Use With Caution

My legs trembled on the chair as the fat man lit the candle, shallowly lighting the tiny attic room. Instinctively I passed my hand over it, feeling the column of heat extending far above the visible flame. As if it weren’t hot enough outside.

It must have been ninety degrees that night, but I wasn’t sure; when the Reconstruction Unit requisitioned heavy metals such as mercury and flammable substances such as alcohol, the village’s thermometers faded along with other useful devices into the heaps of broken glass and scrap metal, which grew carcinomatously in the dust on the side of the road.

“Why don’t we use the electric lights?” I said.

The fat man’s eyes glanced up from an intense downward stare, the kind of stare that men and women of immense corpulence seem to be constantly locked in. His brow rippled into a furrow. He was lit from below, so the candlelight exaggerated his features; his eyes popped out of his head like golf balls, and below his neckline acres and acres of him seemed to unfold in front of me. He reminded me of the racist cartoons scribbled onto the lavatory wall of the airplane. I remembered these cartoons because Odling had told me not to film them.

I gestured at the flame, and then at the dry ceiling not six inches above me. “Fire,” I said.

“Old fire,” he said. “Flame burns long. Tree dies slow.” He glanced back down at the candle. “You want some coffee?”

“No, thank you,” I said.

Our translator, Todd Muller, died six days earlier. Two minutes after clearing Checkpoint Twenty-Three and entering the combat zone, I watched through the back window of my car as a beige Jeep carrying several members of the National Army rolled over something that I didn’t know the name of and brilliantly disintegrated into its various components. As the beige Jeep and several members of the National Army helled off the path to smolder on the dry dirt and grey savannah grass, a small sun hovered briefly at the center of where the car had been. A green Hummer carrying translator Todd Muller, soundman Peter Castle, producer Derrick Odling, and a driver whose name I later learned was Tryba turned ninety degrees and braked hard in an attempt to avoid the crash, but the green Hummer’s hood lightly touched the bright yellow light and it flashed into demon fire. The driver of my Hummer accelerated, which was all he could do, and we vanished quickly while several members of the National Army and Todd Muller and Peter Castle and Derrick Odling and Tryba burned long and died slow and were picked up by Marines or the Reconstruction Unit. I was the only one who saw the crash.

Without Todd Muller to translate, I latched on to anyone who spoke a word of English. “Help,” “shelter,” “food,” and “gunfire” generally sufficed. “Curfew time,” I had said to the fat man.

“Red white and blue,” he said. I guessed the Marines had taught that to him when they rolled through. The fat man led me to the only two-story structure in the village, a whitewashed brick building that the Nationalists built as a post office before the Reconstruction Unit ripped out the country’s infrastructure as if deveining a prawn.

I assumed from the way he looked at my camera and lens cases that the fat man would have someone help me up the stairs. But he walked into the building alone. I wondered if he lived up there.

Graffiti littered the interior walls and the place stank of urine and god-knows-what. I looked up and saw that a large portion of the ceiling was missing and that the attic had a makeshift wooden roof. I waited for the fat man to finish heaving himself up the stairs, which took a good minute or two.

“Mortars,” I finally said, looking at the ceiling. I had learned that word three days earlier in the bomb shelter where Jake Owens died. I asked it as a question, testing my knowledge of war and my shift into this new environment, like acclimation to a higher altitude.

“Red white and blue,” said the fat man, raising a single stanchion finger at the ceiling.

“Oh?”

“On your flag,” said the fat man, “and on the floor.”

That wasn’t news. It would never be news. I couldn’t film a report about America blowing up post offices because it would get American post offices blown up. That’s what Derrick Odling said. And he died two minutes after we cleared Checkpoint Twenty-Three, two minutes into the combat zone.

It was terrible, really. Had I reported his death, as well as those of Muller and Castle and Tryba, and of their beloved reporter Jake Owens when the bomb shelter collapsed, and the fact that I was stranded in a war zone without anyone who spoke English and a cameraman stuck with a broken leg in a medicine tent two villages west, a rescue operation would have been in order. And everybody knew that a rescue operation was impossible under such conditions, which would have meant a diplomatic situation and quite possibly my position being revealed and my being taken hostage, along with Tom Paige, the cameraman with the broken leg lying helplessly in a medicine tent two villages west next to a bag of shattered Arri lights and a boom microphone.

* * *

I have a theory about movies and television. When you look into the viewfinder of a camera, you peer into an entirely different world. It is audiovisually similar to the normal world, but do not be fooled into thinking that you are filming reality. This could not be farther from the truth.

Take, for example, the firefight outside Natolei Village. Tom Paige bends down with the camera, catches a medium shot of a Marine popping up from behind a sandbag, jack-in-the-box style. The Marine holds down the trigger as his weapon shudders vigorously in explosive spasms of gunfire. The Marine ducks back under as the 5th Rifle Division of the Reconstruction Unit returns fire. One eye on the viewfinder, one eye on the real world, Tom Paige sees a bullet zip by like a bug in the air. Two hours later, he swears to me that he could make out every single detail of this bullet, the exact angles of its exploded back, the exact distance from his forehead, the infinitesimality of the tremble of some gunman’s hand that caused the bullet to miss and saved his life.

Freeze.

The firefight outside Natolei Village lasted for approximately three minutes. It involved no more than three Marines. The 5th Rifle Division of the Reconstruction Unit retreated. When the Marines withdrew back to base, the 5th Rifle Division stormed Natolei Village without conflict. The Marines were unable to recover the area and moved to the next village over, which was also lost.

Two things: a) This is not a war. These are pockets of fighting which, when viewed in the rectangular frame of a camera, look like a war. Fuck the body counts, says Derrick Odling. A picture’s worth a thousand words. Show them death and they will believe. b) When reviewing the footage in camera playback mode, Tom Paige and I froze the clip at the moment the bullet passed him by. A brief blur blocked the frame for a thirtieth of a second. No one could possibly notice. That bullet, which so clearly marked a line between life and death for Tom Paige, became the most pointless obscurity when viewed in this alternate reality of the frame.

But what could we do? Odling and Muller and Castle were dead. So I pushed the SEND button on the side of the camera and offloaded the contents of the SD card via encrypted satellite connection to the servers in New York, knowing that at eleven o’clock Eastern Time millions of Americans would watch our footage and think “Oh, what a noble thing they’re doing,” or “This goddamn stupid war,” or whatever they thought, assuming that outside of the frame there were more Marines and a bigger battle, and most certainly never noticing that tiny blur at Frame 463 of Clip 6.

* * *

The fat man snuffed out the candle. The windchimes that the children made out of broken glass shards rattled as cars rolled into the village. The fat man was silent.

Attached to the back of Camera B was a small satellite transmitter about twice the size of my thumb. It had three indicator lights: POWER, CONNECTION, and DATA. It had a micro-USB connector for changing its settings via computer. It had three buttons, each about the size of a thumbnail. They read POWER, SEND, and SOS.

Before Camera A shattered like a ceramic sculpture when a bullet passed through it and into Tom Paige’s leg, and before Derrick Odling died when his Hummer drove into an explosion, Odling had borrowed Peter Castle’s gaffertape and covered the SOS button on Camera A’s transmitter. It would prove useless, he said, and only create more problems. He was right, of course.

Now, I felt Derrick Odling and Peter Castle and Todd Muller vanishing in the back of the frame, going out of focus as the bullet that nearly killed Tom Paige. I wondered if when I left home for this assignment, I somehow slipped out of frame in the same way, became an implication instead of a reality, like the other Marines who didn’t exist in the rest of the battle that never took place. I imagined dying and scrolling through my life in QuickTime Player. I imagined hitting the SEND button, and in some New York control room a gofer boy would speed-walk in and say to the director: “Uh, Mr. Jackson, you’re gonna wanna hava look at this. Just came in over the satellite. This guy had one fucked up life.”

But that was just another offscreen implication too. Mr. Jackson didn’t exist and neither did his gofer boy. Maybe my transmitter had been broken all along and whenever I had pressed SEND the control rooms never received a single blip of data, if Peter Castle and Todd Muller and Derrick Odling had died to capture an image that was never played back.

The point was that it didn’t matter.

In the moonlight, the fat man’s capacious mouth yawned open and snored like distant thunder. I looked out the window; a man and a woman shuffled out of their hut into a Jeep, probably at gunpoint, probably for resistance to the cause of Reconstruction. The vast savannah beyond, whose grasses had felt the burns of Tryba’s flaming Hummer, reverberated with the click-clack of distant shots. I thought of Tom Paige and of his broken leg and of the toothless old woman who took him into her medicine tent two villages west. I saw every memory of him lined up nicely like a clip in Playback Mode, dated and marked and with a thumbnail, and then I hit SEND and they vanished as well.

It had to end somehow. I lifted Camera B from the floor onto the table, nearly waking the fat man. I fished a Sharpie out of the bag. Slowly, thoughtfully, I wrote a message on the camera’s side in bold letters. The back of the viewfinder LCD provided little room to write and I didn’t want to damage the electronics or buttons. There was a lot more that I wanted to say. It didn’t help knowing that the eventual recipient probably wouldn’t speak English.

Leaving the camera bag and extra lenses upstairs, I took the charger and quietly made my way out of the attic, making sure not to fall through the hole in the floor. Most of the cars had gone by the time I left the building. I walked in the predawn darkness for a few seconds before stopping next to an adjacent hut. Feeling much like a parent abandoning their baby on a doorstep, I set the camera and its charger down on the side of the road. I hoped that after daybreak the message would be clearly visible:

Free Camera — Use With Caution!

I hesitated for a moment. The satellite transmitter was still on the back of the camera. Odling would have told me to take it off as protocol; no one wanted to compromise the security of our satellites, of course. But Odling’s advice had been reduced to background noise. Maybe some aspiring filmmaker, better and truer than myself, would hit the SEND button and New York would get a look at what really went on in their war zone.

Afterwards I wasn’t sure where to go. It was mostly a question of just how I wanted to vanish offscreen. I decided to follow the road in the direction of the rising sun until compelled to detour off into the savannah. I wondered and maybe even feared for a moment, but as I departed the village I lost myself in an expansive scenic shot of the grassy plains. I reduced to a pixel or two, maybe. Then I was nothing.

By the dust of the road at my feet, mounds of broken glass and scrap metal glimmered in the light of dawn.

Herbert Gilman
Age 15, Grade 10
Columbia Grammar-Prep School
Gold Key

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