Ray and Manny are cemetery workers, digging graves by hand today. The aftermath of yet another school shooting.
A short, short story that helps me deal with the horrors we inflict on one another in our country. I hope it speaks to you too.
Too Small for the Backhoe
Ray tossed a couple of shovels in the back of the dark green pickup while Manny lit up a smoke.
They both leaned back against the truck.
“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Ray said.
Manny inhaled deeply. “Someone should burn in hell for what they did.”
The two men gazed at their work. Four small grave sites lined up alongside the cemetery road. Small, not the usual three feet by eight feet. At each site lay panels of plywood. Some held neat stacks of sod. Others were piled high with loose dirt.
The graves were cut precisely, clean rectangular lines on all sides.
Ray turned to walk away. “Would you mind taking the truck back to the maintenance shed? I need to get out of here.”
“You got it. See you tomorrow, man.”
Ray came in the back door of his home, unlaced his dirt-caked work boots, left them at the door. His wife Rosa was setting out a couple of pizzas. She looked at his dirty clothes, his grim face. “You don’t look good.”
“Manny and I dug four graves today…by hand.”
“Oh. Too small for the backhoe.”
Ray nodded. He pulled up a chair at the table.
Rosa reached up to a tall cabinet, pulled down a bottle of scotch. She poured him two fingers and handed him the glass.
She sat. “Children’s graves.”
Ray dipped his head, gazed into his glass.
“The ones from the school shooting?”
His eyes came up, held hers for a long moment.
“That was the next county over. Why your cemetery?”
Ray sipped his drink. “The guy who owns our cemetery donated the four plots…and the coffins.”
Their fourth grader, Gracie, stepped into the room. She kissed her dad. “You look tired, daddy.”
She reached for a slice of mushroom pizza.
“Your dad had to dig graves by hand today.”
“That means kids’ graves, right?”
Ray nodded, grabbed a pizza slice. “How was your day?”
Gracie shrugged. “Pretty boring. We had a sub today, and he repeated everything we did yesterday.”
After supper Gracie went to her room to do homework. Ray skipped his usual after-dinner shower, nestled next to Rosa on the sofa. They both stared at the TV, saw nothing. An hour later, Gracie came downstairs in her pajamas, her hair brushed back in a tight ponytail.
“Did you brush your teeth?” her mom asked.
“Okay. Sleep well.”
Gracie opened her hand, offered Ray four lengths of red ribbon.
“Would you put one ribbon in each grave, please, daddy? Tomorrow, before the people get there for the services.”
Ray squinted. “I don’t know…”
“A ribbon for each kid. They can tie it around their arm when they get up to heaven. That way everybody up there will know, these kids were shot in their classroom. They’ll get treated special.”
A tear crawled down Ray’s cheek. “I can do that. I’ll carve a little groove in each hole and hide the ribbon there.”
Her mom said, “Gracie, that’s beautiful.”
Gracie turned to leave the room. She hesitated, turned back. She opened her palm to reveal another piece of red ribbon, crushed in her fist. She handed it to her dad.
A teen tries to make sense of her father’s death and the murder of eleven school kids by making a film. Can new life come from this?
The story is my own way of dealing with the senseless and continual tragedies in our nation.
A Rosary of Names
Call me Alex. It’s what my father called me. My mother, she prefers Alexandra. Alexandra Sanchez. I live with my mother. My dad is gone. If it’s possible to die of a broken heart, that’s what killed him.
At this moment I am sitting in an empty classroom. In a vacant elementary school. The school will be torn down in a few months. The floor is cool on my butt, on my crossed legs.
I’m holding my film camera in my lap. I came here to make a movie. To try to make sense of what happened five months ago. In this room. They called my father a hero at his funeral. He didn’t die here. Eleven children did. My father kept it from being worse. A teacher and eight children survived.
My graduation from high school last month would have been a proud moment for my dad. I have a scholarship to study at the film school at CSUN. Cal State University Northridge. My dream come true, right? Today my college days are on hold. I can’t leave my mother to attend an out of state school. She needs me. I need her.
I’m sitting here alone. The school has been shuttered since the murders. I have a key. My father was the senior custodian. For twenty years. His keys were still in our house.
Last March, while a teacher worked with her students, all third graders, dad was in a corner of the room mopping up a kid’s puke. Something he did often. A man pulled open the door, started shooting an assault rifle at the kids. He didn’t see my father. Dad lifted his wet mop and ran at the shooter, shoving the mop and the puke in his face. The man dropped the rifle, pulled a handgun out of his belt, and shot himself in the head.
All the news reports say the whole thing was over in a minute. It will never be over for any of us. I want to capture the tragedy, the loss, on film. I don’t know how. I hope something will trigger an idea. I want the world to know what can happen in a moment’s time. How a deranged man can kill children, then kill himself to avoid responsibility for his actions. I want others to feel what we feel.
My father died in his sleep, two months after the shooting. My mother said he had nightmares every night. He would wake up screaming. In a sweat. Trembling. Every night. I can’t imagine what he must have seen in this room. The shooter dead. Eleven kids bloody and lifeless. Dad was like a zombie after that.
I’m thinking that the surviving children from this classroom also wake up screaming every night. As do the parents of the children who died.
I’m sitting here in silence. There are traffic noises outside. Far off, a siren. Distant thunder from an approaching storm. I listen. There is only emptiness. I turn on the camera. I check white balance and focus. I hit Record, panning around the shell of a room. All of the desks and tables have been removed. The walls are bare of teacher art, of student drawings and papers. The floor smells faintly of bleach and ammonia. I can only capture images and audio with my camera. No other sensory bites. The camera runs as I sit with my silence. A tear works its way down my cheek. I leave it to hang till it dries.
It occurs to me, are the spirits of the dead children here? It’s been five months. Have they moved on?
And I wonder, do they grieve for their moms and dads, their brothers and sisters, their friends and classmates? Miss them the same way we all miss the kids? Do they reach out their hands for a mom who is not there? Do they call out into an empty space?
I have the names of the eleven dead children memorized. Like my dad. He knew most of the kids by name. The whole school. He was good like that. Always a smile, a nod, a fist bump. Mr. Sanchez. Always there when a teacher needed a cleanup. Always providing enough heat or air conditioning.
I begin to say the children’s names out loud. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey. I repeat the names. Over and over. Like a rosary prayer. My dad’s name…I can’t even say it.
Tears run down my cheeks freely. I extend the camera out to avoid dripping tears on it. It’s still running. Capturing a void. What should be a room full of noisy kids, writing their lessons, making art, listening to the teacher tell stories.
I continue to say the names aloud. Thunder rumbles a bit closer.
And I hear a toilet flush. A toilet? Can’t be. I recite the names once more.
A voice comes from somewhere in the building. Soft, tentative. I stop talking.
I’m sitting in the middle of the room. Nowhere to duck and hide. The door creaks open. I turn to see a girl peering in. She’s maybe my age. Dressed kind of shabby. Hair messy.
She stares at me. I stand, holding my camera. Still recording.
“You’re not Billy.”
I shake my head.
“He left yesterday. He didn’t come back.”
She steps into the room. I see she is pregnant. I would guess five or six months.
My voice squeaks out, “Who are you?”
She looks around the room. “I heard voices. Are you alone?”
She smiles. “I’m Kenzie.”
“Why are you here?” I ask her. “The school is closed. How did you get in?”
“Billy jimmied a door at the back of the gym…he’s good at that stuff.”
She cradled her hands under her belly. “I’m pregnant.”
“I see that.”
“And I’m homeless.”
“Who is Billy?” I ask.
“My baby’s father.”
I take a step closer to her. She backs up. I stop. “Are you sleeping here?”
Kenzie nods. “We have a couple of sleeping bags in a closet.” She points to the rear of the school building. “It’s, like, a classroom, but it’s real empty.”
I feel my body tensing. I’m pissed. My focus is broken. I want to get her out of this room. “Show me.”
Kenzie walks me towards one of the classrooms near the back of the school. Mrs. Jenkins’s room. She opens the closet door at the back of the room. It’s a big walk-in closet. There are two dirty sleeping bags. Cans of diet soda, a loaf of bread, a few bags of chips.
“I’m running low on food. Billy went out to get more.”
“Where is he?”
She shrugs. “He always comes back when he goes out for food. He didn’t come back yesterday.” She giggles quietly. “I’m like his little bird in my nest. Every day he goes out to bring me food.”
Thunder rumbles again. The storm is much closer.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“That’s cool. Alex.”
She points to my camera. “Are you filming something?”
I shake my head. “Just messing around.”
“Do you go to school here?”
“This is…was…an elementary school. I graduated from high school last month.”
She looks confused. “This was a school?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Kenzie looks down at her feet. “Me and Billy, we’ve been on the road for a couple months. Heading for California.”
On the road. That explains her sun-bleached hair.
I stare at her belly. “What about medical care?”
“We hit a couple of clinics on the way. They say my baby is healthy.”
I look at the food on the floor of the closet. “You’re eating junk. Can’t be good for the baby.”
Again she shrugs. “Best we can do.”
We stand facing each other. Me with my camera. Her with her big belly. I wave my thumb back towards the classroom we left. “Eleven kids died in that room. Five months ago. A shooter. They’re going to tear this building down.”
“Oh shit.” She cradles her belly again. “Eleven kids?”
“I don’t think I can stay here now.” She kneels to roll up her sleeping bag.
“Where will you go? How will Billy find you?”
“He’ll find me. Oh God. Eleven kids died here.” She shudders.
I lift my camera. Words spill from my mouth. “Do you want to be in my film?”
“I never saw myself on video before.”
“How old are you?” it occurs to me to ask.
“Eighteen. I would have graduated last year…if I stayed in school.”
I begin taping the sleeping bags and the food spread out on the floor. I move the frame up to Kenzie’s belly, then to her face. I point to her.
“Am I supposed to talk? Okay. Hi, I’m Kenzie. I’m traveling to California with my boyfriend Billy.”
I roll my finger for her to keep talking.
“We’ve been sleeping here for a couple nights. So quiet here.” She pauses. “Not like the shelters we stay at. Or the homeless camps. They’re so noisy. This place…” She pauses again. “The silence is peaceful…but now, scary. I mean, I just found out eleven kids died here. Shot to death.” She wraps her arms around her torso. “I can’t stay here. I need to move on. Right now.”
Overhead a clap of thunder rattles the building. Rain falls outside. I turn the camera towards the windows. Rain pelts the glass like bullets. Like shots that won’t stop. I whisper the names. Ryan. Melissa. Pedro. Terrell. Megan. Iris. Maya. Shantell. Luis. Michael. Stacey.
It’s a girl.
I turn to Kenzie.
She touches her stomach. “It’s a girl. I’m going to name her Iris. My grandmother’s name.” She slides up the right sleeve of her hoodie. The name Iris is tattooed on her wrist. Surrounded by flowers.
We both sit down on the floor, backs against the closet door. A flash of lightning streaks somewhere close by. I see Kenzie rub her fingers softly over her tattoo.
Through all the thunder and the pounding rain I keep on saying the names. My rosary of names. Reciting them over the crashing storm.
The thunder rages. My camera is still running, focused now on the rain against the windows. My voice runs on. Name after name. Dead child after dead child. I keep reciting. Not praying. Simply calling their names. Maybe I hope I can reach them. Tell them we have not forgotten them. Tell them we miss their smiles, their curiosities, their hopes and fears. Really, though, it’s probably all I can do… say their names.
After a time I realize Kenzie is echoing the names with me. Hesitantly, missing a few as she tries to follow my voice.
We go on repeating their names. The storm outside is passing. The rain quiets. I spy a streak of late afternoon sunlight beaming through the departing clouds.
Kenzie turns to me. “I need to find Billy.”
I aim the camera at her. “Do you want me to go with you?”
She shakes her head. “I can do this.”
“What if you can’t find him?”
She stands. I do, too.
“What if you get stopped? They’ll put you in the system, won’t they?”
“Been there, done that,” she shrugs.
“What about Iris?” I point at her belly.
“I got four months to figure that out,” she says.
My camera is still running.
“I’ll leave our stuff here,” Kenzie tells me. “If I find Billy, we can come back for it…don’t think I can sleep here again, though.” Once again she cradles her belly.
“Bye.” She heads for the door at the back of the gym. She stops, turns to me. “Thanks for putting me in your film. Me and Iris.”
I wave. “Bye.”
I’m back in the classroom again. Where the kids died. The late afternoon sun flares through the rain-spattered windows and sprays across the floor. I film what I see. Sunlight. I find myself thinking, I wish my dad could have seen only sunlight in this room.
I start reciting my rosary again, this time repeating only one name. Iris. Iris. Iris.