The Man in Black
by Nels Hanson
On the bright autumn Texas afternoon that the president’s open black Lincoln was approaching Dealey Plaza and the Dallas School Textbook Depository, fifty men in black business suits at fifty scattered windows that made a pattern of concentric circles knelt behind a similar sill and stack of history books.
Each man in black gripped with dry fingers and palms an identical World War II 6.5 millimeter Carcano Model 91/38 Italian rifle with telescopic sight. None of the 50 men in black had seen or met any of the others and none knew that anyone but himself watched at a window of the warehouse with a mail-order carbine fully loaded with special “dum-dum” cartridges.
Each had an exact motive and sense of public duty and felt justified in attempting the crowning act of his life that would stagger America and the world—the purpose he had been conceived and born to attain, in the service of his confused and suffering fellow citizens, and beyond them unborn posterity, as well as the martyred, un-avenged dead.
One man in black hated Catholics and the Pope, another Blacks and Martin Luther King, a blonde-haired one the Irish and another Russia, Cuba and the Eastern Block. A man with a carrot-colored crew cut despised the snooty French; the slightly greying, balding killer, the aggressive and war-like Red Chinese.
Forty-five other men in black with hair of as many shades, from gold to a jet that was nearly a blue indigo, waited just windows away and suffered from less expansive, somewhat secondary political antagonisms reflecting private, more intimate wounds and disappointments.
A thirty-five-year-old plumber seriously in debt—following an unfair and costly divorce decree resulting in exorbitant alimony payments to his cheating childhood sweetheart—resented both the Texas legal system and the Kennedy Family’s enormous, ill-gotten wealth.
At his immediate left, an assassin with tragic acne scars felt a searing injustice at the look of John F. Kennedy’s handsome face, which alone made possible his charming cordial manner and had allowed his meteoric rise within the Democratic Party and assured his nomination at the 1960 convention in L.A.
At the angry, penniless divorced man’s right, a lady killer in a black silk suit envied JFK the thousands of sexual conquests that numbered at least twice his own and increased by the hour. They were garnered by unfair advantage provided by social position, old school ties and money. The three perquisites permitted easy opportunities and access, regardless of physical attractiveness and endowment, native skill or one’s range of varied experiences—the assassin’s love affairs were more passionate and extensive than Don Juan’s or Casanova’s.
One forty-year-old virgin, desperate and famished for truest love, had become enamored of Jack’s wife. A neighboring man in black coveted the former Massachusetts senator’s beautiful brown hair. Three others each felt differently, repelled by the many adulteries, thought Jackie Kennedy was a snob, or disliked the Boston accent, the way the Commander-in-Chief pronounced “a” as “r” at the end of words, as in “Cuber,” intentionally to draw added attention to himself.
Twenty-seven years ago, one man in a black suit had been turned down by Harvard, though his entrance scores were perfect, and instead attended West Texas State Teachers’ College while Jack received straight C’s at Cambridge. A less ambitious former business major at a local junior college reviled dishonest Joseph Kennedy, the Kennedy brothers’ bootlegger father, for pulling his fortune from the stock market and then, as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, bankrupting the Wall Street brokers, costing the assailant’s great-uncle his job in the 1930s Oklahoma oil fields and precipitating the break-up of that wing of the Hankerson family.
At two adjacent windows, a fundamentalist protestant and a devout atheist, both named Spencer but only distantly related, idealistically believed that the President was dangerously immoral and a menace to the country’s future, for opposing reasons. The Pentecostal deacon perched directly below the position assumed by a wounded CIA asset from the Bay of Pigs, who was joined four windows to his right by Roger Androsky, a former FBI informant of J. Edgar Hoover.
A floor above the discharged government contract employees (still possessing back-channel, “black-op” ties within their respective agencies) crouched two “lone wolves” from the Mafia and the KKK—just down from yet another man in black, the ex-husband of one of the president’s gorgeous mistresses, later murdered by an unknown assailant while jogging along the Potomac, the ex-sister-in-law of Ben Bradley of future Watergate fame, editor of the Washington Post in our nation’s capital.
