Adjustment day, p.8
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       Adjustment Day, p.8

           Chuck Palahniuk

  As Dr. Brolly had explained it, every youth bulge had a text. It had a book to justify the actions its men must take. The Conquistadors had the Bible. Mao’s army had his book of quotations. The Nazis had Mein Kampf just as American radicals had Saul Alinsky.

  Parents and teachers were thrilled to see boys pick up a book. Boys and young men who’d never willingly finished a book, they were poring over these pages for hours at a stretch.

  Only men who’d been invited into a lineage were given copies. Only among such men could it be discussed until all who’d read it knew the words by heart.

  To read it in public served as an openly brazen political act. Each blue-black cover was a dog whistle. A status indicator. Reading it was an ideological advertisement to the like-minded.

  No library had a copy. No bookstore sold it, this book by Talbott Reynolds.

  It jumped to catch the eye. Made the holder a hero among those who knew the plan. Readers carried it to catch the eye of fellow travelers. The badge of its blue-black cover displayed their numbers and bolstered their confidence. It declared that the bravest among the bravest among the brave had chosen its bearer as an equal. And men carried the book every day, everywhere, as they’d carry a flag into battle.

  The same as all the most important books it made sense only to the faithful. Like the Quran or the Book of Mormon or The Communist Manifesto, if a nonbeliever were ever to open a copy she would be puzzled, frustrated, and quickly dismiss the text and set it aside. An outsider could never finish the book while a convert could read it a million times from cover to cover and find fresh insight in every pass.

  Those who carried it, they were tired of being consumers. They wanted to be consumed.

  In lieu of choosing a vocation they had been chosen. Each of these men had received his calling. A conscription larger than the government’s draft lottery.

  Terrence’s mother finally caught him. He was in bed, reading. He’d been reading the blue-black book since his last hospital stay, since her father had delivered it via a sympathetic nurse who’d agreed not to tell Terrence’s mother. His father had never appeared in person, not in Terrence’s hospital room, but he’d written an inscription on the title page: “For my son. In a few days the world will be a very different place. Be strong.”

  Within the book, certain passages were underlined. Terrence knew enough to hide the book by Talbott Reynolds from his mother. He’d smuggled it home when he was discharged. The staff physicians hadn’t found anything wrong, nothing to explain his seizures. They never did. To play it safe they’d simply increased all of his dosages of Zoloft, prednisone, beta-adrenergic blocking agents, and colloidal silver.

  Whatever his father’s intention, the book became Terrence’s bible. He read it upon waking each day because dawn was the only time he could. After he took his morning round of meds his mind clouded and he had hardly the concentration needed to follow the storyline of a television cartoon.

  Today, for example, he’d been reading:

  A happy past cripples people. They cling to it with nowhere better to go. Nothing to improve upon.

  When he dredged his memory, the only detail he could retrieve about his father was Brylcreem. The smell of Brylcreem, like a combination of lanolin and old typewriter ribbons. The way his father would pull the point of a comb through Terrence’s hair to create a part along one side. To duplicate his father’s own haircut, on Sundays before they went to pay a call on God. No face did Terrence salvage. No nothing else. Just the Brylcreem smell and the scratch of that comb along his scalp was all he could recover.

  That comb drawing a line like this pencil had. Like a plow. It thrilled Terrence to imagine his father underlining these words with long, steady strokes. Carefully, thoughtfully choosing them especially for him, his son. Each passage was a revelation. In the page margin next to many, in the same stern handwriting as in the inscription, his father had written, “Tell Terry.” Proof the man was looking out for him, hovering in the margins. The next highlighted passage read:

  Consider that no one wants you to discover your full potential. The weak do not want to be around the strong. The stagnant can’t bear the company of the vigorously growing.

  He whispered the words to himself, trying to repeat them into his memory.

  Pain and sickness will always befall men. Choose yours, be it the pain from manual labor or the sickness of overexertion. Schedule it. Savor it. Use your pain so it will not use you.

  There was no warning. Perhaps he’d forgotten to lock the door. Either that or his mother had stealthily used her key while he was absorbed in the book. The door swung aside, and there she stood bearing his breakfast tray with its perfectly coddled egg, whole-wheat toast, and halved grapefruit. Her eyes seized upon the book and blazed, but only for a moment. Then her eyebrows relaxed. Her eyes narrowed with hostile suspicion, and she asked, “What are you reading?”

  Of course she knew. The Talbott book was a sensation hotly debated on television and the Internet. Like all mystical texts, from The Celestine Prophecy to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, those who liked it revered it. Those who didn’t despised it. His mother fell into the camp of the latter. She bent to set the tray on his bedside table, slyly eyeing the open pages.

  When he didn’t respond, she forced a smile and said, “Got you a pink grapefruit, today!”

  In bed, the first rays of dawn illuminating the words, silently Terrence read:

  The weak want you to forgo your destiny just as they’ve shirked theirs.

  She must’ve known whence it came. Who’d given it to him. For years she’d kept his father at bay, telling the nurses, telling Terrence that his father was a bigoted, race-baiting psycho obsessed with micro-aggressioning the transgendered and rape-culturing tipsy coeds. Ever since Terrence had begun having his mysterious seizures, she’d been his caretaker and only daily human contact.

  She motioned for him to scooch over so she could sit on the edge of his bed, her hips pressing against his blanketed thigh. She leaned close, puffing the pillow beside his head. Doing so she snuck a look at the open pages. Aloud, she read:

  We must allow each individual to persevere or to perish as he chooses.

  A scowl twisted her mouth. “Garbage,” she declared. Her disgusted tone, shame-raping him. One of her hands gripped the edge of the cover and she pulled gently. “Give it so you can eat.”

  When he held tight and refused to look up from the page, she asked, “What are you hiding?” With another less gentle tug at the book she said, “You’d think I was planning to burn the damned thing!”

  Seeing he was determined, she sat back. Coolly assessing him, the bedclothes, the book, her face was flat, expressionless. A mask of cunning. She changed tacks. Inching herself closer, she leaned over him. She reached to press one cool palm against his forehead. Saying, “Your eyes look glassy,” she stroked his cheeks. “You feel warm.” Brushing some hair back from his temples, she said, “You’re close to having another seizure, aren’t you?”

  This is how it always started. She’d pet his face. She’d coo. His mother would look deep into his eyes, telling him he looked pale, his skin felt clammy. She’d croon and purr, “My poor, sick baby . . . My fragile, sick boy . . .” And sweat would begin to pour down Terrence’s face. His eyes would lose focus. She’d prompt, “Your ears are ringing, aren’t they?” And his ears would ring.

  Next, like a curse, she’d summon the headaches, migraines, chills, and they’d all manifest in him.

  This time, as she ran her fingers through his hair and called forth the fits and spasms that would land him back in the hospital, this time Terrence kept his eyes on the open page. Reading:

  The black thug conducts gang violence and the homosexual indulges in promiscuity because both acts demonstrate political identity. Remove the outside observer and you eliminate the impetus for the behavior.

  Her voice loaded with scorn, she baited him. “Do you know what sensible people are calling that book?” When h
e didn’t bite, she snapped, “They’re calling it the ‘new Mein Kampf’!”

  Terrence felt the threat of a seizure pass. The trance broke. His breathing steadied and grew deep. His heart no longer raced.

  When she saw her ministrations weren’t having their usual effect, his mother sat back. Once again, she asked, “What are you so ashamed of?” When he didn’t respond, she asked, “You didn’t have another nocturnal emission, did you?” Her hands dug at the sheets and blankets as she demanded, “Let’s see your catheter!”

  To protect himself, Terrence strained to roll away from her. Hugging the book to his chest he protested, “Mother! I’m nineteen years old, and I’m tired of wearing a catheter!”

  She’d found the collection bag, a clear-plastic balloon swollen with his nighttime output. Holding the collection bag aloft, she shook it for emphasis, sloshing and horrible. “We can dispense with the catheter,” she railed, “when someone quits wetting his bed!”

  The bedwetting was only an excuse, Terrence knew. Year by year for as long as he could recall she’d measured the output of his bladder and bowels and logged the results. To what end, he’d never questioned, not before reading the Talbott book.

  His mother dropped the weighty collection bag and made a sudden, violent grab, snarling, “Give it!”

  Terrence clung tightly as she latched onto the spine and fought to drag it from his grasp.

  She slid off the bed, squatting low, her feet planted on the floor, pulling with her full weight. With one hand she gripped the book. With her free hand she reached for something Terrence couldn’t see. She battled half-heartedly as she focused on some task blocked from his vision by the edge of the bed.

  “Your father,” she hissed, “he doesn’t know how sick and weak you are!”

  Terrence’s eyes fell upon the current page. There, the words said:

  What you resist persists. Direct opposition only strengthens your opponent.

  Triumphantly, she lifted her free hand into the air. Somehow she’d managed to snatch the long tube that looped from his catheter, and she’d wrapped a length of it around her fist. If he didn’t relinquish his father’s gift it was clear she meant to yank the tubing cruelly. She had him by the tackle.

  “Hand it over,” she growled.

  Terrence pleaded, “Mother, no!” But his steadfast grip didn’t loosen on the binding. The blankets had fallen away, revealing his pale, hairless legs and arms, the rest of him attired in only a white cotton T-shirt and briefs.

  She gave the tube a warning pull. The full length of it jumped and went taut where it entered the front of his tented underpants.

  Terrence could already feel the ominous tug and cried out, “Mother, don’t!” His voice cracked, “You’ll pull it off!” Still he held tight to his treasure.

  One hand still pulling at the contested volume, his mother used the other to give a ferocious jerk. The catheter sprang free, the long tube cracking like a bullwhip. Spraying hot urine across his breakfast tray. Dissolving his precious day’s worth of benzodiazepine. Urine drizzled onto Terrence’s coddled egg and lightly buttered whole-wheat toast with the crusts meticulously cut off.

  A pain ripped through, not just his tender junk but Terrence’s entire urinary tract, an agony that made his hands spasm and release their grip. The book slipped away, and his mother fell backward. The catheter flailed in the air, jetting its salty, amber contents. The blue-black book came into violent contact with the edge of the breakfast tray, knocking it from the night table. The tumbling plate sent eggs and marmalade flying.

  As she tumbled, the heavy book so quickly released struck her boldly across the face. The impact made a dull thwack, followed by his mother’s guttural moan of suffering.

  His mother sprawled backward, resting on her elbows. Steaming yellow waste still shot from the tubing that had a mere instant before been lodged deep in her son’s urethra. Under the putrid rain of this hellish fountain she shrieked, “See what you made me do!”

  The book’s impact had broken her nose, laying it sideways against one cheek. A froth of blood and mucus poured from her nostrils, making her words sputter. The room was a shambles, littered with urine, blood, and bacon. The wallpaper, dappled with orange juice and partially dissolved serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

  With one hand, Terrence gripped his wounded manhood in anguish. The trauma had almost turned him inside out. While the shame and rage burned in his tear-stained cheeks, his opposite hand flew to his mouth and he fell to sucking the thumb feverishly. That’s when a voice came to him, a voice he chose to believe was his father’s. It bade, “Be strong.”

  At this, he swung his thin legs off the side of the bed. Despite his mother’s curses and sobs, he lowered his bare feet to the carpet and took a wobbly step toward the bathroom. Ignoring the shouts that followed him, he staggered toward the toilet. His hands fumbled with his shorts as a voice screamed, “For Christ’s sake, put up the seat!”

  He left it down. Straddling the bowl, his legs spread wide apart like the legs of Atlas, for the first time in his life Terrence Weston took his first standing leak.

