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Haunted

By Phyllis Morales,2014-08-11 07:13
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Haunted

    Haunted - Chuck Palahniuk

    Chapter 1

    When the bus pulls to the corner where Comrade Snarky had agreed to wait, she stands there in an army-surplus flak jacketdark olive-greenand baggy camouflage pants, the cuffs rolled up

    to show infantry boots. A suitcase on either side of her. With a black beret pulled down tight on her head, she could be anyone.

    ―The rule was . . . ,‖ Saint Gut-Free says into the microphone that hangs above his steering wheel. And Comrade Snarky says, ―Fine.‖ She leans down to unbuckle a luggage tag off one suitcase.

    Comrade Snarky tucks the luggage tag in her olive-green pocket, then lifts the second suitcase and steps up into the bus. With one suitcase still on the curb, abandoned, orphaned, alone, Comrade Snarky sits down and says, ―Okay.‖

    She says, ―Drive.‖

    We were all leaving notes, that morning. Before dawn. Sneaking out on tiptoe with our suitcase down dark stairs, then along dark streets with only garbage trucks for company. We never did see the sun come up.

    Sitting next to Comrade Snarky, the Earl of Slander was writing something in a pocket notepad, his eyes flicking between her and his pen.

    And, leaning over sideways to look, Comrade Snarky says, ―My eyes aregreen,notbrown,and my hair is naturally this colorauburn.‖She watches as he writesgreen,then says, ―And I have a little red rose tattooed on my butt cheek.‖ Her eyes settle on the silver tape recorder peeking out of his shirt pocket, the little-mesh microphone of it, and she says, ―Don‘t writedyed hair.Women

    eitherliftortintthe color of their hair.‖

    Near them sits Mr. Whittier, where his spotted, trembling hands can grip the folded chrome frame of his wheelchair. Beside him sits Mrs. Clark, her breasts so big they almost rest in her lap. Eyeing them, Comrade Snarky leans into the gray flannel sleeve of the Earl of Slander. She says, ―Purely ornamental, I assume. And of no nutritive value . . .‖

    That was the day we missed our last sunrise.

    At the next dark street corner, where Sister Vigilante stands waiting, she holds up her thick black wristwatch, saying, ―We agreed on four-thirty-five.‖ She taps the watch face with her other hand,

    saying, ―It is now four-thirty-nine . . .‖

    Sister Vigilante, she brought a fake-leather case with a strap handle, a flap that closed with a snap to protect the Bible inside. A purse handmade to lug around the Word of God. All over the city, we waited for the bus. At street corners or bus-stop benches, until Saint Gut-Free drove up. Mr. Whittier sitting near the front with Mrs. Clark. The Earl of Slander. Comrade Snarky and Sister Vigilante.

    Saint Gut-Free pulls the lever to fold open the door, and standing on the curb is little Miss Sneezy. The sleeves of her sweater lumpy with dirty tissues stuffed inside. She lifts her suitcase and it rattles loud as popcorn in a microwave oven. With every step up the stairs into the bus, the suitcase rattles loud as far-off machine-gun fire, and Miss Sneezy looks at us and says, ―My

    pills.‖ She gives the suitcase a loud shake and says, ―A whole three months‘ supply . . .‖

    That‘s why the rule about only so much luggage. So we would all fit.

    The only rule was one bag per person, but Mr. Whittier didn‘t say how big or what kind.

    When Lady Baglady climbed on board, she wore a diamond ring the size of a popcorn kernel, her hand holding a leash, the leash dragging a leather suitcase on little wheels. Waving her fingers to make her ring sparkle, Lady Baglady says, ―It‘s my late husband, cremated and made into a three-carat diamond . . .‖

    At that, Comrade Snarky leans over the notepad where the Earl of Slander is writing, and she says,―Faceliftis one word.‖

    A few blocks later, after a couple traffic lights and around some corners waits Chef Assassin, carrying a molded aluminum suitcase with, inside, all his white elastic underpants and T-shirts and socks folded down to squares tight as origami. Plus a matched set of chef‘s knives. Under that, his aluminum suitcase is solid-packed with banded stacks of money, all of it hundred-dollar bills. All of it so heavy he used both hands to lift it into the bus.

    Down another street, under a bridge and around the far side of a park, the bus pulled to the curb where no one seemed to wait. There the man we called the ―Missing Link‖ stepped out of the bushes near the curb. Balled in his arms, he carried a black garbage bag, torn and leaking plaid flannel shirts.

