An apparently simple story with a plot that involves two waiters in a cafe who wait for their shifts to end, the underlying philosophical message is, on the other hand, a complex existential one. Figuratively, then, "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is much darker than first it appears.
- The young waiter is eager to join his wife, who is home in bed; the older waiter is "unhurried."
- The old man who remains in the cafe is deaf, but he knows the difference when the cafe is quiet late at night.
- When a soldier passes the cafe with a prostitute, the young waiter thinks the "guard will pick him up"; however, the older waiter does not think it matters, "What does it hurt if he gets what he is after?"
- The old man, who is a customer, has tried to hang himself; his niece cut him down in order to save his soul.
- The young waiter complains that the old man is lonely, but he is not because he has a wife waiting in bed for him.
- When the young waiter complains that the old man is "a nasty thing," the older waiter disabuses him of this opinion: "This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk."
- After the old man is told he must go home, he pays and then walks down the street, "unsteadily, but with dignity."
- The older waiter asks the younger one why he would not allow the old man to stay another hour; the younger replies that he can drink at home. "It is not the same," the older one counters.
- "You have youth, confidence, and a job," the older waiter tells the younger waiter. "You have everything." The younger one asks, "And what do you lack?" "Everything but work," says the older waiter.
- The older waiter tells the younger one that he, too, likes to stay late at the cafe..."With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night." The younger observes, "I want to go home and into bed."
- The older waiter tells the younger that they "are two different kinds." He adds that the reason he is reluctant to close at night is the fact that someone may need the cafe. The younger waiter does not understand because "there are bodegas open all night long."
- But, the older one points out that the light is excellent at their cafe, and there is a pattern from the shadows of the leaves. (light/shadow)
- The older waiter is not afraid, but recognizes "It was a nothing that he knew too well." The mystery of humanity is indicated by the waiter's use of the word nada, nothing. Yet, it is not really nothing, this existential condition of man; it is only that there are verbal limitations for man to describe it.
From this contrasting exchange between the younger and older waiters, the reader discerns that the older waiter comprehends, and even senses, what the old man does; namely, the meaninglessness of life. It is up to the individual to create his own meaning out of absurdity through patterns such as the shadows of the leaves, as well as through simple and habitual, ordered activities because routine makes life predictable, thus affording it some meaning. The other waiter simply acts in an animalistic form, satisfying his sensual instincts.