Tatiana’s shiny black tap shoes sat at the tip of one our biggest yards, the one curved round the bend and rimmed with gray wood flowerbeds. Inside its house—732 N. Robbins—is where we suspected, or hoped, she might be hiding. I planned to return the shoes to her mother. Size 7, and a little too big. I read ‘American Ballet’ on the soles.
She danced in them just a few months before: swaying, focused, limber and concentrating. She might have seen me or felt me sitting out in that crowd, watching her and wanting her to do it like she had showed me she would, like the long dready black boy she saw in a Broadway poster for Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk and the skinny white man in Singing in the Rain. In her moment beyond the borders our block dictated and our school placed us in—working class, average, maybe even a little below—she caught her center of a stage. Not so much as a doting daddy in the audience. Her mother wasn’t there either. The one person who was there on her behalf, other than me and maybe a few others she ate lunch with…well, he was questionable. And, right at the curb where we placed trash every third day, in front of Mister Questionable’s house, I saw her shoes. Discarded. When nobody was looking, I picked Tatiana’s black patent leather shoes up off the ground and I ran.
We knew the houses where the fast and unpredictable dogs hovered back behind the sheds and locked fences, where the people inside answered their doors half-dressed with smoky greetings, where the lonely and over-talkative sat slumped too far at the edge of the couch waiting for any old or new friend to knock. All those, we knew. It was the others we needed to find out more about. Or, at least this one in particular, where I found her shoes in the yard. With Tatiana’s mother wailing out the bay windows of their tiny living room, and her mother’s boyfriend driving his clankety-clank Ford around mad, and the police officers having done their so-called part, and the church people littering the streets with Xerox copies of her school picture, and even the ice cream truck driver getting questioned, it was up to us now. Somebody had to use common sense.
It was me, LaQuita, Selena, James and James’ younger brother Sweet Tooth. We decided to meet on the playground of the private Catholic elementary school none of us could afford to go to. The low brick building with a one-room steeple cathedral attached sat at the edge of our U-shaped, three long road subdivision. Our world was an Indian-named Illinois town anyone it was mentioned to claimed they had once passed, but no one besides the people who lived there could pronounce. We were most cited for our dog food factory and state psychiatric hospital, but mostly for the river to mark us on any map worth its salt. I told our parents my little sister wanted to go ride the swings. I needed to have her back by the time it got dark. Around eight o’clock. There wasn’t much time for me to talk to the others about a plan for it all. I stuffed our sloppy joe dinner into two sandwich bags I zipped into my backpack, and we met the others.
“Why you ain’t bring me none?” Sweet Tooth teased me, all 360 pounds of him. He jiggled from side-to-side in front of my sister and me, as we sat on the wooden boundary of the sandbox. The extra extra tomato sauce my mother liked in the skillet collected around my sister’s mouth. I came prepared. I pulled out two extra white-bun sandwiches and some brownies packed just for him, so we could get started. LaQuita was involved with tangles of Yaki weave. Selena’s microbraids were taking her a whole week to put in. Selena had to work all the time watching all her mother’s kids, and LaQuita’s learning problems put her in summer school all day. LaQuita barely looked up, focused on braiding every single yarn-thin braid down so Selena could hide the fact her hair never grew. Not even an inch. I could tell James had just smoked. He sat distanced and nodded off against the sandbox boundary.
“Should we gone ahead and tell?” LaQuita asked. She yanked apart a dry patch of Selena’s small afro to make sharp parts in her tender head. Selena winced at the pointy touch of the comb’s teeth on her scalp.
“Tell what?” my sister asked.
“Go swing,” I said.
James’ eyes fluttered like a broken baby doll’s. Tryon licked his fingers.
“Yeah. But, who’s gonna do it?”
“I think we all need to just get together and gone on to the police station,” Selena said. She looked disgusted. She shook her head. Her moving around threw LaQuita, silent and concentrating, off. She gently tipped Selena’s head back to the side and continued to work on the braids. It turned out James was still with us.
“Man, I ain’t trying to get mixed up with no po-pos,” he stuttered. “We go in there, and next thing you know they gonna be up in our house trying to figure out what we or anybody we know done. Or we might just get ignored. We need to just gone on ahead, put some gloves on and write one of them secret notes they find when folks up for ransom. We can mail it, tell on that punk and gone ahead get this over with.”
“This ain’t a movie James,” LaQuita said.
“Yeah but if we leave a secret note, then how can we get the money?” I asked.
There was a reward. The churches had collected $2500 for information. The landlord who rented Tatiana’s house out to her mother put in another $2500.
“If don’t nobody know who turning in the information, then how they gonna give us the reward?” Selena asked, disturbing LaQuita once more.
“Look,” LaQuita said, stomping her leg, “do you want your head finished or not?”
“Do we want the money or not?” Selena said. She sucked her teeth, folded her arms and put her head down until the end of the meeting.
Only 25,000 people lived in our town. One of the twenty-five or so beat officers at the police station was bound to know one or two people who knew us, our parents, or Tatiana, or her mother. It would be no secret at all, or at least not for long, if we became the instigators who knew it all.
“It ain’t bout the money,” James said, and we—of all—always seemed to understand him in spite of how his stutter was. “It’s about, about….God. I can’t even say it. That punk is nasty. And I know it. Running around like he think he a superstar…”
Sweet Tooth shifted from side to side, with his head down, thoughts buried in the sand and mouth chomping on a brownie. Truth was, none of us knew shit.
“We can’t do anything about who he is or what he is. He gonna be who he is and it is what it is. Whatever’s happened done happened. Us getting the money or not ain’t gonna change it. So, we might as well get the money. We need it.”
