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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-thud of screened door for Cokes and midday sandwiches and to use the telephone.
"Hi, Colquitt," they'll say to me, looming large and rank-sweating from a morning of wrestling our ill-tempered 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 virtues of 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 down-hominess," 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 wrought-iron 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 revenge -- old 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. Or, if the truth were known, of the Jenningses. The house was his family home; they had been substantial people who had died and left the house to Semmes Jennings before we came. He was a broker downtown, and a posturing bully. Eloise had been his secretary.
"Probably," Claire said, licking salt off her upper lip. "But that's not it. The McIntyre lot's been sold and they're going to build a house on it."
"Oh, shit!" I wailed. I don't say that often, not like some of our friends, to whom casual obscenity is a not-uncharming habit. It's not that I disapprove; I just don't say it much. But this warranted a hearty "shit."
"Isn't it awful? I knew you'd hate it worse than anybody." Claire did not look sympathetic; one of the things I find amusing about her is a totally unmalicious malice. Besides, the McIntyre lot was not next door to her. It separated our house from the Guthries' to the left, and I have always loved it.
It is a peculiar lot, shaped like a narrow wedge of pie, broadest in back and tapering to a point at the street. It has -- or did have -- a steep ridge running like a spine down its length, thick with hardwoods and honeysuckle and tall old wild rhododendron. It is a shallow lot, stopping about on a line with our back patio, and a creek runs through it parallel to the street, bisecting it neatly into two halves. The same creek winds through our front yard and dips under the street, through a culvert, to reemerge in the small park that divides the street. Because of its narrowness and lack of depth, because of the ridge and creek, we had always been sure that no one could figure out how to put a house on it. Indeed, it had been up for sale at the same time our house was, and we had not bought it primarily because everyone on the street assured us that architect after architect had surveyed the site and pronounced it impossible to fit a house onto comfortably.
It had remained unsold. In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only a block off one of the city's main thoroughfares. Our bedroom windows overlooked it and so did the unused upstairs bedroom that I planned to make into an office when I left the agency. Downstairs, the kitchen and breakfast room looked out into its lacy bulk through prized old French doors. Outside, our patio faced it. The places, in short, where we lived, where we spent most of our time. Though the Guthries were just on the other side of the ridge, I could and did move freely and without constraint in that end of the house in my nightclothes, or in nothing, if I chose. I have a rather shameful penchant for that. I like the feeling of air on my body. I loved the sturdy chuckle of the creek, the nearness of the woods, the squirrels and birds and chipmunks and occasional possums and raccoons that skittered and shambled there. Virginia and Charles Guthrie loved the lot, I knew, for the same reasons we did. They are, as are most of us on this street, people who treasure space and greenness and privacy. The lot was a buffer, a grace note. Any house there, any house at all, no matter how well done, would stare directly into the core of our living. No matter how careful the architect, trees would have to go.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "There've been a million rumors about houses going up there since we've been here, and none of them came to anything. Everybody says it's just not possible to build on it. Martin Sawyer, he's that very good architect who's Walter's tennis partner, he said it couldn't be done. Who told you? There's not a realtor's sign. We heard old Mrs. McIntyre took it off the market when it didn't sell, back when we moved in."
"Old Mrs. McIntyre has gone to her reward, whatever grim thing that might be," Claire said. "Her daughter in Mobile put it on the market. In fact, daughter sold it directly to somebody she knows here. And I know about it because whoever handled it at the bank told Roger about it."
Roger will probably be the next president of the third-largest bank in the city; at forty-eight he's been executive vice-president for eight years. His grandfather was president. His uncle is chairman of the board. Roger would know.
"Well, that doesn't mean they'll be able to build on it. You know what the architects say."
"There's one that says otherwise. Roger didn't believe it either, so he checked it out, and he says there are plans, sketches, elevations, the whole schmeer, already done. He says it can be done; he's seen the plans. The architect is some young hotshot right out of one of those eastern architecture schools; he's out to put us all in House Beautiful. It's very contemporary, from what Roger can tell, really a pretty good-looking house, if you like that kind of thing. I know you don't, but I've often thought that all that open space and light and stuff... Well, anyway, up it's going, and pretty soon too. The people are anxious to get into it."
"Oh, Claire, oh, damn. That's going to mean bulldozers and chain saws and red dust and red mud and men all over the place -- they'll have to doze it. They'll have to take down trees... Who are the people, do you know?"
"No. Except that they're a very young couple, and her daddy gave her the lot and house for a baby present. Yep. Pregnant and with a rich daddy. I do know that she calls him Buddy and he calls her Pie. Roger got that from whoever handled the closing."
"Sweet God. Buddy and Pie and bulldozers and baby makes three. You know, I'd almost think about moving. I really would."
"No." Claire's broad, tanned face was serious; the gentle malice was gone. "This house and this street is right for you and Walter, Colquitt. You fit here like you were meant to be here -- from the very first you did. You...enhance it for us, for Roger and me especially. Hang some curtains and start wearing clothes... oh, yes, I know you run around naked as a jaybird in there. I'm not going to tell you how I know, either. I'd do it myself if I didn't have three adolescent sex maniacs and old man Birdsong next door and did have a body as good as yours. Hang some curtains and grit your teeth, and meanwhile give me another drink, and then I've got to go home. You might even like the house, and I suppose it's barely possible that you might like Buddy and Pie. God! But even if you don't, it's not worth moving. It's only a house."
After she left I finished off the watery bull shot in the pitcher and went upstairs, a trifle giddy with vodka and dismay, and took a shower. The bathroom that connects our bedroom with the room destined to be my office is large and airy, and the woods from the McIntyre lot, together with the ferns I've hung in the bank of high old windows, give the room an undulating, greenish, underwater light that I've always loved. It makes me feel like a mermaid, wet and sinuous and preening in her own element. There had never been curtains; we had never needed them. Those rooms looked straight into treetops. "I'll hate whatever curtains I put up," I thought, toweling myself. "No matter if they're Porthault and cost the earth, I'll hate them."
I put on white slacks and a tee shirt and went, barefoot, down to the kitchen and started a salad. We'd have it with the half of the crab quiche I'd made for Sunday brunch, which I'd frozen. I put a bottle of Chablis into the freezer, made a mental note to myself to take it out in half an hour, and then, on impulse, stuck a couple of glasses in the freezer and mixed a pitcher of martinis from the Russian vodka Walter had brought home -- smooth, silky, lovely stuff. Why not. Why not, indeed? It's Friday. Weekend coming up. Long, lazy, golden weekend. We'll drink to that.
"We're drinkin', my friend, to the end..."
Aren't you the lugubrious one, though, Mrs. Colquitt Hastings Kennedy, sozzling martinis and weeping over a piece of ground that doesn't even belong to you, I told myself. But it does, I said back. It's more mine than it will ever be theirs, these dreadful, faceless Buddy and Pie people and their awful, faceless baby. I looked out the kitchen window at the piece of ground that did not belong to me, settling itself into the fast-deepening green darkness that seemed to well up from the very earth of it. My mini-mountain.
The headlights of the Mercedes swung across the kitchen and stopped, and went out. I heard the nice, solid thunk of its door closing and went out onto the back porch, cats eeling around my ankles, to meet Walter.
He would not yet have heard about the house next door.
Copyright © 1978 by Anne Rivers Siddons
Copyright renewed © 2006 by Anne Rivers Siddons