“I’m getting tired a this, man,” Ed mumbled, the twin cords of the shopping bag he was carrying burning shallow, rose-colored trenches into his palm.
The results of his initial search for the key were a crumpled, empty pack of Bull Durhams and a matchbook with the words Greenbriar Tap embossed in silver cursive on the cover. He shuffled the last couple steps to the cranberry-colored, pockmarked steel door.
“Shit,” he said, fishing in the other coat pocket of his olive-green Army surplus coat.
Ed felt the cool, jagged edge of the key and pulled it out, staring dumbly down at the
Jeff Jarot is a writer who teaches high school English in Plainfield Consolidated School District 202. He holds a BA in English from Illinois Wesleyan University, a BA in English Education from Illinois State University, and an MA in English with an emphasis in Literature and Film from Northern Illinois University. In addition, Jarot recently completed an MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Illinois State University in December 2013. He lives in Plainfield, Illinois with his wife and three children.
red plastic tag that read 216 as if the numbers cryptically contained the cure for cancer. He inserted the key into the lock and turned it to the right. This was the third time in his life he had been forced to leave someplace for another dingy flophouse shithole.
During his and Barb’s recent verbal brawl and subsequent throwing match, amidst that red haze and crescendoing ringing that always accompanied his frequent fits of rage, he had started grabbing random items from the cluttered floor of the closet he and Barb shared. This hastily-prepared, logically-impaired baggage consisted of a blazer, two pairs of unwashed jeans, swimming trunks, a pair of Barb's jeans, and two mismatched socks. Ed had also managed to grab a carrying case that housed a hodgepodge of compact discs and a varnished wooden case the size of a child’s lunchbox. All these items, having been given false importance born of anger and haste, had been thrust into the nearest, most readily portable container, a Nordstroms shopping bag that had been home to a collection of Barb’s formal footwear. The bag now contained a brace of stray, unopened cans of beer that had rolled under the driver’s seat during the transit from home to hostel.
Ed picked up his belongings and shouldered the door open, scanning the room and sniffing the air, savoring its ritualistic familiarity. He recognized the motel room’s furnishings: single bed, a sink and mirror, dresser bureau with an additional mirror affixed to the wall immediately above, and television set with VCR. These comprised the bare essentials for the survival of typical transients. Ed crossed the threshold, wrinkled his nose, and sighed.
He immediately removed his coat, tossed it to the floor, and walked to the right towards the sink and grabbed a plastic cup encased in cellophane from the countertop. As he plodded to the bed, he tore at the wrapping with his two front teeth while simultaneously fumbling in his makeshift valise bag for a loose can of beer. Locating one, he popped the top open.
Ed stared in concentration at the ready plastic cup before he flung it onto the bed, opting to gulp the beer directly out of the can. He took the can from his lips, dribbling beer on the coverlet draping the bed, which was already a veritable map of unidentifiable stains. The beer was at a temperature consistent with stagnant pond water subjected to direct sunlight.
“My cup overfloweth,” Ed snickered, gravel in his voice, the corners of his mouth elevating as the beer foamed and bubbled.
Needs ice, he thought, and rolled his eyes around the room in search of a plastic ice bucket. Ed decided that locating the nearest ice machine in his present condition would expend energy that he did not have.
“Hell with it,” he said as he plopped the can on the nightstand by the bed and focused his attention on the wooden case he had brought with him.
As Ed rose from the bed, he knocked the nightstand, and his drink spilled onto the bed. The beer foamed and bubbled out onto the coverlet.
“Shit,” he said, ducking his thumb under the middle finger on his left hand to scratch at an irritated patch of glazed, rose-colored skin where his wedding ring had resided, a ritual he performed whenever he was agitated. A couple of gnat-sized flakes of skin, loosened free by his thumbnail, drifted off and flitted to the carpet. Ed leaned toward one of the lamps adjacent to the bed and clicked it on.
He dropped the wooden case on the bed, flipping the brass clasp attached to the front of the box with his index finger and lifting the squeaky lid to reveal the contents inside: six dust-laden videocassettes that housed behind their plastic windows the silent, grainy archives of his crumbled family’s past. They were distinguishable from each other only by the figures printed on the yellowed, peeling labels that were on the bottom of each cassette. There were no words on the labels, only years: two that read 1974, and one each marked 1975,1976, 1978, and 1981. The handwritten markings on the labels had the characteristic treble and slurred penmanship that Ed always employed while intoxicated.
He selected two cassettes at random, clutching them protectively in his left hand, and stumbled to the VCR that sat atop the television. He ran his finger over the outside of one of the cassette sleeves, paving a clear trail across the dusty surface, and pulled the cassette from its sleeve so that he could read the dog-eared label. Ed tossed the Nordstroms bag to the side. Full beer cans rolled out onto the carpet.
Ed removed one cassette from its sleeve and fed it to the VCR. When he pressed PLAY, the screen filled with rolling static. End of tape. He jabbed at the REWIND button with the pad of his index finger.
He walked to the window, pulled the curtains closed, and resumed his position in front of the television screen. Ed bared his amber-tinged teeth and tapped his left incisors together, wiggling the fingers of his right hand in the air in accompaniment as the tape rewound. He belched.
“More,” Ed said to himself, voice firm. He placed his tongue to one side, and it stuck to the inside of his mouth.
Ed picked up a fresh can of beer from the floor and popped its tab. After taking an extended swig, he held the liquid in his mouth, allowing it to gradually burn a path down his throat, and tossed the can to the mottled carpet. Although the tape hadn’t rewound completely, he pressed the PLAY button.
A square patch of blue light immediately filled the screen. After a few seconds, blurry patches of color replaced the glowing azure. Nondescript shapes on the screen sharpened, and Ed could discern three human figures. Although the 8mm grain made them appear somewhat gritty, hairy, and unclean, he recognized the figures as younger versions of his ex-wife and two children.
“Ex-children?” he muttered.
Ed leaned forward and pressed the hinged ebony door on the front of the VCR to glance at the label on the side of the tape; it read 1976. He squatted on his haunches, eyes transfixed on the bright square emanating from the television.
Where is this? he thought, trying to place the images on the screen with the year. He downed some more beer, coughing as the foamy, amber liquid went down the wrong pipe.
The woman onscreen was smiling, but there was a detectable strain in her eyes, not altogether due to the physical discomfort as a result of the tint of her skin, which was the color of an uncooked rib-eye, but rather something beneath the peeling rawness, not readily visible to the naked eye. The children, who were of elementary school age—Ed couldn’t recall specifically which years in school—were wearing T-shirts displaying Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan respectively. The kids held small crumbled white bags spotted with oil and half-filled with popcorn dregs. The sun shone, everyone’s shadows crisp against the surrounding asphalt.
“Disney World,” said Ed to himself, pressing his lips together into a thin line that creased downward. His family was standing in front of the arch at the base of Cinderella’s Castle. Everyone in frame was smiling.
Ed wished he could have afforded a camera that recorded sound. As it was, the only soundtrack that accompanied the picture was the occasional drone of the air conditioner in the room coupled with the wheeze of his own breathing.
The scene on the television screen changed. An anonymous Disney World employee clad as Goofy was in the midst of a crowd of children who milled about him like disciples. Ed’s kids, laughing and smiling in an aptly goofy manner, hopped toward the other young, worshipful bodies with the aid of their mother, who herded them forward, as Ed jerkily documented their procession on film. Once she and her brood reached their destination, strung out as they were in a crooked line, hands clutching neighboring hands, fingers interlaced, they managed to catch the character’s attention long enough to pose briefly for the camera. The faux Goofy, undoubtedly producing rivulets of sweat underneath the bulky costume awkwardly, perfunctorily curled his arm around the shoulders of Ed’s ex-wife. The kids continued to act as if they were happy, alternating between grinning at Goofy and the camera and each other.
The image was replaced by a few seconds of darkness. When the brightness returned, the screen revealed a spilled bag of popcorn, its contents scattered on the asphalt. The camera panned up and showed a younger Ed, face contorted, pointing to the ground. In earlier years, he was compared to a young Paul Newman circa Hud or perhaps The Hustler. Barb had often told him that this, especially the Newman-blue of his eyes, was what first attracted her to him.
Onscreen, his son ran into the shelter of the tunnel beneath Cinderella’s castle, and the child’s mother, now the one working the camera, tried to track his movement but lost him in the dark mob of figures traversing under the arch. Sitting in the motel room, Ed could make out the familiar multi-colored, shadowy mosaic that depicted Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsisters lining the inside of the arch underneath the castle.
The camera now caught young Ed yet again, pointing after his son, who was darting off to the right into Fantasyland. Ed’s image was shouting something, face crimson, clearly irritated, but watching himself onscreen, all Ed could hear within the confines of the motel room was the air conditioner’s thrum. The television showed the camera panning away to catch a retreating Eeyore turn a corner on Main Street. Then the screen became blue again, signifying the end of the original 8mm reel.
Ed punched REWIND and sidled backwards to fall across the bed, staring forward as he did at the large mirror attached to the bureau directly across from where he lay.
His reflection was only partially revealed. His resemblance to Paul Newman had evaporated, albeit not entirely, over the years. He certainly hadn't aged as gracefully as Newman had. Hair receding to near-extinction, crimson splotches on a jowled, sunken face, grimy-looking salt-and-pepper stubble, at least a hundred paunchy pounds put on since the footage he was watching had been shot. He was now a neglected, unkempt, bloated version of Newman, a has-been who had never really had anything in the first place because his grip on everything had been and still was so loose, so fleeting.
In the mirror, he could see the left side of his face as well as a jagged chunk of his upper torso. It looked to him as if a shark residing beneath the wooden waters of the bureau had feasted on the bottom portion of his body, leaving the rest of his fractured self to bob on the surface.
“Jaws,” he chuckled, gaping his mouth in a silent grimace of mock terror. Ed sat back on the bed and continued to wait for the tape to rewind.
A distinctive clack emitted from the insides of the VCR, accompanied by the word STOP in block white letters in the top left hand corner of the blue screen. This was Ed’s cue to hop from the bed and stumble to the TV. He pulled the tape out and replaced it with a second one that he had selected out of the dusty wooden box. He again pressed PLAY, and the blank blue screen was replaced by hazy splashes of color. According to the label, this tape was from 1981, five years after Disney World. Ed resumed his post atop the bed.