    Looking at the Missing Link, but talking sideways to the Earl of Slander, Comrade Snarky said, ―Hisbeardlooks like something Hemingway might‘ve shot . . .‖

    The dreaming world, they‘d think we were crazy. Those people still in bed, they‘d be asleep another hour, then washing their faces, under their arms, and between their legs, before going to the same work they did every day. Living that same life, every day.

    Those people would cry to find us gone, but they would cry, too, if we were boarding a ship to start a new life across some ocean. Emigrating. Pioneers.

    This morning, we were astronauts. Explorers. Awake while they slept.

    These people would cry, but then they would go back to waiting tables, painting houses, programming computers.

    At our next stop, Saint Gut-Free swung open the doors, and a cat ran up the steps and down the aisle between the seats of the bus. Behind the cat came Director Denial, saying, ―His name is

    Cora.‖ The cat‘s name was Cora Reynolds. ―I didn‘t name him,‖ said Director Denial, the tweed blazer and skirt she wore frosted with cat hair. One lapel swollen out from her chest. ―A shoulder holster,‖ says Comrade Snarky, leaning close to tell the tape recorder in the Earl of

    Slander‘s shirt pocket.

    All of thiswhispering in the dark, leaving notes, keeping secretit was our adventure.

    If you were planning to be stranded on a desert island for three months, what would you bring along?

    Let‘s say all your food and water would be provided, or so you think.

    Let‘s say you can only bring along one suitcase because there will be a lot of you, and the bus taking you all to the desert island is only so big.

    What would you pack in your suitcase?

    Saint Gut-Free brought boxes of pork-rind snacks and dried cheese puffs, his fingers and chin orange with the salt dust. One bony hand gripping the steering wheel, he tilted each box to pour the snacks into his thin face.

    Sister Vigilante brought a shopping bag of clothes with a satchel bag set in the top. Leaning over her own huge breasts, holding them like a child in her arms, Mrs. Clark asked, did Sister Vigilante bring along a human head?

    And Sister Vigilante opened the satchel far enough to show the three holes of a black bowling ball, saying, ―My hobby . . .‖

    Comrade Snarky looks from the Earl of Slander scribbling into his notepad, then looks at Sister Vigilante‘s braided-tight black hair, not one strand pulling loose from its pins.

    ―That,‖Comrade Snarky says,―is tinted hair.‖

    At our next stop, Agent Tattletale stood with a video camera held to one eye, filming the bus as it pulled to the curb. He brought a stack of business cards he passed out to prove he was a private detective. With his video camera held as a mask covering half his face, he filmed us, walking down the aisle to an empty seat at the back, blinding everyone with his spotlight. A city block later, the Matchmaker climbed on board, tracking horse shit on his cowboy boots. A straw cowboy hat in his hands and a duffel bag hung over one shoulder, he sat and peeled back his window and spit brown tobacco juice down the brushed-steel side of the bus. This is what we brought along for three months outside of the world. Agent Tattletale, his video camera. Sister Vigilante, her bowling ball. Lady Baglady, her diamond ring. This is what we‘d

    need to write our stories. Miss Sneezy, her pills and tissues. Saint Gut-Free, his snack food. The Earl of Slander, his notebook and tape recorder.

    Chef Assassin, his knives.

    In the dim light of the bus, we all spied on Mr. Whittier, the workshop organizer. Our teacher. You could see the spotted shiny dome of his scalp under the few gray hairs combed across. The button-down collar of his shirt stood up, a starched white fence around his thin, spotted neck. ―The people you‘re sneaking away from,‖ Mr. Whittier would say, ―they don‘t want you enlightened. They want to know what to expect.‖

    Mr. Whittier would tell you, ―You cannot be the person they know and the great, glorious person

    you want to become. Not at the same time.‖

    The people who really, actually loved us, Mr. Whittier said they‘d beg us to go. To fulfill our dream. Practice our craft. And they would love us when we all came back.

    In three months.

    The little bit of life we‘d each gamble.

    We‘d risk.

    This much time, we‘d bet on our own ability to create some masterpiece. A short story or poem or screenplay or memoir that would make sense of our life. A masterpiece that would buy our way out of slavery to a husband or a parent or a corporation. That would earn our freedom. All of us, driving along the empty streets in the dark. Miss Sneezy fishes a damp tissue out of her sweater sleeve and blows her nose. She sniffs and says, ―Sneaking out this way, I was so afraid

    of getting caught.‖ Tucking the tissue back inside her cuff, she says, ―I feel just like . . . Anne Frank.‖

    Comrade Snarky digs the luggage tag out of her jacket pocket, the remains of her abandoned suitcase. Her abandoned life. And, turning the tag over and over in her hand, still looking at it, Comrade Snarky says, ―The way I see it . . .‖ She says, ―Anne Frank had life pretty good.‖

    And Saint Gut-Free, his mouth full of corn chips, watching us all in the rearview mirror, chewing salt and fat, he says, ―How‘s that?‖

    Director Denial pets her cat. Mrs. Clark pets her breasts. Mr. Whittier, his chrome wheelchair. Under a streetlight, on a corner up ahead, the dark outline of another would-be writer waits. ―At least Anne Frank,‖ Comrade Snarky said, ―never had to tour with her book . . .‖

    And Saint Gut-Free hits the air brakes and cranks the steering wheel to pull over. Landmarks

    A Poem About Saint Gut-Free

    ―Here‘s the job I left to come here,‖ the Saint says. ―And the life I gave up.‖

    He used to drive a tour bus.

    Saint Gut-Free onstage, his arms folded across his chestso skinny

    his hands can touch in the middle of his back

    There stands Saint Gut-Free, with a single coat of skin painted on his skeleton. His collarbones loop out from his chest, big as grab handles.

    His ribs show through his white T-shirt, and his beltinstead of his buttkeeps up his blue

    jeans.

    Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:

    the colors of houses and sidewalks, street signs and parked cars,

    wipe sideways across his face. A mask of heavy traffic. Vans and trucks.

    He says, ―That job, driving tour bus . . .‖

    It was all Japanese, Germans, Koreans, all with English as a second language, with phrase books clutched in one hand, nodding and smiling at whatever he told the

    microphone as he steered the bus around corners, down streets, past the houses of movie stars or extra-bloody murders, apartments where rock stars had overdosed. Every day the same tour, the same mantra of murder, movie stars, accidents. Places where peace treaties got signed. Where presidents had slept.

    Until that day Saint Gut-Free stops in front of a picket-fence ranch house, just a detour

to see if his parents‘ four-door Buick is there, if this is still where they live,

    where pacing the front yard is a man, pushing a lawn mower.

    There, into his microphone, the Saint tells his air-conditioned cargo:

    ―You‘re looking at Saint Mel.‖

    And, his father squinting at the wall of tinted bus windows,

    ―The Patron Saint of Shame and Rage,‖ says Gut-Free.

    After that, every day, the tour includes ―The Shrine of Saint Mel and Saint Betty.‖

    Saint Betty being the Patron Saint of Public Humiliation.

    Parked in front of his sister‘s condo highrise, Saint Gut-Free points to

    some high-up floor. Up there, the shrine of Saint Wendy.

    ―The Patron Saint of Therapeutic Abortion.‖

    Parked in front of his own apartment,

    he tells the bus, ―There‘s the shrine of Saint Gut-Free,‖

    the Saint himself, his pigeon shoulders, rubber-band lips, and baggy shirt,

    reflected even smaller in the rearview mirror.

    ―The Patron Saint of Masturbation.‖

    While each seat in his bus, nodding heads, craning their necks, they look to see something divine.

    Guts

    A Story by Saint Gut-Free

    Inhale.

    Take in as much air as you can.

    This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.

    A friend of mine, when he was thirteen years old he heard about ―pegging.‖ This is when a guy gets banged up the butt with a dildo. Stimulate the prostate gland hard enough, and the rumor is you can have explosive hands-free orgasms. At that age, this friend‘s a little sex maniac. He‘s always jonesing for a better way to get his rocks off. He goes out to buy a carrot and some petroleum jelly. To conduct a little private research. Then he pictures how it‘s going to look at the supermarket checkstand, the lonely carrot and petroleum jelly rolling down the conveyor belt toward the grocery-store cashier. All the shoppers waiting in line, watching. Everyone seeing the big evening he has planned.

    So, my friend, he buys milk and eggs and sugar and a carrot, all the ingredients for a carrot cake. And Vaseline.

    Like he‘s going home to stick a carrot cake up his butt.

    At home, he whittles the carrot into a blunt tool. He slathers it with grease and grinds his ass down on it. Thennothing. No orgasm. Nothing happens except it hurts.

    Then this kid, his mom yells it‘s suppertime. She says to come down, right now.

    He works the carrot out and stashes the slippery, filthy thing in the dirty clothes under his bed. After dinner, he goes to find the carrot and it‘s gone. All his dirty clothes, while he ate dinner, his mom grabbed them all to do laundry. No way could she not find the carrot, carefully shaped with a paring knife from her kitchen, still shiny with lube and stinky.

    This friend of mine, he waits months under a black cloud, waiting for his folks to confront him. And they never do. Ever. Even now he‘s grown up, that invisible carrot hangs over every

    Christmas dinner, every birthday party. Every Easter-egg hunt with his kids, his parents‘

    grandkids, that ghost carrot is hovering over all of them.

    That something too awful to name.

    People in France have a phrase: ―Spirit of the Stairway.‖ In French: Esprit d‘Escalier. It means that moment when you find the answer but it‘s too late. Say you‘re at a party and someone insults you. You have to say something. So, under pressure, with everybody watching, you say something lame. But the moment you leave the party . . .

    As you start down the stairway, then—magic. You come up with the perfect thing you should‘ve

said. The perfect crippling put-down.

    That‘s the Spirit of the Stairway.

    The trouble is, even the French don‘t have a phrase for the stupid things you actually do say

    under pressure. Those stupid, desperate things you actually think or do.

    Some deeds are too low to even get a name. Too low to even get talked about.

    Looking back, kid-psych experts, school counselors now say that most of the last peak in teen suicide was kids trying to choke while they beat off. Their folks would find them, a towel twisted around the kid‘s neck, the towel tied to the rod in their bedroom closet, their kid dead. Dead sperm everywhere. Of course the folks cleaned up. They put some pants on their kid. They made it look . . . better. Intentional at least. The regular kind of sad, teen suicide. Another friend of mine, a kid from school, his older brother in the navy said how guys in the Middle East jack off different than we do here. This brother was stationed in some camel country where the public market sells what could be fancy letter-openers. Each fancy tool is just a thin rod of polished brass or silver, maybe as long as your hand, with a big tip at one end, either a big metal ball or the kind of fancy carved handle you‘d see on a sword. This navy brother says how Arab guys get their dick hard and then insert this metal rod inside the whole length of their boner. They jack off with the rod inside, and it makes getting off so much better. More intense. It‘s this big brother who travels around the world, sending back French phrases. Russian phrases. Helpful jack-off tips.

    After this, the little brother, one day he doesn‘t show up at school. That night, he calls to ask if

    I‘ll pick up his homework for the next couple weeks. Because he‘s in the hospital.

    He‘s got to share a room with old people getting their guts worked on. He says how they all have to share the same television. All he‘s got for privacy is a curtain. His folks don‘t come and visit. On the phone, he says how right now his folks could just kill his big brother in the navy. On the phone, the kid says howthe day beforehe was just a little stoned. At home in his

    bedroom, he was flopped on the bed. He was lighting a candle and flipping through some old porno magazines, getting ready to beat off. This is after he‘s heard from his navy brother. That helpful hint about how Arabs beat off. The kid looks around for something that might do the job. A ballpoint pen‘s too big. A pencil‘s too big and rough. But, dripped down the side of the candle, there‘s a thin, smooth ridge of wax that just might work. With just the tip of one finger, this kid snaps the long ridge of wax off the candle. He rolls it smooth between the palms of his hands. Long and smooth and thin.

    Stoned and horny, he slips it down inside, deeper and deeper into the piss slit of his boner. With a good hank of the wax still poking out the top, he gets to work.

    Even now, he says those Arab guys are pretty damn smart. They‘ve totally reinvented jacking off. Flat on his back in bed, things are getting so good this kid can‘t keep track of the wax. He‘s one good squeeze from shooting his wad when the wax isn‘t sticking out anymore.

    The thin wax rod, it‘s slipped inside. All the way inside. So deep inside he can‘t even feel the lump of it inside his piss tube.

    From downstairs, his mom shouts it‘s suppertime. She says to come down, right now. This wax kid and the carrot kid are different people, but we all live pretty much the same life. It‘s after dinner when the kid‘s guts start to hurt. It‘s wax, so he figured maybe it would just melt inside him and he‘d piss it out. Now his back hurts. His kidneys. He can‘t stand straight.

    This kid talking on the phone from his hospital bed, in the background you can hear bells ding, people screaming. Game shows.

    The X-rays show the truth, something long and thin, bent double inside his bladder. This long, thin V inside him, it‘s collecting all the minerals in his piss. It‘s getting bigger and more rough, coated with crystals of calcium, it‘s bumping around, ripping up the soft lining of his bladder, blocking his piss from getting out. His kidneys are backed up. What little that leaks out his dick is red with blood.

    This kid, with his folks, his whole family, them looking at the black X-ray with the doctor and the nurses standing there, the big V of wax glowing white for everybody to see, he has to tell the

truth. The way Arabs get off. What his big brother wrote him from the navy.

    On the phone, right now, he starts to cry.

    They paid for the bladder operation with his college fund. One stupid mistake, and now he‘ll never be a lawyer.

    Sticking stuff inside yourself. Sticking yourself inside stuff. A candle in your dick or your head in a noose, we knew it was going to be big trouble.

    What got me in trouble, I called it Pearl Diving. This meant whacking off underwater, sitting on the bottom at the deep end of my parents‘ swimming pool. With one deep breath, I‘d kick my

    way to the bottom and slip off my swim trucks. I‘d sit down there for two, three, four minutes.

    Just from jacking off, I had huge lung capacity. If I had the house to myself, I‘d do this all afternoon. After I‘d finally pump out my stuff, my sperm, it would hang there in big, fat, milky

    gobs.

    After that was more diving, to catch it all. To collect it and wipe each handful in a towel. That‘s why it was called Pearl Diving. Even with chlorine, there was my sister to worry about. Or, Christ Almighty, my mom.

    That used to be my worst fear in the world: my teenage virgin sister, thinking she‘s just getting fat, then giving birth to a two-headed retard baby. Both the heads looking just like me. Me, the father AND the uncle.

    In the end, it‘s never what you worry about that gets you.

    The best part of Pearl Diving was the inlet port for the swimming-pool filter and the circulation pump. The best part was getting naked and sitting on it.

    As the French would say: Who doesn‘t like getting their butt sucked?

    Still, one minute you‘re just a kid getting off, and the next minute you‘ll never be a lawyer.

    One minute, I‘m settling on the pool bottom, and the sky is wavy, light blue through eight feet of water above my head. The world is silent except for the heartbeat in my ears. My yellow-striped swim trunks are looped around my neck for safe keeping, just in case a friend, a neighbor, anybody shows up to ask why I skipped football practice. The steady suck of the pool inlet hole is lapping at me, and I‘m grinding my skinny white ass around on that feeling.

    One minute, I‘ve got enough air, and my dick‘s in my hand. My folks are gone at their work and my sister‘s got ballet. Nobody‘s supposed to be home for hours.

    My hand brings me right to getting off, and I stop. I swim up to catch another big breath. I dive down and settle on the bottom.

    I do this again and again.

    This must be why girls want to sit on your face. The suction is like taking a dump that never ends. My dick hard and getting my butt eaten out, I do not need air. My heartbeat in my ears, I stay under until bright stars of light start worming around in my eyes. My legs straight out, the back of each knee rubbed raw against the concrete bottom. My toes are turning blue, my toes and fingers wrinkled from being so long in the water.

    And then I let it happen. The big white gobs start spouting. The pearls.

    It‘s then I need some air. But when I go to kick off against the bottom, I can‘t. I can‘t get my feet under me. My ass is stuck.

    Emergency paramedics will tell you that every year about 150 people get stuck this way, sucked by a circulation pump. Get your long hair caught, or your ass, and you‘re going to drown. Every year, tons of people do. Most of them in Florida.

    People just don‘t talk about it. Not even French people talk about EVERYTHING.

    Getting one knee up, getting one foot tucked under me, I get to half standing when I feel the tug against my butt. Getting my other foot under me, I kick off against the bottom. I‘m kicking free, not touching the concrete, but not getting to the air, either.

    Still kicking water, thrashing with both arms, I‘m maybe halfway to the surface but not going higher. The heartbeat inside my head getting loud and fast.

    The bright sparks of light crossing and crisscrossing my eyes, I turn and look back . . . but it doesn‘t make sense. This thick rope, some kind of snake, blue-white and braided with veins, has

    come up out of the pool drain and it‘s holding on to my butt. Some of the veins are leaking blood, red blood that looks black underwater and drifts away from little rips in the pale skin of the snake. The blood trails away, disappearing in the water, and inside the snake‘s thin blue-white

    skin you can see lumps of some half-digested meal.

    That‘s the only way this makes sense. Some horrible sea monster, a sea serpent, something that‘s never seen the light of day, it‘s been hiding in the dark bottom of the pool drain, waiting to eat me.

    So . . . I kick at it, at the slippery, rubbery, knotted skin and veins of it, and more of it seems to pull out of the pool drain. It‘s maybe as long as my leg now, but still holding tight around my butthole. With another kick, I‘m an inch closer to getting another breath. Still feeling the snake tug at my ass, I‘m an incher closer to my escape.

