The man has been home from his mission for a month. Thanksgiving was yesterday, and Lauren Elliott is staying in the guest bedroom upstairs. They knew each other as missionaries, and she offered to come to his homecoming talk, which happens to be Thanksgiving weekend. So he invited her for the holiday. They are not dating yet, but after one day, the man’s parents have already advised him that they should be.
Today is when they will go out to get the Christmas tree and hang up decorations. The man cannot sleep past seven a.m. thanks to his mission experience, so he is the first out of bed in the morning. He walks outside, grabs the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, brings it in, plops down on the couch and opens the paper on the coffee table in front of him. The banner headline and picture are huge today, and the news is big: Martin Gurule has escaped death row in Huntsville, Texas, the first inmate to break out since 1934.
This brings him back quickly to a particular memory. Gurule was a graduate of Ray High School. In 1992, he went to the U&I restaurant downtown where his girlfriend had recently been fired. He held the place up for a small amount of money, then shot an employee and a co-owner to death, execution-style. In July the next year, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
In 1995, the young man was about to graduate from high school. After the graduation rehearsal, they all walked over to the U&I for lunch–Ted, PM, Stephanie, George, and Miguel. They were seated quickly and handed menus.
“Soooo . . . rehearsal was . . . great,” said Stephanie. She had reddish blonde hair and was one of PM’s softball teammates.
“No shit,” said George, a short Latino guy.
“If it goes like that, we’ll be there all day,” said Miguel. Miguel had swept-back jet black hair and was the school’s top debater.
“Anyone ever been here before?” the young man asked. “Anyone know what’s good?”
“It’s seafood and steaks, Gordo” said George. “Hard to go wrong.”
“That helped a lot. Thanks, Jorge,” said Gordon. “Only thing I know about this place is that that Ray High School dude blew away two people and went to death row.”
“Yeah, that was fucked up,” said Ted.
“It’s supposed to be haunted now,” said Miguel.
“Shut the fuck up, Miguel,” said Stephanie. “You definitely don’t believe in shit like that.”
They all laughed. The waitress reappeared, and they placed their orders.
“Speaking of death, what was up with Ms. Saucedo?” said George.
“That was so, so, so tacky,” said PM. The young man and PM had begun dating after the softball season had wound down. It was the first year for softball in the district, and the school had been short-staffed, so the head softball coach had asked the young man to help coach. PM had long brown hair and deep blue eyes with a smattering of light freckles across her face.
Miguel blew his drink straw at George. George flicked it away and said, “So when she said there were two young men who would like to have been there and we should act more respectful, who were the two?”
“Chris is one, for sure,” said Miguel.
“Okay. I thought that was debatable since, uh, you know,” said George.
“He killed himself?” Miguel said.
“Geez, Miguel,” Steph said.
“Well, he did,” said Miguel, “thereby signaling that he did not want to be there.”
“Maybe under other circumstances?” PM said.
George looked at the rest of them. “Who was the other?”
“Kenny,” said the young man.
“Kenny McDaniels ain’t dead,” George said.
“Not McDaniels,” said Ted. “Kenny the kid in the wheelchair on oxygen who was the football manager.”
“Ohhh . . . that kid,” said George. “He died?”
“Fuck you, George,” said Ted. “Seriously? Do you even go to school with us? Yeah, he died from all his conditions just after football season.”
“I don’t play football,” said George, who then took a long pull from a Coke in front of him. “I didn’t know the guy except to see him zooming around school sometimes. He almost ran over my ass a couple of times.”
“That’s cuz you’re so fucking short that he couldn’t see you over his wheelchair wheels,” said Ted, and they all laughed.
George grabbed a piece of ice from his glass and chucked it at Ted. “Fuck you, Ted. What are you? Two inches taller than I am?”
“At least five,” said Ted. “He never almost ran over me.”
The waitress reappeared with plates of food and set them out. The young man had gone with fried catfish and fries. He dumped some pepper on his fries, then, unable to find the regular salt shaker, grabbed a taller shaker with white grains in it and poured that on.
