Written By: James Patrick Kelly
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 2013.
The chair first appeared on a Thursday afternoon on the sidewalk in front of the Dollar Bank and Trust on Lancaster Street in Pulaski, Kansas. Nobody saw how it got there; at least, no reliable eyewitnesses have ever come forward. So we are unable to pinpoint the exact moment of its arrival. Customers began to ask the tellers about it shortly after lunch.
The chair was in the Windsor style, low-backed, with what was called a “continuous arm” made of a single bent piece of wood. It was painted dark green. Chips in the finish revealed that while the spindles were of hickory, the seat was pine. Tapered maple legs were connected by H-stretchers. While the chair gave the impression of sturdiness, it was also light and airy. It would not have been out of place at the head of a suburban kitchen table or in the kind of restaurant that used paper placemats. While some semioticians, notably Sunil Chaudhary, have argued that its construction is a modality that encodes the chair’s ultimate meaning, we remained unconvinced that there was much to be gleaned from its physical appearance.
The bank’s janitor, Hiram Hickock, discovered the second most extraordinary thing about the chair: It could not be moved. Dispatched by the branch manager to dispose of it, he tried picking the chair up, pushing it, and finally, in frustration, kicking it. Nothing worked. It remains, to this day, approximately 2.286 meters from the lobby entrance to the bank, facing north-northwest toward Menard’s Hardware, which is across the street and three doors up.
Hickock might easily have discovered the most extraordinary thing about the chair had he not immediately re-entered the bank to report its immovability to his manager. Instead, that honor fell to Clarissa Delonay, a dental hygienist who had just deposited to her account the rebate check for her new Sony Bravia television. It was a television that she would never get to watch. In the heat of the day, she decided to sit while she waited for the 34 bus, the stop being just steps away from the Swiftee Mart. As she settled herself into the chair, we can imagine that, like all singing pilgrims, she smiled and began to hum her song. We can picture the familiar expression of profound peace as she then began to sing, although there is no documentation of that historic moment. Five eyewitnesses reported that she sang “If I Had a Hammer,” although the janitor, Hiram Hickock, in his memoir, What I Don’t Understand, wrote that it was “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” Whatever song it was that chose her, as she sang, Clarissa Delonay shimmered—as all singing pilgrims do—dissipated, and then finally vanished from this world altogether.
The knot of people who saw the first pilgrim disappear—or transcend, as the Church of the Chair insists—had a range of reactions from horror to bemusement to outright disbelief. Kai Balinsay, a student at BSU, insisted to his girlfriend that it had been some kind of trick. In his attempt to prove this, he became the second singing pilgrim, and the first whose transcendence was captured on video. Balinsay was already in full voice, having reached the phrase “Era già figlio prima d’ amarti,” in the aria “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore by the time the girlfriend began recording him with her iPhone. Her video clearly captured Balinsay’s transition from gleam to glitter, as well as the ecstatic joy on his face.
This first video was of a kind with the hundreds of thousands taken by reporters, scientists, academics, and artists—not to mention the loved ones of those who have used the chair’s mysterious power. The humming, the burst into song, the relaxation, and the bliss were uniformly present. The songs themselves, of course, were as various as humankind. As far as we know, no pilgrim’s song has ever been repeated. It is a truism that nobody chooses the soundtrack to her transcendence. Those who proclaimed their intention to sing themselves into the unknown with “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Ave Maria” were likely to depart with Mai Ya Ya’s “Piao“” or the medieval “L’autrier m’iere levaz” or “Hey Ya.” While some argued that the ecstatic expression prior to dissolution was in fact an involuntary muscle constriction caused by the chair’s interference with neural pathways, one had only to witness a seating to understand that whatever the pilgrims encountered as they disappeared, it was intensely pleasurable.
It has been said that every age gets the chair that it deserves, and the history of chair culture is checkered at best. We estimate that there were several thousand launches in the early years before the government finally seized the chair, and indeed all of Lancaster Street, by eminent domain. The ensuing scientific examination of the chair, while exhaustive, was unproductive. We now know that the chair phenomenon does not occur unless a human being sits on the seat. Inanimate objects remain unchanged and untransported, as do turtles, mice, and porcupines. Chimps and bonobos will shriek as long as they are in contact with the seat, but remained steadfastly in place. As Nobel Laureate Petra Dvorska famously said, “The more we study the chair, the less we know.”
In time, the government yielded to public pressure and allowed use of the chair by anyone of sound mind over the age of twenty-one. In the early days of this new policy, seatings were open to the public and were broadcast by the media. At the height of its popularity, the Chair Channel had a worldwide audience. By the turn of the century, however, interest flagged as the realities of chair administration led to a growing disenchantment. Last year, for example, less than twenty-seven million people voted for Seating of the Year on the Amazing Grace feed. This drop in audience may be explained in part, however, by competition from soccer’s World Cup.
Nevertheless, the numbers are grim. According to the Church of the Chair, the average seating takes 3.51 minutes, which means that the chair can accommodate slightly less than 150,000 pilgrims a year. With the waiting list currently at thirty-one years, applications from the key eighteen- to thirty-year-old demographic have fallen precipitously. Also, the persistent rumor that we are running out of songs has led some to doubt that future generations of pilgrims will be able to avail themselves of the chair. While we very much doubt this to be the case, we applaud the Church of the Chair’s program of hiring composers to write and stockpile new tunes.
We met Hiram Hickock, now ninety-one, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his discovery of the chair, and he offered his perspective on its nature. “I don’t know nothing about how it got here or what it’s for. I let the smart folks decide all that.”
When we asked if he was interested in taking a seat someday, Hickock regarded us with obvious suspicion. “I like my life just fine,” he declared. Then he pointed to the line of pilgrims waiting for their turn. “I still don’t get why they’re in such a goddamned hurry to leave theirs.”
We reminded him that many believe the chair to be a shortcut to the next world.
“So’s jumping off Niagara Falls.” He shrugged. “Besides, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”
About the Author
James Patrick Kelly has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and planetarium shows. His most recent novel is Mother Go (2017), an audiobook original from Audible. His most recent short story collections are the forthcoming The Promise of Space (2017) from Prime Books and the career retrospective Masters of Science Fiction: James Patrick Kelly (2016) from Centipede Press.