Choke, p.7
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       Choke, p.7

           Chuck Palahniuk
 
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  It’s not that I’m an ingrate, but if all you can cut me is fifty bucks, next time just let me die. Okay? Or better yet, stand aside and let some rich person be the hero.

  For sure, I can’t write that in any thank-you note, but still.

  For my mom’s house, picture all this castle furniture crammed into a two-bedroom newlywed house. These sofas and paintings and clocks are all supposed to be her dowry from the Old Country. From Italy. My mom came here for college and never went back after she had me.

  She’s not Italian in any way you’d notice. No garlic smell or big armpit hair. She came here to attend medical school. Frigging medical school. In Iowa. The truth is, immigrants tend to be more American than people born here.

  The truth is, I’m more or less her green card.

  Looking through the phone book, what I need to do is take my act to a classier audience. You have to go where the money is and bring it home. Don’t be choking to death on chicken nuggets in some deep-fried joint.

  Rich people eating French food want to be the hero as much as anybody else.

  My point is, discriminate.

  My advice to you is: identify your target market.

  In the phone book, there’s still fish houses to try. Mongolian grills.

  The name on today’s check is some woman who saved my life in a smorgasbord last April. One of those all-you-can-eat buffets. What was I thinking? Choking in cheap restaurants is for sure a false economy. It’s all worked out, all the details, in the big book I keep. Here’s everything from who saved me where and when, to how much have they spent so far. Today’s donor is Brenda Munroe signed at the bottom of the birthday card, with love.

  “I hope this little bit helps,” she’s written across the bottom of the check.

  Brenda Munroe, Brenda Munroe. I try, but I don’t get a face. Nothing. Nobody can expect you to remember every near-death experience. For sure, I should keep better notes, hair and eye color at least, but for real, look at me here. As it is, I’m already drowning in paperwork.

  Last month’s thank-you letter was all about my struggle to pay for I forget what.

  It was rent I told people I needed, or dental work. It was to pay for milk or counseling. By the time I send out a couple hundred of the same letter, I never want to read it again.

  It’s a homegrown version of those overseas children’s charities. These are the ones where for the price of a cup of coffee, you could save a child’s life. Be a sponsor. The hook is you can’t just save somebody’s life one time. People are having to save me again and again. The same as real life, there is no happily ever after.

  The same as in medical school, you can only save somebody so many times before you can’t. It’s the Peter Principle of Medicine.

  These people sending money, they’re paying for heroism in installments.

  There’s Moroccan food to choke on. There’s Sicilian. Every night.

  After I was born, my mom just stayed put in the States. Not in this house. She didn’t live here until her last release, after the school bus theft charge. Auto theft and kidnapping. This isn’t anyhouse I remember from childhood, or this furniture. This is everything her parents sent from Italy. I guess. She could’ve won it on a game show for all I really know.

  Just once, I asked her about her family, my grandparents back in Italy.

  And she said, this I remember, she said:

  “They don’t know about you so don’t make any trouble.”

  And if they don’t know about her bastard child, it’s a safe bet they don’t know about her obscenity conviction, her attempted murder conviction, her reckless endangerment, her animal harassment. It’s a safe bet they’re insane, too. Just look at their furniture. They’re probably insane and dead.

  I flip back and forth through the phone book.

  The truth is it costs three thousand bucks a month to keep my mom in St. Anthony’s Care Center. At St. Anthony’s, fifty bucks gets you about one diaper change.

  God only knows how many deaths I’ll have to almost die to pay for a stomach tube.

  The truth is, so far the big book of heroes has just over three hundred names recorded in it, and I still don’t pull in three grand every month. Plus there’s the waiter every night with a bill. Plus there’s the tip. The damn overhead is killing me.

  The same as any good pyramid scheme, you always have to be enrolling people at the bottom. The same as Social Security, it’s a mass of good people all paying for somebody else. Nickel-and-diming these Good Samaritans is just my own personal social safety net.

  “Ponzi scheme” isn’t the right phrase, but it’s the first that comes to mind.

  The miserable truth is, every night I still have to pick through the telephone directory and find a good place to almost die.

  What I’m running is the Victor Mancini Telethon.

  It’s no worse than the government. Only in the Victor Mancini welfare state, the people who foot the bill don’t complain. They’re proud. They actually brag about it to their friends.

  It’s a gifting scam with just me at the top and new members lined up to buy in by hugging me from behind. Bleeding these good generous people is.

  Still, it’s not like I’m spending the money on drugs and gambling. It’s not like I even get to finish a meal anymore. Halfway through every main course, I have to go to work. Do my gagging and thrashing. Even then, some people never come across with any money. Some never seem to give it another thought. After long enough even the most generous people will stop sending a check.

  The crying part, where I’m hugged in somebody’s arms, gasping and crying, that part just gets easier and easier. More and more, the hardest part of crying is when I can’t stop.

  Not crossed out in the phone book, there’s still fondue. There’s Thai. Greek. Ethiopian. Cuban. There’s still a thousand places I haven’t gone to die.

  To increase cash flow, you have to create two or three heroes every night. Some nights you have to hit three or four places before you’ve had a full meal.

  I’m a performance artist doing dinner theater, doing three shows a night. Ladies and gentlemen, may I have a volunteer from the audience.

  “Thank you, but no thank you,” I’d like to tell my dead relatives. “But I can build my own family.”

  Fish. Meat. Vegan. Tonight, like most nights, the easiest way is to just close your eyes.

  Hold your finger over the open phone book.

  Step right up and become a hero, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up and save a life.

  Just let your hand drop, and let fate decide for you.

  Chapter 13

  Because of the heat, Denny strips off his coat, then his sweater. Without undoing the buttons, even the cuffs or the collar one, he pulls his shirt off over his head, inside out, so now his head and hands are bagged in red plaid flannel. The T-shirt underneath works up around his armpits while he’s fighting the shirt off his head, and his bare stomach looks rashy and caved-in. Some long twisted hairs sprout around his little dot nipples. His nipples look cracked and sore.

  “Dude,” Denny says, still struggling inside his shirt. “Too many layers. Why’s it got to be so hot in here?”

  Because it’s a kind of a hospital. It’s a constant care residence.

  Over his jeans and belt, you can see the dead elastic waistband of his bad underpants. Orange rust stains show on the loose elastic. In front, a few coiled hairs poke out. There’s yellowy sweat stains on, for real, his underarm skin.

  The front desk girl is sitting right here, watching with her face all bunched up tight around her nose.

  I try and tug his T-shirt back down, and there’s for sure many colors of lint in his navel. At work in the locker room, I’ve seen Denny pull his pants off inside out with the underpants still on them the way I did when I was little.

  And still with his head wrapped up in his shirt, Denny goes, “Dude, can you help me? There’s a button somewheres I don’t know about.”

  Th
e front desk girl is giving me her look. She’s got the telephone receiver halfway to her ear.

  With most of his clothes on the floor next to him, Denny gets skinnier until he’s down to just his sour T-shirt and his jeans with dirt on each knee. His tennis shoes are double-knotted with the knots and eye holes glued forever with dirt.

  It’s somewhere around a hundred degrees here because most of these people don’t have any circulation, I tell him. It’s a lot of old folks here.

  It smells clean, which means you only smell chemicals, cleaning stuff, or perfumes. You have to know the pine smell is covering up shit somewhere. Lemon means somebody vomited. Roses are urine. After an afternoon at St. Anthony’s, you never want to smell another rose the rest of your life.

  The lobby has stuffed furniture and fake plants and flowers.

  This decorator stuff will peter out after you get beyond the locked doors.

  To the front desk girl, Denny says, “Will anybody mess with my junk if I just leave it here?” He means the pile of his old clothes. He says, “I’m Victor Mancini.” He looks at me. “And I’m here to see my mom?”

  To Denny, I go, “Dude, jeez, she doesn’t have brain damage.” To the desk girl, I say, “I’m Victor Mancini. I’m here all the time to see my mom, Ida Mancini. She’s in Room 158.”

  The girl presses a phone button and says, “Paging Nurse Remington. Nurse Remington to the front desk, please.” Her voice comes out huge through the ceiling.

  You have to wonder if Nurse Remington is a real person.

  You have to wonder if maybe this girl thinks Denny’s just another aggressive chronic undresser.

  Denny goes to kick his clothes under a stuffed chair.

  A fat man comes jogging down the hall with one hand pressed over a bouncing chest pocket full of pens and another hand on his hip holster of hot pepper spray. Keys jingle on his other hip. To the front desk girl, he says, “So what’s the situation here?”

  And Denny says, “Is there a bathroom I can use? Like, for civilians?”

  The problem is Denny.

  So he’ll hear her confession, he needs to meet what’s left of my mom. My plan is I’ll introduce him as Victor Mancini.

  This way Denny can find out who I really am. This way my mom can find some peace. Gain some weight. Save me the cost of a tube. Not die.

  When Denny’s back from the bathroom, the guard is walking us to the living part of St. Anthony’s and Denny says, “There’s no lock on the bathroom door here. I was settled on the can and some old lady just barged in on me.”

  I ask if she wanted sex.

  And Denny says, “How’s that again?”

  We go through a set of doors the guard has to unlock, then another set. As we walk, his keys bounce against his hip. Even the back of his neck has a big roll of fat.

  “Your mom?” Denny says. “So does she look like you?”

  “Maybe,” I say, “except, you know … ”

  And Denny says, “Except starved and with no brain left, right?”

  And I go, “Stop already.” I say, “Okay, she was a shitty mother, but she’s the only mom I have.”

  “Sorry, dude,” Denny says, and he goes, “But won’t she notice I’m not you?”

  Here at St. Anthony’s, they have to close the curtains before it gets dark, since if a resident sees themself reflected in a window they’ll think somebody’s peeping in at them. It’s called “sun-downing.” When all the old folks get crazy at sunset.

  You could put most of these folks in front of a mirror and tell them it’s a television special about old dying miserable people, and they’d watch for hours.

  The problem is my mom won’t talk to me when I’m Victor, and she won’t talk to me when I’m her attorney. My only hope is to be her public defender while Denny’s me. I can goad. He can listen. Maybe then she’ll talk.

  Think of this as some kind of Gestalt ambush.

  Along the way, the guard asks wasn’t I the guy who raped Mrs. Field’s dog?

  No, I tell him. It’s a long story, I say. About eighty years long.

  We find Mom in the dayroom, sitting at a table with a shattered jigsaw puzzle spread out in front of her. There must be a thousand pieces, but there’s no box to show how it’s supposed to look. It could be anything.

  Denny says, “That’s her?” He says, “Dude, she looks nothing like you.”

  My mom’s pushing puzzle pieces around, some of them turned over so the gray cardboard side shows, and she’s trying to fit them together.

  “Dude,” Denny says. He turns a chair around and sits at the table so he can lean forward on the chair back. “In my experience, these puzzles work best if you find all the flat edge pieces first.”

  My mom’s eyes crawl all over Denny, his face, his chapped lips, his shaved head, the holes open in the seams of his T-shirt.

  “Good morning, Mrs. Mancini,” I say. “Your son, Victor, is here to visit you. This is him.” I say, “Don’t you have something important to tell him?”

  “Yeah,” Denny says, nodding. “I’m Victor.” He starts picking up pieces with a flat edge. “Is this blue part supposed to be sky or water?” he says.

  And my mom’s old blue eyes start to fill up with juice.

  “Victor?” she says.

  She clears her throat. Staring at Denny, she says, “You’re here.”

  And Denny keeps spreading the puzzle pieces with his fingers, picking out the flat ones and getting them off to one side. On the stubble of his shaved head, from his red plaid shirt, there are lumps of red lint.

