How a story becomes a chapter
Author’s Note: This is an example of how I write novels by first creating the key scenes as stand-alone short stories. This story, Repercussions, was the last story I published in Playboy magazine. It began as an experiment with German syntax and sentence structure. Once I had the novel Greener Pastures well underway, and found I needed a long tangential chapter, this story worked perfectly — with only the smallest amount of tweaking.
The lesson? Everything you write can become part of something larger. You can have the immediate satisfaction of finishing a good short story, and the eventual long-term joy of a novel that comes together as if by magic from those seemingly unrelated bits.
For now, here’s Repercussions:
A story by Chuck Palahniuk
Mindy grabbed the knife. Practiced this she had not. They hadn’t rehearsed anything because Benjamin, Benny was hopeless. If he so much as sneezed it sounded fake.
The Singers had set out a brisket, sliced and everything nice, with the carving knife sticking out at a help-yourself angle. Little pots of different World Market mustards sitting around the platter. The perfect witnesses: the Singers, the Goldblatts, the Futters, the Hartzogs and the Taubmans. That girl, that Myra, from the yoga place, she was there for whatever reason. Mindy waited until Leo Hartzog pointed his camera phone recording Ilene telling some cockamamie story about pitching something to Google. That’s when Mindy wrapped her fist around the knife handle. Some stainless steel German job. A Wusthof brisket slicer. She’d only downed the one dirty martini Len Futter had handed her.
She yanked the knife out of the brisket. Too hard, obviously. Adrenaline would do that. Too fast, to judge from how the brisket toppled. Toppled and rolled, a slab of dead meat batting aside little pots of mustard, ramekins of chopped onions, the brisket escaping the platter and greasing a path across the limed oak table. From West Elm? From Pottery Barn? Before taking a plunge – blat – onto poor Yael Singer’s cowhide accent rug. A juicy splat that piqued everyone’s attention until Mindy swung the serrated blade toward Benny’s neck.
She brought the knife down, the dull side not the honed edge, chopping his shoulder. With no more force than an Arthurian queen bestowing knighthood upon him. All reddish Chinese mustard and yellow-brown honey mustard all over the white collar and sleeve of his Perry Ellis dress shirt.
His cow-eyed, slaughterhouse expression, here was something her husband could’ve faked never had he lived to be Methuselah. With her free hand Mindy caught his wrist and twisted that arm behind his back. Held the knife against the bobble of his Adam’s apple and sawed it back and forth. Against the little dots of Benny’ shaved beard. She held him the way she’d play a hairy cello. No one noticed, what with mustard on the blade, how she was pressing the dull side of the knife against his windpipe, harmless, messy but harmless. Bowing him like a cello. No, no amount of rehearsing could’ve brought these tears to Benny’s eyes or made him keen the way he did. Like a dolphin he sounded, or like some killer whale, keening.
She screamed, “Rape me, again, you dirty, penis-stinking bastard, and I’ll kill you!” And to Ben’s credit he played along with her routine. For his crying, he’d later blame the horseradish. Mixed in some mustard it was, held so close to his tear ducts.
Even in that moment, with the camera phone rolling, Mindy had to wonder who’d served Dylan Thomas those eighteen shots of whiskey at the White Horse Tavern. Wondering: Was whoever poisoned Dylan Thomas someone helpful? Or maybe some bartender who yearned to see dead the preeminent Welsh poet of the age. That’s where Mindy’s head was at: Disassociation. Hers was a classic case of disassociation.
Mindy worked the serrated brisket slicer against her husband’s throat with the Goldblatts and the Taubmans watching, and she delivered the line they’d agreed upon. A second time, quietly, almost hissing, “Rape me, again, you bastard…” This wasn’t improvisation. She’d been warning him since Noah’s attack. Their performance was all about Noah’s attack. And finally Benny recognized his cue.
To his credit, Benny wrapped his strong, sober hand around hers and choked her wrist and rapped her hand, twice, against the Singers’ silk wallpaper, until she let go. The knife diving to stab the wood floor at their feet. Chili-infused mustard spattered, red-brown, on the pretty wall.
The scene, like some old world saying Mindy’s long-departed Unka would always say at such a time, this was. Half of what the man said a real person knew to not hear, but on occasion her Unka had been touched like genius.
Yael Singer stooped over the fallen brisket. Her hands hovered above it, hesitated and sprung forward to clamp together on the slab. Her face twisted in a grimace, she hefted the meat and carried it at arms length like so much butchered… flesh. The awful stain it left, a red puddle, as if Benny had actually bled out. Mindy hadn’t been chopping, but they’d seen chopping. Myra from yoga stood with both hands palmed over her mouth. She screamed a moment too late as if meeting some obligation, the silly girl. A thin someone-needed-to-scream scream.
Benny held her wrist with a power she’d forgotten he had. He’d been conflicted about the rape line, when they’d discussed it. But she was glad to say it twice. Glad for the camera phone. How it might all look in court. In their moment of faked struggle she considered collapsing against him, but the mustard would spoil her vintage Bill Blass. She’d had her hair set that afternoon. The look she was working was Dynasty. Like Alexis Colby chopping off Krystal Carrington’s head on that one episode of Dynasty.
“Yael,” Benny said when she brought the coats. He regretted the wallpaper, silk hand-woven with green parakeets, from China. He’d told her, “The brisket was delicious.”
His shirt smelled so good Mindy had to swallow. On the way home, she made Benny stop for take-out at Arby’s.
With the red-brown smears on his cheeks and nose, Benny looked like their Noah had. Like father, like son. Like Noah had looked coming home from school.
In all honesty her Benjamin, Benny, he wouldn’t rape a fly.
Their next act should be her filing a restraining order against him. Subpoenaing hostile witnesses and the like. The first parents to pull this stunt, they were not. Checking into a shelter for abused women, Mindy should be. They needed to build a narrative, she argued, but Benny put the kibosh on her women’s sheltering.
Oh the injustice that her Noah, her baby boy should be compelled by cold geography to attend the school he did. An institute of higher learning that boasted a Prison Skillz Track. A verified course of matriculation. A public academy that offered a sex worker track. A prizefighter her Noah was not. No more than his father could act his way out of a paper bag. For the steep taxes they paid, their Noah should go to school to be a punching bag?
A boy of such rich talents? Gifted how he was, this boy was wasted on Ansel Park, when where he wanted to go was Delmar Fields, a magnet school. Japanese immersion they had. So what if Delmar Fields was three districts over?
Who the animals were, Noah wouldn’t say. Who’d beaten him bloody, they were juveniles. For any low-life animal boys to see another boy so gifted by fate, these less fortunate would understandably go crazy jealous. Especially seeing how they’d tested too low to be anything in life, and Noah, here’s Noah excelling in Computer Lab and seeing a girl Mindy couldn’t remember the name of except this girl was an angel from what Noah told people.
Already families like the Brumes paid for schools, plenty. Paid for the free breakfasts and free hot lunches for such animal vermin who’d send a child home with almost a broken nose. At issue was the principle of the thing.
Driving home from the Singers’, Mindy had said as much. “Stop by the Arby’s,” she’d said. “I want you should see the big picture, here.”
Mister Social Justice. Mr. Make-Everything-Right, Benny wanted they should foot the bill for private school. Was he crazy? He was crazy. A family should pay twice over, through property taxes and private tuition, for getting their only son not beaten to a pulp?
Benny she told to butt out. Waiting in the take-out line at Arby’s, Mindy said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Benjamin, but you are a weak man. A very weak man and a terrible father.” She ordered two beef-and-cheese sandwiches. The melty kind. Telling Benny, “No offense.”
If she’d managed to hammer anything into Benny’s head, it was the fact that he had serious limitations. That he lacked all imagination was chief among them. Their son walks home from school with his eyes beaten purple as two prune Danish, and his nose like a squashed eggplant, and a chipped tooth, his blood all down the front of his shirt, and all this boy’s father can say is, “Noah, we’ll look into it.”
A reaction like that, no father should feel proud of. No, placid Benny could go to his office. Benny could watch the market and type out his buy and sell orders. Starting with the knife at his throat at the Singers’ party and her making accusations of rape, it was Mindy who got the ball rolling. As her boy’s only mother she was planning to rescue him from further assailment.
What would it hurt if she saw her own situation improve? Why couldn’t Noah’s salvation throw a little good fortune her way? In the car, she checked for napkins in the bag of Arby’s. Folded on top the hot sandwiches were paper napkins. “Okay, drive,” she told Benny.
She lifted a sandwich from the bag and spread a paper napkin across her Bill Blass. “You only have yourself to blame,” she said. She talked while chewing, she was so hungry. “I told you not to wear the Perry Ellis.”
