The entire premise of Sonora Symphony is the agony felt caused by the unseen scars of traumatic events. In this case, it is the loss of memory of a veteran of horrible events during combat in Afghanistan.
Ray Daniels awoke in a hospital with no idea of who he was, where he was from, and if there was anyone else in his life. All the prodding and pills from the doctors were unhelpful and he finally had enough. He went Absent Without Leave and we find him in the following situation – the opening passages of the novel:
The Tufesa motor coach speeds through the blackness of the desert night
An Anglo, wearing a soldier's jacket, sits in the right front seat, blankly staring ahead at the highway dominated by the broken white line. He seems hypnotized, gazing into some place nobody else sees.
The bus that moves Latinos across the southwest stops at Las Cruces. The Anglo rouses a bit when the driver gathers his things and removes a bag from the overhead compartment. Another driver steps in, greeting the man he's replacing with a happy, “Hola.” The new driver checks the passengers, eyes opening a bit when he sees the only Anglo among eighteen Mexicans.
“Got on in Colorado Springs,” the first driver tells his relief, referring to the Anglo.
“Got off with the rest in Albuquerque but did not have anything other than a glass of water.”
The new driver stares at the Anglo's military jacket and shrugs. “Seems harmless to me.” He slides into the seat and closes the door and pulls out onto the highway.
After a timeless drive through the night, lights reflecting off the bottom of sparse clouds announce a large city, a roadside sign indicating South Tuscon.
The driver notices how hard the Anglo's hands grip the bar in front of him as the bus brakes to enter the big truck stop.
Even at that hour of the morning, the pumps are filled with big rigs. The driver parks not far from the entrance and announces, “Cuarenta-cinco minutos descanso,” a forty-five minute stop. The passengers gather their belongings and make their way into the truck stop.
The Anglo doesn't move.
Seeing the man still in his seat, the driver comes back aboard and says, “Hey, Sarge. You have to get off here. I must lock the bus.” He has to repeat himself before the Anglo rouses.
The Anglo gathers up his duffel bag and gets off.
“I will have them make an announcement when it is time to go.” The driver locks the door and walks inside, leaving the Anglo standing beside the bus.
Staff Sergeant Ray Daniels stands there for several minutes, staring down at the pavement. Without raising his head, he stalks forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other in a precise military cadence. He searches the pavement for recent patches – signs of improvised explosive devices.
A big triple-trailer rig pulls out of the fueling area and the driver sounds the air horn to awaken the figure walking directly in front of him.
Ray doesn’t look up, continuing his march to nowhere.
The driver manages to slow so the pedestrian in his way passes unharmed.
Ray approaches the highway and strides ahead, looking neither right nor left.
A speeding car's horn blares, the driver slamming on his breaks, followed by the urgent squeal of times. The car swerves and just misses the figure in the headlights. The driver angrily slams his hand on the horn as he gains speed and turns onto the interstate.
A flashing blue, green, and yellow glow of neon comes from a small building beyond a vacant parking lot. A sign announces “Martin’s Diner – Open Day and Night.”
Ray stops and looks around, aware for the first time that he doesn't know where he is.
Strange buzzing and crackling attracts Ray's attention and he looks up. A frenzy of swirling insects surround the halogen lamps, other creatures swooping in to feast upon the tornado of life.
Ray turns back to the small building, its bright lights drawing him. He picks up his pace. He opens the door and stops at the sign inside that says, “Seat Yourself.”
When he just stands there for several moments, the waitress tells him, “Sit wherever you want. We aren't exactly busy.”
Ray shyly smiles and makes his way to the first booth.
After setting his duffel bag on the seat and sliding in, Ray places his hands limply on the table top. He stares out the window.
“Care to order something?” The waitress places a glass of ice water in front of him, turns over his coffee cup, and fills it.
Ray blankly gazes at her, unsure of where he is or what she asked him. He looks out the window without responding.
The waitress shrugs and walks to the last window booth, refilling the coffee cup of the wizened old man sitting there. She shakes her head. “He seems sober, Poppi.”
“Give him a few minutes, Hija. He may just be tired from the bus ride.” Joe Redmond had watched the bus arrive. The truck stop serves as a transfer point for a number of bus lines catering to Mexicans and others coming and going across the border. That’s why he was surprised to see the Anglo, wearing a military jacket, get off. He watched his progress across the lot and highway, almost jumping to his feet each time the man barely avoided injury or death. He didn't because he knew he couldn't accomplish anything. “His spirit guides are watching over him,” he told the hound lying at his feet.
The stranger didn’t stagger. His pace was steady and measured. He moved as if seeking something on the ground ahead of each footstep.
The way he moved brought a vague memory to Joe. “He's searching for land-mines,” Joe whispered.
And, now that he's close, Joe can see the man’s eyes. They should be the windows to his soul. But the blinds are closed. Joe sighs. Those empty eyes strike a hammer blow to his gut.
Anna Maria sets the coffee carafe on the table and slides into the booth across from him, aware that he's disturbed about something. “You okay, Poppi?”
Joe reaches out for the cup in front of Anna Marie and turns it over, a sign he has something to tell her. She fills it and, when she sips a bit of the coffee, Joe speaks.
“Hija, you know I’ve never told you about my military service. But that man reminds me of something.”
