A Chair Full of Ashes
Of all the ways to lose a person, death is the kindest. —Emerson
When I was six, my father inherited some money. With it, he bought some property and built a house. The house was made of stone and reclusively encircled by an expanse of forest. My father was a controlling man and used the seclusion of this setting to insulate his authority. He had the manner of a mild lunatic; I was always incurring his displeasure, and he gave me notice of such by blows. My mother attempted to temper his tantrums but she was largely a silent minority. I walked a tightrope when he was about. The best sanctum from his ire, I found, was the open space.
I spent a lot of time outdoors. With all that was growing around me, it was impossible not to be amazed. I walked beneath the antique trees, their boughs woven into a lush vault of a vital cathedral. I traced the babbling rills to their springs and taking great gulps of air I plumbed the depths of the glassy ponds. In time, I knew all the land’s wrinkles. Eventually the space, without anyone to fill it with, became oppressive. Because of the house’s remoteness, people were precious.
I was in luck though, if I walked through the meadow, crossed the bridge, crested the hill, and plodded across the big field, I could visit my nearest neighbors. Now this company required a bit of labor, but because of my solitude I was willing to work.
The house was a yolk colored rectangle anchored to a cement slab. A boy named Allen who was my age lived inside. Allen’s family situation was messed up too. His mom, Barb, was an alcoholic; she had a freeze-dried face and was all edges until she knocked a couple back. Allen’s father was more a rumor than a reality; his appearances were infrequent, and when he did show, usually at night, he came and went like a comet. Their household was poor and the living conditions were squalid.
Net worth notwithstanding, Allen was a diamond in the mud. He had a winning disposition; he was ambitious and eager for any enterprise. He was generous with the little he did have, and he had a crisp wit that kept me grounded. I was fortunate to have him as a friend. From the first symmetrical tug, we were like a binary star.
We had a common world and we explored it together. We talked of anything that came to mind, and expounded our elementary philosophies. We swam in the summer, and skated in the winter. We lazed away the days fishing, peddled our bikes over the country roads. During the summer we would pitch camp and sleep outdoors. We would build bonfires in the stone pits. Like two votaries we held nighttime vigils tending the flame, until the last ember turned to ashes. Enshrouded by the dark, the world would shrink down to just the two of us around our axis of light. And as the stars wheeled overhead, we spoke and smiled in the cellar of heaven.
In this manner five years passed.
On an ordinary day when I was eleven, I walked over to Allen’s house. Barb met me at the door. She was crying.
“It’s Allen, he got shot,” she sobbed.
The details came out in fits and slops. Neighbor’s house … kids unattended … spare bedroom … shotgun … placed on the bed … the gun fell and discharged.
The load hit Allen in the head.
“Is he alive?”
“He’s in the hospital, in a coma.”
I heard but I didn’t understand. After several weeks of Allen’s absence I decided to visit. I thought I could wish him well and thereby speed his recovery. My mom drove me. We took an elevator up to a long hallway. It was silent with no activity. At the threshold a look from my mom told me I was going in alone.
The room was hot. The lights were off, and the natural illumination was muted. The air was thick and it smelled of unwashed body and something else. The odor was cloying, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. Allen’s unconscious body was in bed. His head was shorn, and on the right side, where his eye used to be was a metal patch. He was intubated; an accordion played out forced breath with a rhythmic huff and hiss. The main wad of shot had come out the back of his head and they grafted a softball sized piece of bone to patch what was blown out. The quilted bone was black and looked like rotten leather. The side of his head had deep furrows from the lead shot. Over the wreckage, all the tender words I carried turned to chaff. I eyed the ventilator and tracked its cord into the socket … I stood there for some time, but, in the end, I failed to do anything.
Ten months passed, and after the doctors had exhausted their arts, he came out of the coma and was discharged from the hospital. Everyone knew that he wasn’t going to be the same so there was rampant speculation as to what faculties he still possessed. When I saw him again up close, he was a living ruin. He was bound to a wheelchair. The cavity was masked with a bad prosthesis. His head had been turned into a piebald mosaic of plastic and flesh. The fake had a fixed blue eye, while Allen’s eye was wild and darted like something trapped. He couldn’t talk; the noises he mouthed were all mindless. He wasn’t totally insensate though, judging from the moans he made he felt pain, a lot of it. It became clear that the only thing discharged from the hospital was a hurt stuffed husk.
Compared to the fixture I once was in the household, I seldom visited, and when I did, I felt I served a ghost. My loyalty was to the past Allen, not to this chaired Thing of the present. When I did go to see him, I found him hidden like a hard truth, behind a closed door, dirty, neglected, and inconsolable. Blaming Barb for the substandard care would have been easy, because I had the luxury of leaving. Barb did all she was capable of doing. I would have done no better, and if tested I think, worse. It was like nursing an abortion. The food went in at the top, the excreta came out at the bottom, and both befouled the middle. A person in pain puts out a resonance and I felt like a two-legged tuning fork when I was near him. The sounds he made were so forlorn; it would rend me to the core. Nothing you did would soothe him; his state was one without solace. Hell is a person you can’t comfort. It was enough to make a saint say “shit.”
People are not emotionally equipped for chronic tragedy. Just a few minutes in the house would fill my mind with murk. Barb was affected the most. She became a fugitive from her own home. Sometimes I would find her on the porch, well along in her cups. The liquor had made her pain buoyant, and for an instant her eyes would ignite, and everything in her seemed to float closer to the surface. Absorbed in the moment, she threw the rest of the world away. Then a low moan would issue from the interior of the house, and her face would sour like she had tasted a toadstool.
Eventually everyone understood the injuries were implacable and there was only one cure. The natural order became perverted. The house’s atmosphere became pregnant with the expectation of death. And it was the longest of gestations. Eight years he spent in that chair. It was like waiting for an iceberg to melt one degree above freezing. Eight years. Before he got shot Allen weighed all of 90 pounds. Before he died he weighed close to 200, and whiskers were sprouting on his misshapen, once smooth face, like weeds in a vacant lot. Eight years. Enough pain to crack you in two. When he finally died, there was no sorrow, no mourning, no sadness; all these feelings had long been fossilized. On the contrary, when he finally died, all the vested hearts were set free.
This all happened a lifetime ago. I am now older than any of the parents in the story. Perhaps it is unfair to gauge my five years with Allen to other friendships, perhaps not. I have experienced openness and intimacy, they are a warm bounty ina cool world, but often adult relationships suffer because they are subordinate if not slave to the appetites and cares of an adult world. Childhood friendships are not so adulterated. My friendship with Allen was unalloyed. I didn’t worry about what to say; what to wear, or what was inmy pockets. I just had to bring myself, that was enough. To be loved and accepted are, to hear; “come, you are welcome here.” Things you look all your life for and seldom find. But when you do find it, that friendship will serve as a touchstone for all the friendships to come.
As the years pile up, by some inexplicable mental alchemy, I have forgotten what I want to remember and remember what I want to forget. It isn’t as if time has been embezzling from memory’s till, rather the chaired Thing has curdled my memory of Allen proper. As if someone vandalized the gallery of my memories, and replaced a pedestaled masterpiece with a decomposing animal. Grappling with memory sometimes yields me a snatch of Allen’s laughter, a flicker of his wit, but never his smiling face.
It is a torment to have had something so real, yet remember so little of it. If could have divined Allen’s hell I would have pulled the plug and loosed us all from purgatory. My failure caused me to be robbed of the same treasure twice. Allen was my true friend, but try as I might, I cannot see his true face. My inner eye squints and can see nothing of him. The only thing I can see is a monument of grief, a chair full of ashes.