Fiction

Nowadays (A Day With Mr. Emory)

By: Austin J. Dalton

The editor is a professional, and for that reason he typically doesn’t have time to answer questions for prying pissants like me. He punches into his shift early, and then after some brief and frivolous socializing with his coworkers — the lot of them standing around the office smoking and gabbing gaily about world events as if they were on some perpetually paid break — it’s straight to business. One of his colleagues makes a jab towards him that’s a bit personal, when they ask him why he hasn’t shaved his mustache in quite some time.

Naturally, he brushes off the question and focuses on his job. And what is that? To fulfill a demand that you didn’t even know existed, and in most cases, you’ll completely refuse to acknowledge.

It took four tries before he agreed to let me follow him around for a little while; I promised that I wouldn’t even ask many questions, as I just wanted a chance to watch him work. I said that if he just let pull up a chair a few feet behind him in his office, that would be more than enough for my profile. It’s hard to say for sure when he last opened up to a member of the public about his work.

Nonetheless, he agrees to these terms. Occasionally, he even warms up and strikes up a conversation with me. Mostly, he talks business: he is a professional film editor with a massive customer base. Everyone in existence has a film that they need him to splice up, shorten, make coherent or perhaps not so coherent. The material that he edits, however, is not exactly cinema as we understand the term. It is not something that can be projected on to a screen for two succinct hours or can be said to have the most well-written plotline.

The editor says he doesn’t much care for this office building. It’s dank, humid, the walls are curiously gooey. It’s suspiciously like living inside of a human brain.

Off with his coat, into the warm solitude of his office. To even do this job, a person must value comfort above all things. During prolonged periods of sitting at the computer, unplugging and replugging flash drives and telephone jacks and refitting the necessary wiring, the editor falls into the traps of certain habits. Getting up and walking in a small circle through the space of his office, making himself more coffee that he knows he doesn’t need ― oh, but how the right aroma takes him back home, to better days! ― sitting back down for several minutes at a time and staring forward at the old-fashioned computer monitor in a semi-thoughtful reverie while failing to get anything done.

He is subjected to the agonizing sound of a clock on the wall, and a square digital alarm clock sitting on his desk next to the computer monitor. He once resolved to remove all the clocks from his office, but ― sure as the seasons ― they reappeared with nary a note from Management explaining why. This, by the way, was after his civil pleas for clock removal had been automatically rejected and he had resorted to stuffing anything resembling a timekeeping device into a garbage bin. No, the editor hadn’t been reprimanded for this piece of vigilante reorganizing, unless one counts the inevitable reappearance of the clocks — circular and handed, digital and beeping, all shapes and sizes — as a sort of sardonic punishment. The most the editor can do is place black electric tape in a small spot over the lower right-hand corner of the computer screen where the time is displayed.

To further create a motivational atmosphere for the editor, Management has hung a mass market copy of a framed painting on the wall above his desk; it’s a Thomas Kinkade piece, though he doesn’t know the name. It’s a painting that the editor might have, in less sentimental days, called ‘garish’ if Management hadn’t banned that word. It serves its function, though, which is not to so much inspire awe as to motivate regular thought. This copy has been specially modified just for the editor, with a very small placard engraved into the bottom of the frame displaying the (admittedly, still branding) motto of Management: BAD THINGS DON’T HAPPEN HERE, WHAT BAD THINGS?

Tonight, he is productive and gets back to work immediately after enduring one of his little pacing tics for a minute or two. He sits back down and goes back to editing.

“What a load of crap,” he laments to no one in particular, even when I share the room with him. “Everything nowadays, it’s all gone to digital.”

The editor’s unknowing client for today is Becky Weaver, an elderly woman who is finding herself less and less in tune with modern society and its wayward mores. In a white cardboard box beneath the desk, labeled HIPPOCAMPUS (the editor has amused himself by drawing a mortarboard-wearing hippopotamus under the word) in magic marker ink, the editor reaches down and thumbs through the flash drives like candy until he finds the one with her name scribbled on it. Once it’s plugged in to the desktop, he opens the main folder on the drive and begins to access the cornucopia of raw video files ready to be reassembled into a cohesive narrative for Ms. Weaver’s everyday consumption.

The earliest video files, what few of them there are, are in very poor shape. The colors are warped, the narrative is indecipherable, they are always very brief in their runtime, the audio is warbled and distorted beyond the capabilities of even his professional repair. His priority is to organize folders on the computer for these different files, preferably by chronology. The most recent video files are somewhat clearer. In all of this raw footage, Becky’s eyeballs are the camera and her world is the soundstage. There are a few supporting characters and a seemingly infinite number of extras.

Comprehensible or not, the fact is that the older the files are, the greater the value of the information. Those scenes are the real darlings, the things that are too integral to the plot to be lost.

The editor’s job, on this project, is not just truncating bits of information or rearranging it. That would be too simple. His job, for today’s project, is to draw greater emphasis to some aspects while significantly downplaying others and, in some cases, editing in brand new material. Yes, as an editor, the key part of his profession has to do with removing some excessive or unwanted information. Unwanted by whom? Unwanted by Weaver, of course, consciously or unconsciously.

Her father, one of the protagonists of her brain-film, is as noble and responsible as a human being can possibly be. That glow around him whenever he would come home from work and greet his family with loving arms; these brief scenes were usually followed by much longer, more boring scenes of him downing sud after sud and becoming increasingly aggressive with each passing hour, snapping at Becky for daring to make the slightest noise when he was trying to watch the evening news.

The editor removes these distasteful parts, right-clicks the raw video files and discards them in another folder that Becky doesn’t have to be aware of. What’s left is just her father as a docile, affectionate but always strong man; such a cartoonishly virtuous human that he becomes oddly inhuman in the memory, a kitschy parody of something real.

For a little while, the editor focuses on one scene in the memory film when Becky was about eleven years old. Interior. Evening. Sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Her mom has served up a special kind of baked ziti, the odor of which the editor makes sure to emphasize in this scene; he isolates the sound of the cheese sizzling in the pasta and turns up the volume ever so slightly, amplifies the tingly aroma of those four cheeses and freshly made tomato sauce. The recipe to all of this, at least in the style of Becky’s mother, is something each woman in the family promises to pass down to their offspring some day when they’re old enough to cook. The editor then remembers something. He pauses the footage and writes down a memo to himself: he must reconstitute that scene from Becky’s early twenties, when her mother finally confesses the secret ingredients. The mystery of why mother’s baked ziti is so damn good is exactly what gives it its unspeakable mysticism, a wonder of sauce and crusted cheeses.

Back to the dinner scene. Becky’s father brings up, as a point of local conversation, “Did you hear about that black boy that Mrs. Kirk fooled around with? A real testament the community she is! Believe me, from what I heard, that boy won’t be usurping anybody else’s wife any time in the future.”

Pan to the left. On the other side of the table, Becky’s mother chuckles and expresses equal surprise at the neighborhood scandal, however she briefly hints at some hesitance about discussing the subject of infidelity in front of their prepubescent daughter. This minor quibble, however, matters far less to Mom than instilling the right values into her daughter through this dinner conversation; just as little Becky must know to brush her teeth after every meal and to look both ways before crossing the street, she must understand via normalization that purposeful intermingling with those people is not something that will be tolerated.

The editor pauses to think about this.

“The direction of this scene is of course far, far too disruptive to the tone,” he explains to me. “It has to get isolated and cut. The lesson learned from the scene is wholesome, according to Management’s notes, but it can’t be so on-the-nose.”

Any good editor knows that the seams around any given edit must not stand out to the viewer. This takes precision. In this case, it also takes a bit of craftiness on part of the editor; he’ll remove certain phrases from Becky’s memory and let implication do the job. Maybe now she will only remember her wonderful dad mocking the neighbor lady for being promiscuous, and certainly not for any more detailed reasons than that. Nothing else, nothing else at all.

“Never mind,” the editor turns to tell me, “the fact that Becky, even well into her seventies, still won’t ride the elevator in the presence of a black man.”

The editor moves on to another scene. Becky is in the trouble years here, thirteen or fourteen years old. The setting is the family home interior, evening. Becky’s mother lurks about in the other room as Becky sits at the kitchen table with her palms flat on the mahogany, and boy howdy, Becky’s mother seems to have screamed so much that her voice is now shot. All that’s given is that sooner rather than later, Becky’s father will come home and read her the riot act. What is her teenage transgression? Unclear; maybe it involves boys or automobiles or some other equally dangerous narcotic. Becky’s father stumbles through the door, barely able to walk in a straight line and totally failing to have wiped the vomit from his shirt. The old man’s trajectory is towards the couch so he might sleep the drink off, but of course the missus has to walk up to him and tell him all about what that suddenly-amoral daughter of theirs has been up to today.

