Fight Club Club
When I get home, the couch and recliner are
sitting out on the curb. Full-grain, caramel-colored leather, two years
old. Pottery Barn. Sitting out on the curb.
I count the steps to the door—one two three four five six seven eight
nine. I put my hand on the knob and then think, this is enough. One two three
four five six seven steps back. I yank one end of the couch onto the lawn.
My briefcase falls off my shoulder and a pile of monographs spills onto the
grass. From the house, I can hear the sound of the movie, Charles and James
shouting along with Brad Pitt: the second rule of Fight Club is you dont
talk about Fight Club.
Neighbor Bill gets out of his car, briefcase and lunch bag in hand. Good
old Bill. Suburban, reliable, workaday Bill. He waves, nods, then scuttles
into his colonial. Since Charles got fired and this whole thing started,
the neighbors have been a little skittish.
Inside, smoke is everywhere. Miller High Life bottles litter the coffee
table and floor. Charles and James and the fat neighbor kid they call Lumpy,
back from college for the summer and doesn’t seem to be working either,
are sitting on lawn chairs in a semi-circle around the TV and the bong. Each
of them has a Taco Bell bag resting on his belly, various chili cheese products
are scattered around half-eaten. Charles has a cigarette in one hand and a
beef burrito supreme in the other. The remote control is balanced on his knee.
I close the door and lock it behind me. I turn the living room lights on,
then off, then on again. “Dude,” James says,
blinking at the light, “do
you really have to do that?” I check to make sure the door is locked.
“Why are the couches on the lawn?” I say.
Charles keeps his eyes on the movie. “You get that door locked?" His
pajamas are covered with little pineapples and tiki huts. His shoulder-length
hair has gray streaks around the temples that would look distinguished if he
was still getting it cut at Christophe in downtown DC. He holds a hand back
for a high-five and I walk past him to the magazines, which are spread out
over the floor, in no order at all. I know they do this just to get to me,
but I arrange them anyway, chronological order, based on when they were
delivered, not when they say they were published. I keep my head down,
ignore the giggles from James and Lumpy. As if I had a choice.
I go into the dining room. Lights on, off, on. I drop my bag into the
space where the table used to be. I glare at Charles, pick the bag
off the dirty carpet.
I go into my room and set up my work, The
Chicago Manual of Style to the right of the computer, tonight’s
monographs to the left. Then I go outside and pull the mail out of the box.
I arrange it into four stacks: me, Charles, James, and Mr. David Kingman, the
fake name that Charles uses to subscribe to magazines and music clubs. Mr. David
Kingman is getting some strange mail lately: weapons catalogs, martial arts
supply, NRA membership, mail order chemicals. Mine are all bills and junk mail.
Student loan, car loan, credit card, cell phone, two letters from the insurance
company. I feel the black crawling up the back of my neck.
I check the lock again and Charles turns up the volume. “Maybe you better
watch this,” he says. Onscreen, Brad Pitt is getting beat up by some fat
old man. Pitt keeps on asking for more, getting abused, pulverized. Finally,
he pins the guy, shakes his head, spurting blood all over until the old man
freaks out, retreats up the stairs. James laughs and sneaks a glance at me.
His long blond hair is tucked behind his ears and he wears flowered surf shorts.
He’s been gaining weight since he moved in, the beginnings of a double chin
swelling beneath his jaw.
The truth is we’re getting too old for this, sitting around and getting
high, watching the same movie over and over. We should be getting married, having
kids, putting money into retirement or college tuition funds. We were headed
that way, right on schedule, with our grown-up furniture, real jobs, our love
handles and serious girlfriends.
But bad things always happen in threes: Charles got fired, James moved in,
I got in the accident. It seemed like, as slowly as the whole thing had built—relationships,
jobs, responsibility—it was over in a flash. We were back to being twelve
again, a bunch of guys goofing around, drinking too much, and hitting each other
in the nuts.
And then Charles found this goddamn movie.
He hits rewind. Moving backwards, Brad Pitt gets increasingly better looking,
the old guy pulling his hand away as if hes removing the cuts and bruises,
healing the Hollywood hunk of leprosy, or some other disease that makes you
ugly. Finally, Pitt is standing in front of the group again, all of them young
and pretty, stitched and bruised, trendy in their seventies vintage clothing.
The first rule of Fight Club, Pitt says, is you don’t
talk about Fight Club.
Why are the couches on the lawn? I say.
Eventually, the things you own come to own you, Charles says. He’s
even trying to speak like Brad Pitt, overpronouncing everything, rolling his
Ls off the roof of his mouth.
It’s a movie. I say it slow, looking at the carpet.
“I know its a movie,” Charles says. He starts packing the bong,
pulling pot out of a Ziploc bag and dropping the stems onto the carpet. “But
it deals with real shit. Real shit. Not the bullshit you’re all worked
up about. He lights the bong and takes a deep draw.
I check the lock on the door, then move into the kitchen to make sure the oven
“Have you ever watched this movie?” Charles yells. “I mean,
like, close? That fight stuff is just the beginning. And your neat thing is
getting worse, man!”
I know this is true, but I can’t stop. I’ve always had to do certain
things—wash my hands, check the locks, count my steps, turn the lights
on off on—but since the accident, it’s getting worse. Like my brain
has hiccups. How can I stop it? Hold my breath?
“Look,” Charles says. “Just watch the movie once, all the
way through.” James and Lumpy nod. “Have you even seen the Project
Mayhem part of this movie? It’s about, like, anarchy." He chomps
the burrito and rust-colored goop dribbles onto his belly. “Besides,” he
says, “I wasn’t the one took a bunch of Percocets then tried to
drive home from work. I’m not your shitty insurance company or that bitch
you crippled up.”
“Hey, brother, tell it to the judge.”
I stand there, trying to think of something to say. Part of me wants to knock
his nose into the back of his head; part of me wants to lie down and sleep
until it’s all over. Onscreen, Brad Pitt teaches Ed Norton how to make soap.
They steal human fat from a liposuction facility, boil it on a gas stove. Both
of them have black eyes.
I reheat some pasta then go into my room and edit monographs. Around nine,
I hear Charles go up the steps. The water runs from upstairs, and he stomps
back down again. The front door opens and closes. “Project Mayhem!” Lumpy
yells. The BMW turns over.
I think about going in there and stealing the Fight
Club DVD, hiding the pot, changing the locks. I think about cleaning
the stems and beer spots off the carpet.
I take out the bottle and count them again. One two three four five…thirty
Percocets. Ten will require a trip to the emergency room. Fifteen and it would
get a little dicey. With my body weight, twenty would pretty much do the trick.
I count out twenty and hold them in my hand. I take one, and listen to the rest
tick back into the bottle.
I turn my sleep machine up as loud as it will go and try to lose myself in
the white noise.
* * *
I grab the newspaper and drop it into my Civic. The couches are gone. I picture
a family of Salvadoran immigrants relaxing on the supple leather, laughing
at the crazy gringos. Somebody is picking these things off the curb and moving
them into an apartment somewhere, someplace not far but not too close either,
away from the clean colonials of our upscale neighborhood, the good schools,
the Whole Foods, and the Starbucks. Somewhere, our living room is resurrected.
I would save them, each piece, rescue the whole house and bring it back.
If only I could afford my own place. And if only they were my things to begin
with. But they belonged to Charles, paid for with a squiggled signature on
a trust fund check. The house is his, too, or his father’s, anyway. Around the
time this whole thing started, when he got fired and James moved up from Ocean
City, Charles stopped making me pay rent, called it a hassle to deposit the
checks and said if I couldn’t pay in cash, don’t worry about it
I check both ways, wave to neighbor Betsy, reaching low to grab the newspaper
in her purple bathrobe, and pull out slow. At the intersection of Richmond
and Bradley, I toggle my head between both lanes and my rearview mirror.
I need to make a left, get to Connecticut Avenue, and take another left.
A Lincoln Navigator pulls up behind me and my face starts to get hot. There’s no
break in traffic. I keep checking, left right left right left. Nothing. The
Lincoln toots his horn. In the rearview, I see gray hair and tapping fingers.
