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An Elliptical Essay on Violence


ISSUE:  Spring 2010

On April 16, 2007, a young man who had been one of my students the previous semester walked into a building on campus armed with a 9mm Glock 19 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, chained the doors closed behind him, and proceeded to murder everyone who came into his line of vision. By the time he shot himself in the head, with police finally breaking through the chained doors, thirty-three people were dead and seventeen more were wounded. Within hours after these events, editors and news people, friends and colleagues began asking me to talk about what had happened. They wanted, or hoped for, some insight into the carnage, some way of understanding what would drive this particular young man to this particularly horrifying massacre. They thought, reasonably, since I had written about violence in much of my fiction, I might have something to say about this act of real violence, committed by a real person, someone I had known as my student. I didn’t then, and I don’t now know what to say about the murders at Virginia Tech on Four-Sixteen.

*   *   *

I grew up in Brooklyn, on Ainslie Street, in Williamsburg, in the basement apartment of a house owned by my grandmother. Once, while sitting with my twin sister in front of the television in that apartment, the door behind us splintered off its hinges as something crashed into it from outside. Then there was screaming when my mother swooped down and lifted us from the floor as the door flew open. Before my mother carried us into the bathroom and locked the door, I caught a glimpse of my uncle as he barged into the room, fists readied for my father who was charging toward him from the kitchen.

These were two men who loved each other. I don’t know what the fight was about.

*   *   *

April 11, 2008. I’m thinking of a news story about a father who came home from work expecting to find his house empty and then shot and killed his teenage daughter, who was in her bedroom, cutting school. She hid in her closet when he came in. He heard a noise and got out his gun. In my memory of the news story, the daughter’s last words were “I love you.” He had gone into her room, pulled open her closet door, and shot the figure hiding behind clothes. I can’t recall how long ago I heard this story, and I’m not sure about the details, so I go to Google and enter “father shoots daughter” in the search field. I get 339 hits. Many are recent news about a father who shot his daughter after finding her on Facebook. These are some of the others:

  • Father Shoots Daughter, Himself (03/24/2008)
  • abc11.com: Father shoots daughter and cousin, 12-year-old cousin . . .
  • Father Shoots Daughter for Being Too Fat NAAFA Newsletter September 1989,

Curious now, I go back to Google and type in “father shoots son.” I get 255,000 hits. These are just a few:

  • Father Shoots Son in Face—San Antonio News Story—KSAT San Antonio (02/15/2008)
  • Father Shoots Son After Xbox Dispute, Cops Say (02/07/2008)
  • Father shoots son instead of burglar (04/09/2008)
  • Father shoots Son After Argument Over Money—from TBO.com

I type in “husband shoots wife.” 275,000 hits. “Man shoots woman.” 325,000 hits. “Woman killed in shooting.” 702,000 hits. “Man killed in shooting.” 1,710,000 hits.

*   *   *

More than once, in a rage, my father intentionally crashed his car into another vehicle. The crash I remember happened on Christmas Eve, when I was a child. The moment of the crash and the moments immediately after the crash are vivid. My father and mother are in the front. We pull up in front of our apartment in Brooklyn. It’s late and there’s no place to park. I’m sleepy and warm stretched out on the floorboards behind the back seat—in those days before seatbelts were required. My older sisters are sitting in the back with my sleeping twin. The car stops in front of our home. My father has told the neighbors that the parking spot on the street in front of our house belongs to us. He reasons that his family owns the house and that ownership includes the parking spot in front of it. Others apparently don’t agree, as our next-door neighbor’s car is parked there. My father says something under his breath in Italian. My mother says something back, also in Italian. Then our car lurches forward into the parked car, and the next thing I know I’m in the front seat, in my mother’s arms, and I’m surrounded again by shouting.

