Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Arthritis in her hands sometimes meant she felt more as though she were typing with claws than with human fingers, but she got along pretty well most of the time. Except that she had brought her new Mac laptop into a rather upscale coffee shop, feeling very cool and hip, but then she couldn’t get the little power plug positioned just right to connect it. Luckily there was a young man at the next table who gallantly leaned over to help her out.

“I hope you’re not a cougar,
” he joked. He was a nice looking kid, about the age of her grandkids, maybe just out of college. Shaggy but friendly.

“Oh, no, I’m just on Leopard or Tiger or something, but I’m really more used to my old Panther system.” He laughed and she was surprised until he filled her in.

“Cougar is slang for an older woman on the prowl for younger men. I thought you might be coming on to me. I wouldn’t have minded.”

She looked at him consideringly. “Well, I don’t think I would have minded either, but I hadn’t intended a seduction today.”

“What did you intend? I mean, are you writing a book or anything?”

“What if I am?”

“I suppose it’s a memoir.”

“No, it’s not,”
she lied.

“They’re a little passe, you know.”
He had one of those very thin metallic Macs.

“What are YOU writing?”

He laughed merrily. She was beginning to like him. She liked the way he stretched out his legs and arms. “I’m writing a memoir. What else?”

Her eyebrows went up into her hairline. Her hair was white now but she still had a lot of it. “How could you possibly?”

“I know what you’re thinking, but a memoir is not dependent on having lived a long time. Or even on accomplishing very much. Memoir is poetry, it is impressionistic, it might not even have happened.”

She frowned. “I think maybe that’s true.” But she was being very strict with herself. It was so easy to soar off into lyric accounts of life on the prairie and hawks in the wind and all that stuff. She wanted to include the bitterness of cold that nearly snuffs the little flame of blood-oxygen if you get stuck in a snowbank and have to. . .

He interrupted. “I want my words to soar lyrically. I want to write a memoir that’s like Gerard Manley Hopkins writing a sonnet, full of word play and spirituality, the joy of being alive. ‘Shining like shook foil.’”

“Glory be to God for dappled things,”
she muttered under her breath. He didn’t hear because he was staring out the window at a passing girl. She was thinking of a particular horse in her past who was certainly nicely dappled, but she never felt like thanking God for the beast.

“You know what the new Mac OS is called?”
He was circling back. “Snow Leopard. Peter Matthiessen wrote a book about them but he went all the way to Tibet or someplace and he never actually saw one. He just saw the place where snow leopards were and that was the same thing.”

“Very mystical.”

“Gotta go.” The young man jumped up, tucked his laptop under his arm, clapped on his hat and never gave a backward glance. So much for her skills at seduction.

She sipped her latte and read up to the point where she had stopped earlier. It was dangerous to write about him and she knew better. The spell of him could pull her under, but narcissists are like that, sucking you into their world. Just the same, part of the reason for writing about him was to drive a stake through his heart. He would be there in his studio, bending over a work table, she would come up behind him and . . .suddenly in the coffee shop she could smell him, that mix of art materials and tobacco. It wasn’t a stake that got his heart -- it was those little white cylinders he boasted couldn’t get HIM because he was Cherokee and Indians have a spiritual understanding with tobacco.

She thought of the young man wanting to be spiritual. All these young people talked about being spiritual all the time and she figured it was mostly an excuse not to have to wash the dishes and walk the dog.

She had wanted a dog but he wouldn’t tolerate one. The barking, he said. And all that having to walk them. Cats were what he liked. And they liked him, too. He had a higher body temperature than most people and they loved to be against him. She had, too. Loved to be against him. After he died, the cats left. She put out food, same as usual, but they just weren’t there anymore. When she got back to the prairie she could have a dog.

Snow leopard. She was circling back herself. The big city zoo had snow leopards and every one of them had a mutilated front paw. They said it was because the only way to catch them was to use one of those bear trap, spring-trap things. Why would people mutilate something in order to keep it in a cage where it could only limp around and around?

Her aunt had been part of the Gray Panther movement. How brave and empowered she had seemed. Almost aggressive. Oh, yes. Even with demi-lune spectacles like Maggie Kuhn herself. And she wrote checks to the Black Panthers which scandalized everyone. They expected the FBI to come interview her any day, but they never did. Why were there no White Panthers? Maybe there were -- albinos happen in every mammal plus birds. But a snow leopard might count as a white panther. Maybe she’d be a snow leopard.

But then her mind jumped, as it often did these days, and she thought to herself, the kind of dog I want is a Blue Heeler, an Aussie sheep dog. And we’ll walk and walk and walk across the prairie, if I can keep the arthritis out of my knees. I could name him Cherokee. She typed into Google “blue healer” and laughed at her misspelling.

1 comment:

prairie mary said...


For those of you who are learning to write -- and I include myself there because all writers are constantly learning to write -- I thought I would make a few notes on where things come from. This story didn’t end up where I thought it would at all. It began in the memory of an elegant breakfast at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston and a snatched conversation with my server, a hearty Irish woman with red hair (of course). Also somehow I kept thinking of Ruth Harrison, a friend and poet on the Oregon coast who had just sent me one of those gorgeous animated Christmas cards. She was widowed not long ago, left with two black and white cats.

So then I couldn’t remember the Copley Plaza that well (it was a long time ago) and began thinking about computer coffee shops and the people who go there. (I have no laptop.) Also, I was getting frustrated because my OS is too old for me to get into Facebook properly and Netflix keeps rebuking me for being behind the times. A quick look at an update and I see it will take a couple of hundred dollars. Ha. One of the categories that is always in my mind is young men, because of Cinematheque. So, converting the Copley Plaza to a pseudo-Starbucks and the Irish waitress to a young man, I imagined a conversation. I didn’t know that the themes that would emerge would be cats and dogs or narcissism or spirituality, but I did know that I wanted the woman to end up being a Snow Leopard.

Snow Leopards in my mind live in the Lincoln Park Zoo and in Peter Mattheissen’s book by that title, which he wrote as part of his recovery from his wife’s death. So now I wanted to braid together the Mac operating systems, recovery from death, pets as intimates, memoir as a return, a place as being identity, and I’d read something earlier in the day about Australia being called Oz (Aus) which is like OS and brought to mind an Australian blue heeler. So I threw in Tim’s pun about “blue healers,” which in his case is a real dog. His earlier dog was Navajo, so I made this one Cherokee. The thing about cigarettes came from an encounter with an Indian woman in the Cut Bank laundromat some years ago.

But none of this was conscious when I started out. It came together by free-association. So the lesson is not to wait until everything has gelled. Just begin. Everything. Now I’ll send this to Ruth. (Her cats did not leave. Her husband was not a narcissist.)

Prairie Mary