Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, VHS by Bill Chance

“More pathetic than the digital age is the people who love it. They buy right into the “newer is always better” ideology and they can’t seem to grasp that the fun of VHS tapes, super 8 film, darkroom photography and vinyl records is far more worthwhile and human than the cold, high-tech atmosphere of everything being digitized. As the 21st century progresses, yeah, we’ll have our Netflix and our cellular phones and our artificial intelligence and our implanted microchips – and future generations will have lost something valuable. Sadly, they won’t even know what they’ve lost because we’re taking it all away from them.”

― Rebecca McNutt

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

VHS

Gerard was not a neat person. Far from it. He sort of wanted to be but couldn’t get his head around how to pull it off. His apartment was always a terrible mess – clothes thrown in the corner, sink full of dirty dishes, and he could never remember which was trash day.

He did have a decent TV – a 19 inch Zenith. He had a VCR. A coworker had tried to talk him into buying a Betamax but he had settled, for no real reason, on VHS. The thing had cost him a week’s salary – but it gave him his money’s worth.

Gerard loved movies. He watched one at home almost every night. He worked in a downtown skyscraper and every day, at lunch, he would take the elevator down to the street, cross at a pedestrian light in the middle of the block, and enter the lobby of an ancient limestone building. It had an old-fashioned hallway going front to back lined with little stores – a newsstand, a candy store, a high-end luggage store, a coffee shop – the sort of things that catered to downtown office workers. It also had one of the early video rental places – a small private shop – common until Blockbuster came along and drove them all out of business. It had a meager selection, the boxes displayed on shelves behind the glass counter. To get an actual movie, you had to ask and the clerk would rummage around in drawers, click the cassette into its holder, and then deliver your plastic box by hand.

Purchasing tapes was expensive and they could only afford one copy of any title – so they were usually out of the movies Gerard wanted to rent. Looking through the loose-leaf notebook on the counter, he would have to ask over and over until he stumbled on a title that they had in stock. It was a bit of a pain, but he didn’t mind. He didn’t mind at all.

The clerk was beautiful. To Gerard, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Pale, quiet, with a thick mane of fire-red hair – Gerard would stare as she rummaged around looking for a tape. This was the high point of his day. He was actually disappointed when she had one for him on the first try.

He was a very busy man and sometimes he had to take work home. On those days he knew he would be too busy to watch a movie but he’d rent one anyway – simply to spend a few minutes with the clerk. He also had to travel, often on short notice.

There were two women living in the apartment across the hall from him. He had helped the two out when they were in trouble with a couple of angry, violent boyfriends and they owed him a huge pile of favors. They were attracted to that kind of men and weren’t interested, romantically, in Gerard, but would help him out when they could. One, a beautiful, tall brunette, also worked downtown, only two buildings away from him. When he had to leave town, he would give her his videotape to return for him.

He wondered what the beautiful clerk in the video rental store thought of this woman coming by every now and then and returning his videos. She told him she never said anything to the clerk – just left the tape on the counter and walked out.

Gerard wanted to talk to the redhead so bad but he could not think of any way to do it without looking like an idiot. He was only a customer, one of hundreds. He was sure a lot of them hit on her. He didn’t want to be that guy. He thought, and thought, and thought, then had an idea. He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled away for a while. Then he grabbed a pen, an envelope, a spare key, and another piece of paper. He went next door to see the girl that sometimes returned his tapes.

“Hey,” he said, “I need you to do me a favor, no big deal.”

“Sure, you have a tape.”

“Yes, I do, but I need another favor and I want you to drop something else off there for me too. First, I want you to copy this – in your own handwriting.”

He handed her the pen and two pieces of paper. She read the note.

“This note says I’m breaking up with you. And returning your key.”

“Yup.”

“It says I’m leaving and you are not to look for me.”

“Of course.”

“It is vicious, it makes me look awful.”

“Sorry.”

“Why the hell?”

“Don’t worry, I have my reasons.”

The woman thought for a minute, then broke out in a smile. She had noticed the clerk, of course.

“OK, sure, I’ll do it.”

She copied the note and Gerard sealed the envelope up with the key.

“Ok, tomorrow take this by the video rental shop and give it to the clerk. Be sure and tell her it’s for me. Oh, and here’s a tape, too.”

“Sure. But only one thing.”

“What?”

“I guess you’ll have to find someone else to take your tapes back when you’re out of town.”

“A price I’ll gladly pay.”

Gerard waited two days before he went down to rent another tape. He was so excited, he could barely breathe on the walk over. He planned to open the envelope, read the note right there, and maybe even cry a little bit. No way the clerk wouldn’t be moved by this. He could talk to her as a person, not a clerk and customer. He would ask her to go for coffee or a drink after work, to “help take his mind off his troubles.” No way could she refuse.

But nothing happened, she rented him the tape, same as always. He wanted so say something, “What about my note?” but realized that he couldn’t.

The days went by and he kept renting and returning and she never said anything. It was getting to be humiliating. He began to think he would have to find another video rental shop. He was even worried about the key. Why did he use a real spare key? The store had his address from the extensive form he had to fill out as a member and customer of the shop. Did somebody else have the note? Would they rob him? He wasn’t really worried though – other than his TV and VCR he didn’t own anything worth stealing and was thinking about new models of each anyway.

Gerard was relieved when a job came up that would take him out of state for a whole week. He dropped his last tape off.

“I won’t be renting for a week, I’m going out of town on business,” he said to the clerk. He hoped she might have some reaction, but only nodded. He decided that when he came back he’d move to another video shop a couple blocks over.

The week out of town was exhausting drudgery. His failure with the video store clerk weighed on him more than it should have. If she would have turned him down, that he could have dealt with, but this, her completely ignoring him, was so much worse. He imagined her throwing his letter in the trash with a sneer.

Gerard returned on a late flight and took a cab home. He was so tired and glad to be home, but he almost dreaded opening his front door. He pulled his suitcase through and turned on the light.

It was a shock. Everything was clean and neat as a pin. His dishes were washed and put up, his garbage was gone, and his dirty clothes had been done and neatly folded. His ratty old shower curtain had even been replaced with a new, fashionable one.

Once the shock had begun to fade, he saw that there was a note taped to the front of his TV. It said:

“If you want me to come over here and watch a movie with you, I will, but I wanted it to be a bit cleaner first.”

At the bottom of the note was stapled a “Free Movie Rental” coupon from the place downtown.

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