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The Fall of Never, Page 2

Ronald Malfi

  “I’m staying out of the shots today, Nellie,” Kelly told the woman. “I’m going to be with Josh behind the camera. I’ve written some narration in this notebook. I’m just going to recite it to myself while Josh films, make sure we’ve got enough useable footage.”

  “That’s fine, dear.”

  “English muffins would be great, Nellie,” Josh said, rubbing the palms of his hands together. He lifted the tripod and camera and set them directly across from the kitchen vestibule, peered through the lens, and panned back until he was able to see most of the kitchen through the blue-tinted viewfinder.

  “We got enough tape?” Kelly asked him.

  “Quit worrying about my job,” he barked with some humor, not taking his eye from the eyepiece. “Do me a favor, Kell, and go stand in front of the camera for a sec. I want to get a height ratio here…”

  “You nearly ran out of film last time,” she told him, moving into the kitchen and standing in front of the camera. Her eyes were down, still scrutinizing her notes. “Someone needs to keep an eye on you.”

  “Worry-worry-worry,” Josh snickered. “Nellie, you think our girl Kelly here is going to worry herself to an early death?”

  “Worries me,” Nellie said, unwrapping the English muffins. Then to Kelly: “You don’t look so good, dear.”

  “I’m fine,” she insisted, looking up. “I don’t understand why everyone keeps interfering with—”

  She froze, staring straight ahead at the eye of the camera…staring at the blinking red RECORD light just above the lens. Too occupied with her muffins, Nellie did not notice the frozen expression on Kelly’s face. Josh, still standing behind the camera and peering through the lens, did.

  “Kell? Kelly? Command Center to Agent Kelly Rich…”

  She snapped her head away from the blinking red light. “What?” she blurted, temporarily disoriented. “What is it?”

  “You’re phasing out on me, kid,” Josh said, peeking at her from around the side of the camera. “A bit camera shy? You did fine the other day.”

  “No, I’m just…” She brought a hand up to her forehead, rubbed her brow. “I guess I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

  “You up for this?”

  “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”

  “You’re the boss,” he said, and stepped back behind the camera. “Now get your mug out of the frame, country girl.”

  Kelly sidestepped the tripod and moved into the hallway. She cleared some books off a small wooden chair and sat down, her mind still reeling. Looking down, she saw the knees of her jeans were damp from where she’d rested her hands. Her palms were moist with sweat and she rubbed them together like an Eskimo trying to keep warm.

  I don’t know what a nervous breakdown feels like, she thought, but if I had to guess, I’d say it feels very much like this.

  The last time she’d felt this way was years ago, back with Collin in the months before their separation. They’d taken turns, it seemed then, struggling with the reality of their incompatibility…with Collin’s infidelity and her neuroses…until the foundation of their impromptu marriage could do nothing but give in and fall away beneath them. And before Collin, the last time she’d felt this unstable and paralyzed had been…Christ, it had been such a goddamn long time ago she couldn’t even remember…

  Maybe I should have just taken the day off after all, she thought. This wasn’t such a good idea. I feel lousy. I feel like I’m psychic, and I know I’m going to get creamed by a taxi on my way home tonight.

  That wasn’t good. Recently, the project seemed like it was on a perpetual downslope, and for the past week or so she had begun doubting herself. And that just wasn’t good, wasn’t good at all. The onslaught of doubt, she understood, signified the eventual renouncing of the whole project altogether. And early on, she had been so excited about the project’s potential. As most great ideas do, the initial concept of the project dawned on her before she even realized she had been looking for it. It was simple: a series of videotaped biographies, only not about actors or musicians or politicians or war heroes, but about average people who have overcome tremendous adversities in their lives. She’d call it We the People, and would present a new individual with each installment, show how they lived, how they got by day-to-day, and what their specific adversities were. The concept had struck her like a thunderbolt, nearly rattling her brain, and on the heels of the concept she’d thought: Yes, this is it, you are it, you are the art I’ve been searching for all along and I didn’t even know it. How many potential subjects lived in all of Manhattan? Hell, how many potential subjects lived on her very own street? Sure, there would be research and lots of work and she’d probably need to go to the University to gather some help…but this idea…this idea was a good idea, and it would certainly work.

  She’d met some amazing people, and interviewed and photographed them all. Belinda Charles, the seven-hundred-pound woman sentenced to live out the remainder of what promised to be a cruelly short life atop her filthy mattress. Jackson Tanner, the teenage boy who’d bitten down on the business end of a handgun, pulled the trigger and blew the bottom half of his face apart…only to survive. So many unbelievable people living so many unbelievable lives. And, of course, old Nellie Worthridge, absent of both her legs since the age of twenty and looking like a wrinkled old wind-up toy.

  “On your orders, my lady,” Josh said from behind the camera, snapping Kelly from her daze.

  “We ready, Nellie?” she called into the kitchen, not looking up from her notebook.

  “I’m just doing what I do, dear,” Nellie called back.

  “All right,” Kelly said, trying not to think about that red blinking light. “Roll camera, Josh.”

  Chapter Two

  It was raining and near dark once Kelly and Josh finally wrapped up the shoot. It had gone smoothly, and both Kelly and Josh were pleased with the footage. Sometime around noon, Nellie’s headaches returned (Kelly insisted Josh keep the camera rolling, even though the headaches really had no bearing on the project itself) and the woman began quietly moaning to herself. She maneuvered her motorized wheelchair over to the sofa in her tiny parlor and, without any assistance, lifted herself up onto the sofa and eased back against one of the arm rests. Josh offered to get the woman a glass of water and some Advil, but Kelly shook her head, insistent upon their complete and total lack of interference. Soon, Nellie’s headache subsided enough for her to crawl back into her chair and fix herself something to eat.

  “Could just be a hunger headache,” the old woman told them as she fixed herself some whole-wheat toast and jam. “Ain’t seen food since supper last night. Get too sick eating breakfast nowadays.”

  Outside, the sky looked the color of fading iron. It had gotten colder, the wind picking up, and the collection of yellow cabs cluttering the streets already had their headlights on.

  “You feel like catching some eats?” Josh asked her.

  “Not up to it,” she said. “Think I’ll just head home, get some sleep.”

  He nodded. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Think maybe I’ll go home and go over the dailies.”

  “Dedication,” she said, half-smiling. “I like that in a scrub.”

  “You know me,” he said, hailing a cab. “Fingers to the bone, right? Share a cab with me?”

  She rode with him back to the Village, thanked him for all his hard work (this was a habit; it was the least she could do, given the fact that Josh Cavey worked for free), and crept up the steps to her third-floor apartment like a dejected mutt. Her apartment was small and gloomy, with only two narrow windows facing Washington Square in the main room. It was very obviously the home of someone subsisting on city grants and the emolument for her former duties as a wife and homemaker. The walls boasted a dreary collection of monochromatic Gothic prints, mostly from local artists, and a collection of abstract sculptures could be found resting on nearly every applicable surface: “pene di partecipazione azionaria di uomo,” and “donn
a senza mammelle” and “masturbazione.” Bookshelves groaning from the weight of thick, leather-bound volumes…a vase of wilted peonies…some week-old Chinese take-out growing fungus on the kitchen counter…a lamp in the shape of a turtle, its shell a patchwork of colored glass rectangles…

  She stepped into the apartment, peeling her black coat off and draping it over a wicker chair beside the small sofa. Grabbing a mineral water from the fridge, she moved to the computer beneath the two narrow windows overlooking Washington Square and pushed a Thelonious Monk CD into the drive. Setting the bottled water down, she gathered up her Nikon automatic from the top of the CPU and peered through the viewfinder, snapping off a series of apartment shots, not caring that there was no film in the chamber.

  The urge to urinate hit her then, suddenly so overwhelming that she nearly collapsed to the floor. Weak-kneed, she managed to scamper to the bathroom, kick her pants down around her ankles, and drop down onto the toilet seat just as a warm spray of urine came squirting out of her. It seemed like the stream would never stop. If it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t had sex with a man in over a year, she thought gloomily, I’d think I was pregnant.

  She showered for nearly an hour, pulled on a cotton nightshirt, and decided to settle down for a night of reading on her bed when the telephone rang. It was Josh.

  “Sorry to wake you,” he said without waiting for her to speak, “but something’s pretty fucked up over here.”

  “Where are you?”

  “My place. I’ve been running over the dailies for the past half-hour or so…well, trying to, anyway…but it looks like the damn thing blew one hell of a green fuckus right out of—”

  “Hold on—what the hell are you talking about? What’s going on, Josh?”

  “The dailies are scrubbed. Fucking dead. Which is absolute bullshit because I watched some through the monitor at Nellie’s this afternoon, remember? You were there, you saw me watching them. Everything was fine then, so I don’t understand…”

  “Are you saying the tapes are ruined?” She could feel a heavy headache coming on. “Everything we shot today?”

  “Ruined or something,” Josh said. He sounded rightfully pissed off.

  “Something? What the hell does that mean?”

  “I don’t know. It’s not like the tape is permanently damaged because the damaged sections seem to change every time I view it…like maybe something’s wrong with my player, I don’t fucking know. It’s not messed up in the same spot every time, you know what I mean? But it’s not my player because I tossed in a copy of Monty Python and everything worked fine, worked all right, so then I throw in one of the dailies again and fuck it all—the tapes just won’t play right, Kell.”

  “All the tapes?” She was staring at the digital readout on her alarm clock beside her bed: 10:32 PM. She wasn’t even tired.

  “Looks that way,” he said. Kelly thought she heard someone yelling in the background, but she supposed it could have just been the television. “Every goddamn thing we shot today.”

  “Maybe the camera heads were dirty and got shit on the tapes,” was all she could think of. “I’ve got cleaner here. And if not, maybe I can clean it up digitally on the computer.”

  “You want me to run them by tomorrow?”

  She was still staring at the clock: 10:34. There would be no sleep tonight again, no matter how tired she eventually got. That sensation of building, of blossoming inside her continued to grow, to push against the inner wall of her body. No—no sleeping tonight. “Could you bring them by now?”

  “Now?” he said. Again, Kelly thought she heard someone shouting in the background. It sounded like a woman and a man arguing. “It’s late…”

  “I just thought you might be going out…”

  “I can drop them off, sure. Just figured you’d be too tired to get fired back up again.”

  “Well, if we have to reshoot, I’d like to know as soon as possible so we can plan around it.”

  “All right,” he said. “Be there in twenty.”

  Twenty minutes later Josh showed up with his nylon case slung over one shoulder and a pizza in the other hand. His teeth were still chattering from the brisk walk from the cab to the apartment—it had gotten that cold—and his face looked bright red. “Figured we might as well eat,” he said. “Sorry, but I didn’t pick up any beer.”

  “Get in here,” she told him, taking the pizza from him and setting it down on the mock-granite coffee table in front of the sofa. “There’re beers in the fridge, if you’re really looking to dull the senses.”

  He moved into the kitchen, unzipping his leather coat and tossing it over a chair. Peering into the fridge, he said, “You said you had beer in here.”

  She opened Josh’s nylon case and selected one of the videocassettes from inside, pulled back the rear panel and examined the film. It looked fine. “There is,” she called back.

  “No…there’s Coors and Bud Light but no beer.” He shut the fridge, a Coors in his hand anyway. “No real beer. Must be your girlie side. Funny, I didn’t realize you had one.”

  Ignoring him, she carefully pushed one of the videocassettes into the digital video camera which she then plugged into her computer, cued up the tape, and eased back onto the sofa with the camera on her lap. In an instant, Nellie Worthridge’s kitchen appeared on the screen with Nellie herself in her chair, fixing lunch at the counter. “Could be just a hunger headache,” Nellie was saying as she toasted her bread.

  Josh came up behind Kelly eating a slice of pizza. “This part’s fine. Fast-forward it for a few seconds.”

