By Palahniuk, Chuck
Thoughts From Chuck
“The books are never about what you think they are about. Survivor is really about our education system because I feel, more often than not, kids are sort of taught or trained to be the best possible cogs in some big corporate machine. They’re not really taught in an empowered way that they can start their own company so that they can create and run their own lives. They are sort of taught to be just good employees, to just fit in.”
For Mike Keefe and Mike Smith For Shawn Grant and Heidi Weeden and Matt Palahniuk
The agent in this book is not Edward Hibbert, who represents my work with all his humor, energy, and skill.
No one in this book is as clever as my editor, Gerry Howard. No one anywhere is as relentless and helpful as Lois Rosenthal.
This book would not exist without the Tuesday Night Writers’ Workshop at Suzy’s house.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, Fight Club,received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and the Oregon Book Award for best novel. A graduate of the University of Oregon, Palahniuk lives in Portland, Oregon.
ALSO BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Testing, testing. One, two, three. Testing, testing. One, two, three.
Maybe this is working. I don’t know. If you can even hear me, I don’t know.
But if you can hear me, listen. And if you’re listening, then what you’ve found is the story of everything that went wrong. This is what you’d call the flight recorder of Flight 2039. The black box, people call it, even though it’s orange, and on the inside is a loop of wire that’s the permanent record of all that’s left. What you’ve found is the story of what happened.
And go ahead.
You can heat this wire to white-hot, and it will still tell you the exact same story.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
And if you’re listening, you should know right off the bat the passengers are at home, safe. The passengers, they did what you’d call I their deplaning in the New Hebrides Islands. Then, after it was just him and me back in the air, the pilot parachuted out over somewhere. Some kind of water. What you’d call an ocean.
I’m going to keep saying it, but it’s true. I’m not a murderer. And I’m alone up here. The Flying Dutchman.
And if you’re listening to this, you should know that I’m alone in the cockpit of Flight 2039 with a whole crowd of those little child-sized bottles of mostly dead vodka and gin lined up on the place you sit at against the front windows, the instrument panel. In the cabin, the little trays of everybody’s Chicken Kiev or Beef Stroganoff entrees are half eaten with the air conditioner cleaning up any leftover food smell. Magazines are still open to where people were reading. With all the seats empty, you could pretend everyone’s just gone to the bathroom. Out of the plastic stereo headsets you can hear a little hum of prerecorded music.
Up here above the weather, it’s just me in a Boeing 747-400 time capsule with two hundred leftover chocolate cake desserts and an upstairs piano bar which I can just walk up to on the spiral staircase and mix myself another little drink.
God forbid I should bore you with all the details, but I’m on autopilot up here until we run out of gas. Flame out, the pilot calls it. One engine at a time, each engine will flame out, he said. He wanted me to know just what to expect. Then he went on to bore me with a lot of details about jet engines, the venturi effect, increasing lift by increasing camber with the flaps, and how after all four engines flame out the plane will turn into a 450,000-pound glider. Then since the autopilot will have it trimmed out to fly in a straight line, the glider will begin what the pilot calls a controlled descent.
That kind of a descent, I tell him, would be nice for a change. You just don’t know what I’ve been through this past year.
Under his parachute, the pilot still had on his nothing special blah-colored uniform that looked designed by an engineer. Except for this, he was really helpful. More helpful than I’d be with someone holding a pistol to my head and asking about how much fuel was left and how far would it get us. He told me how I could get the plane back up to cruising altitude after he’d parachuted out over the ocean. And he told me all about the flight recorder.
The four engines are numbered one through four, left to right.
The last part of the controlled descent will be a nosedive into the ground. This he calls the terminal phaseof the descent, where you’re going thirty-two feet per second straight at the ground. This he calls terminal velocity,the speed where objects of equal mass all travel at the same speed. Then he slows everything down with a lot of details about Newtonian physics and the Tower of Pisa.
He says, “Don’t quote me on any of this. It’s been a long time since I’ve been tested.”
He says the APU, the Auxiliary Power Unit, will keep generating electricity right up to the moment the plane hits the ground.
You’ll have air-conditioning and stereo music, he says, for as long as you can feel anything.
The last time I felt anything, I tell him, was a ways back. About a year ago. Top priority for me is getting him off this plane so I can finally set down my gun.
I’ve clenched this gun so long I’ve lost all feeling.
What you forget when you’re planning a hijack by yourself is somewhere along the line, you might need to neglect your hostages just long enough so you can use the bathroom.
Before we touched down in Port Vila, I was running all over the cabin with my gun, trying to get the passengers and crew fed. Did they need a fresh drink? Who needed a pillow? Which did they prefer, I was asking everybody, the chicken or the beef? Was that decaf or regular?
Food service is the only skill where I really excel. The problem was all this meal service and rushing around had to be one-handed, of course, since I had to keep hold of the gun.
When we were on the ground and the passengers and crew were deplaning, I stood at the forward cabin door and said, I’m sorry. I apologize for any inconvenience. Please have a safe and enjoyable trip and thank you for flying Blah-Blah Airlines.
When it was just the pilot and me left on board, we took off again.
The pilot, just before he jumps, he tells me how when each engine fails, an alarm will announce Flame Out in Engine Number One or Three or whichever, over and over. After all the engines are gone, the only way to keep flying will be to keep the nose up. You just pull back on the steering wheel. The yoke, he calls it. To move what he calls the elevators in the tail. You’ll lose speed, but keep altitude. It will look like you have a choice, speed or height, but either way you’re still going to nose-dive into the ground.
That’s enough, I tell him, I’m not getting what you’d call a pilot’s license. I just need to use the toilet like nobody’s business. I just want him out that door.
Then we slow to 175 knots. Not to bore you with the details, but we drop to under 10,000 feet and pull open the forward cabin door. Then the pilot’s gone, and even before I shut the cabin door, I stand at the edge of the doorway and take a leak after him. Nothing in my life has ever felt that good. If Sir Isaac Newton was right, this wouldn’t be a problem for the pilot on his way down.
So now I’m flying west on autopilot at mach 0.83 or 455 miles per hour, true airspeed, and at this speed and latitude the sun is stuck in one place all the time. Time is stopped. I’m flying above the clouds at a cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, over the Pacific Ocean, flying toward disaster, toward Australia, toward the end of my life story, straight line southwest until all four engines flame out.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
One more time, you’re listening to the flight recorder of Flight 2039.
And at this altitude, listen, and at this speed, with the plane empty, the pilot says there are six or maybe seven hours of fuel left. So I’ll try to make this quick.
The flight recorder will record my every word in the cockpit. And my story won’t get bashed into a zillion bloody shreds and then burned with a thousand tons of burning jet. And after the plane wrecks, people will hunt down the flight recorder. And my story will survive.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
It was just before the pilot jumped, with the cabin door pulled inside and the military ships shadowing us, with the invisible radar tracking us, in the open doorway with the engines shrieking and the air howling past, the pilot stood there in his parachute and yelled, “So why do you want to die so bad?”
And I yelled back for him to be sure and listen to the tape. “Then remember,” he yelled. “You have only afew hours. And remember,” he yelled, “you don’t know exactly when the fuel will run out. There’s always the chance you could die right in the middle of your life story.”
And I yelled, So what else is new? And, Tell me something I don’t know.
And the pilot jumped. I took a leak, then I pushed the cabin door back into place. In the cockpit, I push the throttle forward and pull the yoke back until we fly high enough. All that’s left to do is press the button and the autopilot takes charge. That brings us back to right here.
So if you’re listening to this, the indestructible black box of Flight 2039, you can go look and see where this plane ended its terminal descent and what’s left. You’ll know I’m not a pilot after you see the mess and the crater. If you’re listening to this, you know that I’m dead.
And I have a few hours to tell my story here.
So I figure there’s maybe a chance I’ll get this story right.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
The sky is blue and righteous in every direction. The sun is total and burning and just right there in front. We’re on top of the clouds, and this is a beautiful day forever.
So let’s us take it from the top. Let me start at the start.
Flight 2039, here’s what really happened. Take one.
Just for the record, how I feel right now is very terrific.
I’ve already wasted ten minutes.
The way I live, it’s hard enough to bread a veal cutlet. Some nights it’s different; it’s fish or chicken. But the minute my one hand is covered in raw egg and the other’s holding the meat someone is going to call me in trouble.
This is almost every night of my life now.
Tonight, a girl calls me from inside a pounding dance club. Her only words I can make out are “behind.”
She says, “asshole.”
She says what could be “muffin” or “nothing.” The fact of the matter is you can’t begin to fill in the blanks so I’m in the kitchen, alone and yelling to be heard over the dance mix wherever. She sounds young and worn out, so I ask if she’ll trust me. Is she tired of hurting? I ask if there’s only one way to end her pain, will she do it?
My goldfish is swimming around all excited inside the fishbowl on the fridge so I reach up and drop a Valium in its water.
I’m yelling at this girl: has she had enough?
I’m yelling: I’m not going to stand here and listen to her complain.
To stand here and try to fix her life is just a big waste of time. People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.
Most people who call me already know what they want. Some want to die but are just looking for my permission. Some want to die and just need a little encouragement. A little push. Someone bent on suicide won’t have much sense of humor left. One wrong word, and they’re an obituary the next week. Most of the calls I get, I’m only half listening anyway. Most of the people, I decide who lives and who dies just by the tone of their voice.
This is getting nowhere with the girl at the dance club so I tell her, Kill yourself.
She’s saying, “What?”
She’s saying, “What?”
Try barbiturates and alcohol with your head inside a dry cleaning
She says, “What?”
You cannot bread a veal cutlet and do a good job with only one hand so I tell her, now or never. Pull the trigger or don’t. I’m with her right now. She’s not going to die alone, but I don’t have all night.
What sounds like part of the dance mix is her starting to cry really hard. So I hang up.
On top of breading a veal cutlet, these people want me to straighten their whole life out.
The phone in my one hand, I’m trying to get bread crumbs to stick with my other. Nothing should be this hard. You flop the cutlet in raw egg. Then you shake it dry, then crumbs. The problem with the cutlet is I can’t get the crumbs right. Some places, the cutlet is bare. The crumbs are so thick in other places you can’t tell what’s inside.
It used to be this was a lot of fun. People just call you on the verge of suicide. Women would call. Here I am just alone with my goldfish, alone in my dirty kitchen breading a pork chop or whatnot, wearing just my boxers, hearing somebody’s prayer. Dishing out guidance and punishment.
A guy will call. After I’m fast asleep, it happens. These calls will come all night if I don’t unplug the phone. Some loser will call tonight just after the bars close to say he’s sitting cross-legged on the floor in his apartment. He can’t sleep without having these terrible nightmares. In his dreams, he sees planes full of people crash. It’s so real and then no one will help him. He can’t sleep. He can’t get help. He tells me he’s got a rifle tucked up under his chin and he wants me to give him one good reason not to pull the trigger.
He can’t live with knowing the future and not being able to save anyone.
These victims, they call. These chronic sufferers. They call. They break up my own little tedium. It’s better than television.
I tell him, Go ahead. I’m only half awake. It’s three in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow. I tell him, Hurry before I fall back asleep, pull the trigger.
I tell him this isn’t such a beautiful world that he has to stay in it and suffer. This isn’t much of a world at all.
My job is most of the time I work for a housecleaning service. Full-time drudge. Part-time god.
Past experience tells me to hold the phone a ways from my ear when I hear the little click of the trigger. There’s the blast, just a burst of static, and somewhere a receiver clunks to the floor. I’m the last person to talk to him, and I’m back asleep before the ringing in my ear starts to fade.
There’s the obituary to look for the next week, six column inches about nothing that really mattered. You need the obituary, otherwise you’re not sure if it happened or if it was just a dream. I don’t expect you to understand.
It’s a different kind of entertainment. It’s a rush, having that kind of control. The guy with the shotgun was named Trevor Hollis in his obituary, and finding out he was a real person feels wonderful. It’s murder, but it’s not, depending on how much credit you take. I can’t even say doing crisis intervention was my own idea.
The truth is this is a terrible world, and I ended his suffering. The idea came by accident when a newspaper did a feature about a real crisis hotline. The phone number in the paper was mine by mistake. It was a typo. Nobody read the correction they ran the next day, and people just started calling me day and night with their problems.
Please don’t think I’m here to save lives. To be or not to be, I don’t labor the decision. And don’t think I’m above talking to women this way. Vulnerable women. Emotional cripples.
McDonald’s almost hired me one time, and I only applied for the job to meet younger girls. Black girls, Hispanic, white, and Chinese girls, it says right on the job application how McDonald’s hires different races and ethnic backgrounds. It’s girls, girls, girls, buffet-style. Also on the application McDonald’s says if you have any of the following diseases: Hepatitis a Salmonella Shigella Staphylococcus Giardia or Campylobacter, then you may not work there. This is more of a guarantee than you get meeting girls on the street. You can’t be too careful. At least at McDonald’s she’s gone on the record saying she’s clean. Plus, there’s a very good chance she’s going to be young. Pimple young. Giggling young. Silly young and as stupid as me.
Eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old girls, I only want to talk to them. Community college girls. High school seniors. Emancipated minors.
It’s the same with these suicide girls calling me up. Most of them are so young. Crying with their hair wet down in the rain at a public telephone, they call me to the rescue. Curled in a ball alone in bed for days, they call me. Messiah. They call me. Savior. They sniff and choke and tell me what I ask for in every little detail.
It’s so perfect some nights to hear them in the dark. The girl will just trust me. The phone in my one hand, I can imagine my other hand is her.
It’s not that I want to get married. I admire guys who can commit to a tattoo.
After the newspaper got the phone number right, the calls started to peter out. The loads of people who called me at first, they were all dead or pissed off at me. No new people were calling. They wouldn’t hire me at McDonald’s, so I made a bunch of big sticky labels.
The labels had to stand out. You need the stickers to be easy to read at night and by somebody crying on drugs or drunk. The stickers I use are just black on white with the black letters saying:
Give Yourself, Your Life, Just One More Chance. Call Me for Help. Then my phone number.
My second choice was:
If You’re a Young Sexually Irresponsible Girl with a Drinking Problem, Get the Help You Need. Calland then my phone number.
Take my word for it. Don’t make this second kind of sticker. With this kind of sticker, someone from the police will pay you a visit. Just from your phone number, they can use a reverse directory and put your name on a list as a probable felon. Forever after that you’ll hear the little click … click … click … of a wiretap behind every telephone call you ever make.
Take my word for it.
If you use the first kind of sticker, you’ll get people calling to confess sins, complain, ask advice, seek approval.
The girls you meet are never very far from their worst-case scenario. A harem of women will be clutching their telephones on the brink and asking you to call back, please, call back. Please.
Call me a sexual predator, but when I think of predators I think of lions, tigers, big cats, sharks. This isn’t so much a predator versus prey relationship. This isn’t a scavenger, a vulture, or a laughing hyena versus a carcass. This isn’t a parasite versus a host.
We’re all miserable together.
It’s the opposite of a victimless crime.
What’s most important is you need to put the stickers in public telephones. Try inside dirty phone booths near bridges over deep water. Put them next to taverns where people with no place to go get thrown out at closing time.
In no time at all, you’ll be in business.
You’ll need one of those speakerphones where it sounds like you’re calling from deep inside somewhere. Then people will call in crisis and hear you flush the toilet. They’ll hear the roar of the blender and know how you couldn’t care less.
These days, what I need is one of those cordless telephone headsets. A kind of Walkman of human misery. Live or die. Sex or death. This way, you can make hands-free life-and-death decisions every hour when people call to talk about their one terrible crime. You give out penance. You sentence people. You give guys on the edge the phone numbers of girls in the same position.
The same as most prayers, the bulk of what you hear is complaints and demands. Help me. Hear me. Lead me. Forgive me.
