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By Jeff Havens
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Jeff Havens
All rights reserved.
It was during his fourth visit to the set of Last Man Standing that Trent Tucker realized how much he hated reality TV.
"I don't think I'm asking for too much here," Gary said. Everyone back at the Tank had dubbed him the Moron, mean and massive and as redneck as they come, a big hit with Southern males. He was standing now with both enormous arms crossed in front of a chest the size and shape of a refrigerator, looking at Trent with the same dull, slack-jawed expression he probably wore every waking minute of the day.
Trent finished his cigarette with a long drag, pulled at the hair on the back of his skull, and failed to repress a violent shudder. It wasn't that Rachel had bailed on two days' notice and the General had sent him in her place, or that Todd had done the same two weeks before, or that a visit to the camera-clogged beaches of Easter Island in the sweltering July heat was hardly his idea of a tropical getaway. Right now, Trent hated his job because never in his wildest dreams had he expected that anybody with a Masters from Stanford, or from anywhere for that matter, would ever have to explain to a grown man why he couldn't have a banana.
"For the last time," Trent said with his eyes closed, "you can't take anything from private property. The contract was very specific on that point."
"But they got thousands of 'em." He could hear Gary shrugging his gigantic, stupid, bionically-enhanced shoulders. "No one's gonna miss a couple."
Trent looked to the sky and exhaled a sharp breath through his nose. Why did he put up with this? Hemingway wouldn't have put up with this. Old Papa would have shot Gary as soon as he opened his gap-toothed mouth. Where was an elephant gun when you needed one?
"Listen," he said with an effort at conciliation, "the only reason we're allowed to be here is because we promised the Chilean government that we would not disrupt the lives of any indigenous people."
Gary stared at him.
"Natives," Trent said with a sigh. "The people who live here. Those little people with the little houses who don't speak English? If you steal anything, we could all be forced to leave, which is something we don't want. Do you understand me?"
"I just don't —"
Fuck conciliation. "Look," Trent hissed, "I'll make this simple. If I catch you within half a mile of a banana plantation I'll have you pulled midweek, no matter what the at-home viewers say! Understand?" He was itching to take a swing at the man, a stiff uppercut right in the jaw, something that would shut him up for a while. But he didn't. Gary may have been congenitally defective, he might have been more inclined than most to marry within the family, but he was not the kind of man who lost a fight.
Instead, Trent stormed off down the line of other contestants, all of them waiting amid hundreds of supply crates and storage trailers while the cameramen got everything set up for the individual interviews. The scrawniest of them couldn't have weighed less than two-twenty. Bruisers, the lot of them, former Army Rangers and weightlifters, lumberjacks and strip club bouncers who could break up a brawl with a single punch. Guys who ate nails for breakfast and slept with their guns. Was it any wonder that these were America's newest television stars?
The concept was simple enough. Twenty men were airdropped onto a deserted island with no fresh water source and forced to survive by whatever means possible: eating scorpions, collecting rainwater, laying snares, building huts, and occasionally pillaging the stockpiles of their fellow contestants. They'd been given no tools, no maps, and had not been told which plants were poisonous. Those who succumbed to thirst, hunger, illness, injury, or the displeasure of the viewing public, were systematically eliminated, one each week. Never mind that Easter Island was neither deserted nor devoid of water; no one at home knew exactly where the show was being filmed, and they probably wouldn't have cared even if they did know. And never mind that all but one of the illnesses and brushes with starvation had been staged. After all, reality had never been a terribly important component of reality TV. The important thing, at least from the network's point of view, was that in its first week, Last Man Standing had surpassed Survivor: Bikini Atoll as the most popular television program in the world.
Trent groaned. All he wanted at the moment was five minutes alone with his cigarettes and the soothing sound of the ocean crashing endlessly along the beach. He turned in time to see Patrick barely avoid falling over a knot of electrical cords.
"What's the hurry?" Sort of a dumb question. Patrick was always in a hurry. It was impossible for the Director of On-site Operations not to be in a hurry. He'd probably been born premature.
"Hey," Patrick said. He looked like he'd run the length of the island; his short red hair was plastered to his forehead in uneven strands, and the clipboard at his chest rose and fell in great swells. He needed a few seconds to catch his breath. "We need ... we need you over at Studio C. Alan just broke Jack's hand."
"What?" Not today. Please, not today. "You're kidding, right?"
"I wish I were."
"Tell me you're kidding."
"I wish I were."
Well, wasn't this a nice little kick in the nuts. "Where's Max?"
"I don't know. I think he's —"
"Find him. Tell him to meet me. I'll be right there."
