by Trevor Almy
Bernie was driving west of the Mississippi for the first time in almost two decades.
He had last seen The Mother when he was sixteen, and she had said, “Bernie, you won’t leave me. Who will look after you? What will you be without me? You can’t leave.”
And, even now, the director he had come to imagine in his mind would snap the clapperboard and cause him to do a retake, no doubt. Who was he without The Mother? But he was no one really.
He found that was the best way to counteract the brainwashing, a term his therapist would later come to refer to it, than to insist upon his own autonomy, his own personal identity.
He left Albuquerque that day, sixteen and with barely a quarter tank of gas. He left and had not said a word. Or, no, that wasn’t it. He said a word, but it was random, something illogical. “Bears,” was it? Or “Firepit”? The emotion of the moment occluded his recollection. Maybe it was, “I’ll take care of my own damn self.” Yes, that was it.
From the time he was two, The Mother recorded every moment of his waking life and more. She had returned from the store with one of those clunky Polaroid, over-the-shoulder VHS camcorders. Everything — everything — was filmed: not just Little League games, birthdays, holidays, and vacations but the random, seemingly inconsequential moments: breakfast before school on a Tuesday in February.
The problem The Mother faced at first was where to position the camera so she could film life’s unfolding and still participate in it. Soon she had developed a knack for caddy-cornering it on a stack of old phone books, or placing it above the microwave, or situating it in a top shelf where she had removed the china. The second problem came with the camera batteries’ lifespan. In the early days, there were moments of time — complete hours — permanently erased because of dying batteries. She quickly identified that, though, and solved the problem by hoarding batteries and always having them constantly charged. And, more often than not, by day’s end she plugged the camcorder into the wall socket for continuous charging, where it remained on her son’s dresser, always on, the red light stare never blinking but watching as the child winked off to sleep.
Those had been the formative years, where his entire childhood and life had been catalogued and each VHS tape chronologically ordered for easy retrieval. Just as being under surveillance had been customary for him so, too, had been the nightly ritual where The Mother would sit him down and require him to rewatch the day’s events. This, too, was of course recorded so the conclusion of every nightly viewing, so long as he could remember, ended with him watching himself on the couch watching himself.
There were rules for this ritualistic viewing. The first and primary rule was that no fast forwarding was allowed. The only options that were permitted were pause and rewind. And, of course, the recordings were of nearly a full day, an entire fifteen hours. The second rule, like the first, was that the tapes had to be viewed in their entirety. When he watched them though, as was his custom, in their full length, they did not seem to him to be any longer than an hour or so, as if time sped up during the viewing.
But no, that was impossible, right? He was sure he had seen every event from the most mundane tying of his shoelaces to arguments on the playground and still only an hour had transpired. It had to be something askew in his childish brain, he told himself, something about the perception of time but not time itself. But didn’t children generally perceive time as moving slower than faster? To be sure though, the clock read 9:01 p,m. at the end of each viewing, which was exactly one hour after the unflinching 8:01 p,m. start time The Mother imposed on each nightly session.
* * *
He passed a gas station with plastic bags on the pumps and boarded windows. The land around him was flat and featureless, and the mile markers only intermittently poked up like curious moles from the ground. The sun was rising and expanding like an amniotic sac in the distance, giving birth to a new day.
He had made an early start to his morning, woken up at 5:30 a.m. from his Best Western, drunk a cup of coffee, showered, and started back on the road. He’d stopped at a diner along the way to get breakfast. That was what he’d always wanted: an open road, a clear schedule, and a small-town diner to eat at. He even imagined himself as a sitcom character, going into the restaurant where the cook and wait staff knew his name and him yelling, “The usual, Johnny!”
Certain events stood in relief in his mind, like favorite episodes from a TV show, or — he imagined — from someone’s favorite TV show, since he didn’t watch much TV but only home videos.
“Life gives you the only entertainment you need,” The Mother had said when they were going through a Walmart and he saw VHSes for a superhero cartoon on display and began pleading for them.
“You don’t want to waste your time in front of a screen,” The Mother said while pushing the buggy past the temptation and hoisting the camera over her shoulder, the red glare and the dark lens watching him. Other shoppers passed, kids in tow, picking up bedding, kitchenware, toiletries. None of them stopped and asked about this woman filming in the store. Or had they? Had it just been his false memory that they had circled around them, observers, like extras in a movie?
* * *
He stopped at the first diner he came to, about three hours outside Albuquerque. The place was empty and, he thought for a second, closed until a waitress walked from the back with bloodshot eyes. He ordered eggs over easy, bacon, toast, hashbrowns, and coffee. He listened to the grease sizzle and that reminded him of the static that would play but only on some of the tapes.
He’d be sitting during his nightly viewing, and it had only happened once or twice. Or had it been more? Who could say? The footage would be playing and then static. The interruption time would vary from a minute to half an hour and all the while he would not be allowed to get up to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom but would be forced into observing. He was never explicitly told this but somehow intuited this unspoken rule from The Mother who looked on.
The static was important, her face said. At first, when the interruptions began happening, the Mother seemed genuinely concerned over the lost time, the dust of the past that had been dropped in a mound of sand, never to be recovered.
What had taken place in those sections of static? he wondered. Probably nothing significant. Probably more of the detritus of the day, the monotony of a morning. What had caused them was perhaps the more compelling question. Maybe a grain of dirt had fallen into the lens. Maybe there was a malfunction in one of the tapes.
Or maybe The Mother had edited them? What was it she didn’t want him to see? But she wouldn’t have edited them, would she? After all, she had been the one to begin the taping, who had to preserve the past, who had to have some permanence of their existence together. And even if she would, when could she have found the time? Wasn’t she always there, watching, recording? Maybe after he slept?
As he grew older, The Mother loosened her rules about television, and he watched more cartoons. When he played, he imagined himself as Batman, but not just as Batman but as an actor playing Batman. He would perform stunts on his bike. If his nose was runny or if his cape got stuck in a spoke, he would erupt in a fit and ask The Mother to turn off the camera.
“The camera stays on,” was always her response.
“Well, edit it out,” he’d say.
“Okay,” she’d say.
Those tantrums, those embarrassments, those indiscretions made their way to the nightly viewings. The only edits he could perform were ones in this head, where he had entire shots of his life lying on the cutting room floor of his mind.
* * *
When he first came east, he found a job working as a clerk for a convenience store and stayed with an uncle. Those first few days, free of the camera, free of being recorded and watched, were as liberating as they were frightening. If he ate at a restaurant, if he went to a park, if he read a book and no one was there to record, was it still happening? He liked the idea that his actions had no fixed state, that they ended when they ended instead of being logged somewhere and archived for later examination.
His first day on the job as a clerk at the convenience store, he could remember his boss, some middle manager with a receding hairline, giving him a tour of the store, showing all the exits and aisles when a small domed camera caught his eye. He could hardly believe how small it was, how compact, how unlike that clunky camera The Mother had carried around with a shoulder strap all those years.
“Oh that,” the boss said, hoisting his pants, “that’s a decoy. We put it up six, maybe seven weeks ago as a deterrent. But this place, never been held up in thirty-five years. These days you can’t be too trusting, though. You just never know, you know? What do we really know?”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Trevor Almy