IV antibiotics for the infection that had set up shop where my spleen used to be. The splint on my broken arm was replaced with a long cast, which also filled up with names I didn't know. Shortly before moving to Eden Fallows, the rehab center, I
graduated to a short cast on my arm. Around that same time, a physical therapist began to torture my knee back to something resembling mobility. I was told I screamed a lot, but I don't remember.

  Malcolm Perry and the rest of the Parkland staff saved my life, I have no doubt about that. They also gave me an unintended and unwelcome gift that lasted well into my time at Eden Fallows. This was a secondary infection caused by the antibiotics being pumped into my system to beat the primary one. I have hazy memories of vomiting and of spending what seemed like whole days with my ass on a bedpan. I remember thinking at one point I have to go to the Derry Drug and see Mr. Keene. I need Kaopectate. But who was Mr. Keene, and where was Derry?

  They let me out of the hospital when I began to hold food down again, but I'd been at Eden Fallows almost two weeks before the diarrhea stopped. By then it was nearing the end of October. Sadie (usually I remembered her name; sometimes it slipped my mind) brought me a paper jack-o'-lantern. This memory is very clear, because I screamed when I saw it. They were the screams of someone who has forgotten something vitally important.

  "What?" she asked me. "What is it, honey? What's wrong? Is it Kennedy? Something about Kennedy?"

  "He's going to kill them all with a hammer!" I shouted at her. "On Halloween night! I have to stop him!"

  "Who?" She took my waving hands, her face frightened. "Stop who?"

  But I couldn't remember, and I fell asleep. I slept a lot, and not just because of the slowly healing head injury. I was exhausted, little more than a ghost of my former self. On the day of the beating, I had weighed one hundred and eighty-five pounds. By the time I was released from the hospital and installed in Eden Fallows, I weighed a hundred and thirty-eight.

  That was the outside life of Jake Epping, a man who had been beaten badly, then nearly died in the hospital. My inside life was blackness, voices, and flashes of understanding that were like lightning: they blinded me with their brilliance and were gone again before I could get more than glimpses of the landscape by their light. I was mostly lost, but every now and then I found myself.

  Found myself hellishly hot, and a woman was feeding me ice chips that tasted heavenly cool. This was THE WOMAN WITH THE SCAR, who was sometimes Sadie.

  Found myself on the commode in the corner of the room with no idea how I'd gotten there, unloosing what felt like gallons of watery burning shit, my side itching and throbbing, my knee bellowing. I remember wishing someone would kill me.

  Found myself trying to get out of bed, because I had to do something terribly important. It seemed to me that the whole world was depending on me to do this thing. THE MAN WITH THE COWBOY HAT was there. He caught me and helped me back into bed before I fell on the floor. "Not yet, son," he said. "You're nowhere near strong enough."

  Found myself talking--or trying to talk--to a pair of uniformed policemen who had come to ask questions about the beating I'd taken. One of them had a name tag that said TIPPIT. I tried to tell him he was in danger. I tried to tell him to remember the fifth of November. It was the right month but the wrong day. I couldn't remember the actual date and began to thump at my stupid head in frustration. The cops looked at each other, puzzled. NOT-TIPPIT called for a nurse. The nurse came with a doctor, the doctor gave me a shot, and I floated away.

  Found myself listening to Sadie as she read to me, first Jude the Obscure, then Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I knew those stories, and listening to them again was comforting. At one point during Tess, I remembered something.

  "I made Tessica Caltrop leave us alone."

  Sadie looked up. "Do you mean Jessica? Jessica Caltrop? You did? How? Do you remember?"

  But I didn't. It was gone.

  Found myself looking at Sadie as she stood at my little window, staring out at the rain and crying.

  But mostly I was lost.

  THE MAN WITH THE COWBOY HAT was Deke, but once I thought he was my grandfather, and that scared me very badly, because Grampy Epping was dead, and--

  Epping, that was my name. Hold onto it, I told myself, but at first I couldn't.

  Several times AN ELDERLY WOMAN WITH RED LIPSTICK came to see me. Sometimes I thought her name was Miz Mimi; sometimes I thought it was Miz Ellie; once I was quite sure she was Irene Ryan, who played Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. I told her that I'd thrown my cell phone into a pond. "Now it sleeps with the fishes. I sure wish I had that sucker back."

  A YOUNG COUPLE came. Sadie said, "Look, it's Mike and Bobbi Jill."

  I said, "Mike Coleslaw."

  THE YOUNG MAN said, "That's close, Mr. A." He smiled. A tear ran down his cheek when he did.

  Later, when Sadie and Deke came to Eden Fallows, they would sit with me on the couch. Sadie would take my hand and ask, "What's his name, Jake? You never told me his name. How can we stop him if we don't know who he is or where he is going to be?"

