Adjustment day, p.18
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       Adjustment Day, p.18

           Chuck Palahniuk

  On an impulse, Walter had entered the name of his least favorite professor. The man had failed him for refusing to accept every lecture as gospel. Walter had typed the name Dr. Emmet Brolly and hit Enter to post it. The list had automatically scrolled to show where the name occurred in the alphabetical order, sandwiched between a state senator and a cable news anchor.

  Even as he’d watched, a single vote appeared beside Brolly’s name. A two replaced the one. A three replaced the two.

  No parents ever named their child Delicious Bastille. That’s the name she chose for her immigration papers. A new homeland, a new name. Beginning on Adjustment Day, every emigrant took advantage of a fresh start. Aristides and Aristotles. Baccarats and Beauregards. And Delicious, who without question should not have worn buttermilk-yellow crepe muslin, not if she’d suspected it would rain, donning a skintight dress without a coat or wrap. No amount of elastic and underwire could improve upon the eye-popping curves of her body so she did without. Halfway from where she’d parked, the skies had opened up, every drop painting the pale fabric to her until the dress hid no more of her mocha skin than would a layer of melted butter.

  Every lesbian eye snuck peeks at her. At the swelling breasts that seemed to lunge up, up, and away from Delicious Bastille’s chest. The nipples, two obvious purple bull’s-eyes beneath her clinging bodice. Strangers eye-raped the taut muscles of her tawny thighs, the savory cleft of her ample buttocks, all so clearly delineated through her rain-soaked skirt.

  Let them stare, she told herself. Their stares had prevented her from looking around the restaurant. If she’d met their leering eyes, she’d never be able to hide her frustration and rage.

  Here she sat, naked for all intents and purposes, picking half-heartedly at her salad. She kept her eyes fixed on only immediate objects: her glass of pinot noir, her bread plate, the single pink rose in the table’s center. She shut out the buzzing dining room filled with gays and lesbians. Except here, they weren’t gays and lesbians. In the complete absence of heterosexuals, the people seated at the tables around her amounted to mere men and women. Women and men.

  To help avoid so many eyes, she focused on her dinner companion. Across the table sat a woman sporting a wild blaze of red hair. The post-relocation name she went by was Ginger Prestige, and she was the latest of many blind dates arranged for Delicious by the women in the aerospace corporation. None of her coworkers seemed able to tolerate an unmarried female in their ranks, so they were forever throwing Delicious together with single women named Calyx or Esteem. Delicious suspected that a single gal was a threat in the paired-up, domesticated world of middle-aged women’s society.

  The redhead lifted long fingers to toy with a dangling curl beside her face. She met Delicious’s gaze and asked, “So you’re an aerospace engineer?”

  Delicious sipped from her glass of wine. She gave a modest nod.

  The woman, Ginger, looked sheepishly at Delicious’s transparent dress, which stretched taut to cover her tiny waist. The admiration shined in her blue eyes as she said, “What you’re doing is so heroic.”

  What she referred to was the mission to Mars—a tent pole, nationwide campaign to unite the fledgling homeland and claim, at least symbolically claim, the entire planet of Mars in the name of the Oscar Wilde set. Delicious was one of the homeland’s leading experts in rocketry, arguably the linchpin of the nation’s race to put same-sex-oriented astronauts on the red planet.

  Delicious had only taken a single sip of wine. To avoid temptation, she signaled for the waiter to take away her nearly full glass.

  Ginger’s long fingers and full lips invited fantasy. Delicious shuddered with a frisson of sensation as she imagined Ginger’s freckled-pink face at work between her own cocoa thighs. The brilliant aerospace engineer caught herself and shook off the appealing vision. She’d been alone too long, trying to remain faithful. The fantasy said less about Ginger’s sexiness than it did about how long Delicious had abstained from sex.

  Ginger waved for the waiter to refill her own glass, saying, “I’m drinking for two.” Of Delicious she asked, “What sign are you?”

  Delicious rearranged the napkin spread atop her little lap, saying, “Late May.”

  Ginger smiled. “A Gemini.”

  When Delicious failed to engage, the redhead asked, “So as an aerospace guru, what do you think of the whole flying pyramid thing?”

  Delicious had been celibate for five months. Twenty soul-crushing, lonely weeks had gone by since she’d entered this strange nation. She began fork-raping her salad greens in search of an artichoke heart. Lifting her eyes to request a glass of orange juice, another boring glass of orange juice when what she craved was a vodka martini, a vodka martini with three garlic-stuffed olives and a certain blond man’s massive, rock-hard erection bringing her to a toe-curling climax . . . when she glanced up for a waiter she saw the blond man.

  He sat in a narrow booth at the far edge of the room. A thin white man, skinny, with, at best, a tennis player’s build, but in actuality hardly more than skin and bone. She recognized his blond hair, cut longer now and combed in a boyish spray across his wide, ivory forehead. He sat sideways to her so Delicious could see his full profile. Across from him ate a heavily muscled giant, a black man barely contained in a too-tight jersey pullover. The giant’s jeans-clad legs were visible beneath the table, and Delicious watched as he wedged both meaty knees between the knees of the slender white man and slowly began forcing those boney knees apart.

  The slightly built man pulled away, but the confines of the booth didn’t allow room for him to fully escape contact, and Delicious watched as the predatory giant spread the unwilling man’s scrawny legs. Blushing, holding back tears of humiliation, the slender blond seemed to sense Delicious watching and turned to meet her gaze.

  She looked away. Her heart knocked against her ribs. Here a woman risked everything if she stared a moment too long at a man. She could be fired from her job, evicted from her home. The government could take custody of her children, and she’d be deported to a homeland, white or black, where no one thought it a perversion for women and men to be intimate.

  If the redhead had noticed, she said nothing. She sipped her wine and ruminated about the baby-making race. Every hour heterosexuals were creating homosexuals. The homosexuals could never keep pace. They’d never provide matching numbers of heterosexual children to exchange, and that meant a steady backlog of homosexual children trapped in heterosexual homelands. Her office with the government tracked the numbers, she explained. In an attempt to balance the books, they were proposing a cash equivalent be paid for children who couldn’t be traded for children. A kind of dowry would be paid to the heterosexual parents as compensation for their efforts and to help fund their old age. Called a “liberation fund,” it amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars, but the monies could be raised through donations.

  Delicious only half listened. It took every strength she possessed to not turn and look at the blond man. She sensed his eyes on her, on the soft curve of her breasts, and she gritted her teeth in her effort not to weep.

  As the palace of San Simeon is to its isolated stretch of California coastline so is Maryhill castle to the Pacific Northwest. Each is the steel-reinforced concrete legacy of a wealthy tycoon sheathed in Old World architectural details and furnished with the treasures bought at fire-sale prices from impoverished royal families. Both edifices stand atop heights, overlooking the dramatic landscape for miles. Each was nicknamed by its respective builder as “the Ranch.”

  All magnificence appears as folly at first. As the Eiffel Tower dared to rise above Paris in 1887, the French cultural maven Victor Hugo condemned it as a hideous oil derrick that would deface the city. Likewise, as the Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and sat through the Depression without tenants, the people of New York began to deride their new landmark as the “Empty State Building.” Time legitimizes the outrageous.

  Maryhill, that improbable Italia
n palazzo, is no less impressive than its California rival because of its grim situation. A desert surrounds it, little aside from barren, wind-scoured scablands. Ornate bronze grills wrought in some Renaissance style bar the windows, making it as much a prison as a fortress, for accumulated within are Slavic thrones and crowns, Tsarist portraits and priceless porcelain looted from the Orient. And it was in this ready-made kingdom that Charlie established his household. His income amounted to the only source of Talbott dollars in the region so the destitute from miles around presented themselves at his door. Hat in hand, each asked to be taken into his patronage. The most comely among them, Charlie accepted as team wives, with the marginally more attractive made to serve in his household while the lesser would labor as field wives. To a woman, they were all to wear rippable bodices, and the men were to wear kilts or trews as the weather did dictate.

