[Raymond, age 40, recalls an event from his past—the death of his best friend, and jogging partner, Lauren, shot to death while on her morning run, age 32.]
Lauren’s murderer is in prison for life, no parole, which is what’s best. But you can bet your ass that, for the first few months subsequent to the killing, I’d rather they have sentenced him to a single hour alone with me, one hour in which I could punish the swine in unspeakable ways—a side of myself I’m ashamed of now.
I spent those subsequent months obsessed with the crime, and our loophole-ridden criminal justice system (to say nothing of our gun-happy culture in general), following every little development in the case as though the right information might have given me the key to rewriting history, undoing the entire incident. After all, if I’d been with her . . .
It was bad. Bad. The kid was 19 and already on probation: a two-year suspended sentence for felony breaking and entering, and larceny. But eight months later he’d been arrested for violating his probation, and at that time pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm.
All this was before Lauren? My blood boiled.
He’d appeared in court, but the date had to be rescheduled due to what was written-off as “clerical errors.” Basically his file had been sent to the wrong place (or misplaced entirely) so wasn’t available the day of his hearing. Consequently he’d been released, let go, rescheduled to return in two weeks.
He walks out of the courthouse. Maybe the sun is out. His mother, with whom he lives (no father around), drives him home, stopping for fast-food en route. According to his mom’s statement, the kid who will kill Lauren is ordering McDonald’s at a drive-thru window, and what could he be thinking? When they arrive home he eats his lunch, spends the rest of the day and night right there at home, his brain buried in a videogame. Goes to bed sometime around midnight.
Does he sleep, does he toss and turn, does he dream? Maybe he’s calculating his next move, mapping-out all the particulars prior to execution. Perhaps he’d seen us running that path religiously, as we did, maybe he knew our habits and hoped to take out both of us. Or maybe it was all random and spontaneous, the trick of synapses firing according to the stimulus of each moment, no premeditation at all, rather a human animal making his moves as if powerless to predict them.
These questions, and a zillion others—what if he’d had a father in the house? what if I’d been with Lauren like I should’ve been?—become my daily bread . . . my drink . . . become the air I breathe and the sadistic tyrant my brain’s enslaved by. Not that this was conscious, but as I say I became convinced that learning the answers to these questions would lead me to the precise moment when his path was set to intersect hers, only this time my presence would change everything, leave Lauren alive and well.
Or leave us both dead, says my mom, confirms Christina, both unhesitant about admitting their gratitude that I’d been a slacker that day. For whatever reason, I couldn’t pursue this line of thought at the time, figuring it was just their generous way of letting me off the hook I was determined to hang myself on.
I couldn’t find answers to all my questions, nor could anyone else, including that 19-year-old who, regardless of reasons, slipped away from his mother and his home sometime in the wee hours that Wednesday morning two weeks prior to his rescheduled probation hearing, carrying the handgun he’d use to blow some woman jogger’s brains all over the paved sidewalk of Ellery Drive sometime around six-thirty a.m.
And by eight a.m. a day later, kids walking their way to Ellery Elementary would be strolling that same stained sidewalk with no notion (one hopes) that it was the portal through which a precious soul had escaped the clutches of a cruel world not fit for such beauty as she embodied.
Sorry, this shit gets me carried away.
Spirit says she’s better off, no longer imprisoned by that parcel of flesh, her soul now able to soar. That unlike most of us Lauren didn’t need a lot of time here, her tasks accomplished in thirty-two years rather than sixty or seventy or eighty. And those of us left behind who loved her should celebrate the extraordinary fact that she was here to show us some important things, teach us valuable lessons and leave us better off for having known her. Maybe her early death was a way of helping us hear her, alerting us by way of example to the ways in which we might be taking things for granted, everything, leaving us to look at her—and Life—differently.
That may be what Spirit says, but what I say is to hell with you, Spirit, I want my best friend back.
No one knew how to approach me, what to say, which felt god-awful despite the fact that it made sense to me, I got it—hell, even I didn’t know what to say. But the result was some people just shunned me altogether, like a leper. After pedaling to campus and parking my bike for work, I could watch the familiar faces headed toward me veer off in a different direction so as to dodge interaction. I’m not kidding. People to whom I’d always talked in person sent condolence emails rather than confronting me. Even those I considered close, who knew Lauren—Elise and her husband Stan, my buddy Francis, even Christina and my mom—seemed scarce, like after saying they were sorry they’d decided to keep their distance and give me space to grieve it out on my own. One time I was moved when a guy she worked with stopped by to see me, a rednecky dude named Sean, but one reference to “that nigger who shot Lauren” was all it took to convince me we didn’t have much to offer one another.
I quit being social, started hiding out, the stranger-in-a-strange-land syndrome, Lauren’s murder having rendered everyday life ridiculous. Nothing could penetrate. Processing student transcripts at work became my prison sentence. And lunch hour, which I’d regularly shared with Lauren (unless she happened to be working way over on South Campus), became the bottoming-out in an already-empty day. Sometimes I ate, more often than not I just killed a couple of drinks at a dive near campus—an ancient, thoroughly depressing place, brown carpet (carpet!) reeking from decades of cigarette ash and spilled drinks, three jabbering TVs all set to different channels, a grumpy bartender and the same poor bastard perched on the end stool, working Sudoku puzzles and hacking his phlegm-filled lungs out. But it was the only place I could drink without risk of running into coworkers, though it left me feeling like some pathetic character from fiction, say Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend—lacking, of course, a looker like Jane Wyman to give a shit that I was slipping, losing it. I’d spend that hour feeling sorry for myself and spinning my wheels, wondering what the hell I was doing working in an office with thirteen people (most in their fifties) at least half of whom had said not one word about my best friend being gunned down in the street. What in the world had convinced me that all of this daily, disconnected mundanity was in any sense acceptable or satisfying?
Lauren, that’s what. With her in the world it was acceptable, satisfying. It was the Garden of Eden, and if I’d sensed it then I knew it now.
All the simple things which made life a good ride became sapped of value, meaning. Movies—always a passion—looked like little more than junk food, a way to kill time and braincells: even those that purported to be “serious” or “artistic” now seemed meretricious, not really hitting anything head-on but relying instead on clichés to convey hardship and suffering. I quit doing my daily run—newly convinced of its pointlessness, yet another of our countless devotions to vanity—and moved around as if I’d crossed an unseen chasm into a weird parallel universe where everything appeared exactly as I remembered it, only now my perspective made me see it for what it really was—absurd, ludicrous, any sense of consequence sogged-out. We encase our brains with ear-buds, draw down the shades to blot out sunlight so we can better see our monitors, detached from everything surrounding us despite being plugged into simultaneous stimulus from phones, computers, iPods. We actively engage four different tasks while we’re eating lunch and driving a car. Sure, our proficiency with the workings of a professional world are a testament to our talents, yet the single most dramatic event in our lives, the one thing that alone connects us all irrevocably, happens—someone dies—and we don’t have a clue how to cope or respond. We stumble about, trip over our own feet tap-dancing around the unfortunate fact of it, avoiding those devastated like they’re diseased. All I wanted to do—all I wanted to do—was think about Lauren, talk about Lauren, cry about Lauren. Was that too much to ask? It’s not like I wanted to make a life of it, for christ’s sake, I just needed some time to vent it. Or—better—embrace not only the insanity of what had happened but the lunacy of the way we lived.
Can I hear the term validation from the shrinks out there?
Yet past the obligatory I’m sorrys, people just chugged along like nothing had happened, as if they honestly didn’t realize that the world was a completely different place now that she’d left it. Which is what sealed the deal, confirmed how superficial were all of our so-called relationships. Not knocking them—friends were around to have fun with, laugh with, argue the merits of movies or books or the perniciousness of politicians with, but beyond that what was there to talk about? It quickly became apparent that what’s expected of us is that we do the majority of our grieving (if we’re weak enough to need it) internally, out of sight. Those who lose someone and go about their business as if nothing has happened, nothing has changed, they are the models of strength and fortitude to whom we’re supposed to point—Look how well they’re handling it. So brave. Not only couldn’t I do it, I didn’t even want to. Truth is I wanted to go crazy, let it loose, howl my hurt to the heavens in the middle of a shoppingmall. Doing something completely out of character, something monstrous, seemed preferable to putting myself through the everyday paces—wake, work, sleep. Repeat. Life was like marching, nothing more, but I longed for a way to break out of the ranks, run amok, a man whose anguish had driven him off the deep end . . .
If only. Instead I put on a face day after day and did exactly what was expected of me. After which I’d dive into the computer night after night, poring over statistics of violent crime and the futile debate concerning gun-control laws, lost in the Internet’s endless labyrinth. Just like everyone else.