The phone is ringing again already. The thin little coating of crumbs on the veal cutlet is almost impossible for me to get right, and on the phone is a new girl, crying. I ask right away if she’ll trust me. I ask if she’ll tell me everything.
My goldfish and me, both of us are just here swimming in one place.
The cutlet looks dug out of a box.
To calm this girl down, to get her to listen, I tell her the story about my fish. This is fish number six hundred and forty-one in a lifetime of goldfish. My parents bought me the first one to teach me about loving and caring for another living breathing creature of God. Six hundred and forty fish later, the only thing I know is everything you love will die. The first time you meet that someone special, you can count on them one day being dead and in the ground.
The night before I left home, my big brother told me everything he knew about the outside world.
In the outside world, he said, women had the power to change the color of their hair. And their eyes. And their lips.
We were on the back porch in just the light from the kitchen window. My brother, Adam, was cutting my hair the way he cut wheat, gathering handfuls of it and cutting it with a straight razor at about the halfway point. He’d pinch my chin between his thumb and forefinger and force me to look at him straight on, his brown eyes darting back and forth between each of my sideburns.
To get my sideburns even, he’d cut one, then the other, then the first, over and over until both sideburns were gone.
My seven little brothers were sitting along the edges of the porch, watching the darkness for all the evils Adam described.
In the outside world, he said, people kept birds inside their houses. He’d seen it.
Adam had been outside the church district colony just one time, when he and his wife had to register their marriage to make it legal with the government.
In the outside world, he said, people were visited in their houses by spirits they called television.
Spirits spoke to people through what they called the radio.
People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.
He went on cutting my hair, not for style as much as he was pruning it the way he’d prune a tree. Around us on the porch boards, the hair piled up, not so much cut as harvested.
In the church district colony, we hung bags of cut hair in the orchard to scare away deer. Adam told me the rule about not wasting anything is one of the blessings you give up when you leave the church colony. The hardest blessing you give up is silence.
In the outside world, he told me, there was no real silence. Not the fake silence you get when you plug your ears so you hear nothing but your heart, but real out-of-doors silence.
The week they were married, he and Biddy Gleason rode in a bus from the church district colony, escorted by a church elder. The whole trip, the bus was loud inside. The automobiles on the road with them were roaring. People in the outside world said something stupid with their every breath, and when they didn’t talk their radios filled the gap with the copied voices of people singing the same songs over and over.
Adam said the other blessing you have to give up in the outside world is darkness. You can close your eyes, and sit in a cupboard, but that’s not the same thing. The darkness at night in the church district colony is complete. The stars are thick above us in this kind of darkness. You can see how the moon is rough with mountain ranges and etched with rivers and smoothed with oceans.
On a night without the moon or stars you can’t see a thing, but you can imagine anything.
At least that’s how I remember.
My mother was inside the kitchen ironing and folding the clothes I’d be allowed to take with me. My father was I don’t know where. I’d never see either of them again.
It’s funny, but people always ask if she was crying. They ask if my father cried and threw his arms around me before I left. And people are always amazed when I say no. Nobody cried or hugged.
Nobody cried or hugged when we sold a pig either. Nobody cried and hugged before they killed a chicken or picked an apple.
Nobody lay awake at night wondering if the wheat they’d raised was truly happy and fulfilled being made into bread.
My brother was just cutting my hair. My mother was just done ironing and she’d sat down to sew. She was pregnant. I remember she was always pregnant, and my sisters were all around her with their skirts spread on the kitchen benches or on the floor, all of them sewing.
People always ask if I was scared or excited or what.
According to church doctrine only the firstborn son, Adam, would ever marry and grow old in the church district. When we turned seventeen the rest of us, me and my seven brothers and five sisters, would all go out for work. My father lives here because he was the firstborn son in his family. My mother lives here because the church elders chose her for my father.
People are always so disappointed if I tell them the truth, that none of us lived in oppressed turmoil. None of us resented the church. We just lived. None of us were tortured by feelings very much.
That was the complete depth of our faith. Call it shallow or deep. There was nothing that could scare us. That’s how people raised in the church district colony believed. Whatever happened in the world was a decree from God; a task to be completed. Any crying or joy just got in the way of your being useful. Any emotion was decadent. Anticipation or regret was a silly extra; a luxury.
That was the definition of our faith. Nothing was to be known. Anything was to be expected.
In the outside world, Adam said it was a bargain with the devil that powered automobiles and carried airplanes across the sky. Evil flowed through electric wires to make people lazy. People put their dishes back in the cupboard dirty, and the cupboard washed them. Water in pipes carried away their garbage and shit so that it was someone else’s problem. Adam pinched my chin with his thumb and forefinger and leaned down to look me straight in the face, and said how in the outside world, people looked in mirrors.
Right in front of him on the bus, he said, people had mirrors and everyone was busy seeing how they looked. It was shameful.
I remember that was the last haircut I got for a long long time, but I don’t really remember why. My head was a bristling field of straw with just the short hairs that were left.
In the outside world, Adam said, all the counting was done inside machines.
All the food was fed to people by waitresses.
The one time he left the colony, my brother and his wife and the church elder who escorted them stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Robinsville, Nebraska. They didn’t any of them sleep. The next day the bus brought them home for the rest of their lives.
A hotel, he told me, was a big house where a lot of people lived and ate and slept, but no one knew each other. He said that described most families in the outside world.
Churches in the outside world, my brother told me, were just the local stores that sold people lies made up in the distant factories of giant religions.
He said a lot more I don’t remember.
That haircut was sixteen years ago.
My father had sired Adam and me and all fourteen of his children by the time he was the age I am now.
I was seventeen years old the night I left home.
The way my father looked the last time I saw him is the way I look now.
Looking at Adam was as good as looking in a mirror. He was my big brother by just three minutes and thirty seconds, but in the Creedish church district there was no such thing as twins.
That last night I ever saw Adam Branson, I remember thinking my big brother was a very kind and a very wise man.
That’s how stupid I was.
Part of my job is to preview the menu for a dinner party tonight. This means taking a bus from the house where I work to another big house, and asking some strange cook what they expect everybody to eat. Who I work for doesn’t like surprises, so part of my job is telling my employers ahead of time if tonight they’ll be asked to eat something difficult like a lobster or an artichoke. If there’s anything threatening on the menu, I have to teach them how to eat it right.
This is what I do for a living.
The house where I clean, the man and woman who live here are never around. That’s just the kind of jobs they have. only details I know about them are from cleaning what they own. All I can figure out is from picking up after them. Cleaning up their little messes, day after day. Rewinding their videotapes: Full Service Anal EscortsThe giant breasts of Letha*** Weapons. The adventures of little Sinderella.
By the time my bus drops me off here, the people who I work for are gone to work downtown. By the time they drive home, I’m back downtown in my housing voucher studio apartment that used to be just a tiny hotel room until somebody crowded in a stove and a fridge to raise the rent. The bathroom’s still out in the hall.
The only way I ever talk to my employers is by speakerphone..,. This is just a plastic box sitting on their kitchen counter and yelling at me to get more done.
Ezekiel, Chapter Nineteen, Verse Seven:”And he knew their desolate palaces…” something, something, something. You can’t keep the whole Bible balanced in your head. You wouldn’t have room to remember your name.
The house I’ve been cleaning the last six years is about what you’d expect, big, and it’s in a real tony part of town. This is compared to where I live. All the studio apartments in my neighborhood are the same as a warm toilet seat. Somebody was there just a second before you and somebody will be there the minute you get up. The part of town where I go to work every morning, there are paintings on the walls. Behind the front door, there are rooms and rooms nobody ever goes into. Kitchens where nobody cooks. Bathrooms that never get dirty. The money they leave out to test me, will I take it, the money is never less than a fifty-dollar bill, dropped behind the dresser as if by accident. The clothes they own look designed by an architect.
Next to the speakerphone is a fat daily planner book they keep full of things for me to get done. They want me to account for my next ten years, task by task. Their way, everything in your life turns into an item on a list. Something to accomplish. You get to see how your life looks flattened out.
The shortest distance between two points is a time line, a schedule, a map of your time, the itinerary for the rest of your life.
Nothing shows you the straight line from here to death like a list.
“I want to be able to look at your planner,” the speakerphone yells at me, “and know exactly where I can find you at four o’clock on this day five years from now. I want you to be that exact.”
Seeing it down in black and white, somehow you’re always disappointed in your life expectancy. How little you’ll really get done. The resume of your future.
It’s two o’clock Saturday afternoon so according to my daily planner, I’m about to boil five lobsters for them to practice eating. That’s how much money they make.
The only way I can afford to eat veal is when I smuggle it home on the bus sitting in my lap.
The secret to boiling a lobster is simple. First you fill a kettle with cold water and a pinch of salt. You can use equal parts of water and vermouth or vodka. You can add some seaweed to the water for a stronger flavor. These are the basics they teach in Home Economics.
Most everything else I know is from the messes these people leave behind.
Just ask me how to get bloodstains out of a fur coat.
No, really, go ahead.
The secret is cornmeal and brushing the fur the wrong way. The tricky part is keeping your mouth shut.
To get blood off of piano keys, polish them with talcum powder or powdered milk.
This isn’t the most marketable job skill, but to get bloodstains out of wallpaper, put on a paste of cornstarch and cold water. This will work just as well to get blood out of a mattress or a davenport. The trick is to forget how fast these things can happen. Suicides. Accidents. Crimes of passion.
Just concentrate on the stain until your memory is completely erased. Practice really does make perfect. If you could call it that.
Ignore how it feels when the only real talent you have is for hiding the truth. You have a God-given knack for committing a terrible sin. It’s your calling. You have a natural gift for denial. A blessing.
If you could call it that.
Even after sixteen years of cleaning people’s houses, I want to think the world is getting better and better, but really I know it’s not. You want there to be some improvement in people, but there won’t be. And you want to think there’s something you can get done.
Cleaning this same house every day, all that gets better is my skill at denying what’s wrong.
God forbid I should ever meet who I work for in person.
Please don’t get the idea I don’t like my employers. The caseworker has gotten me lots worse postings. I don’t hate them. I don’t love them, but I don’t hate them. I’ve worked for lots worse.
Just ask me how to get urine stains out of drapes and a tablecloth.
Ask me what’s the fastest way to hide bullet holes in a living-room wall. The answer is toothpaste. For larger calibers, mix a paste of equal parts starch and salt.
Call me the voice of experience.
Five lobsters is how many I figure they’ll take to learn the tricky details of getting the back open. The carapace, I figure. Inside’s the brain or the heart you’re supposed to be hunting for. The trick is to put the lobsters in the water and then turn up the heat. The secret is to go slow. Allow at least thirty minutes for the water to reach a hundred degrees. This way, the lobsters are supposed to die a painless death.
My daily planner tells me to keep busy, polishing the copper the best way, with half a lemon dipped in salt.
These lobsters we have to practice with are called Jumbos since they’re around three pounds apiece. Lobsters under a pound are called Chickens. Lobsters missing a claw are called Culls. The ones I take out of the refrigerator packed in wet seaweed will need to boil about half an hour. This is more stuff you learn in Home Economics.
Of the two large forward claws, the larger claw lined with what look like molars is called the Crusher. The smaller claw lined with incisors is called the Cutter. The smaller side legs are called the Walking Legs. On the underside of the tail are five rows of small fins called Swimmerets. More Home Economics. If the front row of swimmerets is soft and feathery, the lobster is female. If the front row is hard and rough, the lobster is male.
If the lobster is female, look for a bony heart-shaped hollow between the two rear walking legs. This is where the female will still be carrying live sperm if she’s had sex within the past two years.
The speakerphone rings while I’m setting the lobsters, three male and two female, no sperm, in the pot on the stove.
The speakerphone rings as I turn up the heat just another notch.
The speakerphone rings while I wash my hands.
The speakerphone rings while I go pour myself a cup of coffee and mix in cream and sugar.
The speakerphone rings while I take a handful of seaweed from the lobster bag and sprinkle it in on top of the lobsters in the pot. One lobster lifts a crusher claw for a stay of execution. Crusher claws and cutter claws, they’re all rubber-banded.
The speakerphone rings while I go wash and dry my hands again.
The speakerphone rings, and I answer it.
Gaston House, I say.
“Gaston Residence!”the speakerphone yells at me. “Say it, Gaston Residence!Say it the way we told you how!”
What they teach you in Home Economics is it’s correct to call a house a residenceonly in printing and engraving. We’ve gone over this a million times.
I drink a little coffee and fiddle with the heat under the lobsters. The speakerphone keeps yelling, “Is anyone there? Hello? Have we been cut off?”
This couple I work for, at one party they were the only guests who didn’t know to lift the doily with the finger bowl. Since then, they’ve been addicted to learning etiquette. They still say it’s pointless, it’s useless, but they’re terrified of not knowing every little ritual.
The speakerphone keeps yelling, “Answer me! Damn it! Tell me about the party tonight! What kind of food are we going up against? We’ve been worried sick all day!”
I look in the cabinet over the stove for the lobster gear, the nutcrackers and nutpicks and bibs.
Thanks to my lessons, these people know all three acceptable ways to place your dessert silver. It’s my doing that they can drink iced tea the right way with the long spoon still in the glass. This is tricky, but you have to hold the spoon handle between your index and middle fingers, against the edge of the glass opposite your mouth. Be careful to not poke your eye out. Not a lot of people know this way. You see people taking the wet spoon out and looking for a place to set it and not wreck the tablecloth. Or worse, they just put it anywhere and leave a wet tea stain.
When the speakerphone goes silent, then and only then do I start.
I ask the speakerphone, Are you listening?
I tell the speakerphone, Picture a dinner plate.
Tonight, I say, the spinach souffleacute; will be at the one-o’clock position. The beets thing will be at four o’clock. A meat thing with slivered almonds was going to be on the other half of the plate in the nine-o’clock position. To eat it, the guests would have to use a knife. And there are going to be bones in the meat.
This is the best posting I’ve ever had, no kids, no cats, no-wax floors, so I don’t want to botch it. If I didn’t care, I’d start telling who I work for to do any monkey business I could imagine. Like: You eat the sorbet by licking it out of the bowl, dog-dish fashion.
Or: Pick up the lamb chop with your teeth and shake your head vigorously, side to side.
And what’s terrible is they’d probably do this. It’s because I’ve never steered them wrong, they trust me.
Except for teaching them etiquette, my toughest challenge is living down to their expectations.
Ask me how to repair stab holes in nightgowns, tuxedos, and hats. My secret is a little clear nail polish on the inside of the puncture.
Nobody teaches you all the job skills you need in Home Economics, but over enough time, you pick them up. In the church district where I grew up, they teach you the way to make candles drip less is soak them in strong salt water. Store candles in the freezer until ready to use. That’s their kind of household hint. Light candles with a strand of raw spaghetti. Sixteen years I’ve been cleaning for people in their homes, and never has anybody asked me to walk around with a piece of spaghetti on fire in my hand.
No matter what they stress in Home Economics, it’s just not a priority in the outside world.
For example, no one teaches you that green-tinted moisturizer will help hide red, slapped skin. And any gentleman who’s ever been backhanded by a lady with her diamond ring should know a styptic pencil will stop the bleeding. Close the gash with a dab of Super Glue and you can be photographed at a movie premier, smiling and without stitches or a scar.
Always keep a red washcloth around for wiping up blood, and you’ll never have a stain to presoak.
My daily planner tells me I’m sharpening a butcher knife.
About the dinner tonight, I keep briefing who I work for about what to expect.
The important part is not to panic. Yes, there’s going to be a lobster they’ll have to deal with.
There’s going to be a single saltcellar. A game course will be served after the roast. The game is going to be squab. It’s a kind of bird, and if there’s anything more complicated to eat than a lobster, it’s a squab. All those little bones you have to dismantle, everybody dressed up for their dissection. Another wine will come after the aperitif, the sherry with the soup course, the white wine with the lobster, the red with the roast, another red wine with the greasy ordeal of the squab. By this time, the table will be spotted with everybody’s piddling island archipelagoes of dressings and sauces and wine sprayed across the white tablecloth.
This is how my job goes. Even in a good posting, nobody wants to know where the male guest of honor is supposed to sit.
That exquisite dinner your teachers in Home Economics talked about, the pause with fresh flowers and demitasse after a perfect day of poise and elegant living, well, nobody gives a rat’s ass about that.
Tonight, at some moment between the soup course and the roast, everybody at the table will get to mutilate a big dead lobster. Thirty-four captains of industry, thirty-four successful monsters, thirty-four acclaimed savages in black tie will pretend they know how to eat.
And after the lobster, the footmen will present hot finger bowls with floating slices of lemon, and these thirty-four botched autopsies will end with garlic and butter up to the elbow of every sleeve and every smiling greasy face will look up from sucking out meat from some cavity in the thorax.
After seventeen years of working in private houses every day, the things I know the most about are slapped faces, creamed corn, black eyes, wrenched shoulders, beaten eggs, kicked shins, scratched corneas, chopped onions, bites of all sorts, nicotine stains, sexual lubricants, knocked-out teeth, split lips, whipped cream, twisted arms, vaginal tears, deviled ham, cigarette burns, crushed pineapple, hernias, terminated pregnancies, pet stains, shredded coconut, gouged eyes, sprains, and stretch marks.
The ladies who you work for, after they sob for hours on end, make them use blue or mauve eyeliner to make their bloodshot eyes look whiter. The next time someone socks a tooth out of her husband’s mouth, save the tooth in a glass of milk until he can see the dentist. In the meantime, mix zinc oxide and oil of cloves into a white paste. Rinse the empty socket and pack it with the paste for a quick and easy filling that hardens lickety-split.
For tear stains in a pillow case, treat them the same way you would a perspiration stain. Dissolve five aspirin in water and daub the stain until it’s gone. Even if there’s a mascara stain, the problem’s solved.
If you could call it solved.
Whether you clean a stain, a fish, a house, you want to think you’re making the world a better place, but really you’re just letting things get worse. You think maybe if you just work harder and faster, you can hold off the chaos, but then one day you’re changing a patio lightbulb with a five-year life span and you realize how you’ll only be changing this light maybe ten more times before you’ll be dead.
Time is running out. There isn’t the kind of energy you used to have. You start to slow down.
You start to give in.
This year there’s hair on my back, and my nose keeps getting bigger. How my face looks every morning is more and more what you’d call a mug.
After working in these rich houses, I know the best way to get blood out of the trunk of a car is not to ask any questions.
The speakerphone is saying, “Hello?”
The best way to keep a good job is just do what they want.
The speakerphone is saying, “Hello?”
To get lipstick out of a collar, rub in a little white vinegar.
For stubborn protein-based stains, like semen, try rinsing with cold salt water, then wash as usual.
This is valuable on-the-job training. Feel free to take notes.
To pick up broken glass from that jimmied bedroom window or smashed highball, you can blot up even the tiniest shards with a slice of bread.
Stop me if you already know all this.
The speakerphone is saying, “Hello?”
Been there. Done that.
What else they teach you in Home Economics is the correct way to respond to a wedding invitation. How to address the Pope. The right way to monogram silver. In the Creedish church school, they teach how the world can be a perfect elegant little stage play of perfect manners where you’re the director. The teachers, they paint a picture of dinner parties where everyone will already know how to eat a lobster.
Then it’s not.
Then all you can do is get lost in the tiny details of every day doing the same tasks over and over.
There’s the fireplace to clean.
There’s the lawn to mow.
Turn all the bottles in the wine cellar.
There’s the lawn to mow, again.
There’s the silver to polish.
Still, just one time, I’d like to prove I know something better. I can do more than just cover up. The world can be a lot better than we settle for. All you have to do is ask.
No, really, go ahead. Ask me.
How do you eat an artichoke?
How do you eat asparagus?
How do you eat a lobster?
The lobsters in the pot look dead enough so I lift one out. I tell the speakerphone, First, twist off each of the big front claws.
The other lobsters I’ll put in the refrigerator for them to practice taking apart. To the speakerphone I say, Take notes.
I crack the claws and eat the meat inside.
Then bend the lobster backward until its tail snaps away from its body. Snap off the tip of the tail, the Telson, and use a seafood fork to push out the tail meat. Remove the intestinal vein that runs the length of the tail. If the vein is clear, the lobster hasn’t eaten anything for a while. A thick dark vein is fresh and still full of dung.
I eat the tail meat.
The seafood fork, I tell the speakerphone with my mouth full, the seafood fork is the little baby fork with three prongs.
Next, you unhinge the back shell, the carapace, from the body, and eat the green digestive gland called the Tomalley. Eat the copper-based blood that congeals into white gunk. Eat the coral-colored immature egg masses.
I eat them all.
Lobsters have what you’d call an “open” circulatory system where the blood just sloshes around inside their cavities, bathing the different organs.