Those days, the days of my childhood, there was a lot of shouting. My father was a house painter, a good-looking man of average height, with a broad chest and muscular arms and shoulders. He was a powerful man. I once saw him rip the shirt off the back of a local kid, a hoodlum all the young kids feared. I don’t recall much of the incident, just a single image, vivid, of the kid trying to run away as my father grabbed him by the back of the collar and kicked him in the ass as if he were punting a football. Just that snapshot: my father’s right foot extended, making contact, his left hand grasping the collar of a white shirt while the guy is running away, his shirt ripping off his back. Kids shouting. Neighbors shouting.

Mostly, I remember images, moments:

An ironing board set up in the kitchen, in front of the sink. A pile of dishes on one end of the ironing board and my father smashing them one a time, hurling them to the floor, each time with a leap. He jumps up and as his feet come off the ground he hurls a plate, held in both hands, to the floor. He’s shouting. My mother is somewhere not in the picture, shouting.

I’m a child sitting on my butt in front of the open refrigerator while my mother holds an ice pack to my eye. My father has just knocked me across the room and my eye is rapidly swelling. My mother shouting. My father watching, his eyes hard but with a hint of worry over what he might have done.

I’m a teenager sitting at the kitchen table. My twin sister has just started her first job working a cash register and someone conned her with an old scam that involved breaking a twenty. My father is at the head of the table, as always, and he listens with disgust to my sister’s story and then picks up a full pitcher of lemonade from the table and hurls it at the wall over her head. The pitcher shatters and my sister’s blouse is soaked. Much shouting. Much screaming.

I’m older, in my twenties. I’m kneeling by the couch in our Long Island home, next to my father, who’s a few weeks away from dying of cancer. We’re sharing a cigarette. He takes a drag and hands the cigarette to me and then he talks a bit while I take a drag. We go back and forth like that. My sisters are playing a game in the kitchen. He says, of my sisters, “I love to hear them laughing.”

That Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, the night he crashed into a neighbor’s car, we were returning from his mother’s house where there’d been a big fight again, with Johnny, the brother who’d smashed through our front door. They were close, those two, and always fighting. In the living room of my grandmother’s house a dozen relatives restrained Johnny on one side of the room, and Joe, my father on the other. Shouting. Lots of shouting. My memory is that the fight happened at my grandmother’s, and we all drove home, and then my father crashed the car into a neighbor’s car. But I can’t be sure about the fight at my grandmother’s. There were a lot of fights at my grandmother’s. I remember the car crashing into the car with certainty. I remember flying into the front seat and winding up in my mother’s arms as a neighbor came out of the front door of her apartment screaming and grasping a fork in her upraised hand as if it were a knife. She ran down a stoop toward my father. I saw more neighbors rushing out of their apartments and more shouting as big snow flakes fall in a flurry over Ainslie Street, onto the pavement and the houses, our neighbors all out up and down the block, shouting.

*   *   *

I was seventeen my first time. It was a warm spring night at the end of April, and I was a senior in high school. We were living on Long Island then, in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I climbed out my bedroom window and walked about three miles in the late-night suburban silence, a little after 3 A.M., a weekday night. I walked along the deserted main road for most of the journey, before turning onto the dark, unlighted, woods-bracketed road that led into my girlfriend’s upscale development. Where I lived, houses were fairly close together—nice houses, but row upon row of them. Where she lived, the houses were what we’d call now McMansions, lots of space around them, lots of landscaping, long driveways. I remember the walk through that neighborhood clearly, even now, some forty years later, because the streets were so dark, the only illumination coming from porch lights or the various versions of nighttime exterior lighting. I was alone in the world, my blood humming, walking through the night for miles to my girlfriend’s house, where we had made plans to meet. She was supposed to leave a ladder leaning against the garden shed in her backyard. I was supposed to quietly move the ladder to her bedroom window, which she would leave open a crack. Quiet was a key word, since her father was in the military and we definitely did not want to wake him. Her parents slept in a room down the hall from her.

