Sunday, April 17, 2016

The War Correspondent



Despite the photo from Cedarvale, New Mexico above, this isn't a ghost town piece. Instead it's yet another story to fill in the time between my all-too-infrequent posts. This one is called...

THE WAR CORRESPONDENT

“You’re married? You’re fucking married?!”

I’m nearly—finally—asleep when suddenly a girl yelling in the room above mine jolts me back awake. My first reaction is one of pure anger. I haven’t slept in a very long time, and for the last 12 hours I’ve been nearly frantic to close my eyes. I’d driven over 36 hours straight with only a couple of quick naps at rest stops along the way. Out of nowhere Monday morning we needed to get a load immediately from our warehouse in Provo, Utah down to near Miami and my regular rig, which I could at least sleep in comfortably, was getting transmission work. All that was left to drive was a beat-up box truck, and between that and the tight deadline, decent sleep had not been in the cards. But I’d dropped off the load, gotten a quick bite, and checked into some place called the American Economy Inn not far from the beach to get my head down before starting the long haul back in the morning. So, I’m pissed to be awake. However, in another instant, curiosity takes hold.

“Oh my God!” yells the girl. Then an octave higher: “Oh! My! God!

The man’s voice is deep and hard to understand through the floor. It sounds even and steady though. He’s trying to calm her down. There’s some stomping and another “Oh my God!” My stomach tightens and I’m ashamed of myself. Why should I feel anything for these people? I just want to be asleep. I hear the man again and make out a few words. “Baby.” “Her.” “You.” “Sorry.” I could fill in the rest myself if I wanted to.



Then there’s a crash and I wait for the inevitable. Real screaming. Harder stomping. All followed by a door slamming and then, maybe, a chance to get some shut-eye. I hope it won’t drag on too long, but then minutes pass with no sound at all. I listen harder, which only increases my wakefulness. Still nothing. Then there’s the unmistakable slow, rhythmic squeak of the bedsprings of a cheap motel mattress. Listening to other people have sex can be infuriating or depressing and in this case it’s both. So I turn on the light and put on my jeans and boots. The clock says 1:43AM. “Unbelievable,” I mutter, though there’s nothing remotely unbelievable about it. I wish I could call the guy’s wife. Not that I’m overly concerned about morality here, mind you, I just want some sleep.

There’s nowhere else to go so I get in the truck and turn on the radio. Two men are discussing ISIS in serious, somber tones. Where they come from, what they believe, how much money they have. In my exhaustion I’m struck by the thought that the modern world of dingy motels and run-of-the-mill adultery is going to have its hands full for quite some time battling the ancient world of religious martyrdom and apocalypse.

I listen to the radio for a while and must somehow eventually fall asleep because when I open my eyes I can see a thin paling of the darkness along the horizon just above the ocean. The clock on the radio says 4:52AM and a different man is talking about the weekend’s upcoming football games. My back and neck are stiff and I struggle to move as the blood painfully returns to my numb left arm, which has been pressed against the door. I turn the key, worried that the radio will have killed the battery, but the truck fires right up. So I cut the ignition, switch off the radio, and haul myself out of the cab. I’m too disoriented now to properly focus my anger on the couple upstairs as I stumble through the pre-dawn humidity back to my room where I sit on the bed, pull off my boots and jeans, and at last tumble into sweet oblivion.



Only the oblivion doesn’t stay sweet for long. Soon I’m dreaming that I’m wandering on a darkened battlefield amongst smoldering craters and mangled military equipment. Yet I can see no one either alive or dead. In my left hand is a camera and in my right a microphone but there’s nobody to speak to or document. I am too late for the war. The sense of failure is shattering, like I’ve let the entire world down. All those who might’ve fought here will go unnoticed and unremembered. As I walk slowly through the wreckage a hard, cold rain starts to fall, and the muddy ground begins to run with what looks like blood. But just as I’m about to scream I’m awoken yet again, this time by a knock on the door.

“Housekeeping!” I raise myself off the pillow and for a moment can’t recall where I am. Another knock: “Housekeeping!” The clock on the stand says 9:41AM.

