The news came in slow as a tide on a Wednesday: 4 Americans killed in an attack in Syria. A country so far away. That not a single person in town had ever been to. It had nothing to do with us. And then it rose and crept to the edge of town and then it flooded us: one of them was one of ours: a soldier, an officer, a mother, a daughter. We all knew her parents. We older folks knew her.
Over the next few hours, the waves tossed up photographs of her: long red hair, always a smile on her face, always mascara whenever she donned her dress blues. In one, she was dressed in full combat gear, helmet, vest, a rifle more than half her height. Given our smaller statures, guns always seem to look bigger when women carry them. The news said, “a suicide bomber.” The news said, “in a restaurant.”
The next tide brought reporters. The CBS affiliate in Albany; an RNN feed in Poughkeepsie. NPR. My secretary was sick that day, so I answered all calls myself. “Good morning, Supervisor Cloud speaking.” Did you know her? Did you know her parents? Will you talk to us? What do you know? Was she single? Did she have kids? Was she living here or somewhere else? What was her job in the Navy? What was she like? I was being asked to represent someone important to my small town, and I had to get this right. I had to.
Yes, I knew her parents. We’d been friends a long time. Not close, but counted. “She was extraordinary,” I told CBS. She had always held a job somewhere in town: at the drug store, at the convenience store, at the hunt club, where guys from the city dressed up in knickers and argyle socks and shot domestically raised pheasants too fat to fly fast. We posited the pheasants kept them from shooting people at their high-powered jobs. She swept up the clubhouse and gathered dead birds when the days were done. She spoke 8 languages, most dialects of Arabic.
“The world is so much less without her,” I told NPR. The reporter’s voice was so familiar to me. I listened to NPR when I got up in the mornings, when I did the dishes, whenever I was in the car, and I loved his voice. He’d heard of our town, but never been here. I did not remind him that he’d covered our thwarted school shooting back in 2009. Or the excruciating car crash that killed two boys—one who’d escaped out a window during that incident above and gone to get help—in a car driven by their best friend, who walked away untouched. Who still wore an ankle bracelet under house arrest, because their parents would not forgive him, the third victim of the tragedy.
Then the recent spate of ODs: the end results of generations of substance abuse and violence in each of their families, truly the answers in long drawn-out equations.
Every year, a few veterans drive old Jeeps down Main Street in parades while the rest stay home, inside, curtains drawn, their TVs on to reruns.
What is it about a small rural town that seems to distill the tragedies of the world from its population? Would you like to investigate what causes a school shooter? Would you like to see proof of the potency of marijuana when paired with testosterone? Would you like to know personally who died for your country? Move here.
On Friday night, we pieced her life together, us barflies. She worked with my daughter at the pharmacy… she was always smiling… an athlete… a scholar in languages… a cryptologist, it turned out, for the Navy… Chief Cryptologist. What was a cryptologist? We looked it up on our iphones. She spoke fluent Arabic, a few dialects as well. We remembered her and got to know her at the same time. Sorrow engulfed us as the TV above the bar next to the giant moosehead played the news, and the news moved on.
When I think about the skills I have acquired as a playwright in the world, I am amazed at how well they serve me when asked to be articulate about something for a greater purpose than to be produced or published. I can revise on my feet in the moment; I can collaborate with people who don’t have the back story; I can build a narrative. When someone asks me, as a writer—and they always do—Who is your audience? I now have a better answer than “my grandmother.”