“What Happens To People Like Us” by Jim Grimsley

Image by Israel Aguilar Pacheco / israpache.wixsite.com/pache

A day in fall, a day of descent, of the receding of heat and the first touch of lighter air, brought a sense to our town that a tide had turned and easier days would follow. As always I woke before dawn with a certainty that my sleep was over for the night, so I rose and dressed and paced. I watched a tidy cat step along the fence of my back yard, the morning light enveloping its soft fur, the cat with easy footfalls passing beneath a last burst of color from hybrid azaleas I had planted there, that bloomed three times a year. Flowers like violet trumpets. As a morning this one began with a feeling of peace. I sipped my coffee, content with the poses of the cat, until a fluttering led me to see it carried in its mouth a bird, not yet dead but caught and dying, and what I had thought a lovely effect of the light was the intermittent motion of its wings. A moment later and the feathers rippled again, the bird in a last moment of motion before stillness.

A summer of drought had dried the fields, shriveled the corn, parched the soybeans, cracked the earth. We in Rockley were not farming people but our houses had been built on farmland where useful crops had once grown, and just beyond our borders lay the remains of farms from which we heard rumors from time to time. A bad year said the last of the farmers. For the first part of June there had been rain, then the skies closed up, and now it was September. But some relief might come, we townspeople thought. A merciful God could look down on us; we prayed for this over and over again in our good Christian churches, our one synagogue, our mosque. Any God who would send rain would be as good as any other.

I stood at the back door watching for more signs of the cat, hearing the neighbor’s son bang the door of his house as he started his walk to school. For breakfast I ate a bagel and a bit of jelly; I used to eat half a grapefruit before I started Lipitor for my cholesterol. No grapefruit for two hours says the label, but to be safe, I leave the fruit on the grocery display, a little pyramid of yellow suns. At one time I had wanted to live forever, but now my teeth hurt and my knees ached. In the brief cool of morning, a walk of a mile or so lent my aging heart a comforting sturdy thump in my chest, good red blood in all my arteries, veins, capillaries, flushed through my happy cells.

Pop pop pop went the sounds, a perfect punctuation, as if someone were conducting a symphony and turned at a certain moment to the percussion section, where a man in an evening suit stood at a snare drum; but this was morning and there was no orchestra in sight. A car had backfired, had backfired twice. There was always traffic at this hour, and a new addition to the Rockley city hall was to be dedicated today, so the streets appeared a bit busier than usual.

Pop pop pop went the cars again, and really, I thought, this was excessive; some white trailer-park trash, some careless Negro, some worthless Mexican needed to learn the value of automobile maintenance. The poor drove around our pretty town in cars covered with rust, with boom boom boom music overflowing from the open windows. Headphones were made to keep such noise flowing directly into the listener’s ear, not spilling through the streets in an unwelcome flood. It had been an orderly world once, at least in my imagination, but now there were so many colors, cultures, nationalities, even here in our suburb. When I had these negative thoughts about poor, shiftless people who had cars that backfired, I tried to spread them out equally over the races. In the name of diversity.

So I walked with these thoughts in my head and rounded through the park and headed home along Spring Street, planning a morning of research on an article I was writing about the renovation of a playground there.

Beneath the thin skin of the everyday such people exist everywhere, in every mirror in every house. I had seen the monster many years before, twenty-eight years before . . .

My neighbor Laura was wandering the front yard of her house in a bathrobe partly tied, one loop of the belt dragging the ground, a slipper slid half off one foot. She held a cup of coffee in one hand as though she had forgotten she was carrying it. She looked at me and said, “Somebody got shot at the school.” We were separated by a hundred feet or so, she at the center of her lawn and I on the sidewalk. Her voice was listless, her face lost in some transition it could not quite make, the expression of a normal morning vanished and nothing yet come to take its place. “I just heard it on the news.”

“A shooting?” I asked, my raspy voice falling into the sudden stillness.

“They’re just standing outside the school saying somebody got shot. They don’t know anything. That reporter from Channel 2. I don’t know her name.”

Then came a shaking of windows, a blast, something like a crack of thunder but at ground level. A wave of shock passed through my body and another kind of shock passed through my mind, and Laura and I looked at each other. A plume of smoke or dust was rising in the distance, and already I realized this was a different direction from the school, but I was also watching Laura’s listless posture, the gray of her face.

I stood at the edge of the yard. She lifted the coffee cup, looked at it. “What was that? Was that a bomb?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It sounded like a bomb, didn’t it?”

