We decided to make Drew’s great aunt the subject of our documentary. What I knew about Drew’s great aunt: Ninety-eight years old and lived alone. She had never married nor bore any children. Also, her memory was erratic. She could remember standing in long lines with her mother for government food relief during the Great Depression but not the names of her current next-door neighbors. Still, she had managed to preserve most of her faculties. She could hear and see reasonably well, although her optometrist recently classified her as legally blind, and she often needed things repeated to her before she could make sense of sounds. The last time Drew had seen her: fifteen years ago, at the age of ten.
We would film the documentary at alternating locations, half of it at Drew’s great aunt’s apartment, the other half at the senior center she haunted. We would interview only two people: Drew’s great aunt and the director of the senior center, a compact sphere of a woman with large florid cheeks and big-pupiled eyes vulnerable to extravagant displays of emotion.
We were a three-man crew, seeing as how it was for a film class, Professor Watson’s Advanced Documentary seminar, which consisted of the three of us and twelve other graduate film students. I would handle the camera, a Canon 700 DSLR mounted on a twenty-four-inch handheld stabilizer, while Felix would work the boom. Drew would do the interviewing and directing.
The whole project was supposed to be fairly dry and workmanlike.
* * *
Once Drew uploaded the documentary, which we titled “Junk Mail,” onto the web, it became an instant viral hit. Articles popped up across the web with unaffectedly long and blunt titles like “They put a camera in this old woman’s house and what they captured will make you cry” or “What your grandmother does to pass the time when you’re not around will break your heart.” Each of the articles came with an embedded link to the film, which opened innocuously with a wide angle shot of the senior center’s white-walled activities room, a host of mostly liver-spotted geriatrics in frame, agrin and ostensibly happy as they played checkers or knitted mittens too large for their hands. All diagetic sound, no manipulation, key to earning the viewer’s trust and pacifying them before the appearance of the astutely chosen piano piece attending the film’s emotional climax.
* * *
“You know what I do? Don’t laugh. I get junk mail. I strip it, and after I strip it, I cut it up some more, put it in a bag, put it for garbage. Had to do—I have to do something. Otherwise, I’ll go nuts. But God is good to me. Who at ninety-eight years old is still walking on their feet? I am. I am because I do whatever I can and when I can’t anymore I’m done for. I want to do it as long as I can.”
* * *
On the first day of filming—overcast, so lots of cloud cover and prefiltered light, promising a sharper, less overexposed image if we filmed outside; in other words, basically the best conditions we could have hoped for without a million-dollar budget—we drove up together, just the three of us, in Drew’s old gray Honda Civic, with its cheap stereo system and poor insulation from the buzz of the road outside. I sat in the back-driver seat by myself cradling the Canon 700 and examining its lens. Twice, Felix, who rode shotgun, turned around to me and said, “You look like a mother on the ride back from giving birth with that thing.”
“It’s a good camera,” I said the second time.
“Yeah but don’t expect it to suck on your tit.”
No surprise why we had delegated the boom mic to Felix. On such a low budget project, audio pretty much handled itself. Felix was an undergrad Dr. Watson had given permission to enroll in his graduate class. He was the least cinephilic of the three of us and probably possessed the worst instincts. I had actually heard him say on multiple occasions that The Rock was one of the greatest films ever made. For the shoot, he had chosen to come in a Knicks cap, backwards; a Knicks jersey about two times his size; a Knicks pair of shorts which he wore right below his buttocks and which left his red-and-blue plaid boxers exposed whenever he bent over; a pair of tall white socks; and new-clean blue Jordans that weren’t actually new at all: Felix merely had six pairs of them—six pairs of the exact same shoe.
“Let’s try to stay focused, guys,” Drew said from the driver’s seat.
“Dude, I’m focused, dawg,” Felix said. “I’m like a fucking laser.” He hit his chest several times for emphasis.
I looked out the window. A residential area composed of predominantly square, one-story houses rolled past. Many of the front lawns looked wild and haphazardly tended, which gave the streets and houses a dry, colorless appearance; they had an air of the post-apocalyptic. Staring at them actually made me thirsty. “Hey, does your family know we’re doing this? Filming your great aunt for our class?” I asked Drew.
He didn’t respond immediately. I turned away from the window and found him staring at me in the rearview mirror, his eyes narrowed slightly as if gazing into an extremely bright light. “My mom does,” he said. “She arranged everything for us. Why?”
I swallowed, anxious about the line of questioning I had started. “Was the last time your mom saw your great aunt also the last time you saw her?” I asked, thinking of my own grandparents, whom I visited at most twice a year. They weren’t ninety-eight years old like Drew’s great aunt, but they dealt with their own set of emotional and physical problems that made their lives something of a living hell. Picturing taking a camera to their home and filming the depressing horror of their daily routine—the necessary idleness of their everyday lives as they sat in their recliners and watched TV and groaned in pain whenever they needed to get up—filled me with a very powerful guilt and anger. I never would have agreed to this project if not for my needing at least a B in the class. I had already received two Cs. The graduate school would expel me after a third, and my engineer parents would have even greater reason to question my decision to go pursue an MFA. Drew’s GPA: 4.0.
“Yes,” Drew said. “Why is that important?” Still eyeing me in the rearview mirror, Drew hadn’t checked the road in nearly thirty seconds, was driving purely through intuition. My nerves made it so I could barely meet his eyes. He certainly cast a peculiar figure. He possessed a vampirically long and hollow-cheeked face with a light dusting of facial hair along his jaw that from a distance looked more like undiscovered dirt than a fashion statement. And he was skinny, but the kind of skinny that gave off the appearance of an accident—his skinniness lacked premeditation, like he just forgot to eat occasionally, and I sometimes got the sense that if I ever pointed his weight out to him, he would express genuine surprise at the idea of even having a body.
I didn’t know Drew especially well.
“It’s not,” I said, my courage suddenly exhausted. No point jeopardizing my grade by creating conflict. “I was just wondering how your family felt about all of this. The documentary and all. It was dumb.”
“They think it’s a great idea,” Drew said, a defensive air still lingering about him.
I nodded, smiling. “Good, great.” I returned to gazing out the window where the residential area had turned into a commercial district full of small boutiques and fresh food markets. As we came to a red stoplight, I watched a small, widely-hipped woman, who looked roughly forty years old, walk along the sidewalk paralleling my side of the car, several shopping bags hanging from her hooked wrists. She had her head up and appeared determined.
I realized then that my parents would probably call soon to plan our next visit to my grandparents. I felt neither excitement nor dread at the prospect.
The light turned green and Drew pressed on the gas, and we left the determined, shopping-bagged woman behind us while the rest of the landscape scrolled by with the speed of a fast-forwarded video.
* * *
Websites, small ones, asked Drew for interviews. They wanted to know his “process,” his artistic creed. One of the interviewers predicted he would make a documentary to rival the weight and power of The Battle of Algiers in the near future. When Drew heard this, he smiled with his ascetically dry lips and said, “That’s very kind of you to say.” He said this with such radiant humility that while watching I wondered how anyone could keep themselves from standing up and applauding him for simply being alive, let alone suffering the pain of his brilliance to give us his art.
Drew declined none of the interviews as far as I knew, which I suppose I couldn’t blame him for. Drew had ambitions. I couldn’t determine his ambitions’ exact shape or form but I sensed he conducted himself with a kind of desperate intelligence. After working on the documentary with him, I discovered Drew was a connoisseur of, in his words, “post-Pinochet Chilean literature.” He was fluent in Italian, French, and Korean in addition to English. Context: I didn’t even know who Pinochet was, nor could I tell you with any confidence the name of Chile’s capitol city. Drew watched Yugoslav Black Wave films religiously. He namedropped Mika Antic in all his interviews, referred to Breakfast with the Devil as his greatest inspiration. I had not known Yugoslavia possessed a respected film industry. And it wasn’t that I hadn’t seen my fair share of films: I had seen Ozu, I had seen Bergman, I had seen Antonioni, I enjoyed the French New Wave. I could tell you the names of Bela Tarr’s films, some of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s. But I hadn’t seen Breakfast with the Devil, nor heard of the Yugoslav Black Wave.
