Adjustment day, p.7
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       Adjustment Day, p.7

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Steve McQueen

  Richard Burton

  Tom Jones

  Frank Sinatra

  Elizabeth Taylor

  With the roll of duct tape in his coat pocket, he’d walked along Wall Street. He’d walked up Lexington Avenue to Bloomingdale’s, eyes peeled, not certain how he’d handle an actual close encounter. Blood-hounding billionaires in their natural habitat. Could be he’d trail his new old man for block after block until they’d get caught at a red light, standing on the corner of 57th Street, waiting for the Walk signal. He’d sidle up beside this Michael Bloomberg and ask, “Aren’t you Warren Buffett?”

  His aristocratic, patriarchal skin would look as pale and brittle-dry as old rolling papers. He’d give Walter the moldy stink eye, and Walter would counter by saying, “It might interest you to know I have a Glock 15,” boldly displaying the bulge in his coat pocket.

  That would capture the man’s attention. There and then Walter told him to hail a cab, and they’d both climbed inside. Walter had told the cabbie an address in Queens, a spot several blocks from where he’d stashed his rental car. The two of them had rode there in shared silence, Walter’s bulge pressed into the man’s kidneys, him Walter’s ticket to a life where he wouldn’t have to cram all of his living into Saturday nights. To steel his resolve Walter had surfed more porn. He’d pulled out a pack of skunkweed resin-infused chewing gum and offered the driver a stick. The cabbie had taken it, not really sure what it was. Walt had offered this Bernard Arnault a stick, but he’d refused it so Walter popped the gum into his own mouth and began to chew. He’d said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

  This Amancio Ortega, he’d asked, “For not hurting me you need a gun?”

  Walter had said, “I only need to borrow your brain a couple days.”

  With the architectural grandeur of New York going by on every side, this Karl Albrecht had asked, “Was there not lint on that gum?”

  Walter had asked back, “What?”

  “Pocket lint,” he’d informed Walter. “On the gum you so generously offered me.” Lifting both hands palm-up, he’d addressed the roof of the cab, beseeching, “At my age, with the precious little of life I have remaining me, why should I trust this young ruffian who so generously offers me cheap candy coated in filth?”

  Walter had felt the hairy threads of something between his teeth. His cheeks had burned with shame, but he wouldn’t want to make the man right by spitting the gum out the window. Instead, he’d said, “You’re crazy. This gum is great!” That’s when he’d needed to pull out his phone but didn’t want his new old man to see him getting his porn refill.

  The cab driver had spat his gum out the window. Walter had told them both, “This gum is delicious!”

  So the cabby wouldn’t see his rented ride, they’d disembark early. Then, when it was just Walter and the man walking through Queens, when Walter had arrived at the rental car and opened the trunk, he’d nodded for this Carlos Slim to climb inside. Walter had promised him, “One week, tops.”

  Walt had pulled up the photos of Shasta on his phone. Held the screen for his new old man to see. Scrolling through the photos of Shasta smiling and Shasta asleep and Shasta ignoring him, Walter had said, “This is my motive.”

  The man’s eyes had gone to the inside trunk release lever. Walter let them, just so long as the man climbed in. Let him think he can jump out at the first traffic light. He’d sighed, this Ingvar Kamprad. His shoulders had slumped, and he’d muttered, “One week, Mister Terrorist tells me!” Curled next to the spare tire in Walter’s trunk he’d scrambled to offer his wristwatch, his phone and wallet, but Walter had refused them. Giving it a second thought, Walter had taken the man’s phone so he could deactivate its GPS. Walter had said, “You don’t fully comprehend my motives.” Had said, “I don’t want your money.”

  Walter had said, “I’m not any terrorist,” and he’d slammed the trunk lid.

  Once the trunk was locked shut Walter had spat out the scary chewing gum. In his coat pocket he’d found the one-hitter and sucked his lungs full, holding the smoke, letting his mind wander. Poor Elizabeth Taylor, he’d thought. Twice targeted. Hadn’t she also been the target for the elaborate car-crash murder plot in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash? Where they plotted to drive off an overpass—called a flyover in England—and symbolically rape her limousine by crushing her to death with their sedan? Or were so many plots to kill her actually the ultimate measure of her movie stardom?

  Through the closed trunk lid, Walter had said he was sorry about what went on, about the Holocaust and all, but this wasn’t going to be like that. Walter wasn’t prejudiced since he’d made a diorama about the Final Solution in middle school. It had been his rebuttal to hateful online Holocaust deniers, complete with incense smoke rising ominously from the Lego building-block chimneys. Sandalwood incense because it was all his Wal-Mart carried. He’d had a Tonka toy bulldozer bulldozing naked Barbies into a dirt hole to hide them from advancing Allied liberation forces. A worthy effort, that diorama, but one that got him sent to the counselor’s office to watch a video about being a wrong-headed cultural douche bag. Since then he’d always strove to make a special blood-and-guts, balls-out effort to practice sensitivity in regard to other differently religious people.

  When he’d put the one-hitter back in his pocket he’d felt the coil of wire. The garrote.

  The truth was he didn’t have any gun. The gun in his coat was in actuality a sizable baggie of California Ultraviolet. That, and the duct tape he’d forgotten to use. He’d whisper-told the locked trunk, “Nobody’s going to gas you.”

  Only then did Walter risk another porn refill. All along he hadn’t known anything. Hadn’t yet seen the whole picture.

  This entire abduction would go so easy, so quiet and painless and easy that he should’ve known something was terribly wrong.

  The trunk had said back from the inside, “Who’s to gas?” Had said, “Me? I’m Lutheran, Mister Terrorist.” Then and there, from the metal inside had come muffled peals of triumphant laughter.

  Sixty days out the list was frozen. Nominees with insufficient support were expunged. Those that remained had their reward values fixed. These measures would ensure players couldn’t identify, nominate, and up-vote one another. Once Adjustment Day commenced the list would be taken down. The list would not exist.

  They’d made Piper say it repeatedly. Each time with exactly the same intonation, as if he were a robot.

  “Adjustment Day is upon us,” he dutifully recited.

  Again, “Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  “I repeat, Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  He’d produced the words until they’d stopped sounding like words. Each sentence formed a mantra or a drum beat. To prevent lisping, he’d worked to control the hissing sibilant sounds of the three evenly spaced S’s. Every take was perfect, but the assistant director had stood beside the camera and pointed a finger at him to deliver another.

  Piper had asked for a bottle of water. Someone dug through the crushed ice in a Styrofoam cooler, but the closest they had was lite beer. The taping had begun anew.

  Repeating, “Adjustment Day is upon us.”

  Repeating, “The list does not exist.”

  Repeating, “The first casualty of any war is God.”

  Repeating, “If a man can face reality at the age of twenty-five, at sixty he can dictate it.”

  The casting director, Clem or Rufus or Naylor, studied his clipboard, nodding. He looked up. “Great job,” he said. “Now we need everything in Spanish.”

  Piper couldn’t afford to take offense. He needed the work. Finally Clem promised to be in touch with Piper’s agent regarding the terms of a contract. The casting board members had each come forward to shake his hand in their rough, stained hands. Each paying his respect with a gruff “Thank you.” The cinematographer, Colton, had pressed a manila envelope onto him and escorted him to the parking lot. Once Piper had climbed into his car, with no o
ne in sight, he’d torn open the envelope. Inside was a banded stack of one hundred hundred-dollar bills. Whether this was a retainer or a bribe, Piper had no idea. Everything about the afternoon had felt the way he’d imagined shooting a porn movie would feel. Printed on the paper band was “$10,000.”

  At his workstation Charlie positioned a rubber bumper cushion in the hydraulic press. Atop it he aligned a steel mounting flange, and through these he ran a bolt. His foot stepped on the pedal. The press hissed and stamped the parts together, and Charlie added the locknut and torqued it to specifications. He released the pedal, removed the finished axle stop, and tossed it into the wire-mesh bin labeled with the part number. He reached for another rubber bumper, another steel flange, another bolt. What had once been tedious, now every repetition filled him with joy. Every task counted down toward the future, and for the first time since he was a little boy Charlie looked forward to the future like Christmas Eve.

