The Last Thing He Told Me

2.1 Keep Austin Weird

chapter
Chapter

We get on a 6:55 A.M. 􀏲ight out of San Jose.
It’s been forty-six hours since Owen left for work, forty-six hours since I’ve
heard a word from him.
I give Bailey the window seat and take the aisle, passengers knocking into me
as they make their way to the one bathroom in the back of the plane.
Bailey leans against the window as far away from me as she can get, her arms
folded tightly against her chest. She is wearing a Fleetwood Mac tank top, no
sweatshirt, goose bumps running up her arms.
I don’t know if she is cold or upset. Or both. We have never 􀏲own together
before, so I didn’t think to remind her to put a sweatshirt in her carry-on. Not
like she would have heeded my advice anyway.
Still, suddenly, this feels like Owen’s greatest crime. How did he not provide
me with a point of reference before he disappeared? How did he not leave
behind a set of rules on how to take care of her? The 􀏯rst rule: Tell her to pack a
sweatshirt when she gets on a plane. Tell her to cover her arms.
Bailey keeps her eyes glued to the window, avoids eye contact. It’s just as well
that she has no desire to talk. I start taking notes in my notebook instead. I work
on making a game plan. We land at twelve thirty local time, which means it will
probably be close to two before we make it to downtown Austin and check into
the hotel.
I wish I knew the city better, but I’ve been to Austin only once before,
during my senior year of college. It was Jules’s 􀏯rst professional assignment (she
was paid to the tune of $85 and a hotel room) and she invited me to tag along.
She was photographing the Austin Chronicle’s Annual Hot Sauce Festival for a
Boston food blog. We spent most of our time in Austin at that festival, burning
our mouths o􀏦 on a hundred di􀏦erent kinds of spiced ribs and fried potatoes
and smoked veggies and jalapeño sauces. Jules took six hundred photographs.
It wasn’t until shortly before we were heading out of town that we wandered
outside of the gardens in East Austin where the festival was being held. We
found a hilltop that gave us the most incredible view of the downtown skyline.
There were as many trees as skyscrapers, more clear sky than clouds. And the
coziness of the lake somehow made Austin feel less like a city and more like a
small town.
Jules and I decided then and there that we were going to move to Austin after
graduation. It was far less expensive than New York, far easier than Los Angeles.
We didn’t really consider it when the time came, but in that moment, that’s
what it felt like, looking down over the city. It felt like looking at our future.
This certainly isn’t the future I’d imagined.
I close my eyes, trying to not let it subsume me, the questions that keep
rolling through my head on a terrible loop, the questions I need answers to:
Where is Owen? Why did he need to run? And what did I miss about him that
he was too afraid to tell me himself?
That’s part of the reason I’m sitting on this plane. I have this fantasy that by
leaving the house, it will trigger something in the universe that makes Owen
come home home again and o􀏦er up the answers himself. Isn’t that how it’s
supposed to work, the kettle boils once you stop watching? As soon as we land
in Austin, there will be a message from Owen asking where we are, telling me
that he is sitting in our empty kitchen waiting on us, as opposed to the other way
around.
“What can I get you ladies?”
I look up to see the 􀏲ight attendant standing by our aisle, her silver drink cart
in front of her.
Bailey doesn’t turn her head from the window, her purple ponytail the only
thing facing out.
“Regular Coke,” she says. “Lots of ice.”
I shrug, a peace o􀏦ering for Bailey’s shortness. “Diet, please,” I say.
The 􀏲ight attendant just laughs, uno􀏦ended. “Sixteen?” she whispers.
I nod.
“I have a sixteen-year-old myself,” she says. “Twins actually. Believe me, I get
it.”
This is when Bailey turns around.
“I’m not hers,” she says.
It’s true. It’s also something Bailey may have said on another day, eager to
correct the record. But just now it sounds di􀏦erent and it stings in a way I have
trouble hiding on my face. It isn’t just about how it makes me feel. It’s also
about the reckoning that’s coming for her on the heels of her comment—the
impossible realization that hating or disavowing me is a whole lot less fun when,
at the moment, I’m the only person that she has.
Her face tightens as it hits her. I stay quiet, staring at the television screen on
the seat in front of me, an episode of Friends playing silently, Rachel and Joey
kissing in a hotel room.
I pretend not to notice Bailey’s despair, but I don’t put on my headphones
either. It’s the best I can come up with for giving her some breathing room while
trying to let her know I’m there if she wants me.
Bailey rubs at the goose bumps on her arms, not saying anything, not for a
while. Finally, she takes a sip of her soda. Then she makes a face.
“I think she switched our drinks,” she says.
I turn and look at her. “What’s that?”
She holds out her ice-􀏯lled cup, her soda brimming to the top. “This is diet,”
she says. “The 􀏲ight attendant must have given me yours…”
I try not to look too surprised as she hands her drink over. And I don’t argue.
I hand Bailey my drink and wait for her to take a sip.
Bailey nods, like she is relieved to have her correct drink. Except we both
know the 􀏲ight attendant delivered us the correct drinks in the 􀏯rst place. And
only now—only since Bailey’s gesture, her attempt to relieve the tension—are
the drinks mixed up.
If this is Bailey’s way of reaching toward me, I’m going to meet her there.
I take a sip of the Coke. “Thank you,” I say. “I thought mine tasted weird.”
“No worries…” she says. Then she returns to looking out the window. “No
big deal.”
We get into an Uber at the airport and I scroll through the news reports on my
phone.
Stories about The Shop plaster CNN’s home page, the New York Times, the
Wall Street Journal. Many of the recent headlines focus on a press conference
held by the head of the SEC, o􀏦ering up such clickbait as THE SHOP IS CLOSED
FOR GOOD.
I click on the most recent article in the New York Times, which covers the
SEC announcement that they’re 􀏯ling civil fraud charges against Avett
Thompson. And which quotes a source in the FBI about how senior sta􀏦 and
top executives will most certainly be named as people of interest.
Owen isn’t mentioned by name. At least not yet.
The Uber pulls onto Presidential Boulevard and heads toward the hotel,
which is on Lady Bird Lake near the Congress Avenue Bridge. It’s away from the
hubbub of the busiest part of the city, across the bridge from the heart of
downtown Austin.
I reach into my bag and pull out a printout of our hotel reservation, sweeping
over the details. Jules’s full name, Julia Alexandra Nichols, stares back at me.
Jules suggested reserving the room on her credit card as a safety measure. I have
her credit card and her ID in my wallet, further safety measures, in case anyone is
tracking us.
Of course, there is a record of our 􀏲ight to Austin. Jules put the 􀏲ights on her
credit card, but our real names are on the plane tickets. There’s a clear way to
track us here, if anyone is inclined to do so. But even if they track that we’re in
Austin, they don’t need to know exactly where in Austin. I’m not helping the
next Grady or Naomi to show up at my door, unannounced.
The driver—a young guy in a bandanna—looks at Bailey in the rearview
mirror. He isn’t much older than she is and he keeps trying to make eye contact
with her. He keeps trying to get her attention.
“Is this your 􀏯rst time in Austin?” he asks her.
“Yep,” she says.
“What do you think so far?” he says.
“Based on the fourteen minutes since we left the airport?” she says.
He laughs, as though she is joking with him, as though she is inviting him to
keep talking.
“I grew up here,” he says. “You can ask me anything about this city and I can
tell you even more than you wanted to know.”
“Good to know,” she says.
I can see that Bailey is totally tuned out so I try to engage him in case any of it
will turn out to be useful later.
“You grew up here?” I say.
“Born and raised. I lived here when this was a small town,” he says. “It’s still a
small town in a lot of ways, but there are a helluva lot more people and a lot
bigger buildings.”
He pulls o􀏦 the highway and I feel a clinching in my chest as downtown
Austin comes into view. I know this was the plan, but looking out the window
at this strange city, it all seems so much crazier.
He points out the window, motions toward a skyscraper.
“That’s the Frost Bank Tower,” he says. “Used to be the tallest building in
Austin. Now I’m not even sure it cracks the top 􀏯ve. Have you heard of it?”
“Can’t say I have,” I say.
“Yeah, crazy story behind it,” he says. “If you look at it from certain angles it
looks like an owl. Exactly like an owl. Might be hard to see from here but it’s
wild if you can make it out…”
I open my window and take in the Frost Building—the tiers on top, like ears,
the two windows that look like eyes. There is de􀏯nitely an owl similarity.
“This is a UT town, but the architects all went to Rice University and the
owl is Rice University’s mascot. So that’s like a f-you to our mascot and to the
Longhorns in general,” he says. “And I mean, some people say it’s just a
conspiracy theory, but look at it. The building looks like an owl! How can that
be an accident?”
He turns onto South Congress Bridge and I can see our hotel in the distance.
“Are you guys here looking at UT?” he asks. He directs the question toward
Bailey, again trying to meet her eyes in the rearview.
“Not exactly,” she says.
“So… what are you doing here?”
She doesn’t answer. She opens the window in an attempt to discourage
further questions. I don’t blame her for that. I don’t blame her for not being
particularly anxious to explain to a stranger why she is here—in a city she is
trying to remember whether she’s been to before, searching for information
about her missing father.
“Just fans of Austin,” I say.
“Right on,” he says. “A little vacay. I can get behind that.”
He pulls up to the hotel and Bailey is opening the door before the car even
stops moving.
“Wait, wait! Let me give you my number. In case there is anything I can show
you guys while you’re in town.”
“There isn’t,” Bailey says.
Then she shifts her bag higher on her shoulder. And starts walking toward
the hotel’s entrance.
I grab the suitcases from the trunk, hurry to keep up. I catch up to her by the
revolving doors.
“That guy was so annoying,” she says.
I start to say he was just trying to be friendly, but she isn’t interested in
friendly. And since I have to pick my battles, I decide this isn’t going to be the
one I choose.
We head into the hotel and I look around the lobby: high atrium, the bar, a
Starbucks o􀏦 to the side. Hundreds of rooms. Just the type of nondescript hotel
I was hoping for, an easy place to get lost in. Except maybe I’m looking around a
moment too long because a hotel employee catches my eyes.
She has a name tag on, AMY, her hair in a short bob.
We get in line at reception, but it’s too late. She walks over, a smile plastered
to her face.
“Hi there,” she says. “I’m Amy, the hotel concierge. Welcome to Austin! Is
there anything I can help you with while you’re waiting to check in?”
“We’re good. Unless you happen to have a map of the campus?” I say.
“Of UT-Austin?” she says. “Absolutely. I also could help set you up on a
campus tour. And there is some outstanding co􀏦ee that you won’t want to miss
when you head to that part of town. Are you co􀏦ee drinkers?”
Bailey eyes me as though it’s my fault Amy is hovering and jabbering on—
and maybe she isn’t wrong. I did ask for a map as opposed to just telling chatty
Amy to move along. But I want a map. I want to hold something in my hands
that makes it seem a little more like I know what I’m doing.
“Can I set up a shuttle service to take you there?”
We get to the front of the line, where a desk clerk named Steve is holding out
two glasses of lemonade.
“Hiya, Amy.”
“Steve! I was just about to set these two ladies up with some college maps and
good 􀏲at whites.”
“Excellent,” Steve says. “I’ll get you settled into your digs. What brings you to
our little corner of the world? And how can I go about making it your favorite
corner?”
That’s it for Bailey. She gives up and starts to walk away—Steve the 􀏯nal nail
in the aggressively friendly co􀏩n. She heads toward the elevator bank, drilling
me with a 􀏯nal look as she goes. A look of blame for these conversations she can’t
handle, for being far from home, for being in Austin at all. Any goodwill I
managed to accrue on the plane is apparently gone.
“So, Ms. Nichols, you’ll be staying on the eighth 􀏲oor with a great view of the
Lady Bird Lake,” he says. “We have a pretty great spa in the hotel if you’re
looking to refresh from your 􀏲ight before heading up to the room. Or I can set
you up with a late lunch?”
I put up my hands in surrender.
“A room key, Steve,” I say. “Just a room key. As quick as you can hand it
over.”
We drop our suitcases upstairs. We don’t stop to eat anything.
At two thirty, we leave the hotel and head back toward the Congress Avenue
Bridge. I decide we should walk. I 􀏯gure a long walk may help jog a memory in
Bailey, assuming there is a memory to jog. And this walk will lead us through the
heart of downtown Austin and up toward the campus and the Darrell K Royal
Stadium, the only football stadium in the city.
As soon as we make it over the bridge, the downtown splays out before us—
vibrant and spinning, even in the early afternoon. It somehow feels more like it’s
nighttime: music playing, bars open, garden restaurants packed with people.
Bailey keeps her head down, eyes on her phone. How is she going to
recognize anything if she isn’t paying attention? But when we stop at a tra􀏩c
light on Fifth Street, the DON’T WALK sign 􀏲ashing before us, she does look up.
She looks up and I catch her do a double take.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing.”
She shakes her head. But she keeps staring.
I follow her eyes to a sign for Antone’s, written in blue script. HOME OF THE
BLUES written below it. A couple cuddles by the front door, taking a sel􀏯e.
She points at the club. “I’m pretty sure that my father has a John Lee Hooker
record from there,” she says.
I know she’s correct as soon as she says it. I can picture the album cover:
Antone’s logo on the front of it—the sleek lettering in script. And Hooker
singing into a microphone, hat and sunglasses on, guitar in hand. I remember a
night last week—how could it possibly have been last week?—when Bailey was
at play practice, and the two of us were in the house alone. Owen strummed on
his guitar. I can’t remember the words of the song now, but Owen’s face while
he sang—that I remember.
“He does,” I say. “You’re right.”
“Not that it matters,” she says.
“I don’t think we know what matters yet,” I say.
“Is that supposed to be uplifting or something?” she says.
Uplifting? Three days ago, we were all together in our kitchen, a million miles
from this reality. Bailey was eating a bowl of cereal, talking to her father about
the weekend. She wanted Owen to let her take a drive down to the Peninsula
with Bobby, who wanted to go on a long bike ride around Monterey. Maybe we
can all go, Owen said. Bailey rolled her eyes, but I could see that she was
considering it, especially after Owen said that we could stop in Carmel on the
way home. He wanted to stop and get clam chowder at a small restaurant she
loved near the beach, a restaurant where he’s been taking her since shortly after
they moved to Sausalito.
That was three days ago. Now the two of us are in a new reality where Owen
is missing, where we spend our time trying to 􀏯gure out where he is. And why. A
new reality where I’m constantly asking myself whether I’m wrong to hold on to
the belief that the answers to those questions aren’t going to upend my most
central ideas of who Owen is.
I’m not aiming for uplifting. I’m just trying to say something neutral so she
doesn’t know how angry I am too.
When the light changes, I walk quickly across the street, turning onto
Congress, picking up speed as I go.
“Try to keep up,” I say.
“Where are we going?” Bailey says.
“Somewhere better than here,” I say.
About an hour later, we round the capital and circle onto San Jacinto
Boulevard. And the stadium comes into view. It is enormous, demanding—even
from several blocks away.
As we walk toward it, we pass the Caven-Clark Sports Center. It seems to be
the student rec center complete with a series of matching orange-laced buildings,
Clark Field, and a large track. Students are playing tag football and doing sprints
up the stairs and lounging on benches, making this part of campus feel at once
completely separate and still a part of its city. Seamlessly integrated.
I look down at my campus map and start moving toward the closest stadium
entrance.
But Bailey stops walking suddenly. “I don’t want to do this,” she says.
I meet her eyes.
“Even if I was at the stadium, then what? What’s that going to tell us about
anything?”
“Bailey…” I say.
“Seriously, what are we doing here?”
She won’t respond well if I tell her that I stayed up last night reading about
childhood memories—how we forget them. And how we get them back. They
often come from returning to a place and then being allowed to experience it in
the same way you experienced it the 􀏯rst time. That is what we are doing here.
We are following her instinct. We are tapping into her memory that she’s been
here before. And my instinct, from the minute I realized where Grady Bradford
came from, that we should.
“There are things your father hasn’t told us beyond what’s going on at The
Shop,” I say. “I’m trying to 􀏯gure out what they are.”
“That sounds pretty general,” she says.
“It’ll get less general the more you remember,” I say.
“So… this is on me, then?”
“No, it’s on me. If I was wrong to take you here, I’ll be the 􀏯rst to say it.”
She gets quiet.
“Look, will you just come inside? Can you do that?” I say. “We’ve come this
far.”
“Do I have a choice?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Always. With me you always do.”
