Two in the morning. Morning, what a laugh; it’s still the middle of the night. There’s no one around at this hour: not a car, or a person, not even a dog. Silent as snow over here.
Just one block away, the place is jumping. The cabarets, clubs and outdoor cafes cater to the wide awake crowd. Over there, the neon lights blaze like a midday sun and the sidewalks overflow with all manner of humanity; soldiers on leave out with their best girls, or making time with the ladies of the night; hustlers on the hunt for chumps and suckers looking to score. A fair number of ordinary schmoes inhabit the night: vendors, waiters, bartenders, musicians, and even a certain subset of panhandlers, the ones who aren’t slumped in alleys and doorways. It’s a swinging scene alright, but hey, this is the city that never sleeps, right?
On this street, the vibe’s different. It’s quiet, deserted as a schoolhouse in the summertime, except for the diner glowing like a meteorite in the middle of the block. The joint is lit up like Macy’s at Christmas, thanks to the newly installed fluorescents that bathe everything they touch in an icy blue haze. Old Man Wooster would be blowing a fuse if he didn’t close his haberdashery strictly by 5 p.m. and even earlier in the winter. Who’d want to peddle high-class fedoras by the light of that moon?
The soft-edged, many-windowed eatery puts everything inside on full-display. It’s like watching a play presented within a circular sweep of tile and glass. Anyone can see what’s going on from every angle, can take in the swank cherry wood counters, the bare walls. Otherwise, it’s a no-frills kind of place, but they serve a good cup of java.
Inside the four main actors go about their business, three at the counter and one guy behind it who looks to be barely out of his teens. The babe in the red blouse is out late, sure, but she’s no dolly. Her outfit says secretary or maybe shop girl, but she holds herself like she’s class act. She’s making a show of minding her own business, though she tossed the kid behind the counter a million dollar smile. Could be she’s a regular, resting her tired dogs after an evening of waitressing. How else to explain a dame like her on a deserted street like this at two in the a.m., no escort in sight? Not what you’d call hot but she’s got a certain style, especially with her auburn hair down around her shoulders.
Next to her sits a guy in a sharp-looking suit. He and the good-looking gal are perched closer than two jays on a telephone wire, but she’s turned away from him. What’s that all about? Could be he made a move and she put the kibosh on it, told him to take a powder. Or they had a lovers spat, and now she’s giving the jerk the cold shoulder. Maybe they know each other—their hands on the counter are just shy of touching—but they have their own reasons for pretending different. One thing’s for sure: he hasn’t changed his seat, though there are plenty of other stools along the counter for the taking. Maybe he’s daydreaming. He’s pushed his cup aside. Even his cigarette’s got a head of ash on it. Could be he’s just another denizen of the night, lost in his own thoughts, asking himself how the hell he ended up wherever he is. Who doesn’t from time to time?
Now the fellow several seats down, the one with his back to the window? He looks a little cagey. Another suit hunched over himself; hasn’t touched his coffee. In fact, nobody seems to be drinking much, even though it’s not exactly swill they’re serving. Back to the mystery man: what’s his deal? Is he running from a secret too big to face? Is he just on the outs with the missus and holed up here because he’s got nowhere else to go? Maybe he’s just another schmo with a dead-end job, a traveling salesman peddling anything from insurance policies to vacuum cleaners. Sets his case down on the floor by his side while he grabs a bite. Traveling salesman, that’s a tough life.
The empty storefronts across the street catch the ambient glow from the diner lights. The fluorescents always manage to create their antithesis: deep pitch-black voids that seem to swallow buildings and people indiscriminately. Nothing penetrates those shadows: no life, no history, no tall tales or terrifying truths. Whatever stories the night has to yield are going to come from the violet-tinged tableau inside the all-night diner.
He sits in a black-and-white parked inconspicuously just outside the circle of light. His task is to keep an eye on the shadows, to pick out what might otherwise stay out of sight. The job is boring and maybe even a little lonely. The running narrative in his head, well, that’s just his way of passing the time. Sometimes he thinks he’s a sap for choosing law enforcement instead of a cushy office job. On long nights like this, he yearns for his warm bed and the comfort of his young wife’s embrace. Still, it’s gotta be a damn sight better than a stint abroad fighting Japs or Krauts, although he’d go if he was called up; hell yeah, he would.
He takes a sip of coffee. It’s hot and it’s good, much better than the mud they serve at the precinct. Reaching for the glazed donut on the seat beside him, he takes a bite. It could be worse, he thinks, and raises his cup in a half-salute to the diner and its motionless occupants.
The two-way crackles, startling him so he almost spills his brew. Almost. He’s young, with quick reflexes, so he’s able to spare his uniform and stifle the expletive that comes to mind. He’s trying to curse less, out of respect for the bride.
“Dispatch calling Car 201. Nighthawk, you there?”
“I’m here, Sarge.”
“Nope, quiet as a morgue.”
The desk sergeant responds with a high-pitched laugh that whistles through the wires like a dry desert wind.
“Not the most interesting beat, Ace; I got that. You could see action yet, though, so be awake and ready to move. We got an altercation a couple blocks south of you. May need you to scoot over there if things get too hot for Ranger to handle.”
“Roger that, Sarge.”
“Now go back to your daydreaming.” Again, the raspy laugh rolls like tumbleweed out the receiver and through the sedan.
He starts to respond, but the sergeant has clicked off. He’s old school, that one; doesn’t like the new radios. Probably wishes he could go back to the Pony Express.
The young cop takes another bite of the donut and settles back into the gloom, nothing more than a shadow himself. He trains his eyes on the diner and on the four figures thrown by his watchful presence into eternal sharp relief.
Stern is the author of two non-fiction books. She has contributed essays to the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and Humanist Magazine. Her second book, ‘Hope in Small Doses,’ is a 2015 Eric Hoffer medal finalist and is carried in the National September 11 Museum bookstore. Short stories have been published in online literary magazines Fictionique, Foundling Review, and Hobo Pancake and in U.S. 1. She has just completed a mystery novel. Her short story above contains one direct reference to the title of the accompanying artwork.