He drove west of the Mississippi for the first time in almost two decades. He had last seen her when he was sixteen and she had said, Bernie, you won’t leave me. Who will look after you? What will you be without me? You can’t leave.
And, even now, the director he had come to imagine in his mind would snap the clapperboard and cause him to do a retake—to doubt. Who was he without The Mother?
But, he was no one really.
He found that was the best way to counteract the brainwashing, a term his therapist would later come to refer to it than to insist upon his own autonomy, his own personal identity.
He left Albuquerque that day, sixteen and with barely a quarter tank of gas. He left and had not said a word—or, no, that wasn’t it. He said a word but it was random, something illogical, Bears, was it? Or Firepit? The emotion of the moment occluded his recollection. Maybe it was, I’ll take care of my own damn self. Yes, that was it.
From the time he was two, The Mother recorded every moment of his waking life and more. She had returned from the store with one of those clunky Polaroid, over-the-shoulder VHS camcorders. Everything—everything was filmed—not just Little League games, birthdays, holidays, and vacations, but the random, seemingly inconsequential moments—breakfast before school on a Tuesday in February. The problem The Mother faced at first was where to position the camera so she could film life’s unfolding and still participate in it. Soon, she had developed a knack for caddy cornering it on a stack of old phone books, or placing it above the microwave, or situating it in a top shelf where she had removed the china.
The second problem came with the camera batteries’ lifespan. In the early days, there were moments of times—complete hours—permanently erased because of dying batteries. She quickly identified that though and solved the problem by hoarding batteries and always having them constantly charged. And, more often than not, by day’s end she plugged the camcorder into the wall socket for continuous charging, where it remained on her son’s dresser, always on, the red light stare never blinking but watching as the child winked off to sleep.
Those had been the formative years where his entire childhood and life had been catalogued and each VHS tape chronologically ordered for easy retrieval. Just as being under surveillance had been customary for him so too had been the nightly ritual where The Mother would sit him down and require him to rewatch the day’s events. This, too, was of course recorded so the conclusion of every nightly viewing, so long as he could remember, ended with him watching himself on the couch watching himself.
There were rules for this ritualistic viewing. The first and primary rule was that no fast forwarding was allowed. The only options that were permitted were pause and rewind. And, of course, the recordings were of nearly a full day, an entire fifteen hours. The second rule, and like the first, was that the tapes had to be viewed in their entirety. When he watched them though, as was his custom, in their full length, they did not seem to him to be any longer than an hour or so, as if time sped up during the viewing. But no—that was impossible, right? He was sure he had seen every event from the most mundane tying of his shoelaces to arguments on the playground and still only an hour had transpired. It had to be something askew in his childish brain, he told himself, something about the perception of time but not time itself. But didn’t children generally perceive time as moving slower than faster? To be sure though, the clock read 9:01 pm after the end of each viewing, which was exactly one hour after the unflinching 8:01 pm start time The Mother imposed on each nightly session.
*He passed a gas station with plastic bags on the pumps and boarded windows. The land around him was flat and featureless and the mile markers only intermittently poked up like curious moles from the ground. The sun was rising and expanding like an amniotic sac in the distance, giving birth to a new day. He had made an early start to his morning, waking up at 5:30 am from his Best Western, drank a cup of coffee, showered, and started back on the road. He’d stop at a diner along the way to get breakfast. That was what he’d always wanted: an open road, a clear schedule, and a small town diner to eat at. He even imagined himself as a sitcom character, going into the restaurant where the cook and wait staff knew his name and him yelling, “The usual, Johnny!”
Certain events stood in relief in his mind, like favorite episodes from a TV show, or—he imagined—from someone’s favorite TV show since he didn’t watch much TV but only home videos. Life gives you the only entertainment you need, The Mother had said when they were going through a Walmart and he saw VHS tapes for a superhero cartoon on display and began pleading for them. You don’t want to waste your time in front of a screen, The Mother said while pushing the buggy past the temptation and hoisting the camera over her shoulder, the red glare and the dark lens watching him. Other shoppers passed, kids in tow, picking up bedding, kitchenware, toiletries. None of them stopped and asked about this woman filming in the store. Or had they? Had it just been his false memory that they had circled around them, observers, like extras in a movie?
*He stopped at the first diner he came to, about three hours outside Albuquerque. The place was empty, and, he thought for a second, closed until a waitress walked from the back with bloodshot eyes. He ordered eggs over-easy, bacon, toast, hash browns, and coffee. He listened to the grease sizzle and that reminded him of the static that would play but only on some of the tapes. He’d be sitting during his nightly viewing and it had only happened once or twice (or had it been more? Who could say?). The footage would be playing and then static. The interruption time would vary from a minute to half an hour and all the while he would not be allowed to get up—to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom—but would be forced into observing. He was never explicitly told this but somehow intuited this unspoken rule from The Mother who looked on. The static was important, her face said. At first, when the interruptions began happening, the Mother seemed genuinely concerned over the lost time, the dust of the past that had been dropped in a mound of sand, never to be recovered.
