“We are one, that’s what we tell each other.
If we were, there’d be no need to say that.”
Lee Harvey Oswald sat in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building and gazed out at the lazy traffic flowing down Elm Street towards Stemmons Freeway, bound for destinations across the city of Dallas and beyond. His thin lips twisted into a smirk as he regarded the mass of humanity beneath his feet.
Stupid Americans, he thought.
Of course, the Russians were no better, as Oswald knew from bitter experience, nor were the Yugoslavs, the Chinese, or the Vietnamese.
For a young man of meager means, Oswald had seen his share of the world, and his subsequent disappointment in mankind knew few bounds. He’d first emigrated to the Soviet Union as a mere 19-year-old after finagling a visa from the Embassy following a suicide attempt in his motel room, a deliberately provocative act, the memory of which still filled him with pride at his own gutsy ingenuity. He’d lived in Minsk as an officially “stateless” person for a full two years after that. Of course, he’d been naïve back then, believing that the USSR represented true Communism as Karl Marx himself had intended it. Over the course of his Soviet stint, he soon saw that nothing could have been further from the truth. Russia, exactly like America, was ruled by fat plutocrats who cared more about consolidating their power than establishing a just society.
Oswald’s time in Minsk, in which he made his living as a low-level worker at a radio plant, turned out to be deeply disillusioning. He’d had plans, ambitions, dreams of rising through the ranks, being appreciated for his ideological acumen, and rewarded accordingly. Alas, nothing of the kind had come to pass.
So he came back to the United States, this time bringing a Russian wife, Marina Prussakova, with him.
Marina! She wanted nothing to do with him anymore. Their encounter earlier this morning had confirmed this . . . How long had it been since he’d seen his two daughters, Rachel and June? How old were they now? Oswald generally lacked empathy for people, but felt a curious twinge in his heart when he considered his children.
Well, they have a new father now, he considered, with a wash of bitterness. It must be so. Could not have been otherwise. No use getting upset over it.
Marina had divorced Lee, and was now with a young Russian émigré named Fyodor, a silly, obsequious little man seduced by American decadence. But in any case, his children were taken care of, with or without his help. Oswald’s destiny lay elsewhere. A true revolutionary never settled for mere domesticity. No: such a man stood alone, as Oswald himself always had. Alone against the Western capitalists, alone against the Russian pseudo-socialist oligarchs, alone against the world.
And he had been so close to glory! Twice had Oswald almost committed a true revolutionary act. In April 1963, he’d snuck up on General Walker, that slimy little segregationist, and had taken dead aim with his mail-order Italian-made rifle as the man sat in his house. He’d squeezed off a shot, and felt sure he’d finished him off as he scampered away into the Texas underbrush, but only found out later via transistor radio that the little bastard had lived! Had, in fact, emerged entirely unscathed! The wooden edge of the open window had blocked the bullet . . .
Oswald had felt despondent for days afterwards, and it hadn’t helped that Marina had mocked him mercilessly, even scribbling “Hunter of Fascists, ha ha ha!” all over the back of the photos he’d had her take of him in the backyard, holding his rifle and posing menacingly—photos he’d intended to send to various leftist journals following the righteous assault on the racist rabble-rouser.
On the evening of his attempt at ending Walker’s evil and oppressive existence, Oswald had left his wife a long note, instructing her about all of the contingencies if he were killed or arrested after his revolutionary gesture of violence and defiance. It had proved superfluous, of course, since no one had ever found out that he’d been the triggerman in the incident. Nobody knew except himself and Marina. Of course, he’d nearly given himself away to his friend George DeMohrenschildt that one time . . . George had asked him why he’d taken a potshot at Walker as if it had been a joke, and Lee had panicked for a moment, blushed furiously, turned flustered. But if George had been wise to Oswald’s secret, he had never told anyone.
Yes, his first effort to change the course of history had failed. But there had been a second chance, an opportunity to redeem his initial failure, and this time the stakes had been infinitely higher . . .
* * *
It had been on this very day: November 23, ten years ago, in 1963—this had been the day that could have, should have, changed everything.
