Saturday, November 23, 2013

Where I was on the day Kennedy was shot: Don't They Know It’s the End of the World?

I wrote this story a few years ago during a short-story class. I thought it was appropriate to share this with the rest of the world during this anniversary weekend.

It is semi-autobiographical. I had just turned 2 and I really do remember sitting on my mother's lap as she listened to the news.


Don't They Know It’s the End of the World?

Marty walked towards the living room when she heard the static coming from the TV.  At first she had thought that the TV reception had gone out again. It was their first TV and Frank had not wanted to buy the one she had wanted.  Instead, he bought the lower-end RCA, telling her that it was just as good and it was cheaper. But she was the one that had to put up with the static all day long.

When Marty heard the static before that long, siren sound, she'd thought it was just another reason to add to the growing list of reasons why they should have picked the TV she had wanted.

Tina was in her playpen turning a hard, plastic orange piece over and over again in her hand, not paying any attention to the TV. She looked hard at the piece, as if asking herself, did it go this way? Or did it go this way? She puzzled over the piece, sometimes looking down at a big book by her side, a big shiny apple smiling from the center of the page.  "Apple," she said. "Apple-apple-apple."

Tina continued to turn the orange piece over and around, looking at it until she, too, had heard the "sh-sh-sh-sh" from the TV. When it stopped and a loud, blaring beep started, Tina clambered to her feet and looked over the bars of her playpen at the chalky picture on the screen.  It looked like the piece in her hand.  Then she looked at her book.  She turned the piece upside down.

Marty left the dinner dishes behind, dropping the frayed dish towel on the linoleum table before picking up Tina from her playpen. Tina was a good baby, but she moved around too much, her bare feet slapping up and down the cheap wooden floor boards, poking her pudgy little fingers into the outlets.

"A," said Tina to her mother as Tina lifted her from the playpen. "A."

"That's right. A. A," said Marty.

"A, A, A," said Tina, as she held the letter above her head like a torch. "A."

"A. Yes, good baby.  A," said Marty.

Marty looked at the television screen, mildly curious from the broadcaster’s emergency signal. She was used to those—Hiroshima, Orson Welles, what else could it be?

With Tina sitting on Marty's hip, they went into the kitchen and walked over to the song coming out of the radio.

" . . . Don't they know it's the end of the world . . . ," Tina knew that song. It made her feel lonely inside and she wrapped her arms around her mother's neck as Marty turned it off.

Marty liked that Skeeter Davis song. It wasn’t as  "Dick Clark" as all of that Beach Boys stuff they were playing now. She really liked country and western and, truthfully—although she would never admit it to anyone around here—she really liked Mexican music.  That's what she and Frank listened to back home where they grew up. But you would never find that music here, or anywhere else, in Pennsylvania.

She didn’t talk about being from New Mexico much. If she didn’t say anything, no one would ever know. All they really wanted to know about her was that she was Frank's wife.  And she found out that most people were satisfied knowing her by her first name: Marty.  They didn't need to know it was short for Martina. Or that her last name was Cavalleros.  Besides, she didn’t look like she was from New Mexico. Most of the time, people mistook her for Italian.  For one thing, she was tall. Nearly as tall as her husband, Frank, and he had almost played pro basketball.  Sure, she had dark hair but her skin was milky, turning butterscotch in the summer if she didn’t burn first.

She and Frank always caused a stir when they went out. Everyone always said how glamorous they looked—as glamorous as you can look at church in a three-year old dress.  She knew that she was pretty. But back home, in New Mexico, she was pretty like all the other pretty girls. She never won a beauty contest. Really; she had tried. But despite she and her friend's insider deal, she had failed to win the title of "Dairy Maid Queen." But here, in Pennsylvania, she and Fred stood head and shoulders above the sturdy, barrel-chested, Dutch-blooded natives. Here, they were treated with a little bit of awe that people unwittingly gave to the beautiful.

She wore her hair short like she did when she was young. Then, it made it easier when she was riding bareback and running barrels with the boys. Later on, one of her friends pointed out to her after a Saturday matinee that she had her hair cut just like Audrey Hepburn’s. She hadn’t even noticed. She just knew it was easy.  And easy was always the way to go. More time for fun. Faster to get ready for school. Easier to get away.

Marty hadn’t been a very good student, which was a disappointment to her mother and father. Well, maybe not so much to her father, which was strange since he was the principal of the only public school in town.  But her mother cared. Deeply. Pinch-you-in-the-back-of-your-knees deeply, like she did when Marty rested her butt on the edge of the bench instead of kneeling ramrod straight against the pew.  Her mother was a teacher at the only private Catholic school in town.

“You have to set an example. For you. Your sister. For God. For your mother and father,” her mother would say in that sing-song voice of every grade school teacher that Marty had ever known.

Marty still heard that voice every Sunday when she would call her father and her mother. And every Sunday her mother would make her cry. She wasn’t feeding Tina enough vegetables. She wasn’t washing the dishes with hot enough water. She wasn’t using the right starch on Frank’s shirts. Marty would only hang up the phone after she had talked to her father and he had made her hiccup with a little laugh, calling her his sweet Georgia Bell Jones.

Frank, at first, tried to tell her to ignore her mother, telling her to quit listening to what her mother said. But then it seemed like he must have been listening to her mother because pretty soon he started telling Marty that she wasn’t feeding Tina right, she wasn’t washing the dishes right and there wasn’t enough starch in his shirts.

And the house that she had left in New Mexico seemed to have moved to Pennsylvania and shrunk a little bit.

Moving to Pennsylvania, at first, was the advent of an answered prayer.  After she left nursing school and returned from Las Cruces, she and her friends would commiserate over beers pinched from their fathers and cigarettes stolen from their mothers.  She had explained to her friends how different things were in Cruces.  She didn't have to go to Mass every Sunday.  She could drink as much as she wanted on Fridays and Saturdays because they had more than one bar and no one knew who she was. She went out with a different boy every weekend because there were so many boys to choose from.  She and her friends cruised up and down the streets until all hours of the night.  She told them, more adamantly with each beer, that she was going to leave Nowhere, New Mexico, and move to where the rest of America lived. 

And she did it. She had actually done it.  She found the brightest boy she had ever met right there in Nowhere, New Mexico, and her mother actually liked him.  She couldn't believe her luck; Frank had grown up down the street from her mother's family up in northern New Mexico.  She even remembered playing with him when they were little.  But she hadn't really liked him then.  His brother Joe was a lot more fun; Frank had been too serious.  They used to call him "Francisco The Monk" because he was always acting so holy when their grandparents were around. But as soon as they left, he threw rocks at her and her sister.

But when Frank came to her town to go to college, his mother told him to call on her mother.  And one Sunday when he got hungry enough, he did.   After he stuffed himself with tortillas and beans and spinach and empanadas, Marty showed him around town.  She drove her daddy's pick-up truck; Daddy let her drive it most any time she wanted and Mamma had liked him right away since he was so smart (he was on a scholarship) and so polite.  And that was that.  She let him kiss her in the quarry that very night and let him get almost too far.  And she knew she had hooked him but good. 

Over the next two years, they spent too much time together.  Driving to Albuquerque, going to rodeos, drinking and smoking, they drove down the dirt roads in her dad's pick-up truck and then, later, in Frank's big bruiser of a Buick. She would wear that wide, black circle skirt embroidered in silver and trimmed with matching rickrack and she'd slather on red lipstick. He would wear his Levis and boots.  But he would never dance with her.  She would have to dance with Shorty, but she didn't care. He was a good dancer and Frank wasn't.   He just liked to drink and watch her dance, his eyes following her hips around the room.  If Frank hadn't been so smart, he would have failed out, too.  But he got his degree and they got married. And then they moved.

She had talked Frank into applying for a job outside of New Mexico.  It hadn't been too hard; his family was just as bad as hers, maybe worse, with his truck driver dad and his own school-teacher mom.  One time when they were sliding across the dirt road away from the road-house, Frank had told her about the time his mother dragged him to Santa Fe to go to this lady's house where his mother made him ask the woman that answered the door if she was married to Francisco Cavalleros.  Marty was too afraid to ask Frank about it the next day as they sat side by side in Church. 

When the phone call from manufacturing company finally came in from Pennsylvania, she listened to Frank's end of the call. When he slammed down the phone, he grabbed her face, both of them looking wide into each other's eyes. Then he spun her around, lifting her off her feet. And they danced.

They crammed everything they owned, Tina included, into Frank's new little red Triumph and drove 2,000 miles in two days.

The house was nothing: two bedrooms, a bathroom a kitchen and a living room. Compared to her parent's house it was a shack. And she thought of it that way: a hillbilly shack. But it was far away from home: too far to travel; too far to fly.

At first, Marty had loved having her own house. Alone, an adult, she spent hours organizing, planning, dreaming of furniture, wall colors, gardens. Frank would come home from work and she was start to tell him over dinner, her voice high and happy.  He would listen to her and she would watch his face flatten; his mouth go still.   She would talk faster, pointing to the walls and the magazines she had spread out on the table.

"We can't afford that. You know we don't have any money. We only have $10 after rent for groceries. And what if Tina gets sick and you have to go to the doctor? What if the car breaks down. We don't need all that stuff."

And she would shut her mouth, eyes wide and looking at him like she had never seen him before.  Finally, she quit talking about it and showing him the pictures she had saved from the magazines. Instead, when she went to buy groceries, she would buy the cheapest food she could find, pocket the left-over grocery money and go to the little junk store and buy a vase, maybe. Or a little set of red leather books. Or an old frame to hang a pretty picture from one of her magazines.

She didn't  think that Frank meant to be mean, but he was. He told her that after she had Tina that she looked fat; that she didn't look the same that she used to when they first got married.  And she had started wearing glasses.  But that had happened right after they were married; not afterwards when she got fat. But she was different. She had had a baby for God's sake. She had gained fifty pounds with Tina. She had lost most of the weight but her body had changed.

Not him. He still looked good—if anything, he had gotten better looking. He wore suits every day, with a white shirt and a thin, black tie. He combed Brylcreem through his hair so it would stay flat and shiny; otherwise, his cowlick would show.  His body and his face was getting more angular, his cheekbones had lost their baby fat and his features were more defined.  Someone told her one time that he reminded them of a young Gregory Peck.  

They still looked good together; she still held her own. But she sometimes wondered about his secretarial pool.

The beeping from the emergency broadcast signal had finally stopped.  A man started talking.  Both Marty and Tina turned towards the TV.

As the television screen wavered between images of a news room. She sat down on the edge of the couch with Tina on her lap.  Tina had never seen this man on TV.  Only Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Green Jeans. She tugged on the buttons of her mother's shirt and starting to chew on one.  Watching the screen, Marty stuck her finger into Tina's nearly toothless mouth and wiped her fingers on her jeans as Walter Cronkite began to speak.

"There as been an attempt, as you know now, on the life of President Kennedy."

"My God," Marty said out loud.  What was going on, where had she been? She hadn't heard a thing on the radio. She had let Tina watch the Mickey Mouse Show and the Captain Kangaroo Show that morning.  Then she had read Tina a few books and they had played with her blocks. After she'd fed Tina her lunch, she had put her back in her playpen and she switched on As The World Turns. Marty didn't like soap operas but the voices seemed to keep Tina quiet while she looked at her magazines.

"As you can imagine there are many stories coming in now on the condition of the President," as a voice spoke over an image of a large room filled with men and shrouded tables.

Marty wracked her brain trying to remember where the president was supposed to be.  She didn't really follow the news, it didn't interest her. She liked hearing about Mrs. Kennedy. Jackie. Sometimes people said that she and Jackie looked alike: wide set eyes, short hair. She sometimes imagined they were the same age; they could be, she had two small children, too. They were both Catholic. Marty liked to think that her taste was as elegant as Jackie's; she could be just as sophisticated if she had the money.

She watched the images of men and negroes, dismantling tables, removing placards. Where was he? Why couldn't she remember?

"It has been rumored that the president is dead."

Tina gnawed on the buttons of Marty’s blouse.  Her gums hurt her and it helped when she chewed.  Marty’s absently soothed the baby then stood as she and planted Tina on her hip.  They stood by the backdoor while Marty pulled out yesterday's newspaper from the grocery bag where she saved all the papers. Tina looked out the door, looking at all of the little squares all across the gray sky.  Marty walked back to the table and spread the paper across the top. Both Marty and Tina looked down at the paper.

Running her eyes down the page, Marty looked at the headlines.

"A.  A.  A," Tina pronounced each A louder with each discovery. Everywhere on that paper Tina saw As.

"Good baby. Yes, A. Apple. A,"  Marty repeated.

There it was.  The Kennedys were in Texas, both of them, Jackie and the president. That's right, Frank said last night that one of his classmates from UNM now worked at the air force base where the President had spoken yesterday. And Jackie was with him.

Frank had said something about how it was going to get ugly down there; she had half-listened while Frank talked over last night's newscaster about how Dallas was full of a bunch of racists who hated Kennedy and that he was going to be walking into a shit-storm of trouble.  She liked President Kennedy. He was smart and handsome.  She was glad that a Catholic was finally in the White House. 

Marty really didn't understand what the big deal was about being Catholic. She didn't get why people always said that Catholics were idol worshipers.  If they had ever met Mamma they would know that the only person Mamma loved was Baby Jesus.  God, that woman could make her nuts with her nightly rosary routine.   Everyone she knew was Catholic; well, at least in New Mexico.  She wasn't so sure about what President Kennedy said about negroes and civil rights, though.  She hadn't really ever known any negroes until she was in college.  She supposed she didn't care.  They just didn't have enough negroes in New Mexico for her to care.  In Pennsylvania there were a few more but still not too many so it didn't really matter much to her. The ones that she had met seemed nice enough and she didn't really understand why they made them sit at different tables anyways. Wasn't it just like the Indians back in New Mexico?  There, she thought, the Indians didn't want to sit with us, was more like it.

President Kennedy was a good president, she thought. And he was our president and he was due our respect.   But it looked like Frank was right and somebody down in Texas really didn't like him.  Enough for some cowboy to start shooting.

Oh, it couldn't be true.  It just couldn't be true. He was the President for God's sake.

"It was just an hour ago that the incident took place. We have just learned howev--, however, that Father Hubert, one of the two priests called into the room has administered the last sacrament of the Church to President Kennedy."

Oh my God, she thought, Oh my God. The President is dead? No. They must be wrong. They are wrong. She didn't believe it. They were wrong.  What do they know.  Walter Cronkite keeps saying it wasn't confirmed. It’s only a rumor. I don't believe it.  It's a mistake. Walter Cronkite would say so, if he was dead or if he wasn't. So it isn't true until he says so.  She just noticed how much he looked like Daddy.  She wondered if Daddy is watching this now. She wondered if Frank would get mad if she called Daddy.  Of course he would get mad; it was during a weekday.

She sat on the edge the sofa, the nubby fabric zipping against her jeans.  Marty felt saliva drenched her shirt where Tina had been teething on her buttons.  She cradled Tina against her. But Tina wasn't a baby any more and Tina wanted down.  But Marty didn't want to let her go; instead, she held Tina closer, so close that Tina felt Marty's heartbeat—she felt dark, like sun had left.  She knew Mommy was sad.  Tina heard the man's voice again but she couldn't see him. Something wet fell onto Tina's cheek.  She looked up and saw that Mommy was crying.  She patted Mommy's heart and sang their bedtime song.  Tina quieted down, petting Marty's breast and singing her breathy song to herself as Marty rocked away. 

Marty thought about Jackie alone in the halls of the hospital, alone with none of her family.  Her father and mother so far away.  Would she be able to stand it if Frank died?  Could she go on even though she thought that maybe he didn't love her as much any more?  She wondered if Jackie felt the same way because of Marilyn Monroe.  She had heard the rumors and the girls used to talk bad about the President. She didn't like to listen to that garbage.  But she knew how men were, too, and she wondered if it made Jackie love her husband any less.  She didn't think it would; if anything, for Marty, her mind racing towards Frank, she was half-afraid to look into his eyes and not see them shine.

Marty saw Cronkite lift those thick, Grouch Marx glasses--they looked so much like Frank's--and wipe his upper lip with his thumb as he lifted a sheet of paper before him.

"From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, the President died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time. Two o'clock Eastern Standard Time. Some thirty-eight minutes ago."

Marty watched and she couldn't believe her eyes.  He was starting to cry.  Walter Cronkite was just about to cry.

Red heat rose from the back of her head, pushing into her brain, bleeding into her tears. She held Tina too close, scaring her and she started crying, too, her tears escalating above Marty's into a wail.  And that was when Marty began sobbing, causing Tina's cries to crescendo until their cries rose to the heavens all around the world.

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