Words and photos by Jacquelyn Martin, edited by Bradley Sutherland
The waitress lived in a neighboring village and was a teacher for half her life.
She got in a car accident and the other person involved died. Charged with negligent homicide, she lost her teaching license and moved to Arizona with a friend. After two years there, the friend she was living with died in an awful accident and so she moved back to Michigan and became a waitress. She has a husband now, who has a good job, but could never be the type of person who just didn’t work, “especially after everything that happened,” she told us. She told us all of this with a straight face, while our hamburgers browned, burned and shrank on the grill behind her.
Ivan and I were the only customers in the diner, which was decorated in an Elvis-war-hero memorabilia way, along with some leftover Christmas tinsel.
Two teenagers and an old woman had appeared from some hidden part of the restaurant and sat in the nearest booth.
“The ex boyfriend of the lady that died is always giving speeches in church about it,” said one of the girls, and the rest of them nodded. They seemed generally uninterested in her story but stared at us with a languid but unceasing gaze.
“The ex boyfriend?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, they were high school sweethearts,” said the waitress.
“He’s married now,” said the girl, “and his wife has to sit through that every week at church.”
It occurred to me that in this town called New Era that is so small it’s not even considered a “town,” but a village, that everyone here and in the surrounding area must know this woman’s history: her indiscretion, her loss, her punishment, and now, her fate to serve those neighbors who still discuss her in church. It was no wonder the words fell so easily from her mouth; most people she encounters in her life already know all of her sad, shadowy details.
“Waitressing is just so hard on my back,” she said, ignoring the girl. Her entire face drooped, tired and earnest, like a basset hound. “My husband is always saying I should take a break, get my nails done or my hair or something,” she waved this thought off with her hand, rolled her eyes. I imagined her in the arms of a man who cared so deeply for her, who looked in to her sad eyes and tried to convince her to quit the waitress job, maybe take up gardening.
I was somewhat disbelieving and humbled that this stranger was unveiling her life to me, so casually spilling all the details onto the counter between us, as if refilling a cup of coffee and missing the mug, nonchalantly shaking her head at the spilled liquid. As if it was all part of a day’s work.
I wanted to take a picture of her, but I didn’t even get her name. To personalize her story would be taking more from a woman who had already lost so much; I couldn’t be responsible for that.
So when our sandwiches were finally ready, we said our goodbyes to a woman we had known all of twenty minutes, but whose story, told through an unwavering mouth and with round, dry eyes, would haunt us both for miles.