Adam Braver is the author of six novels (MR. LINCOLN'S WARS, DIVINE SARAH, CROWS OVER THE WHEATFIELD, NOVEMBER 22, 1963, MISFIT, and THE DISAPPEARED). His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders' Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. Braver's fiction and essays have appeared in journals such as Daedalus, Ontario Review, Cimarron Review, Water-Stone Review, Harvard Review, Tin House, The Normal School, West Branch, The Pinch, and Post Road. Additionally, Braver is editor for the BROKEN SILENCE series for the University of New Orleans Press, a series that tells the firsthand stories of political dissidents. He is on faculty and author-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. He also teaches at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
In September of 1969, a billboard on the Sunset Strip advertised the album Abbey Road—giant Beatles strolling across the iconic crosswalk, the tops of their heads cut out and shaped individually, extending above the panels, creating a three-dimensional effect against the sky. The 14 foot x 48 foot pallet, which primarily showcased replica album covers, each painted quietly and somewhat anonymously by Mario Rueda, stood at a key vantage point, lording right at the border of West Hollywood, just below the famed Chateau Marmont. The Beatles billboard was a big deal. Something to talk about. The four of them large and looming over greater Los Angeles. And although they were depicted in the crosswalk of Abbey Road, it was as though they were strolling across Sunset Boulevard, white suited, cigarette dangling, denim clad, and barefooted, with their heads just above the city. People stopped to take pictures. Stared at it as if it wasn’t advertising but as though it had personality, and, in its own way, was a living part of the cultural landscape. A welcome distraction from Nixon, politics, the draft and its rumored lottery system, not to mention the war, itself. But not long after the billboard had appeared, someone had climbed up the scaffold, cut away Paul McCartney’s head and had stolen it.
“One more tear in the fabric,” she said. We were stopped in traffic on Sunset, just below the billboard and the decapitated McCartney. It was the usual backup, enhanced by gawking at the sign. A teenager wearing a thin leather headband stumbled up the sidewalk, wasted. It wasn’t even noon. She pointed up at the billboard. “You know, if you squint, it’s like the sun is making a halo where his head was.” Traffic still wouldn’t budge. I said, “Maybe he blew his mind out in a car.” She accused me of always having to make a joke. And then she said the thing about the tear in the fabric again, her go-to line for how anything bad that happened in the world was subverting its destiny. I suggested that maybe there was another way to look at it. Perhaps the world naturally was torn, a collection of frayed shards just barely held together. “Maybe,” I said, “it is a negative effect, that in fact you’re only noticing the space between the tears and not the tears themselves.” She shook her head, refusing to engage. “It’s okay,” she said. “Never mind.” The traffic broke and we motored off, not talking for the rest of the drive.
The billboard came down within a week. The authorities hadn’t found the Paul McCartney head, concluding it had been spirited off in the hills to who knows where in the valley. By that time, we’d long forgotten.
For years after that afternoon when Curtis Tibbs first approached him in the teacher’s lot in the fall of 1969, Albie mulled through all the potential paths that his life might have taken if he had stayed later to correct papers in his homeroom, or if he’d scheduled his meeting with the vice principal for that afternoon and not the previous, or if he’d decided to go for a beer with some of the other teachers. There were any number of possibilities. Instead he’d made his way into the parking lot at just the same time that Curtis Tibbs, one year out of high school, happened to be at LAHS to pick up his freshman sister from school because their mother got called into work. It was only by chance that Albie had noticed Curtis’ face, noticed that he was looking slack and pale as if he might faint. Normally he would have waved, intuitively knowing the things that were not his business. But on that September afternoon, with a pang of concern, he walked over to ask Curtis Tibbs if he was feeling okay. And the only way Curtis could respond was to hand his former U.S. History teacher, Mr. Thompson, a balled-up piece of paper that when unfolded was a draft notice, ordering Curtis to report for an “Armed Services Physical Examination” in two weeks at 8:58 am. And even then, things might have gone on as normal, with Albie expressing concern and trying to be reassuring, and then heading home. He would have spent the next two weeks focused on his lesson plans, teaching, and grading papers. He would have spent the next ten years going to his father’s house at least once a week for dinner, maybe making the occasional drive up to Chavez Ravine to see a Dodgers game, and, who knows, perhaps even shuttled future grandchildren for his father to watch. For a sliver of time, any of that remained possible. Until Curtis Tibbs, his eyes watering as he looked up, relinquishing any sense of pride he’d ever owned, said, “Mr. Thompson, I could sure use one of those Underground Railroads about now.”
What Curtis Tibbs could never have known is that once he’d made the suggestion for help, Albie was hooked into something that wouldn’t let go. Curtis Tibbs’ situation snagged every loose fabric of doubt Albie had about his own commitment to his values. It had awakened the nagging shame about never having done something meaningful. He’d never risked his own wellbeing for someone else. He talked about it every day in the classroom. Baited and tried to inspire students to take and to honor such a path. But he’d never truly put his convictions ahead of his own comfort. The sacrifices always were best left to others; after all, he had to be up by 6:30 on schooldays. Maybe everything would have ended-up differently if that line of thinking hadn’t been fresh in his head when, on that September afternoon, he saw Curtis Tibbs in the parking lot. Maybe if that afternoon’s class hadn’t covered the abolitionist Levi Coffin, who, in his home, had sheltered somewhere around two-thousand runaway slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad, despite never-ending threats to himself, his family, and friends, thus earning a moniker begrudgingly bestowed upon him by his detractors but conferred by history as President of the Underground Railroad.
When it becomes clear he’ll have to go to Canada—the town of Canmore, up in the Rockies—and the van picks Albie up in the alley behind his building at night, he won’t feel as though he has to slink; he’ll already feel vanished. They’ll stop at the Gulf on Wilshire for gas, just before getting on the freeway, and Albie will get out of the back, take a brazen first step as a fugitive inside the minimart, and buy two packs of M&Ms, so convinced that he’s ghosting through the aisles that even the cashier hasn’t noticed him and probably will wonder when the dollar bill appeared on the counter.
It’s never been clear whether Curtis Tibbs was discovered on his way to Canada or whether he had turned back on his own. The facts, as Albie knew them, were that they’d made it up I5 as far north as Redding. Akin to the Underground Railroads he knew so well, Albie had become networked with a SUPA contact in the States. He never knew who he was speaking with, only that he initially called a phone booth with a 510 area code; from that point on, he was phoned by the SUPA contact at prearranged times. Those calls produced the plan that would ferry Curtis to Canada.
On a Sunday morning, while Curtis Tibbs and his family still were in church, it was set that Curtis would leave on Monday night, three days before his scheduled physical. He’d layover in Portland, Oregon, with someone who would be revealed to him upon arrival, sleep in that person’s basement for two nights, and then a new secret driver would take him the rest of the way into British Columbia, where members of the Vancouver Committee to Aid American War Objectors would further assist him into a basic resettlement plan. The plan was loose. There was mystery in the seams. But there was no reason to believe there would be any hitches or danger, as long as Curtis was long gone before the bureaucracy realized that not only had he not shown up for this physical, but that he never would.
But something happened that night in Redding between using the telephone at a truck stop, and then coming back to the VW to say he needed to take a leak before they hit the road. The next place Curtis Tibbs was located was at a diner counter in a truck stop outside of Fresno, California, where he sat for four hours without moving, waiting while his parents trudged up the Grapevine and through valley to retrieve their shaking son. Between the time the Tibbs family was en route back from Fresno to Los Angeles, Albie had been put on notice by an emergency call from his SUPA contact that Tibbs had left, and that the plan was compromised. They said because the only name that Curtis Tibbs could offer the FBI was that of Mr. Alban Thompson, Albie ought to best disappear, lest the whole network go down. Vanish. Right away. Before it was too late. They were sending someone now. Just lay low until you get the next set of directions. Albie left the papers he was grading on the table. He packed his bag. Drained his bank account. And in under two hours he was out his back door and climbing into a white van.
As it turned out, the very next morning, Curtis Tibbs, escorted by his old man, reported a day early for his physical, with no questions asked. After dropping his son off, Tibbs’ father, a veteran, had gone straight to the FBI. By then Albie was well past Redding, and not far from Portland, where he’d take the bed Curtis Tibbs was supposed to be sleeping in. Three weeks later Albie was renamed Percy Roth in Canmore, Alberta. And six weeks later Curtis Tibbs was dead on a battlefield in the Mekong Delta.
It’s true the waiter told us they were out of romaine, but we hadn’t expected that the salad would be made of basil.
This was one of those eateries where you sit at the counter, and you can see the cooks back in the kitchen. The woman who would become my wife said, “What the hell?” and though I didn’t want to make a production, I did have to admit it was no way to eat a salad, even if they had sprinkled the top with some carrots, croutons, and radishes.
