One Vacant Chair

( 2 )

Overview

It's where you sit down that determines everything in life.

Sarah's aunt Edna paints portraits of chairs. Not people in chairs, just chairs. The old house is filled with the paintings, and the chairs themselves surround her work - a silent yet vigilant audience. At the funeral of Grandma Hutton - whom Edna has cared for through an agonizingly long and vague illness - Sarah begins helping her aunt clean up the last of a life. This includes ...

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Overview

It's where you sit down that determines everything in life.

Sarah's aunt Edna paints portraits of chairs. Not people in chairs, just chairs. The old house is filled with the paintings, and the chairs themselves surround her work - a silent yet vigilant audience. At the funeral of Grandma Hutton - whom Edna has cared for through an agonizingly long and vague illness - Sarah begins helping her aunt clean up the last of a life. This includes honoring Grandma's surprising wish to have her ashes scattered in Scotland.

We were two fat women, eighteen years apart, a chair artist and a designer of Christmas ornaments, who only knew we had troubles and a hot summer to get through," says Sarah. But as it turns out, there is a great deal more to her quirky aunt's troubles than Sarah could possibly imagine. As the novel turns from the hot, oppressive heat of Texas to the misty beauty of Scotland, she learns of her aunt Edna's remarkable secret life and comes to fully understand the fragile business of living and even dying.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Once again, Coomer (The Loop; Sailing in a Spoonful of Water; etc.) presents a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and delivers a philosophical punch in a comic and poignant novel about life, death and family ties. He plays with oft-used narrative conventions a funeral that leads to a rebirth, a painter who teaches the art of seeing, a physical journey that leads to spiritual growth which, in the hands of a lesser writer, might have resulted in a mishmash of feel-good nonsense. But Coomer makes it work. "[L]ike separate drops of condensating water pooling in the bottom of a cold spoon," a scattered family reconvenes in Fort Worth for the funeral of its crotchety matriarch. Narrator Sarah, an overweight designer of Christmas ornaments trying to cope with her husband's infidelity, decides to remain there after the funeral with her Aunt Edna a school cafeteria worker, amateur philosopher and a skilled painter of portraits of chairs. Aunt Edna becomes Sarah's guru, advising her on matters of health, love and art as the two women plan to take Grandma Hutton's ashes to Scotland, in keeping with her surprising will. Everything that follows Aunt Edna's marriage, her death and her posthumous emergence as a major artist is as inevitable and unexpected as any lover of classic story structure could hope for. And still, the story feels real. Even James (Aunt Edna's boyfriend, a blind black chair repairman) is a fully rounded, believable character who, with his alternative ways of "seeing," only occasionally teeters on the edge of symbolism. Coomer's tight focus on the mundane reveals the magical underbelly of everyday life. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Shortly after Sarah finds out that her husband, Sam, has been cheating on her, her grandmother dies. At the funeral, she is surprised to discover that Grandma Hutton's ashes are to be scattered in Scotland by Aunt Edna, who needs a traveling companion. Sarah decides that it is a good time to reorganize her life, so she offers to go. Sarah knows only that her Aunt Edna paints portraits of chairs and has been the "lunch lady" at the local grade school for 30 years. During their time together, however, she finds out much more, including some things she would rather not know. The journey gives Sarah some perspective concerning the "big picture," and she remodels her own life accordingly. By turns witty, droll, silly, and laugh-out-loud funny, Coomer (The Loop) writes with assurance, conveying much about the human condition and the choices people make or have thrust upon them. His story shines with vivid characters in their everyday mode yet offers surprising twists that will keep the reader's interest to the last. Highly recommended.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Ashaway, RI Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Surprises and sucker punches keep things lively in this latest from Coomer (Apologizing to Dogs, 1999, etc.), a tale of emotional upheavals in a far-flung family about to be flung farther. The family members converge on their original home in Fort Worth, Texas, for a funeral. Grandma Hutton has died at 89, and the bad-tempered old woman will be missed only by Aunt Edna, the daughter who cared for her devotedly for 22 years. This is Aunt Edna's story, narrated by her niece Sarah. Besides working at an elementary school as cafeteria manager, Edna has found time to paint chairs, nothing but chairs (and they will eventually sell for megabucks). The funeral is a splendid set-piece, with Sarah's satirical eye panning the love and guilt, bullying and bitchiness that make up family life. She has her own ax to grind: husband Sam has been cheating on her. Grandma's will is the dramatic high point: she wants her ashes scattered in Scotland. Scotland! Edna has never even been out of state but gamely volunteers to go; Sarah will accompany her (she needs a respite from Sam). Before they leave, taking Grandpa's ashes too, Edna has a surprise of her own: she is going to marry James Laurent, an elderly blind black man who canes chairs. The scenes of these aging lovebirds have a haunting delicacy, but then it's off to Scotland, where the ashes are spread at three different sites, and the satirical edge gives way to Edna's grief and Sarah's agonizing over Sam. The mood becomes even more somber with Edna's revelation that she's dying from pancreatic cancer. The final section, back in Fort Worth, feels rushed: there's Edna's tenderly offbeat wedding to James, a further revelation (this time to the police)about Grandma's death, and then Edna's own demise. Coomer's canvas is too crowded. He does Scotland proud, but at the expense of the family rearranging itself back home-which is where the novel lives. Still, an enjoyable read, without a dull page. Agent: Elaine Markson/Elaine Markson Agency
From the Publisher
“Joe Coomer’s characters in One Vacant Chair, especially the women, are those friends you’ve been waiting to meet, and he delivers them with his characteristic delectable language, rich in metaphors and dialect. I savored this novel and can’t wait to recommend it to our book clubs!” —CHERYL McKEON, Third Place Books, Book Sense 76 Recommendation
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555973858
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Joe Coomer is the author of Pocketful of Names, Apologizing to Dogs, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Loop, Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, and Dream House. He lives in Texas and Maine.

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First Chapter

One Vacant Chair


By Joe Coomer

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2003 Joe Coomer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-385-X


Chapter One

Perhaps our lives are sustained by a suspense of dying. There are things I know and things I don't know and everything else is in between. Grandma Hutton called Aunt Edna to her deathbed and then decided to linger for twenty-two years. She measured her life with spoons, the brimming spoons of medicine or milk or soup that my aunt balanced with a painter's sure grip over her own cupped palm, her free hand mimicking in form and movement the dull spoon's bowl, her arm the narrow handle. My grandmother, for the last few years of her life, answered the telephone as if she were standing at the mouth of a dark cave, halooing for a lost soul. When someone answered she was always taken aback. That's how we talked to her at last, by phone, everyone but Aunt Edna. Then the family returned to Fort Worth for the funeral like separate drops of condensing water pooling in the bowl of a cold spoon, a last offering to an old dead woman none of us cared for. That's not true. Aunt Edna missed her. We began by carrying the chairs out to the vacant lot next to the house. The old house was full of chairs, to the exclusion of almost all other furniture. This was my aunt Edna's collection. "It's one thing men are good for," she said, shooing them away from the Saran-Wrapped food, "carrying chairs." She pulled a cane-seated, ladder-backed chair away from the kitchen table, thrust it into my husband's arms, and said, "Out to the vacant lot. Everybody pick up a chair. I want evenly spaced rows with the chairs facing west so Brother Roberts is looking into the sun." Then she looked at me. "Sarah, you help me with Momma's chair. We'll put it up front next to the preacher and put her in it." "You could leave it empty," my husband said. "It would be like one of those missing-pilot-formation flyovers." It bothered me that I still thought Sam was funny. Someone you didn't respect shouldn't be able to make you smile. Grandma's chair was overstuffed, rotund, a depression-era lounge chair covered in pale green mohair. It was some work to get it out of the bedroom, through the hallway and outside onto the porch, where we sat it back down to rest. "Momma loved this old thing," Aunt Edna said. "There's no good place to grab it," I huffed. "It's got good lines." "We should brush it off while it's outside. There's cat hair on the backside." "It crossed Momma that her favorite chair was the cat's favorite chair, too. She'd hold her forearms up in the air after she sat down till I came and brushed the hair from the nap. I'd tell her the cat only sat in her chair because he loved her but the cat and I knew that was a lie." "What happened to your cat, Aunt Edna?" "Oh, I gave him up, gave him to a friend. He was a good kitty, too. He always sat in the light, just like a model should." "Grandma made you give him up." "Well, she was sneezing, sort of between sniffing and sneezing. She didn't make me." "Was there ever any snot on her Kleenex, Aunt Edna?" "No. The Kleenex just comforted her. Me getting rid of the cat comforted her, too." "You can get that cat back now." "Oh, that cat's long dead. This hair here's the last of him." "Maybe we won't brush it off then," I said. Chairs moved past us in my family's arms, more than twenty chairs from the living room alone: Windsors, Empire, Colonial, Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, chairs from every period, none alike, no pairs, much less a full set. The dining-room table was surrounded by eight chairs that were separated by two hundred years in the making, not to mention the variety of style, seat covering, and finish. Whenever we sat down for a meal, everyone was at a different level, children likely to be as tall as their parents, full-grown men with their chins resting on their plates. There were chairs where end tables should have been, chairs where cabinets and hampers should have been, chairs sitting inside dark closets, chairs hanging upside down on the walls. The television sat on a chair, as well as the microwave, a room fan, and a fish bowl. They all left the house one by one and were set in rows in the Saint Augustine grass, so that the vacant lot came to resemble an outdoor theater crossed with a yard sale. Aunt Edna and I sat Grandma's chair next to a tall oak stool that was reserved not for Brother Roberts to sit on, but to stand behind and rest his book on. "Should we have a pitcher of water for him?" I asked. "Well, I hope the sun in his eyes will keep him from talking too long, but if he bears up to it he might need some water. I'll bring over a little chair to set the water on. Now, which of these chairs would accept a glass of water?" She turned to the growing audience of empty chairs, and said, "You." Four rows back, on the groom's side, was a white wicker corner chair, low, with a rather unstable seat. It took her a full minute to balance the glass on the uneven reeds. "Now," she said, "if he stops in the middle of his speech for a drink he'll have to down it in one gulp. It will be too bothersome to set a half-full glass of water upright in this chair during a sermon. We don't want any of this talk awhile, take a sip, talk some more, have a sip, business." "Are we in a hurry, Aunt Edna?" "Doesn't that wicker make the water seem cool and inviting? Don't stomp on the ground as you pass by." I followed her back into the house, which would now be her house, I supposed, and found it virtually empty. There were beds and dressers in the two bedrooms, and a table and sideboard in the dining room, but the remainder of the house seemed almost littered. Under the twelve-foot ceilings, lying on the oak floors, was everything that had been held in the chairs: books, clothing, toiletries, magazines, knick-knacks, dishes, photographs, and telephones. In my aunt's room all her paints and brushes were shoved into a corner and they, in turn, held pinned to the wall sheaves of watercolor papers and sketchbooks. Aunt Edna's favorite chair, a 1950s kitchen chair, chrome tubing supporting a thin red vinyl seat and back, was the only chair left in the house. No one was brave enough to remove the dozens of open medicine bottles stacked precariously on its seat. She swept them all into a box in one movement. The vinyl of the seat cushion had split, like a ripe tomato left in the sun too long. The back rest sported a gray Band-Aid of duct tape, as if a tomato could be repaired. Once she carried her chair outside, the house was empty of chairs, and yet still full of them. Every chair we'd carried out was still there. Aunt Edna's chairs were simply her models. Every wall in the house was hung with sketches, watercolors, and paintings of chairs: simple pencil studies of foliate carvings on knees or stenciled crest rails, watercolors of single chairs in a meadow or parking lot, a flight of chairs winging through deep grass, an oil portrait of a stodgy banister-back paired with a low, bow-backed Windsor that had to have been influenced by Grant Wood's American Gothic. She'd continued to paint since I'd left Fort Worth twenty-six years earlier, since everyone had left, and she was still painting chairs and only chairs. It seems odd now to write it down, that she only painted chairs, but at the time no one in the family remarked upon it much. Aunt Edna liked to draw and paint chairs in the same way that my father liked to read books about the Civil War, or Aunt Margaret liked to play charades. I think it only seems eccentric now, now that her paintings have become important to people outside the family. Maybe we were wrong not to notice. The fact that her house was full of chairs was more interesting than it being full of chair paintings. The reviews use words like "compulsive" and "addicted" and "driven," but we only knew she loved chairs. Caring for Grandma and her job at the elementary school seemed the biggest part of her life. These people who now care about her art look at all of us in a dumbfounded way when we can't provide more details about her life, about her passion.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer Copyright © 2003 by Joe Coomer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2008

    Don't let the Chair fool you.....

    This is a 'stick with it' story. At first glance it's a bit of folly - where IS this all going.... You must stay with it. The more you read, the more you love. It has a great ending.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2004

    A Wonderful, Heartmoving Story

    This is the first book I have read by Mr. Coomer and I am now a huge fan. I can't wait to buy his other work. This story was powerful and moving. I live in Texas so it was cool to read about areas of Ft. Worth where I have been, but the depth Mr. Coomer brought to his characters is what really hooked me. He is a very talented writer.

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