It wasn’t quite midnight when they paged me. Anything past midnight was the magic hour for mayhem in base housing on Camp Lejeune. That was when Lance Corporals came home like clockwork from titty bars with their buzz on, and the kids were asleep. That’s when the military wives started in on their husbands, always back and forth from deployment, always full of their own shit. Their husbands who’ve developed their take no shit attitude towards their subordinates, and take that shit home to their wives. Wives who’ve been taken for granted, enlisted in marriage, who bought into the same pyramid scam their shitbird husbands had been sold by those scandalous fuckhead recruiters with quotas to fill, and valiant lies. That was the magic hour, when those same infernos that bubble up in petty arguments that never subside, but compound like bad credit to each other, and distrust and contempt erupts from one too many Coors Lites, one too many deployments. There’s always one too many.
The television goes first. His example of prowess and statement about her laziness. Maybe a shattered vase, a hole in the wall. Eventually it comes to his fists. A trained combatant who’s seen the front lines, locked in a conflict with that one person, this woman, or maybe this man that knows everything, every heartstrings and sore spot, every button and trigger. He usually hits her in the mouth, to shut her up, or her callous eyes.
And usually the fight ends, and he flees, and she sits on the couch and waits for the MP’s to come and file their report, and then me. I usually come in a squad car, stirred from my uneasy sleep, tossing from nightmares from the last lifeless body, from some silent 03, recalling their vacant clay eyes. Always that fat old black pager rattles the whole steel cage of my top bunk, rattles around the gloss painted cinder block walls, off the concrete and vacant linoleum floors of my barracks room. My roommate sometimes stirs, if I don’t catch it in time. Another photographer. Back when I shared quarters, before my breakdown.
But this time, no MP came. The pager rattled the bed’s steel bones. It was Christmas Eve of ’98. Everyone was gone. And I was the duty photographer, again, alone.
I made the call, got the address, gathered my bag of too many rolls of 400 and the last two of 800 ISO, my half charged archaic flash, my sync cords, and my Nikon S3. I drove to the far end of the base, past the naval barracks, to the Logistics’ School quarters.
The chilled rain fell indecisively in mad waves and quells. The road was old and poorly lain, full of holes filled with mud and patches of wild grass. And, Once there, My Mitsubishi Eclipse idled in the glossy blackened lot on indiscernible parking spaces, facing the barracks, not unlike a prison. A bleak, gunmetal grey, tall two story structure, concrete with grey metal railing. It looked as though an ocean had been lain before it, like a mote, foreboding, so black it absorbed the flashing blue and red of the squad cars that sat silent at the door. I had arrived, the guest of honor. Soon they’ deputy their lights to rest, and we’d get started.
Across the mote, sheltering my camera bag and capturing that usual lump in my throat. They never tell me what’ sin side. I simply showed, and just outside the door I met with the agents of the Marine Corps Criminal Investigative Department and two stoic MP’s, and they asked if I was the photog, as they called me. The answer was implicit as I fixed my shitty flash to the ancient body of my S3. “Yes sir,” I replied.
“We got a mess in there. You ready?” He asks.
No. I loaded a twenty four exposure roll of 400 ISO. Linked the sync, switched on the flash and from it erupted the bone piercing ringing, it’s ominous call to action.
“Ready as ever,” and with that we started in.
“Watch your step,” the MP says, as if he might miss his chance to exert authority.
“Right here,” the plump balding agent said, clad in a grey Sears Roebuck suit. He points to the speckled linoleum tile, stained yellow and brown with years of rain, decay and ground in dirt. That’s the first trace of blood, a few drops. I laid my little paper ruler down and fired a dummy round from the flash, just to make sure we were a ‘go for launch’. It illuminated a heavy train of blackened blood, trailing across floor just beyond me. I shot the droplets and asked him. “Where do you want me to start? For continuity”
“Yeah. Let’s do the bathroom first. Just watch your step. Looks like she was all over.” He said.
She. These were the women’s barracks. And she was alone. Christmas Eve.
Into the head we started, the at the head of the trail, I flashed to a time when I was sixteen, a bagger at Abco, my first gig. There was a trail of of detergent that ran down the aisles. They called me to clean it up before any customers fell. I followed it, tracking the space between droplets, a cracked container was likely what caused it. Clearly oblivious to the problem the shopper had spread it, periodically stopping. With such a mundane task, mopping detergent which is a bitch, I imagined myself in her mindset. What kind of woman was she. I assumed right away the shopper was fem by the puddle that had collected at the feminine display. And so on, I traced her steps, resentful with a mop and bucket, until the trail ended.
I later asked the cashier about her, the oblivious woman that trailed detergent. Apparently no one admitted they did it, so I only had this loose leaf story rattling around in my head.
It began at the chipped and mildly rusted porcelain sink closest to the exit. A pink disposable razor was dismantled. It’s thin and narrow unassuming blade lay bloodied and bent in the bowl of that sink. A shower of dense red droplets scattered across the bowl, mix’d with drops of standing water and curled over the lip. The floor was hit heavy.
She stood, watching herself in the mirror, unapologetic. Perhaps those standing droplets of water were tears shed from lonesome eyes, but unapologetic. And the train began, and I followed and shot it all, my flash periodically faltering, into the tight and dark, gloom stricken, green hued squad bay. The drops like a narrow shower of rain fell unevenly heavy, some shattering on the linoleum of the weight of her soul stricken cascade.
The racks we’re all empty. No sea bags or luggage or jackets on the frames. The mattresses all folded. This was a stand by barracks, unused, where she’d been stowed away. Possibly Occupational school had ended, and she had nowhere pressing to be.
Several pints of blood had pooled abstractly beside her bed. Here the blood was blackest, having separated, dead red blood cells from orange hued plasma that crept away like a narrow creek towards a slight dip in the linoleum deck.
I shot it from every angle, several rolls of 400, staring at it, separated, wondering how long she’d been there. How long she’d waited before she could do it. Wondering what her own devil had told her, finally having her all to itself, to whisper sweet nothings of death in her ear. Promising ‘what?’ more than silence? From what would she be surrendered?
The mattress, too, was saturated, blacker than the night outside, bleeding through the nylon threads. It was lifted up and on its side to access the entire pool below, beyond the steel bed springs.
And then it was over. As usual I’d never know her. Dead or alive, that was the end to her story.
The rain had finished up. The ride home was less rocky, the better side of the road I suppose. Or maybe I just didn’t notice, my head full of faces of all of girls that I’ve loved, wondering who loved her. Thinking of all the times I’d wanted hang myself or drain myself, just like her. Thinking of all the petty reasons, some that from time to time still seem so valid. Wondering if she was dead. If she wasn’t, would she be glad? Could she go home? Was she in bed recuperating, receiving transfusions, recalibrating Or was she dead?
I was home. Wasn’t fully lucid. I was in bead. Was she dead?
Another night I didn’t sleep. Another night I mourned for someone else’s sorrow.
I forgot about Christmas that year. It rained for days. For two more days I stayed in bed.
My next day into work, I developed her rolls. They came out fine. My Seargent frequently commended my skill as a photographer. I’ve never really liked being complimented. The color balance of my prints were on point, as was my focus. Those last shots took me right back there, under that flickering green hue from the fluorescents overhead.
I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I passed it on to Seargent Vuk. I had done my duty. When I had my first breakdown, less than one year later, I caught myself always watching my step. Always uneasy during the rain .