Last Things in Tennessee

By Susan Harlan

Photo: Susan Harlan

In and around Townsend.


  1. End of Summer, Motel


The sky shifts against dark rumblings. This is the last storm of summer, and the cicadas seem to chant its coming.

In the motel’s pool is the last beach ball of summer, floating in the fading light.

The smoke of the campfire that the owner has just made is the smoke from the last campfire of summer, giving the mountains their name.

On the telephone wire is a bird whose colors I can’t see. He is the last bird of summer, a shadow.

A pair of shoes, rubbery and black, is kicked off and left outside of the room next door. These are the last shoes of summer.

The trees along the mountaintop above are like paper cuts-outs, folded again and again and then cut and stretched out like dolls. These are the last trees of summer.

The birdhouse by the pool, its wooden post tilted to the left, is the last birdhouse of summer.

The rocks that the creek runs over are flat and smooth, like rocks in a cave, worn down. And the trout in the water are the last trout of summer, and one will be on my plate for dinner.

The clouds that fall low across the mountain and settle in the branches are the last clouds of summer, and I hear people call them marshmallow clouds.

The tan gravel in the parking lot is the last gravel of summer.

Lightning, like a diffuse star, is the last lightning of summer.

The towels that hang on the motel’s railings are the last towels of summer. One has red, blue, and orange triangles on a black background; the other has purple, yellow, and red stripes on a white background.

A restaurant sign glows neon red: GOOD HOME COOKING. It is the last restaurant sign of summer.

The voices in the room down the way are the last voices of summer.

And if there were a bear here, he would be the last bear of summer, but there is not. There is no bear. There is only a small white dog on the lawn, squatting to pee, like a garden statue.


  1. End of Fall, Road


The low stone walls mark road and beyond road, and drivers pull over to look out over them. These are the last low stone walls of fall.

The cars that slow for a biker in bright spandex are the last cars of fall.

The informational plaques that tell you about the mountains are the last informational plaques of fall, marked by fingerprints.

My car’s windshield, white with light, is the last windshield of fall.

In the car is my dog, and she is the last dog of fall, snoring.

Potholes mar the street like patches of rot. They are the last potholes of fall, and they jolt my tires.

The treasures of the touristy gem mine are chained off for the season, its parking lot abandoned. It is the last gem mine of fall.

A truck pulls over at a scenic overlook and leaves its engine running. These are last overlooks of fall, and they reveal everything.

A gray horse sitting in a field looks funny, and he is the last funny horse of fall.

It’s colder than I thought it would be, and I need my blue puffy jacket. This is the last blue puffy jacket of fall.

The signs for DISCOUNT SOUVENIRS are the last souvenir signs of fall, faded by the sun.

I drive past real and fake gristmills, and they are the last real and fake gristmills of fall.

The dishes on display in front of the dish stores are the last dishes of fall, the plates stacked in piles.

The leaf that darts across the road like a chipmunk is the last non-chipmunk of fall.

And in the afternoon, shadows fill the mountains’ ridges. They are the last shadows of fall, which sometimes I want to call autumn.


  1. End of Winter, River


The rooster that crows is the last rooster of winter, and he is awake before anyone.

My motel soap is wrapped in cream-colored paper, and I only use it twice. It is the last motel soap of winter.

A rusty suit of armor guards an antiques store called Way Back When, its porch crowded with tchotchkes. This is the last rusty suit of armor of winter.

The empty picnic tables are the last picnic tables of winter, spotted with frozen gum.

The pale trees are the last trees of winter, and they shake off their snow.

The river is the last river of winter, and I know how cold it is without touching it.

The lost flip-flop on the riverbank is the last lost flip-flop of winter, left behind by a tuber of summer.

The man by the water is the last man of winter. He fishes by himself.

Up ahead are car headlights. They are the last headlights of winter, not for the dark yet, but just for the two-lane highway.

The smell of fires far off is the last smell of winter.

The crows on the trashcans at the KOA are the last crows of winter, watchful.

The rock in my shoe is the last rock of winter, and it hurts.

Gunshots crack through the hills. I’m surprised no one has shot that rooster yet, someone says. These are the last gunshots of winter.

For a moment, a deer is the last deer of winter, but then she is off into the woods again, on her thin, sure legs.

And most of the restaurants have been closed since the day after Thanksgiving. They are the last restaurants of winter.


  1. End of Spring, National Park


The pancake house is the last pancake house of spring, and my eggs over easy run all over the plate.

The smell of bug spray is the last smell of bug spray of spring.

A wrong turn is the last wrong turn of spring, sending me into unknown mountains until I turn around.

Someone sticks a camera out the window of a parked truck. This is the last picture of spring.

The store at the Visitor Center has teddy bears and bear magnets, and these are the last bears of spring.

My souvenir penny is the last souvenir penny of spring, stamped with where I am.

At the gas station, a man takes my twenty dollars and smiles, and he is the last smiling man of spring.

In Cades Cove are old churches and one-room cabins, and these are the last churches and cabins of spring.

A park ranger displays animal pelts on a fence. They are the last animal pelts of spring, warm and soft.

Underfoot are the last dandelions of spring, their nubby white middles blown bare in the fields.

I swat a mosquito. This is the last mosquito of spring, smeared bloody on my skin.

My car’s clock is wrong and will be wrong until November. It is the last wrong clock of spring.

The railroad museum is closed, and it is the last railroad museum of spring.

The motel’s VACANCY sign is the last VACANCY sign of spring, and it means solitude.

The night is dark like it can only be dark far from things. This is the last dark night of spring, cold even by the fire.


The first section of this piece was published by The Bitter Southerner.


Susan Harlan’s writing has appeared in venues including The Guardian US, The Paris Review Daily, The Toast, Roads & Kingdoms, The Common, The Morning News, Curbed, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Avidly, The Hairpin, Public Books, and The Awl. She teaches English literature at Wake Forest University, and her book Luggage was published with the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons in March.




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