“War Changes Everything” was written for a creative writing class, based on a prompt to write a scene based on a piece of art. The artwork I chose was “Nighthawks”, by Edward Hopper (the painting can be found here). I decided to write a short story based on the couple seen in the painting, and because of the painting’s date, a WWII setting was obvious. The following scene allowed me to create a brief look at what was a pivotal time in history – for both the world and for women, as seen in one couple’s relationship.
“War Changes Everything”
Mary had tried to bring it up gently. She’d waited till the end of the meal even. Although, she wasn’t certain if that was for her to gather her courage or simply to allow him to enjoy the meal. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. John promptly dropped his hand to his side so he wasn’t touching her hand anymore.
“No. I don’t like it, Mary.” John’s voice was soft but urgent. Mary looked up at him briefly and then dropped her eyes back to the cup of coffee she had started hugging with her hands, briefly glancing at the cook. Thankfully, it didn’t look like he was paying attention as he cleaned the counter where some other late-night diners had just finished. John’s voice became a little harder now, but he still kept it quiet. “I’m goin’ to be your husband, and I won’t have ya’ doing that. It isn’t proper, it isn’t nice, it isn’t safe,” he let out a small huff of breath, “it simply isn’t the sort of thing ya’ should be doin’.” He knocked his hat a little further back on his head absently as he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Maybe she should have waited till tomorrow, when he wasn’t just getting off work, but she hadn’t wanted to wait too long.
“It also isn’t your decision, John.” Mary finally looked at him, eyes dark beneath her red hair, which shimmered under the fluorescent lights. Her voice was firm as well. It was also starting to go up in pitch with her growing anger. “They need more people and it’s open for women now. I want to do more than stay home and wait to see how the war turns out.” This was frustrating. She’d been hoping he would see her side of it and back her up to her father.
“It is my decision though,” John clenched his left hand, knuckles protruding, “as your future husband. Why don’t I get ya’ a job at my factory? We need more workers there too, what with everyone signin’ up for the army. There’s a job openin’ in the office which ya’d be lulu for. More and more dames are working there already.”
Mary took a deep breath, her coffee smelling acid and bitter as she took a slow sip. She forced her voice to a more modulated tone, softening the edges of the rock she felt catching in her chest. “I’m going to apply on Monday, John. Sitting on the sidelines may work for some people but not me, and working in the factory… it would feel like the sidelines to me. I would have thought you’d understand that about me, of all people.” John’s cheek twitched. She suddenly hoped he hadn’t thought she was implying that he was sitting on the sidelines and thus, a coward, like some did. She understood him – so why was she starting to feel like that wasn’t mutual?
“I. Won’t. Have it.” John was glaring at his own cup of coffee. “Da-“ He broke off the curse he’d started, always the gentleman about swearing in front of ladies. He held up a hand in apology. Suddenly he sighed and relaxed his shoulders, his fingers coming up from massaging his bad leg to splay out on the counter again. “Mary… I love ya’. Ya’ know I wan’ the best for ya’, and the military… It’ll be worse than the factory is and ya’ know how dangerous and rough that is! And,” he hesitated for a moment to glance at her, moving his hand back towards hers, “I won’t be with ya’.” Mary started to open her mouth as she faced him and he laid his hand on hers before continuing. “Besides, your father would never approve and what do ya’ think they’d have ya’ do in the military anyway? Same thing ya’d be doin’ in the factory. Ya’d be helpin’ the war effort workin’ here just as much, but ya wouldn’t be leavin’ your family. Ya’ wouldn’t be leaving me. We could still get married this summer, just like we’d planned.” He smiled at her and caressed her hand a little, a quick glance straying towards the two other occupants in the diner before coming back to her. The cook was in the back of the diner, dejectedly waving away smoke from something that’d started to burn. Probably his own dinner. “Mary, I’m afraid ya’ just haven’t thought this through well. What possible reason could ya’ have to leave everythin’ – everyone, when ya’ could still be of use here? Anyway,” his eyes narrowed, “who’s brainchild is this? Can’t be yours. I know Ms. Fairchild down the street always had funny ideas about women and -”
Mary finally interrupted, her mouth straight, as she removed her hand from his. “It was mine, John.” She leaned towards him. “Yes, Katherine was the one who told me about the service, but I was the one who asked. I want to do something with myself – something different.” She took a deep breath as her chin lifted a little in defiance. “I just lost my job as Mr. Flynn’s secretary today – he enlisted. I’ve always been good at math and science; but I think I can be of more use in the service now, even if I do end up doing much the same thing.” Mary was gesturing as she spoke, forming a fiery speech as though it’d burn out any doubts. “Besides, Bert just signed up and will be leaving soon. He won’t be around for a summer wedding anymore. I want to do more than hope he’s alright. I want to do more than stay here in comfort and let the daily grind rule my life. They need help with the war effort and I want to go. Please, John, can’t you understand?” She finally, slowly, stretched her fingers back towards his hand, touching the back of it. “I know you would go if you could, but you can’t. You didn’t run away from the factory after your accident; why should I run from this just because it could be dangerous as well?”
John tightened his jaw and stared out at the dark deserted street. The diner’s lights flowed out from the glass windows, but there was little color there or inside except for Mary with her flaming hair and bright dress. He slowly took a sip of coffee, and set it down with a jagged sigh. “I’m jus’ wondering why ya’ can’t understand reason, babydoll. Why ya’ refuse to let me take care of ya’.”
She sighed, taking a firmer grasp of his hand in an attempt to pull his attention back to her. “John. I love you, but I have to do this. And it’s not unreasonable!” She smiled at him, but it was small and didn’t reach her eyes. “Why can’t we get married on the 16th? Bert won’t be leaving before then; he could still come to it.”
To their side, around the curve in the counter, the other man in the diner loudly set his cup down and called for a refill, breaking their bubble of attention. They both shifted back slightly as they were reminded they weren’t alone.
John looked at her, and slowly the corners of his mouth relaxed and almost turned up. “If we do, will ya’ give up this daft idea? I know ya’ were planning on getting a dress special for it, but ya’ could always wear that flowered one. I always thought ya’ looked real swell in it.” He smiled at her finally.
Mary jerked her hand away from his. She was starting to wonder why no one was staring at them – or if the men in the diner were simply being polite by feigning disinterest. “No, John, I won’t.” Her eyes sparked. “I’m going to do it no matter what. I’m sure it’ll take a bit for anything to happen even if I am accepted. And even if I am moved far away, I’ll be coming home to you at the end of the war. It’s just for a short while, until the war is over. I’m not going to leave you cold, John.”
John’s mouth straightened back out and he turned away from her to stare at the counter, one hand clutching the cup and bringing it to his lips almost reflexively. He looked like one of the machines in his factory, Mary thought, while she felt like anything but that.
“Well… then I hope your father has better luck talkin’ sense into ya’ than I’ve’ad”, John straightened up and moved his cup away, “since you’re so determined to brush me off.” He raised a hand towards the cook and deposited some money on the counter. He didn’t count it carefully out like he did normally. He stood up brusquely and started to take her arm. She stood up as well but stepped away from him, looking at him – but not quite in the eyes.
She took a breath, trying to steady her voice. “He won’t.” She was as firm as she could manage, hoping John wouldn’t hear the slight waver in her voice. She looked at John for a second and then started walking around the counter to the door. John hurriedly stepped forward to match her but was still behind her when she made it to the door, pushing it open herself to step out onto the empty street.
Original post about the class I wrote this for:Creative Writing and Summer Classes
Other writings from the class: Freckles and Nights in the ER