By Alan Glynn
This isn’t going to work.
That was my first thought.
How could it?
As I stood there in the Oval Office, no more than two or three feet away from the president, it struck me that the project was more than likely doomed, and not because of any problem with the technology involved – I’d never questioned that – it was because of how heavily the whole thing depended on me.
I was Darrell Limbic, recent recruit to the Fugit Program and erstwhile gazzu practioner. He was John F. Kennedy.
How did I ever think I could pull this off?
But there was no turning back. Not now. The overlap was only a matter of seconds. I blinked – literally – and he was gone.
There’d been a look in his eyes. I barely registered it when he was in front of me, but it lingered now as an after image. What I saw was shock, bewilderment, then a flicker of fear.
I wonder what he saw in my eyes.
After a moment, I glanced around. Everything here was familiar to me – the Resolute desk, the tall drapes, the green rug, the naval paintings. Somewhere in the background, I could hear muffled voices and the clacking of a typewriter. I knew that the high strangeness of all this wouldn’t hit me until I came face to face with a flesh-and-blood person from 1963, or until I went outside into the clean, open air of a long-gone Kodachrome Washington DC, with its Lincoln Continentals and Buick Rivieras, its cherry blossoms and early Brutalist office complexes. Nothing, no amount of training, could prepare me for that.
Nevertheless, I was trained and despite my initial misgivings I knew deep down that the advantage in this situation was going to be mine. If I lapsed in some way, or failed to convince, the burden would be on them to rationalize it. In the absence of an alternative, what choice would they have?
I turned, leaned back against the desk, and gazed down at the rug, savouring these last moments of stillness. Then I heard a door opening over to my right. I drew in a deep breath and looked up. ‘Bobby.’
‘I think we got the son of a bitch, Jack.’
Robert Kennedy walked towards me, holding up a sheaf of papers. Another figure appeared behind him. I think it was Kenny O’Donnell, though I wasn’t certain, because I was too focused on Bobby, on those familiar features, amplified a thousand times now by their sudden vividness, their immediacy.
I’d been told not to stare, so I glanced down at his shoes and folded my arms. Caution was needed here. Location coordinates were pinpoint accurate, but the timeline was a little fluid. I could guess who and what Bobby was referring to. I just couldn’t be sure how far along the timeline we were. ‘So, tell me,’ I said. ‘What have you got?’
‘Okay, look,’ he said, handing the papers to the other man, ‘Ellen Rometsch aside, I think it’s airtight.’ He joined me at the desk, leaning back against it and folding his own arms. ‘Don Reynolds is going to sing like a goddamned canary. There’s the cash for the TFX contract, the ad buys, even the Magnavox stero set for Lady Bird.‘
‘He’s going before the Committee?’
‘Yeah. Plus, I’ve got a guy over at Life working on a big exposé. That should kick it all off. It’ll be Baker, Baker, Baker, then boom, Lyndon takes it in the ass.’
I knew where I was now. It was the end of October and this was Bobby’s elaborate plan to get LBJ off the ticket in ‘64. I glanced sideways and saw the intensity in his face, hatred and loyalty radiating from his pores. I almost felt sorry for him.
‘I don’t know, Bobby.’
‘What? You’re worried about Rometsch? Don’t be. Hoover’s all over it. He knows that a German call girl with links to Baker wouldn’t look good for Lyndon. So believe me, she won’t be showing up again any time soon.’
That wasn’t what I’d meant, but I let it go. Anyway, I needed more time to orient myself, to pass a mirror or two, to hear myself pronounce certain words – maybe even to relieve a headache in the traditional Kennedy manner – before getting down to the real business at hand.
Unsurprisingly, my schedule was hectic. Within ten minutes I was sitting down with Dean Rusk and General Maxwell Taylor. Then I was off to lunch at the Bolivian embassy, followed by a meeting with a select group of Congressmen on Civil Rights Legislation. Later, I had a swim in the White House pool, and after that an unscheduled – apparently – assignation in the residence with Mary Pinchot Meyer. I’d read up on the relationship, and was aware of its significance, but to be honest there hadn’t been any practical training in this department, so when she came on to me I got scared and told her (I can’t actually believe I did this) that I had a headache. It was humiliating and the feeling lasted into the following morning, but I used the energy from it to deal with the Bobby situation.
‘You want me to resign? What the fuck, Jack?’ He shook his head in disbelief. ‘Are you drunk?’
‘No, I’m being . . . pragmatic.’
This wasn’t easy . . . how to tell Bobby that he was the problem, and that everyone who hated him, who feared him – the unions, the mob, the Cubans, the CIA, Lyndon, especially Lyndon – had all more or less concluded that the best way to get rid of him was to get rid of me . . .
So, nip the Bobby situation in the bud, do it now, and everyone calms down.
This was something I’d spent three years preparing for in a national security facility in New Jersey. I’d undergone reconstructive surgery and cosmetic gene therapy. I’d uploaded a suite of Jack-specific medical conditions that were programmed to self-neutralize within a month. I’d worked extensively with voice and movement coaches. I‘d done a wide-ranging study of relevant primary sources. My objective, my mission, was simply to get beyond November, and then the real Jack Kennedy, fully debriefed and nano-augmented, would be returned from the year 2053 to continue on his illustrious career trajectory.
I would be returned as well, to the facility in New Jersey, and to what would most likely be a hero’s welcome. JFK had said we’d travel to the moon within a decade. Little did he know that within less than a century we’d be travelling through time. Granted, the Fugit Program was still in its infancy, and I was something of a pioneer, but there was no question – based on how this part was going – that the technology worked.
I looked down at Bobby now. He was still struggling with my suggestion that he resign.
‘Jesus Christ, Jack . . . what the hell is going on?’
If only he knew.
‘Look, Bobby . . .’
I’d have to tell him something, but it certainly wouldn’t be that I had travelled ninety years back in time, and that his brother – assuming it’d all gone to plan – had travelled forward in my place.
He stands still, eyes closed, waiting for this hallucination to end. He thinks it might be the medication he’s on, the ever-expanding cocktail of drugs he needs on a daily basis now just to function – cortisone, procaine, phenobarbital, penicillin, steroids, antihistamines, to say nothing of Max Jacobson’s indispensable amphetamine injections, or –
Or . . .
And this might be the most germane: that LSD he took recently with Mary Pinchot Meyer, eight steely-blue hours, liquid and luminous, of personal unspooling. So is it any wonder that his brain is scrambled? That he’s seeing things? Seeing his own double in front of him, right there in the Oval, and then seeing, well . . . nothing . . . except for what appeared – in the millisecond before he closed his eyes – to be a dusty, brick wall? Holding his fists in a tight grip now, and with twinges of pain shooting down his back, he waits another few seconds. Bobby is due in any minute with Kenny O’Donnell. Then he has a sit-down with Dean Rusk and Max Taylor. After that, there’s lunch at the Bolivian embassy. He needs to pull himself together here.
But there’s something odd. With his eyes closed, the aural landscape is different, it’s hollow, there’s no sound of Mrs Lincoln clacking away in the background on her Royal electric.
He opens his eyes and is hit with an immediate shockwave of incomprehension. Because this is not the Oval Office. And that is a dusty, brick wall in front of him . . .
The gable end, it seems, of a –
He looks up.
Is it a warehouse? Or a . . . a factory?
Jesus H. Christ. Where is he? And how did this happen? He turns quickly, taking in his surroundings. He’s outdoors, but in some kind of alleyway, where the ground is rough and muddy. He takes a couple of steps forward, but his shoes squelch in the mud. He looks down at them. They’re dirty now. Jesus. And –
This has just hit him.
There’s a very strange smell. In the air. A heavy stench.
He looks up and around.
No hallucination can be this real. He must have blacked out in the Oval and then somehow wandered off, in a trance, and found his way here – wherever here is. But what about Mrs Lincoln, his staff, the security guys? He hasn’t been properly alone or unmonitored like this in years, literally, so this whole thing is . . . impossible.
Did Khrushchev really do it? Was there was a nuclear strike? The silly bastard didn’t like his speech in June, the test-ban proposal?
He takes a few more steps forward, knowing in his heart that this isn’t what the fallout from a nuclear explosion would look like.
He’s desperate now, terrified.
‘Kenny? Hello? IS ANYONE HERE?’
He makes his way to the other end of the alley, which opens on to a wide thoroughfare, but it has to be a movie set or something, because all the buildings he can see are old, and grimy, single-storey units most of them. Scanning the row opposite, he registers the words ‘saloon’ and ‘dry goods’. Then he sees why this isn’t a movie set. The source of the stench, ten yards or so to his left, is a huge, rotting carcass, probably of a horse. It’s just abandoned there on the side of the street.
Oh God, please make this stop.
Taking a deep breath, he turns in the other direction. The whole place seems deserted. But then he spots two men coming out of a building. He walks towards them. ‘Hello? Hello?’
When the two men turn and see him, they flinch in what he can only interpret as shock or disbelief. And this is precisely what he feels the closer he gets to them. They’re both short and gnarled-looking, with leathery skin, and beards. They’re also both wearing dirty overcoats and stovepipe hats.
There is a moment of silence as each side studies the other.
‘Gentlemen,’ he then says, smiling deliberately, ‘can you help me out here?’
‘Good Lord,’ one of the men says, almost recoiling. ‘Look at them teeth.’
‘And that suit of clothes,’ the other man says. ‘I ain’t never seen anything like it. You must be one of them New York banker fellas, are you? Set off this panic everyone’s talking about?’
‘A regular Jay Cooke we got here.’
They both laugh.
He looks at them, his heart pounding. ‘What . . . you mean the panic of ’73?‘
‘Yeah,’ one of the men says. ‘That’s prolly what they’ll be calling it all right.’
‘I mean, you have to figure,’ the other man says, a smirk growing on his face, ‘seeing as how this is 1873 and all.’
They both laugh again.
He glances around – at the desolate street, up at the glowering sky – and the absurdity of everything, the lucid, nightmarish quality of it all, becomes close to unbearable.
‘So, mister, if you’re not the Commodore, or Jim Fisk, or any of that gang, just who the hell are you?’
He turns back to face the two small men. ‘Who am I? Why, I’m the . . .’
But suddenly even this strikes him as absurd.
‘I’m . . .’ He swallows. ‘I’m . . . my name is John Kennedy.’
Shafting Bobby like that was hard, but it had the desired effect. Johnson didn’t know what to think, which I guess was a new and uncomfortable position for him to be in. McGeorge Bundy and Bob McNamara were completely blindsided, and J. Edgar’s reaction, I felt, was a mixture of petulence and paranoia. As for what Allen Dulles, Jimmy Hoffa, and Carlos Marcello thought, I could only imagine. In any case, when I announced a few days later that I was cancelling the trip to Dallas, no one even questioned it – at least not openly. The entire Washington establishment (not to mention the criminal underworld) was now in a sort of holding pattern. None of them knew what my next move would be, but it looked as if they were prepared to wait and find out.
Which is what I wanted.
A little breathing space.
Because at the end of November (or early December at the latest), I’d be gone, he’d be back, and the next move wouldn’t be my concern. I wasn’t really qualified for the big stuff anyway, for policy questions or power intrigues. I could sustain the look and the voice for hours at a time, playing Bobby off against Jackie, say, or Dave Power off against Pierre Salinger, and I had a massive data load to draw from, but having to interact with other heads of state or to make actual decisions? That was nerve-racking. I was also conscious of an accumulating air of perplexity in the White House, one that thickened occasionally into undeniable suspicion. But then my chronic back pain, or symptoms of some other condition I had – matters well-known to members of the inner circle – would come to the fore and obliterate whatever concerns people might be having . . . concerns about either, I guess, my identity or my sanity. I learned to play these symptoms to my advantage, however, by ramping them up or toning them down, according to the circumstances.
