Fiction May 2013

The Critics

A short story
Matthew Woodson

Films are ranked within their genres, so Avatar, bursting with computerized wonderments, would never go up against, say, The Princess Bride, which, as it happens, is Ida’s No. 1 pick in the genre “Romances in Which Lovers Are Separated by Great Distances and Also by Fantastical Creatures That Run Amokity Mok.” If video stores—that is, if they weren’t all being boarded up—used Ida’s system of classification, they would have to set up hundreds of separate sections: “Comedies Centered on a Hero Who Possesses an Impossible Device and/or a Superpower.” “Psychological Thrillers That End Inside Someone’s Head or With Doubts Cast on the Reality of Reality.” “Big-Budget Epics Featuring More Than Six Big-Name Actors.” Within each genre, she chooses a holy grail, a model of cinematic perfection against which all other similar films are compared. Her ratings system is actually a very complicated algorithm, and it has made her site, FlickerPopGirl .com, a popular destination for moviegoers and aspiring film buffs over the age of five. I keep a close eye on the site, and routinely patrol the Web for what’s being said about it elsewhere. But I’ve stopped responding to criticism. Once, near the beginning, a particularly nasty thread got started about a review of a Harry Potter movie (she gave it three happy hearts in the “Action Adventures About Adolescent Vamps, Werewolves, Wizards, Magicians, and Demigods Based on Successful Books Sold at Walmart” genre). I logged in secretly with the handle sitonthis_cane to inform the three commenters that Ida was only eleven years old and that in some states I could probably use pliers to rip out much-needed body parts without fear of doing any jail time. I should have known better. That only egged them on. They called Ida a slut, and worse.

Traffic on her site ballooned in February when she gave the latest vampire movie an unusually harsh review.

Anyway, Ida figured out it was me and threatened to block me from the site forever if I did something so colossally stupid again. Besides, she said, comments like that didn’t bother her. Most likely, they were from “a bunch of Seven Samurai-loving film minors who at some point or another had tried kissing a poster of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, ‘just to see what it was like.’ ” Where had she learned to talk like that?

My online tirade did have one positive result: Ida agreed not to post photos of herself on the site—at least for the time being. Sometimes in her reviews she used screengrabs of scenes and photos of new movie posters in theater lobbies, and my biggest fear was that she’d eventually turn the camera around. I tolerated her Web site primarily because she’d seemed so much happier since it had gone live. But as the number of visitors ticked up, I got nervous—nervous that I’d overexposed my child, nervous that some perv would start stalking her because … well, just because.

The worst part: I’m the one who suggested the Web site. I’m the one who bought the domain name. I’m the one who set up the whole operation. Ida has always been a solid writer. Of all the qualities I passed on to my daughter (my inexplicable moodiness; my thick, fibrous ears; and even my nearly debilitating farsightedness), verbal acuity is perhaps the only good trait I was able to contribute to her particular double helix. I write a weekly column for the state newspaper. The column is called The Rambler, by Eric Noon, in which I, true to title, ramble about politics and government but also about curious happenings and the minutiae of my life as a single parent. (The tale of how I came to be a single parent, by the way, is one I’ve never divulged to readers: how my wife never seemed to get used to the idea of being a mother, and how, frankly, she never got used to the idea of being my wife. On good days, she could shine like the sun, and you’d thank God the light was shining on you. But nights with her were colder than an arctic wilderness. Those were lonely times. Anyway, enough of that.)

My daughter is also capable of unnerving silence, no matter what questions I employ, but films have always been our refuge. Together we laugh and gasp and cry—yes, some films bring tears to my eyes. Our mouths dangle open in shock when the supposedly dead brother turns up very much alive. Our hands fidget and sweat when the zombies are beating down the door. For anywhere from one to four hours, our pupils awash in the flicker of the flatscreen, we are like the same person.

When Ida turned twelve, I began dating an audiologist named Alice. She interviewed deaf candidates for cochlear implants. She said the work made her feel like an angel. I hadn’t been out with a woman in about a decade, so I was able to disregard remarks like that.

“She looks like Groucho Marx without the mustache,” Ida said about Alice. “No, strike that. With the mustache. She looks like John Belushi spewing potatoes from his mouth. She looks like a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, as in Junior. She looks like—”

“Enough,” I said.

“All I’m saying is, you could do better, Dad.”

I didn’t date Alice for very long, but it was during that time that Ida’s Web site exploded. She had almost 35,000 unique visitors each month. Some of the studios began mailing her press materials and invitations to screenings. I hid every letter. “Aren’t there any film clubs at school?,” I asked her. “I don’t need a club,” she said.

When she wasn’t watching movies, she was in her room punching furiously on her laptop’s keyboard. Hour after hour, the bedroom door locked, she analyzed and theorized, her only live audience the stuffed animals and dolls of her youth, their beady-eyed view of the hard-at-work girl with the dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses obscured by jewelry boxes and books and teetering stacks of DVD cases. My office was down the hall. I’d click the “About” tab on her site for updates on her life.

About Ida. I wish I were Ingrid Bergman. I bleed chai tea. My favorite Bond film is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. My favorite love story is The Red Balloon. The appeal of cinema lies in the fear of death. Jim Morrison said that. You can just stay here and watch for sharks. The Little Mermaid said that.

One afternoon, I knocked on her door.

“Yeah, what?” she asked. A movie I’d never seen was paused on our older, boxier television set, now a fixture on her dresser.

“Let’s go for a hike.”

“It’s ten degrees outside, Dad.”

“No, it’s at least thirty.”

She didn’t respond.

“How about we go get some coffee, then? Or a chai? My treat.”

She eyed me suspiciously.

“Okay,” she said, “but that’s it. No other errands. Promise?”

We put on winter coats and drove downtown to the Starbucks in the lobby of the town’s only big hotel. I ordered the drinks, and then we lounged in two chairs as Christmas music, a month early, played overhead.

“So,” I said.

“So,” she said.

“Is Alice going to meet us?”

“No, just us today.”

“I know why you brought me here,” Ida said.

“To drink chai?”

“No, to talk about how Alice wants to stay over. I heard.”

“Heard what?”

“You guys talking the other night. After I went to bed. Just so you know, I’m okay with it.”

My latte tasted horrible. The steam fogged my glasses. In truth, Alice had already slept over twice.

“I brought you here because I think you need to get out of the house more,” I said.

“What do you mean? I’m out of the house every day for school. If it’s privacy you want, we can decide on a signal.”

“A signal?”

“You know, like a sock on the door. Or three rocks stacked on the front stoop. Or a—”

“Stop,” I said. I didn’t even want to know what movie that was from. “I’m not looking for more privacy. I just think you should have some activities that don’t involve you sitting in front of a computer all day long.”

“But that’s what you do,” she said. “You never leave the house at all.”

She had me there. This was about two years before I realized how much smarter than me she truly was.

“This isn’t about who’s outside the house more,” I said. “Listen, I love the site. I’m not saying you should stop. I’d just like to see you make a few friends.”

“I have friends at school.”

“Good, bring them over.”

She concocted a giant sigh.

“Your school has a drama club,” I said. “I looked it up on the Web site. I think you should give it a try.”

She said the club was full of “schizo girls” and only one or two guys, both of whom, remarkably, looked like Steve Buscemi.

But not long after winter break, Ida came home and surprised me by reporting that she’d been to one of the club’s meetings. The school’s drama teacher, Mr. Sides, ran the group, and they were debating what play to present that spring. I asked—perhaps a little too hopefully—whether she’d go again. She shrugged. I decided not to press.

That January we went to see a film called Far Away the Sea—about a marriage before and after the Spanish Civil War—and she wrote that it was a needless scene-for-scene remake of an earlier film, which I didn’t even know she’d seen. Not long after that, she wrote a glowing review of Sunflower, a new biopic about a little-known folk artist named Ezekiel Flat, who in the 1980s would go on Benzedrine-fueled binges to produce hundreds of jagged and slightly erotic portraits of his female neighbors. She said the animated sequences, in which sunflowers transformed into snakes, were like “a screwed-up telescope into a crazy person’s head.”

