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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-one THE FIFTH CHAIR



n the first week of January, Wallace Duncan was told that he was being let go from the job he had held at Triangle Analytics for fifteen years. An optimist with a particular gift for believing in himself, Wallace told his wife Fran that he wasn’t going to let it get to him. There were plenty of companies in the Research Triangle who would need a good statistician eventually, and he would search carefully and methodically. Fran wore her black lingerie that night, and he knew it was just to make him feel better, but he took advantage of the moment.

In the first week of February, Wallace realized that he had taken a 30-minute shower and had not touched the shampoo or soap. He stood there, looking down at his naked body as if he had never seen it before, and then he realized that he was crying. It was an unfamiliar sensation, and it carried memories of losing his dog when he was nine, and of being unreasonably jealous when a college girlfriend had dumped him on a drunken New Year’s Eve. How do grown-ups cry? he asked himself.

In the third week of February, Wallace was standing at the open refrigerator with no idea as to what he was looking for. He was neither hungry nor thirsty, and the rows of sandwich meats, condiments, and produce looked impossibly alien to him, items he could not recall ever seeing before. He stared at them all for a strange moment, feeling disconnected from his body and its apparent need to eat eventually, before he closed the door. He found himself repeating this empty gesture three more times that week, and Fran scolded him from the living room that he was wasting electricity.

In the second week of March, Wallace stopped sleeping. He lay on his back, clamping his eyes shut as if he could force sleep upon himself by holding something in, but his mind pulled random narratives out of the long pointless hours of his day and sent them spinning behind his eyelids anyway. He began a new routine of waiting until Fran was asleep and then sitting around in various rooms in the dark. He pretended to read books about the Civil War and then scrolled through Netflix, watching ten minutes of one movie and then five of another. Sometimes he shared these movie nights with a bottle of bourbon, and occasionally he dozed fitfully, waking up to discover that the movie unraveling on the television was a title he had never heard of before.

He spent portions of each day scrolling through increasingly arcane job-searching websites and sending his resume to increasingly sketchy-sounding companies and individuals. Fran stopped asking how it was going after she came home from her job at the community college and Wallace answered her questions by throwing a full coffee mug across the kitchen. When she wordlessly picked up the pieces of the mug to throw them away, she found a second one under the dining room table. This one had broken into three neat fragments, cleanly enough to be glued back together again by someone with time on their hands, and the inside of the pieces was coated with the dark, dusty residue of coffee that has been left at the bottom for weeks instead of washed out properly.

By the first week of April Wallace had taken to walking by himself in the woods behind their house. He had initially thought to seek out some place where he could cry out aloud against the tricks of fortunes if necessary, but in fact his walks were silent mournful affairs in which he stepped on branches and kicked pine cones and shook his head randomly and angrily and alternated between laughing at nothing and crying silently at everything. He walked directly out from the house, heading deep into the ferocious emptiness that had once seemed like a refreshing forest primeval among the neighborhoods that sprouted up along Highway 70. He had no destination: just off into the distance. Then, tired and scratched by creepers and viney things, he felt his smallness and made his way back. As he clambered uphill toward the shadow of the house where the brush thinned out, he heard other things in the forest cracking and straining where he had been. He rubbed at his reddened eyes, wiped snot away from his nose, and smelled the sour remnant of bourbon on the breeze.

At the end of April, Wallace stopped shaving. He had set his Bic disposable razor down on the edge of the sink (as a nod to economic realities he had given up his beloved Gillette with the five blades) and returned the next morning to find the razor dull and blunted with crusted shaving cream and tiny whiskers. Instead of using it, he let the water run hot and fast and watched the mirror spread out with steam. In the gray opaque film there he saw the outline of a face that was not his.

In May Fran left to stay with her parents in Durham. She told him that it did not have to be permanent: Wallace could gauge his ability to get himself together with or without a new job, and he should call her when he decided how he wanted to live. He did not call her as the springtime heated up and he turned off the air conditioning in the house. He took to sleeping in the nude under the sheet but with the comforter thrown to the floor, with Irwin the cat sitting on Fran’s side of the bed judging him. Then one night Irwin refused to come out from the corner of the room, and he glared up at the bed with a constant low rumbling growl. In the morning Fran’s side of the bed was warm as if she had been there all night long.

When the June evenings had become warm enough to merit leaving the windows and back door open, Wallace called the guys and invited them over to play cards. It was an unofficial group that had gathered now and then over the past year or so, each time a slightly different configuration of faces but with a basic understanding of who the permanent members were. They had all changed in the last few months, however, and as they wandered into Wallace’s house this time they carried a new air of purposelessness that was perfect for suburban poker.

