Choke, p.12
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       Choke, p.12

           Chuck Palahniuk
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  “So what’s with these rocks,” I say.

  Denny’s opened the front door, and he’s standing there while I turn off some lights. In the doorway, he says, “I don’t know. But rocks are like, you know, land. It’s like these rocks are a kit. It’s land, but with some assembly required. You know, landowner-ship, but for right now it’s indoors.”

  I say, “For sure.”

  We go out and I lock the door behind us. The night sky is all fuzzy with stars. All out of focus. There’s no moon.

  Outside on the sidewalk, Denny looks up at the mess and says, “What I think happened is when God wanted to make the earth out of chaos, the first thing he did was just get a lot of rocks together.”

  While we walk, his new obsessive compulsion has my eyes already scanning vacant lots and places for rocks we can pick up.

  Walking down to the bus stop with me, still with the pink baby blanket folded over his shoulder, Denny says, “I only take the rocks nobody wants.” He says, “I’ll just get one rock every night. Then I figure I’ll figure out the next part, you know—next.”

  It’s such a creepy idea. Us taking home rocks. We’re collecting land.

  “You know that girl, Daiquiri?” Denny says. “The dancer with the cancery mole.” He says, “You didn’t sleep with her, did you?”

  We’re shoplifting real property. Burgling terra firma.

  And I say, “Why not?”

  We’re just an outlaw couple of land rustlers.

  And Denny says, “Her real name is Beth.”

  The way Denny thinks, he’s probably got plans to start his own planet.

  Chapter 22

  Dr. Paige Marshall stretches a string of something white tight between her two gloved hands. She stands over a deflated old woman in a recliner chair, and Dr. Marshall says, “Mrs. Wintower? I need you to open your mouth as wide as you can.”

  Latex gloves, the yellow way they make your hands look, this is just how cadaver skin looks. The medical cadavers from first-year anatomy with their shaved heads and pubic hair. The little stubble of the hairs. The skin could be chicken skin, cheap stewing chicken, turning yellow and dimpled with follicles. Feathers or hair, it’s all just keratin. The muscles of the human thigh look the same as dark-meat turkey. During first-year anatomy, you can’t look at chicken or turkey and not be eating a cadaver.

  The old woman tilts her head back to show her teeth wedged in their brown curve. Her tongue coated white. Her eyes are closed. This is how all these old women look at Communion, at Catholic Mass, when you’re an altar boy and have to follow along with the priest as he puts the wafer on tongue after old tongue. The church says you can receive the Host into your hand, then feed yourself, but not these old ladies. In church, you’ll still look down the Communion rail and see two hundred open mouths, two hundred old ladies stretching their tongues toward salvation.

  Paige Marshall leans in and forces the white string between the old woman’s teeth. She pulls, and when the string twangs out from the mouth, some soft gray bits flick out. She runs the string between two more teeth, and the string comes out red.

  For bleeding gums, see also: Oral cancers.

  See also: Necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis.

  The only good part about being an altar boy is you get to hold the paten under the chin of each person receiving Communion. This is a gold platter on a stick you use to catch the Host if it falls. Even if a Host hits the floor, you still have to eat it. At this point it’s consecrated. It’s become the body of Christ. The flesh incarnate.

  I watch from behind while Paige Marshall puts the bloody string back into the old woman’s mouth again and again. Gray and white bits of smear collect on the front of Paige’s lab coat. Little specks of pink.

  A nurse leans in the doorway and says, “Everybody okay in here?” To the old woman in the chair, she says, “Paige isn’t hurting you, is she?”

  The woman gargles an answer.

  The nurse says, “What was that?”

  The old woman swallows and says, “Dr. Marshall is very gentle. She’s more gentle than when you do my teeth.”

  “Almost done,” Dr. Marshall says. “You are being so good, Mrs. Wintower.”

  And the nurse shrugs and leaves.

