Nicole Piasecki | Hippocampus Magazine | June 2017 | 13 minutes (3,410 words)
This is the second in a three-part series on gun violence.
In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.
In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.
In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear.
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1. I’ve started to write this letter at least 20 times in as many years. Just imagine me sitting alone in my office surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper. Since you’re a writer yourself, I know you understand the difficulty of saying it just right. I have spent way too much time trying, and I need to find a way to finally be done with this.
2. When I first walked into your high school English class in Chelsea, Michigan, I saw a light in you that I wanted for myself. Your chestnut eyes were always welcoming, your smile always subtle, yet warm. In person, you were impossible to hate.
3. “The center is a point,” you said to our class during the daily segment on commonly misused phrases. “One centers on a point, not around one.”
4. I had never given much thought to my teachers’ lives outside of school. I knew you within the context of your 11th and 12th grade classes. I rarely even saw you in the hallways of Chelsea High. You were a fixture in that corner classroom, a woman who seemed to exist wholly there. I knew you as humble and intelligent, absent of the complexities and fallibility of the literary characters we discussed in class.
I never would have imagined that you were married to a man who kept a gun beneath his pillow.
5. I took Chemistry I with your husband in 1992, when I was a sophomore. I remember that he played loud rock music on the stereo while we did experiments. He wore that plaid and wool hunting jacket and drank coffee out of that small, plastic cup that doubled as a lid to his tall vacuum thermos. His hands sometimes shook when he lifted the cup to his lips. He kept his haggard ponytail pulled back with a thin rubber band. I remember the fluorescent classroom lights shining on his balding head as he lectured. During class, he stroked each side of his wide mustache with his thumb and first finger, while he waited near a wooden podium for a student to answer a question. Sometimes he started class at his instructor’s desk with a lab sink and used test tubes and chemical reactions to create sudden, violent bursts of flames. That was his signature method of making chemistry seem cool.
Though I interpreted his personality as arrogant and strange, I didn’t dislike him as much as I quietly despised the subject of chemistry. You should know that I have always struggled with solving complicated formulas.
6. My dad never told me things that a teenager didn’t need to know, and I never thought to ask him. He mostly kept his work life separate from home life. I didn’t know what a school superintendent did all day, and I never thought to ask him.
One night, though, when I was standing in our kitchen by the sliding glass door, my dad walked up to me with his hands in the pockets of his faded weekend jeans and said, “Hey Nick? When you went in early for chemistry help, did Mr. Leith ever act weird around you?”
I looked at my dad for a few seconds and wrinkled my brow. “What are you talking about?” I replied.
My dad dropped the subject without explanation, and I quickly forgot about it.
Even when it was just the two of us — your husband and I — in his chemistry lab, he had never said anything inappropriate to me. He just buzzed around the room while I sat in the middle, an island among a sea of empty desks. He answered my questions about the homework and continued preparing for the school day.
I wasn’t a pretty girl. I was self-conscious and tomboyish. Acne spotted my jaw line and chin. My chest was as flat as a boy’s. And I was the boss’s daughter.
You should know that I have always struggled with solving complicated formulas.
7. Earlier that year, the mother of a quiet, long-haired, senior girl called our home telephone at an unusually late hour. I answered the call in the kitchen. “Dad, it’s for you,” I said in the direction of the living room. He took the call in private.
8. One of my favorite photographs of my dad is the one where he’s sitting next to my hospital bed at St. Joe’s in Ypsilanti, right after my knee surgery during my senior year. He sat in that uncomfortable chair, staying day and night, as my left leg moved, bending and straightening in a Constant Passive Motion machine. In the photograph, he’s wearing jeans and a blue sweater with a tired, loyal smile on his face. He only stepped out of the room when the nurse arrived to help me use the bedpan. Back then I never saw his commitment to me as remarkable because it was all I had known.
9. Through high school it seemed that my teachers somehow belonged to me. “Mrs. Leith is my favorite teacher,” I often said, not even realizing the implication of the possessive determiner, the inherent egocentricity of the teenage mind that places everyone and everything in her life on a single orbit.
10. Surely you know all about the giddiness that your high school students felt on the Thursday before Christmas break. My energy that day felt boundless. I practically bounced from seventh period, across the grass, and straight to the outer window of my dad’s office. I knocked on his window, and he tilted it open. He was eating an ice cream sundae from McDonald’s out of a small, clear, plastic cup. He smiled his full-faced smile when he saw me, and I returned a grin. He reached out and dropped the car keys into my hand so I could drive to physical therapy. My mom planned to pick him up later so they could finish the Christmas shopping. As I turned to walk toward the parking lot, my dad said, “Have fun. See you later,” and tipped the window to close it.
At physical therapy, my friend Carey and I both rode Stairmasters, and we listened to the Lemonheads album, It’s a Shame about Ray, on the stereo. We moved our arms like we were dancing. The snow fell quietly outside; the cold windows had white paper snowflakes taped to them.
Mid-workout we overheard someone say there had been a shooting at Chelsea High School. We stepped off of the Stairmasters and huddled around an AM/FM radio to try to learn more. Our first instincts developed concern for our friends who may have been attending a sporting event in the school gymnasium. We imagined that the shooter must have been a kid from another school.
