Funeral_Procession_by_Ellis_WilsonIn August of 2007, our co-worker, Sherri’s, daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend. He followed her car home, slipped under the arm of the security gate, and then shot her multiple times in her apartment. He went back to the parking lot and killed himself. The complex has them on videotape: Daneel standing her ground, telling him “It’s over, Manny. Go home,” and then walking back up the stairs to her place, Manny in his car, getting his gun from the glove compartment, loading it with bullets kept in the trunk, walking back up to Daneel’s, then back down to his car before putting the gun under his chin. It took him thirteen minutes to die.

I’d gotten up early that Saturday to weed the garden before the day’s heat, and had run inside to catch the house phone, a call from my sister Nina in California. I heard my husband’s cell phone ring, and he came into the den.

“You need to get off the phone,” he said, “quickly.” Sherri had called. Daneel had been murdered, shot. She wanted to know, could he stop the autopsy? Didn’t we know the Jefferson Parish District Attorney? She didn’t want her daughter cut on. She’d been crying too hard to understand.

“Daneel was murdered,” he said to me, stunned.

“Daneel?” I said. “Murdered? No, that can’t be.”

Malcolm called Sherri’s husband. “Dimitri,” he said. “I’m going to repeat this to you so you don’t have to say the words out loud. I want to understand. Daneel . . . she was shot to death this morning at 5:30?”

Dimitri said, yes, she had been.

“The guy then killed himself?”

Yes, Dimitri said.

Daneel was twenty-six, a NICU nurse, and she lived across the street from her younger sister, Erica, twenty-one, who didn’t yet know. Daneel’s father, Pico, a New Orleans police officer, was on his way to tell Erica.

I sat on the kitchen floor and cried into my hands, and Malcolm leaned against the counter and wept. “This can’t be,” we said, stuck records. Our own teenage son was upstairs sleeping in his room.

We showered, dressed and left for Sherri and Dimitri’s house on the West Bank. It was almost eleven. I drove so Malcolm could make calls. The police investigator explained that an autopsy had to be done, by state law. Bullets remained in Daneel and they needed to be recovered as evidence. “I don’t want Sherri to know that,” Malcolm said to me. He phoned Dimitri to tell him what the woman had said. “She told me Daneel didn’t suffer.”

Their house is in a well-landscaped neighborhood off General DeGaulle. The directions were simple, but I made two wrong turns and had to wait for the same slow-changing traffic lights to cycle. “Just take your time,” Malcolm said. We gripped hands on the console. “You don’t recover from this,” he said. His father had died suddenly of a heart attack when he was eighteen and he’d found what couldn’t be expressed in a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas: After the first death, there is no other.

There were cars in the garage and the driveway, a police car at the curb. Several young men stood outside in the heat in baggy shorts and striped Polo shirts. They nodded quietly to us as we went inside. We’d never been to Sherri’s house. She’d worked with us for ten years but we’d always seen her on our side of the river. We walked into despair, people in each other’s arms crying, and Malcolm and I put our arms around Sherri. “I don’t understand,” I said. We held each other in an awkward hug, a triangle of crying. I’d never seen or heard grief that fresh. I’d had grandparents die, but not by surprise, and at the end of their lives, not on the upswing.

Sherri’s mom sat on the sofa with Erica in her arms. I sat beside Erica. She let me hold her, and we cried. “I can’t believe this,” I said.

“Manny didn’t like me,” she said. “He was harassing Daneel.”

“Physically?” I said.

“Never,” Erica said, “but with text messaging and the phone.”

“He had a gun?” I said.

“His dad got robbed after the storm, so he bought one to have,” Erica said.

Malcolm came to her and she went into his arms. He’d known Sherri’s girls since they were in middle school. They were astonishing, Creole beauties with creamy skin and pale green eyes, graceful and lanky in their jeans and t-shirts. A few weeks earlier, they’d both showed up in his office door, but he’d been on the phone. By the time he went down the hall to find them, they were gone, and he’d regretted that chance to visit, so the next time they came in and he was on the phone, this time with me, he said, “I gotta go, there are two beautiful women standing in my doorway,” like I’d understand. I hung up quicker than I needed to, not wanting to yield even though we hadn’t been talking about anything important.

Sherri’s brother got up with his wife to leave. They were going to the funeral home to begin arrangements.

“Do you have a priest?” I asked Sherri.

“Not one we’re close to,” she said.

“Do you want to use ours?” I offered, and she said she did. I stepped outside the front door to call Father Richards and left a message on his cell phone. Andrew called from Subway to see if his dad and I wanted a sandwich. He didn’t know yet.

“Sweetie, something terrible’s happened, but not to Dad and me,” I said, and I told him about Daneel. He stayed quiet, and then, “Mrs. Sherri’s okay?”

“Not okay, but she’s with family. It’s the saddest room I’ve ever been in.”

“How’s Erica?” he said.

“Not good. She was with her sister until late last night. I think she knew things had turned bad between Daneel and the guy.” I didn’t say his name.

“She’s gonna feel guilty,” he said.

“I don’t know. We’re finding stuff out slowly.” I told him the details to keep him on the phone, to bring him into this grief with us because he’d been out late the night before, missed curfew by a mile, and I’d gone to bed angry with him. “I don’t trust you,” I said, when he put his head in the door of our bedroom to tell us good night.

“When is the funeral?” Andrew said, but it was too soon to know. He sounded unsure about what to do next us. So was I.

I said, “Maybe later you can bring over Popeye’s?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I will.”

“I love you,” I said, worried that he might not remember how much.

“I know,” he said.

 

The funeral was at Greenwood on Canal Boulevard, and I didn’t go. I had to fly out the next to co-teach at a writer’s conference in Vermont, but Malcolm went with Andrew and his two other sons, and he described to me the crowded chapel, the impossible grief, and the shock.

Father Richards said mass. The room was crowded with quiet, elegant people, suffering. Sherri had asked that Malcolm give the eulogy, and he spoke about how Daneel used to help her mother in the office during summer and holiday vacations, how they looked so comfortable and happy to be together, how Daneel had named her skittish Chihuahua “Bear,” and how she was kind, maybe to a fault. He talked about her last day and how it had been spent with her sister Erica – her best friend – and their grandmother, commemorating their grandfather’s birthday. Somewhere along the way they’d been discussing Daneel’s life, and Erica had said “D, God has a plan for you.” Malcolm spoke of a scholarship fund that would be set up through LSU’s School of Nursing, meant to help someone with dreams like Daneel’s.

Erica asked that Malcolm read the lyrics to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” a Fergie song he didn’t know, meant for a lover, a mix of anger and resolve and futility.

Their father, Pico, couldn’t stop weeping. The next day Daneel was going to tell him her ex was harassing her, following her around. She’d been hesitating because she was worried her dad would hurt him. This is what she’d told her sister.

Daneel was buried in the marble mausoleum behind the cemetery. To find her you stop at the grid and type in her name. Every year on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, Sherri, takes a day of leave, which she spends with Erica. At the hospital where Daneel held the tiny, sick babies, there’s a rocking chair with a brass plaque that bears her name.

PIA Z. EHRHARDT lives in New Orleans where she's a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Her stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly, Oxford American, Rumpus.net, Guernica/A Magazine of Art and Politics, The Morning News, and Narrative Magazine. Her short story collection, Famous Fathers & Other Stories, was published by MacAdam/Cage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *