Conspiracy Buffs

LYLE and Deborah haven't been to New York before. The convention of the East Coast Assassination Investigation Workshops has finally brought them to the city, at Lyle's insistence. Deborah has found, even coming in from the airport, that New York is as she has heard--the rudeness and all. She looks out of the hotel van and sees a grungy man in another car staring at her, unabashed. She looks away.

"How safe do you think we'll be?" Deborah says.

"Like I said before, we'll be fine," Lyle says. "As long as we stay in the hotel or close by, we'll be fine. We'll be among friends."

Lyle and Deborah are both forty-eight. They live in Denver now, where Lyle services photocopiers and Deborah is in insurance. They have no children, and for this reason they have the luxury of spending a week here. Lyle wanted to go "all out" for this, and Deborah doesn't mind. At the regional conventions they've been to, in Dallas three times, and also in Portland and Kansas City, she has always found plenty to do while Lyle attends his seminars. Last year, in Kansas City, while he sat through "The Warren Commission: Footnotes and Falsehoods," she shopped and went sightseeing and had long, contemplative lunches by herself. When they returned home, Lyle holed up in his basement file room every night after dinner, sure he was on to something. Lyle feels he has made a breakthrough, and this is why they have come to the Big One, in New York. Their dogs, matching lhasa apsos named Zapruder and Mannlicher, are being boarded at the veterinarian's.

Checking in at the hotel, Lyle is recognized. When he says, "Reservation for Lyle Asay," a man off to the rear of them says, "Umbrella Man." In this age of specialization the Umbrella Man happens to be Lyle's specialty.

"That man's talking to you, honey," Deborah says.


"Him. He said, 'Umbrella Man.'"

Lyle turns, and with a grin introduces himself. The man's name is Otto Litwak. He is an eightyish man with the bearing of a professor. He, too, will be attending tomorrow's 10:30 A.M. conference, "The Umbrella Man: Grassy Knoll, Sunny Day--Signals and Codes?"

"I am something of an expert myself," Litwak says, "although not of your caliber. Word has come from the American interior about your work."

"I don't recall hearing your name," Lyle says.

"I stay in Trenton," Litwak says. "I don't travel much."

All the way up in the elevator Lyle is ecstatic. Deborah asks him if it wasn't rude to have said he'd never heard of the man. Lyle says, "But I never have."

Although he is not a panel member at the conference, Lyle has planned to seize the floor and present his findings, which he believes will prove that the Umbrella Man was the linchpin of the conspirators' plan. Seizing the floor is a part of the culture, and he has already circulated word that he'll be doing it. He was worried that he might not be known in New York as he is in Kansas City and Portland, but now that fear is laid aside.

"People are expecting me!" Lyle says. He's got his tan suit on, with the big cowboy hat, as if he were a Texas Ranger, or maybe a cattleman.

"This is the big moment!" he says. "This is where they bite the bullet!" Then he says what he always says when he's excited: "Jack, you son of a bitch!"

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Lyle has been saving up and doing his research for two years, waiting to be here, and his excitement has been further churned by rumors that Oliver Stone will show up to speak. Lyle and his friends believe that Stone will be making a sequel to JFK, and word is that he will hire three technical advisers for hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Deborah knows very little about Lyle's theories. She prefers to ignore them. She believes in a single shooter. Had he known this before they married, she knows, it would have been a sign of incompatibility he couldn't stomach. So she has distanced herself. "Kennedy's dead and we can't change that," she says to Lyle when he asks her opinion on things. There is an unreflective doggedness in these words that Lyle clearly finds disturbing, and therefore avoids. He hasn't asked for years. For the most part their marriage is good.

All the way from the house in Denver, Lyle has carried his heavy briefcase with him, and now he is unwilling to trust it to the bellhop. Deborah has decided that his next Christmas gift should be a new briefcase, and that she will find a way to have a handcuff attached. She knows Lyle well enough to know that he'll love it: it will be a semi-serious gift, like the pink pillbox hat he got her a few years ago. He has a flair for showmanship, and for paranoia. In the airport coffee shop in Chicago, waiting to switch planes, he held the briefcase between his ankles while they ate.

