Survivor, p.14
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       Survivor, p.14

           Chuck Palahniuk
 
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  “People in the religion business call it ‘lobstering,’” the agent says. “They call it speaking in tongues.”

  Repetitive motions add to the effect, and the opening act down onstage runs through the usual drills. The audience claps in unison. Long rows of people hold hands and sway together in their delirium. People do that rainbow hands.

  Whoever invented this routine, the agent tells me, they pretty much run things in Hell.

  I remember the corporate sponsor was SummerTime Old-Fashioned Instant Lemonade.

  My cue is when the opening act calls me down onto the stage, my part of the show is putting a spell on everybody.

  “A naturalistic trance state,” the agent says.

  The agent takes a brown bottle out of his blazer pocket. He says, “Take a couple Endorphinols if you feel any emotion coming on.”

  I tell him to give me a handful.

  To get ready for tonight, staffers went and visited local people to give them free tickets to the show. The agent is telling me this for the hundredth time.

  The staffers ask to use the bathroom during their visit and jot down notes about anything they find in the medicine cabinet. According to the agent, the Reverend Jim Jones did this and it worked miracles for his People’s Temple.

  Miracles probably isn’t the right word.

  Up on the pulpit is a list of people I’ve never met and their life-threatening conditions.

  Mrs. Steven Brandon, I just have to call out. Come down and have your failing kidneys touched by God.

  Mr. William Doxy, come down and put your crippled heart in God’s hands.

  Part of my training was how to press my fingers into somebody’s eyes hard and fast so the pressure registered on their optic nerve as a flash of white light.

  “Divine light,” the agent says.

  Part of my training was how to press my hands over somebody’s ears so hard they heard a buzzing noise I could tell them was the eternal Om.

  “Go,” the agent says.

  I’ve missed my cue.

  Down onstage, the opening preacher is shouting Tender Branson into a microphone.

  The one, the only, the last survivor, the great Tender Branson.

  The agent tells me, “Wait.” He plucks the cigarette out of my mouth and pushes me down the aisle. “Now, go,” he says.

  All the hands reach out into the aisle to touch me. The spotlight’s so bright onstage in front of me. In the dark around me are the smiles of a thousand delirious people who think they love me. All I have to do is walk into the spotlight.

  This is dying without the control issues.

  The gun is heavy and banging my hip in my pants pocket.

  This is having a family without being familiar. Having relations without being related.

  Onstage, the spotlights are warm.

  This is being loved without the risk of loving anyone in return.

  I remember this was the perfect moment to die.

  It wasn’t Heaven, but it was as close as I was ever going to get.

  I raised my arms and people cheered. I lowered my arms and people were silent.

  The script was there on the podium for me to read. The typewritten list told me who out in the dark was suffering from what.

  Everybody’s blood was alkaline. Everybody’s heart was there for the taking. This is how it felt to shoplift. This is how it felt to hear confessions over my crisis hotline. This is how I imagined sex.

  With Fertility on my mind, I started to read the script:

  We are all the divine products of creation.

  We are each of us the fragments that make up something whole and beautiful.

  Each time I paused, people would hold their breath.

  The gift of life, I read from the script, is precious.

  I put my hand on the gun loaded with bullets in my pocket.

  The precious gift of life must be preserved no matter now painful and pointless it seemed. Peace, I told them, is a gift so perfect that only God should grant it. I told people, only God’s most selfish children would steal God’s greatest gift, His only gift greater than life. The gift of death.

  This lesson is to the murderer, I said. This is to the suicide. This is to the abortionist. This is to the suffering and sick.

  Only God has the right to surprise His children with death.

  I had no idea what I was saying until it was too late. And maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe the agent knew what I had in mind when I’d asked him to get me some bullets and a gun, but what happened is the script really screwed up my whole plan. There was no way I could read this and then kill myself. It would just look so stupid.

  So I never did kill myself.

  The rest of the evening went as planned. People went home feeling saved, and I told myself I’d kill myself some other time. The moment was all wrong. I procrastinated, and timing was everything.

  Besides.

  Eternity was going to seem like forever.

  With the crowds of smiling people smiling at me in the dark, me who spent my life cleaning bathrooms and mowing the lawn, I told myself, why rush anything?

  I’d backslid before, I’d backslide again. Practice makes perfect.

  If you could call it that.

  I figured, a few more sins would help round out my resume.

  This is the upside of already being eternally damned.

  I figured, Hell could wait.

  Before this plane goes down, before the flight recorder tape runs out, one of the things I want to apologize for is the Book of Very Common Prayer.

  People need to know the Book of Very Common Prayer was not my idea. Yes, it sold two hundred million copies, worldwide. It did. Yes, I let them put my name on it, but the book was the agent’s brainchild. Before that the book was the idea of some nobody on the writing team. Some copywriter trying to break into the big time, I forget.

  What’s important is the book was not my idea.

  What happened is one day, the agent comes up to me with that dancing light in his brown eyes that means a deal. According to my publicist, I’m booked solid.

  This is after we did that line of Bibles I was autographing in bookstores. We had a million plus feet of guaranteed shelf space in bookstores, and I was on tour.

  “Don’t expect a book tour to be something fun,” the agent tells me.

  The thing about book signings, the agent says, is they’re exactly the same as the last day of high school when everyone wants you to write in their high school annual, only a book tour can go on for the rest of your life.

  According to my itinerary, I’m in a Denver warehouse signing stock when the agent pitches me on his idea for a weeny book of meditations people can use in their everyday lives. He sees this as a paperback of little prose poems. Fifty pages, tops. Little tributes to the environment, children, safe stuff. Mothers.

  Pandas. Topics that step on nobody’s toes. Common problems. We put my name on the spine, say I wrote it, run the product up a flagpole.

  What else people need to know is I never saw the finished book until after the second press run, after it had sold more than fifty thousand copies. Already people weren’t not just a little pissed off, but all the fuss only upped sales.

  What happened is one day I’m in the green room waiting to co-host some daytime television project. This is way fast forward, after the autographed Bible book tour. The idea here is if I co-host and enough people tune in, I’ll spin off with a vehicle of my own. So I’m in the green room trading toenail secrets with somebody, the actress Wendi Daniels or somebody, and she asks me to sign her copy of the book. The Book of Very Common Prayer. This is the first time I ever see a copy, I swear. On a stack of my own autographed Bibles, I swear.

  According to Wendi Daniels, I can smooth out the swelling under my eyes by rubbing in a dab of hemorrhoid cream.

  Then she hands it to me, the Book of Very Common Prayer, and my name is just so right there on the spine. Me, me, me. There I am.

 
; There inside are the prayers people think I wrote:

  The Prayer to Delay Orgasm.

  The Prayer to Lose Weight.

  The feeling, the way it feels when laboratory product-testing animals are ground up to make hot dogs, that’s how hurt I felt.

  ♦

  The Prayer to Stop Smoking.

  Our most Holy Father,

  Take from me the choice

  You have given.

  Assume control of my will and habits.

  Wrest from me power over my own behavior.

  May it be Your decision how I act.

  May it be by Your hands, my every failing.

  Then if I still smoke, may I accept that my smoking is Your will.

  Amen.

  ♦

  The Prayer to Remove Mildew Stains.

  ♦

  The Prayer to Prevent Hair Loss.

  God of ultimate stewardship,

  Shepherd of thine flock,

  As You would succor the least of Your charges,

  As You would rescue the most lost of Your lambs,

  Restore to me the full measure of my glory.

  Preserve in me the remainder of my youth.

  All of Creation is Yours to provide.

  All of Creation is Yours to withhold.

  God of limitless bounty,

  Consider my suffering.

  Amen.

  ♦

  The Prayer to Induce Erection.

  The Prayer to Maintain an Erection.

  The Prayer to Silence Barking Dogs.

  The Prayer to Silence Car Alarms.

  The way all this felt, I looked terrible on television. My spin-off television show, well, I had to kiss that goodbye. One minute after we were off the air, I was being all over the telephone long-distance to the agent in New York.

  Everything on my end of the conversation was furious.

  All he cared about was the money.

  “What’s a prayer?” he says. “It’s an incantation,” he says, and he’s yelling back at me over the phone. “It’s a way for people to focus their energy around a specific need. People need to get clear on a single intention and accomplish it.

  The Prayer to Prevent Parking Tickets.

  The Prayer to Stop Plumbing Leaks.

  People pray to solve problems, and these are the honest-to-God problems that people worry about,” the agent’s still yelling at me.

  The Prayer for Increased Vaginal Sensitivity.

  “A prayer is how the squeaky wheel gets greased,” he says. That’s how made out of cheese his heart is. “You pray to make your needs known.”

  The Prayer Against Drivetrain Noise.

  ♦

  The Prayer for a Parking Space.

  Oh, divine and merciful God,

  History is without equal for how much I will adore You,

  when You give me today, a place to park.

  For You are the provider.

  And You are the source.

  From You all good is delivered.

  Within You all is found.

  In Your care will I find respite.

  With Your guidance, will I find peace.

  To stop, to rest, to idle, to park.

  These are Yours to give me.

  This is what I ask.

  Amen.

  ♦

  Seeing how I’m just about to die here, people need to know that my personal intention all along has been to serve the glory of God. Pretty much. Not that you can find this in our mission statement, but that’s my general overall plan.

  I want to at least make an effort. This new book just looked so not at all pious. So not even a little devout.

  The Prayer Against Excessive Underarm Wetness.

  The Prayer for a Second Interview.

  The Prayer to Locate a Lost Contact Lens.

  Still, even Fertility says I’m way off base about the book. Fertility wanted a second volume.

  It’s Fertility who says, some stadiums when I’m up front praising God, I’m the same as people wearing clothes printed with Mickey Mouse or Coca-Cola. I mean, it’s so easy. It’s not even a real choice. You can’t go wrong. Fertility says, praising God is just such a safe thing to do. You don’t even have to give it any thought.

  “Be fruitful and multiply,” Fertility says to me. “Praise God. There’s no real risk. This is just our default setting.”

  What saved the Book of Very Common Prayer was, people were using every prayer.

