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This Old Chair
By Roger A. Legg
“It’s empty,” said the large man in coveralls. His head was bent down to look at the old lady. He was monstrous against her slight frame. His coveralls were dirty and worn. So many years of moving furniture had taken their toll on them.
“Did you leave the chair?” asked the old woman.
“Yes,” was all the man said. He wanted to get the last of this woman’s things on his truck so he could get home. It was Friday night and the sun had already set.
“You know, that old chair was here when I moved in,” said the old lady as her eyes wandered into a past that only she remembered.
The large man wanted to be polite, but knew if he asked he would be drawn into another story. No, another memory, still sharp in this old woman’s mind. Jonathan picked up two boxes stacked on the ground and placed them in the back of his truck.
It was as big as he was. With a sixteen-foot box. This old truck had moved thousands of household goods all over the state. But this trip was different. His truck was mostly empty.
The old lady had so little, and now she didn’t even have her home. He was to move most of her stuff to a storage unit that had been rented by a man he assumed was her son.
The rest was to be delivered to a retirement home thirty miles away. With the last of her stuff on the truck and truck’s braces installed to keep the load from shifting while he drove, Jonathan jumped down from the truck. He felt the pain of all 320-some pounds as his knees bent from the shock of hitting the ground. He would soon have to start climbing down as his body wasn’t as young as it used to be. Mortality was catching up with him more and more each year. Jonathan looked at the old lady sitting on the curb. It was warm and the sun had been out all day. About four hours ago she had planted herself in a folding chair and had not moved since. She watched as everything she owned was moved out of the old house and placed on the truck. She said little. Now a tear was on her cheek and her eyes were lost in the past.
“Ma’am,” said Jonathan.
She didn’t answer.
“Ma’am!” Jonathan raised his voice a little. He didn’t want to scare the old woman.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” said the old woman. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Jonathan, wondering who was going to collect the old woman.
“I should go back inside.” The old woman started to get up, but the folding chair was lower than she was used to and she was having trouble.
Jonathan raced to her side. “Let me help you,” he said, and with his huge hands he helped her to her feet. She was frail and Jonathan almost snapped her out of her chair. She couldn’t have weighed more than a buck-ten. Her arms were so thin. Jonathan could not help it. His heart ached for this woman. She was alone, her house empty, with the exception of the old chair.
Jonathan snapped up the folding chair and followed the old lady into the house. It was not her home anymore. Her home was piled on his truck.
The old lady walked into the living room where the chair sat in front of an old fireplace. Unlike most homes, this old house had wood paneling which had been there for decades. The paint was faded in some spots and peeling in others. It had been a happy shade of green some decades before. Now it just looked old and moldy with gray wood peaking through some of the areas totally devoid of paint.
“My husband painted this wall when we first moved in,” she said, pointing at it.
“That must have been some time ago,” said Jonathan with regret as it indicated that it was in such a state of decay.
“1931,” was all the lady said.
“What?” asked Jonathan in surprise.
“That’s right,” said the old lady as she sat in the chair. Despite her slight weight, the chair creaked as she sat in it.
“Yep, just before David was born,” she said, as if Jonathan knew the names of her children.
“Wow,” Jonathan said, looking at the wall. “That’s old.”
“He died in the war,” said the old lady as her eyes left him again.
“Who?” asked Jonathan.
“Steven,” she said. “In June of 1944 they came to my door and said that he died.”
Jonathan hung his head. “I’m sorry.”
“They didn’t even bring him home. They said there were too many and that they buried him somewhere in Europe.” Tears were rolling down her face.
“I’m sorry.” Now Jonathan knew it was hopeless. He would be here until someone came and collected her. His big heart could not leave her here alone.
“Is David coming to pick you up?” asked Jonathan.
“Oh, no. He died in ‘68,” she said matter-of-factly.
Jonathan was sorry he had asked.
“He was in some jungle, but they brought him home and he is buried in Arlington,” she added.
“He was in the military?” Jonathan asked.
“United States Air Force,” she said proudly.
Jonathan paused for a moment trying to word his next question right. “Who is coming to pick you up?”
“Janet,” was all she said.
“Your daughter?” Jonathan asked.
“My great-granddaughter,” she said with pride. Then without being prompted, “She is my second son’s daughter’s child.” There was a pause. “He died in 2001. He was in New York.”
Jonathan’s heart was killing him. She had two sons and a husband taken from her by war and violence, yet she was still here. He was afraid to ask of any other family as it might be yet another story of loss. He remained silent. Jonathan looked at the old wall in the pale yellow light of an incandescent lamp that hung from the ceiling. It looked so grotesque in this light.
You could see nails that once supported pictures and the faded outlines of where they once hung. Then as if he could not help it, “How many kids did you have?”
“Four,” she said, without hesitation.
“And?” Jonathan asked with a great deal of misgiving.
“Dead,” she said with a pause. “All of them.” Again she paused as to gather her thoughts of each and every child and how they died before her. Memories that had to be painful. Slowly she said, “Deboria died of cancer after her third child. You see, they only found it after she was pregnant, and if they treated her, it would have killed the baby. She declined treatment and was dead by the child’s first birthday. She was the delight of my eye as she was the only daughter and such a princess. Then there was Tom, my adventurer. He was a reporter and loved to write. He would have won a Pulitzer if he had survived the IED in Afghanistan. Instead his work was blown all over the desert.”
Jonathan was glad that he was getting the Reader’s Digest version of her life as the details would have been too great to bear. This woman had lost everything and now was losing her home. Jonathan was fighting back tears. He had so much compared to this old woman. His kids were healthy and his oldest was about to get married. No great calamity had struck him or his family. He still had drinks with his father on Sunday afternoons and his wife’s parents dropped in once in a while as they were traveling from one retired adventure after another.
His life was good and full. He looked at the old woman. Frail and alone. A tear was welling up in the corner of his eye.
Just then the flash of red and blue was seen through the window. Jonathan walked over to it and looked out. It was a police officer and he was walking up to the door. Jonathan walked to it as well and opened it. The officer told him to stay where he was and had placed his hand on his gun. Jonathan was surprised. He was black, and though not wealthy, it was predominantly a white neighborhood. Johnathan put his hands up.
“What are you doing in this house?” the officer asked.
“I’m a mover,” Jonathan stammered. “That’s my truck.” He looked in the direction of his truck as he did not want to move his hands that were above his head.
“Who asked you to move the contents,” the officer asked.
“The owner, she is sitting in the living room. Go ask her.” Jonathan again indicated the direction with his eyes. They were large and brown and the whites were so white right now. It was not hard to see what direction he was indicating.
“Until I sort this out, I’m going to need you to put your hands behind your back and let me cuff you,” the officer said. Just then a second police car drove up and the officer sprung from the car and raced to the door. She had her weapon in her hand.
Jonathan complied and did not fight. He turned slowly and put his hands behind his back. This was not his first run-in with the cops and he knew if he was cool, everything would work out.
He was cuffed and the second officer entered the premises. She was only about five-foot-four, but stocky. Most likely from the bulky bullet proof vest they wore. She checked each space carefully as she made her way to the living room.
Jonathan watched from the entry as the police officer bent down to the old lady. She asked her, “Are you okay?”
The old lady did not look at the officer. “Yes,” was all she said.
“Ma’am.” The officer tried to get the old lady to look at her. “Did this man hurt you?”
The old lady became very animated. “Oh, no! He is very kind.” The old lady looked at Jonathan. “He stopped to listen to an old fool.” Then looking at the officer, “Not many will do that these days.”
“Ma’am,” the officer asked, “what is your name?”
Jonathan thought that was a strange question. And who called the cops? Something was wrong with this picture, and how was it that they didn’t know who the old lady was. She’s the owner…
“Ma’am.” The officer was trying to get the old lady to look at her again. “Ma’am, this is not your home,” she said as a statement of fact.
The hair on Jonathan’s neck was tingling when he heard the statement. Not her home? Oh, crap! Whose stuff was in the back of his truck? Instantly Jonathan turned to the police officer that was standing next to him, “Officer, I was hired. By her. To…” he stammered. “I’m an honest businessman.” He thought for a moment. “The work order to remove all the stuff is in my cab with her signature.” He paused. “I swear.”
The police officer thought about it a second and then turned to Jonathan. “Let’s go take a look.”
Jonathan tried to relax as he was taken to the truck with his hands behind his back. Neighbors were starting to gather, and the name of his company was plastered all over the side of the truck. All Jonathan could think about was how this was going to hurt his business. One that was built on his reputation more than with advertising money. This was bad.
Once at the truck, the officer placed Jonathan on his knees and then opened the truck. He climbed up and found the clipboard that had the contract. Sure enough, it had the address, phone number and signature that made it legal. The officer scrutinized it for any flaws, but there were none. He looked at Jonathan. “How did she contact you?”
“She called and said that she had to move before this weekend. I told her that I had just had a cancellation and could help her on Friday. She accepted and here I am,” Jonathan explained, with some hope in his voice.
The officer walked away and talked on his radio. He waited with his back to Jonathan. It was obvious that he did not consider him a threat. The radio confirmed that Jonathan was the owner-operator of his business and that everything was up to date and accurate. The officer turned and walked back to Jonathan, helped him up and removed the cuffs.
Jonathan rubbed his wrists and looked at the officer for an apology or explanation. The officer did not offer either.
Just then a black SUV pulled up in the driveway and a woman got out. She was dressed in a colorful nurse’s outfit with blue scrub pants, crocs on her feet and a multi-colored smock. She looked at the officer who said nothing and headed for the old house.
“Do I get to know what that is about?” asked Jonathan.
“I guess you deserve that much,” the officer said and signaled for Jonathan to follow. They entered the home and found the nurse and the female police officer talking to the old lady. She was talking too quietly to hear, but she was nodding her head and seemed in good spirits. The female officer got up and came over to her partner. She signaled for them to walk outside.
Once on the lawn, she told them what she knew. “The old lady, Helen, was one hundred and four years old as of two days ago. She disappeared from her apartment that evening and apparently ended up here. The door was not locked and she helped herself.” She looked at her notes. “The homeowner is in Florida and could not sell the old place so they were keeping it until the market got better.”
Jonathan broke in, “So all the shit about her husband, kids and this place was bullshit!”
The male officer whose name tag Jonathan finally read, Bret, broke in, “She’s one hundred and four, don’t you think you should give her a break?”
Jonathan pointed to his truck, “I just loaded someone else’s stuff in the back of my truck, which took me all afternoon, and now I have to take it all out?” He looked around. “I’m sure her check will bounce as well.” This was not the real point. The real point was that Jonathan believed her story. Felt sorry for the old lady and even shed a tear for her. Needless to say, he was angry.
Bret, the male officer, pointed to the SUV. “I’m not so sure the check will bounce, that SUV cost at least 60k and she has a personal nurse.” He looked at the house. “She might have a few screws loose, but she’s got to be loaded.”
Jonathan looked at the officer. “You don’t mind if I talk to her and her nurse, do you?”
The officers looked at each other. “I guess not,” was his response.
Jonathan walked back into the old house and entered the living room. The nurse was still talking to Helen in a quiet tone. When she saw Jonathan enter without the police she rose to meet him.
“I need to talk to her,” he said in a flat tone.
“She’s had a long day and she’s tired,” said the nurse.
“She’s had a long day?” Jonathan said, exasperated. “I’ve been loadin’ someone else’s stuff in my truck all afternoon and now I have to unload it all.” Jonathan was not ready to accept such a feeble excuse.
“She will compensate you,” said the nurse in a cold manner.
“Lady, that old woman told me such a sob story, she…” He paused, not sure if he wanted to admit that he’d been sucker-punched by a centurion. She might have been old, but she sure could spin a lie. “Well, she was playin’ on my feelings.” He looked away. “Ya know.”
“I know,” she said with a tone that showed that she too had heard the stories.
“And just because she’s over a hundred, we’re supposed to just let her?” Jonathan was not really looking for an answer. What answer could the nurse give? Helen was over a hundred.
“We will compensate you for your time. Besides, we have already contacted the owner, and he was going to clear the place to get it ready to put it on the market. You don’t have to unload all of it, just the appliances, and I need you to put that chair in the back of my vehicle.”
Jonathan was about to say something, but the request was a bit odd. “The chair?”
“Yes, it’s hers,” she said, pointing at Helen. “Steven made it for her as a wedding present.”
“Wait, Steven was her husband?” Jonathan was confused.
“They were all real stories,” the nurse said.
“And the way they died?”
“Yes.” The nurse paused and then looked at Jonathan as if he was to follow her. She walked into the barren kitchen and turned to Jonathan who had to follow. He had to know what was truth and what was false.
“Most of what she told you was true.” The nurse looked back toward the living room. “Her father died on the Lusitania, her husband at Normandy, her oldest son in Vietnam, and her youngest was running up the stairs when the towers fell.”
There was a pause, so Jonathan asked, “What about her daughter?”
The nurse responded, “Oh, she died of cancer.”
“So it’s all true.” Jonathan didn’t know whether to feel bad or not. She did lie about this being her house and for wasting his Friday afternoon.
“I really shouldn’t tell you this, but you seem like a real nice guy,” said the nurse.
“Well, you see, Helen is a writer. A kinda famous one.” The nurse looked around as if someone was listening. She lowered her voice and continued, “You’re going to be famous.”
Jonathan’s face contorted at this statement.
“She does these little excursions every time she wants to find a new lead for a book.” The nurse looked down. You could see she was not happy about something.
“What?” asked Jonathan.
“It also means I’ll be gone soon,” the nurse said sadly.
“Well, you see, we’re in the book right now, and to protect everyone’s ignorance I will be written out,” admitted the nurse.
“You’re as crazy as she is.”
“At least you will be famous.” She looked out the window.
“I’m not in a book, this is me in the flesh.” Jonathan patted his chest. He could feel the impact of his hands. He was real.
“Oh, you’re real alright, but out there.” She pointed up.
“You’re nuts, lady,” said Jonathan.
The nurse looked at him. “Okay, where do you live?” She paused. “Or where were you taking her stuff?”
Jonathan thought about it. He didn’t know. He didn’t know where his office was or where he was going to take the old lady’s stuff. It was supposed to go to a storage unit, but where? He stammered, “I… don’t know.”
“That’s because she hasn’t written it yet.”
Please visit Roger’s blog and follow him. https://ralegg.blogspot.com/2019/02/this-old-chair-its-empty.html