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NIGHTHAWK by Zach VandeZande

There’s a yellowy light. It’s not fluorescent. This is not the IHOP. It’s the other one. The local diner. Yellowed sign, yellowed menus, yellow, yellowy light.

_________

Nothing that happens here is important. Important is elsewhere is the point of a place like this. This place is meant for in-between.

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She is at the hostess station looking lost. Looking like a customer who doesn’t know if she should seat herself. The post-bar rush is over. A last-call-at-2am town in a last-call-at-2am state. But: it’s later than all that. There seems to be no one in the restaurant at all. Bacon grease on everything. Pancakes in the very air.

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There are some things a body can do, and some things a body cannot do. Some things stand inside the scope, and then some things stand outside the scope, with their mocking smile and wave, with their cannot. The sum of these two types of things together is called a person.

_________

She has always been an IHOP person, if that’s a type of person to be.

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A man stands up from the one working video poker machine in the corner. This man has a great quality to his hands, prominent knuckles, a meaty rectangular strength to them. There is a tattoo in the webbing between thumb and forefinger—a small cross, hastily done. He wears a maroon polo shirt with a black collar. His hands look capable of doing things to other things, of being here and then here and then here and it helps or it hurts. He waves her along, leading her to a booth by the window. She will not look at his face. She looks at his transitive hands.

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Notably, the drunks have all gone home for the night.

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To look at a face is to have a face looked at is to invite comment. She is still beautiful, despite it. She still radiates youth, she still accidentally looks at people in a way that captures their complete attention, despite it. Some things do not change as easily as all that. To say that one thing is the essence of a person is to be naïve. She is in many ways naïve.

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She sits at a table. She says “Coffee,” she says, “Water with no ice.” In the blackness of the window she can see herself say these things. The yellow light overhead casts her reflection in dingy ghost shapes. The table lacquer is coming up at one corner, the booth she is sitting in has a slight tear in the seat back. There is damp and ache coming from her breasts. The man leaves her with a menu, which she ignores.

_________

A prison doesn’t require a key, after all. What it requires is belief in a key.

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The waiter brings water and disappears again around the corner. Behind her, somewhere, coffee futzes and sputters. He doesn’t bother telling her it’s brewing. She imagines him on the other side of the wall, playing video poker. On slow nights, a waiter might spend more at the video poker machine than he earns. She thinks he cannot help it. His nametag is peeling, his name rolling back into itself. That it were so easy to disappear, just a furl, a rolling in and away, gone.

_________

She finds him, suddenly, boring, wants to stop imagining him. He rubs a dollar against the corner of the video poker, making the money presentable, making it good enough to be accepted by the waiting mouth of the machine. She cannot see it, but this is what he does.

_________

Sitting there, she becomes aware of her breathing. She breathes manually, and then she panics that she won’t be able to stop breathing manually, that her body will never take over again. How long could she last? How long would it be before that responsibility too became crushing and she let herself collapse gasping to the floor? Could she make it through a cup of coffee, through a meal? Could she make it to daybreak?

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Never went in for the girl stuff, aside from being deliberate in her beauty. A breath. She thinks of herself as an angular person. A breath. She is all hard edges when she can help it. A breath. Doesn’t brook bullshit from anyone. Sees it as strength. A breath. Was not this for a time. A breath. And now. A breath.

_________

There’s an old joke, and it’s this: What’s the worst thing that can happen in a falling elevator? It stops. And what’s the best thing? It stops. Which isn’t funny, so maybe it’s not a joke. But it’s true.

_________

She tries to calm herself the way she was taught by her college roommate years ago: breathe out twice as long as you breathe in, count it out, name three things you love about being alive, realize that you are only your body, or realize that you are not just your body—she couldn’t remember which it was or if it was both—just ride the wave, live through this and then this and then this and guess what: now you’re living, present tense and actual. Now you’re now.

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It could be said fairly that every moment is life-changing, each insuck of air irrevocable. Thoughts like these are banal at every moment they aren’t.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter reappears, passes her, returns with coffee. The presence of him forces her to be calm. She sits. She sips her coffee. It is surprisingly good. She expected something over-roasted, bile-sour, stale. Something that cried out for the little tub of cream in its basket on the table, sitting by the plastic tower of assorted jellies. There is a kind of betrayal in the robust flavor, in how good it feels to put the warmth into her body.

_________

From the video poker machine, bleeps and bloops move softly through the dining area.

