The most wanted, p.9
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       The Most Wanted, p.9

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  Then one day I got a letter from Dillon that started out just like all the others, just like we were still in the middle of that conversation about how funny it is that you can feel trapped by too much space the same as you can by too little. No matter how I talked about all that emptiness, Dillon wrote, he thought I was a real Texan. “I think you like the loneliness a little bit, like I do. Yankees wouldn’t understand, because they’re all wimps. But I hope you don’t like loneliness too much, because I think we ought to figure out when you can get on my visitors list and come and see me.”

  That made me so jumpy, I almost got sick to my stomach. I had to get up in social studies and go out to the bathroom. I mean, I was supposed to be eighteen years old. And it wasn’t just that I knew a kid my age couldn’t go up and see a grown man in Solamente. It was that I knew, if he saw me, he would find out I was just a kid, and it would all be over. I never thought Dillon would have paid me much mind if he hadn’t been stuck there. To this day, a part of me still believes that. What they say about prison is that you’re supposed to get rehabilitated, which really means getting used to the world again. What I was thinking right then is that once he got used to the world outside prison, he would real quick find someone his own level. I knew that I was smart, smart for a kid my age. But I didn’t know all the things I really would have known if I was eighteen. Like, I would have had a lot of other boyfriends, for one thing.

  I needed Elena. Elena knew more than me when she was born, and she had those older sisters too, and even Gracie, bad as she was, didn’t, like, disappear when she was twelve, the way Langtry did. But I was afraid to let Elena in on Dillon. First of all, I knew it would piss her off, the way it pissed her off that Connie loved Kevin. But it’s also because of the way Elena sucks up all the attention from every situation she’s in. She just has to stand there, and it’s like there’s a bonfire in the middle of the room. Everyone has to look. You don’t ever notice this when you’re with her, ’cause you’re looking too, but you think about it later. It wasn’t like I thought she would try to take Dillon away from me or anything—I guess I wasn’t even sure, right then, how much I felt about him. I just thought Elena would see something or find out something about Dillon and me and it would ruin it for me. But it turned out I didn’t give her enough credit. All the while, she was picking up pieces and making her own shape of what was going on, and she was getting madder and madder at me for keeping it to myself.

  The night of the party, it would all blow up to heaven, and something between me and Elena would change forever. If it hadn’t changed, would she have pulled me back? Would I ever have ended up in that chaplain’s office at Solamente River Prison?

  It was just a couple of weeks before the party that Dillon asked if he could call me collect to talk some Saturday morning. “I just wish I had a face to put with your words. Or the sound of a voice to create a face to go with it. I’m sorry it has to be collect. But that’s the only thing we can do here.”

  I was desperate then. There was no way in hell Dillon was going to be able to call me at my house. Mama didn’t look at much, but she looked at the bills when she paid them like she was studying how to do a heart transplant. The very same night I got that letter, I went over to Elena’s for dinner. Mrs. G. made taco pie, which I love, and so we were a long time just sitting there eating, her saying, “Querida, you have some more. You can see through you, Arley.” Which is not true, by the way. I’m not even that thin for my height; people are surprised when they find out I weigh a hundred and forty.

  We were going to do our math later in Elena’s room, but she wanted to paint her toenails first. So I had to wait, even though I reckon by then I could feel the outline of that letter in my pocket, like it had edges that would bruise me if I moved around too much. I could never take my eyes off Elena when she polished her nails. She was like some kind of artist, getting each one of them little nails just right in one sure, practiced, even swoop. I’d have had it all over the floor, my fingers, and my feet, if I even ever tried it, which I never would. Finally, I thought I would totally explode if I didn’t say something fast. So I just took the letter out and said, “You have to read this.”

  She kept on painting. But she looked at me with her mouth in a pout, like she wasn’t even surprised. “You think I don’t know about that?” she said, so soft I could tell she was angry, because Elena’s normal voice is as loud as a cheerleader’s.

  “I know that you know.”

  “You didn’t tell me.”

  “I told you I wrote. I figured you knew, anyhow, that he wrote back and stuff.”

  “Not how much.”


  “So how much?”

  “A lot. Almost every day.” It felt unlucky, just saying that.

  Elena slowly screwed the top back on her chocolate-colored polish. And then she opened the letter, holding her fingers flat the way she did whenever she touched anything, and so she wouldn’t mess her fingernails.

  She read a long time. I think she read so long because she was trying to make me twist. Which she did. She got to the bottom of page two and then went back and read something in the middle of page one. Finally, I said, “Elena. For God’s sake . . . You never read anything for that long a time your whole life.”

  “Well, it’s really good reading.”

  “Stop that.”

  “Don’t you think it is?”

  “Cut it out. You’re being mean to me.”

  “I am not,” she said, but she smiled, so I knew she was happy that I noticed. “This here’s mostly about old Langtry, don’t you think?”

  To tell the truth, I had noticed that little thing.

  Elena read it out loud: “ ‘Imagine a woman like you living so close to me all her life and I have never even met her. Of course, I do know your sister, Langtry. I don’t mean this in any rough way at all, but everyone in South Texas knows that girl. I even spent some time with her one fine night a couple of summers ago. She wouldn’t have been much older than you are now. And Lord, that girl can dance. We had them standing in a circle cheering at Chase’s. Even the band was clapping. She can move, Langtry. But personally, I like the quieter type of woman—’ ”

  “That’s enough,” I told her.

  “It sure is,” Elena said, starting to unscrew her nail polish again. I hate this about her. She can just leave a talk right there and not say another word, but you’re losing your mind. I was miserable.

  “Do you think he likes Lang?”

  “Hard to imagine a boy with a dick wouldn’t like Lang.”

  “Shut up.”

  “Well, Arley, holy shit. She advertises it.”

  I didn’t like when people said that, but the fact is, that was true about my sister. Not that Elena really knew her. She’d seen Langtry exactly twice in the year and a half we’d been best friends, but one of those times Lang had on those lizardskin boots of hers that look like they were made from some kind of magic dragon—purple and red and golden. And Elena asked me how Lang could afford boots like that, which must cost, like, three hundred dollars. It made me feel stupid, because I couldn’t answer. Langtry really never did move back home after Grandma died. I didn’t even know what she did for her job, and I sure didn’t know a thing about Ricky Nevadas’s uncle back then.

  “Come on,” I said to Elena, “give me a break. Maybe he really likes Langtry and I should tell her to write to him.”

  “Well,” Elena said, “I don’t think Langtry would want much to do with him. I think he sounds like he’s gay.”

  I sat down hard on the mushroom chair Elena had at the end of her bed. “Cut it out!” she shouted. “You’re going to make me smear on nine!”

  “What do you mean, gay?”

  “I mean all that talk about ‘a woman like yourself’ and stuff. Regular guys don’t talk like that.”

  “How do you know?” I yelled back. “Dillon reads a lot. Who do we know except dumb high school boys?”

  “I thi
nk he sounds like Mister Joybutt.” She meant Mr. Jabeaut, who taught French and ran the drama club. It was Elena started the nickname, after she saw somebody in a movie called that. I thought it was nasty and small, even though Mr. Jabeaut could be a little too much sometimes and always wore a scarf around his neck, even in summer. But nasty as it was, it was also funny. In fact, I could feel the muscles by my mouth jumping the minute she said it, even though I was fit to be tied.

  “Well,” I said, “I don’t think he sounds that way at all. Maybe I won’t show you any more of his letters, if you don’t care.”

  “I care,” she said. “I just think he sounds like a big asshole. You know, I’ve read Connie’s letters too—she don’t know it—but old Kevin is just like his brother. He thinks the Spurs are just waiting for him to get out of jail so he can play point guard. Who do those LeGrande boys think they are?”

  I didn’t say anything, but deep inside, I had a tap of doubt, followed by an anger that closed over that doubt like a fist. “Look, you’re my best friend. You’re not my mother.” She gave me that look that said, clear as day, Excuse me?

  “Now, that’s the truth. Your mother probably has some good advice about stuff like this. Why don’t you ask her?” Elena said, being nasty.

  “Elena, I know you think I haven’t been telling you enough stuff. And I know I promised I’d tell you everything.” It was true. We were pledged, with a real pact. It sounds like a kid thing now, but we took it seriously; I still do. We swore major truth to tell each other our worst and best for all life and to honor each other’s trust. So far, we’d never failed. We even had a code. In front of other people, Elena would signal me, “That’s an ITH.” It meant “in the house,” or, as my French teacher would say, “entre nous.” It would never go further than us. We wanted to swear in blood, but we’d had it drilled into us all our lives that you never, ever exchange big time bodily fluids with anybody, no matter how much you love the person, so we each chewed a piece of gum and then we switched them. Elena said we were “spit sisters.” So that night, I said to her, “I know I’m wrong in keeping this inside. But I just feel weird, and you don’t have to go off on me about it.”

  Elena looked me up and down. I looked her right back. I’m shy, but I don’t like people making me drop my eyes; and this was big, so I sure wasn’t going to do it right then. Finally, she looked at her pinkie toe.

  “Okay,” said Elena. “I don’t think he likes Lang. I think he likes you. And I think he’s also putting on more than he could really feel, since he never even saw you. But I can imagine how a man would get that way, sitting by himself.”

  “What about him calling collect? I mean, if I’m this big college girl and all, how can I say, Don’t you dare call me?”

  “Have him call you at my house.”

  “And your parents get the collect call? That’s totally brilliant. Duh.”

  “They won’t get the bill right away. We could think of something. Kevin calls Connie. We could just say it was that.”

  “Wouldn’t Connie know?”


  “Would she tell?”

  Elena started to laugh. “Yeah. Because my dad has a shit fit every time he sees one of those phone calls. Even if she pays him.”

  “So that won’t work. What else?”

  “Write and tell him you’re living with your mother while you’re getting a new apartment.”

  So that’s what I did.

  But one Saturday morning, my mama was right there when the phone rang. I picked it up. He sounded like the stage actor who came to school to read from Mark Twain. Just this sweet voice, low but not rough, not scary, with some big old fat accent. A real man’s voice. “This is a collect call,” the operator said, “from . . .”

  “Dillon Thomas LeGrande. Ma’am.”

  And I said, “No one here by that name.”

  The operator’s voice got all flat and pissed. “It’s from him, honey. Not trying to get him.”

  “Oh, well,” I said, trying to stretch the cord out into the living room from the kitchen. “I just can’t accept that call. I just really can’t. Now.” Mama didn’t even notice.

  But he wouldn’t let up! He said, “Operator, ask her again, please. Ask the party whether she will accept . . . this call from Dillon LeGrande.” Like he was saying accept him. But I just had to say the same thing again. “Sorry . . .” And when I got off, and Mama kind of looked at me, I didn’t even try to explain. I just said, “Wrong number, I guess.” All I wanted to do was be alone so I could think over the way I could hear the breath come out of him, his very breath from his body against my ear. At the beginning, I was so flustered when I talked to Dillon, especially when I was with him, that I had to get away and remember him, word by word, to make him more real.

  I felt like a fool. But Dillon somehow got a letter to me right that Monday, and he told me my voice sounded like hand bells. “I have to see you,” he wrote. “I need to look at your eyes to see if you’re real.”

  Well, I wrote him back a bunch of nonsense about my mother trying to buy her a new house, so that it really wasn’t fair to put collect calls on her bill. That I didn’t have a driver’s license, because I didn’t have a car—I said I couldn’t afford one with paying for college and all. I offered to send him a picture of me (an old one—I had to say it was old!). It took a few days for him to write again. And he didn’t even bring up the visit. I could have cried with relief. He just asked who my favorite poet was. “Obviously,” he said, “my favorite is the Irishman Dylan Thomas, my namesake. He’s my namesake whether he wants to be or not!”

  My favorite poet was Sara Teasdale. I think I’ve outgrown her now. The truth is, I still love her, but I know she’s sentimental and foolish. Back then, though, when Mrs. Murray gave this one talk about “Sara Teasdale, or Why Bad Poetry Is Written,” I was shocked. I had to believe it was because Mrs. Murray never had the kind of feelings Sara Teasdale wrote about, which must have been so sad they were unbearable, because she killed herself.

  In the next letter, I put in part of one of her poems. I was trying to get him to see that you didn’t have to be with a person you cared about every minute to feel the person’s love. It goes like this:

  It is enough for me by day

  To walk the same bright earth with him

  Enough that over us by night

  The same great roof of stars is dim.

  I also told Dillon I didn’t have very many friends. “I guess you can count all the Gutierrezes,” I wrote. “And Paula Currain and Cora Allen on the track team. And Luz, the other waitress on our shift at Taco.” I told him about Mr. Justice too. “This old man, Ginny (that’s the owner of Taco Haven) really hates having him come in, because he sits around humming and playing the air fiddle. She says he used to be a musician, but now he’s just a crazy old drunk. Ginny says his name is Remy Justice (is Remy a French name, like LeGrande?), and that he’s a woodsy, which means he lives out in the scrub someplace. I think it means he’s homeless. But I like him. He calls me ‘Miss Mowbray.’ And the other day, you know what? He said he was going to make me a stile to practice hurdling at home. I run track. (Did I tell you that?) I thought that was real nice. But Ginny said, ‘You keep clear of that one, girl. He ain’t a bad man. But he’s crazier than a cootebray.’ I think that’s not too fair, though. Everybody has their troubles.”

  And then I stuck some stickers on it, bats and cactus, that I got at Oberly’s. They were kind of juvenile, but I thought they would cheer him up, remind him of what he said about his grandpa’s old ranch. He wrote back, just a card, saying that a true friend was rarer than a great steak, which I thought was kind of weird, and saying he’d really like that picture of me. So I sent him one then, the best one I had, which Elena took. I was in my track silks, but it wasn’t the one they used later in the magazine. Both pictures showed I have nice legs—they’re my best thing, except my hair—but they weren’t revealing or anything.

  And th
en that week started. The week that ended with Eric Dorey’s party on Saturday, which led to my going to the prison the next Saturday. The week that changed everything.

  What it was, was this. He didn’t write back.

  He didn’t write back for two days, and so I waited until Monday. He didn’t write by Wednesday, and so I figured the mail was just a little slow. By Friday, I was frantic.

  We had our second practice of the week that day. At first it wasn’t so bad. We just practiced coming out of the blocks. Coach had us watch Paula, because she had that real slingshot motion you try to get, how you just throw yourself forward without really standing up. We broke up to run our events. People think you jump over hurdles; after all, even the low hurdles look pretty high. But what you really do is you just run over them. Going over the hurdle is part of your stride. If you have the length in your legs, you get up your speed and you measure your steps and you sail over without stopping. You never stop getting a little sore from it, but I suppose it’s like a dancer going up on her toes; it just gets to be what you do. I’m a pretty natural runner. That day, though I’m normally more nervous at a practice than at a meet, from trying to be perfect, I wasn’t paying any mind to anything. I was what Coach Diaz used to call “in your body.” Even when Coach had some of the older girls watch me, which would usually make me so self-conscious I’d miss my stride, I kept going. It was like I could hear an engine inside me, revving and whining, and all I had to do was follow that sound. When he called for wind sprints, I didn’t count them like I used to; I just fell right in. I couldn’t do enough: twenty yards, stop, and back—twenty yards, stop, and back. When I looked up, everybody else had gone in to change. Coach was standing there with his fingers hooked in his belt loops, grinning.

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