Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Six

Tom happened into his career while working a summer job to help pay tuition at the state university he attended, majoring in business administration. This was in 1984, when he was twenty years old and video stores first began appearing in strip malls for those customers enthusiastic enough about their entertainment to purchase videocassette machines. He already had a job during the day cooking fast food, but since he wasn’t especially social and didn’t have a girlfriend, he decided to take a night job that consisted of two simple chores: checking movies out to customers and shelving the tapes when they were turned back in. This was good for Tom as well because he liked movies and was able to check them out to himself for free. He even daydreamed about being a movie director himself – only a slightly less popular choice of occupation then than it is now.

Since he needed the money and was experienced at shelving movies, he continued working at the video store after he graduated. At first his work was what it had been during summers: helping customers and restocking the shelves. Later it included ordering movies, and he became good at ordering enough popular fare to balance his more obscure purchases, chosen according to his own tastes but appealing to the more discerning customers as well. While his friends from the fraternity were out interviewing for entry-level positions and trying to choose the best available prospects in the most stable companies, Tom accepted a promotion at the store to assistant manager. It was an easy job. As assistant manager he found a number of ways boost profits: offering discounts (a free movie for every tenth rented) and finding affordable advertising that brought in more paying customers.

Videosyncracy, as the store was named, became more and more popular, and it became necessary to move into a bigger space. The owner found a large, brick building even closer to the University, and they moved in at the same time a new film studies program was started. Tom thought briefly about applying to the program, but he was much too busy minding the store, which had become something of a Mecca for filmmakers in the area as well. And being three blocks from the university, the store benefited from the traffic of students and their disposable incomes. Having been one himself recently, Tom got along well with the students; better, in fact than he had while he was in school. The store made money and he made money.

Tom continued to nurture the interest he had in movies, the love for which he understood to be the wellspring of his success. He continued to train his own tastes by reading the trade magazines and books by veterans in the industry. He took a special interest in foreign films (he liked listening to languages which were completely unintelligible, yet understanding everything through subtitles), and cultivated his knowledge about the technical aspects of the art as best he could – often by talking to students in the program at the university. He made it a special mission to watch as many movies as possible, and at the store he played them constantly on the screens overhead.

“Which directors do you like best?” he was often asked. He could only ever give a partial list. Almodovar, Antonioni, Bergman, Blier, Borzage, Bunuel, Cacoyannis, Capra, Coppola, Costa-Gavras, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Fassbinder, Fellini, Ford, Gilliam, Godard, Griffith, Hartley, Hawks, Herzog, Hitchcock, Huston, Ichikawa, Jarman, Jarmusch, Kazan, Kurosawa, Keaton, Kieslowski, Lang, Lean, Leone, MacKendrick, Malick, Malle, Miiche, Negulesco, Nichols, Ophuls, Ozu, Pasolini, Peckinpah, Preminger, Pudovkin, Quay, Ray (Man), Ray (Nicholas), Ray (Satyajit), Resnais, Richardson, Roeg, Roehmer, Russell, Schlondorf, Scorsese, de Sica, Sirk, von Sternberg, Stevens, Tarkovsky, Tarrantino, Tati, Truffaut, Ulmer, Varda, Vadim, Visconti, Wajda, Welles, Wertmuller, Whale, Winterbottom, Wise, Wilder, Wyler, Xu, Yimou, Zefirelli, Zinnemann, and so many, many others besides. His days were taken up by watching movies. Most nights he worked, usually with at least one eye on one of the video screens located in various places throughout the store. When a local theatre went out of business he bought some of the seats and turned a large storage area into a viewing room; a very nice, miniature theatre in which he held screenings on Thursday nights.

