The Yellow Man
by Philip Ivory
Table of Contents|
parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
The warmth of sunlight, the motion of a car, convinced him he was someplace else, another time, when he was nine.
Warm globs of light. They filtered down through the spaces between the green branches that joined fingertips far above the road. The light drifted dreamily across Allan’s face and the red vinyl car seats in the back of the station wagon, where he was sitting next to his sister, Melanie, who was two years younger. She had Gumby and Pokey figures and was babbling at them, making them talk to each other.
Allan was thinking about a lot of things. What would his new room be like? Would the yard be bigger? School was starting soon, a new school for him. Fifth grade.
The song playing on the radio was called “Seasons in the Sun.” It sounded sad. The light, the song and the low gray wall on the right side, which seemed to Allan’s eyes like a hypnotizing gray blur... all of these things lulled him. Beyond the wall, flashes of green and white, like a park.
As they drove through a part of town he didn’t know toward a house he’d never seen, he thought of Sherri. Soon school would start and, after not seeing her for a year, the bad way things had ended, he’d see her again.
When they were in third grade, they used to walk home from school together, to her house. They’d spend two hours there until Allan’s mom would pick him up and take him home for dinner. They’d have lemonade and almond cookies that Sherri’s mother put on tiny plastic red plates. They would play with Sherri’s German shepherd, Constantine. He’d bark and run circles in the yard, not crushing the flower beds because, Sherri said, he was trained. Or if it was raining, they’d play a game like Trouble or Kerplunk. Then, raining or not, they’d watch Mr. Rogers together, and then they’d pretend to walk down the street together, arriving at Sesame Street, which came on next. They’d see half of that before Allan’s mom would come.
He smiled at the memory.
Looking through the station wagon window, Allan suddenly realized what was beyond the long gray wall. He sat up stiffly.
It was a green and lovingly tended cemetery. Melanie, oblivious, continued to babble to her dolls. But Allan was vigilant now, gripped.
It was not like the cemeteries Allan had seen in old movies on TV, with gray weeds and cracked tombstones leaning at weird angles in jagged rows, wind whistling and bats flapping against barren trees. From what he could glimpse, this one had overhanging willows with streamers of green and yellow. Brooks ran amid sculpted multi-leveled strips of greenery. White stones in handsome ordered rows.
It was beautiful. Somehow that made it worse.
Allan’s mom murmured, as if to say: “I’m not so sure about this.”
“I think it’s fine. It’s beautiful.” Allan’s dad cleared his throat. “Beautiful neighborhood.”
Allan breathed more rapidly, seeing the stones. He closed his eyes. The imprint of the white shapes remained on his field of vision. Why was it when he thought of what was underneath the white shapes, he saw things writhing, churning, not at rest? He thought it was because of something that had happened at the hospital, something he could not really remember, but not really forget.
Think of something good. He thought some more about Sherri. He remembered how, with a shy smile, she showed him a scrapbook full of pasted pictures of singers and TV actors she liked. David Cassidy. Davey Jones. Bobby Sherman. The Bay City Rollers. She said she might marry David Cassidy one day, but not anyone else. “Why would anyone want to get married?” Allan said, and she laughed. He said his mom had promised to pack some Legos in a box for him to bring next time, and he would show her how to make a robot that rolled on its own wheels. Her eyes got wide and she said: “Cool.”
She then very matter-of-factly suggested that if they hadn’t married anyone else by the time they were 25, they should marry each other. He thought about it, shrugged, and said okay.
In the car, his parents were talking about the cemetery, without mentioning it.
“You’ll barely see it, especially if you take Concord Street,” his father said.
“But that doesn’t go toward the store, or the school,” his mom said.
She didn’t want to see it, either, Allan thought. That made him calmer. His father took a sharp right, the white stones swinging away, out of view. Allan began to breathe normally again.
A few minutes later, they were in the new house. They walked through, ending in the backyard. The wall in back was red brick, vine-covered and stood very high. “Look, there’s a little pool,” Allan’s dad said. “Bet you could find tadpoles in there, eh kids?”
Melanie knelt. “Oh, look!” she said. She picked a waterlogged daisy, gave it to her mom.
His mom was whispering now to his dad. “It’s just maybe not a good idea, after what happened.”
“Doctor said it was just anxiety,” said Dad in a normal tone of voice. “Perfectly natural.”
Then Allan knew they were talking about him becoming sick at the funeral home looking at Aunt Grace’s body last year. Allan feeling like he couldn’t breathe. His father saying, “Cut it out, Allan, stop fooling around!” before Allan fainted and they had to carry him into the car and drive him home.
After that, he had to talk to a special doctor who had five Siamese cats. The cats roamed the living room making moaning complaining sounds while Allan talked to the doctor in another room with a desk. The doctor said what happened at the funeral was only because of the memory of the earlier thing that had happened when Allan was in the hospital to get his tonsils out. “Precipitating incident,” was what the doctor said, and Allan heard it enough times that he could say the phrase himself.
The doctor had what he called a special way to help Allan. He made Allan almost go to sleep, sitting up in the chair in the doctor’s office, but still stay awake and picture things. He pictured that his mind was a room, and there was a floor to the room made out of wood slats. You could pry back the slats and climb down into a dark space below. In the dark space, there were shelves on a wall. The doctor made Allan see a golden box sitting on the shelf. He told Allan to put the memory of the “precipitating incident” in the golden box, and lock it with a key. There was a jug full of dirty water and the doctor told Allan to throw the key into it, then climb back up and wake up.
After that, Allan didn’t remember what the incident was. The doctor had told him not to try to remember, but he would anyway. But it was like trying to look at something in the corner of your eye; the more you look at it, the more it keeps shifting away.
Dad turned to Allan. “Why, you’d have no idea at all, would you, Allan? You could be playing here with one of your friends, one of the friends you’ll make at your new school, and you’d never think about what’s on the other side.”
The other side? What was on the other side of the wall?
Allan had had no friends at his old school. He tried to imagine new ones but pictured nothing but gray heads and limbs moving, no faces. Except Sherri, they would be friends again, no matter what.
“Mom, I want to see the Muppets at 7:30.” Melanie, it seemed, was the only one not thinking about the wall. Mom patted her arm.
“It’s just a tad spooky,” his mom said.
“Well, spooky is why we got that 20 percent accommodation, so there.”
Allan’s mom sighed. “I do like the sewing room.”
“It’s settled, then. You know, you won’t even see the cemetery most days, if you take Cypress instead of Hyacinth. You barely glimpse it that way.” He laughed. “In a week, you won’t even remember it’s there.”
And Allan realized. A sickening thrill, but this time not entirely unpleasurable, like stumbling at the edge of a pit, but kind of wanting to fall.
The cemetery was right there, directly on the other side of the brick wall from their yard. The white shapes were there, not far away at all, in their manicured arrangement, rows upon rows; he knew it as surely as if he could see them with Superman X-ray vision. And beneath, beneath, the sense of churning unrest. He felt faint again, almost staggered against the firm winding trunk of a tree.
“What’s wrong now?” his dad said.
“Nothing,” said Allan, determined not to show that weakness again. He steadied himself, letting go of the tree. “I’m okay.”
Once they moved in, Allan’s parents took the front-facing master bedroom upstairs. Melanie got the one facing the side.
From Allan’s room, through the rustling treetops you could glimpse those white shapes during the day. He imagined that after autumn you would see it much more clearly. He spent a minute every day looking at them, and each day he felt a little less afraid.
It was nothing special, he told himself. It was just a place with bodies. Dead bodies never moved. Or talked. That’s what the doctor said.
Allan tried hard to make himself believe it.
School would be next week. He thought about seeing Sherri in the hall. She would be sixth grade and he would be fifth. Was that so big a difference? Would she change her mind about what she had said the last time they were together?
When did it start, things going bad with her? It wasn’t one thing. Well, there was the one thing he said about Constantine. But there were other things, small things, each one like a space opening up between them, invisible but dividing them a little bit further each time.
Sherri announced one day toward the end of third grade that they would not watch Sesame Street anymore; it was for babies. Instead they went into her room and played a game called Picadoos. Allan had never seen it before. You squeezed little bottles to drop beads of color into little squares. She was better at it and made patterns that showed flowers and stars. He made random ones, not the same colors on the top and bottom, not the same shape on the left and right. Sherri didn’t mind; she thought they were good and Sherri’s mom liked all of them and propped both Sherri’s and Allan’s designs up on Sherri’s dresser.
Next time he was visiting, Sherri’s mom said it would be better if they went outside and took Constantine with them. He needed the air. When Allan asked why Constantine walked so slow, Sherri said: “Because he’s sick and because dog years are seven years.” They would walk along a bike path and then take a right off the path to a pond. Constantine liked to sit by the pond, pant, and bark at birds or things moving in the water.
“Must be frogs and turtles in there,” said Allan.
“I don’t care,” said Sherri. “I’m going to go swimming in it anyway. See, they’re going to build a wooden thing there, next spring, so you can step out over the water. That’s what those rocks are for, to hold the wooden thing up. And they’re going to clean out the weeds so you can swim. And put up signs so you only swim in the daytime when it’s safe. And I’ll come here and Constantine will watch me swim.” There was a mixture of defiance and sadness in her voice that Allan could not understand.
A week later, his mom told him he could not go to Sherri’s house after school for a while. Sherri was sad. Constantine had died.
Allan had to think hard about that. “Is he still there?”
“No, no,” his mom said. “They had to bury him.”
His mom looked at him. “Honey, because he would start to rot.”
“Where did they bury him?”
“I don’t know. He’s just dead, and Sherri’s sad, and she will be for a while. Poor girl. You liked Constantine, didn’t you?”
At school, Jeff Morton made fun of Allan’s lunch box one day. It had the Six-Million Dollar Man on it. His mother had gotten it for him.
“That’s stupid,” said Jeff, standing over the table where Allan was eating alone. “That show is stupid. You like that?”
What did it mean when they made fun and called you stupid? What were you supposed to do?
“Well, say something,” said Jeff.
Allan opened his mouth like a fish but no words came out.
“Stupid. What are you, retarded, too?” Jeff waved his hand in frustration at him and walked away to another table.
Allan’s face burned with shame. He thought of things to say, but it was too late.
Copyright © 2016 by Philip Ivory