An excerpt from Satellite Circus by KENT HARRINGTON
STANLEY ASKED why they called it Elephant Beach. They’d been standing in the outdoor elevator with a view of the sea, he and the bellboy, riding in a mechanical fury up to his room. The horseshoe-shaped beach, ten stories below, spread out perfectly in that postcard way people dream of. No beer cans, or drunks, or bits of trash from up here, Stanley thought. He’d overheard someone in the lobby say it was at this beach where the Waters girl had last been seen. He’d heard it countless times on countless TV stations in Miami; read it on CNN’s crawl; heard it at Heathrow, while in a bar drinking Diet Coke, which he detested, waiting for his plane to the States. What had happened in that bar was strange. He’d gone in fully intending to get drunk, and sat down and ordered a Diet Coke as if he were being ordered to by remote control.
At his girlfriend’s flat near Green Park—the flat panel TV showing the Waters girl’s photo and then the now-famous beach—his girlfriend had complained about his drinking and the travails of their long-distance relationship in a tone of voice that said it was over between them. He’d thought of those filaments in a light bulb still glowing on stubbornly, the power cut; just their reddish electric ember left to slowly fade out.
He and the girl had taken bracing walks in Green Park during his visit to London to meet with his editors at the paper, her hopes of patching things up, “civilizing him,” gone now. Both of them just watching the end of it all. She’d finally given up. She was—as the psychiatrists say—emotionally unavailable now. Her eyes no longer on him, the way they had been before; he could sense that it was hopeless. She looked straight ahead in her chic raincoat, head slightly bent as she walked, her beautiful profile a reminder of the image he’d fallen in love with. The realization that it was over had hurt—there was a certain quality to the un-localized pain that made him long for a common toothache. Everyone wanted to be believed in. Seen.
She had driven him to the airport explaining everything quickly, how they needed to see other people with like interests. (What would his be, he wondered?) He’d stopped listening, letting her perform the script she must have practiced for days, budgeting emotions. So much for this syllable, so much for that glance. It was somehow tawdry. She should have just thrown something at him and called him an asshole; it would have sat better with both of them. After all, he had been an asshole.
He’d watched her Morris Minor pull away at Heathrow and join the line of cars, keeping his eyes on it until it disappeared into the grey rain, so different than in Los Angeles, where the newspaper preferred he live. Like any soldier from Lumley, he’d obeyed his orders and done his job—and she’d sacked him for it.
“ELEPHANT BEACH,” Stanley said. The bellboy told him things about the beach, the story of how it had been named by the developer. Stanley stopped listening, wanting just to see it instead, get to know it from this singular high-up, elevator-traveling-soundlessly-through-space point of view. He had a bad habit of blocking out peoples’ droning conversation, and listening to his own silent monologue as if he were writing his thoughts down carefully on a notepad, the way he had when he interviewed someone while at the Times. The time of unrememerable being… truly young. Wordsworth. He smiled. Why did he remember Wordsworth? Wordsworth had felt it all, perhaps.
There had been a crack in his personality since he was a child. He’d lost something when he’d lost his sister, perhaps even before that. Some hidden defect, like a cleft palate or psychological clubfoot finally made itself noticeable after her death. He’d reached that point where he understood that it was true, it was, what she’d said to him, the girl near Green Park, while she’d dressed. She’d passed sentence on him. She’d told him that it wasn’t the murder of his sister that had made him drink and carouse, made him lose his job at the Times. She was certain of that. She was quick to say how horrible his sister’s murder was. But it would have been something else, she said, slipping on her mules, standing in her fabulous closet and looking at him, sure of herself. She was thirty and slim and pale with small breasts she kept in expensive see-through underwear. So sure of herself even when she made love, a veteran of doomed affairs like theirs—getting what she could out of them, even if it was just a good screw. Not an ounce of love left in her now. Was anything left to assay? Everything dry about her. The milk-of-human-kindness-store closed.
But she’d been right, he decided. The realization hit him again as it had while he’d towed his suitcase through Heathrow, the great circus of tourism and travel. She was a doctor, she’d seen the disease; he was clearly ill with a case of lifefuckedupness. And perhaps he’d become a vector for transmitting it to others.
“I’m not trying to be a bitch about your sister, Stanley. Can you understand what I’m trying to say to you? You have to look at the whole man, Stanley, not the event. Your ontology, do you understand? I want this to get through, Stanley. It’s your only hope, for god’s sake. Because I think you want to kill yourself really.” She was a Harley Street doctor and had grown up in a world of big words and big bank balances because her father had been a someone at Lloyds of London. She thought in biological terms—pattern recognition was her forte.
He’d watched the little plane cursor transition from Europe to America on his personal TV screen, following the icon and childishly thinking that his orientation was all wrong. If he could only be like the plane, guided by unseen hands, men who could see the larger picture and radio him when it looked dangerous up ahead. You’re going to lose your sister. You’re going to go slightly mad … over. Roger that, mate. He could understand that. It had been his fate since the moment he was conceived—like a star, the gases and liquids meeting to make him, Stanley Jones, to assert something that had never been asserted before; a biological novelty, as he supposed everyone had to be or the universe couldn’t survive: new stones, new trees, new people, fresh bright new strands of DNA even, or at the least, subtle changes, one from the other. The whole thrust of the universe was constant change. The little piece of grit that had coalesced into Stanley Jones, would glow and then die, but for now, still existed as the slightly underfed journalist with some real war experience. Had the grit come from the mines where his father worked, a little bit of carbon-sperm still traveling through time? The 33-year-old man who had been born in England, once worked at the Times of London, voted Tory for the hell of it, and went tabloid because his sister had died in the way she’d died and he couldn’t face it.
Some things in life are faced, some are not. Some things break you and some don’t. The day that he’d gotten the news in Iraq had broken him. It was quite simple. His underpinnings blown up. Something went wrong in his heart. Before he got that call he’d cared: afterwards he stopped like a clock. Not emotionally available for ticking, and certainly not for loving anyone. The doctor called Portia, a.k.a. his girlfriend, had felt for his emotional pulse; after several attempts, she gave up. Patient expired.
HE LOOKED DOWN, a bit of vertigo racing up his spine through the spotless pristine thick elevator glass: the smooth scimitar line of sand and blue sea Disneyesque, cloyingly beautiful, still growing below. He was seeing things as he hadn’t for years. The elevator was driven up to some mechanical hilt where it finally stopped with a feeling of unlocking—all of it felt in his feet. He took a last look: everything spread out under an empty, blue, exhausted slave-sky… all very what? Empty, he decided, all very empty here.
God, I’m sober. The idea frightened him. He cared again. He had no other word for it. But what was it he cared about? He didn’t know that, either. He would have to start from scratch. Point Zero. If he did, he knew that somehow he would not turn back from it, from that Big Thing.
He’d spent the last few years pretty much drunk all the time. For some reason, the girl in London had punched through. She’d bloody scared him. She’d literally shoved him in front of her closet mirror and he’d gotten a good long look at himself, towel on his naked shoulder. And now he was scared by the kind of suspended-madness he’d seen plastered on his face, clear to him like the beach below, or the sky very cerulean blue and fine outside.
He stepped out of the elevator into the totally bland hotel corridor, red-carpeted, bordello-ish; little poppy-painted flourishes on the anonymous numbered doors. Like the corridors in Hell, or a sybaritic Heaven. The clarity of his vision made it painful. Even just a week of vacation bliss here, and you might—if you sat down and took it all in, really pulled on that straw—go mad. You shouldn’t allow yourself to think this way. He heard his mother’s voice, the voice she would use to buck him up when he was away at school with the rich boys and couldn’t keep up.
Why don’t they give you a report to write when you’re thirty? “Sum it up for us, then,” God would say. University, job, dating, your sex life. He’d once had a girlfriend who’d said her orgasm had had an orgasm, and they’d laughed. It had felt like a clue to the nature of the universe, the silly profundity of language that got it right sometimes.
Your bank balances. Bad Decisions and the Good Ones (going to Oxford). Where you store your prestige. The Balance Of Pride. The whole ratty story, with a cosmic by-line. He’d love to read his; anyone’s, it would be good. Or perhaps as a stock report: “The board promises that the second part of Jones’ life will show a three percent increase in after-tax profits EBIDA… if the panties he pulls down are made in sweatshops in VietNam and the transnational orgasm reaches critical mass and she looks at him with adoring connubial eyes as she is transported to the Avenue of Multiple Sheet-Grabbing Bliss. And the Tories sweep the next elections.”
Sobriety was making his mind race in this strange volcanic magma-streaming way to his core. Why? Why. Did he have a core? He didn’t think so. He’d looked before and decided it had been blown up. That was his problem. He had no core. He’d had a core-ectomy. It was gone. Filled with tabloid ink now, officially coreless like so much of the world around him, from London to Beijing. No core. Plenty of freeways and witless coffee houses and scolding bankers who stole, and earnest politicians planning mass murder called “defensive” by the press, but no social core any more. Ask anyone, and all you got was Jesus or Rasputin.
“This is your room, sir,” the kid said, finally stopping. “It’s a smoking room, sir.”
“Right,” Stanley said, standing in the door. “Don’t take it up, young man; it’s bad for you. Smoking.” He smiled at the bellboy.
“Yes, sir.” The boy, all of sixteen, was very black and handsome. He looked remarkably healthy and cool in his white uniform with a dolphin on the lapel, as if nothing could possibly upset him.
“Did you see the famous Mary Waters, then?” Stanley asked as they barged into the room. She’d stayed at this hotel. Everyone in the whole wide world knew that, now.
“I don’t know, sir. I may have. They all look the same, if you know what I mean. The Yanks. Especially the white ones.” Stanley smiled back at him, and they shared the joke. “You stop looking after awhile.” The island had been a colony of “Old Blighty” and now, even today, their former slaves’ POV was still a British one: the Royals, fox hunting, James Bond, Mr. Bean, English humor. English churches. English tabloids.
“Ah, come on now… even the very pretty ones?” Stanley said.
“No, sir. You always look at the very pretty ones. Right you are!” The boy smiled and looked like all boys caught red-handed with their fantasies. He took the British pounds Stanley offered and went to the curtain at the bottom of the stale-smelling room and pulled it open, the dirty bills disappearing into his jacket pocket.
”Ice, sir? Would you like some?” the boy asked him.
He didn’t want to answer the question. It was loaded.
“Do you think she was murdered?” Stanley asked him instead.
“I haven’t a clue, sir,” the boy said, looking at him rather blankly. “Are you a policeman?”
“No. Worse. Journalista… No ice, thanks.” It took him a moment to get the words out, as if someone else were answering for him. He walked to the window and looked down on the beach.
He heard the door close softly behind him and leaned against it, trying to breathe deeply. He walked across the room—it seemed suddenly very small—to the mini bar. He didn’t like being alone, he realized. He touched the seal, a little gold cord. Break it? … He touched it the way you might if you were blind, testing. He yanked and it gave way quite easily. Just as quickly he stepped away, as if he’d knocked on the Devil’s front door and asked for him by name. Is Lucifer home? Can he come out and play?
“I can do this,” he said out loud. “I can do this.”
HE WALKED OUT to the famous beach fully dressed, sweating, but still in possession of his sobriety, an interloper amongst the half-naked college kids. He felt as if he were holding his sobriety like one of those dolls they give expectant mothers to look after. Twice he’d opened the Servibar and looked at the beers and small-drinks bottles, even counting them. He’d taken them to the bathroom and poured them all out, then almost panicked while watching the last bits of beer foam clinging to the sides of the wet sink.
He’d had to walk through a tunnel, a kind of snack-area-cum-bar leading from the bowels of the hotel, and then the sunlight and people coming in off the beach, sweaty and oily. The transition from dark to light was hard to take when he was seeing every detail. Like a car-park connected to a beach. Weird. The sand-caked-on legs, collapsed umbrellas, noise on noise, the sound of the surf itself, the feeling of walking on sand in his dress shoes, holding his crying “baby,” his “I’m sober” doll.
Thought/mind things coming and going, fairly normally: Sexual interest—the loin-pulling kind— he noticed that it had been missing for months. Seeing young women’s wet butts and how he might want to cup them with the palm of his hand as he waded out onto the soft sand. He stopped for a moment, realizing the girl on Green Park had, in part, left him because he’d been terrible in bed. But this new interest in sex would disappear soon, and fall through the 6pm hole with everything else—if he took a drink.
He’d lasted exactly two weeks on the Royal’s TV side, a show called “Celebrity Smack Down,” showing up once too often drunk. They’d sent him back to the print side, where it didn’t matter what he sounded like. Ironically he’d only gotten more successful, his bylines appearing at least once a week now all over the world. Alcohol seemed to fuel his style. And how sober did you have to be to cover gassed-up starlets or pathetic dowagers leaving fortunes to their cats?
ONE OF THE COLLEGE GIRLS looked at him. She was holding a beer. She had brown hair, a real hip-hop Lolita. She was looking at him specifically. Noticing him and his ridiculous linen suit, the expensive shoes he’d bought in Italy while covering the Cruise wedding.
“Are you looking at my ass?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” he said, stopping.
“My ass? ARE. YOU. LOOKING. AT. IT?” She giggled. She was drunk.
“Well, I may have been,” he said finally, taking her in. She had small breasts and a flat stomach and was slathered up like her partner lying on the sand near her. That alone would give her a fuck-me-now quality, all that cocoa butter on her legs and breasts like she was being served up to some Beach God for lunch. Could she blame him for looking? It was the ass of a 20-year-old, the kind they ran on Page Three of his newspaper. An ass hard enough to bounce quarters off of, a Marine had once said to him.
“You’re not supposed to stare. Didn’t you read the guide books?” she said.
“Sorry… didn’t pack one,” Stanley said.
”Funny. Are you English? You sound like Hugh Grant.”
“I think so,” he said. “Last time I checked… Welsh, actually. But I’m working on the accent.”
”Funny. This is my friend, Heather. We just met,” the girl said. Not much from Heather but a glance and a hair toss, and a look that was neither dismissive nor inclusive.
“How do you do,” Stanley said.
“I’m reading Grisham. What do you think of him? I brought Shakespeare, too. ‘What fools these mortals be.’ My kingdom for a Heineken.” The smaller one moved her hands expansively to take everyone in. “That kind of thing seems out of place. Can you quote Grisham? No one seems to be able to—I keep asking.”
“Authentically American,” Stanley said.
The girl smiled. She’d liked what he’d said.
”Why aren’t you wearing a bathing suit?” she asked.
He wanted to see her eyes. There was something familiar about her. Maybe it was her inebriated coyness. Her eyes were well guarded by some wicked silver sunglasses that belonged on a boy.
“I didn’t pack one. I didn’t expect a beach,” he said, smiling. He wanted to play along.
“I don’t understand. Doesn’t compute,” she said. “This is an island? Do you have an iPhone?”
“I do,” he lied.
“We’ll both fuck you then… just kidding. It’s just it’s the one item necessary for an electronic orgy—that and an iPod. Then we can have an i-fuck-you. You know they have docking stations here by the beds? Although they pump in Mariah Carey, too—or is it Beyonce?… Docking station, get it? Pump Mariah Carey. Got to love that.”
“WiFi. Docking station. Are you gay?” she asked. Her hand moved while she said it. She had a bit of gold-colored sand decorating her flank like a henna painting. She dusted it off and he was sorry. Her bathing suit looked brand new.
“No. I tried it but it didn’t seem natural,” he said. “And I have a bad back.”
“You are funny. Well, go buy some kind of electronic gadget that will awe us and come right back,” she said. “Then we can find out important things that are going on Right Now. In. Our. World! Something wireless. Text me.” She lowered her sunglasses looking over the top of the frame. She mouthed her number. “My cell number works here. I paid extra.” She rummaged in her beach bag for a moment. Then she reached up and took his hand and wrote her number on his palm in blue ink.
“Right,” he said, impressed, and he wandered off, waiting for the baby to slip out of his hand. He turned back once and looked at the girl. She was talking to her friend, but she turned and looked at him again and waved. He waved back like a dork. He thought she’d be passed-out before three, her head hanging over some perfumed hotel toilet, paying all her cleverness back.
THE NIRVANA’S grand atrium-style lobby had huge slabs of Brazilian yellow and brown marble with shocking patterns, made to delight idiots who, he supposed, would find secret meanings in their swirling colors once they’d smoked some of the island’s marijuana. Groups of middle-class singles in their thirties were preparing for day-trip adventures, determined to do more than just sit out on the beach with the kids. He heard someone ask a desk clerk for a map to “the slavery museum,” then they were off in a well-laundered herd. To look for the “Door Of No Return,” he heard one say.
He found a bar in the lobby called The Shack, with a view of the atrium-Hell waterfall. Who asked for waterfalls inside buildings—what genius came up with that? he wondered. He ordered a Diet Choke, as he jokingly called the drink, angry that he couldn’t order a real drink. He listened to the Muzak and drank, for a few moments alone at the bar, becoming something not quite human, a hulk of something, strangling itself quietly, with silent parched anger. Each pull on his drink tasted more and more like something one might use to clean furniture. He watched the black bartender, about his age, pretend to be busy, when there were no customers, his barman’s clothes impeccable.
He called his assistant in LA, who gave him all the latest updates on the story from various news sources. CNN was still leading the story; no other journalists had managed to wrestle it away from them. But they were running thin. And she’d heard they were desperate for new images. There was plenty he should be doing, but he was still trying to get his arms around the pain of his sobriety. The staggering clarity of life in the raw. It was hard to take.
“Is something wrong?” Stanley finally asked, putting his Blackberry down on the bar. The barman had been watching Stanley furtively. Stanley noticed the clock on his phone. 29.5 hours since his last drink. I’ll do thirty, and then surrender. White flag at 3 PM.
“I was just wondering… Are you here about the missing girl, then?” the bartender asked.
“Well, I’m not wearing a bathing suit, so that makes me a journo,” Stanley said. The anger in his voice surprised him.
“I could help. I saw her here that evening. The evening she disappeared. At the bar,” the man said. Stanley got the feeling this man had said exactly the same thing only moments before, and probably for days to any journalist who sat down in front of him.
“Of course you did… And of course you can,” Stanley said.
“I would need…” the man said.
“Money?” Stanley said, warming up. Pulling on his unseen journo hat, and glad of it as he needed to pull something on to cover his nakedness. The nakedness he’d felt since landing in this bloody tanned-Hell. He made it sound like a question, but it wasn’t; more an affirmation. They all asked for money, even in Paris—one of the old hands had told him—at Lady Di’s tunnel. Even though they had nothing to sell, they asked just to say they’d seen the car drive by.
“Yes. Only fair, right?” the bartender said, less sheepishly than most did. The fact that he was trading on murder, probably, or worse, didn’t seem to matter.
Stanley looked at him carefully. The barman’s gold badge prominent on his starched shirt proclaimed him “Eddy.” Eddy smiled as he thought he had what in the business was called a “tidbit”—a little grubby jewel he’d palmed now for days. He wondered how many times Eddy had sold his girl since the furor had begun. Or at least trotted her out. Made her twirl, the sound of the dreadful waterfall behind him.
“Of course you would, Eddy. And I need a friend here, as I’ve heard they’re pirates. But you have to give me a peek inside the tent, Eddy. I mean, to see if I want to go in? Only fair.” He pushed his soft drink away. Eddy immediately grabbed it and filled it up from a special tap, Connected to the zebra that pissed out the stuff, Stanley thought.
“She was drunk… the girl, Mary. Very, very drunk when they left here. I refused to serve them any more,” Eddy said as he worked. Stanley’s glass disappeared, then reappeared filled to the brim, dancing with perfectly shaped balls of ice.
“Would you have any ID? I mean, so I know that you’re really from a newspaper or something,” Eddy said.
“The Royal,” Stanley said. “I work for the Royal.” Eddy had asked like a policeman. He wasn’t going to sell his little girl to just any guy. After all, Eddy wasn’t stupid! Stanley smiled back and dragged out his laminated press card, which he kept in the pocket of his linen jacket. He laid it flat on the bar, like a real-estate agent making an offer.
“The real thing, Eddy. I’ll get you a date with our Page Three Girl if you like.” They both laughed. It was an old line but it always worked with men, at least men familiar with the Royal’s naughty side.
He dug for his wallet. His editors had given him loads of dollars, and he could get loads more to buy any kind of tidbits from eager citizens like Eddy. “By the way, my name is Stanley, Stanley Jones. Did I say that?” Both looked at the greasy twenty-dollar bills; Stanley offered $200. They haggled, and Stanley let Eddy win. He always did; since Eddy was a bartender he would indeed be useful, though perhaps not in the way he thought. At that moment, perhaps—usually very late at night—when he’d made an ass of himself at the bar and was too drunk to stand. Most bartenders would stop it, the way they might stop an illegal dog fight if they could.
But maybe Eddy wouldn’t, Stanley thought. Maybe Eddy was what he’d gotten to call a “Pourer.” Some people were Pourers and some weren’t. Stanley smiled, paid the man his money.
“Wow,” the bartender said, taking the cash. “The Royal!”
”Wow indeed,” Stanley said.
And then Eddy told the story that everyone on the planet with a TV already knew.
* * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KENT HARRINGTON is a 4th generation San Franciscan, born to an Irish-Jewish father and Guatemalan mother. His early education was spent at the Palo Alto Military Academy, where he was sent at an early age. He attended San Francisco State University and received a degree in Spanish Literature. After living both in Spain and Latin America, he returned to the Bay Area and began his career as a novelist supporting himself as a teacher, carpenter, factory worker and life insurance salesman. His first published work was the well-received noir thriller Dark Ride published in 1997. Booklist’s review said: “This is as noir as it gets.” His follow-up noir thriller Dia De Los Muertos is considered a modern crime classic. Amazon’s editorial review says: “If ‘American noir’ were in the dictionary, you might find Kent Harrington’s picture in place of the definition.” Other works include Red Jungle, set in Guatemala, and The Good Physician. Red Jungle was selected as one of the “10 Best Crime Novels” of the year by Booklist. Kent lives in Northern California with his wife.
‘Nirvana’ is an excerpt from Satellite Circus. Copyright © 2009 by Kent Harrington. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.