She works in a diner called the Desert Rose, which sits along the northwestern edge of Colorado, near the Utah border. It’s a small and undistinguished affair, worn and weathered but always brightly lit and burning like a little beacon in that high American wasteland. Triangles of cherry pie sit bleeding in the pie case, and strips of honey-yellow flypaper spiral from the low stucco ceiling.
She was born and raised in a tiny mountain town one-hundred miles southeast. She grew up good-looking and self-reliant, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with all the other small-town girls and boys, began working when she was in the tenth grade, and she’s not stopped working since. Waiting tables is what she’s done for most of her life. She graduated high school but never went to college. After school, she drifted awhile, developed a taste for books, black coffee, functional knowledge.
By age thirty-five, she’d already buried two husbands, both miners, one killed in a car crash, the other dead by disease. She has two teenage children who love her. Now, no longer young but not yet old, she is beautiful still, and single. She plays jazz on the radio and reads in her rented apartment that’s too small for three.
There have been many other jobs — night-auditor, bank-teller, housecleaner — but waitressing is the one she always comes back to. There are no special skills in her repertoire, no trade. She’s well-read, her mind of a naturally speculative cast, and she quotes to herself from old poets (“full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air”).
At twilight, invariably, there’s a sense of sadness that comes over her.
Fifty feet behind the Desert Rose, a cluster of cottonwoods grows along the banks of a sea-green river. They are ancient and massive trees. Wind moves sluggishly through their dusty boughs, and moonlike globes of cotton orbit the bodies of the trees and fall soundlessly into the swift molecular water. Sparse grass grows along the desert floor, the desert stretching off into an intricate horizon.
At the end of her shift, she likes to stand at the back porch of the café and listen to the wind sifting softly through the grass. Certain times of the year there are blue-and-purple flowers that grow among the river stalks, and she sometimes thinks she can smell their sweetness on the desert air. The bone-colored moon rises meanwhile in the east and fills a small quadrant of the sky, suffusing the clouds with its yellow and sulfurous light.
The trucker who lives next door is seldom home.
He’s a long-haul trucker, he’s over-the-road. He earns good money and does not spend. There’s something ascetical about him, something wise. He’s forty. His hair is long. He wears jeans and combat boots. Sallow and haggard, his face is handsome nevertheless. His willowy wife does not ride with him but stays at home. They have no children. The wife is solitary, long-legged and tan. She has a ponytail of sandy-brown. She smokes Marlboro’s. They do not rent but own. The wife spends hours in her garden, or she reads in her backyard. Her eyes are pensive. She waves to us but rarely speaks.
The trucker who lives next door arrives at unexpected hours, on unexpected days. Emerging from his rig, he has the leanness of a desert prophet about him. I imagine him eating very little while he’s out on the road. He transports the goods from north-to-south. He hauls the freight from coast-to-coast. He kisses his wife in the driveway. They hold hands and enter their tidy cottage together. They shut the door behind.
Sometimes, on holidays, his rig will sit for three or four consecutive nights along this residential side street. It sits gleaming in the dark. The trucker loves his rig; it is his home away from home. Once, in the middle of the night, I heard a gentle noise outside and crept up to the window. The trucker who lives next door was polishing his semi in the moonlight. The semi is midnight-blue and chrome.
Here on the ragged edge of this desert town where the ancient railroad tracks lie rusting in the grass, the frontiers begin. These are the frontiers the trucker crosses and re-crosses year around. Our town is like many western towns, with its looping river and cauliflower clouds, its one Masonic lodge and the hard clean skies above, and in the distance, fields of clay where woolly mammoth and dinosaur once knelt down in the soft earth to die, and a billion bison bones fossilize in the ground. Beyond the backyards, the interstate curves off into the intricate horizon, and the distant cars make very little sound.
He was one of the mellow, the soft-spoken, the tawny-haired — one who preferred to be alone.
His name was Mark, a dishwasher at age 45.
He was a drifter, a loner. He valued his freedom above all; dishwashing jobs he could always find.
Our paths crossed and re-crossed at the Café Claire, where I was tending bar. The Café Claire stood on the outskirts of an industrial town, near the railroad tracks, beside his temporary home. Sometimes he’d sit at the end of the bar, before his shift or after, and drink black coffee. Sometimes he’d speak to me, and sometimes he would not.
He was a tidy man, and orderly. He organized things in an oddly geometrical way. He did not drink, he did not smoke, he did not use drugs. He was clean-living and in good shape, neither depressed nor its opposite.
He was single, without children.
And he was free.
He read a lot — novels and non-fiction — to endure, perhaps, the knives of lust that so frequently strike. He had the quietude of one who has gone a long time without sex.
His home was an efficiency apartment — a “hutch,” he called it — with good plumbing. (This mattered to him.) He dealt only in cash and he was good with his money. He saved, he moved on. Sometimes he worked on farms, sometimes he loaded and unloaded freight, sometimes he carried hod. But when I first met him and asked him what he did, he said “I’m a sudsbuster.”
So in the way of things, he would come behind my bar at times, when I was busy, and, without asking me, he’d wash my dishes. I loved him for that. He was fast on his feet and knew how to work around people, so that nobody was in anybody’s way. Buried in bloody marys and martinis, I’d glance over and see him plunged to his elbows in suds, his gold-rim spectacles, which somehow endeared him to me, filled with the burning bar light, his neat goatee damp with perspiration and pied with skeins of gray. Working with somebody in this way creates a deep and ineradicable bond.
Two or three times, I saw him outside work while I was in my car. Each time, he was walking alone along the railroad tracks, at dusk like some solitary figure carved from the coming dark. This was a grizzled landscape, a prairie desert of Euclidian perfection, full of rings and radii, vast yet traversed by a single road: an isolate highway humming day or night with Mack truck tires. The wind ferried tumbleweeds across the lion’s pelt land. Deadwood everywhere stood silvery-gray, like the moon above, and invariably whenever I saw him, a feeling of melancholy came over me, a melancholy for him, I am not sure why.
This, though, is not about pity or pathos, and Mark was not a person to pitied.
This, rather, is about one man out of many millions making his way
in the land of the free, the USA.
This is from a forthcoming chapbook tentatively titled The Americana Files. These prosey poems were all written between 2009 and 2014