Seven Corners site of the shooting of Linda Franklin by the D.C. snipers.

Seven Corners, a shopping mall, was almost Jetson-like in its modernity when we moved to northern Virginia in 1959. It was the first mall in what was just then starting to be the megalopolis around Washington. We lived in what was then still dairy farms and Seven Corners, 10 miles down what was then a rural and very old road – I think that Leesburg Pike in places was a Native American track – to the mall at Seven Corners. It was a property first put together by an ex-slave, Frederick Foote, who helped guide Union soldiers through northern Virginia to the first Battle of Bull Run.

His descendants sold the 30-acre plot to the mall developers for three-quarters of a million dollars in the early 1950s, and the developers put $25 million into it. It had branches of all the swanky downtown department stores – in 1959 there was still a swanky downtown in Washington, anchored by department stores. It was planned as the largest mall in the metropolitan area and my mother would drive us, in her huge 1950s boat cars, there for a new back to school outfit and other special occasion new clothes.

I went there yesterday. It has the nearest Michael’s craft shop in the area. Going to the suburbs to shop, instead of downtown, is something I’m sure a lot of people do. There’s parking. I can get everything I need in one store, as opposed to driving all over D.C., and parking (or not) looking for the simple high-low combination of cheap wrapping paper, expensive ribbon, kitschy (bridal party favor) organza bags, those glittery glass pebbles used for anchoring flower stems in a vase, Christmas themed sequin confetti, and artificial pine boughs that the presents I want to wrap require. Here in the city you couldn’t find the ribbon in the same place they sell the organza bags, which wouldn’t have the paper, which wouldn’t have the confetti. And in the same mall they have – not the traditional edge city strip mall tenant, a Hispanic evangelical storefront church, but a post office where you can get your Christmas card stamps. Here in the city – fugeddabout it.

Seven Corners is the site of a pentimento of my life –  layers circa 1961, 1968 and 2002, each event having strangely to do with guns. Of one kind or another.

The suburbs were burgeoning so fast when we baby boomers went to school there in the early 1960s that I went to a new school every year for four years. One of them was a venerable turner out of Ivy League matriculants in one of the top five wealthiest counties in the country. It still is. I was there so briefly I don’t even know if its Seven Corners connection is true. It is this. The prettiest girl in the freshman class, whose name I remember as well as my own, was dating the handsomest senior boy. It was like Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

She disappeared, and the rumor was she’d gotten pregnant, they had to get married, and went to live in one of the pokey garden apartments on the highways around Seven Corners. This would be 1961, just as the pill was being invented, and about six years before everything we had been taught about who we could be and who we couldn’t be, if we had sex, flew out the window. I was brought up, rightly, to iron shirts. My mother told me never to learn how to type, because they’d force me to be a secretary. To think that a girl something like me, gently bred, pink cheeked, saddle-shoed, a junior varsity cheerleader, as I recall, who at 14 had grasped the brass ring of the only American society that counts, high school, could have been reduced to living in a dark apartment at Seven Corners, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, filled me with a real sense of the connection of Eros to Thanatos. It was, simply, the end of Merry Ann. Every time I went to Seven Corners after that I thought of her,  even though I left the high school, and my life there, and its society, in which I was beginning to succeed just as another raw red clay high school building required my baptism. I see her walking down the halls of the high school, holding hands with her boyfriend, her beautiful pink smile and dark curls, the two of them smiling at me, as if it were yesterday and her child – if there was one – were not 42 years old. Shotgun weddings. In 1961, they still happened, and her name and her fate – I always saw her pregnant in a dark apartment, looking out the window and waiting for her seventeen-year-old <i>husband</i> to come home – struck me as the very saddest thing I knew.

I found his name, only half of which I had remembered, on an Internet alumni list for the class of 1962.  I searched for her name in every year for a decade after, spelled every which way, and could not find it.

