ChairThe Ninth Chair

by Brian Panhuyzen

originally published in The Malahat Review

reprinted in The Death of the Moon

 

THE NOTE WAS LEFT where we could all find it, myself, the eldest, right down to three-year-old Jeremy. Unable to read, he held the vellum close to his eyes, examining the unbearably beautiful script. It was really for our father to discover – on the white porcelain of the range, amid the polished chrome, beside the enamel kettle – when he came home from work.

“I guess you were expecting dinner,” it began. Of course he was; every day for seventeen years he had come home and found dinner waiting. How could she curse him for something she had reinforced day after day, without fail, like the tick of a clock and its chiming on the hour or the familiar pop of the bathroom pipes at the issue of hot water? I watched him from my textbooks at the kitchen table. He raised the note close to his eyes to decipher the script, his face expressionless. He read it twice, then replaced it on the stove, returning it to its precise location and orientation.

I guess you were expecting dinner. I have pressed your shirts, scrubbed your sinks, disciplined your children, and entertained your clients for seventeen years. Worst of all, I have boiled your potatoes and carrots. I will no longer. You have never appreciated my efforts, you have never loved me, and I feel no guilt in saying that I have never loved you. Goodbye Walter. For the children you will now prepare Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Use two cans and all milk, it’s better for them. Do not wait long to find a woman who can cook for them. Hire her or marry her, it doesn’t matter.

~Carol

We all knew the note’s contents by the time he came home. Brandy and Calla and Jennifer and Walter Jr. and Katy had all read it, after which I had sat Jeremy down to recite it to him.

—When will she come back, Luke? he had asked.

I felt numb and managed only to shrug. My stomach was a globe of crazed glass.

After my father had set the note down he went to the pantry cupboard and removed two cans of soup. From the refrigerator he got a pitcher of milk. From a cabinet he took a saucepan and a wooden spoon. As I watched him I thought how confidently he performed these actions, as if they were an act he had practised in private and was now performing for our benefit, like speaking a foreign language or fire-eating. All six of my siblings stood in the doorway, staring. He gazed at a can’s label for several seconds before setting the can down and going to the freezer. From it he removed a large package of frozen pork chops. He put them in the microwave and punched the buttons for defrosting.

—Daddy? Jeremy called, clutching Walter Jr.’s hand.

Our father stiffened.

—Yes?

—When is Mummy coming home?

—She’s not.

—Should I cry?

—If you like, he replied, then took a sack of onions from the cupboard, found a paper bag full of mushrooms in the fridge, placed a clove of garlic with them on the cutting board.

—We want to play outside Mom lets us play outside, Walter Jr. stated loudly.

Father looked at me. I nodded vigorously at the boys and they ran out. He watched them go, waited until they were gone before resuming. He started to look through the cupboards above and below, pulled out boxes of pudding and cereal, finally banged his fists down on the counter.

—Luke, do you know where the rice is?

I showed him.

 

Around the rosewood table, porcelain dishes, an empty chair and Brandy sitting on her hands and rocking a little while Jennifer brushed Calla’s hair. Katy clutched one of a dozen stuffed animals crowding her lap, a purple mouse among the dogs and frogs and beavers, and Walter Jr. whispered to Jeremy, illustrating with the help of a National Geographic the order of the planets. I watched Father, searching for signs of a wounded soul as he brought the meal to us.

He beamed as he raised the lid of the electric frying pan to reveal the mound of pork chops swimming in a sauce of mushrooms and onions and garlic. The odour went straight to my stomach and ignited my appetite. He served the meal with rice, loaded each plate, added bread and snow peas. He sat down and with uncharacteristic ceremony took a first bite which he chewed with deliberation.

—Not enough garlic, he muttered. —Chop onions more finely. He looked around at our alarmed expressions. —However, a respectable first attempt, he added. He pursed his lips with satisfaction. We stared at him, our giddy perplexity ruling the diningroom. We began to eat.

For five minutes we feasted silently, looking around at one another in wonder. Katy, her mouth bulging with food, set her knife and fork down and drew a deep breath through her nose. She began to cry. I then realized that this was something we had been anticipating, for someone to break through and release us. We all began to sob, boys, girls, our father, a chorus of mourning voices which advanced Katy’s wails to a higher pitch, as if her sorrow, being first, were conducting the rest.

—The food, Katy bawled, mushroom sauce and pork spilling from her mouth. —It’s yummy!

 

Our father owned a stage lighting business and also designed gobos. A gobo is a template for light. Made from a piece of sheet metal with a scene or pattern cut out of it, a gobo fits over a spotlight. Imagine that you are producing Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you need to show a stormy sky. Instead of painting a backdrop of clouds to be rolled in and out at the appropriate times, you shine a white spotlight through the gobo, into which is cut the image of menacing storm clouds. Not only is it more manageable than a piece of stage scenery, it allows the effect to be derived through the drama of shadow and light. Shadow and light. These words described my father, who for many years was little more than a silhouette in my bedroom doorway wishing me goodnight.

Now he atoned for his absence. He started to come home in the early evening to make dinner for us. Although these meals were derived mainly from prepackaged and convenience foods, he displayed a genuine enthusiasm for the experience of culinary preparation.

—Calla, do you like the leek soup?

—Too much pepper, she replied, fanning her mouth.

—You’re absolutely right, he said, and went to her and kissed her on the head. We grew accustomed to this awkward affection.

But the food – refined, dehydrated, pulverized, predigested by machines, stuffed into cans or boxes – soon became monotonous. Our curb on trash day hosted a convention of bloated green dwarves, three, sometimes four garbage bags full of packaging. I imagined as new members of the family the common ingredients in these foods: disodium inosinate, autolyzed yeast extract, ethyl maltol.

—Good evening, Ethyl, I muttered one evening when a pasta and sauce dish arrived with fish sticks and canned peas. Our father considered our wearied expressions as he set down the tray. These expressions turned to astonishment as he retrieved the tray, dumped the steaming plates into the trash, and left the house.

He returned two hours later laden with bags of supermarket produce: tomatoes, green beans, carrots, corn, plus cuts of fresh meat in pink paper, the prices scrawled with marker in the butcher’s crude hand. A bookshelf in the family room held nothing but cookbooks; from it he selected one at random and began leafing through the pages.

After this our meals arrived an hour or more later and were bland and simple, but as the months passed the cuisine became more refined. At first there were peas and carrots with an eggplant and bacon side dish and barbecued strip steaks. A month later we enjoyed Mexican garlic soup and charcoal-grilled veal with mustard herb butter. A few days later it was poached salmon with fresh basil and olive butters. He laughed like a child as he unveiled each dish, savouring every syllable of each name. —Monterey Prawns Served in a Vol-au-Vent with an Herb Creme Sauce. Our palates kept pace with these increasingly exotic menus; even the younger children, who had never been picky anyway, became connoisseurs of fine cuisine.

One of our father’s employees recommended a downtown restaurant for its exceptional French food, so as a treat for Jeremy’s fourth birthday we went there for dinner. I remember Jean-Yves, the chef, who was enthusiastically making rounds of the diningroom to accept praise from the guests, how his mouth gaped like that of a dying fish when Jeremy stated, I think the chateaubriand was cooked right out of the refrigerator. It’s way better if you let it warm up first. Did you know that? Our father’s explosion of laughter expelled us from the restaurant.

In a supermarket that we frequented he lost his temper for the first time in public. He had been digging through a bin of green peppers for almost five minutes without success when he started to cast them with amazing precision into a display of pomegranates in the next aisle.

—What are you doing? I hissed, tugging at his arm.

—Putting these where they belong. With the other seed-stuffed produce, he replied before moving on to the next section. —This corn! he bellowed. —I wouldn’t feed this corn to pigs!

I gripped his arm and began to pull him towards the exit while the astonished eyes of shoppers swivelled towards us. Before I could get him away from the display he swept his arm through the cobs, throwing them to the floor. In the car he was uncharacteristically quiet. —You are becoming an eccentric, I noted.

 —To get the freshest product, he replied, we must go to the source. Where’s the source? Where is it?

 

He wore a wide-brimmed adventurer’s hat, the heat of August wriggling through the air like transparent worms. He was standing with his soiled hands on his hips, surveying the furrows of plants which extended to each horizon. In the rows of iridescent green carrot tops my brothers and sisters were digging for the long orange fruits, eagerly brushing them clean and holding each aloft for his inspection.

We soon moved to a neighbouring field, this one a deeper green and speckled in red, each fat tomato a Christmas ornament dangling among the leaves, coming away with a gentle tug. We leapt from field to field, a pack of discriminating locusts, harvesting the succulent vegetables and moving on with our baskets full.

We made a final stop on the way home, at a farm where he purchased a duck, its nude skin pink and puckered where the feathers had clung. It was bound in paper and plastic and placed on Jeremy’s lap for the ride home. He held it in place with one hand, an expression of great reverence on his face.

There were letters from our mother. She was in England, then France. She visited the Ukraine where she stayed for a month with her grandmother. This was followed by Egypt. “Dear Children and Walter, we are near the pyramids tonight. They are shining against the sky.” Her travelling companion, the other component of the “we” who populated every experience, was never identified. Even the sex of this person remained a mystery.

On the seventh day of September, a Tuesday, she died. “She was swimming in the Sea of Crete,” the letter said, drafted presumably by this mystery companion, “and she drowned.” There were meagre details of the postmortem process, how the body would rest in the Ukraine with her family, but the letter’s main intent was to assure us that everything had been handled and that grieving was our only duty in the matter. It was signed by “M.O.,” who had typed it on an old typewriter with a failing ribbon. The letterhead was from the Bella Maris Hotel, Hersonissos, Crete.

September was vengeance for a hot and sunny summer. A bitter wind blew endlessly, it snowed on the tenth, the leaves brightened rapidly beneath grey skies and were thick on the wind by the end of the month. Our father’s attention shifted back to gobos; the cooking diminished.

—I have a theory, I told Jennifer.

—Like always, she replied. Our school books were clustered around us, merging in the middle of the kitchen table.

—They didn’t love each other. She left. It hardly hurt. He learned to cook and discovered something he loved. She died. To feel the necessary sorrow he has decided to stop doing what he loves.

—What do we do?

—Let the process of mourning take its course.

We did.

Thanksgiving brought him back. And the duck.

 

In October Nature atoned for the forfeiture of the warm and brilliant days I so love about September. The weather grew unusually hot. Leaves littered the backyard so we swept the flagstone patio clear and there carried the diningroom table, the seven of us, while Father worked diligently inside, slicing chanterelles and boletus mushrooms for a ragoût with red wine. Calla and Brandy set the table with our mother’s china and silver, constructed with surprisingly little disagreement each elaborate place setting.

When we were all assembled and the sun had set, our father presented the confit of duck, which had spent the last two months submerged in goose fat in an earthenware crock, chilled in the basement refrigerator. A dozen candles, their flames tall in the still air, illuminated the table and the limbs of our oak tree which was stubbornly withholding from the earth a few brown leaves.

—There’s been a terrible mistake! I stated after I had poured a ninth glass of wine.

—Yes, our father replied. —An extra place setting. He toasted the empty chair and drank.

—Can I say the grace? I wrote it myself, Brandy said, unfolding a slip of paper.

—Please, he said, and we bowed our heads.

—For all this food, to the yellow Sun and the blue Earth and her brown Soil, we give thanks. Amen.

—Amen, we echoed and began to eat. Above us, beyond the high ramp of the house’s roof and the jagged arms of the trees, twilight drained like an incandescent fluid into the west, leaving behind it a fine spray of starlight. The food left us breathless. I understood then that our father’s skill had become transcendent and only at this moment had our palates managed to catch up. The effect was climactic; extraordinary flavours passed over my lips and tongue, along the length of my throat, and into my belly, where they radiated pleasure to every cell in my body.

A small wind arose and convinced the oak to surrender a handful of leaves. These fell about us with a gentle rustle and the candles flickered in the little breath of night. A final leaf fell, turned end over end before sailing through one of the candleflames and igniting. We watched through a haze of euphoria as it landed on the tablecloth. Our father leapt up and clapped it beneath his palm. It did not seem to hurt him and he sat again without comment.

At the end of the table, in the ninth chair, our mother was sitting. She gazed into the air among the candles, watching something, perhaps the lighted leaf, glimpsed through what was to her the transparent progression of time. One by one we became aware of her, our father last of all because he was looking at his watch to determine the best time to start the poached pears in Zinfandel and cassis cream. He looked up.

Gradually her eyes shifted to focus on him, to his startled expression beyond the candleflames.

—Carol? he said softly. Her body shimmered like a reflection in a still pool suddenly rippled by the pebble of his voice. —Carol, you look thin. Why are you so thin?

He was right; shadows filled her eye sockets and cheeks; her hands trembled on brittle wrists. He stood up and walked around the table. She watched him pick up her plate and heap it with food. He set it down before her and she stared at it without comprehension. —Of course it’s cold now. You will not experience the full effect.

She looked at him and then at the food, hands balled in her lap.

—Maybe you’re too weak, he whispered, and knelt beside her. He pushed the fork through the pieces of duck breast and onions and mushrooms, stacking it high with the fragrant food. Her expression remained puzzled until he raised it to her face. She opened her mouth and he guided the fork there.

—Take it, he whispered. —Swallow!

She closed her mouth over it and he pulled the fork away. The food fell to the embroidered chair and she looked down at it, surprised to see the mess there, surprised at her own translucence.

He fell back on his heels and rubbed his chin, watching her in thought. He brought the empty fork up and prodded her experimentally with it. The fork and his hand passed through her shoulder. She looked to where it had penetrated, then back at him. When his eyes met hers his expression was filled with deep sorrow.

—You are hungry. Where you are, there’s nothing but hunger.

She nodded, her frown deepening the cavities of her eyes and cheeks. She bowed her head and pressed her face into her hands.

High in the treetops a wind started, a cold wind which extinguished the candles and drove us indoors.

 

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"The Ninth Chair" by Brian Panhuyzen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.