Adjustment day, p.10
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       Adjustment Day, p.10

           Chuck Palahniuk

  His lineage had rejected the proscribed, standardized everything of laws and schools. That chutes-and-ladders game of rules and taxes where it took forever to climb, but only one misstep sent a man into poverty or prison.

  Jamal sensed how others were waiting to make their calls. He listened to his mother’s worried breathing and the kitchen noise behind her. He wanted to tell her that after tomorrow the world would be different. Through him, her life would be improved and noble. They’d, all of them, be as close to royalty as the Declaration of Interdependence allowed.

  Everyone’s success depended on everyone. And due to that, none wanted to disappoint such high expectations. Each strove to be worthy of the honor bestowed upon him by his comrades. By his tribe.

  Jamal wanted to tell his mama everything. He wanted to say he loved her, but everybody would hear. Instead, he asked, “Feed my dog?”

  She sounded relieved. “You want I should feed Bouncer?”

  He could hear her deciding. Like she wanted to yell and tell him to drag his ass home and feed his own damned dog, but like she didn’t want to yell if this might be their last talk on Earth. He exchanged looks with the man he’d invited. A man who knew how Jamal’s mama could get. Finally, he asked, “Please?”

  Something he’d never heard he heard now. Over the phone his mama started to cry. So even with his team listening, he said, “I love you, Mama.” He sniffed. He couldn’t help it. “Just feed my dog, okay?”

  His mama sniffed. Hushed so he could barely hear, she said, “Okay.” Her voice, scared.

  Jamal ended the call and handed the phone to the next man.

  Among those who waited for the dawn were the former journalists. They bided these last few hours outside what remained of the major newspapers. They loitered on the sidewalks around the television headquarters. Honing their resolve was the knowledge that the few journalists who’d retained their careers did so by inflating lies to terrify and enrage the public trust. Telling the truth wasn’t sufficient power.

  As consolation the remaining journalists convinced themselves that no absolute truths existed. This new untruth they propagated as the new truth. The entertainment value, the ability to titillate or provoke, came to be the litmus test of any new truth.

  Their goal now was to shape people’s minds and warp information to that purpose. Honest reportage, which people in a democracy needed as badly as they needed to breathe, ceased to be a priority for the Fourth Estate. Those journalists who couldn’t be corrupted, they were discarded.

  They tested each other with photos displayed on their phones. Each a smiling head shot of a distinguished man or woman with neatly styled hair and a gleaming smile. Gray hair or dyed. Wearing a necktie or pearl necklace. And the challenge was to name the person and give his or her vote tally from the list. Or to recognize that the photo was an innocent who’d never appeared on the list and wasn’t deemed a target.

  These were the hollow-cheeked, flinty-eyed former newshounds who gathered outside radio stations and cable networks, ready to return objectivity to the public airways.

  On that same night, Esteban and Bing bid a dozen of their closest friends attend a potluck. Supping from paper plates loaded with mulligatawny and mole de pollo, the local segment of their lineage finalized their list of targets. Despite their weeks of drilling, apprehension hung in the air like the pungent curry.

  As the assembled men ate, Esteban read aloud from the Talbott book:

  It’s living among heterosexuals that makes the homosexual feel abnormal. Only among whites do blacks feel inadequate. And only among homosexuals and blacks do whites feel threatened and guilty. No group should be blighted by the intellectual expectations and the moral yardstick of another.

  Standing in the center of the group, the book open in his hands, he read:

  Art should not be social engineering. Art that seeks to repair people must be rooted from society.

  The next line, Bing knew by heart:

  Bearing that in mind, we must allow each man to decide upon his own happiness.

  Before he was with Esteban, tiny Bing had been embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with his pimp. Despite Audrey Hepburn being his lifetime idol, Bing’s life had been a far cry from that depicted in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: swanky nightclubs and jumping out the top of super-sized birthday cakes to the vociferous applause of mobs of love-struck Shriners. No, in actuality when Bing’s former pimp spoke, he was all the time, “These dicks ain’t going to suck themselves, bitch!”

