Haunted, p.13
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       Haunted, p.13

           Chuck Palahniuk
 
That's her theory. The Mrs. Clark extension to the theory of Mr. Whittier.

  We have pain and hate and love and joy and war in the world because we want them. And we want all that drama to prepare us for the test of facing death, someday.

  Mother Nature, sitting with both arms out straight in front of her, sleepwalker-style, she spreads her fingers and looks at the smudged dark henna designs painted on her skin. With the fingers of one hand, she feels around the base of each finger on her other hand. Feeling the bone, for how thick, Mother Nature says, “Do you think Lady Baglady was ready?” She says, “Do you think Mr. Whittier was?”

  And Mrs. Clark shrugs. She says, “Does that matter?”

  Sitting on the fake fur next to Mother Nature, Director Denial has twisted a nylon stocking around the wrist of her left hand. With her right hand, she twists the stocking tighter as the fingers of her left hand turn white. So white, even the pale cat hair looks dark against her blue-white skin. Until those white feeling-nothing fingers wilt and hang, limp from her wrist.

  In his lap, Saint Gut-Free works the thumb of his right hand, stroking the thumb up and down with the fist of his left hand. Feeling the bumps and knuckles of his thumb so he'll never forget. For after it's gone.

  We all sit here, watching each other. Waiting for the next plot point or bit of dialogue to catch and squirrel away for our marketable version of the truth.

  Agent Tattletale moves his camera spotlight from person to person. The Earl of Slander's little-mesh microphone peeks out of his shirt pocket.

  This moment foreshadowing the real horror of the next. This moment's already taping over the death of Mr. Whittier, which taped over the death of Lady Baglady, which taped over Miss America holding a knife to Mr. Whittier's throat.

  To Mrs. Clark, Mother Nature says, “So why did you love him?”

  “I didn't come here because I loved him,” Mrs. Clark says. To Agent Tattletale, she says, “Do not point that camera at me. I look terrible on video . . .” Still, in the heat of the camera's spotlight, Mrs. Clark smiles with her teeth clenched, a clown's smile with her water-balloon lips, saying, “I came here because I saw an advertisement . . .”

  And she trusted herself to this man she didn't know? She followed him and helped him? Even knowing he'd trap her behind a locked door? It doesn't make sense.

  The Reverend Godless, with his stitched-meat face, his eyebrows shaved off, his fingernails so long he can't make a fist, he says, “But you cried . . .”

  “Every apostle or disciple,” Mrs. Clark says, “as much as they're running to follow their savior—they're running just as hard to escape something else.”

  With the warriors carved to watch us, the paper orchids dyed and folded to look natural, Mrs. Clark says how she used to have a daughter. A husband.

  “Cassie was fifteen,” she says.

  She says, “Her name was Cassandra.”

  Mrs. Clark says, sometimes when the police find a shallow grave or the dumped body of a murder victim, the detectives will hide a microphone there. It's standard procedure.

  She nods at the Earl of Slander, at the tape recorder in his pocket.

  The police will hide nearby, and listen for days or weeks. Because almost always the killer will come back and talk to the victim. Pretty much always. We need to tell the story of our life to someone, and the killer can only discuss his crime with a person who won't punish him. His prey.

  Even a killer needs to talk, to tell his life story, so bad he'll come and sit beside a grave or a rotting body and just blab, blab, blab at it for hours. Until he makes sense. Until the killer can convince himself with the story of his new reality. The reality that—he was right.

  That's why the police wait.

  Still smiling, she says, “And that's why I'm here.” Mrs. Clark says, “Like the rest of you, I only wanted some way to tell my story . . .”

  Still in the warm circle of Agent Tattletale's spotlight, Mrs. Clark says, “Please.” She cups both hands to cover her face, and through her fingers tight together, she says, “It was a video camera that wrecked my marriage . . .”

  Looking Back

  A Poem About Mrs. Clark

  “You're training a new employee,” says Mrs. Clark, “to take over your boring old job.”

  When you raise a child.

  Mrs. Clark onstage, her arms wrap across the front of her,

  each hand cupping the other elbow

  to cradle breasts chosen by a much braver woman.

  With a much stronger back.

  This chest, now a reminder of every mistake she hoped would save her.

  Her eyelids are tattooed the orange that looked so chic

  two decades ago,

  her lips siliconed to the size and shape of suction cups,

  then tattooed a forgotten shade of frosty peach.

  Her Mrs. Clark hairdo and clothes, frozen from a time

  when she lost her nerve, and stopped taking any new risk.

  Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:

  Home movies show a little girl wearing a party hat of paper, strapped

  under her chin with a string of elastic,

  blowing out five birthday candles.

  “Before you get fired,” Mrs. Clark says, “you train this new person by telling her . . .”

  Don't touch. Hot!

  Feet off the sofa!

  And—never buy anything with a nylon zipper.

  With every lecture, you're forced to look again at every choice you've made

  over the lesson-by-lesson chain of your entire life.

  And after all these years, you see how little you have to work with,

  how limited your life and education have been.

  How scant was your courage and curiosity.

  Not to mention your expectations.

  Mrs. Clark onstage, she sighs, her breasts rising big as soufflés

  or loaves of bread, then falling, settling, resting.

  She says how maybe the best advice is what you can't tell her at all:

  To preserve yourself as the center of the world,

  to stay your own best authority on everything,

  your own expert on all topics,

  infallible,

  omniscient.

  Always, every time of the month, forever:

  Use birth control.

  Post-Production

  A Story by Mrs. Clark

  Tess and Nelson Clark, the first couple of days, they lived as if nothing had happened. This meant getting into work clothes and unlocking the door of their car. They'd drive to the office. That night, they'd sit not-talking at the kitchen table. They'd eat some food.

  So what.

  The rental place would call about needing their camera equipment back.

  Nelson was home, with Tess, or he wasn't.

  By the third day, she only got out of bed to use the toilet. She didn't bother to call in sick to work. Her heart would just beat and beat, no matter what she tried. That's not to say she tried anything.

  It wasn't worth the effort to start drinking or start measuring the car for a hose long enough to connect the exhaust pipe with the driver's-side window. No way was it worth the effort to go see a doctor at her HMO and lie hard enough he'd prescribe a good sleeping pill. Anything else she might do, like pushing a razor blade into her wrist, taking that kind of action just looked like another stupid plan to solve all her problems one more time.

  The lights and camera were still crowded around the Clarks' bed.

  Committing suicide just seemed to be another aggressive plan to fix her life. If she turned on the movie lights and camera, they could get the death on tape. A snuff movie in two parts. A miniseries. Another Big Project. Killing herself would just be: Tess Clark, getting the job overdone. Another beginning, middle, and end.

  Going to work just looked crazy. Eating another meal, ever, made about as much sense as planting tulip bulbs in the shadow of a falling atom bomb.

  This is a
ll a flashback now, but it was Nelson who'd looked at their savings account. It was him who said the only way they could afford to have a baby is by making an adult video.

  “One day,” Mrs. Clark says, “this will happen to you, and in just that one second your life will feel about one hundred years too long . . .”

  On their fifth day of lying in bed, they'd swear they'd been alive forever. Lying in bed day after day is probably how it feels to be a vampire. Imagine being alive for thousands of years and you keep making the same stupid mistake. Just for thousands of years you keep going to bars and clubs and you think you're having a great time. You imagine you're the center of attention. You have a husband you think is handsome. You think you're both such entirely hot shit.

  The Clarks thought a lot of couples got rich by making adult movies. The home-video industry is only popular because video porn created the demand. Couples all except them were making extra money in their spare time. Other married couples weren't just wasting their sex, unwatched, unappreciated by strangers. First, they'd rent a camera and the editing deck. They'd find a distributor for the movie. Since they were married, Nelson said, it wouldn't even be a sin.

  Now, it doesn't make any sense to get out of bed and erase the videotape. That would be like breaking a mirror for showing you the truth. Like killing the bearer of bad news.

  “Just laying in bed day after day,” Mrs. Clark says, “you realize it's not wooden stakes that kill vampires.” It's all the emotional baggage and letdowns they have to carry around for century after century.

  You want to think you're getting funnier and smarter all the time. As long as you're making an effort, you're headed for that Big Win. That's how you'd feel as a vampire for maybe the first couple hundred years. After that, all you have is the same failed relationship multiplied by two hundred.

  So what.

  The trouble with eternal youth is, you do tend to procrastinate. So the Clarks taught themselves how to make a video. This included Nelson shaving away the hair around the base of his dick, to make it look bigger. Tess got breast implants as big as her spine would support. During just an afternoon nap, she got the kind of stand-alone bustline you only see in adult movies. Her lips she got threaded inside with tubes of puffed-foam fillers, giving her a blow-job pout for the rest of her life. Both the Clarks, they signed up for tanning sessions, twenty minutes, twice a day. They read out loud to each other, how editing a video is done by the exact time code given to each moment of tape.

  Every moment is coded with the hour, the minutes, the second, and the exact frame number. The code 01:34:14:25 would mean the first hour, thirty-fourth minute, fourteenth second, and twenty-fifth frame of a video tape. Editing even an adult video, you have to create a false reality. You have to imply a relationship by putting events next to each other. This path of images, it has to lead the viewer from one sex act to the next. You have to fake a continuity. The illusion has to make sense.

  They got most of the oral coverage shot before 10:22:19:02.

  Then they did a lot of genital footage until 25:44:15:17.

  They shot some perianal and then perivaginal footage until 31:25:21:09.

  And they finished off with the anal stuff at 46:34:07:15.

  Since these movies always end the same way, the story about getting there, the journey to the big orgasm, is what's most important. The orgasm, just a formality. Stock footage.

  Something else to keep in mind is, the average shot in a video is eight to fifteen seconds long. Tess and Nelson would have to work together for about twenty seconds at a time. After that long, they'd get up and hit the PAUSE button. They'd move the camera to a new angle and relight the shot. They'd film for another twenty seconds. Their marriage was still where sex was fun, but after that first day of filming, the only thing that kept them going was the money they'd make. The money and the baby.

  “We were both,” Mrs. Clark says, “full of that energy that makes dogs dance just before they get fed.”

  Tess and Nelson, they'd never looked better than they did going into that movie. That was the worst part. For most of a week, they kept going back to the bedroom. Even linked together just twenty seconds at a time, they must've had sex for a total of some forty-eight hours. The hot lights sucking the sweat out of their tanned skin.

  To keep excited, they set up a television just outside the shot and ran adult movies they could watch while being taped. These became their cue cards or TelePrompTer they could mimic. The same as the Clarks, the people in each movie seemed to be looking off camera at a movie of their own. This chain of voyeurism, the Clarks watching someone watch someone watch someone, it felt good. The video that Tess and Nelson watched, it was at least five years old. The men had long sideburns and the women wore dangle earrings and blue-sparkle eye shadow. How old the movie those people were watching, it was anybody's guess, but it felt better, knowing that all of them were daisy-chained throughout history.

  Those video people, they looked the Clarks' age in front of their camera, but now they'd be sliding into middle age. They looked young, with muscles in their legs and arms, long and standing out, but they moved fast, as if what they watched off camera was a clock.

  To help each other smile, Tess and Nelson took turns saying what they'd do with their money.

  They'd buy a house.

  They'd travel to Mexico.

  They'd make real movies. Feature films. They'd start their own independent production company, and never work for other people, ever again.

  They'd name their child Cassie, if it was a girl.

  Baxter, if it was a boy. Instead of some old birthing video, someday they'd show their child his conception. Baxter would see just how hot and with-it his old folks had been. It seemed so progressive.

  And after that, they'd never, ever have to have sex, ever again.

  The worse the job got, the more they expected to earn. The more it hurt to touch their chapped skin, or to lie back against the cold, sweat-soaked mattress, the brighter they had to make their future. Their faces ached from smiling. Their skin burned red from being caressed. As the marathon went on, their reward had to grow more and more impossible.

  Then, quick as a doctor saying your disease is fatal, quick as a judge handing down a death sentence, they were done.

  The Clarks had done everything they could imagine to each other. All they had left to do was edit the tape.

  That was supposed to be the fun part.

  The difference between how you look and how you see yourself is enough to kill most people.

  And maybe the reason vampires don't die is because they can never see themselves in photographs or mirrors.

  “No amount of editing,” Mrs. Clark says, “was going to save us.”

  No amount of aerobic exercise or plastic surgery would ever make them look the way they'd imagined they looked before they watched that tape. All they saw were two almost hairless animals, hairless and dark pink and proportioned all wrong, the way mongrel crossbreed dogs look, with short legs and long necks and thick torsos with no definite waist. They were grinning big bear-trap smiles at each other while their eyes darted at the camera to make sure someone was still paying attention. They sucked their stomachs flat.

  Worse than their everyday ugliness was the proof they were getting old. Their lips suction-cupped each other, and their loose skin looked baggy and wadded around every orifice. Their bodies rocked together as if they were some terrible old machine forced to work at top speed until it would break apart.

  Nelson's erection looked twisted and dirt-dark, something from a bin in the back of a Chinese grocery. Tess's lips and her chest looked sideshow-too-big, the scars still burning-red.

  So what.

  Tess Clark cried as they watched themselves from every angle, in every position. Every part of them, from the soles of their feet to their scalps, the secrets they kept between their legs, the hair they hid under their arms, they watched it all, until the tape ran out and left them sitting in t
he dark.

  That was all they were.

  After that, even crying seemed like another doomed way to get through the moment. Any emotion seemed a silly and useless way to deny what they'd both seen. Any action meant starting over with another doomed, stupid dream.

  They could make another movie. Start their production company. Only now, whatever they did, they would know it wasn't real. They'd never be the way they imagined they were.

  And no matter how hard they tried, no matter how much money they made, they were both going to die.

  In two days with a rented camera, they'd used up their lifetime allowance of interest in each other. Neither of them held any mystery.

  The lights and camera, ABC Rentals kept calling to get them back. The rental company kept charging their credit card until the Clarks owed more money than they'd ever put in savings.

  The day Nelson Clark rolled out of bed, to pack the camera and lights, to take them back, that day he didn't come home.

  That next week, Mrs. Clark's period didn't come, either.

  “These two huge breasts,” Mrs. Clark says, “they were supposed to be a tax deduction.” Just the appearance of something big and mothery. And now a baby was on the way.

  Nelson Clark never did come home. In a city this size, every year, hundreds of husbands walk away. Kids leave home. Wives escape. People disappear.

  So what.

  Tess Clark burned the videotape, but it plays every time her eyes close. Even now, almost sixteen years later. Even now that her child is born and grown and dead.

  That baby, she named: Cassandra.

  9

  It's in the Italian Renaissance lounge that Mrs. Clark finds Director Denial slumped over a heavy, dark wood table. The table dripping with blood from every edge. The sticky blood already flocked with a layer of cat hair. Director Denial with a rope of twisted nylon stocking tied around her wrist. A meat cleaver is sunk in the table. Above the nylon stocking, the Director's hand lies pale in a puddle of dark red.

  On the floor under the table, Cora Reynolds chews on a severed index finger.

  “My dear,” Mrs. Clark says, looking at the crusted, bloody stump as the Director wraps a scrap of yellow silk around and around to cover it. The blood soaking through the yellow. Mrs. Clark steps forward to help, to wrap the silk tighter, and she says, “Who did this to you?”

 
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