The most wanted, p.24
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       The Most Wanted, p.24

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  On Valentine’s Day night, which would be the last of our best times together, Stuart was retelling the stirring tale of Trevor Bentley, who helped himself to the same dozen kids’ lunches every day for three years, until one day Stuart decided that it had to end.

  He was up to the climax of the story, the part in which Stuart faced the bully—who had grown, over the years, to the size of Mean Joe Green—at the New Jersey version of the O.K. Corral. As he described the epic battle, I played my customary part, which involved teasing him to the brink of anger.

  “It’s probably me, Stuart, but I can never quite picture a gangster named Trevor,” I chimed in, meanwhile taking advantage of Stuart’s rapture to rob him of choice morsels from his plate of mu-shu beef.

  “Anne,” Stuart said, “you weren’t there.” I remember him tossing his chopsticks, both of them, into the air and catching them stylishly with one hand, then grinning in triumph. We each had our own chopsticks, and Stuart groused if I used his, which, he said, were perfectly weighted for the toss. He actually practiced doing this. It was juggling as a form of punctuation. “And his twin was even uglier and meaner. His twin ate raw sheep.”

  “What was his twin’s name? Grace?”

  “It was . . . Tristram,” Stuart told me, very softly.

  “Ahhhhh.”

  “Anne, for your information, Tristram was a knight of the Round Table . . .”

  “So was Percival . . .”

  “It was actually Tristram who finally beat the shit out of me. . .”

  “Stuart, you never told me that part . . .”

  The phone rang.

  I told him not to answer it. I was sure it would be some urgent errand that would separate us: exculpatory evidence found, a stay reversed. It was a lot worse. When Stuart came back out to the terrace, he looked as though he’d lost ten pounds.

  “What happened?” I asked. “Who died?”

  “The Texas Defense Center,” he told me softly.

  The call had come from Stuart’s boss, Mike Akers, a death row veteran with a flair for good publicity who’d managed to talk a Texas media gazillionaire with a tender liberal conscience into funding the center for the past five years.

  Now the mogul was dead. And tonight, before the grass had even started to grow on his grave, his wife had simply snapped the string. She was a Broadway star; her charity was AIDS. The center could last until the end of the year, at most. Probably not that long.

  I sat on Stuart’s lap, and he combed my hair with his fingers.

  We’d always known this day could come. Post-conviction lawyers in capital cases lived out of the career equivalent of wheeled suitcases. They always had to be ready to roll. Lots of them shuttled among the big death row states—the current favorite now was Florida, where, one of Stuart’s former colleagues told him, there was “a kinder, gentler police state.” The old joke was that if it weren’t for weather, no one would do death row advocacy at all.

  That night, I didn’t know what to say to Stuart. Wild possibilities chased each other through my head: We could . . . start a private practice. Stuart could join the public defender’s office. He could become the classy criminal-defense litigator some large firms carried for showy pro bono work. The likeliest possibility was the one I liked thinking about least—that we would have to move. That I would have to sell the house.

  If we stayed together.

  When Stuart suggested we wander over to what he now devoutly called “your neighborhood” and visit the clinic, I agreed, with a certain relief. Some knots just won’t undo themselves without tequila. In the car, we did something we hadn’t done for years. We held hands, and after a while, Stuart pulled me across so he could put his arm around my shoulders as he drove.

  Amor Ausente was crowded with turistas fleeing the North for some pre-spring relief, and the tables were filled with couples. Valentine’s Day. Stuart’s news had made me forget—not that we actually observed greeting-card holidays. Since Charley had told me the backstory of the place, I kept an eye out for the melancholy owner, and sure enough, he was stationed at a window, ignoring the clink of glass and the laughter behind him, gazing mournfully out at Kings Highway as if he expected to see a damsel on a big wild horse appear over the crest of a hill. Luis found us an outdoor umbrella table and brought us margaritas, and we amused ourselves trying to make up stories about the other diners. We were good at this.

  “Now, they,” Stuart told me, sotto voce, inclining his head at a well-clad fiftyish couple engaged in intense though quiet verbal warfare, “they’re illicit lovers, though they haven’t, shall we say, done the do-si-do in about . . . six months. He’s married. His wife’s in a wheelchair—”

  “Stuart!”

  “Well, she is, and Female B, who will hereinafter be referred to as the Other Woman, has just found out that Couple A has bought a house on Cape Cod and they’re going there tomorrow to spend the Presidents’ Day week with their grandchildren. . . .”

  “And isn’t this just going to be one more thing to be decided in the property settlement? And how can he stand to be away from her for so long?”

  “And why doesn’t she understand that it’s all part of the plan, honey. The wife is going to love the house back East so much, she’ll want to stay there, and that will mean they’ll have so much more time together—”

  “Time together? They were supposed to be married by now! Like, five years ago!”

  “Don’t start on that now! You know what I’m dealing with! She wants to ruin me, and you want to ruin me too. I’ll be dead before I’m sixty. . . .”

  “Okay, okay,” I said. “Enough of that.” But even a little of the game had warmed both of us to the core. We played the couples game for a reason, because most of the people we saw just didn’t look as happy . . . as present . . . as Stuart and I knew we still looked together, even after ten years—and maybe they never had. We laughed more. We just laughed more.

  “Let’s take a walk,” Stuart suggested after we polished off our meal and the tables began to fill up. “They’re as thick as mayflies in here tonight.” He motioned for the check.

  “Everybody’s with their sweethearts.”

  “Yep. Guys who probably haven’t taken their wives to dinner since this same night last year . . .”

  “If you don’t take her out on Valentine’s Day, you’ll hear about it the rest of the year . . .”

  “Did I take you out last year?”

  We both laughed. “I don’t remember!”

  A couple rushed past us, the man hurriedly shaking out his key ring. “Now they can barely wait to get started,” Stuart said. “His place or hers . . . whichever’s closer . . .”

  “No,” I said, looking after them. “They’re parents. They have to get home for the sitter . . .”

  “What a drag. Just imagine having to be home by a certain time,” he said.

  “I wasn’t thinking of it that way,” I told him then, realizing suddenly it was true.

  “What do you mean?” He was genuinely puzzled.

  “It’s just . . . you always think of things from the point of view of your being the kid, not the adult.”

  “Annie, you’re nuts.”

  “No, you do. You identify more with the kid.”

  “And you don’t?”

  “No. I could see . . . you know, getting a sitter once in a while. I’ve had twenty years of going out for dinner and drinks, you know?”

  “So you picture yourself sitting home rocking the cradle. Correcting Junior’s math papers. . . .”

  “Sort of. Sometimes.”

  “Anne, you’d be bored stupid inside two weeks.”

  “Not really.”

  “You’d be calling up Patty and offering to do a termination hearing . . .”

  “No, I wouldn’t . . .”

  “You’d be watching Court TV and talking to the screen . . .”

  “Cut it out!”

  “Well, Anne. I think you tend to romanticize things.


  “Honey, I think you do, too,” I said, thinking of the tears in his eyes on the night of the broken glass, the night he learned that Kim McGrory was near death. “They’re just different things.”

  Stuart smiled wearily. “You could be right.” We stood on the street outside Amor Ausente for a moment, listening to the restaurant’s fountain. A fluted brass column about eight feet high shot water down into a series of shell-shaped bowls that got larger and thicker toward the bottom. In landing, the water made a series of little tones, like music.

  “Charley built that,” I told Stuart.

  “Charley the carpenter?” he asked. “I thought he was basically a paint-and-paper kind of guy.”

  “No, he’s a landscaper and a landlord and a . . .”

  “And a land rover . . .”

  “I want to make a wish, Stuart,” I told him, “but I only have a penny. I want to make a dime wish, though.”

  He reached into his pocket and gave me a shiny dime, and I held it high and dropped it into the bottom-most bowl. I stood there, screwing my eyes shut tight, clenching my fists.

  “What’s the matter?” Stuart asked.

  “I’m wishing,” I said.

  “Looks painful.”

  “I’m almost there,” I said, and I wished hard. I wished for . . . family happiness. I figured that covered everything. When I opened my eyes, Stuart was shaking his head and grinning. “You’re one crazy chick,” he said. “Let’s go see if Mother Bates is sitting up in the front parlor at your house.”

  A light was, in fact, burning in one window at 4040 Azalea Road. Charley was gone, but now he left a light on every night at my request. I wanted my house to take on the look of being lived in as soon as possible. In the dimness, the house did its best boasting. It looked magnificent, and from my window a tongue of lace curtain billowed in the breeze like a beckoning. We’re a pair, I thought then, my house and me. I’d reached the age when low light was going to be my best friend as well. Stuart and I leaned on the fence, and I told him all about the progress of the renovation: in a few weeks, once the plumbing and electricity inside were at least at the level of a primitive Scout camp, Charley would start planting for summer. He would “liberate” native species from all his gardens and step-gardens. That last sweet explanation had been a symphony to my ears—finally, something that wasn’t going to cost me a little more.

  “Ah, Stuart,” I told him, gesturing up at the portico. “This is my dowry, not to mention my retirement condo and everything else I ever hoped to buy or own. My little piece of the rock.”

  “Annie,” he said then, “I have a present for you.” He took out a flat, round package, shaped like a mirrored compact. It had an acrylic resin dome with the slender image of a skeleton Madonna in the center. Dressed in rags made of Spanish moss, the fragile skeleton was ringed by a wreath of chiles pequins sculpted into the shape of flowers.

  “Oh, Stuart,” I breathed, in frank amazement.

  “It’s really sick, Annie,” he told me cheerfully. “You should love it.”

  “I do, I do, and I can’t believe you gave it to me. . . .”

  “Huh? I’m a sentimental guy, baby.”

  “I mean, I know you don’t like it. Stuart, you don’t tend to give people things you . . . don’t think are good for them.”

  “Well,” he replied, after a long beat, “then you should probably have this too.”

  It wasn’t a diamond. It was a pearl, set in the hollow of two arabesques of gold, like wings.

  “It’s an engagement ring, Annie,” Stuart said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. Don’t think I forgot. It’s the day you get engaged. It’s not like any other engagement ring, because you’re not like any other woman. I want us to be engaged. But it won’t be an engagement like any other, because we already live, as they say, under common law, as husband and wife. But I’d also like it to be as short an engagement as possible. Like, until the weekend.”

  “It’s gorgeous. It’s wonderful,” I told him, meaning it, holding my hand up under the streetlamp to watch the moon-colored light slip and slide on the surface of the pearl. “Is it a real pearl?”

  “Oh Jesus, Anne.”

  “I didn’t mean it that way. I meant, you know . . .”

  “Actually, yes, it is real. And it’s from Texas. Right from here.”

  “I love it. And I love you for it. But, Stuart, is this really the time for this? We didn’t count on the job change and everything, and this leaky old joint. . . .”

  “Well, Anne . . .” Stuart put his hands in his chino pockets and inclined his head to take in the blue-jean sky, the witchly stoop of the pecan tree over my porch. “This here’s Texas. And I guess this here’s our house too.” I had my arms around his neck before I had a chance to reflect. “I can always get some kind of county job here. And if that doesn’t work out, we’ll just peddle the place. . . .” My heart bumped, once, hard. “Or I’ll do private practice. There’s lots of options.”

  “But you don’t want other options, Stuart. You want what you want.”

  He bit his lower lip. “I . . . do. But, well, I love you too, Anne.”

  “And as far as marriage, what about . . .”

  “I’ve researched this, don’t worry. Basically, it’s a simple act. I say I do. Then, if you’re not up to it, I say that you do too.”

  “I do,” I said into his neck. He was so sweet. He smelled, anachronistically, of Lilac Vegetal, as familiar a smell to me as Rachie’s Opium, which breathed from every closet in her house. “I really do.”

  “You mean what about a baby, though, don’t you?” he said.

  “Well, I haven’t changed my mind. I mean, honey, I haven’t made up my mind. I might want a child. I might very well want a child.”

  “And so?”

  “Stuart?”

  “So we’ll have a kid.”

  “Are you serious, Stuart?”

  “Annie, look. I’m not kidding, if that’s what you think. I don’t think I’m really father material. I don’t know if I want to have a child, and I don’t know if I can do it. But I’m also not going to count on the fact that once we’re married, my excessive physical charms and intellectual probity will dissuade you from sharing your life with anybody but me. Though that’s probably what I want.”

  “This doesn’t sound very hopeful, Stuart.”

  “Well, you didn’t let me finish. But then, you never let me finish.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “What I was going to say is, I’m not sure I’m up to it, but if I’m ever going to be up to it, I’m going to be up to it now, with you.”

  “Stuart . . .”

  “Because I want to be your husband more than I don’t want to be a father. And it isn’t like I don’t want to be a father. I’m sure I would make very cute offspring.”

  “I’m not so sure,” I dithered. “I mean, we’ve taken chances and nothing has happened. . . .”

  “Baby, you ain’t taken the kind of chances I intend to take with you.”

  “Seriously, Stuart.”

  “Seriously, Anne. The body has a head, you know? We haven’t really tried to make a child. I think maybe you have to want to. . . .”

  “Sure, Stuart. Like all those people in Rwanda or Biafra . . .”

  “Well, I don’t know. Jeez, Anne, don’t put me in the position of reassuring you on something I don’t want—”

  “You didn’t say you didn’t want it. You said you weren’t sure you wanted it.”

  “And you aren’t sure you want it. So we’re in the same boat.”

  I knew we weren’t. Not really.

  “You got a key to this thing?” Stuart asked me, using the sleeve of his shirt to polish the brass “4040” worked into the iron gate of the house.

  “I do,” I said, and Stuart carried me over the threshold.

  “My God,” he said, looking around after setting me on my feet. “Where’s Morticia? Where’s Lurch?”

  “It’s a
lot better than the last time you saw it, Stuart.”

  “Well, the bats are outside for the night at least, I guess.”

  I sighed. There were bats, but if I told Stuart this, it would really spoil the mood, which was taking on that soft-focus quality that preceded lovemaking. Each time we’d touch—bumping hips or grazing arms as we negotiated the hallway—there was a growing awareness, a physical intention.

  “Now come on. You look at this,” I told Stuart, leading him into the library, where Charley had smoothed a dropcloth under the ceiling of stars and planets. He’d begun restoring the gilt; I reached up and showed Stuart where the constellations, faithfully rendered, began at the edge of the domed ceiling.

  “Anne,” he said after a while, fighting laughter. “You’re glowing in the dark.”

  In the tiny bathroom mirror, I saw what he meant. My hair and even my eyelashes were dusted with a sifting of gold leaf. “I guess he hasn’t got it exactly . . . fixed, yet, or something,” I said.

  “I think it’s pretty. I think you should keep it this way. It goes with the house.” He kissed the back of my neck, and slid his hands up under my sweater, neatly unhooking my bra with a practiced flick. He worked my breasts with both hands, increasing pressure from his thighs behind me as I leaned against the sink, pulling my sweater away and nuzzling and sucking on my neck and shoulders, nearly to the point that it nettled, pleasurably. I leaned back against him, feeling for a point of pressure, of contact.

  “I want us to be naked, Stuart,” I said. “Let’s go to bed.”

  “You don’t have a bed, Anne.”

  “Then here. Now.”

  I unzipped my jeans and let them drop and listened as Stuart, behind me, rustled out of his own clothes. He reached around to open me, but I pushed his hand away. “I’m ready,” I said. “I’m all ready.”

 
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