Haunted, p.26
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       Haunted, p.26

           Chuck Palahniuk
 

  What sucks is, crippled or not, you've got to at least act crippled. You have to limp, or hold your head stiff on your neck to show you can't turn it. Even with painkillers pulsing through you, this is the kind of play-acting that starts you feeling terrible. You fake any symptom long enough, and you'll start to hurt for real. You limp around, and then your knee really does start to ache. You sit around and turn into a big fat hunchback.

  The American dream of leisure, it gets boring fast. Still, you're paid to be a cripple. Sitting with your television. Laying in a hammock, watching the damn animals. If you don't work, you don't sleep. Day and night, you're half awake, bored.

  Daytime television, you can tell who's watching by the three kinds of commercials. Either it's clinics for drying out drunks. Or it's law firms who want to settle injury suits. Or it's schools offering mail-order vocational degrees to make you a bookkeeper. A private detective. Or a locksmith.

  If you're watching daytime television, this is your new demographic. You're a drunk. Or a cripple. Or an idiot. After the first couple weeks, being a sloth sucks ass.

  You don't have the money to travel, but it doesn't cost anything to turn a shovelful of dirt. Work on your car. Plant a vegetable garden.

  One night, after it's dark, a cloud of mosquitoes and deer flies are thick around my porch light. Me in my Winnebago with a mug of hot tea and some Vicodin in my bloodstream, I look up from my book to watch the bugs outside the windows. That's when the sound comes. It's a man's voice, shouting from somewhere in the dark, back up in the woods.

  It's somebody shouting for help. Please. Help. He's slipped and hurt his back. Fallen out of a tree, he tells me.

  In the middle of the night, here he's dressed in a brown suit with a mustard-yellow vest, wearing brown leather wingtip shoes, and he says he's bird-watching. A pair of binoculars hang from a strap around his neck. That's what they teach in correspondence school. If you're caught by the suspect, say you're a bird-watcher. I offer to carry his briefcase. Then we each put an arm around the other and run a slow, slow, three-legged race back toward the porch light of my motor home.

  Almost there, the man sees my old shithouse and asks, can we stop a minute. He really needs to drop a load, he says. I help him inside the door.

  Soon as the door's shut and his belt buckle hits the wood floor, I pop open his briefcase. Inside is a lot of paper. And a video camera. The side of the camera pops open, and inside is a tape. When I pick it up, when I snap the camera shut, the tape starts to play by itself, and the little viewing screen lights up.

  On the screen, a little man takes a rear wheel and tire off a beat-up old Pinto.

  It's me, rotating my tires. Me, knocking lug nuts loose and jockeying the wheels off and on my car.

  Nothing else. No bird-watching. After a little buzz of static, the screen shows a tiny version of me, shirtless and lifting a full tank of propane. I carry the tank to the front of the Winnebago, where I change it for an empty.

  If Sarah is anything like me, right this minute, she's picking a bread knife out of a kitchen drawer. If she gives me a few Vicodins in a glass of water, maybe she could knock me out. Right now, she's looking close-up, almost cross-eyed, at the serrated edge of the knife, at how sharp it is. It's so easy to section a chicken, cutting a throat couldn't be worse. She's maybe put an old towel over my face, that way she could pretend I was just a loaf of bread. Just slicing bread, or a meatloaf, until she sawed through a vein, then the heart still pushing blood, the big surge after surge after surge of blood. Right this minute, she's putting the knife back in the drawer.

  It could be she's got an electric carving knife she got for a wedding present, half her lifetime ago, and she's never used. It's still in the fancy printed box with the little pamphlet about how to carve a turkey . . . bone a ham . . . slice a leg of lamb.

  Nothing about how to dismember a detective.

  What you have to consider is, maybe I wanted to get caught.

  Mean evil me, spying on poor Sarah Broome and her family of cats.

  What you have to consider is, maybe she wanted to get caught. We all need a doctor to yank us out of our perfect womb. We piss and moan, but we appreciate God kicking us out of Eden. We love our trials. Adore our enemies.

  In case Sarah Broome is close by, I yell, “Please, don't beat yourself up over this . . .”

  There's no lock to keep somebody inside a shithouse, so I wrapped a rope around the whole thing, three times, tight, and tied a triple granny knot. Inside, the man was grunting, dropping his mess into the hole he sat on. Slapping the mosquitoes and deer flies that swarmed up from the dark, he was too busy to hear me tie the knot and take his briefcase into my motor home for a little look.

  In the detective's briefcase, there's a computer-printout spreadsheet of names next to disabilities next to an address for each one. Here's guys with carpal-tunnel syndrome. Guys with nonspecific soft-tissue damage to their lower backs. Chronic pain in their cervical vertebrae. Listed here is the disability provider, the insurance company. Here's the painkillers prescribed in each case.

  And on that spreadsheet, there I am: Eugene Denton.

  Inside the briefcase, a rubber band wraps a thick stack of business cards, all of them saying: Lewis Lee Orleans, Private Investigator. And a phone number.

  When I dial the phone number, a cell phone inside the briefcase begins to ring.

  Outside, Lewis Lee Orleans is hollering for me to help open the shithouse door.

  If it would help Sarah Broome feel better about killing me, I'd tell her how the detective, he cried. His sobs muffled behind both hands, he told me he had a wife at home and three kids. Little kids. But he didn't wear a wedding ring, and inside his wallet were no pictures.

  People say they can feel getting looked at. Being watched has the same feeling as ants crawling up your pant leg. Not me. That afternoon, I rotated my tires, checked the wear on my brake pads. Changed my oil, going from winter 10-10 weight to summer 10-40 weight. Here on the little video screen, here was me with a full case of motor oil, dragging it out from under the motor home and lugging it under one arm. Totally disabled me, the poor delivery driver who swore in court I couldn't lift my arms high enough to brush my teeth. A crippled invalid who deserved to be put out to pasture for the rest of my natural life. Here, shirtless on camera, the sweat from my armpit soaking a dark-brown shadow on the case of oil, I could pass for a circus strongman.

  Living outdoors in good weather, not eating much, sleeping long nights, this tanned little muscle man could be me when I was nineteen years old.

  This was the best life I'd ever known, and the man trapped in my shithouse was about to wreck it all.

  Most big disability cases, they're always in appeal. The workers'-comp insurance folks, they want years to trail their man. To get just five minutes of good clear video that shows him lift a rototiller into the back of his pickup truck. They play that tape in court, and it's: Case closed. Disability denied. The plaintiff, one minute he's set for life, a good-enough chunk of cash every month, medical benefits covered, plus all the Vicodins and Percocets, all the OxyContin he needs to stay sweet the rest of his days. The defense team plays that tape in court—the rototiller going into his truck bed—and he's got nothing.

  He's forty-five or fifty years old, and he's accused of insurance fraud. No chance he's getting anything but minimum wage the rest of his life. No benefits. No free time until he's sixty-something years old and qualifies for relief.

  Right this minute, to Sarah Broome even life in prison for murder looks good compared to falling behind in her property taxes, losing her car, and pushing a shopping cart on the street.

  When I was in her shoes, all I had on hand was a case of four bug bombs. The Winnebago where I lived had a wasp nest underneath. The directions on each bug bomb said to shake well and then break the tip off a little nozzle on top. The bomb would spray out poison smoke until it was empty.

  The label said it would kill anything.

/>   The poor detective. I climbed up a ladder and dropped all four of those bombs down the shitter vent pipe. After that, I clapped a hand over the pipe to stop any leaking out. Me up there, Adolf fucking Hitler, dropping poison gas and listening to my detective cough and beg for air. Just the sound of him gagging up wet puke, then the glop of it hitting the wood floor in chunks, just the sound alone almost made me hurl. The sulfur smell of bug spray and the puke smell. Those bug bombers kept hissing until white whiffs curled out from every little crack and nail hole. Gasoline-smelling smoke puffed from each side of the shithouse as the detective threw himself at the walls, then the door, trying to break out. Beating his arms to bruised pulp inside the shoulder pads of his good brown suit. Wearing himself out.

  Sitting here, my leg aching from the waist down, waiting for Sarah Broome to play problem solver, there's so much I want to tell her. How the insecticide only made the detective and me both sick. How it felt, hitting somebody in the side of his head with a lug wrench. How, the first dozen times you hit, it only makes a mess. Even swinging with both hands, you're pounding hair and blood, not really breaking much bone. How the blood gets the lug wrench so slippery you can't hold it, and you've got to go find something clean to finish the job.

  If I wasn't disabled before killing that Mr. Lewis Lee Orleans, I was after. Killing somebody is hard work. Hard, messy work. Hard, messy, noisy work, with him bellowing loud, his words making no more sense than a cow on the killing floor.

  How I figure is, even if I didn't kill my Mr. Nosy Detective, the long cold night would have. The deer flies and shock from his broken leg would have. Dead is dead, and this way neither of us had to suffer. Not much.

  Even if I never got caught, killing the detective spoiled my taste for being crippled. Now I knew people were watching, I'd seen the spreadsheet, another detective would come spying on me someday.

  So, if you can't beat them, join them.

  On television, the next commercial for a correspondence school, I called them up. They teach you how to stake out a suspect. How to dig through a garbage can for evidence. In six weeks, I had a paper to say I was a private investigator. After that, I had my own spreadsheet of deadbeats to go spy on. To make my own whistle-blowing little “stalk-umentaries,” I call them.

  You get out by getting smart and turning in your fellow cripples. Most cases, you don't even have to appear in court. Just turn in your expense report for the motel, the rental car, the restaurant meals, and you get your check in the mail. Plus the commission.

  Leading up to right now. I've been following Ms. Broome for five days of nothing. When you're shooting a stalk-umentary, you're pretty much married to your subject. To the post office to pick up her mail. To the library for another book. To the grocery store. Even if she sits in the trailer all day, the curtains shut, watching television, then I'd be parked down the gravel road, slouched down low, stretched across the front seat of my rented car so I could lean back on a pillow propped against the inside of the passenger door. So I could keep an eye out. Even if nothing's going to happen.

  It's a marriage.

  All afternoon, slapping mosquitoes up on the hillside behind her trailer, I was squatted down, hidden back in the bushes. Watching her through the viewfinder on my video camera, I was waiting for my chance to hit the RECORD button. All Sarah had to do was bend over and pick up a white tank of propane. Just five minutes of her unloading heavy bags of cat food from her old hatchback car, and this job would be done. Nothing left to do but check in my rental car and catch the next plane home.

  Of course, I'm sitting here in her shed because I tripped and fell. She came and found me, after it got dark, after the mosquitoes were worse than anything—gunshots, knife wounds—she could ever do to me. I had to yell for help, and she put one arm around my waist and half carried me this far. She set me here. To rest a minute, she said.

  Nobody's saying I'm too original. I'm a bird-watcher, I tell her. This area is famous for the red-crested hairy plover. This time of year the blue-necked pheasant comes here to mate.

  She's got my video camera, fooling with the little playback screen pulled out, and she says, “Oh, please. Show me.” The camera makes a buzz, a click, and the red PLAY light blinks on, bright. She watches the screen, smiling, stoned.

  I tell her, No. I reach for the camera, to take it back, but too fast. I tell her, No. Too loud.

  And Sarah Broome, she steps away, pulling her elbows and her hands holding the camera out of my reach. Light from the little screen flickering soft as candlelight on her face, she smiles and keeps watching.

  She keeps watching, but her face relaxes, her smile drooping, her cheeks sagging into jowls.

  It's footage of her lifting sacks of steer manure, slippery white plastic bags packed with cow crap. Each bag printed in black letters: Net Weight Fifty Pounds.

  Her eyes still pinned on the little screen, all the muscles of her face squeeze together in the middle. Her eyebrows. Her lips. Here's the five minutes that will end life as she knows it. My short stalk-umentary that's going to put her back into blue-collar slavery.

  It could be her back healed. It could be she faked it all, but what's clear is, she's no invalid. With the arms on her, she could wrestle alligators for a living.

  Sarah Broome, I just want to tell you I understand. Right this minute, while you read the back of a box of rat poison, I want you to know—that first week of being totally crippled, completely helpless and disabled, it was hands-down the best week of my adult life.

