Damned, p.8
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       Damned, p.8

         Part #1 of Damned series by Chuck Palahniuk  
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  No, it's not fair, but my mom and dad were always happy to tell me the sordid details of every sex act or fetish that existed. Other girls might get a training bra at thirteen, but my mom offered to have me fitted for a training diaphragm. Beyond the birds and the bees—and tea-bagging, rimming, and scissoring—my parents never taught me a single thing about death. At most my dad pestered me to use moisturizer with sunblock and to floss my teeth. If they perceived death at all, it was only on the most superficial level, as the wrinkles and gray hairs of very old people fated soon to expire. Therefore they seemed heavily invested in the belief that if one could constantly maintain one's personal appearance and mitigate the signs of aging, then death would never be a pressing issue. To my parents, death existed as merely the logical, albeit extreme, result of not adequately exfoliating your skin. A slippery slope. If one simply failed to practice meticulous grooming, one's life would grind to an end.

  And please, if you're still in denial, eating low-sodium, heart-healthy skinless chicken breasts and feeling all self-righteous as you jog on a treadmill, don't pretend you're any more realistic than my loopy parents.

  And do NOT get the impression that I miss being alive. AS IF I really regret not getting to grow up and have blood gush out of my woo-woo every month and learn to drive a fossil-fueled internal-combustion vehicle and watch crappy R-rated movies without a parent or guardian, then drink beer out of a keg, frittering away four years to snag a soft-ball degree in art history before some boy squirts me full of sperm and I have to lug some big baby around inside me for almost a whole year. Bummer—sarcasm fully intended—I am really missing out on the Good Times. And, no, this isn't just Sour Grapes. When I look at all the bullshit I'm skipping, sometimes I thank God I overdosed.

  There, I said the G-word again. Ye gods! So kill me.

  As it turns out, my damnation records have been lost. Or they have yet to arrive. Or my records were accidentally destroyed. Whatever the case, I'm forced to start from scratch, assigned to take a basic lie-detector test and submit for drug testing.

  Babette, it seems, is not quite as useless as I'd first imagined. She's sidestepped no small amount of red tape and bureaucratic redundancy, leading our little team through the maze of corridors and offices, bribing low-level bureaucrats with Hershey bars and Sweet Tarts. Hell is aeons away from establishing a paperless culture, and most of the floor is layered knee-deep in misplaced records, disemboweled manila folders, the discarded polygraph readouts, Butter Rum Life Savers, and cockroaches.

  En route to my testing, Archer told me not to cross my arms, not to look to the right or upward. Both of those: physical gestures that betray a liar.

  After we submit the filled-out appeal form and slip the attendant demon a Kit Kat bar, Babette wishes me good luck. She gives me a little hug, no doubt leaving dirty handprints all over the back of my cardigan sweater. Babette, Leonard, Patterson, and Archer wait in an outer hallway while I go through a door into the all-white testing room. The polygraph machine. The demon inflating the blood-pressure cuff around my arm.

  You might recall this same demon from the classic Hollywood masterpiece The Exorcist, where he possessed a little girl who was the spoiled, precocious child of a middle-aged movie star. Talk about déjà vu. Here he is now, watching my eyes for changes in pupil dilation which might betray dishonesty. The demon's wiring my skin to test whether I sweat. What Leonard calls "skin conductivity."

  I say that I loved the scene where he made the little girl, Regan, crab-walk backward down the stairs with gore spilling out of her mouth. More out of nerves, I ask whether the demon has had any personal experience possessing people. Did he make any other movies? Does he get any residuals? Who's his agent?

  Without looking away from his scrolling readout, those wavering little needles that squiggle lines on the rolling belt of white paper, the demon says, "Is your name Madison Spencer?"

  The control questions. To establish a baseline of honest answers.

  I say, "Yes."

  Tweaking a knob on his machine, the demon asks, "Are you, in fact, thirteen years old?"

  Again, yes.

  The demon asks, "Do you reject Satan and all his works?"

  Easy enough. I shrug and say, "Sure, why not?"

  "Please," the demon says, "it's very important that you answer only either ryes' or 'no.'"

  I say, "Sorry."

  The demon says, "Do you accept the Lord God as the one true God?"

  Way-easy, no sweat, again, I say, "Yes."

  The demon says, "Do you recognize Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

  I don t know, not for certain, but I say, "Yes?"