  The impossible had happened. Garret Dawson had said, “You.” He’d jerked his thumb for Charlie to come over. Garret Dawson, the king of the factory floor.

  That’s how fast Charlie’s life had been saved.

  This man had selected him out of all the loud, bullying, bullshit artists in the factory. It was flattering. Charlie felt anointed, like in the Bible. Visited, like by an angel. Like he hadn’t even been alive until Garret Dawson had walked up to him after their shift ended and informed Charlie that he wasn’t like everyone else, and Charlie had a destiny far beyond assembly work.

  Nobody, no teacher or priest or sports coach had ever flat-out told Charlie he could help rule the world.

  Charlie was a man. Twenty-seven years old. A man working on an assembly line who had three warning letters in his file and if he punched the clock late he’d receive a fourth letter and be fired. And his job was shit. And he hated himself for clinging to such a shit job. Since school, he’d come to expect so little from life. Nothing special, just to be treated with courtesy and politeness by the world. Wanted people to see him and not fear him, not admire him but just to see him. He wanted to be recognized so people would think twice before badgering or insulting him.

  Now he had been chosen for a team. The most exclusive team in human history. And if his team did well they might pool their victories. And if that number was sizable, they might be the leading body of lawmakers in the new nation. And the nation they would lead would lead the world. And this future made it hard to sleep at night.

  The day of the invitation Garret Dawson had shown him the list, on Dawson’s phone, shown him where to find it, the web address. Dawson had seen in him something heroic and predicted Charlie could do his part on Adjustment Day. Charlie, Dawson proclaimed, had the stuff of men throughout time who’d taken action to radically improve their society in a single day.

  This from Garret Dawson, himself, who hadn’t punched the time clock late in seventeen years and had never gotten a single letter of warning in his file. Dawson who was living proof that hard work had dignity. Him with a wife and kids, he had everything to lose, Garret Dawson had staked everything on inviting Charlie to join.

  Not that Charlie would disappoint such trust. The man had told only Charlie, of all the line workers at KML Industries, the man had sought out Charlie, watched from a distance, seen Charlie’s quiet, self-withheld way of conducting himself. He’d sensed rightly that Charlie could keep the secret, wouldn’t brag about it and endanger the enterprise. He’d picked out the latent strength and untapped potential in Charlie. What no one had ever recognized, not even Charlie’s old man, Garret Dawson had zeroed right in on.

  By careful observation the man knew Charlie would buy the necessary weapon. Charlie would do his practice shooting on moving targets. He’d prove to be an asset come Adjustment Day and as a member of the ruling class for decades to come.

  At the risk of sounding astrological, Dawson had talked about the Saturn cycle of people’s lives, and how Charlie’s had begun at age twenty-seven, and by the time Charlie turned thirty-one he’d be unrecognizable to himself. Dawson, he spoke to Charlie about human brain physiology. He cited studies that prove the last major changes in the human brain occur around the age of thirty-one. That’s the year when a man’s experience and his education merge to create something greater than the two elements. If a man could live beyond twenty-seven—the death year for so many rock stars—then his greatest ambitions stood to come true by the age of thirty-one.

  How Dawson saw it, nature hadn’t gifted him a big problem-solving brain so he could punch in and spend his life putting widgets together. The two of them, him and Charlie, were the end result of millennia of smart choices and backbreaking work. Dawson called it comical, how the evolutionary culmination of every genius and muscle-bound savage was standing here. Here at KML Industries, Charlie and his brethren were equipped for the worst shit that fate had ever thrown at any man, yet here they were worried sick about getting fired, and prayed to spend the next four decades threading nuts onto bolts.

  Their ancestors, Dawson said, were watching and didn’t give a rat’s ass how many gadgets Charlie pieced together in an hour, eight hours, fifty years. Everyone in the hereafter wanted to see Charlie display the same courage they’d bequeathed him. They’d given their lives for him and expected Charlie to do the same for the future.

  Garret Dawson likened the lineage of their ancestors to the line of power he was inviting Charlie to join. The younger man was all ears as Dawson had described the system. How each line of power radiated from a member of the Council of Tribes. Those seven members had created the list. They’d chosen the first round of soldiers to enroll, cherry-picking only the steady, the able, and the resolute. And each of those chosen had invited a single soldier. And this method allowed each line of power to be traced back to its founder on the council. And the failure of one soldier would be the failure of everyone in that lineage. While the success of each would be the success of his lineage.

  By this time a secret network of the chosen was cast. Ordinary men doing their jobs. Normal people. Quiet and drawing no attention, they continued to raise their families and pay their taxes and treat others with a knowing dignity, full in the knowledge that soon they’d be unleashed to resolve all the flaws contained in society.

  It was Charlie’s next move that worried him. He wanted to enlist his brother-in-law. To bring him into the lineage. At every family get-together the two of them sat hunched in front of the television. To keep the peace, they spent their lives not talking. Thanksgiving or Christmas, every holiday was an echo chamber with certain family members squawking like parrots, repeating each other’s approved opinions about the world. To risk a conflicting idea would be dropping a turd in the happiness punchbowl, so Charlie and his brother-in-law hunkered down. They kept their heads low and didn’t draw any fire. They gobbled the turkey or Easter ham and pretended this wasn’t their lives disappearing into the past.

  Charlie knew his brother-in-law would be an excellent asset on Adjustment Day. Charlie just wasn’t certain the man could keep his trap shut, and if Charlie’s sister found out that would end everything. She certainly couldn’t keep a secret. Besides, she was among the parrots who said the world had to stay a certain way, and she’d live and die trying to earn gold stars from teachers who wanted to earn gold stars from teachers who yearned for gold stars.

  Her mouth would get them all killed. Rumor, more than rumor, lineage protocol decreed that if anyone snitched that player would be terminated. Worse yet, the player who’d enlisted that player would be terminated. That meant Charlie and his sister and his brother-in-law all would get targeted before Adjustment Day with no legacy and no dynasty for any of them, and his family would be forever left out of the sphere of national power, and Garret Dawson, poor Dawson, would feel stupid because he’d enrolled a dipshit loser who’d betrayed the cause. Dawson, who’d watched Charlie and measured his character and staked his own life on the belief that Charlie was solid and worth trusting with a role in
the glorious new future, Garret Dawson and the entire lineage would falter a step while other lines of power stretched longer.

  A few of the lines of power had stuttered and lost momentum this way. Someone had narced and two men had had to be put a stop to, but the third man back had chosen once more and the line had moved forward. Other lines had moved forward without a misstep and those lines stretched for hundreds and those lines would take the most targets.

  But for that to happen Charlie had to fulfill his first duty. His first test. Even now Garret Dawson watched him from across the way. Charlie put a rubber bumper into the press. Inserted a flange and a bolt. Compressed the assembly and secured it with a nut.

  Living in a castle didn’t make a man a king. Not anymore than flying in a private jet made him an astronaut. Or flexing muscles made him strong. Nor did having a trophy wife make a man a winner. All his life Charlie had sought the trappings of power, never realizing that only power is power.

  Only courage is courage. Only actions counted. The book said that. Garret Dawson had also given Charlie the famous book.

  Now Charlie needed to invite the next member to his lineage.

  Other lines were growing by the day, by the hour, but Charlie’s was stuck. Stalled. To choose a snitch would get him killed. To not choose would cripple the lineage, the very progression of men who’d put their trust in him. Worse, if he couldn’t take this one big risk, how would he ever perform on Adjustment Day?

  With its blue-black cover the book stood out like a shaved head. Too large to be hidden in a pocket. With its title embossed in gold, it badged the men carrying it on the street and reading it on the bus. Branded them heroes. Here was reading as a covert act of revolution carried out in plain sight but recognized as such only by other men with the book.

  If, for instance, a patrolman stopped a man for speeding and saw the book resting on the seat beside the driver, no ticket was issued. If a woman noticed a man reading the book and asked about it, when the man refused to describe it he was instantly more attractive in her eyes.

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