  Some people were pissed off, mostly religious people who resented the competition, but by this point our cash now was down. Our total revenues were leveling off. It was market saturation. People had the prayers committed to memory. People were stuck in traffic reciting the Prayer to Make Traffic Move.

  Men were reciting the Prayer to Delay Orgasm, and it worked at least as well as multiplication tables. My best option seemed to be to just keep my mouth shut and smile.

  Besides, the attendance figures were down at my personal appearances, this looked to be the beginning of the end. My People magazine cover was already three months behind me.

  And there’s no such thing as Celebrity Outplacement.

  You don’t see faded movie stars or whoever going back to community college for retraining. The only field left to me was doing the game show circuit, and I’m not that smart.

  I’d peaked, and timing-wise, this looked like another good window to do my suicide, and I almost did. The pills were in my hand. That’s how close I came. I was planning to overdose on meta-testosterone.

  Then the agent calls on the telephone, loud, real loud, the way it sounds when a million screaming Christians are screaming your name in Kansas City, that’s the kind of excitement that’s in his voice.

  Over the phone in my hotel room the agent tells me about the best booking of my career. It’s next week. It’s a thirty-second slot between a tennis shoe commercial and a national taco restaurant spot, prime time during sweeps week.

  It amazes me to think those pills were almost in my mouth.

  This is just so not boring anymore.

  Network television, a million billion people watching, this would be the prime moment, my last chance to pull a gun and shoot myself with a decent audience share.

  This would be such a totally not-ignored martyrdom.

  “One catch,” the agent tells me over the phone. He’s shouting, “The catch is I told them you’d do a miracle.”

  A miracle.

  “Nothing too big. You don’t have to part the Red Sea or anything,” he says.

  “Turning water into wine would be enough, but remember, no miracle and they won’t run the spot.”

  Enter Fertility Hollis back into my life in Spokane, Washington, where I’m eating pie and coffee, incognito in a Shari’s restaurant, when she comes in the front door and heads straight for my table. You can’t call Fertility Hollis anybody’s fairy godmother, but you might be surprised where she turns up.

  But most times you wouldn’t.

  Fertility with her old-colored gray eyes as bored as the ocean.

  Fertility with her every exhale an exhausted sigh.

  She’s the blase eye of the hurricane that’s the world around her.

  Fertility with her arms and face hanging slack as some jaded survivor, some immortal, an Egyptian vampire after watching the million years of television repeats we call history, she slumps into the seat across from me being glad since I needed her for a miracle anyway.

  This is back when I could still give my entourage the slip. I wasn’t a nobody yet, but I was on the cusp. Thanks to my media slump. My publicity doldrums.

  The way Fertility slouches with her elbows on the table and her face propped in her hands, her bored-colored red hair hanging limp in her face, you’d guess she’s just arrived from some planet with not as much gravity as Earth. As if just being here, as skinny as she is she weighs eight hundred pounds.

  How she’s dressed is just separates, slacks and a top, shoes, dragging a canv
as tote bag. The air-conditioning is working, and you can smell her fabric softener, sweet and fake.

  How she looks is watered-down.

  How she looks is disappearing.

  How she looks is erased.

  “Don’t stress,” she says. “This is just me not wearing any makeup. I’m here on an assignment.”

  Her job.

  “Right,” she says. “My evil job.”

  I ask, How’s my fish?

  She says, “Fine.”

  No way could meeting her here be a coincidence. She has to be following me.

  “What you forget is I know everything,” Fertility says. She asks, “What time is it?”

  I tell her, One fifty-three in the afternoon.

  “In eleven minutes the waitress will bring you another piece of pie. Lemon meringue, this time. Later, only about sixty people will show up for your appearance tonight. Then, tomorrow morning, something called the Walker River Bridge will collapse in Shreveport. Wherever that is.”

  I say she’s guessing.

  “And,” she says and smirks, “you need a miracle. You need a miracle, bad.”

  Maybe I do, I say. These days, who doesn’t need a miracle? How does she know so much?

  “The same way I know,” she says and nods toward the other side of the dining room, “that waitress over there has cancer. I know the pie you’re eating will upset your stomach. Some movie theater in China will burn in a couple minutes, give or take what time it is in Asia. Right now in Finland, a skier is triggering an avalanche that will bury a dozen people.”

  Fertility waves and the waitress with cancer is coming over.

  Fertility leans across the table and says, “I know all this because I know everything.”

  The waitress is young and with hair and teeth and everything, meaning nothing about her looks wrong or sick, and Fertility orders a chicken stir-fry with vegetables and sesame seeds. She asks, does it come with rice?

  Spokane is still outside the windows. The buildings. The Spokane River. The sun we all have to share. A parking lot. Cigarette butts.

  I ask, so why didn’t she warn the waitress?

  “How would you react if a stranger told you that kind of news? It would just wreck her day,” Fertility says. “And all her personal drama would just hold up my order.”

  It’s cherry pie I’m eating that’s going to upset my stomach. The power of suggestion.

  “All you have to do is pay attention to the patterns,” Fertility says. “After you see all the patterns, you can extrapolate the future.”

 
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CHUCK PALAHNIUK SERIES:

Damned

 

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