by Julie Gautreau
The house in Maplehurst Court is still there, settling into the earth on a ridge overtop Neyland Drive and partially obscured by wild trees, a kudzu wilderness. You could live in Knoxville your whole life, work downtown and take Neyland to your house in Bearden every day, and never notice the dilapidated Tudor mansion crowning that ridge. To get to it, you have to take a sharp right turn immediately prior to passing from Henley Street onto the bridge. Somewhere as the crows fly between that intersection and nearby Neyland Stadium, a lane drops off into an early 20th-century boutique neighborhood crammed with architectural paeans to the Tudor era and the Italian Renaissance. Back in time, in layers.
People have written much about the mysteries of Maplehurst, whose residents of long ago included Knoxville’s teaspoon of artists and intellectuals. I am remembering a night in 1999, on the Fourth of July, during a time when the community was transitioning along with the rest of downtown Knoxville, but in the inverse. Downtown was being energized with new development and commercial and residential projects; decades of stagnation and abandonment were finally yielding to a new urban sensibility. Stuck between that and one of the biggest college football stadiums in the country, Maplehurst drew the attention of developers too—as a place to settle a new Bro migration. Football entrepreneurship with an Elizabethan twist.
There was, in fact, Shakespeare that night. We were gathered on the screened-in rear porch of the house, with a view of the Henley Bridge and Baptist Hospital across the Tennessee River. We could not see the river for the wild trees, whose hosts of insects filtered noise from Neyland Drive. We were hot. A ceiling fan chopped through humid air overhead, and French doors hung open to the house’s interior. But that house had no air conditioning apart from river breezes. Above the porch stood a second-floor screened-in porch—what they used to call a sleeping porch, a good place for a futon and a cooler full of ice on sweltering nights. “Thou hast described a hot friend cooling,” or in this case, hot friends cooling. I don’t remember the actual quote from Shakespeare, just that somebody started the game that way.
Must have been a theater type. There were others. I don’t recall how many—maybe 10 or so of us. We had regular jobs—lawyer, journalist, bartender, nanny, dental hygienist, social worker, florist. A legal assistant. Some of us dabbled in writing. One of us wanted to open a dress shop. There was a bona fide artist whose paintings were well known. Some of us smoked cigarettes, and we all drank. We sat in fold-out chairs and passed a sweaty magnum of white table wine around the porch, waiting to hear fireworks that were supposed to be launched from way over on the old World’s Fair Site. The sun was down, but the sky was not yet dark.
Then somebody quoted Shakespeare, or thought he had. If memory serves, another person corrected him or her. Not in a bitchy way. More like, are you sure that’s how the quote goes? That’s how the parlor game started. There was a volume of opening lines from great novels. We all thought of ourselves as well read, or at least pretended to be. This would be the test. The volume was passed around the room behind that bottle of wine, and whoever was “it” opened the book to a random page and read opening lines of a designated great novel. Then the rest of us took turns guessing the work and the author. We needed a flashlight.
Some of them were easy, some not so easy. I remember the one I guessed. Here are the first lines of that opening paragraph: “The Bottoms succeeded to ‘Hell Row.’ Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brookside on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields a way.”
Each turn was an occasion for pride or embarrassment, and we all laughed. I got more wrong than right. We had to think of penalties for obvious guessing. We barely noticed the first whistle and pop of a distant firework. But after a few more, we moved out chairs through the dusty, creaking house to the scarce front yard, and trained our gazes over rooftops in the direction of the Fair Site, and the glitter of the Fourth of July.
I suppose my lazy tomcat was sprawled out on the front walk as he used to do in airless heat, safe from the crows that badgered him all day long. Neighbors walked their dogs or biked past. We were sharing a peaceful experience. There would be another year before a presidential election and subsequent historical events would change our national character. We had every expectation of continued progress and prosperity.
Some of us had cell phones, but they were just for making and receiving calls then. We did not have—every one of us—a camera ready to capture the poignancy of that night, to record our shared peace. Later, we parted company and I am sure I remember one of us saying out loud that this had seemed like an extraordinary evening, though none of us thought why that might be. But I think I know now why.
A few years later, I would drive out of Taos, N.M. into a remote desert ranch and feel like I had gotten lost before finding my destination: a concrete shack, or shrine, said to contain the ashes of the writer D.H. Lawrence. There was nobody else around, for what seemed like 100 miles. I stepped inside the little room to sign a guestbook for admiring pilgrims from the world over. I remembered the lines I had recognized from his novel, Sons and Lovers, back on that hot Independence Day in Maplehurst. I read a few lines from the guestbook, and one of them has stayed with me. The visitor had listed his provenance as a town in England. He wrote, “How far we have come, to this new America.”
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