A red sun was balanced on the horizon when I arrived at The Well-Known Desert Diner. Sunrise shadows were draped around its corners. A full white moon was still visible in the dawn sky. I parked my tractor-trailer rig along the outer perimeter of the gravel parking lot. The “Closed” sign hung on the front door. To the left of the door, as if in mourning for Superman, stood a black metal and glass phone booth. Inside was a real phone with a rotary dial that clicked out the ten white numbers. Unlike the phones in the movies, this one worked—if you had enough nickels.
Curiosity usually wasn’t a problem for me. I treated it like a sleeping junkyard dog. As a general rule I didn’t hop the fence. Jagged scars on my backside reminded me of the few times I had violated that rule. Just because you can’t see the dog doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. Sure, I look through the fence once in a while. What I see and think I keep to myself.
On that Monday morning in late May I was dangerously close to the fence. Walt Butterfield, the diner’s owner, was a junkyard Unitarian: he was a congregation of one and his own guard dog. His junkyard was The Well-Known Desert Diner, and he didn’t bark or growl before he tore your throat out. I liked him, and his junkyard. The place was a kind of odd shrine. Over the years the diner had become a regular rest stop for me as well as a source of fascination and idle speculation. It was always my first stop, even when I had nothing to deliver to Walt. Sometimes it was my last stop too.
Out of habit, I tried the front door. It was locked, as usual. This was Walt’s face to the world. Walt slept in what had been a small storage room attached to the kitchen. Behind the diner, across a wide alleyway of sand and flagstone, was a 50-by-100-footgalvanized steel World War II Quonset hut. This was where Walt really lived, alone with his motorcycles, and tools and grease and canyons of crated parts that reached to the ceiling.
Walt’s motorcycle collection totaled nine of the finest and rarest beasts ever to have graced the roadways of America and Europe. Among them was his first, a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow. It was the same motorcycle he was riding, his new Korean War bride hugging his thin waist, the day he first rode onto the gravel of what was then called The Oasis Café. He was twenty years old. She was sixteen and spoke no English. They bought the place a year later, in 1953.
Walt kept the diner, like everything else in his life, in pristine shape. I peered through the glass door at the lime-green vinyl seats of the six booths and twelve stools. The platoon of glass salt and pepper shakers stood at attention. The trim along the edge of the counter shined its perpetual chrome smile back at me. The brown and ivory linoleum tiles reflected their usual wax and polish. A 1948 Wurlitzer jukebox hunkered against the far wall. Behind the counter, the same order ticket as always hung lifeless from a wire above the stainless steel kitchen pass-through. As far as I knew it was the final ticket from the last meal prepared for a paying guest, probably sometime in the autumn of 1987.
I returned to my truck and off-loaded a heavy carton filled with the usual motorcycle parts and wheeled it to the door of the Quonset hut. On Wednesday of the previous week Walt had received some unusual freight from New York—six boxes, all different sizes. They didn’t have the sloppy heft of motorcycle parts, though that alone wasn’t what got my attention. Each carton had a different return address in New York City, but all of them were from the same sender, someone named Chun-Ja. No last name. T hey had arrived in pairs, all originating on the same day, each set of two sent through one of the big three corporate carriers—FedEx, UPS, and DHL. By special contract I delivered for FedEx and UPS, but not DHL.
I had set my four next to the two left by the DHL driver. They weren’t gone until Friday morning. That meant they had been left out for two days and two nights, which wasn’t just odd—it had never happened before in all my years of makingdeliveries to Walt.
There was really only one possible explanation for why Walt failed to bring his freight inside—he had been out of town, except to my knowledge he had no family or friends, and absolutely nowhere else to go. Given his advanced age, the logical assumption would have been that he had died of natural causes and was stretched out stiff as a board somewhere in the recesses of his diner or workshop, or lay broken in the desert after an accident on one of his motorcycles. You had to know Walt to appreciate just how far-fetched such death scenarios were.
I pounded on the door of the Quonset hut. Just once. Walt’ shearing was perfect. At seventy-nine, all of him was damn near perfect, except his attitude toward people. No matter where he was on the property, or what he was doing, he had a sixth sense that told him if someone was around. If he didn’t show himself, he was ignoring you. The smartest and safest action you could take was to leave—the sooner the better. The only thing pounding and yelling did was piss him off. If there was one seventy-nine-year-old man on the planet you didn’t want to piss off, it was Walt Butterfield.
I was probably the only person to have seen the inside of Walt’s Quonset workshop in at least twenty years. These occasional excursions into Walt’s world, always by gruff invitation, never lasted longer than the time it took for me to slip freight off a hand truck.
I left the new box of parts next to the door and did the smart thing. It was a piece of good luck that Walt hadn’t answered my knock. I might have done something stupid, like ask him where he’d been or what was in the six cartons.
I always hoped to catch Walt, or rather have him willing to be caught. On a handful of occasions we sat in the closed diner. Sometimes he talked, though usually not. I always listened when he wanted to talk. A few times he actually fixed and served me breakfast in the diner. He had been around the area longer than anyone, or at least longer than anyone who had a brain that worked and a reliable memory.
I returned to my truck determined not to dwell on the strange freight or Walt’s absence. The really big mysteries in life never troubled me much. How the pyramids were built or whether Cortés was a homosexual didn’t bounce my curiosity needle. On the other hand, Walt’s absence and his odd freight were hard to resist. The diner and I contemplated each other. Like Walt himself, it had a long and colorful past.
U.S. 191 is the main highway north and south out of Price, Utah. North led to Salt Lake City. Due south took you to Green River, and eventually Moab. The turnoff for State Road 117 is about twenty miles from the city limits of Price. Ten miles east, down 117, on the left, surrounded by miles of flat, rugged nothing, you came upon The Well-Known Desert Diner.
From 1955 to 1987 the diner appeared in dozens of B movies. There were the desert horror-thriller movies, the desert biker mayhem movies, and the movies where someone, usually an attractive young woman, drove across the desert alone and some bad shit happened.
Once in a while it’s possible to catch one of these low-budget gems on cable. I always cheered when the diner filled the screen. My personal favorites involved atomic monsters or aliens terrorizing small-town desert locals. The locals eventually triumphed and saved the planet. Their victory was usually accomplished with little more than a car battery, a couple of Winchester rifles, and a visiting college professor who had a crazy theory—and a wild, beautiful daughter.
The diner was originally built in 1929. Its pale gravel driveway, antique glass-bubble gas pumps, white adobe walls, and green trim made it seem familiar, almost like a home you had known all your life but never visited. Even the most hardened, sun-struck driver slowed down and smiled.
Two billboards, one facing 191 South and another facing 191 North, advertised the diner to traffic. “Homemade pie . . . Cool drinks . . . Just ahead.” The billboards were aged and faded. Through the years so many people had stopped to find the diner closed that one irate motorist spray-painted the northbound billboard to read: “The Never-Open Desert Diner.” Though this was not entirely true, it was true enough. On that rare occasion when it had not been true, the experience had turned out to be an unfortunate event for those who found the front door unlocked and Walt behind the counter. Though I didn’t know for certain, I’d always suspected that infrequently Walt took down the “Closed” sign and unlocked the door just to lure people in so he could run them off.
I emptied the last drops of coffee from the thermos into my ceramic mug and considered myself lucky, even though business was getting so bad I had been floating my diesel on a Visa card and trying not to wonder if I could survive another month. Still, every morning I got up feeling like I was headed home. To be sure, my luck was often hard luck, but good luck all the same, though lately I had felt more and more like a grown man still living at home with his poverty-stricken, ailing, and peculiar parents—which might have actually been the case if I’d had any.
Under my skin I wasn’t feeling nearly as lucky as I had in times past. Below that was a rising shiver of cold desperation. Things had to change. I wanted them to change. Like most people who said they wanted change, all I wanted was enough change to keep everything the same, only better.
The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it. The brakes hissed, and I glanced over at the diner one more time before I pulled out onto 117 to begin the rest of my day.