Artwork by Alexa Gaffaney
“I know you always wanted a nice rocking chair,” Bobby explains. His socks leave soggy prints on our kitchen floor as he slides out of his boots. “Picked this up off a buddy.”
Bobby rubs his chin, scratches at his neck where the crucifix hangs on a length of leather. A sprig of chest hair pokes through a hole in his thermals, right next to the cross. A few strands curl over it. “Frank Harrison. Fellow used to work in the mines. You met him once, but he’s retired now.”
We move to the porch where the overhang is painted like the sky—blue sky. Not this rainy-cloud gray that’s sagged over us like wet sheets for so many days. Our gravel path slopes down into the valley and back up again, up until distant mountains burrow in fog. A little way’s down, the engine of Bobby’s truck is ticking, cooling, and in the pickup’s bed sits one fine rocking chair.
I do like it, and make sure he knows how much I do before I start with the questions, only I think he sees through all this. Funny thing, a rocking chair. People tend to get attached. He knows what my grandmother used to say about rocking chairs. It’s why he brought it.
“Why’d Mr. Harrison give it to you?” I ask. “Such a nice chair ought to stay home.”
“Chair belonged to his kid. Frank’s son blasted coal. Brave kid, dangerous job. Had an accident back a few weeks. Guess Frank didn’t want the chair sitting empty, reminding him about it.”
I head back into the house and exhale, grabbing a tub of okra from the counter. I’m taking it to the sink, only a few steps but a walk long enough to sort my thoughts. He gives me the moment—takes off his toboggan so that hair, all wiry and wet spills out. “Lorraine,” he says, real gentle like he’s afraid I’ll spook. “It’s a nice chair.”
“Bring it in.”
He stares at my back for the longest time, and I can feel it. After a few seconds, I hear his feet slide back into those boots. “Thank you,” he says.
Lying in our bedroom, I can hear creaking. It comes from behind the door—the groans of that fine chair rocking forward and back. Bobby’s snores also reach me, much closer but not as loud. We live alone. Still, the chair rocks and creaks. I don’t sleep.
In the morning, I stand over the stove and fry up some pancakes. The chair sits on the far side of the place, where kitchen becomes couch and old television set. As Bobby ducks out of the bedroom, all dressed for work in his boots and thermals. He eyes the chair and then me. Bobby sighs a little, because he can always tell. To him, it is clear how pointedly I keep from looking at the chair, how pointedly I keep from going near it.
“It’s still in the house,” I say, flipping a cake. “Count your blessings.”
He fingers his crucifix. “You know it’s just a chair, right?”
It’s easy for him to say. He’s rehearsed for moments like this, I can tell.
“Just a chair, Lorraine. Nothing but wood and some varnish.”
I pull out two plates. “Yes.”
I’m too quick to give in, and Bobby can tell I don’t mean it, but what more can he say? I’ve already agreed. He accepts a plate and eats a cake and then some bacon. He’s chewing when he asks, “What’re you up to today?”
“In the garden,” I say, starting a pot of coffee. “Might head out for some pansies. They’ll look nice when the sun finally comes out.”
He nods, clears his throat. “You need the truck later?”
“No,” I shake my head. “I’ll have Hazel come pick me up. Want to get out and back early.”
The rest of breakfast is silverware clinking with a few sparse words smattered in between. Then, he climbs into the truck and disappears down the gravel path in a cloud of dust that mixes with morning fog. After he’s gone I don’t call Hazel. Instead, I get my Aunt Margie on the phone.
A long time ago, I learned about all this stuff from my grandmother. It’s usually passed down like that, sometimes by a parent if there’s no one else. My grandmother taught about old things, mountain things: Foxfire, blue porches, and also haints. That was years back, long enough that there are things I no longer remember. Things I should never have forgotten, no matter how much Bobby would like it.
Because my grandma would be over a century and likely not up to talking anyhow if she wasn’t already dead, and my mother having gone the same way by now, Aunt Margie is my best chance. I dial her up and listen as she chatters for a few minutes, and then I tell her what I want to know and ask what I should do. She tells me to wait—that one of her sons will come pick me up. I don’t want to be picked up, but I agree anyway.
Margie’s thin as a rail and smokes her bodyweight in tobacco before dinner. I don’t like a few of her sons, my cousins. Bobby doesn’t either, but the one that pulls up to the porch is one of the two that we don’t mind, so I have no problem climbing into the passenger seat of his pickup.
When we come to Margie’s house, I can see her rocking on the porch in her own chair, under the same blue hue that’s painted on me and Bobby’s overhang. She’s puffing on an improvised cigarette—a gift from one son or another. I thank my cousin for the ride and head up the wooden steps. At the top I hunker down next to her and fight a blush that I came all this way to ask for advice about a chair.
“Come a little closer,” croaks Margie, puffs of blue smoke falling out of her mouth, “and to the side. That—there you go. Now I see you.”
Margie’s been going blind for about a decade now. I’m not sure—maybe she actually is, but I’m not sure. The cusp of blindness has given her a lot of free time. As she poofs more smoke, I wonder if she’s too far gone to see the black print on the rolling paper of her cigarette. Gideon Bibles make the best smokesticks.
