Magnified

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.
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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.

He had pulled the gun back in over the windowsill, a movement noticed by a serious-looking man below, who glanced up from his spot beside the reflecting pool in the plaza, his expression puzzled, but only slightly so; you could see him reasoning that this must be a police officer, or a Secret Service man, he was watching.

He got a second chance once the car made the hairpin turn onto Elm. The target was even closer, this time presenting the back of its head instead of its face. So again he took up the gun. Through the scope he could see the president’s suit jacket bunched up around the collar, and for a moment he thought he could pretend that he was shooting only at the clothing, as if the target were a scarecrow. But the image of the face lingered. His will and his hand seized up; they had been ready to make a declaration, but not to perform a slaughter. And before he could unfreeze them, the pink hat disappeared beneath the underpass.

Back in April, when he’d used this same gun—actually fired it—against Walker, he hadn’t seen the full face of his target. The segregationist general had been sitting at a desk, struggling with his income taxes, looking down toward a piece of paper. His expression was masked by the open hand against which he leaned his forehead.

He himself may have turned pale that night, but his hands never shook, not before or after he fired through the general’s window. And he had come so close!—nearly grazing Walker’s scalp. As it was, plaster dust fell into the general’s hair once the bullet struck the wall.

He’d gotten away—a miracle—and buried the rifle by the railroad tracks, not knowing when its next opportunity would come. This afternoon he had escaped only because there was nothing to get away from; no deed performed, no point made, no world exploded. And for this he was furious with himself, the way he was usually furious with the whole world and with no one in particular.

“You scare me this morning!” cried Marina, even as she watched for Ruth’s car through the living-room window.

“Say it in Russian,” he commanded, not liking the way she was acquiring bits and pieces of a new language along with an American taste for washing machines and hair dryers.

“Don’t wake the baby,” Marina said, reverting to Russian. She knew better than to agitate him when he was in this kind of mood.

“Why did Papa scare you?” he asked, lowering his voice, shifting toward conciliation.

“I found your wedding ring in my grandmother’s cup,” she explained, referring to one of the few objects she’d been able to take with her from Russia last year. “With all that cash you left with it. What made you do that?”

Oswald’s anger flared again, higher this time. “What business is it of yours?” He’d asked the same question of her a few nights ago, after she and Ruth had called the rooming house on North Beckley and asked for him by his real name instead of the alias he lived under on weeknights. Being “O. H. Lee” gave him a sense of possibilities, of freedom and even power, as if he might actually be on his way toward becoming prime minister of the ideal state he’d once imagined and tried to describe on paper.

“All morning I wondered,” said Marina. “Then Ruth and I watched Kennedy on television—and I got the terrible feeling that you were up to it again, that you would try to kill him the way you tried to kill Walker.”

Last spring there had been excitement in his confession of failure, because it was also a confession of near-success and cunning escape. He’d fled on foot—overcome his inability to drive a car, a handicap that hadn’t yet yielded to Ruth’s patient and exasperating lessons. In April he had felt resourceful, courageous, no matter that Walker had survived. To confess to today’s failure, a failure of nerve, would be only miserable and enraging. And yet, he was so disgusted with himself that he could feel confession coming; it was a humiliation he deserved.

“Stupid!” he said. “If you thought that, why didn’t you tell Ruth?” He knew that Marina had never confided the Walker secret to their Quaker benefactor, the woman who had helped get him the job at the warehouse and who didn’t know there had been, for months, a gun in her own garage. “Why didn’t you tell her there was an assassin on the loose? Why didn’t you dial the operator and ask for the police? Do you know that word in English?”

As calmly as she could, Marina explained: “I didn’t do those things because I went into the garage to check for the blanket.”

“The blanket!” cried Oswald, mocking her, as if this piece of East German fabric, which looked like camouflage and had traveled with them out of Russia alongside the grandmother’s cup, were some comical prop. “Did you think to pick it up while you were looking at it?”

Confused, and then alarmed, Marina opened the door off the living room and entered the jumble of the garage, quickly threading her way through tools and toys and boxes of baby clothes. She reached down to the blanket, picked it up, and saw it hang, limp and empty, from her hand.

He could see her shaking the way she had that night in April; with every new detail he’d told her about the Walker mission, she shook some more, and hurt some more—all in a way that pleased him, he realized.

“You crazy man!” she cried, her English and Russian now chasing each other. “You destroy me! You destroy your devochki!” She pointed back toward the rooms of the house, where Junie and the baby were still napping.

The mention of his girls almost softened him, but then he saw Marina looking toward the driveway, as if hoping for the approach of Ruth’s car, with their provider at the wheel. And if that weren’t enough to incense him, she now spun around and showed him the other side of her personality, the taunting one that sometimes made him hit her. “Kennedy safe!” she cried, in English, with a kind of cackle. “Far away now! Whatever you try to do!”

He turned away from her, fled her voice as it trumpeted his failure. He stepped from the garage back into the house and marched silently into the bedroom, where he kissed his sleeping girls, scooped up the wedding ring, and took back the cash he’d left behind this morning.

Marina, always quick to adapt, awaited him in the living room, prepared to seek advantage and forgiveness all at once. She said, in Russian, “This morning, after I decided the gun was still there, I thought you’d left the money for Christmas. For toys and shoes for the girls.” Her expression was a swirl of fear, relief and perplexity. She still didn’t know where the rifle was, or if and how he’d tried to use it.

“Christmas!” he cried, making it sound like the most shameful word in the world. He struck her in the face and walked out the front door.

Several hours later, without having eaten dinner, he awoke in the North Beckley Avenue rooming house. His bed here, with its headboard of iron rods, reminded him of the one he’d slept in twenty years ago at the orphanage in New Orleans, where his mother, deciding she was too put-upon to care for them, had dispatched him and his brothers. Here in the rooming house, past the foot of his bed, stood a woman’s vanity table with a triptych of mirrors, in which he could see his face from three different angles. On top of the table sat the wad of cash he’d carried from Ruth’s house—slightly diminished by the cost of the first taxi he’d taken since leaving Russia. He had called for it from a payphone outside a market in Irving, and for the whole dozen or so miles between there and Dallas he had watched the meter with a kind of low-level terror. The cab’s radio, like Frazier’s this morning, still spoke of Kennedy, who’d gone from Dallas to Austin and a reception at the governor’s mansion.

He’d made the driver turn it off, but even now he could hear the television in the rooming house’s parlor. Some of the other lodgers were clustered around it, presided over by Mrs. Roberts, the housekeeper, who was even fatter than his mad mother and who every night when she was here rolled her stockings down in the same disgusting way.

He tried plugging his ears with his fingers, but the resulting half-silence brought with it echoes of Marina’s early-evening taunts. Before coming here tonight he had gone to a movie, War Is Hell, on Jefferson Boulevard, sneaking in without a ticket. He stayed until his body so craved rest that he’d had no choice but to come back to this bed.

It was now past 10 o’clock, and the long nap he’d had would probably ruin his night’s sleep. He hated the idea of leaving this room, but the sound of the television was exerting the same pull that Ruth’s set did on weekend nights; he would find himself sitting in front of it even when he couldn’t stand the company. And so he now rose and went into the parlor, saying hello to no one before claiming a kitchen chair that was always there to supplement the worn upholstered ones.

WFAA, the Dallas ABC affiliate, was running a special recap of the day’s events: there were the Kennedys shaking hands along a rope line at Love Field, just before noon; parading in the open car down Main Street, the bright-pink hat now a fuzzy black-and-white; and greeting the huge luncheon crowd at the Trade Mart, where the Catholics in attendance had been given special permission by the local bishop to eat meat. Mrs. Roberts and one of the other lodgers snorted at the mention of this fact. And then the picture returned to Love Field, where the Kennedys moved down another rope line, boarded their plane, and waved goodbye to Dallas at 2:47 p.m.

