Adjustment day, p.23
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       Adjustment Day, p.23

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Jamal leveled his gaze on the poor creature. “Barnabas,” he said, “have you considered that your animosity was the reason Miss Josephine never trusted you?” Maybe it was time to move beyond the off-the-rack, ready-to-wear political ideology of Talbott. Maybe, Jamal asked himself, he should hold onto this problem to see what insight it might yield?

  Barnabas balled his gloved fingers into fists and took a boxer’s stance. “Wize yah side wid Mizz Joe?”

  Jamal wasn’t fazed. From wiggers, to the film Ten starring the actress Bo Derek with her blonde hair braided in cornrows, to white “trustifarian” young people with dreadlocks, this Barnabas seemed like the inevitable result of cultural appropriation. An old lady wigger. The latest in a series of chemically enhanced Sambo types. The racial equivalent of a drag queen’s botched version of being an actual woman.

  Jamal flashed on the fictional character D’orothea Wilson in the much-beloved Tales of the City novels by Armistead Maupin. As a failed fashion model, a white woman named Dorothy had blacked up and become a successful, highly sought-after “black” model. Sickle-cell anemia was the punch line in a book adored by millions! That, and the issue of Superman comics titled “I Am Curious (Black)” where the intrepid reporter Lois Lane uses a device to transform herself into a foxy black woman for twenty-four hours. Whether they called it reporting or research, for white people crossing the color line was always just fun and games.

  It might even prove to be a pathology. Like multiple personality disorder or gender dysmorphia.

  Per Harvard psychology professor Dr. Jeremiah Brockyard, racial dysmorphia or transracialism was demonstrated by the activist Rachel Dolezal, who posed at being black, and by the singer Michael Jackson, who took huge health risks to appear more white. As Sigmund Freud had made his career with the case study of Dora, Jamal might just as easily exploit the mental illness of this demented white lady for his own fame and fortune.

  Here, here was his next challenge. Jamal raised a hand to signal the housekeeper. “Arabella, would you be so kind as to bring my guest and me two extremely cold mint juleps?”

  If this apparition was the manifestation of a shattered, disassociated personality, or it was some form of Stockholm syndrome brought on by finding herself an alien in her former nation, Jamal didn’t venture a guess. Not yet. It dawned on him that this, adventures like this, peopled by flawed, damaged characters, were the stuff of books. In this Barnabas creature, his own book might be born.

  His would be a book written by a black man about a white woman pretending to be a black man. The title wrote itself. His literary masterpiece, he would call it Black Like You.

  In the seasons that followed Adjustment Day the beaver population rebounded. As the human population seethed in disarray, cities becoming scenes of famine, not just beaver numbers surged. Otter, bobcat, muskrat, and rabbits all made a comeback. Minks and lynx and wolves. As the weather flushed the toxins from the environment, even the apex predators such as bears and panthers rebounded.

  Fur, fur was everywhere. Consequently artificial furs emerged as the new status symbols. Minus the now-defunct petrochemical supply chain, fake fur and leather were rapidly becoming extinct. As standing inventory of fake furs winked out, no new fake furs replaced them.

  Thus to flaunt his wealth Chieftain Charlie did don robes of chartreuse leopard and rare acrylic zebra. He strutted the corridors of his palace in knee-high boots of endangered Naugahyde. His courtiers arrayed him in capes of lime green faux sable and fringed gauntlets of pleather studded with costly ersatz pearls. Thusly adorned he mounted the battlements of Maryhill to survey the rich plantings of sugar beets and sweet onions, the arabesque bedding schemes of acorn squash and endive, the wealth of his kingdom.

  Shasta had taken her leave, but soon she would become his consort. They would be wed the moment her genetic testing confirmed her ethnicity.

  A voice spoke. Charlie turned from the battlements and the view, and his eyes fell upon a liveried footman. The man escorted a young maiden, a home wife from among the staff of scullery maids and chambermaids. No beauty was she, but her loins appeared sound. He nodded his approval, and the footman escorted the girl away. She would be waiting in his apartments when he was ready.

