Phoenix (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly hilarious short story Phoenix, an expectant mother’s worries about the health dangers of cat owning begin to cause a rift—one that won’t turn out well.

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  1. The house where they live now isn’t their first. Where they lived before, it had burned to the ground, but the fire was nobody’s fault. That much was proven in a court of law. It had been a fabulous freak accident, written up in the annals of homeowners insurance history. They’d lost everything they owned, and then their daughter had been born blind. April was blind, but things could’ve turned out worse. That first house had been Ted’s before they’d even met. Glass block had filled a wall of the dining room, casting a grid like a net over the black-lacquered table and chairs. When you flipped a switch, gas flames danced magically on a bed of crushed granite in the living room fireplace. The bathtubs, toilets, and sinks were black porcelain. Vertical blinds dangled in the windows. Nothing was earth-toned or wood-grained.

    But it’d suited Ted, the house had. He owned a cat he’d named Belinda Carlisle and let drink from the black bidets. It was a long-haired sable Burmese, like a bubble of black hair. Ted loved Belinda Carlisle, but he knew enough not to let her get too close. The cat looked clean until you touched her; after that you’d both be covered in greasy dander. To deal with Belinda’s shedding, Ted had one of those robot vacuum cleaners that scoured the floors all day. At least that was the idea. More than once the two had joined forces: The cat had diarrhea, and the robot scooted through it, crossing and crisscrossing the puddle all day, spreading it to every square inch of the black carpet.

    When they’d been married almost a year, Rachel had announced that they needed to move. She was pregnant and didn’t want to bring a newborn into this world of filthy rugs and open flames. They’d have to sell the house and give up Belinda Carlisle. Even Ted had to admit the place stunk like a cat box, no matter how often they changed the litter or cleaned the rugs, and you couldn’t be pregnant around a cat box. Over dinner, she explained toxoplasmosis. It was caused by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii and lived in the intestines of cats. It spread by laying its eggs in cat feces and could kill or blind infants.

    She was used to explaining the issues to Ted. She knew he’d never be brilliant. That was his chief charm. He was loyal and even-tempered, and Ted was a hard worker if you stayed on top of him and told him what to do. She’d married him for all the reasons she might hire a long-term employee.

    She’d spoken slowly, between bites of spaghetti. The only way to mask the smell of cat was to add cilantro to everything. After her speech, Ted sat across the table, the shadows from the glass blocks making a contour map of his face and white shirt. She could hear the bubbles in his mineral water. It didn’t matter what Ted cooked; nothing looked appetizing against his black-glazed china. He blinked. He asked, “What are you saying?”

    Slower this time, Rachel said, “We have to find a new house.”

    “No,” said Ted, drawing out the word as if playing for time. “Before that.”

    Rachel wasn’t annoyed. She’d rehearsed this for days. She could’ve paced it better. It was a lot to spring on him all at once. “I said we need to list this house.”

    Ted closed his eyes and shook his head. His brow furrowed, he prompted, “Before that.”

    “The part about Belinda Carlisle?” Rachel asked.

    “Before that,” Ted coaxed.

    It worried Rachel to think that Ted wasn’t stupid—that, instead, he just never listened to anything she said. She rewound their conversation in her mind. “Do you mean the part about being pregnant?”

    “You’re pregnant?” Ted asked. He put his black napkin to his lips. To wipe them or hide them, Rachel couldn’t tell.

    ***

    Rachel hadn’t invented the dangers of toxoplasmosis; she’d gone online and built an airtight case. This wasn’t crazy talk. Neurobiologists had linked T. gondii to suicide and the onset of schizophrenia. All caused by exposure to cat poop. Some studies even suggested that the toxo brain parasites chemically coerced people to adopt more cats. Those crazy cat ladies were actually being controlled by an infection of single-cell invaders.

    The problem with educating stupid people was that they didn’t know they were stupid. The same went for curing crazy people. As far as the cat was concerned, Ted was both.

    On the last night in their first house, as Rachel had later explained it to the police, they’d gone to a Christmas party in the neighborhood. The two of them were coming home. They’d been drinking eggnog, and as they trudged through the snow, she’d explained to Ted that he didn’t need to be such a softie. She spoke carefully, waiting for her words to stick. The footprints she left were splayed wide apart to balance her new weight.

    Rachel was still working as a Level I corporate interface consultant, but simply entering her second trimester felt like a full-time job. She worried that with a new baby the situation wouldn’t get much better. You might be able to divide a man’s love in half, but not in three ways.

    The way Rachel told it to the police, she had walked into the darkened house first. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. She’d said, “It’s freezing in here.” The Christmas tree filled the living room’s front window, blocking any light from the street. In fact, everyone’s first assumption was that the Christmas tree was the culprit. The usual suspects were always scented candles, faulty twinkle lights, an overloaded outlet. Ted pegged the roving robotic vacuum cleaner. His fingers were crossed that it had overheated. Some circuit had shorted out, and it had raced around filled with flammable cat hair and set fire to everything.

    ***

    Preview more of Chuck Palahniuk's Phoenix.

Originally published in Byliner, February 2013