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Authors: T. C. Boyle

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Wild Child

BOOK: Wild Child
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Wild Child
Wild Child

Wild Child

For Gordon and Cheryl Baptiste

Wild Child
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following magazines, in which these stories first appeared: Best Life: “Bulletproof ”; Harper’s:

“Question 62” and “Admiral”; The Kenyon Review: “Hands On”; McSweeney’s: “Wild Child”; The New Yorker: “La Conchita,” “Sin Dolor,” “The Lie,” “Thirteen Hundred Rats” and “Ash Monday”; The Paris Review: “Balto”; Playboy: “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado” and “Three Quarters of the Way to Hell”; and A Public Space: “Anacapa.”

“Balto” also appeared in The Best American Stories, 2007, edited by Stephen King (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), and “Admiral”

in The Best American Stories, 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008). The author would also like to acknowledge Harlan Lane’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron and Roger Shattuck’s The Forbidden Experiment as sources of certain factual details in “Wild Child.”

In Wildness is the preservation of the world.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Wild Child
BALTO

There were two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones. That was what her father’s attorney was telling her, and she was listening, doing her best, her face a small glazed crescent of light where the sun glanced off the yellow kitchen wall to illuminate her, but it was hard. Hard because it was a weekday, after school, and this was her free time, her chance to breeze into the 7-Eleven or Instant Message her friends before dinner and homework closed the day down. Hard too because her father was there, sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, sipping something out of a mug, not coffee, definitely not coffee. His face was soft, the lines at the corners of his eyes nearly erased in the gentle spill of light—his crow’s-feet, and how she loved that word, as if the bird’s scaly claws had taken hold there like something out of a horror story, Edgar Allan Poe, the Raven, Nevermore, but wasn’t a raven different from a crow and why not call them raven’s-feet? Or hawk’s-feet? People could have a hawk’s nose—they always did in stories—but they had crow’s-feet, and that didn’t make any sense at all.

“Angelle,” the attorney said—Mr. Apodaca—and the sound of her own name startled her, “are you listening to me?”

She nodded her head. And because that didn’t seem enough, she spoke up too. “Yes,” she said, but her voice sounded strange in her ears, as if somebody else were speaking for her.

“Good,” he said, “good,” leaning into the table so that his big moist dog’s eyes settled on her with a baleful look. “Because this is very important, I don’t have to stress that—”

He waited for her to nod again before going on.

“There are two kinds of truths,” he repeated, “just like lies. There are bad lies, we all know that, lies meant to cheat and deceive, and then there are white lies, little fibs that don’t really hurt anybody”—he blew out a soft puff of air, as if he were just stepping into a hot tub—“and might actually do good. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

She held herself perfectly still. Of course she understood—he was treating her like a nine-year-old, like her sister, and she was twelve, almost thirteen, and this was an act of rebellion, to hold herself there, not answering, not nodding, not even blinking her eyes.

“Like in this case,” he went on, “your father’s case, I mean.

You’ve seen TV, the movies. The judge asks you for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and you’ll swear to it, everybody does—your father, me, anybody before the court.” He had a mug too, one she recognized from her mother’s college days—B.U., it said in thick red letters, Boston University—but there was coffee in his, or there had been. Now he just pushed it around the table as if it were a chess piece and he couldn’t decide where to play it. “All I want you to remember—and your father wants this too, or no, he needs it, needs you to pay attention—is that there are good truths and bad truths, that’s all. And your memory only serves to a point; I mean, who’s to say what really happened, because everybody has their own version, that woman jogger, the boy on the bike—and the D.A., the district attorney, he’s the one who might ask you what happened that day, just him and me, that’s all. Don’t you worry about anything.”

But she was worried, because Mr. Apodaca was there in the first place, with his perfect suit and perfect tie and his doggy eyes, and because her father had been handcuffed along the side of the road and taken to jail and the car had been impounded, which meant nobody could use it, not her father or her mother when she came back from France or Dolores the maid or Allie the au pair. There was all that, but there was something else too, something in her father’s look and the attorney’s sugary tones that hardened her: they were talking down to her. Talking down to her as if she had no more sense than her little sister. And she did. She did.

That day, the day of the incident—or accident, he’d have to call it an accident now—he’d met Marcy for lunch at a restaurant down by the marina where you could sit outside and watch the way the sun struck the masts of the ships as they rocked on the tide and the light shattered and regrouped and shattered again. It was one of his favorite spots in town—one of his favorite spots, period. No matter how overburdened he felt, no matter how life beat him down and every task and deadline seemed to swell up out of all proportion so that twenty people couldn’t have dealt with it all—a team, an army—this place, this table in the far corner of the deck overlooking the jungle of masts, the bleached wooden catwalks, the glowing arc of the harbor and the mountains that framed it, always had a calming effect on him. That and the just-this-side-of-too-cold local chardonnay they served by the glass. He was working on his second when Marcy came up the stairs, swaying over her heels like a model on the runway, and glided down the length of the deck to join him.

She gave him an uncomplicated smile, a smile that lit her eyes and acknowledged everything—the day, the locale, the sun and the breeze and the clean pounded smell of the ocean and him perched there in the middle of it all—and bent to kiss him before easing herself into the chair beside him. “That looks nice,” she said, referring to the wine dense as struck gold in the glass before him, and held up a finger for the waiter.

And what did they talk about? Little things. Her work, the pair of shoes she’d bought and returned and then bought all over again, the movie they’d seen two nights ago—the last time they’d been together—and how she still couldn’t believe he liked that ending.

“It’s not that it was cheesy,” she said, and here was her wine and should they get a bottle, yeah, sure, a bottle, why not? “and it was, but just that I didn’t believe it.”

“Didn’t believe what—that the husband would take her back?”

“No,” she said. “Or yes. It’s idiotic. But what do you expect from a French movie? They always have these slinky-looking heroines in their thirties—”

“Or forties.”

“—with great legs and mascara out of, I don’t know, a KISS

revival, and then even though they’re married to the greatest guy in the world they feel unfulfilled and they go out and fuck the whole village, starting with the butcher.”

“Juliette Binoche,” he said. He was feeling the wine. Feeling good.

“Yeah, right. Even though it wasn’t her, it could have been.

Should have been. Has been in every French movie but this one for the past what, twenty years?” She put down her glass and let out a short two-note laugh that was like birdsong, a laugh that entranced him, and he wasn’t worried about work now, not work or anything else, and here was the bottle in the bucket, the wine cold as the cellar it came from. “And then the whole village comes out and applauds her at the end for staying true to her romantic ideals—and the husband, Jesus.”

Nothing could irritate him. Nothing could touch him. He was in love, the pelicans were gliding over the belly of the bay and her eyes were lewd and beautiful and pleased with themselves, but he had to pull the stopper here for just a minute. “Martine’s not like that,” he said. “I’m not like that.”

She looked over her shoulder before digging out a cigarette—this was California, after all—and when she bent to light it her hair fell across her face. She came up smiling, the smoke snatched away from her lips and neutralized on the breeze the moment she exhaled. Discussion over.

Marcy was twenty-eight, educated at Berkeley, and she and her sister had opened an artists’ supply shop on a side street downtown.

She’d been a double major in art and film. She rode a bike to work.

She was Asian. Or Chinese, she corrected him. Of Chinese descent, anyway. Her family, as she’d informed him on the first date with enough irony in her voice to foreground and bury the topic at the same time, went back four generations to the honorable great-grandfather who’d smuggled himself across the Pacific inside a clichéd flour barrel hidden in the clichéd hold of a clichéd merchant ship. She’d grown up in Syracuse, in a suburban development, and her accent—the a’s flattened so that his name came out Eelan rather than Alan—just killed him, so incongruous coming from someone, as, well—the words out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying—as exotic-looking as her. And then, because he couldn’t read her expression—had he gone too far?—he told her he was impressed because he only went back three generations, his grandfather having come over from Cork, but if it was in a barrel it would have been full of whiskey. “And Martine’s from Paris,” he’d added. “But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

The bottle was half-gone by the time they ordered—and there was no hurry, no hurry at all, because they were both taking the afternoon off, and no argument—and when the food came they looked at each other for just the briefest fleeting particle of a moment before he ordered a second bottle. And then they were eating and everything slowed down until all of creation seemed to come into focus in a new way. He sipped the wine, chewed, looked into her unparalleled eyes and felt the sun lay a hand across his shoulders, and in a sudden blaze of apprehension he glanced up at the gull that appeared on the railing behind her and saw the way the breeze touched its feathers and the sun whitened its breast till there was nothing brighter and more perfect in the world—this creature, his fellow creature, and he was here to see it. He wanted to tell Marcy about it, about the miracle of the moment, the layers peeled back, revelatory, joyous, but instead he reached over to top off her glass and said, “So tell me about the shoes.”

