Malamud once wrote that we each have two lives, one that we learn with and the one we live with after that. My second life began with a simple gesture – a forearm dabbed across a forehead.
It was almost six years since my wife had been killed. The kids were grown, almost. Spencer had been bookishly doughy at twelve, looked every bit the professor’s son. He had cried at the end of Toy Story Three. Now just a few months from graduation, he had announced he was going to enlist in the Marine Corps. Sweet Maddy was just ten when it had happened. Now sixteen, she had too many piercings, her clothes always inappropriately tight or revealing, no matter how loud I scolded or the punishment I concocted. She didn’t bring her boys home anymore, but that was more because of Spencer.
I’d been part of the Group for five years, long enough to become a sponsor. And my own protégé, Mary Ann, was wavering, just as I had. That gesture – her forearm across her forehead –came during a Code Three, her first. To the observant, it was an early sign of excessive anxiety. I knew we might lose her.
Up close and without the mask, Mary Ann looked younger. She had shoulder length auburn hair – too young, probably to dye it, but right on the cusp. She had a smooth complexion and deep brown eyes that reminded me of the coffees on our wobbly table. Her nose had a little bump at the bridge – I imagine someone once found that endearing. Or still did.
Adrenaline did weird things to your senses. You were much more acute, your senses sharper. But your memory was shit. When I looked at her across the steam of a cappuccino, I only got little tingling flashes of memory from the Code Three the night before. A blink – maybe a flinch? - in the boy’s room. A subtle shifting of the feet, moving the weight from one tired leg to the other. The forearm blotted against her forehead.
“Thanks for meeting with me,” she said.
“That’s my job,” I said, trying not to sound condescending. “I mean, that’s what a sponsor does.”
“I know. I know that’s how it’s supposed to work. I just never thought –” She trailed off, traced a finger around the lip of her cup. Her nails had been done recently, crimson.
“Never thought what?” I said. “That you’d be in a support group?”
Her eyes rose to challenge mine.
“Is that what you consider yourselves?”
“Is that why you called me?” I asked. It was an old professor trick, maybe the oldest: answer a question with a question. Her eyes dropped again to her lap.
“No,” she said. “Not really. It’s just all still a bit…No. I had a moment of weakness. A friend posted something, some stupid meme – it’s not the gun’s fault, you know. And I really wanted to respond.”
“What stopped you?” I said.
She shook her head. Then she did it again – she brought that forearm up, pressed her forehead with it.
“Because it doesn’t get results. They don’t learn. They’re beyond it.”
I smiled and nodded.
“You did the right thing, texting me,” I said.
We sipped our coffees. At the table next to us, two middle-aged women, probably on a lunch break, were having a conversation. “Are we E-vangelicals or Eh-vangelicals?” one asked the other. Around us was the usual hodgepodge of college life: a bearded kid scribbling furiously in his moleskin, a couple grad students chatting across the stacks of papers they were supposed to be grading, people typing on phones and laptops.
“I just don’t know…” she said, putting her cup down on the table. There was no lipstick around the rim, just a simple line of steam crawling vainly upward. She leaned in close, whispered, “The violence. That boy last night – he hadn’t done anything.”
“Only a matter of time. You saw the notebook, the map. It was planned.” I said.
She shook her head.
“How can you…I thought we were about preventing violence.”
“We are about limiting violence.”
“But that boy. He’s dead.”
“Yes,” I agreed. But I didn’t waste a second remembering last night’s target.
“In that case, what makes us different than them?”
“Look,” I said, “It’s like that old philosophical paradigm, the trolley one. A trolley’s headed down the tracks toward a group of people and the brakes are out; it’s out of control...”
She nodded; she knew this one. I was still learning about her. I didn’t even know her real name. I liked that she was educated.
“There’s a switch,” she said. “Two sections of track: The trolley has to hit either one person or the group. I’m at the switch. I have to choose – let it kill the group, or throw the switch and it kills the one person . It’s a moral dilemma.”
“An ethical dilemma.” I immediately felt guilty about the reflexive correction. “There is no moral choice,” I added gently. “Someone is going to die.”
“So what you’re saying is these deaths are not preventable?”
“Ask anyone with a gun. There’s too many out there to take them back. Bad guys will still get them. Someone’s going to die.”
“But everything the anti-gun movement fights for –”
I snorted. “Asleep at the switch. Letting the train plow into the group. Every time.”
She sat back in her chair.
“It’s a utilitarian ethic, really,” I said. “Our Group wants what’s best for the most people. We didn’t start the trolley. All we do is throw the switch.”
It was only a month later, after the Anderson job, which was just a Code One, when we were at O’Hare waiting for our flight home. We were early to the gate. Couldn’t sleep. The adrenaline.
“I don’t know if this is for me,” she said, glancing around, but it was too early for anyone to be nearby. The terminal was empty, thick with the smell of morning coffee and heavy with quiet.
“What, the Group? Don’t you think it’s helping?”
“Helping?” she chewed on her fingernail. “It doesn’t feel right. It’s preemptive revenge. And…”
She was staring at one of the televisions in the concourse, tuned to a cable news channel.
“I thought it was about us,” she said.
“We don’t get reported.”
“Why not? David stops it?”
“Even David can’t stop the media,” I laughed. “No. The police keep it quiet.”
“Why on earth would the police keep murder and intimidation quiet?”
“Because that’s easier than cleaning up after a mass shooting. A lot of our work gets reported as suicide.”
There was a McDonalds near us in the terminal so I got a McMuffin and a coffee, brought one for her. After adrenaline, caffeine was the next best thing.
“I still think about him,” she said. “My husband. I thought. . .I don’t know what I thought. I guess I thought this would help. I don’t know why I brought it up. I don’t want to talk about it. I just still think about him. Do you still think about your wife?” She saw my expression and quickly added, “-or whoever?”
“It was my wife.” I crumpled up the McMuffin wrapper. Not in a dramatic way, just to get it out of the way. “She got killed teaching school.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s horrible.”
“Remember that. That’s what’s horrible. When Val’s son was killed, one of twelve, at a movie on his first date. When David’s boyfriend was killed, one of four at a political rally. When Kerry’s daughter was killed, accidentally, by a conceal-carry shooter shooting at an active shooter, at a handbag store in the mall. When William’s wife and son were killed, just out for a bike ride on a summer evening, by a guy with a sniper scope.”
“Wait, wait,” she said. “I don’t even know William or Kerry.”
“They’re in the Eastern Chapter.”
“What about Big Rev?” she asked.
“He was a pastor. Someone walked into his bible study and shot twenty-two of his pupils. Reading Matthew, I think.”
We nipped at our coffees. Airport watching had grown less fun than I remembered. Observing people there used to make me feel connected, even to strangers.
“My kids hate me,” I said. “I think that’s the hardest part. It’s why I’m still doing this.”
“I’m sure they don’t hate you,” she said.
“They do. They blame me.”
“Why do you think that?”
“My daughter does what teenage girls do when they want to rebel against their father.” Out of the corner of my eye it was clear she understood. “My son became someone new. He’s obsessed with weights the way I was with books –“
“That’s great. It sounds healthy, constructive like –“
“He’s also obsessed with guns. Goes shooting with his friends. Tells me all about it.”
She thought about that.
“That’s sad,” she said. “I mean, it’s like he’s trying to protect her after the fact.”
“Or like he’s trying to remind me,” I said. “My helplessness.”
The plane arrived at our gate. It was a redeye. People filed off, automatonically plodding one foot after the other, locked in screen hypnosis and dragging wheeled luggage like dead pets.
“You remind me of her you know,” I said. “My wife. That gesture you do, wiping your arm across your forehead. She used to do that, too. When she was stressed. I made fun of her for it – Are you sweating again? I used to ask. Sometimes I’d just hand her a napkin or handkerchief.”
“That’s…” she said. “What would she do then?”
“Just wad it up and throw it at me, usually,” I said. Then the weirdest thing happened. Mary Ann laughed. I didn’t know what to do at first. It wasn’t the hollow sound I’d been hearing for years. It was rich. It had a richness to it, like cake, a buttercream laugh. You just wanted to savor it. And then I was laughing, too.
Winner of the Tillie Olsen Short Story Award, Adam Kotlarczyk's short stories have been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. Adam's fiction has appeared in the Tishman Review, Madcap Review, and Fictive Dream, among others. He teaches at a gifted school near Chicago.