What had taken place in those sections of static? He wondered. Probably nothing significant. Probably more of the detritus of the day, the monotony of a morning. What had caused them was perhaps the more compelling question. Maybe a grain of dirt had fallen into the lens. Maybe there was a malfunction in one of the tapes. Or maybe The Mother had edited them? What was it she didn’t want him to see? But she wouldn’t have edited them, would she? After all, she had been the one to begin the taping, who had to preserve the past, who had to have some permanence of their existence together. And even if she would, when could she have found the time? Wasn’t she always there, watching, recording? Maybe after he slept?
As he grew older, The Mother loosened her rules about television and he watched more cartoons. When he played, he imagined himself as Batman but not just as Batman but as an actor playing Batman. He would perform stunts on his bike. If his nose was runny or if his cape got stuck in a spoke, he would erupt in a fit and ask The Mother to turn off the camera. The camera stays on, was always her response. Well, edit it out, he’d say. Okay, she’d say. Those tantrums, those embarrassments, those indiscretions made their way to the nightly viewings. The only edits he could perform were ones in this head where he had entire shots of his life lying on the cutting room floor of his mind.
When he first came east, he found a job working as a clerk for a convenience store and stayed with an uncle. Those first few days, free of the camera, free of being recorded and watched, were as liberating as they were frightening. If he ate at a restaurant, if he went to a park, if he read a book and no one was there to record, was it still happening? He liked the idea of his actions having no fixed state, of ending when they ended instead of being logged somewhere and archived for later examination. His first day on the job as a clerk at the convenience store he could remember his boss, some middle manager with a receding hairline, giving him a tour of the store, showing all the exits and aisles when a small domed camera caught his eye. He could hardly believe how small it was, how compact, how unlike that clunky camera The Mother had carried around with a shoulder strap all those years. Oh that, the boss said, hoisting his pants. That’s a decoy. We put it up six maybe seven weeks ago as a deterrent. But this place, never been held up in thirty-five years. These days you can’t be too trusting though. You just never know, you know? What do we really know?
*He remembered having trouble distinguishing what he actually remembered and what he only remembered because of the recordings. It didn’t take long for the two to get mixed in his mind. He’d remember an event happening one way only to watch the tape and see it being different. At first, this happened on anniversaries of events when The Mother had instituted Viewing Parties. The events were not necessarily significant ones either. They observed the usual ones of course—birthdays and holidays—but then extended that anniversaries to vacations, to when he first learned to tie his shoe, to when he lost his third tooth, to when he was chased by a dog. He learned the fluidity of memory when he recalled the dog as being a pit-bull and then it turned out to be a hound. Or he remembered his bike being blue and in the video it was red. With the bike, it had happened on the fifth anniversary and so he remembered not only the original experience as the bike being blue but every other viewing—or had it been the opposite? Had he only remembered the original experience as being with a blue bike and in actuality, the other viewings were of a red bike and he had forgotten? How was he to know? He would have gone to the garage and checked but by that time he had outgrown the bike and it had been given to Goodwill.
Eventually, the false memories started happening earlier and earlier and that was when the panic set in. He opened a cereal box and the toy was a dreidel, but by nighttime, he watched a recording of him opening a Yo-Yo. Or there was the time that he ate pancakes for breakfast but the viewing showed him eating oatmeal. Or, the most terrifying, was when his friend Ken had come over and they had built pillow forts on a rainy day but by that night the camera had changed that to footage of him with Tim building Legos. What was this camera but a hijacker of his childhood memories? That night he had said to the mother, This is wrong. And she had said, for the first of many times, The camera does not lie.
*He worked his way up to management in six years time. Somehow, the pacing of those six years seemed fast, without the camera to monitor him, it seemed instead to travel with the rapidity of those viewing sessions. Under his leadership, the store resisted change and continued on with the dummy camera through all the years. Eventually, six more years reeled on and kids were snapping pictures with their phones. Once, when there was an uptick in shrinkage likely owing to employee theft, a regional manager had suggested that Bernie get some actual surveillance cameras installed. But when the security salesman came and walked the floor, he had not been really listening, not taking into account the value and peace of mind that cameras would provide, because he already knew what his answer would be, had to be, No. Peace of mind was not what he associated with cameras.
*He ate the hash browns by dabbing them in globs of ketchup and the waitress had at this point turned on the television. He tried to block out the noise, to drown out the talking heads with louder and louder chewing. The waitress turned the volume up. A news story was playing about a convenience store shooting. Can we turn this off? He put down his fork. Please.
The day he had left, The Mother had threatened him, had made one last attempt to get him to stay. If you leave, she had said, I have the tapes. I’ve seen the tapes, he said. What would I want with those? Not all of them, she had said and left her recliner and opened the cassette drawer. She thumbed through VHS tapes, past Christmases, past spend-the-nights, past vacations, until she came to one that he had never seen before, that almost looked lodged in a back, secret compartment. The first tape, she said and handed it to him. He stood there cradling it, debating whether or not to crush it in his hands.
*After six more years, he was promoted to regional manager. He visited all the stores in the district and did the budgets, did all the hiring and firing of store managers, networked with vendors. His store was the lone holdout in terms of not being fully equipped with CVC cameras. When he received the call, he was on a drive out to one of his more remote stores. Shooting was what the new store manager had said and could he please come.
When he pulled into the lot, he had already been formulating his defense. A camera wouldn’t have helped, he’d say. It’s usually hard to make out details in those anyway. He saw the yellow tape and two squad cars and an ambulance. One DB, he heard an officer say. Mr. Grimmel? the police officer said. Bernie Grimmel? He nodded and the officer escorted him inside.
Someone was shot? He heard himself say, but was he really saying it or thinking it?
A fatal shooting. No witnesses.
But my manager. Brad.
Brad crouched from behind a corner. Sorry boss. Smoke break. Slow night.
And none of the clerks?
Brad looked down.
All taking a smoke break at once?
The security footage should be coming back now, the officer said.
Security footage? Oh but that camera doesn’t work.
Yes it does, Brad said and they were squeezing into a back office where there was a security TV and footage being played. Had Brad taken it upon himself to install a camera without him knowing? Had that camera always worked all these years and Bernie not known it? Had his original manager been lying to him? Or even worse, maybe it was a joke he had not gotten? Had that security TV always been there or had it been added by Brad? Surely, he would have seen it, would have noticed it. But he would have noticed a red bicycle too, right?
The footage played and he saw a customer, the John Doe, enter the store. The camera angle only revealed his back though as he began to walk toward the first aisle. And then, two minutes or so later, the culprit had lumbered in, raised his sidepiece and fired six shots, felling the John Doe. Turning to the camera, the face imprinted and caught in high resolution was his own. Brad and the officer turned to him.
This cannot be, he said.
That’s you in the video, Brad said. Unless you have a twin.
But the time, it doesn’t work, Bernie said.
The camera doesn’t lie, the officer said. And even then, across all that space and time, Bernie was sure this was The Mother’s doing, that this was some prank of hers. Perhaps this was on the first tape she had blackmailed him with, and now, after all these years, this was her getting back at him. He thought all these things as he sprinted for his car.
*He was not sure how he had escaped the cops or if he had. Perhaps he was sitting back in some interrogation room now and everything now was some tape he was viewing. The escape was all static. As he sat at the diner now, the news story played but it made no mention of a suspect, gave no description of himself, flashed no cartoon sketch of his portrait. Had he imagined it all? Had that been a detail that he had remembered incorrectly like all those details those many years ago? What was certain about memory after all? The only thing he could be certain of was his need to get to Albuquerque to see The Mother. She would sort all this out. And despite his attempts to resist, he imagined that director, after being absent all those years returning to that scissors chair and calling, “Action.”
When he arrived back at The Mother’s, he was overwhelmed with how much had stayed the same. It was like a museum of another time, his skateboard, unrusted remained in the same corner of the garage where left it, the play set in the backyard looked unweathered and unmarked by time. He went to the door and found it ajar, so he nudged his way in. He went to his bedroom, and it was a snapshot of his life at sixteen, the same heavy metal posters on the wall, the same clothes scattered on the floor, the bed unmade. He checked the kitchen, The Mother’s room, the sunroom—all preserved as he remembered on the day he left. The Mother, however, was nowhere. Maybe she went out, he thought. Maybe she is dead. He walked into the living room. There, on the stack of old phone books was the 1987 Polaroid camcorder. Was it recording him now? The red light was not on, but he had read where the red record light would burn out on those earlier models and they would still be recording. Maybe the red light had burnt out on this one, years ago. Or maybe the red light would come on in a moment and then he would be recorded. He looked down at the coffee table and saw the VHS tape where he left it, where he set it down those eighteen years ago instead of breaking it to pieces. He picked it up. Turning it over in his hands, he read the white label, “First Tape.” He inserted it into the VCR and his finger hovered over the “Play” button when the red light of the camera came on.