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Strange Neighbors

by Charles C Cole

On the morning of the first day of school, my car went missing - from the driveway.

“Honey,” I called to my wife, a first-grade teacher with a crazy day ahead of her, “have you seen my car?”

Both my parents had recently died, and we were finally, slowly cleaning up their home, getting it ready for market. Their place was only a few houses away.

Toothbrush in hand, Rebecca pushed by me to look for herself. “Did you leave it at your parents’ place?”

I shook my head.

“Did you leave the keys in it?”

The night before I had quit early to fix dinner for our three kids while Rebecca forged on. The idea was I’d go back later. Then I’d tired. “I might have,” I conceded.

Becca and the kids left for school while I met a nice uniformed police officer and gave him our particulars. Our nearest neighbors, a curious strain, stood by their mailbox and chatted there for no clear reason except to watch me be interviewed.

It was a noteworthy day for Public Safety statewide: there was an Amber Alert. An estranged father had abducted his young daughter. There was reason to believe he was a flight risk, that he’d go to Logan Airport in Boston. I didn’t think we’d be the highest priority, nor should we have been.

Only two hours later, Becca called my office having received an update. The car was found at the airport two states away. The Massachusetts police, cooperatively, had been keeping an eye out for vehicles with Maine plates. Two women were sitting in my car smoking when the police knocked on the window. Immediately, the driver blurted, “Charlie said I could borrow his car!” (I’d left my work badge in the console.) With that unexpectedly defensive response, the intrigued officer asked them to kindly step out with license and registration, and quickly learned the story.

The driver was a divorced single mother and professional pole dancer. Money was tight. A co-worker lived a couple blocks away from us. They’d gotten off work, gotten drunk, and come up with a plan to make some extra cash by meeting someone for a vague “business venture”. They had one car between them, which had an expired registration and was low on gas. We’d found footprints in our gravel-and-sand drive. Apparently, barefoot, they had gone door to door, looking for an alternative.

Because nobody saw them steal my car, and they never confessed, they were only charged with possession of stolen property. The police brought them back, where the driver had a pending court hearing for a prior drug offense. She was locked up, while we drove over two hours to get my car back.

The car, my late mother’s modest Cavalier, was impounded. A pit bull was busy chewing on an orange traffic cone when we pulled up. All the car windows were down, rain minutes away. Good thing we’d come straight down. The gentleman on duty said rolling up windows was not in his job description. There was a sweater in the backseat. An empty pack of cigarettes and a pair of hoop earrings were in the console, a couple of crumpled fast-food bags on the floor. No unfamiliar dents! And everything still worked, though a pair of new hedge shears were missing. We paid $200 in cash to get our car released.

When we got home, Rebecca called the Boston DA’s office to ask what to do with the unfamiliar belongings, reminders of trespass. The officer told us to staple everything up in a paper bag, and he’d see it was returned. We did, including the fast food bags. Eventually, we received financial restitution from the driver for our impound fee and tolls. Later, we received two bills from the operators of our toll highway for nonpayment; they had taken photos of our car’s license plate in the wee hours of the morning.

We learned the two adventurers had even ordered a meal in an all-night restaurant frequented by cops and had run off without paying!

Needing to know more about this unexpected addition to our lives, we found the driver on Myspace. Her wallpaper was covered with handguns, and she described herself as having a conflict with authority. Rather than receiving sympathy at work, I received titters, as if the pole dancer was just returning the favor: I’d visited her so she visited me.

A year passed: my wife saw her class list for incoming students. One child, based on the address and the mother’s name, was the daughter of the accomplice. My wife, who is a steadfast professional, asked that the child be moved to another class.

Sometime later, we were cast in a play about 40 minutes from our home. We had never worked there before. The charming director, who managed a convention center in the day and so was amazing at social networking, knew many of our former acquaintances. We had gone to the same in-state university, a few years apart. The extent of overlap was noteworthy.

One night after rehearsal, we shared our story. He knew the driver. We didn’t ask how. She was even his friend on Facebook. She lived in sunny California and was happily resettled, having turned her life around. He showed us beach photos of sunshine and smiles on his phone.

I wish I could say we were ungrudgingly delighted for her. We still felt inconvenienced, violated. Presumably, she’d paid her debt to society and her financial debt to us, but there was an emotional debt that would never be satisfied.

Is she a bad person? No. Am I a bad person. No.

We are who we are, fluidly, based on needs and responses.

What would I say if I bumped into the driver at a party or the mall? Would I confront her? I don’t think so. I’d just look in the nearest mirror and say, honestly and sincerely, “There but for the grace of a supportive family...”

Copyright © 2019 by Charles C Cole

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