Too many people in a small room sounded a lot like the roar of a fire—the high and low inflections, the constant and familiar hum that only became louder the closer you got. In the five years that I’d waited tables for Chuck and Phaedra Niles at The Bucksaw Café, being around that many impatient, hungry people day after day made me want to torch the place at times. But the lunch crowd wasn’t what kept me coming back. It was the comforting drone of conversation, the heat of the kitchen, and the sweet freedom from the bridges I’d burned.
“Falyn! For fuck’s sake!” Chuck said, trying not to sweat in the soup.
He reached out his hand and stirred the broth in a deep pot. I tossed him a clean rag.
“How is it this hot in Colorado?” he complained. “I moved here because I’m fat. Fat people don’t like to be hot.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be working over a stove for a living,” I said with a smirk.
The tray felt heavy when I lifted it in my arms but not as heavy as it used to feel. Now, I could carry it with six full plates, if necessary. I backed into the swinging double doors, bumping my butt against them.
“You’re fired,” he barked. He wiped his bald head with the white cotton cloth and then tossed it to the center of the prep table.
“That’s not funny!” He leaned away from the heat radiating from his station.
Turning toward the main dining area, I paused in the doorway, seeing all twenty-two tables and twelve barstools filled with professionals, families, tourists, and locals. According to Phaedra, table thirteen even included a bestselling author and her assistant. I leaned over, compensating for the extra weight of the tray, and winked in thanks to Kirby as she opened the stand next to the table where I would set my tray.
“Thanks, lovey,” I said, pulling the first plate.
I set it in front of Don, my first regular and the best tipper in town. He pushed up his thick glasses and settled into his seat, removing his trademark fedora. Don’s khaki jacket was a bit worn, like the dress shirt and tie he wore every day. On slow afternoons, I would listen to him talk about Jesus and how much he missed his wife.
Kirby’s long dark ponytail swished as she bussed a table near the wall of windows. She held a small tub full of dirty dishes against her hip, winking at me as she passed through to the kitchen. She was gone only long enough to drop off the pile of plates and cups for Hector to wash, and then she returned to her hostess podium. Her naturally wine-stained lips turned up at the corners as a light breeze blew through the glass entrance door, propped open by a large geode, one of hundreds Chuck had collected over the years.
Kirby greeted a group of four men who’d walked in as I attended to Don.
“Would you cut open that steak for me, handsome?” I asked.
Don didn’t need a menu. He ordered the same meal at every visit—a house salad swimming in ranch, fried pickles, a medium-rare New York strip, and Phaedra’s turtle cheesecake—and he wanted all of it at the same time.
Don complied, tucking his tie between the buttons of his shirt, and with his shaking thin hands, he sawed into the juicy meat on his plate. He looked up and offered a quick nod.
While he prayed over his food, I left him for just a moment to swipe the pitcher of sweet sun tea off the bar counter. When I returned and picked up his cup, I held the pitcher sideways, so plenty of ice poured out with the light-brown liquid.
Don took a sip and let out a satisfied sigh. “As I live and breathe, Falyn. I sure love it when Phaedra makes her sun tea.”
His chin was attached to the bottom of his throat with a thin flap of loose skin, and his face and hands were dotted with liver spots. He was a widower, and he’d lost weight since Mary Ann passed.
I offered a half smile. “I know you do. I’ll check on you in a bit.”
“Because you’re the best,” Don called after me.
Kirby guided the group of men to my last empty table. All but one man was covered in soot smeared with a day’s worth of sweat. The clean one seemed to just be tagging along, his freshly washed hair barely long enough to hang into his eyes. The others looked pleased with their exhaustion, a hard, long shift behind them.
Only the tourists stared at the ragged men. Locals knew exactly who they were and why they were there. The men’s dusty boots and the three bright blue hard hats sitting on their laps, bearing the Department of Agriculture’s emblem, made their specialty easy to guess—a hotshot crew, likely the Alpine division out of Estes Park.
The spot fires had been particularly relentless that season, and it seemed like the Forest Service had dispatched their interagency crews from every district, some as far as Wyoming and South Dakota. Colorado Springs had been hazy for weeks. The smoke from the fires in the north had turned the afternoon sun into a glowing bright red ball of fire. We hadn’t seen stars since before my last paycheck.
I greeted the men with a polite expression. “What are we drinking?”
“You sure got pretty hair,” one of the men said.
I lowered my chin and cocked an eyebrow.
“Shut the fuck up and order, Zeke. We’ll probably get called back out soon.”
“Damn, Taylor,” Zeke said. His frown was then targeted in my direction. “Get him some food, will ya? He gets cranky when he’s hungry.”
“I can do that,” I said, annoyed with them already.
Taylor glanced up at me, and for just a moment, I was captured by a pair of warm brown irises. In less than a second, I found something familiar behind his eyes. Then he blinked and returned to his menu.
Although usually cute, mostly charming, and always with a respectable amount of muscles, men who blew through our town with a dusting of ash on their boots were only to be admired from afar. No self-respecting local girl would be caught dating one of those fascinating, brave tanned young men for two reasons. They were seasonal, and they would leave you behind, pregnant or heartbroken. I’d seen it so many times, and not just with the hotshot crews, but with the airmen passing through, too. To the young men my father referred to as vagrants, the Springs was a buffet of young girls just desperate enough to be fooled into loving someone they knew wouldn’t stay.
I wasn’t one of them even if, according to my parents, I was the most educated whore in Colorado Springs.
“Let’s start with drinks.” I kept my tone pleasant and my mind on the decent tip the hotshots would usually leave on the table.
“What do you want, Trex?” Zeke asked the clean one.
Trex looked at me from under his damp tendrils, all emotion absent from his eyes. “Just a water.”
Taylor glanced up at me again, the white of his eyes practically glowing against the dirt on his face. The warm brown in his irises matched the buzzed hair on his head. Although his eyes were kind, the skin on both of his arms was crowded with various tattoos, and he looked like he’d been through enough to earn every one of them.
He nodded before expectantly watching the man in front of him. “What do you want, Dalton?”
Dalton sulked. “They don’t have Cherry Coke.” He looked up at me. “Why doesn’t anyone in the whole goddamn state of Colorado have Cherry Coke?”
Taylor crossed his arms over the table, the muscles of his forearms sliding and tightening under his ink-covered skin. “I’ve accepted it. You should just accept it, man.”