The most wanted, p.11
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       The Most Wanted, p.11

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  I could hear Cam calling for me, and I turned to go back inside, and then I heard the crash. Not a crash. A big, hollow whump that was even sicker than metal against metal because you knew it was worse, much worse. Right away, people started to scream. I heard a girl crying, “No, no, no, no, no!”

  “Arley!” Cam was all sweaty, his shirt snapped up with the snaps not matching. “What the hell is going on out here?”

  “They were racing the cars around. . . .” Cam leaned over me, and I saw his face sort of heave and his eyes pop and then squint shut tight.

  “Get back out on that patio,” he told me, grabbing my arm so hard I had a bruise the next day. But I fought him, silently, trying to see over his head. . . . The door of that high-up truck was wide open, and the window was smeared and running with blood thick as syrup; you could see the barn through it, shining red.

  I clawed at my brother’s arm. “Cam! Somebody’s hurt!”

  “Some kid’s just puked up is all—”

  “No, Cam, look! It’s not that!”

  “Arley, I said get back on out there!” We both heard the sirens then, and Cam half dragged me back through the living room to the patio. Elena was out there, sort of huddled in my sweater, her makeup all smeared and running, and Eric was trying to push himself high enough on the back fence to see the front drive. I wanted to help him up, but Cam turned then and made us run; we took off out past the corral, where the horses were awake, whickering and plunging around, and back out past a mesquite brake into the easement of some old railroad tracks. I did puke then, puked as we ran up to the top of the embankment, where we could see Eric’s driveway, and an ambulance there, and six blue squads, with their silver stars. “Some kid got sick is all. Jesus,” Cam said. “That Eric, he’s going to be shitsville Monday.”

  “You know something else happened. Somebody got cut.”

  “What happened?” Elena, her breath ragged, kept asking. “What the hell happened?”

  “They were drunk is all. Come here, honey,” Cam said to her, trying to put his arm around her.

  “Let me fucking alone!” Elena snapped at him, stomping off through the broom grass. “I’m going home.” We both just stared at her.

  “Elena,” Cam said, “I’m going to take you.” He looked at me. “Both you all.”

  “Fuck you,” Elena told him. I don’t know why she was so damned mad at Cam; maybe just embarrassment running over on a boil, maybe because she was scared and she was in front of me. “You leave me alone.”

  And off she went in the dark. We could see her under the moon, coming down off the embankment, out past the next place over to the Doreys’, and then way far off, where there were streetlights.

  “What’s that street?” I asked Cam.

  “Kings Highway, I guess. Shit, Arley, I don’t know where we are, but I know we can get to a bus. We ain’t going nowhere near that house.” There were kids all over down there, small as plastic soldiers; you couldn’t tell one from the other, boy or girl, but we saw them fall back as an ambulance went howling out of there. Every light in the house was on, and police cars were threading their way into the driveway, and every so often a siren would go whoop! and kids would go running out of the way. A boy started up the hill right toward where we were, but a cop tripped him and grabbed his arm. Then he let his flashlight sweep the hillside. Cam jerked me down practically to my knees.

  “Go on,” Cam whispered, pushing me, when the light was past us.

  We walked an hour. I had to stop every little while to puke some more. I tried to talk. My head felt broken in quarters.

  “I’m never going to make a drunk,” I told Cam. Cam didn’t say one word. I tried again, telling him, “I’m sorry.” But he didn’t even look at me, and I wished more than anything else in the world that none of this had happened. But if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gone running Monday morning to send Dillon a postcard, practically begging him to let me come and see him.

  Cam and me finally got on the bus up past the mall. Riding home, we passed Elena’s—I tried to see in, to know if she was all right—and then we got out at the stop three blocks from our house. Cam went right off, walking fast ahead of me, and by the time I got inside he was gone in his room. I heard the door slam and the lock click. Mama wasn’t home. I was crying by then. The heel was broken off my boot, and my head felt like I had a wet bathing cap tied on it. I got a piece of bread and the aspirin bottle, trying hard to remember every single thing I’d ever overheard about being drunk, and went upstairs to lie down on my bed. Then the phone rang. Cam picked it up, but I heard him swear and slam it right down. “No one there!” he yelled. Elena said, after we were speaking to each other again, that no, she never made one call.

  I know it was her, though.

  A few moments later, I heard a motorcycle roar up to the front of my house and stop. Just before I fell asleep, I heard its engine gun up again. I was so tired and low, I didn’t even get up to look. I knew everything had changed. In fact, things I didn’t even know about had changed, in terrible ways, things I had nothing at all to do with. They had an effect on me, though. If I had it to do over, I have to think I wouldn’t do it the way I did. I’d have let it stop with Dillon right where it was. I would have been better off in most ways if I had. But I guess I wouldn’t have been me. You don’t get to recognize your destiny for what it is because it comes to you piece by piece. But once you’ve got it, it might be full of grief or easy and happy, but you know it’s yours.

  That night was for sure the end of something. And something else was starting, a change deep down. I was going toward something, and I couldn’t see its shape, but I could tell there was no going back. It was like it was already in my mind, like a name on the tip of my tongue.



