Shelly and I are at the Waffle House. It’s early and we’ve been up all night. There are a number of reasons why we haven't slept. All of them are bad. Shelly’s staring at me bleary-eyed and anxious. She’s wearing the same blue dress she wore yesterday. It’s a dress I used to love seeing her in. And taking her out of. But right now I’m feeling damp and wrung-out and sick to my stomach.
Our waitress comes over to take our order. She’s young and nervous and her name is Danielle. I guess that it’s her first day. Shelly orders coffee, two eggs, and toast. There is no cheer in her voice, only fear and exhaustion, like sandpaper, catching at her throat, each word a brittle, dead leaf. I try to sound pleasant, like me and Shelly are just two people out for a normal breakfast, while I order a pecan waffle. But as soon as I say the words the thought of butter and syrup and fried batter makes me want to retch.
When Danielle flips her hand over to write on the order pad I see two thick scars across her right wrist—widthwise, not lengthwise. Whether these cuts then were simply a cry for attention or the result of a fundamental lack of understanding as far as the basics of physiology go I cannot say. In any case, Danielle smiles perkily and says, “Be right up, ‘kay guys?!”
Danielle’s departure leaves Shelly and me in silence. I try to think of something to say but nothing comes to mind. For hours, Shelly has been telling me things that I’ve tried to convince her are simply not true. In response, she’s told me that truth, once and for all, now has to be the same for both of us. Just before we came into the restaurant I’d said that I didn’t think truth could ever be exactly the same for any two people. She just looked at me and said, “You make me sad.” It was difficult for me to admit that, right there, might indeed have been a solid truth, cold, objective, and utterly removed from any necessity of interpretation.
I hear Danielle call the woman at the hash brown station “mom” just as a man steps to the counter. A waitress tells him he can sit anywhere, but the man only shakes his head nervously and mumbles something I don’t understand. The waitress seems startled and the man says something that sounds to me like “cowboy.” He starts to fidget. The waitress frowns. “What’s that, hon’?” she asks. “Comfrey,” he replies. The waitress is silent. I realize that the man is retarded, though probably only mildly, and it’s not immediately obvious. I turn to Shelly, but she has also begun to follow the exchange. “Commie,” says the man quietly. The woman looks to another waitress for help, but the other waitress only smiles, making the woman giggle a little.
There is no way to restore normalcy to the Waffle House. A man puts some bills on the counter and rises, most of his meal uneaten. Then another couple leaves. Still no one speaks. I turn to Shelly, but she is already getting up, the tears already beginning. I look at Danielle, but she is frozen, her mouth hanging open, as a few other waitresses begin to talk amongst themselves and a cook scrapes seared eggs off the skillet. I motion to Danielle, but she does not see me. So, I pay for our food, the food we never even saw. It’s just as well, I think. I didn’t want to eat anyway. I leave a nice tip for Danielle in the hope that she’ll show up for work again tomorrow morning. But tomorrow morning is a long way off and there are other tragedies to attend to, so I head off into the glimmering sunlight after Shelly.
All photos are from Acoma Pueblo, Sky City, New Mexico. The top three are from on top of the sandstone mesa, about 400 feet high. The community has been occupied for several hundred years and remains so to this day.