Writings from Underground


Table and Chairs

By Jesse George Pearce

Until her husband left, the young mother believed that giving him whatever he wanted was the way to make him love her. So, she learned how to cook and alone cared for the boys and did lunges at the laundromat, because he liked her wearing exercise tights, and scrubbed the toilets daily, because he bemoaned blemishes, droplets, rings, stray hairs (heaven help you if a drop of blood was found), and made sure he didn’t have to search for the remote control and that his beer was ice cold, and learned how to cook his favorite dishes, and massaged his shoulder and rubbed his feet, and watched pornography on a hand-me-down desktop computer, sick to her stomach, to learn how to please him, and an hour of yoga every morning, before the boys woke, to be able, physically, having given birth three times in four years, to perform, after parenting all day, the things she had learned, and never complained when he stayed out past dawn.

He left a week ago, quit the foundry and skipped town. Only today did she realize that giving him everything he wanted made it easy for him to cheat and, while still married to her, propose to someone else, a twenty-year-old stripper, who had been in a porn movie, and who had tattoos and neither kids nor stretch marks.

He had emptied the apartment in less than an hour, while she and the boys were at the grocery store. She came home to a refrigerator, a few pillows and blankets, and two, used air mattresses she had never seen before. After buying groceries, twelve dollars and fifty-seven cents was all she had. The bank account bore his name, not hers, and though the teller would say nothing at a conversational volume, after considering the stroller the young mother pushed, giving suckers to the boys, and looking over both shoulders, the teller whispered that the account had been closed—there was no money. At home, Davey asked to watch cartoons on a television that wasn’t there.

“The furniture isnt ours to keep,” the husband said, finally answering his phone. “You got the station wagon, more than a weeks food, a months rent.” The young mother heard the girl in the background, drunk and laughing. “Stop bothering me,” the husband said. “Itll sort out in court.”

The young mother broke her cell phone, whipping it onto the sidewalk. The lawyer met with her five minutes and told her he would need two thousand dollars to start. She cracked the bathroom mirror, slapping at a fruit fly.

A preacher gave her the address of a man with a dining table and chairs she could have. During the drive, Davey asked her why she was crying. She looked at him, and at Jasper and Rafe, and thought about them growing up, becoming like their father. She imagined what it would be like to walk out on them forever.

The house at the address was small and painted white, on a street with other small houses. An old man greeted her through a screen door. He wore a shirt, unbuttoned, over a white undershirt, the buttoned shirt so thin she could see through it. He wore tan pants and white socks and was handsome, for an old man. His salt-and-pepper stubble comforted her as she guided the boys inside, into a mudroom, where the old man sat in a chair. His white hair was thin and messy, and his eyes were red. The smell of pipe tobacco lingered. He blew into a sunbeam coming through a window, scattering dust beads in the light. He slid his feet into shoes without bending over. The young woman held Jasper against her shoulder, while Davey and Rafe clung to her legs.

“Caught me having my midday,” the old man spoke out of a dry throat. He coughed and hacked, yawned and scratched his stomach. He squinted and smiled at Davey. “Do you play baseball, little fella?”

“Not yet,” the young mother said, stroking Daveys hair. “He only turns five in February. Thank you so much for doing this. We dont want to take up your time

“You look a bit like Dutch Leonard,” the old man said and made a claw with his hand, making Davey laugh. “Heckuva knuckleballer,” the old man grinned.

The young mother followed the old man into a parlor, nudging the boys along. They passed a love seat, chairs and ottoman under plastic covers, and crossed into a narrow room with two reclining chairs and a television. Curtains were pulled. The light was dim. A wooden crate full of wooden toys—cars, dump trucks, zoo animals—was in the middle of the floor. The old man laughed when Davey and Rafe let go of the young mother’s leg and ransacked the crate. He sat in the recliner that creaked and dipped and had a thin, brown blanket draped over it, and gestured for the young mother to sit in the other, which had green upholstery and a firm seat. She sat on the edge and placed Jasper on her knee.

“Thank you for your generosity,” she said. “We dont want to disturb you any more than necessary.”

The old man dug a pipe into a tobacco pouch. He pressed the leaves into the bowl with the tip of his thumb, struck a wood match and smoked. He sat back and smiled at the boys. His teeth were stained and crooked.

“I want so much to thank you,” the young mother said.

“Manys the time such a thing has been done for me,” the old man said, pointing an index finger at the ceiling. “Were all in it together.”

He puffed the pipe twice. He chuckled at Rafe’s lion roars. Davey grabbed a zebra out of Rafe’s hand and Rafe cried. The young mother kneeled on the floor and calmed him with cereal treats. When she turned around, the old man was asleep. She plucked the pipe from his fingers and placed it on an upturned, wooden crate set beside his chair. She gently shook his shoulder. He replied with snores. She lay Jasper on the floor beside his brothers.

Photographs hung on the wall. The first was a faded, black-and-white wedding photo. She recognized the old man’s chin. He wore a military uniform and hat, while the bride wore a simple, white dress with lace, in heart patterns, below the neck. The next one was a portrait of the bride, a few years older, a richer black-and-white than the first, in which she looked like a nineteen-fifties, TV mom, with twinkling teeth and cheeks smooth as clay.

The largest was a family photo: the mother sitting, slender and long, her two, school-aged sons on either side of her and the old man, her husband, behind her. It was a color photo: the old man and the sons wore black suits, thin black ties, and white shirts, while the mother wore a baby-blue flare dress with white polka dots. Her eyes were emerald sparks, and her hair was creamy blonde, styled in puffs and waves around a pretty face. The old man, then in his mid-thirties, was dark-haired, clean-shaven, broad-shouldered. The sons stood straight, hands flat against their sides. Everyone smiled.

The sons in their teenage years were shown in a triangular cluster of smaller pictures: in baggy baseball uniforms, bats on their shoulders; in suits and boutonnieres, girls in pretty dresses on their arms; and in a shot looking down a river at sunrise, fly-fishing with their father, in waders and bucket hats, rods above their heads and lines whipping.

Jasper rolled on his back and started to cry. The young mother let him flail and brew up a good fuss, in the hope of stirring the old man. She again shook his shoulder. He opened his eyes and closed them but did not wake. A drop of watery mucus fell off the tip of his nose onto his shirt. The young mother wondered how close he was to a hundred.

A bay window on the rear wall of the room overlooked a plush lawn. Maple, birch and oak trees made its borders. A weeping willow loomed over a shady corner. Butterflies darted about the shrubbery outside the window. Through an archway on the far side of the room, she peeked into a kitchen. It shone with sunlight and a white, tile floor. She looked past the boys, back across the room, at the photographs on the wall. There was a shadowy hallway beyond them that she had not noticed. The wall on which the photographs hung extended beyond a doorway and became a wall of the hallway.

The young mother would have gathered the boys and left. The old man had not moved except to breathe, snort and smack his lips. While spitting out dump-truck sounds, though, Davey smiled in a way not seen since daddy went away. She waited a little longer, sat in the burgundy chair, and watched the boys play. Jasper wobbled on his belly and stretched for an elephant just out of his reach. Rafe waddled over and touched the old man’s knee. As she stood and shepherded him back to the toys, she spotted a wooden stem, down the shadowy hallway. It was not, as she had guessed, the leg of a dining table ready for her to take away. The shadows were sharp and pointed. She discovered that they were being cast by a trophy case, a leg of which was the wooden stem she had seen. The case was a rectangular box of glass panels, held together by a wood frame that ran along the wall as waist height. Past the end of it, a lamp set atop a stool, radiating yellow-brown light.

Three photographs hung at eye level above the case: head shots of the old man in his youth, in a military uniform, serious and tinted blue-grey, and of the two sons, grown up, clean-cut and steel-jawed, in military uniforms of their own. Homemade, laminated placards were displayed beneath each photograph, on thick, eggshell paper, with stenciled borders around precise, neat handwriting, a woman’s. The lamination was peeling, and the paper was faded. Under the old man’s photograph, the placard read:

Sgt. Claude Adam Chester

b. March 23, 1927

United States Army, 24th Infantry Division

Battle of Pusan Perimeter, South Korea, 1950.

In the middle of the photograph, the older son’s eyes were bright and his teeth shined, the face of the boy he had been visible in the shape of his cheeks and in how the ears flapped out. He had his father’s chin. The young mother raised the lamp off the stool and cast light on the placard:

Pfc. Walter Milton Chester

b. October 11, 1945

d. November 17, 1965

United States Army, 7th Cavalry Regiment

Battle of Ia Drang, South Vietnam.

The younger son in the last photograph had a face like his mother’s, delicate and smooth, and though smaller than his brother, had a stare that burned and an impish, closed-lipped grin that gave the young mother the notion he had been the stronger one. She tugged lightly at a faded, frail, yellow ribbon tied around the placard, which read:

Cpl. Andrew Ellis Chester

b. January 29, 1947

d. May 16, 1969

United States Army, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment

Battle of Hamburger Hill, South Vietnam.

The young mother had seen a purple heart only once before. A teacher brought one to school, when she was a child. There were three of them enclosed in the trophy case, front and center. Ribbons and trophies for swimming, baseball, science and mathematics, won by the sons, were laid out to the ends of the case; they had lost their shine and color but remained bulky and bold. The medals in the middle, on the other hand, and the tight triangles of ribbon to which they were tied, were diminutive, elegant works of art. They glimmered as the young mother shone lamplight upon them. Beside the purple hearts were four other medals: two gold stars, each with a tinier, silver star in its center, tied to a red-white-and-blue ribbon; one bronze cross with an eagle in the center and a blue ribbon with red and white trim; and one inverted gold star, overlapping a green wreath, set below an eagle perched upon a gold bar, imprinted with a single word: Valor.

A pamphlet lay on top of the glass, at the end of the case. It was curled at the corners and yellowed. On the front was a miniature of the mother’s black-and-white portrait, above the words:

In Loving Remembrance

Darlene Alice Chester

August 30, 1925 - July 4, 1984

I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

Two snapshots fell out of the pamphlet, one of the mother and sons around a green-and-white-checkered tablecloth, upon which set a birthday cake, and the other of the mother on the back lawn of the house, on a grey, autumn day, falling leaves, brown, scarlet and lemon, suspended in the air around her. She wore a plaid, flannel jacket of red and black. It was hard to see the face from the earlier photographs. It had swollen, jowls had formed, while her body had become squat and plump. The wings of her hair still swept back but had turned two shades of grey, and on top, the strands were thin and flat, exposing patches of scalp. Her eyes peered from within a cave, their emerald sparks snuffed out. She was frowning. She did not want her picture taken.

The old man woke to the young mother, sitting in the green chair and smiling at him. Jasper bounced on her knee, a pacifier in his mouth.

“Table and chairs,” the old man said and slapped his knee. He stood and motioned for the young mother to follow him into the kitchen.

She bent over to nudge Davey and Rafe in that direction. They whined in protest. Davey lay on top of the crate of toys, face down. Rafe jerked his arm away from her grasp.

“They won’t hurt anything,” the old man said, silhouetted in the kitchen archway.

The young mother left Davey and Rafe to play and carried Jasper in the crook of her arm. In the kitchen, the old man pulled a green-and-white-checkered tablecloth off a dining table.

“You should be real comfortable,” he said.

The young mother’s eyes went from side to side.

“Preacher told me you had a spare set,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

Her mouth agape, it struck the young mother that the old man might be joking. She laughed but stopped—his smile was kind, not funny.

“But this is your dining set,” she said. “This is where you eat.”

“I never have watched TV during supper,” he said. “Thought Id like to give it a try.”

“I can’t,” she said. “It’s not right.

The old man turned his gaze from her to Jasper.

“Do your boys like to color pictures?” he said. “I know for a fact this is a good table for coloring.”

“It wouldnt be right,” she said.

“Do you think they might color me a few I can put on the refrigerator?”

“Yes, of course, but we cant accept this. Its not right.”

The old mans smile turned funny.

“From now on, my dining chair is the recliner,” he said, “and my dining table is my lap. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll get a TV tray. So if you dont take this table and chairs, theyll set here, useless and wasted.”

The young mother laughed as she wept. The old man squeezed her when she hugged him. Jasper kissed his cheek.

Although he moved slowly, the old man was strong, flipping the dining table twice, on its side and on its top. He deftly removed the legs with a screwdriver and, leaving the boys to play on the floor, the young mother and the old man carried the tabletop outside to the station wagon. After everything was loaded and the boys were strapped in their car seats, the young mother and the old man stood beside the station wagon.

“May I say something?” the old man said.

A chill rushed through the young mothers chest. She was able only to nod.

“Every last bit of trouble,” he said, bending an ear to listen to the boys, who were giggling in the backseat. “Its worth it, just to hear that sound.” A tear fell and was lost in his stubble. “Like angels singing praises,” he said.

He went inside the house as the young mother backed the station wagon out of the driveway. He shut the door as she drove away. She was not far along when she pulled over, at the sight of him in the rearview. He was shuffling up the street, calling out for her to stop, carrying the wooden crate of toys.