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Chuck Palahniuk
   
 
photo of Chuck Palahniuk   Choke  
 
























































  Brinksmanship

In this one bar, you couldn't set your beer bottle on the table or cockroaches would climb up the label and drown themselves.

Anytime you set down a beer, you'd have a dead cockroach in your next mouthful. There were Filipino strippers who came out between their sets to shoot pool in string bikinis. For five dollars, they'd pull a plastic chair into the shadows between stacked cases of beer and lap dance you.

We used to go there because it was near Good Samaritan Hospital.

We'd visit Alan until his pain medication put him to sleep, then Geoff and I would go drink beer. Geoff, grinding his beer bottle on roach after roach as they ran across our table.

We'd talk to the strippers. We talked to guys at other tables. We were young, young-ish, late twenties, and one night a waitress asked us, "If you're already watching dancers in a dive like this, what will you be doing when you're old men?"

At the next table was a doctor, an older man who explained a lot of things. He said how the stage was spotlighted with red and black lights because they hid the bruises and needle marks on the dancers. He showed how their fingernails, their hair and eyes told their childhood diseases. Their teeth and skin showed how well they ate. Their breath in your face, the smell of their sweat could tell you how they'd probably die.

In that bar, the floor, tables, the chairs, everything was sticky. Someone said Madonna went there a lot when she was in Portland filming Body of Evidence, but by then I'd quit going. By then Alan and his cancer were both dead.

 

***

 

It's a story I've told before, but I once promised to introduce a friend to Brad Pitt if she'd let me assist in dissecting some medical school cadavers.

She'd failed pre-med three times already, but her father was a doctor so she just kept going back. She was my age now, middle-aged, the oldest pre-med in her class, and all night we dissected three cadavers so first-year students could examine them the next day.

Inside each body was a country I'd always heard about but never thought I'd visit. Here was the spleen and the heart and liver. Inside the head were the hypothalamus, the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's. Still, I was most amazed by what wasn't there. These yellow, shaved and leathery bodies were so different than my friend who used her saws and knives. For the first time, I saw that maybe human beings are more than their bodies. That maybe there is a soul.

The night she met Brad, we walked out of soundstage fifteen on the Fox lot. It was after midnight, and we walked through the dark standing New York sets used in a million productions since they were built for Barbara Streisand in "Hello, Dolly." A taxi passed us with New York license plates. Steam rose from fake manhole covers. Now, the sidewalks were full of people in winter coats, carrying shopping bags from Gumps and Bloomingdales. In another minute, someone waved to stop us from walkingóus laughing and wearing shorts and T-shirtsóinto a Christmas episode of "NYPD Blue."

We walked another way, past an open soundstage where spotlighted actors in blue surgical scrubs leaned over an operating table and pretended to save someone's life.

 

***

 

This other time, I was scrubbing the kitchen floor and pulled a muscle in my side. That's how it felt at first.

By then, the doctor from the strip bar was my doctor. For the next three days, I'd go to the urinal and not pee, and by the time I left work and drove to the doctor's office, the pain had me duck walking. The doctor felt my back and said, "You need to get to the hospital or you're going to lose this kidney."

A few days later, I called him from the bathtub where I'm sitting in a puddle of piss and blood, drinking California champagne and popping Vicodins. On the phone, I tell him, "I passed my stone," and in my other hand is a nine-millimeter ball of tiny oxalic acid crystals, all of them razor-sharp.

The next day, I flew to Spokane and accepted an award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association for Fight Club.

The week after, on the day of my follow-up appointment, someone called to say the doctor was dead. A heart attack in the night, and he died alone on the floor next to his bed.

 

***

 

The black and red lights. The standing sets. The embalmed cadavers. My doctor, my friend, dead on his bedroom floor. I want to believe they're all just stories now. Our physical bodies, I want to believe that they're all just props. That life, physical life, is an illusion.

And I do believe it, but only for a moment at a time.

 

***

 

It's funny, but the last time I saw my father alive was at my brother-in-law's funeral. He was young, my brother-in-law, young-ish, in his late thirties, when he had the stroke. The church gave us a menu and said to choose two hymns, a psalm, and three prayers. It was like ordering a Chinese dinner.

My sister came out of the viewing room, from her private viewing of her husband's body, and she waved our mother inside, saying, "There's been a mistake."

This thing in the casket, drained and dressed and painted, looked nothing like Gerard. My sister said, "That's not him."

This last time I saw my father, he handed me a blue-striped tie and asked how to tie it. I told him to hold still. With his collar turned, I looped the tie around his neck and started tying it. I told him, "Look up."

It was the opposite of the moment when he'd shown me the trick of the rabbit running around the cave and he'd tied my first pair of shoes.

That was the first time in decades my family had gone to Mass together.

 

***

 

While I'm writing this, my mother calls to say my grandfather's had a series of strokes. He's unable to swallow, and his lungs are filling with fluid. A friend, maybe my best friend, calls to say he has lung cancer. My grandfather's five hours away. My friend's across town. Me, I have work to do.

The waitress used to say, "What will you be doing when you're old men?"

I used to tell her, "I'll worry about that when I get there."

If I get there.

I'm writing this piece right on deadline.

My brother-in-law used to call this behavior "brinksmanship," the tendency to leave things until the last moment, to imbue them with more drama and stress and appear the hero by racing the clock.

"Where I was born," Georgia O'Keefe used to say, "and where and how I have lived is unimportant."

She said, "It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of any interest."

That's why I wrote Choke.

I'm sorry if this all seems a little rushed and desperate.

It is.

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Copyright © 2001 by Chuck Palahniuk.