  We’ve all watched the little ritual. When you go to pay with a fifty-dollar bill at the store, or a hundred, the cashier always holds it up. She looks at the light shining through and squints to see the watermark. The cashier whips out a felt-tipped pen and swipes it across the face of the bill. Because a lazy counterfeiter will use well-worn paper made from wood pulp, the pen contains a solution of iodine that reacts with the starch in cellulose and leaves a black stain. Real currency is printed on rag paper made from cotton or linen fibers. It’s more like fabric than paper. That’s why real money survives the washing machine. On real currency the iodine pen leaves no mark.

  Masie would be the first to admit she was a geek about money. She studied the feel of security threads woven into bills. She loved watermarks and color-change inks.

  That’s how come Masie worked late at the printer, tonight. She knew printing, and she knew money, but this contract job was something new. A special order. A new process.

  She lifted one of the unprinted sheets. Even the term printing was inaccurate. This process was more like exposing photographic paper to light, like developing a picture.

  Each sheet measured an arm’s length wide. Slippery and shiny, more stiff than paper. Her instructions were to place each sheet in a jig. She’d then place a template on the sheet, a kind of stencil. And she’d switch on an ultraviolet light and allow it to shine on the template and sheet for one minute. She’d remove the sheet and run it through a cutter that divided the film into thirty-six, stiff, thin . . . coupons, they had to be.

  It was a promotional gimmick, Masie guessed. As the customer had explained, the finished coupons would have a six-week lifespan. After fifty-odd days the pattern on them would fade to nothing.

  The way the customer had explained it, this was a new technology originally developed for creating self-erasing, top-secret military documents. It used nanoparticles of gold or silver sandwiched within a thin gel sheet. When the particles were exposed to ultraviolet light they bonded in the pattern of the exposed area. Thus, they bonded to create the patterns allowed by the stencil. Sheets impregnated with gold particles were red, and the exposed areas became blue where they filled with the bonded particles. Sheets impregnated with silver particles looked yellow, and the exposed patterns of particles turned violet.

  Masie lifted a stack of the finished coupons. The colors were vivid red-and-blue or yellow-and-violet, patterned with convoluted details similar to paper currency. A lacy border, intricate background crosshatching. A picture of a pompous man dominated one side. The caption identified him as Talbott Reynolds. “Absolute Monarch Appointed by the Council of Tribes,” the caption read. He looked familiar, as if he could’ve been an actor she’d seen on forgettable television commercials.

  On the opposite side of the red coupons a slogan read: “Money Is Better Burnt Than Spent on Folly.”

sp; On the yellow coupons, the slogan was: “Hoarded Food Rots. Hoarded Money Rots Man. Hoarded Power Rots Mankind.”

  It wasn’t visible, not yet, but the tiny particles were already beginning to break their bonds and drift apart. The coupons might be legible now, but in six weeks they’d appear blank.

  It was built-in obsolescence. Talking to herself, Masie muttered, “Ezra Pound would’ve loved this!”

  She counted the cut-out coupons, banded them with paper in stacks of one hundred, and packed them in boxes for shipment to the customer. When the crew switched duties, she ran the printer—actually it was a vacuum frame that sucked the air out and made sure the template was tight against the sheet of film. This way the images were crisp and sharp, although only short-lived.

  As a money geek, she’d studied how the poet Ezra Pound had advocated for a vegetable-based currency. As some form of money that would quickly rot, it would force holders to spend it or invest it as soon as possible. No one could pile up great fortunes in cash, and money wouldn’t outlast people. It would be as perishable as a loaf of bread or a passing hour of labor. Masie knew it was radical thinking like this that attracted Pound to Fascism, particularly to Mussolini, particularly to the money theorist Silvio Gesell. Gesell urged that all large denomination currency have an expiration date so that it could not be hoarded by the rich while the poor starved for employment. In Pound’s dream, banks and rich men could never enslave a nation with the power of its own monetary units.

  These crazy ideas had landed him in prisons and mental hospitals for much of his life.

  To Masie, the ideas didn’t sound so insane. To her money ought to be a gateway like Superman’s telephone booth that allowed transformation. Money was agar, aether, undifferentiated stuff that had to take a new form quickly or perish.

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