The Combat Photographer Hesitates

by Dave Housley

The combat photographer stared at the numbers on the computer. “It’s not good,” his wife said, indicating the row along the bottom. “I mean, what are we going to do about kindergarten?” The combat photographer looked at the numbers. A panicky feeling grew in his chest. He had no idea what these numbers were supposed to show him about kindergarten, the failing public school versus the expensive private ones whose brochures littered the table.

He looked at the photos along the living room wall: Mogadishu, Chechnya, Iraq, Syria. He made the face he made when people looked at his work, and his wife made a jerking off motion with her hand. “Not the time,” she said. “This is serious.”

“I know. I mean…I’m a combat photographer,” he said.

She sighed. “Yeah, but are you really, though, John?” The worst thing was the affection in her voice. She wasn’t taking a shot across the bow, or looking to start a fight. She was trying to help him.

He opened his mouth but then did the math: fourteen months at the museum. Could he call himself a combat photographer?

He looked at the back wall again. The best thing about being a combat photographer was that it was all about the work. Nobody cared what his receipts looked like when he took the photo of the little girl playing with a broken doll in the Syrian refugee camp. Nobody asked about how much he owed on the Discover Card or how many times the county had fined them for the lawn when they saw the photo of the young soldiers playing soccer while Baghdad burned in the distance. You made a picture and that was it. There was no accounting, no follow-up appointments, updating software and timetracking and bill paying and meetings, none of the exhausting maintenance of living like a regular, adult person in the world. He had no idea how other people did it. He would never be able to manage any of it without Mary.

On the table in front of them, bills and brochures, the laptop with its confounding spreadsheet, the baby monitor hissing white noise. From the neighbor’s house, the sounds of something banging. Bang bang bang. There it was again. He wondered if he should go over there and check. “You think I should…” he said, indicating the fence that separated the two houses.

“We have our own shit to worry about,” she said. “Plus,” she waved at the television, where a reporter was standing in front of a hospital, what looked like a traffic jam of ambulances behind him, the words “14 Dead in Flu Epidemic” across the bottom of the screen.

“Is his fire alarm going off?”

“We’re not calling 911 with all of this shit going on,” she said. “Not for fucking Tony and his self-inflicted bullshit.”

“So this…” he pointed to the computer. “Kindergarten?”

“Okay, hear me out,” she said, pointing back to the spreadsheet. The combat photographer knew he was not going to like what was coming next. “I think we should at least think about the house. We wouldn’t get what we paidWarm Neighbors but at this point I don’t think that would be the worst thing. I mean, these schools…”

More banging from next door. The houses were only sixteen feet apart, separated by a stand of bamboo and an ancient fence, and they had been able to track the progress of Karen’s decampment – the fights getting worse until they receded into an eerie silence – without leaving their own kitchen table. “At least we wouldn’t have to worry,” she said, “about however that is going to end over there.”

The combat photographer picked up a brochure. A multicultural group of kids were sitting in a circle while a beautiful young woman in dreadlocks pointed out something on an iPad. There was no price anywhere on the brochure. He had learned that this was a sign. “Sell the house?” he said. “And live where?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s only three of us. An apartment might be nice. No yard to mow. I mean, maybe we’re just not house owning people.”

He looked at the numbers on the spreadsheet again, trying to make them make sense.

“We could talk to my parents,” she said. “Get a loan. Maybe look at moving back to Harrisburg. There’s an airport there and if we didn’t have to pay the mortgage on this damn house. If Tyler could just go to public school…”

The combat photographer stood up. He grabbed his camera. “I’m gonna…” he said.

“Wait,” she said, and he stopped. “You need to make a choice here. You have a family. You can’t just run outside and walk around until I go to sleep. That is real.” She pointed to the computer.

He nodded and thought about something to say but he couldn’t think of a thing. She turned around, and then he was walking, through the kitchen and out the sliding glass door and into the yard. He realized he had been sweating.  Outside it was cool and crisp. He could hear traffic, a siren somewhere, the high whine of crickets, Tony still banging around next door.  There was definitely a beep and he wondered again about the fire alarm. Probably Tony had forgotten to replace the battery, or he didn’t know how, or he thought he was punishing Karen by punishing himself.

The worst thing was that he knew Mary was right. Of course she was right. He had made all the sacrifices – coming out of the field, turning down the job with Vice, taking the job with the museum, all those hours photographing moths and rocks and bones, and it had still not been enough. They had a child, a beautiful, funny, smart child for whom he would run through the sliding glass door right now, and they couldn’t even afford to send him to fucking kindergarten.

He had seen some of the most dangerous places in the world, had photographed Somali pirates and gotten drunk with Chechen rebels in Afghanistan but in the end, when all was said and done and in the only way that actually really mattered, he had been no match for stately Washington, DC, its cherry blossoms and bureaucrats and quicksand of a real estate market.

He felt for a pack of cigarettes and remembered for the thousandth time that he’d given up smoking when he’d come in out of the field. From inside, he could hear the boy crying softly and then louder, shouting for his mother. The noise was urgent and primal and it goosed a shiver up his spine.

He could hear Tony talking to himself next door. Through the fence he saw an occasional glow, or flash, and again he thought about checking to see if his neighbor was okay but Mary was right — they had enough of their own problems.

He walked past the flagstone patio they put in when they first bought the house. After a few hard hours, they had lost interest, gotten lazy and neglected to dig a foundation and lay sand, as indicated by all the home improvement books.  When the ground froze, the flagstone popped and it sat now, uneven and chipped, a jagged and dangerous toddler obstacle course. They would have to start again, pull up everything, buy new flagstone, dig the hole deep enough this time, haul sand up the hill, think about variations in rock thickness and average rainfall and drainage patterns.

This is who they would need to become, he thought – direction followers, work glove and protective eyeglass wearers, the kind of people who don’t abandon plans halfway through to drink wine on some half-assed patio.

He stepped around the corner until he could see them in the bedroom, Mary holding the boy, whispering into his ear, her head pressed against Tyler’s lovely, miraculous face.  Pale green light from the dehumidifier bounced around the room and his little family looked like they were glowing, lit from within. He reached for the Canon and snapped a few shots before he realized even what he had done.

He heard a new sound from next door. It was familiar, somehow, but he couldn’t place it — a low rush of air, like a machine exhale – and then Tony laughing like an idiot. The suburbs. Jesus. They were practically on top of each other. Tony and Karen had seemed like good neighbors when they first moved in. They had even shared a few meals, a few beers along the fence. Since Karen had left, though, Tony seemed to have locked himself up in the house and now this…whatever this was. Mary was right: it was not going to end well.

The combat photographer sat down on the rocky little patio. The stones pushed at his bottom. He was amazed the boy hadn’t already tripped and impaled himself on the damn thing. From next door, familiar flashes of light, a glow erupting suddenly into flames. He turned to see Mary shouting something at him, knocking on the window and gesturing toward the street while the flames from next door were growing ever larger in the reflection. He thought about all the things in the house, the pieces of paper that certified their marriage and Tyler’s birth, his passport full of stamps and visas, the bills and checkbooks and receipts, the laptop and its spreadsheet, more revealing than any photo he would ever take. The combat photographer grabbed his camera and launched himself over the fence.

Dave Housley's fourth collection of short fiction, Massive, Cleansing Fire, a collection 
of stories that all end in a massive, cleansing fire, will be published in Spring 2017 
by Outpost 19. His previous books are If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home (Dzanc Books), 
Commercial Fiction (Outpost 19), and Ryan Seacrest is Famous (Impetus Press; Dzanc Books 
eBook Reprint). He is one of the founding editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse 
Magazine, and one of the co-founders and organizers of the Conversations and Connections 
writer's conference. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television 
at @housleydave.