Authors: Triss Stein
“I believe her mama organizesâ¦”
“What the hell do I care? Every week some child in trouble threatened, hurt, dead, ODed. But oh, every fool person love
child! I only came âcause you all was coming.”
Someone else, not from her group, turned and said, “If that's how you feel, why you ain't getting up and saying it out loud?”
“I wasn't talking to you.” At that moment, I was glad I was not the questioner. “But I believe I will, no thanks to people who mind other people's business.”
She looked all around before turning to the podium.
“What I want to know is where the hell you all been all this time? You think this Savanna so special? Maybe she is, no disrespect intended, but every child is special to someone, and we losing children all the time around here. Why all you big shots not coming around with promises sooner? Why we don't have better policing, with police who see the difference between them gang boys and our good sons?” She gestured to the stage. “Why you not showing concern about my little nephew who was shot by accident when two gang fools had a beef?” She looked around at the crowd. “Why you all not marching about those girls who had a beat down about some stupid boy and one died? About the gangs in their nasty hanging-down-to-the-knees pants, threatening our younger kids?”
She started to breathe hard, as people around her were clapping. She turned to a knot of teenagers near her. “Yes, I'm talking about you. Don't you be looking at me with those eyes. You know who you are and what you done.”
Three of them started shoving through the crowd, moving toward her, when a big man stepped in their path and the scene exploded. Punches were thrown. Yelling and cursing. People nearby were moving away as fast as they could, except for the ones who were piling on.
And I watched with shock at how fast it happened. And fascination. It happened so fast, I didn't even have time to be scared.
In the melee I spotted a familiar face. Deandra. She was moving backwards, away from the fight, toward another girl I couldn't see well. I tried to go talk to her but I couldn't push through. Then the fight shifted, the crowd moved and she was gone.
It was over as fast as it began. People pulled the fighters apart and dragged them away but not before the angry woman walked up to one of the original boys and threw a punch of her own.
Does it make me a bad person to say I admired it?
Friends led her away but I could hear her response. “I showed them. I showed them. I did it.”
The friend who was pulling on her arm snapped, “I suppose you didn't see the gun one of them had in his hand? You one crazy-ass woman.”
Up and away from the confusion, Zora was still at the mic, looking shaken. The police officer was shouting to everyone to calm down while his uniformed colleagues were rapidly positioning themselves to be ready for more.
“Dear neighbors. Dear neighbors.” Zora's clergyman was trying to be heard, and after the third try, the turmoil started to subside. “No one could argue that our neighborhood is permeated with violence and our own children are the victims even when they are also the perpetrators. Maybe today will make a difference. Maybe some of our children are hearing what we say and will find another road. Maybe some of our politicians will hear us and see they have to do better. You see we have news cameras here? So let them hear us saying we want change.”
The congressman said, “This is how it works.” He made a sweeping gesture, including all the assembled crowd. “You got to make some noise. You got to show up. You got to keep asking. No, demanding. And you got to vote. I hear from the people on this platform that this is just the beginning. Maybe next we take the message right over there across the river to City Hall. Who's in?”
The response approached a roar and I wondered what would happen next. The reverend gave a benediction, praying for Savanna and all the children, and the choir sang them out with Savanna's favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
They put their full choir voices into it, and I have to admit, when they hit, “Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light,” I was singing along.
As people began to disperse along the side streets, I saw the lines of cops spreading out too. Keeping an eye on whatever would happen next? It was a lot of people, some of them short-fused, and some armed, and most of them worked up.
I stayed put, waiting for the crowds to thin out and I could head for the subway without fighting through.
It was Mr. Wilson from the library, along with Ms. Talbot and a few other people I recognized by sight. Mr. Wilson carried a sign.
“You came all the way out here to stand up for Savanna? Well, welcome.” Ms. Talbot shook my hand. “As you see we all decided to come together, representing. These crowds make me a little nervous. Of course our pages went with their friends. Some of these kids here seem to think this is an outing.” She shook her head. “I've seen groups talking and laughing. And drinking. At this hour! But our library workers are pretty shaken up.”