His name was Saunders, Keith Saunders, and I harbored toward him—among other things—a sick compulsion to make some kind of contact. Naturally he was impossible to get to, like a celebrity. Which is what he ended up looking like, too, at least once the lawyers got ahold of him. Just after the murder, the news-splashed shots showed a ratty-looking rapper-type with stringy braided hair (cornrows), his chin and cheeks mangy with uneven whiskers, and a tight-lipped expression reeking of defiance and angry intensity. But the footage from his first court appearance betrayed our proclivity for judging the book by its cover: the cornrows shaved off to reveal a smooth shiny dome of head, his face clean-shaven to better convey not only cleanliness but youth, and the black t-shirt replaced by a suit that probably cost more money than he’d seen his entire life. I’m not kidding: he looked smart, snazzy as hell, as good-looking a young guy as I’d ever seen.
This invasion of the body snatchers strategy shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
Turns out he’d already killed someone else a year earlier, a 22-year-old college student named Theresa Franklin. But only after Lauren did they connect him to the crime, and within a week of his arrest another fact surfaced that threatened to undo me: his probation officer, a 36-year-old named Tonya Dey, herself had criminal charges filed against her, including driving under the influence, speeding, and possession of a firearm.
What the hell was happening?
Relegated to reading about these events like just another Joe, I gorged myself on their depravity, the way in which the lawyers and officials from the Department of Corrections quickly began pointing fingers and passing the buck whenever it looked like they were being blamed for dropping the ball. The computer became my only companion, every waking moment spent digging around to see what I could learn, and among the many disturbing discoveries was how quickly we grow bored with these tragedies. The first week, when Lauren’s killing was a sensational event, every news source imaginable was churning out copy—between television and newspapers and the Almighty Internet there was always something being reported, even if it was nothing new, just a rehash of what we’d already heard. But once another week went by, Lauren’s murder had already become old news—fresh crimes had usurped the sources and she began, like everything else, to disappear, to sink out of sight.
Forget the suffering of her surviving family-members—her parents in their mid-sixties, her 25-year-old brother Bobby; forget all those who’d lost her just as surely as I had. And forget the remarkable woman she’d been, the uniquely positive impact she’d made on so many of us, and in so short a time. Instead, I got caught up on aspects of violent crime in the country I call Home, the way in which we actually encourage citizens to arm themselves against one another, all under the ridiculous guise of remaining true to our “forefathers” and the beloved Constitution (whose tenets people can interpret pretty much however suits them, like the Bible). The year of Lauren’s murder, nearly 49,000 others lost their lives as she did—to a gun fired by a fellow citizen of the good ole U.S. of A.—yet the news was constantly telling us it was terrorists from foreign countries we needed to fear, they were the ones responsible for making our homeland unsafe. Billions of dollars were being funneled to finance a war in a couple of those countries, the danger zone where, we were told, the seeds of terrorism were sprouting. So we bomb the hell out of them, burn up that fertile ground we’ve grown so afraid of.
Understand something: I’m not a political person, am as far from any kind of social activist as you can find. I don’t give a damn, and friends will confirm this—I’ve always remained luxuriously aloof to such things, my distrust of politicians so pervasive I never believe any of them, regardless of their positions on whatever issue is the hot topic of the day. Liberals and conservatives, moderates and libertarians . . . these labels mean little or nothing to me, just another of our endless efforts to reduce each other to categories.
But after Lauren’s death I couldn’t escape—trapped by the truth, I could barely wrap my head around what I was reading, particularly our love of firearms, which struck me as nothing short of insane. Guys in suits were making damn sure Americans could get their hands on guns with appallingly little difficulty, and we were doing so and killing one another at a rate that made the number of terrorist attacks negligible, miniscule. Think I’m wrong? Look it up. People pushing their buggies through Wal-Mart can shop for rifles right along with the 8-pack toilet paper, the potato chips, the sprinkler for the lawn. Lauren was dead for no reason other than that a kid who wasn’t old enough to walk into a bar and buy a beer was carrying a weapon capable of stealing a stranger’s life from them, a kid born and bred right here at Home who probably couldn’t find the Middle East on a map, much less tell you why the United States is considered an Enemy to some of the countries situated there.
Trust me: if you start perseverating over this stuff, you won’t bother getting out of bed in the morning.
Here in Hotlanta, from the college campus where I work to the government buildings downtown, signs confirm that concealed firearms are not allowed, a pistol with the ubiquitous red slash (NO!) showing us in case we’re illiterate and can’t read the fucking words. How crazy is this? What kind of culture do I live in—where I have to be told not to carry a gun into the library along with my laptop, sandwich, and textbooks?
