The envelope was slim, as they all seem to be these days, and so I opened it up expecting the usual brush-off:Â "Dear Poet/Playwright/Writer: Thank you very much for submitting your work to the Alice Wambsley 2012 Villanelle Competition.Â We received over 2,348,092 entries for the first place prize of $20 and a subscription to plangent voices, and we regret to inform you that your entry was not the winner, or the first runner-up, or even the consolation prize winner, despite its evident merit."
"We'll be making haiku out of gimp from 1:00 to 2:00 this afternoon, then . . ."
Same to you, pal, I got ready to say as I slipped my finger under the flap, tore it open, and slowly unfolded the letter, trying to delay the moment of bitter reckoning just a few seconds more.
But then, as at a natatorium, the room swam before my eyes.Â "Congratulations," the letter began, and that was all I needed to know.Â I'd been awarded a two-week fellowship at the Zucchini Loaf Writer's Conference!Â My dream of spending sunny summer days indoors with fellow aesthetes had finally come true!
"It's a beautiful day outside, so we don't we break up into groups and go over each other's poems line-by-line indoors."
"Honey," I screamed out to my wife, "I've been accepted at Zucchini Loaf!"
"Is that a culinary school?"
"No--it's one of the top 65 summer writing programs in America.Â Or at least the original thirteen colonies located in New England."
Black t-shirts are mandatory for all campers.
"Where is it?"
"Great!Â I can go visit Marci and . . ."
"Uh," I began, cutting her off dubiously, "I . . . don't think you're allowed to come with me."
"It's in the application."Â I pulled out the brochure with the Terms and Conditions spelled out conspicuously in 6 point type on 7 point leading--italic font--and read her the relevant part:Â "Writers are not permitted to bring boom boxes, electric musical instruments or spouses to Zucchini Loaf."
"That's kind of a strange rule," she said.
"It's essential to the mission of writers conferences."
"Okay, I've assigned you guys to the cabin for coming-of-age/rite-of-passage novels."
"That participants receive intense, personal one-on-one instruction and engage in the maximum amount of marital infidelity in a context where time and resources are limited."
"Let me see that," she said, pulling the acid-free, handmade artisanal piece of paper from my hands--not that she didn't trust me or anything.
"Look," I said, pointing over her shoulder.Â "Here's the first-day schedule: 6 toÂ 8 a.m., check in;Â 8 to 10:30 a.m., swim test; 10:30 to noon, cocktails; noon, group grope/orgy, main dining hall, or 'buddy-check sex' for those who have already found their soul-mates; 2 p.m., post-coital bliss/remorse; 2 to 4, arts and crafts."
I was somewhat gratified to see her face cloud over.Â So she really does love me, I thought.
"I hope you remembered to bring a thesaurus!"
"Don't worry," I said as I put my arm around her.Â "Everybody has to submit vaccination records and a clean bill-of-health--signed by their doctor--certifying that they've been STD-free for at least 6 months before they go into the pool or engage in intercourse."
"That's not much of a vacation for me," she said with a lump in her throat.
"Hey--I'm just playing catch-up with you," I said defensively.Â "You get to go off to beauty spas with your girl friends while I stay home, slaving awayÂ over a hot stove, making sure the cats' homework is done."
She was silent for a moment, then she made that funny little moue with her mouth that I love so much, the one that signals that although I may be a clueless jerk--I'm her clueless jerk.
"I guess that's fair," she said finally.Â "Well, what's done is done.Â So what do I need to do to get you ready?"
"We're going to drop you on your head and see if that improves your imagery."
"Let's look at the brochure," I said, and we turned to the list of clothing and supplies that every camper was expected to bring.Â "Fourteen (14) black t-shirts, five (5) black turtlenecks, four (4) pairs of slim, faded blue jeans, one (1) beret, one (1) pair huarache-style sandals (do not wear with socks), one (1) pair of whimsical red, high-top Converse All-Star gym shoes."
"You already have most of this stuff--except the red sneakers," my wife said, "so you're pretty much all set."
"Not so fast," I said as I pointed to the all-caps adjuration at the end: "WRITER/CAMPER NAMES SHOULD BE SEWN INTO ALL ARTICLES OF CLOTHING."
"I hate to sew."
"Not to worry, you can get little iron-on labels."
"Still--that's a lot of work."
"Hey--my mom did it for me."
"All right," she said, and she began to busy herself while I packed my footlocker.Â Space was tight, so I had to make some tough decisions.Â Bring Confederacy of Dunces, or The Moviegoer?Â Conrad or Dickens?Â Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty?Â It wasn't so much a question of what I wanted to read as what I wanted other people to see me reading.Â
Walker Percy:Â "I want you to get this Southern Gothic crap out of your system this summer, okay?"
When I was done I came back into the bedroom where my wife was finishing up with the labels.Â She handed me a t-shirt, and as I started to fold it I noticed a safety pin holding a note to the inside hem.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Just a little precaution," she said, fighting back tears.Â "I worry about you."
I took the note between my fingers and read "Neo-formalist poet: If found, please return to Zucchini Loaf Writer's Conference."
I looked up at her and, hoping to allay her fears, said "I'm old enough to go to a writer's conference by myself," with a little more confidence than I actually felt.
"You know how you are," she said.Â "Always wandering lonely, like a cloud, taking the road less travelled by."