The most wanted, p.17
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       The Most Wanted, p.17
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  “Stop it! I can’t stand it, either.” But you’re going to have to face this, Stuart, I wanted to say. We are going to have to face this and deal with it. “It’s too much money—”

  “It’s four hundred bucks, Anne. Big deal.”

  “Four hundred bucks is three rooms of flooring refinished. And anyhow, I can’t let you take me because I dug this hole myself and I have to get out of it myself. You don’t approve of the house. You can’t imagine what I’ve already spent on it, and you don’t even want to know.”

  “Honey,” he went on. “Come on. Let’s go home and have a good time and forget all this shit for a while. Jesus, Anne, I need a break. The funding could really be in jeopardy this time.” This was a threat every winter. “I’ve been working twenty-hour days—”

  “I also have been working twenty-hour days, Stuart, plus trying to get a house in shape. For us.”

  “You didn’t buy that house for us.”

  “I did, too.”

  “You bought it for you. You bought it to draw some kind of phony line in the sand. Time to be middle-aged! Time to be grown up and responsible! Well, I’m not buying into it, Anne. We had a good life together . . .”

  “Nice how easily you put our life in the past . . .”

  “I’m not going to argue with you. And I’m not going to go off feeling like I’ve abandoned this poor little puppy, because you’re doing this to make a point, Anne. You’re doing it because you’re stubborn. I don’t have a choice about going. My uncle and my aunt are going to be home, together, with my father, for what will probably be the last time in their lives.”

  I sighed loudly. It was childish, but not so childish as the way I really wanted to behave, which was to sit down on the floor and kick my feet. This was all my fault, and so I wanted to slap Stuart for it.

  He frowned at me, “Okay, sigh, Annie. But it’s my family. Family values, Anne. You know?” He took a red-and-white-striped ticket folder out of his sports coat pocket and slapped it on the kitchen counter. “Come home or don’t. But I’m not going to be the villain here.” He started to stalk off, and then he looked back. I’m sure I looked like a golden retriever, my face a pattern book of stubborn misery. He leaned over and kissed me, catching my lower lip softly between his teeth for an instant. “Never change, babe,” he said.

  At the last minute, I decided to drive him to the airport. I dressed up for it, deliberately putting on matching underwear, a shirt that was almost see-through, and silk pants that kept moving a smidge of a second after I stopped. We necked so much in the car that Stuart was sort of a groaning mess by the time we got to the airport. Delightfully mired in my own spite, my crotch thumping with unsatisfied arousal, I bid him a soppy and flushed farewell, with much protracted rubbing between our two trench coats.

  I needed to go over to the King William neighborhood and give Charley Wilder a check for some fixtures, but I decided I couldn’t face it right then. Giving Charley checks was like a weekend job, and these days, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry every time I saw him, which was three or four times a week, since one of us always seemed to have just one small thing to check out with the other. I had come to appreciate Charley: his general calm, his attachment to the neighborhood, and his tenderness with me. He truly was the carpentry angel, taking care to space out the written estimates of what it would cost to bring 4040 Azalea Road into public-health compliance—never mind aesthetic beauty. But even his gently worded estimates were sick and shocking. The house was a money sink, with an ever-circling black drain.

  The downstairs bathroom, for example, lacked plumbing, in the twentieth-century sense of the word. The former owner had evidently operated it for years with water carried from a mop sink in an adjacent closet. By knocking out the wall between the bathroom and the closet, Charley explained, he could create one decently functional room large enough for two adults to stand in side by side. “Always important in a bathroom,” I grumbled.

  “You never know,” he replied cheerfully.

  “And why stop with the wall? Why don’t you suggest we knock the floor and ceiling out too?”

  “Actually,” he said, painstakingly removing his nearly ever-present clean bandanna and retying it around his forehead, “we really will need to do the ceiling eventually. . . .”

  “What?”

  “To put in a skylight. Any other kind of light you put in . . . well, Anne, it’s just not going to make any difference. It’s going to look like Madame Tussaud’s in there, because of the way the eaves overhang that window, and the size of the pecan tree outside.”

  “At least the tree is healthy.”

  “Yes,” he said, as if talking to a very young child, “it is. And once you remove the branches that are putting weight on the eaves—since some of those branches are the size of young trees—and it could cost a thousand dollars to take down each one of them—”

  “Jesus! I’ll cut them down! Can’t we just rent a chain saw?”

  “We’ll think of something,” Charley told me comfortingly. He was, indeed, comforting altogether, a person nothing much seemed to flap. I was only now beginning to figure out exactly what it was precisely that Charley did all day and night, since he was always busy. From hints he’d dropped, I knew he did work on commission. He was restoring a tiny, ancient civic building, drywalling a Habitat home on Saturdays, and he had a grant to design an orchid garden at the historical center. When we were together, no matter what part of town we’d invaded for one of Charley’s salvage missions, he seemed to know everyone. One of the other things he did was maintain the landscaping for a couple of restaurants, like The September Garden, the funny old Chinese restaurant with rock bridges that Texans seemed to love just as much as tourists did. One of the perks of the job meant that Charley got meals there free; the proprietor always made a huge fuss over him.

  A couple of days before Stuart left, I’d joined Charley there for what turned out to be a three-hour lunch, interesting enough to re-create on the phone for my sister. The things that fascinated Charley Wilder didn’t fascinate me. I was a pavement-and-bright-lights person; as far as I was concerned, shrubs and ferns could keep their secrets.

  What did beguile me was Charley’s passion for the things he did. It was . . . not childlike, exactly, but endearingly new, as if he drew wonder from a solar battery that didn’t have anything to do with money, which, I figured, he didn’t have in abundance. I’d begun to look forward to his good-humored and various rambles. He was becoming, as I told my sister—who said, “Hmm”—an unlikely kind of pal.

  That day at The September Garden, the subject was live oak trees. There were two huge live oaks at the back of the restaurant’s elaborate topiary and rock gardens. Under one, the restaurant had built an awninged bar. Under the other was a “bar” for children, featuring fruit smoothies and herbal iced teas. Children sat at their own bar while adults, just twenty yards away in clear sight, enjoyed their cocktails. “Just a couple of years ago, they were going to take those trees down,” Charley told me. “The bars were my idea, really. A way to make use of the space without wasting those trees.”

  “They must be a hundred years old.”

  “Lot more than that. These trees might have been here when the Woodland Indians were here, maybe eight hundred years ago, maybe more. There’s burial mounds in East Texas that have things in them that could be thirty thousand years old and that aren’t from around here, like little masks with shells that came from the seashore in Florida.”

  “So were they nomads?”

  “Traders, I think. I think they had, like, traveling salesmen.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I don’t know. It’s just what I think.”

  “So you’re saying these trees were alive when—”

  “Not alive.”

  “They’re not dead.”

  “I mean, the part of them that’s alive now wasn’t alive then.” The waiter was hovering, and I asked for a menu, but Charley told
me he never used a menu at The September Garden. The fun was in the whole ritual of offering and praise that accompanied every surprise lunch the chef prepared for him. “Unless,” he said, “you’re kosher.”

  “I’m not.”

  “I know you’re Jewish.”

  “But I don’t keep kosher. Anyhow, how do you know I’m Jewish?”

  “You remind me of my aunt from New Jersey. I grew up spending summers with their family at the shore.”

  “The shore where?”

  “The Jersey shore.”

  “I thought you were from here.”

  “I’m from here. But my folks got divorced when I was five. And all us kids spent all the summers out East. You sound like New Jersey.”

  “Well, New York. And Long Island.”

  “I’m a little rusty.”

  “Still, pretty good for a Texan.” We sat there in a suddenly awkward silence. And then we both began at once, him to explain live-and-dead live oaks, me to ask about them. We looked into our glasses. That was one of the times I wondered how old Charley was. Twenty-five? Twenty-three?

