The most wanted, p.16
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       The Most Wanted, p.16
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  At last, Saturday came. I was meeting Connie G. at the Greyhound, which meant taking two city buses downtown.

  I had to leave early. That meant running right by my mama, which felt like running past a firing squad. There wasn’t no excuse that would be good enough to get me out of my Saturday chores.

  At first I thought she was just going to ignore me, and for once I was really happy about that.

  She saw me, though.

  “Where you going, girl?” Mama asked, soft and blurry, bent over her coffee like it was a flower and she the bee.

  “I have to go out.”

  “Out where?”

  “Just to meet a friend. I have to go right now.”

  “You get you back in here, Arlington. You know you have your things to do. You don’t go noplace on a Saturday.”

  She didn’t even look up. She sure didn’t bother to get up.

  “Bye now, Mama,” I said, and I opened that door and ran, and I didn’t stop until I came to the bus stop. I got on and paid the driver and sat down, and then I took another bus and got off at Alamo Station. Connie was standing there with her backpack slung over her shoulder. I paid again, and we sat down toward the back of the Greyhound, but not too close to the bathroom. Connie started to take out the presents she had got for Kevin LeGrande. An electric razor. A box of Midnight mints. A deck of tarot cards.

  I didn’t have a thing. Not a thing. I looked at Connie and started to cry. “Are you always supposed to bring them something?”

  “Well, it’s not necessary. Not everybody does.” She was just being nice. It made me feel even worse.

  “I’ve been thinking about him so much, I forgot about . . . everything,” I told her.

  “Open your purse, there, girl,” Connie told me, and I took out whatever I had: a pack of Beeman’s, my new hairbrush, my wallet, my makeup bag, and my little book, Poems of Storytelling and Adventure, which I’d bought for my Poe paper and was using now to memorize “The Highwayman” so I could show off for Mrs. Murray. Connie held the hairbrush up to the cold light from the window and said, “There now. It was just like you planned this all out. They need these nice things in there.” And then she picked up the book and set it on her lap. “Girl, you can’t even tell this has been opened up. You just take my pen here and write in it something he’ll always remember.” I took the pen and wrote, “Dillon. I will always remember. Love, Arley M.” And then I looked up at Connie, and she looked at me, and she shook her head side to side real slow, like she didn’t quite believe me, and then pulled me down on her shoulder and rocked me and rocked me as if I were a five-year-old scared of a windstorm. I did just what that little kid would do. I fell asleep on Connie’s arm, and I didn’t wake up until the bus stopped at a pretty green park, which was not a park at all but the planted land that surrounded the maximum-security prison on all sides, the way one of those little felt skirts surrounds a Christmas tree.

  It was just like Connie said. Big heavy women guards with hair cut shorter than most boys’ used the palms of their hands to try to feel whether we had weapons (or bags of pills or pot, Connie told me later) in our pockets. Connie said the guards’ hair was so short because they didn’t want to risk prisoners grabbing hold of it. They felt up under my hair, too, and sort of pulled it out to its full length to see if I had anything stuffed in it. Then I did my braid back up.

  Afterward, I waved good-bye to Connie and they put me on this little bench in a hall with doors at both ends. The doors had windows in them about the size of an envelope. One of the doors opened, and the guard led me into a narrower hall, with windows along one side. In front of every window, a bench was bolted to the floor. Some of the benches were empty. But on the rest of them, women were sitting, talking on telephones. When I got alongside, I could see that there was the exact same setup where the men were. They were all wearing black T-shirts and jeans, talking on phones at big scratched Plexiglas windows with crisscrossed wires embedded in the panes. One prisoner was pretty much the fattest person I’d ever seen. His rolls of flesh started under his chin and got bigger as they went down.

  Then the guard stopped, and I saw him. My Dillon. He got up, quickly, and sort of glanced down, and then he smiled at me. It was a little boy’s smile, sort of silly and embarrassed, and I thought then that I would never love anyone so deeply again. One thing is for sure—I’ll never fall in love again at the same place in life I was then, the place where you don’t know anything about love or sex but what you feel right at that moment, for the first time, for the first person.

  He motioned for me to pick up the phone.

  “Hey,” he said. “Arlington. Arlington.”

  “It’s me.”

  “It’s you.”

  We smiled at each other like fools. I had to look away.

  “Are you okay?” he asked.

  “I’m fine.” I felt my throat closing, could hardly get the words out.

  “Thank you for those things.” The guards had brought the book and the brush around to him before I came in.

  “That’s okay. They sure aren’t much.”

  “They’re sure nice to me. And you sure are pretty.”

  “So are you,” I said, then I said, “I didn’t mean that like it sounded.”

  “That’s okay.”

  We sat there.

  “We only have an hour,” Dillon said then. “You get used to the idea that you don’t have much time to waste. You skip the small talk.” He motioned to me. “Lean closer.” I did. “Put your hand up on the window.” I did. He put his hand up on the other side, as if we were touching palm-to-palm. Our hands were exactly the same size; Dillon was pretty little for a man, though I could see he was strong. I couldn’t feel anything, of course, but I imagined that the glass got hot, the way it would with a stove coil underneath.

