Adjustment day, p.29
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       Adjustment Day, p.29
 

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Speechless, Miss Jo mutely chewed that same bite of ham, over and over, like a cow with its cud, unaware as the meat was reduced to a tasteless mush. Silence and expectation bore down upon her. Finally, she ventured, “So . . . where was the fire? Why’d Jamal fly out of here in such a hurry last night?”

  In response, Arabella stepped to the room’s small television and touched a button. The screen filled with tiny people. A torch-bearing mob.

  “You know that boy is holding his own secrets,” the housekeeper said, watching the crowded screen. “You’ve seen the way he studies those old paintings of your ancestors.”

  On television, an ocean of rioters surrounded a stately building, throwing rocks and bricks against its carved façade. Gunshots rang out and puffs of dust showed where bullets ricocheted off the stone. There was the bright sound of glass breaking.

  A closer shot revealed the tall, ornate windows. They framed the faces of people trapped within. Handsome and beautiful but trapped nonetheless, all those faces were black.

  Talbott’s intuition had been spot-on. The 1960s had torn down all the patterns for living. Since then, generations had wandered through their lives in search of a new shared blueprint. The answer wasn’t Communism or Fascism. Nor was it Christianity or Capitalism. Political activism and education were both revealed to be corrupt. The greatest accomplishment of modern man had been to do away with those constraining models.

  “The only quality that truly unites us is our desire to be united,” he’d always insisted. “What men want is a structure for communion.”

  Until recently our circumstances had drawn us together and kept us united. Our shared proximity as next-door neighbors. As coworkers at our jobs and congregants in our churches. As classmates in school. All of these structures brought people into community with regularity. But as people began to move households so frequently, when jobs became less stable, and churches became less relevant, we’d lost reliable contact with each other.

  As Talbott saw it, race and sexual preference had to become the last bastion for community. As all the grand uniting narratives floundered . . . when all the tenuous, external circumstances failed us, we’d be forced to form our ranks based on our most basic elements: skin color and sexual desire.

  Walter had seen it. Clearly his new old man intended the book as a vehicle for making Walter’s fortune. The men, those Jamals and Estebans, they were the foot soldiers, the advance guard opening the market for the book’s wider introduction. Those rubes and preppers. Here were faux-profound thoughts to replace the slogans that advertising had planted in people’s heads.

  According to Talbott, only consumption remained as a means of self-expression. That’s why men’s only response to beauty was to consume it. Thus beauty became pornography so it could be consumed. Status was measured by levels and quality of consumption. Of people’s time. Of their energies. Cannibalism couldn’t be far behind.

  What’s more, as the Talbott book decreed:

  Suicide Is the Ultimate Act of Consumption.

  And by extension:

  Civilization Is Consuming Itself.

  That had been his explanation for why Western civilizations were dwindling. Citizens of the white Diaspora were consuming themselves with drugs. Blacks with violence. Homosexuals with disease.

  In their tapestry-lined honeymoon chamber Shasta found her new husband hurriedly folding hosen and surcoats. He stepped to the gargantuan wardrobe cabinet and stripped the dry-cleaning plastic off a houppelande of rich, royal blue velveteen accented with scuttled piping. A suitcase lay open across the foot of their enormous canopy bed, half filled with kilts and tabards. Charlie packed his favorite codpiece among them.

  When Shasta went to embrace him, he shook her off, saying, “Not right now.” His tone was gruff. “A council of chieftains has been called to assemble.”

  A gondolier had been hired to pole the royal barge down the Columbia River to the ruins of Portland. There the lineage would gather in a lofty boardroom perched atop one of the remaining high-rises in the abandoned downtown core. Rumor had it that Portland had long ago outstripped its at-home bathtub production of tempe. Their stores of soy exhausted, the denizens had taken to devouring each other. The tranquil garden city now stank like an open grave. This journey would hold no appeal for any of the chieftains who’d been summoned.

  Undeterred, Shasta approached him once more, and she lightly fingered his merkin. The tension in his body relented. She dropped to her knees. Deftly stripping aside his scabbard and unlacing his Venetian breeches, her hands discovered his flaccid pride and commenced their kneading.

  With a jarring wince, Charlie cried, “Ouch!”

  Shasta’s fingers continued. More gently.

  “Watch it,” he protested, his voice weaker, faint, carried away by the pleasure of her touch.

  Shasta’s mouth joined forces with her hands in their wifely duties. The nausea stirred in her belly. Despite her voluminous organza skirts the stone floor hurt her kneecaps.

  His head lolling, Charlie whined, “I felt something.”

  Her mouth paused in its task so she might draw a breath. “No duh, I’d hope so.” She quelled the bitchiness in her voice. “I am honoring your highness.”

  He moaned. “But . . .” His words failed. “But Gaysia, the people of Gaysia have overrun our embassy and taken our diplomats hostage . . .”

  Muttering, slurring his words, delirious with sensation, her husband went on to announce that Gaysia had declared war against both Caucasia and Blacktopia.

  The news caught Shasta off guard and she gagged an instant. Her gorge rose, threatening to scald the royal manhood with bilious digestive acids. A fine going-away gift that would make. Only with great effort was she able to choke down both.

  And one afternoon, when Walter had been idly leafing through a copy of the newly printed Talbott book, the old man had looked up. Walter’s new old man, he’d glared, his brow furrowed and demanded, “What’s that you’re reading?”

  Walter held up the book, showing its blue-black cover and the gilded title.

  Talbott snarled. “What’s it called?”

  Walt ran a fingertip under the title. “Adjustment Day.”

  The old man’s face flushed so red that fresh blood spurted from two small cuts on his forehead. “That’s not!”

  Walter turned the book and read the title. That was it, Adjustment Day.

  Sputtering, saliva flying. “That’s not what I said!” bellowed the old man.

  A chill ran through Walter. His head did the grim math. How many books had been printed and already distributed? Answer: All of them.

  Talbott said, “You idiot! Stop the presses!”

  It was too late, but Walter didn’t say that.

  “I told you to call the book A Judgment Day!” Talbott ranted.

  A Judgment Day. God only knew what else Walter had misheard.

  Talbott shook his head in disbelief. He snapped, “Is it too late to fix this . . . typographical error?”

  A Judgment Day. Duh.

  And Walt lied. He put on his best look of sincere confidence, and he told the old man, “Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.”

  Closing the Talbott book and carefully setting it aside, the speaker proclaimed, “Queer bodies have always been the shock troops in Western civilization.”

  A general grumble rose from the audience seated around Gavyn. They’d been hearing this lecture since they’d relinquished themselves to the Retention Center.

  It would hit on the same points: Malcolm X being a bisexual hustler, James Baldwin, the feminist movement and their own Night of the Long Knives where they’d ousted their founding lesbian contingent in order to make the movement more appealing to soccer moms. The speech would touch on urban renewal. And the climax would be about how Hitler’s schoolboy crush on Ludwig Wittgenstein had set in motion World War II and the infamous Final Solution.

  Every month or so, a chieftain from Gaysia arrived to deliver these p
ep talks. To boost morale. Today’s speaker was a chieftain of the first lineage. A man named Esteban. He raised his voice in response to the grumbling.

  Interrupting, Gavyn said, “My sister . . .” The room quieted. “My sister, Charm, did the math. And she says none of us are getting traded until we’re almost forty.” He wasn’t loud, but the silence was so absolute that his voice sounded huge.

  Another kid yelled, “What’s up with that?”

  The speaker countered, “Female emigrants will be granted first priority so they can begin the production of exports as quickly as possible.”

  The young lesbians seated around Gavyn groaned. The camp didn’t look so grim when compared to a career as human breeding stock.

  From the podium Esteban stressed, “That should expedite the exchange process by a number of years.”

  The Gaysian stance, their official platform was that neither Caucasia nor Blacktopia wanted to feed and house exports any longer than was absolutely necessary. As time passed special accommodations would be made to exchange exports as quickly as possible. A trade agreement might be reached that would allow current Gaysian exports to emigrate in exchange for future immigrants from Gaysia. That’s the reason the pipeline had to be as burdened as possible.

  The reality was that Gavyn and his generation, the first generation to reach the Age of Declaration since Adjustment Day, was sorting trash for recycling. They were imprisoned, sleeping in dormitories, eating ramen noodles three times daily, with no distraction other than separating Number 6 plastics from Number 8 plastics and tin from aluminum, a task that used to be done by machine before slave labor became more cost effective. Except that it wasn’t called slave labor, it was called outsourcing. It was off-shore labor except that it wasn’t off shore, it was located smack-dab in Caucasia. And the workers weren’t slaves except for the fact that they couldn’t leave the campus, except the campus was hemmed in with barbed wire and guard towers. And it was noble, rewarding work to benefit their future and the future of Gaysia, except they spent every day slouched over a crawling-by conveyor belt loaded with sticky tin cans and soiled paper under a constant swarm of black flies attracted by the stink of decomposing yogurt and stale beer.

  None of the exports had lived here longer than a year except every week felt like a year, except no one had a calendar because no one had expected to be stuck here that long, except some realists who’d begun to scratch hash marks in the paint in one bathroom stall so everyone could go and count the days at any time and be appalled by how long they’d actually been bivouacked here picking through the garbage, except it made no difference because they were still trapped, except every month somebody official from the promised land they’d never reach arrived to raise their spirits with a rousing speech about the glory of Gaysia, except today when Gavyn stood up in the middle of the speech, in the middle of the audience and asked the horrible question.

  He asked, “Is my generation condemned here for life?”

  Charm had suggested as much. She’d written, speculating that no one would be traded until the first child in Gaysia turned eighteen. Not in any sizable numbers. Yes, there were some children in Gaysia, but not in numbers that mattered. And even then Charm predicted that younger exports would be given preference, just as women were being given preference, and that Caucasia was more than sustaining its own population and that the more exports it produced the more cheap slave labor it could maintain in retention camps. Because, frankly, heterosexuals were just better at reproduction and they had a longer cultural history of making babies, and the future would be reduced to a constant export-making race between the nations.

  Gavyn didn’t want to be rude. No one held a greater respect for the chieftains of Gaysia, except Gavyn wanted the truth, except he wanted it spoken in front of everyone. Except he didn’t want to be the messenger of bad news. Except none of them was getting any younger.

  “Sir?” asked Gavyn, wanting to show some respect and not just be a nag. “Will we ever see our homeland?”

  The question elicited a scattered outburst of applause except Gavyn wasn’t trying to dump all over this Esteban, who was the kind of good looking where if he smiled at you you’d have to smile back, except you didn’t know what he was like as a person except for how hot, except this brought Charm to mind and the last time they played the game of Mine/Yours where they’d point out random people as potential sex partners and shout “Mine” or “Yours” like the game Slug Bug where you tried to slam your opponent by surprise, except the last time they were in Laurelhurst Park Gavyn pointed out the skag king pushing a shopping cart loaded with prescriptions, Nick his name was, with the crystal-meth cheekbones and sun-bleached hair and Gavyn yelled “Yours” except then Charm pointed out a guy the doppelganger for the cute one of the Thompson Twins with the rattail haircut with the henna and the skin the color of powder except without the baggy 1980s gear, except then Gavyn got confused, except when he realized Charm was playing by different rules. It’s because she actually wanted the best for him, except she didn’t realize he’d been trying to slam her and it’s because she really, actually did have the hots for that crystal-meth Nick guy.

  He’d been trying to irk and embarrass her, except all she wanted for him was happiness with a Thompson Twins lookalike, except that’s what made it scary when she wrote with her theory about him probably never emigrating. It’s because she wasn’t his sibling rival, she was telling the truth.

  Except Esteban redirected, saying how history had a model. Saying homosexuals had always lived walled inside monasteries and convents where they’d preserved the knowledge of the ancient world and compiled the secrets of the natural world, hybridizing sweet peas and making sure the Dark Ages would not eradicate the legacy of man’s civilization.

  Except Gavyn was not thrilled by the prospect of watching peas have sex, not while his prime hot porn-ready eighteen-year-old body was picking trash. And he was going to say as much when an administrator stepped up to the podium and implied to Esteban that he had an important phone call backstage, and when Esteban ducked out to get it, the administrator leaned into the microphone and announced Gavyn’s name, not in a good voice, and said Gavyn was to go to the front office where he had a guest waiting.

  Gavyn went to the reception area, and there was a girl with so many tattoos he had to wonder if her boyfriends lay in bed after sex and read her body like the back of a box of cereal. Right then a skinny old man with flapping arm skin, his skin shining with dried blood, a naked bloody old man walked across the far side of the room. A stinky, naked old man, his chest and back oozing with countless tiny wounds. Gavyn couldn’t help himself. He did an ick-induced full-body shudder and a cringing dance as if he’d stepped through a big spiderweb. The man wasn’t Nick but he was close enough. Gavyn looked at his sister and said, “Yours.”

  Hardly had Charlie glimpsed his own manhood in recent days, so constantly buried was it in one or another of Shasta’s moist orifices. Hidden and labored was it by her, until he was grateful to fate that Shasta was his final wife rather than his first. Any day the wives of his fields and household would begin to push forth his children. They would pop with the ferocity and frequency of popcorn. Many had he blessed within minutes of one another. Their fruiting would occur with the same relentless speed and repetition with which he’d sewn his lordly seeds.

  Among these women were many not happy to be in service beneath him.

  In no female except Shasta had his manhood met its match. In her wet embrace he had spent himself too oft. Like an insatiable succubus was she! Leaving him so flaccid. Almost numb, yet were his exhausted testes hypersensitive to every jolt of his carriage wheels!

  It had come at an opportune juncture, this calling of the Chieftains Council. If Shasta yet was without a belly child, that task was beyond his doing to perform.

  Although intuition and hope hinted otherwise . . . Green was her complexion as of late. And several times did she take flight from her morning repast to
hurl chunks in the palace crapper. If kingly wisdom served, Charlie had planted within her loins an heir.

  Had Charlie a great sacrifice to Thor offered. A plentitude of sweet rutabagas and savory gorse was it, in such abundance as to satiate the god. At present as he and his party approached the silent city was the chieftain greatly glad he had acquired the good will of Odin and Loki. For the deserted township of Portland amounted to not but a dense forest on its outskirts. The passing months had allowed the vegetation to amass itself, consolidating an impenetrable jungle of flowering buddleia, this woven with tendrils of stout privet, this shot through with a suffocating blanket of juniper tams. These neglected suburbs constituted a formidable barrier.

  No lesser army of stout swordsmen could have hacked a path through this matted wall of hybrid tea roses and untamed lilacs. Any company smaller than Charlie’s would’ve been swallowed up by the onslaught of pyramidal arborvitae.

  Nor was vegetation their sole concern. The demented natives did pose a constant threat, as demonstrated by a darting figure. A stalking puppet, a skeletal old man clothed in naught but a sheen of dried blood. This specter, lanced with wounds uncountable, dashed within sight of the royal company for an instant. It shouted, “Walter!” and was instantly gone. Vanished deep into the dense sedge.

  Satisfactory time had passed that the city was deemed safe. Safe enough. Most stragglers had eaten each other, and the survivors would be weak and few. As the royal processional labored to clear a path, faint strains of melody reached them. Unseen was a player crafting a tune on some stringed instrument. The captain of the guard called for silence, and the woodsmen and knights stilled their hacking.

  None but the songbirds disturbed the deadly calm of that ghost town. The music grew in volume, its source coming near, until at last a figure stepped into view.

 
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