Jack’s boy, Boy, was living at the Hotel Yorba. One of his admirers was footing the bill, though not Jack Meg gathered.
It was the summer of the Casey Anthony trial and the whole country had dead-baby fever. Family would eventually be a thing of the past and Boy was the future they’d been dreaming of.
Jack invited Meg to Boy’s room, on the 4th of July.
Like most fascinating people, Boy’s origin story was something of a mystery. A bartender at the Gold Dollar once told them that Boy was born to a cult leader in the California desert. His father had twenty wives and Boy, over a hundred brothers and sisters.
Jack told Boy Meg was his sister.
Boy offered them a drink from the minibar. They both wanted whiskey, neat. He poured himself a glass of milk.
He looked at Meg and he looked at Jack and through his milk mustache said, “You two would be perfect for my collection.”
“What do you collect?” Meg said.
That wasn’t the whole story. There were films. Thousands of them. Jack called them art. Boy called them necessary. The series didn’t have a name and Boy and Jack exhausted themselves all summer trying to come up with one.
It was impossible for Meg to picture Boy handling a camera. His soft, pale hands were designed for holding parasols not technical equipment. The camera was a 35mm vintage DEVRY. There were two reels, a hand crank, and film tins stacked like giant coins all around them. For a screen, he’d pinned a bed sheet above the headboard.
Meg first watched the films that July evening in Boy’s hotel room when Jack stepped out for more cigarettes. Boy had a small notebook that he wrote in as they watched. She thought he might be taking notes on the performances or his camerawork but when she glanced over his shoulder she noticed that he was actually writing about anomalies on the film itself. Scratches and dust on the film’s surface created marks on the picture. A black hole on a woman’s face, a white freckle against the night sky. Instead of cleaning the film he wrote down the time and place these marks appeared, and they became part of the piece’s makeup, like a strand of DNA.
Meg sometimes mistook Boy’s breathing over her shoulder for the breathing on screen.
“Jack thought you might be interested in sitting for me.”
“He’s already done it. Twice. I can show you his.”
“No. That’s okay. I don’t want to see.”
“It’s not painful, or it looks more painful than it is.”
Boy had already made something of a name for himself. In an earmarked copy of Art Forum that rested on their coffee table back home, Jack had circled an article titled “The Future’s Son: Portraiture on the Edge of Tomorrow.” On the cover was a cutout of the Apollo spacesuit, superimposed on Boy’s slight frame. Every part of the image was silver except his eyes; they were an earthy green.
Long before Jack partnered with Boy he had partnered with Meg in a two-piece band. Jack was the drummer and Meg played guitar. She was okay. Jack was good, very good, but his technique was complicated and fussy, which made him seem bad even though he wasn’t. Like the film in Boy’s camera, their songwriting was inherently flawed—Meg would routinely fail to tune her guitar, and Jack would change the tempo as fills were played—and these flaws often made their way into the fabric of their songs, until their mistakes were almost indistinguishable from their intentions.
Meg told Boy about their band and he poured her another drink.
“We had three songs.”
“Ah, The Rule of Three.”
“The Holy Trinity.”
“The father, the son and the holy ghost.”
“Vocals, guitar and drums.”
Meg kept waiting for a film of Jack to appear, but instead there were just strangers, one after the other moving in celluloid like they were treading water. Boy scribbled in his notebook: 1478b: black horseshoe top left corner / 3:25
Boy had a story like Meg’s about a girl named Girl. They had lived together and they were in love once. She was an artist just like him until he decided to film her for his project. Slowly she stopped making things of her own and began looking longingly at his camera. She moved around like she was being filmed even when she wasn’t. Then that just became the way she moved all the time.
“Do you think she killed her baby?”
Meg felt she should’ve had a very strong opinion about that. During breaks at her waitressing job in Greektown, she would go over the evidence in her head. Chloroform, duct tape, a strand of hair, the trunk of a white Pontiac Sunfire. On their own the pieces were innocent enough but together they told a damning story. What were the odds that all these objects would arrange to conspire against her?
“I’d love to listen to one of your songs sometime. One of your three songs. Or all three.”
“We don’t play anymore.”
“The songs we wrote are broken and we don’t know how to fix them.”
Jack came back. He dropped a pack of cigarettes onto Meg’s lap and poured himself another whiskey. He said the reason he took so long was because he had knocked on every door in the entire hotel looking for a light. “All they got inside is vacancy.”
Meg was too embarrassed to sing Boy any of their songs. Instead he volunteered his worst film. It was of a girl, though not Girl, and he was right, it was nothing special. Jack compared it to the other films and together they tried to work out what was wrong with it. But it was as mysterious to Jack and Meg as it was to Boy. All they knew was that it was wrong. It could have been the girl herself, or the lighting or the choice of music or a combination of these things.
Boy referred to his notes: 752d: oblong smudge center-left / 5:50
Then Meg came up with an idea. “Maybe film doesn’t agree with her. Maybe she’s supposed to be a painting or photograph or even a song!”
Boy was excited by this idea. “Yes, yes, yes! And this ugly painting,” he pointed to the faded hotel art, “Is a great ballet; this chair, a sculpture; this conversation, a story!”
Jack wisely argued that everything that is ugly or wrong can’t be something. Some things are just ugly. Some things are just wrong.
“How do we know whether something is actually supposed to be something?”
“Meg,” Boy said. “I should film you and see if we can figure it out.”
Jack got up from the bed and helped Boy take down the reel and load a new old film from one of the dull tins. This made Meg even sadder than the thought of Jack being filmed. She didn’t care if Boy had her in his collection but she didn’t want Jack to be part of it, and she didn’t want him to want her to be part of it.
She looked out the window at the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. Jack had ancestors from Canada. A few generations on his father’s side had lived in Nova Scotia before moving to Detroit to work in the car factories. Nova Scotia was a beautiful place, Meg thought, but if they had never come to Detroit there would be no Jack.
Their band colors were yellow and black, the colors of the furniture place where Jack worked, Third Man Upholstery, whose slogan was “Your furniture is not dead.” They called themselves Your Band is Not Dead.
Meg’s guitar was a yellow 1964 JB Hutto Montgomery Ward Airline. She wore a long suede strap. She liked to play it low, beneath her belly, or hold it up to the crowd by its steel reinforced neck. Or else she would sit down, hold it in her lap face-up, and play it fingerstyle.
Jack’s drumsticks were like two lightning rods. Meg only ever held them when they were packing up before and after gigs. She brought the guitar to life with the tips of her fingers, but the drums brought her to life. Holding the sticks in her hands and the kit between her legs made Meg feel like her hair was standing on end, like she was the Bride of Frankenstein.
She knew she wouldn’t have been a great drummer or even a good drummer. She could keep a beat but didn’t have Jack’s skill or coordination. However, she did believe that some objects were a door.
As Boy and Jack continued to set up the camera, Meg flipped on the TV. The verdict would be read on the other side of the country in Orlando, Florida. Just over a thousand miles away. Outside the courthouse peaceful protestors wore duct tape and heart stickers over their mouths in solidarity with the victim. One of the forensic experts had discovered an outline of a heart on the edge of a piece of duct tape, suggesting that Casey stuck a heart-shaped sticker over her daughter’s mouth before suffocating her.
“Do you really think I’m meant to be a film?”
They didn’t answer.
A softbox halogen lamp bowed over the camera. Boy peered through the viewfinder and lined up the shot. Jack coached her, his arms crossed.
Had it finally occurred to him, as it had her, that their songs weren’t actually broken? If they were broken, that meant they could be fixed. They couldn’t. Meg knew this the moment she touched Jack’s drum kit. But Jack, she suspected, didn’t realize it until that night in the hotel room with Boy.
It felt like forever, but in a few minutes they would find out whether Meg was a film, like Jack and so many others in Boy’s collection, or whether she was the girl who wasn’t Girl but somebody else entirely.
She got into position. Boy’s slender fingers wrapped around the camera’s leather casing, he paused, then, mercifully, he started rolling.
July 5th they waited all afternoon for the verdict to be read. By that time Boy’s milk had soured so he switched to whisky. It was too hot to be watching television and much too hot to be watching Florida on television. Casey walked into the courtroom wearing a pink ruffled shirt.
In her version of events her daughter Caylee drowned accidently in a swimming pool. In the state’s version, Casey knocked Caylee out with chloroform and suffocated her with a piece of duct tape. Meg couldn’t say she believed Casey was innocent, but she wouldn’t have been surprised either way. Not only were both stories plausible, it was as though both versions of events happened exactly as each side claimed they did. There could only be one truth, one set of events that actually happened, but this other story was so compelling it was like a second truth that lay dormant, curled inside of the other, and the trial had shaken it awake.
The night before, they all slept in the same bed. Boy fell asleep first. Jack and Meg sat up and watched. His pink lips formed a tiny “o” like he was mid-song. Jack was right, if they had to belong to anybody, she was glad that they belonged to someone as special as Boy.
While Boy was filming Meg, she was watching Jack. He was counting. “1, 2, 3, 4.” It wasn’t painful in the way she was expecting. She was breathless. There was a moment of panic. Then she was lightheaded and eventually numb. Boy was looking at her intently, waiting for the moment she would become the thing that he was making. When it was over, he turned off the camera and excitedly wrote something down in his notebook.
He figured it out, or so she thought. She craned her neck to get a peek. But Boy wasn’t writing down the sign that proved whether Meg was or wasn’t a film. It was just another of his bland technical notes, a description of the scratched-up film that read, 1002k: white stripes