The most wanted, p.19
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       The Most Wanted, p.19

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  “You do, though. Do you have your daughter?”

  “Not this year. We alternate. It’s Lakin’s turn. But that’s okay. When I have her, she’ll be four, and it should really be fun to see how she reacts. My mother’s really sad, though, that Claude won’t be here.”

  “Aren’t you?”

  “No point feelin’ sad over what you can’t change.”

  “I still do, though.”

  “Well,” Charley said. And then he asked me, “Do you want to dance, Anne?” Now I knew that shirt was going to get plaster dust all over my perfect silky black pants if I came within three feet of Charley. But the thought of my slacks just fluttered past, like an envelope glanced at, then dropped from the surface of a long-awaited letter. I nodded and put up my arms.

  “How come you can dance?” I asked him. “Guys don’t dance.”

  “Well, my older sister taught me the ballroom stuff. That was because she was the prom queen but she couldn’t get a date, so I had to take her. . . .”

  “Her younger brother had to take her?”

  “Yeah, she’s pretty, but she’s mean.” Charley laughed. “Anyhow, I knew lots of guys who went to the cowboy bars and danced. In college. Just enjoying the music.”

  “But a waltz . . . are you sure you can waltz? Or just slow dance? I thought that being able to waltz skipped a generation.”

  “I guess I’m a throwback.” Charley smiled and put his arm around my waist.

  Oh God, I thought, don’t let him be a good dancer.

  But he was good.

  Not like Stuart, but good. Charley didn’t have the kind of sinuous bounce and squeak of a smaller, more supple man. He wouldn’t have been one of the boys who studied the steps and then added his own touches. He just had a kind of plain, slightly lumbering grace. Filthy and reeking of turpentine, his jeans shot through at the knees, Charley folded his hand on the small of my back so that only the edge of his thumb touched me, the way my grandmother Esther had told me real gentlemen danced with a woman, so as not to wrinkle her dainty garments.

  He didn’t make me feel partnered so much as protected. I felt tiny and womanly, nearly lifted in his arms.

  Charley’s face was serious, almost grave, as we made neat boxes of waltz on the scarred wood floor of the music room. It occurred to me that Charley might be making some kind of pass at me. But he did nothing to pull me closer, nothing to disturb his concentration or the rhythm of our motion. When the song ended, he simply put on another record. And finally it was I who moved closer and put my head on his shoulder, and he reacted neither by tensing nor by grasping for more. Charley simply held me companionably, standing still as the record scratched to a stop.

  Through the open window, we could hear the distant roar of the traffic on Kings Highway. From some store or other came the intermittent sound of recorded bells rising and fading so that, from one second to the next, you couldn’t be sure you weren’t imagining it. Then the breeze would come, and you’d hear it again. Someone had one of those electronic angels on their outside lights, I guess.

  “Hideous noise,” I said.

  “Yeah,” he agreed, still holding me. “But kids think it’s beautiful. Claude thinks the music in department stores is like choirs of angels.”

  “Kids care more about the whole . . . feeling.”

  “That’s the best thing about them. They’re pretty grateful.”

  “You must be grateful, Charley. That you have Claude.”

  He sighed. “I am. I just wish I had gotten her another way.”

  “Well, you got her, at least. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a kid. Life’s short, Charley.”

  “You know, Anne,” he answered, slow and precise, taking time to let go of me long enough to shift me to arms’ length. “People always say that. But, I think, life is long. Sometimes long enough.” Charley turned and switched off the old Victrola. He carefully closed the cover. I just stood there. Slowly, it dawned on me that I was waiting for an invitation. I half-hoping it would not come. But when it didn’t, I felt stung, disappointed.

  “Well, you have . . . good holidays,” I told Charley then. I waited for one beat more.

  And I let myself out my front door.



  WHEN ANNIE took me shopping that day after school, I had to keep reminding myself that I was already married and we weren’t shopping for my wedding day. Because that was how it felt. It wasn’t like it was the first time I ever went shopping or anything. Elena and I did a lot of shopping. We would go from store to store in the mall, putting together whole outfits, trying the pieces on, counting up how much they would cost all together. That was shopping.

  But this was buying. It was a lot better.

  I felt really foolish about it at first. The little I made at Taco Haven had to go for school clothes and mousse and stuff, necessities. I told Annie that. I couldn’t really afford an outfit for court. But she said there was a special fund for cases like mine at Women and Children First, though it was mostly used for women who had to run away from husbands who beat them up, because sometimes they just left in the night with no suitcase or anything. Now I think the special fund was really Annie, though she still denies this and even asks me what did I think she used to make before she went into private practice, anyhow. She drove us over to Dillard’s, and Annie told me what I had to get. I had to get clothes that made me look the way college girls look in Seventeen.

  “Arley,” Annie said, “I know you’re a nice girl, but if you come in there wearing a crop top and jeans, with your navel showing, they’re going to think . . . well, they’re going to think you’re exactly the kind of girl who’d marry a guy in prison.” She sighed. “Which you’re not. Though you did. . . . You know what I mean.”

  We turned right inside the door where they have the juniors section—all those white metal bins they try to make look like The Gap, with every different color and size of sweater or leggings rolled up like sausages. I immediately saw about twenty things I would have been happy if I had, but Annie wasn’t too impressed. “This stuff is scuzzy,” she said, fingering a waffle-fabric top (it was so cute, it was raspberry, and it had these little hooks and eyes all down the front). “It’s not well made.”

  Over the years, I would get to know that this was Annie’s favorite way of describing clothes, of which hers cost, like, three hundred dollars apiece. She sighed. “I’m no good at this. I only have one outfit.” She’s right about that, though I didn’t know it then. Annie’s outfits, except her jeans and boots, are all exactly the same, no matter what color they are—a little skirt, or a long skirt, and a sort of tunic top. She thinks these make her look taller and thinner, which is crazy. Annie isn’t fat at all, but she will say right out that she thinks she looks like a turtle. One night much later, when we were having dinner at that Mexican place in the neighborhood, just her and me and Desi in her carry seat, Annie got a little drunk and said, “I look like Annette. You don’t know who Annette Funicello is. But she’s this actress from when I was little. She was really pretty, but no matter if she weighed fifty pounds, she was going to look fat because she had no neck and a lot of hair. And she was, like, five foot nothing.” Which Annie also is, although she doesn’t seem to know that she’s lying when she tells Charley and other people that she is five foot two. Maybe it’s just stretching the truth. I’ve got eight inches and twenty pounds on her, but she always acts bigger than me, like she did the night in the hospital, and not just because she is older.

  That day in Dillard’s, she steered me over to the women’s department. I must have looked discouraged, because all the clothes looked like what Mrs. Murray would wear for parent conference day. We lit out of there real fast and went to sportswear. “This has always bugged me,” Annie said, like she was a TV announcer or something. “I mean, sportswear is supposed to be for sports. It would be, like, tennis clothes, right? Or running clothes? And these are not sports clothes.”

It’s like clothes you’d wear to work. If you worked for the telephone company,” I explained.

  She looked at me like she had glasses on she could see over. “You’re right,” she said.

  In those days, I had exactly one skirt, which used to be Langtry’s, so it was about a foot too short. I picked one off the rack. A stretchy one in persimmon. Annie said no, navy blue.

  “Annie,” I told her, “nobody in Texas wears navy blue. That’s why there’re so many of them here left.”

  We compromised on a gray skirt, a nice short flannel one, and two sweaters, both cotton, that you wore one over the other. They were just the color of washed-out denim, cloudy blue. Even if you washed them for years, it wouldn’t make that much difference. I put them on, and Annie nodded. Then I saw this rose-colored blouse, it was silk and sort of gathered at the waist. It made me think of those old pictures of dance hall girls in Paris. Annie just watched me rubbing it against my hand, and finally she said, “You want that one?”

