Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Knoxville: Summer 1998

By Jack Neely

JUNE 8, 1998: 

"Knoxville: Summer 1915," by James Agee, is one of the finest pieces of short prose in American literature. Originally published in 1938, it later inspired an oratorio by Samuel Barber, now one of the composer's best-known works. In 1957, after Agee's death, the original vignette was included as the introduction to Agee's autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. The book won the Pulitzer and is now an American classic.

Agee's memory of the summer when he was not quite 6 years old, living a briefly happy childhood with his family on the 1500 block of Highland Avenue in Fort Sanders, could hardly be improved. But we can't help noticing that it describes a Knoxville we might not recognize right away. Sometime during the last 83 years, we began celebrating summer a little differently from the quiet, easy-going gloamings Agee remembered so distinctly.

In any case, just as swimwear and activewear have changed with the times, it seems clear that Agee's summer classic needs updating to make it relevant to today's active, high-tech lifestyles. So we went to a middle-class West Knoxville neighborhood comparable to what Highland Avenue was in 1915, spread a blanket on the lawn, and tried to capture the ambiance of Knoxville in the summertime that may be inspiring a latter-day Agee even today.

—Jack Neely

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, as I knew them when I was so successfully disguised as a Talented And Gifted elementary-school student with a mild manifestation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

It was a middle-class cul-de-sac; the houses of brick and vinyl siding all looked from a distance like grand Gothic cathedrals and up close more or less like trailers. Around the houses were softwooded trees, mostly Bradford pears, most of them planted last month, but some of them almost three months old. There were invisible fences, marked with little plastic white flags, around the yards to keep in the Dalmatians and other dogs that we had seen in the movies, but they did not keep them in. The dogs would charge at the flags of the invisible fence and make a single cry of unmuted anguish combined with a weird ecstasy, surely aware somewhere within their feral crania of the paradox of their pain and pleasure arriving at once, and then be gone for the evening; they would return only to eat dog food from the no-tip plastic bowls marked with the names by which they were known. Because it was a cul-de-sac, as the real-estate agent told us all the safest middle-class neighborhoods were, the people we did not recognize were the people who did not belong here and should go somewhere else soon. On the cell phone he held in the yard, my father would call 911 and describe to the police the people he did not know.

The men were mostly small businessmen, one or two very modestly executives, many of them clerical, and most of them between 30 and 45. They stood in their yards with their hoses and cell phones, but mostly with their cell phones.

But it is of these evenings I speak. Supper was at 6:00 and was over at half past, especially when there wasn't a line at the drive-thru. My mother would get the fajitas, my father would get the nachos grande, and I would get the seven-layer burrito deluxe, which had a toy Godzilla in a sealed plastic sleeve. We would always be together at supper, strapped safely into the car.

There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of polyester swimtrunks. In the twilight stood the fathers in T-shirts that have words on them, some words alluding to the heroes of sport, some words which were overtly sexual, some words which were merely suggestive, in what they believed to be good taste; they would appear one by one, holding cell phones and plastic spray bottles of Roundup, the hueless fluid with its promise of no mercy and no pity, no, not ever; and they squirt the dandelions and clover and violets until they shrivel in grey submission; at length there are only four plant species left surviving in our lawn, now only three species, now only two, now only one. Now is the night of one blue fescue.

There are locusts whirring in the trees, though now they are called cicadas, and they and most of the insects are silent because they are dead. There are not many fireflies because in the days when there were fireflies the children would catch them and put them in a jar and freeze them by the hundreds until they stop moving, and then they send them to Oak Ridge for good money.

The children, most of them well-fed and plump, run or, mostly, lumber, yelling those names by which they were known, but mostly on these summer evenings they would run within the house, across the cool carpets of the house, between the various rooms of the house, between the big-screen TV in the recreation room and the computer in the breakfast nook where they played Bludgeonmaster and Lasertron and Gorefest 2000. They emerge from the house mainly when it has come the time of evening that we climb into the minivan to go to the soccer game.

