The television screen flickered. Angry voices filled the room. The movie depicted an elderly woman standing behind a shop counter being held up, a gun at her temple. There was a second gun pointing at an old man on his knees. One of the assailants kicked him, the arm dropped, but the old man jerked up again trying to get a desperate glimpse at his wife. No matter how the old man will struggle, the viewer knows the outcome.
"You can't watch this, " I told my 13-year-old son. He howled. He had just biked all the way to the video store to get this movie, following an acrimonious argument with us over not being allowed to see something called "The Terminator." His dad had finally said, "We're not having cruelty and violence brought into our house. I don't care how many friends have the movie." Then he added, "You can get something more suitable. The video rental is still open, and buy yourself an ice cream cone, too."
Our son returned just after dark, his mouth sporting a mustache of jamoca almond fudge so that he looked like the adorable 3-year-old of a decade past.
"What did you get?" I asked from the living room.
"What?" I was incredulous. His dad frowned at me. "Ex-terminator, mom, it's a different film." His dad and I looked at each other. My husband returned to his yachting magazine to escape from further battle. He looked weary. I contemplated disappearing into some early oblivion upstairs to bed or to visit a friend nearby.
I couldn't ignore the mean sounds from the TV in the den, so I laid aside my book. I was hoping that "Exterminator" is pure science fiction and sufficiently removed from reality to make it bigger than life, distant and "psychically safe," maybe a comedy about termite control.
It wasn't. Watching the robbery scene, my throat tightened at the memory of a real event raised by the swiftness of that kicking foot on the screen. My neighbor's family had gathered in shock to mourn their relatives, an elderly couple who were shot to death in their small shoe store in Los Angeles in 1963. I remembered the dry sobs and the hunched figures--my neighbor, her brother, a teen-aged grandson looking confused in his new funeral attire.
"I'm sorry, this wasn't a good choice. I just can't let you see it." I didn't touch the TV knobs, but felt my body reach in that direction, tensed for the battle royal that would erupt.
"There's nothing wrong with it," he shouted. "It's only a little bit of violence at the start." He was full of facts about a film he hasn't seen. We were right back where we were an hour earlier, only this time he was more outraged for having ridden his bike all the way to the video store and back. His face was buried in the futon cushions. He punched the pillows.
"You're such a. . . ." He stopped himself barely. "You're such a wuzzy, a wimp. You're so afraid the violence will affect me negatively ."
"I know you aren't a violent person, but we don't need to fill up with these images. They're bad for anyone who watches them. They show the worst of human behavior."
My voice was very low, very calm. I have gotten good at staying cool during these all-out wars, but the price is paid in snipe attacks. Later, or the next day, I will snipe at the least little thing, like dirty hands or socks in a corner or a goofy belch at the dinner table, when my dismay will have turned to anger and the controls are off. I am not calm at all.
"It's only a movie, Mom! It's not real," he protested loudly.
"It is real. You don't have any idea how real." I told him what happened to my neighbor 20 years ago.
"Well, it's not real to me . . . and I'm gonna watch." His father entered the room.
"You're going to obey. The videotape goes back." Then as an offer of good will he adds, "Come on, I'll take you to the place to exchange it."
As I follow my husband from the room, he asks under his breath, "You couldn't stay out of the den?"
When the car pulled out of the driveway, I sat on the stairs knowing Walt Disney will not come to the rescue.