I waitress at the Starkville Diner out on Desert Highway, about a mile before the first real intersection in town. Donnie lets me wear jeans and t-shirts, thank goodness, instead of one of those gold-colored uniforms with the scratchy white collars and starched aprons my mom wore back when she worked the counter.
Donnie runs a spartan little place here, easy for two people to handle, no real kitchen, the grill a one-eighty behind me. But I’m alone tonight because it’s the boss’s anniversary. Forty-three years with the same person. Not many marriages like that these days.
The place is empty so I’ve got time to ponder about what I’m going to do with my daughter. She’s twelve and already has breasts. They say it’s the hormones they pump into chickens that does it. And what I remember about thirteen-fourteen for me, living in small town? I don’t want that for Beth.
It’s time to get out, head somewhere that has a winter to it, where blue geese dip through gray skies and old men build wooden houses on icy lakes. Someplace, not too small, not too big. Suburbia, maybe, with real snow.
I’m wiping down the counter for the millionth time when the door opens letting in the sharp smell of sage and a white-haired old guy wearing a plaid jacket and polyester pants. His legs are so thin and crooked they could be made of manzanita.
I didn’t hear a car or truck out on the gravel so he takes me by surprise. I slip my half-filled Pepsi glass off the counter.
“Hey,” he says. “You got pie?”
“Lemon meringue, no berry.” I straighten up, tossing the rag under the counter, and before I can stop myself, I’m smoothing down my hair with a damp hand.
“Lemon’ll do.” He slides onto the stool opposite me. Puts his bony, spotted hands on the Formica.I let my eyes flick to his fleshy face and away. A down-on-his-luck geezer. They’re passing through most days now, more and more.
“Don’t drink the stuff. You got whiskey?”
This makes me stiffen. An alkie. I pull the lever on the hot water. Grab a basket of tea bags and place it in front of him. “How ‘bout some herb tea?”
He digs through the assortment, holds up a scarlet packet. “Only if you got Red Zinger.”
Nodding, I watch as he wrestles with the wrapper. Then, “Didn’t hear a car. Someone drop you off?”
“Yep. Hitched all the way from California. ”
“Aren’t you going in the wrong direction? Most people are heading toward California.”
“Been there, done that. Got my pie? “
I slide the spatula under soggy crust, try to shake off a tremor of unease. When I put the slice in front of him, he’s staring at me.
He says, “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
I get a little dizzy as the words line up as a sentence in my head. Do I know who he is?
“Kelly, com’ on. Think about it.” He takes a forkful of pie.
“How do you know my name?”
Cocking his head to the side, smacking his lips, he says, “You know, I’d die and go to hell for a good piece of pie…and a long, long pair of legs.”
My head goes light. He’s got faded green eyes, crooked front tooth. The same, but not the same.
I swallow hard and step back, hit my arm against the hot coffee urn. Pain jolts through me.
The man stretches over the counter, his dish and fork clattering to the linoleum, and pulls me away from the scalding urn. “What the hell? Are you nuts?”
I stumble down the aisle, my face wet. He comes around, quicker than I’d expect and stops me. Hand on my shoulder, he pushes me toward the ice-maker near the sink. I try to side-step, but there’s no place to go.
He fills the counter cloth with crushed ice and places it against the burn. Holds it there. We’re standing close to each other now and I begin to shiver.
I’m queasy with the thought. Ray Clary here, in this diner, an old man now with white hair and wrinkles mapping his suddenly familiar face. “What—what happened to you?”
But I know. Booze, drugs. He was skidding when he left, a drinker in a drinking town.
Finally he says in a low and weary voice, “I’ve been a stupid stupid man.”
The crunch of an eighteen wheeler sounds outside, the spit of brakes. He drops the dish rag into the sink. The cold drip of melting ice soaks my hip.
The moment stretches like slo-mo in the movies waiting for the driver of the semi to come through the door.
Finally I whisper, “I…I have to work,” and he moves out from behind the counter just as a heavyset trucker strides in.
I ask him to flip the open sign around to “closed.” Serve him coffee, slap a hamburger on the grill, and keep an eye on Ray, slouched in the last booth by the restrooms.
I can see the young guy in him now, the Ray I used to know. The dip in his right shoulder, the slight angle of his head, and of course, his hands laid out in front of him side by side on the table.
I should’ve seen it right away. But how could I? I thought I’d never see him again.
Then I think of Beth. She’s at my mom’s right now like she always is when I’m at work, the two of them probably playing Double Solitaire at the dining table, Beth’s swinging legs visible through its glass top, Mom’s cigarettes fogging the light fixture.
“Miss?” The trucker’s voice brings me back. He’s pointing to the sizzling burger behind me. I flip it, dig for cheese in the tiny fridge, and glance back at Ray who’s taking it all in.
Ray used to have a way with him, soft spoken, sexy, filling all the space around me with a breathless heat. He had this way of cupping the back of my head and pulling me to him. I loved the smell of the sweat on his chest, the thump of his heart …
My mom threw my suitcase out the front door. It split over and my black bra lay spider-like on the sidewalk for all the neighborhood to see. And they were there, Steve the Sleaze on his bike in his wife-beater tee shirt and filthy cargo pants. Nancy Thompson from next door hosing down her scraggly roses. Even Mr. Gettich, the retired math teacher from the high school, stood out on his lawn, his morning Gazette clutched in one hand, a stogy in the other.
The sun was blazing. It must’ve been noon and Mom was yelling. I thought the vein in her forehead was gonna pop.
I stomped out of the house, stepped over the suitcase, climbed into my old Honda, and took off.
That first night in Reno, Ray played Twenty-one and won $2700. He bought me a tight red dress and a pair of diamond studs. They were small but they were real.
We drank until we could barely stumble into the honeymoon suite. We made sloppy love just inside the door. I know because I woke up curled under the little table in the entry, the bed was unslept in, Ray was gone, back out into the casino.
He lost what was left of the money he’d won. I should’ve known then we were in trouble. Nine months later we had Beth and I didn’t see my own mother for six years.
“Excuse me, Miss?” Again it’s the semi-driver pulling me out of deep thought. He’s pointing at my hand where I’ve managed to knead the slice of American into a pulpy wad.
“Oh, sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten in to me.” I drop the cheese into the sink and pull out another piece.
The trucker looks at Ray, says, “That guy bothering you because—”
“It’s okay. I know him.” I’m whispering, not sure why.
He beetles his brows, shifts on the stool to give Ray a hard look. “I can take care of him.”
“No thanks. I’m fine.” I lay the cold cheese on the burnt burger and the burger on a plate. Reach into the fridge for a zip lock of lettuce, onion, and tomato and put everything in front of the trucker. Barely notice him removing the veggies from the bag and placing them on the burger.
Ray is still staring at me, no smile, but no animosity either.
Again I smooth my hair, thinking I haven’t done my roots in a while.
I turn to the guy who’s wolfing down his food. He flashes Ray another look when he sees he has my attention. Lifts an eyebrow. I shake my head, write up a ticket, and slip it under his coffee mug.
After the trucker leaves, Ray comes over and takes the plate off the counter, walks it around, and puts it into the sink. Turns on the water.
I grab a dishrag and head out the other side of the counter, lock the door, and start wiping down the four-tops.
Ray says, “You still got your admirers, I see.”
I scrub harder, shove chairs into place, move around fast. Then I whip toward him. “Why are you here? Just tell me in case I have to go home and get my shotgun and shoot you. “
“Hold on.” He holds up soapy hands. “I’m not going to mess up your life. I promise.”
“Well, that just isn’t possible, is it? Not unless you go on back to California this minute.”
“I didn’t come to make things hard for you. “
“Then why the hell are you here?”
He turns his back, continues with the dishes, says, “I don’t have any place else to go.”
“Great! Just great.” I throw the towel down. Look around for something else to throw. “You want Beth, don’t you? You’re going to try and take her away from me. Well, she doesn’t need you.”
I’m shaking so hard, it’s like I’m not going to be able to keep my feet. My nose is running, my eyes swimming.
Ray turns around. Says with a soft slur in his voice, “Sit down, Kelly, before you fall down.”
I back away, bump a chair, and fumble into it. Put my head down on the table top, the smell of onions and 409 greeting me like a friend.
And then his hand is on the back of my neck. Gentle. Brief. The chair opposite scuffs the floor and Ray lets out a little oomph as he sits down.“I’m not going to ask anything of you, Kel. You don’t owe me a thing.”
Kel. I’m facing away from him with a sideways view of the front door. Bleak darkness except for the windmill generators up on the hill beyond the highway, gleaming in a strand of moon light. Some kind of small truck passes. Then a sedan slows, scatters gravel, then speeds away. I haven’t flicked off the neon.
I lift my head enough to turn it toward him, keeping it close to the table.
“You left me,” isn’t what I meant to say, but these are the words that come from my mouth. I leave them there.
His hand strokes the back of my head so lightly I can barely feel it.
I ask, “Why did you walk out on me?”
He leans close so our eyes meet again. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t want you back.”
“I figured that.”
“I don’t want Beth hurt.”
“I won’t hurt her.”
As I lift my head, he sits up too. I say, “I make the rules.”
“You have to earn it, the right to see her. Know her.”
“Where you going to stay?”
“Up at my dad’s, I guess, if he’ll let me.”
“He’ll let you. But you can’t see Beth yet. Not until I tell you.”
“You’re going to have to earn it. I mean it.”
“It may take a long, long time.”
“Kelly, that’s all I got now, is time.”
I straighten, thinking, let him go up to his dad’s and settle in tonight. Let his dad ask all the questions I won’t.
Meanwhile, I’ll shut off the neon and lock up the diner.
Head for my mom’s, and with Beth sleeping in the back seat of my new Honda, I’ll drive east out of the desert, into the mountains.
Go at least a mile high to where the spruce and pine hold onto their lushness even as hard snow slams down from a pure white sky.