In addition to his growing business and critical acumen, Tom had worked to develop his social skills at the video store as well. There were always plenty of women from the nearby dorms and sororities who came to rent their movies, and as awkward as Tom felt (and really was) during college, his confidence could hardly help but improve with the number of opportunities he had to just say Hello. That was the first thing he learned. Not “Hi!” or “Hey!” or “What’s up?” but a simple, unaffected “Hello.” One of the girls had told him it was sexier. “Sexy?” Tom thought to himself. “She must think I’m sexy.” From then on he liked to think of himself as sexy, and later found it hard to imagine that someone else wouldn’t. He learned to dress the part, and kept at it with “Hello!” Said with a simple smile (never too toothy), he believed this suggested intelligence for both himself and the person across the counter, and invited further conversation without advertising ulterior motives. In fact, he was in the habit of greeting everyone with the same, sincere greeting – men, women, ugly, beautiful, and everything in between. Even women in the habit of being pursued appreciated this, perhaps especially. If his name ever came up in conversation among the other clerks in those early years, he was most often described as ‘nice’, but perhaps also a little stuck on himself.

As long as someone else did the hiring and firing, he had no qualms about flirting with his coworkers. The staff rotated so quickly that the customers seemed to stick around longer than the workers. After closing up the store at midnight he and one or two of the others would walk a block over to Queequeg’s for a drink, smoke cigarettes, talk about movies, gossip about the stars, and gossip about themselves. It amazed Tom that for some of the employees the former was more interesting than the latter, but there was always material for both. Sometimes a customer would come along. There always seemed to be a regular who, after returning movies right before closing, fell into a conversation with the clerks about movies and over a period of months and years came to be as close to the staff as the staff was amongst themselves.

It was a matter of time before Tom was regularly dating one of the women he worked with. They weren’t much like dates, really, but assignations that grew out of the proximity carried over from work into their free time. The customary pattern was for them to replay their first time together once and thereafter avoid each other with the same adroit attention they’d earlier maintained for getting together. After another week or two of this tension-filled pretense, the girl would usually quit. “Thank God” he said to himself, not caring whether he ever saw her again. Hoping, actually. This course of events was repeated several times throughout his mid to late twenties. When he wasn’t dating one of his fellow employees, and sometimes even when he was, he was sure to be going out with a customer he had met at the store. Although Tom enjoyed sleeping with different women, he can hardly be said to have pursued them. “Things just happen,” he told others, and himself. He tried not to make himself the subject of too much gossip, but after a while an opera fan among the clerks jokingly referred to him as ‘Tom Giovanni’.

Tom didn’t bother breaking up with the women he dated. Instead he just stopped calling and then waited for the woman to get tired of the complete lack of attention. Eventually they just got out of his life. Since he kept the drama to a minimum when he first began sleeping with a new girlfriend, there generally wasn’t much drama when he stopped. Or when they stopped, since he was always very careful to make it as mutually a convenient relationship as possible – beginning, middle, and end.

He soon lost any qualms he’d had about sleeping with different women, sometimes even on consecutive nights. Or rather he was able to ignore what qualms he may have had. Some of the women had qualms, certainly, and they cleared out quickly, which was usually perfectly fine with him. Others, though fewer, had no difficulty understanding Tom at all. They might be interested in something a little more permanent, but this didn’t have to interfere with a few nights of recreational sex, spaced out over the course of a few weeks, or sometimes months. He did mind sleeping with married women at first, but he was able to ignore those qualms soon enough as well. In fact, he found that they were usually content to keep their arrangement a secret. Which, again, was fine with him.

While he was still in his twenties and business was thriving, Tom was a visibly happy man. He was in his element at the store, talked about movies all day and all night, and always had a smile on his face, which was one of the things that made him fun to be around. This changed a little as he grew into his thirties, although this change went largely unnoticed by Tom himself. By the time he turned 35 he found himself leading a life that was quite frankly the envy of many of his friends from college. He had two or three girlfriends: a girl who worked at the store, a customer who, although married, called Tom every three or four weeks when her husband was out of town, and one of the waitresses at Queequeg’s.

Meanwhile, the cash flow problem that had begun to become a nuisance a few years earlier was becoming a serious threat to the livelihood of the store. The 1990s had been a period of great prosperity and almost boundless optimism, particularly in Seattle, and the video store had prospered as well. Tom had always prided himself on the store’s collection, and although there were many, many more titles on Videosyncracy’s shelves than on those of any other store in the area, not all of them were rented on a regular basis. Or even on a one time basis. How often would anyone rent Zlatá žena, a Czech silent film made in 1920? Of course that hadn’t been the point. Tom had made sure that film was on the shelf so you could rent it, if you wanted to. But now the store was in danger of going under, and Tom didn’t want it to. He curtailed the purchasing of the most obscure films, and the sacrifice helped a little.

After a few years he forgot about becoming a movie director. This didn’t seem at all unusual to Tom, on the rare occasion when he did think about it. Was it really so important to become the next Fellini? The world was full of young men who wanted to be the next Fellini; he knew this from the number of them who rented his movies week after week. He bought coffee from them at the various espresso stands sprinkled all over the city. How many of them would ever be as successful as he?

Thirty-seven turned out to be a watershed year in Tom’s life. The owner and manager, with whom Tom had worked closely to develop Videosyncracy both commercially and artistically, had become so ill that he decided it was time to sell the store. This would not be at all difficult to do, the store had developed a great reputation throughout the city, and in fact had something of a reputation all over the country. The owner was intent on moving southward to a warmer climate – Santa Barbara, perhaps. Lucky for Tom that the store was based in Seattle, where investors with loads of cash were free to follow their whims with all the discretion of an ancient Sybarite in his kingdom. Even luckier that some of these people should be patrons of his store, and luckiest of all that the one who took an interest in his plight was a woman named Helen.

Chapter Seven

Helen was in fact the sovereign of her own business empire, founded by herself after investing $1000 and six months of her daytime hours in classes for business and website design. In just three years it had grown from a single computer in her own apartment to a small warehouse, into which terminals from all over the world were tapped twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Unlike many internet companies, a great deal of these hits were real transactions in which real money was paid by credit cards and their magnetic strips running numbers through fiber optic cables – every bit as much a transactional reality as the soiled greens still traded back and forth across counters such as those at Videosyncracy and Queequeg’s.

In the beginning Tom didn’t pay much attention to Helen for the videos she rented, which for the most part were new releases or big name draws from the last couple of years. He checked an impulse to say something and instead stuck with the standard practice of not commenting on a customer’s selection (this might change for those regulars who were the true friends of the store, but by and large the staff offered suggestions only when they were asked for). She herself had been a customer for several years, but she surprised Tom one night while she was renting Working Girl. She asked how business was going. With Netflix and all the mail order rental business springing up, hadn’t things slowed down recently? While not denying it, he asked how she came to be concerned, to which she replied, “I just watch out for these types of things. Being in entertainment myself.”

“How’s that?” he asked.

“I guess it’s a little like your own. Except it looks like yours could be better.”

“Yeah, well, okay. And how did you make it so big?”

“Internet stuff.”

“Right … the internet. Games and stuff.”

“Yeah, stuff like that.”

That certainly had his curiosity piqued. He thought about her appearance, which was a little more modest than what usually accompanied what he was now imagining. But what a figure! He took a brief look at the jeans and the simple sweater she was wearing, the modest make up, and wondered again. Something seemed slightly amiss; he was trying to put his finger on it. It had something to do with her eyes, which were a deep brown. Shaped like almonds, as they say – quite beautiful. But it wasn’t their color or shape that intrigued him, but the look they held within, a look he’d never noticed in anyone before. Later, after they had moved in together, he realized that with them she registered everything, especially anything about herself. At the store that day they registered the hang-dog look in his own eyes, and she decided to spare him any further questions. She also made the first move.

“So give me a call sometime.”

“Sure, I’ll do that. What’s your phone number?”

“It’s in your computer, dummy,” she said, smiling and then spinning around on her heels on her way towards the door.

He didn’t call her right away, but she continued coming in for rentals, maybe even a little more often than she had before. Tom took a more active interest in her, sometimes wondering why he was taking his time with her. She certainly looked good in the jeans, which seemed remarkably plain, even tasteful. She asked him for recommendations about what to watch. When she was interested in a thriller, he showed her the Alfred Hitchcock section. When she was looking for a romantic comedy, he showed her such fine films as ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘His Girl Friday’, or some similar classic from another era. She seemed to value his opinions, and he valued this opinion of hers.

One afternoon when business was particularly slow and they were enjoying one of these exchanges, they agreed to meet for lunch. They met, they ate, and it wasn’t long before he started telling her all about his business, how he had started more than fifteen years ago, how it became his own, and the care with which he had built it into the unique store that it was to this day. Then he told her there was a chance he could lose it all. Not really lose it, of course, since he really wasn’t the owner, but in spirit the store really was his. She knew a lot of this already, but he felt better when she’d heard it straight from himself. That he’d built up the collection himself; that the owner had been only too happy to let Tom manage a store, an arrangement that over the years had garnered the kind of respectability usually accorded a great used bookstore, with the same kind of clientele. These moments Helen let pass in silence. It was only when he began talking about his recent troubles that she started to show real interest.

“So is he close to finding a buyer?”

“Not on the terms we’re looking for.”

“So you have some say in the matter?”

“Not for too much longer. He really needs the money for his house down in California.”

“No chance of working for one of the big chains?”
“No way. I’ve worked to hard to get what I want here. I’ve thought about it, and I just couldn’t work for one of the chains, wearing the uniform, all of that stuff; really, it’s completely ridiculous.”

“But you were just telling me how bad it was. The rent, the inventory. . .”

“It’s what I do. And I’m not going to do it anywhere else when I’ve already done it for myself.”

“You would if it was something you really enjoyed doing.”

“I do enjoy it.” But this clearly had Tom starting to think.

“Yeah, sure you do, but is it what you’ve always wanted to do?”

This bothered Tom a little more. “I have the best video store in the city, one of the better-stocked stores in the country. Really.”

“But what you really want to do, or at least what you wanted to do once, was make movies yourself.”

Something rose in his throat while his stomach sank.

“What makes you so sure?”

“Everybody wants to make movies. At least everybody remotely connected to the business. And you’re more than remotely connected.”

“I guess you ought to know…”

“I do know…

“Since you’ve made so many movies yourself.”

“Sure. I’ve made some movies. And I’ve made good money making movies.” Well, that clinched it. And she sounded as if she had done well by it.

“Yeah, well, I think I’ll stick to the rental business.”

“Fine. But shouldn’t you at least try doing what you really want to do? On the side, at least?”

Obviously, Tom wasn’t a prude. His personal life was evidence enough of that. But the owner had been insistent about keeping pornography out of the store. Avant-garde movies, movies with substantial erotic content, involving all manner of sexual fetishes; all these received more than fair representation, but porn qua porn was out of the question. Tom had always been a little amused at how the owner had drawn the line, and how it seemed so totally arbitrary to everyone but the owner himself. Tom wasn’t a prude, but her insights had wounded his pride a bit. She certainly hadn’t offered him anything, so what exactly had he refused? And what did she want out of it? Did she expect him to bail the store out by renting porn? Could he? And why was she so interested in helping him and his store?

They started seeing each other more often, and it wasn’t long before Tom had another girlfriend. And despite his track record, not to mention the way she made a living, they took things relatively slow at first. They didn’t move in together; they didn’t even talk every day.

Oddly, what paced them wasn’t the tremulous anticipation of sex that usually chaperones budding relationships. It was their growing sense of a shared interest in his success. In the beginning, this meant that Helen listened to Tom talk about his favorite filmmakers. For her part, Helen steered clear of business in their conversations, unless he brought it up. Since their one conversation on the subject earlier, she hadn’t brought up the idea of movie making either. It took him a while to admit to himself that she knew something about him that he’d long forgotten.

They often went to Queequeg’s, which was just around the corner from Videosyncracy, and usually settled into a booth near the front window. While Tom himself was a little bored with talking about movies, he really had no idea what else to talk about. It took some initiative on his part, and eventually he simply asked how she’d learned so much about business.

“Business is about money. I know something about making money.”

He was thinking about everything she’d said when they’d first met, but responded carefully. “You seemed to zero in pretty quickly on what was wrong with mine.”

“You’ve obviously done a lot of things right,” she said.

“Well, now there’s a lot more wrong than right.”

Helen was careful not to say too much. “Is there?”

That was enough to help Tom put it in perspective. “Well, it’s not going as well as it used to.” He paused for a moment, before remembering that he was trying to let her talk. He wanted to hear more about how she’d gotten her own start, so he asked. “How did you learn what you know, and how did you start doing what you’re doing now?”

Hardly pausing, Helen answered, “I got started years ago, working at some of the clubs down by the airport. Some of those places were downright sleazy. They’re a lot better now, more like little amusement parks than strip clubs. Those were the dark days. I got out of there before the money and the better management came in. How I got started – I suppose there’s a sad side to the story, but in short, I was poor, and I thought I could live a better life if I had more money.”

“Did you?”

“No question. Not at first, I guess. At first it was lousy. The area was pretty dangerous up until the early 1990’s. I got into drugs. I was making money, but I never seemed to have any. I knew where things were headed. So I moved downtown while I was still young, and I had friends who worked in a nicer club. I had the assets, and eventually I started working there.”

“Abracadabra?”

“Yeah. Been there?”

“Bachelor party.”

“One of those idiots? Well, anyway, life got a little better. I never got into the heavy drug scene. I moved to Queen Anne, which is a lot nicer than Sea-Tac. At first it was just a relief to have more money. I bought a new car. I bought a nice place. Maybe I didn’t feel great, but I felt so crummy before . . . and I know I couldn’t do anything else, so I just tried to make myself feel better at what I was doing. I thought that I could eventually earn my way out of it. I started taking better care of myself; really got into my health. The better I looked, the more money I made. Most of it was just taking care of myself. After awhile I realized that if I was ever really going to start banking it, I’d have to get into ownership, or at least management. Most of them are guys, but these guys aren’t usually all that bright. Some of them are ruthless, but they’re not very smart. My favorite clients were the well dressed ones; they’re everybody’s favorites, of course, but I was well liked and found ways to make friends with them. It may not have meant much to them – I knew it didn’t, in fact, but for me just holding a conversation was a way to bring myself up. I copied the way they spoke; I tried to make myself articulate by imitating articulate men. Some of them thought of me as a hosebag, I’m sure, but I stopped thinking of myself as a one. ‘It’s the world’s oldest profession, right?. That’s supposed to be funny, since it’s hardly a profession, – but for me that’s just what it was. Or what I meant to make of it. A business.”

“So how did you get into, uh . . . porn? I mean, pictures, and videos and everything.”

She didn’t seem bothered in the least. He noticed that she actually enjoyed his frankness, and that he in turn felt more confident for being able to speak bluntly.

“It wasn’t hard. In fact, in a way it’s tough to avoid. I looked good, and that certainly helped. There’re so many people with cameras out there, and the guys who are better at it make money. It’s a growing industry here in Seattle. I started out just doing posed shots and then started making short movies. Now it all just runs together; my editors take still shots from the movies, and of course now it’s all over the web. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen me.”

In point of fact, Tom hadn’t, but he smiled anyway.

She paused for a moment of reflection. “When it comes right down to it, I was just lucky. For years girls have been victims in this industry. Things change, women take more control of their own lives, and it’s just as true here as it is anywhere else. I went to school, took classes in accounting, and started out by just putting my own books in order. Soon I realized that I could do a lot better job than the people I was working with, and then proved it by putting together photographers and other girls. Then the web came along, and everything just exploded.”

“Working Girl.”

“That’s right.”

“So why are you telling me all this?”

“Well, you want to know, don’t you? And why wouldn’t I tell you?”

Tom really had no answer, because she seemed to know what he wanted even before he did. Not just the particulars, but the important things, and sometimes what he was thinking while she was talking. It was an odd feeling, and for a while he felt like he was being driven somewhere. He enjoyed someone else taking control, even if it was just in conversation. He had no idea where it was all going. He couldn’t pin it all on sex; he’d had plenty of that and knew when to spot it. That, perhaps, was what he was enjoying most. For once he didn’t feel like he didn’t have to go anywhere at all, and at the same time seemed to be on the verge of being taken somewhere.

Meanwhile, the owner was more intent than ever on selling the store. He would have liked to just hand it over to Tom, but what could he do? He needed the money for his retirement. He set about screening various offers from those whom he believed he could trust to keep the store just as it was, but the only realistic interest came from the bigger chains that he wanted to steer clear from. Tom’s staying on wouldn’t be much of a problem for anyone, but it was really a question of how much of a manager he’d really be.

After weeks of dancing around the problem by all parties, Helen persuaded Tom to accept the money and take her in as a partner. She wrote him a personal check for almost all of what the store was worth while he ponied up what little money he had from an inheritance, which was really more of a token of his stake than anything else.

The owner of the store had gladly turned it over to Tom rather than one of the larger chains. “Like vultures,” he’d kept saying, “They hang around like vultures, just waiting to snatch it up and bring in their worthless trash, their porn and all that crap that goes straight to video.” He’d always admired Tom’s commitment too the cinematic art – a commitment he liked to think was much like his own. He wished Tom well and within a few weeks had moved to Palm Springs. At thirty-eight years old Tom was the owner of his own store, with a new girlfriend thrown into the bargain as well.

Considering the biggish sum she had just forked over, Helen really didn’t show that much more concern for the business. Or if she did, it was only as a way of looking out for Tom. She never brought the money up again; they both looked at the exchange as if the money had dropped out of the sky. Although he had been in charge of the store for quite some time, he now truly enjoyed being the owner, without having ever been really all that ambitious for the job in the first place. He was in the driver’s seat, certainly, at least at Videosyncracy, but what he enjoyed most wasn’t exactly control; on the contrary, it was that feeling that he was on the verge of being taken somewhere.

A week later they were living together, and three months after that they were married on a trip to Las Vegas for a convention Helen wanted to attend. After the brief ceremony, Helen assured him by saying “we’re just going to take this as it comes. I realize we can’t change ourselves completely.” Tom didn’t ask her to spell that out any more clearly, but he was a fairly surprised. Fairly happily surprised.

Comments

  1. Henri Young says

    Helen is a devil!

    Great read!

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Enter Pornistopheles, stage left.

  3. Anonymous says

    Not much emotion in it yet, or humour. But well written, and makes me want to read on. Tomorrow!

  4. Anonymous says

    To try and be more helpful, I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, expect to understand something of the sensibility of the writer. I don’t so far. But perhaps I will later.

  5. Quin Finnegan says

    Again, I just want to say how grateful I am to have someone reading it … and Webb just told me the other day that he'd finished it.

    My hope is that this sensibility is entirely immersed in the characters – to such a degree that any of the major characters might be a likely candidate for the "true" persona of the author. Even politically, I'd like to think that my leftist tendencies (true!) are in evidence. So you may not find much more. At least until Part III, when "Mistra Know-It-All" comes out with four or five miniature philosophical essays. That probably is the "real me".

    As for humour – there's just about none in this chapter. I will say that my sister read an even rougher draft a few years ago and said she couldn't stop laughing. Maybe that was at me.

  6. Anonymous says

    Didn't Tom like Woody Allen?

  7. Quin Finnegan says

    Of course! Especially Love and Death, which he used to watch over and over again for the gag about great Russian novelists.

    What an oversight…

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