Pam Howe

The Truth Chair

His apartment is about a forty-minute walk from yours—up Santa Monica, over to Hollywood, down La Brea—but you don’t mind the heat. Who needs an expensive gym membership, you tell yourself. Besides, these long walks between your apartment and Lenny’s give you time to think, to analyze, and you’ve needed that lately. Something’s been different these last few weeks. You’re not quite sure what it is or what it means but you better figure it out—this friendship means too much to you.

You cut up Third, anticipating the automatic doors of that store Fancy Pants for Men (or something) where you will walk a little slower than normal, stop, taste the sudden blast of air conditioning as it shoots you in the face, arms, chest, legs. The thin wisps of hair covering your body stand in formal gratitude of the sudden chill. Imagine yourself a modern-day Marilyn, posing in your ex’s army green cargo pants, your cotton camisole, flip-flops. The cool air loosens you from your sticky skin.

On Detroit, a bright red electric sign winks the word GARAGE and you can’t help but notice that first two neon letters have blown out. The flashing R-A-G-E pleases you, as if some secret message was being sent from someone, somewhere, who has more information than you—someone who knows the whole story. It’s just like the time someone shot out the S in the Shell station across the street from your apartment. An old prank for sure, but for weeks that first summer in Los Feliz—when you fought insomnia and hadn’t made friends yet, when you’d climb out onto your fire escape and smoke cloves all night—the glowing H-E-L-L beamed steadily at you like neon smoke signals of some shared understanding.

Then again, maybe your fondness for neon is just simple nostalgia for the dancing hula girls of the Midwestern motels of your youth, or the fleeting promises of Nevada’s Gold-For-Cash shops of someone else’s. The flash of a long lost face sparks in your mind, but you push it all away. You move forward with only a backwards glance as the RAGE flashes, thinking: if only I had a camera.

If only you owned a camera. Well, if only you owned a camera that works. There are four somewhere in your apartment. Not one of them actually takes pictures, but other than that they’re perfectly good. Seems a waste to throw them away when someday you’ll meet someone who fixes them and wish you still had all those almost-perfectly-good cameras. You think of your Canon callback this morning. Cross your fingers; you could use a national right about now, the residuals from your Eggo have dwindled to less than SAG dues. You need a good pharm commercial, something for blood pressure or mood disorders, those commercials run all the time—set you up for life.

You’re still fantasizing about all the things you’d buy with a decent erectile-dysfunction gig when you see it: an elegantly handsome black leather Eames chair. It’s precariously posed on the curb with a sign duck-taped on its back, the word FREE scrawled across a piece of lined yellow legal pad shaking in the breeze. Your heart flickers for a second, the way it would if the MegaMillions lady pulled your lucky numbers, but you hold back because you’re not that kind of girl—lucky, that is. Upon closer inspection you notice a crack in the chair’s base, but that’s what they invented Krazy Glue for, or Gorilla Glue, or was hot glue? Well, there’s that Home Depot off St. Andrews, right on your way home; they’d know for sure.

Next to the chair, in the grass, is an old empty birdcage, a toaster oven with no door, a dusty old black-and-white, a rolled oriental, and a heavy metal filing cabinet. There’s a couch and a steamer trunk and the old end table and, yes, as a matter of fact, you have seen this all before. You wonder why he’s throwing out all his stuff. Is Lenny moving? Did Lenny move? Did he win the lottery himself and buy all new stuff? Is he even okay? Could he have hurt himself? You started to worry the minute you started to wonder because he’s not always—what’s the term—“emotionally stable.” But at the same time, you have always loved that chair of his. Should you leave the chair then come back when you discover he’s fine, just being—what’s that other term—“eccentric?” If you wait, it might be gone.

Then again, do you really need another chair?

It’s the free that gets you, every time. The sign may say free but the words you read are limitless potential. You’re crafty, you can rewire, refinish, re-whatever anything. You imagine yourself at the next dinner party you throw (the first dinner party you throw) saying, “Oh that? Found it on the street, all it needed was a little re-working.” The problem is that even the best intentions don’t make things right, and that night stand next to your bed is still not fixed. The one with one leg that’s slightly shorter than the others, barely noticeable (except when you set a glass of water down at night and wake up with a wet pillow). Yeah, you gotta fix that. You have swatches of delicate fabric for the someday when you get a sewing machine, old records for the someday you get a record player, vintage ties for the someday you get a boyfriend, the list goes on. Let fate decide it; if it’s still there when you leave, it’s a sign.

Buzz yourself in. The door code hasn’t changed in the three years since he first gave it to you. Take the stairs but stand outside his apartment before knocking, work out a game plan to inquire about the furniture outside. Do not just come out and ask, because that’s what he wants. You’ve been friends long enough to know that. He’s like a child that way—his erratic behavior only encouraged by concern. Listen. He is crooning a Chet Baker song behind the door and it makes you smile. You picture him holding a wooden spoon to his mouth like a microphone, an intentionally blurred memory.

Lenny opens the door with a smile that crinkles the sides of his face. The smell of crisp duck skin rushes at you. Sizzle seeps from the kitchen, the sound of melting fat from fowl bubbling into a shallow baking pan of lemons and rosemary. It hits you—the singing, his smile, his cooking, his mood—he must’ve signed on for another season. He was worried he’d asked for too much, but his agent assured him, you assured him. Everyone loves the show, they love his food, they love his insane antics and impromptu songs about Loch Ness Monsters and sleepwalking sloths. People love to laugh in the kitchen. People love to laugh.

You want to congratulate him, but wait until he tells you. Don’t ask, in case you’re wrong. His moods are so fragile. Change the subject in your mind. You scramble for your clever opening remarks but your stomach beats you to it with an audible longing for duck fat-fried fingerlings. You’re embarrassed. You might be blushing, and that’s definitely not cool. Quick, say something, cover with an insult.

“Damn, Lenny, you cookin’ a dead hooker in here?” Perfect, not only did you insult his culinary abilities but you may have also suggested he’s a murderous perv. Score one for you.

Lenny jokes, “Found some three-day-old Bandicoot breasts behind Trader Joes. Can you believe how many delicious endangered species go to waste in this town?”

“You just wanted to use the word Bandicoot,” you say.

He shuts the oven door and stands. “I saved the Styrofoam trays ‘cause I know how crafty you are,” he winks.

Damn. Something about the way he delivers the word crafty conjures images of mom-jeans and home perms, scrapbooking infomercials, and crockpot cookery, and that one word shines a florescent light right onto the very person you hope to god you’re not becoming.

Say, “I’m surprised you didn’t put the Styrofoam on the curb with the rest of your shit.” Gesture toward the almost empty living room with your eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate. But he doesn’t. He kisses your cheek and takes the groceries.

“Man, whatchu got in here?” is his only response. And then, “I asked for sage, are these Skittles?” The groceries slide onto an island between the kitchen and the living room. The bag falls to one side, scattering limes like chubby children fleeing station wagons at a highway rest stops. Some of the limes make suicidal leaps to the linoleum, one anti-climatic thud after another.

Lenny doesn’t have enough hands (or coordination) to catch them all, and yells in a falsetto voice, “Oh no, save the children!” proving once more his uncanny ability to read even your most abstract thoughts.

Whenever he does that you say, “Get the hell outta my head,” even though it’s the last thing you really want. You rescue the limes, laughing. He turns to check on the bird. “Duck?” you ask.

“Duck,” he answers.

“Goose!” You yell, as you pull a liter of Grey Goose from the bag. “Ahhaha, get it?” Show him the label on the bottle of vodka, wait for him to appreciate your clever quip. True, usually if you have to say “get it” after making a joke, it’s not much of a joke. And maybe that’s the case here, too, but it was clever; he’s going to have to give you that, at least.

He rolls he eyes and shakes his head, and makes some sound like you just sucker-punched him, but it’s all the acknowledgement you need. Try not to smile too big. Unpack the bag. Pull out the two DVDs, a pack of Skittles, then the beer. One of the Coronas catches the small yellow box, and a dozen or so cigarettes erupt like hot lava from the sack, onto the counter.

“Forget the children, save the cigarettes!” You shout. You’re all thumbs shoving them back into the box, breaking half of them. Grace is not one of your attributes.

“You bought top shelf?” he asks while motioning toward the Grey Goose. Shrug one shoulder. Shrug the other shoulder and lift both hands, then cock your head to one side, as if you’re the last laugh before the shot cuts to commercial. Cue the canned laughter. Len ignores your ridiculous pantomime. “Seriously, what’s the occasion?” he wants to know.

“You tell me?” You wait for him to say they’ve signed him for another season. It’s amazing timing, you’ve created the perfect set up for his big announcement. Smile knowingly, wait. But something flashes from him that you can’t quite figure out. It’s fear, or nerves, or something else, and you realize maybe they haven’t renewed his contract. You do your best to cover, “How ‘bout just ‘cause it’s June and we’re both still single?”

“Right,” Lenny nods. Then, “Stop, Jameson.” He calls you by your full last name when he’s exasperated; normally he shortens it to James or Jamie. He hasn’t called you by your first name since, well, back when you were both different people. “You’re breaking all the cigarettes. Jesus. Go sit down, I’ll get these,” he scolds, shooing you away.

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