The Yellow House

This story originally appeared in the All the Way Down Issue of Hot Metal Bridge

I didn’t pass the yellow house every day as I didn’t ride that train every day, but, obviously, any time I did ride the train I passed that house and what seems strange to me and the reason I mention it is that what I really mean by passed is that I noticed it.  Every single time we rattled by that yellow house with the six foot security fence that clearly did  very little if anything at all or nothing to block out the noise from the tracks, I noticed that yellow, three story house with a wooden fort and a trampoline in the backyard.  Amongst all the dozens, hundreds of homes between where I boarded the train in the city – where there are no such houses, at least no houses like the one I’m describing – and where I got off the train, I began to take particular note of that yellow house. 

In part this is surely because I like yellow houses and once owned one, though that was nowhere near this city where my wife and I live with our daughter and our dog.  A great dog, though recently he peed on the floor of our apartment which I attribute to the fact that we live in an apartment, which he’s not used to, having spent his entire life up until now in a house (a yellow house).  Still, there’s really no excuse: my wife stays at home with our daughter and is there to take the dog out five, six, seven times a day beyond the long catch-session I play with him in the park every night.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say I coveted that yellow house. It is, after all, in the suburbs and that’s what we were hoping to escape by moving to the city.  Though our dog might not be happy, longing as he was for his yard (our yellow house had had what I now saw, in my city life, as an enormous yard), but we were delighted to be here.  And so when I took the train to the university where I taught – the job that’d brought us to this city, that allowed us to live here, though just barely, actually, given the low pay for a professor and the high cost of living, which was made more difficult by the fact that my wife wasn’t working in order to stay home with our daughter, at least for the first two years, and which was made even more difficult again by the fact that we lived in the city and not in a suburb, like the one I rode through, which would’ve been so much closer to my school, but which was the kind of thing we were trying to escape – that was when I noticed the yellow house. 

Perhaps I only noticed it because it reminded me of what we’d had and what we’d given up and perhaps it validated my sense that we were right to leave all that behind.  Plus, it backed up onto the train tracks.  That couldn’t be desirable, I thought, though the house was large and looked well kept and probably cost a fortune.  What was also likely was that I’d noticed the house once and thought – That looks like our old place, and then maybe something like, Thank god we don’t live somewhere like that anymore – and then after that I might’ve looked up on another commute and seen the house and thought – Hey look, that yellow house again – and then, somewhere along the next few commutes, I’d become obsessed with seeing the house.  Maybe that’s not the right word.  Maybe I wasn’t obsessed.  But that’s what it felt like.  A harmless, habitual obsession.  It’s not as though that was the only yellow house we passed, but it was really the only one I noticed. 

I began to be able to prepare myself for the arrival of the house in my line of sight when I became more familiar with the station stops and knew which it lay between.  Then I’d look up from my book, or my computer, or magazine and stare out the window at the houses shuttling past and then I’d see the yellow house and think, There it is.

For a while, when I was noticing the house, I didn’t think anything of it, because it was just a house that I’d picked out and served, like so many things, as a marker of my progress through the world from here to there to there and back again.  There were other such things, like the view of the towers of downtown when the subway crossed over the bridge.  The buildings clustered so bright and close and dense, taking my breath away each time though I passed that view several times a week.  Every time I did I thought, yes, yes, yes, this is why we’re here. 

One afternoon, after I’d been making the commute for about three months, I noticed a woman behind the house, bouncing on the trampoline.  She looked to be about my age, which I was a bit surprised by, because although I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m young, I also don’t think of myself as of the age that I’d have kids old enough to play on a trampoline or on a wooden fort as elaborate as the one they had in the backyard.  But this woman, bouncing so her short brown hair lifted up above her head and her skirt flared, much like her hair, almost in unison, though it seemed as though the skirt was slightly ahead of the hair in the rhythm, which I thought was maybe because all that fabric was surely heavier than hair, looked possibly even younger than I was.  Could she be the daughter of someone who lived in that yellow house?  But I dismissed this.  She was clearly the owner of the house.  You could see it in her face, her vaguely smiling face as she bounced.  Of course, racing past on the train, I only saw her bounce once, really, and at that only half a bounce: I saw her falling back toward the trampoline, springing up, and then I was past.

The next time I saw the woman was the very next commute.  How could I have taken this train for months and not seen anyone and now, twice in a row… but of course it had nothing to do with me and didn’t mean anything.  Except to me.  And even then only in a facile and ridiculous way.  This time the woman was with her child, a little girl who looked to be about six or seven.  I’m fairly certain that’s right and later I would read in the paper and have this confirmed.  I have my own little girl and when one has children one notices other children and whereas before I had children I could barely have told you the difference between a two year old and a four year old, now I felt almost able to pinpoint a child’s age within a six month span.  The woman behind the yellow house was kneeling beside the little girl and they were standing just on the edge of the trampoline and it looked like the little girl was crying.  She was rubbing her eyes and hanging her head the way kids do when they cry, as though the tears are so terribly heavy. 

That was it.  I mean, those were the only two times I ever saw them before the last time I saw them and that time it wasn’t behind their yellow house with the fort and trampoline, but floating in the filthy brown pool near the train station.  I’d noticed this pool before, but that’s not surprising: it comes just before my stop and is a big wide glimmering square with yellow-brown grime on the tile bottom.  The water is always untroubled, always empty, so I thought perhaps the pool was closed.  Perhaps because it was too filthy to swim in.

I shouldn’t even have been on the train that afternoon, but I was going in to do some copying and scanning in anticipation of the coming week and was looking out the window, having just finished the novel I was reading and I thought, There’s the yellow house and then, There’s the pool and that’s when I saw them, floating, face down in the brownish water, their hair fanning around their heads.  The mother was wearing a skirt that billowed around her pale legs and the little girl was in a yellow sundress that caught against her skin in the water.  The mother’s right arm dragged down into the murk, as though she was reaching for something beneath the surface and the daughter, her thin blond hair in an arc around her delicate head, lay with her fingers straight out, as though trying to fly.  They didn’t move, except possibly with the dull undulations of the water, still shaken from their entry, or perhaps that was the trembling of the train, the pounding of my heart.

By the time we arrived at the station I was shaking.  I felt like vomiting.  Later I’d find out the whole story, or anyway, the official story: the father and husband had murdered them and dragged their bodies to the pool and dumped them to make it look like an accident, though of course no one was fooled.  This must have happened just minutes before my train passed, because they weren’t in the water long, under an hour, the paper said.  The grainy pictures of the dead woman and her daughter were further confirmation that they were the same people I’d in the backyard and then in the pool.  A month after reading the article, I cut one morning through the tennis courts beside to the fetid pool to the streets along the tracks until I found that house and matched its number with that in the article.  I read there was another child, an older daughter, twelve, who’d watched her father strangle, with his hands, her mother and sister. 

Now, each time the train passes the yellow house, it looks just as it did: well kept, the windows bright, the lawn cut.  Maybe a new family lives there.  But I don’t know for certain, because I do my best, as we pull out of the preceding station, not to look out the window, to keep my eyes fixed on the screen, or the page, following the lines of type, hoping they keep me fixed there so I forget to notice, though they don’t and often, despite myself, I look up.

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