That One Cigarette is an alternate history novel that follows multiple members of four families from November of 1963 to January of 2009. It’s a story of how one man's decision to quit smoking alters the world they share. These four clans illustrate that no matter how much history bends and ripples, ultimately it is destiny that triumphs.
Literary Fiction Historical Fiction
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That One Cigarette is a counterfactual history novel that follows multiple members of four families from November of 1963 through January of 2009. It’s the story of how one man’s decision to quit smoking prevents John F. Kennedy from being assassinated, setting off a ripple of changes to the history we know. These four clans show how each of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, plays a role in shaping our intertwined destiny.
It's the story of ordinary people generating extraordinary waves in the ocean of life.
Why I Wrote This Book
I’m someone who is smart enough to know I’ve had a very blessed life. Almost every dream I’ve ever had, I’ve gotten to live. I grew up in upstate New York with no family in the entertainment business but knew from an early age that I wanted to write for film & television. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and had my first screenplay produced when I was 24 years old. Over the years, I worked on great projects with incredibly talented people.
When it was time to move on and I decided I wanted to teach, I got a job as a professor at the University of California, Riverside. For the past ten years, I’ve had an exciting and enlightening second career in academia. I have a terrific wife and two grown children who are now chasing their own dreams.
Over the years, all of this has caused me to ask why some people get to follow their hearts while others seem mired in perpetual misery. This question set me on the path to writing That One Cigarette. I wanted to write about people who see opportunities and seize them. I wanted to write about ordinary people making choices that create huge ripples in the fabric of history. I wanted to write about families who face adversity yet struggle to meet those challenges while keeping their relationships and families in tact.
One of the great perks of being a writer is that I get to use my fictional characters to help me sort out the questions that keep me moving forward in life. As long as we’re still learning we’re still growing and I believe that this continuing evolution is what leads one to a fulfilling and rewarding existence.
Before I became a full-time professor in 2006, I was a screen and television writer for more than thirty years. When I set to work on That One Cigarette, it was – from the very start – a passion project, a true labor of love. I was writing for myself without a fixed deadline or page count in mind, very different from the precise requirements of film & television work. The book would be done when it was done and then I would worry about how to get it out to the world.
There are six sections of the book, each comprised of five chapters that all take place in each of the following years in which pivotal historical events occur:
1963, 1965, 1974, 1984, 2001, 2009
Each section is made up of five chapters. The chapters follow one of four families; the fifth chapter in each segment revisits whichever family has the main plot line in that particular year. At times various members of the families intersect or at least make cameo appearances in another family’s story.
It is not until the final chapter that one member from each clan is together at the same time and place. 163,375 words.
“That One Cigarette” follows four disparate families – one in Dallas, Texas, one in Rochester, New York, one in Los Angeles, California and one in Baghdad, Iraq – from late 1963 to January of 2009.
In Dallas, Texas in November of 1963, twenty-eight year old ED CALLAHAN promises his wife BONNIE he’ll quit smoking as soon as he finishes the pack of in his pocket. Heading off to his job at the Texas Book Depository, he relishes the ritual ride to work, sucking the soothing smoke deep into his lungs.
In Rochester, New York, eighteen-year-old BRIAN SCOTT, bored and restless in his first semester at a local college, makes the impulsive and fateful decision to go against his parents’ wishes, dropping out of school to join the army. Until his father mentions a slowly percolating war in a far off place called Vietnam, Brian has no clue there’s a possibility that active duty combat might be on the horizon of his immediate future.
In Los Angeles, California, USC history PROFESSOR DAVID SALINGER wakes up in the bed of a man he met in a bar the previous night. Ashamed and filled with virulent self-loathing, David spends the evening with his sister and his beloved infant niece GINA KAUFMAN before heading home via Mulholland Drive. Reaching the road’s winding crest, David realizes that all he would have to do is punch the accelerator and sail off into the deep canyon to end his corrosive pain.
In Baghdad, Iraq young mother RIMA KASHAT’s infant daughter ADIVA cries nonstop. Nothing the exasperated Rima does seems to bring comfort to her child. Rima feels alone, isolated, trapped in her small home with a wailing baby and a high-energy three year old. At just twenty-years-old, Rima fears her life is essentially over before it’s truly begun. Maybe a heavy dose of the codeine infused cough medicine she got from her neighbor will quiet baby Adiva and bring a modicum of peace to Rima’s life.
On November 22, 1963, Ed Callahan escapes to the solitude of the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository to enjoy his last cigarette. Shocked to spy a figure crouched across the room, holding a rifle against the window frame, Ed charges forward without a second thought and knocks his coworker Lee Oswald out of the way, sparing the life of the passing President.
As the decades pass and the story unfolds, four people, one from each of these clans, inadvertently meet at the inauguration of Barack Obama. We realize that even though history may bend and ripple, some things are destined to occur regardless of how much things change.
When Ed Callahan prevents Lee Oswald from murdering Kennedy, the President wins reelection in 1964. As one of the earliest acts of his second term, he pulls all U.S. troops from Vietnam and ends the war.
As this decision is handed down, Brian Scott is in the Southeast Asian jungle headed into a firefight that will most certainly cost him his life. At an incredibly crucial juncture, he and his fellow soldiers receive orders to retreat and prepare to be sent home.
Surviving the war allows Brian Scott to go to medical school at UCLA. As a young resident in 1974, he meets David Salinger’s now ten-year-old niece Gina who is suffering from a series of seizures of an unexplained origin. It’s Brian’s astute observations that allow Gina’s doctors to reach a diagnosis that might save Gina’s life. A lengthy and risky, but ultimately successful operation, Gina grows up believing she owes everything to Dr. Brian Scott who becomes a lifelong friend.
In Baghdad, Adiva Kashat Ahmed grows from the constantly crying infant into an evolved and educated wife and mother. Her fondness for American culture rubs off on her only son ZEV who becomes determined to attend university in the United States. When Adiva’s younger brother (who spent most of his adult life living in India) immigrates to New York City, an adolescent Zev convinces his wary parents to let him travel to the U.S. to meet the uncle he never knew. They arrange to rendezvous at the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Simultaneously, Gina Kaufman’s full recovery from her childhood medical trauma allows her to fulfill her dream, encouraged from the start by her beloved Uncle David, to become an agent at the F.B.I. Working in intelligence reporting, it’s Gina’s dogged determination that lets her connect the dots of an increased flow of Internet chatter and multi-agency memos. She uncovers a diabolical terrorist plot to crash planes into a quartet of U.S. targets in September of 2001. Gina and her team move with incredible precision to arrest the would-be perpetrators before their scheme can become a reality.
In 2009, Ed Callahan’s granddaughter Sierra, Brian Scott’s filmmaker son RUSSELL, Zev Ahmed (now a student at the University of Pennsylvania) and Gina Kaufman Zager end up packed together with a million other eager spectators at the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. Once more, a potential epic disaster looms. Our core characters are thrown together at yet another weighty moment in contemporary history. Everyone has a pivotal role to play. Each life deeply affects every other soul it touches.
This novel is a counterfactual-history fiction that asks provocative “what if” questions that alter the history we know.
Readers who enjoyed “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” by Michael Cabon and “Idelwild” by Mark Lawson would likely respond to this work.
Like these other works, “THAT ONE CIGARETTE” aims to bring readers into the world of these richly detailed characters as they deal with issues of family, career, personal happiness and fulfillment while unwittingly influencing the arc of history.
Readers will follow the characters’ journeys through trauma, triumph, adversity and success. Families expand and fracture, characters pass away, new characters are born. There are moments of great joy, of sexual awakenings and of the final surrender to the inevitability of death. Ultimately, it is the shining of a light on our shared humanity, no matter where the characters originate or where they end up, that makes the ride of “That One Cigarette” one that readers around the world will enjoy taking.
Professor Krieger has co-written the Emmy award winning mini-series A Year in the Life and been nominated for Humanitas Prize for the Disney Channel original movie, Going to the Mat.
Among his more than 25 produced credits, Stu wrote the animated classic The Land Before Time for producers Steven Spielberg & George Lucas and ten original movies for the Disney Channel, including Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and its two sequels, Tru Confessions, Smart House, Phantom of the Megaplex, and Cow Belles.
He has been a story editor and writer on Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and the supervising producer on the ABC Television series Jack’s Place. He served as the head writer and story editor of the animated preschool series Toot & Puddle on Nickelodeon in 2008-2009.
