The Yellow Phase
Jen Julian | Fiction
Mrs. Yew was a widow who lived next door to us in the summer of ‘96, then she moved away or maybe fled—it depends on who you ask. When I knew her, I was an excruciatingly shy, small kid who survived mostly by being unseen. My father wanted me to be tougher, and my mother was tender toward me in a way that my father thought was part of the problem. That Fourth of July weekend, in a fit of anger, he threw a figurine of a shepherd boy against our living room wall. Then he fled into the night and later called us crying from a hotel phone. My mother listened to his pleas in the kitchen, while I stayed upstairs, copying Mrs. Yew’s house from my bedroom window, listening to distant pops and bangs. I knew the sounds were from our neighbors’ leftover fireworks, but it was easy to imagine the neighborhood at war, a revolt summoned against Mrs. Yew, who had been infuriating everyone for months.
Mrs. Yew was probably in her seventies, though to me, at ten years old, she seemed ancient, an eternal crone. She and her husband had both been schoolteachers. He had been dead for over a decade. They’d lived in that house since the 60s, when the neighborhood was still young.
In the time I knew her, she always wore pink chambray shirts over tank tops, and a wide-brimmed straw hat filled with holes, and plastic sandals, which revealed her crooked toes. She would often be in the yard, tending to her garden, which was chaotic and wild, not organized at all like other neighbors’ gardens. There were gigantic purple foxgloves, taller than me, tomato plants that spread spidery on the lawn, thistles and pokeberries that she let grow as if there were a part of things, and even a square of grayish grass and weeds and wildflowers, which she called “natural prairie.” The neighborhood did not enjoy the state of the garden, but they were more concerned with her house, its unimpeded decay.
I once witnessed a visit from the Chair of the FOBC, the Folly Oaks Beautification Committee. The Chair, whose name was Mr. Kelly, approached Mrs. Yew while she was laying out a soaker hose in a new garden bed and it was giving her trouble, flopping and coiling like a live black snake, and rather than help her, the Chair put his hands on his hips and smiled with his long very-white teeth and said, “Mrs. Yew, there is a hole in your roof.”
“What are you after, Chuck?” Mrs. Yew said. “What are you bothering me about now?”
“There is a hole,” Mr. Kelly said, pointing, “in your roof.”
“Oh, a hole, is it?”
He bade her to come over to where he was standing, and she did, holding the soaker hose at her hip like a lasso.
“It’s just some shingles missing, it’s been like that,” she said.
“What do you do when it rains?”
“Well, Chuck, it’s my business, but I suppose I grab a bucket.”
“Mrs. Yew, do you not see that this will destroy the integrity of the house? You’ve got a roof falling apart, a yard going wild. People are distressed. This is one of the oldest and most beautiful homes in the neighborhood.”
“Whose home, Chuck?”
“Is this a financial issue? You know the committee is willing to help you with that.”
“I don’t pretend to know what the committee is or isn’t willing to do, Chuck. I have plenty of money. I have my own money. I prefer to manage mine, and you can manage yours.” She flung down the soaker hose and proceeded to the front porch. When Mr. Kelley followed her, she spun around and cried, “Don’t follow me!” with such stunned indignation that he stopped, standing in the unmown grass wide-eyed and shiny-faced, like a perplexed garden gnome.
I saw all of this while hiding inside the laurel hedge that separated our front yard from Mrs. Yew’s. I was, at the time, copying the front porch, its broken banister and missing steps, and the bits of glass from the shattered wall lantern, which glittered in the dirt by the rose trellis. There was much ill will between Mrs. Yew and the FOBC that I was not able to witness, though I saw Mr. Kelly come by twice more, once demanding, and once pleading. He was only looking out for her own good. Since she had no children, no living kin, some members of the FOBC were considering legal ways to have her removed from her home. She was not taking care of the property. She was losing her mind. Right that moment, they were speaking to a lawyer about how they could have her psychologically evaluated, about how the neighborhood might take control of the house, and Mr. Kelly was the only one speaking up for her because he believed she could still be reasoned with.
“Are you out of your mind?” Mrs. Yew shouted at him through the screen door. “You think I’ll let them kick me out of my house? My house? You must be kissing their dirty windows, Chuck, because you are some kind of sucker.”
“I’m trying to help you,” he insisted. “How do you want this to end, Mrs. Yew, with this house falling apart around you?”
“Maybe so. Or maybe you think because you and your friends have a little group with little meetings, and you know the mayor and you know the minister, that you’ll be able to bully me and get me to do what you want. But from where I stand, you’re all frauds, and I grant you no courtesy, and I yield you no power.”
With that, she slammed the door, and a piece of the jamb fell off and broke at Mr. Kelly’s feet.
I have mentioned, twice now, that in this time I was copying Mrs. Yew’s house. I probably need to explain what I mean.
My copying days began years before Mrs. Yew. It was always summer that brought it on, those long, lazy school-less days; the rest of the year I didn’t bother with it much. An outside observer would have called it drawing, an artistic pursuit. But I didn’t think of it that way. At first, I thought of it as “catching.” I would see something and I would “catch” it by putting it to paper, exactly as I saw it. Eventually, “catching” began to feel like the wrong word, as if I were killing insects and pinning them to corkboard. But an original subject could not be killed or pinned; a subject was indifferent to whether I “caught” it or not. So, “copying” became the better way to think about it, though if anyone asked—that is, if they insisted I tell them what I was doing—I would say that I was drawing, that I was into art, that I was artsy, because people knew how to think about artists.
My father saw my interest in copying and bought me an expensive camera for my ninth birthday, but photography didn’t feel right. To me, it was like cheating—you only truly got to know something when you copied it with your hands—and I was ashamed to never use the camera, knowing how expensive it was, and knowing that it was a rare indulgence from my father toward an interest that neither of my parents understood. My sensitive mother, however, did feel the tension the camera was causing, or maybe predicted what trouble it could lead to. She took it out of my room so I wouldn’t have to look at it or think about it, saying to me in a low, serious voice, “Don’t tell him.” Then she hid it in the house or sold it or gave it away to someone, and no one ever spoke of it.
But anyway, I kept on copying by hand. I worked first on Mrs. Yew’s windows because I had a direct view of them from the second floor of my house. I wanted to copy the yellow square of hallway light that shone through the bedrooms, and how sometimes you could see Mrs. Yew shuffling across the square, and without her straw hat, in that washed-out light, her hair and skin became the same color. I also copied the dormers—at the time, I thought of them as the house’s eyelids—and the crumbling chimney with its brown ivy marks, and the gutters so stuffed with leaves and dirt they were growing small trees, and the roof with its ugly hole. I copied everything about the house to paper, which, for a while, satisfied me.
Then came the day I hid in the laurel hedge and witnessed Mrs. Yew shutting down Mr. Kelly, and by then I had already been copying her house for weeks, and I felt, in that moment, justified, like this was a clear sign that Mrs. Yew was a worthy subject. Maybe it was because I sensed Mrs. Yew knew I was observing from the laurel hedge. I think she’d also seen me up in the pear tree, which was on her property, though my mother was the only one who picked pears from it—otherwise they’d rot off, she said, and no one would enjoy them. Soon after the Mr. Kelly incident, I began settling into hiding spots all around Mrs. Yew’s yard, under the grapevine trellis or in the azaleas, or behind the big stalks of spotty purple foxglove blooms, which I liked to stick my fingers into. Mostly, Mrs. Yew ignored me, but sometimes she referred to me as a cat. She would walk by with ceramic pots or a wheelbarrow full of cedar chips and say:
“That little cat is at it again, sneaking around in the bushes.”
“Do I hear that cat? He’s always so quiet.”
And this singsong voice was so different from the one she used with Mr. Kelly or anyone else who came around the house. Because I was such a small kid, she probably thought I was younger than I was and talked to me like a baby.
She also began leaving treats for me on her patio table—typical old people candy at first, peppermints and Werther’s Originals and strawberry bonbons, then gingersnaps and Linzer tarts and plum cake she had baked. But I never ate anything she left for me. That is important. The smell that came from the back door was one of cinnamon and heat, mildew, sour-sweet rot; it made me uneasy. I never showed her my copies, and she never asked to see them.
Once, she saw me copying the upper back corner of her house—a view of the roof and the top of the chimney—and she followed my line of sight to a place where the siding had stripped off and a streak of blackened wood was showing underneath.
“Not gathering evidence against me, are you?” she asked. “Not gonna turn me in for crimes?”
She said that in her regular voice, sharp and surprising. I shook my head.
“I’m just teasing,” she said. “I know you’re not like the rest of them.”
She squinted at the bare patch of wood and took off her straw hat and put it to her chest, as if she were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“They’ll get theirs. Let them try something. They’ll see.”
And she smiled at the house, as if the house were the one she was talking to.
That same evening, sometime before midnight, my mother was talking on the phone to my father in the master bedroom, the walls muffling her voice. I was again trying to capture the honey-colored square of Mrs. Yew’s hallway light, experimenting with magic marker and highlighter pen, watercolor and ink. Then Mrs. Yew herself passed across the square, slow and naked, and disappeared into another part of the house I couldn’t see. In our house, my window opened onto the roof of the porch, so I worked up the sash, climbed out in my pajamas, and scooted down the shingled slope to find a better angle. Mrs. Yew appeared in a different window, in a room filled with thicker, browner light, not like the honey color of the hall, and, yes, she was naked, bending down to pick up some invisible thing from the floor, and though her back was turned, I could see the undersides of her breasts hanging, the nipples swollen, pointing outward like thumbs. Crouched at the edge of the porch roof, I copied everything, the breasts and nipples, and Mrs. Yew’s pitted, drooping buttocks, and her curly yellow-white hair piled in a coil on her hatless head, and the lovely, delicate crepe-paper wrinkles of her.
It wasn’t every night, but that was not the only time that summer when she appeared in her windows naked, and I can’t help but think now that Mrs. Yew knew she had an audience.
Her house was already empty by the time my father found those copies in the back of my closet. He said he’d gone in there to cull some old toys and games for the Salvation Army, but I think he was lying. I think he suspected I was keeping a secret from him. When he found the transgression he’d been looking for, though maybe not quite what he’d been expecting, he shoved me against the wall in the stairwell and shook the crumpled paper in my face. I was, to my detriment, a good draftsman; both the house and Mrs. Yew were entirely recognizable as themselves.
My father said: “Is this how you’ve been raised?”
“You want to grow up to be a sicko, a fucking peeper?”
“What is wrong with you? What on God’s green earth made you think this was okay?”
I didn’t have an answer for him, but when I swatted his hands away he retaliated, smacking the side of my head so hard I saw colors. My mother shrieked. My father threw all my papers on the steps. For the second time in a year, he fled from the house and later called us from a faraway phone to say that he was sorry.
Years after this, when my parents were no longer married, my mother would tell me that my father had always hated that house, that neighborhood. He was never the same man once we moved there. He had not known what to do with me. Mrs. Yew, in particular, grated on him, not that he ever complained aloud—he was, in fact, contemptuous of the petty clamoring of Mr. Kelly and the FOBC—but she could detect the strain that Mrs. Yew’s house placed on his body, its damage, its wet, fetid odor, the wild tangle of its yard. He shuddered at it, as he shuddered at most things that were beyond his comprehension. For this reason and this reason only, my mother signed the FOBC’s petitions and supported its endeavors to remove Mrs. Yew from her house. She spoke at one of their meetings about what a nuisance the house was, what trouble it was to live beside it, what a drain on property values. But, she said later, she probably should have stayed out of it. It wasn’t just Mrs. Yew’s house that set him off, it was everything—her, me, the street, the unmown lawn, the fruit rotting off the pear tree. Everything.
Nowadays, Folly Oaks is filled with professors, artists, graduate students, Tibetan flag banners, blue campaign signs for Democrats. A clowder of polydactyl cats roams the streets. My parents’ old house is still there, but Mrs. Yew’s is not; after she sold it to the county, they spent years figuring out what to do with it, and by then it was too far gone to fix. I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Yew after that, but I’m sure she’s dead by now. The population of Folly Oaks people who know her name is dwindling, those neighbors who think of her as a phantom, a fable, and who still wonder why and under what circumstances she left.
Here’s what I know to be true: Mrs. Yew walked two miles to the September FOBC meeting at the Episcopalian Church, after my mother had spoken against her. She brought a contract for two men she’d hired to fix the hole in her roof and a plate of Linzer tarts. It appeared as though her neighbors’ anger had rattled her, and she had seen the error of her ways. Then came the day I arrived home from school to find my mother listening anxiously on the phone in the kitchen. “Our neighbor’s gone psycho,” she said, one hand over the receiver. “Don’t go over there anymore.” The hole, visible from my bedroom window, was still there. The contractors Mrs. Yew hired never materialized, and members of the FOBC, those that had eaten her tarts, reported an array of unpleasant symptoms—nausea, ulcers, headaches. A woman vomited onto the hood of her car after a PTA meeting. Another claimed she saw billowing sulfurous halos around streetlamps. To this day, I’m exasperated with my mother for believing everything she heard. Even the gentlest skeptics would have noticed that many of these neighbors overreported their alleged symptoms; some were not even part of the FOBC and had not come anywhere near the September meeting. It’s possible that the PTA woman vomited for unrelated reasons. The woman who saw halos had a reputation for exaggerating other complaints—colds, family dramas, social slights. But even if it weren’t true that the Linzer tarts were poisoned, the neighborhood enjoyed the idea that Mrs. Yew’s danger had been confirmed, their revulsion justified.
In addition to the strain of my father’s unrest, my mother was convinced that Mrs. Yew would retaliate for speaking against her. She would no longer go anywhere near the pear tree. She would scout the view from the kitchen window like a soldier in a trench. Once, when Mrs. Yew appeared in the yard unexpectedly, she ducked below the cabinets whispering shit, shit and crab walked out of there like we used to do in gym. I’m not exaggerating. I saw her do this. Later on, when my father hit me in the stairwell and stormed out, my mother looked after him in horror, then turned that same horror to the copies he’d strewn on the steps, our neighbor’s old, witchy nakedness. True, she would never have gone next door to initiate a confrontation—and anyway, Mrs. Yew was gone by then—but what was my mother thinking then? That I had been poisoned, too?
After I heard that Mrs. Yew had, as my mother put it, “gone psycho,” I did stay away, at least at first. I had no impulse to copy; I was back in school, busying myself with other projects. In fact, when I heard that Mrs. Yew was leaving, that, according to some, the tensions between her and the FOBC had grown too volatile, or that, according to others, she was fleeing under threat of prosecution, when I heard she’d surrendered like that, my fascination with her receded. I felt embarrassed for her, and annoyed, like she had somehow let me down. In the final days before she left, she dragged out all her things and arranged them on the sidewalk, markered signs, FREE STUFF!!—waterworn paperbacks and gospel records, unravelling rattan furniture, dust-colored pantsuits in plastic sheaths. You knew by sight what these items smelled like—I remembered well the sour cinnamon-rot stench that used to seep from her house—and when the school bus dropped me off, the kids heckled her from the windows and threw trash at her displays. She sat in a lawn chair and stoically took it, blocking the sidewalk with her boxes and tables, a final act of petty resistance. Each day she was out there, I’d hurry inside with my head down.
Eventually, out of pity, I disobeyed my mother and went to see her, a selection of copies rolled up in my hand. She should take some with her, I thought, as mementos. But when she saw me coming through the screen door, her face hardened into the savage expression she had always reserved for Mr. Kelly. A wisp of white hair stuck in the corner of her small, stiff mouth.
“What is it you want?” she asked.
I froze. A chill rattled my shoulders. Was this new hostility because of what my mother had done? Did she think I was in league with the hecklers on the bus? I tried to present the copies to her, but my arm wouldn’t move. I could only stand there, my sweaty palm wrinkling the paper.
She spoke again, gentler: “I don’t have anything for you today. Go on home.”
But I have something for you, I wanted to say, could not say. She closed the door in my face and disappeared into her empty house.
Two days later she was gone.
After that, I took all my copies of Mrs. Yew and her house and hid them away in my closet, where my father would later find them. The process of creating them hadn’t caused me any strife, not at all. Now I burned with shame. Even innocuous copies of the chimney or the gutters or the hole in the roof—I couldn’t even look at them without knots in my stomach, as though I truly had been poisoned. Had I siphoned something off from Mrs. Yew? Had I taken something from her? And no, it was not that I was afraid of her. I didn’t think of her as a psycho, the way my mother did. It was more like, in creating the copies, I had disrupted a balance between us, had taken from her and not given back what she was due, and if I hadn’t been so vain, so keenly aware of the hard work I’d put into the copies, I would’ve destroyed them, and maybe we all would’ve avoided that awful moment in the stairwell.
But, like I said, Mrs. Yew was gone, long gone, and I had other projects to work on during the school year. I threw myself to into them, toiled for hours into the night: a Styrofoam model of Jupiter’s moon Europa, its scarred and icy surface meticulously painted; precise crosshatched sketches of the heads of Easter Island; a diorama of a Cohokia village, huts made of toothpicks and straw, tiny extinct people living out their final days around a cellophane campfire. I knew for sure that these were important subjects. I explored their mysteries by hand. In each of these projects, teachers praised my dedication and attention to detail, my “creativity,” my uncanny focus. Every week, my mother would drive me to the craft store, and we’d buy foamboard, construction paper, sheets of felt, plastic canisters of googly eyes and glitter and buttons, Modge Podge and modeling clay. Anything my heart desired she would buy, then she’d poke my shoulder at the register and say, “Consider that an investment, Shorty,” as if I were an entrepreneur, a future innovator. She was relieved to see me involved in my schoolwork. She said buying these supplies made her so, so happy. These days, she insists that she was never afraid of Mrs. Yew, that she always thought the whole ordeal was overblown, and as for the copies, it was only me “being me,” a strange little creature she never understood but loved anyway.
Jen Julian’s recent work has appeared or is upcoming in Third Coast Magazine, Bourbon Penn, wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, came out from Press 53 in 2018. She and her gigantic ginger cat currently live in the remote mountains of North Georgia, where she teaches creative writing at Young Harris College. You can follow her work at jenjulian.com.