Gloria’s Play

After twenty-three years of delivering mail to the far reaches of the Mercy zip code, Carlos Garcia now works in the Mercy post office where his fluency in Spanish and formidable strength are greatly appreciated. 

Despite the cold and rain, business is brisk at the post office this morning with just five weeks to go before Christmas. Carlos, his wavy black hair turning gray, and his longtime colleague Robin Songbird, a Mae-Westian blonde, are manning the service counter when gravelly-voiced Jacob Colfax leans into the room and says, “Galen is doing his karate thing out front again and scaring everybody away.”

“I’ll call Ruben,” says Robin, handing Lisa Hernandez a receipt and going to call the sheriff.

“Now I’m afraid to leave,” says Lisa, looking at Carlos. “Can’t they lock him up? This is getting out of hand.”

“I’ll walk you out,” says Carlos, who has a black belt in karate.

“Can we go out the back way?” asks Lisa, plaintively. “He scares me to death.”

So Carlos escorts Lisa through the labyrinth of mail carts and packages to the loading dock and makes sure she doesn’t fall on the wet stairs.

When Lisa is safe in her car, Carlos walks around to the front of the post office where big Galen Turner is standing in front of the two glass entry doors kicking and punching and shouting at invisible foes.

Shirtless and barefoot with long brown hair and a wild beard, Galen was born in Mercy twenty-nine years ago, starred in football at Mercy High, and went to San Jose State on a football scholarship. When he failed to make the starting team after three years of trying, he quit college and joined the Army.

“Galen my friend,” says Carlos, calling to him. “You’re scaring everybody. Christmas is coming. People need to get their mail and send packages.”

Galen seems not to hear Carlos and continues to kick and punch at the air and shout unintelligibly.

“Galen,” says Carlos, moving closer and speaking louder. “Come on now, my friend. Let the people get their mail and send their packages. They won’t hurt you. Nobody will hurt you. You’re home now. You’re safe here.”

Galen stops kicking and punching, and looks around as if waking from a dream.

“You’re in Mercy,” says Carlos, speaking gently. “You’re safe now. And guess what? Ophelia made tamales for my lunch today and one of them has your name on it. What do you say?”

“I like tamales,” says Galen, speaking in a deep monotone.

“I know you do,” says Carlos, holding out his hand. “Come around back with me and we’ll get out of the rain and you can have a tamale.”

“With salsa?” asks Galen, taking Carlos’s hand.

“Sí,” says Carlos, feeling Galen trembling. “Con salsa.”


Two hours later, Carlos has lunch with Ruben Higuera, the Sheriff of Mercy, in Ruben’s squad car in the post office parking lot, the two of them longtime friends and weight-lifting buddies.

“He needs society,” says Carlos, speaking of Galen. “He’s all alone with his thoughts, living in the forest, and his memories take over and he’s back in Somalia fighting for his life. But when I talk to him and he calms down and realizes he’s here and not there, he’s just sad and lonely and needs some friends.”

“We don’t have a society for him,” says Ruben, stating the simple truth. “We put him on meds that make him a zombie and he doesn’t want to be a zombie so he stops taking them and next thing you know he’s defending the post office and nobody can get their mail.”

“I used to deliver mail to his mother up Silver Creek Road,” says Carlos, looking out at the rain. “She has a room for him, but he won’t stay there. She’s on disability now and smokes and watches television all day. I wouldn’t stay there either.”

“Well we have to do something,” says Ruben, sighing. “If he won’t take his meds and he keeps acting out like this they’ll send him to the VA hospital in Oregon. They have a big psych ward up there. I don’t know what else we can do. I can’t keep arresting him. They don’t want him in the county jail anymore.”

“I was thinking I could bring him to lift weights with us some time,” says Carlos, smiling at Ruben. “Might be good for him.”

“To the high school weight room?” says Ruben, frowning and shaking his head. “No. We can’t do that.”

“What if I made a weight room in my garage?” says Carlos, who has a few barbells out there already. “And we did our lifting there? Would you come if I set it up?”

“Yes, I’ll come,” says Ruben, who survived seventeen months of combat in Afghanistan long ago.


In the afternoon when the rain stops and customers are few, Carlos is alone at the service counter when Gloria Martinez, still strikingly beautiful at fifty, comes in with a basket full of packages.

“Hola Carlos,” she says, her voice deep and warm. “Que paso?”

“Nada mucho,” says Carlos, who has known Gloria since they were in First Grade together, and in every grade after that, too, until she went to college and he joined the Army. “Those look like manuscripts. Sí?”

“My plays,” she says, nodding. “Hope springs eternal. I want to send these Priority Mail.”

“Something new?” he asks, giving her a hopeful look.

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I haven’t written a new play in four years, but these will be new to the people I’m sending to.”

“We loved your last play at Mercy Players,” he says, putting one of her packages on the scale. “We laughed so hard we couldn’t hear all the lines and had to go again, and it was even funnier the second time.”

“Ophelia told me,” she says, tickled by his praise. “I’m glad you liked it.”

Liked it?” he says, grinning. “That play should be on Broadway and then they should make it into a movie.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” she says, blushing.

