The Fireplace

I recall that morning with clarity rarely present in my memories. Fallen leaves chased across frosted grass, their paths directed by an unseen force. Church bells cracked the frozen air, marking the time I’d turn towards work, but I turned towards home instead.
My building sat mid-block and had been divided into tiny apartments that housed just one tenant each. The super presented the only exception, but when his wife passed, he joined the solitary ranks of everyone else. It seemed he had lived in the basement apartment since the building was built. We saw him as a fixture, something always there, not unlike the chandelier hanging in the entrance.
My flat took the top floor, three flights up. It came with a fireplace, but the lease listed eviction if I used it, a clause I questioned, but never tested. Instead, I stacked the space with old magazines, except the winter I fashioned it one match from fire. This proved to be a difficult temptation, so I replaced the logs with candles before switching to the less decorative, but far more functional, storage for already-read magazines.
I entered the building just as Ms. Lundenberg was walking out. We said good morning, but not much more, and I started up the stairs. After only a few steps, someone said something: “Forget your lunch?” The words came coarse, like they’d been pulled over sandpaper, and I didn’t recognize the voice. I turned to see the super.
“I lost my job,” I said.
“This morning, already?”
“No, on Friday.”
“Habits,” he said.
In his eyes I found familiar ground. He held me in his stare and asked if I wanted to talk about it. Not one to swim the currents of conversation, I surprised myself and said I did.
And he listened.
I rambled on, spoke of unseen forces, and finished with a desperate question: “What do I do now?”
His answer contained an outlandish plan that, though dismissed when heard, I’d soon embrace, and soon after that, carry out. “You should take a trip.”
I told him my time might be better spent looking for a job. “Rent’s due in ten days,” I said, and he countered by saying I shouldn’t worry about such things. If I’d known it was to be our last conversation, I would’ve said more, but as it happened, I continued up the stairs.
I spent the rest of the week hidden between closed door and open window. Take a trip, he said, so I did. On Friday I packed a satchel and left. I drove until my gas light came on, rented a room for a few days, then drove back. It was an uncomplicated excursion, but it cleared my head, so in that sense it was worth every mile.
In my building I rapped at the super’s door, but no one answered. I walked up stairs and found my apartment as I’d left it, but before long I sensed something different. I scanned the small space and my eyes settled on the fireplace, again made with kindling and logs, neatly stacked and ready for fire. A cryptic note on the mantle instructed I use it as intended, that there was nothing to stop me. It was unsigned. Then something else caught my eye: the answering machine. The light was blinking.
“This is Ed Crawford,” cracked a recorded voice. “Call me when you get this message.” He went on to say it was urgent and ended with his number. I listened again and then once more. I’d never heard of Ed Crawford and had no clue what he wanted. An hour later I called to find out.
“My name’s Joe Henley and I’m-”
“-Just a moment, Mr. Henley.” She cut me off before I could finish. “I’ll transfer you to Mr. Crawford. He’s expecting your call.”
The phone fell silent and I thought we’d been disconnected, but then the connection revived. “Hi Joe, Ed Crawford,” he said. “I’m an attorney.”
This much I knew. It’s what I didn’t know that worried me. I wondered what I’d done, so I asked, but wasn’t answered. Instead, he requested I come by so we could speak in person. I agreed and not long later, introduced myself to the receptionist, who notified Ed of my arrival.
After a moment, he appeared. “Thanks for coming down,” he said. “This way, please.”
We walked to his office, and I asked again what I’d done.
“Relax. You’ve done nothing, but I have difficult news.” I braced myself. “Mr. Keysan…the maintenance man…passed away. It happened two days ago.”
Sandpaper voice. I knew he was sick.
Ed Crawford continued. “He’s been with us since the early days. He liked the lack of pretention found in most firms. Said he could tell our offices were for practicing law, not impressing clients, and he’s been one ever since.”
I asked why he needed a lawyer. I thought it was a fair question.
“When he came to this country, it wasn’t easy for immigrants. He feared the system and retained us to protect his interests.”
I asked what interests. I thought this was a fair question, too.
“I’m going tell you a secret. Mr. Keysan was more than your maintenance man. He was also your landlord.”
“He owned the building?”
“Yours, and two others. He and his wife never had children, so when she died, he had no heirs.” Ed produced a legal-looking document and placed it on the table. “And according to his will, the buildings now belong to you.”
My mouth opened but failed to say anything.
“About a year ago, he made his intentions clear. I amended his will and we never spoke of it again. His tenants never knew who owned the buildings. I think he’d like it if you kept it that way.”
I took my time walking home, and though the sunless air was colder, I lingered out front. I looked at the building, my building, so quiet I wondered if anyone lived there. Then Mrs. Lundenberg came through the front door. She descended the steps and walked in my direction. As she neared, I could see she was crying. She walked up, unable to speak, and hugged me instead.
“Have you heard?” she asked.
I said I had, that I’d just found out, and in that moment, clarity again cleared the path. I recalled my last conversation with the super, the things he said, the way he said them. Ms. Lundenberg didn’t know who owned the building, and it would stay that way. I held her with my stare and asked if she wanted to talk about it.
She said she did.
And I listened.
Foster Trecost writes stories that are mostly made up. They tend to follow his attention span: sometimes short, sometimes very short. Recent work appears in Spelk, Right Hand Pointing, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He lives near New Orleans with his wife and dog.