S. Craig Renfroe Jr.
I had seen his kind before, shifty and awkward, just on the verge of asking me a question but then losing the nerve and putting his hands in his pockets, as if he had his courage stored there. He was much older than most of my hipster customers, could be one of their grandfathers, and he had a boil on his neck that was hard not to stare at. I was just about to direct him to, what I thought was clearly labeled, the Adults Only room at the back.
But then he came out with it: “Do people actually rent these still?”
The guy at the bank had actually laughed in my face when I told him I wanted a loan to open a video rental store. So I got the money online. I’d been making a decent living selling VHSs on eBay when it occurred to me that proved a market. So I got this building near the college, and I’d been doing a good business renting mostly films and TV that didn’t make it to DVD and so had little chance of showing up on streaming. In a world where everything is available, everything becomes boring. An out of print rubber-suited monster flick and a bootleg copy of Todd Haynes’s banned movie about Karen Carpenter acted out with Barbies become the real gold.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do people even have VCRs anymore?”
“We rent and sell those too.” I had twenty and only three left in the place. I made a mental note to see about getting more, but then I had wanted to get help first.
“You buy them? The tapes I mean.”
“I do. But I’m real picky. I don’t want your clamshell Disney classics.” Money laundering schemes where people had “sold” Beauty and the Beast for thousands of dollars on eBay had convinced people that their Black Diamond Disney VHSs were priceless, even though I could buy them by the crate full for less than fifty bucks. “We mostly look for rare horror or obscure TV shows. Do you have any Great Space Coaster?”
“No, nothing like that.”
He got shy again, hands sheathed. He fidgeted, rocking on his feet and turned to the door. “You’d rent it though? To people? If you bought it?”
“That’s the idea.”
He walked straight out.
I went back to “work” which was pinching and spreading my fingers over photos of videotape lots on eBay and Craigslist, squinting for real gems in the trash. I had earlier found an Eraserhead. Last week I found a first release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Maddie came in. I didn’t know what she was on, mushrooms sautéed in acid perhaps, but more likely just plain old opioids or maybe meth. Whatever it was, her face was little more than a mask but whatever it masked was hardly there. She wore the same jogging suit everywhere and clutched a water bottle like it was her child, a precious baby.
“My name’s Maddie,” she said.
“Nice to meet you.” She’d been in almost every day we’d been open.
She stood at the Star Wars wall with all the tapes where Han Solo definitively shot first and there were no goofy digital redoes. She did a slow circle of the store without stopping to touch anything or ever rent anything. Then without any other ado, she’d be gone. The first few times, I worried she’d rob the place.
It was a text from my ex. We had ended on bad terms. And right as we’d gotten the business going. Because of the business, she said, even though that was what we were supposed to be doing together, at least that was what we had daydreamed. She didn’t like that I actually did it, that I put in the work, the work suddenly coming between us.
I euthanized her.
You did not!
Where are you?
I have a key.
I had the lock changed.
Jeff let me in.
The landlord. See you don’t talk to anyone.
Get out of my place.
I’m keeping the dog.
And I was going to keep the dog. It was my idea to get a dog in the first place.
I did some reshelving, and we had a little crowd around rush hour, some people clearly browsing just to avoid traffic, not renting anything. But there was a steady turn over, and I would panic a little when the line got longer than three people. Eventually it died down, and I was back scavenging the eBay lots and trying not to check the ex’s Twitter.
And then the neck-boil man was back, right in front of me without me noticing him come in, and he placed gingerly on the counter a blank tape, though I knew it was no longer blank.
“This a snuff film?” I asked.
“Never mind. Is this a film you made?” I should keep an open mind—maybe it was the next shot-for-shot remake of Indiana Jones by senior citizens.
“It’s not a movie. It’s videos of a person.”
“I have to consider legalities. Permissions. I can’t peddle voyeurism.”
“It’s not of a stranger. It’s my brother. He died a year ago. I’m.” He stopped talking and checked the air over my head as if there were a teleprompter up there. “I’m not doing well and when I’m.” He blinked for a few seconds. “When I’m not here, no one will remember him.”
“I don’t think this is right for the store.”
“Please just rent it. Let someone else know that he existed.” He walked straight out again before I could even formulate a reason why his scheme was a terrible idea.
He was fast for an old man, and when I got around the counter and out the door, I couldn’t see him.
I walked toward the closest corner and scanned the parked cars, but he had as good as vanished. Inside, one of my favorite couples were waiting to check out, favorite not least because they each had on movie cover T-shirts bought here, on him Humanoids from the Deep and the BMX movie Rad on her. But I also loved their taste, like tonight’s pick: The Decline 0f Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. We chatted about Penelope Spheeris’s documentary trilogy until they sadly left.
And I was left with the brother’s tape in its JVC sleeve, lying on the counter. I resisted the urge to throw it away. I supposed I should watch some of it. And then I could throw it away.
It was minutes to closing time when a man came in with a rough crew cut, his skin spotted with freckles like a leopard, wearing a puffy coat. It was still in the 90s outside. He didn’t bother browsing, stomping right to me. Sweat rolled from his forehead, pools collected on the banks of his nostrils.
“Give me your money,” he said.
“Man, you are going to be disappointed,” I said.
In response, he took out a tire iron he had hid in his coat. I held my hands up and backed away.
“Now,” he said.
I opened the till—there was like forty dollars there. I took a plastic bag—I had not gotten the brown paper recycled ones yet—and dumped it all in. He watched my fumbled bag of loose bills and a couple dollars’ worth of change while shaking his head.
“You have to be kidding me.”
“I mean, what did you think was going to happen? People use cards and have online subscriptions.”
He glared at me, as if modernity were my fault.
And then, I guess, he hit me. That was what I pieced together later. He hit me a lot. Kicked me some too.
My only visitor was my ex. “Where’s Shelly?” she asked.
“Doggy daycare,” I said. “Pups Up.”
She left without saying anything else, seemingly unconcerned I’d almost died. Though no one ever said anything about my being close to death, I could certainly feel myself clinging to life. The doctors and nurses were more about healing and convalescing, physical therapy. Then some reconstructive surgery, for the face. A tire iron changes a person, their looks anyway.
They caught him, of course, the criminal mastermind. So then there would be court proceedings to look forward to. The store wasn’t even locked for a long time. The wife of my favorite couple volunteered to look after the place until I could get back on my feet. When I did make it there, the only thing I could find missing, aside from the money, was the brother’s tape.
There was video. I had surveillance cameras on the doors, the Adults Only room, and the checkout counter. So I had it all. The sweat dripping man loitering, weighing his options maybe, or maybe thinking about the choices that had led him there, the cheating on that chemistry quiz in high school, the hateful comments to his pregnant girlfriend, his embarrassing insistence on borrowing money from his friends, that butcher paper hat he bought that one time. I was sure he had quite the interior life. His exterior life on the screen was sweat and a tire iron and scream-accompanied blows. The glimpses of his face were pure hatred and rage, a person who lost all his facilities except to be a conduit for unfettered energy, a jerking live wire.
It was simultaneously distancing and too intimate seeing oneself beaten to unconsciousness. And no matter how many times I watched it, there was always the suspense of waiting for the sweaty man to stop and the possibility that he wouldn’t, that he would kill the person on the screen that was me. Maybe that tension, that strange thought that it could on one viewing go further than it had in the past ones, than in reality, kept me watching.
For a while, I only watched it on repeat at home, before bed mostly, with each viewing I would note a new nuance, as if it were the work of a brilliant director, its composition Hitchcockian. But then it replaced my New York Times reading at breakfast. Then, I would watch it in the downtimes at work.
Once a customer saw it playing on my phone on the counter and asked what I was watching.
“My short film,” I said.
I never saw the neck-boil man again just as I never got my dog back. But I did see his brother’s tape. The next time Maddie came into the store she was clutching it instead of a water bottle. Probably not what he had in mind when he wanted to share his brother.
I asked her for it, but all she would do was say her name and hold the tape tighter.
There was no one in the store, so when Maddie left, I closed up and followed her. She wasn’t hard to shadow, her gait slow but determined. Lucky for me because I was barely her rival, still on the mend. She wandered down a side road with no sidewalk, so if she’d turned around she’d have seen me clearly tailing her, but after the first twenty minutes it seemed unlikely she was going to notice me, so I kept fifteen feet between us. Her stop after my video store was a McDonald’s, where she plucked several bags from the trash and consolidated her half eaten or condiment findings into one bag, all the while keeping the brother’s tape tucked under her arm.
Her route took us to several more trashcans and a dumpster. She hardly paid attention to me even when we were the only ones in a parking lot as she leaned perilously over the edge of the dumpster, never losing hold of the video. Her last destination was a storage unit. She fished a piece of yarn around her neck out of her shirt with a key at the end.
The inside of the storage locker was hardly what I expected. A shabby chic ten-by-ten appointed with a blue corduroy recliner and shaggy love seat. The walls were covered in signs and flyers, a floor-to-ceiling collage, and I recognized some torn movie posters from the store I’d thrown out. The place was perfect for an undergrad art student but surprising for the middle-aged street wanderer.
When I entered the unit, she finally acknowledged my presence, but not in a good way. She cowered, putting her back to one of the side walls, dropping the heaping fast food bag she’d scavenged.
I held up my hands. “Sorry.” I stepped back out of the unit. “May I come in?”
She didn’t answer, but visibly relaxed, letting herself sway from the wall.
I stepped back in. I rummaged in my back pocket until I came out with a ten dollar bill. As I walked closer, she came to meet me.
“Can I rent your video?” I pointed to the brother’s tape and extended the ten. She came closer and took the money as I gripped the exposed corner. She held on a second but finally let loose.
“Thank you,” I said. “Come by the store, and I’ll renew it from time to time.”
It was long. Four hours. The beginning were clips transferred from 8mm. There was nothing special. Home movies of a boy, picnic at a lake, Christmas present opening, a snowball fight, a teenager with a car, a military uniform, a marriage, a little house. Nothing surprising other than the shock of the past, the pants, the shirt print, the vehicles, the hair. But I watched it. I watched it all. And for the first night in a long time, I didn’t watch my beating.
I started buying old home movies; I guessed I owed it to the neck-boil man. Soon I had enough for a new wall display where I put his brother’s tape in the center. It got a surprising amount of traffic. The couple became connoisseurs—better than slow TV, they would say. I took the videos home myself, not as much as time went on, but definitely when I had a dark mood. These lost people felt somehow harrowing and boring and comforting all at once.
A baby, certainly grown and possibly in the grave by now, played with tissue paper, tearing it into fine confetti. A voice out of frame said, “Look at her! Life is just a party to her! Look at her! Look at her!”
And so Maddie and I, in camp chairs after the store had closed for the day, did as commanded and looked.
S. Craig Renfroe Jr. is the author of the short story collection You Should Get That Looked At. Currently, he is an associate professor of creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Wigleaf, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere.