Two stuffed animals confront me when I walk into the grubby lobby of the Penske truck rental shop. One is a teddy bear, dressed in camouflage and clutching a tiny foam weapon. The second is a rat-type animal wearing a ninja costume and holding a club with a jagged ball hanging from its end. The animals stand at perfect attention and stare upward, challenging me to question the reading material displayed on the glass-covered counter. Through thumbprints and coffee rings I read the words REPORTERS DON'T PROTECT THE CONSTITUTION, SOLDIERS DO! JUDGES DON'T UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION, SOLDIERS DO!
That's funny, I could have sworn that Woodward and Bernstein were reporters.
I shift my gaze down the counter, landing on a huge photo of two young men with enormous upper arms and rippled stomachs. Their olive t-shirts stretch and strain across their barrel chests like a botched skin graft. Both men look at me harshly, as if to warn of the dire consequences that will result if I screw with the stuffed animals. I glance through the rest of the aggressive literature, which is typed out in a serious, hard to read font, and quickly lose interest.
Joyce, the office manager, enters the dim room from a door in the back. A couple, leaning against the wall in the chair-free lobby, slinks up to the counter. Joyce, looking haggard, sighs and moans to no one in particular. She looks over the counter at the couple and says, "The printer is misbehaving again...as usual." She exhales once more and says, "Nothing new there."
I picture the brakes going out on the truck I just returned.
A heavy gloom settles over the room. The female customer leans forward and proffers her name while her partner leans forward to read the writing under the glass. I look through the bent blinds and see Joyce's assistant squeezing his body between two trucks. Twenty or so trucks are jammed into the small lot at various angles, almost bursting onto the streets bordering this former 1950's gas station. My truck has been squeezed into the back of the pack and is blocking the door to the Vietnamese auto mechanic who somehow manages to share the property with Penske.
Joyce's voice returns my attention to the room. She's listing off all the members of her family who have served. I've heard a variation of this unsolicited speech each time I've been here. There's the major/uncle in Afghanistan, the husband (retired), the son in Colorado, the captain/grandson currently in Iraq, and two or three killed somewhere overseas.
The male customer leans up from the glass and says, "You know, I don't like the way some of these companies are supporting the troops over there."
I cringe. This is no place to provide input, even in support of the effort, because the customer is always wrong here. I lean against the counter and wait for the fireworks to start.
Joyce looks up from a form and stares at the guy. Her face quickly deflates into deep wrinkles, like a soccer ball losing half its air. She keeps staring silently as the guy takes a small step back from the counter, a sheepish look spreading across his face.
"Let me tell you something," Joyce says, blinking slowly over eyes with bags that seem to reach her nose, "If you haven't been there, you're not allowed to say anything."
I couldn't disagree more, but I'm not about to speak. If someone filmed this and put it on cable, they could call it The Peoples Court-martial. I just want to sign my release form and leave.
The guy, utterly baffled, stammers out something about the companies being at fault, not the troops, but Joyce isn't listening. She's too busy telling us that we can't believe anything we see or read because, according to her grandson, the reporters "are all commies who wouldn't last a day in the desert."
Joyce is still verbally pounding the customer when I step in to his defense. I clear my throat and say, "I know what you mean, ripping off the government, like those KBR showers that are electrocuting the troops."
A second after speaking, I realize that this probably is not the best example, given the enlistment of Joyce's grandson. But it does stop the emerging firefight. Perhaps now we can all get back to the only reason we're all here, which is the renting and returning of trucks.
The guy looks over at me with relief. Everyone in the tiny room pauses for a moment and our common space fills with a glorious silence. Mission accomplished.
Joyce is just returning to her actual job of filling out paperwork when the woman relates that her son is heading to Iraq next month. Joyce looks up from her form as the woman sniffles and starts to tear up. She leans against the counter and Joyce places a hand over her arm. Joyce offers gentle words of condolences and quiet advice.
I avert my eyes and pretend to be captivated by a safety manual on the counter, trying to provide these women with some semblance of privacy. The claustrophobic room with its single dirty fan is starting to feel like a coffin. A wave of guilt rushes through me for inadvertently contributing to this innocent woman's emotional reaction.
But this, it suddenly occurs to me, is the real face of war. It's not the college football star who heroically foregoes a multimillion dollar contract to proudly serve his country and it's not the valiant leader landing on a battleship to a raucous ovation. That stuff is just team-building mixed in with entertainment. No, the real face of war is two complete strangers feeling immense pain in a grimy, third-rate truck rental office. It's women who don't want to lose a son or grandson to a stranger whose mother or grandmother wants exactly the same thing. And beside them is the rest of us, standing around and feeling helpless.
The teary woman and her partner stagger past me. Heading through the door the man rubs his partner's shoulder and offers to drive the truck. I doubt they'll be joining the Frequent Customer Awards Program any time soon.
I close my account as quickly as possible and fast-walk out of the office. Passing by a dented minivan with a yellow ribbon stuck to the bumper, I think about war and the sad, humorless world it creates. It's a poison that leeches into the bodies and minds of every once-happy living thing it touches. I hurry towards my car and the Jimmy Buffet disk in the stereo, ready to return my mind to a world of beaches, sunsets, gentle breezes, and laughter. A place where people can be light and happy, which is the way they were born and the way they were always meant to be.
Thomas Sullivan's writing has appeared in Word Riot and 3AM Magazine, among others. He is the author of Life In The Slow Lane, a memoir about teaching driver education. For information on this title, please visit his author website at ThomasSullivanHumor.com.