Stu also teaches the Producing the Screenplay course at the Peter Stark MFA Producing Program at USC. His first full-length play, Chasing Smoke, debuted in a staged reading at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Burbank in July 2014.
In April 2015, Stu delivered a TEDx talk entitled “Choose Joy.” View it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2v02wrQ-OSA
In the past few months, I have done a podcast interview with The Shiz that will be airing in September and have done other print interviews through the folks at Publishizer. I have also spoken to the publicist for the University of California, Riverside who will issue a press release on the book in the coming weeks.
Here is a link to a story that explains the steps I took to achieve a successful pre-order campaign: https://medium.com/@leeconstantine/2918ca129f4d
As a former film and television writer whose work has already touched multiple generations around the world, I have found through my pre-sale campaign that I have fans in places I’d never imagined.
Fan sites for “The Land Before Time” continue to write about how that film has influenced their lives. The editors at Buzz Feed are obsessed with my films for the Disney Channel and regularly write about the lasting influence and popularity of “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century,” “Smart House,” and the other movies I did for the channel.
There is a large audience approachable through social media sites anxious to learn what the author of many of their favorite childhood films has been up to and it’s a perfect launching pad to continue to generate interest in “That One Cigarette.”
Comments from Readers of Chapters 1 & 2:
"Just ordered the first novel from my good friend and amazing storyteller Stu Krieger. He's doing this in a very organic way so if you want to help a wonderful and talented man, and read what I'm sure will be a great book.... here's your chance."
- Garson Foos, The Shout Factory
"Looking forward to my copy! Good luck and love xo."
- Hayley Mills, Actress, Disney icon
"Once a great writer, always a great writer. Stuart is the best. There's only one problem with reading the first chapter. Now I have to wait to read the rest of the book... Can't wait."
- Andrea Robinson, Singer
"What a visceral story that transports us back in time with humor, and at times, suspense. I can’t wait to read more."
- Erith Jaffe-Berg, Professor
THAT ONE CIGARETTE lives in the world of counterfactual history, sometimes referred to as virtual history; the subgenre is a form of historiography that attempts to answer "what if" questions known as counterfactuals. Examining what might have happened is a way for us to look at our own history in a new light, gaining perspective on choices made and opportunities missed.
The following is a brief review of several popular books that would compliment or compete with THAT ONE CIGARETTE.
By Robert Harris
Set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War, it is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb.
As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth -- a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.
By C.J. Sansom
1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. The global economy strains against the weight of the long German war against Russia still raging in the east. The British people find themselves under increasingly authoritarian rule--the press, radio, and television tightly controlled, the British Jews facing ever-greater constraints.
But Churchill's Resistance soldiers on. As defiance grows, whispers circulate of a secret that could forever alter the balance of the global struggle. The keeper of that secret? Scientist Frank Muncaster, who languishes in a Birmingham mental hospital. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, a spy for the Resistance and University friend of Frank's, is given the mission to rescue Frank and get him out of the country. Hard on his heels is Gestapo agent Gunther Hoth, a brilliant, implacable hunter of men, who soon has Frank and David's innocent wife, Sarah, directly in his sights.
THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
By Philip Roth
In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.
For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threaten to destroy his small, safe corner of America–and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
By Philip K. Dick
In America in 1962, slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas.
By Brendan DuBois
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of the nuclear war. The crisis was averted, but what would have happened if war had broken out? The true-life disaster was minutes away from coming to fruition but this novel asks, “what if” cooler heads had not prevailed?
In addition to living comfortably in the world of counterfactual history novels, THAT ONE CIGARETTE also has much in common with more traditional historical fiction. Populated with multiple members of four fictional families, all of these characters, at one time or another, cross paths with real people from our shared American and international history. As such it might also be found on a bookstore table with such books as:
By E. L. Doctorow
An extraordinary tapestry capturing the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century & the First World War, the story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, NY, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. Almost magically, the line between fantasy & historical fact, between real & imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family & other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem.
By Gore Vidal
This historical novel is told through the eyes of an entirely fictional character. Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, a young New York City journalist, inserts himself into the late-in-life world of Founding Father Aaron Burr. In 1804, while serving as vice president, Aaron Burr fought a duel with his political nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and killed him. In 1807, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of treason. In 1833, determined to tell his own story, Burr chooses Schuyler to tell his tale and together they explore both Burr's past and the continuing political intrigues of the still young United States.
It was his favorite piece of furniture, his prized possession, the very first thing he owned that made him feel like a full-fledged adult. A 1960 Philco Predicta with a blonde wood cabinet and hi-fi speakers flanking the gleaming twenty-one inch picture tube. “The Townhouse model,” the salesman down at the local Beckman Brothers called it. Ed Callahan loved that TV. It was tangible proof that, in the league of life, he might not finish in the cellar after all.
Each morning, Ed’s cue to start his morning ritual was the sound of his wife Bonnie clicking that television awake as she made her way into the kitchen to fix breakfast for their two kids. The calming voice of “Today” show anchorman Hugh Downs told Ed it was time to get his backside in gear.
The Philco was the focal point of the couple’s living room. It faced the sagging plaid couch they’d inherited from Bonnie’s mother, but it was close enough to the kitchen to allow Bonnie to listen to Hugh and newsman Frank Blair as she slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and poured bowls of sugary cereal.
On this particular morning, already behind schedule because his bum knee had begged him to remain in bed five minutes longer, Ed quickly buttoned his short-sleeve white shirt and grabbed a fresh pack of unfiltered Camels off his dresser. Ripping open the cellophane, he pulled out a cigarette, sparked it with a sizzling match and hustled out of the bedroom, buckling the skinny black belt that held up his neatly pressed khaki slacks.
Sailing into the kitchen, Ed found Bonnie setting a plate of toast, glistening with melting butter, down in front of their children. Seven-year-old Kenny, with his hair slicked back and his orange and white striped shirt tucked into cream-colored pants, was mesmerized by the liquid in his cereal bowl.
“Look, Daddy, my Trix turned the milk all pink. Ain’t that cool?”
“Isn’t, honey,” Bonnie corrected, “the proper word is isn’t.”
Ed dipped his chin to acknowledge his son, snatched a wedge of toast from the pile and exhaled a long plume of smoke.
“Oh my stars, Ed, do you have to smoke at the breakfast table? You know it’s not good for you; I been tryin’ to tell you that for ages,” Bonnie declared. “And now it says so right here in Time magazine.”
Before Ed could respond, Bonnie plucked the latest issue, folded to a specific page, off the counter and moved toward her husband. The article in question had one paragraph neatly underlined in red ink. Ever the thwarted schoolteacher, if Bonnie had a point to make, she was going to come at you armed with indisputable facts.
“Meeting at the National Library of Medicine on the campus National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Surgeon General Luther L. Perry and his committee have been compiling evidence since late last year to support recent findings that there is an indisputable link between chronic cigarette smoking and an alarming increase in lung cancer-related deaths,” Bonnie read.
“Are you gonna die, Daddy?” asked ten year old Libby, her voice laced with a tremble of terror.
Bonnie jumped in. “No, sugar cube, Daddy is not going to die because he’s going to stop smoking right this very day. Aren’tcha, Ed?”
“Sure thing. Or at least very, very soon.” Ed grabbed a ceramic mug from the cabinet above the sink, filling it with steaming coffee from the percolator on the stove.
“I’m serious,” Bonnie persisted.
“Me, too. Tell you what,” patting the pack of Camels in his shirt pocket, Ed continued, “I’ll finish this here pack and when it’s gone, I’m done. For good.”
Bonnie, her face a sunburst of gratitude, rushed at her husband and threw her arms around his neck, asking if Ed really meant it.
“You betcha. What’s the point of any of it if I won’t be here to see my grandbabies?”
She gave him a passionate kiss that made her daughter blush; Kenny crinkled his nose and snorted, “Parents kissing? Sick’ning!”
Breaking their embrace, Bonnie looked to her son with a giggle. “You should be glad we love each other. It’ll only make life easier for you.”
Ed downed his coffee while Bonnie cleared the breakfast dishes, prodding the children to collect books and jackets.
On the television in the background, Frank Blair was reporting on an erupting dispute between the Congo and the Soviet Union. Hardly paying attention, one thought skipped fleetingly across Ed Callahan’s mind. What the heck is the Congo?
