For a while, after their father left, Jacob and his sister, Alice, walked to the Knowltons’ every day before and after school. The Knowltons, an older couple, lived three blocks away, in a house with a barn, a bird feeder, a grapevine on a trellis, a front lawn, a back lawn, a garden, and half a dozen apple and pear trees. In another house, one is a different person, but at first one doesn’t always know who.
Mrs. Knowlton wore her white hair in tight curls. Her mouth trembled; her voice warbled. Mr. Knowlton slurred his words, and his right arm, mostly brown with stains of purple, no longer functioned. During a stroke, his arm had wilted the way a leaf does after you bend the stem that connects it. Mrs. Knowlton had been told to put him in a nursing home, but she had brought him home from the hospital instead. It was with his left arm that he now offered to shake your hand, which was jarring.
The couple spoke with old New England accents. When Mrs. Knowlton asked Jacob and Alice if they knew the most beautiful word in the English language, she pronounced it selladoa, and they had to ask her what that was.
“Can I pour?” Alice asked, after school, when Mrs. Knowlton put the kettle on to boil. Mr. Knowlton had his lie-down in the afternoons, and they had Mrs. Knowlton to themselves then. “Claudine!” he would shout from upstairs, when he was ready to get up again. “Claudine!”
“Oh no, dear. You better let me,” Mrs. Knowlton said, intercepting Alice at the stove.
“I can do it,” Alice insisted, but she let Mrs. Knowlton be in charge.
With birdlike hands, Mrs. Knowlton pinched open a small white bag of store-bought cookies, nicer than what Jacob and Alice’s mother could afford. Mrs. Knowlton rustled the paper of the bag, as a sort of flourish, as she set it on the table.
“Can we have two cookies?” Jacob asked.
A few minutes later, Alice asked, “Can we have three?”
“Well, I don’t know, can you?” Mrs. Knowlton replied.
They had to peer into the thick lenses of her glasses to make sure she wasn’t serious. She only ever had one cookie herself.