By Michelle Railey
About 19 years ago, I was told about a local legend of Crawfordsville, Indiana called the Goat Woman. Clad in London Fog coat (no matter the season) and instantly recognizable, she was a reputedly nightly or near-nightly guest at the now-gone Target snack bar. I confess: I was never clear— was she called the Goat Woman because of the subtle (or less than subtle) animal smell wafting off the shabby and careworn London Fog coat or was it the downy cheek (read for that “visible-at-a-distance-highly-prominent facial hair”)? At any rate, it was all part of the local lore regarding the Goat Woman.
I only ever heard of the Goat Woman. I never had the privilege of her acquaintance; never experienced a Goat Woman Sighting. But even on hearing of her, my initial thought was always “no, not the Goat Woman. I am sure she is Ruby, or Julia, or Ernestine. She has a name. She has a life.” I have always wished to write about the Goat Woman. In tight, controlled prose, of course. But this is never the result of pondering the Goat Woman. She was real. I have been assured. What bit of modern local color Crawfordsville, Indiana had circa 1997 was composed, more or less entirely, of the Goat Woman, the daily denizen of the snack bar; a patron of all things mostly-beef and formica. A misfit, a loner, a remnant— a label cleverly disguising a lifetime of regrets, or hopes, or happiness. An anecdote about what happens when men die younger than women and life is uncertain and pinged on fixed incomes.
I am, to my everlasting woe, a sentimental and imaginative type, and so I see her, this woman I never had the pleasure of encountering: she chews thoughtfully on a 99-cent frank on a cheap white bun. I do not know if she prefers condiments or if she disdains them. I think she must have pets for, in my imagined version, the inevitable London Fog is decorated with pet hairs. It would be the easy thing to think “oh, the hairs of many cats.” But I prefer to think the Goat Woman goes against the grain and in fact has or had a very pleasant and beguiling mutt of a dog. Or two. But one thing is nearly certain: after fifteen years, the Goat Woman is no more.
The Goat Woman was, even back then, most certainly very old already. In 2019, I doubt very much that she still, somehow, is. In my early twenties, when I first heard about the Goat Woman and was very, insipidly young but didn’t know it, the tale of the Goat Woman made me envision romantic tales for this strange, local being. I thought, well, the Goat Woman once kissed a man under an elm on the campus of Wabash College, but that was long ago. And the Goat Woman was a dream built on June evenings and darkness, kisses and the smell of newly-cut grass and sharp, chlorinated sprinkler water. I don’t think so now, although I don’t quite rule it out.The Goat Woman now, this many years later, is less romantic, inscrutable and, sadly, common. To me, she has usually become the face of the women who outlive the ones who personally matter, the women one sees in nursing homes or in front yards, clearly alone: bereft, stubborn, and abysmally healthy. Enough to get on with but not enough to live on, exactly. She’s the face of misfits everywhere, those who are labeled and sorted but never quite understood. The Goat Woman becomes an emblem, a symbol, a martyr, a mascot, a legend. She becomes the Goat Lady, queen of the Goat Women. She gets lost in the hot dogs and the department store, in memory and local legend, in nostalgia and years.
But the thing of it you really, all these years later, want to know is: was she going to Target to just get out of the house? What did she do before she was the Goat Woman? What happened? Was she, as seems likely, left behind? What was the story there? And so I go back: She must be Ernestine, Ruby, or Julia. Maybe she taught science at the high school. Maybe she could speak Greek. Maybe she was ordinary and raised kids and loved and lived a regular sort of American Midwestern life and then she simply grew old and went to the snack bar because it was there and because it was cheap and, after all, it doesn’t do to stay in the house all of the time.
I do not like that we grow old. I do not like that we lose those we love. I do not like that, for some of us, we go through as misfits, never quite finding our way, our place, our world. I do not like that, even if we have the most fulfilling of existences, filled with love, laughter, and purpose, there is a chance we eventually become Goat Women alone at a snack bar in a shabby, outdated coat, eating cheap hot dogs, dreaming of what was or what could have been. So I circle back yet again and instead I salute the Goat Woman, Goat Women and men everywhere. I envision a new version of the legend. The Goat Woman does not go to the Target snack bar of an evening because, after a long and ordinary life, she is lonely and without funds to afford better. She goes because it is what she wishes to do. The Goat Woman goes to the Target and has a hot dog because, damn it, she likes hot dogs. It’s not all she can afford. It’s what she chooses. And besides, her husband, her partner, her wife, prefers Lean Cuisine and frankly, the Goat Woman thinks it’s just dumb to have 300 calories for dinner on a plastic tray in the house. The Goat Woman prefers to dine out.
So here’s to the Goat Woman in reality and imagination. Here’s to the misfits, the elderly, the lonely, and the unintentional legends. Perhaps it is not the crystalline prose, the article, an icon deserves. Nevertheless, here’s to her, to you, to me because I’d bet we’re all Goat Women, some of us sooner than later, but still. I choose to celebrate the Goat Woman, not to mourn her. If nothing else, I remember her. And in remembering her, saluting her, perhaps I celebrate the rest of us, too. No harm in a cheap hot dog, come to that.