Survivor, p.9Chuck Palahniuk
We thought all this teaching was to make us smart.
What it did was make us stupid.
With all the little facts we learned, we never had the time to think. None of us ever considered what life would be like cleaning up after a stranger every day.
Washing dishes all day. Feeding a stranger’s children. Mowing a lawn. All day.
Painting houses. Year after year. Ironing bedsheets.
Forever and ever.
Work without end.
We were all of us so excited about passing tests, we never looked beyond the night of the baptism.
We were all so worried about our worst fears, squeezing frogs, eating worms, poisons, asbestos, we never considered how boring life would be even if we succeeded and got a good job.
Washing dishes, forever.
Polishing silver, forever.
Mowing the lawn.
The night before the baptism, my brother Adam took me out on the back porch of our family’s house and gave me a haircut. Every other family in the church district colony with a seventeen-year-old son was giving him the exact same haircut.
In the wicked outside world, they call this product standardization.
My brother told me not to smile, but to stand straight up and down and answer any questions in a clear voice.
In the outside world, they call this marketing.
My mother was putting my clothes together in a bag for me to take with me. We were all of us pretending to sleep that night.
In the wicked outside world, my brother told me, there were sins the church didn’t know enough to forbid. I couldn’t wait.
The next night was our baptism, and we did everything we’d expected. Then nothing else. Just when you were ready to hack off your little finger and the finger of the son next to you, nothing happened. After you’d been poked and felt and weighed and questioned about the Bible and housework, then they told you to get dressed.
You took your bag with your extra clothes inside, and you walked from the meeting house into a truck that was idling outside.
The truck drove out into the wicked outside world, into the night, and nobody you knew would ever see you again.
You never found out how high you scored.
Even if you knew you’d done well, that good feeling didn’t last very long.
There was already a work assignment waiting for you.
God forbid you should ever get bored and want more.
It was church doctrine that the rest of your life would be the same work. The same being alone. Nothing would change. Every day. This was success. Here was the prize.
Mowing the lawn.
And mowing the lawn.
And mowing the lawn.
∨ Survivor ∧
On the bus on the way to our third date, Fertility and I are sitting in front of some guy when we overhear the temperature is eighty, ninety degrees, too hot for June anywhere, and the bus windows are open, with the smell of traffic making me a little sick. The vinyl seats are hot the way touching anything will feel in Hell, hot. The bus is Fertility’s idea for going downtown. On a date, she told me. Downtown. It’s the afternoon so only people without jobs or with night jobs or crazy people with Tourette’s Syndrome are going anywhere.
Here’s the date she has to take me on since she won’t sleep with me and won’t even kiss me, no way, no day.
Who’s sitting behind us I can’t imagine. He was nobody to notice, just a guy in a shirt. Blond hair. If you pressed me, I’d have to say ugly. I don’t remember.
The bus comes by the mausoleum every fifteen minutes, and we just got on. We met at Crypt 678, the same as every time.
I do remember the joke. It’s an old joke. Houses of the city are going by outside the bus, behind cars parked along the curb and between fences to mark the property lines, and the joker leans his head between Fertility and me and whispers, “What’s harder than getting a camel through the eye of a needle?”
These jokes are all over. No matter how not funny they are, you can’t not hear them.
Neither Fertility or me says anything back.
And the joker whispers, “Buying life insurance to cover a Creedish church member.”
The truth is, nobody laughs at these jokes except me, and I only laugh so I’ll fit in. I laugh so I won’t not fit in. The main thing I worry about in public is maybe people can tell I’m a survivor. The church costume I got rid of years ago.
God forbid I should look like one of those stupid crazy people in the Midwest who all killed themselves because they thought their God was calling them home.
My mother, my father, my brother Adam, my sisters, my other brothers, they’re all dead and in the ground getting laughed at, but I’m alive. I still have to live in this world and get along with people.
So I laugh.
Because I have to do something, make some noise, shout, scream, cry, swear, howl, I laugh. It’s all just different ways to vent.
These jokes are everywhere this morning, and you have to do something not to start crying all the time. Nobody laughs harder than me.
The joker whispers, “Why did the Creedish cross the road?”
Maybe he’s not even talking to Fertility and me.
“Because he couldn’t get any cars to hit him.”
Behind everybody is the roar of the bus, pushed down the street by its engine in the back, putting out stink-colored smoke.
Today, all the jokes are because of the newspaper. From where I sit, I can see the headline below the fold on the front pages of five people hiding behind today’s morning edition. It says:
“Cult Survivors Dwindle”
The article says how the curtain is almost closed on the tragedy of the Creedish church mass suicide ten years ago. The article says how the last surviving members of the Creedish church, the cult based in central Nebraska that committed mass suicide rather than face an FBI investigation and national attention, well, the newspaper says only six church members are known to still exist. They don’t name names, but I must be one of the last half-dozen.
