Survivor, p.12
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       Survivor, p.12

           Chuck Palahniuk
 
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  “Yeah,” she says. “Sure. Your fish.”

  Yes. And it needs to be fed every day. There’s the kind of food it likes best next to the fish bowl on my fridge, and I give her the address.

  She says, “Enjoy going off to become a big international spiritual leader.”

  We’re talking from farther and farther away as the plane takes me east. The sample chapters of my autobiography are on the seat next to me, and they’re a complete shock.

  I ask, how did she know?

  She says, “I know a lot more than you give me credit for.”

  Like what for instance? I ask, what else does she know?

  Fertility says, “What are you afraid I might know?”

  The flight attendant goes on the other side of a curtain and says, “He’s worried about a goldfish.” Some women behind the curtain laugh and one says, “Is he retarded?”

  As much to the flight crew as to Fertility I say, It just so happens that I’m the last survivor of an almost extinct religious cult.

  Fertility says, “How nice for you.”

  I say, And I can’t ever see her again.

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

  I say, People want me in New York by tomorrow. They’re planning something big.

  And Fertility says, “Of course they are.”

  I say, I’m sorry I won’t ever get to dance with her anymore.

  And Fertility says, “Yes, you will.”

  Since she knows so much, I ask her, what’s the name of my fish?

  “Number six forty-one.”

  And miracle of miracles, she’s right.

  “Don’t even try keeping a secret,” she says. “With all the dreams I’ve been having every night, not much surprises me.”

  ♦

  After just the first fifty flights of stairs, my breath won’t stay inside me long enough to do any good. My feet fly out behind me. My heart is jumping against the ribs it’s behind inside my chest. The insides of my mouth and tongue are thick and stuck together with dried-up spit.

  Where I’m at is one of those stair climbing machines the agent has installed.

  You climb and climb forever and never get off the ground. You’re trapped in your hotel room. It’s the mystical sweat lodge experience of our time, the only sort of Indian vision quest we can schedule into our daily planner.

  Our StairMaster to Heaven.

  Around the sixtieth floor, sweat is stretching my shirt down to my knees. The lining of my lungs feels the way a ladder looks in nylon stockings, stretched, snagged, a tear. In my lungs. A rupture. The way a tire looks before a blowout, that’s how my lungs feel. The way it smells when your electric heater or hair dryer burns off a layer of dust, that’s how hot my ears feel.

  Why I’m doing this is because the agent says there’s thirty pounds too much of me for him to make famous.

  If your body is a temple, you can pile up too much deferred maintenance. If your body is a temple, mine was a real fixer-upper.

  Somehow, I should’ve seen this coming.

  The same way every generation reinvents Christ, the agent’s giving me the same makeover. The agent says nobody is going to worship anybody with my role of flab around his middle. These days, people aren’t going to fill stadiums to get preached at by somebody who isn’t beautiful.

  This is why I’m going nowhere at the rate of seven hundred calories an hour.

  Around the eightieth floor, my bladder feels nested between the top of my legs.

  When you pull plastic wrap off something in the microwave and the steam sunburns your fingers in an instant, my breath is that hot.

  You’re going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It’s the illusion of progress. What you want to think is your salvation.

  What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step, too.

  It’s not as if the great coyote spirit comes to you, but around the eighty-first floor, these random thoughts from out of the ozone just catch in your head.

  Silly things the agent told you, now they add up. The way you feel when you’re scrubbing with pure ammonia fumes and right then while you’re scrubbing chicken skin off the barbecue grill, every stupid thing in the world, decaffeinated coffee, alcohol, free beer, StairMasters, makes perfect sense, not because you’re any smarter, but because the smart part of your brain’s on vacation. It’s that kind of faux wisdom. That kind of Chinese food enlightenment where you know that ten minutes after your head clears, you’ll forget it all.

  Those clear plastic bags you get a single serving of honey-roasted peanuts in on a plane instead of a real meal, that’s how small my lungs feel. After eighty-five floors, the air feels that thin. Your arms pumping, your feet jam down on every next step. At this point, your every thought is so profound.

  The way bubbles form in a pan of water before it comes to a boil, these new insights just appear.

  Around the ninetieth floor, every thought is an epiphany.

  Paradigms are dissolving right and left.

  Everything ordinary turns into a powerful metaphor.

  The deeper meaning of everything is right there in your face.

  And it’s all so significant.

  It’s all so deep.

  So real.

  Everything the agent’s been telling me makes perfect sense. For instance, if Jesus Christ had died in prison, with no one watching and with no one there to mourn or torture him, would we be saved?

  With all due respect.

  According to the agent, the biggest factor that makes you a saint is the amount of press coverage you get.

  Around the one hundredth floor, it all comes clear. The whole universe, and this isn’t just the endorphins talking. Any higher than the hundredth floor and you enter a mystical state.

  The same as if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, you realize, if no one had been there to witness the agony of Christ, would we be saved?

  The key to salvation is how much attention you get. How high a profile you get.

  Your audience share. Your exposure. Your name recognition. Your press following.

  The buzz.

