The Early Lunch
by Craig Loomis
Tables 17 through 25, from here to the beach, are full of US Army. Some of them are neatly tattooed greenredblue with flying daggers, grinning skulls, an assortment of Chinese characters. All I know is one minute the restaurant was empty—cats slowly weaving their way around tables and chairs, pigeons flickering from here to there, sweepers pushing the sand back towards the beach where it belongs--the next moment soldiers are pulling back chairs, stretching their long legs, smoking in the non-smoking area. None of them have cellphones; it must be a US Army rule of sorts. So they have nothing to do but talk, move salt and pepper shakers from here to there, doodle on napkins. If my manager saw this doodling part, wasting good napkins, he would insist I speak to them, demanding they stop. Tell them to leave my napkins alone, for Godssake. Thankfully, Nizar, the manager, is late. I hurry to give them menus. When two young hijabed women stroll by, giggling, waving their arms because something is extra funny, the soldiers stop to watch them, something just short of a stare. Finally, an older, grey-streaked soldier says something abrupt and maybe-funny because everybody around him smiles and stops watching the girls. There is a piece of nervous laughter until somebody snorts, causing real laughter.
Table 19 suddenly becomes extra loud, with one of them throwing down his menu, knocking over a chair as he jumps up. Another soldier, on the other side of the table, grudgingly stands, but he looks tired and bored as if he’d rather be doing something else. The older soldier, who except for his white hair looks nothing like a leader, looks back over his shoulder at them, barking something I can’t understanding. The two continue to stand, the table separating them. The older soldier barks again, and this second bark makes a difference, and they stop staring at one another and re-sit. I hurry over to place the menu back on the table.
And now comes a line of men along the beach, bright white dishdashas, moving slowly, talking but refusing to look at one another, like dhows edging across the horizon. Again, the soldiers stop to watch, but even I can see it is the kind of watching that has nothing to do with girls. The older, graying soldier mumbles something that I can’t hear, yet there is a general nodding from tables 20 and 21.
When I bring them their food and drinks, they say the occasional Thanks. Only the graying soldier says, “Thank You.” The tabletops are too small for four big plates but they don’t care, food tettering, leaning off the table. Table 4 drops a fork and before I can bring him another, he has picked it up and is re-eating. When I say, “Please let me give you another,” he answers, “Why?” and waves me away.
Now that they are eating they are no longer watchful of who walks by. Nizar has arrived, and he is happy to see us busy. “I am happy to see us so busy so early.” His hand at my elbow. I only hope he does not see the doodled napkins. I hear the word Kentucky, and look to see what Kentucky looks like; a small eyebrowless man, whose uniform hangs clownlike, his boots too large unless he has strangely long toes. When he smiles, his mouth looks all wrong and black. He talks while the others eat.
When they finish their coffees, Nizar elbows me to give them refills, On the house, and when I hurry to offer them more, almost all say nothing, which I guess is a US Army yes. Their eating almost done, a murmuring fills the restaurant, and only now, safely behind the counter with coffee pot, do I wonder what they are all doing here, as a group, in uniform. These soldiers have camps in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, and they say that given what soldiers are all about this is not a bad idea. But I don’t know anything about it—not really. Just what I read and now today, these nine tables full of them. Of course they carry no weapons, have nothing like the real stuff of soldiers—just dusty uniforms and boots, and sunburned necks.
One of them, with something like a small brown cartoon moustache motions me over and asks, “Where are you from?”
I tell him and he smiles at this, and the other two at the table stop eating long enough to look up at me, nodding as if I have given a right answer. Since they wear the same desert graybrown uniforms, it is hard to tell who’s who: captain, private, sergeant. When I walk by the gray-haired soldier, I see nothing like stripes or stars, nothing that says he is in charge.
I walk behind the counter to think about this. There is something not completely right about all this quiet, nodding, shuffling of dusty boots, eating their food in large red chunks as if there is some secret importance in eating big and fast—the US Army way. Then again, there’s something else too, something bigger, but I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that I will feel safer once they are gone, all nine tables of them. Kentucky has taken out a pen and is writing on a fresh napkin. Nizar sees what I see and motions for me to tell him to stop. And for the first time all morning I am scared.