Survivor, p.4Chuck Palahniuk
Not that I’m crazy or anything, I just want some proof that death isn’t the end.
Even if crazed zombies grabbed me in some dark hall one night, even if they tore me apart, at least that wouldn’t be the absolute end. There would be some comfort in that.
It would prove some kind of life after death, and I would die happy. So I wait.
So I watch. I listen. I put my ear to each cold crypt. I write, No activity within Crypt 7896.
No activity within Crypt 7897.
No activity within Crypt 7898.
I write, Specimen Number 45 is a white Bakelite rose. The oldest synthetic plastic, Bakelite was invented in 1907 when a chemist heated a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde. In the language of Victorian flower culture, a white rose means silence.
The day I meet the girl is the best day to document new flowers. It’s the day after Memorial Day weekend when the crowds are gone for another year. It’s with everyone gone that I first see this girl I hope will be dead.
The day after Memorial Day, the janitor comes along with a rolling garbage bin and collects all the fresh flowers. The lowest grade of fresh flowers is what florists call ‘Funeral Grade.’
The janitor and I have crossed paths, but we’ve never spoken. Him in his blue coveralls, he caught me one time with my ear to a crypt. The circle of his flashlight spotlighting me there, even that time he only looked the other way.
With the heel of one shoe in my hand, I was knocking and saying, Hello. In Morse code I was asking, could anybody hear me?
The problem with Funeral Grade flowers is they only look good for one day. A day later, they start to rot. Then with flowers hanging from the bronze vase attached to each crypt, hanging there dark and withered, dripping their stink water on the marble floor and furry with mold, it’s too easy to imagine what’s happening to the beloved sealed inside.
The day after Memorial Day, the janitor throws them out. The wilting flowers.
Left behind is a new crop of fake peonies, dark magenta and soaked with dye to make their silk almost black. This year there are artificially perfumed sprays of plastic orchids. The long poly-silk vines of blue and white huge morning glories are worth the trouble to steal.
The oldest old specimens include flowers made of chiffon, organza, velvet, velveteen georgette, crepe de chine, and wide satin ribbon. Heaped in my arms are snapdragons, sweet peas, and salvia. Hollyhocks, four-o’clocks, and forget-me-nots. Fake and beautiful but stiff and scratchy, this year the new flowers are spritzed with clear droplets of polystyrene plastic dew.
This year, this girl is here a day late with a nothing-special assortment of polyester tulips and anemone, the classic Victorian flower of sorrow and death, of sickness and desertion, and watching her from my ladder, at the far end of the west gallery, on the sixth floor of Contentment, making notes in my little field guide, is me.
The flower in front of me is Specimen 237, a postwar rayon chrysanthemum, postwar because there wasn’t silk enough or rayon or wire enough to make flowers during World War Two. Wartime flowers are crepe paper or rice paper, and even in the constant dry fifty degrees of the Columbia Memorial Mausoleum, these flowers have all crumbled to dust.
In front of me is Crypt Number 678, Trevor Hollis, age twenty-four, survived by his mother and father and his sister. Much Beloved. Loving Son. In Loving Remembrance. My latest victim. I’ve found him.
Crypt Number 678 is in a tier high up in the gallery wall. The only way to get a closer look is with a stepladder or a casket lift, and even from the top of a stepladder, two steps higher than is safe, I can see something is different about the girl. It’s something European. Something malnourished. It isn’t the daily recommended allowance of food and sunshine that make you beautiful by any North American standard. There’s something waxy about how her arms and legs come out of her dress looking raw and white. You could see her living behind barbed wire. And coming up inside me is the desperate hope that maybe she’s dead. This is how I feel watching old movies at home where vampires and zombies come back from the grave, hungry for human flesh. Inside me is the same desperate hope I have watching the ravenous undead and thinking, Oh please, oh please, oh please.
The craving inside of me is to be clutched at by some dead girl. To put my ear to her chest and be hearing nothing. Even getting munched on by zombies beats the idea that I’m only flesh and blood, skin and bone. Demon or angel or evil spirit, I just need something to show itself. Ghoulie or ghosty or long-legged beastie, I just want my hand held.
From up here in the sixth tier of crypts, her black dress looks ironed to a high gloss. The thin white arms and legs of her look covered tight in a newer low-quality kind of human skin. Even from up high, her face looks mass-produced.
Song of Solomon, Chapter Seven, Verse One:
“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels…”
Even with the sun on everything outside, everything inside is still cold to the touch. The light is through stained glass. The smell is rain soaked into the walls made of cement. The feel of everything is polished marble. The sound is somewhere, the drip of old rain sliding along rebar, the drip of rain through the cracked skylights, the drip of rain inside unsold crypts.
Rolled airy shapes of collected dust and dander and hair wander around the floor. Ghost turds, people call those.
The girl looks up and has to see me, and then she’s coming soundless in her black felt kind of shoes across the marble floor.
You can get lost easy enough here. Hallways run into hallways at odd angles.
Finding the right crypt takes a map. Galleries open into galleries in telescope vistas so long the carved sofa or the marble statue at the far end could be something you’d never imagine. The repeating pastel soft shades of marble are so after you’re lost you don’t panic.
The girl walks up to the ladder, and I’m trapped at the top, halfway between her at my feet and the heaven of angels painted on the ceiling. The wall of polished marble crypts reflects me full-length among the epitaphs.
This Stone Erected in the Honor.
Erected on This Spot.
Erected in Loving Tribute.
I am all of the above.
My cold fingers feel crabbed around my pen. Specimen Number 98 is a pink camellia of china silk. The absolute pink proves the cultivated silk was boiled in soapy water to remove all sericine. The primary stem is a wire cast in green polypropylene typical of shrubs of the period. A camellia is supposed to mean unmatched excellence.
The girl’s plain round mask of a face looks up at me from the foot of the ladder. How to tell if she’s alive or a ghost, I don’t know. There’s too much of her dress for me to see any rise and fall of her chest. The air is too warm for her breathing to show.
Song of Solomon, Chapter Seven, Verse Two:
“Thy navel is like a round goblet which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.”
The Bible collapses sex and food a lot.
Here with Specimen Number 136, little conch shells painted pink to look like rosebuds, and Specimen Number 78, the Bakelite daffodil, I want to be hugged in her cold, dead arms and told that life has no absolute end. My life is not some Funeral Grade bit of compost that will rot tomorrow and be outlived by my name in an obituary.
The feeling in those miles of marble walls with people sealed inside, you get the sense we’re in a crowded building dense with thousands of people, but at the same time, we’re alone. A year could pass between her asking a question and my answer.
My breath fogs the carved dates that bracket the short life of Trevor Hollis.
The epitaph reads:
To the World He Was a Loser, But to Me He Was the World.
Trevor Hollis, do your worst. I dare you, come and seek your revenge.
Her head thrown back, the girl smiles up at me standing above her. Against the gray of everything stone, her red hair blazes, and up at
My arms shift and some flowers, violas, daisies, dahlias, float down around her.
She catches a hydrangea and says, “Nobody’s been here to visit since the funeral.”
Song of Solomon, Chapter Seven, Verse Three:
“Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.”
Her mouth with its too-thin red-red lips looks cut open with a knife. She says, “Hi. I’m Fertility.”
She hands the flower up and holds it in the air as if I’m not impossibly out of her reach, and she asks, “So, how did you know my brother, Trevor?”
Her name was Fertility Hollis. That’s her full name, no kidding, and she’s what I really want to share about the next day with my caseworker.
It’s part of my terms of observation, I have to meet with my caseworker for one hour, once a week. In exchange, I keep getting housing vouchers. The program makes me eligible for subsidized housing. Free government cheese, powdered milk, honey, and butter. Free job placement. These are just a few of the perks you get in the Federal Survivor Retention Program. My dodgy little apartment and surplus cheese. My dodgy little job with all the veal I can smuggle home on the bus. You get just enough to make ends meet.
You don’t get anything really choice, you don’t get handicapped parking, but once a week for one hour, you get a caseworker. Every Tuesday, mine drives up to the house where I’m working in her plain-colored government pool car with her professional compassion and case history folders and her mileage log for keeping track of the miles between each client visit. This week, she has twenty-four clients. Last week, she had twenty-six.
Every Tuesday she comes to listen.
Every week, I ask her how many survivors are left, nationwide.
She’s in the kitchen scarfing daiquiris and tortilla chips. Her shoes are kicked off and her canvas tote bag full of client files is on the kitchen table between us while she takes out a clipboard and flips through the client weekly status forms to put mine on top. She wipes her fingertip down a column of numbers, and says, “One hundred and fifty-seven survivors. Nationwide.”
She starts filling in the date and checks her watch for the time to write on my weekly check-in form. She turns her clipboard around for me to read and hands it over for my signature at the bottom. This is to prove she was here. That we talked. We shared. She handed me a pen. We opened our hearts. Hear me, heal me, save me, believe me. It’s not her fault if after she leaves I cut my throat.
While I’m signing the form she asks, “Did you know the woman down the street who worked in the big gray-and-tan house?”
No. Yeah. Okay, I know who she’s talking about.
“Big woman. Long blond hair in a braid. A real Brunhilde,” the caseworker says. “Well, she checked out two nights ago. She hung herself with an extension cord.” The caseworker looks at her fingernails, first with her fingers curled into her palms, then with her fingers spread wide. She goes back into her big tote bag and gets a bottle of bright red fingernail polish. “Well,” she says.
“Good riddance. I never liked her.”
I hand the clipboard back and ask, Anybody else?
“A gardener,” she says. She starts shaking the little bottle of bright red with a long white top next to her ear. With her other hand, she flips through the forms to find one. She holds the clipboard up for me to see this week’s check-in form for Client Number 134, stamped with the big red word RELEASED. Then the date.
The stamp is something left over from an inpatient hospital program. In some other program RELEASED used to mean a client was set free. Now it means a client is dead. Nobody wanted to special-order a stamp that said DEAD. The caseworker told me this a few years ago when the suicides started back up again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. This is how things get recycled.
“This guy drank some kind of herbicide,” she says. Her hands twist the bottle between them. They twist. They twist until her knuckles look white. She says, “These people will do anything to make me look incompetent.”
She knocks the bottle on the edge of the table and tries to twist it open again.
“Here,” she says and hands it across the table to me. “Open this for me, will you?”
I open the bottle, no problem, and hand it back.
“So did you know these two?” she says.
Well, no. I didn’t know them. I knew who they were, but I don’t remember them from before. I didn’t know them from growing up, but over the past few years I’d seen them around the neighborhood. They still wore the old regulation church clothes. The man wore the suspenders, the baggy pants, the long-sleeved shirt with the collar buttoned on even the hottest day of summer. The woman wore the blah-colored smock of a dress I remember church women had to wear. On her head, she still wore the bonnet. The man always wore the wide-brimmed hat, straw in summer, black felt in winter.
Yeah. Okay. I saw them around. They were hard to miss.
“When you saw them,” the caseworker says as she’s sliding the little paintbrush, red on red, down the length of each nail, “were you upset? Did seeing people from your old church ever make you sad? Did you cry? Seeing people the way they used to dress when you were part of the church, did it maybe make you angry?”
The speakerphone rings.
“Does it make you remember your parents?”
The speakerphone rings.
“Does it make you angry about what happened to your family?”
The speakerphone rings.
“Do you ever remember what it was like before the suicides?”
The speakerphone rings.
The caseworker says, “Are you going to answer that?”
In a minute. First I have to check my daily planner. I hold the fat book up for her to see the list of everything I’m supposed to get done today. The people I work for try to call and trip me up. God forbid I should be inside to answer the phone if right this minute I’m supposed to be outside cleaning the pool.
The speakerphone rings.
According to my daily planner book, I’m supposed to be steaming the drapes in the blue guest room. Whatever that means.
The caseworker’s crunching tortilla chips so I wave at her to quiet down.
The speakerphone rings, and I answer it.
The speakerphone yells, “What can you tell us about tonight’s banquet?”
Relax, I say. It’s a no-brainer. Salmon with no bones. Some kind of bite-sized carrots. Braised endive.
It’s a burned leaf, I say. You eat it with the little fork farthest to the left.
Tines down. You already know braised endive. I know you know braised endive. You had it last year at a Christmas party. You love braised endive. Eat just three bites, I tell the speakerphone. I promise you’ll love it.
The speakerphone asks, “Could you get the stains out of the fireplace mantel?”
According to my daily planner book, I’m not supposed to do that task until tomorrow.
“Oh,” the speakerphone says. “We forgot.”
Yeah. Right. You forgot.
You could call me a gentleman’s gentleman but you’d be wrong on both counts.
“Anything else we should know about?”
It’s Mother’s Day.
“Oh, shit. Fuck. Damn!” the speakerphone says. “Have you gone ahead and sent something? Are we covered?”
Of course. I sent each of their mothers a beautiful flower arrangement, and the florist will bill their account.
“What did you say in the card?”
To My Dearest Mother Whom I Cherish and Always Remember. A Loving Son⁄Daughter Has Never Had a Mother Who Loved Him⁄Her More. With My Deepest Love. Then the applicable signature.
Then P.S.: a dried flower is just as lovely as a fresh one.
“Sounds good. That should hold them for another year,” the speakerphone says.
“Remember to water all t
Then they hang up. They never have to remind me to do anything. They just have to have the last word.
No sweat off my back.
The caseworker is fanning her fresh red nails back and forth in front of her mouth and blowing them dry. Between long exhales, she asks, “Your family?”
She blows her nails.
She asks, “Your own mother?”
She blows her nails.
“Do you remember your mother?”
She blows her nails.
“Do you think she felt anything?”
She blows her nails.
“I mean, when she killed herself?”
Matthew, Chapter Twenty-four, Verse Thirteen:
“But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.”
According to my daily planner, I should be cleaning the air conditioner filter.
I should be dusting the green living room. There’s the brass doorknobs to polish. There’s all the old newspapers to recycle.
The hour is almost up, and what I never got to talk about was Fertility Hollis.
How we met at the mausoleum. We walked around for an hour, and she told me about different twentieth-century art. The movements and how they depicted Jesus crucified. In the oldest wing of the mausoleum, the wing called Contentment, Jesus is gaunt and romantic with a woman’s huge wet eyes and long eyelashes. In the wing built in the 1930s, Jesus is a Social Realist with huge superhero muscles. In the forties, in the Serenity wing, Jesus becomes an abstract assembly of planes and cubes. The fifties Jesus is polished fruitwood, a Danish Modern skeleton. The sixties Jesus is pegged together out of driftwood.
There’s no seventies wing, and in the eighties wing, there’s no Jesus, just the same secular green polished marble and brass you’d find in a department store.
Fertility talked about art and we wandered through Contentment, Serenity, Peace, Joy, Salvation, Rapture, and Enchantment.
She told me her name was Fertility Hollis.
I told her to call me Tender Branson. That’s as close as I have to a real name name.
Every week from now on, she’s going to visit her brother’s crypt. That’s where she promised to be next Wednesday.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes