The Cameraman

- Patrick Kilcullen

I noticed the handle first, sticking out of the clutter between Gene’s bed and the wall. The grip of a toy gun? I reached down into the filth, took hold of it and pulled. A big blue ball at the end of the barrel was stuck.  

I listened out through Gene’s door, into the hallway and downstairs, wondering what he actually did when he said he was going to the bathroom but was gone for an hour. I yanked the toy. Beer bottles, cans, and old filth resettled behind the bed.

I held it in my hands. The grip and the barrel were made of black plastic, and at the end of the barrel a blue satellite dish had a thick metal antenna sticking out from the middle of it. Maybe it was something from Gene’s childhood that he now played with when he was filming, or tripping, but I worried it was something he wouldn’t want me to know he owned. There was metal hole in the bottom of the grip, and blue, bulky headphones lay on Gene’s dresser.

Footsteps came fast up the stairs. I shoved and twisted the toy into the trash and sat back casually on the edge of the bed as Gene slipped in. His face was always either suspect or suspicious. He stared at me and waited for my eyes to meet his. It was his room and his cocaine, so I obliged. Had he heard me fumbling around in his room, or was this another game?  We kept staring until I said, “yo.”

He checked his phone, frowned, and shook his head. I knew what this was about.

“Have you talked to Kevin? Or Mark?”

“Umm,” I pretended to think, “No, not very recently.”

“Like today? Or yesterday?”.

Gene sat next to me on his sheetless mattress. He uncovered a bag and straw from under a VHS case on his dresser. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of those assholes all day.”

I recalled a commercial from my childhood–an old woman wearing headphones points a blue antenna through a hedge of bushes and across a lawn toward two other old woman sipping iced tea on a patio. They’re gossiping about her. Good thing she now knows never to invite those old hags over for iced tea again, thanks to her Listen-In! I wondered if that same commercial inspired Gene to purchase his own Listen-In.

“They’ve been ignoring my calls and texts all day. Basically every fucking day. I don’t know why. Why, Andy? What have I done wrong?”

“I don’t know man. I mean…”

Gene realized he’d forgotten my line. He promptly broke it up, and once it was up my nose I was able to continue with what he wanted.

“They’re both generally pretty hard to get ahold of. I text them all the time and they don’t get back to me for hours, Or they just never respond.”

“Yeah, but Andy, you know what I mean.”

“I do. I do. Sometimes they respond, sometimes nothing. No rhyme or reason.” I lit a cigarette with the end of my last cigarette,”There’s this psychological study I read about that showed people assume things, or actions, they assume actions are caused by internal factors rathe... or external... Shit!

“Andy! just tell me.”

“When someone does something to you, you assume they’re doing it on purpose, but–”

“Not that!”

I watched for the next batch of lines to get longer and fatter while Gene continued on, “I don’t understand it, I’m almost positive Kevin misunderstands half the things I say and do, completely. Mark too. But Andy... Mark.You know it’s not Mark. I mean it’s him too, in a way, but you know...” he sighed, “You know how all that works, Andy. Come on.”

I wait for my fat line, and then I knew just what to say. “It’s their weird dynamic, not just in Kevin’s films. Kevin directs Mark in real life too. As a director/actor relationship it works great, it’s beautiful. In day to day life it’s fucking creepy.  I mean, Mark’s like Kevin’s prize pretty boy he can order around. On and off screen. ‘Walk here then there,’ ‘use more emphasis,’ ‘go get me a glass of water,’ ‘do my grocery shopping and suck my cock.’ It’s weird.”

Gene stuck a finger at my chest, “Andy, yes! Bingo! Yes, Andy– what’s the word I’m looking for– manipulative! That’s it! ”

“To say the least.”