The cook could see we were boiling. The woman who would become my wife, she was especially hungry. She’d been back and forth across the valley all day for work, and she’d had no time to eat anything but a stale muffin that still managed to be greasy. She wanted something fresh. That was her only request. I didn’t say the obvious. The timing was all wrong.
“Flag him down,” she said, referring to the waiter. But he knew what was what. He was keeping to the other side of the floor.
It was a funny time at the restaurant, right on the cusp—after the dinner hour, but just before the nightclub people would start to roll in. A San Francisco band was playing up the street at the Whiskey. Looking out at the window at the pedestrian traffic, you could spot their fans without even feeling bad about making assumptions.
She pushed the so-called salad away, the plate dangerously close to the edge of the counter. For a moment, I thought it could fall off. She was making a point. The cook was watching. You could only see his eyes, peering over the few tickets that hung down over his line. Something about him was familiar. It was impossible to tell if he was trying to make eye contact, or if he was trying to avoid us.
She said we should just go. That this is bullshit. Outside, the sidewalks were filling with more and more people making their ways to the clubs. Even our dumb little eatery was beginning to fill up. I said, “We’ll never get into any place else at this point.” I suggested we try to order her something else.
“In this ghost town?”
He was like an angel, that chef. He appeared behind the counter, delivering a plate of freshly sautéed vegetables, mostly greens, layered over rice. It wasn’t quite the fresh that she’d been after, but it was generous and kind, and it was close enough. He apologized to the woman who would become my wife, saying the kid had told him it was okay. “But once you got the plate, I could tell by your face that he was an idiot.” The chef pulled a waste bin out from under the counter. And in a symbolic gesture meant as an act of confederacy, he put his first two fingers on the edge of the basil salad plate, applying more and more pressure until it tilted and tumbled down.
She thanked him, although it wasn’t clear if it was for the vegetable plates or for getting rid of that ridiculous salad. Probably both.
The chef braced both hands on the counter, leaning his weight into it. I could feel his breath. See the two whiskers he’d missed shaving, right at the line of his lower lip. He knotted his eyes, as though bringing me into focus. He was slick and put together, although the preening confidence appeared fragile. “Do we know each other?” he asked me.
I said he looked familiar. But I couldn’t place it.
“Anything to do with go-kart racing by any chance?”
The woman who would be my wife laughed, and brought her napkin off her lap to her mouth, in case she spit out some broccoli.
He shrugged. “No, I’m serious.” He was used to it, the reaction.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It was another life,” he said. “A former line of work is all.”
For a week it picked at me how I knew him. I even pictured having once spoken with him. In the middle of the week I went back to the diner. I wanted to figure it out. The same waiter was there. He didn’t recognize me. You could tell this wasn’t a job he cared about. This kid was just killing time until the next thing.
To get his attention, I had to go up to the counter, and stand in front of the cash register. I fingered the toothpick jar while trying to get a glimpse in the kitchen. “Just one?” he asked.
I said I was looking for the cook who worked in the evenings. He was here about a week ago.
“You mean Monty?”
The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t be sure. “Kind of tall,” I said. “Thin.”
“Yeah.” The kid’s face got funny. He cleared his throat once or twice. Dug his hands into the front of his apron. He apologized, saying he hadn’t had to say it yet. At least not to a stranger. No matter what you thought of this waiter, you could see he was struggling. That it was hard. I felt for this kid, this sweet idiot kid, who was about to give me horrible news.
I found myself backing up. It was reflexive. And then I stepped forward again and took a seat at the counter. I asked him for a glass of water. I was pretty sure I was going to pass out.
The kid filled up a pitcher, pouring a glass for me and then one for himself. He said he didn’t know what happened, only that it happened, and it seemed like it was really rough. He said Monty was a nice guy, but it seemed like he was mixed up in some bad things. And then he asked how I knew him.
“That’s the thing . . .”
The kid sipped his water. I never finished the thought and he didn’t care. He wasn’t really that interested. He had his own thoughts, and his own worries. He said there seems to be a curse on this block. Along the whole strip. “There’s been nothing but a spate of bad luck. Bad news piled on top of bad news. Ever since that head got taken.”
That night, at the apartment of the woman who would become my wife, I told her about Monty, about how I didn’t know how I knew him, but that I felt hit as though I did. And then I told her what the kid had said about the bad luck and the curse ever since that business with the sign, and we both agreed that it was possible, and that we hoped that they found that Paul McCartney head soon. We didn’t need any more bad news in this world.