I woke up at 5:00 this morning to the sound of a loud motor droning outside my window and flashing lights reflecting along the wall. I got up and looked out the window and saw a fire truck, an ambulance and four police cars parked across the street, blocking the entrance to the alley.
I threw on my bathrobe, ran down the stairs and stepped out into the cold Minneapolis morning. Across the street, two newsmen talked as they pulled their cameras out of their vans. I walked toward them and stood out of sight, hoping I could hear what they were saying. But their voices were too low.
"What happened?" I asked.
"There's a dead man in the alley, ma'am," the younger one replied. I was stunned, even though I had guessed already that there'd been a murder. Why else would so many cops, firemen, paramedics and reporters be here so early in the morning? Why else would they have draped the yellow ribbon that warned "Police Line Do not Cross" between the leafless maple tree and the telephone pole that stood at the entrance to the alley?
A crowd began to gather. Old folks, young people and children poured out of old Victorian homes and '60s style apartments that characterize the neighborhood, oblivious, it seemed, to the cold air, the early morning blackness and the drizzling rain as they stared past the yellow ribbon to the bloody body that lay several feet ahead.
"I need to see his face," I muttered to no one in particular. I was desperate to see if he was someone I knew, perhaps one of the kids for whom my home had been a haven when my children were growing up.
I eased my way to the outskirts of the crowd and stood like a statue until I was sure no one was watching me. Then, I took a deep breath, looked over my shoulder and walked slowly toward the body, hoping to get close enough to get a look before they pulled the sheet up over his face.
A deep sadness came over me as I looked at the still figure of a young Black man whose face I did not recognize. He couldn't have been more than 19, maybe 20 years old. And if he hadn't been so well dressed, his clothes so clean, except for the blood, I might have mistaken him for a homeless person who had found a spot to lay his head for the night.
He was lying face-up. His L.A. Raiders cap, soaked in blood, lay inches away from his head. The stiff fingers on his right hand were frozen around a McDonald's paper cup as though he'd been struggling to hold onto it, and cold coffee spilled over his hand and onto the concrete.
When I looked up I saw my neighbor, Lynn, standing next to me. I took her hand, and together we began to weep. We wept for the boy's mother and for mothers of children who died in wars. We wept for the mothers of the boys whose bones were found in Jeffrey Dahmer's refrigerator. I guess we just mourned for all the mothers in America; the only place in the world where young Black men get blown away every day over a pair of sneakers, the wrong colors, a cup of cold coffee or for no reason at all.
We stood watch over the body until the coroner arrived and pronounced the young man dead and took him away.
The next morning, Lynn told me that later that night, she filled a pail with water and went back out into the alley, got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed and scrubbed until all the blood that the rain hadn't washed away was gone.
Carolyn Holbrook teaches creative writing at Hamline University and the Loft and is founder of More Than a Single Story, a program of conversations with Black writers. This piece is part of the "A Moment of Silence" project in which members of Minnesota's theatrical, musical, artistic and literary circles reflect on this troubled summer. It can be found at blackmnvoices.com.