You’re probably expecting something to go wrong at this point, as usually happens in such a story. But, no, the plan worked. I walked to her house, crossed her front yard to a gate that opened into her backyard, where I found a ladder leaning against the shed, moved it gingerly to her open bedroom window, crept quietly into her room where she was waiting, and got into bed with her.

Things went as planned that night, but since then I’ve occasionally thought . . . what if? Her father was a military guy with, as I recall it, a drinking problem. What if he had been up that night, for whatever reason? What if he had been looking out his study window and seen someone walking along the road at 3:30 in the morning, then stop at his house and cross his lawn into his back yard? What if he had armed himself and crept out into the yard only to see the figure of a man climbing a ladder into his daughter’s bedroom window? Or what if he had been drinking that night and he had found me with his daughter? I broke into the man’s house. I went to bed with his sixteen-year old daughter.

When you’re seventeen, the “what-ifs” don’t really register.

*   *   *

This is a summary of “The Instruments of Peace,” one of my short stories: A man, fearful of the violence in his own heart, turns his back on a violent upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn, only to find himself, as a grown man and the father of a teenage daughter named Amy, harboring Chad, a young criminal, on the farm he mangages in upstate New York. When he learns that two killers are coming for Chad, whom he has reason himself to hate at that point in the story, he considers letting them kill the boy, but again rejects violence and warns him. He leaves the farm for the evening, expecting Chad to run from the killers, but when he returns he finds that Chad has brutally murdered the two men and left their bodies in a stall with HM, a fractious race horse. This is the ending of the story, as he walks out of the barn after having found the battered and bloody bodies:

I made my way toward my house, as if moving to a place of safety, a place where I could rest and figure things out. I touched my face and felt that both my hands were slick with still-wet blood—and for a moment then I must have lost my mind because I stood there in that field thinking I had murdered them, those two kids in HM’s stall, those boys who were only Chad’s age if not even younger. It lasted a second or two, that belief, that knowledge that I was the murderer, before I solved the equation and understood that the bars of the stall must have been bloody and I got blood on my hands when I gripped them. But it lingered, that sense that I was the murderer. I was shaken. I struggled across the pasture toward the house, surrounded by the peace of dark mountains and fields, knowing only that I needed to get cleaned up before Amy saw me. I didn’t want to frighten her. I didn’t want her to see me with blood all over my face and hands. I didn’t want her to wonder who I was.

*   *   *

When I was thirteen, still living in Brooklyn, I took the bus to school. I can’t recall the name of the school. I didn’t attend for very long, and that’s part of the problem. I can’t remember a class, a teacher, the building, nothing. But I know that I took a bus to school, because one memory is very clear.

I had very few friends growing up. I mention this because the bus memory involves a friend—a rare thing for me at that time. I had a friend and that would have been important to me—though his name, his face, everything about him is now gone. Actually, before I started writing this, I thought I remembered him pretty well—but in trying to sort out the facts, I realized that the person I was thinking of could not have been the same friend. That person, whose name was David, lived on Long Island, and that was after Brooklyn and the bus incident. David and the other person may well have been the only two friends I had all those years growing up—and in my mind they merged. 

It’s not hard to figure out why I wiped the first friend from memory.

I took an ordinary public transit bus to school. I picked it up on the corner of a crowed avenue. No yellow school bus. No friendly bus driver. Public transit. I’m on the bus with my friend on the way home from school. The bus is packed. At every stop, when people get in the front of the bus, we’re all pushed back, crammed into each other. The seats are full, people are crowded into the center aisle. I’m thirteen, average height, skinny, probably less than a hundred pounds then. The bus is noisy with school kids shouting back and forth. The back of the bus is full of black kids from the tenements. I was an Italian kid from Williamsburg, and there was always tension. The bus stops, people get in the front, we’re pushed back. Behind me, my friend is pushed back into a small black kid, smaller than me. The kid mouths off to my friend, tells him that if he knocks into him one more time . . . something or other. Kid stuff. Swearing. The point being, if my friend bumps into this kid again, there will be trouble.