The intervening years had not been kind to Oswald. Now 34, he had the weathered look of a man who could have been at least a full decade older. Of course, the last decade hadn’t just been hard on Oswald, but to much of the entire world . . . Might things have gone differently, both for Oswald and for mankind, if he had accomplished what he’d set out to do that day?
Oswald squinted his beady eyes, tried to recall the sights and sounds of those moments when he squatted in this very room, and held the future of the world in his hands. It had been a warm day for late November; that much, he distinctly remembered. Today, November 23, 1973, was by contrast bitterly cold. Back then, Oswald had been a clean-cut young man in a plain white T-shirt and slacks, an all-American boy secretly plotting chaos and discord. Today, in accord with current trends, he sported a handlebar mustache; his hair, having thinned noticeably on top, came down past his collar; his checkered suit coat clashed brazenly with his brown, corduroy bell-bottoms. (But then, Oswald had never been the least interested in fashion—he just wore whatever he could buy from cheap clothing stores; he fiercely detested the bourgeois notion that “the clothes make the man.”)
Yes, the world had grown colder, meaner, more terrifying. Wars, devastation, mass upheaval, near extinction. Yet the United States of America limped on, a shadow of its former grand self, gravely crippled, perhaps terminally ill. Oswald smiled to think of it. Not that he sided with America’s enemies, either. All nations, principalities, and powers could go take a long walk off a short pier as far as he was concerned. He cared for nothing except to maintain his revolutionary edge to the bitter end.
The last few years had seen a panoply of supposedly radical organizations emerge, primarily on college campuses: anti-war, anti-draft, anti-American imperialism, anti-atomic bomb, and so forth. Oswald viewed these groups with visceral contempt. He wasn’t a joiner. Moreover, he considered these hippie-dippie activists to be lightweights, creampuffs, stooges, spoiled little rich kids with trust funds playing at revolution because it was currently “hip” to do so. Oswald, himself a high school dropout, could not tolerate being lumped together with such stupid little overprivileged frauds. Which of them, after all, had come anywhere close to the commission of a real revolutionary gesture?
It was a secret. His secret—his and his alone. A secret contained within the very walls of this insignificant room full of schoolbooks. His wife didn’t know; he’d left no note for her that morning ten years ago, as he had on the day of his attempt on Walker’s life. He’d gone back to the Ruth Paine home in Irving on a Thursday, the night before. Normally, he remained in his Oak Cliff apartment in Dallas during the week and only traveled out to his family in the suburbs for the weekend. Marina had been surprised, and not too happy, to see him.
They’d had words that night, and then some. He’d asked her to go away with him, to let someone else watch the kids for a week or two. She’d refused, telling him that he was crazy; where did they have the money? And who would they leave the children with, his crazy mother? Oswald had darkened at that. He’d hit her before, on several occasions, when she’d spoken to him with such blatant disrespect. On this evening, however, he channeled the anger and despondency he felt in a different direction. He turned away from his wife, pursing his lips, squinting his eyes, and shaking his head. No, no, no. It wouldn’t do. He’d had an inkling all along, and now he knew for sure . . .
Oswald spent a good deal of time in the Paines’ garage that night, dismantling his mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. Tomorrow was a big day. President John F. Kennedy would be driving through Dallas in an open-air motorcade, en route to a ceremonial lunch at the Trade-Mart. Plans were for the motorcade to pass through Dealy Plaza, exactly adjacent to Oswald’s current place of work. Was it serendipity? Or even destiny? Oswald of course rejected religion and its ridiculous antiquated claims; he’d never in his life felt any need or cause to ingest that which he felt sure was naught but the opium of the drooling masses; still, he saw here an incredible opportunity to make his mark on history, an opportunity that he found it hard to believe hadn’t dropped to his lap from some transcendent source . . . What Oswald had planned here went way beyond what he’d tried to do with that piss-ant redneck segregationist—here would be the most powerful man in the world, moving right past Oswald’s place of work, easily within the reach of his rifle’s scope.
After a restless night’s sleep filled with violent and happy dreams, Oswald had ridden back into the city with Wesley Frazier on Friday morning, carrying his disassembled rifle in a long package. He told Frazier that his package contained curtain rods, which he intended to use in his Oak Cliff apartment.
