A life changing night imposes its power on the innocent.
I Never Knew Her Name
It was a night like most others, except there was a force present. It was a sultry August night, a night filled with murky darkness so thick it obscured the stars. Judging from the frequency of calls being dispatched on the police radio, this warm, humid August night was going to be a busy one for a southern police department. My assignment as a Detective did not require that I answer calls for service, but I did when there was a need. For a short staffed road patrol, my offer to help was appreciated. For me, that offer to help put me on a path that would end in a series of events that would leave everyone involved different. Once begun, those events could not be altered. Subtle in its arrival, its momentum built until it was unstoppable, as if it carried with it the power of the Fist of God.
“I’ll take that call Dispatch, I’m nearby.” Speaking through the police radio I volunteered to take the call, it was routine. A neighbor called to report a disturbance next door in a low-income housing project. Warm nights lend themselves to this kind of call. The irritability caused by the heat of the night would be directed at the most vulnerable in sight.
“Roger that, D321. See the lady, apartment 2.” So now I knew the woman in apartment 2 had called in the complaint. Not a lot of information but it was a routine call. As I drove my car into the night air humidity coated the windshield. In an apartment not far away, events had already begun to spin.
* * *
“Can’t you take that little brat to her fathers for a while?” His voice was doleful and whining, he emptied the last of a can of beer, gulping it loudly. “I’m sick of seeing her here all the time.” The little blond girl’s mother was his girlfriend…the little blond girl was the most vulnerable.
“You know I can’t do that, her fathers in jail. And stop talking like that in front of her. She has feelings too.” The little girl’s mother was under a lot of stress lately. Her thoughts drifted to the problems that worried her. “The rent is late, the car barely runs, and my hours have been reduced to part-time at work. What the hell am I going to do? I can’t take much more. And he doesn’t give a damn as long as he has his beer.” The stress made her life-long eating disorder worse, and her boyfriend reminded her of that constantly, and in the most unflattering ways. Her ill-fitting clothes, unwashed hair, and poor dental hygiene was proof that she spent little time concerned with her appearance.
”Well, they’d like her there that’s for sure. Maybe you could find somebody there who’d liked you too. Are you ever going to stop eating? Clean yourself up?” His tone was angry; his intent was to hurt her and the little girl who sat silently, scared and wide eyed. The mother placed a bowl of macaroni and cheese on the dirty table. While the little girl climbed into the chair, her chin bumped the table’s edge toppling a plastic cup, water spilled across the table and dripped to the floor. The little blond girl stopped and looked across the small room, her eyes waited for his response. It was a serious offense the boyfriend refused to ignore. The spilled water was more important than her red chin.
“Look at that! Can’t she sit on the floor to eat? I mean, now there’s water all over the table. Where am I supposed to sit? I’m not cleaning up her mess. And get me another damn beer. At least I work all day, not like you.” Opening the refrigerator door, Marna was frightened by how little she saw on the shelves. “What am I going to do if I lose my job completely? He doesn’t care, just as long as he has his beer. I’ve got to do something.” Handing him the beer, she turned, but he held her wrist and pulled her around to face him. His words hissed between stained teeth, full of anger he said, “I ain’t kidding, she has to go or I will.”
Marna began to cry, but stopped quickly telling him, “Its okay if you want to leave, I don’t know of any reason for you to stay.” She heard a knock at the door. When she turned toward the door, her boyfriend walked down the hall. Marna watched him swagger, his dirty blue jeans bunched around unlaced tennis shoes, a faded tee shirt half tucked into his waist, long greasy, brown curls bouncing around his neck. “I wish you would leave, you haven’t brought me anything but problems,” she thought to herself. Before that thought faded from her mind, another thought came to her, “If he leaves I won’t get any money at all from him. At least if he’s here I can take money from his pants pockets when he’s passed out drunk.” Her thought faded as she went to see who had knocked a second time on the metal apartment door.
Getting out of the car in the littered parking lot, the scene was reminiscent of the scenes I encountered growing up. Four non-descript buildings that were mirror images of each other, large square windows tinted with the flickering blue grey light of television sets inside. Sheets hastily hung for double duty as curtains. Bare light bulbs hung over entrance doors attracting bugs. The parking lot was half filled with cars that would never start again. Small groups of teenagers huddled around cars, music and conversation spilling out of open car doors. Their attention was momentarily diverted by my quiet, but sudden appearance. Turning down the music they watched me enter the building; speculation began quickly about why I was there.
“Police, open the door.” The knock sounded loud on the thin painted metal, I could hear voices inside. A chair leg scraped against the linoleum floor. A second knock and the door opened.
“Hi Officer, is there a problem?” She was a tired thirty, her brown eyes looked nervous, and she looked everywhere but at me. She regained her composure quickly; she was not a stranger to police knocking on her door, but her stress level increased because of the possibilities I represented. She looked at the uneaten macaroni and cheese on the table, her eyes told me she wanted to sit down. Looking back at me she said, “Did someone call?” Ignoring her question I tried to look past her into the apartment, but there was nothing to see. She wore nervousness like an itchy sweater. She seemed unsettled. I spoke slowly so she would not feel threatened further.
“Well, that’s what I’m here to find out. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine.” Her eyes said otherwise.
“Can I come in?” I knew she could say no, but my being friendly gave her a reason to let me in. As I stepped into the austere apartment, something crushed under my shoe, but an acrid odor distracted me from looking to see what it was. It was small living room, dirty and in need of painting. A sofa with worn cushions and a broken leg was pushed against one bare wall; a yellow Formica table with chrome legs and a chair is the only other furniture in the room. The chair is ajar from the table and a puddle of water is dripping onto the floor; there is a small dirty sock on the vinyl seat cushion. Looking into the kitchen I saw an inquisitive blue eye, a handful of curly blond hair, and a few dirty fingers watching me from around the refrigerator. I smile and wink; I want her to know she’s not in trouble. I hear a playful giggle.
