By Margaret McNellis
In the fall of 2017, after only a few weeks of commuting between southern Connecticut and southern New Hampshire, my search for an apartment had transitioned from picky to desperate, and so, out of options, I expanded my search radius to include apartment listings within one hour of campus.
It was advertised—in that disquieting vortex of yard sales, property listings, catfishing, and employment scams, i.e., Craigslist—as a one-room rental in a house of “artists.”
I ignored my better instincts and emailed the landlady.
She couldn’t meet with me right away, she wrote back, because she was traveling for a modeling job. I’m not sure what kind of “modeling” she was into, but alongside her Craigslist ad was a photo of her. In it she looked thin, but not skinny, had a hooked nose with deep-set eyes and blonde hair that fell all the way down to her calves. That hair creeped me out a little—but not enough to keep me from viewing a place that was only $500 a month, utilities included.
We made an appointment for me to drive out and see the place later that week.
“The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. “
My last class ended early in the afternoon, but by the time I made it through the mountain pass, still looking for the address, the sun had already begun to set. Autumn leaves, awash in plumes of orange, red, and gold, swayed vividly in the day’s dying light. After a series of wrong turns and one boulder-sized roadblock that forced me to backtrack a number of times, my heckles were raised; it was like Google Maps itself was plotting against me, aiming to keep me from my destination. So, I bargained with myself that if night fell before I found the address, I would turn around and drive home.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived. And there she stood before her house in the pale evening light, her waterfall of hair blowing loose and hanging down around her ankles. Next to her stood a man holding two open beer cans for some reason. He wore an old denim shirt streaked and stained with so much paint I wondered if any had actually made it onto the canvas, while his hair, thinning and gray, flapped about in the wind like bat wings. At least the ad had been right about the view; it was astonishing.
The painter handed us his warm beers, mumbled something about smoking a cigarette, and moseyed back behind the house.
My potential landlady welcomed me and talked about the place while with one hand she swept her hair up into a bun larger than her head. The house itself looked like two buildings joined together at the hip: one half covered in wood siding like an old cabin; the other half, more like the concrete barracks from a war movie.
She took the can from me and opened a creaky screen door, bade me inside, and against my better judgment, I followed her. My first impressions: dark, with an overwhelming smell of cat urine, and why for the love of all that’s holy were there mattresses propped against the foyer wall? Stained mattresses.
I now believe this was when I should have run.
“We just let the cats go wherever they want, so watch your step,” said the woman who I had come to think of as Cousin Itt.
She showed me the kitchen—where a pot of beans, blistered and crusted both inside and out, sat on a long-suffering, multi-stained stove—and offered me a drink. The woman appeared friendly enough, but I was convinced if I consumed anything, I’d never leave, like a trespasser in Hades.
“Uh, no thank you,” I said. She caught me trying to cover my nose and I pretended to stifle a yawn.
She showed me the basement level where her lodgers—all single men in their fifties—resided: the artists, the cultists, the double-fisted beer drinkers and shared-spoon-black-bean eaters. The room for rent turned out to be a dark, concrete box with no windows. I believe it was formerly used for interrogations.
“You’d share the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said, pointing. There was another empty room, she told me, which was also available, though slightly more per month. I could have if I wanted. Its previous occupant had to leave “unexpectedly.”
Next on the tour was the indoor pool. Fancy, right? Except it had no water, just an empty cement pit with a diving board and a mound of cat feces resting at the bottom.
The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. I remembered a Law & Order episode where a victim was buried under a parking garage, in concrete. I imagined this indoor pit would serve such a purpose.
The tour not yet over, she led me to her bedroom where her husband lounged bare-legged on the bed with their pair of Sphinx cats prowling about. His hair was short and dyed a severe black with what I guessed was a home kit or one of those aerosol spray-on cans. His laptop was propped up on his stomach. He didn’t speak.
She bent over and scooped up one of the cats and nuzzled it. “I expect my roommates to oil my cats for me when I’m away on photoshoots.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “You’ve got to keep your cats oiled.” I was planning my escape, if needed. First, I’d bum-rush Cousin Itt—I thought I could take her—then beat it downstairs before Dye Job could even get his computer off his belly.
“They have a gown and tux,” she said, “for their wedding.”
“Who does?” I asked.
I blinked. “Right, well, I should get going,” I said in my don’t-mind-me voice. “People are expecting me.” I slowly began backing out of the room. “I told them I was coming out here and that it’s a bit of a drive, but they’re definitely expecting me.” No one in the state of New Hampshire knew I was out here. If I went missing, no one would know for at least a few days.
Thankfully, she didn’t kill me. Her cats didn’t bite me, and I never had to oil them, or share a pot of black bean surprise. But I’ve thought of that property as the Murder House ever since I toured it—the murder house with its stained mattresses and breathtaking vistas—and decided to stop my apartment hunt and just cope with the commute.
Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.