Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

The move to the Pacific Northwest from the Detroit metropolitan area was one I had put off for a good twenty years. Now we were headed to the piney-aired, sweeping embrace of the City of Roses. I felt ready for such a momentous alteration of my life, even days negotiating variable weather and terrain, pulling a cumbersome U-Haul. Give me mountains, give me wilderness, give me the wherewithal to welcome the unknowns ahead!

I wasn’t a complete newbie to the area. I had visited Oregon. I had also lived in a town outside of Seattle, Washington when I was eighteen for a year or so with an older sister. In a log cabin on a beautiful lake. It was paradise to me, but a paradise charged with and marred by an excess of youthful adventures and mishaps. It was then back to Michigan. But the mountain peaks, rain forest all about us, that vibrant pioneering city, the hearty, open-minded people stayed with me. A creeping homesickness for that geography and way of life distracted, even haunted me over the following years. It was a part of the country I had to be again, my Shangri-La. If it wasn’t to be Washington, then neighboring Oregon would do just fine.

Every time I drove anywhere down the flat roads of mid-Michigan, I would look at the clouds on the horizon and imagine they were mountains rising up. When I visited northern Michigan along the vast Great Lakes–the best place in the state–I was taken back to evergreen forests of the Northwest, the lake I knew and the wild Pacific Ocean beyond.

When I was 42, I had a chance at last to leave behind a Midwestern landscape and suburban lifestyle of seven years that had left their marks on me. It was a time of transition for me and two of my children, the other three having left home already. I had undergone a divorce and an impulsive remarriage. The new marriage did not last long after the move. But the relocation to Portland, Oregon was to become the joy I had hoped it would be. “Become” is the operative word. The change was not without several other glitches, lean times and homesickness despite my best hopes and efforts. There were moments I believed I had also fallen for an elusive romantic dream of “place”, but made another poor decision. Was it too late to hope for much better, to redirect my derailed life?

It was not nearly too late. And if it was the wrong choice of a mate–charismatic and capable but devious, controlling–it was the right place to flourish. I kept telling my children that as well as myself as I sought better jobs, attended college again off and on. My eighteen year old son took to Portland as if he’d been born to the Northwest but my twelve year old daughter took time sizing things up. She did love the street fashion and creative mix of people, the energetic urban atmosphere. I liked having two siblings here. Countryside that soothed and inspired me, weather I loved. I felt, too, that houses and buildings reached farther in design, painted brighter colors, and people dressed more casually as well as uniquely. What a far cry from fast paced, homogeneous suburbia, from a culture where people were pressured to conform and not question, not color outside the lines. It was wonderful yet jarring to finally take up a spot in this freer environment amid majestic natural habitats.

We initially lived in a roomy, two-story house that was one of a few belonging to my sister. It was a gift to move from a house to a house, since I had no job awaiting. But the first day I saw it I wondered if she’d lost her mind. Wasn’t it supposed to be in a more orderly, a trimmed-lawn-and-hedges sort of area similar to one we’d left? Wasn’t it a bit…well, bland, a bit ramshackle?

“You’re living in the real city now,” sister Allanya informed me.

“What do you mean, the real city?” I asked. “We just moved from Detroit, Michigan!” Meaning: that madly aggressive and industrious and rather dirty, spread out city of millions; the automotive capitol of the world (still, in 1992)!

“You’ve lived in a fairly tony suburb,” she reminded me, “not inner city Detroit.”

“Well, we lived on a more modest street in a one square mile village. I guess it considered a good suburb–it was certainly picturesque,” I agreed.

Now you live in the city with diversity of many sorts. This is close-in NE, meaning close to city center. Our downtown area is not like Detroit’s, if you recall; it’s generally safe. This neighborhood is variable block by block, perhaps, but this block is great. The area is improving a lot; it’s a great investment. I hope you’ll love it inside.”

Allanya bought houses and often renovated them; they were kept a few short years as rentals, then sold. I was getting a discount on rent and was deeply grateful for a readied house. I was only feeling the newcomer, unaccustomed to the ways and means of our new hometown.

The house itself was nondescript outside but, as promised, indoors it was spacious, light-flooded, attractive. It had a living room fireplace, a feature not in our last home. It had an enclosed porch/ sunroom I could use to write. Also a partially-finished basement with one bedroom and bathroom; huge kitchen with french doors and three bedrooms upstairs with bathroom. There was a vase full of cheery, fresh cut flowers on the table. We felt so welcomed. What more could we possibly want? So we lugged our suitcases up the stairs and unloaded the U Haul.

The back yard was good-sized with a garage. It had a weathered picnic table. Was that an alley back there? I peered over a fence, wondering how busy that got. My daughter and I took a walk the next day, down the block and to a busy intersection. We located the stop where she’d get the bus to school if she couldn’t be driven (she’d always been driven to school by me). Not a school bus. A regular city bus, unheard of in MI. as school transport and thus strange to us. I had been told by my sister that most kids took city buses by middle school; public transportation was so ubiquitous that youth and a great many adults went everywhere via bus system. I vowed to get a job that allowed me to drive her. I half promised to learn the bus system.

On the way back we noticed a small box of a nondescript store simply named “J’s Market.” It was a quick-stop sort of place; we were thirsty so went in search of sodas. It seemed a good sign that there was a place so close in case we needed a can of soup or a gallon of milk. We entered  and found the usual fare though it seemed dingier than expected. We browsed and were immediately watched by a hawkeyed older Asian store clerk, who simply nodded at me when I smiled and greeted him. As we checked out, I tried to be friendly.

