The Perfect Neighbors
Four Weeks Later
Newport Cove Listserv Digest
A friendly reminder that school starts today, so please be on the lookout for our students, especially the wee ones, and remember to come to a full and complete stop at every stop sign. Remember—A Normal Speed Meets Every Need! —Sincerely, Shannon Dockser, Newport Cove Manager
Would the owner of the VERY LARGE DOG (judging from the size of its leavings) please be considerate enough to clean up after your pet so that I don’t step in a disgusting mess when I’m in my own yard? Canine fecal matter not only contains parasites, it attracts rodents. Please treat your neighbors’ yards with the same respect you would accord your own. —Joy Reiserman, Daisy Way
Can anyone recommend a good mechanic for a Honda minivan? —Lev Grainger, Crabtree Lane
• • •
“Hurry up, sweetie! You don’t want to be late for the bus on the first day!” Susan Barrett called up the stairs.
She grabbed the leash hanging on a hook in the coat closet and her shaggy gray mutt, Sparky, who had supersonic hearing when it came to the rattle of a leash or the creak of the oven door opening, came running, his nails scrabbling against the wooden floors.
Susan ran through a quick mental checklist: Cole’s new Spider-Man lunchbox was packed inside his matching Spider-Man backpack. A sheaf of three-ring paper filled his binder. His water bottle had been rinsed and filled.
She checked her watch. Sparky looked hopefully up the stairs. And Cole finally came racing down, his face clean but his shirt on backward.
Susan expertly flipped it around and they stepped outside into the golden September air. Later it would grow very warm, but right now the weather was mild and clear. This was the best part of Susan’s morning, the few minutes she and Cole spent ambling to the bus stop, calling out hello to neighbors while Sparky greeted his canine pals. At the beginning of a fresh day, it was easy to make resolutions: She wouldn’t eat carbs. She’d go to bed at a decent hour. She’d stop stalking her ex-husband, Randall, and his awful girlfriend.
A dozen yards ahead was her best friend, Kellie, shepherding along her daughter, Mia, and her son, Noah, who was conveniently Cole’s best pal. As Susan drew closer, she heard Kellie saying, “Just try two bites of a granola bar. Two little bites! I’ll pay you a dollar . . .”
“How come I don’t get paid for eating?” Cole asked Susan.
“Oh God, pretend you didn’t hear that,” Kellie said to Susan.
“Mrs. Scott, you said ‘God,’ ” Cole informed her.
“I beg your pardon,” Kellie said, winking, as Susan shrugged.
Who knew where Cole had picked up that chiding tone? Maybe from Randall’s girlfriend; when in doubt, Susan found it convenient to assign her blame.
As Cole ran ahead to catch up with Noah, Kellie moved over to let Susan walk alongside her. But Kellie nearly stumbled as a sidewalk crack snagged one of her shoes.
“How long does it take to get used to walking in high heels when you’ve been in flip-flops for a decade?” she asked.
“Two weeks,” Susan said instantly. She and Kellie had an ongoing game in which they delivered bogus answers with complete authority. It had started when one of the kids—Susan couldn’t remember which one—had asked where Santa went on summer vacation. “Australia,” Susan had said, at the exact moment Kellie had responded, “Bermuda.”
“You made that up. It’s already been five weeks. Now tell me the truth, is this outfit okay?” Kellie asked. “Does it say I’m trustworthy yet savvy, the sort of woman you need to buy a house from? Mia, honey, don’t pick that flower. It’s part of Mrs. Henderson’s garden.”
“Mom, I would never pick someone else’s flower. That would be illegal,” Mia huffed. Ten-year-old Mia had a dozen Girl Scout badges and was certified by the Red Cross as a mother’s helper, facts she didn’t so much tell people as accost them with.
“You look great,” Susan told Kellie honestly. She could see hints of the high school cheerleader Kellie had been in her heart-shaped face and thick blond hair. Kellie had been in the popular crowd, Susan knew, but she was one of the nice girls: the kind of teenager who’d ridden on a homecoming float, flashing a dimpled smile to the crowd, and whose yearbook pages were filled with notes from friends. Susan had had a very different experience in high school. She’d been one of only nine black students in her graduating class, and she’d spent most of her Friday nights with a book for company. (“You were class valedictorian, weren’t you?” Kellie had asked
after Susan had slaughtered everyone in Scrabble on game night. “No!” Susan had protested, honestly. She’d been salutatorian.)