  “I have to decide,” I told her. “It’s going to take me a few minutes.”

  What I would have done if it had been my money was take a walk. Maybe looked in a couple of other stores to see if I could find something pretty like it for half. Or slept on it. If I go back the next day and it’s not there, that means it just wasn’t meant to be. I’ve learned to live with this and cope with the disappointment, generally.

  But Annie started tapping her foot. “Take them both,” she finally said. I felt guilty about that blouse, and sometimes I still do. Because I just snatched it up, like I was some kind of kid from the reform school who never got new clothes. I still love it, though, but I’ve hardly worn it. And I wouldn’t have let her get it if I’d known she was going to go on and get me other things.

  “Thanks, Annie,” I told her, but she brushed it away, saying it was money from the agency, anyhow, but I told her, “I still think I ought to say thanks. I guess I’ll write the agency a letter.”

  Annie smiled at me then. “I’d just be the one who got it and had to answer it. And as far as that goes, we try not to remind the board of directors too often that we actually spend the money they raise. They’d probably ask me why you didn’t learn how to make clothes for yourself in home ec class,” she said.

  I told her, “I didn’t take home ec. It’s not honors.”

  “Well, it wasn’t honors when I was a kid, either, but most of my friends took it for the easy A,” Annie told me. “And it was different then. Those home ec teachers assumed you’d be cooking and sewing for your whole family.” She said then, “You know what? Stuart took home ec too. I thought it was so sexy, when I first met him, that he was such a feminist. But then he told me he did it just to meet girls.” Annie laughed. “I’m grateful, though. He’s a great cook.”

  “I guess I could have used them too.” I sighed. “The cooking and cleaning part anyhow. My mama sure didn’t seem to know too much about that stuff, or if she did, she didn’t teach me. We just kind of made it up as we went along.” She stared at me like I was nuts, then started to nod a little.

  “Home ec applications for the nineties family,” she said, soft like, to herself. She went on some more about Stuart then, that he was the only boy ever at Hoboken High to take sewing and that he worked for a tailor when he was in college and learned to alter his own pants. “And he once made me a wrap skirt, in about one hour, because I needed a black skirt. How do you like that?”

  It sounded silly to me, to tell the truth.

  “Didn’t you think it was kind of girlish?” I asked her, not meaning anything by it, really interested.

  “Arley, a man who can do woman things and not feel goofy about it is the kind of man you want to have.”

  “I guess I do, then.”

  “Huh?” she said, probably not meaning to sound the way she did.

  “Well, like, Dillon writes poetry and all.”

  She sighed and turned away from me and started flipping through a rack of coats. “Do you have a coat?” she asked me.

  “I have a jean jacket.”

  “Don’t you have a real coat?”

  “I don’t really use one much. It doesn’t get that cold, except that one winter, when I was about ten, and it snowed twice—”

  “Well, pick something out,” she told me. This was even harder than the skirts for me. There were so many. Some had a lining you could zip out. I told Annie they cost more, but she said it didn’t matter, was I planning to spend every day of my life in San Antonio—which, I had to say, I probably was. But she asked me, what about college and everything? I tried on black raincoats and blue ones. But I thought I looked like a crossing guard. Finally, I found one I really loved. It was iridescent green, like something in nature that would have wet wings, and it also reminded me of Dillon’s eyes, which, up close, had little golden flecks in them, though I didn’t mention that part to Annie. She sighed all over again when I modeled that one for her. “You’re going to look like the little mermaid,” she said. But even she had to admit it felt soft and pretty, and it didn’t cost as much as some of the others. It was London Fog, which Annie said would last until I got so sick of it I’d give it to the AmVets (which was the kind of place where I usually got my clothes, to tell you the truth). I knew right then I would never give it away, and of course I won’t, unless I get too fat for it someday.