It never crossed our minds that the shooter could have been your husband or that the victim could have been my dad.
Carey and I changed into our street clothes without finishing our workout. We quietly puzzled over all the possible scenarios that could have led to gunfire in our small hometown, but we couldn’t add it up.
11. When the details of that afternoon — the day your husband killed my dad — slowly leaked out from police reports and school employees, I learned that your husband had been reprimanded for sexually harassing female students in the school hallways. I learned that he was on the verge of losing his job. I learned that your husband had stormed out of the grievance meeting with administrators not long after the school day had ended. I learned that you and your husband carpooled home from school together that day. I learned that you were with him and his anger for the 20 minutes it took you to drive home.
I learned that when you arrived home, your husband disappeared upstairs. He returned with a 9mm, semi-automatic pistol in his hand. He asserted, “He is going to die.”
I learned that your husband got back into the car alone and sped toward the school administration building where my dad and two others continued the meeting.
That’s how long it took your husband to drive back to the high school.
I learned that you didn’t call the police whose small-town headquarters were only blocks from the school. You didn’t call the administration building to warn the three men whose lives were at stake, sitting ducks. Instead, you called the teachers’ union office in Ann Arbor, 20 minutes in the opposite direction.
Since nobody had cell phones then, my dad and the others in the room received no proper warning that your husband was coming back to the meeting with a gun and intent to kill.
Your husband wore a long trench coat with pockets of ammunition. He squealed his tires in the school parking lot. He told someone who approached him that he had “unfinished business” to attend to.
He walked into the administration building. Turned the corner into the doorway of the small office. He lifted the gun and pointed it, first, at my dad (Daddy, Dada, Pops).
My 47-year-old dad’s last words were: “Steve, you don’t have to do this.”
Your husband fired round after round. He killed my dad. He injured two others.
You didn’t call the police.
12. Why Alice? Why the fuck didn’t you call the police? Why? Why? Why?
13. After your husband shot my dad, a pocket of time existed where my dad was not gone, and it was still just a Thursday in December. I was still just a teenager, happily riding the Stairmaster at MedSport looking through icy windows with paper snowflakes taped to them. My brother, Brian, was still just a fresh-faced Private First Class, wrenching bolts on the engines of fleet vehicles at the Marine base in Okinawa, Japan. My mom was still a wife of 26 years and a middle school special education teacher at a neighboring school district.
You were still just my favorite high school teacher — the one who made me love words.
14. I can’t remember if it was you or I who initiated the meeting two days after your husband murdered my dad at our school. I hadn’t slept since I found out. I had been desperately pulling his photographs from sticky plastic pages of family photo albums and taping them to the bathroom mirrors: Dad sitting on a chaise lounge chair on the beach in Cancun the previous December; Dad sitting on a tree stump by Higgins Lake smoking a corn-cob pipe and holding a cup of morning coffee in his relaxed hand; Dad with his arm around my brother Brian at the Marine boot camp graduation ceremony at Camp Lejeune less than four months prior.
Still, I was worried about how you might be feeling. I was eager to believe in you — to affirm that we were both unknowing victims of your husband’s violent actions, to tell you that I didn’t blame you.
I sensed some hesitation from my mom, but she took me to meet you anyway. The story was still developing. I couldn’t imagine any scenario wherein you were not the hero. She could.
We learned that you had been staying with your friend and colleague, Pam. When we arrived at her house, Pam took our damp jackets, and I saw you sitting alone in a wingback chair at the far corner of the large room. You didn’t rise to greet us when we entered the Christmas-ready living room. Your face displayed a low, distant gaze. Your fingertips fidgeted with a pinch of fabric on the bottom of your sweater. I don’t know what kind of welcome I had expected.
Finally, you approached me. You said something like, “This is for you,” and your tone was solemn. You reached out and handed me a hardcover book and hand-written letter. Did the book have a tree on the cover? Do you remember the title?
I never read the book. I meant to. My head was too clouded with grief in those days to concentrate for long. I stuffed the book into a drawer in my bedroom and never looked at it again.
I did read your short letter. Your words were scrolled diagonally across the yellow legal paper that you’d folded like a business letter. The one thing I’ve always remembered about the letter was the part I understood the least. “Maybe we can make a circle someday,” it said.
I’ve been wanting to ask you for years: What does that mean?
15. I returned to school only three weeks after my dad died, often arriving late and unprepared, driving up to the school in the used Chevy Corsica that was still registered in his name. My other teachers offered me unspoken allowances for my unimpressive academic performance during the second half of my senior year. My government teacher passed my late, biased research paper that took a stance against the death penalty. I called capital punishment “an option that doesn’t warrant enough suffering.”
I was scheduled to take your English class, but the counselor intervened. Instead, I met with your student teacher in the library. I don’t remember her name, only that her severe psoriasis frightened and distracted me. I was afraid it was contagious, and I couldn’t bear any other complications in my life. We read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an independent study. I was just barely getting by. I remember how tired Santiago was while trying to reel that large Marlin into the boat. I supposed that I wouldn’t have had it in me to keep going like he did.
