We’ve been here nine years now.
There are many landmarks and monuments in time, but one of them is the moment when we stopped calling the police after hearing gunshots. Before that point, we were diligent citizens, counting shots as best as we could, offering to speak to the officer that we assumed would be dispatched to the scene, noting the time of the shots and the direction from which the appeared to come. After that point? Just numbness, rolling over, trying to go back to sleep, a tiny prayer of thanksgiving that our house wasn’t hit by a stray bullet.
They almost always come when we’re in bed, but that doesn’t mean much because we’re in our late 30s, now our 40s, and we have full-time jobs, so we’re often in bed by 10 p.m. We’ve heard the shots as early as 9, once in a while during the day, two or three times while standing in the back yard, but mostly at midnight or – like tonight – at 3:30 a.m.
If the dog hears them, she’ll often let out a little growl, but she’s mostly joined our apathy, giving up on any reaction. Ears perk up, then she rolls over.
Sometimes I lay in bed with secret agent fantasies, like maybe one day I’ll get so experienced that I’ll be able to identify the kind of gun by how it sounds, the number of shots fired, the echo of the ballistic ringing. But I never learn anything substantive to add to this fantasy. Usually it’s just crack-crack-crack. Or sometimes crack-crack … crack-crack-crack. Then silence.
Then you can sit and wait for how long between the cracks and the sirens. Sometimes the sirens never come. I’d say it’s about half and half, maybe less than half the time that you hear a flicker of one, usually further away than the shots. Sometimes it’s five minutes, sometimes fifteen. Once in a while you hear the helicopter. There’s never any roaring motor of a high-speed chase, although sometimes I imagine one of those too, with people shooting from car to car as they flee the police.
Most often though, I imagine a social scenario about what led to the shooting. Maybe it was anger over something that happened today at a high school – someone was discovered talking to someone else’s girlfriend. A short burst of shots might be unidirectional, aimed at a house while the people inside were sleeping, just a warning message. Sometimes there’s return fire. Maybe a deal went bad.
The number and order of the shots can really help you sketch out a scenario. Bang-bang. Was there arguing before? Bang-bang-bang. Was that return fire, or perhaps a few more shots from the first gun? Time passes. Bang. Was that a shot at a retreating car? Did it take someone a moment to find their gun? Were their fingers fumbling and bloody by this point in the exchange, making it hard to pull the trigger?
You can sketch scenarios about the quiet aftermath too. Maybe there is imperceptible yelling. Maybe there’s a baby crying. Maybe someone is alone, feeling the life slowly leaking out of them. Maybe the last thing they hear is some stupid TV show.
I’ve only seen a dead body once, at a gas station near our house. Ever since, we’ve called it The Murder Chevron. It was a guy laying face down in the parking lot while I waited at a red light after a super early morning airport run. I knew he was dead as soon as I saw him, and I read about the killing in the newspaper the next day. It felt really meaningful, seeing this guy’s body. The newspaper said he was from Selma, and they think it was about drugs and money. I used to know his name, but I forgot it.
I’ve never gotten gas at the Murder Chevron, even though it’s pretty close to my house.
Usually there’s nothing in the newspaper about the gunshots, which really reinforces the idea that there are two cities called Montgomery. In one, people shoot guns in the middle of the night (rarely in celebration or target practice, probably mostly at other human beings). In the other, the Chamber of Commerce is having some kind of event, or someone is raising money for some disease.
If we ever do see something the next day about the gunshots, we always feel a little connected to it. The sound of them unites everyone who is within hearing distance. We may not know the heart-racing exhilaration of having been the shooters, nor the pure terror of having been the targets, but we’re still witnesses, whether we roll over and go back to sleep or not.
It’s always a little surprising how far the sounds of gunshots will carry. At 2 a.m., the crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack-crack sounds pretty close, but you see in the paper the address and you’re always a little surprised that you could hear it from inside your house from several blocks away. Guns are loud. Our city’s nights are usually so quiet.
The other thing about seeing it in the paper or on the TV is that you start to get names, which really help you sketch out your little imagined scenarios. But those names fade, and you’re never at the funeral, never feel the loss of a newly-empty bedroom, or the pain of seeing someone who can’t really walk anymore because there’s a bullet in their hip. It’s just part of the fabric here, something that would freak out some European town for months, but is just part of the cheap cost of life here.
Only once were the shots really close, but they were really, really close. They were right across the street, and I’ve never been awakened by anything quite like that. It was a drive-by. It was more of a CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK and underneath it were a few pop-pop-pops. My stupid movie-trained-never-been-in- war brain told me that someone was emptying an automatic (maybe an AK from the clanking sounds of the bolt) while someone else fired a few shots from a pistol.
The street was littered with shell casings, which the police came and collected. They said “the grandma” had been hit in the head but was OK. They said it was a domestic violence thing, where the dude was mad about something or other and wanted to send a message to his girlfriend, ended up hitting her grandma by accident, and punching holes in the windows of the nice little house across the street from ours. Our neighbor, who was a cop at the time, said later that he asked about the case and said that the girl didn’t want to press charges against the guy, even though she knew it was him. So I guess nobody got arrested, and those people moved away shortly thereafter, and we were glad.
That was several years ago, though, and nothing that dramatic has happened close to us since. Mostly it’s several blocks over. Mostly we never learn anything about what happens. They’re just the gunshots – punctuation marks in the night, waking you up, reminding you of the violent world just around the corner, of the fragility of life, of the ever-presence of firearms.
We have guns too.
The imagination does not confine itself in the way that residential poverty segregates our neighborhood from the ones giving birth to all of the gunshots. No, the imagination runs wild, and I imagine someone trying to kick in our front door, a different kind of pow-pow-pow, one that the dog would not ignore. And I imagine pulling out the gun and trying amid panic to squeeze off a few shots, at least to let the intruder know that this home invasion would involve threat to life and limb. And maybe that’s what they’re thinking in those other neighborhoods too. They just want to protect themselves and their property. They just want to be safe and sleep at night.