I always thought that the old couple was senile, that they didn’t have any kids, and that they probably didn’t like the ones that other people had. Summer evenings I’d see them sitting on their front porch. She’d be knitting, and he’d be reading the newspaper. They’d look up and nod as I walked down the lane past their fence, but I never detected even a hint of conversation between them. They spent their time working in the yard and keeping the place painted. They would hang clothes on the line and tend vegetables in their garden, but they seemed to do everything in silence. I often thought that they might as well be doing things alone. Still, you could tell that they loved each other.
Whenever I passed their yard, I not only noticed the silence but seemed to become a part of it. I don’t think that they had a TV—maybe not even a radio! Mom and Dad made me promise to not bother them. That promise wasn’t hard to keep, because the old couple almost seemed like they didn’t belong in the same world that I did.
Sometimes we’d see them shopping in town, and they’d smile and say a few words to Mom, then go up and down the aisles together quietly. By contrast, Tammy, my little sister, would squeal for an ice-cream cone from the seat of our grocery cart, or Jody would grab a box of cookies from a shelf and scream when Mom put them back.
Outside, Mr. McKinney would carefully load groceries into the trunk of their spotless old car as though he was afraid to wrinkle the bags, while Mrs. McKinney sat in the front seat looking straight ahead. But when we left the store, Mom would be snapping a reluctant Tammy into the car seat and Jody into the safety belt, while I struggled to fit ten bags of groceries into our five-bag trunk.
One time my buddy Garth came to visit, and after lunch we walked down to the lake. As we walked past the McKinney house, Mr. McKinney was mowing the lawn, and Mrs. McKinney was kneeling on a piece of carpet, digging around the flowers. Mr. McKinney smiled at us, and Mrs. McKinney waved her trowel when I called, “Hello!”
As soon as we were past their house, Garth muttered, “Did you see those weird rubber boots that they wear over their shoes?” He began to chuckle.
“They’re watering the garden and don’t want to track mud inside, that’s why they wear galoshes!” I explained, trying to defend them. Garth just shrugged.
None of this seemed very important, I guess, except that it kept going through my mind when Mr. McKinney died that summer. I was glad when almost everyone in town attended the funeral, because the McKinneys didn’t have any relatives there that we knew of. But I kept wondering what she’d do. I mean, if their house was quiet before, what would it be like now?
The day of the funeral I heard Mom and Dad talking quietly on the porch. “There were four grave markers, did you see them?” Mom asked thoughtfully.
“No, I didn’t notice,” Dad replied.
I closed my book and stared across the room, listening as their voices drifted through the screen.
“They were infants—apparently none of them lived very long,” Mom explained.
I put the book on the shelf and went outside. Maybe they liked kids after all, I thought. It’s too bad that none of them lived. Mrs. McKinney wouldn’t be so alone now.
A week passed in which I was kept busy painting the kitchen with Mom. Twice she took meals to Mrs. McKinney, but I hadn’t been past their house since the funeral.
Finally the projects at home were done, and I decided to go down to the lake. As soon as I approached the McKinney property, I could feel the silence. When I passed the big elm in their yard, I glanced toward the porch, half expecting to see them both sitting there as always. But the chairs were empty, and only Mrs. McKinney’s clothes waved on the clothesline beside the house. I felt a strange, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw Mrs. McKinney weeding the garden alone. Then I looked at the grass.
The yard that had been so neatly kept was already showing signs of neglect.
Why not? I thought as I turned back toward home. The lake can wait.
Our lawn mower rattled along until I stopped at the gate, undid the latch, and stepped onto the forbidden McKinney property, dragging our lawn mower behind me. I gave a tug at the rope, the mower roared into life, and I aimed it across the yard. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mrs. McKinney get up and come out of the garden. When I made a return pass across the yard, she was taking dry clothes from the line. On my next pass, she was moving a lawn chair from beneath the trees.
As I mowed back and forth, the grass catcher filled, and I emptied it on their compost heap. While I worked, she worked, and I began to realize how well people can work together without talking. She removed lawn chairs then replaced them as soon as an area was cut.
When I finished cutting the grass, I wiped my arm across my forehead, and Mrs. McKinney came out of the back door with a tinkling glass in her hand. She gave me the lemonade, and I drank it and grinned. I gave the glass back to her and, pulling the mower behind me, headed for the gate and the dusty lane beyond. Without a word, she reached out and grabbed my arm, then pressed a crumpled dollar bill into my palm and folded my fingers tightly around it.
I looked at the money and gently returned the gesture, pressing the dollar bill into her softly wrinkled hand. Our eyes met, and, without a word, we understood each other.
As I walked home in the yellow shade of summer, I felt good. I knew that Mrs. McKinney appreciated what I had done, and she knew that I would continue to cut her lawn without pay—or words.
Silence isn’t really all that bad, I decided, especially when it’s filled with understanding.