by Kalisha Buckhanon
From Fiction Number 64 (2019).
Kalisha Buckhanon's Speaking of Summer is due out in the summer of 2019 from Counterpoint.
On a cold December evening, Autumn Spencer's twin sister Summer walks to the roof of their shared Harlem brownstone and is never seen again―the door to the roof is locked, and no footsteps are found. Faced with authorities indifferent to another missing woman, Autumn must pursue answers on her own, all while grieving her mother's recent death.
“Searching on 147th Street” from SPEAKING OF SUMMER
One Hundred and Forty-Seventh Street was packed with many buildings like the five-story walk-up I looked for. Their units waited on new parquet floors, faux marble kitchen backsplashes, and doubled rents once the long-term tenants were evicted or dead. Across the street, boys scooted around concrete and banged a basketball against a netless hoop in a defunct school’s yard. Apparent Rastas rolled fat blunts on the stoop, next to barbecue grills and foil pans on card tables alongside the building. Women sat in fold-up chairs next to the tables. Some glared at me, then went back to turning meat and picking bones. A CD player blasted dutty wine. Children danced. The men nodded at me as if I were a relative.
One month past his arrest, Jaylyn Stewart became an even bigger Black Boogeyman. His dark face, dreadlocks, and arrest record replayed so often I barely had to look for them. I easily found an article that listed his seizure at a building address where I hoped to find his old door. A month was long enough for any media stampede to have died down here. The small building crowd wasn’t on guard. I always had the benefit of blending easily into Harlem, if not on that particular block, then into the little city unto itself. I wore sunglasses and a lime-green headwrap. I carried a faux Louis Vuitton tote from Chinatown, standard, although I saw girls far younger than me keep it official. The weather was broken. Uggs were now unnecessary. I slipped on sneakers. I hardly looked like a cop seeking a Black Boogeyman, or a reporter seeking a story, or a sister seeking her sister’s kidnapper. Rapist. Maybe more.
I reached into my bag for a stack of find summer spencer flyers. I gave my best “How y’all doing?” in a country twang. The accent got me further here than it ever could back home. After slight acknowledgement and bare pleasantries, I got to the point.
“I just wanted to ask y’all a favor. I’m looking for someone, and maybe one of you can help.” I spared five flyers for the small crowd.
A man took one of my notices. He blew smoke in my face, and rubbed his bald crown framed by locks. He stated the obvious: “Look kinda like you, ma.”
The raucousness I found so charming in Harlemnites ensued, to wash the moment of the solemnity I intended. But of course, it could all seem like one big joke. I smiled.
“Yes, she’s my twin sister. Some slight differences between us, though.”
“Well, now that we seen you, we know exactly what to be looking for,” a senior lady theorized. She scratched at her scalp with a cigarette in her hands, and out of practice she missed scraping her bandana with the cherry. “Why you lookin’ in Harlem?”
“We live here,” I said. “Together. Well, until she disappeared a few months past. I did the standard report. There’s been some investigating. But, not much.”
They had the usual questions: “Word?” “Police ain’t done shit?” “Why we ain’t heard nothin’ bout this?” “You sure you know all her people?” And they gave their own answers: “You know chick gotta be rich in Harlem for these cops to care.” “They’ll wait till she turn up dead ’fore we know anything about it.” “You gotta watch who you let in yo house, ma.”
“Summer Spencer,” said the balding dready, whom I assumed to be the leader of the pack. “And you are?”
“Oh, forgive me for not introducing myself. I’m Autumn.”
Their chuckles razed any legitimacy I had been going for. Not sure what to do, I simply laughed along. I must have gotten a contact high. The sun, the smoke, the walk, the strange faces, all the raspy and squealing fanfare. The block began to carousel around me, or I around it. I wasn’t sure. “We not laughing at you, miss,” a younger boy said. “It’s just, damn . . . yo.” A few more agreed with him. Yes, this was fucked-up. “Well, bless your little heart, girlfriend,” said Miss Cigarette. “And you know we will call. I see your number, right here. I’m gonna keep your flyer.” “Sit down,” said one woman minding a pan of peas and rice. “Eat with us.” “No, no,” I said. “Thank you. I’m trying to get a lot of flyers out today.” “You all by yourself?” asked Miss Cigarette, scowling. “Ain’t nobody out here with you looking for her?” “Yes,” I said. “And, no. Well, some. But people lose hope, you know?”
I slipped away from their murmurs of reassurance and solidarity. I gathered I inspired a conversation on their hood from long ago, before I was here, when the girls and women and mothers and wives never came back home even then. As they involved themselves in urban legends and tall tales, I inched discreetly up the tall stoop with the flyers and Scotch tape. I had a presumed sincere purpose, but also motive. I waited for a person to exit. I didn’t have to wait long. The entrance lock was broken.
