Peter Marlton: Introduction to the Inexplicable
On Friday, November 22, 1963, about a month before my sixth birthday, I was playing with my favorite little yellow tractors on a small patch of dirt by the side of our house in Daly City, a suburb just a few miles south of San Francisco. The late-autumn sun had risen over the top of the water tower up on Skyline Drive and was trying its best to fight its way through the morning fog. A breeze coming in off the Pacific helped it along, gently pushing the fog east where it would soon dissolve and disappear. I was by myself, quite content to play alone. Life was good. I played every morning or hung out with my mom and went to kindergarten for a few hours every day in the afternoons. Kindergarten was nothing but fun—finger painting, recess, naps, story time, and occasional cuddle time with my teacher, Miss Chan, with whom I was madly in love. She would sit me on her lap and talk to me while cleaning the dirt I’d accumulated at recess from my fingernails.
I don’t remember much of life before that day. A few scattered memories come to me from time to time: an adventurous walk with my brother from Daly City to Pacifica on Old Highway 1, a two-lane road all but abandoned. We hurried by the Mad Captain’s house, which you could just barely see hidden behind gnarled, angry-looking trees on a bluff over the ocean. All the kids thought he was dangerous and crazy. Nobody ever saw him—word was he just sat there every day, mean, looking out over the ocean. I have fleeting memories of a birthday, baseball with my grandfather, maybe a Christmas. I was leading nothing but a typical five-year-old’s version of a relatively event-free, middle class, suburban life.
But that Friday in November everything changed. As I was playing outside with my tractors, my friend and kindergarten classmate Veronica came running down the hill. She lived in a red house just up the street. I used to play catch with her dad. “Peter! Peter!” she yelled. “President Kennedy just got shot in the head! President Kennedy just got shot in the head!” I was stunned. I didn’t believe her. I distinctly remember not believing her. We ran upstairs to see my mother, who we found sitting in front of our little black and white TV, in shock. Devastated. Somebody killed the president. Somebody shot the president.
What’s interesting and mysterious about this story is just a few hours before the assassination I had asked my father a question that still baffles him, still gives him a shudder, even all these eons later. At breakfast, out of nowhere, out of any context, between spoonfuls of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes or sips of orange juice, I looked up at him and asked, “Dad, what would happen if somebody shot the president?”
I have no memory of this. I asked him about it again a few years ago. “I remember being surprised at the question,” he said, “coming from a little kid your age. I wondered how the idea got into your head. But I didn’t dwell on it. I just told you that it would be a bad thing and the vice-president would become president and left it at that. And then a few hours later the news came, and I felt the hair raise up on my neck.”
Was it a coincidence? Maybe. But to him it sure didn’t feel like one. I asked if he was sure I’d asked that question and maybe not some other question about the president. “Listen,” he said. “That’s not something I can ever forget.”
That day and that weekend I learned that ordinary life could be turned inside out in an instant. I remember my family, including my grandparents who lived nearby, doing their best to hide from me and my brothers their struggle to maintain a façade of equanimity. Like the rest of the country and much of the rest of the world they were thrown into existential chaos.
My thoughts were dark and ominous and frightening. If the president could be shot and killed, anything bad could happen. (For an aside into irony for a moment, it was perhaps a blessing to my zealously Catholic parents that I wasn’t yet wise enough to ask how God could have let such a horrible thing happen.) As time passed the fear that was so palpable for a week or two faded, but it never disappeared. It was always lurking in me somewhere beneath the surface, like a dormant virus.
The images of a world gone off kilter, and peculiar use of words from those days haunted me. The casket covered with the American flag, the riderless horse, my school’s flag flying only half-way up the pole the week after, looking as weird and as wrong as wrong can look. And the news people kept referring to Kennedy as “the late president.” How could he be late? Late for what? He was dead. It really bothered me, them calling him “late.” But mostly, the trouble for me was the enduring, shocking awareness, an awareness I was ill-equipped to contemplate, that everybody was sad, and it was impossible to tell when or if things might ever go back to the way they were before.
