The old Victorian house is surrounded by a chain-link fence, paint peeling, waiting for someone to gentrify her (to ruin her). I run my fingers across the yellow house on the computer screen. This is where my Mother lived in the life she had before me. In the 70s, my Mother didn’t own the walls, but inside everything was hers.
The yellow house stood alone in Oakland, California, between the train tracks and the BART train platform. On one side, the BART transit system had a concrete overpass. It was high enough that when the trains rolled by, it sent booming sounds, and metallic squeals straight through the bedroom windows. On the other side of the house, the train railroad tracks ran adjacent to the fence. There were only slats of wood and air between tons of metal and the yellow house. When either train came by, dishes shook in their cabinets, mice ran from their hiding places, and the dogs scrambled outside, their nails carving trails in the hardwood floors.
No one really wanted to live in the house between the tracks, but my mother didn’t have a choice. You do what you can with what you have.
At night, the mice owned the house. Their grey bodies scurried over countertops, crowded through drawers, and climbed curtains. She could hear them chewing in the walls. She could see them out of the corner of her eyes as they slipped flat like pancakes through the cracks in the floor. Once she mistook a squat mouse for her squat gray sponge and screamed as her children laughed wildly as she ran all the way outside through the front door.
Sometimes when the railroad and BART trains cars both passed the house simultaneously, the sound of the trains filled every room and corner with a noise so loud, so deafening, that in the dark she woke with a fear that the house would be torn in two.
This is the house where she had her dogs. I never had dogs growing up. I find them in blurry Polaroids tucked inside of the yellowed pages of old photo albums. There were two dogs, one a silky black lab named Velvet, the other a white furry breed named Chiquita. Velvet was younger, wilder. Chiquita was the boss, my mom would say.
Chiquita’s smiling in the photo, her face white with dark markings above her eyes like eyebrows, mouth open and tongue hanging out. Other photos too. Photos of her, with her long brown hair, parted down the middle, sleeping in the grass in paisley printed shirts. Ones of my twin brothers, brown and blond in bell bottoms. My sister sitting on top of an old car, her arms behind her. A rainbow birthday cake and Rayban sunglasses. My mom, holding a 1980s Coca-cola bottle. A big portrait of my sister’s baby that passed away from complications. Velvet on her back, her round pregnant belly full of puppies, proud. There were thirteen, she said. All black, except one brown, who she named Red. Who died a month later.
“Was he your favorite?” I asked.
“I don’t know anymore,” she said.
These were photos from another lifetime, from another family, long before my own birth.
She had her dogs in the yellow house. They chased mice. They escaped through the backdoor to run up and down San Leandro Boulevard. But most of all, they loved to climb through the second-story window and stand on top of the garage roof and wait for the trains. Every once in a while, a train would come to a complete stop, and the occupants would toss bones onto the roof for the dogs. Sometimes even hot dogs. She’d hear the thump of food hitting the wall or window, and the scramble of her dogs.
Oftentimes she struggled to sleep, tossing and turning beneath tangled blankets, worrying about the mice, the cars that screeched past nearby, the gunshots in the distance. She worried about her twin boys and her teen daughter. A daughter that once picked up a large cinder block and hurled it at her.
Her twin boys were nearly thirteen. Leroy, blond and green-eyed, tan beneath the summer sun, and Joey with dark black hair, and my mother’s eyes (a milky blue). Twins that never shared anything but the same womb. They fought in the yard of the yellow house between the two tracks. Joey would get Leroy down between the patchy weeds in the cracked earth of the small fenced-in front yard. Joey wouldn’t let up, and the sight of blood pouring from her youngest son’s split lip made my mother uncoil the green garden hose from the side of the house, and turn it on them at full blast until they stopped and ran out of the yard in opposite directions, the summer heat steaming the concrete where the water seeped.
My mother lived where the drug dealers sold. The commercial area surrounding the yellow held only a few slender street lamps that were amber shaded and inconsistent. Sometimes they’d work, and sometimes they’d shut off, shadows swelling in their absence. Gunshots accompanied the sounds of car screeches, drowned out temporarily by the trains. Some sounds she got used to, others not so much.
With what little money she had, she paid for groceries, and she bought guns. These guns she bought directly from drug dealers who knew she lived by herself, with three kids, in the yellow house near the railroad. One of them, an Uzi. She wanted all the drug dealers to know that this house, by the train tracks, with the single mother, was off-limits. And it worked. No one messed with the lady in the yellow house.
But the yellow house had a roof, and walls, and countertops with tinned coffee, a fridge that hummed loudly that housed eggs, and a cabinet full of food to feed them all. She rolled out carpets to cover scratched floors, mouse traps to trap unwanted friends and filled the pages of coloring books with vibrant shades of pencils at her kitchen table in the dim light of the dining room light.
As I kid, I only knew about the dogs–not the guns, or the fights, the mice or the struggles, only the scene built in my mind, as real as any memory—the rumble of the train approaching, the clanking of porcelain cups, and the dogs running, their legs scrambling out the second-story window of the yellow house and onto the roof. I can almost see them behind my closed eyes. They are on the ledge of the roof, panting and happy. My mother is hanging out the window, my brother Leroy beside her. He is young and alive, his hair gold and eyes still bright. She has long hair that falls into her face as she is waving at the people in the train cars. They slide train windows open. Her dogs are barking happily as the people in the train car throw hot dogs across the roof of the garage. The dogs are barking at the trains between bites. Everyone is laughing.