One winter evening, around dusk, while he is sitting at the end of a counter and talking to George, the manager of a diner in Summit, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago, Nick Adams watches two over-dressed strangers in black (Al and Max) enter the diner. After complaining about the serving schedule, the two men order dinner, joking sarcastically about George and Nick being a couple of dumb country boys.
Finishing his meal, Al orders Nick and Sam, the Black cook, to the kitchen, where he ties them up. Meanwhile, Max boasts to George that he and Al have been hired to kill Ole Andreson, an aging boxer, who, they've heard, eats dinner there every night.
When the boxer fails to show up in the diner, Al and Max leave, and George hurries to untie Nick and Sam. He then suggests that Nick warn Andreson, who lives in a nearby boarding house.
When the boxer hears about Al and Max's plan to kill him, he's unconcerned; he's tired, he says, of running. Nick leaves and returns to the diner, where he tells George and Sam that he's leaving Summit because he can't bear to think about a man waiting, passively, to be killed by a couple of hired killers.
In the 1940s, when Hemingway's stories were beginning to be anthologized, "Indian Camp" and "The Killers" were the two stories most often published in textbooks and literary anthologies.
Pervading this short story is an overwhelming mood of bleakness. The setting is a lunch counter diner, located in a small town, ironically called Summit, some miles from Chicago, Illinois. After Andreson's usual eating time has passed, the killers leave, and George tells Nick that he should warn Andreson. In Ole's rented room, Ole seems undisturbed by the news; in fact, he seems as though he almost expected to hear about the plan to kill him. He tells Nick that he can't run any longer and that nothing can be done about his situation. He sends Nick away.
Interestingly, Ole is lying in his bed turned toward the wall in his room as he waits for his death; in "Indian Camp," the young American Indian husband slits his throat while he is turned toward the wall lying in his bunk.
Returning back to the diner, Nick begins telling George and the cook (who goes into the kitchen so he won't have to hear anything more about the murder that's being planned) what happened in Ole's apartment. Nick says that he's going to leave town because being in a town where a man passively awaits being gunned down is too terrible.
Nick "can't stand . . . it." In "Indian Camp," Nick's father made a grave distinction between men who succumbed to fear and couldn't face dire adversity. They became suicidal weaklings: the ones who "couldn't stand things." As a small boy, Nick vowed never to be one of these men.
Ironically, Hemingway's story is not about "the killers," nor is it about Ole Andreson, the prizefighter who it is assumed is killed. Rather, the story is about Nick Adams' confrontation with unmitigated evil, represented by the two gangsters, Al and Max.
Note that we don't even know why the killers are murdering Andreson; George thinks that the prizefighter must have betrayed or double-crossed some gamblers. Ole simply says to Nick that he "got in wrong." The main concern, however, has little to do with Andreson or the killers. Readers are far more concerned with Nick Adams' initiation, or exposure, to evil and how he reacts to it.
Hemingway uses no subtlety in characterizing Al and Max. They clearly represent the epitome of evil, almost as though they stepped out of a medieval morality play. Their faces are not alike, yet they are dressed in identical black overcoats, and black gloves — black, of course, being the most common and perhaps oldest symbol of evil.
Seemingly, this episode in the diner is Nick Adams' first encounter with evil — killing done simply for the sake of killing by men hired to kill, who have no family, business, or emotional ties to their victim. Neither Al nor Max has even met Andreson, yet they plan to kill him coldly and impersonally. Nick's deep sense of responsibility is evident in his need to warn Andreson of the impending danger, and he is confused by Andreson's passive attitude.
Considering the different kinds of reactions to evil, first there is the cook's reaction, who wants to close his eyes to the existence of evil, to close his ears to it, and to pretend that it isn't there, hearing no more about it. Then there is George, who recognizes that evil exists but yet sends someone else (Nick, in this case) to deal with it. Also, there is Andreson; he succumbs to the inevitable that is his fate. Finally, Nick Adams recognizes the horror of evil and attempts to do something about it, but when he cannot, he yearns to run away. Although he responds to evil and wants to do something about it, upon witnessing Ole doing absolutely nothing about it himself, Nick decides to leave town and ultimately surrenders to the threat of evil himself.
Like the American Indian husband in "Indian Camp, a man who "couldn't stand" his wife's suffering, so Nick "can't stand" Ole Andreson's waiting in his room and "knowing that he is going to get it."
Additionally, Nick also learns that the world is not always what it seems. For instance, the diner was built as a bar (and still has some of the acoutrements); the clock and the menu don't reflect what time it is and what is being served; the killers look a little like Laurel and Hardy, although they are dressed in black; the boarding house owner is absent.
Nick is also exposed to the heavyweight fighter who once fought for money but now refuses to fight — even for his life. Andreson clearly knows that the hired killers are going to murder him, but he has lost the will to fight. Ole, a prizefighter, isn't a fighter; and Nick isn't able to confront the evil as he thought he could. This attitude is, of course, antithetical to the values of what would develop as Hemingway's standard code hero; a man who must recognize death as the end of everything and must therefore struggle against this final nothingness.
Fleeing evil is not an option for the typical code hero of Hemingway's later fiction. A man must confront evil — or, in this case, Andreson's inevitable death — and he must try to understand it. Running from evil is as much a violation of the code hero's persona as suicide is. How one reacts to evil is ultimately more important than the evil itself.
wicket here, a small gate separating the kitchen from the dining room of the diner.
kosher convent To most people, a convent is associated with Catholicism; here, Max jokes that Al, probably Jewish, would have to be in a "kosher" convent; kosher is Yiddish for food that is ritually clean, according to dietary laws.
muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun the firing end of the gun.
the car-tracks The reference is to electric streetcar tracks.
Summit, Illinois, is the setting for Hemingway's "The Killers." Nick Adams is living in Summit, leading what seems to be an uneventful life, when he is suddenly confronted by two hired killers, probably from Chicago, who intend to murder a professional boxer, Ole Andreson. Nick rushes to Andreson's boarding house and tells him that he is marked as a target by the killers and Andreson says that he's tired of running, that he'll wait for the killers; Nick leaves Summit, sickened in disbelief that a man can passively await his own, certain death.