A “mirror box” is a box with two mirrors in the center of it. It’s designed to help people who experience pain in their missing limbs. When the intact limb is placed in the box and viewed from an angle, the brain gets tricked into “seeing” two complete limbs. This illusion allows you to “manipulate” the missing limb and move it to a less painful position. Even though consciously you know it’s not real, just seeing yourself as whole is apparently enough for some people to re-wire their brains to reduce the sensation of pain.
Torrijos-Tocumen Airport, Panama — December 1989
I just stared at Davis.
He shrugged at me apologetically.
“Christ!” I looked up and down the empty hallway of the third-floor concourse we were on. “Hurry the fuck up.”
Davis nodded gratefully and hustled into the bathroom. “Sergeant Occam!”
The yell was immediately followed by the unmistakable sounds of a struggle. Davis and other voices started screaming and cursing in both English and Spanish. I rushed into the bathroom.
Davis, with his BDU trousers and underwear around his ankles, grappled with two Panamanian soldiers who were trying to wrest his M-16 from him. All three screamed at each other at the top of their lungs.
The smaller Panamanian saw me out of the corner of his eye. He turned with lightning speed and used a metallic trashcan lid to knock away my attempt to shoot him. The bullet went off and ricocheted around the room. All four of us flinched.
Once we realized no one was hit, the fighting resumed.
The Panamanian wildly swung the trashcan lid at me. I parried as best I could, but I was forced to backstep towards the door. The trashcan lid hit a bathroom stall at an odd angle, which caused the Panamanian to lose his grip. The lid clattered to the floor.
I used his split second of hesitation to bull-rush him into the sinks.
I pinned him against a mirror with my M-16. We made eye contact. He spat at me and grabbed at my balls. I twisted my groin away, unsheathed my bayonet, and thrust it into him, just below his ribcage. The Panamanian’s eye went wide, but he kept fighting. I stabbed him again and again until his grip finally relaxed. It seemed to take forever. He slumped to the floor underneath the sinks.
Davis was still grappling with the other Panamanian for control of his M-16. I couldn’t help but notice the streaks of shit down the backs of his legs. I clutched my bayonet, but there wasn’t an opening to get at the Panamanian.
“All right, motherfucker…” Davis told the Panamanian. He feinted high and released his grip on the M-16. Davis ducked low, drove forward, and wrapped the Panamanian’s legs in a modified double-leg take-down scoop. Although the Panamanian was significantly bigger than him, Davis used his momentum to lift his adversary off-balance.
Bunny hopping, he pushed the Panamanian towards the window at the far end of the bathroom. Davis gave a final shove, and the Panamanian shattered backward through the glass and fell out of sight.
Davis and I both went to the window to look down…
…and nearly get shot by a squad of our guys who just missed getting hit by the falling body.
“Who the fuck’s that up there?” It was our platoon leader.
“Occam and Davis,” I called down.
“Secure that location, Sergeant Occam! We’re coming up.”
Davis bounced around, unable to contain himself. “Damn, Sergeant Occam. Did you see that shit?”
Davis still hadn’t pulled up his pants. It took my look for him to realize he hadn’t, and he went into the stall to clean up.
“Make sure you flush.”
I turned back to the guy I fought. I couldn’t believe the amount of blood. It was everywhere. Only after glancing in the mirror did I realize I was also covered in blood. As I looked at myself in the mirror, all I saw of my expressionless face were the whites of my eyes.
I cleaned my bayonet in the sink. My hands trembled as I re-sheathed it. I used paper towels to wash what blood I could from my uniform. Davis chattered non-stop, more to himself than me about what had just happened.
“Did you see that shit? God damn. God damn!”
Bagram Air Base — August 2008
Davis makes it a point to visit me on my birthdays. Last year we went to the French dining facility at Camp Warehouse, but this time around, we just stay in my quarters at Bagram and share a meal-ready-to-eat.
“Happy forty-first, Grandpa.” Davis glances at the family portrait of Mary, me, Ethan, and Faith on my desk as he slides a present over to me.
I carefully open the wrapping to reveal three picture frames. The first is a
montage of scenery from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. I smile as I set it aside. The second is of me and Davis mugging for the camera while standing on Campus Point at UC Santa Barbara. The date-stamp on it is ‘08/21/91.’
“Why are you giving me a photo of these two strange kids?”
“My mother was cleaning out some old boxes and found those disposable cameras from that trip. I finally got around to getting them developed.”
“Took you long enough.”
The third frame contains a photograph of a girl on the beach. She’d just taken off her T-shirt and had glanced right at the camera the instant the picture was taken.
“I thought you’d appreciate the memories.”
There was a noise behind us. Two girls were picking their way down the rocks from the top of the cliff. Davis asked the prettier of the two to take our picture.
She obliged with a smile. “Say cheese…”
We started mugging.
“I hope that turns out,” she said as she handed the camera back to me instead of Davis.
“What’s your name?”
Longview, Texas — August 1991
Davis was sitting on the stoop along with his younger sister when I pulled into his mother’s driveway. He had a big grin on his face as he stood up. His sister ran inside. I could hear her yell, “Momma, Antoine’s white man is here!”
“Didn’t think you’d actually come,” Davis said as we shook hands.
Davis had gotten out right before the stop-loss for Desert Storm. From the looks of it, he hadn’t been up to very much in the time since. He read my expression correctly. “Hey now, I get to be raggedy-assed and you can’t do nothing about it, Sergeant… excuse me, Mister Occam.”
Davis’s mother came to the door. Mrs. Davis was about forty. Although somewhat heavyset, she had a graceful air about her. She welcomed me to their home and said that dinner would be shortly. Davis showed me around. After the brief tour of the small but immaculate and religiously-decorated house, we sat down to eat. A plate of solid Southern-fried offering was set down in front of me.
Davis did most of the talking during dinner, but his mother, sister, or both would interject to contradict him. It was amusing to witness their loving-yet-combative and loud-but-not-angry dynamic.
“It’s a long drive to California, Jacob,” Mrs. Davis observed. “Especially alone.”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”
Mrs. Davis turned to her son. “Why don’t you go with him, Antoine?”
Davis and I exchanged glances. It wasn’t a bad idea. Mrs. Davis stood and moved around the table, picking up dishes.
“It’s not like he has a job, or anything like that keeping him here,” she noted to
“Momma!” Davis objected, spluttering food.
“Just ain’t right for a grown man to not have a job for nine months, is it?” Mrs.
Davis made her way into the kitchen with an arched eyebrow. “Bob’s Barbecue is hiring,” said Tanya, helpfully.
Davis called out, “If I’m such a grown man and all, why won’t you let me have some beer with my dinner?”
Mrs. Davis returned with a refilled pitcher of iced tea. “Not in this house.”
Tanya turned to me. “Is it true that you and Antoine killed people in Panama?”
“What kind of dinner talk is that, Tanya?” But Mrs. Davis was also interested.
“What did your brother tell you?”
Tanya waved dismissively. “You can’t believe half the things out of his mouth.” “Well, you can only believe a quarter of the things I say.”
I reached for the iced tea.
After dinner, Mrs. Davis wouldn’t hear of me helping clean up, but I did anyway. She nodded approvingly at my dishwashing skills.
“Y’all could learn something from this man,” she told her children.
We finished cleaning, and Mrs. Davis needed to go to bed. Her shift at the warehouse started at 5 am. As we would be on our way before she returned from work, I thanked her for her hospitality.
She responded by saying, “When Antoine said an Army buddy wanted to come to spend a night, I was like, ‘Oh Lord, what are we getting ourselves into?’ But, you’re not so bad, Jacob. You’re welcome in our home anytime.”
Davis and I parked on a hill in the woods overlooking the football field of the local high school. We sat in the bed of my truck with a twelve-pack of beer between us.
“I’m thinking about re-upping,” Davis said quietly.
Davis shrugged as he tossed me another beer and cracked one open for himself. “It’s fucked up, Sergeant Occam, that’s what it is. I spend four years as one of Uncle Sam’s favorite nephews — I’m a Ranger, right?”
“We go to Panama, kick ass, and take names. Right?”
“And then I come home and get treated like a punk-ass nigger?” Davis shifted his voice an octave lower, “Sorry, boy, we got no openings. What relevant work experience you got, boy?”
I looked out at the football field, unsure of how to respond.
“Oh sure, boy, we got a spot for you… sweeping the floor for minimum wage.” Davis added in his normal voice, “Like I said, fucked up.”
Davis stood and threw his beer can as far as he could towards the school. It sailed through the air, spraying in all directions as it disappeared into the brush of the embankment below us.
“Fuck you!” Davis shouted at the world. “Fuck you all!”
The world didn’t respond.
Davis slowly sat back down.
