The eggplant was slowly sizzling in the pan on top of my stove when the front doorbell rang. I peered out the kitchen window. A stranger stood outside our duplex. Not that I knew many people anyway. The military had just moved us into this German house less than three weeks ago.
A glance at the eggplant pieces in the pan told me that they still needed a good ten minutes until they were done. I hurried to the front door, unlocked it and was immediately greeted by an elderly man with a big smile on his face.
“I am your neighbor,” he said in perfect English. “My name’s Herbert. I live right up the road in the white house on the left,” he explained, waving his arm in the general direction. “I thought I’d bring you some homemade jam.”
I have lived in very many places over the years, following my husband’s military career, but I have never been greeted with a jar of homemade jam. How awesome! I stepped outside the front door, took the old man’s right hand to shake it and introduced myself.
I had not even gotten to say my last name when I heard a silent “click” as the front door closed behind me.
I breathed in sharply, turned around and frantically tried to push the front door open. It would not budge.
Perhaps this was just a dream. A bad dream. Surely if I pushed hard enough the door would open. Yes, this was a nightmare, and I would wake up any second. I was sure of this and pushed, and pushed, and pushed.
“What’s the matter?” Herbert asked. “Did you lock yourself out?”
I turned around and nodded.
Herbert gasped. “Oh my, oh my. I’m so sorry. This’s all my fault.” The old man shook his head. “What on earth should we do? It’s all my fault,” he said again.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m so careless. The previous house we lived in wouldn’t lock unless you actually locked it with a key,” I explained.
“Oh my, oh my. We’ll need to get a locksmith,” Herbert said.
The thought hit me like a punch in the stomach. I swallowed hard. “How long will that take? My stove’s on!” I looked at Herbert in despair. “The stove is on!”
I ran to the kitchen window and peered inside. Yes, there it was: the frying pan, with peacefully sizzling eggplants on top of the stove.
“The window’s cracked,” Herbert said, having followed me to the kitchen window. “That’s good! I’m sure we can push it open!”
I looked up. He was right, of course. I had cracked open the window just before I started cooking. I breathed in a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness! Let me try! I should be able to turn the handle and push it open,” I exclaimed. I pushed myself up and planted my knees on the slender window ledge.
“Be careful so you don’t hurt yourself,” Herbert said, watching me from behind.
I squeezed my arm through the gap, grabbed the window’s handle on the other side, turned it, and pushed, and pushed, and pushed. The window would not budge.
“Let me try,” Herbert said. I scooted on my knees to the other side of the window ledge to make room for him. Being much taller than I am, he reached up, slid his hand through the gap, got hold of the handle and pushed. “Oh my, oh my. It’s not working,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t understand. It should open.”
I swallowed hard. This was such a mess. “We need to do something! The kitchen’s going to be on fire!”
Herbert looked at me and nodded. “I’ll go home and call a locksmith.” He darted out the front gate and disappeared.
My arm started to hurt from the numerous attempts to reach through the gap and try every imaginable way of pushing open this stubborn window. I hopped down from the window sill and ran to the back side of the house, hoping that I had left another window open, albeit knowing very well that I had not. “We could shatter a window, though, and crawl inside,” I thought, while I heaved myself back up upon the kitchen windowsill and stared through the glass. Was that whiffs of grey smoke billowing over the pan?
Behind me I heard voices. I turned around and saw Herbert accompanied by a woman and a man who appeared to be in their sixties.
“Did you call the locksmith?” I cried. This was not the moment for social etiquette.
The man answered. “Yes, yes, we called one. But let me try.”
He grabbed the frame on the right and the left and started to push and wiggle.
“It’s somehow stuck,” the man said, analyzing the situation. “It just won’t budge.”
“I’m frying something on the stove!” I cried. “We need to call the fire department!”
“Why won’t the window open?” The woman who had accompanied the man wondered aloud, completely ignoring my slowly increasing hysteria. “Are you pushing hard enough?”
