July 26, 2006

Fiction: Twilight of the Idols

By: James Poulos

“We should have seen it coming.”

These are the first words out of the mouth of Agent Stacy Keeling, her legs scissored sharply together, huge Ray-Ban sunglasses shielding her eyes, cigarette trembling between two outstretched fingers. No makeup on her lips or her face. Yesterday’s hairstyle still clings, sharp, crisp bangs styled in place. And then she says it again. “We should have seen it coming. But we couldn’t.”

Mike Fey eases up the volume on the tape recorder.

“Are you ready to get started?”

Although Agent Keeling looks pale and sculpted as ice, in the dead sunheat of the patio at the Ivy, Mike sweats. His slim old DKNY sunglasses are slipping. Agent Keeling appears not to notice as Mike’s right hand pushes them up flush against the hot slick of the bridge of his nose; with his left, he readies his pen with a little snap.

“Okay. You were first, out of all the Feds, to arrive at the Kodak Theater. How did that feel to you? What was your first thought, encountering all that chaos?”

Agent Keeling’s cigarette has stopped trembling.

“My first reaction . . . was what a ruin it was. There were a lot of . . . victims, just milling across Hollywood Boulevard, sort of streaming in slow motion.” Agent Keeling smokes slowly in a single act down to the filter of her cigarette and presses it into the ashtray. She tilts her head. Her nostrils flare as she exhales down into an endive salad.

“Are you okay to continue?” Mike asks, pen skipping across pad in snippets and catchphrases.

“Of course,” says Agent Keeling. She lifts her chin, pulling out another cigarette.

“Go on,” Mike prompts her.

“There’s something on your shirt,” Agent Keeling replies.

Dark ovals, drips where the sweat has come down.

“Are you okay to go on?” she asks. Agent Keeling hooks a length of hair behind an ear. “I’ve been doing this all day. I’m sure you have been, too. This is draining, it’s —”

“No, no,” Mike insists, lifting away the sunglasses, draining his glass of ice water. “I’m just hot.” He has been hot for perhaps twenty-four consecutive hours. His hurried, rerouted flight from New York to L.A.; his first interview with a celebrity; his second; the white cups of cappuccino between them in the morning; the appearance of David Schwimmer in the afternoon, gnawing his bottom lip at the downtown Standard and unable to go on. “This is the end,” Ross had said, three hours ago. He put his baseball hat back on and excused himself.

The palomino-print of sun and shade, here at the Ivy; the mocking, inadequate breeze drifting ragged across the patio. Were there odors sepulchered in that breeze? What is the smell of burnt souls?

He and Agent Keeling had achieved prime seating at a table it would have been impossible to secure had they been lunching there two days ago. Now, people stay home in the Hills: behind a battery of closed-circuit cameras. Or they attend funerals on the Malibu coastline, wafting ashes into the Pacific and forcing down rushed platters of tiger shrimp. Or they have house parties, panicked and druggy orgies with the TVs off and facing the wall.

Or else they wait in containers, downtown, in labs their (former) fans could recognize from 24 and CSI, if those shows could still be aired, the victims of the assassination of Hollywood, reduced to human casserole and pending identification by the impromptu forensic team that spent Oscar night pulling teeth out of stucco and flesh from red carpet with Agent Keeling and her crew.

Mike Fey feels his voice fall down into the gentle register. “Can you give me a sense, in hindsight,
of what you feel the government missed in terms of warning signs?”

“What the government missed,” Agent Keeling repeats. She’s started her second cigarette. She hasn’t touched the salad. “The government doesn’t miss anything. The open source analysts at Langley don’t misread the news. The deep cover agents don’t not get it. We have all the leads. Things you never hear about, just write about. After. Each little catastrophe has its own file folder.”

Mike lifts his pen. “Maybe you can mention some events that were significant to you.” He wipes his chin with a twist of his shoulder.

“Bogotá, February 8,” Agent Keeling begins. “Three years ago. There was that one. Does that matter to
you? Does that exonerate the government? It was a fashionable social club catering to an elite clientele, and the killers wanted to demonstrate what they could do to Colombia’s upper class and they did. Thirty-two people died. Six of them were children. The bomb weighed 330 pounds. Do you like statistics, Mike?” Agent Keeling drops her butt into the ashtray and slides out a new cigarette. “Over 160 people were wounded. The FARC guys — one of them was a girl — put the bomb in a Hummer and had it valeted. That was a little extravagant but the pattern repeated itself. Bali. A couple times. Blow the West out of Indonesia. Panic Jakarta. Inspire the Muslims of Southeast Asia to embrace the death code. Missed opportunities? Signals we didn’t read? I don’t think there are any.”

“But you said you should have seen it coming. What about the lessons learned from Bogotá?” Mike chews some ice quickly from his glass. “How was the security? What was the protocol? Didn’t we learn anything?”

