The most wanted, p.7
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       The Most Wanted, p.7

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 

  “Who is it?” called a voice from inside, a voice that sounded like the inside of a hundred bars at three a.m., with the lights just blinked on, revealing all the straw papers and beer spills on the dance floor. “Who’s there, girl?”

  I gently shouldered Arley aside and walked in. I still don’t know where I got the chutzpah—you have to understand people’s boundaries in my work, and respect is the thing you most need to keep in mind. But I did what I did.

  Rita was standing there, tapping her foot, watching a saucepan of water on the stove. When I saw her from the back, I thought right away she looked just like Cherry Ames, student nurse, in those books I used to read when I was ten. She had on the kind of starched and bleached uniform that seems so dated on a nurse today, it’s almost like a costume. And yet it’s somehow . . . what? Sexy? Baroque? Like seeing a nun under the age of sixty in full habit. When she turned around, though, I could see that Rita Mowbray’s cherry days were far behind her. She had a face like a good boot, seamed and browned and yet handsome in its way. Like the central casting version of the dance hall girl with a heart of gold, rubbed to a faint sheen between the stones of experience, she looked like a woman with a good memory for the way nature had made her. Shiny, long, thick hair in a heavy blunt cut swept her shoulders, but it was a parody color, yolk orange, like a farm-fresh egg. One of her index fingernails was varnished blue and spangled with stars. She said, “Can I help you?” Her accent was thick South Texas, the “yew” a couple of syllables long.

  “I’m Arley’s lawyer. I’m Anne Singer,” I replied, awkwardly covering the distance between us and holding out my hand, which she grasped delicately with three fingers—a thing that makes me want to slap women my age who do it. I couldn’t help but notice that under her cap sleeves, Rita Mowbray’s small arms were as incised with good muscle as Stuart’s were; she could probably have whipped me over one shoulder had she cared to. She was, if anything, shorter than I am, and slender, and she had the strangest way of looking, as if she were listening to a great dirty joke on a hidden earpiece. Her white smile was as cold and eager as a dog’s grin. It scared me. She scared me.

  “I didn’t know my daughter had a lawyer.”

  Arley cringed, seeming to shrink from her blossom-stalk carriage into a kind of crouch; even her hands crept up near her chest. I thought I’d got it then. She beat her. She’d let a succession of hang-arounds use the child sexually, perhaps so long ago Arley didn’t even remember. There was nothing in this room but fear, fear so dull and accustomed no one even seemed to recognize it as such anymore. No wonder the kid had turned to the first kind of shelter she’d ever encountered: she was a hungry heart on the half shell for the likes of Dillon LeGrande. As it turned out, I was right, and I was wrong. Rita Mowbray never laid a hand on her daughters or her son. She had never needed to.

  “I’m having me a hard-boiled egg,” she said pleasantly. “It’s my egg-fast day. I’ve had an egg-fast day once a week every week for fifteen years, and I never gained a single pound in my life.”

  “That’s remarkable,” I said, looking at the one egg in the pan. “I . . . ah, I’m sorry if I intruded on you.”

  “Shoot, no, that’s just fine,” said Rita. “I’m interested. I’m truly interested. Would you like to sit?”

  It was basically a picnic table. Without my having asked, Arley brought me a glass of water with ice and then sat down beside her mother.

  “My shift starts in half an hour,” said Rita.

  “Do you work at a doctor’s office?”

  “I’m a registered nurse, at Texas Christian. Surgical floor.”

  “You work nights?”

  “I don’t mind. You get more.”

  “Missus Mowbray . . .”

  “Actually, it’s Miss Mowbray. I’ve never been married.”

  “Okay. I . . . ah, my business is really with your daughter. It’s about the suit she wants to help her . . . husband bring against the warden of the state penitentiary at Solamente River. . . .”

  “Oh. That stuff. Then I guess it don’t matter any to me.”

  “You mean it’s okay with you?”

  Rita Mowbray half turned on the bench. “Wake your brother up,” she said to Arley. “He’s about going to be late for work.” Arley departed swiftly into a room just off the kitchen. I heard a loud plong from inside, as if someone had dropped a guitar (I would later learn that Cam often slept in a hammock with his guitar and tended to roll over on it). “Miz Singer, I was surprised to hear Arley wanted to get married. Not that they don’t start earlier now. My daughter Lang had a boyfriend since she was eleven.”

  “You did give your formal permission for the . . .”

  “Not because I was in favor of it. People will do what they want, anyhow. Teachers are always calling up telling me she’s smart enough to be in college. I’m not her conscience.”

  “You’re her mother.”

  “That’s true enough. Good brains run in the family.” She smiled, and again I found myself fascinated by those sharp teeth. I turned to Arley, in the doorway now.

  “Want to go out for some coffee?”

  Rita said sharply, “She needs to make dinner for her brother.”

  “You have a younger child, then, too? A little boy?” I asked.

  “Hardly. He’s six two,” Rita said proudly, “and only sixteen. Hasn’t got his growth yet.”

  “Is he disabled?” I asked, and Arley made a coughing sound, which I realized a second later was laughter she was trying to hold back. When Rita turned, ever so slowly, and fastened that merry, malicious gaze on her daughter, and Arley went still and examined her sandals, my heart started to knock. I began wondering why everything about Rita had raised my hackles from the first instant, which I wouldn’t really understand until that night at Texas Christian with Arley, many months later. This was our first meeting; I was being unjust. “No offense meant,” I said quickly.

  “He’s not disabled more’n any male,” she said. “Look, Miz Singer. If she didn’t give him food, he’d just eat banana peppers and hot sauce out of the jar with a spoon, and after a while of that he’d get sick, and I’d have to pay for it. Arley’s been cookin’ since she was a child, and unless you all are going to find a way for her to move in over there at Solamente River and keep house for her man, she’s going to go right on doing it here, or she can do it somewhere else I don’t have to support her.” She looked up at Arley, then down at me. “You really a lawyer? Or an assistant?”

  “I’m a lawyer.”

  “How old are you?”

  “Forty in January.”

  “You got any kids?”

  “No. I don’t.”

  “Well, I am thirty-eight years old, and by the time I was the age of my older girl, I already had me two.” Rita was younger than I was. I felt like lying down. How did we look side by side? “My mama had me when she was sixteen. Her mama had her when she was sixteen. I waited. I was seventeen.”

  “I know children are a tremendous responsibility.”

  “Well, it’s like we learned in biology. They’ll survive. They’re meant to survive you. All the while I was in school, day and night and day, I had to pay for those kids to sit in the day care at the hospital and draw with markers I couldn’t never scrub off their clothes, and play with pretty blocks while I shoveled caked shit out of comatose patients’ butts.”

  “You did it, though. You got your education.”

  “Well, what was I going to do? Cut hair? Tend bar? I could have took care of myself. Maybe found somebody who’d do it for me, too, at least when I was younger. But I had them all”—she pointed her chin at Arley—“and I wasn’t going to go down begging for welfare on account of them. You can’t live right off that, anyhow.”

  “But you wanted a family—”

  “You don’t have to want one to get one.”

  A door banged open, and a barefoot blond boy in surgical scrub pants and a T-shirt that read “Hell Freezes Over” stumbled into
the kitchen. His was the strawberry-blond hair color his mother’s must have remembered, and the topography of his smooth face gave him the beautiful, vacant look of a B-movie star. He nodded at us without expression. “Ma,” he said. “Ma’am.” A Texas kid will always say this when you meet him, and a Texas kid can make “Ma’am” sound like a four-letter word. But this boy didn’t. He didn’t have that much energy.

  “I got to go if we are going to go,” Arley put in, softly. Dazedly, I waved to Rita and Cam and sort of crab-walked out of the house. They stared at us as we got into my car.

  Arley strapped herself in, smoothing her jeans, plucking at her rayon shirt. Her breath was coming in little chuffs, and she let her impossibly long hair fall over the side of her face like a tent flap.

