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Nighthawks - (based on the painting by Edward Hopper) part 3
The words are becoming lighter and more feathery. Darn it. I know what this means. The pen is skidding across the paper, possessed, scribbling the thoughts from my head as if some direct link has been established. The word I’m writing is a deceptively light shade of blue, as if it comes from a completely different pen to the one used to write the previous lines. I keep writing, pushing the nib harder and harder into the page. Finally, it fades away. The cartridge rattles inside, empty. Darn it.
I look up for the first time in a while, look across the counter at the people on the other side of the bar. There she is. The woman with red hair. Long and red and wavy, past her shoulders, curls collecting in the pools of her collarbone. Her eyes flick down, and then up suddenly, and then down. Green. It’s like I am a camera, zooming in, drinking in everything i can capture with my limited lens. Her lips are full; slight creases like folds in silk at the corners and at the edges of her eyes are the only things that indicate her age. Tonight, she’s wearing a dress. The cut is lower than what is considered refined, the hem is frayed, the material is cheap but i like it. Hell, I would like a potato sack if it was on her. The man sitting beside her is the same man who always sits beside her, leaning over the counter, talking loudly to the old barman, spilling his cappuccino everywhere. He is holding a pen between his fingers. It appears as though he is trying to engage the barman in a game of noughts and crosses, or perhaps hatching a friendly bet. The pen is gold. It looks heavy. The ink that flows out of it is thick and wet and black. I should like to ask him if I can borrow it; I was really getting somewhere with my writing. But I know I won’t. Besides, it would make me feel guilty to even hold such a fine and expensive object between my ink-stained fingers.
I almost had you, didn’t I? Listen to me, describing these people like they’re strangers, acting like their habits and appearances are foreign to me. The truth is I come here almost every night. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s become really every night. Not almost. There’s no deep hidden reason why; nothing I’m trying to escape from. Although I guess the apartment can get pretty empty sometimes, but that’s because I choose to have it that way, i choose to live alone, to have no friends. The truth is, this diner is simply a good place to write. I don’t get disturbed, I don’t get distracted. Its quiet. Well, apart from when that jerk with the expensive pen is in here talking loudly with the poor barman. It’s also a good place to draw, to sketch. The book I carry with me, my journal, is what i use to write down ideas in; ideas for stories, poems, I sketch in it too. I also use it to write down my novel manuscripts. Yes. Novels. You see, I live a kind of superman double life, although maybe not as exciting. My name is Johnny Knox. You don’t know me? I didn’t think so. My alter-ego is David Silas. He’s a really great guy; a number one bestselling author. I see his name everywhere, in all the reading lists and the newspapers, yet he still seems like a stranger to me. I guess we do have some things in common though. We both hide from the public eye; no one knows anything about him. I guess no one knows anything about me, either, but the difference is that no one wants to.
I moved here a few years ago; my parents were performers, so I’m used to moving. My whole life we shuffled around North America, from cities to towns to country sides to the middle of bloody nowhere. My mother was a singer. Julianne Knox. She sang pubs mainly, sometimes as the opening act before a play, sometimes on the streets when we were short of money. Which was pretty much always. She never did make it to the big time, but one can’t argue that she didn’t try. She tried so hard. I heard her singing to herself every night on the porch, whistling as she washed the dishes. Every agent in town knew her name from the number of times she turned up on their doorsteps. Every time she had the door shut in her face, the sudden gust of wind blowing a few strands of hair from her face and forcing her to close her eyes. I guess anyone else would have been weakened by such failure, discouraged. Not Julianne. She never lost sight of her dream, not until the day the scarlet fever overpowered her and she went to sleep and never woke up. I remember crying, one of the few times I’ve ever cried, as I stowed away her performing dresses in cardboard boxes and peeled her posters of Gram Parsons and Helen Granagan off the walls.
My father, Samuel Knox, was a performer too. He liked to sing, to play the guitar, but most of all, he liked to dance. He and my mother used to go out to clubs and bars in their dancing shoes and come back never before midnight, giggling together and trying not to wake me. What they never knew was that I was always conscious when they came into my bedroom, I could feel it when my hair was stroked and my cheek was kissed. I could hear when they whispered ‘Love you, kid’ into my ear before leaving the room. I knew that my parents loved each other, and I knew that they loved me. Strangely enough, the demand for male dancers and performers was low in southern America where we lived during the first years of my life. One day we moved, way north, to Idaho. Wrung all we could out of that state and moved to the next one. Michigan. Oregon. Dakota. Iowa. Nebraska. Tennessee. A few names I can’t even remember, and because we lived so far out in the middle of nowhere, it was like we were living on a planet by ourselves.
When my father died a few years ago, I moved back to the place I loved the most. The place where I left my heart because I knew I would return and I knew it would be safe there. Oregon, south state, next to the ocean. Samuel Knox killed himself a few years after his wife died. I can’t say it was unexpected. I guess it was his choice. I just wish that it didn’t have to be me who found him, hung from the ceiling by his own belt. I wish it hadn’t been the belt I made him for Christmas, the one I had slaved over in the garage, being meticulously careful to keep it a secret from my father. The rest of it really doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter how it happened. I just hope he’s in a better place now. I like to say he died of a broken heart. It sounds more romantic then the truth.
In Oregon, in a little house by the coast, I started writing. Actually, the first paragraph I ever wrote was about my mother. It soon grew from a paragraph, to pages and pages. That book went on to become a bestseller. It was hard for me to publish at first. My tendency to write things based solely on my own experiences was a double-edged sword; but it was indubitable. I believe its impossible to write about anything convincingly unless you know what you’re talking about. That’s why my books are personal, explicit. Sometimes uncomfortable. I hate descriptive words; what is the point in writing things down if they’re fake or exaggerated? My career began as an outlet, and I’m not going to change that simply because I now have become somewhat popular.
The bestselling book out of them all is also the most recent one. I wrote it about six months ago, literally on the train from Oregon to this town. Critics called it ‘unbearably moving’, ‘adorable’, ‘beautiful and imaginative’, ‘poignant and heartbreaking.’ The truth is that book is anything but imaginative. As I said, everything I write is fact. My writing documents different parts of my life. This book I started writing a month after the death of my daughter.
Her name was Kara. She was lovely; sweet and charming and so full of life. Smart, too. I became a father I guess at a young age: her mother was my high school girlfriend, the only girl I ever loved, probably will ever love. She was tall and awkward, like me. Red hair like fire that was so long she could sit on it. Her eyes were blue. She wore denim overalls everyday; her father was a pig farmer and she lived with him on the farm. Muddy wellington boots. Her name was Josefin. I called her Jo.
I guess Kara was an accident. When Jo got pregnant we had no idea what to do; her father threw her out. They were religious and as far as he was concerned, she was going to hell. He didn’t want to be associated with that. Jo moved in with my parents and me after about four months, when she couldn’t hide the bump from her father anymore. At this time we were living in southern Iowa, my mother’s death place. My father’s too, I guess. The pregnancy was hard; Jo became isolated at school, taunted. It became so bad that she left before graduation. I struggled through with only minor complications and on the night when I finally graduated, the baby was born. Kara was two weeks early; a June baby. She was so perfect at first I couldn’t believe that I had created her. We were the proudest parents you ever saw. Our little family lived at home in Iowa until after my father’s death. Me and Jo were in love; in the mornings we would take the baby for a walk at sunrise, go to the park and feed the ducks. In the evenings Jo would pose for me and I would sketch her. My journal was filled with pages and pages of her face, her body, her eyes. Sometimes I would just watch her as she read the paper and draw the concentration in her expression, the furrow between her eyebrows in charcoal. I sketched her and the baby one time. Kara was asleep on her shoulder. She looked like an angel.
All that remains of these drawings now is ashes. Everything that reminded me of the past I burnt when I moved here, started my new life.
Kara died at the age of seventeen, in a car accident. It was only a few weeks after her birthday, in the heat of summer. By now we had scraped together enough money to move to Oregon; Jo was working as a secretary at a law firm and I had just signed my first book deal. She had been so excited about learning to drive. With a large part of the royalties from my first book and with money left to me by my parents, we bought Kara a car for her birthday. It was a nice car, an expensive one. Blue, her favorite color. I can’t remember the exact brand name or anything, but I remember the little statue on the bonnet; a gold centaur pulling back a bow and arrow. The first time she ever drove in it on her own, Kara died. She crashed into another car, a head on collision. She had no chance. The police told us the brakes were inadequate; worn down and the pedal was stiff. Jo went crazy. All along she had been looking for someone to blame. I came home late one night and heard her on the phone to whom I can only imagine must have been the car company. She was yelling like a mental person; I had to wrestle the receiver away from her. Things between us were never the same.
Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t burnt my old journal. I can barely remember who I was before, before I became the person I am now. Unemotional. Cold. The things in that journal reminded me that I could feel. I could be human.
I’m flicking back to find a blank page to work on. Inspiration has hit me. Most pages have tiny scribbled sketches; some have larger ones, pastel and charcoal. It’s a dark book to look through; there is not one page on which I have used color. I wonder if my last book was the same. I can’t even remember. The spine falls open on the most well thumbed part of my journal. These pages have a sense of virility, excitement, which is generally lacking in the rest of the book. Each corner of every page is crammed with words, drawings. The woman sitting opposite me has no idea she has become my new muse.
I love to draw her. She’s quite beautiful. I like her red hair, the way it falls down her back. I can’t really see, but I wonder if she’s sitting on it. I look back at an old sketch of her face; she’s looking down at the table, a hand holding up her chin, her hair falling around her cheeks. After a second’s hesitation, I start to add color. The hair is vibrant red, copper, and gold. The skin is white, sometimes bluish at her knuckles where it is stretched taut. The eyes, peeking through the canopy of blackened lashes, are green. I pick up the green pastel. Then I stop.
Blue. Her eyes are blue.
I wonder if she knows that he loves her. She should do. It’s pretty darn obvious. He’s always looking at her, glancing up and down when he sketches her in his journal. He probably thinks she’s out of his league, in a completely different social circle. What he doesn’t know is that she nighttimes as a hooker; not quite so different now, are they? Comes in here at the ends of the nights, she does, looking not too fancy and a little bit flustered. He used to always be gone by that time. Now I can see that he’s adjusted his coffee time to match hers. Cute.
That guy is always a little bit mysterious. I think he has something going on. Joey, his neighbor at the apartments downtown, is one of my best customers. He tells me that the man living in 12C barely ever leaves the house, always wears that shady hat and that the only outings he makes are to my diner. Flattering, but also a little bit tragic. I seen a little photo of a girl, probably his daughter or something, fall out of his wallet one time when he was paying for coffee. I saw his face go white and he snatched it up and hid it in his pocket. I think she’s gone somewhere. I don’t think he has a partner, I think he’s all alone. His girl was pretty, red haired. Maybe that explains the fascination with miss Abigail Anderson.
A few times, I’ve seen some of the pages of his journal. He’s pretty private about it, covers the writing with his arm, but one time, I saw some of his sketches. Pages and pages of cars; great drawings, real emotional, dark and aggressive. Always with the same logo. A centaur. He drew it so carefully and detailed, like he’s thinking about it all the time. I’m not sure, but I think in each one, there was a girl looking out of the window of the car. She looked scared.
I wonder if he has some kind of obsession with Copeland Cars. They are great rides, don’t get me wrong. The owner is a regular, in here almost every night he is. Annoying as heck, always talking. He must be a lonely guy, chatting away to me when I obviously have no interest. I don’t know why he comes here; rich as hell he must be.
I keep quiet when I work here. I listen, but don’t talk much. Its easier that way, I don’t want to get too involved. Besides, I know they don’t want to hear me talking. The rich come in here to escape their troubles. God, I wish it was that easy for the rest of us.