Variations in Luminance
Big Edie was a useless piece of shit.
Johanna Telle found the most significant relationship of her life on a Saturday afternoon in late May, sitting on one of those excruciatingly handmade quilts crafty stay-at-homes used to make out of their precious baby’s old clothes and putting a deep, damp dent in the buttercup-infested lawn of 11 Buckthorn Drive, Ossining, New York. A four-pointed Arkansas Traveler star radiated out around her, each of the four diamond patches so exquisitely nailing the era of the quilter’s pax materna that Johanna pulled out her Leica and snapped a shot before the homeowners could stop her: The Pretenders, Captain Planet Says No Nukes, Got Milk? and a Hypercolor tee subjected, as so many had been, to the indignity of a commercial dryer until it finally gave up the thermochromic ghost, its worn cotton-poly blend permanently stuck on a sad blown-out pink.
And Big Edie in the middle, ugly as all the sins of man, with a box of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Second Edition modules on the eastern point of the compass, a mint condition Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Sewer Lair Playset to the west, a working laserdisc player up north, and down south, one beefy hardcase Samsonite in Executive Silver with a handwritten sign on it promising a complete set of signed first edition Danielle Steel hardbacks inside. A steal at $300, suitcase included.
Still life with late 80's/early 90's. Johanna loved it.
But she only had eyes for Big Edie. The absolute and utter trashbeast technological abortion winking up cheekily at her from within a nest of vanished childhoods.
She’d driven all the way out into the golden calcified time-bubble of the Hudson Valley after the ephemeral promises of an estate sale. The people here had so much money they never had to grow or change or evolve past the approximate epoch of their children’s most precocious years. That’s how Johanna had gotten a Hasselblad for $90 and a fake phone number a couple of years ago at a fuck-Gam-Gam-just-get-rid-of-this-junk free-for-all in Stonybrook. You just crossed your eyes and hoped the kids were the type to tell everyone who never asked that social media was a disease and didn’t sully themselves with Google or eBay.
This was clearly the case on that late-May Ossining afternoon. The card balanced against Big Edie’s case read:
Does Not Work. $50 OBO.
Johanna Telle smiled in the perfect post-processed sun. The EDC-55 ED-Beta Camcorder retailed for a cool $7700 in 1987. Just over sixteen grand in 2015 funbucks. It could produce over 550 lines of resolution in an age where high definition was barely even a phrase. Automatic iris control, dual 2-3 inch precision CCD imaging, Fujinon f1.7 range macro zoom, on-the-fly audio/video editing, capable of recording in hi-fi stereo and most impressively for its time, native video playback. Angular black and matte silver bug-ugly design. The last glorious 13.5-kilogram gasp of the Betamax world, still in its hardcase shell, that particular shade of tan that meant Serious Business for the Terminally 80's Man.
In digital terms, Big Edie was prehistoric. Big Edie was fucking Cretaceous. If there was a camera set up on a tripod to record what happened when the primordial soup stopped being polite and started getting real, Big Edie would have been a top-tier choice for the discerning prosumer.
Big Edie was archaeology.
Johanna whipped her faded seafoam-green hair to one side and hefted that machine corpse onto her dark brown shoulder. She was comically heavy. The weight of a dead world, its concerns long quieted.
Johanna Telle, when she was paying attention, when she was happy, in those moments when she was most definitively Johanna, saw down to the deeps of things. It was all she was really good at, in her estimation. She saw that world, le regime ancien, projected onto the back of her skull like a drive-in theater screen.
When she was little, she’d sat criss-cross applesauce in her mother’s lap in a kind of mute blue nirvana, watching a crew send an unmanned submersible in a metal cage down the icy miles to find the HMS Titanic. Before her father left them, before they lost the house, before the hundred little fatal cuts of getting from one end of childhood to the other. Long beams of light broke the black water of forgetting and scattered across that ghostly bow and found what had been lost. Impossibly lost. Forever. Johanna had barely been able to breathe. She knew herself then, in that terrifying way you know things when you are small. The warmth of her mother’s chest rose and fell behind her, an entire universe of protection and presence. A gentle little prick of the aquamarine pendant she always wore against Johanna’s scalp. The familiar smell of Pink Window, her mother’s signature Red Door knockoff, pulsing off her clavicle. The tinny voice of a rich man floating out of the blue ocean. Later, when the neighborhood kids played games on their unforgivably Spielbergian suburban streets, hollering I’m the Incredible Hulk or I’m the Pink Ranger or I’m Tenderheart Bear, Johanna would call out something nominally culturally appropriate but whisper the truth to herself, which never changed, no matter the game or the streets: I am the exterior lighting array on Robert Ballard’s Argo ROV unit.
Johanna put her eye to Big Edie’s viewfinder. The black cup pocked gently against her cheekbone. Such a nice feeling. Like holding a girl’s hand for the first time. She stared into inert darkness.
“It only takes these weird old tapes,” someone said from outside Edie’s warm lightless innards. A friendly, well-hydrated, nicely-brought-up male voice, full of solicitude, exhausted, heartbroken, hanging in there, like the orange kitten in the old poster.
Johanna didn’t look up. She amused herself picturing the kitten putting its paws on its hips and whistling regretfully through its sharp teeth at the $50 OBO paperweight before them. She suppressed her not-very-inner snob. Yes, dear, ED Super Beta II and III series cassettes. You can still get them, anywhere between $35 and $50 a pop. You can still get anything if you don’t care what it costs.
“There’s one stuck in there. Made a nasty sound when I tried to lever it out. I don’t have any others, though. Dad didn’t stick with this one for very long. I put his digital cameras around by the hydrangeas, way better. You want me to show you?”
“Does it turn on?”
“Nope. Well, not unless it’s a Tuesday and the moon is in Pisces and you’re standing on one foot or some shit. I keep the battery charged up, though. I heard you have to do that or it degrades. I’m Jeff, by the way.”
Of course you are. That’s what they always name soft orange kittens like you.
Johanna’s fingers slid down Big Edie’s flank and found the raised plastic goose-pimple that marked the power button as easily as a practiced accordionist settling onto C Major. She pointed the lens at the bereaved child of its former owner and hit the big red square.
A firehose of light white-watered through the generous 1.5” black and white viewfinder into her cerebral cortex. In the middle of it stood, not the hang in there kitten, but a tall handsome guy in his late twenties or early thirties. Big emotive eyes, tennis shorts, dark polo shirt, with a shimmer of beard-stubble six or seven hours deep, hair the cut and style of debate team and law school and firm handshakes and warm decades ahead in a secure center-right Senate seat.
A shard of glass punched through his chest. Black monochrome blood sheeted down over his shorts and his long, grey, summer-muscled legs. His neck whipped hard to the side, like he’d suddenly seen an old girlfriend and was about to call her name, but when he opened his mouth, a jet of dark liquid spurted onto the quilt of his so-loved childhood clothes. It cut across the white block-print Pretenders in a clean spattered line.
“What’s the verdict?” Jeff asked. That voice like a clean fingernail cut through Johanna’s attention. She yanked her face up off the viewfinder. Jeff’s fine blond eyebrows arched curiously before her in full color, waiting to find out if that old Betamax monster still had juice. If the moon was, in fact, in Pisces. He shoved his hands in the pockets of a paint-splattered pair of jeans.
Johanna glanced back down into Big Edie’s gullet. It was waiting down there, that death-image of silver and ichor.
“I like your shirt,” she said. The walls of her throat stuck together. Inside the camera, that charcoal polo dripped silent-film blood onto his new white tennis shoes. Outside, he wore a slim-cut celery-green tee with Newport Folk Festival 2010 stamped across his chest in a faux-rustic font. She could look back and forth between them. Back and forth. Black and white. Color. Black and white. Grey and green. Green and grey. And wet, dripping jet-onyx blood. All that faded thermochromicity blazing back onto the scene to react with the not live but definitely Memorex heat-death of Jeff from Ossining.
Big Edie went down for the count.
The image guttered out like a pilot light, a sound both grinding and whining shook through her, and she rather ungracefully peaced out.
“All yours,” Jeff grinned.
He took Johanna Telle’s money and strode off across the mown lawn, through the labyrinth of his late father’s obsessions, the sun on his shoulders as though it would never leave him.
It’s much easier to pry a stuck tape out of a machine when you’re not that bothered if you break it. Get a screwdriver and a Sharpie and believe in yourself. It came free with significant but impotent protest, trailing a tangled mess of ropy ED Supra Beta II behind it. Johanna wound the mistreated tape back through the cartridge with the pen the way kids would never do again, and she would have been perfectly content for the rest of her days on this maudlin, over-saturated planet if she could have said the stupid suburban sun got in her eyes and that’s all she really saw.
But Betamax tells no lies.
Johanna sat on the floor of her apartment like the kid from Poltergeist all grown up, heavily medicated, and a cog in the gig economy. A massive daisy chain of converter cables hooked Big Edie up to the living room flatscreen, each one coaxing the signal five or six years forward from 1987 to the slick shiny present day.
The reflected video image washed her face in color. A forgotten pleasure, like the taste of ancient Egyptian beer. You used to always see your shot in black and white when you looked through the viewfinder. You only got to see the colors when you reviewed the footage. Inside the camera was another planet. Color was a side effect of traveling from that world to this one. Step from Kansas into Oz, cross your fingers for fidelity, saturation, hue, hope those shoes still look as red as they did before you crammed them through a lens.
So. No more black and white artsy viewfinder image. Now it was straight outta Kodachrome. But this tape sat in Big Edie’s time-out box for thirty years. Chromatic degradation slipped and popped all over the image, sickly green blooms, hot orange halos, compression artefacts, uncanny edging that rimmed this and that object in weird chemical colors.
Johanna watched a factory-direct 70's mustache-dad with tennis socks up to God’s chin helping his small, yet unmistakably Jeff, son unwrap a record player on Christmas morning. Big Edie came standard automatic fade-in and fade-out, so everything transitioned elegantly, creating a subtle sense of deliberate editing where none truly existed. Fade to black, then a slow melt into a hopeless lacrosse game, small children running nowhere, hitting each other with sticks too big for them to hold properly.
Another bloom of darkness.
A school play, reedy, vulnerable pre-adolescent Jeff dressed as a cloud fringed with silver tinsel rain, twirling and twirling, technique-free, his arms stretched out. Then another and Johanna presumed this was Jeff’s mother, the maker of the T-shirt quilt, 80% Diane Keaton, 20% Shelley Duvall, a white-wine flush on her cheeks, smiling up at the man with the camera in frank, unguarded affection and not a little desire, her shoulders bare above a strapless summer dress the color of the hydrangeas she probably hadn’t even planted yet.
Such wildly un-special moments, clichés of heart-beggaring authenticity, carefully cut out of the flow of time and pasted into the future, selected for immortality for no particular reason, random access memories transfigured into light that cannot die—but can get stuck in a metal cage for want of a Sharpie and a flathead.
Time travel. The only real time travel, unnoticed and uncredited because it was so unbearably slow. In the present, you use this astonishing machine to freeze the past. And you send it to the future. One second per second.
The image cut to black and then it was 2015 and Jeff selling off a lifetime of his father’s lovingly dragon-hoarded objets d’American masculinity. Standing on a lawn with catalogue-ready light and dark green stripes in the grass. Talking not to the man who produced and directed his childhood but to Johanna. She can hear her own voice on the recording.
Does it turn on?
He makes a joke about the moon and tells her his name. Sitting alone in the dark, Johanna realizes he was flirting with her, and she has a second to wonder what his mustached father’s name was before the glass smashes through his sternum again and blood streams down to soak a just out-of-frame blanket stitched together from mass-marketed polyester and lost time.
Johanna ran the tape back. Then she watched it again.
Back. And again.
She was still doing it when the morning broke into her apartment without announcing itself.
Five weeks later, she’ll be down to two or three run-throughs a day. An article will swim across her feed.
Late Night Four-Car Pile Up on I-84 Leaves Two Dead, Seven Injured.
Jeffrey Havemeyer of Westchester County, NY, 34, remains in critical care.
Johanna will feel nothing. She’s seen it a thousand times already.
“Sit there,” Johanna tells her cousin’s daughter, pointing at a cracked leather barstool.
Anika is nineteen, in her second year at Columbia. She is everything Johanna is not: mentally stable, tall, good hair, vegan, grounded by parental encouragement and affection, prone to healthy relationships, able to commit to an exercise regimen. The twenty-first-century girl. Johanna has always found her fascinating. Scientifically. It’s like hanging out with an alien. Your whole ecosystem is based in carbon and abandonment and trash, and you just always assumed those were the essential building blocks of life, but it turns out they’re totally unnecessary and sentient beings can just as well be made out of palladium and love and sensible choices instead, look at this actual good person right here, you have the same nose.
Johanna’s arthritic Great Dane watches them coolly from his massive fluffy bed.
“Your hair looks like a badger,” Anika says.
It’s been some time since Ossining and quilt and the hydrangeas and what Johanna has come to think of as the glitch. Technical difficulties. Runtime error. It’s late summer. Sweat darkens Anika’s hairline under the expected carefully messy topknot. The boroughs are one long incessant screech of twelve million window-mounted air conditioners and the smell of warm garbage bags, round and shiny on every doorstep.
Seafoam green softheart mermaid look out; icicle-white collarbone-length brutalist bob with black tips in.
“I like to think of it as ermine. You know, royal cloaks and all that.”
“Did you know ermines are just regular stoats with their winter coats on?” Anika helpfully informs her. “Not special at all. Fancy weasels. Glam weasels.”
“That’s perfect. I myself am a decidedly unspecial glam weasel.”
Johanna adjusts the tripod under Big Edie. It took Johanna weeks to gut the old girl, order parts, and convince her that modern life truly was worth living. Nothing really wrong with her at all, other than the audio-visual equivalent of osteoporosis and a bad back. Johanna loved the work. Data was invisible now. Stored on sand, transferred on air, transcending physical form. Light talking to light. But not Big Edie. She was very visible. Gross and awkward and tangible. The girl would never be good as new again. But she was good enough.
“No you’re not, you’re amazing,” Anika says softly, and Johanna can hear the little girl she’s known in that grown-up, gonna-save-the-world-with-believing-it-can-be-saved voice.
Johanna ignores this obvious lie.
They’ve already done a few shots with the Hasselblad, the Leica, a couple with her phone. She doesn’t really know why she’s putting on a show. Anika wouldn’t question just sitting in front of an old Betamax camcorder for a few minutes and then heading off for Hungarian pastries and a good full-body-cleanse political rant. But it feels important that today has the appearance of a plausibly professional kind of thing. Not that Johanna is using her.
Which she is.
Johanna doesn’t have access to a lot of people at the moment. They find her offputting. Not user-friendly. An unintuitive interface. Carbon-based.
“Can you let the blinds down halfway?” she asks.
Anika does. Slats of August light and dark slash down her face and torso (like glass slicing through skin) like an old pre-lapsarian end-of-programming test screen. It would be a gorgeous shot even if the shot was the point.
“I mean it. This apartment, your work. Margot. Mapplethorpe.” The Great Dane’s floppy black ears perk up at the sound of his name. “I love it here. You’re living the dream.”
Johanna hesitates with her forefinger over the record button. God, she remembers how much she hated it when people told her college wasn’t the real world and she had no idea what it was like out there, as if studying and working full-time wasn’t more work and less fun than the barren salt flats of adulthood between your twenties and death. But she wanted badly to shovel the same shit for Anika now. The only way you could look at this place and see a dream was through a lens that had never touched reality.
This is fine, she tells herself. The Havemeyer Glitch is not a thing. Just a shill for Big Coincidence. It’s not like he died. And besides, nothing bad can ever happen to Anika. She is a palladium-based life form. So this is fine. It’s for science. You will take beautiful footage of your beautiful niece-once-removed, and buy her a walnut kolachi, and she will tell her mother what a nice time she had.
“Margot moved out last week,” Johanna says without emotion. Margot moved out three months ago. She left a purple brush in the bathroom. Long black hair still tangled up in it. Johanna can’t bring herself to move the last cells of Margot that exist in proximity to Johanna’s cells.
“Oh,” Anika replies gently. “So that’s why you changed your hair.”
Johanna hits record.
For eighty-seven seconds, the only thing Big Edie has to say is that Anika Telle was born for the camera, a portrait of her generation, artlessly artful, a corkscrew of loose dark hair hanging forward to catch the light, one grey bare leg tucked up beneath a billowy sack dress with small elephants printed on it, the other not quite long enough to touch the peeling floor. Her expression genuinely, infinitely, but entirely temporarily sad for the misfortunes of someone else. See? This is fine. Tell her to say something. Recite Shakespeare. Or Seinfeld.
Deep in Big Edie’s viewfinder, Anika’s left eye crumples in a wet gush of pearl and black. Her head rockets back, shrouded in mist. She coughs, gags, tears streaming from her remaining eye. She’s still sitting on the barstool in Johanna’s apartment with silvery botanical wallpaper behind her, the tall window, the August sun, the half-drawn blinds. But the Anika in the camera wears black leggings, a puffy black winter coat, a black surgical mask. White duct tape criss-crosses the back of her jacket to form the words: #NOJUSTICE. She’s older, the lingering baby softness in her jaw gone, her hair a buzzed undercut. The cords on her neck stand out as she runs, her face ruined, blind with pain, stumbling, looking over her shoulder as she bolts on the video feed from one end of the living room to the other. Out of nothing, a cop in riot gear steps out of Johanna’s kitchenette, grabs the back of Anika’s skull in one hand and shoves her down. Anika-in-black falls to her knees, sobbing, puking into her mask, holding one hand to the hole where her eye used to be, screaming silently into Johanna’s (Margot’s) red paisley rug.
Johanna yanks her head up out of the sucking desaturated pit of the camera.
Mapplethorpe snores loudly. Trucks beep in reverse outside the apartment building. Anika sighs softly, bored but not rude. She scratches a mosquito bite on her knee. “I really am sorry. I liked Margot. She was good for you, I think. Got you out of the house.”
All the blood has either rushed to or drained from Johanna’s head. She can’t tell which. All she can hear or feel is her own pulse slamming itself against her eardrums.
“Do you … want me to do something?” Anika asks uncertainly.
Johanna shuts the camera down quickly. The image at the bottom of the viewfinder clicks out of existence. She tries to talk, but there’s no talk to be found. Just the burning hot green-on-red afterimage of a crystal brown eye collapsing in its socket, over and over.
“Come on, Auntie J,” Anika says finally, hopping lightly off the stool and bending down, scratching Mapplethorpe between his spotted shoulder blades. “Dinner’s on me. Malaysian okay? Maps can have a curry puff, can’t you, baby?”
An experiment that cannot be repeated is evidence of nothing.
Johanna establishes a beachhead in Owl’s Head Park. Back supported by a black walnut tree. Bare toes clenched in a sea of tiny white flowers and clover-infiltrated grass. Big Edie propped against her breastbone, lens stabilized by knees on either side. Mapplethorpe’s yellow lead loops around her ankle, but the big fellow has long passed his days of running off after unsuspecting children. He munches philosophically on a pricey organic broth-basted rawhide shaped like a braided ring.
She finds a target, hits the button, rolls footage for a few minutes, tracking them as they throw frisbees for far-inferior dogs or kick soccer balls or kiss on picnic blankets or drag giant wooden chess pieces across a giant board or just walk aimlessly, whatever Saturday afternoon moves them to do. She doesn’t look through the viewfinder into that hellworld of black and white. Just presses buttons.
Turn it on.
Shut it off.
Find someone new.
She chooses at random. No more Anikas. No one is special, or unspecial. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they look like. They’re just data. That man, that woman, that child, that set of twin babies, those skaters, that guy sleeping with a James Patterson book over his eyes. Compressed data to be converted later.
Johanna’s brain checks out and begins a speed run through the five stages of grief over the death of a reliable reality. Denial: you’re losing it, change up your medication, girl, it’s not real, it’s not anything, just a stupid old camera that you bought because you are stupid, at best it’s old footage coming through on an old tape.
Stop recording. New person. Girl in green skinny jeans with a sketchbook.
Anger: fuck this, fuck you, fuck estate sales, fuck Robert Ballard, fuck the Columbia School of Law, fuck sad elephant print fabric, fuck hydrangeas, fuck curry puffs that make my dog poop out his soul, fuck Betamax you dumb drooling obsolete idiot tech, fuck me, fuck my dad, fuck Jeff Havemeyer’s dad, fuck I-84, fuck Margot, fuck the linear flow of time, fuck everything, life is garbage and this is proof. Why is this happening to me?
Stop. Scan. Record. Lanky white-dude dreds fuckboy in a vest but no shirt.
Depression: Of course it’s happening to me, because I am garbage and this is proof, and whatever cosmic hazmat disposal dump site got its back end trapped in my camera would only open the gates to a warped maladjust like me.
Stop. Scan. Record. Old man on the bench with god-tier eyebrows and a yellow plastic sunflower in his lapel.
Bargaining: I’ll just watch this back tonight and whatever happens, afterward I’ll tip Big Edie in the bin and never tell anyone. And then I will straighten up and clean my apartment and go on Tinder and eat leafy greens five times a day and see Anika more often and make amends and buy an exercise bike. Okay, Elder AV Club Gods? Deal?
Stop. Scan. Record. Kid on a dirt bike with (elephants) puffins on her dress.
Acceptance is Johanna sitting cross-legged (criss-cross applesauce) on Mapplethorpe’s bed while he snoozes jowlfully on the couch. She braces herself for red slicks of gore and bone. For Jeff and Anika redux. Once is luck, two is coincidence, three is a pattern … or at least time to wake up and smell what your inevitable descent into psychosis is cooking.
But that’s not what Big Edie has for her.
Not entirely, anyway.
Gloppy August sunlight washes out the image. Everything is overexposed, too bright, unforgiving. His thin chest rises and falls with his breath. He watches a small blue and white bird hop nervously down the iron rail of his park bench. A cerulean warbler, Johanna notes with supreme irrelevance. Closer to him, then further away, then close again. He crumbles a crust of brown bread on his tweedy knee and waits knowingly. This goes on long enough that Johanna starts to relax. It isn’t going to happen again. The bird will give in, and eat, and Johanna’s life will resume the program already in progress.
Then the sunlight cools, then it darkens, then it is a dim nothing-watt lamp with a tacky early 60's cherry pattern on the shade. The branches of black oak and Dutch elm in Owl’s Head Park still reach into the frame like kids who’ve spotted a news crew, showing off in the background, dying to get on TV. But the bench and the octogenarian perched on it have become a mustard-colored corduroy sofa and a young man with his head in his hands. Vaguely Scandinavian mid-century wooden end tables bookend the couch. A clock with thin brass spikes radiating out around it ticks over a clearly decorative fireplace. Above the man hangs a proto-Bob Ross painting of standard-issue lake/pines/mountain/lonely boat in a dizzying array of shades from brown to brown. Children’s toys cover the floor. At least one boy and one girl. Maybe more. Wooden blocks, a rocking horse with yellow yarn hair, green plastic army men. Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny and Snoopy staring lifelessly at the ceiling in a triple rictus of frozen grimaces. A book of Connie Francis paper dolls with most of the smiling valium-glazed Connies already carefully cut out hiding under the formica coffee table. A Funflowers Vac-U-Form Maker-Pak Johanna recognizes from a box of crap her grandmother let her play with the year they had to live with her because, no matter how she tried to pretend it was an adventure, her mother had no options left. You squeezed out perfumed lucite goo into molds and made “Daffy Dills” and “Tuffy Tulips” that looked like crystals in the sun until you got bored and broke a vase just to get some attention. A Spirograph and stacks of spiralled paper, scattered across the avocado shag carpet like ticker tape after the parade has gone. Like mystic offerings before the massive, inert cabinet television that probably weighs more than everyone who lives here put together. The kinds of toys you lift off a flea market shelf with joy and reverence, despite the peeling paint and chipped edges and missing vital organs.
But these are all new.
A wind moves through Owl’s Head Park and dappled shadows in the jaundiced light of the living room move across the man, the sofa, the table, the TV, the toys, the cherry lampshade.
The man on the yellow sofa looks up.
He is so young. Perhaps thirty-five, perhaps not even that. His incredible, architectural eyebrows are dark brown now; he has all his hair. He’s still wearing a suit, but this one has wide lapels, no tie, a plaid pattern that will crown endcaps in Goodwill until the sun burns out. He looks exhausted. Someone’s been smoking all night and it was probably him. maybe not just him. Butts overflow a pink pearlescent ashtray under the cherry lamp. About a third have frosted coral lipstick prints glowing on their filters, each one fainter than the last.
Johanna braces herself for the shard of glass or the ruination of his eye or gunshot or gas leak, whatever is about to break this poor soul in half. Her heart rate spins up into the rhythm of a jet propeller carrying her into nothing and nowhere. Her stomach muscles clench for impact.
But: the man gets up. Wipes his palms on his wrinkled pants. Walks across the room. Stops. Bends down to pull one perfect yellow Vac-U-Form Funflower out of the pile of misshapen attempts. Slides it into his lapel. The man leaves the house. He closes the door behind him so gently it doesn’t even click. No sound at all until his car engine starts outside, and then that’s gone too.
In the margins of the image, the cerulean warbler flies off with a cry. The shadow of his little body flickers over the empty room.
Fade in on the girl in the green skinny jeans and peasant blouse lying with her sketchbook under the willow tree.
Johanna makes it five people and ten minutes sixteen seconds deep by the overlarge alarm-clock-style timestamp before she scrambles off the dog bed and shuts the whole rig off.
An hour later, she gets out of bed and pads back to the living room on tiptoe, as if afraid to wake Margot’s brush. Blue light washes her cheeks and her hands and her walls and Johanna doesn’t move until it’s over.
Then she hits rewind and starts over from the beginning.
Mapplethorpe makes it another year before turning his creaky back on that big dog life. Since Johanna got to keep him through the quiet post-apocalypse of their union, they agreed Margot could have his ashes.
She looks the same. Just the same. As if Margot stepped out of the day she left and into today with no interruption in continuity. Johanna knows that dress, the navy blue vintagey thing with white piping and a little too much room in the torso, but that she refused to take in or give up on, because at thirty-seven, she might still have some growing left in her.
“Your hair,” Margot says softly. She steps gingerly over the map of cables and playback devices that have replaced living breathing life for Johanna and sits uncomfortably in the old bisque-colored armchair (falls asleep re-reading Harry Potter in it during a snowstorm five years ago; Johanna drapes a crocheted blanket over her and squeezes the bare foot hanging over the overstuffed arm gently, fondly). She sits as though she is trying to hover, as thought it might burn her to stay.
“What about my hair?”
“It’s … shocking.”
“It’s my hair.”
“I assumed you would have gone puce or checkerboard by now. Your actual hair hasn’t seen the light of day since high school as far as I know.”
Johanna only dimly recalls that she used to care about things like wilding her hair. It seems like a fact about a stranger. Like something she would see on Big Edie and use to pinpoint a date.
They make small talk. Margot is leaving the city soon. She’s bought a house in Providence with her wife, two blows Johanna absorbs expressionlessly as a cascade of words concerning Victorian architectural flourishes and small, private ceremonies patter down around her ears like raindrops. Mrs. Margot was apparently called Juniper, because of course she was, bet you call her June-bug too, gross. She was joining the obstetrics team at Rhode Island Hospital. Margot would teach very well-scrubbed scions of the even-better scrubbed at a private prep academy in the fall. Plant heirloom squash. Adopt three-legged rescue Labradors.
What are Johanna’s plans? If she has a gallery show before September, Margot would love to come. Anyone new in her life? How is Anika?
Well, Marge, I plan to shoot weddings and graduations and bar mitzvahs in which the cakes have significantly more artistic value than my entire self until I die alone pitched face-first into my takeout massaman with no dog and no stomach lining and no friends except a magic camera, can I get you a 40%-off Pinnacle buttered-popcorn-flavor vodka straight up, because that’s where I am right now.
But she doesn’t say that. She would never say that.
Instead, she decides to ruin Margot’s life. And in that moment, she genuinely believes it’ll work.
“Can I show you something?” Johanna says.
“Of course. Always.” Margot brushes her hair out of her eyes, now and a hundred thousand times in that chair, in this light. “New work?” Miss M was always her first audience, first viewer, the only other eye she trusted.
“Sort of. Mostly I just want you to tell me I’m not crazy.” And she doesn’t realize how entirely true that is until it’s out of her mouth and loosed on the dusty air.
Margot frowns. “You don’t look well. I didn’t want to say. Are you still drinking?”
Johanna laughs bitterly as she flips through the input options on the flatscreen. “Why would I not be drinking? Drink is friend.” She shoves delivery detritus off the couch to make a space: receipts, plastic bags, black takeout containers, breath mints and fortune cookies and after-dinner toffees.
And they watch together. Side by side. Just the same. Like it is before. Like she will pick up her purple brush again tonight and run it through her hair and come to bed and tomorrow will be years ago and the film of them will run forward from the splice.
Rather, Margot watches. And Johanna watches Margot.
The colors waver on her face like she’s underwater, staring up at the parade of strangers fading in and out before her.
The old man/young man on the park bench and the mustard-corduroy sofa.
The girl in the green skinny jeans under the willow and sitting at a bistro table with fake electronic candles as a man walks in, says her name uncertainly, kisses her cheek, orders an old-fashioned.
The guy with white-boy dreds and a vest with no shirt steps off a bike path and into a gorgeous apartment in no way decorated by a man who would wear a vest with no shirt even once, all minimalist monochrome, and a woman in pajama pants and jade chip earrings sobbing get out get out not one more minute I’m done get out.
A kid in a Spider-Man hoodie swinging upside down from a jungle gym and lying on his couch, a teenager, playing Madden on XBox, yelling to an invisible mother that he’ll mow the lawn, yeah yeah, just one more game.
And worse. A boy’s face fades into his forties on the subway. He asks why he’s being pulled over. A gash blooms on his beautiful brown neck. A student drinking alone in a bar ages fifteen years and loses twenty pounds between sips of house red. She waits for someone with frantic energy and when somebody shows up, gives her a little wax paper packet, leaves her to it, her fingers start to turn the color of corpses on the wine glass. A volunteer museum docent grows red rings and bags around his eyes but loses his wrinkles. Somewhere between the Ancient Greeks and Mesopotamian pottery, gets out of a Camry, locks it, and runs toward an appointment, wholly unseeing the baby in the backseat, asleep in a puffy lavender knitted hat.
“What is this?” Margot says. “Glitch art? Datamoshing? Like Planes and Jacquemin? What program did you use? It’s really seamless.”
“What do you mean ‘no program’? This is a practical effect?” Johanna chuckles mirthlessly. The screen shimmers. “Where did you find all these actors?”
“No, look, you’re not seeing. You have to look. The calendar in the apartment. The clothes the girl in the bistro is wearing. Do you recognize any of the players in that Madden game?”
“You know I don’t care about sports. I wouldn’t recognize any player’s name five minutes after I heard it.”
“Okay, fine. The song on the radio when the guy gets stuck in traffic.” She pauses it, waits for Margot to catch up, to see the faint cursive 2026-At-A-Glance calendar on the inside of the pantry door in that perfect sleek flat, the unfamiliar controls on the car dash. “I’ve never heard that song. You’ve never heard that song. Because that song doesn’t exist, on any service, in any catalogue, anywhere.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. Come on, you couldn’t possibly know that for certain, Jo.”
But Margot doesn’t see. Margot isn’t Robert Ballard’s submersible lighting array. She doesn’t know how to crawl into an image and live there. What she does glimpse in Johanna’s pleading eyes is the weight of time. Time she has spent searching for these things, for connections, hoping, honestly hoping, to find that song buried on some indie compilation CD with some revoltingly photoshopped jacket art and a discount sticker. And a thousand other objects like it. Books on televisions, limited edition toys, tie-widths, license plates, worse, more scattered, atomized, randomized information that never coalesced into anything but Johanna’s increasing silence and solitude. She vibrates so intensely it looks like she is sitting still.
And so, slowly, knowing how it sounds, hating how it sounds, Johanna explains about Big Edie as more strange moments unfold before the not-really-that-long-lost love of her life; naked bodies, and there are a lot of them, in embraces violent and lovely or both or neither, strangers meeting, over and over, in different clothes, different hairstyles, different seasons, a child abandoned in an airport in Reno, calling for her mother, surrounded by slot machines ringing in cherries and oranges, tears rolling down her face. And at the end of the reel, Jeff and his glass heart, Anika and her shattered eye, the long staircase into images that has become Johanna’s life.
Margot says nothing for some time. It is a terrible, sour nothing that lingers far too long in the air between them.
“So you think your camera shows … what? Death?”
“Maybe. Sometimes. But not always, not even often, really.”
“Then what if not that? The future? Like the calendar.”
“That’s closer, I think. Better. But at least a third of them are the past.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, the man in the living room is 1970. You can tell by the Updike book on top of the TV. That was the first edition cover, and it’s pristine. You can figure it out, sometimes. If you care about these things. If you know too much about garbage. And you know I know too much about garbage, M.”
Margot smiles faintly, but it is very faint.
“But also I went back to the park and talked to the guy. His name is Antony.” Johanna scratches at the back of her hand. “Antony left his family. In 1970. Just up and walked out on Grace, Walt, Irene, and Amelia, who he’d married when she was fucking seventeen. The proverbial running out for a pack of cigarettes. Left them like they were just … a skin he was molting.”
Margot looks for a way to shut it off, but Johanna doesn’t help her find it. Why should Margot get to turn away from it? Why should she escape?
“Fine,” she says coldly. “What is it then?”
Johanna takes a deep breath. “So whenever you transfer or transmit or store data, especially a lot of data, like audio or video or both, it gets compressed, and in the process, you lose a little bit of it. Maybe a lot, like MP3s were always straight garbage compactors for sound. Maybe only a little bit. Maybe so little you wouldn’t even notice. But in order to fit the storage device or the bandwidth, in order to save information or share it, you have to … you have to harm it. And that creates distortion. Halos. Noise. Warping. Busy regions in the image. Blocky deformations called quilting, and visual echoes called ghosts. They’re called compression artefacts, and that’s … that’s what I think these are. Distortions created by the present and everything else getting compressed, crushed into one stream. Halos and noise and warps and quilts and ghosts. A lot of words for damage. Just damage.
“But the answer is: I don’t really know what it does. Technically speaking, it’s a problem of parallax. Catastrophic parallax. A vast difference between the apparent object and the actual object. And for awhile, I thought it showed the worst day of your life. Which, odds are, for some percentage of people, is going to be the day you die. But not for everyone. Not for Antony. See, nothing ever went right for him after he left. Two more divorces and a dried-up retirement fund. Grandkids he isn’t allowed to meet. Lung cancer he picked up working a big gorgeous free man’s HVAC repair shop. But it took him almost his whole life to understand any of it. To process where he fucked up. What he lost when he thought he was barreling down the highway to a big gorgeous free man’s life. Big Edie knew it in an instant. She had his number faster than a speeding therapist, and that number was 1970. So it seemed to make enough sense. When I shot old people, Big Edie usually spat out the past. Young people mostly turned up older on playback. The future. That kid playing Madden. Madden 23, to be exact.” She points to him on the projection. The hole in his sock. The length of his hair. The name on the Patriots’ QB jersey.
“Do you actually expect me to believe your camera recorded something in 2023? Jo, come on. I’m really busy, and frankly, I’m not in the mood.”
“Just listen. Because then there was this. A wedding. Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel and Lucy Vaclavik.” She fast-forwards through scene after scene. Johanna can tell just the sheer number of them is starting to look bad on her, and the manic sizzle in her voice isn’t helping, but she can’t stop herself.
The creams and golds and pops of understated rose-shades of a high-end matrimonial spread flood the screen. The bride waves her lily-dripping bouquet in the air. The Hudson River throbs with sunset behind her. Her hair sparkles with carefully applied glitter. Eyeliner and brows that date her nuptials as surely as a library stamp. Her new husband, in a grey tux, bends down to kiss her expertly neutral-frosted lips and their unified families clap like a gentle river of approval. The picture flows smoothly to the edge of the frame. No ghostly picture-in-picture. No shadows cast from other places, other times.
Margot smiles politely. Johanna knows she is losing her (has lost her). “I don’t get it.”
“I didn’t either,” she confesses softly. “I shot this no differently than the others. But what you see is what I saw. What Big Edie saw. No parallax. No difference in images. I rolled tape and the wedding marched right through the lens and back out again and it was just a wedding, no more or less. Nothing else has been like that. And the next day we got right back to business-as-horrible. I couldn’t figure it out. Why was it special? What was different? The thing is … he killed her. It made the news for about thirty seconds in April. They found her in the woods in Connecticut. But, you know, hedge fund guys aren’t that good at forensics, even if they’re 100% current on all CSI franchises, so they caught him pretty fast. So maybe … maybe Big Edie doesn’t record the worst thing that ever happened to you. Maybe it’s something so much smaller than that. The moment when the worst thing that ever happens to you sees you coming. Turns toward you in the dark. I think, once she married him, he was always going to hurt her. Because that was in him, an egg or a seed or a tumor, whatever you want to call it, a future that no longer has the option of not happening. The flowchart flows until you meet that person at that conference and then there’s no more choose your own adventure, you’re going to fall in love and they’re going to bankrupt you or betray you or just … disappoint you until there’s nothing left but cynicism swirling around at the bottom of your heart like tea leaves. Or leave you in the woods in Connecticut. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a huge ugly regret machine. And mostly I will never understand these. What happened to the Madden kid or the girl in the bar or why getting stuck in traffic on that particular day was so important to that man’s whole trajectory, or any of them, because that stuff doesn’t come across the AP like Mrs. Vaclavik. They’re just moments, unconnected, pulled free of every other moment.”
The wedding fades out and the two women wince together as a man they do not know pushes a woman they have never met against a wall. Blood trickles down her temple where she hit a picture frame and she looks up at him with unbelieving eyes.
“Enough,” Margot says. She grabs the remote. Shuts it all down. Turns to Johanna and touches her face. Touches her. No one has touched Johanna in a year. It is an alien burn. It is Margot. It is the past and the future and death, stroking her hair and making enormous eyes at her while the constituent atoms of their dog look on from the coffee table.
“I miss you so much,” Johanna whispers, and wishes she could have thought of something better, more elegant, more memorable, but her need banishes pretty words.
“Don’t,” Margot answers with finality. The finality of Providence, Rhode Island and heirloom squash varietals and Harrington Preparatory School and June-Bug and poor Mapplethorpe in a box.
“What do you think?” She cannot help that either, the need for her approval, her regard, the perfect full absent moon of her gaze on Johanna’s work, Johanna’s self.
“Honey … I think you need help. This is … this is nothing, J. It’s a bunch of slice of life shots of nothing in particular and three or four gory jump-scares. You taped over some movie of the week with a lot of nonsense. And I’m supposed to believe it’s what, magic? It’s you stalking strangers. Listen to yourself. Catastrophic parallax? You’re manic, you need care.”
But Johanna can’t hear that. “Okay, but that’s just exactly what I mean. Do you know what catastrophe means? It’s Greek. It just means a turn. A turn down or a turn under or a turn inside. A turn away.”
“Jo, this is basically a conspiracy theorist wall and you’re unspooling more red yarn. This is not an X-File. This is you not coping. As usual.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’ll show you. Just stand over there, I’ll shoot you for a few minutes, a few seconds, and you’ll see.” And what will Big Edie see? Margot leaving that hot, humid, unretrievable night, Margot packing up boxes for Providence, Margot right now, right here, telling Johanna she will never believe her? One of them, maybe, surely. What else was even possible?
“No,” Margot whispers firmly. “You don’t need me. And you definitely don’t need to ride that camera any harder. I’m not going to enable this. You just need help, baby. Professional help. That’s all. I have to go.”
“I have to go.”
There is a disentangling, a hurry to go back, edit, remove even the idea that physical contact was made. Margot excuses herself to splash water on her face and Johanna sees herself in the mute black monitor, sees as the ex-moon of her night sees: a woman so thin her clothes don’t fit, who smells sour, whose hair hangs limp and unwashed, whose face has grown lines it didn’t have even a few weeks ago, degradation lines, juddering through the frame of her face.
Margot emerges awkwardly, chagrined, her familiar elfin face not one cell altered from the day she left, her voice echoing against every surface: I’m so fucking lonely, Jo, I’m lonely even when you’re here. Especially when you’re here. I’m lonely right the fuck now and I’m looking at you.
She holds up something in her hand. Something purple. Something precious.
“Forgot my brush,” she says softly.
And then she is gone.
Johanna puts it off for a long time.
Why bother? What use could it possibly be to her? What use is any of this? You couldn’t do one single thing with it. The shot was too tight to predict the future. Fight crime? Protect the innocent? No. The camera crowded the subject, an unbearable idiot intimacy that took away everything but the seeing itself.
But eventually, she was always going to do it.
Johanna watches herself on the flatscreen. Watches herself get up in Big Edie’s face. Fix the focus, back up to sit on the same barstool that held Anika all those ages ago, shifting awkwardly as she looks into the lens like an actor breaking the fourth wall.
She knows what she will see. She is calmly certain of it. She shouldn’t have bothered running the tape back for this little screening. She saw it the first time, when she was seven. When she was thirsty in the middle of the night and padded quietly out of her room to get a glass of water. Out of her room and past her father sitting alone in his armchair, the moonlight crawling in after him through the window, grasping at him just before he shot himself and her life … turned. There never was any hope for her. She was turned before she got one foot in the world. It wouldn’t be a prettier shot now.
The compression artefact burns out from the center of her nuclear-powered selfie. Her stomach muscles seize up the way they do when she just barely reaches the tipping point of a roller coaster and enters freefall, down the rails into her old house, the rugs, the stain on the ceiling, the off-kilter hang of her bedroom door. Her father’s face. Her mother’s soft snoring from the bedroom.
But that’s not what she sees.
No moonlight. No armchair. No 3 a.m. drink of water in a seven-year-old girl’s hand. It is just Johanna, seafoam green hair and all, walking on the lovely light and dark stripes of green on a lawn in Ossining, in sunlight direct from a photography lab, approaching a quilt made of old T-shirts and the objects it carries. She bends down and presses her warm thumb into the patch of Hypercolor shirt, waiting for the fabric to change color, to unsuffer the damage of too-constant exposure to the very thing that it was designed to react with, which of course it will not, can not, ever again.
Johanna touches her own face on the television, that seafoam green girl who still had Margot and Mapplethorpe and opinons about everything, that familiar face, yet better-fed and better-loved and almost obscenely untroubled. An ancient version of herself, suddenly unearthed at the bottom of the sea.
Finite State Machine
Johanna puts Big Edie up on Craigslist, all her specs laid out like a personal ad: enjoys long walks on the beach, getting lost in the rain, composite video output, and turning everything you point me at into an avant-garde film-school short. If you can’t handle me being haunted, you don’t deserve me being way more work than the camera app on your phone.
She lowballs the price. She means it. She can change her artefact. She can let it all go, like Margot said. Get care. Be normal. Cope. She can take that moment in Ossining and make it nothing. Make it just another random memory on a compilation tape of the decades fading in and out, like the little tinseled cloud boy turning and turning on his forgotten school stage, meaningless, untethered, beautiful and sad and without connection to anything before or after.
And then anyone could. The boy who doesn’t want to mow the lawn. The girl meeting that man at the bistro. Lucy Vaclavik. Antony. Jeff. Anika. Anyone. The long white beam of the Argo’s exterior lighting array sweeping through that dark and missing the great hulking skeleton in the blackness, brushing gently by, just barely, just by inches, finding nothing but open water.
She doesn’t answer a single query.
Six months later, Johanna doesn’t even remember what it’s like to leave the house without Big Edie. The pockets of her original-issue carrying case bulge with new tapes.