The poet guides her police cruiser through the frozen Bellevue streets.
Like a mother checking on her sleeping children, Suzanne Kessler rolls by the homes and businesses, checking. Always checking.
The scanner and radio are silent. It is calm. It is bright on this peaceful, pink morning in these old neighborhoods, amid the hills and the river and the Air Force base. The rising sun, the snow-crusted landscape, the still-as-still-life houses.
There is a beauty juxtaposed among the ghosts.
And the ghosts are everywhere.
Of the teenage girl who hanged herself on the canopy bed, her wailing mother holding her hand, the painted fingernails lifeless.
Of the 19-year-old stabbed to death by his so-called friends.
Of the sick, the lonely, the vulnerable.
The ghosts don't rest. They haunt the streets and the memory of the woman behind the wheel who is policewoman and poet, an Officer of the Year and an artist, who is so driven by her call to serve and protect that when she can't do either, she feels guilt. She just feels.
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So she jots down notes for later, when she can meet the ghosts on her terms — on paper — and help put them to rest.
The cruiser crawls up 29th Avenue.
Here, in these apartments, is where the murderer lived. And here, just a short walk down Crawford Avenue, in this tan duplex, is where his stepdaughter lived. She was 22, with red hair and a future before her, until he came to the door.
She answered. And he had a gun.
He shot her in the neck, in the forearms. The neighbor heard five blasts.
Skinny dead red hair girl
rabbit on your backwards legs
riding shotgun to the sea ...
These are the first lines of Kessler's poem “Riding Shotgun to the Sea.”
She wrote it last year, following the April 10 shooting and subsequent death of Michala Pomfret. Michael Williams, ex-husband of Pomfret's mother, pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence.
Kessler was off that day. Normally she'd have worked the patrol shift and been a likely first responder. Or, had the stars aligned, maybe she would have seen a man walking by an elementary school with a bag. And stopped him. Or maybe he'd have seen her cruiser and had a change of heart. Or maybe nothing would have changed.
Still, she saw the file. The photos. A woman near her daughter's age.
Michala haunts her in Bellevue and haunts her at the getaway farm she and her husband, fellow Bellevue Police Officer Dave Saum, share across the river in Iowa. They keep animals there. It is eight miles from the nearest town. Gravestones sit in a nearby prairie cemetery.
... Grasses have gone mad here,
and a thousand yellow flowers.
I want to pick them all
and the small salt bones.
You tell me, 'I have all this,
now, in my backyard.' ...
Kessler drives and talks. She knows it's a fool's errand to think she could have protected Michala. She knows, after almost 20 years on the force, police work is mostly social work, a job that puts you on the front line of humanity.
Days that challenge you. Days that make you feel good. Days with long stretches like this, when the scanner hardly crackles, when there's time to visit the old man by the river to say hi. Offer him some honey from your farm and hug him like you would your grandpa.
“Nobody got there in time,” Kessler says of the Pomfret shooting. “And she died. Her mom's ex. We don't really know what the issue was.”
How does an English major like Kessler wind up with a radio on her shoulder, a gun at her hip, one of the few women in uniform smiling among a sea of stoic-faced men in the annual department photo?
The same way a Sacramento, Calif.-born kid winds up in England and then Bellevue on her dad's Air Force assignment. The same way a 17-year-old winds up married, then divorced with a kid. The same way a 31-year-old single mother of two with no car falls into an internship she needs in order to graduate with a double major that includes sociology.
An internship at the Bellevue Police Department, back in 1992. Turns out, Kessler was kind of good at the cold-case file. And the pay was decent and came with health care.
Plus, her then 14-year-old son thought a police job sounded cool. And better than her other option, of teaching on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
... We gather too much to carry:
jars of bees, cans of dirt. A red deer,
its broken head,
your box of scissors.
You tell me, 'I think I've grown up now.
I can understand these places.' ...
Kessler is now 52. Her daughter is now a poet and a university professor. Her son is a police officer in California.
She loves police work, tempering the sometimes awful realities of human nature and circumstance with a belief that people are generally good.
She draws strength from the Constitution and takes solace in humor, beauty and language.
And she writes about her ghosts.
One of them, a little girl she never met who was killed in Florida, appears in a poem she wrote that was published last summer in the journal Rattle.
The publication includes work by Pulitzer winners, National Book Award winners and poets laureate, but it prides itself on featuring first-time poets such as Kessler. Rattle receives some 16,600 submissions a year and publishes fewer than 200.
“I'm sorry,” Kessler writes to Michala in the acknowledgment atop her poem.
But by poem's end, Kessler arrives at some peace.
... You, more grass than girl,
sleep now. Your bent head
small against the window.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH