There was a mass shooting. Seven people are dead now, including a wife and a husband, their two young grandchildren. The gunman, also dead, of a self-inflicted gunshot. Two men doing work at the family’s property were seriously injured. One of the workers died at the scene; the other died a few days later, on Saturday, April 10.
I saw this news minutes before 7 a.m. the day after it happened, the time that the mill whistles of my childhood would have broken the morning silence.
Words that belong to these events floated from the television: tragedy, close-knit community, possible motive, mental illness, gun-control laws. National news trucks arrive, rolling video of a stunned police officer who knew the husband. This is my town.
“I just wrote about Atlanta. I just wrote about Boulder.” These are my dumb thoughts, as though writing will change anything.
Seeing my town being referred to as “an area of this county” makes me scream at the reporter, who possibly is covering her third mass shooting in as many weeks.
This isn’t supposed to happen. Not anywhere, but especially not here.
Although my “here” isn’t any different than any other town’s “here.” Was it ever?
Even after living elsewhere for 31 years, ask where I’m from, and I’ll say, Rock Hill. I might add South Carolina for those who look perplexed.
It has changed, my town. Most of the textile mills and stinky paper plants are gone, their types of work long vanished. There’s a third high school, not two, and the older houses that were crumbling are now popular — desired for their hardwoods and wide yards. The stately, marble-floored post office is an arts center, but I can still find my old P.O. Box: 621.
A skim of gritty pollen covers cars, the sign in front of my old church, porch furniture. The front porches, perhaps small, will probably be the spots to mingle. The people, my people, have always been there, in these houses, always will be, or so I think.
In a town like Rock Hill, mention a name or place, and the connectivity springs forward. Someone taught the person, or the person’s children. Mr. Brooks insisted we read music. Miss Geneva sewed the prettiest Easter clothes. I got into trouble at The Wreck. We drag raced on Firetower Road. That gas station way south on Cherry Road had the best chicken.
These names and people are specific to my small town, but your town has its names also. You know them: your spaces of mischief and joy, your friends. Your people.
Mention those names to someone who’s from your town and wait: After each sentence, a nod, perhaps a smirk from the memory.
Proof of belonging, in a time when community feels elusive.
It’s difficult, in any size town, to untangle the threads of a home-grown horror. In collective grief, when everybody is broken and broken down, disheartened, disbelieving, there is no way to find the beginning or the end.
When something horrible strikes, even the largest cities shrink to become that space where everybody belongs to everybody else, where every child who falls at the playground is yours.
Days after the televised pain, I’ve come home to get my mama and go sit with a family whose matriarch has passed. A man at the wake reminds me of my friend Bryan, and my heart beats like it wants to escape my chest. I go to hug him because it’s been too long. Then I remember why it’s been too long.
After giving goodbyes and driving Mom home, I head to the gas station that no longer has the chicken, and park, and think. It could be months before anybody has answers, if ever. There is both randomness and certainty in grief. This byproduct of love has its own time, and it will find you.
The only perfection my hometown — and yours — can claim is that they are ours.
Where I’m from — and likely where you’re from, too — when tragedy occurs, an army of women begins to bake. Hams, casseroles, pies, and cakes. One by one, they will take these offerings to the grieving family’s back door, and the cousin who answers will escort them through the kitchen, past dozens of cakes already crowding the counters. Necks get hugged. And then everyone sits. Nothing else is needed.
After a year of protracted grief, absorbing new trauma is like tossing a wet sponge into the ocean. After a year of listening to others wail for “normal,” a mass shooting is blithely, sickeningly as “normal” as things get. Two weeks ago, Boulder, Colorado, became “normal.” The week before that, Atlanta. The day after my town’s mass shooting, Bryan, Texas, becomes “normal.”
This week, Knoxville.
My little town echoed with drums and cheers on autumn Friday nights, a response to the mill whistle’s call. South Carolina was a football powerhouse. God, give me a drum cadence on a 50-degree Friday night.
But game night now carries a stain. Football injuries and their implications are worrisome. The gunman in my town was a former NFL player.
I remember his mother. She was my childhood neighbor, her house the last on the block, and I was not allowed to bike any farther before waving and turning around.
Like in other small towns, after starting out with one group of kids in first grade, I had a good chance of going all 12 years with them, straight to one of the two high schools, youth group and scouts included. Some might have married a person from the other school. The biggest argument would have been which side of town to live on.
If family friends saw me messing up, I got pulled aside and talked to. Same thing happened to you in your town.
Rock Hill was where I could take 15 cents to the neighborhood store, and Mr. Gettys would get 5-year-old me a roll of powdered doughnuts, a Pepsi, and a bag of peanuts. He knew my mama hadn’t given permission, but he said nothing. Instead, he watched me walk two doors down Hampton Street to my godfather’s house.
My small town is where Bryan, a baby-faced sweetheart, went missing, and parents called everyone home because they were thinking about the children in Atlanta who had gone missing in past months. It is where Bryan’s murderer lived. It became the place we learned that bad things could reach us, too, and we couldn’t play outside alone any longer.
You likely had a nosey friend, a team, in your town. A lover, kind neighbors. I hope to God you didn’t have a Bryan.
I realize that, while watching me walk away with a sugar overload or calling us all home before any hint of darkness, friends and families knew things they prayed none of us would learn.
The thought of the next weeks hurts: child-sized coffins, a flood of flowers, the family of the shooter sending prayers, the families of those who have been killed sending prayers. Cars pulling over, respect as a funeral procession passes. All involved are victims. My home, the newly dead, the strangers in the crowd.
Something insidious has slunk through my town and others that might be larger, might be smaller, but will never be the same: Atlanta, and Boulder. Parkland. Columbine. El Paso. Newtown. San Bernardino. Dayton. Midland. Odessa. Pittsburgh. Orlando.
Somebody on social media says: “This is the most tragic thing to ever happen to our town.” But tragedy is a repeat offender. Forty years from now, someone will see a face in the crowd and rush to hug a stranger.
Writing this, I realize it’s hard to remember hearing the last mill whistle.
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