We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that was so successfully disguised to me between youth and adult, that wavering period between knowing who you are, and discovering who you may come to be. Both found and lost.
The intersection of James Agee Street and Laurel Avenue is a mix of old antique houses, decrepit apartments from the 1970s and shiny plastic condo-like buildings that are brand-marked with their owners’ names. Along the paved, heat-soaked roads, the sides are dotted with a car or two, scattered unevenly down the block. Summer is not the time of year for population.
In the evening, around 7 or 8 p.m., if I sit on the porch of my own old, crumbly, yellowing, rented Fort house, at the intersection of James Agee and Laurel, I’ll observe the humanity who hide in their air-conditioned buildings and cars, finally emerging to feel the hot and heavy air between their legs and arms, as they swing down the sidewalk.
Runners, saving their passion and energy for the cooler dusk of the day; couples walking hand in hand, oblivious to everything but the one beside them; and dog owners, pulled along by small dogs, large dogs, and all manner of others in between. If I’m lucky, I’ll see my favorite recurring character—a small Asian man who hurries through the Fort at all random hours. No matter where my evening run seems to take me through the streets of the Fort, he always seems to appear in a different spot. And every time I wonder to myself where he might be going.
Less often, these Fort inhabitants turn toward James Agee Park—the one spot of open green grass in the whole square of the neighborhood. The park also happens to be directly connected to the yard of my yellowing house. Since Agee’s family house was demolished to build shiny apartments in the ’70s, it’s the last commemoration to the man who first wrote of Knoxville in the summer of 1915.
The park itself is empty much of the time, but also full of life. Sometimes a car will drive by, rap music blaring, but if I jump down the three front steps of my porch, walk through the backyard, stroll under the trellis into the park, and sit on a certain bench and listen, I’ll hear the birds first. In the trees beside me, flitting through the air above me, so small and thin and gray against the sky, I wonder if instead they might be bats or even just abnormally large insects. But if I don’t look up in the sky, they can’t be seen. Only heard. They move around, in movements too fast for me to see. They speak in a language high pitched and unfamiliar.
And then, around the 9 o’clock hour, though it’s not quite dark yet, the cicadas begin. I’ve always thought their sound was beautiful, a sign of summer. The music to my humid nights, an assurance that yes, there are at least a couple more months until winter arrives and silences them all. Comforting, like the noise of a fan or a machine, not noticeable until made aware.
Their companions, the fireflies, soon join the gathering, too. Uglier up close than they are far away, yet still wondrous when they flicker and light up, no matter how many times I’ve seen them—and they do still convey the urge to catch them in the same way I used to as a child.
If I wait long enough, when twilight finally succumbs to its dark seducer, more humanity emerges, waiting for their entrance just as they do when it’s time to arrive for a party. Usually found in packs, they loudly crowd the sidewalks, discussing which bar to file into on the Strip as they clumsily pass me on their way.
The Fort has a different feel in summer than the school year. Though parties rage through every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night in the fall and spring, there’s still a restrained air. The inhabitants all know responsibility awaits them eventually. Come Monday morning, the classes or lovers or football hopes they drank to forget will be back.
But oh, in the summer. It feels as if there are no rules. The university gives a reprieve of its dark shadow for a couple of months, and it’s once again a nether world—no longer tied to any one loyalty. Once again, it is a safe haven for all those who wish to live in between its one-way streets. Protected from bustling Knoxville around its edges, people congregate on porches, set up hammocks in between trees, and sit on sidewalks to talk and sip beer—a good time is the only priority. Life moves a little slower, a little saner, and a little stranger—but I believe it’s the only time the true essence of the Fort can be found. Perhaps, it is also the only time the first seeds of the Fort can be traced back to James Agee’s planting, when he wrote of it so long ago.
But I speak of the summer in the time between youth and adult—Ayres Tower chimes and as it tells me the hour, it also subtly reminds me that my time is almost spent in this betwixt world.
We cannot always live in the land of our glory days, no matter how much we wish to. For as we steep in our nostalgia, wringing the last little bit out of the cloth that is life, the rest of the world moves past. The younger keep coming, and the older keep moving—and when you’re stuck in the middle, don’t move to the left or the right, but throw off your inhibitions clinging to you, and go up. We can only go up.
Now I lay on a blanket in the park, the stars above me, though blocked by the yellow-orb moons of the street lamps, and the construction crane ever hanging over this city. I lay there, not surrounded by my friends, but by the memories of us, of this place, of the tears, laughter, pain, pleasure, we’ve carelessly thrown around the streets of the Fort. We’re loved, if not in this current moment, then in the summer days gone by, and the summer days to come.
Note: It is said that James Agee wrote “Knoxville: Summer 1915” in an hour and a half, free-style, and applied only very minor revisions after he wrote it. Being the literary aficionado that I am, I picked up “A Death in the Family” during the summer of 2014, right after my UT graduation, saw the poem’s title and thought, “No, you can’t read this now–wait a year.” I love dates, and what could be more perfect than reading the piece exactly 100 years later, when I’ve moved into a house that is exactly beside and connected to the park that bears his name? So, when summer 2015 rolled around, I finally allowed myself to read the poem and write my own piece on Knoxville in the summer of 2015. I walked down my house steps, across my yard, into the park, and sat down on a bench for the evening. I set a timer on my phone, turned the phone over, positioned myself where I faced both the park and the intersection of James Agee and Laurel, and wrote this… with only minor revisions. What I didn’t realize was that his message of finding yourself, would apply to me now more than ever, a year post graduation. Living in the Fort, my stomping grounds as an undergrad, had made sense, though now the tuggings have told me to move on. But only after I’ve enjoyed one last summer in Knoxville: Summer 2015.
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