“John told the salesman at a Home Depot in Durham that the chain was for a porch swing, the concrete block for a step to the utility building in his back yard. The backpack and sleeping bag he purchased without explanation at an R.E.I. in Raleigh, the inflatable plastic raft, foot pump, and two-piece paddle at Walmart. He made up the name Jimmy Ray Gallup and, at a Goodwill in Mebane, picked out a hoodie, a navy T-shirt, work pants, and boots that Jimmy Ray Gallup would wear. He bought the toolbox and three padlocks from an Ace Hardware in Pittsboro. He paid cash for everything and threw the receipts away in trash cans outside the stores. He bought nothing in Chapel Hill….”
— Opening paragraph of “Backpack,” short story by Tony Earley in the current The New Yorker
Though born in San Antonio, Texas, Earley grew up in Rutherfordton, studied English at Warren Wilson College and worked news at the Thermal Belt News Journal in Columbus and the Daily Courier in Forest City.
“Most of the community events in my home town of Rutherfordton are inexplicably saddled with ’50s themes. All the men put grease in their hair, all the women wear poodle skirts — in case you’re wondering, those are long, poofy skirts made out of small French dogs; the barking at the sock hop is extraordinary — and the four or five guys in town who own cars manufactured when Eisenhower was president drive them up and down Main Street while the sound system on the courthouse lawn blasts the theme song from ‘Happy Days’ over and over again.
“That we do this at least once a year suggests that we have reached some kind of joyful, communal consensus that the ’50s were as good as it ever got in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.”
— From novelist Tony Earley’s destined-to-go-viral commencement address at his alma mater, Warren Wilson College