Carolyn Hawkins’s brother, Aubrey Rike, who went by the name of Al, was sitting at Parkland Memorial Hospital when the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. As an ambulance driver for O’Neal Funeral Home, Al and his rider, Peanuts McGuire, had been at the parade route earlier, sent down to Houston and Elm to pick up a man who had suffered a seizure across from the School Book Depository. They’d taken him over to Parkland, per O’Neal’s contract with the city for ambulance services, and were standing around chatting when news of the shooting spread through the hospital almost as quickly as the president’s car arrived.
Within moments the ER was swarmed. The stink of rushing bodies. Al found himself jammed against a wall, shoved up beside an agitated policeman who kept looking down at his feet while telling him to stay put. He might be needed.
People ran chaotically. Newspapermen scurried for tele phones. Elected officials milled. Congressmen. Senators. A general stood with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrists, as though he might blow the whole place to smithereens. Dallas PD. County PD. Secret Service. FBI. At least fifty people smashed right into the entrance, with a whole lot more spill ing into the waiting-room area. Outside, hundreds of people crowded the police line. Men with submachine guns guarded the glass entry doors. More and more kept arriving. Not enough air to feed them all.
After about a half hour, Secret Service Agent Kellerman approached. His arms folded across his chest, crumpling his customary dark suit. Falsely composed. A bubble ready to burst. He said Mr. O’Neal would be bringing a casket down shortly and needs both Al and Peanuts to be ready to assist with the necessary details. Kellerman said to wait for O’Neal right out side the trauma room. Maybe Al heard wrong? Misunderstood the part about the casket.
For Al Rike the sense of history was overwhelming. His uncles Melvin and Leonard had driven the first ambulances in Dallas, and at one point Leonard had even opened up his own funeral home. Al had a sense for these kinds of things; he’d transported bodies back and forth as long as he could remember. But right now it felt as though the world had stopped, everything frozen in place, and he was the only one moving. It was so hectic that it felt slow. Like every movement mattered, etching itself into the history books in real time.
Outside the trauma room, Al sat on top of a gurney pushed up against the wall. Legs dangling off the side. Peanuts paced the hall. Mr. O’Neal had arrived, but Kellerman advised O’Neal to keep the casket out of sight for the time being, so O’Neal hob nobbed, sticking close to the prominent types. All these people, and Al felt completely alone.
He was startled by a scraping sound. Next to him an agent wrestled with a metal folding chair. Then the first lady sat down, instinctively shrugging away the agent’s guidance. Al tried not to look. Shifting on his gurney, he wiped cold sweat off his brow. Outside the trauma room with Mrs. Kennedy. In a metal folding chair?
Mrs. Kennedy’s head turned slightly, her dark hair falling forward over her face. Al noticed her lips, taut and still, just parted enough for some air to get through. Nobody talked to her. Her husband lay behind the door while surgeons of all stature pretended to try to keep him alive. It was as if people were frightened of her. The agent had told her to sit and wait. So she sat and waited.
Al wished he were one of those people who knew the right thing to say. She deserved the respect of comfort. A kind word. But his whole brain felt tongue-twisted. Just a twenty-five-year-old Texas boy who started his day by scooping up epileptics. It was enough for him just to keep his composure. So he took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, inhaling slowly. Thinking up what he might say, and how he might say it.
Mrs. Kennedy uncrossed her legs, and then recrossed them in the other direction. She looked right at him. Al was sick with nerves, but afraid to look away. “Do you have an extra?” she said. Her voice was quiet. Low and mechanical.
Al nearly dropped the butt, catching it on his bottom lip. He’d just bought a whole pack from the vending machine, but suddenly he couldn’t remember what he did or didn’t have.
"May I have cigarette?" she said a little louder, although still just above a whisper.
He slid down from the gurney, Yes ma’am, and took out the pack, tapping it at the bottom.
As Al offered her the cigarette, a Secret Service agent appeared from nowhere and knocked the pack from his hand, breathing quickly, with wide terror eyes. He was about Al’s age. Jittery. He looked at Al like he didn’t know what was next.
The pack sat on the tile. All three stared at it.
Finally, the agent picked it up, squinted his eyes for an inspection, and then offered it to Mrs. Kennedy. After she took a single cigarette, the agent returned the pack. A pantomime act. All done without words.
Leaning into the match, her face temporarily disappeared. Just an orange light. She held the cigarette to her mouth with out inhaling, and then knocked a bit of ash to the floor.
Maybe this was the proper time to say something. But the words were still way beyond him.
She took a long drag, holding the smoke in for an extra beat, and then blowing it upward in a veil. “Where are you from?” she asked, before it cleared.
Al hoped she didn’t mean Where do you work. He could probably get away with just saying “ambulance driver,” but he didn’t want to get into anything about caskets. Especially not when the doctors were only several feet away, trying to keep the holes in her husband’s body from leaking. “I’m from Dallas, ma’am,” Al stammered. “I live here in Dallas.” Was someone else talking for him?
She asked what it was like, living in Texas, and he told her it was fine. That Texas was what he knew. Kind of hot but you get used to it. She looked right at him, her eyes sincere and soft, as though she felt responsible for making him feel comfortable.
They didn’t talk much after that. They smoked quietly together, like strangers at a bar with an unspoken understanding. And they shared coffee from a candy striper who nearly had the stripes scared off her pinafore when the Secret Service pounced from all directions at her silver serving tray. And though he and Mrs. Kennedy hardly spoke a word, there was a sense that their unlikely pairing was all they had to rely on. Together they sat in the communal silence, blocking out the chaos around them, until around one o’clock, when Dr. Clark, Agent Kellerman, and Ken O’Donnell said they needed to talk with Mrs. Kennedy. In private.
