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Often when my internal alarm shirks its regimented duty, I find myself in an unending line of wheels scooting eastward toward the fort, each a link in an agitated column of ants hell-bent for battle with the oncoming sun. But with the military gates in sight, my car swerves to the right into Mickey’s spacious lot now filling with transports loyal to the bold symbol flanking the macadam surface by the boulevard entrance.

The first order of the day is to retrieve coins from slots in the dash, a gremlin game that forces me in an abrupt about face toward my car more times than not. Four bits in the box and out pops the morning news, what Victor smugly calls our local fish wrapper.

A sweet aroma invades my senses as I shuffle toward the counter and secure a position behind a pulse of humanity awaiting service. The headlines confirm that no terrorists have reached our shores overnight and Congress is again deadlocked over some superfluous agenda of the day. A den of thieves, Victor describes this august assemblage.

The counter girl smiles and rings up my order in a routine so dated the staff no longer asks, they know. And unless a new recruit mans the register or the brass at Mickey’s launches a renewed attack on my pockets, nothing changes. But who’s to know? They never canvas this populous to see who’s been reduced to fixed income. Nor do they much care, I suppose. It’s just the way it is.

Scanning the perimeter, I take note of sleepy suburbanites on return treks from the beaches to the south and a cluster of DI’s in a booth near our customary nook by the window. Few choose our corner because of the new sun’s light, a strategic position that delights old eyes that vet the news of the day and incoming traffic.

Across the room a fractious child refuses dictates from a patient mother who quickly shifts tactics to accomplish her immediate objective. Ignoring reddened cheeks and flailing arms, she lures her quarry with spoon-filled air circles until a small mouth opens in wonder. How long before this one grasps the reality of fading audiences to his ardent desires, his self-styled importance receding at every turn? No matter. Soon his appearance here will be history and new blood from the streets will stream in to take his place.

Through the window I see Joe making his approach up the walkway, the stubs of his thighs and hands tightly wrapped in inner-tube rubber. Like a rocking horse in motion, his torso and head arc forward in a fall as his arms push off pivots to the rear and swing around to secure new ground and raise his truncated body to repeat this unique pattern of locomotion.

In our first encounter, I rushed to the door for him only to have my presence ignored. From counter staff frowns and Victor’s briefing, I’ve become sensitive to the importance of Joe’s self pride. 

From my corner I watch his head press against the glass door and one thigh wedge in against the jamb just enough for him to slip through. Catching my eye, he nods in an unspoken bond now forged by time and understanding. The crowd edges apart as he proceeds to the counter where a server awaits his arrival with a sack. Joe leans against the counter and a hand dislodges paper currency from his shirt pocket and makes an exchange for a bag that is quickly secured between his teeth. The staff knows how much will be proffered for the meal, thus proper change has been placed in the sack along with a sandwich. Joe never tarries here. And I’ve no idea where he goes when he vanishes through the broom sage that flanks the back of the lot, taking with him nightmares that lie deep within those sunken eyes, a past created by dispassionate forces now planning new forays to God knows where, Joe’s existence long since forgotten.

Following my exercise of scanning for news of the war and our faltering economy, I glance at the metro section, then forge on to the crossword, the one stable value in this routine. But then, the sports section has been set aside for my friend whose face remains unaccounted for here.

To my right the drill instructors are abuzz over a new general who assumes command today. In wonder I gaze at them, mere schoolboys to me, and then I remember. One raises his eyes and catches me averting mine, but his steel blue gaze fixed in my mind. If I could, I’d question him about the eager countenances he trains each day. Can he see trust? Resignation? Does he guess who’ll return and who’ll not? Perhaps such questions are counterproductive to the cause or maybe he’s inured to this data. Their banter drops to whispers, no doubt now alert to eager ears close at hand.

Above a scrim of foliage the sun slips behind feathered clouds and winks like a guttered candle in the wind. And I muse over how many more of these sights I might observe. Not so many I’ve learned from tables of those who follow such things. Once these thoughts could stir trepidation in this soul, but no longer. Intrigued with this phantom force anxious to catch me unaware and dismiss my presence without notice, I remain on watch with odd fascination.

A fellow at the VA where I make calls tells me it’ll be like walking through a mirror. “We’ll see,” I say and smile and ask if he’d like a magazine. And are there needs I can retrieve for him today from the sundries shop on the floor below. His eyes sparkle as he looks up and shakes his head so I move on to the next one and repeat this litany I’ve been trained to ask each soul. When they pass, the bed is stripped to a deep blue sheath that covers the mattress. This one I knew well enough, and can recall the voice, a mannerism or two, and a bit of personal history, but I’ve been instructed not to get too close, vital to the good of the order, they say. But soon a new face will stare up from here, another unable to pass muster and no longer counted in this game so ingrained in each.

At Mickey’s where the family with the tot was seated, two young lovers have settled in, eyes locked in bliss. Anyone vigilant could deduce from the uniform that one will soon ship out, confident and expectant. And I could tell them it’s potluck, catch-as-catch-can, words they’d not wish to hear and perhaps that’s best, the two of them entranced in a hormonal dance that will soon enough fade. Yet they’d never admit an unexpected order may cheat them first. No one can tell, no one to ask. It’s this moment that counts, I muse and sip my java and fold the paper.

The crossword is done and still no Victor. Perhaps he overslept. Yep, that must be the case. He tells me he’s from a peninsula of Michigan or some such place, moved down here for his health, but from his assessment of each new face at the door, I’ve a feeling some day he just may cut and run. Not mentioned in the morning obits, I see. No doubt tomorrow we’ll share our rehearsed solutions to the unsolvable ills of the world.

A burst of chill slaps my cheeks as I start my exit and spot a van wheel tight into the lot like a shot from a rifle, tried and true. Four doors fly open and expel fatigues like an olive discharge into black water. Jostling and rapping, each falls into a measured cadence, boots in step, each mind and heart hardened to echoed commands, each led by unseen powers to destinations not yet known.

The memory of that morning often replays, details still focused and unaltered. My friend was already gone, but who could have guessed? Now I gaze up to white-on-white, a smile arrived to introduce the new volunteer on the floor. “A newspaper? Magazine?” Of course, I nod, and watch them, backlit by the filtered light, disappear down the long, quiet hallway nearby.