The Secret of El Arenque Rojo, Chapter 1: Going Out of Business

by Jason Toon

If you bought our Woot 2012 Calendar, you may have noticed that each month sports a different QR code. And if you've scanned that code, you've gotten a message telling you to wait until the first of the given month to read a new installment in The Secret of El Arenque Rojo. And then you probably wondered what we were talking about. Well, here it is: chapter one in an apocalyptic monthly serial by the Woot writers, running throughout 2012.

The chapters might be Woot blog posts... or they might not. The only way to find it for sure every month is to scan the QR code. Fortunately, we still have some Woot 2012 Calendars for sale, so you needn't miss a single syllable of our brilliance. Now, on with the adventure!

The box was so unusual that Roy Odom forgot for a moment that his life was falling apart. He’d been rummaging around in the back room of Diabolical Video for hours when he found it. The afternoon’s ostensible mission was to sort and price old stock for the store’s going-out-of-business sale. But by the time Roy had picked through a few dusty boxes, he knew it was mostly garbage...

Here was a pile of kids’ animal videotapes from the ‘80s, with titles like Radically Wild! and Zoojinks: Turtles and Tortoises. There were nine VHS copies of the 1996 Kelsey Grammer naval comedy Down Periscope, still sealed in plastic that nobody would ever bother to unwrap. Whether Roy paid someone to haul it away or just left it and lost his security deposit, the video detritus in the this room was going to cost him more money than he could possibly make selling the few items weird enough to still have some value.

So Roy’s commercial hopes for the excavation faded. It turned instead into a sentimental archaeological dig through the substrata of faded hopes, a nostalgic forensic inquest into the death of one man’s dream. Roy lingered over a catalog from a distributor that had gone out of business years ago. The embroidered smile on a water-stained panda Beanie Baby, survivor of a misguided attempt to expand his product line, brought a tear to his eye. He peered down the tube of a promotional poster that had never been unrolled: bold grey lines on a black background. It came to him after a moment. Stallone. Cliffhanger. A helicopter, a ravine, crisp stacks of $100 bills in a briefcase. Roy felt a pang for the waste his life had been.

He wondered how to price a faded cardboard stand-up of “Momma” from Throw Momma From The Train. Five bucks sounded about right. Roy would have asked more for it, but when you pushed the button that was supposed to make Momma say one of her catchphrases from the movie, the only sound that came out was a low, feeble, incomprehensible groan, the sound of Beelzebub with esophageal cancer. Maybe four bucks made more sense. As he wrestled Momma out of the way to get at more junk, the box stood revealed.

One of the flaps on top bore a warning in Spanish: CUIDADO - FRÁGIL over a pictogram wine glass with a crack in it. On another side, CONTIENE VIDEOS. That was it. No address labels, no company logos, nothing. The box itself had that vague quality of difference that mundane foreign objects have, like a newspaper that crinkles in an exotic way, or an alien pencil that sits a little too heavy in the hand. Maybe it was made from different cardboard. Maybe the proportions were different. Whatever it was, Roy couldn’t remember ever seeing this box before.

Inside was a jumble of VHS tapes, their black casings gone gray with dust. Roy picked one up off the top of the pile. Between the two windows where the tape reels showed, there was no printed label, just a lowercase scrawl in silver marker: arenque rojo – el pelado tímido.

Now he was really confused. He’d bought, sold, and rented out used videos, sure. But not home-taped ones with no packaging. Nobody did that. And except for a handful of Almodóvars, Roy could count the number of Spanish-language titles he’d ever stocked on one hand. A man can’t remember every single transaction over 24 years of business. But why would he ever have bought this box of obviously worthless videos? Roy hoped he hadn’t paid too much for them as he tossed the box onto the trash pile.

And then picked it up again. Why not see what they were, at least? Roy had long ago blown past “jaded” into full-on apathy. But finding something new, something unexpected, especially on a grim day like today… it was worth a few minutes to find out. He carried the box out to the store’s main room, where he kept a VCR hooked up to four monitors hanging around the store. He’d put that first tape in, probably see that it was just the work of some old abuelita videotaping her telenovelas, and get back to the storeroom.

Ten hours later, Roy walked out of the darkened store in a daze. He didn’t know exactly how many of the tapes he’d watched. But he knew his life had changed forever…