Becky’s mother, unfortunately, cannot foresee his greatly disproportionate reaction. He storms towards his daughter like a haywire machine, all sense of drunken aloofness suddenly gone from his body and picks up a frying pan along the way. The scene becomes incredibly violent. By the end of it, we only see the tile floor from Becky’s eyes, a small puddle of blood beneath her face and what appears to be a tooth floating in it. Though Becky doesn’t see it, there is audio in this scene of her father slapping his wife across the jaw for daring to interfere with his wholesome fatherly duties.

The editor knows this scene must be deleted, otherwise Becky’s father’s characterization won’t make sense. Cut it down for a PG rating, maybe a PG-13 if Management is feeling limber.

There’s also the big picture to think about. Becky Weaver’s memories, these individual snippets of recollection both big and small, are not mere islands of thought but part of a great big mosaic. The more comprehensive picture is a majestic and always-inviting pastoral that becomes cozier and cozier like a warm bedroom after a gusty evening when it is contrasted with the more recent glimpses of the world. Becky is privy to the fact there is more information in today’s world, and quite a bit of that falls under the category of bad news. Oh, yes, the woman has a certain grimy picture of the modern world in her head, and the editor must tamper with it just as he has to tamper with the older files.

Why does life seem much crueler these days? Where has any semblance of this vaguely-defined thing called moral decency gone? “Used to be” your kids could go outside without worrying about child predators around every corner.

“Used to be” there was no concern about all this cyber-crime, identity theft and digital native degeneracy.

“Used to be” when the kid got bad grades, the kid would be in trouble and not the teacher.

“Used to be” that babies weren’t having babies of their own so young.

“Used to be” people had manners and weren’t afraid of their own neighbors.

“Used to be” women were burned to death for being left-handed.

The editor’s job is highlight these things and fade the contrast. The edges of the picture need to be softened, faded until the focus contains nothing but the comparative old pleasures. Those points will glimmer like stones in the sun while the undesirable elements will be mitigated to the point that they can hardly be said to be of any consequence at all, except of course for when they did.

Imparting knowledge is key to the editor’s job, as if every scene has mountains of information encoded into it. Once the editor has concluded a day’s work, it won’t occur to Becky that her place in western civilization as a woman is perhaps easier nowadays than it was in the epoch that she obsessively glamorizes every day. Who can say where this favoritism comes from, in the final analysis. Sure, you can pin it on the editor, but he only takes his marching orders from Management, and Management ― whoever the hell they are ― know exactly what kind of film they want. The Soviets had their montage cinema and the French New Wave had their social realism among other things, and so the film inside of Becky Weaver’s skull has its own particular bent: Common Sense™, the filter through which Becky sees the past, present and future. Common Sense™ was what her father taught her, and what his father taught him. Common Sense™ knows that tradition is unquestionably good. Common Sense™ is a cult object of yesterday, something unnameable and long gone in today’s wicked world.

“Boy howdy,” Becky will tell you. “Common Sense™ is lacking today. Politicians, scientists, parents, kids; they all lack Common Sense™.” What exactly is the ethos of Common Sense™, and how is it defined in the first place? Well, Becky, can never really articulate it if you ask her, and the editor makes sure it stays that way. If she had the power, she would bring back the society of her youth, a society where Common Sense™ was king. The Common Sense™ which dictated that children should play games outside in the fresh air, not online; the Common Sense™ that dictated that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child; the Common Sense™ that dictated that some humans have more of a right to vote than others.

You know, that Common Sense™.

The insurmountable sufferings of the world only seem really “real” nowadays, which perfectly coincides with Ms. Weaver’s advanced years. It’s all a decayed parody of the idyllic world of days past, when things were simpler in ways that cannot be coherently or empirically explained by those who purport to have lived through them. The editor laughs, knowing that it’s what Management has called for. That’s the film they want, that’s the film Weaver will see, feel, think, remember.

The editor walks across the room again, this time to the little mini-fridge situated by a tower of filing cabinets to acquire a can of Coke. Of course, it tastes like crap to him, because the mix just doesn’t taste like it used to.

The day will come when the editor will get an important phone call from Management, probably on one of those new modern phones that he hates. He picks it up and mumbles to himself about how it “used to be so that you dropped the phone on the floor and you worried about breaking the floor, not the other way around.” Stupid modern crap. Management will tell him, in a dreadfully formal tone as always, that the time is here and that he needs to destroy the Becky Weaver files. He will need to go and delete all her video files — even those he has edited to perfection! — because, according to Management, her time has come.

No matter. He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.

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Categories: Fiction

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