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Jan 23, 2021

American Contemporary Fiction

Buffalo gal, won’t you come out tonight

Come out tonight

Come out tonight

Buffalo gal, won’t you come out tonight

And dance by the silvery moon

I love blizzards. I’m even somewhat of an expert on blizzards. I’ve survived more than one and even have the t-shirt to prove it. Most of the blizzards I survived were when I lived in Buffalo, so a lot of us enjoyed singing that old tune at the beginning of this story. We had other words, which referred to what Buffalo gals would do when instead of the silvery moon there were inches and inches of silvery snow. Up over cars, devouring sidewalks, forcing people to stay in, stay warm, entertain themselves. Emphasis on entertaining. Snowed in, and like another song, more recent, with ‘no particular place to go’.

So I really love blizzards and even though I live in Maine now where winters can be harsh, I miss watching the snow really pile up... Although, looking out the second floor window here, it is doing just that right this very minute! When did this storm show up? The weather report said it wouldn’t start until evening. 

Good thing my position here at the Museum is close to home. It never takes me more than fifteen minutes, twenty tops, to pull into my driveway, door to door. I can stay a little longer. It’s not like I have anything going on tonight, except supper, just for myself. I am a real genius at driving in deep snow, believe me.

Two hours later...

I sure got distracted working on the upcoming exhibit I’m supposed to curate! Where did those two hours go? Good thing I don’t have to drive far, because even the plows aren’t out yet, because it’s coming down so hard. Maybe I should wait a little until they clear off Main Street. 

Meanwhile, I’m curious about the “Buffalo Gal” song and think I’m just going to look up its history to kill some time. It’s really squalling out there, though. Sorry about repeating this, but have you noticed how people say the same thing over and over while watching a hard snowfall? Eyes glued to the white, we stare until our eyeballs fill up with snow.

After opening several links...

Well, that was enlightening. The song in some references is “Buffalo Gals,” plural, not singular. Except that some versions do use the singular and the variation may or may not be important. The tune might have been composed by Hodges in 1844, or by the The Ethiopian Serenaders,” a minstrel group, the following year. The “gals” might refer to young women who were originally called bowery girls or maybe to pioneer women who would run into bison moving west. So there were also Philadelphia Gals, New York Galls, Boston Gals, Alabama Gals, and so forth. Sometimes, too, the song is linked the the gold rush. 

Apparently, then, Buffalo might not be able to claim the song legally, but it has embraced it sentimentally, you might say. The lines easily slip into conversations where there is an invitation made to go somewhere. For example, if you wanted your friend to come along to Allen Street to the Brick Bar, you might hum a few notes and say ‘won’t you come out tonight?’ It was a good idea not to go alone to a place like that, because Allentown was in a pretty shady neighborhood.

I should have left well enough alone. 

Still, it’s ironic to be caught in this maelstrom of memories from college in Buffalo, the blizzards, and now, the current weather here in Maine. Nevertheless, it never really comes down here like it did on poor Buffalo and Rochester, set as they are smack in the lake-effect snow belt in western New York. 

Guess I’ll get bundled up and head out now. It’ll be good to get home, sit down and read or watch a movie. 

What? No! I turn my back and the sky empties itself on my head? I can’t get out of here!! Heeeelllppp! 

Stop it! It’s no big deal. You’ve got the whole Museum to yourself now, no danger of anybody getting in, given that the snow is now halfway up the windows. At least forty inches deep and still coming down. No signs of it stopping, either. That means you are free to explore whatever you like. See what’s behind doors that are always locked, or in spaces that haven’t been given labels. 

“No, I can’t do that, my fear of God won’t let me,” I babble. I am always the good girl, more or less. Except that it’s so tempting. ‘All alone, with just the beat of my heart’ is going through my head now, but the words are actually:

All alone am I ever since your goodbye

All alone with just the beat of my heart

People all around but I don't hear a sound

Just the lonely beating of my heart

Thank you, Brenda Lee. Good thing I’m not missing anybody, or it could get depressing here. No fear, though.

I’m convinced this place has some hidden secrets. Let’s throw caution to the wind, and those secrets, plus the dense snowfall, will mean any tossed-away caution will be quickly swallowed up by the white monster outside. I needn’t worry. This is going to be a real adventure.