Gene turn on the TV and our usual cocaine fueled conversation continued under the ambiance of late night programming– the same cheap horror films and old sitcoms we’d watched on sleepovers a decade earlier, on the same TV. Back then we would talk about girls and skateboarding, now we engaged in verbal tug of war. Gene took every opportunity to pull the conversation back to Kevin and his films. I fought for virtually any other topic to take hold, but Gene’s grip was strong, and it was his cocaine.

He abruptly left to find a few more beers for the last few lines. How long would he be gone this time? I wanted to crack his door, aim the blue satellite dish out into the hall, down the stairs, and listen in on whatever madness Gene got up to when he was alone.

But listening wouldn’t be good enough– I wanted to see it. How could I see Gene alone with his mania?

Binoculars! Cameras! I started searching his room, but quickly realized what end of a lense I’d most likely find myself on. I sat innocently back on the bed, twiddling my thumbs.

What a God-awful room–spacious, but cramped; furniture serving no other purpose than to hold clutter; primer white walls, piss yellow pillows without cases, and a crumb covered mattress; ash and resin on every surface and in every crevice; a closet so overflowed with garbage both clean and dirty clothes went on the floor. There was one pristine corner in the room–where Gene’s camera equipment was packed securely away in expensive cases and covered with tarps. No wonder Gene was the way he was. It was the room! The cocaine!

I wouldn’t let it get to me, as it must have gotten to Gene, deep into his soul. I took a deep breath, backtracked, and analysed my situation. What was I worried about? What did I want?  Why was I afraid? Was I afraid? How could I solve it? Solve what?

I didn’t know. It might have been the cocaine.

I thrust my hand behind the bed, took hold of the Listen-In and removed it from the trash with the same swift, clean motion as earlier. I flipped a switch, a red dot on the grip lit up, and I pulled the trigger. Static. There was nothing to hear in the cluttered closet. I kneeled on Gene’s bed and aimed the Listen-In out through his window.

 

Gene’s backyard was long and the far end of it was thick with pine trees. All of the properties on his block were similar, and together they formed a miniature forest of trees surrounded by lush backyards and modern houses. I was always jealous of where Gene lived. He belonged to a community of kids who roamed hilly streets and played among trees. I was only ever an outsider from a poorer, childless part of town. Where Gene lived everyone would congregate on summer evenings to play ghost in the graveyard, gossip, fight, flirt, and learn secrets of the adult world from older kids. I felt lucky anytime I was able to accompany Gene into that world, also worried the slightest lapse in etiquette would get me cast out.

I steadied my hold of the Listen-In, pointed the antenna at the little forest, and listened to nothing. No static, no rustling leaves or laughing children, just the sound of a dead backyard. It was four in the morning. Kids would’ve been called home hours ago, but now was the time some crept out through back doors, climbed down gutters, dropped out of windows, and scurried off into shadows on endeavors sure to become nostalgic.

What was that? A creaking down the hall. A thud. I turned the satellite on Gene’s door, held my breath, and listened again to nothing. What could Gene be doing downstairs after his family had gone to bed? Nothing. Nothing you could openly talk about. Where was he? A room with the lights on, hopefully.

I stuck my head out his window and surveyed the house below, looking for any sign of activity. A light was on three stories down, illuminating a basement window I’d crawled through countless times in the past, most memorably during the summer between middle and high school.

Two things draw thirteen year old boys out of the house in the middle of the night, and anything close to attainable sex was far beyond our social standing, so we would venture out into the night with our minds set on the kind pointless vandalism only hormone crazed boys could inflict upon the suburbs:  spray painted cars, smashed windows, garbage can fires, aerosol can explosions, tipped portapotties–whatever rid us of a vague urge that would later be quelled by inebriation and occasionally girls. Gene told us he had special mission one night late that summer, something unprecedented. He, Mark, and I took our turns slipping through the basement window.

