By Bradley Bazzle
Featured Art: Decorative Study: Satyr by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley
In the spring of 1985, Ben lived with his friend Marco in a second-floor apartment near the college where they were sophomores. For fun they watched girls sunbathe down in the small back yard across the alley. They kept a potted ficus by the window to obscure their faces.
One day, while they were staring at the girls through the ficus leaves, Marco said he had an idea. He went down the hall and came back holding the VHS camcorder Ben got for Christmas and kept beneath his bed.
Marco said they should use the camcorder to film the girls. “That way we can watch them on the VCR at night,” he said, “when it’s more fun to watch sexy stuff.”
“No way,” Ben said.
“But we can pause it and look really hard.” Marco described in loving detail the way the girls’ bikini bottoms pinched their thighs and the way their breasts drooped to the sides when they lay on their backs.
Ben liked that stuff too, but he wondered if filming the girls didn’t make him and Marco weirdos. Instead of explaining this to Marco he said, “Don’t touch my stuff. Camcorders are expensive.”
Marco got a downcast look, and Ben felt bad for getting mad at him. Ben looked out the window at the little square back yard. Three girls lounged on striped beach towels. Two were asleep but the third, on her stomach reading a book, had untied the back of her bikini top. Both boys knew that this girl, the one who read, sometimes turned onto her back with her bikini still undone.
“Maybe we can try it this once,” Ben said.
Marco quickly took the cereal boxes off his desk and pushed the desk up to the window. He set the camcorder on it gently, as though demonstrating how well he took care of Ben’s things. He tilted the eyepiece and put his eye to it.
Ben watched in silence but was troubled. The permanence of video bothered him, made everything more serious. “I’ve got a better idea,” Ben said. He had bought a fake ID back home over spring break, at a shop in a strip mall between a Vietnamese restaurant and a Christian Science reading room. For fifty dollars a man there had taken his picture and made what was called a non-governmental identification card. Ben told Marco they should buy beer with his new ID then go out on their little balcony and sip the beer in the sun with so much relish that the girls, who were underage too, wouldn’t be able to resist asking to join in the fun, especially if they, Ben and Marco, made a show of lively conversation full of laughter and exclamations.
Marco agreed that this would be even better than filming the girls.
They got in Ben’s car and Ben headed for the only liquor store he knew. Then Marco said he had heard about a different liquor store, on the outskirts of town. “There aren’t many students out there,” he said, “so they don’t look too hard at IDs.”
“In the country?” Ben asked. He was wary of country people. His mother had warned him, before he left for college, of country bars where people fought with knives.
“Yeah,” Marco said, “the country.” He gave Ben directions.
They followed a two-lane highway into the hills. Tall oak and pecan trees blocked the sun. They passed a rusty metal sign that drooped toward the road and read, DISCOUNT BEER, WINE & SPIRITS—ONE MILE. Ben wondered what kind of liquor store would be out there among the farmhouses.
Eventually they came to what looked like a big red barn with a parking lot in front of it. Behind it was a field. In the field, some distance from the barn, a narrow trailer stood propped on its hitch.
“I guess this is it,” Ben said, and he parked on the edge of the parking lot, far away from the store. He told Marco they should decide what they wanted before they went inside, because men who went to liquor stores knew exactly what they wanted and didn’t dawdle in the aisles.
Marco agreed that this was true. He named a special beer from California and, in case they didn’t have that one, another from Michigan.
Ben worried that those beers might flag them as city people. “Better to buy something unimaginative,” he said, “a light domestic maybe.”
“How about we each grab one twelve-pack,” Marco said, then explained how flavorful beer rarely came in quantities more than twelve.
“Fine,” Ben said, wondering if Marco was listening to him at all. Marco reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Ben said. “Maybe you shouldn’t go inside. You don’t have a fake ID.”
Marco smiled. “I don’t need one.” He touched his beard with pride. The beard was strange and grew almost entirely from his neck, but Ben didn’t challenge him. Ben didn’t want to draw attention by arguing in the car. They got out.
The front of the store had small dark windows and a tin sign with a chipped painting of a lady in cowboy boots on it, advertising Miller High Life.
Marco strode ahead and opened the door, which set off a loud chime. Ben sped to catch the door after him, not wanting to set off the chime again.
Inside, a woman in a blue apron stood behind a counter in the corner, the top of her face blocked by a cigarette display. Marco said hello but the woman didn’t respond. A small black-and-white monitor glowed behind her.
Brightly lit cold cases lined the back wall. Ben walked toward them while Marco hung back in an aisle full of warm six- and twelve-packs. Ben wanted to tell Marco that the beer should be cold, so they could drink it immediately, but he didn’t dare speak in the empty store.
The cold cases were partly hidden from the rest of the store by half a wall, and Ben was glad to be out of the woman in the blue apron’s sight. Then he saw that in each corner of the ceiling was a fat black camera, the kind that holds VHS tapes. He remembered the monitor behind the woman. His face got warm and his heartbeat whooshed in his ears. He grabbed a cold twelve-pack without even looking at the label then took a deep breath and went back to the main part of the store. He walked with deliberately casual speed and the twelve-pack wedged under one arm, as if he was used to carrying twelve-packs and liked to keep his hands free to conduct the rest of his business. He made for the check-out counter, but where was Marco?
The beer aisle was empty. Ben walked along the ends of the other aisles, expecting to find Marco crouching and stroking his disgusting beard as he inspected something they weren’t buying anyway. When Ben came to the far end of the store, by the wine, Marco’s head popped up next to the checkout counter. He didn’t even have a twelve-pack. Now Ben had to speak, and in a voice loud enough to be heard across the store.
“Hey Marco,” he said, affecting a deep and confident drawl. “Let’s hit it.” Marco nodded but didn’t move. Ben raised his twelve-pack of beer and shook it a little. Marco gave a look like “Oh right” and went back to the beer aisle.
They met at checkout where Marco lifted a colorful twelve-pack onto the counter and Ben set his beside it. The woman in the blue apron spun the boxes around before carefully typing on the cash register. The boys could see her face now. She was barely older than they were and had stringy, bleach-blond hair.
Behind her, the monitor cycled through black-and-white images of the store’s interior: the cold cases, the wine section, the back of their heads at the counter, and a short hallway somewhere, on one side of which was a door marked RESTROOM and on the other side a second, unmarked door.
“ID?” the woman said.
Ben pulled out his wallet. His fake ID was in the window panel, his real ID behind a credit card. He held the wallet toward the woman, expecting her to ask him to pull out the ID but preferring not to since there was a tiny spiel on the back about it being a non-governmental identification card. She touched the panel with two fingers, examining the card.
“Okay,” she said.
Ben couldn’t believe it was so easy. He folded up his wallet and put it back in his pocket. Then he remembered he had to pay and pulled it out again.
“I need his too.” The woman nodded at Marco, who was fingering the coin returns on a row of gum and candy dispensers. Marco turned to them with an expression of surprise that made him look even younger than he was, despite the beard. He mumbled about forgetting his ID since his friend drove, and could he just step outside?
“No,” the woman said.
The word hung in the air. Marco stood between the candy machines and the door like a man who had been caught stealing and was deciding whether or not to run. The woman crossed her arms. Behind her, the monitor cycled. In the flashing blacks and whites Ben noticed the hallway again. The unmarked door opposite the restroom was open.
“Is there a problem, Ashley?”
The man who had appeared behind them was at least six-and-a-half feet tall and wore the matching dark brown pants and shirt of a security guard. His head was small and bald, with wispy blond hair over his ears. The head would have given the impression of an angel on a Christmas tree if it weren’t for the heavy scar that pulled his upper lip to his nose.
Ben fought the impulse to run. He had a notion from movies that people in liquor stores kept guns and so any sudden movement might end with him bullet-riddled against the front glass, sliding to the floor with a look of terror and regret.
“The boy with the beard doesn’t have an ID,” the woman, Ashley, said. Marco’s face reddened. He looked at the ground.
“Sorry, boys,” the man said. His voice was nasal and full of wet clicks. “Everybody in the store has to have an ID.”
Marco balled his hands into fists. Ben knew he needed to speak before Marco spoke, to apologize to this man and lead Marco back to the car. But Marco spoke first.
“What about babies?” Marco asked. Ben cringed.
“What if a mom comes in with her baby? Does the baby need an ID?”
“Hmm,” the man said. He pulled a hard pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt.
“I bet it doesn’t,” Marco said. “I know how you country people are.”
Ben glared at Marco.
“Moms buying liquor with babies and smoking while they’re pregnant.”
“Shut up,” Ben said.
“Fuck this. Fuck this, man.”
“Please, boys,” the man said. He reached a cigarette toward Ashley, who snatched it with feral quickness. Ben noticed that the man didn’t take one for himself. A lighter flicked and Ben smelled burning tobacco.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. “We’ll go.”
The man seemed to consider this, as if it were just one of several options.
Then Marco said, “Fuck you country people.”
The man closed his eyes. “Please watch your words,” he said. He raised his long arm and pointed with an open hand at the corner of the ceiling, above the cigarette display, where a fat black camera hung upside-down. It was a magician’s gesture, as if the camera had appeared in a puff of smoke. “Watch your words,” he repeated, “because deeds committed in the video age are forever.”
Ben wondered if the man was going to call the police and give them the tape. He imagined being carted off to a county jail full of drunks and knife fighters. He was about to say sorry and just start walking when Marco said, “What do you mean?”
Ben wanted to slap Marco. It wasn’t his ID on the tape, and was he baiting this man? Behind him, Ashley sighed.
“Let me show you,” the man said. He turned with a sweep of his arm and headed toward the back. Marco followed him. Ben couldn’t believe it. He glanced at Ashley as if to say, “Can you believe this?” But she was busy twisting the butt of her cigarette into an ashtray.
The man led them into a little hallway at the far corner of the store and stopped at the open door opposite the restroom. He glanced at the boys then ducked his head under the doorsill to enter. Marco followed. Ben did too, reluctantly.
The room looked like an office, with an overstuffed black leather couch worn gray in the seats, a mini-fridge with a coffee maker on top, and a tall shelf full of reams of paper and dozens of stacked and labeled VHS tapes. A banquet table with folding legs filled most of one wall. On top of it, against the wall, were twelve small black-and-white monitors stacked three high and four across. Each showed a view inside or outside the store, most of which had been cycling on the monitor behind the checkout counter. Each had a slot for a VHS tape.
The man pulled a folding chair out from the long table and sat in it, crossing his legs at the ankles so his knees wouldn’t hit the table. He studied the monitors. Ben wondered if they, he and Marco, were supposed to look at the monitors too. The man hadn’t said a word, and now he seemed to have resumed monitoring the store, even though there were no customers, or rather the only two customers were in his office standing uncomfortably behind him.
The man reached for a monitor that showed the checkout counter where Ashley sat with her chin propped in her hands. She had a narrow, hard face that was pretty in black and white. He hit a button and the picture zigzagged into reverse: Ashley, with jerky movements, leaning back and standing up; the three of them marching backward, one by one, to where they had been standing. The man hit play.
“Fuck you country people.”
He hit pause, freezing a small black-and-white Marco leaning forward with his right fist balled at his side and his mouth still open from the curse. His chin had retreated slightly, as if he already regretted saying it.
“Forever,” the man said.
Marco—the real Marco—shook his head somberly. He stepped backward into the black couch and sat down. The man watched him knowingly. Marco kept shaking his head, as though in disbelief.
Ben felt awkward standing between them so he sat down. The couch was comfortable but smelled like cigarettes. From his new vantage he saw more VHS tapes stacked under the folding table and behind the open door, next to a second door, probably a closet full of VHS tapes.
The tape ejected with a loud robotic noise and the man pulled it out of the monitor. He peeled a white label off a thick sheet of paper and pressed it to the side of the tape. He took a fat pen from his front pocket and wrote a few seemingly random numbers on the label, then the date. Ben wondered if the man was going to blackmail Marco. The thought made him mad. Marco hadn’t committed a crime.
The man set down the tape on the table and stood up. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Then he opened the second door and walked into what Ben had thought was a closet. He pulled the door closed behind him.
Right away both boys were staring at the tape. One corner of it hung off the table, teasingly.
“Let’s take it and go,” Ben whispered.
Marco didn’t respond.
“She won’t stop us,” Ben said. “She’ll be glad to see us leave.”
Marco shook his head.
“What’s wrong with you? It’s just one tape.”
Marco mumbled something about their deeds being forever.
Ben stood up, grabbed the tape, and shook it at Marco. “We’re leaving,” he said. “It’s your fault we’re here. You chose this place. You’re the one who doesn’t have an ID.” Ben was about to pull Marco off the couch when he noticed—in the corner of the ceiling above the refrigerator, poking out from a raggedly cut hole in the acoustic ceiling tiles—the shiny round lens of a camera.
The door behind Ben scraped against the carpet. Ben gave no resistance as the tape was lifted from his hand.
“You don’t understand the gravity of your deeds,” the man said behind Ben. His voice was gentle, almost pleading.
Ben turned around and the man was standing so close that he, Ben, stepped backward, stumbled over the folding chair, reached for the shelf to keep from falling, and sent ten or twelve VHS tapes spilling toward the floor, where they clattered in a pile. Marco stared at the pile, aghast. The man shook his head like a kindly but disappointed coach.
“Sorry,” Ben said.
“Come with me,” the man said, then he walked back through the second door, leaving it open for them. Marco rose and followed automatically. Ben followed Marco, embarrassed.
