We hustled with the paintings and the bursting file folder out to the back porch, only to discover that Walt had disappeared. It occurred to me that this primo of Anthony’s might not exist as a completely material man. He was there one moment, and the next, he was gone.
I shook my head. “Where. . . ?”
“Quien sabe? He probably took off when he heard the alarm. And we should, too.”
“I agree. But will you help me with these paintings so I don’t damage them?”
“Why did you have to steal her paintings, of all things? What are we going to do with them, put them in the back of the truck? ”
“Yes, I guess we are.”
Anthony was a little irritated with me, which was no surprise, since we spent most of our time together being annoyed. But, more than that, he wanted out of the neighborhood. He obliged me and took hold of the largest of the painted Masonite boards, and then we crept back to the truck by ducking in the sparse shadows of the xeriscaped neighborhood.
Once in the cab of the truck, I urged Anthony to drive slowly so as not to damage my mom’s precious artwork.
“You planning on redecorating?”
“No. I just want to see if . . .” I couldn’t finish. It was absurd, I realized, that I had stolen my mom’s artwork in order to find hidden messages in benign renditions of life. My mom would not hide messages in her paintings. I groaned.
“You miss your parents, huh?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“It’s been hard for you lately, Ella.” His tone sounded a little off, as if he wasn’t used to comforting people. He reached over and patted my knee, but only for a second because he had to shift. “I don’t know how this is all going to work out, but we’ll stick together, all right?”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
I didn’t know he meant by that, but—-hey–sticking together sounded like a good idea. The hand on the knee gesture threw me for a loop, too. I was too tired to consider whether it was a grandfatherly type of pat or something else entirely. My head jerked back against the seat, and I cranked open the window so that the cool night air blasted me in the face.
Back at his house, with the crickets chirruping around, I forgot how late it was. The crickets didn’t watch the clock, so why should I? I unwrapped the paintings and lined them up against the living room wall, ready to investigate. If I’d had access to a hammer and some hardware, I would have hung them up, gallery style and sauntered back and forth in front of them, my chin cupped in my palms. Lacking these things, I sat on my haunches and made a steeple with my fingers while I stared at the images.
“You praying, mi’jita?”
I wished he wouldn’t call me that. It gave the wrong impression of our relationship. It was as if he was my elder rather than my peer.
“If you are, will you pray for me, too? Your mom’s organizational skills are worse than mine after I’ve been drinking for three days straight.”
“Do you do that often?”
“Not for a couple of weeks.”
My eyes returned over and over to the painting of Demetria. Who was the man? I knew who he was, but my mind was too tired to focus. In fact, the images blurred in front of my eyes, and the characters might have actually moved, but I couldn’t be certain. I yawned.
A dream sequence of bailes filtered through my mind. It had been so long since I’d attended one. Victor had dragged me to a Christmas dance several years ago, the one sponsored by the mayor. I smacked myself on the forehead. Of course I’d recognized the man.
“Demetria’s dancing with the mayor.”
“What? Not on my premises, I hope. Oh, right, on the painting. I could’ve told you that.”
I turned around and studied his wavering face, wavering because my eyes were blearier than before.
“Don’t look at me like that, Ella. I recognized his bald spot and the stripy shirt he’s wearing. Come here, you have to look at this.”
I staggered to his desk. Sleep. I needed to sleep, and I didn’t want to look at anything else. I looked, anyway. Sitting in front of Anthony was a plain page with a chemical construction of some sort on it. It meant nothing to me.
“What do you think this is?” Anthony asked.
“Why would I know?”
“You’re the one who’s college educated. The girl with the degree. The smart blonde, so I’ve heard some people say.”
“Literature. I studied literature, not chemistry. Why don’t you call the lab that’s listed there on the header?”
“You are smart. It’s verified. But, sadly, most labs aren’t open at three in the morning, or whatever hour it happens to be.”
“Then call tomorrow,” I whispered, because it was now officially too late, or too early, to vocalize.
“That would be your job, Ella. You’re the secretary.”
“Fine, then. I’ll call tomorrow.”
“Except I don’t think I want you to be my secretary anymore. You aren’t very good at it.”
I looked at him and felt nothing but despair. I could have wept.
“Why don’t you sit down? We can go through these papers together.”
Demetria’s chair still sat in front of the desk, and I dragged it around and dropped onto it. I leaned over and found that my head was very near Anthony’s. We were a team, sticking together. How ludicrous was that?
He turned to me abruptly. “Maybe you should be my partner instead of secretary.”
“Huh.” Another dream sequence filtered through my mind, except this time it was pure fantasy, and Anthony and I were partners in crime.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that for? Do you want me to kiss you, or something?”
I did, actually. “No,” I said. “I want to sleep. Maybe we can be partners tomorrow.”
***Painting: Fire in the Bosque by A. Leon Miler (otherwise known as my dad)