First Slice

August 11, 2010

     The honey spice bread rested on a plate beside the coffee maker. [Daniel] lifted the cloth that Rhonda had draped over it and looked at it. . . .
     He drew a knife from the block on the counter. He positioned the blade about an inch from the end of the loaf, squeezed the bread with his left hand to keep it steady, and began to saw.
     It took two or three thrusts to penetrate the crust, but then the loaf yielded and the knife slid through.
     The inside appeared unevenly done. Bits of apple and coarse crumbs clung to the blade. The slice broke apart as it fell away from the knife.
      He picked it up and took a bite. The fragrance of the cardamom rose into his nostrils as it had the night before and he drew it in again. He finished that piece and sliced another. Deeper into the loaf the texture became wet and sticky. He broke off pieces with his fingers now, and devoured them. By the time he went up for his shower, half the loaf was gone.
        — Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947, American fiction writer
             from an as-yet unpublished short story, “Cardamom”

In the excerpt above, Daniel, a 42-year-old math teacher married for seventeen years, has been reminded of the first woman he ever loved (but with whom he did not have an intimate relationship) by the scent of cardamom in some bread his wife, Rhonda, has baked. The odor has driven him to make love to her on an ordinary Tuesday night and to have dreams about the other woman, whom he has not seen nor been in touch with for twenty years. The scene above takes place the morning after the bread was baked.

“Cardamom,” the story about the evocative spice and a man’s obsession with the woman who introduced him to it, is the piece I brought to Bread Loaf in 2004, the second year I attended. Daniel Wallace led the workshop I was assigned to, along with Hannah Tinti, who served as the fellow. Daniel proved to be a superb teacher whose style and stance created a caring and supportive community in an instant, and who worked with Hannah, whom he had never met before, as if they had been colleagues for years. My experience in 2004 completely redeemed the discouragement I felt after 2003 (you can read the story of that here), and it remains, by virtue of the way the faculty member and the fellow worked together, the best experience I have had.

bigcat0810This morning I had breakfast in the apartment I rent in the private home just beyond the edge of the campus. Then I walked down to the Inn for registration and lunch. And I took pictures of the unexpected scene that greeted me when I arrived yesterday.

The CAT digging device is bigger than the cottage I am standing in front of to take the picture. The porch you see under the digging arm is the place my friends and I gather about 4:30 each opening day. A woman who’s been coming here for many many years, one of the first friends I made here, brings a cooler of wine and beer, cheese and crackers, and we sort of hold court there, inviting anyone who walks by to join us. “We’re going to have to move the party,” I wrote to her yesterday. “And if you were thinking of new tires, wait until September.”

A ten-mile stretch of Route 125, the road that runs past the Bread Loaf campus, is in various stages of repair and reconstruction. In most spots there is no paving, just gravel, and no guard rails beside the narrow shoulders that in some places drop off sharply. There is dust and noise and not the serene meadow view we’re accustomed to from the porch.

“This job is only going to take about three days,” said the Stop/Slow signholder who was at his post near where I stood to take the picture.

“What day is this?” I asked him.

“Four or five, I think,” he said.

The building shook at times during lunch. We set up the party at a picnic table on the lawn, and became so engaged in greeting old friends and new that we didn’t notice when 4:30 turned into 5:30 and the commotion from the CATs had ceased.

At the opening event, director Michael Collier gave the advice he gives every year: Pace yourself. Keep hydrated. And when you call home (from one of the pay phones on campus, because even the snazziest new cell phone won’t be able to find a signal), try to understand if your loved ones are not as excited as you are about what you’ve learned today about structural revision and your experiments with ekphrasis.

There is an eating scene or a reference to food in every piece of fiction I write. In the manuscript I’ve submitted this year, a woman peels an orange that she does not eat when she is in a stressful situation, and another woman seeks to reestablish a connection with a young man who broke up with her by inviting him to her parents’ empty house for leftover party food after a stressful day, rather than go to a crowded, noisy bar.

We’re all about metaphor and symbol here on the mountain. It’s Bread Loaf mountain, after all. what better way to think of today than as the first slice. Even the jaws of the big digger say something to me about breaking through a hard crust to get at the best parts, difficult but rewarding work.

I posted the picture of the CAT device to my Facebook page, and when I got back from the opening event, a friend who has been here many times and who, I hope, will be visiting next week, wrote that he hoped I would be getting a lot of “constructive criticism.”

That’s what I expect. This is going to be the Best Bread Loaf Ever EVER!

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