These discoveries produced conflicting emotions in me.
* * *
We stopped by the senior center first, to pick up the director. Felix moved to the back to sit with me, ceding shotgun to the director of the center, a woman named Martha. “It’s so great what you’re doing,” she said as soon as she got in, looking from Drew at the wheel to Felix and me in the back. “They get so few visitors you know. The smallest bit of kindness means the world to them.”
Drew didn’t say anything. We pulled out of the senior center’s roundabout and stopped at the exit of the parking lot where Drew looked both ways, preparing to merge into oncoming traffic. “It’s a school project,” I inserted. “Only the people in class will see it.”
“Still,” Martha said. She had short curly brown hair. “Still, this is going to make Jean’s day. She’s so quiet during activities time. She sits there so demurely in her chair, just watching. But she’s not afraid to throw herself into things either. You’d be surprised how lively she can be. It’s beautiful to watch when it happens. There’s so much pain in their lives. Any little bit of kindness counts, especially from family. It’s their family they want to see most.” Martha suddenly stopped with a very loud sniff. “Sorry,” she said, rubbing her nose. “I get emotional. It just makes me so happy to see you boys doing what you’re doing. You don’t understand how much this’ll mean to Jean. You’re doing God’s work. I truly mean that. But oh gosh look at me I can’t even go two minutes. I’m sorry, just ignore me.”
I sat back a little astonished. We had decided to bring Martha with us when we visited Drew’s great aunt to make sure Drew’s great aunt had someone familiar around to keep her oriented and relaxed. We also wanted a person equipped with the knowledge and skills to care for Drew’s great aunt if she happened to hurt herself or suffer some misfortune during filming. Not that we planned to put her at risk during the shoot; you just never knew.
We pulled up in front of Drew’s great aunt’s apartment about fifteen minutes later. She lived on the first floor of a small complex. Her apartment’s building was constructed entirely of wood painted a vivid firehouse-red. Drew parked along the sidewalk, and we took a quick stroll across the street before arriving at her doorstep. We let Martha knock.
* * *
Drew’s great aunt was tiny. She occupied less than half the doorway when she opened the door. She wore thick goggle-like glasses that gave anyone looking an exploded-cartoon view of her green eyes. Her hair, dark gray and streaked here and there with little thin bands of white, was cut at her neck and slightly wavy. She had a substantial nose as well. But she looked starved. Her clothes hung from her body like melted wax. You couldn’t locate her figure in there at all.
“Martha?” she said, squinting her eyes, then looking from Martha to me holding the camera, to Felix with the boom, to Drew, who had somehow insinuated himself into the back of the group.
Martha nodded. “Hi, Jean,” she said, bending down and giving her a hug. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Good as I can be.”
“That’s good,” Martha replied. Then she stepped out of Jean’s way and gestured toward Drew. “Look who I brought with me, Jean. Look.”
Jean looked at me. After Martha stepped aside, I had become the person standing immediately in front of her. “Who’s this?” Jean said, blinking.
Martha, not picking up on the nature of Jean’s confusion, said, “It’s your grandnephew, Jean. It’s your niece’s son.”
“My niece’s son?” Jean said, taking a step closer to me before I could move out of her way and point her in the right direction. She craned her neck up at me. “My vision must be worse than I thought. Which niece, Martha?”
“Jean, no, that’s not the right boy,” Martha said, grabbing Jean’s shoulders and moving her past Felix and me to stand her in front of Drew. “Don’t you remember, Jean? You agreed to let your grandnephew come film you.” Martha bent her head down slightly to say this so Drew’s great aunt could hear her better.
“Did I?” Drew’s great aunt said.
“Yes, you did, now look, look, this is your sister’s grandson, your niece’s boy.” To make sure Jean knew exactly who she was talking about, Martha put one hand on Drew’s shoulder while keeping her other on Jean’s.
“My sister’s grandson,” Jean said, squinting once more up at Drew. We all stood in silence for a moment as she examined him. I studied Jean again and saw that she wore a pair of white socks and blue slippers. I was trying to understand why I found this charming when Drew’s great aunt suddenly inhaled very deeply and her compact facial features expanded in recognition. “My sister’s grandson,” she whispered, taking another step closer to Drew, who had his gaze locked on the space of cement in front of his feet. Martha’s hand fell away from Jean’s shoulder. “I don’t—my sister, she was, you were with my sister. My sister brought you and your mother, my niece.” She appeared caught in a state of breathless remembrance. At the mention of his mother, Drew finally looked up and met his great aunt’s eyes, and he smiled. He didn’t speak. “My niece’s son,” she said. Silence followed as a glassy film slowly began to develop over Jean’s eyes.
“Why don’t we go inside,” Martha said, taking Jean’s shoulders in her hands once again and gently turning her around back toward the door. “We can all sit down and have some tea and you can catch up with Drew.”
This seemed to bring Jean back to herself a little. “I don’t have many cups,” she said. “I’m not popular. I was never popular. I don’t get many visitors.”
Inside Jean’s apartment, prospects appeared stark. Someone built the apartment along a linear design, meaning the rooms were organized in a straight row or column, with the living room being first, followed by the bathroom, then the lone bedroom, then the kitchen. A hallway ran from the living room to the kitchen, neither of which had doors, past the bathroom and bedroom. A little blue recliner sat in front of an old television with one of those very large backsides TV’s used to have in the living room. Bookending the recliner, I saw two stacks of back issues of various magazines like People and Newsweek. The living room also sported a swag-curtained window that looked out onto the street.
Unsurprisingly, the apartment smelled of must. It filled the nose like congestion. Light was scarce, except in the kitchen, where the windows didn’t have curtains or blinds. The hallway and kitchen both had hardwood flooring, while the bathroom appeared constructed of cheap faux-tile. Because no one had vacuumed the carpet recently, little anomalous bits of detritus pimpled the carpet fibers and created doubts about where to put your feet. None of us remarked on any of this as we walked in. As far as I knew, social etiquette dictated only immediate family or extremely close friends could comment on the cleanliness of an old person’s home.
Drew found a chair and set it down across from his great aunt’s recliner. Martha busied herself in the kitchen making everyone tea. Jean took a seat in her recliner and returned to marveling at the figure of her grandnephew as he strode about giving directions to Felix and me in a low murmur.
Drew gathered Felix and I around his chair. “Once you start filming, don’t stop,” he said. “Don’t stop even if I go to the restroom and stop asking questions. We want to capture everything. Dillon, it might be useful at some point to go film Martha and get her reaction to Aunt Jean’s answers. Felix, you follow Dillon wherever he goes. I want audio with every picture.”
Jean didn’t say anything. She merely watched from her recliner.
“Are you going to make her cry?” I asked, sensing something in the tone of Drew’s voice that put me on edge. Drew stopped to consider my question.
“I’m not going to make her do anything,” he replied. “I’m just going to ask her some questions. But if she does cry, I’m saying don’t stop recording. She’s my great aunt. I give you permission to film her tears.” He adjourned our confab. I reminded myself of Drew’s 4.0 GPA and pushed back the misgivings forming in my gut.
Eventually, Martha brought in tea, which everyone except me declined. She returned to the kitchen, and Drew took a seat in his chair.
After downing my tea and returning my cup to the kitchen, where Martha now stood staring at the walls in deep contemplation, I turned the camera on, checked the white and z-balance and the lens, walked back into the living room, and hit the record button. The red light came alight.
“Aunt Jean, we’re recording now, okay?” Drew said from his chair.
“You were shorter than I was, I remember,” she said, ignoring Drew’s comment, referring to the last time Drew had come to visit.
“I remember,” Drew said, smiling again.
Holding the camera in the Steadicam, I put myself in position so that Drew sat out of frame, leaving Drew’s great aunt in the shot filling the upper right intersection of the rule-of-thirds grid, with the light from the window acting as the key and creating a faint triangle of illumination on her left cheek.
“Your mother,” Jean said. “I haven’t seen your mother since I don’t—I can’t recall.”
“She says hi,” Drew replied. “She wishes you well.”
“She was always so busy, with you, with her job.”
“She wanted to be here.”
“She doesn’t have time for me. I understand. I remember how it was when I was her age.”
Drew’s great aunt didn’t appear to notice or care about the camera.
“What about Aunt Louisa?” Drew asked, referring to his mother’s sister, his great aunt’s other niece. “Does she visit?”
“Huh?” Drew’s great aunt asked, leaning forward slightly.
“Does Louisa visit?” Drew asked again.
“Louisa? Louisa visits. Louisa was here—I don’t remember but she was here.”
“That’s good,” Drew said. He thought about his next question. “What about here?” he asked. “Do you like it here?”
“I don’t—I don’t mind. What am I going to do? Where could I go? I’m by myself. I can’t see. I can’t hear. I can’t live with my nieces; they all have their own families.”
Drew nodded again. “But the senior center. Does that help? They’re friendly there.”
“The senior center.”
“Oh the senior center, yeah, I can’t wait till morning comes so I can go to it. Yeah, I like it down there. You meet friends, you talk to them, you do something to pass your time; otherwise, like Saturday and Sunday, there’s nobody here.”
She stopped, and Drew hesitated in asking his next question, but then he asked, “What do you like to do in your free time?”
* * *
The next day of shooting we met Jean at her apartment and took the shuttle to the senior center with her. Martha had resumed her duties back at the center. At the behest of Drew, I made sure to get numerous shots of Jean staring forlornly out the window of the van during the trip, at one point jokingly zooming in so close I could easily distinguish the blackheads populating the outside of her nostrils. It was during this moment that she turned to the camera and said, “I used to hate being on camera when I was younger, but now I find I don’t really care.”
A little surprised, I struggled to come up with an interesting reply. I still had the camera in my hands, my eye pressed to the viewfinder. “Really?” I said lamely.
Jean didn’t appear fazed by my lack of charisma luckily. She nodded and added, “It’s odd how we change,” before returning to looking out the window. I kept the camera on her, the refracted daylight scanning her face. I didn’t expect any of this would make it into the final cut of the documentary.
I returned to the back of the shuttle, where both Drew and Felix sat, two rows behind Jean. “Is she going to see this?” I asked Drew, sitting down next to him.
“I wish she could but she’s legally blind,” Drew said. “She would only be able to see blurs on a television screen, if that.”
Upon hearing these words, Felix, sitting on the other side of Drew, said softly, “My grandmother says she has a hard time seeing her television sometimes, and it—I’m not afraid to admit it but the idea of at some point not being able to see around me seriously scares the shit out of me. No joke.”
Drew and I looked at him but said nothing.
The senior center turned out to be a single rectangular building of plaster and wood. I had expected a multiannexed structure full of right-angled retirees walking around, and only the latter appeared true. Inside, all the rooms and halls were dizzingly lit and ripe for overexposure. Even the gray carpet issued a dangerous glare. I drastically lowered the z-balance on the Canon to compensate. In the activities room, the volunteer staff had organized sixteen plastic folding tables, each accompanied by four foldable chairs, into four diagonal rows. A two-wheeled whiteboard also stood at one end of the room with the words “Spark your imagination!” written on it in black marker. Arts and crafts projects, many of them large, macaroni-festooned poster boards, lined the walls.
We would shoot the rest of the documentary predominantly in this room.
* * *
“I’m in charge of staff management and event planning here at the center.”
“I think deep down I always knew this was something I’d want to do, but I probably knew for sure when I started as a volunteer here. I was twenty-one and had just gotten married and I was looking to gain experience and so I volunteered and then I never left. I was lucky to find something I loved so young. I’ve been blessed.”
“Some of our staff are volunteers, but I’m full-time. This is my life. I’ve given everything I have to this place.”
“[Pause] Because they’re still alive.”
* * *
Drew did little interviewing that day. For the most part, he hovered behind me and whispered suggestions of what to shoot and how to shoot it into my ear. We did interview Martha for a second time, and many of her answers seemed fraught with dramatic and emotional pull, at least in the eyes of Drew. He viewed her as a constituent element of his great aunt’s situation’s crippling sadness. Specifically, he said, “She is living proof of man’s beautiful struggle against life’s inexorable forces.” I didn’t bother to respond to this. I found her answers somewhat simplistic and desperate for a kind of mic drop gravity or consequence, especially her response to the question of “Why do you do it, run the senior center?” I felt my stomach curl in embarrassment for her after she answered. Luckily, the interview didn’t last long.
The day began with a game of bingo. Finding compelling ways to capture it on camera proved difficult. I resorted to a lot of canted angles and panning, not having any idea what might contribute visually to the documentary’s eventual theme and mood. I assumed most of the shots we would end up using were extreme close ups of the bingo cards and markers. The session of bingo transitioned into an extended period of Wii Fitness, where participants took turns playing the various games—tennis, bowling, baseball—in pairs. A semi-circle of foldable chairs developed around the television and the Wii U. Those who not interested in the game painted or drew at other tables. The seniors seemed to find great enjoyment in the Wii U, many of them commenting and laughing as they watched and played. Drew whispered harshly in my ear to get more close ups, and I scrambled from person to person, zooming in slightly but still finding it necessary to bring the camera almost offensively close to their faces. Luckily, most of the seniors, like Jean, did not seem to care about having a camera thrust in front of them.
Jean once again chose not to participate. She instead sat in the audience and watched.
For lunch, the center gave the seniors turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes. Drew, Felix, and I stayed closely attached to Jean filming her eat. She spent most of the meal administering her turkey around her plate with her fork and repeatedly turning to her neighbor, a large woman with boyishly short gray hair and very small eyes, to interrogate her on the contents of the meal, which for some reason she could not keep clear in her head.
“What’s this?” she asked her neighbor, indicating a splinter of turkey on her plate with her fork.
“That’s turkey, Jean,” her neighbor replied.
“Oh,” she said, encouraging it closer to the edge of her plate with her fork. “My aunt used to cook the best turkey for Thanksgiving. She had a way of keeping it so moist.” A pause. “I never got to ask her how she did it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jean,” her neighbor said.
A minute later: “What’s this?” Jean asked, indicating the same splinter of turkey with her fork.
“It’s turkey, Jean,” her neighbor replied.
“Oh.” She thought about this for a moment. “My aunt used to cook the best turkey for Thanksgiving.” And so on. I could recall my own grandparents having similar exchanges at the dinner table the few times I had visited them last year, except theirs generally ended in contemptuous bickering, which added to the already great discomfort of seeing them sometimes.
Drew did not appear pleased with the majority of what we were capturing. He demanded more and more close-ups and every time he heard one of the seniors cough he became predatorily still and alert and would rush the three of us over to the source, saying, “We don’t want to miss anything big.”
I dragged my feet on these occasions, forcing Drew to literally pull me across the activities room by the shirt several times.
“Shouldn’t we be filming your aunt?” I asked the first time, sidestepping an empty chair.
“It’s all related,” Drew replied, unmoved by my resistance, instead caught up in the heat of his vision for the documentary as we arrived in front of the woman he had heard sneeze most recently. “Everyone here, in the viewers’ eyes, is my aunt,” he said, not lowering his voice for the woman. I couldn’t tell if she heard him or not. “If the viewer sees one of them suffering, they see my aunt suffering. The vulnerability of her existence lives in the palsies and handicaps of every person here, which is why I want—I mean why we need the viewer to see them. It’s life and death. It’s mortality, or at least that’s what I think. I’m sorry are you—do you not think so?” His eyes, which had grown in size and circumference during his speech, seemed to dial or retract back into themselves as he finished.
“What are ‘palsies’?” Felix asked. He stood just behind me, boom-mic in hand.
Both Drew and I ignored him.