“Hey you know, Gloria,” says Carlos, printing out a postage label and affixing it to the package, “it just occurred to me that maybe you could help me with something.”

“Wait a minute,” she says, laughing. “I ask you to help me. To move my piano and my sofa and my refrigerator. Not the other way around.”

“You won’t have to lift anything heavy,” he says, laughing with her. “I want to turn my garage into a little weight-lifting gym, but also like the set for a café, like in a play, with a few tables and people having coffee, and maybe there’s a waiter bringing them things. Everybody talking to each other. Like in a real café.”

“What is this for?” she asks, eager to know.

“For Galen,” he says quietly. “I think if he could be in society and feel safe with other people around while he’s lifting weights with Ruben and me, maybe he will get better.”


That night Carlos asks his wife Ophelia how she would feel if he turned the garage into a weight-lifting café to help Galen.

Ophelia muses for a moment and asks, “Would we also put a bed out there for him to spend the night after weight-lifting?”

“We could,” says Carlos, who likes that idea better than Galen sleeping in the forest on cold winter nights.

“You’ve been wanting to help him ever since he came home,” says Ophelia, who has unbounded faith in her husband. “Why not give it a try?”


A week later, Carlos brings Galen into the two-car garage where he and Ruben and Gloria and her set-designer friend Arno Peabody have turned the place into a weight-lifting café.

For this first session, Ophelia and Gloria sit at one of the three tables having decaf coffee and sesame cookies while Ruben and Carlos and Galen lift weights. Gloria is wearing the outfit she wears at her job as a waiter at the restaurant in the East Cove Hotel – black pants and white dress shirt – and Ophelia is wearing jeans and a beautiful burgundy sweater.

When the men take a break from lifting, Ruben and Carlos sit at a different table than Gloria and Ophelia, and Gloria comes to take their order – coffee and cookies.

“Come join us,” says Carlos, beckoning to Galen.

But Galen shakes his head and stays in the weight-lifting area waiting for them to return.


Two nights later, Carlos brings Galen to the weight-lifting café for Session #2, and again he refuses to join Ruben and Carlos at a table when they take a break.

But four nights after that, when they gather for Session #3, Galen does join them at a table, he eats several cookies, and whispers to Gloria, “Could I have more coffee, please?”


During Session #4, which takes place two nights after Session #3, Ophelia joins Ruben and Carlos and Galen at their table and tells them about what she did today at Mercy Hospital where she is a nurse.

“Care for a refill, Galen?” asks Gloria, bringing a pitcher of coffee to the table.

“Oh yes, please,” he says, shyly. “I love coffee.”


That night, after the weight lifting and socializing, Galen spends the night in the garage for the first time rather than go back to his camp in the forest.

In the morning, Carlos comes to the garage and invites Galen to take a shower in the house.

“I don’t want to scare your wife,” says Galen, shaking his head.

“She’s at work,” says Carlos, matter-of-factly. “She’s on a twelve-hour shift at the hospital. Remember she told you she’s a nurse?”

“I remember,” says Galen, nodding. “I could take a shower.”

“Then we’ll have breakfast,” says Carlos, leading him to the house. “And then I gotta go to work.”

“I would like to go to work,” says Galen, bowing his head. “If I had a job.”


A few sessions later, three of Gloria’s actor friends join the enactment of café life going on around the trio of weight lifters.

During a break from lifting, Ruben tells a story about going to a café in Kabul when he was deployed there, and how they served him coffee so strong he was jittery for two days.

 When Ruben finishes telling the story, Galen says, “I was in Somalia.”

“I didn’t know we had troops there,” says Gloria, standing next to Galen. “More coffee, hon?”

Galen nods and says nothing more.


In early February, during Session #17 of the weight-lifting café, with only Carlos and Ruben and Gloria on hand, Galen tells them about the horrifying ambush in Somalia that killed two men in his platoon and wounded seven others, including Galen, and how when he regained consciousness in the hospital after surgery and tried to convince the nurses that the insurgents were besieging the hospital, the nurses wouldn’t believe him because the hospital was in Qatar, far from Somalia.

When Galen finishes telling about the ambush, Ruben says, “Tell us again. Everything you can remember.”

“Yes,” says Carlo, nodding. “Please tell us again.”

So Galen tells the story again and remembers many things he had forgotten.


During Session #18, with Ophelia joining Gloria and the weight lifters, Galen tells the story of the ambush two more times, and with each telling he remembers more and more.


Eight months later on a sunny afternoon in September, Gloria stands at the service counter in the post office watching Carlos affix a shipping label to a package containing her new play.

“I love this play,” says Carlos, carrying the package to the Priority Mail cart.

“I do, too,” says Gloria, making a silent prayer to bless her play.

“I haven’t seen Galen in a couple weeks,” says Carlos, carefully placing the package in the cart. “Is he doing okay?”

“Oh he’s doing fine,” says Gloria, handing Carlos a second package. “Genevieve and her cooks love having such a strong man in the kitchen. And Genevieve loves how eager he is to learn. Have you seen him since he cut his hair and shaved off his beard?”

“No,” says Carlo, surprised. “How does he look?”

“Handsome,” says Gloria, smiling. “And so young.”


Through the Fire from Todd and Marcia’s album Through the Fire