would have expected to find Charles Manson and Jeffery Dahmer in the wax museum I visited in 2003, but was surprised to find an exhibit on John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the DC snipers. The museum didn’t have figures of them yet, but they did have a timeline that charted the shootings, the deaths, the investigation, and the arrests. There were copies of news articles and mug shots and courtroom photographs, all of it preserved behind glass, feeling as far from the present as the Bonnie and Clyde or Boston Strangler exhibits I had already passed. It was a year after the shootings—ten people killed in three weeks—and I was in Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side, in the impossibly named Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum.
I had always wondered what it would have been like to be in Boston in 1962 or in New York during the Summer of Sam. Would my parents have let me out (since I was only four that summer) to play in the street or to answer the call of the Good Humor truck? Or, if I had been older, would I have walked home alone at night? Would I have been afraid? Would I have been killed? What would my newspaper epitaph have been?
I had a hard time, standing there in front of that exhibit, remembering and recognizing that I had been in DC in 2002, and that I had deliberately walked its major avenues in pursuit of my own life. I remember being very conscious when I was on Connecticut Avenue running errands or waiting to cross Nebraska on my way to work, but I wasn’t afraid. Not exactly. I was just very aware.
I remember feeling sorry for the woman who was shot while vacuuming her minivan, not only because she was dead, but because she became known by so many for something so trivial. The news reports boiled her entire life down to some variation of the epitaph “shot while vacuuming her minivan.” I found my imagination taking over, filling in those blanks with something like a chapter of Mrs. Dalloway. So-and-so said she would vacuum the minivan (or mow the lawn, or mail the letter) herself. Clarissa Dalloway's walk through post-war London seems romantic because it is set in the past, because she is buying flowers for a party, because she has Virginia Woolf providing her every thought and word. Today she might be taking pleasure in cleaning her car, putting a small corner of the world to rights—only this time it would not be a car backfiring in the street but the sound of a bullet that would interrupt whatever it was she was thinking about that last, fatal moment.
There’s something touching about dying over such a simple task. We all do these things—load our cars with groceries, pump gas, mow lawns—but that autumn in DC, they had a bittersweet significance. You could die for these things. When I went shopping one Saturday afternoon, after five people had been killed, the snipers still at large, I made a quip to my friend that I was risking my life for placemats. As I walked along Wisconsin Avenue I felt quite safe. Traffic was such a tangle that any white van or truck would be immediately apprehended (that was before the Chevy’s trunk had been discovered, when we were all still on the lookout for white vans and box trucks), but I still felt very conscious of where I was, what I was doing, and what I was thinking. Could that very thought be my last?
There, too, was another bitter sweetness. I don’t know what it’s like to be shot in the head, but I imagine it’s a quick and thoughtless way to go. One minute you’d be vacuuming, the next minute—nothing. Is it better this way? Instead of lingering in a nursing home or a hospital bed?
Maybe that was the snipers’ dark gift to those of us not immediately affected by the shootings: they provided us with the pressure of sudden death.
That pressure, of course, is always with us, but we can rarely fully grasp it. It is impossible to hold death always before us; our brains aren’t wired that way, and perhaps this is merciful. Pandora’s Box let loose a flood of evils but in one version of the myth we are spared the worst of all: the foreknowledge of our own deaths. That the gods deemed too terrible, even for the curious to suffer.
he summer before the snipers, during my last few hours in Rome, I stumbled upon a tiny paragraph in my guidebook that described a crypt below the church Santa Maria della Concezione. Here the Capuchin monks had created a fantastic memento mori: several rooms decorated with the bones of nearly 4,000 monks arranged in patterns, both sacred and ornamental, that covered the walls and ceilings. In the last room stood the skeleton of a reaper, clad in a dark robe and holding a scythe made of bone. Beneath him was a small plaque that read: “That which you are, I once was. That which I am, so you shall become.” If you had to walk through these rooms every day, or even whenever you buried one of your own—would that work? Or would the bones become the equivalent of wallpaper?
For most of us, death becomes wallpaper. We can’t see the fact of it clearly, although it is always there, hiding in the form of an aneurysm, a car accident, a hole in your heart no one knew of until it leaves you lying on your back in the middle of the sidewalk as darkness falls around you. Reflecting on our own mortality requires a reminder from the outside—in this case not a monk’s skeleton, but a pair of killers who struck at random, like tornadoes and floods: things we can forecast but never control.
And because these were snipers—who shoot to kill—I couldn’t help but be reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story begins with a family’s road trip, but after they improbably fall into the hands of the Misfit and his gang, they are taken into the woods, one by one, and shot. The daughter-in-law and baby go quietly into the trees, and the two grandchildren are dragged off whining and struggling, with no idea what they’re actually struggling against. Meanwhile, the grandmother chats with the Misfit, seemingly oblivious to the fate the reader sees all too clearly. When she is the only one who remains, she, too, is shot, and the Misfit makes this cryptic remark: “She’d be a good woman. If someone were there to shoot her every day of her life.”
Like the snipers, the Misfit is an outsider; he, too, is applying the pressure of sudden—certain—death. I can’t remember what the old woman says or does to earn this comment, but in some ways I can fill in the blank. The pressure of sudden death forces us to rise to its occasion. It forces us to be conscious of everything we do, because we know that whatever it is, it could be our last act.
In time, the snipers were caught and their threat faded into the other fears of this world—car accidents, heart attacks, tornadoes, terrorism—memento mori that can more easily be ignored. Now I have to work to remember the feeling of standing on a street corner, waiting to cross Nebraska Avenue, soaking in the sunlight and the smell of fresh-cut grass, wondering how it would feel to die at that very moment. I have to work to recall the way the Misfit sprang to mind, and how I wondered about his victims’ last moments, and how my own might be.
ong after I visited the Cappuchin monastery in Italy, I spent a week at Holy Cross Abbey in Virginia. This time I was not a tourist, but there for a silent retreat. This community of monks starts its day during the darkest part of night. The rest of the world sleeps as they rise at three in the morning to prepare for Vigils, the first service of the day. When I arrived at the chapel, there were already two monks sitting silently in the choir stalls. A candle burned deep in a corner and a soft light shone through the door to the monks’ cloister. Monks arrived one by one, bowed to the altar, took their places, and sat waiting. At an unseen signal, they all rose and crossed themselves and then chanted a cycle of psalms. “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”
The last service of the day is Compline, at 7:30—at dusk in the summer or after dark in the winter—and one of the last lines of the service is a plea for “a restful night and a peaceful death.” After an adoration of the Virgin Mary and a sprinkling of holy water, the monks retire for the night. I walked back to the retreat house under a sky gleaming with stars.
That which you are, I once was, the skeleton warns. Grant us a restful night and a peaceful death, the monks ask. There must be a way to keep death in our periphery without growing indifferent to the life we have left, or becoming terrified that it will be taken from us. There must be a way to balance the tableaux of bones and the lurid wax figures with the scent of fresh cut grass on a bright October morning. There must be a way to remember the feeling I had for those twenty-one autumn days: that I was a better woman for having those killers in and around my city, ready to shoot me every day of my life, keeping me, for those three long weeks, in an odd state of suspended grace.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the “Modern Love” column of The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Passages North, and elsewhere..