night lights Since Mercy had moved to Oregon, Austin had been through one boom, and now it was busting. Coming home was a shock every time, confronting her first with skyscrapers and more recently with empty stores and office buildings decorated with "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs. Her own residential area was going through dramatic changes quite the opposite of the rest of the city. When she was a child, it had been a slightly run-down, lower middle class area with as many blacks and Hispanics as whites, and now it was going yuppie. The minorities had fled and the boutiques had moved in.

At the first opportunity, Mercy gave her friend Connie a call. Connie had two girls and a fresh divorce. Long ago, Connie had wanted to study law and save the world, but she had ended up getting married and pregnant, not in that order. When Mercy asked carefully if Connie was doing alright, her friend merely laughed. "Don't worry about me, Mercy. Don and I are getting along better than we have in years."

"Really?"

"Yup. We seem to have achieved that rare blessing--a successful separation." Mercy liked the sound of that, it was so much more positive than hearing about failed marriages all the time. "What you need is a little diversion, Mercy," Connie gurgled on. "I'll see if I can drum up anybody from the old gang and we can spend a night barhopping or listening to a good group somewhere. Sound like fun?"

"Sounds great, Connie."

Connie picked Mercy up in her old Mustang convertible with the top up. A cold front had marched through the plains and all the way down to central Texas the day before, leaving frozen pipes and shivering Texans in its wake. Temperatures dropped forty degrees in a day. It was colder than in Portland.

Mercy was very grateful for the opportunity to go out: there was no alcohol in her parent's house. That smoothed out, teetotaling couple was watching the prayer station as Connie and Mercy left. "Have fun, dear," her mother called from the couch. "Don't worry about the kids." The preacher, who looked like a country singer doing a terrible acting job, was talking emotionally about the blood of Christ and pleading with viewers to call and confess. The number on the screen was accompanied by a "pledge now." It wasn't even an 800 number.

"Don't you have any cartoons on video?" Bruce asked his grandmother.

"Don't let them terrorize you," Mercy said, and gave each of her boys a quick kiss.

The weather was cold but clear, and the sun was making a brilliant exit before going off-stage for the night, no gaudy colors, just a warm yellow-orange glow over everything, turning the capitol building and the empty skyscrapers into fool's gold; a quality of light Mercy didn't often experience in Portland. There it was too hilly or too grey.

As they walked in the door of the barbecue restaurant, an off-season cockroach scuttled across the floor. Mercy shuddered violently and Connie stomped on it. Connie looked at Mercy and laughed. "Want to go somewhere else?"

"No, it's all right."

"Well then, welcome home, Mercy."