Essay After Dark

Originally published in the November 1998 issue of Harper’s Magazine
Republished in the Radcliffe Quarterly – Spring 1999

Bible Baptist Heartland Worship Center, occupied by its Paducah, Kentucky, congregation for just a year, might have been built for a funeral such as today’s, in early December 1997. Three approaches to the altar across broad, red-carpeted steps define space for three matching white caskets, each lined in blue crepe. Three sections of broad pews fan back, one for the family of each girl, as though these services were marking a ritual other than the custom known as “viewing” and the reality of death.

Four days ago, on Monday, December 1, some thirty-five students were participating in a daily before-school prayer session in the lobby of Heath High School. At 7:42 am, as the students were picking up their backpacks, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal inserted ear plugs and opened fire with a .22-caliber Ruger semiautomatic pistol. He fired quickly, seemingly at random, hitting eight. Kayce Steger was pronounced dead less than an hour later, at 8:32. Jessica James died at 11:47. Nicole Hadley was kept alive on life support until 10:10 that night. Three other students, Hollan Holm, Kelly Hard, and Craig Keene, were treated and released. Two girls, Shelley Schaberg and Melissa Jenkins, suffered permanent disabilities; Jenkins, her lower spine nearly severed, will be confined to a wheelchair.

All three children who died were Baptists, though only one of them, the youngest, Nicole Hadley, was a member of Bible Baptist. Because Nicole’s church is the largest, the girls are sharing a service here before burial in separate cemeteries. Some 2,000 mourners fill the sanctuary. One television camera films the service for WPSD, Channel 6, the local NBC affiliate; two photographers from the Paducah Sun take photos, which will be distributed later to a small army of national and international press cordoned off near a large blue tent on the front lawn.

There are endless cinematic touches, within and without the service, but death is necessarily ritualistic, ceremonial, theatrical. “Angels Too Soon” the girls are called in The Good Neighbor (The Area’s Most Friendly News Magazine–And It’s Free!). Beneath a high-school year-book photo of Kayce Steger hand-in-hand with other students, the caption reads: “Angel Too Soon & Friends During A Prayer Session Last Year.”

The combined funerals for Nicole Hadley, Kayce Steger, and Jessica James seem orchestrated to include every detail of the lying-in-state fantasy of a teenage girl called to God in Paducah, Kentucky. To the side of each casket stands a framed display of casual photos, and small wooden tables with single boxes of Kleenex and numerous fine-point permanent markers. People have written on the caskets, which have been designed especially for that purpose; teenagers, adults, children have covered almost every inch of surface with scrawled and scripted farewells. The biers display favorite objects: Jessica’s French horn, Kayce’s clarinet, Nicole’s Pooh bear. It’s as though the girls themselves somehow stage-directed their stunned parents, as though the representative objects and stuffed animals and letter jackets were magically drawn to this dark point presented as triumph. Triumph is the message, but grief is the medium; heavy, surreal grief held at bay in this first week of Advent by the obliterating power of the tragedy and the massive scale of ceremony meant to interpret it. In the moments before the caskets are closed and the ceremony officially begins, the funeral at Bible Baptist brings to mind a contemporary, triplicate version of the funeral scene in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: there are banks of flowers, music, the princesses in their white caskets, each box open to the waist, the girls half concealed in their capsule beds, maidenly, as though they lie sleeping.

In fact, these children are maidens. Only Kayce Steger, at fifteen, had a serious boyfriend. He sits near her family now, on the far left of the sanctuary. In a letter to be read as part of the service, Kayce’s mother will say she’s thankful Kayce went to her first prom last year. At the time, it seemed almost overblown, the flowers and pictures, the dress and preparation, but the memory of those preparations are her only indication of what it might have been like to plan a wedding for Kayce with Kayce. Today, her daughter is dressed in the emerald satin formal she wore to the prom.

The vast room darkens. The videotape, put together by Channel 6 from photos provided by the parents, begins on two identical screens set high above the nave. First we see stills of Kayce Steger, growing up in living color for those of you who didn’t know her, who might not have known of her, ever, but for her death: a beautiful, red-headed kid, a softball player, holding her bat at five, nine, thirteen, ready for the swing, grinning into the camera. Honor student Kayce with her clarinet, Kayce in her prom dress, the smile sweetly self-conscious now, proud, shy. In seventh grade she chose a future vocation: police officer. Hence the toy police cruiser complete with battery lights, the portrait in her Law Enforcement Explorer Post uniform (white shirt, masculine black tie, policeman’s badge), the framed display of her badge, and the three rows of uniformed kids and advisers from the Explorers seated directly behind her parents, Sabrina and Wayne. Her pastor, Tim Pearcy of Twelfth Street Baptist, speaks to the congregation. Kayce, he says, was someone who had an effect on people, a leader, “a daddy’s girl.” She loved phone calls, and more phone calls, and shopping for clothes. “Outward beauty, yes,” Pearcy says, “things like hair and fingernails were very important to her. But she was a child of the living God.”

Separation of church and state here in the Bible Belt is tolerated with varying degrees of irritation and anger, and the political agenda of the Christian right concerning abortion and school prayer is part of the commitment, part of the dream: stand up for God. Kayce’s Christmas wish? A lighted cross for her front yard as a symbol of her faith, her request seemingly innocent of associations instantaneous to Northerners, journalists, Southern expatriates: crosses lit with fire, hooded horsemen, the Klan’s sinful denial of “Love thy neighbor.” Kayce’s nondenominational prayer group at Heath High was held every morning before classes began, in the “public” space of the school lobby, with no teachers participating. “We’re shocked, but we should not be surprised,” says Pearcy of the shootings. “We live in a nation where we slaughter our children. Why should we be shocked when they start killing each other?…We live in a nation where we have allowed ourselves to be stripped of the right to place a plaque upon the wall of their classroom that says, ‘Thou shall not murder.'”

People stand outside in the bitter cold, waiting for the caskets to be loaded into three white hearses. The long white cars pull up one after another under Bible Baptist’s modern, oversized porte cochere, and the crowd continues to wait. Kayce Steger’s Explorer Post has formed a double line through which to pass her casket. They stand rigidly, shivering, without their heavy coats, in dark trousers and dress shirts and thin cotton gloves. They stand down briefly, then snap to attention and continue waiting. Finally there is a murmur, and the caskets are brought out. Each silent team of teenage pallbearers in suits walks in tandem. From their allotted space at the extreme right boundary of the big lawn, cordoned television crews train their row of cameras on the shifting assemblage, but they are too far away to record anything but the broad visual outlines of the picture and their own commentary.

The Steger motorcade, a single line of cars that stretches for miles, turns right out of Bible Baptist’s long driveway, away from Paducah, out Highway 62. Automobiles, trucks, delivery vans in the opposite lanes pull over voluntarily and remain motionless for the passage of mourners. Every commercial establishment, every motel and hotel, every church and school in the area seems to have signs with movable letters, and the letters acknowledge the shootings: Ken’s West Mart/Gas Snacks/Love Sympathy/ Kayce Jessica Nicole. The road narrows, grows more and more rural, becomes two macadam lanes through farmland, running along fence lines, past barns. Lines of five or six cars or pickups, sometimes more, sit at crossings blocked off by police, but there is no air of impatience. Everything has stopped. We finally arrive at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where the sign reads: We Believe in Health/Trust in God/U R N Our Prayers. The small cemetery, a ramble of open land, rolls gently into gathering, early-winter dusk. The Steger family has, of course, arrived first, and they have been here for some time, under the dark funeral tent, waiting in the cold. They sit on folding chairs, blankets over their knees, as people draw near them. There is the fresh, covered dirt, the transferred baskets of tall flowers, the collapsible steel cart on wheels, the long white box covered with bouquets. Jim Gearhart, manager of pastoral care at Lourdes Hospital, reads from the Bible and strikes the elevated casket with his open palm. “I know she is not here,” he says. “Oh no, this box is not strong enough to hold her.” He announces that there will be a supper at Twelfth Street Baptist, where the Stegers attend church services; then it is over. After all this, they are going to bury her. Wayne Steger, a slender, small-boned man in glasses, sits dry-eyed, nearly concave with grief. Sabrina Steger has checked her emotions throughout this wrenching, endless day; she begins to sob. She is racked by sobs, silent, her shoulders shaking. Now she has to leave her daughter here, in this raw cold. She can do no more for her, no tasks, no tending. The church and the road and the town lie still, the silent stars turn, and the cold dark descends, deeper than any dream.