The morning passed uneventfully, Oswald’s fellow workers buzzing in anticipation of the president’s visit. By lunchtime, crowds began to gather around the Plaza, waiting for the presidential limo to come slowly taxiing through, bearing the American leader and his lovely wife. Oswald, trying to play it cool, asked one employee if he knew the route of the motorcade. When told that it would indeed pass through Elm Street past the Book Depository building, Oswald’s heart swelled within him and a rush of color rose to his thin, sallow cheeks. “Oh, I see,” he muttered, trying to make his voice sound casual as he turned away, eyes twinkling with excitement.
Yes, it was happening! Now was his chance to rock the world. In spite of the eagerness he felt, Oswald managed to keep his emotions in check. He prided himself, as always, on his iron will; indeed, he never found it the least difficult to opt to do what the mass of men found to be excruciating, even morally exhausting, tasks. As such, he considered himself a true vanguard, destined from birth to lead the world in a revolutionary direction. Like Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Castro, he would boldly step where others dare not tread.
Such radiant happiness animated him as he climbed up the steps to the inventory room on the sixth floor, stood and gazed out the window, package in hand! Now, alone again in the same room exactly ten years later, he recalled his younger self’s exuberance in an instant. Up here on the sixth floor, before the window in his makeshift sniper’s nest, he had spent the most glorious few minutes of his life. He felt like the king of all that he surveyed. He could see out, into the streets teeming with the burgeoning crowd. The people on the outside couldn’t see in; or rather, they had no real reason to look in at him, no reason to scrutinize the nondescript little man who would interrupt the obscene bread-and-circuses spectacle with a hail of righteous bullets . . .
But then: How swiftly did one’s mounting glory turn to ignominy! Oswald, all these years later, positively winced to think of it—his great, fatal fumble! He still didn’t understand why it had happened, but for some reason it had: when reassembling his rifle, Oswald was suddenly afflicted with nerves. His hands began to shake, and he found that his mind couldn’t focus on the crucial task at hand. The looming enormity of his planned act had left him dizzy and lightheaded; his palms sweated, and he actually began hyperventilating. All efforts to gather himself proved futile, and when John and Jackie passed through the Plaza with placid waves and regal smiles, all Oswald could do was watch, helplessly, forlorn lump in throat, his rifle still lying in pieces all around him on the Book Depository floor.
* * *
Afterwards: shock, heartbreak, supreme frustration, bitter sorrow. Oswald recalled muttering “What now, what now, what now?” in a plaintive whisper. For the first time in his life, he felt close to tears. All his dreams, gone! Lost, due to an inexplicable onset of anxiety! It all struck him as somehow cosmically unfair . . . but then, as the human throng—still luxuriating in the afterglow of being within spitting distance of a president—began to filter away, Oswald’s automatic impulses kicked in once more. With machine-like efficiency, he took the various parts of the rifle and thrust them, one by one, back into the box he’d brought in from Irving that morning.
All of the rage and sadness he felt at having missed his one moment to achieve greatness he pushed firmly out of his mind; his face once more assumed its accustomed sullen impassivity. For the rest of that day, he said nothing to anybody; when his boss Roy Truly enthused about how wonderful it was to have seen Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy in person, Oswald couldn’t help but glower murderously, causing Truly to grow pale and shamble away quickly, like a killer fleeing a crime scene.
Oswald brooded for weeks afterwards, but never told anyone about what he’d tried to do that day; not a soul in the entire world knew the significance of that window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas, Texas.
Marina, of course, had had an inkling that something had been up with Lee that day. When he came back home that night, she gazed at him quizzically before asking (in that smirking tone of voice that Oswald hated) if he’d forgotten anything. Ruth Paine, the landlady from whom they rented their rooms, looked on the tense scene with some embarrassment; the frequent spats that erupted between Lee and Marina often left this staid woman on edge. Much as she adored their two beautiful children, and appreciated Marina as a friend and someone from whom she’d been able to learn a few phrases of the Russian language, Lee had always seemed like bad news to Ruth.
Still, Ruth was a believing Quaker, and she took seriously the notion of throwing in her lot with the poor in spirit and the sick of heart. The Oswalds weren’t always prompt in their rent payments, and Lee’s work record was spotty, to say the least; still, she couldn’t in good conscience throw the family out—she conceived of looking after this troubled family as her Christian duty.
On this occasion, things seemed spectacularly tense, even by the standards of the typically tumultuous personal dealings of Lee and Marina. When she saw Oswald’s angrily scowling face, she feared things could turn ugly. She knew Lee had a ferocious temper, and Marina had confided several times about his proclivity to abuse her.
However, Lee now seemed disinclined to be baited by his wife’s taunting provocations. He turned away, and began to stalk off, but Marina for some reason just wouldn’t quit.
“Forget something, big man?” she repeated, even more scornfully than before.
Oswald turned back, and Ruth at that moment was sure that for some reason he looked frightened, like a man who’d seen a ghost. Marina was holding up her wedding ring, a viciously contemptuous look animating her face.
“You left this on the dresser, big man! You planned something big today, no?”
Oswald looked positively helpless, Ruth thought. Like a trapped animal with no hope of escape. He reached over, snatched the ring out of his wife’s grip, then walked out of the room, muttering to himself.
Weeks passed, then months, then years. Something fundamentally changed in Oswald after that day, something that Marina, try as she might, could never comprehend. It seemed that his quietly lethal violent intensity just got up and left, leaving behind a broken shell of a man. He no longer plotted or planned; he merely sat around, brooding and dispirited. He quit his job at the Book Depository, took on a few more dead end jobs, then one day simply disappeared, leaving behind a terse note and a sum of money from his last paycheck in an envelope.
Marina didn’t feel the least bit unhappy to see her husband go; she had thoroughly despised him for a while now. This was the late sixties: the drug culture had taken hold; the war in Vietnam was in full swing, as were student antiwar protests; hundreds of weird new psychedelic cults seemed to spring up every day—was it possible that Lee could have been swallowed up by one of them?
No one but Lee himself knew what had truly happened during those “lost” years. For her part, Marina next heard from her husband in late November of 1973, when he suddenly showed up at the door of her new home in Ft. Worth, where she now cohabited with her new boyfriend, a fellow Russian émigré named Fyodor.
So much had changed! Marina could never have imagined living in sin with a man to whom she wasn’t married; she still didn’t feel at all comfortable with the arrangement. Fyodor had been thoroughly Americanized; he was a groovy, “switched-on” kind of guy. Marina had found him interesting at first, if for no other reason than that his laidback personality seemed the very opposite of Lee’s frighteningly tight-wound temperament. Lately, however, Marina had started to grow weary of Fyodor as well—weary of his long, scraggly locks and of his ridiculous hippie lingo, and of the drugs and what she strongly suspected to be his infidelities.
She’d tolerated Fyodor’s antics for a while now, but she’d nearly reached her limit; Marina was, after all, still an old-fashioned Russian woman at heart. Thus, when she got over the initial shock of seeing Lee standing on her doorstep, Marina for a moment felt a resurgence of the old desire from their days together in Russia, when as a slight young man, he’d appeared before her as emblematic of all things excitingly exotic: foreign-born, restless, redolent of freedom and mobility, things she’d never known in her youth. Lee had travelled all the way from America, and he carried with him the essence of that land as she’d always pictured it: fresh-cut, scrubbed clean, full of promise. So different from grim, grey, pollution-choked Minsk . . . He wasn’t terribly handsome, nor particularly charming; he didn’t talk much, and when he did he seldom smiled; she wasn’t even his first choice for a wife—Lee had initially proposed to a different girl, who’d turned him down.
Lee and Marina met at a trade-union dance, and married a mere two months later; it had been a whirlwind courtship, and Marina, obeying the promptings of some inscrutable impulse, had agreed to wed this odd young man who spoke only broken Russian, and whose commitment to Marxist revolutionary purity greatly exceeded any of the actual career Communist party members she knew in Minsk. And when it became apparent that he had grown so frustrated with Soviet corruption that he intended to return to the United States, Marina never questioned this course of action; she faithfully followed her new husband into an entirely new world.
“Take care of this girl,” Marina’s uncle had once warned Lee. “She has plenty of breezes in her brain.” Lee had smirked cryptically at this, nodding curtly, his lips pursed.