“Not yet,” I answer, hardly recognizing my own wracked voice. “Half an hour, please.”

“Okay, sir,” is the reply through the door. “Sorry to disturb you, sir.”

I listen to the cart move further down the hall and then get out of bed and into the shower. In less than 30 minutes I’m walking across a sand-strewn parking lot toward the Flamingo Restaurant, a run-down 60’s-era joint next to the motel, with a voucher for a $5 breakfast. I sit on a faded pink stool at the blue and gold spangled counter, drink some coffee, and eat two runny eggs while I try to pull myself together. I think about how I didn’t plan on being a truck driver. I know plans don’t really mean much in life, but I never even made it to college. Then Cody came along before I’d turned 23 and that was that. I don’t mean to make it sound like Cody was the end of anything though. Really, he was the beginning. At 17, a junior in high school, he’s already a better man that I’ll ever be and I can’t claim any credit for that. He’s his own person, thankfully. For the last 10 years he’s lived with his mother and I’ve helped out as best I could. At first I’d visit only when I felt able to face him and his mom. It was harder when he was small, but it feels like it’s getting easier now. I’m grateful for that.



After breakfast I get in the truck and am about to hit the road when my phone rings. It’s my boss, Lindy.

“Dan, that was nice driving the last couple days. Damn heroic.”

“Thanks,” I reply. “I guess it was one for the books.”

“Sure enough. You made everyone happy.”

I almost laugh at that, but don’t.

“Listen,” continues Lindy, “take your time getting back. Find a couple places to stay. Some nice places. But, you know, maybe not too nice.” I do laugh at that. It doesn’t seem like there could possibly be a nice place between where I’m sitting and home. “And take the weekend off. In fact, I don’t want to see you ‘til Tuesday.”

I’ve worked for Lindy for eight years, often putting in six day weeks—sometimes even seven—and he’s always been good to me in return. It means something these days. It’s why I’ve stuck around.

“Thanks,” I tell him. “I appreciate that.” And I do.

“I know,” he says. “And I appreciate you handling this run. Now get back here safe.”

I tell Lindy I will and hang up. With the weekend free I figure I should give Cody a call and see what he’s up to. I make a mental note to do that later, telling myself not to let it slip like I have so many times before.



There’s a lot of road ahead of me. I’m still tired and I’d like to put in at least 10 hours before taking Lindy up on his offer. The sun sits low out over the water, gathering power. Happily, traffic is very light and moving fast. I get up to 80, about as fast as the old box truck will go, and start making good time. I’m fiddling with the radio, trying to avoid the news, when a car up ahead changes to the right lane without looking, pushing the car next to it off the highway. Then the first driver overcorrects in an attempt to get back into the left lane, slides sideways, and flips completely over, landing upside down at the bottom of an overgrown embankment. The other car has also flipped, but landed right side up on a flat spot near a swampy depression off the road farther back, its roof crushed.

I pull onto the shoulder and jump out of the cab. I smell the acrid tang of burned rubber. A puff of black smoke hangs in the air. A woman is screaming from the car that’s upright, but everything seems strangely quiet and still. I call 911 and tell them there’s been a serious accident. I give my best guess at the mile marker number and even though the operator tells me to stay on the line I hang up. The woman continues screaming, but I’m closer to the other car, so I run to that one, already breaking a sweat. At first I can see no movement inside. In the driver’s seat a man is strapped into his safety belt, hanging upside down against the roof. I kneel in the tall grass and yank on the door. It opens and I reach for him. He’s dazed and bleeding badly but alive. Then he opens his eyes wide and yells, “My son! My son!” He waves his hand toward the passenger seat but the child is actually lying on the roof, near the rear window, completely still. So much blood covers the man’s face that he can’t see his boy.

“He’s here, sir,” I say, surprised at how calm I sound. “I’m going to help him first.”



I run around the back of the car and smell gas. I know cars don’t usually blow up like you see on TV, but if there are fumes then the fuel system might no longer be sealed, and it occurs to me that maybe the vehicle is combustible. I kneel to get at the rear door handle and pull. The door is jammed, but I feel it give slightly so I try harder. It finally opens and I gently pick up the boy. He is perhaps six or seven and there is no blood on him at all. I think he must be dead but then his chest rises weakly. With the man’s son in my arms I run from the car to the grassy slope of the embankment by the highway and gently set him down in a patch of sparse vegetation. Some people have gathered and a middle-aged woman crouches beside me. She says she’s a nurse and begins to look at the boy. Without saying a word I get up to return to the man and it’s only then that I realize the woman in the other car is still screaming. Another man is trying to get her out of her vehicle, but I run back to the upside-down car and a third man follows me. This man and I work together to extricate the driver, whose scalp I now see has been partly torn from his skull, likely after hitting the spider-webbed windshield. He lapses in and out of consciousness as we undo the seatbelt carefully so he does not tumble onto the roof. The smell of gas is much stronger.

Quickly covered in the driver’s blood we slide him from the car. His left arm hangs limply from his side and it looks like his collarbone has been broken. We slowly carry him to the grassy slope and, as we do, I see the other man carrying the woman in his arms. She has not stopped screaming, but somehow it has become mechanical, the sound almost disembodied. The ground is wet in that direction and the man lifts his legs high to free them from the mud with each step as he moves towards us. We all converge on the slope and the woman is also covered in blood, a white stump of bone sticking through her thigh below her torn dress.



Finally I hear sirens growing closer and the state patrol arrives. Next come ambulances and a firetruck. We all step aside and let the paramedics get to work. Some firemen inspect the vehicles and then the firetruck begins to douse the car that’s upside-down. The injured woman suddenly goes quiet and is loaded into an ambulance. The man and his son are put in other ambulances. Bystanders begin to wander back to their cars. With traffic reduced to one lane, a line of vehicles snakes into the distance. Having seen the entire accident, I’m asked by the state patrol to provide a report. The officer goes through some questions and since there isn’t all that much to tell it’s over quickly. I’m given some forms to fill out with my contact information and it’s hard to keep the pen steady. Investigators arrive with measuring tools and tow trucks ease their way off the highway toward the crumpled vehicles. No one says, “Good work,” or “Nice job.” I’m not certain that I’ve done the right thing. Should I have done more? Should I have done less? I simply don’t know.

Then I walk to my truck and find the man who helped the woman doubled over behind it, vomiting. I try to light a cigarette but begin shaking and have difficulty getting the lighter to flame. The man straightens, wiping his chin with a sleeve, and I ask him if he wants a smoke. “I quit years ago,” he says, but an instant later reaches for the outstretched pack. Somehow I manage to light us both up and we stand there silently watching the wreckers and policemen. I’m quickly down to the filter and then all I can think to say is, “Be safe.” The man nods and replies, “You, too.” I climb into the truck and ease slowly into traffic that stretches far back along the highway, where tragedy comes fast and often.



It doesn’t take too many miles before I know that I need to get off the road. I’m halfway across the parking lot of a Super 8 when I remember there’s a lot of blood on my clothes. The woman at the front desk eyes me warily until I explain that I was just at the scene of an accident.

“Oh my god!” she exclaims. “A couple ambulances went past half an hour ago. That’s an awful stretch out there. Wrecks all the time. Bad ones.”

I ask if she’s heard anything about the people that were injured, but she hasn’t. She gives me a room for half price and even though it’s on Lindy anyway I don’t dismiss the gesture.

I take a long, hot shower and get dressed. I walk outside to the dumpster and toss my bloody clothes inside. Then I call Cody. The sun is setting and the steady woosh of cars off Interstate 75 mixes with the voices of travelers around me. “Hey, Dad,” answers Cody after a few rings.



“Hi, buddy. How are you?”

“Pretty good. What’s up?”

“Well, you know, I just got the, uh, weekend off.” My voice is unsteady, all adrenaline now completely drained from my system. “You wanna go to the football game Sunday?”

“Sure,” he says. “Sounds good.”

