The Chair Michael Clayton Helms
I loved and hated visiting my grandparents’ apartment in Washington, DC. It was basically an idealized nursing home, so there were often ambulances parked at the curb as we pulled up, or gurneys being pushed past us as we walked to the door. As a five-year-old, it was the first place where death became real to me, but then I would go inside and my grandparents would joke about their dead neighbors over tea and coffee. At the time, I thought this to be in awfully bad taste.
But with old people there are old things, which I loved, and my grandparents
had them in droves. There were the shelves full of leather-bound books, the trunks full of old letters, my grandfather’s old army uniforms, my grandmother’s walk-in-closet of evening gowns. And then there was the chair.
Granddaddy, the general, had a study like any model of a modern major
general would, and in that study he had his chair. This was an old, burgundy leather, brass caster-fitted arm-chair. This is the kind of thing that important people sit in to have their portraits painted. And it was right there, ready for me to crawl into it.
I was tiny, so to me the chair was enormous. It elevated me, enveloped me, startled and excited me. It made me feel like a king, and it made me feel like a pebble sinking in the ocean. I was king of the pebbles and the general’s desk chair was my throne.
The chair was also my escape. The light-hearted talk about death made me feel uncomfortable, confused, or at best bored. This was intensified after I turned six and my grandfather died. In the living room, or around the dining room table, my grandmother and parents, even my older sisters, would talk about this man that I barely ever knew in a way that I didn’t understand. I couldn’t take part in talk about a man that I loved and missed without knowing why. What I could do was be with him any time I wanted, in the only way that made sense to me. His chair drew me in and hugged me in a way that he couldn’t because the chair was there and he was not. I understood the chair-- why it made me feel happy, excited, yet safe--at least in a primal childlike way; my feelings for the man had no such clarity.
And to this young understanding, no one appreciated the chair like I did. No one seemed to remember that it was his chair, and no one could see that it represented him perfectly, or at least as far as I could tell, better than memories
and anecdotes and things that meant nothing to me. They were all too big to see how grand it was. In this way it became my chair. It was my ocean and no one else’s because no one else could swim in it.
I was fifteen when my grandmother died. Up until then, as long as we were taking trips to Washington, the chair remained a refuge for me. Grownup talk was still beyond me, more so out of boredom then confusion at this point. So, I would sit in the chair and rummage through the desk drawers, looking for buried treasure. But after she died, the chair was stuck in a storage facility for a couple of years, its waves bound by dressers, chests, and couches, all decades older than the cage that contained them.
By the time that I got to college, some items finally started to see the light of day. My throne went to a new cave, my parents’ basement, where my father sat it in front of his TV and used it to watch the news and train documentaries. It irked me to no end. My chair was meant to be in front of a antique desk, not a television. And beyond that, it was mine. I towered over my father at this point, but I still felt small enough for the chair to be an ocean and he didn’t. He couldn’t.
By my senior year I was living in a house off campus and I had my own room. I saw this as a new opportunity for sanctuary, both for me and my throne. So I insisted. I argued that a desk-chair needed a desk, that it should be used for writing essays, not watching TV, that it belonged to my grandfather, a relation that offers much more sentiment than a father-in-law. After that, he submitted.
That’s how I got here. That’s how I became one of those guys. A twentytwo
year old sitting in front of a cheap college desk in an antique leather armchair. I know how pretentious it seems, especially if the throne happens to roll over my persian rug in a gesture of exquisite academic nonchalance, but onlookers don’t know. They wouldn’t judge if they could see how small I am and how far my ocean stretches. It stretches over life and death, boyhood and manhood, the darkness of the Cave and the light of the Sun, it stretches between a general and a child, between weirdly identical smirks that never really met, between Paris, Pennsylvania and Persia.