  “Arley,” he asked. “Do you love me?”

  I answered, “Yes.”

  “Am I the very first one you ever loved?”

  What did he think? I was fourteen. Dillon told me, though, and I guess I already knew it, that plenty of girls my age had already done everything. He thought that maybe one of Mama’s boyfriends had touched me, or worse. I told him that nothing like that had ever happened. He wanted to know what I’d done with boys, and I told him the truth. Not one thing. “People I knew,” Dillon said, “didn’t do much until they was in high school, at least. But I know, from personal experience—and excuse me for this, Arley—that Gracie Gutierrez was doing boys she wasn’t but in seventh grade. Not me. At least not then. But I know those who had her. Connie’s a good girl, though. I know she never slept with Kevin yet.”

  “Well, how could she? He’s . . . he’s in here.”

  “You’d be surprised, Arley.”

  “Aren’t they always watching, though?”

  “Not always. I mean, sometimes they look the other way in the visiting lounge. I’m sure some people have started families right in there.” He laughed. But then he reddened, right up to under his eyes. “I’m sorry, Arley. I shouldn’t talk this way in front of you.”

  “It’s okay. I’ve heard it before.”

  “Okay. And you know what else? They let you have an overnight visit with the person if you get married. Even in here. They have a special place.”

  “A hotel?”

  “No, honey. Not a hotel. It’s like a house trailer or something—I ain’t never seen it. A guy got married last month. You should have seen it in here that night. It went all around on the drums—that’s like, you know, the gossip—that they was out there, the two of them, and the guys were going crazy. I mean, they was ready to climb the walls.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Imagine.”

  “A man misses such things, Arley. Some nights, it’s all you can think about. They don’t allow no flesh magazines in here or nothing. For that reason. Men in need of . . . pleasure can get pretty hard to control.”

  “Do they hit you?”

&n
bsp; “Who?”

  “The guards and stuff.”

  “No, not me. Not me, ever, honey. I just keep to my own business. I work in the library, and I work in the laundry. I don’t do nothing. I just want to get myself delivered out of here.”

  “I sure want that for you too, Dillon.”

  He looked at me with those green eyes then. He didn’t blink, like other people. He never seemed to. He could look at you forever; it could make you squirm if you didn’t know him. I looked back at him, and the light seemed to go down in the rooms we were in, both his and mine, rooms that were white and plain as nothing. All I could see were his eyes. Surrounded by darkness.

  “ ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ ” he said.

  “ ‘Rage, rage, against the dying light,’ ” I said, trying to remember what I’d read.

  “ ‘Rage, rage, against the dying of the light . . .’ Say that Sara Teasdale thing. About just knowing you’re in the wide world with him . . .”

  “I can’t. I don’t know it all.”

  “Just say something, then. Say some poem you know.”

  “I don’t know a whole one.”

  “It don’t matter.”

  So I told him what I’d already learned of “The Highwayman.” I recited all the parts about the highwayman came riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door. He leaned forward. “ ‘One kiss, my bonny sweetheart,’ ” I said. My mouth was full of cotton. “ ‘I’m after a prize to-night, But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light; Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day, Then look for me by moonlight, Watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight—’ ”

  “By moonlight,” said Dillon.

  “ ‘By moonlight, though hell should bar the way.’” I went right on to the part where Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, shoots herself to warn the highwayman that the soldiers are looking to catch him and hang him.

  “She killed herself?” Dillon breathed.

  “She did,” I said. We were both whispering. “She warned him with her death.”

  “He was an outlaw.”

  “A robber. But I don’t think really a bad person.”

  “Did he kill people?”

  “No, he just took whatever they had. It was probably rich people carrying bags of gold or something. This was before the American Revolution.”

  “ ‘One kiss, my bonny sweetheart . . .’ ”

  “Right.”

  “ ‘I’m after . . .’ ”

  “ ‘After a prize to-night.’ ” He nodded, as if he were a little kid about to fall asleep, and I kept on murmuring. “ ‘But I shall be back with . . .’ ”

  “Arley,” Dillon said, almost too gruff and soft to hear. “Do you love me?”

  “I love you more than . . . I love you.”

  “Would you do that? To warn me?”

  He meant would I shoot myself. My breakfast churned around in my stomach. I didn’t know what to say. I did know what he wanted me to say. “I guess so,” I told him. “If there wasn’t any other way.”

  “Do you love me, Arley?” he asked again.

  I don’t know why I did it. You probably wouldn’t think so from what I’ve done, but I’m pretty shy. I’m shy about my body. Even changing for meets, I had a hard time in new dressing rooms with other girls. So what I did, well, I didn’t think much about it. I followed the directions written in Dillon’s eyes. I knew that any second a guard could come waltzing into Dillon’s room—our hour was almost up—but it was like the scene in those gangster movies where you see people getting shot and the camera makes it so the blood comes blooming out of them really slow, like a scarf shook out, instead of how it would really be . . . a pop, a thing so fast you would hear it longer than you saw it.

  I put the phone down. Without taking my eyes away from Dillon, I reached up and unlaced my braid and let my hair shake out. It felt good, like a warm towel coming down around my shoulders. It was so damned cold in there. Dillon’s forehead creased and his lips drew back a little, like he was hurting. I didn’t look away. I put my two hands on the bottom seam of my shirt and rolled it up. Under my shirt was one of those little tight T-shirts people wear for sports. I like them even better than sports bras; they don’t cut you. I rolled the T-shirt up, too, and leaned my whole top, my warm skin, against that cold and smeary glass, my breath coming so fast I thought my heart would burst. I tried to act cool, like a woman, as if showing someone my Dixie-cup breasts was just about the most natural thing in the world to do. Back of my eyes, I could feel tears starting, like little pins stabbing. I was afraid and ashamed and excited and proud all at once. Dillon hung up his phone and put out his two hands, flat against the glass where my breasts were, as if he were holding them, holding me. Then for real I could feel the heat. I had to shut my eyes. When I opened them, I saw that he’d closed his eyes too. We stayed that way maybe a minute. No guard came. Dillon took his hands away the moment I let my shirt down.

  He picked up his receiver. “You’re beautiful, girl. You’re beautiful as a queen and as a statue. You’re the landlord’s black-eyed daughter.”

  “I love you,” I said.

  “Marry me, Arley,” Dillon said.

  I swallowed. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. I shut my mouth and opened it again, and I said, “Okay.”

  I can see that girl now. See her sitting there, breath coming shallow and fast, trying to do her hair back up in a braid, her eyes big and dark as coffee in cups. I can see the guard come and sort of survey the room and give me a look that seemed to say he’d seen it all before, and then pull Dillon up, and me standing up and straining, after the door on his side closed, to see the white-blond top of his head as he was led down the hall. Reaching up with my hands, surprised to find tears on my face.

  When I look back at that picture of me, left alone on one side of that dirty window, waiting for someone to unlock the door behind me and let me out, I think of a line from Carl Sandburg that I didn’t read until a long time later.

  I don’t remember the whole poem.

  But I remember one little part.

  So far, it said. So fast. So far, so fast.

  CHAPTER NINE

  Annie

  MY SISTER Rachie was considering becoming a drive-by accountant. “People have been calling to cancel their appointments all month,” she told me, her voice crackling on her car phone. “They’re too busy. Their kid broke its collarbone. Or they have to shop for the holidays. I think I should just get one of those little red pickups, like the people who fix windshields. ‘Have tax shelters, will travel.’ ” Her voice rose about fifty decibels. “Dammit, buddy, the idea is we take turns at the stop sign! This is incredible. People act like they just remembered that they’re going to hold Christmas the same time as last year.”

  For the first time since we’d moved to Texas, Stuart and I weren’t going home together for Christmas, and I was blue. Of course, we didn’t actually celebrate it, but Christmas was the time most of our friends washed up in the city. There would be impromptu excursions to the half-price tickets booth for Broadway seats, and lots of dinners at smoky restaurants and in the half-demolished houses of couples in the remodeling period of their lives. More for the sake of sentiment than form, so that our folks could have the prodigals all to themselves, Stuart and I would sleep apart during the winter visit, in our old rooms, making silly, sweet hourlong phone calls to one another from Princess phones next to the beds we slept in before we’d ever imagined San Antonio, the law, or each other. At my parents’, we’d exchange eight nights’ worth of trinkets for Chanukah, no matter when it had actually fallen, and we’d light the menorah Rachael had made in her jewelry class in high school. On Christmas Eve, we’d all go out with Stuart’s parents, his brother and his wife and their kids, for Chinese and then for old-time dancing at the Carillon. For sheer dance ability alone, Stuart had made me the envy of all my friends. Like his father before him, Stuart wasn’t jus
t an enthusiastic dancer, he was a good one; he could jitterbug, he could even tango, and he put to shame most of the men of my generation, who acted like they were giving blood if you expected them to stand up and bob their shoulders at a bar mitzvah. Those late nights of dancing at the Carillon, high above the snow-shrouded reaches of Central Park, were among the sweetest hours of my adult life.

  Not going made it feel as though everything was changing between us, changing in a way I could have stopped, though only by stopping what I had begun to see as my own evolution. It’s entirely possible, however, to feel very sad even while being very true to yourself.

  We finally sat down together a few days before Stuart was to do the unthinkable—go home without me.

  “All right,” he said. “Truce time. Tell me what this is really about.”

  We’re drifting, I wanted to cry. We don’t see eye-to-eye on the most unnegotiable matter in a couple’s life, and we can’t talk about it. The house doesn’t matter, I wanted to cry, the house is just a red herring! But I said, “Well, I can’t afford to come.”

  “Anne,” Stuart said, “I bought you a ticket. I mean, have mercy. The picture of you sitting alone scraping paint off the lintel post or the newel post or whatever at the House of Usher while all of us are going out—”

 
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