AFTER THE WAITER'S GONE, I fork up half my sirloin steak and go to cram it all in my mouth, and Denny says, "Dude." He says, "Don't do it, here."
The people all around us, eating in their dressy clothes. With the candles and the crystal. With all the extra specialty forks. Nobody suspects a thing.
My lips crack, trying to get around the chunk of steak, the meat salty and juicy with fat and crushed pepper. My tongue pulls back to make more room, and the drool in my mouth wells up. Hot juice and drool slop out on my chin.
People who say red meat will kill you, they don't know the half of it.
Denny looks around quick, and says, through his teeth says, "You're getting greedy, my friend." He shakes his head and says, "Dude, you can't fool people into loving you."
Next to us, a married couple with wedding rings, gray hair, they eat without looking up, each of them head down, reading a program from the same play or concert. When the woman's wine is gone, she reaches for the bottle to fill her own glass. She doesn't fill his. The husband's wearing a thick gold wristwatch.
Denny sees me watching the old couple and says, "I'll warn them. I swear."
He watches for waiters who might know about us. He's glaring at me with his bottom teeth stuck out.
The bite of steak is so big my jaws can't come together. My cheeks bulge. My lips pucker tight to close, and I have to breathe through my nose while I try to chew.
The waiters in black jackets, each with a nice towel folded over one arm. The violin music. The silver and china. This isn't the normal kind of place we'd do this, but we're running out of restaurants. There are only so many places to eat in any town, and this is for sure the kind of stunt you never repeat in the same place.
I drink a little wine.
At another table near us, a young couple hold hands while they eat.
Maybe it will be them, tonight.
At another table, a man in a suit eats staring off into space.
Maybe he'll be tonight's hero.
I drink some wine and try to swallow, but the steak's too much. It sits in the back of my throat. I don't breathe.
In the next instant, my legs snap straight so fast my chair flies over behind me. My hands go to gripping around my throat. I'm on my feet and gaping at the painted ceiling, my eyes rolled back. My chin stretches out away from my face.
With his fork, Denny reaches over the table to steal my broccoli and goes, "Dude, you are way overacting."
Maybe it will be the eighteen-year-old busboy or the corduroy guy in the turtleneck sweater, but one of these people will treasure me for the rest of their life.
Already people are half out of their seats.
Maybe the woman with the wrist corsage.
Maybe the man with the long neck and wire-framed glasses.
This month, I got three birthday cards, and it's not even the fifteenth. Last month, I got four. The month before, I got six birthday cards. Most of these people I can't remember. God bless them, but they'll never forget me.
From not breathing, the veins in my neck swell. My face gets red, gets hot. Sweat springs up on my forehead. Sweat blots through the back of my shirt. With my hands, I hold tight around my neck, the universal sign language for someone choking to death. Even now, I get birthday cards from people who don't speak English.
The first few seconds, everybody is looking for someone else to step in and be the hero.
Denny reaches over to steal the other half of my steak.
With my hands still tight around my throat, I stagger over and kick him in the leg. With my hands, I yank at my tie.
I rip open my collar button.
And Denny says, "Hey, dude, that hurt."
The busboy hangs back. No heroics for him.
The violinist and the wine steward are neck and neck, headed my way.
From another direction, a woman in a short black dress is pushing through the crowd. Coming to my rescue.
From another direction, a man strips off his dinner jacket and charges forward. Somewhere else, a woman screams.
This never takes very long. The whole adventure lasts one, two minutes, tops. That's good, since that's about how long I can hold my breath with a mouthful of food.
My first choice would be the older man with the thick gold wristwatch, somebody who will save the day and pick up our check for dinner. My personal choice is the little black dress for the reason she has nice tits.
Even if we have to pay for our own meal, I figure you have to spend money to make money.
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.
About the book:
Victor Mancini has devised a complicated scam to pay for his mother's hospital care: pretend to be choking on a piece of food in a restaurant. Apart from working at a theme park with a motley group of losers and sex addicts, he also regularly visits his mother, for in her addled brain hides what may be the startling truth about his parentage.
Palahniuk's raw and deeply unsettling (albeit hilarious) knack for producing nightmarish visions leaves the reader in awe every time a page is turned.
Excerpt from Swing Time
- Zadie Smith
Excerpt from Possession
- A. S. Byatt