The Man Who Killed King Arthur
Rob’s Diner was always busy on Sunday afternoons. It was when the good church folk came to eat and it was where they’d sit with their families and crowd up the place for two hours and then leave. Dougal was also there, but he was there every day. He’d sit there and drink coffee and pretend to read detective paperbacks and talk to the waitresses and splay his pudgy, middle-aged form over a seat, but mostly he’d trick himself into thinking that he was doing something because he never did anything at all. It had been like this for years now.
Dougal always tried to ignore everyone else’s chatter, but that Sunday seemed to elicit nothing but metronomic reagans and mondales and talk of election ‘84 from the usual patrons. It was a dentist’s drill up Dougal’s nose. It scrambled his reading and it scrambled everything else and he felt suffocated in whatever floated into these people’s heads, about the election or anything else. He only got fragments at a time, strings of conversation quickly pulled out by the next, bees buzzing in his skull. His eyes darkened and sat back in his head and he looked at the empty chair across from him. There was a menu in front of it. He was always there alone but they always gave him two menus, one for each seat.
He thought for a while, but not really about anything in particular. He thought about the election but he really didn’t, because they were just faces and names and what did he care? He started to exorcize each of those buzzy words out of his head, one by one, each little church-going thought scattered to the wind until they were all shattered with the uttering of a jack kennedy from the mouth of someone who damn well didn’t know any better and Dougal slunk back against his chair. Jack Kennedy. John F Kennedy. Shaken, jittery, because what did these people know about Kennedy, what did they know about how good he was, what did they know about anything? The buzzing stopped. A waitress came by and he ordered another coffee. He hadn’t thought about Kennedy in years. He didn’t want to. He figured he didn’t have to any more, but there he was.
He reminisced. He reminisced about himself as a young man, as somebody who was someone and something. He never did that. It was hard for him to reminisce, because he hadn’t existed for twenty-two years.
He was in an office, pallid and yellowing at the edges, lit by a bulb dangling from a chain. It smelled like ash and burnt cinnamon. There was a man in front of him, flabby and emaciated, like a skinny bulldog. Suspenders and greased hair and stains on his tie, skin sickly and gray and speckled. The man was warm, though, in spite of himself. His eyes crackled with something. In the corner there was a man dressed head to toe in black, a trilby and sunglasses shrouding a waxy, hairless face that looked like pantyhose pulled over a butternut squash with bright, ketchup-red lips. He had a little rubber ball in his hand that he gently tossed up and down, catching it every time, even though it didn’t look like that at all. Every time he launched it in the air it looked like it was falling down backwards and every time it fell and he caught it it looked like he was tossing it in reverse, a plasticine hand following it down and wrapping each finger around it only to unravel like a spring and fly right back up. The man at the desk spoke.
“So, Mulligan, is it?”
He snapped back to attention.
“It’s a pleasure. Name’s Jankowski.” The man grinned and outstretched a hand, which was promptly shook.
“Says here you’ve got a sterling combat record—enlisted in Korea as a marksman and got picked up by Dulles’ boys... time in Guatemala, Iran, and a stint in Indo-china.” He stretched the space between the two syllables. “Am I missing anything?”
“Was scheduled to drop into Cuba with 2506, but that didn’t really work out.”
Jankowski gave a grim chuckle. His jowls stirred, tensed and relaxed.
“So, are you aware of the nature of this project?”
“Good. Means I don’t have to fire anyone. You have any opinions on the president?”
“Yes.” He scribbled something on a notepad that Mulligan couldn’t see.
Jankowski looked up. “None?”
“I don’t concern myself with politics too much, sir.”
The man let out a belly laugh. “Me neither, son.” The man in black in the corner was still bouncing the rubber ball.
“How old are you, Mulligan?”
“Thirty in September, sir.”
“Got a wife?”
A pause. “Just a mother, sir.”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Dead. The war.”
Another pause. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
The lightbulb in the middle of the room went out. Mulligan didn’t flinch, Jankowski spoke.
“One second. Fuckin’ power goes out all the time. You know how wetworks are.” He stepped out of the room. Mulligan heard the rubber ball fall and pit-pat onto the floor, rolling under something. The man in black stood up and bent over, tracing his hand across the ground to find it. Sounded like he did, rather. Mulligan spoke up.
“Do you need any help—”
He was answered with a monotone.
“No. Thanks, though.” A shuffling, and the man sat back down.
The lights came back on. The fellow in the corner had shed his sunglasses, exposing shaved eyebrows and jagged little pupils. He was holding the ball still now. Jankowski stepped back in. “Sorry about that,” he grumbled. “Power goes out all the time. Like I said, funding’s pretty marginal around here, so we’re running a pretty bush-league operation. Good news, though—you seem to be an ideal candidate for our little project here.”
“Sir, I don’t know what the project is.”
“And you won’t. For a while, at least.”
He passed a folder across the table.
“Here’s what you can do for me in the meantime. Ring me up at Langley after, and we’ll get down to brass tacks.”
Mulligan picked up the folder and looked inside. He was to meet with another agent and fake his own death.
Rob’s diner Rob’s diner Rob’s diner.
