Jillie licks a sprinkle of crumbs from her lips and sets the oven to 350. It’s still warm from a batch of blond brownies we polished off with her mom, Mrs. Keenan. We were supposed to save some for her dad, but the platter, crammed with gooey squares just minutes ago, now soaks in sudsy water in the kitchen sink. In the living room, ominous chords seep from the TV as a male voiceover declares, The Edge of Night.
A sweet chocolate-vanilla scent lingers as Jillie’s little brother, Joey, wiggles in his chair, swings his legs under the table, and hums Three Blind Mice between nibbles of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That’s all he eats—breakfast, lunch and supper. If he were my kid, I’d put an end to that straight away. Eating nothing but PBJ isn’t right. But then, Jillie and her mom’s eating habits are even worse.
I’ve seen how they eat nonstop because I’ve been here almost every day this summer. I expected to spend time at Shelby’s, too, but two weeks before school got out, she stormed into the girls’ locker room, threw her books down, started peeling off her clothes and wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t even say hello. I thought something terrible must have happened if she couldn’t even talk about it. Our lockers were a few spaces apart. We’d always goof off while getting ready for freshman PE, and we’d barely make it to class in time for roll call.
I asked Shelby, “What’s wrong?” She wouldn’t look at me. “Are you okay?” No answer. I inched toward her. She turned her back and pulled her shining red locks into a ponytail. I felt Brillo pads sprouting up my throat and under my tongue. I creaked out, “Did I do something to upset you?” She tugged on her PF Flyers and tied the laces, concentrating as though she were mastering a new skill.
Girls changing clothes nearby stole glances at us. Feeling on display, I made a dash for the double doors leading to the gym and blasted through. My classmates were lining up against a wall, each in a one-piece navy blue gym suit. I pulled on the legs of the same suit I’ve worn since seventh grade when it fit me like a Roman legionary tunic. There was still ample room in the bust, but the short shorts barely covered burgeoning thighs I hoped were just borrowing me and would soon move on to their rightful owner.
Shelby strolled in, arm in arm with two other girls. I stood alone staring at the glossy wooden floor, the space between the nearest girls and me too immense to bridge. Finally, the teacher blew her whistle, and we raced to the track outside. After class, Shelby looked away when she passed by. She needn’t have worried; I’d gotten her message. I’ve been practically living at Jillie’s ever since.
Jillie scrapes her front teeth against her lower lip before declaring, “Now, for the peach toast!” She pulls a loaf of Butternut from the breadbox. Peach toast is a low-rent version of peach dumplings, which I’ve had exactly once at Shelby’s. Her mom subscribes to Gourmet magazine. She never cooks anything normal like meatloaf or tuna casserole. I used to eat soufflés and marinades and pâtés at Shelby’s.
“Peach toast? Right after brownies?” I ask. “We’re going to the carnival later, remember? You have to leave room for cotton candy and stuff.”
“That’s hours away. Besides carnival food can’t compare to peach toast. It’s sooooo good.”
Jillie’s mom heaves herself out of the kitchen chair, where she’d plopped for “just one” brownie while headed to the basement with a load of laundry. “I’d better get moving or I’ll miss the latest from Monticello,” she says, referring to her favorite soap opera. She grips the basket of dirty clothes with hands flawless enough for an Ivory commercial. But the tops of her feet bulge over the edges of her black flats, reminding me of the Blob from that scary movie, except her feet aren’t red and gooey.
“Save some bread for tomorrow, girls,” she says. A smile spreads across her wide, but perfectly symmetrical face as she walks away. Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes have nothing on Mrs. Keenan’s. They bathe her surroundings like moonlight, splashing love on her kids nonstop. And when I’m around, some of it lands on me. Wanda never telegraphs love like Mrs. Keenan, who could be the prettiest mom in all of Hinsdale if she were normal size. And Jillie probably wouldn’t be the butt of so many jokes if she didn’t have a double chin, a waist wider than her hips and wavy blonde hair that looks like a dented helmet no matter how she tries to style it.
Jillie works fast. She’s got three baking pans on the counter and is spreading Imperial margarine on the slices. I grab the can opener and tackle a cafeteria-sized can of peaches, enjoying the crinkle of metal piercing metal as I work my way around the lid. Together, we finish the preparations: half a peach on each piece, a bit of thick syrup from the can, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I pull down the oven door; Jillie crams the trays inside.
“I want another one.” Joey pushes his plate in Jillie’s direction.
“Do I look like Mom?” Jillie snaps.
Joey’s face, streaked with mud-pie dirt from earlier in the day, puckers up. He slumps in his chair, starts kicking the table.
“Okay, okay. Don’t have a cow. I’ll make your stupid sandwich.” Jillie pulls out two more slices of bread.
Soon, a cinnamon smell envelops the room like a warm hug. I rub my fingers over the tabletop. It is flecked, white Formica, just like the one at my grandmother’s home. Gramma told me her table belonged to my mother—my real mother—once upon a time. It was a whispered secret, just between Gramma and me, shared in passing while I helped spoon coffee grounds into her electric percolator one Sunday afternoon. That was back when Daddy was alive and used to drive Kathy, Mary Ruth and me, along with our stepmom, to visit Gramma every Sunday. In an untidy row in the back seat, we three did our usual jockeying for a window seat, but we put aside our typical snide remarks and dirty looks because our father was relatively relaxed, leading us in song all the way to Gramma’s. I never dreamed those long, lazy Sundays would end. But they were just one of all kinds of things lost since his death, things I so easily took for granted way back when.
I wait with Jillie in this roomy kitchen with frayed blue gingham framing the windows and linoleum worn almost to the wood in a path from the refrigerator to the table. When the peach toast is ready, Jillie devours several servings. I can fit in only a couple of bites. This is why she’s 150 pounds and I’m 116. I wish she’d eat like a normal person, but I’m happy she’s my friend and grateful to have a place where I’m always welcome no matter how long I stay.
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