? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 9

Fiction

Robert Reid


The Lonely Gunman

  Billy Wagner is eating birthday cake and watching the assassination of John F. Kennedy unfold in front of him. He scoops his fork underneath a frosting flower—Pure sugar, Billy, pure sugar, his mother says—and squeezes it between his teeth so that the red dye coats them and makes them look bloodied just like the mist squirting from the President’s fractured skull.
  Mrs. Kennedy is blonde, portly, and altogether wrong looking. She’s trying to keep her dark sunglasses from sliding down the bridge of her nose and into Jack’s lap while she twists towards the back of the ‘61 Continental—a plastic prop—and stretches for the cantaloupe rind she’s meant to retrieve from the trunk.
  Billy’s mother says, Did it really keep spraying like that?
  I assume she’s pointing at the combination of ketchup and tomato paste that’s hissing from something hidden inside the President’s shirt collar and coating the little elevated stage that doubles as a catering platform when the restaurant works weddings.
  The dead President is lying motionless in the backseat, the way it would have looked had Dealey Plaza frozen that November afternoon and Zapruder’s Bell & Howell kept imprinting the film anyway, frame after frame after—
  And Billy Wagner, he’s sticking his tongue between the fork prongs, oblivious to history.
  And his mother says, This is less educational than you told me, Donna.
  And Donna says, She never brought my Diet Coke.
  And upstairs, where I’m crouched in the balcony overlapping the corner of the stage, that famous Carcano rifle grasped in my hands, my eyes meet Mrs. Kennedy’s. She’s staring at me over her sunglasses, those chubby fingers of hers clutching the cantaloupe rind hard enough that it’s starting to flex under the pressure of her grip. They’ve been using overripe fruit to double as Jack’s broken skull since, well, I don’t even know.
  Nose wrinkling, she starts bringing the rind closer to her face, slowly, as if to convince the diners that it’s just an optical illusion, that she’s still frozen in the past just where she belongs, and that her arm, actually, isn’t moving at all. And when she sniffs at the rind her face puckers and she whispers to her dead husband that it’s rotten, that the rind is fucking decomposing in her hand.
  From my vantage point above Billy Wagner and his two mothers, I can see the president, head in Jackie’s lap, and he’s grinning, trying not to laugh. He places one of his allegedly lifeless hands on her chubby knee and squeezes. A moment later his digits are massaging the inside of her thigh, and then they start northbound, disappearing beneath her skirt. I raise the Carcano, shove the stock against my shoulder, and peer through the magnified scope in time to see Mrs. Kennedy’s striped underpants in the crosshairs.
  People are always asking how I ended up here. How I, of all people, found myself in the sniper’s nest overlooking the Kennedys. It shouldn’t be that shocking, except everyone keeps treating it like some big goddamned mystery. Why don’t they believe I could manage a job like this?
  To clarify, things came together like this: Cynthia, our acting lead manager, sees me smoking a Marlboro outside the restaurant one afternoon about a month back, and bums a cigarette off me. She tells me how they lost the previous Oswald to graduate school, and that he dicked out—that’s what she says—on his last two shifts. When she brings me inside, tells me more about the gig, and hands me the Carcano, it’s like the first time my boyhood fingers curled around the shaft of my cock. Like they were made for each other.
  But now that I’ve proven there is no conspiracy—some people like to say I had to know someone on the inside to get a job like this—let’s head back inside, to the here and now, where I’d like to keep the rifle focused on Jackie Kennedy’s crotch all day. Except the President’s wandering fingers don’t linger in her panties much longer; he finishes fingering her and then tugs the skirt back down over her thighs before launching himself upright and out of the backseat of the Continental. He lands on the stage as I’m lowering the rifle from my shoulder, his hands thrust out in front of him, navy blue dress coat stretched across his back.
  This is where things start going sour for me.
  Everyone in the dining room erupts in thunderous applause. A tableful of high school athletes wearing letter jackets with medallions that remind me of military formal wear even put down their cell phones and strike their hands together. The sharp snap of flesh on flesh, staggered across the room and echoing against the exterior walls, mirrors the effect some people use as evidence to support the multiple gunmen theory. But if they’d only look upstairs, at the balcony hovering above the VIP John Wilkes Booth booth where Billy Wagner is still eating his birthday cake, they would see it’s only me.
  For the record, Assassin-Ate didn’t always render our actions insignificant by bringing men like Kennedy back from the grave. In fact, he didn’t start shaking off my 6.5 mm round nose bullet until just recently. Cynthia says that after 9/11, patrons at her restaurant found something comforting about witnessing the resurrection of a fallen leader. The day after the attacks, Kennedy spontaneously came back from the dead, surprising everyone—including my predecessor—when he improvised a little speech and then took Jackie’s hand and marched into the kitchen, blood still plastering his costume.
  On their How Did We Do Tonight? cards, the guests wrote about how much they enjoyed bringing Jack back from the dead. They reveled in suspending their disbelief and imagining that, had they lingered in Dealey Plaza a little longer that day, maybe Kennedy would have come back to life if we had only given him the chance. The real conspiracy, we now like to think—or so says Cynthia—is that our lack of faith in miracles killed the President.
  So Kennedy’s job security here, Cynthia now likes to joke, is better than his security detail was on that November afternoon in Dallas.
  When I protest, saying it’s time to put things back the way they were, Cynthia nods at her little Never Forget banner (the one she found online, printed, and tacked behind her desk). I mean, how long do we have to mourn 9/11 before we can get our shit back together?
  As the excitement of President Kennedy’s rejuvenation now begins to wane, he lowers his arms and jumps off the stage. He wades into the crowd, through the zigzagging tables amassed in the center of the dining room, and plucks a waffle fry from someone’s plate. Rubbing it through the ketchup gore plastered to his cheek, he pops it into his mouth and, still chewing, raises his hands again and asks for their silence, as the sight of the President ingesting his own brain matter sends them back into a frenzy. This time I notice that Billy Wagner is clapping, too.
  When the applause subsides, the President leaps onto the platform, helps Jackie out of the backseat, and, draping an arm around his wife, says, Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes my part of tah-night’s performance. And as you consider the superior service you have received from our friendly staff this evening, I only request this: That you ask not what your ser-vah can do for you, but what, instead, you can do for your server. So before you all leave here tonight, take the extra effort and make yourself proud to say, ‘Ich bin ein good tipper!’ Gawd bless!
  Everyone loves this part. They love it so much, in fact, that most of them leave without sticking around for the rest of the show. They leave without ordering dessert, and of course they leave before it’s my turn to die.

  I’m sitting in Cynthia’s office filling out my direct deposit form when Abraham Lincoln knocks on the door and says he’s come in early to collect his paycheck. Cynthia’s office is a renovated storage closet in the corner of the kitchen. It shares its inside wall with the walk-in freezer, and the condensation peeling away the wallpaper and clouding the edges of the diploma frame—some online business college—is less obvious than the way the entire room seems to warble from the motor that keeps the French fries frozen and the chicken strips from becoming mush.
  While she thumbs through the unclaimed envelopes, she introduces us using the generic Oswald-Lincoln, Lincoln-Oswald approach, and though he shakes my hand and says welcome aboard, it feels like a formality.
  In the dining room outside, busboys dressed like Secret Service agents are clearing and then cleaning the dining room tables. Lincoln’s performance starts in two hours, and he’ll perform twice tonight because it’s Saturday and because Kennedy has a wedding to attend in another county. Cynthia likes to wait until the anxious, let’s-pay-and-get-out-of-herecrowd exits before killing me; she says that the people who have waited around for dessert deserve an uninterrupted performance, so we have a good half-hour to kill in the kitchen.
  When they’re through resetting the tables, the Secret Service breaks down the Continental—it collapses into three parts—and carries the pieces to the actual storage room next to Cynthia’s office. Two busboys are left behind onstage to chip away the blood and brain matter and then hang a crimson- hued curtain that sort of makes the platform resemble Ford’s Theatre. My sniper’s nest is disassembled, converted into President Lincoln’s private box, and inspected by Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth (always separately) to make sure it’s to their liking. You’d be surprised by how possessive we become of these places, of our time clock identities.
  Lincoln removes his stovepipe hat and places the paycheck inside. He says, Look, Cynthia, I’ve got kind of a big favor to ask.
  Almost instinctively, I stop writing and pretend—by contorting my face—that I’ve forgotten my routing number, except this is the fourth direct deposit form I’ve had to fill out this year, and I’ve memorized the process. I tap the pen against my front teeth, stalling.
  Lincoln continues, I couldn’t find my beard and eyebrows. Think I might’ve left them at my girlfriend’s place last night. Do you have an extra set lying around?
  Cynthia slips the stack of envelopes into the top desk drawer and asks, Why didn’t you just leave them in your locker?
  Don’t worry about it.
  Does your girlfriend like when you bring home the beard?
  Sort of.
  I want to say, That’s very honest of you, Abe. But of course, I don’t.
  She tells him no, actually, that the pair he lost was the spare, remember? That he destroyed the first pair during last year’s Christmas party when he refused to take them off and accidentally set them on fire. Lincoln looks sideways at me, probably wishing I’d leave.
  He says, Keep that to yourself, Oswald.
  I nod, thinking that Lincoln doesn’t sound like Lincoln the way Kennedy sounds like Kennedy. It pisses me off that they’ve both become this complacent—that their time in the spotlight (we don’t actually have a spotlight, but whatever) has made them so lackadaisical. Lincoln not viewing a missing beard as a legitimate dilemma infuriates me, and I feel the same way about how Kennedy doesn’t find post-mortem fingering of his wife inappropriate.
  I want to tell this beardless, gangling fuck, You try hiding in the shadows like us and you won’t forget your goddamned beard in your girlfriend’s bedroom next time. I mean, what if I forgot my Carcano? I forget my gun, Kennedy lives. It’s a double standard.
  Except they live anyway, all of them, and I’d like to remind Cynthia and Lincoln and Kennedy that they’ve made Assassin-Ate a place where we can’t assassinate. And that letting them do whatever the fuck they want—like achieving immortality, for Christ sake—means they’ll slack off in other ways, too. Because we assassins are no longer relevant in this new fantasy they’ve all concocted, and it’s not fair to the men whose heroics made this restaurant possible in the first place. If they’re not willing to take the bullet and keep it, to hell with them. I’ll do it. I mean, I already do. Nobody bothers to suggest they bring me back from the dead.
  But I keep my mouth shut. I’ve only been here a month; they wouldn’t listen to a word I have to say. Besides, it’s not my place to piss off the guy who turns the Gettysburg Address into a way to advertise the weekend drink specials—Four score and seven beers ago, it starts—or confront America’s first Catholic president and say, Look, Jackie Boy, keep your liberal fingers out of your wife’s hot-pocket when I’ve just sent you into the afterlife. Show me some god-damned respect.
  No. There’s a hierarchy here at Assassin-Ate. It’s even in the Employee Constitution. You just don’t take your grievances straight to the man who emancipated the slaves. It’s John Wilkes Booth or Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray who should step forward if there’s a problem. They’ve been here longer, had more time to witness this injustice firsthand.
  I should wait, yeah, and see how my colleagues handle acting subserviently. But as I methodically fill in the last digit of my routing number, I wonder if subservience would be an insult to the way we assassins are supposed to operate. Diplomacy, did it ever do anything for people like us? Aren’t we here to challenge the establishment? Act irrationally?
  I hand the paper over to Cynthia. She gives it a once-over to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything; the corners of the paper are already shiny from her grease-stained fingertips. She sets it down on her desk calendar and says to Lincoln, Get creative, okay?
  I say, You could put molasses on your face and then sprinkle Shake & Bake on your cheeks.
  That’s actually a good one, Cynthia says.
  Lincoln says, I’m not breading my face, Oswald.
  She looks at her watch. Shrugs. Says, You’re running out of time. Better think of something. Then she sighs, looks at me, and says, Okay, Oswald, it’s probably about time we put a bullet in you.
  There isn’t even any enthusiasm left in her tone.

  In the kitchen, the Kennedys are huddled around a small black and white television watching a college football game while one of the cooks, dressed in a Zoot suit with no back, is wielding a western-style cap gun and lunging at an invisible enemy—me—who must, in his mind, be standing in the space between the flattop and stovetop grills. He hisses in broken English, You keahl my president, rat!
  Cynthia whistles, pretends to slit her throat with the fingernail of her index finger, and says, Emilio, let’s not use that word in the kitchen, okay? We just got our license back.
  Lo siento, Cynthia, he says, and sets the revolver on the flattop so he can clasp his hands together as though praying, begging her forgiveness, but only in jest. He’s already smiling.
  She waves a dismissive hand and keeps walking. Says to Kennedy as we’re passing him, I thought you had a wedding tonight.
  Dinner isn’t until six, he says, reaching across Jackie for one of the onion rings stacked high on a ceramic plate.
  Cynthia says, Then why are filling your stomach with this shit?
  He throws a thumb over his shoulder and says, Ask your Commander-in-Chef over there.
  Emilio shrugs and starts chuckling. He says, Jack Kennedy, my special friend. And then he shoots me a glare.
  Cynthia pushes through the swinging door and into the dining room. Except for a handful of families—including Billy Wagner and his moms (they look like they’re together, that’s all I’m trying to say)—the restaurant has emptied. Leaning back into the kitchen, she says, Emilio, get your ass into place, por favor.
  He lifts the revolver off the flattop and switches it from hand to hand before opening one of his pockets and slipping it inside. He starts towards the exit at the back of the kitchen when Cynthia asks if I’m nervous at all about doing this.
  I tell her, No, it’s pretty much second nature now.
  She says, That’s pretty much what I thought.
  She calls a pair of busboys over and tells them to escort me through the zigzagging tables towards the platform. If Ruby doesn’t come flying through the front door—the one leading outside to the Grassy Knoll summer seating—before we make it to the stage, they should turn me around and let Billy Wagner berate and harass me until he arrives.
  Billy is working on his second slice of birthday cake and washing it down with a glass of our Chocolate Harvey Milk, which is actually just a glass of our Harvey Milk combined with Hershey’s chocolate syrup (a house secret). He sets his fork down and applauds when he sees my escorts, their hands loosely holding my forearms, leading me through the labyrinth and in his direction.
  We reach the front of the dining room before Ruby makes it through the door. I glance up towards my sniper’s nest—since converted—and see Booth eating a salad, probably Caesar; he’s a superstitious man prone to routine. I’ve watched him eat one during every overlapping shift.
  He raises his fork as if to say, Make me proud, and I think I get what he means by that.
  The door opens behind me and Ruby steps inside. The Secret Service agents turn me around as he pulls the gun from the front pocket of his Zoot suit, lunges forward, and squeezes the trigger. The crack of the cap is followed by a puff of smoke and the scent of gunpowder that smells a little like burnt hair. When I don’t collapse into myself, Ruby, still clutching the gun, says, What you doing, man?
  I say, Let’s talk about this, Ruby. You’re making a mistake.
  I feel like I’m starting to become John Kennedy now.
  Emilio’s mouth falls open and I can see him pressing his tongue against the back of his top row of teeth. He raises the revolver, steadies it with both hands—as if this even matters— and squeezes the trigger so that, rightly, I ought to be dead.
  But when I just stand there, he cries, Cynthia! Cynthia! Emergencia!
  I step forward, out of my escorts’ loose embrace, and yank the gun from his hand. He doesn’t fight me for it. I leap onto the platform and kick the curtain aside so that I’m the only thing onstage, the only thing worth watching. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
  Ruby is standing at the edge of the platform, hands on his hips, staring at me in disbelief. Behind him, Cynthia and Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy and her husband—he just can’t give me this moment, can he?—are navigating the sea of tables towards the stage. Cynthia is telling the remaining guests that everything is fine and that they shouldn’t worry.
  But when she makes it to the edge of the stage she clenches her teeth and says, Oswald, what the hell are you doing up there?
  Ruby explains what happened.
  Lincoln scoffs. Fucking amateur, he says.
  I holler back, Grow a beard, Abe.
  He opens his mouth to speak—his cheeks, I notice, glisten with something that resembles honey—but Cynthia raises her hand to silence him. She says to me, You better have a damn good explanation for being alive right now.
