Happy Fourth of July
Eastport’s city fathers don’t like to acknowledge that Sweetgrass and I created the now world famous New Year’s Eve tradition of lowering a sardine sculpture from the roof of the crumbling art museum. The first year was a rush job: a mere six-foot fish constructed with fabric and chicken wire. The second year, however, Sweetgrass outdid herself by building a 25-foot-long shimmering sardine with hidden 2×4 bones, a huge paper-mache head and skin of silvery, shiny fabric woven through chicken wire. We hoisted her to the roofline and there she hung, a media sensation — her photograph landed on the front page of the Boston Globe and she appeared on the TV. At the stroke of midnight I lowered Sally, The World’s Largest Sardine, while leading the countdown on my wireless mic and PA.
Then I quit (or was fired from) my janitor gig at the art museum. Sally was replaced by a six-foot wood-and-canvas minnow and her existence erased from the local history books. But my career as a conceptual artist continued. Whenever I wasn’t writing or refinishing wood floors, I was plotting my next move. A series of Dadist storefront window installations followed. Most involved a puppet named Sylvia who blogged, using typewritten notes that she hung in her window, about Eastport city politics. A short-lived surrealist art gallery and performance space called The Shag came and went next, followed by bankruptcy. Then I got the gig with Wilbur the Alpaca Farmer.
“With your background, you’ll do a great job,” Wilbur said on a mid-June afternoon. We were standing on the deck of his fortress. In another couple days, I was headed to my dying mom’s sickbed. But not before dealing with the latest special assignment. “I know I hired you and Sweetgrass to be alpaca herdsman and gardener, but I’m sure you guys can build the winning float for the Fourth of July parade.”
“Yeah,” I said. “No problem.”
“Great. My buddy Matthew will tow his 40-foot-long flatbed trailer. Plus we can borrow Funky’s car trailer and his truck. We’ve got the two Gators. The tractor. My company truck. The Mercedes convertible.” He nodded. “I think that’s it.” He paused. “What about the amphibious vehicle?”
“I don’t think so.” I shook my head. “Those tires aren’t supposed to be on the road.”
“Shit, I wanted the people to see my new toy.” Then his frown turned into a smile. “I’ve got an idea! Let’s put it on the flatbed. Next to the fiberglass sculptures. Matthew is bringing a 12-foot-tall stallion, a giant frog and a couple other things that I can’t remember.”
“OK, well, I…”
“Hold on,” he interrupted. “You’ve got to incorporate both of my lighthouse sculptures. And the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty.”
“Really?” He was such a pain in the ass. The sculptures were located all over the farm. I had just installed the 10-foot lighthouse down by the pond next to the rocky beach. The Statue of Liberty was spiked into the ground near the gardens and the humungous bell was hanging from a tree. Gonna be real work to get those things on the trailers. “OK.”
“You want me to build what?” Sweetgrass wasn’t happy with the extra labor. She’d already been tasked with tending to all the animals while I was gone. But I couldn’t have the Gators in the parade unless they were artistically transformed. “A paper-mache pig and a chicken?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He wants all the farm animals in the parade. Unfortunately, he says we gotta use real alpacas, but sculptures of the other animals would be OK. Especially after this morning’s disaster.”
Sweetgrass shook her head. My attempt to walk one of the pigs had failed miserably. The pig wailed, groaned and screamed bloody murder the entire time as I’d dragged her across the lower pasture.
“I was thinking,” I said, “the pig could go in the back of the work Gator, but since Wilbur loves roosters, I think you should build a five-foot-tall rooster and I’ll mount it to his Gator.”
“I guess.” She sighed. “Anything else?”
“Nope. That’s it.”
“HOW COME WE ARE NOT READY?” Wilbur screamed. “CRASH! WHY AREN’T WE READY?”
Thing was, we were ready. Just about. Besides, the parade was still a couple hours away. Plenty of time to add finishing touches: 10 hay bales, a rowboat, various pitchforks, spades, scythes, yokes and all the other antique farm implements I could find. Wilbur was just freaking out because he was nuts. Plus, he was overreacting to Lady Liberty’s accident. After she was strapped to the trailer, someone decided to take a shortcut via the drive-through garage underneath Wilbur’s fortress. Her torch caught the bottom of the open garage door and snapped off and smashed to pieces on the concrete floor.
Didn’t matter that complete disaster was averted when Wilbur’s smart and crafty wife fashioned a replacement out of an exterior light fixture and glass globe. Wilbur was still pissed. In a huff, he jumped on the John Deere hydrostatic and automatic super-tractor and drove toward town.
Everyone breathed relief and started putting on the bunting, banners and bells. Now we could relax and have fun.
Our seven-vehicle ménage was assembled a half hour before the parade was scheduled to begin. After hooking the tractor to the car trailer with a bastard mix of chains and shackles, my job was done. I told Wilbur about my parade allergy and promised to meet him and the crew at the end of the route.
Sweetgrass was not so lucky. She was initially slated to lead one of the two alpacas that were marching behind the flatbed. But at the last minute she was replaced by Wilbur’s daughter. Then she was put in charge of the little red wagon containing Wilbur’s three-year-old grandkid, who was too tired to walk.
Towing the wagon, alone, behind Wilbur’s work truck and in front of the 10,000 people lining the streets of Eastport was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her life. With the stop-and-go flow of the parade, she often found herself standing still in the afternoon heat and sun, fielding questions about her wagon. On three occasions, someone asked if the baby was dead. Each time, she spun around to find the kid asleep.
“We won!” Wilbur said, sitting in the Rooster-adorned Gator parked on the sidewalk beside the library. “We won!” he repeated, grinning widely. “We did it!”
“Awesome,” I said. “What are you gonna do with the money?”
“Hey, Dad,” Junior said, appearing out of nowhere. “What’s going on?”
“We won, son!”
“First place.” He slammed his hand on the Gator’s steering wheel. “Best float in the whole damn parade.”
“What’s the prize?” Junior asked, taking a puff off his cigarette. “Any money?”
“Yeah.” Wilbur nodded. “Five hundred bucks and…”
“Can I borrow a hundred?” Junior interrupted. “Please?”
It was time to leave, but Julia, the brown alpaca, wouldn’t move. She was froze up, practically paralyzed in front of the house across the street from the post office. I’d been against marching the camelids, fearing something like this would happen. The girls weren’t used to walking on pavement, and there was a good chance they’d be frightened by the massive crowd of half-drunk, flag-waving, pirate-sword-wielding parade-goers.
I grabbed a nearby garden hose. At first I aimed the water at her hooves, which, theoretically, was the quickest way to cool an animal down. After a minute, she leaned into the spray and started to drink. Then she put her head right under the hose and I gave her a quick bath. She was ready to go home.
Junior’s crime spree began just after dark that night. All Wilbur’s family, friends and guests were enjoying the massive bonfire atop the ledge near the fortress. Meanwhile, Junior and his pal snuck into all the campers and tents, opened fridges and coolers, and stole every bottle of booze, beer and wine they could find. And smokes, too.