Recently Rural: A Memoir
by Eugene Havens

Why was the town being overrun?

So obvious and depressing, the answer catapulted me into the twenty-first century. No town was unknown anymore. The country had pushed to the borders, infiltrated the known and unknown, large and small. Popularity was a spectrum of less-heard-of towns and everyone’s-heard-of cities. All locations were findable on a map on a phone in your pocket. The town we chose was nevertheless popular with a segment of the population: retirees, students, teachers, air-base workers, doctors, nurses, and bargain hunters. It was enough of an influx to be an invasion. Contractors hadn’t built any new subdivisions lately.

The advice to rent before arriving was a dismal reality. You couldn’t waltz in with cash and take whatever you wanted. Living within the town’s boundary limits was a benefit. Consider yourself lucky. In my New York days, you were of the privileged class if you found an apartment in Manhattan. It was an in-or-out mentality that came with scarcity. Now, every town had it.

If a small town couldn’t make you feel better about going there, was it much of an improvement? I saw the exchange as trading relevance for coziness and ambition for creature comforts. If we had brought city equity, I would have noticed. We had been too busy chasing the urban ideal to settle down and buy property. It was the plan for the next job, the next city.

We would land in town as renters. If we lasted long enough, we’d buy a house later. Houses were affordable. Were they still affordable? The pay in rural America was lower, but the college educated class made a good wage, its people working for themselves. They were ahead of the game. The entrepreneurial person gravitated to smaller places with less legislation and less traffic, a town with an off-the-map mentality even if nosy maps betrayed its location. My significant other had come from such a place. It was normal to her. Other types of people who accepted small-town lives were professionals like doctors and college professors. They weren’t bought into the small-town way but pretended to be, coming for a season and leaving. I hadn’t known anyone who left the city for an authentic small town. Mostly, they moved to bedroom communities near a major city. The town we were moving to was hundreds of miles away from a city. There was no air service.

It was one of the last small towns on the map. Trucks cut over from the interstate, making a special stop to stock the stores. The UPS driver was a lifeline for anything beyond bread. If you wanted special nail polish to keep your kid from sucking his thumb, the town didn’t have any. You ordered, praised Jeff Bezos, and waited. If you drove to another town, it was a three-hour round trip. If you had to travel for a doctor’s appointment in winter, you strapped on snow tires and prayed your way over a pass. You drove hours for a Costco run. Your town couldn’t attract these services. It was a life of throwback inconvenience. Who knew? Maybe it was good for the soul.

My soul had been conditioned by the city. It categorized things. It sussed out the unknown. My soul told me to avoid the rural world. It was an old soul, too old to change its ways. Rural life would be an affront to hard-won sensibilities. Rural life would ignore the culture I grew up in. It would challenge an outlook I preferred. Rural life would cast me as an outsider in a place full of outsiders. I had accepted being an outsider in the city where the possibility of gaining admittance existed. What was the purpose of breaking into the inside of outsiders? What was to be found there, especially for a writer wanting to be published? My significant other said it would all be OK.

What my soul was telling me: the rental manager was too nice. I couldn’t shake it. Where was my appreciation? He was holding a house for us. He was the first person I met in the town. He held our country lives in his hands. I felt it was the point of his generosity. I had little to go on other than decades of renting. If you could nail down details, it would benefit both parties. There was no reason to be nice, to be the hero for a tenant.

Did I want to be right? It would be the first of many times my city experience saw through rural subterfuge. The rental manager wasn’t just being nice. I would learn the hard way. He was a mild-mannered psychopath who treated renters like prisoners in his ant farm. At least he came recommended.

The city taught you a lesson that no one could handle too much power. The rural rental manager, sitting on fifty rental properties in a town clamoring for places to live, would necessarily have to be shifty and malicious. No one locally saw this stuff. They had Americana virtues. Even though the Good Book warned them that everyone was compromised by nefarious self-interest, they couldn’t resist a warm smile. Rural people believed in the goodness of their friends and neighbors. City people had it easier. They didn’t know their neighbors, and friends came and went with their jobs.

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