“Hey Officer, everything alright?” He emerges from the darkened hallway, his friendliness is phony and over-done. His arm is hidden under tattoos as he reaches out to shake my hand. Declining, I look into grey eyes that are furtive and blood shot. His speech is slurred but not enough for me to say he’s drunk.
He’s loud, and appears nervous; he looks around the apartment like it’s his first time there. “I don’t know” I tell him, “That’s what I’m here to find out. “Are there any problems?” I ask.
“No, no, everything is fine here. We’ve just been arguing a little. It wasn’t a big deal, right baby?” He smiles at her, probably for the first time today, I think to myself. I look at her and she nods, nervousness fills her dark liquid eyes.
“Everything is fine,” her eyes plead with me to believe her. I ask her to walk me out to the landing. As I pass the kitchen alcove I see there are now two blue eyes, a hand holding a dirty sock, and more golden curls have joined in watching me. A small dirty foot complete the picture. Winking again I hear a low giggle as she withdraws out of sight, her shadow gliding on the dirty linoleum.
Once outside the apartment I ask, “Are you sure everything is okay? I can take him in, that’ll give you some time to rest, or time to get away if that’s what you want to do.” I speak low; I know he’s listening at the door.
“Oh God no, please don’t do that. If he goes to jail he’ll lose his job and then we’ll really have problems. Please don’t arrest him.” Her voice is urgent, worried eyes tell me she’s afraid of my decision.
“Okay, but you need to know, if I come back he’s going with me. Understand?” I speak clearly, but quietly.
“I understand, yes. Thank you, thank you so much. I’ll keep him quiet. He’s a good guy, he’s just been drinking, that’s all.” Her eyes are pools of tears that have been building all day and are ready to overflow. As she opens the apartment door, I briefly see a small head of curls, dirty toes and excited fingers, and two pretty blue eyes peeking at me through the open door, a dirty sock is on the floor. Her dirty face would be cute if it didn’t indicate neglect. When she see’s that I’ve noticed her, she runs down the hall like a three year old, her yellow curls bouncing, a low screech trailing behind her, her bare feet slapping the linoleum. I imagine a door to a dirty bedroom slamming shut. I smile inwardly and hope someday she’ll escape all of this squalor.
Once outside in the parking lot I take a long deep breath of humid air. It’s better than what I’ve been breathing. The teenagers don’t bother to divert their attention, the blue grey lights behind the curtains still flicker and none of the cars in the lot have moved. I get in my car and call in to dispatch that I’m finished at the call. I point the car onto the street and follow my headlights as I move on to the next call. The force that has been building is ready to spring. It will not be deterred.
The calls continued that night. Mostly routine incidents whose root cause is alcohol and the availability of vulnerable people. People causing trouble are brought in, released on bond and return to their trouble; but now with an added grudge. Eventually the sedative effect of alcohol begins to take hold. The vulnerable have gone to safer places, or their tormentors have moved on to a sleepy stupor. The night begins to settle and quiet, lights begin to extinguish as people seek the darkness for sleep. Teenagers turn off car radios and go inside. The potential for bedlam begins to lessen. The real purpose of the night continues to move forward, undeterred and unimpeded. It would not be stopped.
“Dispatch to Zone 1.” An electronic voice mixed with static pierces the lull, it rattles the dark quiet.
“Go ahead Dispatch.” The responding officer’s voice is tinged with boredom.
“See the lady, apartment 2, neighbor disturbance.” Finishing up a call I was already on, I called the zone 1 officer to tell him I would meet him there. With the relaxation the end of a shift brings I missed the radio traffic that other units were arriving at apartment 2; Supervisory units. Arriving at the housing project I saw the Shift Lieutenant standing in the building entrance, bugs swirling above his head. As I approached he stepped toward me, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s sit in my car and talk.” We sat in the front seat of his cruiser, my back against the passenger door.
“What happened when you were here earlier?” His tone was serious, but friendly. His eyes looked sad and tired.
“Not much, they had been arguing but they were under control when I arrived.” What’s up Lieutenant?” He reached to turn down the volume on the police radio.
“Why didn’t you arrest the guy?” The question itself was non-threatening; the Lieutenant’s voice was calm and friendly, but, I felt an involuntary clutching in my stomach.
“The woman asked me not to. Hell, she almost begged me not to arrest him. She didn’t want him to lose his job, so I gave him another chance.” I searched his eyes for answers. “What the hell happened?”
“I would have done the same thing, I mean, showing compassion like that. I want you to know that, I would have done the same thing.” When he turned to me I could feel the sadness. “I would have handled the call just like you did, hell, anybody would have.” He reached for a cigarette.
“What happened Lieutenant, is everything okay.” My eyes were now afraid to search his.
“After you left he beat that little girl, he beat her bad. We found her when we got here.” His eyes told me what I didn’t want to ask.
Sitting in that police car with the Lieutenant that night I knew it was all over. I continued to work for a while, but the panic attacks and deep depression made that dangerous for me and others. A cadre of people tried to help. Friends, family, colleagues, clergy and Therapists. Everyone wanted to put me on the path back to what I loved. It didn’t work. One cool fall morning, standing in the low mist on a hillside, I knew I had to give in. I knew my world had changed along with my life, and it had changed for others as well. How could I have missed the signs of a night that would be life changing? As I walked down that hillside through the early mist, not knowing what direction my life would take, it occurred to me that I never knew the little girls name…the little girl with blue eyes and one dirty sock.
Word Count 2530