  “What I meant,” he went on, inhaling, with obvious pleasure, the steam from the noodle bowl the waiter placed between us, “trees aren’t really living things all through. If you take U.S. Ninety from here toward Uvalde and then head a few blocks west of the courthouse, there’s this metal garage built right around a live oak tree. That tree must be three hundred years old. But the part of it that’s living, right now, is all on the outside. If you could core deep into the heart of that tree and find the tiny piece of it that sprang up from an acorn centuries ago, that little, well, piece or strand of wood, that’s dead. It might be perfectly preserved, but it’s sure not living. The living parts of that tree are all on the outside. Maybe down one inch deep. Not very old at all. Not older than . . . than me.”

  “But as a whole, the tree is alive. . . .”

  “A coral reef is alive, too, and kind of in the same way. See, it’s always growing on the outside, but the remains of the life that came before are buried deep inside it. Like its memory. Of the past that isn’t really happening anymore. So a tree really has generations—”

  “Like a family.”

  “Exactly. Well, sort of exactly,” Charley slid the bandanna off his head, carefully smoothed and refolded it, and laid it beside his plate. His thatch of wiry blond hair sprang up in a way that would have looked laughable except for the expression on his face: pure concentration. “The living part has to go through droughts and storms. It has to heal the wounds and live for itself. But under that live part, which is all we see, is the heartwood, the shape of all the previous generations of the . . . of that system’s life.”

  He carefully retied his bandanna on his head. “It’s sort of the way my father is inside me. All his bad ways and his good. He drank, and I don’t. But that’s inside me too. So is his father and his . . . and my mother and her ancestors. Even the branches are stories. But the tree is still one creature. It’s not like a family made up of people. It might produce fruit from the sexual union with other trees, but those acorns must go on to become other trees.” He paused to eat some noodles. “But even though it’s an individual creature, it’s not like an ancient person, either, because it’s always producing that new skin, always finding a new way to reach up.”

  My noodles, chin high, drooped cooling from my chopsticks.

  “This probably falls under the category of way more than you wanted to know, and it’s probably boring—”

  “It’s not boring,” I interrupted him. “I just . . . I don’t know how to respond. It’s not as though I ever thought about the comparisons between people and coral reefs and trees.”

  “That’s what I think about all the time.” Charley smiled. “Well, maybe not all the time.”

  The noodles dropped with a satisfying heat into my stomach, which seemed so ravenous it would jump me if I didn’t pay attention to it. The taste of the spices was hot as well, but in a different way, like incense, or flowers burning. I had to put the chopsticks down and rummage for my fork, to get more in at each bite. The waiter brought two bowls of dumplings—one a mealy yellow, one tinted the paprika red of Greek Easter eggs—and salmon fried in a batter made of crushed almonds. “This isn’t regular Chinese food,” I remarked to Charley.

  “The chef here is . . . real flamboyant. An artist. He’s a good guy. Describes himself as a Cajun from Taiwan. Every few years, I build another couple of rooms on his house for the kids they’ve had in the interim.”

  “How long have you been doing this?”

  “For him?”

  “For anybody.”

  “I’ve, well, I’ve had my own business since I was seventeen, believe it or not. I started right out of high school. So twelve years, more than twelve years now.”

  “You said you went to college. . . .”

  “Sure.”

  “But you had your own business . . . ?”

  “I went to college a couple of times a week. Landscape architecture, other things.” Charley offered me seconds of the pink dumplings, which I accepted, though the waistband of my jeans was beginning to cut the flesh. “You guys don’t have kids, do you?”

  “Me and Stuart?” I asked. Of course me and Stuart; who else could he mean? “We don’t. Actually, we aren’t married. Yet.”

  “Sure. Of course. I remember now. You just seem as though you’re married.”

  “It shows, huh?”

