Note: This story is for Suzanne Conti and all the other tough, brave, farsighted women who carry it for the rest of us. So good to know there are those whose dignity and self-respect will never be on the table. Baci Baci. MP
I had been driving for hours alone in my 1983 Corolla across the prairie from Red Cloud, Nebraska, headed across Oklahoma to Perryton, Texas, to visit a friend from the 1984 Women's Voices writing retreat. Red Cloud, as you might know, is where Willa Cather was born. (If you don't know who she is, well, that's why God made Google.) Red Cloud is a scant 10 miles from McCook, where my mother's mother was born, and where my great grandmother, Martha Ann Duffield, "lost her mind" because the wind across the unplowed prairie was unrelenting, and "loud as a freight train."
As my tires rolled mile after mile onto the odometer, I mused over great-grandma's being roadkill in the headlights of Manifest Destiny, over her premature death at 45 from the madness caused by deafening isolation -- while others, like My Antonia, thrived and lived to ripe old age.
When my car radio could only crackle country 'n western, I really began to comprehend her plight on a visceral level. There was nothing, in any direction, except the unbroken horizon line. It was clear I was never going to get out of here. New meaning to the expression, "500 miles west of East Jesus." No way out but through. I began singing to myself, an old Illinois folk song:
Oh, the horses run around
Their feet are on the ground
Oh who will wind the clock when I’m away….
A snake’s belt slips, because he has no hips, and
We hope that Grandma’s clothes will soon fit Ginny….”
I've always been dedicated to maintaining a hold on sanity, no matter how tenuous, but I realized my grip was slipping. So I pulled over and pawed through my bags for tapes, finally settling on The Greatest Hits of Elvis Presley. Laugh all you want, but let me tell you, I couldn't have beat that with a stick. If you are ever on a seemingly endless road trip ("Ace of Cakes" staff, are you listening? Geoff?), the King will carry you.
After I'd sung along with "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" until I'd deluded myself into thinking I actually sounded pretty good, I saw a bump on the horizon. I pulled over again, and drank an orange juice out of the cooler, figuring my blood sugar was dipping to the point of delusion. But after Elvis and I had backed away from the low blood sugar edge, the bump was still there, and actually looked like a square.
The square grew larger and larger, until, an hour or so later, it proved to be a one-room concrete block building with a wooden lean-to kitchen built-out in the back, and an outhouse. The sign on the side said, "Rosie's Cafe." "Oh, sweet Jesus, there is a god," I sobbed, leaning on my steering wheel. I checked the time. 5:35. No wonder I was half-nuts! I hadn't eaten since breakfast.
But as soon as I walked through the door of the cafe, I realized I had truly crossed over. Every single person in the cafe wore either a vermilion or red clown wig, a bulbous red plastic nose, clown make-up, blue overalls, tattered boots, and striped shirts. No one spoke, but they all turned and stared. A couple of bicycle horns at the ready were squeezed in greeting. Since the room was at best 12x12 feet, it wasn't an option either to back out and run for my car or slip quietly into the chair at the one vacant table. I sat.
From the lean-to came a full-sized Raggedy Ann doll, balancing four blue-plate specials on her arms. After downloading, she stopped in front of me and pulled her order pad from her apron, her pencil from her wig. "Hungry, stranger?" she asked, and I thought, "No stranger than you, lady...." I ordered from the black chalkboard menu above the soft-drink cooler. Raggedy Rosie brought me a soda and returned to the kitchen. I tasted the drink gingerly, half expecting exploding paper snakes to emerge from the bottle, but it in fact tasted like "The Real Thing." I began to settle down a bit and to contemplate my fate in this bus full of clowns.
Who had clearly been contemplating me. A late 20th c. Lesbian from Oakland, California. Just guessing, I'd say I was a first. Might as well have been from the moon, Alice. While I smiled, and others smiled back, there was little direct conversation while we ate. I was most of my way through the actually quite good plate when one fine gentleman carefully wiped his mouth with his red bandanna and asked the assembled, "Well folks, why don't we take this little lady from California down to see the dinosaur?" As I listened to the general cheering and hoots of agreement, I began to see my entire life pass before my eyes. Well, mostly the part about my mother telling me women who drove around the country by themselves met with a "bad end."
