Short Story: Nighthawks

Wednesday, 9th August 2017

A very short piece written for the Oxford University's 'Writing Fiction' course, based on the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

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The couple sitting together have come from the club where they have been drinking most of the evening. She danced; he propped up the bar and watched, claiming a bad hip. They’ve been out a few times and it’s starting to get serious, but he makes her nervous. She thinks there’s something he’s not telling her, and when she tries to talk, he acts like she’s the Spanish Inquisition.

So, to put her mind at rest, she’s hired the man sitting across the counter. He retired from the LAPD five years ago and moved out East for a change of scene, but retirement doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t think there’s anything to this case: sure, the guy’s an asshole, but he’s an insurance salesman for the company whose boss went down on corruption charges last month. “Asshole” is on his business cards. That doesn’t make him anything more or less than a bad date.

But hey, it pays the bills, and if it keeps him from turning into one of those retirees who lives in suspended animation waiting for the doorbell to ring, it’s okay by him.

The server behind the counter is feeling less relaxed. He’s been on shift for eight hours after George called in with a dubious stomach complaint, leaving him to fill in. The guy who came in with the classy redhead is getting on his nerves. The way he orchestrates a simple order, you’d think he was qualified to be on the other side of the counter. As it is, you can give him any beans you like - from Kenya to kidney - and he’ll spend the next five minutes telling his lady friend how it brings back memories of Guatemala. Guy probably doesn’t even have a passport.

The server can tell the girl isn’t into it. He caught her eye once, and they share a moment. Maybe another time he’d have suggested losing that guy and going someplace else. But the guy doesn’t look like the type who’d take that well, and the server can’t afford trouble. Not after last week. Final warning, the boss said.

Charles Kelly sits at the counter with his girlfriend, pretending to enjoy a cup of coffee. He can’t stand coffee, and the bitter smell will be with him all night, cutting through the pleasant brandy haze that he cultivated so carefully. He’s worried. On his way to meet Gracie, everything was right with his world: the divorce was final, and in the fog of excitement he’d booked a booth at the most expensive club in town. That was where the problem started: the band was good, and every time he thought he had a quiet moment with Gracie, another favourite song came on and she was on the dance floor. It’s difficult to conjure romantic intimacy out of the two-minute pause between Black Coffee and Minnie the Moocher. And it’s downright impossible in this diner she dragged him to, no pictures, no music, nothing but the sound of steam escaping the water boilers and the server droning on about some bust-up they had last week.

He thinks about how the evening played out in his head. There was no diner in that plan. Right now, he’d be Gracie’s apartment, and she’d be standing in front of those big sash windows of hers, in silhouette, just the curves of her body and the street light making a halo out of her beautiful hair.

That man over there, he thinks. No angst, no games, just a regular guy enjoying a quiet stop-off on the way home. If only we could all be so simple.