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Doomed (Damned #2)(5)
Chuck Palahniuk

The Tryst, Part Three

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Gentle Tweeter,

Tinny music fills the hotel bedroom. It’s the Beastie Boys singing “Brass Monkey.” It’s the PDA on the bedside table announcing a new text message.

Restored to the bed, my dad explains, “We asked a panel of doctors to study the security videos.” His hairy hand reaches into view, patting the tabletop in search of the ringing phone.

Words Ctrl+Alt+Fail me. Not even emoticons can convey the horror I feel upon hearing this. Like the subject of some patronizing panocular coming-of-age saga in the dirt-eating hinterlands of New Guinea, my not-clothed childhood antics have been observed! My formerly faithful, formerly devoted father is blatantly cheating on my mother, yet he deems me flawed and not likable! Yes, Gentle Tweeter, I might be emotionally withheld and lacking in superfluous, superficial social bonds, but I am not unproud of the fact that I failed to self-stimulate my virginal hoo-hoo for the Peeping Tom anthropological kicks of some voyeuristic child psych consultants. It’s monstrous, the idea that strangers watched me. Even my parents. Especially my parents.

Babette asks, “Antonio?”

My father hums something in reply.

Simpering, she asks, “Why are we here?”

My father’s hairy suntanned hand, it retrieves the PDA, and his voice says, “We’re accompanying Camille’s ghost hunter in room sixty-three fourteen.” Encircling his finger, his gold wedding ring looks like a tiny dog collar. “You remember, the guy who Leonard told us to hire? From People magazine?” he says. “The one who takes boatloads of that animal tranquilizer?” The pace of his delivery slows, punctuated by the faint beeps of him pressing PDA buttons. My dad’s still talking, but he’s distracted, checking his messages. He proceeds to describe the out-of-body effects of tripping on some anesthetic, ketamine, what the counterculture hero Timothy Leary described as “experiments in voluntary death.” He explains how this freelance ghost hunter triggers at-will near-death experiences by ingesting intentional overdoses of it. My father, Gentle Tweeter, can talk any subject into the ground. He describes what scientists call “emergence phenomena,” wherein the ketamine abusers swear their souls take leave of their bodies and can commune in the afterlife.

Babette says, “You miss my point.”

“Leonard told us to hire this freak and to camp out here, at the Rhinelander.”

“But why am I here?” Babette prompts.

“I picked you up on Halloween—”

“The day after Halloween,” Babette interrupts.

“I picked you up for the same reason I spit in the elevator on our way here this afternoon,” my dad says. He talks even slower, as if he’s giving orders to a stone-deaf, Somali-speaking maid. “I want to get my wings, too,” he says. “Babs, honey, I’m only porking you because the tenets of Boorism command me to.”

The bed creaks with his weight shifting. The shrieking mattress sounds begin anew, shrill arpeggios less like love-making than like the substitute screams in a movie where someone’s getting stabbed to death in a motel shower.

Breathless, my dad’s voice says, “Even if my daughter wasn’t perfect, I love her.” He says, “I’d lie, cheat, and kill to get my little girl back.”

The incoming message on the PDA, it was from Camille Spencer. The “Brass Monkey” song is unmistakable; it’s my mom’s signature ring tone. And the message? It consisted of three words: “SHE IS RISEN.”

DECEMBER 21, 8:28 A.M. EST

A Tourist among the Dead

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Gentle Tweeter,

It was always my mother’s coping mechanism to acquire far-flung maisons. In Stockholm and Sydney and Shanghai, a backup plan to every backup plan; that way she’d always have a refuge. Such was her fail-safe strategy: redundant places to retreat. If tax laws changed in one nation, or not-favorable publicity exposed her to public ridicule, my mom fled to sanctuary in Malta, in Monaco, in Mauritius.

For my father, girlfriends served the same function. In the same way my mother never fully committed to living in one domicile, my dad never favored one Miss Warty MacWanton. The subtle, largely unacknowledged appeal of extra homes and lovers relies on not making actual use of them. That unfulfilled longing, the idea of a gorgeous vacant home or a pining concubine, sustains the object’s attraction. Picture Playboy centerfolds or the idle harem ladies painted by Delacroix or the vacant rooms depicted in the pages of Architectural Digest. All of them empty vessels waiting to be filled.

