I used Edward Hopper’s well-known painting ‘Nighthawks’ as inspiration for this story.
WWII Army vet Dan nurses the pain of rejection in an all-night diner, where he meets an intriguing woman ship welder.
Three nights after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Dan sat at an empty stretch of counter in an all-night diner not far from his old neighborhood. On the counter next to his coffee cup an engagement ring glinted in the neon light, a tiny diamond set in a gold band. Tonight had been the moment he dreamed of since he was drafted.
She said no.
The counter man stepped over to refill Dan’s black coffee, remove the empty plate once graced by a hefty slice of apple pie.
“Bad night, huh?” the counter man said.
The counter man grabbed the bill lying on the counter, balled it up in his fist. “On the house tonight. You come back again, you pay.”
He went back to chatting with the only other customers in the diner at the two a.m. hour, a man and woman about Dan’s age. The three laughed quietly while the counter man rinsed glasses.
Looking over his coffee cup, Dan saw the man across the counter get up, kiss the woman on the cheek, and head for the exit. The woman waved to him. As the counter man cleared dishes, the woman put money on the counter and also headed towards the exit. Moments later Dan heard the juke box begin playing, ‘I don’t want to walk without you.’
Dan started. Without waiting for an answer, the woman sat down next to Dan.
Dan felt a blush rage up his cheeks. Who is this dame?
The woman signaled the counter man for fresh coffee. She pointed to the engagement ring. “You need someone to wear that ring?”
Dan turned to look at the woman. “You proposing to me? After your boyfriend walks away?”
“Not my boyfriend. Cousin. First time I’ve seen him since he was drafted.”
“She dumped you, right?”
The woman sipped her coffee.
“You deserve better than her.”
“My family, my whole neighborhood, had us married right after the war. I guess she thought different.”
“It’s over. Move on.”
“Not so easy.”
The woman gestured to the diner’s interior. “I come in here almost every night. Have been since the war started. I get off work at 10 p.m., come straight here. Beats a bar. I can’t deal with drunks.”
Dan asked, “Where do you work?”
“Brooklyn Navy Yard. Half hour by subway. I’m a ship welder.”
Dan reached over, took her hands in his. “Pretty smooth hands for a welder.”
“Gloves, honey. You gotta take care of yourself. This job ain’t gonna last forever.”
Dan eyed the woman’s outfit, a dark dress accented with a bright scarf.
“You clean up pretty good.”
“I’m at the shipyard six days a week, nine to ten hours a day. That shit stays behind when I walk out the gate.”
Dan turned to stare at the ring.
“When did you get home?” the woman asked.
“Three days ago.”
“No surprise there. I can smell the mothballs on your suit.”
Dan held up his sleeve to his nose. Grimaced.
“Were you overseas?”
“No. I did logistics. Worked at a couple of bases across the states. I was lucky.”
“Not for me. I could find anything.”
The woman cocked her head. “Really?”
“That’s how I got the ring.”
“Tell me,” she said.
Dan sipped his lukewarm coffee. Wiped his sweaty hands on his pants leg.
“I once shipped a pallet of toilet paper to a tiny base in Greenland. Had to disguise the carton as winter coats.”
Dan sat up straighter.
“That base sent me a new jeep they had no use for. Still in its factory carton, some assembly required. I sent it to Montana, to a general I knew. His son had been wounded, and the general wanted something to occupy his son’s time, help him get past the trauma.”
“Yeah, so, the general sent me a box of fresh-cut steaks. I shipped them to a supply officer for a submarine crew ready to ship out to patrol the Atlantic coast. The supply officer sent me the ring.” Dan pointed to the counter. “He said he had no need for it.”
“I’m guessing he had the same luck you did.”
“So the ring’s got two strikes against it.”
Dan stared at the ring for a few moments. He grabbed it, stuffed it deep in his pants pocket.
“You can pawn it, use the cash for a new suit. You’ll need it.”
“You’re probably right.”
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Dan…You always this forward?”
“No. I told you, I come here rather than a bar because I can’t deal with the scum. Three years without a decent man to talk to. Ray here,” she nodded in the counter man’s direction, “is a jewel. Keeps this place a safe haven. The baseball bat under the counter helps. Six nights a week I come here for a burger and coffee. So…when I see a man like you, I know the real goods.”
Once again Dan felt his cheeks blaze.
“I gotta go. Morning comes too soon.” She stood. “My name is Betty. I’ll be here tomorrow, and for a few more months, till all the men are back and I lose my job.’
“What will you do then?”
“No idea. I’ll land on my feet somewhere. A paycheck makes this woman feel good.”
She waved goodnight to Ray.
“You okay walking home?” Dan asked.
“Sure. No one messes with a woman ship welder.”
“Maybe I’ll stop in again tomorrow night.”
Betty smiled. “You do that, Dan. Without the mothball suit.”
She extended her arm, shook his hand. “Soft hands for an Army guy.”
“Maybe I wore gloves.” He laughed. “Gotta look good for the ladies.”
“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night.”
Betty turned as she headed for the exit. She pointed to Dan, winked. “Be careful out there. It’s a tough neighborhood.”