Drabblecast 344 – Doubleheader XV



Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Cover for Drabblecast episode 344, Doubleheader XV, by Em PooleThe 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.

 

 

 

Sing, Pilgrim!
By James Patrick Kelly

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, its uprights were refined.  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 which 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 reentered 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 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 showed 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 bursting 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 remain 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, fewer than twenty-seven million people voted for the 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 fewer than 150,000 pilgrims a year.  With the waiting list currently thirty-one years, applications from the key 18-to-30-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 91, 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’s it 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 god-damned 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.”

***

Suspicious
by James Patrick Kelly

Marva wanted to keep an open mind, but she suspected that Doctor Kamer wasn’t about to help her. Maybe it was the background music playing in his office. Baroque sonatas. Too damn serene. Over-confident. Doctors had ruined her life and this one was like all the rest. And then there was the curved furniture, and the moonscape on his flix. So he had the kind of income that could buy a vacation in space. Blood money, squeezed from other people’s misery.

“So Mrs. Gundersen,” he said. “Why are you here today?”

“Didn’t you read my file?”

“I did.” He blinked at the desktop and it lit up; the reflected light of a folder turned his skin to milk as he peered at it. “I have reports from Drs. Maffei and Orosco and Smithson and Dejani.”

“Then you know what I want.”

“May I hear it in your own words?”

She hated being the person it was about. “I had a memory implanted,” she said. “It was a mistake. I want it gone.”

“Why do you think it was a mistake?”

“Because it changed who I am.”

“And who were you?”

Her hands closed into fists. She could tell that he had made up his mind about her. “Okay. I thought I was happily married. Jeff and I were together for twelve years. Never a hint of trouble. We were content, at least I was. I was never suspicious. Never. That wasn’t the kind of person I was.” She noticed his fingers tapping on the desktop. “You’re taking notes?”

“Is that a problem?”

She batted at the air in front of her as if to ward off a bad smell. “Two years ago he was in Manhattan to negotiate a deal for the patents to new flash steam process. He was an intellectual property lawyer. He and Cindy were killed in the VX nerve gas attack in Times Square. They were seeing the robot revival of Cats. Cindy was his secretary. Got that?”

He nodded.

“He was staying at the Algonquin. Cindy wasn’t supposed to be in New York.”

“All right.”

“What do you mean, all right? He didn’t tell anyone she was going.”

“You think there was something suspicious going on.

“I think they were having an affair.”

He swiped several pages of her file, looking for something. “It says here that they were staying in separate rooms.”

She reached behind her neck and tugged at the short hairs. “I went down to identify the body.” The pain helped her focus. “Afterwards, I had to pack up his things. A pair of her shoes were in his hotel room.”

“Maybe she took them off. They were working late and she took her shoes off.”

“One was under a chair.”

He gave a noncommittal grunt. “But you were still not sure about this affair.”

“I kept going back and forth. Missed him terribly then hoped he was burning in hell. I mean, Cindy, we treated her like a daughter, used to have her over to the house for Thanksgivings. She even looked like me.” Her face twisted. “A much younger me. I talked to her fiancé, Shawn. Sweet guy, said that they were set to announce a date when she died. He was sure she was innocent. None of it made sense. All I knew was that it was tearing me apart.”

“Tell me about the implant.”

“So I read about alternate memory, you know, as a kind of grief therapy. I met with Maffei.”

“This would be….” He glanced at the desktop. “…Dr. Louis Maffei?”

“They took his license because of this. Does it say that? He claimed that if I had a memory of going down there and catching them in the act, then my suspicions would be confirmed. I could come to a resolution. Let Jeff go. Move on with my life.”

American Express called to confirm that Jeff Gundersen had charged $508.89 to the St. James Theater only Jeff never went to the theater, and when Marva checked the St. James online she found that $508 was the cost of two tickets in the center orchestra and then she was staring out the window of the bullet train at Long Island Sound and at the wainscotting in the elevator as the doors rattled shut, and then Room 534 and they were in bed and Cindy was wearing a blue teddy with the crotch unsnapped–Jeff gave Marva lingerie every Valentine’s Day–and Marva had a moment of double vision and it was her astride Jeff, body a little thicker than Cindy’s, hair a bit duller–but then it was Cindy again, her friend Cindy and her husband Jeff and Marva kicked one of Cindy’s shoes across the room and all she could think to say before she slammed the door on her marriage was “Enjoy the show.”

“And now you want this false memory gone?” A double tap and Dr. Kamer’s desktop went dark.

“Obviously.”

“You’ve been to three other neuropsychiatrists. They’ve told you what?”

She felt the heat rise to her cheeks. “Orosco told me that Maffei deserved to have his ticket pulled, but that he didn’t want to help me.”

“Didn’t want to or couldn’t? Implanted memories are more durable than those acquired through ordinary learning. What you are asking probably would not fix the underlying symptoms.”

“Smithson tried to erase the memory, but it’s still there. I never should have trusted him. And Dejani says I need cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m not talking about this for the rest of my life so he can pad his appointment calendar.”

Dr. Kamer leaned forward. “Mrs. Gundersen, I wish you could hear yourself. You’re suspicious of every…”

“I knew it.” She shot out of her chair. “I knew it the moment I walked in here.”

“Mrs. Gundersen, I…”

But she was already through the door. It felt as if there was a noose around her chest. Kamer’s receptionist and the old man in the waiting room looked at her as if she were crazy. But she wasn’t. Not at all. She had every right to be suspicious of them. The lot of them.

After all, she knew what she knew.

Play
Sing, Pilgrim! first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 2013.
Suspicious first appeared in Daily Science Fiction, July 2011.
Episode Art:  Emily Poole
Read by:  Lauren Synger

Twabble:  “They said it was too late to operate, but only a fool gives up hope. The knife trembles in my hand. Hush, my love; be strong. ”  by  L0rdEntr0py


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