TARTARUS - COMPLETE FINAL DRAFT - SUBMITTED
From The New York Times
November 23rd, 1963
KENNEDY WOUNDED IN CHEST BY SNIPER IN DALLAS; SECRET SERVICE HERO INJURED
President Kennedy suffered “no permanent damage” from a bullet wound sustained in an assassination attempt in Dallas yesterday afternoon. The doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital described his condition as “excellent” following an hour of emergency surgery.
The violent outburst came from a Soviet defector who fired over a picket fence into the crowds on Dallas’ Elm Street. Firing an Italian Carbine rifle twice, he wounded Kennedy and a Secret Service agent. White House officials have confirmed this to be Clint Hill. Officials have stated that both shots were fired from the same rifle and that the gunman was acting alone. Hill, 31, is fighting for his life but doctors refused to speculate on his chances, one said it is likely that he will suffer permanent brain damage.
The gunman was identified as Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, of Dallas, TX. Justice Department officials will make a statement on Oswald’s Communist sympathies as well as allegations of his defection to Russia and Cuba. He was apprehended outside the Texas Theatre for the murder of a police officer.
The lone gunman can expect to receive two life-sentences for the attempt …
“T A R T A R U S”
The day that ends a life rarely comes with warning.
That morning it had rained a little, but the sun had broken through, and the pensioner in the bed by the window was basked in an uneven glow.
Joe, that is what I’ll call him for now, had appeared to have lost at least thirty pounds in less than a day. It was medically impossible - through broken teeth a cough whistled - he was shutting down from the inside. I had been visiting him for a week and once he gained trust in me, told me to return on the eighth day at precisely 12 o’clock, with some Pal Malls and a DU recorder.
When I arrived at the Bob Wilson Memorial Grant County Hospital, Wichita on December 14th, 2002, I had little to no optimism. He was the paranoid sort, so I meshed some gum into his room’s keyhole. His room had another bed that was empty and stripped. Green and red Christmas lights blurred into one from a small tree at the foot of his bed. He was very still. It was like being with my father again, the room smelling of bleach and death.
His eyes were dark. The color had gone from his face. A transparent plate hovered over his mouth, it beeped with his every breath, another contraption read his blood pressure - well over 180. O- blood pumped from tubes into his arms: a vampire with broken teeth. The nurses knew he was bad. His bedside photographs of his grandfather, wife and nephews had been cleared away.
There was a curious-looking device sitting there instead, hidden before. It had a discoloured bracket that loomed over the ear arch. Finite blue particles, that looked to be electrically charged, raced through the contraption in every direction. There was a sharp end like a needle in the centre, I imagined that it would extend into the ear, maybe pierce the eardrum. But what in the hell was it for?
His eyes opened, sensing my grim expression. He fumbled with the breathing plate.
‘I’ve got lung cancer now,’ he said. ‘Sit. We’ve not got long. Don’t interrupt and I’ll tell you everything. You’ll think I’m lying, I’d be surprised if you didn’t, but I want you to write this.’ He croaked. ‘It’ll cause some shit so now you’re aware there’s consequences: to knowing this stuff, right?’
A little alarmed and confused, I looked to the door and wondered whether I should leave this old bastard, take the new I-71 back to Washington, carry on writing about psychedelic drugs, armed burglaries and stock manipulation in the real world.
Instead, I pressed the record button on the DU.
He smiled warmly, ‘Brandon, give me one of those Pal Malls in your jacket pocket’.
‘You sure?’ I found myself saying.
‘I’m half-dead anyway.’
Looking around, I lit his before firing up my own cigarette for the year. We cracked open the window and smoked. He insisted on using his sick bowl as an ashtray and we both laughed.
‘Quick,’ Algrenon said to his grandson. ‘Lock the door.’
Joe shut it and twisted the lock behind him. He crossed the room deftly and his Grampa struggled as he sat up in the bed. ‘You sure this will work?’ he said.
