Adjustment day, p.28
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       Adjustment Day, p.28

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Talbott had explained that what they were composing would be a sutra. The Talbott Sutra. Like The Golden Verses of Pythagoras or the biblical Ecclesiastes. It would serve as the new consciousness.

  A modern Mein Kampf as it were.

  They would publish it samizdat, like the Soviet dissidents. In the manner of Andrei Sakharov. And distribute the copies via the growing network of Clems and Dawsons and Charlies snaking man-by-man across the nation.

  And still certain that somehow this would make him a rich man, this would win him Shasta’s heart, Walter had written everything down.

  Because of the yelling the police show up. Because it’s after midnight and Bing was a chieftain of the first lineage, this meant helicopters circling the neighborhood and sweeping the area with searchlights. Because the police are forever and everywhere after the same deal: Did you fight? Did he fight you? Because Felix’s ma shakes her head, head down, because she figures this is somehow her doing. Because then Delicious walks in the door, going, “Belle, what’s your Felix gone and done now?”

  Because Delicious doesn’t know it’s her ass at stake, too. Because it’s everyone’s butt on the line, because if the truth comes out then Belle and Delicious, Jarvis and Gentry will go into detention as suspect detainees, forever. Because nobody prioritizes accepting damaged goods. Because the newly declared homosexuals of Caucasia and Blacktopia being held in detention elsewhere are good for a half million Talbotts or a new fresh somebody, so why settle for some traitor whom even Gaysia wants rid of.

  Because the paramedics are debriding the cuts and scratches on his face and neck. Because Felix looks almost as beat up as the dead body of Bing. Because folks leaning out their bedroom windows heard Bing’s last words, clear and distinct. Because people live in the forever-after shadow of that Kitty Genovese, the lesbian who was strangled and stabbed and strangled and stabbed while some entire city full of onlookers failed to take action. Because so many people leaned out windows back then and never called the police because a young, pretty lesbian getting herself butchered wasn’t their problem, because of that everyone chimes in reciting Bing’s yelled-out last words.

  To hear Felix tell it, he and Bing had been peacefully smoking dope in the alley around midnight. In the version he told the investigating officers, Bing had been telling stories about the success of his lineage, and how he, Bing himself, had journeyed to a basement in Portland, Oregon, and had an audience in the presence of the venerable Talbott. Bing hadn’t been a nobody. As a chieftain of the first lineage, his death called for a massive investigation. Dogs had been dispatched to track possible traces of Bing’s blood on an escaping killer.

  Even as the paramedics debrided the cuts and scratches on Felix’s face and neck, he told them what he wanted to tell. Because no one except Felix had paid much attention to Bing as of late. Because, frankly, Bing’s one-day war story could be a bore and because people had more to fret about, what with sperm drives and biological carrier commissions. Because people would never say as much, but they were beginning to question the greatness of Gaysia, the gay promised land, and because they missed the kick-up-your-heels lifestyle they’d lived under heterosexual oppression. It’s because of this guilt—guilt over doubting Gaysia, guilt over Kitty Genovese—that all the ear witnesses repeated Bing’s last gasped words.

  It’s because of them Felix said what he finally said. Because he didn’t say it at first, not right away. Because he knew it would trigger an international incident. Because he didn’t want this nation, Gaysia, to be at war, because wasn’t Adjustment Day about saving a generation from military cemeteries?

  Because why should statesmen get to snuff out the lives of men barely able to vote? But because Felix doesn’t want to see his folks internment-camped, and because he needs to buy time, because any simple DNA test will prove it’s his DNA and only his DNA grabbed all over Bing’s corpse and clawed under Bing’s fingernails . . . because everyone’s baying for blood and justice . . . Felix says it was a gang of strangers. Because it’s plausible, and because this gains him traction. Because Felix was quickly replacing Talbott on every channel, the satellite-relayed image of him, because he had all of Gaysia hanging on his every word, because he was already packing a getaway bag in his mind, packing his favorite shirts and an extra pair of shoes, and because Felix needed that crucial head start to make his escape, that’s the reason Felix finally said what he did.

  “Straights,” he told the television cameras. “Straight guys bashed him.”

  It never failed to leave Shasta astounded. The same sun that warmed her neck at this moment had also warmed Hitler’s. The stars she could see from her marriage bed were the stars that had twinkled above infamous Nazi death camps. How humans organized their society and conducted their lives counted for nothing in the grand scheme.

  Trees were taking root on the burial pits. The important parts of life remained a constant. People fed their children. People could only truly hate those who lived next door. Just as life had been before, everyone was preoccupied by staying alive. Water always found a new level. A new normal.

  The field wives, for example. They roamed the thriving rows of kale and squash, each woman swollen with a child. All of them, Charlie’s offspring. Soon every day would be marked by the birth of one or more heirs. In another year the estate would be overrun with tiny Charlies.

  One real possibility was that Shasta herself was the problem. The party pooper, as it were. If she’d been born into this moment she’d see only peaceful women doing useful work to the sound of mandolins. Well fed, they were all healthy and plump with their future children. If she hadn’t known the world before Adjustment Day she wouldn’t see this Edenic scene through such a cynical, bitter lens. These future children would accept this life as a given. The idea both comforted and enraged her.

  As they labored over the weeding chores, Shasta went about her usual search among the roots and furrows. The sun warmed the hooded cowl she wore, edged with decadent fake ocelot fur. A band of roving minstrels plucked lutes and crooned ballads.

  A wave of nausea surged up from her belly, and she fought the urge to puke on a row of maturing parsnips. She could be . . . Heaven knows Charlie had sewn plenty of seed in her. She shuddered at the possibility of becoming another brood mare for the rapacious chieftain.

  A meek figure shuffled forward. The girl didn’t speak but stopped an arm’s length away. A lacy cap held the long hair gathered atop her head. A light veil of netting cascaded over her face to protect her young complexion from the sun. Her humble, downcast gaze remained on her own rustic wooden clogs.

  The girl reached into a pocket of her apron. She withdrew a wad of soft cloth. A tiny bundle of joy. A swaddled treasure. Wound around it, a strand of carefully knotted string kept it closed. She looked furtively from side to side. The other field wives seemed frozen in the moment. A woman in the near distance nodded slowly, once. Seeing that signal, the girl offered the bundle of fabric.

  Her eyes met Shasta’s for an instant. Shasta reached to accept the gift, and something caught her focus. The girl wore long sleeves. Long skirts and long sleeves were the rule. But at the cuff of the sleeve a smooth patch of her wrist showed. A bold blue-black symbol stood out against the pale skin. A thorny uppercase letter R.

  Before accepting the gift, Shasta plucked at the sleeve. When the girl didn’t pull away, Shasta slid the sleeve up to reveal an I and an O. Inked across the inside of the forearm, from her hand to the crook of her elbow were the words RIOT GIRRRRRRRL.

  This modest lass, with her cringing demeanor, not long ago she’d been a badass bitch goddess. This timid waif, her belly made huge by Charlie’s deeds, she’d been a kick-ass roller derby warrior.

  Now Shasta surveyed the fields with new understanding. These women had all been bike messengers and basketball stars. Today they were hunched field wenches, doomed to imminent, repetitive motherhood. But not a year before they’d been drummers in rock bands. They’d been dope-smokin
g fire walkers and hairless pole dancers.

  How long ago had Adjustment Day occurred? Without cell phones or calendars, it was impossible to track the days. Only the weather suggested time passing.

  Shasta let the girl’s sleeve drop back into place, hiding the evidence of her former self. The girl gently placed the tiny bundle in Shasta’s hand and shuffled away quickly. Behind her another young woman waited to present yet another bundle of fabric. Most likely, word had gotten around among the womenfolk. Most knew what prize Shasta hunted. Behind her a third woman waited to give Shasta her own fragile tribute, wrapped just-so for safekeeping.

  Checking the typeset pages for the book, Walter had marveled.

  This book combined with the Internet gimmick of The List—it was a drug. As the author himself had put it:

  A Good Book Should Get You High.

  It read like pornography.

  What his new old man had dictated to him amounted to a pornography of power.

  Walter had known the formula. The biggest bestsellers in history had been targeted at children and young adults. People who had no power, they were starved for stories depicting similar kids attaining an ultimate power. From Harry Potter to Superman to Luke Skywalker to Robin the Boy Wonder, it would seem that all kids wanted to develop their own latent superpowers and to see their parents dead. The Talbott book delivered on both counts. The unemployed and underemployed steamfitters and press operators would see themselves slay their oppressors and then rise to rule their own fiefdoms.

  It amounted to a pornography of being right. No orgasm would be as satisfying as proving everyone else wrong. No sexual content could compete with the rush men got from winning. And the Talbott book was about nothing if it wasn’t about winning.

  Talbott, the old coot, he knew what men craved most.

  As he’d perused the book, Walter had taken Shasta’s earplug from the pocket of his shirt. He’d held it to his nose and inhaled. This talisman, something a witch might use to summon up the dead. Spongy, titty pink, it was an artifact coated with her dead skin and internal secretions, this relic dug out of the side of her head. His nose could convince the rest of him that Shasta was sitting here beside him.

  Shasta, he’d known, she’d hate the book. She might groove on the prescribed Renaissance Faire threads and resurrected faux-Nordic culture. She did have her tattoo. Across her chest it read: Mit einem Schwert in deinem Herzen sterben. Whatever that meant. She’d dig the proposed medieval castle lifestyle and still hate the book.

  But she’d love the money it would bring them.

  Shasta would take one look at the world it proposed and she’d toss the book into the trash. Well, not the trash. Shasta would toss it into the recycling.

  After that . . . Right after that, she’d call up Beyoncé and fly on some private jet to go shoe shopping on Bond Street in London. With Madonna. And Walter’s credit card.

  A curtain separated them. Akin to a stage curtain. A pale sheet of muslin did hang from the ceiling of the chamber with the royal physician and a sizable contingent of the court facing it. An odd hundred or so grooms, squires, valets. Something unseen on the opposite side stirred the fabric, and Physician Terrence bade, “If your highness will do us the honor of presenting himself . . .”

  To date, royal protocol remained at best semisolid. Thus the best strategy, lest the physician give offense, was to hew to a mood of lofty White-Speak formality. As now he sat upon a carved wooden footstool, he reached forward and with his fingers poked at the curtain until he found a hole therein. He wiggled an index finger within the hole. “Simply display the royal scepter.” Fancywork of silken embroidery did edge the hole.

  The assembled company eyed the hole and waited.

  Terrence withdrew his fingers and waited. To put his royal patient at ease, he recollected his own miraculous healing. How he’d been a bedridden invalid since infancy. How a merciful hospital nurse had delivered to him a copy of the Talbott book on behalf of his absent father. With his father’s marginalia as encouragement, Terrence had overcome his domineering mother, a woman whose entrancing words could prompt him to violent seizures.

  Facing the curtain, he did recount the epic tug-of-war over his catheter, and how the struggle brought his mother crashing to the floor. How the Talbott book itself had struck the knock-out punch and broken her nose. Broken the nose so that it would forever lie sideways against her cheek.

  Of the catheter, the catheter had ripped free. Intense had been the pain, but his tackle remained intact. Foiled had been any attempt at castration.

  Terrence’s fingers prodded impatiently at the embroidered hole. Still, nothing emerged from the opposite side.

  Of chief concern this day was the large numbers of sexual contacts Chieftain Charlie had enjoyed as of late. More specifically, whether one of said encounters might’ve communicated a social disease to his highness. As the physician understood the situation, his highness had grown concerned over certain physical changes of an intimate nature. Nonetheless, there was little that could be done without an inspection.

  “Of greatest importance is that we determine a prognosis,” said Terrence. Here he quoted from the blue-black book:

  The way of man is not to hope but to take action and produce results.

  At this the muslin finally stirred. Bulge did it, and the embroidered edges of the small hole began to spread apart. With an upraised hand, the physician forbid any man’s utterance as something wan and shriveled made its timid entrance among them.

  The next morning when she brought the breakfast tray, Arabella was transformed. As far back as Miss Jo could recollect the housekeeper had been a hunchbacked old frump. In recent years there had been something increasingly clownish in the defeated way the woman had plodded around the house. A fringe benefit of keeping help was how waxing floors and polishing silver wore them out. For the same reason brides choose ugly bridesmaids for a wedding, having the housekeeper around made Miss Jo look remarkably well preserved.

  Until this morning, that is. This Arabella was a stranger. Her knotted limbs had grown slender and supple. In place of her staid uniform she wore a flowing gown. A dashiki, Miss Jo dredged up the word. The garment moved like water over the woman’s smooth skin, the material accented with radiant emeralds embedded in its weave.

  The frizzed mop of her gray hair had been changed into a lustrous mane of long, auburn curls. Her cracked hands and face gleamed so bright with reflected light that they looked wet with perfumed oils. Those lovely hands bore the tray: two poached eggs, a ham steak, an English muffin with butter and marmalade on the side.

  “Miss Josephine,” she said in a voice as new as her appearance, “Mr. Jamal asked me to convey his apologies.” This voice resonated with an elegant depth. A velvet rumble. “Affairs of state required that he depart late, late last evening.”

  She was so lovely that Miss Jo’s first impulse was to discharge her. But this was no longer Miss Jo’s house, and Arabella was no longer in her employ.

  The housekeeper was so lovely that Miss Jo could only look away in pained resentment. Catching sight of her own reflection in a silver teaspoon she felt her stomach shrivel. She’d stained and poisoned herself into this gamboling, sinister elf. Doing so, yes, she’d cemented her position in this new nation state, but at what cost? Clearly she no longer belonged here.

  Pretending to be engrossed in buttering her muffin, she remarked, “Arabella, that frock is extremely flattering to a woman of your size.”

  Arabella laughed softly in her new throaty tones. “It’s not the ensemble,” she said, “it’s the transformation of my people.”

  She described how white men had always belittled African blacks for never inventing the wheel or the plow. The truth was that Africans had disdained any tools that disfigured the Earth. Blacks had an alliance with the Earth that stretched back through all time. Any request, the planet granted. That had made the continent so rich in resources. The land enjoyed incubating gold and diamonds w
ithin its womb to delight the black humans. And the humans in turn would never scar the land with roads or plowed furrows.

  “When the white man entered Africa,” Arabella continued, “we expected him to have the same respect for the sacred land.”

  But because this soil was not his cradle, the European had recognized nothing except the wealth he wanted to plunder. A man who’d never approve of abortion, a man who professed to sanctify life, he tore open the womb of the Earth and ripped out the gifts that had been prepared and harbored there. White oil wells and pit mines gutted the land. And what the planet had produced to reward the stewardship of the black race, the white man looted and spirited away.

  Arabella regarded Miss Jo with a cool, disdainful look. “Since that time, my people have learned to keep our special powers concealed. Going back hundreds of years, we’ve hidden our true talents and wisdom out of the fear that the white man would abuse those as well to increase his horde of acquisitions.”

  Miss Jo looked at her hands, chemically discolored, and felt a deep shame for the history of her greedy race. She felt humiliated by her own burnt hair. Without question, the white man’s folly and guilt had been bequeathed to her.

  “Of all people, only Mr. King came close to exposing the true magic of black people,” Arabella explained. “For many years we debated killing him for our own protection.”

  Miss Josephine listened in amazement. “Blacks killed Martin Luther King Jr.?”

  Arabella scowled. “Not Doctor King . . . ,” she exclaimed. “We hired a man to kill Stephen King. Unfortunately the assassin was inept, and the intended hit-and-run was a failure.”

  In the author’s masterpiece novels, she said, books such as The Shining and The Stand and The Green Mile, King had almost convinced white people of the majestic uncanny powers blacks kept under wraps.

  Without prompting, Arabella shook out the linen napkin and tucked it into the neckline of Miss Jo’s housecoat. The housekeeper lifted the knife and cut a small square from the ham steak. With the fork, carefully she placed the morsel into the old woman’s mouth. “Now eat,” she said.

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