In their room, when the rest of the luggage has arrived, he snaps open the briefcase and stacks his piles of manila folders on the table. Deborah hangs up their clothes, takes a shower, and gets dressed. At six o'clock she says, "Lyle? Dinner?"

He looks up from his papers as if she has just burst in unexpectedly. "Gee, Deb," he says, "I don't know if I can, with my conference first thing in the morning." He is nervous, she can tell. She shrugs. "I'll go down alone," she says. "I need to get out of this room for a while."

On the elevator down to the lobby she doesn't feel upset. This is typical. After the Umbrella Man conference Lyle will attend another four and a half days of meetings, but he will be more relaxed, having gotten past his own moment of special attention.

At the third floor a man steps into the elevator, and she sees that it is Litwak.

"Ah, Mrs. Asay!" he says. "Off to dine, are we?"

"Lyle's reviewing his papers," she says. "He wants to be ready."

"I should think you know a great deal about the Umbrella Man yourself," Litwak says. "What is your favorite aspect of the case?"

"Nothing, really," Deborah says. "I really don't pay much attention."

Litwak laughs. "I'm sure you're being modest. I know that my own accomplishments could not have amounted to anything without the support of the late Mrs. Litwak. I remember how she'd listen to each of my new hypotheses, and then rip it to shreds. Back to the drawing board! You must know the main points of his argument."

"I don't think so," she says. "Did your wife really do that?" She thinks she has seen only men at these conventions.

When they get off the elevator, Litwak nods good-bye and shuffles off toward the street. In the hotel dining room Deborah has a club sandwich and orders a glass of wine, and then she looks in the gift shop before returning to the room. Lyle is in the same bent position as when she left.

"I saw your friend Litwak on the elevator down," she says.

This gets Lyle's attention. "What did he say?"

"Nothing much. Just hello. He was asking for you."

"Yeah? What was he asking?"

"He was asking about your work."

Lyle stands now, his hand still on a stack of papers. He has the umbrella out, the one he brings to conferences, to demonstrate various postulates. He also has a toy gun, a plastic Luger, to demonstrate the way it could be slipped beneath the furled fabric. Lyle has told Deborah that he has learned the theatrics necessary to his endeavors.

"I've never heard of this guy," Lyle says. He picks up the telephone, retrieves a slip of paper from his pocket, and dials. "Fritz Reis," he says. Fritz is another buff from Denver, a close ally. He's staying at a less-expensive hotel uptown.

"Fritz? Lyle. Tell me if you've ever heard the name Otto Litwak." He listens. "No, no. I mean now. He's here. I never have either. But he knows my work."

When he hangs up, Lyle drums the desk with his fingers. "Fritz says he's never heard of him. Greg is there, and he doesn't know him either. No one has ever heard of him."

Lyle picks up the house phone. "Do you have a guest by the name of Litwak here?" he says. After a moment he says, "You don't? I see. Thank you." He looks at Deborah. "Jack, you son of a bitch," he says.

LYLE and Deborah have been married twenty-two years. At first Deborah didn't notice the obsession in Lyle. He was someone who seemed to take a general interest in politics. He bought a few books. He was in his mid-twenties and seemed to have better things to do. The reading he did, of the Warren Commission report and Death of a President and all the newspaper stories, indicated to her something vaguely cerebral. He was working as a fabrication engineer then, and the after-work investigations gave him a break from the pressure.

The twentieth anniversary of the assassination, however, seemed to set him off. His company had been downsizing, and Lyle had taken a buyout and tried to start his own company, selling public-domain software. He had a little office in their basement, and a lot of free time as he sat there waiting for people to phone in orders. That was when he began to see the whole grand scheme.

