MEMOIR: ‘Memory of a Waitress’

Photo by Lee Cartledge on Unsplash

By Kit Thornton | | november2021

I was on a long motorcycle trip, many years ago. Back then, when I got my heart broken, I just got on the bike and kept going until the pain was out of range. I was going through the West Texas wastelands. It seldom rains there in the dust and tumbleweed, but that night, it came down in buckets. I could barely see, and night had caught me, when I rolled into a little one stop-sign town, every window dark and uninviting. There was one light on, a dingy looking little diner. 

I staggered in, tired and soaked to the bone. There was no one else in the place. I flopped into a booth. It was quite a while before someone came out. I don’t think anyone realized that someone was there for awhile. 

The waitress was a middle-aged woman who looked as if she had been beaten down by the wind and dragged through the dust. But she brought bitter, burnt coffee, which I threw down with a single gulp. She refilled it.

“Hasn’t rained here in a month,” She said. 

“Making up for it, looks like,” I said.

“Where you going?” she asked, as she handed me a one-page, typewritten menu.

“Not sure,” I said. “West.”

She looked out the window. “It’ll let up soon. It never lasts long when it comes down like this.” She kept staring out the window like she was looking for something. Then she looked at me, sitting there looking like a drowned dog in my riding leathers. I must have made quite a sight with the road dust caked and muddy all over me, dripping rainwater. “You got a hotel here?” I asked, hopefully, already knowing the answer.

“No, Hun, sorry. But you can stay here as long as you like. We don’t close until Sunday.”

She kept staring out the window like she was looking for something.

I ordered one of the two items on the menu, biscuits and gravy with eggs. Sausage on the side. I was hungry, and attacked the food when it arrived, even though it tasted exactly like the greasy mess they used to serve when I was in the Army. Buried in pepper, it was edible.

When I finished, she refilled my coffee. I’ll never forget her eyes. She kept looking out the window. She said, “Wish I was going somewhere. Anywhere.” She looked so weary, so worn down by this place, by the heaviness of being nowhere.

I looked at her for a moment. She wasn’t a beauty, but she might have been one before life rode her hard. She walked with slightly bent back and her hands were worn. 

“I can get you as far as L.A. No strings,” I said.

She looked at me, and her eyes flashed for a moment. But in a moment, they were as burnt out as ever.

“I … can’t. I … don’t.”

“Plenty of diners in L.A.,” I said. “And a lot more to do there. Anything keeping you here, aside from habit? Don’t worry, I’m not asking for anything, just offering a favor to another broken heart.” I did my best to look harmless — a difficult feat for me back then.

She started to speak, but stopped. Then she smiled. “I can’t. I just can’t.” She looked back out at the road. Then she went back to the kitchen.

“I … can’t. I … don’t.”

A little while later, she came out again. She looked around as if she expected someone to jump out and yell at her, even though she was alone in the place. She sat down in the booth across from me.

She told me her story. A bad man, who left her, a child that died in her arms. Nowhere to go. No one to see. So she stayed and lived out the years in this grimy little diner. And she was too tired, too out of hope to leave.

I stayed and drank bad coffee until the sun cracked the horizon, red and clear. I got up to go, paid the check, and tipped, not too lavishly, but hopefully enough to let her know I appreciated her company. I headed for the door.

“You should get out of here,” I said. “Get on a bus and go anywhere that’s alive. This place is sucking your life away. It would look different. You’d be different.”

She looked down at the floor. “There’s another town about thirty miles on. There’s a little hotel there. You should probably sleep before you ride too far.”

“I will,” I said. “Thanks.” I fired up the bike, lit a cigar and went on to the next town, and through it, and two hundred miles more through the wastes until I stopped at a roadside hotel and slept through the next day and night.

I stayed and drank bad coffee until the sun cracked the horizon, red and clear.

I like to think that she packed a little bag and got on the bus and went somewhere. Somewhere to start over away from a sad little grave and leaden memories that hung around her neck like an anchor. Somewhere she’d find friends, maybe a lover, maybe something better than working in a run-down diner where she was surprised to find a customer coming in from the rain.

But I know she didn’t. I’d guess she stayed there until she just stopped one day — finally worn all the way through, and was buried next to her tragedy in a grave that nobody visits.

Her name was Sheila. I remember her, and her story. Say a prayer for her, Amigos. Good night.

Kit Thornton is a native of Malden, West Virginia. He is a retired Assistant Attorney General and trial lawyer, currently living on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. His first novel, “Milton’s Child” dealt with growing up in West Virginia in the 1970’s. His current work can be found on his website, Kit is a proud Life member of the Widows Sons Masonic Motorcycle Riding Club.

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