From the Archives
(July 2005) Ernest Hemingway’s short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" describes an old man who is sitting at a café, smoking. I read this story in the eighties, so please forgive any inaccuracies, but what I remember is that Hemingway—whose suicide anniversary just passed—describes how a man smokes, and his description provides a very clear sense of who the man is.
I sat in a café for much of the afternoon working on the Great American Novel. An attractive med student researched skin disorders to my left as she quietly sipped an iced chai. Her lovely legs distracted me several times, but the hideous skin conditions plastered across her laptop screen mostly caught me staring.
She received two phone calls and went outside to talk both times, so let’s assume that she will be a polite doctor who knocks before walking into patients’ rooms.
An older woman with a mane of thick white hair sat to the med student’s left and pecked away nonstop on her ThinkPad, never once pausing to consider her words. (Wish I could do that.) Like me, she sipped hot coffee, quietly.
The three of us occupied a bench along the back wall where customers plug in to surf.
A heavy-set blonde sat draped across a leather chair in front of ThinkPad Woman, but I mostly just saw her cropped pants and bare ankle dangling over the chair arm and one fair-skinned arm dangling her iced latte precariously over the blue sectional rug.
Meanwhile, the owners’ daughter sat in a similarly overstuffed chair enjoying a Koontz novel in between jumping up to change the music or restock the cups or refill one of our orders, but, mostly, we five sat with our words and images and just worked.
Hours passed, then a large sweating man came in with a slam of the door, looked over at the occupied tables beside the plug strips, and put his hands on his hips.
He sighed loudly, then slapped his laptop down at a table in the center of the room. Then he ordered an iced tea, which he proceeded to slurp very loudly.
The volume on his iPod was turned up so high that we had no choice but to listen to his music and, when he sat down, he immediately began tapping his feet to the beat of the music, also loudly.
Leggy med student and I looked up simultaneously several times after a particularly loud slurp and I rolled my eyes at her (which garnered a lovely dimpled grin). And I toyed with the idea of shooting a rubberband at his jangling foot, all the while recognizing that he was probably being obnoxious on purpose so that one of us would leave.
That person turned out to be me, since I was feeling the effects of too many hours without food by that point.
So anyway, let’s call this little description “A Sporadically Loud, Minimally-Lighted Place” in honor of Ernest Hemingway, even though the Chicago Manual of Style insists that I should not hyphenate “minimally-lighted.”