Chair #2,458

Monday, August 4, 2003

There is next to nothing redeemable about this story. I wrote this after reading Empire Falls, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel of average interest. I wanted to write something simple and easy, and I hit upon complicated and boring.

Themes: Creativity and Workmanship. Emotional Constipation. Power of Community and Religion. Rehabilitation.

This is a story about a Jewish carpenter. He lives in Brooklyn where he takes over his uncle’s business of custom making chairs. He’s not particularly original, but using plans from his favorite magazine, Architectural Furniture, he makes high quality chairs by hand. Seven years earlier, the local synagogue contracted the business to supply 3,000 unique chairs for use in its main chapel. His uncle raised the carpenter and trained him as his apprentice after the carpenter’s parents died in a car crash when he was thirteen. The uncle died before he completed the first 100 chairs, and the carpenter has been steadily filling the order. The contract is rather lucrative and the rest of the uncle’s business has disappeared as the carpenter focused on producing the chairs for the synagogue. The carpenter uses the income from the synagogue to support him and his wife. At the start of the story, he is approaching his 2,500th chair and his 40th birthday.

The carpenter has been married for fifteen years to a Californian woman he met on his only trip outside of New York to Los Angeles for his brother’s wedding. She was a schoolteacher before she moved to Brooklyn, but is now a housewife who volunteers her time at the synagogue as a member of the Sisterhood club. This is not a happy marriage. They never had children and the carpenter is emotionally empty, not having felt real emotions since his parents died. The wife stays in the marriage because she loves the carpenter: he is a kind man who asks for little from life and gives everything he has—with the exception of true emotion—to her. She is a beautiful woman, even as she ages, and finds sexual satisfaction and adventure outside her marriage.

The carpenter’s wife had an affair with the former rabbi at the synagogue, which the carpenter (and most of the congregation) did not know about. It was at the wife’s urging that the former rabbi contracted with the uncle to hand make the chairs for the main chapel. Five years ago, the former rabbi moved his family to Long Island, where he now resides over a larger synagogue. The rabbi’s wife writes the carpenter a letter about his wife’s adultery with the former rabbi. The former rabbi began another affair almost immediately when he arrived at his new synagogue. His wife found out about it and he confessed everything, including his affair in Brooklyn. The carpenter receives this letter later in the story, however.

The new rabbi is thirty-two and single. This is his first post as the only rabbi, always serving under other rabbis as he learned his craft. He has plans for the revitalized neighborhood of the synagogue. Many young Jewish Russian couples with small children have moved back to his neighborhood, and the rabbi hopes to reintroduce them to life in the synagogue.

When the rabbi first came to the synagogue, with the help of the carpenter’s wife, the rabbi sponsored a Jewish juvenile delinquent about to be sent to prison. The court remanded the boy to the rabbi and synagogue’s custody, giving him a job at the synagogue and placing him with an aging couple in the community. The carpenter’s wife is delighted at the opportunity to teach the boy (having not taught anyone since she moved to Brooklyn) and begins teaching the boy. As part of their exchanges, the carpenter’s wife flirts with the boy, finding it the most effective way to make him cooperate. He falls in love with his teacher.

The boy, in an attempt to get the wife to break-up with the carpenter, convinces the rabbi that the unique chairs, which by then had replaced three-quarters of the benches, are not economical and (when it comes right down to it) ugly. (Remember, the chairs are all of different designs and dimensions.) The rabbi reluctantly agrees and tells the carpenter that he is canceling the synagogue’s order at chair number 2,457. The carpenter is shocked. In his anger (which, as an emotion, is something he has not felt in 30 years), the carpenter builds a chair without the use of any templates or guides or magazines. He spends the evening building the chair, and doesn’t return home until late. He brings the completed chair home with him, proud of his creation. He is also filled with despair, realizing that he has had no business (or inventory) since his uncle’s death because of his contract with the synagogue.