“I saw Deandra! She was backing away from the fight and didn't see me. And I couldn't get to her.”
âYou saw Deandra? Are you sure? Really sure it was her?”
“Well, yes.” I thought about it. “Yes, it was her. I saw her face, and also those crazy hot-pink sneakers. What's surprising about that? She was a friend of Savanna, right? So she came out today.”
“Deandra been missing these three days.”
“I don't understand.”
“She hasn't been to work, not since the day you was there, and the other kids don't seem to know one thing about where she at.” Wilson was frowning. “Her mama is off in la-la land most of the time and didn't even know she wasn't around.”
Ms. Talbot nodded. “It's not like Deandra, either. She âs one of the more responsible kids we've ever had, too scared not to toe the line, I think. But I was all set to chew her up after she missed one day. And then she missed more.”
But she called me. I almost said it and then thought it might still be her secret.
“We called her number and her mother seemed like she never even noticed. Couldn't even say when she last saw her.”
“How you just misplace a child? You know what I'm saying? I lived here my whole life, and my momma before, but some of these foolsâ¦”
I would never have said it, but I kind of agreed. Just how do you misplace a child? And when did I need to tell someone I had heard from her? Was she in trouble, or actually hiding safely?
Ms. Talbot said, “Her mom came by one time and Deandra seemed embarrassed. Anyway, she seemed to be saying Deandra was old enough to do her own thing. When she most certainly was not.”
“You want to come meet Savanna's mother?” Wilson pointed to the little group near the platform, talking away. “We going over to say hello, payâ¦hell, no. I don't want to be saying âpay respects.' Sounds too much likeâ¦you know. And don't want to be saying that either.”
“Wilson, maybe you just want to not talk for a minute. We are all so upset. Anyway, do you want to come see her with us? You'd be welcome.”
I did want to go with them
Zora had said I should come say hello. And I didn't want to talk about Deandra any more, until I could figure out what to do. I worried that my advice got her into some kind of trouble. I knew there were dozens of other ways to get into trouble around there, but still.
So we walked through the thinning crowd and waited, a little off to the side, until Zora broke off her intense conversation. Up close, she didn't look like the firebrand on the stage. She looked exhausted but her face lit up when she saw our little group.
“Why, it's the library right here!” There were hugs all around. She stopped when she saw me. She looked me over and took her time about it. “Well, damn, if it isn't the little white girl from that bogus sociology class! Isn't it? Live and in person. You haven't changed much.”
She turned back to the rest of the group. “Thank you all for coming. We must believe that everyone's voice matters, we must, or we just lose the way altogether. And wouldn't my Savvie be mad at me if that happened?”
“Well, you know we are all praying for her. Every day. Now we got to get back to open up the library. Ms. Donato, would you like to walk with us and we'll take you over to the train station?”
“Erica.” Zora turned back to me. “I'm tied up here with all these people.” She smiled at me. “Men in suits. After all these years, they're still with us.” I smiled back. “We'll be talking.”
There were many knots of people, talking and arguing, even though the street was now open to traffic. They were excited, revved up, rallying, with loud, excited talk and flamboyant, excited gestures. Out of the buzz of conversation, voices rose. Sometimes a louder single voice could be heard.
“I say we be demonstrating every day AT City Hall until they pay attention. There other ways to send a message than just talking.” Then all his friends started talking at once and I had no idea what came next.
A couple of teenagers walked near me. “You ever been to City Hall?”
“Aw, hell no.”
“City jail more like it than City Hall.”
The first boy hand wrestled the second. “You know it. I don't even know how to get to City Hall, don't know where it's at.”
Someone screamed out, “My purse! She got my purse!” She was an old lady but she moved fast in pursuit. One of the many cops moved faster and soon had a young woman collared in one hand and the purse in the other. She continued to shout, “They always be picking on me. Think I'm too old to fight back. What am I?” she shouted to the struggling young woman. “Do I look like an ATM to you? Now do I? Your mama know what you been up to?”
