Adjustment day, p.5
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       Adjustment Day, p.5

           Chuck Palahniuk

  And all knew the truth: Hoard food and it rots. Hoard money and you rot. Hoard power and the government rots.

  Instead of every stupid person having one vote, the smartest, bravest, most-bold would have one hundred or three hundred or one thousand votes while the weak and lazy had none. No longer would the most productive be slaves to the idle. The idle would be made to work.

  On tip-toe they trickled into the halls of power. Stately edifices their sweat had erected and to which they’d for too long sent themselves by proxy. They came as witnesses to survey the noble settings where their lives would either begin or end.

  When they gazed up into the soaring granite vaults or down at the acres of polished marble they felt tiny and weak. But when they crammed into the spectators gallery, elbow to elbow, knee to knee, forming a single mass, and they surveyed the thin numbers of the duly elected, they felt invincible.

  They bridled at being grouped into small herds and herded by elderly tour guides who dictated by rote the politically approved meaning of each flag and statue. They dared to picture the great chandeliers shot to pieces. They pictured the galleries with every painting slashed and all the statuary toppled in a jumble to suggest a mass grave of stone heads and severed fingers.

  They closed their eyes to better envision the tall windows of the statehouse or courthouse shattered and sparrows building nests in the rotunda’s gilded cornices and niches.

  The media labeled this surge of the curious as an uptick in patriotism. A reengagement of citizens with their nation. And on that count the media was correct, but not in the way they assumed. The media depicted the people as pilgrims supplicating themselves before their betters. And the media foresaw a growing future of peace and cooperation, and on this count they were also correct but not in the way they’d anticipated.

  For their part, these newcomers kept their eyes lowered and feigned timidity. In keeping with their low position as plain people they stepped aside in deference as even the lowliest usher or interns charged through their ranks.

  In the last days, the tourists flooded into every building of government. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the gawkers had ceased. The halls were empty except for those who did business. They exchanged nods and shook hands with the guards on duty. Those in uniform and those in street clothes agreeing with their eyes about what needed to happen. All parties in conspiracy toward the one day they’d act together.

  None but the security guard treated these people with respect because only the guards and peace officers recognized from whence the real power of the nation arose.

  For now, crouched in the storage space underneath the south stairs, Nick said, “I don’t know. I used to love the police.” They leaned against a wall of boxes crammed with old band uniforms. Gold braid showed through where the cardboard had split. Brass buttons glowed like treasure in the dim light.

  Shasta’s legs were cramping. Most likely they were breathing asbestos and cancerous chalk dust. Talcum powder was chalk, and talc caused cervical cancer. The world teetered on the brink of war, but Shasta liked it here. Thigh-to-thigh with Nick. Talking felt real. Nothing important ever happened over a telephone.

  The truth, Nick said, used to be easy to find. The truth was inside the newspaper until it printed an obituary for Nick’s dad. It said, “A beloved husband and father, the deceased died as a result of a cerebral hemorrhoid . . .” The web picked up the typo and it ran as a humor piece on hundreds of news sites. Even becoming a meme, typically a picture of Ronald Reagan or Gore Vidal bracketed with the words Died of a . . . along the top margin of the picture, and running along the bottom, . . . cerebral hemorrhoid!!

  The word everyone was looking for was hemorrhage; Nick’s father had been mowing the lawn when an aneurysm in his brain had burst. Just that one word, and the newspaper couldn’t get it right.

  Shasta took pity on him. She tried to explain.

  Dr. Brolly in Methods of the Media, he’d explained how modern print journalism, daily newspaper reporting, what we think of when we think of objective, that balanced truth was killed by Craigslist. Craigslist and Monster and Backpage and eBay. Newspaper profits had always come from the sale of classified ads. Those pages and pages of puppies for sale, apartments for rent, used cars, jobs, and SWM seeking SWF, those had been the foundation upon which rested the massive edifice of the Fourth Estate.

