By Matt Foy
I swear the peddler’s eyes changed color, sooty grey to viscera red, as he stuffed fistfuls of my cash into the inner pockets of his overcoat. His payoff secure, he plunged into a pocket above the waist, the one you’d keep a gun in if you had a reason to. He winked as he clumsily searched, grey eyes smoldering again. He coughed and croaked: “You’re gonna love this, man. It’s…”
A patter from within the predawn urban mist froze him; he withdrew his hand sharply and stiffened as if plastered against a wall by floodlights. “Wait,” he hissed, licking his lips; his Adam’s apple obtruded obscenely. Neither of us made a sound until the jogger, a middle-aged doughy man, labored past without looking up. Nothing remained but our panicked breathing. The peddler glanced over both shoulders and shifted his hand back inside his coat. For a little troll, his hands were frighteningly fast. He could have pulled a blade, cut me down and ran, just as easy as any gesture of honor: that was always an implied part of our business contract, and I knew as much when I agreed to it.
He withdrew a small package. It was my turn to freeze over.
“He didn’t see nothing. Here ya be, chief. Consider our agreement complete.”
He held it out to me. As I gripped and pulled, his grasp tightened, making me wait an agonizing second longer. I don’t have to play nice with you. It’s a big city. Nobody would miss you. He knew me better than those in my closest circle. He released. I felt the brown paper wrapping, crude and coarse with oily finger smears. I breathed easy for a second. If he had a knife, I had that moment, and in it we were even.
Inside that paper was my collector’s wargasm — that one priceless treasure I’d lusted after before I knew it existed. It tore my fingertips like Cenobite hooks and morphed into basilisks, invading my bloodstream and surging throughout my body. Without a muscle’s twitch, I knelt and crumbled, paradoxically the conqueror and the conquered. I planned for it, but the metaphor-shackled human mind is unequipped to do the moment justice. When it arrives, if any of us should be so lucky, all we can do is use our five senses like crude stenographer’s tools and capture every available detail in hopes of fashioning a coherent sketch later, a re-lived image of something too profound to comprehend at any point. Few people understand what the moment means. For all I know, I’m the only person left who understands the gravity of my particular moment. I’ve met only one other person who understood it. Her tragedy was she could not survive long enough to realize it.
Her name was April, and her voice still haunts me. No need to explain; you’re not weird, nowhere near obsessive. I feel it too. That was a long time ago. April doesn’t feel anything anymore. She’s dead, two weeks in the dirt.
Back on the corner of soon-to-be-bustling Wood Street and forsaken Vaughn Avenue, I re-gloved my hands with the package tucked safely beneath my arm and pulled my coat tightly around my shoulders. I sucked in the icy pre-dawn. The wind thrashed the peddler’s stringy hair, strands plastered to his bluish lips, as he nodded and shuffled away, retrieving and counting his fee with bandaged, dirt-stained hands. His right hand was missing its thumb, making the exchange awkward. No longer mysterious, his hands reminded me of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Man from the South” —immaculate adaptation of Roald Dahl’s best short story.
More than any narrative I can recall, “Man from the South” sums up my life aesthetic. Peter Lorre bets Steve McQueen he can’t light his lighter ten times in a row without a misfire. If McQueen loses, Lorre takes a finger as his prize. Guts. Conviction. Living in the moment. Lust for the finer things in life, no matter the price. I don’t think anyone could have done that story justice like Hitchcock. Many disagree with me, but I believe I’ve spent enough of my existence building the credentials to make that judgment. I’m what one might call a film connoisseur, one whose palette lusts for horror — an obsessive, relentless devotee of cinema de ensanguine, as I entitled my master’s thesis on the subject of splatter cinema. Horror’s ugliness is the symphony of my soul.
Then we were alone, the package and me. It contained a single movie, the magnum opus of fourteen years of seeking and consuming the grittiest, nastiest films ever created. Clumsily wrapped in a Jewel Osco paper sack, it represented the darkest sludge on the floor of the cinematic abyss. To me, the tape was priceless: the ultimate icon to a lifetime of cathexis spent in the liminal space between the sublime and the despicable. To its producers —collaborators, so to speak —was worth $50,000, a price I was happy to pay. With it, my collection, my life’s work, was complete. But without April, it was for an audience of one. I alone was to reap its benefits and bear its weight.
The bank clock across the street struck noon. The wind outside my Bradford Building office, all the more brisk forty-three floors up, hadn’t warmed much in seven hours, but I was starting to simmer. Once the sun descended behind the skyline, my journey down the spiral of horror cinema would be complete, but how banal to prelude it with eight hours at that meaningless job. Still, I knew I’d go insane waiting at home. I felt I’d been born and raised in prison and today was the day I crossed the Bridge of Sighs, heading into freedom while others passed into darkness. I picked at a Waldorf salad but couldn’t muster an appetite. There was a melancholia that came with knowing life as I knew it is coming to an end, even if it was all I ever wanted.
Something else plagued me, something I hadn’t anticipated: the gravity of a different kind of loss. That the package was mine alone was proving more difficult to reconcile than I’d anticipated. I unlocked my desk drawer and pulled out a creased snapshot of April. I’d pocketed it from a photo collage at her funeral: a memento of this solemn truth, but her weight was proving greater than even I’d bargained.
I gripped both the package and the photo, sandwiching them between my hands. Without April, I knew, none of it would be possible: certainly not the tape, but also not the framed first-run Texas Chain Saw Massacre poster, not the Master of Arts degree, not the private office that afforded me a wall on which to hang them. I glanced at my fetid, discarded salad and softened: even the salad probably wouldn’t be possible without her. For years I’d envisioned that night as our joint triumph and my way of paying her back for a wonderful period of my life —and I, together for just one more night, riding each other down our beloved spiral, all the way to the bottom. I wondered, if she were still alive, would she curl up next to me that night and be my partner in conquest once more?
Such a thing was impossible now, of course, but if time and space conceded, would she accept? At one time she would have been as scintillated by the package as I was. But something changed. She abandoned me and rode a different spiral, and she rode it all the way down. She was gone long before her body hit.
That night’s dream took shape when I was eleven. Burrowing out from under the starchy covers in my basement bedroom, I watched my first Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode: “The Gentleman from America.” The austere glow of black and white flooded the space, washing away the static colors of youthful ignorance, past and future converging to form a new consciousness. I find it quaint that my lust for unfathomable on-camera bloodshed was born of something benign enough to run primetime in Eisenhower’s America. So it began. I, a horror virgin who once buried his cousin’s My Buddy doll under fifty stuffed animals to keep Chucky at bay: deflowered.
That experience started me on a crusade, one devoted to consuming the weird, the obscure, the unclassifiable cinematic treasures better left untested by common palettes: unspeakably violent exploitations, dripping-wet splatter-fests, vividly simulated torture epics. Better than any drug, horror is addicting, exhilarating, and you have to go a little deeper the next time to feel the same rush in your veins. With each new high, I traveled further into the margin, reveling in new fears and emotional crests —away from the center, often petrified of what might be lurking in the borderlands. April was there with me, even if only briefly, and I adored her for it. After she left, I finished on my own because that was the only option; I was too far gone to simply quit. Some wars must be finished to vindicate the casualties.
Snow flittered in from the north as my watch chirped five times. Another meaningless workday, extinguished. Five was when I despised the city the most. Pinned behind the steering wheel in rush hour, crawling on our bellies but going nowhere, we allow ourselves to become bolus in the digestive track of a stone and glass behemoth that devours those who lack the drive to claw back. Living for that tape and that night kept me going just enough when that concrete wasteland felt its heaviest. Its architecture did nothing for me. I don’t care how fancy they can make cages for rats.
The tape cried out from inside my briefcase. Undress me and stick me in. You haven’t had anyone to keep you warm in a while. I know your nights have been cold.
I heard its call and longed to be out of that trap like never before. I considered braving the shoulder to see if I could break away. I blinked and saw myself on an autopsy table. Car crash, one DOA, a disembodied narrator monotoned as if commandeering my car stereo. Eyes, gouged out by shattered windshield shards. Vehicle, everything in it, crispy critters. Rushing home, probably, maybe hurrying to his girl to catch a seven o’clock show. No shows where he’s at now. Another fool who killed himself. Nothing left but some black plastic lump from his briefcase.
A tension headache settled in. Forty-five agonizing minutes separated me from home, maybe thirty-five if I dared to enlist Death as my co-pilot, but I couldn’t risk it. I couldn’t end up on a table, cut to ribbons like April. One of us had to make it out of that city alive to tell the other what it feels like to survive.
They found her dead two weeks ago —tortured, murdered.
I heard the news from Bryan, a high school buddy, who sounded a bit too gleeful about it. Someone grabbed her on her way to work; the police found her wallet not far from her decrepit studio apartment above Charlie’s, a dive best known for an epic Mexican Standoff on passing Victor Street. April once told me she saw it all from her only window, and that was all it took for her to draw the shade permanently.
