Chair #5

Art school had been enjoyable enough and Maggie (her parents had named her Meiying) felt she’d made the most of it. Perhaps she hadn’t seized the day in the same way her friends had done, but she’d never really enjoyed that sort of thing. She was an attractive young woman, and had certainly been invited to all the same parties, but to her it was important that the college experience be more about work than play.

Graduate school had suited her better, allowed her to really get “stuck in”. She’d interned with a couple of design firms, spent six months in Florence shadowing the assistant curator at the Uffizi, then went straight on from there to take a job with a top firm in San Francisco. That had all been five very long years ago, during which time she’d been promoted twice and was currently working out of their Copenhagen office, managing a team of very bright and ambitious young designers. Their biggest account at the moment was Speedy Q’s fast food chain, who were planning to open two hundred new locations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. It was Maggie’s job to come up with a design for the tables and chairs. According to Speedy Q’s marketing manager, the chairs needed to be “stylish and fun”.

She’d been at this game long enough to know that it was more about salesmanship than originality. Everyone wanted something “stylish and fun”. What did that really mean, anyway? Well, it meant whatever the most stylish and fun people said it meant. The fact is, the account should have been a cinch, but for some reason the execs at Speedy Q’s just weren’t “over the moon” with what she and her team were coming up with. Maggie hated to admit it, but the whole thing was beginning to keep her awake at night. Truth be told, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a good night’s sleep. Certainly not since joining the firm, and even less in grad school. Christ, had she ever really slept? 

She’d tried early on in her career to come up with designs that were original. For years she’d twisted herself into knots, only to be told to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that was more “familiar” and “fun”. It wasn’t until she was promoted to the fiftieth floor that she discovered how things really worked, that most any design could be sold, no matter the product, so long as it was “cheap” and ”cheery”. Molded plastics and plywoods in bright bold colors usually did the trick. They required very little effort to manufacture, looked sexy just about anywhere, and, best of all, had an awesome markup value.

It was all in how you pitched it. Her firm had long ago established its “look”. They’d had features in all the important journals and magazines. In many ways, the client was paying for an aesthetic their firm had already established, which meant that their “product”, whatever it happened to be, was more than half finished before the client even entered the building. Call it “edgy” and “hip”, wow them with drawings done by hand in pen and watercolour, then top it off with a spreadsheet showing the numbers and, hey presto! another notch in her belt and a nice juicy bonus check for closing the account ahead of schedule. Surprisingly, it was the drawings done by hand that most impressed and reassured the client, the thick textured paper and expert watercolouring. Of her team, William was by far the most indispensable. He’d graduated from the Courtauld Institute and his watercolours were some of the finest she’d ever seen.

She and her team were currently focusing on designs in “Hi-Ply”, vacuum molded into shapes inspired by the letter “Q”. The execs liked the idea when she’d pitched it but, as of yet, none of the concept drawings were meeting anyone’s expectations. The one design they had liked most turned out to be impossible to manufacture in anything but steel. The engineers had tried to explain why plywood and plastic were unable to meet the necessary load requirements, based on the design’s current dimensions and configuration.

The real problem was that people just kept getting fatter and fatter, while the evolving trends in design called for things to look slimmer and slimmer. Hel-lo? You say it needs to be “sleek and stylish”, yet strong enough to support the weight of a 350 lbs person, plus 70%. How about a concrete block? We’ll paint it red!

Seriously though, it was hard making “sexy” things for…um, not so sexy people. I mean, she wasn’t trying to be cruel or anything. It’s just that she worked damn hard to keep herself in shape. She ate well and exercised daily. It wasn’t easy. Every year she pushed herself to run at least two full marathons and several half marathons. Of course it wasn’t fair to expect that everyone be equally as motivated and physically fit, but you had to admit that the world would be a hell of a lot more sleek and stylish if people could just control their appetites a little.

Another idea had been to laser cut the sides of the chair from plywood into the shape of a “Q” and then add a separate seat and back. In all, the design used six separate pieces that clicked together without any hardware or requiring the use of even a single tool. Moreover, they could be flat packed directly from the factory in China and assembled on site in minutes using unskilled labor. She and her team had worked tirelessly on it for weeks and had gotten the “thumbs up” from both engineering and legal. But during the final presentation, one of the junior execs had asked, “hypothetically”, what was to stop a group of teensgers from taking the chairs apart when no one was looking. “That’s what I would have done,” he’d said. Of course. He was right. Damn.

As fate would have it, her firm had her pass the Speedy Q’s account over to William. There was the potential for a big new account and they needed her at the Hong Kong office, like yesterday. And so, with less than forty eight hours notice, she got an expedited visa, packed a bag and left.