Gene led the way on a course he knew well– through gardens, over fences, around sheds– and we stopped under a pine tree, behind a garage at the far end of a long yard. Without saying a word he went up the tree. Marc and I ascended into sappy, prickly branches

Gene slipped gingerly onto the garage. Mark and I silently consulted each other. “Come,” Gene patted the roof. Mark struggled onto the garage then took my hand to help me on after him. We kept our centers of gravity low, hoping for stability on old shingles. Gene squatted confidently, “It’s titty time.”

There was a brief moment of intrigue, followed by overwhelming anxiety. “Jesus fuck,” Mark fell to his stomach, splay limbed. I couldn’t move. Gene crept toward the peak of the roof, rolled his fingers over the ridge and pulled himself up, just so his eyes could peek over. Without much convincing, there were soon twenty four sweaty fingers gripping the top of the roof, six eyes just above them, and three thirteen year old boys peering at the a back of a house where a girl in their grade lived. Sally Jacobs–shy volleyball star.

The dank green of the backyard bled through the night. I could smell dew and pine. Warm, orange windows revealed an indoor world not unlike our own homes, but terrifying because it was where a girl our age slept, showered, ate, pissed, changed, and assumed privacy.

“There’s Sally’s mom, Becca,” a rotund woman sat on a couch inside a long set of windows on the first floor. “She’s a drinker. Sally’s room–” Gene pointed to a glowing, humming yellow window on the second floor.

Gene had been there more that once, but assured us it wasn’t many times total. He’d seen Sally change, but never saw her naked, though he knew it would happen soon. She liked to practice violin in her underwear. Her dad was gone, her older brother had a cool car, and her mom was socially boisterous, but it was said she had a temper at home.

A shadow moved across the yellow window and Gene squeezed my arm. Sally brushed her teeth while pacing her room. I didn’t know if I would’ve recognized her had Gene not said her name. Mark was pretending to avert his eyes. Was it gay if I didn’t want to watch Sally Jacobs change?

She took off her top and we turned into enchanted, motionless apes. Her window was far enough away through darkness that it took me a moment to realize she was in an off-white undershirt. It was difficult to make out anything—maybe Gene had better eyes than me. Sally took off her jeans and was in her underwear for a long minute before she put on shorts and disappeared.

“We need to get the fuck out of here,” Mark threw a thumb over his shoulder.

Gene hushed him and gestured to the surrounding properties.

“I think we should leave.” I said, already planning on running away from home if we got caught.

Gene told us to wait, it would be worth it.

Sally appeared downstairs. Gene seemed just as interested in watching her converse with her fat, couch-bound mother as he did watching her change, and I didn’t know which was worse.

Mark made for the tree and I followed. Gene stayed spying. Navigating the the backyards behind Gene’s house required knowledge of motion lights, angry old neighbors, and decks on which adults stayed up late drinking–we couldn’t leave without him.

“Shit!” Gene ducked behind the peak of the roof, “She hit her.”

I had to look. Sally’s hair was disheveled and she held her face in her hands. Her mother stood over her, threw back an arm and brought an open hand down hard against side of her daughter’s head. She grabbed the girl’s hair and tried pulling her to the floor. Sally held her footing, and the two scuffled across the floor and out of view.

Mark and I found our way back to Gene’s and waited for him behind his parents’ shed. He arrived twenty minutes later. He’d seen nothing else– no more abuse, no tits. He was considering telling his parents, or a teacher, about what we saw. Mark and I assured him he’d die by our hands if he did.

Didn’t we want to be heros?

No.

 

Gene never told anyone about that night, as far as I knew, but early that school year I’d caught wind that the tree next to Sally Jacobs’ garage had been cut down. I couldn’t think of why the information would have been relayed to me, so it very well may have only been a fabrication of my memory as I hung half out Gene’s window over a decade later, scanning the miniature forest in his backyard with the Listen-In, searching for answers.

I was coked out, that was the answer.

I buried the Listen-In back in the trash behind Gene’s bed, leaving the handle protruding as I’d found it. I wanted to wash my hands. More importantly, I had to get out of that room if only just for a moment if I ever wanted to feel sane again.

The bathroom was right outside Gene’s door. I tiptoed in. Pale yellow light surrounded me while I irregularly spurted urine and shamed my pathetic coke dick. I stared at my grey, damp face and wide, bloodshot eyes in the mirror. The arrhythmic hum and flashing of light became unbearable. I fled back to Gene’s room.

I slipped in without a sound and Gene was sitting on his bed, eyes already on mine. He patted the sheetless mattress next to him, “come sit.”

I sat, Gene produced a line for me.

“Andy.”

“What’s up?”

“Kevin ignores me.”

I shook my head, “Me too, dude.”

“No. You know what I’m talking about. When it’s time to film, or get ready to film, he doesn’t even wait for me to respond to texts before he calls me. I can’t even accidentally ignore him for five minutes.”

“I know.”

“He needs to know where I am, to tell me what to do.”

“It’s usually the same way with me. I know he gets focused on writing and everything, but it can still get inconsiderate and annoying. I try to ignore–”

“Andy! He completely cuts me off. I just want to know why.”

“I don’t know, man. I try not to take that shit personally.”

“It is personal, Andy… And I know,” he was bouncing his knees up and down with his hands on them, trying to calm them down, “Andy, I know you’re with him sometimes, too. With him and Mark and you all ignore my calls and texts…”

“I–”

“Andy, it’s okay. I just need this acknowledged.”

“I mean, I don’t know what to do in those situations. Believe me, Gene, believe me when I say I hate all that awkwardness, but it’s there, and I really just don’t want to get involved. It’s all like middle school girl drama and I wish it wasn’t–”

“Andy,” he put his hand on my knee and pretended to laugh, “you don’t have to apologize. I just need to know…”

I asked for a cigarette and he gave me one, along with more cocaine.

“Ultimately,” I said, “I want to be a part of making great films, and I can put all of this bullshit aside.”

Gene held a finger up to my face and then blew what could’ve been four more lines– the rest of the cocaine. “I’m the cameraman, Andy. A movie doesn’t look good, it looks like shit, if I don’t do my job right. And I do it more than right, I do it perfect. Every time. Yes, it’s Kevin’s vision, his films, but it’s my eyes. My eyes, Andy. Kevin’s ideas, but it’s Mark’s performance. Your’s too. Which I’m not saying any of it is bad. You’re all amazing. Kevin’s a genius. But the audience sees what I decided, what I see. Where I look and how I make it look, and there’s no fucking point to a film if there’s no audience. There’s nothing more important to watching a movie than the actual watching. That comes from me! My eyes are the audience’s eyes.” He was stabbing his chest with his finger. “I’m in control!”

I was nodding my head, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

“No.” Gene turned the TV off, “No. Andy, look at me. Look.”

He stared at me with sad puppy dog eyes, a face without color and sagging cheeks, His jaw went in circles grinding his teeth.

“Andy…”

I waited.

“Andy.”

“Yeah?”

“Andy,” he extended his arm sideways, pointed across the room, “look.”

I looked. He was pointing at his 2001: A Space Odyssey poster.

“You see what I’m pointing at?”

“Yeah.”

“The image I’m pointing at.”

“Yeah, it’s–”

“No! Andy, look.”

I looked at the golden outline of a monolith, under a golden sun and moon, on an all black canvas with the title above it. I turned back to Gene. Big mistake.

“Andy! Dammit!”

I put my eyes back on the monolith.

“Think about it…”

I thought about it, “Yeah, it’s–”

“No! Andy, look.”

I was looking. I kept looking.

“Think about it.’

“An amazing–”

“No!”

“Right, yeah, sorry.”

Gene had moved in closer to me, still pointing at the poster across the room. He let out a sigh and shook his head. “I don’t know. Just think about it dude.”

He turned on late night TV and we soon felt empty.