On the one-month anniversary of my dad’s death, I doodled “un mes” on the top of my worksheet in Spanish III, instead of listening to Señora’s lecture. I wanted someone to understand the dispassionate nature of time — that it kept moving forward, creating more and more space between my dad’s terminated life and my enduring one. It had been one month since your husband killed my father. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t scream or cry or even say that I was sinking, that I needed help. I couldn’t say that my 17 years of gentle experiences hadn’t come close to preparing me for this.
That final semester of high school, I don’t remember speaking to you. Surely I must have seen you in the hallways. Did you see me?
If I could forget about Hamlet, the Lilliputians, stream-of-consciousness writing, and all the prefixes and suffixes in the English language, maybe nothing would remind me of you.
16. It was confusing to see you in the courtroom, on the opposing side, sitting next to your mother-in-law, then taking the stand, making a case for your husband’s insanity defense, trying to get the jury to say, not guilty. The defense attorney led you through a detailed account of your husband’s bizarre actions. I remember the story of your husband killing your pet bird, how he broke its neck with his bare hands. You recounted a Christmas when he curled himself beneath a piano and sobbed like a baby. You explained his obsessions with guns — how he usually kept one within reach.
An aisle in the courtroom divided my family from his, yours. You never once looked across.
I often wonder why I expected some sort of loyalty from you. I was one of thousands of students who had filtered through that corner classroom, but you had made me feel like an insider.
17. I know exactly where I was when I learned that you lost your battle with cancer. I stood courtside in the main gymnasium at Adrian College. I wore my baggy, white shorts, a bulky knee brace, and jersey #25, covered with a bright gold warm-up top. My blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and it was wispy on top from my sweat. I was a sophomore at Adrian and had just finished playing an NCAA, Division III basketball game. My mom came to watch my game because it was the second anniversary of the day your husband killed my dad, and anniversaries held a weakening force for us. It seemed that we should be together.
“I have some news,” Mom said. She had done the right thing by waiting until after the game was over to tell me.
“When?” I asked.
“Her funeral was today.”
18. You taught me to love the nuances of words. You were the first to introduce me to Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Swift. If I could forget about Hamlet, the Lilliputians, stream-of-consciousness writing, and all the prefixes and suffixes in the English language, maybe nothing would remind me of you, except there will always be circles.
19. Did you ever attend the National Council of Teachers of English convention? I have barely missed a year since I began my own career as an English teacher. You’re gone, so I don’t have to worry about running into you there, in an elevator going up or in the cafeteria at lunch. But I must admit that sometimes I still think I see you places. I see a modestly dressed woman with shoulder-length brown hair, and downward-pointing chestnut eyes, and my breath catches in my throat. Then I remember.
20. The last time I saw you in the flesh, I was a freshman at Adrian College and you were still an English teacher at Chelsea High School. In a moment of capriciousness, I drove the hour north on Michigan 52 and parked in a visitor space in front of the high school. The campus was quiet. All the students sat in class, which left me alone to walk the cement pathways.
I walked past the art building where I had taken half a dozen studio art classes in drawing, painting, pottery, and jewelry; past the science building where I had taken chemistry with your husband; past the building where I had taken Spanish every semester; past the administration building where I had spent so much time waiting for my dad so that we could ride home together, the same building where I saw him, an hour before he died, eating his ice cream sundae and smiling through the propped-open window.
It still seemed strange that life just continued on in that place. A different teacher stood in front of your husband’s old classroom, a new superintendent sat at a desk in my dad’s old office, new kids replaced those of us who had graduated.
I entered the English building and walked down the locker-encased hallway to your classroom.
I peeked into your classroom window, a thin, rectangular pane of glass. I saw you leaning on a desk just a few feet from the door, helping a small group of students. I stared through the window until you saw me. When you looked up, your body froze for a moment. I wonder what you were thinking then.
I hadn’t told anyone that I was coming, and still find it hard to explain my motivation to see you that day.
You looked weak, frail, and sick, a dimmer version of your former self. I remember that you stepped into the hallway and faced me. You looked me straight in the eyes. You wore an expression that I decoded as a combination of mercy and fear.
Even with your full attention, I couldn’t speak a single word. All I could do is stand in the hallway and look at you, standing three feet away.
I searched your face and eyes, and you searched mine, as if all the questions were written there. You never asked me why I had come. You seemed to understand, maybe more than I did.
How long did we stand there, saying nothing at all?
21. It never occurred to me that you would die from a cancer recurrence soon after that day we stood together in silence outside of your classroom door at Chelsea High School. I didn’t know our impromptu meeting would signify a final goodbye between teacher and student, woman and girl.
I always imagined that someday I would write you a letter, that someday you would hold it in your hands. That someday I would have the answers to all of the questions I never had the courage to ask.
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Nicole Piasecki teaches undergraduate writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. Her creative writing has been featured in Hippocampus, Motherwell, Brevity Blog, Word Riot, and Gertrude Pressand is forthcoming in Literary Mama.
This essay originally appeared in Hippocampus Magazine.
Editor: Dana Snitzky