Sunday began with a late morning call from Claire, another stilted chat she initiated only to tell me what time she would be home. I suggested we have dinner at our favorite restaurant, but she was not in the mood. I didn't ask her if anything was wrong. We were beyond that.
Since our apartment was on the third floor, I had been unable to make satisfactory arrangements to have the Sunday Post home-delivered. We had tried various methods, but I never found the paper half the time.
I showered and dressed in layers. The weatherman predicted a high of twenty-five, and as I was getting ready to leave the apartment the newsperson ratfled off the morning's top story. It stopped me cold; I heard the words, but they didn't register immediately. I walked closer to the TV on the kitchen counter, my feet heavy, my heart frozen, my mouth open in shock and disbelief.
Sometime around 11 P.M., D.C. police found a small car near Fort Totten Park, in Northeast, in a war zone. It was parked on the street, its bald tires stuck in the frozen slush. Inside were a young mother and her four children, all dead from asphyxiation. The police suspected the family lived in the car, and was trying to stay warm. The automobile's tailpipe was buried in a pile of snow plowed from the street. A few details, but no names.
I raced to the sidewalk, sliding in the snow but staying on my feet, then down P Street to Wisconsin, over to Thirty-fourth to a newsstand. Out of breath and horrified, I grabbed a paper. On the bottom comer of the front page was the story, obviously thrown in at the last minute. No names.
! yanked open Section A, dropping the rest of the paper onto the wet sidewalk. The story continued on page fourteen with a few standard comments from the police and the predictable warnings about the dangers of clogged tailpipes. Then the heartbreaking details: The mother was twenty-two. Her name was Lontae Burton. The baby was Temeko. The toddlers, Alonzo and Dante, were twins, age two. The big brother was Ontario, age four.
I must have made a strange sound, because a jogger gave me an odd look, as if I might be dangerous. I began walking away, holding the paper open, stepping on the other twenty sections.
"Excuse me!" a nasty voice called from behind. "Would you like to pay for that?" I kept walking.
He approached from the rear and yelled, "Hey, pal!" I stopped long enough to pull a five-dollar bill from my pocket and throw it at his feet, hardly looking at him.
On P, near the apartment, I leaned on a brick retaining wall in front of someone's splendid rowhouse. The sidewalk had been meticulously shoveled. I read the story again, slowly, hoping that somehow the ending would be different. Thoughts and questions came in torrents, and I couldn't keep up with them. But two repeated themselves: Why didn't they return to the shelter? And, did the baby die wrapped in my denim jacket?
Thinking was burden enough. Walking was almost impossible. After the shock, the guilt hit hard. Why didn't I do something Friday night when I first saw them? I could have taken them to a warm motel and fed them.
The phone was ringing when I entered my apartment. It was Mordecai. He asked if I'd seen the story. I asked if he remembered the wet diaper. Same family, I said. He'd never heard their names. I told him more about my encounter with Ontario.
"I'm very sorry, Michael," he said, much sadder now.
"So am I."
I couldn't say much, the words wouldn't form, so we agreed to meet later. I went to the sofa, where I remained for an hour without moving.
Then I went to my car and removed the bags of food and toys and clothing I'd bought for them.
* * *
Only because he was curious, Mordecai came to my office at noon. He'd been in plenty of big firms in his time, but he wanted to see the spot where Mister fell. I gave him a brief tour with a quick narration of the hostage affair.
We left in his car. I was thankful for the light Sunday traffic because Mordecai had no interest in what the other cars were doing.
"Lontae Burton's mother is thirty-eight years old, serving a ten-year sentence for selling crack," he informed me. He'd been on the phone. "Two brothers, both in jail. Lontae had a history of prostitution and drugs. No idea of who the father, or fathers, might be."
"Who's your source?"
"I found her grandmother in a housing project. The last time she saw Lontae she had only three kids, and she was selling drugs with her mother. According to the grandmother, she cut her ties with her daughter and granddaughter because of the drug business."
"Who buries them?"
"Same people who buried DeVon Hardy."
"How much would a decent funeral cost?"
"It's negotiable. Are you interested?"
"I'd like to see them taken care of."
We were on Pennsylvania Avenue, moving past the mammoth office buildings of Congress, the Capitol in the background, and I couldn't help but offer a silent curse or two at the fools who wasted billions each month while people were homeless. How could four innocent children die in the streets, practically in the shadow of the Capitol, because they had no place to live?
They shouldn't have been born, some people from my side of town would say.
The bodies had been taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which also housed the morgue. It was a two-story brown aggregate building at D.C. General Hospital. They would be held there until claimed. If no one came forward within forty-eight hours, they would receive a mandatory embalming, be placed in wooden caskets, and quickly buried in the cemetery near RFK.
Mordecai parked in a handicapped space, paused for a second, and said, "Are you sure you want to go in?"
"I think so."
He'd been there before, and he had called ahead. A security guard in an ill-fitting uniform dared to stop us, and Mordecai snapped so loud it scared me. My stomach was in knots anyway.
The guard retreated, happy to get away from us. A set of plate-glass doors had the word MORGUE painted in black. Mordecai entered as if he owned the place.
"I'm Mordecai Green, attorney for the Burton family," he growled at the young man behind the desk. It was more of a challenge than an announcement.
The young man checked a clipboard, then fumbled with some more papers.
"What the hell are you doing?" Mordecai snapped again.
The young man looked up with an attitude, and then realized how large his adversary really was. "Just a minute," he said, and went to his computer.
Mordecai turned to me and said loudly, "You'd think they have a thousand dead bodies in there."
I realized that he had no patience whatsoever with bureaucrats and government workers, and I remembered his story about the apology from the Social Securety secretary. For Mordecai, half of the practice of law was bullying and barking.
A pale gentleman with badly dyed black hair and a clammy handshake appeared and introduced himself as Bill. He wore a blue lab jacket and shoes with thick rubber soles. Where do they find people to work in a morgue?
We followed him through a door, down a sterile hallway where the temperature began dropping, and, finally, to the main holding room.
"How many you got today?" Mordecai asked, as if he stopped by all the time to count bodies.
Bill turned the doorknob and said, "Twelve."
"You okay?" Mordecai asked me.
"I don't know."
Bill pushed the metal door, and we stepped in. The air was frigid, the smell antiseptic. The floor was white tile, the lighting blue fluorescent. I followed Mordecai, my head down, trying not to look around, but it was impossible. The bodies were covered from head to ankle with white sheets, just like you see on television. We passed a set of white feet, a tag around a toe. Then some brown ones.
We turned and stopped in a corner, a gurney to the left, a table to the right.
Bill said, "Lontae Burton," and dramatically pulled the sheet down to her waist. It was Ontario's mother all right, in a plain white gown. Death had left no marks on her face. She could've been sleeping. I couldn't stop staring at her.
"That's her," Mordecai said, as if he'd known her for years. He looked at me for verification, and I managed a nod. Bill wheeled around, and I held my breath. Only one sheet covered the children.
They were lying in a perfect row, tucked closely together, hands folded over their matching gowns, cherubs sleeping, little street soldiers finally at peace.
I wanted to touch Ontario, to pat him on the arm and tell him I was sorry. I wanted to wake him up, take him home, feed him, and give him everything he could ever want.
I took a step forward for a closer look. "Don't touch," Bill said.
When I nodded, Mordecai said, "That's them."
As Bill covered them, I closed my eyes and said a short prayer, one of mercy and forgiveness. Don't let it happen again, the Lord said to me.
In a room down the hall, Bill pulled out two large wire baskets containing the personal effects of the family. He dumped them on a table, and we helped him inventory the contents. The clothing they wore was dirty and threadbare. My denim jacket was the nicest item they owned. There were three blankets, a purse, some cheap toys, baby formula, a towel, more dirty clothes, a box of vanilla wafers, an unopened can of beer, some cigarettes, two condoms, and about twenty dollars in bills and change.
"The car is at the city lot," Bill said. "They say it's full of junk."
"We'll take care of it," Mordecai said.
We signed the inventory sheets, and left with the personal assets of the Lontae Burton family. "What do we do with this stuff?." I asked.
"Take it to the grandmother. Do you want your coat back?"
* * *
The funeral parlor was owned by a minister Mordecai knew. He didn't like him because the Reverend's church was not friendly enough to the homeless, but he could deal with him.
We parked in front of the church, on Georgia Avenue near Howard University, a cleaner part of town without as many boards over windows.
"It's best if you stay here," he said. "I can talk to him a lot plainer if we're alone."
I didn't want to sit in the car by myself, but by then I trusted him with my life anyway. "Sure," I said, sinking a few inches and glancing around. "You'll be all right."
He left, and I locked the doors. After a few minutes, I relaxed, and began to think. Mordecai wanted to be alone with the minister for business reasons. My presence would've complicated matters. Who was I and what was my interest in the family? The price would rise immediately.
The sidewalk was busy. I watched the people scurry by, the wind cutting them sharply. A mother with two children passed me, bundled in nice clothing, all holding hands. Where were they last night when Ontario and family were huddled in the frigid car, breathing the odorless carbon monoxide until they floated away? Where were the rest of us?
The world was shutting down. Nothing made sense. In less than a week, I had seen six dead street people, and I was ill-equipped to handle the shock. I was an educated white lawyer, well fed and affluent, on the fast track to serious wealth and all the wonderful things it would buy. Sure the marriage was over, but I would bounce back. There were plenty of fine women out there. I had no serious worries.
I cursed Mister for derailing my life. I cursed Mordecai for making me feel guilty. And Ontario for breaking my heart.
A knock on the window jolted me. My nerves were shot to hell anyway. It was Mordecai, standing in the snow next to the curb. I cracked the window.
"He says he'll do it for two thousand bucks, all five."
"Whatever," I said, and he disappeared.
Moments later he was back, behind the wheel and speeding away. "The funeral will be wednesday, here at the church. Wooden caskets, but nice ones. He'll get some flowers, you know, make it look nice. He wanted three thousand, but I convinced him that there would be some press, so he might get himself on television. He liked that. Two thousand isn't bad."
"Are you okay?"
We said little as we drove back to my office.
* * *
Claire's younger brother James had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease--thus the family summit in Providence. It had nothing to do with me. I listened to her talk about the weekend, the shock of the news, the tears and prayers as they leaned on each other and comforted James and his wife. Hers is a family of huggers and criers, and I was thrilled she had not called me to come up. The treatment would start immediately; the prognosis was good.
She was happy to be home, and relieved to have someone to unload on. We sipped wine in the den, by the fire, a quilt over our feet. It was almost romantic, though I was too scarred to even think of being sentimental. I made a valiant effort at hearing her words, grieving appropriately for poor James, interjecting fitting little phrases.
This was not what I had expected, and I wasn't sure if it was what I wanted. I thought we might shadowbox, perhaps even skirmish. Soon it had to get ugly, then hopefully turn civil as we handled our separation like real adults. But after Ontario, I was not prepared to deal with any issue involving emotion. I was drained. She kept telling me how tired I looked. I almost thanked her.
I listened hard until she finished, then the conversation slowly drifted to me and my weekend. I told her everything--my new life as a volunteer in the shelters, then Ontario and his family. I showed her the story in the paper.
She was genuinely moved, but also puzzled. I was not the same person I'd been a week earlier, and she was not sure she liked the latest version any better than the old. I was not sure either.