The cops spoke quietly and she answered, “Hell, yes, I want to press charges. This is the third time this month.”
Who would snatch a purse right in front of a precinct, with cops all over the block? I remembered Mike telling me that most everyday criminals are really quite stupid.
It seemed as if the whole place, where the crowd should have been dispersing, was on the boil. I wondered what would happen next. Was there a next? I was glad to be walking in company.
We passed a small, dark, unpromising lunch counter and both Ms. Talbot and Wilson said they'd like to stop to pick up a sandwich. “No other place between here and work. Even a McDonald's would be an improvement.”
Counter stools and the few tables were filled with neighborhood men. Rough clothes. Rough language. One man with his head on a table sleeping off a hangover or a long night on the night shift somewhere. Ms. Talbot and I were the only women in the place, and I was the only white person. Some of the men at the counter stared hard and cold at me, but most were deeply absorbed in their coffee and eggs.
I stood there pretending to be at ease. While I did, I overheard two men, one behind the counter working, and one on a stool. The one behind the counter was big, wearing a grease-stained white tee-shirt. His friend was skinny, snaky, in a black leather jacket. They were discussing a fight.
An overflow of something from the demonstration? Some gang activity? Gangs came and went here; this was a time they were coming back strongly. I was curious, fascinated, a little sickened by the discussion of more violence. And trying hard not to stare.
Finally the big guy behind the counter said, “Wait till Friday night. I'm gonna whip his ass because he don't know nothing about playing chess.”
I didn't smile. I didn't want them to know I had been eavesdropping. Not that I had a choice, the place was so small. But I was smiling inside.
Sandwiches bought, we went back out, crossing the street that had been filled with a crowd earlier.
“I know a shortcut,” Wilson said, “right through this project. You'll be all right with me.”
We ate as we walked and then I stepped over to a row of trash cans to drop my bag of scraps and waxed paper.
I moved the cover while I was talking and scarcely looked to toss in my bag. Then I gagged and dropped the cover with a crash. I doubled up on the ground.
“Ms. Donato! Are you all right? Do you need an ambulance?”
I didn't lift my head from my knees. “Too late for that. Too late.”
“Now you stop this. You are scaring me.” Ms. Talbot handed me her soda. “Sip a little.”
“I'm okay. Just shocked. Call 911. And don't go near that trash can.”
So of course they did. Mr. Wilson promptly turned as pale as a dark-skinned man can. Deandra's neon sneakers were sticking out over the top of the can.
“Oh, lord. Oh, lord. Oh, lord!” Ms. Talbot voice shook. “To see thisâ¦.”
“I saw her. I mean, I just saw her, not fifteen minutes ago.” My mind refused to take in what my eyes were seeing. I had seen her when I lifted the trash can lid. She was crumpled, her small body lying upside down on the pile of trash bags. Eyes closed. Hands folded. Legs sticking out, as if someone didn't quite finish the job of hiding her. Blood all over her pink jacket.
I knew I would never forget that sight. I could scrub my brain with bleach and I would not forget it.
“It isn't decent, us staring like this.” She slammed the cover down and called 911. Before we stepped away, she said, “Be at peace, little girl.”
We were a half-block from the precinct, and a team was there in seconds. They asked us questions, separately and together. Others lifted the body. Deandra's body, I thought to myself. Not THE body. HER body. Someone's child. Someone's friend.
They were very interested in my earlier glimpse of her and wanted to know exactly where that was and what I could tell them about the person she was walking toward. Which was precisely nothing.
They wanted to know who she was with, and I was clear that she was alone. They wanted to know what she was doing, and I could not tell them a thing that was helpful. “She was sort of pushing through the crowd, toward the outside of the demo.”
“Did she seem scared? Was she being followed?”
“I don't know. I didn't see that, it was too crowded. She seemed, well, purposeful. Like she was trying to get somewhere.”
“Meeting someone? That's what you said?”
“Could be but I can't say I know for sure.”
“Anyway,” Ms. Talbot chimed in from a few feet away. “Anyway, she always looked scared. She was a very timid child.”
Finally they were done and let us go. We looked at each other, at a loss for what should come next.
Finally, Ms. Talbot said, “We go back to the library and I have to call admin on this. And we call you a car, missy. No subway this afternoon.”
“And then we close down the library out of respect.”
“No we don't! She was not killed thereâI can't believe I am even saying these wordsâand our users need us to be open. But I have another idea.”
That is how I found myself helping to make a big poster in Ms. Talbot's office. It said, “We are in mourning for our library assistant, Deandra Phillips, who was killed this morning in/near the demonstration. If you know anything about this, call this number. Do it now.”
It went right on the door.
Ms. Talbot had told the rest of the staff first thing. They cried. She said, “Stop crying. You need to think about Deandra. Anything she might have said, any time you saw her in these days she disappeared. Cops will be here doing their job, askingâat least I hope so!âso you all need to dig into your brain. Wilson, call Ms. Donato a car, will you?”
“Already done. Got a friend driving for First Class Cabs.”
“Ha. It won't be first class, I promise, and it won't be a licensed cab either, but it will get you home. Probably not just what you're used to.”
Who did they think I was? “What I'm used to is the subway. I never take car service, legal or otherwise, because I can't afford it.”
“Today you can.”
I normally reacted to being bossed around with an immediate desire to do the opposite, no matter what, but a car seemed so appealing just then. And Ms. Talbot's take charge behavior felt like being mothered.
Wilson walked me to the car, helped me in and said to the driver, “Take care of her. She's good people.”
He nodded and said, “Have her home in fifteen if the traffic ain't too bad.” Those were the only words he uttered the whole drive and that was fine with me. I could not have responded to a chatty driver just then. I could not even have been polite.
I barely saw anything on the drive home. I could not have said what route he took, if there was traffic, was I seeing a different part of the neighborhood. Some silly part of my brain thought about how disappointed in me my dad would be, not to notice what a cab driver was doing.
The main part of my mind was thinking about Deandra. I looked around for my purse, where I always have a small notebook, and had a moment of panic before I remembered I had not brought it. So I thought and thought and didn't write.
How could her mother have lost track of her for several days?
She was killed by a gunshot. I heard the cops talking, but I had also seen the blood. They thought it was probably the cheap pistol always available on the streets. It was either murder or she was caught in the cross fire of someone else's life. A gang beef, a drug deal gone wrong, a romantic rivalry. Not at all impossible. But how could she be shot in a crowd and no one noticed?
Or, it was related to Savanna. The two girls were somewhat friends, allowing for the gap in age and personality. Say, friendly. And Deandra knew something secret about Savanna. I had told the cops and they seemed interested in that connection to Savanna.
Of course they were. Savanna's beating was an unsolved crime that was becoming very high profile. I wondered how they would pursue it. With Deandra dead, did anyone else know Savanna's secrets?
Well, someone must. Another, closer friend of Savanna. Or one of Deandra's friends. Girls talk. They can keep secrets when they need to, but normally they tell each other everything. I thought about Chris and her friends. I was betting someone in Savanna's life knew all about the secrets she held. Deandra could not have been the only one.
Unless she had been caught in random crossfire after all. I was back to that. I was glad it was not my problem to solve, though I knew I would not stop thinking about it. How could I? I had never seen a victim of violence before. I'd seen my husband when I identified him after the accident. My mother in her hospital bed. But this was the first time with deliberate death, blood and gore, a child. I closed my eyes there in the decrepit cab and all I could see were those sneakers.
At home, I hugged my daughter so fiercely she struggled out.
“Mom, what's wrong?” And before I could get “Nothing” out, she added, “And don't you dare say nothing. You're
stress.” So I told the truth while she held my hand. When I was done, she hugged me. I did not struggle out.
“Poor Mom! You need a cup of cocoa. Or a drink? There's some Scotch in the cabinet. You sit right here.”
The cocoa was grainy with undissolved powder and not hot enough, but it seemed perfect to me. And it didn't hit me until much later that I should have questioned her knowledge about the Scotch. Perhaps it was time for a better hiding place? But not now.