Adjustment day, p.6
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       Adjustment Day, p.6

           Chuck Palahniuk

  The doctor gestured grandly with the tiny glass. “Sit,” he bade them.

  The two young listeners sat cross-legged on the carpet, at his feet.

  Brolly spoke down to them. “There has always been a list. Oh, how human beings love their lists!” He smiled patronizingly. “From the Ten Commandments to the Hollywood Black List. From Nixon’s Enemies List to Schindler’s List to the New York Times Bestseller List. From Santa Claus’s list to God’s list separating the sheep from the goats.” He went on to describe genealogies as lists, taxonomies, inventories. He finished his glass of sherry, poured another, drank that and poured another. “Our much-flaunted Bill of Rights is a list! As was Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the cathedral door during the festival of Fasching!”

  When Jamal and Keishaun looked at him with blank expressions, he bellowed, “If you two had read your Lewis Hyde and Victor Turner—instead of smoking bath salts and playing Pokémon Go—you’d know of what I speak!”

  Slipping easily into a lecture he’d delivered countless times, he declared, “Power-reversal rituals!”

  Jamal and Keishaun steeled themselves for a long-winded, didactic sermon.

  Brolly’s dissertation gushed forth: Most civil societies perpetuated their status quo by practicing these rituals. For a short period each year, sometimes seasonally, the lowest-ranking citizens were granted power over their superiors. In modern societies this still occurred at Halloween, the juncture between summer and autumn and supposedly between the living and the dead. On the night of October 31, powerless children donned the costumes of outsiders—of animals and the dead and outcast loners such as cowboys or hobos. Boys dressed as girls and girls as boys, and all of these alien others had the power to roam freely and demand tribute from property-owning upright members of society. If no tribute was paid the threat of Trick or Treat promised property damage.

  “Why,” the doctor sputtered, “by the 1920s so many homes were burned and so many tires slashed that newspapers colluded with insurance and confectionary companies to institute the ritual of giving away candy!” He marveled, “Picture it! The poor burned the homes of the rich! All offenses of the preceding year were revenged!”

  Even Christmas caroling—heartwarming, traditional Christmas caroling—had been a blood sport. The poor congregated outside the homes of the wealthy and sang as a threat. Nothing but bribes of gold and rich food would dispatch them to the next house. Our practice of offering flowers at a funeral originated with an ancient ritual wherein the local poor would gather wildflowers and fragrant herbs. They would arrive at the dead man’s casket and hand these gifts to the mourners in exchange for money and bread.

  With obvious childlike enthusiasm, the doctor splashed his bare feet in the tub of water.

  He declared, “The military is rife with traditional occasions when officers must obey their inferiors for a brief period.” Aboard nuclear submarines every tour features a Hefe’s Café night. Dinner is celebrated by the ship’s officers decorating the mess as a fancy restaurant and then, themselves, cooking and serving the enlisted personnel a gourmet meal. Similarly, in antebellum America the power-reversal ritual was known as Saturnalia. At Christmastime a plantation owner would give his slaves gifts and allow them to travel short distances to visit relatives on neighboring plantations. All of the slaves were given several days of freedom. They received all the apple brandy they could drink and all the pork they could eat. As reported by Frederick Douglass, the slaves would eat, drink, and carouse until they were sick. Every year, this sickness of excess left them miserable. It convinced the slaves they were weak willed. They needed a master to control them and their base impulses. After a few days of bingeing on everything, they were happy to return to being slaves.

  This far along, the doctor’s lecture was long and liquored and indulgent.

  “For the Amish,” Brolly droned on, “it’s their curious practice of Rumspringa. A word which translates to running or jumping around. At the cusp of adulthood, Amish adolescents are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the outside world. Like the slave enjoying Saturnalia, the Amish youngsters inevitably overindulge in drugs, in sex, in tedious minimum-wage lifestyles. After they make themselves miserable,” Brolly crowed, “they’re only too happy to return to the plain and simple Amish life.”

  Jamal looked at his wristwatch. Keishaun resisted the urge to check his text messages. Clearly the professor was on a roll.

