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Claire Swanson from two doors up was the first one to tell me about the Harralson house. She and Roger have lived in the yellow Dutch colonial for years, far longer than we've been in ours. Claire is square, sturdy, and somehow comfortingly basic-looking -- low to the ground, as she says herself. Built for stamina, not speed. Those solid hips, impervious to her regular tennis matches and her clockwork morning jogging expeditions around the little park that divides our street, have cradled and spawned three boys. Nice kids they are, in their middle and late teens. The whole street enjoys them and employs them regularly for yard work and the kind of nasty, heavy work you can't get anybody to do for you anymore. They do it cheerfully, coming in with a twang-thudof screened door for Cokes and midday sandwiches andto use the telephone.
"Hi, Colquitt," they'll say to me, looming large and rank-sweating from a morning of wrestling our illtempered old power mower up and down our terraced front yard. "You look like you're painted into those Levi's."
Since I have known them through broken arms and acne and sullen excursions to dancing classes, and since the Levi's do look painted on me, and I am proud that I still have the long, flat thighs to wear them, I don't mind the familiarities. I would mind them, very much, from almost any other boys their age. I am not a formal person, but I am rather private.
Claire and Roger are old money in the city, and the boys don't have to do the work. Their parents insist on it. however. In this very New South city, Walter and I have noticed that the Old South element of it clings to the substantial virtuesof work, lack of ostentation, and a nearness to the earth that survives even in their manicured city neighborhoods.
"I don't see the point in all this plain downhominess," a vivid, restless woman whose husband's nationally prominent corporation had just moved its headquarters here said to me once at a ballet guild meeting. She was in linear black linen and Elsa Peretti silver on a swimming August afternoon in Florence Pell's legendary back garden, a coutured raven in a field of sundresses and pants and espadrilles.
"I mean, what good does their money do them? I know they have it-my God, Carl says some of them could buy and sell Fairfield County. But I haven't seen live-in servants or a driver since I left New York. They keep going to Europe, for God's sake.. if they go anywhere at all. They don't have boats. If they have summer places, they're down on that God-forsaken, potty little island you all are so insane over. I haven't seen one single piece of fantastic jewelry. They send their kids to Emory; can you name me one kid in this town who goes to Harvard or Yale or Vassar? They go to the grocery store. When they go out at night it's to that mausoleum of a club. Why have it if you don't have any fun with it?"
I suppose she felt free to say it to me because she knew Walter and I are not natives. And we certainly are not in the same financial league with some of our friends. But we are of them precisely because we understand the way they choose to live. It is our way too; we find grace and substance, a satisfying symmetry and a kind of roundness to it. We like our lives and our possessions to run smoothly. Chaos, violence, disorder, mindlessness all upset us. They do not frighten us, precisely, because we are aware of them. We. watch the news, we are active in our own brand of rather liberal politics. We know we have built a shell for ourselves, but we have worked hard for the means to do it; we have chosen it. Surely we have the right to do that.
At any rate, Claire and Roger Swanson are a satisfying unit in our world, and have been good friends to us ever since we moved here. So when I stopped the car at the mailbox on my way home from work that afternoon a couple of years ago -- I hadn't left the agency then-and Claire hailed me from midway down the street where she was walking Buzzy, their elderly Schnauzer, I didn't walk halfway to meet her, as I would have with some of the neighbors to whom we are not so close. I shouted, "Come on to the backyard and let's have a sundowner. Walter's working late. Bring Buzzy."
"I have some news you're just going to hate," she said when she had leashed Buzzy to the leg of the wroughtiron table on our patio and had taken a long, grateful gulp of the bull shot I'd brought her. "Mmmm, that's good. You make good drinks. Roger says you're the only woman in town whose drinks don't give him diarrhea the next morning."
"Walter made me learn before we got married. It was one of the conditions. Living well is the best revengeold Spanish proverb or something. What am I going to hate? Don't tell me . . . Eloise is pregnant again."
Eloise Jennings, in the gray Cape Cod across from us and catty-cornered across from the Swansons, had four children under the age of eight, two in diapers, and a front yard full of Day-Glo-colored plastic tricycles and wading pools and swing sets. They were whining, unattractive children who terrorized neighborhood pets and were apt to materialize in your kitchen uninvited, fingers in noses, looking into your refrigerator. Walter and I are very fond of some children, but not across the board, not as a species. No one on the street was very fond of the Jennings children...The House Next Door. Copyright © by Anne Rivers Siddons. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.