Next door a quiet balm

I was six about years old when she first swam into my ken. Her square yellow house sat just uphill from ours through a border of pines. On summer evenings, as I lay in my bedroom with the sun still bright in the sky, I could hear her through the screen, talking now and then to her husband in a voice high and angular and yet somehow pleasant. She was a short, ample woman of flowered dresses, with an storybook kitchen full of pie-smells. It had a high-legged white enameled stove -- the sort a small boy could readily have crawled under -- and a pantry with cupboards rising to unreachable and mysterious heights. Her name was Mabel Jones.

I used to visit that pantry almost weekly, bringing eggs from a farmer who was a friend of my parents. I would arrive with the gray egg-carton held gingerly in both hands and the week's price lodged precariously in my easily distracted memory. When both had been properly delivered, she would shuffle into the pantry, take a small cloth purse from a drawer, and count out some coins. Most of the time they included pennies. Sometimes she added a cookie. We rarely talked.

Her husband's name was Floyd, and he was a mailman. He spent his days delivering other people's words, and he evidently felt that that was sufficient involvement with the language for any man. As near as I could tell, he hardly ever spoke; and in my pine-cone days, such taciturnity seemed both majestic and frightening. I would see him out mowing his lawn (which, as a practiced walker, he did with meticulous patience), or painting his house, or sitting in the wooden rocker on his front porch. I once went with my father to borrow his ladder, and he led us, amid gruff assertions about the weather, into the must and dimness of his garage. I remember marveling that, unlike the dull neatness of our cemented garage, his was floored in hard-packed earth. He had no car.

We, of course, did; and as we drove about we would see him, now and then, delivering mail. His route lay far across our spread-out college town, leaving him a three-mile walk back home. Meanwhile some stranger, living who knows where, delivered our mail. I once asked why they couldn't simply swap routes. Nobody seemed able to give me an answer, so I concluded that it didn't much matter. But I never felt quite the same about the post office after realizing that about Mr. Jones.

The most delightful thing about their household, however, was the dog. He was a graying German shepherd, slow and placid, with the incongruous name of Zip. I remember noticing, when alphabetizing attacked me in third grade, that the three neighborhood dogs all had names starting in Z. Moreover, they rose alphabetically from Zach (in the house down the street from ours) through Zeke (our mongrel) and on to Zip. As I think back on it, the progression was partly biblical: the boxer was no doubt named after Zacharias, and our hound owed his name to Ezekiel. Zip, I suspect, was simply himself, with no thought for Zippor or Zipporah.

However his name arose, he was as much a creature of habit as his master. Mornings, as Mr. Jones left in his blue-gray uniform, Zip left for his own tour. He would trot across our front yard and turn up Whitney Street, to reappear twenty minutes later coming down the hill on the other side of the his own house. He, too, had his appointed rounds; and though I would not swear that neither rain nor sleet nor snow ever kept him snuggled in that sweet-smelling kitchen, I recall that the neighbors behind us used to claim they could set their clocks by him.

In fact, you could set all kinds of clocks, literally and figuratively, by the Joneses. As I see them now through the later-blooming branches of a literary life, they seem almost characters out of fiction -- the quintessential neighbors, the archetypal old folks, the familiar spirits of the early 1950's. Is that the naievte of youthful memory -- so that what to grown-nups seems resonant with hidden meaning is, to a child, simply the way things are? Were they really closet intellectuals? I don't think so. Children, after all, are the ones who see the undersides of things -- who notice the tags on the bottoms of tables and the places the painter missed. So, too, they look up at adults from underneath, and color them in their own primary hues. And while they may not comprehend complexity, they sense it.

No, I suspect there really was something entirely uncomplicated about the Joneses.In an era of youthful brio they were genuinely sober. In a town full of academic probings they were honestly simple. And now, in an age awash with the notion that only the articulate are significant, they bob gently upon the surface of our anguished profundities -- just Floyd and Mabel, two buoys marking a quiet channel.

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