Bryan woke at 1:21 a.m. for the 116th straight night, and he knew he would not sleep again until 4:07 a.m.—not a minute before. Grief is what the good doctor called it on his first visit to the strip-mall shrink. The good doctor described it as an episode—as in “What do you do when an episode occurs?”
“I watch TV,” Bryan said. “I get up, go to the den, and watch football.”
“Football, at that time?”
“I watch a videotape of a football game.”
“That’s it. The 1991 NFC Semi-finals game.”
“You only watch that one game.”
“And the commercials.”
On Bryan’s second visit, the good doctor called it a cathartic release and wrote him a scrip for sleeping pills. He said, “Try not watching TV—break the ritual. Try classical music or buy one of those nature disks with chirping crickets and rain.” He gave Bryan a reassuring smile and handed him the small piece of paper. “Chirping crickets can be very relaxing.”
Was it a ritual? Bryan wondered. He didn’t think so, at least not in the sense that going to church was a ritual. Ritual was sacrament. Ritual bestowed grace. No, this was more like habit, as in a creature of. The same room. The same videotape. The same gun. But then, the good doctor didn’t know about the gun. Every episode started the same. Every episode ended the same. No, not a ritual, he thought. Cathartic, maybe. Torture, probably. But a ritual, definitely not.
Bryan threw back the blanket, stood, and walked to the den. The room was a tribute to circa 1982 with its plush forest-green carpeting and faux-wood paneled walls decorated with yellow brass light fixtures, seagull wall art, and dark-wood shelves displaying shiny trophies and chrome picture frames of Andrew and Amy.
Bryan looked at the VHS tapes stacked 15, 20, maybe 30 high—three leaning towers of plastic. He thought, in those piles are tapes filled with dancing purple dinosaurs, blue cartoon dogs, and a yellow sponge with an ear-piercing voice and a fondness for tighty-whiteys. There are tapes filled with made-for-TV melodramas where former child actors (now grown up) and has-been sitcom stars kill TV fathers and husbands with axes and butcher knives and gasoline. And then there are the tapes filled with playoff football games. Old games from ESPN Classic—games from ten years ago, last year’s games, and the so many in-between. All those tapes and not one containing his family.
They’d talked about redoing the room, he and Amy, tearing down the paneling. Throwing a light paint on the walls, maybe a tile floor. A new leather couch and some plants—maybe a silk bamboo tucked in the corner. They planned to get rid of the tapes and the old TV. Replace them with a flat screen and TiVo. But then people die—Amy dies, Andrew dies—and suddenly the color of the carpet isn’t all that important. The comfort of a couch is trivial. TiVo is pointless.
Bryan crossed the room, opened the side-table drawer, pushed aside a pile of small white sheets of paper, took out his gun, and placed it on the TV table. He sat on the couch, a loose spring jabbing him, and with the remote he pushed play.
The good doctor had asked, “Why do you only watch that tape?”
“I like the game,” Bryan said.
He hated the game. He hated everything about it. The cold fans uselessly cheering, then booing. He hated every player and every coach. He hated the color commentary most, with all those statistics and trivia. He didn’t need to be told that the snow was really falling now and it was wreaking havoc on both teams. He could see that. Just as he could tell by the score, the defense stayed home that night.
But he had to watch this tape. This tape was his punishment, his penance because he recorded over his family. He knew they weren’t there anymore, but still he put the tape in the VCR, wanting to see his son and his wife full of life again. Instead, he got this game.
Bryan told the good doctor, “I like that I know what’s going to happen.”
“You should try a warm bath? Try warm milk?” He handed Bryan a new piece of paper. “This one is a little stronger,” he said. “But I think a warm bath might help too.”
In the den, on the TV, muted, the replaying of that football playoff game on a snow-covered field—a late-night classic. Bryan watched as the players tried to warm their hands on the sidelines. Thousands of fans were wrapped in red blankets—losing team colors—a 31-0 blowout in the second quarter. He thought, it won’t be long before the stadium clears out. Another good kick—34-0. Bryan scoffed and shook his head.
Bryan thought about the images, the lives that were on this tape before the game. He could almost see Andrew doing homework while his mom off-camera narrated, “Aw, look at my smart boy.” Bryan couldn’t remember what she was wearing, but he could see her messy hair when Amy was caught walking down the hall early one morning, no coffee and no patience, and Andrew, offstage, said, “Say something for the camera, Mom.”
“Seriously, Mom,” Andrew had pleaded.
“I need some coffee, please, Andrew, not now.” But the camera stayed in her path.
On the screen, Amy looked puzzled, then said, “Today is a good day. Everyone is alive and healthy and the sun is shining, point the camera toward the window. Show your audience the sunshine.” She pushed the camera toward the kitchen window.
“Mom.” Andrew’s voice teetered on a whine.
“I don’t know what to say. Why don’t you go point that thing at your dad. Go on, I want to have a cup of coffee and read the paper.”
From the time Andrew was born, Amy talked to Bryan about buying a video camera. She argued that it would be great to have a movie of him growing up.
“But they’re really expensive.”
“These times are priceless.”
“Can’t you take still pictures? You never use the camera anymore.”
“It’s not the same.”
It took years, but Bryan broke down. He bought a used VHS camera at a garage sale. It was big and clunky and old—its battery held 15 minutes of charge time—but it recorded movies. And it was fun. For a few weeks, the three of them took turns pointing the camera, trying to capture life. The first few days brought moments of self-awareness—that awkward feeling of not knowing what to do or say when the camera was recording. But that feeling faded and life with the video camera was normal, until they sat and watched their movie.
The camera captured Bryan sleeping.
“You didn’t believe me,” Amy said. “Always in denial.”
“I guess I scratch my butt when I sleep too,” Bryan said as the tape continued to play.
“That’s not all you scratch, Dad,” Andrew said. Bryan could see that Andrew was proud of his camera work. He was proud to record real life. But still.
“Yeah, let’s erase that part,” Bryan said.
“Absolutely not. These are great memories to keep,” Amy said. “We won’t be erasing the things that embarrass us.”
With a man down on the field, the TV screen cross-faded from vintage grainy film to the modern-day Technicolor and Bryan squinted. Beautiful, large breasts strangled in red lace invited him to call. Her lips murmured something like “lonely” and “call me.” Bryan picked up the gun, opened the chamber, and counted the bullets out loud, breaking the silence of 3 a.m.: 1,2,3,4,5,6. He flipped his wrist, snapping the chamber closed, and spun the reel with a sheeezzzz.
The good doctor asked, “What are you afraid of?”
Each night Bryan tried to remember different scenes of their life together. He’d get a fragment here or there, but he always came back to that last day. Bryan had worked in the yard all morning and the last thing he wanted to do was drive to her dad’s house. What he wanted to do was sit down on his shitty couch and watch a game. He wanted to fill his wobbly tin TV table with pretzels and a cold beer.
“Can I stay home with Dad?”
“No,” Amy said. “You need to visit with your grandparents.”
“I wanna stay home with Dad.”
“You get to hang out with me all the time. Go spend time with your grandpa and grandma.”
“But they’re boring and I’m not even allowed to sit on the couch.”
“Get your things,” Amy said.
“But Dad, can’t I…”
“Listen to your mom.”
Andrew ran off and Amy cozy’d in next to Bryan on the couch. “You sure you don’t want to go?”
“Let me think about it—dinner with Howard and his going on about how Social Security is bankrupting this country, how the death tax is un-American, how the immigrants are trying to steal the legacy that he wants to leave to Andrew. No, I think cold pizza and rerun TV is a better option.” Bryan nuzzled Amy’s neck. “You sure you don’t want to cancel?” He playfully nudged her with his elbow. “Huh? You know? You can give them a call. Tell them Andrew has a book report or a 110 fever.”
“Mom’s been cooking all day.” She kissed Bryan. “I’ll leave early, though, I promise.” She squeezed his leg, stood, and left. Each night Brian tried to remember what Andrew was wearing before they left. He tried to remember if he told them he loved them.
Bryan told the good doctor, “I’m afraid of the black shadow over their memory.”
“Try exercise before bed? Muscles release endorphins that relax the body, alleviate stress. Try some push-ups or sit-ups. Take a long walk or masturbate.” The good doctor took out his little pad. “Don’t underestimate the exhaustive power of an orgasm.”
Bryan pointed the gun at the perfect television breasts, then at the VCR whirring in the silence, and whispered gun-shooting noises. He placed the gun down on the TV table and a new commercial took his mind away from the red lace and sexy taunts—away from the gun.
An anguished mother in the kitchen with her son—blurry—she takes weary hands to her head. Large yellow words streak on the screen, pause, and vanish. Headache? Stuffy nose? Irritated eyes? Sinu-gone eases your burden. A lens slide and the boy is instantly clear. The boy, much like his Andrew, with wavy brown hair and a pre-teen swagger, says something to the audience, to Bryan—something he cannot hear.
Bryan first noticed Andrew’s swagger at the mall while they were looking for a birthday present for Amy. A swagger that ebbed and flowed as they walked in and out of the shops. When Andrew ran into his guy friend he exuded confidence, but when he passed by a gaggle of girls a year or two older, he seemed to shrink. Even so, his eyes were glued to them—curious, borderline hungry. Bryan knew he would need to talk to his son about growing up, soon.
“He’s cute,” one girl said as they passed.
“Who is he?” asked another.
“He’s in my sister’s class. She has a crush on him.”
“They’re talking about you,” Bryan told his son when they were safe from earshot.
“Do you want to go back and talk to them? I can go grab a Coke.”
“No, what would I say?”
Bryan ruffled his hair. “It’ll come natural.” Bryan thought, The talk can wait, you still have time.
When the auto insurance commercial appeared on screen—a car driving with a woman looking in the rearview mirror putting on lipstick, another car swerving across the yellow line—Bryan turned off the television.
He watched the scene every day in his head—a looping film reel—over and over. Not the TV cars with reckless actors. He watched his car, his wife driving carefully. He watched a teen in a pick-up truck, messing with his radio, or playing with his phone, or lighting a joint. He watched this guy cross the yellow line. An ocean-blue Camry, a black-and-rust pick-up, a swerve, a pothole, a blowout, brake lights, Camry airborne sideways into the rear quarter panel of the pick-up, setting off a twirling tango that left the two vehicles wrapped around a 100-year-old oak.
In the dark, Bryan opened his mouth and wrapped his lips around the barrel of the gun. He pulled back the hammer.
The good doctor had asked, “What do you think about when you’re watching this football game?”
“I think about death.”
“Her death. His death. I think about the death I want to deliver.”
“Do you think about your death?”
The first time Bryan tasted the barrel of his gun was the day of his family’s funeral. He drove home, sat on his couch, and stared off, wondering what was next. After nearly two hours, Bryan looked at the media shelf that housed their collection of VHS tapes. Where is the tape we made? he wondered.
One at a time, he inserted a tape into the player, pressed play, stop, fast-forward, play, stop, fast-forward—looking for his wife and son to appear on TV. When he reached the end of each tape, he said, “One of these has to be the one.” He placed the finished tape on the pile and inserted the next, whispering, “It has to be here.”
When he reached the last tape, he sat in a heap on the floor and decided he’d had enough. He stood, walked to his bedroom, and removed his .38 from the lock box high in the back of his closet. He sat on the end of his bed and put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Hot urine ran. He looked at the unloaded gun. Bullets. He went to the closet, found the box of shells, hidden behind Amy’s shoeboxes. He loaded the gun, sat on the bed, and stared down at the weapon. After an hour, he set the gun on his pillow, stripped off his wet clothes, showered, and dressed. He took the gun to the den, sat on the couch.
His mind raced with delays. A letter, he thought. I should write a letter. Why bother, he countered. It’ll be obvious. Not here, the mess. I’m not going to clean it. The camera. What about the camera? The tape is in the camera. There is one more tape. It has to be in the camera.
Bryan put the gun on the TV table and went to the coat closet. Inside the camera there was a tape. It’s here. He grabbed the tape and nearly tripped rushing it to the VCR. He sat on the couch with remote in hand and hit rewind. I’m not going to miss a minute of this. He listened with giddiness to the buzz of the tape rewinding. When the tape stopped, his chest ached and he hit play.
Their movie-making grew into a game. Each player was looking to catch on camera something even more embarrassing than the last gotcha. For a few weeks, the camera could be anywhere at any time. Andrew captured bed hair in the morning, snoring and butt scratching during naps. Amy captured drinking from milk jugs, belching, and farting. Bryan caught more than one extraction of a wedgie, and then there was the shower invasion. Most likely trying to catch Bryan by surprise, Andrew snuck into the bathroom one morning, video camera recording. He jerked the shower curtain back and found both his parents in the shower. The game ended abruptly.
When the bathroom door re-closed, Amy said, “You’ll want to erase that.”
“Yep. Consider it done.”
The good doctor asked again, “Do you think about your death?”
“Why would I? I’m not dead.”
“Is that a problem?” The good doctor took out his little pad. “Try this. Lie on your back and wiggle your toes up and down twelve times, wiggle the toes of both feet at the same time. It’s very relaxing. Try to visualize something peaceful or something boring.” He handed Bryan the small sheet of paper. “Imagine a jellyfish in the ocean. Jellyfish are both peaceful and boring.”
Bryan took the gun from his mouth, released the hammer, and set the gun back down on the table. He licked his lips and tasted the oil. Bryan turned the TV back on. 41 to 0—20 seconds left of the third quarter.
He got up from the couch. He grabbed a couple of the good doctor’s little sheets of paper from the side table drawer, walked out the front door, and stood on the porch looking out to the neighborhood. Four blocks up the street was a 24-hour drugstore. He could walk there in 20 minutes. Be home in less than an hour with the pills. He couldn’t force his feet to move. He listened to the wind through the trees. He listened to a lonely cricket nestled in the yew and remembered it was that time of year when Andrew would beg to set up his tent in the back yard so he could camp.
Bryan walked to the back yard, looked at the area where Andrew’s tent would be if…
His son had tried every year since he’d been eight to sleep out in the yard by himself, but it was too scary and Bryan found himself dragged out by 10 or 11 to sleep on the unlevel, unsoft ground. Except, he remembered, last year Andrew did make it. Bryan remembered sitting on the couch at 10 waiting for Andrew to come in. At midnight, his son still had not come in to ask for company and there was a moment of fear that something bad had happened. He walked outside to check on Andrew, bare feet cold from the dew-covered grass, only to find him fast asleep in the tent. Bryan remembered the feeling of relief that Andrew was safe, the feeling of pride in his son’s bravery, and the pang of sadness because it felt like Andrew didn’t need him anymore. He remembered.
Bryan wiped his eyes and went inside the house. In the den, he placed the papers and the gun back in the side table drawer. He lay down on the couch, propped his head on the armrest, and stared at the ceiling. Shadows from the TV roamed the room, filling it with the chaos of a pretend life.
When the room lit bright again, Bryan knew that the red-laced woman was back to further tempt him. He knew that the next commercial would be for Bud Light and the next for Burger King. He knew that in about three minutes the visiting team would score for the last time, giving them a 48-point advantage over the home team. And he knew it was time for a new ritual. He pushed eject, shut off the TV, and stared into the pitch dark. Bryan imagined the Sponge Bob cartoons that Andrew was so fond of. Tomorrow, he thought, if I can’t sleep, I’ll watch cartoons. He visualized the yellow sponge chasing jellyfish with a butterfly net. He looked toward his toes and wiggled. One, two, three…
Jim Miller was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. After several years of working in advertising and joined by his wife and children, he moved to Florida. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His work was recently published in Midwestern Gothic, Stymie, Prick of the Spindle, Alligator Juniper and is forthcoming in Palooka. He is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection and holds editing positions with The Mailer Review, and Black Market Review. He teaches creative writing at USF–Tampa and Eckerd College.
Q: What was the genesis of this story?
A: Rx was discovered in another story where the protagonist must come to terms with the death of his girlfriend—a car accident caused by his best friend. As I worked out the accident, I started to think about the dead mother and son in the other car. At the time, these two were extras I knew nothing about—collateral damage. But then I wondered why the dad wasn’t in the car with his family? The answer was clear…someone had to live to tell about it.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: Drums—a five piece set—with drums you can have a peaceful rhythm or complete chaos or a little bit of both.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: I draw inspiration from my literary heroes—ranging from Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald and West to Mailer, Vonnegut and DeLillo to contemporary writers such as A.M. Holmes, T.C. Boyle, Junot Díaz, and Sam Lipsyte—all of which have their own unique voice entrenched in the American life.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: If the words are flowing, if the story is coming together, it doesn’t matter if I am in a loud coffee shop, stuck in traffic, in line at the grocery store, or in my cozy office the place is perfect.