That Fall Day

By Lisa Norris

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

In 2006, when William Morva escaped from custody with a cop’s stolen gun, our neighborhood was on lockdown. Police cars cruised down the street with their megaphones saying, Stay inside. It was like being in a movie, except that our cops weren’t all handsome, and our houses weren’t surrounded by white picket fences, but they could have been: it was that kind of town, and some of us were that innocent. Murders in our town were rare–none, or maybe one or two, a year. Outside the windows, as uniformed men invaded, my son sat on the couch with his high school friends—three in a row. They all fit the description of the fugitive: young white men with brown hair in their eyes, wearing T-shirts and jeans.

Come on, they pleaded. Let us go out. We’ll be fine. No one’s going to shoot us. We want to see what’s going on.

I’d known these kids since they were in kindergarten. Lately they made movies together about things gone wrong in the world—a satire about George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, for instance. They had fun representing the president by using a banana puppet with Bush’s face drawn in. They created a cardboard Baghdad in the sandbox that they could blow up for their film. Either they just liked special effects, or they felt for brown people.

But that day, they couldn’t see the harm outside their door. This neighborhood, after all, had been safe. In this house, they could always raid the refrigerator for organic milk. They could crash on a couch, spend a safe night, find an Internet connection.

Come on, they pleaded. Let us go. No one’s going to shoot us.

Across the street was the elementary school where I’d been scolded for being an overprotective mom because I’d followed the school bus when my son first went to kindergarten. It was unnecessary, the principal implied, knocking on my car window to investigate, because—after all, in that school, like all those in our town, good people were in control, and kids were safe.

That fall day wasn’t the first of the bad things. It came after the Oklahoma bombing, after 9/11—but before kids were shot at Sandy Hook or theatregoers at movies, or students in desks at Virginia Tech just down the road.

That fall day, I figured all we had to do was say Stay inside, stay away from the windows, because if you obeyed those voices that told you what to do through their megaphones, you wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of a bullet: you’d be all right. That was the story only if you didn’t look like the guy who was running after he killed a cop. Generally, you didn’t look like the guy running if you were white.

I knew this even before we heard about 18 year-old, unarmed Michael Brown, hassled by a cop for walking in the street and shot in the back when he ran; or John Crawford, shot by police for walking with a toy gun he was taking from the shelf to the cashier in a WalMart, or Sincere, the one-year-old boy who survived the SWAT team bullet that killed his mother Miriam, carrying him in her arms when the cops busted into the house with no warning.

When my own son was six, Maurice Taylor, a 22-year-old black man with a toy gun, had been shot 12 times and killed in the pharmacy where I shopped. I looked both ways in those pharmacy aisles when I went shopping after that. Did I object when the family’s lawsuit against the police was dismissed?

I did not.

That fall day, though, I knew what it was like to have a son who looked like the one running from the cops. I knew I was lucky to be home that day to pin those boys to the sofa and stand between them and the door. I felt how suffocating it would be to lock myself into a place where I wanted to do nothing more than chain those boys to something solid and keep them safe.

About the Author

Lisa Norris is a professor of English at Central Washington University who grew up in Virginia Beach, VA, and taught for 15 years at Virginia Tech. Her prizewinning story collections are Toy Guns (Helicon Nine Press, 2000) and Women Who Sleep With Animals (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2010). Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in Shenandoah, Ascent, Fourth Genre, Terrain.Org., Bullets Into BellsGulf Stream, and others.  


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