She turned down the radio. It should be coming up on the right. She was starting school in two weeks and still hadn’t gotten around to finding housing. Ever the procrastinator, Hillary Altman spent all morning apartment hunting and there weren’t a lot of options, especially considering her grad student budget. She had a good feeling about this last place.
Hillary stopped along the curb in front of a sign that read Maple Street Boarding House. A crude, hand lettered notice on the window by the front door read, room for rent. She sat back in her car admiring the historic Victorian surrounded by a white picket fence. The leaves on the large maple tree in the front yard were showing signs of the changing season. Charming. That was what this neighborhood was. It was charming. The notice in Hillary’s hand didn’t give many details on the apartment and there were no pictures. But the rent was cheap. She might have enough left over at the end of the week for a cup of coffee now and then. It was walking distance to campus. This just had to be it.
The front porch wrapped around to the side of the house. What a perfect spot to enjoy a warm fall evening as she worked on her creative writing portfolio. She found herself hoping the available apartment wasn’t a depressing room over a garage, in the back. Or worse yet, in a damp basement. A notice on the front door said to inquire at the back door. Hillary’s heart started to sink. She walked around the porch to the back of the house. Hillary knocked at the back door, but no one answered. She hesitated before trying the knob. The hinges groaned as the door opened. The back entry to the house was a dimly lit landing. Hillary’s optimism only continued to fade.
Another crudely hand lettered sign read simply, “landlord downstairs”. Hillary hesitated a moment before opening the worn wooden door. The staircase was steep and old. There was a mustiness in the air. A single bulb burned at the bottom of the stairs, barely illuminating her way. Hillary made her way cautiously down, suddenly remembering every horror movie her ex-boyfriend insisted they watch together. This was how the attractive girl died, wasn’t it? Foolishly taking directions from a crude sign and descending the dimly lit stairwell to the dank basement. She was suddenly certain she’d find some sort of torture chamber at the bottom of the stairs.
Instead, she encountered another sign. This one clearly purchased at an office supply store, judging by the block lettering. Hillary could feel herself start to relax. The lighting was better at the bottom of the stairs than it seemed from above. Or maybe her eyes just adjusted. She knocked below the sign that read, rental office. There was a clattering beyond the door. Someone cursed.
“I’m coming,” rasped a male voice, followed by the sounds of a smoker’s cough, thick and heavy with phlegm.
Hillary recoiled. She considered dashing back up the stairs. Maybe one of the other places she’d seen this morning would work out after all. Hillary could feel her weight starting to shift in retreat as the door in front of her opened.
“Yeah,” he said, leaning heavily on the frame. The stench of stale alcohol radiating off this unkempt figure was so strong Hillary nearly wretched. Grease stains colored the stretched out undershirt he wore. “Well, what do you want,” he barked.
“Umm,” Hillary stammered. “You have a room for let,” she managed, holding out the page in her hand.
“Yeah,” he responded gruffly. Hillary hesitated. “You want to see it?” he finally asked.
“Yes, please,” she squeaked out.
“Hang on,” said the overweight man. He left the door ajar as he turned back into the room beyond. Hillary stood uncertainly. She heard grumbling and more cursing. Something rattled followed by a crash and another curse. Then the shuffling steps coming back to the door. “Come on,” he muttered, stumbling slightly as he moved past her to the stairs.
Hillary turned and followed him at a safe distance, holding her breath. They proceeded back to the landing, through another door that led to a kitchen. The man didn’t speak as he moved toward the front of the house, to a center staircase. Hillary refrained from glancing right or left. They continued up to the second floor of the house. She could hear the man’s breathing, heavy with the exertion. At the top of the stairs, they stopped. The man reached into the pocket of his ill-fitting, ripped jeans, producing a set of keys. He shuffled through them before placing one in the lock. Hillary allowed herself a nervous look around.
“This is it,” the man finally said, pushing open the door for her.
Hillary cautiously stepped inside. She was greeted by the warm afternoon light, shining in through the windows of the second-floor turret, warming the hardwood floors. She felt herself finally relax as she took in the view of the quaint street below from the windows. It was perfect.
“Rent’s due first of the month. There’s parking in the back. If you want meals, it’s an extra hundred a month. No pets allowed.” His tone was well rehearsed.
Hillary didn’t turn around when she said, “I’ll take it”.
The landlord’s name, according to the lease agreement, was Keith. She couldn’t read the last name and Hillary wasn’t about to ask. She took the keys and handed over the deposit. The Maple Street Boarding House had five bedrooms for rent. The main floor rooms were for common use of the tenants. The extra rent covered breakfast and evening meals prepared by a housekeeper, the landlord referred to as Beatrice. Beatrice also handled the cleaning. Having never been very skilled at cooking, Hillary decided the convenience was worth the extra expense. There was a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. Hillary was instructed to work out the schedule of its use with the other tenants. She was relieved to hear there were other tenants and she wouldn’t be occupying this house alone with her landlord.
Back downstairs, Keith showed her around the common rooms. The dining room was occupied by a large, antique table that reminded Hillary of an English country estate house. A small front room had a television and a shabby looking sofa. She marveled at the living room. It was in the first-floor turret room, below her own. Built-in bookshelves lined the walls around a fireplace and a piano sat near a conversational seating area.
“You like books?” Keith asked as she skimmed the bindings.
“Yes,” she’d answered, “I’m getting my MA in fine arts at JC. I’m planning to become an author.”
“Huh,” Keith grunted. “One of those brainy chicks then.” With this, he’d winked at her. Hillary wondered if any of the other tenants were home this time of day. “Bet you write them steamy romance books with the muscled-up men and chicks with the ripped tops on the cover.” Hillary’s skin crawled.
“No,” she replied flatly. “I work in historical fiction.” Keith didn’t respond; probably not his genre.
She relaxed as she got back into her car, relieved to be away from him. It was the cheapest housing option available near campus. She didn’t expect she’d be spending much time there. It was just a place to sleep. And how often does a tenant even see their landlord anyway? Even in a boarding house, she didn’t expect she’d see him much.
Hillary couldn’t wait to talk to her best friend, Rachel, later. To tell her about the amazing view from her windows. And she had a lot of packing to do.