It didn't start with the Umbrella Man. It started with the puffs of smoke from behind the wall. He began researching weapons and ammunition, trying to determine what might have caused the puffs of white. He tried to be a generalist. He tried to delve into Ferrie and Shaw. But as he studied photos taken across the Grassy Knoll, he couldn't get his mind off the Umbrella Man.

The first order of tomorrow's meeting will no doubt be the discrediting of one Louis Witt, who came forward in the seventies to claim that he was the Umbrella Man. He has explained himself by saying that the umbrella he opened on that sunny day was symbolic of appeasement, a reference to Chamberlain's rolling over for Hitler on that fateful day in Munich. But trashing Witt is always a prelude to the real talks, like an invocation. Lyle once got Witt on the phone, years ago, with a tape recorder running and a suction-cup microphone on the receiver. He shouted at Witt until the man, after demanding to know how Lyle got his phone number, hung up. Deborah remembers the redness of Lyle's face after that call, his wild-eyed look; she remembers it because he has it now, thinking of Litwak. Deborah has put on her nightgown and gotten into bed. In the corner Lyle is still going over his documents.

"Honey," she says, "come to bed. You need to rest."

WHEN she awakens, a little before six, Lyle is still at the table, in his clothes. Has he slept and then gotten up again? "Lyle, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he says. "I'm ready." He stands up and his hands move toward his back, which stiffens when he does these all-night sessions. "I just need a shower," he says.

She knows he won't go down for breakfast, so while he's in the shower, she orders room service. He's still in the bathroom, shaving, when the food comes, scrambled eggs and toast and orange juice and coffee. In a hotel bathrobe, he eats quickly, without talking, and then he gets dressed, knotting a geometrically patterned tie that exactly matches Kennedy's on that day: the Kansas City convention had a guy in a booth selling these ties and PT-109 tie clips, both of which sold out almost immediately.

"In case you need to know, I'm going to go to Macy's today," Deborah says. "Then Bergdorf Goodman. I don't want you to worry."

Distracted, Lyle says, "Where's my umbrella?"

"I don't know," Deborah says.

"It was right here on the table. When I went in the shower."

"I never touched it, honey."

"I don't believe this," Lyle says.

He looks all around the room, in the closet, under the bed, and in the bathroom. "It's gone," he says.

"It's got to be here somewhere," Deborah says.

"It's not, can't you see that?" he says. He stands, rubbing his bottom lip with his fingertips, and then he says, "Who brought the food?"

"Oh, Lyle, come on."

"Is there any other explanation?" he says. "Is there any other explanation?"

"I don't know," she says.

"Now I have to find a new umbrella!" he says. He goes to the table, takes his plastic Luger, and puts it in his waistband at the small of his back. He puts on his suit coat and hefts his briefcase to his side, and then he's gone.

Within ten minutes Deborah finds the umbrella, underneath the folded-back bedcovers. She realizes that the boy from room service had to move the umbrella from the table, so that he could put the tray of food there. She finishes dressing, and on the way out she takes the umbrella with her.

In the lobby of the hall where the convention is taking place, she finds the registration-and-information table. "I'm trying to give this to someone," she says, holding out the umbrella.

"We don't go for pranks," the man at the table says. He is wearing sunglasses and has a beige wire snaking from his collar up into his ear.

"No, honestly," she says. "My husband thought he had lost it, but it's found. He really may need it."

"Listen," the man says, "there are a hundred and ten people in that room, and I can count on one hand the number of people who walked in without an umbrella. If he needs to use one, he has plenty to choose from."

"No," she says. "He needs this one."

The man jumps to his feet. "Hey," he says, "we don't want any funny business here."

IN Bergdorf Goodman she decides that she shouldn't have thrown Lyle's umbrella in a trash can, but she knows she'll never get it back. She walked from the information table out through the lobby; on the street she saw that the day was cool and brilliant, and, disgusted, she relieved herself of the umbrella. She knows she'll never hear the end of it if she doesn't admit it wasn't stolen.

She likes crowded places, and moves through the store slowly, rustling against passing shoppers as they squeeze by islands of merchandise. She can't help thinking what Lyle often asks when they are in a well-known place: "Can you imagine what it was like here on that day?" Lyle's memory of all that is sharply defined. He grew up in Delaware, and he recalls being on the broad lawn outside his high school gym, playing touch football, when he heard.

Deborah told Lyle that she doesn't remember what she was doing when she heard, and that threw him into a rage. Then he came up with a restyled theory: she was in shock. Actually she remembers precisely what she was doing. She was on a first date with her hottest flame ever, Westy Dodd. They were sitting in a soda shop in her home town of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Someone, some face from her high school homeroom, ran into the place and said, "Somebody shot the President!" If she had a reaction, its intensity has faded in memory, and what she remembers is the brief thought that this date would be ruined. Then Westy--his slicked-down blond hair gleaming in the fall light--reached across and took her hands in his, and said, "Let's choose not to be unhappy." She remembers thinking, That's all right with me. By nightfall, as the nation mourned, she was making out with Westy in his father's Rambler. Their romance lasted only a month, but by then everyone had adjusted, and she had seemed to just float above the sadness.

Of course, everyone has memories, and hers, she knows, matter only in light of Lyle's passions. The memory is one that would otherwise have been lost, or filed away, or blunted.

AFTER her shopping is completed, she takes a cab back to the hotel. When she comes into their room, the person she sees is Fritz. He's a thin and graying man, probably about her age. He's sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a plastic cup filled with ice and his usual Dewar's.

Greg is at the table, staring at the television. He is a fat kid of twenty-one or twenty-two whom Deborah and Lyle met in Kansas City. He has come over to the assassination theorists from the Star Trek crowd, he says, because he has come to understand how the assassination is the root of almost everything important, including Star Trek, which he now understands was an enormous homage to Kennedy and his vision.

"Hail to the Queen!" Fritz says, raising his cup. Greg, in a T-shirt that rides above his beltline, revealing pale and copious flesh, simply says, "Deborah."

"Your husband struck fear in the hearts of the Darts," Fritz says. The Darts are an Umbrella faction that contends that the umbrella on the Grassy Knoll was actually a clever weapon that shot tiny poisonous darts. Lyle's theory is that the umbrella, which is seen open and sideways in most photographs, was held high on the shaft as the Umbrella Man brought a pistol to eye level, to achieve accuracy in the shot that hit Kennedy's neck--the wound that was passed off by conspiracy-connected doctors as an exit wound. Lyle believes that should the real umbrella ever be found, it would have a small hole in its fabric, precut to accommodate the gun's muzzle. The lack of that hole in Louis Witt's umbrella proves that Witt was not the Umbrella Man.

"Where's Lyle?" Deborah says.

"In the shower," Fritz says. "Then we're going to dinner."

"Oh," Deborah says.

Lyle is just coming out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, carrying his own drink. "I didn't think you'd mind, Deb," he says. "We have so much to review."

"I made reservations for only two," she says.

"Already changed them," Lyle says.

But they don't get in at the restaurant they've chosen, because Greg refuses to wear a tie, putatively on principle. They end up at a vaguely seedy diner a few blocks away. The place serves beer, and the men resume their drinking. Lyle is still glowing. He has not yet even mentioned the lost umbrella, to Deborah's relief. The three men fall into a rehash of the day's events.

"Can you believe them?" Lyle says of the Darts. "I mean, what's their problem?"

"They're crackpots," Fritz says.

"I mean, why not just make a big joke out of the whole thing?" Lyle says. "Why not just mock the man's legacy?"

Fritz turns to Deborah. "You should have seen your old man in there. He took the floor away from the panel. People were listening, and I could hear some of them whispering, `Who is that?' Lyle just knocked them dead. His reconstruction of events was so--logical! They just sat stunned when he was finished."

"The Darts were met, and found wanting," Greg says.

But Lyle isn't talking much.

"Honey?" Deborah says. "Are you all right?"

Lyle allows himself a semi-grin. "I'm fine," he says.

"It's that Litwak that's got him worked up," Fritz says.

"That Litwak's an odd duck."

"What did he do?" Deborah says.

"He was just there, hanging at the edges," Fritz says. "Very suspicious, you know? Very weird."

"Is he a Dart?"

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"He's not anything," Greg says, in a nearly annoyed way. "Don't you see the point? An unknown man appears, by coincidence, as Lyle Asay is checking in, coincidentally bumps into Mrs. Asay on the elevator, proceeds to grill her about what she knows, coincidentally appears at a convention as Mr. Asay reveals what may be the key to the entire conspiracy."

"He didn't grill me," Deborah says.

"They know that approach doesn't work," Fritz says.

"They're very sophisticated."

"What are you trying to say?" Deborah says.

"He could be very dangerous," Greg says. Lyle nods gravely.

"Oh, come on," Deborah says.

"I'd replace that plastic Luger with the real thing," Fritz says.

"Most women just don't get these kinds of things," Greg says.

Deborah says nothing more, and the others quiet down and slowly sip from their beer glasses. They part cursorily on the street; walking back toward their hotel, Deborah says, "I mean, Lyle, my God!"

"They're my friends," he says. "They're looking out for me."

"Do you really think you're in some kind of danger?"

"Man checks in under an assumed name, comes literally out of nowhere," Lyle says.

"He came from somewhere," she says. "Everybody comes from somewhere. I think he said Trenton."

"Yes," Lyle says. "But there is one key fact, an indisputable thing: an umbrella stolen from a hotel room on a cloudless day. Explain that one."

THEY walk the rest of the way without speaking. In the hotel room Lyle undresses and gets in bed. "I didn't sleep last night," he says, and then he is asleep. It's not even nine o'clock. She wants to put on the television, but she's afraid it will wake him. She takes the room key from his pants, rides the elevator to the lobby, and sits on a couch facing the front entrance. She is in New York and wants to watch the world go by.

After an hour or more has passed, she sees Litwak coming in. He is small and precise, dressed with fastidiousness. He sees her, smiles, and then approaches.

"Your husband was quite marvelous today," he says.

"He'll be happy to hear that," Deborah says. "I told him we'd spoken, and he wanted to invite you to join us for dinner. But you weren't registered here."

"I am with my friend Stein," he says. "We split the costs, so that Mrs. Stein won't think we're being frivolous." He turns and signals a man who is hovering nearby. "Bill, come meet Mrs. Asay." Stein is also elderly. "We're both retired from the transit authority, down in Philadelphia," Litwak says. "We share an interest, and decided this convention would be quite a lot of fun."

"And has it been?" she says.

"Beyond our expectations," Stein says. "So many fascinating theories."

"You know, they all spy on each other," Deborah says. The two old men look at each other approvingly.

"I was a numismatist," Stein says. "But that crowd has gotten unforgivably dull. Besides, looking at coins strains my eyes now. Otto brought me in from the cold."

"We are discussing our own umbrella theory," Stein says. "But of course we can't reveal it. Perhaps next year."

"I'm eager to hear it," Deborah says.

A while after the men have gotten on the elevator, Deborah rises and makes her way up to the room. As she comes through the door, Lyle starts up, staring from his side of the bed, but then his eyes roll back and he's asleep again. She realizes in these moments that both of them have begun to age. Deborah knows that the vacation will get better, as they always do. By tomorrow Lyle will be more like himself.

She thinks of Lyle as he was, as he must have been, a boy racing across a field, waiting for a football to descend into his hands, a boy only moments away from hearing the news. He will never shake the idea of a conspiracy; it informs his days; but in that moment of youthful self-absorption the crime was not against a man he never met but against the person Lyle was and could have been. Lyle, the young man going old, now rolls over on his side, and she can hear only his soft snore against the blankets. What pictures form in his head she cannot say.

Illustrations by Adam Niklewicz

The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1996; Conspiracy Buffs; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 83-89.