Adjustment day, p.30
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       Adjustment Day, p.30

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Emerging from the thicket of death and desolation was a man. Little more than a skeleton, his leathery limbs wore tattered rags. This ragamuffin, his face appeared lost behind a robust beard and the shroud of his long hair. The man held a guitar in his arms and strummed it. So absorbed in his music making was he that he’d stepped amidst the royal entourage before stopping in his tracks. Minus his song, only the birds broke the silence.

  Reclining in his carriage was Charlie captivated by the stranger’s tunefulness. The chieftain had grown weary of the usual mincing jugglers and yodelers. “Here, vagabond!” he bid from the vehicle’s velvet-cushioned interior. “Belong you to a house and master?”

  The wastrel glanced up from his guitar. He made no answer, the impertinent varlet, but commenced once more to softly stroke his instrument.

  An axe man in the chieftain’s company lifted his blade in subtle threat. “Answer, you!” He reared back, ready to lop off the man’s shaggy head. “And answer ye in none but the approved White-Speak of Caucasia!”

  Charlie did call again, “Well, man? Are you free to become my slave?”

  The tosspot ceased his music making. “Who is it would be my master?” he sneered.

  Another in the party, the royal physician, spoke up. “You unschooled groundling! This is none other than Charlie, chieftain of the first lineage. Husband of the beautiful Queen Shasta, and liberator of Caucasia!”

  Hearing such praise, Charlie lifted his chin, and his chest swelled with pride. To display his valuable Naugahyde gloves, he lifted a hand as if to straighten his weighty gold crown.

  The musician’s scowl dissolved. His face went slack with amazement, and he drew a long breath. He stammered, “My lord, you are not unknown to me . . .” Collecting himself, he placed an open hand over his heart and bowed his head in respect. Looking up, he asked, “Your noble wife, perchance is she Shasta Sanchez, formerly of Southeast Lincoln Street who attended Franklin High School, worked part-time at Starbucks, and played goalie in city league soccer?”

  Silence seized all present. Charlie sensed a threat, a rival perhaps. Warily, he asked, “Know you the shapely lass in question?”

  The stranger waved away the idea. “No, my lord! Her renown is such that all hereabouts know her legend.” He set aside his guitar and doffed his ragged stocking hat. “We take great pride that a maiden from our humble township should become a queen of the white peoples.”

  The statement prompted even more pride within Charlie’s breast. Hearing such praise, he took an immediate liking to the man. “Do you know this place?” He gestured about at the rotting condominiums and tumbledown freeway overpasses. He asked, “Can you guide us through this morass of thorns as to avoid any bands of highwaymen who yet remain in this godforsaken place?”

  The physician, Terrence, inquired, “How are you called, peasant?”

  The man turned disdainful eyes on the asker. “My name?” growled he. “You may call me Nick.”

  The stranger folded his arms and rolled his eyes as if weighing the proposal to serve as their guide. He cocked his head. He wet the pad of a soiled finger against his tongue and held it up as if to check the speed and direction of the wind. Next he knelt and pressed one filthy ear to the cracked concrete as if listening for the approach of horsemen. Only after all the preceding did he narrow his eyes and ask, “To where is your highness journeying?”

  A mounted cavalier among them called back, “The Terminal Sales Building!”

  From another steed, a second cavalier shouted lustily, “To the highest conference room of the same! There a gathering of all the chieftains shall take place!”

  Charlie held up a Naugahyde-gloved hand to silence them. Of the grimy musician he asked, “Know it, you?”

  Making no wordy reply, the man retrieved his guitar from the ground. He started away on foot down a shadowy avenue that none among Charlie’s attendants had taken note of. He waved for them to follow, and after a moment’s hesitation the mighty horses leaned into their traces and the great wheels of the royal carriage creaked and turned, and attendants numbering in the hundreds commenced to march forward in the stranger’s wake.

  Esteban listened to the voice over the phone. He knew that history would eventually erase them, but he’d never suspected it would be this soon. The Talbott book had readied them to die. It had lifted them from addiction and resignation. It had given them control of their world and their own lives. Now at what ought to be the time of their rejoicing, Bing was gone.

  Esteban relinquished the phone to the clerk in charge. He excused himself to go to the bathroom. Seated in a stall, he discovered hash marks scratched in the paint. He counted three hundred seventy-four marks.

  In Gaysia, Delicious had her feet in stirrups, but her mind had wandered miles away. Wondering, would Gentry still love her? Pondering, had it been worth this trial, hiding in a country where she did not belong?

  A voice snapped her back to the here and now. She lay back on an examining table with her legs in the air. Curtains divided them from innumerable such booths stretching away on either side. A masked figure stood between her knees. A surgical cap hid the technician’s hair, but her eyes were bloodshot and sunken in exhausted pits of baggy, discolored skin. “There, now rest,” she said, holding a dripping pipette in one latex-gloved hand. The technician swabbed the pipette with a wipe smelling of alcohol. In a distracted tone, she said, “Thank you for your service.”

  A nation’s first generation is no small event. Delicious was the nest to a cuckoo’s egg. She was the cuckold, compelled to raise a stranger’s child. The enemy’s child. As the enemy would be raising one for her, figuratively speaking.

  Her new nation teetered on the brink of World War III. And so that Gaysia would hold as many hostages as possible, every woman of childbearing age had been called up for mandatory insemination. Domestic industries had been retooled for the maximum production of wartime sperm.

  In the facility the curtains fluttered as a drag queen in a sequin-spangled nurse’s getup entered carrying a metal tray crowded with tiny paper cups. Delicious took one and gulped down a mouthful of watery orange juice while the drag sang, “The seed inside you, I can see it growing . . . ,” from the Paul Anka hit “Having My Baby.”

  The drag disappeared into the next cubicle, and Delicious heard the song start up, again. The technician, who was, herself, extremely pregnant under her scrubs, set aside her instruments and struggled to help Delicious off the table. Once she was on her feet a smock was offered, and Delicious slipped her arms into the sleeves. From a nearby cubicle came, “Thank you for your service.”

  The technician, pulling a fresh stretch of sterile paper to cover the table, said, “We recommend you lie down in the recovery area to guarantee results.”

  “Thank you for your service,” said a man’s voice in the distance.

  Delicious told herself, Another angel got its wings, and suppressed a laugh.

  To keep up appearances Belle had brought her and was waiting in the reception area. The clinic itself had once been an airport. In a few weeks Delicious would return the favor and escort Belle back here for the same treatment. The Dixie cup of orange juice. The snippet of Paul Anka.

  The smock amounted to a military uniform. Delicious told herself, Those also serve who only sit and wait with their legs in the air, and choked back a hysterical giggle. The streets and shops were filled with women wearing this same flour sack. Roomy, it was designed to be worn through giving birth, subjecting the wearer to endless rounds of being thanked by strangers.

  They rode home in a cab, an extravagance. At their destination the driver refused to accept payment. He began, “Thank you for—,” but Delicious averted her face and raised an open hand to interrupt him.

  From the entrance to the alleyway beside their building a mass of candles and teddy bears spilled out onto the street. Bouquets of carnations filled the air with the sweetness of rot. Hand-lettered and heart-shaped sympathy cards read “Bing” and
“Our Hero!” A queue of mourners stretched down the block, each waiting his or her turn to deposit a bouquet of roses or a fluttering, flashing bunch of Mylar balloons in rainbow colors.

  A crew of television newspeople panned the crowd with their lights. A man with a microphone walked the line, asking how the assassination had affected people. A few wept openly. The newscaster turned to address the camera, saying, “Police have located security footage of the killing. They’ve announced that an arrest is imminent.”

  The two women hurried from the cab, keys in hand, to the building’s doorway. Behind them a chorus of voices shouted, “Thank you for . . .” The elevator doors pinched off the final words.

  Safely inside the apartment, with the bolt thrown and the chain on, Belle called, “We’re home.” When no one responded, she called, “Felix?”

  The television was on. As always Talbott filled the screen. He told them:

  The world wants a unified field theory. A thing, one something that explains everything—give it to them.

  Delicious stood in the living room as Belle stepped to her son’s door and knocked. On television Talbott said:

  The measure of a man is not what he does for wages but what he does with his free time.

  When Belle reappeared she was carrying a sheet of paper. From it she read, “Dear Mom . . . ,” and looked at Delicious with brimming eyes.

  Canada was a test. Long after sunset Dawson drove the back roads of what used to be Idaho. After the fugitive, Ramantha, had fallen asleep he turned down a rutted dirt lane crowded by briars on both sides. No moon had risen. He followed his headlights into the dark until he could see a fence blocking their path. A gate stood in the center with no sign. Its distance was just as far as he could make out in his high beams.

  Dawson reached over and nudged the woman. “We’re here.”

  She jolted awake. Peered into the night around them.

  “We’re at the border,” he told her. God only knew what that gate led to. Some estate where she’d be taken prisoner and executed in accord with the new laws. Or was there some back pasture where the wolves would chase her down? Either way she’d be dead. They weren’t anywhere near Canada. But she’d no longer be his problem.

  He shut off the engine but kept the headlights on. He looked around as if to check for border patrols.

  She squinted through the streaked windshield and asked, “Through that gate?”

  He nodded. “Hurry.” The words of Talbott whispered from the truck’s radio, “. . . the way of man is not to hope but to take action and to produce results . . .”

  She kept her eyes on the distant gate as her hands checked her pockets.

  Dawson felt the wedding ring stuffed in his own pants pocket. He waited for some thanks. He hadn’t killed her. He’d delivered her to safety, safety as far as she knew. She was failing his test big time.

  For the first time, she glanced at the truck’s visor, at a wallet-sized photo taped there. It showed a woman smiling. “Pretty,” she said. “Your wife?”

  He looked at the picture of his wife, Roxanne, smiling down on them in the murky green glow of the dashboard lights. He said, “No.” He said, “My sister.”

  Without a word of gratitude, the woman swung open the passenger door and stepped out. She looked at him and opened her mouth to speak. Her eyes kept darting to the gate. Bugs spiraled and flitted in the twin cones of light. The gate glowed white as phosphorus burning, with blackness as solid as a wall on the other side. A wolf howled medium close by. Her eyes snapped back to him. “Where in Canada?”

  Dawson made a show of lifting one hand, pulling back his shirt sleeve, and looking at his wristwatch. It was after midnight. If she thanked him in the next minute he might not let her wander off to her doom. Another howl split the night. “Okanogan Valley,” he told her. He described pretty little houses and orchards filled with cherry trees. Gardens and lakes. He assured her that once she’d passed through the gate she’d qualify as a political refugee, and they’d have to provide her with shelter and a fresh start in life.

  He could let her last thoughts be a comforting fantasy. She should stumble into the dark expecting to find love and acceptance. Once that wolf pack caught up with her, not long after he’d driven away, she’d wish she’d died on Adjustment Day.

  The academic, Ramantha, she stood beside the truck. She pulled something from a pocket of her coat and leaned in to place this gift on the seat beside him. Paper something. In the dim light it was old money, useless trash. “For your trouble,” she said. She belted the coat tight around herself. “Leave your headlights on,” she ordered, “at least until I get through.”

  In quick resolute steps, she marched away. Centered in the lights. Her shadow loomed in front of her, towering and terrible. Each step raised dust that floated in her wake.

  She’d turned out just like the others. A selfish, gutless tribe who considered just their own self-interests. She wasn’t the first. Dawson had brought others here. The first was a journalist who’d managed to escape Adjustment Day. Tweed something, a television reporter. The second had been another think tanker, a doctor. Dr. Ashanti, a therapist with a half-million votes to his name on the list. Both had charged off into the darkness in expectation of the warm embrace of like-minded liberal progressives. A third had been some dude, a city councilman from Seattle. Each of the three had gone through the gate without so much as a goodnight. Afterward Dawson had killed his headlights and sat listening. Each night, the howling had found them before they could find their way back to his truck. He’d heard them crashing through the briars and scrub. And he’d heard them screaming. Never his name, because none of them had ever asked his name. They’d only shrieked for help. For someone to help them. For someone to save them. They’d screamed “mister” and they’d screamed “please,” and in the end they’d only screamed.

  This one, Ramantha, was halfway to the gate.

  Dawson had the same thought each time. Instead of letting the wolves shred this one, he considered gunning the truck’s engine, dropping it into third gear, and peeling out. He could run her down. Take her ear. A mercy killing. A win-win benefiting everyone once the wolves found her corpse.

  He slid a hand into his pocket and played with the wedding ring hidden there. Home waited. He hadn’t been home all season. He’d spent his youth being a good husband and a model employee on the shop floor. Sure, now he was a chieftain. If he wanted, he could have a passel of wives. Rule over multitudes. But that just looked like a bigger version of the same trap. As a ruler he’d have to be a good husband to more women. And a king amounted to being a model employee with countless people to look after.

  His fingertips felt the round, hard, closed circle of the wedding ring.

  That’s why he’d been on the road this long. He’d discovered he had the soul of a barbarian. A warrior. And winning was death to that spirit. He wanted a new army and new battles.

  Winning was fine, but not half as rewarding as fighting. That’s why the testing. To find just one person to serve as his accomplice. A partner to help him keep the adventure of his life going.

  It could be that he’d lived at the bottom of the heap for too long. He could only savor the fight. His constitution wasn’t compatible with peace and leisure. Whatever side had the uphill battle, that’s the side Dawson wanted to join.

  The figure of the fugitive academic receded into the distance. Her shadow against the gate was almost the same size as her. The headlights blazed, turning her back into one blank white shape of a human. Her shadow was the black version of this same shape. And in another step these two opposing shapes would touch.

  He hadn’t wished this for the others, but tonight Dawson willed for her to stop. His hand hovered above the center of the steering wheel, ready to honk the horn. To warn her. Still, he knew there was no point in saving her unless she was worthy. Whispering, he begged her to stop. To come back. To join him on his next campaign, whatever that would be.

  He y
earned to be a force for change, not a landlord. His wife wouldn’t starve, she’d continue to receive his allotment of Talbott bucks, an income sufficient to maintain her hundreds of dependent servants.

  As a small sacrifice, he rolled down his window. His fingers produced the ring from his pocket, and he lifted it toward the space open above the glass. He let it drop and it fell, bouncing once against the outside of the door. A tiny chime. Then it was lost.

  At the chime, the woman froze in place. One hand had reached out to touch the latch, and this blazing white hand touched the fingertips of her shadow hand. Then both hands pulled away from each other.

  She turned and began walking back.

  The wolves howled closer, and Dawson laid on the truck’s horn to scare them away. He leaned across the seat and pushed open her door.

  She climbed in. “I can’t . . . ,” she said, her voice flat with resolve. Her arms folded across her chest, she said, “I can’t just give up and forge a new life. Not for all the maple syrup in the world.”

  It wasn’t fear of the wolves. The woman had changed.

  She glared into the night. “I can’t let the bad guys win. I can’t ditch my ideals.” She turned to meet his gaze, her eyes blazing. “Gender Studies is a real thing, and I won’t let it be a lost cause, not if I have to fight back with every drop of my blood.”

  Fury clouded her face. Her frail hands clenched into stony fists. In a voice hoarse with vengeance, she rasped, “People should read bell hooks!”

  Dawson had been wrong. She’d passed his test. She was a fighter. A keeper.

  Her face softened. “Where are my manners,” she said, “I never thanked you . . .” She offered her hand. “Please, tell me your name?”

  At that he told her, “Dawson,” and turned the key in the truck’s ignition.

  Miss Jo had taken to reading the Talbott book. It held that the act of storytelling was essentially digestive in nature. We bring up a topic much like how a ruminant animal, a cow for example, brings up partially masticated grass from its stomach. In our stories we exhaust our emotional attachment to past events. We elicit similar stories from others. By mulling things over—and the word mulling meant to grind, just as ruminate meant to think—we are able to assimilate the most unhappy or happy experiences of our lives. We accept them as normal human events. We quit telling them, and the stories become part of us.

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