“Yes,” says Agent Keeling. “The ‘government,’ like you put it, ‘we’ learned. I said we couldn’t see it coming. We learned how to make a bunker out of a nightclub, but not when. We didn’t learn how to see the future. What do a handful of kids who grew up in a madrass know about breaching Hollywood security? They pressed the button in the filler seats. There’s no blueprint for that. These are people who spend their whole lives figuring out how to die. Pre-screened bystanders,
non-essential personnel — what’s the point? Prediction? Prediction is stupid, it’s passé, it’s impossible; prediction isn’t the point.”

“Agent Keeling,” says Mike, “you were the first DHS counterterrorism specialist to arrive on the scene Sunday night, at what used to be the corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. You saw what most people only had to watch on television. But I know, Agent Keeling, that the fathers and sisters and partners of the victims aren’t most people, and they aren’t just watching on television, so, I’m sorry — I’m just not going to accept that you consider yourself at some kind of remove from this. These are people. These are families. These are loved ones.”

But what Mike Fey was thinking about were the simulcast film crews. The girls handing out gift baskets. The PR invitees and mandatory B-listers joking around stoned in the audience. And then the stars. The suddenly dead. Dustin Hoffman. Helen Hunt. Jodie Foster. Hilary Swank. Heath Ledger. Tom Cruise, caught mid-speech with Geffen and Spielberg. Liza Minelli. David Arquette and Courtney Cox. Brangelina. Jennifer Connelly. Robin Williams. Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Mischa Barton, as seen dead on TV, Donatella Versace, Nicolas Cage, all of Aerosmith, half of No Doubt, a stolid Paul McCartney
who survived, a premonitory Bono who didn’t.

Jamie Foxx. Morgan Freeman. Fifteen supermodels, thirty platinum-selling musicians, a hundred stars under thirty. Reese Witherspoon lived, Ryan Phillippe died. Michael Caine removed with half of his legs, Renee Zellweger with half a face. Jim Carrey dead. Both Weinsteins missing, presumed obliterated.

Richard Gere will never be found. Neither will Terence Malick. Christina Aguilera, identified by her teeth. Haley Joel Osment. Samuel L. Jackson. Quentin Tarantino, jiggling on a stretcher so soaked with blood that it looked black as they loaded his body into an open ambulance. Gina Gershon limps out from the rubble, skin scorched, dress blown off, and this is the last time anyone will see her naked. The image is captured and cropped and the Hollywood sign can be seen in the distance splayed above the carnage, run and rerun and rerun without commercial interruption, the thickness of the caustic smoke, the depth and breadth of the debris, the sirens, the shock, finally the silence.

Scarlett Johansson, entombed in intensive care. She won’t live. This one hurts the most. Shepard Smith is crying on television. The news stations keep repeating the sentence fragment “hideously disfigured.” This is like learning to live with an amputation. This is like learning your worldview has terminal cancer.

“How do you dare?” Agent Keeling, now, reaching for her salad, pushing the pack of cigarettes aside, cupping her hands around the whiteness of her plate. “What makes you suppose that you know how my experience differs from theirs? Do you think you know about their place in the world relative to this new world that we have to live in? That we can share this table in? Have you had time to figure it out?”

“Trophy targeting,” she says. “Psychological warfare. Not just a message to the rich and powerful, but to everybody. More than a message. Emotional terrorism, identity terrorism. A way, if conducted on a large enough scale, to destroy the illusion of normalcy by the destruction of the least normal — to blow a hole in daily life that could never adequately be filled. I care about this,” she says.

Mike watches another cigarette falter out of the pack between her fingers, moving again, watches her grope for the book of matches and finally bend the flame toward her lips as she inhales.

“I presume you care,” he tells her.

Agent Keeling drops the match in the ashtray where it curls and goes out.

“I’m going to bring you back to the Bali bombing,” she says slowly. “This now seems like ancient history, I know. We’re so used to randomness.”

A waiter edges toward Agent Keeling, the look on his face slapped and chaste, and she waves him away.

“The Bali bombers,” she continues, “wanted to kill dancers. People drinking and having a good time.
Tourists. They wanted to let it be known that their battle could be taken to people who weren’t traditionally exposed to violence. I mean people who were supposed to be protected. People who we kept safest. People who lived in exclusive, protected neighborhoods, and worked in exclusive offices and partied at exclusive clubs. That’s something you would maybe consider a warning signal. But those victims were enemies of the common people. They were living in a realm of entitlement they refused to share.”

Mike wills a smile to creep across his face. “I’m sorry,” he interrupts. “I’m sure what you’re telling me, again, is very accurate, but I’m supposed to shoot for . . . clarity. I’m not supposed to let you talk in circles. I’ve been instructed to gather interviews that ‘supply a sense of closure.’ Forgive me for saying this, but the readership — the American people — are not emotionally equipped right now for more jargon. They don’t want to hear about realms of entitlement.”

“No.” Agent Keeling smiles back. “Of course not. It’s just that when you really understand the way we feel about our celebrities, just consider the sheer volume of them. If you’re looking to do harm to America and cause psychological damage, then a philosophy of terror emerges that tells you — without jargon — that people might be more affected by the deaths of celebrities they’ve never met than by the deaths of their own family members.”

