Alive (short story)

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942

She had never been unfaithful to Edward before, but there was something special about Jack that made her feel alive again. 

It started simply and unexpectedly. She was shopping downtown and he used some corny pick-up line on her. A classic beauty, she was accustomed to such attention from men and usually dismissed it, but she couldn’t resist him. It was as if they had known each other forever. They arranged to meet at a diner in Jack’s neighborhood, a notoriously rough area that Edward avoided. They would come to call it their “rendezvous point,” speaking in code as if they were government agents on a secret mission. She had told Jack that she was married, but not that her husband was Edward Magnuson, one of the richest men in the state.

She met Edward while working at a department store. He was almost three times her age so she never thought of him romantically, but he fell in love with her and convinced her to see him socially. She enjoyed his intellect and old-fashioned charm. Because she had always been poor, she also enjoyed the high-society world he introduced her to. However, she quickly learned that no amount of material wealth could soothe an empty heart. His mansion had become a prison for her; the proverbial golden cage.

Ten long years of marriage passed before Jack arrived. He was a mechanic; dirt poor compared to Edward, but adventurous and untamed, impulsive and passionate, everything Edward wasn’t. They would meet at the diner, spend hours riding through the countryside on his motorcycle, and make love on the beach, in fields of high grass, or wherever the impulse took them. She found the freedom she was so hungry for on Jack’s motorcycle and in his arms. In both ways, he pushed the limits.

It had been two years since they met. Edward worked incessantly so he never had a clue until one evening when he came home looking uncharacteristically sullen. He sat in the study, drinking his usual scotch and water, staring at the fireplace. Finally, he called her in and asked her to sit down. With its high ceiling, dark cherry wood paneling, and big game trophies staring from the walls, the room had always intimidated her. He assessed her coldly with a look she had never seen before.

“Abigail, I’ve been made aware of something very . . . troubling.”
“Really?” she asked, her heart racing.
“A friend from the club told me he saw you with someone, and that you were kissing him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she replied, too quickly.
“There’s no point in denying it. He made sure it was you.”
A terrible moment passed. He watched sternly as tears welled in her eyes.
“I’m willing to forgive you,” he said, “but only if you end it with him, tonight.”
She sat quietly, trapped.
“Well?” he demanded.
She heard herself say, “I can’t. I love him.”
He sighed and said, “Pack your things and get out.”

He stood up and walked away as if a meeting had just adjourned. He didn’t become so wealthy by being overly emotional. She telephoned Jack in tears.

“It’s me,” she said. “He knows.”
“Don’t worry, doll. Meet me at the rendezvous point. You can move in with me. It’ll be terrific. You’ll see.”
It would be hard adjusting to his small apartment, but she was no stranger to a humble life. She packed quickly and drove to the diner. A heavy rain started to fall. It was almost closing time so the diner was empty.
“Jack should have been here by now,” she thought.

She sat at their usual table and ordered a cup of coffee from Joe, the owner. Half an hour passed. He was usually early, anxious to see her. She was growing more worried by the minute. Another fifteen minutes later, she heard sirens speeding by on the road, not unusual on a rainy night, but then realized with a start why Jack might be late. She ran to her car and drove toward the lights. When she reached the accident scene, she rolled down her window to talk to a policeman who was directing traffic.
“What happened, officer?” she asked.
“Hit ‘n run. Move along, please, ma’am.”

Her heart pounding with dread, she passed a body covered with a white, blood-soaked sheet and, nearby, a crushed motorcycle she recognized as Jack’s. She felt the impulse to vomit. She knew immediately that Edward was behind this accident somehow. She should have known he wouldn’t take this rejection lying down.

Later that night, not knowing where else to go, she returned to their table at the diner, desperate to feel close to Jack somehow. At dawn, Joe entered, turned the sign on the door to the side that read “open,” and walked into the kitchen. Two city workers followed after him. Of all the empty tables, they sat down at hers. She looked at them incredulously.
“Excuse me. This is my table,” she said.
“Did you hear about that accident last night?” one man asked the other.
“Yeah. Poor slob,” he replied.
Aggravated, she said, “Are you both deaf?”
Growing angrier at being ignored, she stood up. Joe came to the table.
“Joe! Thank God,” she said. “Would you please ask these men . . .”
“What can I bring ya, fellas?” Joe asked.
“What?” she yelled, “What’s wrong with all of you?”
“Any apple turnovers today?”
“Yep! Heatin’ ‘em up right now.”
She yelled even louder, “You’re all crazy!” 
Again, none of them looked her way. With a series of jolts, she began to remember the events of the night before . . . seeing the accident, Jack’s crumpled body under the white sheet, driving into the mountains through lashing rain, struggling to see through her tears; the cliff’s edge, beckoning; the feeling of floating on the wind as the car plummeted; and finally, nothing. Blackness. Oblivion.

She screamed in horror as the men continued talking, then fell back into her chair and wept uncontrollably. 

Eighty years have passed, but she sits there still, waiting. Waiting for Jack to come back and make her feel alive again.

 

– Mark Rickerby

Art credit – Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942