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.