Authors: Triss Stein
I sipped while Chris moved around the kitchen. Soon there was a peanut butter sandwich in front of me, crusts off, cut into triangles.
That's when I started to cry. That was Chris' comfort food meal when she was small. And now she was babying me.
Plus my whole day had been about girls and violence. Girls who were lost. Mothers who were grieving in pain far beyond mine.
“You're kind of scaring me. Should I call grandpa?”
I almost said yes. Almost. But I did not want to hear his scolding. Though I'd learned over the years that a full-out shouting fight with him can be a great way to let out some stress, no, not this time. It would just create more. I know that now because I am a grown-up now.
I shook my head. “On a business trip.”
“Uh, Mom? There are cell phones now. They've been around for a long time. You could talk to her.”
She took my phone from my purse, texted a message, put it back.
“I asked her to call when she could. Are you doing better? Peanut butter helps; I learned that from you.”
“You did? How funny is that.” I gave her a smile even I knew was pathetic. “Yes, I'm better. Thank you. It was just, you knowâit was a reaction to allâ¦to allâ¦to all this.”
I had run out of words.
“So now I need to eat something too and get back to work, okay?”
“I could make somethingâ¦”
“No, you could not! Drink your cocoa and rest. I'll forage in the refrigerator.”
“Where did you learn to be so bossy?”
She gave me that teenager exasperated look. She might as well have said, “Duh!” She left me in the kitchen with another sandwich and warmed up cocoa while she made a plate piled with miscellaneous edibleâI hoped edibleâitems. I spotted a hot dog and a pile of leafy stuff. She went upstairs and I tried to think about what I should do now.
Put on my historian hat and make notes about this day? Maybe it would all drain away, the public anger and pressure. But maybe it wouldn't and this was the beginning of something? Today I was right there, inside history as it was being made. I always told the children visiting the museum, “History is happening every day, all around us.” This day, it was all around me.
Should I see what the TV news crews had caught? Or maybe just record tonight's news, and watch it all tomorrow. Not now.
The real question was, how could I blot the sight of Deandra's pitiful body being lifted out of the trash container? And the answer was, I couldn't. Not tonight. Probably not for a long time.
I recorded the local news, and then I thought about what might be on the webs. Chris laughs at me, says I'm a historian stuck in an earlier time, only interested in old documents on old-school paper. Which is completely untrue. Okay, maybe it's a little true. I know about the world of instant communication, I just do not find it very useful in my crowded life.
Even with Deandra's last name, there were other Deandras. It was not as unusual as I thought. And there was no news about this Deandra.
I tried Brownsville and killing. There was, tragically, plenty from that search, but nothing about Deandra. Too soon for anything official? But we had seen her body taken away from a trash bin in a project that housed thousands and there were other bystanders. It was all surrounded by tall apartment buildings with lots of windows. No one had seen anything? And was already emoting about it on Facebook? Or somewhere? Maybe they were all just texting with their own friends?
The headache right between my eyes was growing. Just as I was thinking about whether I needed ibuprofen or caffeine, the doorbell rang. What? At this hour? I glanced at the clock. Not actually so late. It only seemed like the middle of the night to me.
It was Joe. My friend. We'd met years ago, when I first moved into my very shabby house, and an old friend had asked her cousin Joe, a contractor, to do a little basic work for me. We became buddies. We bike together, hang out when we both have a free evening. When I finally scraped together enough money to put a twentieth-century kitchen into my house, with a refrigerator that worked and appliances that were not antiques, Joe had built it, overseeing the crews and employing Chris for the summer.
Now he and Chris are firm friends, too. He is the pretend uncle, somewhat taking the place of her lost father, I guess. I know she tells him things she doesn't tell me. That is when, I also guessed, she came up with the ridiculous idea that there was romantic potential. She is fifteen. What does she know?
But I was so glad to see his friendly face that night. And she wasn't wrong about how attractive he was, big and fit and capable, graying streaks in dark hair. Of course he also teases me.
“Thought you might like some company.” In one hand, he had a large coffee from the most expensive coffee bar in the neighborhood. In the other, a pint of ice cream. The real deal, no frozen yogurt nonsense. “Choose your poison.”
“Come on in.” I hastily ran my hand through my hair and discarded the napkin tucked in to my waist. “How did you know?”
