Howdy. Sometimes it just comes out.
I find these old midwestern man phrases (at least that’s what I think they are) slipping from my mouth. “How goes it?” “Hot enough for ya?” “It’s about yay high.” Or when someone’s eyes go right past what they’re looking for, “If that was a snake, it’a bit ya.” Stuff I picked up working in supermarkets and kitchens.
As a writer, I’m supposed to stay attuned to and conscious of language. I try to avoid clichés, and I refuse certain phrases outright. But inevitably, I speak some of what I hear. I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life, save for a few years in Japan and a couple months in California (near John Wayne airport). Mostly South Dakota, no less, which I explain to friends from elsewhere as kind of like Minnesota, where I live now, except with a six shooter on the hip.
Which, of course, is putting it too strongly. I’ve never fired a gun nor ridden a horse. (I’m even bad with a bow and arrow.) But maybe some devilish spirit in me had decided to reify the stereotype a bit. “Hey, have you guys heard of Mitski?” one Minnesota transplant asked. “Her thing is to ‘Be the cowboy,’ adopt that swagger.”
The other day, visiting South Dakota to see family, I stepped out for a can of beer from HyVee. The cashier was a pleasant looking young woman, the first I’d seen in a little while. (What, had I been out on the range for weeks among the cattle?) Maybe it was the 100-degree heat I’d been basking in on my walk over, but soon I was dropping Gs (A bag’d be nice, thanks, I’m walkin’) and affecting a drawl. “No, that I don’t need,” I said in a smooth, low voice not mine, the cadence of Gunsmoke. Cowboys don’t need no stinkin’ receipts, little lady! Where had that voice come from? The only westerns I watch are of the blood-spattered Tarantino pastiche variety or artsy, like The Power of the Dog. I’m more Cowboy Bebop than El Dorado, which I had to Google (“famous John Wayne movies”). The only saddle I’m familiar with is that blazing one from the ‘70s! (Hey, just what in the wide wide world of sports is a-going on here?)
Speaking in that other voice, though, I even felt different, more confident. Any awkwardness or shyness was gone. I could smile, in some paradoxical way, more sincerely. I think I even caught a blush on the cashier’s face. (Maybe she was only embarrassed for me.) Maybe, though, it’s not about the Midwest or cowboys at all. Maybe the most broadly American thing of all is to consciously harbor a second self. To adopt a character that enables you to ride into town boldly. Like Jay Gatsby or Saul Goodman. Okay, maybe those are bad examples. Then again, considering those two characters, I wonder if I’m fully aware of and in control of my shadow cowboy, or if he’ll take the reins when a pretty girl smiles or a bad guy enters town ready to draw pistols. Am I ready to duel? Probably I’ll only shoot my mouth off. For now, I’ll stop at “howdy.”
James Sullivan is from the American Midwest. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, Third Coast, Fourth Genre, Phoebe, and Fourteen Hills among others. In 2022, he was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. Connect on Twitter @jfsullivan4th