A window over from the bitter ex-spouse, a diehard Republican had always worshipped Richard Nixon and staked out his lone shooting post because the crucial vote in Illinois had been stolen in the rigged 1960 presidential election, though Dick Nixon had been too much of a patriot to challenge the tally and throw his beloved country into chaos.
Another eager would-be executioner had recently changed his name and moved from Philadelphia to Dallas with firsthand, well-documented grounds for his intense dislike of John Kennedy.
From the 34th floor of his bank office not far from Independence Hall, the incognito man in black had helped launder heroin drug money for the assassinated younger brother of the assassinated President Diem of South Vietnam. The unmarried chief-of-state’s main advisor and head of the secret police has been the husband of Madame Nhu, whose given name meant “Tears of Spring.”
The flirtatious Black Widow had served as de facto First Lady from 1955 to 1963. Before the U.S.-sponsored liquidations and coup, she had earned a notorious reputation for cruelty, wore tightly cut and colorful high-slitted Oriental silk gowns, and, in American parlance, was a “red-hot number.”
The waiting killer liked the way she looked on television as she girlishly taunted the saffron-robed Buddhists who set themselves on fire to protest her family’s corruption and autocratic reign. Madame Nhu insisted that the monks wished only to reach Nirvana, and so sat cross-legged in the gasoline’s green, blue and scarlet flames.
But she knew better.
And in a row, dressed in black wool instead of uniforms, three decorated veterans of the three armed forces of the United States, army, navy and air force, were also at the ready. The infantry lieutenant wanted the President to escalate in Vietnam; the ensign from the missile destroyer the U.S.S. Chattanooga to maintain current troop levels; and the B-52 pilot to drop the Bomb on Castro, Khrushchev and Russia, and Mao’s Red China all at once before the communists could counterattack.
From east to west—then north to south—hid separate gunmen inspired by, in spatial order: Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa; George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama; a second-cousin named Arturo from Havana; and, vertically, a series of John Birch Society pamphlets condemning the U.N.; the new rage for fifty-mile hikes; a gossip column asking the reader if a father and son should sleep with the same woman, even if she was originally from Germany and a famous actress.
At the right corner of a triangle enclosing that cluster of men in black crouched a baseball and movie fan, an avid admirer of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe who detested both spoiled and randy Kennedy brothers. A native Texan stared through his gun scope at the triangle’s left corner. He was born a block from the Alamo and eager for LBJ to assume the presidency and reinvade Mexico, to avenge the slaughter of Colonel Travis, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie. At the pyramid’s apex watched a dark-clad marksmen who in his sleep had heard the prophetic voice of TV propagandist Dan Smoot, sponsored by Dr. Ross dog food that made the chow the kids’ new German Shepherd pup ate voraciously, enjoying the tang of straight talk from the hip.
An in-depth description of each man in black would require many pages—their profiles have been limited to a brief outline of their identifying, individual animosities. Of the remaining, somewhat generic fifteen riflemen in black, ten wanted to kill the President for their own single specific reasons, while the last five had multiple associated concerns.
The fifty windows formed an imperfect and invisible bull’s eye across the book depository’s seven stories of windowed storage rooms.
The opportunity was fortuitous and not to be squandered. At the last minute the man in black had read in the morning Daily News that the President had changed his plans and decided to fly to Dallas—despite the warnings of Evelyn Lincoln, his personal secretary, and Adlai Stevenson, his U.N. Ambassador who said don’t go, that the week before he’d been spit on there.
The hour, the moment had come, which would be celebrated each year, forever, as long as there was or anyone remembered a United States of America. The man in black would live in History, in the textbooks that would fill this very building. Think of it . . . Every learning child’s lips would speak the fallen liberator’s name, though perhaps not until decades after the selfless sacrifice of the man in black.
As usual for most genuine heroes, like court-marshaled Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell, an early pre-World War II proponent of aerial bombing, the laurel and other honors would come too late, after the snail-like eons it took tardy historians to fathom the man in black’s solitary boldness that had sparked the revolutionary change in national direction.
Then the so-called “scholars” would have to reverse their earlier sentimental and predictable, short-sighted condemnations and urge that his unmarked grave be opened and the man in black’s remains be escorted by Honor Guard to Arlington where an Eternal Flame would burn for him, like Lady Liberty’s raised torch at the entrance to New York Harbor.
Too much inner talk! the man in black chastised himself. He’d always hated words and only loved fierce action, from first grade on when he’d been the undersized “pipsqueak” victim and seething would-be schoolyard bully, though oddly he found himself in this present fateful instant at the crossroads of his life in a building that held one hundred million words.
Steady now. Steady. Easy as she goes.
At the same second fifty index fingers with closely clipped and filed fingernails touched crescent silver triggers.
The shiny car came into view, the President’s thick hair reflecting the sunshine. The First Lady, in her pink pillbox hat, waved to the large, sun-splashed crowd.
The thirty-fourth President of the United States of America entered the black crosshairs of the fifty quadruple-magnification scoped sights and the man in black and other thousands heard the sudden explosion of four shots—bang, bang, bang, bang—in place of two hundred simultaneous reports.
Had he fired too quickly? In nervousness jerked the trigger, a lucky aim? Or was he so intent on his pressing and demanding task that he was only now aware that his deed had been successfully accomplished without his conscious awareness, “Zen-like,” as those beatniks in berets liked to say.
He brought back the bolt— the bullet in the chamber remained cool, pristine. No, it was someone else. Another shooter. The man in black wondered.
The rifle’s reports came from close by, from what seemed a few windows away, as the President rocked and slumped and his wife tried to climb out the back of the black Lincoln. Shocked, outraged, cheated of revenge and satisfaction—then suddenly fearful of implication, false arrest and imprisonment—the man in black swiftly reconsidered.
Among one-hundred-sixty million Americans, only one other soul had shown an equal bravery to devise and carry out the twin plan, just half-seconds before the man in black could complete his matching mission that most likely would have ended in his martyrdom.
Now he saw clearly that the deadly unexpected gunfire was the fulcrum point of his own special destiny, and he was washed instantly by a rushing, cleansing cascade of gratitude and relief.
Ready to willingly die for his country, one of them —the Chosen One?—had been saved, and for the rest of his life could remain in the certainty of a justified existence proven right by fate itself, which had delivered both victory and escape, a doubly answered prayer.
Certainly it was a real miracle, as in the Bible the man in black had been made to read as a boy when he wanted to go outside to play baseball in the park. It was hard for him to deny that the finger of a higher power had been at work, the same light from above like an invisible silent lightning bolt that no doubt struck and guided the Founding Fathers and set the Liberty Bell wildly ringing.
The fifty elated men in hidden unison coolly disassembled the same twenty-seven-dollar rifle, slipped the four pieces into the black calf-leather briefcase, and walked calmly in polished black shoes, thirty-five pairs of brogues and fifteen pairs of Oxfords, toward the spacious elevator which kept impatiently ringing and stopping at the different floors as it filled with more men in black who nodded and then turned and looked quietly straight ahead. No one spoke.
No one took the stairs, and all of the almost magically pardoned would-be assassins already aboard somehow made polite room for each new delegation of passengers in black. Now all but a handful of the remaining innocent killers rode the large industrial elevator car designed to hold thousands of books at a time, mostly textbooks, but a few of them classics, even Shakespeare, the forty-six men in black mused silently. Each remembered “Julius Caesar”—the boring play he had half-studied unwillingly as a sophomore in high school—as above them the dark pulley, like the Wheel of Time, turned and the strong cable lowered them toward the Earth.
The man in black smiled. Someday, they’d make the depository a fine museum, one with uniformed guides and fancy displays, and no one would ever know the secret of the second assailant.
The elevator’s bell rang and a round button lit up and the heavy doors rolled back to admit the final four men in black. Together, yet separately, without a word or grin or an escaped tear of joy, they contained their glee at the accomplishment that had been taken so abruptly from their two unstained hands and would bring no punishment.
There would be no fame now, that was too bad, but also no blame, no price to pay for the successful act.
It was funny, a quirk of language, how “fame” and “blame” rhymed, like “bell” and “hell.” He would write that down in the hidden account book under the extra towel in his locker at the Y where he played handball twice a week.
All the men in black rode from on high down the building of one hundred thousand books, to the lobby and stepped briskly one by one out the open doors into the New World of the wonderful sunny November day, like a balmy autumn Christmas filled with ratifying sirens and screams, the man in black noted happily.
All fifty had blue cars—mostly Buicks, but among them a few Fords and Chevrolets that could be traded in for blue Buicks in the coming weeks, once all the excitement had died down. All had parked at an equal distance from the depository, to avoid the expected jam of police and emergency vehicles, the roped-off areas and the hundreds of confused weeping people wandering in a stricken daze across the grassy knoll.
Traffic was heavy and clotted and it took a few minutes longer than usual for the drivers of the fifty blue cars—like fifty poisonous blue spiders crawling from the center down the different spokes of a single sticky black web—to arrive at their fifty respective places of employment where the man in black earned his modest livelihood to support and camouflage his clandestine new calling.
Eager for news, on the commute the fifty at the same second switched on their radios to 5.80 am and heard Bud Kelly announce that the President’s suspected killer had already been captured: a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, after the white-shirted assassin fired three times and then once more, execution-style, killing a Dallas policeman named J. D. Tippet, whose initials might stand for “Jefferson Davis,” the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
Eight rounds, two murders—the numbers balanced evenly. The man in black now inappropriately and childishly recalled the post-game chant from Little League days: “Two! Four! Six! Eight! Who do we appreciate?” And eight times two made sixteen, the age when the man in black had lost his virginity—like so many other classmates, perhaps fifty in all—to the green-freckled girl’s aunt who lived in the trailer park and worked from her aging rented Airstream.
Daring Lee was apprehended in the Texas Theater, where “War Is Hell,” starring World War II hero, Audie Murphy, was playing at the matinee, which seemed another appropriate more-than-coincidence, a quirk of nature, like the temple veil rending at the moment of Christ’s death. In a backward way, Oswald was like Jesus—He would die for them and everyone else.
The fifty men in black were deeply grateful. In a perfect chorus none of them could hear, each man in black spoke aloud his brief thanks, the words matching those of all the other men in black. Together they prayed as one manifold man in black who gripped the large steering wheel in solemn gratitude.
It was like a movie with the most surprising ending, each of the fifty realized in mid-prayer. Who would ever believe it? Did History possibly repeat itself in duplicate, recurring cycles, like the Xerox machine at the office set to print every four-score years or so? the man in black contemplated as he finished his hosanna and amen and pulled up at the red light at the corner of West Way and Sam Houston Boulevard, unaware that a blue Buick like his own idled in front and behind and on either side, waiting for the signal to change. How strange and singular!
Perhaps there had been an earlier gunman in black, standing behind a red velvet curtain, lifting his revolver just as John Wilkes Booth fired his pistol and Lincoln fell.
The curtain softly rustled closed and the man in black disappeared, eluding the annals of history, descending the backstairs and walking nonchalantly home to his wife and the four children who maybe identically resembled the contemporary man in black’s beloved two sons and daughters.
“Sic semper tyrannis!” The gifted Shakespearean actor had declaimed from the stage at Ford’s Theater, raising a bared dagger in his last performance. He’d discharged his gun and jumped from the presidential box, catching his spur on the decorative U.S. Treasury Guard flag, which caused him to land off balance and, ironically, “break a leg.”
“Thus always to tyrants!” as Marcus Junius Brutus shouted at the stabbing death of the Dictator in 44 B.C. amid the Ides of March—just like now, in the fall of 1963. Thanksgiving was approaching within days, and the man in black would have to sharpen his carving knife
The man in black had recently watched a detailed 30’s Hollywood movie about the Lincoln assassination and had learned a number of interesting, somewhat arcane facts.
And then, just like that—as if a crystal has been dropped into a long-ready solution that now in a wink went solid and shattered the flask—he decided to kill the sitting President of the United States as the credits rolled at the end of the picture. Even then it felt fated, as if it had already happened many years before . . .
Maybe the man in black had been that other man in black, in another existence, Booth’s double, perhaps even the One Man in Black, wearing shiny un-dented bronze armor or a white toga undefiled with blood.
