One morning, there’s the dead jellyfish of a used condom floating in the toilet.
This is how Tyler meets Marla.
I get up to take a leak, and there against the sort of cave paintings of dirt in the toilet bowl is this. You have to wonder, what do sperm think.
This is the vaginal vault?
What’s happening here?
All night long, I dreamed I was humping Marla Singer. Marla Singer smoking her cigarette. Marla Singer rolling her eyes. I wake up alone in my own bed, and the door to Tyler’s room is closed. The door to Tyler’s room is never closed. All night, it was raining. The shingles on the roof blister, buckle, curl, and the rain comes through and collects on top of the ceiling plaster and drips down through the light fixtures.
When it’s raining, we have to pull the fuses. You don’t dare turn on the lights. The house that Tyler rents, it has three stories and a basement. We carry around candles. It has pantries and screened sleeping porches and stained-glass windows on the stairway landing. There are bay windows with window seats in the parlor. The baseboard moldings are carved and varnished and eighteen inches high.
The rain trickles down through the house, and everything wooden swells and shrinks, and the nails in everything wooden, the floors and baseboards and window casings, the nails inch out and rust.
Everywhere there are rusted nails to step on or snag your elbow on, and there’s only one bathroom for the seven bedrooms, and now there’s a used condom.
* * *
The house is waiting for something, a zoning change or a will to come out of probate, and then it will be torn down. I asked Tyler how long he’s been here, and he said about six weeks. Before the dawn of time, there was an owner who collected lifetime stacks of the National Geographic and Reader’s Digest. Big teetering stacks of magazines that get taller every time it rains. Tyler says the last tenant used to fold the glossy magazine pages for cocaine envelopes. There’s no lock on the front door from when police or whoever kicked in the door. There’s nine layers of wallpaper swelling on the dining-room walls, flowers under stripes under flowers under birds under grasscloth.
Our only neighbors are a closed machine shop and across the street, a blocklong warehouse. Inside the house, there’s a closet with seven-foot rollers for rolling up damask tablecloths so they never have to be creased. There’s a cedarlined, refrigerated fur closet. The tile in the bathroom is painted with little flowers nicer than most everybody’s wedding china, and there’s a used condom in the toilet.
I’ve been living with Tyler about a month.
I am Joe’s White Knuckles.
How could Tyler not fall for that. The night before last, Tyler sat up alone, splicing sex organs into Snow White.
How could I compete for Tyler’s attention.
I am Joe’s Enraged, Inflamed Sense of Rejection.
What’s worse is this is all my fault. After I went to sleep last night, Tyler tells me he came home from his shift as a banquet waiter, and Marla called again from the Regent Hotel. This was it, Marla said. The tunnel, the light leading her down the tunnel. The death experience was so cool, Marla wanted me to hear her describe it as she lifted out of her body and floated up.
Marla didn’t know if her spirit could use the telephone, but she wanted someone to at least hear her last breath.
No, but no, Tyler answers the phone and misunderstands the whole situation.
They’ve never met so Tyler thinks it’s a bad thing that Marla is about to die.
* * *
It’s nothing of the kind.
This is none of Tyler’s business, but Tyler calls the police and Tyler races over to the Regent Hotel.Now, according to the ancient Chinese custom we all learned from television, Tyler is responsible for Marla, forever, because Tyler saved Marla’s life.
If I had only wasted a couple of minutes and gone over to watch Marla die, then none of this would have happened.
Tyler tells me how Marla lives in room 8G, on the top floor of the Regent Hotel, up eight flights of stairs and down a noisy hallway with canned television laughter coming through the doors. Every couple seconds an actress screams or actors die screaming in a rattle of bullets. Tyler gets to the end of the hallway and even before he knocks a thin, thin, buttermilk sallow arm slingshots out the door of room 8G, grabs his wrist, and yanks Tyler inside.
I bury myself in a Reader’s Digest.
Even as Marla yanks Tyler into her room, Tyler can hear brake squeals and sirens collecting out in front of the Regent Hotel. On the dresser, there’s a dildo made of the same soft pink plastic as a million Barbie dolls, and for a moment, Tyler can picture millions of baby dolls and Barbie dolls and dildos injectionmolded and coming off the same assembly line in Taiwan.
Marla looks at Tyler looking at her dildo, and she rolls her eyes and says, “Don’t be afraid. It’s not a threat to you.”
Marla shoves Tyler back out into the hallway, and she says she’s sorry, but he shouldn’t have called the police and that’s probably the police downstairs right now.
In the hallway, Marla locks the door to 8G and shoves Tyler toward the stairs. On the stairs, Tyler and Marla flatten against the wall as police and paramedics charge by with oxygen, asking which door will be 8G.
Marla tells them the door at the end of the hall.
Marla shouts to the police that the girl who lives in 8G used to be a lovely charming girl, but the girl is a monster bitch monster. The girl is infectious human waste, and she’s confused and afraid to commit to the wrong thing so she won’t commit to anything.
“The girl in 8G has no faith in herself,” Marla shouts, “and she’s worried that as she grows older, she’ll have fewer and fewer options.”
Marla shouts, “Good luck.”
The police pile up at the locked door to 8G, and Marla and Tyler hurry down to the lobby. Behind them, a policeman is yelling at the door:
“Let us help you! Miss Singer, you have every reason to live! Just let us in, Marla, and we can help you with your problems!”
Marla and Tyler rushed out into the street. Tyler got Marla into a cab, and high up on the eighth floor of the hotel, Tyler could see shadows moving back and forth across the windows of Marla’s room.
Out on the freeway with all the lights and the other cars, six lanes of traffic racing toward the vanishing point, Marla tells Tyler he has to keep her up all night. If Marla ever falls asleep, she’ll die.
A lot of people wanted Marla dead, she told Tyler. These people were already dead and on the other side, and at night they called on the telephone. Marla would go to bars and hear the bartender calling her name, and when she took the call, the line was dead.
Tyler and Marla, they were up almost all night in the room next to mine. When Tyler woke up, Marla had disappeared back to the Regent Hotel.
I tell Tyler, Marla Singer doesn’t need a lover, she needs a case worker.
Tyler says, “Don’t call this love.”
Long story short, now Marla’s out to ruin another part of my life. Ever since college, I make friends. They get married. I lose friends.
Neat, I say.
Tyler asks, is this a problem for me?
I am Joe’s Clenching Bowels.
No, I say, it’s fine.
Put a gun to my head and paint the wall with my brains.
Just great, I say. Really.
My boss sends me home because of all the dried blood on my pants, and I am overjoyed.
The hole punched through my cheek doesn’t ever heal. I’m going to work, and my punched-out eye sockets are two swollen-up black bagels around the little piss holes I have left to see through. Until today, it really pissed me off that I’d become this totally centered Zen Master and nobody had noticed. Still, I’m doing the little FAX thing. I write little HAIKU things and FAX them around to everyone. When I pass people in the hall at work, I get totally ZEN right in everyone’s hostile little FACE.
Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave
You give up all your worldly possessions and your car and go live in a rented house in the toxic waste part of town where late at night, you can hear Marla and Tyler in his room, calling each other hum; butt wipe.
Take it, human butt wipe.
Do it, butt wipe.
Choke it down. Keep it down, baby.
Just by contrast, this makes me the calm little center of the world.
Me, with my punched-out eyes and dried blood in big black crusty stains on my pants, I’m saying HELLO to everybody at work. HELLO! Look at me. HELLO! I am so ZEN. This is BLOOD. This is NOTHING. Hello. Everything is nothing, and it’s so cool to be ENLIGHTENED. Like me.
Look. Outside the window. A bird.
My boss asked if the blood was my blood.
The bird flies downwind. I’m writing a little haiku in my head.
Without just one nest
A bird can call the world home
Life is your career
I’m counting on my fingers: five, seven, five. The blood, is it mine? Yeah, I say. Some of it. This is a wrong answer.
Like this is a big deal. I have two pair of black trousers. Six white shirts. Six pair of underwear. The bare minimum. I go to fight club. These things happen. “Go home,” my boss says. “Get changed.”
I’m starting to wonder if Tyler and Marla are the same person. Except for their humping, every night in Marla’s room.
Tyler and Marla are never in the same room. I never see them together.
Still, you never see me and Zsa Zsa Gabor together, and this doesn’t mean we’re the same person. Tyler just doesn’t come out when Marla’s around.
So I can wash the pants, Tyler has to show me how to make soap. Tyler’s upstairs, and the kitchen is filled with the smell of cloves and burnt hair. Marla’s at the kitchen table, burning the inside of her arm with a clove cigarette and calling herself human butt wipe.
“I embrace my own festering diseased corruption,” Marla tells the cherry on the end of her cigarette. Marla twists the cigarette into the soft white belly of her arm. “Burn, witch, burn.”
Tyler’s upstairs in my bedroom, looking at his teeth in my mirror, and says he got me a job as a banquet waiter, part time.
“At the Pressman Hotel, if you can work in the evening,” Tyler says. “The job will stoke your class hatred.”
Yeah, I say, whatever.
“They make you wear a black bow tie,” Tyler says. “All you need to work there is a white shirt and black trousers.”
Soap, Tyler. I say, we need soap. We need to make some soap. I need to wash my pants.
I hold Tyler’s feet while he does two hundred sit-ups.
“To make soap, first we have to render fat.” Tyler is full of useful information.
Except for their humping, Marla and Tyler are never in the same room. If Tyler’s around, Marla ignores him. This is familiar ground.
Marla looks at me as if I’m the one humping her and says,
“I can’t win with you, can I?”
Marla goes out the back door singing that creepy “Valley of the Dolls” song.
I just stare at her going.
There’s one, two, three moments of silence until all of Marla is gone from the room.
I turn around, and Tyler’s appeared.
Tyler says, “Did you get rid of her?”
Not a sound, not a smell, Tyler’s just appeared.
“First,” Tyler says and jumps from the kitchen doorway to digging in the freezer. “First, we need to render some fat.”
About my boss, Tyler tells me, if I’m really angry I should go to the post office and fill out a change-of-address card and have all his mail forwarded to Rugby, North Dakota.
Tyler starts pulling out sandwich bags of frozen white stuff and dropping them in the sink. Me, I’m supposed to put a big pan on the stove and fill it most of the way with water. Too little water, and the fat will darken as it separates into tallow.
“This fat,” Tyler says, “it has a lot of salt so the more water, the better.”
Put the fat in the water, and get the water boiling.
Tyler squeezes the white mess from each sandwich bag into the water, and then Tyler buries the empty bags all the way at the bottom of the trash.
Tyler says, “Use a little imagination. Remember all that pioneer shit they taught you in Boy Scouts. Remember your high school chemistry.”
It’s hard to imagine Tyler in Boy Scouts.
Another thing I could do, Tyler tells me, is I could drive to my boss’s house some night and hook a hose up to an outdoor spigot. Hook the hose to a hand pump, and I could inject the house plumbing with a charge of industrial dye. Red or blue or green, and wait to see how my boss looks the next day. Or, I could just sit in the bushes and pump the hand pump until the plumbing was superpressurized to 110 psi. This way, when someone goes to flush a toilet, the toilet tank will explode. At 150 psi, if someone turns on the shower, the water pressure will blow off the shower head, strip the threads, blam, the shower head turns into a mortar shell.
Tyler only says this to make me feel better. The truth is I like my boss. Besides, I’m enlightened now. You know, only Buddha-style behavior. Spider chrysanthemums. The Diamond Sutra and the Blue Cliff Record. Hari Rama, you know, Krishna, Krishna. You know, Enlightened.
“Sticking feathers up your butt,” Tyler says, “does not make you a chicken.”
As the fat renders, the tallow will float to the surface of the boiling water.
Oh, I say, so I’m sticking feathers up my butt.
As if Tyler here with cigarette burns marching up his arms is such an evolved soul. Mister and Missus Human Butt Wipe. I calm my face down and turn into one of those Hindu cow people going to slaughter on the airline emergency procedure card.
Turn down the heat under the pan.
I stir the boiling water.
More and more tallow will rise until the water is skinned over with a rainbow mother-of-pearl layer. Use a big spoon to skim the layer off, and set this layer aside.
So, I say, how is Marla?
Tyler says, “At least Marla’s trying to hit bottom.”
I stir the boiling water.
Keep skimming until no more tallow rises. This is tallow we’re skimming off the water. Good clean tallow.
Tyler says I’m nowhere near hitting the bottom, yet. And if I don’t fall all the way, I can’t be saved. Jesus did it with his crucifixion thing. I shouldn’t just abandon money and property and knowledge. This isn’t just a weekend retreat. I should run from self-improvement, and I should be running toward disaster. I can’t just play it safe anymore.
This isn’t a seminar.
“If you lose your nerve before you hit the bottom,” Tyler says, “you’ll never really succeed.”
Only after disaster can we be resurrected.
“It’s only after you’ve lost everything,” Tyler says, “that you’re free to do anything.”
What I’m feeling is premature enlightenment.
“And keep stirring,” Tyler says.
When the fat’s boiled enough that no more tallow rises, throw out the boiling water. Wash the pot and fill it with clean water.
I ask, am I anywhere near hitting bottom?
“Where you’re at, now,” Tyler says, “you can’t even imagine what the bottom will be like.”
Repeat the process with the skimmed tallow. Boil the tallow in the water. Skim and keep skimming. “The fat we’re using has a lot of salt in it,” Tyler says. “Too much salt and your soap won’t get solid.” Boil and skim.
Boil and skim.
Marla is back.
The second Marla opens the screen door, Tyler is gone, vanished, run out of the room, disappeared.
Tyler’s gone upstairs, or Tyler’s gone down to the basement.
Marla comes in the back door with a canister of lye flakes.
“At the store, they have one-hundred-percent-recycled toilet paper,” Marla says. “The worst job in the whole world must be recycling toilet paper.”
I take the canister of lye and put it on the table. I don’t say anything.
“Can I stay over, tonight?” Marla says.
I don’t answer. I count in my head: five syllables, seven, five.
A tiger can smile
A snake will say it loves you
Lies make us evil
Marla says, “What are you cooking?”
I am Joe’s Boiling Point.
I say, go, just go, just get out. Okay? Don’t you have a big enough chunk of my life, yet?
Marla grabs my sleeve and holds me in one place for the second it takes to kiss my cheek. “Please call me,” she says. “Please. We need to talk.”
I say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
The moment Marla is out the door, Tyler appears back in the room.
Fast as a magic trick. My parents did this magic act for five years.
I boil and skim while Tyler makes room in the fridge. Steam layers the air and water drips from the kitchen ceiling. The forty-watt bulb hidden in the back of the fridge, something bright I can’t see behind the empty ketchup bottles and jars of pickle brine or mayonnaise, some tiny light from inside the fridge edges Tyler’s profile bright.
Boil and skim. Boil and skim. Put the skimmed tallow into milk cartons with the tops opened all the way.
With a chair pulled up to the open fridge, Tyler watches the tallow cool.
I go to kneel beside Tyler in front of the fridge, and Tyler takes my hands and shows them to me. The life line. The love line. The mounds of Venus and Mars. The cold fog pooling around us, the dim bright light on our faces.
“I need you to do me another favor,” Tyler says.
This is about Marla isn’t it?
“Don’t ever talk to her about me. Don’t talk about me behind my back. Do you promise?” Tyler says.
Tyler says, “If you ever mention me to her, you’ll never see me again.”
Tyler says, “Now remember, that was three times that you promised.”
A layer of something thick and clear is collecting on top of the tallow in the fridge.
The tallow, I say, it’s separating.
“Don’t worry,” Tyler says. “The clear layer is glycerin. You can mix the glycerin back in when you make soap. Or, you can skim the glycerin off.”
Tyler licks his lips, and turns my hands palm-down on his thigh, on the gummy flannel lap of his bathrobe.
