Amiri’s hands were clammy. And he could feel bits of sweat trickle down his back. But, he took a deep breath, knowing that the longer he stayed in the car, the worse it would get. Amiri grabbed his keys, grabbed his wallet, and hopped out into the cold. Crowds of people filled the streets, as the bright lights from the shops glowed like full moons. Amiri kept his focus, however, and crossed the street, where he asked a woman in a bright blue dress if her name was Ida. She smiled at him, and he remembered to smile back. They soon headed into the nearby restaurant, alongside a dozen other couples, all of whom were smiling and laughing as loud as they could to each other’s jokes.
. . .
After Amiri told Ida she looked pretty, she grinned, and bit by bit, she began to open up. As Ida spoke of her job, and made jokes (which he also remembered to laugh at when appropriate), Amiri had time to settle in and see the positive side of things. Yes, the prices at the restaurant were high, and yes, it was so-called Asian fusion, which really meant all the cooks were white or had visited an “Asian” country once and thought the fat Buddha was real. But he was here, with a beautiful woman on a beautiful night.
“So, Langston tells me that you’re a journalist?” she said.
Amiri kept his smile. The food arrived. It was grilled chicken covered in shredded peanuts and therefore called Thai Supreme.
She stuck the fork into the chicken and lifted it to her lips, bright red.
Beautiful woman, Amiri reminded himself. You’re with a beautiful woman. It’s winter but not too cold. It’s a Friday night in downtown Jersey City, in the midst of all this wonderful sight and sound.
“I am,” he said, and cleared his voice. “I’m a staff writer for The Jersey Tribune. I’ve worked there for a year now.”
“Well, what do you write about?” she asked, as she lifted another piece to her mouth, the lipstick starting to smudge.
Amiri stared. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was smiling. Here he was, free to laugh and smile as well, like the statue of the fat Buddha in the corner, like the waiters when offering suggestions, like all of them in this part of town. And yet, out there…out there…his mind couldn’t complete the thought. It was then that he saw it again: the body lying on the ground. It flashed before him. He took a deep breath, but it flashed again, over Ida’s face. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?” she asked, as he stood up, causing the chair to fall. “I shouldn’t be here,” he said, and rushed out. He could hear Ida’s voice, but he continued, past his car and down the block, as far as he could before he had to stop and figure out where he was. He looked around, and saw a bus just a few feet away from him. He boarded it, and after taking apart his phone and leaving the pieces scattered under his seat, he sat in absolute silence as the bus left the city.
. . .
It was exactly five weeks prior to Amiri going missing when the first winter chill engulfed the state. Amiri was at his desk at the Tribune, typing up police reports for quick blog posts. Man in Bayonne charged with beating his wife with baseball bat, he typed. Police in Jersey City arrest five men, aged 17-25, for selling narcotics. Each can face upto 15 years in prison. Just as he was about done, his phone rang. It was Langston.
“Hey man. Am I interrupting? Of course I am. Anyway, what’s up?” Langston said.
Amiri grinned as he balanced his phone between his right shoulder and right ear, and kept typing. “Are you bored at work again?”
“Ha! Can’t get bored with making money my young Padawan,” Langston replied. “Hey, did your sister’s friends change the party to next Friday?”
“They did. More people said they would be free next week instead.”
“That’s fine. We need to get there early though, so we can actually surprise her.”
“I know man, that’s why I’m working earlier hours starting next Monday.”
“Dude, didn’t you work 14 hours straight a couple of days ago? Instead of getting paid the shit amount that you do, can’t you just transfer those overtime hours and take off early on the day of the party?”
Amiri grinned. “You obviously should know how crazy that sounds. And you know what? I’m not even supposed to be taking personal calls while I’m in the newsroom.”
“Oh right, we don’t want you to stick out, apart from the fact you’re the only black man on the entire staff,” Langston said.
Amiri chuckled, and called him dumb. They agreed to meet up over the weekend. Amiri finished up typing and read over for any mistakes. Man in Bayonne charged with his beating wife with baseball bat. Wife was found with broken jaw and broken hand on driveway. He focused on each line, till the words began to blur, till he saw blood on top of black tar. He blinked his eyes and his mind returned to the newsroom, which echoed with the sound of typing.
. . .
Amiri’s last assignment for the day was to tour abandoned properties in the town of Churchill, which bordered Jersey City and Bayonne, and was Amiri’s least favorite place in New Jersey. To Amiri, Churchill represented the worst the state had to offer, with its predominantly white power structure and its black and brown population fading away in dead-end jobs. However, Churchill was filled with abandoned properties, and articles written about what was inside them was popular among readers and whatever was popular among readers was gold for the editors. Apparently, people enjoyed reading about all the nasty stuff reporters would find, from crumpled clothes covered in cockroaches to dried human feces left in random corners. Amiri met with the police sergeant and his five-man crew as they got ready to look inside a two-story house that had been foreclosed on months ago. Amiri wore his mask as they entered, and at first, it was the usual and expected that they found, such as toothbrushes left behind, or simply a fridge with rotten food. The sergeant and his men, who also wore masks, would flash their lights into each room, chuckle to one another and move on. Amiri continued to write notes, but as they walked deeper into the home, an unbearable stench took hold. The sergeant and his men headed up the stairs, and Amiri could hear them coughing. Before Amiri could ask what was going on, his own eyes started to water. He wiped off the tears with his sleeve, and as he did, he could hear the sergeant whispering to his men, and the men not saying a word. Amiri looked back up. The sergeant and his men were on the second landing, standing around what looked like a body. Amiri blinked. The sergeant looked at Amiri and said something, but it was muffled, as Amiri stared at the body, as it lay face down on the ground.
. . .
It took about a week for the body to be identified as Cheddi Jagan, aged 21, a first generation Guyanese-American. He had been shot in the chest and head. He had an older sister named Rhona, who lived along Newark Avenue in Jersey City. Amiri’s editors called him at his desk, and instructed him to interview the sister. “Find out if he was a drug dealer or some sort of trespasser,” they said, before hanging up. Amiri, who spent hours in the shower the day they found the body, and over the weekend, stayed in his studio apartment and watched nothing else but reruns of old sitcoms, managed to drive to the apartment complex where Rhona was staying, and as he parked, spotted her heading to the bus stop at the corner.
“Excuse me? Can I please speak with you for a moment?” he asked as he trailed after her.
She glanced and saw him but wouldn’t slow down.
“Ma’am, please, I’m with The Jersey Tribune,” he quickly explained. “I’m writing a story about your brother and – – -”
Rhona stopped and glared at him. “You want to put something in the paper,” she said. “How about put down the fact that for weeks, the police knew my brother was missing. Weeks! And all they ever did was put up a few posters, while criminals dragged my brother to that house and left him there!”
Amiri stood absolutely still, and didn’t dare look away from Rhona’s face, as tears began to run down her cheeks. “Remember, that while you and everybody else was out having a good time, with your friends, with your family, my brother, my best friend was rotting in that house….” she paused. “Remember that,” she said and before Amiri could recover his voice, she continued down the block, boarding the first bus that arrived. Amiri watched till the bus turned a corner and disappeared from view.
. . .
He wrote up the article as fast as he could and drove to his sister’s house in Montclair. He arrived just as his sister’s friends and her two housemates were getting everyone to hide behind the couches and other furniture. They told Amiri to crouch next to Langston over by the curtains.
“Hey man, why haven’t you returned my calls?” Langston said.
“I was busy,” he answered.
“Hmm. Well, are you free this weekend then?” Langston asked.
Amiri simply stared at the front door, till he realized that Langston was still waiting for a response. “I don’t know, I might be working overtime” he said.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just some stress from work.”
“Dude, you have to learn to leave that stuff behind at your job. You deserve to enjoy life.”
Amiri nodded. A few seconds later, his sister arrived, dropping her briefcase to the floor as everyone cheered, “Happy Birthday!” One by one, they hugged her, and soon, everyone was passing around chips and brownies. Amiri handed his sister her birthday card, which made farting sounds when you opened it. She shook her head at him and smiled. She asked him why he didn’t call the past week. “Is everything okay, little bro?” she said.
He told her that he was just busy with work.
She looked at him for a moment, examining his face. He smiled as wide as he could.
Once the music started, everyone was dancing and singing along. Langston couldn’t dance, but he was able to awe a group of women with stories of him working as a marketing consultant, brushing elbows with famous designers and even athletes. Amiri couldn’t dance either, but stood by the wall and listened and chuckled. He took tiny sips of the fruit punch and began to tap his feet to the music. “I propose a toast to our birthday girl!” one of his sister’s housemates exclaimed and everyone raised their glasses. Amiri lifted his own cup as well, soaking in the moment, the grandeur of the gesture. His sister thanked everyone for coming, and looked at Amiri and thanked him especially for being her closest friend. With his cup still up in the air, he focused on keeping his hands steady.
. . .
Amiri woke up Saturday in the early morning when it was still dark out. Through an online database, he discovered that Cheddi had been in juvenile detention for a few months when he was 16, but since graduating high-school, he worked at a car garage in downtown Churchill. Cheddi’s boss, who Amiri called up and explained that he was looking for more information for an article, described Cheddi as the perfect employee. Cheddi would even come to work extra early to get the job done, but on the day that he went missing, he wasn’t even picking up his phone, and his uniform was gone from his locker. “I can’t smile, or laugh anymore,” the man told Amiri. “I feel like I’d be dancing on his grave if I did.” After the interview, Amiri went back to the abandoned house. It was noon, but once he stepped inside, the sunlight was sucked dry, as the boarded up windows blocked out the daytime. With his cellphone in his hand, he walked up the steps, and around the police tape, to the exact spot where the body was found. He aimed his flashlight at the walls and at the ceiling, and heard a sound, like a thud. He quickly typed up a text that read, Langston, I’m at 12 Jefferson Road, Churchill, call help and kept his finger on the send button, as he slowly walked down the hallway. He didn’t hear the sound again, but after pointing his flashlight ahead of him, he found a large swastika on the wall, looming. His breathing got swallow, as he stood still, and traced the swastika with the flashlight. There were drops of what looked like blood beneath it. His phone rang. “Fuck!” Amiri jumped, and answered it. “Where are you?” his editors asked. “I’m getting coffee,” Amiri said. “Go to downtown Churchill for a groundbreaking,” the editors told him and hung up.
The groundbreaking was for a new condominium complex slated to be completed by 2016. Construction would begin next spring, but the mayor and the owner of the condominium company wore their hard hats and pretended to shovel dirt as the cameras flashed. Amiri jotted down some notes, and after the press conference, interviewed the mayor himself about the project. “Isn’t this lovely?” he told Amiri. “To be able to see this town grow and prosper as it always should’ve.” Amiri nodded, as he kept writing in his notepad. “We are so lucky and blessed to be here,” the mayor continued. Amiri flashed a smile, but a lump had formed in his throat. The mayor stood and waited, but all Amiri could do was nod. Instead of asking anyone else more questions, he drove straight back to his apartment. When his editors called, he told them he was feeling sick. After sitting on his bed, staring at the walls for an hour, Amiri called up Langston instead, and told him he wanted to go somewhere.
. . .
Langston took Amiri to all the spots he knew would help, such as the comedy club in New Brunswick, to the arts center in Holmdel.
Amiri even agreed to go on dates again.
He first tried out online dating but he kept meeting women who didn’t know who Octavia Butler was, so he relied on friends setting him up, which was something he had never done. But it didn’t matter anymore to Amiri, as he tried to fill each hour of every day with something to do or someplace to be.
He even tried doing stand-up on open-mic night, where he got up on stage as the last performer, as midnight crept closer, and basically lectured the crowd on why calling certain food “ethnic” was both derogatory and small-minded. “Plus, the happy Buddha is not the real Buddha,” he said. “Buddha was from India. He wasn’t some fat guy who was jolly all the time. That doesn’t make any sense. He was about suffering and empathy and balancing between the extremes, not about having a statue of him in your living-room foyer.”
Langston was the only one who stood up and clapped. “That was so bad,” he said as Amiri returned to his seat without trying to make any eye contact with anyone else in the room. Langston laughed, as Amiri grinned.
Amiri continued to work at the paper, interviewing sources, collecting data, typing up police reports. Man beats up girlfriend with chair, and throws her down second floor stairs. Police found the girlfriend barely breathing but alive. Amiri posted the information on the website, and deleted the police report, before moving onto the next one, and the next, and the next.
The week before Amiri went missing, he was instructed to go and report on Churchill’s demolishing of some of its abandoned houses. There was a large crowd who watched as the wrecking-ball crashed through house after house, the foreclosure signs covered up in dust. The mayor wasn’t there but Amiri recognized a representative from the condominium company wearing a hard hat and standing in the crowd. Amiri prepared some quick questions, and wrote them down on his notepad, but once he looked up, the man was gone. Amiri turned around and around, trying to find him, but just as he was getting dizzy, he saw someone else instead, someone he also knew or at least, thought he did.
Rhona was just a few yards away. She was watching the wrecking ball as well, with her arms crossed and sometimes standing on her toes for a better view. As the crowd dispersed, Amiri stayed. Eventually, it was only him and her on the sidewalk. Rhona saw him.
“I saw the article you published about my brother,” she said, after walking over to him.
Like before, Amiri didn’t say a word. He could tell that Rhona looked thinner, with her cheekbones pushing up against her skin. She told him that she didn’t think it was appropriate that they published the article without a proper picture of Cheddi.
