His head exploded and all. Just like a big juicy Halloween pumpkin was how my buddy Joe Teal described it. To tell the truth I didn’t even know what was happening until it was over. One moment we were applauding and waving our flags. Next minute folks were screaming and running everywhere and that big black Lincoln was weaving like crazy all over the expressway. At first I thought this was just how it was. You know, folks excited to see him and all. But then I heard our teacher, Mr Henry, cussing. Then I knew something was really wrong.
My father had told me how this would be a day to remember and it sure looks like he was right. Earlier, he had sat at the breakfast table with his shirt collar unbuttoned, eye glasses flipped up on top of his head, idly flicking through the pages of the Enquirer. Sunlight was slanting in through the screen door and the day’s heat was already beginning to build. The radio announcer’s voice droned in the background as my mother worked up breakfast for us all on the griddle while my old man gave us all his own running commentary on the state of the union. This morning it seemed he was slower than usual to make it through to the sports pages and, ever impatient, my brother Saul bangs idly with his spoon on the table top, legs swinging beneath him from his perch.
“Anyhow, Mr Rudolph says he’s going to let the Jews, the niggers and the communists take over our country,“ says Saul, not missing a beat with his spoon. He is fearless my little brother, born with a rebellious streak that my grandmother says will land him in St Quentin someday.
Mr Rudolph is our neighbour and is nothing but a mean old man, or so my mother keeps reminding us. She says that his cranky demeanour and the funny sweet sour smell about him is on account of his fondness for the whiskey bottle. But, although I am smart enough not to say so, in a funny way, I like Mr Rudolph and that’s because he is not like other grown ups I know. On summer evenings when we play football he often leans on the fence between our two yards, chewing tobacco, laying on a commentary and calling plays for us, whooping away with delight anytime anyone throws a touchdown pass. One time he showed us how to lay a trap for a muskrat using an old drain pipe and bait and another time he taught us how to throw his pocket knife, real accurate so it always landed point first in the trunk of our macadamia tree. And boy he cusses; uses words I know mom would wear us out for if she heard us using them. Like when I had told him the previous evening how I planned to spend the following day. Mr Rudolph had spat into the dirt and ground it in with the point of his boot before letting loose with such a foul mouthed tirade that even Saul had looked a little afraid. But when he was done cussing, his face had cleared and he had asked us, nice as anything, if we needed any help knotting the rope ladder we had been working on for our tree house.
My father lowers his glasses and looked across the table at Saul. Over at the stove I can hear my mother tut-tutting under her breathe as the eggs sizzle away. Saul’s legs stop swinging beneath him and his spoon now hangs in mid air.
“I told you before son,” my father says evenly. “You don’t listen to Mr Rudolph now. He’s a bitter and twisted old man who is living in the past. Today’s parade is about the future; your future. One day you’ll be grown up with a family of your own and it’s important that you have an America to be proud of; one that is strong but also one that is tolerant and fair. That’s what today is about, son.”
Saul absorbs all this with a nod, relieved I think this is the extent of it.
“Now you boys want to know how the Rangers did last night?” my father asks lifting the mood suddenly. And as he swings the newspaper over to the back page my mother slides plates of eggs and sausage onto the table and we start to scoop up our breakfasts with a busy clatter of cutlery on china.
Nearly four hours later and it is hot in the plaza as we stand there waiting. I have watched the sun edge higher and higher in the sky and it burns fiercely now, only wisps of clouds hover out west of town, shaped like alligators hiding in a swamp. Mr Henry our teacher weaves his way slowly along the line, like some army colonel inspecting his troops. He stops beside Joe Teal, Saul and I and bends low. As he leans in I spot a tiny island of stubble which he has missed in front of the shaving mirror. Joe Teal steals a look at me; like this is a conversation he can live without. Saul however seems oblivious, crouched at the roadside laying out a maze of twigs for a bug which he has just spotted crawling along the kerbstones.
“You fellas ready with your flags?” asks Mr Henry slapping his greasy big paw-like hand on Joe’s shoulder.
Both of us are carrying flags and Joe’s mom has dressed him in a stars and stripes neckerchief with bright red braces and a cowboy hat which I can tell he hates.
“I guess” says Joe, with a shrug. This disappoints Mr Henry and he drops to his haunches to face us so I can see the hairs in his nostrils twitching away.
“Boys, this visit is a real honour for our city and for all of us. This country faces some difficult times and we are privileged, I say, privileged you all hear to enjoy such great leadership to help us navigate these challenging circumstances”.
Joe shrugs again. His neckerchief hangs around him like a noose and he looks for all the world like he would rather be someplace else. He glances uncertainly at Mr Henry and then at me, turning up the corner of his mouth and popping his bubble gum. Mr Henry sighs and straightens with a mutter. Destiny it seems sits uneasily with Joe Teal I think
“God bless America” I say helpfully and thrust my flag out in front of me, jerking it around like I have a fish on the end of my line.
“Atta-boy” says Mr Henry encouraged, ruffling my hair with his sweaty palm before moving on to separate a scuffle that has broken out further down the line.
“It must be a hundred degrees out here“, I say to Joe who nods quietly, blowing another bubble and offering me a stick of gum.
I look around me and wonder for a moment what has brought people downtown here today when it is really a day for lazing by the pool drinking lemonade. There is thin ant line of people hugging the sidewalk back up as far as the corner with Main, some others are leaning over the parapet of the overpass and still more looking down out of open office windows overlooking the plaza. Up on a little grassy hill I notice a knot of Hispanic types gathered up by the white picket fence smoking in a pool of shade. Mr Rudolph says the Hispanics are as bad as the niggers and that they should get right back to where they came from and leave America to us Americans. But that’s just Mr Rudolph for you. He hates pretty much everyone; even his wife who he calls a Goddamn she-devil whenever she calls to him from their porch to run chores for her.
Presently though I start to sense to a stirring amongst the crowd and Mr Henry races one more time up and down the line, glancing at each of us through a funny crooked one eyed squint, briefly patting us down just like my mother does whenever Great Aunt Phoebe is due to visit.
“Get those flags ready children, here he comes” he calls, leaning between us and pulling Saul up from the kerbside, squeezing him in between Joe Teal and I. Saul struggles momentarily but then is still, toeing the ground in front of him, a study in disinterest. But I can sense the excitement and I know Joe Teal can too. He leans forward looking up at the corner, craning his neck to see everything. I do the same and further up the road folks start to cheer and a flurry of little flags start to beat away, like the flutter of tiny bird wings.
And then we see the car swing into view, a long shiny black Lincoln, sleek and low, the top folded right back so we can see the people inside. Up the end of the line Mr Henry is animated, applauding and cheering, waving his flag like he is signalling the winner over the finish line in Indianapolis. I don’t think I have ever seen him this excited and, drawn in, we start to do the same as the car glides smoothly down the expressway towards us. As it approaches I see him in back, dressed in a dark suit, waving and smiling, sweep of brown hair brushed away from his face. Next to him sits his wife, petite and colourful in her bright coat and hat and I am suddenly struck by how beautiful she looks, like one of those rare tropical birds I remember from last spring when we visited the zoo on our San Diego road trip.
When I hear the first crack I figure someone must have let off a fire cracker, like it was the fourth of July. But when the second crack sounds I hear a scream, then another, then another. Up on the overpass I see heads disappear from view. Then a third crack and more screams and I see folks wrapping their arms around their head, others scuttling away, folded over as they run. Up on the grassy bank I see the Hispanics scatter. And as that big old black Lincoln revs it engines and starts to accelerate, I see the tropical bird in the back, half standing, half sitting leaning over the man in the suit, flapping her wings like crazy.
“Holy fuck” I hear Mr Henry say loudly from further up the line, his flag now limp in his hand by his side, “Holy fuck”. And so then I knew something was wrong.
Afterwards, a cop comes over and asks us questions. He looks like a walrus with a belly like a big old saddle bag and a sandy coloured moustache that quivers when he talks.
“Son,” he says in a serious voice, bending down low so he can get his face close to mine, “Did you see anyone fire a gun today at the parade?”
So I tell him what I can remember. I tell him about the noise and the flags and how Joe Teal’s bubble gum tasted funny because it had been in his pocket too long and about the oily smell from Mr Henry’s brylcreem baking in the sun. But he doesn’t want to know about that. He just wants to know what I saw on the grassy hill. I don’t know why I was looking over there when I should have been watching the parade. Boy, I wish I’d been like Joe Teal. Then I would have seen a man’s head explode like a Halloween pumpkin. But instead when the third shot was fired I was looking over at the fence. And so I saw the guy who did it alright. Yeah, that’s right, I saw the guy who shot the president.
“I’ll ask you again, son” says the cop, more serious this time, beads of sweat starting to glisten around his temples. I can tell he is growing impatient. “You see anyone fire a gun today?”
But because I am no snitch and because I secretly like Mr Rudolph a whole lot even though he is a mean old man who is over fond of the whiskey bottle, I look that cop straight back in the eye and shake my head. Once, twice, three times.