a tribute

In the last few hours, I’ve read several posts about Bobby Coffey and the impact he had on my hometown. Today is tinged with sadness, but it’s also a day for  fond memories.

Here’s a little something about Bobby Coffey, the Movie Place, and the escape I found in that video store when I was a kid growing up in rural Kentucky. It’s about as thinly-veiled fiction as I can probably get by with – we might as well call it “fiction” — and I enjoyed the absolute shit out of writing it. And living it, too.

I just want to say, thank you.

*   *   *   *   *

The end actually began at the Movie Place.

Before I get into all of this, let me explain the importance of videotape during my most formative years.

As I’ve made plain, me and Jasper watched a ton of movies, considered them among the thicker fibers of our being. Most of those movies, we watched on videotape. End of story. There was a drive-in movie theater in Sewardville, at the other end of the county. The Mountain View Drive-in Theater. We’d get out there a few times a year for a double-bill of new releases, especially if they were playing on the main screen. (The second screen was mostly the domain of lesser releases, Burt Reynolds and Rodney Dangerfield vehicles that didn’t do much for us at all.) Suck down a couple buckets of hot buttered popcorn, a gallon of Coca-Cola each, maybe even a pepperoni and sausage pizza if we were extra hungry.

Cable and satellite TV weren’t widespread in those days, but we’d catch whatever science fiction film happened across the networks. Mostly Star Wars and Star Trek, or the occasional kid flick like The Neverending Story or The Dark Crystal. In the early eighties, ABC showed a few horror movies as part of their “Sunday Night Movie,” series – that was the first place I ever saw Alligator, Jaws 2, and Alien – but by the end of the decade, the only place you could find any horror was after midnight on the local channels, where they’d show scary stuff just because they figured the only people watching that late were those looking for a little bit of a creep up the back of their necks.  I saw Friday the 13th Part 3 and Wolfen that way, along with some obscure Italian zombie movies.

But for the most part, our movie viewing took place via the magic of half-inch VHS tape.

Being that this was the 1980s, video rental stores were at the unquestioned apex of their Golden Age. Seemed like when Mom took me to Lexington, you couldn’t travel a half mile without passing one, with its windows full of fading movie posters that were framed by light bulbs in a particular way meant to remind folks of movie theater displays, even though it always seemed to me that they never looked like anything other than video store displays. I gave them credit for trying.

Our little town of Whistle Mill might not have had much, but in those days, through some manner of odd magic, we somehow were blessed with two video rental stores to call our own. (Sewardville could only claim one. Ha!) One of the stores was actually just a section in the front of the I.G.A., next to the cigarette counter. The pickings were .slim there: one copy each of all the new releases and a few holdover action movies that maintained popularity with the local clientele. (Chuck Norris movies like Invasion U.S.A. and Code of Silence were particular favorites.) I couldn’t put up much of a fight if you allowed that wasn’t a real store, just a few shelves with movie boxes stacked on them. But at least it was something.

Yet the I.G.A.’s best efforts were no match for the Movie Place.

The Movie Place, indeed. Folks who concerned themselves with such things universally agreed that in Whistle Mill, Kentucky the Movie Place was the store in town for video rentals. Let me tell you what, that little shop was bona fide – they may not have had the same light-up poster frames as the bigger, fancier stores up in Lexington, but they had more than enough legit movie goods to make up for it. At the Movie Place, they loved the product as much as the customers did. You could tell that as soon as you walked through the door.

Fresh popcorn steamed in a glass case on the front counter. If you wanted, you could get a handful and watch a few minutes of whatever was playing on nearby big-screen TV. Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian. The walls were real wood, and the drywall ceiling sloped down at the sides to just a couple feet above an average heighted human’s head, The lack of overhead space lent the room a boxed-in sort of feeling that some people might have found uncomfortable, but I loved. Movie posters covered every square inch of wall and ceiling from the baseboards to the room’s apex. The triple threat aromas of popcorn butter, poster paper, and treated wood lingered together in the nostrils, welcome and sweet, the way I imagined fine wine lingered on the palates of ancient Romans.

The store’s owner – a slight, good humored man named Bobby – was smart about how he arranged their posters in a way that reflected the movie sections underneath. NEW RELEASES and DRAMA up front, COMEDY in the middle of the store, all the way back to ACTION and SCIENCE FICTION and HORROR. (These last three sections were the three ones where I pretty much stayed on my visits.) Some of the posters overlapped, but not so much that one title obscured any other; all were treated with respect. I appreciated that. A lot of video stores slung their posters on the wall like dirty towels, not giving two shits where they landed or what happened to them after they got there. Not the Movie Place – every one of theirs was free of rips and wrinkles, and perfectly flat as if ironed like a dress shirt on Easter Sunday. I’m telling you, those posters were so clean you could admire your bangs in their paper reflections if you wanted, and I saw more than one middle school-aged girl doing just that.

I found it interesting, too, how legitimate cinema classics rubbed elbows with the decidedly less legitimate and less classic direct-to-video cheesefests that dominated shops of the era. Alien, The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hung adjacent to Trancers and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn in SCIENCE FICTION, while a few feet down the wall in HORROR, one-sheets announcing The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and Black Sunday hung right beside the displays for Aliens Deadly Spawn, Blood Beach, and The Dorm that Dripped Blood.

Every weekend, I walked those wine-colored industrial carpet aisles, searching for VHS magic among row after row of video boxes. I was such a regular that I memorized the order of the titles on the shelves from the front door to the far corner. If they dropped a new one in, I simply slid it into my catalog and went on. If they got rid of one title or another… actually, it seemed like they never did got rid of anything. Another reason I loved the Movie Place.

Most Friday nights, Mom would take me down there, in the days before me and Jasper could drive ourselves. I rarely had to ask – it just got to the point where she penciled it in as a regularly scheduled stop. We’d arrive and Bobby (I didn’t know his last name then and still don’t to this day) would have a stack of two or three movies waiting at the front counter. He’d pick them from his latest arrivals, knowing the type of movies that I preferred. Usually, he picked well; I’d take his selections off the counter, then start my tour through the shelves and add a couple more. Then we’d head home, I’d watch them all night, and come back the next Saturday for more.

That Friday night – the night that I started along a path to almost being murdered – started out like any other Friday night. Me and Jasper planned to drop by the Seward County Fair the next day for a few spins on what we felt must be the world’s most rickety – and therefore exciting – carnie rides: the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Scrambler, and the Kick Booty. (I bring them up now because they play an important role in this story and I just figured it’d be good to go ahead and plant that seed in your brain.) He’d stay at my house the night before, we’d take in a few horror movies, then go to the Fair the next morning before the lines started getting too thick.

On our way to pick up Jasper, Mom stopped at the Movie Place. Bobby had the usual stack of new movies waiting. But as I stepped forward to take them off his hands, I noticed something didn’t seem right. Bobby looked a little green around the girls.

Before I could say anything myself, Mom asked, “Something wrong, Bobby?”

He nodded, slowly, and his mouth soon opened into a broad beam that turned his eyes into playful slits. His thin, friendly face was topped off by a thick mop of prematurely gray hair but that impish grin made him look always young. I’d seen that sunny expression a lot, including a lot of times when even as a kid I knew it was covering a snide comment about something Bobby didn’t feel like bringing out into the open. This was one of those times, though I didn’t yet know what had set the torch to his

Friday evening.

Mom raised an eyebrow, not sure what was going on, either. Rather than say another word, he motioned towards the HORROR area, where a shriveled old woman was standing underneath a poster for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the famous one showing Jason’s hockey mask laying in a pool of blood, with a knife jabbed through one of the eyeholes.

I recognized the lady’s drawn-in hamster face immediately. It belonged to Ethel Stanton, the middle school librarian. She had to be seventy-five years old if she was past puberty, and there she was, standing in the HORROR section with her eyes closed, silent. She had one arm raised over head just as far as she could raise it. In that high hand she held a book. And I could make out that book clear enough, even from twenty-five feet away. It was a Bible.

