Monitoring the Situation Closely

There’s something very important to be said for investigating problems as completely as possible before you reach any conclusions. I was reminded of this the other day when an old friend e-mailed in from his latest post in Latvia.

Clive was born to be a hotelier—actually born in a hotel, trained in London and Switzerland…and then dispatched by his multinational employer to manage a prestigious establishment in Australia.

It was here that his meteoric rise (don’t meteors fall?) ran into some atmospheric friction. I can’t remember if charges were actually filed, but a stern measure of corporate discipline was dished out in the wake of his ill-advised and champagne-fueled involvement in a post-race celebration with a coked up heiress and some “professional entertainers” in the Penthouse Suite following the Melbourne Cup. As Clive put it, “The term jockeying for position will never be the same.” Sadly, the same could be said of his career prospects.

As punishment, he was reassigned to the management of another, less well-known property in the islands north and west of Australia—give or take a thousand odd nautical miles. It wasn’t quite the last resort, but it was close…suggestive of the kind of place that Dino DeLaurentiis would’ve had partially built for a tropical storm disaster movie and then forgotten about and moved on to other projects.

Dense shower curtain humidity (whenever it isn’t raining so hard you can’t see), a diffident and suspicious local workforce, constant rumors of political instability among tribal leaders, refrigerators groaning with the heat—a whole raft of problems for the marooned miscreant.

Nevertheless, some high end travel agents had been sufficiently indulged on a junket, and so had spread the word among a few affluent clients around the globe. And a few had taken the bait.

Now, there’s nothing quite like having to wait on a wealthy older couple from Lansing, Michigan, who really would’ve been so much happier complaining about the words in Spanish in Puerto Vallarta. This, my friend thought, was his true punishment. It wasn’t enough that the underpaid staff constantly pilfered the food, or that no amount of chemical bombing could keep the algae from blooming in the pool—or that the native chamber women insisted on stone-washing the linen and towels (as in the nearby waterfalls) because they were afraid of the industrial laundry equipment. No, he was sent this couple from Lansing, whose sole purpose in life seemed to him to remind him that his sole purpose in life was to be subservient to them.

From the moment their plane landed (almost missing the runway in the rain and crashing in the palm oil plantation) to their sopping, bungled luggage check-in, poor Clive could tell there was going to be a storm of a different kind on the island.

And he was dead right. It wasn’t five minutes after they’d been escorted to their luxurious bungalow (modeled on traditional local habitation with gruesome irony) that the phone rang at reception, where of course he often found himself forced to man the station. It was the husband, a big blustery Shriner type who had a knack for working his improved back swing and the latest Disney share price into almost every conversation. Except this one.

Mr. Bluster was flustered. His wife was in a lather, and not the kind he was hopeful of. She wanted to have a bath—to wash off the equatorial indignity and refresh herself for the first of three Planter’s Punches that Tuala wouldn’t make properly anyway and would set the mood for a roast pork and pineapple showdown in the dining room to follow. Why, Clive thought, couldn’t these people just buy a condo in Costa Rica and vacation there? Why him? Why here?

“What seems to be the problem, sir?”

“Problem? Goddamn it! It’s the goddamn lizards!”

Now, at least the island had no snakes. But it did have lizards in abundance. Geckos swarmed over the walls even in the main kitchen. Little transparent science fiction creatures with suckered feet. They lounged and scurried everywhere—and like the humidity, there was nothing even someone who had literally been born in a hotel could do about it. They were in the poolroom. They were in the prize bungalow. Many people might’ve found some authentic indigenous charm about them. But not these people from Lansing. No, they were fuming. Sputtering.

It was just then that a report from the chef came in that a leaky seal on the principal refrigeration unit had led to the spoilage of a large percentage of the week’s food supplies. It was as hot and thick as a steam room outside, and the insects were louder than the straining air conditioners. Good old Clive said he felt that telltale vein in his forehead pulse.

“I’m sorry, sir. But the lizards are completely harmless and are present on the island in such numbers there’s really nothing we can do.”

The phone at the other end slammed down. My unfortunate friend pulled out his damp handkerchief and wiped his forehead, wondering if it was time for a vodka and soda yet.

It was too late for that. The phone rang again. Emphatically. Urgently.

“Goddamn it! You got to do something. My wife has fainted. This is outrageous!”

“Sir,” Clive snapped. “The lizards were here first.”

Just then he noticed an opalescent gecko happily riding on the teak blade of the ceiling fan over his head. Another green one crouched by the concierge’s bell. There was another one on the wall outside his cramped, sweating office.

“I’m going to tell the authorities! I’m going to have your job!”

Oh, yes, Clive thought. Please take my job.

“Sir, try to think of the lizards as part of the experience.”

“THE EXPERIENCE! My wife has lost her lunch!”

If only these people could appreciate that the geckos helped keep the mosquitoes down to a mist not a cloud, Clive chuckled grimly to himself. But they’ll find that out soon enough. The expression “Drinks beside the pool” will take on new meaning…when they start losing blood.

“You get your ass over here! And you…you…”

“What? You want me to start killing lizards? Sir, there are far too many for that. To be perfectly frank, you’re going to have to prepare yourself. One might even fall from the ceiling in the night and land on your bed. These are the tropics.”

The castaway hotelier was expecting the phone to go dead—or to be ripped out of the wall—and then to come hurling at him Russell Crowe style. But there was another sound. One of those guttural, wheezing, indescribable sounds that instantly says one thing: GET THE PARAMEDICS.

So, Clive told me, enough was enough, and off he went to pay a bungalow call. The situation had to be confronted. He would have to deal with this personally.

It was raining needles and fish traps by this point…a white wall of mudslide-making, pestilential, food rotting rain…but he dashed across the compound to try to make amends, calm them down…whatever it would take.

To his horror, he saw the Lansingnites on the move too. Partially clothed in a mix of regrettably chosen underwear and complimentary resort sarongs, they were fleeing their luxury bungalow—they were bolting—with a look on their soaked red faces of pure blind terror.

They were headed at breakneck, herniated disc speed through the elephant ear leaves en route to the “golf links,” where the chances were excellent they would startle a wild boar. For a moment Clive feared that rebels from one of the mountain camps had descended on the resort with machetes and carbines—yet another harassment mission or a simple robbery they would dress up as a headhunting raid for the cowering tourists.

But, no. All was quiet inside the grand residence. No rain dripping down from the thatched roof…with the aircraft quality steel rafters, cyclone-certified to 200 miles per hour. No feral stragglers game enough to scale the razor wire fence from the beach. Just a pearly little gecko sucked up to the mirror above the dressing table. And one above the bed. And another by the mini-bar.

Clive said he was actually rather pleased at the standard of cleanliness and presentation of the suite, given the staff morale and training issues he’d faced. And this hospitality industry honed thought reminded him of the first rule of his trade. Always do a thorough inspection.

When he did, it was not long before he discovered the true cause of the couple’s mad panic. It wasn’t so much the tiny geckos that had set off the alarm bells. It had rather more to do with the five foot-long banded monitor lizard in the bath tub—with a tail extending out over the rim like a beaded tribal weapon.

What an archaic totem beauty—with claws that any earthmoving mechanic for the rogue mining company up in the hills would’ve admired…a plump armored body that would’ve fed a large river family…and a tongue…a tongue that spoke volumes about who was there first, Clive thought.

And it also brought back into his mind the resonant echo of his earlier words to the Lansing couple, “One might even fall from the ceiling in the night and land on your bed.”

Yes, perhaps not the best choice of words or warnings. There is rather a compelling difference between a gecko you can hold in your hand—and a monitor lizard that overflows a spa bath.

But, as it turned out, the American couple had a cultural experience they wouldn’t have had otherwise (taken in, bruised and septic from their jungle sprint, they were fed salted fish and fresh papaya by a local family who had the maritime diesel franchise). And soon, it didn’t matter for Clive, who was transferred again and is now freezing his rear end off in Eastern Europe (the new international hot spot he tells me). I think the lesson is clear.

Always inspect the rooms before the guests arrive. And the next time someone spews at you the cliché about “When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras”…consider that if you’re standing on Clark Street in Chicago, this may be sound advice.

But if you’re in the rift valley in northeastern Kenya, smile politely and make for the Land Rover with as much agility as you can muster. Then lock the damn doors.

And if you ever go to an island and people tell you reassuringly that there are no snakes…ask yourself why. Maybe there were snakes, and not so long ago. It’s just that they got eaten by something bigger.

Kris Saknussemm on Fogged Clarity

Kris Saknussemm is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. He has been a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony and has won first prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests. His work has appeared in Playboy, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, The Hawaii Review, The South Carolina Review, The Southwest Review and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others.