  Around the one hundredth floor, the sweat is parting your hair all over. The boring mechanics of how your body works are all too clear, your lungs are sucking air to put in your blood, your heart pumps blood to your muscles, your hamstrings pull themselves short, cramping to pull your legs up behind you, your quadriceps cramp to put your knees out in front of you. The blood delivers air and food to burn inside the mito-whatever in the middle of your every muscle cell.

  The skeleton is just a way to keep your tissue off the floor. Your sweat is just a way to keep you cool.

  The revelations come at you from every direction.

  Around the one hundred and fifth floor, you can’t believe you’re the slave to this body, this big baby. You have to keep it fed and put it to bed and take it to the bathroom. You can’t believe we haven’t invented something better.

  Something not so needy. Not so time-consuming.

  You realize that people take drugs because it’s the only real personal adventure left to them in their time-constrained, law-and-order, property-lined world.

  It’s only in drugs or death we’ll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.

  You realize that there’s no point in doing anything if nobody’s watching.

  You wonder, if there had been a low turnout at the crucifixion, would they have rescheduled?

  You realize the agent was right. You’ve never seen a crucifix with a Jesus who wasn’t almost naked. You’ve never seen a fat Jesus. Or a Jesus with body hair.

  Every crucifix you’ve ever seen, the Jesus could be shirtless and modeling designer jeans or men’s cologne.

  Life is every way the agent said. You realize that if no one’s watching, you might as well stay home. Play with yourself. Watch broadcast television.

  It’s around the one hundred and tenth floor you realize that if you’re not on
videotape, or better yet, live on satellite hookup in front of the whole world watching, you don’t exist.

  You’re that tree falling in the forest that nobody gives a rat’s ass about.

  It doesn’t matter if you do anything. If nobody notices, your life will add up to a big zero. Nada. Cipher.

  Fake or not, it’s these kinds of big truths that swarm inside you.

  You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past.

  We can’t give up our concept of who we were. All those adults playing archaeologist at yard sales, looking for childhood artifacts, board games, CandyLand, Twister, they’re terrified. Trash becomes holy relics. Mystery Date.

  Hula Hoops. Our way of getting nostalgic for what we just threw in the trash, it’s all because we’re afraid to evolve. Grow, change, lose weight, reinvent ourselves. Adapt.

  That’s what the agent says to me on the StairMaster. He’s yelling at me, “Adapt!”

  Everything’s accelerated except me and my sweaty body with its bowel movements and body hair. My moles and yellow toenails. And I realize I’m stuck with my body, and already it’s falling apart. My backbone feels hammered out of hot iron. My arms swing thin and wet on each side of me.

  Since change is constant, you wonder if people crave death because it’s the only way they can get anything really finished.

  The agent’s yelling that no matter how great you look, your body is just something you wear to accept your Academy Award.

  Your hand is just so you can hold your Nobel Prize.

  Your lips are only there for you to air-kiss a talk show host.

  And you might as well look great.

  It’s around the one hundred and twentieth floor you have to laugh. You’re going to lose it anyway. Your body. You’re already losing it. It’s time you bet everything.

  This is why when the agent comes to you with anabolic steroids, you say yes. You say yes to the back-to-back tanning sessions. Electrolysis? Yes. Teeth capping?

  Yes. Dermabrasion? Yes. Chemical peels? According to the agent, the secret to getting famous is you just keep saying yes.

  It’s in the car coming from the airport the agent shows me his cure for cancer.

  It’s called ChemoSolv. It’s supposed to dissolve a tumor, he says and opens his briefcase to take out a brown prescription bottle with dark capsules inside.

  This is jumping back a little ways to before I met the stair climbing machine, to my first face-to-face with the agent the night he picks me up at the airport in New York. Before he tells me I’m too fat to be famous yet. Before I’m a product being launched. It’s dark outside when my plane first lands in New York.

  Nothing’s too spectacular. It’s night, with the same moon as we have back home, and the agent’s just a regular man standing where I get off the plane, wearing glasses with his brown hair parted on one side.

  We shake hands. A car drives up to the curb outside, and we get in the back. He pinches the crease in each trouser leg to lift it as he steps into the car. How he looks is custom-tailored.

  How he looks is eternal and durable. Just meeting him, there’s that guilt I feel whenever I buy something impossible to recycle.

  “This other cancer cure we have is called Oncologic,” he says and hands another brown bottle across to me sitting next to him in the backseat. This is a nice car, the way it’s black leather and padded all over inside. The ride is smoother than on the airplane.

  It’s more dark capsules inside the second bottle, and pasted around the bottle is a pharmacy label the way you always see. The agent takes out another bottle.

  “This is one of our cures for AIDS,” he says. “This is our most popular one.” He takes out bottle after bottle. “Here we have our leading cure for antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. Here’s liver cirrhosis. Here’s Alzheimer’s. Multiple Neuritis. Multiple Myeloma. Multiple Sclerosis. The rhinovirus,” he says, shaking each one so the pills inside rattle, and handing them over to me.

  ViralSept, it says on one bottle.

  MaligNon, another bottle says.

  CerebralSave.

  Kohlercaine.

  Nonsense words.

  These are all same-sized brown plastic bottles with white child-guard caps and prescription labels from the same pharmacy.

