A celebration of life. Today was her beautiful daughter-in-laws baby shower. It was their third child together and the woman had absolutely no intention of missing this event. She felt there had been enough she missed already.
Her grandchildren were growing up fast and between the initial distance between homes; her son joining the army; the family moving all the way down South, his deployment overseas; she felt left out of their lives.
It wasn’t intentional.
It was life kicking her in the pockets which prevented her from hopping a flight or driving down South. But not now. She was making the kind of salary which allowed her to afford visits and helping when needed. Now her son was out of the Army and living an hour outside of Philly with his family. She secured her rental car; picked up a shower gift and felt good that she would be able to see everyone.
She felt upbeat and positive despite her interrupted sleep.
The night before she had been rudely shaken from slumber. This morning merely a bare remembrance of propping up in bed on her elbows; adjusting eyes to light she had forgotten to turn off when she drifted into what she thought was a deep slumber.
Initial thoughts “someone is banging on my wall.” It was strong gusts of wind pushing against the window. Peering at the air conditioner loosely propped in its frame she froze thinking the wind was blowing so angrily that it just may dislodge the AC unit. It was installed last summer on her “I can do this” kick. She meant to have someone strap it in proper but never got around to it.
The wind sounded like it had a morbid objective. Having never heard such a loud aggressive gush of air she began wondering if it were a hurricane. Still half asleep; getting her bearings straight was proving to be a difficult task.
Outside, somewhere far away she heard a strange sound “rattattat tat” then laughter and running. Again “rattatat tat” running and peoples voices sounding so far off in the distance that she thought she was still asleep and dreaming.
Then came the rains.
Water from the heavens washing down in a hardcore dance against walls, pavement, windows and cars. It was an orchestrated tap dance.
Heavy eyelids allowed sleep to defy her curiosity.
In the morning, over cofee, she reminded herself that it had been a little over 3 years since she’d last seen her family. Her son was deployed overseas then transferred from Ft. Knox to Ft. Benning. She watched her grandchildren grow via Skype. Getting to that baby shower and getting there on time was her motivation for the day.
So when she left her apartment that morning to pick up her rental car she was unprepared for what occurred next.
It was a chilly April morning. Around 9 a.m.
An elderly black woman, early fifties; white hair, wearing church clothes walked directly up to her. “Excuse me, do you have a cell phone?” Her voice was commanding. She must have been irriated at the woman’s delayed response.
“Yes baby, a cell phone.” She repeated the words slowly as if the woman was daft. “I need you to call the police and tell them theres a dead body on the street.” She pointed. “Over there, across the street.”
Not fully comprehending, the younger woman repeated the elderly woman’s words. ” Ah..ah…a dead body?”
Grandmotherly aggravation swept over the elders face, head cocked to the side like “heiffer are you deaf?” the elderly woman replied nodding her head as if if were a bouncing ball over the words “Yes baby, a dead body. Call 911.”
The younger woman took out her mobile phone and dialed 9-1-1.
The dispacters voice was nearly immediate. “9-1-1 emergency, what is the nature of your call?”
The younger woman looked at the elderly woman for a sign of a laugh or “gotchu sike.” None came. “I’d like to report a dead body at XX XXXXXXX street. On the corner of XX and XXXXX.
“Ma’am did you say a dead body?” She could hear the dispatcher typing.
“Yes” she answered.
“Ma’am do you know what happened? Can you tell me how this happened?”
The questions freaked her out. She wanted to hang up and proceed to the parking lot to pick up her car. “No, I don’t know…”
“Ma’am, what is he wearing?”
“I’m going to give the phone to the woman that found him. I just let her use my phone. I don’t know how he got there.”
She handed the phone to the elderly woman.
“Oh for Petes sake.” Phone in hand the elderly lady spoke with exasperation. “Hello? Yes, I parked my car because I’m going to church to pray, and when I got out my car I saw him laying on the sidewalk. What? What do you mean what is he wearing? What difference does that make maam! The man is dead Ma’am, send someone out here to investigate.”
The elderly woman pause for a beat.
“Ma’am, what do you mean how do I know he’s dead? He’s not breathing Ma’am. I touched his shoulder to see if I could wake him and he’s as stiff as a board. Won’t you send someone now Ma’am.”
Something about the way she said “ma’am” sounded a lot like “You dumb bitch.”
The elderly woman and borrowed phone started walking off; she motioned to the confused younger woman to follow her.
“They want to know what he is wearing.” her voice was incredulous. “Chyle.”
The younger woman felt trepetation as they crossed the street. She didn’t want to see a dead body. This wasn’t “Stand by Me” this wasn’t a stand in dummy drifter found dead in the woods and she didn’t have a cast of up and coming new artists joining her.
This was the body of a dead man laying on the streets of West Philly, in front of a park where children go to play.
She approached the body slowly. He was laying on his side in an almost bowed position. His arms seemingly protecting his head. He looked as if he had simply lain down to sleep. The sharp tone of the older woman barking into the phone startled her “Ma’am, he’s got on light jeans and a light blue kind of hooded shirt, striped. He’s definately dead ma’am, are you sending…what? Well how should I know, I don’t know this child…” She rolled her eyes and bent closer to the body “about thirty I guess.”
The younger woman’s gaze fell upon the corpse. She disagreed with the church lady’s assessment. She took a deep breath cursed her fears and really looked at the man.
There was a small red trickle of blood from just beneath his hairline to the bottom of his forehead. His still face was weathered and battle worn; Philly beard groomed short, like he had just started growing it; she thought clots had pooled beneath his pores making him appear darker than he had been in life; ; but he wasn’t nearly in his thirties.
