Excerpt from Do Unto Others

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Chapter One

It was really rude of Beta Harcher to argue with me right before she got killed.  Downright inconsiderate if you want my opinion.  The woman acted like she had a toll-free line to Jesus, so you’d think she would have had forewarning of her fate.  Plus she went on her tirade in front of folks, which caused me all sorts of grief later.  Fortunately I’m not a man to complain about the lack of trump cards that life deals you.

The day she died was a typically humid, sunny spring day in central Texas.  I’d been running an errand and I was in a cussing mood when I got back to the library.  You see, coming back from the pharmacy, where I’d bought Mama’s medicine, I’d tripped over a damn baseball bat some kid had left in the small ballpark next to the library — and I’d nearly planted my face in the grass.  I picked up the bat, looking around for a batless kid, but didn’t see the owner.  I figured whatever little Billy Joe or Bobby Jack had lost his equipment would come wailing about it soon enough, so I took the bat inside.

The Mirabeau public library was its usual hub of activity.  Shelves of dusty, unread books made a place scintillate.  I walked in, nodded to some of the regulars, winked at a couple of the pretty ladies, and dumped the bat into my little office behind the checkout counter.  I surveyed the library.

In Mirabeau three’s literally a crowd, so we had ourselves a horde that morning.  Old men sat in the periodical section, closely scanning the papers and frowning over progress.  A couple of book-minded youths from the high school fed their spring break reading habits in the science-fiction section.  In the most distant corner of the library, the gossipy ladies of the Eula Mae Quiff Literary Society (led by the one and only Eula Mae herself) quietly pretended to discuss the latest offerings in romance literature while chatting about their neighbors.  All in all, a quiet group, idling away several hours in the coolness of the books and avoiding the smothering spring humidity.

I’m not usually found at the checkout counter, but since I didn’t have a staff I didn’t have much choice.  The last chief librarian, the much-loved Miss Eugenia Pollard, had died three months earlier; and her staff had departed for greener pastures.  One had taken a job as chief librarian in nearby Bavary; the other had gone off to be a country singer in Houston.  I, of course, was the one left warbling the blues — although their departures had left the job available for me.  My assistant, Candace Tully, was only half-time and was at a dentist’s appointment this afternoon.

The only advantage was I didn’t have a staff continually pointing out how everything had been done under the golden touch of Miss Eugenia.  My own library experience had been ten years earlier, working part-time in college at the Fondren Library at Rice University; so I’d brought a certain…flexibility to the work.  Flexible meaning that I often didn’t know what the hell I was doing and just rolled with the punches.

Fending off my desire for a cigarette with a wad of Juicy Fruit gum, I sat behind the counter and unfolded my many folders.  One was of résumés and applications for my unfilled staff; one was a grant request I was working on to the U.S. Department of Education to get money for a literacy program; another folder held the layout for our monthly newsletter (much of it devoted to children’s activities); and the last contained a request from the mayor (my boss) to take a look at the Library Rules and Policy, since Miss Eugenia hadn’t updated that particular document since Reconstruction.  I attacked the résumés first; the sooner I got help, the much less stressful my days would be.

It was the Juicy Fruit that caused the commotion.   Beta Harcher resented folks sinning right in front of her.  And since I was chewing gum and not reading religious literature, I raised Beta’s ire.

I knew she was standing there for a full minute, waiting for me to look at her, so I kept my eyes lowered.

It didn’t work.

“Mr. Poteet!” she snapped, not bothering to modulate her voice.  That irritates me.  After all, it is a library.  I try to keep the noise down, even if most of my patrons are hard of hearing.  I’m a librarian now (although not by training, and my respect for the profession has grown by leaps and bounds).

I looked up at her.  She was in her early forties — but carrying all the sins and worries of her neighbors had aged her.  Once she might have had a delicate, doll-like face; now lines of worry and pinched anger marred her forehead and cheeks.  Shots of gray streaked her thick dark hair.  I’d wondered what kind of body might be lurking below her frumpy clothes.  It was hard to tell beneath the dark, shapeless jackets and the Bible she constantly clutched to her bosom.  Her blue eyes gleamed with shiny, repressed indignation.  I suspected her righteousness was going to be all over me like white on rice.