“Call it a hunch.” He went into my kitchen, which he knew better than I did, put the ice cream on the table and pulled out two spoons. “Dig in.”
My favorite, vanilla chip. There was a container of still warm hot fudge sauce, too. So we dug in, silently for a while, and after ingesting enough sugar and chocolate, my brain seemed to turn back on.
“No, really. What brought you over tonight? Because something happened todayâ¦”
“Heard it on the grapevine.” He was concentrating on the ice cream and not looking at me. “But do you want to tell me all about it?” Now he was looking at me.
So I told him, and it was a relief to say it all right out loud. I didn't have to protect him as I did Chris. I didn't have to be defensive, as I did with my dad. I could just tell him everything that was on my mind and know that he was listening completely.
“How did you get so deep into this?”
“Oh, I don't know. I met people, we talked, I asked questions. And then, these are kids. And someone I knew a long time ago. And it started out being about my work, but now?” I closed my eyes, not wanting to think about my next appointment with my advisor.
“Stand up. We're going for a walk.”
“No, we are not. It's late, it'sâ¦nine o'clock? That's all?”
He was already pulling a light jacket off the coat tree near the door.
“Nice spring night, crisp, not cold.”
I was standing, being led to the door. He still had keys to my house. He shouted to Chris, “Taking your mom for a walk. Be good.”
There was an incoherent response, just enough to let us know she was alive.
“I thought some fresh air would be therapeutic.”
“You always think that. Exercise heals everything.” I stopped and thought it over. “Sometimes you're right.”
He smiled. “So you up for a ride? 5-K in the park?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“It was a joke.”
“Are we going anyplace in particular?'
“Are you telling me?”
“Joe, I don't have time for this. I have piles of workâ¦”
“You weren't working when I got there, and you wouldn't be if you were there now. Tell me I'm wrong.”
I didn't want to agree and I didn't want to lie, so I said nothing. The idea that I would do anything productive tonight was certainly my own fantasy.
We were heading away from the great park and going down the gentle slope that gave Park Slope its name. We were pointed to Fifth Avenue. Stopping for a drink at a stylish bar? Did he think a little time feeling young and trendy would be the cure?
Fifth Avenue has completely transformed from small, dingy grocery stores and hardware stores, sad during the day and a dangerous hangout for dangerous people at night. It has become the hot strip for trendy restaurants and bars.
But no, we crossed it and went on.
“Surprise. Don't worry.”
We crossed Fourth Avenue, a major road that takes six lanes of traffic from one side of Brooklyn all the way to the other. It had been known for auto repair shops, tire shops, taxi garages. If you needed an auto repair at midnight you could find it. The chop shops were open, tiny businesses in garages working on stolen cars late at night. If you wanted a girl friend for an hour, you could find that too.
Recently though, shiny new apartment buildings have sprung up and some weird transformation was occurring. As an urban historian, I found it fascinating. As a regular person, I was dumbfounded that people were paying high costs to live in an apartment with a terrace that had a view of six lanes of traffic.
And then we were going into one of the buildings. It was still a work in progress, with building permits on the windows and “Caution” signs all over.
Joe opened the street level door with a set of keys.
“Come on. I'm doing some work here, not housebreaking, if that's what you are thinking.”
“No, no, not at all.” The thought had crossed my mind, though. He's definitely not a criminal, but he has many oddball skills. And I have seen him pick a lock.
The dark lobby was filled with construction material but the building seemed finished. Here were walls, a floor, and windows. And an elevator, which is where Joe pointed me.
“Is this safe?'
“Don't be silly. The crews use it every day to get up and down. The construction is done. We're working on making it pretty now.”
Up to the top floor, silent and smooth. Into an apartment, to which Joe also had keys. It was empty, with an odd chill. There were glass doors facing us and a terrace. And this one did not overlook six lanes of New York traffic.
Joe opened the doors and we were gazing right out over Brooklyn roofs to the harbor
Right and left,
Brooklyn Bridge. Manhattan Bridge. Verrazano Bridge. They were outlined in lights against the darkness, massive tons of metal and stone looking like fairy tale creations.
Across, there was the Manhattan skyline, dark patches against the darker sky making a zigzag pattern decorated with bands of light. They went off on one floor and then on again on another. Off. On. Twinkling. And there was a cruise ship at the new Brooklyn Terminal. I wondered what the vacationers thought about docking at, well, the Brooklyn docks. Not a lot of New York glamour there, but the ship looked splendid, all lit up in the night.
