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On the anniversary of the assassination of JFK
Friday, English class, seventh grade. Almost everyone alive that day remembers where they were and will until they die. When the intercom announcement came, we were diagramming sentences, one of the few school things I understood and did well. We would not know for many years, not until the Secret Service man who covered her body with his own reported that the President’s wife spoke to her murdered husband, there in the backseat of a convertible limousine. She said to him, Oh, Jack, what have they done? I imagine sentence diagramming was over for the day at that point, which would have disappointed me, since I was very good at it and doing it made me feel smart and made me understand things— the machine, the organism, the symbols of the words arranged just so, doing what they did. Everyone in that convertible limousine that day is dead now, except for the Secret Service man. He must have heard it all the rest of his life. Every day. We stayed in school until the final bell then walked or rode a school bus home. I don’t remember. But everyone alive then remembers when the man they said had fired the shots was shot himself, two days later, in a Dallas jail. We watched it over and over and over on TV. The day after that I saw my father cry for the only time in my life. He lay on the sofa, watching a state funeral in black and white between his stockinged feet. The band played the Navy Hymn. Outside all the leaves had fallen from the trees. The TV announcers explained the symbolism of Black Jack, the riderless horse, and of the six gray horses pulling the caisson that held the casket. In the chaos, her pink, pink pill-box hat had been lost. Someone has that hat. We don’t know who. A strawberry pink, wool bouche, double-breasted Chanel suit, she wore it the rest of the day as it stiffened with her husband’s blood. She said she regretted she’d washed the blood from her face before the swearing-in of LBJ. She said she wanted them to see what they had done to Jack. They had done what they had done and my father cried and I went outside and walked around and did not climb any trees, although they offered themselves to me. All I did was walk. Cold, late November day. I wasn’t wearing a coat but didn’t want to go inside, until I knew my father was finished. It was thought when she climbed in her smart suit out onto the trunk lid of the Lincoln, that she meant to help the Secret Service man into the car. That may have been when she lost her hat. In fact, she climbed out to retrieve a chunk of her husband’s skull. Sixteen years after she died, Agent Clint Hill, who is still alive, gave the interview in which he repeated what she said—Oh, Jack, what have they done? He was shielding her body. Her hat was gone, her lips inches from her dead husband’s ear. A sentence. A rhetorical question. In the chaos and clamor, no one else would have heard. I’m not sure I knew there was such a thing as a rhetorical question at twelve, but I could have diagrammed hers. The subject of her sentence is they. It would have been placed at the left end of a horizontal line and separated from the verb, have done, by a perpendicular line. On the right, the object, separated by yet another perpendicular line: what. In this way the sentence, a question, is turned to a declarative statement: They have done what. “What,” in this case, is a pronoun, it stands for a noun, which was not stated, although it was also clear what what might be—blood and bone, her husband’s exploded head in her lap.
Robert Wrigley‘s books include Box (Penguin, 2017); Anatomy of Melancholy & Other Poems (Penguin, 2013), winner of the Pacific Northwest Book Award; and Beautiful Country (Penguin, 2010).
Copyright 2020 Robert Wrigley