Choke, p.21
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       Choke, p.21

           Chuck Palahniuk
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  There’s nothing left. Only white noise. Static.

  And now she’s going to die.

  Unless there’s a miracle.

  The guard blows through the security doors, looking at the front desk girl, asking, “So? What’s the situation here?”

  And on the monitor, in grainy black-and-white, she points at me bent double with the ache in my guts, me carrying my swollen gut around in both hands, and she says, “Him.”

  She says, “This man needs to be restricted from the property, starting right now.”

  Chapter 42

  How it showed up on the news last night was just me shouting, waving my arms in front of the camera, with Denny a little ways behind me, working to set a rock in a wall, and Beth just a little behind him, hammering a boulder into dust, trying to carve a statue.

  On TV, I’m jaundiced yellow, hunchbacked from the swell and weight of my guts coming apart on the inside. Bent over, I’m lifting my face to look into the camera, my neck looping from my head down into my collar. My neck as thin as an arm, my Adam’s apple sticks out as big as an elbow. This is yesterday right after work, so I’m still wearing my Colonial Dunsboro blousey linen shirt and my britches. With the buckle shoes and the cravat, this doesn’t help.

  “Dude,” Denny says, sitting next to Beth at Beth’s apartment while we watch ourselves on TV. He says, “You don’t look so hot.”

  I look like that dumpy Tarzan from my fourth step, the one bent over with the monkey and the roasted chestnuts. The tubby savior with his beatific smile. The hero with nothing left to hide.

  On TV, all I was trying to do was explain to everybody that there was no controversy. I was trying to convince people that I’d started the mess by calling the city and saying I lived nearby and some nutcase was building without a permit, I didn’t know what. And the worksite posed a hazard to area children. And the guy doing the work didn’t look too savory. And it was no doubt a Satanic church.

  Then I’d called them at the TV station and said the same stuff.

  And that’s how this all started.

  The part about how I did all this just to make Denny need me, well, I didn’t explain that part. Not on television.

  For real, all my explanation got left on the cutting-room floor because on TV, I’m just this sweaty bloated maniac trying to put my hand over the camera lens, yelling at the reporter to go away and swatting my other hand at the microphone boom that swings through the shot.

  “Dude,” Denny says.

  Beth videotaped my little fossilized moment, and we watch it over and over.

  Denny says, “Dude, you look possessed by the devil or something.”

  Really, I’m possessed by a whole different deity. This is me trying to make good. I’m trying to work some little miracles so I can build up to the big stuff.

  Sitting here with a thermometer in my mouth, I check and it says 101 degrees. The sweat keeps juicing out of me, and to Beth I say, “I’m sorry about your sofa.”

  Beth takes the thermometer for a look, then puts her cool hand on my forehead.

  And I say, “I’m sorry I used to think you were a stupid airhead bimbo.”

  Being Jesus means being honest.

  And Beth says, “That’s okay.” She says, “I never cared what you thought. Only Denny.” She shakes the thermometer and slips it back under my tongue.

  Denny rewinds the tape, and there I am, again.

  Tonight, my arms ache and my hands are soft and raw from working with the lime in the mortar. To Denny, I say, so how does it feel to be famous?

  Behind me on television, the walls of rock rise and swell round into the base for a tower. Other walls rise around gaps for windows. Through a wide doorway, you can see a wide flight of stairs rising inside. Other walls trail off to suggest the foundations for other wings, other towers, other cloisters, colonnades, raised pools, sunken courtyards.

  The voice of the reporter is asking, “This structure you’re building, is it a house?”

  And I say we don’t know.

  “Is it a church of some kind?”

  We don’t know.

  The reporter leans into the shot, a man with brown hair combed into one fixed swell above his forehead. He tilts his hand-held microphone toward my mouth, asking, “What are you building, then?”

  We won’t know until the very last rock is set.

  “But when will that be?”

  We don’t know.

  After so long living alone, it feels good to say “we.”

