Haunted, p.10
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       Haunted, p.10

           Chuck Palahniuk
War. Starvation. Plague. They fast-track us to enlightenment.

  “It's the mark of a very, very young soul,” Mr. Whittier used to say, “to try and fix the world. To try and save anyone from their ration of misery.”

  We have always loved war. We are born knowing that war is why we're here. And we love disease. Cancer. We love earthquakes. In this amusement-park fun house we call the planet earth, Mr. Whittier says we adore forest fires. Oil spills. Serial killers.

  We love terrorists. Hijackers. Dictators. Pedophiles.

  God, how we love the television news. The pictures of people lining up beside a long, open grave, waiting to be shot by another new firing squad. The glossy newsmagazine photos of more everyday people torn to bloody shreds by suicide bombers. The radio bulletins about freeway pile-ups. The mud slides. The sinking ships.

  His quivering hands telegraphing the air, Mr. Whittier would say, “We love when airplanes crash.”

  We adore pollution. Acid rain. Global warming. Famine.

  No, Mr. Whittier had no idea . . .

  The Duke of Vandals found every bag of anything that included beets. Any silver Mylar pillows rattling with the sliced beets inside, dry as poker chips.

  Saint Gut-Free poked a hole in every bag that held any kind of pork or chicken or beef. Meat being something he can never digest.

  All the Mylar bags puffed full of nitrogen gas, they were arranged by food, stuffed into brown boxes of corrugated cardboard. In the boxes stenciled “Dessert” were bags of dried cookies, rattling the way seeds would inside a dried gourd. Inside the boxes stenciled “Appetizers,” freeze-dried chicken wings rattled like old bones.

  Out of her fear of getting fat, Miss America found every box stenciled “Desserts” and used Chef Assassin's carving knife to poke holes in every bag.

  Just to speed up our suffering. Fast-track us to enlightenment.

  One hole, and the nitrogen would leak out. Bacteria and air would leak in. All the mold spores that were killing Miss Sneezy, carried on the warm damp air, they'd be eating and breeding in each silver pocket of sweet-and-sour pork, breaded halibut, pasta salad.

  Before Agent Tattletale snuck into the lobby to ruin every crêpe Suzette, he'd make sure no one was around.

  Before Countess Foresight crept into the lobby to stab every silver bag that might contain even trace amounts of cilantro, she made sure Agent Tattletale was gone.

  We each only ruined the food we hated.

  Cross-legged in the Arabian Nights gallery, among the plaster pillars carved to look like elephants standing on their back legs, rearing up to support the ceiling with their front feet, his teeth crunching another handful of dried sticks and rocks, Mr. Whittier would say, “In our secret heart's heart, we love to root against the home team.”

  Against humanity. It's us against us. You, the victim of yourself.

  We love war because it's the only way we'll finish our work here. The only way we'll finish our souls, here on earth: The big processing station. The rock tumbler. Through pain and anger and conflict, it's the only path. To what, we don't know.

  “But we forget so much when we're born,” he says.

  Being born, it's as if you go inside a building. You lock yourself inside a building with no windows to see out. And after you're inside any building long enough, you forget how the outside looked. Without a mirror, you'd forget your own face.

  He never seemed to notice how one of us was always missing from the gallery. No, Mr. Whittier just talked and talked, while somebody was always sneaking downstairs to destroy any Mylar bag that listed green peppers as an ingredient.

  That's how it happened. How no one knew everyone else had the same plan. We each just wanted to raise the stakes a little. To make sure our rescue team wouldn't find us pillowed in silver bags of rich food, suffering from nothing but boredom and gout. Each suffering survivor, fifty pounds heavier than when Mr. Whittier took us hostage.

  Of course, we each wanted to leave enough food to last until we were almost rescued. Those last couple days, when we were really fasting, hungry and suffering—we could stretch that to a couple weeks in the retelling.

  The book. The movie. The television miniseries.

  We'd starve just long enough to get what Comrade Snarky called “Death Camp Cheekbones.” The more ins and outs your face has, the better Miss America says you'll look on television.