The fella with the bandanna and the suggestion said, "You ride with us." Soon I was, with the entire cafe, driving off into the Oklahoma sunset in a caravan of clowns in Ford and Chevy pick-ups, at the time, I thought, an apt metaphor for this great land of ours.
About 20 minutes later, over dirt roads, through cattle gates, and over gullies, we arrived. I found myself gazing across a huge pit in the earth at a circle of clowns, and I thought, "Perhaps there is a clear advantage to knowing which ditch you will actually end up in, but what it is, I cannot think." Then, I looked down. And there, 12 feet below me, was a complete fossilized Sauroposeidon. "Sauroposeidon is a genus of sauropod dinosaur found in rocks dating to the Early Cretaceous, a period when the sauropods of North America had diminished in both size and numbers, making it the last known giant dinosaur on the continent." (Thanks, Wikipedia.) (Note: At the time, I had no idea that is what I was looking at, but I knew it was one damn big dinosaur.)
One of the women asked me if I would like one of the bones. "I don't think so," I responded, looking at the yellow plastic "Do Not Cross. Crime Scene" tape which had been unrolled and staked around the entire pit. I wondered to myself how on earth the paleontologist had figured out this poor Sauroposeidon had been murdered.
"Well, I think if this fella has been here for millions of years, we'd best not disturb."
The guy with the red bandanna nodded. "That fella from the University said we needed to leave it be until they've figured her all out. And they're still digging."
"You know, it's strange to watch them down in there in that hole," another clown said. "They're usin' paint brushes and dustpans to take the dirt off them bones. And then they're puttin' the dirt through a flour sifter. I'd figure they'd be petro-fied, but one of them fellas said they wasn't."
We all stood there, marveling, in the sunset. I took a few desultory pictures, but it really was too dark to make anything much.
"My name's John," the lead clown said. "And this is the Missus."
Then, sounding off like the original Mouseketeers, they all introduced themselves.
"...George.... And the Missus..."
"...Kermit.... And the Missus..." all around the pit.
I asked one of the women directly, "And what was your name?"
"Oh, I'm the Missus..."
I asked three of them, and each time, "the Missus" was the answer. So I observed, "Why, all you ladies must be related."
"How so?" the Missus of the Bandanna clown asked.
"Oh, because you all have the same name." Fortunately, everyone laughed. We ambled companionably back to the pickups.
Rosie was most glad to see us all, particularly since we'd left without anyone paying. We all stood outside in the new moonlight, drinking coffee and enjoying the night air. "Mugsy?" Rosie asked.
"Kin I ask you a question?"
"Sure, if I can ask you one back."
"Did you ever figure out it's Hallowe'en?" They all busted up, and of course, realizing how hilarious it was, I fell out myself.
Then Rosie asked, "What's your question, Mugsy?"
"Well, how'd you end up with your own name? None of these other ladies seem to have one."
"Oh, that," she said. "See, my husband passed away."
I drove on into the night toward the Texas panhandle, over who knows how many Sauroposiedons, past oil wells pumped Oklahoma crude from the residue of their days. Listening to Elvis, musing about my great-grandmother who transplanted from Hartford to the Nebraska Territory via a wagon and horses, a place where women had nothing, not even their own name, from which to build a life. Musing about loneliness and silence, about dinosaurs buried and and those still alive. Knowing this was a place where I'd have no chance of surviving.
I don't remember where I stayed that night. I suppose I was near enough a town with a motel or I drove on through the night to Perryton. But whenever I hear some city woman say she can't imagine why we still need the Ledbetter Equal Pay Act or the ERA in this day and age, I remember those women standing around the Sauroposeidon dig, dressed as identical clowns, not even able to offer their given name to a stranger. Koko, the great ape, had a name. Alex, the grey parrot, had a name, and his obituary would be printed in The Economist. But not these human women.
I am so very fortunate not to have had to marry someone because, as one of my friend's mother told her, "at least he was clean," just to survive. I feel so blessedly fortunate to have had been able to create a situation for myself where I have what Virginia Woolf called for so very many years ago, "Money and a room of our own with a lock on the door..."
Copyright 2009 by Mugsy Peabody. All world rights reserved.Note: The wagon and oxen photograph was taken by my grandmother, though in the 1930s, not at the time they lived in Nebraska.