  All of those ads for garage sales and yard sales and seal-point Siamese kittens, those people seeking to buy WWII souvenirs or Fiestaware or split, seasoned firewood, those were the underpinnings of the oldest political dynasties. At a nickel or a dollar per word, those pages had been the goldmine that had financed the high culture. The editorials and book reviews and investigative reporting that was awarded Pulitzer Prizes. According to Dr. Brolly, our brightest, most-erudite observations owed their existence to poor people trying to unload vintage Avon cologne bottles and unwanted timeshares.

  “Movies exist,” Dr. Brolly told every class, every year, “because movies enable theaters to charge you five dollars for popcorn.” His point was that worthless popcorn supported the glittering world of movie stars and the Academy Awards. In the same way single, worthless words printed for a few dollars per day had supported the colossal newspaper empires.

  With the passing of newspapers the credibility of everything came into question. No one was dictating or arguing effectively, defining quality from crap, truth from lies. Without a gatekeeper, an arbiter, everything had equal value.

  Dr. Brolly had made them read The Sibling Society by Robert Bly. The book said modern society had lost its traditional hierarchy. Be it the patriarch or the matriarch, mothers and fathers had been reduced to the same status as their children. No one wanted to be an adult, and people were friends, peers, equals, rather than teachers and students. Reduced to siblings.

  This flattening of the social hierarchy, Brolly predicted, would lead to populism. Instead of a few enlightened sages, vast numbers of people swayed by emotion and greed would seize the reins of power.

  Below the stairs, Nick interrupted, “You know he’s stoned all the time?”

  Shasta asked, “Robert Bly?”

  Nick shook his head. “Dr. Brolly.” And told about seeing a transdermal patch stuck to his back, where his T-shirt pulled out of his pants. Brolly wore the same T-shirt every May 1st. It was white except for under the arms and had the words “Parlor Pinko” printed on the front in red. It meant he was a fag, people said. The patch was Fentanyl. Other days he wore “Limousine Liberal” or “Champagne Socialist.”

  Every kid at the University of Oregon could recognize a Fentanyl patch or a Percocet seen from outer space.

  Crouched in the dusty space under the stairs, Nick counted on his fingers the things he’d put his faith in. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, religion, the daily Oregonian, the government, Dr. Brolly, and the police. In school, history changed, geography changed. The moment after you passed a test, the facts you’d learned were obsolete. Now he didn’t know what to trust. He wanted to check his telephone messages but didn’t want to risk installing the battery and activating any form of locating device.

  Shasta checked her phone. No word from Walter. Neither had his mom texted back. She wondered if just a girlfriend could file a missing persons report. It sounded lame. The truth always did. But she offered, “Maybe we all need to start trusting ourselves.”

  To make matters worse, she added, “Maybe you need to trust yourself.”

  Nick scowled at her until she looked away. His voice got intense. “Tell me,” he demanded, “everything Walter knew about this big conspiracy.”

  After Piper had read for the part, the casting committee had dismissed the other actors. The job seemed as good as his. Still the committee conferred. To assure themselves, they’d given him fragments to read. Platitudes, really. For instance, “We must discard past measurements and invent for ourselves what a minute is . . .” These were handwritten on cue cards and held near the c
amera. An actor’s job was to make the unreal believable. To spin imaginary straw into tangible gold.

  “Moments,” Piper read, “are the building blocks of our lives. And our lifetimes must not be measured in weekends. Our time on Earth must not be judged by wages earned and taxes paid.”

  A crewmember replaced the cue card, and Piper read, “This is Talbott Reynolds, absolute monarch appointed by the Council of Tribes.”

  The director, the man, Rufus, asked for another take. “This is Talbott Reynolds,” Piper intoned, “absolute monarch appointed by the Council of Tribes.”

  The casting committee put their heads together in conference. The director asked for another take. A lighter tone, more jovial this go-round.

  Piper put a smile in his voice. “This is Talbott Reynolds,” he lifted his brow slightly to give his face a more-open appeal, “absolute monarch appointed by the Council of Tribes.”

  They changed the cards and had him read, “Article Seven of the Declaration of Interdependence.”

  Hoard food and it rots. Hoard money and you rot. Hoard power and the nation rots.

  They rewound the recording and watched his delivery a second and third time. They nodded as if in mutual agreement. They replaced the cue card with another, saying, “You are not going to get loved by being lovable!!”

  Nodding, the director said, “With the double exclamation.” He added, “Please.”

  “We neglect our own destiny,” the next card said, “while we impose an arbitrary destiny upon others. Doing so we ruin both our own lives and theirs.”

  To Piper it was all gobbledygook, but he delivered each speech with solemn dignity. He read, “Each of us must pursue his or her own destiny and allow others to pursue theirs.” He read, “Out of respect, we must not dictate the progress or the goals of others.”

  A hulking brute who smelled of gun smoke, like fireworks and gasoline, approached and used a folded paper napkin to delicately dab the sweat from Piper’s forehead.

  The crew replaced the card with another. Again, “This is Talbott Reynolds, the absolute monarch appointed by the Council of Tribes.” The take was ruined when his stomach growled.

  This time, the director ordered Piper to read the capitalized letters as if they were capitalized.

  Piper winged it, “This is Talbott Reynolds, aristocrat supreme, head honcho, grand wizard, the absolute monarch . . .” He dragged it out forever.

  In the same way the people came to pay special homage to the final days of their government, they gathered for long, last looks at other relics. They stood in crowds supervising television crews broadcasting from crime scenes. And the reporters were inwardly flattered and felt themselves to be celebrated. And the reporters felt smug in what seemed to be proof of their respected authority in the world. Likewise, the crowds flocked to what they knew to be the farewell lectures by esteemed academics, and those much-lauded laureates took such attentive mobs to be a compliment. And these professors felt the future, for the first time in many years, might be an improvement. And both the journalists and the lecturers were mistaken.

  For schooling had given the people very little in exchange for their money. And the media had given nothing in exchange for the people’s time and attention.

  And now when the crowds came to witness them, it was with bitterness and pity. Others watched with morbid curiosity and sadness, the way they might look upon the last passenger pigeon in existence. For the people knew these were the final days of such institutions, and an event would soon occur that would divide the present from the future. They studied the twilight of such professions so they might describe them to their children, someday.

  With nostalgia the people stared at the hollow power of the statesman, the journalist, and the professor, and the people silently bid them farewell.

  From outside Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, to Jamal standing on the quad, the venerable old building looked like the model for Poe’s House of Usher. Of quaint and antique design, it towered into the Stygian nighttime sky. A mellow rainbow of green and gold glowed through one distant set of stained-glass windows, and a thread of smoke spiraled up from only one crumbling chimneypot to suggest but a single late-night occupant.

  Jamal motioned for Keishaun to go first, and the two men pushed past the stout, heavily carved oaken door, its iron hinges crusted red with rust. As they made their way inside, fallen plaster crunched under their tread. The flutter of bat wings reeled through the shadows above their baseball caps. Mounted at intervals along the walls, the elaborate gilded sconces of a bygone epoch threw off weak illumination, flickering and pallid as gas lamps.

  The two navigated the warren of narrow hallways. The steep-pitched flights of stairs. They braved the grim attic odors of dust and soot. The stone and timber of the great structure held a silence so complete it made Jamal’s hungry ears hallucinate. In the silence he heard words, spoken words, a hushed jumble of faint voices like rushing water, like an audience of phantoms whispering in those dank apartments.

  One cluster of fetid rooms gave way to another jumbled hodgepodge of rank, ruined stalls and scholastic carrels. Shelves of books, their leather spines furred with mold, stretched out of sight. A metronome sound of dripping water ticked off the moments, and damp had blackened the building’s elegant velvet hangings. A nightmare of branching corridors led them past musty, cavernous lecture halls where Jamal would swear the souls of lost Humanities majors still thirsted for revenge. Demanded vengeance. As they ought to, he reflected. Generations had been taught the worst brands of social engineering; they’d been drilled and tested until these institutional lies had replaced any rational thinking of their own. The ghosts that inhabited Prince Lucien Campbell Hall wouldn’t rest until Jamal and Keishaun had found the answer they sought tonight.

