Marty sat at the bar in the back of the restaurant. The ring of colored lights around the top of the overhang that held the glasses was still there. At first glance, the yellows, reds, and greens seemed like leftover Christmas lights, but an up close inspection showed that they were lighted glass peppers strung together, like vegetables you might see hanging in an outdoor market.
Inspection had been a key concept when he was last here at Twenty-nine Palms. That was four years ago, boot camp with five hundred other grunts, finding out that a city life of going to the gym between late night bar treks did not prepare the body for survival in hostile environments. ‘Inspection’ then meant ‘perfect’, Marine perfect.
He was at the bar early, out of uniform, fidgeting with the ‘special drink’ of the night; Bailey’s Cream, Frangelico, Butterscotch Schnapps, and coffee. It sounded inviting but he winched at each saccharine sip. The room was full, the restaurant at the Inn being a well known local hang with good food, live music, and desert cordiality. Both the men and the woman sitting at the bar said hello with a smile and then left it up to him. In the corner behind him was a pony tailed, sun-crease faced, guitar player who strummed a Simon and Garfunkel tune that Marty had a deep fondness for:
“Old friends sat on the park bench like book ends, lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset.…Can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly, how terribly strange to be seventy….I have a photograph, preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”
Marty closed his eyes and remembered the night that music became part of him:
The Sunday card game had started early. Different players, all Marine grunts, dropped in and out, a core group remaining, determined to think of nothing other than each hand. Seven hours and going strong. Beer and vodka mixed with tacos and hot dogs delivered every couple hours from Nates. No one changed the Simon and Garfunkel disc that had been playing over and over, since the game started, and which would continue all night long.
“tangled in the fallen vines, picking up the punch lines. I’ve just been fakin’ it. Not really makin’ it…”
They sang along between deals, songs that the young men had never heard before became a part of their life.
“God bless you please Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray. Hey hey hey. We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files. We’d like to help you learn to help yourself…”
Sonny St Louis walked in with two girls. The grunts’ eyes followed them. The girls giggled at the piles of half eaten food, cigarette butts, empty cans and crushed paper cups. They pursed their lips and raised their eyebrows to each other, as their every move was noted by the Marines. They were young women, a year out of high school, wide eyed at the adventure they were on.
“…The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb. Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages…”
Marty held his breath and missed his turn to bet. The players coughed and muttered ‘uh-ohs’. He folded. It would be his last hand, three of a kind, folding a winner. He got up and sauntered over close to the girls, his eyes scraping along the service table as he went.
“Can I get you a drink, or something?” he asked them both.
The tall red head declined but Sally said, “Sure, I’ll have a beer.”
“…And look around you. Leaves are brown now. And the sky, is a hazy shade of winter. Hang on to your hopes my friend…”
For the next 3 months they were together every moment that he was not Marine. Just off the base, fifteen miles into Joshua Tree National Park, Sally fit lickety-tight right under his arm as they huddled under the stars at the ‘Jumbo Rocks’ near ‘Sheep’s Pass’. The park had become their refuge, away from the reality of where he would be going and he what would be doing. They would hike miles off the road to an impassable group of humongous boulders sitting in the middle of the Mojave Desert, surrounded by miles of Joshua Trees, cactus, Juniper and scrub. Marty would reconnoiter and somehow find a way up a rock formation, through a chute or over a split, till he reached the top. He’d wave to Sally and she’d wave back. Later she told him how frightened she was when he would disappear for hours at a time behind the massive boulders, really scared until she saw his head pop up on top of the highest dome.
It was on the desert floor, in the mile square patch of cholla cactus, that Marty thought thoughts and said things that were brand-spanking new to him. Coming from a higher elevation down a foothill, the land looked like a sea of spun gold, almost warm and cuddly, as if you could hug it. But the soft silky bed of cactus was supported by green and brown cylindrical arms covered with thousands of three-inch-long needles. In the middle of this off-putting danger, the spiny plants, the slithery creatures, and the relentless sun, Marty felt safe. They were stretched out on an Inn towel, Sally’s thick blonde hair glowing in the high desert light like the golden spikes of the sentry-like plants.
“I love you, Sally. I can’t think of anything else other than being with you.”
“Yes Marty, I love you too.”
“Are you good?”
He snapped back
“Are you OK, do you want another?” the bartender asked.
“No, I’m fine.” Marty nodded.
“……………but there’s no laughs left cause we laughed them all. And we laughed them all in a very short time…”
He glanced toward the door where Sally was just walking in. The letters and photos they had exchanged couldn’t describe the transformation. Her hair, still bright yellow, was much longer. She walked with a soft power, nodding to a friend as she passed their table, heading directly toward him. Was she taller? Her blue eyes were deeper, as if they held a confidence. She held her breath the last few steps and leapt into his arms, her mouth clenched tight, wanting to scream.
Marty thought about the literature he had received from the Icelandic company:
“The Mauch hydraulic cylinder technology simulates the natural movement of the knee joint…”
Marty slid off the stool…
“Pressurized hydraulic fluid acts on a piston inside the cylinder to deliver controlled linear motion throughout the different phases of walking…”
Sally’s arms wrapped around his neck and he felt top heavy, almost losing his balance…
“State of the art components contribute to fluid motion and durability, while tiny extension stoppers prevent it from extending too far when stepping forward…”
They held on tight to each other until their heavy breathing synchronized, and they loosened their grips to look into each others eyes.
“…and everyone agreed, t’would be a miracle indeed if the boy survived…Save the life of my child, cried the desperate mother…”
“As soon as weight is put on the leg, consistent and secure support is provided…”