Based on a True Story
“Soldiers don’t always come back … to the same place they left.”
~George D. Gordon, III, VFW, 2017
I hadn’t watched the news lately, “not since the murder of my step-son,” I told my caller. I told her that I’d listen to the police tape as soon as I got into the office, but no sooner had I hung up than I began looking for it online. It wasn’t hard to find, the news happening just yesterday.
I immediately started the online police tape on the assignment I was about to accept: sell a home in which a violent crime had just occurred. I was compelled to accept it for more than just the circumstances in my life back then: I had no other income and was starving for work. I couldn’t see how I couldn’t accept it, this home sale.
Surely, how one has lived one’s life is a testament to a person’s existence, but death? Is that also a testament of one’s life?
At the passing of life to death, your life flashes before every eye who you ever touched. If that juncture was filled with horror, with violence, that moment follows you into eternity, no matter how good you were in life. That’s what I learned when I listened to the tape, took the assignment, then marched the next day to a home that spoke in detail as to the hell that was the life of just one man, a simple man, a young man, a man with such much to offer his future, who’s passing affected so many people.
He was a soldier who had returned to his home in Florida after a vicious operation in Iraq. He had come home about three months before the murder, arriving in an out-of-the-blue appearance at his front door on the first day of a deadly summer heat. In just 90 days, it’d be his birthday.
He quickly picked up income as a door-to-door salesman for a water purification company but his apparent culling of already matured customers, the disappointments with his first weeks’ successes, quickly become not enough for his addict-addled wife. She berated his confidence, compared him with others, and foisted his baby onto his most basic wound: that he wasn’t around when his son was born.
His house was on what I came to know as a pathologically silent street named Pantheon. Its melting blacktop street meeting swales fronting perfectly built homes, each one of variant of beige, all conservatively landscaped, and all with scattered figurines tossed onto a small, manicured lawns. A freshwater canal lined the rear of the street, which likewise fronted a pathetically lifeless wildlife preserve.
As I parked, I passed by Catholic Home; I called it so for a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary welcoming visitors into Pantheon. Mary was located just under their street-side mailbox. Such a strange place for a saint, I thought.
I pulled into the carport and took in the serene visage of the home I was about to list. There was no police tape. The garage door didn’t appear damaged, the front door was in perfect burgundy shape. Nothing appeared out of place; nothing indicated that right here, the night before, was a struggle of violent proportion.
The entry portico was dusted with a few swollen phone books leaning about. The walkway kissed by the most delicate of white lilies along one side while on the other, a sea of cigarette butts as plentiful as the blades of Bahia barely living in that section of their lawn. That didn’t happen overnight.
I walked around the corner to see the canal out back. Except for the lilies, it was the only place that was green.
Besides it was a Gorilla play set, broken, a skeleton of its former structure; a hose was disconnected, slightly melted and dangling from inside an open BBQ; and a sliding glass door was ajar with a muted paisley curtain blowing out, waving at the canal. I returned to the double-hung entry doors, convinced there would not be much damage inside.
As I was entering, I noticed two women across the street, dressed in white, casuals with equally stark white sneakers. They were at me as I made my way around the soldier’s estate for the first time. I introduced myself briefly from across the street, waving lightly as I unlocked the door; they waved the same, nodding.
I peered in and around to face a majestically tiled foyer with a wide, circular stairwell reaching into a balcony, and a blotch of blood just inside the door. I inspected its angle, its length. Was that the soldier’s print?
I meandered in, heading toward what looked like a sunny room in the distance when I began to notice a spiritual change in the demeanor of the home. The beauty my eyes had beheld in the foyer became abrupt eyesores.
The sunny room was riddled with toy magnetic alphabets in all the primary colors but mostly red. As I tip-toed around the letters, it bellowed back a vomit of toys in every conceivable space, crevice, drawer, and cabinet. It was the family room.
A kaleidoscope of crayon marks was scrawled at the bottom two feet of every wall. The heavy curtain was still waving at the canal as I gazed at luggage on the floor, unbuckled and unzipped. It was men’s clothes, half wet, a smell of liquor emanating.
It was impossible to tell if someone had been packing or unpacking. A ski jacket ble out the door. It reminded me that the soldier’s parents lived in the mountains of Colorado and were expecting my response. How could I possibly make any sense of what happened here? What preceded it?
All the furniture everywhere in the house was new: a white sofa with all the accompanying accouterments of a wealthy family; a large TV; and a wall of oak shelves with nothing on them. I ambled into the kitchen area with its granite counter-tops and over-sized breakfast nook.
I opened the refrigerator, which shed something that I could only describe as oozing goo. There was nothing inside that I recognized as having been former food. The goo was mostly royal blue and English rose, dripping in long strands.
Next to the fridge was a cooler overflowing with the stenched remnants of hard liquor and beer. Who was the drinker: soldier or wife?
I entered the formal dining room with its humongous ceiling and was suddenly shaken by the sound of a sonorous, grinding bellow. It sounded like something was turning on.
I followed the sound that led me to a full bath with a ceiling that was easily 15-feet high, a whirlpool bath, separate shower, toilet and even a bidet. Such a magnificent house, but the sound began again in the wall and it was approaching fast. I couldn’t take it, fled, slammed the door, and found myself in front of a path of lemon drops. In wonderment, I followed them up the stairwell into the baby’s room.
That’s right. The baby’s room. I had forgotten about that baby. Those two women across the street told me about that in our brief encounter. They said the soldier had come across the street and knocked pretty firmly on their door. The man of the house greeted him but noticed he looked exhausted, maybe exasperated. The soldier said nothing more than the command, “Take the baby.”
Stunned, he did.
Without another word, the soldier walked back across the street. Minutes later, they heard the sound of catastrophe. The older lady mentioned in a loud hush as I entered the home, “He lost his job.”
I turned into the master suite adjacent to the baby’s room. There I saw a card on a blood-spattered carpet: all over their Wayfair end tables, California King bed, bureaus, lamps, and curtains.
It was a birthday card. It was peaking from underneath a lavender T-shirt with a cartoon chicken on it that pouted “Chicks Rule.” On one side of the greeting was embossed Sweet Love Almighty; on the other, a handwritten scrawl asking, “why R U such an ass.”
I had seen enough. As I followed the lemon drops back down their exquisite staircase, I saw the blotch of blood again near the door in the foyer. He had paused there, I thought, on his way out, maybe with the baby. He crossed the street, gave the baby away and returned home, upstairs, and where his wife lay in bed whimpering, perhaps, gurgling. He had gotten her right at the base of her neck.
The soldier picked up his cell phone and called his mother some 2,000 miles away. “Mum,” he ordered, “Get Isabel,” a woman from the deep woods of Mississippi. He had ordered a conference call with the whimpering one’s mother.
The conversation was commando style; he had identified the enemy. As soon as Isabel got on the line, she knew something was wrong. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”
The soldier, all he said was, “I shot her.”
His mom didn’t speak. The other one howled. I stopped the tape. I didn’t want to know if we could hear him shoot himself.
In commemoration of Memorial Day and to America’s children of gun violence.
National Suicide Hotline = 800-273-8255
Florida Support Line = 844-693-5838