Scoundrel Time

The Future Is a Ceiling of Impossible Water


I was driving in a rented yellow convertible through the desert, near the eastern border of California. A bright spring morning: overhead, the sky was brilliant and blue, like a ceiling of impossible water. My forehead was damp. My hair was wild. My neck was caked with sand. I was exhausted but alert. I was crossing between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In every direction the wind formed a translucent barrier, sounding to the rate of my passage.

It was only April. Donald J. Trump was in the midst of consolidating his lead in the multiple-candidate fight through the Republican primaries, but the outcome was far from clear. Hillary Clinton continued to fend off a vigorous challenge from Bernie Sanders. Recently I’d agreed to report from the upcoming conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, my first political assignment, and throughout the winter I’d followed the races in both parties with a growing sense of dread. Still, it wasn’t until the tail-end of this spring trip through the desert, in the last few miles before the Nevada border, that I suddenly found myself overcome by the implications of a question I can’t help but describe, in retrospect, as a premonition: the only one I’ve come close to experiencing in my life.

*          *          *

Over the previous week I’d been staying at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I was there for a conference, but I spent most of the days driving through the city, conducting research for a book project involving, in part, the counterculture movements of the 1960s, especially as they related to California.

On my final night in L.A. I got lost. The conference was finishing up. I was heading to Vegas the next day. I’d gone out to dinner with some old friends, and when I made it back to my hotel, I took a wrong turn on an upper level, and all of a sudden I found myself on a red velvet staircase that wouldn’t stop descending.

What could I do? I followed it down. I was hoping for a way out. Finally I came to the lowermost floor. I was in some sort of basement. Ahead were two doors. The first, to my left, was loose and unlatched—shot-through, at eye level, with opaque glass. It was familiar enough: the entrance to a kitchen. The second door was off to my right. But unlike the other, it was propped open. The room beyond seemed enormous, a chandeliered expanse. Somehow I must have stumbled into the service entrance of one of the hotel’s ballrooms. I was about to walk over and take a peek inside when I felt the presence of a dreadful, inexplicable weight against my chest.

I could barely breathe. I glanced at the kitchen entrance. Then at the rich rectangle of light to the ballroom. Something horrible was happening behind these doors; or had happened a long time ago, and was about to happen again. There was the carpet. The dim porthole to the kitchen. Where was I really?

I stood like this for maybe a minute, dumbstruck and weak, my glance slipping from one door to the next, until at last I began to understand the broader context of the setting I’d stumbled upon:

Wasn’t this the very hallway that Bobby Kennedy had ducked into, just after midnight on that fateful June evening in 1968, during his passage from the ballroom on my right to the kitchen on my left—the kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan would be standing in silence, waiting to carry out an act that, over the course of a few seconds, changed everything?

I struggled for my phone. As I’ve said, I’d been researching this time period. Recently I’d even watched archival footage from the night in question. Still, I needed confirmation. But the Internet wouldn’t work, a lack of connection that made everything worse—as if, in my wrong turn, I’d left behind far more than the surface of 2016 Los Angeles—and in the next moment I sprinted up the staircase as fast as I could.

Minutes later, after multiple floors and frantic turns, I emerged, bewildered and flushed and pouring sweat, in the nighttime lobby of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, where I felt unaccountably grateful for the presence of other humans…not to mention cellular reception.

Which was how I discovered what I really should’ve known from the start: I’d been wrong. Bobby Kennedy was killed at another hotel, the Ambassador—in the kitchen of a ballroom that was located some two miles west of the Biltmore’s lobby.

That evening—June 4th, 1968, the night of the California primary—Kennedy delivered his victory speech just after midnight Pacific Time. “I want to express gratitude to my dog Freckles, who’s been maligned,” he said to raucous laughter, before adding, “I’m not doing this in the order of importance, but I also want to thank my wife Ethel…” He went on to acknowledge his campaign staffers in the crowd. “And it’s on to Chicago,” he concluded, “and let’s win this!”

Then he ducked into a service exit, taking a shortcut through the kitchen corridor to another ballroom, where reporters were waiting to interview him for what was to be the final press conference of the night. Along the way he was repeatedly stopped and congratulated. Near the ice machine in the kitchen, he shook hands with Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy. Just then Sirhan Bishara Sirhan emerged from the clutter along the wall—appearing as if through a doorway to history itself, his hand like the mouth of an outrageous snake: its glinting, metallic tooth—and fired multiple shots from a .22 caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver. Bobby Kennedy was hit at point-blank range behind the right ear, then again, twice, in the armpit.

The damage was immediate; with its fluid tail of bone the first bullet had drawn an irreversible path through his head. Still: for a few miraculous moments, he remained conscious. After the people at his side immobilized the assassin—the writer George Plimpton was there, along with two former professional athletes—he was able to ask, with startling lucidity, if anyone else had been hurt. Then he slid his eyes to Romero, whose hand he’d just been shaking. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said. A few minutes later he whispered, “Don’t lift me.” Then he lost consciousness. The next day he was dead.

I sat reading all of this, again, in the lobby of the Millennium Biltmore. I even re-watched the raw news footage on YouTube, making my way through more than twenty minutes of ABC’s archived broadcast—up to the precise moment when anchor Howard K. Smith announces, “We’ve heard an alarming report that Robert Kennedy was shot…a very loud noise like a clap of thunder was heard, a small explosion…” Which was when I finally switched off my phone and glanced up.

A few guests were standing in line near the check-in counter. At the empty concierge desk a phone was ringing. The lobby smelled clean and sour, like lemon-scented bleach. What the fuck was I doing?

I jumped to my feet. I laughed heartily, just in case anyone had been watching. “The Ambassador! I said to no one in particular, a bit louder than intended. I knew without a doubt that I’d fabricated the whole experience; I’d been wrong from the start. And for the rest of the evening—later, returning to the conference, I found myself drinking past midnight—I tried to forget what had happened, attributing the terror I’d felt to my own inherently melodramatic nature. As in: I’d freaked out because I always freak out—one of the few personal shortcomings I’ve come to recognize, through repeated experience, as impossible to conceal.

*          *          *

The next morning I left for Las Vegas. In the rented convertible (another component of my “research”), the destinations before me unfolded like plot points in some forgotten Western: Barstow, Baker, Zzyzx, Primm, and Nevada beyond. I was driving through the Great Basin: that uproarious boundary-point of tectonic drift where, in another hundred million years, this whole western swath of the continent is fated to transform into an ocean as wide as the Atlantic.

Toward the end of my trip, just before Interstate 15 crossed the Nevada border, the traffic ahead slowed to a complete stop. I found myself stuck behind an endless row of cars. I figured there had been an accident. All I could do was wait.

After a while my attention wandered to the surrounding desert. For most of the trip, the convertible’s speed had blurred the landscape into a uniform expanse. But now, thanks to the vantage point of my wide-open cockpit, I realized that the basin beyond me was, improbably, verdant—carpeted by countless, deeply green plants. It made no sense. A great sea of weeds and fresh shrubs. There were even wildflowers; at various points they shone, in miniature, like lamps—bursts of purple and yellow arranged within the larger bloom, which stretched eastward as far as the eye could see.

I found the whole tableau to be strangely unnerving. Why? Should I really be so surprised to discover that, among all places, it was springtime here too?

Right then I heard a bang. Someone must’ve opened a door, only to slam it closed again. Had they also noticed the bloom? Did they care? Should they? What’s the actual difference between a living desert and the bottom of a future sea? After all, if something is destined to happen—if the geologic plates beneath us will eventually widen with water, the Mojave replaced by an ocean as precipitous and deep as the blue afternoon overhead—should it really matter that it hasn’t happened yet?

The traffic still wouldn’t move. Now I was angry. And confused. And hungry and hot and itchy, the sand a grainy helmet on my poor sweat-soaked scalp. I thought about the two doors I’d stood between the night before. About Bobby Kennedy and his brother before him. About Sirhan Sirhan’s outsized influence across the decades, a hand snaking itself all the way into the present. And it was right at this moment that I finally managed to articulate the question we’ve been approaching here from the start, the one I’ve gone so far as to describe, retroactively, as a premonition: When will it happen again?

To be clear, by it, I was thinking of an event along the lines of Kennedy’s assassination—a future one that would change things just as irreparably. I wasn’t consciously focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—though the parallel was there—so much as the dread that had been dogging me ever since I’d known I’d be writing about politics. If you were to ask me, just then—as I sat in my yellow convertible only a few miles from the Nevada border surrounded by a basin of inexplicable wildflowers— what this question really meant, I might have replied simply, that something was coming: an event drastic enough to change the world.