“We’re new in the neighborhood. Nice to find a store so close.”

“Okay, good,” he said, taking my money.

“We’re from Michigan.”

“People coming all over.” He hadn’t looked up yet.

“I imagine so, it is a beautiful city.”

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

We gave a little wave as we exited and he finally smiled ever so slightly, nodded again.

“What do you think so far?” I asked Alexandra.

That felt sort of weird. It sure is different here. But I think I like it.”

“Well, new places and people are good. We’re not in the ‘burbs, anymore.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You have a great view from your room onto the front yard. Big trees, too, like home.”

“Yeah,” she said and looked around at the street, stores, other houses, as if looking for something that could become her new inner magnetic North.

The truth was, it felt far more like a city than our sheltered suburb despite living within reach of a major megapolis for years. But day by day we began to adapt. Alexandra felt alright taking the bus soon and met a couple of nice girls. Josh made instant friends within the skateboarding world and got work right away as a commercial painter. I found a first job, then a better job, then was laid off, then found a position at a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment center that would be a springboard for a whole new career as a counselor. But there were things that worried me, too. It wasn’t the alienated, wounded, angry kids with whom I intensely interacted during long hours at work. It wasn’t the brief marriage ending. It was what happened on the streets about us.

We had made our lives comfortable after about a year. Everyone had their routine;  life was navigable again. We were decidedly happy with Portland’s variety of offerings and each of us made some connection to the community and developed promising friendships.

One early morning I was awakened by loud noises, one and then two sudden bangs close together that sliced through the silence. Maybe fireworks? I lifted my head from bed, heard nothing more, got up and ready for work. Odd that someone would be setting those off then. I forgot about it for an hour.

Josh came into the kitchen. “You hear those, Mom?”

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

“I seriously doubt it, we’ve felt safe enough here, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, but keep an eye out. Things can be sketchy at times, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

“Sure, I will.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful out there.”

I called in late to work and took her to school that day and a few after, eyeing houses and streets, driving with hands clutching the wheel. It wasn’t quite the first time I had heard alarming shots in my life, but it was so incongruous to hear in the morning that it hadn’t occurred to me it was a gun. Where were we, back in Detroit where you couldn’t venture safely past Eight Mile even in your car because scary things can happen in just a split second? I refused to believe it. We loved the house. My daughter’s school was very good, my son had good work and I was back on my feet.

Josh and I talked more than night.

“There’s lately been more gang activity around here, ” he said. “Better stay alert.”

“What? More activity lately? I haven’t seen anything, not really.”

“Maybe because we don’t know what to look for. Someone said there’s a house down at the next corner…” He pointed north. “Stay on our block or just south.”

I thought about it overnight and decided to take a casual drive around the area. I was not going to live on high alert all the time or be scared or teach my daughter to live afraid. But I wanted to know what was going on. The house my son had mentioned could pass as any house yet all  windows were curtained. On the porch were a couple of men with red bandanas around their heads, bare arms densely tattooed, with what I couldn’t make out in a fast glance. But since many youth I worked with were gang-members or peripherally associated, I knew what Crips and Bloods were; the lounging men were likely Bloods.

My heart rate rose. Sunglasses on, I kept my head forward and moved on. When I got a few houses down, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the men go inside. I turned the corner and went around another block and then back home. Sitting in the driveway, I wondered if the shots had come from there or if I was making something of what might be very little. I knew that it was not a good sign to see young men–and women–wearing bandanas of red or blue or yellow or a few other colors with other signifying clothing, depending on the part of the city you were in. Wearing of colors: a bold and direct statement, a warning, a clear sign of inclusion in a way of life, for life.

A neighbor lady with whom I’d  become friendly knew of it all already. “Ignore them or whatever goes on, that’s the best thing, just go about your business,” she advised–or cautioned.

Over the next few weeks there was no unusual activity, though occasionally a random gunshot might be heard ringing out in farther distance. Then one evening on a week-end when I was alone: the unmatchable roar of a muscle car was heard as it streaked past the house and neared the next corner. Shots punctuated the air multiple times; return fire occurred. It was loud enough that my ears recoiled. I moved into the back of our home, adrenalin surging, disoriented. Wasn’t the gang house at the northern corner? What did they have to do with our quiet, family-friendly block? Would the police be called? Shortly I heard sirens and tires screeching and more shots and more sirens. And then that silence which falls all around when something bad has happened. No one came out, nothing was said loud enough for others to hear. I crept up to a living room window, saw the blue and white flashing lights of police vehicles.

It was a long night. I did not tell Alexandra the next day. I did tell Josh and we determined that we should start looking for another place to live even though it might be hard financially. I then found out day from neighbors that every single day my children and I–and so many more—had been walking right by another gang house on our own corner. A dispute had turned virulent. I scoured the rental ads and looked at places but had less luck that anticipated. I took more shifts at work to save more money.

A couple of weeks later my daughter and I were sleeping soundly after a game of Scrabble. Josh was gone as he more often was, nineteen and having fallen in love. It was the voices at first that I heard, muted shouts outside my bedroom window which faced the back yard and alley. Initially I thought little of it though annoyed, turned over and tried to sleep. But the voices got louder and then came thundering feet on the dirt and gravel alleyway, and then came gunshots, two, three four. Then from the front of the house, gunshots, poppoppoppop! Then another back and front.

“Alexandra!” I called out her name through thick, alive darkness.

“Mom!” she shouted back, so frightened I could even feel her heart beating a million beats a minute. Like mine.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Nothing. I lay paralyzed a second as I heard more scurrying and voices giving directions of some sort outside. I began to slip off the bed, inch my way toward her room  when suddenly I realized Alexandra was rapidly crawling along the hallway and then across my floor. Was reaching for me.

“Mom, the gunshots! They went by my window!” She was yelling in a hoarse whisper.”Are they out back now?”

I pulled her down. We lay on the floor, my arm clamping her to the rug.

“Shhh…be still,” I said, lying close.”Don’t talk now.”

I could hear her trying not to cry, trying to not hyperventilate. I felt my own throat constrict, my chest thud as we waited for a long while, what seemed like hours. There was a rumble of sounds and then silence and then more silence, and then babble of hushed voices but it was people out in the street talking, I imagined. I told her to lay still and I’d be right back. I crawled into her room. The front windows overlooked the street, so I peeked around the edge of a curtain. There was a handful of neighbors in a yard across from us and then sirens wailed and police cars. I was tempted to go into the street to find out more but my daughter was shivering on the floor in my room so back I went.

“It’s all over,” I said, praying it was true.

She slept restlessly in my bed that night, a first in many years. We talked about it, how one stray bullet could have hit her from the front street or me from the alley gunfire. We were horrified by the possibility. We remained shaken by our new reality for weeks: we now lived in a place where guns were readily used in the city’s warfare and criminal activity, where what was a beautiful place could be changed to one of fear and trembling. We had left Detroit but had come to this. I felt depressed that I had made this decision. I had brought my children there with promises of good things, happier times.

We moved her bed far away from the windows. But it hadn’t been gang-related. J’s Market had been robbed, and people in the store ran after the guys. It was not the first time and some said would likely not be the last. But the owner would not give up.

We loved that high-ceilinged, spacious house; it was close to my job and most neighbors were kindly. But I started seriously looking for an accommodating apartment in a safer part of the city still close to her school. Josh found his own way after I located a good place roughly twenty blocks away but a whole new world and before long, we were gone. My sister had decided to sell her house, anyway.

That was twenty-five years ago. The old neighborhood is so different from what we knew that as I drove past the old place it seemed I’d made a wrong turn. There are pricey big stores where small crusty shops stood. The streets look sharper, brighter, repaired in all the most right ways. Gentrification is happening all over the city as more people move here and greater services are in demand. I can’t say I like it much; somehow it seems unreal to me, almost like the suburban life seems to me now. I know it has pushed plenty of people far out of their comfort zones, and also their very homes.

But J’s Market is still there, a little freshened but still and worn, busy as ever. I’ve stopped there a couple times and recognize no one, of course.  The Asian owner had ended up being more chatty with us, as we stopped there frequently, and had wished us well when we moved. I wonder who owns it now. I wonder over the fortitude or stubbornness of business owners who have refused to let gang wars or robbers shut them down. Who now won’t be bought easily and thus lose their toehold I on their neighborhood. And it is not lost on me that many who might want to leave a certain place cannot and there are those who would not ever consider it if they could only find a way ro stay. This is only my story; I did what worked for me, and it was not easy financially those years.

I have to be honest, though. We yet do occasionally hear fainter and even closer gunshots from this vantage point, within boundaries of one of several gracious historical neighborhoods. It’s still a densely packed area, “close-in”, and there will always be sirens and lots of traffic nearby and random disputes on the streets even while one admires Portland’s quirky attractions, surprising wonders and the beauties of the Northwest. It’s the actual city, as my sister once emphasized, even if it is smaller than some others I’ve admired. Lots of entrepreneurial energy is apparent, a trademark of our town. The arts and sciences flourish in fascinating forms and nature goes wild even within city limits.

But then I am yanked from deep of night and dreamy slumber: there is a familiar bambambambam, the echoing retort of a gun or two and I wonder what’s happening, what’s next, what should I do. Slowly I release taut breath, wait for emptied silence, turn over. Go to sleep once more. I wouldn’t want to live any place else, at least for the time being. Which is what I say every year.

Close Calls

Photo by William Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Helen wasn’t especially brilliant and not even beautiful. And she wasn’t overly interested in pleasing guys, much less pursuing them but they liked her immediately, or at least always thought they liked her. Her sister’s chin-length hair nicely framed a half-crooked smile. She did have eyes that pulled you in, like they saw something you misplaced or even lost altogether–they somehow saw and held more than others did. But, Talia mused, it had to be her sister’s nonchalance around men that did the trick. That or being a more sporty type, quick to state she’d rather split and stack wood than dress up and attend the latest play at Blackwater’s Stage and Screen. Even if Talia was in it. Now and then she gave in and went, though.

Talia was the one who’d been easily complimented, told she was attractive like their mother had been. And favored by some serious talent. But the reality remained: Hellie (a nickname earned for her infrequent but epic temper) drew men with the barest slip of a smile or a noncommittal nod. Talia had quickly turned into an ethereal butterfly while Hellie remained more like a moth, she guessed. But things were still not how Talia imagined they could be. She couldn’t wait to get out of Blackwater; next year she’d be in college, at last studying drama. Her big sister wasn’t interested in formal education, just the family-owned Bells and Whistles Antique Goods store. She was good at business, better at finding unique treasures.

“Haven’t you noticed how moths are exotic but camouflaged?” Hellie said, laughing when Talia came right out and told her sister her thoughts. “And better to be burned by a light shining in the dark than buzzing around the same smelly flowers all day!”

Talia didn’t agree but was glad she wasn’t hurt. She shielded her eyes to better focus on the road. “Maybe.”

She was waiting for Jamie Hartman. He’d stopped to see her after the play the night before and asked to visit. He was so good looking, such a gentleman, and the grandson of one of Blackwater’s original citizens. It was a shock when he  knocked on her door; she’d mutely assented to his request. She took a half hour to get ready, rushing, and now he was late.

Hellie reached for an acorn on the porch’s leaf-strewn floor, threw it at a crow on the lawn that kept overriding their conversation with a rancorous cry. It missed the bird–she’d meant it to–but it flew into a tree, momentarily silenced. She licked her finger and made an invisible mark in the air, one point for her. That crow and she understood one another but they still often played the game.

The girls were enjoying the last of tender radiance of a fall afternoon before the rainy season arrived, a soothing breeze ruffling their hair. Hellie admired the scarlet maple leaves, how they waved and flipped about. She was relaxed, glad to have the day off. She rarely took Talia’s blurted thoughts to heart. Three years older, she felt her younger sister fussy and self-centered. Even though she was a good actress–even very good–she had a lot to learn about everything else. There wasn’t much hope that it’d happen before she went to college–she was a starry-eyed girl, also too accepting. Hellie thought how strange it would be to no longer have her about to debate and mess with. She threw another acorn and hit the trunk of the tree. The crow flew higher.

The car came up quietly. It was that sort of vehicle–low to the ground, gleaming silver, stealthy until its power was unleashed. Hellie sat forward to better view it, then leaned back as a taller-than-average, well-dressed young man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.

“Here he is!” Talia arranged her skirt about her knees, flashed a welcoming smile. “Hello there!”

He took the porch steps two at a time and offered his hand to Talia first. The overall effect was of a burnished blaze, a blonde and tan display of blue blood and deeply ingrained confidence.

“Glad we could get together. I’m Jamie, in case you forgot.”

“Of course not, glad you made time to stop by.”

He smiled indulgently at her, then glanced at Hellie who appeared to be studying something in the trees. Talia motioned to the chair next to hers, into which he lowered himself as though he had been meaning to do just that all day and had found the best spot.

“It’s been a long day already,” he stated. “I’m here helping my aunt out things. You must know her, right?”

“Of course, Ms. Lulu Hartman. Sorry she lost her husband. Your uncle.”

“Yes, thanks.” He frowned down at his soft beige loafers. His ankles were bare, like in magazines. “I haven’t been here for a few years. I think we knew each other somehow. I mean, I only came summers for a month or so, and that was before university but you”–he nodded at Hellie, who turned, cocked her head at him–“I sure do seem to recall.”

“Oh, hey, I’m Helen. You may have seen me peddling around on my bike, went everywhere on  it. I’m still a dedicated cyclist, ride in marathons. I often picked up a few things from the store or post office for your aunt for a little cash and maybe a cinnamon roll. But it’s a small place, even during high season when folks pour in.”

“That must be it. Yes, she’s a good baker, her one talent in the kitchen since the cook won’t let her near meal prep.” He let go a light, perhaps embarrassed laugh. “Anyway, I’m sure she appreciated it. She does not like to leave her little kingdom much. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m let out of my cage every few weeks at the antiques store Dad owns so I can shake off dust and mildew, clear my head of nostalgia. I mean out of my office, but my door’s window has bars on the window…you know, to keep the robbers at bay since we have so many diamonds and other precious things.”

His forehead wrinkled a bit, then he relaxed. “So, you’re a working woman. I imagine that business can be interesting, though I prefer more contemporary style. I’m curious to hear what you imagine I do?”

Hellie considered. An uncomfortable feeling rose and fell; she ignored it. She could say the truth as she saw it–“nothing much if you can help it”–or she could say the more polite, reasonable thing: “attend law school”.

“Jamie, are you here for long?” Talia asked, sitting forward with hands on knees. Her pale eyebrows rose, making her clear blue eyes larger and brighter.

“Oh, sorry, Talia. I came by to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance but got diverted by your sister! Just here a few days. Anyway, it is clear you want to be an actress. Lawyers and actors have something in common, I think. Tell me your story.”

Hellie got up and slipped behind their chairs, opened the screen door and stepped into rectangles and slivers of sunlight and shadow in the ramshackle house. It was her first day off. She kicked off her shoes and made a beeline to the kitchen. Her chore list stared back at her from a small bulletin board right inside the swinging door. She had laundry to finish before starting dinner so got to work,  putting in another load, drying, unloading and folding the family’s clothing. She recalled, just barely, how her mother had hung sheets out on the line, and how she’d been delighted to watch them flap and billow, how they smelled like the bright wind. Hellie hadn’t hung out anything for a long time.

Ever since their mother had passed when she was fourteen–eight years ago–she had taught herself rudimentary cooking, one recipe at a time. Tonight it was beef stew. The chopping and dicing emptied her out. Work had been busier lately. She worried about her father working so much overtime. She worried that they had too much inventory and not enough positive cash flow, but they managed well enough. She wanted to help the business grow.

An hour later, Talia rushed into the moist, savory-scented kitchen to find Hellie wiping down the counters. her cheeks were blooming and her eyes dancing about–giddy like the teenager she was.

“I invited him! To dinner–set another place. He wants to hang out more.”

Hellie stirred everything into the heavy pot and looked up recipes for biscuits. “Dad will be home late tonight–he’s eating at Brew and Bounty, though.”

“Well, that’s fine. We might take a walk later, but first he’s driving me to the coffee shop!”

“Great…don’t let him go fast,” she muttered to Talia’s vanishing back, then threw the dishrag at the wall; it slid to the floor like a crumpled creature. She looked up and rolled her eyes at the ceiling and beyond. “Great, I am not an entertainer, Mom. I hate doing stuff like this and not for strangers…what was she thinking? Maybe he’ll leave right after dinner.”

But he didn’t. He proclaimed the stew and biscuits the best he’d had, talked voluminously of things that lost Hellie’s attention and gained Talia’s. He stayed too long. She had been right; he was going to be a corporate attorney, would return to school after helping his aunt. He lingered in the kitchen by her side afterwards, offering to help her clean up which she found mocking not kind, knowing he had little clue about such things–his father was VP of an oil company, they’d always had “help” he’d said–and Talia right there waiting for him. But his eyes landed on Hellie’s near-navy, deep-set ones that were frankly irritated so skidded right past his. Then his rested on a curve of collarbone showing itself atop her scoop neck t-shirt. She turned to the sink, her mind discarding each honest but impolite word.

“Go on you two, I’m busy,” she insisted and flicked the tea towel hard at them, advancing when he didn’t move, then her sister grabbing his arm.

She thought Talia far too bright-eyed; he, too chummy and confident. She could hear them laughing on the porch, his increasingly brash voice rising over hers while her mellow alto underlying his remarks. Then their words changed to a light, dull hum of sounds she wasn’t able to fully interpret.

Hellie still watched out for her little sister but she didn’t any longer consider it her imperial duty to oversee her activities, to admonish her about life’s every pitfall. Well, she was still figuring hing out, herself, though she knew she had a more level head than Talia. And she possessed an instinct about life that her sister feigned, couldn’t quite locate within. She floated in and out her world of imaginings while Hellie lived with sure-footedness in the intriguing but trapdoor-strewn domains of reality.

Talia had taken a year off after high school to work at the theater and get more acting experience. In their tourist town she had the added benefit of larger, forgiving audiences. She had a passion for it; Hellie thought she might make something of her dream. She wasn’t exactly a child as she closed in on age nineteen. She’d dated a few guys, made some decent choices and some less so, but she had some gumption and was moving in a better direction. Or so Hellie wanted to think. But she didn’t take guidance from her “wanted tos”; she followed her gut. Near the end of dinner she wondered what the point was, this guy sitting in their dining room stuffing himself with excellent stew, making weak jokey comments that Talia tittered at, then trying to engage in a quasi-urbane conversation with Hellie.

Hellie had  been visited by a sudden desire to make Jamie disappear as she’d swallowed her last bite. She just wasn’t clear if it was necessary.

As the porch got quieter, she entered the living room to listen deeply, waiting just beyond a warm spill of light from a milk glass lamp on the entry table. Outside they were murmuring things. Then Hellie heard a thump against the outside wall. There was a sharp intake of breath that seemed to predict a mighty exhale from the vicinity of chairs. But it didn’t ever happen, to her best observation. She peered out the door but they were leaning against the porch rail. She stepped away. More rustlings and bumps, feet moving. What passed as a kind of yelp, something almost alarming. Hellie felt her head flush and chest constrict and burn.

She scurried to the back stairwell, yanked the chain of the single light bulb, ran downstairs to a heavy locker. Unlocked the door, got what she needed, then ran up again and out the back door. She crept along the side yard, dropped one of the rifles at the base of an evergreen tree, just for back-up.

It was a bright evening. The crows were at rest and crickets were awake, singing. Moonlight touched the trees, the grass, the shimmering sports car in the driveway. Hellie crept around the corner of the long, comfortable porch until she could see them: Talia pinned back in an Adirondack chair, Jamie leaning over with mouth plastered on hers, Talia’s wrists gripped by his hands. Talia’s right leg and foot shot out and up as she tried in vain to kick him off. She was squirming and pushing with more will than might.

Hellie lifted the old rifle to her shoulder, took slow and steady aim. She found the voice that no one wanted to hear, the one that pushed hard until she won a battle.

“Let her go, Jamie Hartman, or your slick car will be a pile of pitiful metal and glass in five more seconds. You’ll end up beside it.”

He startled, backed off her sister, came to stand at the top step, fine shirt all rumpled, big hands on hips.

“What the devil—what do you think you’re going to do? Put that damned hunting weapon down! We’re just playing around here”

Talia cried out then scrambled into the house, pressing her nose against the screen door. “Hellie! Don’t!”

She jabbed the rifle in the air as she walked closer to him. “What do you think you’re doing, presuming on our good natures, feasting on my beef stew, making innocuous conversation and unintelligent jokes at our hospitable table, taking up space where our father should have been? Mashing your face on my sister’s like some idiot seventh grader? Restraining her like some bruiser with worse on his mind? Is that who you are, then?”

“Hellie! Come inside, he’ll leave!” Talia was near-screeching but it came out a squeak. She thought if there was ever a time to call 911, it might come very soon. Her throat tightened right up and she could say no more.

“Listen, your little sister was glad to see my face at your podunk theater, she’s a barrel of laughs and you’re a regular madwoman–a fool if you think you can get away with intimidating me. I’m calling the police, then my lawyer.”

Hellie swung the rifle around, squinted to better site the center of the windshield, then changed her mind and aimed for the right front tire.

Jamie ran down the steps, hands pressing against earthy night air hard as if against Hellie.

“You’re nuts! Enough already! I’m leaving now, alright?” He got into the exalted car with one swift movement. “There.” He fired up the big engine, gave it more gas to increase its’ emboldened roar.

Hellie fully lowered the rifle so as not to appear as threatening but she gritted her teeth. His arrogance made her blood boil. “Get out. Don’t came back any time, in any future.”

