Late one July night, my usual bubbling happiness was suddenly interrupted when I saw something – or someone – outside my back gate. Whoever or whatever it was, was someplace it shouldn’t have been: right outside my door – with one flimsy screen between us. Whoever or whatever it was, was tall; which to my night-blind eyes made it either a Peeping Tom or a bear standing on its hind legs. And since the chances of its being a hind-leg-walking bear in the middle of the city were remote, I had to assume it was an intruder.
I jumped up, yelling something like “GRAH” and smashed off the lights, my hand flapping around like a fish. In the protective darkness, my fish hand floundered next for the outside lights. I wanted to illuminate the hell out of that bear, make it do a spotlight dance, and then watch it lumber away in a revelation of light. I wanted a “reasonable explanation” to curtail my fear – like the end of a Scooby Doo mystery. Look! It wasn’t a dangerous intruder after all!
It was just a broken tree limb, whose evil plan to frighten me would have succeeded, if only “[that] meddling kid[…]” hadn’t ruined everything by turning on the light.
I flicked off, on, off, on, off, on. Off, on, off, on. But it was no good. The bulbs were dead and the darkness outside stayed dark. Shit.
Only a few feet away, the Bear’s silhouette moved and its shadow crept across me.
Someone or something was definitely out there. Its figure interrupted the constant stream of light that beamed down from the house up the hill. I turned my head and listened, forcing my best sense, my hearing, to prove to me that nothing was there. I held my breath and kept quiet.
When I heard the brush rustle I ran.
I sped from room to room locking doors and windows, fish hands flopping sliding glass doors shut, slamming windows, extinguishing lights. All I could think was – this is really happening! I needed to call someone, but where was my phone?
Of course, it was back in the room with the Bear.
I dropped down on all fours. Memories about what to do during an emergency became horribly confused. “Intruder” mixed with “fire,” “earthquake” jumbled with “tornado.” Was I supposed to stop, drop, and roll? Hit the Solar plexus, Instep, Nose, and Groin? Stand in a doorway? Run to the basement? For no explicable reason, getting low to the ground seemed like the best course of action. I crawled into the room, dash-grabbed my phone, and fled.
Even I knew I was acting out the first scene of every horror movie ever made:
INT. LOS ANGELES HOUSE – NIGHT
Through a green night-vision filter we find a young blond WOMAN.
She is home alone. She staggers around in her darkened hallway, knowing with an almost primordial sense that unwanted eyes are upon her. Nearly desperate with fear, she drops her life-line, her cell phone, which clatters across the wooden floor. Breathlessly, she chases it, then suddenly looks up, sensing, yet not seeing he who watches her.
(calling out) Hello? Is – is anyone out there?
Her question is returned with eerie silence. Only we hear the eager breaths of THE BEAR, who watches her, waiting.
(calling out) I’m calling someone! They’ll be here any minute!
Her back is to a wall of cabinets, she sits on the floor grasping her phone and gasping for breath. The cell phone’s blue screen illuminates her face, giving it a pallid, deathly hue.
(to self) Oh god, who can I call?
Outside the window, we hear THE BEAR lick his lips. He sounds almost human. We watch eagerly as his victim’s panic gradually drains the strength from her body.
(whispered) Oh please, don’t hurt me…
My wide mascaraed eyes searched wildly through the darkness, seeing nothing. Anyone watching the film would know that something very bad was about to happen. I had my phone – but no one to call. My husband was out of town and I didn’t know my neighbors. I could call the police but what would I tell them? That a hind-leg-walking shadow bear was rustling the grass outside my door, making me act out the first scene of a horror movie?
I yelped again when I heard a crash. No, I wasn’t making this up. It was really happening. I forced my mind to work. Betsy. I could call Betsy. She was my neighbor across the street. It was late and I hardly knew her, but I had to call someone. I had to try.
Within minutes, Betsy met me in the middle of our street with the telephone held to her ear. Even in pajamas in the middle of the night, Betsy was a dead-ringer for Shirley Maclaine. I ran out the front door. It was wonderful to be out of my movie-set of a house and standing next to someone real and (aside from the Shirley Maclaine bit) not part of a bad cinema cliché.
“I can’t see anything from here,” she said craning her neck towards the back of my dark house, “but that doesn’t mean anything. Did you call the police?”
Before I could answer her, another neighbor I’d never met drove up the hill. “What’s going on?” he asked us, rolling down his window. His name was Glen and from the first time I met him, it had been really good to see him again.
I don’t remember what I told him, but I do remember what he did. He sprang into action, leaving his car wide open to the night. He made flashlights appear out of thin air, put one in my hand, and led us gallantly into the darkness of the Bear’s terrain behind my house.
The three of us searched with our flickering lights, but there was nothing there: no Peeping Tom, no evil deceiving tree limb, no Bear. By the time we got there, whatever or whoever it was had gone.
Maybe I had made it up – but suddenly that didn’t matter.
I was shocked. Not that we didn’t find anything scary in my back yard – no – I was shocked that these people, whom I barely knew had helped me when I needed help. I’d never experienced anything like it. In my life, most of which had been spent moving around big cities: Chicago, New York, L.A., I’d never known my neighbors. I’d never even known that I’d had neighbors. The word “neighbor” hardly existed in my vocabulary, except as an antiquated folksy term that defined a relationship prized by older people from an older time. I’d spent my early teenage years in a middle-sized town in Iowa, getting a track-star’s work-out running from the cops. Those “neighbors” phoned the police to protect them from dangerous threats like me. In my hometown, I was the Bear.
But here, well, this was something altogether new. This was “the kindness of strangers” I’d heard tell of; this was people from a shared geographical location coming together to help one another. The anthropological categories of us and them, in which I had always been the them, had suddenly reversed. Now I had neighbors. For the first time in my life, I was an us.
Walking back to the street with Betsy and Glen confirmed it: the understanding looks on their faces, their stories of similar moments of panic and relief. Don’t worry, they seemed to say, we’re here. We’re here for each other.
I was so humbled; I wanted to give them something in return for turning the light on my Bear and capping my horror movie with a happy ending. But they waved off the very idea. Being neighborly was a given as far as they were concerned. After all, wouldn’t I do the same for them?
I offered them sweet plums from my tree anyway. They were ripe and ready to be picked. It really was the least I could do.
I set off to deliver them the next day, but something remarkable happened when I tried to drop them off. My neighbors had each left an unexpected gift outside their doors for me: a bowl of home-grown tomatoes and peaches awaited me at Glen’s house, a basket of oranges at Betsy’s. Not knowing what else to do, I retraced my steps, divvied up all the fruit and gave some to each of us. Plums, peaches, oranges, and tomatoes. By the time I’d finished, we all had fruit bowls full to brimming with neighborhood produce. With a pen from my glove box I scratched out a couple of notes. “Thank you so much for helping me,” they read. “Please consider this the first delivery of the Hillside Produce Cooperative.”