Welcome to Carl’s Rent-to-Own

By Shasta Grant

The greeting echoes, each employee with their matching blue polo shirts repeating it, as my girls and I make our way through the store. Michael always said no, no matter how many times I asked for new furniture. I can’t afford it, especially now that he’s left us, but the cat has peed on our old sofa so many times the smell is woven into the fabric and I don’t want to live like that anymore. The girls and I—we deserve something better.

We walk from display to display, sitting in each simulated living room, imagining a new life for ourselves. My make-believe life is quiet and smells like lavender. Carl himself recommends the Woodhaven Central Park 7-piece living room set and Riley and Abby love it too. Carl says it’s their best seller and includes a sofa, love seat, cocktail table, two end tables and two lamps. He says it’s a bargain at one hundred and six dollars a month. I try to calculate in my head whether I can come up with that much money.

“In twenty-four months, this can all be yours!” Carl says, sitting down on the brown sofa. He stretches his arms across the back cushions. “All yours.”

When I say the color seems a little drab to me, that I wanted something more cheerful, he says the color is mocha and it’s classic and won’t go out of style. Riley and Abby agree and say it looks just like the furniture at Julia’s house. Julia is the most popular girl at school and they’ve never even been to her house but I guess they imagine her living room looks like this and maybe it does.

I hesitate while working on my calculations. What can I cut each month: the landline, the girls’ ballet lessons, the expensive coffee I treat myself to on Fridays? Carl continues his sales pitch, telling me the Woodhaven Central Park 7-piece living room set lends a sense of sophistication to a home although he must be able to tell from one look at us that we will never be sophisticated. He says the plush seating and sloped arms invite you to sit back and relax. I admit that I want to sit back and relax and Carl tells me I deserve to do just that. Riley and Abby agree. They tug my arms and bounce up and down.

“Mom, can we please have it, pretty please?” they say in unison. I can hear Michael’s voice inside my head: it’s such a rip-off—you’ll end up paying twice as much for it in interest. But I don’t have enough money to buy it outright. I don’t even have enough money to keep taking the cat back to the vet. On the last exam, the vet suggested the cat was depressed. “Aren’t we all?” I said but he didn’t laugh, he just continued the exam, inspecting her fur for bugs, looking inside her ears, pressing his fingers along her abdomen. There was no medical explanation he could find for the cat peeing on the sofa. At the receptionist’s desk, I wrote a check that I knew wouldn’t clear the bank.

Carl places his tasseled loafers on the glass coffee table. “So, what do you think?” he asks. “You want to go for it? No credit check,” he says.

The girls look at me from the loveseat, their legs folded up crisscross applesauce style. I think about the old sofa, the smell, the stains, the lives it had before it was even ours. I think about that morning one week ago when Michael said he was leaving us for Deborah, the waitress with the cigarette-stained fingers at Kountry Kitchen. Deborah of all people! I tell Carl yes—yes, we will take the Woodhaven Central Park living room set for one hundred and six dollars a month.

On Saturday, two men deliver the furniture. They arrange the pieces in the same configuration as the set in the showroom but somehow it doesn’t look as good. Maybe it was Carl himself, with his leather loafers, that lent the air of sophistication, or maybe it was the wool rug in the showroom that tied it all together. Either way, it looks a lot cheaper in our living room than it did at Carl’s Rent-to-Own and I can’t help but wonder if all of life is like this. Once you get what you want, you realize it maybe wasn’t the thing you wanted or needed or deserved, after all. Is that what happened to Michael? Did he wake up one morning and look over at me from his side of the bed, hear the girls yelling in the next room, the cat meowing at the door, and think no, no, this isn’t what I want at all?

The girls are ridiculously excited about the living room set, though. They run their hands over the fabric and call each other Julia in fake British accents even though Julia isn’t British. They tell the cat sternly that she is not allowed on the new furniture. I almost say that you can’t tell a cat what to do but remarkably, the cat doesn’t even try to sit on the sofa. Instead, she curls herself beneath the cocktail table, wraps her paws around a metal leg and mouths it like a teething child. The girls keep referring to the cocktail table as a coffee table and I correct them. When they ask what the difference is I do not have an answer other than it’s what Carl called it. Why are they always asking so many questions? When is Daddy coming home? Where did he go? Why did he leave us? Questions without answers.