  The agent comes packaged in a medium-weight gray wool suit and is equipped with only his briefcase. He features two brown eyes behind glasses. A mouth. Clean fingernails. Nothing is remarkable about him except what he’s telling me.

  “Just name a disease,” he says, “and we have a cure ready for it.”

  He lifts two more handfuls of brown bottles from his briefcase and shakes them.

  “I brought all these to prove a point.”

  Every second, the car we’re in slides deeper and deeper through the dark into New York City. Around us, other cars keep pace. The moon keeps pace. I say how I’m surprised all these diseases still exist in the world.

  “It’s a shame,” the agent says, “how medical technology is still lagging behind the marketing side of things. I mean, we’ve had all the sales support in place for years, the coffee mug giveaways to physicians, the feel-good magazine ads, the total product launch, but it’s the same old violin in the background. R&D is still years behind. The lab monkeys are still dropping like flies.”

  His two perfect rows of teeth look set in his mouth by a jeweler.

  The pills for AIDS look just like the pills for cancer look just like the pills for diabetes. I ask, So these things really aren’t invented?

  “Let’s not use that word, ‘invented,’” the agent says. “It makes everything sound so contrived.”

  “But they aren’t real?”

  “Of course they’re real,” he says and plucks the first two bottles out of my hands. “They’re copyrighted. We have an inventory of almost fifteen thousand copyrighted names for products that are still in development,” he says. “And that includes you.”

  He says, “That’s just my point.”

  He’s developing a cure for cancer?

  “We’re a total concept marketing slash public relations organization,” he says.

  “Our job is to create the concept. You patent a drug. You copyright the name. As soon as someone else develops the product they come to us, sometimes by choice, sometimes not.”

  I ask him, Why sometimes not?

  “The way this works is we copyright every conceivable combination of words, Greek words, Latin, English, what-have-you. We get the legal rights to every conceivable word a pharmaceutical company might use to name a new product. For diabetes alone, we have an inventory of one hundred forty names,” he says. He hands me stapled-together pages from out of his briefcase in his lap.

  GlucoCure, I read.

  InsulinEase.

  PancreAid. Hemazine. Glucodan. Growdenase. I turn to the next page, and bottles slip out of my lap and roll along the car floor with the pills inside rattling.

  “If the drug company that ever cures diabetes wants to use any combination of words even vaguely related to the condition, they’ll have to lease that right from us.”

  So the pills I have here, I say, these are sugar pills. I twist one bottle open and shake a tablet, dark red and shining, into my palm. I lick it, and it’s candy-coated chocolate. Others are gelatin capsules with powdered sugar inside.

  “Mock-ups,” he says. “Prototypes.”

  He says, “My point is that every bit of your career with us is already in place, and we’ve been prophesying your arrival for more than fifteen years.”

  He says, “I’m telling you this so you can relax.”

  But the Creedish church district disaster was only ten years ago.

  And I put a pill, an orange Geriamazone, in my mouth.

  “We’ve been tracking you,” he says. “As soon as the Creedish survival numbers dipped below one hundred, we started the campaign rolling. The whole media countdown over the last six months, that was our doing. It needed
some fine-tuning. It wasn’t anything specific at first, all the copy is pretty much search-and-replace, fill-in-the-blank, universal-change stuff, but it’s all in the can. All we needed was a warm body and the survivor’s name. That’s where you enter the picture.”

  From another bottle, I shake out two dozen Inazans and hold them under my tongue until their black candy shells dissolve. Chocolate melts out.

  The agent takes out more sheets of printed paper and hands them to me.

  Ford Merit, I read.

  Mercury Rapture.

  Dodge Vignette.

  He says, “We have names copyrighted for cars that haven’t been designed, software that’s never been written, miracle dream cures for epidemics still on the horizon, every product we can anticipate.”

  My back teeth crunch a sweet overdose of blue Donnadons.

  The agent eyes me sitting there and sighs. “Enough with the empty calories, already,” he says. “Our first big job is to modify you so you’ll fit the campaign.” He asks, “Is that your real hair color?”

  I pour a million milligrams of Jodazones in my mouth.

  “Not to mince words,” the agent says, “but you’re about thirty pounds heavier than we need you to be.”

  The bogus pills I can understand. What I don’t understand is how he could begin planning a campaign around something before it happened. No way could he have a campaign planned before the Deliverance.

  The agent takes off his glasses and folds them. He sets them inside his briefcase and takes back the printed lists of future miracle products, drugs and cars, and he puts the lists in his briefcase. He tug-of-wars the pill bottles out of my hands, all of them silent and empty.

  “The truth is,” he says, “nothing new ever happens.”

  He says, “We’ve seen it all.”

  He says, “Listen.”

  In 1653, he says, the Russian Orthodox church changed a few old rituals. Just some changes in the liturgy. Just words. Language. In Russian, for God’s sake.

  Some Bishop Nikon introduced the changes as well as the western manners that were becoming popular in Russian court life at the time, and the bishop started excommunicating anyone who rebelled against these changes.

 
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CHUCK PALAHNIUK SERIES:

Damned

 

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