Adjustment day, p.4
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       Adjustment Day, p.4

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Shasta will be heel dragging, whispering about homeowners with shotguns. About stand-your-ground laws.

  If anyone catches them, Walter will promise to lie. He’ll swear that he lured her here to strangle her. He’s a serial killer. He’s got victims buried in shallow graves all over the American West. He’ll pretend to a jury that he’d told her this was his house. He’d planned to eat Froot Loops out of the bowl he’d make from her skull. Using her blood, he’d write Helter Skelter on the glass door of the Sub-Zero wine cooler. As an almost-butchered woman, she’ll get off scot free.

  Walter will say that he’s already snooped around. No one’s home. He’ll reach into his back pocket and show her the coil of thin wire. It’s ready for when the police frisk him: A garrote, for strangling her, with a small wooden peg attached to either end so he can pull it tight. It’s her get-out-of-jail-free card. Seeing condoms and a murder weapon will be all the insurance policy she’ll need. She can relax.

  Sex is sex, but sex plus danger is great. The looming threat of being serial killed or getting jail time will bring down her juices faster than green M&M’s. The both of them a tangled knot, he’ll go at it until they’re half dead. They’ll christen every room. If there’s a safe, behind a painting or a secret panel in the wall, Walter will find it. He’ll press his ear near the dial and listen to the tumblers spin. Before she says not to, he’ll throw the handle and open the heavy door, taking only enough cash for two first-class one-way tickets to Denver.

  In Denver, he’ll take her on another bus ride to where big houses sit far apart. He’ll show her on his phone how he reverse-engineered the security monitoring software, how easy, and she’ll follow him around the sides of a house until they find a window unlatched.

  Before here and now, she’s only known him as some baked chode. A hammered nobody who can only afford ditch weed shake full of seeds and stems. He lives in his ma’s basement, where the plumbing growls like a stomach like the sound of an impending bad smell. Shasta likes him okay, but not so much that she’d marry him.

  By Denver, she’s bought into his secret Robin Hood bad-boy side. The way he can open doors—abracadabra—and human traffic the two of them into rich, forbidden worlds. After they make love on a bearskin rug and throw the goopy condom into a roaring fire in a stone fireplace under a crystal chandelier, after they drink stolen wine and she washes the glasses and puts everything back, then he’ll locate another safe. This one, hidden under the false bottom of a seemingly empty bathroom cabinet, he’ll have it open in a flash and withdraw just the money they need to fly to Chicago.

  That bad-boy Walter will completely win her over. Chicago will be a repeat of Denver. Minneapolis will take them to Seattle. As a sign of her newfound awe and respect, she starts referring to his junk as the Penis de Milo. In Minneapolis she slips up and calls him “daddy.” Seattle leads to San Francisco, where they’ll sneak past the doorman at some art deco skyscraper that they’ll just happen to be passing one night. He’ll hack the elevator code and ride to the penthouse. Using his phone, he’ll show her the view from every security camera to prove nobody’s home. While Shasta stands lookout near the elevator, he’ll trip the locks, then hurry her inside. He’ll remind her of the back-up scenario. Him: Serial killer. Her: Victim. The two of them, outlaws. The next day they’ll be strolling along a dock in Sausalito where he targets a yacht. They take it out into the bay, not sailing, he’s not that much of a show-off. He’ll use the motor and spend a sunny day on the water. On the deck, catching some rays, she’ll say, “Show me, again.” Then and there he’ll pull the coiled wire out of his pocket and demonstrate how easily it fits around her neck. Just to give her peace of mind.

  A locker will yield an array of bikinis all in perfect Size Shasta. He’s neither a tit man nor a leg man so she’s his physical ideal, stretched out on a deckchair, sucking down Durban Poison until her skin burns the color of deep dish chili cheese Pepperoni Stix. That same evening, he’ll moor the yacht and look for a new safe, this one hidden by a spice rack camouflaged behind a panel in the galley. The money he finds will get them both down to San Diego.

  Still they’re trespassers in paradise. She might be having a ball, touring the glamorous life with Mr. Douche Danger. But she’ll never marry him, and he knows that.

  As long as her vacation time holds out, they’ll hop from San Diego to New Orleans to Miami. In a waterfront villa, they’ll be making love. In a canopy bed beside big windows that look out on the ocean under a full moon. Not a minute after they’ve taken each other to Heaven and back, the bedroom doors will burst open. Uniformed men train their side arms on Shasta. The lights blaze bright, and she screams, clutching damp sheets over her naked body. Not like Walter practiced, not exactly, she screams, “He’s a serial killer,” meaning him. She screams, “He told me he lived here.” So much for her acting skills. She says, “He planned to strangulate me!”

  A voice among the uniforms yells, “Police!” Commands, “Put your hands where we can see them!”

  This is how it ends, their cross-country crime spree. Bonnie and Clyde without the body count. With the spit still wet on each other, he’ll climb out of bed and find his pants. He’ll show the police his driver’s license. Keeping his hands in the air, his pecker still stuck out so hard it shines, still waving the filled condom like a little white flag, he’ll cross the room to an elegant antique French desk.

  She’ll still be in bed, openly weeping, saying, “Thank God, thank you! He calls this love, but he plans to destroy me!”

  The police won’t allow Walter to actually open the desk drawer so he’ll direct an officer to do so. Revealed within, lying on top in plain sight, will be a deed of property ownership. On it, notarized and duly recorded in all public records will be the same name as on the driver’s license. His name. Where and when, in the elegant intonations of a landed aristocrat, he’ll explain, smiling, naked, “Officers, I own this house.”

  In the bed, the weeping will stop. Shasta’s voice will ask, “Huh?” The two of them had been drinking red wine, and the edge of her glass will have left a thin, red Salvador Dali mustache curving up from the corners of her mouth.

  He’ll explain. He owned everything. In Denver, in Seattle, every house is his. He knew the codes, the combinations to the safes. The cash he took was his own. He left the windows unlocked and tipped doormen to look the other way. Even the yacht and the bikinis. Secretly, Walter dialed 9-1-1 to bring the cops at this, the perfect moment.

  Blithely, he’ll pull off the condom and cast it side. Not only is he a brash bad-boy douche bag with the stealth and cunning to skate through life and show a girl a good time, he’s also rich. He’ll be the same old Walter she liked before, only loaded. The regular him, but with so much more to love.

  With the police officers looking on, their guns lowered, him still naked, her naked, he’ll kneel on the floor near his pants. He’ll reach into the pocket where the garrote is hidden and bring out a ring. He’ll ask, “Will you marry me?”

  A big diamond ring.

  There and then, a crew of caterers will arrive with chocolate-dipped strawberries and Mountain Dew–flavored Doritos with garlic popcorn and extra ranch dressing on the side. He’ll fire up a big, juicy party bowl packed with New Purple Power, and even the cops will greedily partake. For the honeymoon him and Shasta will live happily ever after on a tropical isle he owns, reforested with fields of White Rhino. Either there or maybe under a geodesic dome terrarium sunk on the bottom of the ocean with self-contained, recycling everything, surrounded by an ever-changing galaxy of colorful tropical sea life.

  Whatever the case, this is how he’ll propose.

  There’s not enough of him, not yet, to constitute anyone’s everything. What he has to do is, first, make a shit-ton of money.

  Tweed O’Neill and her crew beat the first engine company to the raging school inferno. Of course, the Fire Marshall was already on the scene. Other television news crews were soon to follow, aligning th
eir satellite hook-ups, each angling for the best view of the blaze. It was the city’s fourth school to go up in flames recently. Every outlet worked from the same press releases, but this time Tweed had brought a secret weapon.

  Enter Dr. Ramantha Steiger-DeSoto, a senior professor in Gender Studies at the university. The lady doctor was a well-spoken, camera-friendly egghead with her own unique spin on serial arson.

  Tweed had texted the doctor from the television studio, and the two met up at the crime scene as flames leapt high into the sky. With the gymnasium collapsing slowly behind them, sending up bright geysers of sparks and embers, Tweed blocked out the interview. She and the doctor stood at a safe distance as the cameraman adjusted his focus and the sound technician wired a microphone to the lapel of the doctor’s Ann Taylor trench coat.

  Through her earpiece Tweed could hear the anchors discussing the fire. In a moment they’d throw the audience to her, live, on location. She eyed her competition. None had brought anything new to the story. They were merely passing the Fire Marshall from set-up to set-up, and he was giving each outlet the same list of official facts.

  The doctor appeared unfazed by the bright camera lights and the billowing, acrid smoke. Someone had suggested a rumored propane tank, possibly related to the school’s kiln, was liable to explode at any instant. Nevertheless Dr. Steiger-DeSoto looked determined to voice her theory about recent events. Standing tall, almost a head taller than Tweed, her frizzy blonde hair was tied up in a sensible bun. She looked every inch the no-nonsense sociologist who stood ready to enlighten the television viewers.

  The cameraman shouldered his steady cam and signaled 3-2-1 with his fingers, finally pointing to indicate they’d gone live.

  “Tweed O’Neill here at the scene of yet another three-alarm fire,” Tweed began. “Marking the destruction of a fourth local school this summer.”

  The cameraman widened the shot to include both women.

  “With me tonight is Dr. Ramantha Steiger-DeSoto to present insight into the motive for these recent fires.” Tweed turned to the elegant academic. She tossed, “Your thoughts, doctor?”

  The doctor wasn’t fazed by the attention. “Thank you, Tweed.” She faced the camera full-on. “Federal criminal profiling shows the average arsonist to be a white male between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. For this man, the act of fire setting is sexual in nature . . .”

  As if on cue the rumored propane tank exploded deep within the building, a concussive boom-BOOM that elicited a deep moan from the crowd present.

  The doctor continued, “For the pyrophiliac, the act of spraying liquid accelerant equates to expressing his sexual ejaculate in a symbolic degrading rape of the structure . . .”

  Collapsing fire and sex meant ratings gold, but Tweed worried that the doctor’s language was too highbrow. She tried to redirect. “But who . . . ?”

  The doctor nodded sagely. “Self-isolating men. Right-wing adherents poisoned by the toxic masculinity of the so-called Men Going Their Own Way movement. These are your culprits.”

  Tweed tried to lighten the tone. “So Maureen Dowd was right?” she joked. “That having men around is just too high a price to pay for sperm?”

  The doctor smiled weakly. “For generations popular culture has been promoting the idea that all men will eventually attain high-status positions in society. Globally, today’s young males have been raised to feel entitled to power and admiration as a birthright.”

  Tweed knew the station was coming up on a hard break. To cap the segment, she asked, “Doctor, how can we best deal with today’s troubled young men?”

  Backed by the hellish glare of flames, the doctor proclaimed, “Men in general need to accept their diminished status in the world.” Against a backdrop of smoke and shouting, she added, “The impending war, for example, will be an excellent opportunity for them to earn the acclaim they crave.”

  Tweed tossed to commercial. “Thank you, doctor. This is Tweed O’Neill at the pointless destruction of another community landmark.”

  The cameraman signaled the feed had cut.

  The doctor fumbled with her clip-on mic. Suddenly pensive, she asked, “What’s he doing?” She glared at something in the middle distance.

  Tweed’s gaze followed hers. Both women looked at the Fire Marshall. Tweed’s impression was that he was taking a head count. His attention seemed to settle for a moment on each of the journalists present, and he seemed to be checking them off a list he held. His eyes met hers. His hand holding a pen drew a line through something on the paper held in his opposite hand.

  Only now did Tweed notice the little boy. A grade school–aged child with a strange discolored mark running down one side of his face. Then the reality struck her: It was so cute. The District Fire Marshall had brought his own little son to watch Daddy at work. Watching the two Tweed made a mental note to spin that touching father-and-son moment into a feel-good story she could peddle to network programmers.

  For Garret Dawson it was the coffee filters. In the kitchen, working the Mr. Coffee, he found they were almost out of filters, again. Another five hundred pots of coffee gone, another year, more than a year.

  He was growing old. Garret had realized that fact when he made it a habit to look at something—a houseplant, a clock, a book—before looking at his wife, Roxanne. If he was attending a party and talking to a pretty young woman, somebody’s teenaged daughter, for instance . . . or even watching a beautiful woman read the news on cable television . . . and he looked from her smooth face directly at Roxanne, it was too jarring. In her day his wife had been beautiful, but she was no longer young. Thus he needed a buffer between looking at someone youthful and looking at her. An ashtray or a pipe wrench, something not-human.

  At the same time he noticed her looking from handsome actors in movies, focusing on her popcorn before directing her attention at him. It might’ve been his imagination. A projection based on his own behavior. But it reminded him that he was also getting older.

  The Talbott book put it so well:

  Beautiful people become powerful because they recognize the nature of power, early, and fear losing it. People beautiful in their youth learn to transfer power by investing it in subsequent forms. They trade their youth for education. Their education they invest in developing contacts and expertise in a skill. Their money they invest in redundant forms of power, back-up resources.

  That is why an expiring form of money is crucial. Power passed from generation to generation in the abstract form of wealth leads to privilege and corruption. Money must not be hoarded for its own sake but must be continually employed for a fruitful purpose.

  The coffee filters were the last straw. At the machine shop, Leon had come at him with some cockamamie plan to seize control of the government and reshape the nation. It sounded bogus, but at this point anything sounded better than buying another five hundred coffee filters and watching them count down his final years. He poured ground coffee into the last filter and filled the machine with water. He flipped the switch to start brewing. Calling out to Roxanne in the other room, he said, “Coffee ready in a sec.” He added, “I’m going out for a minute.”

  He’d give Leon a call. Meet him down by the tavern. Find out if this harebrained scheme was a for-real proposition. Leon had given him the blue-black book, which said:

  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.

  Roxanne called from the dining room, asking where he was headed.

  As he pulled on his coat, he checked the pockets for his keys and phone. He stepped into the doorway, where she sat at the dinner table, some kind of tax forms spread out in front of her. He answered, “We need coffee filters.”

  After a long pull of silence, not looking up, she asked, “Already?” Garret could hear the defeat in her voice. Life was going by just as quick for her. Another reason to explore some radical options.

  Leaning over, he
whispered, “I got it handled.” And he kissed her on the forehead.

  There had been the age of religion when cities were dominated by their cathedral or mosque. The domes and spires had dwarfed every structure that cowered around them. Then had come the age of commerce, and the skyscrapers of business and fluted columns of banks had dwarfed the churches. Factories outgrew even the largest mosques, and warehouses overshadowed temples. Most recently had begun the age of government when the buildings regulating civic life had exploded on the horizon. These were vast monoliths containing a power that religion and commerce could only dream of wielding. These were opulent vessels for protecting and showcasing the might of lawgivers and judges.

  In the final weeks before the Adjustment, it was into these great fortresses that ordinary people ventured, pretending to be awed, wandering around as if they were merely sightseers. They snapped photographs and pretended to be lost so they could wander into restricted areas and claim innocence when they were apprehended and asked to leave. They mapped possible escape routes they would need to bar. And they determined the locations that would give them the most-clear lines of fire.

  And as they marveled beneath the chandeliers and craned their necks to see the glory of the murals and the gilded ribs of the lofty domes, they knew that food had built this. Food that could’ve been eaten. Food that had been taken from them. And security had built these marbled stairways, security that could’ve been theirs. And their lives had been siphoned away so that these walls could be paneled with polished mahogany, and rosewood, stuff shipped from around the world to add to the comfort and pleasure of the ruling elite. These hillbillies and rubes with their slack-jawed, hang-dog expressions, they pretended respect, and they acted out admiration for these grand statehouses and the grand potentates who orchestrated their lives from within.

  They whispered one to the other. They mapped with video. They began to see themselves doing the cold task they had set their minds on doing.

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