November 22, 1963. I am five years old.
The main department store in the tiny town of Milford, Ohio (‘dime store,’ my mom called it) was called “Rinks.” It was a bustling, noisy place filled with cash registers clanking, people milling around with shopping carts and ear-splitting announcements that peppered the air from the loudspeakers. But when my mom and I walked in that day, the air was hushed and everyone was standing completely still like they were listening for something that was coming next; people were frozen behind their half-full shopping carts, the cash registers were stones. It was like the statues game that my friends Kimmy and Robby and I played in the yard sometimes where we pretended we were stopping time.
“What’s going on?” my mom asked to no one in particular. But no one answered her.
“Folks,” a voice over the loudspeaker said. “If you’ll make your way to the TV department, we’ll turn on as many TVs as we can.”
“What happened?” my mom asked again, this time to a man who had taken off his hat and was rubbing his forehead with his eyes closed. He had turned and was walking toward the TV department.
“Something with the President,” he said over his shoulder. He stopped and turned around and looked at my mom but more like he was looking through her to some mountains in the distance before he turned away again.
“What?” my mom said to his back and when he just kept walking, she began searching other people’s faces like a puppy who couldn’t find its owner. But it was like she was invisible—no one stopped–they were all just all lurching like zombies toward the TV department.
My mom took my hand and we followed everyone. I could hear the newsman’s words but I couldn’t understand them and I was too short to see anything except people’s backs. The newsman kept saying the word “shot.” Shot? Like how? Like our polio shot at school? Or did they mean with a gun? They were talking about John F. Kennedy and so for sure it couldn’t be a gun because a gun wouldn’t work on the President, right? But the newsman went on and on saying words I’d never heard before like “motorcade” and “Dealey Plaza” and “underpass.” Strange words that sounded terrible.
My mom stared at the TV with her mouth open.
“We have to go home,” she said suddenly. “I want to call Daddy at work. He’ll know what we should do.” We separated from the crowd and walked back through Rink’s past the abandoned cash registers and out to the car. She turned on the radio as soon as we were moving and it was the same man’s voice still talking about the President. As we drove down the hill past the post office, the man on the radio went silent. Ten seconds later he started talking again just as I was trying to ask my mom to explain all of this.
“SSSHHHHHHH,” she said, so loudly that it scared me. She reached over and turned up the radio.
“Be quiet!!” she shrieked and batted at me. Our car veered onto the shoulder of the road and there were crunching noises as the tires ran over the gravel. The newsman was saying something but I couldn’t focus on it because I was afraid we were going to crash.
“Oh my God, my God!” she wailed. “The President DIED!” She got the car out of the shoulder and back onto the road then turned the radio up louder.
“Oh, no, no, no,” my mom was crying now and the car was slowing down, like she had forgotten she was driving. We rounded the corner and there was the little shopping center with the brand new 7-Eleven store. We never went in there because the milk was too expensive. But as soon as she noticed it, she gunned the car and barreled into the parking lot.
We pulled into a spot by the door in front of the six-foot-tall plaster Slurpee cup sitting at an angle with the huge straw sticking out of the top and the red foam spilling over the side.
“Will you get out of the car?” she said impatiently although she had barely turned the key off. A blue convertible Corvair pulled up on the other side of us and a woman in curlers got out. She was crying just like my mom.
Behind the counter was a tiny transistor radio where the news was on full blast and four or five people were clumped by the checkout, either staring at the radio or looking at the floor. As soon as we walked in, my mom started sobbing out loud and hugging the lady in curlers. The woman behind the counter passed out Kleenexes. I listened for a while too but nothing made any sense so I walked to the back of the store to try and figure things out. When my mom came to get me I was standing looking at the potato chips and the diapers and a picture of a cat licking his chops on the front of a cat food box. I knew these things had been here before all this had happened and I was trying to understand how they could still look the same even after our President had died.
My mom found me in the aisle and said we were leaving. “Nothing more we can do,” she said. But before we left the store, she squatted down to my eye level and looked at me for a long time. Then she hugged me like she would never let me go, ever. When we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw a clown with a flaming orange curly wig and a red plastic nose, jumping around, sticking out his leg and gesturing with his thumbs to a big sign next to him that said, ‘Carwash’. My mom pulled over and yelled,
“Hey, you! Take that clown suit off! Go home! The President is dead!”
The clown stopped jumping.
“Whudt?” he asked. I could see that he was a big kid, a teenager, probably 13 or 14 years old. The plastic nose made it hard for him to talk, like he had a cold.
“THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT AND HE DIED!” she shouted, the last word turning into a long wail as she stepped on the gas and we burned rubber out of the parking lot. She was acting like it was the clown’s fault.
I looked back at the kid and I saw him pull off his costume. All the air went out of his body as he stood there watching us drive away, motionless, holding the orange wig and the clown nose in his hand.
My mother’s face was scrunched up and furious for the rest of the ride. But when we pulled into the driveway her anger gave way to something else. She got out of the car and didn’t head up to the house. She was wearing a light yellow dress that she would normally be very careful of. But, on this day, she seemed to forget about everything, including me. She laid down on the grass in the front yard, ignoring the dirt and the possibility of grass-stains. I laid down next to her, silently. We were still there, staring up at the sky when my dad came home from work at the end of the day.