Saving the Music
“Pause the tape just right, just a second before the plane hits,” Jeff says, staring at the screen, “and think of all those people you save.” Taking a shot of bourbon, it dribbling down his chin, the front of his shirt, he says, “Freeze it just right, you still got the towers.”
He pours another shot and his hand shakes the bottle into a blur, sloshing liquor on the floor. Everything he says echoes through the empty house. Bounces off bare walls. His wife, Pam, took everything. The couches and tables, beds and dressers. Their daughter’s toys and clothes. All that’s left are ruts in the hardwood floors and imprints in the carpet. Sheetrock with nail holes like bullet wounds. A couple lawn chairs, his mini TV. The Mickey Mouse VCR.
And the tape.
I finger-nail the label off a sweating beer. I turn it in my hand and look at the ceiling, at the window, the stairs and door. Anything to keep from looking at what’s happening on the screen. What’s about to happen, about to start everything that ends with us sitting in this gutted house, I’ve already seen. Live and unedited. And I don’t want to see it again.
“Stop the Zapruder tape at frame 207,” he says, “history’s rewritten.”
“Why you doing this to yourself?” I say.
Not breaking his trance on the screen, he says, “Take his brother. Freeze him at the podium, and he’s not gunned down in that kitchen.” Downing the shot, he says, “He’d always be ‘On to Chicago.’”
My eyes cut to the television, then away. Back to the television.
On it, framed in the 14” x 21” screen, is a shaking mini birthday party. There’s a mini clown in the background twisting red balloons into a tiny poodle. There’s kids zipping by in front of the camera with party hats cocked to the side. Adults in lawn chairs, the same we’re sitting in now, relaxing in the shade of a cypress, legs hooked over their knees, waving. A picnic table lined with paper plates and plastic forks and presents leaning-towered at the end.
Everything formatted to fit your screen.
The cameraman’s voice says: Alright, guys. The camera shimmies and the voice says: We ready for cake and ice cream?
The screen says: 01:41:13.
And these scaled-down kids swarm together like feeding fish, wild and high-pitched. Parents step behind their sons and daughters, their knees or elbows or half-faces the only thing visible. My hands reach from out of frame and rub my son, Kaden’s, head.
Pam comes on screen holding a large Hello Kitty cake, seven candles flickering. She sets it in front of their daughter, Dawn, and everyone’s sings “Happy Birthday.” Jeff’s voice loudest next to the camera mic.
The song ends and she closes her eyes. Leans over, hooking the dark curls behind her ears. Her cheeks inflate and she blows the candles out, smoke mouse-tailing in the air.
The screen says: 01:47:05.
Taking a drink, his voice gritty, Jeff says, “There’s that tightrope walker.” He shakes his head, smiles at the screen. “Hit the button while he’s still on the wire, he doesn’t drop hundreds of feet seconds later.” He says, “He stays up there forever.”
I lean forward, drape my wrists over my knees, and say, “He still drops, just not again.”
On the TV, Jeff’s voice says: Sorry baby. Says: We didn’t get you anything this year.
And Dawn cocks her hips to the side, hand on her waist. Hair blowing across her forehead, she smiles and wags her finger.
Daddy Daddy Daddy, she says. You’re so silly.
Jeff rewinds the tape, her finger wagging in quick-reverse. Her hips straighten, hand coming off her waist. He hits play and she does it all again.
Daddy Daddy Daddy, she says, and blinking at the screen, Jeff says with her, “You’re so silly.”
The screen says: 01:54:26.
I stand, throw my head back, and let the beer bubble against my lips. Stepping behind him, my footsteps hollow on the floor, I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m just saying,” I say, “video doesn’t stop something from happening.” I squat beside him, stare at the side of his face, and say, “It’s just proof that it did happen.”
On screen, Dawn’s peeling back pink wrapping paper. Ripping it high above her head and letting it drop behind her. Then, her eyes go wide, her mouth wider. Pam claps and says: Looky there!
And Jeff’s voice says: What is it?
Tickle Me Elmo, Dawn says, tugging at the box flaps.
She tears open a Dora doll. She digs into an E‑Z Bake oven.
A Justin Bieber Sing-Along Mic.
A Mickey Mouse VCR.
And she keeps digging until the tower of gifts is gone.
Then, Jeff’s voice says: One more!
Dawn looks around, a finger to her lips.
Hon, Jeff’s voice says. What’s it Mom’s got there? His finger stretches out in front of the camera, pointing toward the house. And Pam steps from around the corner, pushing a Hello Kitty Big Wheel. A large red bow tied across the handlebars.
All the kids’ mouths are dark pits in their faces. My son looks up at me and I squat down and smile. Massage his shoulders before we disappear out of frame, the camera jumping to follow Dawn running toward the toy, screaming. Arms V’d out.
The screen says: 02:00:05.
Jeff’s knee pistons in bursts. He sits straight, then leans forward again, elbows on quads. Pours another drink, shoots it, and pours another.
I grab a beer from the box. Water drips into pucker marks on the floor. “What’s say we get out of here,” I tell him. “Get something to eat.”
His knee moving faster, it vibrates up his torso, bounces his shoulder and head. He says, “That treasurer in Pennsylvania? The one that blew the back of his head out on live TV?” He thumb-rubs the Mickey Mouse-eared remote in his hand and says, “One click of a button, he lives forever.” He smiles at his daughter laughing on screen and says, “Course the gun’ll always be in his mouth, but nothing’s without sacrifice.”
I shake my head, stare at the screen, and take a sip. What was my wife is not in the video. She’s not at the party. Not at our house. Where she’s at is in some other family’s videos. Smiling and waving into the camera at some other kid’s birthday party. “Jeff,” I say. “This acting this way, look what all it’s cost.” I look around at the nothing in the house and say, “Look!” and my voice slaps off all the bare spaces and repeats: Look!
He doesn’t break his trance.
On the screen, Dawn walks toward the camera with the giant bow in both hands. She brings it closer to the lens, closer to the lens, until the screen shakes and goes dark. Until only bits of the party are seen through the loops of ribbon.
Over the dark, the screen says: 02:03:50.
“Video,” Jeff says, “is the modern crystal ball.” He says, “It’s our prophets, our fortune tellers. It lets us see what’s gonna happen.” He chokes the bottle of liquor and takes a drink. It spills over the corners of his mouth in a frown.
“It doesn’t let us see what’s gonna happen,” I tell him. “It shows us what already did.” Taking a sip of beer, I say, “You see the future, but it’s in the past.”
Jeff smiles, takes a drink, and shakes his head. “The camera’s our fountain of youth,” he says. “You can make the old young again.”
I walk over and yank the remote from his hand. Hit the pause button and he stands. On the screen, Dawn is leaned back, her hands on the handlebars of the Big Wheel. Hair blown flat behind her.
He holds his hand out, his face vibrating. Eyes pink and slicked over.
“See what I’m saying,” I say, and point. He looks at the screen. It twitches, trying to move forward. White lines jerk across the middle of his daughter. “The video wants to keep going,” I tell him. “It has to. That’s what it does.” I take his hand and lay the remote in his palm. He looks at me, a tear beaded at the bottom of one eye, before it zips down.“Nature,” I say, “takes its course.”
He closes his fingers over the remote, sits down, and takes a drink. Hits play and his daughter leans forward, her hair dropping back flat.
In the video, next door is my mini backyard. My son’s bicycle propped against the chain-link fence. The doghouse where no dog’s lived since my wife left. Her withered Forget-me-nots are lifted and flipped by a breeze. For more years than I’ve got fingers, she groomed that flower garden. She sunbathed on the patio and we hosted barbecues for friends. The camera shaking, kids yelling, I try to rewind our life in my head — we’re ignoring each other, just walking around backwards like erratic moving zombies.
We’re screaming and fighting, her walking away toward me in the hall. Her upheld hands lowering.
We’re making up before having small disagreements. Everything ending before it begins.
Jeff and Pam, my wife and I, we’re taking food out of our mouths. Around the grill, the smoke vents down. The food un-cooks. Dawn and Kaden skip around in reverse.
Then, we’re watching our son ride his new bike backwards. The dog running beside him, wagging tail first.
Then, we’re staring at our backyard for the first time, before we back inside in quick jerks, wide smiles stretching narrow.
I blink and take another drink. On the video, the sky above the party’s the color of soaked newspaper. Clouds clawing over each other. Wind blowing.
The camera looks down at Dawn, who’s pulled in front of Jeff’s feet. She smiles up, a front tooth missing. Her head cocked to the side.
The camera zooms in and Jeff’s voice says: Can I ride?
Her head still cocked, Dawn closes her eyes, rolls her bottom lip over her top, and says: You wish, blowfish.
She peddles back from the camera, waving, then starts riding in circles. Jeff rewinds the tape and in quick time, she circles counterclockwise and stops, facing the camera. Rides toward the lens, smiling and waving, and stops at Jeff’s feet. Her head cocks. Mouth moving, bottom lip rolled over top unrolling.
Her closed eyes open.
Jeff hits play and his voice says: Can I ride?
A tear rips over his smiling cheekbone and he says with his daughter, “You wish, blowfish.”
The screen says: 02:08:49.
I sit beside him. Swallowing in quick bursts, my eyes sting. My face hurts. Tightens like a clinched fist. “Turn it off,” I tell him. “Please?”
“With video,” he says, his voice skipping, “you got the power to bring people back to life.” He says, “Just by pressing a button — they’re dead, then they’re alive.” He slides a hand through his hair, rubs it hard back and forth, and slips it out. He says, “Like an electronic God.”
He starts to speak, stops, then tells me with the right timing, you can stop the Challenger from exploding. He says, “That teacher’ll never make it to space, but she won’t not make it, either.”
The screen says: 02:09:21.
His voice shaking, he says, “You can stop bombs from hitting.”
Barely audible, he says, “You can single fingerly control fate.”
On the video, Dawn is still riding in circles. Her voice getting louder with each loop.
The screen says: 2:10:10.
The wind picks up and Dawn throws her head back, laughing. Kaden chasing her around, hands Frankensteined out.
“Pause Buddy Holly’s plane lifting away,” he says, just breath and shaking voice, “and the music don’t die.”
And I put my arm around his neck, pull him toward me. He drops his head to my chest and his shoulders start to tremor. I slip the remote from his hand. I look at our yard, shaking in the background. Everything dark and dead or dying. I know video doesn’t show the future. It can’t make divorced couples married. Make sick people well. Make dead people alive.
You wish, blowfish.
I squint and the TV goes blurry.
On the video, a single raindrop pops the camera lens and slides down. Dawn finishes her loops and takes off down the driveway, toward the street. Peddling hard, the grind of plastic wheels over pavement.
And I hit the pause button, catching a voice in mid-scream. Camera in mid-shake. Freezing Pam in the middle of standing. Stopping Dawn from peddling into the street and away forever.
The screen twitches, trying to move forward. To do what’s next.
“It don’t die,” he says, into my chest.
“It don’t die,” I say, wishing it were true.
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