It happened as I was driving through The Bottleneck.
I was on my way to the food pantry, still sick as I told you about yesterday, and I don’t know if that will ever stop. I was in that fugue state that insomnia sometimes produces, where everything looks abstract, alien, like a collection of shapes instead of a familiar object. And I was trying to navigate the worst narrow street between me and the edge of my neighborhood. This is a spot where the one-way becomes a two-way street without getting any wider. Cars are parked on either side of the road, so there’s not necessarily a place to pull out of the way. There’s a big walnut tree so old that it blocks the stop sign; I’m constantly afraid of a head-on collision. This time, however, it wasn’t a car facing me in the bottleneck. It was a little gang of teenage girls.
The school bus lets off at the other end of that bottleneck, so I wasn’t surprised to see teenagers walking there together in the afternoon. There was a pep rally for the school sports teams in the last two periods of public school classes today, so I wasn’t surprised the teens had been left off school so early. But I was taken aback by their expressions– aggressive, triumphant, more than a little sadistic. They stared at the car as if they wanted to play chicken with it, and waited a few beats before crossing the road when I stopped; then they went down the side street. For the record, since talk of race always comes into conversations about violence in traumatized neighborhoods like this one: two were Black and two were white.
It was at that moment and not before, that I realized someone was screaming.
Just about thirty more feet down the block and I saw her. There was another teenage girl, in an anime hoodie and a flowered dress, with curly black hair and brown freckled skin, sitting on the curb and howling in terror. The gentleman who lives in the nearby house was trying to help her up. A neighbor across the street was yanking a large dog away by the collar, so I thought the dog had bitten the girl. I pulled over.
“Is she hurt?”
“She got beat up.”
By the time I parked, the man had gotten her into his lawn chair. The lady with the dog had deposited the animal back in her house and come over to help– she’d either sicced the dog on the assailants on purpose or probably just let go of him in all the confusion right before I arrived. We all converged at the same moment, trying to help in a chaotic way while she began to say what happened.
The girl’s face was swollen, and her knees were skinned; mascara pooled under her eyes. Between convulsing sobs, she managed to explain that the four girls I’d seen were her assailants. They had been bullying her at school for two whole years now, calling her “wetback” and telling her to go back where she came from (she isn’t an immigrant). She had deliberately sat as far from them as possible on the bus to avoid their taunting, as usual, but today it wasn’t enough. She didn’t know who jumped her first when she walked away from the bus stop. Someone slammed the back of her head. By the time my neighbor had run outside and tried to push the other girls away, she was on the ground in fetal position, crying for help as they surrounded her and punched.
This whole story came out bit by bit, in between little panic attacks. She cried that they might have ruined her laptop, the one she’d kept for years to do homework, and struggled to open her backpack and turn it on (it was fine). She cried that she was going to get made fun of at school the next day. She sobbed that the police would find an excuse to blame her. She tried to text her mother, which took awhile because she was shaking. The lady with the dog kept trying to reassure her that no one would blame her. I kept babbling that no one would laugh at her.
The man had had the presence of mind to grab his phone and film the last minutes of the beating as he tried to pry the girls off of her, so I saw a bit of it myself. It was severe. He called 911 and ran to get the first aid kit while I searched my car for tissues– I had none, but I found some napkins from my last fast food run. The girl dabbed her ruined mascara while the man wiped the dirt off her scrapes.
There was a scratched glasses lens on the ground between us, and another one in the flowered fabric of her skirt.
“I can probably pop those back into the frames,” I said.
“They broke the legs,” she said, holding them– they were smashed into several pieces.
“Well… you can get new ones. Do you have insurance or Medicaid?”
No, she didn’t.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“That’s beautiful. That’s a Biblical name.”
The beat cop arrived before the girl’s mother did; the girl started to stammer the story of twenty-four months of abuse, and we gently interrupted that she ought to just say what happened today. He took awkward close-up photos of her swollen eyes and scraped legs. He watched the video nonchalantly and said “well that one’s going to jail. You say you saw all four beating her up?”
The man said yes, and wrote out a careful witness statement.
“Will you pray with me?” asked the girl, who was leaning on my arm as if I’d known her for years.
I’m not any good at praying any more lately, but I tried.
The mother showed up just then, declaiming that she was going to get those girls expelled and sue their foster parents as well, and I don’t blame her for that. She helped scroll through her daughter’s social media to find the full names of the assailants for the policeman, who by this time was talking to two plainclothes detectives. They rolled their eyes in recognition whenever the mother successfully found a name– all of these girls were known to them. They’ve been in trouble before and will be again. That is the most hopeless part of living in a traumatized neighborhood: knowing that this will happen again.
Then she got in her mother’s car. The neighbors went back to their yards. The detectives gave me a respectful smile and nod as they drove off.
I went down to the food pantry, which was lined up out the door, and then I gave up on my errand and went home to lie down.
I don’t really have a moral for all of this or a way to wrap the story up. I’m usually good at finding one, but right now I’m a little shaken. I don’t know if I’ll ever find out any more about the case, since the perpetrators are all juveniles so anything that happens next probably won’t be public record. I’ll be watching the police blotter section of the paper.
You should remember to carry packs of tissues in your car as well as fast food napkins, and maybe a first aid kit as well. I’m going to get one for Serendipity as soon as I can.
That’s what I did when I wasn’t here yesterday.
Let’s all try to make it a more just world for everyone.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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