“Here let me help,” Herbert said, stepping up right in front of the window. “I’ll grab the handle and you push.”
I watched my neighbors try every possible angle to unhinge the frame with no luck. “Some modern mechanism, I bet. Good against burglars. Not good for us.” Herbert chuckled.
I buried my fingernails deeper into my palms.
The man agreed. “Yes, yes. This house’s new, of course. My windows open immediately when you give them a good push.”
“Oh yes,” Herbert agreed. “Ours do too. If there’s a storm we have to make sure they’re closed otherwise the wind blows them open.”
I could not believe these people! This was an emergency, and they were discussing window workmanship.
“The stove’s on! We need to do something!” I screamed. “Break the window! We don’t have time. Get a hammer. Get something to break the window!”
My neighbors starred at me, but at the moment I did not care whether they thought I was crazy, hysterical, rude or all three of those.
Herbert simply nodded. “I’ll get my tools,” he said, turned around and hurried toward the street.
“Let’s go over to my house,” the other man called out and hurried after Herbert. “I’ve got all the tools outside in the shed.”
“If only the stove wasn’t on, it really wouldn’t be so bad,” I tried to explain to the woman next to me.
“Yes. Always turn off the stove before you do something else, my dear. Remember that for the future,” she explained.
Out of sheer despair, I walked over to heave myself upon the window sill again to push my arm through the gap and try just one more time. Meanwhile I could not help noticing that more and more smoke continued to rise up from the pan and float around the kitchen.
“She locked herself out. And she left the stove on. Frying something. Edgar and Herbert are getting some tools to break the window.”
I turned around to see the woman gesticulating and explaining the situation to two younger ladies.
One of the younger ladies ran over to me and peered through the glass. “Oh no! The kitchen’s filling with smoke! Did you call a locksmith? I can call one. I’ve got my cell phone right here,” she offered. “I know somebody who is really good and fast.”
“Thanks. Herbert’s already called one,” I said.
“Oh yes, of course, Monika. Isn’t your brother-in-law a locksmith?” my neighbor interjected.
“No, no not Thomas,” the lady named Monika started explaining. “His brother Udo is the locksmith. He’s the one married to Inge, you know the woman who works down at the flower shop? Anyway, I’m going to call Udo just in case.”
Behind me the three ladies continued their casual talk, while I still knelt on the ledge, ignoring the discomfort in my knees, peering into my kitchen with growing anxiety. There was nothing I could do but bite my nails. Clouds of smoke floated around the kitchen, accompanied by an acrid smell that escaped through the cracked window. How long would it take until the pan would catch on fire?
“There we are!” Behind me Herbert and Edgar announced their arrival. Both of them carried an assortment of tools in both hands.
At last! Quickly, I hopped down from the ledge to make room for the smashing of the kitchen window. I joined the ladies who were watching the proceedings with interest.
“I thought we’d try this first,” Herbert said, as he and Edgar stepped up to the window with two formidable crow bars. “You try from the right, I will lift from the left.”
“Be careful,” Monika hollered.
I cringed as I watched them bury their crow bars deep into the window’s lower casing to lift the window out of its hinges.
“It’s moving!” Edgar called out.
Suddenly a deafening, high-pitching sound emanated from the kitchen. At the same time, the hinges gave way and released the window out of its tight grip. Herbert and Edgar dropped their crow bars down to the ground and held onto the window frame. Slowly they pushed the window open.
“Climb in! Hurry!” Herbert shouted at me.
I ran to the window. In one motion, Edgar and Herbert grabbed me, heaved me up, I crawled through the open space, hopped down from the sink, turned off the stove, and pushed the pan to the side.
My neighbors clapped their hands and cheered outside, while I stood by the window with a thumbs-up and a racing heart.
Herbert helped me turn off the fire alarm, and as we emerged from the front door, two locksmiths joined the group. Amid talk about getting locked out, the value of simple crowbars, and Herbert’s tasty jam recipe, I learned my neighbors’ names and where they lived.
I was no longer a stranger in the neighborhood.