Darlene White was asleep on a couch Monday morning when two gunshots just outside the glass door woke her up.
Then she heard four or five more.
Next came screams, and then the words she hasn’t stopped hearing in her mind since: “Miss Vivian got shot. Miss Vivian got shot.”
Minutes earlier, Vivian Marrow had rolled her red wheelchair just outside the front gate of her decaying apartment complex in the 2400 block of Elvans Road in Southeast Washington. Some neighbors said she was headed to the grocery store. Others said she had just gone out for a smoke. Regardless, at 10:19 a.m., two people exchanged gunfire, and Marrow was struck. The 68-year-old grandmother and mother of three was taken to a hospital, where she died.
White said she was later told by witnesses that Marrow had been talking to one of the men involved in the shooting when a rival spotted him and the violence ensued. Police wouldn’t confirm that version of events.
White would not go outside, both because she feared for her life and because she couldn’t bear to see the body of her best friend.
“Even now, as we speak, I think it’s a dream,” White said, standing hours later outside the apartment where she helped care for Marrow. “She was too good of a person.”
On Monday afternoon, most people in the neighborhood were too distraught to talk about her. Over and over, those who could get any words out used the same ones: “She was a beautiful person.”
In a community ravaged by violence — where 10 people have been killed within a one-block radius in the past two years — “Miss Vivian” was a constant source of optimism. She wasn’t slowed by her wheelchair, which she had used since being hit by a car at least a decade ago.
Sometimes, she’d park it on the sidewalk and listen to gospel music on her radio, a beacon for anyone who needed someone to talk to. Many of the kids knew as her “The Candy Lady,” because they were always welcome to stop by for cookies or cupcakes.
She had taken in people who didn’t have homes. In the summers, she often cooked hot dogs atop a charcoal grill on the sidewalk in front of her apartment and gave them to anyone who was hungry.
“She done fed me,” said Antonio Johnson, who had known her for 20 years. “Somebody who’d give you anything.”
Marrow never tried to hide from the despair in her community. She seldom missed a funeral.
“She made it her business to be there,” Johnson said, “because of how much she loved people.”
Police said they weren’t sure what motivated the gunfight, nor whether Marrow or a man who suffered a gunshot wound that wasn’t life-threatening were involved in it. But neighbors who witnessed the shooting told ANC Commissioner Paul Trantham that both victims were innocent bystanders.
“People are being shot in open broad daylight. When can we go outside? When can we walk to the store without fearing for our lives?” said Trantham, one of the commissioners for ANC 8B, where the shooting took place.
On Monday, police initially said they were looking for an armed man wearing a black face mask, sunglasses and a silver jacket. Later, interim police chief Peter Newsham said in a news conference near the shooting site that investigators had received conflicting reports about descriptions of suspects.
“We’ve made a lot of inroads into crime in this particular area. There’s still some bad actors here,” Newsham said. “Anybody who’s willing to open up and fire gunshots in our community, we’re not going to tolerate that.”
Police did not find a weapon at the scene, Newsham said.
Trantham said he went to Elvans Road when he heard about the shooting on Monday, and he talked to residents who complained that the security guards don’t check the IDs of people who come through the housing complex and that the police presence isn’t consistent enough.
“That’s what the people on that block were saying today: They’re so angry,” Trantham said. “A couple of them, they said that apartment complex, they wish that they would just shut that apartment complex down because they have so much violence and so much stuff going on over there. They don’t feel safe.”
The perceived lack of police presence, Trantham says, also deters people from telling investigators what they know about the culprits behind shootings .
Trantham said someone told him: “It’s not that we don’t care about our community. But when y’all leave, not only are we subject to retaliation, but our kids are subject to retaliation.”
Marrow and White stayed up late Sunday, watching Chuck Norris movies and playing the card game deuces for pennies.
As she had so many times before, Marrow predicted she’d whip White in the game.
“That’s not going to happen, Vivian,” she recalled saying.
“Oh, yes it is.”
On Monday, as the sunlight faded and the evening air cooled, she considered what her nights would be like now, without her friend.
“I haven’t grasped it,” White said, turning and pointing inside the apartment window. “Her wheelchair’s right there.”
It was then that a young woman approached White, screaming.
“That didn’t happen to Miss Vivian,” the woman said, a cigarette trembling in her hand.
“Yes, it did,” White said gently.
“No it didn’t. No it didn’t.”
White wrapped her arms around the woman and pulled her close, then whispered.