The accident started just like this. I took a couple of pills. I got stuck
at an intersection with some beeping executive behind me, pulled out too
soon and the next thing I know I’m standing in the middle of the street, bawling
and shouting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” while
the jaws of life cut into a brand new Chevy Suburban. The lawyer tells me that
wasn’t the best way to handle the situation, in terms of liability. The
court date is in one month.
Another toot from the Lincoln. Sweat rolls down my sides. Right left right
left right. Nothing. The Navigator holds his hand out the window in a question.
older. Gray hair, blue suit, red tie. I pull over as far as I can and wave him
along. When he passes, I pretend to be getting something out of my bag.
I take the back way to work, pull in twenty minutes late with my shirt soaking
wet. A cool wave of air conditioning hits me as soon as the elevator opens.
Counting the steps to my office, my heartbeat slows, blood drains from my face.
The American Pharmaceutical Information Center is my paradise. I am appreciated
here. I am left alone. Here, everything happens as it should, each day almost
exactly like the ones that have gone before, tomorrow a clean carbon copy of
I turn on my lights and check the in-box. I put The
Chicago Manual of Style to the right of the computer. I sit back
and relax. For the first time today, it feels like I can breathe.
* * *
When I get home, two guys in Jiffy Lube coveralls are pushing the entertainment
center onto the top of a Geo Metro. “Escuse me? the taller one says.
His accent is Russian. “Hesh” is stitched onto his chest. “Can
you give hand? I walk back to the Metro, putting my feet down in the exact
same spots where they were just moving forward. This way, I can start up again
at the sixth step. It will still count.
Hesh indicates that I should hold the back of the entertainment center. I
manage to keep it up long enough for him to get a roll of duct tape around
the other side. “Thats gonna ruin it, I say, indicating
a spot where tape is plastered against the mahogany.
He shrugs and pats me on the shoulder, a little too hard. “Thanks, man, he
says. The other guy laughs. His chest says “Barney.” They get into
the Geo and drive off.
Six seven eight nine. The stink hits me the minute I get in the door. The
house smells like chemicals, like a sewer in Chernobyl, a million Easter
eggs sitting in their stain. I pull my shirt up over my mouth. I turn the
lights on off on. “Joey’s
home,” Charles yells from the kitchen. I put the magazines in a neat stack.
Bile burns in my throat. I check the lock on the front door, drop my bag into
my room, then go get the mail. I almost throw up on the pile of Mr. David Kingman.
Finally, I make it into the kitchen. Charles is dressed in duck boots and boxers.
“Joe-ay,” he says. “Welcome to the par-tay. This,” he
holds his arms out, “is the Wildwood Road Soap Company.” James gives
me the thumbs up. Him and another guy—a kid I recognize from the basketball
court, a lefty who shoots threes and yells at everybody else to play defense—are
rolling joints on the kitchen table and putting them into plastic bags. They’ve
moved the TV onto the kitchen counter. In the movie, guys dressed in black carry
out acts of vandalism on an unsuspecting city.
“What’s that smell?”
“We’re making soap,” Charles says. “You render the fat
by boiling away the tallow.” He holds up a copy of the Fight
Club book. “It’s all right here. Right in the goddamn
book.” He’s giving me the serious look, the one that reminds me
of his father. “Soap. Napalm. Pipe bombs. Everything! This book is like,
literally, a recipe for disaster, man.”
My pasta pot is filled with pasty goop, a thick liquid bubbling in sickly gasps.
Lumpy is stirring, dressed in hundred dollar shoes and black Tommy Hilfiger
jeans. He skims white stuff off the top, drops it into our Tupperware.
I can’t breathe. “My pasta pot,” is all I can say.
“My pasta pot.”
Charles grabs me by the arm and steers me toward the bedroom.
He shuts the door. “Look, I know we’re going a little crazy here.” He
waves his hands around in a flutter. “But there's something there, man.
There’s something in that movie, in this book. I swear to god. It’s,
“This doesn’t help me, you know,” I say. “I have work
to do, bills, the court thing is coming up.”
“And the neat thing.” This is how he’s always referred to
the things I have to do. The neat thing.
“But this is more real than that shit,” he says. “Think about
my old job. Trying to get people to put money in the funds that made me the
most money—what the fuck was that? Our fathers are our vision of God,
right?” He waves the book at me. “That’s how my fucking father
made all his money. Is that real? Were those couches real? The entertainment
center? Come on, Joe. We are the middle children of history. You think the Pottery
Barn is gonna save us?"
“It’s just, it’s not helping. That’s a movie. You’re
not Brad Pitt, Charles.”
“Chuck. My name is Chuck.” He stares at me. I can tell he’s
trying to morph his face into Pitt’s by sheer will, pushing his lips out,
willing his cheekbones higher. But with his pinched eyes and pouty face, he’s
always going to look like the rich brat that he is. Put him in a $2,000 suit
and he’s already the spitting image of Charles Senior.
“Come on,” is all I can say.
“I don’t, man.”
“I was there in college when you went through the rastafarian thing,” I
say. “Sorry, rasta-far-eye. The white-boy dreadlocks. Then the Grateful
Dead, with the tie-dyes and all the tapes with like Meadowlands 5-8-86 written
on top. And then the swinger phase, the chain wallet and the Fonzie wardrobe.
You kept saying it’s so money’ and let’s go find
some beautiful babies.’”
He pulls himself erect against the door, folds his arms, pushes his biceps
out with the front of his hands. “This is different.”
“You guys are making soap and rolling joints in the kitchen. In my pasta
pot. The table is gone. The couches, the entertainment center…”
“That’s what I mean. This isn’t just fashion.”
“I can’t live like this. This is really bad for me.”
“Project Mayhem!” someone shouts from the living room.
“Look,” Charles says, “what if something happened? What if
you could join us?”
“I can’t sit down before I do the thing with the lights. The magazines.
“I know. But maybe someday.” Charles smiles and closes the door
on his way out.
I look at the bottle. One two three four…twenty-nine Percocets. I take
two and edit the Beta Blockers monograph until my eyelids burn. I turn the sleep
machine up as loud as it will go and stare at the ceiling.
* * *
A week goes by. I live like a shadow, like a house pet, confined to my space.
It's like sharing a haunted house with a fraternity of ghosts: I know theyre
there, I hear them in my sleep, I clean up their messes in the morning, or when
I come home from work. Every now and then I catch a glimpse, retreating through
the door as Im going into the bathroom, or sleeping off whatever it is
they do, Lumpy and Lefty crashed in the basement like military recruits. Little
mounds of pot stems appear on the carpet like crop circles.
I slip in and out of the bathroom like a cat. If I could set up a litterbox
in my bedroom, I would.
I can’t tell what they’re doing. Going out at night and coming
home late in the morning. Copies of Fight
Club are scattered around the house like hymnals in a church. I
watch the newspaper for signs of civil disobedience. I stare at every waiter,
busboy, or garage attendant. None of them seems to bear the casually battered
faces, the broken noses, split lips, and black eyes of their cinematic brethren.
One day I wake up to find the entire living room spray-painted red. Across
the back wall, in black, it says “Project Mayhem.” The paint mixes
with the lingering smell of soap and it feels dangerous, like the whole place
could blow at any minute. The living room blinds are open. Neighbor Betsy
pushes her stroller. She catches my eye, turns away, and hustles up the street.
I walk into the kitchen to start my coffee. My keys are on the floor. My
wallet is sitting on the counter. There’s a big red thumbprint on the black leather.
A knock at the door. It’s the Russians. They’re both smoking cigarettes
and sucking from Big Gulp cups, still wearing the Jiffy Lube coveralls.
“There’s nothing out there,” I say.
“We come inside now,” the bigger one says. He elbows past me. “He
say to come in, join Project Mayhem.”
“You can’t have any of the stuff.” I try not to look toward
my bedroom door.
“Eventually,” he says, “these thing you have. They start to
have you. We do not want more thing from you.”
* * *
As the court date gets closer, I throw myself into work. I spend twelve hours
a day behind my desk. I skip lunches. I’m losing weight, growing black
marks under my eyes. I lose myself in it, the simple typos, split infinitives
and hanging participles, the music of punctuation. The
Chicago Manual of Style is my bible. Its all right there,
right in the book—the rules for everything. No moral dilemmas, no figuring
it out as you go along, no second-guessing or Charles looking over your shoulder.
Just rules, plain and simple. Black and white. Right and wrong.
It’s payday, end of the month, and I’m double checking the Clorazepam
monograph when Mr. Bannister knocks on my door. He’s holding the Methylphenidate
monograph and his face is the color of blood, his mouth a grim scab. “We
have to talk,” he says. He sits in my guest chair. One leg is broken and
he sinks down, almost topples. He stands and motions me into the bad chair.
We switch positions. I try to balance, put all my weight on my right leg to
compensate for the chair.
“You know I had a lot of trust in you,” he says.
I nod. Had? I can feel a tingle in the back of my head. Instinctively, I reach
out and put my hand over The
Chicago Manual of Style.
“You’ve been a model employee,” he says. “That’s
why I want to give you this chance, before...” He looks at the monograph
and shakes his head. “Did anybody see this before you sent it to copy?”
“I’m an associate. I have copy approval.”
“God damn it, Joseph, what were you thinking? Is this some kind of political
statement?” He throws the monograph in my direction and it falls to the
ground. I lean to pick it up and the chair goes down with a crash. The arm pushes
into my abdomen like I’ve been punched. The air goes out of me and my
head hits the floor with a thwock. I let it go for a second, enjoying the black,
allowing myself to slip. It would be nice to let go, to sleep.
Bannister helps me up. I stare at him until he points again to the monograph.
APIC leaflets all begin with the conditions for which the pharmaceutical is
prescribed: “Methylphenidate, or Ritalin, is prescribed to prevent boat-rocking
by antsy children and disaffected teenagers. But hey, kids, listen up. Ritalin
can be injected (this is referred to as “west coasting”) to obtain
a powerful high similar to that of heroin, or can also used in combination with
heroin (this is called a “speedball”), or—hey, why not!—with
both cocaine and heroin, for a more potent effect.” I can’t believe
I’m reading this. What’s going on? I feel like I’m going to
throw up. I’m sweating. Bannister holds up the release-to-print form and
there’s my signature. But this isn’t what I approved.
Then it hits me. Charles. One week ago. The keys on the floor, the thumb
print on my wallet. And there it is, slipped into the Potential Side Effects
of lightheadedness, black or tarry stools, project mayhem, dry mouth...”
“I’m sorry,” Bannister says. “I don’t really have
a choice. You have to go.”
This is where Ed Norton would beat himself up, knock his own face into a bloody
pulp and come away with some kind of movie-only severance package. I shake
hand, lead him out the door. I take my clock radio and mug warmer, the two pictures
that I keep in my desk drawer—Mom and Dad looking stoned and aimless,
Charles and me at graduation. I put it all into my bag and walk slowly to the
elevator. I take out the bottle and count them, then I dry-swallow five Percocets
and put the rest, loose, in my pocket. They go down hard, scraping the sides
of my throat. When I get behind the wheel, I can still feel the dry lump in
* * *
When I get home, my bed and desk are sitting out on the curb. The Geo Metro
is parked in my spot. One two three four five six seven steps to the door.
Charles and James are sitting on their lawn chairs, dressed in rumpled tuxedoes.
watching the movie and leafing through FHM and Maxim magazines.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I ask. I turn the
lights on off on.
Charles looks at the sad little box of office stuff in my hand. “We spend
our days working jobs we hate to buy shit that we don’t need," he
says. James doesn’t take his eyes of the TV, just gives me the thumbs
down. I lock the door.
There’s an explosion on the TV and we all look over to see Ed Norton
sticking a gun into his own mouth.
Somebody has spray painted “Project Mayhem” on the carpet. Pizza
boxes and 7-Eleven hot dog containers cover the floor. The whole place smells
like a combination of locker room and bar—sweat and soap, smoke and stale
“But I loved that job,” I say. “I loved everything about it.”
“Today will be the best day of your life. Things will taste better, you’ll
feel better…” I pick up the magazines and start to put them in order.
Charles knocks them out of my hand. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“What do you think, you cured me?” I pick up the magazines.
“I’ve been trying to help you for the past ten years,” Charles
says. He’s looking out the window, watching neighbor Bill and son Benjamin
tippling down the street on brand new bicycles. “You believe that shit,
James?” he asks. “I’ve been trying to make this little OCD
pussy a man for ten years and this is what I get?”
I jiggle the Percocets, loose in my pocket. I swallow two, suck them down like
“What am I supposed to do now, Charles? I had my life made here. I had
it figured out, a system. I loved that job.” I pull The
Chicago Manual of Style out of my box. The solid weight feels good
in my hands. “What am I supposed to do?”
Charles looks up at me and smiles. He holds it like a preacher or a salesman—no
shame and no mercy. “Join us,” he says. “Join Project Mayhem.”
“I’m serious. This is real, Joe. Like I told you. Not fashion anymore.”
“Join Project Mayhem.”
For a second, I’m filled with love for Charles. It would feel good to
stop fighting everything. It would be as easy as sleeping—just let go,
follow orders, allow somebody else to make all the decisions.
“I can’t walk up to the front door without counting my steps, Charles.
I can’t sit down before I arrange the magazines, check the locks and the
“Know what we did today?” There’s a gleam in his eye that
I haven’t seen since he almost got kicked out of college for the second
time. “James and me got jobs as waiters.”
I open the style manual. A sentence catches my eye: When
a number begins a sentence, it is always spelled out.
“So we get jobs as waiters for this fancy catering company downtown. We’re
in the elevator, coming up from the kitchen, and we piss right in the seafood
bisque.” He high-fives James. “Next week, we’re gonna lace
the chicken noodle with shrooms.”
“Shroom fucking noodle soup, dude,” James says.
The manual says, A comma
follows names or words used in direct address and informal correspondence.
“And that’s not all.” He grabs my arm and for a second it’s
almost like we’re kids again, like he’s explaining Dungeons and
Dragons or what it’s like to kiss a girl. “Dude, we’ve been
doing some serious social commentary at night, following right along with the
movie, with the book even, planting these messages around town and shit. That
thing in the paper about the graffiti on the metro? That was us, man.”
Years are expressed
in numerals unless they stand at the beginning of a sentence.
“Are you even listening?” Charles asks. “Have you heard anything?
Do you notice anything that happens around here?”
“I can’t join,” is all I can say.
Charles pushes his head down to his knees. The lawn chair strains under his
weight. He pulls his hair and makes a growling sound. Finally he stands up.
He’s trying to morph his face into Brad Pitt’s. James is watching
us like we’re a big screen TV.
“Hit me,” Charles says. “Hit me as hard as you can.” He
sticks his pudgy face up into mine. He pushes me, hard, in the chest. “Hit
me you OCD pussy!”
“My court date is next week.” I picture the Russians picking me
off the curb, loading me into their Geo. Everything is starting to get fuzzy,
lights popping soft and bright in the corners of my eyes.
“Come on!” he yells. “Feel something. Hit me!”
I’m clutching the style guide. He pushes me again in the chest. He takes
the magazines and scatters them over the floor. He empties out my work box. “Hit
I lead with the spine of the book, chop hard into his cheek. He yelps like
a puppy and goes down. “What the fuck, Joe?” he screams. A streak
of blood worms onto the rented tuxedo.
I grab the style manual again and open to a random page: Particular
centuries are spelled out and lowercased. I break the spine on his
back. The pages spill out onto the floor. I use my fists. First my right until
it hurts. Then my left. It hurts. It feels good.
A few years back, probably when the Fight Club DVD
came out, there were all these stories in the news
about guys who were actually starting their own fight
clubs. Im talking about frat guys, businessmen,
people who had seen the movie. I couldnt help but
think that these guys werent quite getting it,
beating each other up in their Abercrombie and Fitch
pre-stressed button-downs. I had an image of this guy
sitting around in his jammies, trying to lead some
kind of third-hand, watered-down, living-room-stoner
revolution. Of course, hed have a bunch of suburban
follower dudes, and all of it would be based on the
movie, rather than the book. The protagonist actually
came later, after I thought, Who is the worst possible
person to throw into this situation? A writing
teacher, Mark Farrington, once described the story as
something along the lines of white shirt + mud =
splat. I think thats a pretty good description.