You’d think the first annual Worldwide Women’s Wiring Festival would happen in Winnipeg, Wichita, Winnemucca, even. Venues so distant and exotic were much too expensive for us. Besides Winnipeg has its Festival du Voyageur, Wichita its “Lineman for the County,” Winnemucca its ties to Butch Cassidy, perhaps dubious. We could only afford my house, a modest split-level, in Parkville, Pronto Pup Capital of the Great Plains, population 220.
Parkville’s origins reach back to 1879, when weary homesteaders traveling to stake a claim in western North Dakota got so discouraged by nipping mosquitoes and changeless terrain they kept right on going past the border until they got to Parkville, a two-horse town with just one saddle. They were led by sausage maker extraordinaire Leon Saw, a nonesuch among butchers whose kielbasa and cotto salami brought hope to the chapfallen, faith even to infidels. Some say “Saw” was an endearment, a diminutive of “sausage”; others swore Leon was so deft at cutting up meat that he was like a surgeon and called him “Sawbones,” eventually “Saw.”
Somewhere near the geographic center of North America, Leon first spied Rita Skills, a Canadian baker who’d fled her native Saskatoon looking for a better life somewhere south, anywhere. She leaned against a tree and beneath her boned corset, sealed in old, mottled shirt cloth, held tight against the warm flesh underneath her bosom was her sourdough starter—a barm—a pasty ferment of crushed grapes, whole wheat flour and water passed down by her grandmother Biga, a thick, robust women with floury fingernails and a crust of dough on her cuticles. She claimed her barm went all the way back to Ancient Egyptians, perhaps the first to make yeasted bread. They developed a technique for kneading dough with their feet, each toe working the gluten perfectly. Biga passed this and the barm on to her daughter Levain and granddaughter. Levain used the barm not only to make bread but also to tan hides. She often drank its hooch, a brackish gray ethanol produced when starter is allowed to ferment with water, named after the Hoochino Indians. Rita was the only one of these women who could knead with her feet and hands at the same time. She produced double the bread most bakers could, which is how her reputation spread from Newfoundland to Vancouver to Moose Jaw to the Arctic Circle.
Leon stood downwind of Rita, chewing a piece of his own jerky in mid-day sun when the dreamy, ancient smell of her sourdough starter, her loamy barm, intensified by the heat of her body, worked its way into his head and pulled him to her, like a chain through his nose, as legend says. A day later, they married in a field marked by a rock-work monolith at the belly button of North America in present-day Rugby, North Dakota.
Saw fathered five children with Rita in what is now Parkville and two in Cromwell with a woman known only as Macy, a wealthy corn heiress, someone he never publicly acknowledged. Through the years, Parkville mothers told Parkville daughters that Macy was rich but inelegant, smart but not savvy and that Leon wandered into her bed from time to time only because he didn’t know better and that we should, no matter what, know better. They cautioned that Leon was occasionally driven away by his wife’s yeasty, sour barm that she smuggled into their bed and that what often attracts you to someone is what drives you away or at least to wander.
In the early 1900s, most Parkville residents believed they descended from Rita and Cromwell residents said they came from Macy. This made a tense, contentious rivalry between the two towns. Parkville residents started cooking strange hot dogs swaddled in dough in homage to Leon and Rita. Cromwell replied with a hot dog encapsulated in a corn batter to honor Leon and Macy. George Henry, creator of the Pick-up Stick, lived between the two towns and loved both the pronto pup and the corn dog but found each a bit dicey to eat. So he speared the delights with his wife’s hat pins, which eventually caught on. No one knows who was first to use a wooden skewer like we do now.
In the mid 1950s, the two towns’ populations began merging and residents decided it was not practical to be exclusively progeny of either Rita or Macy. Such backward thinking made marrying your hometown sweetheart impossible.
I am actually a descendant of Leon and Rita. Our family dropped the hyphenated Skills-Saw to avoid confusion and litigation. We simply go by “Saw.” I married Roy Sage but don’t hyphenate his last name with mine and go by Madeline Sage, though my husband, and my husband only, privately calls me Mad Sage.
The wiring festival idea was laid, incubated, hatched, hard-boiled and mixed with mayo and onion in my kitchen over two consecutive blizzard days that shut down Parkville. We thought Parkville needed something more than a deep fried dough wrapped hot dog on a stick as its claim to fame. We thought we could and should change that.
We opted for the general not-so-politically-charged term, “festival,” in lieu of “celebration,” which we thought would make people expect fireside choruses of “Kumbya” or free-spirited odes to our ovaries, or both. We considered having a “fair,” but didn’t think we could round up enough exhibitors. Fairs, like our own McIntosh County Regional Fair, have exhibitors: Jensen’s Tire and Chiropractic Care—”Traction is our business”; Apocalypse Gnaw “End-of- the-world chew toys for your pets”; Mythomaniacs, Larsen and Wheeler PC—”liars and lawyers whatever you need first to get you out of your legal woes”; and a new area business that had dogs sniff out cancer in parts per billion—Paps by Pups—”A sniff and a lick, we’ll tell if you’re sick.”
We nixed “convention”— no election of officers; “conference”—too serious; “seminar” too medical; “institute”—too bureaucratic; and “workshop”—too promising. We couldn’t work under that much pressure.
Technically, the Worldwide Women’s Wiring Festival wasn’t really worldwide, although, it started off that way. Pat—she’s my neighbor to the left as you walk out my front door—thought her friend’s sister-in-law Mary, who lives nearby but is from Glasgow, Scotland would attend. But at the last minute, she got called away on a Haggis emergency. We thought about rounding up a couple of Canadian women who worked at a border patrol station 12 miles north, but we thought they were lesbians—not that we’re homophobic—and they probably already knew scads more about electricity than we neophytes. We learned that they were pre-novice electricians. Oh well…we had next year.
We—that’s Pat, Leann across the street, her sister Sarah and I—we organized the whole shebang from my kitchen table after four stiff pots of “Livin’ la vida mocha” coffee, a couple tins of menthol snuff, ear-stinging with every snort, and exactly eleven truffles, the chocolate treats not the fungus for which pigs forage. We called the festival “Morning Becomes Electric” and were rather proud of our cleverness. The festival featured three morning breakout sessions: “Wire (why are we) here: Existentialism and Electricity Collide,” “Dim and Dimmer: A Query into Jim Carey’s Role in Hyperconductivity” and “Get Out and Volt: A long overdue salute to female electrical pioneers.” We considered “I’d Rather Switch than Fight” but former smokers Pat and Leann couldn’t take constant reminders of cigarettes without getting the sort of nicotine twitches that could interfere with the delicate, fine motor work of wrapping a hook of black-coated skinned wire around a gold screw in an outlet.
We lined up a representative from “Home Depot” to lead breakout sessions. The regular electrical guy was out, so we got Jim from customer service, the default electrical guy, the New Times Roman of the universe that is “Home Depot.” Jim was an affable fellow with a surprisingly rich knowledge of electricity as well as considerable yodeling talent, or so he told us. By the way or BTW, as Jim says and as we’ve taken to saying, he was then just one surgery in Trinidad, Colorado shy of being completely, irrefutably, anatomically male.
Speaking of male—our husbands were off on their yearly Bemidji hunting expedition. Each year we wives pretended that they were off tracking admirable, wily prey that would really test our men’s mettle. But we knew better. We knew that the annual sojourn was an excuse for a weekend of mediocre hygiene, beer and Jim Beam, pork rinds and that weird thing men do where they push their pelvises forward when they peer into a car engine. It was the sweaty bonding that men need annually just as much as women need a yearly trip to the gynecologist. (Thank you George Papanicolaou and Herbert Frederick Traut for forever ruining the innocent phrase: “Could you please just scoot down here a bit?”)
I did miss Roy when he was gone, even though, if he was home and working out a lot, his cuminy scent kept me awake. It was like cozying up to a burrito or a pot of chili under the covers, our bed suddenly a cantina. I love to look at a small benign mole on his back—we had it checked—before we turn off the lights and go to sleep. It’s like a lentil, a gentle, endearing little pulse on his skin, on the spot, if he were a horse, that would be the exact center of his withers. Sometimes, I like to put my tongue on it and pretend I am vegetarian, though I never tell Roy. He would find it weird.
The festival itself was fun, though we knew we had improvements to make. We wanted next year to be the Worldwide Women’s Wiring Weekend, which meant more preparation, planning, housing considerations. This year attendance was low, eight, including four planners and Jim. One of the outlets we rewired in my kitchen shorted out a toaster with extra wide slots for bagels that I’d gotten for a birthday gift. And Jim got really maudlin as he talked about gathering up all his pantyhose and hauling them off to Good Will. We—all the women, that is–assured him that we hadn’t worn pantyhose for years, epochs, and that we didn’t miss how they constricted our thighs and ankles like a wet suit or how we imagined scales and fins of a mermaid would. Hell, we had long ago stopped wearing skirts or dresses, even culottes dammit. We told him our motto was: “We pant for pants.” He admitted he cut off the dark reinforced toes of one pair of pantyhose and kept them in his wallet for sentimental reasons, snuggled between twenty dollar bills. We told him that that was okay by us, which seemed to settle him down. He made a couple of alternating current/direct current jokes that put everyone right back in the mood for more electrical work. So we wired a dimmer switch in my basement bathroom with no problems. I could shave my legs in near-darkness if I wanted.
Late in the afternoon, long after clean-up, long after we each had gotten our own electrical kits–compliments of Home Depot—a wire stripper with red, rubber insulators, a current continuity tester and a Greenfield bracelet, we sat around, five planners and Jim, finishing up green sherbet/Seven-up punch Sarah made for the day, its foam deflated into a mint-colored slurry.
The phone rang. It was Roy, so befuddled and wracked with consternation I barely recognized him. BTW, Roy is no handyman. He can grill, he can find his way without directions or a map, but he thinks a tack hammer will come after you. I married him for his mole, for his sweet, sweet lovemaking and a bit for the Jiminy Cricket imitation he does that drops me foursquare to my knees.
“Honey,” he said. His voice was cloudy.
“Have you been drinking?” I said, nodding to the others.
They nodded back.
“No?” I shook my head and smiled.
“The power’s out sweetie,” he said. “Now that wouldn’t be so bad because we’ve got Randy’s generator and some wire and an extension cord, but we don’t know what the hell to do with any of it.”
“Why the generator and wire?”
“Because we’re guys; we haul stuff around. Doesn’t mean we know what to do with it.”
“And you called me because?”
“Because you‘ve got that wiring shindig going on and I thought maybe you’d learned something, anything about generators or electrical panels.”
“Honey. This wasn’t all that advanced,” I said. “We learned some great stuff, like skinning back wire and an underwriter’s knot, but generators….that’s kind of advanced.”
“Madeline,” Jim interrupted, in a voice so deep I knew testosterone coursed through him. “This is your opportunity. You are going to talk that man through this electrical crisis and I am going to help you.”
“You will, missy. This is about empowerment (sorry) self-esteem, the little frickin’ engine that could,” Jim said.
“Don’t turn this into an ‘ABC Afterschool Special’ on me, mister.”
“Just try it.”
I settled into the phone and tried to remember everything I had ever heard about electricity.
“Roy, I’m going to tell you stuff and Jim, our electrical consultant here, will stop me if it’s wrong. So wait a minute before you do anything I say…just like always,” I said.
Jim leaned back and took in a last green swallow of punch from his plastic cup.
“Turn off the power so the main coming into the place is off. I think there is a switch on top of the panel,” I said.
“Okay,” Roy replied.
“Take the cover off,” I said. “I think there are screws somewhere in the front.”
I remembered removing face plates on outlets in our basement bathroom and figured most of the world was held together by screws.
“Each little switch thing…”
“Madeline, they’re circuit breakers,” Jim said.
“Roy, each breaker has wires, right?” I asked.
“I think so Mad Sage,” Roy said. “Oops.”
“Have him disconnect the wires to two breakers one on top of the other. That’s the power from the company,” Jim said.
I had Roy do this and had him feed the generator with the extension cord, a 110 cord, Jim figured, into the open panel, a makeshift solution until the next day. Jim took us both through a series of activities, screwing and unscrewing things, hooking the skinned extension cord’s neutral and ground to the vertical neutral bar and its hot wire to the screw in the breaker. To engage both sides of the panel, we pigtailed from one breaker up to the next, using a hunk of leftover of the extension cord Roy had cut up. Every time Roy had to strip wire, Jim had me tell him to bite off the rubber insulation because he didn’t have a stripper or utility knife.
“Tell him they’ve got about 2200 watts to play with. Enough for a refrigerator, lights, a TV and some heat,” Jim said.
When we were done, Roy turned on the generator and the whole place, he said, sprung to life with electricity, electrons buzzing through a conductor. I swore I could feel it deep in my own bowels.
It was exhilarating, like one of those airplane movies from my 1970s teens, starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Irwin Allen. A stewardess brings in a plane for a safe, textbook landing because some grizzled, disenchanted, retired pilot with a drinking problem and an obscenely wrinkled shirt talks her down from an air traffic controller’s nest so that little passenger Bethie, the 10-year-old dialysis patient en route to Big City, USA for a new kidney, will get her surgery just in time to play “Mary Poppins” in PS 110’s version of the Julie Andrews’ classic. Imagine little Bethie’s rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” on the plane, so weak she can merely spit out “super” before tumbling into sleep, her attendant, a dear-faced nun who’s questioning her faith in God, cradling her rosary beads and crying. It had that feel…the makings of a hit movie theme song…Oscar buzz. Get me Maureen McGovern!
It was emotional afterward, so we opened up a few bottles of Chardonnay, a fresh tin of snuff and cranked up a huge fire in a Coleman fire pit in my backyard. We laughed our way through one round of “Kumbya” and, despite temptation, skipped any odes, laments, pantoums or orations to our ovaries in deference to Jim who told us that the extra fifty bucks he earned from us would really help with gas money for Colorado. We made him a huge sign out of cardboard with electrical tape lettering that said, “Trinidad or Bust!”
It was after the last, “Oh Lord, come by here,” during which Jim provided a descant of reverential yodeling, that he asked Sarah if she’d to go to the movies with him when he got back from Trinidad in just a month. After she said, “yes,” I heard him whisper, as fire embers kicked up and flew around like electricity in our night, “You’ll see; men and women really aren’t wired that different.”
Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals. Her chapbook, "The Dreamed," is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.