Beneath the harsh lines of living hard; beyond his blank dark eyes; she could see softness of stolen youth.
“He’s young” she said quietly “maybe twenty.”
The elderly woman rolled her eyes “what diffrence does it make now sweety?” She went back to concentrating on chastising the dispatch operator. “Ma’am, this is just ridiculous, all these questions, now I done told you the poor man is dead, I’m glad this ain’t my family because this is ridiculous, ya’ll just gonna leave this man laying out here while you keep asking me the dumbest of questions, now are you sending someone or not? I mean is this what ya’ll do? Leave dead people laying about while you pester passerbyers with silly questions? I mean I’m on my way to church to pray, I didn’t ask to step over a dead body on the way. But I did. The only reason I’m staying is because this is somebody’s baby and he shouldn’t be out here all by himself.”
Two elderly black men, dressed in long dapper overcoats and shining shoes walked up. All three clearly went to the same church and were on their way to service. One spoke to the elderly woman.
“Are they bringing someone?”
“I don’t know” she replied “but you best be glad this ain’t my kin on this ground, I’d bring a tree down on these folks the shamefulness of it all!”
She handed the younger woman back her cell phone. “They wanna know your number chyle.”
She gave the dispatcher her number and hung up the phone. Within a matter of moments an ambulance pulled up. The driver a young white man, passenger young black woman. The driver got out of the car and addressed the elderly woman.
“Can you tell me what happened here?”
This set the elderly woman off. “I already done told y’all everything I know, please don’t ask me no more questions sir, I done told ya’ll already!”
Having not been privy to the entire conversation which took place before arriving to the scene, the EMT driver was clearly taken aback by the elderly woman’s aggressive demeanor.
He’d just pulled up on a scene with four adults and one dead man. He didn’t know who knew the deceased, or whether someone standing here had committed the crime. He addressed the elderly woman. “Ma’am I have a job to do, I’m just trying to ascertain what transpired here. I don’t know who you spoke with or what was said; but you will probably be asked the same questions again by me and then the police.” He bent down and tapped the dead man on his shoulder. “Sir!”
The elderly woman rolled her eyes and with a sweeping gesture akin to a Price is Right model, pointed down to the boy on the sidewalk as if he were the prize assigned upon spinning the wheel. “You can’t see the boy is dead?”
Hopping out of the truck, putting on purple gloves, the other EMT walked over to the body. Together they rolled him halfway on his back. His arms and legs stayed in the same position. It looked like they were moving a storefront mannequin. The woman EMT reached into the dead man’s pocket and removed what looked like his drivers license. “Twenty-one” she muttered to herself.
Short blips of a police siren could be heard in the distance. Four squad cars rolled casually onto the street. Multiple officers walked to the scene.
This was not like television.
No one was clearly in charge; no one approached the body; no oddly attractive well endowed female detective with bright red pouty lips and glock hanging off her hip; no clever socially awkward male detective with a chip on his shoulder and secret in his heart. No quickfix theories thrown out. No one quickly solved the crime. They all just sort of meandered about until the coroner pulled up.
After explaining to the police that she’d just loaned her phone to call 911″ the young woman was free to go.
Free but not released.
Sitting in the drivers seat of her rental, the image of that young man discarded on the sidewalk harvested inside her brain; entangled within vines of thought.
Our past is steeped blindly in discarding life on this planet. Cain slaying Abel, Slaves thrown overboard during the Diaspora, Indians slaughtered during the European colonization of North America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atrocities of Rwanda, nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Pinochet’s regime, Jewish prisoners led to death showers. The list seemed unending.
A young man, pushed by the winds of night, into the hands of a culprit brandishing the sharp end of a knife. In the cold, on the cold hard concrete. Alone. He died.
Dead has become such a part of reality that it’s reality is no longer real.
Television, movies, online streaming and video games play with death. Zombies, the undead, military missions and shooting sprees in imaginary cities are glorified. The gorier the better. Dying is a sport and the more points you garner; the stronger you are perceived.
There simply isn’t a regard for human life historically; so how do we instill, in our children, a responsibility to be our brothers keepers now?
If only we could project into the minds eye of a collective generation that the lifeless body of a human being is nothing a computer can generate.
Let them see this John Doe. Life sized paper doll; skin thinned: air in lungs vacant, mouth speechless; eyes sightless.
Let them know there was no peace there.
Only sad neglect and wasted potential banished into oblivion; to be toe tagged zip locked, tossed and forgotten.
The children are watching; what shall we show them?
On the left side of our mouths we’re discussing the merits of waterboarding to gain terrorist information; on the right side of our mouths we’re touting the horrors of spanking your child. That child grows up with a complex that says “you can’t hit me it’s against the law; but I can destroy you if I choose…it’s my constitutional right.”
Where do they turn for comforting answers?
How do we talk about the sancity of human life when we hardly practice but remain in a steadfast preach?
Death only becomes real to the aggreived.
There is a dead person discarded in the streets of West Philly. Found by a church woman who fussed to get the police there yet never prayed over the child.
Somewhere today, tonight, tomorrow more lives will be taken. Whether wordlessly or through argument, in a fit of rage or revenge, over turf or flesh, slights imagined and real.
As she turned the ignition putting her car into gear, she wondered what impact it would be if all the angry young men and women could happen upon the sight that she had seen. Then would they be so quick to end a life? Pull a trigger, plunge a knife? Would they be so quick to consume a poisonious deception designed to take away pain?
Would they still allow terror to reign?
Pulling onto the highway grateful to be driving towards celebrating the life of an unborn grandchild she knew she would make it her mission to convince a broken people the merits of understanding emotions are fleeting; death is permanent and eulogies are a poor excuse for resolution.