A few months after I moved to North Carolina I was sitting on a porch with a half-dozen other people, drinking and talking about writing, movies, books we loved. It was October, and just cool enough to be pleasant, and the drinks tasted fine and a light wind stirred the falling leaves. I had just started graduate school, and though I didn’t know any of the people very well then, they were weird and funny and smart and I was in a new city with a new life stretching out in front of me, when four men wearing ski masks and carrying pistols ran up onto the porch.
It was around 11 O’clock. The table was littered with empty beer cans and drink glasses and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. I sat in a cheap plastic chair. Two people sat in the porch swing. Another couple stood by the door, another on a bar stool we had dragged outside, another in a recliner salvaged from curbside on trash pick-up day. When the men ran up the porch stairs we all froze. I could see the guns gleaming in the porch light. Through the open window came the sound of a radio.
“Give us your fucking money,” one of them said.
Two of the men stood by the porch steps, heads swiveling from the street to us and back again. They held their guns by their sides. The other two moved among us, much like you’ve seen on any number of TV shows or movies, taking watches and wallets. But we were grad students, and none of us wore expensive watches or rings or necklaces. None of the guys carried cash.
By the time one of the men made it to me, he was getting angry. He had gotten no money from any of us. I could see his eyes through his ski mask. His knuckles were white where they held the gun.
He pressed the gun hard enough into my stomach I could feel the coldness of the steel.
“Give me your fucking money,” he said.
My wallet was in my front pocket, my jacket covering it. I’d had a few drinks and the air was cool and I was in a new city and the whole thing seemed surreal, so I told him I didn’t have any money. I even shrugged casually as I said it. I thought they would simply run off, but by this point he was too angry to give up. He moved the gun from my stomach to my neck. His fingernails were clean, I noticed. Strange what you notice at a time like that. One of the others said “Let’s go,” but he shook his head slightly, just a twitch really, then pushed the barrel of the gun into my neck hard enough my head moved. He cocked the hammer.
“You got any money now, mother fucker?” he said.
I got my first gun for my 12th birthday, a bolt-action .410 with a blonde stock. It held three shells. It had belonged to my grandfather, who fought in WWII and Korea, and that fall I walked through the woods behind my house with it every afternoon as the dark came early and the leaves left the trees.
When I was 17, I joined the military. When we qualified with our M-16s I hit 35 out of 40 targets, one short of expert. In the second half of my military training I learned to disassemble and reassemble the M-16, the M-60 machine gun, the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, the M-203 grenade launcher, the 9mm, and the .50 caliber machine gun, as well as fire all of them. I’ve thrown hand grenades and set off Claymore mines, stabbed practice dummies with bayonets, even learned to call in air strikes. I’ve fired thousands of rounds in the military and thousands more with hunting rifles and pistols, and if I would have had a gun on me, I would have pulled it that night. Short of a police officer or soldier who trains everyday for just such an occasion, I would have wielded it as well as anyone could, under such circumstances.
Some nights I dream about the gun. The cold steel. The gleam in the porch light. There is no one standing over me. The gun is simply there. Soon the trigger will pull. There will come a brief flash, then the acrid smell of smoke, though I do not know if I will be alive to smell it, to see the flash, to hear the report.
In Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” the main character, Anders, does not hear the bullet, or smell the smoke, or feel it penetrate his flesh. It carves a furrow into his forehead, but he is not there to know. He is remembering a long-lost Saturday afternoon during the heat of summer. A baseball game. A boy chanting in right field. He is remembering the power of words.
Had the gun fired when it was pressed against my neck, my last words would have been “I don’t have any money.”
The last words I would have heard were “Mother fucker.”
In the dream, I think that I do not want mother fucker to be the last thing I ever hear. Nor do I want there to be a last thing.
I am writing this a few days after 26 people, 20 of them children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Six months after a gunman walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire with an assault rifle, wearing body armor and a gas mask. Five years after 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech, which is not very far away, geographically or metaphorically, from where I teach at a small liberal arts college. Thirteen years after Columbine.
I keep thinking of that classroom. My wife teaches kindergarten, and I see her room, which I have visited many times. I see her children, some of whom, from previous years, are stored on digital photos on my computer and often pop up when the screensaver switches on. The gunman would have walked through a door with a hand-written sign on it that says “Welcome to Mrs. Crenshaw’s Kindergarten Class!!!” My wife would have been standing at the board, or sitting at her desk. The children would have been coloring, or learning to form letters, or sitting in a circle on the carpet listening to my wife read.
She would have been the first to see him. To see the rifle raised. To see the fire shoot—I imagine this in slow motion—from the barrel as the bullets began to fly. She would have been the first one shot, and the last thing she would have seen would have been the bodies of her students falling beside her, their little shirts and dresses blooming now with blood, their mouths trying to form words but finding only screams, or nothing. I imagine seeing that would have been hard, although perhaps not as hard as the phone calls some parents would get later in the day. To learn that, only a single moment before it all began and everything ended—everything in your entire world—your children had been practicing their Rs, or drawing pictures of winter, or listening to my wife’s voice as she read to them about a snowy day, as I have heard her read to my children hundreds of times.
There is something broken in America. Something devastated, and devastating. That classroom. Those guns. The noise it must have made. The broken glass, the pools of blood. The children with their eyes closed as they were led out. The phone calls. Dear God, the phone calls.
Outside, the sun slanted toward winter. Leaves went rattling along the sidewalk. The rest of us were going to work, or drinking coffee at a window, steam from the cup condensing on the glass. My daughters had climbed on buses only an hour before, were sitting in classrooms much like that one. I was sitting at my computer as I do every morning, trying to make some sense of the world with the words I write. That morning, I kept thinking about the bus pulling away. That classroom. The way my wife looks when I visit unannounced, and stand outside her room looking through the little window in the door. She doesn’t see me, but I watch her with her children.
Like most of us, I felt something break. Like most of us, I will spend days or years or forever trying to understand what it was. That morning, I kept writing the same lines again and again:
What is wrong with us? What in the world is wrong with us?
I keep coming back to the gun in my neck. It’s the only thing I can relate this to. That October night. Wind in the trees. Drinking and talking too loudly with writer friends about what most moved us in the world, about what we might change if only we ever learn to capture the words to unlock what most moves others.
The guy in the ski mask patted me down and found my wallet. He kept the gun to my neck as he dug it out of my pocket. It had 43 dollars in it, the same amount a man was killed for in a famous country song. He flipped it open, saw the money, and took the gun away from my neck.
The four of them ran off down the street. My friends and I looked at each other in disbelief for a moment, then called 911. Cops arrived, guns drawn or holsters unsnapped and hands hovering near, but the men were gone.
Some nights I think that if I had had my own gun, I could have defended myself. I could have pulled it out and squeezed off a few rounds. The robbers would have shot back. The others on the porch would have dived for cover. If they had guns they could have started shooting too. The robbers would retreat from the porch, all of them firing back. Perhaps a bullet would have gone across the street, broken a window, and the owner would have come out with his gun, firing back at us. The police, upon arriving, would not have known who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, and they would have started shooting as well, until all up and down the street, all over the city, all over the state, all over the world, people were firing at one another, and it would be easy to believe this is the way the world would end.
It wouldn’t be anybody’s fault, and there wouldn’t be anything you could do about it.
Paul Crenshaw is a graduate of the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was a Fred Chappell fellow. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays 2005 and 2011, Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.