Excerpt

Despite its name, Ponder, Texas, pop. 501, isn’t a very good place to think. Four months out of the year, it’s too damn hot to think.

It is a good place to get lost. That’s what my mother did 32 years ago. The fact that she successfully hid this from almost everyone who loved her makes her a pretty good liar. I’m not sure what it says about me.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother would tell my fortune to keep me still. I vividly remember one August day when the red line on the back porch thermometer crept up to 108. Sweat dribbled down the backs of my knees, a thin, cotton sundress pressed wet against my back. My legs swung back and forth under the kitchen table, too short to reach the floor. Granny snapped beans in a soothing rhythm. I stared at a tall glass pitcher of iced tea that floated with mint leaves and quarter moons of lemon, wishing I could jump in. Granny promised a storm coming from Oklahoma would cool things off by dinner. The fan kept blowing the cards off the table and I kept slapping them down, giggling.

The fortune is long forgotten, but I can still hear the anguished joy of my mother playing a Bach concerto in the background.

 

A month later, on the worst day of my life, what I remember most is being cold. Granny and I stood in a darkened funeral parlor, the window air conditioner blowing up goose bumps on my arms. Cracks of September sunlight tried to push in around the shades. It was at least 90 degrees outside, but I wanted my winter coat. I wanted to lie down and never wake up. Granny gripped my hand tighter, as if she could hear my thoughts. Merle Haggard blared from a passing pickup truck and faded away. I could hear my mother crying from another room.

That’s how I remember Mama—present but absent.

I’m not like that. People know when I’m around.

I’ve been told that I have a strange name for a girl, that I’m nosy, that I’m too delicate to carry a gun. The first two are true.

I’ve been told that it’s weird to love both Johnny Cash and Vivaldi, that I’m way too white for a Texan and too skinny for a fast food junkie, that my hair is long and straight enough to hang a cat, that I look more like a New York City ballet dancer than a former champion roper. (In Texas, “New York City” is never a complimentary adjective.)

I’ve been told that my sister Sadie and I shouldn’t have beaten up Rusty Walker in fifth grade because he is still whining about it to a therapist.

I’ve been told that growing up in Ponder must have been an idyllic childhood, picket fence and all. I tell those people I’m more familiar with barbed wire and have the scars on my belly to prove it.

I learned early that nothing is what it seems. The nice butcher at the Piggly Wiggly who saved bones for our dogs beat his wife. The homecoming queen’s little sister was really the daughter she had in seventh grade. That’s the way life was.

In a place like Ponder, everyone knew your secrets. At least, that’s what I thought before. I never pictured my mother, the legendary pianist of the First Baptist Church of Ponder, as a woman with something to hide. I never dreamed that opening a stranger’s letter would be pulling a loose thread that would unravel everything. That, one day, I’d scrutinize every memory for the truth.

© Julia Heaberlin

Return to the Playing Dead page