And now, here he stood at her door: his hair now long and tangled, his face scruffy with stubble, but his eyes again bore that insolent, self-satisfied sneer that she’d grown to know well, if not to love. The fiery old Oswald was back, it seemed. Yet he said nothing, just stared at her. After a moment, he shuffled his feet slightly, and grudgingly muttered a greeting. She promptly invited him in and asked him where he’d been all these years, and he told her he’d traveled all over; he’d done a stint in Yugoslavia, and concluded that Marshall Tito’s regime, for all of its empty talk of being independent from the Soviets, was just as rotten and ideologically repugnant in its own unique way, ruled by the same sort of fat, repulsive bureaucrats who’d ruined the revolution in Russia. After emigrating, Lee had been stuck doing factory gruntwork—as had happened before in Minsk—and he’d grown frustrated and despondent, so he’d fled and resettled again, this time in Mao’s China, where he dwelt in Shanghai for a spell. Eventually, his “heart became attached,” as he put it, to the Vietcong freedom fighters in North Vietnam; he’d enlisted as a kind of mercenary in this conflict (being a former U.S. Marine, he knew how to aim and fire a gun, after all). The VC had welcomed his help, but never saw fit to give him a position of authority, as he felt he deserved; after many sweaty months in the jungle, squatting over a gun and seeing little action, Oswald grew embittered, and deserted his post. (And just in time, too, he added—Goldwater had dropped the big one mere days after Lee’s departure . . .)
Marina shook her head and scrutinized her long-missing husband, a familiar expression of disdain returning to her once-lovely features, which had hardened severely with age. Lee just never learned! No matter how many regimes dismissed him as a barely-educated bumpkin, the man never even for a moment wondered if they may have a point. Instead, he always felt thoroughly convinced that he was destined for greatness. It was quite pathetic, really. The notion that a nobody like Oswald could actually have it in him to alter the course of history!
* * *
History had, in fact, ground along grimly, quite without the need of help from Lee or any of the other lowly toilers, sulkers, and dreamers who walk the earth in sad anonymity, hoping in vain that their meager gestures of defiance will somehow arrest the turning of the world, hold the sun in a solitary place in the sky like a blessed Old Testament warrior with God on his side . . .
Yes, history had followed its own stubborn path, all right. The man whom Lee had tried to take down by force, President John F. Kennedy, had instead been taken out by popular electoral revolt. Not long after his visit to Dallas, the president had signaled his interest in signing into law a massive civil rights bill. Of course, it had been a merely political move (no one expected Congress to pass such a bill at the time), but it had backfired spectacularly just the same. In ’64, the South voted Republican in droves for the first time since the Reconstruction era, and Barry Goldwater became the first Jewish president of the United States.
“Better a Christ-killer than a nigger-lover,” was the mantra that caught on among many Southern white voters, who viewed the crusades of proto-Communist race agitators like Martin Luther King Jr. with alarm and consternation. And Goldwater was as good as his word: though personally opposed to racial segregation, he was an ardent believer in states’ rights; thus, federal civil rights legislation efforts were effectively put on ice, dealing a fatal blow to King’s efforts. By the early ’70s, King and his cronies in the black empowerment movement had ceased to be relevant; black intellectuals had by then pretty much given up on the notion of integration as a model; instead, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, and others, they had looked towards the ideal of cultivating their own gardens and attaining excellence within the context of a “separate but (theoretically) equal” framework.
If Goldwater’s unwillingness to intervene in Southern affairs had angered Northern liberals, his foreign policy positively disgusted them.
“President Barry” prided himself on his plain-speaking, no-nonsense approach to diplomacy; he boasted that he wasn’t in the least afraid of going “toe-to-toe” with any “flaky little tin pot dictator.” After a couple of years of sporadic fighting with Soviet-backed Communist forces in Vietnam, he’d had enough; he gave what he considered fair warning to the enemy before ordering a limited atomic strike on North Vietnam in the summer of 1968.
Afterwards, Goldwater said he found it “unfortunate” that several thousand civilian casualties perished in the attack, and that several thousand more were exposed to deadly radiation in its aftermath, but justified the action because “something had to be done.”
“We can’t just dick around over there forever,” the down-to-earth leader famously declared during an offhand moment while talking to the press.
