Choke, p.5

Choke, page 5



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  Shoveling food into his face, Denny says, “Why you do this is so infantile.”

  I stagger over and kick him, again.

  Why I do this is to put adventure back into people’s lives.

  Why I do this is to create heroes. Put people to the test.

  Like mother, like son.

  Why I do this is to make money.

  Somebody saves your life, and they’ll love you forever. It’s that old Chinese custom where if somebody saves your life, they’re responsible for you forever. It’s as if now you’re their child. For the rest of their lives, these people will write me. Send me cards on the anniversary. Birthday cards. It’s depressing how many people get this same idea. They call you on the phone. To find out if you’re feeling okay. To see if you maybe need cheering up. Or cash.

  It’s not as if I spend the money phoning up escort girls. Keeping my mom in St. Anthony’s Care Center costs around three grand each month. These Good Samaritans keep me alive. I keep her. It’s that simple.

  You gain power by pretending to be weak. By contrast, you make people feel so strong. You save people by letting them save you.

  All you have to do is be fragile and grateful. So stay the underdog.

  People really need somebody they feel superior to. So stay downtrodden.

  People need somebody they can send a check at Christmas. So stay poor.

  “Charity” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

  You’re the proof of their courage. The proof they were a hero. Evidence of their success. I do this because everybody wants to save a human life with a hundred people watching.

  With the sharp tip of his steak knife, Denny’s sketching on the white tablecloth, sketching the architecture of the room, the cornices and paneling, the broken pediments above each doorway, all this while still chewing. He lifts his plate to his mouth and just shovels in the food.

  To perform a tracheotomy, you’d find the dent just below the Adam’s apple, but just above the cricoid cartilage. With a steak knife, make a half-inch horizontal incision, then pinch the incision and insert your finger to open it. Insert a “trache” tube; a drinking straw or half a ballpoint pen works best.

  If I can’t be a great doctor saving hundreds of patients, this way I’m a great patient creating hundreds of would-be doctors.

  Closing in fast is a man in a tuxedo, dodging between the onlookers, running with his steak knife and his ballpoint pen.

  By choking, you become a legend about themselves that these people will cherish and repeat until they die. They’ll think they gave you life. You might be the one good deed, the deathbed memory that justifies their whole existence.

  So be the aggressive victim, the big loser. A professional failure.

  People will jump through hoops if you just make them feel like a god.

  It’s the martyrdom of Saint Me.

  Denny scrapes my plate onto his and keeps forking food into his mouth.

  The wine steward is here. The little black dress is up against me. The man with the thick gold watch.

  In another minute, the arms will come around me from behind. Some stranger will be hugging me tight, double-fisting me under the rib cage and breathing into my ear, “You’re okay.”

  Breathing into your ear, “You’re going to be fine.”

  Two arms will hug you, maybe even lift you off your feet, and a stranger will whisper, “Breathe! Breathe, damn it!”

  Somebody will pound you on the back the way a doctor pounds a newborn baby, and you’ll let fly with your mouthful of chewed steak. In the next second, you’ll both be collapsed on the floor. You’ll be sobbing while someone tells you how everything is all right. You’re alive. They saved you. You almost died. They’ll hold your head to their chest and rock you, saying, “Everybody get back. Make some room, here. The show’s over.”

  Already, you’re their child. You belong to them.

  They’ll put a glass of water to your lips and say, “Just relax. Hush. It’s all over.”


  For years to come, this person will call and write. You’ll get cards and maybe checks.

  Whoever it is, this person will love you.

  Whoever will be so proud. Even if maybe your real folks aren’t. This person will be proud of you because you make them so proud of themselves.

  You’ll sip the water and cough just so the hero can wipe your chin with a napkin.

  Do anything to cement this new bond. This adoption. Remember to add details. Stain their clothes with snot so they can laugh and forgive you. Cling and clutch. Really cry so they can wipe your eyes.

  It’s okay to cry as long as you’re faking it.