I took a few deep breaths. Joe, having seen it all before, was standing against the wall with his arms folded.
“A little respite? Feeling better?”
“I am. And there is no rational reason for it, is there?”
He smiled. “We're the city dwellers. No mountains handy to refresh ourselves, but we can do this.”
“Joe, I didn't know you are a philosopher.'
“You don't know everything, in spite of your advanced education.” He wasn't smiling now
and he was
“One of the things you don't seem to know is that you can count on me. You could have called me tonight. Or any night.”
He put his hand on my mouth. “Shh. Shh.” He patted his shoulder. “You need to remember this is yours when you need it.”
I shocked myself by kind of falling against him then, my head right on that shoulder, my face buried in his shirt. While tears ran down my face, his arms went around me, first comforting, and then tighter and something more than comfort. When I was done crying, he patted my face with his big man's hankie, but one arm still held me. And I liked it. What would I do if he kissed me then?
Instead, he said, “Time to go home.”
Walking back up the slope of the neighborhood, he kept my hand held tightly in his big, calloused one. It felt fine. It felt like just what I needed.
Now I could think a little. “Did Chris call you tonight?” I interrupted whatever offhand remark he was making.
“Why would you ask that?”
I grabbed his arms and stopped him in mid-stride.
“Look me in the eyes and say she didn't.”
He tried but then he started laughing. “She did, she did. She was worried. Be glad you have such a thoughtful, smart child.”
“Oh, I am. Butâ¦ah. Actually, no buts. I'm glad she did.”
We were home by then.
“Joe, thank you.” This felt as awkward as a first date.
He gave my hair a brotherly rumpling. “Take care. Don't do anything stupid about all this mess you're caught up in. Okay? Promise?”
“Yes, dad. I promise to be good.” I said it with a grateful smile.
“Dad? Oh, yeah?” And then he did kiss me. Not fatherly. Comprehensively. And walked away before I had my breath backâ¦.Wellâ¦I had something new to think about.
Chris was already asleep so I could not ask the questions on my mind. It did disturb me that she was meddling in my life. Meddling is
mom job. But it didn't matter right now. The couple of hours with Joe were what I needed at the end of this strange, heartbreaking day. Tomorrow everything could come flooding back in. Tonight maybe I could sleep without dreams.
And then Darcy called. From India. What time was it there? I guessed wearily that it was not the middle of the night.
She is my best friend, an unlikely one to be sure. We met at a school bake sale, all those years ago, and instantly clicked over the chocolate cupcakes. She is older and has four grown kids to my one teen. I'm a Brooklyn girl and she's a Darien girl, and she has an MBA from Wharton and I started out as a kindergarten teacher. I don't know how we turned out to be the friend we each didn't know we needed.
I don't have a lot of friends. My parenting responsibilities keep me from hanging out with grad students; my academic life took me away from most of my old neighborhood friends. Darcy just takes me as I am.
“What's wrong?” She'd seen Chris' text.
I spilled it all, my adventures in Brownsville, my exhaustion with my dissertation, Deandra. Savanna. I didn't tell her about my moment with Joe, though.
“Are you having any kind of life?”
“You sound just like Chris!”
“So? You raised a smart kid. Big surprise. Are you?”
“You need a vacation.”
“That's ridiculous, I can'tâ¦” Sometimes she forgets that she is rich and I am struggling all the time.
“Hear me out. I have more airline miles than I will ever use up in this lifetime. And I have a few days in London on my way from Mumbai. I'll give you some miles and you can meet me there. Big room's already paid for.”
“Has no friends who would take her in? Come on! Write down these dates and go to bed.” I wrote them down. We said good-bye. Suddenly I was collapsing onto my bed, eyes already closing. I didn't know if I would do this, but maybe the idea would reset my dreams tonight.
It did. I couldn't remember the good dreams in the morning. I thought there had been some redcoats on horses. And a cathedral? A park? As a bonus I had a calm ordinary day, too. I worked at my museum job, made dinner for Chris and me. I even did some housecleaning. I was tidying up my own nest, the one place in a messy world where I had that power. I watched the news, but there was no mention of Deandra.