Bonnie gave her husband a peck on the cheek and handed him the sack lunch she grabbed from the refrigerator before escorting the kids out the front door. They shouted goodbyes to Ed while Kenny struggled into his cardigan, having trouble finding the second sleeve drooping off his shoulder. A moment before he disappeared, Kenny reminded his dad that Ed had promised they’d work on the boy’s Pinewood Derby car that evening.
Reveling in his momentary solitude, Ed took a last luxurious drag on his cigarette, and then stabbed it out in the Alamo-shaped ashtray beside the toaster.
Ed glanced up to see his mother-in-law Marsha shuffling into the kitchen in a pink-and-white checked housecoat. The large pink rollers in her salt-and-pepper hair and the puffiness encircling her eyes told Ed she’d just woken up. “Oak” was her personal nickname for him. She’d first bestowed it upon him when he and Bonnie started dating during Ed’s last year of high school. Bonnie had once off-handedly told her mother that what she loved most about Ed was his solid, steady dependability and Marsha had quipped, “Like having your very own oak tree.” She’d held onto that affectionate appellation ever since.
“Can you believe Thanksgiving is a week from today?” Marsha asked. “If time flew any faster, I’d swear the world had sprouted wings. Just you wait and see; we’ll blink and it’ll be 1964.”
One thing Ed had learned in the five years since the then-newly-widowed Marsha had moved in with them was that, once she was off and running, he didn’t really need to respond. Marsha would happily carry the conversation by herself. She grabbed a mug, filled it with coffee and continued:
“Big surprise: Louis and his family are too busy to come down. I talked to him last night. Long distance. He says he’s swamped at the office and Ellen has something going on with that Ladies Auxiliary of hers — although I must admit, what those ladies do is beyond me. Plus, apparently, Tommy has a football game day after. Can that be right? Who plays high school football on Thanksgiving weekend?”
Ed remarked that many schools did; Marsha instantly espoused her disapproval.
“If you ask me, it’s a sin, pure and simple. Holidays are for families. But, in any case, I thank the Good Lord I have y’all to be with or I’d be out on the street like a hobo woman. Heaven forbid.”
Nodding, Ed set his coffee mug in the sink and grabbed his car keys off the pegboard beside the back door. He gave Marsha a quick wave, instructing her to have a good day. Lost in thought, Marsha drifted to the Formica table and settled into one of the chrome chairs with its candy apple red plastic seat.
Ed backed his car out of the driveway staring at the flaking paint on their two-bedroom ranch house on Jimmydee Drive. The lawn needed mowing and the flowerbeds needed weeding but there were never enough hours in a day. Rolling down his window as he turned onto South Story Road, the distinct smell in the air carried Ed back to earlier autumn days when he used to walk a similar route to school.
Growing up seven or eight miles away in suburban Dallas, he’d always planned on being a fireman. Until he shattered two bones in his left leg getting tackled by a sophomore grizzly bear from Waco in the Homecoming game his senior year. The damn leg never did heal right, despite three surgeries his parents could ill afford. The army didn’t want him and the fire academy couldn’t take him because he simply didn’t have the stamina the job required. Lugging heavy equipment up steep stairwells during his tryout caused Ed’s right knee to buckle repeatedly. During one test, he had to drop fifteen yards of hose to keep from tumbling down a twelve-foot ladder when he lost his balance, right near the top. And that was the end of his dream.
His father didn’t make enough money as the manager of their local Piggly Wiggly to send Ed to college and, besides, he had no idea what he would have studied. He and school never had been a great fit. He was bright enough but much more focused on girls and football than on civics and mathematics. The only kind of social studies Ed was interested in was learning how to convince Bonnie Lee Bismark to go out with him.
After high school, Ed worked as a delivery boy for his uncle’s pizza parlor and then, after six or seven months, got promoted to manager. He somehow saved enough to buy Bonnie a tiny diamond ring and asked her to marry him on his twenty-first birthday. Five weeks after their small wedding at his father’s Elks Lodge, Bonnie told Ed she was pregnant. Libby was born in early ’53 and Kenny came along three years later. They knew they couldn’t stay in their tiny one bedroom apartment but, even with Bonnie working the evening shift at Skillern’s Drug Store four nights a week, they couldn’t foresee any way they’d ever be able to afford a house. Ed was working for a company that filled book orders for schools statewide. After eighteen months, he’d worked his way up to Assistant Warehouse Manager but he was still only making $2.75 an hour.