Curt was like his name: short, blunt, unnecessary. While he did not live in his parents’ basement at age 38, he seemed like the type who would. He looked out at the world bleakly from behind round glasses, and no matter what direction he was looking the lenses caught a glare, and no one was sure what his eyes looked like.

Travis surprised no one when he got divorced. He had started hanging around college girls when he turned 35; while he could not get any of them to sleep with him, his wife Gayle finally decided she had had enough of random texts with “LOL” and smiley faces in them. Now free but no more successful in his adventures, Travis’s interest in younger women was like a pathology.

Skinner had a first name, but no one else in the group could agree on just what it was, and they didn’t care enough to ask him. He lived behind dark sunglasses and wore colored shirts with black vests every day of his life. He had parts of three different useless college degrees and had decided to spend his life experimenting with random part-time jobs. At the moment he was a clerk at a store that sold plastic containers, and he lived with an unattractive woman in her fifties.

One thing they all had in common was punctuality: they arrived almost simultaneously at ten in the evening, each one laden down with alcohol and snacks. Even before Fran had moved out, the group had always gathered here by random silent consent, and since they knew that Wallace’s financial situation was precarious, they wanted to contribute.

Curt said, “Your house smells funny. You should clean it. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean your house.”

Skinner sniffed the air, testing it as he unloaded two bags of tortilla chips on the kitchen table, already strewn with half-read newspapers and dirty bowls. “Since when do you drink bourbon?”

Wallace tugged at his jeans, which had begun to hang more loosely around his middle in recent days. “I don’t drink bourbon. You know that. Not since that one weekend at the beach when I was twenty.”

“Whatever,” said Skinner. “If you’re going to, drink the good stuff. It smells like Rebel Yell in here.”

They gathered themselves among the bags of chips and beer bottles without talking, arranging this thing and that one with a bored precision that came from a lot of practice at doing what was necessary to get an activity started without enthusiasm. Wallace moved away some of the dirty dishes on the table but left some there as well; he swept a burned and discarded cigarette butt off to the side.

“Now you’re smoking, too?” asked Travis. “Having a woman in the house kept you away from some bad habits, bro.”

“I’m not smoking. I don’t know where that came from. Mind your own business.”

Travis was shuffling the cards. “Hey: invite me, invite my commentary.”

They settled down to play. There were four of them, but the table had five chairs around it, so they shoved the extra chair into the corner of the room. They never spoke much once the game was underway; each man had his own thoughts, his own attentions a thousand miles away but somehow represented in the cards he held in his hand. Each card played was a small admission, each card drawn became a new influence to be taken in and absorbed. The money won and lost was insignificant: they became a single financial entity in which each man’s gain was accepted and canceled out by the other’s loss. The final total available to the group never changed, so winning and losing were simply perspectives on a moment of movement.

After a time, Travis said “I don’t remember what I was trying to do in that hand.”

Wallace looked at the table and saw that each of them had drunk three beers; the bottles were arranged like tiny palisade forts in front of them. “When did we drink all this beer?” he said.

“It’s not a lot,” said Curt. “There’s more.”

There was more, and they played and drank. Another bottle or two appeared and another sequence of hands was played. At one point Wallace looked up and realized that he had been unaware of anyone else in the room with him; he felt as if he were just waking up from an accidental nap. He smelled distant smoke.

He had lost track of time, but there was an earnestness in the faces of the others that suggested a settling into something lengthy. The room felt darker. It seemed as if there was no sound in their slight movements at the table, but other sounds struggled to sneak in from around the shadowy perimeters of the room: shufflings, whispers, the breathing of fabrics moving from one place to another.

Wallace said:

“I’m glad you guys are here. I mean really. It’s been—you know, it’s been strange since Fran left.”

He saw them all look up from their cards as one, in slow motion. Something liquid in his perception made them seem to slide together.

“I think you’re holding up real good,” said Skinner. “Look at it like this: you have absolute freedom. You can invent a whole new life.”

“My old one isn’t over yet. Not really. Fran and I still have to talk about everything. If I get a good job, then—you know.”

“I say use the opportunity to think it through,” said Skinner. “Personally, I never want to let a job define who I am. But that’s just me.”

“We know,” said Curt.

No one was playing their cards: they all sat around the table looking at their hands but making no move to choose or to draw. The piles of coins and bills seemed dusty with age as if the entire scene were a display in some museum to suburbia that no one visited anymore.

