“Tennessee Williams lived in this house,” the landlord said. She was a quiet woman in her 60s who had tried to shut the door on me, having explained that she wasn’t showing the room today. I handed her the check and said I was desperate and would take it sight-unseen.
It was an old boarding-style house with three floors of rooms, owned by her mother, the 98-year-old Grace Kelly. “It’s a good place for a writer,” she said, folding over the slip and tucking it in her pocket. “Maybe Tennessee’s ghost is still around.”
It would turn out that a playwright’s spirit would have been the least strange thing to find in 126 North Clinton.
Jack (the basement)
I’m not sure if I was invited down or wandered down the stairs by mistake, but on one of my first nights in the house, I became acquainted with Jack. Jack was 60, big-bellied, had a white beard and purple beret. His mattress was propped up by Ten High whiskey bottles.
Soon after introducing myself, I was duct-taped to the chair. Jack stuck a banana in my mouth and cut up my shirt with an Army-issue knife. Then he put a pistol to my head.
It was my first time away from home. I remember thinking that this must be what city people do for fun. Jack would become my best friend in Iowa City. He was a social genius who could make his shorts fall down without moving a muscle and owned every room he walked into with his quick wit.
We often sat on a bench in the pedestrian area of the town, watching those who walked the street. “What do you think of dairy farmers from New York?” he would shout at people who passed by. I called him “The Old Drunk Guy” – affectionately.
He gave me meatloaf and whiskey, introduced me to writers and artists, and often had me hold open the doors of bars so he could ride his bicycle through them, waving. In fact, most nights would end with us on bicycles, chased by the police.
Bill (Room 1)
I was the only one in the house whom Bill would talk to, which probably meant I exuded naïve innocence. Bill was in medical school, drank protein shakes regularly and cut his hair every 13 days. If he was in the kitchen when you entered it, he would probably leave, which suggested that he did not like people or know how to talk to them.
He once pointed to a coat lying in the corner of his room and said that it had been there for more than a year because he saw a man touch it and he thought the man looked sick. I did not hear if Bill made it through med school.
Bill and The Old Drunk Guy were arch-enemies, having by chance lived in the same house before, where they did not get along. One night they threw fried chicken at each other.
Chubby (Room 3)
They called him Chubby although he wasn’t particularly overweight. He had a raspy voice and prematurely graying hair. He was most famous for his tendency to sit on the second-floor stairs naked and engage in lewd acts.
One eventually became immune to the shock and gave a simple greeting as they passed. It was also known that he liked to urinate in a cup and throw it out the window – even though his room was next to the bathroom.
When a construction worker was accidently victimized by Chubby’s habit, the landlord posted a sign in the house explaining that urine was a biological hazard.
That is not to say that Chubby was a bad person. I later learned he saved a friend of mine from falling off a balcony. Chubby eventually went to Hollywood to become an actor – but died of a heroin overdose.
Scott (Room 4)
Scott was also an actor and went to star in the low-budget film Sex Pot, a story of a teenager in search of those two very things.
Larson (Room 5)
Everyone knew when Larson was going out on the town because the smell of cologne spread across the house. He was 35, had a shaved head and was vexed by a deep love for Asian women. He often had a steady flow of dubious characters in and out of his room. I thought he was selling drugs, but I was wrong.
He was the head of a textbook-stealing scheme in which someone would pilfer a book from a student and someone else would sell it back to the bookstore. He was caught when an individual with Down’s Syndrome tried to return a calculus book.
Amit (Room 7)
Amit was a largely built Bengali from the suburbs of Chicago. I once pretended I wanted to fight him, as a joke. He mistook my intentions and seemed afraid of me since. I told him that I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
He went to the landlord and said he didn’t want to live with a serial killer. I later heard he had a pair of Samurai swords hanging on his wall, although I had never seen them.
Earl (Room 10)
Earl’s long curly hair was graying, but he had the enthusiasm and gentle nature of a much younger person. He was affable, helpful – and did not go from A to B to C but went to J by way of W and would end up anywhere in between.
He knew of a bank that was throwing away broken computers, so he went to the dump site, noticed one was still under warranty and had it fixed for free. He let Amit and me go into his room to play Battlefield on it, even when he was sleeping.
I once gave Earl venison but he handed it back, explaining that someone once had told him deer were angels – and he couldn’t eat an angel. Another time he told the story of having drank some outdated ChaiNog, which is apparently chai-flavored eggnog.
Afterward, he awoke in the evening, was confused whether he was alive or dead and spent the rest of the night wandering the town, trying to figure it out.
He took me to my first Cubs game. One night when I wasn’t there, Amit got drunk and chased Earl with the Samurai swords. Earl had to jump out of the window to escape.
Living in 126 North Clinton was a strange time in my life – and I’m sure I, too, was just as strange to match. Grace Kelly eventually died at the age of almost 100. Her daughter sold the house to a company called Prestige Properties – which went back on their promise to allow us to stay and attempted to evict us as soon as the papers were signed.
We sought legal action and were able to remain the rest of the year, but they took our deposits in retaliation.
As I get older, one of the fears I have for the world is that society is becoming too mainlined, and bizarre pockets of humanity such as the Kelly House are becoming rarer. I never did find out if Tennessee Williams’ ghost was still in the house, but if he was, he would have been given plenty of writing material. PD
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.