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LIFE ON CASWELL AVENUE
When we first moved to Austin, back in nineteen seventy-five, we lived in a 900-square foot cottage on a corner lot in Hyde Park, an old part of town where the trees were tall and the soil was deep black clay. A good many old folks lived on our street, along with some college kids. Dogs ran loose, and the UT shuttle wandered through the neighborhood, offering free rides to and from the campus.
We didn't have an air conditioner, but the windows opened and a breeze blew through the rooms of our house even on the hottest days. I know it wasn’t always summer, but it’s hard to remember any other season. I picture the house on Caswell in the shade of two big old pecan trees, surrounded by overgrown shrubs, with Turk’s cap tall and blooming in the still heat of the afternoon. Austin seemed like a small town to me back then. Sleepy, even.
Katie Gray was an elderly woman who lived across the street in a white frame house even smaller than ours. She brought us part of a cake soon after we moved in. Said she made it for when her stepson came to visit, and it was too much for her to finish. She was there and gone in a flash.
A couple of days later, on a Saturday morning, I went over to return the plate, and Tulip, a fluffy brown and white dog who lived nearby, followed me. Katie came to the door and asked me in. I excused myself to Tulip.
“You can bring her in," Katie bellowed from the dark inside, and she pushed the screen door out. "Bring her in.” She had a high, scratchy voice
I said, "She’s not my dog."
"I know. She’s a pretty dog.” It sounded like ‘purty.’
“You can both come in." Katie said. "Set down a spell.”
She led me through a bed-sitting room and a small kitchen to a screened-in back porch. Katie said she had a feral cat named Little Star. The door to the attached garage stood half-open. I could just make out a small black form and a tiny patch of white. Katie never had touched Little Star, who watched from the darkness as Tulip helped herself to cat food.
We settled in for a chat. When I called her Mrs. Gray, she said to call her Katie.
You might not think we’d have a lot in common. I was a newly minted PhD from the East, twenty-seven years old. I taught philosophy at UT. She was a widow in her sixties from West Texas. But we quickly fastened on the fact that Katie was the same age as my mother: both were born in 1911. Moreover both Katie and my mother married Army officers named Bill.
It was enough. We soon became fast friends.
In those days, Craig did a lot of field work. He was often gone overnight in the middle of the week, and when he was I’d visit Katie. If I didn’t bring Tulip, she would send me back to find her. Then the three of us would sit out on her back porch and watch the sprinkler on the grass underneath a pear tree.
At first, she’d ask about my job, and I always answered, briefly. It was not so much that I didn’t want to talk about it. I just didn’t have any answers back then. Did I like my job? I wasn’t sure. Was it difficult? Not exactly.
When she questioned me her voice was sharp and her eyes were sharp, too. I didn’t mind. I accepted it for what it was, an old woman’s undisguised curiosity. Eventually she’d settle back in her chair to reminisce. It suited both of us to pass the time reliving Katie's life.