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Saying Good-Bye to Knoxville

I spent the loveliest all night long in Knoxville, Tennessee with a storyteller – a friend – a poet. He was eighteen, and I was twenty-two, or maybe he was nineteen, and I was twenty-three.

He had a crush on me but he had a crush on everyone. Although he was eighteen or nineteen he looked forty. He looks the same to this day. I see his posts directing children’s theatre in the South. He was married for a while to a lovely woman, but we haven’t stayed in touch. I don’t know what happened or why they broke up.

But what I remember is that all those years ago, we walked all around the neighborhood of Fort Sanders – James Agee’s old stomping ground.

Maybe I was in rehearsal for the play ALL THE WAY HOME, based on Agee’s novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

In that production, I played Great-Great Grandmaw. My character was 101-years-old.

The makeup artist used McDonald’s napkins and latex to make me old.

I already felt old at twenty-three.

Anyway, after the play - or maybe I wasn’t even doing the play then – Zack and I took a walk. We walked all around Fort Sanders and then it grew later and later, and I thought about James Agee walking all over Fort Sanders as a little boy before his father died in the car wreck near Harriman, Tennessee.

Was it Harriman?

A cotter pin got him.

Whatever that was…

I had auditioned for Mary, the grieving widow, James Agee’s mother, but they gave it to Sarah, a boy-crazy actress, who had a voice like raw silk and Raphaelite hair.

I was Great-Great Grandmaw, and I was only on stage for three minutes. I think my line was “I been borned again” as I grabbed this kid, Rufus, close to me. A lady named Sadie in her fifties pushed me on stage in an old-fashioned wheelchair.

Folks came to see it. It was at the Bijou Theatre, which was a lovely old theatre in Knoxville on Gay Street. Once I saw Bobby McFerrin at the Bijou Theatre, and he made us all sing along with him.

Be happy

Anyway, maybe Zack met me after the show – maybe he came to the show. I think I may be collapsing times, but what I remember is Zack and I stayed up all night together talking.

We talked and walked and walked and talked. A boy named Leslie liked me but only because a boy named Kiffen liked me more. I was unused to boys liking me, but I liked Kiffen best because he cooked for me and walked my dog and it was just easy with him. I explained this to Zack, who by this time had a crush on Mary Ellen

But it was on the World’s Fair Site where we wound up. I think it’s called James Agee Park now. And the sky grew pink over the gaudy Sunsphere restaurant that was once in a Simpson episode.

I wasn’t tired as the sky grew pink and dawn was a gray dusting across the fairgrounds, which were long empty now.

It had been at least three years since 1982 World’s Fair.

But for whatever reason, Leslie and Kiffen weren’t around. So Zack and I took a walk around Knoxville in Fort Sanders, and I thought of James Agree walking with his father and seeing Charlie Chaplin movies.

I wondered if we could stay up all night, and suddenly the air was rosy with dawn, and I thought – I may never sleep again.

This is all so beautiful.

Had we been drinking? Maybe earlier – maybe beer or some sweet concoction in a vat of something, but it had long warn off. I never did hard drugs – not once – unless you count magic mushrooms and I did those twice. I smoked pot, but Zack, for some reason, didn’t drink, or if he did, it wasn’t much.

So we just walked and made plans for a life. He still had a few years left at UT, and I would be leaving – graduating with an MFA in Playwriting – the only student in the MFA in Playwriting program.

Zach liked Knoxville. He saw its potential.

I saw it as a trap, and I knew I would leave, but I could appreciate the rosy dawn and say thank you to a city that had been mine for a little while.

Did James Agee’s ghost follow me?

Did Great Great Grandmaw’s ghost follow me?

I only know I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to walk with a friend who made me laugh. I did not feel the least bit tired as Zach told me stories – he was such a gossip and a neurotic – but they make the best storytellers.

We found a bench on the World’s Fair Site, and we kept on talking and talking and talking as our stories looped and backtracked, and the sun came up over Knoxville.

And I realized I was saying goodbye to the city where I’d gone to high school and college, although I’d left for a year to live in England.

I was saying goodbye.

I didn’t know that Zach was saying hello.

He never left.

The Tradeoff