Inside the trauma room, Al tried to swallow, but he had no breath. The overhead lights burned, and the smell was anti septic. Along with Peanuts and Nurse Nelson, Al was waiting for a priest, which seemed to take forever. It wasn’t the sight of President Kennedy’s body that threw him. He’d handled many bodies in his day, and although the president’s head was wrapped with towels so thick that only a patch of brown blood had soaked through, it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the man glings he’d had to work with. Nor was it the cocktail of chaos and quiet, the failed-savior faces of the doctors, or the nurses’ continuous swallowing to hold back tears. It was seeing Mrs. Kennedy not more than two feet away, looking at her husband. She’d come into the room several times, unsure of what to do, as though she’d been working herself up to something. Each time she stood a little closer to her husband’s body. A strange blend of lightness and weight. Frail and broken, but still larger than life. Beautifully dressed. Her hair done. Too perfect for a moment like this.
This time Mrs. Kennedy looked as though she had a sense of purpose. She stood still, only her back rising in shallow breaths.
Reaching out to the trauma table where her husband lay, Mrs. Kennedy pulled the sheet back to his waist.
She slipped off her wedding ring, tucking it into her left palm. Then she pulled his left hand, folded across his bare chest. His fingers dangled stiffly as the arm lifted. Mrs. Kennedy tried to slide her ring onto his finger. Al just watched her. The ring was half the size of the president’s finger, still, she twisted it with delicate but violent determination. Without speaking, Al grabbed a tube of KY jelly from the sink counter. He reached around her and dabbed a few drops onto the president’s fin ger. His hand touched her sleeve. Mrs. Kennedy swiveled the ring, able to work it down a little. In tandem, Al squirted on a little more jelly. Her hand grazed his as she pushed with a little more force, managing to work the ring to the midknuckle. Mrs. Kennedy didn’t look up, neither did Al. For a moment, in the silence of that room, they might have been the only two people breathing.
Al wheeled the casket out of the room along with doctors, pres idential staff, and agents—some helping, some in tow. Waiting for the priest, there had been a strange sense of hope. The plausibility of miracles. The potential for gigantic misunder standings. But once Father Huber arrived to give conditional rites, it was as though all the lights dimmed, and the forms behind the shadows were finally revealed.
Al tried to stare straight ahead, moving the president down the corridor, with one hand on the gurney and the other on top of the casket. The agents formed a V to unclog the pathway, and the procession was pure silence. Just wheels squeaking across the linoleum.
Mrs. Kennedy was opposite Al, her head bowed, gliding as if she too were rolling. When he and Peanuts had laid President Kennedy in the coffin, Mrs. Kennedy was backed up against a wall. Never taking her eyes off her husband. She had gasped when the lid snapped shut. The only sound she’d made. Now her hand was holding on to the casket.
Father Huber kept pace, saying prayers, and sprinkling holy water. Occasional drops hit Al’s hand. One hit his cheek. Most just streaked down the brass.
Near the exit, the procession stopped, as though it had run into a wall. A middle-aged man in a tweed sport coat pressed himself against the head of the casket. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He sounded both proud and scared. “But I can’t allow the body to go any farther.”
Agent Kellerman walked up to him. Wasting no time. Al was sick with anticipation. As if today were layer upon layer of people’s bad dreams. “This is the President of the United States,” Kellerman said, drumming his index finger against his thumb. “You need to move out of the way, mister.”
“Doctor.” He emphasized his title. “Dr. Earl Rose, Chief of Forensics.” He drew in a breath, as though he were about to deliver a prepared speech. “This body cannot be removed until an autopsy and inquest are completed. There has been a mur der committed here in Dallas, and Texas law states that any victim of murder has to have a proper autopsy before the body is removed. This is a Texas criminal investigation now.”
Although their tones were hushed, Al could hear every word. Mrs. Kennedy, standing beside him, must have heard also. She kept her head bowed. Al inched his hand a little closer toward hers. Kellerman asserted that as chief of the president’s detail, he was going to politely ask the doctor to remove himself at once. Although their tones were hushed, Al could hear every word. Mrs. Kennedy, standing beside him, must have heard also. She kept her head bowed. Al inched his hand a little closer toward hers.
Kellerman asserted that as chief of the president’s detail, he was going to politely ask the doctor to remove himself at once.
This wasn’t some gangland murder. This was the President of the United States, and Mrs. Kennedy would be with the body at every moment, so, please. Kellerman barked, growled, and tried to muscle the casket forward.
Rose held his grip. “Don’t you understand?” he said, try ing to keep his voice below a holler. “You have to maintain the chain of evidence. We have laws to uphold. You just don’t understand.” His lips trembled.
Father Huber continued to pray and to sprinkle holy water.
"Damn it," Kellerman said. "Just move the hell out of our way."
Another agent knocked Rose’s hand off the casket and pushed him aside while Rose continued to insist that the autopsy had to be done in Dallas, muttering comments about notating every detail for his official report and wanting everybody’s name, grousing that this stunk of something. He stopped talking when Mrs. Kennedy passed. Al didn’t think the doctor looked ashamed. Just respectful.
Under the fluorescents, Al saw his palm prints on the bronze.
As they went through the glass doors, Al managed to pull his sleeve down around his hand. He moved up to the front, and started polishing the top of the casket. Short, circular move ments. Starting near the head, and then slowly, in concentric patterns, working his way out wider and wider.