It was decided theirs would be a marriage in trial separate. What Winchell always called a don’tinvitem. With Mindy renting a cheap studio apartment in the vicinity of Delmar Fields, each day she’d leave the house in Ansel Park, sneaking out early so as not to be seen by Yael Singer. Even if she were seen, would it look so bad to be caught apparently still trying to save her marriage with furtive sex? She’d drive Noah to his new school, then spend her day painting in the apartment. Every afternoon she’d dress up in a uniform from a store that sold uniforms, and leave as if to work the night shift somewhere. She’d eat Arby’s melty sandwiches every lunch. Day’s end, she’d collect their boy and spend the nights at Ansel Park.
Nights, over the dinner table, Benny would ask, “How’s the painting business?”
Noah would be immersed in his Japanese, and she would have a fabled room of her own. That’s not to say the Ansel Park house didn’t have rooms more than a family of three could use, including the indoor sport court no one ever set foot inside, but a cheap apartment Mindy could move her old college furniture into, her posters and music on compact disk, her paints and easel.
She tried to see the stained grout and splintering cabinet doors the way the future would. The way pilgrims would: As sanctified. Not as shabby, but as a place a revolutionary artist had set out to conquer the world. Mindy Brume’s garret. The scuttling brown spot along the baseboard, be it a small mouse or a mammoth cockroach, it only added to her street credibility. Future scholars would marvel over this chipped paint. Lead-based paint. Brain damage waiting to happen. In this neighborhood of fetal alcohol everything.
The edges of asbestos tile peeled up from the cracked concrete floor. To think so many future masterpieces would be painted in the presence of these spiders. That made her think of Charlotte’s Web. And that, those spiders, made her smell the barbeque from the Arby’s down the block.
After a fascinating morning spent applying for social welfare benefits and sketching her fellow applicants, and who should she meet but her next-door neighbor. In the parking lot, he was, the neighbor. Crawling out from under a car. He smelled, but like a soft cheese, like one of the very expensive artisan cheeses, like the free-trade ones packaged afloat in sterile urine sealed within a food-grade pig bladder. Like her Unka always said that she couldn’t remember, but that translated to “A nose is the best judge of character in buying eels.”
The stranger popped a beer and handed it to her.
Mindy took a swig. Looked at the can. “I really shouldn’t be drinking.”
He asked, “Are you expecting a baby?” No male model, his beer belly stretched the front of his T-shirt. Fat he looked, but in that way that made a grown woman feel more feminine. Where the T-shirt rode up in front, his skin showed. Scars were all it was, that skin. Little red train tracks like from staples, like from surgery after being gutted by a landmine. Shiny, red train tracks crisscrossing his belly.
Mindy laughed. Took another swig. Shook her head. Beer for lunch. She was already blending in.
Dripping plastic faucets and overloaded aluminum wiring that made every light switch feel warm to the touch. She pictured Georgia O’Keefe in her adobe hut communing with rattlesnakes. Emily Dickinson in her sooty attic isolation.
“So you’re not pregnant?” Her neighbor wasn’t convinced.
She raised the can in a toast. She reached across the space between them, took him around the wrist and twisted until she could see his watch. “Not since…” she noted the time, “two hours ago.” His wrist felt solid and hairy. She twisted, and he let himself be twisted by scrawny, weak her.
Still, he didn’t understand.
“I’m pro-choice, but I didn’t get to choose,” she stressed. “My old man…” She let her voice trail off.
He looked away as if embarrassed or ashamed on her behalf.
She pressed on, “He didn’t want it.” She took a long draw on the beer can, then forced a tragic smile for her fake dead baby.
This would become the pattern of her days: She’d leave Ansel Park each morning and drop Noah at his new magnet school. A kiln, they offered. Portuguese immersion. A person could do worse. All that, and Noah had tested as the smartest from his cohort. While he was in school, she’d pretend to live at the apartment. Noah, Mister High and Mighty, he wouldn’t show his face at the apartment, he hated the place so much. Chess Club he took after school, and Rocket Club, to help his college applications but actually to avoid the spiders and her painting him. The rent she paid didn’t compare to the tuition they saved by fake-living in the district. Being fake-trial separated. Headed for fake-divorce due to faked domestic abuse.
Mindy was trying on a new her. This neighbor was the mirror she watched herself reflected in. She saw the way he must see her. With her French manicure and waxed legs. Vassar written all over her. She cleared her throat. “This isn’t my real voice.”
Maybe he’d buy that she was a sex worker. Daytime she’d be at the apartment, winding down. Nighttimes she implied that she spent her nights screwing some monied power broker or a captain of industry. This lie would make the imperfect lie about being a waitress perfect.
Everyone living in the complex, they were a refugee from something. Somewhere.
His listening was a pit she kept falling into. Or it was a hole she wanted to fill with her words. She told him she’d contracted gonorrhea in her mouth one time and had let it go too long, and after that she had this voice, different than before, deeper on account of her vocal chords being scarred. It was a test. She was shit testing him. The stranger never looked away or flinched. Because he was unfazed or because of the language barrier, she wasn’t certain.
Gonorrhea wasn’t likely the first word they taught in ESL so talking to him felt nice, relaxed, like talking to a nice dog, like a retired pit bull, you could fantasize having reckless afternoon sex with. The exact words didn’t matter.
She looked at his scarred gut. Looked long enough to let him see that she was looking. Someone had tortured this man cruelty and Mindy kept waiting for that cruelty to surface in him.
She remembered Gauguin’s bare-breasted Tahitian women. Toulouse-Lautrec’s ghastly parlor house whores. All the women turned into art by men and then forgotten. All the men made famous by discarded women.
Under the sun his pale face had darkened and his dark hair had lightened until they were the same red-brown. A detail maybe no one except a true artist would note. All of those forgotten women she would avenge. He would be her muse. Like a Bridges of Madison County-type situation only with her as the savvy artist and him as the dimwitted foreigner. That seemed like progress as these things went. Trust her, he didn’t, not to date. She needed his trust.
That evening in the car, driving home with Noah, she asked, “Those boys who hit you? How did they hit you?” She added, “I mean, with sticks or what?”
Noah sighed. The only way to describe such a sigh was as a confessional sigh. As if the jig was up. “You remember Natasha?” he asked.
“She was sort-of with me,” he said.
The angel he meant.
“She transferred to Delmar.” Not to mince words, but their Noah had beat himself to his own pulp. That’s the genius they’d raised.
From behind, somebody honked. Mindy hadn’t realized she’d slowed to a crawl. To let everyone pass she pulled to the curb. “You did a very good job.” Nurturing she tried to sound, that’s instead of shocked. Then as if just curious, she asked, “How’d you do it?”
Noah’s method had been to stand in their indoor sports court and throw a basketball against the concrete wall, close his eyes and step into its return path. A mouth guard, he wore, like from boxing. God bless him. For smaller bruises he’d catch a racquetball in the face.
When Benny got home and found Mindy with both eyes blackened and a swelling on her forehead so tight it looked to split the skin, that and a fat lip with racquetball bruises on her neck and collarbones, she assured him it was just to keep up appearances. To placate him she brought up how much she’d be getting in food stamps and rent assistance. The government was practically paying them to send Noah to a better school.
On Ivan, the bruises did the trick. His name was Ivan, her neighbor. He accepted her life as a prostitute brimming with diseases and still kissed her hurt mouth. He seemed to appreciate that she wasn’t starved to prison camp thinness. Not like that Myra from yoga everyone said was so perfect. Ivan would lay claim to big handfuls of her and marvel over her skin. Beautiful she was, merely by not being scarred by barbed wire and dog bites. His smell she got acclimated to, and he wore a fresh condom every time without her having to ask which put him a notch above Benny on the gentleman scale.
Such a man she’d never met. Ivan wept over her bruises. Kissed them, he did and swore to end the life of the whore monger who beat her so savagely. A Fifty Shades of Grey-situation it was, except she had to beat herself. This too seemed like progress as gender relations went.
Noah on the contrary, her genius shaped up to be her problem child. Driving back to the house one night he announced that his angel, his Natasha, her parents had relocated to Burien. Such a gifted, talented boy he was, Noah wanted to transfer back to Delmar Fields. Forget the kiln and Japanese immersion. This, after Ivan had bought her a car, a Ford, so a prostitute riding the bus she’d stop having to be. Such a romantic, that Ivan. Driving her clunker Ford back to Ansel Park, she asked Noah, “You want I should tell your father you beat yourself?”
It sounded dirty, but he knew what she meant.
What she didn’t say was how proud she felt. Her Noah hadn’t inherited his father’s talent for lousy acting. Benny with his always-smiling, Benny couldn’t hold a candle to Ivan in the sack. But as her Unka was fond of saying, not that she could remember, but in English it came out as, “No good eel doesn’t get stale.”
Not that she told Noah, but she was glad to be fake-reconciling from her fake-separation for fake-spousal abuse. She’d only ever told Ivan her name was Liana. Her crap from college, the Ford he’d bought, she could walk away from. Simply leave the keys on the apartment counter and pull the door shut, locked behind her. Ivan wouldn’t have a clue where to look.