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There is an absence of need in her that’s new, or worse, long-forgotten, the mark of an earlier version of herself pupating within her, ready to reemerge. She opens a tub of cream and dumps it in, then another. The coffee grays and whorls. It blooms. The way the black outside snugs up on the windows makes her feel as though she is attenuated to bigger truths lurking in the mundane. She wants things to be this still for her from now on.

_________

She might be connected to something new. A great heritage of loneliness. Nighthawk. That one Hemingway story she hated so much. Aaron made her read it in college, Aaron who got so upset when she didn’t care about all the nada, when she found it too cliché to be interesting. At the time she felt so sorry to hate the story. How often had she been sorry for her own opinion?

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She is not quite sure what it will be like, what she will do with so many empty hours, if it will ever feel as though this is what life is instead of feeling like, well, like what, exactly? Like she’s her own ghost, staying behind, carrying on.

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A body is still a vessel when it holds only itself. She learned this when the baby was born, and then somewhere she unlearned it, as the baby began to grow and occupy more space, kept finding more space to occupy than she knew was even there in her to occupy. It’s a thing she’d like to know again: how much space can fit in the vessel.

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She trembled and slipped back into breathless panic. She thought I fucking told you. She thought Do not think about the Pollywog. She thought She didn’t cry when you set her car seat down on pavement, when you hurried away. She thought She stayed right asleep that scary way the Pollywog would sleep, scary baby too-deep sleep.

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The waiter comes back around to see if she’s ready. She apologizes. She forgot about the menu in front of her. He looks over his shoulder to the kitchen and says it’s fine. She is overly apologetic. He says it’s okay, but she persists in performing the act of apology, fingers squirming at the menu.

_________

In some ways she will always be in that two-bedroom apartment, man and baby and her as ghost. She does not want to know this, but she does.

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The waiter lingers. The waiter notices the quaver of her and wants to help. He asks her where she’s from and she says, “Here.” He puts two fingers on the table. He says, “No, I mean your peoples.” And she is looking at him, fierce, reddened eyes. He’s from somewhere too, by the look of him. “Guatemala,” she says, “Libya.” He whistles and says, “That’s some mix.” Her shoulders tighten. She does not want to talk to a waiter about anything, least of all this. That a person can reach adulthood without knowing this kind of small talk is terrible, sticking your finger in another person’s nose.

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She does not want to be hard angles right now, but she is with the waiter. She wants to be a not. She thinks she might unwrap her fork from its napkin and jab his fingers off the table. He stands there, not letting her be a not, forcing her to be a person in a context that came from somewhere. It’s horrible. He’s horrible.

_________

An in-between is a place like any other. Everybody lives in the present, all the time. Horrible.

_________

She was not always this woman. She learned to be another woman with Aaron. Aaron saw different because Aaron wanted her to love him, wanted that plain, and that came with a desire to bend the will of her to his, get her, the organism, a little closer to her, the idea in his mind. She’s not that idea, though. Not that she blames him. She did it, too, though not so much with Aaron. Aaron was Aaron, without consequence. She did it with the Pollywog. She did it until she realized she couldn’t.

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With Aaron she saw she could be not unhappy. Which is nothing at all like happy.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter stands there expectant and she asks him for a cigarette. He says no. They’re there in his pocket. She could reach for them. She could take what she wanted. She looks up at him. He says city ordnance. He says. She holds out her open palm.

_________

It’s possible to feel weightless, freed, awful. It’s possible to feel everything you know, all at once.

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Cigarette in hand, to lips. The waiter nervous. Something electric in the scratch of the lighter, in him bringing the flame to her. The waiter’s hands. Used to trouble, probably. In trouble. She can make him feel a way about her, about himself. She need only reach across with her free hand. She need only grab the nametag and peel it free, and what comes after comes after.

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Her biggest regret is that she knows she could become anything at all and didn’t, still might.

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She tells him she wants to drink coffee for a while. She tells him he can say he didn’t notice the cigarette, if anyone asks. He nods and leaves her alone, disappears into the kitchen.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

For the pieces of this to fit together, there must reasonably be some measure by which she would consider herself whole. She was capable of things, once. She could read a baby like a tarot card, every burp a star aligned. She could bear the wailing. She could give herself away, all the way. She could be unmade and still be made. Simple enough things.

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She takes a deep drag on the cigarette and her lungs fuzz out. Somewhere a baby wakes in the cold. Somewhere a baby. Somewhere a loss without language. Somewhere a light going on at the precinct, a savior arriving, not the wanted one. Somewhere a vessel being made unwhole.

_________

But who has ever been whole. It’s there in the word itself. Whole, hole. Cruelty, homonym.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

That coffee goes cold. That dawn comes on. That a different now is on the way.

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