by Ron Day
It had been so easy. The video was there in perfect order...as he had known it would be. “Christmas ‘92.” Right after “Thanksgiving ‘92” and right before “Becky’s Birthday ‘93.” Trust them to leave all the evidence he needed right where he could get his hands on it so easily. As Paul slid the cassette into the VCR, he fell back into the recliner and felt on the table beside him for the remote. It felt comfortable in his hand. How many nights had he sat alone in this chair in front of the TV, with the remote (with the letters worn away from the fast-forward button) held casually in his right hand. Like an expert typist, he let his fingers dance in perfect rhythm across the buttons, skimming through the crazy quilt of flashing images and voices-- “Today in Bosnia...Today’s special value. Use your credit card and qualify for Easy Pay....He’s been compared to Louganis...) to stop at Channel 3.
If the stack of videos in the bookcase in his mother’s den continued growing at the present rate, there would soon be a new channel to program into his VCR-Plus. “The Barnett Family Network.’ Film at eleven of every time Little Billy Barnett takes a step or opens a gift. It could be Channel 344, right after the Amy Fisher Channel and the Ray Stevens Video Hits Channel. God!
Paul had not had to wait for that, however. He had what he needed right here. He’d pretended he hadn’t heard when his sister’s oldest had said there wasn’t anything on the Christmas tape but them talking about “Uncle Paul.” He could just picture it. The whole family sitting around the tree while a battalion of children threw shredded paper into the air, barely stopping to see one gift before they tossed it aside to tear into another. From time to time the camera would turn to the adults, many of whom would have their own video camera pointed at anything that moved.
Well, they’d all turned out for this Christmas. Probably heard Paul wouldn’t be there, breathed a sigh of relief, and came, knowing they’d not have to wear themselves out making small talk. They’d forgotten that video cameras have microphones. They always did. With him not there, they’d forgotten and said what the felt, and he’d have’em. On tape!
Paul Barnett couldn’t remember the specific day he realized he wasn’t one of them. Maybe they knew the day they brought him home from the hospital. He’d seen the baby pictures. My God, the things they dressed him up in! Later they’d drag him up and down the streets of Harlan with the legs of his too-long jeans rolled up, and he’d not see another kid in the whole town with cuffed jeans. They really got him at his eighth grade graduation, though. When he had needed a suit or even just a sport coat to graduate in, none of his uncles would admit to having one. His mother had mortified him by borrowing one from Mark Tye. Mark Tye! Who must have had five or six, but had lent him one with big checks on it that a dog wouldn’t be caught dead in. He could remember walking down the aisle in the lunchroom and seeing them look at him. Seeing in his mind the uncles who wouldn’t lend him a proper black jacket, snickering.
“Somebody check the rolls?”
“I did. They ‘bout burnt!”
The video image swung momentarily from young fathers and mothers (sitting Indian-style beside toddlers, trying to coax them into trying on pajamas when what they wanted were water cannons) tot he generations of women in the kitchen preparing dinner. Oops. Not interesting enough! Turn the camera back to Little Billy twisting the head of Little Barbara’s doll. Still, the adult voices carried into the living room and found their way onto the tape. It was hard sometimes to pick out who was talking when there was no face to go with it.
No. He’d miss the opportunity when they all ganged up to talk about him. He couldn’t miss that. His not being there wouldn’t make that big a hole in the universe, and he’d have to watch for it. When he’d told his mother he wouldn’t be at Christmas this year, he’d almost offered her a list of answers to give them for their inevitable questions. Always the same questions. Always the same answers:
“Yes, I’m still at Kroger’s.”
“No, I don’t hear from her anymore. She moved to Owensboro after the divorce.”
“Well, I’ll tell her you asked about her if I ever do...”
After that, there would be only an awkward fumbling for something else to talk about. Anne was the one they had cared about, carried on with. She wasn’t even family, although she certainly infiltrated their little group.
“Where’s Paul? It don’t seem right without all yore chillurn hyer...”
That was a voice he could put a face to. Aunt Clara. On the TV was what must have been her left leg behind the trash bag of wrapping paper. Her leg would not wear pants.
She-Who-Had-Robbed-Him-Of-Religion would not wear pants. It was an abomination. It evidently was not wrong to do what she had done to him in Gabe’s Branch, though.
He was just getting interested in church. Brother Forster had lent Paul a bathrobe so he could be a Wise Man in the pageant. He had carried the jewel-box he’d made for his mother in Vacation Bible School (a cigar box covered with elbow macaroni and gold paint) while the choir sang “We Three Kings.” Miss Joy had given them all a paper sack containing an apple, a tangerine, a candy cane, and three Brazil nuts, but she had hugged him special, and for a change, he had not pulled away when arms reached out to encircle him. He knew he had done a good job and forgot for a moment that his mother and his father had not come to see him because “he” would miss “Gunsmoke” and “her’ hair wasn’t washed...or something.
After the pageant he had gone to his private place in Gabe’s Branch to be alone, but his aunt had found him there. They would play church, she had suggested, when he tried to tell her about being a Wise Man. Aunt Clara, just a few years older than Paul, went to the snake-handling church. Paul had wanted to show her how he walked so regally when he was the Wise Man at the United Brethren church. But her church was not about Wise Men or even a Baby in a Manger. Her church was about a beast with seven heads and seven crowns. “At the End,” she had said, “the Anti-Christ will come and make a mark on your forehead if you don’t live right. He will cut a word in your forehead and rub ashes in it so it won’t ever heal and everyone will know what kind of sinner you are.” Then she pulled Paul to the ground and covered him deep in leaves, told him that he was dead and that she was the Lord and when he heard her “comin’ with a shout” he should rise up out of the leaves like the “reborn in Christ.”
He had lain there so still, not moving when the leaves itched his nose. Not moving when he was sure worms were working the damp earth beneath him. Not even moving when he heard a rustling in the leaves and thought of a serpent--The Serpent--and remembered once when he’d gone to Clara’s church and had seen them dancing and jumping up and down with snakes in their hands and their tongues (the righteous, not the snakes) hanging out. They had shown such feeling and were all hugging and laying hands on each other. Maybe that’s what religion was all about. Maybe it was more about the Anti-Christ of Gabe’s Branch than the boys with towels on their heads pretending to be shepherds. He had lain there in the damp a long time (hearing the worms work the black soil, imagining people at the church down the hill tossing rattlesnakes out the windows when they were done with them...snakes that would slither under the leaves to lie beside him and mark him with the Mark of the Beast), until he realized Clara was not going to make a Second Coming. She had tricked him. She had made a fool out of him.
Aunt Clara was on camera now, pulling tissues from a box and aiming them at Little Billy’s nose.
“I know I shouldn’t say this about Paul, but he was always my favorite.”
“You always took up for him over th’ others.”
“I know what it’s like to be the middle child. He never seemed to find his place. It tore me up when his marriage broke up. I allus thought that Anne would bring him outten his shell a little....”
He could picture them even if the camera didn’t show them, gathered now around the table, cutting up fruit for the salad while the proud parents filmed their kids putting a train track together on the living room carpet. His mother would say how she had told him so, that he “weren’t ready to marry and her not even from around here” (when that had been his only prerequisite in a bride). His aunts would cluck their tongues and wonder if there wasn’t more to it. After all, they read the Enquirer and knew what went on in the world. His sisters would run in from the living room for a slice of tangerine and to put in their two cents’ worth:
“Did you see what Paul got Little Billy?”
Here it comes. He had known they’d hate it.
“It’s precious! Billy won’t lay it down. I can’t take it out of his hand. I wish he’d a-been here to see him open it.”
“He said he had to work a double shift today at the store, but I think he volunteers. He can’t take all this commotion any more. What with his nerves and his marriage breakin’ up..”
“Paul wouldn’t let nobody love him if they’d a-wanted to..”
Now it would start. The blame.....
“It weren’t that I didn’t want them to make it. I just never thought she treated him right, though I tried to keep out of it best I could. It broke my heart, some of the things she said to him, right in front of us..”
“Sometimes she acted like he didn’t have no feelings at all.”
“Well, it was hard to tell sometimes....”
"He’s stand-offish, but he’s more sensitive than he lets on. I’ve seen him bend over back’rds for Anne and not even get so much as a thank-you. That’s bound to hurt. Many’s the time I just wanted to reach out and hug him but he never could stand that even when he was a young’un.”
“I ‘member when I was in the seventh grade and Paul was in the fifth, and his teacher got married...that Miss Tipton. When we went through the receiving line she hugged him and he started cryin’. Claimed that the lace of her dress was stiff and scratched him in the eye. Anyway, Bob Tuttle teased him and called him a sissy for cryin’ and I just hauled off and knocked the tar out of him.”
“If Paul knew all the times you took up for him...and you just a scrawny girl...why, he’d die!”
“I just wish I saw more of him now. What with the kids, and my job and his’n...and I don’t know what to say to him now. The least little thing sets him off. I like Anne OK, and I do kinda miss her, but it seems like we lost him when we lost her. I guess it’s my fault for not reachin’ out more.”
“He’s just a hard’un to love.”
“No, he ain’t. He’s easy to love. He just ain’t easy at bein’ loved.”
Suddenly a man’s legs moved across the scene.
“Ain’t that turkey done yet? I swan, a man could starve. And get that damn camera outten my face...”
“It’s ready, I reckon. You’uns come on. And don’t nobody cut that pie on the cabinet. I made hit for Paul.”
There on the screen was his mother, wiping her brow as she set a basket of rolls on the table. Paul could see her lips moving as she silently counted the bodies and the chairs to see if the numbers were equal. As the camera was laid aside, the family went topsy-turvy for a moment, and ironically, the painting of an old man praying over a crust of bread was seen briefly as the voice of someone saying grace was cut off. The screen went blank.
Fast-forward....to a sister diapering the son she’d named for Paul, knowing he not have any himself to carry his name.
Re-wind to a boy with a toy microscope.
Fast-forward to a man trying to figure out what battery to put in the Easy-Bake.
Fast-forward to a mother with tired eyes.
Re-wind to the aunt whose brow did not display the Mark of the Beast but her nearly-fifty years.
The room was dark now. The man was illuminated only by the pale, blue-white glow of the TV as he sat in the recliner watching the same film he had watched the night before. And the night before that. The film Paul had slipped into a coat pocket at his mother’s house. The film he was sure would give him....validation. The film he watched again and again as he sat in front of the TV with a remote control in his right hand, and a pistol on his lap.
Fast-forward to a woman wiping her brow as she set a basket of rolls on a table with a family gathered ‘round.
Re-wind to a sister, claiming she loved her brother.
“He ain’t hard to love. He’s just hard at bein’ loved....”