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A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway


Plot Overview

An old man sits alone at night in a café. He is deaf and likes when the night grows still. Two waiters watch the old man carefully because they know he won’t pay if he gets too drunk. One waiter tells the other that the old man tried to kill himself because he was in despair. The other waiter asks why he felt despair, and the first waiter says the reason was “nothing” because the man has a lot of money.

The waiters look at the empty tables and the old man, who sits in the shadow of a tree. They see a couple walk by, a soldier with a girl. One of the waiters says the soldier had better be careful about being out because the guards just went by. The old man taps his glass against its saucer and asks the younger waiter for a brandy. The younger waiter tells him he’ll get drunk, then goes back and tells the older waiter that the old man will stay all night. The younger waiter says he never goes to bed earlier than 3 a.m. and that the old man should have killed himself. He takes the old man his brandy. As he pours it, he tells the old man that he should have killed himself, but the old man just indicates that he wants more brandy in the glass.

The younger waiter tells the older waiter that the old man is drunk, then asks again why he tried to kill himself. The older waiter says he doesn’t know. The younger waiter asks how he did it. The older waiter says he tried to hang himself and his niece found him and got him down. The younger waiter asks why she got him down, and the older waiter says they were concerned about his soul. The waiters speculate on how much money the old man has and decide he’s probably age eighty.

The younger waiter says he wishes the old man would leave so that he can go home and go to bed with his wife. The older waiter says that the old man was married at one time. The younger waiter says a wife wouldn’t do him any good, but the older waiter disagrees. The younger waiter points out that the old man has his niece, then says he doesn’t want to be an old man. The older waiter points out that the old man is clean and drinks neatly. The younger waiter says again that he wishes the old man would leave.

The old man indicates that he wants another brandy, but the younger waiter tells him they’re closing. The old man pays and walks away. The older waiter asks the younger waiter why he didn’t let him drink more because it’s not even 3 a.m. yet, and the younger waiter says he wants to go home. The older waiter says an hour doesn’t make much difference. The younger waiter says that the old man can just drink at home, but the older waiter says it’s different. The younger waiter agrees.

The older waiter jokingly asks if the younger waiter is afraid to go home early. The younger waiter says he has confidence. The older waiter points out that he also has youth and a job, whereas the older waiter has only a job. The older waiter says that he likes to stay at cafés very late with the others who are reluctant to go home and who need light during the nighttime. The younger waiter says he wants to go home, and the older waiter remarks that they are very different. The older waiter says he doesn’t like to close the café in case someone needs it. The younger waiter says there are bars to go to, but the older waiter says that the café is clean and well lit. They wish each other good night.

The older waiter continues thinking to himself about how important it is for a café to be clean and well lit. He thinks that music is never good to have at a café and that standing at a bar isn’t good either. He wonders what he’s afraid of, deciding it’s not fear but just a familiar nothing. He says two prayers but substitutes “nada” (Spanish for “nothing”) for most of the words. When he arrives at a bar, he orders a drink and tells the bartender that the bar isn’t clean. The bartender offers another drink, but the waiter leaves. He doesn’t like bars, preferring cafés. He knows that he will now go home and fall asleep when the sun comes up. He thinks he just has insomnia, a common problem.

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