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'Universal Harvester': An Excerpt from John Darnielle's New Novel

Bob spent most of the year by himself in a farmhouse on a property he owned outside Collins. If he still hunted or fished, it wasn't with anybody he'd known back when he lived in town: Nobody really knew what Bob did with his time.

This story appeared in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

1

People usually didn't say anything when they returned their tapes to the Video Hut: In a single and somewhat graceful movement, they'd approach the counter, slide the tapes toward whoever was stationed behind the register, and wheel back toward the door. Sometimes they'd give a wordless nod or raise their eyebrows a little to make sure they'd been seen. With a few variations, this silent pass was the unwritten protocol at video rental stores around the US for the better part of two decades. Some stores had slots in the counter that dropped into a big bin, but Nevada was a small town. A little cleared space off to the side of the counter was good enough.

Bob Pietsch was renting Advanced Big Game and Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four today; he stood there now, at the counter, patient, semimonolithic. He stopped in sometimes on his way home from the co-op; any tapes he rented he'd keep for a week. Stephanie Parsons was in line behind him; Jeremy could see her back there, looking mildly anxious, but there wasn't much he could do about it.

Bob spent most of the year by himself in a farmhouse on a property he owned outside Collins. If he still hunted or fished, it wasn't with anybody he'd known back when he lived in town: Nobody really knew what Bob did with his time. People talked a little about him, out there all by himself; it was hoped he'd remarry. But he'd sold the family home after his wife died, and the Collins place was pretty remote. There weren't a lot of opportunities to meet people. When he made conversation these days, he sounded like a farmer at an auction waiting for the bidding to start.

"This one's a real good one," he said, tapping Best of Bass Fishing Volume Four. "They get smallmouth, they have to throw half of them back."

"Ever get up to Hickory Grove?" Jeremy asked him. He had lived in Iowa all his life. Men in his family always talked about fishing.

"Used to. All the time," said Bob. "We used to go out for bluegill in the winter."

"Sure," said Jeremy. It continued like this for a minute. Bob eventually dug his Video Hut membership card out from behind his driver's license and signed for the tapes. His card was one of the old laminated ones; it had gone yellow at the edges. Membership cards were really a formality at this point, but Jeremy let him show it anyway.

Stephanie waited as Bob made his way slowly past the shelves and out the door before stepping up to the counter. She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one," she said.

Jeremy picked up the tape; he recognized it. He'd circled its title when the distributor's catalog was making the rounds about a year ago. Everybody who worked the counter had a say in what got ordered; Sarah Jane, who owned the place, had implemented this system when she took over from the previous owner. She was privately proud about it. As a younger woman, she'd worked retail for years.

"Oh, yeah," he said, turning toward the shelves behind him, several hundred videotapes in clear cases and a few dozen in translucent pink: soft adult movies that hardly anybody ever rented. "Sorry. It sounded really good in the catalog, but it's really old, right?" It was called Targets. It had Boris Karloff.

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said: "No, it's a great movie, I've seen it before. At school." Stephanie'd taken a masters in education from the University of Chicago; she made mention of it when she could. "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

"Sure thing," said Jeremy. He felt stupid: He wasn't stupid, but he found Stephanie intimidating, and he didn't know how to talk to her. He told himself as he put the display case back on the rack that he'd remember, but he closed the store himself that night, and didn't see Sarah Jane until Monday, and by then he had forgotten.

***

Steve Heldt was reattaching a rain gutter to the awning over the front door when Jeremy got home after dark; he'd turned on the floodlight on the side of the garage. His breath in the glare made giant clouds.

Jeremy parked in the driveway and stepped out. "Maybe wait until morning?" he said. His voice came out solitary, singular in the February air. Dad was in his boots up on the ladder, continuously adjusting his perch as he worked.

"Not today, big man," Steve said. Jeremy'd been "big man" ever since the day he'd helped his father change a tire when he was eight years old. "It's going to snow all night. If it warms up after noon, this thing'll fall right off."

The gutter wasn't going to fall right off if they waited until daylight to fix it: Steve knew it, Jeremy knew it. But they also both knew to keep busy in winter if they could. Mom had gone off new Highway 30 into a telephone pole in the snow six years ago, in 1994. Jeremy'd been sixteen.

He put his gloves back on and held the ladder while his dad drove in the nails. There wasn't much wind but a little breeze, maybe; it moved the snow around at his feet. "Get home late today?" he said.