  Those vermin-proof bags were so tough, we'd each begged to borrow a knife from Chef Assassin, from his beautiful set of paring knives, chef's knives, cleavers, filleting knives and kitchen shears. Except for the Missing Link with his bear-trap jaw; he'd just use his teeth.

  “You are permanent, but this life is not,” Mr. Whittier would say. “You don't expect to visit an amusement park, then stay forever.”

  No, we're only visiting, and Mr. Whittier knows that. And we're born here to suffer.

  “If you can accept that,” he says, “you can accept anything that happens in the world.”

  The irony is, if you can accept that—you'll never again suffer.

  Instead, you'll run toward torture. You'll enjoy pain.

  Mr. Whittier had no idea he was so right.

  At one point, that evening, Chef Assassin walked into the salon, still holding a boning knife in one hand. He looked at Whittier and said, “The washing machine is broke. Now you have to let us go . . .”

  Mr. Whittier looked up, still crunching a mouthful of dried turkey Tetrazzini, he said, “What's wrong with the washer?”

  And Chef Assassin held up something in his other hand, not the knife, something loose and dangling. He said, “Some desperate, hostage cook cut off the plug-in . . .”

  The object dangling from his hand.

  It's after that we couldn't wash clothes, another plot point for the story that would be our cash cow.

  At that point, Mr. Whittier groaned and slipped the fingers of one hand inside the top of his pants. He said, “Mrs. Clark?” His fingers pressed the spot inside his belt, and he said, “Now, that hurts . . .”

  Watching him, twirling his rope of cut-off plug-in, Chef Assassin said, “I hope it's cancer.”

  His fingers still in his pants, sunk in his Arabian cushions, Mr. Whittier bends double to put his head between his knees.

  Mrs. Clark steps forward, saying, “Brandon?”

  And Mr. Whittier slips to the floor, his knees pulled to his chest, moaning.

  In our heads, for the scene in the movie, this scene only with a movie star twisting in fake pain on the red-and-blue Oriental carpet, in our heads, we're all writing down: “Brandon!”

  Mrs. Clark squats down to lift the empty Mylar bag from where he's dropped it among the silk cushions. Her eyes twitch across the words stenciled there, and she says, “Oh, Brandon.”

  All of us trying to be the camera behind the camera behind the camera. The last story in line. The truth.

  In the future movie and TV miniseries version of this scene, we're all coaching a famous beauty-queen actress to say: “Oh my God, Brandon! Oh, dear sweet suffering Jesus!”

  Mrs. Clark holds the bag for him to see, and she says, “You just ate the equivalent of ten turkey dinners . . .” She says, “Why?”

  And Mr. Whittier moans. “Because,” he says, “I'm still a growing boy . . .”

  In the future version, the beauty queen cries: “You're splitting apart inside! You're going to explode like a burst appendix!”

  In the movie version, Mr. Whittier is screaming, his shirt stretched tight over his swelling belly, his fingernails claw the buttons open. Just then the tight skin starts to tear, the way a nylon stocking gaps open. Red blood spouts straight out, the way a whale clears its blowhole. A blood fountain that makes the audience scream.

  In reality, his shirt looks a little tight. His hands unbuckle his belt. They pop open the top button of his pants. Mr. Whittier cuts a fart.

  Mrs. Clark holds out a glass of water, saying, “Here, Brandon. Drink something.”

  And Saint Gut
-Free says, “No water. He'll only bloat more.”

  Mr. Whittier, his body twists until he's stretched out on his stomach against the red-and-blue carpet. Each breath comes fast and short as a dog panting.

  “It's his diaphragm,” Saint Gut-Free says. The food expanding in his stomach, it's already absorbing moisture and blocking the duodenum at the bottom. The ten turkey Tetrazzini dinners are expanding upward, compressing his diaphragm, making it so his lungs can't inhale.

  Saying this, Saint Gut-Free is still eating handfuls of dried something from his own silver bag. Chewing and talking at the same time.

  Another happening inside could be the stomach splitting, fouling the abdominal cavity with blood and bile and growing bits of turkey meat. Bacteria spilling from the small intestine. Leading to peritonitis, Saint Gut-Free says, an infection of the cavity wall.

