“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” You likely recall the “bit” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Savonarola and his henchmen bursting into a tasteful living room, all wearing scarlet robes, their timing perfect, as a disputatious husband has blurted to his wife: “what is this, the Spanish Inquisition”? How I loved this routine when I was in college, back when there was nothing on TV and the Pythons delivered to us provincial suffering youth something like, very like, an evening with Marcel Duchamp and Oscar Wilde.
The inquisitors push the husband into “the comfy chair”—“nobody expects the comfy chair”!
It was a great skit. A modernist inquisition employs no rack, no thumbscrews, but simply bores a man to death in comparative ease.
My wife decided not so very long ago to buy a “comfy chair” and off she went to our local Syracuse, NY “La-Z-Boy” franchise. Disclosure: I’ve had one of their recliners for years. I keep it in my study and frankly, with low vision I get headaches, and I rest in this chair and it’s been a fine bit of furniture for me. I believe Connie went to the La-Z-Boy store because I recommended it. “They’ve got great chairs,” I said. Off she went.
She bought a comfy chair. A few days later they delivered it and I saw it was far nicer than my old one. I had chair envy. Hers was wider than mine, had more room; it rocked AND reclined; it was a really beautiful thing.
Disclosure: I did not think of Monty Python. Not right away.
After a couple of days Connie said: “Can I ask you to sit in my chair?”
“Sure,” I said, “what’s the problem?”
“Well,” she said, “it smells funny. Like chemicals.”
I sat. Rocked a bit. God it was luxurious. It was a cream puff chair.
“Just stay there for a few minutes,” she said.
It was true. The chair smelled like iodine and creosote. I recalled being in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain fell—there was always a prevailing odor in East Germany—a heavy blanket of burnt coal mixed with strawberries. Everyone who’s ever traveled to the former Warsaw Pact countries knows this odor. My wife’s chair smelled worse than that. Think of this: her recliner smelled worse than Bratislava. Moreover, the longer you sat in it you’d have a sensation of being wrapped in a cloud of toxicity.
“Yeah,” I said, “it smells pretty bad.”
“It must be the fabric protector they sprayed on it,” she said.
“Must be,” I said.
“Let’s give it a couple of days,” she said.
“Sure,” I said.
The comfy chair really smelled. But Con kept giving it a chance. Each night she’d sit in it with her MacBook Pro and work, or watch a little TV, and one evening she even fell asleep in it.
Later she reported experiencing dizziness, a vague sense of disorientation, and a bad taste in her mouth.
“The stink really surrounds you, like a tent,” she said.
“Let’s take it back,” I said.
We called the La-Z-Boy store. Explained the problem. “Maybe it’s the anti-stain spray,” we said.
“Oh,” they said, “sure.” “Let’s get you another chair that doesn’t have the spray.”
A week later a nice man came and took away the toxic chair and brought in the new one.
We signed the proper papers. He drove away.
The new chair was imperial and stately. It was refined and sat nicely in its corner. It seemed to have feng shui. “Nice,” I said.
“Yes,” said Connie. “Nice.”
I went back to my study and began preparing for my next class at Syracuse University, a course on creative nonfiction. I was reading an essay about the loss of innocence when Connie came in.
“Can you come and sit in my chair?” she said.
“Oh no,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “the new recliner has the same exact odor.”
She was right. I sat and a “poof” of cordite and flaming crow feathers wafted around my head.
“You’re not imagining it,” I said. “This fucker stinks.”
“Do you think it will go away?” she said.
“No,” I said. “It’s in the fabric.”
I pressed my nose against the cushions.
“That’s a smell, alright,” I said.
“Maybe I’ll give it a day or two,” Connie said.
“Well, OK,” I said.
But the chair never gave up. It was steadfast and toxic. I began to imagine it was manufactured from recycled military mattresses and asbestos gloves.
“We’ve got to return it,” I said.
“Do you want me to call them?” I asked.
“No,” Connie said. “I’ll do it.”
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” My poor wife! She drove to the La-Z Boy store with the stinky chair in the back of our Subaru, thinking they’d refund her money without a hitch.
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
The manager wasn’t in but was reachable by phone. “No,” she said, “we don’t have to take the chair back after three days.”
My poor wife! Always fair minded, decent, upright, kind. She’d really tried to give the fetid recliner a chance to reimagine itself.
The manager wouldn’t take the chair back!
Then she said, “Well, we can take it back, but we have to charge you a ‘re-stocking’ fee of $125.”
“Really?” Connie said. “Are you kidding?”
No,” the manager said.
“You must be kidding,” Connie said.
“Nope,” the manager said.
Outside, sitting in the car with the chair emitting vapors, Connie Googled La-Z-Boy recliners and funny smells. She found dozens of links about a phenomena called “off gassing”—apparently La-Z-Boys are known to emit foul chemical odors.
She called me. “It’s not just US!” she said.
“What should we do?” she said.
I scratched my head. “Tell them we’ll alert the local media,” I said.
Every city has a local TV station that airs reports about bad customer service. Syracuse is no exception.
“That’s an idea,” she said.
She went back into the store.
In the end she got her refund. They took the chair.
“Nobody expects the inquisition…”
I suppose the moral of the story is “don’t keep a toxic thing imagining it will right itself.”
God the chairs were soft. Beware.