One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer
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 her paintings, and the chairs themselves surround her worka silent yet vigilant audience. At the funeral of Grandma Huttonwhom Edna has cared for through a long and vague illnessSarah 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. As the novel turns from the oppressive heat of Texas to the misty beauty of Scotland, Sarah learns of her aunt's remarkable secret life and comes to fully understand the fragile business of living, and even of dying.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||13.62(w) x 10.88(h) x 0.70(d)|
About 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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One Vacant Chair
By Joe Coomer
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2003 Joe Coomer
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePerhaps 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I discovered Joe Coomer's books years ago through another reading friend's recommendation. Then I chose one of his books for my summer book club last summer to help spread the word a bit farther. There's just something wonderful about the quirky characters he creates and the way in which he can tackle deep philosophical issues in the guise of a humorous, thinking novel that makes his work shine. One Vacant Chair is the latest I've read and thoroughly enjoyed.This novel opens with the Hutton family gathering for the memorial service to bury their mother and grandmother. Edna, an unmarried school cafeteria worker and artist who paints portraits of chairs had taken care of her cantankerous, bedridden mother for twenty odd years. But Edna (and grandma) lived lives that would have surprised the rest of the family and after the reading of the will where grandma asked for her ashes to be scattered in Scotland, a place she'd never been, the details of their lives start to emerge. Sarah, Edna's niece, reeling from her husband's infidelity, offers to stay and help her aunt pull together all the lose ends involved in international travel for those who have never left home. She also has the chance to observe her aunt's artistic process and to get in touch her own artistic roots while in the presence of a wonderful artist, one who will be revered posthumously as small comments scattered throughout Sarah's telling of the story make clear. While living with Edna and then traveling with her to Scotland, Sarah learns the secrets, large and small, of her aunt's life and comes face to face with the delicate realities of living and dying.On the surface, a quirky tale filled with unusual characters, Coomer has a knack for delving deeply into the things that drive our lives. Here the examination is not only of life and death as points on the same continuum but also of the place of family and love on our own personal time lines. With Sarah telling the story from the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows much of the territory that the narrative will cover but that doesn't make it dismissively predictable. Instead, it freights the conversations between Sarah and aunt Edna with more portents than perhaps would have been possible otherwise. And still there are major twists that are surprising in their deviation from the expected. As the two women travel through Scotland doling out ashes in the places they have chosen, they each struggle with the path their lives are on, trying to find the right thing for themselves in balance with those surrounding them. The book is never preachy and always accessible but it is full of the symbolic and the philosophical. It is beautifully presented and entertainingly drawn, well-written and appealing. You'll warm to the characters, ache with their indecision and weaknesses, and laugh with their eccentricities. You might even learn something about art and art process (I sure did). Readers looking for an unusual story will be richly rewarded with this one. It's a gem.
This was a bookclub selection and to whom ever selected it I am grateful. It was different and the story kept turning and turning; the ending really turned me around; I thought it was funny and sad and I cried as much as I laughed reading it;
Great book! Thanks, Cindy, for the recommendation!
Classic Coomer: witty, quirky, random, and delightful. I enjoyed reading this book, start to finish.
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.
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.