"No," said Steve. "Just didn't think of it until after dark. Saw the forecast." Then there wasn't much else to say, and the hammer pounding dully became the only sound you could hear in the neighborhood besides the occasional creak of a branch.

***

Later on they watched Reindeer Games: Jeremy brought home new releases when they were something his dad might like. Spy stuff. Cop movies, sometimes. They got a late start because of the rain gutter; the movie wasn't over until nearly midnight.

They both found Reindeer Games confusing, and their attention wandered as it ran. They talked through the slow parts. Afterward they tried to answer each other's questions about it, but they couldn't get it straight. Then Dad started in about the job.

"There's soil labs, water labs right here in town," he said.

"Dad," said Jeremy. "I have a job."

"Sure. Not a whole lot in it, though, you know."

"I know." He picked up the remote and hit rewind. "You're right. I don't know."

"Well, I saw some postings, anyway."

"I was thinking about starting DMACC next semester."

"Well, you said that last year, though."

The VCR auto-ejected, and Jeremy put the tape back into its case. "I know," he said. "You're right."

In some versions of this story, there's an argument here, because Jeremy feels like his father is being nosy, and because he feels ashamed of being twenty-two years old and not having made anything of himself yet; he's resentful when something reminds him about it. In these variations, Jeremy tells his father to give him a little breathing room, and Steve Heldt, who is a good father and who shares, with his son, an incapacitating loss, thinks to himself: Stay out of your son's way; he'll find his way if you let him. In some other versions Jeremy stays awake for a couple of hours, maybe watching another movie he brought home but unable to focus on it, and in the morning, he tells his father to write down some of those job listings, and he ends up getting a position at a soil-testing lab in Newton, eventually transferring to a bigger lab back home in Nevada.

In this version he keeps his job at the Video Hut, and then something else happens.

2

Story County was prairie until the mid 1800s. In school, they taught a little about the Iowa tribes, but it was hard to get a clear picture of who exactly'd been in Story County when the settlers got there. There had to have been somebody, though. That word "Iowa," that was a native word, and lots of places throughout the state were named after tribes: Sioux City. Tama. Black Hawk. Plus it was a known thing that tribes had been removed from their land all over the state at some point during the westward expansion. But they didn't really dwell on this too much in high school, so all Jeremy really had was a rough outline. Few details, or none.

About his own family, where they were from, he knew a little more; when his grandparents or his aunts and uncles got together on the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, it was pretty much all they talked about. All conversations tended toward simple genealogy and geography: who was related to whom, who lived where now, where they'd lived in the first place. There was a numbing comfort to it. These conversations, endlessly repeatable at any family gathering, were a zero-stakes game. Is Pete still in Tama? No, he got a job over in Marshalltown working in sales for Lennox. Is that the air-conditioning people? Well, Pete says, "climate control." Oh, "climate control," is that it? Sure, sure.

Tracing of movements was the whole of the process. If the recruiter from Caterpillar collared Mike at the job fair and offered to double his salary inside of two years, then that was how Mike and his family ended up in Peoria: But simple movement atop a shared, internalized map was still the heart of the action, the desired point of engagement. Bill's up in Storm Lake now. Did he sell the Urbandale place? The place off Seventy-second? No, that was a rental. Oh, is that right? Yes, the Handsakers owned it, they rented it out for years until their youngest got back from Coe. You mean Davy? Well, but he goes by Dave now. From Davy to Dave to Dave's parents to their folks you could get a fair bit of talking done, but the trail went cold at about that point. Jeremy's mom's grandparents were Russian somehow, one of those places that wasn't really Russia anymore. His great-grandfather on his dad's side had come from Germany. But it went no further than that. The tracking of local movements was sufficient work until it came time to part ways, and they'd pick up where they left off at Labor Day, or Christmas.

By the time he was fourteen, Jeremy could locate magnetic north from practically any place in Story County, even in the total absence of known landmarks. Knowing where you were: This seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all. In the movies, people almost never talked about the towns they spent their lives in; they ran around having adventures and never stopped to get their bearings. It was weird, when you thought about it. They only remembered where they were from if they wanted to complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise, a place whose light had been hidden from them until it became unrecoverable, at which point its gleam would become impossible to resist.

***

Video Hut opened at ten in the morning, which was ridiculous. Anybody returning tapes before mid-afternoon just used the slot in the door, and hardly anybody ever came in to rent before noon at the earliest. Still, there'd be one person sitting behind the counter just in case, waiting for the store's day to actually begin. Sometimes hours would pass.

There was a television mounted above the racks in one corner of the store. During shop hours, it showed movies continuously. By policy, these had to be movies with a PG rating or lower. Picking out the movie and starting it up was one of the duties listed on the AM open sheet, a six-point list printed on neon-green paper and affixed to the counter by the register with clear tape whose corners had frayed and blackened over the years:

1. lights front and back
2. power up register
3. count cash on hand in strongbox, record in notebook, and move to register
4. file slot returns, return cases to displays
5. pick tape (PG or lower) for in-store, start up computer
6. check database for tapes overdue 3-plus days and make phone calls

The list was there to make the opening routine look like work, though in practice it took Jeremy about five minutes altogether. He went to the computer before even turning on the lights; it was a Gateway 2000. Gateway'd still been a more or less local company when the computer was new; it creaked through its start-up routine for a full five minutes now. By the time it was ready to use, Jeremy'd gone through everything else on the list except the overdues. He wasn't going to call anybody about overdues before noon, anyway.

Underneath the counter there were six or seven tapes that got played in rotation—this was the "pick tape" step, almost entirely mechanical. The Muppet Movie, Bugsy Malone, A League of Their Own, Star Wars: Most people working the opening shift just grabbed one without looking. There were a couple of newer ones that got traded in and out from month to month. Jeremy usually went for these, keeping the sound muted until customers started showing up.

He had Reindeer Games in his hand when he got to the store, so he put it on with the sound down and paid it no mind, letting it run while he leafed through a summer courses catalog from DMACC. Joan from Mary Greeley stopped in to trade out a couple of exercise tapes for new ones; the hospital got these tapes for free, which was fine, since nobody else rented them. Joan used them for classes on the convalescent ward. She came up to the counter and nodded over her shoulder toward the screen overhead: The picture went black-and-white for a second as Jeremy looked up, then stabilized.

"Not expecting a lot of customers today?" she said. Charlize Theron was in a swimming pool untying her bikini.

"What? Oh. Sorry, sorry," said Jeremy, reaching for the remote.

Joan laughed. "No, it's fine." He stopped the tape just as things were starting to get explicit. "Sorry, I watched this last night, I don't know what I was thinking."

"It's fine," said Joan again, nodding encouragingly; Jeremy's face was flushed. "I'm forty-six, I've seen it all before."

"No, I know, I just—wasn't thinking," he said. He grabbed the two new exercise tapes from the shelf, brow still furrowed.

"You OK?"

"Yeah, yeah," he said, shaking his head like a cat waking up. "I don't think I slept well. Fell asleep on the couch."

"Happens to me all the time!" said Joan, signing the rental slip with its crossed-through zero in the "amount" column and sliding her new tapes into her puffy oversize purse.

"Yeah," said Jeremy, "me, too," which wasn't true. Neither was the part about falling asleep on the couch; he didn't know why he'd said it. He was off his rhythm.

"See you next week," said Joan.

"All right," said Jeremy, and that sounded wrong, too.

***

The rest of the day was a winter day at a video store in the late 1990s: long stretches without any customers, a big rush between 5:30 and 7:00 as people were getting off work and heading home, and then the slowdown. Lindsey Redinius brought back a copy of She's All That during the rush and said there was something wrong with it, that the movie cut out at some point, turned into something different and came back later. Jeremy set it aside. This was the second complaint about a tape in two days. Maybe they were making tapes from cheaper materials now? DVD players were supposed to be the next thing.

He looked around the store as he was shutting down. It was a heated Morton building, same materials they used for barns now: the same building exactly, just with different stuff in it. In the dark, you could see how temporary it was. He riffled through the returns bin and grabbed another tape in case he couldn't sleep, and he stopped at Taco John's up the street for a family-value pack. Then he got onto old Highway 30 and headed for home.

They'd plowed the road earlier that morning and several times throughout the afternoon. Everyone was driving a little slower, to be careful. This was the feel of the season for Jeremy. Slow cars moving over icy roads in the dark. Heavy branches on trees. Headlights. Mute and palpable, the melancholy would last at least through March. There was a melody to it you could catch if you weren't trying too hard.

