IT’S NEVER EASY LOOKING INTO the face of a dead kid.
Eyes that should be tracking a fastball or twinkling with mischief, shut forever. The mouth—perfectly suited for spittin’ out rhymes, lame homework excuses, or jokes about yo’ mama—never to be heard from again.
Douglas William Lee was two months shy of his seventeenth birthday when he was murdered, and he used to be one of mine. He was in my class for two years—about three hundred and sixty school days—and I filled his head with math, literature, history, and science. He’d sit there and sometimes bitch and moan about the work and “Why we hafta learn this stuff anyways?” and turn around to cut on his friends, but he did the work and learned the stuff and showed up to my class every day. His mom made sure of that because she wasn’t going to let Douglas William Lee make the same mistakes his father had.
I folded my hands in front of me and stood there, looking down at Dougie, lifeless in his casket, wondering what mistakes had led to this. What the hell could this boy have done to cause someone to stick a blade in him over and over again and let him bleed out on the cold, dark tennis courts under the Williamsburg Bridge? I stared at the gold crucifix Dougie’s mom must have put around her dead son’s neck. Right. Where the hell was Jesus when Dougie needed a little salvation?
Teachers know. We only have these kids for a short time. We throw a whole bunch of knowledge at them and hope more sticks than falls away. They have no idea what life’s going to bring, so our job is to prepare them the best we can, and then we let them go. I had last seen Dougie about a year and a half ago when he swung by my room on the last day of school to pick up his diploma. He shook my hand, thanked me for everything I’d done for him, and promised to come back and visit. He never did.
Most don’t. They get caught up in high school, relationships, and family stuff. Before they know it, a year and a half has gone by and the last thing on their minds is looking back. That’s the way it should be. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in seeing the results of all my time and effort every once in a while.
More than a few of the kids who graduate from my middle school never make it through high school. There are too many distractions and temptations when you come of age in and around the projects of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You can go on up to the roof of your building and stare across the river at Manhattan—minutes away by bus or train—the skyline tempting you with the promise of adventure and excitement. You see too many examples of folks who are “gettin’ by” with no education and no jobs, and too few role models who’ve chosen to stick with the hard work.
Dougie was going to be different.
With the help of his uncle, he’d received a scholarship to one of the top private schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Dougie had all the things a private school looks for when handing out free rides: a reading disability, a single mom, and brown skin. Exactly the kind of student whose smiling face you put in the glossy brochures and slick slide shows when asking wealthy New Yorkers to part with some of their hard-earned Wall Street cash. Dougie was going to be a success story people on both sides of the river would want to take credit for.
And now someone had taken all that away.
I knew whose voice it was before I turned. I’d listened to it many times during the two years I’d had her son. She was dressed in black and around her neck she wore a crucifix identical to her son’s. Mrs. Lee reached out and grabbed my hands, and as she squeezed them, I watched her tired eyes—Dougie’s eyes—fill with tears.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said, her voice catching slightly. “You meant so much to Douglas.”
“And him to me,” I said. “I … I don’t know what to say, Mrs. Lee.”
She squeezed my hands a little tighter and gave them a small shake. “There’s nothing to say, Mr. Donne. We just have to trust the good Lord has a plan and Douglas is a part of it.” She closed her eyes and fought off a pained look that threatened to take over her face. “I just can’t imagine what that plan would be though, Mr. Donne. I truly can’t. He was not even … my baby boy was…”
Dougie’s mother collapsed, and I surprised myself by catching her. Before my knees gave in to the weight and we both hit the carpet, I was able to guide her small frame to a seat a few feet away from her son’s casket. We were immediately surrounded by a group of women who had been gathered somewhere nearby.
“What happened?” one of them asked, glaring at me, as if whatever had happened must have been the fault of the only white guy in the room.
Before I could answer, another woman, armed with a funeral home fan and a glass of water, said, “The poor dear’s had enough is all, Wanda.” The woman gave me an apologetic look as she fanned Mrs. Lee. “She has had enough.”
