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On a summer night

On a mild evening, when sounds and scents hang in the dark like ornaments, the suburbs can't compete with an older neighborhood close to the city's heart - the kind that's an awkward mix of vintage homes, garage apartments, old single-family dwellings converted to flats, and maybe a corner grocery that's survived the rise of convenience stores and supermarkets just because it's so much a part of the block no one wants to let it go.

I'm lying across a bed before an open window in just such a neighborhood of a large Texas city, enjoying the brush of night air that feels gentle as a mother's touch after a long day of struggling with packing cartons and wrapping papers.

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It's moving day eve. All week my husband, my son and I have stayed up late separating our treasures from our trials, and tomorrow we'll haul it all off to our new home - a large, rambling house in one of those suburbs where each structure is buffered from the harsh realities of the street and the world beyond by its own lush expanse of manicured lawn.

It's a beautiful house, just the house we all wanted. When I think of the windows we'll have, and the view of treetops from the second story deck, I'm not at all sorry to leave this drafty old anachronism of a house behind.

But leaving the neighborhood is another matter. I'll miss it, especially on evenings like this when even Texas suburbanites, normally shielded from the vagaries of the weather by perennially pumping central air units, throw open their windows to the fragrant night air.

This isn't my first flight to the suburbs. I've lived in large houses with larger lawns and distant neighbors. And I know how soothing suburban air in the South can be throughout the mild autumn and winter months - gently cool, scented by one's own freshly mown grass, and carrying the faraway sounds of a lonely dog's bark or a child's shout over the close chirping of nocturnal insects. Far from disturbing the peace and quiet, these suburban night ''messages'' often seem to contribute to it, so much so, in fact, that the suburbanite can begin to feel quite isolated in his own little stretch of rolling grassy turf.

Some may prefer that sense of solitude on a night like this. Not I. When the air is still and the temperature just right, I prefer the cacophony of the city neighborhood. Here, where older houses stand shoulder to shoulder, opening one's windows to the evening means opening oneself to the most pungent reminders of the wondrous variety of human life: voices, music, the grinding of engines, the smells of cooking, gardens and gasoline.

All the steamy proximity that at other times drives me to the suburbs gasping for air seems on these evenings the most intoxicating elixir, at the same time exotic and familiar, and sweet beyond description.

As I lie here now, myriad sounds and aromas drift through the open window: a car door slams; a deep voice shouts a greeting; an engine turns over, dies, then cranks and catches; now silence, and I note the smells of damp earth, a cake baking, exhaust. Now the dull padding of rubber against pavement as a jogger passes; the wail and screech of a catfight down the block; a burst of laughter from the alley across the street where teen-agers meet to talk; loud rock music from a passing car, then brakes squealing and engine revving as it rounds the corner. All these details, commonplace as they are, seem to compose themselves in my head like an exquisite jigsaw puzzle, giving me an extraordinary sense of the life around me, the precious individual lives as well as the common human experience that unites us.

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At this moment I feel intimately included in the lives of people I hardly know - the young couple in the slightly shabby cottage next door, the retired gentleman in the efficiency apartment across the street, the old cowboy across the alley, the struggling musician in the garage apartment.

For almost all of us life here is a temporary stopover on our journey to a better job, a better life, or just a house in the suburbs. When we meet we exchange pleasantries or nod and smile. We haven't felt it necessary to build friendships, since we have our families and friends apart from this little community.

Nevertheless, when I hear the saxophonist playing blues in his tiny apartment or catch the smell of frying meat from some nearby kitchen, I feel I know my neighbors in a way I never could through conversation. In a small way I enter their worlds, and these fragments of their lives become part of mine.

Lying here in the dark, basking in the warm vitality of this neighborhood for the last time, I feel like a mother who watches her sleeping child, aware that in spite of her profoundly intimate connection with him she will never really comprehend his maturing thoughts and dreams, and yet knowing that no degree of understanding could increase the absolute and overwhelming love she feels.

It's the love of the living for life itself, the piercing tenderness we feel for our own.

Silently I bless my neighbors in their cooking, their laughter, their music, their lives so different from mine and so familiar. I pray that when I'm farther from them, when I'm no longer linked to their lives by the autumn air that drifts through an open window, I will remember our kinship.

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