So upon shocked exposure to my dad’s extramarital hanky-panky, I retreat. I bleed backward along the copper wiring of the Rhinelander hotel. Confronted, I quickly retrace my route back to the penthouse foyer and emerge like a bubble of my ghost self from the outlet I first entered. The process involves expanding, inflating my balloon of ectoplasm to roughly my chunky thirteen-year-old size. My facial features solidify, then my horn-rimmed glasses, followed by my school cardigan sweater and tweedy skort. Last to take shape are my Bass Weejun loafers. At that, the remainder of my ghost self trickles from the outlet, intact but Ctrl+Alt+Disillusioned.

And it would seem I’m not alone. A man stands among the furniture, the chairs and tables humped beneath their white dustcovers. He stands below the chandelier in its cheesecloth shroud. Ghost me, my ghost eyes are locked with the eyes of this stranger. Perhaps here is the ghost hunter my nana tried to caution me about.

Gentle Tweeter, you may label me as a snotty elitist, but it still amazes me to see Americans in the United States. For most of my childhood I’ve trekked from Andorra to Antigua to Aruba, all of those glorious tax-haven states, in the constant migration of income tax exiles as they seek to shelter their gargantuan salaries in Belize and Bahrain and Barbados. My general impression was that the United States had shipped all of its citizens offshore and become largely operated and inhabited by illegal aliens.

Yes, you might occasionally see someone wearing a maid’s uniform or driving a Town Car, but the man I find in our penthouse foyer, he’s clearly no one’s servant. For starters, he’s glowing. Radiating a clear, blue light. It’s not as if he contains a lightbulb; it’s more as if he’s something faceted, a jewel, collecting the ambient light. His face is hazy and indistinct, I realize, because I’m seeing both the front and the back of his head, his eyes, and his hair simultaneously. It’s like holding the page of a book against sunshine so strong that the print on both sides is legible. It’s dazzling, the way every angle of a diamond is visible at one glance. Through him I can see the buildings outside the window, the gray view over Central Park. His hair hangs down his back in a braid as long and thick as a moldering baguette. Each strand looks as clear and iridescent as Asian glass noodles. His neck is stretched cellophane, the skin pleated with tendons and veins. His suit coat, his pant legs, even his soiled running shoes are translucent as spit.

Standing there, his arms hanging at his sides, he trembles like a column of smoke. When he opens his lips they’re as faint as the undulating form of a jellyfish swimming through some disgusting undersea documentary. His voice sounds muffled, as if I’m hearing a man whisper secrets in another room.

To CanuckAIDSemily, yes, before I died, this is how I’d imagined a ghost would appear.

Haggard and weary, he says, “You’re that dead kid.”

He sees me.

“Are you …?” I ask. I gag on my own question.

His form sways a little from side to side. Just as he starts to topple in one direction, he stiffens with a jerk as if jarred awake. He overcompensates and begins to collapse in the opposite direction. Not quite standing straight, his fragile stance is a sustained series of barely arrested falls.

Gentle Tweeter, I may not know the much-touted womanly pleasures of menstruation, but I can recognize a junkie when I meet one. Life with Camille and Antonio Spencer meant rubbing elbows with a wide variety of the chemically dependent.

Dumbfounded, I swallow. My throat dry, I ask, “Are you God?”

“Little dead girl …” he seems to whisper. He’s dissipating, and not in a metaphorical way. He’s evaporating. His hands, dissolving like milk mixed into water. His words less than an echo, soft as a thought, he says, “Look for me in room number sixty-three fourteen. Find me.” Only the trail of his voice remains as he says, “Come tell me a secret that only your mother would know.…”

DECEMBER 21, 8:30 A.M. EST

My Parents Dispatch an Emissary

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Gentle Tweeter,

Here and now in the Rhinelander hotel, I trace the electrical lines from my parents’ penthouse to room 6314. This, in response to the mysterious advice from the ghostly vision, the translucent man with his not-clean hair tortured into a hippie braid no less off-putting than the soiled tail of some incontinent upstate hay burner. My thanks to CanuckAIDSemily for asking, but yes, a ghost can be haunted by ghosts. My nana, case in point, she remains in my penthouse bedroom, smoking, loitering, by her very presence reminding me of our shared summer in the tedious Empire State, and the myriad horrors that were to occur there.

Skating along electrical circuits, past solderless connections and with a not-small number of wrong turns, I emerge from the slotted holes of an outlet in room 6314. The setting: a room in the back of the house, overlooking Barneys and the pond in Central Park South, two upholstered chairs near the window, a chest of drawers, a bed—every surface, no doubt, alive with blood-besotted bedbugs. Between the two chairs stands a small glass-topped table, and streaked across the glass are white trails of powder. A scale model of the Andes. The Apennines. The rugged Galápagos Islands, only rendered in peaks of crystalline white dust. A single-edged razor blade lies beside the heaps. Sprawled beneath the glass-topped table is my enigmatic visitor, chest down, his head twisted to one side. He lies there on the carpet, to all appearances dead. A tightly rolled tube of paper juts from one nostril. This tube is likewise dusted with the table’s white residue.

Gentle Tweeter, life with my former-stoner, former-crackhead, former-snow-blind parents has left me too acclimated to this tableau. Even as I situate my ghost self on the edge of the bed, the sprawled denizen moans. His eyelids flutter. You’d mistake his torso and limbs for a not-fresh pile of sweat-stained laundry save for the gentle rise and fall of his breathing. His trembling hands push against the room’s carpet, and the scarecrow ensemble of patched blue jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, a fringed suede jacket, it clutches at a chair and hauls itself to a standing position. No longer magically transparent, this not-appealing flesh-depleted person casts his gaze around the hotel room, asking, “Little dead girl?”

This, this must be the parapsychological private detective dispatched by my mom.

You’d be hard-pressed to guess his age. The skin of his face is pebbled and flushed as if it were a delicious crème caramel bombe frosted with a raspberry-ricotta streusel of festering boils. What at first I took to be a huge upper lip is merely a bushy lip-colored mustache. Creases web every trace of his exposed neck, his arms and hands, as if he’s been folded over and folded over, like strudel dough, and now he can never again be smoothed flat. His bloodshot eyes sweep back and forth across the room, and he says, “Little dead girl, are you here? Did you come like I told you?”

As with so many of the chemically dependent, the man looks older than any cadaver.

It would seem that he can’t see me. Yes, I could flick the lights or flash the television to confirm my attendance; instead I wait.

The rolled paper still protrudes from his nose and he plucks it out. “Send me a sign,” he says. His hands unroll the paper, stretching it flat. It’s a photograph of my mother hugging me, both of us smiling at the camera. It’s the cover of an old Parade magazine. Gentle Tweeter, please understand that at the time this photo was snapped I had no inkling that they would superimpose the headline “A Movie Superstar and Her Afflicted Daughter Tackle the Tragedy of Childhood Obesity” across the top. Yes, there I am smiling like a happy toad, my beefy arms cradling a golden kitten. The deranged, pigtailed hobo rotates in place, showing the ragged clipping to the minibar, the bed, the bureau, the white-dusted table. “See,” he says. “It’s you.”

Along its bottom edge the photo is darkened with damp from his nose. Fat as I am, my mom’s arms go all the way around me. I smell the memory of her perfume.

Intrigued, I relent, slowly drawing the window curtains closed against the view.

The hobo’s head swivels so fast, turning to stare at the moving curtains, that his loathsome pigtail swings in a wide arc. “Success!” he shouts, and pumps a stony fist in the air. “I found you!” As he stumbles in a circle, his eyes sweep the room. His fingers grope as if he could snatch my invisible form. “Your old lady is going to be so jazzed.” He’s not looking at me. He’s not looking at anything as his eyes scan every corner. He’s talking everywhere, saying, “This proves I am the best.” His attention lands on the table, on the white lines of powder cut across the glass top. “This is my secret,” he says. “Ketamine. You know, Special K.” He rolls the photo of my mother and me and sticks it back into one nostril and mimes leaning down for a long toot.

“I call myself a ‘psychic bounty hunter,’ ” he says. “Little dead girl, your old lady is paying me big bucks to locate you.”

Yes, CanuckAIDSemily, you understood correctly. This much-eroded ragamuffin referred to himself as a psychic bounty hunter. I can surmise the worst.

The man’s eyelids blink, open, blink, but they stay blinked too long each time, as if he keeps dozing off. Jerking awake, his eyes spring wide, and he says, “What was I saying?” He offers a handshake to thin air and says, “My name is Crescent City. Don’t laugh.” His outstretched fingers are palsied, trembling. “Before, my real name was worse. It was Gregory Zerwekh.”

This, this is so the type of emissary my stone-ground, whole-grain mother would hire. Here is the winged Mercury meant to facilitate the exchange of our eternal mother-daughter bonding. He’s smiling, showing an asymmetrical mismatched nightmare of bony teeth. His stretched lips quiver with the effort. When his smile fades and his twitchy, jaundiced eyes quit darting around the room, he slowly lowers himself into one of the chairs and leans his elbows on his knees. With the paper tube still stuck in his nose, he says, “Little dead girl? I need to get with you on your level.” He draws a deep breath and blows it out to collapse his rag-doll chest. As he leans over the glass table he aligns the tube with a fat rail of powder and begins to anteater the white poison.

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