May 21: Ann Arbor Book Festival & Fundraiser Event!
The combat photographer needed health care. Not for a piece of shrapnel in the knee or a stray bullet to the shoulder, not for injuries sustained while running to the site of a car bomb, or thrombosis or malaria or even food poisoning. There was a baby on the way, and his wife was drawing the line.
I’m sick and tired of it, the combat photographer’s wife said. Gallivanting all over the place. Sudan. Afganistan. Iraq. It’s one thing to leave me for months at a time. It’s another to leave your child.
It’s what I do, the combat photographer said. I’m a combat photographer.
The combat photographer’s wife tapped her foot and folded her arms across her belly. She patted the bulge protectively. You have three months, she said.
* * *
At the interview, the museum people were awed. This is amazing, they said, flipping through the images of severed body parts, burning twisted metal, mass burial sites. This is, the head interviewer gulped and brushed his hand over a picture of a Sudanese ten-year-old with a machine gun and a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, this is courageous work.
The combat photographer was used to this reaction. He nodded, made the face he made when people looked at his work something between humility and gritty determination and recognition that yes, this was courageous work but still, somebody had to do it.
Are you sure you’ll be okay working in a studio? they said. Will that be boring for you?
If I can thrive in that environment, he said, nodding at the portfolio and making the face he made when people looked at his work, I think I’ll be okay in this one.
The negotiations took all of two minutes. The salary was slightly less than he had made as a freelancer, but of course there was a 401K, paid vacation, flex time, optional life insurance and disability and tuition reimbursement. There was health insurance.
* * *
The combat photographer marveled at how easy it could be to live as a normal person. Running water, hot meals, eight hours of sleep in a warm, comfortable bed. The combat photographer rode the subway, read the sports section, lingered over morning coffee in the photography studio while the museum filled with school groups, tourists, and families.
In the studio, he had absolute control. No wind, sun, monsoon rain. No bullets biting through the air. He took his time. He photographed the museum’s natural wonders, exhibits that were being archived the skulls of beaked whales, ghost orchids, stegosaurus bones.
His days passed with a reassuring regularity. He ate lunch at noon, took coffee at three, and left promptly at 5:30. He often lingered in the front of the museum on his way out, watching the children gape wide-mouthed at the museum’s dinosaur displays.
He thought of the unborn child in his wife’s expanding belly.
You were so right, he said to his wife.
She smiled and put her hand over his, then placed it on her stomach. Two months, she said.
* * *
The combat photographer was not used to being supervised.
Could you maybe move a little faster in the studio? his boss asked one day. Things are starting to back up a little bit. She waved her hand at the schedule, the line of boxes filled with things waiting to be photographed.
The combat photographer gave her the look he gave people when they were looking at his work.
Thanks so much, she said. We’re just super-glad to have you on board.
* * *
The combat photographer began to wander. On a warm day he went for a walk and found himself at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. He took pictures of things left at the wall, homeless veterans in tattered wheelchairs, older men in sansabelt pants saluting the names of fallen comrades, their hands feeling the marble as if searching for a pulse.
For a few minutes his hands worked on their own, adjusting, focusing, loading another roll of film. And then he looked around. Teachers led school trips. German tourists ate ice cream sandwiches and perused USA Today. Joggers lumbered by. Women pushed strollers.
Six weeks, he thought, until the baby comes.
The combat photographer went back to work.
* * *
The combat photographer looked at himself in the mirror. He made the face that he made when people looked at his work. What he saw was a middle-aged man wincing and crinkling up his eyes.
* * *
The combat photographer found himself bypassing the subway for the four-mile walk home. He took the long way, through neighborhoods on the outer edge of gentrification. Occasionally, seemingly out of nowhere, he would find his heart quickening, the old adrenalin kick in his blood. He would pick up his pace, walking and then jogging down streets he had never seen before, like a dog drawn to an unseen mate in heat.
After a few minutes he would hear the sirens or would arrive at the accident scene to find two motorists in Dockers arguing over a fender bender, police filling out forms.
He would put away his camera and trudge homeward.
He tried not to think about what was happening to his body and mind, to his combat photographer’s soul, but it was a long walk and unlike similar walks he might have taken in Mogadishu or Kashmir, there was nothing to do but think.
* * *
I don’t know if I can do this, the combat photographer told his wife. I’m a combat photographer.
You’re going to be a father, she said, and gave him the look she gave him when the conversation was over, the look that said combat photographer, my ass.
* * *
The combat photographer started drifting into the front of the museum. He took photos of children staring at the stegosaurus, old women in wheelchairs, Japanese businessmen in their suits and shiny hair.
He spent more and more time in the front. Things were happening there, he knew, if you had the patience and the right kind of eye. He found unusual scenes a young husband and wife arguing in a darkened corner, two school groups staring one another down, security bullying street people out the museum’s giant doors.
* * *
The combat photographer had his three month review. His boss rifled through a pile of pictures he had taken in his first months. I think you need to spend just a little more time in the studio, she said, tapping the back of his hand with a manicured nail. Less time in the front.
The combat photographer nodded. He thought about giving her the look he gave people when they looked at his work. But then he looked at the work laid out in front of him dinosaur bones and flowers and fossils and bugs.
More time in the studio, he said, no problem.
* * *
The combat photographer waited for his cell phone to ring. The baby was two days overdue. He hunkered down in the studio, took what seemed like the same pictures he had been taking for three months.
He fought the urge to go to the front of the museum.
The phone rang. It’s time, she said.
The combat photographer hurried into his office, gathered his things.
The fire alarm rang. He ran into the hall. People were frantic, crying, scurrying toward the back exits. He could hear pandemonium in the museum, sirens getting closer.
It’s real, a security guard shouted. Fire in the archives.
The combat photographer walked back into his office. A calm settled over him. He looked at the cell phone, his packed bag. The sirens were just outside. The smoke was getting heavier.
The combat photographer grabbed his cameras and his camera bag. He opened the door and ran toward the fire.