"What do you think?" Anne Marie asked me, her face happy and expectant, about the opposite of how mine surely looked.
"Pitchforks!" I said. "Torches! Monster!"
"What?" she asked. "What's that?"
"Nothing," I said, and I kept driving, in a kind of trance, so that Anne Marie's cries of "Wait!" and "Where are you going?" and "We haven't looked at any houses yethold on!" were something out of the faint, distant past and I had trouble hearing them. Yes, I kept driving, right past Chicopee Street, where my parents lived, and then out of town, and for five more years I was pretty glad I had. Soon we were on Route 116 and out of Amherst proper, and this, too, was familiarthe small brick ranch houses that housed the Asian grad students at the state university, and the student laundromats and the family-owned greengrocers and the tiny, poorly stocked nonchain video stores in which you couldn't ever find the movies you wanted. But soon things began to change. First, there came the river of superstores: the super garden-supply stores and super toy stores and super children's clothing stores and super building supply stores and super furniture galleries and super supermarkets and so on. The buildings that housed these superstores were as cheap looking as they were big, just oversize tin pole barns with parking lots so huge that the entire town of Amherst could have fit comfortably inside. Amherst didn't seem big enough to justify all these superstores and their parking lots; it was like building a sub without first building the urb.
But these stores were just an introduction to what had really changed: what had really changed were the subdivisions beyond the stores, the subdivisions where ten years before there had been only broadleaf tobacco and corn fields, subdivisions with signs at the gated entrances that said MONACO ESTATES and STONEHAVEN, and with streets named Princess Grace Way and Sheep Meadow Circle. I drove around these subdivisions, looking for a FOR SALE sign and not finding one until we turned into a subdivision named Camelotso said the wooden sign carved into the shape of a castle.
Camelot was beautiful. There were no trees anywhereit was as though Camelot had been nuked or had been the brainchild of the logging industry maybeand each house was exactly the same except that some had powder blue vinyl siding and others had desert tan. There were elaborate wooden playgrounds in the backyards and mini satellite dishes on every roof, and each driveway was a smooth carpet of blacktop and there wasn't a sidewalk crack to trip over because there were no sidewalks, and each house had a garage that was so oversized it could have been its own house. There was the constant, soothing hum of lawn maintenance coming from somewhere, everywhere, even though the grass seed in front of most houses hadn't matured yet and I couldn't spot a lawn mower anywhere, and the sprinkler systems were all activated even though it was late September and too late for grass watering, the spray arcing and dancing in the streetlights, of which there looked to be about 150, all of them on even though it was the middle of the afternoon.
"Wow," I said.
"Wow what?" Anne Marie said. "Are you talking about that?" She pointed at a tan house that was exactly like the others except that there was that FOR SALE sign on the lawn. Anne Marie and I got out of the van; the kids were sitting in their seats, screaming about something, everything, but the windows were rolled up and their screaming noises were as soft and welcome as rain on the roof. "What are you thinking?" Anne Marie said finally. There was a weary, sighing quality to her voice, which I took for simple human fatigue, but which might have been resignation. I wish I'd paid more attention to Anne Marie back then, but I didn't. Oh, why didn't I? Why don't we listen to the people we love? Is it because we have only so much listening in us, and so many very important things to tell ourselves?
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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