I went to a dinner party at a nice house. The house was in a slick part of town with manicured lawns and sidewalk lighting.
It was the kind of neighborhood where a guard at the gate gives you a disapproving look before he lets your noisy truck into the community.
I helped construct the house where the party was held. A long time ago, I worked in construction when this subdivision was being built.
The irony is, the people I come from don’t use words like “subdivision.” Furthermore, my people have a hard time understanding why anyone would pay association dues when covenants and restrictions prohibit Uncle Bill’s Winnebago from being parked in the driveway.
The house is a four-bedroom-four-bath, and it was one of the first I ever helped build. I was a kid, I still had plenty of freckles, and I was slow at reading a measuring tape.
Anyway, the dinner party was nice, if you’re into that sort of thing. It was catered by a chef who had a lot of class.
The appetizer was tomato aspic. The main course was quail, topped with soy glaze and mint. This marks the first time I’ve ever had quail that wasn’t retrieved by my uncle’s Labrador.
The portions were microscopic—Barbie could lose weight on meals bigger than this. But then, I was too busy to eat. I was looking at the ceiling.
The sheetrock had a nice orange-peel texture. I hung that sheetrock.
The chef cleared his throat. Fourteen high-society people wouldn’t stop talking long enough to listen. So he rang a little bell. A hush fell over the table.
The chef explained exactly what we would be eating. He used lots of culinary words that went miles over my head.
After his speech, I excused myself to the restroom. I was impressed by the tile-work in the bathroom. I inspected the grout lines around the toilet.
I remember laying this tile. I remember taking measurements and manning the wet saw. I remember the other guys laughing because using a wet saw is not easy when you’re a kid.
I rejoined the dinner party. The conversation was getting very work-centric.
An older woman asked a man in a baby blue suit what he did for a living.
Baby Blue said, “Oh, I trade.”
Nobody batted an eye.
“Fascinating,” said one woman.
Somehow, I got the feeling this man wasn’t talking about Topps baseball cards.
Another man said he ran the marketing departments for some very big companies. And by the way he said this, I knew that his Rolex watch was not a knock-off.
One woman said she worked in governmental law. Another man explained that he’d just taken a job at his father’s firm.
I started to feel funny. I didn’t know what I was doing in this room, or how I got invited to eat tomato aspic with a bunch of consenting adults. I am a man whose bloodhound is worth more than his truck, whose truck is worth more than his trailer home.
I looked at my place setting and I felt out of place.
I didn’t know which fork to use, which glass to drink, or why anyone in their right mind would serve quail with soy glaze—my uncle used to serve quail with frozen tater tots.
Most “dinner parties” I’ve attended had coolers on the back porch with men lingering nearby, conducting serious talks about the possibility of building an above-ground swimming pool behind the septic tank.
The polite dinner conversation turned to me. One man said, “So, I understand you’re a writer.”
I was in an ethical dilemma. I was staring at a house that I helped construct. My chair was resting on tile I helped lay. A writer? I don’t know.
“I guess I am,” I said.
But I didn’t feel right saying that. Because I’ve never known what I am. I’ve had an even harder time figuring out WHO I am.
Still, after some years, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter what I do. What matters is that I am here. What matters are people I’ve known, and beautiful things I’ve loved, and sunsets I’ve seen.
What matters is my family. My wife. And the nights I’ve stayed up late with friends, sitting on tailgates, laughing together, staring at a moon, dreaming out loud, with a very expensive dog sleeping on my lap.
I am proud of my people. The silent but hardworking, unsung, and dedicated sort I come from. The ones who build things. I will always be one of them.
“You have a very pretty house,” I told the host.
“Thank you,” she said. “Would you like some more quail?”
You bet your tomato aspic I would.