“You’re the director,” I finally said, turning with the camera raised to the woman who had sneezed and hitting record. I just needed to get an A, then I could forget about all of this.
After lunch, the center put on a game of trivia, which proved inadvertently heartbreaking owing to the number of seniors at the center with documented hearing problems. Almost every question had to be repeated upwards of three times. When asked for the actor who starred in both Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s, one of the seniors actually shouted out, “Bill Cosby!” When Martha, who was the one reading the questions, shook her head, another senior quickly followed with the same answer.
Jean continued to sit silently in her chair and watch, not participating.
The last event of the day was something Martha called “Music and Rhythm.” She asked the seniors to arrange their chairs in a large circle and gave each of them an instrument. Jean received a maraca, two people received little hand drums, three people tambourines, one person a triangle, etc. The instruments were non-instruments that required no prior training or musical instinct. One of the seniors made a joke about never getting to play a real instrument, which was received warmly by everyone in the circle who understood it. Martha laughed as well but, other than that, remained silent. Once everyone held an instrument, Martha asked the two hand drummers to set a beat, and everyone listened to them silently for a few seconds before Martha encouraged the tambourines to come in, then Jean and her maraca, then the triangle, and so forth, until every instrument was issuing a ragged sound in time with the hand drums. At this point, Martha began to dance. She already stood in the center of the circle, so she didn’t have to negotiate her way through the perimeter of chairs. She seemed to have some experience or training in bellydancing, because she walked the inside of the circle shaking her torso like an epileptic. It unsettled me to see her maneuver her body so freely and suggestively. I hoped we would abstain from including this in the final cut of the film, but judging from the hungry look on Drew’s face—Drew who, along with Felix, stood just behind me on the outside of the circle, next to Jean—he saw something in the spectacle that conformed to his vision for the film.
Eventually, Martha angled for one of the seemingly more limber seniors sitting on the opposite side of the circle from Jean and pulled her into the center of the circle to dance as well. She, the senior, put her arms out in front of her and haltingly swiveled her upper body from right to left, then left to right, as if stretching her back in preparation for some competition. Her feet didn’t move. Meanwhile, Martha spasm-danced her way over to another senior sitting along the perimeter and helped her into the middle of the circle where she too began to perform fitful movements more akin to calisthenics than dancing. But despite the awkwardness of their dancing, the two seniors both wore open-mouthed expressions of joy and excitement. And plus, they were on beat.
After watching these two dance for several minutes, Martha danced over to Drew, pulled him into the circle, turned him around and stood him in front of Jean, whose hand she took and put in his. Breaking from habit, Jean put down her maraca and rose from her chair and began stepping forcefully to the beat of the music. Martha finally scrambled out of the center of the circle, and as Drew led Jean farther into the middle, he looked at me and mouthed the words, “Don’t stop filming.” This gave me pause, and I looked up from the viewfinder. I watched Drew and Jean sway awkwardly to the beat. I had not planned on stopping, but now I felt a strange urge to. I didn’t approve of Drew insinuating himself into the shot, and for some reason, I harbored a suspicion he had planned or been waiting for just such an opportunity. I didn’t know why.
I didn’t like what I was seeing, but Drew’s GPA versus mine indicated he knew best, and that made the situation easier to stomach. I didn’t hit the record button, letting the camera roll while I returned my gaze to the viewfinder.
Drew and Jean danced for two more minutes before Jean grew visibly tired. By this time, the two seniors who Martha had originally persuaded into the center of the circle had selected replacements and returned to their seats. So Drew and Jean found themselves dancing alongside fresh faces. And even though Jean’s movements had slowed and seemed regulated by an internal beat only she could hear or understand, she continued to dance as Drew, picking up on her apparent exhaustion, slowly led her back to her chair, where Felix and I still stood. I kept the camera focused on her, stepping to the side slightly as she plopped back into her chair so I could get a profile view of her face. Before Drew could let go of her hand, she pulled him down by his arm, then took his face in both her hands and pressed his forehead against her own. The display seemed to come out of nowhere. Drew went along with it, and I moved the camera in closer. Jean shut her eyes, and a layer of tears grew from the ends of her lashes. “I won’t forget this,” she said. I watched through the viewfinder as several of her lash’s tears fell and drew lines down her cheek. My finger hovered over the record button, but still I didn’t press it. “I’m so thankful. Having you here’s made my day. I mean it. I’m never going to forget this.”
