April 21, 2014
Today would be different. The post office was on the Tennessee side [of Lookout Mountain], 1.7 miles from her front door. . . . Round trip: 3.4. She had not walked this far in twenty years.
— Jamie Quatro, American fiction writer
from “1.7 to Tennessee,” in I Want to Show You More
The memory has lingered for 60 years. I am in first grade, it’s a warm sunny day so it’s probably in the spring, after I’ve turned seven. I am about to walk home from school alone. I want every coat button buttoned, every buckle on my bookbag fastened, the flap snapped, the strap snug across my body. I want the papers inside to be in order, pencils in the holder instead of rolling loose in the bottom.
Have I been reprimanded for being scattered and forgetful? Have I lost a hat, or one glove, or a homework assignment? That part I can’t remember. I remember only that it is very important to me that I be perfectly put together on this day. Also for reasons that are lost to time, I am walking home alone instead of with an eighth-grade girl from the next block who is usually charged with looking after me.
I am walking down 29th Street toward our house on Canby. I imagine my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen. Won’t they be happy that I’m all buttoned and buckled, I think. I walk into the house, find them, smile and twirl around. “Look!” I say.
They are not impressed. Maybe they don’t know what they are supposed to be looking at. “I have everything buttoned and buckled!” I say. At least I remember that’s what I say. My mother shrugs. “Practice your piano now,” is all she says.
Today I went looking for the energy of that little girl who walked home alone one day, possibly the day that she took a detour down an alley toward what she thought was a circus tent but that turned out to be a funeral in progress. If it is that day, then it is probably safe to say it’s the day of my first literary Gallivant, when I turned off the path I was on and found a story.
I parked in front of St. Margaret Mary School on Herr Street. One block down 29th Street I peered in the windows of what had been Camplese’s Studebaker Showroom, the place where St. Margaret Mary parish held its Masses before the sanctuary was built. Inside, there’s a turquoise Ford Falcon with an inspection sticker from 1979. Outside, beside the garage door, a rusted gas pump shows a price of 39.9 cents a gallon.
I took the detour down the alley and stood at the gate of the cemetery. Back on 29th Street I picked up a yellow plastic hinged egg. Farther on I picked up a penny dated 1980 and put it into the egg. At 29th and Canby, where the house I lived in no longer stands, I tried to remember what it looked like then, the big trees and the grass that I was so heartbroken to leave when we moved a few months after the perfectly put together day.
And then I walked back to my car. Later, I measured the distance with the odometer. It was .25 to Canby Street.
I leave on Wednesday for the first Gallivant of 2014. Ithaca first, for the Ithaca College New Voices Festival. A Bread Loaf friend directs it, another, whom I haven’t seen in a long time, is reading. Then it’s on to Vermont for some cabin-in-the-woods writing time, then on to Newton, Massachusetts, where the author of “1.7 to Tennessee” will be reading. She was the fellow in my Sewanee workshop last year. She thought a scene in my story was “eerily similar” to hers, and she asked me if I’d read it. I hadn’t, then, but I have now. I, personally, don’t see the similarity, eerie or otherwise, though both protagonists are in their upper eighties. I want to tell her that I have read it now, I’ve read her whole collection, it pulled the top of my head off.
Gallivant 2014 is underway.