Keeping up with Wilhelmina

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MRS. Jones, always first on the block to volunteer for anything from charitable fund-raising to petitioning the city council, solved the perennial problem of how to break the ice and get to know your neighbors in what she herself admitted was an unorthodox fashion. New neighbors moved into the house next door to the Joneses on a Friday. Although no one learned their names, talked with, or even saw them over the weekend, word spread along the block that the new arrivals had lived a solitary life on the wild frontier of Alaska and, therefore, probably preferred to be left alone. This theory was supported by two pieces of evidence. A car in the driveway bore Alaska license plates, and ferocious barking of a volume that could only indicate a large dog (doubtless a husky) emanated from behind the privacy fence separating this noise-maker from the Joneses' miniature poodle, Wilhelmina.

About sunrise on Monday morning, with a robe flung loosely around her shoulders, Mrs. Jones was preparing breakfast when she heard Wilhelmina's soprano bark. What stopped her in her tracks, she later declared, was the sudden realization that Wilhelmina was accompanied by a baritone growl so loud she thought the beast must be sitting at her back door.

A glance out the kitchen window corrected this misjudgment. Across the Joneses' backyard, alongside the fence that ordinarily would have separated him from Wilhelmina, stood a massive malamute, rigid as a statue. Wilhelmina crouched alongside another fence that abutted a woods behind both houses and, like the malamute, fixed her gaze on the corner where the fences converged. There, a deer calmly eyed both animals, which seemed to think they held her captive.

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Mrs. Jones's frantic shout brought her husband downstairs in a pair of suit pants, an undershirt, and one black sock. As they stared across the yard at the malamute, they saw their neighbor soar over that privacy fence in a pair of gym shorts, no shirt, and no socks. His nightgowned wife ran through a side gate into the Joneses' backyard yelling, ``Sit, Sitka, hush!'' and waving a curling iron she had been about to plug in when she looked down from her bedroom and glimpsed impending disaster.

The attempts of the younger couple to restrain their malamute inspired the Joneses to dart into the yard to haul in Wilhelmina, and this sudden intrusion of four half-clad humans into a standoff heretofore reserved for four-footed creatures caused the dogs to forgo the deer and commence chasing each other around an elm tree, barking even louder than before. Later, everyone agreed the deer alone maintained any semblance of decorum or complacency.

Once the dogs had been restrained, Mr. Jones explained deer sometimes jumped into the yard from the woods, and he opened the rear gate so the deer could escape. The deer, however, possibly bored by then with early-morning hijinks, turned away and began nibbling at Mr. Jones's prized hibiscus.

The gymnast remarked that, although his experience with wild animals ran more toward brown bears raiding his trash barrel, this deer appeared to him remarkably composed. His comment reminded Mrs. Jones of the children's petting zoo a mile or so down the road, from where a deer had disappeared the middle of last week. Inviting the gymnast's wife to accompany her, she went into the house to telephone that establishment.

Within 10 minutes, two uniformed young men drove up in a van and unloaded a wheelbarrow. With supervision from Mr. Jones and assistance from the gymnast, they eventually laid the deer on her side (along with, unfortunately, the hibiscus), corralled her four flailing legs (not before one made quite an impression on the stomach of the bare-chested gymnast), tied legs together with a leather thong, heaved her into the wheelbarrow, and rolled her up a ramp into the van.

By the time the men had completed this project, Mr. Jones and the gymnast had planned a golf game for next Saturday afternoon, and their wives had breakfast cooked. The foursome, in various stages of dishabille, as well as the two men in petting-zoo uniforms, spiff-ily pressed, sat around the kitchen table enjoying the sort of camaraderie the new neighbors said they never in a million years expected to encounter so soon after moving to an urban environment.

Mrs. Jones said -- many times over as the story made its way up and down the street -- that while there are many ways to meet a new neighbor on the block, her latest method seemed slightly more effective at establishing instant rapport than her customary bake-and-take-a-cake routine.

Realizing, nonetheless, that it would be difficult to duplicate, she felt her young friends would be equally appreciative of our welcome if the rest of us simply strolled up and rang Jim and Doris's doorbell. You could almost hear the sighs of relief as, one by one, we learned no one would think less of us if we failed, in this instance, to keep up with the pacesetter Joneses.

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