Traffic on her site ballooned in February when she gave the latest vampire movie an unusually harsh review. She called the adolescent ennui “obnoxious” and said Casper the Friendly Ghost was more menacing—and more three-dimensional, for that matter—than the supposed villain of the film. A couple of big-name sites linked to that post. More letters arrived from the studios, with invites to early screenings in Charlotte, the closest city that offered such niceties for the press. I locked all these letters in the top drawer of the desk in my office. I was protecting her.

Then, later that month, a big magazine called. The reporter wanted to interview Ida—to find out more about the precocious twelve-year-old critic “who is obviously no pushover when it comes to the big-budget franchises.”

“Actually, she’s thirteen now,” I told the reporter over the phone.

“All the same,” the woman said. “We want to do a profile.”

She offered to fly down for a weekend in March. I told her I’d think about it, but after I hung up the phone, I began to fret.

My buddy John suggested I tell Ida everything. We were eating Chinese food at a strip mall. John and I had grown up together. He owned a Toyota dealership in town, so I drove only Toyotas. John probably knew more about my bad habits than any woman ever had. He knew that I kept a spray bottle of Febreze in my satchel because I sometimes snuck cigarettes, and that I had more than once gone half a year before washing my sheets—though, actually, that last fact might be familiar to my regular readers. (I believe I confessed that in a column titled “What I Learned (or Didn’t Learn) in College,” which was published, I think, in July 2003. In that same column, I also tackled the emergence of so-called green diapers and recounted how Ida, as a baby, had once soiled a cloth diaper so obscenely that I’d thumbed through the Yellow Pages in search of a vendor for hazmat suits.)

“No harm in telling her,” John said. “Better that she find out from you than from someone else.”

“Why, do you plan on telling her?”

“Of course not. I just think she can handle it. She’s a smart kid.” John wiped General Tso’s sauce from the edges of his mouth with a napkin.

Daryl and Ida retreated to her bedroom—door open, at my request—and I sat down at my desk for an update on my daughter’s life, courtesy of the “About” tab on her site.

“This whole Web-site thing is getting out of hand. I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said. “I’d pull the plug on it, but I’m pretty sure Ida would never talk to me again.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad as that,” he said. “Maybe she’ll grow up to be a critic.”

“You don’t understand. She already is a critic,” I said, probably a little too loudly.

John didn’t seem to understand how seriously popular the site had become. I almost added that Ida’s reviews now had about twenty times more readers than my column.

My mood lightened later that week when Ida brought a friend home from school. His name was Daryl, and he was in the drama club. He wore a camel-hair jacket over a tennis shirt, and when he removed his dark sunglasses, he really did resemble Steve Buscemi.

“Daryl, I understand you’re an actor?”

“Yessir, Mr. Noon. I played King Lear last year.”

“Elton Middle School staged King Lear? With teenagers?”

“Yeah. I wore a white Merlin’s beard. I modeled my performance on Orson Welles’s in Citizen Kane and Emilio Estevez’s in The Mighty Ducks. The second one more than the first.”

I asked how he managed in the storm.

“Like this,” he said and spun around in our kitchen, arms stretched out like a blind man. “ ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!’ ”

I clapped. Then Daryl and Ida retreated to her bedroom—door open, at my request—and I sat down at my desk for an update on my daughter’s life.

About Ida. I’ve got a birthmark the shape of California. Fraps are for saps. I agree with Jean-Luc Godard: cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world. But I also believe what they say in The Princess Bride: people in masks cannot be trusted.

I checked my voicemail. The reporter had called again, looking to confirm the weekend of her visit. I stepped into Ida’s room. Both kids were staring into the glare of her laptop. Some of the stuffed animals were missing from the bed.

“Anyone hungry? Anyone want to go get a couple of chais?”

