Where Tolerance Had Limits

July-August 1995By Julie Crane

Julie Crane writes from New York City.

We are talking now of summer evenings in a town on the New England coast, brought back across a lifetime by James Agee's dreamy evocation of a Knoxville childhood: the heat, the heaviness, the stillness broken only by hushed conversations on shadowed porches and the soft hiss of water on lawns. We are three blocks from the ocean, waves lap at the foot of the street; but tonight the August heat lingers long past dark and the sultry air lies every bit as heavy as it did in Agee's Tennessee. Like his, this is not an easy story.

My neighbors live in houses that are large, and after supper sit rocking on long porches painted white and grey and brown. They are waiting for the tide to turn, for the salt air to steal upstreet, bringing coolness and a night's sleep. It is dusk and the younger children are beckoned in from play; sunset, and the older ones too are called back to their porches. Assembled now, we await together a breeze from the east that does not come.

Instead an ill wind, unexpected: A police car glides slowly, quietly onto our street. Conversations cease, and my neighbors watch, poised, as if knowing that lives will be changed tonight, innocence lost, prices paid.

Let me tell you about this neighborhood: It protects its own, it keeps their secrets well. Earlier this same summer, I escape from my grandfather and leave my own safe porch on a Sunday morning, crossing busy streets alone, to wander up and down the aisles of a Methodist church. Church is church in my small world, and I have come to look for my parents. The neighbors assembled here know me, and one of them lays down his hymnal, leaves his pew, and, taking my hand, leads me gently home to my porch and my grandfather.

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