“Feel better now?”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said when he finally decided to talk again.
“What about college? You got the GI Bill, don’t you?”
“What the fuck would I do in college?”
“What everyone else does, drink beer and chase girls.”
Just then, a pair of headlights turned onto the same gravel road we were parked on. It was a group of teenagers looking for a spot to do the same thing we were doing. They invited us to stay and party with them, but we declined.
There were blankets and a pillow neatly stacked on the couch for me. At some point, I woke to the sounds of Davis vomiting in the bathroom.
I stirred again when Mrs. Davis got ready for work. She went into Davis’ bedroom and said something. I heard him protest, “I got money, Ma. Don’t worry about it.”
“Now, Antoine, I’m not going to let you be a charity case… what is that on the front of your shirt? And on the sheets…? Antoine DeAngelo Davis!”
The bedroom door closed, and I couldn’t make out the rest of Mrs. Davis’ response, but it sounded firm. Their discussion went on for a couple of minutes before the door re-opened. Mrs. Davis quietly went across to the front door and let herself out.
Davis and I had breakfast with Tanya around seven.
“If you want to make it alive out of Texas, whatever you do, don’t let Antoine drive. He’s a terrible driver!”
Davis threw a bread roll at her.
Davis bought a bunch of disposable cameras at a gas station when we stopped to top off. He insisted we stop every time he saw something he thought was interesting. My patience lasted until about an hour west of Dallas.
“Ask me to pull over one more time, so help me God I’ll shove that camera up your ass.”
After that, Davis settled for taking pictures out of the window.
We did make it out of Texas all right, even with Davis taking his turn driving. We also made it through New Mexico unscathed. In Arizona, however, I got a speeding ticket.
It was the middle of the night in a hotel outside of Phoenix when Davis asked a question that sliced through the darkness. He sat in a chair by the window, a bottle of whiskey open but untouched on the coffee table in front of him.
“You ever think about those guys we killed in Panama, Jacob?”
I’m covered in blood. As I look at myself in the mirror, all I see of my expressionless face are the whites of my eyes.
“Hit the rack, Antoine. We got still got a lot of driving ahead of us.”
“I suppose you did a lot more shit in Desert Storm, huh?”
“You didn’t miss much.”
“Yeah, that’s what they say. That’s what they say. Want a drink?”
I got the sense Davis wanted to say or ask something else, something more, but he stayed silent. And I didn’t give him the opening. I heard Davis pouring himself a stiff one.
I gave up trying to sleep when Davis dropped his glass, causing it to roll somewhere under the radiator. Davis tried to look for the glass while clutching the bottle but instead fell out of his chair. I rolled out of bed and snatched the bottle from his hands.
Davis just looked back up at me with bloodshot eyes. I helped him back into his chair.
I walked over to the sink and unwrapped two plastic cups from next to the coffee machine. I returned and set the cups down in front of Davis. He nodded drunkenly but said nothing as I poured for the both of us.
Neither of us was in any condition to drive in the morning. Or in the afternoon. Once we did get back on the road, sometime well after check-out, it was only hours later after we finally crossed into California’s Imperial Valley that we glanced at each other and cracked up laughing.
Eventually, we were cruising up the 101 highway towards Santa Barbara on one of those world-famous southern California afternoons of crystal-clear blue skies, eighty-five-degree weather, the Pacific Ocean on one side, the Santa Ana Mountains on the other. We turned off the 101 and made our way around the airport to UC Santa Barbara’s main entrance. We parked near the University Center.
We first walked to San Nicholas Hall where I was going to have a dorm room, looked around, and then went down to the beach near Campus Point.
“How does anyone get any studying done here?” Davis asked after he took a picture of some surfers paddling for waves.
A group of co-eds in bikinis tanned themselves on the sand to the right of the rocks. Davis snapped their picture.
There was a noise behind us.
Bagram Air Base — August 2008
After Davis finally leaves, I look from the younger me to the younger and older Mary on my desk. I feel the familiar ache, the sense of loss. I understand why she filed for divorce. And I don’t hold it against her. Too many deployments. She begged me point-blank to leave the Army and I refused. She just couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t walk away — for her and the kids. And I couldn’t explain it to her. She’d had enough. Fair enough.
And even though rationally it’s only a memory of what will never be again, I know the real reason why I keep the family portrait. When I look at the four of us smiling into the camera it allows me to pretend, even if just for a moment, I am complete and whole. It’s my mirror box.