Anna Maria smiles and touches his hand. “You don’t need to if you don’t want to, Poppi.”
Joe returns the smile.
“A Special Forces A-Team’s base camp not far from the village of A Xan in the central highlands of South Vietnam came under attack by a large group of North Vietnamese regulars. The team sent out an urgent call for help and I went in on one of the five Hueys sent to relieve it. Four Cobra gun ships escorted us. When we got there, I jumped from the chopper and there were bodies everywhere.”
Joe pauses, finding it hard to explain to his daughter the horror he faced. After sipping his coffee, he continues.
“I saw a Muong woman cradling her blood-drenched dead baby, swaying and keening in grief. A lone American GI stood at the door of the command bunker. He held a microphone with a dangling cord in one hand and an empty M-16 in the other. His eyes screamed of the abomination he’d just seen.”
Joe sucks in a deep breath to shake off his memories. He nods towards the man in the front booth. “Forty years later and that’s the exact same look I see on that soldier’s face.”
Anna Maria leans over to kiss her father’s forehead before going back behind the counter.
“So, boy, what should I do?” Joe speaks to Gogs, his old hound lying on the floor next to the booth.
The dog’s tail thumps before putting his head back on his paws.
“The guy seems to have one heck of a problem. Maybe I ought to see if I can cheer him up. Give him the lay of the land,” Joe says to the hound – and himself.
The fact that he cares about the man surprises Joe. Up to that moment, he’d been deep within his own cesspool of sorrow for the loss of his beloved Maria Alondra to cancer. In a horribly short time, she’d gone from the lively, loving woman who’d been the center of his life for nearly forty years to an emaciated shell, slowly dying in agonizing pain. Nothing seemed to stop it.
Joe spends time in the diner because he can’t tolerate being be alone. His daughter carries herself the same, smiles the same, and has her mother’s moods. Joe understands her presence eases his sorrow...slightly. She too misses her mother but has a husband and a son to look after – and now, a father.
Telling Gogs, “Stay!” Joe picks up his coffee cup and walks to the booth. “May I join you?”
The soldier slowly returns from his void and looks up at the voice. “Huh?” When Joe repeats the question, he shrugs and watches Joe slide into the seat across the table.
“Hija, our guest’s coffee is cold.”
Anna Maria quickly brings a fresh cup of steaming coffee for the man and the decanter to refill her father.'s “Care to order?” she asks the newcomer.
The man looks as blankly at her as he had at Joe. Anna Maria repeats herself and he responds with a shrug, muttering, “I don’t have any money.” He reaches into his pocket and lays some coins on the table. They don’t add up to more than a couple of dollars.
Joe wonders about that. “When’s the last time you ate?”
“I, uh, don’t know. Maybe yesterday.”
“We’ll take care of that.” Joe cheerfully tells his daughter, “Bring this gentleman a deluxe breakfast, Hija.”
The man strains out of his lethargy to protest he can’t pay, mumbling, “I don’t want to impose.”
Joe waves that off. “You're military.”
The soldier obviously searches for an answer.
Joe offers his hand. “Name’s Joe Redmond.”
The soldier looks at the hand for a moment before lifting his from the table. His grip is surprisingly firm and Joe returns it. “Uh, name’s Ray.”
“So they tell me,” he softly adds.
Ray’s camouflaged jacket has one patch above a pocket announcing US ARMY, while the other says “DANIELS.” Three chevrons and a rocker indicate the rank of staff sergeant and a subdued patch on the left shoulder shows he’d served in combat with the Eighty-Second Airborne Brigade in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The Fourth Infantry Division patch on the right shoulder signifies his current assignment.
The outfit of sweats, athletic shoes, and wool skullcap were thrown together without regard for military protocol. What on earth is he doing here? There are no army bases for hundreds of miles. Joe faintly remembers that the Fourth is somewhere in Texas or Colorado.
Anna Maria arrives with a platter of eggs with a nice medium-rare top sirloin steak, home fries, and toast. She refills Ray’s coffee cup.
Ray peers at the plate for several seconds before tentatively lifting the fork to shove some eggs into his mouth. After the first bite, he comes alive, digging in to satiate his hunger.
When Ray pauses eating to sip his coffee, Joe asks, “Where ya heading?”
The cup abruptly halts halfway to his lips. Ray’s brow furrows. “Don’t think I know.”
“Ya all right?” Joe's filled with deep concern. “Need a doctor?
Ray jerks erect, anger flaring in his hazel eyes. “No dammit! No more medics. I’ve had my fill of ’em.”
He then nervously looks around.
“Relax,” Joe soothes. “No need to get upset. Just eat.”
Gogs uncurls himself from the floor next to the corner booth and comes over to sniff at his alpha male’s companion.
Ray absentmindedly puts the fork back on his plate and reaches down to gently rub behind the animal’s ears. “Nice hound. Think I had one once.”
Joe sees that he’s obviously been badly hurt. And, knowing the military, Joe guesses they’d probably kept him cooped up in a hospital somewhere.
Ray calms and cleans the plate, drinking another cup of coffee. He then fumbles in his pockets, searching for something. He's unaware of the meager pile of coins he’d placed on the table.
“I told ya not to worry. Breakfast’s on me.”
Ray’s eyes brighten briefly and he appears to be ready to ask a question.
Anna Maria returns to fill their cups, so the question goes unasked.