The Yellow Man
by Philip Ivory
Table of Contents|
parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Allan looked at the puzzle pieces spread across the white wooden coffee table. He’d assembled about half of the picture, a sparkling blue pond with lily pads and slippery-looking mud at the edges giving way to yellow-green grass.
Down here in the rec room, this was Allan’s break time before dinner and the bout of homework later.
He was sitting on a musty gray-green sofa. Nearby was an empty folding chair. Fading canary curtains were hung across the high window, which looked out to ground level where his mother’s clothesline stretched from the back of the house to the garage.
Putting together the center pieces of the puzzle that made up the water and lily pads was hard. Too much blue. He needed to find the box to see the picture. It wasn’t under the table. He stood to check if the box had fallen on either side of the couch. Not there either.
He looked around. Shunted in a corner under a dripping pipe was the foosball table his father had bumped and dragged down the basement stairs. How long since Allan had last tried playing it by himself? Pinpoint lines of dust rested atop the swingable bars holding the tiny kick figures.
Glancing up, he saw another picture, one that was no help: a framed collage of three golden boxes sitting in darkness on a shelf. The boxes looked as if they’d been pasted in using cut-out golden wrapping paper.
Where had that picture come from?
Allan remembered what the Yellow Man, his eyes showing unhealthy eagerness, had said about that picture when he first showed up.
“That picture’s for you,” he said, sitting in the folding chair, his hands kneading at his knees as if to see if his legs might still work.
Allan would think later: Just the kind of thing he would say. Weird and pointless.
Not having found the box, Allan sat again, working at the puzzle some more, trying not to think about the wall picture or the Yellow Man. He didn’t want the Yellow Man to come today. Maybe one of the others would come instead. Maybe even Sherri.
She was his favorite, of course. But she hadn’t come first. That was Mr. Lansing from the Hobby Shop, with his frizzy gray hair and red cardigan and friendly smile.
One day he had just appeared, sitting next to Allan on the couch, a deck of cards sticking from his pocket beneath the sweater. Always pleasant, quiet, not making you nervous like you-know-who. Part of Allan knew he should be frightened, seeing anyone there in the basement. Particularly someone not alive. Just the day before, his father had read aloud the notice in the paper about poor Mr. Lansing dying all alone in his house. And then...
But Allan wasn’t afraid. Not too much. It was clear Mr. Lansing meant no harm. He just wanted to be there with Allan and be quiet. And that was okay.
Allan had gone about his business that day, assembling an Apollo 12 model using Testors cement. Mr. Lansing watched approvingly. Sometimes Mr. Lansing offered opinions in a gentle voice, like suggesting Allan paint the pieces before assembling. When Allan failed to listen in his impatience to put it together, Mr. Lansing shrugged. When it was done, Mr. Lansing told him he did a good job, although Allan was angry at himself for smearing cement and getting some of the paint in the wrong area.
Still, Allan was a little afraid. He kept looking at the far brick wall behind the furnace where Mr. Lansing must have come through. He knew what was beyond that wall.
As the others came, Allan became more used to the idea of visitors, but always kept a careful eye on that wall.
Reece Wyatt, who was 19, in army fatigues, would sit on the couch, his head leaning back in a bored way against the flaking white plaster, clutching a quarter between his knuckles. He wouldn’t say anything because he was too cool to talk to a mere kid. He didn’t even pick up the tattoo and heavy metal magazines Allan had specifically bought; Allan remembered seeing him reading those kinds of magazines by the bleachers at school. Reece glanced toward them without taking the bait.
Maybe, in time, once he relaxed, they would be friends.
Mrs. Andover he wouldn’t have picked for a friend. But you couldn’t choose. She was a small, nervous bird-like woman in a light blue dress that had stiff folds like a window curtain. She would have liked to have had a piano to play, but understood Allan was not able to oblige.
The fact was Allan’s mother had taken him to try lessons with Mrs. Andover once. But after one lesson, she wanted to try someone else.
“Some people are just not natural around children,” his mother had said in the car after.
So Allan ended up going to Mr. Mastroni instead. There was no point in mentioning that to Mrs. Andover now, even though she knew he practiced on the piano upstairs.
Both she and Allan understood she could never go upstairs to see it.
At least she was some kind of company. They were all, even Reece in his way, friends. Just by being there.
And of course they were all dead. Allan knew that. He knew it was strange but when you saw something with your own eyes, it made it real. No matter how strange it was.
Allan’s best friend Sherri would come, too. She was the only one who was his age, close to. She would sit on the couch next to him. Sometimes they would read jokes together from the Big Book of Family Jokes. She liked the limericks best, but also the knock-knocks and riddles, and they could take turns trying to trick each other with those, although she only smiled quietly, and didn’t laugh the way he remembered.
Or they would play UNO with the smudgy old deck Allan had bought at the Arbor Day Festival at the church in town for 49 cents. It didn’t matter what they did. Or even if they didn’t speak. Even if she was quieter than he remembered. Allan and Sherri had been friends forever and always would be.
And then there was the Yellow Man.
He’d appeared sometime after the others. After Sherri. Maybe it was a long time after; Allan wasn’t sure. A bald man in a blue flannel bathrobe. Not totally bald; he had hair sticking up the back of his head like gray straw, which Allan glimpsed those times he looked directly at him. He would sit in the folding chair across from the couch and just look at Allan, his eyes clouded and runny. Naked knobby knees showed, with spots that were reddish gray like overcooked hot dogs.
Allan knew the names of the others. He’d seen all of them in town, in one way or another. But he had never seen this man. His skin seemed to give off a sickly yellow light, which was why, in his mind, Allan called him the Yellow Man.
The first day, when Allan looked right at him and asked his name, the man’s eyes goggled, his mouth hanging open as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Sometimes he would cough deeply and painfully, and the chair would rattle.
So this day, while he was working on his puzzle, hoping Sherri would appear, it was with disappointment that Allan realized the Yellow Man was there. It wasn’t a smell, but a kind of energy, a weak, stale charge of electricity in the air. Allan knew.
He didn’t look up. If he waited long enough, maybe the Yellow Man would go away, or one of the others would come to take his place.
No such luck.
“Allan, can you see me?” said the Yellow Man.
Allan rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said, not trying very hard to sound polite.
“Allan, is it you?”
This was too stupid to deserve a reply.
Maybe, he thought, it was a good time to go upstairs and watch TV. Allan started to neaten up the spare puzzle pieces. There was an oversized ashtray on the side table by the couch. He could put the pieces in there. He was about to do so when...
The old man was holding his head in his hands, rocking back and forth, and just saying, “Why?” over and over. Allan didn’t want to see that. It was scary, like once when he saw his mom cry after she got the phone call that Aunt Grace had died, but this was worse, because Allan didn’t know why it was happening. The man was drawing raspy breaths in between each word.
“Stop it!” Allan said, covering his ears. “Why are you here?”
It took several minutes for the coughing and rasping to stop.
“Why am I here?” he said at last.
“Yes, why?” said Allan. “I know who the others are. They come through the wall because they’re ghosts. But you. Why are you here? Are you even dead?”
The Yellow Man’s eyes widened. He seemed to wonder. He ran a hand through the brittle hairs at the back of his head.
“No,” said the Yellow Man. “No, I’m not.”
He seemed to realize something. He looked at Allan as if an idea had just come to him.
“You’ve been down here a long time,” he said.
“Only since school.”
“How old are you, Allan?”
Allan looked at him suspiciously. “Eleven. So what?”
“E-lev-en.” The old man wrapped his tongue thickly around the syllables. The word came out sounding slow, slimy and stupid, a slug on a summer sidewalk.
Not just old and sick, Allan thought. Crazy, too.
“That picture is for you,” said the Yellow Man, his gaze now resting on the picture of the golden boxes.
“I know,” said Allan. “Um, I didn’t ask you to be here.” He forced a smile because he knew his mother would at least want him to try to be polite. “You can go, if you want.”
“But the others, they can stay? Especially...”
For a second, Allan thought he saw a little glow around the old man, not a sickly glow, more like someone shining a warm light from behind, but the rays were blocked by the old man’s head, only peeping around a little. The light made Allan think of when you lie on the grass looking up and keep your eyelids shut but not quite, and the light comes through just a little, warm yellow light tickling at your eyelashes, and the grass tickling in a different way at your neck and wrists, and you feel kind of awake but kind of sleepy at the same time.
But then it was gone, and there was nothing but a creepy old man looking like he wanted something, maybe to keep pretending he was finally going to say something important.
“Especially Sherri,” the old man finished.
In the still basement air, Allan saw the feathery white hairs on the man’s knuckles flutter, as the waxy fingers began to slowly flex, open and close.
“You need to remember.”
Remember what? thought Allan.
“About Sherri. About everything.”
“No,” said Allan, surprising himself by the force of his annoyance.
A puzzle piece slipped from his hands as a gray veil fell upon his eyes, dimming his surroundings. It was as if those bony fingers were reaching into his skull, pressing into the moist loaf of his brain, making it think, remember. The shadowy rec room became less real.
Copyright © 2016 by Philip Ivory