Crime Wave

You can learn a lot—maybe too much—from the neighborhood listserv

A car turns into my neighborhood just as I am heading out. It is early July, eight o’clock on a Friday morning. It’s sticky hot, and I have ten minutes to get somewhere twenty minutes away. My heart is already racing when I notice the car (compact, silver) and the driver’s arm (white, wiry) flagging me down from fifty yards away. The car is unfamiliar, and the wave is jerky, urgent, not the fluttery wave of a neighbor. I grip the steering wheel. A voice inside me says, Keep driving. Another voice says, Stop. One says, Nothing good can come from this. The other says, Be kind.

• • •

Six years ago, when my husband and I moved here with our two sons, a friend jokingly advised me to buy a Kevlar vest. Laughing, I told him not to believe everything he heard about Durham, a blue dot in the red state of North Carolina. Sure, there’s crime, but no more than in other cities of comparable size. Rather than denounce Durham’s bad rep, residents embrace it. “Keep Durham Dirty,” a bumper sticker proclaims. A T-shirt says, “I’d rather be shot in Durham than die of boredom in Cary.” Exactly.

Sort of.

We’ve lived in pre-Giuliani New York and a sketchy Los Angeles neighborhood, where I once chased off a barefoot, bearded man trying to hotwire our car. Durham, in comparison, oozes livability. It’s full of foodies, artists, and entrepreneurs, and our neighborhood, with its vibrant rose gardens and older traditional homes, has always felt squeaky safe to me.

My husband, a filmmaker, mostly works on location, and we’re used to long separations, but I find this arrangement less appealing now that our sons are older—sixteen and twenty—and I’m not as involved in their day-to-day lives. Though I like to think I’m self-sufficient and independent, something has started to shift; I’ve become aware of myself as a woman often alone. I attend a Neighborhood Watch meeting in which I learn more about local crime and ways to deter it, and in May, when my husband accepts a five-month gig in Atlanta, we install a home security system and subscribe to a neighborhood listserv featuring updates from our district police captain. What can it hurt?

The man who installs our alarm system points to the French doors that lead from the master bedroom to the back deck. “This is the first place your intruder’s gonna try to gain access,” he tells me, pointing out how the trees in the backyard form a screen, blocking the neighbors’ line of sight.

Crime rates spike in the summer, Captain A. warns. We’re urged to report suspicious activity and keep our doors locked, even when we’re just outside working in our yards.  At first, this seems ridiculous: what kind of fool would break into someone’s home when the owner is right there, wielding a pair of pruning shears? But Captain A. tells us this new breed of criminal may not match the picture we have in our minds. They’re not sneaking around in the dark, wearing ski masks. They drive nice cars, wear nice clothes. They stroll around in broad daylight, carrying clipboards.

Our neighborhood is huge, and the break-ins I read about occur on streets I vaguely recognize. When a poster recommends, I roll my eyes. Then I sense a finger wagging at me from within: Stay informed.I’m relieved, smug even, when I note the red dots indicating crime sites are clustered far away. The unblemished space around our house is a buffer, I tell myself.

But then, as temperatures climb, the invisible walls of our fort of safety start to crumble. There is a break-in two streets over. The owners are upstairs when an intruder kicks in their back door. Then a house around the corner, next door to a good friend, is ransacked while the owners are out of town. Every drawer upended. Another neighbor returns home to find a strange car in the driveway, with “what appeared to be four to five young men sitting in it,” and someone running from the carport with a duffle bag. The captain sends us photos of suspects, urging us, “DO NOT ATTEMPT to apprehend or approach them.” We’re told to use our security alarms, take pictures of our valuables, and write down the serial numbers. When I read these emails, a knot cinches in my chest. The red dots seem to be multiplying, closing in. With my husband away, I feel especially vulnerable. I imagine criminals, with their collared shirts and clipboards, sniffing for weak prey, circling our block like sharks.

• • •

This flurry of crime-related emails swirls through my mind as I debate whether to stop for the person flagging me down. I can hear my husband’s voice inside my head: Don’t stop.Then there’s the voice of my mother: Be sweet.I don’t stop, but I don’t keep driving. I slow down, and, almost against my will, my fingers lower my car window a few inches. Then the driver of the silver car says, in what sounds like a put-on country-boy accent, “Can I ask you the biggest favor in the whole wide world?”

My throat tightens. His face is gaunt. Through his close-cropped hair, I can see his sunburned scalp. His eyes have a wild, hollow look. Behind the wheel of my locked car, I feel just safe enough to be irritated. I am going to be late. When I say, emphatically, “No!” and close my window, he looks stunned—or, I consider, like someone pretending to look stunned. His lips bunch over his teeth. I detect the slightest twitch in his jaw.

As I drive away, hands trembling on the wheel, I glare at his car in my rearview mirror. I try to note the make and model, but he’s way up the hill behind me. I imagine chasing him out of the neighborhood, but that feels simultaneously excessive and dangerous. I consider, for a moment, calling the police. But what would I say? “There’s a guy in a silver car. Send back up”? The word paranoid comes to mind. And that awful name my younger son calls me when I attend PSA meetings at his school: busybody.

And what if this guy is legit? Maybe his child is lying feverish in the back seat. Maybe his cat ran away. Maybe he really does need a favor. The biggest favor in the whole wide world.

Later that night, when my husband calls, I tell him about the incident. “Why did you engage?” he says, as I knew he would. I set the security alarm, and once I’m in bed, I keep raising my head to check that the light is red: armed.

• • •

A few days later, my sons and I load up the Subaru and drive four hours to the Black Mountains. As the highest bidders at a church auction, my parents won a week’s stay at a cabin in the Cane River valley and invited us all to come. My two sisters and their husbands, my nephew and three nieces. My husband drives up for the weekend, and we hike to waterfalls, spot chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. We eat tomatoes from my sister’s garden and play Cards Against Humanity. We pick wildflowers by the clear fish-filled river, taste too-bitter blackberries, and rest our eyes on the dark mountains that disappear in the clouds. There is no cellular service. No email or traffic. No noise except our own laughter, our teasing, and talks of what to cook for supper or what to fix for lunch. 

By the third day, I forget all about break-ins and burglars. The muscles in my neck unknot; my brow softens. Mom, the center of our family, its fragrance and foundation, says her dream is for us all to live together on a commune. I pick up a real estate guide at the grocery store, a half hour away. That night, as we gather, listening to the babbling stream, I find a listing. For $243,000, we could own fifteen unrestricted acres and a river cottage with long mountain views.

• • •

In early August, I learn that a man who lives two miles away, a retired priest and volunteer minister, is missing. On the night he disappeared, he and his wife planned to have friends over for dinner, and he had gone to the bank and the drugstore. He never came home.

Two days later, on his forty-eighth wedding anniversary, police find the preacher’s blood-stained car in the parking lot of an apartment complex up the road from our house. He is the salt of the earth, his family says, a friend to everyone he meets. There’s a vigil at the church where he serves as a volunteer priest. I Google the preacher’s name every day to see if he’s been found. I think about the special dinner his wife had cooked. How it grew cold.

I go about my business, only now I keep the alarm on even when I’m in the house. Someone recommends keeping a can of wasp spray by my bed because it’s more powerful—and can reach farther—than pepper spray. Someone else tells me to get a guard dog. We already have two dogs, but they’re golden retrievers. They would welcome an intruder, perhaps lick him to death.

That weekend, when my husband comes home for a quick visit, I ask if he thinks we should get a gun. He goes to the attic and comes down wearing a half-crushed cowboy hat from his college days. He’s carrying a weathered shotgun, a relic from his father, which I thought he got rid of when we moved. “Be vewy vewy quiet,” he says. “I’m hunting wabbits.” My husband thinks nothing bad could ever happen to us as long as we mind our own business. That night, making up for lost time, we curl up in bed and watch HGTV—porn for the baby boomer set. But the distraction doesn’t last long.

The next day, a man—a meth addict—confesses to the preacher’s murder. Tired and hungry and riddled with guilt, he leads investigators to the preacher’s body in the woods of a nearby state park. Though I’m sad to learn the preacher is dead, I’m relieved the killer is in jail and the search didn’t drag out the rest of the summer. The family now knows what happened. Everyone can rest a little easier. Then I scroll down to a picture of the killer, and there’s a rockslide in my chest.

On the screen, I see the face, the shorn head and Mr. Potato Head lips, of the man who flagged me down. In my mind, I see his car turning into our neighborhood, his bare arm signaling me from the top of the hill. I hear his question, clear as day: Can I ask you the biggest favor in the whole wide world? And I know just how a preacher would respond.

I feel a whoosh of disbelief, as if I’ve narrowly escaped a crash on the interstate. Then my fingers fly to my mouth, stifling something between a groan and a gasp: a grasp. What might have happened, what lives saved or changed, if I’d had the resolve to call the police that Friday and say, simply, “I got a weird feeling from this guy”? Maybe they could have picked him up—detained him or handed him over to his family. They could have gotten him to rehab or even somewhere more peaceful, like the Cane River valley, where he could’ve remembered the boy he used to be. But, of course, it’s not that simple.

I vow to call authorities anyway—perhaps others have come forward, and the sum of our stories will matter somehow. I put it off a day. Then two. Maybe I shouldn’t get involved—what’s done is done. But finally, three days after seeing the killer’s photo, I dial the non-emergency number. I clear my throat, hoping to eliminate any quiver in my voice. I’m surprised to get a recording. I’m asked to leave a message for someone named Betty or Barbara. I feel stupid. I don’t want to leave a message. I want to talk to a live person who will say in a soothing voice, “Thanks so much for calling, hon; let me put you through to Sheriff Taylor.” When I hear the beep, I freeze. The preacher’s dead. What good will this really do? I hang up. I tell myself I’ll call back later, but I never do.

• • •

Rather than simply admit that I feel vulnerable, I collect proof—informal opinion surveys and crime stats—to convince myself and anyone who will listen that my fears are justified.

The strange thing is, as much as I want to protect my home, the only possession I’m attached to is my laptop. When so many of our belongings were destroyed in the Northridge earthquake in 1994, I learned that stuff is just stuff. What truly scares me is being caught off guard. Feeling helpless or out of control.

I begin to miss what I’ve never had: the comfort and security of a spouse who’s home every night. My husband and I decide that next year, when our younger son finishes high school, we’ll move back to Southern California, where there are more job opportunities for him. We’ll spend our nights and weekends together. We’ll make up for lost time.

For now, we’re still in Durham, and I’m still afraid. We sell our house and decide to rent in a newish neighborhood full of cookie-cutter houses slapped close together. There are no towering oaks or brick walkways or rose bushes, but the master bedroom is upstairs, and anyone trying to kick in the front or back door can be seen from at least five other houses. Rather than research the crime stats online, I call the police and talk directly to a friendly officer who tells me what I want to hear: in our new neighborhood, the only crime reported in the past twelve months is a single case of mail theft. As we sign the lease, I feel flooded with relief.

I’ve solved the problem.

• • •

Of course, our plans to move to L.A. unravel. While I’m driving to deliver some preliminary paperwork for the sale of our house in Durham, my sister calls to say Mom is gravely ill.

Within three months, my mother is dead, her pelvis so riddled with cancer that doctors are unable to say, with certainty, where the first cell went rogue. My sisters and I look back on our trip to the Cane River valley and suspect the cancer had been growing even then. We kick ourselves for not noticing that Mom was quieter than usual, lurking on the sidelines. When we left to explore with our trail maps and trail mix, she stayed behind. We thought she was happy, doing what she wanted, waving goodbye to us from the shady solace of the cabin porch.

After Mom dies, Dad wants to move, so I spend the next several months helping him find a retirement community and preparing his house for the market. Then our younger son decides to attend college an hour away, and I get a job that I love. Instead of moving to Los Angeles, my husband and I end up buying a house in another charmless, cookie-cutter neighborhood one county over. Our younger son calls it “Squidville,” after the SpongeBob SquarePants episode in which Squidward, fed up with SpongeBob and Patrick’s reef-blowing shenanigans, flees to the gated community of Tentacle Acres, where all the houses look alike and everyone looks and acts just like him. I point out the easy maintenance, hiking trails, and lower taxes. Charm schwarm, I say.

Besides, I feel safe here.

The neighbors report suspicious activity to a fault. If you drive too fast or fail to clean up after your pet or keep your holiday decorations up too long, you will be called out, most likely with sarcasm, on the neighborhood listserv. “To the woman in the Mercedes SUV who was behind us yesterday: it was my daughters first time driving with her new learners permit. You rode our bumper the entire BC pkwy and then as we turned onto Bennett Mtn you laid on the horn as you continued up the parkway. Thanks so much for making my 15 yr old more nervous than she already was.”

Yes, people here are up your ass, but they’ve also got your back. “A woman is in the median (and has been there acting strangely for 90 minutes) near Great Meadow. She’s in a winter coat. When we passed, her pants were down as though she were peeing, but she watched me drive slowly by and didn’t seem concerned that she was on display. Anyone missing a family member?”

We live on a quiet street with six homes, an oasis near some trailheads. We don’t take advantage of the “resort style” amenities—the pools, bocce ball courts, yoga classes. We don’t attend the adult game nights, scavenger hunts, or pancake breakfasts. Instead, we hike, and on our hikes, we find snakeskins, hawk feathers, and heart-shaped stones. I place these objects on my meditation altar alongside a photo from the Cane River valley: my mother in a porch rocker, soaking in the view.

• • •

It will surprise exactly no one that in the SpongeBob episode, Tentacle Acres isn’t the peaceful paradise Squidward imagined. As the reef blowers crank up, so, too, does Squidward’s boredom. I find myself similarly disillusioned as, little by little, crime trickles into our sanctuary. Package theft, vandalism, attempted break-ins. On Nextdoor, everyone raves about the latest security devices, such as video doorbells and motion-sensor cameras. At the request of the homeowner’s association, the sheriff’s office beefs up patrols.

I like living here, but sometimes I feel the pang of seller’s remorse. I hear that the family who bought our old house renovated the kitchen, and one day, when I’m in the neighborhood, I decide to drive by. I notice they’ve cut down the huge oak that grew too close to the house, stained the tree house that my husband built, planted bulbs, and installed lights along the brick-lined walkway. Everything looks beautiful. It’s a storybook house. The charm of it crushes me. We’ll never be able to afford a house as nice as that again. The new owners, I imagine, are very happy there. I wish I could have been. I wish I could have leaned into the blind curve that is my life, turned off the voices in my head: the one who doubts and the scared one who imagines—and expects—the worst.

I remember so vividly that hot July morning, the man’s arm out the car window, flagging me down. I can still see my fingers lowering my own window, then raising it back up. Hearing his plea, but protecting myself. Opening my heart, then turning away. Both of us desperate, both of us scared.

• • •

I come to find out that the preacher picked up the man—the one who would murder him—at a fast food restaurant. They met online, and after driving to the park where they had sex, the man tried to blackmail the preacher. Things got out of hand. The man got angry and beat the preacher, fracturing his skull before strangling him with a belt. Almost a week later, the man led investigators through the woods to the preacher’s half-clothed body, partially decomposed. The preacher’s family was unaware of his homosexual activities. It must have been difficult for them to process the details of his secret life on the heels of his shocking death. But there was no room for grudges in their grief. In the courtroom, the preacher’s daughter, standing just a few feet from the killer, turned to him and said, “We forgive you.”

I used to think there was a separate world out there, a world we interacted with when we left whatever shelter we called home. Now I believe the world is inside us and we carry it with us wherever we go. If we live in fear, the world’s a fearful place. Our minds can be a prison; our homes and bodies can, too. The refuge I longed for—in some unmarred space, free of conflict and despair—does not, in fact, exist.

And yet, after all that’s happened, I still subscribe to the updates from Captain A. I still gather proof that moving away was the right thing to do, even as I see myself as Squidward, yearning for some ideal of home—chasing the dream and being chased.

After our trip to Cane River valley, after the murderer confessed, while my husband was still a seven-hour car ride away—autumn arrived, and the captain’s updates became less frequent. More people were home; cars clogged the driveways. The air was still sticky, and the Knock Out roses were in bloom, but the first frost would come soon, and everyone would venture outside with their pruning shears to cut back the brambly canes.

I remember those cool nights, lying in bed, missing my husband, and listening to acorns drop from the old oaks around our house. When they clattered against the rooftop, I’d tell myself they sounded nothing like someone testing a window or picking a lock. They sounded exactly like acorns, falling, rolling. Sometimes they struck the metal gutter before soaring through the darkness and landing, randomly, on the moss, the flagstones, and the fallen leaves. In the mornings, when I headed out, I’d find them everywhere.

About the Author

Rebecca Lanning

Rebecca Lanning's writing has appeared in Salon; Brain, Child; the Washington Post; Barely South Review; Salt Magazine; and elsewhere. When not writing, she reads manuscripts for The Sun magazine and watches the great blue herons that forage the wetlands near her home in Chatham County, North Carolina.

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