Rooms. Lots of them; I’ve spent a lot of time in some of them, in fact. This time I want to see something I’m not supposed to see, or that has been forgotten. Maybe I could ‘resurrect’ something important, because that might turn up. Nobody - nobody! - is going to come out now to rescue me. Nobody in her right mind would still be here now, what with the raging white monster circling the building. Yet, I am clearly in my right mind, which is the only one I have.

Do not try to second-guess me. I have the snow completely under control. Meteorological extremes are truly entertaining. So what if I can’t dig my car out to get home? I probably couldn’t even find it (it’s silver-colored) in this spin-drifted world and no plows have even attempted to make a pathway for vehicles. Walk? Not a chance. Would probably break my legs off at the knees wading through the white sea to my house.

It’s fine here, and I really am getting rather excited about exploring some nooks and crannies in the building. Some places are just meant for the arcane, like curio cabinets and subterranean passages similar to those in novels by Preston and Child. What would not appeal to me would be finding a false wall where somebody was bricked up years ago, like in the Edgar Allan Poe story. It isn’t like there was a cask of amontillado stored here back in the days, although Maine was a rum-running state and nearby Portland a real hub for Caribbean sugar, imported to make booze. Prohibition started here, in case you didn’t know that. Houses kept liquor in secret cabinets for medicinal purposes all the time.

COME ON, Buffalo gals, come on out. Let’s do some rabble-rousing, or at least some serious snooping.

Here’s a little door I’ve never noticed. Creeeeaaakkk. Junk, just as I thought. Donations to the museum that the ones donating didn’t want, and the museum didn’t, either. Need to send the items over to the flea market in the former thread mill. Somebody might get some use out of them. Moving on...

Here’s a little cupboard space, but what are these things? Torture items? Devices used to silence people? They can’t be just utensils for branding livestock. Branding wasn’t even a thing in this area. Pokers, spiked iron balls, odd-looking shears? No, I don’t think so. Nothing I need to see. If the Inquisition was here in Maine, I prefer not to know that. Actually, this is silly. My imagination is getting out of control. Moving on...

Offices? Everybody who works here has one, but I’m seeing items people shouldn’t have: tiny ivory and amethyst amulets, golden figurings, crumbly but still valuable miniatures of Gaia or some other goddess. How have all of them been accumulated? Is it something everybody does except me? Well, I am no thief, so am going to move on again.

Kitchen cabinets. These are not part of the museum, but what is stored behind these old metal doors? Flour? Sugar? Mice? Cocaine? Not questions I need to have answered. I’m reminded of a small-town museum that had a general store straight out of the beginning of the 1900s. The family just up and closed it, leaving eggs in cartons, fels naptha in green and red and white wrappers, and pickles soaking in huge barrels of brine. A slice of life, ripped straight out of time. We should be so lucky as to have a set-up like that to walk into. We would learn so much. My Dad used to stop at a place like that when he took me hunting. Slim jims for a dime and big, fragrant peppermint puffs for less. Pickles, too. And maybe dots, the tasteless sugar circles on paper - you ended up eating paper as well as glue - that I disliked.

Storage rooms. Now these seem more interesting, and I know where they keep the key to the biggest one, right out in the open as if nobody would ever think to insert it in the rusty old lock with the filigrees. Well, I am thinking about it, and am going to see what’s behind the cracked oak door. Creeeaaaaakkkk

What the hell? More junk, apparently. Old papers and cloth, funny-looking dolls, some with faces and some with none. Some made with black fabric, all roughly stitched. A few books, pages torn or bent. A candle or two. Drawings that resemble maps, but imprecise in what they depict. A lot of nothing. 

After an hour of sorting through this useless garbage, I give up. What is so odd is the way the things have been tossed in here, piled up with no interest in categorizing or identifying them. Wait. I am not giving up. Something very odd is going on here and I need to know what it is. The snow can wait. It’ll stop. After all, this isn’t Buffalo and at some point I’ll be able to get home.

Several hours later, probably around four in the morning.

Hundreds of fragments of cloth have been straightened out, flattened, matched. The whole floor of the storage room has been covered with them, and I am stunned. Is it possible nobody knows what’s in this place? Does anybody know who put these things here? How long has it been since anybody set foot in here? How did this jumble happen? There are even stockings with holes in them. That must mean something.

What do I do?

The floor is a veritable patchwork of scraps, threads, and embellishments. It has only been possible to assemble everything because I am the daughter and granddaughter of quilters. I know what to look for, I know textures, old dyes, techniques for cutting and ripping. The dingy fabric has sprung together in a pattern that could only represent one thing: the Underground Railroad. Now before you think this isn’t unique, let me stop you right there. The Underground Railroad is familiar to most everybody, but the knowledge of its locations and the persons traveling along it is scant. The stories were said to have been oral, but also hidden. Nobody was supposed to know where the escapees traveled or how. That secrecy kept them safe.

The patchwork I see before me belies all this. Tiny pieces put together spell out names of places and people, trace maps made by people who never learned to read. The details are incredible, down to a rock of a certain shape or a millstone. Systems used to communication what needed to be known and hide what had to be concealed are all here. This is a national treasure, and it has just been tossed into an old storage place to rot. 

I am furious. I also do not know what to do with this map I’ve assembled, because I can’t tell anybody I’ve discovered it. I’m not supposed to be poking around the museum. The Underground Railroad didn’t even come through this part of the state. People tried to find evidence of it, but it was always denied. Yet here’s the proof, so clear that maybe somebody has been trying to cover it up. Why? What’s to be gained by not revealing history?

I have no answer, but am nevertheless thrilled at what I’ve discovered. Don’t expect me to tell the Museum Director, who is a cranky old fellow, irascible like nobody’s ever seen. Maybe he has plans for this, plans to become famous, or rich, by revealing what is hidden behind the painted filigreed lock. That’s the best thing I can think of. Or maybe he plans to sell all the priceless artifacts for a huge amount of money.

I can’t let that happen, so I have a plan.

I am going to take the bulky old key that everyone has forgotten. It will stay in my possession until my plan to rescue all this is ready. At that point I will tell the world about this miraculous discovery so that nobody can make off with anything. I can do this, because it’s snowing out furiously and I’m from Buffalo. I’m a Buffalo Gal who doesn’t fear the night and who doesn’t blink at a puny little blizzard like the ones they have in Maine.

It is easing up now, and dawn is a few minutes away. Obviously, knowing how to hold your liquor, or rather, snow, gives you an advantage over other people. Now I just need to saunter on out of the Museum, key dangling from my neck (I put it on a string), and laughing as if I haven’t just found a vast chunk of history. I will dance my way out, singing at the top of my lungs and letting people think I’m glad to escape from this scary place.

Scary? This is now a dance hall because I am giddy with this discovery and I need to let people think I’m a little daft from being shut up here. You never know what to expect with Buffalo Gals, what you’ll find. Come and dance. 

I danced with that gal with a hole in her stocking

And her heel kept a-rockin' and her toe kept a-knockin'

I danced with that gal with a hole in her stocking

And we danced by the light of the moon.

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4 comments

Tom .
15:34 Jan 26, 2021

I started this with Naneh Cherry's Buffalo Stance playing in my head. Different type of Buffalo Gal. I enjoyed it immensely. It was insightful. For it works because of how the narrator relates the information. Your choices here were great.

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Kathleen March
17:21 Jan 28, 2021

Thanks again, Tom. I had fun with the story because I actually have lived in Buffalo and it is one of my favorite spots in the world because of a lot of great college memories from there. It's also a catchy tune, so when choosing to write about the blizzard, it had to come into the story.

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Jay Stormer
13:49 Jan 25, 2021

Very interesting how you have woven an old song, a museum, a weather phenomenon, and a unexpected discovery into a story that flows seamlessly to an unexpected end.

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Janey Finch
04:24 Jan 24, 2021

OMG! I loved that twist! That was amazing! I would never in a million years have guessed the quilts were from the underground road! You intertwined history with this story is such a great way, that it was never boring for a second! And I could not believe it when you said that the underground railroad hadn’t been through the state the museum is set in! My brain started going crazy thinking about this conspiracy! If you ever have time, I would love such a great writer such as yourself to take a look at one of my stories and give me some const...

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