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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Universal Harvester

A Novel

John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



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 U.S. 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 reached for 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. Afterwards 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.

Copyright © 2017 by John Darnielle