“Anyway,” said PM, “Scott and a bunch of Chris’s old friends were pretty pissed about it. They’re talking about handing Ms. Saucedo condoms when they shake her hand on stage tomorrow.”
“What good would that do?” said the young man. He dipped his fish in some tartar sauce, then chased it with a fry. The fry tasted . . . odd.
“Well, if twenty kids did it even, she’d have nowhere to put them,” said PM. “It’d be pretty embarrassing because she’d be trying to drop them or toss them aside on stage.”
The young man ate a few more fries, each as bad as the last. “These are the worst fries I’ve ever had. How are yours, Ted?”
Ted pushed his plate over. “Try some.”
The young man tasted one while Ted grabbed the tall shaker. “Yours are fine.”
Ted opened the shaker and started dumping it in his tea.
“Oh geez,” said the young man.
“What?” said Ted.
“That shaker you’re holding? I thought that was the salt.”
The table broke up laughing.
Now, the man is staring at the paper. The man who prosecuted Gurule has a protective guard following him because Gurule had issued threats from prison. His defense attorney is quoted as not having heard from Gurule. Gurule’s girlfriend, also serving time for her role in the murders, is quoted as hoping that Martin truly got away. Since the murders and trial, since his one visit to the U&I and his sugaring of his fries, the young man has done a year of college, dated PM for more than two years only to have it end three-quarters through his mission, returned home from his mission with a lifetime of experience. Ted is finishing up at University of Texas. So is Miguel who has become a big-time Live-Action Role Playing guy. George is at Sacred Heart, while Steph is at Blinn. PM is finishing at Southwest Texas State, but her family has moved to Oklahoma for the military, so she doesn’t come down this way anymore. He didn’t tell any of them he was coming home from his mission, though PM knew; he isn’t offended that no one has been around. Even over Thanksgiving, he doesn’t reach out to anyone, though some of them must surely be home.
At that moment, Lauren appears in the entryway between the kitchen and the family room. Her hair is already brushed with her bangs curled. She wears jeans and a light purple T-shirt.
“It’s quiet around here,” she says.
“Everyone’s late sleepers,” he says. “Except us, I guess.”
She smiles and comes to sit next to him. “So what’s the plan today?”
He shrugs. “My family is really low key. We’ll be getting the Christmas tree later and putting up decorations, but other than that, I don’t think there are plans.”
Lauren looks at the paper. “What are you reading?”
“Oh, uh, this dude murdered two people at the U&I restaurant downtown. He got the death penalty for it. This was probably five or six years ago. He busted out of death row in Huntsville, though.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“So should I eat breakfast or something?”
“We could go out if you want,” says the man.
He half smiles. “Wanna try the U&I?”
She smiles and shakes her head. “Think I’ll pass on that.”
He shrugs. “Suit yourself. There’s a little taqueria off Everhart. Best breakfast tacos in town. Let’s go there.”
“Sounds great. Let me get my purse.”
She heads back upstairs and he waits. He is in an in-between place, his mission over, the push for marriage from the Church on. He got home too late for fall semester at BYU, but he is registered for winter semester, which is a month away–not enough time to get a job, plenty of time to sit around and think. He thinks he will study film but doesn’t know that he will not. He thinks he will date around, not knowing that he will feel most comfortable and most himself with Lauren and that they will be married in fewer than six months. He thinks he will wind up working on films in Austin or Hollywood not living in the Northeast working in the textbook industry. He does not know that Martin Gurule is already dead. Wounded by a guard in the back while fleeing, Martin jumped into the river and drowned, and his body will be discovered by fishermen in about six more days. He has spoken once to PM since being home, and when she offered to travel down from San Marcos, he declined. He doesn’t know that she is dating women now and will marry one in a few more years. Nor does he realize that Ted will go to Harvard Law and visit him when they are both in the Northeast, that he will eventually work at a firm that represents Enron. They have all gone separate ways, created separate circles, and he is different from all of them. His mission friends are all in different states; he will see few of them again.
Lauren walks back into the room. “Ready?” she says.
He doesn’t know yet that she is the bridge between here and there.
“Yep. You’re gonna love this place. The tortillas are unbelievable.”