Now he imagined that he divided into a thousand men in black who stood with the same stoic chiseled face in a proud row back through dusty Time, Noble Shadows and Accomplices of the People’s rightly acknowledged Saviors who held them safely in the Wide Palm of their Benevolent and Open Hand . . .
Flexing his fingers on the wheel, the man in black considered that in future hours of well-earned relaxation he might after all at long last turn his attention to reading and so explore the death of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or learn about Charles J. Guiteau fatally wounding the brilliant President James A. Garfield, not to mention the murderer of Mahatma Gandhi.
What about Bob Ford, the “backhanded dirty little coward,” or the kid who nailed Wild Bill Hickok at the poker table while Bill was holding aces and eights, the famous Dead Man’s Hand.
Or three men at once, like the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—there was that to investigate: the conspirators Jubela, Jubelo and Jubelum with a mallet clubbed to death the Master Mason Hiram Abiff, chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple, as his dying hand in vain gave the secret signal for distress.
(Really, weren’t the Masons and Catholics just two sides of the same grim silver coins Judas had received in payment for handing Jesus over to the Roman police?)
And what about mad Pontius Pilate with a splitting headache, washing and washing his hands trying to get them free of blood?
But all this about murdered and murdering hands would have to be saved for days to come, thought the man in black, whose hands were clean.
It had been an amazing afternoon, the most astonishing of his life, but a demanding and somewhat tiring one. He understood that a few weeks would be required to properly analyze and label each vividly etched thought and emotion, then place them all in ordered detail in memory, as in the new desk-top filing compartments at work.
That way, the momentous instants would never be lost or altered and would remain forever fresh, as if they kept occurring like a clear bell tolling and echoing and reechoing always down the glorious century-like years of the man in black’s life.
The light changed to green and the attempted murderer in the black sharkskin suit was eager to return to the humdrum of the office after the long “lunch break” and the climax of his careful preparations that had proved so fortunately redundant and unnecessary. He passed five blue Buicks, momentarily tailed a third, then swerved and honked when another blue car cut in front of him and raced on. Was it Stevens?
The man in black nearly cursed and sped up to follow, his rifle and unfired cartridges ready in the case beside him on the seat, but held back, remembering his exquisite luck.
Let him go, he thought. Who cares?
Driving the crowded avenue streaked by red flashing lights of wailing patrol cars he looked forward with pride to rejoining his angry, timid friends, his black-suited associates without courage or imagination, who could only talk and talk and talk.
They had debated and complained in the coffee room, discussing the evil course the country’s policies had taken, especially with regards to Russia and Vietnam and the Caribbean and across the band of southern states of the Old Confederacy.
Among everyone at the company, only he had summoned the rare gift, dared to wake within himself each man’s latent sleeping “man in black” to put a stop to despotism and dispense with impotent useless empty verbiage.
The man in black signaled, made a left and pulled his blue four-door sedan into the parking lot and then his assigned vacant space, lucky number thirteen.
Setting the brake, he glanced at the other parked cars. They were white, green or black, only two of them blue: one bright azure like a pristine sky, the other darker, not quite purple—Bob Stevens had evidently returned from the 9:00 o’clock meeting—and he wished with a wrenching pang that someday he could share his unique story with someone who would believe it.
He yearned to have his exploits carefully laid out and published in a book that could be stored at the textbook depository and from there be widely distributed to workplaces, schools and homes across the city and the state, then the nation and the greater world.
He got out of the deep-navy Buick and locked the door. Everyone, especially young children, he lamented, should read such a narrative as moral instruction, encouragement, and a model of what heights one dedicated man in black could reach by his own unaided efforts, which fifty other men together might fail to achieve.
And if you thought about it, the man in black now realized, entering the deserted lobby and striding down the excited corridor to his mid-level office—nodding solemnly to Arthur, Edward, Gabe, then the two secretaries, attractive Audrey for six months now sleeping with Krueger the boss, and pretty-faced Hazel who was unfortunately plump, although the man in black wouldn’t mind having her just once or twice after work sometime—he was like a wiser, more decisive and fortunate uncrowned Prince of Denmark, the dashing Hamlet in black tights he read about once in Classic Comics.