Fortunately, Summer and I were resourceful enough to spare ourselves residency in buildings not yet squalid, but ominous nonetheless. This lobby led to a courtyard packed with dumpsters. Mustard-yellow lighting revealed an ornate ceiling and blackscuffed floor men worked hard to create. Desiccated vermin have an odor that wins over incense smoke every time. So does piss. Cornered plants had long died, leaving weak sticks and hard soil in dirty clay pots. My every shuffle echoed. I could walk down two different hallways, and staircases at both their ends, if I turned right or left. First I crept into the middle of the lobby to look for mailboxes. They were on my right. I guessed Jalyn, like so many sons of unmarried mothers, would have kept his mother’s last name: Stewart. And this could be some help in locating his apartment, if, in fact, he was living with his mother and not a girlfriend. I turned back to the mailboxes to see no names on them, only numbers. But I was in luck. The postman in these parts was not too efficient, perhaps mostly temps. And many boxes were broken. Residents simply piled incorrectly sorted mail on the ledge above the boxes. There were mounds of it.
Just as I grabbed some, a door in the left hall opened. I knew rapid change took place now. No one knew all their neighbors in the buildings anymore. I fiddled to find my keys in my bag’s inside zip pocket. I pulled them out and fingered the tinier mailbox key for my brownstone. But I had no need to pretend. The tenant coming out was a graying middle-aged White man carrying a large string instrument, a bass or a cello, on a shoulder strap. He skipped out, spotted his gray cat slip into the hallway, chased it a few feet, and lightly nudged the animal in before dead-bolting his door. He never looked my way.
On a landing or two above me, a baby howled and a laugh track boomed. I ignored my beating heart and grabbed a lob of magazines, utility bills, collections notices, and junk mail. I flipped through it quickly, as dutty wine music pulsed in my ears and charred meat smells crept into my nose. I dropped my hips, maybe out of nervousness, and swayed a bit as the names fluttered by. No mail said “Stewart.” I looked at the end of the ledge and saw a box from Citibank. I picked it up and it felt like checkbooks. But the name was Frankel.
I had no choice but to explore the floors, as the story had not listed an apartment number. My Nikes were soft on the limestone steps, spider-webbed and cracked, with dry-rotted blinds on each floor. The mustard-yellow lobby gave way to dull floors with brick red doors and green tile. I wondered where a mother might plant herself with six children long-term. Corner apartments seemed most likely. They were usually bigger, wider, with more windows and at least an extra room or two. It seemed I was correct on the second floor. I heard the theme songs to American Idol and Barney playing at one time.
Someone once told me these buildings had “penthouses,” full floor apartments up top where celebrities or lucky owners’ relatives lived, for Big Apple mini-mansions—six walking flights as part of the dues. But I never got that far in my search for where Jaylyn Stewart may have lived or for a peek to see if there were any signs of Summer inside.
The super, apparently Dominican, appeared out of nowhere on the fourth floor, carrying buckets and a handful of rags. I bumped into him as soon as I rounded the ledge, up a height that surely only residents or known visitors climbed. Even in my sneakers, I toppled backward. He tried to catch me but was too late.
He gained his balance as I lost mine, reached for me, and asked, “You okay, miss?”
But I rolled away from him, quickly surveying the floor to see what may have tumbled from my bag. I gathered my wallet, body spray, and keys.
He blocked my way to the steps, with his big shoulders and wide arms appearing to open and swallow me. I pushed him off from trying to help me, or at least I hoped.
“You lost? Who you looking for?”
I tried to speak a lie that did not come as quickly as it should have. And he was coming closer. So, I blurted out the truth.
“I’m looking for where Jaylyn Stewart may have lived, because he’s a rapist and a murderer and he’s terrorized women here. And my sister might be one of them.”
His name tag read sanchez. Sanchez glared, turned green, and then red. Sanchez’s shoulders seemed to look bigger, but his arms tightened into clasped hands as if he was praying. Then Sanchez came closer with each word: “You go. Jaylyn no live here no more. He gone! You people can’t keep coming around here. I call police on you. Now. You go!”
“Don’t hurt me!” I yelled. I circled around to find the nearest stairway. It was to my right. I prepared to tussle with Sanchez to reach it.
I heard Sanchez’s buckets fall as I pushed past him and ran down four flights of stairs, through a lobby where the front door gave my only light, out into a line of happy, dancing children whom I toppled to the sidewalk, past the hollers of their people who guarded them, circling around and around for the direction of north, to home.