I popped my gum and picked up the book stamp, as though I expected Beta to actually check out a book instead of lighting a bonfire underneath one.  I saw the hardback novel Beta held in her quavering hand.

“Goodness, Miz Harcher.”  I smiled my public relations smile.  “I didn’t know you liked English literature.”

“This isn’t literature, mister.  This book is obscene.”

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence?  Oh, Miz Harcher, that’s a classic.”  I gently tried to take the book from her hands, but she wouldn’t let go.  She didn’t want to miss a chance to wrestle with Satan.

“Classic smut, you mean.”  She slapped a familiar piece of paper on the counter.  The last sixteen times she’d done this, I’d sighed.  Now I fumed.

“What’s this?”  I asked, all innocence.

“Another Request for Reconsideration of Material.”  Beta smiled.  I glanced at the form; she had filled one out for Lawrence’s Women in Love.  Just as she had for books my Mark Twain, Jay McInerney, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alice Walker, and others.

We’re open-minded folks in the New South, no matter what the media might have you believe.  If you object to something in the Mirabeau library, you can fill out one of these requests for reconsideration.  We didn’t get them often; at least we hadn’t until Beta went on her empty-the-shelves campaign.  I scanned her latest report, written in her creepy thin handwriting; no, she admitted she hadn’t read the whole book (“it liked to make me gag, so I couldn’t finish the Godless trash”); her estimation of the main idea of the material was innovative (“promote sex outside of marriage”); and in her judgment the book would have a deleterious effect on the youth of Mirabeau (“it’s liable to make them want to fornicate before they get halfway through”).

I leaned back in my chair.  I’d had enough of this harassment.

“Look, Miz Harcher…”

“I know my rights, Jordan Poteet.  Talking to you isn’t going to satisfy my complaint.  You got to call a meeting of the Materials Review Committee.”

I groaned.  If someone files a request, and I can’t resolve the problem, I have to call a meeting of the MRC, which consists of me (naturally), the chairman of the library board, and another member of the board.  Beta had demanded sixteen meetings thus far and hadn’t gotten one book off the shelves.  I decided to try polite reason with her.

“Miz Harcher, no one considers Lawrence obscene these days.  Why you can go to the big universities in Austin and College Station and they teach him there.”

This academic recommendation didn’t sway Beta Harcher.  She flipped open the book to a passage of dire sin she’d marked with her bony, blame-pointing finger.  She lectured me like she was calling fire down to the pulpit.

“Not to mention that the title itself suggests unnatural acts, but listen to this: ‘The thought of love, marriage, and children, and a life lived together, in the horrible privacy of domestic and’ — here she puckered her sour face — ‘connubial satisfaction, was repulsive.'” She glared at me. “This book is antifamily.”

I sighed.  Miz Harcher hadn’t consulted Noah Webster on what connubial meant, but it sounded decadent enough to warrant her attention.

Her harangue riveted everybody.  I could see Old Man Renfro and my other elderly regulars look up from their reading.  Eula Mae Quiff and her groupies watched, more interested in local passions than those described in the bodice rippers they discussed.  Gaston Leach stuck his head out from behind the science-fiction stack, ogling the scene through his bottle-thick lenses.  Ruth Wills, a local nurse, glanced up from the card catalog.  Biggest crowd in the Mirabeau library in three days.  Beta loved an audience.  I’d seen her poking around the shelves the past couple of days, sniffing out depravity, and now she’d made her move.

“And you know chewing gum’s not allowed in the library, Jordy Poteet!”  Beta Harcher added, taking on all transgressions in her immediate vicinity.

“I’m trying to quit smoking,” I explained, hoping for a little mercy.  “And as the librarian, I allow what I like in this library.”  I tried to puff out a bubble to piss her off, but Juicy Fruit’s not built for blowing.

“The city council might argue with that.”  Beta shook the offending volume of Lawrence in my face.

“If the city councilors want to fire me, they can.  Women in Love is not obscene, Miz Harcher.”

She pulled out her big censorship gun.  “Oh, really, Mr. Poteet?  I think the God-fearing folks of Mirabeau’d like to know what else goes on in this book.”  She leaned her face close to mine and I could smell her unpleasant breath.  Probably chewing brimstone as a mint.

“Men.  Wrestling in the nude together.”  She enunciated the words carefully, making sure I understood their import.

“Yes, the two men in the book wrestle.  It shows their friendship,” I explained patiently.  “They don’t have sex.”  My twentieth-century Brit Lit professor surely would’ve found Beta a challenging pupil.  “Why don’t you really read the book, Miz Harcher?  You might find it interesting.”

“I don’t have time for such smut.”

“No,” I said, knowing that folks were watching, “but you do have time to come in here, make a scene, disturb the other patrons, and in general make a nuisance of yourself.”

“I don’t appreciate your tone, Jordy Poteet.”  She set her lips tightly, glaring at me.

“And I don’t appreciate yours, Miz Harcher.”  I had grown tired of her stunts since my victory over her two months ago at a library board meeting.  I stood, hoping to look tough at my height of six feet two.  I didn’t think it’d work; I’ve been told repeatedly that my blond hair and green eyes make me look too boyish to scare anyone but infants.  “I’ll remind you that you were thrown off the library board because of your censorship stance.  If you don’t want to read the book, don’t read it.  No one is hog-tying you down and forcing you to read Mr. Lawence.  But don’t expect you can come into this library and dictate to others what’s available to them.  This tactic of continually filing complaints —”

“This trash undermines people’s souls.”

“Good God, Miz —”

“Don’t you take our Lord’s name in vain!” She shrieked.  You could have heard a page turn in the silence, but no one in the library was reading anymore.  Not with Beta’s soul-saving floor show playing.

“Hardly anyone checks out that book.”  I lowered my voice rather than lowering myself to her level.  “Very few souls are at risk.”  I hated all the eyes that were suddenly on me.  I’d felt that way ever since I’d come home to Mirabeau and I still wasn’t comfortable with it.  I can’t stand pity.  “Maybe we can step into my office and discuss this Request for Reconsideration.”

I considered that a perfectly reasonable suggestion.  So I was awfully surprised when she slapped me.  With Women in Love.

She belted that book right across my face.  Not a love tap, but an honest-to-God blow.  And Jesus made that woman strong.  My head whipped around and the ceiling lights flared in my eyes.  I felt my lip split and there was a wetness on my nose that I was sure was blood.  The carpet felt rough against my hands and I realized I was kneeling on the floor, knocked clear out of my chair.  I saw my wad of gum stuck on my office door.  I glanced up at Beta Harcher; she smiled, as pleased with herself as a child with a new toy.  Her eyes were two shiny pebbles, cold and stony.

Screams erupted from the Eula Mae Quiffers.  Gaston Leach ducked back into the space operas and fantasy novels.  Old Man Renfro creaked out of his chair, arthritically trying to hurry to my defense.  Ruth Wills beat him to it.  She ran over and grabbed Beta’s arm.

“Let me go!” Beta squawked, as though Ruth were a demon wrestling her from the Lord’s work.

Ruth pulled the book from Beta’s clutches and tossed it on the counter.  “I think you’d better go, Bait-Eye.  You’ve caused enough trouble.

The look Beta gave Ruth Wills held pure venom.  “You watch your mouth, missy.  You’re a sinner, too.  You have no right —”

“You’ve just assaulted Mr. Poteet,” Ruth interrupted coolly.  “In front of witnesses.”  I like Ruth; she’s one of Mirabeau’s nicest residents.  She’s also a lovely brunette with a figure a boy could doze against and die happy.  “He could press charges against you, and no one here would blame him.”

“You better leave, Beta.”  Eula Mae Quiff herself had come up behind them, keeping the younger Ruth as a buffer between her and our local zealot.  Eula Mae is fond of bead necklaces and she nervously fingered one of the several around her throat as she watched Beta.

“That smut he’s offering our young’s no better than that trash you write Eula Mae,” Beta snarled.  “All that sex — and women living independently from God’s plan.”

