Before opening the door, I listened for a moment. The carpet I stood on was thick and sound-absorbent, holding in footfalls as effectively as it retained dust and stains. I got right up to the threshold without giving any warning of my approach. At first I assumed that he was on the phone, until I heard her “hmms” and other verbalized nods. His gaps were too small to place full words in. They were just outside the door, but neither was visible from the peephole.
“A total sexless shithole. The guy cleared it out with a road hockey stick while we waited out front. He took three full passes in there, batting crud around and coming out with these unbelievable, sad piles of crap. Typical stuff, mostly pizza boxes, then some really depressing things like empty calculator shells. There were about twelve of those, a whole collection, empty panels with the rubber buttons all missing. He lets us in and tells us that it’s a relief to have the place clean, he never gets the excuse to – and there’s a stack of magazines in the sink, this fucking miserable cat that looks like it wants to slit its wrists--”
I backed away from the door and then approached it again, making my steps as heavy as possible and opening the door so quickly that I felt a small vacuum of air. The girl felt it too. I could see her bangs lift a couple inches off her forehead before the hairspray resumed its hold. She was holding a video camera, an expensive-looking digital one, and wearing as much clothing as a stripper who was halfway through her act. Specifically, infinitesimal shorts with a tied-up halter cowboy shirt. The guy wore clothes that went well with the way he talked – a shimmery buttoned shirt with a terrible tattoo-style drawing of a dragon on it, and some denim pants that stopped a foot above his ankles.
“Oh, hey, man, how’s it going?” he said. He looked over at the girl to see if the camera was on and pointing at me. It was, and I gestured at it as I said ‘hi’ back.
“We’re making a documentary,” he said, as though he’d presented me with a universal permit. He looked past me into the apartment. “You’re Jan?”
I corrected his pronunciation. “It’s Dutch,” I added. I couldn’t see the girl’s face between her forehead and her chin. She held the camera in her right hand, with the monitor close to and over her features. Her fingernails were so long and manicured, or glued-on, that I wondered how she handled the buttons on the camera, or the tiny visible zipper on her shorts.
“Okay, dude, we’re here for your tapes. I’m Manco, and this is Kirby.” His voice had turned declaratory, and I understood that he was addressing the microphone on the camera as much as he was talking to me. He had prominent bones and a nicely laid-out face, would have been remarkably good looking if it weren’t for the birdshot ravage of acne and acne-scars on his face. That must make him bitter, I thought, being so close to handsomeness. I’d been so far off for so long that regret didn’t occur to me when I shaved or looked in the mirror for any other reason.
“Hi, Kirby,” I said, looking directly into the camera and hoping that she’d move it aside so her face would appear. The camera stayed still but her jaw was pulled upward by invisible muscles, indicating a smile. I invited them in and they came after me, looking and panning around. When I turned around again, Manco was holding the camera. He wasn’t Hispanic, so I assumed his name was a fake. She was Hispanic, but “Kirby” felt more like a nickname than a fake name.
“Where’s your library, dude?”
“It’s my uncle’s, like I said in the ad. They’re all boxed.”
“Sure they’re your uncles. All boxed? Really? I was hoping to get a shot of them laid out in a nice shelving unit or something.”
“They are my uncle’s. This was his place.” The apartment had been neat when I’d arrived and I’d made it even neater in the last two weeks, as I gradually unloaded Uncle Roen’s possessions through a succession of internet ads. Posters and furniture had vanished and a new, anonymous set of rooms had appeared, distinguishable as a former home only by stains, the rash of thumbtack holes in the walls, and the immovable sofa couch that I hadn’t been able to get rid of.
“He left you an inheritance of his porn, and you’re just getting rid of it?”
“Is he dead for real?” asked the girl. She looked very young, eighteen or nineteen, with a neutral West Coast accent and artificial lips. The rest of her face and body was small, minor, with gentle protrusions at the ribs and hips that would have been endearing in the nude, but looked obscene in her costume.
“Yes, he’s dead. Do you want to sit and I’ll haul the boxes out so you can take your pick, or do you want to just take them out of here whole? It’s a dollar a tape or seventy-five bucks for a box of a hundred.”
“The ad picture had them all laid out, man. On shelves, nice pine shelves. Would have made for a great shot.”
“The shelves are gone. What’s this documentary?” I asked. Kirby looked ready to answer but Manco nudged her towards the couch. He filmed her sitting down and extending her legs out onto the ottoman. The rest of her outfit made me expect heels of some sort, but she was wearing black Converse sneakers, the kind old basketball teams wore, with pink socks coming halfway up her calves. Manco had pulled the camera around to get my face, a reaction shot to her miniature performance.
“Bring the boxes on, man. Where are they?”
“Stacked in the bedroom. Do you want to buy them all?”
“How many boxes in total?” Manco’s left hand travelled to the back pocket of his abbreviated pants, feeling around at must have been a roll or clip of money, not a wallet.
“Seven.” At a gesture from Manco, Kirby started giggling while he filmed her. He went on talking to me while he filmed her face. “Yeah, I can do seven. Can’t quite handle the math mentally, but I’m sure I have enough.”
“It would come to five-twenty-five,” I said.
“What do you do?” Kirby asked. “You’re good at math.”
“Ah, he probably had that number worked out in his head long before we came over, right, Yawn?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” Manco continued in a prodding tone. “She asked you a question.”
“I teach ESL in Tokyo. I just came back to handle my Uncle’s—”
“‘Porn Estate?’” Manco finished for me. “Hmm.”
“Funeral, various things relating to his passing--yes.”
“I’m sorry he died,” Kirby said. Manco frowned at this, and gestured at the camera with his free hand.
“Why didn’t your uncle come with you to Japan, buddy? It’s the promised land for a porn nut.”
He was right. I’d lost my taste for watching it within three months of arriving in Tokyo. That city felt far more like a city than Vancouver ever had, or ever would, and the few videos I’d watched there had matched the frantic, closed-eye urgency of everything else. It had stopped working for me. A bit after that, sex in general stopped working. My uncle had warned me that if I ever masturbated too much nothing else could make me feel as engaged, and I thought that was the problem I had at first. Putting myself in a girl made my cock feel isolated, gripped by a strange slackness that was totally unlike the dry squeeze of my fist. Even girls as young and small as Kirby, who was tiny on my uncle’s huge leather couch, felt echoingly huge.
“Are you going to help me haul the cases out? I can help you into your car,” I said to Manco.
“Kirby, you heard the guy. Heavy lifting time.”
She followed me down the brief hallway of the apartment towards the bedroom, with Manco filming us from the rear and flicking on all the lights. I could feel Kirby staring at my old and terminally unstylish khaki pants and my fuzzy blue t-shirt. I’d cared a lot more about the way I dressed when I’d started out in Japan, noticing how almost everyone else of my age wore beautifully crafted outfits. I’d read fashion blogs and cribbed looks.
I picked up two boxes at once. “Guns!” Manco yelled obnoxiously. I smiled for an impolitely brief moment and backed up a little to give Kirby some maneuvering room. She turned her back to the camera and bent down, emphatically not from the knees, then grabbed a box and straightened up with jouncing quickness. Manco made a sharp sideways move of his head and nodded. Kirby dropped the box on its side and it burst open as Manco laughed. Forty tapes or more slid out, some bouncing out of their colourful and obscene cardboard coffins. Manco zoomed in on Kirby’s face as she knelt down and shifted the spilled contents around with her fingers, pretending to panic. I was obviously not the focus of this scene, so I kept quiet. Her face registered disgust at the graphic imagery on some of the boxes, but I got the impression that the hairiness of the genitals and the lopsided naturalness of the breasts were what bothered her. Outdated technology, like the VHS tapes they appeared on.
Manco brought the camera up again as Kirby whined in simulated distress. “Sorry dude!” he grinned. “Can we make a deal?”
“You can still buy the tapes.”
“How about you keep the tapes and Kirby sucks you and fucks you to apologize for this mishap?”
I’d stopped masturbating at the same time as I’d started dressing better, and had only tried women again after a few weeks of reduced onanism. The feeling was the same. And I found that I didn’t really need to pick up my old wanking habits again. A couple of weeks after I’d stopped going at it entirely, I found a word in the reference dictionary at work that cleared it all up for me, but that I left out of the vocabulary lesson. “Climacteric.” It sounds weather-related, but really it means the age when all of that, the whole lot of it, stops bothering you. It just ups and leaves you alone. My uncle may have reached it before DVDs came around, but I reached it before my thirties, and was as relieved to find that word as I was to be free.
I gave Manco my answer and then told him I’d sign the release form if he’d agree to pay for the old tapes and leave. I was thinking of my uncle when I signed the papers; Even as an old man, Roen would have murdered for the opportunity to get at Kirby, but he never would have thought of relinquishing his tapes. I asked Manco to send me a copy of the movie when it was done and handed him the “Independent Lessons” card that had my Tokyo address on it. He was annoyed, but I could tell he was already thinking of possible stand-ins for the scenes he’d need to add. Kirby looked confused. Manco put the camera down and we moved the boxes out to his car, a massive Hummer that took up my uncle’s empty spot and edged into the neighbour’s space. I said goodbye to Kirby, who’d sat in the passenger seat while we loaded in the tapes. She gave me a genuine smile and I went back inside. I didn’t hear the engine start for another few minutes.
When I came outside the next morning to wait for my cab to the airport, I saw that Manco had dumped all the boxes back onto the apartment walkway. I checked to see if there was a name or any identifying marks on them and left them there when the cab came for me.