While the bombing of Vietnam was greeted with massive protests on college campuses and city centers across the country, the vast majority approved of the attack as a means of saving the lives of U.S. servicemen. As a result, Goldwater was re-elected in another, even more lopsided landslide a few months later, this time handily defeating the Democratic candidate, former vice-president Lyndon Johnson, who strongly condemned the use of nukes in Southeast Asia on moral grounds.
Then, in late ’69, trouble flared up again. A fleet of Soviet ships converged on an oil-rich section of land in west Alaska, and Soviet leaders spoke of a “territorial claim” to this strip, demanding immediate negotiations with Washington. President Goldwater condemned this move in the strongest terms; pounding his podium and setting his jaw in a Churchillian posture of defiance, he declared, “No retreat, no surrender, no negotiation!”
The skirmish that followed (each side claiming the other fired the first shot) escalated ominously, culminating in the “Day of Infamy” on November 26, when the Soviet fleet launched a nuclear strike on the West Coast, which incinerated most of San Francisco and left Los Angeles badly damaged.
Thus began World War III.
Contrary to the “Mutually Assured Destruction” Dr. Strangelovian scenario many feared, however, this war entailed the use of many conventional weapons. Both sides wanted to win; each knew that to escalate to all-out atomic warfare wouldn’t be in their best interest, so both refrained. Moreover, each side viewed itself as the victim, and the other as the aggressor. Soviet propaganda organs thundered against “the U.S. imperialist’s abominable atrocities on the Asian continent,” while Americans were exhorted to “never forget” the hundreds of thousands wiped out by Russian nukes on the California coast.
The Third World War raged mostly across a broad swath of disputed territory generally regarded as “Third World,” around the bulk of Asia and the Pacific. As the years passed, casualties on both sides reached horrific proportions, dwarfing the enormous body counts of the previous worldwide conflagrations of the twentieth century. The theater of operations included innumerable ground offenses and airstrikes at countless far-ranging locations, yet no battle ever seemed to end with a clear victor, just the shedding of rivers, if not oceans, of blood.
By the time an armistice was called, both sides had exhausted their fighting forces; each lay spent and prostrate, yet neither had been able to inflict the final, killing blow. The former superpowers were like two prizefighters who’d gone fifteen arduous rounds, each rendering the other a bloody, gory mess before dropping to the mat, comatose, impotent, and paralyzed.
When President Goldwater and Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev signed a peace treaty in August 1971, they were two somber, grim-faced men who’d presided over a conflict that had ended in a stalemate and resulted in profound and unfathomable human loss. Tens of millions of fighting men lay dead on both sides, as well as many more thousands of civilians caught in the deadly global crossfire. So many dead, and so little to show for it. Balance of power-wise, nothing had substantially changed.
A short time afterwards, of course, came the kicker: Four months before the end of his term, President Goldwater was assassinated.
The gunman, a depraved Palestinian-born naturalized American named Sirhan Sirhan, apparently snuck through the crowd during a presidential appearance in Chicago, somehow eluded the notice of the Secret Service, and shot Goldwater point blank in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Sirhan was apprehended immediately afterwards. Under questioning, he steadfastly maintained that he acted on his own, without help from anyone, for his own purposes. Presumably Goldwater’s Jewish identity and his announced support in favor of Israel’s often bloody campaigns against the generally Soviet-friendly Palestinian people during the last war had raised Sirhan’s ire and driven him to murder. But just the same, dark rumors began to spread of an alleged conspiracy and a coup.
Certainly, many of Goldwater’s original supporters had soured on him as the war progressed; some felt he’d lost his nerve, and not made the tough, necessary decisions to win the war; many felt he should have answered the Soviets’ brazen attack on the West Coast with greater force; instead, he allowed his fear of a worldwide nuclear annihilation to influence his tactical choices. After starting out with such promise, Barry had failed to deliver when it really counted, they felt. Vice-president Nixon, on the other hand, was much more inclined towards a hawkish mentality. So of course there was great speculation that the powers-that-be in the war industry at the Pentagon and among the military-industrial complex–those whose influence President Eisenhower had so strongly decried a decade ago—had actually pulled the strings that led this hapless puppet and patsy to commit his world-shaking act.
