"Wow," I said to my father when I was done reading. He hadn't said anything in a while. It was interesting: when my mother was around, my father always appeared weak minded and softhearteda slight, unnecessary, and mostly foolish human being. But now, in that room, with those letters, he seemed to me wisesilent and massive like a Buddha in wire-rimmed glasses. I felt the enormity of the situation, in my throat and face and elsewhere. "Why didn't you tell me about these letters while I was in prison?"
He looked at me but didn't say anything. This was a test of sorts, because this, of course, is what the wise do: they test the unwise to make them less so.
"You wanted to protect me," I said, and he nodded. It heartened me to know I could give him the right answer, and so I persisted. "You wanted to protect me from these people who thought I was an arsonist."
My father couldn't leave this one alone. He went into a violent struggle with his better judgment, wrestling with his mouth as he started and stopped himself from speaking a dozen times. It was like watching Atlas gear up to hoist that big boulder we now live on. Finally my father got it out and said sadly, so sadly, "Sam, you are an arsonist."
Oh, how that hurt! But it was true, and I needed to hear it, needed my father to tell it to me, just as we all need our fathers to tell us the truth, as someday I'll tell it to my children, too. And someday my children will do to me what I did to my father: they will deny it, the truth.
"You're wrong," I said. "I'm a college student." I put the top back on the box of letters, handed it back to him, and left before he could say anything else. When I got back in bed, I made myself promise never to think of the letters again. Forget about them, I commanded myself. I thought I could do it, too. After all, wasn't this what college was all about? Emptying your mind of the things you didn't want to remember and filling your mind up with new things before the old, unwanted things could find their way back in?
I left for college two weeks later; it was ten years before I saw my parents again, ten years before I reread those letters, ten years before I met some of the people who'd written the letters, ten years before I found out things about my parents that I'd never suspected and never wanted to know, ten years before I went back to prison, ten years before any of what happened, happened.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. College: Since it was late in the application season, I went to the only school that accepted meOur Lady of the Lake in Springfield, about twenty miles south of Amherst. It was a Catholic college that had just started accepting men because apparently there weren't enough Catholic women left in the Western world who wanted to pay a lot of money to get an education with no men around except for Jesus and his priests, and even the priests who supposedly ran it didn't want to teach there. A few nuns with nothing else to do other than deliver communion at the early, unpopular masses taught a couple of classesWorld Religions 101 and 102and the rest were taught by normal, irreligious teachers who couldn't get jobs anywhere else.
My first major was English, because I knew what a disappointment and sorrow I'd been to my parents and I wanted them to be proud of me despite everything that had happened. Besides, my mother had read to me all the time when I was young, and then when I was older she'd made me read all the important books and give detailed reports about why the books were so awfully important, and so I figured, at least, that I had the proper training and background to succeed. Plus, there were the bond analysts, with their memoirs and their stories; they didn't get tired of talking about themselves one bit. Whom else would we talk about? seemed to be their attitude, and maybe they were onto something. Maybe, I thought, by reading these other stories, I could understand something about my own.
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
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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