Narrative series: War Zones: Chapter I: Window Frames

By Helen Gerhardt

Two pools of blood – now soaked down into the carpet, now dried, now dark, now two irregular splotches that show where she fell first and where she fell last.

The first splotch is right by where the Christmas tree stood. The last splotch is by the window facing the street. The last splotch is larger. That splotch is where she died.

I am here to help clear the apartment of Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions. After her death. Before her funeral. The lamp is not bright. I try to read the remains left behind under that yellowish gloom.

She fell first under the Christmas tree. Maybe, a few days before, mother and son and father had opened presents there together.

She fell last by the window. Maybe, not long before, she had heard two police officers speaking through the glass, but only to the father of her son. They did not see or hear the woman who had called 911 for help.

Sometime after the police left, the father of her son shot her in the head. Ka’Sandra fell, then she got back up from under the Christmas tree. Maybe she was trying to reach the window to be seen, to be heard, by neighbor or stranger.

It is dark outside. Darker than most city streets in Pittsburgh. Vacant houses, abandoned lots, broken-windowed churches, boarded-up storefronts, all dark and blind among the few lit windows along this Larimer street.

Streets and windows empty of the eyes that might have seen the dark shape of Ka’Sandra Wade’s still-living body against the yellowish gloom of the lamp.

We lift the last of her things down the uneven stairs, over the cracked sidewalk, the dirty grey ice, the crusty ridge of salt-pocked snow at the curb. January of 2013. We hurry, although there is no place we need to rush to. We take in more of the neighborhood in brief glances, lit sharp and deeply shadowed in the glare of our car headlights. White paint peeling off yellow and grey, soggy candy wrappers, soda cans, the spiky remains of tall weeds standing dark against the snow. A “Beware of the Dog” sign at the bottom of star-cracked door glass.

No one walks down the street in the hour we take to clear away the last remains. Darkness and vacancy and tension. My heart rate is higher than our movement back and forth from car to apartment explains.

Does the heart rate of Zone 5 police officers rise as they turn to patrol the dark and blighted streets of Larimer? Do they find themselves rushing to be done with any business that they have in that range of their territory? They do not have friendly relations with the residents of Larimer. They do not often walk the streets, do not have the chance to learn the names, the faces, the stories that frame the empty houses and the frequent rounds of gun fire. They are stretched too thin, short of both patrol officers and supervisors. They skim through streets framed by glass and metal, through streets of total strangers.

In Iraq, we soldiers were also stretched thin, often traveling in groups too small and lightly armed to prevent attack. We also absorbed impressions of the country from our moving window frames, in bits and pieces that we did not ask the meaning of. Tumbledown walls, puddles of sewage in the streets, plastic bags hissing across empty pavement.

The slender smoke stacks of oil refineries loomed in the near-distance to either side of our convoys, flaming at their tips as a more piercing ache of orange light against the glaring sky – I can close my eyes now, years later, and see an orange afterburn, like a lit cigarette slowly being pushed against the retina of my memory. I can still see the flames trailing out into smutty-grey smoke, reaching away in long, diagonal arms that gestured our way forward.

For hours our short convoys would follow behind long lines of gleaming silver tankers – when the road curved to right or left in enormous, gentle arcs we could see that their convoys stretched for miles. Our own wheels fell right in line with the blackened trails of accreted rubber left by many, many tires across the light grey concrete. On either side of the roads, broken-down Iraqi cars had been stripped of every detachable part.

Roadside peddler stands, little shacks constructed of three walls and a roof, nearly all woven from flat reeds, frayed by the constant wind, some falling apart. Most of them were fully open toward the road. Inside we could see stacks of soda cans, pyramids of green Sprites and red Cokes gleaming out at us from the meager shade, as well as big white blocks of ice nearly half as tall as the thin men and women draped across ragged lawn chairs waiting for customers.

Overwhelmed by the heat and tension, I occasionally made half-hearted guesses about who and what I was seeing, but mostly I spaced out, still scanning the road for signs of danger, my brain functioning on auto-pilot, but retreating from the labor of any real thought. This state of mind was not restful – it felt like the agitated, fizzing snow of a television screen that had lost signal. My M16-A1 rifle was always propped on the frame of the truck window, at the ready, that rifle my only ready answer to the flat tension in the faces that looked up at us from the streets we never walked. Empty streets meant danger. An ambush by snipers. A bomb.

Only now, years later, do I read the signs in front of my inner eyes as features on a larger geopolitical map: the oil refineries patrolled by Halliburton mercenaries, the tankers moving out the oil for the multinationals, the blocks of ice that had replaced refrigeration, the roadside stands woven from the flat reeds that no longer grew in the swamps that had been drained by Saddam Hussein in retaliation for the Shi’a uprising during the first Gulf War. Now I know that the cans of soda pop we saw stacked in pyramids must have only partly replaced the contaminated local water that had killed over 500,000 Iraqi children since 1991. The sewage in the streets was our gift to the country. We had bombed most Iraqi infrastructure to rubble and for twelve years the U.S. had controlled the United Nations 661 committee to sanction almost everything Iraqis needed to rebuild: their cars, their refrigerators, their hospitals, their telecommunications, their electric grids, their water plants.

Now I know enough to make sense of the concrete details that denoted how an entire economy and ecology had been ground between Saddam Hussein and the United States in a war of attrition and extraction far more deadly to the Iraqi people than the few short months of the official period of either of our conflicts.

When I carried Ka’Sandra Wade’s last possessions out of her apartment, when I looked at the neighborhood that I had helped her move into to escape the father of her son, I did not yet read the signs that showed evidence of systematic and pervasive theft, of the economic and physical violence that had decimated the neighborhoods and the fabric of community that might have intervened. I did not yet see that my friend had lived in an intersection of war zones.

Two stains on the carpet. Two questions. Why did Anthony Brown shoot the mother of his son? Why did the police leave her to be shot?

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About helengerhardt1

Helen Gerhardt: Pittsburgher, writer, member of the Commission on Human Relations: nothing written at this blog reflects the views or positions of the Commission.

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