Right There in
Black and White
Ahead of him, the image of the green signal light caught in the office storefront, twisted in the glass with each of his steps and turned momentarily amber, then red, as he and Brigitte approached. He saw a figure on the sidewalk twenty paces farther on, and it brought him up short.
He’d been thinking about his new client, Khatty Ma, who’d just left the studio an hour ago, high from the recording session. She was going to hit it big if she could just get a little nudge from an established artist.
The figure ahead was surely human, supine, but with head and shoulders propped against the concrete wall, motioning with a hand . . . unless that was a trick of the four-AM darkness. A drunk passed-out or a homeless guy half-asleep.
He moved forward tentatively, twisting Brigitte’s leash around his huge hand to make it taut. The whisking-clapping of his flip-flops now seemed loud against the freeway background noise, its half-mile-distant traffic relatively light. Dressed in red gym shorts and his black Life-is-Good tee, he made a full stop in the storefront glass, where an Italian cypress rose darkly next to him from a cutout in the concrete. Brigitte was straining at her leash now, anxious to get home or to meet the horizontal human a hundred or so French-bulldog paces ahead.
He heard a car inside the apartment building’s garage as it approached the exit gate, which was where he’d been heading. Then he saw the beam from its headlights and watched it emerge from the garage and turn onto the street, wondering if its appearance had something to do with the human lying there in his path. He watched the car, a bronze Ford sedan, as it rolled toward the still-red traffic signal. The silhouette of its driver barely showed in the dim ambient light.
This was a time to go slow. He put his hand against the store’s window and leaned, taking some weight off his right foot, and considered the prone figure, which he could see a little more clearly now—not a large figure, a woman probably, light-skinned, dressed in some kind of short robe, legs exposed. That wasn’t asleep. That wasn’t drunk.
His heart sledged at his ribcage.
Probably best to mind my own business and go on home, he thought. A young Black man doesn’t just find a white woman dead on the street. No, a young Black man who finds a dead white woman must have had something to do with putting her there . . . something to do with making her into a dead white woman. Mama had warned him about things like this. Even Mama, who was white, knew it was important to pass on that nugget of wisdom. Not just important, critical.
But then, maybe she’s not dead, and I’m standing here like a fool when maybe I could keep her from dying.
He looked farther up the street to where the apartment building’s garage exit and its side entrance both beckoned, only another thirty yards or so.
Just walk on by, he told himself. Don’t run. He glanced at the Ford, which was waiting for the signal light to change. Suppose the cops talk to that guy, the driver, and he says he saw a big Black dude with funny looking skin running away from the dead white woman. Then what do I say? “Woman? What white woman?” Or the cops find a surveillance video, and that becomes the headline for some skinhead’s blog post: “Black man ignores woman’s plea for help.”
The air drifted from the west, warm and wet and salty. His heart was beating normally again. He wound Brigitte’s leash around his hand again so he could keep her away, he hoped, from the corpse. He walked, arcing toward the curb, as far as possible from the woman while still staying on the sidewalk.
Brigitte strained, trying to go greet the white woman. Brigitte was stubborn and strong for her thirty pounds, but no match for him at six-three and two-ninety. They had actually gotten past the woman a couple steps, despite Brigitte’s incessant claw-clacking on the concrete, when a sound came from the woman. A groan or a belch or a call for help or maybe just something in the young Black man’s imagination. Whatever it was, his heart began pounding again, mauling his ribs. Brigitte had frozen, mid-clack.
He faced the horizontal figure and strained to see it, looking for movement. Nothing. He pulled out his phone and made the call. He pictured Mama, back in Arizona, shaking her head at him and telling him he was being foolish and bullheaded.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”
He hesitated, maybe because the operator sounded like another white woman, or maybe because he didn’t really know what the emergency was. “There’s . . . there’s a woman here on the street, and I think she’s dead. I don’t know.”
“What is your location, sir?”
“Sherman Oaks. She’s by my apartment building, but kind of around the side.”
“Give me the address, please.”
“Six-hundred East Olive.” No that was his old address over in Burbank. “Umm,” he said, trying to remember the new one. Couldn’t they tell just by tracking his iPhone with DHL the way Lyft does?
“That’s not a Sherman Oaks address,” the woman said.
“Yeah, umm . . .”
“Is anyone else there with you?”
He looked around, then scanned the apartment balconies above, most of which were not only vacant but dark.
“The woman you’re referring to—have you checked her pulse?”
“NO.” He wasn’t sure he knew how to do that. “I was coming back from walking my dog and—”
Brigitte lunged, and he yielded, bringing him a couple steps closer. He wound the leash around his hand one more time. He could see the woman’s hands distinctly now, one of them limp in her lap.
“Can you give me your name and callback number, sir.”
“Me?” He hesitated again, wishing he’d entered the building from the front instead of circling to the side so he could grab the Juuls from his car. Then he’d have never seen this dead white woman or whatever it was. “Sure, I guess so. Don’t you have my number showing up there on your equipment?”
The operator didn’t say anything.
“I’m Kendi Liston.”
“Kendi. Kilo, echo, November, delta, India.” He was used to this part, and it almost made him smile. “It’s an old family name.” It meant “loved one” in some African language, but he wasn’t going to bring that up.
“Liston, like the fighter?”
“The boxer, yes, ma’am. He’s like a third cousin.” Kendi could hear noises through the phone—faint background voices, fainter still keyboard taps.
“And your number?”
Kendi gave it to her.
“That’s an Austin area code.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He wished he was in Austin right now. Not the center of the music universe, but running along nicely in the top five—even has a few hip-hop artists coming through now and then. Seattle would be fine too . . . even Nashville. Anyplace but here.
“Are you concerned for your own safety right now?”
Yes and no, he thought. “No. ma’am.”
“Is the woman breathing?”
“I can’t tell, really. But I don’t think so.”
“Can you find out? I have help on the way.”
“How . . . how do I do that? It’s kind of shadowy here.”
“Look more closely. Can you see her chest rising and falling?”
Kendi began to wish he’d never made the call. “I’ve got my dog here with me, Brigitte, my dog, and I don’t want her getting closer.” And me, I don’t want to get any closer.
“Have you got that address for me, sir? You said you were in Sherman Oaks.”
“Right,” Kendi said. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the address on his lease papers. “Willis. It’s on Willis Avenue. Forty-four-hundred or something like that. I really need to get going.”
“I need you to stay on the line, sir, until we’ve located this woman.”
What if I just clicked off, he wondered. He wished he would have thought to block his number.
“Do you know the woman?” the operator asked. “Or recognize her?”
“Know her? Hell, no.” His mama was inside his head again, this time telling him his mouth was what always got him in trouble. “I just got home from a session at the studio, and Brigitte had been crated up in the apartment since yesterday afternoon, so I took her out for a walk . . .”