Choke, p.15
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       Choke, p.15

           Chuck Palahniuk
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  The “pocket full of posies” was what people of London carried so they wouldn’t smell the corpses.

  To build a fire, all you do is pile up some sticks and dry grass. You strike a spark with a flint. You work the bellows. Don’t think for a second this fire-starting routine makes their little eyes sparkle. Nobody’s impressed by a spark. Kids crouch in the front row, huddling over their little video games. Kids yawn right in your face. All of them giggle and pinch, rolling their eyes at me in my breeches and dirty shirt.

  Instead, I tell them how in 1672, the Black Plague hit Naples, Italy, killing some four hundred thousand people.

  In 1711, in the Holy Roman Empire, the Black Plague killed five hundred thousand people. In 1781, millions died worldwide from the flu. In 1792, another plague killed eight hundred thousand people in Egypt. In 1793, mosquitoes spread yellow fever to Philadelphia, where it killed thousands.

  One kid in the back whispers, “This is worse than the spinning wheel.”

  Other kids open their box lunches and look inside their sandwiches.

  Outside the window, Denny’s bent over in the stocks. This time just out of habit. The town council has announced he’ll be banished right after lunch. The stocks are just where he feels most safe from himself. Nothing’s locked or even closed, but he’s bent over with his hands and neck where they’ve been for months.

  On their way here from the weaver’s, one kid was poking a stick in Denny’s nose and then trying to poke the stick in his mouth. Other kids rub his shaved head for luck.

  Starting the fire only kills about fifteen minutes, so after that I’m supposed to show each herd of kids the big cooking pots and twig brooms and bed warmers and shit.

  Children always look bigger in a room with a six-foot ceiling. A kid in the back says, “They gave us fucking egg salad again.”

  Here in the eighteenth century, I’m sitting beside the hearth of the big open fireplace equipped with the regular torture chamber relics, the big iron pothooks, the pokers, andirons, branding irons. My big fire blazing. This is a perfect moment to take the iron pincers out of the coals and pretend to study their pitted white-hot points. All the kids step back.

  And I ask them, hey kids, can anybody here tell me how people in the eighteenth century used to abuse naked little boys to death.

  This always gets their attention.

  No hands go up.

  Still studying the pincers, I say, “Anybody?”

  Still no hands.

  “For real,” I say and start working the hot pincers open and shut. “Your teacher must’ve told you about how they used to kill little boys back then.”

  Their teacher’s outside, waiting. How it worked was, a couple hours ago, while her class was carding wool, this teacher and me wasted some sperm in the smokehouse, and for sure she thought it would turn into something romantic, but hey. Me being face deep in her wonderful rubbery butt, it’s amazing what a woman will read into it if you by accident say, I love you.

  Ten times out of ten, a guy means I love this.

  You wear a foofy linen shirt, a cravat, and some breeches, and the whole world wants to sit on your face. The two of you sharing ends of your fat hot slider, you could be on the cover of some paperback bodice-ripper. I tell her, “Oh, baby, cleave thy flesh unto mine. Oh yeah, cleave for me, baby.”

  Eighteenth-century dirty talk.

  Their teacher, her name’s Amanda or Allison or Amy. Some name with a vowel in it.

  Just keep asking yourself: “What would Jesus not do?”

  Now in front of her class, with my hands good and black, I stick the pincers back into the fire, then wiggle two of my black fingers at the kids, international sign language for come closer.

  The kids in the back push the ones in the front. The ones in the front look around, and one kid calls out, “Miss Lacey?”

  A shadow in the window means Miss Lacey’s watching, but the minute I look at her she ducks out of sight.

  I motion to the kids, closer. The old rhyme about Georgie Porgie, I tell them, is really about England’s King George the Fourth, who could just never get enough.

  “Enough what?” a kid says.

  And I say, “Ask your teacher.”

  Miss Lacey continues to lurk.

  I say, “You like the fire I got here?” and nod at the flames. “Well, people need to clean the chimney all the time, only the chimneys are really small inside and they run all over the place, so people used to force little boys to climb up in them and scrape the insides.”

