Survivor, p.11
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       Survivor, p.11

           Chuck Palahniuk
 
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  The agent is saying: my own fragrance.

  The agent is saying: my own line of autographed Bibles.

  The missionaries were invisible in the outside world. The church wasn’t troubled with paying taxes. According to church doctrine, the most noble you could be was to just do your work and hope to live long enough to show the district an enormous profit. The rest of your life was supposed to be a burden, making the beds of other people. Caring for other people’s babies. Cooking food for other people.

  Forever and ever.

  Work without end.

  The plan was little by little to bring about a Creedish paradise by acquiring the whole world an acre at a time.

  Until the FBI vans rolled to a stop an official three hundred feet outside the doors of the church district meeting house. The air was still, according to the official investigation into the massacre. No sound came from the church.

  The agent is saving: inspirational Tapes.

  The agent is saying: Caesars Palace.

  It was then that everybody in the world started calling the Creedish the Old Testament Death Cult.

  The cigarette smoke chokes past the point where my throat would close it out and sits thick in my chest. The caseworker folders document the stragglers. Survivor Retention Client Number Sixty-three, Biddy Patterson, age approximately twenty-nine, killed herself by ingesting cleaning solvent three days after the colony district incident.

  Survivor Retention Client Tender Smithson, age forty-five, killed himself by stepping out of a window of the building where he worked as a janitor.

  The agent is saying: my own 1-976 salvation hotline.

  The smoke hot and dense inside me feels the way I would if I had a soul.

  The agent is saying: my own infomercial.

  The people black and swollen with their giving up. Long rows of people the FBI carried dead out of the meeting house, they lie there black with the cyanide in their last communion. These are the people who whatever they imagined was coming down the road, they’d rather die than meet it.

  They died together in one mass, holding each other by the hand so tight the FBI had to pry at their dead fingers to take them apart.

  The agent is saying: Celebrity Superstar.

  It’s church doctrine that right now while the caseworker is gone, I should take a knife from the dishes in the sink and hack out my windpipe. I should spill my guts out onto the kitchen floor.

  The agent says he’ll handle the buzz with The Dawn Williams Shaw and Barbara Walters.

  Among the deceased is a manila folder with my own name on it. In it, I write:

  Survivor Retention Client Number Eighty-four has lost everyone he ever loved and everything that gave his life meaning. He is tired and sleeps most of the time.

  He has started drinking and smoking. He has no appetite. He seldom bathes and hasn’t shaved in weeks.

  Ten years ago, he was the hardworking salt of the earth. All he wanted was to go to Heaven. Sitting here today, everything that he worked for in the world is lost. All his external rules and controls are gone.

  There is no Hell. There is no Heaven.

  Still, just dawning on him is the idea that now anything is possible.

  Now he wants everything.

  I shut the folder and slip it back in the pile.

  Just between him and me, the agent asks, is there any chance I’m going to off myself soon?

  Staring up through my gin and tonic, the sunken faces of everybody from my past are dead in the government pictures under my drink. After moments like this, you’re whole life is gravy.

  I freshen my drink.

  I light another cigarette.

  Really, my life no longer has a point. I’m free. This and I stand to inherit twenty thousand acres of central Nebraska.

  How this feels is just like ten years ago, when I rode with the police downtown.

  And once again, I am weak. And minute by minute I’m moving away from salvation and into the future.

  Kill myself?

  Thanks, I say. No, thanks.

  Let’s not rush anything here.

  What I’m busy telling the police all morning is I left the caseworker still alive and scrubbing the brick around the fireplace in the den. The problem is the flue doesn’t open right and smoke comes out the front. The people who I work for burn wet wood. What I tell the police is I’m innocent.

  I didn’t kill anybody.

  According to my daily planner, I was supposed to scrub the brick yesterday.

  This is how my day’s gone so far.

  First the police are hammering me about why did I kill my caseworker. Then the agent’s calling to promise me the world. Fertility, Fertility, Fertility is out of the picture. Let’s just say I’m not comfortable with how she earns a living.

  Plus, I’d just as soon not know about all the misery in my future.

  So I lock myself in the bathroom to try to collate what’s all happened. The downstairs green bathroom.

  How my statement to the police goes is first the caseworker was dead facedown on the bricks in front of the fireplace in the den with her black capri pants still on and all bunched up around her ass from the way she’s fallen there. Her white shirt’s untucked with the sleeves rolled up to each elbow. The room’s choking with deadly chlorine gas and the sponge is still squeezed in her dead fish white hand.

  Before that, I was climbing in through the basement window we left unlocked so I could come and go without the television people dogging me with their cameras and paper cups of coffee and their professional concern as if they’re getting paid enough to really care. As if this doesn’t happen with another feature story for them to cover every two days. It does.

  So I’m locked in the bathroom and now the police are outside the door to ask if I’m throwing up and say the man who I work for is on the speakerphone yelling at them for directions on how to eat a salad.

  The police are asking, did the caseworker and I have a fight?

  Look at my daily planner book for yesterday, I tell them. We never had time.

  From starting work until eight in the morning, I was supposed to be caulking windows. The planner’s open on the kitchen counter next to the speakerphone. I was supposed to be painting trim.

  From eight until ten I was scrubbing the oil stains out in the driveway. From ten until lunch was for cutting back the hedges. Lunch until three was for sweeping porches. Three until five was for changing the water in all the flower arrangements. Five to seven was for scrubbing the fireplace brick.

  Every last minute of my life has been preordained, and I’m sick and tired of it.

  How this feels is I’m just another task in God’s daily planner: the Italian Renaissance penciled in for right after the Dark Ages.

  To everything there is a season.

  For every trend, fad, phase. Turn, turn, turn.

  Ecclesiastes, Chapter Three, Verses something through something.

  The Information Age is scheduled immediately after the Industrial Revolution.

  Then the Postmodern Era, then the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine.

  Check. Pestilence. Check. War. Check. Death. Check. And between the big events, the earthquakes and tidal waves, God’s got me squeezed in for a cameo appearance. Then maybe in thirty years, or maybe next year, God’s daily planner has me finished.

  Through the bathroom door, the police are asking me, did I hit her? The caseworker. Did I ever steal her case history files and her DSM? All her files are missing.

  She drank, is what I tell them. She took psychotropic drugs. She mixed bleach with ammonia inside closed unventilated areas. I don’t know how she spent her free time, but she talked about dating a wide variety of lowlifes.

  And she had those files yesterday.

  The last thing I said to her was you can’t get brick clean without sandblasting it, but she was so sure muriatic acid would do the job. One of her boyfriends swore by it.

  When I climbed in through th
e basement window this morning she was dead on the floor with chlorine gas and muriatic acid all over half the brick wall, and it was still as dirty as ever, only now she was part of the mess.

  Between her black capri pants and her little white socks and red canvas shoes, her calf muscles are smooth and white with everything of her that used to be red turned blue, her lips, her cuticles, the rim of each eye.

  The truth is I didn’t kill the caseworker, but I’m glad someone did.

  She was my only connection to the last ten years. She was the last thing holding me onto my past.

  The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again.

  The truth is you will be.

  And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can’t feel a thing.

  Trust me on this.

  With her lying there dead after our ten years of heart-to-heart talks every week, my first thought was, here’s just something else for me to pick up.

  The police are asking through the bathroom door, why did I make a batch of strawberry daiquiris before I called them?

  Because we were out of raspberries.

  Because, can’t they see, it just does not matter. Time was not of the essence.

  Think of this as valuable on-the-job training. Think of your life as a sick joke.

  What do you call a caseworker who hates her job and loses every client?

  Dead.

  What do you call the police worker zipping her into a big rubber bag?

  Dead.

  What do you call the television anchor on camera in the front yard?

  Dead.

  It does not matter. The joke is we all have the same punch line.

  The agent is holding on line one with what only looks like a whole new future to offer.

  The man who I work for is shouting over the speakerphone that he’s at a business lunch in some restaurant only he’s calling from his cell phone in the toilet because he doesn’t know how to eat the hearts of palm salad. As if this is really important.

  Hey, I shout back. Me too.

  Hiding in the toilet, I mean.

  There’s a terrible dark joy when the only person who knows all your secrets is finally dead. Your parents. Your doctor. Your therapist. Your caseworker. The sun’s outside the bathroom window trying to show us we’re all being stupid. All you have to do is look around.

  What they teach you in the church district colony is to desire nothing. Keep a mild and downcast countenance. Preserve a modest posture and demeanor. Speak in a simple and quiet tone.

  And just look how well their philosophy has turned out.

  Them dead. Me alive. The caseworker dead. Everybody dead.

  I rest my case.

  Here in the bathroom with me are razor blades. Here is iodine to drink. Here are sleeping pills to swallow. You have a choice. Live or die.

  Every breath is a choice.

  Every minute is a choice.

  To be or not to be.

  Every time you don’t throw yourself down the stairs, that’s a choice. Every time you don’t crash your car, you reenlist.

  If I let the agent make me famous that wasn’t going to change anything important.

  What do you call a Creedish who gets his own talk show?

  Dead.

  What do you call the Creedish who goes around in a limousine and eats steak?

  Dead.

  Whatever direction I go in, I really don’t have anything to lose.

  According to my daily planner I should burn zinc in the fireplace to clear the chimney of soot.

  Outside the bathroom window, the sun is watching police workers with the caseworker zipped inside a rubber bag belted to a gurney they’re wheeling between them down the driveway to an ambulance with the lights not on.

  For a long time after I found her, I stood over the body drinking my strawberry daiquiri and just looking at her there, blue and facedown. You didn’t have to be Fertility Hollis to see this coming from way back. Her black hair was poking out the red bandanna tied around her head. A little drool had dripped outside the corner of her dead mouth onto a brick. Her whole body looked covered in dead skin.

  All along, you could’ve guessed this would happen. Someday it would happen to us all.

  Behaving myself just was not going to work anymore. It was time to make trouble.

  So I made another blender full of daiquiris and called the police and told them not to hurry, nobody here was going anywhere.

  Then I called the agent. The truth is there’s always been someone to tell me what to do. The church. The people who I work for. The caseworker. And I can’t stand the idea of being alone. I can’t bear the thought of being free.

  The agent said to hold on and give my statement to the police. The second I could leave, he’d send a car. A limousine.

  My black-and-white stickers are all over town still telling people:

  Give Yourself, Your Life, Just One More Chance. Call Me for Help. Then my phone number.

  Well, all those desperate people were on their own.

  The limousine would take me to the airport, the agent said. The airplane would take me to New York. Already a team of people I’d never met, people in New York who knew nothing about me, were writing my autobiography. The agent said the first six chapters would be faxed to me in the limousine so I could commit my childhood to memory before I give any interviews.

  I told the agent I already knew my childhood.

  Over the phone he said, “This version’s better.”

  Version?

  “We’ll have an even hotter version for the movie.” The agent asks, “So who do you want to be you?”

  I want to be me.

  “In the movie, I mean.”

  I ask him to hold please. Already being famous was turning into less freedom and more of a schedule of decisions and task after task after task. The feeling isn’t so great but it’s familiar.

  Then the police were at the front door and then they were inside the den with the dead caseworker, taking her picture with a camera from different angles and asking me to put down my drink so they could ask questions about the night before.

  It’s right then I locked myself in the bathroom and had what the psychology textbooks would call a quickie existential crisis.

  The man who I work for calls from his restaurant bathroom about his hearts of palm salad, and my day is pretty much complete.

  Live or die?

  I come out the bathroom door past the police and go right to the phone. To the man who I work for, I tell him to use his salad fork. Skewer each heart. Tines down. Lift the heart to his mouth and suck out the juice. Then, place it in the breast pocket of his double-breasted, Brooks-Brothered. The pin-striped suit jacket.

  He says, “Got it.” And my job in this house is finished.

  My one hand is holding the telephone, and with my other I’m motioning for the police to put more rum in the next batch of daiquiris.

  The agent tells me not to bother with any luggage. New York has a stylist already building a wardrobe of marketable all-cotton sackcloth-style religious sportswear they want me to promote.

  Luggage reminds me of hotels reminds me of chandeliers reminds me of disasters reminds me of Fertility Hollis. She’s the only thing I’m leaving behind. Only Fertility knows anything about me, even if she doesn’t know much. Maybe she knows my future, but she doesn’t know my past. Now nobody knows my past.

  Except maybe Adam.

  Between the two of them, they know more about my life than me.

  According to my itinerary, the agent says, the car will be here in five minutes.

  It’s time to keep living.

  It’s time to reenlist.

  In the limousine, there should be dark sunglasses. I want to be obviously incognito. I want black leather seats and tinted windows. I tell the agent, I want crowds at the airport chanting my name. I want more blender drinks. I want a personal fitness trainer. I want to lose fifteen pounds. I want m
y hair to be thicker. I want my nose to look smaller. Capped teeth. A cleft chin. High cheekbones. I want a manicure, and I want a tan.

  I try to remember everything else Fertility doesn’t like about I look.

  It’s somewhere above Nebraska I remember I left my fish behind.

  And it must be hungry.

  It’s part of Creedish tradition that even labor missionaries had something, a cat, a dog, a fish, to care for. Most times it was a fish. Just something to need you home at night. Something to keep you from living alone.

  The fish is something to make me settle in one place. According to church colony doctrine, it’s why men marry women and why women have children. It’s something to live your life around.

  It’s crazy, but you invest all your emotion in just this one tiny goldfish, even after six hundred and forty goldfish, and you can’t just let the little thing starve to death.

  I tell the flight attendant, I’ve got to go back, while she’s fighting against my one hand that’s holding her by the elbow.

  An airplane is just so many rows of people sitting and all going in the same direction a long ways off the ground. Going to New York’s a lot the way I imagine going to Heaven would be.

  It’s too late, the flight attendant says. Sir. This is a nonstop. Sir. Maybe after we land, she says, maybe I could call someone. Sir.

  But there isn’t anybody.

  Nobody will understand.

  Not the apartment manager.

  Not the police.

  The flight attendant yanks her elbow away. She gives me a look and moves up the aisle.

  Everyone else I could call is dead.

  So I call the only person who can help. I call the last person I want to talk to, and she picks up on the first ring.

  An operator asks if she’d accept the charges, and somewhere hundreds of miles behind me Fertility said yes.

  I said hi, and she said hi. She doesn’t sound at all surprised.

  She asked, “Why weren’t you at Trevor’s crypt today? We had a date.”

  I forgot, I say. My whole life is about forgetting. It’s my most valuable job skill.

  It’s my fish, I say. It’s going to die if nobody feeds it. Maybe this doesn’t sound important to her, but that fish means the whole world to me. Right now, that fish is the only thing I care about, and Fertility needs to go there and feed it, or better yet, take it home to live with her.

 
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CHUCK PALAHNIUK SERIES:

Damned

 

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