Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MFA Highlights:The Hot Dog Story

Every night of my first ten-day residency at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program included an impromptu party on the second floor of the Seelbach Hotel.  There, students and faculty, poets and fiction writers, best-sellers and wannabes alike would sit and talk and drink bourbon and listen to one of the poets play rowdy songs on an acoustic guitar. 

Nine out of ten of those nights, I reluctantly abstained from the festivities.  I had work to do, a strict schedule to follow, and it was all I could do to meet my obligations, but there was one night—only one—that I allowed myself to join in the fun.

I don’t remember much about the evening other than the exhilaration of communing with my fellow students and with an assortment of accomplished writers that included the author of a national bestseller, an Oprah pick, and a recently-nominated finalist for the National Book Award.  Oh, and I remember lots and lots of drinking.

The next morning, I lay in my hotel room with red eyes, a crushing headache, nausea, and an upset stomach.  The entire program was scheduled to take a field trip to the Glass Factory that day—I forget why; it had something to do with exploring other modes of art—but I chose instead to put a pillow over my head and pass the morning in the fetal position.  Once I felt well enough to stagger out onto the street, I found a burger pit and finished off my lingering hangover with a quarter-pounder and a plate of fries.

After an uneventful afternoon, my grease binge continued at the university dining hall where I went for one of my prepaid dinners.  It is important to note that it was foot-long hot dog night.

I set my backpack down at an empty table and headed for the buffet line.  After filling my tray, I headed back to my designated spot where I hoped to read a book and quietly eat my meal, but as I scanned the lunchroom for my table, I discovered something horrifying.  Sitting across the table from my backpack was Sena Naslund, co-founder of my program and the author of several books, including the international bestseller, Ahab’s Wife.  

Now, maybe it was the fact that I was seeing her through the eyes of a student, but in my mind Sena had acquired certain mythic qualities. She was a genius—a guru of sorts—who had ascended into the upper echelon of literary society, where she could enjoy the company of the rich and famous alike while being idolized by her students.  It did not occur to me that maybe she was a very down-to-earth person, who, like me, just wanted to have a nice dinner in the cafeteria on foot-long hotdog night.  

Since entering the program, I had not yet had so much as a simple conversation with Sena, but as I stood frozen in the middle of the dining hall, contemplating whether or not to abandon the backpack my late brother gave me as a high school graduation present, I realized that this would certainly be the day we finally exchanged words.  All I could think was, “Oh crap.  This woman is going to ask me about the Glass Factory tour.”  One bit of luck was on my side: Sena seemed deeply engaged in conversation with another student.

I quickly formulated a plan.  I would sit down at the table, eat my foot-long hot dog as fast as I could, and then basically run like hell from the cafeteria before she had a chance to say hello.  I didn't say it was a very good plan, but it was the one I followed.  I sat down and immediately began stuffing hot dog into my mouth as fast as humanly possible.

I had maybe three quarters of it in my mouth before Sena finished up her conversation, turned to me, and said, “So, what did you think of the Glass Factory tour?”

I paused mid-chew.  My cheeks bulged with a reservoir of bun and pig parts.  Helplessly, I looked across the table and found another first-year student.  Sena continued to stare at me expectantly. There was only one thing to do.  I gestured to my overflowing mouth and then across the table to the other student.  Sena followed my cue.  Politely turning her head, she transferred her question to me to the other person. 

With her attention redirected, I finished the rest of my hot dog and then quietly slipped away.

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