I can see it 􀏲ash across her face—her surprise that I mean it. And I do mean it.
We are a hundred feet from the closest stadium entrance, GATE 2, but it is up to
Bailey. If she wants to turn around, I won’t stop her. Maybe this frees her to
keep going, because that’s what she does.
She walks up to the gate, which feels like a victory. A second victory: a
stadium tour group seems to be congregating and we are able to latch on to
them, walking past security without so much as a look from the distracted
student manning the desk.
“Welcome to DKR,” the tour guide says. “I’m Elliot, I’ll be taking you
around today. Follow me!”
He leads the group into the end zone and gives everyone a second to take in
the stadium, which is epic. There is seating for more than a hundred thousand
fans, TEXAS spelled out large on one end of the 􀏯eld, LONGHORNS on the
other. It is so large—so imposing—that it feels like the kind of place you might
remember, you might hold on to, especially at an early age.
Elliot starts walking the group through what happens on game night—how a
cannon is 􀏯red after each touchdown, how Bevo, the mascot, is an actual steer
bull and how there are a group of Texas cowboys who march him around the
􀏯eld, who tend to him.
As he 􀏯nishes his spiel and starts to lead everyone up to the press box, I
motion for Bailey to hang back, and we head to the bleachers.
I take a seat in the front row, Bailey following suit. I stare out at the 􀏯eld,
watching her out of the corner of my eye as she settles in. And then she sits up
taller.
“I can’t be sure if it was here,” she says. “I don’t know. But I remember my
father talking to me about how one day I’d love football the way he did. I
remember him telling me not to be scared of the mascot.”
That seems wrong—not the mascot part, which sounds exactly like Owen,
but the loving football part. Owen doesn’t care at all about football. At least
since we’ve been together, I’ve barely seen him watch a whole game. No long
afternoon football games taking over our weekends. No Monday night
recapping. One of many refreshing changes from Jake.
“But I must be remembering wrong,” she says. “My father doesn’t love
football, right? I mean… we never even watch games.”
“That’s what I was thinking. But he may have loved it then. When he
thought he would make a fan out of you.”
“When I was a toddler?”
I shrug. “Maybe he thought he could mold you into a Longhorn?”
Bailey turns back toward the 􀏯eld. Nothing left, apparently, to add to her
memory. “I do think that’s what it was. It wasn’t about football, in general. He
loved this team.” She pauses. “Or whatever team it was, in their orange
uniforms…”
“Just walk me through what you know, as if this were the place,” I say. “Did
you come after the wedding? Was it night?”
“No, it was during the afternoon. And I was in my dress. The 􀏲ower girl
dress. I know that. Maybe we had come from the wedding. The ceremony part.”
She pauses.
“Unless I’m imagining all of this. Which feels equally possible.”
I feel her getting frustrated. More than likely, Bailey remembered what she
could back in Sausalito, and that’s where we should’ve stayed. In our 􀏲oating
home, empty without Owen. The two of us existing in the terrible space he left
there.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “Any stadium I might feel this way.”
“But it does look familiar?”
“Yeah, it kinda does.”
Then something occurs to me. It comes fast and I can see the rest, depending
on what her answer is.
“So you walked here?”
She gives me a strange look. “Yes, with you.”
“No, I mean, didn’t you say you walked here from the wedding? That day
with your father? Assuming it was here…”
She shakes her head, as if that was a crazy question, but then her eyes get
wider. “Yeah, I think we did. If I was in the dress, we probably came right from
the church.”
I don’t know if this conversation is creating the memory, or not, but she
suddenly becomes more de􀏯nitive.
“We de􀏯nitely did,” she says. “I mean we only came to the game for a little
while, after the ceremony. We walked over. I’m pretty sure of it…”
“So it has to be near here.”
“What does?” she says.
I look down at the map and see the options marked for us: a Catholic Church
not too far from here; two Episcopal chapters, and a synagogue even closer than
that. They are all within walking distance. They are all potentially the place
Owen took Bailey before he took her here.
“You don’t remember by chance what kind of ceremony it was? Like
denominationally?”
“You’re joking, right?”
I’m not. “Of course I am,” I say.


You can use arrow keyboard to go to pervious/next chapter. The WASD keys also have the same function as arrow keys.