Dad was already home when he got there; they ate their tacos at the dinner table, like a family.

3

"Everything OK at work?"

"Sure. Big contract from a firm in Minnesota building a new motel over in Ames."

"Yeah?"

"Just a Holiday Inn Express. They need everything at once, want to be up and running in time for Big 12." Jeremy kept it to himself, but he was happy to hear his dad would be busy all winter, coordinating orders of resin from competing suppliers and ordering his team around, shipping pipe out on flatbeds. Dad seemed happiest when he was busy enough to be worn out by the end of the day.

"Downtown?"

"No, out by I-35. All kinds of new stuff going up over there," he said; Steve Heldt didn't think Ames really had any more room to expand, but they kept building stuff just in case. "Big contract, anyway."

Jeremy cleared the table; there wasn't much to it, just throwing away some trash. He leaned over his shoulder and said "Beast?" while opening the refrigerator; this was shorthand for beer in the Heldt house. Steve held himself to one beer after dinner; how he'd settled on Milwaukee's Best was lost to history, but the alliance was permanent. Years ago, Mom had brought a six-pack of Stroh's home once when it was all she saw on the shelf at Fareway. It sat in the refrigerator for a solid year.

He tossed the can to his dad underhand, and they both headed to the living room: It was the pattern during winter. In summer, they had a lot of fun together grilling out back, but neither man had really ever taken to the kitchen. They didn't feel at home in there. It still felt like it belonged to Mom.

They watched Proof of Life that night, the one Jeremy'd grabbed without looking. They both enjoyed it. There was comfort and ease in watching movies together; Jeremy considered himself a little more high-minded than his dad, but they both disappeared into the screen's glow at about the same time, and they stayed lost once they got there. The room filled with light. It was a space they could share, something to be grateful for without having to think too much about it.

Dad went to bed immediately afterward—"See you tomorrow," he said, like a co-worker leaving early—but Jeremy stayed up to give She's All That a look. He knew tapes to break down over time, but when it happened, people didn't usually elaborate on it. The tape's chewed up about halfway through, they'd say. You can see something's going to happen about a minute before, and then the machine spits it out, they'd say. It makes a squiggly noise.

This was different. Twice now people'd brought in tapes, different ones, and said there was something on the actual tape that didn't belong. Something they'd watched through and come out on the other side of. They seemed confused trying to describe it; either they hadn't wanted to go into detail, or they didn't know how. "There's another movie that was on this tape," was how Lindsey'd put it. "They must have recorded over the old one."

She's All That wasn't something Jeremy would have otherwise watched on his own. It was boring. He felt restless on the couch, picking stray threads from cushions, following a plot that didn't interest him, debating whether to reheat the remaining Potato Olés. Fifteen minutes in, he realized he could have checked Stephanie Parsons's copy of Targets instead, and he felt annoyed with himself; he thought about just heading off to bed. But then, in the middle of a scene where a crying woman was typing something onto a computer terminal, the television screen blinked dark for a half second; and then it went light again, and Jeremy sat up straight, and found himself watching a black-and-white scene, shot by a single camera, mounted or held by a very steady hand. At first, he had to turn the volume up to hear whether there was even any sound at all: There was, but not much. A little wind across the camera's microphone, the audible rise and fall of a person breathing. There was a timecode in the corner scrolling along. The date read "00/00/0000." There didn't seem to be much else to see, but then the breathing sound quickened and movements began breaking roughly through the dark.

The scene lasted about four minutes. Then the screen twitched again, and She's All That roared back into the room from the silence, while Jeremy, now wide awake and fully focused, stared at the action as if waiting for somebody to break character and maybe explain to the camera what everybody'd just seen.

But he knew that wasn't actually going to happen. Somebody had transferred a scene onto She's All That. Weren't tapes somehow protected against people copying stuff onto them? But there had to be some way of getting around it. He watched on without listening, waiting for a third blink that might put the first two into clearer context, but nothing came. After twenty minutes, he thought about rewinding. He decided instead to fast-forward without pushing stop. The action developed wordlessly now, but all in color, all the right movie.

He hit rewind once the end credits started to roll, and he watched the black-and-white scene again, and then a third time; finally he went back to his bedroom and tried to sleep, with limited success.

Excerpted from UNIVERSAL HARVESTER: A Novel by John Darnielle, to be published February 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2017 by John Darnielle. All rights reserved.

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This story appeared in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.