Still Life with Plaster Cupid- Paul Cezanne

Video Jungle

by Michael Beres


When Archie Leadbetter stumbled through his living room clutter on the way to the front door to fetch the morning paper, he carried his video camera with him. He was about to place the camera on a chair near the door that held, wallet, sunglasses, portable computer, lunch and anything else he didn't want to forget on his way to work each morning, but decided the chair already contained too much. So he took his car keys from the chair in order to put the camera in the car. Before going outside he paused before the chair, yawning as he recalled fondly a sultry morning in July when his ex-girlfriend Rhonda had reclined there in a Rubenesque pose, and wishing he had videoed the event for posterity.

Rhonda had left in a huff, angry with him for, as she put it, "turning a blind eye to murder." The murder had been of a baby rabbit that resembled a brown powder puff. The murderer had been the neighbor's black cat that resembled a oily-skinned panther zapped down to just-within civilized neighborhood standards. Rhonda had wanted him to save the rabbit. He had wanted to let nature take its course. The Darwinian argument had grown from there, encompassing everything nurturing female and hunter male hate about one another. That night, after Rhonda had gone, Archie went outside, called the cat over in soothing tones, then kicked the shit out of it, sending it squealing, an action Rhonda would have disapproved, being that she was an animal rights activist.

After the image of Rhonda reclining au naturel on the chair had begun to fade, Archie rubbed his tired eyes, yawned, cinched up the cord on his robe and, finally, went outside. Once on the porch he recalled the time Rhonda had scolded him for going out in his robe. "What if you get chilled or lock yourself out?" she had said, making him promise to never go out in his robe again. Of course, after she was gone, getting chilled didn't seem to matter.

Although it was early September, the morning air was cool and fresh, not many cars or trucks or beeping front loaders at distant construction sites out quite this early. Sometimes, when he went out for the newspaper in the morning, he vowed he would get up earlier the next day and run, take advantage of this docile time of day. And if he could do it one morning and the next, the Ironman Triatholon might be just around the corner. Of course this never happened, not even after he rented all those running and exercise videos from the Video Kitty at the mall down the street. He was, after all, an average guy, dreaming of doing so much with his life, but not doing much these days except watching videos and yearning for the return of Rhonda who had burned a lifetime of images into the video jungle of his brain.

Once out on the porch, he picked up the newspaper, wondered if he should have waited until returning to the porch instead of carrying the paper with him, tucked the paper beneath his arm after deciding that he'd rather not bend over again out here, especially in his short robe should a school bus full of teenaged girls being bussed across town to the Catholic school drive by. Turning toward his car, he saw that the grass was wet with dew and, being that the condo maintenance crew had cut it the previous day, decided not to take the well-worn short cut across the lawn lest his house slippers carry inside handfuls of slimy green blades that would show up all over the house like last time. So he continued down his walk to the front walk and around toward the driveway. When he felt the morning coolness sneak up beneath his robe, he cinched the cord more tightly as he headed toward the car.

Timed perfectly with the cinching up of the cord, he heard an alarming squeal, wondered momentarily if the neighbor's cat was about to attack his bare legs, then realized it was something out on the street. Tires on pavement, rush of air being sucked into an engine demanding oxygen, another squeal, not tires, something like the muffled protest of a creature, like the horrible squeak of the baby rabbit being carried somewhere by that damn cat. Perhaps the cat was being run over. But there was no cat, only the cool morning and him and a car which seemed to emerge from the sunrise on the otherwise empty street.

The car was large, light blue weeping rust, a groaning rumbling hulk disturbing the morning with its multiple pollutions. He recalled once purchasing a checkered flag to have handy to wave at teens who sometimes raced down the street after a meeting of the minds in the Video Kitty parking lot, but the flag was somewhere else, perhaps in the garage with all the other junk that made it impossible to park his car there. With nothing else to wave, he waved his video camera at the blue behemoth tearing down the street. At least he'd show some semblance of anger at this disturber of morning serenity, if not a raised fist or finger, at least a video camera raised in protest. Perhaps for a split second the driver would think the camera was loaded--"Ha, pointed right in your face!"

