فصل 05

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فصل 05

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CHAPTER FIVE

Lontae Burton

Inside were a young mother and her children, all dead. The mother had started the engine of the old car and left it running.

Of course the apartment was empty when I returned Friday night, but there was a note in the kitchen. Just like me, Claire had gone home to her parents in Providence for a couple of days. I knew Claire wanted to end the marriage, too. I just didn’t know how badly.

I went for 4 long walk. It was very cold outside, with a strong wind. I passed beautiful homes with families in them, eating and laughing and enjoying the warmth.

Then I moved onto M Street. Friday night on M was always fun time; the bars and coffee shops were full, and people were waiting in line to get into the restaurants.

I stopped at the window of a music club, listening to sad music with snow over my feet, watching the young couples drink and dance. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel young. I was thirty-two, but in the last five years I had worked more than most people do in twenty. I was tired. Those pretty girls in there would never look at me now.

I went back to the apartment. At some time after nine, the phone rang. It was Mordecai Green. “Are you busy?” he asked.

“To do what?”

“To work. The shelters are full. We don’t have enough helpers.”

“I’ve … never done that kind of work.”

“Can you put butter on bread?”

“I think so.”

“Then you’re the man for us. We’re at a church on 13th and Euclid.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

I changed into the oldest clothes I had, jeans and an old blue jacket, and took most of my money out of my wallet. As I closed the apartment door behind me, I was excited and I didn’t exactly know why.

I parked the Lexus opposite the church. The attack I half expected didn’t happen. No gangs. The snow kept the streets empty and safe, for now. I went into the church, down into a big room below it, and entered the world of the homeless.

It was unbelievable how many people were in that room. Volunteers were giving out blankets and apples. Mordecai was pouring fruit juice into paper cups and talking all the time. A line waited patiently for food at a table.

I went to Mordecai and he said hello like I was an old friend. “It’s crazy,” he said. “One big snowstorm and we work all night.” He showed me the bread, the butter, the meat, and the cheese. “It’s real complicated. You do ten with meat and then ten with cheese. OK?”

“Yeah.”

“You learn fast.” Then he disappeared.

I made ten sandwiches quickly, then I slowed and watched all the people. Most of the homeless looked down at the floor. Most of them said “thank you” to the volunteers when they got the food. Then they ate slowly. Even the children were careful with their food.

Mordecai came back and started making sandwiches next to me. “Where does the food come from?” I asked him.

“Food bank. People give it. Tonight we’re lucky because we have chicken - usually it’s just vegetables.”

“How many shelters like this are there in the city?”

“This isn’t actually a shelter. The church kindly opens its doors when the weather’s bad. When the doors close, they go out again.”

I tried to understand this. “Then where do these people live?”

“Some are squatters. They’re the lucky ones. Some live on the streets, some in parks, some in bus stations, some under bridges. Usually it’s OK, but they can’t stay out in the open tonight. It’s too cold. They have to go to one of the shelters.”

“How many shelters are there?”

“About twenty. Two are closing soon. No money.”

“How many beds?”

“About five thousand.”

“And how many homeless?”

“Good question. They’re a difficult group to count. Maybe ten thousand.”

I thought about that. Then I asked Mordecai about himself “You have a family?”

“Yes. A wife. Three sons. One’s in college, one’s in the army. And … and we lost our third boy on the streets ten years ago. He was killed. Gangs. What about you?”

“Married. No kids.”

Mordecai disappeared again. A helper brought cookies. I took four of them and walked to a corner where a young mother was asleep with a baby under her arm and two small children half asleep under blankets.

The oldest boy’s eyes opened wide when he saw the cookies in my hand. I gave him one. His eyes shone as he took it and ate all of it. Then he wanted another one. He was small and thin, no more than four years old. The mother woke up, saw the cookies, and smiled.

“What’s your name?” I said to the boy. After two cookies he was my friend for life.

“Ontario.”

“How old are you?”

He showed me four fingers.

“Four?” I said.

He said yes and put his hand out for another cookie, which I gladly gave him. I wanted to give him things. Anything he wanted.

“Where do you live?” I whispered.

“In a car,” he whispered back. “You got more apple juice?”

“Sure.” I went to the kitchen and got him a cup of apple juice and more cookies.

The mother was sleeping again. Like many homeless people, she moved a lot in her sleep. She was cold. I took my jacket off and put it over her.

Then the baby cried and woke her. Without thinking, I took the baby, smiling at the mother all the time. She was happy to let me hold it so she could get some sleep. I stayed there until three in the morning.


The next day was Saturday. Since Tuesday, when I met Mister, I hadn’t worked even one hour for Drake and Sweeney. I lay in bed. I hated the work at Drake and Sweeney. I didn’t want to go back. Ever.

I had breakfast at a cafe on M and wondered what Ontario was having for breakfast. Then I went shopping. Candy and small toys for the kids, soap for them all, warm clothes in lots of children’s sizes. I had never had so much fun spending two hundred dollars. And I wanted to spend more. I wanted to put that family in a hotel for a month. I wanted to start a lawsuit against the person who had made them homeless. I couldn’t wait to have Ontario’s family as my clients.

I went back to the church, leaving all the toys and clothes in the car, but Ontario’s family weren’t there. I asked Mordecai where they were.

“Who knows? The homeless go from kitchen to kitchen, shelter to shelter.”


Next morning, Sunday, I had the small television in the kitchen on while I ate breakfast. But the TV news stopped me from eating. I heard the words, but I didn’t want to believe them. I walked toward the television. My feet were heavy, my heart was cold, my mouth was open in shock and disbelief.

Sometime around 11 P.M., Washington police found a small car near Fort Totten Park, in a gang area in the northeast of the city. It was parked on the street. Inside were a young mother and her children, all dead. The mother had started the engine of the old car and left it running to keep the family warm. The air in the car poisoned them while they slept.

They gave the mother’s name. It was Lontae Burton. The baby was Temeko. The other children were Alonzo and Ontario.

Their candy and toys and soap and clothes were still in my car.

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