Choke, p.11
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       Choke, p.11

           Chuck Palahniuk
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  To the man on the couch, she’d say, “Shall we get started?”

  Even if a guy said he wasn’t after sex, the Mommy would still tell him to bring a towel. You brought a towel. You paid in cash. Don’t ask her to bill you later or bill some insurance company, because she just couldn’t be bothered. You pay cash, then you file the claim.

  You only get fifty minutes. Guys had to know what they wanted.

  This means the woman, the positions, the setting, the toys. Don’t spring anything fancy on her at the last minute.

  She’d tell Mr. Jones to lie back. Close his eyes.

  Allow all the tension in your face to melt away. Your forehead first; let it go slack. Relax the spot between your eyes. Imagine your forehead smooth and relaxed. Then the muscles around your eyes, smooth and relaxed. Then the muscles around your mouth. Smooth and relaxed.

  Even if guys said they were just looking to lose some weight, they wanted sex. If they wanted to quit smoking. Manage stress. Quit biting their nails. Cure hiccups. Stop drinking. Clear up their skin. Whatever the issue, it was because they weren’t getting laid. Whatever they said they wanted, they’d get sex here and the problem was solved.

  If the Mommy was a compassionate genius or a slut, you don’t know.

  Sex pretty much cures everything.

  She was the best therapist in the business, or she was a whore that fucked with your mind. She didn’t like being so slam bam with her clients, but she’d never planned to earn a living this way.

  This kind of session, the sex kind, had first happened by accident. A client who wanted to quit smoking wanted to be regressed to the day he was eleven and took his first puff. So he could remember how bad it tasted. So he could quit by going back and never starting. That was the basic idea.

  On his second session, this client wanted to meet with his father, who was dead of lung cancer, just to talk. This is still pretty much normal. People want to meet with famous dead people all the time, for guidance, for advice. It was so real that on his third session, the client wanted to meet Cleopatra.

  To each client, the Mommy said, let all the tension drain from your face to your neck, then from your neck to your chest. Relax your shoulders. Allow them to roll back and press into the couch. Imagine a heavy weight pressing your body, settling your head and arms deeper and deeper into the cushions of the couch.

  Relax your arms, your elbows, your hands. Feel the tension trickle down into each finger, then relax and imagine the tension draining out through each fingertip.

  What she did was put him in a trance, hypnotic induction, and guide the experience. He wasn’t going back in time. None of it was real. What was most important is he wanted this to happen.

  The Mommy, she just gave the play-by-play story. The blow-by-blow description. The color commentary. Imagine listening to a baseball game over the radio. Imagine how real it can seem. Now imagine it from inside a heavy theta-level trance, a deep trance where you hear and smell. You taste and feel. Imagine Cleopatra rolling out of her carpet, naked and perfect and everything you’ve always wanted.

  Imagine Salome. Imagine Marilyn Monroe. If you could go back to any period in history and get with any woman, women who would do everything you could imagine. Incredible women. Famous women.

  The theater of the mind. The bordello of the subconscious.

  That’s how it started.

  Sure, what she did was hypnosis, but it wasn’t real past-life regression. It was more a kind of guided meditation. She’d tell Mr. Jones to focus on the tension in his chest and let it recede. Let it flow down to his waist, his hips, his legs. Imagine water spiraling down a drain. Relax each part of your body, and let the tension flow down to your knees, your shins, your feet.

  Imagine smoke drifting away. Let it diffuse. Watch it vanish. Disappear. Dissolve.

  In her appointment book, next to his name it said Marilyn Monroe, the same as most guys here for their first time. She could live on just doing Marilyn. She could live on just doing Princess Diana.

  To Mr. Jones, she said, imagine you’re looking up at a blue sky, and imagine a tiny airplane skywriting the letter Z. Then let the wind erase the letter. Then imagine the plane writing the letter Y. Let the wind erase it. Then the letter X. Erase it. Then the letter W.

  Let the wind erase it.

  All she really did was set the stage. She just introduced men to their ideal. She set them up on a date with their subconscious because nothing is as good as you can imagine it. No one is as beautiful as she is in your head. Nothing is as exciting as your fantasy.

