Saturday, January 2, 2010

Frost & 401 Main

I once lived at 401 Main Street in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  It was a house built in 1896, once home to American poet Robert Frost who had taught English classes at Amherst College in the 20s and 30s.  I was a University of Massachusetts student studying English at the time so perhaps I was under somewhat of a literary spell but I swear the walls of this house were swallowing in real live yellow wallpaper.  Even on the most gorgeous and crisp of New England days - days where you could hear the splashing of a birdbath across the street - the house still managed to retain its stench of grief.  The radiators hissed like sick women when I walked in from the cold.  There was a pessimistic ferocity that filled open spaces as tiny as keyholes and it all felt very far from staged.  In fact, it felt downright natural.  Clearly Frost had lost a lot in this house and I, his modern day tenant, wondered what. 

The house was comprised of seven private bedrooms, one kitchen, one bathroom, one front stairway, one back stairway, one porch.  We were strangers to one another with the town being our sole commonality.  From the looks of it, we were very different folks and for the particularly private, it did stay this way.  It was communal living far from its finest but the rent was a number you could brag about and the bus route stopped right outside.  A few hundred yards behind the house was the Amherst Railroad Station; it only took a month to get used to the rattling, the fear of us all collapsing to the dirt in a heap, having to make conversation once outside.

Brian was tall with a nervous posture.  He was noticeably awkward, a bit off-kilter, and probably what you would call doofy.  His intellectual abilities were believably above average - he was always reading, began inevitably short conversations by telling you what he was reading - but when predisposed to social, communicative, and coordinated circumstance, he could never maneuver his way into a comfortable and breathe-easy place.  His eyes could never catch mine but I knew he liked me because he would slide Penguin classics under my door without so much as a knock.  One time I opened my door as he was walking into the bathroom and he frighteningly hurried in and slammed the door.  "I just wanted to thank you for Madame Bovary," I said.

Charlie was round like a ball with a red and raw face.  He looked like someone who secretly sat scratching and scratching in the dryness of his room.  He hung decorations on his door during holidays and offered to drop off individual rent checks on the first of each month.  Some of us liked that and some of us didn't but the offer always stood.  He cut a deal with our landlord to pay $100 less on rent by offering housekeeping services.  He vacuumed the hallway's carpet, shoveled snow off the pathway leading up to the house in the winter, disinfected the kitchen and bathroom when needed.  He brought plants into the common areas and kept them alive.  

Royce was always in his bathrobe.  He was a jittery fellow, excited by his pet birds, and would talk of mundane things as if they could rid of being mundane but, unfortunately, the mundane stayed where it was.  I was always kind, nodding along, but his sentences hung and died every time.  But there was a hop to Royce's step and I liked that.  He was buoyant by nature, light like his birds' feathers.  Once he knocked on our doors to ask permission to throw a dinner party in the kitchen.  He clapped his hands in prayer position when he asked, then showed all ten fingers when assuring us that there would be no mess.  I wondered who his friends were as I'd never seen or heard Royce with anybody in the house.  I walked into the kitchen around the time I thought the party might be breaking up and saw a melted ice bucket on the table sitting like a guest between the gin and tonic water.  Royce was wearing a tie and staring at a candle dripping its wax.  He looked like what you would look like if no one came to your dinner party.  I didn't ask him how his night went but I did taste the chicken scallopini.  It was delicious.

Amy was my age and fun like tie-dye.  It was a very good thing that we found each other in this house.  She found the parties with the bonfires and bands, collected vintage Strawberry Shortcake dolls, tried on her new clothes for me, and always had to tell me something.  "I have to tell you something, come to my room," she'd whisper fast.  She was tall and blond with a pretty face, light eyes, had a real knack for that hippie style.  She loved being outdoors; she loved being indoors.  She bopped and snapped to music, squealed at the ridiculousness of ridiculous situations, slept with the wrong boys and snarled at the right ones.  When it rained and we'd lie on each other's beds talking about all the things you talk about when you talk about love, I drew post-it notes in my head to keep her forever.  She talked a lot about moving out West and then she did.  That's when Alicia moved in.

Alicia was easy like scrambled eggs.  She and I bonded over simple pleasures:  coffee in paper cups, reading near waterfalls, blowing smoke, a lyric.  She was creative and liked artsy things like string and fabric and ornate cake decoration.  There was some gray in her hair; an obvious old soul.  Some days we would take the back roads, driving past tobacco barns and potato fields to get to the Montague Bookmill, a used bookstore housed in an 1842 gristmill, set on the banks of the Sawmill River.  We peered out paned windows and sat across from one another eating brie, apricot jam and marinated apple sandwiches while we read good sentences out loud.  It wasn't quite Summer yet but it sure felt like it with Alicia.  I drew more post-it notes in my head.

Zane was old, too old to be living in this house, and he hated all of us.  He would leave his room to smoke cigarettes on the porch and I knew he was unhappy.  We shared a wall and he would bang on them when he heard me having conversations with people.  The only time he spoke more than a grunt to me was the day I moved out.  I was carrying heavy boxes but he stopped me in the hallway anyway.  "You're leaving," he didn't ask, more like stated.  "I am, I am," I said.  "No more noise from me, don't you worry," I joked.  He didn't laugh, I didn't expect him to.  "Where are you going?" he asked, surprising me.  "Back to Brooklyn," I said.  "Brooklyn, huh?  That's where you're from?  I love Brooklyn," he said.  He looked ready to converse and I wanted to shout "Now?!" but I was carrying these boxes and I had to go, it was getting late.  "Take care, Zane," I said.  "Yeah, yeah" was his reply.


  1. i love this one... and it kind of makes me want to watch 'singles'...

  2. sylvie, it is refreshing to read this. i knew brian, and used to play scrabble in the kitchen on saturday mornings, i believe before you lived there.

    i am also taking a bikram yoga class, which always reminds me of you.