We all watched as Mrs. Lee took a sip of water, followed by a few deep breaths, and slowly opened her eyes. A small sense of calm returned to her face and she looked slightly embarrassed by all the attention.
“I’m fine, ladies,” she said. “Thank you.” She blinked a few times before adding, “I would like to talk to Mr. Donne alone now, please.”
Wanda gave me the glare again. “You sure about that, Gloria?”
“Yes, Wanda. I’m sure.” Then to the group, “Now why don’t you all get some more tea and cookies. I’ll be fine.”
The women mumbled among themselves for a while before each one reached out and touched a part of Mrs. Lee. After a few more reassurances and words of condolence, they walked silently to the back of the room. Wanda never took her eyes off me until she disappeared through the door.
As I waited for Mrs. Lee to compose herself, I looked at the Mass card I had picked up at the door. The Lord’s Prayer was printed on one side and a smiling picture of Dougie was on the other. My throat tightened as I read his date of birth and the date he entered his “Eternal Rest.” I turned to look at him again, lying in the casket. He didn’t look at rest to me. He just looked dead.
“I thought I’d be stronger than that, Mr. Donne,” Mrs. Lee said. “I apologize.”
“You have more strength than I would have, Mrs. Lee.” I sat down next to her. It was too hot in this room, and the aroma of flowers was overpowering. No wonder she almost hit the floor. Smells like Heaven, my uncle would say at family wakes. But it’s hotter than Hell. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Thank you.” She took another sip of water and let it work its magic before she spoke again. “You know how Douglas was killed?”
“Only what I read in the paper and saw on the news.” I was lying. I knew much more than that because I had made a phone call to an old friend whose precinct was on the other side of the river.
“Stabbed,” she said bluntly. “Eleven times. The police didn’t want to tell me, but I made them. Eleven times, Mr. Donne. What’s that say to you?”
I wondered if the police had told her about the twelfth wound: a two-inch shallow scratch just below his jawline, possibly made by a different weapon.
“Are you asking me as a teacher,” I said, “or because I used to be a cop?”
She looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m asking you.”
I took a deep breath of my own and chose my next words carefully. “It tells me someone was real angry with Dougie, Mrs. Lee.”
“Powerful angry,” she said. “You know about what the police found around Douglas’s neck?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t.” Another lie. The cops didn’t give this piece of information out to the papers, but my guy had tipped me to it.
“Purple and gold beads. Mardi Gras beads.”
The colors of the Royal Family. An up-and-coming local gang known to work the public housing projects on both sides of the Williamsburg Bridge.
“And they tell me they found some marijuana. Stuffed in his socks. Five little bags.” She closed her eyes again. “Know what they told me then?”
I knew exactly what they’d told her, because I probably would have told her the same thing. But I knew Dougie. What I didn’t know … what I’d been thinking about since the call to my buddy … was why someone would go to the trouble of making it look like—
“Douglas’s murder was the result of some drug deal gone bad.” She reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and held it with both hands. “Now, Lord knows, Douglas was no angel. He’d stay out past curfew, be up too late talking to friends on his computer, and he’d even been sassin’ me a bit lately. But my boy was not in any gang. And he had nothing to do with dealing drugs.”
“The police sometimes show a disappointing lack of imagination,” I said. “They see what’s right in front of them and don’t always see the value in looking beyond that.”
“You do that when you were a policeman?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Then I got tired of too many unanswered questions.”
“Is that why you left?”
That and a four-story drop from a fire escape. “Pretty much,” I said.
“Well, they lost a good man when they lost you, Mr. Donne.” Before I could correct her, she added, “And now I need your help.”
I knew this was where I was supposed to say something along the lines of, “Whatever I can do,” but honestly, I didn’t know what I could do.
“I got a lot of unanswered questions, Mr. Donne. I also got a bad feeling they’re going to stay that way unless someone asks them for me.”
“Someone like me?” I repeated. “I’m a schoolteacher now, Mrs. Lee. The police are not going to just—”
“Douglas told me how you helped get that boy … Frankie … how you helped get him home a while back, Mr. Donne. And his sister.”
“My role in that was exaggerated, Mrs. Lee.” My third lie in less than two minutes. Frankie and his sister were supposed to have kept my involvement in bringing them home safely to themselves. But Milagros had blurted something out in front of a reporter, and Frankie couldn’t talk his way out of it. Next thing I know, I’m being interviewed and dancing as fast as I can around a bunch of questions, which, if answered truthfully, would have landed me in a lot of trouble. “You know how kids and the papers like to make things seem like more than they are.”
“Well,” she said, “I believe this is going to be one of those times they make less out of it than there should be. The police and the newspapers. Just another black boy killed, dealing drugs and hanging around the wrong people.”
She was right. My friend told me he’d heard Dougie’s file was already making its way to the back of the detective’s desk, and it had only been five days since the murder. I’m not sure what Mrs. Lee thought I could do, though, because the info I’d gotten from the one phone call was probably all I was going to get.
“Did the cops ask you what Dougie was doing out at that hour, Mrs. Lee? The news said he was killed some time after one in the morning.”
“I told them what I will tell you, Mr. Donne. Douglas went to bed just after eleven. A bit later than his usual bedtime, but he’s been—he was—having trouble getting to sleep for the past few weeks. I went to bed right after and didn’t hear a thing until the phone woke me up. It was the police … telling me what happened.” She paused to collect herself. “I didn’t believe it could be Douglas they were talking about, so I ran into his room and he wasn’t there. He was…”
“And they found his bike on the tennis courts?”
“Yes. They’re making it sound like Douglas snuck out to sell drugs and something went wrong. That’s not what happened. It can’t be.”
“What about Dougie’s uncle?” I asked. “Can’t he put some pressure on? Make a few calls as the family’s lawyer?”
“Oh, I’ve asked him to do just that, and he will. But I thought maybe you, as someone a little less … colorful, well, they might be more forthcoming.”
“You mean you think the police might treat a white ex-cop with more respect than the family’s black lawyer?”
“Tell me I’m wrong, Mr. Donne,” she said, her eyes locked on mine, daring me.
“I won’t insult your intelligence, Mrs. Lee. Or your experience. But why don’t you give the cops a few days? See what they come up with.”
Dougie’s mom reached out and placed her hand on my knee. “All I want is for Douglas’s murder to mean something more than a few paragraphs and a scene-of-the-crime picture in the paper. A few days? They’re going to be on to a bunch of other things in a few days.” Her eyes filled up again. “That is time I do not believe we have.”
We. Nicely done. Damn it.
“All right,” I said, reminding myself not to overpromise. “Here’s what I will do. I recognized the name on one of the articles about Dougie.” My mind flashed on Allison Rogers’s business card shoved in some drawer back at my apartment. She was the reporter who had tried to get me to say more than I wanted to a year and a half ago. “She interviewed me after we got—after Frankie Rivas came home. Maybe she’ll be interested in doing a human-interest piece. A teacher’s point of view on the story.”
With that said, Dougie’s mom gave me a smile. There was no joy in it, but I did detect a little relief.
“See,” she said. “You are a good man, Mr. Donne. I knew that when you were Douglas’s teacher, and I know it now.” She put the palms of her hands together. “And the good Lord knows it, too. Thank you.”
“You can thank me when I’ve actually done something, Mrs. Lee.” And the good Lord can keep on minding His own business. “I have to make the call first.”
“Well, thank you for that, sir.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, uncomfortable with a grown woman calling me “sir.” She reached out and grabbed my hands again.
“Gloria,” a booming voice announced. “There you are.”
Mrs. Lee and I turned to see a large man in a dark blue suit making his way toward us. “My brother-in-law,” Mrs. Lee whispered, with a touch of annoyance. “Douglas’s uncle.”
When he reached us, he put his hand on Mrs. Lee’s shoulder. The gesture did not look affectionate. “The ladies told me you had fainted,” he said. With his eyes on me, he added, “I think it may be time for you to go downstairs and rest.”