“Oh my gosh! Look!” Kellie said.
She grabbed Susan’s arm and pointed across the street, to the empty house with the SOLD! sign staked in the front lawn. Ever since Mrs. Brannon had died of cancer and her husband had moved into an assisted living facility, the Cape Cod had seemed lonely. Sure, the lawn was kept trimmed and the gutters were cleaned. But missing were all the little touches that had made it a home. Mr. Brannon’s polished walking stick was absent from its usual spot by the front door, and the flowerpots that had once held Mrs. Brannon’s begonias had been removed from the steps. The well-used wooden rocking chairs had disappeared from the porch. Now, though, the house was thrumming with activity, awakening again.
A silver minivan was parked in the driveway and a huge moving van laid claim to the curb, its back doors flung open. Three men were wrestling a couch down a ramp. The house’s windows were open, and a soccer ball lay in the front yard.
“I saw that couch in Crate and Barrel a while ago, but it was three thousand bucks, which guarantees Cole would spill grape juice on it the first day,” Susan said. “Didn’t you say they have a couple of kids? What are they doing with a three-thousand-dollar couch? In cream, no less?”
“Maybe they like to live dangerously,” Kellie said. “And look, they’re at the bus stop already. Tessa!”
Kellie gave a little jump as she waved, nearly turning her ankle as she landed.
“Did I say two weeks? I meant two months,” Susan said.
Tessa, who’d been standing at the bus stop flanked by her daughter and son, a little apart from the other families gathered there, was waving back. A tentative smile broke across her face. Tessa looked nervous, Susan thought. It was tough moving to a new town.
“You’re here!” Kellie said when they reached Tessa.
“We are,” agreed Tessa. She was a woman composed of edges, the sort a child might draw, Susan thought, taking in her blunt-cut hair, her sharp chin, and her straight, dark eyebrows. Tessa was enviably slender in her khakis and simple blue blouse. Susan made a mental note: No carbs or sugar today!
“We got into town this weekend,” Tessa was saying. “We’ve been staying at the Marriott but we’ll be in the house tonight since the furniture just arrived.”
“I’m Susan Barrett. Welcome to the neighborhood,” Susan said, offering her hand. “How old are your kids?”
“Bree is nine,” Tessa said, touching her daughter’s head. “And Addison just turned seven.”
Both kids had that scrubbed, first-day-of-school look. New clothes with the creases still showing, combed hair, clean backpacks. Except Addison was trying to hide a fat, wiggling worm in his pocket. That detail alone made her sure that he and Cole would become fast friends.
“Great names,” Kellie said. “And Addison’s the same age as Noah and Cole! Who’s his teacher?”
“Um . . . Miss Klopson, I think?” Tessa said.
“That’s who Noah and Cole have!” Susan said.
“That’s wonderful,” Tessa said. But her smile seemed to require an effort. Her expression, like her voice, was flat—almost restrained. Was she sick? Or maybe she was just wiped out from the move, Susan thought.
There was a little awkward pause, then Mia tugged on Kellie’s arm. “Can I interview them?” she asked.
“Oh,” Kellie said to Tessa. “Sorry, Mia writes the ‘Kids’ Corner’ column for our neighborhood newsletter. Would you mind if she asked you a few quick questions?”
“Um . . . sure?” Tessa said. She tucked her hair behind her ears and frowned. Mia was already digging into her backpack for her official reporter’s steno notebook and pen.
Mia cleared her throat and uncapped her pen. “First question,” she said. Some of the other parents and kids turned at the sound of her voice ringing out. “WHY did you move here?”
Tessa staggered back, as if she’d been pushed.
“What?” she whispered.
Kellie stepped forward, steadying Tessa by her arm. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look like you’re about to faint.”
“I’m fine,” Tessa said. “I didn’t—I didn’t eat any breakfast.”
“Here,” Kellie said. She dug in her purse and came up with the granola bar she’d been unsuccessfully pushing on her kids. “Try this.”
“Is she going to get paid for eating it?” Cole wanted to know.
“Shh,” Susan said. She grabbed Cole’s water bottle from his backpack and offered it to Tessa. He could drink from the fountains for a day.
Tessa took a small sip. “That’s better. I was just dizzy for a moment, but it passed.”
“I need to ask my ‘w’ questions,” Mia insisted. “Who, what, where, why, and when.”
“Mia, quiet,” Kellie said.
Tessa didn’t look better, Susan thought. She was still ashen. It was a good thing Kellie hadn’t let go of her arm.
Susan was about to suggest that Tessa sit down when a little boy shouted, “Bus! Bus!”
Parents exploded into activity, kissing children, retying loose shoelaces, shouting reminders about piano lessons and soccer practice, and waving as the kids climbed aboard. Susan touched her index finger to the corner of her eye, then her heart, then pointed it at Cole. I. Love. You. She saw his smile through the bus window, then the vehicle lumbered away, belching a cloud of exhaust. The group of parents echoed the noise with an equally loud sigh of relief. They peeled away, heading to the blissful quiet of their offices or homes.
“Are you up to walking?” Kellie asked Tessa. “We can wait here with you if you’re still shaky.”
“No, really, I’m much better now,” Tessa said. “I should get back and check on the movers.”
“Well, we’re heading in the same direction, so we’ll give you all the neighborhood gossip on the way,” Kellie said. “You wouldn’t believe the scandals. The intrigue!”
Susan punched Kellie in the arm. “She’s kidding. We’re actually quite boring.”
“Sadly, it’s true,” Kellie said. “Well, we do have our ladies-only Wine and Whine night, and that tends to inspire some unexpected confessions, but other than that we’re a pretty tame bunch.”
“You’ll have to join us at the next one,” Susan said. “It’s Gigi’s turn to host, and she’s your next-door neighbor.”
“Have you met her yet?” Kellie asked. “She’s the one with the Susan Sarandon vibe? Picture Thelma just before she and Louise drove off that cliff. Gigi’s husband, Joe, is running for Congress in the special election—our congressman resigned because of a sex scandal with a prostitute, you might’ve heard—and Joe’s always busy campaigning so you probably won’t see him much, but Gigi’s really great.”
Tessa gave them a faint smile. “Well,” she said, “here’s my house.” She handed the superhero water bottle back to Susan. “Thank you again.”
Susan watched as Tessa walked up the front steps and disappeared inside.
“I repulsed her, didn’t I?” Kellie asked. “I always babble too much.”
“No, you’re charming,” Susan said. “I bet she’s getting the flu.”
“So what did you think of her?” Kellie asked as they resumed strolling.
“A spotless beige couch with two kids?” Susan said. “It screams ‘control freak,’ but I’m reserving judgment.”
“She seems . . . pleasant, I guess,” Kellie said. “But shy. She was like that when I met her at the open house, too.”
Susan shrugged. “Busy day today?” she asked.
“Sadly, no,” Kellie sighed. “I don’t have a single listing yet. I earned a little something for helping with the Brannons’ house, but I wasn’t the main agent on it. I’ve been working for a solid month and I’ve barely recouped the costs I spent to get licensed and for my business cards.”
“You’re just starting out,” Susan said. “It’ll take time.”
“I guess,” Kellie said. “How long did it take you? I mean before your business really exploded?”
“Oh, a little while,” Susan said vaguely. She didn’t want to tell her friend that her company, Your Other Daughter, had been an instant success. Susan’s idea for a part-time job coordinating services for the elderly, like taking them to doctors’ appointments or visiting them in nursing homes, had somehow grown into a booming franchise in four states. Early on, there had been an article about her in Black Enterprise magazine, and then a write-up in the Duke alumni magazine, which had helped launch her company. Now she had a syndicated weekly radio show in which she dispensed advice about elder care to callers. She gave speeches at five hundred dollars a pop. Even Mr. Brannon had become one of her clients; she’d helped the widower sort through his accumulated decades of belongings and choose an assisted living center. She visited Mr. Brannon every week to make sure he was comfortable. That service was off the books; Mr. Brannon, with his courtly manners and sad smile, had a special place in her heart. He seemed so alone in the world.
“I’ll spread rumors about asbestos at Wine and Whine night, to get the neighbors we don’t like to move away, and then I can sell their houses,” Kellie said.
“Great idea,” Susan said. “I’ll bring a few bottles of Chardonnay. Last time Gigi ran out.”
“Maybe she didn’t think it would be good for her husband’s
congressional campaign to have a dozen drunk women lurching out of his house,” Kellie mused.
“Oh, come on, it never hurt Bill Clinton,” Susan said. “How’s this for a plan: we’ll get Tessa drunk and she’ll spill all her deep, dark secrets.”
“I’m in,” Kellie said, laughing.