“Hmm?” I screech down the hallway, still occupied with my frusterating computer.
“The neighbor from next door is here.” Dads voice falters in confusion as if friendly neighbors aren’t normal in Berks. I wouldn’t doubt it though, I’ve yet to see anybody walk on the streets or wave in a friendly greeting.
This is my third week here. Mom finally died from her sickness and I was left with my dad who doesn’t know anything about parenting. So yippee for me, I guess. Obviously he doesn’t know anything about neighborly manners either.
“Coming!” I finish tapping out the last paragraph of my history essay and roll out of my chair in pleasent routine. I walk down the hallway and to the front door constantly aware of the mess Dad has made of his house.
Dad and a small elderly women are making small talk outside the front door. I clear my throat and dad looks up obviously relieved to see me. The woman’s eyes crinkle with delight at seeing me and she smiles pleasantly.
“Hello dear.” She says and pushes her glasses up her nose. I wave absentmindedly at her and tell dad that there is leftover pizza from last night if he’s hungry. His growling stomach reveals him and he nods embarassed and hurries down the hall into the kitchen.
I turn to the neighbor again. She smiles, cocking her head slightly to the side.
“Hello,” I say not returning her smile. “I’m Jelloise Jenkins.” I hold out my hand. She takes it softly. “Nice to meet you.”
Instead of letting go of my hand she grabs it with both of hers kindly and holds my hand in the middle of us. “It’s very nice to meet you Jelloise, or should I call you Jelly?” She talks in a wavering quiet voice. It sounds nice and comforting, like mom’s. I want to capture that voice forever.
“Sorry,” I say embarrassed she heard Dad call me Jelly. “Dad’s called me Jelly ever since I ate jello for the first time. He made a connection with my name and, well, the name stuck.” I catch myself babbling which I hate so I instantly shut myself up. “You can just call me Jelloise, though…” I raise an eyebrow at her.
She twitches as if I’ve jumped her out of thought. “Oh! I’m Annie Walters, dear. Sorry for not saying it sooner.” She lets go of my hand and lowers her clasped hands to her waist line.
“Well I appreciate you welcoming me to the neighborhood Ms. Walters-”
“Oh please call me Annie, won’t you? Formalities are always a nuisance.” She chuckles and finally I allow myself a small smile. She beams at me as soon as I do.
“Very well. Annie it is.” I brush my hair from my face with one hand and with the other pull a hairband of my wrist and pull my hair into a low ponytail. She watches my every move with intent curiosity.
“Well I didn’t just come over here to welcome you.” Annie says pursing her lips mischievously. I pause for two beats before realizing she wants me to react.
“No?” I say raising both eyebrows in mock curiosity.
She shakes her head like an overexcited little kid. “I wanted to invite you to my house next week. Thursday. Your dad said he had a meeting that ran late that day and I wanted to have you over for dinner.” She takes a small breath. “I make the best fried chicken.”
I shudder. “I don’t like fried chicken.” I said watching the hurt flicker across her face but then quickly fix itself.
“Oh? Well in that case I can also make some ribs with a peach and basil sauce?”
Shoot. That sounds divine. There’s no getting out of this awkward dinner so I sigh in defeat, “That sounds amazing Annie, thank you. I’ll be there at five.” Satisfied Annie smiles again and waves as she crosses the street over to her house. I watch her leave, momentarily frozen as she slips into her front door and closes it behind her.
The night came where, like Annie said, Dad had a meeting and I was left at my house. The sun set pretty early that day so I could see the light in Annie’s front dining room flickering through the window as she rustles around probably setting the table or something. I ponder how late I can be but without making her worried. I decide that I could be 30 minutes late without freaking her out. Before heading out I make a pit stop by my bedroom to grab a cardigan and sling it over my shoulder as I lock up the house.
I open the door and Annie is standing there, hand poised as if to knock, and her face puckered in a confused expression.
“Oh!” I gasp, flushing red. I take a step back from her into the house.
“I was just about to come over.” I explain. I grimace as she stares at me with those round eyes of hers with genuine kindness and sensitivity.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to surprise you. It’s just a bit later than we had arranged and dinner was getting chilly so I thought I’d pop over and see if everything was alright.”
I’m already nodding before she even finishes. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry I got a bit sidetracked.”
Annie smiles brightly. “Well then. Shall we go eat dinner?” I nod and we walk across the street, me walking a few paces behind her. The air is chilly and I’m glad I brought my cardigan. I’m relieved when she opens the door to her house and the warm air pours out into the night. We step inside her house and she closes the door behind me.