Their last afternoon in the sack, Mindy looked around at the mildew. Her way to say good-bye was by giving Ivan an Arby’s sandwich they could share in a bed she’d never have to make. Dirty sheets she would leave behind. Disappear she would, step into her Jil Sander slacks and catch the bus to her fake sex workplace. She’d told Ivan the Ford was idling rough, dying at stoplights, so he’d hauled out his toolbox to make repairs. Not the truth, Mindy’s story, but reason enough to abandon the car. Give it a week, two weeks, and the landlord would show Ivan the unit with her uniforms hanging in the closet, her dirty Arby’s bag on the counter while she’d be vanished Amelia Earhart-style.
Right during sex someone came honk-honking, some car, into the parking lot.
From the window she looked to see Benny pull in. Benjamin, who’d collected Noah from his last day at Delmar Fields. Happy smiling like a dog he was. Like a golden something dog, he stepped out of his car and called up to her window, “So this is where you live? What a dump!”
Before she could answer, Ivan happened. Tell Benny to run, she wanted to, but Ivan burst out of the apartment door wearing only boxer shorts and his scars. Ivan snatched up something from his open tool box beside the fake-broken down Ford. The whatever tool it was, Ivan ran up and back-handed Benny with it. Swatted Benny across the face. One of those knives it was, like from cutting carpets with a sliding-out razorblade. Mindy could see because Ivan flung the knife away and disappeared sprinting down the street.
Benny, that Benny, he had her going. He truly did, the way he put both hands over his throat and hot Chinese mustard from Williams Sonoma came gushing out between his fingers. But gallons it was, pouring out. Red-brown mustard that must cost a fortune, it was so much, especially for Benny who’d obviously spared no expense to teach her a lesson. Of course he’d hired this Ivan person, who most likely was mowing someone’s lawn in Ansel Park and who wouldn’t say No, not if it meant getting paid to screw Mindy and get Benny’s revenge for the brisket at the Singers’ party. As if this time his throat was really cut, except it looked so fake.
Benny was that kind of petty, he was. All this pettiness just to prove he could act.
From the window Mindy watched her husband sink to his knees. His eyes, he was making the same slaughterhouse eyes he’d made with the brisket knife. Whatever secret apparatus he’d rigged it was pumping tons, yes tons of expensive Chinese mustard into the gravel, and he pretended to topple forward. Fake-gasping with Chinese mustard gurgling from both corners of his wide-open mouth. Pretend twitching, facedown in the gravel, he was, while from the apartment window Mindy filmed with her camera phone and shouted, “Bravo, Benjamin Brume!” And, “You’re not fooling anyone, mister!”
And like maybe they took acting lessons together, but their Noah jumped out of the car in slow motion and fell, skidded and fell in his hurry, crawling across sharp gravel on his hands and knees he did. Noah crawled to his father to fake a tourniquet around his father’s neck using only his bare hands, shouting, “Dad! Don’t die, dad!” even as they’re both hamming it up in a flood of Chinese mustard.
Yael Singer, Mindy half expected to jump out from behind a tree, this looked so phony. The Goldblatts and the Futters and that Myra, all watching to see Mindy get what’s coming to her. With sirens, yes ambulance sirens even her Benny had paid to come screaming closer and closer for added realism. Benny who’d thought of everything, such a stage manager he was. Her Benjamin, whom she’d married and given a son, and who rewarded her by fake-going limp in the arms of their Noah in the dirty parking lot all because of her ruining his favorite Perry Ellis.
A little embarrassed Mindy felt now about how loose she’d got, how soft and loose she’d got so fast with this hired Ivan. That shill, Ivan, she’d wanted him so bad. Well, the joke was on her. Hah-ha! And like something else she couldn’t remember, it came to mind. More immigrant wisdom, but when her Unka said it, the words came out, “To a liar the whole world looks like a lie.”
Well the joke, the final punch line would be Benjamin Brume, double hah-ha, because he’d never know to laugh. And such a joke! Her monthly period Mindy hadn’t had in six weeks. It could be more, maybe, but play-acting Benny, her playing-dead husband would be raising the child of his hired Ivan.
The scope of his routine, not to mention the expense, all to humiliate her, Mindy Brume. She stood in the apartment window looking down, she did, then put aside filming and started to clap her hands. But very slowly.
After the first video conference workshop, I broke apart a story to do exactly this. Going intuitively for the first draft was good, but I would have been better served to break it down into bite sized chunks earlier on. May try your legal pad method for the first draft on the next one.
Really do love the German syntax.