So Springfield was out, but we had to go somewhere. One day Anne Marie said, "I hear Amherst is nice. What about Amherst?"
It should be said here that I hadn't told Anne Marie about my past, and right then I wanted to, badly: I wanted to tell Anne Marie everythingabout the Emily Dickinson House and how I'd burned it, accidentally, and the people I'd killedand by the way, it wasn't the first time I'd wanted to tell her such a thing. I should have told her right away, I know this now and I knew it then, but new love is so fragile and I thought I would wait until it got stronger. But then time and more time went by, and now my original crime was compounded by the crime of not telling her about it for so many years and things were too complicated and I couldn't tell her the truth.
So I said yes. Amherst. Why not? We put the kids in the minivan and headed up to Amherst. On the drive up I convinced myself of things, crazy things. I told myself that we'd get to the town and find an old, lovely New England house in old, lovely New England Amherst, move in, then present my house, my wife, my kids, my job, myself, to my parents, who would have by this point begun to miss me. I've changed, I would say. And they would say, Us, too. Welcome home. Because the heart wants what the heart wants, and the heart was telling me, Don't be ridiculous, they've forgiven you, all of them. Saying, It's time, it's time, it's time.
It wasn't time. This was on a Friday. Amherst was exactly as I'd remembered it: the leafy, prosperous streets, which were filled with so many Volvo station wagons it was like mushrooms in a cave; the two-hundred- year-old houses with their genteelly overgrown lawns, their tiger lilies and blue mums and birch trees and historical markers; the white college boys with dreadlocks playing their complicated Frisbee games on the sweeping town green; the white clapboard Congregational churches and the granite Episcopal churches and the soaring spires of the college everywhere visible over the high tree line; the well-scrubbed college girls barely dressed in workout clothes; and the boat-shoed and loafered professors drinking their coffee on the sort of wrought iron outdoor patio furniture that looks too delicate to sit on even if you were as water thin as most of the college girls were. All of this was familiar to me, but it didn't make me feel happy, didn't make me feel at home. I felt like a cousin once removed, which meant, I guess, that you weren't really a cousin at all: you were estranged from blood relation in some permanent way, and my remove from Amherst was that I had burned down the most significant of its significant, beautiful, aged houses, had killed two of its loafered citizens. A cousin once removed was not a cousin; a criminal citizen was not a citizen.
This was a big disappointment, the biggest, because I'd taken up packaging science, and I'd forgotten my literature, forgotten that you can't go home again, and so I thought that Amherstthe town where I'd grown up, the town where both my parents had grown up, the town where both their families had lived for two hundred yearswould still be my hometown. How could it not? Was I not the town's own humbled prodigal son? Did not every town need someone like me, someoneas the song sayswho was lost but now was found? But from the driver's seat of our minivan, I had the definite feeling that Amherst would never be my town again, that the town itself wouldn't stand for it, that they didn't need a prodigal son, that a prodigal son was exactly what they didn't need. We drove past my old high school: there were bars on the windows where there hadn't been before I went to prison, armed uniformed guards out front where before there'd been old-lady hall monitors with whistles, and I imagined that the bars and the guards were there to protect the students from me and not some teenage crazy in a trench coat stuffed with homemade ordnance. I could hear the principal during assembly that morning: We were not vigilant and he burned down the Emily Dickinson House and killed two people in the bargain. But we are ready for him now. I imagined that after school the students and their parents, and for that matter the whole town, woulda la Frankensteintake up their torches and pitchforks and drive me out of town and leave melurching, grunting, monstrous with my scarred and stitched body and the bolt through my headwandering, lost in the strange, cruel world, never to be heard from again.
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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