Adjustment day, p.14
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       Adjustment Day, p.14

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Adjustment Day is not about vengeance. The hunter does not hate the elk. He holds great respect for his prey, but the hunter knows the animal must die for his own survival.

  It struck Dawson as a shame. Looking at her, destitute like this, grit crusted around her cracked nostrils and caked in the corners of her mouth, her neck festering with mosquito bites and raw scratch marks, hidden under her unwashed stench and her claptrap political ideology he could tell she had once been a pretty fine-looking young lady.

  She twisted her neck to look back over one shoulder. Squinting, her eyes searched the horizon for pursuers. To no one in particular, she said, “It wasn’t some run-of-the-mill panty raid . . .” Hoarse with misery, her voice was barely audible. “They had guns.” The squads had left her alive, she said, and they’d ordered her to haul her dead coworkers to the burial pits. “My entire staff . . .”

  Not a heartbeat later, her knees buckled and she dropped from squatting to kneeling defeated in the sharp gravel. With her head bowed, her hair dangled to hide her face. A human sacrifice. She’d dug a linoleum knife out of his tool box and offered it. “Take it,” she said. “I’m begging.” Her other hand drew the fried hair back to uncover her ear. “Cut it off, but take me to the border, please . . .” She knelt there in the dust as if too tired to run any farther. If he didn’t target her, someone else would.

  Torture or not, she wanted him to report her as dead. He’d pocket the votes, and she’d escape into Canada. What was left of her. It looked like a win-win.

  Again Dawson snapped his fingers, but this time he pointed at the socket he wanted. The first bounty hunter was liable to catch up soon. “Samantha?” he said.

  “Ramantha,” she said, correcting him. She had that much pride left. She set aside the knife and retrieved the socket. She seemed to get the message.

  Nobody was getting carved up, and nobody was going anywhere until he could get this driveline attached.

  A regular notebook hadn’t worked. In a world before The List . . . the world you think is so stable . . . Walter hadn’t been able to write that fast. No one could’ve, not as fast as Talbott Reynolds had talked, crazed as he’d been. Giddy with blood loss from the razor nicks and diggings that had kept leaking blood, his head had lolled, and his eyelids had fluttered, woozy with the ecstasy of his pain. Still naked and strapped to a chair that stood in the puddle of the great man’s own sweat and piss and blood, long strings of spit had looped from the corners of his mouth as he raved. A jabbering cadaver. An oracle delirious on an overdose of endorphins.

  A notebook hadn’t worked so Walter had traded it for a laptop computer. His fingers racing to keep abreast of Talbott’s words. How this was going to make his fortune so he could propose to Shasta, Walter had no idea.

  As he tapped the keys his fingertips left red fingerprints. Leaving the keyboard sticky. Spirals and whorls of Talbott’s blood.

  Talbott dictated, “The homosexual will always be an engine of wealth production because he does not suffer the expense of raising his own children.” He paused to watch Walter. To be certain his words were not wasted. “The next generation of homosexuals,” he continued, “is always borne and raised by heterosexuals before leaving to join its brethren. Thus the industry of the adult homosexual may accumulate while the industry of heterosexuals is siphoned away for childrearing costs, which ultimately benefit the homosexual community.”

  Walter completed the passage, repeating aloud, “Homosexual community,” to indicate he’d caught up.

  “Plus the time of the homosexual,” Talbott lectured, “is not frittered away in child production and may be allocated to improving his skill set or simply laboring longer hours without the cost of neglecting a family . . .”

  Walter keyboarded, echoing the final words aloud, “. . . the homosexual state will always enjoy a cost-free influx of new citizens.”

  To date, the rich man had advised Walter to present a pattern and allow other men to fulfill it. Walter was to set in motion a machine that no one would be able to stop. A machine that would run itself. That even Walter would not be able to stop.

  How this would make him rich, Walter hadn’t the foggiest. Like most writers he’d been too busy typing to think.

  “In order to preserve the integrity of mutually exclusive hetero- and homosexual nation states,” Talbott continued, “the heterosexual children born to lesbians and the homosexuals born to heterosexuals must be swapped . . .”

  Walter completed the sentence aloud, “. . . in equal numbers.”

  Talbott had gasped. His mutilated torso had twisted against his bonds. “If an unequal number of persons must be exchanged . . .”

  Speaking the words as he typed them, Walter had said, “. . . then a dowry or ransom will be paid to compensate the parents not receiving a child.”

  So it had gone, day after day. The old man had spewed words and Walter had faithfully collected them. The only other task, the only tangible task that Talbott had ordered him to carry out, was to build a website. Whenever the man had slept Walter had tinkered with the site, and it was almost complete.

  Apropos of nothing, as if in a moment of delirium, the old man had fixed Walter with a manic grin and shouted, “A smile is your best bulletproof vest!”

  Gibberish or not, Walter keyed the words into his document. Trusting, always faithful that the ramblings of this old coot were going somewhere. That he wasn’t wasting his life documenting the dying words of a lunatic.

  The website, for instance, the one Talbott had told him to build, it hardly seemed like a high-tech moneymaker.

  It still hadn’t launched, not yet. But Walter had built it exactly according to Talbott’s instructions, right down to the stupid name. A nothing name. Nothing clever. This yammering, grimacing, demented old man had demanded the site be called simply The List.

  The post office clerk reached under her side of the counter and retrieved a form. Form Number 346, Application for Resettlement in Appropriate Homeland. As she handed the paper across the counter to Gavyn, she smiled, licking her lips, and said, “Funny, but you don’t look black.”

  Gavyn took the form, saying, “I’m not.”

  Her eyes lingered over his hair, such red hair, his wide jaw line, his broad chest, and she sighed. “What a crying shame.”

  What could he say? He’d done nothing wrong. He was simply following the new law. Gavyn told her thanks and took the form to a counter under the windows where he could fill it out. People stood in line waiting to mail packages. People waited to exchange small amounts of their old money for the new perishable skins money.

  The first line of the form asked for his name. Gavyn Baker McInnes, he wrote.

  He filled in his place of residence. His current homeland. His parents’ names.

  Under age, he wrote eighteen.

  At Work Skills, he hesitated. He was an expert at many things, none of which he could enter on any official government form.

  Under Highest Level of Education Attained, he wrote that he’d graduated from high school and gave the date. It had been yesterday.

  Before Adjustment Day, before any talk of homelands and relocating populations accordingly, back in ninth grade Gavyn had learned a thing or two. For instance, he knew that teachers teach a lot of stuff, but only what they want a kid to know. The important things, he’d had to discover on his own.

  He’d listened as his teacher, a woman who’d never been beyond North America, explained the whole of Europe and Asia. Gavyn had taken notes as another teacher, who’d never written so much as a short story, dissected Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Donne. When he echoed back their pale misconceptions they praised him and pronounced him smart. Smart, yes, smart enough to know he still understood nothing and that his teachers were idiots. Nothing except his own hunt in the real world would ever educate him.

  Under Reason for Relocation, again he hesitated.

  Gavyn craved a happiness that would make his parents vomit to witness. He yearned for a l
ove that would completely destroy their love for him. His life was an either/or proposition. He’d someday have to choose between his own happiness and theirs.

  Under Criminal Record, he lied and wrote, “None.” Officially that was true. He didn’t want his relocation to be nixed for any reason.

  He wondered what it felt like to wipe away someone’s life to make room for your own. He’d trained himself not to want anything. Christmas and birthdays were the worst, occasions built around the wanting of things. When his parents had asked him to write his list for Santa Claus, Gavyn had had to consult his classmates. As if he were conducting an anthropological study, he’d survey boys about what would make them happy. Lego sets or Nintendo, whatever got the most votes, that’s what he’d pretend to want. Unwrapping it, he’d have to pretend his delight. He couldn’t allow himself to consider what he really wanted.

  The next question asked: Have you sought professional mental health counseling?

  He’d begun his secret life by shoplifting clothes. He’d walk through Sears and try on shirts, walking out wearing a new shirt underneath his old shirt. A coat underneath his coat. After Sears, he’d hit JC Penney or Nordstrom. He could never explain a shopping bag filled with leather jackets to his mother. The solution was to take his loot to the mall office and relinquish it at the Lost and Found, always filling out a card with his name and contact information. After three weeks, when no one appeared to claim these items no one had actually lost, the mall would phone to say they were his. Problem solved.

  It was the perfect laundering scheme. But it couldn’t keep pace with his stealing. The mall staff and his parents would only accept him discovering so many windfall bags of designer shoes and belts. Everything always his exact size. He was immensely proud of his skill at something he could never share with his parents.

  Besides, owning the clothes wasn’t the point. The joy was in finding the item and stalking it. Circling it. Waiting in a lustful trance. Ready to pounce. In the clutches of some impulse he couldn’t control, he bided his time. Often the shirt wasn’t anything he’d ever wear. He might even hate it, but again, the excitement wasn’t about owning it forever.

  If anything, owning the shirt or the jeans filled him with shame. They served as reminders of his werewolf side and how easily he could throw away his law-abiding life. To that end, Gavyn had begun to burn the plunder in the family’s basement fireplace. On afternoons when his parents were still at work he’d hold a shirt at arm’s length and play the flame of a match along the lurid paisley cloth. Burning the clothes was almost as enjoyable as stealing them. He’d lay flaming pants across the andirons and keep adding shirts and sweaters until they, all of them, were reduced to powdery gray ash.

  His downfall had been a leather bomber jacket. Red leather. Oxblood. The satin lining had burned as had the knitted collar and cuffs, but the leather itself had given off black, stinking smoke, the smell of a strand of hair held in a candle flame. He’d been frantically fanning the smoldering pile when his mother had walked into the basement game room.

  He told her everything. Okay, half of everything. The half he thought he understood. The shoplifting part. And she asked if he’d agree to see a counselor.

  Enter Dr. Ashanti. Tuesday afternoons Gavyn took a bus to the basement office, downtown, part of the county’s mental health services program. Payment was according to a sliding scale, but it still meant his mother had to pick up extra hours at work. He’d sit in the waiting room with other pimply boys his own age. Some accompanied by parents, most not.

  For one hour every Tuesday, Gavyn sat listening as Dr. Ashanti explained that shoplifting was a pre-sexual impulse. Textbook words. In stalking clothes, Gavyn was practicing the skills of seduction. Followed by acquisition. Ending in divestiture of the desired object. It made sense.

  What Gavyn should do with this impulse was another matter.

  There in the basement office, the walls covered in corkboard squares, pushpins holding the corners of posters showing sail boats canted dramatically above captions like “Find the Wind That’s Going Where You Want to Be,” Gavyn eventually broke. He was slumped in a beanbag chair. The doctor sat in a swivel chair pulled away from his desk.

  Gavyn was looking at a sand candle on the desk. He couldn’t look at anyone’s face when he finally said it. “I think I’m gay.” In a whisper, in case the waiting-room kids could hear.

  Ashanti’s response was instant. “No,” he shook his head, “you’re not.”

  Stunned, Gavyn couldn’t think of a rebuttal. The denial didn’t resolve anything. Gavyn risked a look at him.

  The doctor had steepled his fingertips together. “After talking to you so regularly, I can safely say this is a phase.” He shut his eyes and snorted softly as if amused.

  At the same time, Gavyn felt grateful and enraged. The one fear central to his self-identity, it was being flat-out denied.

  Ashanti spoke with the certainty of a faith healer. “You’re not homosexual.”

  All the extra hours his mother had worked. After all the money she’d paid to help resolve this crisis, the doctor was going to deny any issue existed. The money and time would be wasted, and Gavyn would be back at square one.

  Dr. Ashanti glanced at the clock on his desk. The session still had twenty minutes remaining. “Don’t you feel better?” he asked. His smug smirk and arched eyebrow seemed mocking.

  Gavyn did not feel better. What happened next was less sex than it was a political act. Gavyn was taking part in a game of chicken. He slowly rolled himself out of the beanbag chair and made his way across the carpet. Ashanti didn’t stop him. Not even when Gavyn knelt between his legs and found the man already erect. Gavyn undid the belt, the top button, and pulled down the zipper carefully, stealthily, as if his plan was simply to steal the man’s pants.

