The Empty Chair
TEN YEARS LATER, Spring 1981
Margaret Hotchner nibbled her cheese and crackers thoughtfully. A group of in-laws gossiped excitedly at her side, but she had long ago lost interest in the conversation. Margaret kept an eye on the widow of her late brother, watching her body language, her expressions. The woman held her newborn baby and showed him off to another aunt. The baby’s name was Sean, and his mother smiled thinly as she talked about him.
Margaret had always liked her sister-in-law. When she first met her brother’s fiancee, the woman was an undergraduate at Mary Baldwin College, where she studied graphic design in hopes of working for a magazine like Vogue or Self. These dreams were never realized. Instead, she got married and became Mrs. Hotchner full-time. From there on, her life revolved around her Army veteran husband, and Margaret admired the amount of care her brother was given. The fact that Mrs. Hotchner gave up a whole career in order to support her husband and raise their son Aaron truly endeared her to the in-laws.
But when her sole focus and purpose in life — her husband — was taken away by cardiac arrest, Mrs. Hotchner changed. The family feared she might never get over the tragedy.
Margaret remembered her unusual behavior at the funeral. Mrs. Hotchner arrived late with young Aaron at her side, and she was dressed in her Sunday best. Nothing mournful about her appearance or demeanor. While Aaron quietly wept in dark attire, his mother remained bright and cheerful. At one point she even asked when the service would be over. When the deceased’s parents approached her to demand an explanation, Mrs. Hotchner denied everything they said. She insisted there was a misunderstanding — her husband hadn’t died, and she was waiting for him to show up at any moment.
Margaret soon realized the woman had been drinking, and she took her to the in-law’s home afterward to sober out. Margaret’s sister Rachel sat with Aaron in the parlor while Mrs. Hotchner gradually came to her senses upstairs. Once she realized her husband was really gone, she began yelling at Margaret and wailing for her life to be over. Margaret comforted her as best she could, but the woman was inconsolable. Mrs. Hotchner’s frustrated father-in-law ended up serving her a glass of wine just to calm her. Aaron slept over with his cousins that night.
Some believed Mrs. Hotchner’s behavior was simply a meltdown of grief, and it would pass when she got over the initial shock. But Margaret was concerned. She had never seen her sister-in-law act like this before. She tried to be supportive, but Mrs. Hotchner only became more withdrawn. Soon she stopped answering calls altogether. Margaret worried about how her nephew Aaron was coping.
But Margaret had her own life to live. Unlike her late brother’s wife, she had pursued a career and now worked for a fashion company that produced miniskirts and leg warmers. She was busy doing what she loved, and a year or two passed.
Margaret was shocked to learn that Mrs. Hotchner had found a new man only months after the funeral. By now, they had been together long enough to have a baby — and nobody knew for sure if they had even married! Mrs. Hotchner’s invitation for a family gathering to meet the new baby came like a bolt out of nowhere. Maybe she was trying to reconnect with the family, but Margaret felt that her brother’s memory had been betrayed. How could he be so quickly replaced?
She came anyway, along with aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and even classmates from the good old college days. Mrs. Hotchner had borrowed a truckload of folding chairs which provided seating anywhere on the ground level of her house. Her new partner, a slightly unkempt man named Charles, stood around in the kitchen the whole time, telling anyone who would listen about his computer programming job. Margaret sat on the couch with some other ladies and observed the entire gathering warily.
Many of the guests flocked around Charles. He was ruggedly handsome with a chin-ful of stubble and a lazy crop of brown curls. He also carried a suave attitude about him and seemed far too friendly with some of the undergraduates. Margaret could see no comparison between this flirtatious man and her long-gone brother. She wondered what Mrs. Hotchner saw.
The baby, Sean, kept fussing in his mother’s arms. She carried him back and forth between the kitchen and the living area, letting everybody in turn ooh and ah over his cute little face and his tiny hands. It was clear that Mrs. Hotchner had been drinking a little, but not so much that it got in the way of her interactions. Margaret noticed a lack of genuine emotion in the woman’s eyes. She looked blank but just a little sad.
Nobody else seemed to notice.
Margaret had forgotten just how many people claimed to be a part of the family, but now every chair in the house was occupied. Every chair... except one.
Against the far wall of the living room, under a wide, multi-panelled window, Aaron Hotchner sat silently next to the only empty chair in the house. His hands were folded in his lap and his brown eyes scanned the faces that smiled and talked over each other all throughout the room. Aaron must be in high school by now. He used to be such a happy, energetic kid. Margaret was struck by the solemn mask his features had become.
One of Mrs. Hotchner’s former classmates moved toward the empty chair, but Aaron quickly held out his hand over the seat. “It’s taken,” he said simply.
The lady rolled her eyes and moved back to the kitchen.
Margaret casually got up and neared the boy. “Hi, Aaron.”
He looked up.
“How have you been?”
Margaret missed the perky boy who used to run wild in her parlor and dance whenever the Beatles came on over the radio. The boy who would throw his arms around her neck and tell her all about the fish he caught on his trip with Dad. The happy boy with a father.
Margaret took a deep breath. “I hear you’re starting tenth grade next fall. Are you looking forward to that?”
Aaron peered up at her from beneath knit eyebrows. “Yes, ma’am,” he said quietly.
Margaret nodded toward the man telling jokes in the kitchen. “So what do you think of your stepfather? He seems pretty nice.”
Aaron glanced sideways at the empty chair. “Yes, he does, ma’am.”
Margaret watched Aaron’s eyes. She didn’t know what to say to bring out his joyful personality. She didn’t know what was wrong. “Aaron, who are you saving that chair for?”
Aaron cast her another brief glance before lowering his head. “My father,” he whispered.
Margaret suddenly realized that her nephew was the only one in the house who had reserved a space for his father’s memory. And now he was sitting alone with a memory, forgotten by the rest of the world.
Margaret reached out to pat the boy’s shoulder. “I miss him too, honey.”
Just then, Mrs. Hotchner entered the living area with Sean, Charles, and a grumpy-looking older lady. “There he is,” said Mrs. Hotchner, pointing. “Come say hello to your grandmother, Aaron.”
Aaron said hello, but he did not leave his seat. His maternal grandmother stood behind his parents, glaring at him. Margaret thought that Mrs. Hotchner was becoming more like her old lady — unapproachable and annoying.
Mrs. Hotchner came up to Aaron and leaned close. Margaret, standing a few feet away, could hear everything.
“Smile, Aaron,” his mother whispered. “If you keep looking so sour, people will start to wonder what’s wrong with you.”
Aaron stared at her blankly.
“Smile,” she hissed. “Before somebody asks questions.”
When Aaron remained as serious as before, his mother placed Sean in his arms. “Go upstairs and change the baby,” she ordered quietly.
Aaron got up with a furtive look back at the empty chair. Margaret watched him carry his half-brother to the stairs. There he paused to look back.
His mother promptly sat in the chair Aaron had occupied only seconds ago. Almost immediately, Charles sat beside her in the chair reserved for Mr. Hotchner’s memory. Aaron bit his lip and carried Sean upstairs. Margaret didn’t see him anymore after that.
She turned to the couple, planning to tell them about the purpose of the empty chair. But they were whispering together and paid no attention.
“I thought you told him before...” muttered Charles.
“I did,” whispered Mrs. Hotchner. “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to him later.”
“Let me. I’ll make him listen real well.”
“I know you will.”
And then, almost obscenely, the couple leaned in and shared a quick kiss. Mrs. Hotchner let Charles put an arm around her, but even so close to him, she appeared quite sad deep inside.
Margaret wondered at this family and its mysteries. She didn’t like the changes she was seeing, but she had no desire to pry and potentially put a wedge in the middle of whatever relationship still existed between her and her sister-in-law. Aaron would return to his normal self eventually, Margaret knew. Grief just took a greater toll on some people than others.
Margaret returned to her seat on the couch and sighed. Though she still disliked Charles, she thought that maybe sometime soon she would get back together with her in-laws and see how things were going. Maybe they would agree to another small gathering later this year, and hopefully by then recovery would be more evident.
Margaret tried to focus on the gossip and conversations circulating around the room, but she could not forget the betrayed look on Aaron’s face as he headed upstairs.It was the last time the Hotchners ever had a family gathering.