“You done right coming by me,” Margie assures in a cloud of vapor. “Haints are tricky. Don’t like to move on after they die, see?” She looks at me sideways, like an owl. “Your porch is painted, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” I tell her, “it is.”
“Good,” she grunts. “That’ll keep most of the riffraff out. Haint moseys over, thinks it sees a house, but when it looks up sees the sky instead, don’t it? All disappointed, it’ll move on until it finds someone what forgot to paint their porch.”
“Yes,” I say again. “My porch’s painted, but what about the chair?”
She’s confused for a moment and draws in more smoke. This time on the exhale it leaks out her nostrils.
“The chair,” I remind her, and give her the story again. By the end she’s nodding slowly.
“Right, right. The chair. Sometimes people get attached to things. They don’t move on. Best thing to do’s get rid of it, if it bothers you.”
I shake my head and think of Bobby. “Can’t do that.”
She bites her lip, and I can see where she’s done this before—where her teeth have left little dips in its swell. “Right then. Best thing then is to go out and get you a piece of new wood. It’s got to be new. Fix that new piece to the old chair, and the haint’s got to move on. Can’t stay anchored no more. Chair’s new—don’t belong to it anymore, understand?”
“Will that work?” I ask, and I can’t keep my voice steady. Maybe it’s not just Bobby. Maybe I’m bad at hiding things.
Margie taps ash into a tray and snorts. “Holy smokes, child! Fix it something new and the haint’ll be on its way. Right well it will.” She flicks her cigarette to the floor and smushes it with the toe of her boot. “No need to be all skeptic around me.”
To Aunt Margie, I’m a skeptic. Somewhere, Bobby is laughing. I just know it.
When Bobby gets back from work, he asks me about pansies, and I tell him that I couldn’t find any that I thought a good match. He looks at me for a minute and asks how Hazel’s doing. “Alright,” I tell him, and then, “same as always.”
We fry some okra together and after that he sets the table for dinner. I wait until we’re halfway through the meal to tell him what I want him to do. “Bobby, bring a length of wood with when you come home tomorrow, you hear? New wood. Not something that’s been used before.”
He’s not sure why I’m asking, I can tell, but his eyes dart to the chair and then back to me. “Why’s that, Lorraine? What you need it for?”
“Nothing important. Thinking about building a stand for those pansies, for when it gets sunny. For when I buy some.” It’s not entirely untrue, but I still feel kind of bad. “Steaks and gravy tomorrow,” I tell him.
That settles it. There are no more disputes.
Creaking, seeping through the crack under the door in pale half-light, so blue and off-white like something from the moon. Bobby murmurs softly and shuffles the quilt, but my eyes haven’t closed since sundown. Creak. All my thoughts are Frank Harrison’s dead son. Creak. Coal blasters were skinny, mostly bones. Creak. Stuck, because they weren’t big enough to heft a pick. Creak. Young, because so many died. Creak.
That next afternoon, Bobby watches me hammer the new piece to the old chair, now a new one. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. When we eat steaks and gravy, it tastes a little off. Finally, he says something.
“Lorraine, I don’t think this fixation is healthy.” He’s fingering his crucifix again. “It’s just a chair.”
I shrug. “Now it is.”
He shakes his head. “Always was. You’re getting to sound like Margie. Our porch is blue. Alright, that’s fine.” He points at the coal blaster’s chair. “But that piece of furniture is just a chair. I don’t know what nailing a piece of wood would do to fix that, but I do know that it won’t because there’s nothing to fix.”
“Yes,” I tell him. “I know.”
Bobby sighs and turns his attention to his food, and that’s pretty much it until night.
The echo of an explosion comes from outside, where the chair must be. It doesn’t wake Bobby, who snores in peace. I wonder if the noise hit his ears at all. He certainly doesn’t hear the same steady creaking I can, even after the time-lost shadow of blasted coal shatters everything.
I float out of bed and into the main room and see chips of wood scattered all across the floor. It’s the new piece—the one that’s supposed to get rid of the haint. A broken spar has a wonky nail shoved through it, and the metal bit curves upward like a tooth.
I’m careful not to touch anything as I cross into the kitchen. Outside a window, there is no moon and not a single star, but the sink’s spigot still shines with faint light and glints, like a chip of river silver. There are echoes in the air—the creaking chair as it lurches forward and back.
For the first time, I see him, or rather his outline. It’s pale and only half there. I watch for a minute while he rocks and wonder if he sees me. I should be scared—I know I should but I’m not. I don’t know what I am. Images of my grandmother, of Aunt Margie, of Bobby’s crucifix, and finally of Bobby himself flood my head and threaten to bubble over. I can still hear him snoring from our bedroom, Bobby. My fingertips carve swirls into the lids of my eyes. I’m rubbing them.
I linger between the two rooms until I can’t see anymore. There are three sounds: The creaking of the chair. Bobby’s snoring. My footsteps as I step out for some fresh air. Maybe it’s only for the night, or maybe not. Maybe I’ll take the keys and the truck and drive off through the mist and seek my fortune in the hills. Maybe that later, but definitely just this now I need something in my life that’s not the haint and not Bobby either.