The House on Congress Street
by Amy Yelin
Lee never came out. I will always remember this.
The year was 2002 and we were living in the house on Congress Street—the first place Ben my husband and I lived together—in the quaint seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. We were not alone, however; our apartment was on the first floor of a multi-family home and so in addition to hardwood floors, high ceilings, and lovely bay windows in the living room that looked out on a park across the street, we had neighbors.
In the apartment directly above us was Rob, a single man in his forties with four cats and a passion for “South Park,” cigarettes, and smoking pot. On the top floor were two studios, one belonging to a woman named Savannah, and the other to a petite, older looking man named Lee.
With the exception of Rob—who asked us to watch his cats when he went on vacation or brought us corn beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s day—we didn’t see our housemates much. I met Savannah only once in the year and a half we lived there; rumor had it she stayed at her girlfriend’s house most of the time. And I only saw Lee during fire alarms, when we would all wait on the sidewalk until the firemen arrived and gave us the ok to go back inside. I remember shaking hands with Lee once: the feel of his sweaty, delicate palm.
This was the house with the spider problem. First, it was only a stray here and there, unfortunate wanderers from the basement into the living room where they were quickly extinguished by a shoe or an old magazine. Soon, however, as summer gave way to autumn, they migrated to the outside of the house. The spiders came in all shapes and shades—blacks, browns, greys. I was told the ones shaped like fiddles were the ones to avoid, and I’d taken up the habit of running to the front door and fumbling with my keys while keeping one eye out for anything that moved and resembled an instrument.
When I bought four bags of candy on Halloween and no children rang our bell, I blamed the spiders.
“The kids are scared.” I told Ben, who refused to exterminate them with the can of Raid I had purchased for that purpose. He shrugged and said “Spiders need a place to live too … besides they’re good. They eat the other bugs.”
The next day, I saw Rob outside with a broom, knocking the spiders down, pulling at the sticky webs with his fingers. I waved from the window and mouthed the word, “thanks.” But by the next afternoon, to my surprise, most of the spiders, and their webs, had returned.
Wanting to understand more about spiders, about why they lived here, at our house, I did research and jotted some notes in a journal:
Spiders can live anywhere. They are highly adaptable.
A spider’s web is its home … many species of spider rebuild their web, or
home, each day.
An interesting fact: the Native Americans believe that the spider represents
connection between the past and future … A symbol of possibility.
The week we had three fire alarms in a row, the firemen speculated it was because of the spiders.
“Yeah, probably a spider setting off the sensor…” but I suspected it was because they could come up with no other explanation.
I had noticed, when waiting for the truck to arrive three chilly evenings in a row, that Lee never came out of the house.
“Do you think he’s home?” I’d said to Rob on the third night. We could see a light on in his apartment. His beat up blue Ford Escort on the street in front of the house, where it always was.
“I don’t know … but if he is, I don’t know how he could stay holed up in his apartment with the sound of that alarm. I’d have a heart attack.”
“Maybe we should call the landlord,” I suggested to Ben. He agreed.
But neither of us called.
Maybe we each thought the other had done it.
Maybe we both had the same thought: we’re overreacting.
But I can only speak for myself. And even then, I find this question difficult to answer. Why didn’t I call? Just to be sure? Not only was Lee a neighbor, but he was living under the same roof. Did this mean I had an even greater responsibility to make sure he was okay?
Or maybe it’s because at 31, I was selfish. And naïve. Because I didn’t believe yet that the worst could happen, a notion that would change quickly, only a few months later, when my mother would die of ovarian cancer and nothing would ever be the same again. I remember returning home to Congress Street after her funeral and staring into the cupboards while crying, seeking some sort of comfort, or nourishment that could never be fed.
Three days later after the final fire alarm, we awoke to a banging on the front door. It was Lee’s boss.
“Have you seen him?” the man wanted to know. “He hasn’t shown up for work in four days.”
We called our landlord, who came and after glancing curiously at the spiders on the outside of the house, found Lee in his kitchen, dead of a heart attack.
The next morning I saw Rob and Rick talking outside of the house. It was snowing, an unexpected flurry, the first of the season. I dug my hat and boots out of the hall closet to go out and meet them.
Although I didn’t know Lee, I felt bad and wanted to go to his funeral. But for a moment, I couldn’t even remember his name. I quickly ran as many three-letter names through my head as possible: Tom, Tim, Jim, Joe. Then I just said, “Will there be a funeral?”
“Nope, none that I know of,” our landlord said. “We haven’t been able to locate anyone. It seems he had no family … no home, like he didn’t come from anywhere. It’s weird … sad, really.”
“I think Lee was in the witness protection program,” Rob half-joked.
Lee. That was his name. I repeated it in my head several times, hoping to commit it to memory.
I looked up at his dark window for a moment and then over at Lee’s car. It would remain in its spot in front of the house for about another month until one day, like the spiders, like everything, it simply disappeared.
Amy Yelin is an award-winning writer whose articles, essays, and author interviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Globe Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Lesley University, teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston, and is the managing editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.