Marta Balcewicz is the author of the poem “The New Tenant,” which appeared in The Puritan Issue 37.
My family used to own a rental property. It was a bluish-grey bungalow with a shed and a creek cutting across the backyard. A few summers ago, I was asked to go over there and show a new tenant around, hand over the keys, walk around the property, and do all the other things that a landlord does. The tenant was a woman from a remote area in BC and I think her family was on their way over at that moment, driving from the remote area to the suburbs of Toronto.
From what I understood, they had a number of dogs and cats, and some of these animals were fancy and purebred but others had been homeless and were saved from developing nations and had no breeds. This made me like her a lot.
My meeting with the tenant was somewhat like an awkward first date. We strolled through the house and laughed nervously. She was probably seven or eight years older than me. She asked me about the sprinklers and I wasn’t entirely sure how they worked. She asked about a sliding door lock I had trouble twisting shut. And she asked about men who came over to mow lawns in the neighbourhood because she didn’t want to be mowing the lawn herself.
She ended up taking the place, but that was the first and last time I saw her. Our only other communication was through text messages and pertained to the cats’ litter box. Apparently, there are now self-flushing litter boxes on the market. Except the flushing mechanism is connected to the tubes and pipes of a human toilet so in effect, litter is being flushed down human waste pipes. According to our plumber, the litter kept seriously messing with the plumbing system. Each time the toilet overflowed, I related the plumber’s report to the tenant and each time, she would insist this wasn’t so. She believed in the marketing promise of that self-flushing litter box. She kept saying that the litter box just couldn’t be to blame.
In ‘New Tenant’ my tenant remains a woman who is escaping something, a woman obsessed with protection who is trying to create a fort of safety in her new rental home.
Two years after moving in, the tenants gave us notice, only it was this woman’s husband alone that gave notice. He told us his wife had died, a while back, and he and the children and animals would be downsizing to a smaller home. He said it all as if we’d known, as if everyone had known. And, of course, when I went on the Internet after, it was all there for me to know. My tenant had her own website. It detailed her advanced cancer, that she was moving from the remote area in BC to be closer to good hospitals, and her parents, and that she believed she’d ultimately be cured and fine.
I wrote “New Tenant” in a workshop taught by a wonderful teacher, Sandra Alcosser. I forget that my tenant’s text-messages remain on my phone and sometimes, while looking for other conversation threads, I scroll past them and see and remember that she and I—namely, I and a person who is no longer—discussed flushing cat shit not that long ago. But the poem is not about that and it’s not about her, really. Usually, when I write, I largely stay clear of true events and biography. Though I do often take a teeny sampling from truth or biography, and try to push it into something very untrue, preferably odd. I think I’d be bored with my poems otherwise.
In “New Tenant” my tenant remains a woman who is escaping something, a woman obsessed with protection who is trying to create a fort of safety in her new rental home. She doesn’t have a family, I don’t think, though she still has her animals. Beyond that, her story is a mystery. The speaker is only a landlord, after all, and a landlord can only know so much.