Until now, every bed, every bureau, every chair in our apartment had been taken from the side of the road or from an ad on Craiglist that led me to someone’s smoke filled house. We all feel it signifies something, some change for our family, some positive shift now that Michael is gone. After they’ve run their fingers over every possible inch of fabric, the girls jump on the sofa. Then they jump from the sofa to the loveseat and back again. They make a game of it, saying “Julia, how do you do?” as they go back and forth. I tell them to stop jumping but they don’t listen to me. I yell, “This is why we can’t have nice things!” but they still don’t stop jumping.

After dinner, they tell me they want to put on a show in the new living room.

They are always making up routines. I remember doing the same for my parents when I was a kid: my sister and I rolling on the floor, leaping through the air to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” and “Holiday.” Abby and Riley dance to music I don’t know: Sia and Keisha and Kendrick. They seem to never get tired. It’s one song after another and I want it to end. I want them to go to bed. I want to sit back and relax, pour a glass of wine from the box I bought on sale at Grand Union, and place the glass on my new cocktail table. I want to tuck my feet under the cat’s soft, warm belly.

Just when I think they’ve taken their final bow, the music starts up again. “This is the grand finale!” Abby announces. I clap louder, desperate for this to end. They reach their arms high, shake them in the air. Abby shimmies her hips in a way that seems mildly inappropriate for her age. Then she runs across the room and attempts to leap over the coffee table but her legs don’t stretch long or high enough. Her heel hits the glass and it shatters all over the floor.

Twenty-four months until all this is officially mine, and the cocktail table is ruined. Abby’s foot is bleeding. I’m screaming: “What the hell is wrong with you girls?” Abby is crying and then Riley is crying too. I tell them to shut the hell up and instantly regret it. But how can I even think with all this crying?

I imagine being alone at Carl’s Rent-to-Own. It’s quiet there, the cocktail table has not been broken, the wool rug pulls the Woodhaven living room set together, there’s no cat peeing on the sofa, my husband has not left me for a chain-smoking waitress. I wander from display to display, all of it mine, remarking on the sophistication and style of each living room, bedroom, and dining room. I’m Goldilocks, searching for the most comfortable place to sit and relax.

“Mom, do something!” Riley shouts. So I do what a mother should do: I take charge of the situation. I calmly instruct Riley to get a washcloth and Band-Aids. I pick Abby up from the rubble of glass, careful not to let her bleeding foot touch the sofa. I tell Riley to get the cat out of the room so she won’t cut her paws. The last thing we need now is another visit to the vet. In the bathroom, I clean Abby’s foot, pick glass from her skin, place bandages over the cuts. I tell her not to worry; she’s going to be okay. I don’t know if I should take her to the hospital and there’s nobody to ask. Michael would say no, the emergency room is too expensive, and she’s fine, she’ll be fine. And she is. We’re all fine.

After the crying and the yelling have stopped, after the girls are in bed, after I’ve swept the broken glass from the floor, I pour a glass of wine, light a lavender-scented candle and sit on my new sofa. In twenty-four months this will all be mine. I place my bare feet on the edge of the cocktail table, empty in the middle like a crater now. The cat is curled underneath. I take a sip of wine and tap the seat with my hand. The cat looks at me as if to ask whether I’m sure, so I tap again and then she jumps.

 

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Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and will be the Spring 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the Kerouac House. Her stories and essays have appeared in cream city review, decomP, Epiphany, Lunch Ticket, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is managing editor of Storyscape Journal.

 

Art: Terminus Ad Quem by Soren James

Soren James is a writer and visual artist who recreates himself on a daily basis from the materials at his disposal, continuing to do so in upbeat manner until one day he will sumptuously throw his drained materials aside and resume stillness without asking why. More of his work can be seen here: http://sorenjames.moonfruit.com/home/4580917876