“Can’t right now, Mr. Noon,” Daryl said. “We’re finishing up a screenplay.”

“A screenplay?”

“Ida and I are making a film. Shooting starts this Saturday. I’ve already gone location-scouting at the state park.”

“What’s it called?”

“Not sure yet,” Ida said, tapping the backspace key.

“But the working title is No Trespassing.

“It’s about two kids who are tracking this weird and valuable creature. It’s a rabbit crossed with a bird and it lives in the woods behind their house. While they’re out looking for it, they get kidnapped by an Appalachian drug cartel.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Ida, can we talk for a minute?”

She gave Daryl a look that said Keep working. We went into the hall.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something. There’s this magazine writer who wants to do an article about you.”

“You mean the one who’s coming next month, right?”

“So you already knew about this?”

“Yeah, she e-mailed me a while back. Glad she finally got in touch with you.”

“And you want to do it?”

She nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” she said.

She went back into her room and shut the door. From my office, I could hear them testing dialogue on each other.

“Quick, hide under that old truck,” I heard Daryl yell.

“Shit,” Ida screamed, “They set their dogs loose!”

Since Ida had big plans on Saturday, I decided to meet John for a movie at the $2 theater out on the highway, where they were showing back-to-back Ingmar Bergman films. We arrived in the middle of Through a Glass Darkly. Candy and popcorn and Lord-knows-what-else crunched under our feet as we found seats in the dark. John looked behind us, then stared ahead blankly at the screen.

“What’s happening here?” he asked.

“That woman, I think, is schizophrenic. She hears voices in the wallpaper.”

“Sometimes I hear voices in the wallpaper. They say, John, it’s time to put your clothes back on and stop scratching yourself. Come to think of it, the voice might be my wife’s.” John fidgeted in his seat. “These armrests are sticky, huh?”

I agreed that they were.

We watched for maybe an hour. When I asked if he wanted to go across the street to the driving range, he said, “Yes, definitely, right now please.”

Ten minutes later, we were on the green plastic grass, hitting ball after ball off the rubber tees. The waitress brought a pitcher of beer and some mozzarella sticks to the picnic table directly behind us. John pressed a napkin to the cheese sticks and then held up the greasy, translucent sheet between his fingers for me to see.

“Does Ida like that movie we saw?” he asked. “That why you wanted to go?”

“I’m not sure whether she’s seen it,” I said.

I got out my BlackBerry and thumbed over to Ida’s page. I did a quick search for Through a Glass Darkly. The nearest match was A Scanner Darkly, and she’d given it two hearts in the “Animated Mind Benders Based on Books by Philip K. Dick” genre. I clicked on the genre and found that this was its only film. Rattling loose another dingy-headed driver from his golf bag, John stepped up to the tee and fixed his grip again and again, fingers waving then settling. He shook his bottom and shifted his feet. After what felt like minutes, he actually swung the club. We searched the air for the ball.

“I lost it,” I said.

“Well, that’s because it never left the ground,” John said. The ball was still on the tee at his feet. “I think the torque is off on this club. Sonuvagun.”

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.

If we had been two characters in a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance or A River Runs Through It or A Field of Dreams or any of the other golf, fly-fishing, or baseball movies in Ida’s “Holier-Than-Thou Sports Films,” I would have had a line ready for John about patience, or I might have turned the moment into some sort of Zen koan about not just golf but life itself. But this wasn’t a movie. It was real. I dunked a mozzarella stick into the cup of marinara sauce and took a bite. My mouth was full when my phone rang. It was Daryl’s mother, Becca.

“I’m sure this is just me worrying too much,” she said. “But I’m in my car at the state park where I was supposed to meet the kids, and they’re still not here yet, and—”

“How long have you been waiting?”

“They’re an hour late now. I’m sure they just lost track of time.”

“Is anyone out there with them?”

“No. I dropped them off this morning. They had lunch and plenty of water and cellphones. And the camera, of course.”

“And you’ve tried their cells?”

“Of course I have,” she said. “I’ve tried Daryl’s about twenty times now.”

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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