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The street was dusky pink in the light of the setting sun, and Katie Gray was sitting on the porch as usual when Tulip and I joined her. We soon found our way back to Ballinger and ventured on from there.
At the age of eighteen, Katie moved to Temple, fifty miles north of Austin, and there she became a nurse at Scott and White Hospital. She showed me pictures of herself and forty classmates in starched white dresses and brand new white caps. She worked for a doctor at the hospital in Temple for years, and she had stories about women who bled to death while delivering babies and about how the doctors liked to tell dirty jokes in the operating room.
She didn't marry until she was twenty-nine, and when she did marry it was to an older man with a son by another marriage. How she met Major Gray was a favorite story, and I had heard it more than once, but I never minded hearing it again.
Katie had been dating an officer who was married, but she didn't know it, because he was on assignment with the Army Corps of Engineers, and he’d left his wife back in Kansas. He took Katie to a party at the officer’s club. Bill Gray sat on her other side, and they liked each other right off. Bill was the senior officer.
But that night Katie found out the other man was married, and the next day she asked Doctor Bunkley what to do. He said “Quit seeing that man,” and although she hated to give up those parties at the Officer's Club, she took his advice. Bill heard about it and liked her for it. He called her up and asked her to go to the next party with him. So there she was, with the senior officer!
She came to the door that night the way she always did, all prettied up – purtied! – and blind as a bat because she was too vain to wear her glasses. Bill said, “Katie, go back in there and get your glasses on so you can see.” She took his advice, too.
All the men at the party decided they'd get the Captain drunk, but Bill could hold his liquor, and he drank them all under the table. Not long after that Bill and Katie got married.
Bill and Katie were the happiest couple in the world, the way Katie told it. They lived in Del Rio for three years, and they used to go across the border every weekend to haunt the border town bars. They used to go to Mrs. Crosby's for margaritas and to a place called Umberto's where they ate fried quail and drank Mexican beer. Or else they'd go to a Chinese restaurant, which Katie insisted was actually very good, or else they'd get cabrito, barbequed goat, which I had never had. Katie swore by it.
But then in the war Bill Gray went to India, and when he got back four years later, his health was ruined. Still they had a good time making mint juleps in that same little white frame house in Austin until Bill started getting tunnel vision. He had a brain tumor, and they couldn't save him, even when they operated three times. It killed him by degrees over a six-month period. Then the rose of sunny memories would fade, and the cool black horizon of her later years would face her.
Katie pored over and over how her husband wasted away and how Larry came to visit him from school and was so shocked to see how thin his father was. A boy who’d been shot was in the same hospital room, and a crowd of religious people came and stood around him. They prayed mightily until he rallied, and he was completely cured.
Bill lay in a coma for a month while Katie lived in a little room in Houston near the hospital. She still hated the city, and for the first time I saw bitterness pass by like the acrid smells she described, the smile gone from her lips, her shrewd old eyes screwed up as she paused far off in recollection.
The man who'd led the prayers for the boy came back. All the other chaplains prayed about sins and restoring health, but all this preacher said was, "Lord, release this man from his suffering," and within three hours Bill was dead.
Katie went back outside and sat down under a tree on a bench. A mockingbird perched up above her head and sang his little heart out as only a mockingbird can, with those sweet full notes. Katie said she thought the bird must have sensed her sorrow.
I said I thought maybe it could. I looked down at Tulip, who was listening to me and now gravely turned to Katie.
Katie said, "Yes sir, mockingbirds mate for life, and you can’t tell me they don’t know about sorrow. He was singing to cheer me up, and he stayed there a good long while after I noticed him."
Then she saw Tulip watching her and said, "You sweet baby, you understand everything I say, don' t you?"
Tulip hopped up and wagged her tail.
Katie put her face down close to Tulip’s. "Tulip knows Katie loves her."