Recently Rural: A Memoir
by Eugene Havens

On a leash

I thought too little about the places I rented. I was irresponsible. I didn’t ponder the state of mind of the owners. It didn’t occur to me to appreciate the glow of the flooring. If a place looked clean and had good light, I rented it. Gil, the property manager in this rural town, believed it was necessary for a tenant to know the backstory, even questionable details. Now I knew but wondered if I was better off for the knowledge.

The house was on the nicer side. It was a small, farmhouse-style with narrow doors, an eat-in kitchen, and a single bathroom. There was a plethora of windows, each one a pair. Gil said the house had been owned by a farmer who sold the surrounding lands many years ago. I wasn’t sure if Gil’s lore was accurate. The neighborhood had dozens of homes. And yet, this house had a couple of uncommon features for the West Coast, including a full basement and an enclosed front porch. It may have been an original, authentic farmhouse. Either way, the owners’ renovations were noticeable. When I bothered to look down, the hardwood floors were shiny. The walls were painted a pleasant wheat color with the moulding off-white. In the kitchen was a stainless stove and oven unit. It was a model you walked by in a home improvement store and never fully recognized because it looked expensive. 

We were paying not very much to live in a quaint rural farmhouse. We weren’t outlaying much in hard currency, at least. In patience, inconvenience, and even frustration? We could be paying a bit more.

The weirdness began with notes we discovered around the house. The owners had strategically placed little reminders on how they wanted us to live there, as you’d find in an uptight Airbnb.

There was a note taped to a living room wall. “Do not use nails to hang pictures. Lathe plaster.”

Iris found a note in the oven. It told us that harsh, plebeian cleaners were prohibited for this oven. As if we intended to clean it, I joked to Iris. Of course, I went on, she would clean it. (Another joke.)

“Good thing I found the note before I preheated the oven,” Iris said.

My first trip into the bathroom came with another discovery. The bathtub was a special kind, the note said. It required a special cleaner. A sample bottle had been provided. The stuff was slick and could cause a shower fatality if applied properly.

I didn’t know how much to relay to Iris about Gil’s strange ways or how it could impact our living arrangement. She had a lot on her mind, needing to study for a securities exam. It would determine whether she could start the job we moved here for. “The lease was for six months,” I said, finally. I couldn’t help myself. Six months was a duration I had never encountered before. I was sure Gil and I had agreed to a standard-year lease when we spoke on the phone. He smiled but wouldn’t change it before I signed.

“But we can stay as long as we want,” I added. When Gil told me, it sounded more ominous than accommodating.

Iris didn’t pick up on the truncated lease terms. The paper note she found in the oven was enough. The place was a bit high maintenance. Unlike an Airbnb, we weren’t checking out after a weekend.

“It’s a nice house,” Iris said, pleased to be here and not in the condo we vacated down south. The house was indeed more rustic but more spacious, and it was where Iris was convinced life was better, as if on a life raft instead of floating around on a donut-shaped preserver. I tried to ignore a detail the owners had missed in their renovation. The windows were original. Original windows didn’t have the utility of an original fireplace, quite the opposite, actually. Old windows were drafty. Cold air seeped through the seams. I went to the lengths of installing plastic sheeting over the windows in my New York City apartments to keep valuable heat inside. I had done this for two windows. This house had at least a dozen.

Couldn’t we request the owners sell the stove and install double-pane windows? This house was like a car with a several-thousand-dollar stereo system and bald tires. I thought I saw what had happened. Windows looked like windows. They didn’t have the curb appeal of the floors or stove. The owners’ good taste was hidden when spending on functional things.

It was a rental. I was letting Gil’s backstory get under my skin, possibly like he wanted. I couldn’t help but notice, as renters in a small town, we had regressed to an earlier era. We had landed in an old feudal system where the landowners were few and the populace felt stuck and lorded over. 

A few days later, we would encounter feeling this in person. There were people in our backyard in the cold, overcast afternoon. They were bundled in heavy coats like his and hers snowmen. I drew closer to the window. The pair were entering and exiting a freestanding workshop behind the house we rented. A chain fence separated the two buildings. The couple wasn’t in our yard, it turned out. They were five feet over the fence. It was a big difference, legally. In terms of proximity, it wasn’t much of one.

An SUV was parked behind our property. The lot next door served as an access road. This couple must have owned the unoccupied land behind these two plots stretching all the way to the next side street.

Their dogs were sniffing around in the dirt as if looking for evidence of where the bodies were buried.

“Looks like we have company,” I said to Iris. The couple stayed an hour, walking around in the cold. I saw a cheap barbecue left over from summer. A few days after this, they were back. Their dogs ran around the lot.

I had never met one owner in all my renting years. Iris and I went outside to say hello.

The woman was in her sixties. She didn’t seem to mind the near-freezing temperature. She said she and her husband lived three miles away. Their house had a small yard, and so they liked to come over here to do projects, to putter. Her husband was doing that very thing while we spoke.

They kept this part of the land for themselves, she said when I inquired. It let them keep an eye on the house, she said.

As if it were my cue, I told her about us. Iris was a financial advisor. I was a writer.

“Yes, we know. We know about you,” she said.