Dog Eared, Part III, Chapter 8

How’s the Coffee?

We’ve been at Penland for about four days and I’m starting to get tired of answering why I’m here. By now everyone else has his or her line down: I’m taking the glass workshop. I’m in lower clay. Bookmaking, that’s me. I hang out in iron.

What about me? I’m not in iron or glass or woodworking or printmaking. I’m a tag-along spouse who’s not signed up for anything. “You’re not taking a class? What do you do all day?” I hear this at every meal. “Well, my wife is teaching a sculpture class and I’m just tagging along, blah, blah, blah.” After awhile it starts to get to me, so I’ve been making things up:

“I’m an accountant. My firm is auditing Penland. Do you like the food?”

“I’m a pilot. Had to make an emergency landing on the other side of the hill. Don’t know how long I’ll be here. How’s the coffee?”

“I’m a patron and I’ve given gobs of money to this place. Might as well get a meal or two out of it. Pass the salt and pepper, please.”

“I’m a government inspector. We believe arsenic has leached into the drinking water. Have you noticed anything funny lately?”

“I’m a psychiatrist. I’m doing a study on schizophrenia. Can you tell me where the Metals department is?”

“I’m here to pick up my daughter. She had a mental breakdown. Can we have seconds?”

My favorite response, however, which is not that far off the mark, is: “I’m taking the writing workshop. It’s a very small group. This week our instructor is David Sedaris. Next week, Sherman Alexie.”

“Wow, David Sedaris is here? At Penland? You must be having a great time.”

“Oh, yes,” I say with growing confidence, “he’s so funny, just like his books.”

Well, I don’t know how funny David Sedaris or Sherman Alexie is in person: I’ve never met either one of them. But I do know how funny their writing is. I finished Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day earlier this week and I’m about halfway through Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. Both are hysterical. Although each author shines a light on a different subject—Sedaris on urban gay culture; Alexie on rural Native American culture—both writers keep you in stitches with improbable characters and situations, not to mention a mastery of voice and comic timing.

But neither of these authors—David Sedaris or Sherman Alexie—is at the top of my must-read list right now. At the top of this list is Bill Bryson. I just picked up a used copy of Bryson’s memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (thanks to the used bookstore in downtown Spruce Pine), and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it. From the few passages I’ve scanned, it looks like I’m really going to enjoy this book.

Books, books, books—so many books to read. And I would read as many of them as I could tonight except it’s the Fourth of July. Penland will light up tonight. Big time! First of all, there’s a parade featuring impromptu floats made by students at Penland (art students are so much fun). Next, there’s an ice cream social that brings the locals (many of them ex-Penlanders) up the hill to mix and mingle with the current crop of students. Last but not least, there’s a bonfire and fireworks.

Yes, fireworks, that ago-old tradition of the American Fourth of July experience, and I have the best seat in the house, literally: our faculty house overlooks both the parade route and the open field where the bonfire and fireworks are all set to go. When I say parade don’t think Macy’s Parade. It’s not that kind of parade. The night before the big day, the students at Penland stay up all night (with the help of a few bottles of moonshine) jerry-rigging their float together. When they’re not working on the group’s float, they’re working on their individual costume. Penlanders are an artistic group of people, not to mention extremely quirky.

As I’m writing this, a woman in a bathing suit edged with red-white-and-blue trim chases a dog past the porch, several people dressed as three-pronged forks walk by looking for the start of the parade, and two girls suddenly stop on the road in front of me trying to relight their joint. All the while streams of people file up from the valley below, pulling wagons filled with babies, blankets, and cases of bottled beer. Color du jour: red-white-and-blue, of course. There are red-white-and-blue flags, red-white-and-blue shirts, red-white-and-blue blankets, red-white-and-blue hats, but no red-white-and-blue jackets. It’s just too dang hot.

While I contemplate this, the backdoor creaks open. “Hello, who’s there?” I ask, walking toward the kitchen. As I turn the corner I see a stranger in the backroom. A big burly guy with a bushy beard, deep blue eyes, an impish smile, and a fire-engine red T-shirt with the word “whiskey” emblazoned on it.

Me: “Ah, hello?”

Man: “Hey, just using your refrigerator.”

Me: “Uh-huh, and who are you?”

Man: “Me, I run the bookmaking and lithography studio. The name’s Jay.”

Me: “Jay? Hello Jay, my name’s Nikola.”

Man: “You don’t mind if I put some beer in your refrigerator, do you?”

Me: “No, not a problem, maybe next time you’ll knock.”

Man: “Oh, we don’t do that around here much.”

Me: “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

We live in Chicago where it’s a problem to find a stranger in your house. But I guess that’s not the case here. In fact, when I think about it, we’re the real strangers, given the fact that my wife and I are here for only two weeks. Jay’s here all the time. And you can tell: he acts as if he owns the place.

While I’m talking with Jay the parade rounds the corner so I hurry back to the porch. I glance at my watch: seven-thirty. Unlike most things in the world, the parade starts on time—seven-thirty sharp. Everything starts on time at Penland: breakfast, dinner, the nightly artist talks—everything. So why shouldn’t the parade start on time.

It does and I settle into my chair to enjoy one of the most unusual Fourth of July parades in my life. There’s a dancing Chinese dragon, a woman dressed in vines and leaves, Super Man strutting his stuff in a red-white-and-blue speedo, a woman blowing a trumpet, two guys carrying a giant camera, a couple pretending to ride an invisible horse, several bikinied women pulling a beefy guy sitting in a small plastic swimming pool, and, the finale, a riotous, and somewhat overly cheerful, brigade of three-pronged forks.

You know, I’m starting to like this place. Too bad we have to leave soon.

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