  I said, "I'm going to flop him." I tried very hard. It made the back of my head hurt, but I tried even harder. "Stop him."

  "You couldn't stop a cinchbug without our help," Deke said.

  But Sadie was too dear and Deke was too old. She shouldn't have told him in the first place. Maybe that was all right, though, because he didn't really believe it.

  "The Yellow Card Man will stop you if you get involved," I said. "I'm the only one he can't stop."

  "Who is the Yellow Card Man?" Sadie asked, leaning forward and taking my hands.

  "I don't remember, but he can't stop me because I don't belong here."

  Only he was stopping me. Or something was. Dr. Perry said my amnesia was shallow and transient, and he was right . . . but only up to a point. If I tried too hard to remember the things that mattered most, my head ached fiercely, my limping walk became a stumble, and my vision blurred. Worst of all was the tendency to suddenly fall asleep. Sadie asked Dr. Perry if it was narcolepsy. He said probably not, but I thought he looked worried.

  "Does he wake when you call him or shake him?"

  "Always," Sadie said.

  "Is it more likely to happen when he's upset because he can't remember something?"

  Sadie agreed that it was.

  "Then I'm quite sure it will pass, the way his amnesia is passing."

  At last--little by slowly--my inside world began to merge with the outside one. I was Jacob Epping, I was a teacher, and I had somehow traveled back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I tried to reject the idea at first, but I knew too much about the intervening years, and those things weren't visions. They were memories. The Rolling Stones, the Clinton impeachment hearings, the World Trade Center in flames. Christy, my troubled and troublesome ex-wife.

  One night while Sadie and I were watching Combat, I remembered what I had done to Frank Dunning.

  "Sadie, I killed a man before I came to Texas. It was in a graveyard. I had to. He was going to murder his whole family."

  She looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open.

  "Turn off the TV," I said. "The guy who plays Sergeant Saunders--can't remember his name--is going to be decapitated by a helicopter blade. Please, Sadie, turn it off."

  She did, then knelt before me.

  "Who's going to kill Kennedy? Where is he going to be when he does it?"

  I tried my hardest, and I didn't fall asleep, but I couldn't remember. I had gone from Maine to Florida, I remembered that. In the Ford Sunliner, a great car. I had gone from Florida to New Orleans, and when I left New Orleans, I'd come to Texas. I remembered listening to "Earth Angel" on the radio as I crossed the state line, doing seventy miles per hour on Highway 20. I remembered a sign: TEXAS WELCOMES YOU. And a billboard advertising SONNY'S B-B-Q, 27 MI. After that, a hole in the film. On the other side were emerging memories of teaching and living in Jodie. Brighter memories of swing-dancing with Sadie and lying in bed with her at the Candlewood Bungalows. Sadie told me I'd also lived in Fort Worth and Dallas, but she didn't know where; all she had were two phone numbers that no longer worked. I didn't know where, either, although I thought one
of the places might have been on Cadillac Street. She checked roadmaps and said there was no Cadillac Street in either city.

  I could remember a lot of things now, but not the assassin's name, or where he was going to be when he made his try. And why not? Because the past was keeping it from me. The obdurate past.

  "The assassin has a child," I said. "I think her name is April."

  "Jake, I'm going to ask you something. It might make you mad, but since a lot depends on this--the fate of the world, according to you--I need to."

  "Go ahead." I couldn't think of anything she might ask that would make me angry.

  "Are you lying to me?"

  "No," I said. It was true. Then.

  "I told Deke we needed to call the police. He showed me a piece in the Morning News that said there have already been two hundred death threats and tips about potential assassins. He says both the right-wingers from Dallas-Fort Worth and the left-wingers from San Antonio are trying to scare Kennedy out of Texas. He says the Dallas police are turning all the threats and tips over to the FBI and they're doing nothing. He says the only person J. Edgar Hoover hates more than JFK is his brother Bobby."

  I didn't much care who J. Edgar Hoover hated. "Do you believe me?"

  "Yes," she said, and sighed. "Is Vic Morrow really going to die?"

  That was his name, sure. "He is."

  "Making Combat?"

  "No, a movie."

  She burst into tears. "Don't you die, Jake--please. I only want you to get better."

  I had a lot of bad dreams. The locations varied--sometimes it was an empty street that looked like Main Street in Lisbon Falls, sometimes it was the graveyard where I'd shot Frank Dunning, sometimes it was the kitchen of Andy Cullum, the cribbage ace--but usually it was Al Templeton's diner. We sat in a booth with the photos on his Town Wall of Celebrity looking down at us. Al was sick--dying--but his eyes were full of bright intensity.