The shot seemed to have been fired from a copse of woods alongside Interstate 64. It was a Thursday afternoon, around 4:15. No one realized what had happened until the next morning.
That Friday, a Mr. Ambrose from Hampton walked out to his car to drive to his job at the Newport News Shipbuilding. He saw a quarter-sized hole in the rear passenger-side door of his Toyota Corolla. He remembered—he thought he remembered—a muffled thunk the day before as he listened to sports talk radio on the way home. In a hurry, he went to work. He showed some of his coworkers the hole during morning break. One, a hunter and a former Marine, told Mr. Ambrose that the hole had been made by a high-powered rifle. “Like a military rifle,” he said. When Ambrose got home, shaking, he called the cops. Was someone trying to murder him?
A couple of uniformed cops quickly determined it was definitely a bullet hole. They called in a small team of detectives—three, I’ve been told (I wasn’t there)—and they pried into the vehicle’s metal with special tools—industrial-strength tongs and pincers—to retrieve the smashed bullet, which they handled with rubber gloves and placed in an evidence bag. Later, back at the police station, it was discovered that the bullet was from an M40, a bolt-action rifle used by Marine snipers.
After this, and once it was determined the bullet was most likely not specifically targeting Mr. Ambrose and thus “random,” cops were on edge. “Random” is the worst. The crime is unknowable, the motive beyond rational, and thus everything bad is possible. The future is a canvas waiting for blood spatter. There was even some brief and obscure banter on the police blotter referring to the potential badness of this if any kind of pattern emerged. Remember: the D.C. snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, weren’t so far in the past when this happened, so the chief of police and other higher-ups probably had visions of pedestrians getting picked off in box-store parking lots and dropped while pumping gas.
None of this happened, of course. One sniper’s bullet fired into a car driving on the interstate in heavy traffic. A short article in the paper (written by me) about the mystery of where it came from. Then nothing.
It was winter when this shot happened. Brutal Canadian cold had barreled, briefly, all the way down to the U.S. South. Southerners view this kind of weather as near-apocalyptic and go into bread-and-milk hoarding and anxious hibernation. It was quiet at the paper, and cold as steel in my office. I was bored. I was accustomed to and enjoyed the day-to-day hustle of researching, interviewing, and reporting. For a time, I felt I was made for this gig: crime beat reporter, which I’d never once in my life thought of as a job until I dropped out of grad school unceremoniously and needed a job. And I’d become used to a daily dose of stupid/sad/unbelievable/shocking/well-planned/random crime. But no one was killing anyone in the greater Tidewater area. No drug busts. A few pretty serious domestic calls—men bouncing their wives or girlfriends off of walls or subjecting them to various kinds of sexual sadism—but honestly that was so common a call-in I only went out, per my managing editor’s instructions, when a) the people weren’t poor blacks or, his phrase, “honky trash,” b) there was a death involved, or c) a kid got caught up in the fracas. The domestic stuff needed to be unusual or extreme, have real cash or seduction or transgressive horror bound up in it, or at least involve someone of local importance or celebrity. The old news cliché of “if it bleeds, it leads” is misleading, or it only acknowledges one aspect of journalistic story-choice hierarchy. Violence is everywhere, every day. Some of it is exalted, becomes iconic through repetitive media coverage. Most of it gets no coverage at all. For instance—and I mean one instance among millions since the inception of television news, never mind the yellow print journalism of the early part of the 20th century or salacious Victorian reportage before that—on the day JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in a mansion in a gated community in Colorado, the body of a raped and murdered ten-year-old black girl was found in a dumpster in Chicago. The blond-and-sexualized-in-an-adult-way Ramsey was, as we all know, hundreds of hours and millions of words of news and commentary across every kind of media for years. The poor black girl—what was her name, even?—got a few short articles in the crime section of The Tribune. You want to know about…I was going to “journalism,” but I really mean “America”…those two cases say a lot.
Darren Morales was a sixteen-year-old high school student. He played football and basketball. He was slightly below average scholastically. He lived with his mother, Erlan Morales, forty-five, and his older brother, Oscar Morales, twenty-three. Oscar was an Iraq War vet who had been on the periphery of an IED explosion, which killed several of his friends, blowing his best friend literally into dozens of ragged pieces and a baby-swimming-pool’s worth of spilled fluids. One moment there is a person; next moment there are the material contents of that person spread along a remote, foreign road. Goodbye sense. Goodbye faith in humanity. Hello repetitive, emotional mind-fuck.
Oscar had been honorably discharged from the Marines a year before I encountered him, and only halfway through his first tour, because he had lost some of his hearing, had a permanent limp and severe leg pain as a result of a destroyed and reconstructed left calf muscle, and could not use his hands except for in the bluntest chores because of extensive burns and nerve damage caused when he tried, in the aftermath of the explosion, to help one of his fellow Marines, whose face and upper torso were on fire because of the IED’s sticky accelerant.
The Morales family rented a small house in a neighborhood of close-together small houses in Hampton, about three-quarters of a mile from Interstate 64.
Three weeks after the mysterious bullet hit Mr. Ambrose’s car, the weather warming up, I heard a call over my police scanner about a domestic shooting. It was at the Morales’s, of course, and that night, after things settled down and it was clear there had been an accident and no one was hurt, I got to talking to Darren about his family, his brother, his life at school. He was a nice kid. What happened that night, so the rehearsed story of the family went, was that Darren was cleaning a gun in his brother Oscar’s room and it discharged, blowing a quarter-sized hole in the wall. The gun was an M40, used in Iraq. (I don’t think he should have had it, though it was perfectly legal, and I never asked how it came to be in his possession, but often severely injured vets receive “gifts” from fellow soldiers on the down-low.) No charges were filed. Incident was officially deemed an accident. A police sergeant said be more careful, etc. Everyone was tiptoeing around the physically and psychologically wounded vet (and that was certainly part of why the cops let it go), but sometimes I don’t think the rest of us in America feel nearly bad enough about what happened to those guys—about what happened to those guys ostensibly for us. Put aside, if you can, what you think about the wars, or your politics, or my politics, for that matter. Those human beings, most often from families struggling like the Moraleses, did their jobs, and a lot of those jobs resulted in a living hell pretty much in perpetuity. Oscar knew little about American or world history, or geopolitics, or the multiple cultures and customs and beliefs and feuds roiling in the Middle East over the last two thousand years or so. He had a high school degree, few prospects, zero privilege to give him a leg up in a terrible job market, and he signed a piece of paper for what seemed like an adventurous career (they even had cool videogame/Hollywood blockbuster-inspired commercials on TV demographically targeting people like him for this job).
I ended up getting to know Darren a little, because I had some short-cuts and connections down at the Veteran’s Administration Clinic. I’d done, a few years earlier, some advocacy stories on the V.A. and the epidemic of PTSD of particularly young vets like Oscar (20 to 25 of whom kill themselves per day in America), which resulted, to my surprise, in a little boost in both state and federal funding (shaming is a powerful tool). Darren told me the story that follows. I told him I’d never write about it for the paper, but since it’s been many years now, and this is a book I’m writing to better comprehend all those crime-beat assignments, a book I may never publish, I think I can go ahead. I’ll rethink it later. Who knows? Maybe I’ll delete it. Or post all this on the Internet anonymously after altering some names and details.
I kind of buy that Roland-Barthes-post-structuralist-stuff about the author, me, being dead (and who knows, maybe I am corporeally, physically dead by the time you’re reading this). Only the story matters. But then I’ll think that only the people in the story matter—not characters (oh, I am sick-to-death of literature), people—and the story itself can come in about twenty viable versions. See, I did learn some things working toward a Lit Ph.D.! I’m just not sure how useful these things are, since all the philosophy in the world doesn’t change the fact that we’re all going to end up in the ground as calcium and phosphate, like Oscar’s friends and fellow ground troops. Put another way, here is the main thing I learned in grad school: Never fully trust a story; a story is all we have. Beckett: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Oscar wanted to die. No sense in being coy about it. He wanted out, poor guy, but his hands were so destroyed he couldn’t pull a trigger.
Let me enumerate some of the soul-killing death medicine of war and how it affects an individual: Oscar suffered from severe clinical depression, PTSD, and several physical ailments beyond his war injuries, including colitis, an esophageal ulcer, and small sores inside his mouth, which may have been caused by his mix of psychiatric medications or from persistent stress or some environmental contagion back in Iraq or all of these things. A few weeks before Mr. Ambrose took a bullet in the car door, Oscar needed to see a doctor, but the earliest appointment he could get at the V.A. was a month away.
He had ended up in the emergency room three times because of this situation—the situation of hundreds of ill and struggling vets needing to see a few well-meaning but overworked and overwhelmed doctors and nurses and psychologists and psychiatrists. Mrs. Morales could not afford the fifty dollar co-pays for these visits. She had said this the last time. Oscar didn’t want to make her poorer, or miss the rent. He asked if they could all go church. “Mama,” he said, crying. “Can we please go to church?”
They were Guatemalan-American. They were Catholic. Darren helped get Oscar in the car and all three of them drove in the beat-up Honda Civic to Saint Joseph’s.
It was a Saturday morning. Father Benjamin, the priest, was in his comfortable office thinking about his Sunday sermon and answering emails. They all gathered around his dark wood desk.
“Do you go to hell if you kill yourself?” Oscar asked Father Benjamin, barely able to keep himself upright in his wheelchair. He could walk, haltingly and in pain, but he rarely did anymore, so Darren usually folded up a borrowed wheelchair to carry on any family outings, which were few.
Behind his desk, in his creaking wooden chair, Father Benjamin, a big, gray-bearded man, considered the question. He said, “Why do you ask? Do you ask because so many of your Marine compatriots have done so since coming home from the Middle East? Or are you in need of help?”
“I just need to know,” said Oscar. “I have to know one way or the other. It is definitely not about me. I promise. I’m just thinking about my friends. Can you just tell me?” He seemed physically miserable in his chair, according to Darren.
“Oscar,” said Father Benjamin, looking at all three of them in turn, finally focusing on Oscar, “it is not for me to know the mind of God. I know the scriptures, I know the church doctrine, as perhaps you do, too, but I feel the suffering of the soldier is perhaps a mitigating circumstance. I believe some of our soldiers, some of your friends, Oscar, have been wounded in their souls, their very souls, do you understand? Even if fighters enter war with a moral or Godly outlook, the act of battle and killing can shatter morality. When morality is shattered, the world is shattered and there is confusion. Up is down and down is up. Suicide is against doctrine, Oscar, and I am only speaking for myself and not the Catholic Church or for our local bishops, you must understand, but I don’t think your lost friends went to Hell.” He shook his head. “I can’t personally accept that. I believe God knows the damage of war—violent death on a large scale, the threat of death on the mind of everyone—is perhaps the worst damage a human can be subjected to.”
“I need you to kill me,” Oscar said to Darren when they got back home. They were in the small kitchen. His mom was there, too. “I can’t do it. My hands. I can’t pull the trigger. I can’t hold anything. I don’t have any strength. But listen, this is suicide. You’re not really the one killing me. It’s me, I’m doing it. I’m just using your hands and your aim. Please, Darren. Please, Mama. Please please please. I’m in the war. I sleep in the war. I spend all day in the war. I’m still there. That’s the thing I know now, I never ever get to leave. I have to see people die in my head over and over. Time doesn’t move. It doesn’t move. Not for me. And come on, man, I don’t want you to be helping me wipe my ass for the rest of your life. And Mama, you heard Father Benjamin, I won’t burn in hell. I can see you again in Heaven.”
“I said okay,” Darren told me. It was evening. He was looking at the ground. Shame like a light breeze was all around him. “I know how strange that sounds. I do. But I said okay.”
Darren and his mother had watched Oscar suffer in a way they did not know a person could suffer. He would scream at night. Get a faraway look during breakfast and start sweating, like he went into a trance, like he was possessed. Oscar cursed his mother, then wept and said he was sorry, only to do it again the next day. He was pitiful but his moods were monstrous. He was stuck in the house, often in his own bed because of leg pain, but he couldn’t rest peacefully for more than a couple hours. He would eat something and throw up. He would try to watch sports on the flat-screen TV in the den (he used to love sports). Then a commercial would come on, a commercial being beamed onto millions of screens all across the country, just anything, and he’d cry over a dog being fed by its loving owner, or a beautiful woman walking happily in comfortable new shoes, or a couple glancing at each other with almost orgasmic satisfaction while driving an SUV with impeccable safety standards. It was like he was getting mocked and tortured by America’s bullshit.
I asked why Oscar didn’t just overdose on all the pills he had been prescribed for pain, sleep, depression, anxiety, appetite, digestion, fatigue, and anger. My guess was that he could have topped himself a few times over.
“He had to die by that Marine rifle his friend gave him,” Oscar said. “It was like, I don’t know, what do you call that, a ceremony or something?”
“A ritual, yeah. A ritual. He was still in the war, still with all those guys. It was like doing it with that gun would keep him connected to them. Or something. I think he wanted to feel like he died over there, like he never came home. I remember him talking about kamikaze pilots, and Japanese honor shit for defeated warriors like driving a sword through your own guts. He was going to die one way or the other. It felt merciful to help him.”
The first attempt, in the dead of winter. The family said a prayer in Oscar’s bedroom, where he was sitting up in bed, shirtless, wearing only boxers. They had figured out that if his hands worked better he could in fact just barely reach the rifle trigger with the barrel against his head. It was a little after four on a Thursday. They turned booming rap music up as high as it would go in the room. Erlan Morales put a large pillow around half of her son’s head. She held the pillow tight and leaned her own head as far away from his as possible. She was crying, looking away, and whispering a prayer, the bass and synth killing all other sound. The family had all slept in this room the night before, Darren and Erlan on sleeping bags and blankets on either side of Oscar’s bed. Oscar had tossed and turned, screamed out in the middle of dreams, woke up sweating. Now Darren put the end of the barrel against the pillow, the trigger and gun butt positioned about where it would be if Oscar could pull the trigger himself. He squeezed against the trigger. But he couldn’t do it. He moved the barrel, then depressed the trigger all the way, blowing a hole in the edge of the pillow—white stuffing spit into the air—then through the bedroom window. The M40 bullet flew over neighborhood backyards, through a small copse of woods, and into the side of Mr. Ambrose’s car as it sped at 65 mph on Interstate 64.
The family wept together. Then they waited for police to show up. But there had been four separate shootings and one murder nearby that day. No one knew they had fired the bullet. The cops never arrived. Darren knocked the shot pane of glass out of the window and put a piece of thick cardboard in its place.
The second time, three weeks later, Erlan sat on Oscar’s bed. Darren sat in the next room. He couldn’t watch, and there was no way he could pull the trigger again. Oscar closed his eyes. Erlan pointed the M40 at his temple. The set-up now wouldn’t have tricked the most basic forensic investigation into believing this was a suicide, but the family was beyond rational, beyond sense, way beyond careful planning, a crisis on top of a crisis inside a crisis. They all suffered from Oscar’s PTSD. That’s the thing they don’t tell you—PTSD is contagious; it leaks out of the sufferer and into his loved ones. It’s the virus of death infecting the living. The wars end up in people’s kitchens and bedrooms.
Erlan pulled the trigger. But she flinched. She couldn’t do it either. She shot a bullet into the wall. She then held onto Oscar and they both fell back onto the bed and cried and held each other. Darren stayed in the other room. He knew his mother wasn’t going to be able to do it. It was insane—all of it, their lives since the war. It was like the small house was a skull filled with sick emotions and mentally ill thoughts. He turned on the TV and didn’t move until he got up to let the cops in. A neighbor had reported hearing a gunshot from inside the Morales’s house.
So I met the family later that night, as the cops were clearing out, all of them politely saying good night, take care, thanks for your service, if you need anything, etc. I talked to Darren, like I said. And we talked many more times after that outside of his school and in his front yard.
After I heard this full story, which I made notes for but promised not to write about for the newspaper, as I said, I contacted an administrator I knew at the local V.A. This guy owed me one. So I called in the favor to get Oscar’s appointment moved up. I then talked to Darren again and gave him a few tips on what kind of questions to ask and what information to offer. And I stressed how important it was to reveal everything about Oscar’s emotional state short of mentioning the assisted suicide attempts, which he needed to never mention, to anyone, ever again.
This was several years ago. I’m not sure how the Moraleses are nowadays. Some ups, I hope, and undoubtedly plenty of downs. But I know Oscar is still alive.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.