  An old man with an oxygen mask is adjusting the controls on his tank. Nearer to me, Billy Wagner’s moms are so engaged in the debacle that they’re not even covering his ears, keeping him from hearing all the cursing. I say, Changed my mind about it, okay? And look how much fun the kid is having.
  Cynthia looks over at Billy just as he’s blowing bubbles in his milk, not even watching anymore.
  She says to me, You can’t just change your mind about something that has already happened.
  I say, Why not? You bring Kennedy back from the dead.
  That’s different. He at least dies first.
  Sure, but if he comes back, I didn’t actually kill him, right? So why do I have to die? I’m innocent, Cynthia. Isn’t this America?
  Kennedy is saying something to his wife and she’s nodding, grim-faced and serious. And then she takes off her sunglasses and I acknowledge that I’m through being Oswald. That I’m done with this life. It’s Jackie that I want. It’s his monologue. It’s everything that he has—including, I’ll admit it, the wage increase—that I’m after.
  I say, I want to ride in the car with Jackie.
  Jackie chortles. Dream on, she says.
  Cynthia says, That’s just not possible.
  Just one time, Cynthia, please. And then I put the barrel of the cap gun against my own temple for dramatic effect. This is all happening after I should be dead, and like Kennedy, I’m living on, a perpetual flame, refusing to go quietly. I’m ready for a promotion, is all.
  Kennedy says, What a nutcase.
  Through her teeth Cynthia hisses, Oswald, get your ass down here right now or you’re fired, capisce?
  If I’m going to die, I say, I want to die diddling Jackie Kennedy.
  What a fucking weirdo, Jackie says, her face twisting in the same way it did when she was holding the cantaloupe rind, and it becomes apparent that I’m nothing except a rotting piece of presidential skull to her.
  Forget about it, Cynthia tells me. That’s not how it works.
  I’m done explaining this to you, I tell Cynthia. I lower the cap gun and say, Let’s talk about this, Kennedy. Let’s make a deal. What’ll it take for me to be like you?
  Kennedy says, Where did you find this dipshit, Cynthia?
  Name-calling isn’t going to solve this, she says.
  I look at Booth, still standing in the balcony. He’s wiping his face with a napkin, no doubt taken by my gumption. Probably wishing that he’d have thought of this a long time ago.
  I say, Booth, you’re with me, right? Brothers in solidarity?
  He says, No, man, I work alone.
  And before I can reply—call him a traitor, maybe—something crashes into me. Based on the combined scents of cannabis and fryer grease, it must be Ruby. We’re toppling sideways, entangled like the Sirhan Sirhan Soft Pretzel Platter, when everything goes dark.
  Ruby has thrown the curtain over me. I’m shouting, Stop! I’m a patsy! A patsy!
  Lincoln says, Oh, now he reverts to the script.
  Cynthia is shouting over him, No, Emilio, that’s enough! Enough!
  Ruby releases his grip. I scramble free, throwing the curtain back in his direction. Say, You’re all together in this, aren’t you? Booth, Lincoln, Kennedy—you’re all against me.
  Cynthia’s arms are crossed over her chest. She says, Last chance. Do what’s right.
  I am doing what’s right.
  Jackie shakes her head. She turns and walks into the kitchen with her husband. Lincoln follows closely behind.
  Cynthia sighs and apologizes to Billy Wagner’s moms, explaining that they shouldn’t worry about the bill, that it’s all on us, and that they’ll chip in a gift card for the little tike, too, whose birthday, she tells me, is probably ruined.
  When she’s finished she says, Come on, Ruby, I think we’re done here.
  He says something to me in Spanish and trudges after her. The backless Zoot suit is flowing open behind him, like the side of a magic trick you’re not supposed to see.
  They disappear through the swinging kitchen door, leaving me alone onstage. Booth is climbing down the ladder, and then he’s gone, too. It’s just me now, unrecognizable by myself, and from Billy Wagner’s table I can hear him whispering that he’s bored, that it’s time to go home and open presents. Because this part is different, he’s telling them, and not at all like the time his dad brought him here. He wanted to see more blood, he says. What happened to all the blood?