The most neglected town I wish I never visited
Exploring, in truth + fiction, all the ways in which I scare myself in small town Ontario
A few months ago I impulsively booked myself into a single room of a spacious, shared house located in a small town off Lake Ontario in hopes of writing a book for a few days. The listing touted the room rental as the ideal place for writers and the comments were positive. But the town was so small, the bus didn’t stop there and the train only operated for work-week commuters. As a car-less urbanite living downtown Toronto, I leaned on my brand new father-in-law for my first ask after marriage: a ride from his home to my AirBnb.
I was thrilled to get out of the city, and this time guilt-free — leaving my partner and our cats was easy. My attachment to our safe, little apartment let me go, and I looked forward to wistfully holing up in a beautiful room of a quiet, old house to write the stories in my head without the distraction of love, cats or laundry.
It was pouring rain when my father-in-law arrived at the train station to pick me up in his dusty blue van; the downpour wretchedly worse on the highway at higher speeds. But things were going well — I didn’t grip the door handle like I usually would in weather. I was feeling proud. I wondered if a part of me had unwound a little; a weight lifted in anticipation of the work I was about to do.
“This is the town that everyone would avoid because of something I can’t remember,” my father-in-law told me as we pulled off the highway. “You just didn’t come here. I can’t remember why.”
Wonderful, I thought genuinely. Fodder for the horror story I wasn’t currently writing. I hadn’t read anything about the place because I didn’t plan on leaving the house. But part of me began to wonder if I had prepared enough to be here. Could I even drink the water?
When we arrived, the clouds offered a short reprieve so we could see the houses dotting the rundown road stretching south from the highway. Admittedly, my shoulders fell in a little.
On the main street, the architecture reminded me of rural Massachusetts in a drought. It was true, I was reaching. The difference was this place looked abandoned and surly as opposed to just feeling big and old. Winter had not been kind: see-through deciduous trees stood spindly and spooky, dead grass crunched underfoot, houses were closed or boarded up, businesses were out of business, and the buds of Spring had not even considered an appearance. Did anyone even live here?
When pulled off the main road to pass a massive estate, we clocked a red brick house at the top of the hill that had “1816” carved into stone above the front archway. “That’s where I’m staying,” I joked, forcing a chuckle in attempt to lighten my own mood.
“What?” my father-in-law said.
“Oh, nothing,” I smiled feebly and wondered if his hearing aids were working.
We arrived at a yellow house much smaller in comparison to the estate. “Do you want to come in?” I asked, thinking first about how it would be good to have a witness in the space in case I got murdered and, second, being friendly.
“Oh, sure,” he replied, hopping out of the van at the impromptu invitation.
Dry bushes and tangled, leafless growth covered the perimeter of the lot and most of the outdoor area. As I pushed open the gate, we saw the house — a bright pallet of black, red and yellow in stark contrast to the dreary season holding tightly on outside. I used the door knocker to sound our arrival.
Inside, signage, art, pillows and small figurines of hens dotted corners, coffee tables, and ledges. We were invited in by a bubbly woman donning a bright red apron. She’s not unlike the human version of a hen, I thought, especially as she became very frantic when I introduced myself: “But you’re a day early, aren’t you? Why would the computer book you in for today if the room is already booked?”
“I’m not early,” I replied, feeling mildly like a trespasser, knowing I was right but offering to check my email anyway. I held the confirmation page up for her to see but she scoffed and ran into the house. My tummy rumbled. My father-in-law gave me a look of unease. I picked up a pillow, held it over my face, and turned towards him. On it was a wide-eyed rooster with the words “You talkin’ to me?” sewn into it.
Then a yell from another room: “No, you’re right! I didn’t read the messages!”
It was then that my father-in-law patted me on the back and said, “See you Wednesday,” as he pulled on his shoes without tying the laces and skipped back out to the van all too quickly. I opened the map on my phone and typed in his address — it was an 11 hour walk if I wanted to leave. This comforted me.
When I turned to pick up my bags, the woman was back and she was staring at me. I waited for her lead, but she only let out an, “Um, mum mum mum mum...” before resuming her wondrous glare at me. I turned to look behind me. No, nothing there. She was definitely just… looking at me.
Oh god, I thought. Perhaps because I was trying too hard to be like my nicest friends, or because I was suddenly overcome with nervous bowel syndrome (a state that befalls me when I feel abandoned or afraid to give a speech), but I asked, in a very poor British accent: “Could you please show me to my room?”
It took her a moment but she eventually said, “Oh, yes,” and I followed her through the well stocked, tidy but very obviously occupied kitchen and up the stairs to the corner room where I would sleep.
I was in a single room of three. The double was occupied by someone working on the “town project” and the third was belonged to my host. There was a closet, mini fridge, space heater, chair, two small tables, dresser, and a bunch of knicknacks in the room. I was invited to see the bathroom where the woman collected her undergarments hanging from hooks and invited me to have a bath to relax.
I tucked all the knicknacks, or “dust collectors” as my astute father would deem, into the dresser and unpacked my books, pens, crystals, and provisions. In my hunger I wished I’d brought more ready-made food. I tried to work a bit — to focus under the sounds of the muffled talk radio blaring from downstairs — before deciding to scope out the place and how I might prepare my meager pasta dish for dinner.
In the kitchen I discovered the woman was a cook. I watched as she muttered to herself, whistled, turned the kettle and blender on and off and bounced about the room in a whirl of energy. “Do you want tea? Pie?” It was overwhelming to observe and loud and did not lend itself at all to the calm, quiet I had been expecting. I inhaled through my nose and reminded myself that expectations are ideas that destroy opportunities. I tried to be as present as possible.
I learned she was recipe-testing for an impending deadline and I felt self-induced-pressure to sit, eat it with her, and discuss the meal she offered. I was at a loss of what to do, feeling like I had entered the personal space of stranger, but unable to retreat for fear of being rude. All I wanted to be for the week was alone. But I was a guest, after all, and the food was incredible. Still, the writer in me knew this was the easiest way to kill someone. Universe, I thought, please don’t let this be how I go.
“Did you make this whipped cream?” I asked, licking my pie plate.
“Yes,” she said, giving me a peculiar look. “You just put cream in the blender and turn it on…”
“Oh, is that how you do it?” The cook laughed at me.
“You poor thing.”
“Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 32, so I have until the fall to get my shit together,” I joked, feeling a bit ashamed.
“Maybe this is part of my process,” she offered lightly.
When I was well full, I tucked my dry pasta back until my arm, thanked the cook graciously, and headed upstairs exhausted.
As night fell, so did the rain. Lightning framed the small window in my room and thunder boomed enjoyably in the distance. Distracted by the premise of my book, I’d completely forgotten that storms, especially in a stranger’s house, would normally send me spiralling into fits of anxiety-ridden contemplation. Instead, I listened through closed doors as the cook counted, “One, two, three, four,” over and over again until I fell asleep.
I spent the morning in my room with the door closed writing and rewriting parts of my novel. I snuck down to make a coffee and scope out the toaster so I could feed myself the bagels I packed but it felt oddly inappropriate rifling through a cook’s kitchen when I wasn’t invited to touch anything.
I worked in my room until lunch when I thought I’d try for the toaster again, but the cook was making another dish, whistling and puttering about the place like Snow White does in the dwarf kitchen of the Disney version. “It’s going to get loud as I have people coming over,” she tossed at me as I was about to sit in the front room to journal. “Do you want some pie? Tea?”
My heart tensed — loud? Who? When? Can I toast my bagel before they arrive? Sure, I’ll have some pie. But the door opened before I could call back and I retreated to my room to change out of my pjs just in case.
If I were going to get any work done in this “sanctuary,” I needed to prepare. (Translation: I needed to lock myself in my room with as little distraction as possible.) I’d go out into the spittle, brave the strangers, the “town project,” and walk to the village for supplies. I decided I’d order two pizzas and pick up a case of soda water. Sustenance enough for someone on a self-imposed deadline. Screw the bagels. They only tasted good toasted.
Outside, though the sun was out and canaries and blue jays fluttered freely, the place felt deserted; a wasteland abandoned by all hopeful bodies. I didn’t see a single person as I walked past the estate, onto the main road, and down the hill toward the town. Even the squirrels were few and far between.
One after another, the shops were all closed, either for the day or businesses out of business entirely. Vacant rental signed lined the street between the two banks and the coffee shop. The light brown hue of dirty concrete complimented the red brick buildings sparking a claustrophobic feeling in my belly. This place felt apocalyptic. The writer in me felt scared. When I got to the pizza place I thought, get in, get out, and get back to the room, but the door was locked, just like all the others.
As I walked back up the hill empty-handed toward the estate, I saw a man with wide-legged jeans cross the road a block up and wondered if I travelled back in time to the 90s. Was he following me? (No, he was going the other way.) Behind me, the sound of a dump truck chugged by. I turned to see a tuft of dirt bob out of the back as it hit a pothole, then clocked a small radioactive symbol on the side of the truck. Was I in a Godzilla spinoff?
As I trotted toward the yellow house, I watched a winter finch fly into a window on the top floor of the house, over and over, as if it thought it could break through if it just kept trying.
It was dusk before I tried for the toaster again, finding a cooking class in full swing with 6 people stirring big red bowls of dough as vigorously as possible. I turned immediately around and made my way back upstairs when I crossed the other guest who must have just returned from working on the “town project.”
“How was your day?” I said, heading quietly towards my room. “The rain seemed to hold off for you.”
He nodded, an older gent with broad shoulder and complimentary cheeks, but didn’t smile. “It’s not the rain that matters, it’s the wind. Who would want a bunch of radioactive dust blowing around for us to breathe in?”
“Radio-what?” I said, pivoting away from my room and stepping closer.
“I am working on the town project,” he said factually. “We are disposing of all the radioactive dirt in and around town. Dirt from the nuclear plant that shut down in the 70s.” Then he politely turned and before he shut the door to his room, lent me a soft, “Goodnight.”
In my bedroom I stared menacingly at the carafe of water I’d been drinking from. I played and replayed my memory of the tuft of dirt falling from the truck and wondered if there had been a breeze in that moment. Was it in me? I thought of the wide legged pants, mostly because they looked so abundant and uncomfortable. I stared out my window, searching for the finch. In the distance I could see the estate, high on the hill, blocking my view of the lake that lay beyond. As I drifted off to sleep that night, it was to the loud sighs and “okay okay okay”s of the cook in the next room.
The next morning I had coffee with the cook. She told me not to stress about leaving right at 11, to which I reminded her I was booked for two more nights.
“Right,” she said. “I’m sorry. As you can tell, I’m always on the move.”
I took this personally, but acknowledged that I was in an extra-sensitive headspace, additionally fearful of radiation infiltration, away from home with a specific intention and a lot of self-pressure to succeed. I exhaled as much of this as I could, when I felt capable of doing so.
Living is work, and being a part of a community is never a one-way street. While I did most of the talking, I realized the cook, who freely took up space (energetic and physical) in her own home (which she has every right to do so), reminded me a lot of my mother. Aha! I thought. No one paints a wall red and speckles it with chickens if not for a certain type of person. If only I had of been more prepared, I tried to reason. But with every ounce of my being, I yearned for a fews days of silence, and my ingrown, stubborn nature was really starting to spread its wings.
When the cook left to do some shopping, leaving the radio still blaring, I inhaled into my belly, popped earplugs in, and begrudgingly turned to The Hollywood Reporter instead of my book. Research. Right?
I landed on an interview with Chris Evans, which I thoroughly enjoyed if only because it painted him as neurotic, self-aware, and steadfast as I felt on good days. I appreciated the mention of autonomy, and his interest in maintaining it within a relationship. Melding into one another is a concern of mine. But lest I remind myself: I have shamelessly left my family at home and have come here to write. Doing so is what I dream about day in day out while I work on other peoples stories, scripts, and movies. No one would take this from me. Not the cook. Not my mother.
To make my diversion productive, I took to penning script ideas that I could tweet at Chris Evans in the event he is still looking for a good story to direct, as the article suggested. Some of the best opportunities come from unexpected places, don’t they?
I thought about my partner asking me how my trip went and my response being a barrage of seemingly negative complaints. It is remarkably easy for me to pinpoint every terrible descriptor of an experience, in bright detail. When I was 20, I used to argue I was a realist, not a pessimist: “I see the truth about the world.” Now, in my thirties, more than once I have searched Why am I so negative? and learned that nothing online can advise me on what is happening inside my own body and mind.
We are our truest experts, our harshest critics, our greatest adversary. What we tell ourselves is the reality we create — and if I’m convinced I am spending the week in the 2017 remake of IT, then you bet I believe Pennywise is waiting for me to make my next trip into town.
As I sat in the old house, distracted by talk radio in an otherwise empty abode owned by a complete stranger who I found online, I realized that, regardless of how much work I got done, I wouldn’t feel fully accomplished if I didn’t find the toaster. Since I was alone, at least for the time being, free of humming and blenders and sighs, I embarked on my quest without fear of being caught rifling around in a cook’s kitchen. And guess what: my paltry bagel never tasted more well-deserved. For the record, the toaster was on the counter. Beside the fridge. Hiding in plain site.
When my father-in-law pulled up in his blue van, a small part of me fondly walked away from the old yellow house a little bit shifted, a little bit less bothered, a little more inspired to take up a slight amount more space. Surely, I left with the knowledge that much of my frustration could have been remedied by using words like, “Is it okay to turn off the radio?” and “Could you show me where you keep your toaster?” But the easy or most sensical way doesn’t always make for great story.
I did work on my book. I did pen some intriguing loglines. I did write about what it was like to get radiation poisoning in post-apocalyptic small town Ontario due to the “town project.” I did stay in the same place Pennywise ate children for breakfast back in 2017. What a treat it can be to leave one world at home and experience another, even if just for a few days, even if the horror only happens on the inside. ◇