a short story by Polly Frost
first printed in The New Yorker 1991

I used to speak the language of the patriarchy.

Rick, my stepfather, taught me Latin names for all the bones in his right foot. When I helped my boyfriend with his high-school homework, he insisted I do it in baby talk.

And then there was Lyle. He came into the Carl’s Jr. that Rick and my mom run near Flagstaff, Arizona, one day in late August. All summer we fed tourists after they were Grand Canyoned out. Hundreds -- thousands -- of exhausted, screaming kids and their zombified parents. I was nineteen. Lyle was sitting alone that afternoon, staring at me while I loaded French-fry bags.

“Tell that creep he’s got to give up his table,” Rick said. “He’s been there fifteen minutes.”

I went over to where Lyle was lounging. “My stepdad thinks it’s impolite to digest your food,” I told him.

Lyle looked deep into my eyes. “Doreen,” he said, reading my name-plate. “I have news for you, Doreen. You are not who you think you are. You are not a fast-food server -- you are an inspiration from the divine. You have made me want to create again.”

“I have?” I said. “Are you an artist?”

“I could be,” he said, “if you would be my muse.” He paused and played with his straw. “Do you know what a muse is?” I shook my head. “A muse is a woman who makes it possible for a guy to carry out his life’s work. But muses don’t have names like Doreen.”

He stood up and left. I ran after him.

“Then who am I?” I asked in the parking lot.

“Henceforth,” he said, “you shall be Rawnee.” He spelled it in the dust on his van.


I’d never been with anyone who lived for his art before. The people I knew all picked up after themselves. But Lyle couldn’t function without me. And I thought I was discovering capabilities in myself I hadn’t known were there, like paying bills.

We went through my junior-college savings fund in two weeks.

One night Lyle drove off without saying anything. I was terrified that he wouldn’t come back, that he’d find another muse. At 3 a. m. he returned, carrying a huge cardboard box. “All the really creative people have to be subsidized,” he explained. He knifed open the carton. Clothing

labels spilled out onto the shag carpeting of the tiny house we were renting. “You and me are about to get a little grant from Mack Ropington,” he said.

It was at the height of the Western-wear craze, and everyone was splurging on Ropington’s designer clothes and furnishings. I knew that what we were about to do was wrong and, worse, that I could end up in jail.

“Do you think what Ropington’s doing is right?” Lyle asked. “Making people think they’re cowboys because they’re wearing his hundred-dollar jeans or sleeping under his five-hundred- dollar horse blankets?”

“No, but--”

“I thought you loved me,” Lyle said.

So, the next day I got up before dawn and drove out into the Verde Valley. I met up with my contact on a dirt road full of potholes. I paid him for his trunkful of men’s cotton briefs -- they were the kind you’d buy at K mart.

Then I sat in my car and sewed in the tags. When I finished, it was 8 a. m., time to drive over to the Sedona off-ramp and set up shop. That day I cleared $169.52.

I was always selling something different. Sometimes it was ties, sometimes shirts, sometimes pillowcases, pot holders, or mittens. Whatever my supplier could get -- and I never asked how. People would stop their cars to buy it as long as it said Ropington.


My new career had its downside, too. I often had to change locations to avoid getting caught. And later, when the recession hit, the tourists started keeping their disposable income for vacation essentials such as motel childcare.

Lyle, however, was always having a hard time. “How can I create art when the world’s so messed up?” he said one night. I was sitting on the bed, sewing labels into imitation-leather aprons. “I should be out making a difference,” he said. “I should go leave tire tracks on the front lawn of the White House to let them know what I think of their energy policies.”

“Lyle,” I said, “you have to make things better where you can. And no improvement is too small.”

He thought about this. “You’re right, Rawnee,” he said. “While you’re doing that, take off your clothes.”

Lyle,” I said, “I’m working.” But I never could refuse him. “The world’s a better place already,” he said.


Astra says that men have separated themselves from nature, and that’s why in these last few years of this millennium Lyle can’t create.

I was going to goddess therapy. I saw the ad for it in our newspaper. “Find the Power of Inspiration Within -- Let the Muse Speak to You,” it said. I was sure this was what I needed to help Lyle.

We met every Tuesday evening at the public library, because it was over the strongest power vortex in our town. Unfortunately, the library closed that spring for lack of funding. We then got together at the Denny’s on 89, which is on top of the second-strongest power vortex.

“This Astra is taking advantage of you,” Lyle said. “She is leading you on, Rawnee, when she says that you can create art. Let me tell you, not everyone can create art. Even if you’re an artist, it doesn’t mean you can create art.”

“Astra says that if you connect with the feminine you will achieve wholeness, and then you will create.”

“Rawnee,” he said, “the kind of wholeness need to create art is matched pairs of socks in my drawer, and a refrigerator full of food. You’ve been neglecting things around here, especially me.”


Astra felt I had it in me to perform my own ritual. I was nervous. The rituals that the other women had created were so impressive! One sat for three days in our local river. Another shaved her head and ate mud.

“Stop thinking and it will come to you,” Astra said.

It was while I was selling at the Canyon de Chelly on-ramp that I had a revelation about what form my ritual must take. I phoned all the wo-men and invited them over to our house. Lyle was furious when I made him leave.

“I’m interested in getting in touch with my primordial wo-maness-ness,” I announced. It was a suffocatingly hot July night. “So I’m going to turn off this air-conditioner.”

We sweltered together for an hour, and then Astra spoke. “I don’t mean to be hierarchical or anything,” she said to me, “but I think you can do better.”


October 17th was a particularly bad day for me. My 5 a. m. contact could only get abalone shells. It took me forever to paste the Ropington tags into them. Then drivers just slowed down at the Moenkapi off-ramp and eyes me suspiciously. They didn’t stop.

By noon I’d developed a halfway decent sales pitch. “Mack Ropington says the era of the West he’s gaining the most inspiration from these days is when it was all underwater,” I’d say. Not one sale.

Early that afternoon, a colleague set up beside me. I recognized him from various junctions and cloverleafs where he’d always dressed in old miner’s gear. Now, he was wearing mirror shades, a poncho, and braids.

My heart sank when he propped up a dozen paintings on velvet. Sure enough, a man in an Infiniti screeched to a stop. He pointed to a picture of a chief offering a scalp to a naked squaw. “I really go for the Native American philosophy of life,” the Infiniti man said.

“That’s five percent off the asking price for not calling us Indians,” my competition said.

I got home around nine. All I wanted was to go straight to bed. When I opened the door, I didn’t recognize my home. The furniture had been totally rearranged. And a woman I’d never seen before was draping herself on the couch I’d purchased.

“Who are you?” I demanded.

“Calm down,” she said. “Nothing happened. Lyle and I are exploring the spiritual side of our relationship.”

Lyle strolled into the room. He didn’t say as much as hello to me.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“Rawnee,” he said, “meet Tawnee.”

“Lyle,” she whined, “I think it’s time we advanced to touching. I’m getting achy in my shoulders from all the tension in the air.”

He looked at me and sighed. “It’s damn hard to be an artist in this house. On top of all yourquestions, now I have to give her massage.”

At that, I started packing my things.

When Lyle saw I was serious about leaving, he blocked the front door. “Rawnee,” he said. “You can’t abandon me. You know how much you mean to me. You are the air that gives me life, the water that sustains me--”

“And the earth you walk all over,” I said.


I needed a ritual that would transform my hurt into a mighty but sensitive sword. I drove high into the mesas with Astra and the others. We left our vehicles behind and climbed up a rock and into a cave. There we swept aside the used condoms and beer bottles.

“Let the wind and sky speak to you,” Astra told me. I tried.

“What are they saying?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“You’re thinking again,” she said. “Don’t think. Deep within you is the power to understand.” I listened again. This time I heard their voices.

“Forget that jerk,” they said.


I have left Rawnee behind, and I have no more need of Mack Ropington’s name. I am Superba now, and I have my own resonant image.


Two cars pull up to my stand. “Hey, that’s you, isn’t it?” The man in the white Bronco says. He casts his eyes on my wares: photos of me printed on T-shirts. “I’ll take three of the ones with you topless.”

The other driver gets out of his Hyundai. “Excuse me,” he said. “Did I hear you say ‘topless’? This is not a T-shirt of a topless woman. This is a T-shirt with a photo on it of a woman who has chosen to bare her breasts.” This man turns to me. “I’m Coe,” he says. “I’m white, I’m male, I’m heterosexual, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m Superba,” I tell him. “And I need to exorcise some submission forces arising in me upon meeting a man after being single for three months. I need to do this in a context in which I still honor my own power. So this is how it’s going to be -- you will pick a restaurant, drive us there, and pay for dinner.”


We are travelling along a winding mountain road. He relates the story of his quest to attain a genuine PMS state. His Hyundai begins to sputter. Moments later, we are out of gas.

Coe bursts into tears. “This is a metaphor for how the patriarchy’s breaking down and me with it!” He clutches me and sobs. “Show me the way, Superba.”

“Well,” I say, “one of the first things I do when I get in a car is look at the gas gauge.”

“You’re a woman warrior!” he cries. He straightens up. “I’ve been reading Carl Jung. He says a man is nothing until he meets his anima. Please be my feminine principle and help me become whole again.”

I pull him to me and kiss him.

“Wow,” he says. “The way you’re in charge of your sexuality is devastating to my male ego. But it’s the only chance our planet has.”

I kiss him again. Together we acknowledge the presence of nature. Snow is falling. The road is dark, and it doesn’t appear likely that automobiles will pass by.

“What do we do now?” he asks.

“One of us must seek out a twenty-four-hour filling station and return with some gas.”

“I lost my intuitive powers when my Fathers colonized your sex,” he says. “We’ll be doomed iftry to find one.”

“You’re right,” I say. “You must stay here.” I gather my purse, put on my jacket, and look over at Coe. He is trembling; there are holes in his sweater. The sight of him expressing his true male helplessness summons forth my inner voices. As Astra has taught me, I listen to them. “Remove your own parka and tuck it around him,” the voices say.

I obey, then open the car door and step out. “You’re my kind of goddess,” he calls out from inside. “Hurry back.”

The snow crunches under my sneakers. I am shivering, but that will pass. For I am the strong one.