This time the mournful vacillating King robbed of his rightful throne was happy, refreshed by the release of decisive and consummated action!
He remembered that “IF” was his favorite verse and easy to understand and that he kept it bookmarked in a volume of Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack Room Ballads” that his mother had given him as a boy to instill good character and encourage a love of books. How did it go?
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .
Something like that. He couldn’t remember it all, even though he’d been whispering it to himself for days. But then, he was fatigued.
The man in black had somehow survived, to prize always like a precious Hope Diamond his own private epic, whose final line the latent poetry-loving aspect of the man in black now phrased and whispered silently to himself. It was the conclusion of the triumphant closing soliloquy, which should be delivered to the anxious on-pins-and-needles audience with both fevered intensity and splendorous but calm and confident exaltation.
To win over the ripe and expectant crowd, the successful actor would need to express the fervor of raging passion entwined with the transport of hard-won reconciliation and ultimate transcendence that preceded grave quiet and the sudden curtain:
“Nobly he answered the muted trumpet’s call to act so bravely but alone!”
Alas, his life’s work would go unnoticed and be rarer than a first edition of Shakespeare. It had been hard to concentrate on his many duties for the company the last few weeks, and with a cold spike of apprehension, he remembered that he had fallen dangerously behind in his paper work.
But so far so good . . .
The man in black had, up to now, been lucky to avoid his vigilant and stern superior’s eagle eye. Bob Stevens’ x-ray gaze, thank God, had been deflected, refocused recently on Audrey Blake, Jeff Krueger’s latest mistress.
Evidently Stevens, who’d been downtown all morning at some CEOs’ conference/interview, suspected nothing, certainly had no clue about the side payments the man in black had been shoving under the rug for a year and a half and that were safely logged in the book in the locker at the gym on Zedicker Street.
Stevens worked out, too, and sometimes his navy car was parked in the gym lot, so at first the man in black thought a part of himself, a double who might turn him in—his conscience?—was waiting for him.
Bob Stevens was ambitious and hoped to receive a promotion and a steep raise in salary, not to mention Audrey’s favors, if Krueger was transferred to the Fort Worth office where things were, the scuttlebutt went, in complete disarray.
The man in black was twice, ten, fifty times the man Stevens would ever be, Audrey or no Audrey. Could his unworthy and stolid immediate supervisor even conceive, much less undertake and realize such a dire endeavor as today had challenged the man in black?
Now the gilded words of his unfinished biography and its adaptation for the stage, TV and Silver Screen faded out in the man in black’s small well-shaped ears—like white scallop shells once worn as passwords and emblems, sewn to the rough wool hat or cloak of medieval pilgrims on the journey to San Juan Compostela—as he sat down at the familiar chrome and walnut-laminate desk.
Right away he started in on the high stack of identical forms that required his close, urgent perusal, triple initials and then his still un-illustrious full signature, the nom-de-guerre cloaking like Zorro’s sable mask and cape the innocent and pacific Don Diego.
I’m smarter than I thought, he thought. I wonder how smart I really am? Am I a genius?
He longed for a slender foil to slash on Stevens’ locked door or a nibbed quill and ink to write with a flourish across the Order to Repossess the true name of the twentieth Century’s undiscovered and unheralded (but ever-vigilant) Dark Avenging Angel, something like:
Most graciously your
loyal steward and humble servant,
Now and Forever—
The Man in Black
Sketching it on the air, now on a whim that felt sure as fate, he was up and hurrying down the hall to the locked executive restroom, where he would write his message to the world on the waiting mirror. But when he knocked and then used his key, he saw that another man in black had been there just before him.
The soap on the glass was not yet dry, and he knew he would never have Audrey or Hazel.
Nels Hanson grew up on small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana, and has worked as a farmer, teacher and writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award, Pushcart Prize nominations in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and has appeared in Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review and other journals. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines, and are in press at Carnival, Sharkpack Review Annual, NonBinary Review, The Straddler, Dark Matter Review, and The Mad Hatter’s Review. Poems in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine and Citron Review have been nominated for 2014 Pushcart Prizes.