I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas—all over Dallas, Texas. Because my mother attributed her unhappiness to the walls around her rather than the thoughts inside her head, every six months or so, she moved. As a consequence, I attended twelve different elementary schools, two a year through sixth grade, all in the Dallas metropolitan area. Before earning my diploma and attaining my eighteenth birthday, I added one junior high and three high schools to the list.
The epigraph for my new novel, Sophie’s House of Cards, is a quote from Mark Doty’s, Heaven’s Coast:
“Don’t we require, finally, a place in our thinking for fortune, or destiny, or whatever we choose to call what will happen to us, how the avalanche will break over us?”
Novelists, you see, are fascinated by fortune. We are students of the grand scheme of things. In lieu of the usual biographical information, I offer this example from my own life.
On a cloudy November day in 1963, I was sitting in my social studies class at Winnetka Elementary. My teacher was talking about President Kennedy’s visit to Big D. “As I am speaking,” she said, “our president is riding in a motorcade only a few miles away.” A knock came at the classroom door. A Catholic mother arrived to pick up her son. Right away, another mother entered and beckoned to her boy from the doorway. Within minutes, the school principal made an announcement over the intercom: President Kennedy had been shot in downtown Dallas and was being rushed to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital. School was dismissed. We were all asked to pray for our president, something I tried to do as I walked home.
The emergency room at Parkland Hospital was familiar to me. Back when I was in second grade, and shortly after my parents divorced, my mother began working as an admitting clerk in the Parkland ER. During that time, she struck up a friendship with a young doctor named Malcolm Perry. As with most of her relationships, this one didn’t last long, but Dr. Perry visited our apartment a few times. He was handsome; he was a doctor, and for a few months, anyway, my mother pinned her hopes on him. He had a flat top like my father’s and a tendency to squint off into the distance. Once, he’d accompanied my brother and me to the apartment playground. There, I felt his solid presence at my back as he pushed me on the swings.
Making my way down the sidewalk toward home, I prayed to God to let Malcolm Perry save our President. In those days, Walter Cronkite delivered the evening news, and if you wanted to know more than he had time to share, you bought a paper.
Children didn’t often read newspapers; I certainly didn’t. So, it would be years before I learned that Dr. Perry had been the first to attend to JKF. In documentaries on the assassination, Dr. Perry talks about the tracheostomy he performed to help a dying man breathe. He explains that he used the neck wound for expediency’s sake, an understandable choice but one that would make it impossible to tell whether a bullet had either entered or exited there.
President Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday, and the following weekend happened to be one of those my brother and I spent with our father. He picked us up twice a month for visits, and I am not exaggerating when I say that the little girl who was me lived for these weekends. On Sunday, November 24, just before lunchtime, my father and I were sitting in the living room watching his black and white television. TV was seldom on during the day, but we were watching live coverage of the events as they unfolded. The assassination was shocking enough, but the fact that it had happened in our city was a matter of general disbelief. By then, the police had arrested a suspect, and we were waiting to see the prisoner transferred.
Reporters lined the halls of the basement of the Dallas Police Department. A camera was trained on Lee Harvey Oswald as he was led toward a waiting vehicle. My father and I were watching intently as Jack Ruby stepped forward, thrust a gun into Oswald’s side, and fired. We witnessed it in real time, as it was happening, as though we were there. Ruby’s back was to the camera; he was wearing a hat and a suit. I wouldn’t have recognized him even if he had turned around, but he was known to me as well.
By the time of President Kennedy’s death, my mother had remarried, and the Emergency Room at Parkland Hospital was a thing of the past. Her new husband was John Villarreal, an auto mechanic at Sewell Cadillac who occasionally played saxophone at Jack Ruby’s club, the Carousel. These gigs were preceded by intense practice sessions in our garage. Johnny never played saxophone in the house; he always practiced in the garage, undoubtedly because my mother preferred it that way.
She also preferred that our one car be available for her use at all times, so when Johnny played sax at the Carousel Club, we would pick him up at the curb beside the building in the early hours of the morning—Mother, my brother, my infant half-sister Lisa and me. We didn’t go inside because the club featured “exotic dancers,” and because we were dressed in our pajamas, but on at least one occasion Jack Ruby followed Johnny out of the club and onto the sidewalk. Grinning widely, he leaned through the open car window and introduced us to his weenie dog, Sheba. Not long after that introduction, our family got a weenie dog, too, a black dachshund named Pepper. (Like men, pets tended to lose favor with my mother. I don’t remember what happened to Pepper, but Johnny and mother divorced in 1966.)
One final bit of irony: In the summer of 1964, I received a scholarship to an evangelical church camp. (Mother changed churches as readily as she changed her domicile, and this particular congregation gave an annual award to a “deserving” child.)
I was excited at the prospect of a week in the woods, but my nametag identified me as Sharon Oard from Dallas, Texas. The other campers ostracized me as the “president killer.” As far as they were concerned, Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t acted alone. He’d been aided and abetted by an eleven-year-old girl.