The most wanted, p.28
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       The Most Wanted, p.28

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  Anyhow, a couple of nights later, Annie drove me out to Mama’s.

  Right away, when I went inside, I could see things were different. In place of the old chipped-up pine table we ate at for a thousand years, there was this light, wrought-iron set that looked like it ought to be out on a patio in a house in France. Somebody, probably Lang, had put magazine covers in those pop-together plastic frames and hung them all over. I must admit, they looked fresh. The dumb old curtains I hated so much, but had washed and ironed so many times they were the color of old oatmeal, those were gone, replaced by miniblinds. Mint green, pulled tight against the sun. Mama thought sun faded everything. She and Lang were sitting in the living room with Oprah! on, having a smoke.

  “You did a lot of stuff,” I said, to start things off.

  “Wait till you see,” Lang said, out of the dark of the room. “We’re redoing the whole upstairs, with fabric drapes on the walls and stuff.” Their faces as played up by the faint light from the TV were so similar in shape that I could have mistaken one for the other if I hadn’t known it was my sister’s voice. I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d seen Langtry—a year?—but when she stood up, I saw she was thinner and more like Mama, more set, somehow, like a rubber figure; even her hair had that orangey color Mama called strawberry blond. “Girl,” she said, “you’re as fat as a pig!”

  “I’m going to have a baby, Lang.”

  “I heard! I heard congratulations are in order, for my baby sister’s baby!” Mama and Lang about died laughing then. Lang was getting out a plate from the fridge with sandwiches made of pita bread and cucumbers and cream cheese, and some applesauce in a bowl. “You living with Dillon LeGrande’s people now, up in Welfare?”

  It hit me then, and I had to sit down. They hadn’t talked about my baby or my marriage for one second before I came into that room. They had this whole life of theirs going on, buying a set of soda chairs and a dining room table and some picture frames, and I was just this fly on the edge of it that came buzzing in, and they didn’t pay me no more advance notice than they would if that fly had come buzzing up Jean-Marie Street past the Nevadases’ house before it got to our door. Mama hadn’t even told Lang where I was living, or what I was doing, or anything else except why she let Lang come home. My head started to ache like it did sometimes when I skinned my hair back too tight. “Where’s Cam?” I asked. Neither one of them answered. Mama said something, half to Lang and half to Oprah, about how she’d kick that man’s ass over the moon for him, he tried that trick on her, and finally, I asked again, “Where’s Cam? He dead?”

  “He’s at work,” Mama said. “He quit school. He left you a letter.” There was an envelope lying on the table, which I split open with my fingernail. “Arley,” it said. “Hi. Where are you? We could have lunch. Yr. Brother, Cameron Mowbray.” Touching, I thought. But after a second, I thought better of it. It wasn’t so bad. Lang was sitting at the table, chomping on one of those sandwiches, and she motioned for me to sit down. Mama said she was going to slip out of her work clothes.

  “He’s one pretty man,” Lang said.

  “Cam?”

  “Dillon LeGrande.”

  “Well, thank you.”

  “Why, did you make him up, honey?”

  “No, I mean thank you for saying that.”

  “You all legally married and all that, huh?”

  “Yes.”

  “He couldn’t never get me, not like he wanted,” Lang said, looking past me, out the window in the door behind me. “He got some, but not what he wanted.”

  “You? What?”

  “When we were together. You know we were.”

  “No.”

  “Well, it don’t matter, does it? Times change, and people change. I’m seeing a banker from Dallas. He’s, like, forty! Mama’s all jealous. We’re going to take us a cruise. Mama wants to go. . . .” And then Mama was back in the room, laying down a folder in front of me with a stack of papers inside.

  “Here,” she said. “You sign these.”

  I couldn’t even make out what it was, the light was so bad in the kitchen. Neither one of them made a move to flip a switch. “What is this, Mama?”

  “It’s insurance. Don’t you mind. It’s all paid up.”

  “Insurance? An insurance policy?” I thought she was going to give me something for me and the baby, to help us get a start. How I could have, heaven knows, but for a second I thought it was going to be like one of those holiday shows where people who never really revealed their true feelings were all of a sudden talking and laughing and speaking truths they’d wanted to share for twenty years and more.

  But then my mama, my real mama, started to talk again.

  “I took out these policies on y’all when you were babies, and I paid into them every year until they were all paid up. Yours just came finished, so if you just sign it, I can redeem it.”

  “Redeem it?”

  “I can get the money. I got to be setting something aside for when I retire. And I want to do me some traveling.”

  “The cruise?”

  “How do you know about that?” Mama’s eyes were like minnows squirting away from a dropped rock—to the left and to the right.

  “Lang said,” I told her, and she sat down and started pulling the cucumber out of her sandwich and nibbling around the edges. But I still didn’t entirely get it. I asked her, “Is the money for the baby and me?”

  Mama just looked at me. “Did you pay for it?”

  “You said it was a policy in my name.”

  “It was a policy on your life, girl. If you died when you was little, I’d have got something for it then. But since you didn’t, I get my money now.”

  “Didn’t you want me to come home?”

  “What?”

  “Come home, here. With you.”

  “I ain’t got room for no baby here, Arley. I’m counting out the days, Lang and me, till Cam gets on his own.” She looked up at me then and smiled that bright, big-joke smile of hers. “Anyhow, I hear y’all moving to the mansion district with that lawyer. Hear she’s got that big rich house with two galleries and all.”

  “How’d you know about Annie’s house?”

  “Never you mind. I got me my sources.” And I never did know and I still don’t know what those sources were. But Mama wasn’t above anything. After what happened that night at the cabin, I don’t put anything past her. “So,” Mama said, like we’d all had a nice, big meal together and finished our business. “You want to just sign this here, and how’s that baby doing? My first grandchild, huh? And me not forty years old?” I could tell it was a big effort for her, and I almost wanted to make her keep it up, to make her hover, there, with that pen in her hand, forced to ask questions a normal mother would ask of her child, forced to pretend an interest she didn’t even understand, much less feel, all so I wouldn’t turn around and walk out of that fucking hole and slam the door without signing the paper.

  I did finally sign it.

  And I didn’t even ask to use the phone. I walked next door, to old lady Jewell’s, and used the phone there to call up Annie. When Annie came, I didn’t tell her a thing, though I have to suppose she figured everything out pretty quickly. As we were driving home, it hit me that I never said good-bye to my sister, though I didn’t realize then how it could be the last time you would see someone and you’d think it was like any ordinary good-bye. I never believed for one instant anything Lang tried to lay on me about her and Dillon being a big thing years ago. And I still don’t. Lang was just like some kind of buzzard, wanting to claim whatever was lying there and then act all protective, like it was hers to start with. I still don’t know, and I probably won’t know my whole life, what happened in my attic room, before the blood was smeared on the billowed fabric walls . . . or about any of the other nights . . . I don’t want to know.

  I had deliberately requested a vacation day because I wanted to look good, for the last night of the fiesta. But by the middle of
the morning, things weren’t going so hot—though hot is what it was, steeping and boiling breath-robbing heat, and I was like this big furnace. I could sweat sitting still. When I stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror, you could see my belly shift and pulse like in Alien. It kind of scared me, it was stretched so tight, and yet in clothes, I just looked a little fatter. For real, though, I couldn’t find anything to wear for Elena’s big dance night, and I was fit to be tied. Finally, Annie came banging on the door and said, “For Christ’s sake, Arley, let somebody else use the bathroom for one minute.” But when I came out, and she could see I’d been crying, she put off her Saturday appointments and took me shopping for a dress, down in the Mexican market.

  We went in and out of all these little shops, trying on stuff and getting really silly. One woman rolled her eyes and said something about “su hija” and “embarazada,” which I knew didn’t mean “embarrassed,” like it sounded, but “pregnant.”

  Annie said, “She’s not my daughter. And she’s not pregnant. She’s very sensitive about being overweight.” I hadn’t thought Annie knew that much Spanish!

  We cracked up then. The poor lady. But that was the store where we finally got this beautiful, cream-colored floating thing made of Mexican lace, with its sort of shawl that you could hook up and make into big sleeves. It was when we were leaving with it that we passed this hair salon not far from Taco Haven that I’d always wanted to go in because it was so space-age and stuff, with countertops done up in foil with holograms. We stopped for a moment, and I said to Annie, “I want to get this here hair cut.”

  She said, “Arley. Jesus. Not your beautiful hair.” Well, it was just the wrong thing for her to have said, because I was in there asking about it in five seconds, and then we were sitting down at a little tortilla shop, eating tortillas with cinnamon and butter and waiting for my appointment, and then I was in the chair, and this Hispanic girl like six feet tall was yelling for someone to go get a Polaroid and take pictures of my hair before she cut it, and asking me, “Are you sure, are you sure?”

  When I walked out of there, I was carrying a bag of my own hair, which felt heavy as my track clothes used to feel after a meet. About a foot was cut off, which still left me with really long hair, well below my shoulders. But it all sort of lifted up and fluffed out and curled and had no weight to it at all. When I looked in the mirror, wearing that new dress and new hair, I looked like a woman, instead of a fattened-up little girl in a braid. Even Stuart, passing through the living room that night to get clean clothes, whistled at me and said, “Muy linda!”

  When I weighed myself before I got dressed, I was five pounds lighter.

  Just before I left, I got a FedEx package from Dillon, which wasn’t so strange; he sometimes got so impatient to get a letter or a poem to me, or, once, the picture of him in the baseball uniform for the prison team, that he overnighted them. This one, however, I barely had time to open, because I was going right out the door with Elena’s dad, who hadn’t seen me since I was married and was sort of standing there swallowing his tongue while he talked to Stuart. It made me laugh, to tell you the truth, like they were both nervous fathers before a big date. What was in the envelope was this cream-colored card, like one of those cards you return to someone who’s getting married, saying whether you can come or you can’t, and a long, long strand of ribbon—really not one strand but several, braided together, in four or five shades of red. I turned over the card. Written on it, in ink, was “One kiss, my bonny sweetheart.”

  For a moment, I thought he’d intended it for me to wear to the dance, but hell, he didn’t even know I was going. And then I remembered the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, plaiting a dark-red love knot into her long black hair, and I thought with a kind of stab right in my heart, What would Dillon think? It was gone, most of it, all those waves of hair he bathed in when we made love. There was not enough of it left to loosen and let down in the casement. It was a regular girl’s hairstyle, like Annie said, bouncing and behaving. I didn’t know what I would tell him, but there was no thinking about it right then—a crowd of thoughts of Dillon, all alone under those searching light-eyes at Solamente River, was the last thing I wanted to carry with me to the fiesta. So I just laid that letter down. I still have the ribbon.

  The dance was held in a big pavilion right by the river, which had sort of been tented over so it could be air conditioned. It was a neat feeling, like being inside and outside at the same time, and all the princesses’ floats were pulled up like spokes in a wheel around the outside. Colored wagons, I thought right away. That’s what they were, fragrant and insubstantial as clouds, so that even up close you could hardly see the wire under the pillows of the flowers. Elena came running up to me, and she looked like a model or an actress; I thought right then, Maybe that’s what she’ll be, like Selena or something. Maybe this float of hers will be her first ride to glory. “You cut your hair!” she screamed. “You cut your hair, Arley Mowbray!”

  She introduced me to all the other princesses, and while they were posing for pictures, I danced with Ricky Nevadas, and let me tell you, the boy was made to be put in a tuxedo. Ricky’s nothing but a bike mechanic, but he looks like a Calvin ad for sure, when he’s clean, and he was clean that night. He was on his best behavior, and I was teasing his head off about him being the handsome prince. “Just don’t kiss me, Arley, girl”—he laughed—“or I will turn back into a pumpkin.”

  “A frog, Ricky. You’ll turn back into a frog.”

  We were laughing so much I didn’t see Eric Dorey come up until he cut in on us. He cut in, just like boys did at country club dances in Annie’s old Nancy Drew books, which I read last summer when Desi kept me up all night cutting teeth. I couldn’t even tell who he was for sure. He’d been away a long time, months by then, at the military school in Killeen where his folks sent him after the accident. And he had changed so much, the way boys do when they’re in high school. Eric Dorey hadn’t been taller than me before, but now he was big and lean and long, over six feet, and his voice was so down deep, I couldn’t even see the sandy-haired squirt he used to be in algebra class.

  “That you, Eric?” I said to him.

  But he must have been thinking the same thing. I blushed inside when I saw how he was looking at me, like he was exploring my whole body, approving but curious too, wondering what was going on.

  “I’m pregnant,” I told him, while we sort of stood there and kid slow-danced, with my arms around his neck. “I’m six months, almost.”

  “Aww, Arley,” he said, soft, looking away, like I’d told him I had cancer or something.

  “No, it’s okay. I’m married.” Why didn’t I tell him who my husband was, right then? Or where he was? I didn’t tell him, and he didn’t ask. We danced right through that song and the next, and then Elena came swooping down like a bright-red parrot and danced him away, and then he came back. What didn’t we talk about! School, and how he loved the away part and hated the military part, though his daddy had been an air force man. How he wanted to be a scientist, or maybe a doctor, and work with burn victims, how he’d been in this mentor program with a cell biologist who cultured new human skin from leftover bits taken after surgery and it was all so amazing. . . . I told him about how I might do the corrective cosmetics thing, like Connie, and get a job right after junior college. He didn’t seem to like that much, though I saw it as being helpful to handicapped people in the same way what he was talking about was.

  “You’re too good for that, Arley,” he said, mad like. “You’re too smart to be a cosmetics girl.”

  “It isn’t just that.”

  “Well, whatever it is, you’re too smart for that. You should be a . . . scientist. Or a teacher or a writer or something. Or a big athlete—”

  “I’m big, all right,” I said, pointing to my stomach, and right then, the baby turned and sort of kicked out and rolled between us. Eric leapt like a scalded cat.

  “Is it all right?” he asked. I just l
aughed at him.

  “Of course it’s all right. It’s alive, you know, Eric.”

  “It’s aliiiiivvvve!” he sort of hooted out, and I saw he was really still a high school kid, though a good person, like he always was. He held me more carefully after that, and I started to have those crotch-tightening feelings, the kind you have when you want someone touching you who isn’t, and I was ashamed as hell and sort of broke away from him, though he hung around me all night while Elena was getting her flowers and being in the grand march and so on. And when it got late, and little boys were starting to run around and pull bunches of the flowers off the princess floats, no matter how hard the Jaycee guys tried to chase them away, it was Eric drove me back to Annie’s, talking the whole time about could I write to him, because he was going to have to do one more year at the military school before he went to college. . . .

  I think we saw the police car at the same time.

  The first thing I thought was, something happened to Annie. I started going crazy, and my mind started saying to me, oh no, oh God, some fuckhead cracko husband of one of her lousy clients had bushwhacked her in front of her own house and killed her and I’ll never see her again, and she’ll never see my baby—but almost immediately, I thought, That’s stupid. There isn’t even an ambulance out there, the way there was at Eric’s house when Corty got killed. There wasn’t anything but that one squad car. I knew, for sure, it meant something bad. Something about Dillon and me. It never even occurred to me that the car could have been there for people who lived in any other of the six apartments in the building.

  I started to jump out of the car, but before I did, I turned around all of a sudden and kissed Eric really hard, not like boyfriends-girlfriends, not with our mouths open, but hard, like you’d do to say good-bye to someone putting you on a ship for a long journey, which was what I was going on. And then I ran, as best I could, up the stairs, ripping one boot right through my beautiful lace dress—we had to cut it off, later, and hem it—and Annie was running out into the hall, her hair all sticking up, and her and Stuart both touching me all over and asking, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

 
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