We didn’t need it. We were fed, housed and clothed. We always had boxes on our birthdays and at Christmas. Sure. Sometimes dollars fell down for one of the two movie theaters in town. Matinee. We busied ourselves just fine for free: in the playgrounds, on the basketball courts, in huge backyards worth little to nothing to Coldwell Banker.
But our parents needed it: for the eviction notices, the overdue gas heating bills, the candle-lit homes until next payday, the broken down cars in gravel driveways, the lawyers and revenue officers tapping at our window screens, the coughs hogging upstairs rooms, the sick dogs shot in the dark, the lottery tickets substituted for tithes, the back-to-back funerals borrowed on credit. If a little extra money did wind up at the kitchen table or stuffed between a box-spring and mattress, no one in the house was going to flaunt it or out its source. We would be too busy using it.
“So, we right back to it,” LaQuita said. She had her fast-acting fingers working down the weave until a skinny and perfect three-plait braid was secured with a tap of glue.
Behind Selena’s head was my sister swung high and high above the maple trees under the moon still faint, as it had just come out. A nice sheet of geometric shapes any one of us could have sketched on back of a church program or in a homework notebook. The lie I told my parents had not been worth it. We broke up and went home.
Tatiana’s mother and aunts welcomed us over to talk to them about her and ourselves, or more than likely, to think she was actually once really here. Because if she had never existed, none of us young folks would be there to come by, to fill the shadows of an absence not a death or hospitalization or anything but a sore subject and puzzle with lost corner pieces. I was one of the few who actually did come, unannounced but often. By the time Tatiana was gone, I was used to being in her small white house. I heard my mother tell somebody folks probably didn’t do more than they really could have because nobody liked to go over to that house. It was always sort of nasty. Without conversation about Tatiana and recollection of the little things or various clues circling her world, it was nearly impossible to crank curiosity away from gossip into action. There was little to no group discussions to create any real plan to maybe lead somebody into figuring it all out, all because her house reeked of a stink and mess of secret problems sitting there long before Tatiana disappeared that June.
Tatiana had never been the least bit ashamed of her surroundings. And I was polite. We were sanctified in my house. We prayed in a circle of the living room of our one-floor house, with the door wide open in warm weather—for visitors or passerby to see. It was like television evangelism, just real life. I had met her on the bus. Once we struck up conversation about how close we lived to each other, Tatiana came to church with me a few times. She was early at my door. I was still in bed. She took the very first plate of breakfast my father fixed up. While they waited for the rest of us to get ready, she asked for more eggs. She and I shared a hymnal in the small carpeted sanctuary, packed with medium-sized families like ours. She never smacked her gum too loud or looked bored. After that, my parents didn’t mind me hanging out at her house three blocks over. The fact she was an only child, with a father who was in and out, was unreferred to. My parents just wanted to know who was working and paying the bills.
The smell in her house didn’t seem to come from inside but from far beyond it, or maybe from under it. I always managed a place at the kitchen table, with an overflowing lazy Susan in the middle and bulk junk food packages piled high up on it. Tatiana ignored the rest of her company: the gnats, flies and roaches who dipped in and out of open generic potato chip bags or at the syrupy rims of unfinished pops. I came to fixate on her and enjoy myself in her dim kitchen, with muddy brown curtains instead of flimsy light screens as the rest of us had. Her long legs crowded me out underneath the table. Her hot chocolate skin was a maze of heat bumps and pockmarks. She combed her same one lonely ponytail out of habit, so much so it stiffened up and thinned. We mostly listened to the radio on the kitchen counter or talked about all the selfish kids on the bus who never made us a seat if we needed one. When we didn’t care to talk, we tapped out games of Uno and Spit until her mother got home. Sometimes her mother didn’t come home at all.
Around our houses, we were allies. After only a few times knocking on each other’s door, in school we were “friends.” We walked and ate with the others of us who had sure and solid homes now; once we graduated high school and had to find jobs, we would be just as good as the cats strewn about winter alleys—waiting on somebody or a chance to bring us in from the cold, knocking at death’s door to find one more life in a kindhearted’s can of tuna. I had some plans in the back of my mind. They never made it into conversation. Tatiana talked, all the time, about what she was going to do, when and how: the Air Force, the Reserves, cosmetology school, working at the prison in Dwight. Though much of it wasn’t worth remembering, her plans became something new to talk about and a reason to talk much more often. A few Sundays, Tatiana showed up for church at the last minute. I finally met her mother, and a man coming by. And another one too. But we never spent any nights at each other’s houses or called each other to talk at night.
When the summer after eighth grade passed, we had a choice to take the bus rounding our subdivision straight on to high school for homerooms. Or, we could take advantage of a new stop on the bus: the city council-funded, renovated upper floors of the middle school, turned into the Lincoln Cultural Center for Youth Arts. We wouldn’t even have to pay for the group drama, piano, violin, jazz and tap dance, show choir and art classes. The school district brought in all these special teachers to teach. To be in the program, we only had to detour on the way to regular school, take our arts class and grab a shuttle bus to be average in Civics and Algebra with the rest of the high schoolers.
The expectation was I would settle into the show choir, where all the black kids went. I surprised everybody who knew me. I took the group electric piano class. My parents gave me the money to rent my piano and headphones, plus buy extra sheet music from the same store where the music teachers got it. I caught on quick under the county orchestra director who volunteered for the job with us. She put her Jewish background to the side to start all dozen or so of us off on one song and one song only: “Jingle Bells”—for two months, until we could all play it together perfectly with no one stopping. There was a straight-backed piano at our church, where I sometimes stayed late on Sundays to clean. I started to stay behind to practice the piano, too.
Tatiana took jazz and tap dance. For one, the show choir traveled a lot and (though she wouldn’t say it) her mama wasn’t going to be giving her money for the bus, dinners on the road, and even hotel rooms if they made it high in the competitions. She had a natural rhythm and beats deep inside her body, suited to dance without interrupting with song. She couldn’t sit still on the bus if the radio played. She swung her arms with car radios blasting to the streets. She always came from dance class flushed and breathless, like she stumbled on a crush. On the bus or the street or even once in church, she tapped her feet. I made no changes to what I planned to do: ISU or SIU or Eastern for my teaching certificate, concentrating in music, I started to think. But Tatiana started to talk about Broadway or dancing in the videos, maybe going to an arts school called Columbia in Chicago. The school counselor told her he could set her up a visit.
Last winter, we heard about a way to take one extra class just so we could avoid the high school for another period: drama, a special class for juniors and seniors only. For lowly freshman to participate, maybe parental permission and teacher approval would work. Tatiana and I powwowed about what to do next. I was neither unpopular or popular, just nicely niched with the studious lot who came from decent homes. Tatiana was unbothered in her own little corners of the classrooms. Attention paid to her was scant, mostly for how her clothes smelled or how big her nose was or how bizarre her latest hairstyle appeared. So rather than get on the bus with the rest, we could stay behind and take Drama in the Lincoln Cultural Center second period. One morning, Tatiana came back with a report: “She said my name Russian, and she’s Russian. She like me.”
And she looked out for me. “I can bring you, too,” she told me.
The Drama teacher was so Russian no one could understand her. She told us she wanted us all to be “freeeeeeeez.” The upperclassmen mocked her Miss Piggy blonde hair and outlandish exercises. She believed everything we performed was fabulous: lip-syncs of Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston records she gave us, plus readings of “I Have a Dream,” Frederick Douglas speeches. For the first “exam,” Tatiana and I planned to play Celie and Sofia from The Color Purple. I got a wig for it. Tatiana would wait in the hall. I stood inside. She snatched open the door and switched through the chairs lined up like cornstalks, and yelled out: “You told Harpo to beat me!” I only had one line. We practiced and practiced and practiced in the middle of her kitchen, or in my bedroom. The tap dancing classes had whittled down some of Tatiana’s awkwardness and ungrace. She swung her hips and legs in perfect time when she turnstiled around the kitchen chairs or stools or lawn chairs we set up for her to swish through just like Sofia had done in the movie. The more we practiced, the more I could see a fired-up witch behind her eyes when she confronted me. It seemed like she really hated somebody, true to life. But when our morning came to perform, Tatiana was not on the bus. We were supposed to do it one more time before class. In Drama hour, the secretary came in to say Tatiana called in sick. To get a grade for the assignment, I just read a Gwendolyn Brooks poem from a book I found in the class. Tatiana begged for extra credit later.
By the holidays, I chalked Tatiana’s soon disinterest in inviting herself to church or my place after school (or me to hers) up to cold weather. She started to barely speak to me or anyone else she used to speak to from our nearby bus stop corners and shared neighborhood passings. On the bus, I started to squeeze in next to LaQuita and Selena more. Sitting next to Tatiana worked my nerves in the moody and weird way she became. As we rode to school she stared silent at the smoke billowing from the factories, mouthed count of the few stop lights along the way to Lincoln Cultural Center, listened to Ciara and Beyoncé on her walkman with her head bopping against the window glass, sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes with each bump as the bus jerked down Main Street. She covered the usual dank smell caught on to her tweed peacoats and down bomber jackets with sprays of something vanilla, citrus or peachy—way too much of it. She gelled down the baby hair at the side of her temples and strangled her lonely ponytail with even more brushing than before. Then, she just stopped riding the bus altogether.
One day when she was late (again), I just happened to be in front of Lincoln Cultural Center to tie up my tennis shoes properly, to get up a few flights of stairs to my piano room. I bent down just before I went into a side door. I saw Tatiana get out of a white SUV. She walked round front of the car to the driver’s side. She kissed a man.
LaQuita knew this dude Martin kept pit bulls in the basement in his house on Robbins Street, in our neighborhood. She claimed Martin told her older cousin he fed the pit bulls stray cats he lured over with cans of tuna. And then that’s what James stuttered to us again, cause he was the paperboy come in there to collect every two weeks. He verified he saw cases of Starkist on the kitchen counter. Selena sold Girl Scout cookies on the side. She said Martin bought them in bulk, the shortbread kind. She said she heard dogs barking in the basement and saw naked ladies posted on the walls.
At about this time, Martin Taylor was nothing more than a subject of conversation and gossip I didn’t too much get into. But still, the stories were weird. Supposedly, the dogs growled at anyone new. Rope collars the size of small tires curled around their throats. They tussled in their black, large-size cages until the loser got tired. We heard the dogs yipping and yapping sometimes, from the backs of trucks James claimed were headed off to organized dogfights on the far outback numbered roads of town—way past the gutted silos and rusting-away substations. The fact of junkyard dogs hidden underneath the house was in contrast to what went on around it.
This house on Robbins Street sat right around the bend with a backyard known for keeping up a lot of fuss in the summer and fall before it got cold. Then Martin—‘Marty’—had loud parties. Mexican men showed up in long trucks to put white tents and lawn chairs all through the back, under special lights to keep away mosquitoes and moths. A van or other truck brought out the food that dressed-up girls and more Mexicanmen arranged on long tables covered with white tablecloths. Marty had a large raised deck in the backyard, with wooden chairs covered by pretty velvet pillows and wide umbrellas on top of each table. On any Memorial Day or Fourth of July or Labor Day night, the sweet barbecue smell swirling from that deck made us all mad when we had to come home for our parents to get to work the next days. No one knew who set up the sound system. The speakers sounded like bullhorns calling out to space.
The explanation for all this was supposedly Martin was in the “industry.” Sometime when my parents were in high school, he was with them and he was famous. He skipped school and drove out to New York City, to try out for the Showtime at the Apollo in Harlem. The producers chose him. He sang a few of those love songs come on the radio late at night. My mother or father pointed all this out when a song came on the late night Quiet Storm.
“Member when Marty sang this on television, right before we graduated?”
“Babe, ain’t this that song Martin sung on Showtime at the Apollo?”
“Oooh, one of our friends went on Showtime at the Apollo one time, and sung this song. Whew. I still remember that…”
Most important about this legend surrounding Martin was the crowd didn’t boo him for being bad. They cheered him on. Twice. With a standing ovation the second time, even though he lost. He had been good—just not good enough to stay. My father claimed he had a cassette Martin put together with people in Atlanta after all this. When I looked it all up online though, I couldn’t find a thing about it.
I could see what Tatiana could have seen in Martin. He was different from us: not plain or boring. He kept a silver or gray or white (depending on the day and the light) truck parked in a two-car garage we considered as something for the mansions by the hospitals and river, where the judges and doctors lived. We only had driveways. He had his garage especially built and tacked on. Maybe it was a real reason he needed so much space. He was shaped like a linebacker. He had lemon yellow skin and a face buried by a werewolf-like beard, covered by dark sunglasses or low Chicago Bulls cap. Mostly at night, cars zipped in and out of his driveway, little waxed Technicolored bumper cars, driven by strangers to us, maybe come down from Chicago or the suburbs. The men wore sunglasses even at night. The women wore bare legs in the cold. One time, I heard police had come out to pull apart some women scrapping in his grass. When we walked to the bus stop a week after this, a few of us saw half the loser’s hair weave clumped in tufts and tangled up the stems in his flowerbeds. LaQuita tried to salvage some of it, with the mind to use it on one of her girls. She felt his flowers and told us they were all fake, too.
The first we could confirm of Tatiana going with Martin was the afternoon of the Spring Recitals. This man was out of school and had no children our age, that much we knew. But he sat alone in the audience. My parents had to work. So they missed my solo—an abridged version of Alan Menken’s “Under the Sea,” with most of its chords left out and only the jolly top melody learned. On five Sundays I had stayed after church just to get it right. The dome of hot light on my back, dots of vague faces I didn’t even look at or acknowledge, the scuffed stage I alone was forced to make interesting. It was a lot to take, enough to let me know I had no use for performances. It was a thrilling thing to do for too private of a reason. I knew I could not really enjoy it with people staring at me.
But Tatiana was a different story. She put her stage fright aside, like her no-show status at our Drama exams…“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…yeah, yeah…I was scared.”
As tall and stretchy and rhythmic as she was, she kept it short and sweet: a gentle tap dance solo, to a Gershwin song the sound system students played for her: “Embraceable You.” Not one technicality the whole time. But perfectly each time, until the last chords of the song came over the speakers the front rows for our classes to sit in especially. VIP. It was a pretty song and dance. She was wild-eyed after, in a good way. And I said I would believe her fantasies more, something to them maybe.
Our Drama teacher promised to take all of us to Denny’s after our show, if we could get rides to the restaurant and back. My parents were still at work. None of the people who came to my church had kids in the arts program. It was far too far to walk. Denny’s was two interstate stops over, in the white part of town where the boring fields around the pharmaceutical plant and other processing joints had started to change when Walmart came. Our first mall was about to come out that way. Far from us, but still here.
Tatiana came walking around backstage on the sides of her feet, so her tap shoes wouldn’t disturb the freshman violinist painfully wrapping up. It was the only time I ever saw her in a dress outside of church. Black-blue. Rayon. She tapped my shoulder.
“Martin said he can drive us to Denny’s and back home,” she told me.
My parents never talked of Martin like somebody they cared to be acquainted with. The few times I recalled our dusty Buick met one of his gleaming trucks at a stop sign, nobody waved or honked. Martin and Tatiana weren’t cousins. He wasn’t friends with any older brothers she had, cause she didn’t have any. He wasn’t related to her through marriage, that she mentioned or I knew of. But I didn’t feel like any of it was my business and I really wanted to go out with everybody else. Otherwise, I’d just be at home. So, I walked behind her outside. She fumbled forward to him and his truck. I followed along, in the back seat, for the free ride. Tatiana did not even bother to introduce me to the driver, or him to me. But I mustered a wave of manners in my home-trained bones to tell the man “Hello” and “Thank you for the ride.”
The warm seats were leather. I could see out the grayish windows, but no one could see in. The bass of the Lil’ Wayne and Nelly music thumped against my back. It roared out of the backseat speakers, so loud no one in the truck could have possibly shared a conversation. Martin drove slow. He looked around the streets through dark sunglasses. He crept his hand on top of Tatiana’s. She rested it on the console cover between them. It seemed to me like he took the long way to Denny’s, to look around or be looked at. I couldn’t tell. By the time we arrived, about twenty other kids in the program were seated and ready to order. Then, Martin walked past the cashiers at front whose job was to seat us. He went straight to the other side of the restaurant. It seemed to be closed until a later dinnertime. No one from our school or anywhere else sat there. I stood in front of the hosting station to wave back at a few kids in my piano class. A classmate moved closer in and patted the booth to indicate my seat. I waved at her, circled my fingers into an “Okay.” Tatiana went straight on to Martin’s large booth at the window, where he said something real quick to a skinny gray-haired waitress. The waitress turned from him, rolled her eyes up in back of her head. Tatiana set her bookbag in the booth beside Martin. She headed to the bathroom where I was headed, too, past the kitchen. When I saw the cooks and others with their backs turned, I slipped in behind Tatiana.
In the mirror, Tatiana brushed her thinning ponytail over and over as she wouldn’t do in the restaurant, maybe not in Denny’s sitting next to Martin, like she did everywhere else, in a habit. We had the only words about him we would ever have.
“Hey girl…what’s going on with him?” I asked.
I wasn’t accusing her. I had no anger or judgment. Thou shalt not judge, I knew well and had been taught, almost to a fault of a second and third-chancing heart. I had thought about what was going on, sure.
“Who?” she asked me, with her hand steady on a Burgundy Wine tube of lipstick.
And she fluffed the hair she let out like she was a star in her dressing room, waiting for a show or video shoot, some dude who was her manager counting the dough and calming the fans, a photographer from VIBE in the corner, more lipstick even.
I could tell by the label it had come from the Family Dollar on Court Street. It was a color I saw smashed into cigarette filters burned down to the nub in dirty ashtrays around my relatives’ homes or the garage parties our family stopped by on during the holidays. I had put some on my own lips late at night or in the early mornings before my parents saw, got on me for taking it all too far now. To top it off, she pulled out a circle of cotton and dipped it in a blue Cover Girl case of face powder. I had thought her orange tinge was stage lighting, as it faded and sweat away after her dance. That tone returned to her face—a pumpkin with a ponytail, she looked. And stars wore costumes, no matter how old they were. It was all answer to my question and I said no more to her about Martin.
When Tatiana was absent the entire last week of school and from then on, until the mid-July time when summer break became boring and her mother’s missing person’s report to our police station and the initial scribble about it in the newspaper’s Blotter section, until Tatiana’s disappearance became a headline straight onto the front page, until the few of us who had talked to her and laughed with her got sad enough to know this was really serious, no one wanted to call the police to ask questions or give answers. When we went into the Family Dollar and Kroger’s and Payless, we saw flyers made up of her school picture—the new freshman one, where she hiked the collar of her denim jacket up to near her ears— pasted on the swing doors. The Deaconness who made up our church programs listed Tatiana with the “Sick and Shut-in” names for five weeks straight. I think my parents thought it best we just not mention it. Besides the fact they became even more fussy about where I was and when I would return than they had ever been, Tatiana’s vanishing was mine to adjust to. I was past the point where I ran to my parents first with every discomfort and confusion life told me was now part of it. I had friends to talk to now, or books at the library, or the Internet, or cable, to guide me in what to do about all the changes of life inevitable.
James and Sweet Tooth promised to spy on Martin, to borrow one of their relative’s car without permission and trail him somewhere. Maybe cornfields or a landfill. But, I never heard from them. They worked over the summer, painting curbs. LaQuita was trying to pass English and Math, so she wouldn’t get left behind. Selena started a new job at Arby’s, a real job now. She kept on watching kids, even more because it was the summer and all of us wanted to go out so much more. We were busy.
If anybody ever needed a beat-down for any good reason, a few responsible and trusted people would beat them down, but in a secret place where only cracked acorns or smashed-in fences might know. If any things were stolen from a place or got yanked out of line, those same responsible people would capture the thieves and restore the lines. We were not to talk to the police, not even when they trailed us after school like we needed the favor of it or if we saw them smacking their lips together at diner counters.
So when the police came by on tip I had been seen often with Tatiana, I already knew what to tell. Nothing. The commotion of swirling lights in our slim driveway interrupted the Good Times and Family Ties reruns normally occupying my mother, sister and me on nights my father worked late on the newspaper printing line. When I saw the commotion, one month after the last time anyone had seen Tatiana, I knew it was related to her. If I was going to tell, I needed the others with me. I couldn’t do it alone. I had Tatiana’s tap shoes hidden in a bundle of pillowcases and unmatched socks and shrunk t-shirts under my bed. If there was a time to show the shoes and make it clear where I found them and bring up Martin and tell the truth of all I knew about her, it was now.
“Ain’t you Rick Crawford’s kid?” a black man cop at the screen door asked.
“No,” my mother answered, coming up behind me. “We’re anonymous.”
A black woman cop stood behind, off our low cement porch step and onto our dried grass, neglected for watering. I was old enough to be looking for part-time summer work and my parents were young enough to pick up extra hours in summer, when demand was high. We hadn’t had time to water the grass, plant flowers, trim the hedges, investigate missing girls. My mother invited the cops into our living room. It was barely comfortable with the four of us. It seemed stuffed with the new people, their radios, billy clubs. They filled the tiny space so much inside I missed the company we never seemed to have due to it. My little sister switched the television off when they came in. She walked back to her bedroom, to flip through her books about bunnies and ducks or to dress her dolls in scratchy mini-clothes I helped her make.
“Well, we appreciate you letting us in,” the man cop said.
My mother did one better than let them into our two-bedroom ranch house, our two mini-apple trees in the backyard in full bloom and sending a sour smell of half-wine, half-sugar through our short-curtained windows. She smoothed down her scrubs from the nursing home work. She fluffed our half-priced, discount mall gingham pillows. She ran her fingers along top of the New International Version of the Holy Bible rested on the middle of the glass coffee table I slicked all fingerprints off of with the magic of white vinegar. Then, she went inside the kitchen to boil water for tea or instant coffee. The cops knew her husband and my father from around town. They didn’t waste time.
“What you know ‘bout your friend can help us?” the man cop asked me.
As my mother banged around louder than usual in our kitchen, I sat silent and thought. We never talked about Tatiana much in our house. My parents left it up to me to pick up the paper and see the stories. They would assume if I knew anything, I would tell it to them. I never hid anything from them. I didn’t think anybody knew I cared so much.
“I think there’s a house on Robbins Street you thought Tatiana visited,” the woman officer said. She flipped through a notepad with silver spirals, like owls’ eyes.
I had never mentioned Martin and his house or Robbins Street to anyone but those of us who met to talk about it. Not even to Tatiana’s mother. My stomach churned up when I saw Tatiana press her lips close to what had to have felt like a scratchy rug on Martin’s face. He looked like a grown man. He was a grown man. I could’ve told her mother about it. But how may she have thought about her daughter in the car with this man or on his couch or anywhere else with the lights off? It had to have been whatever studio or speaker equipment he had, accounting for the ADT signs posted up from the grass, made Tatiana feel like she could get a head start on Broadway or Hollywood or Showtime at the Apollo. And, he was so bold as to still drive around in his white Cadillac as if Tatiana wasn’t even missing. He went so far as to have a party in his yard for this Fourth of July holiday, until about three in the morning, and with the big fireworks.
“We been there,” the woman continued. “732 N. Robbins Street, right?”
She looked straight or not too far out of the community college up the interstate, with its criminal justice degree. Some of the college’s people came to peddle it to us as early as last freshman year. They said we didn’t have to stay here to use it. We could take it to any place. I wondered if she had stayed with it, or come with it. The criminal justice lady kept talking to me: “Few times. Searched it. And everything was all good there.”
I didn’t understand. There is the only where we thought Tatiana would possibly be.
“What about the house on Robbins Street made you so…?” the woman asked me. Our teakettle spit and whistled. I knew I had the right to remain silent. She kept on: “Because you, or somebody said they was you, called us about that house. And because of you, or whoever called, the station and even the sheriff’s office went to check. So, we wanted to know if you knew why that house is important or who called about it.”
I didn’t remember calling anybody. Maybe I said it to her mother. I couldn’t even remember the start of summer now, from last time I saw Tatiana—walking off the bus without even saying “Bye” to us, fast in the opposite direction of where her house was.
“My friend. I found her tap shoes there,” I blurted. “In the yard. At the curb. Near the trash. My friend’s a dancer. She tap dances. I saw her tap shoes. Black patent leather buckled shoes. American Ballet. I just thought she might be where they were.”
“Well, what you do with the shoes?” the woman cop asked me.
“I don’t know,” I lied. “I guess I just left them there.”
“How you even know they was hers?”
“Nobody else tap dance round here,” I said. “And I know her feet.”
“And, ‘cause you saw her shoes, means she’s in there huh?” the man cop asked. There was a comedian smirk, different from all I saw on television about the hectic and tense police officer who cussed and smashed his fist into the walls.
My mother brought the steaming kettle to us on a tray. She had a small stoneware dish of milk, with a container of Folgers, alongside little tea bags folded out in a bird’s egg blue teacup Tatiana liked to use for breakfast tea. The officers thanked her. I was grateful for something to do while I thought, so I steeped myself a cup of Lipton’s tea.
“I was listening,” my mother told them. “Tatiana only came over here a few times. We took her to church. My baby took a class with her. We don’t judge her, or her mother, or how others live. We teach our kids not to too much hang out with girls who run off with men, or whatever else is supposedly going on there I hear.”
“So, you’ve heard a little of it?” the woman cop asked. My mother smiled.
There was little more to say to them while my mother prepared cups of hot beverages, in middle of July, for them to sip on their way out of our house into the dark.
I don’t know why the officers came over to my house to talk to me about the house on Robbins Street or Tatiana, or any of my supposed calls to the police station, because making her into a whore wasn’t going to bring her back. A story ran in the paper that weekend. Front page. I had to wonder if I was just being taunted, played with, teased.
“I might as well just tell you,” my father said soon the next week, after work. He had a lopsided look to his face, beside a striking sunset come in through our blinds, under a tinny howl from a passing train nearly fifteen blocks away, but our town so free of tumult even the edges heard all there ever was to hear. And, deep down inside, I knew.
“…looks like something was found in the river or washed up in a ditch long the highway, pertaining to your friend…and she was hurtin about something…had to be…”
My father set our local daily paper down in front of me. I read a front-page story taking over the lower right quadrant of the page, but it took up the whole for me. She would have been all by herself. So now, they say she went into the water alone and willingly: upset about reasons to do with a father not around, and a face only a mother could love, and a popularity in school never found. But I had thought, or knew, Tatiana wasn’t the least bit concerned with those ideas of her. I wanted to know what fingerprints were left on her stretch-marked hips and around her throat and untwisted from her hands she thought loved her or wanted her or needed her or felt she was good enough. I wanted to know when and how he kicked her out his door. I heard the percussions of her spirit and an entire auditorium heard them too. Did they listen? I wanted a manhunt, an uproar, an investigation, a better decision and report. Who would I tell and what would I tell? In back of my mind, I knew I should call another meeting. But, it was summer. We had all gone our separate ways, for now. Until the end of August. It couldn’t wait until then. But, it would have to. Wait—there was nothing to discuss anymore. And though the money had been the subject of our discussions, it hadn’t been the reason for them. What was the river going to do with $5,000 anyway? Did the churches and her mother loose the collected bills on top of it, for delivering the tip the rest of us did not?
When I finished reading Tatiana’s article, my father put us together in a circle in the living room to hold hands and say a prayer for Tatiana in light of what we read about her. But there was no outrage, not from our house or anyone else’s. Just thanks it wasn’t any one of us or ours, sadness the treble, shame and pain the bass.
Her mother actually liked my idea: she put the tap shoes on Tatiana. In her crème casket lined with pink velvet inside, Tatiana’s violet chiffon dress was soft and pretty. She herself looked bruised up and newly untwisted, like something gotten tangled up in a washing machine and rung loose to dry on a clothesline. Her face was bloated to what could have been a picture taken underwater if captured right then. Her mother sat in the front row: taking every smile, hand and hug from the line of people who tip-toed past Tatiana’s body during the processional. It was peaceful and calm. My mother’s later explanation of this conflicting calm would be that it had been so long to wonder and wait and let out the visions of all possible scenarios ahead of time, so we missed that part.
Martin Taylor was not there among us. Our drama teacher and some of the high school people—the Principal, the tap and jazz lady, the P.E. guy, our homeroom teacher, the front desk lady, a nurse, a few others, the only whites there—convened in a straight huddle in back of my church. I had heard the Drama teacher say, real loud, she just got back from Russia last week, missing everything about it all. The school people chirped out nice head nods and waves, like they had caught me in the hallways late to class but: “It’s okay.” In only a month, they would chirp and wave at me like that continuously, without ever once asking me how I spent my summer or why we had to see each other over it. LaQuita and Selena stayed away. Our church was on such a far-off road none of their people would drive them out to it. James and Sweet Tooth rode their bikes, to miss most of the funeral. They waited outside in t-shirts and shorts until the guests fuddled out into the foyer, ready to drive to a gravesite.
Those who hadn’t read the full obituary, or the note tacked on back at the bottom, pulled their car keys out their pants pockets and shirt pockets and purses to jingle them in anticipation of a ring leader for the slow funeral march throughout the few streets it took to make it to the burial ground. I kept searching for chaos and tempers and rage, but there seemed to be only peace. As if a baby bird fell from its nest onto the sidewalk, eyes crust shut and mouth stuck out wide and dry, and took its last breaths in a hard Nike shoebox after earnest people tried to water and feed it. There was just this empty “awww” in the air. Two humpbacked Deaconesses in white stockings, shoes, skirts, blouses, jackets and hats circulated through the chit chat, laughter, catch-ups and long-lost friend sightings to guide Tatiana’s funeral visitors to the back of their programs for further instructions:
“Tatiana Gladdon is loved by many in this world who would wish to mark her grave. However, it is her mother and family’s wish she be cremated and her ashes scattered over the river which called her home.”
I remembered this would be happening. I had heard our preacher discuss it when he talked of loaning our church to the “stricken” family for “at least the poor child to have a funeral.” I felt numb about the news and its forecast. I would have nowhere to visit Tatiana or to leave flowers. There would be no stone sledge anywhere to send out a message or sudden thought from my head as I passed up in high school, piano lessons, first jobs, and eventually my future plans I never shared with Tatiana out loud—but I started to think of seriously for myself only because she talked of her future so much. I and the others would be spared the thought of Tatiana’s skeleton as we grew up out of the school buses and onto our first used or hand-me-down cars. We would round the bends of the two graveyards on our ways to Kmart and Walmart and the mall without so much as blowing a kiss back to her, or placing the top of our shoes at tip of her tombstone.
I had something to do before I went downstairs to eat with the others—because I ventured on to Tatiana’s thing now. Her Burgundy Wine lipstick. I went in the bathroom to find two women I never saw. They did not have any features Tatiana’s family would have. Their sea foam and pink Sears-like suits, with hats to match, blocked the wall-length mirror I came in for. First, they began to fuss with the knobs on their clutch purses, to fuss on with powder puffs and cigarette cases. Next, they looked at each other with disapproval and disbelief. I saw it. I could have sat down in the antique white chair set against the corner, near the table for the Kleenex and peppermints and free feminine products. Instead, I slipped into one of two toilet stalls to wait for the women to leave.
“No right and proper burial,” one of the women said. “Chile, chile.”
“What happened to all this money all these churches round here begged from folks, and that landlord gave on top of all the churches collected?”
“Gone honey. They say somebody saw the body, claimed that money and took off without even giving a dime of it back to this girl’s mama for her to have a coffin.”
“She got one, Dolores.”
“Funeral home loaned it, Marge.”
“Well folks only got so much. Couldn’t collect no more. That’s her mama fault.”
“Honey hush yo mouth.”
“You hear me, don’t you?”
“What they know?”
“Wait ‘til we get out of church. But put it to you like this: that girl was something else. And her mama is too. I woulda walked in a river too.”
They puffed again and covered it with blasts of Avon perfume. When they opened the door to leave, the smell of feasting in Tatiana’s honor and the laughs from crowds of people whooshed in for a second. The scent cut off and the soundbite hushed me all by myself again. I looked in the mirror, pulled the lipstick out of my pocket, spread it on my lips, rolled my fingers cross it for a little on my cheeks too and I loved the way I looked.
In the church basement, my mother was too busy to look at me. She and other women arranged collected pans of fried chicken, hams, greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, cornbread dressing, green beans and bacon, mashed potatoes, gravy and butter biscuits for our once-visitor who had no church home of her own but who, as the preacher guessed: “was sure enough considering the right hand of fellowship in this here church and had her eyes focused clear on God’s benevolent mercy in the meek and unostentatious fashion truly the most sincere and meaningful, the private victory with Christ man can not see nor can man hear, but which God honors with the blessings at his bosom this child here rests within right now.”
