All images by Scot Sothern
I’m a high school freshman face down on the desk in English class when the loudspeaker interrupts my sleep. The president is dead. Killed in Dallas. School’s out for the rest of the day, which is pretty good news. A quasi-friend, a guy named Kissick, hits me with a hard fist to my shoulder and nearly knocks me to the floor. “Wake up, shit-ass,” he says. “School’s out.”
I’m in the retard class—it’s easier and I’ve earned it. The girl retards are disadvantaged hillbillies trying to be invisible or greaser girls with ratted hair and pale lipstick. Some of the girls are crying and most of the boys are already out the door. Kissick tells me President Kennedy is dead and he’d like to fuck Jackie. I tell him now that she’s single maybe he’ll get a shot and I’ve got my sights on Caroline.
My home—mother, father, sister, and brother—represents the American nuclear family. My mom and my sister are watching Channel 3 news and it’s all sad. My dad comes home from work and he’s upset. Some guy, a friend of his, said of JFK, “Good, I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead.” I don’t understand why my dad hangs out with people he doesn’t like. My sister, who is two years older and listens to Bob Dylan says something is wrong with America. My parents are still a few years away from agreeing with my sister but I agree wholeheartedly; America is all about authority and conformity. Fuck that.
Later that night I’m out walking nowhere with a group of four other guys I don’t really know. They’re lower-caste greasers and I’m mostly with them to prove myself a tough guy. We all walk with a slouch and I tend to bounce like I’m the god of cool. A guy named Picket picks a fight with me because Kissick tells him I think I’m smarter than everyone else. It’s true, I do, I thought it was obvious, but I deny it because I don’t want to fight Picket. Picket says I have a choice, I can fight him or we can go over to the bowling alley and I can pick a fight with someone else, either way I have to fight. I know he can kick my ass so in the bowling alley parking lot I find a kid about my size on a bicycle and yank him off and pop him a good one in the chin. He starts crying and gets back on his bike and yells at me, “The president of the United States got killed you dumb butt.” He rides off standing on the peddles while my fellow idiots yuk it up.
An hour or so later, after jimmying the cash box on a Coke machine at a closed-for-the-night gas station, two of the guys in the group go home. They’re afraid the cops will nab us and throw us into prison for a pocketful of dimes. They leave me with Kissick and Picket. I should probably go home as well but it’s too early. I’m not sure what I want to do but it’s more than this. We go to Picket’s house where he says he can maybe swipe us a bottle of booze from his parents. It’s a small flagstone house with a wide front porch. In the living room Picket’s dad is passed out drunk on the floor in his underpants. His head is resting on Picket’s mother’s bare thigh. Picket tells me stay here he will be right back and Kissick follows him out of the room.
I sit on the couch and try not to look at Mrs. Picket. Her skirt is hiked high and her blouse is unbuttoned and she’s wearing a black bra. I’ve never seen a black bra before except in dirty magazines and wish I could take a closer look. I think she’s about forty-five or maybe thirty-five. She’s wearing thick red lipstick and drinking from a pint bottle of gin. The television is on and regularly scheduled programs have been preempted. The world is in shock.
“What do you think about all this?” she asks me.
“There’s something wrong with America,” I say without looking at her.
“Yeah, you think?” She picks up a red and white box of Marlboros, takes one out and offers me one. “Smoke?”
“Yeah, sure, thanks.” I look at her and her eyes are green and sleepy and focused into my own. I’ve got a hard-on and hope she doesn’t notice but at the same time I kind of hope she does. Picket’s dad’s head is like a moldy cabbage on her thigh and when I lean over to take the smoke I can smell, hear, and feel his breath.
Picket’s mother picks up a box of wooden matches, next to a big overflowing brown ashtray, and tosses it to me. I strike a match on the side of the box and light her cigarette with a shaky flame and then my own.
“For future reference,” she says. “A gentleman lights his own cigarette first so that he gets the sulfur from the match, then he lights the lady’s.”
“Oh, ah, OK, sorry, thanks. I’ll remember that.”
She sighs and blows smoke and looks at the television and says “Camelot.”
I don’t know if she’s talking to me or not and I’m not sure what Camelot is though I think it has something to do with Kennedy and his family. “Yeah, sure,” I say because I figure I should say something. Kissick and Picket come back into the room and tell me let’s go and I follow them out without saying goodbye.
Picket has a pint bottle of cherry sloe gin and the three of us pass it around one drink after another until it’s empty. Every swallow feels like it’s going to come back up but none do. From where we are standing I can see the blinking red lights atop the television tower a couple of blocks away. We only have two television stations in 1963 in Springfield, Missouri. This one is Chanel 3 KYTV. I suggest we go to tower and climb to the top.
Kissick says. “No. Fuck you, Sothern. That’s stupid.” Picket grunts agreement.
“What a couple of pussies,” I say. “I thought you guys were supposed to be so fucking tough.”
“Fuck you, Sothern,” Kissick says. “Let’s go. You go first.”
We have to climb over one chain-link fence and squeeze through an opening in another. The Southern Comfort is boiling in my stomach and I’m feeling rubbery and stupid which makes me laugh at nothing. A narrow red metal ladder goes all the way to the top and I’m already up 15 steps. “Hey, Kissick, catch this.” I spit a loogie and keep climbing. The air is cold and windy but I’m cocooned in a suede Marlboro-Man jacket and invigorated by the small triumphs in my life. Picket comes up behind me but halfway up he decides to go back down. Kissick hasn’t left the ground and we both know he’s not going to. When I get to the top I take a handful of dimes from my pocket and throw them down at Kissick who yells and dodges with his hands over his head. I lace my legs through the rungs and lean out and unzip and take a piss but Kissick and Picket have already gone off somewhere else away from me.
I watch the cars and trucks going east and west on the new four-lane highway headed anywhere but here. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is dead and Lyndon Baines Johnson is the new president. When Kennedy ran against Nixon I was in sixth grade. I went with my sister to the local campaign headquarters and got Kennedy buttons and bumper stickers. I was one of only three democrats in my class, though most of us were only echoing our parents. I read Profiles in Courage and PT. 109. I volunteered to debate a republican classmate and didn’t do all that well but still the teacher called it a tie. That was before I landed in the retard class and before I got angry at just about everything, along with just about everyone else. It’s been 50 years since I climbed the KYTV tower, JFK is dead and so is Jacqueline and John Junior and Bobby and Teddy and I still kind of have a thing for Caroline.