by Nancy Pickard
Art by Laurie Harden
“You’re going to need a chair,” the doctor told Mel Santos after the operation on Mel’s left shoulder. He had slipped going down cement steps and fallen hard. Now he was hung together inside with delicate webbing that must not be disturbed while his torn tissues healed. Propped up and drugged up, Mel listened in a dopey haze as the orthopedic surgeon issued postoperative orders to him and his wife Jane.
“He must not raise his arm or carry anything,” the doctor instructed Jane. “Don’t let him lift so much as a potato chip with that hand.” Casually, as if it were mere afterthought, he added, “Or climb stairs for six weeks.”
“Six weeks!” Jane said, looking horrified. “But our bedrooms are on the second floor!”
“You have a couch downstairs?”
“Too tall,” Mel mumbled.
“He’s too tall,” Jane interpreted for him. “And our couch is too short.”
“Well, you might rent a hospital bed.”
“Our living room is too small!”
That’s when the doctor said, “Okay, then you’re going to need a reclining chair. Have you got a man chair?”
“Man chair?” Mel said with sudden clarity.
“Yes. You know—one of those big old leather chairs that lifts your feet, and tilts you back, and vibrates, and does everything but walk to the kitchen for your beer.” He grinned at his eighty-year-old patient, who was a little pudgy around the perimeter. “The best ones smell of cigars and good whiskey, and they have speakers inside so you can listen to jazz with the back of your head. You look like a man-chair kind of guy to me, Mel.”
“Cigars,” Mel managed to say.
He and the doctor exchanged looks of mutual longing that were overt enough to prompt Jane to say, “There will be no cigars in my house.”
Mel and Jane exchanged glances too, over old grievances.
“Now I know why you fell and tore up your arm,” she said. “So you could finally get your man chair.”
Mel gave her a goofy smile.
“Let me guess,” the doctor said. “You”—he looked at Mel—“have always wanted a big ol’ soft chair for watching sports, and you”—he looked at Jane—“have never let him have one.”
“Could if I wan’ to,” Mel muttered.
“Big old ugly brown thing? Not in my living room, you won’t.”
“Sorry, Jane, but if he can’t go upstairs, and you can’t put a bed downstairs, then a recliner is your only answer. Anyway, a man’s got to have his chair,” the doctor joked. “I have mine, and my wife hates it too. Not quite enough to divorce me—yet—but close. I’ll bet you can find a used one at a thrift shop.”
“You could have warned us sooner,” she grumped.
“Just keep reminding yourself it’s temporary, Jane. I bet you’ll even find one that isn’t brown.”
It was butterscotch gold, like candy.
It glowed in the sun on the driveway at the garage sale where Jane spotted it. “Funny kind of garage sale,” Jane told her daughter Rose later, over the phone. “That chair was the only thing I saw for sale. The woman told me they’d sold everything else already, but I didn’t believe her. Whoever heard of selling everything in a garage sale? I think she just couldn’t stand it in her house anymore and when her husband wasn’t looking she sneaked it outside and sold it to the first suckers who asked about it.”
Rose, in Las Vegas, laughed. “Oh, Mom.”
To add insult to ugly, Jane told her, it wasn’t even leather, but vinyl! “I swear it cracks if you touch it. The first time your father sat down in it, it sounded like an ice floe breaking up.”
Rose couldn’t stop laughing at her mom’s descriptions.
“What’d you pay for it?”
“That’s not bad!”
“Huh. About thirty-four dollars too much, if you ask me.”
It was transported to their living room by their older son, Dusty, who had to rent a truck to get it home. Their other son, Wes, came over to help move furniture. One of Jane’s lovely chintz wing chairs went to the basement. Her flowered couch got pushed in front of the spinet piano, so that Jane had to squeeze past it to get to the piano bench just to play “Yesterday.” The coffee table went up against the “new” chair, to hold all of the objects Mel needed beside him because he couldn’t get up to do anything without help.
“Anything,” Jane said darkly to her friends.
Theirs was a small house. It was a big chair.
To Rose, Jane said, “It was disgusting when we found it. I had to scrub it down, and it still gives me the filthy willies. If you put your nose right down to it you can tell a cat peed on it.”
“Then, Mom? Don’t put your nose down on it.”
“It’s not funny, Rose. There are big tears in the vinyl which now has silver duct tape holding it together.”
“For Christmas, you can use red and green tape.”
“I’m telling you, I hate that chair.”
“Mom! It’s only for a few weeks! Tell you what . . . when Dad is all healed, I’ll fly in for a bonfire and we’ll fry the stuffing out of it.”
After Jane hung up the phone, she marched into the living room to repeat Rose’s idea of a bonfire to cremate the chair when they were done with it.
“Ha-ha,” Mel said, and turned up the TV volume.
Jane shot the chair a furious glance as she returned to the kitchen to get Mel’s pain meds, and make him a ham sandwich, and wash the sink in the half-bath where she gave him sponge baths. She was seventy-eight years old, and she was tired. She wasn’t senile, however; she was smart, and she’d heard of “projection.” She knew her fury at a mere chair might be a deflection of her resentment at Mel for the extra work he was causing her.
She didn’t care. She hated the chair on its own merits.
She heard Mel switch channels to alternate between watching a poker tournament and a car race. With so much time to kill, he’d branched out from the major sports to ones he’d never previously watched. Golf. Soccer. Surfing. And with every day, the volume went up, and up.
It drove her nuts.
As she scrubbed the toilet, Jane told herself it was only her imagination that made her think the chair had growled at her as she left the living room.
After hearing about the bonfire, ha-ha-ha, Mel thought of warmth, and so he switched on the chair’s electric heater and its vibrator. Low, Medium, High. Waves of gentle, massaging fingers rolled up and down his back without hurting his shoulder; warmth enveloped his butt like the palm of a big, comforting hand.
“God’s hand,” Mel thought, and chuckled.
His own right hand closed around the open beer can in the beverage holder in the chair arm. Because of the pain medicine, Jane allowed him only sips of alcohol, but he could still breathe in the friendly tavern scent of stale hops along with the smell of delicious, juicy ham slices warming in the oven.
“Ahhh.” Mel relaxed into the cushions. “This is the life. Isn’t it, buddy?” He slept well and soundly in the chair, usually falling asleep to the roar of racingcar motors or the shouting of sports commentators. Lately, he had taken to talking to the chair as if they were best friends. Co-conspirators, even. “The only way I’ll give you up is over my dead body.”
The vibrating motor purred like a butterscotch cat.
Jane told her friends, “I shouldn’t be mad at him for breaking his shoulder! I must be an awful person to feel this way. But I’m just so mad all the time!”
His sports shows pounded against the ceiling and against Jane’s skull, until she thought they’d drive her insane. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t take a nap. When she told him to please turn it down, he would, but only until he sneaked the sound back up to booming again.
“You’re a saint,” her friends assured her.
“He’s always misplacing the remote!” she ranted to them. “I swear that chair eats things. It likes to gobble things up and make me run downstairs to look for everything he loses, and if I don’t he keeps yelling until I do.”
Jane’s best friend said: “I don’t know how you can stand it.”
I can’t, Jane thought, at the end of the third week.
The straw that broke the camel driver’s wife’s back (as Jane described it) occurred during the second half of the USA vs. Germany World Cup soccer match in Brazil. Jane marched into the living room, grabbed the remote control from Mel’s lap, and clicked Off as if she were aiming a gun and pressing a trigger.
“Hey!” Mel yelled. “It’s USA versus Germany!”
She stuck the remote under one arm and marched back into the kitchen with it while he continued yelling at her from his chair. She set the remote control in plain sight on a shelf in the refrigerator, where she knew he’d never find it. He was getting around a bit now on his own, once she got his big body up out of the chair. Her own back was killing her from doing that many times a day. To the bathroom. Back to the bathroom. Again to the bathroom.
“I’m not cut out to be a nurse,” she told him on one of those trips to and fro.
That hurt. It really startled and hurt her to hear those mean words come out of his mouth. They filled her with even deeper resentment. She had known him to be thoughtless, but not cruel. She tried to blame it on his own discomfort, although the truth was that he was looking pretty darned comfortable in that chair. She tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but still, those two words hurt her so much that she didn’t even want him to know.
It was that chair! It was a bad influence on him.
The chair was his nest that made him spoiled and lazy. He was like a baby bird that had broken a wing and now, big, smelly, and messy, it waited for the mom bird to wear herself out bringing him everything he needed to stay alive.
Jane stood at her sink, staring out at a sunny day that she couldn’t leave him long enough to enjoy. She shuddered, a ripple that went through her like the electronic massaging fingers rolled through her husband.
She hated the chair. Hated it.
She was beginning to feel its eyes on her whenever she moved in its space.
“It doesn’t have eyes!” Jane said out loud, suddenly frightened by what she was thinking. It only had golden, vinyl-covered buttons that popped off and clogged up her vacuum cleaner.
“It doesn’t have a ‘space’!”
It didn’t mutually hate her.
It wasn’t alive.
And it wasn’t growling at her right at that moment, and louder than ever.
She wanted to cry, but wouldn’t give it that pleasure.
Once she’d asked Mel if he heard the chair growling.
He’d smiled without taking his eyes off the TV screen. “No, I hear it purring.”
Now, she heard from him:
“Jane! I can’t find the clicker!”
She was sure she heard the growling turn to laughing.
Such mean and triumphant laughter!
She was hardly sleeping at all. That was the problem, she told herself.
Her hands trembled as she rinsed Mel’s favorite coffee mug.
“Mom, the chair didn’t growl or laugh at you,” Rose said when Jane called her to tell her. “Dad might have growled at you, which you richly deserved, you know.”
“You have no idea how much sports he watches!”
“Mom, come on, it was USA versus Germany!”
Which was exactly what her sons said too, although they both added, “I can’t believe you did that to Dad!”
“You’re reading Stephen King again, aren’t you?” her daughter guessed. “You need to stop that. It makes you scared of shadows.”
“I’m not afraid of shadows.”
“No, just growling chairs,” Rose said, and giggled. “You really are losing it over that chair.”
Am I? Rose wondered. Am I losing it?
In the living room, the TV blared a college-football game between schools nobody in her family had ever attended. The game had announcers whose voices seemed to have been cultivated expressly to make Jane want to reach through the TV set, plunge her bare hands down into their throats, and yank out their vocal cords, like she wanted to pull the plugs out of the wall.
“TV too loud for you, hon?” Mel called in to her.
She pressed her cell phone against her chest and yelled back, “Yes!”
“Just checking!” he called in, and then laughed uproariously, as if he had a buddy in the room with him, and both of them were making fun of Jane.
By the fifth week, Mel could get himself to the bathroom, the one on the first floor, albeit slowly and with much griping. While he was in there, Jane took to walking past the chair, bending down, and whispering, “I hate you!” or, “Die!” She told the television she hated it too, but her heart wasn’t in it the way it was toward the chair. Around the chair she smelled the sulfur of matches and the smoke of ashes and burnt butterscotch.
“I smell plastic burning,” she hissed at it.
“You’ll be gone soon,” she promised it.
On Tuesday of the sixth week, their son Dusty took his dad to the surgeon’s office for what Jane prayed would be the final checkup and a full release. She danced at the sink after they left, so excited was she about their impending freedom. Feeling exultant, she abandoned the dishes and danced in with wet hands to the living room. She danced over to the chair and sat down in it, which wasn’t easy because it was tall and deep, and she was small.
“These are your last days,” she predicted, giving both arms of it hard, happy, wet whacks. “The doctor’s going to set Mel free today, you’ll see. And do you notice our driveway out there? That’s where you’ll be going as soon as he climbs stairs!”
She reached for the vibration lever.
And received an electrical shock that made her scream. . . .
# # #
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The Chair by Nancy Pickard, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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