The Butcher’s Daughter – Wendy Corsi Staub

The silence gets her. Strange. It’s not as though Aaron ever went banging around the apartment or spoke in a booming voice. These last few months, he’d hardly spoken at all. Yet on this morning, six weeks into his absence, stillness hangs in the Upper West Side apartment. Even the streets far below their—her—bedroom window are oddly quiet. The city that never sleeps seems to be snoozing right through the dawn of the New Year. Amelia Crenshaw Haines had intended to do the same, having lain awake long after watching the ball drop in Times Square. On television, not the real thing forty-odd blocks down Broadway. But this isn’t going to be one of those easy, lazy mornings. Might as well get up and get moving, like she has someplace to go, something to do. Child, it’s Sunday, and you can just get yourself to church, her mother’s voice drawls in her head. Bettina Crenshaw had never missed a service at Harlem’s Park Baptist. How tickled she’d have been to see her grown-up daughter sing there in the gospel choir every other Sunday. But Amelia’s been on hiatus since November.

You can’t resonate uplifting spirit when it’s been depleted from your own life. In the sleek, just remodeled bathroom, she plucks the lone toothbrush from the holder and finds perverse pleasure in breaking one of Aaron’s rules: squeezing a tube of Crest in the middle. When she turns on the faucet, the new pipes don’t creak like the old ones did, and when she turns it off, it no longer continues to drip. She brews coffee in the sleek, also-just-remodeled kitchen. True to his word, the contractor had finished it just in time for Thanksgiving. But Amelia had spent the holiday at her friend Jessie’s boisterous Ithaca household; Aaron had been in New Jersey with his family. He’d moved out the week in mid-November. Nobody had an affair. There was no dramatic argument. They’d tried couples counseling.

It confirmed that they’d simply grown apart. In the living room, Amelia opens the shades to a towering skyline. The overcast sky is patched with blue, the same shade as the tiny dress mounted in a shadow box across the room. The dress and the tightly woven sweetgrass basket on an adjacent shelf are precious tangible links to whomever she’d been before she became Amelia Crenshaw on Mother’s Day 1968. Amelia was eighteen when she discovered, at Bettina’s deathbed, that she wasn’t her parents’ biological daughter. Her father—Calvin Crenshaw, the man she’d grown up believing was her father —told her she’d been abandoned as a newborn in Park Baptist Church. He said he’d discovered her in the basket, wearing the dress and a little gold sapphire-studded signet ring, which she’d lost years ago. She settles on the couch and makes room for her coffee mug amid remnants of a solo New Year’s Eve—protein bar wrapper, empty wineglass, half-empty bottle of Cabernet. Not half-full. Not today.

one of Aaron’s rules: squeezing a tube of Crest in the middle. When she In the living room, Amelia opens the shades to a towering skyline. The overcast sky is patched with She’d welcomed the prospect of quietly winding down the season after a rollicking Ithaca Christmas, but New Year’s is about nostalgia for auld lang syne and resolution for the year ahead. Her own future—and yes, her past, too—couldn’t be more uncertain. A recent surge in autosomal testing has made her job easier as lab results are processed and loaded into online databases. And a few months ago, she’d finally received a genetic hit on her own bloodline. The long-awaited biological match hadn’t resolved the mystery, though. Far from it. Her DNA test had linked her to a woman in Bettina Crenshaw’s tiny Southern hometown—right back to Bettina’s own family tree. If Bettina was Amelia’s biological mother, had Calvin been her biological father? Why would he have made up a crazy story about finding her in a church? Bettina’s Georgia kin have been no help.

Her closest cousin claimed she knew nothing about the Crenshaws taking in an abandoned baby. Yet when Amelia pressed her with the details, she said, “I don’t know about any initial rings for babies . ” Amelia had never mentioned that it was an initial ring, specifically—engraved with a little blue enamel C. Why the lie? Could Bettina’s Southern relatives have been part of a cover-up? Or am I just paranoid? Amelia channel surfs past political news and bickering pundits as the media ramps up for the upcoming Trump inauguration. She also skips images of cozy flannel-clad couples and merry multigenerational gatherings, having almost made it through this season of homey, twinkle-light-lit commercials that remind her of happier holidays. Clicking along, she spies a familiar face. Not her own, though she appears later in this episode of Black historian Nelson Roger Cartwright’s The Roots and Branches Project. She’s been working for a few years now as an on-air genealogy consultant for the program. With Nelson’s new book on bestseller lists, the cable network is airing a holiday weekend marathon to attract his readers and the hundreds of thousands of people who received DNA test kits this Christmas. Amelia turns the channel to a local newscast and swaps the remote for her steaming coffee mug, waiting for a weather report.

If today is nice, she’ll kick off 2017 with a long run in the park. If not, she supposes she’ll watch the Sugar Bowl—though it won’t be much fun without Aaron. The anchorman returns her bleak gaze. “In Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the violent crime rate continued to drop last year, a double homicide at the Marcy Houses yesterday left a mother and daughter dead and neighbors looking for answers.” The scene shifts to an elderly man standing on a Brooklyn street, with a yellow-crime-scene-taped brick doorway behind him. “Don’t know why anyone would do something like that to decent people,” he says, shaking his bald head. “They didn’t bother anybody, and they didn’t have anything worth stealin’.” The screen fills with a pair of close-up photographs of the victims. The older woman is vaguely familiar; the younger is . “The bodies of fifty-three-year-old Alma Harrison and her thirty-one-year-old daughter, Brandy .

” Amelia gasps, sloshing hot coffee over her hand. “. were discovered late yesterday in their apartment by out-of-state relatives who grew concerned when they failed to show up at a family gathering. Police are seeking information and have ruled out robbery as a motive for the brutal slayings, believed to have taken place early yesterday morning.” A recent surge in autosomal testing has made her job easier as lab results are processed and loaded . She’s been working for “Don’t know why anyone would do something like that to decent people,” show up at a family gathering. Police are seeking information and have Brandy Harrison? No. Amelia would know that face anywhere. The dead young woman’s name—at least, when Amelia had met her a few months ago when she’d shown up in Amelia’s office with her long-lost baby ring—had been Lily Tucker. Not only that, but .

Alma Harrison. She hurries into the bedroom to find her phone. Newark Airport Three decades since she’s seen the Manhattan skyline, and she’s on the wrong side of the aisle. When the plane pops out beneath a swirly gray swath, her view is of New Jersey sprawl. Still, she presses her forehead to the window, feigning fascination, back turned to her seatmate. He’d slipped off his wedding ring as he’d boarded back in Punta Cana, leaving a white band etched on his sunburnt finger. She’d pretended that she didn’t speak English. Undaunted, he dusted off his clumsy, American-accented Spanish, claiming his name is Reed and that he lives on the Upper East Side. With his dingy teeth and paunch, he doesn’t look like a cosmopolitan “Reed.” He looks like a Monty from the boroughs—which is exactly who he is, according to the luggage tag she’d glimpsed on his worn nylon carryon.

One duplicitous turn deserves another. She’d introduced herself as Jadzia Hernandez. That’s the name on the expertly forged passport that had been delivered to her suite last night, along with a laptop, and a bouquet of white ginger lilies. She’d slept on crisp hotel linens and boarded her flight long before dawn. Subjected to the Monty monologue, she’d attempted to read the airline magazine, but the type was blurred even when she held it at arm’s length. Her once perfect vision has changed. The world has changed, beyond the secluded tropical haven where she’s spent the last three decades. These days, everyone is plugged into something, lost and insulated. Not Monty. He has much to say and questions to ask, like whether she’s coming to New York on business, or pleasure.

“Ninguno de los dos,” she tells him. Neither one. He waggles bushy eyebrows and says that he can give her pleasure. She shrugs as if the innuendo went right over her head and resumes staring down at ribbons of gray highway winding through gray hills dotted with gray buildings. She remembers a place with turquoise water and verdant mountains and rainbow-hued homes, and knows she’ll never see it again, never see— “Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our final descent. Please be sure that your seatbelts are securely fastened . ” Monty taps her shoulder and informs her in clumsy Spanish that someone who doesn’t speak English won’t be able to navigate ground transportation, and she can share his cab to the city. “Mucho más barato para compartir,” he adds. Much cheaper to share it? So he’s not even offering to pay her way? “No, gracias,” she says with a smile and fantasizes about killing him with her bare hands. When the plane’s wheels bump and race the runway, she turns on her phone and tilts the screen away from her nosy seatmate as her messages load, type magnified to compensate for her farsightedness.

hree decades since she’s seen the Manhattan skyline, and she’s on the wrong side of the aisle. When She’d pretended that she didn’t speak English. Undaunted, he dusted off to read the airline magazine, but the type was blurred even when she held Welcome home. She smiles. “Feliz Año,” Monty says as they part ways in the terminal, pronouncing the second word without the tilde and thus unwittingly transforming the intended “Happy New Year” into “Be happy, asshole.” “Be happy, asshole,” she returns in flawless English, waiting long enough to see Monty’s jaw drop before disappearing into the crowd. Central Park West Stockton Barnes gets off the subway at Eighty-Sixth Street and reaches into his overcoat pocket for his cigarettes before remembering he’d kicked his pack-a-day habit more than three years ago. Damn. If ever there was a time he could use a calming smoke, this is it. Outside, across the street, every bench along the low stone wall is vacant; the park beyond splotched with glowing lampposts and fringed by tall, bare limbs.

He hears a shout from the playground tucked back in there. Not a child, not at this hour, though when Barnes was growing up in Harlem, his father sometimes brought him to the park after dark. “Don’t tell your mother, son. She’ll say it’s dangerous. That woman thinks everything’s dangerous.” Nothing bad ever happened to Barnes on a midnight playground, and his father met his untimely death at home. Keeled over at the breakfast table. Heart attack. Striding north, Barnes sucks deep breaths of chilly night air into lungs that are growing healthier and pinker by the minute. Pedestrians are few—a dog-walking matron wearing more fur than her Pomeranian, a jogger in a headlamp, a pair of teenaged girls in identical thousand-dollar black down parkas with red arm patches.

The jackets had been designed for arctic explorers but are all the rage in Manhattan’s toniest neighborhoods. Barnes’s own, a hundred blocks north, isn’t one of them. He turns left onto West Eighty-Seventh Street. New Year’s Day is just winding down, and already he counts more bedraggled Christmas trees tossed at the curb than are lit in brownstone windows. For many, the holidays are steeped in loneliness, depression, and stress: overspending, overtiredness, overindulgence; fighting off the flu or still fighting with family over the November election results; coping with weather woes and travel snafus. None of those scenarios apply to Barnes, but this isn’t the merriest of seasons for him, either. A longtime detective with the NYPD Missing Persons Squad, he’d just spent December chasing down people who weren’t where they should be, or where their families expected them to be. ’Tis the season for reflecting on the year behind, assessing the one ahead—and for some, resolving to make significant changes that don’t involve significant others. Precious few disappearances at this time of year—at any time of year—involve foul play, though it does happen. Turning right onto Broadway, he spots his destination.

He’s eaten at most of the all-night diners in the city, this one included. It’s not an old-school greasy spoon like some, or one that caters to hipsters or tourists. Just your basic counter-booths-and-tables joint: pie behind glass, ketchup bottles on the tables, and a thick, laminated menu offering everything from hash browns to seared mahi-mahi. Forty minutes late when he steps over the threshold, he figures she must have given up on him. There aren’t many customers at this hour, and he doesn’t see her. There’s just one Black woman here, way back in a corner booth, intent on her cell phone. That’s not her . the intended “Happy New Year” into “Be happy, asshole.” “Be happy, asshole,” she returns in flawless English, waiting long enough to see Monty’s jaw drop ’Tis the season for reflecting on the year behind, assessing the one ahead—and for some, resolving It’s not an old-school greasy spoon like some, or one that caters to hipsters at this hour, and he doesn’t see her. There’s just one Black woman here, Wait, yes, it is.

He’s seen Amelia Crenshaw Haines on television many times and met her in person twice. She’d always worn business attire, fully made-up, her sleek hair falling to her shoulders. Tonight, she has on a navy hoodie emblazoned with gold letters. Her hair is tucked under a Yankees baseball cap, and her face, when she looks up, bears no evidence of cosmetics. She puts her phone away as he slides into the booth. “Trying not to be recognized?” “Recognized?” “You’re a celebrity. On TV, and all. People must bother you when you’re out in public.” “Oh, yeah. Me, Halle, Taraji, Beyoncé .

pesky fans stalk gals like us, you know?” “Sorry I’m late.” “What happened? Get hung up watching the big Rose Bowl comeback?” “What comeback?” “Penn State scored twenty-eight points in the third quarter. USC tied up the fourth with a minute left and won with a forty-six-yard field goal.” Ah, a fellow football fan—and even prettier without all the trimmings. She’s precisely the kind of woman who might have convinced this longtime ladies’ man to give monogamy another try . If their paths had crossed in another time and place. If she didn’t already have a husband. And if Barnes, who’d been briefly, reluctantly married and long divorced, hadn’t promised himself that he’ll never go down that road again. “Unfortunately, I missed the game,” he says. “I got held up by a case.

” “It’s fine. I have nowhere to go, except bed.” Barnes doesn’t want to picture her there. No, he does not. Nor does he want to wonder why she needed to meet with him at this hour on a holiday, though he suspects he knows the answer. “Every living creature is equipped with natural instinct, Stockton,” his friend Wash had once told him. “Listen to yours.” Yeah, his instincts tell him to stall whatever’s coming. “How was your New Year’s Eve?” “Oh, uh . fantastic, if you think watching TV is fantastic.

I did catch a glimpse of your pal Rob at the Billboard Hollywood Party.” “Right, one of his artists was performing.” Barnes had met Rob Owens, founder and CEO of Rucker Park Records, in the waiting room of a Brooklyn maternity ward in 1987. That night, Rob’s wife, Paulette, delivered their firstborn son, Kurtis, and a woman named Delia Montague delivered the child Barnes had fathered in a one-night stand. Last summer, after his own ancestral story was featured on an episode of The Roots and Branches Project, Rob had told Barnes about Amelia. “This woman is an investigative genealogist who specializes in reuniting long-lost family members. You should hire her to find your daughter.” “I’ve made a living for thirty years now finding missing people.” “Well, you haven’t found her.” “Who says I want to? Or that she wants to be found?” That was before their autumn trip to Cuba, where Barnes had a shocking encounter he’d never shared with a soul, including Rob.

He’d flown home and hired Amelia to help him find the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was born in October 1987. His DNA test results aren’t even back—yet Amelia has something to tell him, at this hour on a “Penn State scored twenty-eight points in the third quarter. USC tied up the fourth with a minute left Barnes, who’d been briefly, reluctantly married and long divorced, hadn’t promised himself holiday? A skinny young waiter sets a plate and a wineglass in front of her and asks Barnes, “Need a menu, or know what you want?”

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