I wrote a three-minute story for an NPR contest based on this photo. (I wrote it before reading they scored high for humor!)
Most mornings started at McDonald’s, trying to keep coffee down. The woman behind the counter had learned not to fill her cup too full. With both hands she carried it to the red table in the corner. She glanced around the empty restaurant, skipping her reflection in the window. Outside, the pre-dawn street was carless. She slid the free weekly over from the table next to hers and picked her coffee up one-handed. The cup wobbled badly. She put it down and feigned interest in the paper, but she didn’t have her glasses on. All she could see were bold titles for exotic dancers and face hair removal.
Gazing at an airline ad that guaranteed FLY HOME TONIGHT OR FLY FREE, she tried to remember which bar she’d closed. They’d started at the Pit with rounds of boilermakers. After that, half the homicide unit quit for home. She and the other half staggered on to the Alibi. Lost was what happened between there and waking dressed in bed, the car skewed but undamaged in the driveway.
Sipping with two hands, she looked up from the blurry print to see a man walking out the door. He wore a stained fishing vest and faded Lakers cap.
He didn’t turn. She stood, knocking into the table and sloshing coffee.
She ran after him, bumping into an old woman limping behind a broken grocery cart. The road was empty. She ran to the corner, the side streets derelict but for a yellow dog, it’s leg lifted over a wino curled against the pawn shop. Behind her the woman’s cart squealed.
Beyond the street, beyond the City of Angels, the sun came over the mountains. She’d seen a slew of sunrises – straddling dead bodies, questioning witnesses gone deaf and blind, hunting the jackpot clue – yet suddenly remembered one best.
She’d been nestled in the pickup between her dad and his tackle box, happy with the smoky pine smell of his fishing vest, and how the sun made his face red under the lucky Lakers cap, but happiest of all with the mystery of the whole day yet to come.
“Dad?” she had asked. “Why does the sun come up?”
“Because it can’t wait to see you.”
“What about on cloudy days?”
“It’s still there.”
“Is it always there?”
“Even at night?”
“Even in the very blackest night. Just like stars and angels – you can’t always see them, but they’re always there.”
The yellow dog trotted past as the sun pinked the mountains.
Her great-grandfather had been scarred in the first war, her grandfather in the second, and her dad bore secret wounds from the jungle war that wasn’t a war. Her mother loved to tell how he cried with joy that his first child, a girl, would never know war. But when she became a cop she stole that joy. His despair angered her but as the years wore on she realized what she had done. By then it was too late and she carried his disappointment like a picture in her wallet.
The sun climbed. Traffic crept into the streets and she turned back.
She hadn’t been home since his funeral. Strong for her family, she stayed through the burial and memorial, then claiming work, caught the first plane out. Her mother still called every week but had stopped asking when she was coming home.
In the restaurant, her coffee had cooled. Some had spilled onto the paper. She picked up a damp page and with careful hands tore out the ad promising a flight home, tonight.