Whatever the case, Nixon made a strong enough positive impression upon a nation decimated by grief and pain and ready for a “new direction.” While not a handsome or particularly telegenic man, he spoke with moving eloquence of America’s great struggle as a nation through the last few years of darkness, predicting that we would all soon “walk into the light of a new day.” As he intoned this catchphrase, his jowls shook and he held up the front two fingers on each hand, signifying a double victory of some sort, to the deafening noise of thunderous applause.
Many of Nixon’s opponents scoffed that the only “light” we’d see under his regime would be the radioactive sort of glow brought from a hail of exploding, extinction-bringing mushroom clouds. Still, he easily defeated the ineffectual peacenik George McGovern and took the reins of power in January 1973.
* * *
Now it was November. Word had spread that a new war—God help us—might be looming. President Nixon had made daring overtures towards Red China, attempting to woo this great and populous nation away from the Soviets, their ideological ally in the last war. Through his brilliant point man, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon was courting favor, all the while pouring money into the latest nuclear technology with an aim towards “whipping their asses this time around” (or so the stocky, diminutive “Tricky Dick” had allegedly blustered during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs earlier in the year).
Marina, cigarette in hand, coolly regarded her ex-husband, now a balding, weathered, unkempt, middle-aged man. Apropos of nothing, she told him that the kids were at school. Lee nodded, but inwardly winced. Fyodor was their “father” now. It was only fair—Lee had abandoned them years ago before setting off on what proved to be a fruitless quest to make his mark on history.
“Do you know what day it is?” he asked his former wife, listlessly, in broken Russian, rubbing his face.
“Yes,” she answered in English, looking into his eyes with the defiant fire that had long both excited and infuriated him. “It iss November 23, 1973.”
Her accent was far less noticeable than it had been a few years earlier, but her gratuitous recitation of the year suggested the same woman he’d long known, the one with “breezes in her brain.” A different sort of man would have smiled at this recognition, but Oswald was no sentimentalist. Still, hearing the date spoken aloud made his heart ache just a bit.
“Do you remember . . . ten years ago, today?” he chanced to ask, glancing down for a moment, eyes shifty.
Marina took a long puff on her cigarette, looking a little bored.
“Nyet,” she declared brutally, dashing her ash into a little porcelain cup on the table, a cup that looked strangely familiar to Oswald. “The day duss not mean a thing to me . . . should it?”
Her glance seemed like a saucy challenge of sorts, although Oswald couldn’t tell what she knew and what she didn’t. He hesitated a long moment. Surely she remembered the day when the light left his eyes? The day he left his wedding band on the mantle and exited Ruth Paine’s house with a long package under his arm, full of anxious anticipation . . . before returning later that evening, bitterly humiliated by fate, afflicted with an inexplicable attack of nerves at what should have been his finest moment . . . Surely she remembered handing him the ring with a look of tart contempt on her then-youthful face?
Oswald sniffed dismissively at the absurd inclination he’d displayed to let Marina share his secret . . . Then he looked again at the cup, smoldering with Marina’s cigarette ash, and his eyes widened with horror. It was the same cup into which he’d placed his wedding ring ten years ago today, before leaving the house! She knew, then! She’d known all along—she was just cruelly toying with him . . . He shook his head in a seizure-like convulsion and suddenly advanced towards her, pointing an angry finger in her face.
“You . . . never supported me!” he yelled, voice shaking. “You were never on my side. You always just wanted me to fail!”
Marina smirked at his petulant outburst, and Oswald retaliated swiftly and automatically; his pointing hand instantaneously balled into a fist, and he struck her hard in the jaw. Marina staggered backwards, grasped her chin, looked at him again with unmitigated scorn, and spat blood contemptuously on the kitchen floor.
“Such a big man!” she taunted. He punched her again, this time in the ribs, and Marina doubled over, holding her side.
“Shut . . . up!” Lee bawled. Then he suddenly grabbed her roughly by the hair and kissed her hard on the mouth he’d just bloodied. She didn’t fight back at first, pretending to relent to his ruthless lips and probing tongue before suddenly opening her mouth and biting him savagely . . .
Lee pulled away and howled in pain, crumbling over as if he’d been shot in the abdomen.
“BITCH!!” he screamed. “I hate you!”
In one swift move, he rose to his feet, lifted her and threw her against the wall. Marina felt the pain shoot through her back, but the more it stung, the more her spirit struck back at him in furious mockery.
“Hunter of fascists, ha ha ha!” she called out, relishing the cruelty of every syllable that left her mouth. “Such a big, important man! Such a revolutionary! Ha!”
She continued to pelt him with her merciless spite, even as he pushed up her dress, tore away her underwear, undid his trousers and plunged into her. A moment later she scoffed derisively as he climaxed, deprecating his lack of stamina in fierce, husky Russian. But he ignored her hurtful words now. After pulling up his pants he glared at her supine body and apoplectically hostile face with a kind of forlorn rage.
Then he turned and left her there on the kitchen floor, adjusting his belt and muttering to himself as he burst through the front door like a fugitive on the run, looking for a place to hide.
* * *
Now he had fled to his former place of ingenious attempted subversion, the point of inexplicable divergence between what had been and what should have been.
Oswald closed his eyes, inhaling the rank, musty smell of the Texas School Book Depository, whose stacks had gathered much dust and grime over the last few months. Here, in this little room overlooking this insignificant square, had been the nexus between the world he knew and the world he dreamed about. Once an atheist, Oswald now couldn’t help but believe in cosmic forces beyond his control. These malicious gods had set him up, only to cause him to fail at what should have been his moment of usurping triumph. Why had his hands grown unsteady? He’d never had qualms about the notion of killing another person . . . He didn’t quail, even slightly, at the idea of taking out the President of the United States; what was that office to him? Just another stinking politician, corrupt and useless. Even supposed “liberals” like JFK didn’t really give a damn about bringing true, revolutionary change, change you could believe in . . .
His eyes still shut, the late morning traffic zooming in and out of the Triple Underpass, Oswald imagined a different past. He saw himself point his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle out of the window, take careful aim . . . he would wait until the motorcade turned onto Elm, because that way he’d be more inconspicuous; he would wait until the President’s limo passed his spot; he’d lead the slow-moving vehicle, ever so slightly, in his rifle’s scope . . .
He’d squeeze off the first shot, which might miss, due to foliage from branches of a tree which stood in the trajectory of the bullet’s path. But even if the first bullet went wide of the mark, Oswald wouldn’t fret; he’d remain coldly focused on the task at hand, click the bullet into the waiting chamber, and fire a second shot. This one would surely meet its mark, the limo having cleared the area of foliage; in his mind’s eye, Oswald saw the bloody burst of the impact—the second shot, he felt, would strike Kennedy in the back of the neck and would exit through his chest, wounding him gravely but not killing him.
Then a moment later would come the final, gloriously horrific head shot, which would send presidential brain matter flying through the air in a grotesque explosion of flesh and skull . . .
Oswald replayed the moment over and over in his head, as if obsessively rewinding a super-8 movie.
How much would this one bullet have changed history? Maybe things wouldn’t be so different after all, but how did one really know?
Certainly, no one would ever believe that I did it all alone, that a “loser” like me took out Mr. Big Shot Kennedy, that vile lackey of capitalist oppression.
Lee’s grizzled face turned smug as he considered this notion in the darkness of the sixth floor room full of schoolbooks, ten years to the very hour after the point of tragic divergence.
No, no. They’d want to believe that I’d just been a “patsy” . . .
Oswald liked that word, “patsy,” for some reason. It made him smile.
Oh, yes. No uneducated 24-year-old could, through naught but grim determination and an iron will, undertake an act that derails the momentum of everything, sends the train rolling down an entirely different track, towards an as-yet uncreated line of stations . . .
Oswald swooned, lost in this possible past that, for reasons unknown, had never been allowed to materialize into actuality. Yet he found that he believed in this fictional world much more than he believed in his own, “real” one.
Yes! It was time to exit this tawdry realm of illusion and deceit. Time to go to a better place.
As Oswald pulled his pistol out of his jacket pocket and pointed it to his head, his hands did not shake. Very few people nearby heard the shot, and those who did paid it no mind, figuring it had simply been the backfiring of a car.
A janitor discovered Lee’s body that night while on his rounds. Afterwards it lay on a slab in the city morgue, unidentified for days, an odd and bewildering smile frozen on its face, a deep cavity in its skull gushing copious blood.