Jamie hit the steering wheel twice with the palm of his hand, sharp laughter spiraling out his open window. “What a waste of time. And it was you who caught my attention, a crazy one,” he said, shaking his head. “Impressive–if sadly irrelevant!”

And then he stomped on the gas pedal so the lean, moonshot car spun around in the gravel driveway; it righted itself, sped away. It took all of Hellie’s resolve to not to run after it, give it a terrible beating with the butt of the rifle. But, no, she couldn’t do such a thing. She aimed at him a last time in case he was looking back; he wasn’t coming here again if she could help it. Her heart still drummed heavy beats in her ears, then minute by minute slowed.

Talia was at her elbow trying not to laugh or cry, she couldn’t decide which she wanted to do, then put an arm about her waist. They were both breathless. Hellie felt hot and cold, sorry and disgusted with them all. And relieved.

“You alright, Tal?” She ran her hand gently over Talia’s glossy head, calming them both.

“I guess so, I got scared, he’s way too much, I mean I said ‘enough’ but he just squashed me and…”

“He wolfed down my stew, started in with lame jokes then actually ogled me–I knew for sure right then he spelled trouble. I should have kept you with me, thrown him out…”

“Well, I’m not exactly a kid. I just didn’t see it until we were on the porch. But he sure said some powerful good things.”

“Oh, Talia, you have to know how that goes by now. Just another  charmer with little else going,  some money and looks, neither of which counts that much in the end.”

“Seemed like plenty. Guess I’m kinda slow.” They started back to the house. “Would you have really fired the rifle?”

Hellie sighed as she touched the outline of two bullets in her front jeans pocket. Just in case. “It wasn’t loaded. But I ought to think at least twice, sometimes. I just don’t–” She stopped and looked up at the sky, all those stars flaring, making eternity more perfect. “I just don’t want anything bad to ever happen to you. I know–you’ll have to figure out more. Me, too, by the way.”

“Yeah, I get understand. But I need to be more like you–watchful.”

“Well, that’s only part of who I am. As you well know. Just pay attention to your intuition.” She have a small yank to her sister’s lustrous ponytail. “But, boy oh boy, I sure did love that car, I could not have taken a serious shot at it! Maybe him–but not a Jaguar F-type Coupe! How did it ride?”

“Fantastic! It was like gliding right into another world! I never knew they could do that. How do you know about cars?” She paused.”I have to say it still steams me, sometimes–he said he was more interested in you than me. He barely even talked with you. I mean, I always wonder why guys just take to you, fish to water.”

“Huh, coming from him, that’s sorta scary, isn’t it?” They walked slowly, arms about each other’s waists and up the creaking front steps. Hellie looked out over the empty yard as they settled on the top one. “Anyway, I’m not sure that’s the case but don’t give it another thought. I don’t.”

But she did think about it, as it was weirdly true. And she wondered when and where she’d ever meet someone she wanted to spend real time with, someone with whom she could reciprocate the admiration. It was slow going, the love business, almost starting and then surprise stops or the wrong scenarios.

“I won’t tell Dad, Hellie.”

“No stopping that Jamie; I’m sure he’ll hear about it before I have a chance to talk about it. I’m not worried, just glad you’re alright.” She patted Talia’s narrow back, then walked around the corner to grab the other rifle. She lay them on a small table.

“Two, Helen–uh, Hellie–really?” She slapped her a little on the forearm.

She did’t reply. She was surprised to hear her real name spoken by Talia but liked it.

Crickets chirruped and from a treetop the crow called once, twice, three times then fell silent, as if waiting for Hellie to try to add one more thing. After awhile, her little sister slipped indoors, worn out. But she sat there with rifles on the stool beside her. She recalled the few times her father had taken her deer hunting, a thing that wasn’t easy. She was a good shot but shot past the bucks, never at them. She got up, took it downstairs and secured it.

Hellie leaned against the locker with eyes shut, knowing they had had a couple of too-close calls. She also knew she’d be on the lookout for any other trouble until her sister left for college. Probably until they both got old, even when Talia was famous or at least meeting her own destiny. It was her job; it was just her way.

Sandra Dee, a Man in a Suit and Me

henri-cartier-bresson1960
henri-cartier-bresson1960

If anyone had asked me what I felt that afternoon, if I was swooning with excitement to see a local celebrity or simply out to have some fun with my cousin, Henny, I’d have said something was off, like when you first notice a weird smell in the air but don’t pay it any mind. It was as if my instincts knew something but my brain was too busy to sort it out. I was looking at the mass of people and also focusing on Henny as she sucked in her lips, then puffed them out in a bad imitation of a starlet. Her sunglasses looked terrific, though. Aunt Margie, giddy with anticipation, stood in front of and clsoe to Uncle Fred. I aimed my Kodak camera and got my picture despite being squeezed every which way by the crowd waiting to see and hear our local bigwig.

Things can change before you blink an eyelash. I felt this as the next several seconds flashed by, never to be captured again.

It had started out like any day at Aunt Margie’s and Uncle Fred’s. I had spent the night with Henny, staying up half the night eating marshmallow cream, peanut butter, and chocolate fudge off spoons, telling ghost stories that barely raised a hair on my arms, and listening  to favorite songs. We liked to compare movie stars. I favored Sandra Dee even if Henny didn’t. She had golden, perfect features, something I’d never need consider mimicking with my curly brown hair and eyes. Troy Donahue and Annette Funicello were okay–her favorites, but Henny was barely ten and not that smart, sorry to say–but I didn’t admire them. I wished to be Sandra’s little sister, as I was lonely sometimes. Fat chance, so I learned what I could about her. She was a model from age four, can you imagine that? And half-starved herself later to look good, which is sad. It worked, I guess; she was famous pretty fast. I was sure she had all sorts of secrets and stories. Her smile was sweet as flowers. I just appreciated her ways and means; Mother and I agreed.

Aunt Margie said it was improper for a girl my age–twelve–to be watching such movies but my mother, her very own sister for crying out loud, was a movie nut so took me along often. She’d always whisper about Sandra’s looks, so I knew they were a ten-plus on her rating scale. My mother strives to be the best in how she dresses, moves and talks, like any actress. Only she just acts in community theatre.

“Psst, Leslie baby, see that? How her hair folds over in waves? That lipstick! We’ll see if we can pull that off when we get home. Her skin is smooth as spun honey, how on earth does she do it?”

“Mom! Trying to hear her talk, not you! This is a big scene!”

So, no, I wasn’t all that jazzed about just seeing the mayor at the big rally. If it was Sandra or someone like that, sure. Like mother says, Politics is for people who can’t or maybe won’t think for themselves. Movies are for those with imaginations. Well, that last idea is mine but I am my mother’s daughter as far as movie land goes.

Mother pursed her tangerine lips. “I hate to accept that your tender mind will be infected with this stuff. But, okay, life is what it is and you’re growing up so you can go with them to keep Henny company.”

Uncle Fred wanted to be some big player, mother said. Aunt Margie shared such things in a quiet voice behind her palm, as if someone important might hear. And then what? Maybe I’d report her bragging to the social register ladies.

“Fred is already on the county commission and sits on a board with Mr. Hendrikson. And we’re building another hardware store this year, did I tell you? He knows people–zoning laws and all that. He wants to get in on new development. I’ll be driving my pink Caddy very soon!”

“Who cares?” I asked my cousin. “I mean, do you want to be rich so you can wear rubies to the grocery store?”

Henny shrugged as she pulled my Barbie’s wavy blond hair into a ponytail. I had given those dolls up three years ago but she still played with them so I kept all three in my closet.

“He wants to be a politician, mom says. What does that mean, Les?”

“It means he wants to talk loud and puff up his chest and act like he does good things for the little person. Says mother.”

“Little person? Kids, you mean?”

“Henny, put her dress on. She’s way too made up to be parading about that naked.”

Henny raised her eyebrows at me. “You got that naughty word from a Sandra Dee movie, I bet!”

I tossed the shoebox of Barbie doll clothes to her and flopped face first on my bed. I picked up my library book, rolled over and read as she played, making up a Barbie story. I tried not to sigh.

She is my cousin, the only one here. She likes to hula hoop and draws pretty well and dances with me when the radio is turned up at our place. My mother is the D word. Divorced. At Henny’s house, things have to be quieter because her mother is the M word. Married and Maladjusted, according to my mother. I had to look up the last word in Webster’s. But I like going to their place, too. All those long windows and useless, pretty glass objects on shelves and some big extra rooms. Mother and I had a good house once, she told me, before the D word. And then we lost stuff and moved to our duplex in an area that is “developing.”

Well, now you can see we are–I am–just regular people, nobody special even if some like to think themselves so. I mean, we all have stupid moments and good ones.

That day, though, my life changed.

My aunt and uncle gave me a camera for my birthday. I take a lot of pictures every day. I tried to hold my camera up high to get a few of the various VIPs but folks kept telling me to put my arms down. I could not figure out why Sol Hendrikson was such a big deal. We weren’t so big a city or so interesting as to be a star on any map. But there we were, me wanting a shaved ice, Henny stepping on my toes and making faces. Aunt Margie had told us to be patient, the Man of the Hour was going to talk fifteen minutes and then we’d all get spare ribs and grilled corn on the cob and pop. I was game after that so just had to keep Henny in line.

I had noticed the man after the first picture I took. He was an older gentleman and stood tall, two down from my aunt. He kept looking at me as if he wanted to keep an eye on me but it didn’t cause worry. I didn’t feel he was a perv but thought, well, I got you on my Kodak, buster, and just went on taking random pictures.

The crowd roared a cheer. I could barely see Sol Hendrikson bob along the over-decorated bandstand, patriotic crepe paper with big blue and white balloons everywhere. He, a medium guy with a big head of wavy grey hair–stepped up to the microphone and announced: “Greetings, my friends and good citizens of–” but then: bang!

It took us a few gasps to realize it was a gunshot. My ears were ringing. It felt as if all the air had been pulled out of the meadow we stood in. Heart pounding, I turned my Kodak viewfinder around and spotted him, the man who had stared at me, his arms now straight up in the air, one fist shaking. The other one gripped a gun.

“Traitor! Liar and Thief! You’re gonna be sorry!” he yelled.

He fired another shot and I froze except for my finger still pushing that button for more pictures. People were pushing and screaming, trying to run despite there being no space to move. I thought I’d suffocate and everything slowed down, as if time was in opposition to the emergency and we all had stumbled into quicksand. My ears were filled with a rumble of sounds. Then Henny grabbed my hand and her mother and father pulled us hard, yanking our arms from their sockets, until we all stampeded, barreling through the grassy meadow to the stand of trees. Uncle Fred is strong as a bull and he got us to safety. Where we hit the rich dirt of a bare patch of earth, trembling and out of breath.

“Get off me!” I tried to push Henny off but she tightened her arms around my neck.

“No! No!”

“Stay down!” her father ordered and I heard Aunt Margie’s terrified sobs.

I lay very still and held on.

Everyone was shouting, trampling past or over each other as chairs collapsed and people fell and dragged others with them. I raised my head enough to see spareribs and corn flying and someone with a bloody nose race by. I pointed my Kodak and snapped a couple more shots, I don’t know why, it was a thing I had to do.

I closed my eyes when I heard the sirens. I didn’t want to see them, the police in those uniforms with guns drawn against the man in a grey suit. I could see his face clearly in my mind. He’d looked like a businessman, like somebody’s well-off father, like any neighbor who waved to us as we drove to the mall. Good looking in an older way, eyes that peered out. A face that could change into a big smile any moment, you could just tell, he had to have a good side. But he raised his arm and aimed into a beautiful summer sky and pulled the trigger. Twice. I didn’t know if he aimed at a person the second time. I didn’t want to know. I wanted to be home with mother and my room and books and movie magazines. I hugged my camera close to my sweaty chest.

“Henny, Leslie. Come on. Let’s go sit down. Come on girls.”

Uncle Fred’s voice was a soothing breeze across my face. I slowly stood up and Henny did, too. Aunt Margie was already seated with a cold pop in hand. She stared at us, then at the bandstand, which was crawling with official looking people.

“Anyone shot?” I asked, my voice a trembling squeak.

“Don’t think so, thank God.” He handed Henny a grape pop and me, an orange.

“They get him?” my aunt asked.

“No, not in the last five minutes, Margie. They’re looking and tending to those who might be hurt from what I can tell. I’m about to find out more.”

“But I have him, right here,” I said, patting my camera in my lap.

“What, dear?” my aunt asked, not even looking my way.

“What did you say, Leslie?” Uncle Fred squatted down to eye level. “What do you mean?”

“I took his picture. I was snapping away when I noticed a man kept looking over at me. He seemed a little off. Nervous, maybe. Got him on film.”

“You sure?” He stood now, and offered me his hand. I haltingly got up and looked over the meadow: people resting, talking, scurrying about. Food passed around. Sirens winding down.

I nodded twice. It was the only thing I was certain about.

“Wait here.”

He ran off and I watched him reach a policeman, then two more joined him and they jogged back, faces red with exertion. I pulled back my damp brown hair and wadded it into a makeshift bun with a hairpin from my bangs. They asked me more questions than I could answer.

Did my mother know about this yet? I felt a little dizzy as I turned over my camera. “Yes, you can have it–if you give it back soon.”

One officer laughed and two tough ones scowled at me. It was no time to act foolish. But I meant it. That camera was more valuable to me than I had known. I had to talk for what seemed hours to countless people. I wasn’t the only one, but I was the one with those pictures. Right then and there. When Mother finally arrived, hair in curlers and a scarf, things were winding down but she got hysterical, no acting required.

The film was developed and the man in the grey suit was there, behind Henny and Aunt Margie and another woman. He was looking right at me, sorta sly like. As if he was going to let me slide this time because he had more important hings on his mind. Like threats of and possible actual murder.

The next two are of him with arms raised, right hand grasping the gun, then aiming with both. I couldn’t have gotten more lucky if I had tried harder. I had done it without even thinking, as I tried to tell the police and my mother. It was a coincidence.

“But that’s incredible, Les! You just knew it, right? You are amazing!”

The bullets missed everyone as far as they can tell; they continue to look for them. They later wanted to take pictures of me with my photographs and mother said just one good one, so it’s there on the front page, me and my mother (her hair waving as good a Sandra’s) with good outfits on and my face looking as if molded out of plasticine, a tiny smile more like a dismal pout with a smile tacked on. Mother’s arms are strong and were clinching me in a hug so tight I wanted to tell her to let up on me. Enough people in my face, in our lives! But I didn’t. I was insanely glad to get home, to be held then and many times afterwards.

But it made me famous. Sort of. For longer than I had thought. I wanted to be done with it after a couple weeks. Who thinks so much attention is worth anything? It is exhausting.

His name was William K. Best III. I don’t know why he felt moved to shoot the sky and then aim badly at Sol Hendrikson. Some said it was an old grudge, he lost his money on a deal and the mayor knew of it but that’s some crazy resentment! Mr. Best will need to come up with a better explanation when he goes to trial. I might have to be mixed up in that, but I’m just a kid so we’ll see. He was unhinged, mother kept telling me. That thought didn’t make it any more comforting, or less horrible a thing. It just framed things with a simple explanation.

“Politics,” she said, her upper lip curling.

“Politics!” I agreed.

“So now that you’re famous, maybe you’ll get to meet Sandra Dee,” Henny said as she brushed Barbie’s hair and made a miniscule braid.

“Naw, not a chance.”

I lay back on my pillow and looked at my bare, skinny toes, the tips shining with pink polish. Through my open window I could hear a lawn mower and beyond that, the friendly shriek of a train whistle. Summer was almost over and I’d be thirteen soon.

“Why?”

“I’m over Sandra Dee. I like to read more…but mostly I love taking pictures.”

“Yeah, maybe you’ll be a famous celebrity photographer.”

“Could be, cuz’.”

But I already knew what was going to happen. I could feel it, as if the August breeze was bearing me a message. The leaves were shimmering on a big oak outside my window. My heart beat steady and calm. I was going to be a genuine photographer, find rallies or demonstrations or something else real interesting, even important, going on. It was the nineteen sixties; anything was possible. I’d be carrying my camera a long time. Who knew what might turn up once that shutter clicked?