And then Bonnie’s father dropped dead.
Poor bastard was only fifty-four years old. A massive heart attack knocked him to the showroom floor at Patio World — right as he was about to close a sale on a six-piece white wicker ensemble with cobalt blue cushions.
Marsha dove into a spiraling state of panic. She had no marketable skills, had never worked outside the home and Lloyd had somehow forgotten to keep up with his life insurance payments. The only thing the new widow owned was her compact house on Bowman Street but she was terrified of living there alone.
That was how Ed and Bonnie came to buy their house. Marsha sold her place, gave a healthy chunk of the profit to her daughter and son-in-law as their down payment, and took up residence with them. It meant she’d have to share a bedroom with her grandkids but Marsha truly didn’t mind. She knew she could handle almost anything as long as she didn’t have to navigate life on her own. Despite Marsha’s repeated declarations that she was ruining their lives, Ed and Bonnie did all they could to reassure her she was a welcome and helpful presence in their home.
Now they’d been in the house nearly five years, the kids were happy at the local elementary school and life was flowing right along. Kenny was a Cub Scout. Libby took tap dancing lessons at the Community Center. One of their many beloved rituals was to be bathed and in their pajamas by eight o’clock on Thursday nights to watch “The Flintstones” before Marsha hustled them off to bed while Bonnie was at work.
Thinking about Bonnie, Ed felt an electric tingle in his crotch. They’d been together since high school, married for more than eleven years, but he still felt great pride, not to mention a modicum of awe, in the fact that she was his wife. Sometimes when they were having a quiet night at home, he’d look up to find her mending the kids’ socks or cutting coupons from the Times-Herald, her dirty-blonde ponytail held in place by her favorite plastic Scotty-dog hairclip, and he’d wonder what it was she saw in him.
She’s so dang pretty and sweet and well, let’s not kid ourselves, I’m just downright goofy looking. Tall enough, I suppose…never did let myself get fat — that’s a plus — but I got ears like radar dishes and my front teeth are slightly bucked. Even after I shave, I’m still scruffy as sandpaper. She’s gotta know she could’a done so much better’n me. Hell, I only hope she never figgers it out.
Many times at work, when the other guys would gripe about their wives’ spending habits or whining about how they practically had to beg to get sex, Ed would feel nothing but gratitude. Bonnie truly was his best friend but he didn’t dare say that out loud. The last thing he needed was to have his buddies at the book depository calling him a soft-hearted homo.
Back at the house, Bonnie and her mother sat at the kitchen table, each having one last cup of coffee before they had to get a move on. Bonnie had to be at her job by 2:00 that afternoon and would work until eight. Marsha would be there to greet the kids’ school bus and make dinner for the family. Bonnie would grab a plate of leftovers when she got home around 8:30, always in time to kiss her children goodnight.
Before getting ready for work, Bonnie had several loads of laundry to do. Marsha was meeting a girlfriend for lunch. She would stop by the market on her way home and pick up a fresh head of lettuce so she could throw together a salad to go along with the pot roast defrosting in the Pyrex pan on the counter.
“Talked to your brother last night,” Marsha began.
“Let me guess: they’re not coming down for Thanksgiving.”
“Bingo,” said Marsha, touching her index finger to the tip of her nose. “’Course I’m disappointed. He makes three bucks more than God, he’s banked more vacation days than Queen Elizabeth, but heaven forbid we should ever be his priority.” Bonnie offered that maybe they’d come down for Christmas. “Nope,” Marsha retorted. “They’re goin’ to her family. After they get back from Aruba. Must be nice, I tell ya, must be nice.”
“We’ll have a wonderful Thanksgiving, in any case,” Bonnie declared, “Ed’s folks are coming, plus we invited Nate and Lucy.”
Marsha asked if Nate was still planning on marrying ‘that woman’ and Bonnie told her it was happening on New Year’s Eve; Nate had asked Ed to be his best man. “Well, if Ed’s truly his best buddy, he’ll warn poor Nate that that girl will bring him nothing but heartache. Don’t he notice the way she’s on him, every single minute of every day?”
“Mother, Nate needs a girl like that.”
“Honey, trust me: nobody needs a girl like that. She’s got more opinions than the Oracle of Delphi. And she never knows when to keep them to herself. Sure she’s awful purty, bless her heart, but purty only gets you so far.”
Filling the sink with hot water and a squirt of Joy, Bonnie busied herself doing the breakfast dishes as Marsha glanced at the morning paper. “President’s coming to town tomorrow,” she announced. “Jackie, too. Talk about purty! That gal has more style than Grace Kelly and Oleg Cassini combined.”
Gliding along the Stemmons Freeway in his ’56 Ford Fairlane, Ed fumbled to pull a Camel from his shirt pocket, punched the dashboard lighter and waited for the cylinder to heat up. Sticking the cigarette between his lips, he heard the lighter’s familiar pop and plucked it out. With its neat concentric circles glowing a deep orange, Ed pressed the filament to the end of what Bonnie sneeringly referred to as his ‘coffin nail;’ he reveled in a protracted inhale. The instant he sucked the smoke deep into his lungs, he felt that euphoric rush the nicotine never failed to deliver.
I know it’s a filthy habit and it is probably killing me — and, yeah, I promised Bonnie I’d finish this pack and stop — but it sure as hell ain’t gonna be easy. Smoking since I was sixteen; in point of fact, I love it: the ritual, the comfort — the fact that it gives me something to do with my hands. Gotta say, smoking makes me feel like more of a man. Taking that last deep drag, flicking away the butt, grinding it under my boot heel. But heck, a promise is a promise, so I at least have to give it the good old college try — soon as I finish this pack.
Ed recalled the first cigarette he’d ever had, with his best buddy Nate when they were fourteen years old. It was Christmas break, their sophomore year in high school. Nate had stolen a pair of Marlboros from the cigarette box his parents kept on their living room end table. The night was real cold, especially for Dallas. They were out in the woods up on the hill behind Nate’s house, wearing the identical denim jackets they’d bought together at the J.C. Penny’s downtown, every button buttoned, collars upturned. Nate was taller than Ed and always ten to fifteen pounds heavier, but most folks took them for brothers.
Ed had swiped two cans of Budweiser from his parents’ refrigerator and he and Nate were going to drink the beers, smoke the cigarettes and swear like a couple of bad-ass good ole’ boys while they laughed about Francie Hermann’s huge tits.
Of course, they choked on the smoke and grimaced when ingesting the beer but when they reminisced about it later, they declared that it was one of the coolest nights of their lives. From then on, they were eternally bonded: two East Dallas rebels in search of a cause.
Jesus. Nate’s finally getting married. Came close that one time; to that girl from Jersey…what was her name? Joy. There’s some irony for ya. It was full speed ahead ’til his parents found out she was a Jew. End of story. It was two whole years before he even had the stomach to ask another woman out.
Nate’s current fiancé, Lucy Wallace, was a genuine southern belle. Born in Memphis, raised in Louisville, she attended two years of junior college in Atlanta. She moved to Dallas to work as a buyer at Dillard’s and met Nate at a “Ladies Drink Free” night at Rusty’s Saloon.
What I don’t get is how a woman like Lucy will live with a slob like Nate.
Ed and Bonnie agreed Lucy was a bit rigid, often acting more like Nate’s mother than his girlfriend, but they also believed that no one except a take-charge woman would ever get Nate Stokesberry to the altar.
The thing that made Ed most uneasy about Nate marrying Lucy was that she had a creepy collection of porcelain dolls. There was something about their painted faces and antique frilly gowns that made Ed start to sweat every time he had to be in Lucy’s apartment. He actually had nightmares about those dolls: he’d be left alone in their front room while Nate and Lucy were fixing drinks and the playthings would come to life. Ed would hear their hideous cackles as their eyes flashed with evil intent. He’d wake up with his heart about to explode like an over-cranked Jack-in-the-Box.
What if Lucy moves those damn things into the house they’re buyin’ together? Maybe I’ll wait ’til she’s out one night and smash ’em to smithereens with a baseball bat. Don’t she know how scary they are? I mean, what’s a grown woman need with a pack of creepy dolls?
Ed sucked so intently on his cigarette his head nearly imploded. When he exhaled, it felt like the smoke was rising all the way up from his groin. He swiped uncomfortably at his armpits, feeling the prickly sting of perspiration that erupted whenever he thought about Lucy’s malevolent doll mob.
Realizing he was about to miss his off-ramp, Ed swerved across two lanes and exited the freeway. Driving through the streets of downtown Dallas, heading for the book depository parking lot, he heard an unsettling scraping behind him. He tilted down the rearview mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of the noise’s source.
Goll darn it! Tailpipe’s dragging again? Hope the sparks don’t set nothing on fire. That wire I had rigged up must’a busted when I swerved to catch the ramp.
Eying his watch, Ed knew he had no time to deal with it. It was 7:52, it was a five-minute walk from the parking lot to his building and he couldn’t afford to be late. His boss Roy Truly was a decent guy, and he genuinely seemed to like Ed, but with nineteen warehouse men to manage, Roy liked to keep everything running shipshape.
When Ed pulled into his regular parking spot, parallel to the chain link fence at the lot’s south end, he saw his coworker Junior Jarman arriving in his Chevrolet station wagon. He parked in the spot right next to Ed. Ed snatched his sack lunch off the passenger seat and hopped out. “Morning, Junior. How they hanging?”
“Tight and to the right, just the way I like ‘em.”
Both men chuckled. Junior was clutching a black metal lunch bucket with a union decal on the butt end. That thing had more miles on it than a ’51 Dodge.
Junior had been working at the book depository, on and off, for years. For a while he left and went to work at Parkland Hospital; Ed was never quite sure what it was that sent Junior back to the warehouse. He and Ed never socialized outside of the job, but they were friendly enough at work. Usually, once or twice a week, they ate together in the second floor lunchroom or met in the domino room on the first floor to play a quick game of bones as they gobbled their sandwiches and guzzled Dr. Peppers.
Leaving the parking lot, the two men walked along Munger Street, then gingerly crossed several sets of railroad tracks. Ed made a point of stopping to look around any unmoving boxcars to ensure that an oncoming train wouldn’t cream them.
“See the morning paper?” Junior asked. “President’s motorcade is gonna pass right on by tomorrow, just after noon. If we time it right, we’re like to get a look at him on lunch break. ‘Course, I ain’t been too crazy about the man since he nearly got us into World War III over that showdown with the Rooskeys –”
“The Cuban Missile thing? Heck, Junior, he only did what needed to be done. Otherwise, that maniac Khrushchev would’ve bombed us back to Kingdom Come. Wait, you sure the parade’s goin’ by us?”
“Yup, the map was right there in the paper. It’s one helluva procession: Johnson, Governor Connally…Mrs. Kennedy, too, I do believe. Going from Main to Houston, then straight down Elm on the way to some fancy V.I.P. luncheon out at the Trade Mart. Must be nice…flying around on private jets, riding in limousines, having folks turn out to cheer ya jest for showing up.”
“It all looks like a giant pain-in-the-butt, if you want my opinion,” Ed said. “Can’t fart without it turning into front page news.”
Minutes later, Ed and Junior moved past the loading dock and slipped through the rear door of the Texas School Book Depository, coming in off Houston Street.
Heading for the basement stairs, Ed spied Roy Truly hustling across the plywood planks lining the first floor. Ed offered him a ‘good morning’ and a chipper wave. Spying Ed and Junior, Roy replied with a nod and a grin.
Ed stuck his lunch in his basement locker and hung up his corduroy coat. Junior was at his own cupboard a few feet down. Closing his locker door, Ed turned and nearly collided with a skinny, pale fellow he knew only as Lee. He was seven or eight years younger than Ed, had been working at the depository for a little more than a month. He always seemed to move without making a sound.
“Sorry,” Ed said as he sidestepped the newcomer.
Lee nodded but remained eerily silent. Ed could see the yellow stains in the armpits of Lee’s once-white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt that was now the color of an exhausted Brillo pad. Lee swiftly moved up the steps and disappeared.
Turning toward Junior, Ed shook his head and chuckled. “Jeez, even on our crummy salary, you’d think the kid could spring for a clean T-shirt.”