The president and first lady will spend tonight at Vice President Johnson’s ranch outside Austin. It will be the president’s first visit there since the 1960 campaign, and Mrs. Kennedy’s first ever. Tomorrow they will fly back to Washington from nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base.

A surge of energy brought him to his feet and startled the others. If there’d been a rope line at Love Field, there would be another at the Air Force base, maybe outside its gates, and there was a good chance Kennedy would get out to shake hands, assuring himself of a few last Texas votes in next year’s election.

If he himself could get there in time—if he started now—he might have a third chance.

Back in the bedroom, he grabbed the money. He threw a pair of socks and some clean boxer shorts into an airline bag left behind by a former tenant, and from the bottom drawer of the vanity table he extracted his .38 pistol—which he’d never figured on needing today, so certain had he been of getting caught. He put the gun in his jacket pocket.

“You sure are in a hurry,” said Mrs. Roberts.

“I may not be back this weekend.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. He was paid up, and that was all she cared about.

He set off on foot, determined to conserve his cash. He could get to the bus station in under a half hour. Hurrying, he headed into the heart of downtown.

“It left ten minutes ago. At 11:15.”

“Well, when’s the next one?” he asked, his heart sinking as it had when the pink hat disappeared.

“To Austin? There’s nothing out of here until tomorrow morning, 7 a.m.”

He felt himself beginning to sweat, could smell the odor Marina sometimes complained about. His tongue was locked, but he managed to walk to one of the benches and sit down.

He could not go back to the rooming house. Having seen him leave with the airline bag, the other lodgers would snicker at his immediate return. And going back to Irving, at this late hour and from such a distance, was out of the question.

Could he stay out all night? Get the 7 a.m. bus and somehow still make it to the Air Force base before Kennedy left? He inclined his head toward another passenger’s transistor radio, hoping he could pick up information about the president’s travel times, but the news announcer turned out to be a disc jockey setting up the next song on his playlist.

The bus station would be closing soon. So he got up and left, exiting to the strains of “Mickey’s Monkey.” Outside, on the corner of Lamar and Commerce, he wondered where to go. He decided against heading south or west, directions that would only move him back toward the rooming house; he would also avoid going east, toward downtown’s most visible concentration of still-lit storefronts.

So it was north he found himself walking, vaguely in the direction, he realized, of the book warehouse. It took him only minutes to reach the plaza in front of the building, where he sat down on the rim of the reflecting pool, near the spot where the serious-looking man, the one who’d seen him retract the rifle through the window, had been sitting at lunchtime. The plaza was now deserted, except for two drunks lolling on the slope of grass across the way.

He felt contempt for the phony grandeur of this municipal space, with its little breezeways and pillars that might as well be made of papier-mâché. In Minsk he had had an apartment near Victory Square and the great obelisk, in sight of the river and the opera house—all of which he’d given up to come back to this arid, killing landscape, over which he daily trudged, going nowhere, a pedestrian being roared past by automobiles.

He looked up at the building that now housed his rifle, loaded and unfired, and saw that the corner window on the sixth floor was still open. He had forgotten to shut it when dismantling the sniper’s nest. There were still, he remembered, two or three cartons of textbooks below the sill. If a rainstorm finally broke the heat tonight, they would get wet.

He walked the nearby streets for another half hour, afraid of encountering, with all this money in his pocket, some Friday-night Negroes who were high on booze and looking for an easy target. He decided to stick to the busiest blocks after all, to get back on Commerce and this time head east, toward such activity and light as downtown yet offered. He crossed Field Street and came to the Adolphus, the city’s best hotel, which was nothing compared with the Metropol in Moscow, where he’d let a woman reporter interview him after his defection.

