Sunday, January 16, 2011

Notes on a Cowgirl

Somewhere between this

and this

and this

there was a cowgirl. Her name was Jane.

Her name was Calamity--which I like better. It serves my purposes.

We've been inventing cowboys and cowgirls since the first cowboys and cowgirls existed to re-invent. Mine will be attractive. Mine will be distant. The leather she wears will have metaphorical significance. Leather always does.

Enough with short sentences because what we need here is a level of complexity. Nuance. (The shortest sentence of all, but incomplete.) The stereotype will be all too easy to fall into, and I don't want another Sharon Stone or Drew Barrymore or Jane Fonda cowgirl. What I want is, in fact, more cowboy than cowgirl, because I want to shun all the gendered assumptions of weakness. What I need is more calamity than jane but more control than calamity.

The foil, of course, will be my railway novelist: a man who keeps cats. He is easier to nuance. My first attempt at his character:

Peter spent most of the trip from Chicago to Paradise missing his cat. She had been a standard black tabby with mustard yellow eyes and a torn right ear, the type of cat one might find anywhere on any street. Even in Chicago, his neighbors found it strange that he should have taken her in. She was a stray, flea-ridden kitten when he found her thirteen years earlier, inexplicably alone and quivering in the drainpipe of his boarding house. He knew he should leave her, as anyone would, to feed the local dogs. Instead, he picked her up on impulse and dropped her into his pocket, where, of all things, she began to purr. He hadn’t known then what he would do with her—Mrs. Vincent, the owner of the house and his housekeeper, would surely not like an animal in the house—but he cast thoughts of Mrs. Vincent momentarily aside, washed the surprisingly complacent kitten in a basin of warm water, and fed her warm milk. A week later, he was surprised to find himself so ridiculously attached to the little beast that he found a new room to rent (in a decidedly rougher part of town, at an increased rate) rather than meet Mrs. Vincent’s demand that he give her up.

Over the years, the two had spent many a quiet evening together. She would greet him when he came home from the press, and he would feed her cheap canned sardines that left his fingers slightly yellow and smelling of fish, in spite of his cat’s careful cleaning. The memory of her prickly tongue scouring the groves of his fingertips now brought the ache of her loss to him afresh. He knew now, just as he had known thirteen years ago, that it is absurd to love a cat. They are foreign creatures. One look in her eyes with their vertical pupils dilated in the lamp light reminded him that she was nothing like him. Yet that was what fascinated him most. Cats looked foreign and surprised one with their familiarity. Humans seemed familiar, and shocked one with their alien nature.

Perhaps my cowgirl has an element of cat, but only in ounces, not pounds. Much drafting still to go on the characters for this one... (Luckily, New Brighton is purring along.)

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