I moved to Tucson to take a break from Los Angeles and I was just beginning to settle in when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a “Meet Your Representative” event outside a Safeway supermarket in the northwest part of town. When it was over, 13 people had been wounded, including the congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — everyone in Tucson called her Gabby — and six people had been killed, including nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green.
There were sirens everywhere and a vigil began to form outside the hospital where victims were taken, including Gabby Giffords. I was living nearby; as the hours unfolded that day, and details of the shooting began to emerge, I walked over to join the vigil.
It was the kind of thing we have grown all too accustomed to in this country – people are shot en masse and others bearing flowers and candles emerge, whispering, stunned, making eye contact that is both furtive and concentrated, holding the bouquets tightly and not knowing when to put them down, finally releasing them and entering a different stage of response. I know this because I was in New York on 9/11, and there was the same offering, in a general way, although I can only compare these two events in that they were a stealth attack - or perhaps not, if you were Jared Lee Loughner, who, among other conspiracy theories that he fancied, evidently believed the attack on the Twin Towers was an inside job and therefore known to many who could have stopped it, and that may have been one of the things he was trying to talk to his representative about at her “Congress on Your Corner” gathering on January 8, 2011.
I mention 9/11 not just because it was another assault on the body politic, but because, as it happened, Christina Taylor-Green was born on 9/11 – so noted in a book called Faces of Hope, a baby book of sorts about the children who were born that day. I was struck by the fact that another national tragedy was informing this one. Bin Laden sure knew what he was doing, I began to think (and not for the first time).
Although the assault on buildings in New York and Washington DC did not bring America to its knees, it has roiled and eaten away at the country ever since, surfacing sometimes and sometimes not, always part of the backbeat behind so many things, a moment that fuels those who hear private messages about extraordinary external acts that shake us all up, breaking out of the shadows when conditions are right. And here it was as part of the mix in the Safeway shootings, one of myriad preoccupations of a shattered soul who once played Coltrane on his saxophone in junior high school.
In the way-before time, Tucson was home to others for whom terms such as “anchor store” held no meaning; now the land was parceled out to those with well-known “brands” which erected such an enterprise, thereby attracting others selling the kind of thing available at every mall, including the one which featured the prominent grocery store where the incident occurred. In the days and weeks that followed the incident, there was only one thing I was drawn to do, and that was walking the streets and by-ways of town, trying to sink deeper into the place where so many people were swept up by the winds that were swirling that day at the corner of Ina and Oracle in the northwest part of town. What had happened? I wondered. Why here? Why these people and why a little girl?
Often, I found myself atop a pedestrian bridge that crosses the freeway that runs through Tucson. It’s in the shape of a rattlesnake and you walk through its mouth and you can look through its skin in any direction and it has a goofy-sounding rattle when you reach the tail. Snakes are plentiful in Arizona — and around Tucson — especially diamondbacks, which is why this bridge is a representative. .
Like serpents everywhere, the diamondback is beautiful and dangerous. It has markings that are enchanting. It slithers, it coils, it strikes with deadly venom when things go too far. It represents transformation and change that is quick and infintesimal, things that are not said or even whispered, warnings unheeded and what needs to be expressed. Every so often, it sheds a skin and the cycle begins all over again.
I would walk that rattlesnake bridge often in the days following the shooting and peer through the giant metal scales and look out across Tucson, towards the northwest where the violence had erupted and then beyond, thinking of the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s claim to fame (and amen), imagining the red rock and the river flowing through it, and even Spider Woman, a Navajo spirit believed to reside atop Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly nearby.
Spider Woman wove the web of the universe from the sandstone spire, according to legend, and when people were wayward, she would entrap them in her web and over time their bones would remain, becoming the white configurations in the red sandstone of her spire, frozen in time forever. From inside the skin of the diamondback, I considered all of the ghosts and spirits and creatures great and small that were part of the web, for better and for worse, and I consulted with all of the above, including my own desert ancestors, regarding the question of how can we repair the web, how can we learn to weave again instead of pulling the string until it all comes apart?
On top of the freeway that carried freight east and west, and America locked and loaded or simply on the move without arms but good intentions, always needing to change things up (if anything, we are “an overnight camp,” in the words of Wallace Stegner), I kept thinking about Jared Lee Loughner and how restless he must have been, how terribly unsettled in the desert sands.
I pondered his last acts before he started firing. He had taken a cab to a Wal-Mart, for instance, to purchase ammunition. I imagined that he would have encountered a greeter and I wondered if perhaps they kind of knew each other, or maybe they formed an instant bond.
“Nice to see you,” the greeter may have said.
“I’m all alone,” Loughner replied.
“Me too,” said the greeter. “You look like you’re in a hurry.”
“Do I?” Loughner said.
“Yes, you do,” came the reply.
“I won’t keep you. I’m just a greeter. I don’t get in anyone’s way.”
Loughner told him that he was one of the few and then they each told the other to have a nice day, and continued on their respective paths.
From my perch atop the freeway, there were other thoughts that I could not shake. I had learned that Christina Taylor-Green was a baseball player, the first girl on her Little League team in Canyon del Oro, a part of Oro Valley north of Tucson. She was born into a baseball family and always wanted to play ball. Her grandfather, Dallas Green, was a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and went on to manage the Yankees and the Mets. Her father, John Green, was a scout for the Dodgers, and she hoped to join their team some day.
Christina had what they call hustle, everyone said, and perhaps, having been born on 9/11, she knew deep in her bones that time mattered; anything can happen at any moment, so you have to take your at-bats and get on base, otherwise, what’s the use? Sometimes the boys tried to make her leave the field, but it didn’t work. She knew she was good; after all, she was playing second base and if they hit her harder when they were running towards her from first, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.
But it seems that she had a back-up plan. She wanted to run for Congress some day; oh so civic-minded, she attended Gabby’s event with an elderly neighbor who was a good friend and with whom she spent much time. Hand in hand they waited in line to meet their representative, and when the shooting was over, Christina’s neighbor was alive.
“Boys play rough,” Christina’s mother probably told her at some point, as any parent of a girl who longed to mix it up with boys would have said. Maybe the men in her family who were ball players told Christina that her mother was right, boys play rough, and she should keep that in mind. Nevertheless they encouraged her to follow her heart, for anyone could see that she had a gift, and surely they had no inkling that one day, she would collide with the roughest of them all, a young man with an automatic weapon.
Many times in my walks through town and up on the bridge, I wondered how, exactly, was Christina Taylor Green killed. Did Loughner aim at her on purpose, or was she in the line of fire as he was aiming at someone else, perhaps Gabby Giffords? Who would take aim at a nine-year-old girl, I wondered, and I could not stop thinking about her joy of attending the event that day (she was a team player, after all! No wonder Plan B was running for Congress!) and then I would think about how her dream was shattered so quickly, and how her neighbor, her friend, wanted only to show Christina the ways of the tribe. Voting is important, I imagined her saying as they prepared for the event in the days leading up to it. We are lucky to live in a country where we can do that.
I could not stop thinking about Loughner’s own parents, now unable to leave their house without running into a mob of reporters shouting questions about whether they knew their son was crazy. I followed a trail through an internet labyrinth and soon found out that Loughner’s mother worked as the chief botanist at the Agua Caliente Park on the east side of town, miles away from where the shooting occurred.
One day, instead of walking up the trail to get inside the rattlesnake bridge over the freeway, I headed over, parking my car and venturing in, wondering if I might see a grieving woman in the act of tending a tree. What I expected, really, I cannot say, but I did have some trepidation in spite of the fact that I was entering a beautiful sanctuary with fan palms that surrounded an oasis once frequented by the Hohokam who lived in these environs thousands of years ago and then by soldiers when it became an encampment for the army, followed by cattle ranchers and then latter-day pilgrims like me.
As I walked the grounds, I wondered if Jared Lee Loughner’s mother was nurtured by the park over the years, whether or not she found comfort at the ancient spring with the healing waters after another evening of being kept awake by her husband’s midnight laboring over the cars in his driveway, engines in perpetual disrepair, spotlight blaring until dawn. What were her thoughts, I wondered, about the paths not taken during her son’s slide?
On the face of it, to a stranger, his life was flashing red. He had gone from playing jazz with its infinity of arrangements to college troubles to a reprieve by way of a course called Making Career Choices to expulsion after violating a code of conduct then into a string of jobs at places such as Red Robin which proferred Burger Radicalness and Burger Gear and where employees wore special hats and and through it all, he was running through the desert in camo gear, aiming his weapons at saguaros and likely other living things, with time off for lucid dreaming and attempts to get on the same wavelength as girls.
As I explored the grounds, I pictured Mrs. Loughner tending the palms and other flora, trying to ensure that life endured and that an oasis in the desert on the outskirts of town was well-kept and pretty as her son opened up on people standing in line to talk to their representative. She would not have heard the shots on the other side of town, or perhaps she felt that something was amiss that day, and she tended the flowers more intensely, with greater purpose, for the atmosphere in Tucson had been fraught in recent weeks, with a heated local election having recently concluded, and so much vitriol on the local airwaves and bulls-eyes on campaign signs around town — talk of which was suppressed in the days following the shooting: mad men of course don’t take orders from information that they perceive as cues, they are simply acting on their own.
As I continued my way through the park, I came across the town’s oldest mesquite tree, so proclaimed by a plaque that said so. It had lived for two-and-a-half centuries, or at least that was the educated guess. Once, it and its ancient kin provided everything for those who dwelled in its range – food, medicine, firewood – and the tree still does, as moderns who make fires of mesquite wood and pancakes of mesquite flour and tea of mesquite leaves can tell you. What message did it have for Mrs. Loughner and did she hear it as she toiled in the park gardens? How could she not, having worked there for a number of years?
These questions crossed my mind as I imagined her looking after this sacred tree, perhaps even communing with it, and after awhile, a a kind of chant or dirge came to me, in a minor chord as such things go, and in it, she and the tree were engaging with each other in what some traditions would call responsive reading. I took a pad and pencil out of my backpack and wrote it down. Here it is:
I’m an old mesquite.
Two hundred years they say.
But I have no rings, so it cannot be determined. That’s the way of my tribe.
There are other ways to measure your life.
Yes, I’ve seen a lot. I watched the First People drink from these waters. I watched them perform their ceremonies.
And then the others came.
I watched the ranchers drink from these waters and perform their ceremonies.
And then the others came.
Developers they called themselves.
And they built homes nearby.
These homes had ceramic tile with decorative inlays.
In February of that year, the world met in Tucson as it became a bustling, international marketplace of buyers and sellers at the annual Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. Although there had been talk of cancelling the event that year due to the shooting and out of respect for victims and survivors, it was decided not to, as it had been months in the planning, and it is good for business. Here at the showcase, the insides of the Earth are for sale, as many people from points east, west, north and south converge to buy and sell objects of desire. The Gem Show is much more than a single event at one location. Rather, there are thousands of participants and attendees at more than 40 sites around town. Dozens of shows take place at the same time - in giant white tents, at resorts and at exhibit halls.
Most of the activity occurs along several miles of Interstate 10 in the parking lots and courtyards of Motel 6 and Days Inn and Super 8 and Econo Lodge. This stretch along Tucson's southwest side is generally favored by truckers who have stopped for a night before heading eastward to El Paso or to the west for San Diego or Los Angeles. Of course others make up the ecosystem that flourishes next to the interstate, and during the Gem Show, apart from motel employees, they have been pushed to the edges of the area, where Tucson fades and true desert resumes its course, along with the commerce of sex and forgetting.
Now the motels are a marketplace for ancient history, with troves of treasure piled high under the turquoise sky, shimmer and heat everywhere, acres of quartz and garnet and opal; mountains of bone and tooth; fur and feather and Bolivian beads on platters and table top. And look there, behind the Best Western. There are giant panels from the sea containing fossils of plants and fish and strange maritime creatures, hauled to the freeway showcase by chain-smoking vendors with exploded blood vessels in their eyes. If you ask them, they will tell you everything there is to know about the Siemens ichthyosis but you are not getting out of there so fast. Do you want to buy it? they say. Won't be here tomorrow. Do you know about Quartzite? We do that show too.
I attended the show that year, and purchased a piece of turquoise from the Kingman Mine in Arizona. Different mines across the Southwest yield turquoise of various colors and characteristics. Kingman turquoise is the famous sky blue of the region, gentle and never wavering, sometimes mottled with a white matrix, making it look like a spider web. Spider silk is now being used more and more to treat wounds and lacerations, an ancient practice finally getting its due, in a time of great need.
Four months after the shot to her brain, Gabby was recovering and a miraculous recovery was underway. Instead of going to the bridge, I headed to the northwest part of town where the shooting had occurred. But I wasn’t going to that site. I was going to the Canyon del Oro baseball field to see Christina Taylor-Green’s team play in her honor.
It was April 1, 2011, opening day. Members of the Tucson Police Department and US Marine Corps were in attendance. There were scouts from the Dodgers, her parents, the baseball family. Speeches were given and a sculpture made of iron from Ground Zero was unveiled.
The pitcher took the mound and then I imagined Christina stepping up to the plate. The first pitch was thrown out and there she was, swinging at the fastball, connecting, and at the crack of the bat, hitting it outta here, all the way to the Grand Canyon, eternal sandlot where there is always a chance to start over. And then there was a voice calling “Peanuts! Crackerjacks!” and she took her bases and headed home.
Deanne Stillman is the author of four books, including Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. Her play about the Tucson shooting, "Reflections in a D'Back's Eye," was produced earlier this year at Highways in Santa Monica, California. For more, see her website.
Walking After Midnight ::: Patsy Cline
Nebraska ::: Bruce Springsteen
Sniper ::: Joe Gibbs & The Professionals
I Saw Snakes ::: Cool It Reba
After The Rain ::: John Coltrane
Take Me Out To The Ball Game ::: Gene Kelly & Frank Sinatra