Little Structures by Matt McDonald

Little Structures

This video opens on a shot of the house. Midday. No one is outside, and nothing appears to be happening. Several begin like this, and I justify each of them with a different story. I imagine this one was made out of boredom. I don’t consider the more probable answer, resist imagining him so familiar with the rhythms of my family’s life that he knew when we were about to stir.

The tape is one of three marked Summer 1988, timestamped 7/25/88, and the look of the house confirms it. Our backyard is not completely fenced in. Mom’s ’84 Buick LeSabre peeks out from under the carport. The higher pitch of the roof to the addition off the back isn’t there. The trees across the driveway have not yet been cleared into field.

When the sheriff first brought my parents the camera and boxes of tapes, we spent perhaps too little time discussing why. Understanding the reasons wouldn’t change anything.

“His daughter found these in the house. Watched a few of them, but they upset her too much. She turned them over to us.”

“They’re not considered evidence?” Mom asked.

“Can’t prosecute a dead man,” my dad, a retired cop, said.

The Brownlee couple lived across the road from my family since before I was born and remained the same age until their deaths. My brothers and I vaguely registered their existence. They had a small, well-kept house. The wife worked in the yard. We only saw the old man when he trekked to and from his truck.

On this Sunday afternoon, my parents, my brothers, and I stare quietly at the still shot of our house. A car crosses the screen right to left.

“There is something cool about this,” I say. “Like time travel.”

Everyone looks at me. I’ve seen the look before, at every missed point or flubbed punchline.

My parents made as many home videos as any other middle-class family in the ‘80s. But those were, for the most part, semi-scripted events: Christmas and Easter morning, school plays, church plays, kindergarten graduations, baseball games. They contained candid moments, but none of the mundane spontaneity of everyday life. These videos, though, went a step further toward truth.

My middle brother fast-forwards the tape. More cars dart across the screen. Ten minutes in, we see something and he backs it up. Coming around the left side of the house, where a fence would eventually be, is a child. For some dense reason, there is brief debate about who it is. In 1988, I was seven, my middle brother three, and my youngest brother not yet born.

“It’s me,” I say. “It has to be me.”

“What are you doing in the front yard by yourself?” Mom asks, and a small round of laughter at the laxity of her caretaking releases some of the room’s tension. “I was super pregnant,” she says. “I couldn’t be chasing you around.”

As I — this captured version of me — walk further into the yard toward the pecan tree, the camera zooms in.

“Oh God,” Mom says.

My dad sits up in his chair, jaw clenched.

I remember weird things from childhood. Snippets and flashes, almost dreamlike. I remember dreams, too — so well that I swore some of them had actually happened. But I’m talking small events, sometimes just the feeling of certain days, and I assume that everyone has memories like this. Unremarkable things that no one else remembers, or no one else knows about. For the first time through these proceedings, I understand the feeling of violation that enraged my parents when they received these tapes.

This avatar is wearing a white t-shirt and red track shorts, tennis shoes with striped socks halfway to my calves. My knees are brown with dirt, longish hair not yet in its eventual crew cut.

Current me is sitting on the floor, and I scoot against the closest chair and shrink.

The avatar picks up a stick and pokes at the dirt. He steps on some prematurely fallen pecans, throws a couple into the ditch, and sits down against the tree with his arms around his knees. I adjust myself on the floor, unwrap my knees, cross my legs, and straighten my back.

He collects twigs and branches, building structures in the dirt. He dismantles the green pecan shells and positions the pieces around the twigs. The smaller structures, built like little teepees, stand strong, but the big one in the center keeps collapsing.

Whether I remember this specific event or an amalgam of many like it, I know where this is going.

My analog copy, an impressionistic smudge of red and white on Mylar, gets visibly irritated. He moves faster, snatches twigs from the structure, new ones from the ground, and slams them into place. Having trouble with the uneven foundation, he brushes everything aside and with a larger stick bears down his entire body weight, slams at the ground, digs, hits, pushes the dirt against itself with the same motions that I, yesterday, pressed a drill into the kitchen cabinet until it made a quarter-sized hole where a screw should have gone because the stupid bastard piece of shit wouldn’t thread.

He pounds the ground, slaps the tree the same way I slammed the drill onto the counter and punched the cabinet. I bury my scuffed knuckles in the carpet and keep my eyes fixed on the screen. No one says a word. I can see from the corner of my eye my brother’s twitchy indecision over whether to stop the tape or let it run.

The boy on the screen has given up. He stands and kicks the structure, the teepees, the tree. He screams at the mess, at the sky, and punches himself in the head. Over and over I hit myself with a tiny fist. But I never cry. I don’t need anyone to know that something’s wrong.


Little Structures


Matt McDonald is from northeast Louisiana, where he works in higher education. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Monkeybicycle, Louisiana Literature, Foliate Oak, formercactus, and Empty Sink Publishing, among others.


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