The New Neighbour by Emily Deaton

Graceville, South Carolina was a quiet little city, unaffected by the heave and hubbub of
progress that went on in many of the cities around it. Unlike the bigger cities, which boasted apartment buildings and townhouses, most of Graceville’s residents lived in single-family homes. Over time, these clusters of houses had matured into sprawling neighborhoods that spilled over and around the city’s many hills. One of these communities, Fox Creek, was smaller than the rest, with little more than a dozen houses.

On most pleasant afternoons, nearly all the inhabitants could be found on their front porches sipping an ice cold glass of sweet tea, and Mrs. Rachel Collins and Mrs. Susan Gladsky were no exception. The house belonged to Mrs. Collins, which was clearly indicated by the large Cs on the mailbox cover, Welcome sign, flag, and wreath.

On this particular afternoon, one of the cooler days of the month, Mrs. Collins and Mrs.
Gladsky slowly sipped and rocked, punctuating the silence every so often with trifling remarks about Mrs. Collins’s crepe myrtles, the weather forecast for the week, or an interesting bit of gossip from their women’s ministry group. All the while, Mrs. Collins avoided looking at the house to the right, where a bright red sign with the word SOLD was jammed into the ground at an insulting angle. At last, with a great sigh, she gave in. “I wonder who bought it,” she said, still rocking.

“I’m sure you’ll find out soon, Rachel,” replied her friend. “The sign’s been up for
weeks, so they’re bound to move in sometime.”

Mrs. Collins grimaced, glancing around the porch before muttering under her breath, “I
hope they’re nice. There are so many people movin’ to Graceville that aren’t. Ever since Anne Harrington moved out, I’ been worried about it. It was keepin’ me up at night—that is, until Roger Morris suggested I pray about it instead. That empty house has kept me on my knees, I’ll tell you what.” She took a deep breath and exhaled quickly, shaking her head. Mrs. Gladsky nodded in agreement. “You know, I wasn’t so sure about Roger when he was first ordained, but it seems like he’s really come along since then. And he’s right, Rachel. The only thing you kin do is pray about it. God hears you. He knows what you kin handle, and he won’t give you any more’n that.” She spoke with the utmost assurance, as if handing down a prophecy from above.

The rocking slowed as Mrs. Collins looked down at her hands. “It’s not that I don’t think
I kin handle it, Susan,” she said quietly. “I’m not sure I want to. This has always been such a nice, quiet town. My family’s lived here for generations, and there never used to be any trouble. But now you hear stories –” her voice quieted to barely a whisper. “I know you’ve heard the same ones I’ve heard, Susan, about people breakin’ into cars, and stray cats traipsin’ around downtown, and homeless people sleepin’ in the city park, and I just don’t want that happenin’ in this neighborhood. Mr. Collins and me, we built this house before any of the other houses were around, and we always thought it would be such a nice place to grow old together. And now he’s gone, and I just pray every night that they’ll be nice.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Gladsky calmly, “maybe he’ll take your wishes into consideration, too.
After all, you do what you ought to, Rachel. You haven’t missed a service in years—including the Wednesday ones, and you know how attendance at those has dropped since Pastor Waters died—and you tithe every Sunday, and you run the bake sale for the youth fundraiser in the spring. I mean, mercy, Rachel, that Roger Morris named you head of the flower committee this past Sunday! I forgot to congratulate you at the service ‘cause I had to rush home to set the table for lunch, but I was smilin’ ear to ear when he called your name out.”

Mrs. Collins turned her head a little, but Mrs. Gladsky could still see a rosy flush
climbing up her ears. “Susan, you know I don’t do the Lord’s work to be congratulated.”

“Of course not!” exclaimed Mrs. Gladsky. “Which is another reason why I’m sure
somethin’ good’ll come of this. Anne Harrington is a nice lady, and it’s a shame what happened to her son, but her movin’ out could be a good thing. I mean, she does have her vices,” she tilted her head knowingly. “How many times did she come slippin’ in the back pew smellin’ a little too much like liquor? Can you imagine? I don’t know that I’ve ever so much as sipped a wine cooler, much less gotten drunk before church!”

“Susan, I told you that in confidence,” replied Mrs. Collins firmly. “As much as I agree
with you—although I do like to add a little blackberry wine to my pound cake recipe in the summer—Anne’s habits in private don’t concern anyone but herself’n God.”

“– and her neighbors,” added Mrs. Gladsky. She leaned forward a little and rocked
faster. “Speakin’ of—I think that’s them here now.”

An old, sky blue Toyota Tarago pulled into the driveway next door and crawled to a stop,
the brakes protesting loudly. Once parked, the minivan made angry, growling noises and seemed to tremble on its wheels a little. Mrs. Collins began to sweat for the first time all morning. The sun didn’t reach them on her covered porch, but perhaps the breeze had stopped. Was there a breeze earlier? She didn’t remember.

At least an hour had to have passed, perhaps two, in the time it took the driver’s side door to open. Meanwhile, a droplet of sweat crawled out of Mrs. Collins’ hairline and inched down her cheek, and another slipped down her spine. It made her shiver a little, despite the smothering heat. Was it usually this hard to breathe? She swallowed three, four, five times to clear the lump from her throat; still, it only grew larger. She wondered for a moment if it would choke her unconscious. What would they determine as the cause of death? She grabbed at her glass of tea and forced a mouthful of liquid down her throat. It was strange—she didn’t remember it tasting like mud before, but now —

The rumbling from the van grew louder, swelling and swelling until it was all Mrs.
Collins could hear. She would later swear that if you listened closely, nearly straining your ears, you could hear in the distance the faint sound of someone screaming. Mrs. Gladsky refuted this, saying it was just the exhaust, and that she ought to know, her son being handy with cars and all.

But still, Mrs. Collins wasn’t sure later, and she certainly wasn’t sure now. In fact, she was positive the voice was calling her name. Strange, though—it kept saying Bishop , and that hadn’t been her name in years. She hadn’t even made it her middle name when she married Mr. Collins.

After all, she had tried to leave her lower class beginnings behind her. Funny to think the sound would scream that name. She didn’t even think the rest of the town knew about her family. She clutched at her chest with a cold hand. What does a heart attack feel like, she wondered. Her pulse beat so fast, too fast. She used her free hand to grip the arm of her rocking chair and prepared herself for what must be her death. She wondered if this is what it had felt like for Mr. Collins, if he had been so desperate to cling to life like this, if he, too, could feel his own body betray him.

Meanwhile, the driver’s side door swung open and a pasty leg terminating in a tall wedge
sandal shot out into the sunlight. Mrs. Collins gasped with relief. “Oh,” she breathed quietly, one hand still white-knuckled, clutching the arm of the rocking chair. “Maybe they won’t be too bad.”

The rest of the body arrived from the van one part at a time. Tiny, pink cotton shorts,
with HOT MOM printed in large letters across the back. A pale half moon of stomach, the belly button sparkling and catching the light. Thin T-Shirt, dirty white, with ragged, cut-off sleeves. A cigarette dangling from a hot pink mouth. By the time the eyes emerged, Mrs. Collins had already determined she was in a nightmare. God said to love your neighbor, but this. . . this was too much. She pinched herself once, long and hard, on the leg, and was shocked to see it begin to darken.

The body parts, having assembled themselves into a tall white woman in plastic hair
curlers, were seeing about the exit of at least fifteen children from the minivan. One whispered something to the woman and pointed at Mrs. Collins’ porch. The woman turned and waved, yelling, “Good mornin’! Sure is a shit day for movin’, huh? Hotter ‘n hell! I told my fiance we should wait ‘til next week, but ya can’t ever argue with ‘em once ‘s mind’s made up!”

Pausing for a moment, she motioned for the children to start unpacking the van while she ambled up to the porch. She ducked under a limb from a Bradford pear tree and stumbled a little on her heels. Grinning, she called out, “We’re moving here from Marietta! Little diff’rent from Graceville, but we’re excited, anyway. Fiance’s got a new job in town, so we figured we’d save a little on gas if we moved closer. My name’s Kelly Bishop. It’s about to be Farris, though. Only three more weeks ‘til the weddin’!” She pushed a few river birch branches out of her face and squinted through the leaves.

“Kinda difficult to get through here, innit? We’ll have to make some kinda path or somethin’ once we git settled in so I kin visit you more.”

Every drop of color drained from Mrs. Collins’ face, and a block of ice slowly crawled
through her veins. She recalled a faint memory of a card sent from her younger sister. Mr. Collins had found it first, had brought it to her. He had asked if she wanted to visit, and she had snapped at him. “It’s just a birth announcement,” she had retorted. “People give birth all the time. There’s no reason to make a fuss over it.” Thinking back now, she couldn’t remember what the name of the baby had been.

The woman had finally made it to the porch steps. Huffing a little, she pulled herself up
by the railing. “Maybe we could cut down one a’ them trees between the houses, or take out a little a’ the pine straw so it ain’t so slipp—” She had finally let go of the railing and stood, sweat popping out on her forehead, staring at Mrs. Collins. She squinted for a minute, tilting her head to one side. “That’s weird, is what. I could swear you look jus’ like my aunt Rachel, my mom’s sister, that is. Funny thing.” She shook her head slowly, frowning.

Mrs. Gladsky, who had been silently sipping her sweet tea and feeling more than a little
sorry for her friend’s bad luck, had to swallow her mouthful to avoid spitting it back into the glass. “I’m sorry—Rachel?” she turned to look at Mrs. Collins. “Are you related to. . .?”

Mrs. Collins had regained a little of her color with two crimson dots on each cheekbone.
Her eyes, however, were glazed, and when she tried to reply, she had to clear her throat several times before a sound would emerge. “I think you oughtta go home, Susan,” she replied in a thick voice. “You’d said earlier that you still needed to make the cupcakes for the social tomorra night, and it’s gettin’ late. I’ll call you in the mornin’.”

Mrs. Gladsky shook her head in disbelief and sighed. “Whatever you think is best,
Rachel .” She emphasized the word, shooting a meaningful look at the woman who was still standing in front of the steps, head tilted. After gathering up her purse and car keys, she made her way to her car, maneuvering herself carefully around the woman and down the front porch steps.

Once in the driver’s seat, she dug through her purse, finally discovering her cell phone in the front pocket. She lifted it out with a shaking hand and held it in her lap, telling herself firmly, “You have to do the right thing, Susan. No matter what, you have to do the right thing.” Hands still trembling, she opened up her contacts and scrolled until she found the name she was looking for.

***

Mrs. Susan Collins opened her mail in the driveway long before she ever reached the
house, a habit she had picked up from Mr. Collins. His one flaw, she reflected, had always been impatience. One letter in particular caught her eye. Unlike the rest of the mail, the return and mailing addresses were handwritten in a long, sloping script. She tore it open faster than she did the others, hoping it was something more exciting than an electricity bill or yet another credit card offer.

It was printed on letterhead, with Pastor Roger Morris, MDiv. typed at the top center. She scanned quickly through the first few paragraphs, which were filled with recollections of all she had done for the church in the past, and reached the last paragraph, which read:

“Suffice it to say that you have played a large role in the growth of this establishment, and we have been blessed to work alongside you. Unfortunately, however, we have decided to reverse your appointment as head of the flower committee. We hope you will understand this decision has not been easy; it is one we have slaved over for a few days now. Nonetheless, we do ask you return your pin and letter of appointment at your earliest convenience. As we know you will be concerned to hear who will be appointed in your place, we can assure you that the flower committee will be well run at the hands of Mrs. Susan Gladsky.”


Emily Deaton is a lesbian who currently lives and teaches in the Midwest. Her heart and writing remain in the South.

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