HERE’S THE GREAT STATE OF TEXAS–” I read from the postcard I hold in my hand, “–And the others that surround it. Everything is big about Texas, except the states around it!”
My collection of Texas picture postcards, sent back by my Uncle Henry in Dallas, has captured the imagination of my Canton, Ohio audience. This is the one that shows a distorted, cartoon map of the United States. An overly exaggerated Texas sprawls across the middle, stretching from Canada to Mexico, shouldering aside the rest.
I don’t blame my cousins for being in awe of the place. We’ve all heard the stories. Everybody knows somebody who’s moved there, friends or family even more charmed by its harmless braggadocio.
Most of all, I love being the center of attention. I’m addicted to the oohs and ahhs as I present yet another postcard. I make a show of it, reading aloud as I display it in a slow sweep of my hand past faces in a semi-circle around me, like a stage magician offering up for examination the card he’s drawn from the deck.
“Here’s a nice one,” I say, and hold up a hand-tinted photo of a longhorn steer with horns that stretch from edge to edge.
“‘Want to ‘throw the bull?’,” I read. “‘Then here’s one for you! West Texas Longhorn, width of horns, 8 feet 6 inches.’”
Then I shuffle through the small stack to find my favorite.
“Okay, this you gotta see,” I say, and pull out the most convincing postcard of them all. It shows a cowboy riding atop a jackrabbit that’s the size of a small elephant.
They lean in, rapt.
“Is that for real?” my cousin Rodney sneers, a cynical tone in his voice.
“Sure it’s for real!” says his older brother, Stanley. “It looks real, doesn’t it? How’s anybody going to make up stuff like that?”
“Is anybody ready to kill themselves yet?” Lee asks as she walks past my little group.
“Aw, shut up, Lee. This one’s good, too,” I say, pulling from the deck another postcard, this one bearing the title, WILDLIFE OF THE DESERT.
Like those illustrations I’ve seen in the encyclopedia, it depicts, in convincing full color, an unlikely scenario: all together on one page, a couple dozen species, most of them mortal enemies, that have apparently buried the hatchet and come gathered for a group portrait. A coyote stands howling beside a prairie dog. A ground squirrel pays no mind to the rattlesnake just inches away. And nearby, a badger and a deadly gila monster appear to be engaged in polite conversation.
“Texas has deserts?” Rodney asks. “Neato!”
“Texas is nothing but desert,” Red says from his lawn chair behind my cousin.
Rodney whips around, startled by a voice he wasn’t expecting.
“I wonder how that half-assed millworker’s going to find a job down there?” Red mutters.
“He and my Uncle Henry are going in on a Mobil station, Red,” I say. “It’s all set. Don’t give it a second thought. Even though I know you can’t help worrying about us.”
“Oh, that’s right. Henry. The other half of the ass,” Red sneers. “Well, all I can tell you is, it better be mobile. So they can move it to some other hell hole when their prospects dry up.”
“Red,” Grandma Rose calls out to him. “Don’t talk that way around these kids.”
But my cousins have already inched away.
“It’s Dallas. It’s a big city,” I say to Red. “We’re going to do okay.”
“Oh, you will, huh? Red responds. “I was wondering why you’re so chipper about the whole thing.”
“Yeah. It’ll be a fresh start. Maybe we’ll even get a horse. Lee’s crazy about horses.”
“All girls her age are,” he says stuffing a cigar back in his mouth. “It’s called a Freudian slip or something.”
He takes a couple puffs, staring at me.
“I know what you’re thinking, kiddo,” he says. “You and your plans and schemes. You think you’re going to get your mother to go along.”
“I never said that.”
“I thought so. I know you pretty well, don’t I?”
My mom appears and plops down in the lawn chair beside him. She lights a cigarette.
“When are we getting out of this god-forsaken hick town, Marie?” Red says. “I’m bored shitless.”
“Red,” she says. “There’s still cake. Keep your pants on.”
She smiles at me.
There it is. That thing adults do. Another reason I’m in no hurry to grow up. And slowly I begin to deflate. Here we are with my mom’s family in Canton. In another week Lee, my dad, and I will be gone. Who knows when I’ll see any of them again. Grandma Rose, Uncle Leo and my cousins, not to mention my own mother. And yet she acts like it’s really nothing. To look at her, you’d think I was only going away on summer vacation for a few weeks. But then again, is it one of those things adults do, or is it just something she does?
Yes, I have been scheming to get her to go along, trying to figure out one last time how to convince her to leave Red and come back to us. I didn’t care who said it was too late. Red. My sister. Dad. I was determined. But who am I fooling? Now I realize how single-mindedly simple-minded I’ve been, how childish. Expecting her to conform to what I want.
I remember Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer” poem. They were laying out facts to me, but I never wanted to hear anything that conflicted with what I wanted to be true. Like the guy in the poem who stared up at the stars, I only wanted to wander out to my place on the hillside where I might seek comfort in my fantasies.
And now I see that I’m the Pope and Mrs. Long is Copernicus. She’s trying ever so gently to break the news to me–that it no longer makes sense to claim that the place I stand is the center of the universe.
I watch my mother with Red, and as much as I could never believe it when she said so, I see now that this really is what she wants. It doesn’t fit my picture of the universe–that she should want to be with us and not with him–but I’m not sure I can continue to defend that doctrine. How can I hold out another day, clinging to my theory of what should revolve around what, when right in front of me I see a completely different picture.
Then it occurs to me that perhaps my mother’s own untold want is beside the point. Did Mrs. Long see this all along? Was she letting my mother be the lab specimen, playing along with me, indulging my personal obsession–changing my mother’s mind–so she could eventually lead me back around to facing what was really going on inside me? I thought I knew what I wanted most, but it was also the thing I talked about the most. It was not untold, but a thing so obvious, something I so obsessed over that everyone could see it, plain as day. Now I wonder what other thing might lie beneath it.
“Mom,” I say to her, and she turns back from watching the rest of the family seated around the picnic table and in folding chairs on the patio.
“Yes, honey,” she says.
“Are you happy?”
She looks over at Red sitting beside her and she smiles.
“Happy as a clam,” she says.
Red looks at me and nods.
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