This week I’ve been sharing some of a memoir draft that’s been in the works for over a year. I’d love your feedback. And I need encouragement. Call it insecurity, that’s exactly what it is.
Thank you for reading.
It was getting late but I had to do it. With a handful of peanuts from the Fellini Kroger, I locked the groceries inside the door on Armstrong Avenue and crossed into the alley. It opens behind Clark Brothers Pianos which is the inside corner of an old motel. A camper van sat behind the block wall, half covered in black plastic and tape. The metallic copper and red stripes glowed orange in the streetlight. The man sells junk he gets for free and fixes clocks. And plays a bit of ragtime with the syncopation of a dull pencil. A peanut shell landed in a black puddle by the van. The gravel alley climbed out of the trees.
The marquee at Broadway Carpets said 49 degrees and 10:18 PM. The big sign hummed between drags of vehicles and the marquee alternated to say, “Check out our other location on Kingston Pike.” Broadway might as well have painted that in the street. I was singing an old song to the beat of my steps. Not a very good song, it was one of my songs.
Two people strolled shortly ahead in pulled hoodies. I drew my own hood, there’d be a lot of people out. The two crossed Broadway and went into Dominos.
I passed the entrance to Old Gray Cemetery. Then along the banks of I40 where people sit and wonder. I turned towards Regas, or where Regas was. The metal sign glowed in elegant red letters. People love those old signs. I turned right.
Sometimes I remember seeing the man who’d jumped from the Gay Street viaduct. Back then I’d lived just up the street and the mission was still on the corner. People ran to where he leapt. It wasn’t high enough to die. He lay in the gravel railroad bed, rolling quietly from side to side. There was a black splatter around his face and one leg made an unnatural angle.
“That’s the craziest shit I ever saw,” someone said.
The interstate severed the neighborhoods from downtown a long time ago. Gay street is like the letter H, the small portion bound within the railroads and the river. Neither water nor rail bring people anymore, but I-40 made Knoxville something to look at in between Asheville and Nashville. The Regas sign is pretty. Should you ever be lost and find your way downtown, remember that people have had a difficult time escaping.
The Emporium is closed tonight, but they have art. I’m on the other side of the street. In a different gallery I find a familiar painting, “Goodnight Milk.” Next building is Sterchi’s, purportedly “The South’s Finest Loft Apartments.” That’s where we first lived. Compared to Nashville we thought it was cheap.
The next six blocks was my walk to work back then. With a suit and briefcase. If you see a young guy downtown in a suit, ask him what he does for work. He’ll probably pick up your lunch.
The next section of Gay Street is the golden quarter mile. On the corner is a ticker sign scrolling a lineup of Bluegrass bands and banjo music floods the street. Old department stores and hotels are single file, renovated to bars and restaurants now with luxury condos above. The streetlight poles are lower than the colorful signs of businesses and the theaters look like carnival rides parked a few blocks away. The patios are full of people and traffic is only two lanes moving slower than bicycles. The brewery will keep your personal mug and the wig shop is a cover up for something nobody knows. The Market Square is tucked a block to the West and people would be filing out. I pulled my hoody tight again and sped my song to newer steps.
I can’t go in Sapphire anymore, I owe the bartender a tip since my last gig. We split the money, the drummer and bassist getting $17.50 each. I usually played for beer when I had a band.
The S&W Grand was boarded up and closed again. Lights out, and those lights were awful. The window says “Tennessee Shines and Friday Nights with Ben Maney.” Donald Brown’s name had already been removed. I remember standing outside and listening to them both on the Grand Piano, for which the place was known. Also the bad fluorescent lights which probably killed the restaurant. Four times or so I played there, those nights it could have been me.
My earlier walk to work would have stopped at the Two Center Square building. A bronze statue of a man in a rowboat is sinking there in the brick. Most people call him Suttree. My next walk had been block further to the First Tennessee Bank tower. They say Cormac McCarthy has been seen on top in the ritzy Club LeCont. I never saw him during my luncheons there, but I was also trying to keep my tie out of the salad plate and wondering who to ask about playing the piano under my other name. The name I use now.
The Friday night Gay Street was behind me. The financial and judicial center of town was all that remained, about as empty and black the river water beyond. I’d be peering down at the Tennessee in a second, far below the Gay Street Bridge. That is why I have come.
There was a joint in the rail at the halfway point. I looked across the water at the black arches of the Henley Bridge which had been out for nearly a year. The barge and crane slept below, barely discernible. It was peculiar to see the concrete curves rising so high from the water with no load or purpose.
The kudzu was dead now, brown and ochre, and the streetlights threw shadows down the cliffs. The air smelled like Calhoun’s Bar B Q. The City County Building rimmed one side of the river like a fishbowl. A great hospital had died on the other bank, lit only by the sparse glow of inside emergency exits. It was for sale, all of it, a whole city of buildings until you reached the broken bridge falling into the damnable kudzu. The saving grace of Neyland Stadium was beyond, reminding a lot people there was still hope, depending on the year and the coach. Of course I had no idea if we were okay or not.
I bent my knees slightly and slumped onto the rail. I pressed my shoulders against my hands and the steel fastened into my sternum just between two ribs. My frame rattled with passing traffic and the hum of an old bridge was swallowed into my gut.
I came here to talk and I started talking.
I was talking to God. To water. My unborn son. My failures and my resolve. To my fourth attempt to make a recording. To the city. To the lack. To the cold wind in my ears and behind my neck. I pushed back the hoodie and my skin jumped. I could hear a voice shouting between the slurring cars. My voice. I bounced my hand on the rail, upon its thousand coats of paint. I’d made this walk a thousand times. I knew where it went, it went to the other side.
I needed to pee. The South side of the bridge touched the first empty hospital building and I eased around the chain link fence. The small deck above the cliffs was lit by the bridge and exposed. There was no place to go. Sparse chunks of concrete led me under the armpit of the iron green monster, reaching overhead and half a mile away. There was nothing but black water below the kudzu, broken glass and mounds of rotting clothes. It impressed upon me that I was no longer safe by the bridge’s ingenuity.
Still, I showered on the kudzu, quickly, and scuttled back into the light. I slipped through the fence and stepped onto the bridge. If you ignored civilization, it was a just a river and three hills to get home. I chose a weary step and a less anxious song. I stopped again in the middle of the bridge, this time a gentle prayer, and felt the wind pushing softly against my hoody.
Much later I returned to the empty peanut shells at my door, let myself in, and slipped in bed next to Ashley. I reached around her and put my hand gently against her abdomen. It was taught as steel and expanding with every breath. I kicked my jeans into the floor and fell asleep.