Have you ever tried to do what you were pretty sure was the right thing only to have it explode? Even have two other seemingly sane and intelligent people tell you yes, you should do it before you went ahead and did that thing that exploded?
So here’s the story. It was Saturday’s chilly dusk and I was driving home. I’d reached my own quiet road but a section of it not near my house, where there are still some people I’ve not yet tormented with what my husband refers to as my relentless friendliness. (You can tell how much he enjoys it, can’t you?) In front of one home, a man was lying face-up on the grass next to a push-style lawnmower just off the pavement. Thick, white hair made me think he was elderly, although he was wearing jeans, boots and a white jacket I wouldn’t have minded borrowing. The grass beneath him looked grayish, as did the air in the gathering darkness. I stopped the car and approached him.
“Sir, Sir! Are you all right?”
He roused unsteadily to a sitting position.
“I’m alllll riiiight,” he said, far too slurrily, as if speaking from far away.
“May I give you some help?” I said, very concerned. He definitely didn’t sound all right to me.
“Noooo. I donnn…need….aannnyyy helllp.” Then he flopped onto his back again. Or did he just lie back down? It was something in between perhaps.
Could he have had a stroke? Reluctant to leave, but not wanting to be intrusive either, I drove on to my house and told my husband, “I think I should call the police and just ask them to send an officer to make sure he’s all right. It’s possible he had a stroke. Or a diabetic problem, or…? He looked pretty elderly to me.”
“Maybe he’s drunk,” my husband said, making me instantly suspicious of what he’d been doing before I got home. A football game was on and a bag formerly filled with potato chips was crumpled on the coffee table. I kissed him to check his breath. Lucky for him, he passed.
“Could be. But… .”
While we were talking, my friend Diana arrived. She’d driven the same route, and I asked her if she’d seen him on the ground. She had and was in strong agreement that I should call for an officer when she heard about his speech. Then my husband voiced his agreement. Late, but he said, “Do it.”
So I called the police. Now here’s one thing I’m good at: I am able to be very clear verbally. I described the exact situation to the dispatcher, said the man’s speech was impaired when he declined help, and that my only concern was health and safety. I added that he might have been drinking, but it could be something else, and given age and darkness and cold, I was concerned. I gave the location of his house, mentioned his white hair, the lawnmower (not running), and asked if she could just send an officer by to check on him. I give my name when asked. My number and address had come up on the dispatch screen. She kindly thanked me for the call and said she’d send someone.
Good. All of us felt an elderly man would be safer if he weren’t lying there, no matter what the problem. It was getting dark and the forecast included a hard frost.
So my husband poured us each a glass of wine. Diana’s husband was in England seeing his mother; so just the three of us were going out for dinner and a movie after relaxing at our house for a while first.
Have you ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Remember the scene when the swat team is racing to the Griswold House to rescue the boss that Clark’s redneck cousin Eddie had kidnapped for him as a Christmas present? I’m referring to the cacaphony of sirens. Only in my Saturday night scene, minutes after my phone call, there are several police cars, an ambulance, and a full-size fire engine, all with red and blue lights lights spinning and sirens screaming, converging at my house. Naturally, this set the Labs to a frenzy of barking. Very strangely, my husband and Diana found it hysterically funny to see me first tear out of the house, then reverse direction to stuff two frenetic Labs crazy for a piece of the action back inside, then again dash up the driveway as at least a dozen uniforms flash out of vehicles and circle me.
“May I help you officers?” I wanted to say calmly, not that any sound could make it out of my mouth which suddenly rivaled the Sahara.
I got this much: they hadn’t seen the man on the ground so they kept those lights and sirens going and sped on to the Samaritan’s house to see what else she knew.
Which was nothing. And that ability I mentioned to be verbally precise? Poof. Gone with the wind. Deafened by sirens breaking the sound barrier and blinded by lights designed to induce seizures, I also went mute, in shock that the town’s entire emergency capacity had been dispatched in response to my helpful little call. Of course, I was also so totally embarrassed that the man wasn’t even lying on the ground anymore (which seemed like the least he could be have been doing for me; did he know nothing about how to be a good neighbor?) that my capacity to be articulate was about that of a guppie, with that silly-looking motion they make with their mouths. After a moment or two, I was fairly sure they were narrowing their eyes at me. Then I worried that maybe they–oh God, was the mayor here, too?–thought they should take me in, and I stammered out what I’d told the dispatcher and pointed toward the correct house. I’d have done better to send one of the dogs out to impersonate me. I insisted that my “friend” (not by my side when I’m surrounded by uniforms, lights and sirens!) had seen the same thing. Finally, enough emergency services to handle a simultaneous house fire, armed robbery, stroke, and home birth of triplets, all piled into their many vehicles and literally sped (yes, with lights and sirens) back in the correct direction.
I went back in the house, hopelessly flustered, mumbling. Reached for that glass of wine. Nope. The phone started ringing. The line jammed with neighbors calling. Ten minutes later, someone banged on the door; it was another neighbor, Randall, who said the police had been knocking on doors looking for the white-haired man and could I go with him to show the right house. I got into his car and we went down there. No police or emergency vehicles anywhere around! Turned out he knew that; he just thought I hadn’t done enough. His theory was that the man had a stroke but made it back inside his house and died, which is why he hadn’t answered the door when the police knocked. He thought we should break the door down. Oh Lord. Against my better judgement, I showed him the house, declined to help break in, and asked him to take me home. Disappointed in me, he did. I asked my husband (status: under consideration) to locate my glass of wine. He did and managed to wipe the stupid grin off his face quickly as also politely “requested.”
The calls from neighbors continued into the next day. Do you need help? What happened? Who’s sick? Who’s dead? I started to hope they’d drop casseroles off at the door. That’s what else we good neighbors do, after all.
Seriously, among many, many other things, I’m so thankful for those good neighbors and the impulses that keep us all trying to do the right thing, even when it doesn’t work out so well. I’m grateful for those good emergency workers and all the people who work positively in our communities and our world to nuture and save lives. I’m grateful for the humor that lightens our days, and for perspective–in this case, for a novelist’s perspective–because you know it’s in the flow of a novel that this story will find its home! And yes, I did check: the white-haired man is alive and well. No, I have no idea what was going on and I’m glad. In the novel, I’ll get to invent it, undistracted by knowing.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. And thank you so much for reading my work.