  By lunchtime, we had bags of stuff—shoes and underwear and this slip thing you didn’t have to wear a bra with, which I loved because I had kind of a little pot belly even then. And last of all, a chenille robe with stars on it, which I didn’t even need; Annie said she wanted one like that when she was a little girl, but she told me that her mother said chenille looked like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and wouldn’t let her have it. We were lugging more bags than I’d ever seen anybody carry except at Christmas, and I was starting to have this miserable feeling like it was wrong for a person, who was, after all, not going to live or be young forever, to have all those clothes; but then I realized I was probably just hungry and tired from all the things we’d seen.

  We were sitting down in the restaurant at Dillard’s, which is like a big greenhouse, eating Cajun chicken salad, when I brought up Dillon’s poems again. “I didn’t show you them at first,” I told her, “I guess because they’re so personal.”

  “Do you think he wrote them himself?” Annie asked me. I was kind of shocked that she’d think Dillon copied poems to give me; but then I sort of thought about it.

  “I know he did,” I finally told her.


  “Because not all of them are that good,” I told her, not meaning to put Dillon down. But Annie laughed, and I felt terrible. “I mean, they’re good to me. But I know they’re not, like, Dylan Thomas.”

  “Or William Butler Yeats.”

  “Or William Shakespeare.”

  “Or William Wordsworth.”

  “It’s not fair. I don’t know any more Williams,” I said. “You probably do, because you went to college.”

  “And you will too. You’ll learn all kinds of useless stuff.” Then she said, “You know, you’re really smart. I want to hear one of your poems.”

  “I can show one to you when you take me home.”

  “You don’t know any by heart?”

  “Well, I do,” I said. “But I’d feel pretty stupid.”

  “How about Dillon’s?”

  Of course I knew his by heart, from reading them so often—I’d had them laminated at the school store to keep them from falling apart. I thought I would tell her the poem he wrote about my name: in some ways, that’s still my favorite, because it came before everything else. But I didn’t know if I could say it right out, there in a restaurant.

  “Go on,” said Annie. “I’m your lawyer. That means you can tell me anything. In fact, you’re supposed to tell me everything.” Right then, I thought of what “everything” could mean, like what happened the first time I visited Dillon at the prison, and I guess
I just blushed harder. “I mean, you don’t have to say it. I could read it later. But it’s just the same as singing to the radio in the car.”

  And so I did. I repeated, slowly, the way Mrs. Murray taught me, the poem he wrote called “Arlington.” I said it right down to the tabletop, though. When I looked up, Annie’s eyes were dark and bright. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s very like you. It’s also good. Now I want to hear something you wrote.”

  And so I recited my poem called “To Dillon For Our Wedding Day.”

  “Love is a season

  for the migrant

  heart to rest in.

  “Love is the wild

  wind the heart

  rides home on.”

  Annie just sat there for a long time when I was done. She finally said, “That is really beautiful. Does your mother know you can do that?” I didn’t say anything. And then she asked me about my wedding day. I’d never told anybody about it. Elena knew, of course. She would have been my maid of honor, after all, if Mrs. G. had let her come—not that I blame Mrs. G. at all for that. I wouldn’t let Desiree go to a prison, even for somebody’s wedding.

  The truth is that my mama didn’t want me to go that day, either. I could tell, even though she didn’t say so. When I put the permission paper in front of her, she didn’t even put on her reading glasses to sign. She just put her name down on it in one swoop, Rita B. Mowbray.

  I told Annie that I’d asked her, Mama, what’s the B for? My middle name, she said. I asked her what it was. She looked at me like she was looking at food caked on a plate. “It’s Belle,” she said. “It’s Belle.”

  “That’s pretty,” I told her, slowly folding up the form and putting it in my pocket, with my birth certificate.

  “It’s shit,” she told me. “It sounds like the name of a damned cow. Rita Belle.”

  “Whyn’t you change it?” I asked her. I didn’t think she would answer, this already being nearly the longest talk we ever had.

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