“There’s a dust cloud,” I said.

We were speaking in ordinary voices, as if she had just told me, I need to cut the grass today, and I had answered, Yes, my lawn needs mowing, too. But inside me there was a feeling that came to me at times, that I could take a drink. I had been twenty-eight years sober but I still wanted to taste whiskey. Such a familiar feeling that I could let it pass through me, only barely holding my breath. It had been a deep thirst once, but now it was simply a fading feeling and soon passed to nothing.

“Would you come inside the house with me?” She gave me a forlorn look, and I was not quite sure she knew who I was. “Just sit with me? I don’t mean to be creepy or anything.”

“Yes, sure,” I said. “We could see what’s on the TV. Maybe that reporter knows something by now.”

Overhead came the sound of a helicopter, this one painted with the logo of a television station from Charlotte. Flying toward the school it was, and then it veered off in the direction of the cloud of smoke.

It is pointless to name the ways in which Rockley changed that morning, though something must be said, since all that made it truly ordinary was lost in the hours that followed. Our town lay near Charlotte toward the South Carolina line, mostly new houses on what used to be dairy farms; there were still productive fields near enough to see, beyond the last of the subdivisions and strip malls. Charlotte was a southern city but Rockley was full of people from everywhere, and only few of us said y’all in the old fashioned way, as one word, drawled a bit. We had people from India, Nigeria, El Salvador, Colombia, Russia, Serbia, Korea, Viet Nam, and god knows where else. Bright shiny new townhouses stood in rows, built of particle board and vinyl siding. Chain restaurants lined the avenues. We had a sushi place and a Thai restaurant, though I had never eaten at either. There was a restaurant that served what was reputed to be good dim sum. The high school football game in those days looked like a meeting of the United Nations.

Different though we might be, we were united by the town itself, the potholed streets, the avenues lined with crepe myrtle, the paint flaking from fire hydrants; on the streets we shared the flow and stall of traffic and the intermittent blare of horns. We suffered alike under the sweltering summer heat, or sudden storms that could scatter us across a movie theater parking lot like so many insects, fumbling to protect our phones from the rain, snatching at anything handy to cover our hair. Lately we had been united by the lack of rain, the similar way in which we stared upward at the haze of the sky, wondering where the storms had gone, when the rain would come again. While I was born and raised to think white people the superior race of all the world, even I could feel our similarity more than our difference in the face of a summer that raged with heat.

We were linked by our divorces, our children who shared families connected by past and present marriages; we were linked by a belief in a kind of God who was, above all else, in general agreement with our personal mores while shedding the occasional blessing on the national economy; and we were linked by the economy, the transactions, hiring someone to clean our houses, standing next to one another as we bought groceries and gas, watching our neighbors finger blouses and shirts in the Rockley Center Mall. Above everything else we were joined in a common bond by our children, on whom we placed all our hopes, until they were old enough, like mine, to leave home. To refuse ever, ever to speak to their drunken father again. The television shows that we watched, the cable company that we complained about, the hatred of this or that sitting president, all this commonality underlay our lives.

The ring tone chimed now, sound muffled by the couch. Laura made no move to answer it, and I thought that odd.

That morning we also shared the news: someone set off a bomb in front of the city hall, in the area that we all called downtown Rockley, and somebody else shot up the local middle school, and all the isolated peace of our inconsequential suburb was finished. At first we thought the two events were connected and that we were under some sort of general attack that might end with wholesale slaughter. Later we were to learn that the bomb exploded from a truck driven by a former policeman, passed over for promotion, a veteran from the wars in the Mideast, a man whose name is now known by everyone. Later we would learn who had fired the shots at the school.

Entering the house, rooms into which I had stepped before only once or twice, I felt as if I had walked through a kind of webbing into a dimly lit cocoon; though in fact I stood in high-ceilinged entryway looking into a great room into which a good deal of light was falling, filtered through the leaves of oaks and maples. Laura moved through the spacious room as if she were sleepwalking, and stood in front of the television with one arm crossed and one arm dangling. Another television was playing in the kitchen, visible from where I was standing, the two screens displaying two different stations, two different voices speaking in confusion, the all-too-common sight, some human with a microphone and an earnest look of importance, narrating an event about which far too little was known. A tragedy no one could have foreseen, no one ever dreamed such an act could take place here, local people are stunned by the carnage, this is not the kind of place where things like this happen. I listened in some bemusement, in spite of the sick feeling in my stomach. Where, I wondered, is that place in which such things are supposed to happen?

On the couch cushion rested someone’s cell phone. Message notifications were visible on the screen. The ring tone chimed now, sound muffled by the couch. Laura made no move to answer it, and I thought that odd. She said, “I can’t answer that.” She turned her head just a bit toward me so that I saw a smear of pink on her cheek; thought that seemed curious since hardly any woman I knew still used rouge. Maybe she had tried to lipstick herself and missed, and rubbed it out, a streak of pale red.

“Have you heard from Charlie?” This was the name of her son. It took me a moment of hesitation to say it, since I was old and bad with names. But I was sure enough to let the syllables out, and when she did not correct me I assumed I had it right.

“No,” she said. “Just a text message right after he left for school. That’s all.”

I wanted to ask, Have you tried to call? But something heavy in the set of her hips, something in the bedraggled hair hanging at the back of her head, held me still.

On the television, Channel 5’s Cristina Alvarez was saying, “We still have no details as to how many students are being held, or by whom, or where, but we’re continuing to see activity near what we’re told is the library.” In answer to a wise question from Anchorman Vern Hardy, she tipped the microphone closer to her lips and glanced over her shoulder at the still-expanding cloud of dust in the air. “No, Vern,” she said, “officials here are not connecting the school shooting with the explosion downtown, not at this time. They tell me they simply have no details. But people here are asking how the two tragedies should happen so close together and have no connection.”

Laura gave herself a shake that moved through her sturdy, healthy body. “I want to walk to the school,” she said, and somehow that relieved me. An expected reaction. “Will you go with me?”

“Of course. Don’t you want to drive?”

She shook her head. “I’m sure the streets are crazy.”

Practical, she was, even in this moment. I had gauged her as numb, judging by her body language, but she was thinking with clarity and moved with purpose in the direction where I expected her bedroom lay. “I need to change into something decent,” she said, and disappeared around a corner, while her phone began to ring again, and she ignored it again. The screen of the phone had flickered to life with the ring, and a message flashed there, and I thought I might step toward it to read the words, but in the end I stood where I was, near a schefflera in a glazed pot, the leaves yellowing and drooping on one side.

As I have said, at first everyone assumed the school shooting in Rockley was connected to the bomb that exploded in front of city hall, since the two events took place so close together; but within a few hours it appeared that they happened on the same morning merely by accident, a grotesque coincidence. Our little town was simply unlucky, the scene of two catastrophes, ambitious in disaster. For days the two events played in and out of each other. Speculation became rumor and rumor became news. Perhaps the bombing at city hall, which killed a woman and a dog, was the result of a conspiracy of teenagers at the school. Perhaps one of them drove the SUV, packed with explosives, to the side of the new annex before heading back to the school to shoot seventh and eighth graders in the library. Muslims had trained the shooter to make the bomb. Members of the Aryan Nation had put the plan together.

There were two school shooters, there were three, there were a dozen. The police had somehow missed the true number, or else had hidden the evidence because a secret department of the federal government had ordered all information suppressed. Homeland Security had clamped a lid of secrecy over the whole affair due to links to terrorist groups. One of the teachers had lured students into the library, had opened the door for a group of terrorists who did the shooting, the back door, the emergency exit. One of the teachers had built the bomb, had diagrammed it, had found instructions to make it on the internet. The streets and skies were filled with reporters. All the available television channels from everywhere in the world broadcast each new twist of theory. At times I thought the news people meant to confuse the issue deliberately, and nearly everyone in town stated at one point or another, as if the remark were original and terribly clever, “The reporters play it up for the viewers, you know. They want people to watch as long as possible.”

Someone to blame, the common denominator. How could such people exist? I listened to all this with a certain wry despair. Beneath the thin skin of the everyday such people exist everywhere, in every mirror in every house. I had seen the monster many years before, twenty-eight years before, when I had driven my family to another life by what I became when I drank; my ordinary had been stripped away the first time I beat my wife senseless, and in all the times afterward when I did the same thing, my daughters listening, screaming, watching. I had peeled away all the layers of the normal. In the dry years, the sober years, a callous had formed. But beneath lay flesh more tender still. That morning I stood in Laura Zubo’s house and wanted a drink again, the second time that day.

By the time Laura was dressed, when she appeared again, framed by her precise dining room, she had put the pieces of herself into place. Dressed in dark slacks and top, her hair pulled back in a bun low on her neck, she looked like someone ready to be photographed. The phone had rung again, and again, and was ringing still, and she stepped to the couch as if she were afraid she would shatter the surface of the floor, as if it were fragile, her steps light and slow. She turned off the phone while I watched.