Ignoring that, she said, “This is Mr. Donne, Douglas. Douglas’s teacher from the middle school.”
Uncle Douglas considered that for a few seconds before offering his hand. “Yes, of course. Hello, Mr. Donne. Douglas Lee.” I waited for him to add, “Attorney at Law,” but he didn’t.
“I am very sorry for your loss,” I said. “And, please, it’s Raymond,” I said to both of them, pretty sure the request would go ignored. “Dougie enjoyed that he and I had that in common, by the way. Both of us being named after our uncles.”
“Yes,” Uncle Douglas said, not interested. “Gloria, you need to rest now.”
“I was just finishing up with Mr. Donne, Douglas. And you can tell the ladies I did not faint. I’ll be down in a minute.”
It was clear Uncle Douglas wanted to disagree with his sister-in-law. Get her away from the schoolteacher, maybe? But he decided not to push it.
“Very well, Gloria,” he said. “Remember, there are other people who wish to pay their respects before visitation is over for the evening.”
“Yes, Douglas. Thank you.”
“Nice meeting you, Mr. Donne,” he said. “It was kind of you to come.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Is Dougie’s father here? I’d like to offer my condolences.”
Douglas Lee took my hand again and held it in a tight shake. It wasn’t painful, but it did make me feel as if I were being controlled. “My brother,” he said, “has chosen to mourn the loss of his son in private, I’m afraid.”
When he released my hand, I said, “Please let him know I asked for him.”
“I’ll be sure to do that.”
As he walked out of the room, I saw Mrs. Lee relax just a bit. “This has been hard on all of us,” she explained. “I apologize if Douglas was rude.”
“No need,” I said. “I can’t imagine what your family is going through.”
“Thank you. Again.”
I reached out and touched Mrs. Lee on the elbow. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know you will.”
After she turned to go downstairs, I went over to Dougie’s casket again. The tightness in my throat turned into a lump as I ran my fingers over the smooth brown wood. Unburdened by any desire to pray and not wanting to tear up in a roomful of strangers, I gave Dougie one last look, tapped the casket twice, and walked away.
* * *
The crisp November air felt good as I stepped out onto the street. It was a week after Thanksgiving, and after an unseasonably warm fall, it was finally starting to feel like the holiday season. A bad time to lose a loved one, my mother would say. As if there’s ever a good time.
I was zipping my jacket when I noticed a couple of men in suits—fellow mourners, I figured—taking a cigarette break on the corner. We exchanged nods and forced smiles and then went back to minding our own business.
“Yo, Mr. D!”
I spun around to see two kids—one black, the other Hispanic—walking toward me. I recognized them as graduates from two years ago—not my kids, but friends of Dougie. I couldn’t come up with their names.
“Hey, guys,” I said, taking them up on their offer to bump fists.
“Hey,” the black one said. “You still teaching the speddies?”
I ignored his insult referring to the special education class I used to have. The one his recently murdered friend had been in. “No,” I said. “Mr. Thomas asked me to be the dean for this year.”
“Whoa,” said the Hispanic kid. “Mr. W quit? He finally get too old to run up and down the stairs chasing kids and breaking up fights?”
“Something like that.” They probably didn’t want to hear about Mr. W’s wife and her breast cancer coming back hard, and how he wanted to spend their last six months together at home. I gestured with my head toward the funeral home. “Did you guys still keep in touch with Dougie?”
Their looks turned serious. “Yeah, kinda,” the black one said. “Tha’s fucked up, y’know? We seen him every once in a while at McCarren Park or around the way, but we didn’t hang all that much no more.”
“He was all into his private school friends.” The Hispanic kid wiped something off his upper lip. “Not ’cause he was stuck up or conceited about it, he was just real busy keepin’ up with all that shit.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He ever say anything to you guys about the Royal Family?”
“Dougie?” the Hispanic kid said, and then they both laughed. “Dougie didn’t roll with no gangs, Mr. D. Why you think that?”
“I heard a rumor,” I said, deciding to take a chance and divulge a little inside info. “The cops may have found some beads on Dougie. Royal Family colors.”
“Shit,” they both said at the same time.
The black one spoke next. “Tha’s fucked up, Mr. D. You know who’d know, though, is Junior. Remember him?”
We’d had a lot of Juniors in my years at the school. “Which one?” I asked.
He gave that some thought. Last names were not as easily recalled as nicknames or tags. “Truck’s half-brother.”
I immediately knew which Junior he was talking about.
“Yeah, right,” the Hispanic kid agreed. “Their cousin. He’s like some bigwig in the Family. They call him Tio, I think.”
“What’s Tio’s last name?”
“Shit. I dunno. You should ask Junior. He lives right around the school.”
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe I’ll do that. You guys go on in. Dougie’s mom’s probably downstairs. Make sure you say hi. She’ll appreciate it.”
“Yeah, Mr. D,” they said.
They both gave a quick laugh and went inside the funeral home. As the door closed, I couldn’t help but think that, statistically, one of those two was not going to make it out of high school. But today they both stood a better chance than Dougie.
“Yo, dude. You got a light?”
I turned to face two kids walking my way. Two white kids. They both had on ski jackets with lift tickets hanging from the zippers. Some people were enjoying this recent cold weather. The taller of the two kids had long blond hair and an unlit cigarette between his lips.
“A light?” he repeated, miming striking a match. Speaking to me like I was slow.
“No,” I said. “I don’t smoke. And you don’t look old enough to, either.”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning, and then putting the cigarette in his jacket pocket. “I get that a lot. I’m actually much older than I look.”
He gave his buddy, who was a good foot shorter than he and sported a militarylike crew cut, a playful slap on the upper arm. They both smiled.
I motioned with my head toward the funeral home. “You here for the wake?”
“Yeah,” the smoker said. “Douglas was a buddy of ours from school.”
“That’s the one.” He looked past me at the funeral home. “Fucking incredible, man, what happened to Douglas.”
“Yes,” I said and stuck out my hand. “I’m Raymond Donne. I used to be Dougie’s teacher, back in middle school.”
The smoker took my hand and said, “The cop, right?”
“Yeah, Douglas told us about you. Said you were pretty cool.”
“I still am.”
“So how does that work?” the kid asked. “Going from one civil service job to another. You have to take a test or something?”
I was not in the mood to explain to this Upper West Side kid that neither job was “civil service.” For all he cared, I probably could have been a doorman.
“No,” I said. “I actually had to go to college.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I’m Jack. Jack Quinn.” He looked at his buddy. “This is Paulie Sherman.”
I shook Paulie’s hand. He gave me a weak smile and an even weaker handshake. He was a bit jumpy and obviously uncomfortable in this neighborhood.
“We were real good buds with Douglas,” Jack Quinn explained as he gave the intersection a complete three-sixty. “Jesus. Is this where Douglas lived?”
“Close enough,” I said. “About ten blocks away from here.”
They both looked around. Jack said, “Cool,” as if he were getting a backstage tour of a movie set. “We took the subway here.”
“That was very brave of you.”
It took a few seconds for my sarcasm to sink in. When it did, Jack laughed. Paulie did not.
“Yeah,” he said. “We met the height requirement and all.” Again he gave his friend a slap on the jacket. “Paulie just made it.”
The three of us stood there for a while, hands in our pockets, trying to think of something else to say. I looked at my watch. “I gotta head out, guys. It’s nice to see some kids from Dougie’s school dropping by. Do me a favor and make sure you see his mom when you get inside.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “We’ve done the wake thing before. We know how it goes.”
“Good. Then you shouldn’t have any problems with the whole respect thing.” I looked up at the red traffic light just as a truck rumbled by. “Be safe going home.”
Jack winked at me. “Yeah. You, too, Mr. Donne.”
When the light turned green, I crossed. Behind me, I heard one of the kids say something and then the sound of one of them laughing. Probably Jack.
Nice to be young, wealthy, and alive, I thought.
Copyright ©2013 by Tim O’Mara