This story contains strong language.
“I could use some help here,” Marion said sharply. She was talking to a pudgy, bearded man hunched over a desk behind the front counter of AAA Video Rentals and Repair.
She sounded more irritated than she intended, realized that would get her nowhere, and forced a tight smile. Patience, she thought.
She really did need help. She was a small woman and the VCR she was carrying was awkward in her arms. She shifted it from side to side. Its edges dug into her forearms and the cord fell to the floor beside her. She made an exaggerated movement to hitch it up in the hopes the man at the desk would notice and take it from her. He didn’t.
After waiting a few more beats, she gave up and plunked the VCR down on the scratched, wooden counter with a thud. “Anyway, here you go,” she said more loudly this time.
The man continued staring into a boxy computer screen at the desk. “You call earlier?” he asked without looking up.
“Yes, yes this is the VCR I called about.” Temporarily encouraged, she opened her eyes a little wider, smiled more broadly and tapped two fingers on the top of the VCR. He didn’t respond.
She stood there waiting uncomfortably while he answered an incoming phone call, hit a few more keys on the computer, pulled his bushy brown hair behind his ears, stroked his beard and sighed loudly. Finally, he pushed away from the desk and groaned as he got out of his chair. He waddled up to the counter, shoved his wire-framed glasses back with a forefinger and examined the VCR in front of him.
As he contemplated the machine, she contemplated him. He wore a Grateful Dead t-shirt that was ripped at the neck and stained at the center of his chest. The t-shirt probably fit him at one point. But that day was gone. It drew tight over his stomach, so tight that it rode up and part of his pale, hairy belly was exposed until he tugged the shirt down.
At any other time, Marion would never have stepped foot in a place like this, especially on this side of town. But she was desperate. This was the only place within 100 miles to get her VCR repaired, according to Google. If she hadn’t been directed there by the internet, she would have assumed AAA Video Rental and Repair was a porn shop. In fact, she almost turned around and left before she even went in.
The small brick building where it was located was crumbling near the foundation and the vivid blue paint was chipped and peeling. There were iron bars on two small windows adjacent to a dented metal front door.
An old woman with slack, gray skin and dirty hair pushed a baby carriage across the parking lot. Marion had to slam on the brakes when she pulled in to avoid flattening the woman and the carriage. When Marion honked the horn, the woman just waved and smiled open-mouthed revealing a gummy, toothless grin.
Another woman, a brunette with sunken brown eyes, a dangerously short black skirt and dirty sneakers leaned against the wall near a chain link fence to the right of the door. “Hey, do you have an extra cigarette?” she asked as Marion walked by carrying the VCR.
Marion grimaced when she walked in the store. It smelled like old pizza and dirty socks. The walls were decorated with yellowed, frayed posters that advertised movies like Scarface, The Shining and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Grease soundtrack was playing in the background just a little too loudly. There was a short wooden counter near the front door that looked like it had been handmade some years back. Beyond that, most of the store was filled with rows of shelves organized by categories like “Action and Adventure,” “Horror,” and “Comedy.” The inventory was sparse. Marion wondered, as she looked across the room, if they even made VHS tapes anymore.
“So, what’s this thing doing?” the man asked her from where he stood now at the counter. He pushed a clump of his wiry hair back behind his left ear, then he picked up the cord of the VCR and moved the plug to an outlet in the wall to his right.
“It’s eating the tapes,” she said. “This one’s broken.” Marion pulled a VHS video tape out of her shoulder bag. The tape was in a cardboard sleeve hand labeled “Wedding Ben-Marion.” The man looked up at the tape in her hand. “Hmm,” is all he said and went back to the plug.
“It can be fixed, right? The tape got stuck in the VCR. I got it out—finally— but the tape broke and I’m afraid to put another one in.” Her voice tightened. “My wedding tape broke. I’ve been watching it.”
She was instantly ashamed that she’d shared something so intimate with this man. Without thinking she covered her mouth with her hand. Then she realized she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. She quickly hid her ringless left hand in her pants pocket.
“I mean my husband and I were watching it.”
That was a lie. Marion’s husband Ben had left her ten weeks ago.
After 32 years of marriage all he said to her was: “I think there’s something else. Not just for me. For you too.”
But there was nothing else for her, she told him. This was it. This was who she was. He left anyway.
She spent one week in bed refusing to answer the telephone, texts, emails, or the door. Then she spent the following nine weeks going through drawers and closets and desks and examining home videos frame-by-frame hoping to discover what had gone wrong and how she could fix it. She’d played the wedding video so many times she feared she may have simply worn it out.
“Let’s see what’s going on,” the man behind the counter said. He turned around and reached toward the desk to get a screwdriver. His shirt reeled up in back and exposed his fleshy hips and the top of grayed underwear. Embarrassed Marion looked away quickly.
As she turned her head she realized a man had been standing close behind her, just over her left shoulder. How long had he been there? She took a small step away from the man still clutching the wedding tape. “Oh, I didn’t see you there,” she said to him.
The man had thick, glossy jet-black hair. He was wearing oversized, dark glasses and a knee-length trench coat knotted at the waist. His hands were in his pockets.
He ignored her, took a step forward and spoke across her to the man behind the counter. “Did you get “Blinded by the Light in? His voice sounded familiar, and she looked at him more closely. There was something about his hair. Was he wearing a wig?
The clerk responded without looking up. “Still don’t have it.”
The man’s voice rose an octave. “This is the third time I’ve come in for it.” He looked so familiar to Marion.
“People want to see that movie,” the man said even more forcefully now. “You’re doing them a disservice.”
“Listen,” the clerk said. He looked up from the VCR toward the man and pushed his glasses back up again. “You ever heard of Netflix, Hulu? YouTube?”
“I don’t want to hear your bullshit,” the man said. He took his left hand out of his pocket and swept it across his body toward the clerk as he said it.
With that gesture, Marion placed him. She was standing next to Nick Stone—the actor. She loved Nick Stone. She’d always had a crush on him. She started to say something—anything—to Nick Stone. Then she thought again. He obviously didn’t want to be recognized, she reasoned. She tried to look away. But couldn’t quite do it. Reflexively, she touched her hair, brushing it away from her face, then tried to look at him as inconspicuously as possible.
It didn’t make sense. Why was Nick Stone—the Nick Stone—in AAA Video Rental and Repair near 64th Avenue wearing a wig and sunglasses and yelling about an old movie?
“I see you still don’t have the copy of Good Riding back in,” Stone said. He started walking toward the Action & Adventure section of the shelves. “Let’s see what else you fucked up.” The man behind the counter rolled his eyes and made a grunting sound that surprised Marion. By then he was standing up straight. He slammed his hand down on the wood.
“Get the hell out of here,” he said. He pointed toward the door. “Get out. I’ve been patient. But I’ve had it. This is a private establishment.”
“I’ve got every right to be here.”
“I’m calling the cops.” He started toward the phone on the desk.
“Fine I’ll get out but I’m going to take this up with Mark.” Stone stuck his hands back in the pockets of his coat and swung around toward the door. He pushed open the door with his shoulder and paused briefly. “By the way, fuck you,”
The man behind the counter shook his head.
“Whatever,” he said under his breath.
He was moving more quickly now. He unplugged the VCR with a jolt and began aggressively unscrewing the bolts that secured the top panel to the rest of the machine.
The Grease soundtrack stopped playing suddenly and the store was silent. Marion could hear the click of the screws and his heavy breath.
“Weird question,” she said against the silence. “Was that Nick Stone?” She made a gesture with her thumb.
“Uh huh,” the clerk said.
“Was he wearing a wig?”
“Dude is crazy. Comes in all the time looking for copies of his movies. He needs to realize it’s over. He needs to move on.”
He pulled his t-shirt back down over his belly and with the cover now removed, poked at the innards of the VCR.
While he worked, Marion remembered the time she and Ben went to the movies to see Why Ever Die starring Nick Stone. She remembered how she confessed that Stone had been her first crush. “I don’t know about you,” Ben laughed. “That’s pretty weird.”
The clerk pointed to a mechanism inside the VCR. “Here’s your problem. It’ll be about $75 to fix, plus parts. I probably have the parts. I can go ahead and splice your wedding tape at no charge. You might lose a little of it. But you can still watch it.”
Marion looked at the man wearing a shirt that was now too small and thought about the actor who wouldn’t let go.
“You know I think maybe I’m going to hold off for now.”
She briefly considered doing something dramatic like leaving both the tape and the VCR at AAA Video Rental and Repair with instructions to throw them both away. But that was rash, she thought. She put the broken tape back in her bag as he screwed the top back on the VCR. She lifted it up clumsily from the counter.
When she reached the front door to push it open, she turned toward him. “Thanks for your help,” she said. But he was back on the computer and didn’t respond.
Outside, the hooker was gone. But the old woman with the baby carriage remained. Marion watched her blissfully push the carriage across the parking lot the other way. When they passed each other near her car, Marion looked at the woman, then at the carriage. That’s when she realized the old woman wasn’t pushing a baby at all. It was just an old, mangy teddy bear.
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This is hauntingly beautiful! The last two sentences hit me hard. Good work!