By 1968, centuries had passed, I was even tougher, tragedies abounded, and I was sitting behind a card table at Seven Corners listening to the Musak all day long. RFK had been shot with a handgun; it was as unimaginable as his brother’s death five years previously. Martin Luther King had died just a few days earlier; the outlaw gun deaths seemed both barbaric and apocalyptic. Riots had ended whatever downtown – swanky or not — there was in Washington for nearly 40 years, and the ruins, that June, were still smoking. You could smell it.

I was soliciting signatures on a petition for handgun control. When I went home at night, and got into bed, and closed my eyes, all I could hear was the Musak. I didn’t get a lot of signitures, sitting there on land previously owned by a former slave, but I wasn’t harassed too much either. Except by a pencil-necked geek boy, with a score of cigarette burns on his hands. Like he’d burned his hands with lit cigarettes to prove his manhood. He wanted to talk to me about his right to bear arms.

Seven Corners is where Lee Malvo, parked across the highway, lying in the secret compartment of the car John Mohammed had crafted, pointed his rifle through the aperture in the trunk and shot Linda Franklin once through the head as she was loading her car at the Home Depot.

The sniper, as we called Malvo and Muhammed before we knew who they were,  was the first criminal to exploit the vast network of commuter highways around Washington, D.C., of which at least three meet at Seven Corners. The other killings perpetrated by Malvo and Muhammad mostly took place near a major artery on which they could escape, and they were captured asleep in their car parked in a highway rest stop. The suburban malls and bus stops and schools are easy pickings for car-assisted shootings. What I remember most about the weeks when the sniper was picking off people at will was getting out of my car in the Safeway parking lot in Arlington, as I have hundreds of times before, and suddenly feeling I had to turn and look at the roof of the garden apartments behind me, the ramp leading down into the basement loading dock of the building, the new construction across the highway. I had to the scan the horizon. The other thing that instantly became clear, that year after the 9/11 attacks, was how one terrorist could shut down the entire region by creating a crime scene at a nexus of many highways. People sat in their cars for as long as six hours after Franklin was dead, while the police jammed the highway by the Home Depot and fruitlessly – since they didn’t know what they were looking for – blockaded the ramps to the beltways.

That the bloods were mostly all carrying guns was something that occurred to me here in the city about 15 years ago. Two incidents made me vow never again to intervene in an altercation for fear of being shot. I was walking down M Street toward Connecticut and some kids got into a fight in front of a parking lot. I don’t know if I heard pops, or if one of them said something, or if the crowd around them vanished behind bulletproof walls, but it was all of a sudden clear to me that black boys brawling on the sidewalk were to be stayed far away from. At about the same time, two guys in two cars ahead of me at the stoplight jumped out of their cars and started fighting each other in front of my windshield. I very slowly and gently locked the doorsand sank low in the seat and looked elsewhere.

That sense that at least half the people around me are armed never came to me in the parking lots of suburbia. I don’t consider them peaceful – if I were starting out as a reporter, I’d spend a lot of time in them and find out what drug deals, sexual initiations, teenage hanging out, Latino car swaps and other back channel economy Blade Runner transactions were going down. But I never considered them a place where my life was on the line on account of gunfire. I’ve long known that the suburbs are not lily white. They are now the place where the entry level immigrants in this area live – for reasons related to the bloods and the riots, I guess, immigrants don’t live downtown.

They live at Seven Corners. The girl at Joann’s Fabrics looked like a North African, and wore a big black headscarf tied low, and jeans. The postal clerk’s name was Phuong and her colleague was from Eritrea.

Seven Corners has been retooled as a downscale shopping center, with a Home Depot and craft stores and fat ladies’ clothes and Payless shoes. The two story garden apartments in which I have imagined Merry Ann’s fate these 40 years are no longer raw red brick. They are freshly painted in colonial Williamsburg colors to resemble townhouses. Their picket fences along the highway that was an old old road [Edit:9/12/04 — an Indian track may be –] are white. And the lawns behind them are brown, treeless and well trodden. There is not one tree or flower there. A clear shot.

Originally published in a private blog December 8, 2004.

Copyright Jeannette Smyth, 2012, all rights reserved.