The black-caped, cast-iron devil figure was playing the violin and wearing a top hat and heavy horn-rimmed glasses. It rested on a cast-iron drum with a drumhead made out of a $450 piece of cobalt blue Brazilian marble. Stuck in its mouth was an S-shaped pipe with the bowl carved to resemble the face of Abraham Lincoln.
of blue lapis for the clasp. Cut into the creature’s rum-bottle belly were the words “Viper Rum” ringed by a necklace of cast-iron roses, and if you put a candle inside through the small door in back, the creature would glow as if alive. Written on the inside of the rear door were the words “Dear Mary: Happy Birthday, 2001, Love Doonie.”
Mary is the poet Mary Karr, whose third book of poems, Viper Rum, was published by New Directions in 1998, although she is perhaps better known for her memoir The Liars’ Club, published in 1995, the paperback edition of which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. In 2000, Karr published the sequel, Cherry. Both memoirs dealt with growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, and in the second she mentioned Doonie, her buddy down the street. In the summer of 1972, she and Doonie ended up in the San Diego area to go surfing. Both were 17. Doonie had long brown hair past his shoulders; Mary was so skinny that she could hide behind a ski pole. Doonie had a ’63 Lincoln that had been abandoned by a dope dealer, and he and Mary slept in it for a while. Then, at the end of the summer, Doonie returned to Port Arthur to high school and Mary went on to Macalester College. A few years later, Doonie joined his family’s fence business. He became Kent Scott. Then in 1988, with the surfing passion still fierce within him, he returned to the San Diego area, started a fence business of his own, and settled in Carlsbad. Mary Karr went on to publish three books of poems, two books of nonfiction, and to become a professor at Syracuse University. And the two maintained the friendship that had begun when Mary had tutored Doonie in his p’s and q’s way back when both were in grade school.
But this is a story about blacksmiths — not the ones who shoe horses but the ones who can make a rose from cast iron so delicate that you’re sure you can sniff its sweet smell, the ones who will make you a $30,000 fire screen for your fireplace or a $100,000 gate for your driveway; the ones who handle molten metal the way a potter handles clay.
Mary Karr had been a student of mine in a graduate creative-writing program in the late ’70s, and we had remained friends over the years. I had heard stories about Doonie and Port Arthur, and when I happened to talk to Mary last April she had told me that Doonie — now semi-respectable — had gotten this “crazy genius Russian blacksmith” to make this amazing Viper Rum statue and I should take a look at it, which I did. Except the blacksmith wasn’t crazy but sad. Nor was he actually Russian. Though born in the Soviet Union, he seemed to be from Georgia. Basically, he is Armenian: Noair Khatchatrian, whom Kent Scott and the others at Scott Fence call Noro. Now Noro has been in the States for two years, having previously worked in the Czech Republic. As for the genius part, Scott had no doubt about it.
“He’s world-class, for sure,” Scott told me. “His stuff, his attention to detail and the talent to do that kind of detail work, really puts him almost into the classification of a jeweler. I went to downtown San Diego and bought him all those little intricate grinders and diamond-cutting chips and stuff like that to do Abraham Lincoln’s face on the pipe. Of course, being from Russia, he wasn’t familiar with Abraham Lincoln, so he did that face off of a five-dollar bill. I gave him a five-dollar bill and he carved it. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen. Like his work would attract attention anywhere in the world. That violin he did from going to the library and checking out a book on violins. He’s cool.”
At 46, Kent Scott hasn’t entirely put his hippie days behind him. “That crazy Texan,” several people described him to me affectionately. His combination office and home is a warren of dark rooms in a row of two-story apartments. They brought to mind the word “pad,” which I hadn’t thought of for many years, and at first glance it seemed that Doonie’s pad hadn’t been tidied up since the end of the Vietnam War. Nine surfboards hung on the walls. Within a huge fish tank, oversized piranhas nosed hopefully for bloody scraps. Balancing on its perch by a gray window and looking out onto an even grayer porch, a large and morose parrot defecated mini-volcanic mounds onto small sheets of paper towel, often missing. A giant projection TV faced the elderly low-slung couch. The sound was turned off, but the screen flashed with scenes from NASCAR races to kids doing bike stunts to motorcycle races to skateboard stunts. Clothes were heaped on the chairs; blueprints were piled on the tables. There were no bare surfaces. On the walls were snapshots from the old days — surfboards and cutoffs and endless summers.
Scott is a wonderfully affable man, a constant chewer of Nicorets, handsome, athletic, clean-shaven, with receding brown hair. “Cool,” he says with great frequency, but dropping the l — not making the pigeon’s “coo,” but General Pinochet’s “Coup!” He wore a blue gingham shirt and jeans; his feet were bare. He looked fondly around at his pad — “Have to get this place picked up soon,” he said. Various employees came and went. He has six crews and 20,000 feet of fence under contract: power plants in L.A., housing tracts, Coors Amphitheatre down near the Mexican border.