The house on Sutherlin was a duplex.
My parents had moved there from a small brick rancher, further out of town on Virginia side, up in a neighborhood that wound up the side of a low ridge, from which my mother had a nearly unimpeded view of the starry night sky. She would stand at the window, contemplating the Big Dipper and the vastness of space. And it was there she decided she’d be happier with more of a buffer between herself and whatever lurked in the cosmos if my father were going to work so many late nights at the local paper.
They were both a bit disoriented in those days, recently returned from three years of living in Europe to find themselves in both my father’s borderline feudal hometown and in the middle of the 1970s. My paternal grandmother, a WASP socialite and collector of novelty cocktail napkins, tried to lift their spirits by inviting them to parties. And in Bristol, there was almost always a party. Alas, there weren’t enough gin and tonics in all of Southwest Virginia to drown out the ennui they’d smuggled back from the Old World. But at least, they could move closer into town, and even though it was a duplex, it was in the nice neighborhood—the only neighborhood anyone lives—not counting a couple of outliers in Tennessee and the big houses up the road in Abingdon.
From the upstairs of the house, they could see the back of my grandparent’s home catty-cornered on the opposite hill. Things were nuts up there. My great-grandmother had passed away, leaving a literal estate’s worth of fancy things to be sold or gifted at whim. The grandparents were splitting up, an event decades in the making, which made it a more-brutal-than-usual divorce.
My mother was pregnant with a child she and my father called Tom, short for Thomas Butler Fields, which sounded like a great name for a poet or a lawyer, or maybe both. My parents decorated Tom’s room with a Peter Rabbit motif, which they rationalized could be gender-neutral in a pinch, though neither seemed to have the slightest notion that the child might be a girl. I was, though. A girl. The only one born in the hospital in Bristol, Tennessee the day before Leap Year. And I ended up with a name that sounded less like it should be wearing a tweed waistcoat and more like a bungled translation of Champs Elysees.
My mother brought me home to the Peter Rabbit room and rocked me to sleep in the chair by the window, from which she watched the neighbors’ cocktail parties, the bitter end of my grandparents’ marriage, the well-heeled parishioners at the Presbyterian Church on the corner, as they gathered after the service to make plans for lunch at the Country Club. Mom wrote in her journal when I was sleeping and described the scene as sweet poison, some concoction that could be ingested satisfactorily for years before inevitable doom.
When my father announced that his newly minted job with my grandfather’s advertising agency had gone a couple of months without a paycheck, my mother took it in stride. There were not a lot of jobs in the Tri-Cities for a man of my father’s particular qualifications, so he took one over the mountain in Asheville.
My mother stayed behind in the house on Sutherlin to pack. Dad called at night from the grand old inn turned half-rotted residential hotel, where I would one day take ballet classes. He looked at real estate in Asheville. He was sure they’d find a good house.
Mom cried the day they left Sutherlin Street, not out of nostalgia or fear of the future, but because she felt like she’d dodged a bullet no more sweet poison. And as she crossed over the top of Sam’s Gap, from Tennessee to North Carolina, I believe she was confident that she’d spared me as well.
I don’t remember any of this. I was seven months old, when we left Bristol. These aren’t my memories, just my version of someone else’s.
I do, however, remember the house. Shortly after we moved to Asheville, my recently-divorced and briskly-remarried grandfather moved in. I know the layout of the duplex. Where the counters were in the kitchen. The light—or lack thereof—on the stairs. By then the house smelled like my grandfather, which is to say like cigarettes, whiskey, old books, and limes. Sweet poison of another kind, but no less deadly. I used to wander the halls trying to jog infant memories, but I never felt any sense of home there.
Grandjay moved out years before he passed away, first to an apartment up the hill and then to DeFuniak Springs, Florida, where he’d have cards printed up identifying himself as Pope of. The last time I was in Bristol, several years ago, for a work event at the Birthplace of Country Music, I drove the few blocks out of town and observed the duplex– still very much the same, in a neighborhood still very much the same. It wasn’t a bad place. Maybe not even as bad as I remembered it. Still, I took a second to quietly thank my parents from afar for getting over the mountain and getting me the fuck out of there.
 That’s fine, but if we’re nitpicking, I would have preferred Alexandra. Alexandra Fields is the sort of name that fits a Jazz Age heiress or maybe a drawing room sleuth (perhaps both). I believe I could have solved the crime and probably looked good in a rope of pearls and cloche hat while doing so.