Fiction: Nighthawks

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper view into night time diner for Nighthawks post by Malin James

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

I wrote this story awhile ago. I’ve always loved the painting that inspired it. In fact, I love most of Hopper’s work. As a very good friend of mine once said that his subjects appear to be lost in their own world. Their faces and postures have an interiority that invites interpretation. I couldn’t help but write this. It’s a very short story, with a serial point of view. In other words, the narrator spends a brief amount of time in each of the  characters’ heads. This drives some readers crazy, (my apologies if you’re one), but I think the convention works for this image. There was no other way to do it, in my book.

Nighthawks

Rose looked at her reflection in the polished mahogany counter. She didn’t look good. The day had caught up to her, stripped her of color and sharpened her face. She dabbed at her lipstick with a napkin. Too red. It looked funny. Rose put the napkin down. She used to like that red. So had Eddie. Eddie had liked that color.

Red, red lips for my red, red, Rose….

Rose’s hand plucked at her earring, her coffee, her locket, before inching over to rest on Rob’s sleeve. She liked the feel of his woolen jacket under her quick, nervous fingers. Nice and warm. Solid. Rob. She shivered. It had been a long day. It was time to go home. She wanted to say that. It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home. But his downcast eyes trapped the words in her mouth. He wasn’t ready yet. She could wait.

Widow at thirty. What a laugh. She smiled at her reflection. She looked bitter and old—not pretty anymore. Her eyes slid to the floor. She didn’t really care. Everyone was dead. Eddie was dead. The baby was dead. Her father—hers and Rob’s—was dead, but that was nothing to cry about. Their father had always been lucky. He was a lucky son-of-a-bitch.

Rose glanced at her brother and cut off the thought, as if Rob could read her mind. He couldn’t. She knew it. Just like she couldn’t read his, but sometimes they got close…sometimes.

It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home.

She looked at his profile, his hawkish face, and quietly looked away.

Rose knew the dead were lucky, but Rob didn’t need to hear it. He’d done enough already. More than she wanted him to. He’d visited her in the hospital and tied pink ribbons around her wrists. He came by or called every day. He worried, she knew. She made him worry.

You worry, honey. You worry too much.

She was tired. It was time to go home.

Rose sighed, a small, shallow breath. Everything was done. This time he’d have nothing to find. Rob…. She was glad they’d spent the whole day. Rose fingered her locket. The gold was warm. It felt soft when she pressed it. There was a picture of Eddie and the baby inside.

She glanced at her brother through her sweep of red hair. Red, red hair. Red, red Rose. Poor Rob. His face looked dark, like a shuttered house. No lights. Locked doors. She could wait. They would sit together in this anonymous place, coffee cold in their cups. When he was ready, he would take her home. She loved him. She could wait.

###

Robert knew Rose was going to try it again. He could read it like newsprint in the lines around her mouth. He missed her smile, her real smile, her cracking, half-cocked grin. He hadn’t seen it in months. Instead he got what she gave him now…pale lips under too much red. Her hand was cold on his arm.

She’d gotten dressed up for their day together, special occasion dressed up—Hayworth hair, her favorite pink dress, she’d even worn perfume. But her bones were sharp beneath her collar. Her wrists were thin and hard. He wished she’d worn a sweater. It was turning cold, too cold for a thin, silk dress.

Why don’t you bring a sweater, Rosy?

No, I’ll be okay.

The second she’d said that, he’d known. That dress, her hair, her too bright face…he’d known exactly what was coming. He didn’t want to know.

He lit a cigarette and let it burn. Tiny column of ash. Then he lit another. Beside him Rose shifted, patient, silent. She wanted to go home.

See you tomorrow, Rose

I love you, Rob.

Robert sipped his coffee. He should say something. He should stop her. But, Jesus, she looked spent…. Rob glanced at his sister, though the sweep of her strawberry hair, but he couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. Robert signaled for the check. It was time to take her home.

“More coffee?”

Robert paused.

The waiter poured.

One more cup. He wasn’t ready yet.

###

Wish that kid would quit staring and do his job. Goddamn coffee’s cold.

Across the diner, Charlie hunched over the counter, like a bulldog over a bone. He eyed the yellow-haired waiter, who was eyeing the redheaded girl. Like staring was going help. A gal like that never left her man, not if he beat her into the ground. After thirty years he knew.

Charlie rubbed his bum knee. He wished he could sleep. He hadn’t slept since he’d retired. Not a full eight hours. Not in a month. Way to go Charlie. Retirement—you lucky son-of-a-bitch….

Yeah. Real lucky.

Charlie leaned back into the diner chair, and thought about what he’d retired to. He hated fishing, hated crosswords. His buddies were still on the force. Doris was remarried and Katie was busy, making a life of her own. She’d even gotten a job—secretary at some firm. Smart girl. Katie had always been smart. Maybe not pretty, but smart. He could hear Doris telling her to dress up nice for work. Christ, he wished Doris would shut-up.

Charlie shot the waiter a look and softly clacked his cup. The kid strolled over, refilled it from the urn and handed it back to him. Up close, Charlie realized, the kid wasn’t much of a kid. Mid-twenties maybe. Charlie grunted. At twenty-six, he’d been on the force for five years. Guy should get a real job.

Charlie looked out the diner’s plate-glass window at the dark, disinterested street. Good pension. Big thanks. What did you do when you got cut loose? What the hell did you do? Kid’s got his whole life and he wastes it, like it’s something to toss away. Charlie shifted on the narrow seat. He was starting to hate that kid….

He should probably head home. It was a long walk back to his place. Maybe that would wear him out. He reached for his wallet, straining the seams of his suit. Cheap suit. Work suit. He took out his Luckies instead. One cigarette. One more cup. Then he’d toss a buck on the counter and take the long walk home. Back to his apartment. He hated that apartment. He hated the way it looked—half empty, full of nothing, like old newsprint. He hadn’t seen it that way before. He hadn’t had time—he’d barely ever been home. Now he saw every night. Charlie sipped his coffee, sucking it slowly between his teeth.

Christ, he wished he could sleep.

###

That lady looks sick. Joe glanced up from a tray of half-empty saltshakers. What’s she doing out so late with that guy, anyway? She looks like she should be in a hospital or something….

Joe shook his head and refilled the shakers without taking his eyes off the lady in the dark pink dress. He was good at working and watching. He never spilled.

Look at how she’s holding his arm, he thought. Like she’s gonna drown and he’s the only thing keeping her afloat.

Joe stopped pouring and wiped off his hands. That was good. He had to write that down.

He loved working the late shift. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration. The lady and her fella were great. He had to use them somewhere…maybe he’d put her in a sanitarium and make the guy her lover. And the guy… a private eye with a shady past? Maybe he broke her out and now they’re on the run. However Joe wrote it, it was gonna be tragic. That lady was tragic all over.

Joe glanced across the counter at the old guy with the coffee habit, sitting on his own. He wasn’t as compelling but he’d find his way in too. Maybe a crime boss or a has-been reporter. Joe studied the man nursing his twelve-hundredth cup. Thickset. Stubborn face. Angry mug. No. He was the woman’s father. Iron fist with heart of gold.

The old guy shot Joe a belligerent look.

Skip the heart of gold.

Joe shrugged. Even after he’d sold the novel, he’d still work the graveyard shift. He loved the diner at night. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration.

Joe pulled out a pen. Down the counter, the man paid the tab and helped the lady up. She stumbled. He caught her. Joe bent over his notes. He barely looked up as they left.

THE END

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The Devil’s in the Details (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer for The Devil's in the Deep Blue Sea post by Malin James

Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer

I watched a film awhile ago – Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea. It’s a beautiful, melancholy play, and a beautiful melancholy film about a woman named Hester Collyer, who escapes a stifling marriage to have an affair with a damaged RAF pilot named Freddie Page.

Set in the years following WWII, the film, (and the play), examines a particular slice of cultural history through Hester’s emotional decent. She’s a beautiful woman with two choices – remain wedded to stifling traditions or deviate from accepted social norms. Neither is particularly promising as they are born out in the choice between a dry, unsatisfying marriage to a  kind, older judge, or wildly sexual but emotionally fraught affair with a younger man.

There are a lot of things I like about this film. Visually, it’s a beautiful thing, full of saturated color and all the  soft edges of an old Hollywood film. The acting is also first rate – Rachel Weisz is heart-breaking as Hester and Tom Hiddleston turns in a edgy, nuanced performance as Freddie Page. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details, and that’s true for this film.

Take a look at this short trailer, and keep your ear open to one of Freddie’s lines. It starts about 19 seconds in.

That line – “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met” – is the detail that stands out most to me in this film. That one line, and Hester’s silent response to it, tells viewers everything they need to know about what’s going to happen. Here’s what I mean.

Arguably, Hester’s defining characteristic is that she needs. She is driven by unfulfilled need, and her needs – for love, and respect, and fulfillment, and romance, and desire, and safety, and belonging, and etc. etc. etc. – run incredibly deep. Freddie, on the other hand, skates the surface of need. He cannot tolerate entanglements for reasons of his own.

So, while he can offer Hester, “I really think you’re the most attractive girl I’ve ever met”, what Hesters needs is “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I love you. Stay with me.” That need of hers is naked on her face, and as soon as you see her cling to the bon-bon Freddie’s offered, you know it’s going to go badly for them.  There is too much distance between what Hester needs, and what Freddie can give.

And that’s why I love this film, even though it makes my stomach hurt. No one is at fault. They are just, fundamentally, not right for each other. Love and attraction are not enough. What breaks my heart is that nothing will ever be enough for Hester. Her needs went ignored for so long that there is a hole inside of her that cannot be filled. That’s why this film is a tragedy, and that’s why it’s so good.

On Food & Love

To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.

My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.

For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.

In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.

Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.

So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.

The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.

So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.