“Isn’t,” I automatically corrected. We walked into the living room, where Mama sat chatting chirpily with shadows. Mark waved his arms in front of her face. “No one’s here, Mamaw. Nobody but us.” She looked at him, hurt. Turning her face away, she pressed the back of her hand to her pinched mouth. I took Mark by the arm and shuffled him into the kitchen. “Must you argue with her?” He’s a good kid, but I wondered if the strain of our difficult domestic situation was wearing on him.

“Nothin’ to argue about with Mamaw. An argument takes two people armed with opinions or facts. Mamaw’s lacking both.” “Don’t be disrespectful, Mark.” Mark smacked his chewing gum in a most impertinent teenage fashion. I do wonder where he gets it. “You know, Uncle Jordy, I don’t see disrespect in facing up to Mamaw going out of her head.” I opened the fridge, got out a pitcher of iced tea, and slammed the door. “You’re too young to understand. Mama’s not exactly going out of her head.” Who was I kidding? I was mad at Mark for saying exactly what I thought. “I think there’s going to be a vacancy sign hung up real soon,” Mark muttered as Sister came back in.

Needless to say, the rest of the meal did not go well. Little family squabbles over the sanity of the clan matriarch do not make for carefree dinner conversation. Mark huffed off to his room to read; as I said, the boy is not entirely without redeeming features. Sister pouted again and left for The Near End and the company of Bubba. And I sat watching TV with Mama. I think the vapid sitcom made as much sense to her as it did to me. I started reading an old copy of Eudora Welty’s short stories, disturbed only by Mama’s occasional giggle-along with the laugh track, as automatic and sad as a last breath. It was ten o’clock and I was putting on the news from Channel 36 out of Austin when the phone rang and my life turned left. “Jordy.”

It was Sister. “How’s Mama?” “Fine,” I answered. Sister thinks she takes better care of Mama than I do. “Did you give her her Haldol?”

Sister asked, and I slapped my forehead. Crap! I’d gotten the prescription filled and my confrontation with Beta Harcher had driven the pills right out of my mind. I glanced over at Mama; she looked wide awake. Our family doctor prescribed Haldol for her restless nights, so common in Alzheimer’s patients. “Um, yeah, just about to give it to her,” I fibbed. I’d left the pills in my office at the library. Well, Sister didn’t need to know about my slight dereliction of duty. I could run down to the library and be back, with Sister none the wiser. “Okay. I’ll see you in the morning then.” There was the barest hint of reconciliation in her voice. “Fine. Bye.” I hung up.

Mama was watching the television and had turned the volume to a murmur, the way she liked it now. I went to the stairs in the entry way and called up to Mark. “I’m heading off to the library for a second. I’ll be right back. Come down and sit with Mama, please.” As I went out the door, I heard the shuffle of his feet as he descended the stairs. I got in my Blazer and headed down Lee Street, driving past Mirabeau’s little city park. I could have turned onto Bluebonnet then, but a bit of curiosity as to what was going on in town steered me past the park toward Mayne Street (spelled that way because some founding mother didn’t want Mirabeau to copy every other small town in America). It had been the same growing up here-the hope that something fascinating might be going on if you just went around town to find it.

The night had cooled some, but the air felt wet with unfallen spring rain. Distant thunder rumbled faintly, toward Austin and the Hill Country. I scanned the clouded skies for lightning, but the night was dark and still. There’s no long drive around Mirabeau. If you head north of Mayne, you get the lovely quiet neighborhoods I grew up in.

If you head south of Mayne, you go through the small business district. Stores stand in sturdy brick buildings that have survived tornado, flood, and modern architecture-and proudly have their dates of dedication carved in the crests on their highest (usually third) floors. Past the business district is a small railroad yard, and beyond are the mix of trailer parks, ramshackle shacks, and small but tidy homes that make up the poor part of town. The railway also divides Mirabeau by color, an unofficial segregation marked by the nightly whistle of the train. Complete your circle and you run smack dab into a gentle curve of the Colorado River, where Mirabeau and its few thousand souls sit. The Colorado was swollen with spring rain and with my window down, I could smell the faint but pungent odors of muddy river and decay. Mayne was as dead as a street could be. A scattering of cars squatted at Hubbard’s Grocery and some high-school kids sat on the back of a pickup truck in the Dairy Queen parking lot, watching the world not go by. I sighed and made a left onto Loeber Street, away from the business district. I wasn’t missing anything by not going straight to the library and then straight home. This wasn’t Boston. The library was at the intersection of Loeber and Bluebonnet and sat dark and solid in the night. We’re lucky in Mirabeau; the library is a handsome building, built only ten years ago, made of solid brick and native granite from the Hill Country, modern materials shaped into old-style architecture. The words PUBLIC LIBRARY CITY OF MIRABEAU were carved into granite above the front doors, and at night a light shone on the words like a beacon of knowledge. Beautiful, ancient live oaks stood guardian around the building. I pulled the Blazer up to the entrance. The library doesn’t rate a parking lot. You have to park either on Loeber or Bluebonnet, or in the little lot next to the small softball field, or maybe in the little, tatty apartment complex that’s down Loeber. As we never have a crowd, we never have a parking problem. I fumbled for my keys, unlocked the door, and threw on the lights. Same old place, I thought. I walked past the dedication plaque, past the new, neon-colored posters my assistant Candace had hung to encourage kids in the summer reading program, past the new-arrivals bin, to the checkout counter. I opened my office door, turned on the light, and found Mama’s pills in my desk drawer.

Pocketing them, I turned off my office light and closed the door. I paused-and to this day I don’t know why. Something was wrong. A prickle ran along my neck like a ghost’s fingernail. I looked across the wide doors and the stacks of books. There was only the gentle hum of automatic air-conditioning, comforting to any modern Texan. I wandered from the checkout counter to the children’s section, glancing around like a determined shopper at the bargain mall. Everything seemed in place. It felt like someone was watching me. I took a deep shuddering breath. I was being silly; a long day with Beta Harcher and my mother had gotten to me. I looked around again, shrugged off my exhaustion, turned out the lights, and locked up. I got into my car and drove up Bluebonnet, back to my mind- numbed mother and my sarcastic nephew. And the next morning, all holy hell broke loose.

2

There are so many ifs in this world. If I hadn’t forgotten Mama’s pills, if I hadn’t fought with Beta Harcher the day before, if Beta had never found her own personal Jesus… And the biggest if of all: if Mama had never gotten sick and brought me home to all this rotten lying, deceit, and death. But there’s really no point in articulating your ifs even once. I learned that the hard way. I got to the library about 9:45 A.M., parking per my custom right in front. I always want the city council to know that I’m on the job. They’re functional illiterates but they might wander by the library by mistake. My assistant Candace Tully arrived as I did, pulling her teal Mercedes up behind my Blazer. Candace is a real piece of work. She’s Mirabeau’s youngest professional volunteer and everyone’s just real worried that she hasn’t gotten married yet. Her daddy owns five banks in central Texas and her mama owns six, so Candace is not one for regular, gainful employment. Aside from her part-time library work, she serves the Mirabeau Historical Society, the various county Daughter associations (of the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the American Revolution), and has actually been sighted escorting elderly ladies across the street. Everyone admires Candace Tully and she’s been a constant pain in my butt since I got the chief librarian job.

Candace was on a husband-hunting safari and I was big game. If she wasn’t so cute, ignoring her would be easy as pie. Candace sidled up to me as if we were in a smoky bar and I had the last cigarette. Today she was sporting a navy silk blouse, cream-colored pants, and a colorful paisley scarf pinned to her shoulder with a fetching drape.

She looked real nice. I wasn’t nearly as appealing in faded jeans, cowboy boots (an old pair I’d hardly ever worn living in Massachusetts), and a blue chambray shirt. I got out of the car, and Candace nearly strained her neck looking up at me; maybe she’s five-foot-three on a hot day. She brushed her brown hair out of her blue eyes and examined me critically. “I heard about your little encounter with Beta Harcher,” she said severely, “and I can’t believe she’d wallop you.” She patted my bruised cheek. I shrugged. “Not a big deal, really.” “I wish I’d been there to punch her lights out.”

Candace grimaced, digging in her purse for her library keys. I peered down into the chaos. “You got Mace in there I can borrow in case she comes back?” Candace grinned. “I imagine you took care of yourself.”

“Didn’t need to. All the ladies came to my defense.” Her eyes flashed up at me. She’s a looker, but she tries

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