In Praise of Big Women
I wish I had resisted your American enthusiasm this morning. I retreated to the kitchen, but you stood outside calling like a prophet, “Come to the desert, Fritha McClean,” and, of course, your students joined the chorus.
I came out to try my puny wit. Miss McClean thanks you all very much indeed, but regrets to say she has a previous engagement at the dishwater. But, of course, you rallied them, spread your arms and turned to face them. Who will clean with me? you bellowed, and all twelve of them arose, a host of merry workers. Ten minutes of happy clatter. They even sang Hi Ho. Fri-tha, you called, it’s all mc-clean now. And so, of course, I really had no choice, swept up in your tide of laughter and deposited in the Dry Lake Mojave to search for flaked edges and Pinto points.
I have been doing my best for the last two hours, wearing the ridiculous hat you gave me. With my height, I must look like a human cabana. You could walk under my shade. Even so, I didn’t mind, until you paired me up with one of the bright, ambitious ones to map what we find. He insists I do some of the searching, although I clearly slow him down. His voice congratulates itself for being patient with me. No, that’s just natural erosion, but put it back carefully anyway.
Still, I keep my pluck as I was trained to do. One must always try to maintain good humour and modesty. Even in primary school when slides of a preying mantis remind a classmate of one’s long, spindly body, causing one to be dubbed “Mantie.” Even more so later when one’s body fills out and a boy invents one’s permanent school name, “Fritha McLean the Amazon Queen.” But I am irritable by the time you call us back together, and I’m not sure if it’s with him or you.
You call us to a little hill near the highway where there is a pile of huge boulders.
“Wanted to show you a petroglyph while we were here. It’s right below this other important cultural artifact.” You turn and point to a rock behind you where “Chuy 87” is spray painted and get the laughter you wanted. “Other one’s a little older, by about two thousand years. You don’t see many petroglyphs around this area. The ones you do aren’t too elaborate. Neither’s this one, but I like it.”
You indicate a hollow place, and we queue up to lean in and look. It is the image of a human hand, a delicate little hand, the fingers rounded and neat. It would have taken days to finish, scraping rock against rock, and it is a small space, too cramped and awkward to reach in and work. It must have been made by a child, I think, or a very slight adult. I have the vague picture of a girl kneeling there, her black hair almost covering her bare behind.
You turn to my tutor, who has dutifully stood next to me, and ask, “So, Mike, whatta ya make of that?”
He licks his lips as he squats and tilts his head to look at it again, stalling for time. I know how his voice will sound. It makes me cringe even before I hear it. He goes on about how the same kind of figure has been found in caves in South Africa and other sites etc. etc. and how it may indicate the presence of mystical belief etc. etc. and how they are often accompanied by dots which indicate psychotropic etc. etc. I’m being unfair to him. He’s telling us important facts, but his voice keeps them from penetrating. You don’t seem to notice it, or, rather, you’re wearing your pleasant checkers face, the one that disguises the traps you set. It didn’t change the single time I beat you, but maybe that was a trap to get me to play more games. You maintain it for the whole ten or twelve hours Mike goes on and nod decisively when he is done. “Well those are some interesting connections,” you say.
But suddenly you pivot and face me. “So Fritha, whatta you think?” My cabana wobbles as I flinch.
“I …I don’t know. This wasn’t my subject at…” I start to burble, but you cut me off.
“Yeah, I know. You’re the only one here who hasn’t studied,” you say as if your education irritates you. “That’s why I’m asking.”
I bend to look again, then stand up straight, although I feel exposed. To slouch suggests discomfort with oneself. You tilt your Aussie side hat to look up at me.
“Well, I don’t think very much really. I just suppose they both had the same feelings.”
“Chuy and the girl who did the hand.”
You nod. A grin creeps into your checkers face. I hear a snicker somewhere behind me.
“What feeling?” you ask.
Now, of course, my thoughts embarrass me. “I don’t know,” I mumble. “I’m here. Think about me. Something like that.”
“See that?” you exclaim and show me all your good American dental work, the results of fluoridation. “See that?” you repeat and look at Mike. “Sometimes maybe it’s better not to know too much. What will I notice if I approach this like I’m looking at it for the first time and don’t know anything about it?“
You pat Mike’s shoulder and he smiles, but it looks like a mortician sewed it there. What are you doing? Did you select him to humiliate on purpose? I admit it feels exhilarating to be praised by you. The others smile at me. You turn to me again and ask, “Why do you think it was a girl?”
I’ve had enough of your questions, thank you very much. “Oh, I don’t know,” I tell you.
“Well don’t stop now,” you nearly bellow. “You must’ve had some reason.”
I glance at Mike. He’s clearly blushing now, embarrassed by his learning.
“Not really,” I answer. “I just pictured her.”
“See that?” you ask again in the voice of your American enthusiasm. “I hope every one of you pictures somebody. Objectivity’s fine, but it’s easy to forget we’re looking at people too. It’s good to remind yourself of that from time to time.”
You actually tip your hat to me and say, “Thank you, Fritha.”
So this is why you brought me out here, needing my ignorance to make your point. But how did you know I would? I wonder what Mike is picturing as you send us back to our observations. Not that he broods exactly, but now he steps away from me as he finds his true flaked edges and makes sure I write the notes correctly. I am worn out by the time you shout, “Everybody ready for our mid-day feast?” It’s a relief to be the serving girl again, to be handing out the sacks of bologna sandwiches and boxed juice.
But of course you won’t allow it. You must ham it up again, telling them that “Fritha has prepared the feast,” asking them to applaud me. And then, an instant before they do, you bellow, “Our Zyzzyx Maiden has provided.”
Just good-natured merriment to give me the same name as the wrecked boat in the concrete pond, the one you always use to break the ice. You used it to break the ice with me when I first arrived in answer to your advert, extracted myself from my Honda Civic, the average size of a car back home, and extended to full height. You had the good grace not to ask me if I played basketball. Instead you focused on my name, parsing the syllables, savoring each one.
Fri-tha Mc-Clean. Saxon wed to Scot. Delightful.
Mum wed to Dad, I mildly joked, but of course you trumped me shaking hands.
Joe Malone. They said there was a wedding, but who knows?
Then you stowed my duffle bag, gave me the cabana hat, and took me to the pond to charm me with the story of the little cabin cruiser. You stood with your back to it, addressing me in your merry lecture voice.
This place used to be a resort during the forties. The guy who owned it bussed out retired people for a couple weeks at a time. Built this pond too and called it a lake. You’d think they’d be mad as hell when they saw it, but apparently most of them weren’t because he made a bundle. Guess they liked drifting around. Didn’t get too seasick anyway. Can’t you just picture them?
And, of course, I could. There was enough left of the boat to see them. A little group in full regalia–starched white trousers with blade-sharp creases, blue blazers with anchor insignias, captains hats with gold cloverleaf. Desert sunset and happy hour cocktails. I glanced at you from the corner of my eye and saw you picturing them too.
But do you grasp the implications of the name? What makes you think I am a maiden? Well I am not, thank you very much. There were two different men at university. Nothing very permanent you understand. They were both insecure brooders, what some women call sensitive, but they do count. “Thank you, Maiden,” some of your students say as I hand them their sacks, and I must share the joke or be thought prissy. “Eat well, my child,” I answer. I almost think I could dislike you.
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