  The needles squiggle on the readout paper, not much but a little. I can't feel for sure, but maybe the irises of my eyes suddenly contract. The dogma seems pretty familiar, but this isn't any sort of catechism my parents trained me to recite. The demon's own eyes never leaving the inky, wavering lines, he says, 'Are you now or have you ever been a practicing member of the Buddhist religion?"

  I say, "What?"

  "Yes or no," the demon says.

  "What?" I say, "Buddhists don't get to Heaven?"

  While my parents fell far short of being perfect, none of their mistakes were intentionally malicious, so it feels downright traitorous to disavow every ideal they did their best to instill in me. Mine is the age-old conundrum of betraying one's parents versus betraying one's deity. Me, I just want to wear a halo and ride on a cloud. I just want to play a harp.

  Without missing a beat, the demon says, "Do you believe the Bible to be the one and only true word of God?"

  I say, "Does that include the way-crazy, loony parts of Leviticus?"

  Plunging forward, the demon says, "In your honest opinion, does life begin at conception?"

  Yes, I know I'm supposed to be dead, with no corporeal body and physical needs or physiology, but I start sweating like a pig. My face feels hot with blushing. My teeth sit on edge, softly grinding together. My fists clenching, tight, the bones and muscles take shape under the whitening skin of my knuckles.

  I venture, "Yes?" "Do you sanction mandatory prayer in public schools?" the demon asks.

  Yes, I do want to go to Heaven—who doesn't?—but not if it means I have to be a total asshole.

  Whether I answer yes or no, those little needles are going to wiggle like crazy, responding to either my dishonesty or my guilt.

  The demon says, "Do you view sexual acts between individuals of the same gender to be an abomination?"

  I ask if we can come back to that question later.

  The demon says, "I'll take that as a 'no.'"

  Throughout the history of theology, Leonard tried to explain, religions have argued over the nature of salvation, whether people are proved holy by their good works or by their deep, inner faith. Do people go to Heaven because they acted good? Or do they go to Heaven because it's predestined... because they are good? That's ancient history, according to Leonard; now the entire system relies on forensic science. Polygraph tests. Psychophysiological detections of deception. Voice stress analysis. You even have to submit hair and urine samples due to the new zero-tolerance policy for drug and alcohol abuse in Heaven.

  In secret, putting my hands into the side pockets of my skort, I cross my fingers.

  The demon asks, "Does mankind hold ultimate dominion over all earthly plants and animals?"

  Fingers crossed, I say, "Yes?"

  "Do you approve," the demon says, "of marriage between individuals of differing racial backgrounds?"

  The demon continues without hesitation, asking, "Should the Zionist state of Israel be allowed to exist?"

  Question after question, I'm stumped. Even fingers crossed. The paradox: Is God a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic ass? Or is God testing to see if I am?

  The demon asks, "Should women be allowed to hold public office? To own real property? To operate motor vehicles?"

  Now and then, he leans over the polygraph machine, using a felt
-tipped pen to scribble notes next to the readouts on the rolling banner of paper.

  We've journeyed here to the headquarters of Hell because I asked about filing an appeal. My reasoning is... if convicted murderers can linger on death row for decades, demanding access to law libraries and gratis public defenders, while scribbling briefs and arguments with blunt crayons and pencil stubs, it seems only fair that I ought to appeal my own eternal sentence.

  In the same tone that a supermarket cashier would ask, "Paper or plastic?" or a fast-food server would ask, "Do you want fries with that?" the demon asks, 'Are you, yourself, a virgin?"

  Since last Christmas, when I froze my hands to the door of my residence hall and was forced to rip off the outermost layers of skin, my hands have yet to totally heal. The lines crisscrossing my palms, the lifeline and love line, are almost erased. My fingerprints look faint, and the new skin feels tight and sensitive. In my pockets, now, it hurts to keep my fingers crossed, but all I can do is just sit here, betraying my parents, betraying my gender and politics, betraying myself to tell some bored demon what I hope is the perfect mix of blah, blah, blah. If anybody should spend eternity in Hell, it's me.

  The demon asks, "Do you support the profoundly evil research which utilizes embryonic stem cells?"

  I correct his grammar, telling him, "That... research that utilizes..."

  The demon asks, "Does physician-assisted suicide fly in the face of God's beautiful will?"

  The demon asks, "Do you espouse the obvious truth of intelligent design?"

  With the needles scribbling my every heartbeat, my respiration rate, my blood pressure, the demon waits, watching for my body to turn traitor on me when he asks, "Are you familiar with the William Morris Agency?"

  Despite myself, my hands relax a little and let my fingers slip and stop lying. I say, "Why... yes."

  And the demon looks up from his machine, smiles, and says, "That's who represents me...."


  Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison. Don't get the idea that I'm way homesick; but lately, but I've been thinking about my family. This is no reflection on you or the fabulousness of Hell. I've just been feeling a tad nostalgic.

  For my last birthday, my parents announced we were headed for Los Angeles in order for my mom to present some awards-show trophy. My mom had her personal assistant buy no fewer than a thousand-million gilded envelopes with blank pieces of card stock tucked inside. For the past week, all my mom's done is practice tearing open these envelopes, pulling out the cards, and saying, "The Academy Award for Best Motion Picture goes to . . To train herself not to laugh, my mom asked me to write movie titles on the cards like Smokey and the Bandit II and Saw IV and The English Patient III.

  We're sitting in the back of a town car, being driven from some airport to some hotel in Beverly Hills. I'm sitting in the jump seat facing my mother so she can't see what I write. After that, I hand the card to her assistant, who tucks it into an envelope, affixes a gold-foil seal, and hands the finished product to my mom to rip open.

  We're not going to the Beverly Wilshire because that's where I tried to flush the dead body of my kitten, poor Tiger Stripe, and a plumber had to come and unclog half the toilets in the hotel. We're also not going to the house in Brentwood, because this trip is only for, like, seventy-two hours, and my mom doesn't trust Goran and me not to mess up the whole place.

  On one blank card, I'm writing Porky's Revenge. On another I write Every Which Way but Loose. As I write Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy's Dead, I ask my mom where she put my pink blouse with the smocking on the front.

  Tearing open an envelope, my mom says, "Did you check your closet in Palm Springs?"

  My dad isn't here in the car. He stayed back to supervise work on our jet. Whether this is a joke, I won't even venture a guess, but my dad is redesigning our Learjet to feature an interior crafted of organic brick and hand-hewn pegged beams, with knotty pine floors. All of it sustainably grown by the Amish. Yeah—installed in a jet. To cover the floors, he hoisted all my mom's last-season Versace and Dolce on some Tibetan rag-rug braiders and he's called this "recycling." We'll have a jet outfitted with faux wood-burning fireplaces and antler chandeliers. Macramé plant hangers. Of course, all the brick and wood is just veneer; but trying to take off, the plane will still consume somewhere around the entire daily output of dinosaur juice pumped by Kuwait.

  Welcome to the start of another glorious media cycle. All this muss and fuss is to justify their getting the cover of Architectural Digest.

  Sitting opposite me, my mom tears open an envelope, saying, "This year's Academy Award for Best Picture goes to..." She plucks the card out of the envelope and starts to laugh, saying, "Maddy, shame on you!" My mom shows the card to Emily or Amanda or Ellie or Daphne or WHOEVER her PA is this week. The card reads, The Piano II: Attack of the Finger. Emily or Audrey or whoever, she doesn't get the joke.

  The good news is the Prius is way too dinky for Goran and me to accompany my folks to the awards ceremony. So, while my mom's onstage trying not to get a paper cut or crack up laughing from having to give an Oscar to somebody she hates, Goran is supposed to babysit me at the hotel. Be still, my wildly beating heart. Technically, because Goran doesn't speak enough English to order pay-per-view cable porn, I'll be babysitting him, but we're required to watch the awards on television so we can tell mom whether she ought to bother doing them again next season.

  That's how come I need my pink blouse—to look hot for Goran. Booting my mom's notebook computer, I press the Control, Alt, and S keys, using the security cams to scan my bedroom closet in Palm Springs. I toggle to the cameras in Berlin and check my bedroom there.

  "Check in Geneva," says my mom. "Tell the Somali maid to FedEx it to you."

  I hit Ctrl+Alt+G. I hit Ctrl+Alt+B. Checking Geneva. Checking Berlin. Athens. Singapore.

