Survivor, p.8Chuck Palahniuk
That’s all we did was dance. Fertility talked about her brother and how the FBI had his phone tapped so every time she talked to him she could hear the click…click…click…of a government tape recorder in the background. Even before Trevor killed himself, she knew he would. It was in her first dream of the future. Fertility and I danced some more. Then she had to leave. Then she promised, next week, next Wednesday, same time, same place, she’d be there.
Tonight, streetlight to streetlight, I walk the Fox-trot. In my mind, I hear the waltz. The memory of Fertility Hollis is in my arms and resting against my chest. This is how I get home. Upstairs, the phone is already ringing off the hook. Maybe it’s schizoids, paranoids, pedophiles.
Been there, I want to tell them. Done that.
Maybe it’s Fertility Hollis wanting to talk about dancing with me today. Ready to give me her second impression of me.
Maybe she’ll tell me in secret what’s so terrible she does to earn money.
All the way from the elevator doors coming open, I run to answer the phone.
The apartment door to the hallway is still open behind me. The fish needs to be fed. The curtains are still open, and it’s almost dark outside. Anyone could see in here.
A man on the other end says, “May you be of complete service in your lifetime.”
Without a thought I respond, Praise and glory to the Lord for this day through which we labor.
He says, “May our efforts bring all those around us to Heaven.”
I ask, Who is this?
And he says, “May you die with all your work complete.”
And he hangs up.
∨ Survivor ∧
There’s a way to polish chrome with club soda. To clean the ivory or bone handles on cutlery, rub them with lemon juice and salt. To get the shine off a suit, dampen the cloth with a weak mixture of water and ammonia, then iron with a damp pressing cloth.
The secret for making perfect boeuf Bourguignon is to add some orange peel.
To remove cherry stains, rub them with a ripe tomato and wash as usual.
The key is not to panic.
To make pants keep a sharp crease, turn them inside out and rub a bar of soap on the inside of the crease. Turn them right-side out and iron as usual.
The trick is to keep busy.
Despite the fact the killer called, I’m doing everything as usual.
The secret is to not let your imagination get carried away.
All night long, I’m cleaning. I can’t sleep. To clean the oven, I’m baking a pan of ammonia. Another way to put a lasting crease in pants is to dampen your pressing cloth with water and vinegar. I dig today’s dirt out from under each fingernail. If I don’t open a window, I’m going to suffocate from the smell of baked ammonia.
Here, I have to just spit it out.
The caseworker is missing. Every ten minutes, I call the caseworker at her office and all I get is her message. Here’s the first time in ten years I’ve called her, and this is all I hear. “Please leave a message at the beep.”
I say, that crazy psycho she told me about, well, he called.
All night, I’m phoning her office every ten minutes.
Please leave a message at the beep.
She needs to get me some protection.
And her message machine keeps cutting me off. So I call back.
Please leave a message.
I need an armed, twenty-four-hour police escort.
Please leave a message.
Somebody could be in the hallway, and I need to use the bathroom.
Please leave a message.
The killer she told me about knows who I am. He called. He knows where I live.
He has my telephone number.
Please leave a message.
Call me. Call me. Call me.
Please leave a message.
If I turn up suicided in the morning, it was murder.
Please leave a message.
If I end up dead from some murderer holding my head in the oven, it’s because she never checks her messages.
Please leave a message.
Listen, I tell her machine. This is for real. This is not a paranoid delusion.
She cured me of those, remember?
Please leave a message.
This isn’t a schizoid fantasy. I’m not hallucinating. Take my word for it.
Please leave a message. Then her message tape runs out.
All night, I’m awake and listening with the refrigerator moved halfway in front of the hall door. I need to use the bathroom but not bad enough to risk my life.
People go down the hallway, but nobody stops. Nobody touches my doorknob all night. The phone just rings and rings, and I have to answer it in case it’s the caseworker, but it’s never her. It’s just the regular parade of human misery.
Pregnant unweds. Chronic sufferers. Substance abusers. They have to dash off their confessions pretty fast before I hang up. I have to keep the line free.
Every phone call I get fills me with joy and terror since this could be the caseworker or the killer.
Approach or avoidance.
Positive and negative reinforcement for answering the phone.
In the middle of my panic, Fertility calls to say, “Hi, me again. I’ve been thinking about you all week. I wanted to ask if it’s against the rules for us to meet. I’d really like to meet you.”
Still listening for footsteps, expecting a shadow to fall across the crack of light under the hallway door, I’m lifting the window shade to see if anyone’s on the fire escape. I ask her, what about her friend? Wasn’t she supposed to meet him again today?
“Oh, him,” Fertility says. “Yes, I saw him today.”
“He smells like women’s perfume and hair spray,” Fertility says. “I don’t see what my brother ever saw in him.”
The perfume and hair spray were from spraying the roses, but I can’t tell her that.
“The other thing is he had chipped red nail polish on his fingernails.”
It was red spray paint from me touching up the roses.
“And he’s a terrible dancer.”
Right now, me getting killed would be redundant.
“And his teeth are weird, not rotten, but crooked and little.”
You could stab a knife right through my heart and you’d be too late.
“And he has these gross little monkey hands.”
Right now, getting killed would be a breath of spring.
“That’s supposed to mean he has a little wiener dick.”
If Fertility keeps talking, my caseworker will have one less client in the morning.
“And he’s not obese,” Fertility says, “he’s not a whale, but he’s too fat for me.”
In case there’s a sniper outside, I open the blinds and stand my gross obese body in the window. Please, anybody with a rifle and a scope. Shoot me right here. Right in my big fat heart. Right in my little wiener.
“He’s not anything like you,” Fertility says.
Oh, I think she’d be surprised how much we’re alike.
“You’re so mysterious.”
I ask, if she could change any one thing about this guy at the mausoleum, what would it be?
“Just so he’d quit pestering me,” she says, “I’d kill him.”
Well, she’s not alone there. Be my guest. Take a number, and stand in line.
“Forget about him,” she says, and her voice is sinking deeper in her throat. “I called because I want to get you off. Tell me what you want me to do. Make me do something terrible.”
Here’s the next part of my big plan.
This is something I’ll go to Hell for, but I tell her, That guy you don’t like, I want you to go screw his brains out and then tell me what it was like.
She says, “No way. No day.”
Then I’m hanging up.
She says, “Wa
No, I say, I’d know. I could tell.
“No way am I going to sleep with that geek.”
What if she just kissed him?
Fertility says, “No.”
What if she just took him out on a date? They could just go out for the afternoon. Get him out of the mortuary and he might look better. Take him on a picnic. Do something fun.
Fertility says, “Then will you get together with me?”
The sun wakes me up where I’m crouched next to the stove with a butcher knife in my fist. The way I feel, the idea of getting killed isn’t so bad. My back hurts.
My eyes feel cut open with a razor. I get dressed, and I go to work.
I sit in the back of the bus so no one can sit behind me with a knife, a poison dart, a piano-wire garrote.
At the house where I work, the regular caseworker’s car is in the driveway. On the lawn are some normal red-looking birds walking around in the grass. The sky is blue-colored the way you’d expect. Nothing looks out of the ordinary.
In the house, the caseworker is on all fours scrubbing the kitchen tile with bleach and ammonia so strong it makes the air around her go all wavy with toxins that bring tears to my eyes.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she says, still scrubbing. “This was in your daily planner for you to do today. I came over early.”
Bleach plus ammonia equals deadly chlorine gas.
The tears rolling down my cheeks, I ask, did she get my messages?
The caseworker does most of her breathing through a cigarette. The fumes must be nothing to her.
“No, I called in sick,” she says. “This cleaning things is just so fulfilling. There’s some coffee and homemade muffins I just baked. Why don’t you just relax?”
I ask, doesn’t she want to hear all about my problems? Take some notes? The killer called me last night. I was awake all night. He’s picked me out to kill me. God forbid she should stop scrubbing the floor and get up and call the police for my sake.
“Don’t worry,” she says. She dips her scrub brush in her bucket of cleaning water. “The suicide rate took a big jump last night. That’s why I couldn’t face the office this morning.”
The way she’s scrubbing the floor, it will never come clean again. Once you scrub the clear gloss coat off a vinyl floor with an oxidizer like bleach, you’re fucked. When she’s done, the floor will be so porous, everything will stain. God forbid I should try and tell her this. She thinks she’s doing a great job.
I ask, So how does the high suicide rate keep me alive?
“Don’t you get it? We lost eleven more clients last night. Nine the night before. Twelve the night before that. We’re looking at a landslide here,” she says.
“With numbers like that every night, if there is a killer, he doesn’t need to kill anybody.”
She starts singing. Maybe the deadly chlorine gas is having its effect. Her scrubbing does a little soft-shoe dance to go with her song. She says, “This won’t sound appropriate, but congratulations.”
I’m the last Creedish.
“You’re almost the last survivor.”
I ask how many others.
“In this town, one,” she says. “Nationwide, only five.”
Let’s play like old times, I say. I tell her, Let’s us get out the old Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and pick out a new way for me to go crazy. Let’s do it. Just for old times’ sake. Get the book.
The caseworker sighs and looks down at me reflected with my face wet with tears in her puddle of dirty scrub water on the floor. “Listen,” she says, “I’ve got some real work to do here. Besides, the DSM is lost. I haven’t seen it in a couple days.”
She scrubs back and forth, saying, “Not that I miss it.”
Okay, this has been a tough ten years. Almost all her clients are gone. She’s stressed out. Burned out. No, incinerated. Cremated. She sees herself as a failure.
She’s suffering from what’s called Learned Helplessness.
“Besides,” she says, scrubbing hard, here and there at the last spots where the vinyl is still intact, “I can’t hold your hand forever. If you’re going to kill yourself, I can’t stop you, and it’s not my fault. According to my records, you’re perfectly happy and adjusted. We have the tests. There’s empirical evidence to prove it.”
The fumes in here make it so I have to sniff back my tears.
She says, “Kill yourself or don’t kill yourself, but stop torturing me. I’m trying to move on with my life.”
She says, “Every day in America people kill themselves. The problem isn’t worse just because you know most of them.”
She says, “Don’t you think it’s time you cut your own meat?”
The rumor was you had to squeeze a frog to death with your bare hand. You had to eat a live earthworm. To prove you could obey just as Abraham did when he tried to kill his son to make God happy, you had to cut off your little finger with an ax.
That was the rumor.
After that, you had to cut off someone else’s little finger.
You never saw anybody after they were baptized so you couldn’t tell if they still had a little finger. You couldn’t ask them if they had had to squeeze the frog.
Right after you were baptized, you got on a truck and left the colony. You’d never see the colony again. The truck was headed out into the wicked outside world where they already had your first work assignment lined up for you. The big outside world with all its wonderful new sins, and the better you did on the tests, the better the job you’d get.
You could figure out what some of the tests were going to be.
The church elders told you right up front if you were too skinny or too fat for how tall you were. They set aside the whole year before your baptism for you to get yourself perfect. You were excused from work at home so you could go to special lessons all day. Bible lessons. Cleaning lessons. Etiquette, fabric care, and you know all the rest. If you were fat you ate to lose weight, and if you were too skinny you just ate.
That whole year before baptism, every tree, every friend, everything you saw had the halo around it of your knowing you’d never see it again.
By what you studied, you knew about most of the tests you’d get.
Beyond that, the rumor was there was more we didn’t know would happen.
We knew by rumor that you’d be bare naked for part of the baptism. One church elder would put his hand on you and tell you to cough. Another elder would slide a finger up your anus.
Another church elder would follow along with you and write on a card how well you did.
You didn’t know how you were supposed to study for a prostate exam.
We all knew the baptisms took place in the meeting house basement. The daughters went to baptism in the spring with only the church women in attendance. Sons went in the fall with only the men there to tell you to get up on the scale naked and be weighed or ask you to recite a chapter and verse from the Bible.
Job, Chapter Fourteen, Verse Five:
“Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass.”
And you had to recite it naked.
Psalm 101, Psalms of David, Verse Two:
“I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way…I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.”
You had to know how to make the best dust cloths (soak rags in diluted turpentine, then hang them to dry). You had to figure how deep to set a six-foot-tall gatepost so it could support a five-foot-wide gate. Another church elder would blindfold you and give you cloth samples to feel, and you had to say which was cotton or wool or a poly-cotton blend.
You had to identify houseplants. Stains. Insects. Fix small appliances. Do elegant handwriting for invitations.
We guessed about the tests from what we h
Nobody wanted to embarrass their family. And nobody wanted a lifetime of removing asbestos.
The church elders were going to stand you in one place and you’d have to read a chart at the far end of the meeting hall.
The church elders would give you a needle and thread and time how long you took to sew on a missing button.
We knew about what kind of jobs we were headed for in the wicked outside world from what the elders said to scare or inspire us. To make us work harder, they told us about wonderful jobs in gardens bigger than anything we could picture this side of Heaven. Some jobs were in palaces so enormous you’d forget you were indoors. These gardens were called amusement parks. The palaces, hotels.
To make us study even harder, they told us about jobs where you’d spend years pumping cesspools, burning offal, spraying poisons. Removing asbestos. There were jobs so terrible, they told us we’d be glad to run up and meet death halfway.
There were jobs so boring, you’d find ways to cripple yourself so you couldn’t work.
So you memorized every minute of your last year in the church district colony.
Ecclesiastes, Chapter Ten, Verse Eighteen:
“By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.”
Lamentations, Chapter Five, Verse Five:
“Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest.”
To keep bacon from curling, chill it a few minutes in the freezer before frying.
Rub the top of your meat loaf with an ice cube, and the loaf won’t crack while it bakes.
To keep lace crisp, iron it between sheets of waxed paper.
We were kept busy learning. We had a million facts to remember. We memorized half the Old Testament.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes