A police officer strode up the walk of the gray house. She didn’t hear what the officer said, but she saw the woman’s face draw downward in shock.
As Karla walked along the tree-lined street where she and her family had lived for the past ten years, she felt happy and contented. She loved this quiet neighborhood and the security it offered her.
The street she walked along was lined with houses which varied in style, but each looked happily lived in, comfortably maintained. As much smug as snug, thought Karla, pleased with her realization that she knew the families in every dwelling.
Then she remembered the one exception. As she neared a bungalow-style house recently painted gray, Karla’s contentment was nudged by a feeling of guilt. All she knew about the woman who lived there was that she was not a Latter-day Saint and, from the looks of her yard, she was a perfectionist. The lawn was a cool, sheared carpet, each shrub was precisely trimmed, and beds of flowers flaunted their autumn brilliance in weedless rows.
Uneasily, Karla wondered whether this perfection came from a need for a perfectly maintained yard or a way to occupy many empty hours.
If the woman who lives there, thought Karla, was a member of the Church, she wouldn’t have so much spare time, then came the painful second thought, and if she were LDS, I’d know her.
Karla consoled herself by remembering that at least a dozen times during the last few months she had made plans to visit the family. The trouble was she had so much to do. With three teenagers still at home, a son in the mission field who expected weekly letters and hoped for an occasional package, she was involved enough in her role as wife and mother. In addition, there were her responsibilities as stake organist, and she felt a real need for her twice-weekly class in oil painting. Besides, she made monthly calls to many homes as a Relief Society visiting teacher. When did she have time for extra visits?
Just as Karla reached the edge of her neighbor’s neatly kept yard, a police car swung around the corner and stopped in front of it. An officer got out and strode up the walk. Karla stopped as he rapped on the door. His back was to her so she didn’t hear what the officer said to the woman who opened it, but she saw her face draw downward in shock, heard her say, “Come in. I’ll call my husband.” Then the officer stepped inside and the door closed with a muffled thump.
Karla walked on, turning to look back every few steps, but she had reached her own driveway before the pair came out of the house. The officer, with his hand under the woman’s elbow, helped her into the patrol car. He walked around the car, got behind the wheel, and they sped away.
Karla could hardly wait for her husband to get home that afternoon. She met him at the door.
“Paul, do you know who lives in that gray house up the street, the one west of Blakes?”
He looked at her in surprise. “The Henrys. Their boy got hurt this afternoon. How did you know about it?”
“I didn’t. I just knew something was wrong because I saw a police car drive up and take Mrs.—Henry, is it?—away. What happened?”
Paul went into his study and Karla followed, impatient, but knowing her husband would tell her in his own good time. A high school principal, he felt patience to be an essential virtue and since he often chided her for “chafing at the bit,” Karla managed to remain quiet while Paul put his briefcase down and loosened his tie. Only then did he answer her question.
“We started having trouble with Pete Henry,” he said, “after about his first six months in our school last year; in the first week of school this year, he started trading blows with another junior right in a classroom. Then today Pete stole a car from the school parking lot and rammed it into a bridge abutment.”
“Oh, no! Was he badly hurt?”
Paul took off his tie and hung it on a rack. “I called the hospital just before I left the school. Pete has a concussion and a broken collarbone, but he’ll be okay.”
Karla said, “Well, that’s certainly a relief. I’ll run up to see Mrs. Henry after supper. There must be something I can do.”
“Good idea.” Paul put his arm around her shoulders as they left the study together. “I’m sure Mrs. Henry would be glad to have a sympathetic ear.”
But before Karla had a chance to start preparing dinner, Elayne came home to announce that she had to go right back to the high school for play tryouts, and her blue skirt would have to be hemmed. After a dinner that was later than usual, while Karla helped 13-year-old Janie with the dishes, she remembered she must make several telephone calls about the luncheon she and four other sisters were to serve at Relief Society the next day. Before Karla was aware of the time it was 10:00.
“I won’t bother Mrs. Henry this late,” she told Paul as she reached for a comfortable robe. “I’ll go first thing in the morning.”
She did get up a half hour earlier than usual, fully intending to visit Mrs. Henry right after breakfast, but before the two girls and Paul, Jr., left for school the phone rang. Helen Frisbee couldn’t find the vase that was to be used as part of the table decorations for the luncheon, and by the time Karla located one of her own, she barely had time to bundle things into her car and leave for the luncheon. She did remember, however, to look up the street toward the Henry’s house as she drove off in the opposite direction.
With no work done at home, she didn’t have time to visit a troubled neighbor after Relief Society. Next morning, however, as she backed her car out to go shopping, Karla decided to drive by the Henry’s house, but the drapes were drawn and no car was in the driveway, so she went right on by. “I’ll go up this evening,” she told herself.
But her good intentions to visit a concerned mother slipped Karla’s mind completely until a morning ten days later when she received a phone call to remind her of the ward potluck dinner on Friday evening.
“If you know someone in your neighborhood who’d like to come, please invite them,” the caller said.
After she hung up, Karla thought, maybe the Henrys would enjoy the dinner. I’ll go this minute before something comes up to stop me again.
She pulled a brush through her short hair and hurried out. From the sidewalk she could see the Henry’s house with a moving van backed into the driveway.
“Oh, dear, they’re leaving!” Karla stood, undecided, then thought, well, since I’ve already started I might as well keep on going.
She approached the front entrance and knocked lightly on the partly opened door. A woman who stood in the middle of the room turned. No curiosity about her visitor showed on the middle-aged face topped by orderly, graying hair. In fact, Karla felt she had never seen an expression so deliberately blank. She had to force a smile of her own to greet the woman who took a disinterested step forward.
Quickly Karla explained, “I’m Karla Dallas from down the street. I meant to come sooner. Now it looks as if you’re leaving. I’m sorry.”
The woman’s lips stretched in a movement that was more grimace than smile, and Karla, uncomfortable, stumbled as she crossed the threshold when Mrs. Henry gestured her inside.
Muttering, “Sorry,” Karla flushed, trying not to appear too conscious of the boxes cluttering a room emptied of almost everything else. She asked, “Is Pete—is he all right—from his accident, I mean?”
The woman’s eyebrows lifted as if she were thinking, “You knew about that?” but aloud she said, “Yes, he is. Thank you.” After a slight pause she added, “I’d ask you to sit down, but as you can see, things are—disorderly.”
Karla glanced quickly at the pictureless walls and a floor where a rug must have been recently because the edges around the room were polished to a glossy shine.
Abruptly the woman who faced her began to speak. It sounded to Karla as though the words that rushed out had been saved for an endless time, waiting to be used.
“We lived in this house for more than a year. About five years ago Al and I came through this town on vacation and we never forgot how friendly it looked, so last year he got a transfer and we came here. We thought we’d be welcome, and we hoped to find a good moral atmosphere for Peter, not like the place we came from.
“Each morning I got up and cleaned this house so carefully, especially in here, and each evening my husband would say, ‘Arlene, why knock yourself out? Nobody ever sees this place but you and me and Pete. He could care less, and I’d rather see you rested,’ and then I’d say to him, ‘Just wait and see, Al. Any day now one of my neighbors will stop by to introduce herself and I wouldn’t want a new friend to see my house untidy, would I?’”
Her fingers clasped tightly together, she nodded her head to indicate the bare disorder of the room they stood in.
“I had this place fixed so nice,” she said, “right up till yesterday—”
Karla said, “Mrs. Henry—” but the other woman didn’t seem to notice the interruption.
“Nothing has turned out the way we’d hoped it would,” she went on. “The kind of friends we wanted for Pete wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He just wasn’t accepted here for some reason. Neither was I.” Mrs. Henry’s fingers twisted together. “Oh, the long hours, the days to be filled! I’ve never known such loneliness. Day after day I’ve watched other women drive up and down this street with time for everything in the world, it seemed to me, except friendship.”
Arlene Henry fell silent and Karla asked, “Where are you going?”
“What does it matter?” Suddenly the woman, who had stood so erect in the middle of the room, bent her head and began to cry. The sound of her sobs echoed in the room’s emptiness while Karla, trembling with pity, stood helpless. Finally Arlene Henry straightened and took a handkerchief from the pocket of her apron. She wiped her eyes, then carefully folded the handkerchief with its crocheted edges into a square and replaced it in her apron pocket.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” she said, “the movers are waiting.”
Karla had to walk home slowly because the ache in her throat made breathing difficult. Besides, her vision was blurred with tears.
“How could I have let such a thing happen?” she mourned. “I’ve been so smugly convinced that all I need to do is be a watchful mother, involved in church work while a child of God has been perishing with loneliness practically on my doorstep. If one friend—just one—had knocked on Arlene Henry’s door she’d have been all right. Why wasn’t I that friend?”
All evening Karla was subdued. When everyone else had gone to bed she knelt down in the silent living room to ask her Heavenly Father for another chance. She promised to try more diligently to remove from her soul the evil of complacency, she prayed for humility to recognize her other shortcomings. She promised the Lord that she would strive daily to obey His commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Karla whispered, “I’ll try to remember that to love my neighbor doesn’t mean if I have time, or that I’ll love only those neighbors who share my background and beliefs.”
Ten days later, when Karla walked out to the front yard to move the lawn sprinkler, she saw another moving van backed up to the house recently vacated by the Henrys. She ran back inside, wrapped two loaves of bread she had just taken from the oven in paper towels, and hurried up the street.
She walked around the moving van parked in the driveway, past a car which bore license plates from a distant state, and knocked on the kitchen door. When a woman about her own age opened it, Karla held out the bread, still aromatic and warm.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Karla Dallas. Welcome to the neighborhood.”