This week, we present a darkly funny short story in which an important dinner party is hijacked by a gang of malevolent chairs. Written by Jonathan Minila and translated from the Spanish by Will Stockton, “The Attack of the Living Chairs” is both an absurdist romp and a mocking portrait of Mexico’s ruling class.
The chairs revealed themselves as soon as we crossed into the dining room. They drew back to the wall and surrounded us as we approached the table.
The women screamed. We did, too. The guest of honor—the President’s wife—swooned and fainted. I served as the home’s proprietor, and something had to be done.
I tried to pick her up, feeling ridiculous, disgusted to touch a woman with so much fat on her arms and such a formidable mustache. Still, everyone hoped I would find a solution.
My wife seemed to have been rendered speechless. The others, too. No one moved. Only me, who struggled to lift this influential fat woman.
Finally, someone broke the silence. My wife: “Don’t move her, you could hurt her. Give her air. I’m going for alcohol.”
As soon as she’d taken two steps, the lead chair blocked the exit. My wife screamed. Everyone screamed in unison. I couldn’t help it: I dropped the head of the President’s wife. The president fixed his eyes on me, making me nervous.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Apologies, Mister President,” I said, panicked.
“No, no . . . what’s this about the chairs?” he clarified.
“Ah, the chairs,” I whispered.
Then everyone started to chatter. They saved me the trouble of having to answer. How was I supposed to know what was going on?
Two more chairs, the ones nearest to each side, moved to join the one that had blocked the door. The women screamed, clinging to the arms of their husbands. I squeezed the arm of the First Lady.
“Let’s calm down,” I said. “There must be an explanation.” Even though, down deep, of course, I knew there wasn’t.
“Of course,” said the President.
Terrified, my wife turned to look at me. She was about to say my name when the rest of the chairs against the wall moved in unison. They closed us in. Everyone took a step back, nearly colliding with the table. But I didn’t, and neither did the President’s wife. I thought about crouching down and rolling her. That way, I thought, I could use her to attack the chairs by my side. Maybe they would see her as a genuine threat and surrender. But I couldn’t roll her by myself, and I knew no one would understand my plan. So I gave up. The women wept, and the men didn’t dare move a muscle. I shook, and my shaking made the flesh on the face of the most important lady in the city dance. With her hands behind her back, my wife searched for the table: she couldn’t take her eyes off the three chairs in front of her.
“Please, let’s get out of here,” said one of the women, the Investor’s wife, with a quivering voice.
“I believe that would be best,” answered her husband with an ostentatiousness that didn’t make any sense in this situation.
I wanted to laugh at him. Fucking hell, not even in the attack of the living chairs could he cut the shit. But I couldn’t complain. They were in my house, and what mattered was closing the deal. I couldn’t say everything I thought about them or the fat lady. To the contrary, I had to assume full responsibility for the situation. And the situation wasn’t the President’s wife. So I removed my fingernails from her face and answered, also ostentatiously, “There must be an explanation.”
When I stood up, the chairs arranged themselves in a menacing fashion. Everyone uttered a different obscenity. My wife, her favorite: “Son of a bitch.” The President: “Ah, fuck.” The Entrepreneur: “No shit.” The Entrepreneur’s wife: “Fuck me.” The rest, respectively: “cocksucker,” “dick,” “fuck this,” “fuck you,” “shit,” and “bitch.” Only the unconscious fat woman didn’t say anything. And I said, simply, “Ay, baby.” I wanted to say something stronger, of course, but all the obscenities had been taken, and nothing else occurred to me.
“Listen,” the President said to me from the other side of the table. “You have to do something. What the hell is happening?”
So it was like that. Do two things at once. Act and think. Act and answer. Impossible. Either I attacked the chairs with the silverware like I’d been planning, or I thought and answered like he expected me to. I didn’t want to say, “And how am I supposed to know what the hell is happening?” That’s why I delayed the attack for a moment and answered:
“There must be an explanation.”
The chairs advanced again, provoking a concert of nonsense that I won’t again rehearse. All the women hid behind their husbands, and the President behind my wife.
I chose the knife and fork to start with. I gripped them tightly and twisted my lips. The previous night I had seen a movie almost like this. Excepting the guests and substituting the chairs for a six-and-a-half-foot man with gray hair and a humongous jaw, the scene was identical. Not to mention the fact that I’d be a thin Chinese man, and the silverware two metal stars. I felt the same. It’s what I always do. When I have to face a situation, I pretend to be someone else. I take on someone else’s personality. For example, if I have to talk in front of people, I become Nelson Mandela. If I have to stand up to someone aggressive, I’m Bruce Willis. If I have to negotiate some deal, I’m a lawyer. If I have to walk at night down some mysterious street, I’m a vampire. I’ve been this way my whole life. I have the capacity to change. I don’t know if others notice, but I change. Changing gave me the strength to go on and confront almost anything. Almost. But living chairs . . . there’s something I’d never imagined. Nevertheless, my transformation must work. It had to work.
I was weak. At the first flinch of the chair in front of me, I threw the silverware. The chair shifted slightly to intimidate me, to deceive me. To expose me in front of everyone as the lowliest of cowards. The knife and fork did nothing. They didn’t even graze it. They fell to the floor in front of everybody. The chair raised its front feet and lowered them. Raised them again. It did that several times. It was laughing. It stood there staring at me, without eyes. And I’m sure that in some strange way it spoke to the others, because all the chairs then placed themselves in attack position.
