- The Last King of Texas
He flipped a few more pages, set aside that magazine, and picked up another.
"We don't have Nickelodeon," he told me. "Jem borrowed me these."
"What're you doing?"
"Can I look?"
He flexed his scissors thoughtfully a few times, then nodded.
The clippings showed action figures. Play-Doh kits. A Christmas tree that sang karaoke. Several other Christmas items. He must've found the December issue.
I thought about the little crumpled picture of a Christmas tree I'd found in Michael's cleaned-out room, two Saturday evenings ago, the last remnant of the sheet cave.
"Is this what you do when you're not zapping aliens with your ray gun?" I asked gently. "You collect art?"
Michael deliberated over an advertisement for an Erector set. "My wish list."
He looked as sleepy and grim as a late-night driver — no joy in his face, no indication that this toy-browsing was anything but deadly serious work. He started to cut out the Erector set.
"You want all these things for Christmas?" I asked.
He pulled his head in, rubbed his ear on his shoulder.
"Mommy threw the old list away," he muttered. "It wasn't invisible. I have to start over now. Daddy said, 'What would you rather have for Christmas — a lot of toys or a new home in San'tonio? If you don't get it, you can put it on your wish list.'"
The house was strangely silent. A rustle of palm fronds outside the window. From the other bedroom, the faintest trickle of water from Ines' shower. I focused on Michael Brandon's little fingers as they worked. I tried to remember if Jem's hands had even been that tiny.
"Do you want to know a secret?" I asked.
Michael's scissors stopped snipping.
"When I was younger," I said, "my father died, too."
There it was. Laid out in front of a five-year-old. Way to go, Navarre.
"I wasn't as young as you," I amended. "Not nearly. But it was very hard. For a long time."
Michael's pale, inscrutable eyes stayed on me for a heartbeat, then drifted back to the hole he'd cut in the magazine. "I'm making a wish list."
"I know," I said. "You want some privacy?"
He pondered that. He'd probably never had anybody ask him that question before. "No," he decided. "That's okay."
Then, almost inaudibly, he added, "Did you make a cave?"
I nodded. "A very big one. Called California."
Michael scratched a chigger bite. His fingernails left red streaks against the pale skin of his ankle. His lower lip started to tremble. "Daddy asked me what I wanted, and I said I wanted San'tonio."
He finished cutting another picture, flattened it on top of the other toy advertisements.
"And I'm sorry," he whispered. "Were you sorry?"
It took me a minute to get my voice to work.
"Yeah, Michael," I said. "Yeah, I was."
He pulled up one knee and rested his chin on it. He made the scissors do a one-bladed pirouette on his big toe.
"We need more Christmas pictures, Tres," he decided.
"It's April," I croaked. Then I realized how little that would mean to Michael — how the last four months in San Antonio had been one hellish Christmas present this little boy wanted with all his heart to put back in the box.
"More Christmas pictures," I repeated. "Yeah. All right. Hand me a magazine."
For the next thirty minutes, until his mother got out of the shower, Michael Brandon and I flipped through toy circulars, looking for things worth wishing for.
Final exam week at UTSA came too quickly. In all three of my classes, the students scrambled when they realized that there actually would be an evaluation for the term — that the chances of me getting blown away before grades were due were not as likely as they'd once thought.
Gregory the Radish Boy led the grad seminar in a rousing discussion of Marie de France. We decided that maybe Bisclavret's wife had gotten a bad deal, but they kept asking why Marie de France had chosen to tell such a depressing tale and why Aaron Brandon and I liked to teach it.
The last class before the final, Morticia Addams and the two housewives brought casseroles to class. Sergeant Irwin brought some pastries and made a big deal out of handing me a purple-sugar pan dulce, telling me it was my medal for combat wounds in my first term. The sergeant pounded me on the shoulder and said he was damn proud to have had my class.
Professor Mitchell sat in the back, smiling, taking notes, sipping a Sprite one of the students had given him, while we went through some last-minute questions from the study guide.
After the class broke up Mitchell offered to walk me back to my office. "You're a hell of a teacher," Mitchell told me.
I refused to blush. I looked straight down the hallway of yellow bolted panels, thinking about the corridor as it had been a few weeks ago, filled with FBI and bomb-squad men and police.
"You should see me on semesters when I don't get shot."
Mitchell chuckled. As we walked he brought out some student evaluation forms, the kind they use to assess each class.
"I hope I get that chance," he said. "These reports are excellent — the dean was very pleased to see them after such a hard beginning to the term. There've already been quite a few questions about your classes for next fall."
"You're interested, I hope? Same arrangement? Same hours?"
"Dividing my time with Erainya Manos? You're willing to have a part-time P.I. on staff?"
Mitchell laughed. "Probably keep everybody honest when it comes to post-tenure review time, knowing I've got my own investigator. Absolutely, son."
We stopped at the door of my office. Mitchell patted me on the shoulder, grinned. His white sideburns inched back. "Well?"
"I'm on board," I said.
"You've got a future here, son. Unofficially speaking, I think you'll be around for some time."
"My landlord and creditors will be happy to hear that."
Mitchell patted me again, then said, "I'll see you at the department party?"
He turned without waiting for an answer and went whistling down the hallway.
I closed up the office and got home around one, just in time to change for my next engagement.
It was the first Friday in May. Some friends and I had a date. I put on one of my new dress shirts, some slacks, and a tie I had been able to afford with my first paycheck from UTSA. My tie was a springtime explosion of rose on yellow. I looked in the mirror and wondered if there had always been a little streak of gray above my left ear.
Around one-thirty, Erainya did her unsyncopated rap-ta-tap on the door. Jem and Michael burst in, followed by their mothers. The boys looked like miniature versions of me — slacks, white shirts, same rose-and-yellow ties, sawed off and hemmed to their sizes. They'd insisted on their own ties when they'd gone shopping with me a few days before. I told them we would look like a clown troupe if we went out in public together, but that just made them more determined.
Erainya and Ines, mercifully, had chosen their own clothes. Erainya wore her standard black T-shirt dress, black sandals, a black leather purse that looked like an S&M mask. Her only concession to the May Festival atmosphere was a single red plastic bracelet on her wrist. It somehow looked more like the remnant of incarceration than a spring fashion statement.
Ines wore white slacks and a blue Guatemalan shirt that made her red hair glow like neon. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, then went to rein in Michael, who was helping Jem capture Robert Johnson from the top shelf of the closet — his normal hiding place from children.
Erainya came up and straightened my tie. "You're how old? And you can't tie a tie?"
"I'm new at this formal dress business."
She sighed. "So you going to grace us with your presence at the office one of these days?"
"Tuesday," I promised. "Same day George'll be back. Things have just about settled down at UTSA. You close out the Brandon case?"
She stepped back and examined my outfit critically. "They sent the check. It didn't bounce. Things are fine."
"No more death threats to the English department?"
"Ah." She waved her hand. "Not unless you keep dressing like this. No."
Jem was raking Robert Johnson down the sleeves of my shirts. Michael was giggling.
We granted the poor feline a reprieve and told the boys to come on to the car. As it turned out, Jem and Michael's new school was not going to be the one they'd visited together three weeks before. During the course of the police investigation, one of Erainya's lawyer friends who was representing Ines had learned that both women were looking into private education for their sons. The lawyer had put in a good word at his daughter's school on the North Side, which just happened to be short on boys' enrollment for the fall. Lo and behold, Jem and Michael received acceptance letters and half-tuition scholarships a few days later, along with invitations to visit for the annual Spring Celebration to meet their future classmates.
The school was just north of Loop 410 but it seemed a thousand miles from town — an isolated village of Spanish-style limestone buildings and courtyards and covered walkways nestled amid hundreds of acres of live oaks on the banks of Salado Creek.
Today the huge front lawn of the school was overrun with families and food booths. The trees were bedecked in ribbons. Hand-painted signs advertised Beanie Baby tosses, peppermint sticks in lemons, a dunking booth. In the breezeway by the theater, a junior school jazz band was foot-tapping their way through a tune that sounded like Miles Davis struck with baseball bats and strained through an organ grinder's box. Parents in suits and flowing white summer dresses floated along, smiles in place, tickets in hand, children in whirlwinds around them, faces painted like spiderwebs or rainbows. Within fifteen minutes of our arrival, Jem and Michael were tugged into a group of kindergartners and taught to play fishing-for-treats with a stick and a glittery sheet.
Erainya was pulled into a conversation with her lawyer/parent friend who wanted to introduce her to a state senator who might have some business for a good P.I. They walked off talking about the possibilities and eating Sno-Kones. Ines Brandon smiled at me nervously. "What the hell are we doing here?"
"Pretending to be rich," I said. "Come on."
We walked along the periphery of the festival, trying our best to avoid little bodies. I glanced at Ines in her bright colors and tried to convince myself she really was the same woman I'd met just a few weeks ago.
We bought two lemons with peppermint sticks and sat in the shade of a live oak. Jem was showing some kids a trick with a yo-yo. Michael was betting the other kids a carnival ticket each that Jem couldn't do it three times in a row.
"I don't know about this new Jem/Michael alliance," I muttered.
Ines twirled her peppermint stick. Her lips were turning unnaturally red from the candy. "Hardly fair to the rest of the kids in the world, is it?"
We watched as Jem completed the third around-the-world/walk-the-dog combination with the yo-yo and Michael started collecting tickets, smiling for the first time I'd ever seen. He suggested the other kids try double or nothing. The junior high band managed a drumroll and a horn crescendo, then unraveled into a very odd waltz arrangement of Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls." I got the feeling it wasn't really supposed to be a waltz arrangement, but I wanted to give them the benefit of a doubt.