"thanks." but the girl had already plopped herself down beside roland. "mind if i smoke?"
"not at all," he answered.
"watch out for her, mister," growled the fat lady who had seated herself behind him.
the girl did not turn her head but put her purse in her lap and began digging in it for her cigarettes. "did you hear something?" she asked roland.
roland was accustomed to occasional small spats by patrons, and sometimes the bellhops, at the front desk of the hotel st crispian. he had always found it the best policy to pretend he didn't hear them, so long as fisticuffs did not develop. he just smiled.
"i might have," he told the girl politely. "i am not sure."
"it sounded like the buzzing of an insect ," said the girl.
"a loud, disgusting insect." she repeated, when the fat lady did not retort.
roland just nodded and smiled again. the girl lit the chesterfield she had taken out of a crumpled pack, and tossed her paper match into the aisle.
although roland had not heard anything, the girl suddenly whirled her head around to the fat lady. "i heard that!"
"you haven't heard nothing," said the fat lady. "compared to what i could say."
"an elephant should step on your fat slimy carcass." the girl told her, "except that the mess he'd make would stop up the holland tunnel and stink up the whole of new york and new jersey."
"just turn around and shut up, you little tramp."
"hey!" came a deep male voice from about a third of the way up the aisle. "both of you shut up! people are trying to sleep here!"
mumblings, which were probably agreements with the speaker, issued from some of the other seats in the almost full bus.
suddenly the driver appeared. he put his hand on the seat in front of the girl and hovered over her and roland.
"what's going on here?" he demanded. he looked over at roland and raised his eyebrows. "what say you, sir? which of these two charmers is the more culpable of disturbing the peace?"
"i couldn't really say," roland replied diplomatically. "i am not acquainted with either lady and am not familiar with the cause of their disagreement."
"yeah? well, it don't really matter, does it? because i'll throw both of them off my bus if they don't mind their manners. did you hear me, ladies? it can get mighty cold out there on the highway at three in the morning. " he turned and addressed the passengers behind him. "and that goes for anybody else. this is my bus - "
roland recognized the type, one he was all too familiar with from the army , and he expected him to say something like "and on this bus, i am god, " or " on this bus, i am the law -"
but he just said " - and i won't stand for any monkey business. now we have a long ride ahead to cleveland. first stop will be newark, first rest stop will be wilkes-barre around three o'clock, for anybody who's awake." he turned and glared again at the girl beside roland and the fat lady behind him. "you got that?"
"i said what i had to say," muttered the fat woman. the girl just smirked - it was obvious that she was enjoying the whole situation.
the driver turned and went back to the front of the bus.
the girl took a big drag of her cigarette, which had almost burned itself away in her fingers during the driver's speech.
the bus started to move. the lights in the bus got even dimmer than they had been, but there was still enough light to see by. a few people in the seats in front had small overhead lights on, probably to read by.
roland had brought a book with him, a book about general custer (one of his favorite subjects) , but it was in his suitcase on the rack above him and he didn't feel like disturbing the girl or any of the other passengers who might be sleeping.
the bus entered the holland tunnel. the girl lit a second cigarette off the her first one. she snuggled back into her seat and turned to roland. she spoke in a soft, almost purring, voice, very different from the one she had used before, especially with the fat woman.
"going all the way to cleveland?"
"yes, i am," roland answered. "and beyond."
"oh? how far beyond?"
"kansas city, huh?" the girl considered this. "i been all over the world but i never been to kansas city."
roland thought he heard a short laugh behind him. the girl seemed to ignore it.
"i've never been there myself," roland said.
"oh? so what brings you there?"
"uh - business. i'm on a business trip. i'm - looking for business opportunities." roland felt a little foolish saying this, but he was hesitant to completely share his dream - which, of course, he had hardly ever expressed to anybody. except a few fellow old timers at the hotel, like olaf the doorman and mortimer the elevator operator.
"yeah," said the girl, "i thought you looked like a businessman. real distinguished."
"you're welcome, i'm sure. my name is melisandy. what's yours?"
"roland. i'm pleased to meet you, melisandy."
"likewise, roland. you know, my father was a businessman."
"yeah, and he was a prince."
"he wasn't just a prince. he was a prince of the blood."
"you don't meet those every day." roland heard a more distinct snicker behind him.
melisandy did not look behind her, but stuck her nose a little higher in the air.
"my father owned monte carlo."
"that must have been profitable."
"it was. but he lost all his money on a secret mission against hitler and the japs. he lost all his money but he never got any credit."
"life is unfair sometimes."
"it sure is." melisandy had finished her second cigarette and was squinting into her crumpled pack. "only one left. uh, you wouldn't happen to have a cigarette, would you?"
"i'm sorry, but i don't smoke."
"mm. that's cool, roland. you'll live to be a hundred and get to enjoy all that money you're going to make." melisandy looked around the bus as if debating whether to hit up one of the other passengers, but the bus was dark and quiet and she stayed in her seat.
roland looked out the window. the bus was out of the holland tunnel but not out of new jersey. there were still plenty of lights on the horizon and on both sides of the road.
they had yet to reach the dark heart of the american night.
melisandy resumed her tale. she had studied ballet with the princesses of italy and russia. and the pope's niece, who had been her best friend.
roland was not unfamiliar with histories like melisandy's, and had heard many of them in the bars and park benches and automats of new york.
just as the bus finally reached a stretch of open highway, he began to feel drowsy…
"want to come inside?"
roland woke up. melisandy was looking at him with her little dark eyes.
"we're in wilkes-barre. we got half an hour."
roland looked out the window. the bus was "in wllkes-barre" but it did not look like a town, just a gas station and cafe on the outskirts of one.
why not, thought roland. he was cramped, he wanted to stretch a little. melisandy started walking up the aisle and he got up and followed her.
most of the other passengers were asleep. a few were staring out the windows.
the only other people who got off were a couple of men with suitcases, who disappeared into what must have been a parking lot behind the cafe, the driver, and the fat woman, who followed roland and melisandy into the cafe.
the cafe was dimly lit. the driver was already seated at the small counter, which had four sides but only nine or ten stools.
the clock above the counter read quarter past three. a tired looking red-haired woman was behind the counter, apparently the only person on duty in the place.
roland and melisandy took stools beside each other, and the fat woman seated herself to melisandy's left, across from the driver, who already had a cup of coffee in front of him and was ignoring all three of them.
melisandy and the fat woman glared at each other.
"i got a right to be here," said the fat woman. "anybody says i don't?"
"fuck you, clara," said melisandy.
"hey, hey!" shouted the red-haired woman. "we won't have that kind of talk in here! one more word like that , missy, and you're out on your ear!"
melisandy just rolled her eyes.
"do you understand me?" the red-haired woman asked melisandy.
"yeah, i understand."
"i told you she was trouble, mister," the fat woman addressed roland. "my name is clara, by the way."
"i'm pleased to meet you, clara. my name is roland."
"hello, roland. i'm sorry we couldn't meet under more civilized circumstances."
melisandy held her peace.
"do any of you actually want to order anything?" asked the red-haired woman.
"you got anything besides coffee at this time of night?" clara asked.
"we sure do. burgers if you want. pancakes, eggs, fries, whole breakfasts."
"great," said clara. "i'll have three eggs sunny side up, bacon, and an order of pancakes. and coffee and orange juice. and some toast."
"watch out," said melisandy. "she'll eat everything in the place."
"and what if she does?" the red-haired woman turned on melisandy. "she'll pay for it, and that's good business for me. and what's it to you?"
"i was just saying."
"you were just saying. and what do you want?"
"it's ten cents. let's see your money first."
melisandy took a dime out of her pocket and put it on the counter. clara laughed.
"how about you, mister? anything besides coffee?"
"um - you got any pie?."
"apple pie i baked myself."
"all right, i'll have a slice."
the woman brought melisandy and roland their coffee and roland his pie and began cooking up clara's order on the grill.
everybody fell silent. roland heard some kind of noise outside - crickets? there was no traffic outside on the highway.
the clock above the counter slowly moved.
finally the red-haired woman began placing clara's big order in front of her. clara tucked into it. melisandy watched her with a smirk.
clara picked up her coffee and made a slurping sound, distinct in the silence.
melisandy laughed. "what a pig."
clara slammed the cup down, spilling some of the coffee. "all right, i've had enough of you!"