  I COULD BLAME the warden of Solamente River Prison for the fact that I became a home owner.

  I still tease Arley that it’s really she, not Ray Henry Southwynn, who’s responsible for my enduring attachment to the money pit at 4040 Azalea Road. But she’s onto me. In fact, she shoots it right back.

  “It was the heat,” she’ll say, looking at me sideways and sly. “All that heat. Annie, New Yorkers can’t handle real heat, you know?” I do. I know exactly what she means. But I’m still not at the stage where I can joke with Arley, woman-to-woman, about things like “heat.” I suppose, despite everything, she’s still a child to me.

  After I visited Avalon, Stuart and I had the first good night we’d had in months. Looking back, I know it was only partly because of my contrition, and partly because Kim McGrory had just got a stay and a new date for the long sleep. When a client was about to die, Stuart had such jits that I could literally feel his skin jump away from me when I touched him. He didn’t mean it. He was just long gone, into the body of the damned, into the mind of the guy planning a meal of fantail shrimp and peach cobbler and a smuggled airplane bottle of Johnnie Walker.

  That night, though, Stuart was between crises. He had stacked up six months’ worth of Basketball Digests (I would nag him: “You already know how those games came out, Stuart,” and he would let his reading glasses slide down his nose and say, “It’s the game, Annie, not the outcome”). But I distracted him, putting on one of his Brooks Brothers shirts over nothing, a costume Stuart could never bear for long, and initiating the kind of practiced, absorbing lovemaking two people who’ve been dance partners for years can perfect if they have the time. Then, though it was after ten, we got up to make coffee and watch True Grit. And when we fell asleep, not touching but in companionable heaps, I felt clean and exercised and lucky, like a stroked kitten.

  When I woke up, Stuart was already gone. I was feeling so good, the way you do after you have had a satisfying night—when people come up to you on the street and ask you what kind of vitamins you take—that I left a message on Stuart’s machine at work: “Who was that masked man? I wanted to thank him,” and then turned to all the Ins in the In bin.
br />   Estralita Gomez’s excellent husband had violated the second restraining order—this time throwing a gallon of red paint through her front window, himself after it. Then a mother from Port Arthur, whose husband was doing time for beating her into a skull fracture with a full six-pack, had left three toddlers (how the hell did she get three toddlers?) at the shelter, with a note entrusting them to whoever could raise them better. Call Social, I scribbled. Call Jeanine.

  Then I phoned my sister, listened to her voice mail: “This is Rachael Singer. . . . I know your financial dilemma can’t wait, but neither can the person’s on the other line, so I’ll call you right back.” I left a message I hoped would produce some guilt—something about not having heard the unrecorded voice of one’s only sibling since Labor Day.

  Finally, I got Lilia to track down Ray Henry Southwynn’s phone number. He’d have been the one who denied LeGrande’s request for a customary conjugal visit with his bride, and he’d be the one who could reverse that decision, no muss, no fuss. Ray Henry was sort of a friend—a decent guy who’d once been, God help us, a social worker in San Antonio. Affable and generous, he was a man who loved women (although never to the extent of offending his lady wife, Fleury) and considered all men guilty until proven otherwise. He was a welter of contradictions, a card-carrying Democrat who stated and believed to the marrow of his Methodist heart that every man Jack in Solamente River Prison was a deserving and justly impounded maggot. He did not like the governor. He did not like the death penalty and would never have worked at an institution where lethal injection—he called it “the poke”—was administered. Fleury served on the board of Women and Children First, sufficient reason for me to excuse myself from this Arley business if it got any further. But all things being equal, with our kind of clients, people aren’t too white-gloved about the exact cursive letter of the law. I had hopes that as the abundantly proud father of two daughters (one, Miranda, a law student), Ray Henry might be sensitive to Arlington Mowbray’s display of spirit if I told him about her. We could get this over with, no major holler, as he himself would say. Ray Henry had told me more than once, after a few beers at various Women and Children First shindigs, that he wanted his baby girls, including Melissa (who must have been about sixteen by now) to be any goddamned thing they wanted and better by half than any man, while still being good wives, obedient to the Lord’s recommendations.

  Well, Arley was trying, after a fashion, to do that.

  One thing was for certain. Of all the prisons in all the hollows of all Texas—and my adopted state specialized in formal confinement facilities of all stripes—Solamente River was the best place for Arley’s dearly beloved to be cooling his heels, because I could reason with the fellow who was standing between the young lovers. I could hear his thoughts on the matter without my blood pressure rising to stroke level. And perhaps I could get Arley out of her unsympathetic jam, and out of my dreams, quickly and easily, without having to resort to a writ of mandamus encouraging the justice system to follow its own stated rules and do what it should—which is more or less the only thing most law is about, anyhow. Despite the nagging sense that this jam was only the honeymoon period (as it were) of the great jam to come for Arley, I’d promised her my best. Besides, there was a principle involved.

  “Ray Henry, ol’ Ray, how’s every single thing?” I said that morning, when I finally caught up with him on my third try at a call, testing out my own best excuse for a drawl. He loved this—the New York Jewish girl trying to redden her neck—and he recognized my voice right away.

  “That’s Warden Southwynn to you, Counselor,” he replied gruffly.

  “You mean . . . it’s over between us?”

  “I recall the distinct offer of a Corona? A Corona at your expense, for the last favor I did you, or my sweet bride did you, which I can’t keep track of, being a man in my fifties burdened with all manner of distress.”

  “Do you mean overcrowded conditions, Ray? Or gum disease? Or what? And anyhow, Corona tastes like piss.”

  “It do, it do, Miz Singer. That’s why you have the lime with it.”

  “How are the girls?”

  “They are sunflowers.”

  “That’s good.”

  “You called to ask about my daughters?”

  “Ray Henry, I got a problem, and you are the only man on earth who can solve it.”

  He sighed. I could hear him open his drawer and take out something metallic to play with. The man was never still. “Tell me,” he ordered after a moment, all business. It gave me a quiver, the way it always did, to be reminded that Ray Henry, no matter how affable, had a steel rod up his butt at the best of times, that he actually considered his job a public service. Maggots were not abused in his jail. But they were not treated, he liked to say, as if they’d gotten their application forms for prep school mixed up with their arrest warrants. By all accounts, the prisoners—the majority of whom, I’d come to believe, were either engaged to, married to, or siblings of the majority of my clients—liked Ray Henry and considered him a fair guy.

  “Ray Henry, you have a guest called Dillon LeGrande—” I began.

  “Him and his kin. We’ve got a special rate for those rivière boys, a corporate rate. Pissants.”

  “Well, come on now. You know the situation. The girl he married has come to me with your denial of his request, and she—”

  “I know what she wants. But more’n that, I know what he wants. And I’m not going to lift my pinkie to see either of them gets it. Especially her. Which you should be thanking me for, Annie.”

  “I’m not going to say I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Aren’t you, then.” It wasn’t a question.

  “Ray Henry, no. I’ve seen this girl. You’ve seen this girl—”

  “Oh my, yes. I had to be present at the tender ceremony just the other day.”

  “But you didn’t try to interfere with that.”

  “I don’t interfere with the laws of the state of Texas, ma’am. And that little girl had her mother’s legal permission to marry the maggot of her choice. And he’s certainly over twenty-one, though he may have the mind of a bird.”

  “But she—”

  “But she nothing, Annie. That little girl is as pretty as a storybook and she has brains in her head, and I’ll tell you the truth—and this is not an official pronouncement, and if I ever hear you treating it as such, you will think a house has fell on you—but I wouldn’t no more let that trash bop her than I’d let him bop my—”

  “So that’s it.”

  “What?” I heard a furious rattling in the background. Someone’s paper clips were getting an aerobic workout.

  “It’s personal.”

  “Annie, it’s not personal. And it has nothing to do with the fact that this little girl is even younger than my Melissa, though she is, and goddammit if that don’t matter to me, even if it don’t to her own mother. What it has to do with is that a conjugal visit will controvert correctional objectives in this case. This guy has boffed jailbait a hundred times.”

  “That doesn’t concern us.”

  “Well, how about this? One of the girls Mister Dillon loved cut her wrists when her papa made her move with the family to get away from him. Your Mister LeGrande was sleeping in the house with her, coming in the window at night—”

  “Jesus, are you kidding?” I breathed. I could have bitten my tongue.

  “I’m not kidding. And some people say he put her up to it.”

  “The suicide attempt . . .”


  “But, Ray Henry, this wasn’t a criminal matter, this thing with the girl, if it even ever happened—”

  “It did happen. But it has nothing to do with my decision. My concern is with the rehabilitative efforts on behalf of this inmate, who will not be served by it. It is asking for trouble, given his nature.”

  “He’s been in real serious trouble, then?”

  “He was probably born trouble. Most of his type

  “But he’s been on report, in repeated situations, for antisocial behavior within the . . . ?”

  “Annie, don’t start with me,” he replied, almost gently, rattling what sounded like the chain on a desk light. “No. Dillon Maggot LeGrande has a clean record for his behavior. He is helpful and cooperative with efforts made toward his betterment.”

  “So you don’t think the benefits of a loving and caring relationship . . . ?”

  “I think that little girl comes into one of those trailers for the night, and we’re going to have this guy and forty-seven other maggots howling at the moon for the next month. She wants to please her man, let her wait out the century. He keeps up like he is, he’s going to get good time. I’m not going to be part of this thing now. It’s denied. Right there in the denial, I speak to the issue of the minor child involved. In my esteemed opinion, it would be a crime.”

  “It would be a crime, Ray Henry, if they weren’t married. Which they are, under the laws of the governance that pays your wages. You know I’m going to have to get crosswise of you on this.”

  “That’s good Texas there, Annie. I don’t give a damn if you do. We can support this denial hands tied, because we can get psychologists to bring in all manner of stuff in confidence. And the fact that our state honors the pioneer tradition of letting little girls get married, figuring if they’re tall enough, they’re old enough, cuts no ice with me.”

  “I think if this has to be a big show, it’s you who’s going to owe me a beer, Ray Henry. And maybe some cold shrimp too.”

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