ashes and bullets
Posted in the Farmington Forum
#1 Feb 22, 2013
Ashes and Bullets
Posted by Susan Straight
The bullet, the bullet—the shocking sound of the gun battle on American televisions last Tuesday, all afternoon and into the night the sounds replaying, and if you were outside on the porch, as I was, while my daughter listened inside, it sounded like a hundred American action films—as if actors were crouched behind the patrol cars with doors open, and a lone man inside a remote cabin with a high-powered weapon began the fusillade. Fusillade: that was the sound, the fascination across the nation at another fusillade. The sniper in the University of Texas tower; the man who walked into the McDonald’s in Killeen, Texas; the man who walked into a beauty salon in Manhattan Beach, California; the man who walked into a Sikh temple, and the police officer hit by twelve bullets. That very same officer sitting, listening to the State of the Union, and President Obama speaking of him, and Gabby Giffords, and the parents of the Newtown children, and the parents of one Chicago girl. We heard Obama’s words on most channels, and then, minutes later, on the same channels, we heard automatic weapons firing for what seemed like forever.
Last Tuesday night, while the cabin in the mountains—the cabin close to the Girl Scout camp where, when I was ten, our counselor “Stitch” killed a five-foot rattlesnake with a shovel—burned to the ground, my seventeen-year-old daughter couldn’t watch anymore. The previous Thursday, a classmate of hers had read the now-famous Dorner manifesto from his iPhone to her entire A.P. Psychology class because it seemed like the perfect way to study a particular behavior that involves bullets. The students were lined up in their desks, knowing every lockdown drill that American school kids now know, and a mile away, a Riverside police officer had been killed that morning in yet another fusillade, bullets that came from this close: one driver-side window of a car, one passenger-side window of another. The officer and his rookie partner were sitting in front of our favorite Alberto’s Mexican restaurant, across from the parent navel-orange tree that commemorates how this city made its original fortunes. My daughter left on the television, as do so many of us while horrific events involving gunfire unfold, as if it were disloyal to turn the screen blank.
#2 Feb 22, 2013
By Wednesday morning, nothing but ashes and burned bones. Ash Wednesday in Riverside. Hundreds of police black-and-white patrol cars streamed on the surface streets where I drove my daughter to school and then went on to work. There were squad cars and uniformed men all day, everywhere I went—“Fresno” and “Selma” and “Inglewood” and “Phoenix” and “Las Vegas” written on their doors and shoulders. We never turned on the television to see whose ashes were in the house, but we did touch the ashes on our own foreheads, and then I went to mark the eleventh anniversary of the day my own brother was killed with a bullet. His own nine-millimetre. Three days after his best friend had shot a man in the forehead, killed a stranger over a stolen cell phone. My brother—ashes—and me wearing the jacket he left me.
All I could think of was how the bullets are so often flying not by purposeful direction but by chance. Chance that someone is sitting in a pew, or desk, or on a stage, or in a patrol car. Chance so powerful when mixed with gunpowder. It was near freezing Wednesday morning, the parent navel-orange-tree leaves curled near the flickering candles and ivy wreaths of the memorial laid there for Michael Crain, whose mother-in-law is my friend. She works two blocks from that corner—she will have to drive past it every day. We originally had an appointment that day, Ash Wednesday, when I already had her annual cake to give in thanks for her help on tax returns, and then she was standing beside a casket, preparing to say farewell, the ashes mixed with snow and hundreds of shell casings in Angelus Oaks above us.
The body turns to ashes and dust. The bullets never disintegrate, whether they pass through us or stay lodged inside near the brain or elbow or heart. My nephew with a bullet permanently encased in the tissues of his back, from the night he was shot, by chance, by someone who mistook him for a gang member. The thousands of Americans who—in uniform of police officer or custodian or hair-stylist or school child or congregant—think of bullets every day. Or perhaps they think of chance, and shiver. Chance that Lincoln went to the theatre, that a Chicago teen sits in a park, that my nephews or daughters go to a party. My daughters are forbidden to go to parties, because close friends of mine have lost their sons to bullets at high-school parties. I never thought of bullets when I was growing up, right here, picking those oranges.
Last Tuesday morning, in eerie parallel, my students and I talked about guns and chance in the novel “Fools Crow,” by James Welch, set in eighteen-seventies America, when Montana was a territory to the Blackfeet tribe, when lives were forever altered by the appearance of “short guns,”“greased shooters,” and, finally, the “many-shots gun” that soldiers used on the men, women, and children—their first experience with fusillade and with the bad luck and coincidence that often led to massacres.
The bullet, so small as the one that killed President Lincoln (have you ever seen that tiny gun?) or so large as the ones fired from an assault rifle (have you ever seen one of those, like a miniature rocket, but never designed for space travel, only to enter flesh?). I have those bullets in my desk, just under my hands now, all those sizes, found on streets and yards and given to me by my brother, who worked an orange grove, and my ex-husband, who worked in corrections for twenty years. They wanted me to see what the bullets looked like—the .25 for cheap handguns, which tends to shatter and do large damage, the massive fifty-caliber projectile, which frightened me so much that I hid it far back in the desk drawer, under the funeral program for my brother and the small knit cap placed on my daughter’s head after she was born, in the age of a different kind of fear than I thought we would ever know.
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