By Diane Kimbrell
Three years ago, after my husband had a sudden heart attack and passed on, I renovated our kitchen. State of the art everything including a refrigerator that made crushed ice. What else was I to do? Not by choice, we were a childless couple so there were no grandbabies to spoil. Since Sam’s death, our lovely two story brick home became so quiet sometimes, it reminded me of a tomb, and that bothered me. As far as I knew, Jesus was the only one to ever leave a tomb alive. That afternoon I drove to the drug store to refill my prescription for that hydro-something salve—I’d been suffering from a rash—similar to the hives. Posted on the door was a flyer advertising a yard sale. Normally, I wouldn’t think anything of it—yard sales don’t much interest me because there’s nothing I really need, but this flyer caught my attention. The sale was being held at an old friend’s house.
I first met Almaleen Crump when we were both seven years old; when my family moved to the small town in North Carolina called, “Quicksand.” She showed up in our yard and never seemed to want to go home. Almaleen became my best friend—we were inseparable. We could just look at each other and laugh. Almaleen was blond and blue-eyed and as fair as I was dark. Her family attended the Methodist church—when they went which was almost never, so Almaleen always came with my family to the First Church of the Nazarene way over town. We used to get tickled during church services and when we giggled which we always did (we didn’t need a reason) the entire pew would shake. Members of the congregation would give us dirty looks and say, “Shhhh! Hush!” But of course, that only made it worse. One Sunday Almaleen got so tickled she peed in her pants. That’s when mama separated us—made me sit on one side of her—Almaleen on the other, and dared either one of us to move or speak.
One day Almaleen shared a secret. I must say I didn’t believe her at first.
“I know it’s got legs but a chair can’t walk,” I insisted.
“Rock.” She said, “Rock.” She invited me over to her house to see for myself but I had to promise not to tell anyone. Almaleen never invited me over to play. I’d never been inside her home. Her daddy, the town drunk, was known for his raging fits of temper. His voice was so loud the entire neighborhood could hear him screaming. Lord, that man could curse. Her mother, a very sweet woman, worked during the day so Almaleen’s maternal grandmother lived with them and looked after things.
The bright orange kitchen smelled of sausage and bacon grease. A high chair painted the same color, stood at the head of a long narrow kitchen table that protruded from a small breakfast nook area.
“Sue Ann, watch this.” Almaleen demanded. She hopped up on the high chair, which put her about two and one half feet above the floor, hooked her own legs around the front legs of it, and closed her eyes. According to Almaleen, she could move around on her high chair without toppling over. Go anywhere she wanted—anywhere in the house. Sitting very erect, like she might be riding a horse, but with her hands on her lap instead of holding reins, she began to move her upper body back and forth in a gentle rocking motion. And as if following her lead, the chair rocked, too. They traveled at a steady pace, from the kitchen table and across the room to the sink then back. As I watched, a chill danced up my spine. I could hardly believe what I saw. It looked so easy. The movements were so graceful. She took on a kind of glow and her features, often somewhat pinched, appeared soft, happy, and beautiful. By the peaceful expression on her face, I knew Almaleen had been transported to some great place beyond—like Disney Land maybe or Myrtle Beach. Was I dreaming? If so, her grandmother suddenly awakened me. The old lady, who often suffered from sick headaches, called out from the back bedroom for Almaleen to be quiet. We scampered out the back door. The Crump’s kitchen had seemed stifling. Feeling somewhat lightheaded, I was glad to breathe fresh air. We sat cross-legged beneath the beech gum tree that grew at the edge of their yard.
“How long have you been moving around on that chair?” I asked.
“Since I got it.” Suddenly curious, I began to question Almaleen.
“Where did it come from?”
“Aunt Minnie and Uncle Tater gave it to me for my fifth birthday. It’s not a baby’s chair,” she explained, “it doesn’t have a tray.”
“Why would they give you a chair? I asked. “Didn’t you want a doll?”
“I needed a place to sit. All our kitchen chairs were really low—too low for me. So that I could join everybody at the table, Mama put a suitcase (an old brown battered one with a broken lock) on a chair, piled two phone books on it and I sat up top. It wasn’t very comfortable.”
“Is this chair comfortable?” I asked.
“Yep. Made out of real pine.” Pine didn’t sound very comfortable but still curious, I continued my line of questioning. I should’ve become a lawyer instead of a nurse.
“And, where do you sleep?” I asked.
“On the chair,” Almaleen answered.
“Where do you sit to watch TV or listen to the radio?”
“On the chair.”
“Where do you sit to do your homework?”
“So during your time at home you just sit on this chair?”
“Do you have to sit on it? Does your mama or your daddy or anybody make you?”
“What would happen if you didn’t sit—?”
“Hey, Sue Ann, I know! Let’s go play paper dolls at your house,” she said.
“But what would happen if—?” I asked.
“There aren’t any bars on our windows,” she said, “or padlocks on any of our doors.”
“Only jails have padlocks and bars,” I told her. “Besides, what does that have to do with anything?”
“Let’s go play paper dolls at your house.” Almaleen’s lips were set in a straight line, which told me no more would be said, no matter how often I asked. We did play paper dolls that afternoon in our attic. Mama allowed me and Almaleen, my two sisters and little brother to create a playhouse up there, as long as we didn’t fuss and fight with each other. We all seemed to get along in those days. Have fun. Our biggest concern was which tea set to use or what game to play next. A game of Monopoly often lasted for days.
