Fiction May 2013

The Critics

A short story
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I told her I was on my way. When I hung up, John asked whether I wanted him to come along, and I told him I’d be fine. I tried Ida’s cell as I drove, but her voicemail interrupted after one ring. The voice on the recording wasn’t Ida’s, but Ethan Hawke’s: “At the beep, please leave your name, number, and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma, and we’ll get back to you.” The message was a line from Reality Bites, the angsty Winona Ryder movie from the ’90s that, depending on her mood, Ida either loved or hated. By the fifth time I heard Ethan Hawke and not my daughter on the other end of the phone, I had resolved to buy every copy of Reality Bites I could find in the five-for-twenty bin at Walmart —just so I could burn them all in the backyard.

I clung to the hope that the kids would already have emerged from the woods by the time I got there, but Daryl’s mom was the only person in the parking lot. The sun was beginning to set behind the trees. We probably had an hour of daylight left. She rushed over to my car.

“They left up that trail this morning,” she said, pointing up the mountain. “I just walked about a quarter mile up and called their names. No answer, though.”

“Okay, stay here,” I said. “If it gets completely dark out, shine your headlights up the trail. I’m sure they’re fine. They probably just lost track of time.”

I waved limply and set out on the trail at a near-run. I wanted to cover as much ground as possible. I thought about one of Ida’s genres: “Wilderness Adventures in Which the Hero Battles Spirits, Thieves, Ne’er-Do-Wells, and/or Mother Nature Herself.” As I hiked higher and higher up the mountain, I chanted the names of all such films I could remember: The Blair Witch Project, Into the Wild, Deliverance, The River Wild, White Fang, and on and on. I called out for Daryl and Ida but heard only the echo of my own voice as it cascaded across a sea of shadowy pines and rhododendron. I won’t lie: I panicked. When I called out Ida’s name, my voice cracked high. I tripped twice—first on a tree root and then on a loose stone. I worried that Daryl’s mom had directed me up the wrong trail. I was on the verge of turning back for the parking lot when a hiker in high blue socks appeared at the top of the next rise.

He approached with long strides. A tremendous, wiry beard consumed his face, and a frame pack bounced on his back. He was the wilderness incarnate, a burly creature with carved wooden trekking poles and a dentist’s perfect smile.

“Everything all right?” he asked, like some unflappable scoutmaster.

“Trying to find some kids. My daughter’s somewhere out here with a friend.”

“They were on this trail?”

“That’s what I’ve been told. They set out in this direction earlier today. How many trails are out here?”

He thought about it.

“I’d have to check the map to be sure.”

I didn’t like this man—his precision, his unexpected interest.

“How old are they?” he asked. “Do they know to stay put when lost?”

Does anyone?, I thought.

“They may not think they’re lost,” I said. “They’re thirteen.”

I was ready to be judged for letting them come out here without a chaperone. But the man only nodded and unbuckled his pack. He let it slide to the ground with a thud and began digging in an outer pocket. I’d already pegged him for a folk-singer-survivalist or maybe an abortion-clinic bomber. He spread his wrinkled map out across his knees.

“We’re here,” he said, and pointed between two topographical lines. “Two trails run this way and this way. This trail goes to a waterfall, and that one to an overlook called Hunter’s Rock.”

He indicated all of this with his middle finger and thumb, the fingernails lined with dirt and what looked like dried blood.

“Once we reach this fork, I can head toward the overlook,” he offered. “And you can go for the waterfall. That way we might be able to check both while we still have a little light.”

I didn’t want this man’s help, but I needed it.

“Name’s Dan,” he said, and smiled.

He led the way. We crossed a small creek, which soaked through my loafers. Our elongated shadows mimicked our movements to our left. A cool breeze twisted the leaves above our heads. I thought I smelled a campfire, somewhere far off. Dan the hiker kept up a quick pace, his long white legs scissoring uphill. He carried a large knife on his belt. If backpacks had license plates, I would have memorized his.

We reached the fork, and Dan said we’d split up there. I was reluctant to let him go. He’d been helpful, but I still didn’t trust him. What was in that backpack? Why was he hiking alone?

“I’ll double back from the overlook,” he said, and off he went into the near-darkness, whistling.

(Later I’d wonder whether Dan had ever existed at all—maybe I’d invented him, or just seen him in a movie once.) I wasted no time, sprinting down the trail.

I called out Ida’s name again and again. Once or twice, I thought I heard someone calling back to me. I was nowhere near the falls yet—I didn’t hear any water—but I saw what looked like a decrepit Winnebago through the trees. I left the trail and pushed through the briars to get there. I was bleeding. A purple backpack hung on a nearby broken branch. The trailer’s windows were yellowed with pollen, and cracked. The hood was missing, and so was the engine. Weeds and vines had grown in the cracks of the metal exterior. The door creaked open when I pushed. I stepped inside. The ceiling was stained. The floors were littered with old newspapers and bits of broken glass. And in the corner of the kitchenette, silent, she was there, hands tied behind her back with rope and duct tape across her mouth. She had small leaves in her hair. She squirmed across the floor toward me.

“Oh God,” I said dropping to my knees to work on the rope.

“Ida, God, are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay. Who did this? Who did this?”

I was a mess. She breathed hard when I ripped off the tape. I pulled her into a deep hug. I was shaking.

“Wait,” she was saying. “Wait. What are you doing here?”

Daryl swiveled into view, holding his camera. He motioned for me to keep hugging, turning his fingers like he was stirring a sideways pot. I released Ida and surveyed the tiny room again. Something corrosive in the carpet fibers was making my fingers itch. My head was spinning.

“Don’t tell me I’m in your movie,” I said.

Daryl nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. Ida stood up and pulled the knots loose easily to free her hands. She dusted off her jeans.

“That was beautiful,” Daryl said. “Seriously beautiful.”

I wanted to smash his face in. Instead I plucked the camera from his hands and tossed it through a window and into the woods.

“What the hell?” he screamed, and chased the red recording light through the encroaching darkness.

“You were supposed to be back at the car hours ago.”

It was all I could say.

“We were so close to being finished,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Daryl returned with the camera and his purple backpack. He was recording again, the lens aimed at my face.

“What did you feel when you saw her there?” he asked, now a documentarian.

“Turn it off,” I said.

About Ida. I once tied two hundred balloons to a lawn chair and floated away to a new place where I started a whole new life for myself. Another time all the birds started pecking people’s eyes out, and I had to hide in a telephone booth. And then this other time I fell in love chasing lobsters around a kitchen with a broom. If you tell me that only happened in the movies, I’ll laugh. Once I was a sniper. Once I was Truman Capote. Once I ate fifty eggs in an hour.

My column was due before the end of the day, but really I was eavesdropping on the interview from my office. Samantha Hills, the magazine reporter, had arrived the previous evening. She was staying at the big hotel downtown. We’d met her for coffee that morning in the hotel. Samantha took notes as Ida and I debated our favorite Woody Allen films—a conversation exaggerated only slightly for her benefit. Then she’d followed us back to our house, and the two of them had retreated to Ida’s bedroom. From my office, I could hear them laughing like old friends. They’d been talking for almost an hour. Ida played scenes from her favorite films while Samantha asked about her childhood, her missing mother, her friends, her interests, her dreams, her bad habits, her pet peeves, her future plans for FlickerPopGirl.com, and whether she was ever daunted by the number of people scouring her site. I craned my neck and caught snippets of their conversation. Ida couldn’t think of many bad habits, but she admitted to being a nail-biter. She’d tried to quit, even keeping a rubber band around her wrist to snap whenever she felt the urge, but lately she’d suspected this could be a lifelong habit. She didn’t like films that paired a good actor with a bad one. She’d rather watch two bad actors acting badly together. Sometimes, she said, she had a hard time being critical of films, because really, when you think about all the challenges, it’s kind of a miracle that a film gets made at all. She had only a few memories of her mother. Did that bother her? Not really, she said. This was all she’d ever known. She said her favorite movies didn’t have to be flashy or artsy. Her basic rule was that the film tell a good story. She quoted Kevin Costner—or maybe it was Johnny Depp, she couldn’t remember—who said that movies are obligated to please only the people who pay for the tickets, and not the critics.

“Do you think that’s true?,” Samantha asked, her tape recorder probably whirring on the table between them.

“Yes, maybe so. But then again, Kevin Costner made Waterworld. So maybe critics are there to keep imaginations in check. Wait, don’t quote me saying that. I don’t even believe that. I actually liked Waterworld. Maybe critics are just white noise.”

“White noise?”

“Just static, you know? Peripheral. Pointless. Lately I’ve been thinking about giving up the site. I haven’t even told my dad that.”

“That’s a big decision. Most writers would kill for your numbers. What else would you like to do?”

“I’ve thought about writing a play. For school.”

“What about?”

“I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I can probably send you the treatment before your deadline.”

“Okay,” Samantha said. “That would be nice.”

In total, the interview lasted three hours. As we walked her out, Samantha said a photographer would need to visit the house at some point in the next few weeks. Ideally, she wanted a picture of Ida in her bedroom, surrounded by her DVDs and movie posters. Ida nodded her approval. The three of us stood on the stoop for a few minutes, thanking each other, and then the reporter drove away in her small red rental car.

“How was it?,” I asked.

“Not unpleasant,” Ida said.

I didn’t ask whether she really planned on quitting the site.

That night, after we ate dinner and watched Annie Hall for the hundredth time, I went upstairs to polish my column—about a trip Ida and I had taken a few years earlier to a theme park, and, in a roundabout way, how that related to a recent vote in the state legislature on the legality of video-poker machines in bars. Samantha had sent me an e‑mail. She thanked me again for agreeing to the interview and for being so gracious. And she included a link. “Have you seen this?” she asked. “Just wonder what you think.” I clicked on it. A YouTube video filled the screen and started playing. This was the work of a young auteur whose user name was darylthedirector. In the first scene, a girl with duct tape across her mouth gyrated on a dirty trailer floor, her shorts and blouse ripped, tears in her eyes. Two thick boots stepped into the frame and flipped her over. A hand from above—Daryl’s?—descended and pinched her cheek. The hand wiped away a tear, then slid a finger down her chin, her neck, and the length of her torso and out of the frame. She closed her eyes. And then the movie flashed back in time—three hours earlier, text along the bottom of the screen read—and the girl was now walking through the woods with a friend. I pushed pause and scrolled down to the comments section.

TADATADATADA12: meth makes your head go crazy

MISTERTOADY: i’d hit that so hard

EVERYTHINGNOTHING: she’s like ten you creep

ROBERTDOWNEYJUROR: worst short i’ve ever seen

MISTERTOADY: don’t care how old still hit it yes hot bondage

BROTHERBIGFOOT: jailbait.

SECRETOFTHEBOOZE: nice! check out my channel. really. check it out. love you.

INFINITEPEST: how she suck through duct tape?

ROMANGIRL: haha :-P

NAKEDGIRL18: This has been flagged as spam.

THEGOLDENFICKLE: next time do it topless. i’ll bring singles.

BLAGOYADICK: epic near-nakedness

LAMEPOL: location’s good. good music. acting = so so. you weren’t scared enough

OBSERVATIONDEX13: i’m making a kidnap movie. you’d be perfect. your eyes are beautiful.

The hotel clerk didn’t want to give me Samantha’s room number without phoning her first, so she wasn’t surprised when I knocked on the door. She was dressed in running shorts and a Barnard T-shirt, a foamy toothbrush in her mouth. Naturally, I’d come to beg her not to write about Daryl’s film.

“Sit down,” she said.

“Look, I’m sorry for barging in on you here,” I said. “I won’t stay long. But please don’t write about that video.”

“Why not?”

“If you write about it, more people will go looking for it. I couldn’t bear it. The comments are bad enough already.”

“I didn’t even read the comments,” she said. “But I don’t think you should worry about that. That’s just the world we live in.”

“That may be true, but I still have a say, don’t I?”

“Look, Eric, if you feel that strongly about it, I won’t include the video. I have plenty of material, and this isn’t some kind of ‘gotcha’ story. I’m not looking to embarrass you.” 
She went into the bathroom and spit into the sink.

“You want something to drink?” she asked. “I was about ready for bed, but I opened a bottle of wine earlier.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m sure I seem crazy, coming all the way down here like this. I’m not some insane father, I promise.”

“Mainly, I wanted your opinion of the end,” she said. “What did you think of it?”

I shrugged.

“You didn’t watch the end, did you?”

I shook my head.

“You need to watch it.”

She opened her laptop and brought it over to the bed. She sat down beside me, the computer on her knees. I could smell the toothpaste on her breath.

“I don’t need to see this now,” I said.

That’s when it occurred to me that my invading her hotel room had possibly provided her story with an easy scene. It’s late at night when there’s a knock on my hotel door. In steps Ida Noon’s frantic, overprotective father 

“Please, watch,” she said, and pressed play.

Most parts, of course, I’d never seen: two kids are lost in the woods, they discover a trailer that turns out to be a meth kitchen, then they run through the trees in a series of bouncy chase scenes. They jump over rocky ledges and hide under leaves. Barking dogs and a long, mournful cello note form the soundtrack. The action is confusing but engaging. I perked up during the last scene, when the young girl, bound and helpless on the trailer floor, is rescued by her father, trembling at her feet. Here was a daughter who needed her father’s protection. Here was a father whose love was limitless. I watched the drama unfold like these people weren’t us at all. I was watching a couple of unknowns in a low-budget short feature. Just before the credits rolled, I realized I was rooting for the pair. I was hoping he’d hold her until the very last frame.

About Me. Maybe it’s the traffic or the never-ending concrete, but I’ve never been very comfortable in any city populated by more than, say, a million people. Just out of college, I took a job as a features editor at a small city paper in Chicago—and I managed to stick around for barely three months before selling all my apartment furniture and catching a bus back down South. But I can understand why Ida was always curious about life outside our little town. She’d never ordered a hot dog or a taco from a street vendor, or lingered in an art museum for an entire afternoon. She’d never even been in a taxi before we flew up to New York for her spring break.

This was several weeks after Samantha’s visit, and though Ida never talked about the impending article, I could sense she was on edge. I was, too. We stopped for photos at all the important sites: the lion statues on the steps of the public library (as featured in the very first shot of Ghostbusters), the booth at Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston (where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm for Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally), the Oak Bar at the Plaza (Hitchcock used it in North by Northwest), and finally the spot on Sutton Square with a view of the Queensboro Bridge and the East River (where Woody Allen sat on a park bench with Diane Keaton to watch the sun come up in Manhattan). We couldn’t find the actual bench, so we just stood in the general area. The weather was unusually cold. A slightly malodorous chill came in off the river, and we pulled our peacoats tight. That’s where I surprised her with a copy of Samantha’s article. I’d picked up the magazine at a newsstand about six blocks back. All we’d seen of it until then was an early draft Samantha had sent us and the abstract on the magazine’s site.

She flipped through it carefully, first examining the photos and captions, then scanning the text. As a courtesy, I had decided against reading it before her, but still, I couldn’t resist quizzing her. Was she pleased?

“She spelled my name right, so five points for that,” she said. “And she didn’t misquote me.”

We were walking up East 59th Street now.

Did the article say that she might quit the site? Ida had recently mentioned the idea to me.

“Yes, at the end it says I’ve thought about it.”

How about the way it described her appearance? That wasn’t embarrassing, was it?

“Why would that be embarrassing?”

“It wouldn’t be if she describes you the way I see you.”

“She says I look like the love child of Don Knotts and Roseanne Barr.”

“God.”

“Joking, Dad.”

I was looking for a taxi. I wanted to shower before dinner. I tried hailing a few with no results. (In the movies, you only have to whistle, Ida observed wryly.) She was still flipping through the magazine.

“Oh man,” she said.

I asked her what was wrong, though I must have known what was coming next.

“She mentions that stupid film I made with Daryl. I didn’t even tell her about that. Did you?”

“I didn’t, but don’t you think she could have found it on her own?” I wasn’t thrilled that Samantha had included it, but then again, I wasn’t exactly shocked, either.

“I guess so.”

A taxi finally screeched to a stop, and we tumbled inside, the buildings and people on the sidewalk soon a blur. Ida was reading that paragraph again. In my head, thousands of computer mice were clicking in concert, the tally of YouTube viewers ticking up and up. But I stayed calm. I’d been waiting for this moment.

“I thought it was a fine performance,” I said. “Maybe not Oscar-worthy, but I wouldn’t rule out a People’s Choice.”

She smiled.

“You’re not proud of the film?,” I asked.

“Let’s just say”—she leaned down to the floorboards to tie her shoe—“that if I had to review Daryl’s film for the site, I would maybe give it half a heart in the ‘Films About Kids Who Take on Kidnappers, Corporations, and/or Bandits’ genre.”

“So no forthcoming sequels, then?”

“Not unless I see a really good script,” she said. “Something that could stand on its own. Like The Godfather: Part II. Or Aliens. I wouldn’t want to be in it. Someone else could play us.”

“Let’s cast it,” I said.

We had plenty of time to deliberate now, because the cab was stuck in traffic. She rattled off a few likely candidates. We were no longer casting the sequel, I gathered, but our own biopic. I started taking notes in the back of the magazine. She laughed when I dabbed the pen on my tongue.

“You don’t have to write this down,” she said, because no matter whom we picked, she had no doubt: they would get us all wrong.

Thomas Pierce is a Poe/Faulkner fellow in the M.F.A. program at the University of Virginia, where he is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
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