Authors: Triss Stein
We had reached my car, and I offered to run them over to work. They invited me in to have lunch. It was the day the staff did a barbecue order.
The building would not be open to the public for a while, but a young girl was stacking books onto a cart.
“Deandra, come over here. No, nothing is wrong. I know you all been texting back and forth about Savanna. Is there any news? Have you seen her mama?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “No, Miz Talbot. I have not heard anything.” Her voice was a whisper.
Mrs. Talbot looked at her with suspicion. “That includes gossip in your building lobby? And on the street?”
Cautiously, Deandra said, “Them boys who been bothering her? I hear they in for questioning. Lotta talk about it. Everyone afraid of them and think they did it.”
Ms. Talbot turned back to me. “I heard some of that myself and I don't even live around here.”
“No, no, no. Not for years. Moved my family out to Long Island soon as I had the money. So maybe there is some progress. Some police around here don't care at all, lazy pigs, but some do. They were here and asked us for everything we know. And Zora? Savanna's mother? She is active hereabouts. She knows how to be heard, that's for sure.”
“Turns out I knew her, just a bit, a long time ago in school.”
“No! Small world, sometimes, isn't it, in this big city? Was she kind of outspoken back then?”
Ms. Talbot nodded. “She was toning it down a bit in that news conference on TV. Did you see that? Of course she really is heartbroken. As we all are.”
“If there was anything I could doâ¦” I knew there wasn't. The words just fell out of my mouth. “You know, my teenage daughter was watching the news with me and she said, cops should be talking to all Savanna's friends. No adult really knows what's going on with a teen.”
Behind us, Deandra dropped a pile of books, loudly, and scurried to retrieve them.
“Deandra! Child, what is the matter with you today?”
She was a tiny young girl, younger than Savanna, in tights and a giant sweater, and startling day-glo pink sneakers. She had a baby face under her makeup. She looked petrified.
“It's all right. It's all right.” Mrs. Talbot softened her voice. “I know we are all upset. Just get that mess cleaned up.”
We turned away, and then she turned back.
“Have the cops been doing their job, talking to all her friends?”
“Yes, ma'am. Lots of cops around.”
I could see Mrs. Talbot looked skeptical.
“Home too? You live in the same building as Savvie. Talking to everyone?”
She nodded, looking like a mouse facing a cobra. Trapped.
“And you all telling them whatever you know, or is everyone too scared to speak up?”
“Well, some people. Well, lots of people, scared, I mean. I mean, everyone knows cops make you tell everything you ever did, and even things you ain't never did. Or other people's things they did. And then the other people would know you talked to them and be real, real pissed off.” Deandra stopped, looking even more upset. “Sorry for the language.” She went on, “And they be all up in your face about that. They won't be just talking neither.”
Honestly, she looked like she was about to faint.
Ms. Talbot sighed. “Oh, lord, child. Just go back to work. But listen to me. If they get to you, you tell them anything that might help.”
She shook her head as we walked toward the door. “That girl is no Savanna, sorry to say. Of course she isn't but fourteen but she is scared of her own shadow. She needs some survival skills.”
I know I looked surprised at that. This was certainly a scary time for her and anyone who knew Savanna at all, let alone a real friend.
Ms. Talbot noticed my expression. “I know, I know. We are all hurting but she's like that all the time. A little mouse. Looks up to Savanna though and Savvie kind of big-sisters her. I've been hoping a little backbone would rub off.”
It was time for me to go. I said my good-byes, was urged to stay in touch, and off I went. This time, I looked both ways, a long look up and down the block, before I even left the library steps for my car. And I had my car keys out, all ready for a quick entrance into my car. Or an impromptu weapon, as needed. No fumbling this time.
No sooner had I opened the car door than I heard gasping behind me. It was Deandra, running, no jacket on, and her neon bright shoes thumping the sidewalk.
She stopped short right in front of me, standing at my open car door.
“I had a thing to tell you.” She was gasping for air and shaking.
I looked up the street again. No one was out. But still.
“Get in my car. Door's open.”
Inside, doors locked, I offered her water from my bottle. Her gasping slowed down.
“There is a thing I know. Hardly nobody knows but me. Maybe one or two of her real close girls, but they not going to tell. What do I do?” She twisted her fingers. “I'm so scared, I'm not even sleeping nights.”
My first impulse was to say tell the detectives who are asking the questions. Whoever hurt Savanna should not be walking the streets. My second, as I looked out my car to the bleak cityscape around me, was to remember that I am the white girl here. Grew up with cops. Friends with cops. Safe home in a safe neighborhood.
That was not Deandra's world.
“Is there anyone you can talk to?” I made my voice as soft as I could. “Your mom? Or maybe a pastor? Do you have one?” She looked horrified but nodded. “Even Ms. Talbot?”
She shook her head. “It Savanna secret and I swore not to tell. Not never to any of them. I can't rat out on that. My mom isâ¦” She looked away. “Me and Savvie, we go to the same church, so same pastor. He an old man, kind of scary. Voice like God. I thoughtâ¦you said you have a daughterâ¦so maybe you would understandâ¦even if you a white ladyâ¦.” She spoke in a rush and then subsided to a whispered, “Dumb idea. I am so dumb.”
“No, no. You are brave to even try.” I gave her my best Chris,-I am-serious-pay-attention stare. Deep into her eyes. “Maybe if you tell me, I will know what to do with it. And I'll never tell where I got it.”
She looked up then, not with trust, not even close, but a flicker of something. Maybe hope? She sighed deeply, all the way from her pink shoes.
“Savanna have a boyfriend. Big secret. Her mama would put her in forever lockdown if she knew. And his people would not like it, either, I guess. She say that to me. His people.” She came to a sudden complete stop and then pulled frantically on the door lock. “I got to bounce. Got to go back to work. I sneaked out.”
She was gone, running, before I could even say, “Tell me more.” But yes, she had told me something and I had the whole drive home to figure out what to do with it.
I had a lot more to figure out when I was home and keeping an ear on the evening news while I threw together a meal of leftovers. Lots of them. Could we have meat loaf and lo mein and egg salad in the same meal? I hoped Chris' growing-teen appetite would distract her from noticing what a poor excuse for a supper it was. My mother, queen of the grapefruit starter, meat-and-two-sides dinner, must be turning over in her grave.
I thought, “Sorry, Mom, but this is my life for now.”
I heard Savanna's name on TV, dropped the forks on the table and went to watch. “Four boys have been brought in for questioning for the brutal attack on a teenage girl. Two names, two withheld as juveniles. Detectives describe this as an important breakthrough.” There was video of them being escorted, cuffed, in to the station. Though their hoods somewhat hid their faces, I knew instantly who they were.
Now what should I do with Deandra's secret? Was there any point in calling it in if I could not give them a source? So I called Mike the cop. I hadn't heard from him lately and I thought our not quite romance was probably over. No hard feelings and he could be useful.
As soon as I said I had a cop question, he chuckled and said, “I'll be downtown at court tomorrow. Good day to have lunch?”
“Better than good. I'll be downtown too, working at the museum.”
For now, immediately, the clear plus was that those boys could not hurt anyone else. I assumed there was more evidence than today's line-up. I would go to bed somewhat relieved. I hoped Zora was feeling the same way. Just a little, anyway.
Chris and I plowed through supper, each preoccupied with our own thoughts. My quantity without quality strategy worked; I don't think she even noticed what she put in her mouth as she read her chemistry book.
“Huh?” She did not look up.
“Put the book away. You need a break.”
“Um, okay.” She looked up, eyes unfocused. “Anything special going on?”
“No. Tell me about your day.”
“Nothing to tell. School. Homework. Chem test tomorrow. I hate chemistry with the heat of a thousand suns. You know?'
I did know, but it would have been counterproductive to agree completely.
“I admit, Mrs. Grant is tough, but every teacher there can't be a hand holder.” I remembered my own overworked public high school teachers. Some of them were dedicated, but some hated the job and hated us. Some barely knew our names.
“Mom! That is very unfair. Believe me, the high school teachers are not holding our hands. Unless they are trying to put more work into them.”
“Okay. Sorry. So I'll tell you about my day.”
I did, and thanked her for her off-hand comment about asking Savanna's friends for information. She seemed impressed for five seconds. Then she put her dishes in the dishwasher, heaped up a bowl of ice cream and headed back upstairs, chemistry book in hand. I thought I should get up early tomorrow and make her a real breakfast before the exam.
Next day, Mike and I met at a fish restaurant. One of the things I did like about Mike was he made me eat like a grown up, sitting down and having a proper meal.
I gently led into the subject. “I saw the news last night about that poor girl, Savanna Lafayette. I was out there in the neighborhood.” No way was I telling him more than that about my experiences.
“Why in the world?” I ignored that.
“So. I know a little something. Maybe it matters and maybe not, and with a probable arrest, I am having trouble seeing what I should do with it.”
