The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story THE CHAIR KICKERS’ TALE

Spring 2019 / Issue 105

Sarah Heying

There was once a bored and powerful king who proclaimed that any man who could tell a story without an end would be granted riches and glory. For weeks, no one dared attempt the task, but then a farm boy climbed the steps to the palace. He was introduced to the king, and right away he started into the story: “A farmer had a stockpile of corn. A locust came and took a grain of corn. Another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn. Then another locust came and took a grain of corn…” and on and on for eleven days, until finally the king grew tired and awarded the peasant a bag of gold and a spot on his royal military council. When war struck a few seasons later, the king sent the peasant to the front line to die, and the kingdom inherited his meager earnings.   

 

I. How It Begins

In the morning, Boss Cline carves day from air. The gatekeep of the Goldsboro Coliseum and Event Complex punches buttons and twists dials to gear up the supermouth cabled on high—five arrays of five jumbo speakers each.

And there are five of us from Event Prep. We huddle with crews from other departments as part of our usual routine, in which we squint our eyes against sleep and await the terrible thunderclap above, in which we slouch under steel-rafter sky as the third shift crew flies loose and weary (those scraps of the night who rub their sockets and drag their spent bodies from the white-green light where they’ve newly unbuilt a basketball court built the first shift previous).

And we envy these brothers as they pass from us oblivious. Then Boss Cline’s word cannons from speakers into the hollowed arena, and we wonder how it came to be that it’s 4:30 a.m. and we still got no coffee.

Boss Cline says: “Let Housekeeping re-clean the clean concrete floors but east to west this time, not north to south, and fill the walkbehinds with low-foam solution. Cloudy streaks are quite apparent from the view above, my little water-blind fish.

“And let Maintenance do something, anything worthwhile, but goddammit if I catch asses in chairs and eyes fixed on the TV, I’ll break every goddamn seat in this arena and give you an eternity of broken to fix.”

And Maintenance, our fearless and shadowy kin, sits in the break room and sips the last of that goddamned coffee while Boss Cline continues: “Let Event Prep set the stage and chairs to their normal standards, which is to say the best, though in half the time, as union techs will need the floor for a bit after it’s cleaned. Many thanks in advance to the hard workers of Event Prep for rising to the challenge.”

And then, an auspicious announcement: “Today, the hiring committee will stand with me in the sponsor suite to watch the work of your venerable crew leader Pops O’Donald. Yes, the rumors are true, we’re considering his promotion to Operations Manager.”

And we recite: Let Pops leave us in his blessed dust; let him have an office with a Chinese rug.

 

II. The Crew

Within the curved walls of the arena, our circular world of false-forward and false-forever, we become Event Prep, known also as the Chair Kickers.

We are Pops, Mr. C, Phil, Jeb, and Benny.

And all the years of service from Pops are thirty and two, which puts him three years from retirement. Pops suffers sleepless nights and blinks too often, and we know him as the waking dreamer, and also as Brazilian, though he’ll never remember that faraway world, his birth name, the language of the parents that couldn’t keep him.

So every day we recite: Let Pops sleep and dream of strange long agos.

And all the years of service from Mr. C are twenty and one. He worked on F-4 Phantoms that flew to Vietnam and views freedom as light that bends at walls. He continues to live and spend by cards, gin, and pussy, in that order, from Friday to Sunday.

So every day we recite: Let Mr. C have a longer weekend.

And all the years of service from Phil are nine. He runs a hip-hop label that can claim only Cham B. LaRone, who also happens to be his cousin, though we pretend not to know this. Phil graduated from the local university’s prestigious music production program.

So every day we recite: Let Phil’s credentials be honored.

And all the years of service from Jeb are seven. He has a history in oil fields, eastern Texas, sick Ma, dead Dad, then dead Ma. There also may have been a failed marriage, or a marriage that never was. The only book Jeb has read is the Holy Bible, and he writes in his notebook before and after the shift, and during breaks. Many call him queer, though soon Benny will inherit the name.

So every day we recite: Let Jeb walk with God, else he walk alone.

And all the years of service from Benny are less than one, as today is his first day. He’s come on part time with the hope of working his way up to full. When he told Phil that he’d failed too many classes and that his boyfriend of five years left him for a doctoral student, Phil didn’t call him a fuck-ass like some, but instead apologized for Benny’s current situation: “I should have warned you: this coliseum is steel, and we magnetic as fuck.”

 

III. Headway

As the Housekeepers re-clean the clean floors, we gather in front of the elephant door and await orders from our noble leader.

“Fucking ____,” Pops says. Fucking teeth, fucking wives, fucking winter, fucking June. And when Boss Cline mentions a possible promotion, Pops says, “Fucking carrots.”

“OpMan is yours,” says Phil. “You’ll have a desk by Monday. We better gaze upon your cherubim cheeks while we can.”

But those cheeks melt like wax when Pops frowns. “They’ll always dangle something.” He moves his shoulder out from under Phil’s hand. “I’d have eighty percent of my pension if I retired today. Eighty is plenty.”

Pops presses a red button, and the great-wide vinyl wall zips open to heavy wet spring.

“These years,” says Pops. “I have so goddamn many.”

And Jeb says, “The glory of young men is their strength, and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

“Shut up you idiot.”

We file behind as Pops marches up the ramp to the loading dock. “We’ll gather equipment from the warehouse and then build the stage as the floor on the north end dries.”

We know our Pops will surely impress the hiring committee, no matter the time crunch. They have chosen to judge our chair set for the Globex Sales Convention, which calls for only a few thousand chairs and a mid-sized stage. Pops knows this stuff—it pumps through each of his throbbing organs.

After we leave our shift at night, we each eat dinner and watch our programs, and then most of us wrap blankets tight around our bodies and sleep infant-like the entire night through. But Pops—he closes his eyes and swims half-awake through boundless seas of green-padded chairs; he scales aluminum crags of stage all the way up to the stratosphere. Then his alarm clock sounds at 4 a.m., and he reports to the coliseum to tell us what he’s seen.

 

IV. Holding Pattern

After the stage is built, the clang of metal on metal begins to rattle from the rafters above us. The union riggers maneuver tools as they swing from our sky.

“Hold tight!” shouts a belay-man as he loosens some rope so his partner can climb higher. Across the floor, sound techs swarm our stage and shout coded commands between the uproar of amplified feedback. Two twenty-foot towers of speakers stand in each corner downstage.

“Fucking shit-Christ,” says Pops. “This ain’t Elton John.”

The Globex Convention has never before required special lighting and sound, much less union guys. Industry rules prohibit us from setting chairs or other equipment while they have the floor.

Pops lifts his radio to ask the airwaves how long we’ll have to wait. A long pause, and then only Gladys from Housekeeping responds: “Hell if we know. It’s your job to know.”

Pops blinks in time with the long hand of the clock. He works some figures on his clipboard. “If we start in half an hour, that’ll be three hours to doors. 3,000 chairs divided by three sections divided by 180 minutes. 171 minutes. Something like six chairs a minute with no breaks.”

“Possible,” says Mr. C. “We won’t have room for mistakes.”

And Jeb says, “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” And Pops curses Jeb and the Lord and the Lord’s mercy. We follow him to the break room to wait for our turn to take the floor.

It’s nearly lunchtime, though no one’s in the mood to eat. Instead, we gather around as Pops gives our first-timer, Benny, the Chair Talk: “With a standard event chair, you have the male and the female parts of the lock. I call the knob-tipped shaft the dick. The slender, ever-waiting hole is the pussy. You have the dick on the right side of the frame and the pussy on the left. So to help our inanimate lovers achieve carnal relations, we must lift the frame and ease the knob into the hole. Then we simply let go—the shaft slides into place, and our lovers remain in union till death do they part. God is a wise and horny bastard.

“Now, consider a damaged chair. Say a knob is bent a little to the left from rough handling by someone who tried to force an ill fit. When I get these poor little chairs, I have to wiggle and jam the dick into the pussy. It’s heartbreaking. You see?” Benny grimaces, and Pops shrugs.

Knowing we still got plenty of time to kill, we head to the break room, where Mr. C steps in and asks Pops to tell us again about The Sole Recorded Account of a Sighting of Boss Cline.

“When was it, Mr. C—ten years ago? It was one of those long days. I think we were babysitting a blood drive in the exhibit hall, just the two of us. We were reading the papers in the break room when in walks some crony in a suit and tie. Said his name was Luddy or something.

“Well, we’d been on our asses for a while and were thinking we’d been caught—maybe secret cameras. But this Luddy guy wasn’t concerned about our asses. He asked if we’d be willing to do a favor for Boss Cline, and of course we’re not idiots so we said we would. We followed him from the basement tile up to the carpet on the first floor and then to the first of several doors that required punch codes.

“So we walked through ten or so hallways, past all these code-locked rooms—and then there we were, standing at the double doors of Boss Cline’s office. They were solid cherry oak, those doors—I swear it—with intricate carvings of tropical flowers, and also these criss-cross lattices, like it was the entrance to an Arabian palace or something. Back me up, Mr. C.”

“That’s right,” Mr. C says, without looking away from the game on the TV.

“Well, Luddy walked us right through those doors, and I expected to find Jesus himself floating above a pool of sparkling water. In all my twenty-some years I had never seen this man whose voice I heard every morning. I felt like the goddamn Scarecrow who come to beg for brains.

“But here’s what was: this man—Boss Cline—had no motherfucking hair on his flesh. None. His skin looked soft and springy, like he was some inflated newborn. So Luddy introduced us, and Mr. C and me were all bumbling and curtsying before this giant, all-seeing infant. Boss Cline didn’t seem to care or even notice us. He just squinted and squinted and I thought maybe he couldn’t see or even hear, maybe he still thought he was alone in his office. But then he told Luddy to tell us to sing him a Christmas carol. So Luddy told us. Mr. C and I side-glanced. I think I even laughed a bit. Sure, the holidays were upon us and whatnot, but who’d guess that Boss Cline would want a couple of old goons to do a tone-deaf song and dance. What kind of entertainment is that? But this was no joke. Boss Cline squinted and squinted and waited in his baby skin, and Luddy crossed his arms, scowled, and motioned for us to begin. I looked to Mr. C and he looked to me. I said, ‘Jingle Bells?’ and Mr. C nodded and we sang the first few words of that holiday favorite before Boss Cline’s eyes flared open and beamed into us with an unnatural force that clenched our nuts to command we sing something more tender.

“Keep in mind we understood this truth without a word spoken. We just knew ‘Jingle Bells’ was finished and jumped right into the correct song—‘Silent Night’—and when our voices unified Boss Cline grinned and rubbed his smooth hand back and forth across his immaculate head, and Mr. C and I sang that carol low and pretty to the end, then three times more until Boss Cline said, ‘Good, that was nice,’ and we knew it was time to go. We were all confused and dream-walking as Luddy led us back through those carved doors and secret hallways, back to our chairs in the break room. He told us to take an extra thirty minutes for our services. Then he was gone. I wouldn’t believe it myself if Mr. C hadn’t been there.”

As usual, we ask Mr. C if it really went like that. “Sure, yes. Like that,” he says.

And then suddenly our radios beep to announce a caller. Boss Cline’s calf-leather voice graces our humble airwaves: “Pops. Come in, Pops.”

We turn down our volume while Pops turns up his.

“Go ahead.”

“May I ask why you’re not on the floor setting chairs with only three hours until show time?”

“It’s the union guys, sir. They haven’t left the floor.”

“You could have started half an hour ago. I made a deal with Harold since these changes came last minute. Didn’t you read the email this morning? You should always read your emails.”