Later, after Mr. Apodaca had backed out of the driveway in his little white convertible with the Mercedes sign emblazoned on the front of it and the afternoon melted away in a slurry of phone calls and messages—OMG! Chilty likes Alex Turtieff, can you believe it?

—Dolores made them chiles rellenos with carrot and jícama sticks and ice cream for dessert. Then Allie quizzed her and Lisette over their homework until the house fell quiet and all she could hear was the faint pulse of her father’s music from the family room. She’d done her math and was working on a report about Aaron Burr for her history teacher, Mr. Compson, when she got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of juice or maybe hot chocolate in the microwave—and she wouldn’t know which till she was standing there in the kitchen with the recessed lights glowing over the stone countertops and the refrigerator door open wide. She wasn’t thinking about anything in particular—Aaron Burr was behind her now, upstairs, on her desk—and when she passed the archway to the family room the flash of the TV screen caught her eye and she paused a moment. Her father was there still, stretched out on the couch with a book, the TV muted and some game on, football, baseball, and the low snarl of his music in the background. His face had that blank absorbed look he got while reading and sometimes when he was just sitting there staring across the room or out the window at nothing, and he had the mug cradled in one hand, balanced on his chest beside the book.

He’d sat with them over dinner, but he hadn’t eaten—he was going out later, he told her. For dinner. A late dinner. He didn’t say who with, but she knew it was the Asian woman. Marcy. She’d seen her exactly twice, behind the window of her car, and Marcy had waved at her both times, a little curl of the fingers and a flash of the palm. There was an Asian girl in her class—she was Chinese—and her name was Xuan. That seemed right for an Asian girl, Xuan.

Different. A name that said who she was and where she was from, far away, a whole ocean away. But Marcy? She didn’t think so.

“Hey,” her father said, lifting his head to peer over the butt of the couch, and she realized she’d been standing there watching him,

“what’s up? Homework done? Need any help? How about that essay—want me to proof that essay for you? What’s it on, Madison?

Or Burr. Burr, right?”

“That’s okay.”

“You sure?” His voice was slow and compacted, as if it wasn’t composed of vibrations of the vocal cords, the air passing through the larynx like in her science book, but made of something heavier, denser. He would be taking a taxi tonight, she could see that, and then maybe she—Marcy—would drive him back home. “Because I could do it, no problem. I’ve got”—and she watched him lift his watch to his face and rotate his wrist—“half an hour or so, forty-five minutes.”

“That’s okay,” she said.

She was sipping her hot chocolate and reading a story for English by William Faulkner, the author’s picture in her textbook a freeze-frame of furious eyes and conquered hair, when she heard her father’s voice riding a current down the hall, now murmurous, now pinched and electric, then dense and sluggish all over again. It took her a minute: he was reading Lisette her bedtime story. The house was utterly still and she held her breath, listening, till all of a sudden she could make out the words. He was reading Balto, a story she’d loved when she was little, when she was Lisette’s age, and as his voice came to her down the hall she could picture the illustrations: Balto, the lead dog of the sled team, radiating light from a sunburst on his chest and the snowstorm like a monstrous hand closing over him, the team lighting through the Alaskan wind and ice and temperatures of forty below zero to deliver serum to the sick children in Nome—and those children would die if Balto didn’t get through.

Diphtheria. It was a diphtheria epidemic and the only plane available was broken down—or no, it had been dismantled for the winter.

What’s diphtheria? she’d asked her father, and he’d gone to the shelf and pulled down the encyclopedia to give her the answer, and that was heroic in itself, because as he settled back onto her bed, Lisette snuggled up beside her and rain at the windows and the bedside lamp the only thing between them and darkness absolute, he’d said, You see, there’s everything in books, everything you could ever want.

Balto’s paws were bleeding. The ice froze between his toes. The other dogs kept holding back, but he was the lead dog and he turned on them and snarled, fought them just to keep them in their traces, to keep them going. Balto. With his harnessed shoulders and shaggy head and the furious unconquerable will that drove him all through that day and into the night that was so black there was no way of telling if they were on the trail or not.

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