Rare rear view of the back of Knoxville-born author James Agee’s now-demolished childhood home at 1505 Highland Ave in Fort Sanders, Knoxville, Tennessee, August or September 1962. From the Fleming Reeder Collection

Knoxville, Summer 1985

 

Walking down Highland
and 13th to a sudden
dead end.
Sun-blistered asphalt,
vaporizing generations of
mystery fluids,
floating in the air like
jungle-breath.

I have expectations of finding
something here but
I don’t know what.
An experience, maybe.
An answer, possibly.
Art?

Surrounded by clapboard houses
in sweaters of kudzu,
I walk the middle of the street
with the swagger of youth
in cheap shoes.

An audience of thrift store
furniture on front porches
applaud random Tibetan prayer flags
giving needed shade to
the molding Bud Light coolers.

And I see her there.

That one girl
reading
on her porch.
She doesn’t look up.
I don’t say “Hello.”
The daily routine of
passing strangers.

But I turn and chance
a few steps down
her walkway.
I offer my outstretched
hand.
She looks up,
places her moist fingers
on my palm
and unfolds herself
from her
musty armchair,
the cushions bleeding foam
onto the old wood porch.

I spin her like a
princess carousel
then pull her toward me,
my hand in the small of
her back.
She presses
her cheek to my chest
and I smell her
coconut hair
for seconds of eternity.

We sway to distant
music from Cumberland Ave.
but do not speak.
We both know too well
what we would say;
emotionally charged laments about
life as a twenty-something.
School.
Poverty.
Overcontrolling parents.
Why don’t they understand?
Sometimes we aren’t sure
we will survive or
that we even want to.
Why is the world so confusing?
Pointless?
Sweaty?
Like this moment.
This moment I’ll
never forget but
the wine on her breath
tells me she will
by morning.

Her mouth parts for
a whispered word but
I quickly raise my hand.
“Shhhh” I say.
“I’m going to get towed.”
I touch her lips softly
with mine;
that awkward kiss
of two people who just
met on a sweltering, summer day
and already have regrets.

Dewy, brown eyes behind
her glasses tell me
we are eating
supper for the
6,205th time
in Farragut.
Visiting our daughter
in college.
Weeping at the birth
of our third grandchild.
Purchasing side-by-side
cemetery plots.

She is small and pretty and
I am certain her heart
belongs to someone else.
While I borrowed it
for a moment, I am too young
and too clumsy to hold
it longer than an hour.
A year at most.
I bow and kiss her wrist.
She returns to her book—
never looking back to
me as I retreat to the
safety of the sidewalk.
I step in gum.
Dirty, florescent-pink strings
stretch from my shoe
like cruel party streamers
from a cancelled wedding.

I walk a block and
see the city panorama
in gold mirrors. There is
my own life in a single,
solitary square
of the Sunsphere.
It looks down upon me
like a wise,
yet emotionally unavailable
Appalachian grandfather.
With tobacco in cheek, it
says to me with a muffled drawl,
“There is a world of porches.
There is a world of books.
Life is a dance for
the ones with expectations
and the one
who constantly looks.”

—Rick Baldwin ©2018

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