“My apologies, Boss Cline,” says Pops. “I’ll have the floor ready by show time.”

“You have two hours.”

Pops checks his watch. “Pardon, but I think you mean two hours and forty-three minutes.”

A stretch of white noise, then, “I said two hours. You have to finish by the time the show pros arrive so they can do a full security assessment before doors open.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Give me a ten-four.”

“Ten-four, sir.”

Our leader latches his radio to his belt loop and rubs his overworked eyelids. He figures more quick math on his clipboard. We need to set about nine chairs per person per minute. “Impossible,” he mutters.

Phil grabs the clipboard from Pops’s limp hand and confirms the calculations. “We’ll do it,” he says.

 

V. The Chorus

This is when the important work begins, when we live up to our nickname—the Chair Kickers. Not everyone kicks, however—it’s a sensitive art handled by the more adept men—Pops, Mr. C, and Phil.

First, they spend a couple seconds positioning the starter chair so it’s perfectly parallel to the front of the stage. They always set from right to left and front to back, as so: drag, slide and lock, toe-tap the legs into perfect alignment—Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung. At the end of a row they land one final kick at the outer frame of the last chair to shift their work into perfect alignment.

Simpler, but just as important, is the carrier’s job. One: bring folded chairs four at a time from rack to setter. Two: with three chairs balanced against one leg, beat green padding of one chair’s seat until it opens. Three: use one hand to feed chair to setter while using other hand to open another chair. Four: repeat steps one through three until rack is emptied.

And thus we gear as machine.

We split into teams of two, except for Pops, who handles the work of three people. Mr. C struggles with Benny and his cloddish technique.

“Gimme a chair, fool!” he shouts, but Benny only trips over a chair rack when he attempts to speed up. Still, they are quick enough.

And so it passes that after twenty-some minutes, we break into a steady sweat. Green upon green springs from our work, and to Boss Cline up above, it must seem as if we paint lines in fluid strokes.

We become the empty everything as the rhythmic clamor of the chairs washes clean our minds: Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

Phil notices our problem after the first hour. Pops is always compulsively precise, but the air in the arena suddenly feels off-balance. Jeb and he are flying ahead, building rows even faster than Pops, so he takes a couple seconds to quadruple check the numbers. Jeb takes over when Phil sprints to the center section.

“I hate to say it, Pops, but we’re at least two racks short. I counted.”

Pops keeps kicking. Skreeek! Kachung. Tungtungtung.

“Do you want me to take care of it?” Phil asks.

Again Jeb speaks from afar: “If any provide not for his own, he is worse than an infidel.”

“Shut up you fatheaded sommabitch!” Pops shouts across the room, though we know he regrets his choice of words in light of Jeb’s recently dead mother. But the chairs—what of them? He counted those racks in the basement four times yesterday. He never miscounts, and certainly not four times.

Boss Cline, in his omniscience, finds just the right moment to radio down and ask Pops what the hell is going on.

Pops sighs and lowers his chair to the ground. He lifts his radio. “I’m sorry, sir. I must have miscounted the racks. I’m sending Phil for more.”

“Is that so?” says Boss Cline.

Phil lifts his own radio. “It was my fault, sir. I took two of the racks Pops had counted and used them for the flea market yesterday. I should have said something.”

“I see,” says Boss Cline. “As you were.”

“Ten-four,” says Phil. He clips the radio back to his belt and turns to meet the expected scowl of our leader.

“You didn’t take those chairs,” says Pops.

“No.”

“Why’d you lie?”

Phil shrugs. “I want you to get that Chinese rug.” He presses on. “The forklift won’t fit behind the stage at this point. I’ll have to roll the racks over by hand.”

Pops nods. “Go.”

 

VI. An Exception to the Rule

Phil opens the glass door and lets the lumpy wheels of the additional carts fall silent over soft linoleum. Two suit-men with gelled hair stop him before the hallway’s bend. “Are you Phil from Event Prep?”

“Maybe.”