“Alright, I’ll, um, try to get us some tickets and, uh, call you Saturday.”

A few seconds pass.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay? You sound kinda funny.”

All at once I’m afraid I might start crying. Hard. Like maybe I won’t be able to stop. I take a breath. “It’s been a tough day.”

“A bad one?”

“Yeah.” I press my fingers to my eyes. “Pretty bad.”

“You want to talk about it?”

“I do.” And that’s the truth. Still, I can’t. Not just then. “But I’ll tell you about it when I see you. Give you the full report.”

“Okay. Where are you, anyway?”

“Florida.”

Cody laughs. “Florida?! No wonder you’ve had a bad day. Florida sucks.”

I smile. “Yeah.” Then I hesitate, like I always do, a weakness inherited from my own father. But I make sure I get the words out: “Love ya, buddy.”

“Love you, too, Dad.”



I walk back to my room and lie down on the bed. I listen to the clock radio—the oldies station—as a patch of sunlight travels across the carpet. Then the room is filled with shadows, and finally it goes dark as Carole King sings me to sleep. Never once do I hear so much as a peep from upstairs.

The next morning I wake up starving. I have plenty of carbohydrates and a cup of scalded coffee at the continental breakfast and then I’m back on the road. It’s still early and I turn the radio on. Overnight there have been mass killings in three more countries. Suicide attacks. Car bombs. Retaliations upon retaliations. I think about the tragedies within those tragedies, the battles waged in individual lives, no less important because they go unrecorded. Could anybody’s god stand to bear witness to them all? I turn off the radio and get ready for a long piece of I-75. I give the rattling box truck a little more gas. I’m heading for home, the fighting over for now.



If you like this kind of thing, there's more HERE. And HERE. And HERE, too.

The photos were all taken over the last couple years with a WOCA 120G that does what it wants no matter how much Gorilla Tape I put on it.

6 comments:

Viacomclosedmedown on youtube said...

THanks John. Nice to see some writing again. I had to commment looking at these cool photos. I do 'tricks' with my miniDV camera when I used to use it more over phone, but I could get curved lines my moving the camera as I take a shot but these colors you add is another cool dimension of adjustments shall we say plus the other 'tweeks'

jmhouse said...

Thanks! Good to hear from you, Viacomclosedmedown on youtube! It just so happens that I'm in Minneapolis at the moment, too.

You know, I wish I wrote more, but I tend to wait for the inspiration to strike. Sadly, that doesn't happen all that frequently. I did post a story called "The Real Desert" a while back and another, "Independence Day," last year. That's all I've managed since the book though.

As for the photos, those are medium format film shots taken with a plastic WOCA 120G lomographic camera that prefers to operate mostly out of my control. Occasionally a shot will fail outright, but usually I just get some psychedelic light bleeds and interesting focus variability. Beyond a basic color correction on the scanned digital image, those are unprocessed. I like that temperamental little camera!

Hope things are going well! JM

Spence Udall said...

I am so glad that I ran across your on Facebook, I love your pictures and stories. The two pics of the churches are you able to give their whereabouts?

jmhouse said...

Thank you, Spence Udall! I'm glad you found City of Dust, too! I can indeed divulge the locations of the churches. The color shot is of the Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Light (MCoOLoL) in Lamy, New Mexico, not far from Santa Fe. You can read a little more about that HERE. The b&w photo is of the San Jose Mission at San Acacia, a handful of miles north of Socorro, New Mexico. More info on that is HERE.

Thanks again! JM

LindaLee/@LadyQuixote said...

This made me cry. Beautifully written. Almost unbearably so.

I found your site because I live just a few miles from one of the ghost towns you've written about. Great pictures!

Be safe.

jmhouse said...

Thank you for your comment, LindaLee/@LadyQuixote! Most of the time I feel like my posts end up falling into the big, black hole of the internet shortly after I publish them, so hearing that you were affected by this story means a lot to me. It's inspiring and I certainly do appreciate it!

That's neat that you live next to a ghost town I've written about. I have a lot of affection for these places.

Very best regards, JM