A Bible, all right.

I’ll give her credit for one thing: she wielded that book with the conviction of a true believer. That black King James rested above her head like a mighty talisman, like she was a wizard lighting a righteous signal fire amidst the blackness of some infernal heathen land. I’d had enough run-ins with her at the middle school to know that she thought of herself pretty much the same way, too. The way she saw it, most of the people of Whistle Mill were wayward mules, and she had just the mighty whip to crack us back inside the fence.

The way I saw it, she was a borderline mental patient. But that’s neither here nor there. Not yet, anyway.

Mom watched Ms. Stanton for a couple seconds, but nothing happened. The old librarian just stood there, holding that good book aloft, keeping her eyes closed, saying nothing. With her free hand, she stabbed a bony finger in my direction, like that finger was a magic wand and she was casting lightning bolts at demons.

I thought I heard a faint tune in the room, as though she was humming a little hymn to herself, but I wasn’t for certain. It could have been the TV.

“Is that Ethel Stanton?” Mom asked Bobby.

“Yeah, he said. “It sure is.”

“What’s she doing back there?”

He just smiled.

“Is that… has she got a Bible?”

He just smiled.

“Oh-KAY then,” Mom said. I felt her hand on my shoulder, gently pulling me in the direction of the exit. “Let’s come back another time, Grady –”

I stepped forward, away from Mom’s grip. She snapped for me to come back but I acted like I didn’t hear and kept right on going. Friday night was my night to get movies and nothing was gonna keep me from that. Least of all, Ethel Marie Stanton. Period. End of story.

I eased towards the HORROR section. Before I could get too far, Ms. Stanton opened her eyes, lowered her Bible just enough that she could point it squarely in my direction, and said, “I should have known you’d come here for this filth, young man!”

That stopped me cold.

“Grady Strange Claremont, you got a soul that needs to be saved. And you –”

She pointed her book straight at my Mom.

“You! I can’t believe you bring a child into this smut house. Look around! These walls are covered with smut! All this smut on a child’s mind, it’ll turn him to the devil, I tell you what! The devil!”

I heard Mom let out a sharp gasp and thought for sure she was going after the crazy woman. Before she could make a move, Bobby rushed around from behind the counter and headed towards Ms. Stanton himself.

“All right. That’s enough, Ethel,” he snapped. His impish grin was gone now. “It was funny when you started and I was the only one to see it. Now there’s customers here. It ain’t funny no more.”

“I’m not here to please you!” she shot back, whipping her Bible around in his direction. “You’re a corruptor. A peddler of filth. I know what you’re doing, you hear me? You got the Devil in you. The Devil, that’s what, you been watching this filth and now you’re trying to spread it around, trying to spread that ol’ Devil around –”

“Now, Ethel, just calm down a minute –”

Filth, you hear!” The words were sudden, sharp, like they’d been shot out of a rifle. “It’s gone on long enough. Long enough!”

The hate and insults didn’t faze Bobby. He kept his head down and moved around to her back side, then put one hand on each of the librarian’s shoulders, and pushed her out of the horror section, back towards the front of the store. The whole way, she never shut up for a second. Just yammered about God and the Devil and the eternal battle between the two of them, and of course her pivotal role in saving the human race from being spit roast in the fires of hell. Bobby shook his head, rolled his eyes a couple of times. By the time they got close to where we were standing, his wry countenance returned.

I watched the whole scene with little more than amused curiosity. As she went past Ethel stared at Mom, and Mom stared back, but neither one of them said anything. It seemed like the moment was almost over and I could get back to my regularly scheduled trip to through the Movie Place.

Then, on her way out the door, Ms. Stanton lifted her Bible into the air one last time. She muttered some to the sky that I couldn’t quite hear, then cast a final glance at me. For ten long seconds she stood stare, watching me. She didn’t say anything but by that point she didn’t have to say anything. I knew what she was thinking.

Then Bobby smacked the window in front of her face, and she stalked away. I figured she was pretty pissed as she left, but as I would come to find out, I didn’t know the half of it.


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