“Are you her mother?” That’s what the young trucker asks the waitress, who is very slim and blonde and wears black yoga pants and is probably somewhere in her early forties.
“Oh no!” I think.
The slim waitress hesitates, squinting. “You think I’m old enough to be her mother?”
The young trucker, who has a John Deere cap on his head, looks confused. He’s not clever.
A few minutes ago, I asked the slim waitress if she had pie.
“Yes,” she had told me. “We have pie. Didn’t you see the sign on the way in?”
At this, the young trucker laughed loudly.
I wasn’t sure why he was laughing. He and I, along with two other truckers, were sitting at the counter of Junies, off Route 380, in Evansdale, Iowa. It was the first winter like day, windy and cold and gray, which always makes diners look all the more warm and bright, the answer to everything. I glanced behind me at the entrance. “No,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “There’s a sign.”
I waited for her to tell me what she had for pie, but she wasn’t playing ball and I was forced to say, “Um, what do you have?”
“Banana cream,” she said, defensively, “apple, peach, cherry. . .”
“I’ll take cherry,” I said.
“. . .lemon meringue, strawberry rhubarb. . .”
“Strawberry rhubarb,” I said.
“You have lemon meringue?” said the young trucker. “That’s my favorite!”
“. . .coconut cream, and chocolate silk.”
“Ice cream with that?”
“You want it heated?”
“That sounds good."
“I can’t believe you have lemon meringue!” said the young trucker again. “It’s my favorite!”
“Really?” she said. “Do you want some?”
“Yes,” he said.
The waitress flipped the page and began to scribble.
“But I’m not going to,” he said. “I’ve been gaining weight. When I started, all I ate was steak. It was steak steak steak. And now I’ve slowed down on that.”
“So you don’t want the pie,” she said, closing her pad.
“Yes,” he said. “I do. But I’m not going to. I’ve been gaining weight. So. . .”
One of the other truckers is a guy of Hispanic descent. He wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and a winter coat. He is heavily involved in watching the reality TV show, which has something to do with hunters and wolves. The third trucker is extra-large. He is also engrossed in the show.
“Hey, Brittany,” says the slim waitress. There is an edge in her voice. “We got another one!”
A glowingly beautiful young waitress appears from the kitchen. She is sipping a Coke through a straw. She gives the slim waitress an inquisitive look.
“He thinks we’re related,” says the slim waitress.
Brittany laughs. She is embarrassed.
To Brittany: “But he thinks I’m your mother.” To the young trucker: “You think I’m old enough to be her mother?”
The trucker of Hispanic descent shoots me a look. “Oh no!” he’s thinking.
“What I mean is,” says the young trucker, “I have no idea how old you are! You could be twenty, or you could be fifty!”
The slim waitress, once a beauty, slides her pad into her apron.
The extra-large trucker watches TV.
The Hispanic trucker, seeing his opportunity, says, “I’d say sisters.”
“See? Thank you. That’s what the first guy said,” says the slim waitress.
“I’d even say you were the younger one,” says the Hispanic trucker.
He’s gone too far now. None of us knows how to respond to this obvious lie. I feel inclined to say nothing.
“All I meant,” says the young trucker, innocently, “is you look real good.”
But it’s too late. He’s blown any chance he ever had. Which was probably slim anyway. Or maybe not. The kid is good looking. And, like I said, young.
When the waitresses disappear somewhere, probably to the kitchen and then probably out the back door for a cigarette, the extra-large guy feels compelled to say, eyes still on the TV, “I hauled a load out to LA and then down the coast and then back to Alabama, and the old lady served me papers right when I pulled into the driveway.”
This confession seems to come out of the blue. But maybe it’s a continuation of an earlier stream of conversation. Although there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of streams at this counter. It’s more of a series of ponds. Or swamps.
“Wow,” says the trucker of Hispanic descent.
“Had everything paid off. The house. The truck. We were all set. And she served me the papers right as I pulled in.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yes sir. I do say. So, I said, okay. It’s fine with me. And I signed them. And then I declared bankruptcy. I said, ‘If you want a piece of what I got, you can have a piece of that too.’”
“You don’t say.”
I am disinclined to believe the extra-large trucker. At least, I’m disinclined to believe we’re hearing a comprehensive account. First of all, I’d like to know how, if everything is paid off, can one declare bankruptcy. Also, I’d like to know why the divorce papers.
“Just like that. And that was it. Now I’m pretty much living out of my truck.”
The trucker of Hispanic descent grabs his phone and holds it to his ear.
“Hello,” he says. “Yes. I am interested. But I’m still getting my truck worked on. Uh huh. Tomorrow morning. Where’s it going?”
We guys are desperate to talk about our divorces. I think we want to be reassured that, yes, she certainly was a bitch. And what a bitch she was to take custody. Or what a bitch she was that she didn’t even want custody. Or what a drug addict she was. Or what a whore she was. Or whatever. I’m no different. Deb and I have been separated four times in the twenty-three years of our marriage. I have been the one, each time, to move out. And then I’d talk about it. And write about it. How I had wanted something and she wouldn’t give it to me. As if a relationship were about getting things. Love. Attention. Laughs. What I didn’t write about, at first, was what I didn’t give. What I withheld. What I didn’t bring to the table. How, without her to lean my shortcomings against, I fell over. And how I needed to learn how to stand up again on my own. And only then return home. Four times. So far. I’ve got to wonder why she took me back.
They say fear is the first emotion and the progenitor of all other emotions. Often, I’m afraid that I am nothing at all. Take away my complaints and I have nothing to say. Take away my animal desires, the desire to eat and sleep and all the rest, and I don’t want anything. And when we were on the outs, with this suspicion in mind, that I was nothing at all, it hurt all the more to hear Deb laugh while talking to someone over the phone. To talk animatedly. It only made sense that she would be better off. And then I’d drive back to whatever hovel I had decided to move in to and get all melancholy about what I once but no longer had. What was it?
I leave Junies, grateful to return to my indoor job at what they call the John Deere “tractor works” plant. When I first started working here, I was amazed by the sheer size of the place, about a mile long; the ceilings three stories high, cranes and booms and automated welding equipment and little robots tooting out their video game music as they hauled bright green transmissions here and there. But I’m used to it now. The scale seems to have shifted and it seems normal to me. The brass have decided to reorganize an entire section of the plant in preparation, says Kirk, for a new line of tractors. He gives it a name. Like QZ or something. Kirk holds a clip board. He is sitting in a John Deere gator. He’s in the midst of recording the numbers from water meters.
“Really?” I say.
“Yup. There used to be a welding shop right there. Remember? They moved those guys over to another building.”
“Yup. Five guys.”
Kirk wants to talk. I put down my tool pouch even though I want to get back to the equipment, which has never had a wife and therefore never divorced her. Kirk tells me about his ex-wife who returned from Iraq pregnant.
“And I told her,” he says, “see you later.”
He tells me she wanted custody of their son, but didn’t show up at the hearing. And how she has never had a job because she doesn’t want to pay child support. And how she never shows up at his sporting events.
“You think you’ll ever get married ag—”
“Nope,” he says. “No way.”
I pick up my tool pouch. He knows I want to go. But he still sits in his Gator, making no move to go. So I put down my tool pouch again. I don’t know Kirk’s wife. And I don’t know him either. But he seems like a good man. He wants to work hard, but you need to work at a certain pace here at the John Deere tractor works plant. He wants to learn things, but there is only so much expected of him. He wants to talk. He’s a good man. It’s a tragedy. All of it. Well, not so much our frustrated desires. Our long-haul trucking. Our recording of water meters. Our marriages and divorces.
But winter. And what has become of the things that were once our elopements or white weddings, Elks clubs or country clubs, chicken cordon bleu or prime rib, matching gowns and sky blue tuxes, wedding cake and Vegas or Honolulu. And how little we know of ourselves.