Some say that a crisis brings out the best in us. Others are not so sure.
Ask someone who's been there, is the usual wisdom.
Sunday morning, and Robert Thigpen didn't feel like going to church. Not that he was usually dilatory in his attendance – quite the contrary, he was usually Johnny-on-the-spot for deacon duties, ready to take up the offering ever since he'd found that he wasn't choir material. (The choir director had been diplomatic about it, but Robert had gathered that singing wasn't "his gift", and Robert was the opposite of thick-skinned when it came to criticism, so he was happy to bury his baritone light under the camouflaging bushel of an equally tone-deaf congregation.) Normally, Robert enjoyed the services, meeting the neighbours, admiring the kids' new duds, keeping private score of how often the pastor used the phrase "prayer warriors" in his allotted half-hour before the congregation grew restless to beat First Presbyterian to the Sunday buffet at the Wallaby steakhouse.
But today was the day before Memorial Day, and Robert was planning to play hookey. He had thoughtfully warned the chairman of the deacons that he thought he'd be coming down with a mild case of the 'flu today. Patriotic 'flu, he chuckled to himself as he set a plate on the floor for Obadiah the Cairn terrier – containing half his scrambled eggs, a bit of sausage, and some flour gravy. Obadiah loved flour gravy, at least when Robert made it. The little dog was a connoisseur of flour gravy, and wagged his tail happily as he and Robert shared breakfast.
The problem with civil religion, Robert mused as he stirred his coffee, was that it spilled over into religion-religion. Robert was as patriotic as the next fellow lucky enough to have grown up in an age with no draft, but he didn't like to see flags in church. Not even when the Vacation Bible School pledged allegiance to the Christian flag....and to the Saviour, for whose kingdom it stands.... Robert was a student of history, and the Christian flag made him think of things he didn't like to think about, such as the Crusades. Robert was a staunch Baptist, and therefore one of the last believers in the separation of church and state. A line in the sand, he thought. Y'all stay over yonder, and we'll stay over here, and we won't embarrass heaven and the government so much. Besides, he liked and respected their pastor, Bro. Massey, in spite of "prayer warriors" overkill, and he didn't want to be present for the obligatory and uncomfortable platitudes about sacrifices he was sure none of them had made, or had a right to comment on in a religious context. So he was happily playing hookey, and sharing sausage, eggs, and flour gravy with Obadiah on a Sunday morning in Acme, North Carolina.
Washing up, Robert bethought himself of the meaning of the Memorial Day holiday. Ironic, really, when you come to think of it. Memorial Day was made up when half the people down here weren't even citizens any more, having lost a major war, made up to honour the war dead on the Other Side, so we made up our own Memorial Days, only, wouldn't you know it, typical Confederates had to have a different day in each state...Now, what do we do? Turn into the flag-wavin'est, most patriotic bunch in the 50 states, send the most kids to the military...What's up with that, as the young'uns say? Robert addressed this last question aloud to Obadiah, who simply wagged his tail in reply and pawed Robert's leg, so Robert took the hint and his philosophy outdoors for a walk with his best friend.
A walk – and a whiff of his irreligious neighbours' barbecue – convinced Robert that what was needed on a beautiful day like today was a cookout, just him and Obadiah. Promising the disappointed terrier that he would only be gone for "two shakes", Robert grabbed his car keys and headed down Highway 55 for the Superbullseye, the big all-in-one department store whose full-service grocery boasted the best meats in town. On the way, Robert was mixing ingredients in his mind, planning which in-season vegetables to roast, and thinking of the best marinade. As he parked, he noticed that many of his neighbours must have had the same idea – a lot of cars and vans in the lot. Robert noted which big red ball (the Bullseye trademark) he was parked nearest to, and went through the whooshing double doors, letting the overwrought air conditioning hit him midsection as he got his bearings.
The Superbullseye was an attractive store, its goods pleasantly displayed against an overwhelming backdrop of fire-engine red. If it weren't that he reacted badly to the fluorescent lighting, Robert would have enjoyed lingering among the bargains. The place was much nicer than Lowmart, and the prices were just as good.