“This smells amazing Annie.” I exclaim as I walk into the dining room. Steaming plates of food are laid out perfectly. Annie beams at me and motions towards a seat at the end of the small square table.
“This is your seat, dear.” I nod, my mouth watering with the irresistible smell of cooked peaches, fresh basil, and grilled ribs. Annie takes her place beside me and picks up a fork, poised over the tender meat but then suddenly stops and looks to me.
“Do you say grace at your home Jelly?” I bristle as she calls me my father’s nickname but oddly it sounds normal coming from her mouth.
“Nope.” I say. “I mean, at my mom’s house we always did but at dad’s we don’t.” I pick up my fork too and dig into the food to prove I’m not waiting for her to say grace. This seems to relax Annie and she smiles as my face melts in happiness at the first tastes of dinner. She starts to eat too, slowly at first.
“Is it good?” She asks. I nod as I shovel another bite into my mouth. I swallow loudly and then give her another thumbs up. This seems to satisfy her.
“So, you lived at your moms house before?” She asks this cautiously as not to pry into something sensitive. I stop eating.
After I wipe my mouth and hands on a perfectly bleached napkin I respond. “Yeah. My mom and dad divorced when I was a little kid. I lived with my mom up until a few weeks ago.”
She raises an eyebrow and I clarify, “She died of cancer. I’m only 17 and I needed somebody to live with so that’s where my dad came in.”
“I’m so sorry.” She says like she really means it. She leans over my plate and places her warm hands on my shoulders.
“My husband and daughter died in a car accident a long time ago.” Now it’s my turn to be surprised. I notice a small silver band on Annie’s ring finger I hadn’t noticed before, glimmering as a beacon of grief. I don’t say anything.
“You and I are alike, dear.” She said trying to explain something to me. “We’re both alone.” I shiver and can’t meet her eyes.
“I have my dad.” I say, embarrassed that she could tell that I was lonely, something I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to hide. With my cover blown I almost felt naked.
“Hm.” Annie responds then continues eating.
After dinner Annie clears our plates as I sit in her small living room. It’s modest, a couch and two chairs, some paintings of the woods surrounding our neighborhood, and a stone fireplace with pottery on the mantle. I stand up and walk to the pottery. It’s beautiful. It looks like somebody watercolored the clay even though that’s impossible. I notice that all the pottery is all the same design just different colors. On the mantle there are nine vases all painted in swirls of exotic colors. The vases are too big to hold flowers so I wonder what they are used for if not just for decoration. They stand out in the room. I love them.
I reach out to touch the vase in front of me, it’s orange and white swirls almost moving under the glaze that coats it.
“Do you like them?” Annie asks, startling me. I pull my hand back instantly, embarrassed.
“They’re very pretty.” I say. “Where did you get them?”
Annie smiles and walks over to me wiping her still wet hands from washing dinner on her purple skirt. “I made them.”
“No!” I gasp looking over the beautiful pieces of art. She nods.
“I have a small pottery workshop in the back of my house. Something to keep me busy.”
I would have never guessed Annie to be the pottery type.
“You’re welcome to touch them if you’d like.” I don’t want to be rude but I’m so tempted that I reach out once more. I run my fingers across the lip of the orange vase until I feel something out of place. I look closely under my fingers and see that Annie has scratched in words. I squint at them and read a name. “Marlyn, Marylie, Mariline?” I try reading the name.
“Marline.” Annie clarifies looking sad. Next to the name is a date. 9/14/1998.
I move onto the next vase. It’s purple with bright bursts of pink forming just under the darkest colors on the surface. I trail my fingers around until I find a name. Bert 9/14/1998. I’m confused. That’s the same date on the vase that said Marline.
“Is that your-”
“Husband’s name. Yes, dear.” She looks sad and frightened and I almost can feel her despair radiating through the house. “Marline was my daughter. We would make pottery together sometimes. Nothing complicated though, little plates or mugs. She loved pinch pots! Her little fingers would mold the clay into whatever her dear heart desired!” She laughs and the air turns warm with a memory. I smile too.
I continue looking at the vases. The dates moving up to the present as I make my way to the right side of the mantle. The vases are all beautiful, each unique, like it’s own being. Janet 12/28/2018 I read. There’s only one more vase left and it’s exquisite. It’s black clouds with a colorful rainbow of swirls trying to burst through the black. I bend down to see the name.