My friend Jennifer, who worked at the Municipal Archives, returned my call from a few days ago. After the usual catching up, she said, “Those trial archives? We have them, sure, and we keep them in offsite storage. There is a lot of paper. Thirty-five running feet.”
“And what's that in English?”
“Sorry. It's about twenty medium boxes.”
It would be a chunk of time I did not have, to look at everything. Other people had covered these topics. Couldn't I just use secondary sources?
Then I gave myself a mental smack. I was a scholar. Sort of. In the making. I needed to use the sources or leave it out. Hmm. Leave it out? No, no.
“Yikes. It's a lot of paper.”
“Try moving those boxes! Which I did personally, just a few days ago. Here's the strange part.”
Stranger than a government archive that held not only paper but also the bullets that killed a gangster? Rope used to strangle an informant? Maps showing get-away routes?
“Someone asked about those very same boxes this very same week. So how strange is that?”
“Could there be two of us writing about the same subject?”
“Sure, it happens. Suddenly, for some mysterious reason, an old piece of history becomes the topic du jour.”
“Maybe I should talk to that person. Maybe we could be useful to each other.” I was thinking that if someone was covering this for, say, a long New Yorker-type article, I could be useful. And if a more serious scholar were doing the research, that person could be useful to me. “You have a name?”
“I do, but I can't give it out. Seriously against the rules.” She paused. “You know, Erica, it's a mountain of paper. I mean, they were lawyers! They're a wordy bunch and they love their documents. So, if you were to come in when I was here, who knows? Maybe some sign-out information would be carelessly left out, mixed in with all that material.”
“Do you meanâ¦?”
She laughed and didn't answer. We made a date and I went back to work.
An e-mail from the curator I was working for, asking how the recorded memories project was coming along. Oh, crap. In the midst of everything else, I had completely forgotten about it. So I wrote her,
“Fine. Just fine. I'm waiting to get some appointments confirmed.”
And then I got busy to make sure it would be the truth.
I called Ruby. She put me on hold while she consulted her calendar, and then told me, graciously, that she could give me a few hours tomorrow. It made me laugh, though I held it in until we had stopped talking. Lillian was home from the hospital, but was staying in the rehab building, having physical therapy and extra care. She would arrange for us to visit her but warned, “She tires easily, even lying in bed talking. You won't be able to get much from her. And come early. After breakfast seems to be her alert time.”
I had my marching orders for tomorrow. A note to the boss, to have it in writing that I had updated her, and then I could not resist trying to find out what news, if any, there was about Savanna.
Nothing on the Web news sources today, but what was this? A Facebook page? Someone had started a Facebook page? I was surprised, even if I shouldn't have been. Mostly I ignore social media. I don't have the free time to play that way, but even I know in theory about Facebook pages being a central source of information and updates. I would not have thought of this. Maybe Chris is right and I do live in the past. So what? That's my job.
Here was a place for pictures of smiling Savanna with girl friends and family. Deandra was in one. And there was a place for some essays she wrote. And a place for information about the progress of a solution to the crime. I looked. Nothing I didn't know. There had been no updates. And a place for her story, with information about her medical status, too. I looked, holding my breath.
She had been moved from the original hospital to one with more advanced specialized facilities. And it was near me, an ever-growing hospital center right in the neighborhood.
I did what any mom of a teen would do in this situation. Some experiences make you sisters under the skin.
In a Personal Message I wrote, “Zora, the new hospital is a short walk from my house. Any way I can help? Check in on her when you can't be there? Offer you a meal or a place to sleep if you are there late? It would be living room couch, but you are welcome to it.”
Then I went back to searching for information about Deandra. Nothing. I for sure had no official or even legitimate reason for asking questions, but I wanted to know. Wanted to know someone was working on this. Wanted to know someone remembered her.
I gave myself a shake and changed my screen back to work. I needed to make a list of questions for Ruby and Lil. I did hope we would be able to include Lil. I liked her acerbic honesty and thought it would be a good contrast to Ruby's somewhat nostalgic story telling.
Dinner was done, and I was doing the last bit of kitchen cleanup, when my laptop pinged with a message.
“Thx for offer. Appreciated. Care to drop by tonight? No family could make it. Z”
That was a surprise. And I could.
“Will do. Need anything?”
“Serious coffee would be lifesaving. Sweet and creamy.”
And a walk in the spring night would be good for me.