  In our movie version, Saint Gut-Free is tall with a straight nose and thick-framed glasses. He has a shock of thick, wild hair. A stethoscope hangs on his chest as he says duodenum and peritoneum. Not with his mouth full. In the movie, he holds out one hand, palm-up, and demands: “Scalpel!”

  In the version based-on-a-true-story, we boil water. We give Mr. Whittier shots of brandy and a bullet to bite. We mop Saint Gut-Free's forehead with a little sponge while a clock tick-tocks, tick-tocks, tick-tocks, loud.

  The noble victims saving their villain. The way we helped comfort poor Lady Baglady.

  In reality, we just stand here. Our hands, waving away his fart smell. We're maybe wondering how Whittier will play this scene, if he'll live or die. We really need a director. Someone to tell each one of us what our character would do.

  Mr. Whittier just moans, stroking his sides with his hands.

  Mrs. Clark just leans over him. Her breasts looming, she says, “Here, someone help me get him to his room . . .”

  Still nobody moves to help. We need for him to die. We can still make Mrs. Clark the evil villain.

  Then Miss America says it. She steps up beside his bloated stomach, face-down, his shirttails pulled out of his pants, the elastic of his underwear showing as his waistband rides down. Miss America steps up and—oomph!—her shoe kicks into the stretched-tight side of his belly. It's then she says, “Now, where's the goddamn key?”

  And Mrs. Clark bends an arm and elbows her back, away from the body. Mrs. Clark says, “Yes, Brandon. We need to get you to a hospital.”

  In his own way, Mr. Whittier did. He gave us the key. His stomach pulling apart on the inside, the cavities of him filling with blood, the dried chips of turkey still expanding, soaking up blood and water and bile, getting bigger until the skin of his belly looks pregnant. Until his bellybutton pops out, poked out stiff as a little finger.

  All of this, it takes place in the spotlight of Agent Tattletale's camera, him taping over the death of Lady Baglady. Replacing yesterday's tragic scene with today's.

  The Earl of Slander holds his tape recorder close, using the same cassette, betting this horror will be worse than the last.

  This moment, it's a plot point we've never dared dream. The first-act climax that would make our lives worth cash money. Mr. Whittier's busting open, the event we could witness to become someone famous, a famous authority. Like Lady Baglady's ear, Mr. Whittier's belly splitting open was our ticket. A blank check. A free pass.

  We were all soaking it up. Absorbing the event. Digesting the experience into a story. A screenplay. Something we could sell.

  The way his pumpkin belly subsided a little, going a bit flat when the pressure collapsed his diaphragm. We studied how his face, his mouth stretched open, his teeth biting for more air. More air.

  “An inguinal hernia,” Saint Gut-Free said. And we all said those words under our breath to better remember.

  “To the stage . . . ,” Mr. Whittier says, his face buried in the dusty carpet. He says, “I'm ready to recite . . .”

  An inguinal hernia . . . , we all echo in our heads. What's happened so far wouldn't make a good joke. All these idiots fooled into a building and trapped. The ringleader gets gas, and we escape. That's just NOT going to play.

  Already, Mother Nature is planning to take off her choker of brass bells and sneak him some water.

  Director Denial is planning to walk Cora Reynolds past his room and smuggle in a big pitcher of water.

  The Missing Link sees himself tiptoeing to Mr. Whittier's dressing room all night long, ladling water down his throat until the man goes: ka-boom.

  “Please, Tess?” Mr. Whittier says. He says, “Would you help me to bed?”

  And we all jot a note in our heads: Tess and Brandon, our jailers.

  “Hurry, to the stage . . . I'm cold,” Mr. Whittier says while Mother Nature helps him to his feet.

  “Probably shock,” Saint Gut-Free says.

  In the version we'll sell, he's already a goner. One villain will die, and his she-villain will torment the rest of us in her rage. Mistress Tess, holding us captive. Depriving us of food. Forcing us to wear dirty rags. We, being her innocent victims.

  Saint Gut-Free stands to put an arm around Mr. Whittier. Mother Nature helps. Mrs. Clark follows with her glass of water. The Earl of Slander with his tape recorder. Agent Tattletale, his video camera.

  “Trust me,” Saint Gut-Free says. “I happen to know a lot about human insides.”

