BASS 2013: David Means, “The Chair” from The Paris Review, Spring 2012

Ah, glorious, I thought. Ah, a lovely and perfect fall afternoon. The sublime nature of taking care of my boy on one more bygone day. There was a deep, submerged loneliness in my chest as I stood feeling the wind, which was lifting, growing firmer and stronger from the north, bringing with it the first hints of winter.… Evening would fall, and the lights of the bridge and cross the river would throw themselves onto the surface of the water, appearing one by one as the sky faded, and then, safely inside the house, I’d look out the window and feel the fantastic unleashing of the pure, frank wistfulness that used to come to me at that time of day, and I’d feel, ahead, the future in one form or another, without which I could not endure the task. At some point in the future we’d be alone in the house and Gunner would be off at college, or married, and days like that would be sucked into a vortex – what other way to think of it? – of retrospect, with just a few memories of day-to-day tending: car-seat buckling, food feeding, punctuated by more pointed memories of trauma: stitches in his brow (lacrosse), asthma attack (holding him through the night, his tiny chest heaving against my palm), his separation problems at the preschool (me in the window watching him clutch hold of the old scratched up piano bench, his mouth wide open in a scream, his face bright red and shiny). It was only with that sense that I could survive these moments, I think I thought.

The loneliness – and ambivalence – of the stay-at-home father.

Bob loves his five-year-old son Gunner, he truly does, and he loves having time with him – but he’s never sure he’s doing it right, this parenting thing, and then there’s his wife Sharon (he loves her, too) who’s been getting home later and later, with lamer and lamer excuses, and her eyes glaze over when he tells her about his day. It’s the sort of story women have been telling for decades now. I wonder if it makes it more real to some, more important, when a man tells the story.

It’s beautifully written, with long, lyric sentences floating delicate thoughts about everything that goes on in a family: joy, fear, the tightrope between freedom and safety. The story takes place in just a few minutes, with Bob watching Gunner run towards the retaining wall above the water behind the house; he’s warned him to keep away from it once, but maybe he forgot, so he warns him again that “the chair” awaits, should the little boy continue to disregard his warnings. Oh, but the running feels so good, and the wall is so tempting.

I’m hugely aware, I said, of the weird feeling I have about you and your work in relation to me and my position here as at-home caregiver, and sometimes I have to admit, I sit at the window and follow you to work in my imagination.

Three objects serve as foci for the story: the chair, with its threat of consequences, punishment, and, by the way, safety; the window through which Bob watches the city, or his son, from a protected but separated place; and the retaining wall, the potential danger Gunner is so drawn to. It’s lovely how he weaves these together with a set of complex thoughts and feelings.

The story takes place in three time zones, so to speak. There’s the present of the story, with Gunner running towards the wall; there’s the simple past from that present; and there’s a recollection from the distant future, the vantage point from which Bob tells the story. Means has said this is part of a sequence of stories, and he drops references to the future from the very beginning. In the moment, he thought one thing; after the moment was over, he thought more; and now, much later (Gunner is an adult, which could be any time 15 years hence) he tries to recall both what he thought about the moment, and about the past in that moment. I had some trouble following the details of his evolving thoughts (I’m having trouble even explaining what I mean, but that’s due to my lack of technical expertise in narrative), mostly because the prose is so beautiful I just didn’t want to dissect it. It’s clear that he was in the present both joyful and ridden with fears and doubt, and that his fears at the time never came to pass.

We’re riding on an apex, I thought, standing in the yard that day, I think. We’re on a pivot. On one side is her career and her lively steps out the door, while on the other is this deep solitude…

The dualism, the notion of balance, is nicely played throughout. Everything has tradeoffs, and finding the sweet spot can be tricky, whether you’re a stay-at-home dad, a wife coming home late or a kid playing on a retaining wall: The chair always hovers.

One response to “BASS 2013: David Means, “The Chair” from The Paris Review, Spring 2012

  1. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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