jueves, 12 de noviembre de 2015

The Silent Sands: Chapter 2

Side B


Paul opened the dark pine door with some effort. The bar used to have a much lighter door, made of polished aluminum and glass, but after the third time it got broken in a brawl, Josie had replaced it with the the heavy wooden door.

Flanking it at both sides, there were two large windows that faced the parking lot. The windows had been covered with a plastic film to prevent them from being smashed. As a result, they were covered in many cracks, large and small, like sharp spider webs hanging in the air.

Josie's wasn't the kind of place that would be described as "popular". It was close to the edge of town, just a few blocks from the exit to the insterstate highway.

Most young people preferred to take the one hour drive to San Diego every weekend, which was fine for the regulars at Josie's. They didn't discourage new people from coming in, unlike a couple of the roughest, nearby bars, but it also didn't need them.

Its clientele was mainly people who were thirty years and older, who had no other place to go to enjoy a cold beer, greasy fries and wanted to feel as comfortable as in their own living room.

Built with pine wood that had turned black by decades of grime and cigarrette smoke, it was more like a large cabin with a bar at the back, with all kinds of bottles adorning the back wall. A big mirror was hung right in the middle, with some old photos along the edges.

Paul had visited it a couple of times when he was younger, a couple of years before his father's death. Despite having that tube in his throat, Les still had wanted to smoke like a chimney, drink a whole pitcher of beer and shove all the onion rings he could in his mouth.

-I don't want to die wanting just one more of these - he'd said, pointing with a gaunt finger at the fried onion rings.

By then, Paul knew better than to try to change how his father acted. His mother had tried for almost twenty two years, and it had taken a heart attack while driving back home to stop her.

-¡Paul, over here! -called a familiar voice, deep and gruff.

Paul walked slowly to where he was called. At that time there weren't many people inside the bar, just a couple of old men sitting apart in the round wooden tables in the big area in the middle. One of them had a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in front of him, along with an ashtray full of cigarrette butts.

The boys were sitting around a table, close to the right wall, and under a bunch of vintage posters of music shows: Rock and Roll mostly, but some Jazz ones, and even a couple advertising Frank Sinatra's shows in Las Vegas.

-What took you so long? Dan and Pete were about to leave -said Rich. The large man then poured the last beer in the pitcher. -¡Blonde Josie, bring us another, please!

Paul took a seat next to Rich. He was almost as wide as he was tall, just a bit taller than Paul, who was almost six feet himself. His unkempt beard was barely enough to cover his many chins, the same tone of brown as the hair that was covered by an old red and white trucker hat.

He was wearing faded blue jeans with a dark green t-shirt. The back had the words "Rich's Landscaping service" in large yellow silk-screened letters.

Blonde Josie brought a new pitcher full of dark beer to the table. Just as she replaced the empty one on the table, Nick got out of the bathroom, rubbing his hands along his pant's legs to dry them.

Nick sat down next to Dan and Pete. The two brothers looked like carbon copies of each other, two men with wispy black hair with lots of white on the side, thin as Rich was fat. Pete was four years older, and Dan had a mustache he tried to keep well groomed, but failing at that task.

The two were dressed in dark blue over-alls, with many colored paint stains all over them. Pete had unzipped his a bit, showing the Pink Floyd t-shirt that was below,a nd was taking a red box of Marlboro from the front pocket.

-Good to see you, Paul -greeted Nick, while pouring some beer in his glass. -We were getting tired of hearing Dan complain about his daughter's new boyfriend.

-That girl, I don't know what she's thinking -repeated Dan, while his brother lighted a new cigarrette. -You try to educate your children well, make sure they know what's right and what's...

-Yeah, yeah, you already complained for half an hour, Dan. She's only doing it because she knows you don't like it -interrupted Rich, hitting the table with an open palm.

-Now that Paul's here we can plan the trip. And let's do it quick, I want to go home and catch the baseball game while I can -said Pete.

-Actually... -started Paul, but he got cut before he could continue.

-Paul is not going -intervened Nick, putting down his glass, and grabbing some fried onion rings from the bowl in the middle of the table. He seemed like he had drank a bit more beer than the others, judging by the redness of his face.

-Is that true? I thought Nick was tryin to pull my leg -said Rich, turning his big round face towards Paul.

Paul could feel how his friend's eyes were looking straight at him, almost with almost the same intensity of a concentrated laser.

-Yeah, I'm not going - he announced, feeling a bit bad as the words left his mouth. -Sorry, guys.

The table came alive with expressions of incredulity. Paul just served himself a glass of beer, and waited until they all calmed down, and drank some of their beer.

-It's not going to be the same without you, you know? - asked Pete, flicking the ash of his cigarrette into the glass ashtray.

-C'mon Paul, why are you leaving us hanging dry? -insisted Dan, leaning a bit over the table.

-I just don't see the point of going all the way over there, that's all -answered Paul, but almost regretting being too frank.

-He doesn't see the point -repeated Nick, in a mocking manner.

Rich saw that the pitcher was almost empty, and motioned towards Brunette Josie to bring them a new one.

It was a tradition to call any waitress that worked at the bar by the name of Josie, even if that wasn't their name. Sometimes there were some trouble, when the patrons couldn't think of any good descriptor to add to the name, like the time there were two blonde Josies, until someone noticed one had blue eyes and the other had greenish eyes.

Much better than the time someone tried to call them Old and Young Josie, thought Rich.

-Well, it's a free country. For a little while longer, at least -said Dan.

-Settle down, guys -Rich ordered, with a serious tone in his voice. -We all know that Paul already did more than most. If he wants to sit this one out then he's earned it.

Dan and Pete lowered their heads, suddenly very interested in their own beers. Nick just laid back on his chair, crossing his arms.

Paul took another sip of beer. He hated when people made a big deal of what had happened to him. And he hated it even more when people didn't even bother to acknowledge it.

The sun was high in the sky, it's light scorching the arid ground below.

A large convoy of trucks, thirty of many sizes, tried to follow a road that only existed in the markings of their GPS screens.

The truck jumped all over the uneven road, even more since Paul was keeping the speed as fast as he could, trying to not fall behind and delay the other vehicles.

Even though he had been in Iraq for three months already, he still couldn't remember well the names of every province he had drove through while in a convoy. And outside the military bases, it looked all the same to him: the same box-like houses, the same narrow streets, the same people who yelled at him for not speeding down when they were in the middle of the roads.

-Too bad we can't put some nice rock'n roll to pass the time -said Donald, while eyes darted all over the horizon.

-Did they even had Rock stations here? Before it was all bombed to hell, I mean -asked Paul, with genuine curiosity.

-I doubt it, man. Saddam hated America, and there's nothing more american than some good, hard Rock'n Roll- mentioned Donald, trying not to get distracted.

-Maybe when they find those WMDs it'll turn out they're a large cache of western songs -joked Paul, trying to not feel so anxious.

Donald laughed a little, while he again confirmed that they were following the correct route on the GPS screen.

These convoy runs were always tense. Not single day passed without the drivers hearing about some attack with rocket launchers, a suspicious object in the middle of the road or a guy throwing a grenade at the trucks.

And the best the bosses had come up with was to tell them to keep the pedal to the metal, and to not stop under any circumstance, no matter what. Not even if one of the trucks suddenly became a bunch of fire and twisted metal, lying on its side.

Paul looked at the route just in front of him, trying to scrutinize even the smallest rock he could see through his sunglasses, holding his breath every time the truck jumped a bit too high.

-Man, this isn't nearly as fun as what my uncle told me it was for him, the first time around -Donald complained, while wiping the big drops of sweat from his dark skin.

-What, to him it was like summer camp? Did they find the one place with a nice lake where everyone could just chill all day? -said the driver.

He and Donald had become good friends very quickly. Even though Paul was from California, and Donald from East San Louis, they shared the same love for baseball, Vin Diesel movies and yes, Rock and Roll.