The name of the place rolled around in Dougal’s head. He had never thought about it before because when he thought about the name it stopped being real. He spent near every day of his life for the past ten years in the place but never thought about the name. He had never met Rob. As far as he knew, Rob wasn’t real. Maybe some sort of propped-up fakery meant to lure someone important in, but he knew that wasn’t true. He was just entertaining himself while he dragged his eyes across cheap words on a cheap page and drank cheap coffee. Maybe any second now they’d come around a corner and put a bag over his head, toss him in the back of a truck and wheel him somewhere. Now would be a good time, he thought. Place was just about cleared out, no more words zigzagging around like ping-pong balls in a blender, but Kennedy still rang in his head, and he was still thinking about Kennedy, wasn’t he? He tried to think he wasn’t thinking but he still thought.
“Huh?” He blinked once, then twice.
He smiled and nodded, like he was supposed to. The waitresses were always fine to him. Normally he’d talk to them but now he couldn’t, because he remembered that he didn’t exist. What was he supposed to talk about? How can an idea have opinions or observations or ideas of its own? Because that’s what he was: an idea, not really a person. He was getting too philosophical now.
No, he wasn’t thinking of Kennedy at all.
The rain broke around noon and it was too warm for November. He had been sitting on this damn ridge for two hours in the rain and now it was hot. Oswald was the book depository, dangling his rifle out the window. That fucking idiot. That fucking idiot’s going to blow the job. His radio crunched and a crisp voice eked out.
“On approach now. Ready.”
He could see the target through his scope, beaming. A saint on a candle. They loved him. The first shot cracked the sky. It missed. That dumb fucker Oswald missed he missed he fucking missed, but nobody noticed, it was all too perfect. A man flashed an umbrella—a blind child flashing a cap gun at a hurricane. Oswald shot again. Kennedy’s neck burst. The car reared to go and the man in the grassy knoll knocked the president’s brain loose. His head floated into a pink mist and covered everything around it and his wife was screaming and everybody else was screaming, screaming, crying. He shoved his gun in his raincoat and walked away. It wasn’t the first time for him. It was for everyone else, not for him.
There was about fifteen minutes of silence before Dallas exploded. People yelling their jaws off and sobbing but mostly just standing there with their heads down. The man who killed the president had his head down, too, but he was walking. A cop stopped him in a park and his voice shook for identification. He complied. Peter J. Dougal wasn’t suspicious enough to kill the president. He slipped out, the cop let him go. He slipped all the way to a hotel lobby two blocks and a right down. Nobody was there. His footsteps bounced through hallways and stairwells and for a few minutes made Dougal think of who he was, where he was, who he wasn’t and he was at his room. Jankowski and the man in black were there too. Jankowski slapped Dougal on the back. The man in black was sitting on the bed, eating potato chips. He nodded at Dougal and ate. Daintily, with slim fingers. His mouth always made a sideways D shape when he ate. Teeth were too small. Dougal had never noticed.
“You just whacked the leader of the free world. Congrats.”
Jankowski smiled. A real smile.
“I didn’t see him leave.”
He sat down and shuffled some paperwork.
Dougal was numb. Everyone was waiting for something to happen, even though the president was dead and they had all gotten away. Confession without a priest.
Dougal tried dating around after he got relieved. He was still well-built and handsome and thirty-one years old. He figured it’d be a decent time to settle down. He’d get a pension in the mail every week that could sustain him and a wife and a few kids and he could have a life but it didn’t happen that way. Women thought him too odd. Polite and respectable and sweet and handsome and a few more choice adjectives but overall far too odd, a man who only spoke of his childhood masked in vagueness and didn’t have any job anyone could figure out. He couldn’t tell anyone. He couldn’t tell anyone why he didn’t have a job but plenty of money. He couldn’t tell anyone that he got a check in the mail for five thousand dollars from the Central Intelligence Agency, from the desk of Henry Jankowski every Saturday at 11 AM. He couldn’t tell anyone that Peter J. Dougal had only existed since December of 1962. If he told anyone they’d kill him. He wondered where he was in the great scheme of things. For the first four months after the assassination, Dougal wanted to be in some sort of textbook for what he did, but then he realized that was silly.
It seemed absurd to him that he would ever have a place in history. He had done something important but he did it too well. He did it so well that most people didn’t think he was real and now he didn’t either, he condemned himself by being too good at his job. If he had been caught like Oswald, maybe there would’ve been a bit of notoriety, maybe a bit of appreciation but Oswald was dumb enough to shoot a cop and get caught and Dougal wasn’t. No, Dougal did exactly what he was supposed to do and now he wasn’t real. You have to mess up a little to get in the books, unless you’re Jesus or Lincoln. If Brutus had never been caught, then Caesar would’ve just died on the Ides of March.
He didn’t kill John F. Kennedy on a warm November afternoon while the whole country watched. He did a job. History killed John F. Kennedy. History didn’t load the bullets or sight the scope or miss the first shot or cover the president’s wife in that horrible pink mist but it killed him. If it hadn’t been Dougal it just would’ve been someone else with a gun where he was. Kennedy was dead the minute he was elected, dead the minute he fucked up the Bay of Pigs and god knows he was dead the day he set foot on the tarmac at Love Field.
Dougal wasn’t a Brutus. He was a bug on the windshield of history.
The waitress came by again.
He smiled and nodded.
Joyce Ker is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University whose poetry has appeared in TAB Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tule Review, Louisville Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a California Arts Scholar and alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ker has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology and the Pushcart Prize.