And, eventually, in this way . . . November 22 came and went.
It was strange to see the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times that weekend, and over the following days, taken up as they were with such relatively pedestrian issues as tax cuts and the foreign aid program. Nevertheless, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was now a matter of running down the clock, and I kept busy, subtly directing my time and attention to the mundane, the uncontroversial. Jackie and her sister vacationed in Italy and Bobby went on an extended sulk down in Palm Beach. To the confusion of my secret service detail, I abstained from any clandestine assignations and spent a good deal of time instead with Ben Bradlee, gossiping about various congressmen and Washington insiders.
The whole experience, up to that point, had been like a dream, and I was expecting it to end like one, too – suddenly, unexpectedly. I’d be alone in the Oval one moment, and he’d be there the next, in front of me. We’d barely have enough time to share a grin of recognition.
But . . .
I don’t know exactly when I felt the first chill of doubt, but it must have been in the early days of December. It had been over a month and I was starting to get antsy, distracted. I’d look around, and think, it could be any second now.
And then, it should be any second now.
And then . . . why hasn’t it happened yet?
When my various symptoms disappeared – overnight, and to the astonishment of my doctors – I had to wrestle with a rising sense of panic. Of course, it was a relief not to feel sick anymore, or be in pain, but it was also more than a little awkward. The level of scrutiny I was subjected to, already pretty intense, went into overdrive.
When another couple of weeks passed – with Jackie home, and Lyndon showboating it in front of the Senate Rules Committee, and Khruschev on the phone nearly every other day – I was soon overwhelmed. The real Kennedy should have been back by now, the enhanced model, reinvigorated and fully equipped to take on the next four years. So what was the delay? Was there some technical hitch? How much longer would I have to wait?
My mental state soon became a cause of concern for those around me. Jackie stopped waving her affair with Gianni Agnelli in my face and Bobby started talking to me again. There was also pressure from various quarters to get started in earnest on the re-election campaign.
By the time January 1, 1964, rolled around, I was facing into the abyss. What if it had all gone wrong? What if I was stuck here?
As a Kennedy, he prides himself on his stamina and vigor, on his capacity for physical endurance. But if the current situation drags on much longer – if he has no access to his pills, say, or if he misses his shots – he’s pretty sure that sooner or later the pain will kill him. For the moment, this is as extreme a test of his mental endurance as he has ever experienced.
He leaves the “town”, which the two small gentlemen told him was in New Jersey, and walks a random mile into undeveloped, increasingly rugged countryside. As a result, he quickly discounts the idea that this might be a movie-set he has stumbled across or some kind of Civil War (post-Civil War) re-enactment, because . . . well, it already extends over much too wide an area.
And besides, in any case . . . how?
The test here – the real challenge – is to keep functioning, to hold it together in the face of the illogical, the irrational, the impossible. If there’s an alternative, it’s to lie down on the ground, curl up into a foetal ball and start crying.
But that’s not going to happen.
Because what would the old man do? What would Joe Jr. do?
He trudges on and before long encounters a portly gentleman and his daughter, who give him a ride in their horse-drawn carriage. They ask him questions and seem by turns intrigued and alarmed by his answers. He finds them unutterably strange. A glance at their clothes, at their general demeanour, and you might think they were from central casting, but there are depths of realism here that confound him. There is the gentleman’s wheeze, for example, his jowliness, and the girl’s pale skin, her striking green eyes, her beguiling voice (he definitely would) – but at the same time he is repelled, almost to the point of gagging, by a dense whiff they’re giving off, of body odour, or bad breath, or both. Nevertheless, he forces out as much charm as he can muster, because – he decides – he needs these people. As long as he is interacting with them, he doesn’t have to think.