The rest of the story jumps to page A9, but you get the gist. When you read between the lines, it says, Good riddance.
They don’t write anything about suspect deaths where it looked like murder.
There’s nothing about how a killer is maybe stalking those last six church survivors.
Behind me, the joker whispers, “What do you call a Creedish with blond hair?”
In my head I tell him, Dead. I’ve heard all these jokes.
“What do you call a Creedish with red hair?”
“With brown hair?”
The guy whispers, “What’s the difference between a Creedish and a corpse?”
Just a matter of hours.
The guy whispers, “What did the Creedish yell when the hearse drove by?”
The guy whispers, “How can you pick out a Creedish on a crowded bus?”
Someone pulls the cord for the next stop and rings the bell.
And Fertility twists around to say, “Shut up.” She goes loud enough to bring people out from behind their newspapers, she says, “You’re joking about suicide, about people that people loved that are dead. So just shut up.”
It’s really loud she says this. How bright her eyes are, gray but looking silver, it makes me wonder if Fertility isn’t Creedish or if she’s still peeved about her brother being dead. She’s being such an overreaction.
The bus pulls to the curb right then, and the joker gets up in the aisle and starts out. The same as in church, we’re sitting in the bench seats with the aisle down the middle of the bus. The guy waiting in line to get off, his pants are the baggy brown wool only a survivor would wear in this heat. The church costume suspenders crisscross his back. The brown wool jacket is folded over his arm. He shuffles up the aisle of the bus
Where I know him from I can’t remember. His voice, I remember. His voice, just his voice, over my shoulder, into my telephone.
May you die with all your work done.
His face is the face I see in the mirror.
Not even thinking, I say his name out loud.
Adam. Adam Branson.
The joker says, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
But I say, No.
The line moves a few steps, taking him farther away, and tie says, “Didn’t we grow up together?”
And I say, No.
Standing at the door of the bus, he shouts, “Aren’t you my brother?”
And I shout, No.
And he’s gone.
Luke, Chapter Twenty-two, Verse Thirty-four:
“…thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.”
The bus starts back into traffic.
The only way to describe the guy is ugly. Geeky. A tad overweight. A loser.
Pathetic at best. A victim. My big brother by three minutes. A Creedish.
According to her body language, the psychology textbooks would say Fertility is pissed off at me for laughing. Her legs are crossed at the knee and ankle. She looks out the window as if where we’re at is any different.
According to my daily planner, right now I should be waxing the dining-room floor. There’s the gutters to clean. There’s a stain to clean up in the driveway where I work. I should be peeling the white asparagus for dinner tonight.
I shouldn’t be out on a date with a lovely and angry Fertility Hollis even if I killed her brother and she has the secret hots for my voice on the phone at night but can’t stand me in person.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what I should do. What any survivor should do.
According to everything we grew up believing, we’re corrupt and evil and unclean.
The air moving along downtown in the bus with us is hot and dense, mixed in with bright sunlight and burning gasoline. Flowers move by, planted in the ground, roses that should have a smell, red, yellow, orange all the way open but without effect. The lanes of traffic move along relentless as a conveyor belt.
Everything we can do is wrong as long as we’re still alive.
The feeling is you have no control. The feeling is that we’re being delivered.
It’s not like we’re traveling. We’re being processed. It’s more like we’re just waiting. It’s just a matter of time.
There’s nothing I can do right, and my brother’s out there to kill me.
The buildings of downtown start to pile up along the sidewalk. The traffic gets slow. Fertility lifts her arm to pull the cord, ding, and the bus stops to let us out in front of a department store. Artificial men and women are posed in the windows wearing clothes. Smiling. Laughing. Pretending to have a good time. I know just how they feel.
The clothes I’m wearing are just pants and a plaid shirt, but they belong to the man who I work for. All morning, I was upstairs trying on different combinations of clothes and going downstairs to where the caseworker was vacuuming lampshades to ask her what she thought.
There’s a big clock above the doors into the store, and Fertility looks up. She says to me, “Hurry. We have to be there by two o’clock.”
She takes my hand in her amazing cold hand, cold and dry even in the heat, and we push in through the doors, into the air conditioning and first floor with piles of what’s there to buy on tables and inside glass cases, locked.
“We have to be on the fifth floor,” Fertility says, her hand tight around mine and pulling. We charge up the escalators. Second floor, Men’s. Third floor, Children’s. Fourth floor, Junior Miss. Fifth floor, Women’s.
That kind of recorded music comes out the vents in the ceiling. It’s a Cha-Cha.
Two slow steps and three fast. There’s a crossover step and a women’s under-arm turn. Fertility taught me.
This is less of a date than I thought. Clothes on racks, hanging on hangers.
Salespeople walk around dressed really well and asking if they can help. None of this is anything I haven’t seen before.
I ask, does she want to dance, here?
“Wait a minute,” Fertility says. “Just wait.”
What happens first is the smell of smoke.
“Back here,” Fertility says, and leads me into the forest of long dresses for sale.
Then what happens is bells start ringing, and people head for the escalators, stepping down them the way they would ordinary stairs since the escalators are stopped. People are walking down the up escalator, and this looks as wrong as breaking a law. A saleslady empties out her register into a zippered bag, and looks across the floor at some people by the elevators, standing, looking up at the elevator numbers, holding big glossy shopping bags with handles and stuff folded inside.
The bells are still ringing. The smoke is thick enough for us to watch it roll across the lights in the ceiling.
“Don’t use the elevators,” the saleslady shouts. “When it’s a fire, the elevators don’t work. You’ll have to use the stairs.”
She rushes over to them through the maze of clothes on racks, the zippered bag tucked in her arm, quarterback-style, and she herds them through a door marked EXIT.
Then it’s just Fertility and me, and the lights flicker and go out.
In the dark, the smoke and the feel of satin all around us, the rub of cut velvet, the cold of silk, the smooth of polished cotton, the bells ringing, all the dresses, the scratch of wool, the cold of Fertility’s hand on mine, she says, “Don’t worry.”
The little green signs shine at us across the dark, saying EXIT.
The bells ringing.
“Just stay calm,” Fertility says.
The bells ringing.
“Any minute now,” Fertility says.
Bright orange flashes in the dark on the other side of the floor, breaking everything into strange shapes of orange against black. The dresses and pants between here and there are hanging black shapes of people with arms and legs that burst into flame.
The shapes of a thousand people burning and collapsing head toward us. The bells are ringing so loud you feel it, and only Fertility’s cold hand is keeping me here.
“It’s any second now,” she says.
The heat’s close enough to feel. The smoke’s thick enough to taste. Not twenty feet away, the scarecrow shapes of women made by clothes on hangers start smoldering and slump to the floor. Breathing gets hard, and my eyes won’t stay open.
And the bells ring.
My clothes feel ironed hot and dry against me.
The fire is that close.
Fertility says, “Isn’t this great? Don’t you just love it?”
I put my hand up and it makes a shadow of cool between my face and the rack of rayon burning next to us.
This is the way to tell about fabric content. Pull a few threads off a garment, and hold them over a flame. If they don’t burn, it’s wool. If they burn slowly, it’s cotton. If they torch the way the slacks next to us are blazing, the fabric is synthetic. Polyester. Rayon. Nylon.
Fertility says, “It’s right now.”
Then it’s cold before I can think why. It’s wet. Water pours down. The orange light flickers, lower, lower, gone. The smokes washes out of the air.
One by one, spotlights blink on to show what’s left in huge shadows of black and white. The ringing bells stop. The recorded Cha-Cha music comes back on.
“I saw this all happen in a dream,” Fertility says. “We were never in any real danger.”
This is the same as her and Trevor on the ocean liner that only sank halfway.
“Next week,” Fertility says, “there’s a commercial bakery that’s going to explode. You want to go watch? I see at least three or four people getting killed.”
My hair, her hair, my clothes, her clothes, there isn’t a smudge or burn on us.
Daniel, Chapter Three, Verse Twenty-seven:
“…the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them.”
Been there, I’m thinking. Done that.
“Hurry,” she says. “Some firemen will be coming up here in a few minutes.” She takes my hands in hers and says, “Let’s not let this Cha-Cha go to waste.”
One, two, cha cha cha. We dance, three, four, cha cha cha.
The wreckage, the burned arms and legs of the clothes tangled on the floor around us, the ceiling hanging down, the water still falling, everything soaking wet, we dance one, two, cha cha cha.
And that’s just how they find us.
There’s a gas station going to explode next week. There’s a pet store where all the canaries, their whole inventory of hundreds of canaries, will escape.
Fertility has previewed all this in dream after dream. There’s a hotel where a water pipe is leaking right this moment. For weeks, the water has been dripping inside the walls, dissolving plaster, rotting wood, rusting metal, and at 3:04 next Tuesday afternoon, the mammoth crystal chandelier in the middle of the lobby ceiling will drop.
In her dream, there’s a rattle of lead crystal thingamabobs, then a spray of plaster dust. Some bracket will pop the head off a rusted bolt. In Fertility’s dream, the bolt head lands, plop, on the carpet next to an old man with luggage.
He picks it up and turns it over in his palm, looking at the rust and the shining steel inside the stress fracture.
A woman pulling her luggage on wheels stops next to the man and asks if he’s waiting in line.
The old man says, “No.”
The woman says, “Thank you.”
A clerk at the desk hits a bell and says, “Front please!”
A bellhop steps forward.
At that moment the chandelier falls.
That’s how exact Fertility’s dreams get, and in each dream she looks for another detail. The woman is wearing a red suit, jacket and skirt with a Christian Dior gold chain belt. The old man has blue eyes. His hand holding the bolt head has a gold wedding band. The bellhop has a pierced ear, but he’s got the earring out.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes