Big Black Chair
In our living room, there is a big black chair. It has wooden armrests and is made of black leather. It’s not too high up off the ground, so our heads never get stuck in the clouds. It’s low. So we stay grounded. Momma always says it’s important to stay grounded, or else my head will blow up real big, like a hot air balloon. Anyways, my Grampa’s always in the chair. He has a hard time walking and standing up, so he just sits in the chair and makes this noise like there’s gravel in his throat. Momma says it’s ‘cause he smoked a lot of cigarettes when he was my age, and now he’s paying the price. Pop smokes cigarettes. Momma says he’s gonna end up just like Grampa: in the big black chair.
Grampa didn’t always live with us. When my Gramma was alive he played tennis and golf with Frank’s and Richards’ at Hillside. But then he got real sick after Gramma died. Pop wanted to put him in a place to live that would take care of him, but Momma said it smelled like rotten eggs, so now he lives in our chair. I used to be sad that Grampa was in our chair ‘cause I used to like sitting in the chair. Now I’m not allowed to. My Grampa’s okay, though. There’s always sauce on his shirt, but one time he gave me a 2 dollar bill. I didn’t even know those existed before.
“Stewie, come‘n give your Momma a kiss before school.”
“Bye Momma.” I run right up to her and she sticks her cheek out for me. “I love you, Momma.” I kiss her cheek.
“I love you too, baby.” She sticks out my lunchbox. It’s got a real big picture of SpongeBob Squarepants on it. And he’s also with his friends: Patrick and Squidward. Well, Squidward isn’t really his friend.
When I get to the bus stop, Michael is there already. Michael always gets places early ‘cause his Momma tells him it’s rude to be late. My Momma says it’s all right to be late if you’ve gotta good excuse. If you don’t have a good excuse, Momma says it’s okay to tell a white lie. A white lie is different than a normal lie, ‘cause it doesn’t count.
“Hey Stewie, I’ve got three Oreos in my lunch ya know.”
“I’ve got a cookie.”
“Chocolate.” I always have a better lunch than Michael. Well, sometimes Michael has better cookies than I do because they’re from the store. But Momma makes my cookies. Michael’s Momma works in an office, so she can’t make him cookies. Sometimes I feel sad for Michael because his Momma and Pop both work in an office, so he’s always by himself at home. He doesn’t even have any brothers or sisters, and I’ve got lots. I’ve got Thomas, he’s the oldest. He doesn’t live with us anymore, though. He’s older, and he got in a fight with my Pop a while ago, so he doesn’t come by much anymore. I don’t know why they got in a fight. I’ve also got two sisters, Marie and Jessie. Marie’s eleven when I’m only ten. But I’d be awfully lonely if Marie weren’t around, ‘cause even though she yells at me when I try to play with her, she sometimes lets me watch SpongeBob even when she doesn’t want to. Jessie’s real old, so she doesn’t like me. She’s sixteen and only talks to me when Momma says so. That’s why I’m sometimes sad for Michael. Michael also doesn’t have his Grampa living in his big black chair.
“Hey you wanna come to my house after school? My Momma left me 20 dollars so we could buy as much candy as we want.”
“Okay, I’ve gotta ask my Momma though. You’ve got the best Momma ever, Michael! You can do anything you want.”
We’re real excited when we get to school because we’re in the 5th grade now. That means that we’re the oldest in the whole school. I’ve never been the oldest anywhere, but now I’m the boss of all the younger kids. Michael said it doesn’t work like that, but I don’t care. Michael’s always telling me stuff. He’s older.
When I get home from Michael’s house, Momma’s putting lipstick on her mouth. Grampa’s in the big black chair sleeping, even though the TV is on. Baseball. I don’t get that sport.
“Hey baby, how was school?” she says as she continues painting her mouth with red.
“Good, I guess. My teacher’s kinda funny. Mr. Taylor. I asked him if I could go to the bathroom today and he said, ‘Well I don’t know, Stewie. Can ya?’ It was funny. And he has a bald head.” Just when I say that Pop walks into the room.
“And what’s so funny about a bald head, son? Well? What’re you laughin’ for?”
“Sorry, Pop.” I say even though I keep laughing. “Where are you going?” I notice Pop is wearing that blue shirt with buttons all down the front. He only wears that one when he’s going out.
“Well as a matter of fact Pop and me are going on a date tonight. That new fancy place, too.” Momma says, smiling. “Now don’t you worry Stewie baby, Grampa is going to watch you.” Grampa? She’s gotta be kidding. I go up to her real close.
“Momma,” I whisper, “you can’t leave me here with him. What am I s’pose to say to him?”
“He’s your Grampa! You’ll find somethin’.” She chuckles. “C’mon, Roy, we’ll be late.” And then Momma and Pop leave. Leave me alone with Grampa. I think I can sneak into my room without waking him. I start to make my way.
“Stewie?” Gravel throat.
“H-hey Grampa. Hey. Didja sleep good?”
“Aw real good Stew, real good.” I try to think of what to say next, but I can’t think of nothing. I just keep standing there and the gravel throat starts again. I think maybe I can leave now, but then he says, “Hey son, you ever play war?”
“No. What’s that?”
“Grab me that deck of cards over there on the table.” I do as he says. He starts shuffling the cards real fast. I’m surprised because Grampa has hands that are real old. And real shaky, too. But he shuffles the cards the fastest I’ve ever seen.
“You’re awfully good at that, Grampa. Where’d you learn to do that?” And then he tells me this whole long story. Didja know my Grampa fought in a war? A real war too, not just the game. He was a pilot and he flew the planes that went over all the war zones. Grampa says he was in Vietnam for three whole years. He tells me they used to play cards. War and gin rummy and blackjack. I don’t know what those games are, but I laugh because it’s awfully funny imagining people in the war playing cards. I ask him if he ever killed anyone and he puts the cards down and looks off to the side. I don’t know why but then he says, “Ya know Stewie, sometimes in war you gotta do things that you don’t wanna do. Ya understand?” Gravel throat. “I never wanted to kill anyone, but ya know, you gotta do what’s right for your country. Understand son?”
“Yes, Grampa. I understand.” I never knew all that about my Grampa.
Me and Grampa start playing cards a lot. He teaches me all these new games. Like gin rummy and blackjack. One time he even teaches me poker, and I get real excited because Pop plays poker on Sundays. I feel just like Pop when I play poker. Except Momma won’t let us play with real money so we play with raisins. Every time we play cards Grampa tells me a new story. I used to think Grampa’s stories were the most boring thing I’d ever heard, but I like them a whole lot now. Grampa tells me about the war and how he met my Gramma. Gramma’s parents hated my him, so my Grampa says. I ask him why and he says he always had a smart mouth when he was young. I think that’s a good thing, but Grampa says a smart mouth is not a good thing. He says I have a smart mouth sometimes. I feel sad for him because he says he misses my Gramma an awful lot. My Momma and Pop have got each other, and even Jessie’s got Rob, her boyfriend. But my Grampa’s all alone. That’s when I decide to find my Grampa love again. I know I can find my Grampa love because one time I had a girlfriend. In the 3rd grade Julie Miller and me dated for a whole month. I tell Grampa this and he laughs. I tell him he’s got a smart mouth.
On Monday I ask Michael if he knows any ladies that are 70. My Grampa is 75 but he says he would date a lady that is 70.
“Well, my Gramma is 70 I think, but she is already married to my Grampa.”
“Well maybe she might like my Grampa more than your Grampa. Couldja tell her to come to my house after school to meet my Grampa?”
“No, Stewie. You can’t just take my Gramma away from my Grampa. You can’t just do that. Trust me Stewie, I’m older than you. I know.” I’m awful tired of Michael telling me things just because he’s older.
After school I ask Mr. Taylor how old his Momma is. I figure that he is around the age of my Momma and Pop, so maybe his Momma is 70.
“What’re you asking for, Stewie?” He laughs.
“I’m trying to find my Grampa a new wife. Because my Gramma is dead.” Mr. Taylor laughs again. I wish he wouldn’t keep doing that when I’m trying to find my Grampa a wife. “Well is your Momma 70?” I ask.
“As a matter of fact she’s 72.”
“Has she got a husband?”
“Well, no Stewie, he died quite some time ago.” This is very exciting for me because my Grampa’s going to have a new wife, and then he won’t be alone.
“Do ya think she’ll mind the chair?”
“The big black chair. My Grampa’s always in our big black chair. But he can do lots of things. Like play cards and watch TV. Even though he sometimes falls asleep while he’s watching TV.”
When I get home from school that day no one is home except for Grampa, but he’s asleep. I want to wake him up so I can tell him about his new wife. He’d get mad if I woke him, though. So I go to my room to do my homework. It takes me one whole hour to do my homework, and then Momma gets home from the store. I run to see her. She puts the groceries on the table and I ask her, “Momma can I please wake Grampa? I’ve gotta tell him about Mr. Taylor’s Momma. I’ve just got to.” Momma chuckles.
“Is that man still sleepin’? He’s been out all day. Wake him, baby. It’s dinner soon.” I run over to the big black chair and poke his arm.
“Grampa, wake up, I found you a new wife! Grampa!” Momma laughs again and puts the groceries away. “Grampa!” I keep poking him but he doesn’t move. “Momma, Grampa’s not waking up. I’ve gotta tell him!” Momma looks up and her smile fades. She walks over to me and Grampa the quickest I ever seen Momma walk. She shakes him but he still doesn’t wake up. Momma starts to cry and scream. I think I know why. Momma tells me to go to my room, only I don’t wanna go to my room. I wanna tell Grampa. I’ve gotta tell him.
At the funeral, Momma cries a lot. Everyone I ever knew is here. Even Tommy is here. Everyone cries but me. Even Pop cries. I can’t cry so I pretend to. I think it’s okay because it’s only a white lie. That’s different from real lies. Momma tells me a real lie today. She says that Grampa’s just gone for a little bit, that he’s on vacation. But I’m too old to believe that. I know my Grampa can’t go on vacation.
We got rid of our big black chair.
They all had paper hearts. Not that they were incapable of love or anything, just that they loved with surface and beginnings. They sat on the beach, their paper hearts fluttering. But because the wind was strong, not because there was any overflow of emotion.
Jane was pretty- not overwhelmingly beautiful or anything, but you’d look at her and smile. Her hair was a nice shade of gold and her laugh, when it made an appearance, was radiant. She never found much joy in her life, but her main source of liveliness came from nicotine and pocketing lipsticks in drug stores. She also took pleasure in taking photographs of herself in lacy bras- bras far too expensive for the vacancy of her bedazzled wallet.
Jane used to enjoy parties. The tuneless music that filtered in and out of people’s ears, the cigarettes and vodka that she consumed in company. She flitted from group to group like a butterfly unsure of her final destination. It was these soulless soirées that temporarily eliminated the all too present noise in her head.
“It’s in the valley, are you kidding me?” Moira shook her head. While Jane usually wore black boots and hoop earrings, Moira opted for long floral dresses. Though this was a common response to valley parties, Jane was always persuasive enough to get her friends into a car and to the party with beers in their hands. Usually, one step into the house already made her feel weightless and gave her a sense of ease she rarely had in her day-to-day life. But for the first time, even as she wandered the house finding her way to a table outside, Jane found herself feeling empty as ever. There was a void in her heart that not even the old bottle of moonshine in her backpack could fill. That night she found herself on her bathroom floor with a bundle of razors in her hand, resembling a bouquet of flowers. Her tears seeped into her blood, so much so that eventually, she couldn’t tell the difference between the two. But she picked herself up off the floor, as she had time and time again.
Whenever she drove, she blasted 70s music, probably breaking the sound system in her mother’s car. She screamed the lyrics as she flew across the highway that ran along the ocean. It was never a soulful belt either. Jane screamed, rugged and real, so that her voice was always hoarse. Her friends never understood the lure of this sensation and Jane could never explain it. She just felt like screaming all the time.
Jane always put everything she had into dressing like the superstar she wanted to feel like. Her makeup collection had grown to vast proportions and the entirety of her self-esteem came from other people telling her she looked good. So she continued to paint her face with sarcasm and confidence, remaining hesitant to open up to anyone. But as she did, her sanity began to sink and flail under water. She was getting caught in layers of fog, grayness that she couldn’t lift her head above of. One day she snapped. Like a mother at her child or a twig in the woods.
Jane had many friends. Quiet friends, loud friends, older friends, younger friends. Friends that were sex addicts and sold pills on the side. She collected her friends like she did the pills. Once Jane had them, she immediately became afraid of them. And for a long while she just kept them in a plastic bag in her nightstand. But when Jane snapped, she already felt like she couldn’t breathe and darkness overcame her. She hadn’t been able to sleep that night. She felt alone. She could feel the presence of the plastic bag in her nightstand and all of the sudden they were resting in her hand.
The doctors said it was painless. But when they cut her open, all they found was a paper heart.
I had Lucas when I was 19, and for most of his life it was just the two of us. Henry left after 3 weeks, and no one seemed surprised but me. When I’d hold Lucas in my arms- his body so delicate I was afraid I’d break him- I’d sometimes just start crying. Lucas’ face was just about identical to mine, except for his eyes. No, his eyes were deep brown, just like Henry’s. But Lucas and I were fine. Six whole years and not a scratch on either of us.
~ ~ ~
I woke up to the sharp beep of my alarm. There were two tiny feet on top of my face and each big toe was painted orange. The night before I had been painting my toes and Lucas wanted in on the action. He rejected the bright green I had chosen for myself and picked an old one in my drawer called, “apocalyptic fire”. I gently picked up his feet and began softly shaking them. “Hey buddy,” I whispered. He moved, ever so slightly, his eyes opening just enough to catch light. He shut his eyes hard. I reached over to my nightstand, and picked up his glasses.
He had cried when the doctor told him he needed glasses. He said that Grant would make fun of him, just like how he made fun of Joseph. Apparently Joseph had pink glasses and Grant said that was a girl’s color. But Lucas’ light blue glasses had become a staple, and I had a theory he secretly loved wearing them.
When Lucas finished adjusting his glasses on his face, he jumped off the bed, running away. “Lucas! Where are you going?” I followed the scampering of his feet. I walked into the living room, watching Lucas run to the window. He jumped in a failed attempt to see out the window. I walked over to him. “Here.” I lifted him up as he kicked his legs against my body.
“I have to see! I have to see!” Lucas squealed.
“See what buddy?” I laughed as his face became grim. And then all the sudden tears started welling up in his eyes. He removed his glasses carefully, wiping his face.
“Now I can’t see in my glasses!” He cried harder. I took his glasses, wiping them on my shirt. I handed them back to him, now crouching at his level.
“What’s going on bud?” He rest his head on my shoulder, sniffling.
“It was snowing. In my dream it was snowing,” Lucas whined, “but it’s not snowing.” I nodded my head in sympathy.
“Well,” I picked him up, plopping him down on my lap, “when school is over, we’re going to get ice cream.” His eyes widened. “That’s right, and I’m going to cotton candy,” I told him. His smile stretched across his entire face.
“I’m getting vanilla! Can I get toppings?” I nodded as he jumped off of my lap. “Rainbow sprinkles!” He screamed through the house. As he ran to his room, he stuck out his airplane arms, jumping over the multitude of tiny airplanes littering the floor.
“Lucas, only ice cream if you pick up the planes!” I screamed from the living room.
“But then I would be knocking the planes out of the sky and all of the people will crash. The planes have to finish flying, Mom.”
“Well the flight better be over before we have to leave for school.”
~ ~ ~
Henry is a pilot. That’s all that I ever told Lucas about him. I never wanted to confuse or upset him. I never wanted him to ask why he left, but of course he did. I told him, Lucas, your father is a pilot. He flies planes all day long. So you understand why he isn’t here, right buddy? He’s in the sky.Lucas became obsessed with flying after that. For every birthday for 3 years I’ve gotten him some different toy plane. And each year his smile is just as big as the last.
~ ~ ~
When I dropped him off at school, Lucas turned back to me and grinned. He ran back over to me, dropped his lunchbox and hugged me. I’ll never forget that feeling. Real, pure joy filling up my heart. “Don’t forget about ice cream, Mom. Don’t forget, okay?” He got very serious.
“Don’t worry. I won’t forget. Vanilla, right?”
“With rainbow sprinkles.”
“Right, rainbow sprinkles.” He turned around as the bell rang.
“Bye Mom!” I watched as his little feet hit the pavement.
~ ~ ~
By the time work ended and it was time to pick Lucas up at school, I was ready for my cotton candy ice cream. Lucas had called me at lunchtime to make sure I didn’t forget about the ice cream after school. I hadn’t, of course.
As I started walking toward the school, my keys hung on my index finger. Lucas had just made me a new keychain. It was big and sloppy and the glue wasn’t even dry yet, but he told me it was a mother’s day gift and I couldn’t resist putting it on my now hideous ring of keys. Mother’s day was 2 months ago, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
I was getting out of my car when I saw a mess of brown hair and dark, darting eyes. He was on the opposite side of the parking lot, the side closer to the school. Sullen and menacing, he walked slowly as he looked all around him. Then, he reached for his back pocket. It was chunkier than I ever imagined it to be. I had never seen a real gun before. Only in movies and Lucas’ Nerf Gun. I thought I was imagining the entire thing when I looked at the expression on Ms. Jameson’s face. I could see her through the open door of the classroom. She was inside putting markers away when the man caught her attention. She was always such a kind woman. She had the kind of eyes that made you immediately trust her with your kid. Lucas was on the carpet near the door. He was picking markers up off the floor, and handing them to Ms. Jameson. And then, he was in the doorway. As the “class leader” he got to be at the front of the line to leave the classroom. The day he told me, we hung the “class leader” certificate on the fridge. And that night as he went to sleep, he thought I couldn’t hear him when he whispered, “I want Daddy to see my certificate.”
I meant to run towards the classroom- towards him. I meant to save my baby boy, but I found myself dumbfounded, standing there paralyzed, like I was watching a program on television.
The noise was the worst part. I had never heard something so thundering and overpowering in my life. Neither had he. His tiny hands were waving at me when it happened. Waving all over the place. Then they starting shaking. He was smiling and jumping up and down so I would see him when he first left the classroom. We were supposed to go get ice cream. He was supposed to get vanilla all over his face so we’d laugh and then I’d wipe it off. He was waving and jumping and smiling because he thought we were going to get ice cream.
When the bullet came hurtling out everything became slow. The cry of the children rang in my ears but had become buffered by Ms. Jameson’s hand. She was now hiding behind a desk. She was hiding behind a desk while my whole world was standing right out in the open waving and jumping and smiling. I wanted to move more than anything. I wanted to jump in front of him, protect him like I always promised I would. But it felt as if my feet were sinking into the ground. The way his cartoon’s always depicted quicksand.
As soon as it hit his superman t-shirt, everything ended. The noise wasn’t so loud anymore and the children were no longer crying. Because they had fallen, too. I could only hear the sound of my own heartbeat. My own vivacious, working heart. He was six. He was six and he wanted to be a pilot. He wanted to fly and jump on clouds, he told me. Just like his Dad. I like to believe that he is flying in the clouds now.