  Just don’t hold anything back. This is going to be the best story of somebody’s life.

  What’s most important is unless you want a nasty trache scar, you’d better be breathing before anybody gets near you with a steak knife, a pocketknife, a box cutter.

  Another detail to remember is when you blast out your mouthful of wet crud, your ground wad of dead meat and drool, you’ll need to be facing straight at Denny. He’s got parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins up the ass, a thousand people who have to save him from every mess-up. That’s why Denny will never understand me.

  The rest of the people, everyone else in the restaurant, sometimes they’ll stand there and applaud. People will cry with relief. People just pour out of the kitchen. Within minutes, they’ll be telling the story to each other. Everybody will buy drinks for the hero. Their eyes all shining with eye juice.

  They’ll all shake the hero’s hand.

  They’ll pat the hero on the back.

  It’s so much more their birth than it is yours, but for years to come this person will send you a birthday card on this day and month. They’ll become another member of your own very very extended family.

  And Denny will just shake his head and ask for a dessert menu.

  That’s why I do all this. Go to all this trouble. To showcase just one brave stranger. To save just one more person from boredom. It’s not just for the money. It’s not just for the adoration.

  But neither one hurts.

  It’s all so easy. It’s not about looking good, at least not on the surface—but you still win. Just let yourself be broken and humiliated. Just your whole life, keep telling people, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. …

  Chapter 8

  Eva follows me down the hallway with her pockets full of roast turkey. There’s chewed-up Salisbury steak in her shoes. Her face, the powdery crushed velvet mess of her skin, is a hundred wrinkles that all run into her mouth, and she wheels along after me, saying, “You. Don’t you run away from me.”

  Her hands woven with lumpy veins, she wheels herself along. Hunched in her wheelchair, pregnant with her own huge swollen spleen, she keeps after me, saying, “You hurt me.”

  Saying, “You can’t deny it.”

  Wearing a bib the color of food, she says, “You hurt me, and I’m telling Mother.”

  Where they have my mom, she has to wear a bracelet. Not a jewelry kind of bracelet, it’s a strip of thick plastic that’s heat-sealed around her wrist so she can never take it off. You can’t cut it. You can’t melt it apart with a cigarette. People have tried all these ways to get out.

  Wearing the bracelet, every time you walk around the hallways, you hear locks snapping shut. A magnetic strip or something sealed inside the plastic gives off a signal. It stops the elevator doors from opening for you to get on. It locks almost every door if you get within four feet. You can’t leave the floor you’re assigned. You can’t get to the street. You can go into the garden or the dayroom or the chapel or the dining room, but nowhere else in the world.

  If somehow you do get past an exterior door, for sure the bracelet sets off an alarm.

  This is St. Anthony’s. The rugs, the drapes, the beds, pretty much everything is flameproof. It’s all stain-resistant. You could
do just about anything anywhere, and they could wipe it up. It’s what they call a care center. It feels bad, telling you all this. Spoiling the surprise, I mean. You’ll see it all yourself, soon enough. That is, if you live too long.

  Or if you just give up and go nuts ahead of schedule.

  My mom, Eva, even you, eventually everybody gets a bracelet.

  This isn’t one of those snake pit places. You don’t smell urine the minute you step in the door. Not for three grand every month. It used to be a convent a century ago, and the nuns planted a beautiful old rose garden, beautiful and walled and fully escape-proof.

  Video security cameras watch you from every angle.

  From the minute you get in the front door, there’s a slow scary migration of the residents edging toward you. Every wheelchair, all the people with walkers and canes, they all see a visitor and come creeping.

  Tall, glaring Mrs. Novak is an undresser.

  The woman in the room next to my mom is a squirrel.

  With an undresser, they take their clothes off at every possible moment. These are the folks who the nurses dress in what look like shirt and pants combinations, but are really jumpsuits. The shirts are sewn into the waistband of the pants. The shirt buttons and the fly are fake. The only way in or out is a long zipper up the back. These are old people with limited range of motion, so an undresser, even what they call an aggressive undresser, is trapped three times over. In her clothes, in her bracelet, in her care center.

