Home > Doomed (Damned #2)(9)

Doomed (Damned #2)(9)
Chuck Palahniuk

Entertain myself? My nana must’ve been insane. As nicely as possible, grasping her not-clean apron strings and giving them a tug with my own smooth child’s hand, I said, “Nana, my darling, you might want to get screened for age-related dementia.…”

Entertain myself! As if I could possibly use the sticks and dirtied rocks readily available to assemble a television receiver, then construct a distribution network and a local broadcast affiliate, then launch the production companies and stock the pipeline with a season of programming content. Such a venture, I told my nana, undertaken by a preadolescent girl over the course of a single summer, seemed highly not-likely to succeed.

“No,” my Nana Minnie said, tugging her apron free of my stubborn hold. “I mean you ought to read a book.” At this she abandoned her boiling fruity corpses. Nana turned to face me, grasping my shoulders, and ushered me from the kitchen, down a short hallway to the parlor, where bookshelves ranged from floor to ceiling, filling an entire wall. There she bade me choose from among the aged leather-bound tomes.

It must be noted here that I was not yet as passionate a reader as I would soon become. My Swiss school, although appallingly expensive, was largely weighted toward awareness of flashpoint environmental issues and the squelched civil rights of oppressed indigenous peoples. On the basis of these ethical priorities I protested that I couldn’t consider reading books which had been bound in the dead hides of factory-farmed, no doubt highly stressed cows.

My nana merely shrugged her weary, apron-yoked, farm-wife shoulders in response. Saying, “Suit yourself, little missy,” she exited the living room, returning to the dreary pastime of canning tomatoes or pickling field mice. Doing so, she called back to me over one calico shoulder; she warned, “You can read a book or you can beat the rugs. Take your pick.”

Such are my morals that I couldn’t fathom inflicting any form of violence, even upon an insensate floor covering. Nor did I fancy the other forms of stooped, agrarian fieldwork suggested by my nana: another weed pogrom … confiscating more warm ovum from poultry nests … Strictly as a political compromise I chose to select a book. My fingers trailed the dead leather of the various spines. Moby Dick? No, thank you. For once I was thankful for my mother’s famed Greenpeace affiliation. Little Women? Ye gods, too monstrously sexist an option! The Scarlet Letter? House of Mirth? Leaves of Grass? My nana’s shelves sagged, burdened with obscure, long-forgotten titles. Tropic of Cancer? Naked Lunch? Lolita? Fie. Nothing racy here.

Gentle Tweeters, in response to your charges that I’m too precocious for an eleven-year-old, please accept the fact that people do not change over time. The elderly are, in reality, aged tikes. Conversely, the young are juvenile codgers. Granted, we might develop some skills, achieve some profound insights over a lifetime, but by and large who you are at eighty-five is who you were at five. One is either born intelligent or not. The body ages, grows, passes through near-lunatic phases of reproductive frenzy, but you are born and die essentially the same person.

That … that is proof of your deathless soul.

Standing in my nana’s parlor, at last I resolved to shut my eyes. Thus blinded I pirouetted a full three rotations and extended an unseeing hand in the general direction of the shelved library. My fingertips brailled their ribbed bindings, the titles embossed there. The cracked grain of the leather felt soft, even crepey, not unlike the skin of my nana’s calloused hands. After stroking them all, my touch settled on the one I could sense was my destiny. Here was the book which would deliver me from my immediate impoverished circumstances, my long television-deprived days, my Internet-starved boredom. My blind fingers closed around the book and pulled it from among its brothers. I opened my eyes to this new future.

Printed across the worn cover in gilded type was the author’s name: Charles Darwin. Here was a book to shelter me. A story I could hide within for months.

My Nana Minnie’s voice, hollering from the recesses of the farmhouse kitchen, called, “Time’s up, Pumpkinseed. Them peas ain’t going to shell themselves.…”

I called back, “But I found one!”

“One what?” she called.

Putting a child’s happy smile into my voice, I called, “A book, Nana!”

A silent pause elapsed, broken only by the mating cries of icky out-of-doors birds trying to entice one another to engage in avian sexual hijinks. Indoors, the air smelled of cigarette smoke and the steam from my nana’s tireless torture cooker.

“What book?” my nana asked warily. “How’s it called?”

I turned the book sideways, searching its spine for the title. “It’s about a dog,” I said. “It’s about a cute little dog that travels on a maritime adventure.”

In response my nana’s voice sounded jolly, her tones rounded almost to laughter, the voice of a younger woman. In almost a girl’s voice she shouted, “Let me guess. It’s The Call of the Wild!” She shouted, “When I was your age I loved Jack London!”

My hands cracked open the book, and the pages smelled like a room where no one had walked for a long time. This paper room smelled enormous, with varnished wooden floors, and stony fireplaces filled with cold ashes, and dust motes swimming in the sunlight that fell through the room’s tall windows. Mine were the first eyes to peer inside this paper castle for generations.

No, the book’s title wasn’t The Call of the Wild, but—Gentle Tweeter—my Nana Minnie was happy. I was excused from shelling peas. That’s what mattered most.

The author was not Jack London, but who really cared? If I were to read slowly enough, this book would fill my entire desolate summer holiday. To tedious, odious upstate it would deliver all the joy and excitement of a bygone canine universe. Already, my head was nodding over the open volume, engrossed in the words and perceptions of some long-deceased narrator. I was seeing a vanished past through the alien eyes of that dead man.

Flipping to the title page, I read, printed there: The Voyage of the Beagle.

DECEMBER 21, 9:00 A.M. EST

Papadaddy Three

Posted by [email protected]

Gentle Tweeter,

To help alleviate my tedium, Papadaddy Ben suggested we construct a housing unit for the indigenous birdlife. A sort of avian Habitat for Humanity, minus Jimmy Carter and his ilk. Actual architectural planning played a very small part in the project. We sawed boards to fashion rudimentary walls, floor, and roof, cobbling these together with nails. A not-unsatisfying process. Last, we applied a coat of sunny yellow paint.

Brush in hand, my papadaddy asked, “You remember me telling you about Leonard? Your ma’s guardian angel.”

I feigned deafness and concentrated on my painting technique, avoiding leaving brush marks and drips. I worried about the paint smell, concerned that I might be contributing to the birdhouse equivalent of sick building syndrome.

Oblivious, my papadaddy forged on. “What if I was to tell you the angels call your nana as well?”

I dipped my brush and dabbed yellow around the invitingly round door of the house. I wondered whether the birds who’d set up housekeeping would migrate, as did my parents, between similar dwellings in Nassau and Newport and New Bedford. Likewise, would their migratory patterns be determined by the income tax rates of each location?

Papadaddy took my silence as encouragement. “I don’t want to scare you none, but do you remember how I mentioned your big showdown? From what Leonard tells your nana, the forces of good and evil will be testing you.”

My Chanel playsuit felt snug in the hips.

“On some island,” he added. “Your big test will come on an island.”

Despite Ctrl+Alt+Hurtling my nana’s cuisine out the kitchen window, I was gaining weight as if by osmosis. Genetics or environment, I worried that my body-fat percentage was nearing double digits.

“According to your nana, somebody’s going to die pretty soon.” Papadaddy dipped his brush and resumed his work. “Just so you know to be careful, the one who dies might be you.”

DECEMBER 21, 9:02 A.M. EST

Charting a Course for Glory

Posted by [email protected]

Gentle Tweeter,

Contrary to its merry title, The Voyage of the Beagle is not a picaresque yarn about a small, plucky dog who embarks upon a madcap over-the-waves maritime adventure. If I were compelled to write the CliffsNotes summarizing the book, that distillation would go as follows: Stupid wild fish … dumb wild bird … big rock … Snake! Snake! Snake! … slaughtered animal … another rock … turtle. Imagine such a series made long enough to fill almost five hundred pages and you’ve more or less written the Beagle book for yourself. In half a thousand pages hardly a dog is mentioned, and nothing exists in the spotlight for longer than the duration of Mr. Darwin’s ten-second attention span. Instead of evolution, Charles Darwin seems to have invented attention deficit disorder, and his focus is constantly distracted by a different fungus … a novel, new arthropod … a brightly colored pebble. Reading along, one hopes to see a pretty señorita catch the narrator’s eye. The reader expects a romance to blossom among the pampas followed by a lover’s quarrel and the introduction of a romantic rival, kissing, fistfights, drawn swords—but it’s just not that kind of book. No, The Voyage of the Beagle seems more akin to watching five years’ worth of vacation snaps, shown by an Asperger’s sufferer compelled to narrate incessantly.

The title of the tome is a blatant misdirection. The Beagle cited is actually the ship upon which Mr. Darwin and Co. are sailing, apparently christened by some long-ago dog fancier. Nonetheless, it’s within these brittle old pages that I found my destiny.

It takes but a single remarkable victory to cement the reputation of a budding scribe. For my nana’s favorite, Jack London, it required only six months of mucking about in the gold-rush towns of the Klondike. For Mr. Darwin the transformative episode in the Galápagos Islands lasted at most four weeks. Both men had begun their adventure in resignation: London had been unable to secure gainful employment in San Francisco; Darwin had dropped out of college, failing to earn his degree in theology. Both men returned to their ordinary lives while still young, but milked inspiration from their short-lived adventures until they died.

There was no reason why the summer of my eleventh year need be wasted. I had only to find some as-yet-undocumented species of disgusting creature—fly, beetle, spider—and I could write my own ticket back to civilization. Scientific acclaim would be mine. I’d reinvent myself as a world-renowned naturalist who need never kiss and hug her evil, heartless parents ever again.

The morning I’d resolved to begin my fieldwork, I sat at the table in my nana’s kitchen. The dawn light shimmered, brown-orange, through the jar of stagnant water and sodden tea bags that she kept on the windowsill above her sink. I feigned spooning some vile porridge to my mouth, tasting nothing except the bovine growth hormone in the milk. Still, I smiled winningly, my Beagle book open beside my breakfast, and asked, “Nana, dearest?”

My Nana Minnie turned from her stovetop chore—stirring a wooden spoon in some simmering glop—and considered me coolly. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion, she said, “Yes’m, June Bug?”

Keeping my voice laconic, my tone breezy and nonchalant, I asked whether there were any tropical islands within a walkable distance.

Her stirring hand lifted the spoon from her witch’s cauldron and brought it to her crooked mouth, where a darting, furtive tongue tasted the concoction. Smacking her lips with great gusto, my nana said, “Did you say ‘islands,’ baby girl?”

My mouth fixed in a smile, I nodded my head yes. Islands.

Her requisite cigarette smoldered between the fingers of her free hand. This morning as every morning the sunrise found her gray hair wrapped around curlers and pinned tightly to her pink scalp. Papadaddy Ben remained abed. From the world outside the farmhouse resounded the racket and squawk of fowl announcing their successful ovulations.

My Nana Minnie continued to muse over the bubbling production of her noxious cookery. One could almost discern the click and whir of cogs within her head. The tick-tock of gears meshing was nearly audible as she searched her memory for any facts concerning a local island. Giving a short cough, a snort, she said, “No real islands,” adding, “not unless you count the traffic island out in the middle of the highway.”

What she proceeded to describe was a nearby traveler’s comfort station which was sandwiched between the numerous traffic-choked southbound lanes of a major highway and the equally congested northbound lanes. I had seen the place: a squat building of concrete blocks cowering in the center of a parched, lemon-yellow lawn spotted with the dried feces of domesticated dogs. I’d glimpsed the place only in passing, from the tinted window of a Town Car en route to my exile on Nana’s farm, but the concrete hovel seemed to shimmer with the acrid stink of human waste. A small number of cars and trucks had occupied parking spaces along the edge of the ragged lawn, abandoned by the various persons who rushed to void their bowels and bladders.

This place qualified as an “island” because it was isolated, cut off from the surrounding upstate countryside by the slashing rivers of high-speed vehicles. In lieu of a more conventional island, perhaps this one might serve my purpose.

I lingered over my breakfast. Regarding The Voyage of the Beagle, I’d read up to the point where Darwin drinks the bitter urine of a tortoise. Clearly I was not the first reader challenged by the idea of our hero quaffing a frosty mug of turtle pee, for a previous reader had underlined the entire passage in pencil. In the outer margin of the page a different reader had used blue ballpoint pen to write, Pervert. Occasionally these comments seemed fortune cookie–cryptic. Occluded and coded. For example, listed in a column down the outer margin of one page, noted in pencil were the words If I ever have a baby girl, Patterson says to name her Camille. Elsewhere, jotted in blue ink were the mysterious words: Atlantis isn’t a myth; it’s a prediction.

These two fellow travelers—the pencil scribbler and the blue-ink vandal—had become my reading companions, always present to share the Beagle book with me. Their snide, insightful comments leavened my own reaction to the many otherwise tiresome depictions of lizards and thistles.

In what was clearly a child’s hand, another penciled notation read, Patterson says to start collecting flowers for my husband’s funeral someday.

A squiggle of blue pen said, Leonard wants me to pick some flowers for my dad.

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