Both of Maggie’s parents had grown up in Heilongjiang province in the far north of China. They’d moved to Berkeley in the late 80s when her father had been offered a job at Apple, bringing Grandma and grandpa along with them. Maggie was born in ’93 and grew up speaking Chinese while at home and English at school and with her friends. She supposed she identified herself as Chinese, even though she’d only been to China once before when she was seven. Her only memories of the trip had been of the squat toilets and the taxi driver who had kept his window down to have a cigarette even though it had been minus twenty degrees outside.

“Powder blue, barn red, lemon yellow, sherbert, key lime,” she muttered under her breath. There were still twelve hours remaining of her flight and she’d already watched two feature length movies and an episode of Friends. She had been reluctant to hand over the Speedy Q’s account. She hated leaving anything unfinished, especially things that she felt were so close to finding resolution. Everyone had liked the molded plywood design. It was elegant. Probably too elegant for a fast food restaurant. “Materials inadequate.” That’s what the engineers had said. There was just no way to add that extra support because then the “Q” would no longer look like a “Q”! Why the hell couldn’t it have been called “Speedy H’s”! She’d give William a call just as soon as they landed, find out how things were going. 

The streets of Hong Kong hurled past in a blur. They teemed with cars and motorcycles and bicycles and people, all coming and going, this way and that way, everyone shoulder to shoulder and bumper to bumper with not a single one of them ever coming fully to a stop, not even when the lights had gone red. Yet nobody seemed to mind. No one was honking, no one getting upset. She found it hard to process. Fortunately, her lack of sleep had made her just delirious enough to switch off that part of her brain which required order and security, that all too active part that was always calculating risks and needing constantly to be reassured.  She squinted her eyes and watched it all pass by as a blur of motion, a sea of light and shadow undulating around her. She watched it ebb and flow and was fascinated. She rolled down her window and the warm night air rushed in and felt deliciously soft against her bare arms. The buildings reached high up and away beyond the angle of her sight, their myriad neon signs radiating halos of color against the thick polluted air: the green neon of the pharmacy, the red fluorescent of the bank of China, the endlessly streaming ticker-tapers of bright yellow kanji running under block-long billboards—billboards that showed sweeping high definition video of emerald green fields, turquoise seas and blue-grey misty mountains. Every other business seemed either to be a restaurant, a hotel or some mom and pop style grocery store. Of the three, it was the restaurants that dominated, occupying multiple levels of every building she saw, their each and every window a vignette of middle class life in modern China, while out on the streets it was a whole other picture. Down there, the same restaurants had set up tables and chairs on the sidewalks and not an inch of pavement was spared or single chair left unoccupied. A hodgepodge of tents and picnic benches and low collapsing tables paired with short plastic stools and, in some instances, even upturned buckets and stacks of concrete blocks to serve as temporary seating. One moment the air was full of the smell of roasting lamb and the next it was choked with smoke and heavy with the smell of cumin. Waiters hurried in and out of their respective establishments, some of them carrying trays piled high with food while others staggered beneath the weight of one, maybe even two, crates of beer. And then she saw the big green bottles everywhere. They were on and under every available surface. Now that she knew what they were, the stale smell of beer began filling up her nostrils. Beer and smoke and roasting lamb and cumin, and everyone had a bottle of their own but they did not drink out of it but instead poured the beer into a small clear glass. And she knew well enough that it was the custom to fill another’s glass and never your own and to make a toast before drinking. She also knew that the men would make a point of clinking glasses just beneath the rim of whomever they were toasting, so as to show respect, and to down the beer in a single gulp and then quickly refill the other’s glass. The women were not expected to drink so quickly, and Maggie watched them sitting up very straight on the low plastic stools, all of them dressed very stylishly while the men got away with wearing T shirts and jeans, and she found it curious that some of the men had rolled their shirts up over their full round bellies, reminding her of happy Buddhas. No one seemed to care what they were sitting on, so long as the food was good and the beer kept on coming. The energy was palpable and she welcomed it into the taxi. She felt suddenly greedy for it and hoped always to be able to keep that part of her brain switched off. And then she wished for the taxi to never reach its destination and to just keep on driving through the endless sea of living night. She squinted her eyes again, a little tighter this time, and the lights melded into each other and the people grew dim until the only thing she noticed was the touch of the wind against her arms and the scent of the lamb and smoke, but then these also faded until soon there was only the darkness and she was fast asleep.

~ by calebnrogers on January 25, 2021.

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