Chapter 3 “Brown Mustard and Pretzels”
The kitchen belonged in colonial times, along with the rest of the house. Allen tried not to laugh as she rubbed the tarnished handle to the ancient oven and stared at the gas stove, scanning it for any visible switch to make fire.
“It’s hard to believe Aunt Sheila spent years alone here,” she muttered through a nasal chuckle, finally finding the gas dial on the side of the stove. “I wouldn’t have survived, especially being as old as she was.”
“Oh, she wasn’t that old!” Mrs. Forsen chastised, scrubbing a fogged window with a Windex soaked rag. She sighed with a little smile. “She wouldn’t have left if we begged her, though. She and Uncle Patty were really happy here. This was their very first home you know, being handed down through the family as it was.”
Allen pursed her lips, turning to lean back against the stove and crossing her arms over her chest.
“I don’t get it. I mean, it’s nice, but an extremely inconvenient place to grow old together.”
“Not for Uncle Patty and Aunt Sheila. They were tough as nails.”
“Until cancer happened.”
Allen rose her eyebrows slightly as her mother visibly wilted a little, scrubbing a little less vigorously at the window. The young woman knew that what she had said was insensitive. Cancer had been a chronic and almost expected problem running through generations of her mom’s family and Mrs. Forsen lived in constant fear of discovering the same fate for herself. Allen sometimes wondered why she always let her get away with saying things like that. Her father never would have.
‘They say to not say anything at all if there is nothing nice to say, Allen,’ he used to say as they strolled around yet another science museum. ‘But there is always something nice to say. When you really think about, the mean things are just unnecessary.’
That was how he had always thought. What was necessary? Kind words put people at ease, let people know that you honestly did not want to anger them, that you were a potential partner in any big idea they could dream up. Insensitive phrases simply turned people away.
Lately, though, Allen found herself testing her boundaries more and more with this woman who had fed her and clothed her and kissed her wounds, but let her father do all the teaching that meant anything. She supposed she found it an experiment.
What would be the result of continuously provoking her mother?
The tinny doorbell rang. Mrs. Forsen picked up the rag again.
“You smell less like WD-40 than I do. Would you answer that, please?”
Her voice was tight. Allen nodded.
She wove her way through the old house and twisted the knob on the chipped white door, pulling it open. Her eyebrows shot up. A pretty young woman with curly dark hair sweeping her sharp jaw line and vibrant brown eyes gazing from a pale face grinned at her, her arms extended with a basket between them, a rose patterned napkin hiding the contents.
“Hi! I’m Miriam Quimby, but everyone calls me Miri, and this is my cousin Paul Baskett. We just wanted to welcome you to the area and say we’re glad you’re here!”
Allen’s eyes flicked over the woman’s shoulder. A young man stood behind Miriam on the top step of the porch, looking adorably shy in his dark jeans that were worn white at the knees, bright red sneakers, and light grey hoodie pullover. He shifted from foot to foot, then suddenly reached his hand out, blushing red.
Allen smiled quizzically, slowly shaking his hand.
“Yeah, she said so. Nice to meet you.”
He nodded again with a bashful smile, backing up to the first step again. A strand of dark hair dripped from its gelled hold and he blew upwards. It flopped back into place, then drifted limply over his forehead again. Allen stifled a giggle.
“Nice to meet you, Allen.” Miriam handed her the basket. “I hope you like soft pretzels, cause Paul makes them like no other.”
“You did not!” Allen lifted the napkin and felt every reservation crumple away. “I love pretzels! They are absolutely unavoidable with-”
“Brown mustard?” Paul suggested. Allen met his eyes with a wink.
“Where have you been all my life? I don’t know what it is in my workplace, but I’m the only one who seems to like these things! Or everyone’s on those fad diets that nix gluten and dairy and happiness.”
Paul chuckled, lifting a hand with an incredulous lift of his eyebrows. “It’s devastating! I can never treat anyone to dinner anymore!”
Allen winked. “Well, now you have someone to treat. Would you guys like to come over sometime? I make a mean barbecue chicken pizza.”
“We’d love to, thank you so much! May I contribute anything?”
Allen looked down at the basket of soft pretzels. Her mouth was watering.
“Bring a million of these and I’ll set up the picnic table out back.”
Miriam grinned and nudged Paul. “Sounds like you’re our kind of people. Name the day and we would be honored to come. Right, Paul?”
He nodded, meeting and holding Allen’s gaze. She realized how rich the brown of his eyes was, like someone melted extremely dark chocolate into sockets in his head. He quirked an eyebrow with a smile.
“If we bring a million and one pretzels, do you mind if I bring a handful of little cousins? We can easily provide the food for them all.”
Allen pursed her lips and shrugged. “Why not? How does tomorrow night sound?”
“We’re open and willing. Again, thank you for the invite. Let us know if you need any help settling in, as well. We have a surplus of willing hands.” Miriam shook her hand. “We’ll see you soon, Allen.”
“Bye, Miriam. Paul.”
He waved a little and turned back into the street, sticking his hands into his pockets and swinging his legs out wide and round as he strolled towards the house on the other side. Miriam ran to follow, hooking her arm through his and whispering in his ear. He laughed, then shoved her gently away from him. She doubled over and skipped ahead of him into the house. Paul launched up the porch steps and slipped through the door.
Allen stood in the doorway for a long minute, clutching the basket to her stomach. She often wished she had family. Cousins or siblings, she did not care.
Wishing was wasting time.
“Allen? Who was that?”
“The neighbors, Mom. They’re coming over for dinner tomorrow night.”
“Oh, good! What’re we making?”
“Lots and lots of pizza.”