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The Sitting of Herman

Weave Magazine, July 2014

I read his expression as oblivious peace, taking everything in and accepting it as the way things are. He looked nothing like the menacing, red-eyed skeletal figure I had imagined.

Herman Chaise sat in his Queen Anne chair in the middle of our town-square for sixteen days. His mundane act of sitting would draw an unusual amount of national attention to our town of Millerton. Herman was an urban legend, his odd habit inviting little more than after-church gossip or barbershop jabbing. In fact, it wasn’t until his third stationary day people began to take notice. By the fourth day of his immobility, Herman attracted the local news stations. After eight full days, our small mid-western community gained national attention. CNN named him Hermetic Herman, spouting speculations that his silent vigilance was an act of spiritual contrition. With that prophetic proclamation, people travelled to our town to mass around Herman and his chair. They began calling themselves “Sitters.” As the Sitters sang to Herman, local citizens picketed the square to have him forcibly removed. For my part, I remained a silent witness until just before the end.

My interest in Herman and his chair began when my dad warned me about the local boogeyman. I was five when he’d sat on my bed and asked, “Do you know Herman the boogeyman?” Gripping my covers, fighting the need to pull them over my face, I shook my head and sat up to listen. Dad seemed disappointed by this, and I knew he expected me to hide under the sheets. He tilted the shade on my bedside lamp away from us. He tucked his chin and shadows hid his eyes as he began.

 “Herman is a wrinkly old creep who carries a chair, like the ones around our dining-room table, all over town. He was a lonely boy who never had any friends,” he paused. “Never talked to anyone or played with other kids.” He pushed me back onto my pillow. “Sound familiar?”

I nodded, my fists tight around my circus-patterned sheets.

“People always taunted him because he was different, but he just kept getting creepier and creepier as he got older. At night, he sits outside the windows of boys and girls who are just like him, waiting for them to fall asleep. He climbs into their bedroom and steals their souls. Some say the chair he carries holds the souls of hundreds of children.”

Dad searched my face for some hint of fear. I stared, scared, but elated by the idea of such a person existing. His attention snapped to the window by my bed, then, back to me. I could see the whites around his eyes.

“I’ve been noticing four square holes and boot prints in the garden outside your bedroom. Have you heard anything outside?”

I shook my head.

“Keep your ears open,” he said, as he pinched my ear lobe. “Don’t forget to say your prayers.”

It was only then I reached for the pad of paper and pencil on my nightstand. He put his hand on top of mine and shook his head.

“You know what I mean,” he said, and kissed my forehead.

One might think my dad was a mean spirited man. But, earlier that night he had received one of many calls from my principal. They had been childhood friends, and he called the house whenever I was having particular trouble in class. I had a tendency to evade social interaction in and outside of class. It was easier to avoid communication than to deal with overcoming the obstacles of having to write everything I wanted to say. I hadn’t spoken a word since I was two. I don’t remember ever having spoken, but Mom and Dad swore that I would carry-on whole conversations. They’d tried everything. Herman was just another of my dad’s attempts to coax a word from my lips. He often tried to change me by scaring me. That night, neither effect was successful.

I couldn’t sleep. I tried to imagine what Herman looked like, if he had fangs, or black eyes like demons in movies. How did Herman harvest the souls of all those children? I drifted into dark yards where a wrinkled man with fangs crept into a window, emerging moments later, hunching with the weight of a child writhing in his own circus sheets. Whether or not I believed the story, I was eager to find Herman. He was quiet. I’d only ever heard that word used to describe me.

On the way to school a week later, my bus passed him walking into town. As the bus swept by, I strained my neck to keep him in view. He seemed to be on a leisurely stroll, the chair effortlessly held in front of him with both hands. He was wearing an off-white button-up tucked into a pair of faded blue dress pants. I read his expression as oblivious peace, taking everything in and accepting it as the way things are. He looked nothing like the menacing, red-eyed skeletal figure I had imagined. I remember feeling relieved, but perplexed as to why people called him the boogeyman. I was the only kid watching him. Back then I didn’t think he noticed me staring. Now I’m not so sure.

From that day I scouted the streets for Herman. I searched the sidewalks from the bus, or from the backseat of my parent’s car. Anyone carrying anything of substantial size peaked my attention. As dad drove by the person, I would grip the door handle and hold my breath. When the person turned out to be anyone but Herman, I would huff in a mixture of relief and disappointment. Mom would ask if I was ok, but I’d try to reassure her with a smile and a wave.

She used to tell me I was special. But I’m really good at reading faces. I think she really wanted to say I was weird. I know moms aren’t supposed to feel that way, but she did, not on purpose.

While other kids were playing video games, or enjoying the company of friends, I was on my bike Herman Hunting. I kept a journal of Herman sightings. I wrote notes to tell my parents I was going to the playground. I’m sure they were just happy to have me out of the house.

I found that Herman’s wanderings didn’t have any ritual or purpose. Some days he walked across town. Other days he would only walk to the park for a few hours. Watching him for a couple months I never suspected anything sinister about his excursions. The strangest behavior, besides the fact he carried the chair with him wherever he went, was that he never used the Queen Anne for its intended purpose. The chair stood by his side while he sat on his favorite park bench observing the comings and goings of birds and squirrels.

When on the rare occasion someone spoke to Herman, he’d give them no more than a slight nod and a smile. They’d walk away, mood altered. Their eyes bright, and grinning. When unacknowledged he looked at the world around him as though he and the chair were all that existed. Even when the local boys taunted him, Herman’s face would remain serene, his eyes fixed on something in the distance.

Sometimes, but not often, I’d get the courage to walk by him and smile. Each time, Herman smiled at me and bowed his head low. I registered something more than what he offered other passersby. I’d return the gesture, but hurry my steps away from him.

Even though I stalked Herman and recorded his movements, I vowed a certain amount of respect for the old man. When he walked down his driveway, I turned and peddled back home. There were only a few times I allowed my curiosity to ignore my conscience. Once, after giving him a few minutes to get settled, I crept to his front window and peered inside. Herman sat in a tattered, threadbare recliner in front of a dusty console television. Music played, old big band kind of music, but the TV screen was black.

The Queen Ann rested in a corner. Sitting there, in a regular room in a regular home, it had transformed from a mystical object into a dreary old chair. I’d expected Herman to have some ceremony for the chair. A shrine, or a pedestal for it.

 

When I graduated from high school I became a spotter at the local drycleaners. That is, I got stains out of clothes. Mrs. Holloway, the owner, said I was the most talented stain remover she’d ever employed. She paid me well, and often bought me lunch, and never made me deal with any of the customers.

One day I heard Mrs. Holloway give a hearty chuckle and say, “There’s old Herman.”  I came from my table in the back and stood beside her at the front counter.

“Do you know Herman?” she asked

I shrugged and gave her a lopsided smile.

“I went to school with Herman,” she said, threading a pair of slacks through a coat hanger. “He was a quiet boy. A lot like you. I don’t think I ever tried speaking to him in school. I hugged him at his parents’ funerals. First him with a heart attack, then she followed a week later with the same thing.” She laughed, and said, “Of course, that’s when he began carrying that silly chair.”

“Why?” I wrote on my pad.

“That’s like asking why the sun shines. It just does.”

I shook my head.

“You shouldn’t bother yourself with Herman. You’re different.” She went back behind the counter.

It’d been a couple years since I’d stopped following him. I watched Herman until he was out of view, remembering Dad’s story and Mom’s guilty face as she told me I was special. Were Herman’s parents the same? Did he carry the chair like I carried my parents’ disappointment?

I’d began renting the space above Mrs. Holloway’s garage when I turned twenty-one. She said I needed a place of my own. Needed to be independent. It was small but I didn’t own very much. I lived there for nearly ten years, and probably would have remained there for the rest of my life. A couple months before I turned thirty I moved back into my parents’ house. 

It was a Saturday afternoon when Mrs. Holloway told me she had received a call from the sheriff. Half a mile out of town, the front of their car had wrapped around a tree. When I arrived, my dad was still slumped over the steering wheel, and Mom was hanging out the passenger side window. A crowd had formed, as they often did when such things happened in Millerton. I stood beside one of the police cars scanning the mob. I didn’t recognize any of the solemn faces watching, but, even in the fading light of day, I could see wild theories reflected in their eyes. They would no doubt create stories about my reaction. They’d say I arrived on the scene of my parents’ deaths and uttered the first cry anyone had ever heard from me. That I’d cursed God, and hammered the ground with my fists. I suppose the truth, my stoic stillness, may have been more disturbing, but not quite as entertaining to recount as a breakdown.