  The pair lurched from one ruined level up to the next, until a single note struck on a piano caught their attention. A series of notes followed. This, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, led them to an unlocked office. Beyond that lay a moldering suite of rooms, and in the furthestmost they found their objective.

  Here was an inner sanctum, a plush oasis high in the building, where some great man’s staff of lackeys had left for the day. Here the walls were impressively paneled in Circassian rosewood, and a fire crackled softly below an elaborately carved overmantel of Italian marble, richly detailed with cavorting putti and heraldic iconography. A setting not atypical for learned senior professors at the University of Oregon. Streaming rays of moonlight lit the rich stained-glass windows, scattering ghostly colors that further decorated the arabesque patterns of the room’s elegant oriental carpet.

  Modern touches included a framed poster of Che Guevara hung above the fireplace. An American flag, also framed, had been hung upside-down above the professor’s antique desk. One edge of the flag looked eaten away, blackened with singe, from some long-ago attempt to burn it in riotous protest. Arrayed upon the desktop were various rare volumes and costly bibelots. What caught Jamal’s eye was a signed sepia-tone photograph of Emma Goldman mounted on a small bejeweled easel. Near it rested a razor-sharp letter opener of ancient Moorish design.

  The great man himself dozed in a leather wingback chair, an open copy of Rules for Radicals lay against his chest, half hidden by his ratted, gray beard. Despite both the beard and the book, the slogan on his T-shirt was still legible. It read, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.”

  The legs of his cotton, drawstring pants were rolled up, and his pale, wrinkled feet were submerged in a shallow plastic tub of steaming water. Ready, beside the tub, a folded bath towel waited.

  A crystal decanter of rich, amber sherry sat on a small, priceless table beside him. An empty, thimble-sized glass held a golden trace of his last round.

  Jamal and Keishaun crept into the room, admiring its historical finery. Knowing these luxuries had been built with the sweat and failed dreams of uncountable liberal-arts students. The strains of Chopin issued from a shimmering, onyx-hued record album tha
t revolved slowly on some ancient heirloom gramophone.

  The esteemed scholar, Dr. Emmet Brolly, blinked awake. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” he asked, his rheumy eyes fixated, openly captivated by Keishaun’s closely fitted slacks.

  Too cowed to speak, the students shifted their weight uncomfortably and stared down at their worn tennis shoes. Abruptly Jamal looked up and stammered, “Sir, do you remember Walter Baines?”

  A beat later, feeling naked under the brilliant man’s leer, Keishaun insisted, “We think he’s in trouble.”

  The doctor knitted his brow. Slowly he closed his book and set it aside. “What brand of trouble?”

  Jamal looked to Keishaun, and they regarded each other with worried eyes. To Brolly, Jamal said, “It’s some list . . .”

  To clarify, Keishaun added, “A list on the Internet.” He explained the rumor and what little Walter had known. It seemed simple: If you thought a person was a threat to society you could post his or her name on a certain website. If no one agreed with your nomination the name would disappear within a few hours. But if several people supported the nomination the name would linger to attract more possible votes. The more votes a person got, the more danger he or she was facing.

  Jamal interjected, “It’s like an unpopularity contest!”

  His hysterical outburst made them all cringe. No one spoke as the burning logs in the fireplace softly popped and sighed.

  At last, Dr. Brolly laughed. His was a deep hearty chortle, dismissive, and scented with sherry. It displayed every one of his marijuana-stained teeth. As a freethinking scholar and molder of young minds, it was clear he’d faced many such witch hunts in his long career. As if to calm himself, he reached for the decanter and poured his small glass full. After sipping it, he regarded the amber liquid and smiled wryly. “Yes, my children,” he said. “There has always been a list!”

  Jamal and Keishaun hung on his words. Eyes wide. Their souls filled with dread.

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