The most wanted, p.4
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       The Most Wanted, p.4

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  The way it turned out, though, Mrs. Gutierrez wouldn’t let Elena work Saturdays, either. She thought Elena needed at least one whole day for rest and homework. So we agreed with Ginny that we’d just work Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and afternoons on Sunday. Mama was just about to say no to that, too, but then Elena had this great idea: She said, why didn’t I offer Mama some money every week? So I did. And Mama said okay, twenty bucks. I said no, ten. She said at least that was enough for smokes, so fine.

  That’s what finally did it. And it’s a good example of what’s so good about Elena. I can look at a chemistry problem and “see” it right away; but I can’t see through people the way Elena can.

  Taco Haven was no great shakes. Elena’s sister Grace called it “Restaurante Cucaracha,” but it wasn’t all that dirty. We had fun there, and we felt grown up, getting a check every week with our names printed on it, even if the check was only for sixty dollars.

  What if Mama had really put her foot down? Or what if we’d applied to be baggers at Oberly’s or The Supershop? There must have been a master plan even bigger than mine. Annie says, “Everything is chance. People just believe in fate so they can think they’re not to blame.”

  But even Annie goes out the door backward if she forgets her list or her keys and has to go back in. She tosses salt and makes pufft-pufft noises with her lips when someone talks about a tragedy. She insists that’s not superstition, that it’s Jewish voodoo. “Inherited insanity,” she calls it. She never used to know how ideas like those would seize hold of me, such as that a child could be born looking perfect, with bad genes wriggling inside.

  Early that Sunday at Taco Haven, I was thinking about boys, but not about having babies with one. I was thinking how weird I was, compared with other girls, for not having a boy in my Book of Life Goals. But the way Mama was about men—the way she went all dreamy over the doctors’ hands at the hospital where she worked, and the way she used to bring home salesmen and cowboys about once a month, who drank all our orange juice from the carton—that and the big-haired girls my brother Cam had in his room all night, who came out smeary and smelling . . . none of these things exactly made me feel like having a crush. Back in seventh grade, every girl was wearing one of those red stickpins you got at Rangers games to show she had a boy. But I didn’t even want one. Even as a high-school freshman, when everybody would ask who I was going out with, I would just smile. Elena said I had a mysterious smile and that I would make them all think I was going out with a college boy. But it was scary to me, scary like the time back in kindergarten when the kids locked the teacher out of the room and everybody laughed but me, and I got scared and took so many deep breaths I passed out.

  At sleepovers, Elena and this other girl she was friends with for a while, Chita, would tell me all about how it felt to have a boy’s tongue in your mouth. It felt like a live animal, they said, separated from the person, and at first it was sickening, but then it got to feel weird if you kissed and you didn’t do it. And the way they would try to touch your top with their wrists instead of their hands so that they could act like it was an accident. Elena had made out from the waist up with three or four boys. And one touched her between her legs outside her pants. She said she liked it. The feelings made her wiggle. I’d say, “It sounds amazing.” But I thought, what if he had mustard just before? What if I gagged? But I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t even see why a hot girl like Elena would want anything to do with a string bean like me, her with her little gymnast’s body, calves that looked like she was always wearing heels, and her big red smile like Halloween wax lips. When we went out, boys would howl at her like coyotes in the hills; I was Elena’s shadow.

  That was before Dillon, of course. After that, being a real woman, in a physical way, seemed so easy. I was as good at it as I was at hurdles—a natural. I was beautiful from his first word to me, long before he ever touched me. I know that sounds silly.

  That day in September, it was so hot outside that every time someone opened the door, the air would lick into Taco Haven like gas off a charcoal grill, and you’d start to sweat instantly. They lie about Texas heat when they say it’s dry and you don’t feel so bad. What it’s really like is so humid sometimes and so dry others that you feel like you got up in the morning and, first thing you went out, you were wetted down and rolled in flour like a tortilla. That day, whenever I wasn’t waiting on somebody, I stayed in the back, next to the freezer. I could count on my hands the times I’d ever been cold in my life. In fact, I never had but one blue-jean jacket until Annie bought me that green trench coat to wear to court.

  I was waiting on a table of college kids, two girls and two boys, when Elena’s big sister Connie came in. I tell you I almost dropped my pencil, she looked so unusual. The girls and the boys shut up too, and for a minute, the only sound in the whole place came from the old skinny man, Mr. Justice, who was always hanging around by school. He was singing along to Patsy Cline on the jukebox and fiddling on the fiddle no one could see but him. I’d been worried about Mr. Justice, because Ginny Jack said I had to throw him out after a third cup of coffee or he’d sit there all day, so half my mind was on that problem and half on trying to memorize the way the college girls had braided up their hair in back with ribbons.

  But Connie made me forget everything.

  “Jesus Christ,” Elena said to her sister. “You look like you been embalmed.” Elena is so smart sometimes. That was just how Connie did look: she was pale and smooth as a mannequin in Dalton’s window, and she looked somehow assembled, like from separate parts—a cheek, an eyebrow, a lip.

  “Shut up,” said Connie, but nice and smiley. “It’s the corrective makeup,” she told Elena. “We worked on each other today. Can I get a Coke?”

  The college girls must have been from four-year schools like A&M, because they looked at Connie like they expected her to be beamed up to the mother ship. I took their order right quick, so I didn’t have to listen to them sniffing and saying stuff like, “Wow, I wish I could get my foundation to go on like that.” I pinned their order up on the spinning rack outside the kitchen for Cully, the cook, and then I got Connie her Coke. Just so she’d know I’d noticed, I pointed my head over at those girls and said, “They’re, you know, so full of it.”

  “I don’t even notice, querida. Don’t you worry,” said Connie in that Tejana-girl voice she used to goof around, where she said “choo” for “you” so she’d sound like her grandma. All the sisters liked to pretend to be Grandma Gutierrez having one of her temper fits, flapping her shawl at you like a bullfighter. “I don’t pay them no mind.”

  “All the same,” I said, “what is different about your face?”

  “Like I said, I’m studying corrective cosmetics.” She took a sheaf of papers out of her big black bag then and spread them over the counter. I had to sit down when I saw.

  There were pictures of a dark Hispanic woman with pouchy red scars all over one side of her face and of a baby girl that was the cutest thing except for this big ugly stain that started up under her baby hairline and spread all over one of her little cheeks.

  “What happened to the baby?”

  “She was born that way.”

  “It’s not a burn?”

  Connie pointed to the other picture, the one with the red, shiny scars. “That there lady was burned. Somebody threw scalding water,” Connie said in a low, ominous voice. “She went around like that for six years. Little kids screamed when they saw her on the bus. She didn’t have no self-esteem.” Then Connie flipped the sheet over. It was the same lady, only the burns were gone.

  “That’s after she had surgery,” I said.

  “No, ma’am,” said Connie. “That first shot was after she had surgery. The burns went so deep they couldn’t hardly get grafts on at all. Either that or the doctor was an idiot, I don’t know. Anyway, they used special makeup, which is nongreasy and waterproof.”

  “That is amazing,” Elena said over my shoulder, pas
sing behind me to give Mr. Justice his last cup of coffee. “So if it’s such a miracle, how come you look like you dressed up for Halloween a month early?”

  Connie ignored her. “Now, this baby girl here,” she said, “she was born with what you call a port wine birthmark. That’s ’cause it looks like somebody poured a glass of red wine on her. And her mama learned how to put Cover Creme on her so people wouldn’t think that little baby was horrible-looking, because she can’t have cosmetic surgery till her skin gets all grown, or whatever.”

  “What are you studying it for?” I asked her.

  “Well,” said Connie, “it’s partly personal. I have what’s called a nevus mark. See?” She lowered the neck of her blouse a little, and I could see this big blue bruise. “It won’t never go away, and I got a big one on my butt and two big ones on my thighs too, which is why I never was one to go to the beach with boys, like Gracie.”

  I thought to myself that if those marks were the reason Connie didn’t go like Gracie, they were probably a blessing, kind of like a protective shield. Then I thought about how happy it must have made that baby’s mama and daddy to see her look so pretty, like she was meant to look, and how it would feel to be the person who gave them that gift. But all I said was, “That’s way cool. Do you, like, teach people to do it on themselves? Can anyone learn it?”

  “Maybe not everyone,” Connie said lightly, gazing at Elena.

  Elena caught the look. “It was me,” she said, “I’d be studying doing that makeup thing on corpses, ’cause they stay still, and that’s what you look like, anyhow.”

  “Elena La Braina, you ain’t never going to no college, because you can’t even find Texas on a map of Texas, girl,” said her sister.

  “Least I ain’t got no convict boyfriend,” Elena replied sweetly.

  “Who? What?” I said. Then Cully rang the bell, and I had to go get the college kids’ chicken-fried steaks, but I told Connie not to say one word, not a single word, until I came back. Mr. Justice got up to leave just as I was setting down the plates.

  “You’d look better than them with scarlet ribbons,” he told me softly, as he passed me. I guess he’d noticed, too, how rude those college girls were; still, it was so weird, an old man saying something like that. It was clearly the kind of comment you have to watch out for a man making to a young girl. But it didn’t feel that way. It was more grandfatherly like. I just smiled; I was rushing back to hear Connie tell.

  “Who’s in prison, Connie? What do you mean?”

  Connie smiled, secretly. “That’s for me to know, Miss Arley.”

  “Come on! You know you can’t half tell a thing! It’s illegal!”

  “I wasn’t telling nothing at all,” Connie said, drawing herself another Coke from the fountain (Ginny Jack didn’t care about that stuff). “It’s my little sister who’s so little except for her mouth.”

  “Connie!”

  “Okay, okay,” she said then. “Don’t wake the dead!”

  “You got a boyfriend in jail?” This was so scary and so romantic at the same time, it sounded like something on Melrose Place.

  “I’ve been seeing a man and writing to a man who is presently incarcerated,” Connie said.

  “Who?”

  “His name is Kevin LeGrande.”

