The most wanted, p.22
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       The Most Wanted, p.22
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  like moths,

  you and I

  on the porch stairs

  in the dark, the glow

  of your cigarette,

  the smell of the first drops

  of rain in the dust,

  nothing to look forward to

  but tomorrow

  and the day

  after that.”

  She sort of sighed when she was finished reading it. “That all you want?” she asked me.

  “What?”

  “Just sitting on some dumb porch?”

  “I . . . I don’t know. It would be enough, I guess.”

  “It’s pretty, Arley. But you know, I thought, with all your brains and stuff, you’d want so much more than that. Some excitement. You know—college, the city. Whatever.”

  “I couldn’t go to college anyhow, Ellie.”

  “Because?”

  “I don’t have the money.”

  But she started me thinking of all that was going to go by me because of the choice I made, and I felt shabby about it.

  “You’d get a scholarship, Arley.”

  “Maybe. Maybe I still can.” But maybe that was one of the things that was already over for me. Maybe over before it began. “You know, Elena, just being married to him is a whole lot more than I already had. It’s all I really want.” Was I telling the truth? I thought. Was it really all I wanted? It was all I could see, or think of, or plead for, from the shadows in the corners of my room at night. It must have been true. It was. We sat there together, quietly, side by side. It’s one of the times I can remember exactly, though it seems long ago.

  On the afternoon before our wedding night, I started sitting out on the porch steps an hour before Annie said she’d be there, thinking about those things. I’d been up since dawn, never really slept. Called myself in to school, telling them my mama was at work, which was true, though I wondered whether I was going to get a detention anyhow. Talked on the phone to Elena while I made a casserole to put in the fridge for Mama and Cam. Left all the salt out of some pie crust, and you know, that really ruins it, even though it’s just half a teaspoonful. I took it over and gave it to Arrowhead, Gary Nevadas’s dog. Then I folded laundry and did ahead work in my math book. Showered, then redid my hair four times, because pieces kept squirreling out of my braid. My fingers felt like pork sausages. I was wearing my court skirt and blouse, because Dillon had written that when he saw me in it, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on me. When I thought that, of course, I right away thought of his hands on me. My crotch jumped, and at the same time my teeth started to chatter. I’d try to put it out of my mind.

  That afternoon, while I was waiting outside, who came up the road but Mr. Justice. Ginny Jack had been pretty stern about keeping him out of Taco Haven lately, and when he did come in to eat, she had Luz wait on him rather than me, though she knew we were friends. So it had been a while since I’d seen him.

  “Girl,” he said, when he was almost in front of our house, “you all dressed up. I’ve never seen you so pretty.”

  “I’m going off,” I said. “How are you, Mister Justice?”

  “On the move, Arlington,” he said. “I’m on the move.” He didn’t look so good, to tell you the truth. Skinnier than normal, even for him. Not shaved. I could smell him from the sidewalk too, that malty smell even fairly clean people have when they’re drinking.

  He looked down at his boots and then put his hands in the holey pockets of his old jeans. “You been practicing your hurdling?”

  “Some,” I said. Hell, I hadn’t. Not at home. And just after school wasn’t enough if you wanted to keep your speed and your conditioning. I was thinking of giving up the team altogether, what with the amount of time I spent on Dillon, plus my homework and my job and Mama’s stuff. “But you know, Coach used to say I could make all-conference for spring. If I keep up.”

  “You ought to keep up,” Mr. Justice said. “If you do something real well, you ought to hug it close.”

  “I’m married, Mister Justice,” I said all of a sudden.

  Search me, why I said that.

  He looked down at the end of the street, squinting into the late sun. Then he said, “I know.”

  “You know?”

  “I hear a lot of things. People love to talk. Guy like me is fairly invisible.” That didn’t sound like a crazy person. He smiled at me, crinkling up his faded blue eyes. I smiled back at him. “I hear that your man is in prison too. That’s not all bad. Not always. Some good people end up there, Arlington, through nothing but foolishness. But most people who end up there deserve to. I hope your man is one of the first kind.”