It was good to have someone he liked being around during those long drives inside the Iraqi cities and the countryside. Even at top speed, every run took about one to two and a half hours to complete, not even counting the return trip.

-Well, they did have to spend many weeks sleeping in their tents under this sun, while not going anywhere - started Donald, smiling a bit. -But my uncle, Rob, told me about the ice-cream truck.

It took all of Paul's willpower not to turn his head, even for an instant, and look at his pal to make sure the heat inside the cabin hadn't fried his brain. Even with the air conditioner at full blast, it was quite balmy inside the truck.

-An ice-cream truck. In the middle of the desert, far away from any city, is that right? -he stated, trying to make sure it sounded as non-sensical as he thought.

-You don't believe me? -said his friend, in a sardonic tone, trying to sound like he was a little hurt.

-No, I'm sure there's plenty of ice-cream trucks all over the place. I just not pure of heart enough to see them, is it something like that? -Paul expressed, hoping that the punchline to that joke would be a good one. -Are they driven by Playboy models, too?

-Nah, it was just some crazy-ass dude who thought all those soldiers in the middle of the desert would like some ice cream, or burguers and fries, or a nice cold soda - Donald remembered.

-Wish I could be driving that truck instead of this one -Paul said. -Bet he made a fortune that way.

Donald was about to say something, but the words didn't even get out of his mouth.

All that Paul could remember later, was that he felt like the truck had crashed against a concrete wall, and then the inside of the cabin was full of smoke and fire.

The bomb had exploded just below the engine, next to the right wheel, and it had been strong enough to crumple the steel like paper. The truck just behind him called for help through the radio, but couldn't stop to see if they were still alive. It could've been the set-up for an ambush, so the best they could do was go on and pray they wouldn't be the next to explode.

Paul had woken up a week later in the hospital back at the camp. He had so many painkillers inside, that he could barely notice that part of his left leg was gone. Or the five cracked ribs, three broken vertebrae, a couple more fractures in his hip bone, a broken hand and ruptured ear-drums.

But he had been lucky. At least he was still in one piece, unlike Donald. From what the other drivers told him, the soldiers only managed to find enough of him to account for half of his weight.

It was almost midnight before Paul returned home. The small apartment was on the other side of town, near a small undeveloped lot encircled by a concrete sidewalk. Most of the other residents had already gone to sleep, or were outside working the graveyard shift.

Paul turned on the lights, and then slumped in the couch. It was the only piece of furniture he had kept after selling his father's house. His family had kept that orange couch since he was two, and it had so many memories attached to it that he couldn't just part with it.

His father had taught him so many life lessons when they were sitting on it. They had sit there for hours, not saying anything, the day that they had returned from his mother's funeral. He did it again when he returned from his dad's funeral.

Les had always tried to teach his son about right and wrong. That for a man of true character it wasn't difficult to know which one was what.

They both had been furious at how the insurance company had tried to weasel away from doing right by his son, trying to shield behind more rules and regulations that contradicted the ones that mattered.

It was around that time that Paul had met Rich and the others. In the middle of all those troubles, they had been the only ones who had helped him.

At first, he didn't align too much with their beliefs, but little by little he had come to see that at their core, they were just trying to keep the world from blurring the line between what was right and wrong.

-Now, hear me well. Always remember to do right to everyone, even more to your friends -Les had said to him during his childhood.

It had been one of his favorite bits of wisdom, and was fond of saying it out of the blue, no matter what he and his son were doing.

Inside Paul there was a growing discomfort, that had been bothering since leaving the guys at Josie´s a bit earlier. They hadn't said anything else to him, but he knew that his negative to go with them was disappointing.

The guys had been so excited about the trip. To them, it was a chance to something good, something that made a difference. Paul could see it in their faces, a plain and honest feeling.

Paul went to his bedroom, and started to undress. He then sat on the bed, took off the prosthetic leg and put it right next to the bed. As he slowly slipped into sleep, he kept thinking about his friends.

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