  And my mom’s old hand creaks out across the table and closes around Denny’s hand. “It’s so good to see you,” she says. “How are you? It’s been so long.” A little eye juice tips out the bottom of one eye and follows the wrinkles to the corner of her mouth.

  “Jeez,” Denny says, and he pulls his hand back. “Mrs. Mancini, your hands are freezing.”

  My mother says, “I’m sorry.”

  You can smell some kind of cafeteria food, cabbage or beans, that’s being cooked down to mush.

  This whole time, I’m still standing here.

  Denny pieces together a few inches of the edge. To me, he says, “So when do we meet this perfect lady doctor of yours?”

  My mom says, “You’re not going already, are you?” She looks at Denny, her eyes swamped and her old eyebrow bushes kissing together in the middle above her nose. “I’ve missed you so much,” she says.

  Denny says, “Hey, dude, we lucked out. Here’s a corner!”

  My mom’s shaky, boiled-looking old hand shakes over and picks a clump of red lint off Denny’s head.

  And I say, “Excuse me, Mrs. Mancini.” I say, “But wasn’t there something you needed to tell your son?”

  My mom just looks at me, then at Denny. “Can you stay, Victor?” she says. “We need to talk. There’s so much I need to explain.”

  “So explain,” I say.

  Denny says, “Here’s an eye, I think.” He says, “So is this supposed to be somebody’s face?”

  My mom holds one shaky old hand open at me, and she says, “Fred, this is between my son and me. This is an important family matter. Go someplace. Go watch the television, and let us visit in private.”

  And I say, “But.”

  But my mom says, “Go.”

  Denny says, “Here’s another corner.” Denny picks out all the blue pieces and puts them off to one side. All the pieces are the same basic shape, liquid crosses. Melted swastikas.

  “Go try to save someone else for a change,” my mom says, not looking at me. Looking at Denny, she says, “Victor will come find you when we’re done.”

  She watches me until I step back as far as the hallway. After that she says something to Denny I can’t hear. Her shaky hand reaches to touch Denny’s shiny blue scalp, to touch it just behind one ear. Where her pajama sleeve stops, her old wrist shows stringy and thin brown as a boiled turkey neck.

  Still nosing around in the puzz
le, Denny flinches.

  A smell comes around me, a diaper smell, and a broken voice behind me says, “You’re the one who threw all my second-grade primers in the mud.”

  Still watching my mom, trying to see what she’s saying, I go, “Yeah, I guess.”

  “Well, here, at least you’re honest” the voice says. A dried little mushroom of a woman slips her skeleton’s arm through mine. “Come along with me,” she says. “Dr. Marshall would like very much to talk to you. Alone somewhere.”

  She’s wearing Denny’s red plaid shirt.

  Chapter 14

  Leaning her head back, her little black brain, Paige Marshall points up into the vaulted beige ceiling. “There used to be angels,” she says. “The story is they were incredibly beautiful, with blue feathery wings and real gilded halos.”

  The old woman leads me to the big chapel at St. Anthony’s, big and empty since it used to be a convent. One whole wall is a window of stained glass in a hundred different colors of gold. The other wall is just a big wood crucifix. Between the two is Paige Marshall in her white lab coat, golden in the light, under the black brain of her hair. She’s wearing her black glasses and looking up. All of her black and gold.

  “According to the decrees of Vatican II,” she says, “they painted over church murals. The angels and the frescoes. They weeded out most of the statues. All those gorgeous mysteries of faith. All gone.”

  She looks at me.

  The old woman is gone. The chapel door clicks shut behind me.

  “It’s pathetic,” Paige says, “how we can’t live with the things we can’t understand. How if we can’t explain something we’ll just deny it.”

  She says, “I’ve found a way to save your mother’s life.” She says, “But you may not approve.”

  Paige Marshall starts undoing the buttons of her coat, and there’s more and more skin showing inside.

  “You may find the idea entirely repugnant,” she says.

  She opens the lab coat.

 
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