He walked past the doorman and into the lobby, where he knew he would feel safe, if out of place. He took a seat far from the front desk and pulled down his jacket cuffs, trying to look neat, as if he belonged, the way he would try to look outside the Air Force base tomorrow morning. He regarded the potted palms and tried to listen to the soft piano music, but he could only think of all the things that had gone wrong throughout the spring and summer and beyond. Walker had survived; the Cubans had rejected him when he showed up at their consulate in Mexico City; the FBI wouldn’t leave him and his wife alone.

Now the man behind a lectern marked CONCIERGE was giving him a disapproving look. He responded with the smirk he sometimes couldn’t control, and the man’s lips tightened further, as if he were a librarian getting ready to throw him out.

It was best to leave here too, to keep moving until the sun came up.

Back outside, he looked across Commerce. He saw flashing lights and thought he could hear the thump of music. He crossed the street and approached a small storefront: GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! CONTINUOUS SHOWS 9 P.M. TILL??

He looked at the pictures in the display case near the door. He already knew this was not his kind of place, but he lingered, knowing he had money and could more easily spend two hours here than out on the ever-darker streets. He took another look inside and was surprised by a voice from behind him. “Like what you see?”

The man was a little shorter than himself, but you could tell there was as much muscle as fat under the tight suit. The fedora he wore was pushed just far enough back for an observer to see that he was mostly bald on top.

“Good girl, Sheba!”

The dachshund he was walking had begun to relieve itself on a No Parking sign. The man was for a moment so caught up in the dog that Oswald, without having answered his question, turned back to peer once again at the strippers’ pictures.

“Go in!” said the man. He almost shouted the words, a command more than a suggestion. Determined not to be taken charge of, Oswald felt his own anger rising.

“You act like you’re the owner,” he said, with a smirk the street lamp probably showed.

“I am,” said the man, no more friendly than a second ago. With the hand not holding the dog’s leash he reached into his pants pocket and took out a pink business card:

The Carousel Club
your host … Jack Ruby

Oswald frowned at the card’s crude little sketch of a naked girl dancing beside a big champagne glass.

The man’s temper now really soared. “You want a look at the girls? Then go the fuck inside!”

Two men suddenly came out the door. Surprised to see they were policemen, Oswald prepared to slink away, with an apology if necessary.

“Cool off, Jack,” said one of the cops. Laughing, and more than a little drunk, he was sizing up the situation. “He’s just a jerk-off. He’s harmless.”

But the heavyset man, yanking the dachshund, came closer. He was even more angry than before.

“Maybe you like boys instead of girls,” he said. The hand that had fetched the business card was balling into a fist, and his round face was coming closer—a face whose meanness and basic stupidity didn’t require a four-power scope for Oswald to detect; a face that looked like the one on the marine guard at the Atsugi brig, where they’d thrown him for seven weeks back in ’58.

He turned to walk away, but after two or three steps the man’s face was somehow still in front of him, as Kennedy’s had been even after the limousine turned. The man was now complaining to the cops about the “little cocksucker” who “couldn’t make up his mind.”

And so Oswald turned around, reached into his jacket, and took out his pistol. The man’s whole chest seemed to explode through his white shirt; as he fell to the sidewalk, his suit jacket disarranged itself to reveal that he too was carrying a pistol.

“Christ, Jack!” shouted the drunker of the two cops, as he went for his own gun. His buddy did the same. Drawn by the sound of the shot, two more cops poured out the door of the club and joined the ones who were punching Oswald.

Calmer than he had felt all day, he dropped his gun to the sidewalk. “I am not resisting arrest!” he said, plainly and loudly, the way he had rehearsed the line for use earlier today. “I am not resisting arrest!”

“Yeah, dipshit,” said one of the cops, putting handcuffs on him, “but you’re sure as hell under arrest.”

“Is he dead?” asked Oswald, pointing with one of his cuffed hands to the man on the pavement. The pink business card fluttered to the ground.

Thomas Mallon has published eight novels and seven books of nonfiction, including Mrs. Paine’s Garage, about the Kennedy assassination. His most recent novel is Watergate.
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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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