New Meat In a Good Ol’ Town

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These are the chronicles of a little girl who moved to a big town. Or perhaps they are the chronicles of a big girl who moved to a little town. My first year here has taught me that Knoxville and I are a lot alike: We are obnoxious in some places and blush when our vulnerabilities are discovered. We understand that art, music, and church are often one and the same. Better yet, we love to argue if such a view is true. Knoxville and I love a Saturday of trippin’ through second-hand stores on Chapman Highway followed by a Sunday curled up with The New York Times and a microbrew.

It was on such a Sunday when I wondered if it was possible to have over-the-top adventures in this small-yet-large town. Sure, there was the naked breakfast on my balcony with Prince Charming in August. But the chill of December confirmed he was just a desperate frog pretending. The new year brought a righteous soak in the hot springs around the Broadwing Farm Cabins followed by a roll in the mosh pit at a Whitechapel concert. By Spring, Suttree taught me that even flittermice can have a bounty on their head. And early summer in Elkmont brought lessons in voyeur etiquette as the fireflies did their thing.

November’s adventure was a profound lesson in the school of Hard Knox. I had looked forward to Thanksgiving dinner in my new town only to be stood up. Three laps in the pool of self-pity left my car and me lost on Magnolia Avenue. By accident I discovered Chandler’s Deli. Like a few others I found my Thanksgiving meal here, at a table for one. Bright red Kool-Aid sat above the plastic fork on the right, and three creamy sides oozed over the Styrofoam compartments in a dinner plate of chicken.

This was the first piece of fried chicken I had eaten in my life. Momma forbid this delicacy because “it ruins your hips.” Just once, I would ignore her fatwah on fried things because I missed my family, I missed my friends, and I missed my people. I hated being the new meat in town, as it required recognition that I was both stranger and outsider. Embarrassment prevented me from looking anyone in the eye. The girl working herself to death over the fryers couldn’t look up either. Nor could the two hungover fraternity boys sitting in the corner. It was shameful to feel any melancholy: I had a lovely home, a dependable paycheck, and the unearthly pleasure of hot grease rolling out of crackling chicken skin.

To this day I cannot bring myself to tell the truth when asked about my first Thanksgiving in Knoxville, as the words taste so bad. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things, but sometimes they are the same. Perhaps that’s why we don’t talk about them much.

Last night, amongst some writers, in the midst of an uninteresting discussion, I heard someone say, “I only go to Chandler’s once a year, on Thanksgiving. I sit there like a miserable bastard with my meat and three. There is nothing like their fried chicken.”

Had I been any kind of lady, I would have commiserated. I would have offered him the kinship of my story. I would have waxed philosophic on the pleasures of independence and self-reliance. For a moment, I would have believed my own words while my hand offered a reassuring pat on his arm.

But then, Knoxville isn’t always a sunny fable, and I’m not always a heroine of my chronicles. I know for certain that revealing such pain requires a particular courage. The kind that should be rewarded with a meat-and-three plate and at least a reassuring pat on the arm.

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