On one of the long folding tables, my little sister hung on to my father with her arms around his neck. She chewed his tie. They were too occupied, being normal, to look at me. My mother sweat underneath a blue hair bonnet in the back kitchen area, where she passed out newly-heated pans to the women who ladled and tonged our plates in an assembly line of guests hungry after an hour of choir and another of preaching. She was too busy to look my way. Most people were already on seconds by time I came down. I stood in line to collect a slice of ham and a chicken wing and soft macaroni and mashed potatoes to deal with. Then, I found James and Sweet Tooth at one of the back tables for all the strangers there. To get out of talking to anybody else or having anybody look at me, I went to eat with them. We said “’Sup?” first, and then I concentrated on my plate.
James finished, belched, looked at me like I grew inches since last time he saw me and asked: “What you taking next semester?”
“Huh?” I would only be a sophomore. Nobody but junior and seniors thought about what to take next, or maybe some of the company owner and judges’ kids who got pushed to the schools with ivy on the sides and $40,000 price tags. The rest of us waited to be told what was best according to how we felt we should think and what we thought we should do to keep on thinking it. To be a teacher, of music, I must keep on taking the piano class and maybe even join the school choir. My church choir alone wasn’t good enough. In church, it was just for show. The school choirs learned more classical. They also went to State each year to compete, and I could add any group medals on to my resume. My plans weren’t concrete enough to be spoken. James’ concern just seemed like something to say while we pulled meat off bones, before we set them in dipped compartments on our paper plates. We stopped talking for now.
Sweet Tooth perked up out of his stupor, when one of the women who had been in the bathroom began to march out of a side door leading to the kitchen. She held trays topped with small paper plates of triangular slices of cherry pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and German chocolate cake. The sea foam-green dressed woman rolled out the display of sweets on a short red-clothed table nearest to Tatiana’s mother, a few women who resembled her, the same man guest I had seen at the house, and an older man dependent upon a cane, as one of his legs bent straight in front of him underneath maroon dress pants. Part of his tuxedo. A very large woman next to him hung off her chair nearly. She spittled at her mouth, with each drink from her paper cup or spoonful from her plate. A group of younger boys at the table, all dressed in black highwater pants, kept coming to her with napkins and another bowl and more water. Tatiana’s mother squeezed between the man and woman like a daughter, or goddaughter, or granddaughter.
Our church’s usual organist and pianist, who had promised to show me runs and improvisation, continued the music he began upstairs. He gave us the slowest possible renditions of “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Go Down, Moses” we could take and still recognize the songs. He began something else I didn’t care to name because I was too busy concentrating on cake. But I should have guided him better, to tell him this was just our church where her funeral had been and not Tatiana’s normal place; she would have wanted to hear Gershwin or Ellington or Usher. To dance. I stayed back with the boys.
Our Principal started to leave first, and most of the school people with him. The Russian Drama teacher stayed. She was first to stop at the cake table to grab two little sweet potato pies. She nibbled at them. She sat for a long time with her hands folded on top of Tatiana’s mother’s hands, in a quiet speech I could only imagine included how talented she saw Tatiana truly was. Then, it looked as if she wrote information down back of an obituary stacked near Tatiana’s mother’s round black sequined purse. In the middle of all this, I took chance and risk no one would notice me if I went for the slices of peach cobbler and cherry pies Sweet Tooth hinted he wanted a few of. I should have waited.
I met eyes with Miss Gladdon, and the others at her table. They noticed me. They held out their arms, as they had when I popped up past Tatiana’s crowded and musty house during six weeks in a summer where someone we knew and loved was gone, disappeared, silenced, most likely unhappy, most sadly inconsolable, lost and in a dark dark whose moments or experiences no one felt worth mentioning now. I came over.
“Well, ain’t you just a good-looking thing?” said the large, large woman with trembling parts all over. “I’m gonna have to steal that lipstick.” She winked at me.
“You gonna come on by the house tomorrow and eat something before we go back down South, now ain’t you?” another lady asked me. “And bring by your friends?”
“Well, I have to ask my parents,” I said.
“Oh, they know where you are at my place,” Miss Gladdon said. “You right on round the corner. They know where to find you. We all family here.”
And she turned to the other women sitting around her and the mismatched couple I would learn tomorrow as Tatiana’s father’s parents, and the good teacher who smiled and nodded her head while she reached out for my hand to share the sweat in its palms.
“This Ricky,” her mother said. “Tatiana’s best friend.”
And all their big and small and tired faces nodded at me with approval and belief.
Kalisha Buckhanon is author of the novels Conception and Upstate: an Essence bestseller and winner ofan AmericanLibrary Association Alex Award, Audie Award in Literary Fiction, Terry McMillan Young Author Award, and Hurston-Wright Foundation Debut Fiction nomination. Her next novel, Solemn, arrives May 2016 from St. Martin’s Press.
Her short fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Fiction International, pluck! Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Deep South Magazine, Winter Tangerine Review, Stockholm Review, Intellectual Refuge and more. Her nonfiction appears on women’s websites such as SheKnows, BlogHer, Clutch, and xoJane.
Kalisha has her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City, and her B.A. and M.A. in English Language and Literature from University of Chicago. She teaches with The Eckleburg Workshops directed out of Johns Hopkins. You may visit her website Kalisha.com, her blog Negression.com and social media @KalishaOnline.