Although the store was attractive, Robert's fellow-shoppers were less so. It was the beginning of summer in the Piedmont, which brought out the local resident in his native plumage: baggy, knee-length, low-riding shorts for the male, tight tank tops and short-shorts for the female of the species, regardless of weight, age, or state of physical tone. Both genders sported an alarming number of tattoos on all exposed flesh. Robert had long ago decided that he would be grateful to go home to Jesus before the nursing homes were filled with octogenarians whose rheumy eyes peered out from behind a tapestry of withered manga gargoyles. Using a wet-wipe to clean the pudding – butterscotch, from the look of it – from the shopping-cart handle, Robert steered toward the meat counter.
The first shot sounded like a shelf falling near the front of the store. Robert turned toward the sound, concerned, just as the second report came. The female cashier, a middle-aged woman, crumpled to the floor. The white-haired man holding the gun turned it on the terrified customer and barked something Robert couldn't hear. The man ran for the front doors, leaving behind his wallet and keys, his cartful of groceries, and one flip-flop, lying forlornly near the exit.
What followed was a stampede. Hundreds of panicked shoppers crowded the front exits, stumbling over one another in their haste to get away from the shooter. In the split-second before he made his own decision, Robert thought he heard the sickening crunch of a broken bone, and a howl of pain and outrage.
Robert glanced around. He didn't see anyone else armed. He decided that the shooter must be alone, that the police would arrive soon, that shouting at the man with the gun would be a bad idea, and that the front of the store was not a good place to be, as that was where the nervous man was standing, shaking – probably trying to get used to the idea that he's just killed someone, he thought. Abandoning his cart, he headed in a brisk walk toward the back of the store. If nothing else, he could go out the loading area, or hide in the back until the police had sorted the mess out. He assumed the store workers would do as he advised his own staff – don't be a hero, give him whatever he wants, let him take all the cash, just don't provoke him – and he knew for a fact that they had walkie-talkies. He walked rather than ran past aisles in which customers were crouching with frightened eyes.
On his way past rows of wine bottles, Robert heard a child sobbing in the aisle next to the frozen food, and a man speaking in a low voice. "Shh, Billy, be quiet now," the man said in a British accent. Robert went around the end of the aisle to where the man crouched, comforting his grandson. He was about to speak when a red-shirted young woman appeared from the other end of the aisle, beckoning to them. They followed the Bullseye employee – her name tag said "Glenda" – to a door near the frozen food, and went into the food cooler. Glenda found some frozen blueberries, and they sat on the floor, feeding Billy blueberries to keep him quiet while they waited for the police. Robert tried one – a bit tart, but not bad. He winked at Billy, who winked back.
"I thought this was a safe place," remarked Billy's grandfather. "I'm just here visiting my son, you see, and I thought, well, it isn't New York..." Robert nodded in understanding.
There was one more shot. The gunman, ordered by the police to disarm, turned the gun on himself. The sound was muffled in the cooler, and Billy only blinked. Then his grandfather took him home, and Robert went out, answered a few police questions, and made his way to his car. On the way back to the house, he stopped at the Wallaby steakhouse for some take-out before going home to a joyful Obadiah.
Eating steak from someone else's "barbie", Robert surfed the web for explanations. Nobody knew why the man had driven all the way from California to shoot the cashier, whom he knew. Later, the man's daughter informed the police that her father had learned he had a terminal illness. This explained very little. Robert was not surprised that it was a personal matter. He hadn't expected Al-Qaeda to strike in Acme.
Robert was sorry for the people involved, but more interested in learning what had happened to the several hundred panicked customers who had hot-footed it out the front exits, jamming the doors in the process. Several broken bones had been reported. Apparently, there had been some vandalism, as 60 of his fellow-townspeople, convinced that they were under terrorist attack, ripped out some fencing behind the Bullseye and escaped across a neighbouring property.
The best bit was the blog put up by one of the television stations. There, an outraged customer expressed herself:
"I am scarred for life by this horrible experience. Me and my three-year-old quadruplets, Clio, Calliope, Erato, and Terpsichore, were all stuck in that store. They have PTSD and won't eat. I will never forget this."
Robert was sure he would never forget this letter.
"Well, Obadiah, what do you think? Are we all the stuff that heroes are made of?" As usual, Obadiah replied with a tail-wag that was suggestive of another suggestion, so Robert gave up his musing on local ladies who name their children after muses and picked up the leash.
It took a good, long walk before Robert and Obadiah were satisfied with their take on the day.