Adjustment day, p.11
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       Adjustment Day, p.11

           Chuck Palahniuk

  There, neatly stacked along one edge of the abyss, were bags of something. Piled as neatly as bricks, white canvas bags formed a wall almost as tall as the men. Daniels squinted to read the labels printed on the bags. In the flickering light of scorching grease, and through the dense smoke of burning flesh, the labels were almost illegible.

  As a car passed along First Avenue, its headlights swept the scene. For an instant, they were all illuminated: the senator, the beer drinkers, their ragged hole, and the bagged supplies staged beside it.

  In that moment, the senator could read the labels.

  Quicklime, the words said.

  An inexplicable frisson of terror pricked the hair on the back of his neck. It took all of his lean, gym-trained muscles, all of his self-discipline to turn away from the scene and begin running. Putting distance between him and the mob with every stride, Daniels boiled with confusion and rage. Tomorrow, he swore to himself, he’d make a few telephone calls.

  Tomorrow heads would roll, damn it, and that dirty, dangerous hole would be filled!

  His telephone woke Gregory Piper before dawn. According to the screen it was his agent calling, but Piper knew better. He’d pick up, and it would be a young voice, entry-level young, an assistant telling him, “Hold for a call from Mr. Leventhal, please.” A loud click would indicate he’d been put on hold, to wait while his agent finished another call. Or two. Piper knew where he stood in the pecking order.

  He looked at the bedside clock. Five-thirty, Pacific Standard Time. It wasn’t even banker’s hours in New York. Over the phone a voice asked, “Gregory?”

  Piper sat upright in bed, stunned to hear his agent. It was dark outside. He could hardly hear the freeway.

  The voice continued, “Have you seen the television?”

  Using his free hand, Piper dug among the sheets and blankets for the remote control. “Which channel?”

  His agent snapped, “Any of them.” He added, “All of them!”

  Piper found the remote and switched on the television near the foot of the bed. Filling the screen was himself, wearing his blue Savile Row single-breasted suit. Looking directly into the camera, he said, “This is Talbott Reynolds . . .”

  Piper switched channels, and there he was once more, saying, “. . . absolute monarch . . .”

  Piper tried a new channel, and he was there again, saying, “. . . appointed by the Council of Tribes.”

  Over the phone, his agent demanded, “Did you sign anything?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “We’re still waiting on those contracts.”

  Between every televised glimpse of himself, Piper found no sports, no music videos, no advertisements. On a fourth television station, he was saying, “El dia de ajustamiento esta sobre nosotros.”

  He considered the envelope of cash and if accepting it had implied a contractual agreement. It was stupid, but he hadn’t mentioned the money to anyone. If he could avoid the tax obligation he would. On a new television channel he was proclaiming, “Before creating anything of lasting value . . .”

  That was his improvised line. Now the beer-swilling, cruller-munching production crew, they’d have to give him a writing credit on the project.

  Another channel showed him saying, “. . . we must first create ourselves.”

  The clock-radio on his bedside table went off, but instead of a morning traffic report, it was his voice saying, “. . . we must first create ourselves.”

  Over the phone, his agent stormed. “We’ve already issued a cease and desist!”

  The doorbell chimed.

  On television, dignified and handsome, delivering his best Ronald Reagan tinged with his best JFK, Piper declared, “Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  The phone held between his hunched shoulder and his ear, Piper rose from the bed and found his bathrobe. The doorbell chimed, again, as he tied the belt.

  The television repeated, “Adjustment Day is upon us.” To anyone except him this would look like a repetition of the last take, but Piper heard the slight variation in how he stressed each word.

  In his ear, his agent swore, “It’s on the radio and all over the web!” Over the phone’s tiny speaker came the layers of sound, each offset by a microsecond. “Adjustment Day is upon us.” An entire choir comprised of Talbott Reynolds. The synchronized voices resonating like a chant.

  “Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  Piper crossed his living room and squinted through the peephole on his front door.

  From the bedroom television. Over his phone. From neighboring apartments, the words came. “Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  At his door stood the man with the cauliflower ears and neck tattoo of a swastika. Piper wracked his memory for a name. The low-rent cinematographer. Into the phone, he said, “They’re here.” It was dawn with the light rising behind the visitor. Edging toward morning rush hour, the noise of the 101 grew louder.

  His agent asked, “Who’s here?”

  The chorus of words seemed to fade and blur. “Adjustment Day is upon us.” Becoming audio wallpaper. A new normal. White noise, like the freeway. Room tone.

  Piper opened the door. He had the name, “You’re LaManly, right?”

  His phone demanded, “Who’s LaManly?”

  From every direction, “The list does not exist.”

  The man, LaManly, reached into his jacket and produced a pistol. Without a word he leveled it at Piper’s chest.

  From a neighbor’s window, “The list does not exist.”

  As much as the impact, the noise of the gunshot rocked Piper back on his bare heels. His bathrobe billowed open, revealing white undershirt. Grayed chest hair. He dropped the phone but didn’t collapse. Not at first.

  His own voice, rich and echoing now from his own telephone, began to repeat, “The first casualty in any war is God.” Echoing from the television in the next room. His field of vision began to narrow until he was looking down a long, dark tunnel to where the gunman was walking away, following the sidewalk to a car parked at the curb. A rushing sound louder than the freeway roared in his ears. Near the car the man muttered, “Damn,” and slapped himself on the forehead with the butt of his palm. With fast steps he hurried back to the apartment doorway. He reached in, grabbing the doorknob, and pulled the door closed behind him. The knob rattled as if he were testing to make certain it was locked. Outside the closed door, his rapid footsteps faded into the distance. A voice, Piper’s voice, proclaimed:

  May each man strive to be hated. Nothing turns a man into a monster faster than the need to be loved.

  This left the actor alone in his living room. His own voice, recorded, duplicated, overdubbed, immortal, the voice of Talbott Reynolds, continued on and on, even as Gregory Piper sank to his knees and bled out on the rug in front of his own image on television.

  The Senate majority leader took the final vote, and it was unanimous. As he announced passage of the War Resolution Act a voice shouted from the spectator’s gallery.

  “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” a man shouted, “lend me your ears.” It was Charlie in a moment for all the history books of the new future. Those borrowed words, words Charlie’s lineage had deliberated over. Words that would become as famous as Nathan Hale’s.

  The majority leader gaveled for silence. He called for the Captain of the Guard to remove the disruptive young man. The guard took no action. In the gallery a second man stood and shouldered a Dragunov sniper rifle and the red pinprick of its laser sight found the center of the senator’s forehead. The triggerman was Garret Dawson.

  That same year, grouse hunting season never opened.

  Nick had lived through worse. At first he worried the police were after him. He caught a whiff of smoke and went to look out the window. Flames rolled up the brick sides of an Urban Outfitters down the block. No sirens wailed. More worrisome, no one stood in the street to watch. What scared Nick most was the fact that nobody was looting.

  He dialed emergency but couldn’t get a signal. Not as muc
h as a recorded message.

  He’d spent the last few nights hiding in the coffee shop where Shasta had worked last. They’d made the mistake of giving her keys and the alarm code before eventually firing her. He’d escaped his place with nothing but his stash and the clothes on his back. He’d eaten all the chocolate-dipped biscotti and was mildly curious when the morning manager would arrive to evict him. That’s when he’d smelled the smoke. The wind was driving the fire in his direction.

  Nick foamed some milk and mixed in a dozen shots of espresso and some vanilla syrup and called it breakfast. Nobody had messed with the cans of spray whipped cream so he worked each nozzle to huff the nitrous off the top. He checked the sell dates on the grilled chicken ciabattas. He washed his face at the bathroom sink and finger-combed his hair. When he looked next the fire had jumped to Baskin-Robbins. Considering how much stock he’d eaten and all the places he’d left his fingerprints, he wasn’t unhappy to see the inferno bearing down. Just this teeny bit fucked up, he’d started to feel safe again.