  “He is.”

  “You’re so young, girl,” he said. “But there’s this way you can tell if what you want is what you should have, no matter what age you are.”

  That scared me a little. It crossed my mind again, what people said about him being crazy. I looked around. There wasn’t a soul on the street but us. Not even a car. So I asked him. “How?”

  “You think about five years on. Five years on from this minute. And then you wait to feel it, right here.” He put his hand on his stomach. “It don’t have to be what you think is good for you. You’ll feel it here.”

  “How?”

  “Well, I don’t know.” He smiled, and I saw his teeth still looked pretty. Maybe they were fakes. “I lost the hang of feeling it a long time ago. But I remember it was true.”

  Annie’s black Camry came wheeling around the corner from Church onto Jean-Marie. “I have to go now, sir,” I told Mr. Justice.

  “Well,” he said, “best wishes. Better make you a wedding gift, when I get my hands on some wood that’s wanting to be something.”

  “You don’t have to do that.”

  “How’s your brother?” My brother? Well, Mr. Justice had been the town drunk since God was a boy, after all. He probably didn’t really know who Cam was.

  “I guess he’s okay. He plays the guitar.”

  “Any good at it?”

  “He’s real good. And he plays the fiddle too.” Mr. Justice shoved his feed cap back on his head.

  “Blue norther coming,” he said softly. “Cold tonight.” He shivered. “Fiddle. Fiddle, huh? Well. He’s blond, though, isn’t he?”

  Well, Mr. Justice was pickled.

  “Who the hell is that?” Annie asked me. She’d come jumping out of the car, talking before she hit the ground. She had four picnic box lunches and four cups of coffee—like her and me were a school bus full of people or something. Thank God Mama was pulling a double shift. I knew she knew about where I was going. But she hadn’t said a word.

  Annie looked . . . odd. I was used to seeing her in suits, mauve or navy or brown. She was wearing a turquoise crop-top sweater over a flowery skirt and cowboy boots. Bright-blue cowboy boots with turquoise lizards on them. She looked down at them the moment she got out of the car. “My birthday present from Stuart,” she said. “I think they’re cool.”

  “They’re nice,” I said. “Hela-nice.”

  “Hela?”

  “Kids say that.”

  “Oh. Well, I like them. They make me feel like I’m not a hundred and fifty years old. Which I am.”

  “Annie, you’re not old.”

  “Arley, I’m forty years old today and I’m not married, and you’re fourteen years old and you are married, and I’m driving you to your wedding visit at a goddamned prison, and . . . what a world, huh?”

  “Are you and Stuart getting married?”

  “I think so. No, maybe we are. You know, his work is pretty demanding—trying to save people who are on death row.”

  “Would he do that for Dillon?”

  She stared at me. “Dillon’s . . . Dillon’s not in any danger of capital punishment, Arley. He’s . . . he’s basically a short-timer.”

  “If he ever did anything . . . really bad . . .” My brain was taking off for Saturn from the stress.

  “Let’s hope that never happens,” Ann
ie said, and buckled my seat belt like I was three. Which I liked, I must admit. “I guess Stuart and I will get married. But I still don’t know about having kids. And he’s pretty sure.”

  “Oh,” I told her. “I don’t think he should pressure you.”

  She shot her eyes over at me and smiled. She doesn’t have a Texas face, Annie. But I noticed that moment how pretty she really was. How her eyes were brown, but not almost black like mine, a gentler brown, with red in it, like a winter leaf, and they turned up at the corners, which makes her look like she’s laughing even when she isn’t. “He’s not pressuring me, Arley. I’m pressuring him. Stuart doesn’t really think he’d be that happy as a father. I’m the one who wants a baby. I think I do, that is. Some days.”

  “I didn’t think you could . . .”

  “What?”

  Might as well. I was half in the muck now. “I didn’t think you could have a baby after you had the . . . after menopause.”

  She did laugh then. “Arley, I haven’t had menopause. Women don’t have menopause until, well, most of them until they’re in their fifties. Plenty of women, particularly women who have careers, have babies well into their forties.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “You know I didn’t mean anything by it. I just figured, forty and all . . .”

  “Arley, forty’s old, but not that old. Not for some things. Now, if I wanted to become a ballerina . . .” We pulled away from the front of my house, the house I’d lived in until all those things that happened to you ran together into one linear groove you thought of as your life. A high school girl, I thought as we started off, and I’ll come back tomorrow a woman. But we weren’t in that car fifteen minutes before I fell asleep, and then Annie was shaking my shoulder. We were at a gas station just outside Solamente River, and she wanted to know if I wanted to clean up before we went on. I walked into that bathroom, which was so blue—ceiling and walls and tile floor—that I swear it was what made me throw up my breakfast cereal. I washed my mouth with soap, and my hands. I put more mascara on.

  We kept on driving. Annie was talking fast now, the way I later learned New Yorkers talk: about how first intercourse could be painful, and often the woman didn’t have an orgasm the first time, and how Dillon probably hadn’t been with a woman in a while and he might be rough, and how we should go slowly, and how it would be good to be aware that the prison staff was going to be checking on us periodically, probably through a one-way window, and how changing my mind, even now, would be okay, it would not mean an invalidation of the order for my visit, we could reschedule it, and how I needed to be aware that first intercourse often led to a painful condition known as honeymoon sciatica, an infection of the bladder, and if that happened, I wasn’t supposed to worry about it, just tell her and we’d get some antibiotic cream. . . . She sounded like the health lecture in sixth grade, and I wanted to clap my hands over my ears and sing Reba songs real loud to shut her out, but I didn’t dare. She was only trying to be kind, even though I couldn’t take it all in and it didn’t much matter, anyhow.

  And then we were there. Annie was speaking to the woman guard, a little one this time, saying, in her tough-chick lawyer voice, “My client is a minor child, and I wish to accompany her. . . .”

  “That’s not possible,” the guard said. Didn’t even look at Annie. Just shoved a clipboard at me with a paper to sign, though Annie grabbed it up and read it before I did. The guard motioned me through the metal detector, and Annie reached out and put one hand on the woman’s arm.

  “Please,” she said. “Please. Look at her. Just let me come with her as far as the search. Please.” The guard looked at Annie, and at Annie’s blue boots. Then she nodded her head to one side and let Annie pass.

  They would have done worse to me if Annie hadn’t been there. I know it. As it was, being in the hospital with Desi was a breeze after all the embarrassment I endured in that little room. Caring for Annie was something I never really thought about until those minutes. It was something I assumed she knew—that I respected her, that I was grateful. But what she did when the matron searched me was take my big rose-colored shirt and hold it around my shoulders while the gloved hand moved around below, not hurting, just shaming me. She put my head on her shoulder while they combed their fingers through my hair, and she told me this long joke about a guy who had a flat tire in Brooklyn who kept going from house to house asking to borrow a car jack, finally getting so disgusted and aggravated at the last house that when the owner opened the front door, the guy with the flat tire just said, “Keep your fucking jack.”

  After I was dressed, she took two packages out of her purse. One of them held a few sanitary napkins, some A&D ointment, and a little package of condoms. “I was afraid you wouldn’t get the latex kind, Arley,” she said. “The other kind doesn’t prevent diseases as well. The rest is for . . . afterward.” In fact, I gulped when she said that. I had forgotten to bring the condoms I’d had to beg Connie G. to go into Oberly’s and buy for me. They were in a bag right in the middle of the kitchen table, like a sandwich. Oh God, I thought. Oh my God. But I struggled to smile, and Annie helped me open the other package. In it was a Japanese nightgown, silk embroidered all over with clouds. “Like the dream you told Dillon about, Arley. In your letter. Your colored wagons.” I started to cry then. And hugged her. “Be happy, Arley. I’ll be here tomorrow when you are ready to come home.”

  “You don’t have to do that.”