  Here's the dream of every farmer. Every railroad brakeman and waitress who ever took a week's vacation to go camping. One lucky day, a freight train takes a corner too fast and derails, or they step in a spilled milkshake, and they end up living down some no-name gravel road. Happy cripples.

  It's maybe not the Good Life, but it's the Good-Enough Life. The washer and dryer sitting on a covered deck next to the trailer. Everything painted metal, pimpled and blistered with rust.

  If she'd just listen, I could tell Ms. Broome just where to find my carotid artery. Or where on my head to connect when she swings the sledgehammer.

  No, Sarah Broome just tells me to wait a spell. She shuts the doors to the shed and leaves me sitting here inside. A padlock snaps.

  Right this minute, she's sharpening a knife. She's looking through her clothes, her slacks and blouses, jeans and sweaters, looking for an outfit she'll never again want to wear.

  Waiting for her, I'm yelling for her not to feel bad. I'm yelling that what she's doing is all right. It's the only perfect way for all of this to end.

  Standing behind the lobby snack bar, Agent Tattletale tells us, “Turns out, she was smarter than me, that Sarah Broome.”

  Instead of killing him, she left the video camera recording. She got the story of his past on tape. The murder of Lewis Lee Orleans. And after she'd hidden the tape, she drove him to the hospital.

  “That,” the Agent tells us, “is what I'll take for a happy ending . . .”

  17

  Some stories, Mr. Whittier would say, you tell them and you use them up. Other stories, they use you up.

  Miss America is clutching her belly in both hands, squatting on the yellow seat of a wing chair in the Gothic smoking room, rocking forward and back with a shawl around her shoulders. If her belly looks big, or if she's just overdressed, we can't tell. She rocks, her arms and hands lined with the swollen red welts and scabs from cat scratches. She says, “You ever hear of CMV, cytomegalovirus? It's deadly to pregnant women, and cats carry it.”

  “If you feel bad about that cat,” the Missing Link says, “you should.”

  Holding her belly and rocking, Miss America says, “It was either that cat or me . . .”

  We're all of us sitting in the “Frankenstein Room,” in front of the yellow-and-red glass fireplace, watching each other. Making mental note of each gesture and line of dialogue. Taping over every moment, every event, every emotion with the next.

  Sitting in
a yellow leather wing chair, the Missing Link turns to the Countess Foresight in the next chair and says, “So? Who did you kill to get here?”

  Everyone pretends not to know what he means.

  Each of us trying to be the camera, not the subject.

  “Doesn't it seem like we're all hiding out from something?” the Missing Link says. With his long nose, his awning of a single dense eyebrow, his beard, he says, “Why else would people walk through that door with Whittier—a man they don't really know?”

  On the yellow silk wallpaper, between the tall, pointed windows of stained glass with the eternal twilight of fifteen-watt lightbulbs behind them, on the yellow wallpaper, Saint Gut-Free has drawn hash marks to count off our days so far. With just the thumb and forefinger he has left on one hand, he holds a pastel crayon and makes one mark for every day Sister Vigilante turns on the power.

  On the fit-stone floor, Agent Tattletale rolls back and forth with the pink exercise wheel, trying to lose more weight.

  The furnace is broken—again. The water heater, too. The toilets, stuffed and choked with popcorn and dead cat. The washing machine and dryer are both hairy with yanked and hacked-off wires.

  People piss in a bowl and carry it to a sink. Or they hike their skirt and piss in the dark corner of some huge, grand room.

  Us in our fairy-tale wigs and velvet, killing each day in these echoing cold chambers, in the stink of piss and sweat, this is what fancy court life was like for the aristocracy a couple centuries ago. All those palaces and castles that look clean and elegant in today's movie version, in reality—brand-new, they were stinking and cold.

  According to Chef Assassin, the kitchens in French châteaux were so far from the royal dining rooms that the food would arrive at dinner cold. That's why the French invented their zillion thick sauces, as blankets to keep food hot until it arrived at the table.

  Us, we've found all the scavenger-hunt items: the bowling ball, the exercise wheel, the cat.

 
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