  Gavyn smirked. Ashanti’s face had gone slack, his breathing shallow. His eyes met Gavyn’s even as the high school freshman squeezed a fist around the erection that was like a third person in the room and slid back the foreskin to reveal its leaky purple mushroom. Gavyn closed his mouth around it and didn’t flinch when the first jet of raw egg white, that hot syrup of sour cream, salt, and onions hit the back of his throat. Another surge splashed up into his sinuses and bubbled out his nostril.

  He was no longer a virgin, at least not his throat. This felt less like a sexual act than like someone with a bad sinus infection had sneezed in his mouth.

  He’d made the doctor wrong. Gavyn had proved he was smarter. He at least knew himself. The clock showed that eleven minutes remained in the session.

  The doctor panted, boneless in his chair. Brown moles spotted his scrotum in profusion and wiry gray pubic hair exploded from around the base of his limp penis. His untucked dress shirt stretched to cover his round belly, and from this low angle the loose skin of his neck was gathered into a single fold that looked like a shaved vagina just above the knot of his tie.

  As unappealing as the man looked, he was still Gavyn’s first, and Gavyn knew he would always remember this moment. Victory or not, it felt more exciting than shoplifting, but only marginally.

  In the weeks to come, his mother’s extra work and money would be paying for something different. Tuesdays, Dr. Ashanti would vehemently deny Gavyn’s preference and Gavyn would prove him wrong. Learning to vary the experience, pace it, plot it like a thrilling movie, and finally bring things to a climax within scant seconds of the session’s end time.

  Once more Gavyn grew to be an expert at a skill he could never share with his parents.

  When he first heard about The List, he’d gone online and posted the name Dr. Anthony Ashanti. It seemed like a safe way to channel his hate. Everyone assumed the list was a joke.

  When within a few hours seventeen hundred people had posted their votes to the name, Gavyn’s eyes were opened. He began to grasp the man’s patient load and the secret history of his long career. The waiting room outside his office filled with brooding teenagers suddenly too
k on a new meaning. A harem. There was no overestimating Ashanti’s stamina.

  Ashanti, apparently, had put the rapist in therapist.

  Gavyn had long stopped his course of treatment by the time Adjustment Day resolved the doctor’s life.

  Under counseling, he wrote, “None.”

  The alley in back of First Methodist was crowded with tweakers. Everyone waiting for the doors to unlock and the regular meeting. People amped about getting glassed. Nick scoped out a talky kid and asked if he had any Vitamin V to sell.

  “Shit was for real,” marveled the kid, scratching and dancing.

  Everyone knew someone from recovery who’d been a gunman.

  “Dude tried to recruit me,” another swore morosely. “Wish I’d listened. I’d be rich.”

  Nick countered, “I just need some Vitamin H.”

  The kid countered, “You got the new money?”

  Nick knew what he meant; but, no, he didn’t have any.

  The church doors didn’t unlock.

  People were hungry. Drinking water was getting scarce. The social order was in chaos with no gasoline, and electricity browning out, people robbing people of their food, and whispers of people eating cats and dogs, and even people eating people. But Nick knew the magic bullet to make all this ape-shit disaster movie agony instantly A-Okay was a fat baggie of hydrocodone. Given a year’s supply of Vicodin he needn’t sweat finding food or a place to shit. He could ride out the misery.

  The talky kid, him and all the tweakers, were dispersing. A few obviously headed for the next meeting, to see if they’d open the doors at Ecumenical Ministries. Walking his way was a guy with a dog, a black guy holding a dog by a leash with one hand and carrying a big blue-black book in his other. White fur covered the dog except a black spot around one eye, a pit mix sort of dog. From talking distance the guy said, “Nick.”

  Nick asked, “You holding?”

  The guy shook his head and smiled. “Forget that shit.” His name was Jamal, a regular at this meeting until he’d dropped out a couple months back. Everyone thought he was dead, but here he was. Jamal reached into one back pocket and brought out a handful of something. Like playing cards. Like a weirdly colored deck of cards. He offered the stack, saying, “Take these, I got plenty. But you need to spend them within a couple of weeks, okay?”

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