I noticed the neighbor girl at the same moment Danny, another neighbor, did. She was huddled on a big rock in her front yard with her head in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. Danny and I looked at one another, and moved in from opposite sides of the street.
I’ll call the girl Kim. Though at 23, she’s more woman than girl, at least physically. She has milky white skin, pale blue eyes, and a mass of thick chestnut hair that falls in natural ringlets about her shoulders. She is what today we call special needs, and her manner slides on a scale between sweet and child-like on one end and anxious and fearful on the other.
I’ve known Kim and her parents, Karen and Joe, since my husband Tom and I moved in down the street on New Year’s Eve three years ago. When we emerged from unpacking to go in search of dinner, theirs was the first house we noted; music was blaring, a bonfire was crackling, and revelers were awaiting the countdown to midnight. The following year we joined the party, in what we learned was an annual event Karen and Joe hosted in the neighborhood.
Last autumn Joe was in a freak motorcycle accident around the corner from home. He was driving 30 mph when he lost control of the Harley. He skidded and crashed, fracturing his skull and severing his spine. Karen was forced to get a job, something she had never done since her daughter developed a brain aneurysm at the age of 11 months. Now, as Kim will tell you each time you chat with her, she has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work. She has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work. She has to take care of her dad while her mother is at work.
The day I found her on the rock, I think the stress of these changes had simply overwhelmed her.
This episode made me think, as I often do these days, of neighbors and communities. We’ve been pulled deeper into this neighborhood since we landed here three years ago, intending to rent for a while, to recover from our own personal housing disaster and somehow thrive without taking root. But the threads of that illusion spun themselves out even before yesterday evening. They fly like tattered flags over our house, in face of the kindness of our neighbors and the stories we have come to know about them.
Take Dave and Cristine across the street. We hardly talked to them at all before this last Christmas, except to chat briefly on Halloween as we stood outside our houses surveying the number of trick-or-treaters. Then Cristine came bearing her annual gift of homemade Yuletide tamales. When we locked ourselves out of our house on a chilly night three weeks ago (without even a cell phone), Dave and Cristine stepped up like old buddies. They plied us with beers, found a locksmith, and urged us to wait it out in comfort at their house.
We know so many stories now about our formerly anonymous neighbors: smart, efficient Jennifer next door who lost her father this last year; Lewis the communications consultant on our east side whose brother died of a drug overdose long ago, and who leaves weekly shopping bags bursting with oranges on our doorstep every February; German Ilse down the street who photographs dogs and lost both her mother and her beloved black Lab at Christmastime; Lewis’s wife Liz who is crazy about crafts and scrapbooking and runs an annual holiday cookie exchange; Sharon, whose 22-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident the year before we moved in; and Karen, Kim’s mom, who was about to divorce her husband Joe at the time of his accident and now cares for him as he recovers and adjusts to life without the use of his legs.
Someday, if we ever want to own a house again, Tom and I will have to move from here. But my neighbors are going to make it very difficult to pack up and leave. I have never lived in a neighborhood so caring and embracing. A neighborhood where a dozen people will show up at your door with complete dinners should you experience some tragedy, as happened when Joe had the accident. And yet, it is just the kind of neighborhood I used to disdain. Just another safe and boring suburban enclave cut out of the desert, I thought, one house barely distinguishable from another, manicured lawns, cars duly backing out of garages each morning and returning each evening. But now, I’ve come to see the community behind the houses. And I regret that my days here are likely numbered.
Back to Kim. The night she broke down, I walked with her up and down the street. The other neighbor, Danny, and my husband Tom came to check every ten minutes and offer advice. Mostly they stood there, impotent, as I was. Each time Kim and I stopped walking, the tears and shudders would start again. Dark fell. Kim texted her mother. She had forgotten that this one night Karen was out for a brief respite: a couple of hours with a friend at a Mexican restaurant. Kim oscillated between anger and weeping. At last, her father, who had been knocked out on meds all afternoon, woke to find a ruckus in his carport. He bumped over the threshold in his wheelchair, rolled down a ramp they’d installed after the accident, and stopped before Kim. “Come on in Kimmy,” he said weakly. “Everything’s going to be all right.” Danny, Tom and I chimed in, imploring Kim to go inside and watch a favorite television program. She finally followed her father into the house, her shoulders sagging. She did not look back as she punched the garage door button.
A few days later I walked down the street again to the mailboxes. Kim was ambling around outside her house at the end of the block. “Hi Jeanne!” she called.
“Hi Kim,” I said. “Everything’s okay now, huh. Did you watch your shows the other night?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling at me. “Thank you for helping me. I really appreciate it.”
What Kim didn’t realize was that somehow she had given much more to me than I had given to her. She had pulled me one step further into community.
This post is a response to the latest flash fiction challenge from Carrot Ranch: January 27, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about how a community reaches out. Who, or what cause, is touched by a community “spoke”? Do you think communities can impact change and move a “wheel”? Why or why not? Explore the idea of a community hub in a flash fiction.
While Charli’s challenge prompted the above thoughts, a different thread was also going through my mind after reading accounts of the settlers on the American plains in the 1870s. The flash that follows owes its inspiration to that bit of history. And I think it speaks to the crux of what community is.
A Community of Two
Mrs. James McClure. Lucy McClure. Is that who I am? I hardly know. Look at me! Living in a dirt house. My only music the godforsaken wind. The space outside my door maddening in its infinitude. I wish I’d never heard of Kansas! But they say there’s another woman on these plains. I’ve walked hours to see if it’s true. And Lord above, it is! We look at each other across the mean, trodden yard. We daren’t breathe. Then we break. Fall into each others’ arms. Laughter and sobs leap from our throats. Oh, neighbor, how sweet the name!