"...but suddenly a sense of possibility ballooned as though with helium, and she felt like she was lifted off the ground."
Excerpt from chapter one of A Gracious Neighbor: A Novel by Chris Cander (Little A, 2022). Reprinted with permission from Little A.
When a huge moving truck parked in front of the house next door, Martha Hale dashed into her backyard to harvest four large Meyer lemons from her tree and went inside to make a batch of lemon bars from a recipe she’d been practicing for the occasion.
“The new neighbors are moving in!” she told her husband, Lewis, who was reading a copy of Geographic Information Systems Monthly.
“Oh good,” he said without looking up.
While the lemon bars were baking, she quickly showered and dried her hair, applied a bit of makeup, which she rarely ever did anymore, and put on an outfit that felt far too dressy but which many women in the neighborhood seemed to wear almost as a uniform: white skinny jeans, a denim shirt, and flats. Martha had outgrown her version of the other neighborhood uniform of yoga pants with a sleeveless top and maybe a light wrap, so that wasn’t an option. It seemed like everyone was always on their way to or from a studio class or the gym, and not just because of their wardrobes; the average clothing size in West U was at least three smaller than anywhere else in Houston. For the past fourteen years, Martha had been trying and failing to lose the twenty pounds she thought made her still look like she didn’t belong. She put on her grandmother’s diamond studs and the turquoise necklace Lewis had given her for Christmas the year before.
“How do I look?” she asked. She waited a beat. “Lewis!” His head snapped up. “I said, how do I look?”
“Oh. You look great. Why are you so dressed up?”
“I told you, the neighbors are moving in.”
“Wait, I don’t have to change, do I?” He looked down at his old T-shirt and gym shorts that were snug across his waist. “Are we supposed to be doing something with them?”
“I just wanted to make a good impression is all.” She sighed.
“Okay, good,” he said, and went back to the article he was reading.
Finally, long after the lemon bars had gone cold and she was getting hungry for lunch, a white Lexus SUV pulled into the driveway between the two houses. Martha clasped her hands together and called out toward Lewis, “They’re pulling up!”
“Marty, you shouldn’t stand there gaping out the window,” he called back. She rolled her eyes, even though he couldn’t see her.
When a tall, slender woman with long blonde hair and oversize sunglasses hopped out of the driver’s seat and walked around to the other side, Martha felt a pinch of uncertainty; the woman looked impossibly elegant, even in what looked like a silk robe over baggy jeans. The kind of chic that looked effortless because it probably actually was. She also looked familiar. There was a forward slant to her long gait that made her look powerful, even predatory, which oddly contrasted her delicate hands and the gentle tilt of her head. She’d known someone who moved like that once, long ago.
“No way,” Martha said, pressing herself first closer to the window.
“What?” Lewis called.
“I think I know her.”
The anticipation of making a new friend had been building steadily inside her since the day the house was sold, but suddenly a sense of possibility ballooned as though with helium, and she felt like she was lifted off the ground. There was some anxiety, too, as an unpleasant memory involving this woman returned, as it had occasionally over the years. It felt like some sort of karmic sign. She grabbed the plate of bars—not a disposable plastic container; a real plate ensured the neighbor would have to return it—and jog-walked across her small yard. “Minnie Foster!” she called out, nervous but beaming with delight. “Is that you?”
The woman had just pulled a small birdcage from her front seat and spun around toward Martha. Her face was as lovely as ever, smooth and clear skinned as though the past two decades had passed by without touching her. She smiled at Martha, but when she pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, her eyes were obviously searching for the connection. “Yes?” she said.
Martha leaned forward, as though examining the detail on a statue. “For half a second, I thought I was wrong. You look a little bit different, but it is you.”
Minnie’s hand flew up and touched her nose. “And you’re . . . ?”
“It’s me! Martha Pagnell! Well, now it’s Martha Hale, but back then it was Pagnell.”
“Martha . . .”
“From high school!”
Minnie winced, even as she smiled with her lovely white teeth clamped tight. “God, I’m sorry. I just can’t quite place you. Forgive me.”
As quickly as it had swelled, Martha’s excitement deflated. Why did she think Minnie Foster would remember her? “No, no, of course.” She tried to laugh it off, to hide her disappointment as much from herself as from Minnie. “I mean, it’s been a while. We graduated twenty years ago, for goodness’ sake! So much has happened since then, how can we possibly remember everybody we went to school with? Although I was on the yearbook committee, so I might actually remember everybody. I took a lot of pictures of the classrooms and clubs and pep rallies and stuff.”
Minnie studied her for a moment. “Wait! I think I remember you now. Were we in English together?”
Martha scrunched her nose. “No, but we were in choir together junior year. And Spanish and chemistry senior year. And I took your portrait for Most Beautiful Senior.”
“Of course! Martha Pagnell. I remember that picture. It was really great, the composition and lighting. My dad kept it in a frame on his desk until he died.”
Martha blushed and smiled—Minnie did remember her! And she had liked her portrait! Then she remembered her manners. “I’m so sorry to hear about your father.”
“Thanks.” Minnie looked down at the bird inside the cage. “Anyway, it’s so nice to see you. I’m guessing you live nearby?”
“I live next door! Can you believe it? What are the chances? Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s you!” Without thinking, she leaned forward to embrace her just as Minnie shifted the birdcage so that it was directly between them. Martha backed away, embarrassed again.
“Sorry,” Minnie said. “This is Bonnie.” She cocked her head and said to the delicate-looking yellow-and-blue parakeet, “Aren’t you, my beautiful girl? Bonnie the budgie.” She placed the cage carefully on the driveway and turned to Martha. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. I think I might be losing my mind. It’s been crazy with the move back to Houston. We’ve lived in Seattle for the past eight years, but when my husband got . . . when he got a new job here, everything happened kind of fast. Tying up loose ends, packing, selling the house, all that.” Minnie spun the large diamond ring around and around her wedding finger. “With all the sudden newness, it’s nice to see a familiar face.”
And for a while, Martha actually believed her.
Chris Cander is the USA Today bestselling author of THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, which was named an Indie Next Great Read in both hardcover and paperback and which the New York Times called, “immense, intense and imaginative,” WHISPER HOLLOW, also named an Indie Next Great Read, and 11 STORIES, named by Kirkus as one of the best books of 2013 and winner of the Independent Publisher Book Awards for fiction. She also wrote the children’s picture book THE WORD BURGLAR, and the Audible Originals “Eddies” and “Grieving Conversations.” Her new novel, A GRACIOUS NEIGHBOR, arrives fall 2022. Cander’s fiction has been published in twelve languages. She lives in her native Houston with her husband and two children.