Two days after she didn’t show up for work, Charlie’s wife found her in the alley while dumping bottles from the night before. A slit neck from a serrated blade ended her life. That one was the coup de grace. Only God and the coroner know all she suffered before that. The police still have no leads. She’s not the first to turn up behind Charlie’s.
I don’t imagine the news was all that surprising to those who knew April and her pitiful existence of addiction, toil, and shattered hope. We figured she’d end up dead in some alley some day. I’d had premonitions that day was soon, but they didn’t make it any easier. The weight of losing your first love, I was to find out, was as crushing as it is cliché.
You know she’s out of her misery. Her doleful expression in the dated photo I took from atop her closed casket implied as much. Silent relief seemed to emanate from inside the box: It’s soft, warm, and safe inside. A box made just for me. Finally, somewhere soft.
So why, I agonized as freeway traffic ground to an utter halt, was I having so much trouble with Death if it was a merciful being?
April and I weren’t together all that long, I suppose. In high school, I found a group of friends who loved horror like I did, but not as much as I do. Bob, Bryan, Hungerford, Grover, and I convened at Bryan’s house most Fridays —girlfriends, gas money, and college applications picked away at our solidarity — watching horror and sci-fi movies on a big screen. We cut our teeth on Raimi, Argento and Fulci; patted ourselves on the back for “discovering” classics like Microwave Massacre and Maniac; and considered ourselves highbrow when we watched Hammer vampire flicks. Some of the movies were so bad, we rolled around in the snow to “wash them off” our bodies. Most of the bad movies became inside jokes. Before junior year had lapsed, we all had mundane part-time jobs to negotiate, and our movie ritual dissipated as quickly as it manifested. I found myself alone again, snake-bitten with a suddenly private obsession.
Then on some miserably hot July afternoon, Grover and I were hanging out in my basement one last time before he was to embark on a month-long corn detasseling tour across Iowa (he was starting a band and needed to buy a synth module for his guitar), and outside a car horn began to bleat. We ventured out into the sun, blinded like moles. It was Grover’s sister, who was starting to get into horror at his behest, Grov promised. Her name was April. She and I were one for the next thirteen months.
She and I began by trading favorite movies the way most new couples trade smiles, self-disclosures, or bodily fluids: it was our way of feeling each other out. We quickly lost ourselves in our shared passion and intensifying teenage lust as my basement became our cohabited space. We soaked in the bloodbaths of H.G. Lewis and visualized common enemies as the victims of Miike’s torturous overtures. On days we ventured out, we ate juice-logged snow cones by day and explored each other’s bodies under country starlight. Even after the longest nights, when there was nothing left to say, the movies spoke for us. As our relationship intensified, so did the films.
She introduced me to Lenzi’s Make Them Die Slowly, aka Cannibal Ferox —carnal,close to the true-life atrocities I imagined were common in far-off forsaken jungle hells, it shocked even my jaded system. Inspired, I one-upped her with Cannibal Holocaust —depraved, Bryan insisted, that Italian authorities compelled director Ruggero Deodato to produce his actors in court to prove they survived production. In other words, they feared Deodato had produced and mass-released a snuff film.
Snuff: the concept of a film so vile, to be complicit with its existence is punishable by death —cinema’s equivalent of the legend of Van Gogh’s ear or Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm. But wasn’t it just an urban legend? I was determined to find out.
Months passed. My relationship with April calmed to a comfortable, smoldering symbiosis. One idyllic afternoon in the early spring on our way from a shopping trip, we found ourselves low on fuel and on an unfamiliar road. Spurred by the dire nature of the situation, we turned the radio low and talked horror passionately as we had the summer before. The conversation settled into my gut and cemented the course my life would take thereafter.
“Ever wonder why we watch these movies, I mean really wonder?” I asked as she tore into her new copy of Tenebre. “It’s pretty damn macabre when you think about it. It’s not like we’re violent people.” I was desperate to keep the conversation engaging enough to keep my mind off the flashing Low Fuel light.