“My fans judge it otherwise,” Eula Mae sniffed.  She swirled her colorful, robelike dress to emphasize her point.  I thought she might take a bow.

“God’s the final judge.”  Beta stared down at me like a dog eyeing a pork chop.  “I’ll close this pit of lies.  God will help me.”

“Beta, stop it!”  An unexpected ally had appeared:  Tamma Hufnagel, the Baptist minister’s wife.  She had come up behind Eula Mae.  Beta was one of their flock but Tamma’s young face looked pained.  “This is not the way to conduct our Lord’s work —”

“Hush!” Beta ordered.  Poor Tamma clammed up abruptly.

Back on my feet, I grabbed a tissue and wiped the blood from my nose and mouth.  I poked at my nose experimentally; it didn’t shift into a new shape, so I decided it wasn’t broken.  I was still in shock that this woman had whacked me.  She looked so harmless until she opened her ornery mouth.  Why couldn’t she have assaulted me with a nice thin book — say Of Mice and Men?

“No, the final judge is over in the courthouse.”  I reached for the phone.  “You get out and lay off the library, or I’ll call Junebug Moncrief and have your God-fearing self hauled into jail.”  I couldn’t resist, and I should’ve.  “You think St. Peter’ll be impressed with your having a record when you approach those pearly gates?  He might just put you on the down elevator.”

“You’re burning in hell, not me,” Beta announced, pulling away from Ruth’s grasp.  She straightened with righteous dignity.  “I’ll leave, although I’m not afraid to go to jail.  I have the Lord’s work to do today.”  She cast a baleful eye over the stunned, silent faces in the library.  “Y’all remember that.  I have the Lord’s work to do.”

I wondered if I was the only one on Beta’s holy hit list.  I leaned across the counter and jabbed my finger in her face, tempting her to take a bite.  “Fine, you poor misguided woman.  Go make trouble for someone else.  This may be a public facility, but you are damned unwelcome here.  If you bother me, or anyone at the library again, I will press charges.”

“You can’t punish me.  You judge me not.  Though God is judging you.”  Her voice hardened, and it amazes me still that there could be so much spite in that frumpy form.  “He’s judging you, Mr. Know-It-All Jordy Poteet.  That’s why your mother is the way she is —”

“You shut up!”  I yelled.  “Get Out!”  Dead silence in the stacks.  Those dark, deadened eyes stared into mine.  I fought back a sudden, primitive urge to spit in her face. Yes, I do have a bad temper and Beta saw she’d gone too far.  She didn’t flinch away, but Ruth hustled her out into the spring heat.  I could hear Beta protesting the whole way, threatening Ruth with various fundamentalist punishments.  I could only imagine what special levels of Gehenna she reserved for me.

I slumped into my chair.  My hands shook.  I was ten years younger and a foot taller than Beta Harcher, but her words rattled me more than her punch.  I admit it:  I could’ve throttled her — just for a moment — when she made that crack about my mother.  Whack me with books all you like, but leave my family alone.

The bleeding stopped, but I kept dabbing my nostrils with the tissue.  The blue-haired crowd headed straight for me, gabbing with their henhouse tongues.  The Eula May Quiffers examined me carefully and, assured that I was okay, offered their opinions on Beta.

“She’s addled,” said one lady.

“Poor dear just takes the Bible too literally,” opined a more pious woman who had not been battered with a book recently.

“I can’t believe she struck you,” added another, disappointed that my nose was intact.

“What a bitch,” Eula Mae commented.  She’s the closest thing to a celebrity Mirabeau has — a romance novelist known to her fans by the nom de plume Jocelyn Lushe.  I have nothing against romances — I could probably use one in my life — but Eula Mae get inordinate amounts of local adoration for her prose.  I can only take so many heaving bosoms and smoldering loins per page, and Eula Mae isn’t big on setting limits.

Mousy Tamma Hufnagel watched me carefully.  “Miz Harcher’s upset about being kicked off the library board, Jordy.  She’s just awful tetchy about civic morals.  She means well.”

“No, she doesn’t, Mrs. Hufnagel,” I answered.  “She’s a lunatic and they’re usually not concerned with the public good.”  I watched Ruth come back into the library, without Beta.  “I could just kill that old biddy.”

“Don’t you listen to Beta Harcher, Jordy.”  Dorcas Witherspoon, one of my mother’s friends, took my hand.  “She’s a bitter fool.  She’s unhappy, so she wants everyone to be that way.  We don’t care if you keep smutty books.  You know all I read here is the Houston paper for ‘Hints from Heloise.'”

“Please, ladies, I’m fine,” I assured them.  I sighed.  “I guess Mrs. Hufnagel’s right; Beta’s just mad she got kicked off the library board.  She’ll just find someone else in Mirabeau to terrorize.”

That, unfortunately, didn’t happen.  The good Lord decided, I suppose, that He needed Beta Harcher at His right hand a far sight earlier than any of us reckoned.

* * * * *

The rest of the afternoon passed without divine retribution for keeping D. H. Lawrence on the library shelves.  At six I closed up and drove past the well-kept homes and fake antique light posts on Bluebonnet Street.  Mirabeau is Texas old, founded in 1841 during the Republic days, but I figure the powers that be don’t think it looks quaint enough for antique buyers and city folks looking to move to the country.  So they’ve started adding Dickensian touches such as Victorian light posts and wrought-iron benches on the major streets in town.  We natives try not to mind.

It doesn’t take more than ten minutes to get anywhere in Mirabeau, and getting home takes me all of two minutes.  I veered left onto Lee Street, drove down a block to Blossom Street, and stared up at the neat, two-story frame house I’d grown up in and recently returned to.  Did it look smaller, or was it that I was just bigger and wiser?  I couldn’t tell.

I went inside and found my mother walking in circles around the cozy living room.  She does that more and more now, shuffling along in her slippers and robe.  I suppose it’s a nice room to orbit.  Mama just has to navigate a wicker sofa and an oval, polished wood coffee table with a fan of Southern Living back issues spread across it.  Normally I would have steered Mama to a chair and told her to sit down, but I had a throbbing headache.  This was not the life I’d ever planned on coming home to.  So I sat down and watched Mama for a few minutes.  She was intent on some journey of her own and she made for good quiet company.

Our quality time together didn’t last long.  “You’re not being much help, Jordy, letting her do that,” my sister Arlene muttered as she walked in from the kitchen.  I could smell the wonderful aroma of black-eyed peas and chicken-fried steaks.  Sister (I never call her Arlene unless I’m really mad at her) flared me a look as hot as her skillets.  She took Mama’s arm and aimed her toward a chair.  Mama, a lock of her blondish-gray hair straying into her face, sat unprotestingly and looked at me as though unsure of who I was.  “Jordy,” she announced finally, in the same tone she’d used to reproach me for mouthing off as a youngster.

That was a relief.  In her mind for the past two days I’d been her long-dead brother Walter, and it was nice to be back among the living.

“Eula Mae called and told me what happened at the library,” Sister said with That Tone.  She gawked at my busted lip.  So much for my three minutes of peace, which was my daily allowance at home.

“I guess you’d like to get fired from that library,” Sister observed archly, going back into the kitchen with a toss of her blonde hair.  I can always count on Sister for loving support.  “That way you could just go back to Boston and your precious little publishing job, and never mind Mama.”

My throat tightened.  I’m still not used to Mama.  It’s hard to go away from home, leaving your mother full and vital and smart, and return to find her mind eroding like a clay bank on a flooded creek.

I got up and followed Sister into the kitchen.  “Why are you pissed today?  You have a fight with Bubba?”  Bubba Jasper owned a truck stop called The Near End on Highway 71, where Sister cooked God’s food like chicken-fried steaks, enchiladas, and pecan pies.  She worked from eight at night till four in the morning, came home, and slept till ten when I went to the library.  She hated that schedule, and I wasn’t that crazy about it either, but it kept one of us at home most of the time.  I took care of Mama at night; Sister handled her during the day.  I suspected Bubba gladly gave Sister that shift to discourage competing suitors.  Bubba needed any advantage he could muster.

“Never mind Bubba.”  Sister’s rosebud mouth pouted.  She poked at the simmering black-eyed peas with a stained wooden spoon.  She was so pretty when we were kids; I’d been jealous of Sister’s popularity in school.  I’d spent most of my academic career in the Mirabeau public schools as “Arlene Poteet’s little brother.”  It wasn’t a bad label.  Having a popular sister helped no end in the date department.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked.

“I ­– I think you resent me, Jordy.  You haven’t been much help with Mama this past week.”

I had a reply ready (as usual with Sister) but I stopped.  She really looked sad, staring down into the warming vegetables.  She’d pulled her thick blonde hair back from her face and it made her look older and tired.  Her features were still striking, with high cheekbones and clear green eyes.  “I think you resent me ‘cause I brought you back here.”

“You didn’t bring me back, Sister.  I chose to come back.”

“No, you didn’t.  We’ve been playing this guilt game long enough.  I made you feel guilty about being up North, and now you won’t let me put Mama in a nursing home.”  Sister looked up from her bare feet.

“No, I won’t put Mama in a home.”  I hoped we wouldn’t have this argument again.  “I’m not going through what we went through with Papaw again.”  I set my teeth.  I remember walking out of my grandfather’s nursing-home room while he sobbed as we left him.  Just the memory makes my heart clench.

“You had — or have — the money to put Mama in a good place, and she won’t know the difference.  Her mind is going, Jordy.  Yesterday she thought I was Aunt Sally visiting from Houston.  She kept asking if I was going to vote for Harry Truman.”

I always try to find the bright side of bad times.  “At least she knows it’s an election year.”  I bit down on my swollen lip as soon as I said it, surprised at myself.

Sister wasn’t amused.  “Sometimes she doesn’t even remember Mark, and that’s hard for him.  Her own grandchild.”

“The money isn’t the issue, Sister.”

“Yes, it is.  You have it and I don’t.  That’s how it is, Jordy, and has been for years.”

“And you accuse me of resenting you?  Listen to yourself.”

She shrugged.  “Maybe I do resent you.  Mr. Big Book Editor, living up North and making money to burn.”  She shook her head and laughed her drawly little giggle that annoyed me when we were growing up.  “You’re really using that fancy college degree, aren’t you?  Stacking books back at the Mirabeau library.”

“Look, running a library’s not easy.  You know that was the only job I could find here connected with books –“

“You care more about books than you do me!” she snapped.  “God!  I have my own life to live and I have Mark to raise.  You could give me the money and keep Mama from being such a godawful burden to me.”

“Yes, I could, I suppose.  But I won’t.  I won’t have Mama in a home.  She needs us, not strangers in uniforms.”

“It’s not your choice to ruin my life and Mark’s, too.”

“It’s my money,” I answered, not adding that there wasn’t a lot of my money left.  “I’m sorry you feel this way.  You don’t have to help with Mama.  I’ll move her into a place of my own and get daytime help while I’m at the library.  You don’t have to have a damn thing to do with her.”

“And let you have all that moral superiority?  Let people here think I don’t care about Mama as much as you do?  Forget it.”   Public opinion in Mirabeau still mattered to Sister.  Left over from her cheerleader days, I’m sure.

“Then quit complaining.”  I spoke more sharply than I intended, but the strain of quarreling with her showed.

“Dinner’ll be ready in about ten minutes.”  Sister went into her monotone.  “Please set the table.”

“All right.”  I didn’t want to argue any more.  I set the table quickly and haphazardly, flinging the silverware and plates down like I was dealing cards.

Sister twitched at the noise, but didn’t look up from the cream gravy she stirred.  “Would you please go find Mark?”   I turned and went.

I stumbled out the front door into the fading spring sunshine.  The evening was still warm and hazy with moisture.  Spring had been rainy.  Mirabeau is the lush dark, deep green that always surprises folks who’ve based their visions of Texas on John Wayne movies that were shot in dusty, brown Arizona.  The oak trees, pregnant with leaves, shook in the twilight breeze above my head.  The crepe myrtles were short explosions of pink, scattering their blossoms on the air.

