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  • Buffalo Gals
  • Elaine Neil Orr (bio)

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Figure 1.

In her thirteenth year, the year she almost became popular in America, Alice learned some new words, or she learned some words newly. The first was bitch and it was unthinkable. No case could be made for comparing a woman to a dog. Still, the way the word was delivered—almost like spitting—Alice figured she would use it.

The second word was damn, not like the large earth structure that held back water to create a reservoir for the African town of her birth, but like Hell damn. She would not allow goddamn into her consciousness. Hell was another word. She had already known it, of course, growing up steeped in the church. Alice might have said soaked in the church. Her parents were missionaries, for heaven's sake. But the girl did not know hell like this, as an attitude, not a place.

Hence her new vocabulary and the meanings she possessed:

Bitch was an insult.

Damn was a threat.

Hell was an attitude. [End Page 97]

Alice liked seeing what combinations she could create with the words.

Hell damn bitch

Damn bitch hell

Bitch hell damn

Then there was adding punctuation, including hyphens, which could alter the meanings.

Hell, damn bitch!

Damn, bitch-hell, as if there was a special hell for bitches.

Bitch, hell damn!

Alice liked the last sentence best. It seemed a form of direct address. A man would say to a woman: Bitch, hell damn! And what it would mean was that she had got the better of him; she was first in the sentence. No longer an insult, bitch became a form of praise. Something about the way Alice said the sentence quietly in her room called to mind a poor old cowboy, one of the few popular American characters the girl had dreamed about in Africa and actually brought with her to the U.S. Now, television shows such as Gun Smoke and Here Come the Brides were expanding her thinking along cowboy and cowgirl lines. In Alice's sentence, the man, bested by his ladylove, would be left with nothing to do but shake his head: hell damn. Then he would walk away, with his bow legs, and his old battered hat, boots worn on the heels. Before long, he'd be back on his horse, out on the range. Bitch, he would mutter again, with great longing. At night, he would sleep alone under the moon with little comfort but a worn grey blanket and an old hound dog, a real bitch, and in the morning bitter dregs of cold coffee.

Meanwhile the woman of the man's dreams had shot a wild turkey, which she was cooking over a roaring fire in her cozy cabin. Even her proud orange cat was looking forward to a tasty bit of dinner. In the morning, the cowgirl would enjoy eggs and bacon and steaming hot coffee. Alice did not drink coffee but her parents and older sister, Susan, did, though Susan's was mostly milk. Whether in Africa or "home" on furlough, as her family was now, Alice's father made coffee at daybreak. Its smell was the perfume of morning.

Correctly or not, Alice had spun her ideas about cowgirls and cowboys in Africa, where she heard the song "Buffalo Gals" on an old LP of her father's. The record included other songs like "Tumbling Tumbleweed," "Red River Valley," and "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Alice had played at being a Buffalo Gal, who would, of course, have blond hair as she did, boast a mind of her own, and wear culottes so she could mount a horse.

A Buffalo Gal would not be bowled over by every little thing that came along. At the same time, she would get along, like those little doggies in another song on the LP. A cowgirl would move, like Alice's family seemed to move, all the hell damn time. She just wouldn't lose her composure. A Buffalo Gal would be limber. [End Page 98]

Alice was having a hard time stretching from black Africa to...


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pp. 97-106
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