The bus starts up. I say to my friend, “Let me stand there.” The black kid takes this as a challenge. He looks worried. I suspect it was the perceived bravado that frightened him. He thought I was looking for a fight, and why wouldn’t he be worried? What kind of a maniac white kid is ready for a fight surrounded by a dozen black kids, the majority of whom, it seems, know each other and are friends? But I wasn’t looking for a fight. I was thinking that I was a little bigger than my friend and I might be able to keep from bumping into the kid. I was trying to help. I was trying to avoid a fight. Because I was facing the front of the bus, I didn’t see the kid slip out of his seat, and I didn’t see the much bigger, much older guy who took his place. The bus stops. People get on. Then I’m facing this big guy and he hits me, and then my friend is dragging me off the bus through the side doors. He’s dragging me onto the street. He has me by the armpits and he’s pulling me onto the sidewalk. I open my eyes to see all the black kids hanging out the bus windows laughing and shouting at me.

The kid’s punch knocked me out cold and I was unconscious between the time he hit me and the time I opened my eyes being dragged out of the bus, when I looked up to all those kids jeering at me.

That’s part one of the story. Part two happens the next day. It’s lunchtime and we’re in the crowded school yard. Typical crowded city school yard, lots of kids, lots of shouting. My friend offers to buy me lunch. We’ve never before left the school for lunch. This is something entirely new. I say okay, and we leave the school yard, cross the street, and walk down the block. Before we get very far, we pass a concrete stoop. It’s one of those stoops with space under it, the space where people store garbage pails. As we walk past, an arm reaches out and someone pulls me under the stoop. My friend keeps walking as if he doesn’t even see someone grab me by the shirt and pull me away. He walks calmly on as I’m dragged under that stoop and into a crowd of black kids. After that, I remember nothing. I’m assuming I was quickly rendered unconscious. The beating couldn’t have been too bad. I wasn’t hospitalized, nothing like that. Probably they all took their shots and then left me there dazed.

I understood that my friend had set me up for the beating. I understood that he had led me to that stoop. There were repercussions. My parents were involved, the principal was involved—but I absolutely can’t remember details, only that it happened, and that soon after that, we moved to Long Island.

*   *   *

I have six uncles, and they all served in the military. The uncle I’m named after—his name was August, but everyone called him Eddie—was part of the Normandy invasion. He survived the beach assault, but was killed a few days later by a grenade blast. Tony, one of my favorites, a gruff, handsome, gravel-throated tough-talking guy, survived Pearl Harbor. Johnny, the guy closest to and most like my father, fought in the Pacific. No one could ever get him to talk about the things that happened to him there, but you were given to understand they were terrible. Carmine served between wars and didn’t see combat. He died young, in an automobile accident that took his life, his wife’s, his infant son’s, his wife’s brother, and both her parents. Only his daughter survived. The accident happened outside Staunton, Virginia, on Interstate 81, probably not more than thirty miles from where I currently live. They were on their way to Tennessee, to visit with his wife’s family. They had all visited us at our house right before they left on this trip. I was with my mother when she got news of the accident. The phone rang, she picked it up, and then a moment later her legs went out from under her as if someone had yanked them by the heels. She landed on the floor with her back against the wall, the phone clutched to her chest, dissolved in the sort of grief I had never witnessed before.

*   *   *

When I was in sixth grade, I brought a knife to school. It was a cheap, serrated, kitchen knife with a fake pearl handle. Somehow I got caught with it and I was sent home. There was some minor fallout, nothing too bad. I don’t know why I brought the knife to school. Probably I thought it might keep me from being picked on, from being punched and kicked and regularly humiliated. I feel some shame, even now, all these years later, remembering how weak I was then. Now I can think it through and understand it. I was a small kid, hypersensitive, with a domineering father who taught me to cower, who taught me to be afraid. It took me many years to unlearn my father’s lessons. Then, on the street, others saw weakness in my eyes instantly. On the street, there, then, that time, in Brooklyn—there was always someone ready to exploit weakness.

A schoolyard incident. Someone punches me in the stomach and knocks the air out of me. This is not unusual. Someone is always punching me in the stomach or kicking me in the balls. I didn’t know how to stand up to anyone and I suffered the consequences. In this particular incident, someone knocks the air out of me with a punch, several kids stand around me jeering, a teacher comes along to break it up, looks down and sees me, sneers and walks away. That’s what I remember most clearly: the teacher sneering at me and then walking away.

*   *   *

“Acid” is the title story of my second collection. Jerome, the central character, is a fifty-two year old man who has made a respectable, peaceful life for himself. He’s been married for twenty years, has raised a family, and is deeply religious. He starts every day by attending mass and receiving communion. The conflict in the story revolves around Jerome’s attraction to a young woman, an attraction that is making him think about his past—which was neither respectable nor peaceful. In the story, he remembers “the good part” of his youth, which was the part about being a jazz musician and playing regularly in New York clubs:

But the good part was tied up with the bad part in a way he could never understand. Anger was the bad part. Something that was anger and more than anger. At first it was only there in the morning. He’d wake up with it. He’d get out of bed, his senses raw, like his nerves were all exposed, something heavy wrapped around him like a smoldering robe. He wasn’t sure where it came from, he wasn’t sure it mattered . . . It was something inside him furious, something enraged. He couldn’t rest, the anger pressed against his skin. It seeped into every part of his life.

Only when this anger leads Jerome in his youth to beat up a woman after having sex with her, a crime for which he spends a week in jail, does he begin to change his life. 

*   *   *

There used to be a movie house on Grand Street, a short walk from where I lived on Ainslie. On Saturdays there’d often be horror double features. Movies were incredibly cheap then, something like a quarter, so it was an easy way for my mother to get at least one of us out from underfoot for the afternoon. The three most frightening creatures of the time were the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula. The Wolf Man was a decent guy (if emotionally tortured), until the full moon came out, at which time he would sprout a coat of thick hair and his fingers would turn into claws as the whole of his body transformed to an upright wolf—and then he’d go about his animal business of viciously killing. The Wolf Man scared me. Frankenstein wasn’t nearly as frightening. A monster patched together from pieces of corpses, he was slow moving and endearingly dumb, a creature who had more in common with King Kong and Mighty Joe Young than the Wolf Man. Dracula was another creature of the night, and, like Wolf Man, he scared the hell out of me. He slept during the day and couldn’t hurt you, but at night he’d come out to pursue his victims, entrancing them with his gaze, subduing them to his will, and then turning them, eventually, with his bite, into monsters in his thrall. He scared me wickedly. The only movie I ever literally ran out of—jumping out of my seat, running along the dark aisle and out into the bright Saturday sunlight—was a Dracula movie. I can still remember the scene. Middle of the night, a woman in a white sleeping gown running along a moonlit trail through the woods. Over her head, behind her, Dracula is coming after her in the form of a bat. The sense of pursuit, the terror of being chased by something horrible, is achieved by cutting back and forth between the woman running through the eerie, moonlit woods, and the bat soaring through the night sky, moving faster than she could ever run.

I ran out of the theatre, but I couldn’t run away from the nightmares. There were nights then when I’d lie in bed in a state I realize now was a wakeful sleep. In that state, I’d hear the sound of someone, something approaching the bed. I’d try to scream but no sound would come out. I couldn’t scream because I was sleeping—but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was awake, I thought a monster was in the room, and I couldn’t scream or call out for help. I’d lie in bed for what seemed like forever, unable to make a sound.

*   *   *

This is a story from my childhood that I used to tell all the time for laughs. The story is so extreme that funny is the best way to tell it. I’m out on the street, Ainslie, walking to the corner, when a bunch of neighborhood kids grab me—some block kids, some older kids. They grab me and stuff me into a garbage pail, and then carry the pail to the top of a stoop and roll it down with me inside. People laugh as I tell this story, my tone and manner of delivery asking for the laughs—this story of being locked under that lid, banging on the sides of the tin can, screaming for them to let me out, then bouncing down the concrete steps and rolling out into the street. Really, you should have heard me screaming. You should have seen me yowling like a fool as the lid popped off and I ran away trailing garbage, my lip bleeding, my eyebrow cut and bleeding just a bit, and all those kids up on the stoop, holding their sides, bent over double, laughing.

When I was much younger, in my late-teens through my twenties, I was always telling funny stories about being the kid everyone picked on growing up in Brooklyn. Like the story of how my father was given to calling me Idiot, Stupid, or Dummy. Hey, Stupid, bring me an ashtray. Hey, Idiot, come over here. With the right tone, with the right distance, I could make these stories hysterical.

*   *   *

I’ve always slept restlessly. I used to moan in my sleep the way other men snore. I still do sometimes, but nothing like when I was younger and I’d moan loudly, embarrassingly. A girlfriend once threw me out of bed for waking her up with my moaning. Sometimes my sleep is so full of unpleasant dreams, nighttime feels like a kind of molestation. I wake up feeling pummeled and abused. There have been periods of time in my life when I’ve dreamed every night of being chased or pursued, and I’ve awakened in a sweat. I still, even now—having gotten as far away from the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood of my youth as you can get, living in rural southwest Virginia, teaching in a university—I still dream often of the city. And still I go through periods when I’ll dream every night of being challenged in some way that threatens to humiliate me, of being treated in some way that shows disrespect, and I’ll wake up furious, my heart blazing; I’ll wake up out of a dead sleep in something like a rage.

*   *   *

Megan was my first real girlfriend. We spent the summer after graduating high school searching out places to have sex. She was wonderful, funny and smart and pretty, but also deeply troubled. I’m pretty sure she had been sexually abused by her older brothers, though she was never absolutely clear about it. I was already writing poetry and thinking of myself as an artist. Megan liked me for that and we spent most of the summer driving all over Long Island, talking as we drove around finding places to be alone with each other.

Once, driving back to her house, we were approaching a busy main road from a quiet side street. There was a traffic light at the intersection and you could see why it was needed. You had to stop at this corner and move out into the intersection before you could see what traffic might be coming along the crossroad. I had been at this intersection before, so I knew what was coming—but instead of slowing down as I approached the red light at that corner, I sped up. Megan’s eyes went all wide beside me, and I stiffened in my seat. I pushed the gas pedal to the floor and the car roared through the red light and through the intersection. Once we made it through, Megan screamed with delight. She whooped and hollered and threw her arms around me. I was grinning like a maniac. I’d guess I was doing seventy or eighty when I hit that intersection. 

I had no idea why I did it.

*   *   *

Summaries of Two of My Short Stories:

  • “The Artist” (Best American Short Stories, 1995). A successful artist deals with bad characters from his violent past.
  • “The Revenant” (Pushcart Prize Stories, 2001). A ghost from his violent past disrupts a Vietnam vet’s peaceful life.

*   *   *

I have digital cable in my home, hundreds of stations. My typical TV watching involves flipping restlessly through channels and watching bits and pieces of shows. I once watched a segment of an episode of CSI in which a man is buried alive in a glass coffin. He is slowly being eaten by ants while a camera in the coffin records his agony and broadcasts the images to his loved ones, who don’t know where he is and therefore can’t save him. I’ve seen thousands of people murdered, beaten and tortured, raped and abused, men, women, and children—all while comfortably stretched out in my recliner, relaxing with a half-hour of so of television watching.

