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Featured Story • June 2017

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The Ladder-Back Chair

 

Barbara Krasnoff

 
 

Her husband died on September 11, 2001. At home.

It happened while Joan was sitting in the study that they had turned into a hospital room, watching the coverage of the World Trade Towers collapse on the small TV that they had put in Lyle’s room.

Most days, after all her morning tasks were completed, Joan would take out a knitting project and find an old movie—preferably one that she hadn’t seen for a long time—and sit and work and watch, stopping when it was time to administer medication, try to get Lyle to take a few spoonfuls of warm soup, or change the sheets or his diapers. She’d stopped talking to him much—the combination of the cancer and the pain medications had burned something out in Lyle’s brain, and he no longer responded to much anymore. However, as she watched the towers burn and then fall, she couldn’t bear not to talk about it to someone, so she pretended that he was still there, watching with her, concerned about things outside the sickroom.

“My god, all those people,” Joan said, her eyes on the screen. “I hope most of them got out. Doesn’t Olivia’s son Steve work at the World Trade Center? You know—her older boy, the one who came over last week and took the air conditioner out of the window? Perhaps I should call her. Or no, she probably doesn’t want to tie up the phone. Maybe I’ll wait until the aide gets here and then walk across the street, see if everything is all right. Oh, dear, it’s time for your meds again.”

She got up and went to the dining room table, where she kept the battalions of pill bottles that she fed him, together with a notebook where she carefully tracked what he took when. She checked her records, poured three pills into her hand, noted down which ones, and and went back to the study.

And saw that he wasn’t breathing. Hadn’t been breathing for a while.

Luckily, the people at hospice were willing to step away from their TV sets and take care of things. The ambulance came to take away Lyle’s remains—remains, Joan thought, being a good word, since the person she had loved and lived with for 30-odd years hadn’t been in residence for some months now—and an hour or two later, the folks from whom she had rented the hospital bed and the oxygen tank and other equipment took that away as well.

Joan made a couple of calls to friends who promised that they would call other friends. She called the funeral home that had been recommended to her last month, told them exactly what she wanted, found out exactly how much it would cost for a small service and cremation, and gave them her credit card number. She sent an email out to a list of her friends and relatives telling them that Lyle had died, and that there would be a small service two days from then, and which charity to send donations to.

She felt like she was working on automatic; as though she had programmed herself to get through the next few days for the last six months. Her focus had narrowed to the house and the funeral; occasionally she’d turn on the TV and be surprised by the grim-faced news reporters and politicians—oh, right, something terrible had happened out in the world.

She spent the next day cleaning the house. Baskets of fruit and flowers began arriving; she called the local deli and ordered some cold cuts and sides, since it looked as though very few practical supplies were going to be offered. She drove to the supermarket and got several bottles of soda, some paper plates and cups and plastic cutlery.

The funeral was the next day. Five people had volunteered to speak; Lyle’s brother, who was reporting on the situation somewhere in the Middle East, sent an email that somebody else volunteered to read. Joan shook people’s hands, hugged others, smiled wanly at them, and didn’t really listen all that closely to what they were saying, knowing that they would excuse almost any behavior from her, as long as she wasn’t too demonstrative.

Afterwards, several people came back to the house, where they ate, and talked, and told stories. Several of her friends hugged her again, and sniffed, and told her that they would call her in a couple of days; Lyle’s friends just looked around uncomfortably, as though they expected him to come through the door and wondered why he didn’t.

Joan’s best friend Gail was last to leave; she had to check up on her elderly mother. “I’m going to send some flowers to the funeral home tomorrow,” she said. “Olivia is going to have a memorial service for her son; half the neighborhood will probably be there.”

“Oh, god,” said Joan, crestfallen. “I totally forgot about Steve. I didn’t even know whether he had made it out . . . And I haven’t visited or called her or anything.”

“It’s all right,” said Gail quickly, putting a hand on Joan’s arm. “Nobody expected you to, under the circumstances. In fact, I visited Olivia yesterday and she said she felt bad that she couldn’t attend Lyle’s funeral. Poor thing, she’s completely in shock.”

“I should send something,” Joan said, looking around as though an appropriate gift would be immediately at hand.

“I’ll tell you what,” Gail said. “I’ll send some flowers in your name. Don’t worry about it.”

She paused. “Would you like me to come back?” she asked. “I can. You don’t have to sleep alone tonight.”

Joan shook her head. “No, really. I think I need to be alone for a day or two.” Then, seeing Gail’s unhappy face, she said, “Really. Call me in two days.”

Then they were all gone. Joan waited for the reaction to set in, for the crying and the screaming and the cursing at God—whom she didn’t much believe in anyway. She wandered around the house, stopping at the study, which they had originally planned as a room for the children who never came. It looked simultaneously familiar and strange with all its old furniture back, and Lyle’s hospital bed missing.

This was, she understood, supposed to be the next portion of her life. Some of her friends had already lost their partners—to death or divorce or apathy—and they told her that, after the first few months had passed, she would find a new life, either with friends or even (they said carefully and gently) with a new partner.

She looked blankly around at the old desk with the laptop sitting on it (Lyle had used the study as an office when he retired), the overloaded bookcase, the boxes with the old paperbacks that she always meant to take to the used bookstore and never did, and the pile of unidentified detritus that needed to be “gone through.”

Then she sat on the worn fake-Oriental carpet and thought for a few minutes. She knew she must be grieving—she had read the books and talked to the social workers at the hospital. And she had loved Lyle dearly; apart from the occasional blowup over the usual minor issues, they had lived affectionately and closely. But instead of sorrow or even anger, right now all she was feeling was a sense of disconnection, as if everything that was happening now—in fact, everything that had happened over the past year—wasn’t real. Had never been real.

She hugged her knees close, rested her chin on them, and stared at the old desk. The chair in front of it was the only thing new in the room; when Lyle had first developed what they assumed was a simple back problem (until the MRI and the doctor’s call), they had invested in an expensive desk chair with 12 different ways of adjusting it in order to allow Lyle to sit comfortably. It didn’t go with the room at all; previously, they had used an old-fashioned ladder-back with a straw seat that suited the desk much better.

Joan squinted her eyes at the new, high-tech chair and let it blur in her eyes. She thought about the old chair, which they had originally bought at an auction when they first got married. When they got the new one, Lyle had wanted to keep the old ladder-back, but they really didn’t have the room for it—nor the need—so Joan gave to her niece for her first apartment. She remembered the two pieces of straw that stuck out near the rear of the chair’s seat and would catch you unawares if you sat too far back; the scrape on one of the legs where her niece had experimentally banged a metal ashtray when she was four years old; the worn places on the dark wood where a couple of generations of hands had pulled it back and forth, towards and away from the desk.

She could almost see it. If she didn’t let her vision sharpen, if she kept her mind on the details, on the feel of that hard but comforting straw as she sat, the straight, unyielding wood against her spine, the smoothness of the top of the back as she stood behind Lyle, one hand holding the chair, the other rubbing his neck . . .

She bent forward, then a little more, and reached out, almost blindly. And touched the cold reality of the metal-and-plastic modern chair.

“Fuck!” Joan pushed at the chair, sending it crashing into the desk—which, not being very sturdy, shook on its legs, sending a small cheap lamp down on its side and, in turn, pushing a half-filled coffee cup (How long has that been sitting there? Joan thought dazedly) crashing to the floor. Rancid drops of what once was milky tea splashed over the carpet; the cup, a souvenir from a summer trip to Cape Cod, exploded into dozens of small sharp pieces.

Joan sat and surveyed the disaster: the broken lamp, the shattered cup and the ruined carpet—and then, suddenly and much to her surprise, started to laugh. “God, Lyle,” she said to the air around her, “I never could get you to put your dishes in the goddamn sink. Now look what you’ve done!”

She pushed herself up and went into the kitchen to get some paper towels, a brush and a dustpan. It didn’t take very long to clean up the cup and the tea; she looked at the lamp and decided to worry about it later, and laid some paper towels down on the rug to soak up any remaining moisture.

The next day, she told her Gail about it. “I almost thought that, if I concentrated hard enough, I could touch that old chair,” she said. “Of course, it didn’t happen, but you’d almost think that, if I concentrated enough—if I believed enough . . . ”

Gail shook her head. “Have you contacted that grief counselor I gave you the number of?” she asked. “They have groups where you can talk about stuff like this. I don’t think you should be alone in the house.”

She brightened. “Why don’t we take a weekend and go off somewhere? Splurge on a really nice hotel that we can’t afford? You’d be doing me a favor; our office is going to be dealing with an avalanche of insurance claims from downtown businesses and this is probably the last chance I’ll have to take time off for months.” Her forced enthusiasm drew a smile from Joan, who shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Gail, but I have a lot to do,” she said. “I want Lyle’s stuff to be useful, so I’m going to go through his clothes and things, and figure out what I want to keep and what can be given to charity. I want to do it as soon as possible, and . . . ” she put up a hand as Gail opened her mouth, “I want to do it on my own.”

It really wasn’t as much of a chore as Ellen expected. She and Lyle had kept separate closets, and Lyle was almost obsessively neat, so none of his clothing was in bad condition. Ellen simply dropped his suits, shirts, and pants—all clean, and unused for several months—into a large trash bag to be deposited at the local Good Will. She used another trash bag for underwear, socks, pajamas, and all the sheets, towels and slippers Lyle had used in his final illness. They would go straight into the garbage.

She went through his dresser drawers carefully. She put aside many of the souvenirs for herself and others for her sister’s family and for some of the neighbor’s kids. She put aside the photos—she found several that had to be a couple of generations old—and some cufflinks for later inspection. Everything else went into the garbage. She then went into the bathroom with the garbage bag and got rid of Lyle’s shaving cream and razor, his toothbrush and comb, the shampoo that he loved and she loathed, the shaving lotion that his niece had given him when she was 10 and that he never used. All the medications were already gone.

And that was about it. The rest of the house belonged to them both. The kitchen, the living room, the garden—all that was owned and enjoyed by the two of them. And now, hers alone.

He was still there, of course. Now that the gaunt, vacant, suffering creature who had replaced Lyle was gone, the real Lyle, her quiet, funny, infuriatingly competent husband, was in the house, always just around the corner or in another room. She knew, in her head, that he was dead, gone, but the house didn’t seem to know it, and she acquiesced in its illusions.

So when she came home from shopping, she’d wait that couple of seconds after opening the door so that Lyle could rush to help her carry the groceries to the kitchen, even if she didn’t need him to. She woke up to his favorite news station because she didn’t want to change the settings (even though she shut it off immediately, because she couldn’t bear to listen to the news of lost relatives, security fears and upcoming wars). And she set the air conditioner in the bedroom just a bit higher than she liked, because after years of battling over how cold the room should be, that was the temperature they had compromised on.

And every evening, just after supper, she would bring her partly-finished glass of wine into the study, sit on the carpet, and stare at the desk chair, allowing her eyes to glaze over and imagining the details, the feel and smell and look of the old ladder-back chair.

About a month after Lyle died, her niece Solange took her out to dinner. Afterwards, over coffee and a shared dessert, the young woman leaned over and said, in a concerned tone, “Aunt Joan, my mom said that Gail called her and said you were obsessing over that old chair that used to be in the study.”

“Oh, I’m not obsessing,” said Joan. “At least, that’s not what I’d call it. It’s more like a—a sort of visualizing exercise.”

“Well, if you really liked that chair,” said Solange, “I wish you’d have told me. You could have kept it.”

“Your mom told me that you . . . that it got broken,” said Joan gently. Solange looked guilty.

“I stood on it to reach something,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have, but I wasn’t thinking. And the seat tore, and the whole chair went to pieces. Maybe I should have gotten it fixed but . . . ”

Joan smiled at her. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It was an old chair. And anyway, the actual chair isn’t really the point.”

And it wasn’t.

After a while, Joan began to experiment, attempting to visualize the chair more fully. She tried it after a full glass of wine, with two glasses, and with a couple of shots of bourbon. But rather than just relaxing her, the alcohol made her too sleepy to really concentrate. She then tried pot, but it was nearly impossible; every time she tried to picture the chair, she broke into giggles.

She thought about hallucinogens, but she had never used them as a student, and thought it was probably too late to start now.

She tried fasting, but all she could do was picture ice cream; after too little sleep (but all she did was nod off); and after running hard in place until she was gasping for oxygen.

She researched manifestations, wish fulfillment, and other realities. She looked into neo-paganism and witchcraft, and tried lighting candles and reciting spells.

But she finally decided that the best thing to do was simply compose herself, sit, and think about the chair.

Visualizing the chair wasn’t all she did, of course. She knew that her friends were watching her carefully—and besides, she did have a life to lead. She called the company where she had worked before Lyle got sick and, while her previous position was no longer available, they found her a slightly lesser position elsewhere in the company, which was fine with her. She read the news and watched debates on TV about what should be put in the space left by the World Trade Towers. She went to the movies and an occasional lecture at a nearby university. She even went for a couple of weekend trips with Gail—a strain, since she had to feign enthusiasm for museums and historic sites that bored her silly, but it was relaxing, and it made Gail happy.

It was all fine. Joan was in no hurry.

It finally happened on a snowy day in February, almost five months to the day after Lyle died. A storm had hit late the previous night, and while it had let up around noon, the wind continued and the clouds refused to disappear. On TV, happily alarmist news people broke into the programs every ten minutes to report on another car stuck on the highway or a kitten rescued from a frozen lake. Joan finally turned it off and walked quietly through the house; a feeling of perpetual twilight, born of the weak light pushing through the icy windows, made it seem almost as if she, as well as her husband, no longer inhabited it.

She sat crossed-legged on the carpet in the study and stared at the new chair as it sat, still incongruous, next to the worn, tired wooden desk, with its web of small scratches and dents (one made by that damned lamp, which she finally threw out). For a moment, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Lyle sitting there, tapping on his computer, leaning forward because he hated wearing his reading glasses. (His bad posture, she had told him, meant that they had spent all that money for the stupid fancy chair for nothing. Before the MRI and the doctor’s call.)

No. She rubbed her eyes, closed them for a moment, then opened them slowly and let the world go hazy.

Wood and straw. Wood painted dark brown, the original striations of the wood starting to show through where the color had worn down. The warmth of the surface, its finish almost velvety against her fingertips. The rough straw seat, curving toward where the strands met at the center, hard and spiky, dangerous little pieces popping up to prick your fingers and thighs when least expected.

Joan reached out. And felt it. The smooth, round wooden rung. The chair. Their life.

She grasped it tightly and held on, not moving, And then. “You left me,” she whispered. “You went away, bit by bit, and left me.”

“I know,” said Lyle. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to.”

“No,” Joan said. “I’m the one who should apologize. You went away so gradually. Just a little of you at a time. The pain was so bad, the medications so strong, that you lost reality, lost my name, lost yourself. But I was so centered on stopping the pain, on keeping you alive, that I didn’t pay enough attention. And then I realized you were no longer there, not really, and I never said goodbye. I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Lyle said. “I’m not even sure how much of me is here now. But I’m glad that you told me. It’s something that I wondered about, and I’m very glad you told me.”

“So am I,” Joan said, and shut her eyes. She heard the creak of the wood and the straw as he stood up and then felt his hand fondle her hair. She reached up, her eyes still closed, and pulled the hand close to her cheek. She felt the roughness of it, and smelled Dial soap and cinnamon. “You’ve been cooking again,” she said.

“A new type of apple pie,” said Lyle. “An experiment. As usual, I won’t know whether it’s come out until you taste it. Do you want to come with me? You can tell me if you like it and we can have it with coffee.”

Joan kissed his hand, and let it go. “No,” she said. “No, you’d better go.”

She felt his lips against the top of her head. “Okay,” Lyle said.

“Say hi to Steve from across the street if you see him,” she said. “Tell him thanks again for helping with the air conditioner.”

“I will. See you around, honey.” And he was gone.

Joan sat there for a moment more, unwilling to let the moment pass. She finally took a long breath and opened her eyes. And smiled.

He had left her the ladder-back chair.

 
 

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Barbara Krasnoff has had short stories appear in over 30 print and online publications, including “Sabbath Wine,” which appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 5 and was nominated for a 2017 Nebula Award.

When not producing weird fiction, she earns her living as senior reviews editor for Computerworld, a tech publication for IT professionals. And just for fun, she investigates what the animals and objects in our world are really thinking in her daily Backstories series (#theirbackstories). She is a member of the Tabula Rasa writers group, lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her partner Jim Freund, and can be found at the website BrooklynWriter.com.

About “The Ladder-Back Chair,” she writes, “Many years ago, I had a cat named Einstein, who lived with me for 14 years. The day after Einstein died, I walked into my bedroom and I saw her clearly out of the corner of my eye, staring at me from my bed, perched on her favorite pillow. The moment I tried to focus on her, she was gone—but for those couple of seconds, I would have sworn she was there. And in some fashion, maybe she was.”

 

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