She answered with little deliberation, which told me she’d pondered it before. “It’s bigger than that. It’s like peeling back the layers of this entire genre, hoping to find a place between reality and people’s visions of reality,” she replied, combing her fingers through her straight blond hair. The way she could discuss grim subjects in dulcet tones reminded me just how lucky I was. She continued: “Let’s face it: most of these movies are just cheap thrills; hell, most of them are shit. But when we watch something so shocking, so vérité, it feels like we’re drawing closer to some space where the camera can’t distinguish between truth and fiction. I’ve thought about it, and my theory is you can blur the line until you can’t tell anymore. See, I’d bet my whole collection that the top —sublime — has really been beneath the bottom all along: that nasty, fucked-up-beyond-comprehension flick so beneath the senses that you don’t even know how to deal with it. And maybe everything is different then. You’re different then. You’re a witness. You’ve endured something no one dreamed anyone could.”
I was proud to be an audience to her, but more than anything I needed her to continue because she’d taken me somewhere I couldn’t be dropped off. “Do you know what the bottom is?” I knew she knew; she was just waiting for the right cue.
“No question. It’s a snuff film. If they’re real, snuff is the definition.” She held up her bag of new movies and shook it until the cases rattled. “All these moviemakers, they’re selling the intensity of death. Snuff’s like the reverse of that: it’s taking murder and twisting it into art — fucking sick art, but profound like you can’t even imagine. If you want to know who people really are, you need more than to see them confront death. They need to confront death and be complicit in it.”
The snuff film:human suffering and death twisted into a grotesque sculpture — that legendary nexus of art, murder, and desire. It’s urban legendry at its finest. Everybody knows a guy who knows a guy who’s seen one. Supposedly, if you dig in the right spot in the desert, you can unearth videos of the Manson family murders. Second-wave feminists co-opted the legend in the seventies to prove the dangers of pornography, yet the legend survives after the protest died. Most sinister of all, there’s supposed to be a black market in every big city where you can buy a snuff film if you have enough money and nerve —you squint hard enough, you can even fool yourself into thinking you’re both supporting small business and helping the overpopulation problem. Yet there’s no documented case of snuff anywhere. Police have never had their hands on one. There have been fakes, damn good ones, ones that could have fooled anyone and did —’ve seen them all. But they can only fake it so well until the lack of blood on their hands betrays them.
“Do you think snuff is real?” I asked directly for the first time in all our time together. This time she thought it over before responding.
“I think the legend came first; someone shat it out to scare little kids off porn. But it’s been around —legend, I mean — too long now. Some deviant somewhere got inspired and made his own because the legend spawned its own market. How do you like that: the puritanical ass who tried to steal horror to scare people off porn probably ended up killing people in the long run.” We both laughed in faux-maniacal excess; she leaned over and kissed my cheek when we finished.
“I love you so damn much,” I said.
“But there’s no underground snuff network or anything stupid like that. It doesn’t happen with any regularity.”
I nodded. I wanted so badly to take her hands and look into her eyes but stayed focused on the road. “Would you watch one if you had the chance?”
She pondered it so long I was certain we’d run out of gas before she spoke.
“I don’t think I can say without having one in front of me. I feel like ‘no.’ Watching someone get murdered … I don’t think any movie can prepare you for it. In a way, they died because of you, because there’s a market for it and it’s you.” She glanced down at her shopping bag. “It’s not the same as this stuff. This is nothing compared to that.” I felt her eyes on me as I dug my fingernails into the steering wheel cover. “But I don’t know if I could turn it down. How do you watch every sick movie in the world, only to chicken out at the last minute?”
Her question lingered as I saw a Casey’s gas station to the north, hunched at the foot of a forest of wind turbines. I sighed in relief and checked the gas gauge to see how close I’d pushed it. Completely dry. I hit my turn signal.
“I don’t know if I could either,” I said, “if snuff’s real. But wouldn’t you think there would be some documentation if it was? Wouldn’t someone slip up and get caught? I don’t think they’re real.”
I was wrong. Snuff films are definitely real.
When I hunted the tape down, I did it in tribute to that day in the car because that’s how I prefer to remember April. But that version of her has been dead for years. When we last spoke, one week before she died, she accused me of wasting my life with such pursuits. It wasn’t until after she kicked me out of her life that I truly questioned the passion we once shared.
I pulled into my garage and went inside. As nightfall loomed and I sat my briefcase on the dining room table, I knew my mounting sorrow had to be confronted before I could move forward and watch the tape. Holding it for the first time that morning had only temporarily assuaged my sorrow. I had the gnawing suspicion the journey should have died when April died.
Her ghost would come to me that night. I was certain it would, hovering over me as a damp, intense fog, but which April would it be? Would she congratulate me for staying the course, or weep over me scornfully for doing it without her, or despise me for wasting my life when she needed me alive, not dead, too little, too late? I’d finally found snuff, but like she said in the car, making the leap to watch it was a different dilemma altogether.
I tore through the brown paper, revealing a single, unmarked VHS tape. No box, no title, no distinguishing marks of any kind: nothing to temper my confusion.
It was seven o’clock, the purgatory hour despised by us children of the night: still too bright outside to start a movie (especially that one) but too late to do much but sit and wait.
The phone rang. I answered it. It was Grover. I instantly regretted my decision.
Old Grov sounded drunk again, probably just minutes from throwing up his empty stomach and weeping into his own bile while he made me listen. I felt sorry for the guy, I really did.’d just lost his sister,it’s tragic he doesn’t have anyone closer to talk to about it than me. We were tight in high school: not exactly kindred spirits, but we got along because we liked horror movies and metal music and had a common bond:sister was my girlfriend. Like everyone I knew in high school, we split paths after graduation —went to college, he the military —we hadn’t spoken in four years before April’s funeral. When he locked me in a sorrowful bear hug and asked for my number, what could I do? He’d called me four times that week for nothing but to air his self-pity; his latest pitiful intrusion was the most unwelcome yet.
As we sifted through the opening chords of conversation, I gazed out the window and saw the sun sitting lower in the sky. The reckoning hour was nigh. I coughed up my empathetic phone voice and settled into a role as grief counselor. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, I rationalized. I had some things to sort out, too.
“Do you remember the time we went to that Fear Factory concert? It was you, me, April, Bob, um …”
“Yeah, I remember. Good show.” It wasn’t that great of a show, honestly. The warm-up band had its amps way too high, April flirted with the bartender much of the night, and I didn’t get to hear “Timelessness.”
He hesitated. I heard him take a swig. “Do you think she was doing meth and shit before then?”
“Honestly, Grov, I’m not sure, but I doubt it. I don’t think she was doing the heavy stuff until after we graduated and she dropped out of high school. You know, you’ve seen her more since graduation than I have.”
His voice cracked. “Do you think it’s our fault she turned to the hard shit?”
“It wasn’t our fault, man, don’t be stupid. It’s not like either one of us shot her up with whatever she got on.”
“But I drank with her a lot after discharge. It was when she was drunk that she craved meth most, she told me not too long before ... do you have any idea what’s in that shit?”
“I do. So did she. So do most people hooked on it. That’s what kills me.”
Talking about April felt organic enough. The night, I remembered, would be nothing without her, and Grov deserved to be part of it because she was part his, too, and she adored him. I almost cracked and invited him over.
I glanced at the tape. He couldn’t know and wasn’t in a state to go on that ride. Besides, no answers resided with him —self-loathing and desperate longing for easy answers. I hunkered in as I read 7:30 on my watch. I had to it one alone.
“Look, Grov, I can’t really talk right now. I’ve got something big cooking tonight. Call me tomorrow if you need to. Sorry. I can’t be much of a friend tonight.”
“No big deal, man. No big deal.” He sighed hard; I heard him take another hard swig and gasp like it burned terribly. “I’ll talk to you some other time.”
I hung up the phone and stared out the window at the waning sun.
Horror movies and twenty-five months with April are the only positive memories I retain from the high school years. In retrospect, it’s amazing how entwined the two once were. Our first kiss —first ever — came while watching Silent Night, Deadly Night 2. She took my virginity on the floor of her parents’ living room five weeks later, and as our bodies glowed we watched Carrie 2: The Rage afterward in the glare of the television. They’re irredeemable movies on their own. But interwoven with those milestones — I’ve always been amused how I associate both romantic firsts with wretched movie sequels — they’re as precious as any of my cinematic experiences. I still can’t rewatch either film and probably never will.
I’d begun to see that maybe our mutual obsession with horror obscured as much as it revealed. April was outgoing and eager in those high school days with a voluptuous body to boot, quite a foil for a sober, quiet introvert like myself. We harmonized well at first, but I knew something would have to give for us to survive outside my basement. For her seventeenth birthday, all she wanted was thirty bucks to score a night’s worth of weed for her and her useless friends. I was appalled but relented, deluded with love and faith enough to believe she would change.