  “I want to.” Annie was biting her lip. I could see she was crying too. “Here,” she said. “Your hair’s all messed up.” I pulled one of my red ribbons out of my pocket and Annie helped me put it in my braid. The guard was polishing the front of her badge with a piece of tissue paper, not looking at us. Then Annie had nothing left to do. She picked up her purse.

  I said to her, “I love you.”

  She really cried then. Like the day in the car. A few weeks ago, that was all. Finally, she said, “I love you too.”

  The matron and a guard with a rifle walked me over the back grounds to the trailers. There were three. Behind a fence, about fifty yards away, a few inmates were working on patching a piece of fence. Why would they do that? I thought, crazy like. It would be something on the order of digging your own grave. They all stopped and looked at us walking, and one of them said something real loud in Spanish that sounded almost like a coyote yipping in the dark. I heard the guard cock the rifle as the matron opened the steel trailer door with a key from her ring. He pointed the gun at the door while I walked through. And inside, there was Dillon.

  He was sitting on a nice clean couch just like a regular person, wearing a beautiful green chamois shirt, without leg irons or anything. I ran right into his arms. And from his arms, I listened to him agree to all the rules, about voluntarily opening the door to a knock every two hours throughout the night, about emergency procedures. And then I heard the door close, and then lock, from the outside. We were alone.

  For all that came and went and was built and shattered after that, I would not have had it any different. Dillon held my face in his two hands and said to me, “There’s this part in the Bible. About looking for your loved one’s face and coming forth to meet her. It says, I have found thee. I have found thee. You’re here, Arley. You’re mine.” He kissed me then, and he picked me up and set me on the couch and got us Cokes and turned on the radio. We sat down beside one another and Dillon smoked two cigarettes, and he just stroked my hair over and over, and every time I’d start to say something, he’d say, “Just wait, honey. Just a minute.” And then, when I was about to start getting nervous he was out of love with me already from waiting too long, he pointed to the radio, and the guy was saying, “This one here’s for Arley and Dillon. On their honeymoon night. You be good, y’all. And you be good to each other.” I just couldn’t believe it, that somehow he’d got someone on the outside to call and make this request for us, for right that time. It was “And I Will Always Love You,” the Dolly and Vince version, the goo
d version, not that whiny old Whitney thing. While it was playing, Dillon laid me down on the couch and kissed me and lay on top of me, and when the song was almost over, the deejay broke in and said, “Let’s do that one more time, folks. You only get one honeymoon night, now.” And they played it all over again.

  It was like Elena said. I’ll give her that. When my mouth opened, and Dillon put his tongue inside, just a little at first, and then more of it, it wasn’t sick and it wasn’t gross. It was like drinking at a fountain when you were so thirsty you couldn’t imagine you ever thought of anything else in your life but water. Dillon didn’t even try to touch me through my clothes. He just reached behind me and, with just one hand, unhooked my bra faster than I could have done it myself and lifted my shirt over my head the way I do for Desi. “Arms up,” I say to her. ’Course, he didn’t say that to me. But I put my arms up that way, and then I was half naked, cuddled under his shirt. We lay there that way for a moment, and then he started to talk, slowly. “Don’t be afraid, Arley. I’m your husband, and I love you with all my heart. And I won’t do nothing to hurt you. And anything you don’t want, you just say stop, and I swear I will stop.” He pulled my skirt down and my stockings, never making me get up, never making me feel any of those things I’d been afraid of, like big and clumsy and ashamed. And then I was all the way naked, lying under him. A couple of centimeters, I thought, a couple of wisps of cloth, and his body would be full against mine. So much was going on, I had to force myself to concentrate: on the muscles in his legs tightening and letting go, on the slight scrape of his chin against my chin, our mouths by now practically inside one another. A kissing chin, Elena called it later, what I had the next morning, a place below my lips buffed raw by Dillon’s beard, which must have grown back stubbly overnight.

  Dillon leaned back then and stood up, and I shut my eyes, and my arms snapped down over my body like a pocketknife closing. “I got to look at you, Arley,” Dillon said. I heard him opening his zipper, heard the shush of his clothes falling.

 
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