Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"into the american night"

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by konrad kraus and danny delacroix

part one of two

editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo

"you want a vacation, roland?"

joe bernstein, the manager of the venerable hotel st crispian, was almost as surprised as he might have been if his dog or his goldfish had asked for a vacation. roland had been working the front desk, six days or nights a week for six or seven years, mostly on the midnight shift and had never asked for time off and had only called in sick on three or four occasions in all that time. he had been the regular midnight to 8 a m clerk for the last three years at least.

"well, i don't know if vacation is exactly the word, mr bernstein. i would like a whole two weeks off."

"huh. and when would you like them off?"

"oh, there is no rush. any time in the next month or two. before it gets too cold."

"before it gets too cold? what, are you going camping or something?" joe had a hard time imagining roland going camping. actually he had a hard time imagining anybody going camping. it was not on his list of things he might ever want to do.

roland seemed to flush slightly at the question - the first time joe had ever seen him show the slightest deviation from his usual somnolent expression.

"um - no - not exactly -" roland stammered.

"that's o k, roland, it's none of my business. i'm just a little surprised, that's all. ha, ha!" joe didn't want to hear about what roland did in his spare time or about what any of his employees did in their spare time.

"so, it's o k, then?" roland asked.

"sure, sure. just let me get somebody lined up and i'll let you know. maybe by tonight. i'll leave a note at the desk for you for when you come on."

"gee thanks, mr bernstein. i really appreciate it." roland stood up. "i know you're busy, i won't take any more of your time."

"of course you won't get paid while you are gone."

"oh no, no! i never expected that."

"good. all right, well, enjoy your vacation! ha, ha!"

"thanks." roland flushed a little again, and left, closing the office door behind him.

joe picked a pencil off his desk and flipped it into the air and caught it.

huh! it shouldn't be much of a problem. he had three other guys who worked the desk at different times and they should each take a couple of shifts without too much crying. or maybe he would take a few of them himself and get out of having to pay anybody. or one or two of the more experienced bellhops could take some shifts…

roland on vacation! where could he be going? the thought crossed joe's mind that maybe poor roland was being taken for a ride by some floozy. and end up broke in some flophouse or in jail in atlantic city or philadelphia and have to call him, joe, to bail him out.

ha ha! well, that was not a very nice thing to think. maybe roland had met a nice girl who was just right for him.

yes, that was a much nicer thought. his wife and his mother would approve.


roland indeed had a romantic destination of sorts in mind, but not with a member of the fair sex.

roland was in love - with the american night.

roland was a dreamer, when he was asleep and when he was awake. and what he dreamed of most of the time was the dark empty continent between new york and hollywood, crossed by long empty highways - the silence only broken by the lonesome whistles of freight trains and lit only by the headlights of trucks and the windows of truck stop diners .

and the light of an occasional motel - the quietest, loneliest places of all.

like the motel roland had been saving for years to buy.

but lately the dream had not been quite enough. he had felt an urge to actually see these places, make sure they were really there, just like in his dreams.

and he had spoken to more than one salesman coming through who mentioned that motels like the one he dreamed of were not doing that great because more people were flying or taking fast express trains across country, and that they could be bought cheap.

so maybe this was his chance - in a couple of years, and not in ten or twelve years like he had planned.

so, what it came down to was he wanted to go out west, to kansas or nebraska or even wyoming or nevada - nevada away from reno or las vegas - and find a place. not buy it right now, of course, but just get a feel for what was out there.

his plan was to take the greyhound bus to kansas city or omaha and then start hitchhiking around the darkest, loneliest roads he could find -

until he found his dream.

and now that mr bernstein had given him the o k, he could hardly wait.

he was a little nervous, sure, but what fun would it be without a little danger?

yes, sleepy looking, soft talking roland was a true romantic.


although he often used the new york subway and buses, and had taken trains during the war when he had been in the army, roland had never actually taken a greyhound or trailways bus before.

so even that gave him a little thrill of the unknown as he waited, sixth in a ragged line of about fifteen people in front of the glass door to gate 24 in the lower section of the port authority terminal.

it was just after midnight. it was a little chilly outside, but warm enough in the terminal with the heat from hundreds of bodies. roland held his ticket - actually three tickets - in his hand, along with the schedules showing the endless stops between new york and his final destination in kansas city.

a bus pulled into the bay outside the door. he squinted to read the destination above the windshield - cleveland. good. that was his first transfer point. then chicago, then on to kansas city.

the line behind roland continued to grow before the driver finally opened the door and started taking and punching tickets. after getting his first ticket punched, roland climbed the high steps into the dark bus with his single suitcase in his hand.

he headed for the back of the bus. there were plenty of empty seats - for now. he just hoped he would get two seats for himself, at least to start.

the bus began filling up. still nobody took the seat beside him.

now the driver had closed the door behind him and was taking his seat at the wheel. the door closed with a hiss. only a few stragglers were still wandering in the aisle, putting their bags in the overhead rack and looking for seats.

still nobody beside him.

a fat woman in a flowered hat was bearing down on him.

she stopped, looked around, glared at roland. and moved on and took a seat directly behind him.

whew. he might have his two seats after all.

but it was not to be.

"mind if i sit here?"

roland had not seen or heard the girl approach. she was small, and at first glance he thought she might be a child, but her raspy voice and piercing dark eyes - as dark as any he had ever seen in his years at the desk - quickly disabused him.

"of course not, miss," he answered in his desk clerk voice. roland was not completely immune to the charms of eve's daughters and he smiled at her. "not that it would matter if i did - you bought a ticket."

"thanks." but the girl had already plopped herself down beside him. "mind if i smoke?"

"not at all," roland answered her.

"watch out for her, mister," growled the fat lady who had seated herself behind him.

part 2

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