  Watching me say this, Denny points at the TV and says, “Perfect.”

  Denny says, the longer we can keep building, the longer we can keep creating, the more will be possible. The longer we can tolerate being incomplete. Delay gratification.

  Consider the idea of Tantric Architecture.

  On TV, I tell the reporter, “This is about a process. This isn’t about getting something done.”

  What’s funny is I really think I’m helping Denny.

  Every rock is a day Denny doesn’t waste. Smooth river granite. Blocky dark basalt. Every rock is a little tombstone, a little monument to each day where the work most people do just evaporates or expires or becomes instantly outdated the moment it’s done. I don’t mention this stuff to the reporter, or ask him what happens to his work the moment after it goes out on the air. Airs. Is broadcast. Evaporates. Gets erased. In a world where we work on paper, where we exercise on machines, where time and effort and money passes from us with so little to show for it, Denny gluing rocks together seems normal.

  I don’t tell the reporter all that.

  There I am, just waving and saying we need more rocks. If people will bring us rocks, we’d appreciate it. If people want to help, that would be great. My hair stiff and dark with sweat, my belly bloated over the front of my pants, I’m saying the only thing we don’t know is how this will turn out. And what’s more is we don’t want to know.

  Beth goes into the kitchenette to pop popcorn.

  I’m starving but I don’t dare eat.

  On TV is the final shot of the walls, the bases for a long loggia of columns that will rise to a roof, someday. Pedestals for statues. Someday. Basins for fountains. The walls rise to suggest buttresses, gables, spires, domes. Arches rise to support vaults someday. Turrets. Someday. The bushes and trees are already growing in to hide and bury some of it. Branches grow in through the windows. The grass and weeds grow waist-high in some rooms. All of this spreading away from the camera, here’s just a foundation we may none of us see completed in our lifetime.

  I don’t tell the reporter that.

  From outside the shot, you can hear the cameraman shout, “Hey, Victor! Remember me? From the Chez Buffet? That time you almost choked … ”

  The telephone rings and Beth goes to get it.

  “Dude,” Denny says, and rewinds the tape again. “What you just told them, that’s just going to drive some people crazy.”

  And Beth says, “Victor, it’s your mom’s hospital. They’ve been trying to find you.”

  I yell back, “In a minute.”

  I tell Denny to run the tape again. I’m almost ready to deal with my mom.

  Chapter 43

  For my next miracle, I buy pudding. This is chocolate pudding, vanilla and pistachio pudding, butterscotch pudding, all of it loaded with fat and sugar and preservatives and sealed inside little plastic tubs. You just peel off the paper top and spoon it up.

  Preservatives is what she needs. The more preservatives, I figure, the better.

  A whole shopping bag full of puddings in my arms, I go to St. Anthony’s.

  It’s so early the girl isn’t at her desk in the lobby.

  Sunk in her bed, my mom looks up from inside her eyes and says, “Who?”

  It’s me, I say.

  And she says, “Victor? Is it you?”

  And I say, “Yeah, I think so.”

  Paige isn’t around. Nobody’s around, it’s so early on a Saturday morning. The sun’s j
ust coming in through the blinds. Even the television in the dayroom is quiet. Mom’s roommate, Mrs. Novak the undresser, is curled on her side in the next bed, asleep, so I whisper.

  I peel the top off the first chocolate pudding and find a plastic spoon in the shopping bag. With a chair pulled up beside her bed, I lift the first spoonful of pudding and tell her, “I’m here to save you.”

  I tell her I finally know the truth about myself. That I was born a good person. A manifestation of perfect love. That I can be good, again, but I have to start small. The spoon slips between her lips and leaves the first fifty calories inside.

  With the next spoonful, I tell her, “I know what you had to do to get me.”

  The pudding just sits there, brown and glistening on her tongue. Her eyes blink, fast, and her tongue sweeps the pudding into her cheeks so she can say, “Oh, Victor, you know?”

  Spooning the next fifty calories into her mouth, I say, “Don’t be embarrassed. Just swallow.”

  Through the muck of chocolate, she says, “I can’t stop thinking what I did is terrible.”

  “You gave me life,” I say.

  And turning her head away from the next spoonful, away from me, she says, “I needed United States citizenship.”

  The stolen foreskin. The relic.

  I say that doesn’t matter.

  Reaching around, I spoon more into her mouth.

  What Denny says is that maybe the second coming of Christ isn’t something God will decide. Maybe God left it up to people to develop the ability to bring back Christ into their lives. Maybe God wanted us to invent our own savior when we were ready. When we need it most. Denny says maybe it’s up to us to create our own messiah.

  To save ourselves.

  Another fifty calories go into her mouth.

  Maybe with every little effort, we can work up to performing miracles.

  Another spoonful of brown goes into her mouth.

  She turns back to me, her wrinkles squeezing her eyes narrow. Her tongue sweeps pudding into her cheeks. Chocolate pudding wells out the corners of her mouth. And she says, “What the hell are you talking about?”

  And I say, “I know that I’m Jesus Christ.”

  Her eyes fall open wide, and I spoon in more pudding.

  “I know you came from Italy already impregnated with the sacred foreskin.”

  More pudding into her mouth.

  “I know you wrote this all in Italian in your diary so I wouldn’t read it.”

  More pudding into her mouth.

  And I say, “Now I know my true nature. That I’m a loving caring person.”

  More pudding goes into her mouth.

  “And I know I can save you,” I say.

  My mom, she just looks at me. Her eyes filled with total infinite understanding and compassion, she says, “What the fuck are you getting at?”

  She says, “I stole you out of a stroller in Waterloo, Iowa. I wanted to save you from the kind of life you’d get.”

  Parenthood being the opiate of the masses.

  See also: Denny with his baby stroller full of stolen sandstone.

  She says, “I kidnapped you.”

  The poor deluded, demented thing, she doesn’t know what she’s saying.

  I spoon in another fifty calories.

  “It’s okay,” I tell her. “Dr. Marshall read your diary and told me the truth.”

  I spoon in more brown pudding.

  Her mouth stretches open to speak, and I spoon in more pudding.

  Her eyes bulge and tears slide down the sides of her face.

  “It’s okay. I forgive you,” I tell her. “I love you, and I’m here to save you.”

  With another spoonful halfway to her mouth, I say, “All you have to do is swallow this.”

  Her chest heaves, and brown pudding bubbles out her nose. Her eyes roll back. Her skin, it’s getting bluish. Her chest heaves again.

  And I say, “Mom?”

  Her hands and arms tremble, and her head arches back deeper into her pillow. Her chest heaves, and the mouthful of brown muck sucks back into her throat.

  Her face and hands are more blue. Her eyes rolled over white. Everything smells like chocolate.

  I press the nurse call button.

  I tell her, “Don’t panic.”

  I tell her, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry … ”

  Heaving and flopping, her hands clawing at her throat. This is how I must look choking in public.

  Then Dr. Marshall’s standing on the other side of her bed, with one hand tilting my mom’s head back. With her other hand, she scoops pudding out of her mouth. To me, Paige says, “What’s happened?”

  I was trying to save her. She was delusional. She doesn’t remember I’m the messiah. I’m here to save her.

  Paige leans over and breathes into my mom. She stands again. She breathes into my mom’s mouth again, and each time she stands there’s more brown pudding smeared around Paige’s mouth. More chocolate. The smell is everything we breathe.

  Still holding a cup of pudding in one hand and the spoon in the other, I say, “It’s okay. I can do this. Just like with Lazarus,” I say. “I’ve done this before.”

  And I spread my hands open against her heaving chest.

  I say, “Ida Mancini. I command you to live.”

  Paige looks up at me between breaths, her face smeared with brown. She says, “There’s been a little misunderstanding.”

  And I say, “Ida Mancini, you are whole and well.”

  Paige leans over the bed and spreads her hands next to mine. She presses with all her strength, again and again and again. Heart massage.

  And I say, “That’s really not necessary.” I say, “I am the Christ.”

  And Paige whispers, “Breathe! Breathe, damn it!”

  And from somewhere higher up on Paige’s forearm, somewhere tucked high up her sleeve, a plastic patient bracelet falls down to around Paige’s hand.

  It’s then all the heaving, the flopping, the clawing and gasping, everything, it’s right then when everything stops.

  “Widower” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

  Chapter 44

  My mother’s dead. My mom’s dead, and Paige Marshall is a lunatic. Everything she told me she made up. Including the idea that I’m, oh I can’t even say it: Him. Including that she loves me.

  Okay, likes me.

  Including that I’m a natural-born nice person. I’m not.

  And if motherhood is the new God, the only thing sacred we have left, then I’ve killed God.

  It’s jamais vu. The French opposite of déjà vu where everybody is a stranger no matter how well you think you know them.

  Me, all I can do is go to work and stagger around Colonial Dunsboro, reliving the past again and again in my mind. Smelling the chocolate pudding smeared on my fingers. I’m stuck in the moment when my mom’s heart stopped heaving and the sealed plastic bracelet proved Paige was an inmate. Paige, not my mom, was the deluded one.

  I was the deluded one.

  At that moment, Paige looked up from the chocolate mess smeared all over the bed. She looked at me and said, “Run. Go. Just get out.”

  See also: “The Blue Danube Waltz.”

  Staring at her bracelet was everything I could do.

  Paige came around the bed to grab my arm and said, “Let them think I did this.” She dragged me to the doorway, saying, “Let them think she did it to herself.” She looked up and down the hallway and said, “I’ll wipe your prints off the spoon and put it in her hand. I’ll tell people you left the pudding with her yesterday.”

  As we pass doors, they all snap locked. It’s from her bracelet.

  Paige points me to an outside door and says she can’t go any closer or it won’t open for me.

  She says, “You were not here today. Got it?”

  She said a lot of other stuff, but none of it counts.

  I’m not loved. I’m not a beautiful so
ul. I’m not a good-natured, giving person. I’m not anybody’s savior.

  All of that’s bogus now that she’s insane.

  “I just murdered her,” I say.

  The woman who just died, who I just smothered in chocolate, she wasn’t even my mother.

  “It was an accident,” Paige says.

  And I say, “How can I be sure of that?”

  Behind me, as I stepped outside, somebody must have found the body, because they kept announcing, “Nurse Remington to Room 158. Nurse Remington, please come immediately to Room 158.”

  I’m not even Italian.

  I’m an orphan.

  I stagger around Colonial Dunsboro with the birth-deformed chickens, the drug-addicted citizens, and the field-trip kids who think this mess has anything to do with the real past. There’s no way you can get the past right. You can pretend. You can delude yourself, but you can’t re-create what’s over.

  The stocks in the middle of the town square are empty. Ursula leads a milk cow past me, both of them smelling like dope smoke. Even the cow’s eyes are dilated and bloodshot.

  Here, it’s always the same day, every day, and there should be some comfort in that. The same as those television shows where the same people are trapped on the same desert island for season after season and never age or get rescued, they just wear more makeup.

  This is the rest of your life.

  A herd of fourth-graders run by, screaming. Behind them’s a man and a woman. The man’s holding a yellow notebook, and he says, “Are you Victor Mancini?”

  The woman says, “That’s him.”

  And the man holds the notebook up and says, “Is this yours?”

  It’s my fourth step from the sexaholics group, my complete and ruthless moral inventory of myself. The diary of my sex life. All my sins accounted for.

  And the woman says, “So?” To the man with the notebook, she says, “Arrest him, already.”

  The man says, “Do you know a resident of the St. Anthony’s Constant Care Center named Eva Muehler?”

  Eva the squirrel. She must’ve seen me this morning, and she’s told them what I did. I killed my mom. Okay, not my mom. That old woman.

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