  She did, then hit PLAY again.

  “See?” Josh said, his voice raised a notch. It was evident by his aggravated tone that he’d been driving himself crazy with these videos for a good portion of the evening. “You see what I’m saying? Looks like the tape is screwed.”

  The screen blurred, went to static, flashed a negative image of Nellie Worthridge’s kitchen, and then fell to static again. Kelly leaned forward and popped the tape cassette out of the camera housing, flipped back the cassette’s rear panel to examine the tape again. “Looks fine,” she said, slipping the videocassette back into the digital camera and pushing PLAY.

  The picture returned to the screen—a shot of withered old Nellie Worthridge eating a piece of jammed wheat-toast—and held steady for several seconds before blurring and falling to snow again.

  “That’s odd,” she muttered. “If the tape was messed up, we shouldn’t have seen that image when I put the tape back in.”

  “That’s what I’m saying.”

  She rewound the video and hit PLAY again. Nellie was back at the toaster once more, complaining about her hunger headache. The image held. The toaster popped and Nellie took the toast from it, set it on the counter, and began spreading jam on top of it while smiling absently at the camera. “Get too sick eating breakfast nowadays,” Nellie said on the video.

  “Okay,” Kelly said, “two seconds ago we weren’t able to view this scene, and now we—”

  As if on cue the image on the screen dispersed, splintering like rays of lights, just as a wave of peppery static flooded the screen. The audio went out as well—didn’t slow or bend or speed up, just went completely dead. Kelly let it run for a while, waiting to see if it got any better, but it didn’t. She kept it on visual fast-forward, but the picture did not return. Only snow and dead sound.

  “They’re all like this?” she asked Josh. “All the tapes? Everything we shot today?”

  “Everything we shot today,” he repeated dully, finishing off his pizza and taking a slug of beer. “I’m beat.”

  She put the camera down and sat in front of her computer, her fingers quickly tapping over the keypad. “Rewind the tape back to the beginning,” she told Josh, “back to where it was fine.”

  Josh did so as Kelly brought up the clear digital image in a tiny box in the upper left-hand corner of her computer screen. She typed some code that enlarged the frame. “Go ahead
and let it play,” she said.

  Josh hit PLAY on the camera and the video started up again, Nellie Worthridge talking about her hunger headache while fixing toast at the kitchen counter, the toaster popping, Nellie smiling at Josh behind the camera. Then it went to fuzz. This time, Kelly tapped out a procession on the keyboard and the lines of static minimized, showing only the faintest picture behind it, as if they were watching the scene through a partially opaque shower curtain.

  “I can clean it up a little,” she said, “but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good.”

  “And where’s the sound now?”

  “I don’t know.” She looked at the audio bar at the bottom of the monitor. “Audio’s registering, we just can’t hear it anymore.”

  “That’s so bizarre,” Josh said. He was scrutinizing the other videocassettes he brought with him in his nylon carrying case. Kelly turned to say something and caught the blinking red light of the camera out of the corner of her eye, and froze.

  There is a door, and behind that door there is a flash of light, a very cold flash of light, and when you step into that light you can feel the hands on you, the hands guiding you, and you are stepping in something too, something wet and you think it is water at first, but then you realize that it is not water and it is coming from you, and you were laughing about it all just moments before but now you are afraid, now you are very much afraid, and now you think that you might even die here…

  “Excuse me,” she managed, hopping up from behind the computer and barreling past Josh like a runaway eighteen-wheeler, her destination the bathroom at the end of the hallway. She hit the toilet bowl like a bull colliding with a matador. Lucky the lid was up, she vomited a filmy green foam into the bowl. Her stomach was empty—she hadn’t eaten anything all day—and she could feel the bile pulling up from the deepest bowels of her being, before breaking off into a series of barking dry heaves. After a few lumbering moments, she reached up and flushed the handle while catching her breath. Shaking, beads of sweat breaking out along her skin, she leaned back against the tub, eyes shut tight. She was aware of Josh standing in the bathroom doorway glaring down at her; she could hear his breathing mixed with her own.