Survivor, p.20Chuck Palahniuk
Fertility tries the light switch for the dining-room chandelier. Nothing happens.
“Don’t use the toilet either,” Adam says, “or we’ll be living with your business until we move out.”
Neon from the truck stop and headlights from the highway flicker through the dining-room French doors while we sit around the maple-veneer table eating our fried chicken.
This part of our broken home has one bedroom, the living room, kitchen, and dining room, and half a bath.
If we get all the way to Dallas, Adam tells us, we can move into a house headed up Interstate 35 to Oklahoma. Then we can catch houses up Interstate 35 to Kansas. Then north on Interstate 135 in Kansas to westbound Interstate 70 to Denver. In Colorado, we’ll catch a house going northeast on Interstate 76 until it turns into Interstate 80 in Nebraska.
Adam looks at me and says, “Yeah. Our old stomping grounds, yours and mine,” he says with his mouth full of chewed-up fried chicken.
“To get to Canada,” Adam says and looks at Fertility who looks at her food.
“We’ll follow Interstate 80 to Interstate 29 across the state line in Iowa. Then we just cruise north up 29 through South Dakota and North Dakota, all the way to Canada.”
“Right straight to Canada,” Fertility says and gives me a smile that looks fake because Fertility never smiles.
When we say good night, Fertility takes the mattress in the bedroom. Adam falls asleep on one length of the blue velvet sectional pit group.
Pillowed in the blue velvet he looks dead in a casket.
For a long time, I lie awake on the other length of the sectional and wonder about the lives I left behind. Fertility’s brother, Trevor. The caseworker. The agent. My all-dead family. Almost all dead.
Adam snores, and nearby a diesel truck engine rumbles to life.
I wonder about Canada, if running is going to resolve anything. Lying here in the cornflower-blue darkness, I wonder if running is just another fix to a fix to a fix to a fix to a fix to a problem I can’t remember.
The whole house shudders. The chandelier swings. The leaves of the silk ferns in their wicker baskets vibrate. The window treatments sway. Quiet.
Outside the plastic, the world starts moving, sliding by, faster and faster until it’s erased.
Until I fall asleep.
Our second day on the road, my teeth feel dull and yellow. My muscles feel less toned. I can’t live my life as a brunette. I need some time, just a minute, just thirty seconds, under a spotlight.
No matter how much I try and hide this, bit by bit, I start to fall apart.
We’re in Dallas, Texas, considering half a Wilmington Villa with faux tile countertops and a bidet in the master bath. It has no master bedroom, but it has a laundry room with washer⁄dryer hookups. Of course, it has no water or power or phone. It has almond-colored appliances in the kitchen. There isn’t a fireplace, but the dining room has floor-length drapes.
This is after we look at more houses than I can remember. Houses with gas fireplaces. Houses with French Provincial furniture, vast glass-topped coffee tables, and track lighting.
This is with the sunset red and gold on the flat Texas horizon, in a truck stop parking lot outside Dallas proper. I wanted to go with a house that had separate bedrooms for each of us, but no kitchen. Adam wanted the house that had only two bedrooms, a kitchen, but no bathroom.
Our time was almost up. The sun was almost down and the drivers were about to start their all-night drives.
My skin felt cold and rolling with sweat. All of me, even the blond roots of my hair, ached. Right there in the gravel, I just started doing push-ups in the middle of the parking lot. I rolled onto my back and started doing stomach crunches with the intensity of convulsions.
The subcutaneous fat was already building up. My abdominal muscles were disappearing. My pecs were starting to sag. I needed bronzer. I needed to log some time in a sun bed.
Just five minutes, I beg Adam and Fertility. Before we hit the road again, just give me ten minutes in a Wolff tanning bed.
“No can do, little brother,” Adam says. “The FBI will be watching every gym and every tanning salon and health food store in the Midwest.”
After just two days, I was sick of the crap deep-fried food they serve at truck stops. I wanted celery. I wanted mung beans. I wanted fiber and oat bran and brown rice and diuretics.
“What I told you about,” Fertility says, looking at Adam, “it’s starting. We need to get him locked up someplace, stat. He’s going into Attention Withdrawal Syndrome.”
The two of them hustled me into a Maison d’Elegance just as the driver was putting his truck in gear. They pushed me into a back bedroom with just a bare mattress and a giant Mediterranean dresser with a big mirror above it. Outside the bedroom door, I could hear them piling Mediterranean furniture, sofa groups and end tables, lamps made to look like old wine bottles, entertainment centers and bar stools against the outside of the bedroom door.
Texas is speeding past the bedroom window outside. In the twilight, a sign goes by the window saying, Oklahoma City 250 Miles. The whole room shakes. The walls are papered with tiny yellow flowers vibrating so fast they make me travel-sick.
Anywhere I go in this bedroom, I can still see myself in the mirror.
My skin is going regular white without the ultraviolet light I need. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but one of my caps feels loose. I try not to panic.
I tear off my shirt and study myself for damage. I stand sideways and suck in my stomach. I could really use a preloaded syringe of Durateston right about now.
Or Anavar. Or Deca-Durabolin. My new hair color makes me look washed-out. My last eyelid surgery didn’t take, and already my eye bags show. My hair plugs feel loose. I turn to study myself in the mirror for any hair growing on my back.
A sign goes by the window saying, Soft Shoulders.
The last of my bronzer is caked in the corners of my eyes and the wrinkles around my mouth and across my forehead.
I try and nap. I pick apart the mattress ticking with my fingernails.
A sign goes by the window saying, Slower Traffic Keep Right.
There’s a knock at the door.
“I have a cheeseburger if you want it,” Fertility says through the door and all the piled-up furniture.
I don’t want a greasy damn fatty damn cheeseburger, I yell back.
“You need to eat sugar and fat and salt until you get back to normal,” Fertility says. “This is for your own good.”
I need a full body wax, I yell. I need hair mousse.
I’m pounding on the door.
I need two hours in a good weight room. I need to go three hundred stories on a stair climbing machine.
Fertility says, “You just need an intervention. You’re going to be fine.”
She’s killing me.
“We’re saving your life.”
I’m retaining water. I’m losing definition in my shoulders. My eye bags need concealer. My teeth are shifting. I need my wires tightened. I need my dietitian. Call my orthodontist. My calves are wasting away. I’ll give you anything you want. I’ll give you money.
Fertility says, “You don’t have money.”
“You’re wanted for mass murder.”
Her and Adam have to get me some diuretics.
“Next time we stop,” Fertility says, “I’ll get you a skinny double americano.”
That’s not enough.
“It’s more than you’d get in prison.”
Let’s rethink this, I say. In prison, I’d have weight equipment. I’d have time in the sun. They must have sit-up boards in prison. I could maybe get black-market Winstrol. I say, Just let me out. Just unblock this door.
“Not until you’re making sense.”
I WANT TO GO TO PRISON!
“In prison, they have the electric chair.”
“But they might kill you.”
Good enough. I just need to be the center of a lot of attention. Just one more time.
“Oh, you go to prison, and you’ll be the center of attention.”
I need moisturizer. I need to be photographed. I’m not like regular people, to survive I need to be constantly interviewed. I need to be in my natural habitat, on television. I need to run free, signing books.
“I’m leaving you alone for a while,” Fertility says through the door. “You need a time out.”
I hate being mortal.
“Think of this as My Fair Lady or Pygmalion, only backward.”
The next time I wake up, I’m delirious and Fertility is sitting on the edge of my bed, massaging cheap petroleum-based moisturizer into my chest and arms.
“Welcome back,” she says. “We almost thought you weren’t going to make it.”
Where am I?
Fertility looks around. “You’re in a Maplewood Château with the midrange interior package,” she says. “Seamless linoleum in the kitchen, no-wax vinyl floor covering in the two bathrooms. It’s got easy-clean patterned vinyl wallboard instead of Sheetrock, and this one is decorated in the blue-and-green Seaside theme.”
No, I whisper, where in the world?
Fertility says, “I knew that’s what you meant.”
A sign goes by the window saying, Detour Ahead.
The room around us is different than I remember. A wallpaper border of dancing elephants goes around next to the ceiling. The bed I’m in has a canopy and white machine-made lace curtains hanging around it and tied back with pink satin ribbons. White louvered shutters flank the windows. The reflection of Fertility and me is framed in a heart-shaped mirror on the wall.
I ask, What happened to the Maison?
“That was two houses ago,” Fertility says. “We’re in Kansas now. In half a four-bedroom Maplewood Château. It’s the top of the line in manufactured houses.”
So it’s really nice?
“Adam says it’s the best,” she says, smoothing the covers over me. “It comes with color-coordinated bed linens, and there are dishes in the dining-room cabinets that match the mauve of the velvet sofa and love seat in the living room. There’s even color-coordinated mauve towels in the bathroom. There’s no kitchen though, at least not in this half. But I’m sure wherever it’s at, the kitchen is mauve.”
I ask, Where’s Adam?
He wasn’t worried about me?
“I told him how this was all going to work out,” Fertility says. “Actually, he’s very happy.”
The bed curtains dance and swing with the movement of the house.
A sign goes by the window saying, Caution.
I hate that Fertility knows everything.
Fertility says, “I know that you hate that I know everything.”
I ask if she knows I killed her brother.
As easy as that, the truth comes out. My whole deathbed confession.
“I know you talked to him the night he died,” she says, “but Trevor killed himself.”
And I wasn’t his homosexual lover.
“I knew that, too.”
And I was the voice on the crisis hotline she talked dirty to.
She rubs a handful of moisturizer between her palms and then smooths it into my shoulders. “Trevor called your fake crisis hotline because he was looking for a surprise. I’ve been after you for the same thing.”
With my eyes closed, I ask if she knows how this will all turn out.
“Long-term or short-term?” she asks.
“Long-term,” she says, “we’re all going to die. Then our bodies will rot. No surprise there. Short-term, we’re going to live happily ever after.”
“Really,” she says. “So don’t sweat it.”
I look at myself getting older in the heart-shaped mirror.
A sign goes by the window saying, Drive to Stay Alive.
A sign goes by the window saying, Speed Checked by Radar.
A sign goes by the window saying, Lights On for Safety.
Fertility says, “Can you just relax and let things happen?”
I ask, does she mean, like disasters, like pain, like misery? Can I just let all that happen?
“And Joy,” she says, “and Serenity, and Happiness, and Contentment.” She says all the wings of the Columbia Memorial Mausoleum. “You don’t have to control everything,” she says. “You can’t control everything.”
But you can be ready for disaster.
A sign goes by saying, Buckle Up.
“If you worry about disaster all the time, that’s what you’re going to get,”
A sign goes by saying, Watch Out for Falling Rocks.
A sign goes by saying, Dangerous Curves Ahead.
A sign goes by saying, Slippery When Wet.
Outside the window, Nebraska is getting closer by the minute.
The whole world is a disaster waiting to happen.
“I want you to know I won’t always be here,” Fertility says, “but I’ll always find you.”
A sign goes by the window saying, Oklahoma 25 Miles.
“No matter what happens,” Fertility says, “no matter what you do or your brother does, it’s the right thing.”
She says, “You have to trust me.”
I ask, Can I just have some Chap Stick? For my lips. They’re chapped.
A sign goes by saying, Yield.
“Okay,” she says. “I’ve forgiven your sins. If it helps you relax a little, I guess I can get you some Chap Stick.”
Of course, we lose Fertility at a truck stop outside Denver, Colorado. Even I could see that coming. She sneaks off to get me some Chap Stick while the truck driver is out taking a leak. Adam and me are both asleep until we hear her screaming.
And of course she planned it this way.
In the dark, in the moonlight through the windows, I stumble through the furniture to where Adam has thrown open the two front doors.
We’re pulling away from the truck stop, gaining speed as the driver upshifts with Fertility running after us. Her one hand outstretched with the little tube of Chap Stick. Her red hair is flagging out behind her. Her shoes slap the pavement.
Adam is stretching his one hand out to save her. His other hand is gripping the doorframe.
With the shaking of the house, a marble-topped little occasional table falls over and rolls past Adam out the doors. Fertility dodges as the table smashes in the street.
Adam is saying, “Take my hand. You can reach it.”
A dining-room chair shakes out of the house and smashes, almost hitting Fertility, and she says, “No.”
Her words almost lost in the roar of the truck engine, she says, “Take the Chap Stick.”
Adam says, “No. If I can’t reach you, we’ll jump. We have to stay together.”
“No,” Fertility says. “Take the Chap Stick, he needs it.”
Adam says, “He needs you more.”
The windows we left open suck air inside, and the easy-living open floor plan channels this airstream out through the front doors. Embroidered throw pillows blow off the sofa and bounce out the front doors around Adam. They fly at Fertility, hitting her in the face and almost tripping her. Framed decorative art, botanical print reproductions mostly and tasteful racehorse prints, flap off the walls and sail out to explode into shards of glass and wood slivers and art.
The way I feel, I want to help, but I’m weak. I’ve lost too much attention in the last few days. I can hardly stand. My blood sugar levels are all over the map. I can only watch as Fertility falls behind and Adam risks leaning out farther and farther.
The silk flower arrangements topple and red silk roses, red silk geraniums, and blue iris sail out the door and flutter around Fertility. The symbols of forgetfulness, poppies, land in the road, and
“Don’t jump,” Fertility is saying.
She’s saying, “I’ll find you. I know where you’re going.”
For one instant, she almost makes it. Fertility almost reaches Adam’s hand, but when he makes his grab to pull her inside, their hands miss.
Almost miss. Adam opens his hand, and inside is the tube of Chap Stick.
And Fertility has fallen back into the dark and the past behind us.
Fertility is gone. We must be going sixty miles an hour by now, and Adam turns and throws the tube at me so hard it ricochets off two walls. Adam snarls, “I hope you’re happy now. I hope your lips recover.”
The dining-room china cabinet comes open and dishes, salad plates, soup tureens, dinner plates, stemware, and cups bounce and roll out the front doors. All this smashes in the street. All this leaves a wide trail behind us sparkling in the moonlight.
Nobody is running behind us, and Adam wrestles a console color television with surround sound and near-digital picture quality toward the door. With a shout he shoves it off the front porch. Then he shoves a velvet love seat off the porch.
Then the spinet piano. Everything explodes when it hits the road.
Then he looks at me.
Stupid, weak, desperate me, I’m groveling on the floor trying to find the Chap Stick.
His teeth bared, his hair hanging in his face, Adam says, “I should throw you out that door.”
Then a sign goes by saying, Nebraska 98 miles.
And a smile, slow and creepy, cuts across Adam’s face. He staggers to the open front doors, and with the night wind howling around him he shouts.
“Fertility Hollis!” he shouts.
“Thank you!” he shouts.
Into the darkness behind us, all the darkness and scraps and glass and wreckage behind us, Adam shouts, “I won’t forget everything you told me must happen!”
The night before we get home, I tell my big brother everything I can remember about the Creedish church district.
In the church district, we raised everything we ate. The wheat and eggs and the sheep and cattle. I remember we tended perfect orchards and caught sparkling rainbow trout in the river.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes