Adjustment day, p.31
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       Adjustment Day, p.31

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Miss Jo, she’d been recounting the glory of her family and race for so long that she had white fatigue. The Talbott book claimed that mankind was suffering identify fatigue. People were living too long to retain a single self. Therefore, the boldest were seeking a new frontier. Men were becoming women. Whites were becoming blacks.

  Dawning on Miss Jo was the fact that she was the culmination of a long line of rebels and pioneers. She was the last of her breed, and she was bone tired of repeatedly giving lip service to her illustrious family history. Her family had outlived its glory. Its stories could die with her.

  The story of her life was a tasteless mouth of mush. She rose from her chair and moved around the room turning off the lamps. In complete darkness, her fingertips found the candle and the matchbook on the lace doily on her bedside table.

  She lit a match.

  The book said, “People are addicted to being right.”

  It suggested going to a dinner party and stating over the table that the writer Sylvia Plath was a racist due to the scientific conclusions she’d reached in her most famous book, The Bell Curve. Your fellow guests will enjoy sputtering, multiple orgasms of rightness as they correct you. Expound on the fact that despite all of his legendary association with the Algonquin Round Table, Robert Benchley didn’t achieve popular success until he wrote Jaws. Lecture that many people believe the New Zealand short-story writer Katherine Mansfield was beheaded in a bizarre car accident that took place on a Louisiana bridge heavily shrouded in mosquito insecticide. The fact of the matter is that she died of blunt head trauma, but her signature blonde wig was photographed where it had come to rest in the shattered windshield of the car, leading many to conclude her head was severed from her body by the rear edge of the flatbed truck her driver had rear ended. Conclude by saying that since her death all commercial truck chassis must come equipped with a bar on the undercarriage, called the “Mansfield bar,” which lifts the vehicle in similar collisions and prevents such fatal injuries.

  “It might take a moment,” Talbott counseled, “But your audience will descend upon you, correcting you with all the yelping blood frenzy of a pack of rabid hyenas felling a lone wildebeest.”

  Making others right redeems their paltry and pointless educations.

  Making others right makes them love you, according to Talbott, because we only love things we feel superior to. We only love those who don’t pose a threat.

  Making others right is the best method for controlling them.

  Jamal was savoring a snifter of pre–Civil War port. He needed the drink. Having recently returned from the council of chieftains, he knew that Blacktopia couldn’t avoid a war with Gaysia.

  He raised his glass to the peace and prosperity brought about by Adjustment Day. It would soon be interrupted. The future was already upon them.

  Raising his glass, he toasted the military men depicted in the oil paintings on the walls around him. Each man had followed the dictates of his conscience. Each had been a hero according to his time in history. Their world had been a different world than his. Jamal had to admire their courage and determination, even if their actual acts might seem ill-advised in retrospect. Painted like this, framed and hung to decorate some parlor walls, they might be primped and posed for posterity, but these thugs had been the badasses of their day.

  He speculated that even something as noble as Adjustment Day might be deemed despicable in the distant future. As per Talbott:

  The weakest people alive will try to glorify themselves by tearing down the truly amazing strength of the dead.

  To some yet-to-be-born weakling, Jamal’s likeness might be the image of a villain. Jamal only hoped that future coward could appreciate the bravery it had taken to dispatch a failing system and replace it with something new. Facing a spotted, antique mirror, lifting his snifter of port, he toasted himself.

  That’s when his pit bull, Bouncer, rose from the carpet and sniffed the air. The dog whined.

  That’s when Jamal had smelled smoke. The ashes in the fireplace were cold. A siren blasted from somewhere in the house, a smoke detector. A second joined it. A chorus of sirens wailed from the ceiling of every room.

  His mind went to the terrorists Talbott had warned against. The loyalists or Canadians were committing arson in order to thwart the new nation states. Someone pledged to reuniting the formerly united states had put a torch to the house. Either that, or agents of Gaysia were already attacking.

  He climbed the steps three at a time. The smoke hung heavier on the second floor, heavier still on the third. At the top of the stairs the attic door felt hot to his touch. He wrapped the tail of his untucked shirt around the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Locked.

  Pounding his fists on the wood, he shouted, “Barnabas! Open up!”

  A feeble voice answered, “You don’t understand.”

  The door was almost too hot to beat against, but Jamal slammed it with his shoulder. The centuries-old oak wouldn’t budge. “Unlock this door!” he commanded, and his own voice shocked him. The authority, his authority, boomed. It was a voice for giving speeches without need of a microphone.

  Pounding his fists on the wood, he shouted, “Barnabas! Open up!”

  This wasn’t, this would not be the end of his book. At best this would be the crisis at the end of the first act. His book, Black Like You, needed a lot more writing before he could call it done. Like The Three Faces of Eve, all successful case studies needed a happy ending.

  If his strength didn’t work, his wiles would have to. “Oh, Barnabas,” he begged, “I need you. Only you can tell me the history of the plantation.”

  The unseen voice sobbed in reply. It couldn’t be more than a finger’s length away, separated from Jamal by only this slab of oak. “Damn this place,” it sobbed, “it’s stolen my life. I’ve been a fool to keep praising the past.”

  Inspiration struck Jamal. “Then leave with me. Become a founder in the glorious future of Blacktopia!”

  Something fell heavily against the opposite side of the door and slid to the floor. The smoke was overwhelming. When the voice spoke next, it spoke from the thin crack at the floor. There, where Bouncer sniffed and dug against the floorboards with both paws, the weak, faint voice said, “Jamal, you don’t understand . . .”

  He dropped to the floor and yelled back, “I understand.”

  “My family has deep roots here,” the voice whispered.

  Jamal spoke softer now, “So does mine.”

  The dying voice sighed with resignation, “Jamal, I’m not even a negro.”

  Jamal almost laughed. Almost. Instead he asked himself what his hero, Talbott Reynolds, would do in this situation. And against the roar of the growing inferno and the choir of shrieking smoke alarms, Jamal bellowed, “I’m not black, either!”

  At that the stairway lights flickered and failed. Glass crashed somewhere, windows exploding outward or the crystal decanters in the parlor, filled with the excellent flammable hooch. In this chaos of noise, the darkness relieved by only flashes of orange flame, an eternity seemed to pass.

  The Barnabas creature was dead, Jamal assumed, and he himself would die if he waited at this door a moment longer.

  The door’s bolt clicked. The knob turned, and the door swung aside to reveal a stooped, soot-blackened imp surrounded by the pyres of hell. Bug-eyed with shock, the demon asked, “What do you mean you’re not black?”

  The dog whined, and Jamal told it, “Go!” He got the hell baby tight around one wrist and dragged it along, airborne, as he dove down the tunnel of fire the stairway had become.

  The brightest minds of the retention center seemed to be preoccupied. The guard at the desk was deep in hushed conversation with the door guard. Even when Charm approached them and said, “I need my brother, here, to help me get something from the car . . . ,” even then neither guard looked up. The door guard just waved her through.

  Charm and Gavyn found themselves standing on the front steps overlooking the p
arking lot and the gate beyond. Among the cars in the visitor parking spaces, one was their mother’s. In the car parked next to it the afternoon’s speaker, Esteban, sat behind the steering wheel. He wept furiously, cupping both hands over his mouth. Even crying, his shoulders heaving, and his chest shuddering with ragged sobs, he was still totally doable.

  “Mine,” Charm whispered.

  Her brother said, “You wish.”

  They sidled toward their car. A guard in a tower near the gate held a rifle at parade rest. Even from a distance he looked gross.

  In unison, both siblings said, “Yours.”

  Gavyn said, “Jinx.”

  His sister said, “Get in the car.”

  “And go where?” he asked. They’d never get past the closed security gate.

  Charm waved to the guard in the tower. She climbed behind the wheel and started the engine.

  Gavyn got in the passenger side, and they pulled out.

  By now the door guard and the desk guard had emerged from the building and were running after them. The man in the tower held something to his ear.

  As the car sped across the pavement, as the closed gate seemed to race forward to meet them, the car’s radio preached, “The joy of fiction is that it only has to smell true.”

  Charm screeched to a stop, leaving smoking skid marks on the concrete drive. The gate was made up of steel bars too heavy to ram through, electrified also, and the guards were almost to the car. A keypad was perched atop a pole within arm’s reach of the driver’s window.

  Gavyn watched the guards approaching in the rearview mirror and said, “Busted.”

  Charm lowered her window and reached out. Deftly, she punched numbers, and the gate swung open.

  They spun gravel.

  As the guards shrank and disappeared in the distance behind them, coughing in the smoke of burnt rubber, Gavyn marveled. “How did you know the code?”

  Charm threw him a smile. “Believe it or not,” she said, “I swapped spit for it.” She said, “Put on your seatbelt.”

  Gavyn buckled his seatbelt.

  As they plunged through a succession of immolating parlors and drawing rooms, Miss Josephine marveled at her own obtuseness. This boy, this Jamal, his face was the spitting image of so many of the ancestral portraits. His was the same patrician brow. The high, thoughtful forehead and widow’s peak receding hairline. He had the slightly hooded Peabody eyelids, the result of generations of careful matchmaking.

  Dragging her on an obstacle course, veering between blazing settees and fiery sideboards, the young man explained that he was the descendant of an antebellum slave by the name of Belinda. The forgotten grave in the woods. The girl had been wooed by and secretly wed to a great-great-great uncle of Miss Jo’s.

  “There,” Jamal shouted as they dashed past the burning, curling portrait of a handsome Confederate major, “there is my great-great-great-great grandfather!”

  The Barnabas marveled, “So you’re white!”

  Jamal winced. He scowled, “Hell, no!” Shouting to be heard over the roaring conflagration, he said, “I only lied to save your demented white-privileged ass!”

  The scorched imp stared back at him in confusion.

  “But,” he added, “my blood is your blood. I am your last living Peabody kinsman!”

  Belle stood in the living-room doorway and read aloud the letter from her son.

  “Dear Mom,” it began. “What I did wasn’t self-defense. It was to defend those I love. Isn’t that what Adjustment Day was all about?”

  Belle met Delicious’s eyes and threw a glance at an armchair. Suddenly mindful of her afternoon insemination, Delicious sat down.

  “What I’m doing now,” Belle continued to read, “I’m also doing to protect your secret and keep you safe.”

  Faint and down the hallway outside the apartment the elevator bell rang. Heavy footsteps and muffled voices drew closer.

  Reading faster, the letter flapping in her shaking hands, Belle said, “I’m going to the borderlands to see if the rumors are true . . . I want to live in a society based on choice instead of biological circumstances.”

  From the hallway came the sound of a neighboring apartment door. A voice asked, “Is this about the killing?” A surly voice responded, “Police business! Get back in your unit!”

  Delicious nodded for Belle to keep reading.

  Her eyes darting between the letter and the closed front door, Belle said, “An area patrolled by wolves. Areas made off-limits by mountain lions. The thorns and hornets and mosquitoes will serve as my moat and battlements . . .”

  The noise in the hallway had gone quiet when a pounding began on the outside of the apartment door. A gruff, menacing voice shouted, “Police! Open up!”

  Delicious exchanged panicked glances with Belle. The latter read, “I’m sorry Bing is dead. Bing was my best friend.”

  The voice in the hallway continued, “We have a warrant for the arrest of Felix!”

  Delicious lifted both hands as if holding a sheet of paper. She pantomimed tearing it in half.

  Belle tore the letter in two.

  Delicious snatched one half and wadded it into a tight ball, nodding for Belle to follow suit. As Belle crumbled her half, Delicious stuffed the ball into her own mouth and ground it between her back teeth. Belle did the same.

  The voice outside the door shouted, “We have the building surrounded!”

  With a mighty gulp, Delicious swallowed her wad of paper. Belle tried, gagging, her hands clutching at her throat, her face turning blue.

  The apartment door burst inward. An explosion of splinters rained on the two women as Delicious pounded Belle between the shoulder blades.

  A tall jack-booted figure was stepping through the shattered door. A drag queen in a glitter-encrusted police uniform, sporting a badge heavily layered with rhinestones, demanded, “Where’s the boy?” Pinned to the uniform was a nametag with “Esteban” spelled out in tiny jewels.

  The officer held a service revolver so heavily crusted with small gems that it was impossible to guess its make or caliber.

  At the shocking sight of this blinding colossus, Belle swallowed hard. In that manner the letter was resolved.

  The Peabody Manse was doomed. Genteel as it was, that legacy of polished silver julep cups and rosewood harpsichords, it was crashing into fiery wreckage around their ears.

  When it seemed certain that Barnabas and Jamal would perish beneath the toppling mass of a grandfather clock, a dog’s bark drew their attention. Bouncer, with a dog’s superior olfactory talent, had navigated the dense smoke to find the front door. Jamal and Miss Jo had only to follow the sound of barking and they quickly found themselves on the front porch.

  Even then, the towering Greek revival columns that fronted the manse, those columns were splitting in the intense heat. The great, blazing portico fell toward them with the speed and deafening roar of a freight train.

  A mighty leap to the front lawn saved humans and dog. And while the ancient family seat crumbled behind them, they ran into the cool night.

  Panting, Miss Josephine worried aloud, “What’s to become of us?”

  Sprinting beside her, Jamal asked, “You remember that book, The Grapes of Wrath?”

  Miss Jo nodded, hurriedly.

  “Everything they did to survive,” Jamal says, “we need to do just the opposite.”

  According to Talbott their book would change the world.

  Walter had snorted. “You’re joking. This book is a joke, right?”

  His new old man had laughed wetly, a noise like someone gargling, and said, “That’s what Rudolf Hess asked!” He exhaled for one, two, three beats, a long time, deflating with the finality of a dying breath. The ribs of his chest folded inward until there seemed to be nothing left inside of him.

  Walter had fidgeted, his hands ready to take notes. He’d been listening for so long he’d lost the knack for forming his own thoughts. “You wrote a fantasy.” He’d added, “We wro
te a fantasy.”

  Talbott’s chin had sunk until it came to settle against his chest. “We’re wrecking the nation to save the people.” He’d rested, breathing heavily. “Young blacks are shooting each other in record numbers. Gays are killing each other with disease.” He’d labored for the next breath. “Whites are wiping themselves out with opiates.” His frame had sagged. His head had toppled forward.

  Only the restraints had held him in the chair as the old man whispered, “Whether it’s by breeding children or preaching, it’s what men do: This constant dissemination of self.”

  “Is that what we’re doing . . . ,” Walter paused, “disseminating?”

  In Before Times . . . back before this book was a book . . . his new old man had failed to respond.

  “This is just a book,” protested Walter. “It’s not supposed to happen!”

  The old man had seemed to collect his strength. Lifting his head he’d continued, “We regularly sacrifice people to preserve the nation.” His lips had formed a loose, sloppy smile. “Perhaps we ought to scuttle the nation every hundred years in order to preserve the people.”

  He’d fixed Walter with bleary eyes. “Thank you, Warner.”

  Walter hadn’t corrected him.

  His new old man had continued, “You’re my Boswell.” Talbott had said, “My scribe.” Stenographer. Amanuensis. He’d explained that Jeremiah had dictated his parts of the Bible to his secretary, Baruch. St. Paul had written the gospels through his scribe, Terius. St. Peter through Silas. St. John through Prochorus.

  Hitler had dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess.

  “The Bible.” Walter had laughed at the comparison.

  His tone had warmed as Talbott confided, “You’re as close as I will ever have to a son. You, you’re the apprentice every man dreams of teaching. You will carry my lifetime’s wisdom into the future so that mankind will benefit!”

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