There’s an empty pause. Agent Keeling has turned her head away. She gazes out at the light traffic on
Robertson, candy-red Volkswagen Beetles, a C-Class Mercedes the color of green eyeshadow, royal blue Escalades rolling past silver Porsche convertibles, followed by a white Maserati.

Mike Fey feels as if he has frozen in place. The tape rolls and rolls, cataloguing five, six, seven seconds of straight silence. Across the patio, silverware clinks against plates.

“I’m sorry?” Mike’s voice, hesitant again. But his throat clears and he takes on the right tone of appropriated outrage. “People might be more affected by the death of a famous person than the death of their daughter or father? Or sister? Is that really what you’re telling me? I mean — doesn’t that strike you as — I mean, that’s outrageous, the idea that people actually —”

“Is it?” Agent Keeling has snapped her eyes back at him. The sunglasses come off before Mike can flinch. “Outrageous? Isn’t that exactly what’s happening now? It’s not meant as insulting. It’s not as if people actually value the personhood of Justin Timberlake or Eva Longoria over their own flesh and blood. But people can cope with the loss of a loved one, because they can learn to understand it. AIDS, plane crashes, traffic accidents, heart attacks — death happens. Drug overdoses.
School shootings. It’s not pretty and of course it’s tragic, but people can wrap their minds around life without friends, acquaintances, even loved ones, nephews and fiancés and children who were murdered in the Pentagon or the Twin Towers. Siblings. People who became heroes over a field in Pennsylvania and then became movie stars who were also ghosts. The structure of modern society went unchanged. They were lifted up into the pantheon.

“Homeland security appears everywhere after the shock and you have to start taking your shoes off but life goes on. Yes, there’s mourning. There’s permanent pain in their hearts. They will never be whole again. But the support system of normalcy that gets them through that
thirtieth and thirty-first and three-hundredth day, that stabilizes their recovery — that remains. Late night television. Sports events. Newspaper and magazine articles. Your job, Mike. Your job goes on because people need relief, they need the reliability of leisure, they need the pageant of life to carry on with or without their loved ones. They need it in order to carry on.”

Mike watches Agent Keeling as her cigarette perches stricken in her hand, smoke climbing off into nowhere. Less than five miles away, an acrid crater still yawns.

“Take away that spectacle,” Agent Keeling whispers, “and things grind to a stop. The tempo of reality breaks apart. No more Rolling Stone. No more Cosmopolitan. No more Universal Studios. Jay Leno and David Letterman have to go home because everyone famous is dead.”

Agent Keeling’s elbows skitter across the table as she leans in to him. Her lips part, tense and untrembling. She clutches the sunglasses. “The party is over. You can’t go out to the movies. You can’t gossip about who’s sleeping with who. Not without witnessing death. Not without carnage. The stars . . . the stars have been turned into garbage. The supermarket newsstand empties out and there is no tabloid news. MTV is dead.”

She leans back. The waiter is present and the check is on the table at the instant he disappears again. Agent Keeling holds the ring finger and thumb of her cigarette hand to her temples in a motion that becomes a way to push back her hair.

The Soup,” she murmurs. “Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood and all the others. This isn’t like the death of a child. A lot remains, but in the center of the world you’ve always lived with there is an abyss that’s opened up and nothing will be the same again. Fame
needs to be public. Exposed. Popularity and security can’t mix. Who wants to see the famous — who wants to be the famous? — when the famous are trapped like the boy in the bubble, driven around like the pope in a bulletproof plastic car?”

The sunglasses slide back on. She finishes her cigarette. Mike Fey watches as Agent Keeling takes her napkin, neatly folded, and wipes at the rise of a cheekbone.

“No,” she says simply, in a sigh. “What they did to the Oscars Sunday night did more damage to the United States than sinking the Statue of Liberty or snapping the Golden Gate Bridge. Four thousand Americans died half a decade ago, but we’ve felt secretly since that four thousand of the rest of us stepped into the breach. We took their place. What happened at the Kodak Theater — those losses will be seen as irreplaceable, at least for the next twenty years. There are amateurs and then there are stars. The next generation will be too different for words. The cult of celebrity is finished.”

Mike Fey has already turned off the tape recorder. What’s been said today will never make it between the covers of the magazine.


That night, Mike stretches out alone on his couch, memories of Stacy Keeling still present, unresolved.
Agent Keeling, as she pushed herself silently away from the table, thanked him neatly, apologized, and covered the tab. She stepped down to the valet stand and climbed smoothly into the back seat of a black Lincoln town car. And tonight, watching reruns of American Idol, Mike Fey can’t help but hear in the voices of the kids tremolos and pitch problems that he hadn’t heard before, and as they take their turns on the stage singing other people’s songs to the crowd, Mike sees nothing but children, small, trying to hide their fear, unquestionably proud but with no assurance at all that the sum of their hope and exposure won’t amount, in the end, to nothing.

James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at www.postmodernconservative.com.