  So when Esteban had made his play, the tiny, younger man listened. The older, sophisticated Cuban had invited him to take up arms in their lineage of power, and Bing recognized an improved circumstance when he saw it.

  Closing the Talbott book and carefully setting it aside, Esteban proclaimed, “Queer bodies have always been the shock troops in Western civilization.”

  When inner cities had rotted down to the charred skeletons of their once-elegant housing stock, he said, it was queer bodies that had brought back those crime-ridden neighborhoods. Queer homesteaders had no children to risk in the failed school systems. Strong queer backs and bright queer minds had nothing except their own lives to risk! Those intrepid pioneers had settled the harsh wilderness of decayed Savannah and the derelict wastelands of Baltimore and Detroit. Those queer settlers had arrested the death spiral of each local tax base. With queer resolve they’d tamed the lawless urban frontier. With queer sweat equity they’d boosted the land values.

  Here and there, hushed cries of “Amen, brother” punctuated Esteban’s fevered delivery.

  “When nobody else dared,” he called out, “it was queer courage that nailed the roofs back on those houses! It was queer determination that repaired the dry rot and made the ghetto into a safe investment for white bankers.”

  He described how rising property values had attracted a spate of heterosexuals. Improved schools and close proximity to city services had brought many more. Clearly, Esteban had merely started to build his case.

  He looked from listener to listener, letting a stretch of quiet pass before he redirected.

  “For better or worse—” he jabbed a plastic fork forward for emphasis “—queer bodies have always been the advance guard in emerging politics, too!”

  Citing recent scholarly writings as proof, he described how Malcolm X had gone on the down low, servicing the wealthy white men he’d later return to rob. “But do we celebrate the subversive queer energy of the man?” he demanded. “That hero who sought to subvert power by any means possible?”

  A general chorus of “No!” and “Hell, no!” went up from the small crowd.

  “Don’t even get me started on James Baldwin!” Esteban wailed. “The man . . . the prophet . . . the poet laureate who wrote the liturgy of his entire race, and his people won’t celebrate his queer spirit!”

  Not only did Esteban stew a mean chicken marsala, but he was holding forth with a pep talk the power of which Bing had never heard.

  Food and drinks went ignored and people set down their spicy meals and raised their hands and swayed together in their show of unity. Tiny Bing could only grin; he was proud to witness the rhetorical might of his man.

  “Not so helpful, but just as historic and just as ignored,” wailed Esteban, “was another little queer boy!”

  Teasing his listeners, he described a child wildly in love with a classmate who rejected him. This same boy had grown to become a decorated soldier before finding himself impoverished. His youth had opened the doors and wallets of wealthy male admirers, and the young man soon found himself leading a political party. And not long after, helming an entire country.

  “Arguably the most powerful leader of the twentieth century.” Esteban spat the words in disdain. “And nobody will speak of how his queer heart brought him to greatness.”

  This demagogue, this lovelorn mustachioed gigolo had built an entourage of like-minded queer leaders and launched a style of visual imagery that continues to be emulated
to this day. But when the radical queerness of his political movement was exposed and ridiculed by the world press, that same leader called for the wholesale execution of his entire queer power structure.

  “In one night,” Esteban ranted, “they were summarily executed and the man himself was the only survivor, forced to hide his queer shame and suffer it to his suicide.”

  His audience hung on Esteban’s every astonishing utterance.

  “That man,” he swore, “in all his queer power and cowardice, was none other than—” He looked to Bing.

  The younger man offered, “Not Adolf Hitler!”

  Esteban nodded in wordless affirmation.

  Here his audience gasped. The boy whom little Adolf had loved in grammar school, he revealed, was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a talented Jew who would mature to become a kind of anti-Hitler, a brilliant philosopher and teacher unafraid to conceal his queer self. Inventor of Wittgenstein’s Duck-Rabbit. As for the night when so many of Hitler’s compatriots were slaughtered, that was the legendary Night of the Long Knives when the Nazi Party purged itself of its founding queer members.

  Unspooling before the spellbound potluckers was a history heretofore forbidden to their ears.

  “Yes,” Esteban forged onward, “even in the noble Women’s Movement . . .”

  After the work of Betty Freidan, after the labor of the 1960s, and the blood spilled by a generation of queer women, the leaders had evicted their queer sisters in an effort to make liberation more palatable to mainstream, middle-class women. Heterosexual women. History would always repeat this pattern: Queer foot soldiers blazing the path and being dismissed once the heavy lifting was complete.

  Already being distributed among them—among all the tribes and lineages—was a book. Because all great doings require their manifesto. Every copy of this book was bound in the richest blue-black and bore its title and the name of the author on the cover in gilded lettering. Be it The Communist Manifesto, the Bible, the Koran, The Feminine Mystique, or Saul Alinsky.

  “Consider every hipster,” Esteban sighed. One hand fluttered to demonstrate how words now failed. He shook his head as if perplexed. “They’re covered with tattoos and riddled with piercings, but few of them know the name Jean Genet. And none know of the Urban Aboriginal culture of 1970s queer San Francisco that revived the primitive arts of body modification!”

  He allowed the energy in the room to settle. Every one of them felt the burden of failure. The steadfast manner in which history had refused to celebrate or even acknowledge the events of queer history. Many sniffed back tears. Their feast of unity began to feel like a funeral. Esteban snuck a glance at Bing to reassure him that all was not lost.

  “Beginning tomorrow,” he said in a soft growl, “history will no longer ignore us.” His voice rising, he continued, “Our lineage of power will prove itself! We will harvest many targets, many more than any other lineage!” He shouted to be heard over the rumbling agreement around him.

  Bing took up the rallying cry. “We will prove our queer power and earn the right to control the nation . . . that controls the world!”

  Lost were any further individual words as the lusty huzzahs of all filled the loft.

  Charlie and his fellows bowed their heads and prayed for the souls of men who had never found their destiny. They invoked the dead and invited those ancestors to join them. And the war parties swelled with the living and the not. As Garret Dawson had invited Charlie did Charlie eventually invite Martin who’d invited Patrick who’d invited Michael who’d invited Trevor until their lineage stretched from ocean to ocean and city to city. And on that night the great chieftain lines were complete.

  Theirs was a tailgate party, the air scented with charcoal and barbeque sauce. Rough men attired in brimmed caps and camouflage-print hunting ensembles.

  Above them reared the statehouse, the way all grandiose edifices are designed to make the people outside feel powerless and those showcased within feel omnipotent. The bloated, useless shape of its marble dome, it was a citadel to be taken. The new Bastille. Garret Dawson glared up at it like the ridiculous stage set it was. His pale blue eyes filled with contempt.

  The marble dome, washed with floodlights, appeared so like a full moon frozen on the horizon. Like Moloch fed on slaughtered children yet always hungry. It loomed above them. No police officers asked their business. No one gave them a second glance.

  Tomorrow they’d no longer be men who measured their time by red traffic lights and their pleasure by pints of microbrews.

  Charlie put two fingertips into his mouth and called for silence with a long, deafening whistle. Dawson was about to speak.

  Not a tall man, but built strong and made lean by a lifetime on the shop floor, Dawson modestly accepted the crowd’s silent attention.

  “The queers . . . ,” said he, and he faltered.

  Beginning with a new breath, he repeated, “The queers became artists because nothing they could do in public came naturally.”

  From their first awareness, he explained, they’d had to study and mimic behavior instinctual to all others. To survive they needed to observe and remember, and in doing so they’d served as the scholars, artists, and clerics of civilization.

  Likewise the blacks had raised families. To survive they’d built careers and businesses. Blacks had established churches and fought as soldiers and set themselves as moral paragons of virtue that outshone their white counterparts.

