The place they went after dinner didn't look like much from the outside--or from the inside either for that matter: it had about as much atmosphere as a barn without the hay. The seating was confined to a couple of rows of picnic tables, the rest of the huge hall empty except for the bar and the stage. It was one of the most popular places in town, an Austin institution. People will follow the crowd even if it leads to a barn.
Mercy was surprised at hearing her name called out publicly in a city she hadn't lived in for over a decade and even more surprised as she was grabbed around the waist (or what qualified as a waist) and whirled around in a circle in front of the picnic tables. The man guilty of the astonishing behavior was large and muscular and balding. Back on her feet, Mercy gazed at him without recognition for a moment until her imagination reassigned the face a full head of hair reaching to the shoulders, and the figure returned to lanky adolescence in her mind. "Travis!" Mercy exclaimed. With difficulty, memories so weighed down with years they had seemed lost forever struggled to the surface.
"Good to see you, Mercy!" Travis beamed down on her, his hands still on her waist.
Mercy was having problems comprehending the obvious admiration in his eyes. "What a greeting!" she said. "What did I do to deserve it?"
"You look so good."
"You've got to be kidding."
Travis released her again. "God, it's been a long time."
"You left for Colorado, right? You still there?" Travis had taken off for Colorado about the same time Mercy had taken off for Oregon, both of them searching for green and getting grey.
"Naw. I came back to Austin about a year ago."
"What brought you back?"
"When you're over thirty, you're not as rugged as you are when you're twenty. I started getting frostbite on my scalp," Travis explained, rubbing his balding pate and laughing.
"Hey, stop exchanging intimacies, you two, and join the crowd," Connie said, luring Mercy to the table with a bottle of Shiner Bock.
The crowd gathered around one of the picnic tables was a further shock: Dirk, the pothead; Jody, the actress; and Jane and Barry, high school sweethearts. Mercy felt disoriented. When she thought of Travis next to her, she saw the Travis of over ten years ago, and when she looked at the Travis next to her, her perceptions had to be readjusted radically. She was in a time warp; Travis had hair, Sixth Street was just another run-down part of town, there was no such thing as Liberty Lunch, and they wouldn't have been able to go there if there were. The undergrowth down by the Colorado River where they had taken their first daring whiffs of pot and been disappointed when nothing happened had been transformed into parks and freeways. Everything was different, but the old gang was still there.
"So what are you doing these days, Mercy?" Dirk asked.
"I'm an assistant professor at Columbia State."
"You always were the brilliant one, weren't you?" Jody said.
"Remember how Sean just barely beat you for Most Likely to Succeed?" Barry said. "Now he's an insurance salesman!"
That Mercy had almost won an award of any kind was news to her. Her image of herself in high school was of the wallflower nobody knew or cared to know.
Travis ran a tender hand down her back. "Professor Kennedy." The way he said it, it was a caress.
"Remember my old boyfriend Terry?" Connie said. "He's a professor now too, and he has a computer, a house, two kids and a wife."
"Well, same here," Mercy said. "Just substitute husband for wife."
"That makes all the difference in the world," Connie insisted. "A husband is just an added responsibility."
"I resent that," Barry said jokingly.
"Well, he pulls his own better than most men I know," Jane defended him. Jane and Barry had the only successful marriage among the mob of failures seated at the picnic table. That could still change, however; they were just reaching the family-raising phase.
"I need another beer," Mercy said.
"Me too," Travis said, and got up to accompany her. A man was going out of his way for her. Mercy could hardly imagine what other surprises the evening might still hold.
"I had such a hopeless crush on you in high school," Travis confessed as they were waiting at the bar.
"When Dirk said you were coming tonight it all came back."
"Why didn't you ever say anything?"
"I always assumed you were beyond my reach."
Mercy took her beer from the bartender, and they headed back towards the picnic table. "Because I was the class brain." She shook her head. "I can't believe you had a crush on me too."
"So the feeling was mutual?" Mercy nodded, and Travis enclosed her in a bear hug of Texan proportions.
The Shiners were making Mercy daring. "You know, we could have lost our virginity together."
"We can always make up for it," Travis whispered in her ear eagerly.
"I don't know about you, but I lost my virginity long ago."
Travis laughed and looked at her admiringly. Mercy felt infinitely clever and highly attractive, and the magical transformation was brought about by nothing more than the reflection of herself she saw in Travis's eyes, a much more flattering mirror than any she had been used to in a long time.
When they returned with fresh Shiners, Jody was entertaining the others with an anecdote of Texas lore. "The song almost made me have a fit," Jody was saying. "Something about Texas ladies dreaming of babies. Cowboys were in there too somewhere, as the initiators of the babies, I presume." Jody too was a mother, and Jody too was divorced.
"Are you sure it was serious?" Mercy asked.
"Sounds like a piece of male wish-fulfillment if I ever heard one," Jane said.
"It's bitter to be reminded that there really are Texas men out there looking for ladies dreaming of babies," Connie said, casting a poisonous look at the three representatives at the table. Connie had never been properly respectful, but she was beautiful, and the glowing look she got in her blue eyes when she was in a good mood caused repeated misunderstandings. Mercy was sure that now she was available again, she would soon be back to disentangling herself from unwanted complications.
"Don't look at me," Travis protested. "I'm from Colorado."
"Not with that name you aren't," Jane said.
Jody looked at Jane and Barry. "There was something in the song about eternal love too. Doesn't that apply to y'all?"
"Nothing's eternal," Barry said.
"But y'all are happy together. High school sweethearts who are happy together. You're an exception to every rule," Connie proclaimed. "Look at the rest of us, happily divorced."
"I'm not divorced," Travis pointed out.
"Neither am I," Mercy said.
"Yeah. Unfortunately," Travis said quite audibly.
"You don't count, Travis," Connie decided. "You're a confirmed bachelor."
"Who knows?" Travis said.
The band came back from their break, filling the barn with countrified blues-rock and making conversation an obstacle course. As they exhausted conversational topics as well as their vocal cords, they moved up closer to the band. Travis remained close to Mercy, the volume of the music providing them with forced intimacy.
"We should get together again before you go," Travis said. He had to put his lips right next to her ear and almost yell.
They traded positions. "I'm flying back with the kids in a week," Mercy replied.
Travis put a gentle hand on her neck. "Lake Travis with the kids?" He planted a quick kiss on the lobe of her ear.
"It's too cold!"
"It'll warm up again."
Mercy grabbed the hand at her neck and squeezed it briefly before letting it go. She nodded and laughed. Her resemblance to a starving person in a candy store was becoming less farfetched every minute.