I turned away as they removed Mom from the car. Herman was standing across the street, his hands resting one atop the other on the top rung of his chair. The woods behind him appeared set ablaze by the flashing red lights of the fire truck. For the first time, Herman resembled the boogeyman I had imagined the night my dad told me his story. His face looked like it had been etched in stone. Our eyes met. He tilted his head towards his shoulder and I could see a glint of compassion in his eyes. I registered something else, but I couldn’t put an emotion to it. I had the impression Herman knew this would happen.

The ambulance leaving with my parents caught my attention. In that moment I wanted to know Herman was a mystical being. I thought maybe Herman would have disappeared when I looked back at him. That he had only been a vision. I wanted everything that had happened to make sense. That my silence had purpose. That Mom and Dad died for a reason. For my life to mean something. When I looked back, Herman had lifted his chair and was walking into town.

I thought about my childhood sheets riddled with clowns. Herman’s appearance at my parent’s deaths reignited my vision of him carrying me over his shoulder. New theories about his existence started popped up. I believed Herman was the keeper of a great secret. I poured over my journal entries, trying to piece together his walks to find a pattern. I started counting the steps he took; sure I was missing some cosmic, mathematical equation. Yet, the existence of Herman and his chair remained mystery. At least it was for two more years.

 

It was not by chance I was there when Herman had purposefully placed the Queen Anne in the middle of our town-square, and, for the first time, sat himself in it. When Herman refused food or water after five days, CNN compared him to the Buddha Boy from Nepal who sat in meditation for five months then disappeared. From across the country, people of all ages and cultures made rows of their own chairs around Herman. CNN’s speculation he was a spiritual guide became a beacon to those hoping to have a spiritual experience, gain some mystical knowledge. Yet, he never uttered a word to any of them.

They lay offerings of fruit and handmade gifts at his feet. They chanted his name, and sang songs. Some were courageous enough to approach him and plead for him to impart words of wisdom upon them. He looked through them in much the same way he did the kids that used to taunt him. Sixteen days passed without so much as a yawn or sneeze from Herman. I watched the event from the sidelines, struggling between feeling put off or justified by Herman’s Sitters.

On the sixteenth night, when the Sitters were growing restless, and the town folk at their end, I felt a beckoning from the square. I stood just outside the circle of pilgrims, watching Herman as I had done for most of my life. His head turned in my direction and our eyes met. The crowd’s focus shifted to where I was standing. He raised his hand and, folding his fingers into his palm, summoned for me to approach. I moved through the envious Sitters, not looking anyone in the eye.

When I approached Herman, he reached for my hand and pulled my ear down to his mouth. He held me there awhile, but all I could hear was his breathing. He let go of my hand and we held each other’s gaze. The lights around the square sparkled like the cosmos in his pupils. He squeezed my shoulder, and we gave each other an understanding nod.

Everyone was on their feet as I walked back through the crowd. The Sitters tried to stop me, asking what he had said, but I kept my eyes on the ground.  When it became apparent to the mass I was not going to sermonize for Herman, a rush of frantic energy ignited through the crowd. Pleas and frustrated shouts echoed in the square. One hundred fingers reached for me at once. Hands curled over my wrists, and pulled at my clothes. I fought, and tossed myself through the crazed mob. After I managed to free myself, I hid in the shadowy bushes and waited.

Two hours later, Herman’s head slumped onto his chest. The crowd gasped, and a large bearded man wearing a sarong ran to his side. As the crowd held a collective breath, the man placed his fingers on Herman’s neck. He shook his head at his fellow pilgrims. The square filled with groans, and the pilgrims fell to their knees, shaking arms stretched towards Herman.

The news spread, and people from Millerton arrived to watch as Herman was finally removed from his chair. After he was taken away,

The Sitters cried into each other’s shoulders, and meandered aimlessly, lost in the square, and lost in life. It was near morning when the square emptied. Herman’s chair stood alone. The Sitters left it as a shrine.

The sky was turning purple, the stars fading. I emerged from my shadow. Standing behind the chair, I found the indentions from Herman’s fingers in the sides. My fingers fit as though I had been the one carrying the chair all that time. Lifting it effortlessly, I carried my chair into the coming morning.

 

The following week, as I carried the chair into town, a single face watched me from a passing school bus.

 

Story Copyright of Dusty Cooper