As our final three months passed, her passion for movies corroded, as did her esteem for me. All that time in a basement, watching movies that nobody else cares about, movies you can’t pass and no one else wants to share. Where was the fellowship in that? I never quite figured out what she expected, but whatever she was looking for wasn’t in Romero, Carpenter, or Cronenberg. I understood even less how she thought perpetual intoxication would rescue her. I don’t think she did, either. I had no tolerance for that trash: heaping drugs and booze on depression is like injecting Ebola to numb the pain of cancer. I tried to remind her how exhilarating it is to explore pain through art and sat her down to watch the best movies I could locate. In the end, my persistence severed us and forced her down a wretched path, one that devoured seventy pounds of her gorgeous body better than cancer ever could and trashed her ninety-seven-pound corpse in Charlie’s alley.
She cheated on me twice that final summer,more, but I told her I forgave her because she was brave enough to be honest with me. Then, finally, she threw me away as we sat in back of a flatbed truck in the midst of a feather-light August rain. I was going far away to college, and what little we had wasn’t worth fighting for, she said. I slunk off, only to drop out one semester in. I’d never failed at anything like that. When I got that Certified letter saying I was no longer welcome at college because of my grades, it seared me to the soul. It was official: I hadn’t quit; I’d been banished to a life of chaos. I blamed April, who got herself another guy and could at least boast she’d dropped out of school of her own volition.
But at least I pulled myself together, regrouped at community college, and went on to finish grad school. Everyone needs a little failure in life. It was that brief nadir that reaffirmed cinema’s role in exploring the husk of the suicide-inducing noir that became too real when April left.
She, too, bottomed after she left me. But she never made it back.
She traded grass for coke and meth in whatever quantities she could afford and meandered from guy to guy, town to town, wherever her wanderlust and unfocused, furious heart compelled her. Her arms piled up tracks; her clothes drooped off her dwindling frame as she shriveled from starving her body and feeding her habits. Her scalp itched; she scratched it raw and bore skin and blood under her fingernails.
Two months ago, Bob called me and mentioned he’d seen her shopping at the grocery store he managed and thought of me in time to get her number. He said she didn’t look so good. I made myself wait three days before calling her. Her voice hadn’t changed. Her errant odyssey had carried her back to me. But the city didn’t hold us in equal regard.
While I worked lucratively and flippantly forty-three floors up in the Bradford Building, shuffling clients’ investments as effortlessly as a riverboat black jack dealer, she toiled at a factory of nightmares in the dark heart of the industrial complex. I imagined her addiction-riddled bones ached and her throat burned and she cried, so she took her shoes off and worked on a soft carpet of sawdust to ease her pain: for the proletariat, the best days end without a nail in the foot. She made good enough money for a dropout, she assured me, but I knew she spent it quickly on the drugs she needed to make it through another night of dreading another day of work.
All this time, while I dealt with my doubts, fears and repressions in the glow of my private screening room, she laced this with that and tested her mettle against the most formidable speedballs. As wretched as I felt about it, a part of me liked having my path in life affirmed. At long last, I knew she would be better off with me than without.
One morning about a month before she died, I awoke to a palpable dread that something terrible was about to happen to her. It was like someone dumped a bucket of liquid fear on my head. I canceled my appointments and walked downtown, keeping my eyes fixed on the trail of broken glass and discarded cigarettes upon which she traveled to work every day. I checked out the neighborhood around Charlie’s while she worked. When I looked up and saw her window with the mangled shade pulled down, I wished she’d never come back to that place again. What began as a morbid fascination with a dark alcove of my youth became a missionary reclamation project: I wanted nothing more than to rescue her up and bring her to my place, feed her back to her former weight, and nurse the junk out of her system until she was the old April. I wanted her to see what I had become and to remind her of what she once had been.
Two weeks before she died, I reached out to her. She let me back into her life long enough to refuse me, and she became more than a mission. It had been a very long time since someone refused me.
“You treated me better than any guy ever, you really did,” she began, brushing the palm of her hand across my leg as we sat on her couch. The air in her apartment was hot, smoky and sour, like a recycling center in mid-summer. She took another drag on her cigarette, the third since she invited me in. The low din of Charlie’s patrons through the floorboards made her difficult to hear.
“But I don’t need any help like that. I’m going to stay here.”
Her stubborn words perplexed me. An hour passed as I tried to persuade her with reason, promises of prosperity, even fear for her immediate safety. She was resigned to a life of poverty and an early death.
When it became clear I was on the verge of failing her again, I appealed to our happiest times together. “Can you remember the old days when we used to lay together and watch those horror flicks?” Scorn was palpable in my voice. “We used to discuss how we were getting close to death with them. I wish you wouldn’t have given that up, or things might be different.”
She scoffed, took a long drag and stomped her cigarette into the rug. “You think that’s close to death? I remember when I needed something beside life to get close to death. Did you know three of my co-workers died in the last two months? Friend of mine just dropped dead in the break room, heatstroke. Do you know my stomach has shrunk so bad it hurts to eat and it hurts not to? I’m glad watching movies with me is as close to death as you’ve ever come. Personally, I think you wasted your fucking life on made-up shit. I couldn’t even get you to take your eyes off the TV and listen to how fucked up I felt.”
One minute, I was the best she ever had; another, our time together was misery. She hadn’t lost her affinity for paradoxical thinking. As if to congratulate herself for shredding me, she took out another cigarette and began to light it. She stopped.
“I saw a picture of myself from high school the other day. I was kind of fat, but I was prettier then. Now, look.” She unwrapped her arms from her torso and invited me to take in the whole ravaged package.
Her face was pockmarked and her hair, still long, blond and perfectly straight; was dull and tangled. Her ribs were visible through her stained off-white tank top. Even halfway across the room, she reeked of day-old loveless sex and stale smoke. She made me queasy. That sensation made me uncomfortable in ways no movie ever had.
“I still think you’re pretty.” I figured a lie couldn’t hurt like the truth: she’d need to get clean and put forty pounds back on before I’d even consider a physical relationship with her —she was anyone but April. Nothing was ever easy with her.
She glared at me in a way that said there’s the door.
“Look,” I steeled myself for dramatic effect. “I didn’t come to talk about that. I came because I’m scared that you’ll end up dead if you don’t get cleaned up. I came to invite you to come live with me and try to get … healthy. I’m not trying to get back with you now. I can even get you a hotel room for a while if you’re not comfortable at my place right now …”
She screwed up her face and stared me down in a familiar way; I knew instantly I’d erred fatally.
“It’s nice of you to go out of your way to rescue me. But all your fucking money ain’t going to make it like high school.” She looked away and continued in a more somber voice. “Those days were gone a long time ago.”
I crossed the room and confronted her. With a single finger, I turned her face to mine as delicately as possible; her eyes met mine and immediately turned down to the rug. I went for it, all or nothing.
“I love you. I haven’t been happy since you left. I …”
I choked on my plea when I saw tears form in her eyes —’d forgotten her eyes were brown — as she came up to meet my gaze again, and for an instant I thought she would lean in and wrap her emaciated arms around my shoulders, and life would begin anew.
But she turned away from me, toward the undecorated stucco wall. She sniffed and stared out the window and down on the street below. Someone downstairs played The Replacements on the jukebox. “I Will Dare” shattered the ambient clamor of bar chatter.
“I’m way past a life with anyone, especially someone like you.” Her words ripped a razor through my highest hopes. “Do yourself a favor. Forget about me, leave and don’t come back. Don’t call, either.” She looked over her shoulder at me, her eyes fierce behind her tears. I recognized those eyes and that voice. I was the dog in the movies and she was the master who must tearfully discharge it into the wild in a fit of transparent faux-anger.
“Just do me a favor,” she added as if dictating her dying wish. “Remember me like you did before you came here tonight. You’re all probably right: I’m going to end up dead before long. I’ve seen it: Death ain’t deep and mysterious like I said it was in the car that one day. But I think I could die happy if I had someone to remember me as something beautiful. That would make two of us.”
Silence crushed the remaining breath from our relationship, and I left without saying anything, without even nodding to indicate I would grant her wish. She was gone two weeks later, found in a burlap bag and attended only by stray cats.
It’s swirling memories like those that keep Grover and I from letting go of her when others shake their heads and say what a waste. She had a modest death notice in the paper, the unpaid kind that only says who died and where the funeral is. Twenty-one people came to the funeral according to the registry. They won’t have much trouble finding someone to take her spot at the factory. Someone will be in her apartment within the month, after someone pushes her meager furnishings out the window and into the alley. Maybe Grover and I are the only ones who know how beautiful she really was. At least that made three of us, but now she’s gone, and who knows how long Grov is going to be around. He sounds worse every time I hear from him. Suicide has perched itself on his shoulder. When I cut him off that night, the last night, I might have been his final hope to make sense of the pain that will surely kill him unchecked.
I figure I deal with it in a healthier way than Grov, but I, too, can’t shake the feeling that it was our charge to save her. In high school, April brought up marriage once or twice; I never told anyone. Whether or not she was serious, I might have been the only boy who had her thinking long-term about anything. It’s a small but precious consolation.
Eight words haunted me ever since our final encounter. Personally, I think you wasted your fucking life. There’s no use pretending all those hours in the basement were anything but a waste to her. What a waste.
By the time I internalized all that, I’d finally figured it out: It took April’s descent to understand that commodified death is only fascinating to someone who’s never brushed with organic death. In this town Death stalks some of us, the happy and the tragic, wherever they go and no matter what they do to elude Him. Some survive. Some can’t. Some don’t care to. There’s nothing beautiful or artistic in that. One thing was certain: Death is prolific enough. He never needed any help from me.
Rubbing my sore eyes, I noticed the sun was gone. It had likely been dark for some time. On the table, next to the phone, sat the tape.
I picked it up and studied it. Label-less and unscuffed with a brand-new gleam, it didn’t look anything like I imagined. I no longer felt the anticipation I felt that morning.
What a waste.
Had the last fourteen years really been a waste like she said? All that time, I could have poured my time, money, and energy into being a lover and a friend to her instead of trying to assimilate her and then trying to sweep her away like a superhero social worker when it was too late. What did I have? A million simulated, irrelevant deaths that dissipate into the air when compared to one life that should have mattered.
I dropped the tape down on the table and raised my fist high, ready to beat it into shards. But I couldn’t do it. I brought the tape into the living room.
Sliding the tape listlessly into the VCR, I stepped back and slumped onto the couch. There was no sound except the machine gearing up. If I’d wasted every resource on this crusade, at least I was going to finish it. If every other astronaut on the first moon expedition died on the way, Neil Armstrong still would have walked on the moon, if only to piss on the damned thing. Astronauts and connoisseurs are the same in that way: our romanticized destinations are cold, desolate and far, far away from where the ones we love need us most.
I turned up the volume as the tape fuzz faded into a wide shot revealing a dirty mattress in an sparse room. The cement walls were grimy and pasted with blood and filth. The floor was stained reddish-brown. From the look of it, mine wasn’t the first film these guys made — that, or they brought in a few auditions beforehand. It looked rancid and hot in there, had to smell like a body pit. A wooden rack with at least a dozen various blades hung on the wall. Other instruments intended to maim —made out a wooden baseball bat, a sledgehammer, an electric drill, a nail gun — sat on a makeshift surgeon’s table to the left of a folding chair. The camera shakily zoomed in to behold two ogres in sleeveless black shirts,faces masked to conceal their identities.
“Get the bitch!” a voice behind the camera commanded. I recognized it as belonging to the peddler.
The black-clad monsters dragged in my dear April, her legs wildly thrashing as she screamed for mercy. I suspected she knew too well what was about to happen.
As she struggled, one of her captors smashed her in the face with his elbow to pacify her; her body went limp at impact, her head drooped downward as blood trickled down the front of her off-white shirt, the same one she wore the night she threw me out of her life the second time. The men tied her to the chair. One talked inaudibly, implicitly previewing what his little lamb was about to endure. The other made his way over to the table and began sifting through his tools. He settled on a blowtorch: just as I’d written in the script.
That was the moment I’d waited for. Snuff. I’d touched the bottom.
I reached for the remote control and paused the tape. I rose in the darkness and the silence. April was right, nothing could prepare me to watch someone murdered, but watching snuff with someone you love as the victim of choice, neither of us could have comprehended it. Or maybe she knew all along and that’s why she abandoned the movies: she was more comfortable killing herself than watching others die. In that way, I suppose my tribute serves its purpose to her. She wasn’t in pain anymore. The only thing left to do was decide if I was ready to see it through.
If I unpaused the tape, I’d watch as ninety-seven-pound April was burned, beaten, and whipped (Act 1); raped, stabbed, and shit on (Act 2); and finally her throat would be cut and she would bleed to death as they play a tape of me reading the last love poem I ever wrote to her (Act 3). If I stop the tape, maybe snuff will go back to being an urban legend.
Then I thought of April’s final wish. I think I could die happy if I had someone to remember me as something beautiful. Easing back onto the couch, I pressed play. Remembering she loved black and white, I used the remote control to drain the screen of its color. That did it. She was beautiful again. As the blowtorch jabbed in and out of the frame and the peddler shouted encouragement, I reminded myself that April’s death was a dénouement and not a deus ex machina. She said she’d die happy just to be beautiful again: now she would be beautiful forever. I buried myself beneath a blanket, allowing only my head to peek out, and I assured myself I made the right choice for both of us. By the end of this movie, we can both sleep soundly.