A month subsequent to the murder, I see a story on the news (which I never even used to watch, bother with) about a high school in Arizona under lockdown a day after a sophomore strolled into one of its halls and started shooting, killing six students and injuring a dozen others before turning the gun on himself. He was a sophomore . . . my first year on the track team . . . the year I made masturbation a priority. Puzzled parents paraded past the cameras, their baffled faces intercut with footage of the devastated ones who’d lost their children to a tortured teenager’s neuroses and his desperate decision to do something about them.
My stepfather Dan’s response, the next time I called home and made the mistake of mentioning this particular current event?
“It’s a shame none of those other kids had guns—they could’ve taken the guy out after his first couple of shots."
I thought he was joking, that he couldn’t possibly be suggesting that students arm themselves for circumstances such as this one. Even though Dan was a gun-person if ever there was one, I thought that Lauren’s killing and countless other episodes like it were starting to make a mark on him, break through that hard shell of his and open his eyes to our mad stockpiling of firearms, families furnishing their homes with weapons right along with the coffee-table and the high-definition TV. But the tone of his voice told the tale: he wasn’t kidding. At all.
What the hell's happening?
A 5-year-old in Detroit, Michigan found a loaded pistol her parents had left sitting on the sofa. Need I say what happened next?
Shake me, wake me up.
You get the idea. When I should have been grieving the emotional aftershocks of losing a loved one, instead I spent the better part of a year wholly ensnared by such stories, reeling, compiling all these tragic statistics that served no purpose other than to make me miserable, so depressed I didn’t know what to do with myself. My friend Elise (who teaches in the Math Department, hence saw me with some regularity) managed to get wind of what was going on and suggested I get involved: since I’d become so passionate about this stuff why not do something about it, immerse myself in the issues surrounding gun control? Be pro-active, she said, help raise awareness of a situation that’s eating the country from the inside. Of course, well-meaning though such advice was, I’d never be able to follow it. Voting was the only political thing I’d ever done. I’m not claiming this is a good attitude, or right—but it’s my attitude, it’s my right.
In other words, it’s our prerogative as Americans—you don’t have to give a damn. In the same way that I entrust my car to mechanics, or my body to health-care professionals, I entrust socio-political issues to those who spend their life studying such things. As for my contribution, I do what I can to help elect the politicians who seem the most sincere and concerned (best actors) and pray the rest takes care of itself.
And with regard to all this madness I was suddenly drowning in, rather than inspiring me to action it was crippling me to catatonia: the more I learned and the more intense the emotions aroused from it, the less able I was to do anything. With no knowledge or understanding of how to deal with all my anger, it turned inward and worked on me like a cancer I couldn’t remedy. I seethed. I became over-sensitized to the environment around me—things once brushed-off as “just the way it is” became awful to behold, began to undermine my every move, every thought.
I spent a year like this, my mind mired in the muck. And one day I’m lunching in the campus dining hall with Elise, ranting on same as always, when she interrupts and says, “What about Lauren? You remember her?"
At first I thought she was being a cold-blooded smartass, but then like a bolt of lightning it hit me, what she really meant: somewhere in all this mishigas I’d lost sight of Lauren, the human behind it all, the whole reason I’d gotten into this hateful rut. My best friend had been not only murdered, but also reduced to a symbol, a springboard for all these “issues” with which I never used to concern myself.
“You’re not asking for advice, Ray, but I’m giving it. Get into therapy, no excuses. Here’s her number, she’s terrific. Now promise me you’ll use it."
She hands me a square of paper with a name and number written on it, clearly something she’d pre-prepared. I take it with a shaking hand, suddenly wanting to weep.
“You’re going to get out of all this, sweetheart. But it’s too much. You need some help. Promise you’ll call."
Which I did, moved as I was by her gesture. And, in truth, afraid not to: I was so rattled being on-edge 24/7 I didn’t know what might happen.
The first time I sit down in the shrink’s office she says, “So. Tell me why you’re here.”
Long silence. I’ve no idea what to say, where to start, save to spout all the same tired statistics that got me into this seat in the first place. And I can’t—it’s killing me.
“I just can’t do it anymore,“ says The Basketcase. “I mean . . . everything . . . everything makes me want to cry.”
To which she replies (without a blink), “What’s wrong with crying?”
And that’s when the floodgates opened.