Drew closed his eyes as Jean finished. He didn’t say anything. Neither did Jean. The music continued to palpitate around them while the camera, still recording, rolled on.
* * *
“I remember her. It was different back then, families—families stayed together. Jobs weren’t far away from home. I don’t blame anybody. My grandmother, she was a very small, very kind woman. She would make me Swedish coffee whenever I wanted. She was Irish but she knew how to make Swedish coffee. That’s what I meant by before—the world was smaller, people stayed together, they knew who they were. Or I don’t know. Sometimes I say things I don’t know are true or not, they just feel right. They just feel like the right thing to say. My mind wanders. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you had to come all this way and see me like this. Believe it or not, today is a good day, this is a good day. That’s probably what makes it difficult. I’m still smart enough to know what it’s like to be around me, how difficult it is. I wish I could be better for you. I mean it. I’m sorry.”
* * *
After the documentary went viral, Drew gained substantial influence over the women of the film department. Many of them had intuited his natural artistic sensitivity, but now they held literal proof. They had video of him compassionately and sensitively dancing with his cute ninety-eight-year-old aunt, of her collapsing into tears of joy, video that proved deep down he was a good person. Most of them agreed that there weren’t many of those around. From what I could tell, Drew didn’t let his newfound female attention go to his head. He maintained his pre-documentary intensity and sole-mindedness, and whenever out in public in the company of interested women seemed to enter into a state of nervous deflation and silence, or else would hijack the conversations around him with lengthy descriptions of the most recent Yugoslav Black Wave film he had seen but no one else had.
In an interview he did after the documentary, he said his next project would be an experimental drama in the mold of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Tsai Ming-liang. I didn’t read the entire transcript.
Drew’s great aunt died two years later of heart failure. Drew let me know via email. He also admitted to not having visited her again after finishing shooting the documentary.
I was in my apartment, lying on my bed, on the phone with a friend when I received the email. My friend and I were talking about a screenplay I had written that semester for my screenwriting class about my experience working with Drew on the documentary. I had given the screenplay to her for feedback before I turned it in. The first thing she said when she called to tell me her thoughts: “Drew’s an asshole.”
I smiled and replied, “Yeah.”
“It’s good. I liked it.” She paused for a moment, then added, “I liked that old people were in it.”
This comment threw me into an alarmed stillness. I sat up in my bed before saying, “It’s not about old people.”
“Yeah maybe but still. It was nice.”
My stomach grew quietly dyspeptic as I considered my time with Drew and what I had written. My friend continued to talk but her voice had taken on a garbled, aphasic quality. I prepared myself to say something several times; I wanted to lay out a defense against her good-natured comments, enlighten her on what she had misunderstood. But I could feel myself, my strength, undergoing a kind of retirement. I didn’t speak. I sat there. As if from a distance, I heard my phone make the small beeping sound it makes to indicate I had received a new email from someone. A little dazed, I pulled up my inbox. The email was from Drew. The subject read “Junk Mail—bad news.” I opened it and read it carefully, suddenly refocused. I pictured Jean in her recliner as I read. I pictured her from a high-angle POV, tearing up her junk mail, dumping the ribbons in her trash, blue-gray dusklight illuminating her through her living room window. The magazine stacks were there, the dirt on the carpet, the hypertrophied television. She sat alone. No one in the shot with her. But I knew if she had control over herself, if she weren’t some reconstructed artifact from my past, and were to stop tearing up her mail and to look me in the eye, I would have to cut to black.
Trevor Fuller currently teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington. Fuller’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Story, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf: (very) short fiction, and Tin House Online, among others. At the moment, Fuller’s at work on a thematically linked short story collection in which all the stories relate to film or photography in some way, as well as a novel set at an amusement park not unlike Disneyland.