When my dog was killed, this is what I told people: that he'd been swimming with me earlier that day and his fur was still wet and slick when my son took him for a walk, and he slipped his collar. Sadly, they were walking near a railroad crossing and my dog ran onto the tracks just as a train barreled through.
This is true – but it isn't true.
When my son cries that he shouldn't have taken the dog for a walk; that he wishes he'd thrown rocks at the dog and scared him away from the tracks before the 3:35 swept in at eighty miles an hour; when he confesses that he blames himself – all I can say is, "no, no, there's no way this was your fault. It just happened."
But it's myself I blame.
The accident was my fault because I can't help but tempt fate. I see holes in the fabric of certitude and I poke my fingers into them. I was raised that way. My mother always drove with the gas gauge on empty and sometimes we made it to town and sometimes we sputtered out on the side of the road and thumbed a ride. I went places alone that would seem improbable today when we strap helmets on heads and pads on knees and seven-year-olds into car seats. Obviously, safety is a good thing, but Frank O'Hara's poem sings in my ears like an anthem:
Mothers of America let your kids go to the movies! get them out of the house so they won't know what you're up to it's true that fresh air is good for the body but what about the soul that grows in darkness… (Ave Maria, ll. 1–14)
"How was school?"
"We had a lockdown," says my son.
"A lockdown," repeat my little girls, ages eight and ten, helpfully.
"Like in prison?" I say, confused, thinking, "Was there a riot?"
"In case there's a bear," says the eight-year-old.
My son laughs meaningfully and gives me a look from the corner of his eye.
"Right," he says.
"Or a bad person comes in," says my other daughter. "With a gun."
"Tell me what a lockdown is," I say, feeling my throat close, my voice go squeaky.
"All the doors are closed and locked and the whole class goes into a corner and crouches there."
"For how long?"
"Ten minutes, at least," explains my son. "I was in biology and the desks won't move and you can't open the windows so we sat on the floor furthest from the door and the teacher passed a clipboard around and everyone drew a picture."
"To pass the time," he says. "Some people were nervous."
"What did you draw?"
"An American flag."
"Do you practice lockdowns too?" I ask the girls.
"Yes," my middle daughter says. "My teacher said that if someone bad came in our classroom she would help us climb out the windows. You remember Mrs. Kudlo, my kindergarten teacher? She told us it wasn't bad people we should worry about but skunks."
She laughs knowingly, shaking her head at the woman's naiveté.
When the virgins were murdered last year in a one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse, the boys pleaded with the gunman to spare them, and one victim asked him to make a deal – kill her but spare the others.
From a distance these girls might have resembled crows in their strict black dresses, crossing a field to get to school with that hop peculiar to girls and birds.
When they were dead and the man was dead, the people of that community tore down the building and built another one. Did it have deadbolts and two-way radios and metal detectors like my son's school? Did it have windows double-paned with chicken wire? Did they practice hiding away from their classroom's metal door, all the while calculating the trajectory of ricocheting bullets, plotting their own heroic overpowering of "the shooter"?
The shooter left a note apologizing. The shooter left a note "guess-timating" the number killed. The shooter left a film of himself in battle gear speculating on his fame, his infamy.
My capacity for losing myself in books renders me oblivious to everything not in my own head. It also makes me believe in happy endings.
I'm probably reading the wrong books, since life is teaching me the authority of tragedy. My hubris is in thinking: sure, my son can walk into town carrying a gold-headed cane and not be beaten up by bullies. Sure, my daughter can wear her hair short as a boy's and boy's clothes despite the kids on the bus who call her names. Certainly, my youngest can wheel a cart around the grocery store and do all my shopping although she's only eight. Why not, if it makes them happy/unhappy?
My son told me at least three times that the dog's collar was loose. I bought a new one, but it didn't seem to fit any better. I rationalized that the dog never slipped out of his collar when I was walking him. With my son, the dog was stubborn, partly, I think, because my son commanded rather than requested, and the dog said no, pulling his head down and to the side and out of the collar with a quick surety. This is all my fault because I didn't go back to the store and buy a choke chain. Because I thought that they – my son and his pet – would work it out between them. That either my son would stop or the dog would stop, and now it has stopped because one of them is dead.
That's the other component at play: not just that I would rather have my son and the dog experience a little freedom to disagree, despite the dangers, than keep them safely leashed on a choke chain. That I disdain my neighbors who escort their dogs, plastic bags in hand, to agility class and obedience class and canine socialization class. The price I've paid – my pooch – instructs me in the Biblical maxim of reaping what I've sown: self-reliance.
I drive to pick my son up from the high school and am startled to find the parking lot swarming with official vehicles. There's an ambulance, doors flopped open, stretchers on the ground, two fire trucks with lights flashing red and white, and, like a dystopian hummingbird, a helicopter hovering over the soccer field.
I trot through the front doors and into the small foyer. The doors to the main hallway are closed and locked. I can't go farther than where I stand. Panicked, I rush into the office on my left.
"What's happened?" I call out. The secretary, who dislikes me for some reason, pauses, savoring her irritation and my discomfort. For a moment, she does not look up from her stack of bus passes. When she does, she focuses to the left of my face, as if addressing someone else.
"Did somebody get hurt?" I insist.
"The seniors," she announces, "are in the gym getting the talk about drunk driving on prom night."
I wait. Surely there's some connection between this strange formulation of nouns and the emergency vehicles outside.
I hear a rumble and turn to see a police tow-truck lumber around the traffic circle. Its oversized hook hauls the hulks of two cars so completely totaled they appear to be mating. Metal mounting metal. The massive truck pulls this mangled sculpture to the high school's main entrance. He drops it there, where it will be visible to all the passing cars, all the casual observers, and he drives away.
Celia Bland's work has recently appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Poetry International, Witness, and Anthem, and her collaboration with visual artist Dianne Kornberg, Madonna Comix, will be published by William James & Co. in spring 2014.