  I guess I was purely the last person in Texas who hadn’t ever heard of the LeGrande boys. (Later on, they were known not just in Texas but in California, Oklahoma, and points east.)

  Elena said, “You some college girl, Connie. You sure can pick ’em. Right, Arley?”

  But I just asked, “How’d you meet a boy like that, Connie?”

  “My auntie Grace goes to Kevin’s mama’s church. Actually, his church too. That English church—what does she call it? White Catholic? The mama is only a little thing herself, and she was telling my auntie her two boys were in Solamente River. Them in trouble only because this Indian kid from Austin got them to knock over a gas station, and he had a gun—”

  “Did they kill somebody?”

  “No, they never did. They didn’t even but crease that boy’s arm that was working there. And only that because he was hiding and he jumped out and scared them. And Spirito, the Indian kid, he’s only sixteen. He went to the boys’ farm, but Kevin got three years and his big brother, Dillon, got eight or nine ’cause he’s, like, twenty-five or something, and he should have known better.”

  “How old is Kevin?”

  “He’s nineteen.”

  “You’re twenty!”

  “He’s almost twenty. And anyhow, I’ve only been over to see him one time, and we just talked through some glass.”

  “Was it scary and awful in there?”

  Connie looked far out the front window, to where the sun was lowering down on Alameda Street. “When they shut those big green steel doors behind you—”

  “God, Connie!”

  “But he is one fine boy.”

  “Why’d you go see him?”

  “We’ve been writing for five months—this thing all happened way last summer. And finally he asked me if I wanted to go out—”

  “Go out,” Elena snorted. “That’s a good one.”

  “Well, he asked me to be more than just a friend, is what. And pretty soon he starts getting contact visits, so you can sit next to each other and talk and all—”

  “Watch he don’t rub off your corrective cream, querida!” Elena hollered. I was glad there wasn’t anybody in there except the old Mexican woman who kept house for the priest at Mater Christi, and she didn’t look up once, just kept eating her chicken strips with pico de gallo, cutting them up in little tiny bites.

  “Shut up, Elena. In fact, stupida, it doesn’t rub off unless you use special cleanser and a towel, so there!”

  “But why did you write to him?” I persisted.

  “Oh, right. Well, his mama asked my auntie if she knew any nice Christian girls or boys, didn’t have to be Catholic, if they would write to Kevin or Dillon because it would be good for them, they were so lonesome.”

  “Why’d you pick Kevin?”

  “I wrote to them both, really, and Kevin wrote back, and he loves to dance. . . .” Connie got up from the round leatherette stool at the counter and did a few slow, snaky steps of the Catalina. “And I figured I was even better than whatever they are, because I’m a real Catholic, not—um—Espiscopaliana or whatever . . . and he’s real cute!”

  “Aren’t you afraid of when he gets out?”

  “Why should I be?”

  “Connie, jeez, he already went after a boy with a gun. . . .”

  “It wasn’t him did that.”

  “Not that,” said Elena. Connie jumped like her little sister was going under the cuticle of her nail with a needle file. I knew she wanted to shut Elena’s mouth for her.

  “What did he do?” I asked her.

  “He did some stuff. He’s got no father. His daddy was killed in this gross accident,” Connie said.

  “What stuff did he do?” I kept after her.

  “Him and a bunch of boys ran some cows down with a pickup—”

  “Ran them over?”

  “No, but they . . . ran them till they died, I guess.”

  “That’s horrible. The poor things!”

  “Arley, for God’s sake. It’s not like they were puppies or something.”

  “It is to cows!”

  “And that was all, except some little stuff—”

  “Like?”

  “Like drinking with the cowboys in the spring tent at the rodeo. Like there’s one whole boy from here to the coast who hasn’t got drunk by the time he’s twelve! And school stuff, stealing some stuff—”

  “What?”

  “Arley, I don’t know! Like CDs or clothes or junk. He went to the boys’ school—”

  “So he was in before.”

  “That’s not jail!”

  “Does your mama know?” I asked Connie.

  “She knows I write him. She don’t know I’ve be
en to see him.” She aimed a blunt look at Elena. “Anyhow, Mama don’t think there’s a single person don’t deserve another chance.”

  “Look at Gracie, for example,” Elena put in. “She’s had more chances than the state lottery.”

  “Why don’t you write to that other boy?” I asked Elena. “Or maybe Gracie . . .”

  “They’d have a lot in common,” Elena said. She started wiping up the tops of the squirt bottles, which would get little hard collars of taco sauce around them in the course of a day, and I noticed we were all but ready to change over shift. “Me, I don’t think no boy behind bars is going to be much fun.”

  She meant sex. When Elena said “fun” in her purry voice, that was what she meant. I didn’t know then if she meant actual sex or fooling around. It turned out she only meant fooling around, because she wanted to know every move I made when I actually did it. Still, I hated when she tried to talk so big and tough, like she was Gracie and not her own sweet self under all that tangly pinned-up hair and black kohl shadow. She said, then, kind of nasty, “Why don’t you write to him, Arley? You are so pure and all. You can make him see the sin in him.”

 
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