Adjustment day, p.16
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       Adjustment Day, p.16

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Despite the evidence of her eyes and ears, the Peabody Plantation remained her property and her home. And before her clan owned it, the land had belonged to the Muscogee Creek and Yamacraw tribes. No gerrymandering tomfoolery would change matters.

  Here she had stature. If she allowed herself to be uprooted and carted northward or out west, why, she’d be reduced to nothing more than a garden variety old lady, a spinster in possession of thirty-six full place settings of Crown Darby.

  Some trees were too old and particular to tolerate transplanting. Lest Arabella and the others forget, Miss Josephine was the soul of the plantation. No one but her knew the idiosyncrasies of the well pump or how to drain the cistern. Only she knew the rotation of sorghum versus tobacco. Why, without her expertise the oil burner and the furnace fan would burn down the house within a year’s time. Just let them, Arabella and her man, Lewis, and their boys, Chester and Lewis Jr., and their girl, little Luray, let them see. Let them try and run the place without her say-so.

  Such knowledge was part and parcel her province and hers alone. To that effect they agreed it only fitting she take up residence in the attic of the main house, a narrow suite of dusty rooms, hardly space sufficient to contain the family treasures she insisted follow her into hiding. The tureens and swords, the oil paintings of Daddy and his people. But the attic would suffice only until such time that this moment’s political madness should come to a cessation. At that point she would be reinstated as mistress with full reign.

  Mornings, when Arabella brought up her tray, Miss Josephine asked, “Did you call around to the Ives and the Caldwells like I asked?”

  Arabella left the tray and went to making the bed. “I called,” she said, “but wasn’t nobody left. They relocated.”

  If Arabella was to be believed anymore, every family of European descent had decamped Georgia.

  When it came to stubborn, Miss Josephine could teach a mule a thing or two. She, herself, would not be so easily dislodged.

  Lest anyone get other ideas, she crept out nights. Once the household was abed, she tiptoed her way down the attic stairs, tracing the backstairs to the kitchen. Nights she might make it her foray to loosen the pressure screw on the propane line, a defect only she knew how to repair. Other nights she’d bleed air into the water main until the pump lost its prime. This mischief amounted to not so much sabotage as merely gentle reminders that her mind was the mind of the home place. The anchorite and soul of the house. She alone could perform the secret rituals to restart the reverse osmosis filters; otherwise the house water was undrinkable.

  Regardless of the Martin Luther Kingdom these people wanted to impose on Georgia, the plantation remained a money-making concern, and she was key to keeping it profitable.

  Always on television and the radio was that man. Talbott whoever, preaching:

  Allow each culture its own courts of law. Allow each to evolve in isolation. For too long the differing strains of mankind have been blended into an increasingly blander pool. A culture of shared mediocrity that only serves as a broader field of consumers receptive to the same generic advertising and thus steered to desiring large amounts of a narrow spectrum of products. Cultures developed over millennia in relative isolation, in climates and conditions that prompted each to create its own imagery and rituals, all of these are being displaced by the global standard. To preserve the integrity of each, the cultures must be allotted living space away from the influence of other cultures.

  Egged on by some misguided effort to be helpful, Arabella’s man tromped up the attic stairs one afternoon to fetch her a book. Lewis offered it in both hands, saying, “Here’s the way things are.” When she wouldn’t accept the gift, he placed it on the table beside her chair, and he took his leave.

  It amounted to a large blue-black volume supposedly penned by that man Talbott. The television man. A hodgepodge of half-baked observations concerning the obvious, it was. Page after page of, for example:

  In-group crimes may only be dealt with within the same group. Gays decimate their own kind in huge numbers with disease. Blacks annihilate blacks in violent crimes. Whites would appear to be less a danger to fellow whites until we consider World War II, World War I, the American Civil War, the One Hundred Years War, etc. Therefore, the crimes of each group must be judged only by members within that group.

  To a learned personage such as herself, this was clearly the work of the Jew, the Jew in league with the Papist, both parties attempting to agitate the preexisting negro situation and dispossess the region’s Scots-Irish of their ancient birthright. The land had been a wilderness until the arrival of her ancestors, and it would revert to the same without them. Let Arabella and her people try and run the place without her. None but she could comprehend why certain sumps and hollows held water whole summers while others went dry.

  That night, she tiptoed down to the cellar and loosened the lid on every other jar of preserves so the contents would spoil.

  The morning that followed, Arabella brought up the breakfast tray and set it on the drinks table in front of the settee. She shook out the folded napkin and spread it over Miss Josephine’s lap, saying, “The new law says you’ll be rightly compensated . . .” Arabella poured the coffee and moved it within reach. She added, “It’s not healthy, you alone in this attic day and night.”

  Miss Josephine would not budge. It went without saying that should she depart on foot or in a box, the land would wither, thank you very much.

  Arabella surveyed her with soulful eyes. She’d been born and bred on the place. No doubt she looked to take over as the new mistress. Miss Josephine dismissed her with a curt, “Thank you, that will be all.” Alone, she couldn’t bring herself to eat. A thought haunted her: What if Arabella and her people sought to poison her? Who would know? Not the neighbors. The old families had relocated. To poison her and bury her . . . worse, feed her body to the hogs. That would be the perfect demise.

  But how to defend herself? How could she prove herself so necessary that folks would continue to feed and look after her?

  The next day, Arabella brought her breakfast tray and took the warming cover off the eggs. Pouring the coffee she said, “You should be glad it’s not the homosexuals getting this place.” As Arabella explained it, the state of California had been set aside to create a homeland for male and female sodomites. Arabella sighed and winced at the very idea.

  The sordid details of this, Miss Josephine had no desire to know. But Arabella persisted, saying, “Folks should reside among their own kind . . . that’s the idea.” She watched as if waiting for a reaction. A corner of her mouth twitched. “Miss Josephine, you’ve got to appreciate that and move forward with your life.”

  Hiding her malice, Miss Josephine gave the woman a bright smile. “That will be all, Arabella.”

  Soon as she was alone, just as she had the day prior, she cut the eggs, fried ham steak, and toast into bite-sized pieces. Following that she carried the plate into the tiny attic bathroom and flushed the meal down the commode.

  By nightfall she was ravenous. Her wheelchair had always been more of a convenience than a necessity, and after midnight she crept down to the kitchen and filled a shopping bag with as much canned tuna fish—awful stuff—canned milk, and Saltines as she could carry back upstairs.

  If Arabella ever took note of the missing items she never mentioned it. Every morning she brought up the tray, and every afternoon she brought up supper. Every bite of which Miss Josephine put down the commode.

  History books were filled with similar stories of the right-minded who went into hiding until the storm of tyranny had passed. Those individuals trapped by evil ideologies. Why, the nation of Israel had practically been founded on the diary of one, a sweet persecuted girl who’d sought refuge in just such an attic apartment!

  Lord, no, Miss Josephine would not be run off. Hers was still the nation of Thomas Jefferson and her daddy, God rest his soul, and theirs were the Christian ideals for her to uphold. Why,
if you asked her daddy it hadn’t been until the 1890s and the flood of immigrants from the Baltic region that conditions had destabilized. In 1890 the nation had fewer than a half million Jews. By 1920 it had millions.

  Nights, if it was raining, she’d venture out to spread rock salt in the garden. Or she’d sit in the dark and eat her purloined tuna fish. Reading the blue-black book. The last book she’d read in its entirety had been To Kill a Mockingbird, and that had been mistake enough for her, thank you. Who was this Mr. Talbott to go against her? No amount of political voodoo or civil-rights mumbo jumbo would persuade her.

  Days, Lewis would tromp up the stairs to complain. He’d fret how the cellar stunk and was full of flies and the septic pump had quit on him. The garden had wilted and died almost overnight so now everything needed to be bought at the Piggly Wiggly. He showed her something like playing cards. Plastic cards colored red and yellow.

  “It’s the new money,” he told her, “but it don’t last.” He described how folks had to work all the time because the money couldn’t be saved. “Any money we earn we need to spend before it disappears.”

  If the coast was clear, Miss Josephine would accompany him downstairs and out back to the barn. There, she’d ask him to fetch this or that tool to be rid of him while she replaced a widget she’d stolen from the thresher or the tractor some nights before. He’d marvel as she brought each piece of machinery back to life.

  One night she sat reading the Talbott book. Having flushed her dinner of pork side meat and wild rice. Eating Saltines and drinking tap water, she came across the line:

  A bounty should be paid for information regarding any person living outside his appropriate homeland.

  Not waiting to read another word, she snuck down and disabled the kitchen stove. She jimmied the gate on the hen house.

  Morning brought Arabella with the breakfast tray and the news that they had no eggs on account of raccoons having killed every last hen. There was no bacon or oatmeal because the stove had quit on them. What she brought instead was toast with peanut butter. Miss Josephine put this, too, down the commode.

  The next night she decommissioned the toaster.

  She took the sheet-metal back off the clothes washer and stole out a gadget.

  She disabled the television and the kitchen radio, hobbled the dishwasher.

  Always preying upon her, eating at her was the fear that Arabella and Lewis might betray her for reward money. She needed to be more valuable to them than any bounty, more valuable alive than poisoned.

  At Arabella’s request she ventured forth the next day to tinker with the stove. She sent the woman to search for a screwdriver while she reattached the wire she’d loosened in the toaster.

  “I see you fixed it,” Arabella said, not smiling with the usual relief, her arms folded across her chest. With the day’s plague of troubles banished, the woman gave Miss Josephine a lengthy half-eyed stare. She set the screwdriver on the kitchen table and said, “Funny ain’t it, how things just bust.” Her stare not letting up, she said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think we had a gremlin.”

  Miss Josephine pooh-poohed the idea. She laughed that Arabella and her people blamed everything on haunts.

  Arabella didn’t share the laugh. “You ailing?” she asked, something in her voice, not a helpful concern but a prying.

  Miss Josephine made as if she hadn’t heard.

  “I only ask,” the house servant said, “because the other day I heard your toilet, must’ve flushed fifteen, twenty times in a row.”

  Hearing that, Josephine resolved not to flush in the daytime. She could hold the day’s food, set it aside in her sewing basket, and flush it late at night after Arabella and her man Lewis had retired to their own little house. She laughed and picked up the screwdriver off the table and began to totter off.

  Behind her Arabella asked, “Where you headed?”

  Not bothering to hide her annoyance, Miss Josephine answered, “To fix the washer.” She gasped as if to suck the words back. Her mouth froze open.

  At first, Arabella said nothing. Her not-talking filled up the kitchen. With elaborate slowness, in low-slung tones she asked, “The washer’s broke?” A big, broad victory hung in her voice.

  Miss Josephine turned to face her. She laughed to shake off the mood, saying, “Isn’t it?”

  Arabella said, “Search me.” She sucked her teeth and cocked her head as if to study the old woman from a fresh angle.

  Miss Josephine felt her cheeks burn. She let her eyes drift and shook her head as if stymied by the younger woman’s forgetfulness. The stolen gadget hung heavy in the pocket of her housecoat. The screwdriver dropped from her hand and clattered on the linoleum floor.

  Nick, Nick was smart, not book smart per se, but his parents’ house used to get tagged by graffiti punks. No sooner than Nick’s dad had the latest tag painted over or scrubbed away, but another late-night vandal would throw up some new masterpiece. Instead of installing a camera and trying to get the city to pay attention to the problem, Nick actually solved it.

  One night, between taggers, he went out with his own can of spray paint. All down two sides of the house he wrote swastikas as tall as he could reach. He sprayed the words “Kill Queers” and “Niggers Suck.” The whole job took less than a can of paint. Not that Nick was a Nazi, he just had a plan.

  He went to bed. He didn’t tell his father or mother.

  The next morning their doorbell rang. A television crew was outside. The street was crowded with people taking pictures. His parents were confused and angry, but he could tell they didn’t mind the sympathy. After being ignored for so long, dealing with the graffiti alone, they were glad that the problem now belonged to the entire city. The mayor of Portland called a press conference to condemn hate speech, and extra police patrols were added. No tagger punks would dare touch their house in the future and risk being accused of this hate mess. The media lauded his parents as brave, long-suffering heroes. And Nick never told them.

  That’s the kind of smart Nick was.

  After the household was abed, Miss Josephine soundlessly descended the attic stairs. She needed no light. Every squeaky floorboard was an old friend. No shadow held any surprise for her to stumble over. Fifty-seven steps led down to the narrow kitchen door. She held one palm flat against it, pushing softly so the latch would not clack as her other hand turned the knob.

  The door wouldn’t budge. The knob turned, but something kept her from pushing it open. She braced the satin shoulder of her dressing gown against the wood and planted her bare feet a mite wider. Miss Josephine bore into the door with all of her weight until the old wood barked out a cracking sound. It was locked. The hinge pins, located on the outside.

  Voices whispered in the breathing of the kitchen air conditioner. She fancied she could hear the measured heartbeat of the clock in the front hallway, but she wouldn’t swear that what she actually heard wasn’t her lifelong memory of hearing that clock. In the dark she heard people talking who’d been dead since she was a girl.

  She lowered herself carefully until she sat on the lowest step, hugged her knees to her chest, and listened for anything, and when the first birds signaled the sunrise she retraced her footsteps back to bed.

  Back in Before Times, Walter had closed his eyes to see better with his fingertips. His fingers had tapped and stabbed at the keys of his laptop. His fingers had danced out the words as Talbott spoke them.

  A bounty would be paid for photographic evidence of anyone in public not carrying a copy of the Talbott book.

  Talbott had dictated and Walter had written:

  A bounty would be paid for proof of any individual faking a disability.

  The old man had decreed:

  A bounty would be paid for information regarding any person living outside his appropriate homeland.

  The website Walter had launched at Talbott’s instruction was already proving to be a success. America’s Least Wanted. People were logging on and regis
tering the names of politicians, academics, and journalists. Hundreds of names. The registered names were racking up votes. Millions of votes. How this would make him rich, Walter couldn’t begin to guess. He was an apprentice who couldn’t yet see the big picture. He simply took notes as his new old man rambled on.

  According to Talbott Reynolds the nation needed an aristocracy. The kings of Europe and Asia hadn’t been voted into power. They’d spilled blood, and whoever spilled the most blood gained the most power. The Queen of England and the kings of Sweden and Spain stood atop a mountain of butchered men. Strapped to his chair, shellacked in a few drops of blood leaked from each of a double hundred small incisions, he ranted, “Why wait tables when a hail of bullets will be your coronation?”

  Democracy was a short-lived aberration. He’d insisted that America needed a ruling class of men who’d seize power the way men had always seized power. Men who take action will become this new royalty. Learning a trade was fine. College wasn’t for every man. But thirty years into framing houses or wiring buildings and what will become of your body? Once a man’s knees or his back age, how will he earn his livelihood? Adjustment Day was about men joining forces.

  Walter had looked up from his typing. “So this is like Fight Club?”

  His new old man had shaken his head. He’d asked, “Are you referring to the novel?”

  “What novel?” had asked Walter. His fingers poised above the keyboard.

  Talbott had smirked. “Hardly.” He’d said, “Fight Club was about empowering each man through a series of exercises.” His ghastly face shined with its coating of blood. “Fight Club taught each man that he had capacity beyond his greatest concept of himself. Then, it set each man free to fulfill his destiny: to build a house, to write a book, to paint a self-portrait.”

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