“Open House” – Maria Hummer

Before we view the house we get new clothes, new haircuts and new names. We decide we are Amy and Todd. We know we can’t live here, not in this house, not the people we are now. The people we are now live in a tiny shared apartment with friends who don’t do dishes and smoke too much pot and eat our cereal when they get hungry. The people we are now bathe in showers black with mold, shoo mice from the crumb-floored kitchen, and pinch our noses when we open the fridge to keep out the smell of rotting oranges. The people we are now stopped kissing each other goodnight, we just climb into bed and sigh.

We don’t want to be these tired and going-nowhere people. We want to be Amy and Todd.

Amy and Todd have clean fingernails and dressers full of fresh paired socks. Amy and Todd get up early on Sundays, and wear slippers, and vacuum floors, and organize spice racks by color. Amy and Todd bake pies.

They do not scrape cigarette butts out of crusty coffee mugs, or pick the bodies of ants from their cereal like unwanted raisins. Amy and Todd go for walks in the neighborhood, down streets lined with matching houses like a litter of new puppies sitting in a row. The cars are unscratched, the children riding past on bikes say “excuse me,” and the evening air is filled with real birdsong, not the throaty complaints of crows.

We could be these people. We could be Amy and Todd and drink fruit tea and read books about European history and get excited about light fixtures, which is the first thing we comment on—the front hallway light fixture—when Joe shows us his house, his life, the life that could be ours.

“Lovely,” I say. Amy and Todd say words like lovely.

There is a side table in the hallway with nothing on it. Its only purpose is to be a table and

I, Amy, am charmed by this.

The house smells of clean rugs and lentil soup. Joe’s wife Melanie is cooking in the kitchen.

It smells beautiful, and she stirs the soup and she is beautiful. I could be her.

“Are you vegetarians?” I ask, and Melanie says no, they just like to eat healthy. I approve.

Joe shows us everything in the kitchen that could belong to Amy and Todd: clean white fridge with ice dispenser, new dishwasher, expensive coffee grinder, a set of hand-painted plates, white with blue fish. Even the half-used boxes of rice and pasta. “Everything you see,” says Melanie.

Joe squeezes her shoulders. “Except for my Melanie,” he says. Melanie gives Joe an adoring look. We beam.

Joe takes us to a room he calls the sitting room. In the shared apartment we call it the living room, but I like the word Joe uses and I think Amy would use it too. I’m glad there’s not one designated room for living. The kitchen, the bathroom, the room where you sleep, they are all for living, for laughing and drinking wine and spilling spaghetti sauce and trying tai chi one cold winter morning in socks. Every room is a room for such living and Joe takes us through them all.

Todd—it’s his name now—asks Joe the practical questions. How old is that, when should this be replaced, is it possible to move this to here. I peer out the windows of every room like it’s the most important thing. It’s vital to Amy that each window look out on a vision of what her life could be—something green and flowering, or maybe soft and fluttering like laundry on a line. I check every window and I don’t see broken things or loose garbage. I see patience, and healthy grass, and hope. Amy would delight in these windows.

Todd and I follow Joe and we look at the things he points at and go: Mm. Right. Nice. When Joe looks away we widen our eyes at each other and make big gasping shapes with our mouths, like we’re at the Grand Canyon, like we’re seeing the best sunset of our lives. We touch the clean white walls and we wonder if we deserve this, this cleanliness, but then we stop caring if we deserve it, we just want it so bad.

Joe shows us his study. The chestnut desk is covered in piles of books and papers.

“I’m a creative man at heart,” he says. “Been writing a novel in my spare time. It’s unfinished, but you might have fun fixing it up.”

Todd and I look at each other. We didn’t count on this, but we suppose it makes sense, some things left unfinished, and it’s fair for us to inherit that. We’re young, we’re fresh, we like a challenge.

“What about jobs?” asks Todd. A good question.

Joe tells us he works in a bank and Melanie stays at home. “Obviously,” he says, “either of you could fill either role. We’re not sexist here. But someone would have to stay home.”

“Can the one who stays at home also work?” I ask. “Like freelance or something.”

“I don’t see why not,” says Joe, “but you might find it difficult.”

Todd and I look at each other. Difficult because of another unfinished project? Another novel?

“The girls want lots of attention,” says Joe. “They’re very sweet, but don’t expect them to leave you alone for very long.”

Todd and I avoid each other’s eyes, trying not to panic. The ad said nothing about girls. Seeking young, energetic couple for quiet family life in the suburbs. Newly-renovated house. Amazing space. Lots of potential. Call Joe to arrange a viewing.

My stomach churns as I remember the ad. Family. Potential. We hadn’t interpreted it this way.

We follow Joe. Down the hall trickles the sound of young voices and toys being dropped. Joe opens the door to something he says is the play room. We step inside.

The girls.

“This one’s Tilly,” says Joe, touching the soft ponytail of a girl, about five years old, eating a cereal bar. She grins at us, oats and chocolate in her teeth. Joe picks up the other girl, smaller than Tilly and playing with a plastic penguin. He gives her a loud kiss on the cheek and she giggles, dark eyebrows twitching. “And this is Nona,” he says.

“Hi,” we say to the girls. They ignore us and go back to playing.

“All the toys are included,” he says. “All the clothes. If you decide to take it we’ll go over the details, like their likes and dislikes and fears and things that make them feel better. Nona, for example, always stops crying if you give her a little peanut butter. Always. We don’t know why.”

We ask Joe if we can talk it over a moment. We go into the bathroom. We close the door.

The bathroom is huge. It has a tub and separate shower and a vanity table. Todd and I blink in its whiteness like two people woken suddenly from a nap. We’d forgotten the world could be this bright. We’d been asleep.

“I think I love it,” says Todd.

I twist the sink handles. Hot on, cold on, hot off, cold off. The water comes out smooth as an icicle.

“But the girls,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says.

“I didn’t think we were looking for that sort of life.”

“Yeah. But I think we could make it work.”

I look out the window. It always helps, when making a decision, to just look out the window.

“I do like the big backyard,” I say.

“And that extra freezer,” says Todd.

We go back into the room with Tilly and Nona. Joe is gone and Todd leaves to find him and talk about rent and other particulars. I stay with the girls. They ask me if I want to play penguins and I say that I do. I hear Todd’s voice coming from somewhere in the house. His voice is deep and filling. Good enough for a meal, I always say. I can feel it filling the house, slipping between kitchen plates and table legs and under couches and into this room, like rising bread. I’m in this room playing penguins with Tilly and Nona and Todd’s voice fills me like risen bread, and I know we can do this, we can host game nights and wax floors and tie little girls’ shoes in this house as Amy and Todd.

Thank you to Maria Hummer for sharing the complete text of her story “Open House” for free on the web.  The complete book book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Maria Hummer is from Toledo and lives in London, England. She has a B.F.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Screenwriting. Her short film Dinner and a Movie was officially selected for the 2013 Edinburgh Film Festival, Palm Springs Festival, London Short Film Festival and others. Currently she is in post-production of the film adaptation of her short story “He Took off his Skin for Me,” published in Devil’s Lake and finalist for the Driftless Prize in Fiction. Maria is writing her first novel.