  Charlie himself favored an overtunic densely embroidered in gold, worn to cover a linen shirt featuring commodious sleeves. Velvet-paned trunkhose adorned his lower limbs, the fabric made fast about his calves and ankles by a crisscrossing of leather thongs. For such a costume was in keeping with the nascent cultural identity of Caucasia.

  Among the long list of arduous tasks was the renaming of everything. For every mountain and watercourse need be rechristened in accord with the emergent society. In addition did Charlie order the erection of a stout stone brewhouse for the manufacture of mead. As he did summon the waters of the mighty Columbia River—from henceforth to be referred to as the “Charlie Bourne”—he decreed that waters enough be piped and compelled upland as to provide for the farming of expansive fields. A grand enterprise did Charlie undertake to found, his palace was quickly the center of expanses of curly endive giving way to great swaths of sugar beets, cilantro, and a surplus of rutabagas.

  In accord with the cultural values of Caucasia did common men roam the countryside attired in tunics and cassocks and capes, shod in boots or sandals dependent upon the season, while atop their heads sat headgear denoting their rank. Liveried were many in doublets featuring gored sleeves of flashing ruby-colored brocades. About their shoulders they carried the jewels plundered from no few museums and more, for pearls could be bought from the formerly well-off for the price of an egg, and gold had use to neither the starving nor the dead.

  So Charlie and his courtiers did squire and bind to themselves the youngest and most lovely whom could be flushed out. And by the wearing of such raiment did Charlie and his fellow chieftains of Caucasia rediscover their noble heritage. And trussed in Venetian breeches did they grip pewter flasks of hearty ale and clang those tankards together with boisterous toasts to one another. Busy were the home wives all, those multitudinous teams of wives, sewing sporrans.

  The challenge of proving himself a hero gave way to the business of managing domestic affairs, and Charlie was too busy to question whether or not he was ever satisfied. Yet even while he did gad about attired in tabards and brigandines, quilted gambesons, jerkins, and houppelandes, even then did an emptiness assail him. In response did Charlie appoint a Committee for the Revival of Proper Culture, which revived the minuet. Revived gallantry and courtier hand kissing. Instituted the mandatory practice of White-Speak. And furthermore to suffuse his realm with meaning did he reinstate the worship of Odin and Thor, and to that end did pioneer the building of an antique cathedral complete with flying buttresses and naves, but even as he knelt at the rail and partook of the newly invented ancient sacraments, even then did Charlie feel dissatisfied.

  Busy and fed were his subjects. They did consult neglected texts in search of recipes for dyes and patterns for the tatting of forgotten laces. And as tunics grew shorter, the boldest of their company donned codpieces of gilded leather encrusted with pearls. And in the vicinity of these codpieces were team wives always prepared to be interfered with. A swain might doff his Tudor cap or plumed tricorn, but the chivalry more oft ended there!

  This aforementioned emptiness put Charlie in mind of high school. He harkened back to English class and the study of Flaubert’s unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet. While his more-vibrant schoolmates cut capers and bandied about enticements to attain sexual ecstasy, boy Charlie had pored over the book, retaining its basic premise: Two clerks are bestowed a fortune and leave their normal lives in order to discover greater satisfaction in a more ennobling passion. The two tear through wine, art, horse racing, and find none sufficiently fulfilling. In the end they return to their former lives of number crunching and scribbling in ledgers.

  That parable now stuck in Charlie’s craw as if he were swallowing a peanut butter sandwich eaten too fast in too-big bites. Was it possible that he was incapable of savoring life as a potentate? Had he risen too far above his natural station as a lowly grease monkey of the shop floor?

  He’d heard tales of nascent rock musicians. Avant-garde figures cast from the same mold as Kurt Cobain, who, once they were rewarded with a fortune, bought the requisite manor house simply because it seemed the next rite of passage. Only for years after they’d occupy a single room of the same, often the smallest room, often only a large closet.

  Considering that precedent, Charlie resolved not to shrink from his destiny. But to gradually expand into his new role. And while the womenfolk of his household were compliant and privileged to bear his progeny, he needed one who could help shoulder the burden of his reign.

  It dawned upon him that his next challenge—perhaps his greatest challenge—would be to balance the inequity between the men and women of his lands. To that end would he track down and master an exceptional female for the purpose of grooming her to serve as a suitable public wife. Whereas the women did all of the stooped labor in the fields, and women kept tidy the chambers of his Maryhill palace, while menfolk did quaff lager and swagger about sowing the seeds of the next generation, if Charlie were to grant wealth and power to a single female, raising her to the status of deity, that act would counterbalance the low position of all her female underlings.

  The enzymes in Piper’s cells began their self-destruct process of autolysis, digesting the cellular walls and releasing the liquefied mess within. Bacteria present in his lungs, his mouth, sinuses, and digestive tract gorged themselves on this amber flood of amino acids. Flies found the eyes, the rectum, genitals, and nostrils and began to lay their eggs. Larvae hatched and burrowed beneath the skin to devour the layer of subcutaneous fat.

  The eyes collapsed.

  The intestines had already collapsed, effectively sealing themselves and trapping the gas produced by the bacteria in the digestive tract, and the belly began to bloat. Trapped bacteria swelled the face and genitals, swelling the tongue until it extended between the stretched and swollen lips. The penis expanded in a final mock erection, turgid with the byproducts of bacteria. The only sound was the noise of maggots devouring the face. A crackling sound. The exact same noise as studded snow tires make driving slowly over bare pavement.

  The abdominal wall ruptured, the gas vented, and the torso collapsed into a foul, spreading puddle. The bacteria in the mouth digested the palate and attacked the brain, which dissolved quickly, escaping from the ears. Meat-eating beetles, Anthrenus verbasci and Dermestes lardarius, arrived to feast on the muscles.

  Then possibly only the skin and bones remained. Most likely, the beetles resorted to eating the skin.

  All the while the television remained on. The same man being devoured by beetles, devoured by maggots, he looked out upon his mortal remains and said:

  The coward takes offense on behalf of others. Let each man take responsibility for only his own reaction.

  The maggots matured into flies and laid more eggs. And the handsome man on the television screen told the flies crawling over his skeleton:

  To make a career of rescuing people is also to create a permanent class in need of rescue.

  Flies lined the windows of the condominium. Dead flies covered the windowsills, and still more flies laid their eggs. Maggots and more maggots hatched
. And the man in his bespoke Savile Row suit told them:

  We must allow each individual to persevere or to perish as he chooses.

  Each new generation of flies laid its eggs and matured and died trying to reach the sunshine outside the closed windows until the subcutaneous fat was consumed and the last among the last generation of flies fell dead on the windowsill. Even then the man on the television, whose face might be that of a king or saint or president, he looked over the skull and bones on the floor beneath him and told it:

  A man is not going to get loved by being lovable.

  For emigration she’d chosen his name: Gentry Tate. He’d chosen Delicious Bastille for her. They’d toasted their new monikers with champagne, but not much because she’d desperately wanted to get pregnant. Hiding had kept them together, but any day the knock could come to their door.

  He’d be deported, relocated to the ethnic state for whites. She’d be held there, in the former state of Louisiana, renamed part of Blacktopia. If she bore a child it would be tested and assigned an appropriate homeland. They’d first planned to escape to Canada, but a million interracial couples had hatched the same idea. To stem the rush, Ottawa had closed the borders.

  Leaving them with one option if they wanted to remain together. Not together-together, not as man and wife, not even as friends or acquaintances who met occasionally in passing.

  No, passing as homosexuals was their only option. The queer nation admitted both blacks and whites, and no genetic testing could betray their actual sexualities. Not that the homosexuals didn’t foresee these attempts. Rumor had it that desperate mixed-race families were splitting apart temporarily and emigrating, then surreptitiously reuniting. Mexico had long ago stopped accepting refugees.

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