“You need to stop playing detective.” He pointed his fork at me for emphasis.
“What? Do you think I am playing?”
He just gave me one of those get real expressions.
“Listen.” I said it calmly. “I was in Brownsville originally for research. And then I met people and I heard things.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Was that a skeptical sound or a convinced sound? “So, tell me what you learned and I'll see if I can give you any advice.” Now he was in cop mode.
I took a deep breath. “There are those four boys. So theoretically, anyway, the process moves on. Do I have that right? But they're not arrested yet?”
He nodded. “Bet they found a bunch of reasons to hold them for awhile. Substances, guns, old issues.”
“Does that mean anything further I learned is irrelevant now?”
“Depends. How about telling me what it is, instead of tiptoeing around it?”
“A friend of Savanna told me she has a boyfriend. And it is a big, a huge secret. She seemed petrified to be telling me, and was too petrified to tell anyone in her world.”
He nodded. “Scared it might get out that she told? I get it. The code is to never tell anything to anyone in authority. Never. She didn't tell you anything more?”
“Only that Savanna's mother would be furious - âtotal lockdown' was what she said and also, that the boy's people would not like it either.”
“What did she meant by that?”
“I don't suppose you'd like to tell me who told you all this?”
“You're kidding, right?”
He smiled. “It was worth a shot.” He thought for a moment. “It looks like they think they've cleared the case but I know who's on it. I could pass the word. Just in case. Would you talk to them?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“Okay, Nancy Drew. Enough work talk. I believe there is a piece of Key lime pie with my name on it. Two forks?”
We moved on to other topics, talked about a movie we had both seen but not together, talked about other news of the day. It was a pleasant break in my routine. Nothing more.
Whew. Done. Back to work. Back to juggling work, dissertation, parenting. Daughtering. That was more than enough to make me crazy, without adding in a relationship that really was not that meaningful.
I wasn't planning to tell Chris, though. I needed to keep a zone of privacy. Plus, I did not want to hear whatever she had to say.
A quiet day at my part-time museum job, doing research for a new exhibit about children's lives in Brooklyn over the decades. I had to look over files and files of snapshots, filtering for the curator who would make the final selection. Some distant day, when the funds were available, they would all be digitized. It would make the selection easier, but any historian would say there is value in handling the originals. At least, that's what I thought they would all say. What I would say.
When I had a day like this, the doubts about my choices fell away. I was fascinated by everythingâthe stickball games; potsy, a New York sidewalks form of hopscotch; the complicated jump rope combinations. The little Catholic girls, decked out like brides for First Communion. When I was little, that seemed as exotic as a grass skirt. The old-time eighth grade graduations, with girls in white dresses they had made in home economics class. No one taught home ec anymore, I thought. And here was one from Espy himself, children lined up like sardines on a fire escape, sleeping outdoors on a suffocating summer night. A rare Espy photo with no death or violence.
It occurred to me that I had a living source of information for this topic. Ruby Boyle and Lillian Kravitz had plenty of stories about growing up in Brownsville. An interview recorded or on wall posters would be an effective addition to the exhibit. They would be actual voices from the past. And we should capture them while they were still around.
I sat back, thought about it, and typed a memo for the curator. Ruby and Lillian could talk about Brownsville childhoods. Who else? Where would we find some other elderly, talkative folks from other neighborhoods, who still had good memories?
I stopped myself. If I suggested it, I would own it. Right? And I would be crazy to volunteer. I did not have room for one more responsibility on my plate.
Oh, heck. I was excited about this idea. My fingers flew over the keys as I described it for the curator.
I hit Send emphatically. And then looked at my calendar to see what would be a good day to go back for another visit. Or if there were no good days, what would be a possible day.
And then, mindful of Lillian's request, I shot off a note to my friend Jennifer who worked at the Municipal Archives. I was pretty sure the official papers from the Murder Inc investigation and trials had ended up there. Maybe, who knows, if I ever found the time to look, or to beg or bribe my friend to look for me, maybe
I would find something. Not likely, but at least I could tell Lillian I was trying.
Before I left the museum, there was a response from the new exhibit curator. She'd be happy to have me look into recorded memories as part of the exhibit. She loved it. She sent me names of some oral history organizations that might be helpful resources.
I had certainly gotten myself into that one but I went home happy with my day's work, a plan for dinner, an evening to catch up on schoolwork. Chris was in a good mood, thinking she'd done well on her chemistry test so we celebrated with hot chocolate. I dug the marshmallows out from way back in a cabinet.