Patrick stumbled off down the beach, and Trent headed for Studio C. It wasn't a studio, really, just a semicircular strand of eucalyptus trees that provided an excellent backdrop for filming. It was also about a quarter mile away, well beyond earshot of where the interviews were now getting underway. Trent pushed himself to jog and swore under his breath. Why had Rachel picked this weekend to come down with a suspiciously convenient case of diphtheria? He did not relish the idea of mediating a conflict between four hundred and fifty pounds of angry men. Of course, he might not have to. It was entirely possible that one of them would have killed the other by the time he arrived — if he was lucky.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. When he got there the two men were sitting on opposite sides of the depression. Alan looked all right, if a man who'd given himself the nickname of Barbarian could ever really look all right. He was sitting on a grassy bank, cleaning his fingernails with a sliver of wood. Jack, though — the Sensitive One, huge with female viewers — had taken a beating. His left eye was swelling shut, and his left wrist looked like a softball. There was no way around it, Jack would have to be sent home. The General was not going to be happy about this.
"What the hell are you two doing?" Trent shouted. It was best to shout at men like these. "You're supposed to be over at Anakena for the interviews. Is it broken?"
Jack nodded, teeth clenched.
Trent glared at Alan. "Care to explain?"
Alan looked entirely unconcerned. He'd been a Navy Seal for seventeen years, unit commander for twelve. At forty, the man was in better shape than most college gymnasts and could probably have dispatched an entire Olympic rifle team with a tuning fork. "I caught him stealing my food."
"I told you it wasn't me!"
"Calm down, Jack," Trent said. "When?"
"About 0300," Alan said. "I'd holed up for the night inside a tree and stashed my stores in a hanging bundle. Around 0300 I heard a noise and —"
"Wait, wait a second," Trent said. "A hanging bundle? What the hell for, to keep bears away? There aren't any bears on this island, Alan."
"You can never be too careful. Anyway, I came out to find my line cut and someone" — he jerked his head at Jack — "running east with my supplies."
"It wasn't me!" Jack jumped up, stifling a grimace. "I told you, I was asleep by the cove, five hundred yards west of you. You woke me up with all your crying."
"You weren't there at 0130."
"Yes I was."
"I didn't see you during my recon."
"You must have done a poor sweep, old-timer. I was there."
Alan stood up slowly. "You trying to suggest something?"
Trent had visions of his own imminent and very bloody death. "Guys, come on, calm down."
"Maybe I am," Jack said with a sneer.
"One broken wrist not enough for you?"
"Guys, I'm really not in the mood for this."
"What I'm saying, pal, is that you give me a fair chance instead of coming at me from behind, I'll kick your dick into your asshole!" So much for sensitive.
"I'm not doing anything right now," Alan said. "Tell you what. I won't even use my left hand. How's that sound?"
"Alan, sit down!"
But they weren't listening to Trent. Alan continued his slow advance, and Jack moved to meet him, his blue eyes consumed by malevolence. Trent rather doubted that he would be able to defuse two men who had both spent the greater portion of their adult lives learning how to kill people in a variety of ways. He was pretty certain that a battle between warriors had never been successfully halted by a 170 pound lawyer's son with a smoker's cough and a fifty dollar haircut.
But he tried anyway.
"Guys! Step back! Alan, Jack, get away from — do you have any idea what'll happen to both of you if I get —"
It was rather fortunate that at that moment Max came striding over the hill.
"Whoa whoa whoa, fellas, what's going on here? You know what, fuck it, I don't wanna know. Alan, over there. Jack, over there. What's the matter, you didn't hear me? No, I already told you, I don't want to hear it. Move your ass over ... look, I don't care if he fucked your grandma, you got two seconds to do what I say or I'm gonna make sure you never make it into even so much as a deodorant commercial for the rest of your lives, understand? All right, that's more like it. How's it going, Trent?"
Trent smoothed his shirt and counted to make sure he still had all his fingers. "Better, thanks."
"Couldn't handle this by yourself?"
"It's been a long day." Trent lit a cigarette. "Fuck you, by the way."
Max laughed. "Sorry, pal. That was rude of me. All right, now who wants to fill me in?"
Alan obliged. Jack did not interrupt.
"Jesus Christ," Max said, shaking his head. "You fucked up, fellas, do you understand that? You've really fucked it up. All right, this is what we're gonna do. Jack, we're gonna have to send you home. Look, I don't wanna hear it, you can't compete with a broken wrist and you know it."
"It's not fair!" Jack bellowed, tears welling in his large, blue, sensitive eyes.
"Look, pal, life's not fair. I've been in love with Nicole Kidman for ten years, and do you think she knows who I am? No. That's not fair, right, but it's life, so live it or die. But we're not finished here, all right Jackie? This is just the beginning. Two weeks from now we'll have you on Regis and MTV. You don't know this, but People magazine's been dying for an interview. Play your cards right, you might have a shot at being the next Bachelor. That sound all right?"
Jack nodded silently, his moist eyes swimming with the golden prospects of fame.
Trent unbuttoned his collar. "We're going to have to send you home too, Alan."
For perhaps the first time in his life, Alan looked afraid. "Wait a second. You can't do that to me. I didn't —"
"Don't give us any shit," Max said. "You know you crossed the line. I'm pretty sure they teach you how not to break somebody's wrist in SEAL School. Trent, how's Alan been testing?"
Trent put his cigarette to his lips in order to suppress a smile. Max knew the answer to that; he was just making Alan sweat. He affected an indifferent shrug. "Not spectacular. Women want a survivalist they could bring home to Mom and Dad, and he hasn't made that happen." Trent enjoyed the flash of fear that crossed Alan's face. "He's made a modest spike with males eighteen to twenty-five, though. We might be able to get him a spot on Regis after Jack, kind of a tell-his-side thing."
Max nodded as though the idea were an original one. "All right. Let's see, what else can we do, what else can we ... All right, Alan, I've got an idea. What would you say to some action movie walk-ons, maybe work as a stuntman?"
"All the greats got their start as stuntmen," Trent added. "Wayne, Willis, Stallone." Complete bullshit, of course, but Alan wouldn't know that. Unless he'd been a closet fan of the Italian Stallion's earlier work. Which was something Trent did not want to know.
"What do you say?" Max asked.
"Absolutely," Alan said, so quickly that it seemed as though he'd been hoping for this all along.
"Good," Max said with a self-satisfied smile. "I'm glad we got that taken care of. But there's one more thing we gotta do. We're gonna have to film the fight."
"Why?" Alan asked.
"We can't have you two leave the show without an explanation," Trent said.
"But it's already happened," Alan protested.
Trent pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. Was it a requirement that reality contestants were the stupidest people in America? Or was that simply a happy coincidence? "You're going to act it out, Alan. You and Jack."
"How are you going to get rid of this?" Jack said, pointing to his left eye, which by now was brilliantly purple and swollen completely shut.
"Trust me, it's not that hard," Max said. "If we wanted to make you look like Ethel Merman, we could."
"We'll film you from the right side," Trent said.
"Look, you two leave the camera work to us, all right? Both of you, go tell Patrick we need a full crew to Studio C. And listen. If I hear that either of you so much as touches the other between now and when you get back, then so help me God I'll see to it that the closest either of you gets to Hollywood is working toll booths on the San Joaquin. Now get outta here. Jack, tell Patrick we need to start rolling in half an hour, before your wrist gets any worse."
Jack and Alan left, silently and single file, careful to keep a discreet distance between them as they hurried down the path toward Anakena Beach.
"Well," Max said when they were gone, "that was fun. Looked like they were about to turn you into soup. You doing all right?"
"Yeah." Trent finished his cigarette and flicked the butt onto the ground. He started to light another one and stopped, suddenly too tired to make the effort. Instead he sat down on the smooth, white trunk of a eucalyptus tree that had been cut down specifically for that purpose. With the toe of his Aubercy shoes — not a bright idea to wear them onto the set — he ground the remains of his cigarette into the mud. When they had arrived, Studio C had seemed like an ideal place to build a small cottage with large windows to let in the soft sounds of the ocean at night, maybe get a massage from that girl working the dolly — what was her name, Jasmine? Now, though, thousands of footprints and tons of camera equipment had reduced the pristine valley to a swamp of mud and debris. Dozens of water bottles speckled the ground, half-submerged in the slime. Trent noticed one of them and stared at it.
"Hey pal, you awake?"
"I'm just tired," he said softly. Then, with more animation: "And fucking an noyed. I didn't get into television to break up fights between men twice my size. You may as well get that guy from Springer — what's his name, Stan?"
"Whatever. All I'm saying is, I didn't go to Stanford to explain to terminal halfwits like Gary why he couldn't have any goddamn bananas. Is this really all it is?"
"Trent." Max sat down beside him and rested his elbows on his knees. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm just tired of it, you know."
"Look, you're just having a bad day. What else could you ask for here? We're in control of the whole world."
"I don't know." Max was right, though. And what a comforting thought that was. "Do you realize," Trent said, "that more people in America can sing the theme song to Last Man Standing than the national anthem? That more of them would recognize a picture of Jack or Alan than the president? And look at them! Do you want your sister's kids, any body's kids, growing up to be like them? Do you really think we should be turning these people into role models?"
Max rolled his eyes. "So what do you wanna do, make everybody watch TV versions of the classics? Do musical renditions of Crime and Punishment on TNT, that kind of thing?"
"I don't know," Trent said, wishing he didn't sound like a moping child. "Maybe. At least they had something to say."
Excerpted from Reality by Jeff Havens. Copyright © 2006 Jeff Havens. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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