The House on the Road

Once upon a time there was a house. This house wasn’t an ordinary house, like one you would expect to see on your way home from work. No, this house was what you would call an extraordinary house.

It had windows, but it was impossible to tell how many. It had doors, but — well, same story.

The house was red. That was one thing you could be sure of, because when you looked at it it was just obviously red. Which was reassuring for Alice, because that was at least some certainty she could grab onto after trying to count the doors and the windows.

Usually, on her way home from work, Alice would pass the extraordinary house on the road, and for the approximately 15.4 seconds it took her to walk from one end of it to the other, she would lower her head slightly, bunch her shoulders a little more, and try not to think of the fact that in eight years of walking by this house on the way home from work every day, she had never been able to count either the number of doors or the number of windows.

It wasn’t that the doors and windows were hard to see, or hiding behind bushes or branches, or anything like that. It was simply that as you went from left to right, top to bottom, counting the doors and windows, you would inevitably lose track.

Now, some people might hear this and think, “Well, you’ve had a long day at work and your brain is a bit fried and it’s not the strangest thing in the world that you lost count.” Or maybe they would think “I mean, counting doors and windows isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. Perhaps you just got bored halfway through and your mind wandered.”
 But of course, they would be wrong. For the fact that you would lose track somewhere in between starting and finishing the counting of the doors and windows was nothing that had to do with you or your brain or how long your day was at work. It was just a law of the universe, right up there with F = ma, E = mc^2, and the impossibility of conquering Russia during the winter months.

Usually, on her way home from work, Alice would be uncomfortable as she walked past this extraordinary house on the road. But walk past it she would, and that would be that.

This day — meaning, today — is not a usual day. No, this day is what you would call an unusual day.

It was unusual because Alice did not usually a) eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread for lunch, b) forget to throw away the plastic sandwich bag, or c) get fired for forgetting to throw away said plastic sandwich bag.

Yes. That’s correct. You read that right.

Alice was fired for littering.

And so on this particularly unusual day, as she walked home from work, from a job that was no longer hers, Alice felt some parts angry, and some parts free. It hadn’t been the greatest job in the world. She didn’t wake up every morning and jump out of bed and brush her teeth as fast as she could because she absolutely could not wait to get to work. She did not live for her job in the way she saw some people living for their job, and forgetting that maybe there were other things worth living for.

But she had made friends there. Some of the people she had worked with were funny, generous, interesting, good to be around — in a word: friendly.

And the job had paid her bills. She lived comfortably, able to afford a good apartment in a good part of town. She was able to take enough vacations, able to buy things that made her happy. Able to own a dog.

She had worked there eight years. And so losing the job felt, in those hours immediately following the incident with the plastic sandwich bag, like losing part of who she thought of herself as. She, as do so many people, held a conception of herself in her head that was made up of different parts of her life. One part was her being a dog owner, another part was her interest in Japanese food, another part was the fact she grew up in a bland middle-class suburb of America, and another part was her job. Or rather, another part had been her job.

She didn’t know what to do with that part now. It was still there, in her head, adjacent to that abstract conception of herself that she held there. But it didn’t fit anymore. And she didn’t know what to do with it.

This struck her as not necessarily a bad thing. She may not know what to do with it, but the idea of it being separated from this abstract conception of herself, and maybe going away all together, was actually not all that scary, now that it had in some way already happened. As she walked home she began to think of herself as someone who was basically the same amalgamation of concepts as she had been previously, just without this “job” piece.

And it felt freeing. She realized that if a part of her identity, a part of who she thought she was, a factor in the model that dictated the decisions she made, could just up and away like that, maybe others could too. Maybe she was not just a machine that acted out the conclusions of this model. This model that, when she took a second to think about it, had just kind of shown up one day.

This model that, when she actually took a minute to think about it, she wasn’t completely in love with.

And so as Alice walked home from work on this unusual day — meaning, today — she toyed with ideas of different models that might suit her better. She looked at each piece of the current model and spun it around and asked it questions, just to see if it was a genuine piece of her or if it was an impostor put there by some accident of the world. And she searched her thoughts for pieces that might be lying around that might make good additions to the model.

She was playing around with the Japanese food part (which after some consideration she decided was indeed an actual piece of her) when the extraordinary red house on the road came into sight.

When Alice came upon the house, being not five steps from crossing into its shadow, she noticed her head slightly lowered, and her shoulders bunched a bit more. Maybe because she was already doing a bunch of noticing about herself that she was able to catch this. Regardless, catch this she did. And in a spur of the moment decision she unbunched her shoulders and raised her head, putting on the best posture she could muster.

Alice walked right up to the front door of the extraordinary red house on the road, and knocked. Three loud raps with her knuckles on the sturdy wood. Three loud raps that seemed to say “I see you there, you trickster. I see you there and I’m done walking by this house and pretending there isn’t something fishy going on here. Let’s get it all out in the open, huh?”

The echo of her last knock subsided, and Alice took a few steps back to wait on the stoop. She waited. And waited. And at one point even glanced up, thinking to try one more time to count the doors and the windows. But then she thought better of it.

Something like five minutes must have gone by, and Alice was about to turn around and leave.

That was when the door opened.

Matt Roll @mroll