I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter. This story is locally well known, and so I won't go into it here. It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me.
So anyway, I served my time, and since the sentencing judge took mercy on me, I served my time at the minimum-security prison up at Holyoke. At Holyoke there were bond analysts and lawyers and day traders and city managers and school administrators, all of them caught with their hands in the till and nothing at all like me, an eighteen-year-old accidental arsonist and murderer with blood and soot on his hands and a heavy heart and plenty to learn and no high school diploma. I flung in and tried. I took a biweekly self-improvement seminar called the College of Me, in which I learned the life-changing virtues of patience, hard work, and positive attitude, and in which I earned my GED. I also hung around this group of high-stepping bond analysts from Boston who were in the clink for insider trading. While they were inside, the bond analysts had set out to write their fond, freewheeling memoirs about their high crimes and misdemeanors and all the cashishthat's the way they talkedthey had made while screwing old people out of their retirement funds and kids out of their college savings. These guys seemed to know everything, the whole vocabulary of worldly gain and progress, so I paid extra attention during their memoir-brainstorming sessions, listened closely to their debates over how much the reading public did or did not need to know about their tortured childhoods in order to understand why they needed to make so much money in the manner in which they made it. I took notes as they divided the world between those who had stuff taken from them and those who took, those who did bad things in a good waygracefully, effortlesslyand those bumblers who bumbled their way through life.
"Bumblers," I said.
"Yes," they said, or one of them did. "Those who bumble."
"Give me an example," I said, and they stared at me with those bluesteel stares they were born with and didn't need to learn at Choate or Andover, and they stared those stares until I realized that I was an example, and so this is what I learned from them: that I was a bumbler, I resigned myself to the fact and had no illusions about striving to be something elsea bond analyst or a memoirist, for instanceand just got on with it. Life, that is.
I learned something from everyone, is the point, even while I was fending off the requisite cell-block buggerer, a gentle but crooked corporate accountant at Arthur Andersen who was just finding his true sexual self and who told me in a cracked, aching voice that he wanted mewanted me, that is, until I told him I was a virgin, which I was, and which, for some reason, made him not want me anymore, which meant that people did not want to sleep with twenty-eight-year-old male virgins, which I thought was useful to know.
Finally, I learned to play basketball from this black guy named Terrell, which was one of the big joys of my life in prison and which ended badly. Terrell, who had written checks to himself when he was the Worcester city treasurer, was in prison for the last three of my ten years, and whenever he would beat me in one-on-one (this wasn't often, even when I was first learning to play, because although he was very strong, Terrell was also shorter than I was and about as sleek as a fire hydrant; plus, he was twice my age and his knees were completely shot and would crack like dry wood when he ran)whenever he would beat me, Terrell would yell out, "I'm a grown-ass man." That sounded good, and so after our last game, which I won easily, I also yelled out, "I'm a grown-ass man." Terrell thought I was mocking him, so he started hitting me around the head, and since I get passive in the face of true anger, I just stood there and took Terrell's abuse and didn't try to defend myself. As the guards dragged him to solitary, he promised that he would beat on me a little more once he got out, which he shouldn't have, because, of course, the guards then gave him more solitary than they might have otherwise. By the time Terrell got out, I'd already been released from prison and was home, living with my parents.
Excerpted from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke © 2007 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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