The lungs are spongy and tough, but you can eat them, I tell the speakerphone and lick my fingers. The stomach is the tough sack of what look like teeth just behind the head. Don’t eat the stomach.
I dig around inside the body. I suck the little meat out of each walking leg. I bite off the tiny gill bailers. I bypass the ganglia of the brain.
What I find is impossible.
The speakerphone is yelling, “Okay, now what? Was that everything? What’s there left to eat?”
This can’t be happening because according to my daily planner, it’s almost three o’clock. I’m supposed to be outside digging up the garden. At four, I’ll rearrange the flower beds. At five-thirty, I’ll pull up the salvia and replace them with Dutch iris, roses, snapdragons, ferns, ground cover.
The speakerphone is yelling, “What is happening there? Answer me! What’s gone wrong?”
I check my schedule, and it says I’m happy. I’m productive. I work hard. It’s all right down here in black and white. I’m getting things done.
The speakerphone yells, “What do we do next?”
Today is just one of those days the sun comes out to really humiliate you.
The speakerphone yells, “What’s there left to do?”
I ignore the speakerphone because there’s nothing left to do. Almost nothing’s left.
And maybe this is just a trick of the light, but I’ve eaten almost the whole lobster before I notice the heart beat.
According to my daily planner, I’m trying to keep my balance. I’m up at the top of a ladder with my arms full of fake flowers: roses, daisies, delphiniums, stock. I’m trying to keep from falling, my toes curled up tight in my shoes. I’m collecting another polyester bouquet, an obituary from last week all folded up in my shirt pocket.
The man I killed last week is around here somewhere. What’s left of him. The one with the shotgun under his chin, sitting alone in his empty apartment, asking over the phone for me to give him just one good reason not to pull the trigger, I’m sure enough going to find him. Trevor Hollis.
Gone But Not Forgotten.
Resting in Peace.
Called from This Life.
Or he’s going to find me. That’s what I always hope.
Up at the top of a ladder, I must be twenty, twenty-five, thirty feet above the gallery floor while I pretend to catalog another artificial flower, my glasses pinching at the end of my nose. My pen leaves words in my notebook. Specimen Number 786, I’m writing, is a red rose around a hundred years old.
What I hope is everybody else here is dead.
Part of my job is I have to arrange fresh flowers around the house where I work. I have to pick flowers out of the garden I’m supposed to tend.
What you need to understand is I’m not a ghoul.
The petals and calyx (sepals) of the rose are red celluloid. First created in 1863, celluloid is the oldest and least stable form of plastic. I’m writing in my notebook, the leaves of the rose are green-tinted celluloid.
I stop writing and look over my glasses. Down at the end of the gallery and so far away she’s just a tiny black outline against a huge stained-glass window is somebody. The stained glass is a picture of somewhere, Sodom or Jericho or the Temple of Solomon being destroyed by fire in the Old Testament, silent and blazing. Twisted feathers of orange and red flame twist around falling blocks of stone, pillars, friezes, and out of this walks a figure in a little black dress getting bigger as she gets close.
And what I hope is she’s dead. My secret wish is right now to be romancing this dead girl. A dead girl. Any dead girl. I’m not what you’d call choosy.
The lie I tell people is I’m doing research into the evolution of artificial flowers during the Industrial Revolution. All this is supposed to be my thesis for Nature and Design 456. Why I’m so old is I’m a graduate student.
The girl has long red hair that women only have these days if it’s part of some orthodox religion. From up so high on my ladder, the thin bendable little arms and legs of the girl make me look again and again and wonder if someday I could be a pedophile.
Although not the oldest specimen in my study, this rose I pretend to examine is the most fragile. The female sex organ, the Pistil, including the Stigma, the Style, and the Ovary, are cast jet. The male sex organs, the Stamen, include a wire Filament topped with a tiny glass Anther.
Part of my job is I have to grow fresh flowers in the garden, but I can’t. I can’t grow a weed.
The lie I tell myself is I’m here to gather flowers, fresh ones for inside the house. I steal the fake flowers for sticking out in the garden. The people I work for only look at their garden from inside so I stick the bare dirt full of fake greenery, ferns or needlepoint ivy, then I stick in fake seasonal flowers. The landscaping is beautiful as long as you don’t look too close.
The flowers look so lifelike. So natural. So peaceful.
The best place to find bulbs for forcing is in the Dumpster behind the mausoleum. Thrown away are plastic pots of dormant bulbs, hyacinths and tulips, tiger and stargazer lilies, daffodils and crocus ready to take home and bring back to life.
Specimen Number 786, I write, occurs in the vase of Crypt 2387, in the highest tier of Crypts, in the lesser south gallery, on the seventh floor of the Serenity wing. This location, I write, thirty feet above the floor of the gallery, might account for the almost perfect condition of this rose, found on one of the oldest crypts in one of the original wings of the Columbia Memorial Mausoleum.
Then I steal the rose.
What I tell people who see me here is another story.
The official version for why I’m here is this mausoleum provides the best examples of artificial flowers dating back into the mid nineteenth century. Each of the six main wings, the Serenity wing, the Contentment wing, the Eternity, Tranquillity, Harmony, and New Hope wings, is five to eighteen stories tall. The concrete honeycomb of every wall is nine feet thick so it can accommodate even the longest casket inserted lengthwise. Air doesn’t circulate in the miles of galleries. Visitors seldom visit. Their typical visit is short. The average year-round temperature and humidity are low and constant.