One Saturday afternoon, strains of music reached up to Franny’s window, open an inch or so on the unseasonably warm late February day. The sound created a welcome distraction from the student papers she was trying to finish grading, forty-odd essays all grinding through the same assigned topic, and Franny closed her laptop to listen.
A thin baritone voice crooned over a twangy guitar. “It’s only three miles to Mary Ann…” Although the voice stretched noticeably off key on the high notes, somehow it resonated into a full, sweetly sad tone on a minor chord. The song told the story of a cowboy who died on his way home in a terrible blizzard, buried by snow just a few yards from his sweetheart, Mary Ann. Years of living in the big city had layered a cynical skin on Franny, so the sensation of a tear sliding down her cheek surprised her.
Crying over an old cowboy song. What has this town done to me? Franny tried to go back to the student papers, but could not concentrate. Black squiggles instead of letters and words floated in maddeningly indecipherable patterns on her screen. Frustrated, Franny put on her jacket and headed out to find the source of the sad tunes. As if she could regain her cynicism by facing down whatever old cowboy was out there singing songs that made her cry.
As it turned out, Franny walked into the middle of a large cowboy song and poetry festival. The streets filled with sturdy men wearing clean cowboy hats and dirty boots, and sturdier women with long braids hanging down between their shoulder blades and sparkly sequins on the back pockets of their jeans. Franny took a free flyer from a volunteer on the corner. Shops hosted performers, singers and poets, all free warm-up acts for the big (and pricey) hoedown scheduled for that evening.
The thin baritone and twangy guitar floated out of the furniture store just up the street from Franny’s building. She edged her way into the crowd inside to listen. A tidy cowboy about sixty years of age perched on a stool decorated with horseshoes, strumming his guitar and gazing at the audience from under a big black Stetson.
Franny could not repair her cynical skin, not when every damn song ended in the death of a cowboy or, worse, a horse. Why are they all so tragic? Franny wondered. Why are cowboys so morbid? Is there nothing to think about on the wide open range other than untimely death? And how is it possible that these cheesy tunes turn me into a complete and utter puddle?
Franny pushed the glass door of the furniture store open and retreated to the sidewalk, drinking the fresh outside air in big gulps. She wanted to go back inside and shout a request for “Free Bird.” Or expound on the brutal extermination of the indigenous people by those tragically heroic cowboys starring in the songs and poems. Or decry the inhumanity of the cattle industry, its money made from slaughter.
Instead, she wept for dead white men wearing dirty hats and boots, and the beautiful, strong horses who carried them to their doom.