Adjustment day, p.27
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       Adjustment Day, p.27

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Bing handed the lighter to Felix. He lowered the bong and turned his attention to reloading the bowl. “Alive defines dead,” he sighed. “You never feel as alive as when you make somebody else dead.”

  He described how it had felt to be in the shooting gallery of the legislature. Bing’s favorite topic. They sat, just the two of them, in the alley back of Felix’s apartment house.

  Delicious was out. Felix’s mom was home, which was why he was hiding outdoors, pulling bong hits. Being alone with his mom was agony these days. She was forever guilt-tripping him to not declare his preference, to wait at least a year, to stay at home and keep her company. But when he considered another year in Gaysia, another hands-off year watching everyone else find love while every pussy was off-limits to him, the wait made him crazy.

  Bing handed him the bong, saying, “I can’t believe you’re not homo.” It was okay for Bing to know. Bing was a national hero, a chieftain of the first lineage. He’d stood in the spectator’s gallery and put a stop to the old order, where weaklings had pandered and lied to win the popularity contest people used to call “politics.”

  For Bing nothing would ever compare to Adjustment Day. That was why he’d become a stoner, because he’d never match the rush of blowing away the framework of his oppression.

  Felix took the bong, seeing the inside of Bing’s forearm. The tattoo there below the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. Felix asked, “Is that Andy Warhol?”

  Bing twisted his arm to read his own tattoo. “It’s Talbott.” He asked, “Did I tell you I met him?”

  Felix had the bong around his lips as he said, “Only a million times.” His words sounded muffled inside the tube of it. The tattoo read:

  In the Future Everyone Will Be Shot for Fifteen Minutes.

  “Yeah,” Bing said, “I was there when he said it.” He’d told the story so many times, about Talbott being lashed to a chair with leather belts and duct tape, naked and bloodied but still issuing orders. About the chieftains each seeking an audience with him in the weeks leading up to Adjustment Day.

  Felix exhaled, asking, “How’d it feel?” And he inhaled through the bong. The schnapps bubbled, and the mint-tasting smoke flooded his mouth.

  They both knew what he meant. And it felt wonderful. Killing your enemy felt better than the biggest lottery win. It felt like having the last last word. The ultimate victory. As it was written in the Talbott book:

  The Core Human Drive Is to Dominate and to Avoid Being Dominated.

  And as the book was quick to add:

  Anyone Who Denies That Fact Is Simply Trying to Dominate You.

  Felix held the smoke in his chest and listened.

  “So where you headed?” asked Bing. He meant Caucasia or Blacktopia. It was a testament to Gaysia that Bing could sit here, taking deep bong hits in a cat piss–smelling alley at midnight. In Caucasia and Blacktopia citizens with a preponderance of Asian genetics were deported to Asia. Jews went to Israel. Mexican types self-exiled to Mexico.

  And for the first time, an idea dawned on Felix. He’d never seen Bing with another man. Maybe Bing was a heterosexual hiding out like his own parents. Maybe the reason Bing was always baked was because he didn’t want to be shipped off to another continent, yet he wasn’t a homosexual, either. Bing might be someone he could trust with all of his secrets.

  Felix held his breath and shrugged. He’d cross the genetic testing bridge when he came to it. He still had to fill out the paperwork for his formal declaration of preference.

  “Killing is killing,” said Bing. It was the best rush, bar none. It was like winning the biggest win. To see your enemies burst open. To hear them fall silent and to know they’d never again hurt you. It was the end to your worst fears. The confirmation that you don’t need to be anyone’s slave. Bing had told the story so many times, in bars, in front of school assemblies. He amounted to a living fossil.

  A stoned living fossil. The thought almost made Felix laugh. Because a fossil was by definition encased in stone, and Bing’s eyes were so fucking bloodshot . . . even as he recounted forcing some terrified senator to fill the burial pits at gunpoint.

  “To remove the person from a person,” Bing insisted, “to reduce somebody to nothing but meat and hair, it’s like a magic trick only real. You know?” He coughed, choking out the word. “Isn’t that what a miracle is?”

  Felix nodded vehemently and handed back the bong. He debated telling Bing the whole truth. A little stoned, he trusted that Bing would understand. Bing had kept his secret about being heterosexual since Felix had moved in next door to them. “Promise me something,” Felix asked. “Will you check in on my mom? Like on Christmas? Just so she’s not totally alone.”

  Packing the bowl, Bing dismissed his concern. “Your mom has Delicious. Delicious is going to have a kid.”

  Felix waited until the bong was reloaded and his friend was sparking the bowl. As Bing sucked down a toke, Felix marveled. The set-up was perfect. And it wasn’t just the weed talking. Bing was obviously a fugitive, too, living next door. Felix could make his declaration and find his own future knowing that Bing would stay around. Granted, Felix’s dad would be here, but he couldn’t risk crossing paths with his secret wife. That, and Delicious was here, but she was practically a stranger. Bing, his best friend, would continue to watch over Felix’s mother while she grew old.

  The bowlful of dope flared bright orange in the dark. The schnapps gurgled.

  “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Felix began. He looked for light in any nearby windows. The only glowing window was high up in his apartment where his mom would be sitting alone in the kitchen. He asked, “We’re friends, right?”

  Bing’s chest swelled with the smoke. His red eyes met Felix’s, and he nodded.

  Felix continued, “I know why you’re here, in Gaysia . . .”

  Bing cocked his head, still holding the smoke.

  “You’re like my parents,” Felix explained. “My dad is black. They both moved here claiming to be homosexual, but they’re secretly married and get together on the sly—”

  The smoke exploded from Bing’s mouth in a huge, “What!”

  Felix had fucked up.

  The bong set carefully aside, Bing glowered. “Say what?” Loud. A window appeared as inside a light flashed on. Another window appeared.

  Felix held up both hands to shush his friend. “Nothing. A joke.”

  “So does Delicious know?” asked Bing. His eyes blinked. “Or is Delicious a heterosexual, too?”

  For the first time, Felix could see the old Bing. The man his friend had been, who could shoulder a rifle and mow down everyone he considered an enemy. Above them, other lights outlined new windows. People would hear. One window scraped open and a voice called down, “It’s late!”

  Felix lunged. He clamped a hand over Bing’s mouth and held it, whispering, “Please don’t.”

  The two grappled, tumbling sideways on the littered ground. Wrestling in the cigarette butts and bottle caps. Bing’s fingernails clawed at Felix’s hand, clawed at his face and neck, but Felix held on, whispering, “You can’t.” As their legs kicked over garbage cans and people shouted down at them in the dark, Bing clobbered Felix with a fist to the head. Bing bashed him between the eyes, and Felix felt heat spray from his nose, and he tasted salt and peppermint schnapps, and he felt Bing’s screams muffled against his palm. Both of Bing’s hands were pounding him in the ribs. His knees pummeled Felix’s gut.

  More windows were bright, and far overhead stood the outline of Felix’s mom, the upper half of her, her head and shoulders outlined in the light from their kitchen.

  Bing’s teeth sank into his palm, and Felix snatched his hand back.

  Bing’s voice rang out, “Heterosexuals! Heterosexuals!”

  And Felix’s bleeding fingers found the long tube of the bong and grabbed it up, and brought it down. The glass broke across something, and Bing fell silent. Blood and peppermint schnapps splashed everywhere.

bsp; Bing’s body went limp and toppled backward onto the pavement. Any person was gone from the person. Reduced to nothing but meat and hair. The night air carried the growing sound of police sirens.

  Felix had heard the stories often enough to know. His only friend was dead.

  Worse than dead, Bing was wrong.

  Killing him hadn’t made Felix feel even the least bit great.

  When Nick found the first box he wasn’t surprised. It sat in the middle of Southeast Yamhill Street, between 42nd and 43rd. The Talbott book predicted as much.

  The book had gotten everything right, so far. The fires had started weeks before, just as the Talbott book had foreseen. Here was the same method the elites had used in the 1965 Watts fire that had destroyed one hundred square blocks, in the 1967 Newark fires, and the 1967 Detroit fire that had wiped out four hundred buildings. As in Washington, D.C., in 1968 with 1,199 buildings burned, it was always the whites torching black neighborhoods. To herd black citizens away from urban areas and back to lives as sharecroppers and field hands in the Deep South.

  These days it was the Caucasia chieftains committing arson in order to drive any lingering blacks to Blacktopia. And to drive the remaining Portland whites out to the estates.

  The box left in the street was the same deal.

  In the 1950s such a box would be filled with heroin. In the 1990s it would be crack cocaine. Whatever the decade, the CIA would leave the box in any neighborhood they wanted to destroy. Now it was the chieftains. Nick tore the cardboard open and sorted the bags packed inside. He shoved the pockets of his trench coat full of Vicodin and Ambien and Xanax, pounds of them sealed in plastic. The rest he left. According to the Talbott book they’d drop a mess of these boxes, and Nick scuttled off to high grade the rest.

  A poster on a nearby wall screamed out: A Smile Is Your Best Bulletproof Vest! Nick’s only family, his mom, had packed up and gambled her last tank of gas on finding an estate where she could pledge herself. Word was the big land operations were fringed with favelas of displaced media and information workers. All living out of their dusty cars. Washed-up web designers and diversity officers, they were all hoping to prove themselves in the upcoming rhubarb harvest and to be awarded a thatched cottage before winter set in.

  The entire Wiki-squat of the Internet was trashed. The only radio was Talbott and approved Caucasian music. Mostly polkas, with some waltzes and jigs. The greatest hits of harpsichord and bagpipe. The radio announced that the fires had been set by loyalists. Partisans. Talbott himself denounced any rumors that the old president had escaped and that a lookalike had been assassinated in his stead.

  Officially, the president of the formerly united states was dead. Officially, the fires that sprang up at night and drove helpless people into the dark streets were set by rebels. Bandits or highway men. Maybe Canadians. Canadians, Nick noted, were branded the new terrorists.

  According to Talbott’s book, throughout modern history well-meaning blacks had been persecuted. Each time a city had burst into flame, when black citizens had rushed to save property threatened by the fire, white military forces had used this as a pretense to arrest them for looting. These days as fires churned through block after block of Portland, anyone who tried to help was arrested. Convicted on trumped-up charges, they were railroaded to work gangs.

  The boxes, the boxes allowed the less heroic another option. As Talbott phrased it, less useful members of society could self-select to leave, through accidental overdose or suicide.

  The fires foiled the heroes. The drugs resolved the cowards. Only Nick could eke out a life staying buzzed when there was no food to be found. Sleep was a different matter. The great chieftain estates with their fabled swaths of runner beans and red cabbages, they’d displaced the wild packs of wolves and coyotes. Those animals as well as bears and cougars had roamed into the city streets, the parks and neighborhoods, seeking new prey. Nights when they howled and their victims screamed, Nick had the pills to sleep soundly in whatever abandoned automobile.

  Days, he’d come across a mess that might stretch for city blocks. The ribcage and spine in one place, the head and pelvis would be dragged off. The skull might be gone, but there was always the matted hair. Usually the hands, too. The sidewalk or alley would be sticky with dried blood, with footprints of blood wandering off in every direction. The footprints of wolves or bear. The scavenger prints of coyotes and raccoons, magpies, rats. Each trail of red prints pointed the direction of some missing arm or entrails. Some hapless so-and-so. The fingers, the fingers of the gnawed-on hands would be loaded with diamond rings, ruby rings. The eyes would be pecked out, but a pearl necklace would be left behind, mired in the blood. Carnivores knew what was actually of real value.

  The Xanax took care of the absolute worst aspect of modern city life. Not the food insecurity or the dying nighttime screams. The toughest detail to deal with was the loneliness.

  Shasta was gone. As were Walter and Xavier. No one except the certifiable had stayed in the inner city, and Nick steered a wide course around them.

  A block distant, an excellent example lurked. A naked old man, his wrists and ankles flapping with scraps of dirty duct tape. His emaciated body looked glossy with dried blood. What might be a hash-mark carpet of tiny stab wounds dotted his spindly arms and legs. The man ambled along the deserted sidewalk. He caught sight of Nick and waved. The butchered apparition craned its thin neck and shouted, “Walter!” In a different direction, it shouted again, “Walter!”

  Nick turned tail and did not wave back.

  According to Talbott the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. In reality, the famous War Between the States had been just a ruse to cull the vast numbers of Irish who were emigrating to northern cities. Another youth bulge neutralized.

  He found another box on Southeast Woodstock and filched the pills. Outside a burned house in the Westmoreland neighborhood he found a pile of scorched furniture. Armloads of clothes still on hangers. Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Armani, these clothes were illegal to wear now. He picked through the pile and found a gun but no bullets. A perfectly good guitar.

  The worst aspect of loneliness was the silence. Bird song was the only regular sound besides the wind. He swung the pack off his back and dug out a bag of pills. He placed two Xanax in his mouth and tasted the sweetness as they dissolved under his tongue. On Northeast Mississippi Avenue he found a third box and tore into its contents.

  Talbott had spoken slowly while Walter and the assembled men had leaned forward to listen. “The burial pits should measure three hundred feet long by thirty feet wide and twelve feet deep.” All the while strapped to the same chair, he’d instructed, “The floor of each pit must be sealed with a layer of quarter-inch-thick polyethylene sheeting, topped by a two-foot-thick layer of impervious clay.”

  To save effort he encouraged consistency, saying, “Don’t everyone try to reinvent the wheel.”

  In recent days, the basement had become a clubhouse of sorts. A headquarters or command center. Naylor and Esteban, the men from the narcotics recovery group, had come knocking. On their heels had appeared other men, all of them apparently recruited from similar groups across the country.

  If Walter had to guess, they were heterosexuals and homosexuals. Black and white. They’d all joined Talbott’s new payroll and zealously followed the ever-growing Internet list of names now dubbed America’s Least Wanted. And as Walter had been dispatched to compile his notes and hire a printer, these men came to serve as Talbott’s inner circle.

  Each man had overcome his own demon, be it heroin or cancer, and now he was here to conquer something bigger. As they’d crowded around Talbott’s knee, he’d told them:

  Flattery is addictive. Convince others they’re special. Assure them they have talent. Make yourself the source of people’s self-worth. Doing so binds them to you and it preempts them from developing their skills and proving their true potential.

  As they’d passed cans of beer and bags of chips, he’d told

  Assembly is expression. Individuals must be granted the right to associate with those and only those they select. The groups that result shall not be compelled to open their ranks to those they wish to exclude.

  Delirious from so many tiny infections, Talbott had ranted:

  Be horrible, exist as a horrible threat, and at the moment of your greatest power stay your hand. By hurting people and then not hurting them you acquire their love.

  He’d told them:

  Imagine there’s no God. There is no Heaven or Hell. There is only your son and his son and his son, and the world you leave for them.

  If they’d laughed. If they sparked to an idea, nodding their heads in agreement, Talbott had snapped his fingers for Walter to make note of it. He’d been road testing his concepts. If these men engaged with an idea and seconded it by offering up examples from their own lives, Talbott had known it was valid for a wider audience and had looked to Walter to put it into the upcoming book.

  Talbott had explained that while Adolf Hitler had been a prisoner in Landsberg Prison, his cell had been the site of a constant party. People brought beer and food, visitors crowded the room while Hitler regaled them with his ideas. The ideas that resonated, that made Hitler’s listeners smile in recognition, Hitler collected those ideas into his first draft of Mein Kampf. These ideas would engage the largest number of people.

  And so Talbott had conducted a similar back-and-forth dialog with the men who made their pilgrimage to consult him. These men, Clem and Naylor and Bing, he’d told them, “In the future everyone will be shot for fifteen minutes.”

  Rufus and L.J., he told them, “Only the left ear, please.”

  Walter’s new old man, he’d explained that the best feedback would be a grunt, a snort, a moan, any noise to prove he’d hit a nerve with some truth. The best feedback was never filtered through language. At most it might be an “Amen” or a “Fuck, yeah.” Some profane form of “Hallelujah.” Until the book of fragments became like Mao’s book of quotations or Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of aphorisms.

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