We neighbors owed Angelica more

angelicas-house-molly-selvin.jpgAngelica's house. Photo: Molly Selvin.

I only saw Angelica a couple of times in the nearly 40 years that I've lived in my West LA neighborhood. I didn't even know her name until one of her relatives told me.

Angelica used to live with her aged mother a few blocks from me, later inheriting the house. The two women were notorious recluses in our little tract: a couple of "Boo" Radleys from To Kill A Mockingbird, except neither one seemed to have his good heart.

The sign on the women's side gate featured a barrel-on view of a pistol with the warning: "Forget the dog, beware the owner."

They weren't kidding.

Decades ago, Angelica's mother got pissed off--maybe someone parked too close to the house--and came out to the street, waving her gun. A neighbor called the police. My mother happened to drive by as officers were loading the woman into a patrol car.

Apparently, like mother like daughter.

Spiked, wrought iron fencing still encircles Angelica's front yard. Multiple lawn signs still warn away solicitors and everyone else, her window blinds remain drawn, as they've been for several years, and that menacing side gate sign is still in place even as termites have gouged deep tunnels into the wooden back fence.

Neighbors said Angelica tormented anyone who she believed came too close to her corner property.

Still, I felt badly when I heard, months after the fact, that she died alone in that house.

I confess to uncharitable thoughts over the years about Angelica's presumed mental state and the ruin into which her house had fallen. Now I think we neighbors owed her more during those last years than smirks.

Partly, it's because I see 70 on the horizon. Friends have died, others have fallen away. I think twice about driving at night and I get why people take cover behind their window shades.

Did Angelica need help grocery shopping or watering her plants in those last years? Maybe she would have welcomed a chat over a cup of tea. Did anyone try to reach her behind those tightly closed shutters?

Of course, my regret is about me too, about whether my neighbors will offer help or a bit of neighborliness when my husband or I need it.

I didn't think much about this when David and I were on that hamster wheel of two school-age children, two jobs and caring for our own aging parents. Our friends were nearby and in those exhausting years we mostly wanted some time to ourselves.

Now, we are rich in time--if we don't look too far down the runway. As I write this, I hear the music CD David is playing in another room. We spend days this way, each of us happily occupied, reuniting in the kitchen for lunch and dinner. This life of ours now is exquisitely sweet, and ultimately as ephemeral as these pixels.

But when there's just one, is it always a short slide to dug in and fearful? My mother worried that she'd outlast her old dishwasher because at age 82 it seemed an insurmountable task to replace it.

Maybe that's where Angelica was. Her relative--the guy I met in front of her house one day--was replacing her roof. He told me that he'd offered to do that years before but Angelica refused, saying it would be too disruptive. So, her place became a tableau of neglect: listing gutters, peeling paint, missing shingles and a shredded American flag flapping on its pole.

The family is still deciding what to do with the property, he said.

I will be more charitable toward the next residents, whoever they are.

Ditto for the man who lives on my corner. I remember his late wife, her raven hair piled in an Ann Richards upsweep, resting on a plastic porch chair in nice weather as he tended the front yard. He still sweeps the gutter in front of his house, corralling every fallen magnolia leaf, that clean strip of asphalt his finger in the dike against despair. I pass him when I walk but he doesn't lift his eyes from the push broom. We've lived on the same block forever and I still don't know his name.

Next time I will say hello, even if he doesn't lift his head. Maybe, someday, we'll share a cup of coffee--and both be better for it. Maybe like those kidney donor chains, I reach out to him, he pays that kindness forward, and ultimately someone else, way down the chain, appears on my porch when I need it most, bidding me out into the day.

Molly Selvin is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

More by Molly Selvin:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed