Oct/Nov 2011  •   Fiction

JFK Mystery

by Javier Viveros

Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins

Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins

This is not a literary story, Magritte, it is not.

If there is a country where strange entities abound, that country can be no other than the United States of America; a nation packed with associations created by eccentric millionaires—if not incurably insane—who do not know exactly what destiny to give to their well calculated fortunes.

Names like the Association for the Protection of the left-handed Penguin and Vegetables Rights Foundation might give you an idea of what I am talking about.

One of these foundations extended me an invitation to participate in a literature convention to be held in the northern lands. My task consisted in preparing a "literary-scientific" text and read it at the event; the writing would be the launching board to stimulate, a posteriori, the discussions with the concurrence. The guests were "writers who in some fragment of their works involved, in one way or another, a particle accelerator." I had loosely mentioned the subject in the narrative of a novice book. I can vaguely recall that sentence where the particle accelerator appeared in a remarkably forced metaphor. I remember that story with very little fondness. The only thing to be rescued from it was the slow beat rhythm imposed on the paragraphs by the military march music of the words stressed in the third to last syllable.

The invitation covered everything: flight-tickets (Amadeus reservation code: 3M2F87), hotel, traveling expenses and a letter from the organization guaranteeing an entrance visa to the country. The convention would last for a week. All-expenses paid for in the magical island of Manhattan, where the "Quarks Rhymes Foundation" had its offices. I did not find any single motive to decline the opportunity given. I got into Google Earth and printed maps of the interesting places to visit in the Big Apple. I prepared my text (title: Basho and the worm holes), I placed clothes and copies of my books (to exchange) in a suitcase and I set off on the journey. Luque-Sâo Paulo-Atlanta-New York. I arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City right at dawn; a car took me from Queens to Manhattan, right up to the hotel where a room had been reserved for me: The POD Hotel. It was a charming little hotel where everything was minimized; the reduced space of the room was too much like a prison cell but with no sacrifice of a single bit of elegance. A dignified hotel; petite, but could boast from its location right in the very centre of Manhattan: Midtown.

The following day I attended the convention. Everything went smoothly. The readings followed each other with absolute normality. Writers almost as unknown as me were talking, with admiration, of their works; there were odes to Science and Literature. The talks included—with more enthusiasm than precise knowledge—quantum gravity, hypertextual narrative, Higgs' boson, the anomalies of the Pioneers and word choice with cybernetic neologisms. The usual. I will not go into detail since it completely lacks relevance.

Since it was my first time in the city that never sleeps, I seized the opportunity to do what every tourist does. Central Park, Liberty Island and the horned statue. MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum (Oh Renoir! Oh Monet!). The Bronx Zoo and Ellis Island. Madison Square Garden and the Rockefeller Center. Brooklyn Bridge and Chinatown. A nocturnal postcard of the city from the top of the Empire State. Guggenheim. A NBA game (player of the week: David Lee of the NY Knicks). A hop-on hop-off tour through Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem. Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Times Square and its lights as protagonists. Lipovetsky's hypermodernity. New York, the great city in all its glory. "Easily beaten by Tokyo," according to a female friend who had been there. The maps I had printed through Google Earth did not have the accuracy one might have hoped from the Californian company, though it was only an insignificant detail within the context of everything I had experienced in the capital of the world. The convention came to an end and it was imperative I return to routine. It had been wonderful but the return was due.

I arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport (IATA code: JFK), in Queens, at four in the morning. The return flight was again with Delta Air Lines (DL), and it was scheduled for 6:30 AM. It involved connections to Atlanta and Sâo Paulo until finally arriving at Luque, Paraguay. Delta Air Lines has some machines (kiosks) allowing the passenger to print out the boarding pass without having to seek assistance from the airline's personnel. I approached one of these and read that not until 5:00 AM would I be able to use them. I then lay in wait. When a few minutes had passed after five, I came near once again to the kiosk, slid the passport through the reading band, and completed the data of my electronic ticket: January 23, at 5:07 AM. Then I had the boarding pass in my hands, according to the information showing on the screen.

Everything was ready. It was just a matter of waiting for the boarding to begin. But six o'clock in the morning went by without my seeing any other person. Can I be the only passenger? I asked myself ironically. The airline's personnel was nowhere to be seen either. Was my watch wrong? I checked the time on my left wrist and I compared it to the time on the mobile. They were synchronized. I came near to the kiosk for automatic printing of boarding passes and saw the time was correct. Time went by and nobody showed up. I was in one of the most important airports of the world and seemed to be the only being wandering in its interior. Outdoors, the cold of January was devastating the city. Indoors, uncertainty was devastating me. What was happening?

I kept waiting, but Godot did not appear. The clocks kept going. I could see time was passing by through the screens in the kiosks for automatic printing of boarding passes. The most frequented airport in the whole of the United States and not two souls could be counted in the place. Something was not right. I left my huge suitcase in front of the counter and started to wander around the premises. The windows on the client service counters were empty. I got to the other side of the Delta counter: papers with gaps to fill in, migration forms. The rest was silence. Only the low buzzing sound of some florescent tubes was acting as soundtrack for my desperation. The sound of airplane's traffic could not be heard outside. Everything seemed abandoned. Deserted. It was as if a mortal ray had disintegrated everyone and that miserable wretch of a ray had forgotten me. Precisely me. I though I was in some novel from Saramago, where the only one blind was me; where only I was refused the sight of others and the perception of flowing of the outside world. Hours went by, hunger was playing with my stomach who could bear witness of it. I went to sit on a chair and held my head in my hands.

—What the hell is going on?—I yelled.

My desperation was growing. Would I ever see the red soil of my homeland again? In my watch and in the clocks of the airport it was four in the afternoon. I kept wandering around Terminal 2. I got to the street and kept walking up to Terminal 3, also operated by Delta Air Lines. Outside the building the scenery was the same. Desolation. No more than the monochord music of solitude was drifting through the rails of the Airtrain monorail. I continued my way and suddenly, alleluia! I saw a beggar sleeping in the terminal's corridor. A companion, another individual like myself inhabiting uncertainty. A buddy. The only two beings in the third planet. He was wrapped in newspapers and some caked cardboards used as mattresses. I came close.

—Tell me, my friend, what is going on? Where are all the people? What is going on?—I heard myself say in English impregnated with that Latino accent so common to the petty drug dealers in Hollywood films.

Ragnarök—muttered the beggar, looking at me with these slow eyes struggling to focus through the slime in them.

Ragnarök, he repeated and I had the sensation the tramp had fulfilled his mission in the world, as if he were conceived only for the purpose of playing the lead role in that moment in which he had to pronounce those three syllables in front of a tourist impaired with questions. Ragnarök, he said slowly, savoring each word, and signaled the darkened sky with a hand where the nails showed as if they were recently decapitated by tooth bites. Ragnarök, he said one last time, before he turned his back on me and went back to sleep as if nothing had happened. "Damn you," I shouted at him and walked on the direction of Terminal 3 where the sight was identical to the previous one. I witnessed the same abandonment and my desperation was the same. The same but not exactly the same but bigger. Increased by that mysterious ragnarök of my co-existent. I decided to go back to the previous terminal. Again the street with the freezing sidewalks. The impious wind and its knives. While tracing back my steps I noticed the beggar was no longer in the place I saw him. His cardboards were no longer there nor the newspapers that minutes before were isolating him from the New York wind.

I was going crazy. Dragging my suitcase in a hurry I went back to Terminal 2, where I was supposed to check-in. Everything was a distressing déjà vu. Only the time on the clocks had changed in that place. Ragnarök, had said the beggar. I hadn't seen a beggar in Manhattan. Maybe here in Queens they were more common. Ragnarök. But what did the final battle of Nordic mythological gods had anything to do with my not being able to return to my country? In what ways were Odin and the massive disappearance of passengers and personnel of the airport connected? The Valhalla of my country getting further away each second, like a spiral galaxy. That January the 23rd was becoming more gruesome each moment, was becoming ever more intense in my memory; a date written in stone. It was already half past eleven at night, it was soon going to be January 24 and I was still forlorn in the claws of the absurd, living in that reality scripted by some lunatic. I curled up in one of the chairs and was beaten by sleep, exhausted from the terrible effort of pretending to rationalize the insanity befalling me.

I stirred to the sound of steps and voices. With only a foot and a half into wakefulness I contemplated peopled in line in front of the kiosks, printing their boarding passes, dragging their somnolence, their hurry and their suitcases. People, moving about in every direction. All of a sudden everything was alright again. Normality. Life went back to move. Somebody had pressed the play button of existence. I recalled having forgotten my boarding pass over one of the counters in the other terminal. I did not want to go and search for it so then, begging that the computer would allow me to print another one, I went back running to the kiosk. To my surprise, I printed it without problems. And there lies the mystery. The date was not the 24, as one would expect. The date printed on the paper indicated it was January 23 at 05:02 in the morning. I had the accumulated fatigue of an entire day. And yet, according to the boarding pass, the day had just begun. I asked what day it was to a hairy young fellow with a Metallica T-shirt and heard, in horror, the answer:

January 23, man. Friday.

I didn't want to understand anything. With the boarding pass in hand I went through the check-in and then joined a line to go through customs. I was let in. I reached the boarding area. New York—Atlanta-Sâo Paulo—Luque. I reached home during the first hours of January 24. The day had frozen for me; I was given the part of an unwilling Joshua of the 21st Century. Before writing this story—in an attempt to exorcise that unresolved fragment of my past—I hadn't mentioned the incident to anyone. They would have thought me mentally unbalanced. I have convinced myself, as a way to escape from inexorable dementia, that everything had been only a momentary quirk of my perception of time, due maybe to the effects of the stress I was under back then. But deep down inside I know well it is not the case. I know well what happened to me in that airport was so real and at the same time as mysterious as the murdering in Dallas of that American president.