For the past couple of days my entire apartment building has been enveloped in the eerie aftermath of murder. The murder took place four nights ago, two floors up from where I write. The proximity of the act not only removes the comfort of abstraction, it somehow makes all that was familiar – empty hallways, stairs, closed doors, the sound of one’s own footsteps — suddenly feel ominous. One’s senses are simultaneously heightened and distorted. It’s unnerving to say the least.
The victim was a 49-year-old mother of two whom I have no memory of ever as much as seeing pass through our small 14 apartment 19th century building. What I do have is a very vivid memory of meeting what turned out to be her two sons and her 68 year old mother frantically searching for her on, it seems, the very night her life was so brutally stolen from her. This was around 11:00 pm. Monday night when, almost asleep, I remembered that I had left my bicycle chained to the rail outside the front door of my building. Lest I wake to a bike with no wheels I roused myself out of bed and went down to retrieve it when I encountered the three family members anxiously peering through the glass in the front doorway.
Do you know Miguel? the older son, perhaps 20, asked me when I opened the door. Miguel in apartment two ? He is an older man.
There was great urgency in his voice and eyes.
No, I know no Miguel, I told him. And no one by that name lives in apartment two.
Are you sure, he asked. How long have you lived here ?
I’ve lived here almost 10 years and, yes, I’m sure that no one by that name lives in apartment two.
These were clearly not the answers that the young man was looking for. As he translated what I was saying into Spanish for his grandmother he pulled out a cell phone and said something about trying again to get Miguel on the phone.
Figuring they had somehow wound up at the wrong address, I wished them luck and carried my bike through the door and up the stairs, oblivious to the fact that the boy’s mother and the woman’s daughter lay dead or dying two flights above my bed in apartment 14 shared by someone I knew as Ramon but whose real name was Miguel.
Miguel/ Ramon age, 58 or 59, arrested early Tuesday afternoon for murder, was a figure I would pass, from time to time, in the hallway, acknowledge with a nod and a “hello” and not give another thought to. He was tall and slender and had strong looking hands. He carried himself in a way that suggested that this was a man who did not hurry through this life. There was something almost invisible about him. He was from the Dominican Republic and shared a dwelling upstairs with other single men from that country who worked hard, kept to themselves and minded their own business. On two occasions he had sat silently and politely through building meetings that had taken place in my apartment concerning legal action we were taking against our landlord. He knew no English to speak of and I did my best to translate what was going on and for this Miguel/ Ramon was grateful.
“Murderer” is not an appellation that welled up naturally in the mind when one looked at him. Not by a long shot. And there is something terrifying about that.
On Tuesday afternoon I check my email from work and find the following message from a neighbor:
it is 2:20 –
i got home the whole building is full of police and detectives
they asked me some questions
someone has deceased upstairs
not sure where
it will be all over the news, he said
i asked if it was murder
he was not clear
any other information, anybody?”
Soon thereafter another neighbor sends an email with a link from some news agency that states that some unnamed person has been murdered in a basement apartment in our building.
Problem: There are no basement apartments in our building.
I call my wife and ask her what on earth is going on. She confirms that there are cops everywhere. She’s been told that someone might be dead and that someone might have been murdered but whom and where, she does not know. I ask about our six year old child who will be returning soon from school and she tells me that a friend has gone to fetch her and will keep her away from our building until the small army of police who have cordoned off the area and are demanding photo ID for anyone to enter the building leave.
But the small army of police does not leave and they are soon augmented by a small army of journalists, photographers and TV talking heads who in turn attract an ever-growing crowd of on lookers and the simply curious.
By the time I arrive home at, say, 6:30 pm, there are easily a hundred people standing in front of my building, waiting for …God knows what. I soon find out that they are waiting for the body of the deceased to be removed from wherever it is in the building. It’s an astounding sight, at once wholly ghoulish and wholly human. There are more people on the sidewalk across the street and more still on the corner. Few are talking and if they are they speak in low, hushed voices. Most are just staring at the front door of my building. Mute. Waiting. Waiting for death to show it’s covered face. The whole thing has the air of a sick, silent circus.
A cop stands sentry at the door. To get to my apartment I need to show him ID. I ask him what is going on. He tells me there will be an announcement soon. As I climb the stairs I hear the cackle of police radios. The further I go up, the louder they become. I speak to my wife who tells me what she knows which is only that someone is dead and that our child is safe with a friend. At this point I remember the encounter with the family the night before and, thinking it might have something to do with what ever it was that was happening, I climb the stairs and tell one of the cops guarding what turned out to be the murder scene, that I wanted to speak with a detective. Not two minutes later a detective knocked on our door.
He was soft-spoken and exceedingly civil. I tell him about running into the people the night before, prefacing it by saying that this might have nothing to do with what ever happened here and why all these cops are here and why the street is cordoned off . He sits down on the same couch Miguel/ Ramon sat down on, listens intently then scribbles into a thick black pad. He then says, “ The people you met are the family of the deceased. Her two sons and mother.” He adds quickly as if to allay our fears, “ The suspect is in custody. “
The connection between the frightened little boy, the anxious young man and the stoic old woman feels first like a punch in the face, then, revealingly, like a scene in a crime movie we somehow wandered into. Before he leaves, I tell the detective that we have a small child who we are keeping all this from so that she does not have nightmares for the next ten years. I ask him how long will it be before we can bring her home. He is sympathetic but answers that he does not know. The medical examiner van arrived some time ago, he continues, but it could still be a while.
