My friend Penny phoned and asked whether we’d go to the rally, my family and me. I told her I wasn’t sure. And in fact, I wasn’t. I knew that Burton wanted to cook again, meaty foods like steak or ribs. “Fire up the grill,” he said about what he was going to do. He encouraged me to go get the cauliflower and so I did. I went to the grocer and I picked some up, along with a few other items. The cashier had been friendly, didn’t even ask about my purchases. I liked to be left alone and not subject to inquiry when it wasn’t necessary. Among a few other unnoteworthy items, I was buying cauliflower as a delicious side for the meal we’d be eating that evening. Nothing more needed to be discussed. She probed instead about my day, about the rally, whether I was going. I said we might, my husband and kids and I. I wasn’t sure –much like I’d earlier told Penny. She said she was going and implied it would be good if I went too, with the family. She didn’t say it like she was trying to scare me. Still, I had to be getting home.
Driving home from the grocer, I observed that the neighborhood seemed flatter than usual. People were out in large numbers and appeared mostly able to stand with perfectly erect posture, but their grass looked lower and their houses, already single-floor ranch-style dwellings, looked even more stunted. Gravity hadn’t increased, not that it could to my knowledge, which where gravity’s mystery is concerned, my knowledge is limited, as is most people’s. No one had come on the Announcement TV to indicate that gravity could increase, no one who claimed to be trustworthy or “expert” — granted I didn’t trust those folks who claimed their trustworthiness or expertise, but with little else as alternative… anyway, no one appeared to discuss the matter on the Announcement TV. I was pretty sure it was something illusory to my eye. Something that wasn’t real, though my eyes portrayed it as real to my mind.
I drove carefully, as always. No more accidents, not after we’d been through so much with Burton. Burton was a bit accident-prone, particularly while driving. It had been the cause of some trouble. Burton wasn’t a dunderhead, exactly, but he gave you cause to worry in general. Lots of cause. So I was surprised when coming down the street we lived on, I spotted him wandering out in front of my home and moving directly into my path, holding a grill fork with a single steak dangling from it. The girls stood back from their father in the street, as we’d instructed. They were on the lawn and out of the way of danger. Guster, too, who was on the lawn but barking fiercely at Burton, or in Burton’s direction.
I avoided hitting Burton and pulled the car into the driveway and parked, got out and ran to meet him, to help him. He was waving the steak so that grease splattered on his face and his clothing. “Burton,” I said, “what is this? What are you doing? Why are you doing it?”
He lowered his grill fork. The steak slid off and fell to the asphalt pavement. I lowered my stalk of cauliflower, realizing I was holding it.
“There was an announcement on the Announcement TV. They said don’t be surprised if your water stops coming out of the faucet for no reason. It could happen. They were sure it could happen. They said, ‘Sure, it could’ — when the expert was consulted he said the exact same, ‘Sure it could stop’,” Burton said. “But I guess I got a little carried away — you know, emotionally.”
The girls were hopping now, pretending to be bunnies in the grass. I gently reminded them not to pull up the lawn and pretend to munch on it as though they fed on grass. Guster was buzzing around them, chasing and jumping at the grass they threw into the air after they pretended to eat it. I glared at them, and finally they stopped disobeying.
It was nice that we had Guster, the family pitbull. It had been hard to get a dog permit, but we got one and so Guster was all of a sudden one day with us, as if by magic. We loved him. We knew he’d protect the twins, Sarah Dee and Shelly. We were needful of a good protector of children and lover of us all. It was a beautiful pairing, Guster and our family.
It was getting close to rally time. We saw Mr. and Mrs. Shields climbing out the door and getting into their white sedan. Mr. Shields seemed disappointed about something, although that was common of his expression. Mrs. Shields noticed Burton’s steak and said it seemed like a waste, but maybe it could be salvaged, and would Burton please pick it up, in that event. In the event that it could be dusted of whatever debris and possibly still eaten. She didn’t want us to leave it to the animals, a perfectly good steak. She waved to us as she got into their sedan, Mr. Shields waiting in the driver’s seat. Mrs. Shields was saying “see you at the rally” as she closed her door.
“I feel like there have been more and more of those,” I said to Burton. “I need a break from all the rallies. We’re agreed, right? We aren’t going.”
Burton looked away from me. “Yeah, I’ve about had it too. I do worry we’ll miss something important. Lots gets decided. A part of me doesn’t want to be excluded from the decision-making process. I get anxious about that.”
“The most important stuff has already been decided,” I reassured him. “And plus, all they ever do is announce at those things. Have you ever once raised your hand to vote on anything? I know I haven’t.”
Burton stooped to pick up his steak, but I shook my head. “Leave it,” I said. We gathered up the girls and Guster and headed back inside, just as everyone else in the neighborhood seemed to be exiting their own homes and heading toward the rally.
Dinner that night was steak and cauliflower salad. I shared my steak with Burton since his was still in the street. There was plenty of cauliflower salad to go around. I had to think why we ate the stuff. A strange and sad plant, cauliflower. Too white, too suggestive of ill health in its whiteness. I didn’t make it a topic of conversation at the dinner table though. The girls ate happily and mostly without making a mess of the area around them. Guster would have taken care of anything they let spill though. He waited hopefully between their chairs. And dinner was the highlight of the evening.
In bed that night, we heard the crowds of neighbors returning to their homes. I imagined I heard Mrs. Shields stomp over to the steak we left on the street, shaking her head violently. Burton grumbled something dreamily, in his very evident state of unconsciousness. Dinner had been good. I remember I didn’t dream that night, unless my imagining Mrs. Shields running out to the steak in the street had in fact been a dream.
The next morning there was a Major Announcement on the Announcement TV. A gray picture screen said the following:
At last night’s rally, you folks deliberated. You gave the whole thing a lot of thought. Facts are facts. Things are fine. Let things stay that way, you’ve all agreed. Let things stay the way they were, always have been. No need for change. Change would probably make things different. So, this decision has been made. Follow through will be: doing what is necessary to keep things the same. We thank you for your attention during this broadcast.
“Damn,” Burton said, rubbing his chin, “I knew we should have gone to that rally.”
“I’m not so sure. I mean, maybe it’s harder to shock people these days, but I really don’t see what this changes, or why there was a rally to decide it.” I said. I was confident all we needed to do was ignore the process altogether. I could live and function in the world, in one sense, but remain totally apart from this its single most universal aspect, all through shear and wanton ignorance. My family could be free of it, as well.
We would continue to avoid the rallies, which from what our neighbors were saying, had gotten increasingly severe in ways they refused to explain. They didn’t owe it to us, they said. If we wanted to know, they said, we could attend the rallies ourselves.
Burton told me of a strange phenomenon he observed during his workday downtown. There were men and women on the streets, who walked along smiling noticeably and with their shoulder, usually their right but evidently dictated by whichever belonged to the dominant hand, aimed ahead of the rest of their person. As though, in doing this, they meant to advertise themselves, through their unusual manner of walking. He said it was believed this was the work of a competing advertising firm that had won a big government contract and was hiring models and other attractive types to wander the streets by day, looking happy, convincing everyone else around them to be happy too. At least, that was the psychological premise guiding their efforts.
I was cleaning out my car one afternoon when I caught out of the corner of my eye Mrs. Shields in her ratty floral-patterned dress, which she wore seemingly every other day, and of which she seemed inordinately proud. She was looking at me disapprovingly. She clearly had something on her mind. Guster was barking toward her, probably at her, but possibly at something else. I let him continue. I felt myself in some small way desire a confrontation, provoke a response from Mrs. Shields. It was the only way I’d know for sure what was going on inside her head. And I wanted to be sure.
“Couldn’t you silence the dog? Make him go inside? Get him to ignore me?” She finally said, as though she were an actor trying to remember her lines.
“It’s hard to ignore you when you’re standing there staring. I know I can’t,” I said to her.
She squinted at me angrily as my words registered. There was a strong sense of distrust about her. “You could deign to go to a rally once in awhile, you know. Not good for the children, what you’re teaching them,” she said.
“We’ll be fine,” I said, standing up and crossing my arms.
Mrs. Shields finally backed down, her shoulders slinking somewhat as she turned toward her home. Just before she opened her door and went inside, she stopped. She looked back at me and said, “That steak was still good, you know.”
That night, there was another announcement on the Announcement TV. They’d become increasingly commonplace over the past several weeks, but this one proved especially important.
In keeping with several of the most recent rally’s themes it was unveiled at yesterday’s rally that a new arm of government will be established — only a small change effected in the hope of stemming the tide of more significant changes that have previously occurred or are on the cusp of occurring. The new governmental agency is the Bureau of Everything Fitting Into Its Rightful Place. It operates, very apparently, by the notion that everything already has a “right place” and the bureau’s job will be to see to it that that is where said person/thing ends up.
“All right, that’s it. I’m taking the girls to the next rally. You don’t have to come, Myrna. But I’m taking them. It’ll be good. We’ll have familial representation. You’ll know through me what’s what. It’s important to be informed,” Burton said. He had enough. I knew that. I wasn’t blind, and I wasn’t going to attempt to stop him, not after this announcement. I was a little wary of his bringing the girls. But I decided they wouldn’t understand what was going on anyway. They’d more than likely be scared by the noise of the rally. The couple times we’d taken them over the past few years, they weren’t old enough to appreciate their surroundings. More recently, we left them at home with a sitter. But sitters were becoming increasingly scarce. Those who’d formerly been available were compelled to attend the rallies by their teenaged friends, friends who treated it like a high school sporting event, and who would often get into trouble afterward, like what follows a high school sporting event.
“I sort of like this idea of things never changing. Difficult to implement? Yes. But it’s a government program I can really get behind,” Burton said, letting his thoughts take him places, unaware that he was talking to himself. “It makes me wistful,” he said, completing his thought. I decided not to bring what he said to his attention. I was focused on the fact that the girls were soon going to be attending the rallies, and I didn’t know how I felt about that.
Burton came home a few weeks later with a story of a man he’d seen on the street. The man was a street person. He kept talking of the storm that was coming, which was a really cliched metaphor and pretty obvious considering all the changes that had already been agreed upon at the rallies. The man was panhandling, naturally. Everything was normal, traditional, of these unpleasant but culturally commonplace circumstances. Except that a van drove up, just as Burton was about to pass the man by, and two men with large white helmets and black jumpsuits with B.o.E.F.i.i.R.P written across their chests lept from the vehicle and trundled over to the man, lifted him up, and took him away. Burton inquired about the men’s actions and the men gruffly said, “Rightful place.” They sped away in the van. Burton remained, literally scratching his head. Burton had gotten a brief glimpse of what was already inside the van. Random items and not strictly human cargo. There were stray dogs and cats. Men and women who looked like scientists with a penchant for innovation. Various unidentifiable, new technologies. Books, certain books. And other things that made no sense, and probably directly reflected the early inefficiency of this brand new agency: decks of cards, old car parts, hot dog vendor carts, hot dog vendors, and so on.
The Bureau wouldn’t become more efficient in the weeks and months that followed. They really didn’t know what to do with all their acquired people and things.
The girls quickly took a liking to the rallies, looking forward to their coming like any other major event that deviated from their normal routine. They fussed over what to wear. How to style their hair. Even, finally, asking if they could wear makeup like so many of their friends did. I didn’t like the idea. They were still so young. Peer pressure is an awful thing to give into, especially at their ages. I remembered fighting against peer pressure when I was a young girl. I fought with everything I had. I wouldn’t even allow myself to be friends with most of the other girls, just to prevent the possibility of succombing to peer pressure. There were certain girls in school who called me, very literally, “the screaming girl.” They knew not to approach me. I’ve evened out a lot since then, I now have friends, but my aversion to peer pressure remains.
While the girls changed significantly with each passing rally, Burton remained the same reliable man he’d always been. He attributed his stasis to his devotion to the idea of things never changing. He’d become pretty comfortable with praising the new institution and its preservational aims. The Bureau, though, was only really good at taking people away from their daily lives and placing them someplace else. I could only imagine where. But I knew more and more people were being taken, for increasingly arbitrary reasons.
MATT ROWAN lives in Chicago, IL, with his wife and two talented chihuahuas. He co-edits Untoward Magazine and serves as fiction editor of ACM: Another Chicago Magazine. In addition to Big Venerable, he’s author of Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013). His fiction has been published in mojo journal, Pear Noir!, Necessary Fiction, elsewhere, and more at literaryequations.blogspot.com.
Adapted from Big Venerable, by Matt Rowan, Copyright © 2015 by Matt Rowan. With the permission of the publisher, CCLaP.