My Mother’s DJ: A VHS Home Movie


IT'S 1986, and I’m lying on my back in my childhood living room. I’m a tired rider. My hobbyhorse above me, I’ve gotten wherever I was going. It’s working, she (my mother) says. Her dominant shoulder braces—there/then—the same machine I’m using here/now to view the old footage. Let’s go outsideI’ll make a little movie of you, she says. We don’t need shoes, she says when I ask where hers are.

   Ready, presumably, for the take, I move toward the exit, avoiding the snake the vacuum cord makes across the carpet. C’mon! I say.

   I push the door open, aweing at the swing of it—the effect of my momentum—before I cross the threshold.

   Okay, here I come, she says.

   Can I be right here? I ask. I’m on the sidewalk, weathered fences framing me.

   She says I should go to my pool, and I enter that set like corporeality is a dance I’m still learning, “Oh, Jeannie” my soundtrack, until “There’s Nothing Better than Love” comes on. It’s 1986—I’m only four—but I know what to do when she asks me to turn off the music. Please, she says, for Mommy.

   Whether or not I know why she wants silence, I comply.

   She scans, in my absence, the aluminum shell of our house. She scans from where the house meets the earth—where a foundation will soon be poured—up toward the chimney. Here’s the house before we’ve done anything, she says. She says before we’ve done anything like the fault between then/now, there/here, before/after is shifting even as she speaks, even as that stereo (flush, there/then against the kitchen window) comes into sharper focus, my hands tipping its gray mass.

   My fingers reach for the button she’s marked with nail polish.

   Then, the door, shutting.

   When I return, I’m in my pool, and I’m out, and I’m in it, and I’m out again, the bright tigers on its wall bending against my weight each time an insect dives and I run for the net to save it from drowning. I study one longer than I do the others—I scoop it from the surface with an open palm. I touch its back.

   What is it, honey? she asks.

   A lady…bug. The ladybug’s dead, I say, letting it go in the water.

   I know the word death. I know it deserves a serious tone.

   But I still swim with this one.

   Having resigned, finally, from my Lifeguard duties, I slip my legs into the saddle of my inflatable seal and begin talking to myself in what—here/now—sounds like the cadence of lament, if not (there/then) the words themselves.

   Hi, she interrupts.  

   Hi, I say, shyly, before turning away again.

   Here/now (if not there/then), the mood of this plot unsettles me: how my mother asks me to turn off the Soft Rock and how the atmosphere is lonely after that (more lonely, anyway)—like she wants to want to make the movie more than she really does or like she wants for more to happen in it.

   She zooms toward me as I drift. My head is resting against the seal’s head, one of my eyes against one of its eyes, the only sounds remaining of the voices of killdeer saying their name, the rasp of power-lines breaking down the air they fly among, and the squeak my seal makes as I squeeze its neck, my shoulder blades opening like they want to be wings.

   Does she notice the gesture?

   Is she what she wants to be in the movie she’s making of me?

   Honey, look at Mommy, she says.

   I do, but only briefly, still clinging to my vessel. 

S.J. Dunning lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches English online. Her work has most recently appeared in Suisun Valley Review, Sundog Lit, San Pedro River Review, and is forthcoming in The Sun.