*   *   *

Here’s a list of “The 10 Most Violent Films of All-Time,” from a site called Film School Rejects:

  1. Scarface
  2. Reservoir Dogs
  3. Natural Born Killers
  4. Ed Gein
  5. True Romance
  6. A Clockwork Orange
  7. Silence of the Lambs
  8. Training Day
  9. Apocalypse Now
  10. The Godfather

I’m not a huge movie buff, and still I’ve seen all of these films except Ed Gein. A few of the films on the list are among my favorites, including The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, and Apocalypse Now, a movie which has Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (one of my favorite works of literature) at its core.

*   *   *

I’ve built a life around writing and teaching. I’ve been married twice, raised a daughter, and helped raise a stepson. Since I returned to school in my late twenties, I’ve been a graduate student, a graduate student teaching assistant, a part-time instructor, an adjunct instructor, an instructor, an assistant professor, an associate professor, and a full professor. Currently I’m the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech. Through all those positions, through all those years, this has been the basic routine of my life: write for a few hours in the morning, work and family the rest of the day.

Being a father is the only thing I’ve ever loved more than writing—though I don’t think I would have been a very good father had I not also been able to write.

Writing, for me, is a daily meditation. Would have been nice had it made me richer and/or more widely read. But that’s never been the point.

*   *   *

After the shootings at Virginia Tech two years ago, many friends sent words of consolation and concern. Mostly the messages came by email, and at first I answered right away, as is my usual practice. Then the emails started coming by the dozens, largely from news organizations and reporters, but also from friends, colleagues, and students, current and former. First, I wrote one long response and sent it out as a group email, and I promised to write everyone individually at some later time. After that, when the emails just kept coming, I gave up on responding—and I still feel bad about that. People wrote kind and loving and supportive messages, and I put them all in a mailbox and filed it away. I intended to go back and respond as soon as I could, but I never opened that mailbox again, and it’s been a year today. I don’t really know why I haven’t answered those emails—but every time I’ve gone to open that box, my hand has hesitated over the keys, I’ve stopped, and then I’ve gone on to do something else. It’s not that I don’t want to respond, but it’s as if the weight of what happened crushes everything, including words.

*   *   *

A few days after the shootings, the weather turned lovely in Blacksburg. Along with a friend, I drove twenty minutes out of town, through the lush Catawba valley, to Cove Mountain, where we hiked a steep trail up to Dragon’s Tooth.

Dragon’s Tooth is one of a line of spires at the top of Cove mountain. The tooth is a quartz outcropping that rises some 35 feet above the surrounding rocks. Perched on it, or on any of the other spires for that matter, the view is extraordinary. When we first arrived at the parking lot at the foot of the trail, I was surprised to find that it was full. The weather was nice, but it was still early in the season, and only a few days before, the day of the shootings, the sky had spit out an occasional snow flake; and the day right before the shootings, a Nor’easter had blown across the East Coast, with winds strong enough to knock down two trees in my back yard. Still, the weather was nice that day and the trail was crowded.

On the way up, we passed lots of students, which wasn’t surprising, given we were a short drive from several colleges. I remember that one girl was wearing a VT cap with a maroon and black ribbon pinned to the brim.

The trail is officially ranked “strenuous,” and at points it seems to go straight up. After awhile, I noticed that along with the students, there were lots of local people on the trail, folks who, like my friend and I, were not young anymore, and, again like my friend and I, not anywhere near being in the superb physical condition typical of youth. Lots of us were sweating that day. Lots of us were struggling. Probably, we all knew the view that awaited us, which, really, you just have to see. From the spires, looking south, you gaze out over the Catawba Mountains’ ridges and peaks, over Sandstone Ridge and McAfee’s Knob, the Tinker Cliff Overlooks, Beckner’s Gap, and the North Mountains—the whole panoramic view unfurling at your feet, exploding green with the season.

I suspect we were all pushing ourselves toward the reward of that view. As we went on, we met up with more and more people. Some took breaks from the climbing and were stretched out on rocks in the sunlight. Some were stopped in little groups huddled over and admiring wildflowers. There were scores of us out that day. It was like a pilgrimage. We were all climbing and taking breaks, climbing and taking breaks, on our way up to that view.

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