“You already know, don’t you?” She spoke with the slightest quaver to her tone, her voice a brittle thread of sound.

“I think so,” I said. “I wasn’t sure, but I think so.”

Her voice grew a bit more steady. “I found the gun cabinet open this morning. Just a little while ago. Some of the guns are missing.”

I thought, but let the words hang in silence, in the empty space, Charlie took the guns, didn’t he? But she heard them anyway, or saw the change in my expression. She gave the tiniest nod. “He must have taken them to school in his backpack. I swear to God I don’t know why.”

But she must have known something. There was scarcely a trace of surprise in her manner or her words.

She had lived in Rockley for only a few years, married to a Czech, a doctor whom she had met in Europe, who had worked in the local hospital, who had left her a few weeks ago. She had never spoken like a Southerner, but neither did she speak like a girl from New Jersey. This was hardly unusual; most of the people in my neighborhood had lost their accents, including me. Though I could still drawl when there was a need.

On one of the flat screens the camera wavered and we heard more pops, more bullets, the reporter ducking, on her knees, finding cover behind a car, saying, “We’re hearing more gunshots now.”

A shudder passed through Laura. She turned off the television, though the one in the kitchen was still playing, a scene from the bomb site.

She left the front door open, in case the police should come, she said. That way they wouldn’t have to break down the door.

The last time I beat my wife she was cornered in the kitchen by the sink. I had smashed her nose with my fist, slapped her with open hands, shoved her face into the cabinet door, but somehow she opened the cabinet and pulled a stack of plates onto my head; such was her desperation that she found the strength, breathing like an animal, and why not? She was no more than a trapped animal at that moment. I was drunk and staggering a bit even as I hit her. When the plates came down l lost my balance, heard the crashing, felt the slam and weight of them against my head, felt her slip out of my grasp. I passed out in the broken glass, woke up bloody in an empty house. Twenty-eight years ago.

In the open air Laura and I walked through the grass to the sidewalk and struck out in the direction of the school. Laura stopped me at the corner, looked me in the eye. “Aren’t you going to ask me any questions?”

“Like what?”

She shook her head, bewildered, thoughts all disordered; one could read this so plainly in her features. “I don’t know.”

She meant questions like, how did Charlie get the key to the gun cabinet? How much ammunition did he take? Was he unhappy? Did something happen? But I had only glimpsed him a few times walking in and out of the house, slim and bony, too much hair. It had never crossed my mind to study him or to be curious about him. So I asked, “Are you sure you want to go to the school?”

Without answering she set out walking again. In the yard of one of the newer houses a woman was on her knees weeping with a phone in her hand, a South Asian woman, I knew her only as a doctor’s wife. A peach-colored scarf wrapped around her head, the end loose and fluttering, her hair decently covered. Ahead of us along the street were cars parked in a disorderly way; the school was only a few blocks down that street, and one could already see the mass of people, cars, news-channel helicopters overhead.

There is no summing up, no wisdom to dispense, no word of comfort. There is only the moving forward, one step after another, along a street in which the grieving people make themselves plain in their bewilderment; we have become part of the great cliché of school shootings, public bombings; there is nothing left to say except to repeat the formula, that things like this don’t happen to people like us, that ours is a peaceful place and none of us deserved such a tragedy. Soon we will know how many children are shot to death, how many of our friends have been blown to pieces by the bomb; but at this moment they are still dying, and even now we hear another gunshot. Laura flinches, her whole body convulsing, and she nearly sags to the pavement. I make no move to help her. She finds her footing again and we walk forward.

On the left, in the yard of the old clapboard house that still stands in our neighborhood, the center of the farm on which all our houses were built, an apple tree has spilled its apples onto the ground, green and gold. From the sky, darkening with clouds, comes the smell of moisture, the indifferent hope of a storm. We are a dry country, and we will be grateful for any rain that falls.



Jim Grimsley is the author of nine novels, a collection of short stories, a volume of plays, and a memoir. Works include Winter Birds, Dream Boy, Comfort & Joy, and My Drowning. His novels are published in German, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew, and Japanese. His first novel was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction by the American Academy of Arts and letters, and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. In 2005 he received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent book, How I Shed My Skin, was published by Algonquin Books in April, 2015. He teaches in the creative writing program at Emory University and lives in Decatur, Georgia.