  A squirrel is someone who chews her food and then forgets what to do next. They forget how to swallow. Instead, she spits each chewed mouthful in her dress pocket. Or in her handbag. This is less cute than it sounds.

  Mrs. Novak is Mom’s roommate. The squirrel is Eva.

  At St. Anthony’s, the first floor is for people who forget names and run around naked and put chewed food in their pockets, but who are otherwise pretty undamaged. Here are also some young people fried on drugs and smoked by massive head traumas. They walk and talk, even if it’s just word salad, a constant stream of words that seem random.

  “Fig people road little dawn singing rope purple veil gone,” that’s how they talk.

  The second floor is for bed patients. The third floor is where people go to die.

  Mom’s on the first floor for now, but nobody’s there forever.

  How Eva got here is, people will take their aging parents to some public place and just leave them behind with no identification. These are old Dorothys and Ermas with no idea who or where they are. People think the city or state government or whoever will collect them. Kind of what the government does with litter.

  The same as what happens when you ditch your old car and take the license plates and the VIN decal off so the city has to tow it away.

  No kidding, but this is called granny dumping, and St. Anthony’s has to take a certain number of dumped grannies and ecstasy-fried street kids and suicidal bag ladies. Only they don’t call them bag ladies, or call the street girls prosti-tots. My guess is somebody slowed their car down and just shoved Eva out the door and never shed a tear. Kind of what people do with pets they can’t house-train.

  Eva still trailing me, I get to my mom’s room and she’s not there. Instead of Mom, her bed’s empty with a big wet dent sunk in the mattress soaked with urine. It’s shower time, I figure. A nurse takes you down the hall to a big tiled room where they can hose you clean.

  Here at St. Anthony’s, they show the movie The Pajama Game every Friday night, and every Friday all the same patients crowd in to see it for the first time.

  They have bingo, crafts, visiting pets.

  They have Dr. Paige Marshall. Wherever she’s disappeared to.

  They have fireproof bibs that cover you from your neck to your ankles so you don’t set fire to yourself while you smoke. They have Norman Rockwell posters. A hair dresser comes twice a week to do your hair. That costs extra. Incontinence costs extra. Dry cleaning costs extra. Monitoring urine output costs extra. Stomach tubes.

  They have lessons every day in how to tie your shoe, how to button a button, snap a snap. Buckle a buckle. Someone will demonstrate Velcro. Someone will teach you how to zip your zipper. Every morning, they tell you your name. Friends who’ve known each other sixty years get reintroduced. Every morning.

  These are doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, who, day to day, can’t master a zipper anymore. This is less teaching than it is damage control. You might as well try to paint a house that’s on fire.

  Here at St. Anthony’s, Tuesday means Salisbury steak. Wednesday means mushroom chicken. Thursday is spaghetti. Friday, baked fish. Saturday, corned beef. Sunday, roast turkey.

  They have thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles for you to do while you’re running out the clock. There isn’t a mattress in the place a dozen people haven’t already died on.

  Eva’s wheeled her chair up to my mom’s doorway and she’s sitting there, looking pale and wilted, as if she’s a mummy somebody just unwrapped and then set its thin cruddy hair. Her curly blue head never stops bobbing in slow, tight little prizefighter circles.

  “Don’t come near me,” Eva says every time I look at her. “Dr. Marshall won’t let you hurt me,” she says.

  Until the nurse gets back, I just sit on the edge of my mom’s bed and wait.

  My mom has one of those clocks where each hour is marked by the call of a different bird. Prerecorded. One o’clock is the American Robin. Six is the Northern Oriole.

  Noon is the House Finch.

  The Black-capped Chickadee means eight o’clock. The White-breasted Nuthatch means eleven.

  You get the idea.

  The problem is, associating birds with specific times can get confusing. Especially if you’re outside. You turn from a clock watcher to a bird watcher. Every time you hear the lovely trill of the White-throated Sparrow, you think: Is it ten o’clock already?

  Eva wheels a little bit into my mom’s room. “You hurt me,” she says to me. “And I never told Mother.”

  These old people. These human ruins.

  It’s already half-past the Tufted Titmouse, and I have to catch my bus and be at work by the time the Blue Jay sings.

  Eva thinks I’m her big brother who diddled her about a century ago. My mom’s roommate, Mrs. Novak with her horrible big hanging breasts and ears, she thinks I’m her bastard business partner who gypped her out of a patent for the cotton gin or the fountain pen or something.

  Here I get to be all things to all women.

  “You hurt me,” Eva says and rolls a little closer. “And I’ve never forgotten it for a minute.”

  Every time I visit, some old raisin down the hall with wild eyebrows, she calls me Eichmann. Another woman with a clear plastic tube of piss looping out from under her bathrobe, she accuses me of stealing her dog and wants it back. Anytime I pass this other old woman who sits in her wheelchair, slumped inside a pile of pink sweaters, she hisses at me. “I saw you,” she says, and looks at me with one cloudy eye. “The night of the fire, I saw you with them!”

  You can’t win. Every man who’s ever passed through Eva’s life has probably been her big brother in some form. Whether she knew it or not, she’s spent her whole life waiting and expecting men to diddle her. For serious, even mummied up in her wrinkled skin, she’s still eight years old. Stuck. Just the same as Colonial Dunsboro with its granola crew of burnouts, everybody at St. Anthony’s is trapped in their past.

  I’m no exception, and don’t think you are either.

  Just as stuck as Denny in the stocks, Eva’s arrested in her development.

  “You,” Eva says, and pokes a trembling finger at me. “You hurt my woo-woo.”

  These stuck old people.

  “Oh, you said it was just our game,” she says and rolls her head, her voice getting sing song. “It was just our secret game, but then you put your big man thing inside me.” Her bony, carved little finger keeps poking in the air at my crotch.

  For serious, just the idea makes
my big man thing want to run screaming from the room.

  The trouble is, anywhere else at St. Anthony’s it’s the same deal. Another old skeleton thinks I borrowed five hundred dollars from her. Another baggy old woman calls me the devil.

  “And you hurt me,” Eva says.

  It’s tough not to come here and soak up the blame for every crime in history. You want to shout in everybody’s old toothless face. Yes, I kidnapped that Lindbergh baby.

  The Titanic thing, I did that.

  That Kennedy assassination deal, yeah, that was me.

  The big World War II gizmo, that atom bomb contraption, well guess what? That was my doing.

  The AIDS bug? Sorry. Me, again.

  The correct way to handle a case like Eva is to redirect her attention. Distract her by mentioning lunch or the weather or how nice her hair looks. Her attention span is about a clock tick long, and you can shove her on to a more pleasant topic.

  You can guess this is how men have been handling Eva’s hostility for her whole life. Just distract her. Get through the moment. Avoid confrontation. Run away.

  That’s pretty much how we get through our own lives, watching television. Smoking crap. Self-medicating. Redirecting our own attention. Jacking off. Denial.

  Her whole body leaning forward, her little stick finger trembles in the air at me.

  Screw it.

  She’s already pretty much engaged to become Mrs. Death.

  “Yeah, Eva,” I say. “I boned you.” And I yawn. “Yup. Every chance I got, I stuck it in you and humped out a load.”

  They call this psychodrama. You could call it just another kind of granny dumping.

  Her twisted little finger wilts, and she settles back between the arms of her wheelchair. “So you finally admit it,” she says.

  “Hell yes,” I say. “You’re a great piece of ass, baby sis.”

  She looks off at a blank spot on the linoleum floor and says, “After all these years, he admits it.”

  This is role-playing therapy, only Eva doesn’t know it’s not for real.

  Her head still loops in little circles, but her eyes come back to me. “And you’re not sorry?” she says.

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