I used to go to the Seaview Theater in nearby Pacifica almost every Saturday with my brother and our friends. I loved everything about going to the movies, from the anticipation of sitting and talking and eating Milk Duds while kids filed in and chose their seats and settled down, to that magic moment when the lights go down and, at least at the Seaview, everybody in the packed theater cheering! Then there were the previews of coming attractions promising more fun on future Saturdays, and finally the cartoon and the feature.
So it struck me as especially odd and disturbing that the manhunt for Kennedy’s assassin ended when the Dallas police found Lee Harvey Oswald in a movie theater. I wondered, what was Oswald doing at the movies after killing the President of the United States? Did he pay his fifty cents to get in, buy popcorn and Jujyfruits and a root-beer and cheer when the lights went down?
There are two elements of this experience that I believe subliminally influenced the writing of my novel, Eternal Graffiti, which has just been published by The Story Plant. I never thought consciously of that weekend in 1963 while I wrote the novel, but after some reflection I believe the experiences of that period played a part. It was my introduction to the inexplicable and to death, and since then I’ve always been aware of how quickly things can take a dark turn. Not surprisingly, then, the book deals with some pretty dark stuff. It’s the most honest piece of fiction I’ve ever written, tapping into a lot of grief and loss. And while there are laughs too, it is an exploration of whether the protagonist, Owen, can learn to live without anybody else to hold on to.
The other element has more to do with that question I asked my father. To me there will always remain things that can’t be explained empirically—how did I, a five-year-old-kid, come up with that question on that day? I suppose there are many possible explanations that would take the zing out of the story, but there is no shortage of “unsolved mysteries” in this world.
My character Kiera believes in fate and mysticism. She lives her life according to a kind of prevailing inner wisdom, the source of which seems to be coming from somewhere else. She tells a story about her great-uncle Edward going missing somewhere in Europe during World War I. He was missing for over a year, presumed dead. His mother, in Ireland, woke up one day and knew he would be coming home that day. Everybody thought she was nuts. She cleaned the house, made his favorite meal, got out the fancy plates and the special tablecloth, set the table so carefully, and when asked again what on earth she was doing, she insisted Edward would be coming home that day. And he did come home. He just showed up at the door wanting to surprise everybody. It is part of Kiera’s family lore.
That story is based on my grandmother, my mother’s mother, waking up one morning in 1945 knowing that my uncle Jake, who had been missing in action for more than a year in World War II, would be coming home that day. She said to my grandfather, “Jake’s coming home today.” He thought her grief had gotten the best of her. He was very worried. She insisted they drive down to the docks in San Francisco’s Embarcadero because he’d be walking off a ship and they needed to find him. And she found the ship and waited with my grandfather for Jake to appear. And he did. He’d never sent word that he was coming home; he wanted to surprise everyone, which in retrospect was probably not a smart idea. He told me, “I should have let everybody know.” But my grandmother knew and nobody and nothing in the world can explain that. True story.
I find these kinds of things fascinating. I wonder if experiences like this aren’t happening as much anymore. Lately I prefer writing stories that take place before the emergence of the Internet and cell phones. Contingencies and chance can play a much more interesting role when you take instant access away from people. Characters are forced to rely more on their wits, creativity, and intuition when there’s no button to push that will solve a problem. It’s too bad you can’t get lost anymore. That’s a loss in itself. But characters in books can get lost, they can be OK with not knowing answers to trivia questions, they don’t have to document and broadcast every vetted moment of their lives. They can hope someone’s there when they get home, and they can be faced with wondering why someone who’s supposed to be there isn’t. It’s a world I feel good being in these days.
Yes, I asked my father what would happen if somebody shot the president, and the number of things that happened is immeasurable, as we all know. One of them, the one that matters most to me today anyway, is the discovery that Eternal Graffiti may have its roots embedded somewhere deep in my memories of that morning in November.
About the Author...
Peter Marlton is the pseudonym for Pete MacDonald, who has discovered that writing fiction under another name can be psychologically and artistically liberating—it somehow skirts, without wholly avoiding, the imposter syndrome. Stories and essays published as Pete MacDonald have appeared in The New York Times, The Battered Suitcase (a novella), Inkwell Journal, Barrellhouse Magazine, and others. His original screenplay was a finalist in the Austin Screenwriting Competition.