  “But identity politics,” Dawson continued, “has reduced the homosexual to nothing but his sexual preference. It has reduced the black to only his skin. And each has become a caricature of his former dignified self.”

  Men like Dawson and Charlie had not left their drill presses and lathes in order to rescue the gays and blacks. Their lines had formed to battle the same corrupt identity politics that were now forcing the white races into one monstrous stereotype.

  Theirs was perhaps the meanest of all caricatures.

  Instead of being salt-of-the-Earth machinists and carpenters, they were being compelled by modern politics to rally under one flag as goose-stepping Nazi NASCAR storm troopers.

  Gays had been coerced into a two-dimensional identity that had reduced them to hypersexual behavior, and that behavior had decimated their numbers. Blacks had been told they were powerless unless they became thugs, so that anything that could be construed as disrespect led to them murdering one another in staggering numbers.

  “White men,” Dawson vowed, “will not be stampeded into adopting a similar self-image.”

  On the contrary, the actions they took, the actions of all the lineages would destroy the ideological slavery of current politics and replace it with a world where proven heroes would steer the course.

  Veiled by the smoke of grilling meats, the men prayed to be worthy of the myriad creatures that had died to bring them life. They surrendered themselves to their destiny and asked for the strength to fulfill their labors.

  As they’d called upon their forefathers, they reached out to their sons yet to be born and recruited them to lend their strength.

  Late that same evening, Senator Holbrook Daniels dismissed his usual contingent of bodyguards and jogged alone along the National Mall. His trim physique filled him with a secret pride. Indoor desk work and lightweight resistance training had left him a spry specimen of masculinity, and he reflected on his privileged status among the Washington elite. He’d easily live to be one hundred.

  It was a sweet deal, being a United States senator. Tomorrow promised a free haircut in the senatorial barbershop, followed by a hefty luncheon bill he could ignore in any of the city’s finest eateries. An endless stream of wide-eyed congressional pages were waiting to be groomed as interns, even as sexy college-aged interns were being marshaled for his sexual pleasure. And—lest he forget—there was the war resolution to rubber stamp.

  Two million surplus men, undistinguished young men, tomorrow he needed to resolve their lives with a stroke of his pen. It was all
in a day’s work.

  A tough job, he chuckled to himself, but somebody had to do it!

  As he jogged through the darkness, the night breeze carried the aroma of barbequed pork. Flames flickered orange from a line of grills. As the senator passed, a grim company of working-class men fell silent and watched him. Bottles of beer looked small in their hairy fists. One bearded ruffian craned his neck and emitted a thunderous belch. Their silent gaze unnerved Daniels, so much so that he almost stumbled over the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit.

  There, sunk in the lawn at the foot of the Capitol steps, yawned the huge excavation he’d watched grow from his office window. Another stride, and Daniels would’ve tumbled into its depths. That no one had fenced it off with barricades, it was insane. Such a hazard. He sensed the beer drinkers’ eyes on him, and Daniels turned to confront them.

  Self-conscious and suddenly feeling vulnerable, he wanted to tell them they were trespassing. The mall was closed to cook-outs and alcohol. But something in their cold eyes made him hold his tongue. Many of them held cameras and filmed him. Others swilled beer. The steaks hissed and spat, dripping gobbets of hot fat that sent up geysers of bright sparks. Men glared sullenly at him as they lifted ribs and drumsticks to their mouths. Their huge teeth made a horrible sound, gnawing against the bones and stripping away the gristle.

  In his futile anger, the senator stood at the lip of the deep hole and pointed into its emptiness, shouting, “When will this be filled?” When no one responded, he shouted, “This is a hazard!” An oafish brute broke wind. Determined to have the final word, Senator Daniels shrieked, “Someone could get killed!”

  He wasn’t on CNN. Without the acoustics of a marble chamber, without a bank of microphones and amplifiers, his voice sounded frail and shrill in the open-air darkness.

  Several of the roughnecks looked from him to something nearby. He followed their pointed glance.

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