  As if we still needed her to die, Miss Sneezy sneezes into her fist. Miss Sneezy, the future ghost of here.

  Wiping the spray from her arm, Comrade Snarky says, “Gross!” She says, “Were you raised in a plastic bubble or what?”

  And Miss Sneezy says, “Yeah, pretty much.”

  The Matchmaker excuses himself, saying he's tired and needs some sleep. And he sneaks down to the subbasement to sabotage the furnace.

  He couldn't guess, but the Duke of Vandals has already beat him to that punch.

  This leaves the rest of us sitting on the silk cushions and pillows spotted with mildew under the Arabian Nights dome. The silver bag of turkey Tetrazzini empty on the carpet. The carved elephant pillars.

  In our heads, we're all jotting down the line: I happen to know a lot about human insides . . .

  And nothing more happens. More nothing happens.

  Until the rest of us unfold our legs and slap the dust from our clothes. We head for the auditorium, our fingers crossed we'll hear Mr. Whittier's last words.


  A Poem About Mr. Whittier

  “The same mistakes we made as cavemen,” says Mr. Whittier, “we still make.”

  So maybe we're supposed to fight and hate and torture each other . . .

  Mr. Whittier rolls his wheelchair to the edge of the stage,

  with his spotted hands, his bald head.

  The folds of his slack face seem to hang

  from his too-big eyes, his cloudy, watery-gray eyes.

  The ring looped through one of his nostrils, the earphones of his CD player looped around the wrinkles and folds of his beef-jerky neck.

  Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a black-and-white movie fragment:

  Mr. Whittier's head is wallpapered with newsreel armies marching.

  His mouth and eyes lost in the shadow boots and bayonets that worm across his cheeks.

  He says, “Maybe suffering and misery is the point of life.”

  Consider that the earth is a processing plant, a factory.

  Picture a tumbler used to polish rocks:

  A rolling drum filled with water and sand.

  Consider that your soul is dropped in as an ugly rock,

  some raw material or a natural resource, crude oil, mineral ore.

  And all conflict and pain is just the abrasive that rubs us,

  polishes our souls, refines us,

  teaches and finishes us over lifetime after lifetime.

  Then consider that you've chosen to jump in, again and again,

  knowing this suffering is your entire reason for coming to earth.

  Mr. Whittier, his teeth
crowded too many in his narrow jawbone,

  his dead-tumbleweed eyebrows, Mr. Whittier's bat-wing ears spread wide

  with the shadow armies marching across,

  he says,

  “The only alternative is, we're all just eternally stupid.”

  We fight wars. We fight for peace. We fight hunger. We love to fight.

  We fight and fight and fight, with our guns or mouths or money.

  And the planet is never one lick better than it was before us.

  Leaning forward, both his hands clawed on the arms of his wheelchair,

  as the newsreel armies march over his face, those moving tattoos

  of their machine guns and tanks and artillery,

  Mr. Whittier says: “Maybe we're living the exact way we're meant to live.”

  Maybe our factory planet is processing our souls . . . just fine.

  Dog Years

  A Story by Brandon Whittier

  These angels, they see themselves being. These agents of mercy.

  Put together so much more nice than God had planned, with their rich husbands and good genetics and orthodontia and dermatology. These stay-at-home mothers with teenaged kids in school. At-home, but not homemakers. Not housewives.

  Educated, sure, but not too smart.

  They have help for all the rough work. Hired experts. They use the wrong scouring powder, and their granite countertops or limestone tile is worthless. The wrong fertilizer, and their landscaping gets burned. The wrong color paint, and all their careful effort, their investment, suffers. With the kids in school, and God at his office, the angels have all day to kill.

  So here they are. Volunteers.

  Where they can't screw up anything too important. Pushing the library cart around a retirement center. Between yoga and their book group. Hanging the Halloween decorations at an old-folks' home. Any old-age hospice, you'll find them, these angels of boredom.

  These angels with their flat-soled shoes handmade in Italy. Their good intentions and art-history degrees and long afternoons to kill until the kids get home from soccer or ballet after school. These angels, pretty in their flower-print sundresses, their clean hair tied back. And smiling. Smiling. Every time you sneak a look.

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