Al, Off the Grid

Gabriel Houck

Summer 2017

The security camera outside Morrison’s Party Rentals is lonely. Its job is to document its own solitude. Or its job is to enforce its own solitude, the record of which becomes a movie that almost no one watches. The movie’s star is the beer can that cartwheels across the sidewalk in a gust of wind, or the frantic shadow of the hornet building its nest in the lee of the soffit. The tapes get downloaded each morning by the manager and stored on an old hard drive collecting dust in his office. Eventually, at the suggestion of a drinking buddy, the manager buys a motion-sensor trigger for the camera and ends up saving hours of empty footage each night.

Now the movie becomes a series of vignettes: the story of double-bagged garbage and a persistent raccoon; the story of Dale Perkins’s little brother learning that a Sharpie doesn’t keep a straight line on brick façades the way he’d imagined, and the sequel in which he edits the giant penis he’s drawn with a can of Rust-Oleum so that it looks more like a giant penis; the story of rats, of falling ice, of pigeons startled by lightning storms in summer. The stop-motion details of the seasons creep by in the background, motifs about the patience with which nature plays the long game.

Al makes his first appearance at night. He crosses the parking lot from the south, cutting a tangent across the lot between Parkview Baptist and the Hardee’s on 7th, then trips the motion sensor again, licking a hamburger wrapper as he steps up to the store’s window and peers in. He’s hooded and dressed in layers, his gym bag tied with a bungee cord across his back like an arrow quiver. A pair of headlights sweep across the lot and Al bends over, pretending to tie his shoelace. Once the darkness returns, he stands and, after checking that the coast is clear, chucks the hamburger wrapper, which flutters off in the breeze. Then he drops into a fighting stance. His knees are flexed, and he slowly moves through the steps of a kata, dispatching invisible enemies that attack from every side. Finally, he does a roundhouse kick that shatters the plate glass window. The camera flips off during the time he’s inside the store, then clicks on again as he emerges through the empty window frame with a Spider-Man suit tucked under one arm.

Insurance covers the damage. The register and safe are untouched. Bits of glass wedge into the pavement’s cracks, flickering like stars in the light of the Hardee’s sign. Sometimes, late at night, when his mind won’t let him sleep, the manager gets up and makes himself a drink. He’ll sit at his basement table in the dark, turn on his desktop, and watch Al’s break-in on an endless loop. The manager will feel the bourbon hug his heart, and he’ll think about the journey that the Spider-Man suit is taking. On his way back to sleep, he’ll catch himself throwing punches and blocks, sweeping aside the ghosts in his hallway, swimming himself back to bed, to the warmth of his wife’s body.

In public, Al occupies himself with the invented errands of the lonely. Several slow walks around downtown to mark the time, with stops at Java Junction for some shade, spare change, and the sounds and smells from inside the coffeehouse that he’s come to associate with one another. He’ll grab a shower at the YMCA and then leave his bag in the public locker. If the Y’s too crowded, he’ll hike out Route 6 to the interstate junction and try his luck at the Flying J truck stop. His days follow this steady orbit around town, with occasional side trips into alleys to relieve himself. Over the course of the summer, Al shows up in four surveillance videos and twenty-six pictures.

Two of these pictures capture Al in the shade of a massive cottonwood near the border of Oakland Cemetery. He likes to nap under that tree if he didn’t get any sleep the night before. In the first picture he’s doing just that, a reclined silhouette behind a couple from Davenport who have stopped on a drive west to their son’s graduation at the Air Force Academy. In the second, he’s standing in the background, watching with a troubled expression as a man in his mid-forties photographs a teenage girl with dark lipstick and a leather collar beneath a weathered statue of an angel. The man recruited the girl online, posing as a photographer interested in the erotic and the occult. Unbeknownst to the girl, the man takes an extra picture through the foliage when they’re done, with a vague inkling that he’s witnessing something else worth seeing: a stranger with stringy blonde hair and travel-worn clothes stooped over where the girl had just been, one hand hovering above the grass where the girl had knelt, one hand on the blackened skin of the angel, gripping the statue’s robe until his knuckles shine white.

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