Later, that night, lying on a cot in a second-floor room of their timber-framed house in Bergen County, he does something he hasn’t done in years, at least not sincerely – he prays. If the fabric of reality can be so casually riven, he speculates, then perhaps there is a God. And this is a test of some kind. But he doesn’t know. Maybe it’s that his brain was severely damaged by that LSD he took. Or maybe he’s just dreaming. But if he goes asleep now, as it seems he might, will he dream then? And where will he be when he wakes up?
Or . . .
An option he can’t believe he’s even considering. Maybe this really is 1873.
He goes asleep on the cot, and when he wakes up, he’s still there. He’s also hungry, and in pain. For breakfast, they give him corn bread and some cold stew. For his sore back they give him a dose of Dr Abernathy‘s Soothing Cordial, which contains laudanum. He flirts relentlessly with the daughter, but a combination of the old man’s watchful eye and some pushback from the laudanum keeps him out of trouble.
After a few days with these good people, however, he decides to move on. Just across the river lies the island of Manhattan, and two hundred miles north of that again is the city of Boston. He can’t help wondering if it would be possible to make his way up there at some point – and, who knows, maybe locate his grandfather.
Who would now be a boy of, what . . . fifteen?
That’d be something.
With the portly gentleman’s indulgent blessing, as well as an old overcoat, a few dollars, a bottle of Dr Abernathy’s Cordial, and a couple of addresses – not to mention a longing glance from the daughter – he sets off on his own to catch the ferry to New York from the waterfront in Jersey City.
As the weeks and months passed, I tried my best to fake it. I sat at the cabinet table, went to summit meetings, made speeches. I was photographed with the Beatles in the Rose Garden and attended the launch of Gemini 1. I even managed to seduce the odd society hostess. But the whole time I was dying inside. Nothing I did felt authentic, and never once did I see a light in anyone’s eye – that Kennedy effect I’d read so much about. What I seemed to be presiding over was not only the routinization but the very dismantling of his charisma. Articles ran week after week that asked the same question: WHAT HAPPENED TO JFK?
Ultimately, in November, Barry Goldwater took the White House and I was consigned to the garbage pail of history, a lightweight one-term president who barely had an impact at all. If I got any credit, it was for my role in the missile crisis – but that, of course, wasn’t me.
I retreated to Hyannis Port and pretended I was writing a book. Mostly what I did was drink, and eat – and, at a push, when they’d let me, poke the local talent. What choice did I have? Even if they somehow managed, at this stage, to return me to 2053, it would be too late. The damage was done. I’d be vilified, or ridiculed, or worse.
One of the hardest parts in all of this for me was the tedium. Memories of who I really was were fading, and any new memories were compromised. As a result, I struggled to care, and eventually my behavior grew reckless. It could never be said, I suppose, that I was careful about preserving my presidential legacy and pretty much everything I did from that point on ended up being fodder for the tabloids. I got drunk and threw up at Governor Richard Nixon’s funeral in ’67, for example. The following summer, Jackie and I went through a messy and very public divorce. In ’75, I was arrested for attempting to smuggle a kilo of cocaine into Italy (you can see photos of a fifty-eight-year-old me, heavy-set and bearded, being escorted by carabinieri from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport). Two years after that, on some sort of redemptive road to recovery, I married Farrah Fawcett in a Buddhist ceremony in Havana. And one of my final acts as a “politician” – before the inevitable veil of longterm and debilitating illness came down – was to endorse Warren Beatty’s nomination at the 1984 Democratic National Convention . . .
It has the novelty of being a real job, the first paid employment he’s ever had. Unless you count being president. But that was more paid for, and never felt like proper work. This does, copying documents at a high desk – mortgages, title deeds, bonds – and doing it all day long, just so he can afford to pay for his board and lodging, for clothes and books, and for a steady supply of Soothing Cordial (stronger, local versions of which are called McIvor’s Elixir of Opium, White’s Paregoric, or, simply, Poison). These make life somewhat bearable and as he sits there, back arched, scratching out line after line of dense text on sheets of foolscap paper, he has time to think, to dream.
By using a combination of moxie and natural charm, he has managed to get this far. But by using the cache of what amounts to insider knowledge embedded in his memory – that expensive education he suffered through – surely he can get a whole lot further. Okay, the Panic of 1873 (as he recalls) did usher in a six-year-long depression, so the timing isn’t great, but when it comes to railroads and oil, to electricity – to the telephone, for Christ’s sake – couldn’t he somehow get in on the ground floor? Steal a march on everyone? On P.J., who’s still a whole five years off getting into the goddamned saloon business up in Boston? Steal a march even – a big one, since he hasn’t been born yet – on the old man?
He just needs to figure out which stocks to buy . . . and with what.
This will take time. He doesn’t earn a great deal, and while his various laudanum concoctions aren’t expensive, he needs several of them every day now, so there isn’t much left over for investing and speculation. Another possibility would be to take a crack at Tammany Hall (currently in a fever of moral probity, post Tweed), but at the moment that doesn’t seem very practical. This is a very different Democratic Party from the one he knows, and although he has already forged certain strategic relationships, his own “ring”, so to speak, is extremely narrow.
At night, a Colt revolver in his pocket, he walks the streets in a sort of reverie, passing tenements, mansions, warehouses, whorehouses, slaughterhouses. In his head, he pictures being the president, remembers it, the Oval, the speeches, the steady stream of girls, all clean, all fragrant. He remembers the titanic struggles, as well, with the spidery network of bureaucrats and spies and generals and bankers.
Did that stuff really happen?
At the office one day, three men in greatcoats and top hats come in. They shake hands with his employer and proceed to hold a private confab not far from his high desk. As they speak, he continues copying, and assiduously so, but he listens, too, and before long has understood what it is they’re talking about: a proposed alliance between the Pennsylvania, New York Central and Erie railroads on the one hand, and a handful of oil refining companies, most notably Standard Oil, on the other. He works out pretty quickly that in terms of its ramifications, this is arguably one of the biggest business manouevres in history. And holy shit, of course – that’s John D. Rockefeller. Right there. The small, intense one with the beady eyes.
The chief conspirator.
‘Who’s that?’ one of the other men asks suspiciously, pointing in the direction of the high desk.
‘That’s Kennedy,’ his employer says. ‘Fastest scrivener I ever had.’
‘Kennedy?’ Rockefeller says quietly, and grunts. ‘I didn’t know Catholics could write.’
They all share a laugh.
Outside, a while later, blood boiling, he follows the three men along the street. He withdraws his Colt and calls out Rockefeller’s name. When the small man turns, he shoots him square between the eyes.
Dropping the revolver, he then flees the scene.
Afterwards, accounts of what happened differ wildly. According to the Tribune, the killer – who will never be caught – was a transient. The Times and the Herald dig a little deeper, calling John Kennedy a “disaffected copyist” and a “deluded soul who believed he was the president.” But the Sun claims to know even more. This was a carefully orchestrated plot, they say, an attempt by larger forces to halt the gallop of America’s new industrial economy.
It takes him a few weeks to reach Boston. Along the way, everything deteriorates – his clothes become tattered, he gets a fever and can’t stop shivering, his back eventually feels as if it has fractured, and perhaps it has. But when he arrives at the edge of Haymarket Square, he gazes around in wonder. Scanning the crowd, he looks for a familiar face . . . familiar features, at any rate. They have to be here.
Out of the blue, three young rowdies rush past and one of them knocks him over. As he’s falling – and it’s into the path of an oncoming horse-drawn delivery cart – he catches a flash of something in the kid’s face. It’s unmistakable. But is it the eyes? The cheekbones? The jawline? As he hits the ground, smiling one last time, he’s pretty sure it’s the jawline.
This story first appeared in Trouble Is Our Business published by New Island Books