The once calm and calculated executive officer tore off his oxygen mask and dashed it into the corner. He fumbled under his mattress. His left hand, with the five dots arranged in a cross, a Quincunx, came back holding the dirty-looking-earpiece. ‘I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to change the events of that day, so it better.’
Joe looked at the framed black-and-white photographs on the bedside table: his Grampa, young, leaning against a U2-Spyplane puffing on a Cubana; his dead Grandma last Christmas; his Mom playing baseball with her asshole brother in the garden; he and his brother fishing on Lake Tahoe circa 1983. It made him feel sick.
‘Gimme a hand,’ Grampa said.
The tattooed arms were weak, Joe took the hearing aid into his mouth and snapped it right down the middle. He had made two perfect halves – a single white cord running between them.
Grampa grunted and snatched it off him.
He placed one on his left ear, flicking a hidden switch on the back of the ear arch. Joe did the same. It hummed and rattled against his tragus, making the earlobe tingle with the harsh vibrations. He fiddled with it.
The old man told him to take his seat.
Joe remained standing.
He told him again.
‘No Grampa. You don’t know what this could do.’
Algernon removed his and pointed at the respective parts. ‘When you flick your switch, this will spike my eardrum. It will pierce the auditory complex, and follow through to the hippocampus in the centre. It will dig out the raw data and memories the hippocampus contains. All I have to do is think back to that morning, it will extract you from this world and put you back in mine.’
Joe stepped back. The cord tightened. The old man nearly ate the floor tiles.
‘What if I don’t wanna kill you – him… what if I don’t believe all this… all this bullshit? What if this is the cancer talking, Grampa?’
He started to cry like a ten-year-old boy, the one just after the picture was taken, his grandfather opened his hand, smiling, and took the device. He took his grandson, Joe rested his head on the dying man’s shoulder.
‘Remember what I said? Two shots – not one?’
He felt the boot leather skin on his cheek. He looked into the grey-blue eyes, nodding.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
There was plastic in his ear and the rush of air. Joe cursed, hearing the click with all its finality. He took a step and then another, right through the bed. His eyes saw his Grampa’s leak tears. His stomach told him he was about to be sick. At once there was a trash can next to him and he found himself vomiting into it. The blood had gone to his head. He coughed up three more times and straightened up.
Wiping his mouth with his jacket sleeve, he felt a light breeze prickle the hairs on his neck. He alleviated his eyes and saw a glowing sign before him: BILLY BOB’S Ammunition & Supplies – Dallas.
At this, he realised he wasn’t in Wichita anymore.
It’s 12:28p.m. Joe smokes by the picket fence. A dozen butt ends have piled up in the dirt now. The whole area is shrouded by trees that permit next to no daylight.
From here, his target can canvass the whole intersection and take every opportunity. The School Book Depository looms upwind. No Oswald/ Commies/ Outfit poking out the sixth-floor just yet. Joe’s been waiting an hour. Algrenon will arrive in a HOT Pontiac Catalina. ETA – a quarter hour ago – that’s what Grampa told him. There’d be an XPR-Prototype rifle in the trunk.
Joe shakes the last drops from a hip flask into his mouth. I have only one chance at this, and squats in the shade of a Packard. He’s hotter than St. Louis in August.
‘Two shots – not one.’
In slots Pal Mal no. 42. The drink isn’t helping. Grampa had left him responsible to rewrite history: Maybe for the better. With the cancer in tow, this would be the first and last attempt. The hubbub peaks from over the fence.
The crowds pack Elm Street’s sidewalk down to the Triple Underpass and further: women in colorful dresses wave the stars and stripes; little girls and little boys ride their Papa’s shoulders; wolfing Sno-Cones; a million grampas rush from some truck somewhere selling cotton candy $0.20 too much - unaware that Dealey Plaza will become “Deathly Plaza”. The petrol-guzzling regalia of DPD Harley-Davidsons can be heard.
Joe gets distracted by their cheers. Suddenly:
An engine growls. Someone hits the gas – Joe eats exhaust fumes. Spinning wheels, glistening hubcaps, gravel in the eyes. The dust settles: the Catalina skidded, nearly crashed into the fence going sixty. He’s behind it – arms outstretched – rifle peering out. More noise. They’re here! They’re here!
Joe imagines the Kennedys getting picked off like sitting ducks and screams ‘Stop!’.
The target’s head turns, the grey-blue eyes lock on Joe, they’re narrowed with derision, not love for the stumbling mess coming for him.
The Umbrella goes up. Somebody yells, ‘Now!’
‘Sharpshooting’ Algrenon returns to his target.
There’s a pistol in his plaid jacket. The hammer snags in his pocket. Riiiip as Joe tears the lining. The .38’s out, Grampa repeats ‘Two shots – not one.’ Not from this distance. Time makes his feet drag, makes him stumble, makes him topple into the Pontiac. He stoops. Shot 1 jags and goes wide – Algrenon jerks at the report, the XPR’s lens remains steadfast.
The crowd roars!
Jackie’s coat is about to go from pink to red.
Change is bad, Joe is getting nowhere and knows it. He grounds himself with long breaths. He plants his feet in the dirt and forms the Weaver stance. Two shots – not one, he says aloud.
Algrenon goes to turn. He starts to say, ‘Where…’ but the trigger snaps twice. The would-be-assassin, would-be-inventor, would-be-father-and-grampa spins with the hammer shock. The picket fence gets the body and its residue thrown at it.
Shots 2 and 3 caught the back and buttocks.
Joe can run again.
Other gunshots: The Depository.
He scoops up the XPR – a full clip shatters the sixth-floor window. They miss the shooter, but it saves John Kennedy’s life as the limo fishtails and shoots through the underpass.
Families hug the ground. Feet ascend the embankment. DPD, Secret Service, blue suits’ guns blaze at The Depository. Dealey Plaza – the Warzone.
Joe tosses down the rifle, kneels under the cordite mist, turns the body over, two black puddles have formed in the dirt. He drags him away and onto the gravel.
‘Grampa,’ he says.
His tattooed arms go for him but are too weak. They fall at his sides. The grey-blue eyes are stony. Their harsh gaze falters and empties: vacant.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says.
Joe starts to cry like the ten-year-old boy from the day of the photo. He crumples, kissing the Quincunx tattoo of the left arm, and strokes his face with it. He should run but he doesn’t. His throat lets out countless broken sobs. Joe gently takes his Grampa in his arms and rocks him as one will to lull a child to sleep. He screams, howls, begs for a doctor that never comes.
He’s dead at 12:34 p.m. JFK arrives at Parklands Hospital at 12:38 p.m. wounded but very much alive.
Afterwards Joe struggled for breath and rested his eyes for a second. I remained seated, silent. No words could describe the look in them or express my condolences.
‘I know,’ he choked. ‘It sounds like bullshit – but that’s what happened - that’s why I’m here now. My Grampa’s still in Dallas and Kennedy died June last year.’ His cheeks were wet, regret had crept into his tone. Joe raised an eyebrow: ‘Here, if you don’t believe me.’
He dropped the earpiece in my palm and closed my fingers around it, he called it the Tartarus device. I held it to my ear: listening for the hum inside. It was like something living, hiding from me, drawing quick, laboured breaths.
‘Go Mr. Jackson, the nurse’ll be back.’
‘Can we continue tomorrow Joe - same time?’
I pocketed the device and prayed the plastic bracket wouldn’t burst and ruin my pants or future.
His bloodless hands were folded on the sheet, waiting. ‘I’d like that,’
I took one of them in mine and shook it farewell. Through the curtains I could see that the heavens had now opened. I snuck down the hall and the tiled staircase. I didn’t see the nurse when I left, but when I returned at twelve the following afternoon I did. She told me that visiting hours were between three and four and that the pensioner in the bed by the window had died in his sleep.