The second room was narrower and the walls were lined chest-high with labeled VHS tapes. The room was just wide enough for the three of them to stand abreast and watch a cluster of monitors on what looked like a bedside table, against the far wall. Each of the monitors showed a different angle of the first room. One monitor had already been paused on an image of Ben holding the VHS tape and scolding Marco, who had his arms draped at his sides. Glistening spray hung in the air in front of Ben’s face—spit.
“I don’t need to play that back for you,” the man said, “do I?”
Ben shook his head. He looked disgusting to himself. “Can we go now?” he asked.
“I understand why you’re uncomfortable,” the man said, “confronted for the first time by the hatred in your heart.”
“The hatred in my heart? That’s a little much.”
“No,” Marco said. “It’s like me, remember?” Marco explained how he thought he hated country people, but seeing his face in the tape made him realize how ugly hatred is. Then he talked about how he hated his dad sometimes but really loved him.
“You’ve learned so much,” Ben said. “Maybe you should stay here. Start a cult. We’ll get you a little trailer to put out back.”
The man shook his head. He walked up to the monitor and ejected the tape. He glanced around the room, maybe for a label. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
When the man was gone, Marco put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and told him how sorry he was to have gotten them into this, to have suggested the store in the first place, although he thought—he sincerely thought—they were better men for the experience.
“Maybe you’re right,” Ben said. He laughed softly. “I guess this’ll make us think twice about filming those girls, huh?”
“What?” Marco said. “No way, man. This makes me want to film them more.”
“Are you kidding?” Ben was about to tell him off when he noticed a glint in the wall above the monitors: the shiny lens of yet another camera.
“Come with me,” the man said behind them.
Ben turned to see the man standing not in the door through which they had entered the room but in a second, narrower door across from it. Ben sighed.
The third room may have been a closet. There was just enough space for the three of them to stand pressed against each other, and Ben could smell the man’s aftershave, which reminded him of a barbershop. The room was dark except for the glow of a single black-and-white monitor perched on a column of tapes in the corner. The monitor showed Marco’s face, frozen in what looked like wonder. The irises of his big dark eyes were barely distinguishable from the pupils. His mouth, hanging open, compressed his beard into a stiff semicircular mane. The monitor showed Ben’s face too. His mouth was pursed and thin lines radiated from the corners of his eyes. The lines made Ben think of his mother telling him, when he was a kid and making silly faces all the time, that his face might get stuck that way.
“Okay I’m an asshole,” Ben said. “Lesson learned. I haven’t tried to steal anything or said anything mean in this room, so can I go?”
From the silence, Ben imagined that the man was considering his request. It was ridiculous to Ben that the man thought it was up to him whether or not they left. But it was up to him, Ben knew. It was as though a spell had been cast. It had something to do with the cameras, with the feeling of being watched.
“I suppose I can’t keep you here,” said the man, his voice so close that it rustled Ben’s hair. “But there’s one more room.”
Ben couldn’t believe it.
After a pause Marco said, “I wanna see the room.”
The man reached up and pressed his palms against the ceiling. Something clicked there. “Sorry,” he said, “but would you mind stepping into the previous room?”
Marco said of course and slipped through the door. Ben followed him.
In the slightly larger room, Ben stared at the gray carpet to avoid looking at Marco. His scalp itched and he had a sour taste in his mouth.
“Aren’t you curious?” Marco asked.
“No,” Ben said.
“How can you not be curious? He’s not a bad guy. He’s like this genius self-taught videographer.”
“He’s a weirdo. And I don’t like being in those videos like that. My face is all wrinkled. I look like an asshole.”
“Is that what you think you look like?” Marco smiled and shook his head. “You don’t, man. You don’t look like that at all.”
Ben wondered if Marco was lying to make him feel better.
“Come with me,” the man said. Marco followed him back into the closet. Ben followed too—three rooms, four rooms, what was the difference?—and they climbed up a narrow wooden ladder like the kind that lead to the attics of homes.
Above them, yellow light from a single hanging bulb lit up a network of wooden beams and joists in a high, vaulted ceiling. The edges of the room were black with shadow. Ben inched closer to Marco, nearly touching him.
There was a loud snap, like a stubborn switch, and dozens of tiny points of light wiggled into existence against one wall. The light spread into dim squares that slowly got brighter. Soon forty or fifty monitors formed a glowing, six-foot triangle. The monitors showed views of the liquor store, and other things too. There was a bed in one, a shower in another, a pot on a stove, a pair of crossed ankles. Some were paused, as if frozen in time: black birds crowded on the roof of the trailer outside, an old man sniffing the open top of a fat whiskey bottle, a crashed sedan with its grill folded around the sign by the road. When the monitors were at full brightness the man crossed in front of them and was turned into a fuzzy silhouette.
“The video home system,” he said, “ was developed by the Victor Company of Japan, better known as JVC. Each VHS tape lasts nine hours, versus the five hours offered by Sony’s Betamax system, which has the advantage of a smaller cassette.” The man proceeded to deliver a monologue on the nuts and bolts VHS technology. Ben learned, among other things, that each plastic shell was held together by five Phillips-head screws and contained over four hundred meters of magnetic tape encoded with what the man called “frequency modulated luminance,” and that the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) helically scanned said luminance and transmitted it through the monitor, which is what people see. The man talked a lot about luminance. Ben liked the idea that they were captured in that word. Luminance. The man said that VHS succeeded where artists failed. He said that words and paint just approximated people’s luminance; that photographers, if they were lucky, caught only fleeting glimpses. “But now,” he said, “the video age is upon us. Now, we can see.”
The videos on the monitors had changed, Ben noticed. One showed Ashley cooking in a narrow kitchen. Another showed her fixing a bicycle outside the trailer, her hands covered in black grease. A third showed her filing her nails behind the cash register then looking up, caught, and laughing.
One of the monitors blinked on and off, and the man started fiddling with it.
Marco leaned toward Ben and whispered, “What does he mean?”
“About what?” Ben asked.
“What we can see. He said it’s the video age and we can see. So, what can we see?”
“I’m not sure,” Ben said. Then he remembered seeing himself angry. He wondered if he would ever be angry again without seeing himself. But there was more to it than that, he suspected. More to what the man had said, to what could be seen, and how deeply.
“Is he okay?” Marco asked.
The man was staring at the monitors, transfixed. “Maybe we should go, huh?”
“Yeah,” Ben said.
They decided on their way back through the rooms that they should walk out calmly and apologize to Ashley, not run out of the building like criminals. But walking through the store it was hard to be natural. Ben had the same disoriented feeling he got after a long movie in a dark theater, when everything in the real world felt too fast and too bright. He stopped a few paces from the checkout counter, where Ashley sat on her stool behind their two cases of beer. A magazine rustled.
“Um,” Ben said, “the guy we were with . . . ?”
“Darryl,” she said.
“Yeah, Darryl. He’s . . . ” Ben struggled for words to describe the mysterious silhouette they had left in the attic. Darryl. His name was Darryl? Ben was thankful when Marco spoke:
“He’s screwing around with the TVs up there.”
“Figures,” Ashley said. She checked her watch. “He’ll come down and give me my cigarette in ten minutes. Y’all should scram, though. You’re what, seventeen?”
Back at the apartment they went immediately to the window. The girls were gone. The back yard where they had been sunbathing was gray now in the dusk, and a few black birds stood on the wooden fence.
A small red light glowed on top of the camcorder. Ben wondered if it had been recording the whole time they were gone. He looked at Marco, who coolly stopped the camcorder, laid it on its side, and pressed eject. Marco spun the open side of the camcorder toward Ben, as though asking Ben to implicate himself.
Ben pulled out the tape. He carried it across the room, knelt in front of the TV, and pushed the tape into the front slot of the VCR. He pressed rewind and the spools inside the VCR began to whir. Marco turned on the TV and switched it to channel three.
When the tape finished rewinding, Ben pressed play.
On the TV screen the girl who sometimes took off her top was lying on her back with her book over her face. The other girls were gone. The sun was low enough that the girl was cast in shadow, and Ben admired the muted color of her smooth legs and stomach.
Ben sat down on the couch next to Marco, watching the girl, wondering if she would wake up or if the bikini top, draped loosely over her breasts, would fall to the side. Her chest rose and fell as she breathed. Sometimes her right foot twitched, as if she were dreaming.
Suddenly she sat up, startled. She looked around, clutching the book to her chest. Ben wondered what was going on inside her head. He felt close to her, wondering, with her, where her friends had gone, and why did they leave her?
She set down the book and reached toward the middle of her smooth back, where her fingers gathered quickly to tie her bikini. Marco leaned forward to catch the last moments before she retreated into her apartment. Ben leaned forward too, but as she tucked the book under her arm and pulled the beach towel off the grass, he was less watching the girl than watching Marco. Light from the TV traced Marco’s features. His eyes were moist with something like love.
Bradley Bazzle is the author of the short story collection Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science (C&R, 2020) and the novel Trash Mountain (Red Hen, 2018). His stories appear in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia.
Originally appeared in NOR 14.