“Boss Cline has requested your presence.”

“But these.” Phil motions toward the racks.

The suit-man with gray hair nods to the blond, who promptly pushes Phil aside and assumes his position between the racks. He starts around the bend in clumsy three-point maneuvers, but before Phil can help, the other suit-man has him by the arm and is pulling him toward the elevator.

“The name’s Lonny,” he says once they begin their ascent.

Phil accepts the handshake. “Lonny? You mean the Lonny?”

“Excuse me?”

“Nevermind, that was Luddy. Have I done something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Boss Cline doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Do you have a guess?”

“It’s useless to guess at Boss Cline’s intentions. Just this morning he told me to move two racks of chairs somewhere no one would find them.”

Phil gloves his hands with his pockets to soak up all the sweat.

Instead of taking him to a fifth-floor sponsor suite, Lonny steps out at the second floor. Phil follows him into a carpeted area, past phone-locked secretaries to a code-locked door.

He punches numbers and leads Phil through one hallway to another coded door, then through two more coded doors. Sooner than Phil expects, they reach the cherry oak doors of legend. Upon them: a carven lattice, but no ornate flowers.

Lonny knocks three times. A muffled voice grants them entrance. At this point, Phil nearly expects a man with a full head of hair to greet them from behind a modest executive desk—he knows Pops’s memories come in strange shapes, when they come at all.

Phil steps into the warm yellow light of the office. The walls are lined in bookcases and leather furniture, and before him, corralled by an expansive U-shaped desk, sits Boss Cline. And to Phil’s horror—the man is exactly as Pops described him: a newborn wrapped in a wool suit, squinting into all creation.

“Come, boy. Stand closer to me.”

The rounded cheeks; the chinless jawbone; the protruding, suckling upper lip of a babe. Phil clasps his trembling hands behind his back.

“Ease up—this is not the principal’s office,” says Boss Cline in his liquid baritone. “You’re here because you impress me.”

“I am?”

“My men have been watching you. You’re a smart man, Phil. You know how to play your surroundings. You know how to speak to people to make them feel at ease. You’re too good to work down on the concrete.” He says all this still squinting. “How would you feel about moving up to the carpet?”

“But Pops . . .” he says.

“Pops is a builder and a family guy. We all love him. He’s perfectly suited for what he does, and I’d be an idiot to move him elsewhere. Besides, he’s three years from retirement. He’s aged out.”

“So there’s no position? There are no board members?”

“I am all judges,” says Boss Cline. “I’ve seen his performance.”

Phil huffs and stands broad-chested before this almighty child-man. “I’m sorry, Boss Cline, but I can’t be the OpMan. I can’t take the job you shammed over Pops.”

“OpMan? No, you have it wrong.” Boss Cline lifts a pair of tweezers from a desk drawer and holds them idly between his thumb and forefinger. “I can hire practically any numbskull for that job, so long as they can answer calls and keep the labor in check. You’re more of a thinking man. I want to put you in a suit and tie. I want you to be an executive assistant, like Larry here, only you’ll be the number one guy, the one with all the secrets.”

Phil doesn’t answer right away. He watches as Boss Cline plucks imperceptible hairs from his forearm.

“Listen, Phil, I know you have loyalties. I know those men are your brothers. But at some point, the bigger cat has to catch bigger mice if he doesn’t want to starve. Don’t sacrifice your potential.”

Boss Cline pauses for a response that Phil doesn’t give, then continues. “You are the architect of your own reality.” He plucks. He smiles. “Look at my skin—it’s vernal and soft because I fight imperfection with my little dagger.” He slashes the tweezers across a tiny swath of air.

“But I like the freedom of part-time labor,” says Phil. “I manage a record label.”

“Don’t kid yourself.” Boss Cline drops the tweezers back into the drawer. He motions for Phil to take a seat in the leather armchair to the right of his desk. He punches something into his computer’s keyboard and turns the monitor around to show Phil.

It’s a high-definition video feed of the arena floor. He zooms in on Pops, whose sagging cheeks drip with sweat. Boss Cline lifts his radio. “Pops. Come in, Pops . . . I need you to have the chairs ready in the next ten minutes. The show pros are waiting in the locker room.”

Pops glances at his watch, and Phil does the same from the office on high. Another ten minutes shaved from the prep time. On screen, Pops lowers his radio and mouths several obscenities. He raises it again.

“Ten-four.”

Back down on the floor, the rest of us hear Pops shouting new orders. The team revs into a blue-streak rhythm. We will finish, it has never happened any other way. Benny and Mr. C sprint from rack to row; Jeb wastes no movement—he’s done impressive work to keep up without Phil. And Pops leads the way.

They inhale the same breath. Phil hears the song of chairs in the deepest canal of his ears: Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung. Skreeek-kachung-tungtungtung.

“Tell me, Phil,” says Boss Cline, “is that what freedom looks like?”

Our hero fixes his eyes on his brothers at work. He can practically hear Jeb’s rally cry: They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and will not be faint! He watches as they whoop and holler and fly into their last few rows.

Boss Cline turns the screen away. “They will succeed. You know this. Pops always succeeds.”

He hands Phil a sheet of paper that lists the starting salary. Phil has never made half as much.

“Plus VIP access to every club in town,” says Boss Cline. “And a lifetime supply of coupons for free oil changes, among other perks.”

Phil stares at the paper in his hands.

“You need time to think. Get back to me before the weekend.”

Phil nods.

“Do you have any questions?”

Phil folds the paper and tucks it into his shirt pocket. “No.”

 

VII. Cooldown on the Catwalk

After our valiant and legendary set, we pile into the elevators for a ride up to the catwalk. Mr. C stays behind, since he is afraid of heights.

After Pops rehashes the tale of the crew’s feat, we press Phil to explain his secret absence.

“The suits wanted help moving boxes.”

We scoff.

Benny takes a few trembling steps onto the metal webbing. The rest of us walk fearlessly and watch the scurry of show pros some hundred feet below.

Boss Cline radios for Pops. We gather around in anticipation.

“Great job today, my faithful man. You really impressed the committee.”

“So I have an official interview?”

“I’ll let you know before the weekend.”

Pops lowers the walkie, then raises it again. “Ten-four.”

Phil turns to the railing as we congratulate Pops on this promising news.

“Hey Phil,” says Jeb. “Aren’t you for our man?”

Phil looks over his shoulder. “Yeah, of course. Great job today.” He turns back to the arena. The show pros have readied their stances at each entrance.

“Melancholy shithead,” says Pops. He walks up behind his friend and lands a jolly slap on his back. We all stand at the rail, even Benny, who has finally made it across the webbing.

A sugary jazz blasts over the speakers. Below, a few choice audience members trickle onto the floor, escorted by ushers to their front-row seats. Then the show pros pick up their radios simultaneously, lower them simultaneously, and widen their stances.

“Here come the crazies,” whispers Phil. We lean deep into the metal at our hips.

The head show pro raises both hands in alert to his coworkers. Mere seconds pass, and then the northeast and northwest entrances spew a chaotic mob of Globex sales trainees. They rush for the front row, and while the show pros corral some, more make it past. Several people unhook chairs and bring them closer to the stage. A woman shoves a man to the ground for the last front-row seat. The 3,000 chairs fill quickly. Several people are forced to stand.

The show pros reach a state of near control, and the unhooked chairs are returned to their rows.

A hypnotic contralto, like Boss Cline’s but dipped in corn syrup, booms over the speakers and cuts the raucous chatter of the crowd, “Test, test. Okay, everybody settle down.”

The room obediently falls silent. A man in a lustrous gold jacket enters stage left and walks to the center. “Wait a second. Who are we kidding?” He sweeps his palm out over the troops who would follow him anywhere. “Ladies and gentlemen of Globex, sales-gods-in-training, who’s ready to climb to the top?”