John Strausbaugh, Stories


Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu
(click image to enlarge)







Flowback: A Filmstrip





A UFO lands on the roof of the Texas School Book Depository. Rose petals previously blessed by the Virgin Mary during an appearance in Flushing, Queens, begin to sift gently down out of the cloudless blue sky.


In Dealey Plaza, a young Negro boy named Tupac Shakur, with bottle caps attached to the bottoms of his shoes, goes into a charming tap-dance routine, scattering the petals. Tall cattlemen and oilmen in cowboy boots, Stetsons and three-piece Anderson & Sheppard suits pat him on the head and drop gold doubloons in his shoebox.

Crowds of high school girls peer up at the roof of the Book Depository, waiting for Jackie to emerge from the alien spacecraft. They clutch autograph books in their white-gloved hands and hope she will descend to offer fashion tips.

A burro wanders down the middle of Houston St., dragging its rope tether behind it. Abraham Zapruder, testing his new Model 414 PD Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series camera, shoots 26.6 seconds, or 486 frames, of footage. Years later, after buying this filmstrip at auction at Sotheby's in Manhattan, the aliens will run it backwards through a device they call the Improvalator, causing those 26.6 seconds to vanish from the time continuum. They hope this is enough to throw off the timing of Jackie's assassin. They calculate, however, that Zapruder would have had to shoot 893 continuous frames of film, far more than his relatively primitive hand-wound camera allowed.

Hearing of their prospective failure, Kurt Cobain goes into the famous funk that produces "All Apologies," originally titled "All Apologies (for Jackie)," and, ultimately, his suicide. The aliens buy his suicide note, in which he declares Jackie a goddess and all the rest of humanity unfit to live, at a Christie's auction, for one monstrillion dollars.

Cobain later joins Jackie and the Virgin Mary on tour. Courtney Love unsuccessfully sues the aliens for the return of the suicide note. She insists that it is a forgery and that she was Kurt's only goddess.

Back in Dealey Plaza, the rose petals melt, permanently staining the grassy knoll the deep, rich carmine for which some people will refer to it as the Bloody Knob. In the spacecraft, the aliens coach Jackie, Lee and Ruby through one last rehearsal. Over mahjong, Lev, the rare survivor of the Kolyma gulag, explains to the tattooed yakuza Yugioh how every evening, after a day of murderous labor in the goldmines, lingering over their daily ration of half a herring and six ounces of stale bread, the prisoners listened to a gramophone record of a speech Stalin delivered in the Bolshoi Theater in 1937. His voice was so mild and tender, Lev tells Yugioh, his love of the people so obvious, that we prisoners worshipped him as devoutly as Kurt does Jackie. We prayed to him nightly to deliver us from our tormentors, the gulag staff. Dying by the monstrillion in the mines, we could not conceive that Stalin was responsible for or even aware of our suffering. Even today, Lev tells Yugioh, some nights I find myself praying to the great father to watch over me in my sleep.

While Lev is preoccupied with this story, Yugioh twice cheats him, palming tiles. Yugioh is bored with Lev's stories. He is a survivor in his own right, and has lived up to the original meaning of ya-ku-za, which is the hard luck numbers 8-9-3, also known as za-pru-da. Yugioh's tattoos are nontraditional. A basket of rose petals adorns his chest. The Virgin of Guadalupe is on his back. Long quotations from Joseph Stalin and Michael Rennie run the length of his legs. He was about to be assassinated by the other members of his gumi for these outrages when the aliens, using the Improvalator, removed him to the safety of their ship.

Humans have given up trying to divine the purpose of the aliens' meddlings in their history and affairs. The aliens display a clear weakness for loners and outcasts, like Yugioh, like Lev, like the Virgin Mary, like Jackie after Jack left her for Judith Exner Kennedy. They show a predilection for inserting themselves into great, tragic or tabloid moments in history. Moving the White Bronco from 495 to El Pico, bringing Kurt and the Virgin back, and so on. But why have they orchestrated Jackie's assassination, only to try to undo it? And why cast Lee Majors as her assassin and Ruby Dee as the assassin's assassin? Why purchase Youtube, MySpace and Facebook, consolidate them as MyFace and remove all content not somehow related to them? They obviously possess technologies far in advance of ours, and have access to a vast store of wealth. But generally their actions seem pointless, even frivolous. In his two-hour video exposé Profiles in Uforia, previously viewable on Youtube, leading conspiracy theorist John F. Kennedy offers "proofs" of his argument that they are the wealthy, spoiled children of an advanced but now decadent civilization, wielding their riches and power with no marked intelligence or wisdom. Humanity is no better or worse off since their arrival, our affairs no more or less chaotic and confused.

Jackie enters Dealey Plaza on the burro, led by the tap-dancing Tupac Shakur. Secret Service agents flank them. She wears the now-famous pink riding outfit and cradles a bowl of rose petals in her lap. Her smile is radiant, a bit shy. The crowds cheer her warmly. She's been such a recluse since the divorce.

As Jackie turns onto Elm, the spacecraft rises from the roof of the Book Depository and hovers above the Bloody Knob, where, among assorted cattlemen and oilmen, schoolchildren and cheerleaders, Lee and Ruby prepare to play out their parts.

Jackie is passing the Knob. Lev can't watch. The Virgin crosses herself. Lee slips a hand in a pocket. Ruby, beside him, does the same.

Shots ring out. Lee Majors crashes to the ground. A throwing knife spills out of his hand. His blood spills out, the same color as the grass only shinier.

The crowd atomizes. A Secret Service man hauls Jackie from the burro and lies on top of her. Later she will remember his sheltering hulk and ask him out.

Ruby whirls. Kurt stands alone uphill from her, the shotgun on his cocked hip, the smoking barrels pointed carelessly toward the belly of the hovering spacecraft. He is smiling for the first time since she met him.

Then the aliens feed the Zapruder filmstrip into the Improvalator and switch it on. The burro lurches back up Elm 26.6 seconds, to a spot nearer the Book Depository. It is all about to unfurl again, but maybe differently this time.

In a fit of pique at the aliens' ceaseless meddling, Kurt fires both barrels at the belly of the hovering spacecraft. Yugioh, leaning out an open porthole, is peppered about the face with buckshot. He will later have a tattooist connect the dots, forming the famous Betty Hill Star Map, at the center of which is the constellation Reticulum. John F. Kennedy has speculated that the aliens come from the fourth planet circling the star Zeta 2 Reticuli. The aliens have never commented on the location of their home world, only claiming that in their language its name sounds like Flowbee. Kennedy is skeptical. The aliens, who are quite hairy about the shoulders and neck, are so fond of the human grooming device called the Flowbee that they bought the whole company.

In fact, an alien is trimming its shoulders with a Flowbee when the pellets from Kurt's gun fly in the open porthole. One pellet strikes the Flowbee, sending an electrical short back up the cord to the alien wall socket into which, through an appropriate and complex adaptor, it is plugged.

It is now evident that the aliens' spacecraft is not quite so advanced as they have always let humans believe. Specifically, it is highly sensitive to electrical shorts of the type that now cascade through its systems. The ship shimmies and quakes in the air over the Bloody Knob. The crowd below atomizes. Lee and Ruby stare at each other in befuddlement. Then Lee Majors bolts downhill, and Ruby Dee struggles to catch up.

Lee Majors runs up Elm, the throwing dagger held up by his ear. The Secret Service agents, distracted by the wobbling and whirring spacecraft now emitting trails of acrid carmine smoke, don't notice him until he is within 26.6 feet of Jackie. She meets his eyes. Her gaze is mild, resigned, forgiving. In her heart she has always known that the aliens would botch this moment. They are, she decided some time ago, silly creatures, rather reminiscent of some of her wealthy, privileged, yet irrefutably worthless and parasitic relatives and social peers.

Her gaze freezes Lee Majors in his tracks. Ruby Dee races forward, her own blade out. Up on the hill, in the shadow of the struggling spacecraft, Kurt hollers a strangled cry. Witnesses will later say it sounds like he shouts everything is my fault, which is of course a line from "All Apologies." Coincidentally, it is part of the long quote from Stalin that runs down Yugioh's left leg. The full quote, which Lev has told Yugioh was on a plaque at the entrance to the Kolyma gulag, is (The enemies of peace and democratic freedoms will tell you that) everything is my fault.

Lee Majors blinks and prepares to throw. Ruby Dee lunges across the remaining space between them. Jackie gazes at Lee's knife. Tupac Shakur gazes at Lee's knife. The burro gazes at Lee's knife. The Secret Service agents gaze at Lee's knife. Lev covers his eyes and whispers a fervent prayer.

Jackie's lips move. Her famously enigmatic and vague smile. No one can hear what she murmurs. Witnesses will disagree.

On his MyFace page, Kurt claims to be sure:


All in all, he says she says, is all we know.

The filmstrip drops out of the Improvalator and onto the shuddering deck of the spacecraft. It curls into a circle among scattered rose petals.


To see more of Takeshi Tadatsu's art, go here.

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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh



All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh