She refers to Shakira frequently, speaking the name in the shifting timbre of envy and resentment. The 11-year-old girl was the concern of the city when she disappeared from a block party September 13. The stories didn't stop until her remains were discovered in a field a month later.
"This little girl gets all this attention," says Louwana Miller, "and my little girl gets nothing in the world."
Forgive the comparison. Miller's thoughts spatter out in rambling bursts and hairpin turns in topic. It's the speech of one who has worried too much and slept too little, to the point where her mind now plays tricks, and she can covet the affection shown a dead girl. "My brain doesn't register much anymore," she says. She too has lost.
Her daughter, Amanda Berry, went missing April 21. She left her job at Burger King on West 110th and Lorain. She hasn't been heard from since. In the minds of Cleveland, she is vaguely remembered as That Burger King Girl. In the mind of her mother, no one seems to care.
From a frame on the dining-room wall smiles a beautiful young woman, 16, blond and radiant -- the kind of photo you'd expect to find in the McMansions of Westlake. It suggests a president of a math club, maybe a volleyball star or an empress of the Great Northern food court. But like most kids, Amanda Berry was much more complicated than that.
She had been in gifted programs throughout her years in the Cleveland schools, when she abruptly turned to home-schooling by mail. "She paid for it all herself," says Mom. "She never had a failing grade in her whole life."
The room she left behind tells of kid-like contradictions. It's wallpapered with Eminem posters, interrupted only by two shelves of Jesus figurines. "She was really into the Lord," says Miller. Sure, Amanda smoked a little pot, but she was also a momma's girl, a homebody who never missed a day of work. "Me and her was very close," says Miller. "She always called when she was going someplace."
It's hard to believe she simply fled. Her 17th birthday party was planned for the next day. And despite her academic gifts, she wasn't the independent type. Amanda couldn't make her own breakfast. She was in constant touch with her mother and older sister. "She wouldn't even get on the RTA by herself," says Mom.
Early on, there was talk that a boyfriend was involved. The FBI ruled him out. Then, after her story appeared on TV, a man called Miller to say that Amanda was now "his wife, they're married, and she wants to stay with him. I don't know if it was real, or if it was just some sicko trying to freak me out, and it did." The man was never found.
So it's been for seven months. "It's like hitting a brick wall," says Cleveland Detective Laura Parker. "We get leads everyday, and we follow them up, and they go nowhere."
It's unfair to say that Cleveland has neglected Amanda. There have been walks and candlelight vigils. In the first few weeks after she disappeared, the media were awash with stories. Miller flips through a stack of business cards from seemingly every TV guy in town. But then the stories stopped, soon replaced by the grim tale of Shakira.
"Shakira was on the news every freakin' day," says Miller, envy creeping back.
It's easy to see what TV producers saw in Shakira. There were search parties, rallies, Nation of Islam guys busting down doors. She was 11 years old and helpless; she wouldn't run on her own.
But a 16-year-old is different. Regardless of character, there's always the suspicion that she fled, that she's working at a Pizza Hut in Orlando, playing house with a new love. If only she had disappeared from Beachwood -- that's a story that resonates with the much-sought-after suburban viewer. But to the thinking of television execs, a middle-aged woman keeping vigil on a dead-end street overlooking the freeway -- this is not gripping film at 11.
Miller has a somewhat different assessment of television: "Fucking liars."
She is a tough woman who speaks fluent West Side, cussing deftly under layers of double-negatives. Her voice doesn't cry or crack. Perhaps because she's already wept too much. Perhaps because she must conserve energy to remain standing. But spend some time with her, and you're certain you're in the presence of a good mother -- one who gave, who sacrificed, who tried. One who's learned to veil unspeakable hurt, as strong mothers do.
Miller believes Amanda may be held captive. She met a woman once whose daughter went missing for a year, then turned up alive and pregnant; the girl had been forced to hook. Miller considers these possibilities, then dismisses them. She is nearing resignation. "I just know I'm probably never going to see my daughter walk through that door again."
She is silent. Then she reminds herself: "One good thing is that they haven't found her body." There is no optimism in her voice. But the absence of a body is the best she has.
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