  A stink had begun to saturate the basement. The source of the reek was the old man’s blood because even blood sours like milk, and the stench of discarded blood had given its flavor to every breath Walter drew. Black flies had circled, circling Walter and Talbott, circling their half-eaten food in a constant miasma, as if the smell itself generated a low hum.

  Not the best custodian of his own hygiene, Walter had given short shrift to the needs of his elderly ward. Meals sat too long at room temperature, the stink of their decay undetectable in the room’s overall stink. The result being that Talbott’s toileting had become sudden and explosive. With every tainted inhale Walter had assured himself that people had done worse for a fortune. To date, every task Talbott had set was a test. The big picture would soon snap into sharp focus.

  Once the list was posted and had drawn its first submissions and votes, Walter had waited for the next challenge. His new old man had been dozing. His head had drooped, and he’d jerked awake with a single bubbling snort. Sputtering, his head lolling on his thin neck, he’d muttered, “Hypnagogic spasm.”

  He’d gone on to explain. Between wakefulness and sleep, people pass through the hypnagogic state, a phase when sleep walking occurs. Also common are hallucinations, visions of tripping over an obstacle or falling from a window, and the sleeper jerks awake. That sudden awakening, sleep experts called it the hypnagogic spasm. Anthropologists, according to Talbott, believe that our evolutionary ancestors had developed the spasm to guard against losing their grip on branches or the fur of the mother primate. Our vision of falling is their vision of plummeting to the jungle floor, a terror leftover from before we were even human. Talbott had expounded on the concept. He’d swallowed hard and licked his dry lips. His chest had risen and fallen like a bellows, swelling and collapsing the lacerated little dirigible of his ribcage. Not all the corrupt food had been shat out, as demonstrated by the vomitus that spilled down the old chin and clung in pale clots to the grayed chest hair.

  “You know N.A.?” he’d asked. He’d meant the twelve-step group for recovering drug addicts. Narcotics Anonymous. He’d said, “Go there.”

  Here had been the next phase of Walter’s training. Talbott had demanded, “Find me one man or two with nothing to lose.”

  Walt was to hear their stories and listen for men who’d given up on life. Younger men. Angry and disillusioned men. Talbott had wanted recruits who’d turned to drugs because they were smart and strong, and the present world offered them no outlet for their gifts. These would be men who hated drugs but who hated more a society that had left them no means to achieve the status that all men crave.

  Walter was to promise them a million dollars. He was to promise to make each man a prince of the new new world. Walter hadn’t liked the sound of that, seeing how he hadn’t, himself, gotten one red cent. To bide for time he’d picked up a bowl of cold Top Ramen and had given it a cursory sniff. He’d closed the steps to where Talbott sat duct-taped to the chair. Using a spoon that managed to feel both greasy and sticky, he’d shoveled noodles into the gaping old mouth.

  His tongue crowded with food, Talbott had cited the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Prior to it the dispossessed and powerless had gone to churches for comfort, and in those the disenfranchised had discovered they weren’t alone in their misery. United, they’d formed an army, and the church leaders had recognized their power and led those armies into battle.

  Choking and sputtering, Talbott had said, “Those groups . . . recovery and support groups are the new churches.” He’d said that traditional places of worship had been reduced to crass theaters where people went to signal their status and virtues. A true church had to serve as the place where people went in safety to risk confessing
their worst selves. Not to boast and display their pride. Those who attended recovery groups, they arrived defeated. They told the story of their failure. Their sins and shortcomings. To admit their culpability, and in doing so they receive a communion with their flawed peers. It was within these unlikely churches, in the company of the drunkard and the dope fiend, that Walter would find the officers of his new army. The greatest armies in the world are destroyed by idleness, Talbott had argued. Without opportunity, the men Walter would be enlisting, in the absence of an external enemy and a battle, they were becoming casualties of themselves.

  What Talbott was to tell Walter, Walter was to preach to these men he himself selected, and those men were to venture forth to spread the message to a small number of men. If those men are queer, beguile them with visions of Gaysia, where they could live in their own homogeneous company. If white, testify to them about the future possible in Caucasia. If black, offer up the promise of Blacktopia, where they need never kowtow to any other race.

  “Bring me,” Talbott directed, “your learned helpless.” His voice rose to a shout. “The wretched results of jobs off-shored. Lend these, the hopeless, diversity-vanquished, to me . . .”

  Whereupon Talbott had appeared to swoon. In little more than a whisper, he’d uttered, “I’ll foot the bill. The world is yours.”

  And once again he’d fallen into a jerking, restless, fitful slumber filled with prehistoric terrors.

  As the Talbott book put it, the disunited states had always been a nation composed of nations. Some sovereign. Others, invisible. Parishes. Guilds. Associations. Chapters and clubs. After Adjustment Day those that were self-sustaining survived. But those dependent on the largesse of the vanished government, or on the fawning attention of the vanquished media, those brotherhoods and alliances ceased to exist.

  The same went for families.

  The two brothers had agreed to meet for lunch. To meet for one last time. A billboard dwarfed the small roadside diner on whose roof it sat. Easily twice the size of the eatery, its bold black lettering read “Whites Only.”

  Inside, the two men sat in a booth beside the front windows. They sat facing each other like imperfect mirror images: the same nose, the same eyes and mouth and ruffle of hair, both leaning with elbows on the table, but each with a different expression.

  A server wearing a checkered gingham frock and an apron with scalloped edges stood over them. Her pen poised above her pad, she recited, “The soup du jour is Paula Deen White Bean Stew . . . For specials, we have a Richard Spencer eight-ounce white fish filet and an all-white-meat Lester Maddox Chicken Salad . . .”

  One of the brothers noticed her waiting. “Give us a minute, okay?” That was Esteban.

  The other brother said, “We’ll have two Paula Deens to start with.” This was Xavier.

  When the server had stepped away, Esteban reached into a pocket of his jacket and took out a handful of white packets. White plastic, little pillows no larger than Before Times credit cards, heat-sealed along all four edges. He tossed these into the center of the empty table. In black felt-tipped pen some packets were marked with a lowercase “p” and some with a lowercase “d.” Esteban nodded at the packets, saying, “You don’t have to emigrate.”

  Xavier reached to examine one. He squeezed its softness between a thumb and index finger.

  “They’re black market,” Esteban explained. “The ‘d’ stands for drool. Squeeze one into your mouth if you’re facing a racial test. It’s lab-certified European-derived saliva.”

  Xavier poked at a packet marked with a “p.” Asking, “And these?”

  “Piss. For a urinalysis,” Esteban said. “Don’t get them mixed up.”

  Xavier pawed through the packets. “Your handwriting is piojoso.” Depending on the viewing angle, the p’s and d’s were identical.

  Undeterred, Esteban said, “Stay here in Caucasia so we can visit. I have diplomatic immunity. As a member of the first lineage I can travel freely between all three nations for my job.”

  His brother regarded the packets, turning them as if trying to discern which was which. The twang of country-western music played on the sound system. Beyond the windows a mix of motor vehicles and horse-drawn wagons moved along the highway in both directions. From the highway a great expanse of red cabbage filled the acres that rolled toward the horizon. Looking into that distance, Xavier asked, “Why’d you do it?”

  Esteban squinted at the packets. He slid one away from the rest, saying, “I think . . . this one is piss.” He slid another aside, saying, “But this is drool. I think.” He stopped his fussing, abruptly. “You have no idea,” he muttered. Louder, his voice steady, “Nations are founded on religions. They’re founded on political systems. Abstract ideas. Why not something as real and basic as sexual preference?”

  Xavier didn’t offer a rebuttal. His duffle bag sat slumped on the seat beside him.

  “I wanted to help,” Esteban continued, “to create one safe space where people wouldn’t feel like outcasts.” A ring interrupted. The sound came from inside a pocket of his jacket. He took out his phone and studied the screen, saying, “Lofty affairs of state beckon.” He got to his feet and exited to the parking lot.

  “Two white bean stews?” a voice asked. The waitress slid two bowls onto the table where Xavier still waited. She glanced out the window to where Esteban stood talking on his phone. The bowls, brimming with steaming muck, had pushed aside and hopelessly scrambled the poorly labeled packets. She stood watching Esteban outside, asking, “Haven’t I seen him on television? Is he somebody?” Conspiratorially, she asked, “You know if he’s married or not?”

  Xavier watched his brother giving orders, muted by the window glass and the background of traffic noise. The server wasn’t leaving. Smiling, he turned to her and asked, “You know your music sucks?”

  Even as she turned in a huff, he was already tearing open packets. It didn’t matter, p’s or d’s. With the server gone, Xavier got busy mixing all the lab-tested, European-derived whatever into his brother’s bowl of soup.

  Considering what Talbott had said, the irony hadn’t been lost on Walter. If recovery groups were the churches of this era, they were still conducted in the old church buildings. As Christian churches had commandeered the temples previously devoted to Apollo and Diana, the local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous met in the basement of St. Stephens. In the above-ground sanctuary, bathed in colored sunshine from stained-glass windows, the good citizens wore their Sunday best. They sang in the correct key in harmony and recited their prayers in unison. Beneath their feet, underground, it was another story.

  Away from the sunshine, after sunset an entirely different congregation shuffled in. Fragmented, solitary. Instead of incense, the smell of cigarette smoke wafted off them. In place of sacramental wine, they drank black coffee and took communion with jelly doughnuts.

  It was only his excitement about Shasta that had gotten Walter into the church basement, about seeing Shasta’s face when she realized he was rich. Talbott had coached him that creative visualization wouldn’t cut the mustard. When an outfit like Amway wanted to motivate rookie enrollees, it encouraged them to test drive Maseratis and Alfa Romeos. People were encouraged to shop for Gulfstream jets and contact real estate agents for tours of mansions on fairways and private beaches. Real details motivated people. The smell of leather seats and the sound of ocean waves under the bedroom windows. People needed to know the fine details of the life they were striving to achieve. Vague goals such as good health or money were too difficult to measure. The abstract doesn’t excite the spirit. But the softness and warmth of a sable coat. Or the glow of a diamond necklace. The silky feel of the perfect saltwater swimming pool. These motivate. And so Walter had pictured Shasta aboard the sailboat in San Francisco Bay, and he added the scent of her suntan lotion and the taste of the Chateau Lafite, 1869 they’d drink. Someday they’d nibble beluga white caviar and laugh about the measures Walter had taken to make his fortune, abou
t flaying Talbott with razors and posting the list and invading Narcotics Anonymous in search of converts. Bolstered by these specifics Walter had ventured into the netherworld of this new religion.

  There, parishioners had arrived dragging their crimes. With names like Clem and T.J. and Keishaun. Wearing business suits, wearing track suits or stained coveralls, they’d waited their turns, men and women, to make their full confessions. There, away from the world, each had given an account of his or her worst behavior and had resolved to do better.

  To whom to offer the world? Which man to radicalize? Walter had listened, weighing the out-of-work veteran against the barista struggling through beauty school. Talbott had warned him. The whites would blame the blacks. The gays would blame the straights. The blacks would blame the whites. And everyone would blame the Jews. Walter had waited as every person had his or her say. Talbott had told him exactly what to say and had forced him to repeat the words until he’d known them by heart. When everyone had spoken, it had been his turn. And only when all eyes had fallen upon him had Walter said his piece.

  “My name is Walter,” he’d said. Another day, another test. He’d imagined the smell of Shasta’s terror as she stood kissing him in a house he secretly owned. Before the group could stop him, he’d announced, “I’m looking to recruit men who’d rule the world in less than a year.” A collective groan went up as people had scoffed and shook their heads. “Anyone interested in being a founding member of a new ruling class, please see me outside.” And Walter had stood up, and he’d excused himself, and he’d stepped out the door, walked up the stairs, and he’d waited in the alley for a hero or a fool or for no one to follow him.

  Charm flipped through the pages of a cookbook, passing over the recipes but lingering on full-color photographs of Lobster Newberg and Waldorf salad. She studied cannelloni, feeling her mouth fill with saliva. She ogled bok choy to the point she might have to swallow, then rushed to the kitchen.

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