Like a Sunday House

Seventy-seven steps from the back door of our house up to the little house. I’ve counted it enough times. Two hundred and forty-one if I walk all the way around it, letting the coke bottle sweat in my hand until Mama hollers out the window, “You get that Coke in there right now.”

She don’t holler it anymore. Not since winter. She don’t tell me to take a Coke bottle up or even a handful of buttercups plucked from the ditch. Now Mama says to don’t go in there at all. Now she says, “I catch you up there or even so much as see your hand on that knob, I’ll whip it.”

The boys won’t even go in. We dare each other when Mama isn’t looking. I never wanted to go in before, but sometimes it glows on the inside. Mama says it’s just the low summer light playing tricks against the grimy glass. I don’t think so. I think it’s coming from the inside not the out.

I slide off the tire swing; it ghost-rocks side to side. And I consider. Maybe I’ll go up tonight. Maybe I’ll go up now.

Cottonwood petals are raining down a fluffy snow. Mama’s cooking hamburger. I can smell it from here. See her just inside the back door.

I take a step, and she don’t see it. So I take another.

In town there are Sunday houses for church and for visiting. They’re small one rooms, tiny things, but they look just like a house. This one’s like that, but it’s for every day.

Mama said it was from the olden days for when somebody got sick. That way, not everybody in the main house would get it, too. But then it just became another bedroom.

It’s got gray speckled shingles and a door of splintered turquoise, faded from the light and the wind. A rose bush clings to the side and the grass has grown up long around it, except for the dirt patch that’s still there. A rusted chain lies unattached to anything anymore. That old dog is long since gone. An old pie tin that once held his food is now half buried in the dirt.

I’ve taken more steps toward it without even counting.

Back behind me they’re watching. Watching to see if I’m brave enough to go in. Mama’s still frying and humming in the kitchen, but the boys are watching. The blue flicker of the TV flashes like lightning in the living room. If I turn around, they won’t be watching it. I’ll see two shadow heads looking out at me. Looking to see if I’m brave enough to do what they can’t.

And if I can, they’ll gather around me later in the side yard by the hollyhocks where the little steps go down to the creek. They’ll whisper ask what’s inside and I’ll whisper tell. And the barred owls will hoot and the jack-in-the-pulpits will listen, and we’ll hope Mama don’t catch us.

A woman lived in there that didn’t look much like a woman. Mama called her Mama. I didn’t call her anything at all. She looked more like an old apple set too long on a window sill. Its skin caving in on itself. Its saggy mouth toothless. Only a few bits of hair on her head like half blown away dandelion fluffs. Too many wishes gone. I’d just set that coke bottle down, say, “Here,” and run back out as fast as I could. That old woman went in, and I never did see her come back out.

Inside was cluttered. Dresser with old things on it. A chair covered in books and paper and clothes. A doll shoved in a corner, blank dead eyes staring back. I used to want to play with it, but I’d have to go past that old woman in the bed. Maybe I could get it now. Get it before the hamburger is done cooking.

I still see Mama in the kitchen through the backdoor window. I see Papa’s truck still isn’t home so there’s time. And I see in the blue lightning room those boys, their shadow heads watching me, and I turn the handle.

The room smells sour, like mossy things. Like the mud in the creek banks. Like the sweat of things. I see that doll in the corner staring back at me. And I see something dark and shrunken in the bed not moving at all. Still has half the dandelion wishes on her head.

I look back down to the house just in time to see Mama in the window stop her frying, the hot spatula hovering over the pan, and look up at me. Her face goes still. The spatula clatters to the floor.

Later I ask Mama why when she whips my hand good for going in. She don’t answer. When she’s done crying, she crushes up aspirin and gums it and takes to bed for the night. Leaves the hamburger hissing and burning, blue smoke rising up on the stove.

Papa gathers me up when he gets home. He keeps a dishtowel full of ice on my hand, and we set out on the back concrete slab by the tire swing. Looking up at the little house and how here in the last of the light, it looks to be glowing again. Mama says it’s just the low light but I don’t think it is. I don’t.

We watch as the summer sun settles down across the pasture and the bugs get up, looking fine like floating bits of golden dust. I ask him why, too. He says Mama just can’t face it yet. Not today.

But maybe tomorrow she will. Maybe then.

BEHIND THE SCENES with author Linda Niehoff

I write October stories. I’ve tried other kinds. But I’m fascinated by death. As a Christian, I have my own belief and hope about what happens when we die, but it’s still a great and terrible mystery. How someone can be right beside us one moment and completely gone the next. I will never not be fascinated and overwhelmed by that fact. I find it incredibly spooky, and I love being spooked. But I’m also a hopeless nostalgist… 

To read the entire interview...

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