It is a while.
And in the meantime everyday reality and thought processes are suspended. The murder has sucked everything and everyone around us into its vortex. Police radio continues to cackle in the hall. We wait, babbling because somehow there is a need to babble. I look out my window to the scene below and see that the crowd has grown even larger. There is no way to escort my child through that without a million questions. And, indeed, there is the medical examiner’s van parked in front of the door. Waiting.
At some point, for reasons I do not understand, I leave my apartment, wander down the stairs and join the crowd staring at the door. Journalists who saw me leave the building attempt to ask me questions I cannot answer and would not answer if I could. They seem an insult to the dead. Instead, I ask them questions: what are you waiting for ? They’re waiting for the body to be taken from the building. Why ? So we can get a picture. Standing in the crowd, suddenly ashamed of myself for even being there, the answers seem at once perfectly logical and perfectly insane. How is this important to any one other than family and friends?
But somehow it is, it is. And this is why they are gathered. Such is the pull of murder.
I felt that pull in myself sometime after I returned to my apartment to continue waiting.
The atmosphere was so unnerving all purposeful activity seemed not only impossible but somehow sacrilegious. The ultimate unholy act had been committed. This had to be acknowledged. Somehow. All things profane need be suspended, at least for the duration.
But the profane keeps banging its way back in.
From somewhere in the hall above me I hear a loud crack and, after an interval, another and then another. I open my apartment door to investigate to find two medical examiner people and the body of “the deceased “ (as she is being called,) wrapped in black cloth from head to toe and tied to a gurney that is clunking its way down our narrow hallways. I am familiar with death but not murder and somehow this scene is shocking: and yet, somehow, despite myself I am compelled to look at it, to see it, to bear witness. As if on automatic Catholic pilot, I begin to silently recite the Hail Mary, the moment my mind adjusts to what my eyes are seeing. The clunking goes on, diminishing in sound as they descend the stairs until it is heard no more.
I wander to the window and see that the police have totally cordoned off the area in front of the building, forcing everyone, press included, away from the medical examiner’s van.
This seems the right thing to do for the family and for the sake of common decency. Who would want a photo of someone you loved in a black body bag plastered all over the place?
The moment that everyone has been waiting for is over in about 30 seconds and conducted with brutally impersonal efficiency. The body is wheeled out. The side door of the van is opened. The body is shoved in and the door slammed. End of story. She might as well have been a bag of laundry. The driver of the van starts the motor while a cop emerges from my building calling to his colleague holding up a small white piece of paper connected to a string. The toe tag, known to all true lovers of TV cop shows and, sadly, the closet thing to a ritual for the dead that is performed on this day.
The van departs. The crowds almost instantly disperses. And suddenly it is over.
Except, of course, it isn’t. The act is too large, too violent, and too unspeakable not to speak about it. Over the next day or two, without even wanting to one hears of the poor woman’s bloodied, bludgeoned body being discovered wrapped in a plastic sheet; of the murderer’s insane attempt to hide her in the wall; of her elder son’s screams being heard down the block when he identified the body; of his leaving the building covered in his mother’s blood after he embraced her lifeless form. One savage and heartbreaking reality after another.
I decide, for what its worth, that I do not want to know any details of what happened to this woman. This daughter. This mother. This human being. Details in such a case seem suddenly to be a shocking and senseless invasion of privacy and a stripping of her humanity. Why should her mutilation be public knowledge?
What is gained by this?
And what is lost?
Yesterday, my wife encountered a gentle middle aged couple from the neighborhood via the Dominican Republic, friends of the dead woman, who asked her if she might let them in the building. My wife did, of course, and it was only later when they knocked on our door to speak with us that we realized the strangeness of their request. The apartment in which their friend was slain remains a crime scene. There is no entry and who would want to enter there if there was ? What was it they were really looking for ? I did not think it right to ask them. Besides, I doubt they even knew themselves. They were compelled to do something to mark the horrific occasion. Somehow, perhaps, a physical proximity to her place of death would serve that purpose.
As they sat in our living room speaking to us about their friend and their native country, I thought of something I was told by a beloved aunt many years ago as I struggled to come to terms with my father’s death and all that came with it and all that left with it. I was 16 and nothing about his death made sense. Not the rituals, not the ceremonies, not the wake, not the reaction of some of my family, and, above all, not the silence. My aunt was driving at the time and, as if to add emphasis, she pulled over to the side of the road and said: You must try and understand something. People are very strange about their dead because they don’t understand it. And what they don’t understand they fear. And when people are afraid they can get a little crazy and can do things that don’t make a lot of sense. But it’s just because no one understands death.
How true. How terrifyingly true.
And how much truer still when one encounters murder.
Yesterday, when I went out to buy some milk in the morning I saw that people had made a shrine at our doorstep. There is a kind of a cardboard tombstone which contains the dates of the slain woman’s life and the words,” In Loving Memory.” There is her photo showing her looking happy and vivacious. There are white roses and there are candles, which are glowing into the night as I write. The shrine is there, of course, to honor the memory of the dead, as well it should. But it would be well too, if the shrine also served as a reminder to all whom pass of the fleeting nature of all beings breathing in our precious, unfathomable, all so fragile universe.