  Here you’d have the sex you’d only dreamt about. She’d set the stage and make the introductions. The rest of the session, she’d watch the clock and maybe read a book or do a crossword puzzle.

  Here you’d never be disappointed.

  Buried deep in his trance, a guy would lie there and twitch and hump, a dog chasing rabbits in a dream. Every few guys, she’d get a screamer or a moaner or a groaner. You have to wonder what the people in the room next door would think. Guys in the waiting room heard the fuss, and it would drive them wild.

  After the session, a guy would be soaked with sweat, his shirt wet and sticking to him, his pants stained. Some could pour the sweat out of their shoes. They could shake it out of their hair. The couch in her office was Scotchgarded, but it never really got a chance to really dry out. Now it’s sealed inside a clear plastic slipcover, more to keep the years of mess inside it than to protect it from the outside world.

  So guys each had to bring a towel, in their briefcases, in paper bags, in their gym bags with a clean change of clothes. In between clients, she’d spray around air fresheners. She’d open the windows.

  To Mr. Jones, she’d say, make all the tension in your body collect in your toes, then drain out. All the tension. Imagine your whole body slack. Relaxed. Collapsed. Relaxed. Heavy. Relaxed. Empty. Relaxed.

  Breathe with your stomach instead of your chest. In, and then out.

  In, and then out.

  Breathing in.

  And then out. Smooth and even.

  Your legs are tired and heavy. Your arms are tired and heavy.

  At first, what the stupid little boy remembers is the Mommy did house cleansings, not any kind of vacuuming and dusting, but spiritual cleaning, exorcisms. The hardest part was getting the people at the Yellow Pages to run her ad under the heading “Exorcist.” You go and burn sage. Say the Lord’s Prayer and walk around. Maybe beat a clay drum. Declare the house clean. Clients will pay for just doing that.

  Cold spots, bad smells, eerie feelings—most people don’t need an exorcist. They need a new furnace or a plumber or an interior decorator. The point is, it’s not important what you think. What’s important is that they’re sure they have a problem. Most of those jobs come through realtors. In this city, we have a real estate disclosure law, and people will admit to the dumbest faults, not just asbestos and buried oil tanks, but ghosts and poltergeists. Everybody wants more excitement from their life than they’ll ever get. Buyers on the verge of closing, they’ll need a little reassurance about the house. The realtor calls, and you put on a little show, burn some sage, and everybody wins.

  They get what they want, plus a good story to tell. An experience.

  Then came Feng Shui, the kid remembers, and the clients wanted an exorcism and they wanted her to tell them where to put the sofa. Clients would ask where did the bed need to go to avoid being in the path of cutting chi from the corner of the dresser. Where should they hang mirrors to bounce the flow of chi back upstairs or away from open doors. It turned into that kind of job. This is what you do with a graduate degree in English.

  Just her résumé was proof of reincarnation.

  With Mr. Jones, she’d run through the alphabet backwards. She’d tell him, you are standing in a grassy meadow, but now the clouds will descend, coming lower and lower, settling over you until they’re all around you in a dense fog. A dense, bright fog.

  Imagine standing in
a bright, cool fog. The future is to your right side. The past to your left. The fog is cool and wet on your face.

  Turn to your left and start walking.

  Imagine, she’d tell Mr. Jones, a shape just ahead of you in the fog. Keep walking. Feel the fog start to lift. Feel the sun bright and warm on your shoulders.

  The shape is closer. With every step, the shape is more and more clear.

  Here, in your mind, you have complete privacy. Here there’s no difference between what is and what could be. You’re not going to catch any disease. Or crab lice. Or break any law. Or settle for any less than the best of everything you can imagine.

  You can do anything you can imagine.

  She’d tell each client, breathe in. Then out.

  You can have anyone. Anywhere.

  In. Then out.

  From Feng Shui, she went to channeling. Ancient gods, enlightened warriors, dead pets, she’d faked them. Channeling led to hypnosis and past-life regression. Regressing people led her here, to nine clients every day at two hundred bucks per. To guys in the waiting room all day. To wives calling and yelling at the little boy:

  “I know he’s there. I don’t know what he claims, but he’s married.”

  To wives sitting in cars outside, calling on car phones to say:

  “Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on up there. I’ve followed him.”

  It’s not as if the Mommy started with the idea of summoning up the most powerful women in history to give hand jobs, blow jobs, half-and-half, and round-the-world.

  It just snowballed. The first guy talked. A friend of his called. A friend of the second guy called. At first, they all asked for help to cure something legit. Smoking or chewing tobacco. Spitting in public. Shoplifting. Then they just wanted sex. They wanted Clara Bow and Betsy Ross and Elizabeth Tudor and the Queen of Sheba.

  And every day she was running down to the library to research the next day’s women, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

  In, and then out.

  Guys called wanting to pork Helen Hayes, Margaret Sanger, and Aimee Semple McPherson. They wanted to bone Edith Piaf, Sojourner Truth, and the Empress Theodora. And at first it bothered the Mommy, how all these guys were obsessed with only dead women. And how they never asked for the same woman twice. And no matter how much detail she put into a session, they only wanted to pork and bone, slam and bump, shaft, hole, screw, drill, pound, pile-drive, core, and ride.

  And sometimes a euphemism just isn’t.

  Sometimes a euphemism is more true than what it’s supposed to hide.

  And this really wasn’t about sex.

  These guys meant just what they asked for.

  They didn’t want conversation or costumes or historical accuracy. They wanted Emily Dickinson naked in high heels with one foot on the floor and the other up on her desk, bent over and running a quill pen up the crack of her butt.

  They’d pay two hundred bucks to go into a trance and find Mary Cassatt wearing a push-up bra.

  It wasn’t every man who could afford her, so she’d get the same type again and again. They’d park their minivans six blocks away and hurry over to the house, staying near the buildings, each guy dragging his shadow. They’d stumble in wearing dark glasses, then wait behind open newspapers and magazines until their name was called. Or their alias. If the Mommy and the stupid little boy ever met them in public, these men would pretend not to know her. In public, they’d have wives. In the supermarket, they’d have kids. In the park, dogs. They’d have real names.

  They’d pay her with damp twenties and fifties from sopping wet wallets full of sweaty photos, library cards, charge cards, club memberships, licenses, change. Obligations. Responsibility. Reality.

  Imagine, she’d tell each client, the sun on your skin. Feel the sun get warmer and warmer with each breath you exhale. The sun bright and warm on your face, your chest, your shoulders.

  Breathe in. Then out.

  In. Then out.

  Her repeat customers, now they all wanted girl-on-girl shows, they’d want a two-girl party, Indira Gandhi and Carol Lombard. Margaret Mead and Audrey Hepburn and Dorothea Dix. Repeat clients didn’t even want to be real themselves. The bald ones would ask for full, thick hair. The fat ones asked for muscle. The pale, tans. After enough sessions, every man would ask for a strutting, foot-long erection.

  So it wasn’t real past-life regression. And wasn’t love. It wasn’t history, and wasn’t reality. It wasn’t television, but it happened in your mind. It was a broadcast, and she was the sender.

  It wasn’t sex. She was just the tour guide for a wet dream. A hypno lap dancer.

  Each guy kept his pants on for damage control. Containment. The mess went way beyond just peter tracks. And it paid a fortune.

  Mr. Jones would get the standard Marilyn experience. He’d be rigid on the couch, sweating and mouth-breathing. His eyes rolled back. His shirt would go dark under the arms. His crotch would tent up.

  Here she is, the Mommy would tell Mr. Jones.

  The fog is gone and it’s a shining, hot day. Feel the air on your bare skin, your bare arms and legs. Feel yourself getting warmer with every breath you breathe out. Feel yourself growing longer and thicker. Already you’re harder and heavier, more purple and throbbing than you’ve ever felt.

  Her watch said they had about forty minutes before the next client.

  The fog is gone, Mr. Jones, and the shape just in front of you is Marilyn Monroe in a tight satin dress. Golden and smiling, her eyes half closed, her head tilts back. She stands in a field of tiny flowers and lifts her arms, and as you step closer her dress slips to the ground.

  To the stupid little boy, the Mommy used to say this wasn’t sex. These weren’t real women as much as they were symbols. Projections. Sex symbols.

  The power of suggestion.

  To Mr. Jones, the Mommy would say, “Have at her.”

  She’d say, “She’s all yours.”

  Chapter 21

  That first night, Denny’s outside the front door holding something wrapped in a pink baby blanket. This is all through the peephole in my mom’s door: Denny in his giant plaid coat, Denny cradling some baby to his chest, his nose bulging, his eyes bulging, everything bulging because of the peephole lens. Everything distorted. His hands clutching the bundle are white with the effort.

  And Denny yells, “Open up, dude!”

  And I open the door as far as the burglar chain will go. I go, “What you got there?”

  And Denny tucks the blanket around his little bundle and says, “What’s it look like?”

  “It looks like a baby, dude,” I say.

  And Denny says, “Good.” He hefts the pink bundle and says, “Let me in, dude, this is getting heavy.”

  Then I slip the chain. I step aside, and Denny charges in and over to one living-room corner, where he heaves the baby onto the plastic-covered sofa.

  The pink blanket rolls and out rolls a rock, gray and granite-colored, scrubbed and smooth-looking. No baby, for real, just this boulder.

  “Thanks for the baby idea,” Denny says. “People see a young guy with a baby, and they’re sweet to you,” he says. “They see a guy carrying a big rock, and they get all tensed up. Especially if you want to bring it on the bus.”

  He tucks one edge of the pink blanket under his chin and starts folding it against his front and says, “Plus, with a baby you always get a seat. And if you forget your money they don’t kick you off.” Denny flops the folded blanket over his shoulder and says, “This your mom’s house?”

  The dining-room table is covered with today’s birthday cards and checks, my thank-you letters, the big book of who and where. Beside that’s my mom’s old ten-key adding machine, the kind with a long slot-machine handle you pull along one side. Sitting back down, I start doing today’s deposit slip and say, “Yeah, it’s her house until the property tax people kick me out in a few months.”

  Denny says, “It’s good you got
a whole house, since my folks want all my rocks to move out with me.”

  “Dude,” I say. “How many do you got?”

  He’s got a rock for every day he has sobriety, Denny says. It’s what he does at night to stay occupied. Find rocks. Wash them.

  Haul them home. It’s how his recovery is going to be about doing something big and good instead of just not doing little bad shit.

  “It’s so I don’t act out, dude,” he says. “You have no idea how tough it is to find good rocks in a city. I mean, not like chunks of concrete or those plastic rocks people hide their extra keys inside.”

  The total for today’s checks is seventy-five bucks. All from strangers who Heimlich Maneuvered me in some restaurant somewhere. This is nowhere near what I figure a stomach tube has got to cost.

  To Denny, I say, “So how many days you got so far?”

  “One hundred and twenty-seven rocks’ worth,” Denny says. He comes around the table next to me, looking at the birthday cards, looking at the checks, and says, “So where’s your mom’s famous diary?”

  He picks up a birthday card.

  “You can’t read it,” I say.

  Denny says, “Sorry, dude,” and starts to put the card down.

  No, I tell him. The diary. It’s written in some foreign language. That’s why he can’t read it. I can’t read it. How my mom thinks is she probably wrote it that way so I’d never sneak through it when I was a kid. “Dude,” I say, “I think it’s Italian.”

  And Denny goes, “Italian?”

  “Yeah,” I go, “you know, like spaghetti?”

  Still with his big plaid coat on, Denny says, “You eat yet?”

  Not yet. I seal the deposit envelope.

  Denny says, “You think they’re going to banish me tomorrow?”

  Yes, no, probably. Ursula saw him with the newspaper.

  The deposit slip is ready for the bank tomorrow. All the thank-you letters, the underdog letters, are signed and stamped and ready to mail. I get my coat from the sofa. Next to it, Denny’s rock is squashing the springs down.

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