  Anyway, it was around time for the marijuana dispensaries to open up. That would do until First Methodist at lunchtime, the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, the primo place to score.

  Then the first van arrived at the curb. Outside the front window a second van screeched to a halt. The first was hefting a satellite dish and aligning it with the sky. A familiar woman took her place in front of a camera and began to narrate the fire scene. A circus like this should’ve drawn a crowd of the curious. That was the scary part. No one gathered to watch. No cars slowed to rubberneck. There were no cars, period. The street was otherwise empty.

  Another news crew arrived and set up to broadcast. As did a fourth. A wall of newscasters stationed themselves in front of the blaze.

  Nick’s ass vibrated. The back pocket of his jeans. His phone, with a call coming in. Keeping his eyes on the fire scene, he put the phone to his ear and asked, “Walter?” With no immediate reply, he tried, “Shasta?” A man’s voice said, “Adjustment Day is upon us.” An automated robo call.

  The caller ID read “Private.” The voice repeated, “Adjustment Day is upon—,” but Nick hung up. Already the phone was vibrating with a call from the same private number.

  Last on the scene were the emergency responders. A police squad car, followed by a single engine company. Without unrolling hoses or tapping hydrants the firefighters and officers positioned themselves in a perimeter outside the filming. Cameras swiveled to watch them. Nick studied it all through the coffee-shop window. In some recess of his brain he knew what was about to occur. Instead of watching content being made, he was watching history being made. This was just like that batshit story that Walter had been trying to sell him. That was it. More than ever, he had to find his buddy. Walter would explain what was going down.

  Because just like Walter had predicted, the police officers drew their service revolvers. The firefighters unbuckled their slickers and shouldered rifles. And just as Walter said it would happen, this unlikely firing squad let loose with a July Fourth flurry of blasts, as brief as a string of firecrackers, filling the air with drifting gusts of white brimstone smoke. And before the last echo had died away the uniformed men were wading among the fallen journalists.

  Seizing each by a fistful of perfectly coiffed hair, they lifted each head. Following close behind, a man holding something bright was dragging a burlap sack. At each head he brought his bright tool down with a single stroke. A knife, Nick realized. And the man reached back to drop something into his bag.

  An ear. Walter said they’d take the ears. Ears smeared with pink makeup and powdered with talc. Ears with tiny transmitters still plugged into them.

  The man with the knife had a name. Nick knew him from somewhere. No, not hacking off dead ears, but someplace regular. And repeating in Nick’s head was a memory of a man’s voice, this same man reciting, “Hi, my name is Clem . . .” Repeating, “I’m Clem, and I’m a junkie . . .”

  Adjustment Day is a misnomer. Altering human history took little more than an hour.

  The police stood aside. After years of being branded villains by politicians and the media, the police turned a blind eye as citizens lugged duffle bags into every statehouse, every courthouse, city hall, into every college administration building. That morning, the police knew the calls to report fires and murders were only bait, lures thrown out to draw the media into an ambush.

  Every year voters and taxpayers were killed by criminals. Policemen were killed by criminals. This year crime would seek out the lawmakers.

  Participating, here, in Adjustment Day would expunge all of Bing’s and Esteban’s criminal charges and warrants. It would eliminate Jamal’s student debt.

  Stray targets, of course, had to be stalked down emergency fire exits, across parking lots, underneath parked cars where they cowered, weeping. Others hid behind locked office doors that required breaking down with fire axes. Even with these stragglers the old regime would be eradicated by lunchtime.

  The words of a former teacher came to mind. A while back, a professor had lectured Jamal. Professor Brolly talked about the culture of the Hellenistic Greeks, how the Greeks had valued comedy above all other theater. Their comedic plays had far outnumbered their tragedies because they believed that all human endeavors looked trivial and laughable to the gods who watched from on high. The gods found mankind endlessly funny.