“But I understand that it’s your job,” she said. “I understand we all have our own lives.” She paused, and looked over at the demolished homes, the bricks scattered all around like a bomb had been dropped. “I can’t stop thinking of him,” she said. “And in some way, I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” She kept looking at the demolished houses, and although Amiri felt like he needed to say something important, he couldn’t find the perfect words to do so.
Afterwards, he drove straight to the police station and demanded to see the sergeant. The sergeant appeared after Amiri refused to leave.
“Hi there. What can I help you with today?” the sergeant asked with a wide smile.
“Do you have any leads on what happened to Cheddi Jagan?” Amiri said, with his eyes fixed on the sergeant’s.
The other officers watched them, as the sergeant continued to smile. “A few, possibly. It’s a closed case for now.”
“How is it closed? He was shot.”
“What? You can’t be serious?”
“Don’t I look serious?” the sergeant replied, causing some of the officers to chuckle.
Amiri glared. “I found the swastika,” he said. “And I’ve done some research on this place. I’m well aware of this community’s so-called history.”
The sergeant stood, with the front desk between Amiri and him. The other officers stopped smiling and looked toward the sergeant.
Amiri kept glaring and also did his best to keep his body from shaking. Finally, the sergeant spoke.
“I suggest that you be careful with who you talk to around here,” he said. “Some people might react the wrong way.”
“Is that a threat?” Amiri replied, as he maintained eye-contact with the sergeant.
The sergeant leaned over the desk. “What do you think?” he said.
Days later, Amiri was gone.
. . .
The snow was melting on the roads, and sidewalk, but Langston continued to hop over whatever looked like ice. He entered his apartment, took off his shoes, and turned on the T.V. He got showered, got some food, and sat in front of the screen, the colors covering him. He closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
He was dreaming of a large tree and him standing underneath when there was a sudden knocking at the door. At first, he thought he was still dreaming but the knocking persisted. He looked at his phone. 1:00 a.m.
After a while, Langston realized the knocking wouldn’t stop, so he grabbed a plastic fork and opened the door.
“Hey,” said the man standing outside. He had a short beard, and was very thin, like someone had spray painted over his bones. But Langston, with the fork raised in the air, squinted and tilted his head to the side, until finally, his eyes grew wide. The man chuckled.
Langston couldn’t stop staring as Amiri sat down on the couch and Langston sat across from him on a plastic chair.
Langston made him a cup of coffee and offered him food. But Amiri refused to eat, as he took sips from his cup.
“Have you called your sister yet?” Langston asked.
“You’re the first person I wanted to talk to,” Amiri said.
“Dude, where have you been?” Langston replied. “It’s been forever, and none of us knew where you were, and honestly, I even thought” he paused and gathered himself. “I even thought you were dead…” he said.
Amiri this time looked at Langston, with the steam from the cup rising up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was ready to talk.”
“But where did you go? What were you doing?”
“I was doing more research,” Amiri explained.
Langston glared. “Amiri,” he said. “Either you tell me what’s been bothering you or I’m throwing you back outside so you can do whatever crazy dumb shit you want to do with your life.”
Amiri took a sip. When he looked back up at Langston, tears had formed in his eyes.
Neither of them slept that night. Amiri told Langston about Cheddi’s body and about Cheddi’s sister. He also told Langston that for the past few months, he was trailing after suspected Neo-Nazi groups in southern New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania.
“I know for a fact that there’s a growing underground movement and that the major players in Churchill are connected to it,” Amiri explained in a calm and measured tone. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t uncover any of its major leaders yet.”
“You don’t need to do this alone,” Langston said.
“It’s not that simple,” Amiri said.
Langston sighed. “Listen” he said. “I deal with companies who have products made in sweatshops, companies that want to sell greed and selfishness to the world. And often, I do wonder what I am doing here. Sometimes, I have to tell myself, Langston, you’re the only black person in the room, the only person of color, you’re here to temper their most lustful desires, to make sure that not everything they do or want to do can be done. But that’s getting harder and harder to believe.”
They sat, as bits of sunlight began to show through the window.
“What are we suppose to do?” Amiri said. “Should we just forget?”
“I dunno,” Langston replied. “But you need to call your sister.” He handed Amiri the phone. “And I’m going to make us some breakfast.”
He got up and went to the kitchen as Amiri made the call. Langston cooked some eggs on a pan, as Amiri’s voice floated through the room.
“I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,” Amiri said on the phone. “Yes, I’m here, now” he said. “I’m here.”