Adjustment day, p.22
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       Adjustment Day, p.22

           Chuck Palahniuk

  The suitcase filled, Charm said, “Don’t worry. It will be fun.” She said, “Who knows?” But it was only her mouth saying it.

  He caught sight of her in the mirror over his bureau. As his back was turned, she secretively lifted the beautiful orange-plaid shirt and tucked it beneath all the practical long-lasting denim and canvas. She closed the suitcase and zippered it shut.

  As the housekeeper coiled strands of hair into tight pin curls, Miss Josephine leaned forward over an open book. Heavy in her lap lay a fly-specked copy of Gone with the Wind, and as her eyes scanned Margaret Mitchell’s dialog, Miss Josephine’s lips silently mouthed the dialectic patois. Her lips stung as she pressed them with coarse grains of rock salt. Her lips stung and swelled until they’d begun to split and she could taste the blood mixed with salt on her tongue.

  On the surface of the vanity in front of her sat her dentures. The teeth almost glowed with coat upon coat of pearlized white fingernail polish. In the dark, total darkness, they would glow due to the phosphorescent dyes Miss Jo had added to the polish.

  Beyond the book, the image she saw in the mirror delighted her. Methoxsalen, like John Griffin used when writing Black Like Me, it had worked its magic. Just as it had for that Sprigle man, the reporter who’d taken massive doses of the drug in 1948 and toured the South to write his book In the Land of Jim Crow. Not to be outdone, the reporter Grace Halsell had gone blackface to write her own tome in 1969, Soul Sister. Nosy American newshounds were always blacking up and writing about their madcap adventures.

  Not that they’d invented the trick. Al Jolson in 1927. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll as Amos ’n’ Andy in 1928. Judy Garland as early as 1938’s Everybody Sing, then again with Mickey Rooney in 1941 for Babes on Broadway. All it took was thirty milligrams of methoxsalen, followed by time under a sunlamp. Even now ultraviolet lights shone on Miss Jo from each of several different angles, evenly exposing her bare arms, her legs, neck, and face as she perspired daintily in her lace chemise.,

  The side effects might include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, and nausea, but that hadn’t stopped the lovely Ava Gardner from playing a beautiful black siren in Show Boat. Nor had possible kidney damage dissuaded Jeanne Crain from becoming a pretty black girl child in 1949’s landmark film Pinky. As late as 1965, Laurence Olivier had risked his health to play the black Othello. Liver damage was a threat with methoxsalen, as was cancer. Even now Miss Josephine’s head swam. Her vision blurred. But these were a small price to pay for a miracle drug that allowed white people to become black people.

  Not that Arabella understood. The silly woman yanked on another strand of hair and twisted it around a bobby pin. Most of the hair lay tight against her scalp in similar little knots. For the next step, the housekeeper would apply the perm solution. She’d wait just a little too long before applying the stopping agent. She’d use pineapple juice because it offered the perfect acidity. By waiting a smidgen too long, they’d burn the hair a mite. After the pins were out, once Miss Jo fluffed the kinked, tightly curled hair, it would stand around her face like a lush onyx halo. Dyed of course.

  Between the pain of her hair being pulled at, and the queasiness in her tummy, her salted, swelled-up lips and her sweaty skin, Miss Jo struggled to pronounce the antiquated talk just as Mitchell had written it. The reflection that stared back from her vanity mirror hardly resembled Ava Gardner’s enchanting character Julie La Verne, but that newly minted person would be Miss Jo’s escape from the strain of her current tenuous circumstance.

  Exactly as Talbott Reynolds had asked, Walter had launched the list online. First, people had joked about it. No, first they’d ignored it. Only after they’d noticed, then they’d ridiculed the site. Once it had garnered a few million postings, some people had taken offense and demanded it be banned. These had been mostly the people whose names drew the most votes, the politicians and academics and media celebrities. Walter had sat in the basement of the abandoned house and refreshed his screen every hour, and marveled at the response.

  He’d asked Talbott, “How do we monetize?” He’d had in mind buying houses, the big scheme he’d dreamt up to seduce Shasta.

  Talbott, as always tied to a chair, Talbott woozy with blood loss and dappled with scabs and razorblade scars, he’d said, “Write down these names . . .” As his infected cuts drained, he’d proceeded to rattle off a dozen names that Walter had hurriedly scribbled on his pad. “Search online,” Talbott had commanded. “Contact each man.”

  Walter perused the list. “This will make me rich?”

  Feverish, glassy eyed, Walter’s new old man had asked, “You? I should make you rich?”

  Walter had hit Refresh and tried to hide his annoyance. He’d considered adding Talbott’s name to the list. Now he’d have to hunt down these dozen men and most likely contact them. Lately, Talbott had seemed to be baiting him. This entire scheme might’ve been the old man’s snipe hunt.

  The old man had rallied. “To make your fortune,” he’d advised, “buy fake fur.”

  Walter had repeated, “Fake?”

  The old man had nodded gravely. “Fur . . . Naugahyde,” he’d intoned, “Pleather, too.” His head had settled to one side, asleep.

  Walter had hit Refresh.

  A musician followed them at a distance, piping a soft melody on a recorder. An array of peacocks fanned the air with their exotic tails as Shasta strolled past, her arm delicately linked with Charlie’s. The gardens fell away on every side, planted in elaborate patterns of fennel and asparagus. The matter of her saliva had reared its ugly head, yet again. In the olden times, prior to Adjustment Day, boys had pressured her for fellatio. Charlie only bullied her for a genetic sample to prove her ethnicity. She’d been putting him off for weeks, placating him with oral sex and fetishistic nurse costumes, but today he’d fallen into a sullen pout.

  As they walked, their silence broken only by the recorder and the frequent screams of peacocks, the answer occurred to her. A girl she’d known in college. A free spirit Shasta had all but forgotten: Charm.

  A girl like none other. Only Charm was Charm.

  In World Mythologies, Dr. Brolly had taught them ancient Greek legends of Bellerophon, the hero who’d tamed the flying horse, Pegasus. He’d battled and defeated the all-girl legions of the Amazons, and he’d slaughtered the dragon, Chimaera. Undefeated, he’d bade the god Poseidon to flood the nation of Xanthus, but the womenfolk of Xanthus had confronted the approaching waves. These enterprising females had lifted their skirts and faced the ocean with girl parts fully bared.

  Cross culturally, from Europe to Indonesia and South America, the ancient world had believed that exposed pussies would always frighten away evil. Up until the eighteenth century, above the doorways and gateways of castles and churches, masons had carved images of women squatting to reveal themselves. Neither Satan nor any evil could endure the sight of the female sex organs, it was said.

  Confronted by all the vaginas of Xanthus, the tides receded in fear. The waves retreated, and Bellerophon met defeat. Even the flying Pegasus had freaked out and bolted away.

  Walking arm in arm with Charlie, Shasta reflected on what had happened not long after that study module on the ancient world.

  Charm had apparently taken the lesson to heart. Back in those weeks before Adjustment Day, when the doomed surplus males of the youth bulge had come courting, she’d put her recent education to good use. The boys varsity lacrosse team had, on one occasion, encircled her in an otherwise deserted hallway. Playfully, the aggressive teens had endeavored to mouth her breasts through her sweater, and to goose her with their mechanical pencils. Rather than pity them as imminent cannon fodder, Charm had readily applied the teachings of antiquity.

  As they’d danced around her, Charm had simply lifted the front of her skimpy cheerleader skirt. Unmasked by underclothes, it had been fully exposed: Her vulva. Weaned on the tame hairless vaginas of pornography, the young men had recoiled in terror. As a charging army of hairy vag
inas had spooked the winged stallion Pegasus, Charm’s hirsute sexual center had shocked those would-be suitors. As their jeering had fallen silent, she’d clenched her buttocks, thrusting her sex at them like a deadly saber. Panicked, they’d toppled backward. They’d scrambled to their feet and fled, but even as they’d raced in retreat Charm had kept her skirt raised and charged them with her thrusting strawberry blonde pubic hair, so much like the ruff around the devouring mouth of a ferocious African lion. As if to add to this impression she emitted snarls and roars as if the pussy itself had suddenly found its own savage voice.

  Shasta had witnessed the rout take place. The playful flirting followed by the assault from the unbridled vagina. She’d watched Charm chase the lacrosse boys as far as the faculty parking lot. As the terrified youngsters had disappeared into the distance, Shasta had risked approaching the bold girl. A gal like that, even then reverting back to her normal self, smoothing her skirt down and reapplying her pink lip gloss, this girl would be a free thinker. She’d been the ultimate in white beauty, combing her long blonde hair and regarding the world through glacial blue eyes. Back then she’d been young and lithe, but there’d already been some hint of the crusty old broad about Charm. She’d never shrink from a challenge.

  Alone with such a girl, Shasta had ventured to ask, “How’s it going?” The two girls had their mythology in common, but that was all.

  The pale skin that covered Charm’s classic Nordic features had flushed as if suddenly self-conscious. Perhaps she, too, realized that her pelvic attack on the silly gaggle of harmless teens had been unnecessarily harsh. “Hi, Shasta!” she’d stammered.

  Shasta didn’t let slip that she’d observed the goings-on with the rowdy team. She’d continued, “Have you seen Walter around?”

  The Aryan bombshell had cocked her small head in confusion. An abundance of straight, golden hair had tumbled to that side. “Walter who?” asked the girl.

  Here at Maryhill, promenading in the gardens, Shasta had the ear and the heart of one of Caucasia’s most powerful chieftains. She must be able to offer such a girl some incentive. If they could strike a bargain, perhaps they could both benefit from Shasta’s long-range scheme.

  Charlie, he remained mute. He merely surveyed his realm. Below this portion of the gardens, the terrain fell away to fertile, fruited plains that stretched to the horizon. In the distance sunburned field wives stooped to tend the young seedlings. Among the bounty, Shasta could recognize wide swaths of delicious radishes . . . densely planted bush beans . . . the tendrils of cucumber vines. The hard life of a field wife was an improvement over starving in the settlement houses of Portland, but it was a far cry from the status of public wife that Shasta stood to achieve. Despite their lowly station, more than a smattering of field wives wielded big pregnant tummies that had to be Charlie’s doing. His kingdom, like those of any chieftain, consisted of one king and hordes of female workers. The opposite of a bee hive or termite mound.

  In the sky, directly overhead a formation of jumbo jetliners was escorting the last of the Asian genotypes back to their native continent. Shasta watched them go with despair. Caucasia had chosen haggis over yu xiang rou si.

  Charlie continued his mute oversight of the fields. A breathtaking planting of kohlrabi lay below them. A complicated bedding scheme of dwarf sunflowers seemed to be turning their shaggy heads to follow the sun. Trying to share in his admiration of the plentitude of nutritious crops, Shasta continued to look on. Only then did the reality of the situation strike her. Her arrival here at this spot at this particular moment in time was no accident.

  As the sun ticked its way across the blue Caucasian sky, each sunflower twisted its bright orange face. Like a stadium crowd moving in perfect unison to perform the “wave,” the rows of sunflowers gradually came to face Shasta. Looking past the thousand pregnant laborers, beyond the ripening kohlrabi, she could recognize the secret of this moment.

  A glance at Charlie confirmed her suspicion. A faint smile flickered on his lips.

  Where his eyes fell, the emerging shades of orange formed a pattern. In contrast to the lighter, lime green of ordinary produce, the sunflowers began to form words.

  Emblazoned across a mile of open country, legible only from this lofty vantage point, the crops turning to face them spelled out the message: Charlie (heart shape) Shasta.

  Whatever it was that entered the room, its skin glistened. The creature shimmered with hazy waves of scent, the scent of every coconut in the world split open. The stink of piña coladas uncountable. Knotted shreds of red bandana gathered its wiry hair into apparently random clumps, but the bulk of its oily frizz burst from its head in a mass so dense the hair pushed its ears forward until each stuck out like the handle on a pitcher.

  Its bare feet shuffled into the parlor. They hopped and capered. Whatever made its way toward Jamal, it loped.

  A length of hemp rope held up its tattered pants, and the ragged cuffs flopped against the floor. It advanced across the parlor in jerking strides, waving its arms in torn shirt sleeves and stretching its pleated turkey neck to gawk at the furniture and paintings. In this manner it crossed the Persian carpet, goggle eyed and smacking its raw lips. “Lawdy,” it cried, “dat Mizz Josafeen nevah permissioned mah tah enter no pah-lor!”

  The apparition held out its elbows at shoulder height, displaying soiled white gloves worn on twiddling fingers. With each step, it jerked each knee so high, so fast, it might’ve been wading through glue. A muscle spasm seemed to seize its face, forcing the eyes so open that a wide margin of whites showed around each iris. These eyes rolling in every direction, while the mouth yawned to display gleaming teeth and the chin wagged side to side, jutted forward one moment and the next sunk back into the neck.

  The bare feet, the scrawny legs visible through rents in the trousers, the neck and face of the creature, they were all coal black.

  As the thing capered forward, Arabella looked on from her station near the doorway. “Mister Jamal,” she said flatly, her eyes looking elsewhere, “this is Barnabas.” She sighed heavily.

  A soiled glove thrust itself at him. With swollen, cracked lips, the Barnabas thing sang out, “Eye’s pleez’d tah meet’cha, Massah Jamal! Yah don no haw much! Dat Mizz Josafeen, she waz a debil womin!”

  Jamal exchanged a glance with the housekeeper. Arabella shrugged. She lifted a hand and idly examined her fingernails.

  Black as oil, blacker than what people called blue-black, the Barnabas thing continued to prance spryly in the center of the room. “Y, dat debil Mizz Josafeen, she keep’d me lok’d in dah attack fah mos ah mie hole lie-f!”

  Jamal puzzled through its Butterfly McQueen diction. He looked to the housekeeper for a tell, any cue, but she’d buried her face in both hands to stifle a laugh. Clearly, whatever the nature of this demented gollywog, the joke wasn’t on him. Reluctantly, he brought his gaze back to the head-bobbing, hip-shaking grotesque. “Barnabas?” he asked. “Can you tell me where Miss Josephine’s gone?”

  The eye-rolling creature brought both gloved hands up to frame its wrinkled face, and trembled, as if cowering in terror. “She dohn gawn skee-daddled tah Cock-asia!”

  Arabella cleared her throat. Winced.

  Jamal looked her way.

  “Barnabas,” she said, nodding toward the creature, “has been living in your attic, sir. He’s the noise you’ve heard nights.”

  This news wasn’t unwelcome. As of lately a fear had begun to trouble Jamal. The idea that he’d done his life’s work too early. By participating in Adjustment Day and rising to the lofty, lifetime rank of a prince of Blacktopia, he might’ve peaked too early. The rewards, this manse, the wealth, were pleasing, but as the Talbott book decreed:

  Property is but the residue of true accomplishment.

  Adjustment Day hadn’t settled his spirit. On the contrary, that achievement left his soul hungering for greater challenges. From here on he was determined to live a life of deeds instead of objects. As the Talbott b
ook dictated:

  Only the impossible is ever worth doing.

  No man who’d taken part in Adjustment Day, whether he now be a prince or a chieftain, took anything for granted. Jamal knew from the forfeiture records that the owner, this fabled Miss Josephine, had never surrendered the title to this property. No record existed of her relocating to or applying for compensation from Caucasia. Long and hard, he looked at this jabbering, spry monstrosity. Minus the burnt hair, the rag bag ensemble, and impossible obsidian hue of its skin, this had to be her.

  The housekeeper’s head shaking and suppressed amusement confirmed as much.

  The old lady, clearly deranged, she puffed her cheeks and whistled a jig as she slapped time against her skinny thighs and bopped around the elegant room.

  The whistling and bopping ceased and the creature stood bug-eyed before a tall oil painting. The portrait showed a whiskered military officer in Confederate grays, bedecked in gold braid, a sword lashed to his side. After more than a century, his blue eyes still blazed with resoluteness. The creature sucked its teeth, ducked its head, and squinted sideways with theatrical venom at the picture. “Massah Jamal?” it said, “can ah ax yah sum-tin?” Poking with one dirty white index finger, it asked, “Iz yah plan’n tah burn deez debil pitchers?”

  Jamal met Arabella’s surprised look, matching her single raised eyebrow. “Why, Barnabas, would you like me to burn them?”

  The Barnabas creature bared its gleaming, too-white teeth and tentatively growled at the painting. When the man in the picture didn’t growl in return, Barnabas raised one white-gloved fist and shook it at the officer. “Ah’s bin prison’d in dis howz mah hole time ahn dis urth.”

  Jamal struggled to decipher such gibberish. Every utterance was a test.

  The Barnabas creature squinted with menace and peered around the room, pointedly taking in the crystal chandelier, the rosewood grand piano, the marble fireplace and velvet upholstery. Every tassel and brass spittoon. It puffed its pigeon chest and flexed its chicken wing arms as if ready to throw punches. “If’n yah ax me,” it muttered, “ah thinks yah shood bern dawn dah hole howz!”

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