Survivor, p.7Chuck Palahniuk
I’m heading into hatred, anger, fear, and resignation, and there, standing at Crypt 678 in Contentment, is Fertility Hollis with her red hair. She waits until I’ve been walked up next to her for two hundred and forty seconds before she turns and says hi.
She can’t be the same person who was screaming her orgasm at me over the phone.
I say, Hi.
In her hands is a bunch of fake orange blossoms, nice enough but nothing I’d bother to steal. Her dress today is the same kind of brocade they make curtains out of, patterned white on a white background. It looks stiff and flame-retardant. Stain-repellent. Wrinkle-resistant. Mother-of-the-bride modest in her pleated skirt with long sleeves, she says, “Do you miss him, too?”
Everything about her looks martyr-proofed.
I ask, Miss who?
“Trevor,” she says. She’s barefoot on the stone floor.
Yeah right, Trevor, I tell myself. My secret sodomite lover. I forgot.
I say, Yeah. I miss him, too.
Her hair looks gathered in a field and piled on her head to dry. “Did he ever tell you about the cruise he took me on?”
“It was completely illegal.”
She looks from Crypt Number 678 to up at the ceiling where the music comes down from the little speakers next to the painted-on clouds and angels.
“First, he made me take dancing lessons with him. We learned all the ballroom dances they call the Cha-Cha and the Fox-trot. The Rumba and the Swing. The Waltz. The Waltz was easy.”
The angels play their music above us for a minute, telling her something, and Fertility Hollis listens.
“Here,” she says and turns to me. She takes my flowers and hers and puts them against the wall. She asks, “You can waltz, right?”
“I can’t believe you could know Trevor and not know how to waltz,” she says and shakes her head.
In her head, there’s a picture of Trevor and me dancing together. Laughing together. Having anal sex. This is the handicap I’m up against, this and the idea I killed her brother.
She says, “Open your arms.”
And I do.
She comes in face-to-face close with me and cups one hand on the back of my neck. Her other hand grabs my hand and pulls it out far away from us. She says, “Take your other hand and put it against my bra.”
So I do.
“On my back!” she says, and twists away from me. “Put your hand on my bra where it crosses my spine.”
So I do.
For our feet, she shows me how to step forward with my left foot, then my right foot, then bring my feet together while she does this all in the opposite direction.
“It’s called a Box Step,” she says. “Now listen to the music.”
She counts, “One, two, three.”
The music goes, One. Two. Three.
We count over and over, and step each time we count and we’re dancing. The flowers in all the crypts up and down the walls lean out over us. The marble smooths under our feet. We’re dancing. The light is through stained-glass windows. The statues are carved in their niches. The music comes out the speakers weak and echoes off the stone until it’s moving back and forth in drafts and currents, notes and chords around us. And we’re dancing.
“What I remember about the cruise,” Fertility says, and her arm is curved to rest against the whole length of my arm. “I remember the faces of the last passengers as their lifeboats were lowered past the ballroom windows. Their orange canvas life vests sort of framed their heads, so their heads looked cut off and put on orange pillows, and they just stared with big wide-open fish eyes at Trevor and me still inside the ship’s ballroom while the ship was starting to sink.”
She was on a sinking boat?
“A ship,” Fertility says. “It was called the Ocean Excursion. Try to say that three times fast.”
And it was sinking?
“It was beautiful,” she says. “The travel agent said not to come crying back to her. It was an old French Line ship, the travel agent warned us, only now it was sold to some outfit in South America. It was very art deco. It was trashed. It was the Chrysler Building floating sideways in the ocean and cruising up and down the Atlantic coast of South America full of lower-middle-class people from Argentina and their wives and kids. Argentineans. All the light fixtures on the walls were pink glass shaped into gigantic marquise-cut diamond shapes. Everything on the ship was in this pink diamond light and the carpets had big stains and worn-out spots.”
We’re dancing in place, and then we start to turn.
The one, two, three, box step of it. The forward and back of the hesitation step. The lift of the heel in a perfect bit of Cuban step-two-three, I turn with Fertility Hollis bent inside the hug of my arm. We turn again and again, we turn again, turn again, turn again.
And Fertility says how the lifeboats were gone. All the lifeboats were gone, and the ship trailed its empty lifeboat rigging in the relaxed Caribbean evening.
The lifeboats rowed off into the sunset, the crowd in their orange life vests starting to wail and scam for their jewelry and prescriptions. People were doing that sign of the cross thing.
Fertility and I one, two, three; waltz, two, three, across the marble gallery.
In her story, Fertility and Trevor waltzed across the tilting mahogany parquet, the Versailles Ballroom tilting as the bow sank and the stern pointed the four-leaf clovers of each cloverleaf propeller into the evening air. A flock of little gilt ballroom chairs hurried past them and collected under a statue of that Greek moon goddess, Diana. The gold brocade curtains hung crooked across each window. They were the last passengers aboard the SS Ocean Excursion.
The steam was still up because the pink chandeliers—“Just like regular chandeliers,” Fertility says, “but on an ocean liner they hang rigid as icicles”—the chandeliers in the Versailles Ballroom sparkled, and the public address system still filled the ship with a crackling music, one after another of elevator waltzes melting into each other as Trevor and Fertility turned, turned, turned.
As Fertility and I turn, turn, and step in place, then slide toe to toe across the mausoleum floor.
Below decks, the Caribbean was rising in the Trianon Dining Room, floating the edges of a hundred linen tablecloths.
The ship was drifting with all engines dead.
The warm blue water was spread out flat to the horizon in every direction.
Under even a little water, the checkerboard floor of mahogany and walnut parquet looked lost and out of reach. Here was one last look at the continent of Atlantis, with salt water rising around the statues and the marble pillars as Trevor and Fertility waltzed past the legend of a lost civilization, gold-painted carvings and carved French palace tables. Sea level rose diagonal against life-sized paintings of queens wearing crowns as the ship tilted and vases spilled flowers: roses and orchids and stalks of ginger into the water where bottles of champagne bobbed and Trevor and Fertility splashed past.
The metal skeleton of the ship, the bulkheads behind the lining of paneling and tapestries, shuddered and groaned.
I ask, was she going to drown herself?
“Don’t be stupid,” Fertility says with her head against my chest, breathing the poison smell all over me. “Trevor was never wrong. That was his whole problem.”
Never wrong about what?
Trevor Hollis had dreams, she told me. He’d dream a plane was going to crash.
Trevor would tell the airline, and no one would believe him. Then the plane would crash and the FBI would bring him in for questioning. It was always easier to believe he was a terrorist than a psychic. The dreams got so he couldn’t sleep. He didn’t dare read a newspaper or watch television or he’d see the report of some two hundred people dying in a plane crash he knew would happen, but couldn’t stop.
He couldn’t save anybody.
“Our mom killed herself because she had the same kind of dreams,” Fertility says. “Suicide is
Still dancing, I tell myself, At least we have something in common.
“He knew the ship was only going to sink about halfway. Some valve or something was going to fail and water would fill the engine rooms and some of the big public rooms on the lower decks,” Fertility says. “He knew from his dreams that we’d have hours with the whole ship to ourselves. We’d have all that food and wine. Then someone would come along to rescue us.”
Still dancing, I ask, Is that why he killed himself?
The music is my only answer for a minute.
“You can’t imagine how beautiful it all was, the flooded ballrooms with pianos under water and all the needlepoint furniture floating around,” Fertility says against my chest. “It was my nicest memory, ever.”
We dance past statues of saints in somebody else’s religion. To me they’re just rock shaped into glorified nobodies.
“The Atlantic water was so clear. It was pouring down the grand staircase,” she says. “We just took off our shoes and kept dancing.”
Still dancing, counting one to three, I ask, does she have the same kind of dreams?
“A little bit,” she says. “Not very much. More and more all the time. More than I want to.”
I ask, so is she going to kill herself the same as her brother?
“No,” Fertility says. She lifts her head and smiles at me.
We dance, one, two, three.
She says, “No way would I shoot myself. I’d probably take pills.”
At home is my stash of government-issue antidepressants, hypnodes, mood equalizers, sedatives, MAO inhibitors in the candy dish beside my goldfish on my fridge.
We dance, one, two, three.
She says, “Just kidding.”
She puts her head back on my chest and says, “It all depends on how terrible my dreams get.”
It’s that night I start answering the phone again. This is after I’m so horny I have to go downtown and hunt for something to steal. This isn’t so much for the cash as to get off. It’s okay. The caseworker says it’s okay. It’s a sexual release, she tells me. It’s perfectly natural. You find what you want. You stalk it. You grab it and make it your own. After you’ve had it, you throw it away.
It was the caseworker who got me started shoplifting in the first place.
The caseworker called me a textbook example of kleptomania. She cited studies.
My stealing, she said, was to prevent anybody from stealing my penis (Fenichel, 1945). Stealing was an impulse I couldn’t control (Goldman, 1991). I stole because off a mood disorder (McElroy et al., 1991). It didn’t matter what: shoes, masking tape, a tennis racket.
The only trouble is now even stealing doesn’t give me the old feeling of wow.
Maybe this is because I’ve met Fertility.
Or maybe I’ve met Fertility because I’m getting bored with my sex life of crime.
Lately, I’m not even shoplifting, not in the classic, formal sense. Instead of stealing merchandise, I’ll walk around downtown until I find a cash register receipt someone’s just dropped.
You take the receipt into the store it’s from. You pretend to shop until you find an item on the receipt. You take the item around the store for a while, then you use the receipt to return the item for cash. Of course this works best in big stores. It works best with itemized receipts. Don’t use receipts that are old or dirty. Don’t use the same receipt twice. Try to vary the stores you scam.
This is to real shoplifting what masturbation is to sex.
And of course, stores know all about this scam.
Other good scams include shopping with a big cup of soda you can drop small items into. Another way is to buy a cheap can of paint, then loosen the lid and drop something expensive inside. The metal of the can blocks the x-rays from the security system.
This afternoon, instead of finding a receipt, I just walk around trying to figure out the next part of my plan to grab Fertility and make her my own. Have her. Throw her away, maybe. I have to take advantage of her terrible dreams. Our dancing together has to be a tool I can use.
Fertility and I danced most of the afternoon. As the music changed, she taught me the basic Cha-Cha, the Cha-Cha crossover step, and the female under-arm Cha-Cha turn. She showed me the basic Fox-trot.
She told me what she did for a living was terrible. It was worse than anything I could imagine.
And when I asked, What?
Walking around downtown, I find a register receipt for a color television. This should feel like I’ve found a winning lottery ticket, but I put the receipt in a trash can.
Maybe what I liked most about dancing is the rules. In the world where anything goes, here are solid arbitrary rules. The Fox-trot is two slow steps and two fast. The Cha-Cha is two slow and three fast. The choreography, the discipline, isn’t up for debate.
These are good old-fashioned rules. How to dance the Box Step isn’t going to change every week.
To the caseworker, when we started together ten years ago I wasn’t a crook.
Originally, I was an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She’d just got her degree and still had all her textbooks to prove it. Obsessive-compulsives, she told me, would either check on things or clean them (Rachman & Hodgson, 1980). According to her, I was the second kind.
Really, I just liked to clean, but all my life I’ve been trained to obey. All I did was try and make her lousy diagnosis look right. The caseworker told me the symptoms, and I did my best to manifest them and then let her cure me.
After being obsessive-compulsive, I was a posttraumatic stress disorder.
Then I was an agoraphobic.
I was a panic disorder.
My feet are walking down the sidewalk in the one slow, two fast steps of a waltz. My head is counting one, two, three. Wherever you look among the pigeons there are big-ticket receipts all over the sidewalk. Walking around downtown, I pick up another receipt. This one’s good for a hundred seventy-three dollars cash. Then I throw it away.
For about three months after I first met the caseworker, I was a dissociative identity disorder because I wouldn’t tell the caseworker about my childhood.
Then I was a schizotypal personality disorder because I didn’t want to join her weekly therapy group.
Then because she thought it would make a good case study, I had Koro Syndrome, where you’re convinced your penis is getting smaller and smaller and when it disappears, you’ll die (Fabian, 1991; Tseng etal., 1992).
Then she switched me to have Dhat Syndrome, where you’re in crisis over the belief you’re losing all your sperm when you have wet dreams or take a leak (Chadda & Ahuja, 1990). This is based on an old Hindu belief that it takes forty drops of blood to create a drop of bone marrow and forty drops of marrow to create a drop of sperm (Akhtar, 1988). She said it was no wonder I was so tired all the time.
Sperm makes me think of sex makes me think of punishment makes me think of death makes me think of Fertility Hollis. We did what the caseworker called Free Association.
Every session we had, she diagnosed me with another problem she thought I might have, and she gave me a book so I could study the symptoms. By the next week, I had whatever the problem was down pat.
One week, pyromaniac. One week, gender identity disorder.
She told me I was an exhibitionist so the next week, I mooned her.
She told me I was attention-deficient so I kept changing the subject. I was claustrophobic so we had to meet outside on the patio.
Walking around downtown, my feet switch to the two slow, three fast, two slow steps of a Cha-Cha. In my head is the same ten songs we listened to all afternoon. I pass up another receipt, as legal tender as a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk, and I Cha-Cha right past it.
The book the caseworker gave me was called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We called it the DSM for short. She gave me a lot of her old text
We were happy enough this way. For a while. She felt she was making progress every week. I had a script to tell me how to act. It wasn’t boring, and she gave me too many fake problems for me to stress about anything real. Every Tuesday, the caseworker would give me her diagnosis, and that was my new assignment.
Our first year together, there wasn’t enough free time for me to consider suicide.
We did the Stanford-Binet to figure out how old my brain was. We did the Wechsler. We did the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory. The Beck Depression Inventory.
The caseworker found out everything about me except for the truth.
I just didn’t want to be fixed.
Whatever my real problems might be, I didn’t want them cured. None of the little secrets inside me wanted to be found and explained away. By myths. By my childhood. By chemistry. My fear was, what would be left? So none of my real grudges and dreads ever came out into the light of day. I didn’t want to resolve any angst. I’d never talk about my dead family. Express my grief, she called it.
Resolve it. Leave it behind.
The caseworker cured me of a hundred syndromes, none of them real, and then declared me sane. She was so happy and proud.
She sent me out into the light of day, cured. You are healed. Go forth. Walk. A miracle of modern psychology.
Dr. Frankenstein and her monster.
It was pretty heady stuff when you’re twenty-five years old.
The only side effect is now I tend to steal. My intro to kleptomania felt too good to leave behind. Until tonight.
Walking around downtown today, ten years later, I pick up another receipt. I throw it away. After ten years of stowing away my problems so the caseworker couldn’t monkey around with them, all I have to do is dance the Cha-Cha with some girl and even my chronic stealing is gone. My one real psychosis I denied the caseworker is cured by a stranger.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes