How did I know it was safe to park in the yard, away from the street, far up the driveway, by the boat and trucks on cinder blocks, by the workshop where the country music was playing, and down the path from the small country house? This is one of three things she wants to know today.
I pause for a minute, wondering how to tell her about the factors I weighed. In truth, it was partly the man and mostly the dog, a black-spotted Border Collie mix, who was clearly well loved and well cared for and adoring of her human companion. You can always judge a man by his dog; this is what I consider saying.
We are 387 miles away from our own driveway, according to Google maps. We’ve come to Knoxville, clear across Tennessee, for the middle school cross-country state championship, a competition in which my daughter’s team finished close to last, as expected. And now we are about to drive 387 miles back home, after we make our way to the car parked in Les Lindsay’s front yard, a half-mile away.
To fill the time I tell her that I met Mr. Lindsay on the road just before the turn-off to Victor Ashe Park, where the traffic was snarled and I had an idea that parking in the adjacent neighborhood was going to work out better than fighting to get into the park. He was on his golf cart adjusting the “Road Closed to Thru Traffic” sign to make clearer to drivers which road was actually closed. I rolled down my window to ask him about parking in the grass on the edge of the road, which he said I could do if I wanted. But if I’s you, he said, I’d park in my yard, just up that gravel there, where you won’t get hit. He opened his yard for parking every year, he said, because they do a terrible job of gettin’ people in and out, and it’d be a cryin’ shame to drive all this way and not be able to see your kid run just because you couldn’t find a place to park, that’s what Les said.
He was friendly and helpful, and it was daylight, and there were lots of people around; so I decided it would be fine. Also, I needed the walk, after driving six hours straight and then spending the night not sleeping at the Hampton Inn because I decided a 10 PM cup of dark robust brew coffee from the lobby sounded good. And Les reminded me, a little, of my mother’s people from Nankipoo, TN.
I pulled up the gravel drive, tentatively at first, thinking I’d just park along the edge at the bottom. But Les signaled to keep on coming, park right there by the boat, he said, that way I’d have plenty of room. So I parked, then I unloaded the extra shoes, extra water bottle, and left the mountains of other stuff, extra jackets and blankets and hats. I had come prepared for chilly, rainy weather and been surprised by an overcast 78 degree morning. Les saw me loading a bag and said he was sorry that he couldn’t give me a ride in his golf cart, but he needed to make sure other people knew they could park at his place; so he and the dog would be right there when we got back, he said, probably on the porch and maybe his wife, too, but right now she was inside with the poodle because sometimes the poodle was a little overprotective and didn’t always make people feel welcome.
The race itself, the one my daughter ran, was over in about 20 minutes, starting gun to final finish-line-crosser. A long journey for a short contest.
How do I know the way home, she wonders. This is the second of her three questions today. How do I know which way to turn, and how to get from Trader Joe’s, where we stopped to get lunch, back to the Interstate without using my phone, and which expressway leads back to Memphis?
I am quick, too quick, to tell her that it’s many years of experience, lots of driving all over the place, paying attention to things and learning to figure out which way is east and which west. I tell her these things exactly at the moment I realize I’ve gotten turned around and am actually lost. This detail I do not share, because in just a minute I’ll have my bearings straight and we will again be heading in the correct direction. Sometimes I get lost, too, I should have told her. That would have been a better answer.
Eventually we will decide to listen to a book, to fill the space with a story we’ve enjoyed once before but want to enjoy again, together. But at first, once we are finally heading west on I-40, we are quiet. I tell her she can pick the music, any music she wants; but she says the quiet is nice for now, says they watched two movies in the car on the way up, with the other mom since I had to work, and that it was fun watching movies, but if I’ve ever seen Prefontaine then I know the ending is terrible, and it’s a true story, and maybe she’ll just do some of her homework.
So we are quiet, looking at the low mountains (hills, really) covered in their autumn blanket. It’s pretty how there are bands of red and then yellow with a stripe of green in between, she says; and I agree.
And then, after several long minutes, what she wants to know is this: when I’m getting dressed, do I put on sock-sock and then shoe-shoe, or sock-shoe, sock-shoe? This is the third of three things she wants to know today, while we’re together, just the two of us.
Sock-sock, shoe-shoe, I say, without having to think. Me too, she says, because the other way just really doesn’t make any sense, does it, and isn’t it funny because she had a feeling we did that the same way. Then she looks out the window again. I like that I got things from you, she says.