Read Annie Oakley's Girl Online

Authors: Rebecca Brown

Annie Oakley's Girl


Short fiction by Rebecca Brown

City Lights Books
San Francisco

©1993 by Rebecca Brown

All Rights Reserved

Cover design by Rex Ray

Book design by Amy Scholder

Typography by Harvest Graphics

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Brown, Rebecca, 1956-

Annie Oakley's girl / by Rebecca Brown.

p. cm.

ISBN 0-87286-279-8 : $8.95

I. Title.

PS3552.R6973A83 1993

813'.54 — dc20


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CITY LIGHTS BOOKS are edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy J. Peters and published at the City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133.


“Annie” was first published in
Mae West is Dead: Recent Lesbian and Gay Fiction
, Adam Mars-Jones, ed. (Faber and Faber, 1983). “Folie a Deux” was published in
The Jacaranda Review
, 1992. “A Good Man” was published in
Women on Women II
, Joan Nestle and Naomi Holoch, eds., (Dutton, 1993).

“The Joy of Marriage,” “Love Poem,” “The Death of Napoleon,” and “Grief ” were originally published in Britain in 1984. Copyright © Rebecca Brown.

“Grief ” is for Megan Campbell.

Thanks to the MacDowell Colony for a residency in 1992 that gave me time and place to start the new book.


Annie and I are the only women in the bar. She introduces me as her second cousin from Paris and says, “That's how come she cain't talk to y'all. Duddn't know a damn word o' English.” This is her way of telling me to stay quiet so we can play one of our games. So I smile a lot and nod and laugh demurely when everyone else is laughing. I look at her with the look she's named my “sweetest lil' thang there ever wuz” face, which all the cowboys read as the ignorance of a foreigner, the innocence of a girl. Annie “translates” to me in the gibberish that passes for today's exotic language. They're always interested in my dress; do all the young girls in France (Tasmania, Russia, Italy, New Jersey) dress like me? Annie will surprise me with something new, like, oh no, that I'm an exception where I come from too, a girl on the fringe, a slave princess, an exile, a Bohemian, a turkey herder. Or she'll just stick with the old standard, as she does today. “Yup. They're all jest lahk 'er, each 'n' ever' one.”

Her clothes are wonderful. They're hanging in the wagon and it's evening. Annie's out fixing us stew and corn bread. I've just come back from bathing in the stream and, clean again, I drop my towel and squat down to straighten into even rows her pairs of boots and moccasins. I run my fingertips over the skins of lizard, snake, armadillo. I stand up and touch her clothes. I love the sturdy softness of the long-worn leather, the limp clean fur that gives to my touch, the heavy white muslin and thin white cottons. I love the thin dust-colored fringe across the back of her fancy jacket. I wrap the sleeves around me and bury my head inside where her shoulders fit. I close my eyes and breathe deep the smells of leather, of prairie, of western sky, of Annie.

Then her voice breaks in, “Come on now, honey, grub's up!” I slip into my jumpsuit and join her by the fire.

Our forks clink against the thin tin plates. The shape of the cups is clear and simple. Annie's stew is plain and coffee strong. She'd laugh if I tried to tell her about Hamburger Helper or Crazy Salt or beef-stew flavor packets. She'd be in stitches if I told her about Cremora, Coffee-mate, non-dairy coffee cream. When she asks me what I'm smiling about, I shake my head and tell her nothing. She wipes her mouth with her forearm and tells me stories about this place when no one had ever been here before. She's anxious that her elbow room is being invaded. She goes on and tells me about when the sky was bigger and the land stretched farther. Her voice is even and round and I vow to myself that I will never,
breathe a word to her about Los Angeles. She spreads her arm beside her in a smooth arc as far as she can reach, to show me the horizon she remembers.

I wonder what she wonders when I go. I've explained to her as much as I can, or at least as much as I've told myself she can handle. I expect her to be puzzled, torn with curiosity, but she always seems completely satisfied. “Everybody's gotta saddle up and git sometimes,” she comforts me. I tell myself that I should be the one to comfort her about the things in me that she can't know about. I remind her that there are places I go and things I do and people I am that she couldn't begin to understand. And sometimes, I must admit, I try to sound mysterious and tragic. But she looks at me clearly, waits for me to finish and tells me, “Well, a girl can only say what she can when she can, she jest gotta see about the rest.”

I point out to her that the only things she knows about where I go and what I do when I get there are what I tell her. Then I ask her why she believes me. She looks hard at me, squints and wrinkles up her nose as if I were trying to talk to her seriously in gibberish. I try again, “Aren't you afraid one time I won't come back, that some day I will leave you?” Then she laughs her big laugh like it's a joke she's just understood. She winks and tells me, “Well, yew jest tell me whin, 'n' I won't look for y'.”

My mother still has pictures of me in my cowgirl clothes. Every Christmas until I was eight or nine I got cowgirl clothes to replace the ones I'd outgrown. Skirts and vests and shirts and boots. Boots changed the fastest. I went through black pairs, brown pairs, beige pairs, even a pair of red ones. Somewhere early along the line I got a hat that was too big for me. The Christmas morning I ran down and found it, I put it on my head and it bumped into my glasses and nose. But I insisted on wearing it. I walked around that morning with my neck stretched and my head tilted back, looking down my nose and out at the world through the slit between my face and the dark line of my hat. It must have fallen off my head at least thirty times and stopped itself with the soft black and white string held together with the knot and wooden bead around my neck. Later that week my mother padded the inside of the hat to fit me. I wore it with the pride of a child who believes she has been mistaken for being older than she is.

Twice a year, in summer and right after Christmas, my family made the trip north to my grandparents' home in Oklahoma City. There were a couple of reasons why I didn't like the winter visit. First of all it meant I left almost all of my new toys and all of my friends and
new toys for a week in that most crucial and short-lived time when toys are still brand new. Plus I always considered the drive up a waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent in productive play. The “excitement of travel” and “gorgeous scenery,” which my parents suggested I try to appreciate, were not my idea, as a preschool cowgirl, of a good time.

The summer visit, however, was an entirely different matter. I loved it: it was the high point of my year. And though I didn't know the word at the time, it was my pilgrimage. Because on one day of that summer week I was taken to “Westown” and on another to “The Cowboy Hall of Fame.”

Westown, I now know, was an amusement park, a tacky little prefab money-maker. But I knew something different then; I knew it was a ghost town. But not quite even a ghost town, because somehow, by some miraculous dispensation, this town had stayed alive when all the rest had died. There were saloons with horses tied to posts in front, emporiums and general stores and every kind of Old West shop there could be. You could buy authentic frontier food, beef stew and corn bread, beans and white bread, molasses and grits, hamburgers and hot dogs. You drank sarsaparilla out of tin cups at the bar and your parents had coffee out of the same. Some people walked around looking like people anywhere, but some of them were dressed like true cowboys and cowgirls and Western gentlemen and ladies. I wore my cowgirl outfit and sometimes I'd pretend to get lost from my parents so I could walk around alone and pretend I lived there. I was sure some people thought I did live there because they'd always smile at me and say, “Well howdy, pardner.” You could pay money and ride around a ring for ten minutes on Buffalo Bill's horse's grandson and get your picture taken. I did this every year. I remember vaguely wondering about this one year, when the horse was brown and I thought I remembered it being black, but my mother insisted that it was the same horse and I was just confused. Only last year did my mother show me the pictures of all the years together, and only then were my dark suspicions confirmed, when I saw myself on different sizes and shades of horses in the fuzzy black and white photos.

Each day ended with a trip to the Western Store when my father bought me one special thing, anything I wanted. All the stacks on the aisles were tall and I had to look up far. I was always scrupulous and careful. I weighed the pros and cons of everything I considered — a bronze belt buckle shaped like a bucking bronc, a holster or a pair of spurs, a hand-tooled leather belt that they could write my name on, a special red Westown bandanna, a cowboy tie, a band of feathers for my hat, a brand-new hat with red silk on the inside with the Westown logo written on it. The decision overwhelmed me. There was just too much to look at. It wasn't just the things you could buy — it was everything. There were pictures on the walls of famous cowboys and famous cowboys' horses. There were old rifles and samples of so many different kinds of barbed wire I couldn't count them. There were authentic horseshoes from famous cowboys' horses, Indian blankets, and headdresses. There were snakeskins hanging on parts of tree limbs and Wanted posters of famous outlaws under glass. There were wagon wheels and cattle brands and a life-sized wooden Indian. There was old blue and silver Indian jewelry and beads and beaded moccasins. And after a whole day of Westown, this store and this decision were too much, like trying to decide between pecan and pumpkin and mincemeat pie or ice cream or sherbet or meringues for dessert, and all that
Thanksgiving dinner.

So I'd pick my choice, my heart trembling as I approached my father waiting at the counter,
Is this exactly what I want? Wouldn't the spurs be better?
, knowing that the decision was ultimate and irrevocable. When I finally handed my father whatever I'd decided on and he finally put it on the counter and then at last he finally paid the money, I was stricken first with regret — if I'd only waited one second longer maybe the strong, true, right revelation would have come and I would have
exactly and without a doubt what was the perfect thing to buy — then with relief, it was done, what I'd set out to do. I could check it off a list of things that I'd lived through.

I don't remember most of what I got, but I do remember a certain hat, though probably more because of what happened when I got it than for the hat itself. I left the store, heart pounding, palms sweating, as I held my father's hand. My hat felt sturdy and pretty on my head. My parents and I had just stepped off the wooden sidewalk in front of the store when — bang! — a shoot-out! Quick as a kid I spun down and took cover behind a sand-filled oil drum they'd converted into an ash can. I was proud of my cowgirl instincts and the skill I'd learned from sliding into home-plate at sandlot baseball games. The shooting continued for some minutes complete with loud-mouthed hollers and threats. “Yew cain't git me, yew yellow-bellied dog.” “This town ain't big enuf fer th' two of us.” I tried to stay completely still but I was worried about my parents. I looked around and couldn't see them. I squatted down farther in my hiding place and prayed to the little Lord Jesus that they'd escape all right. I also told him I was sorry for being proud about my cowgirl instincts.

When the fighting stopped and I heard the last body bite the dust, I stood up and saw three dead cowboys on the street. I looked frantically to find my mother and father. I saw a crowd of people standing in a loose semicircle on the street. I spotted my parents in the group just as they spotted me. My mother waved to me, then put her hand to her head. I put my hand to my head and realized my new hat had fallen off. I picked it up. It was dusty and I started to brush it off but then I didn't because I wanted to keep the dust to remember the shoot-out. I put my dusty cowgirl hat back on and started to run to my mother and father to see if they were OK, then I saw them start to clap. Everyone in the semicircle was clapping. I stopped to see why. They were all looking down the street so I did too. That's when I saw the three dead cowboys stand and smile and slap the dust from their chaps and hats and take their smart and often practiced bows.

Annie's silhouette against the evening sky: she's sitting on top of Cowgirl. She's wearing her fancy jacket and though it's still, the fringe on her sleeves, particularly near her elbows, stands out as if a breeze was blowing. Her two limp braids rest on her shoulders. She's facing the horizon, watching the sun sink in the west. Behind her the sky is brilliant orange and muted pink like an August peach. The land is flat except for a slight rise to her left. And just about the line where earth meets sky, a tiny star is twinkling. The sun rests, only a semicircle above the line, like the half coins in the March of Dimes display. Cowgirl's tail swishes and she raises her hoof then lowers it with a gentle soft “thoop.” Dust kicks up around this foot, then settles light as the snow in a dollar-twenty snow scene in a bottle. I can just see the line that Annie's leg makes in her fancy skirt. Her holster rests against her thigh and I can see the curved line of her boot top and her naked calf below her skirt.

Saying these words is like speaking avocado, warm ripe juicy mango. “Appaloosa,” “stirrup,” “bay,” “ride the open range.” “Rope the herd,” “meet at sundown,” “Goodnight-Loving Trail.” “Chaps” and “lassoes,” “spurs” and “mares,” “the coyote's cry at night.” “Saddle up,” “the lonesome trail,” “the big wide open sky.” “Rawhide leather,” “Westward Ho!,” “sleeping under stars.” “Cattle rustler,” “Remington,” “six-shooter,” “riding shotgun.” “King Corral,” “the fastest gun,” “the sinking sun.” “The West.”

In my brother's eighth-grade shop class, he made me a leather holster. He cut the pieces by himself and shaped it to fit the new toy gun my father gave me on my birthday. My brother tooled my name on the holster and a picture of a cowgirl hat. I wore the holster to school, even without the gun. I fastened the belt around my skirt and carried my pencil bag where the gun would've fit. I was happy when I sat down and the holster hung down the side of my desk. I made a point of changing pencils every five minutes. I quick-drew my pencil bag and in a flash picked a new pencil to follow vocabulary dictation. After several pencil changes, my teacher told me I was making too much of a disturbance and would I be so good as to hang my holster in the cloakroom with the other children's things. So I went back and hung my holster with the lunch pails and sweaters and caps. I did it reluctantly, and made a point to “forget” and leave my pencil bag in the holster, so that when I “accidentally” broke the pencil I was using later that period, I had to go back to my holster and get another.

I wasn't allowed to wear it to school anymore after that, but every day when I got home, as soon as I changed into my play clothes, I put my holster on, complete with gun, and wore it very proudly.

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