    Knotted inside the snake, you can see corn and peanuts. You can see a long bright-orange ball. It‘s the kind of horse-pill vitamin my dad makes me take, to help put on weight. To get a football scholarship. With extra iron and omega-3 fatty acids.

    It‘s seeing that vitamin pill that saves my life.

    It‘s not a snake. It‘s my large intestine, my colon pulled out of me. What doctors call ―prolapsed.‖ It‘s my guts sucked into the drain.

    Paramedics will tell you a swimming-pool pump pulls eighty gallons of water every minute. That‘s about four hundred pounds of pressure. The big problem is, we‘re all connected together inside. Your ass is just the far end of your mouth. If I let go, the pump keeps working

    unraveling my insides—until it‘s got my tongue. Imagine taking a four-hundred-pound shit, and

    you can see how this might turn you inside out.

    What I can tell you is, your guts don‘t feel much pain. Not the way your skin feels pain. The stuff you‘re digesting, doctors call it fecal matter. Higher up is chyme, pockets of a thin runny

    mess studded with corn and peanuts and round green peas.

    That‘s all this soup of blood and corn, shit and sperm and peanuts, floating around me. Even with my guts unraveling out my ass, me holding on to what‘s left, even then my first want is to

    somehow get my swimsuit back on.

    God forbid my folks see my dick.

    My one hand holding a fist around my ass, my other hand snags my yellow-striped swim trunks and pulls them from around my neck. Still, getting into them is impossible.

    You want to feel your intestines, go buy a pack of those lambskin condoms. Take one out and unroll it. Pack it with peanut butter. Smear it with petroleum jelly and hold it underwater. Then try to tear it. Try to pull it in half. It‘s too tough and rubbery. It‘s so slimy you can‘t hold on.

    A lambskin condom, that‘s just plain old intestine.

    Now, you can see what I‘m up against.

    You let go for a second, and you‘re gutted.

    You swim for the surface, for a breath, and you‘re gutted.

    You don‘t swim, and you drown.

    It‘s a choice between being dead right now or a minute from right now.

    What my folks will find after work is a big naked fetus, curled in on itself. Floating in the cloudy water of their backyard pool. Tethered to the bottom by a thick rope of veins and twisted guts. The opposite of a kid hanging himself to death while he jacks off. This is the baby they brought home from the hospital thirteen years ago. Here‘s the kid they hoped would snag a football scholarship and get an M.B.A. Who‘d care for them in their old age. Here‘s all their hopes and dreams. Floating here, naked and dead. All around him, big milky pearls of wasted sperm. Either that or my folks will find me wrapped in a bloody towel, collapsed halfway from the pool to the kitchen telephone, the ragged, torn scrap of my guts still hanging out the leg of my yellow-striped swim trunks.

    What even the French won‘t talk about.

    That big brother in the navy, he taught us one other good phrase. A Russian phrase. The way we say, ―I need that like I need a hole in my head,‖ Russian people say, ―I need that like I need teeth

in my asshole.‖

    Mnye etoh nadoh kahk zoobee v zadnetze.

    Those stories you hear, about how animals caught in a trap will chew off their leg, well, any coyote would tell you a couple bites beats the hell out of being dead.

    Hell . . . even if you‘re Russian, someday you just might want those teeth.

    Otherwise, what you have to do isyou have to twist around. You hook one elbow behind your

    knee and pull that leg up into your face. You bite and snap at your own ass. You run out of air, and you will chew through anything to get that next breath.

    It‘s not something you want to tell a girl on the first date. Not if you expect a kiss good night.

    If I told you how it tasted, you would never, ever again eat calamari.

    It‘s hard to say what my parents were more disgusted by: how I‘d got in trouble or how I‘d saved myself. After the hospital, my mom said, ―You didn‘t know what you were doing, honey. You were in shock.‖ And she learned how to cook poached eggs.

    All those people grossed out or feeling sorry for me . . .

    I need that like I need teeth in my asshole.

    Nowadays, people always tell me I look too skinny. People at dinner parties get all quiet and pissed off when I don‘t eat the pot roast they cooked. Pot roast kills me. Baked ham. Anything that hangs around inside my guts for longer than a couple hours, it comes out still food. Home-cooked lima beans or chunk light tuna fish, I‘ll stand up and find it still sitting there in the toilet.

    After you have a radical bowel resectioning, you don‘t digest meat so great. Most people, you have five feet of large intestine. I‘m lucky to have my six inches. So I never got a football scholarship. Never got an M.B.A. Both my friends, the wax kid and the carrot kid, they grew up, got big, but I‘ve never weighed a pound more than I did that day when I was thirteen.

    Another big problem was, my folks paid a lot of good money for that swimming pool. In the end, my dad just told the pool guy it was a dog. The family dog fell in and drowned. The dead body got pulled into the pump. Even when the pool guy cracked open the filter casing and fished out a rubbery tube, a watery hank of intestine with a big orange vitamin pill still inside, even then, my dad just said, ―That dog was fucking nuts.‖

    Even from my upstairs bedroom window, you could hear my old man say, ―We couldn‘t trust that dog alone for a second . . .‖

    Then my sister missed her period.

    Even after they changed the pool water, after they sold the house and we moved to another state, after my sister‘s abortion, even then my folks never mentioned it again.

    Ever.

    That is my family‘s invisible carrot.

    Now you can take a good, deep breath.

    Because I still have not.

    Chapter 2

    Under the next streetlight stands the Reverend Godless, next to him a square suitcase. It‘s still early morning enough that every color is black or gray. There, the black fabric of the suitcase is scarred with silver zippers running in every direction, a black Swiss cheese of little pockets and slots, sacks and compartments. Reverend Godless with his facejust red-raw meat around a

    nose and eyes, steak stitched together with thread and scars, his ears twisted and swollenhis

    eyebrows are shaved. Then, sketched on with black pencil in two surprised arcs that rise almost to his hairline.

    Watching him climb up the bus steps, Comrade Snarky fingers open a button of her jacket. Closing the button, she leans close to the tape recorder tucked in the Earl of Slander‘s pocket.

    Close into the little redRECORD light, Comrade Snarky says, The Reverend Godless is wearing

a white blouse. A woman‘s blouse. With the buttons on the left.

    In the dim streetlight, his rhinestone buttons sparkle.

    Down the next stretch of road, around the next curve, standing outside the circle of a streetlight, standing back in the shadows, waits the Baroness Frostbite.

    First her hand reaches in through the open door of the bus, a normal hand, the fingers yellow where she‘s held her cigarettes. No wedding ring. The hand sets a plastic makeup case at the top of the steps. Then a knee appears, a thigh, the swell of a breast. A waist belted in a trench coat. Then everyone looks away.

    We look at our watches. Or we look out the windows at parked cars and newspaper boxes. Fire hydrants.

    Baroness Frostbite brought tubes and tubes of lip wax, she said, for the edges of her mouth. For when they cracked and bled in cold weather. Her mouth, it‘s just a grease-shiny hole she screws

    open and shut to talk. Her mouth, just a pink-lipstick pucker in the bottom half of her face. Leaning in to the Earl of Slander, whispering close to his tape recorder, Comrade Snarky says, ―Oh my God . . .‖

    As the Baroness Frostbite takes her seat, only Agent Tattletale watches her, from safe behind the lens of his video camera.

    At the next stop, Miss America waits with her exercise wheel, a pink plastic wheel the size of a dinner plate with black rubber grips poking out each side of the hub. You‘d hold each grip and kneel down on the floor. You‘d lean forward to balance on the wheel, then roll forward and back by clenching your stomach. Miss America brought the wheel and some pink leotards, honey-blond hair coloring, and a home pregnancy test.

    Walking down the aisle in the center of the bussmiling at Mr. Whittier with his wheelchair,

    not smiling at the Missing Linkwith every step, Miss America overlaps one foot a little in

    front of the other, making her hips look thin, always the forward leg hiding the one behind. ―The Fashion-Model Waddle,‖ Comrade Snarky calls it. She leans over the Earl of Slander‘s notepad and says, ―That color of blond is what women calllifting the color.‖

    Miss America had written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror, smeared there for her boyfriend to find in the motel room they‘d shared, for him to find before his morning television appearance: ―I am NOT fat.‖

    We had all left some kind of note behind.

    Director Denial, petting her cat, she told us she‘d written a memo to her entire agency, telling them: ―Find your own objects to fuck.‖ That memo she left on every desk, last night, ready for her staff to find, this morning.

    Even Miss Sneezy wrote a note, even if she had nobody to read it. In red spray paint on a bus-stop bench, she wrote, ―Call me when you find a cure.‖

    The Matchmaker left his note folded to stand on the kitchen table, so his wife wouldn‘t miss it. The note said: ―It‘s been fourteen weeks since I had that head cold, and you still have not kissed me.‖ He wrote, ―This summer, you milk the cows.‖

    The Countess Foresight had left a note telling her parole officer he could reach her by dialing 1-800-FUCK-OFF.

    The Countess Foresight steps out of the shadows wearing a turban and wrapped in a lace shawl. Floating down the aisle of the bus, she stops a moment next to Comrade Snarky. ―Since you‘re

    wondering,‖ the Countess says, and dangles a limp hand, a plastic bracelet loose around the wrist. The Countess Foresight says, ―It‘s a global-positioning sensor. A condition of my early release

    from prison . . .‖

    One, two, three steps, past the Comrade and the Earl, their mouths still hanging a little loose, without looking back, the Countess Foresight says, ―Yes.‖

    She touches her turban with the fingernails of one hand and says, ―Yes, I did read your mind . . .‖

    Around the next corner, past the next shopping center and franchise motel, beyond another fast-food restaurant, Mother Nature sits on the curb in a perfect lotus position, her hands painted with dark henna vines and resting on each knee. A choker of brass temple bells tinkling around her

neck.

    Mother Nature brings on board a cardboard carton of clothes wrapped to protect bottles of thick oil. Candles. The box smelling of pine needles. The campfire smell of pine pitch. The salad-dressing smell of basil and coriander. The import-market smell of sandalwood. A long fringe sways along the hem of her sari.

    Comrade Snarky‘s eyes roll up to show all white, and she fans the air with her floppy black felt beret, saying,―Patchouli . . .‖

    Our writers‘ colony, our desert island, should be nicely heated and air-conditioned, or so we‘ve

    been led to believe. We‘ll each have our own room. Lots of privacy, so we won‘t need a lot of clothes. Or so we‘ve been told.

    We have no reason to expect otherwise.

    The borrowed tour bus would be found, but we wouldn‘t. Not for the three months we‘d leave the world. Those three months we‘d spend writing and reading our work. Getting our stories perfect.

    Last on board, around another block and through another tunnel, waiting at our last pickup spot, was the Duke of Vandals. His fingers smudged and stained from pastel crayons and charcoal pencils. His hands blotched with silk-screen inks, and his clothes stiff with drabs and spatters of dried paint. All these colors still only gray or black, the Duke of Vandals is sitting, waiting there on a metal toolbox heavy with tubes of oil paint, brushes, watercolors, and acrylics. He stands, making us wait while he shakes back his blond hair and twists a red bandana around to make a ponytail. Still standing in the doorway of the bus, the Duke of Vandals looks down the aisle at us all, spotlighted by Agent Tattletale‘s video camera, he says, ―It‘s about time . . .‖

    No, we weren‘t idiots. We‘d never agree to be stranded if we were really going to be cut off.

    None of us were so bored with this silly, below-average, watered-down, mediocre world that we‘d sign our own death wish. Not us.

    A living situation like this, of course, we expected fast access to emergency health care, just in case someone stumbled on the stairs or their appendix decided to burst.

    So all we had to decide was: What to bring in our one suitcase.

    This workshop, it‘s already supposed to have hot and cold running water. Soap. Toilet paper. Tampax. Toothpaste.

    The Duke of Vandals left his landlord a note that said: Screw your lease.

    Even more important was what we didn‘t bring. The Duke of Vandals didn‘t bring cigarettes, his mouth teeth-grinding wads of nicotine gum. Saint Gut-Free didn‘t bring pornography. Countess

    Foresight and the Matchmaker didn‘t bring their wedding rings.

    As Mr. Whittier would say, ―What stops you in the outside world, that will stop you in here.‖

    The rest of the disaster wasn‘t our fault. We had no reason, none whatsoever, to bring a chainsaw.

    Or a sledgehammer or a stick of dynamite. Or a gun. No, on this desert island, we‘d be completely, completely safe.

    Before sunrise, on this sweet new day we won‘t ever see happen.

    So we‘d been led to believe. Maybe too safe.

    It‘s because of all this, we brought nothing that could save us.

    Around another corner, along another stretch of expressway, down an off-ramp, we drove, until Mr. Whittier said, ―Turn here.‖ Gripping the chrome frame of his wheelchair, he jabbed a beef-

    jerky finger. The skin withered and shrunk, the fingernail bone-yellow.

    Comrade Snarky poked her nose up and sniffed, saying, ―Am I going to have to live with that patchouli stink for the next twelve weeks?‖

    Miss Sneezy coughed into her fist.

    And Saint Gut-Free steered the bus down a tight, dark alley. Between buildings so close they splashed back the brown spit of the Matchmaker, tobacco spattering the front of his bib overalls. Walls so close the concrete skinned the hairy elbow the Missing Link had resting on the sill of his open window.

    Until the bus pulls to a stop and the door folds open to show another doorthis second door

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