Always the cautious type when it comes to people outside the family, Mom treasures her privacy – especially where neighbors are concerned. She makes friends easily enough, but holds to the adage that “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Neighbors might overhear a family argument on a still summer evening, might borrow a rake and not bring it back, might stop in unannounced. When I grew up and moved to a home of my own, Mom’s advice was to avoid “getting too thick” with the people next door.
It turned out to be no problem, especially after we moved to Olympia Drive. Every house had a three-car attached garage. We might give a cursory nod to another driver as we pulled around the corner but no one felt obligated. We pushed our automatic door openers and retreated into the safe anonymity of central air. We hired lawn services to fertilize and mow the grass. We didn’t feign the slightest interest in small talk as our children rode bikes or rollerbladed in the street.
At most, we talked about real estate. When a house went on the market, our paths might cross at a Sunday open house. Each of us wanted to be sure our own homes were keeping pace with the most desirable upgrades: lavish finished basements, subtle paint finishes, brick paver patios. It made sense to stay competetive, in case we decided to sell in a tough market.
No worry about “getting too thick” with my neighbors there.
As it turned out, three or four of us had husbands who travelled for their jobs, sometimes leaving before dawn on Monday and not retuning until the end of the week. Weekday widows of General Motors and Chrysler and Delta Airlines, we found common ground. No trading gossip over coffee or catching a movie together; just an unspoken agreement to keep our eyes open when one of us was home alone.
On a Tuesday night in July, I jolted awake when the doorbell rang. The clock glowed 2:19. The bell sounded again, and then again. Roger had left the day before and the kids were both sleeping over with friends. I peeked through the blinds. No car in the driveway; whoever it was came on foot.
Through the narrow window next to the front door, I recognized Kelly from across the street, clad in gym shorts and a t shirt. She clutched a golf club in her hand: it looked like a 5 iron. Shreds of grass clippings and cedar mulch stuck to her knees and shins.
“Call 911.” She gulped for air and stepped inside.
Thin shoulders trembling under her shirt, she gripped the golf club so tightly her nails dug into the skin of her palm. I put on water for tea.
What happened came out in bits and pieces. With her husband gone so much of the time, Kelly had taken a second job as an ICU nurse. Yesterday she worked a double shift and got home from the hospital around midnight. She hadn’t been asleep long when the alarm went off. The panel near the closet door flashed its message that something had activated a motion detector on the first floor.
A minute passed, then two, with no call from ADT to assure her that it was a system malfunction, or that a strong gust of wind had triggered a false alarm. Kelly picked up the phone to call 911herself. The alarm screamed in her ears. It took a moment to realize that there was no dial tone.
The phone was dead.
The alarm panel kept flashing.
Someone was in the house.
She locked the bedroom door.
On this particular night, all of the husbands on our stretch of Olympia Drive were away – in Oklahoma City, Denver, New York, Calgary, and Geneva. I stood up to double check my own alarm and returned to the kitchen.
“How did you get out?”
Kelly spoke in a whisper. “The window. I grabbed the club and tore out the screen. The porch roof is right there.”
“But how did you get down? I mean, it’s pretty high….”
That explained the bark on her knees. She landed in the front flower garden, got up, and ran.
I let the Sheriff deputy in before he knocked and saw three police cars in the street. No flashing lights. No headlights, even. The night was still, the alarm still blaring through Kelly’s bedroom window. She told her story once again for the police report. It was after 3 am when they finished.
A deputy arrived to say that they’d swept the house and checked the woods. The intruder pried the back door open and yanked the phone wires loose. They do that sometimes, he said. But there’s no harm done and things are fine now.
Kelly sipped her tea slowly. I asked if she wanted to stay in our guest room, and was surprised when she accepted. She had to work again at 9, so she would be up and out early. She’d be fine to go back home in daylight, she said, and she had to get the phone fixed.
When I woke up a few hours later, she had already gone.
I never saw Kelly again. No surprise, really. In our neighborhood, people just didn’t “get thick” in that way. I heard that her husband took a job in Connecticut, and a Century 21 sign went up in front of their house.
I went over during the open house one Sunday. Other neighbors nodded approvingly at the custom glass block bar and gourmet kitchen sinks. I stepped out on the deck, alone, and took note of the new back door.