But it was only April. Another seven months were still to pass before I would find myself, on a warm autumn evening—Tuesday, November 8th, Election Night—at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., where, just after 9 PM, I looked up from the bar (a spot I’d purposefully chosen to report on what I assumed would be the republic’s selection of its first female leader) to witness a sight I’ll never be able to properly explain. The new vote counts for Pennsylvania and Ohio and North Carolina had just been tallied. It now appeared that Donald John Trump, against all odds, would be the next president of the United States.

The patrons were hugging and laughing. They appeared as surprised as I was. Men in red hats, women in pearl necklaces. Among them, I stood motionless. Earlier that evening I’d toured Arlington Cemetery, where I’d visited Bobby Kennedy’s memorial for the first time. On a low granite wall facing his grave there was a quote from Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

As the celebration at the Trump Hotel swirled around me, I turned these strange words over and over again in my head. Wisdom? Awful grace? The fuck? For minutes I stood there, immobilized, and watched the celebration grow. It was like a fire pulsing itself outward; chants of Build That Wall and Lock Her Up ignited around me. I thought again about the past and its inexplicable shape. I felt as if the events of the previous year were being arranged, irreversibly, into a single irrefutable pattern, casting an atrocious shadow across the recent past. I knew then, even though it was impossible, that this was the precise moment I’d glimpsed, months before, on that stalled stretch of desert road near the Nevada border. At last my reality and my dread had aligned. Everything that could happen had happened.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the next few minutes were some of the most trying of my life; I felt as if I could’ve remained at the bar of the Trump International Hotel forever, thinking about Aeschylus and Bobby Kennedy’s grave and that spring desert basin carpeted with wildflowers—when, at last, I did what I always do in these situations: I told myself to stop being so goddamn melodramatic and selfish. I got up. I walked out. Fucking Aeschylus, I kept thinking. I understood the progression of his quote well enough, why it had been one of Bobby Kennedy’s favorites: the stark movement from sleep to memory, then pain, attrition, despair, absolution, and, at last, wisdom—its dreadful, powerless grace. But as I fled the hotel and set out across the warm autumn Washington, D.C. night, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the arrival of a simple and timeless logic: All prophecy is inherently retroactive; fate is an act of hindsight; tragedy is secondhand; and the only real difference between doom and grace is one of perspective—your own.

But on that spring morning in the Mojave all of this was still more than seven months from becoming a reality. I hadn’t yet traveled to Cleveland, where I’d watch Trump accept the Republican nomination with a speech that directly plagiarized Richard Nixon. It would be another ninety days until I’d find myself sitting at the Urban Farmer in Philadelphia, admiring Hillary Clinton’s sober confidence alongside her coterie of famous supporters, from Katy Perry to Orlando Bloom. The Russian cyber-attack was only just beginning. And FBI Director James Comey had yet to snake out his own terrible hand into the middle of the race.

That morning, the ruthless desert traffic jam I’d been stuck in for nearly an hour finally cleared up. Soon I was accelerating toward a high range. I kept an eye out for the car crash I was sure had caused the delay, but if there had been one I didn’t see it. As I rose thousands of feet toward the oncoming mountains the air thinned and cooled; I was burnished with wind. In my roaring envelope of speed and light and aridity I felt, for lack of a better term, anonymous.

Of course there was something else I didn’t know. During the previous winter, a freak series of storms had swept the region—rainfall so extreme, much of the basin itself, from Death Valley to the eastern Mojave, was submerged beneath a surface of blue, shining water. This was the real cause of the bloom: a momentary inland ocean. It was eventually replaced by the weeds, hedges, and variegated wildflowers I’d see on my drive—an event that, in the past, we’d refer to as “a ten-thousand-year flood.” But such a term is no longer applicable. What’s changed, along with the climate itself, is our sense of scale.

At the time I simply figured that the bloom was a seasonal occurrence. As I crossed the final few miles to Las Vegas, booming through a mountain pass before descending, at last, into Nevada, my gaze kept wandering from the road. Every so often I was sure I had seen them again: bursts of color illuminating my steady progress forward. But I must have understood, even then, that the rate at which we travel tends to blur everything. And I was driving very fast.