By ALLISON AMEND

I was 27 or 28, working on my first novel. When the Matthiessens offered me their house in Sagaponack in exchange for watching their cats for a month, I leapt at the chance. I knew Peter’s wife, Maria, a beautiful Judi Dench lookalike, but I had never met Peter when I arrived there. I knew who he was, of course, but hadn’t ever read his work. We met only briefly before they went off to the airport and I was alone with the cats.

I was hoping for solitude and space. But I was also hoping that I could crack the writing code. Was it possible that the same surroundings that he found so conducive to genius would work their magic on me? Perhaps this was the month I would make a breakthrough in my interminable novel. I read all of Peter’s work while in his house, as though method acting, sitting among his things, looking at his photographs, eating in his kitchen, walking in his (well, Maria’s) garden.

Allison Amend recalls housesitting for Peter Matthiessen.

Allison Amend recalls housesitting for Peter Matthiessen.

Writers are notorious packrats, but I knew Peter was a devout Buddhist priest. I wondered which side would win. The house was full of artifacts from their travels, rugs and nick-knacks, paintings and sculptures. There was a Zendo on the property, but I wondered where Peter meditated in the house among all that attachment. One day, looking for a towel in what I thought was a linen closet, I discovered a tatami-matted room decorated only by a small statue. The house, like a person, gave up its secrets only as I got to know it.

During the days I jogged on the beach, wrote and read my landlord’s work. At night, I lay sleepless in the guest room bed, trembling with fear at the unfamiliar noises of rural life: the creaking of the house, the rustling of the wind in the trees, animal noises, the low buzz of a car driving by….

As the month wore on, I began to get frustrated. I was lonely; I was bored. I don’t really like cats that much. There were a lot of spiders. The dark was very dark. And yet I was still determined that Peter’s house would lead me to his greatness. If I just read more of his work, if I just spent more time meditating, if I just tried harder to be him, then I would be a writer.

One morning I went into the bathroom to find the body of a rat, its head mysteriously absent. I have an irrational phobia of dead things as well as a fear of the dark. I screamed; I began to hyperventilate. I panicked. I yelled at the cruel cats for their sick joke.

Someone had to come over and remove the dead thing, preferably before dark. There was a phone list in the kitchen, gray with age, the scotch tape yellowing and the corners frayed. It read like a Who’s Who in American letters, circa 1965: James Jones, George Plimpton. Some of the people on it were dead, like Bill Styron and Kurt Vonnegut. How could I call one of my literary heroes and ask if he would come over to remove a rat carcass because I was incapable of doing so? And could I ask him to help me with my novel while he was over, which I was equally incapable of dealing with?

Finally I decided to call the one person I’d met on this list: Eddie (E.L.) Doctorow. There was no answer.

It was Memorial Day weekend. I considered calling the police, but decided instead to call my friend and fellow novelist Thisbe Nissen, a cat owner and country-dweller who I had seen dispatch of a dead rodent as easily as she flicked a piece of lint. If only she were not living a thousand miles away!

She told me I would have to get rid of it myself. Not even E.L. Doctorow could save me from my destiny. It was my moment, she said. I needed to rise to the occasion. I tried not to cry. Thisbe gave me detailed instructions on rodent corpse removal while I took notes.

I sat the cats down in Maria’s study. Patiently, I explained that I was not interested in rodents. I told them that they had seen me go to the grocery store to procure my food, which did not include rodents. I reminded them that I had my own money and did not need to them to bring me gifts, though I appreciated the gesture.

Then I dutifully found a pair of wellingtons, some ski goggles, a bucket, a long broom, and dish gloves. I downed a shot of syrupy liqueur of unknown vintage. Thus protectively attired and tipsy from liquid courage I poked the bathroom door open with a shovel. The rat was gone.

“That’s great!” Thisbe said when I told her. I felt relieved until she added, “I wonder where the head is.”

As I put away the rodent-removal equipment, I had a minor epiphany. This was Peter’s place, the world that he constructed for himself. There was nothing particularly magical about it. Though it was a lovely, lovely retreat and home, it was merely a physical location for mental exertion, an outgrowth of Peter’s life and relationships. It had not made him a great writer. It would not make me a great writer. My magical writing place could be of my own making. I could be my own sort of writer in my own home in New York, surrounded by my own things, where the nights were not quite so dark.

I temporarily stopped working on my novel (it would be published 8 years later as Stations West) and began a novel about a housesitter who suffers from necrophobia (it did not get published). I never found the rat head.

Amend’s first novel, Stations West, was a finalist for both the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award

Amend’s first novel, Stations West, was a finalist for both the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award

My last night in the house (I was not going to see the Matthiessens before I left — they were due to arrive the next evening) at what seemed the very darkest hour of the dark, I heard a scream of abject terror and peril that stopped as suddenly as it began. At first I thought someone had been murdered, but eventually my sleepy brain determined that the cats were in a fight. I lay in bed wondering if I should investigate immediately or wait until morning. Morning would be infinitely preferable, being light, but if a cat had been injured then sooner was better. And I was not going to be able to sleep after that piercing cry of horror and death.

I turned on every light in the house. In the living room I found nothing. The den was similarly empty. In the kitchen, one cat was curled up in a basket. So they were obviously not fighting each other.  There was nothing to be done. I went back to bed.

The next morning I got up and brushed my teeth. I was using the toilet when I glanced down at my feet to find the source of the scream—a nearly decapitated rabbit, its head bent back upon its spine, a pool of thick blood and stringy innards surrounding it.

I may have briefly lost consciousness. I came to, outside, in my nightgown, gagging. I tried to decide what to do. Did Thisbe have experience with dead rabbits? Did Eddie Doctorow?

I am embarrassed to admit (and, Maria, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry) that I went back inside, collected my things and caught my train back to New York City. Peter Mathiessen was not the kind of person, the kind of writer, who would leave a dead rabbit. But if this month had revealed anything, it was that I now knew Peter Matthiessen—I had lived in Peter Matthiessen’s house amidst his things, I had slept with Peter Matthiessen’s cats—and I, Reader, was no Peter Matthiessen. I was never going to be the kind of writer he was; a house does not a writer make. So I left to go home to the bright city, to my writing place, which did not have cats.

 

Allison Amend is the author of the award-winning story collection Things That Pass for Love and the acclaimed novel Stations West. Her new novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, is available in bookstores now. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Lehman College and for the Red Earth MFA program. Visit Allison on the web at: http://www.allisonamend.com