"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.
As young workaholics, Claire and I did not need alarm clocks, especially for Monday mornings, when we faced an entire week of challenges. We were up at five, eating cereal at five-thirty, then off in separate directions, practically racing to see who could leave first.
Because of the wine, I had managed to sleep without being haunted by the nightmare of the weekend. And as I drove to the office, I was determined to place some distance between myself and the street people. I would endure the funeral. I would somehow find the time to do pro bono work for the homeless. I would pursue my friendship with Mordecai, probably even become a regular in his office. I would drop in occasionally on Miss Dolly and help her feed the hungry. I would give money and help raise more of it for the poor. Certainly I could be more valuable as a source of funds than as another poverty lawyer.
Driving in the dark to the office, I decided that I needed a string of eighteen-hour days to readjust my priorities. My career had suffered a minor derailment; an orgy of work would straighten things out. Only a fool would jump away from the gravy train I was riding.
I chose a different elevator from Mister's. He was history; I shut him out of my mind. I did not look at the conference room where he died. I threw my briefcase and coat on a chair in my office and went for coffee. Bouncing down the hallway before six in the morning, speaking to a colleague here, a clerk there, removing my jacket, rolling up my sleeves it was great to be back.
I scanned The Wall Street Journal first, partly because I knew it would have nothing to do with dying street people in D.C. Then, the Post. On the front page of the Metro section, there was a small story about Lontae Burton's family, with a photo of her grandmother weeping outside an apartment building. I read it, then put it aside. I knew more than the reporter, and I was determined not to be distracted.
Under the Post was a plain manila legal-sized file, the kind our firm used by the millions. It was unmarked, and that made it suspicious. It was just lying there, ex posed, on the center of my desk, placed there by some anonymous person. I opened it slowly.
There were only two sheets of paper inside. The first was a copy of yesterday's story in the Post, the same one I'd read ten times and shown to Claire last night. Under it was a copy of something lifted from an official Drake & Sweeney file. The heading read: EVICTEES--RIVEROAKS/TAG, INC.
The left-hand column contained the numbers one through seventeen. Number four was DeVon Hardy. Number fifteen read: Lontae Burton, and three or four children.
I slowly laid the file on the desk, stood and walked to the door, locked it, then leaned on it. The first couple of minutes passed in absolute silence. I stared at the file in tile center of the desk. I had to assume it was true and accurate. Why would anyone fabricate such a thing? Then I picked it up again, carefully. Under the second sheet of paper, on the inside of the file itself, my anonymous informant had scribbled with a pencil: The eviction was legally and ethically wrong.
It was printed in block letters, in an effort to avoid detection should I have it analyzed. The markings were faint, the lead hardly touching the file.
* * *
I kept the door locked for an hour, during which time I took tums standing at the window watching the sunrise and sitting at my desk staring at the file. The traffic increased in the hallway, and then I heard Polly's voice. I unlocked the door, greeted her as if everything was swell, and proceeded to go through the motions.