  “It’s no big deal. Forget about it.” Distracted for a moment by something off in his tone, I looked up; but his face was as still and placid as it was while he painted or broke down walls. “When are you getting married?” he asked then, with a smile that revealed a substantial overbite. He was cute. He was really cute, in that kind of obvious big-blond-guy way that had never quite made sense to me before.

  “I’m not that sure we’ll have children,” I went on. I was feeling replete and drowsy, as ready for a nap as I would have felt at five in the afternoon after a lakeside six-pack picnic. I wanted to bundle the flannel shirt Charley had draped across the opposite chair into a pillow and fall asleep under the whisper of the oak leaves.

  But that was when Charley told me that he had a daughter. “I felt a little ambivalent when I first found out,” he said.

  “Oh, me too,” I agreed, missing a beat, still thinking we were discussing the pros and cons of having babies.

  “Huh?”

  “Uh, what did you say?”

  He laughed at me. “That I was a little ambivalent when I found out we were pregnant”—my teeth hurt; I hate that usage—“. . . not so much because of the baby as because of the timing.”

  “How did your wife feel?”

  “She wasn’t my wife; she still isn’t. We didn’t discuss anything much, Lakin and me.”

  “That’s . . . the mother?”

  “Yeah. We were together for about nine months, no pun intended.”

  “That wouldn’t have been a pun.”

  “Well, no whatever intended.”

  “What does she do?”

  “She’s a football cheerleader.”

  I said, involuntarily, “Oh God.”

  “Well, it’s not like Lakin was a stereotype. Really. But we just didn’t have much in common beyond the obvious. . . .”

  “And the obvious was what led to your situation.”

  “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t get the wrong impression. I wasn’t just using Lakin because she was a . . . well, a vixen—though she was.” My sluggish reverie snapped like the stem of a wineglass, leaving me rattled but bright alert and unaccountably furious. I sat up straighter. “We agreed that our relationship was a present, not a future. I think those things are possible—”

  “Like limited-term employment?”

  “If both people agree.”

  “So what happened?”

  He actually blushed. “It seems . . . well, Lakin liked me. You know, she’s a good person. And she had a really
good singing voice, and we’d go to these places where she’d get up and do a turn with the band, and I really encouraged her in that. . . .”

  “And so?”

  “And so I treated her well.”

  “I see. You treated her well, so there was no future in it.”

  “I mean, I treated her well, and so she got the impression that . . . the communication between us—that is, the level of—”

  “You don’t have to say any more.”

  “No,” said Charley, “I might as well finish it. Do you want that rice?” I shoved the bowl across to him. “She didn’t tell me until she was four months pregnant, because she didn’t want to jump the gun, you know, right away. We hadn’t seen each other for a while by then, and it had always been a situation in which we were very careful. . . .”

  Just a moment before, I’d been thinking of Charley as kind of a cad, and sweet Lakin, whom I imagined looking like a Texas version of Nicole Kidman, as a victim of her own charms. But suddenly the tables turned. Surely Charley, with all his talk of ecosystems and sexual unions, couldn’t be such a dope about simple biology.

  I watched him shoveling in his rice. I’d never seen anyone eat faster with chopsticks.

  Maybe he could be such a dope.

  “Do you think it’s possible that you were the only one who was careful, Charley?” I asked.

  “I considered that,” he went on. “But Lakin was very sure, and she told me right up front, she didn’t want children right away.”

  “And naturally you thought she was on the level. . . .”

  “I had no reason not to.”

  “Maybe you were the first man who’d treated her like a real person, and she didn’t want to let you go. Maybe she started out feeling one way, and things changed. Maybe that’s why she waited four months to tell you she was . . . I mean, Charley, it doesn’t take a reasonably intelligent person four months to figure out that she’s pregnant.”

  “She wanted to be certain.”

  “She wanted to be abortionproof,” I said flatly, simultaneously hearing myself, my jaded-bitch self, as I must have sounded to him. “She wanted you two to get married, I think.”

 
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