Once, only a few months ago, there was a little yellow house in our neighborhood. It stood only a half block from our apartment, just up from the corner where the Tuba Man’s Bar sign glows in pink and yellow neon. That glow marked the boundary between “street life grittiness and the neighborhood, a world of ancient lawns, quietly fading residences, and this little yellow house.
It sat in the center of a neat and perfect square of lawn which was dotted with peonies and pansies and birds of paradise. Lewis Carroll came to mind because the place had much in common with Alice’s irrational world. A birdcage hung from the porch eaves holding a wooden parrot brightly painted, which would never squawk a note or seek to escape that cage. Across the yard, almost invisible among the branches of a eucalyptus tree, a wind chime of broken glass shards and twine sent tinkling sounds to soften the din of traffic from down the street. Clusters of rocks painted bright pink, green and yellow, lay strewn about the yard like decorator pillows. These paradoxes were contained within the final conundrum–a white picket fence barely two feet high enclosed the yard. At two feet, the fence had to be joking. It would never keep anyone either in or out.
The most momentous thing about this house was that the people who lived there had arranged what I would call inside furniture, outside in the yard. Basking in plain sight of the sun, the moon and strolling neighbors like me were an overstuffed couch and matching chair, and a chrome dinette set with red marbleized top. Its chairs were pushed neatly beneath the table.
The incongruity of inside furniture plopped outside on the ground, with nothing but sky for roof, absolutely blew my Midwestern mind. I’d only just landed in San Diego from the center of the continent, the middle ground, and many seasons lived with sofas and couches and dinette tables that knew their place, within walls and under roofs where they were meant to be… Such can create cubicles in the mind that delineate, organize, and cubbyhole the world, shaping the way you look at your life, the way you look at possibilities. This house and its yard turned all that upside down for me The world might become a whole new ball game because, well, inside furniture looks different outside. And the outside looks totally different with inside furniture in it.
Each time I walked past that house I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland, and at any minute all her buddies– the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar– might leap from their hiding places to let the tea party begin..
It seemed at least three generations were living in the yellow house–grandfathers, grandmothers, mamas, papas, uncles, aunts, cousins–and kids, kids, kids. I never saw any of the family in in the yard of the Yellow House in the daytime. But sometimes after dark when walking to my car, I could hear music drifting up from down there. I caught glimpses of figures resting upon the couch, and heard voices in low conversations punctuated by bursts of laughter, as the tips of cigarettes flickered like fireflies in the dark.
I admit it, I wanted to join them. The yard’s lack of reason, its juxtapositions and riddles… I was drawn to them. I imagined I would make this happen on a day when no one was home: I would walk down there, seat myself on the sofa under beneath the tree, take off my shoes to wiggle my toes in the cool earth and imagine I lived there with them, the people in that yellow house.
The people would return, in this fantasy, while I was there, but they would not be angry. They would welcome me. The grandfather would go into the house to bring out a pitcher of lemonade with ice cubes tinkling. One of the children would pass glasses around while the grandfather poured lemonade into each glass. An aunt would pull out a chair and invite me to join them at the table, and we all would smile in this cozy kitchen under the eucalyptus tree until the stars came out, They would tell me about their life inside the yellow house,and I would tell them about life in the cubicles back in Oklahoma. I found this fantasy most satisfying the times when I sat inside my apartment, on my inside furniture, feeling the push of walls–feeling no possibilities.
And then one day, when the sunlight was beginning to feel less warm and a little snappish, I saw big trucks and machinery in front of the house. Four days days later, when I was walking to the convenience store, I stopped where the two-foot high fence used to be joking. There was nothing left where Alice’s house once stood, nothing but a pile of debris. I sank to the sidewalk and just sat and cried until someone came walking by with a big dog and I had to get out of the way. and I went home. I didn’t need a convenience store anymore.
On the fifth day the scavengers came–those who gather up the bones. They must have dumped tons of splintered lumber, nails, plaster, shingles, along with the parrot, the tree, the house, Alice, and everything–into a dumpster and slammed its lid like a rusty coffin. Within a week, there was nothing left but a blank space.. Fini! Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight! By the end of that week of astonishments I stood in front of the blank place and thought about the healing side of fantasies and the human suffering caused by acts of dumb cruelty.
Today there are condos on the plot where Alice’s yellow house once stood, There are two condos in one building. The building has two stories and two garage doors in front. They make me think of gaping mouths, these big square doors, frozen in the act of swallowing the two driveways. I also imagine the rest of the neighborhood following them, as if to appease Moloch, that ancient god who demanded the sacrifice of his subjects’ most precious things.
Just as astonishing was the instantaneous appearance of the condos . One day there was nothing where the yellow house had been, and it seems the next there was a strange new building surrounded by thick green turf, flowers, and mature palms–ping, ping. They looked as if they’d been there forever. The neighborhood has become riddled with such changeling effects. It’s like in Star Trek. Thirty-, forty-, fifty-year old houses vanished–beamed–into nonexistence. It makes me dizzy.
My daughter came home from her college class the other day crying. That morning,while she waited at the bus stop some guy mistook her for a prostitute and when she wouldn’t respond to his gestures to come over to his car, he proceeded take his pleasure upon himself while staring at her. The bus was late, so she had been late for her first class. At noon she’d had had a fight with her boyfriend. On the bus ride home someone behind her threw up on the back of her seat.
But when she started the walk home through the neighborhood, she had gone only two blocks before she came to the corner where…
…only yesterday there had been
the cutest little 1930’s-style house
stucco with blue shutters
and mom i just stopped & stared
because i couldntbelieveit & then
I don’t know why
I couldn’t help it I just started crying
& I couldn’t stop & I just stood there
looking at that empty lot full
of nothing but dirt & thinking
about that house
& i just couldn’t stop crying mom
i just couldn’t stop.
Gwyn Henry has taught creative writing classes to community college students, ESL students, Native American women on reservations, and in writing workshops. She served as publisher and editor for poetry and art publications, The Horse Might Talk, a free, locally distributed broadside, and Editor for the anthology, PATHS: Notes from the Spiritual Journey, published by the Philosophical Library, Escondido, CA. Gwyn has published work in many journals, including:: SPORK, 42Opus, Tattoo Highway, The Santa Barbara Journal, Lynx Eye, San Diego Poetry Anthology, Magee Park Poetry Anthology, Muse Apprentice (online), The Poetry Conspiracy, and San Diego Writers Collective Anthology.