The up side to attending university in your home town is that you can live with your parents. The down side to attending university in your home town is that you can live with your parents. So there I was, 5 years of university under my belt, 23 years old and well past ready to flex my wings. But, since the first full-time teaching job I landed was in a town some distance from home, my house-hunting efforts were not quite what I anticipated. The fact was, there weren’t a lot of options in the town I was headed to, and so I felt grateful when, at the eleventh hour, I finally secured a room.
Yeah, it was a room. In a house belonging to a guy in his 60s I’ll call Mr. Martin. The deal was that he had two bedrooms to rent out, and would accept a female tenant if, for the sake of propriety, there were TWO female tenants. So I found myself at the end of August moving in to Mr. Martin’s house along with another new teacher I’ll call Sarah.
Mr. Martin was experienced at the landlord business. He owned a never-disclosed number of what might politely be described as “inexpensive” rental properties in the city, about a 90 minute drive away. OK he was essentially a slum landlord. Every few days he would drive to the city to check on his properties– one of which, we came to understand, housed his alcoholic wife. While in town he would do some shopping — which always included stocking up on all the newly released Harlequin Romance novels. When he wasn’t in the city, his time was spent sitting at the kitchen table reading the Harlequin Romance novels. In a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, this habit of his meant that there were very few occasions when Sarah and I could have a phone conversation with our respective boyfriends without Mr. Martin as a witness. That was just a little creepy.
According to our rental agreement, Sarah and I were responsible for feeding ourselves. The two of us quickly worked out an arrangement of shared shopping and cooking duties, and even more quickly realized that it was a boon not to have our diet dependent on Mr. Martin. He had developed an oddly pragmatic approach to achieving a balanced diet. Over the course of a week he managed to hit all the food groups, but he only ever cooked and ate one item at a time. One day his supper would consist of a giant can of stewed tomatoes. The next day he would steam and eat an entire cauliflower. Another day it would be a dinner-plate sized steak. Yet another day it would be an entire pot of boiled potatoes.
But the best part was the house itself.
Seen from the street, it was an ordinary looking bungalow. The living room was immaculate. Unnaturally immaculate. Plastic-on-the-lampshades immaculate. It was understood that the living room was out of bounds to Sarah and I, but so far as I could tell Mr. Martin never entered it either. It was as though it was being kept as a sort of shrine to some long-abandoned dream of household perfection.
The two bedrooms that had been fitted out for us tenants had each been freshly painted and furnished with new beds and used but well-kept desks and dressers. The kitchen, thankfully, was clean and Spartan. But the rest of the house looked considerably more… lived in.
Mr. Martin slept, apparently, on about a ten-inch strip along one edge of a double bed that was otherwise piled high with stacks of clothing. With all the clothes piled there, there would be no way of changing the sheets. The bed had a book-case style head board that held dozens of jars and cans of screws, nails and other assorted bits of hardware, many of which were tipped over and threatening to drop their contents on the pillows. The floor of the room was hidden beneath a layer of paper that had to be 18 inches deep in places– several years accumulation of flyers and ad-mail that he apparently waded through nightly on his way to whatever portion of his bed he could still access. To be honest, I suspected that he never did go to bed, but rather just sat in the kitchen reading those Harlequin Romances.
There was a fourth small bedroom, in which were stored… Harlequin Romances, of course. Several tall bookcases were stuffed to capacity with hundreds of slim volumes. Out of curiosity I picked one at random and tried reading it. I got to about page 52 before I got bored and gave up.
The shower was in the basement. In order to get to the shower, it was necessary to pick one’s way carefully along a set of narrow stairs which were lined down one side with all the jars and rusty cans of hardware that didn’t fit on Mr. Martin’s bed frame. These jars and rusty cans provided a splendid habitat for dust bunnies, which swirled around my ankles on my trek both to and from the shower, to the extent that I often wondered whether there was much point to showering at all. Every inch of the basement that wasn’t the shower room was piled to the ceiling with items that Mr. Martin had “collected” because they might be useful in one of his multitude of rental properties: lamps, couches, plumbing fixtures, appliances, you name it, it was there.
And if it wasn’t there, it was in the back yard. There he had amassed a further collection of appliances, tables, lawnmowers, garden tools, and a few mystery items that were rusted past the point of identification.
I couldn’t make this stuff up.
For all his eccentricities, there was a tragic side to Mr. Martin. He had had a son who had graduated at the top of his class at the local high school, and been killed in a highway accident on graduation night. I often wondered what relationship there was between that horrible loss and Mr. Martin’s peculiarities. When I look back now, with kids of my own around the age his son was at the time of his untimely death, it is a lot easier to see Mr. Martin in a sympathetic light. If I lost one of my children, I can scarcely imagine to what extent I would fall apart — would need to escape into a world of fantasy stories– would struggle to find a balance between obsessive-compulsive discipline in some areas of my life and just plain giving up in others.
Sarah and I lived there for two months. By the first of November we managed to rent a tiny house that belonged to one of my colleagues, and we moved on, leaving Mr. Martin to his romance novels and monotone dinners. I’ve often wondered what became of him.
It was years before my mother admitted to me that, on the day she and my dad had helped me move my things into Mr. Martin’s house, she cried all the way back to the city.
I understand that now too.