Everyone owned a gun. Or at least, there were many people who did. We lived in Arizona after all. But I didn’t think about people carrying guns around, and it certainly wasn’t on my mind that morning.
My eyes weren’t fully open when I reached over Fabio for my phone. I had intended to seek out a YouTube video for “Yoga in Bed.” I loved the excuse to reach across Fabio, stretching out into a languid, starfish pose. Instead, I logged into Facebook. There was an article reposted several times on my newsfeed. It was there again and again scrolling down. A police officer shot on a domestic dispute call. I was surprised at the friends who were posting. They must have known the officer, I thought, but it seemed unlikely even in a small town. Most of my friends had problems with authority figures. They were orphans of sorts, with greasy hair and basement bands, playing shows at a place they called Big House, a dilapidated old house with a dirt yard and picket fence. Inside was thick with smoke, it reeked of Pabst Blue Ribbon. They’d make announcements between sets. They’d say: “If you leave here and the cops ask where you’ve been, don’t tell them.”
I started seeing other posts intermingled with the article.
The words stood off the screen, hitting me like a shot. They weren’t posting about the officer. They were posting about the man who killed him.
Rest in peace, Bobby.
The realization brought on a moment of paralysis, every muscle in my body tensing, holding so still.
“Is everything okay?” Fabio asked, and I realized I had sat up in bed to stare at my phone.
When it came to my friends, those friends in particular, Fabio had always kept his distance, passing moral judgments on their choices and behavior. He would never join us for ping pong at Flag Brew or trips to the Creek after the rain when the dirt roads were dangerously muddy causing the car to slide to the very edge of the mountain. He couldn’t understand why I had stuck it out for so long, why I spent time with people so damaged. It was one of the things that attracted me to him; he asked for people to be better than they were. He demanded perfection. But what I loved about my friends is that they didn’t.
Bob was dead.
There was a thread that stood out as particularly descriptive:
“How did Bob die?” someone asked, not putting it together.
“He shot an officer five times in the face then shot himself,” someone responded.
The news wasn’t surprising. I remember telling someone that I thought Bob was mentally unstable, and they had been taken aback by what I considered obvious.
I thought about his obsession with war. He haunted eBay, collecting memorabilia from WWII and Vietnam. His purchases sometimes came with Certificates of Authenticity. He’d buy guns and helmets. There was a green army cap and camo cargo pants he’d wear to work almost every day. Even from a distance, I could feel the violence of war saturated into the fabric. I always wondered if Bob was absorbing the energy of the soldiers, PTSD permeating the surface of his skin.
Bob was a good guy, everyone wrote, posting on comment threads. As if they didn’t see the article. As if they disregarded the circumstances that led to his suicide. As if he didn’t kill someone. Doesn’t murder exclude a person from being described as “a good guy”?
They defended him, said, “No one can know what happened there but Bob and that cop, and they’re both dead now.” Yet the article described in detail the distance between Bob and the officer as they had talked. They knew where Bob had pulled the gun from, and even how he had paced back and forth a moment, mumbling to himself, before walking around the other side of the house to shoot himself. Later on, it would be revealed that everything was filmed; the police officer had been wearing a camera.
The curtains covering the window above my bed puckered slightly, and I could see outside onto the street. It looked like such a shitty little town with its cracked roads and broken sidewalks.
“Are you okay?” Fabio asked again as I got out of bed. He sat up so the blankets slipped off him as I took some heavy steps across the hardwood floor and walked out of the room.
As I shut the door, I saw him reaching for clothes to follow me out, but I didn’t want to grieve with him. Didn’t want to hear an I-told-you-so about my friends. I walked down the hall and stood in the kitchen, staring at the makeshift Christmas “shrine” we’d created in place of a tree. It was just a pile of tinsel on a chair with a few cheap ornaments, a string of lights around it, a pile of crumpled wrapping paper on the floor.
Bob and I had never been close, but I had just moved into his old house. He had moved out several years before, but I felt haunted by the coincidence. It was drafty there, and all the rooms were painted just a little too bright—lime green or lilac. The room I had taken was painted red, the ceiling tilted at an angle. It might have been Bob’s old room, but I had never thought to ask.
There are photos of Bob that I sometimes return to when I think of him. He’s on Instagram, smoking a cigarette next to some gas cans, or crouched next to some graffiti that says, “No Peace Babylon.”
His name was Bob Smith. People often asked if that was his real name. Their disbelief and the ordinariness of the name didn’t seem to bother him, but he usually introduced himself as Bobbylon—a reference to a reggae song, I think.
When I talked to other people about Bob, I often said, “He and I don’t get along,” but their response was always skeptical. “Really?” they’d ask, unconvinced.
I had to pause and think about how we seemed with each other from an outsider’s perspective and realized much of our time together was spent joking and laughing. We worked at the same vegetarian restaurant. He was on the food line and I baked. While he put together quinoa burritos, I glazed cinnamon rolls and decorated wedding cakes. Occasionally, I’d make lattes, shaking hearts into the foam. We would be in the kitchen together for hours. At night, when it slowed down, sometimes it was just the two of us.
