What makes Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting one of his most celebrated works? Created in 1942, Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. The following story is inspired by the painting.
I mount the time machine and dial the year nineteen-forty-two. I have a keen interest in the war years. Activities like storming the beaches of Normandy are not high on my priorities list. I stay far behind the front lines. I find the study of American culture during the war years fascinating. I stay away from heavily populated cities to remain inconspicuous. You might say I’m not truly adventurous, excluding, of course, time travel and my voracious appetite for knowledge. I’m a scientist, first and foremost. As soon as I’ve perfected my time-traveling technology, I intend to unveil it in a white paper report and work with a team to use my discoveries for the betterment of mankind.
I finish entering all of the pertinent data into the onboard computer and push the launch button. Seconds later, the machine deposits me in the small town of Independence, Ohio. On this trip, I find myself on a corner across the street from an all-night diner. My trans-spacial watch tells me it’s two-thirty in the morning. Materializing in small towns on deserted streets in the middle of the night is a proven method for avoiding stampeding crowds.
I’m a bit freaked out by the feeling of emptiness the town exudes. I console myself with the thought that I’ve arrived in the middle of the night and everything is closed except, it seems, the diner across the street.
Through the panoramic window, I see four people sitting at the counter inside. My curiosity peaks as I begin, once again, to study life in the past, this time eighty years ago. This morning will be different than the others in one important respect. It marks the first time I will interact with people and environments of the past. I feel that I’ve learned enough from my previous trips to take this momentous step. And, I can no longer resist the urge to relate to people instead of simply observing them.
As I cross the street, I check my reflection in the large window. I’m dressed appropriately for the era in a blue business suit and matching tie with black wingtip shoes and neatly barbered hair. I’ll blend right in. Swinging open the glass and chrome door, I enter the cafe and take a seat at the counter a measured two seats away from a man sitting by himself.
The small diner smells of stale cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, and the faint scent of body odor from the man two seats away. To my right, half the wall is fitted with small bins containing tempting muffins, cakes, and breads. Across the counter, a nice-looking middle-aged couple sit demurely drinking coffee. The man is wearing a gray suit with a matching hat, blue tie, and he’s smoking a chesterfield unfiltered cigarette. The pack lying by his hand on the counter tells me the cigarette brand. The man looks like a lawyer or a doctor. The woman is wearing a green silken cocktail dress. It sets off her blazing red hair nicely. By the looks of the two-carat diamond ring on her hand, I figure the couple is well-off and married. I suppose the couple is drinking coffee to sober up for the drive home after a festive dinner party.
The man behind the counter approaches me. He is undoubtedly either the owner, or someone related to him. This is an independent operation as so many of these places were before chain automats and eventually Starbucks put most of them out of business.
“Coffee?” the man behind the counter offers. Wearing a blazing white uniform, he’s a smallish man with wire-rimmed glasses who is going prematurely bald.
“Black,” I say.
“You must be new around here,” the man says.
“You could say that,” I reply.
Lifting his eyes from his coffee cup, the man across the counter stares at me. He tips his hat revealing bright blonde hair. Combined with his deep blue-grey eyes, he’s a dead ringer for Peter O’Toole in his signature role as Lawrence of Arabia.
“My name’s Kendall,” he says in a friendly tone.” I wonder if it’s his first or last name. I happen to hate my first name. Who names their kid Saul forty years after the war? It would be a good name for my grandfather. Not for me.
“And I’m Allison,” the woman next to him says.
I’m surprised by the couple’s friendliness. Maybe it’s the late hour and the intimate setting. Maybe people here are friendlier to strangers than they usually are in the other the small towns I’ve visited. Maybe–just maybe–this will be easier than I thought it would be.
“My name’s Saul,” I say to the couple. “Nice to meet you.” I turn to the man next to me, half-expecting him to introduce himself. It suddenly occurs to me that the guy hasn’t moved a muscle since I came through the door.
“Ignore him,” Kendall says. “He’s just part of the scenery.”
“I’m sorry for that unkind remark,” I say to the motionless man. He’s heavy-set, dressed in a brownish green striped suit, and looks every bit like a non-descript traveling salesman.
I turn back to the man named Kendall. “If that was a joke, I don’t think it’s funny. People have feelings. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”
The last thing I want to do is get into an argument with these people, but I can’t help saying something.
“You don’t have to worry about his feelings,” Kendall says.
“And what do you think?” I ask Allison. On closer examination, she looks uncannily like Julianne Moore in her role as Clarice Starling in the sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“Allison is new,” Kendall replies. “She’s still in training. She’s not supposed to talk much.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “Who are you people?”
Kendall leans down and pulls a strapped leather briefcase from below the counter. He extracts a file, opens it, and begins reading.
“Let’s see. Saul Grossman, age thirty-two, engineer/designer employed by Raytheon Technologies, assigned to jet engine development, invented and now operates a time machine in his spare time. Does that about cover it, Saul?”
I am beyond shocked. Fear and anger compete to control me. Somehow, I manage not to panic. I don’t want to hear the answer to my next question, but I have to ask.
“How do you know so much about me?”
“You’ve been on our radar,” Kendall says. “Now that you’ve decided to interact with the past, it’s time for us to step in.”
I’m still in shock, but a ray of hope may be peaking through the gathering storm clouds. “Are you time lords, or some sort of benevolent time control agency from the future?”
“Sorry to disappoint, Saul. We’re your local branch office of the NSA. We made some adjustments to your time machine after reading your time journal in which you wrote, ‘I’m now confident that I can interact with the past to make the present better.'”
“So, you broke into my house without my knowledge or consent.”
“That’s about the size of it,” Kendal confirms.
I feel my intestines start to melt. “What sort of ‘adjustments’ are we talking about?”
“For starters, we’re not in the past. We’re in a computer simulation where the only thing that’s real is you.”
I try to imagine how this can be happening. Am I talking to naked human bodies floating in an electrochemical solution inside giant Pyrex glass tubs? Are they fitted with electrodes attached to their heads to facilitate thought-transference-voice-activation to their virtual avatars? Or is it a cutting-edge holographic computer program capable of interacting with a real-live me?
I reach into my pocket to push the button on my remote control extractor. I’m not going to stand still for this. Literally. I’ll be out of here and back in good old 2021 in no time–or a few seconds.
I try again. Still nothing.
“I forgot to mention we disabled your extractor,” Kendall says with a cheeky wink of an eye.
“So now what?”
“Now you stay here for the rest of your natural born existence, my friend.”
“You’re kidding. Right?
“Afraid not, Saul.”
“You can’t do this.”
“Would you rather be thrown in jail?”
“On what grounds?”
Kendall takes the last sip of his coffee. “We’ll think of something. It won’t be pretty.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“It’s an unfortunate situation, Saul. You’ve become a danger to yourself and the rest of us. You played with fire, and now you’re burned. The good news is we know how to use your technology better than you would have used it.”
Kendall grabs the briefcase and guides Allison to the front door. Before they leave, Kendall and Allison wave goodbye. “Have some fun,” Kendall says. “You’re an inventive guy.”
“Don’t leave. Please.”
“We’ll check back with you in another thirty years, if you’re still around,” Allison says with a cheerful smile.
Outside the door, I watch Kendall and Allison dissolve into ghostly vapors, then disperse into thin air.