What if Lee Harvey Oswald had lost his nerve? A historical novelist—who is also a student of the Kennedy assassination—imagines what might have happened next.
Matthew Woodson

“What are you lookin’ for?” asked Wesley Frazier in his friendly way, once he noticed Oswald entering the warehouse’s basement.

“A ride back to Irving.”

“Sure,” said Frazier. “You can meet me out back after quittin’ time.”

Oswald said nothing. The barest hint of a nod indicated his understanding that “out back” meant the unpaved parking lot well away from the Book Depository, not far from the freeway’s triple underpass.

“I thought you were stayin’ in town tonight,” Frazier added, not as a challenge, but in another attempt to make conversation with this sullen fellow he didn’t understand any more than he understood the man’s living arrangements. Except on the weekends, Oswald stayed in a rooming house downtown, while his Russian wife and two little girls, one a brand-new baby, lived out in Irving with a Mrs. Paine and her two small children—just down the street from where the nineteen-year-old Frazier lived with his older sister, Linnie Mae.

“I changed my mind,” said Oswald.

Frazier gave him a look that said “fair enough,” and added one last conversational question: “How ’bout the curtain rods?”

Yesterday, a Thursday, Oswald had unexpectedly asked for a lift out to Irving. And this morning, getting into the car for the trip back to Dallas, he’d put a long package wrapped in brown paper on the backseat of Frazier’s Chevy. He was planning, he’d explained, to spruce up his room downtown with the help of these extra curtain rods from the Paine house.

“I can bring them there Monday,” Oswald now said. “Nobody’ll care if they sit upstairs over the weekend.”

His expression indicated that this was enough chatter, and Frazier, who knew how hard it could be for Oswald to talk about the weather—let alone offer to pay for gas—said, “Sure, Lee, I’ll see you at a quarter to five.”

Without a thank-you, Oswald headed back toward the stairs. Frazier, forgetting again that this was no ordinary Joe, called out: “Didja see the parade?”

Two flights up, in the lunchroom, Oswald stood in front of the sink and noticed that his hands had again started shaking. He filled a cup of water and drank it while leaning against the Coke machine into which he never put a dime.

He never spent money on newspapers, either, knowing he could usually find a day-old one here, the way he had on Wednesday, when he’d opened up the Dallas Times Herald and seen the route map for the president’s Friday motorcade. Kennedy, he realized, would pass right by the book warehouse. He’d spent the next 24 hours wondering whether he should or shouldn’t, dare or not dare, changing his mind back and forth until this time yesterday afternoon, when he went off to find Frazier and his ride to Irving.

From that point on everything had gone smoothly, almost automatically. Marina might have been chilly to him—they’d quarreled on the phone a few nights before—but neither she nor Ruth complained about his showing up unannounced. He played with Junie, his older girl, and spent even more time romping with Ruth’s little boy, Chris, who deserved a more attentive father than Michael, the husband Ruth was separated from. Ruth fed him dinner before he slipped off to wrap up the rifle she didn’t know he kept in a blanket on the floor of her cluttered garage.

He’d toted the paper-wrapped rifle into the warehouse this morning, carried it up the same stairs he was now climbing all the way to the sixth floor, returning to the scene of a crime no one had committed.

The gun was now hidden amidst some wooden planks that had been ripped up and stacked by workers replacing stretches of the floor. Some night next week, he could bring the rifle back to Irving; he’d tell Frazier the curtain rods hadn’t fit the window in his room on North Beckley. And if between now and then somebody found the gun? No one would know it was his. And if somehow someone did, what difference would it make? In the month he’d been here, he’d twice seen guys he worked with, getting ready for a weekend of hunting, come in with guns.

Alone on the sixth floor, as he’d been for part of the morning, he felt like the main character in a movie running backwards. He began to dismantle the little fortress of textbook cartons, ten books to the box, that he’d built just before lunch. For a while he’d been thinking that when his last day on this job arrived, he would tuck a leaflet, maybe something from Fair Play for Cuba, inside every copy in some carton of Scott Foresman American-history textbooks. He’d find a box headed for some town like Lubbock or Midland. And maybe one of the leaflets would have the same effect on some eighth-grader that a SAVE THE ROSENBERGS! flyer had had on him, when someone stuck it in his hand in New York City, ten years ago, the spring he was thirteen.

The last day on this job would come soon enough, the way it always did, every place he worked, except at the radio factory in Minsk, where the party never got rid of anybody. Today, of course, would have been his last day here, if he’d been able to hold on to the urge that had driven him in a single direction for almost 48 hours, from that moment he’d seen the newspaper in the lunchroom.

He went over to the still-open window and looked out. There was nothing happening along the streets to make you think there’d ever been a parade here. No cop on a motorcycle; not one person with a camera. All he could see was a single man in a brown suit and a cowboy hat counting the bills in his Friday pay envelope on his way to the bank.

Didja see the parade?

He’d seen it from up here; seen it come toward him on Houston Street and then withdraw down Elm, the little pink hat disappearing under the triple underpass like that last point of white light after you turn off the television. From up here he’d been closer to everything than guys like Frazier who’d gone out on the sidewalk to watch. The four-power scope of the rifle had put him into the open car; for a moment he’d thought he could count the petals on the roses.

But it was also the scope that threw him off, made him fail. As the car moved slowly toward him, he made the mistake of looking Kennedy full in the face. And for an instant he’d seen his lips move, seen him turn his head ever so slightly toward his wife and speak two or three words that made him look contented and amused—the way Oswald could imagine he himself used to appear, lying next to Marina, late at night, before things between them went altogether wrong.

That was why he couldn’t do it. Not because firing while the car came down Houston would have given people time to look up and see him at the window; he had never for an instant imagined he would get out of the building today. No, he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t bear to shoot him full in the face, not when the face was displaying a mood, a feeling, one that, however mild, he thought he understood. At the crucial moment, instead of seeing his target’s politics and money and fame, that’s what he had seen. And he had remembered Frazier’s scratchy car radio, which on the drive into town this morning had mentioned how the president’s son would be having his third birthday on Monday. All at once, instead of being able to envision the heroic status he was about to achieve, he could only remember himself roughhousing with Ruth’s little boy.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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