  “Arley?” I said, backing out around the motorbike I assumed was her brother’s, which seemed constructed mostly of duct tape. She didn’t answer. “Arley, your mother’s one tough cookie, isn’t she?”

  She looked up at me then and blinked her eyes once. “Yes,” she said. “She does what she wants.”

  “That must not be easy to live with all the time.”

  “She ain’t hardly . . . well, she’s hardly ever home all the time. So it doesn’t matter so much.”

  She probably didn’t need the advice. But I felt compelled to give it.

  “Arley,” I began, “you know from school that there are people who help kids out if they have trouble with their parents. No matter what kind of thing happens, it’s already happened to some other girl before, and nobody has to put up with it. . . .”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Abuse, Arley. Hitting. Or neglecting you.”

  She smiled, and she looked patient and old, like one of the veiled and straight-backed señoras, of incalculable age, who prayed on the steps of the cathedral on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. “Mama wouldn’t never hit us.”

  “Do you feel . . . close to your mother? Even if she acts kind of distant?”

  “No.”

  “Do you like her?”

  “Well, this is going to sound awful, but I used to like her more when I was a kid.”

  “What changed?”

  “The big thing was, when I got in school I started to see that things at our house weren’t . . . normal.”

  Here it came, I thought. The cigarette burns. The “uncle” with the curious hands. The skin on my forearms prickled. “What do you mean?” I asked carefully.

  “Well, it’s hard to explain. Like, okay, I know that some people don’t like to cook. Elena’s mom, she cooks all the time, and it’s like this big thing with her. She’s always telling me how you have to make the food nutritious, but you also have to make it look good, or nobody will eat it.” She drew a big breath, and I fidgeted, impatient with the teenage digression. “And Ginny, my boss,” Arley went on, “she totally hates to cook. And she owns a restaurant! But my mama, see, I can’t never remember her cooking, not once. I know she must have done it before I was big enough to do it. We’d have starved otherwise, you know? But I don’t remember. Even on Thanksgiving.”

  She went on, describing a life so devoid of joy or recreation, it could have been lived inside a grim monastic order. Arley’s mother barely spoke, and then only to give commands. When she was not at work, she was out dancing. She did not neglect her children; neglect might have required more concentration than Rita was able to muster up. For Arley, school was a respite, not another chore. Arley’s mother simply did not love her, and not only did she not love her but she regarded Arley’s school successes, as well as her timid attempts to involve herself in extracurricular activities, as a source of irritation, an obstacle that got between her and her right to cheap labor.

  Arley’s breaking away, to claim time for herself with Elena’s family, to take her job, was not a minor teenage rebellion; it was an all-out revolution. No wonder Arley was tense, wondering what her mother would “do” to her about Dillon.

  Dillon . . . With Dillon, Arley had probably traded more words and feelings than she’d ever expressed in the previous fourteen years of her life. No wonder she’d been knocked off balance by the force of his attention.

  “Did you ever have people over? Family? At Christmas?”

  “No. We once went to her sister Debbie Lynn’s house in Galveston.”

  “So what do you do on holidays?

  “Mama usually works. You get more if you work a holiday. Cam and me usually have a sixteen-piece bucket. You know, they’re open on Christmas, too.”

  “What does your mother do at home?”

  “Well, nothing. She just talks on the phone. Or she sits at the table and smokes. She never eats nothing; just sits there tapping with her boot and looking out the window and waiting for us to eat and get the dishes done. Or whatever. Then she goes to work. When I was little, I would talk to her sometimes. I remember once I told her about the tarantula in the glass case at school. She didn’t really get mad at me; it was more like she could see right through you, like you were glass . . . no, like you were water.” She smiled. “I sound like a real case, huh? It’s not, like, at all as bad as it sounds.”

  I might have felt relieved. No lech uncle. No hidden bruises. But as we drove through Avalon to the drive-in restaurant, Arley’s account of her life, though told without a trace of self-pity, left me feeling more bowed, more helpless, than I could recall feeling when faced with the most miserable case of spousal battery. You could name that. You could find that. If you could find that, you could fix it. Not easily. It would always be like drawing out cactus tines with a tweezers—every time you got one, you’d spot three more. But what Rita did to her children had no name, because it was nothing. Nothing that could be legally called abandonment. She walked the line. She was careful and correct. She did nothing more than let her children pass through.

  We sat in the lime glow of the Dairy-Brite and sipped our cherry colas, and Arley told me that things actually got better, for her and her brother, when they got tall enough to use appliances and smart enough to remember the number of the Bexar County police and Rita’s nursing station at the hospital. Rita switched to nights—more money—“because we didn’t need anybody to take care of us when we were asleep. There were whole weeks when I never saw Mama, Miz Singer—”

  “You can call me Annie,” I said. “Your big sister, where was she?”

  “Oh, she had to live at Grandma’s.”

  “Your grandma took care of her?”

  “No.” Arley dropped her eyes shyly. “It wasn’t like that.” She swiped at her mouth with a tassel of her hair. “You know, Cam used to mind me. But now he can’t do one thing. He’s like dead from the neck down. He works at Electric Mirage three nights a week, but the rest of the time he just sits in his room with his guitar and his fiddle and smokes. Or he rides around with his friends. This is about a year it’s been like this. I was really mad, at first. I, like, want to ask him if he has a genetic defect that makes him so he couldn’t push a button on the washing machine.” She smiled at me. “That’s why I started laughing today. Mama lets him get away with it ’cause he’s a boy. She just—she really likes men.” A prostitute, I thought. That was the shoe that hadn’t dropped. But then Arley added, “Not that she ever gets any of them. She hasn’t had a date with a guy in, like, a year.”

  She was quiet a minute, then she piped up again. “Plus Cam can sing.”

  “Sing?”

  “He has a really good voice. One night, he was at this tavern where Mama goes with my sister, whenever Langtry comes around, and Cam was there moving some boxes for the owner, and he just got up there and sang some Willie Nelson song, and Mama and Lang was knocked right on their ass. I mean . . . I’m sorry I swore.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “So now, you know, Cam is a genius.” Arley had even overheard her mother, on the phone, telling a girlfriend that with his voice and that big cleft in his chin, he could be as big as Clint Black. “She told my sister a cleft lo
oks bad on a woman, but it’s sexy on a man. And you know, my sister does have a cleft in her chin. A little one.”

  “Her name’s Langley?”

  “Langtry. That’s a town name, like all of us. Mama says people say you look at them from behind, you can’t tell who’s the mother and who’s the daughter. At the bars, they get taken for sisters.”

  “What does Langtry do?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t even know where she lives. She just comes and goes. She got her own place when she was sixteen. I didn’t even know she moved away till Cameron—that’s his real name—found all her stuff was gone out of that room up in the attic. I took that for my room then.”

  I asked Arley, “Didn’t your mom ever want to marry?”

  “She wanted to marry a doctor.”

  “And does she go out with doctors from the hospital?”

  “Not really. I mean, once in a while she has. She worships the doctors. The doctor who fixed my leg when I broke it on the side horse in gym came over here once and picked her up. But he didn’t come in. Mostly, she’s dated guys that are kind of losers. They come around here, and they stay for a while. But then they leave.”

  “Is she really sad then?”

  “She doesn’t cry. She just rips all the pillowcases off to wash and tells me to throw out whatever they left. A razor or whatever.”

  “How did they treat you?”

  “They never treated me any way at all, except one guy once bought me some barrettes, but Mama had a hissy fit and stomped on them. They were mostly asleep in the day and gone at night. They’d get really thirsty, though. They’d drink all the juice.”

  “Speaking of thirsty, I could use another Coke. You too?” I asked her.

  “I would,” she said. “But I can pay.”

  “It’s okay. Do you want anything to eat?”

  “I really want onion rings. They have the best ones here. But I shouldn’t. Do you know that if you eat that greasy stuff, it makes little grease bubbles in your blood? I mean, that’s what they mean about clogging your arteries. Can you imagine having greasy blood?”

  “I think you’d have to eat a lot of onion rings, over a long period, to get greasy blood.”

 
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