Late in the night, everyone has left the café except for an old drunk man sitting in the shadows cast by an electric light shining on tree leaves. The old man likes to sit there because, even though he is deaf, it’s “quiet” at night and “he felt the difference.” Inside, two waiters watch him drink, trying to make sure he doesn’t leave without paying.
Hemingway emphasizes the pleasant atmosphere of the café through his description of the shadows of the leaves and by noting that even a deaf man can feel the difference between this quiet café and others. That the old man is drunk and prone to leaving without paying suggests that he might be troubled.
The old waiter tells the young waiter that the old drunk tried to kill himself last week. When the young waiter asks why, the old waiter says that it cannot be for a lack of money or loneliness; the old man is well-off and lives with his niece. Instead, the old waiter says that the reason must be “nothing.” The young waiter ignores this and busies himself with his work. When a soldier and a young girl walk by, the young waiter hopes aloud that the soldier will escort the old drunk from the café, but the soldier doesn’t.
While the young waiter tries to account for the old drunk’s despair by blaming external factors (money or loneliness), the older waiter knows better. When he says “nothing,” what he means is that he believes that the old man is struggling with life’s meaninglessness, not life’s challenges. Instead of inquiring further, the young waiter ignores the older waiter, which suggests that his world is narrow and that he doesn’t have time for things he doesn’t understand.
The old drunk waves the young waiter over and asks for another glass of brandy. The young waiter is reluctant to serve the old drunk, knowing that the old drunk will take it as an invitation to stay even longer. “I never get into bed before three o’clock,” he complains to the old waiter, wanting to get home to his wife. “He should have killed himself last week.” The old waiter doesn’t reply, so the young waiter grabs a brandy bottle, refills the deaf man’s glass, and tells him “you should have killed yourself last week.”
The hurried attitude of the young waiter reveals his posture toward life: he’s goal-oriented, rushed, and he finds meaning in the future rather than in the present. Since the old drunk stands in the way of the young waiter’s desires, the young waiter behaves cruelly towards the man, which (even though the old drunk can’t hear the waiter’s comments) makes the reader lose sympathy for the younger waiter working late.
When the young waiter returns to his colleague, he asks again why the old drunk tried to kill himself. The old waiter says, “how should I know.” Then, in response to more questions, he reveals that the man tried to hang himself, and he was spared when his niece cut down the rope out of “fear for his soul.” The young waiter asks about the old drunk’s financial situation again, but the old waiter notes that the man has “plenty” of money.
According to the Catholic tradition, death by suicide guarantees one’s damnation to hell. The old drunk’s niece (who is young, just like the younger waiter) therefore shows that she thinks that the old man’s actions matter or have meaning when she cuts him down. The old drunk, however, believes that life is meaningless, which drove him to suicide in the first place. This hints at a generational gap in understanding life.
The young waiter remarks that the man must be eighty years-old, and then he complains again about the late hour. The old drunk “stays up because he likes it,” the old waiter responds, and the young waiter calls the drunk “lonely,” in contrast to himself, since he has a wife waiting for him in bed. An old man is a “nasty thing,” the young waiter says, but the older waiter disagrees: “This old man is clean,” he says. “He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him.” The younger waiter does not want to look at him, though; he wishes the man, who has “no regard for those who must work,” would go home.
The younger waiter shows here that he disdains older people—considering this, it makes sense that he makes no effort to genuinely understand them. Alternatively, the older waiter’s age gives him perspective on and empathy for the old drunk. He sees that, instead of being tragic and gross, the old drunk is actually admirable because he remains dignified in the face of meaninglessness and the difficulties of old age.
The old drunk looks up from his glass in the direction of the young waiter and asks for another brandy. The young, hurried waiter walks over and says, “No more tonight. Close now.” The old man asks for another drink again, but the young waiter refuses him, repeating “No. Finished.” He begins wiping the table down with a towel and the old man, defeated, counts the money for his bill, pays, and leaves a tip. He begins walking home in a “dignified” way.
Here, the young waiter behaves badly: he selfishly kicks an old man out of the café before closing time, and he talks down to the man, seemingly because the man is deaf. In contrast, the old drunk behaves kindly: he tips the waiter (despite his rudeness) and leaves with dignity, showing remarkable self-possession in a difficult situation.
The older waiter asks the younger waiter, “Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” The young waiter replies that he wants “to go home to bed,” and that an hour means more to him than it does to the old man. The unhurried waiter disagrees, saying that an hour is the same to everyone. He jokes that the young waiter should be more cautious about going home an hour before his wife expects him, but the young waiter says he’s not worried, and that he has “confidence” about what he’ll go home to. “You have youth, confidence, and a job” replies the old waiter. “You have everything.” As for himself, the old waiter says that he lacks “everything but work,” and he never had confidence. The young waiter tells him to stop “talking nonsense.”
The young waiter thinks that his time is more valuable than the old man’s because he fills it with work and family, while he assumes that the drunk man’s life is pointless. This self-importance, combined with his clear animosity towards old people, suggests that his relative youth has made him callous and lacking in perspective. Since the young man has lost credibility through his cruelty and lack of introspection, Hemingway’s association of the young waiter with “confidence” is backhanded—perhaps this confidence provides a false sense of security.
Once the young waiter leaves, the old waiter continues the conversation with himself, wondering why he feels fear when contemplating the old drunk’s behavior. After realizing it wasn’t dread, he concludes that what made him afraid was the fact that, “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too.” He then recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer, substituting many of the words with “nada”: “Our nada, who art in nada, nada be thy name, thy kingdom nada thy will be nada…”
After locating the source of his anxiety and despair, the old waiter grows critical of the same Catholic tradition that the old drunk’s niece supported in saving her uncle from suicide. By reducing the value of the Lord’s Prayer to “nothing,” the old waiter punctures the meaning that prayer is supposed to offer. For him, the meaning of life is nothing, so religious tradition should be replaced with emptiness.
When he finishes the prayer, the old waiter smiles and gets a drink at a nearby bar. He tells the bartender that he wants “nada” to drink, and the bartender calls him a crazy person. The old waiter takes a quick, small drink that the bartender irritably serves him, and he complains that, although the bar has good lighting, it is “unpolished” and dirty. The bartender ignores the older waiter’s complaint, so he decides to leave and he goes home to fall asleep.
After articulating life meaninglessness, the old waiter adopts the same attitude of the old drunk (even inspiring derision from a bartender, just as the old drunk did). This bar, while well-lit, is dirty. Thus, the ambiance of the bar (in contrast to the café) fails to provide him with the necessary conditions for facing meaninglessness while maintaining his composure and dignity. Realizing this, he leaves the bar and goes home.