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Renting.

by John Michael Cummings
  

What they liked most about their refurbished apartment was its beautifully restored floor-flush fireplace: Framing a blackened brick recess, where no evidence of fire remained, it looked like the facade of a miniature Ionic temple, replete with lifelike entablature and columns and pedestals, boasting itself upon the room in a handsome modeling of glossy white wood. A high, sturdy mantel invited pictures and vases. Painted in the same bolting black, the hearth, made of slate, projected itself into the carpeted room as an entranceway for them, this next hopeful couple.

Overcome, she sounded ecstatic: “Oh, honey, isn’t it just beautiful!”

But the landlady, leading the tour, quickly pointed out, “Now it’s just for looks; you can’t use it.” Her remark, as if noting that the bathroom fixture needed another bulb, seemed minor and failed to disillusion them. Whether functional or ornamental, it was theirs, this atmospheric treasure.

When the Wilsons met with the owner that afternoon, to present themselves as coached by their agent and, if successful, to sign the lease, they started conversation by praising the old-world charm of the fireplace. That they could not use it surfaced in their voices as an unfortunate fact, although they still appeared eager to hurry to their new home, to build a toasty glowing fire. The owner, whose continuous, thin smile had begun to unnerve them, asked, “You have much furniture?” He was passing time, as his agent had stepped into a back room to check their references.

“Oh no, not much,” Debbie promised, interpreting his question as a probe of how they would decorate his property. “Just the usual things...sofa, chairs, TV and VCR, desk, microwave—” In her nervousness she resorted to itemizing their belongings. “—and Taffy.” Taffy, a butterscotch kitten tabby, popped from her grinning mouth as a backfiring, ungotten joke.

“Our cat,” Mark explained, looking grim about the creature, now an obstacle unaddressed in the excitement; the agent, giddy from the outlook of a commission, had thought their pet, being small, would pass with the owner, but had forgotten to check.

The owner, now without his smile, looked grave and, in his ever dropping tone, grew a touched displeased. There was a pet fee, he said, forty more dollars each month.

Moving into the subdivided Greek Revival home, Mark and Debbie nevertheless lovingly filled the spaces of their new apartment—the living room coat closet made from an entranceway; the shelves in the anteroom, formerly a closet; and the many cabinets of the wraparound kitchenette, probably once a bedroom, considering the tiny window beside the refrigerator. In a decorative whim, she positioned a color pencil drawing—labored by him in a one-time art class in college and carried, for whatever reason, into the real world—into the opening of the chimney, the edges of the cardboard wedging neatly against the tapering brick.

Mark resisted her improvisation. “I don’t like it there. Looks goofy.” The drawing, of boulder-rough fruit, forever looked goofy. Taffy, placed on the mantel to stay from underfoot during the moving, also looked goofy, peering over the ledge to see what the humans were discussing, her stretched neck shortening whenever she lost her balance. Her watery, cartoonish eyes blinked. She sniffed, her adorable, damp nose twitching. Meowing, though, earned her only an annoyed glance from Mark, still sore from the increase in rent.

Overruled on the matter of the color pencil drawing, Debbie removed it, yanking the wedged edges across the brick. “Well, we just can’t leave it like that.”

True, the immutable opening had begun to gape at them; it gawked from within the miniature temple as a plain, paint-sealed space—as an unfilled niche in their efficiency somehow unusable, somehow unconcoctive. What will fit here, other than wood and flame? Standing among the disarranged furniture, they, in an imaginative moment, had related the hearth to a Greek arcade and its recess to a folk shrine. But what will suffice as a modern occupant of this in-home container for fire, they wondered, as a resourceful fixture inside this old stomach and lungs, whose breaths once drew the length of the flue and whose digestion of wood warmed bodies now reduced to bones and souls perhaps moving about this very room in an unseen dimension?

Debbie, whose Eng Lit degree earned her absolutely nothing in medical research, and Mark, whose “Project Coordinator” job at American Express left him petulant about matters of the home, were both soon all but obsessed. The surrounding drab tan wall, upon which Mark hung a dried eucalyptus wreath that Taffy immediately committed herself to swatting, somehow let the gaping recess aggravate them all the more—the wall behaving as a kind of unhelpful bystander. Meanwhile, the nubby, blackened brick, made unjagged by heavy paint, glowered at them from within the blazed white woodwork enshrouding it. From when the apartment had sat empty, dust had drifted against where the hearth, part brick, part slate, adjoined the chimney, adding a desolate tone. Soon, the whole side of the room grew menacing.

The owner, with a melancholic touch to their first meeting, told them the chimney had been unsafe for years—or had he really meant to say he preferred to deprive renters the pleasure of fire rather than to risk their plebeian irresponsibility? He seemed snobbish, so the vacant fireplace he rented them dared them to devise a counterpart, an object for the mold. As renters, they paid dearly for space limited not only by physical confine but also by monthly time—but the fireplace proved neither too expensive nor temporal, but useless as well as permanent, a hollow token of their status, a gutted icon. It tormented their instincts for sovereign shelter as a plastic squeak bird once teased their cat. While the mantel soon held family pictures, sea shells, paperweights, a bowl of fresh potpourri, and various clutter—change, keys, ring tray, and earrings deposited nightly—the space beneath begged filling, but fit nothing. They soon despised the fireplace for what it denied of them as renters.

“I sure wish we could cover it,” he would moan, whenever the false opening struck him as an injustice in their rent.

She, lenient and persevering, continued to try. Surprisingly, the floor fan would work, if it were summer. So would the ironing board, if draped with towels. Angling the rocking chair across the hearth looked more like a barricade than a decor; the elaborate and expansive, surrounding woodwork dwarfed whatever they shoved against the hole—sofa, butler's table, Sony stereo rack system with flanking pillar-like speakers—and announced the cover-up. Showcasing a basket or vase inside the opening, although versatile, proved corny, as trite and literal-minded as diner art. What they needed, he explained, was a compact item of certain aesthetic value, a porcelain statuette or exotic carving, that is, unless they preferred to appear trashy by leaning velour pillows around the hole.

Tiffed, she gathered up the pillows and tossed them onto the sofa. “Well, what?” Her husband kept quiet. She answered herself by arranging stuffed animals—brought with her from childhood into the real world—so that her gang of farm animals huddled inside the chimney for what looked like a final family picture in a scorched barn.

Mark, while walking from the room, announced his uncompromising skepticism of her using novelties to fill the space.

“Hey, honey,” she called out, “what about those fake logs and fire?” Even though she knew he would object, she pleased herself with the capricious suggestion.

Involved in a minor accident, he had not heard her. While entering the bathroom, he had rammed the door into the kitty litter box, spilling cinders across the floor. Taffy, awakened by the excitement, darted toward the action, slinking through his legs, sniffing her box, the spilled cinders, alarmed and indignant with him for having uncovered her handiwork.

“Forty dollars a month, cat. That’s how much you cost me.”

Using his hands, he swept the debris into a pile. Taffy had already forgiven him and, traipsing through the pile, brushed across his leg, over and over, flipping her furry sides like a blade on a sharpening stone.

“I got it!” he said suddenly, his face full of a sinister but satisfied look.

Debbie quickly snatched up her kitten, in case he had decided to rid them finally of her darling Taffy.

Crossing the room, he slid the kitty litter box into the fireplace, finding it a perfect fit.

  

Over the last ten years, John Michael Cummings' short stories have appeared in more than 75 literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Sou’wester. His story “The Scratchboard Project,” which appeared last year in The Iowa Review, has recently been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. He has fiction forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review and The Kenyon Review. In addition, his novella The House of My Father was a finalist in the 2006 Miami University Novella Contest.
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