A Clean, Well-Lighted Place begins
with a description of a quiet, outdoor cafï¿½ at dusk. A deaf old man, who frequents the cafï¿½ regularly,
sits at a table under a tree, slowly drinking himself to a stupor as usual. Preparing to close,
two waiters speak to themselves about the elderly gentleman, one telling the other that the man attempted
suicide the week before.
Soon the man demands another bottle of brandy, and the younger waiter belligerently concedes, telling
the deaf man, "You should have killed yourself last week," as he pours him another glass. The
waiter returns inside, and the two cafï¿½ workers continue their conversation about the old man's suicide
attempt. The younger waiter, who says that he never gets to bed before three o'clock and that
his wife is waiting for him, seems especially angered at the patron's continued presence. It seems
the old man is very lonely and has no remaining family, save perhaps his niece, who cut him down from
the rope with which he tried to hang himself the previous week. Throughout the conversation, the
young waiter continues to insult the old man, calling him "a nasty thing." The older waiter defends
the senior, however, saying that he is clean and dignified in his drunkenness.
Finally the young waiter, or the waiter with a wife,
as Hemingway refers to him, forces the man to pay the bill, and soon the man leaves. Cleaning
up, the old waiter dispenses a few words of wisdom to his younger colleague, telling him that he identifies
with the old man's desire to stay up all night drinking, feeling the need to keep the cafï¿½, a clean,
well-lighted place, open for anyone who needs it.
Now alone, the old waiter continues his train of thought, deciding that life is meaningless. He
recites to himself the Lord's Prayer, except he removes all references to God and replaces them with
"nada," the Spanish word for "nothing."
On his way home, the waiter stops at a bar, telling the bartender that the bar is unpolished, reminding
himself of his disdain for bars because they aren't the clean, well-lighted places he relishes.
He leaves the bar, knowing that he will not get to sleep until dawn. He tells himself, "it is
probably only insomnia." "Many must have it."