I sign the lease on a house of cards.

By Eugene Havens

Gil and Keith stared at me while I put together what a bad idea this all was. The rental house I was signing for had possibly psychotic owners. They had hired a sketchy property manager. His smile didn’t put me at ease. It pushed Gil’s round face wider like a bad tell in a poker game of someone who held great cards.

Book excerpt

This post is from an upcoming memoir now available for preorder.

My internal alarm bells had been tuned by a decade of renting in New York where landlords were ruthless, and rentals were limited. There, I had said no to bad apartment deals and found something else. This was a small town. I was told there were no options. Outside was the biting cold of a high-desert winter. If I didn’t sign, Iris, Julian and I would be sleeping in Iris’s parent’s guest room like a family whose house had burned down. There would be questions about why I didn’t sign on that cute rental. This was a bad idea, now I saw it. I was about to give in and sign anyway when I noticed the lease’s duration. It was made out for six months! We had just moved eight hundred miles in an 18-foot U-Haul truck. This lease put us on the clock to move again.

The property manager sat far enough behind his desk that his gut didn’t touch. I had leaned down over the lease on his desk because Gil had pitched the whole exercise as a formality. I stood up. “Had we talked about a year?”

Gil kept his insistent smile and, saying nothing, left me to explain. “We have a house full of stuff.” I shrugged. “You know, we’d like not to have to move again.”

“This is to give you flexibility,” Gil assured me. “You can stay as long as you like.”

I glanced down at him. “We’d really rather it said a year.”

“You might want to buy a house by then.” He appeared to congratulate us in advance. “This lease term is standard. Nothing to worry about.”

People in small towns surely had heard of famous last words. He went ahead and said it. Everything about this deal was hidden in plain sight. In thirty years of renting, had I ever seen a six-month lease like the apartment beside a freeway? Did a landlord want to repeat this process every six months? Maybe Ron and Liz did, the owners who chewed out Gil at 10:30 at night. I asked Gil if the rent would go up when the lease expired. Gil said no.

I hoped he would see the light over this small request, but he didn’t reach forward to grab a pen and change the end date.

So honey, how did the lease signing go? Iris was scheduled to take her financial exams in a few weeks. Having to re-rent the truck and move out of the house would be a little disruptive.

I picked up the pen. “Thanks for answering my questions.” I signed.

Gil consoled the guy who had thrown down his cards. “Let us know how the house is working for you. If something’s off, we’ll fix it. We haven’t fully vetted the place. You’re our first renters.”


As I drove Keith back to the house to get his car, my head was spinning. Rural: 1. Eugene: 0. I had traded the city with its impersonal efficiency for small-town politics where they looked you in the eye and smiled. Gil had to know it wasn’t necessary for him to use passive-aggressive tactics when there was a high demand for housing. There was no reason to play games with people’s lives unless you were bored. In shading Ron and Liz was Gil also describing himself?

Behind the wheel of my VW, I tried to navigate back to the rental without getting lost. “That was a little strange,” I heard myself say. It prompted a reply from Iris’s father, but about something from yesterday. “I brought some felt pads for your furniture,” Keith said. For the feet, I remembered, to prevent floor scratches.

The office visit seemed routine to Keith. You met enough dark hearts in the city, maybe you thought you saw them everywhere.

The town’s streets looked generic. Admittedly, I wasn’t in the mood to ask Keith for directions which he would have kindly given. Keith had been unusually quiet in Gil’s office. For all I knew, he was listening to the radio through his high-tech hearing aids that connected to his iPhone. I wouldn’t have blamed him. Talking with Gil took ten minutes of my life that I wanted back.

“Thanks,” I said to Keith about the annoying detail of the furniture pads.

“Glad to.”

Thanks was proving to be the thing to say in a small town. You didn’t need to be original. Thanks would get you out of anything.

“Do I turn here?” I asked, finally.

“No. Up there.”

“Thanks.”


I unlocked the house with my new key. For the next six months, until May, it was ours. Yesterday, the house was filled with people. Now I noticed a note on the living room wall. It was handwritten and placed at eye level for easy viewing. I heard Keith remark over my shoulder. “They’re warning you these house walls are made of lathe plaster. You can’t nail anything to them, or the plaster will crack like an eggshell.” Keith explained the fragile nature of plaster versus sheet rock. The house’s vintage aspect was part of its charm, he said.

Thanking Keith for the information, I went to use the bathroom. There was a sign in there. The bathtub was special. It needed to be cleaned with a particular polish. The owners had left a starter bottle. Before I used the toilet, I looked high and low for a note. Fortunately, it appeared to be a normal one.

Iris, Julian, and Keith were in the kitchen having lunch. “How did it go?” Iris asked warmly. She phrased questions in this open-ended way, grandly, like you heard characters do in old movies. She wasn’t expecting a problem. It prodded me to answer honestly, but Iris had enough to think about studying for exams.

“It went great. Here’s your key.” I gave Iris the second key and Keith the spare because we would probably lose it otherwise.

Iris held up her key. They weren’t real tears but nearly. “We’re officially in.” It reminded me all over again. For Iris, this move was a long time in coming. We had escaped the city in her view. Iris wouldn’t use those exact words. She didn’t dislike the city but saw it as a long formative experience. Now she was able to live her real life in a rural house with family close by.

Regardless of how much I disagreed with her view of the country, I knew it was just as valid as my city-centric one. I was floored that a difference of this magnitude could lay dormant for so long in marriage. I had been a city person for many years before Iris and I met. It seemed logical that by marrying me, Iris accepted the city life and we proceeded to live together for fourteen years.

Now, Iris holding up her key in celebration was a cue for me to join her moment. I slid into the kitchen booth next to Iris and gave her a side hug. “We did it,” she said joyfully.

“We did,” I agreed.

An eat-in kitchen was another feature of the house, a nook with a brown Formica top and cherry wood wainscoting. The diner booth was large enough that we could all sit together. In daylight, the small farmhouse was teeming with craftsman touches everywhere like the painted white molding around all the doorways and windows. On the second day of being here, I could see this house had been restored to show off the owners’ good taste, an homage to the rural house, a sort of museum they would charge tenants to live in. As a renter, I preferred an average house, not a ticket of entry. The refrigerator came on, its compressor grinding as loudly in the daytime as it had last night.

“We should probably head to the store,” I said, thinking of the refrigerator sitting empty aside from Deb’s dinner leftovers.

“Ooh, great idea,” Iris said. “I have a few things to do on the computer. Would you mind taking Julian?”

I hoisted Julian out of his high chair. “Come on, son.”

We made a detour into his room where I changed his diaper. Iris had something to do on her computer. It meant she was going to begin studying for her exams. She had wanted to take a job with strenuous entrance exams and, after that, commission sales. I had asked, “Are you sure?” a number of times. Iris’s brain liked to puzzle, she said. Finance was like that.

Iris had come to rural America to change careers. I had agreed to come to continue my writing career. For most writers, it was an exercise in beginning one’s career over and over, year after year, until a career actually existed. It was difficult to verify whether the writing was any good. Until a stranger (a publisher) told you it was, usually, it wasn’t. We kept trying. It had been Iris’s idea that I continue watching Julian as I had in California, on the side while I worked on my writing. Many writers had held odd jobs, I reasoned. Faulkner worked in a post office. Hemingway drove an ambulance during the war. Me? I was a housekeeper and nanny. Taking Julian to the market would be my first housekeeping chore.

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