“You can mix the glycerin with nitric acid to make nitroglycerin,” Tyler says.
I breathe with my mouth open and say, nitroglycerin.
Tyler licks his lips wet and shining and kisses the back of my hand.
“You can mix the nitroglycerin with sodium nitrate and sawdust to make dynamite,” Tyler says.
The kiss shines wet on the back of my white hand.
Dynamite, I say, and sit back on my heels.
Tyler pries the lid off the can of lye. “You can blow up bridges,” Tyler says.
“You can mix the nitroglycerin with more nitric acid and paraffin and make gelatin explosives,” Tyler says.
“You could blow up a building, easy,” Tyler says.
Tyler tilts the can of lye an inch above the shining wet kiss on the back of my hand.
“This is a chemical burn,” Tyler says, “and it will hurt worse than you’ve ever been burned. Worse than a hundred cigarettes.”
The kiss shines on the back of my hand.
“You’ll have a scar,” Tyler says.
“With enough soap,” Tyler says, “you could blow up the whole world. Now remember your promise.”
And Tyler pours the lye.
Tyler’s saliva did two jobs. The wet kiss on the back of my hand held the flakes of lye while they burned. That was the first job. The second was lye only burns when you combine it with water. Or saliva.
“This is a chemical burn,” Tyler said, “and it will hurt more than you’ve ever been burned.”
You can use lye to open clogged drains.
Close your eyes.
A paste of lye and water can burn through an aluminum pan.
A solution of lye and water will dissolve a wooden spoon.
Combined with water, lye heats to over two hundred degrees, and as it heats it burns into the back of my hand, and Tyler places his fingers of one hand over my fingers, our hands spread on the lap of my bloodstained pants, and Tyler says to pay attention because this is the greatest moment of my life.
“Because everything up to now is a story,” Tyler says, “and everything after now is a story.”
This is the greatest moment of our life.
The lye clinging in the exact shape of Tyler’s kiss is a bonfire or a branding iron or an atomic pile meltdown on my hand at the end of a long, long road I picture miles away from me. Tyler tells me to come back and be with him. My hand is leaving, tiny and on the horizon at the end of the road.
Picture the fire still burning, except now it’s beyond the horizon. A sunset.
“Come back to the pain,” Tyler says.
This is the kind of guided meditation they use at support groups.
Don’t even think of the word pain.
Guided meditation works for cancer, it can work for this.
“Look at your hand,” Tyler says.
Don’t look at your hand.
Don’t think of the word searing or flesh or tissue or charred.
Don’t hear yourself cry.
You’re in Ireland. Close your eyes.
You’re in Ireland the summer after you left college, and you’re drinking at a pub near the castle where every day busloads of English and American tourists come to kiss the Blarney stone.
“Don’t shut this out,” Tyler says. “Soap and human sacrifice go hand in hand.”
You leave the pub in a stream of men, walking through the beaded wet car silence of streets where it’s just rained. It’s night. Until you get to the Blarneystone castle.
The floors in the castle are rotted away, and you climb the rock stairs with blackness getting deeper and deeper on every side with every step up. Everybody is quiet with the climb and the tradition of this little act of rebellion.
“Listen to me,” Tyler says. “Open your eyes.
“In ancient history,” Tyler says, “human sacrifices were made on a hill above a river. Thousands of people. Listen to me. The sacrifices were made and the bodies were burned on a pyre.
“You can cry,” Tyler says. “You can go to the sink and run water over your hand, but first you have to know that you’re stupid and you will die. Look at me.
“Someday,” Tyler says, “you will die, and until you know that, you’re useless to me.”
You’re in Ireland.
“You can cry,” Tyler says, “but every tear that lands in the lye flakes on your skin will burn a cigarette burn scar.”
Guided meditation. You’re in Ireland the summer after you left college, and maybe this is where you first wanted anarchy. Years before you met Tyler Durden, before you peed in your first creme anglaise, you learned about little acts of rebellion.
You’re standing on a platform at the top of the stairs in a castle.
“We can use vinegar,” Tyler says, “to neutralize the burning, but first you have to give up.”
After hundreds of people were sacrificed and burned, Tyler says, a thick white discharge crept from the altar, downhill to the river.
First you have to hit bottom.
You’re on a platform in a castle in Ireland with bottomless darkness all around the edge of the platform, and ahead of you, across an arm’s length of darkness, is a rock wall.
“Rain,” Tyler says, “fell on the burnt pyre year after year, and year after year, people were burned, and the rain seeped through the wood ashes to become a solution of lye, and the lye combined with the melted fat of the sacrifices, and a thick white discharge of soap crept out from the base of the altar and crept downhill toward the river.”
And the Irish men around you with their little act of rebellion in the darkness, they walk to the edge of the platform, and stand at the edge of the bottomless darkness and piss.
And the men say, go ahead, piss your fancy American piss rich and yellow with too many vitamins. Rich and expensive and thrown away.
“This is the greatest moment of your life,” Tyler says, “and you’re off somewhere missing it.”
You’re in Ireland.
Oh, and you’re doing it. Oh, yeah. Yes. And you can smell the ammonia and the daily allowance of B vitamins.
Where the soap fell into the river, Tyler says, after a thousand years of killing people and rain, the ancient people found their clothes got cleaner if they washed at that spot.
I’m pissing on the Blarney stone.
“Geez,” Tyler says.
I’m pissing in my black trousers with the dried bloodstains my boss can’t stomach.
You’re in a rented house on Paper Street.
“This means something,” Tyler says.
“This is a sign,” Tyler says. Tyler is full of useful information. Cultures without soap, Tyler says, they used their urine and the urine of their dogs to wash their clothes and hair because of the uric acid and ammonia.
There’s the smell of vinegar, and the fire on your hand at the end of the long road goes out.
There’s the smell of lye scalding the branched shape of your sinuses, and the hospital vomit smell of piss and vinegar.
“It was right to kill all those people,” Tyler says.
The back of your hand is swollen red and glossy as a pair of lips in the exact shape of Tyler’s kiss. Scattered around the kiss are the cigarette burn spots of somebody crying.
“Open your eyes,” Tyler says, and his face is shining with tears. “Congratulations,” Tyler says. “You’re a step closer to hitting bottom.
“You have to see,” Tyler says, “how the first soap was made of heroes.”
Think about the animals used in product testing.
Think about the monkeys shot into space.
“Without their death, their pain, without their sacrifice,” Tyler says, “we would have nothing.”
I stop the elevator between floors while Tyler undoes his belt. When the elevator stops, the soup bowls stacked an the buffet cart stop rattling, and steam mushrooms up to the elevator ceiling as Tyler takes the lid off the soup tureen.
Tyler starts to take himself out and says, “Don’t look at me, or I can’t go.”
The soup’s a sweet tomato bisque with cilantro and clams. Between the two, nobody will smell anything else we put in.
I say, hurry up, and I look back over my shoulder at Tyler with his last half inch hanging in the soup. This looks in a really funny way like a tall elephant in a waiter’s white shirt and bow tie drinking soup through its little trunk.
Tyler says, “I said, ‘Don’t look.’”
The elevator door in front of me has a little face-sized window that lets me look out into the banquet service corridor. With the elevator stopped between floors, my view is about a cockroach above the green linoleum, and from here at cockroach level the green corridor stretches toward the vanishing point, past half-open doors where titans and their gigantic wives drink barrels of champagne and bellow at each other wearing diamonds bigger than I feel.
Last week, I tell Tyler, when the Empire State Lawyers were here for their Christmas party, I got mine hard and stuck it in all their orange mousses.
Last week, Tyler says, he stopped the elevator and farted on a whole cart of Boccone Dolce for the Junior League tea.
That Tyler knows how a meringue will absorb odor.
At cockroach level, we can hear the captive harpist make music as the titans lift forks of butterflied lamb chop, each bite the size of a whole pig, each mouth a tearing Stonehenge of ivory.
I say, go already.
Tyler says, “I can’t.”
If the soup gets cold, they’ll send it back.
The giants, they’ll send something back to the kitchen for no reason at all. They just want to see you run around for their money. A dinner like this, these banquet parties, they know the tip is already included in the bill so they treat you like dirt. We don’t really take anything back to the kitchen. Move the Pommes Parisienne and the Asperges Hollandaise around the plate a little, serve it to someone else, and all of a sudden it’s fine.
I say, Niagara Falls. The Nile River. In school, we all thought if you put somebody’s hand in a bowl of warm water while they slept, they’d wet the bed.
Tyler says, “Oh.” Behind me, Tyler says, “Oh, yeah. Oh, I’m doing it. Oh, yeah. Yes.”
Past half-open doors in the ballrooms off the service corridor swish gold and black and red skirts as tall as the gold velvet curtain at the Old Broadway Theatre. Now and again there are pairs of Cadillac sedans in black leather with shoelaces where the windshields should be. Above the cars move a city of office towers in red cummerbunds.
Not too much, I say.
Tyler and me, we’ve turned into the guerrilla terrorists of the service industry. Dinner party saboteurs. The hotel caters dinner parties, and when somebody wants the food they get the food and the wine and the china and glassware and the waiters. They get the works, all in one bill. And because they know they can’t threaten you with the pp, to them you’re just a cockroach.
Tyler, he did a dinner party one time. This was when Tyler turned into a renegade waiter. That first dinner party, Tyler was serving the fish course in this white and glass cloud of a house that seemed to float over the city on steel legs attached to a hillside. Part of the way through the fish course, while Tyler’s rinsing plates from the pasta course, the hostess comes in the kitchen holding a scrap of paper that flaps like a flag, her hand is shaking so much. Through her clenched teeth, Madam wants to know did the waiters see any of the guests go down the hallway that leads to the bedroom part of the house? Especially any of the women guests? Or the host?
In the kitchen, it’s Tyler and Albert and Len and Jerry rinsing and stacking the plates and a prep cook, Leslie, basting garlic butter on the artichoke hearts stuffed with shrimp and escargot.
“We’re not supposed to go in that part of the house,” Tyler says.
We come in through the garage. All we’re supposed to see is the garage, the kitchen, and the dining room.
The host comes in behind his wife in the kitchen doorway and takes the scrap of paper out of her shaking hand. “This will be alright,” he says.
“How can I face those people,” Madam says, “unless I know who did this?”
The host puts a flat open hand against the back of her silky white party dress that matches her house and Madam straightens up, her shoulders squared, and is all of a sudden quiet. “They are your guests,” he says. “And this party is very important.”
This looks in a really funny way like a ventriloquist bringing his dummy to life. Madam looks at her husband, and with a little shove the host takes his wife back into the dining room. The note drops to the floor and the two-way swish-swish of the kitchen door sweeps the note against Tyler’s feet.
Albert says, “What’s it say?”
Len goes out to start clearing the fish course.
Leslie slides the tray of artichoke hearts back into the oven and says, “What’s it say, already?”
Tyler looks right at Leslie and says, without even picking up the note, “‘I have passed an amount of urine into at least one of your many elegant fragrances.’”
Albert smiles. “You pissed in her perfume?”
No, Tyler says. He just left the note stuck between the bottles. She’s got about a hundred bottles sitting on a mirror counter in her bathroom.
Leslie smiles. “So you didn’t, really?”
“No,” Tyler says, “but she doesn’t know that.”
The whole rest of the night in that white and glass dinner party in the sky, Tyler kept clearing plates of cold artichokes, then cold veal with cold Pommes Duchesse, then cold Choufleur a la Polonaise from in front of the hostess, and Tyler kept filling her wine glass about a dozen times. Madam sat watching each of her women guests eat the food, until between clearing the sorbet dishes and serving the apricot gateau, Madam’s place at the head of the table was all of a sudden empty.
They were washing up after the guests had left, loading the coolers and the china back into the hotel van, when the host came in the kitchen and asked, would Albert please come help him with something heavy?
Leslie says, maybe Tyler went too far.
Loud and fast, Tyler says how they kill whales, Tyler says, to make that perfume that costs more than gold per ounce. Most people have never seen a whale. Leslie has two kids in an apartment next to the freeway and Madam hostess has more bucks than we’ll make in a year in bottles on her bathroom counter.
Albert comes back from helping the host and dials 9-1-1 on the phone. Albert puts a hand over the mouth part and says, man, Tyler shouldn’t have left that note.
Tyler says, “So, tell the banquet manager. Get me fired. I’m not married to this chickenshit job.”
Everybody looks at their feet.
“Getting fired,” Tyler says, “is the best thing that could happen to any of us. That way, we’d quit treading water and do something with our lives.”
Albert says into the phone that we need an ambulance and the address. Waiting on the line, Albert says the hostess is a real mess right now. Albert had to pick her up from next to the toilet. The host couldn’t pick her up because Madam says he’s the one who peed in her perfume bottles, and she says he’s trying to drive her crazy by having an affair with one of the women guests, tonight, and she’s tired, tired of all the people they call their friends.
The host can’t pick her up because Madam’s fallen down behind the toilet in her white dress and she’s waving around half a broken perfume bottle. Madam says she’ll cut his throat, he even tries to touch her.
Tyler says, “Cool.”
And Albert stinks. Leslie says, “Albert, honey, you stink.”
There’s no way you could come out of that bathroom not stinking, Albert says. Every bottle of perfume is broken on the floor and the toilet is piled full of the other bottles. They look like ice, Albert says, like at the fanciest hotel parties where we have to fill the urinals with crushed ice. The bathroom stinks and the floor is gritty with slivers of ice that won’t melt, and when Albert helps Madam to her feet, her white dress wet with yellow stains, Madam swings the broken bottle at the host, slips in the perfume and broken glass, and lands on her palms.
She’s crying and bleeding, curled against the toilet. Oh, and it stings, she says. “Oh, Walter, it stings. It’s stinging,” Madam says.
The perfume, all those dead whales in the cuts in her hands, it stings.
The host pulls Madam to her feet against him, Madam holding her hands up as if she were praying but with her hands an inch apart and blood running down the palms, down the wrists, across a diamond bracelet, and to her elbows where it drips.
And the host, he says, “It will be alright, Nina.”
“My hands, Walter,” Madam says.
“It will be alright.”
Madam says, “Who would do this to me? Who could hate me this much?”
The host says, to Albert, “Would you call an ambulance?”
That was Tyler’s first mission as a service industry terrorist. Guerrilla waiter. Minimum-wage despoiler. Tyler’s been doing this for years, but he says everything is more fun as a shared activity.
At the end of Albert’s story, Tyler smiles and says, “Cool.”
Back in the hotel, right now, in the elevator stopped between the kitchen and the banquet floors, I tell Tyler how I sneezed on the trout in aspic for the dermatologist convention and three people told me it was too salty and one person said it was delicious.
Tyler shakes himself off over the soup tureen and says he’s run dry.
This is easier with cold soup, vichyssoise, or when the chefs make a really fresh gazpacho. This is impossible with that onion soup that has a crust of melted cheese on it in ramekins. If I ever ate here, that’s what I’d order.
We were running out of ideas, Tyler and me. Doing stuff to the food got to be boring, almost part of the job description. Then I hear one of the doctors, lawyers, whatever, say how a hepatitis bug can live on stainless steel for six months. You have to wonder how long this bug can live on Rum Custard Charlotte Russe.
Or Salmon Timbale.
I asked the doctor where could we get our hands on some of these hepatitis bugs, and he’s drunk enough to laugh.
Everything goes to the medical waste dump, he says.
And he laughs.
The medical waste dump sounds like hitting bottom.
One hand on the elevator control, I ask Tyler if he’s ready. The scar on the back of my hand is swollen red and glossy as a pair of lips in the exact shape of Tyler’s kiss.
“One second,” Tyler says.
The tomato soup must still be hot because the crooked thing Tyler tucks back in his pants is boiled pink as a jumbo prawn.