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Living with Ghosts

I’ve been back in Knoxville over a year. That year mark is usually where I start to feel like I live somewhere, a new space, a new place. The transition here has been different than my last few moves which were all just to new rentals in Nashville. Moving back to Knoxville is as close as I will ever get to moving home again.

I grew up in Kingston on Watts Bar Lake. It’s about 40 miles from my childhood home to the coffee shop I am sitting in right now typing this. My father had a printing business. He mostly made those Day-Glo pricing labels on bread or soda, rolls and rolls of bright orange and green circles screaming “99¢” or “Buy 1 Get 1 Free.” On Sunday, a couple boxes would get packed up and loaded into the old Toyota Landcruiser and Dad would drive them to Kern’s bakery in Knoxville. It was a special treat for my little brother or me, sometimes both of us, to get to ride along. The Knoxville of my childhood consisted of the 17th Street exit, having my teeth loosened from the Landcruiser’s poor suspension, and the yeasty haze of industrial bread baking.

In high school, Knoxville was “the city,” the place where the cool kids were and underaged girls could weasel their way into Planet Earth in the Old City to see the Judybats or John Wesley Harding. It was a place to meet college guys and hang out all day in record or book stores. If we were really broke, it was a place to just walk up and down the Strip in our proto-goth clothes trying to look like we weren’t high school kids from the sticks. It was where my college-aged boyfriend lived in student housing and I got that first glimpse of a place where a weirdo could find her sistren and brethren.

When I had my son, Knoxville was a place to escape Kingston where I’d moved back to lick my single-mother wounds. It’s where I worked. I commuted every day with a bag cell phone in my car because my parents were worried about getting in touch with me while they watched my baby. I got into grad school and continued the commute. I am convinced grad school is meant to crush a person. Trying it with a toddler and a 80-mile round trip every day didn’t do anything to dissuade me from my opinion. I still reveled in it. There were smart people, talented writers, and challenging things to read. There was cheap falafel and a crush. There were late nights with beers while my son slept soundly in a crib under my parents’ watch.

Knoxville was where I found a job after leaving my ex-husband and moving home from the west coast with my tail between my legs. It was a cool job in the Old City not far from where Planet Earth used to be. It was new friends and then my very first apartment that I paid for by myself. It was walks to the river across Cherokee Blvd. and to Sequoyah Elementary to drop my son off for school in the mornings. It was tea and the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’ve eaten on one of the saddest days of my life at my friend Janet’s house less than a block away. It was falling in love with someone across an ocean through the wonders of technology. It was a struggle to pay that rent and put groceries in that kitchen.

A dozen years later, Knoxville is renting an almost hundred year old house in a part of town I’d never set foot in, in all those previous Knoxvilles, with that man I fell so hard far. It’s getting my legs back under me and a finished novel that I hope at least ten people will want to read. It’s a great job that utilizes my eclectic skill set. It’s my son moving “home” to go back to school. It’s reconnecting to threads that where still here to be found when I returned. It’s beautiful old friends and wonderful new ones. It’s a coffee shop that I rent by the cup to write in a place that doesn’t distract me with all the things I should be doing at home. And it is so many ghosts.

It was more prevalent when I first moved back. I would be somewhere I had spent time at before, Tomato Head on Market Square or the FedEx on Cumberland Ave. and I would anticipate seeing someone from one of those previous archeological layers of my life in Knoxville. Many of them have moved on to new adventures, especially the folks from the grad school years. There’s more than a handful who are dead.

I keep telling myself it’s being in my mid-forties. I have four decades of life behind me and all the memory that entails. I still catch myself turning corners expecting a building or a business that isn’t there. I’ve run into a few people from those deeper layers. The frisson of the encounter reminds me of how much time has passed since I last spoke with them. I’ll hear a snippet of song and I am transported to moments so keen in my senses I can smell the clove cigarettes and taste the cheap beer or feel the pinprick of hiraeth, best translated from the Welsh as a longing for a place that no longer exists or may never have.

an old me

I’ve had a year to settle into a new rhythm and make peace with the real and imagined ghosts of my other Knoxvilles and my previous selves. Making peace with them is the wrong term. I am happy to be home, or as close as I will get. A different family lives in that house I grew up in. There are more wistful smiles than spectres in this newly forming layer and there are far more people I think of fondly when driving by an old haunt than moments I’d truly like to forget.

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