“One thing’s for sure,” said Travis, “and that’s that you gotta get out there. You don’t want to have the thing with Fran fall through and then realize that there’s nothing else on the table. You need to start building up a reserve, you know?”

“Great,” said Curt. “But you’re an ass. Maybe Wally’s not. What do you say, Wally: you want to be an ass like this guy?”

Wallace realized that without knowing it he had stood up from the table and was now standing at the kitchen sink, looking through the dark window into the humid forest that stretched out around the house. He saw his reflection as if in the distance, yellow and dim, looking back at him, and he marveled at the features there that he did not recognize.

“I think,” he said slowly, “that there’s something else in this house with me. Since Fran left.”

“No worries,” said Skinner. “Living with yourself can be a bitch. There’s you, like, everywhere. You get used to it.”

“No. Something other than me. Something more than me.” He touched his reflection in the windowpane, watched it tap back at him. It was his finger. But also not, because his fingernails were cut obsessively short, and these were—

The air over the card table was lightly wreathed in thin wisps of smoke. Skinner’s eyes were bleary. He said:

“Hey! You guys remember Leo Jackson? He said the same thing one time. What the hell were we doing?—some Xbox game. He said his score changed during the night when he wasn’t playing.”

“That’s crap,” said Curt. “Guy gets drunk and doesn’t remember playing.”

“No,” said Travis. “I remember Leo. Yeah. Good old Leo. After his wife had left him, he stopped drinking. Cold turkey. He was miserable, but he was sober. He said a guy came by to deliver a pizza that he never ordered.”

“Who’s Leo?” asked Wallace. He came back to the table and tried to rejoin the group.

“Leo Jackson,” said Skinner. “Lived here before you guys came. What the hell did he do? Something in banking? Something with money. Maybe real estate. Fun guy. Had the garage made up into like a party den: widescreen TV, beer on taps that he made himself. Always had people over.”

“Labor Day,” said Curt. “That was the big one. Labor Day. A hundred people in here, drinking and grilling, and he paid for the whole thing.”

“Where did he go?” asked Wallace.

“His wife left him,” said Skinner. “No one knows why. She just up and left. And then Leo got—weird.”

“Yes,” said Curt. “Weird.”

“He started out talking it up—real excited about a new social life,” said Travis. “I was going to get him totally set up, you know? But he got strange.”

“I don’t get it,” said Wallace. “What does that mean?”

Curt said, “He disappeared. I mean, he was in here. Never came out.”

“Sounds like depression. Makes sense to me.”

“No,” said Travis. “Something else. He used to call me on my phone—but then there wasn’t anyone there. But it was different: it was like I heard a conversation, way off in the distance, between two people.”

Way off in the distance.

“Then he moved out,” offered Skinner. “Real sudden. Realtor dealt with the cleanup and some people came in and moved all his crap.”

“Then you moved in,” said Curt, smiling behind his round glasses.

“The weirdest thing,” said Travis, “is that I had completely forgotten about him until now. It’s only been—what, four years?—but I honestly cannot remember the last time he even crossed my mind. Hell, I can’t even remember what he looked like.”

The others thought about it. “No clue,” said Curt. “Can’t picture his face at all.”

Outside, a hot wind had picked up, suggesting the edges of a storm slipping their way. Wallace looked around the table, trying to see the group of them as they might appear to someone seeing them for the first time. He realized that until recently he had been the most upwardly mobile of them: steady job, consistent family life, a clear course forward.

Now he was indistinguishable from them, his features and ideas moving blandly with theirs in the thin smoke that layered, impossibly, over the table and among the empty beer bottles. He felt suddenly thirsty, and he stood up to search for something else to drink.

“Anyone else want a beer?”

Wordlessly, each man at the table raised a listless hand. Altogether that was four beers, and Wallace pulled them from the fridge and gathered them in his arms. Then he looked back at the table and the empty chair that they had pushed into the corner. He took a fifth beer and set them all out on the table. Then he moved over to the corner and pulled up the extra chair. Curt and Skinner scooted their chairs aside to make room, and none of them asked Wallace why he had done that. He put the fifth bottle of beer in front of the empty chair.

Settling back down to deal another hand of cards that would remain barely noticed, Wallace ran his hand over the stubble on his chin—stubble that he knew was grayer and coarser than what he shaved away back when he did that routinely. He absently suspected that his hair did not need to be cut, that it was shorter than he remembered, and the morning seemed an impossibly long time from now: far off in the distance.




Wade Newhouse is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. He teaches classes in vampires, ghosts, and children’s literature and therefore considers himself an expert in being creeped out and uneasy all the time.

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