Jan 18, 2010 | Delta, UT
Jan 18, 2010

John Steinbeck used to say that the best way to get an idea about a place is to go to the local diner in the morning, sit at the counter, and listen to the conversation, and I think he was probably right.

But breakfast and gossip always taste better after a swim, so I went to the local pool and talked my way into joining the morning workout of the Delta high school team, which is the smallest in Utah. There was more flirting and poking and touching and joking between the boys and the girls than there was swimming. I shared a lane with Brendan and Sarah, whose flamboyant hormonal behavior easily identified them as the coolest kids on the team — he with his dyed yellow hair and loud jokes, and she with her precociously large breasts and good butterfly. I figured they were probably having sex, and that for both of them it was probably the first time. The swim coach was a large and friendly middle-aged woman, and evidently she had also had sex, because her baby grandson was there on the deck, causing her to go goo-goo and ga-ga to the baby instead of watching the pool, which didn't bode well for the team.

Smelling of chlorine, I drove to the local diner to see what else I could learn about Delta. The first diner I visited was not so much a diner as a bookstore. It was called "Outside the Box", and had the full Twilight vampire series for sale in a special display. There was nobody at the counter, but the menu advertised a staggering 15 flavors of hot cocoa, apparently because Mormons can't drink coffee or tea and Utah is full of Mormons. There were two PCs in the room, and a boy in skater garb sat at one of them, clicking through online dating profiles in a stupor. I thought that unlike his aquatic counterparts, he was probably not having sex, though he probably wanted to. The mood in there was silent and drab, so I left to find another place.

Two men sat on stools at the counter of The Rancher Motel and Cafe, and a pretty and wrinkled waitress named Sue poured them coffee. The men were discussing a local program that brings in monthly speakers. "They all just talk about how they're so successful, how they've done this or done that. I can't stand it. It doesn't motivate me. It makes me feel stupid," said one of the men. "Do you actually know anyone who is successful?"

"Besides yourself, of course," quipped the other man to the waitress, and they all laughed.

"I considered myself successful when I was collecting unemployment," said the first man, and they all laughed again. They all laughed a lot, and Sue brought me my eggs.

"Hey, what ever happened to Dennis?" the first man said to Sue.

Sue stopped laughing, walked back behind the counter, and leaned in close to the men. She spoke softly so I wouldn't hear, but I did hear. "He died Wednesday," she whispered. "Shot himself with a handgun."

There was a silence, and then the second man said, "Well, people don't live forever."

"No, they don't, and it is very sad," said Sue.

Then they were silent for a while as we all held our coffees and sipped them and looked out the window or up at the TV, which was showing the weather and saying there would be snow.

I went to find the bathroom, which was through the next room. The room was empty except for an old couple that was snuggling quietly on the banquette, he with his arm around her, picking at the remains of their breakfast. This struck me as so sweet and lovely, and I wondered whether they'd been married many years, whether they'd recently met after suffering divorces or dead spouses, or whether they were out-of-towners having a tryst. Whatever it was, I could see they were very much in love. If they were high schoolers after swim practice, this kind of public affection could have been annoying, but at their age it had a kind of tragic gravitas, and I don't think anyone minded.

When they left, they hobbled past me to the cash register, payed their bill, and walked outside, all the while holding hands and murmuring quietly to each other. As they walked down the street and disappeared out of sight, they never let go. Maybe they know they are old and don't have much more time together — sweetness from sadness.

Anyway, I hope it's like that.