  The good part of being an altar boy is when you hit somebody in the throat with the paten. People on their knees with their hands clasped in prayer, the little gaggy face they make right at the moment they are being so divine. I loved that.

  As the priest puts the host on their tongue, he’ll say, “Body of Christ.”

  And the person kneeling for Communion will say, “Amen.”

  What’s best is to hit their throat so the “Amen” comes out as a gaga baby sound. Or they make a duck quack. Or chicken cluck. Still, you had to do this by accident. And you had to not laugh.

  “All done,” Dr. Marshall says. She straightens up, and when she goes to toss the bloody string in the trash she sees me.

  “I didn’t want to interrupt,” I say.

  She’s helping the old woman out of the recliner and says, “Mrs. Wintower? Can you send Mrs. Tsunimitsu in to see me?”

  Mrs. Wintower nods. Through her cheeks, you can see her tongue stretching around inside her mouth, feeling her teeth, sucking her lips into a tight pucker. Before she steps out into the hallway, she looks at me and says, “Howard, I’ve forgiven you for cheating on me. You don’t have to keep coming around.”

  “Remember to send in Mrs. Tsunimitsu,” says Dr. Marshall.

  And I say, “So?”

  And Paige Marshall says, “So I have to do dental hygiene all day. What do you need?”

  I need to know what it says in my Mom’s diary.

  “Oh, that,” she says. She’s snapping off her latex gloves and stuffing them into a hazardous-waste canister. “The only thing that diary proves is your mother was delusional since before you were born.”

  Delusional how?

  Paige Marshall looks at a clock on the wall. She waves at the chair, the vinyl leather-look recliner Mrs. Wintower just left, and says, “Take a seat.” She’s stretching on a new pair of latex gloves.

  She wants to floss my teeth?

  “It will help with your breath,” she says. She spools out a length of dental floss, and says, “Sit, and I’ll tell you what’s in the diary.”

  So I sit, and my weight pushes a cloud of bad stink out of the recliner.

  “That wasn’t me,” I say. “That smell, I mean. I didn’t do that.”

  And Paige Marshall says, “Before you were born, your mother spent some time in Italy, right?”

  “So that’s the big secret?” I say.

  And Paige says, “What?”

  That I’m Italian?

  “No,” Paige says. She leans into my mouth. “But your mother is Catholic, isn’t she?”

  The string hurts as she snaps it between a couple teeth.

  “Please be joking,” I say. Around her fingers, I say, “I’m not Italian and Catholic! This is too much to bear.”

  I tell her I already know all this.

  And Paige says, “Shut up.” She leans back.

  “So who’s my father?” I say.

  She leans into my mouth, and the string snaps between two back teeth. The taste of blood pools around the base of my tongue. She’s squinting her attention deep into me, and says, “Well, if you believe in the Holy Trinity, you’re your own father.”

  I’m my own father?

  Paige says, “My point is that your mother’s dementia appears to go back to before you were born. According to what’s written in her diary, she’s been deluded since at least her late thirties.”

  She twangs the string out and bits of mouth food flick onto her coat.

  And I ask, what does she mean the Holy Trinity?

  “You know,” Paige says. “The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Three in one. Saint Patrick and the shamrock.” She says, “Could you open a little wider?”

  So just frigging tell me, f
lat out, I ask her, what does my mom’s diary say about me?

  She looks at the bloody string just yanked out of my mouth, and she looks down at my bits of blood and food flicked onto her lab coat and says, “It’s a fairly common delusion among mothers.” She leans in with the string and loops it around another tooth.

  Bits of stuff, half-digested stuff I didn’t know was there, it’s all breaking loose and coming out. With her pulling my head around by the floss, I could be a horse in harness at Colonial Dunsboro.

  “Your poor mother,” Paige Marshall says, looking through the blood flecked on her eyeglass lenses, “she’s so delusional she truly believes you’re the second coming of Christ.”

  Chapter 23

  Anytime somebody in a new car offered them a ride, the Mommy told the driver, “No.”

  They’d stand at the side of the road and watch the new Cadillac or the Buick or Toyota disappear, and the Mommy would say, “The smell of a new car is the smell of death.”

  This was the third or fourth time she came back to claim him.

  The glue and resin smell in new cars is formaldehyde, she’d tell him, the same thing they use to preserve dead bodies. It’s in new houses and new furniture. It’s called off-gassing. You can inhale formaldehyde from new clothes. After you inhale enough, expect stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

  See also: Liver failure.

  See also: Shock.

  See also: Death.

  If you’re looking for enlightenment, the Mommy said, a new car isn’t the answer.

  Along the side of the road would be foxgloves blooming, tall stalks of purple-and-white flowers. “Digitalis,” the Mommy said, “doesn’t work, either.”

  From eating foxglove flowers, you get nausea, delirium, and blurred vision.

  Above them, a mountain held itself against the sky, catching clouds and coated with pine trees and then some snow higher up. It was so big that no matter how long they walked, it was still in the same place.

  The Mommy took the white tube out of her purse. She pinched onto one shoulder of the stupid little boy for balance and sniffed hard with the tube stuck up one side of her nose. Then she dropped the tube onto the gravel edge of the road and just stood looking at the mountain.

  This was a mountain so big they would always be walking past it.

  When the Mommy let go, the stupid boy picked up the tube. He wiped the blood off with his shirttail and handed it back to her.

  “Trichloroethane,” the Mommy said and held the tube for him to see. “All my extensive testing has shown this to be the best treatment for a dangerous excess of human knowledge.”

  She buried the tube back in her purse.

  “That mountain, for example,” she said. She took the boy’s stupid chin between her thumb and forefinger and made him look with her. “That big glorious mountain. For one transitory moment, I think I may have actually seen it.”

  Another car slowed down, something brown and four-door, something too late-model, so the Mommy waved it away.

  For one flash, the Mommy had seen the mountain without thinking of logging and ski resorts and avalanches, managed wildlife, plate tectonic geology, microclimates, rain shadow, or yin-yang locations. She’d seen the mountain without the framework of language. Without the cage of associations. She’d seen it without looking through the lens of everything she knew was true about mountains.

  What she’d seen in that flash wasn’t even a “mountain.” It wasn’t a natural resource. It had no name.

  “That’s the big goal,” she said. “To find a cure for knowledge.”

  For education. For living in our heads.

  Cars went by on the highway, and the Mommy and little boy kept walking with the mountain still sitting there.

  Ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, humanity had been a little too smart for its own good, the Mommy said. Ever since eating that apple. Her goal was to find, if not a cure, then at least a treatment that would give people back their innocence.

  Formaldehyde didn’t work. Digitalis didn’t work.

  None of the natch highs seemed to do the job, not smoking mace or nutmeg or peanut skins. Not dill or hydrangea leaves or lettuce juice.

  At night, the Mommy used to sneak the little boy through the backyards of other people. She’d drink the beer people left out for slugs and snails, and she’d nibble their jimson weed and nightshade and catnip. She’d squeeze up next to parked cars and smell inside their gas tank. She’d unscrew the cap in their lawn and smell their heating oil.

  “I figure if Eve could get us into this mess, then I can get us out,” the Mommy said. “God really likes to see a go-getter.”

  Other cars slowed down, cars with families, full of luggage and family dogs, but the Mommy just waved them all past.

  “The cerebral cortex, the cerebellum,” she said, “that’s where your problem is.”

  If she could just get down to using only her brain stem, she’d be cured.

  This would be somewhere beyond happiness and sadness.

  You don’t see fish agonized by wild mood swings.

  Sponges never have a bad day.

  The gravel crushed and shifted under their feet. The cars going by made their own hot wind.

  “My goal,” the Mommy said, “is not to uncomplicate my life.”

  She said, “My goal is to uncomplicate myself.”

  She told the stupid little boy, morning glory seeds didn’t work. She’d tried them. The effects didn’t last. Sweet potato leaves didn’t work. Neither did pyrethrum extracted from chrysanthemums. Neither would sniffing propane. Neither did the leaves of rhubarb or azaleas.

  After a night in someone’s yard, the Mommy left a bite out of almost every plant for people to find.

  Those cosmetic drugs, she said, those mood equalizers and antidepressants, they only treat the symptoms of the bigger problem.

  Every addiction, she said, was just a way to treat this same problem. Drugs or overeating or alcohol or sex, it was all just another way to find peace. To escape what we know. Our education. Our bite of the apple.

  Language, she said, was just our way to explain away the wonder and the glory of the world. To deconstruct. To dismiss. She said people can’t deal with how beautiful the world really is. How it can’t be explained and understood.

  Ahead of them on the highway was a restaurant parked all around with trucks bigger than the restaurant itself. Some of the new cars the Mommy didn’t want were parked there. You could smell a lot of different food being fried in the same hot oil. You could smell the truck engines idle.

  “We don’t live in the real world anymore,” she said. “We live in a world of symbols.”

  The Mommy stopped and put her hand in her purse. She held the boy’s shoulder and stood looking up at the mountain. “Just one last little peek at reality,” she said. “Then we’ll have lunch.”

  Then she put the white tube in her nose and breathed in.

  Chapter 24

  According to Paige Marshall, my mom came from Italy already pregnant with me. This was the year after somebody had broken into a church in northern Italy This is all in my mom’s diary.

  According to Paige Marshall.

  My mom had gambled on some new kind of fertility treatment. She was almost forty. She wasn’t married, she didn’t want a husband, but somebody had promised her a miracle.

  This same somebody, they knew somebody who’d stolen a shoe box from under the bed of a priest. In that shoe box was the last earthly remains of a man. Somebody famous.

  It was his foreskin.

  This was a religious relic, the kind of bait used to draw crowds into churches during the Middle Ages. This is only one of several famous penises still around. In 1977, an American urologist bought the inch-long dried penis of Napoleon Bonaparte for about four thousand dollars. Rasputin’s foot-long penis is supposed to lie on velvet in a polished wooden box in Paris. John Dillinger’s twenty-inch monster is supposed to be bottled in formald
ehyde at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

  According to Paige Marshall, it’s in my mom’s diary that six women were offered embryos created from this genetic material. Five of those never came to term.

  The sixth is me. It was the foreskin of Jesus Christ.

  This is how crazy my mom was. Even twenty-five years ago, she was this cracked.

  Paige laughed and leaned in to floss the teeth of another old woman.

  “You have to give your mother credit for originality,” she said.

  According to the Catholic Church, Jesus was reunited with the foreskin at his resurrection and ascension. According to the story of Saint Teresa of Avila, when Jesus appeared to her and took her as his bride, he used the foreskin as her wedding ring.

  Paige snapped the string out from between the woman’s teeth and flicked blood and food onto the lenses of her own black glasses. The black brain of her hair tilted from side to side as she tried to see the old woman’s top row of teeth.

  She said, “Even if your mother’s story is true, there’s no proof the genetic material came from the actual historical figure. It’s more likely your father was just some poor Jewish nobody.”

  The old woman in the recliner, stretching her mouth around Dr. Marshall’s hands, rolled her eyes to stare at me.

  And Paige Marshall said, “This should make it okay for you to cooperate.”


  “With my course of treatment for your mother,” she said.

  To kill an unborn baby. I said, even if I wasn’t him, I still didn’t think Jesus would approve.

  “Of course he would,” Paige said. She snapped the string to flick a lump of tooth jam at me. “Didn’t God sacrifice his own son to save people? Isn’t that the story?”

  Here it is again, the fine line between science and sadism. Between a crime and a sacrifice. Between murdering your own child and what Abraham almost did to Isaac in the Bible.

  The old woman pulled her face away from Dr. Marshall, tonguing the string and bits of bloody food out of her mouth. She looked at me and said in her creaking voice, “I know you.”

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