But Archie did not see one face in the car, he saw three. As the car roared past, its noise suggesting much more speed than its lumbering sluggishness could muster, he saw first the driver--white-faced oriental man, a squinty glance toward him, pursed lips, hands high on the wheel seeming larger than the man's face--then he saw the two in the back seat -red-faced bearded man profiled against the back side window where his cheek almost touched the glass as he struggled with the girl next to him, the girl darker and slimmer than Rhonda, the girl wearing a robe, a robe pulled open revealing her breasts!

During the two or three seconds that passed while the car was nearest him, Archie etched the following into his memory:

Oriental male behind the wheel in his twenties with close-cropped black hair. Driving fast, obviously trying to avoid pursuit or arrest or something, the kamikaze look on the man's face suggesting that the situation has exploded beyond the bounds of what he had expected. They have gone too far and now the only thing to do is escape or die.

Caucasian bearded male in his twenties or thirties, definitely older than the oriental man, light brown hair pulled into a small pony tail at the base of his neck, brow furrowed with John Wayne lines of determination as if he is in charge, but face reddened because of his struggle with the other passenger in the back seat.

Light-skinned African-American or mulatto girl in her late teens, long black hair, some strands of hair lying forward of her shoulders brushing her Michael Jackson jaw, some hair dangling across her breasts bared because her robe is open as she struggles with the bearded man. Breasts smaller than Rhonda's, but perkier. Blue robe like the one Archie wears, nothing underneath like him.

After the car was gone he ran--cold chill rushing beneath his own robe as he hurried back to the house, pausing a split second at the door then cursing himself and dropping the newspaper to the porch to allow more freedom of movement so he could open the door and get to the phone to call the police.

 

"You don't mind if I call you Archie, do you Mr. Leadbetter?"

"Not at all, Detective Ramirez."

"Good, that keeps it informal and sometimes helps a valuable witness like you remember things he might otherwise have forgotten."

"I just want to help that poor girl."

"That's what we all want. Are you sure you didn't see the license plate?"

"I'm sure. By the time I thought of it the car was way down the street."

"Could you see the color of the plate?"

"No. It was obscured."

"In what way?"

"It was too far away to tell for sure when I looked at it, but I think it had a plastic covering over it, you know, one of those license plate covers some guys put on their cars because they think it's cool. Anyway, the color was faded out. All I could tell was that the letters were darker than the background."

"So you did see letters?"

"Yes, but only the fact that they were there. I couldn't see what letters they were."

"How do you know they were letters?"

"Huh?"

"Letters rather than numbers. How do you know the plate had letters rather than numbers?"

"I meant letters or numbers. I could only see that there were characters, but I couldn't read them at all."

"Very well, Archie. Now, about the camera."

"What about it?"

"Why were you carrying it?"

"I already told you. A friend of mine at work is leaving and there's this lunch for him and I'm bringing--or I was supposed to bring--my camera to tape it. I was taking the camera out while I got the paper, both so I wouldn't forget it and so I wouldn't have to carry it out later when I left for work."

"You say you gestured toward the car with it?"

"Yes."

"Mind showing me again?"

"No, I don't mind. Kind of like this."

"Pointing up like that?"

"Yes."

"Tell me, Archie. Do you always carry the camera like that?"

"I think so. It's the natural way to hold it, by the handle."

"With your finger on the trigger like that?"

"Well, yes."

"Was there a tape in the camera?"

"Yes, it's still in there."

"Mind if I look at it?"

"Not at all. But like I said, I didn't have time to even think of filming the car. It happened too fast and I had the newspaper under my arm and--"

"Yes, I understand. And you were uncomfortable being outside in just your robe and you were holding it around you."

"Right."

"The tape?"

"Sure. Here."

"Looks like it's about half way through. Not rewound and not at the beginning. Would have been pretty easy to lower the camera and pull the trigger, wouldn't you say so?"

"Right. And believe me, I wish I had. I mean I didn't even have time to think. I would have thrown the damn thing at the car if I had time to think and if I thought it would have done any good."

"But you did have time to memorize some details on the car as well as a fine description of the two men and the girl and we're thankful for that. I guess, like a lot of people in a surprise situation like this, you found yourself frozen, as you said, and couldn't move."

"It's not that I couldn't move. It's the fact that there just wasn't time to do anything. I mean I could have picked up one of those rocks right there on the parkway and thrown it at the bastard's windshield if I'd had the time or if I'd known the car would come around the corner. How can anyone prepare for a thing like this?"

"No need to get upset, Archie. No one's blaming you. I'm just trying to see if we can jostle anything out of your memory that you might have overlooked before we go downtown to look at some pictures."

"That's okay, I'm not upset. I'm glad to do whatever I can."

"By the way, do you mind if I take this tape downtown and have a look at it just in case your finger might have triggered the camera without you realizing it?"

"No, I don't mind at all."

 

"I'm sorry I wasn't able to pick out any faces, except for that Jimmy Cagney picture you slipped in."

"No problem, Archie. If they're not in there, they're not in there."

"I'm beginning to wonder if I'd be able to identify those two if they were right here in this room."

"You did a fine job identifying the girl."

"Of course I did. You brought all those pictures you got from her parents. God, those poor parents must be going through hell."

"They are, Archie. I've seen this before and I can tell you they probably have a lot more hell to go through. Even if we find her and she's not dead, the parents will probably still have to go through a horrible night trying to deal with it. Right now their imaginations are running wild trying to dream up scenarios in which the kidnappers are so busy trying to avoid capture they don't have time to do whatever they had in mind when they grabbed the girl from her front porch. And then there's the guilt, blaming themselves for letting their daughter go out for the newspaper when, in reality, that's something any kid should be able to do, especially in your own neighborhood. Now, if you don't mind, and since your boss says take as much time as you need, let's go through it one more time, real slow, real detailed."

"Before we do, did you find anything on the video tape?"

"Just the tail end of a World War II movie and part of a Michael Jackson video. Apparently a tape that's been recorded over several times with no trace of the kidnapping, like you said."

 

The next morning, when Archie went out for the paper, he was fully dressed for work. Back inside he found the beginning of the story of the kidnapping on page one and began reading it while he ate dry toast.

Monique Johnson had graduated an honor student from high school in the spring and was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she had been awarded a scholarship from the School of Fine Arts. She eventually wanted to study cinematography, and the writer of the article made a valiant effort to wring out all possible irony when mentioning the camera that had been held by the only witness to the kidnapping. The newspaper article went on in some detail about how sad it was that Monique had been snatched from the front of her parents' home only two days before she was to leave for school. She had gone out to retrieve the newspaper from the front porch, and to put out a bowl of milk for a stray kitten that had been coming around for several days. After these details, the article seemed to dwell on the fact that Monique's mother was white and her father black. Without actually suggesting racial motivation for the kidnapping, the details of the struggles of Monique's parents in making their mixed marriage successful, as well as providing a good life in a safe neighborhood for their daughter, went on long enough to make any reader wonder what in the world could have gone wrong.

Predictably, the author of the article had begun with the facts, then went on to gnash his or her teeth on the irony of the situation and the outrage of neighbors, classmates, teachers and friends. But the ending of the article was not so predictable. The article ended not with a sad commentary, but with what seemed to Archie an unnecessary repeat of the video camera. By reiterating that the only witness had been carrying his video camera out to his car, but had apparently failed to think quickly enough to use it, Archie sensed an implication that he might have done something wrong. Indeed, by not acting as any viewer of America's Funniest Home Videos or I Witness Video would have acted, he had failed to get that perfect shot that would have aired on every network and been portrayed in multiple still photos above the continuation of the article on page two instead of Monique's boring high school yearbook picture tucked between the equally boring photos of her grieving parents embracing one another and a forlorn-looking black kitten sitting on a front porch step.

When Archie reread the article, the details given about him seemed suspect in light of the alleged failure on his part to simply aim and squeeze the trigger so that cinematic experts with computer-enhanced gear might have been able to distinguish the characters hidden by the not-quite-opaque cover over the license plate. The fact that he was a computer programmer who should have known better than to miss a chance to collect the required data, along with the fact that he was a bachelor who lived alone--without even a girlfriend at present--and the fact that his relatives were many miles away on the west coast, seemed to loom accusingly from the article amidst a blast of trumpets--The only witness, Archibald H. Leadbetter, a 29-year-old computer programmer and a bachelor who lives alone at...

Perhaps it was the way the article was written that caused someone to pick up one of the rocks in the parkway a week after the kidnapping and toss it through Archie's front window. Or perhaps the article had nothing to do with the rock through his window. Even so, Detective Ramirez, who was in charge of the kidnapping case, spent several hours with Archie trying to, as he said, "simply see if there might be a connection, however remote."

"Are you sure you didn't see anyone, or maybe a car driving away?"

"I told you I'm sure. It was cold that night. The crash woke me up, but by the time I got out to the living room, it was dead quiet. If a car had driven away I would have heard it."

"Were you wearing your robe?"

"Well, yes. What's that got to do with it?"

"I wondered if you might have opened the front door and looked out, maybe just the inside door so you could look through the screen door. I noticed you haven't put the storm window in the door yet and if you opened the inside door you might have been able to hear footsteps."

"No, I didn't open the door. The window was smashed out and I could have heard footsteps through there but I didn't. Maybe you figure that little kitty she used to feed got pissed off because I didn't film the getaway car! Look, it was three in the morning, a rock the size of a brick had just come through my window and you expected me to open the front door and see if it was Avon calling?"

Rhonda used to sell Avon products. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip, his desire to have a sidekick nearby during this time of strife. Perhaps Ramirez would believe her. She'd be wearing something conservative, that black dress she wore to animal rights events where she chanced an appearance on the evening news.

"No need to get upset, Archie. I'm just doing my job, trying to shake loose anything I can, like the first time."

The way Ramirez said, "like the first time," stuck with Archie and made him think about a term he had seen in a followup article about the kidnapping. The article had said that as a last resort the police were scouring the neighborhood for anyone who had frequent run-ins with the law and he wondered just what entailed a run-in and how many run-ins were needed to trip the switch in the police department's software from "infrequent" to "frequent."

After the front window was replaced, Archie considered setting up his video camera in the living room, aiming it out toward the street and putting on some kind of sound-activated device he could easily knock together on a weekend after a few trips to the local Radio Shack. But he dropped the idea after speculating about the possibility of insane protestors all carrying their own video cameras outside his front window setting off his camera, and him presenting the evidence to the police and the newspaper printing the incriminating, "Now he films! Why now and not the morning Monique Johnson was kidnapped?"

Read the rest of "Video Jungle"


Michael Beres does a lot of his writing in a cabin somewhere in Michigan. His short fiction has appeared commercial publications (such as Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen, Twilight Zone Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Amazing Stories) and literary magazines (such as Pulpsmith, Michigan Quarterly Review, Skylark, Ascent, Missouri Review). He has just completed a novel called Stroke Time. You can sample the novel and other writing at his web site.

Sometimes I get a little tired of the "Based on a true story" hype attached to movies and books and miniseries. My story "Video Jungle" is completely untrue, and I'm proud of it.

I wrote "Video Jungle" some time ago after the televised O.J. chase, and after years of watching Emergency 911 reruns during dinner. I was thinking about the effects of media (Who doesn't?) and wondered, "What if someday folks move from a feeling that the possibility exists that whatever anybody does stands a chance of being recorded, to a feeling that, if it's not recorded, something went terribly wrong?" I wondered, "What if people became angry at someone, not for recording an event, but for not recording an event?"

Fiction is made out of crazy "what-ifs" from life. That's why sometimes it's the real thing, even if it didn't happen.


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