My friend Nell once told me that Taos was put on this Earth to remind people to slow down. I return to the “soul of the Southwest” each summer to attend a conference, and this remark rings truer than anything I ever learned in Catholic school. Some days, I find myself pausing on the way back from a workshop to marvel at fat rainclouds crawling over the mesa; other times, it’s the magpies bitching at me from atop a cottonwood tree. This year, however, my lesson came in the form of service.

A gaggle of us meet up each July and bring children, dogs, other people’s children, other people’s dogs and a whole slew of colorful and distilled novelties to entertain these groups. Breakfast and lunch are provided by the conference, but dinner is not, so a few of our camp usually dart out to the Guadalajara Grill or Pizza Out Back and bring back enough to feed the masses. This year, one of our kids came down with the stomach flu, so six of us walked to a nearby restaurant so we could A. stay close in case the patient needed help and B. not sicken the fallen with the sights and smells of the items he’d expelled earlier.

The restaurant had five occupied tables, but the three servers looked busier than a trio of one-armed paper hangers. We waited patiently, eyeing the portable salad bar and vaguely Western-themed paintings until a dark-haired woman came over and asked, “Party of five?”

“Party of six,” my adult male friend clarified.

“Well, now I have to go set up a table,” she barked as if we had inconvenienced her by moving up to an even number. We assured the three kids that they had done nothing wrong to set off the scary lady with the messy hair. When she returned and led us to the table by her pout, I counted seven chairs and four menus.

“Guess math isn’t her strong suit,” my friend whispered, worried that his food might be tampered with if our hostress caught wind.
Another server tagged in to take our order. After such a chilly welcome, the table seemed overwhelmed with the feeling of original sin, so we carefully and politely requested pasta, beef, cabernet and beer from a puffy blond woman with a friendly diastema. Even though there were fewer than a dozen customers, the servers and busser scampered frantically around the dining room. This anxious atmosphere infected us, so we raced to the salad bar and filled our small plates with an assortment of greens (bagged), beets (pickled), baby corn (canned) and dressing (goopy). When we returned, I saw two glasses of yellow wine waiting at the table.

“Oh dear,” my adult female companion said, and I felt the same pang of regret. “We ordered cabernet.”

“You said Kendall Jackson.” Our server’s face was as pale and innocent as a plate.

“Cabernet is red,” my friend said as kindly as possible.

Having worked in the food industry, I wanted to don an apron and help, but that was impossible, especially with the raven-haired hostesticle still glaring at us, so I hid in the bathroom for 10 minutes. When I returned, there were two glasses waiting for me, one red and one white.

“She felt bad.” My female dining companion shrugged. She held her glass up. “First one is on the house.”

“An awkward 20 minutes has turned into a truly happy hour,” I said and sat down.

The two-for-one calmed me, and the food wasn’t terrible. The kids recounted the day’s events over pasta marinara, telling tales of being folded up in Murphy beds, chasing escaped Corgis and diving for colored rings at the bottom of the pool. We asked for clamshells to take leftover steak to a Westie and rice for the gut rut kid. Maybe it was the multilayered sunset that greeted us when we stepped outside or the gratis wine, but my adult female dining companion dropped the to-go box on the blacktop. I volunteered to run back to get binding food for the kid with the shukes.

Without wine and children, the place looked sad. There were no customers left, and the prime rib had grown cold on the sideboard. The testy hostess was on her knees wiping up a spill, and it was obvious that she was not pleased with my return. I knew better than to ask her for anything, so I searched for our server, whom we had tipped well. I spotted her blonde hair through the door to the kitchen. Inside, she was eating a slice of chocolate cake off the sharp end of a chef’s knife.

“I’ll trade you my silence for some rice pilaf,” I told her.

“Deal,” she said and licked the blade.