The following is an excerpt from Haunted, a novel in stories by Chuck Palahniuk, forthcoming from Doubleday in May.
A Story by Lady Baglady
After you give up television and newspapers, the mornings are the worst part: that first cup of coffee. It's true, that first hour awake, you want to catch up with the rest of the world. But her new rule is: No radio. No television. No newspaper. Cold turkey.
Show her a copy of Vogue magazine, and Mrs. Keyes still gets choked up.
The newspaper comes, and she just recycles it. She doesn't even take off the rubber band. You never know when the headline will be:
"Killer Continues to Stalk the Homeless"
Or: "Bag Lady Found Butchered"
mornings over breakfast, Mrs. Keyes reads catalogues. You order just
one single miracle shoe-tree over the telephone, and every week, for
the rest of your life, you'll get a stack of catalogues. Items for your
home. Your garden. Time-saving. Space-saving gadgets. Tools and new
Where the television used to be, there on the kitchen counter, she put an aquarium with the kind of lizard that changes color to match your decor. An aquarium, you flip the switch for the heat lamp and it's not going to tell you another transient wino was shot to death, his body dropped in the river, the fifteenth victim in a killing spree targeting the city's homeless, their bodies found stabbed and shot and set on fire with lighter fluid, the street people panicked and fighting their way into the shelters at night, despite the new tuberculosis. The outbound boxcars packed full. The social advocates claiming the city has put out a hit on panhandlers. You get all this just glancing at a newsstand. Or getting into a cab with the radio turned up loud.
get a glass tank, put it where the TV used to be, and all you get is a
lizard—something so stupid that every time the maid moves a rock the
lizard thinks it's been relocated miles away.
It's called Cocooning, when your home becomes your whole world.
Mr. and Mrs. Keyes—Packer and Evelyn—they didn't use to be this way. It used to be not a dolphin died in a tuna net without them rushing out to write a check. To throw a party. They hosted a banquet for people blown apart by land mines. They threw a dinner dance for massive head trauma. Fibromyalgia. Bulimia. A cocktail party and silent auction for irritable bowel syndrome.
Every night had its theme:
"Universal Peace for All Peoples."
Or: "Hope for Our Unborn Future."
Imagine going to your senior prom every night for the rest of your life. Every night, another stage set made of South American cut flowers and zillions of white twinkle lights. An ice sculpture and a champagne fountain and a band in white dinner jackets playing some Cole Porter tune. Every stage set built to parade Arab royalty and Internet boy wonders. Too many people made rich fast by venture capital. Those people who never linger on any landmass longer than it takes to service their jet. These people with no imagination, they just flop open Town & Country and say:
I want that.
At every benefit for child abuse, everyone walked around on two legs and ate crème brûlée with a mouth, their lips plumped with the same derma fillers. Looking at the same Cartier watch, the same time surrounded with the same diamonds. The same Harry Winston necklace around a neck sculpted long and thin with hatha yoga.
Everyone climbed in or out different colors of the same Lexus sedan.
No one was impressed. Every night was a complete and utter social stalemate.
Mrs. Keyes's best friend, Elizabeth Ethbridge Fulton Whelps, "Inky," used to say there's only one "best" of anything. One night, Inky said, "When everyone can afford the best, the truth is, it does look a little—common."
All the Old Society had gone missing. The more newly minted media barons showed up at any event, the fewer old-money railroad or ocean-liner crowd would.
Inky always said being absent is the new being present.
It's after some cocktail reception for victims of gun violence that the Keyeses walk out to the street. Packer and Evelyn are coming down the art-museum steps, and there's the usual long line of nobodies waiting in fur coats for the parking valets. This is right on the sidewalk, near a bus-stop bench. Sitting on the bench are a wino and a bag lady everyone's trying not to see.
These two, they're not young, dressed in clothes you might find in the trash. Bits of thread showing at every seam, the fabric stiff and blotchy with stains. The bag lady has on tennis shoes flopping open with no laces. Her hair shows through, matted and crushed inside the webbing of a wig, the fake plastic hair as rough and gray as steel wool.
The wino has a knitted brown stocking cap pulled down on his head. He's pawing the bag lady, shoving one hand down the front of her stretch-polyester pants and crawling his other hand up under her sweatshirt. The bag lady, she's twisting inside her clothes, moaning, her tongue rolling around her open lips.
The bag lady, where her sweatshirt is pulled up, her stomach looks flat and tight, her skin massaged pink.
