Fighting The Undertow

Weekly Writing Challenge Find A Muse In The Masters – write a poem, a short story, a vignette, a scene, or flash fiction based on Nighthawks by Edward Hopper..

Edward Hopper – Nighthawks, 1942.

If I am being honest, this was never my dream job. A barely legal kid, with no money and no connections, blinded by the city lights. When I said “I want to serve.” this was not what I really had in mind.

Ever since I was a scrawny little kid, I dreamed of becoming a soldier. My father came back from the Great War with one arm and few brass medals, fueling my imagination with war stories about lasting friendships and crazy adventures. Years later I realized he left out parts filled with blood and gore, to my mother’s immense relief.

“Husband, please…don’t fill his head with horrors, he is just a child.”
“My dear, it’s wise to prepare the boy for anything life might throw at him. Best he not be caught in the undertow.”

But, his love for my mother always prevailed and thus I grew up with stories that made my eyes bigger than my ears, dreaming of far away lands and imaginary enemies.

After Pearl Harbor nothing would stop me to enlist. So, I packed few of my belongings and headed for New York. Mother was silently crying, her iron grip almost crushing my hand. She always was a strong one, carrying the heavy load of living with a war invalid. Father was unusually quiet, pulling me to his one-arm embrace and whispering: “Come back to us.”

My mind was in a different place, miles ahead of the old bus covered with dust from our county’s well-traveled roads. I waved to my parents through the back window, already imagining how I would get a hero welcome years from now. Just like my father did so long ago.

My bus arrived to  New York on a rainy December evening, on the heels of President Roosevelt’s executive order that changed the age range for the draft from 21–45 to 18–38. After spending the night at the bus terminal, I was first in line, eager to start my military career, just to have my dreams crushed by doctors. “Heart murmur.” they said. “You should be lucky we caught it this early” they said.

That’s me, one lucky boy. Working in a dinner. Wearing the uniform. Serving other boys in uniforms. Watching them living my dream. Last month I had a pleasure to serve Peter Harper, my personal high school bully. He came in with few of his buddies, celebrating their overseas deployment. I should probably count my blessings that he didn’t recognize me, for surely he wouldn’t pass the opportunity to throw few punches at his favorite target.

Thus the days pass me by. A lost boy in a big city, crying over spilled milk, not having an ounce of courage to call his parents. What a disappointment I must be to my father, a war hero with an unfit son. Working for a minimal wage, barely making ends meet, how can I send money home, so my mother could stop exhausting herself with double shifts…My dreams of a hero welcome were replaced with dreams of paying my rent on time.

So, here I am, on a quiet Monday evening. Ava and Clark from the office across the street are entertaining me with their usual office gossip. It seems George from the accounting department was caught with his pants down. Literally. He tried to explain how he got the severe case of allergy, caused by his mother in law’s pumpkin pie. Somehow she forgot he was allergic to cinnamon, although George swears he warned her at least hundred times. Their boss was not impressed by his explanation, especially when he realized poor George used his comb to scratch his legs that were covered in red spots.

The last thing I expected to see when the doorbell rang was my father entering the dinner. He was not fond of traveling, always used to say: “I’ve done my share of wandering around, it’s time my old bones enjoy the retirement.” It was so strange to watch him standing there, this calm, quiet man surrounded by city lights and sounds.

In a second all my doubts and fears disappeared and I found myself in his embrace.
“I am so sorry, Dad.”
“For what?”
“For disappointing you. I failed my physical exam. They turned me down.”
My father tightened his embrace and said: “Good.”
His words left me confused and I stepped back, looking at his smiling face: “Good?”
“Yes, good. Now, give your old father a cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie.” he casually demanded easing himself into a chair.
I rushed behind the counter, determined to show how good I was at my job. It’s funny how we continue to seek our parent’s approval, no matter how old we are.

I placed his order in front of him and with newfound courage asked: “How is Mom?”
“She is mad at you for not calling. That’s why I came alone. Didn’t think it would look good if your mother marched in and scolded you at your work place. You owe me. Big time.”
“How are things back at home?”
“Peter Harper died. His plane went down somewhere over the Pacific. Mr. and Mrs.Harper got the telegram last week.”
“But I saw him last month. He was here!”
“I know. He wrote his parents, saying he ran into you. That’s how I knew where to find you.”
“I thought he didn’t recognize me.”
“He did, but didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. Somehow Peter found out you failed to enlist and didn’t want to rub it in your face.”
“I don’t understand it, he was always so mean to me, all through the high school.”
“People change and sometimes boys grow up.”

Ava and Clark waved goodbye and left, leaving us sitting in silence. My father clapped his hands, startling me, and exclaimed: “Give me one more piece of that apple pie, it’s the best I ever had. But please, don’t tell your mother.”
I laughed out loud, imagining my mom’s reaction. She was not the best cook, but refused to accept that. As my father finished his second piece, I cleaned up the dinner, locked the front door and turned out the lights. “Let’s get out in the back, I need to throw the garbage out. We’ll walk to my place, its 10 minutes from here.”

We were greeted by the cold night air, the smell of last snow still lingering around. The street was empty, echoing with our steps, lined up with buildings half asleep.
“So, what are your plans?” my father asked me and I could feel my insecurity creeping back.
“I don’t know. This is a decent job, but the money is barely enough. And to be honest, I don’t see myself doing this in a long run.”
“What’s stopping you to do something else?”
“Fear? I am afraid I will fail again. I dreamed one dream whole my life and I failed. I don’t know what to do next. How to start all over…”

My father stopped mid-step, looked up and pointed at the sky: “You see those stars? When I was a little boy, I dreamed someday I would fly up there. Then I dreamed I would go to lands faraway. Years later I went overseas, and there I dreamed to survive and return home. When I came back, my dreams didn’t stop. I met your mother, became a father and then I dreamed to see you grow up. There were hardships…Oh, you can’t even imagine how hard it was sometimes. Disabled, jobs few and far apart, watching your mother struggling to keep us afloat, seeing all the pitying looks from our neighbours and friends. And still…I dreamed. Because, there are so many dreams and so few dreamers. We need to reach for the stars or we’ll always linger in the darkness.  We need to be brave ones, to dear to dream… You will find your way, just don’t let be caught in the undertow.”

With every word he said, I felt the love filling my heart, warming my bones, making me stand taller. I finally realized how my parents survived all the years of constant struggle, how they always anchored each other, weathered the storms side by side. How they gave me all the life lessons I would ever need. How I will find my way, my dreams.

Because… there was always love.

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