As the story opens, seventy-two-year-old Hattie has lived in the old yellow house in the practically deserted community of Sego Desert Lake, Utah, for years. Born and bred on the East Coast, Hattie came out West after a failed marriage to a Philadelphia blueblood. She used to have a lover named Wicks. He was a cowboy, but Hattie, unable to overcome her inherent snobbery, refused to marry him and eventually rejected him. She also lived with another elderly woman, India, who left the house to her after her death.
Hattie is a likeable old woman, though she is difficult. She drinks too much and smokes too much, and is often mean-spirited. She also has a problem with self-deception. Although she lives alone, she maintains a routine that includes weekly trips to the nearest town to buy groceries, visit with friends, and get her hair done.
One day, returning from her neighboring friends’ house, Hattie has an accident. Hattie explains away her loss of control of the car as due to a sneeze, but everyone knows that she was drunk at the time. Whatever its cause, the accident leaves Hattie’s car stranded on the railway tracks, and a train is due along soon. Hattie hurries to the nearby Pace dude ranch for help. Darly, the elderly ranch hand, returns with her to the car. Darly wraps a chain around the car’s bumper and tries to tow it off the tracks with his truck, but Hattie, near the chain, gets knocked down. The fall breaks her arm. Darly eventually gets the car off the tracks, and then he takes Hattie to the neighbor’s house, the Rolfes. The couple take her home, put her to bed, and say they will call the doctor in the morning.
Hattie spends the next several weeks in the hospital, but she worries about how she is going to pay off her bill. Hattie has little money; her only asset is her house and its tattered furnishings. She thinks she will have to sell or rent her house in order to get the money, but when she speaks of her plan to Jerry Rolfe, he tells her she is expecting too high a price for the house.
After leaving the hospital, Hattie stays with the Rolfes. Jerry Rolfe thinks she should go back East to live with her brother, because she cannot (even before her accident) take care of herself. Hattie herself worries about what she will do. Once she returns to her own house, the Rolfes continue to help her, bringing her groceries and supplies back from town. Still unable to drive her car, Hattie must rely on their aid. She knows, however, that they will be vacationing soon. She resents their defection and she also wonders who will help her get by in their absence.
The Rolfes explore different options for Hattie’s care. Jerry Rolfe talks to another neighbor, an elderly but tough woman named Amy Walters. When he suggests the two women live together, however, Amy says no because she and Hattie are too different. Amy, however, agrees to take care of Hattie if Hattie wills her the yellow house. Rolfe, knowing Hattie would refuse this offer, never even mentions Amy’s proposition to Hattie. Another neighbor, Pace, also offers to give Hattie a monthly stipend if she leaves the house to him. Hattie refuses angrily.
Meanwhile, despite the doctor’s warnings, Hattie is drinking and smoking as much as ever. In her solitude, she thinks back over her life, playing it back like a film. She remembers how she had to kill her dog, when he turned mean and attacked her. She had publicly blamed Pace for the disappearance of the dog, and this memory makes her acknowledge the way she has lied to herself and others throughout her life.
She decides to take greater responsibility of herself and her actions by making a will, but she can think of no one who is deserving of her only asset, the house. She discounts her relatives and her friends. In the end, knowing that it is unreasonable, she wills the house to herself. Yet, she promises herself that she will think about her problem and work it out the next day.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2001.