“What do we do?” the Entrepreneur asked.
“There must be an explanation,” I answered nonsensically.
“Fucking hell!” spat the President without turning around or letting go of my wife’s back. “They’re just chairs. Do something!”
“What do we do?” the Entrepreneur repeated.
The chairs advanced slowly. They forced everyone to retreat until they were touching the table. I already had been touching it for a while. The First Lady, still on the floor, lay in the gravest danger. The chairs were about to touch her. I thought about pulling her toward the table. But how? It would be impossible. Also, in every horror movie, someone must always die first: it would be the same here. So I felt sorry for her, but not too sorry. She was a woman who had lived a long life and lived it well.
“I know what’s happening now,” my wife said confidently. “This is a collective suggestion.”
I should have guessed. The perfect moment for my wife of many years to involve us in her correspondence psychology classes. She had just received the first packet and was already talking about strange things no one cared about.
“Together, we’re imagining the chairs are moving,” she continued. “We’ve created a shared reality. We’re influencing one another, causing our minds to distort reality. It could be that one of us projects a certain influence over the others, like in hypnosis. Le Bon and Freud agreed that . . .”
The chairs moved again. My wife stopped talking. No one had heard her. Only me. That always happens: you can’t stop thinking about what you most detest.
No one said anything. I wanted to say that all of this was idiotic when something distracted me. The fat woman began to flicker her eyebrows. She was waking up. She made a weird noise with her throat and shifted around.
The first thing she saw was me. She said the same thing that all people who’ve lost consciousness say: “What happened?”
I didn’t answer. I felt ridiculous, and I was disgusted to imagine that I in fact had to answer her, as if we were in a fairy tale. She looked at me with the eyes of a toad: that’s how I imagined it. A fairy tale where the princess turns into a toad. In this case, the prince would do the same thing as me: ignore her. So I said nothing and started to move sideways to reach my wife and the President. The other guests mattered little to me.
The First Lady asked for help and then screamed. A chair had climbed on top of her. She moved her small legs and short arms. I didn’t want to watch. All the other guests gathered at the front of the table, next to us. The President still held to my wife’s back. He was enjoying her too much. If it wasn’t for the deal, I would have said something.
“Let’s run,” said the Entrepreneur. “Let’s shove them to the side and go out through there.”
“Yes, please,” answered some woman. “I want to go home now.”
It wasn’t a bad plan. Anyway, what were we afraid of? They were just chairs, for God’s sake. I wanted to say that, but I remembered that the President had already said it, and I was sure that he wouldn’t like me stealing his idea. It didn’t matter. Anyway, I didn’t say anything. I only thought this: that our fear wasn’t based on any particular danger, because in the normal course of events we’re accustomed to the possibility of losing our life. Our fear was based on the inexplicable. Was this a paranormal event? Parapsychological? This would make a fantastic debate with my wife. There would be time enough for that. What interested me now was the fact that our fears were based on each other’s fears, rather than on the danger. I wanted to say that by overcoming the fear, we could get out of here.
“We have to overcome the fear,” my wife said, forever fucking up our next debate. “Let’s run together.”
“That’s smart,” whispered the President into her ear with a lascivious smile.
“I’ll go first,” said the First Lady, getting to her feet and throwing the chair off her. The President instantly let go of my wife’s collar and peeled himself from her back. His wife marched courageously in front of us, pushing aside the chairs that got in her way. She was very courageous indeed. Who would have imagined?
She shoved me aside, as if I’d positioned her husband behind my wife, and stood confidently before us, her back turned. “No more thinking,” she said, and moved instantly forward to confront the three chairs that began to raise and lower their front feet. They didn’t want us to leave. But they hadn’t counted on the power of this enormous woman. “Kick them!” she commanded.
Honestly, it was easy with her as the leader. With one arm, she knocked over three chairs and opened us a path. Her attitude filled us with courage, and together we kicked over the rest. By the time the woman’s chubby hand touched the door handle, all the chairs lay on the floor, rocking about ridiculously. They suffered from a lack of arms. The Investor savagely beat one to pieces. His wife put her hand on his shoulder and said, “That’s enough. It’s only a chair.”
The President’s wife turned the handle and opened the door. My wife took my hand and left the President by himself. He positioned himself behind his wife, more out of cowardice than love. As if on the other side of the door we would find something worse.
He was right to do so: there’s a reason he was the boss. On the other side of the door, we found all the house furniture waiting to attack us. The armchairs, bookcases, tables, and even the vases. Everything. They were ready to break us into pieces.
The last thing I remember, before the fight, was the First Lady’s face when she turned around to ask us if we were ready. Then, nothing.
Jonathan Minila’s short story collections include Alto Contraste (2018), Todo sucede aquí (2017), and Lo peor de la buena suerte (2015). He is also the author of two children’s books: El fantasma sin recuerdos y otras historias para niños extraños (2017) and El niño pájaro (2015). He lives in Mexico City.
Will Stockton’s latest books include Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy (Fordham UP, 2017). His translation of Sergio Loo’s Operación al Cuerpo Enfermo is forthcoming from The Operating System. Other translations have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Waxwing, and The Chattahoochee Review. He teaches English at Clemson University. Find him at willstockton.info
Read more translations from the Asymptote blog: