Janelle and I were ready to start filling a pine bureau with our
folding clothes when she discovered a videotape in the back of a top
drawer. The tape was in a black case, had no label and she lifted it
from the drawer, looked over the front side, then the back, before
holding it over to me.
"Where’s the VCR?" I said.
"Packed it with some of the books," she said.
"This could be anything," I said, flipping it from one side to
the other just like she had.
"Let’s watch it right now," she said.
Our little Panasonic TV was already unpacked, on the floor, at
the foot of the box spring. The box spring, the stripped mattress
atop it, and the bureau all came with the duplex. The place was also
furnished with a kitchen table, couch, coffee tables and so on. None
of the furniture would be something you picked out for yourself. But
it was furniture we didn’t have to haul and it would be furniture we
wouldn’t have to carry away to the next place. I was not thinking
about when the next move would be, though Janelle said I was always
doing that. I did not agree, but there was no point in arguing about
it. It was just that once I had moved into a place I could never
imagine being there forever. So, I did wonder, I will freely admit
The tape we’d found had large spools inside it, so we knew it
wasn’t any bootleg of a feature. Though, I would have been glad for
a couple hours of just doing nothing. We were already here.
Unpacking was less important. This was just some half-hour length
homemade thing, that was my guess.
"Probably porn," I said, as I set up the VCR player next to the
"Maybe they won’t know what they’re doing," she said. "Maybe they
found out something new. Look, the remote is packed with the
A minute later, Janelle and I had leaned our backs against the
foot of the bed. I pressed the remote, began the rewind. The screen
was on and you could see somewhat what was going backward. A woman
wearing eyeglasses. In reverse, she was moving crazy. A berserk
robot, that’s what it seemed like. Then I turned my head away for a
second because I didn’t want to have another clue. Every movie out
there ran so many trailers that it always changed your expectations.
I hated that. If you were a kid, maybe those trailers were the way
to go. They excited you. But they always told you too much, had you
waiting for certain things to happen. When you weren’t a kid, you
wanted to be surprised. That was the primary thing. You wanted to go
to bed every night thinking you had no idea what would happen next.
The tape whined, wound to a fast halt and then I pushed play. On
the screen appeared a medium-sized woman with thick, coal-colored
hair. In her hands, which were held close to her stomach, was a
small bird, a blue-black starling. The camera framed the woman from
the waist up and she was smiling, brushing the bird’s feathers with
her fingertips. The woman wore eyeglasses and a navy blue,
loose-fitting sweatshirt. Her wrists seemed thin. She was smiling
uncertainly, then looking away from the camera. The sun was to her
back, shining through the trees like a spaceship had landed in the
field past them. I understood that where she was was very close to
here. This was our back porch. I looked out to the living room, to
the sliding glass doors that led to the back yard. On the screen,
the woman continued brushing the little bird’s feathers with her
fingertips, smiling, once shaking her head when the cameraman’s
voice said something.
The camera lens then focused more tightly on the bird. The woman
said, "Oooh," and raised her hands, elevated the bird. "Oooh,
O-kay," the woman said and repeated the motion. She did not seem to
be American. Her movements were gentle and the bird seemed to squat
lower into her palms. There was a second of laughter from her and
the camera pointed at the sliding porch doors for some reason. You
could see trees reflected in the glass and there was the reflection
of the woman, too. It looked like she had brought to the bird close
to her face.
The camera focused on the woman again. She held the bird at eye
level and was looking at it in a way as if she might be able to tell
something from its expression. The cameraman said something and she
smiled patiently and shook her head. The bird seemed small. When he
had been pushed up to the sky, there had been a moment of truth. The
first time, he hadn’t gone for it. I wondered if the bird was all
right, how they’d come across it exactly. I wondered if the rules
for it might have to be different.
The woman was smiling with her mouth closed when she gave the
cameraman another shake of the head. She had the bird close to her
face, was saying something to it, then cradling it close to her
stomach. She had what I supposed was a Russian accent and the
sunlight gave her this golden aura. The woman was looking away
again, as if she’d heard what she was hearing from the cameraman
once too much. I wondered how a child might feel about watching
something like this. And then I supposed that’s who this video was
for. The woman’s children. This was a sweet woman trying to release
a sweet little bird into its normal environment. The guy filming it
was her husband. He was American, you could tell that by the way he
said, "Everything’s going to be all right, honey."
There was a hard little glint in her eyes now, you could see that
much. She brought her arms upward, flattened her hands. "There," she
said. "There now," she said. But the bird pinned itself lower.
"Just take your hands apart," the man’s voice said. For a second,
I almost felt sorry for him. Somebody had to be the bad guy in all
this. The woman’s arms were still extended upward and the guy was
talking about just taking her hands away. "Anna!" the husband said.
And at that, like it was the magic word, the bird darted away. I
could not tell if she had moved her hands first or that the bird’s
sudden movement had her drawing them back as fast as she did. The
bird sailed like an arrow for the trees. It happened fast and he was
such a small bird. I lost sight of him. The camera lens pointed at
the trees in the distance and it stayed there for a time. I found
myself listening for the slightest sounds. Anything. The sound of
birds calling to one another. Traffic. Husband and wife speaking.
What I finally did hear was footsteps, then maybe one of those glass
doors sliding open. The lens stayed on the trees. The rays of
sunlight seemed less powerful between them.
"He’s fine now," the man’s voice said. "See?" He did sound local.
The camera stayed on the trees. And then the tape turned to fuzz.
I clicked the mute, silenced the static sound and Janelle and I
seemed to be waiting on one other to say something. This was how it
was whenever we saw a film together. Whoever had the strongest
opinion spoke first. Then, we usually would talk for a while about
what we had seen and would come to some kind of agreement on it. It
seemed to make us feel better, that we were understanding things in
a similar way.
"I thought the camerawork was poor," I said.
"Shut up," she said, lightly, half-jokingly. I waited now, knew
it was the thing to do. Janelle said, "Why would they leave
something like that behind? It was so lovely. She is so lovely."
"She’s the one who made the decision to leave the tape behind," I
I felt Janelle’s face turn slightly at this.
I said, "She probably did the packing of the socks and underwear.
She placed the tape there . . ."
Janelle clicked off the screen and we both were quiet for a
minute. What had happened on the tape was a story everyone was
familiar with. I thought of my childhood, tried to remember the
bird-releasing moments. We had lived out in the country and had come
across our share of strays. My older sister had mail-ordered an
Irish setter but it had been run over a week after it arrived. My
mother’s cat, Miss Blue, had given birth to six kittens in the
corner of my dad’s clothes closet and the afterbirth ruined two
pairs of his shoes. Or, so he said. My mother was protective of
those kittens. Our old dog Lucy got hold of one kitten by the barn
when it had strayed too far from its Miss Blue. My mother almost got
there in time. Then, she’d nearly beaten Lucy to death with a
Janelle had grown up in Detroit and as a little girl she had
raised her share of goldfish and hamsters. Her brother, who
eventually went crazy and killed himself, had kept an iguana. One
night, her brother went to the roof of their apartment building and
tossed the iguana down towards the traffic below. In the end, it was
like with our family, everything died and everyone was unhappy.
Janelle and I began talking about the tape. We reached a good
many conclusions, and the result was that I felt quite superior.
This was what we decided:
The children who lived with the American man and Russian woman
had adopted the bird. They had found it in the backyard or on their
walk home from school. Perhaps the bird had fallen from its nest.
The children had adopted the baby bird, named it, fed it, watched it
grow. Then one day the bird was flying around inside the house. The
decision to release it had been rendered by the parents. The
children reacted badly. They would not set the bird free. They made
a terrible commotion when their parents said it was time for that.
The parents decided the best way to solve the problem would be to
release the bird themselves when the children were off at school or
at some friend’s birthday party. The parents would make a tape of
this so their children would know that something terrible had not
happened to the bird. The children would have the tape as proof
their little bird was safe.
But what happened there was that the children reacted badly to
the tape. They cried after they watched it, they screamed they had
been tricked. They missed their little bird and no tape could make
them feel better. The parents, we decided, had finally just put the
tape away somewhere. They did not throw it away because the children
might ask to see it again one day. This would arrive at a time when
the children were more understanding of the way things had to be.
The whole affair would have a better ending this way. Janelle and I
imagined that the children had never asked to see the tape again,
or, if they had, they’d watched it again and it had made them
unhappy again. The children had not asked to keep the tape, even if
it featured their lovely mother. Janelle and I wondered if the woman
was, in fact, a step-mother. We believed that she was Russian, we
agreed on that as well. She might have arrived late in the family
picture. There were a ton of step-fathers and step-mothers out
there. So, it was possible.
We concurred on another thing: in the end, no one in the family
could decide if the tape was a good thing or something they should
just forget about altogether. The woman holding the bird could not
bring herself to throw the tape away. She hid it away and then came
upon it as they were packing. She wanted to move to their new town,
their new town and start with a clean slate. She’d finally decided
to place the tape in a bureau that was going to be left behind
because she had to live the life she had and that it should not
include revisiting hard moments over and over. But for whatever
reason, it was something she couldn’t toss into the trash. Her
husband, and we were just using the barest bits of evidence here, he
would have encouraged her to throw it away. We’re making a new
start, he’d said. All the bad stuff should be left behind.
By the end of our discussion about this tape, Janelle was smiling
wistfully, perhaps because we were trying to make someone into the
idiot, the bad guy. It was something you had to do. The world would
seem like a complete fantasy without them, though sometimes the bad
guy was the simply the one who could tell the truth better than
anyone in the room. Janelle and I both knew that. Of course, we
really did not know much about this family, practically nothing when
you got down to it. But we did know other things, and if you asked
me to ever work them into a category I guessed I’d say they were
largely things we could do nothing about. You accepted things and
kept going. Or you didn’t. You were reluctant, for whatever reason.
Janelle finally reached across me for the remote and clicked off
the TV screen. She did not say anything about our unpacking but she
stood over me, holding her hands down until I reached up and
accepted them. She knew I probably could just sit there, mooning.
After she’d eased me up, we sort of stood there, facing one another
and she said, "Why don’t you work in the living room? I have the
kitchen, it’s no problem."
"Okay," I said. Neither of us felt like talking, and a few
minutes later, I had pretty much forgotten about the tape we had
found. By saying pretty much, I mean that I kept the mood the tape
had put me in, which is to say thoughtful, while thinking about
other things. I was unpacking books of ours, looking at one title,
then the next, thinking God, we still have this? before placing it
on the shelves built into the walls. Those shelves were a nice
enough feature. We did not have nearly enough books, so I guessed
some of Janelle’s doo-dads would wind up filling them in the rest of
the way. She had all sorts of things. Dolls from her childhood,
ceramic turtles, trophies she’d won from playing high school
basketball. That was years ago. She was a tall, leafy girl with a
soft jump shot. She’d quit the game after graduation, knew she
wasn’t good enough to play in college, and had turned her attention
elsewhere. I’d never heard her utter a single word of regret over
the decision. The trophies said she had once been good at something.
It had only been a game. But the idea of this pleased her.
Later that night, in the bed we covered with the sheets we’d
unpacked, Janelle and I stayed awake in the darkened room and talked
for a while. Then, a silence fell. When we had first started moving
from place to place with one another, the first day anywhere had
been more celebratory. Corks were popped, Chinese dinners delivered.
Toasts and lovemaking went on into the night. A new place needed to
be broken in right. But the past couple of moves had not gone this
way. We shared a bottle of wine, kissed, and then just laid back,
let the whole day and what we’d done in it roll over us again.
Now, I just laid there with eyes open, feeling comfortable in the
dark and I wanted to ask Janelle if she thought the tape was a good
omen. But for some reason, the question seemed too child-like. I
used to have so much energy, that was something I started to think
about. But I understood that part of me would always want to do
this, what we had done today. "What are you thinking about over
there?" I said.
"Hmmm, nothing really," she said. "Nothing I can describe."
"Where did the lady and her husband and her children wind up?" I
"You know I don’t know that," she said. "Probably the same place
as the bird."
In the trees? I thought. But I let it go. I said, "Do you
remember when we moved from Orlando?"
A few seconds later, she said, "I remember that we moved from
"No, I mean the morning we did. We left early, it was still dark.
We wanted to get ahead of the traffic. I filled us up at a HiLo
station. We still had Bugs. He was riding on your lap. The gas
station speakers had music playing. Some heavy metal band. Do you
"No," she said.
"I do. I remember," I said.
A moment later, I felt her hand resting on my chest. "You okay?"
"Of course," I said.
"Is your job interview tomorrow, or the day after?"
"Tomorrow," I said. "Don’t worry, I’ll be ready."
"I’m not worried," she said and I chose to believe that, probably
because I just felt like reliving that morning in Orlando and
nothing else. Our Chevy was heavy with suitcases and the wind was
blowing. I eased up my squeeze a little on the gas handle because I
felt like listening to the heavy metal blasting away and the sudden
whip sounds made whenever the breeze changed direction. We’d get
where we were going and now that we were going there was no need to
By the time I got back in the car, Janelle’s little dog Bugs had
already jumped to the backseat, curled up on a canvas suitcase. This
would be his last move with us, too. He eventually was diagnosed
with cancer and died. He was good on those long rides, though. He
got in a spot and slept there for a long time. He knew we wouldn’t
stop for anything.