Working with Bob was unbearable. Not at first, but as time went on. He’d put on voices and said things like, “Filthy customers; disgusting creatures”—amusing at first, but he repeated things like that so many times it became uncomfortable. He’d talk about how much he hated everybody. He referred to Tim, our boss, a caricature of a man in a ponytail and Hawaiian shirts, as “the devil himself.” Bob would play the same music over and over again. Doo-wop, Beach Boys, and metal. It became repetitive to the point of madness. When my coworkers or I came in on our days off with friends or family, Bob would run food orders to us. He’d lean in and whisper, “Can you taste the hate?”
He’d ask us questions that made us uneasy.
“If one of your parents had to die would you rather it be your mom or your dad?”
“When you’re having sex with your boyfriend, do you fantasize about someone else?”
He’d follow up these questions with a hard laugh, as the rest of us became silent, uncertain about the joke.
One day, Bob put a hot pan into the sink when I was loading up the dish rack. No word of warning. I grabbed it, crying out when I burned my hand. I looked over at Bob to complain, but he was looking away with what I took to be a self-satisfied smile on his face.
The newspapers didn’t refer to him by his nickname. He was Robert W. Smith, twenty-eight, a white male. The photo that accompanied the article looked like it could have been taken off Instagram. Something with a filter like Gingham or Reyes, desaturated and a little bit faded. The colors muted. It was like the contrast had been messed with to create dark, criminal shadows under his eyes.
My life and Bob’s life often seemed to intersect. The shooting happened in the neighborhood behind Natural Grocers, a big building with a huge, two-story black and white cow painted on the side. It happened a couple days after Christmas. I had walked by the grocery store the same afternoon of the shooting. The yellow police tape stretched across the still street, black and white patrol cars parked all around.
According to the news stories, Bob’s girlfriend called the police after an argument. She was adamant that he hadn’t hurt her, just yelled and broken her stuff. I never knew her name, but I remember bumping into the two of them at the grocery store a few months before. I had actually been happy to see Bob that day; it had been a while. He carried himself like Goofy. When he walked, his heels never seemed to touch the ground, like he was always riding an invisible bicycle. He smelled like lavender essential oil, a fragrance that he would douse himself with before a shift, as if he was trying to counter his chaos with a calming scent.
On the day of the shooting when Bob had come out of his house to talk to the officer, he had his hand in his jacket pocket where he held the gun.
The officer asked if he was carrying a weapon.
“No, just cold. Just cold,” Bob said.
They talked a while, maybe even joked. It seemed like Bob was going to get off with a warning and the police officer would go on his way until he asked if he could pat Bob down for weapons. That’s when Bob pulled out the gun, fired several shots. He took a few paces back and forth before shooting himself.
Bob and I hadn’t worked together for a couple years when the shooting happened. He’d been fired; I’d quit. Sometimes I would get news of things not going well for him—he couldn’t find a job. He had reached a new low point. He was suffering from dental problems which would have cost over $20,000 to fix. He didn’t have insurance and couldn’t get painkillers. His teeth were falling out. He had just been home visiting his mom for Christmas, and I guess she wasn’t able to help. Is it unreasonable to blame a shooting on a toothache?
Bob couldn’t find or hold a job. As much as I thought that was his own doing, his struggles hit home. It seemed he’d been unemployed for over a year, something I couldn’t imagine, working four different jobs and still barely making rent. The poverty of our circle felt inescapable, and though we claimed we didn’t need much, that attitude became something of a defense mechanism. If we admitted how much we really needed, the truth of our deficiencies might destroy us. I don’t know if that’s what happened to Bob. What could he have been feeling when he reached this breaking point? As I looked through photos, there was a distinct contrast between what I knew of Bob and his life and the pictures of the officer’s family. They looked so well-fed and clean with their unwrinkled clothes and styled hair.
Our personalities clashed but in a way I felt that I understood Bob. The instability was always there. There was something questionable in his nature. But I never understood the comments from people who pretended he didn’t kill someone, or those who defended his actions. I felt that put it into a frame of right and wrong, it was a fight Bob would never win. My first reaction was to reject everything that ever touched Bob’s life. I stopped talking to some of our mutual friends. I even moved out of the house where he used to live.
It was months before a pleasant memory of Bob surfaced in my mind. I remembered one winter when I lost my favorite hat in the snow. It was a white knitted hat with earflaps and a pom-pom on top. It snowed heavily that week, and I feared it had been buried, never to be seen again. Arriving at work for a shift, months later, when the snow was melting, I saw it hanging on the water heater behind the kitchen.
Bob saw me and said, in one of those cartoon voices he put on, “I saw it there in the snow and I said to myself, I said, gosh, golly, that’s Zoe’s hat!” and he described how he found it frozen in a puddle on the sidewalk. He’d had to chip away the ice to get to it.
Rumpus original art by Becca Shaw Glaser.