It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now but of their parents who yell at them while they play. They are all there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt. All my people are larger bodies than mine, with voices meaningless and stertorous like the voices of large predatory birds. One is my mother who is yelling at me. One is my father who is yelling at me. One is a computer graphics animator; she is yelling at me; one is a telemarketer; he is yelling at me. By some chance, here they are, all on this soccer field on quilts in the grass, yelling at me. And who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this field, running as they watch in the lined grass among the loud sounds of night.

May God bless my people and remember them kindly in our hour of loss, 13-0, and hasten the hour of our driving away.

At home, in the driveway, we unbuckled and disembarked from the minivan which held our hopes and dreams and darkest fears; on the blacktop streets beyond the mailbox there was a loud auto, and a quiet auto, then another loud auto, then a really loud auto; then a loud, throbbing auto; then some more loud autos, then a tractor trailer rig, then some minivans, then another loud auto, then some more really, really loud autos, then a jeep full of well-fed white boys listening to gangsta rap.

Back at home, in the yard, there were no people at all. The sounds of night were the sounds of the air conditioners that were attached to the houses, installed on concrete slabs next to the houses. Chiefly, the air conditioners were set much alike, in a compromise between very cold and chilly (and quite surely a sense of art behind this compromise), and the sounds therefore were pitched much alike, something between a whir and a hush, with the occasional clatter of a deviant fan blade.

And from the big jeeps, aestival chariots, the beefy freshmen in tank tops and backwards caps drive to the sound of loud rap, each beefy warrior identical to the next, each jeep-chariot identical to the next, each throbbing song identical to the next; there is never one rapper or one jeep full of white boys listening to rappers, but an illusion of at least a thousand jeeps, a thousand rappers, and a thousand beefy white boys alike; the noise of each rapper is pitched in some classic rapper range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones—and yet you seem to hear each rapper discrete from all the rest. They are all around, from every street and every jeep, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, shivering in your eardrums and teasing your groin, the boldest of all sounds of night, its throbbing exalted not by man or by the dark sky itself but by a powerful Bazooka amplifier. And yet gangsta rap is habitual to summer nights and is one of the great gangsta order of noises, like the noises of transformers blowing in an electrical storm and of dental drills and of shovels on asphalt.

But we did not spread our quilts on the lawn on those evenings, to prevent soaking them with the poisons of the lawn. Now, we spread our blankets inside, where it is chilly, and it has come that time of the evening when we watch COPS and Hard Copy and the rerun of Seinfeld—the one where everyone thinks Seinfeld is gay, then a rerun of Coach, the one where everyone thinks Coach is gay, then a rerun of Frasier, the one where everyone thinks Frasier is gay. Then comes Friends, the one where everyone thinks the Friends are gay. Then they would plug in a video: Diehard, as was their choice on most of the nights of the summer, or Scream, or perhaps Terminator II; most of what we watch on TV, most of what we do, most of what we wear, most of what we listen to on these summer evenings, is to prove that we are not gay, that none of our people will believe we are gay, no, not ever; and that we will not, oh will not ever see ourselves in a sitcom, for they never, no never, make sitcoms about people who spend their summer evenings watching TV, and when we are watching we know that we are safe and unembarrassed by those who would think us gay.

Outside the vinyl bay windows, people go by, things go by, people in pairs, not in a hurry; we call the police.

Then, when the videos have been snapped away safely in their plastic coffins, comes the time of the night that we retire to the dark solitude of our bedrooms and surf the Internet. In the secret glow of the screen, we spend hours in the chat rooms, looking for something interesting that we do not find, something but nothing in particular, something of nothing.

The Internet, softly smiling, draws me to her; and those who receive my E-mail are those who quietly treat me as one familiar and well-beloved in that Web site and ask for my address and phone number and the name of my elementary school: but will not, oh will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me their real names.

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