Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Andrew Plattner



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 to that.

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 TV.

"Maybe they won’t know what they’re doing," she said. "Maybe they found out something new. Look, the remote is packed with the bathroom stuff."

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 said.

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 skillet.

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 said.

"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 Orlando."

"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 remember that?"

"No," she said.

"I do. I remember," I said.

A moment later, I felt her hand resting on my chest. "You okay?" she said.

"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 hurry.

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.

Andrew Plattner has published stories in The Paris Review and Epoch, and has a story in the 2006 winter edition of the Sewanee Review. He lives with his wife Diana in Decatur, on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.