Almaleen sat on her high chair at the head of the Crump’s kitchen table until she was twelve years old. At that time (I was never sure exactly why), she had to go live with her aunt in Greensboro, and unfortunately, we lost touch. I read about her death in the newspaper about ten years ago: Irma Almaleen Young (nee Crump). Don’t know how she died but according to the obituary, she’d been sick for awhile. She was a schoolteacher.
Most of the other Crump family members were long since dead. Their small frame house located across the street from where my family used to live was now vacant but someone (perhaps a distant relative) was hosting the yard sale. I didn’t recognize any of the objects—a wrought iron magazine stand, brass headboard, a box of cheap empty picture frames, a blender, a small wooden nightstand, some pots and pans, a set of dishes, a floor fan with a frayed cord. Glancing around I noticed more items on the front porch. I carefully climbed the brick steps avoiding the broken ones to have a closer look. Just behind a clothes hamper, I spotted something familiar; without a doubt, God Almighty, it had to be—Almaleen’s high chair.
“Can I help you?” the man asked. In his mid fifties, I’d say, he wore a green and blue striped Tee shirt that didn’t hide a growing beer gut. At the age of sixty-one, the chair was considered an antique in fair condition even though the legs were a bit wobbly. Originally unfinished pine, the piece boasted layers of peeling paint—among the shades: gray, orange and deep fuchsia, giving the designer term, “distressed wood” a new dimension. I recall that every time the Crump’s painted their kitchen a new color, the chair received a coat of paint, too. How could such an object have survived? I wondered. Same way I had, I supposed.
“How much is this?”
“One hun’ert fi’ty dollars.”
“It’s antique,” Ma’am. Got to be thirty years old at least.” I didn’t correct him. “I’ll give you $25.00.” The man shook his head from side to side.
“I was given a list of the prices to charge and I can’t negotiate.”
“Who’s the seller? I used to know the Crump family. They were my friends. This belonged to my—”
“I have no idea Ma’am. I work for a company who sends me out. Don’t know nothing more than what I’m told.” As he walked away, I reached out and touched the back of the chair running my fingers across the wooden slat. Poor Almaleen. This chair—this piece of junk had been her world. What would happen to it now? Who would want to buy such a—? I must’ve been deep in thought because they seemed to appear out of nowhere. I hadn’t heard them coming or seen them before. A young couple (well dressed) probably married only a few months stepped up on the porch.
“Wow,” she said, checking out the chair. Her voice was low and breathy like Marilyn Monroe’s.
“That’s a beauty,” her partner said. His voice seemed high pitched and squeaky compared to hers.
“How much is this?” he asked, kneeling down to examine the legs of the chair like one might examine the legs of a racehorse. The man in the green and blue striped Tee shirt lumbered up the steps to join us.
“Two hun’ert dollars,” he wheezed. I couldn’t blame him for raising the price—
he was only doing his job. But $200 was simply ridiculous. Who would pay that kind of money? “Sold!” I shouted. The three of them turned to look at me with shocked expressions on their faces. I was just as shocked as they were at my announcement. “I was here first,” I explained. “Do you accept checks?”
I’ve always been a busy person. If something needed to be done everybody knew Sue Ann would do it. But as time went by, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Playing Dominoes got old. Financially well fixed I could have traveled to Europe, a place I always wanted to go, but friends warned it was too dangerous to fly. I placed the chair near the kitchen table with its imported inlaid tiles. As I stood there thinking about what to fix for lunch, I couldn’t stop staring at that chair. It didn’t fit with my Neo-Romanesque styled kitchen from Home Depot, and yet it seemed to belong. Through the years I’d taken care of myself—exercised, ate all the “right” foods and I still had a rather girlish figure. Weighed the same as I did the day I married. I eased myself on to the chair. Could it hold my weight? I settled myself on the small wooden seat as if it were a saddle on a trusted steed, and closed my eyes. I hooked my own legs around the front legs of the chair and folded my hands in my lap. If anyone from the church or members of the senior book club or the Domino Dollies saw me right now, they would surely believe I’d lost my mind. So be it. I had to know. Had to know if what I saw all those years ago was real. Had to know where Almaleen went—if I could go there, too. The Dollies had enough members to play Dominoes without me. And, whenever I added a comment during a book club meeting, some big mouth always drowned me out. If I could just make it to that special place, I’d never ever come back to this silent tomb. I slowly began to move my upper body back and forth. Of course the chair didn’t budge. Almaleen had never rocked this chair around the room— it was all a silly dream from my childhood. Feeling old and foolish, I continued to move back and forth in an effort to comfort my silly self—to stifle the tears that started to fall—then slowly, very slowly, the chair began to rock with me. We began to move—first to the doorway then back to the table. All afternoon—for hours— I rocked around the kitchen and didn’t topple once. From the table to the refrigerator, from the refrigerator to the stove, and back again. I even rocked to the living room. Around and around I rocked, picking up speed. I felt as if I was flying, as if I owned the world, as if everything was fine the way it used to be (maybe I just thought it was fine then—whatever). And finally, finally, I began to understand my crazy funny wonderful friend and her chair. Almaleen Crump knew how to live!
Through parted curtains at the picture window I observed evening shadows creeping silently across the lawn. Oh, if only Sam could see me now. My stomach growled. I knew I should stop, get off the chair, but for the first time in years—perhaps in my whole life—I felt truly alive. So I continued to ride through the night and the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. Paul Revere had nothing on me. I knew I could ride as long as I wanted and stop whenever I pleased. There were no bars on my windows or padlocks on any of my doors.
Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in NYC for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her literary credits include The Raleigh Review, The Battered Suitcase, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Subtletea, Muscadine Lines, the SFWP Journal, River Walk Journal, and Plum Biscuit.