The wino, his baggy sweatpants are tented in front with an erection. The peak of his tent shows a dark spot of wet leaked through.
Packer and Evelyn, they must be the only ones watching these two grope each other. The parking valets run between here and the parking garage down the block. The mob of new money looks at the sweep-second hand go around and around on their diamond watches.
The wino pulls the bag lady's face against the outline in his pants. The bag lady's lips, they crawl around on the dark stain growing there.
The bag lady's lips, Evelyn tells Packer, she knows those lips.
You hear a little sound, the kind of shrill ring that makes everyone waiting for a valet reach into a fur-coat pocket for their cell phone.
Oh my God, Mrs. Keyes says. She tells Packer, That bag lady getting pawed by the wino, that could almost be Inky. Elizabeth Ethbridge Fulton Whelps.
The shrill little ring sounds again, and the bag lady reaches down. She pulls up the bottom of one pant leg, unhemmed and unraveling beige polyester, to show her leg wrapped thick with a dirty elastic bandage. Her lips still on the wino's crotch, from between layers of bandages her fingers take a little black handful.
The shrill ring comes again.
The last Evelyn heard, Inky ran a magazine. Maybe Vogue magazine. She spent half of each year in France, deciding the hemline for next season. She sat ringside at the shows in Milan, and taped a fashion commentary that ran on some cable news network. She stood on red carpets and talked about who wore what to the Academy Awards.
This bag lady on the bus-stop bench, she holds the black object to the side of her gray plastic wig. She fingers it and says, "Hello?" She takes her mouth off the wet bulge in the wino's pants, and she says, "Are you writing this down?" She says, "Lime is the new pink."
The bag lady's voice, Mrs. Keyes tells her husband, she knows that voice.
She says, "Inky?"
The bag lady slips the little phone back between the bandages around her leg.
"That stinky wino," Packer says, "that's the president of Global Airlines."
It's then the bag lady looks up and says, "Muffy? Packer?" The wino's hand still feeling around deep in the front of her stretch pants, she pats the bench beside her and says, "What a nice surprise."
The bum pulls back his fingers, shiny wet in the streetlight, and he says, "Packer! Come say hello."
And of course Packer is always right.
Poverty, Inky says, is the new wealth. Anonymity is the new fame.
"Social divers," Inky says, "are the new social climbers."
The Jet Set are the original homeless people, Inky says. We may have a dozen homes-each in a different city-but we still live out of a suitcase.
This makes sense, if only because Packer and Evelyn are never on the cutting edge of anything. This whole social season, they've been going to horse shows, gallery openings, and auctions, telling each other all the Old Guard socialites were in detox or having cosmetic surgery.
Inky says, "Whether you do it with a shopping cart or a Gulfstream G550, it's the same instinct. To always be on the move. To not be tied down."
Anymore, she says, all you need is cash money, and you're sitting on the Opera Steering Committee. You make a hefty donation, and you get a place on the Museum Foundation Board.
You write a check, and that makes you a celebrity.
You get stabbed to death in a hit movie, and you're famous.
In other words: tied down.
Inky says, "Nobodies are the new celebrity."
The Global Airlines wino, he has a bottle of wine, wrapped in a brown paper bag. The wine, he says, is mixed with equal parts of mouthwash, cough syrup, and Old Spice cologne, and after one drink the four of them go strolling through the dark, through the park, where you'd never go at night.
What you have to love about drinking is, every swallow is an irrevocable decision. You charging ahead, in control of the game. It's the same with pills, sedatives and painkillers, every swallow is a definite first step down some road.
Inky says, "Public is the new private." She says, if you check into even the most boutique hotel—one of those white-robe places with orchids trembling next to the bidet in a white marble bathroom—even then, chances are a tiny camera is wired to watch you. She says the only place left to have sex is out in the open. The sidewalk. The subway. People only want to watch if they think they can't.
Besides, she says, the entire champagne-and-caviar lifestyle had lost its zap. Taking the Lear jet from here to Rome in six hours, it's made escaping too easy. The world feels so small and played out. Globe-trotting is just the chance to feel bored more places, faster. A boring breakfast in Bali. A predictable lunch in Paris. A tedious dinner in New York, and falling asleep, drunk, during just another blow job in L.A.
Too many peak experiences, too close together. "Like the Getty Museum," Inky says.
"Lather, rinse, and repeat," says the Global Airlines wino.
In the boring new world of everyone in the upper-middle class, Inky says nothing helps you enjoy your bidet like peeing in the street for a few hours. Give up bathing until you stink, and just a hot shower feels as good as a trip to Sonoma for a detoxifying mud enema.
"Think of it," Inky says, "as a kind of poverty sorbet."
A nice little window of misery that helps you enjoy your real life.
"Join us," Inky says. The sticky green stain of cough syrup smeared around her mouth, strands of her plastic wig hair sticking to it, she says, "This next Friday night."
Looking bad, she says, is the new looking good.
She says all the right people will be there. The Old Guard. The best parts of the Social Register. Ten in the evening, under the Westside ramps to the bridge.
They can't, Evelyn says. Packer and her, Wednesday night they're committed to attend the Waltz to End Hunger in Latin America. Thursday is the Aboriginals in Need Banquet. Friday is a silent auction for runaway teen sex workers. These events, with all the polished acrylic awards they hand out, it makes you long for the day when the number-one fear of Americans was public speaking.
"Just go to the midtown Sheraton," Inky says. "Check into a room."
Evelyn must make a pug-dog face, because then Inky tells her, "Relax."
She says, "Of course we don't stay there. Not at a Sheraton. It's only a place to change clothes."
Anytime after ten on Friday night, she says, under the ramps of the bridge.
Packer and Evelyn Keyes, their first problem is always what to wear. For a man, it looks easy. All he has to do is put on his dinner jacket and his trousers inside out. Put your shoes on the wrong feet. Voilà—you look crippled and crazy.
"Insanity," Inky would say, "is the new sanity."
Wednesday, after the hunger waltz, Packer and Evelyn come out of the hotel ballroom and you can hear someone on the street singing "Oh Amherst, Brave Amherst." In the street, Frances "Frizzi" Dunlop Colgate Nelson is drinking oversized cans of malt liquor with Schuster "Shoe" Frasier and Weaver "Bones" Pullman, the three of them sitting with their dirty pants rolled up and their bare feet in a fountain. Frizzi is wearing her bra on the outside.
Dressing down, Inky says, is the new dressing up.
At home, Evelyn tries on a dozen garbage bags, green and black plastic bags big enough for yard debris, but they all make her look fat. To look good, she settles on a narrow white bag made for upright kitchen trash. It looks elegant, even, snug as a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, belted with a melted old electrical cord, a dash of bright safety orange, with the loose wires and plug hanging loose down one side.
This season, Inky says everyone is wearing their wigs backward. Mismatched shoes. Cut a hole in the center of a soiled blanket, she says, wear it as a poncho, and you're ready for a night of fun on the street.
To be safe, the evening they check into the midtown Sheraton, Evelyn takes three suitcases full of army surplus. Yellowed, stretched-out bras. Sweaters thick with balls of lint. She takes a jar of clay facial mask to dirty them up. They sneak down the hotel fire stairs, fourteen flights to a door that opens on a back alley, and they're free. They're nobody. Anonymous. Without the responsibility to run anything.
No one's looking at them, asking for money, trying to sell them something.
Walking to the bridge, they're invisible. Safe in their poverty.
Packer starts to limp a little, from his shoes being on the wrong feet. Evelyn lets her mouth hang open. Then she spits. Yes, the girl taught to never even scratch an itch in public, she spits in the street. Packer sways, bumping against her, and she clutches his arm. He swings her around, and they kiss, reduced to just two wet mouths while the city around them, it disappears.
That first night on the street, Inky comes over with something reeking inside a black patent-leather purse webbed with cracks. It's the smell of low tide on a hot day at the shore. The smell, "It's the new anti-status symbol," she says. Inside the purse is a cardboard takeout box from Chez Héloise. Inside the box is a fist-sized lump of orange roughy. "Four days old," Inky says. "Swing it around. The smell beats a bodyguard for keeping people away."
Stink for privacy, the new way to protect personal space. Intimidation by odor.
You can get used to any smell, she says, no matter how bad. Inky says, "You got used to Calvin Klein's Eternity...?"
The two of them, Inky and Evelyn, walk around the block, getting a little chill time away from the party. Up ahead, the entourage of some miniskirt statue is piling out of a limousine, thin people with headsets wired between their mouth and ear, each person holding a conversation with someone far away. As the two waddle past, Inky stumbles, brushing the purse full of rotten fish, pressing it against the sleeves of leather and fur coats. The bodyguards in dark suits. Personal assistants in tailored black.
The entourage crowds together, pulling away, all of them moaning and pressing a manicured hand over their nose and mouth.
Inky, she keeps on walking. She says, "I love doing that."
In the face of this new money, Inky says it's time to change the rules. She says, "Poverty is the new nobility."
Up ahead is a herd of Internet millionaires and Arab oil sheikhs, all of them smoking outside an art gallery, and Inky says, "Let's go pester them for pocket change..."
This is their vacation from being Packer and Muffy Keyes, the textile CEO and the tobacco-products heiress. Their little weekend retreat into the social safety net.
The Global Airlines wino happens to be Webster "Scout" Banners. Him, Inky, and Muffy, they meet up with Skinny and Frizzi. Then Packer and Boater come join them. Then Shoe and Bones. They're all drunk and playing charades, and at one point Packer shouts out, "Is there anyone under this bridge not worth at least forty million dollars?"
And, of course, you only hear the traffic passing by above.
Later, they're pushing shopping carts someplace industrial. Inky and Muffy pushing one cart, Packer and Scout walking a ways behind. And Inky says, "You know, I used to think the only thing worse than losing at love was winning..." She says, "I used to be so in love with Scout, ever since school, but you know how events...disappoint us."
Inky and Muffy, their hands wearing those gloves without fingers so they can sort old cans better, Inky says, "I used to think the secret to a happy ending was to bring down the curtain at the exact right time. A moment after happiness, then everything's all wrong, again."
Those social climbers who think they have it tough-their fear of using the wrong fork, or panicking when the fingerbowls are passed-the homeless have so much more to fret about. There's botulism. There's frostbite. A flash of capped tooth could expose you. A whiff of Chanel No. 5.
Any of a million little details could give you away.
They've become what Inky calls the "Commuting Homeless."
She says, "Now? Now I love Scout. I love him as if I'd never married him." On the streets like this, it feels like they're pioneers starting a new life in some wilderness. But instead of bears or wolves to worry about, they have-Inky shrugs and says-drug dealers and drive-by shootings.
"This is still the best part of my life," she says, "but I know it can't last forever..."
Already her new social calendar was filling up. All this social diving. Doing anything on Tuesday is out of the question, because she plans to go rag-picking with Dinky and Cheetah. After that, Packer and Scout are meeting to sort aluminum cans. After that, everyone's stopping by the free clinic to have our feet looked at by some young, dark-eyed doctor with a vampire accent.
Packer says the aluminum can is the Krugerrand of the street.
Standing at the top of a ramp, where cars come off the freeway, Inky says, "Think high concept. Pretend you're doing a single-line movie pitch to network television."
On a sheet of brown cardboard, using a black felt-tipped marker, Inky writes: Single Mom. Ten Kids. Breast Cancer.
"You do this—right?—" she says, "and people just give you money..."
Muffy writes: Crippled War Vet. Starving. Need to get home.
And Inky says, "Perfect." She says, "You just pitched Cold Mountain."
This is their little urban campout.
This hiding out in the open. This hiding in plain sight.
No one's easier to ignore than the homeless. You could be Jane Fonda or Robert Redford, but if you're pushing a shopping cart down the avenue at high noon, wearing three layers of soiled clothing and muttering cusswords under your breath—nobody's going to notice you.
They could do this for the rest of their lives. Scout and Inky, they plan to get on a list for a low-income apartment. They want to sit in waiting rooms and get free dental care from attractive young medical students. They'll apply for free methadone, then work their way up to heroin. Adult vocational training. Fry hamburgers. Learn to drive and do laundry, then work their way up into the lower-middle class.
At night, when Packer and Evelyn hold each other, under some bridge or on cardboard laid across a steaming, warm manhole cover, his hands inside her clothing, bringing her to climax as strangers walk past, the two have never been so in love.
But Inky's right. It can't last forever. The end comes so fast, no one's sure what happened until it's in the newspaper the next day.
They're asleep in the doorway of some warehouse, feeling more at home than they ever have in Banff or Hong Kong. By now their blankets smell like each other. Their clothes—their bodies—feel like a house. Just Packer's arms around his wife could be a duplex on Park Avenue. A villa in Crete.
It's that night a black town car hits the curb, brakes squealing and one tire bumping up onto the sidewalk. The headlights, two circles of bright high-beams, shine right on Mr. and Mrs. Keyes, waking them up. The back door falls open and screams spill out from the back seat. Headfirst, her hands and arms flying, a girl falls out onto the sidewalk. Her long dark hair hiding her face, she's naked and scrambling on hands and knees away from the car.
Packer and Evelyn, buried in their house of old rags and damp blankets, the naked girl is scrambling toward them.
Behind her, a man's black shoe steps out of the car's open door. A dark pant leg follows. A man wearing black leather gloves climbs out of the car's back seat while the girl gets to her feet, screaming. Screaming, Please. Screaming for help. So close you can see one, two, three gold hoops pierced through one of her ears. Her other ear is gone.
What looks like a long braid of dark hair is really blood running down the side of her neck. Where the ear was, you see just a jagged ridge of flesh.
The girl gets to the Keyeses, just their eyes showing from under the blankets.
As the man grabs her by the hair, the girl grabs at their rags. As the man lifts her, kicking and weeping, into the car, the girl tugs the blankets, showing them here, still half asleep, blinking in the car's bright headlights.
The man has to see them. Anyone driving the car must see.
The girl screams, "Please." She screams, "The license plate...," and she's pulled back inside. The car door slams shut and the tires squeal, leaving just the girl's blood and skidmarks of black rubber. In the gutter with the fast-food paper cups, dropped or knocked out in the struggle, a torn, pale ear sparkles with two gold hoop earrings still looped through it.
It's over breakfast, a room-service omelet of greasy mushrooms, English muffins, lukewarm coffee, and cold bacon in their suite at the Sheraton, it's there they see the newspaper. In local news, a Brazilian oil heiress was kidnapped. The picture of her is the naked girl with long dark hair from the night before, but smiling and holding a trophy with a little gold tennis player on top.
According to the newspaper, the police haven't a single witness.
Of course, the Keyeses could send a note, but they really didn't see anyone's face. They didn't see the license plate. All they saw was the girl. The blood. Packer and Evelyn, they can't offer any real help. Going to the police, all they could do is humiliate themselves. Already, you could imagine the headlines:
"Society Couple Goes Slumming for Kicks"
Or: "Billionaires Playing Poor"
God forbid if they told about Inky and Scout, Skinny and Shoe and Bones.
Packer and Evelyn putting themselves up for public ridicule was not going to save this poor girl. Their suffering wouldn't lessen a moment of hers.
In the newspaper the next week, the kidnapped heiress was found dead.
Still, Inky wasn't worried. Poor, dirty people have nothing to worry about on the street. The girl who got killed was young. She looked clean and pretty and rich. "Having nothing to lose," Inky said, "is the new wealth."
And Packer said, "Lather, rinse, and repeat."
No, Inky wasn't about to give up her happiness and go back to being rich and famous. And more and more, those nights, Packer went with her. To protect her, he said.
One of those nights, Evelyn's at the Charity Dinner Dance Against Colon Cancer when her cell phone rings. It's Inky, and in the background a man is shouting. Packer's voice. In the phone, Inky is breathing hard, saying, "Muffy, please. Muffy, please, we're lost and someone is chasing us." She says, "We've tried the police, but..." And the call cuts off.
As if she's run into a tunnel. Under an overpass.
The headline in the next day's newspaper says:
"Publisher and Textile CEO Found Stabbed to Death"
Now, almost every morning, there's a new headline to avoid:
"Bag Lady Found Butchered"
Or: "Killer Continues to Stalk the Homeless"
Somewhere, every night, that black town car is looking for Mrs. Keyes, the only witness to a crime. Someone is killing anyone on the street who might be her. Anyone dressed in rags and asleep under a pile of blankets.
It's after that Evelyn goes cold turkey. She cancels the newspaper. To replace the television, she buys the glass tank with a lizard that changes color to match any paint scheme.
Nowadays, Mrs. Keyes, she's the opposite of homeless. She has too much home. She's burdened with home. Buried in home. She reads her catalogues. Looking at the glossy pictures of garden ornaments. Diamond jewelry made from the cremains of your dead loved ones.
Of course, she still misses her friends. Her husband. But it's like Inky would say: Being absent is the new being present.
And she still buys tickets for the charity events. The silent auctions and dance recitals. It's important to know she's doing something to make the world a little bit better. Next, she'd like to go swimming with endangered gray whales.
Sleep in the canopy of some dwindling rain forest.
Photograph some vanishing zebras. Eco-slumming.
It's important to be aware. She still wants to make a difference.
—Excerpted from Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk Copyright (c) 2005 by Chuck Palahniuk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.