My parents bought the forest green recliner and matching carpet at a St. Patty’s Day Sale at O’Malley’s Furniture Shop. A week later, Dad fell asleep in the chair smoking a favorite cigar. The stogie slipped from his fingers and burned a shiny, black crescent into the carpet. I can never have anything nice, Mom cried, laying a brown and gold braided rug over the assault.
I remember the orange glow of his stogie and the smoke—the smoke! As a kid, my eyes stung and teared. He puffed on short, dark, nubby Italian stogies and long, smooth, thick White Owls. He pulled on the stems of wooden pipes. Next to his chair, a circular rack of eight sat on the table, some smooth-bowled and others carved with designs. Every week, I dusted each pipe, along with the cool, white, metal canister of cherry tobacco that opened by slipping a metal lever under the lid. Then I emptied the fragile pale ashes, like ghostly Tootsie Rolls, from the red, yellow, and gold ashtray, shaped like a giant paisley.
The living room swirled in swaths of blue smoke, streaking the air like fat ribbons, where our family watched TV night after night. Is it a wonder that by age eleven, I was addicted to nicotine? That’s when my older brother, Wayne, and I tried to smoke a cigar for the first time—a White Owl. He ripped open the cellophane wrapping, and I slid off the colorful band. Biting off the tip like Dad seemed gross, so we cut it with a scissor; the tightly packed tobacco unraveled and spilled. We managed to light the cigar, but the tobacco was dry, coarse, and bitter on our tongues. Wayne threw the cigar out, but I kept the shiny, paper ring.
Summers, Dad, wearing his pizza cap of alternating lime green and yellow slices, leaned back in the recliner, cupping the back of his head in his hands. The fan whirred next to him in the window. He made the most of the heat, lounging in his white, short-sleeved, V-necked undershirt and blue and white print boxer shorts. In the rack under the fan was his reading material—Field and Stream, calligraphy books with hard navy blue covers, and the funny papers.
Weekday evenings after nine o’clock, Dad perched in his armchair, except for Tuesday Union nights, where he served as treasurer. Every night after dinner at 6 pm, he went down the cellar, where he made colorful thread-wrapped canes and fishing poles, tied feathery fishing lures, and melted lead for sinkers. He table sawed planks of wood, fashioned chair legs on the lathe, and jigsawed puzzles; designed and engraved stationery for my mother; or sewed leather with his black, wrought iron treadle machine. Never a dull moment. At 8:55 pm, he emerged from below and settled into his armchair for shows like Gunsmoke weeknights, Bonanza Saturday night, and The Ed Sullivan Show Sunday evenings. The recliner was his seat of relaxation, reign, and refuge.
For my mother, the recliner was a thing to conquer. She laid a cloth over its headrest to keep hair grease at bay and tucked a terry cloth towel over the seat. She’d given up on the arms of the chair, its sleeves forever falling off in soft folds onto the green carpet. And every morning, she straightened the braided rug at the foot of the chair that hid the burn, lamenting I can never have anything nice.
For me, the armchair was a thing to explore. Each week before I vacuumed, I dug my hands down behind the cushion and along its sides, clawing for change—nickels, dimes, and quarters. Most times my fingers came up empty or with a penny or two, Wayne already having scoured the area. But once, bonanza beneath the chair—a silver dollar! And always peanut, pistachio, and walnut shells scattered about underneath. Dad a nut for nuts.
Many years later, when my new beaded earrings, a graduation gift, broke, tears welled up as I scrambled to gather the tiny, yellow beads in my palm. I can never have anything nice, my mother’s voice played in my head, along with the image of the shiny, black, charred crescent as fresh in me as the first time that I saw it.
By that time in my life, we were arranging new living conditions for my mother. Dementia had taken over. She feared the arrival each night of a top-hatted gentleman who walked through the living room. Wayne, now paunching out, went back to clean up and prepare the house for the real estate agent. When it was the chair’s time to go, he and Ray, my Mom’s neighbor, both buoyed by beer, joked about how the ole man was turning in his grave as they lifted the chair by its arms, carried it down the front steps, and dropped in onto the curb.
Dad’s spirit appeared then. He lay back, hands behind his head, wearing his navy blue work shirt and pants and sucking on a pipe, blue smoke billowing up, bright TV screen squares reflected in his eyeglass lenses. His white-socked feet poked up from the footrest, and he wiggled his toes.
Wayne called me that night, smeary, sugary drunken voice telling me that the armchair was out front with a ton of stuff—the couch, the kitchen chairs, the TV table. I felt angry. Couldn’t he have found homes for them? I softened quickly though aware of the sheer number of items and the time crunch he was under.
Decades before, just after Dad had died, Wayne perched in the armchair—now his throne when he visited home. I took his photo: Wayne trim in his expensive, tailored, three-piece suit. Wayne the professional with the six-figure income. What would Dad, a proud World War II veteran with an eighth grade education, think? Had his son earned his throne? Yes: He was a professional. No: He was arrogant.
And how would Dad feel about the fate of his armchair? Triumphant. Before sun-up, he knew, a junk picker would haul it off to grace his own home, a prospect that made him smirk. He himself had once cruised the streets before dawn for choice items. Even after all those years, the recliner was a prize. The garbage truck would never get its jaws on his armchair. Dad would have the last laugh.
My father’s recliner out there under the stars in the muggy, New Jersey summer heat, under the branches of the oak and the swamp maple, midst the crickets’ resounding cheers, lightning bugs blinking off and on—a fitting end to Dad’s reign. His armchair front and center on Arthur Street for all the neighbors to see, set on the strip of grass he’d cut for over fifty years. The burned rug pulled up and the oak floorboards polished. Pipes and old tobacco canisters tossed into the dumpster, the old window fan, teetering on top.
Rest in peace, Edward Henry Williams. Your armchair lives on.
Wendy Patrice Williams is the author of In Chaparral: Life on the Georgetown Divide, California (Cold River Press), a collection of poems. Her website ReStoryYourLife.com features a blog and original artwork on the subject of early trauma. She seeks a publisher for her memoir manuscript, Autobiography of a Sea Creature – Coming Home to My Body after Infant Surgery. Her short story “The Advantage” appears in the 2017 spring edition of CALYX Journal. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College and teaches writing at Folsom Lake College.