  The doctor paused to catch his breath. With liquor shining on his lips, and the rambling wisps of his long gray hair that had escaped his ponytail, he looked like nothing less than a wizard. Some jabbering heretic. Fixing his small audience with a gleaming eye, he asked, “Do you know why this country, supposedly the wisest, most successful human experiment, does not practice a power-reversal ritual?”

  When neither of the two young men spoke, the doctor shouted, “Karneval!” He bellowed, “Fasching!”

  The latter was a word derived from the German term for “last call.” It was the equivalent of modern Mardi Gras, a final carnal indulgence before the hardships and self-denial of Lent. In seventeenth-century Bavaria the power-reverse ritual allowed peasants to eat and party and sometimes copulate in the churches and cathedrals while the celebratory parades featured monks and priests riding on wagons—the equivalent of our parade floats—while throwing feces at the onlookers. The profane became sacred and the sacred, profane. But only for a short time.

  Nevertheless, it was within this lawless window that Martin Luther made his move. He posted his objections to the Catholic Church. And in doing so he founded Protestantism.

  “You’ll agree that the United States is nothing if not a Protestant nation?” Brolly asked, adding, “At least at its founding.”

  Because the Protestant religions had been created during a power-reversal ritual, those religions have always been wary of such a practice.

  Brolly nodded, knowingly. “The Pope, His Holiness, will continue to wash and kiss the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday, but the Protestants will never risk the same vulnerability.”

  That was the fatal flaw of this great country, he surmised. It never allowed the weakest, the poorest and most disenfranchised to enjoy even an hour of ritualized power. Yes, we had castrated versions like Halloween and Christmas caroling for children, but there was nothing to exhaust the adult underclasses and leave them contented to remain poor for another year.

  Jamal allowed a respectful amount of time to pass before he tried to redirect. “So the list?”

  Desperate, Keishaun begged. “Is it real?”

  Drowsy and a little soused, Dr. Brolly tut-tutted. He lifted a pale hand and toyed with a few strands of his wild hair. “As a cultural anthropologist I’ve long heard of this fabled list.” He assured them, “And it is an urban myth. A complete fantasy.”

  The two students couldn’t help but look crestfallen. They’d come here asking about Walter, trying to discover if the professor could help them. He could not or would not. This was a dead end.

  As if sensing their disappointment, Dr. Brolly stirred. Perhaps to appease them, maybe just to flirt, he asked, “This mythical list?” Strictly from an anthropological standpoint, he asked, “What happens if a nominee gets too many votes?”

  His eyes downcast, Keishaun edged forward until he knelt at Brolly’s feet. The water in the plastic tub had long ceased to steam. Keishaun reached for the folded towel. “It’s like this,” he began, and gently lifted one pale foot from the tepid water, dried it with the towel and let it rest on the carpet. The student repeated the process with the other foot before bringing each foot to his mouth and kissing the cold, wrinkled skin.

  Dr. Emmet Brolly stared, his hairy jaws agape, dumbfounded.

  Having done that, Keishaun reached one hand around to the small of his own back. From his waistband he produced a snub-nosed revolver and fired a single shot into the professor’s slack-jawed expression.

  No footsteps came running. The desolate buildi
ng was deserted. Jamal ventured, “No pun intended, but you’ve jumped the gun.”

  Brolly sprawled in his chair, blood filling the ragged crater that had replaced his face. Blood sputtered in the opening exposed at the top of his blasted windpipe. He wasn’t boring anyone, not anymore. The entire array of his research and education was splattered on the walnut paneling in back of his chair. His hands trembled for a moment. Then the blood stopped flowing down his gray beard, and he was officially dead.

  Keishaun stashed the gun back in his waistband. “In a few days it won’t matter.” He motioned for Jamal to fetch the fanciful letter opener from the desk. He asked, “What’s his value up to?”

  Jamal was studying his phone, scrolling through a long list of names. He kept scrolling. The list got longer every day as people submitted their last-minute nominations. At last he said, “You’re not going to believe this . . .”

  Keishaun froze. “Tell me!”

  Jamal looked up from the screen, beaming. “Sixteen hundred votes . . .”

  His friend gasped. That practically made them their own political party. Keishaun covered his own mouth with both hands and whisper-shrieked with joy.

  As Jamal used the letter opener to carve away the dead man’s ear, he sighed, “Thank God Walter told us.”

  Keishaun shrugged helplessly. Blushing a little, weakly he offered, “Poor Walt.” He yanked up the hem of the dead man’s T-shirt to expose an adhesive patch on the skin beneath. Peeling off the patch and slapping it onto the side of his own neck, he savored the instant rush of Fentanyl.

  Jamal handed over the ear, its diamond still sparkling in the lobe. The two young men bumped fists over the mutilated remains of Dr. Emmet Brolly, they slapped high-fives. Before leaving, Keishaun went to the framed flag, that half-charred relic from some long-forgotten protest or demonstration. He took it down, regarded it with reverence, and rehung it right-side up.

  Jamal leaned down to pick up the Alinsky book. Coolly assessing its pages, he said, “The time for pretty words has expired.” And he gently consigned the fragile paper to the hungry flames of the fireplace.

  Piper’s voice rasped. His throat hoarse and dry, he felt exhausted. After they’d dismissed the other actors, the casting team had kept him reading random lines. What had begun as an audition was becoming a marathon, as if they were testing his endurance. Clem or Naylor, or whoever the casting director was, he’d grimace and say, “They’re not convinced you’re man enough.” As if baiting Piper, he’d say, “The part calls for lots more gumption.”

  They’d put up another cue card filled with gibberish, and Piper would be hell-bent not to read:

  Caucasia is at war with Gaysia. Caucasia has always been at war with Gaysia.

  Their stack of unread cards still stood thick as an old-school telephone book. Someone would hold up another, and Piper would read aloud:

  The fires consuming our cities have been sparked by loyalist forces of the old regime.

  They’d hold up card after card.

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

  The measure of a man is not what he does for wages but what he does for leisure.

  A grand military processional will retake the decimated city of Portland!

  The joy of fiction is that it only needs to smell true.

  Gibberish it was. Utter and complete balderdash invented by hack writers for a series that would never get picked up by any network. However Piper delivered each line with vigor and gusto. He knew the knot of his tie had sagged away from his collar button. And that strands of his hair had come unglued and begun to fall across his forehead. But he did not give up. His bloodshot eyes burned, but he was not giving up. Even as the casting director, Rufus or Colton or Brach, put up a new cue card.

  Before this book was a book . . . before the digging of the burial pits . . . there was just Walter’s big plan to get rich.

  Walking the streets of New York City, he’d pulled up some porn on his phone. Just still images to peruse until his ’nads filled up. Just so the blood went down to his junk, and he was thinking with the fearless brains below his waist. A hard dick was never scared. Porn did to him what spinach did to Popeye or rage did to the Incredible Hulk. Putting him in a state where he could Where’s Waldo the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and never find God because the butts of all the angels are so infinitely fuckable.

  Porn made of Walter a ruthless wolf pack of one. On his phone he’d Googled:

  Ted Bundy

  Wayne Williams

  Dean Corll

  Richard Ramirez

  Angelo Buono

  David Berkowitz

  Toe the line. Follow the straight and narrow, and no one cares if you live or die. Walter can starve to death or stumble into traffic and get mowed flat. He can ship out to some combat zone and get bayonet-raped. He’s nobody’s little baby, not anymore. Nobody gives a crap whether he lives or dies. But kill off a few of his fellow nobodies, and society will move Heaven and earth to keep track of him. A billion taxpayers will provide for his food and shelter for the rest of his life. Dress him in clean clothes. Stop eating, and they’ll shove a tube down his throat and pump him full of food, a treatment he hasn’t enjoyed since he was a fetus.

  Until then he walked the streets of New York, a predator in the land of spring lambs.

  All they’d taught him in school could only get a person so far, or else his algebra instructor would be flying on a private jet drinking champagne out of a slipper. What they teach more or less gets everyone to the same place. They say you need to become a thing—a lawyer or bookkeeper or lion tamer to barter bits of your thing for other somethings. In place of one thing, Walter wants to be everything. But to rise above the fray he’ll need a mentor. Some billionaire so-and-so to take him under his billionaire wing and show him the ropes on money reproducing itself like rabbits, on insider trading and leveraging commodity futures, the bloodless world of corporate takeovers and funds piling up in some tax haven in some bank account numbered to infinity.

  Today, Walter had told himself he could do this. First, he’d done his homework. Had read the financial pages to identify some George Soros or Koch brother. A big-name hedge-fund mogul or investment tsar. He’d strolled through the pages of Town and Country magazine and the Fortune 500 Who’s Who. Found himself some King Midas who pulls the strings and spins straw into gold.

  The way Walter saw it, he hadn’t been slacking. He’d been biding his time, conserving his resources, waiting for his one main chance. He’d made a list of what he’d believed in:

  Santa Claus

  Catholic God

  Baptist God

  Buddhist God

  Pagan God


  The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy

  The Seattle Sonics and the Oklahoma Outlaws

  Gary Hart and Walter Mondale and Al Gore


  To date he’d believed in democracy and Manifest Destiny. He’d believed in capitalism and moral relativity and Social Marxism. If he could put his faith in them, he could believe in anything. Maybe believing in those ridiculous abstractions was an exercise in believing, period.

  His only faith, these days his only religion, was Shasta. He’d dipped two fingers into his pants pocket. Pinched out a pink blob. Like a marshmallow only smaller. An earplug. One afternoon in Tools of Industrial Design Shasta had shut down the drill press. She’d pinched the pink foam plugs from her ears and set them aside. While she’d gone to make a call Walter had stolen one, and now on the streets of New York he lifted the earplug to his nose and sniffed. Huffed the sweet ecology of Shasta’s skin and brains.

  Granted, maybe his dad hadn’t been a world heavyweight douche sufficient to score him a big trust fund, but Walter could remedy that. If a dad can have more than one kid, why can’t a kid have more than one old man? And if a parent can adopt a kid, why couldn’t Walter adopt a new paren
t? A rich one. Somebody to slip the silver spoon between his hillbilly redneck white-trash lips. Him, the him walking the streets with a concealed weapon, about to become the son some Croesus never knew he had.

  Cherry-pick some T. Boone Pickens. Like fantasy football only with his own family lineage.

  Money being the purest soul of everything, the form everything takes before reincarnating as something else. Walter made of himself that original Walter, before opinions and education and caution came pouring into him. The Walter that watching porn turned him into.

  There on some Madison Avenue he’d be, Walter’s new old man, with his hard-boiled oil-painting face and his head for figures. Maybe not the rich Top Hat guy from Monopoly in striped pants and tailcoat, but patriarch enough. And if Walter could pick up a stray dog on the street, then this should be easy. He kept telling himself, “Hostile takeover.” Hostile takeover. Looked at from the right angle, it would be a compliment, he’d told himself as he’d Mark David Chapman’d to New York City and put a midtown hotel room on his credit card so he could Mark David Chapman the crowded streets, hoping to cross paths with his new old man. The father who didn’t know he was, not yet.

  On his phone he’d Googled: Chapman’s list of approved people to kill.

  Johnny Carson

  Marlon Brando

  Walter Cronkite

  George C. Scott

  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

  John Lennon

  Elizabeth Taylor

  Thinking with his porn brains Walter had lurked the streets with his list, trench coat pockets bulging, on the lookout for one of several potential fathers. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. Some of his prospective mentors not even men, but lady stock brokers or real estate wheeler-dealers, just so long as they could school him in their money-making hoodoo. Walter pounded the pavement, on roving stakeout, the list on his phone, complete with photographs and suggested likely locations for hunting down financiers. He’d always thought: Shasta. Thinking: Shasta’s facial expression when he showed up at her dorm room, in style, driving a private jet with a string of polo ponies to spirit her away, complete with Beyoncé as her new maid of honor. On his phone he’d Googled: Charles Manson’s death list.

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