Recently, some friends and I started a group writing project called Postage. Postage is a story told primarily through postcards and letters, revolving around multiple generations of one family in America. I think it’ll be interesting and it’s a good opportunity to be creative with snail mail. Today, I posted the first entry in the story and I hope you enjoy.
By David Michael Newstead.
Based on select paintings by Edward Hopper.
Alicia woke up from her nap in the late afternoon. By then, the sun was casting long, angular shadows across the carpet of her hotel. She had fallen asleep soon after arriving that day. And now, hours later, Alicia’s bags and shoes and coat told the story of an exhausted traveler who had just thrown these things to one side and slept.
Lying in bed, her heart was beating in slow, calm repetition. She was so tired. Her eyes aimlessly opened and closed, while sunlight baked her shoulders and legs. If not for the afternoon heat, she probably would have stayed in that position longer – content to pass the time away. But after a few minutes, she sat up, surveying her tiny hotel room and took a deep breath.
At first, she tried to read a dime-store paperback she had picked up in Silbers Pharmacy. It was no use. That serene feeling from her nap had evaporated. She quickly discarded the book and ran a hand through her hair. The room was hot, she was thirsty as hell, and she hadn’t eaten since leaving the train station. Out her window, Alicia could see the sun going down. The elongated silhouettes of buildings were being stretched over the city’s streets and sidewalks until it was finally dark outside. That’s when her empty stomach compelled her to get dressed.
The doorman in the lobby had recommended a nearby automat to her. It was inexpensive, he said, and right down the street from the hotel. Behind columns of shiny glass casing, there were individual compartments filled with stale sandwiches and pies that looked like plastic and seemed to sweat. Alicia disliked the place almost immediately. There was only one other customer there, a police officer, sitting with his back to the door, while an attendant could be heard noisily refilling the machines. After glancing over the selection again, she dropped a few nickels into the slot, opened the miniature glass door, and bought herself a large danish and a cup of coffee. Then, she sat down to eat.
Two rows of fat, overhead bulbs illuminated the automat for her: its greasy tables, the grime clinging to the back of the cop’s neck. As far as she knew, the person working there was no more than a mysterious pair of hands that shuffled dirty dishes back and forth all day. Just the same, she was famished. She’d quickly devoured the pastry, but the coffee stared back at her for longer until she drank the last of it. A moment passed in thought and Alicia felt a dull pain hanging over her. She stood up and walked out – only leaving the lipstick stain on her coffee cup as evidence she’d ever been there.
She didn’t know how long she’d walked for. Time moved differently these days. Her thoughts turned inward and an entire city block disappeared behind her. Then, another and another after that. She found herself thinking about Jack again and what kind of man he’d been. She pictured their house and days spent together when there was all the time in the world. Now, it felt like she was on the outside looking in on her whole life and everything was just out of reach.
It must have been midnight when she sat down at Phillies. The diner was like a lighthouse on an otherwise dark boulevard. While the rest of the world slept, Alicia pulled up a seat at the cherry wood counter and ordered more coffee. She took off her hat and her coat, sitting in quiet contemplation. The kid behind the counter would dutifully refill her drink every now and then. And the other customer was an older man with a blank expression. He stared down at his cup and his bowl of soup, never even registering her presence.
She was left to her own thoughts like that for some time until Alicia suddenly realized someone was talking to her.
“I said nice night, isn’t it?” the man next to her repeated.
“What?” she replied, half dazed.
“Why the long face?” he asked, offering her a cigarette.
“No. No, thank you,” Alicia said.
“Suit yourself,” and he lit his own, while the waiter poured him some coffee.
The man took a long drag off his cigarette, then exhaled a cloud.
“You listen to the baseball game tonight, Joey?” he said to the waiter.
The two of them exchanged a few friendly words, then the man turned back to Alicia.
“You like baseball, sweetheart?” he asked.
“Once, I guess,” she replied and drank her coffee.
“Come on. Penny for your thoughts, darling,” the man said. “Next cup is on me. What brings you to town? You’re not one of the regular night owls around here.”
Alicia didn’t look at him, she just started speaking. “I’m just here for a day or two. I need to put some affairs in order. With the bank and the insurance office. Things like that. My husband, Jack, he uhh… died recently. Several months ago now.”
And Alicia didn’t say anything for a while, but the look in the man’s eyes changed.
“I’m sorry to hear that, darling,” he replied. “Do you mind if I ask how he passed?”
“I…” she started, then paused, “You know, I’d rather not say,” her lips pursing together from emotion.
“He was a good man though. A very good man,” and she lingered on the memory.
“What do you do?” Alicia eventually asked.
The man pointed his cigarette out in front of him. “Just a job. Same as everybody else. Used to be married myself.”
“Yeah?” Alicia said as she reached for her coat.
“Her and my kids live in Cleveland now, I think…” the man stated this with an absent kind of dissatisfaction that hung in the air like tobacco.
He had a thousand yard stare that practically bore a hole in the wall and convinced Alicia just how honest he was being.
“Joey!” he called to the waiter as Alicia was slipping on her coat and hat. “Lemme pick up her tab.”
“You don’t have to do that…” she said, but he dismissed the notion with a casual wave of his hand and a smirk.
“Just a few cups of coffee among friends,” he replied. “You take care of yourself.”
And she nodded in acknowledgement. As she left, Alicia saw that the men sitting there were stone faced caricatures – the portrait of an all-night diner and the lost souls that populate it.
Back in her hotel room, she went about unpacking her clothes and the paperwork for the next day’s activities. Alicia knew there was a series of bureaucratic motions left to go through and it made her numb. Exhausted, she could already imagine the train ride home, the road ahead, and the things that were behind her now.
Then, she switched off the light.
Hotel Room (1931)
Compartment C, Car 193 (1938)