  To be honest, Goran is the most likely reason he and I aren't going to this year's Oscars. It's too big a gamble that, when the cameras zoom in on us in our seats, the Spencer children, Goran would be yawning or picking his nose or snoring, slumped in his red velvet theater seat, asleep, with drool trailing out one corner of his sensuously full lips. This is all water under the bridge, but whatever flunky does the screening to identify potential adoptees, he or she definitely lost his or her job for putting Goran's name forward. My parents fund a charity foundation which primarily employs approximately a billion publicists who issue press releases touting my dad's generosity. Yes, they might donate a thousand dollars to build a cinder-block school in Pakistan, but then they'll pay a half million to film a documentary about the school, hold press conferences and media junkets, and make certain the entire world knows what they've accomplished. From his very first photo op Goran was a letdown. He wouldn't weep tears of happiness for the cameras, nor would he refer to his new guardians as anything more endearing than "the Mister and Missus Spencer."

  We're all familiar with those television commercials where a cat or dog dives nose-first into its bowl of dried kibble to demonstrate how delicious, but really because the poor animal has been starved beforehand. Well, the same principle should prompt Goran to beam proudly in his new Ralph Lauren togs, or Calvin Klein or whomever my parents are shilling for. Goran is expected to scarf down whatever cage-free, bean-curd delicacy while gulping from a bottle of whatever sponsoring sports beverage, holding the bottle so the label is prominently displayed. It's a lot of work for one battle-scarred orphan, but I've seen kids my folks adopted, as young as four years, from Nepal and Haiti and Bangladesh, simultaneously model my parents' largesse and baby Gap and heat-and-serve figs stuffed with pain-free haggis and cumin-infused aioli—plus continually mention whatever film project my mom had going into theatrical release.

  I had this one sister for about five minutes—my folks had rescued her from a brothel in Calcutta—but the moment she sensed a camera in the room, she could hug her new Nike shoes and Barbie dolls, weeping such realistic, photogenic tears of joy that she m
ade Julia Roberts look like a slacker.

  In contrast, Goran would sip the requisite corn syrup-flavored, vitamin-enhanced energy drink and grimace as if in pain. Goran just flat-out refuses to play this game. All Goran does is scowl at me, but that's all he does to anyone. When his hateful, brooding gaze bores into me, I swear, I feel exactly like Jane Eyre being stared at by Mr. Rochester. I'm Rebecca de Winter under the cold scrutiny of her new husband, Maxim. After a lifetime of being coddled and courted, by servants, by underlings and media sycophants, I find Goran's hateful distain to be utterly irresistible.

  The other reason we're not going to the Academy Awards is because I'm a great, huge, roly-poly pig. My mom would never fess up to that, except maybe to Vanity Fair.

  Even as our driver bears my mom and me hotel-ward, Goran remains on the tarmac, where my dad will try his best to explain the surreal wit inherent in decorating the interior of a space-age, multimillion-dollar aircraft to resemble the wattle yurt of a Stone Age caveman family. My dad will drone about the multivalent way in which our ersatz mud hut will resonate as smart and ironic with the well-educated literati, yet read as sincere and environmentally forward with the erstwhile younger fan base of my mother's films.

  And, yes, I might be dreamy and preadolescent, but I know the meaning of multivalent. Kind of. I think. Pretty much.

  On the notebook computer, I key Ctrl+Alt+J to spy on the interior of our jet. There, my dad is trying to tell Goran all about Marshall McLuhan while Goran simply glares at the security camera, scowling out of the computer screen directly at me.

  Strictly by accident, mind you, one time—I swear, I'm no Miss Wanton McSlutski—but I toggled Ctrl+Alt+T and caught a gander of Goran taking a shower, naked. Not that I was peeking on purpose, but I did see that he already had some hair... down there. To understand my panting pursuit of Goran, he of the plush lips and frigid glare, you need to know my first baby picture appeared on the cover of People magazine. Personally, I've never served as a satisfactory mirror for my parents' success because luxuries were a given. From my birth, the world was already rendered deferential. At best I served as a souvenir—like drugs or grunge music—of my parents' long-gone younger selves. The adopted children were supposed to affirm my mom and dad's hard work and resulting rewards. You pluck some famished skeleton out of an Ethiopian dirt hole, hustle him aboard a Gulfstream, and serve him a selection of free-range Havarti baked in gluten-free, whole-grain tart shells, and it's way more likely that kid will bother to say thank-you. Here's some kid who had a life expectancy of around zero—the drooling vultures already circling overhead—and, no duh, he's going to get all excited about a dumb weekend house party with Babs Streisand in East Hampton.

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