The Unhappy Planet
It is an honour to have a piece today from Marc Horne, author of the beyond brilliant novel Tokyo Zero, which you can buy in eformat here. All of the below is strictly copyright of Marc, and all rights are his.
This is Chapter 1 of my second novel, This Unhappy Planet, which I am doing my last tinkering with right now. I have decided to not even try and sell this work to ‘the man’: not because it is punkasfuck or avant-garde or whatever. I just have grown used to push-button publishing. Also, it is kind of short. Too short for Anglo-Saxons.
The last book I put out had the skeleton of a travel thriller. This one is a comedy of manners, set at the end of George W Bush’s reign in Southern California.
For a while there, no one wanted to play on the beach in case bits of a marine washed up. Then came some great weather and awesome surf and so people began to agree he had been swallowed by the sea and its creatures. Life got back to normal and that’s probably just how the marine and the ocean would have wanted it.
It was dawn in California and the sun was sneaking up on the sea. Pink feathers infiltrated past Pollo Loco, a peachy haze phased through the spokes of a beach cruiser bicycle and two men in their thirties were flecked with gold as they tried to free themselves from a deep purple, surprisingly warm sidewalk outside a bar that quietly twinkled.
“I can not believe,” said one of them. And he had planned to say something else. It was something about the nineteen year old in hot pants whom he had bought drinks for all night. But in the end he stopped talking right there. Because he stopped there – his brain exhausted – some strange things would end up happening to these two men.
His companion smiled a rugged smile of warm cynicism. “You can’t believe? Me neither, man. Me neither.”
And then two brains started ticking and a big fuzzy ocean hush watched over them and let them do it. The bar… it was gone. Just the ocean hush.
“Jack! Jack, I’ve got it!” said the other guy, the drinks-buying guy and he leapt to his feet impossibly. Like leaping direct to space or maybe more like a salmon leaping up a waterfall: only impossible until you see it.
Jack, inspired, pushed himself up to a (supported) seated position. “Spit it out then Drake-o!”
Drake’s wavy mane of black hair had slumped over his face and looked quite dramatic.
“I’ve figured out why we married those lovely ladies. Those lovely, idle wenches. You know why?”
Jack was now sitting straight-legged with his arms back, like he was taking in a band at an outdoor festival.
“No, man. I mean… yeah, I know why I did and it has something to do with someone pissing on a plastic stick. But no… I mean… hit me.”
Drake raised one arm, and staggered but not enough to ruin the effect.
“Because there is gold in California but not in the hills… it’s in the air now. It’s in the mind. And those occasionally still quite sexy psychos are going to be the god-damned divining rods that lead us right to it. Shit, man, I’m telling you… I’m going to get that man-servant after all and it’s not going to be you because you’re going to be my partner, man. You and me are going to be rich and… and… special.”
Then Drake called for a man-hug and with his last ounce of energy Jack delivered.
And then time skipped and it was suddenly quite sunny and people were grudgingly circumventing them. So they stumblingly followed the smell of breakfast burritos, staying quiet to avoid any mishaps on the way.
The rest of that day was wrecked. Jack was woozy in the burrito place, admiring the way his short salt-and-pepper hair looked even better when it was all messed up. Drake was scribbling notes like crazy on a pad of paper he had bought from a school kid on the street, but he didn’t want Jack to look at it until it was ready.
“You don’t walk in on your woman while she’s cleaning up her box, right? I need to get this stuff just right before I drop it on you.”
“Is this that barely-legal-RFID.com idea again because I wasn’t buying all of that ‘track that ass’ shit.”
“Screw b-l-RFID, man. That will be my side project when I’m bored on my yacht. Look, you go home, get some sleep, get your wits about you so you don’t get shivved by one of your young offenders. We’ll discuss all of this on ‘bowling night’ on Tuesday.”
So, putting aside deep concerns about this power relationship, Jack slid off a self-cleaning stool that shone like a maraschino cherry and made his way home. There he lifelessly played with his dog and his son until he (apparently) fell asleep face down on the lawn until the little Chinese woman (definitely) came round and prodded him in the rear with a pointy garden tool and asked him where his crazy wife was. He didn’t answer, because he couldn’t exactly remember what she’d said when she left, or even if she’d left with a smile or a snarl.
Then it was time to eat… well… Chinese, why not, so he and Josh picked that up, left some for Mommy and then crashed out again, this time under the watchful eyes of menacing Japanese robot toys.
The next day began with the joy of rebirth. The lightness of limbs that didn’t tremble. Blood that slid rather than slammed through the veins. And the ‘web in your face’ feeling that followed a night of wholly inappropriate skirt chasing? Well that was gone too.
The magic of waking up five minutes before your alarm clock did: the sheer mastery of it! He slapped that damn clock before it could even open its fool mouth, then he slid out of his bed and into his faded Cowboys t-shirt. Alison was lying face down in a silky robe with her hair twisted round her head like a wispy burqa. She was thin and tan and the nasty curtains threw that same perfect tan hue across the room at this hour and that is why he would never want to get rid of them. The curtains.
He would make her breakfast today and go running after school.
Frying eggs and half-rapping ‘Sabotage’ to himself, Jack looked at the side of the fridge and saw the crude sketches of dinosaurs/robots and a yellowed chart of how to get vegan nutrition and a picture of his legs wearing a tuxedo and Allie’s feet in gleaming white shoes. On top of that a fresh portrait of a 2004 Toyota 4Runner in ocean blue with the optional bike rack.
You would also find this beloved vehicle in the bathroom, above Allie’s little desk and pinned to the inside of the front door. And if you some how missed all of those, you’d find it taped to the driver’s sun-visor of their ’95 Volvo.
But it was the one on the fridge that usually caught John’s eye because cooking time was his Zen time: the time when he turned off the engine and let his brain roll down the hill.
“Don’t just look at it like that,” half-barked Allie who was suddenly in the room, “Visualize it.”
“How do I visualize something I’m looking right at?” he joked.
Missing that, she gave him a quick lecture. Visualize yourself in it. Visualize all the things you’ll achieve in it. And most important of all, visualize all of the things you’ve done to deserve it: to be worthy of it.
“Are there people who don’t deserve a 2004 Toyota 4Runner?” he asked as he handed her a plate of sizzle.
“Yes,” she answered with a pout and a playful pivot out of the room, “Anyone who is not us.”
What was it now… six years already? She hadn’t really changed much, physically, other than the finest of wrinkles that you could sometimes catch sight of during a long, harsh frown. Twenty-seven.
He remembered twenty-seven because the band had finally been doing well and he had been starting to feel like the king of L.A. And, quite frankly, if you don’t feel like the king of L.A., you should get the fuck out of L.A.
He remembered walking down Sunset at Sunset with his guitar on his back, when a convertible full of sluts braked to an unnecessary halt and they called out ‘Superguitars kick ass!” And that was his band: Superguitars.
In the end Superguitars broke up because… well, he still was thinking they broke up as a kind of rock and roll gesture that went too far.
Man, they were tight. But not like this new band he played with (occasionally.) New band was probably a bit too tight, a bit too clinical and exclusive. A mesh of tight guitar strings that other people couldn’t really get into. They only played about six times a year, and when people came they had fun. But you could see that even as they were leaving they were forgetting. Not even a beat was carried home in their hearts.
And he was thirty-five now. There was that.
“Are you working tonight, babe?” he asked as he took the car keys off the hook.
“Yeah,” she said, kind of frostily actually, “Like I always do on Mondays. I mean… get a fucking clue.”
“Ok babe, catch you later.”
He stepped away from that Improvised Emotional Device and just went to work. [He’d already kissed the boy and, he thought, her too.]
Then he drove to work, to teach kids who really had a shitty life. Traffic was slow and itchy. Grumpy. Red lights and middle fingers flashed in your eye for 35 minutes and you were sure you saw the same pedestrians again and again: beating you. And you hated your car and you hated California. Then the traffic lightened up you saw, like, a tiny glimpse of the sea and The Byrds came on and you were feeling just fine and would happily accept another day.
“So let me throw one quick question at y’all then… who freed the slaves?”
I mean, why not? After a ninety minute lesson on the Civil War, it was worth a shot, right?
Marcus ticked his head to one side, indicating quiet confidence and then subtly raised his hand; almost so you couldn’t tell. Jack had been having a good feeling about Marcus! He gave him the floor. “Marcus, you got an answer for us on who freed the slaves?”
And that was the end of that.
At the end of the day – a day which was full of moments like that – a half-hour run at the beach felt twice as good. The ocean was just hammering the beach today, with – as usual – little noticeable effect. He could identify.
His shoes bit in the wet sand where it edged the dry. Friction was just perfect on that line.
Five hot beach-bunnies whizzed by in a single breath. Yet he could still catch a spread of freckles on the chest of one that particularly tickled his fancy. Push on, feel the burn, away from the domain of Frisbees and man-trap bikinis.
Crumbly cliffs topped by millionaires’ mansions scrolled slowly past. There was no social justice in America but if there was, it was on the rare occasions that one of those mansions devolved into the ocean. But then a hurricane would strike New Orleans.
A puff of speed: he was still strong even headed towards forty. That was his edge, even when most of his friends made five to fifty times more than he did:
1) he was an ‘educator,’ a modern-day saint
2) he was strong but they were flabby.
It was quiet now… there were no parking lots near here. Only the hardcore, gray-haired surfers were on this beach, paddling out, looking like seals. Surfing for pure pleasure, pure rhythm, all the fight and sex gone, stripped down to what was needed to get up.
And the yogi was there: the buffed up, flop haired ascetic who was often there, like a statue in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts, in full lotus on the sands: untouchable.
Jack had not bought into much of the koo-koo stuff of SoCal, but he could feel this yogi was the real deal: that he really did have some kind of pact sealed with the ocean that meant he had to make his devotions here.
Also, that was one hard-ass looking yogi.
Pounding stronger now, passing a young dude with white headphones. No music when running for Jack. Music was for night-time or in the car and not when you were doing your only bit of honest-to-God living of the day.
Drake, the ideas guy, was scribbling in a new Moleskine notebook in between yelling at people on his cell-phone and giving little speeches to his large shed full of code-monkeys.
Allie, the wife of Jack, was ironing her nurse’s uniform and thinking about Mavis, the lonely diabetic who had been admitted with badly burned fingers.
Gavin, Allie’s kid, was watching her from a shady bedroom and frankly I have no idea what kind of pseudo-ideas were frothing in his head.
The dog either.
The guru was thinking “How would a wave feel if it knew about the ocean.” But he was trying not to think.