I leaned against my blue and gray Chevy Blazer and looked out down Lee Street, across front yards that were maintained like badges of honor.  Yards — whether front or back — usually aren’t divided by fences in Mirabeau, and the residential streets don’t have curbs.  The grass just goes straight into the neighbors’ yards and into the street.  When I was little this whole neighborhood was my playground, but now I felt like I was trespassing.  What was I doing here?  I’d bolted at age eighteen, swearing to never come back.  Twelve years later and here I was.  I scanned the street.  My nephew Mark was down a few houses, talking with a neighbor’s kid.

“Mark!  Supper time!”

He waved back, almost begrudgingly.  Maybe Sister was right.  Was I controlling her and Mark’s life by insisting that we take care of Mama at home?  I didn’t feel in control; Mama’s disease was.  It dictated and governed every aspect of our lives.  I’d given up a life I’d loved, being a social sciences editor for a prestigious textbook publisher in Boston.  I’d acquired authors, negotiated contracts, planned marketing campaigns to storm college campuses nationwide.  It had been decent money and a lot of fun.  Now, I was back at my life’s square one because I didn’t want my mother in a nursing home.  Logical, aren’t I?

I couldn’t blame Sister for being mad.  If she blamed Mama’s condition for running her life, she thought I was making it worse.  She’d wanted money to put Mama in a nursing home over in La Grange.  She didn’t have the money, hadn’t had anything except Mark since her rodeo-smitten husband had abandoned her five years ago and headed to parts unknown.  I had headed for parts unimaginable (New England), but Sister’d had my phone number.

I stood in the carport, staring at the modest house I’d grown up in.  It was built at the turn of the century and had belonged to my father’s uncle who died widowed and childless.  Two stories, white, with plenty of blue-shuttered windows across the front to let in light and maybe neighbors’ peering eyes.  The porch was wood and held two white wicker chairs that should’ve held Mama and Daddy.  Sister and I sat there and moped these days.

We hadn’t kept up the house as Daddy had; it had been his pride and joy, but we took the house for granted.  Mark trimmed the yard and tended the flower beds, but the house needed a paint job, especially across the front porch.  I knew I should get it taken care of, but I was wary of spending money in front of Sister.  Every cent I wasted on other expenses was a cent that could help lift the burden of our mother from our shoulders.  If only Daddy had been as thoughtful about insurance as he was about lawn care.

The average yearly cost of nursing home care in this country is thirty thousand bucks.  It tends to be one of those facts you don’t bother with till your mother’s walking in circles, drooling on her chin, and thinking you’re her long dead brother Walter.  My investments and savings couldn’t bear that assault.

Part of me didn’t want Mama in a home, and the other part of me didn’t want my savings flying away so quickly.  I couldn’t tell Sister my financial woes.  She thought my college education resulted in an instantly swollen bank account.  She wouldn’t believe me if I told her I didn’t have the money to keep Mama in a home for years of Alzheimer’s.  Contrary to popular belief, publishing is not a gold mine.

Mark swaggered up to me like only a thirteen-year-old can.  He doesn’t even have the grace to look like a Poteet — not that it’s his fault.  He’s tall and rangy like us, but that’s about it.  Where Sister and I are fair-haired and green-eyed like both our parents, Mark is dark and just looks like trouble.  He’s the spitting image of his daddy, the aforementioned rider from responsibility.  Even wearing silvery round glasses, he looks like a rebel.  I never managed that in my youth.

“I hate to interrupt your cramped social schedule, but supper’s on.” I said.  Usually I tease Mark, but arguing with Sister had soured my mood.

Mark surveyed me with eyes older than the rest of him.  “You and Mom have been fighting over Mamaw again.”

“What are you, psychic?”  I put my arm around his shoulder and steered him toward the house.

“I don’t know why you two don’t accept Mamaw for how she is.  She ain’t getting better.”

”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 the liked it now.  I went to the stairs in the entryway 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 a 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.

© Jeff Abbott

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