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Frontier Landlady

By Jane Parnell

My friend Nancy in Buena Vista is sick and tired of my phone calls of the past nine years, ever since I purchased a home in Fairplay with two spare bedrooms that could be rented out.

“This is my last tenant, so help me God,” I said in this morning’s call.

“You’ve said that before,” her disgust registering through the static on our cell phones. It’s either the wildfire smoke or the number of Americans on their cell phones scheduling another tele-visit with their primary care doc or therapist so they can survive the pandemic and the consequences of the election.

“For the past few years there have been no incidents, Nancy.”

“What about that drunk from Kentucky who kept barfing in his bathroom? Your boyfriend threatened to remove the door to his room after he refused to leave.”

“We only fantasized about it. We got him out peacefully after a two-month occupancy. I didn’t have to seek two protection orders, neither of which could be served.”

“I remember those guys. Or are you referring to that ski instructor who wouldn’t pay the rent?” After nine years of this nonsense, Nancy can’t keep the stories straight either.

The conflicting reasons for the ski instructor’s overdue rent had exceeded my infamous capacity for gullibility. He was on his third trip dealing with yet another family emergency when I realized he hadn’t been traveling anywhere near where his relatives supposedly lived. I shot him an email. Pay the rent or move out. On his return I was in Denver at the bedside of a dying friend. On my return I had to turn the thermostat back down from 80 degrees, remove piles of trash from his room, and the following spring, in preparation for a hiking trip to southern Utah, replace all the gear that had disappeared from the garage.

“Those guys,” on the other hand, had forged their drivers’ licenses and recruited friends to provide references from employers and former landlords, according to our police chief at the time.

At first I attributed my challenges to naiveté. The only criminal I encountered during my 10 years as a landlord in Colorado Springs was the salesman who had fallen behind in his alimony payments. Without notice he and his son vacated that rental property. I was out of town when the deputy served the summons and they moved overnight to Arizona. It cost me a few weeks and a lot of money to clean up the mess, but no lasting damage done.

In the 18 years I rented the upstairs of my home in the university town of Logan, Utah, I came upon only one crime scene after hearing an odd disturbance overhead that sounded like nails clawing the carpet. I went upstairs. An extended family of mice was finishing off the remains of a refrigerator’s worth of spoiled food. In Mormon country, landlord and tenant entrust their verbal agreement to an email exchange. Nevertheless, I always insisted on a mutually signed contract. After Alec came home from campus, we had a chat, and I typed up an addendum with my cleaning charge if he stored so much as a meal’s worth of food upstairs.

As for “those guys,” whose names I forgot within minutes of their sudden departures, I agreed with the police chief. “You need to exercise better judgment.” After reluctantly offering them a temporary place to sleep—“a month max”—I saw the last of them within the first week. I had gotten up late, hungover from one of the worst nightmares of my life. A trail of crushed orange pills led from Guy #1’s bedroom door to the closed door of his shared bathroom. Guy #2’s pickup truck was not in the driveway. Those crashes and shouts in the middle of the night were real.

The bathroom door was unlocked but something heavy prevented me from opening it wide enough to identify more than a bare, gray foot. I was relieved when the EMTs carried him out on a stretcher, and not in a body bag. That night, Guy #2 confessed to being an accessory to the suicide attempt. He had left for work, having told no one about the overdose. After searching Guy #1’s bedroom for evidence neither the police nor I should see—or else—he shoved a plastic bag filled with a sugary substance in the back pocket of his worn jeans and stepped out into the hallway. “Do not say anything to anyone about this,” reinforcing his point with a raised shirt so I could see the entire length of the skinning knife on his belt. I got the message. It really wasn’t necessary to go any further. I didn’t need to hear about the fist fight with the alleged pedophile in the parking lot of the bar three blocks from my house and how the loser had staggered off, never to show his face again, or what was left of it, in Park County.

I studied Guy #2’s Arnold Schwarzenegger physique for what I hoped would be one last time and decided to leave ASAP. Except he was following me down the stairs and I had taken my contacts out.

I caught a whiff of his moonshine-whiskey-tainted breath as I backed into the bolted front door. Stuttering like King George VI before the successful completion of his speech therapy, I promised to keep my mouth shut. I really did get it. He was implicating me in a felony and I didn’t want to share a ride with him to the county jail in the same squad car.

Someday, after a consultation with Legal Aid Society, I may disclose how my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend got him out forever. I now had enough contacts stored in my cell phone to confer with experts who wouldn’t suggest anything that could get me arrested. No guns. No threats of any kind. “Almost legal enough to qualify as legal,” the retired parole officer, a landlord himself, assured me. He couldn’t evict his suicidal tenant for three months despite the holes in the walls, broken furniture, and bullet hole in the shattered bathroom mirror.

“Almost legal? Are you sh-shure?”

“Just keep it quiet.” I’d heard that one before, last night. “We have two law enforcement systems in this town: under the radar and the official one.”

Before Nancy hung up, I reminded her of the Canadian couple, the high school music teacher, and a host of other enjoyable tenants, some of whom I still communicate with today. One of my favorites was Teddy, who had escaped the raging opioid epidemic in his Rust Belt home town to live out his dreams in the Colorado Rockies—powder skiing, mountain biking, and with the right degree and personality to succeed in a ski resort area with an overabundance of qualified applicants. Not long after he moved in, his references and background check having passed the smell test, he said, “I am here to prove to you that it is possible to smoke marijuana without going ballistic.” He had already shown me his medical history and marijuana script after I told him about the massage therapist. The more she smoked, the more paranoid she got. The morning after she tried to kick in my front door, she had to go.

His eyes had widened when I said, “No heroin, or you’re out within 24 hours.”

“Was this recently?” I shook my head to reassure him.

By his second month, I anticipated his appearance on his days off. Which ensemble would he be wearing? The floral silk jacket, maroon felt pants, and red-and-yellow checkered long socks? By the time we parted company, with promises to keep in touch, his thrift store-assembled wardrobe could have launched a career as a costume designer in Hollywood if he ever decided to leave Colorado.

I promised Nancy, no more tenants. But if Teddy texts me, I may change my mind. I hear he’s still around and looking for a house share with his girlfriend. I hope they get married. They make a cute couple.

Jane Parnell is the author of “Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press.