  And since this was such a tight place, I tell them, the boys would get stuck if they wore any clothes.

  “So just like Santa Claus … ” I say, “they climbed up the chimney … ” I say, and lift a hot poker from the fire, “naked.”

  I spit on the red end of the poker and the spit sizzles, loud, in the quiet room.

  “And you know how they died?” I say. “Anybody?”

  No hands go up.

  I say, “You know what a scrotum is?”

  Nobody says yes or even nods, so I tell them, “Ask Miss Lacey.”

  Our special morning in the smokehouse, Miss Lacey was bobbing on my dog with a good mouthful of spit. Then we were sucking tongues, sweating hard and trading drool, and she pulled back for a good look at me. In the dim smoky light, those big fake plastic hams were hanging all around us. She’s just swamped and riding my hand, hard, and breathing between each word. She wipes her mouth and asks me if I have any protection.

  “It’s cool,” I tell her. “It’s 1734, remember? Fifty percent of all children died at birth.”

  She puffs a limp strand of hair off her face and says, “That’s not what I mean.”

  I lick her right up the middle of her chest, up her throat, and then stretch my mouth around her ear. Still jacking her with my swamped fingers, I say, “So, you have any evil afflictions I should know about?”

  She’s pulling me apart behind and wets a finger in her mouth, and says, “I believe in protecting myself.”

  And I go, “That’s cool.”

  I say, “I could get canned for this,” and roll a rubber down my dog.

  She worms her wet finger up my pucker and slaps my ass with her other hand and says, “How do you think I feel?”

  To keep from triggering, I’m thinking of dead rats and rotten cabbage and pit toilets, and I say, “What I mean is, latex won’t be invented for another century.”

  With the poker, I point at the fourth-graders, and I say, “These little boys used to come out of the chimneys covered with the black soot. And the soot used to grind into their hands and knees and elbows and nobody had soap so they stayed black all the time.”

  This was their whole lives back then. Every day, somebody forced them up a chimney and they spent all day crawling along in the darkness with the soot getting in their mouths and noses and they never went to school and they didn’t have television or video games or mango-papaya juice boxes, and they didn’t have music or remote-controlled anything or shoes and every day was the same.

  “These little boys,” I say and wave the poker across the crowd of kids, “these were little boys just like you. They were exactly like you.”

  My eyes go from each kid to each kid, touching all their eyes for a moment.

  “And one day, each little boy would wake up with a sore place on his private parts. And these sore places didn’t heal. And then they metastasized and followed the seminal vesicles up into the abdomen of each little boy, and by then,” I say, “it was too late.”

  Here’s the flotsam and jetsam of my med school education.

  And I tell how sometimes they tried to save the little boy by cutting off his scrotum, but this was before hospitals and drugs. In the eighteenth century, they still called these kind of tumors “soot warts.”

  “And those soot warts,” I tell the kids, “were the first form of cancer ever invented.”

  Then I ask, does anybody know why they call it cancer?


  I say, “Don’t make me call on somebody.”

  Back in the smokehouse, Miss Lacey was running her fingers through the clumps of her damp hair, and said, “So?” As if it’s just an innocent question, she says, “You have a life outside of here?”

  And wiping my armpits dry with my powdered wig, I say, “Let’s not pretend, okay?”

  She’s bunching up her pantyhose the way women do so they can snake their legs inside, and says, “This kind of anonymous sex is a symptom of a sex addict.”

  I’d rather think of myself as a playboy, James Bond type of guy.

  And Miss Lacey says, “Well, maybe James Bond was a sex addict.”

  Here, I’m supposed to tell her the truth. I admire addicts. In a world where everybody is waiting for some blind, random disaster or some sudden disease, the addict has the comfort of knowing what will most likely wait for him down the road. He’s taken some control over his ultimate fate, and his addiction keeps the cause of his death from being a total surprise.

  In a way, being an addict is very proactive.

  A good addiction takes the guesswork out of death. There is such a thing as planning your getaway.

  And for serious, it’s such a chick thing to think that any human life should just go on and on.

  See also: Dr. Paige Marshall.

  See also: Ida Mancini.

  The truth is, sex isn’t sex unless you have a new partner every time. The first time is the only session when your head and body are both there. Even the second hour of that first time, your head can start to wander. You don’t get the full anesthetic quality of good first-time anonymous sex.

  What would Jesus NOT do?

  But instead of all that, I just lied to Miss Lacey and said, “How can I reach you?”

  I tell the fourth-graders that they call it cancer because when the cancer starts growing inside you, when it breaks through your skin, it looks like a big red crab. Then the crab breaks open and it’s all bloody and white inside.

  “Whatever the doctors tried,” I tell the silent little kids, “every little boy would end up dirty and diseased and screaming in terrible pain. And who can tell me what happened next?”

  No hands go up.

  “For sure,” I say, “he died, of course.”

  And I put the poker back into the fire.

  “So,” I say, “any questions?”

  No hands go up, so I tell them about the fairly bogus studies where scientists shaved mice and smeared them with smegma from horses. This was supposed to prove foreskins caused cancer.

  A dozen hands go up, and I tell them, “Ask your teacher.”

  What a frigging job that must’ve been, shaving those poor mice. Then finding a bunch of uncircumcised horses.

  The clock on the mantel shows our half hour is almost over. Out through the window, Denny’s still bent over in the stocks. He’s only got until one o’clock. A stray village dog stops next to him and lifts its leg, and the stream of steaming yellow goes straight into Denny’s wooden shoe.

  “And what else,” I say, “is George Washington kept slaves and didn’t ever chop down a cherry tree, and he was really a woman.”

  As they push toward the door I tell them, “And don’t mess with the dude in the stocks anymore.” I shout, “And lay off shaking the damn chicken eggs.”

  Just to stir the turd, I tell them to ask the cheesemaker why his eyes are all red and dilated. Ask the blacksmith about the icky lines going up and down the insides of his arms. I call after the infectious little monsters, any moles or freckles they have, that’s just cancer waiting to happen. I call after them, “Sunshine is your enemy. Stay off the sunny side of the street.”

  Chapter 29

  After Denny’s moved in, I find a block of salt-and-pepper granite in the fridge. Denny lugs home chunks of basalt, his hands stained red with iron oxide. He wraps his pink baby blanket around black granite cobbles and smooth washed river rocks and slabs of sparkling mica quartzite and brings them home on the bus.

  All those babies that Denny adopts. A whole generation piling up.

  Denny carts home sandstone and limestone one blocky soft pink armload at a time. In the driveway, he hoses the mud off them. Denny stacks them behind the sofa in the living room. He stacks them in the kitchen corners.

  Every day, I come home from a hard day in the eighteenth century, and here’s a big lava rock on the kitchen counter next to the sink. There’s this little gray boulder on the second shelf down in the fridge.

  “Dude,” I say. “Why’s there a rock in the fridge.”

  Denny’s here in the kitchen, taking warm clean rocks out of the dishwasher and swiping them with a dish towel, and he says, “Because that’s my shelf, you said so.” He says, “And that’s not just a rock, that’s granite.”

  “But why in the fridge?” I go.

  And Denny says, “Because the oven is already full.”

  The oven is full of rocks. The freezer is full. The kitchen cabinets are so full they’re coming down off the wall.

  The plan was only one rock a day, but Denny’s got such an addictive personality. Now he has to cart home a half-dozen rocks every day just to maintain his habit. Every day the dishwasher is running and the kitchen counters are spread with my mom’s good bath towels covered with rocks so they can air-dry Round gray rocks. Square black rocks. Broken brown and streaked yellow rocks. Travertine limestone. Every new batch that Denny brings home, he loads in the dishwasher and throws the clean, dry rocks from the day before into the basement.

  At first you can’t see the basement floor because of all the rocks. Then the rocks are piling up around the bottom step. Then the basement’s filled to halfway up the stairs. Now you open the basement door and the rocks piled inside spill out into the kitchen. Anymore, there is no basement.

  “Dude, the place is filling up,” I say. “It feels like we’re living in the bottom half of an hourglass.”

  Like somehow we’re running out of time.

  Being buried alive.

  Denny in his dirty clothes, his waistcoat coming apart under the arms, his cravat hanging in threads, he waits at each bus stop cradling each pink bundle against his chest. He bounces each armload when the muscles in his arms start to fall asleep. After the bus comes, Denny with dirt smeared on his cheeks snores leaned against the drumming metal inside of the bus, still holding his baby.

  At breakfast I say, “Dude, you said your plan was one rock each day.”

  And Denny says, “That’s all I do. Just one.”

  And I say, “Dude, you are such a junkie.” I say, “Don’t lie. I know you’re doing at least ten rocks a day.”

  Putting a rock in the bathroom, in the medicine cabinet, Denny says, “Okay, so I’m a little ahead of schedule.”

  There’s rocks hidden in the toilet tank, I tell him.

  And I say, “Just because it’s rocks doesn’t mean this still isn’t substance abuse.”

  Denny with his running nose, with his shaved head, his baby blanket wet in the rain, he waits at each bus stop, coughing. He shifts the bundle from arm to arm. With his face tucked in close, he pulls up the pink satin edge of the blanket. To better protect his baby this looks like, but really to hide the fact that it’s volcanic tufa.

  The rain’s running off the back of his tricorner hat. Rocks tear out the inside of his pockets.

  Inside his sweaty clothes, carrying all that weight, Denny keeps getting skinnier and skinnier.

  Heaving around what looks like a baby, it’s just a waiting game until somebody in the neighborhood gets him nailed for child abuse and neglect. People are just itching to declare some-body an unfit parent and put some kid in a foster home, hey but that’s just been my experience.

  Every night, I come home from a long evening of choking to death and there’s Denny with some new rock. Quartz or agate or marble. Feldspar or obsidian or argillite.

  Every night I come home from forging heroes out of nobodies, and the dishwasher’s
running. I still have to sit down and do the day’s accounts, total the checks, send today’s thank-you letters. A rock’s sitting on my chair. My papers and stuff on the dining-room table, it’s all covered with rocks.

  At first, I tell Denny, no rocks in my room. He can put the rocks anywhere else. Put them in the hallways. Put them in the closets. After that I’m saying, “Just don’t be putting rocks in my bed.”

  “But you never sleep on that side,” Denny says.

  I say, “That’s not the point. No rocks go in my bed, that’s the point.”

  I come home from a couple hours of group therapy with Nico or Leeza or Tanya, and there’s rocks inside the microwave oven. There’s rocks in the clothes dryer. Rocks inside the washing machine.

  Sometimes it’s three or four in the morning before Denny’s in the driveway hosing off a new rock, some nights a rock so big he has to roll it inside. Then he’s piling it on top the other rocks in the bathroom, in the basement, in my mom’s room.

  This is Denny’s full-time occupation, this hustling rocks home.

  Denny’s last day at work, at his banishment, His Royal Colonial Governorship stood at the doors to the Customs House and read from a little leather book. His hands almost hid the little thing, but it was black leather with the pages edged with gold paint and a few ribbons dangled from the top of the spine, one black, one green, and one red ribbon.

  “Like the smoke vanisheth, so shall thou drive them away and like as wax melteth at the fire,” he read, “so let the ungodly perish at the presence of God.”

  Denny leaned closer to me and said, “The part about the smoke and the wax,” Denny said, “I think he means me.”

  At one o’clock in the town square, His Lord High Charlie, the Colonial Governor, was reading to us, standing with his face bowed into his little book. A cold wind pulled the smoke out sideways from every chimney pot. The milkmaids were there. Cobblers were there. The blacksmith was there. All of them, their clothes and hair, their breath and wigs reeking of hash. Reeking of reefer. All of their eyes, red and wasted.

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