Chuck Palahniuk:
Survivor (Chuck Palahniuk)

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  The way I live, it's hard enough to bread a veal cutlet. Some nights it's different; it's fish or chicken. But the minute my one hand is covered in raw egg and the other's holding the meat someone is going to call me in trouble.

This is almost every night of my life now.

Tonight, a girl calls me from inside a pounding dance club. Her only words I can make out are "behind."

She says, "asshole."

She says what could be "muffin" or "nothing." The fact of the matter is you can't begin to fill in the blanks so I'm in the kitchen, alone and yelling to be heard over the dance mix wherever. She sounds young and worn out, so I ask if she'll trust me. Is she tired of hurting? I ask if there's only one way to end her pain, will she do it?

My goldfish is swimming around all excited inside the fishbowl on the fridge so I reach up and drop a Valium in its water.

I'm yelling at this girl: has she had enough?

I'm yelling: I'm not going to stand here and listen to her complain.

To stand here and try to fix her life is just a big waste of time. People don't want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.

Most people who call me already know what they want. Some want to die but are just looking for my permission. Some want to die and just need a little encouragement. A little push. Someone bent on suicide won't have much sense of humor left. One wrong word, and they're an obituary the next week. Most of the calls I get, I'm only half listening anyway. Most of the people, I decide who lives and who dies just by the tone of their voice.

This is getting nowhere with the girl at the dance club so I tell her, Kill yourself.

She's saying, "What?"

Kill yourself.

She's saying, "What?"

Try barbiturates and alcohol with your head inside a dry cleaning bag.

She says, "What?"

You cannot bread a veal cutlet and do a good job with only one hand so I tell her, now or never. Pull the trigger or don't. I'm with her right now. She's not going to die alone, but I don't have all night.

What sounds like part of the dance mix is her starting to cry really hard. So I hang up.

On top of breading a veal cutlet, these people want me to straighten their whole life out.

The phone in my one hand, I'm trying to get bread crumbs to stick with my other. Nothing should be this hard. You flop the cutlet in raw egg. Then you shake it dry, then crumbs. The problem with the cutlet is I can't get the crumbs right. Some places, the cutlet is bare. The crumbs are so thick in other places you can't tell what's inside.

It used to be this was a lot of fun. People just call you on the verge of suicide. Women would call. Here I am just alone with my goldfish, alone in my dirty kitchen breading a pork chop or whatnot, wearing just my boxers, hearing somebody's prayer. Dishing out guidance and punishment.

A guy will call. After I'm fast asleep, it happens. These calls will come all night if I don't unplug the phone. Some loser will call tonight just after the bars close to say he's sitting cross-legged on the floor in his apartment. He can't sleep without having these terrible nightmares. In his dreams, he sees planes full of people crash. It's so real and then no one will help him. He can't sleep. He can't get help. He tells me he's got a rifle tucked up under his chin and he wants me to give him one good reason not to pull the trigger.

He can't live with knowing the future and not being able to save anyone.

These victims, they call. These chronic sufferers. They call. They break up my own little tedium. It's better than television.

I tell him, Go ahead. I'm only half awake. It's three in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow. I tell him, Hurry before I fall back asleep, pull the trigger.

I tell him this isn't such a beautiful world that he has to stay in it and suffer. This isn't much of a world at all.

My job is most of the time I work for a housecleaning service. Full-time drudge. Part-time god.

Past experience tells me to hold the phone a ways from my ear when I hear the little click of the trigger. There's the blast, just a burst of static, and somewhere a receiver clunks to the floor. I'm the last person to talk to him, and I'm back asleep before the ringing in my ear starts to fade.

There's the obituary to look for the next week, six column inches about nothing that really mattered. You need the obituary, otherwise you're not sure if it happened or if it was just a dream.

I don't expect you to understand.

It's a different kind of entertainment. It's a rush, having that kind of control. The guy with the shotgun was named Trevor Hollis in his obituary, and finding out he was a real person feels wonderful. It's murder, but it's not, depending on how much credit you take. I can't even say doing crisis intervention was my own idea.

The truth is this is a terrible world, and I ended his suffering.

The idea came by accident when a newspaper did a feature about a real crisis hotline. The phone number in the paper was mine by mistake. It was a typo. Nobody read the correction they ran the next day, and people just started calling me day and night with their problems.

Please don't think I'm here to save lives. To be or not to be, I don't labor the decision. And don't think I'm above talking to women this way. Vulnerable women. Emotional cripples.

McDonald's almost hired me one time, and I only applied for the job to meet younger girls. Black girls, Hispanic, white, and Chinese girls, it says right on the job application how McDonald's hires different races and ethnic backgrounds. It's girls, girls, girls, buffet-style. Also on the application McDonald's says if you have any of the following diseases:

Hepatitis A
or Campylobacter, then you may not work there. This is more of a guarantee than you get meeting girls on the street. You can't be too careful. At least at McDonald's she's gone on the record saying she's clean. Plus, there's a very good chance she's going to be young. Pimple young. Giggling young. Silly young and as stupid as me.

Eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old girls, I only want to talk to them. Community college girls. High school seniors. Emancipated minors.

It's the same with these suicide girls calling me up. Most of them are so young. Crying with their hair wet down in the rain at a public telephone, they call me to the rescue. Curled in a ball alone in bed for days, they call me. Messiah. They call me. Savior. They sniff and choke and tell me what I ask for in every little detail.

It's so perfect some nights to hear them in the dark. The girl will just trust me. The phone in my one hand, I can imagine my other hand is her.

It's not that I want to get married. I admire guys who can commit to a tattoo.

After the newspaper got the phone number right, the calls started to peter out. The loads of people who called me at first, they were all dead or pissed off at me. No new people were calling. They wouldn't hire me at McDonald's, so I made a bunch of big sticky labels.

The labels had to stand out. You need the stickers to be easy to read at night and by somebody crying on drugs or drunk. The stickers I use are just black on white with the black letters saying:

Give Yourself, Your Life, Just One More Chance. Call Me for Help. Then my phone number.

My second choice was:

If You're a Young Sexually Irresponsible Girl with a Drinking Problem, Get the Help You Need. Call--and then my phone number.

Take my word for it. Don't make this second kind of sticker. With this kind of sticker, someone from the police will pay you a visit. Just from your phone number, they can use a reverse directory and put your name on a list as a probable felon. Forever after that you'll hear the little click... click of a wiretap behind every telephone call you ever make.

Take my word for it.

If you use the first kind of sticker, you'll get people calling to confess sins, complain, ask advice, seek approval.

The girls you meet are never very far from their worst-case scenario. A harem of women will be clutching their telephones on the brink and asking you to call back, please, call back. Please.

Call me a sexual predator, but when I think of predators I think of lions, tigers, big cats, sharks. This isn't so much a predator versus prey relationship. This isn't a scavenger, a vulture, or a laughing hyena versus a carcass. This isn't a parasite versus a host.

We're all miserable together.

It's the opposite of a victimless crime.

What's most important is you need to put the stickers in public telephones. Try inside dirty phone booths near bridges over deep water. Put them next to taverns where people with no place to go get thrown out at closing time.

In no time at all, you'll be in business.

You'll need one of those speakerphones where it sounds like you're calling from deep inside somewhere. Then people will call in crisis and hear you flush the toilet. They'll hear the roar of the blender and know how you couldn't care less.

These days, what I need is one of those cordless telephone headsets. A kind of Walkman of human misery. Live or die. Sex or death. This way, you can make hands-free life-and-death decisions every hour when people call to talk about their one terrible crime. You give out penance. You sentence people. You give guys on the edge the phone numbers of girls in the same position.

The same as most prayers, the bulk of what you hear is complaints and demands. Help me. Hear me. Lead me. Forgive me.

The phone is ringing again already. The thin little coating of crumbs on the veal cutlet is almost impossible for me to get right, and on the phone is a new girl, crying. I ask right away if she'll trust me. I ask if she'll tell me everything.

My goldfish and me, both of us are just here swimming in one place.

The cutlet looks dug out of a cat box.

To calm this girl down, to get her to listen, I tell her the story about my fish. This is fish number six hundred and forty-one in a lifetime of goldfish. My parents bought me the first one to teach me about loving and caring for another living breathing creature of God. Six hundred and forty fish later, the only thing I know is everything you love will die. The first time you meet that someone special, you can count on them one day being dead and in the ground.

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Excerpted from Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. Copyright © 1999 by Chuck Palahniuk. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.