  But when Christian culture supplanted the Greeks, the Christians destroyed most of the comedies. Stories of tragedy reinforced the Christian viewpoint so the church preserved Oedipus the King and Medea and Prometheus Bound and eradicated all that did not celebrate the church’s ideals of suffering and martyrdom.

  For the ancient Greeks the absurd was closer to the profound than the tragic was. This occupied his mind as Jamal looked down like the gods of Olympus.

  Below the railing of the spectator’s gallery, the squealing, teeming carnival of the wounded and the blinded statesmen, this circus of wailing, flailing, rich and powerful, these gore-choked, gasping clowns were the pinnacle of human folly. Hilariously, they hunched forward and tried to gather armfuls of their own burst, stinking intestines. Their pale hands held together the brains spilling from shattered skulls. These were the same pencil-pushing bureaucrats who’d voted moments before to send him and all of his friends to be similarly resolved.

  As Jamal picked off target after target, his every muzzle flash another old man, a thought flashed. The professor, Dr. Brolly, in Anthropology had explained a theory about pratfall humor. The gags wherein someone trips and falls suddenly. Those bits of clumsy physical comedy. According to anthropologists we laugh out of some prehistoric reflex.

  When primitive man was prey, when he and his tribe ran in terror from a saber-toothed tiger or whatever, the man who fell would be eaten. For everyone else, his death would occur as a huge relief. According to Brolly all humor arises from escaping death.

  For years Jamal had walked in constant terror. Before he was registered for . . . not the draft, he and his friends called it registering for the death . . . before the idea of another world war had ever appeared on the horizon . . . he’d known he’d die young. Nerve gas-raped in battle.

  Instead, from today onward, he was the saber-toothed tiger.

  The pain in Bing’s trigger finger meant more to him than the bullet-shattered old men who crawled across the smeared marble floor below him. His rifle’s blast bothered him more than their screams. The recoil of the rifle butt against his shoulder hurt him more than shot-to-shit political Brahmins who tried to claw past each other for another moment of life.

  He and other members of his lineage stood in the gallery, a vantage point they’d occupied and filmed from for weeks. They knew every avenue of escape a target might take. They’d taken positions to shoot around any obstacle on the floor below.

  The screams made it easy. The screaming made Bing hate them more, if that was possible, these old ladies and old men who couldn’t tell the truth. Every st
atement they’d made was hedged and qualified and conditional. These screams constituted the first honest sound out of their mouths since adulthood.

  What a sight: Rich old men pounding and pushing, climbing over one another to find safety.

  They stampeded like panicked fat cats. Wrestled, piling themselves against locked exit doors. They huddled and wept beneath desks. For helmets they opened thick volumes of law and held those books cupped over their heads. It helped for Bing to envision the mass round-up and culling of wild animals. A video had circulated between members of his tribe. It showed footage of dolphins corralled in nets and clubbed as the seawater itself foamed into a bloody froth. That slippery, squirming mass of the dead and dying, it was harder for Bing to watch the beautiful dolphins die than it was to see the suited statesmen die. On the Internet he’d watched wild rabbits stampeded into pens, great leaping waves of rabbits heaving in one direction, then another, as men waded among them and crushed their skulls with metal hammers. Bing had watched the videos of kangaroos and baby seals. The culling of legislators was nothing compared to the clubbing of tiny baby harp seals.

  The recoil of the rifle butt ramming his shoulder, that pain stoked Bing’s anger and made him take aim at every sign of movement in the chamber below.

  With the blessing of the police these skirmishes took place. For the police had already been sacrificed for political correctness. And the mass extermination of the young was prevented by forfeiting a comparatively tiny number of those already near death, who’d already raised their children and been feted.

  The courtroom, the assembly chambers and on-location newscasts, the lecture halls, they stunk of gun smoke and spilled shit.

  Not until the snipers gave the go-ahead did the harvesters venture among the dead. Here a seemingly dead body screamed at the knifepoint and a target was found to be playing opossum. Here Bing was summoned to come down from the gallery, and the target shrieked so cowardly that it was a pleasure to see him dead.

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