The Empty Chair

"L'Enfant et la Fortune," Pierre Bouillon, 1800 and 1831


Dan watched as another job candidate entered the waiting area, glanced briefly right and left, and then sat down on the other side of the room, next to two other men in suits. Together they looked like an all-American team, fair-skinned, blondish, straight-backed, one with stylish tortoise shell glasses. Alert and confident but not relaxed, as if they had trained for this moment. One of them was browsing on his tablet. Soft classical music played in the background, accompanied by the subdued buzz and trill of office machinery and professional voices. Dan was viscerally aware that the two who came in after him chose to sit across from him as if self-segregating. Although the three were careful not to meet Dan’s gaze, he thought about what they would see if they looked back at him: black smooth hair parted on the side, caramel skin, wide-set dark eyes; slanty-eyes, he imagined them thinking. He also imagined them thinking-without-thinking that they had a better shot at this job than he did. And reflexively, that, if Dan did get the job, it would be a “diversity” hire.

When the receptionist called the first name, the man with the glasses stood up and adjusted his cuffs before following her down the hall. The other two resettled themselves in their seats like hens on their nests, without looking at each other. Dan focused on the empty chair.

At the National Spelling Bee, when he was eleven, he had looked longingly at the empty chair reserved for him amidst the tiered rows of other contestants. He was then seated at the spelling table facing the judges, three older white men, all gravely serious. They shuffled books and papers and conferred with each other in hushed tones while he waited for his word. To his left sat his competitors, champion spellers against whom he had already competed many times. He knew their names, their strategies, their histories, their strengths, and their weaknesses. Above all, he knew their faces.

Sanjay Patel whose upper lip was already traced by a line of dark hair; Leslie Ng whose brow beaded with sweat in a most unfeminine fashion when she was nervous; Ezriel Kapnitz with his multi-colored yarmulke set back on his curly crown, invisible from the front when he sat up straight; LaKesha Washington whose mom insisted she coat her lips with gloss to keep from licking or gnawing at them; John Gupta, with his long thin nose and small, bright eyes; Richie Kwan whose nose was flatter than Danny’s own, his buzzcut an echo of his Marine drill sergeant father’s.

Oh, he knew their parents, too, because they sat through every rehearsal and every bee. They cornered their children in the break room, foisted bottles of water on them, and tested them in urgent whispers: “Impecunious, imbroglio, divestiture…” They made little show of caring about each other’s children, their competition.  Occasionally another mom would suggest that someone looked tired, or would share a bag of carrots or apple slices, and once Mrs. Kapnitz brought strange, triangular cookies with poppy-seed filling that no one wanted to eat because the poppy seeds could get stuck in your teeth and the camera might be zoomed in on your mouth as you spelled your word. Tales of such embarrassments were legend at the bee. The parents would get agitated if the spellers talked too much amongst themselves. They were quick to settle blame on someone else’s child if things got rowdy, which, to be honest, they rarely did.

Dan, then Danny, sat at the table facing the judges with their books and papers and he sweated, himself, over whether he could beat these kids whose sense of competition was persistent and fierce. He didn’t say it aloud, but it had something to do with their difference; their nerdiness, sure, but mainly their color. He felt that the other black and brown kids, like him, knew that a loss for them was a failure of much greater magnitude than right and wrong words. The empty metal folding chair in the contestants’ section was waiting for him if he got his word right. If he didn’t, he would be escorted to his parents in the audience. The others in his row would move down, and the empty speller’s seat on the end would be removed, as in a punitive and silent game of musical chairs. When it was someone else’s turn to leave an empty chair, maybe LaKesha or “Guppie” Gupta, he would dutifully shift down with the rest as if closing ranks, but they were all careful not to bump shoulders or brush hands as they sidled.

Now in the anteroom of Haskell, Schenck, and Schwartz, Attorneys at Law, he stared at the empty blue leather chair with its tufts and buttons, and his gaze passed over the white contestants for the job, and he wasn’t sweating. He pictured his father who drove a truck for UPS until pancreatic cancer sent him straight from the driver’s seat to his deathbed. He still couldn’t pass one of those square, brown trucks without momentarily glancing at the driver to check for his father’s round, lighter-brown face behind the wheel. After dinner his father would sit across the formica kitchen table and fire words at him. Bellicose, symbiosis, cartilaginous, revenant. The rule was, he did not have to go to bed until he got a word wrong. But sometimes all he wanted was to retire to his bed, to curl under the sheets and let only pictures into his mind, even if they were the tiny detailed line drawings from the dictionary; pictures instead of letters and words. And so occasionally he would misspell a word on purpose, making a good show of trying, creasing his brow, drumming his fingers on the stained formica, yanking at a piece of hair, and then slowly tipping the letters out of his mouth one at a time until a wrong one dropped, an e instead of an i, an s where there should have been a c. He felt the wilting grip of his father’s hand on his shoulder when he caught on, knowing this was a word Danny had spelled correctly before. Then he changed the rule and they practiced by the clock.

He was always in bed before his mother got home from her shift at the hospital, but sometimes he was awake still when she came in, smelling of antiseptic, to kiss him goodnight. If he wasn’t sleeping, she would ask what new words he had learned that day. When it started, spelling had been his passion, a thing he was good at without trying; unlike math, which was a struggle, or baseball where he was a fast runner but flinched when the ball was thrown. Now it had become his parents’ passion, like the other parents in the break room, and he progressed to please them. He also felt at ease among the other spellers, even if they were very good. He understood the element of chance—anyone could get an easy word or a ridiculously difficult one—so skill was a limited part of the equation. That was a comfort to him. Every time he got a word right he would stand and glance toward his father, or both parents if his mother could make it, to see their eager, worried faces amid the multicolored sea of audience members. Then he would surreptitiously wipe his sweaty palms on his pant-legs before returning gratefully to his spellers’ chair.

The words that snared him, tripped him, sometimes the same word over and over, he would dread to hear. Recently he had read that the brain creates a “mistake pathway” for things like misspelled words or the name of that actor who played Jesse James, so that if you struggled once to recall that particular thing, you were more likely to struggle with it again. He immediately thought of “appropriate” with its mess of p’s and r’s which always took him the entire time allotted to order correctly, or “kilojoule,” a word that had knocked him out of competition once, a word he should have known. He thought its correct spelling should be forever seared into his memory after his defeat, but in fact, the opposite occurred. Whenever he tried to think of it, a sort of blank space appeared instead. All his life he tried to live by the idea of learning from his mistakes and would berate himself for re-forgetting. Now reading about this neurological disruption, he felt somewhat absolved, though not entirely self-forgiving. If his brain could forge a mistake pathway, why couldn’t it forge a correction pathway? Wasn’t life a series of corrections?

Dan crossed and uncrossed his legs against the lush leather of his own blue chair. He felt prepared. He had studied the right things and he knew the pitfalls of sitting across from those judging. He steadied his breathing to the rhythmic hum of the air conditioning unit that was barely discernible beneath the other mild noises in the office ante-room. He picked up a copy of Business Insider from the dark wood side table and flipped through its pages. In an ad for prescription anxiety medicine, he quizzed himself on the smallest print medical terminology as a way of relaxing. He looked at the names Haskell, Schenck, and Schwartz backwards through the glass on the office door and instinctively considered: language of origin, definition, part of speech?

The receptionist stood again and he heard his name, “Daniel Li,” with a pause to indicate the break between the two “l” sounds, just as the bee announcers always said it. As he stood and followed her toward the conference room, his palms dry, he looked back at the empty chair, his impression already erased from its contours.


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