"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!"
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.
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.
Originally published in “Today’s Crime Stories”, December, 1950; reprinted for the first time ever in book form in “You Know What My Auntie Margaret Always Says”: The “Gwendolyn and Auntie Margaret” Stories of Horace P. Sternwall, Vol. 9, the Olney Community College Press; edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Populist American Literature, Olney Community College.
“No, I don’t want you to say ‘nuttin’’. I want you to say ‘nothing’.”
“I don’t get it, boss. You want me to clam up, I’ll clam up.”
Big Bart sighed.
“Okay, forget it. Just tell me anything you found out about this new mob, anything at all.”
“Nuttin’,” said Luigi.
“Nuttin’?” said Big Bart. “I mean nothing at all?”
“Just what we already knew, boss. Just that they firebombed Jimmy Mazzaro and his boys, and as best we can like specalate, probly on account of Jimmy rubbin’ out Tommy Sullivan.”
“But it wasn’t any of Tommy’s friends who did it?”
“Nobody knows, boss. If it was any of Tommy’s pals they ain’t braggin’ about it.”
“And it ain’t like one of them micks to take out five dago wiseguys and not brag about it.”
“Micks like to brag, that’s true, boss.”
“And no connection to Jackie O’Hara’s mob, or Maxie Goldenberg, the Five Points boys, the Yancy Street Gang?”
“Like I said, boss: nuttin’.”
“Then who are they?” said Big Bart. “And who’s this ‘Mrs. Big’?”
“Yes, I know it’s some dame, but who is she, who’s she workin’ for?”
“Maybe she ain’t workin’ for nobody,” said Luigi.
“What, a dame runnin’ her own mob? There ain’t never been a dame runnin’ her own mob.”
“Well, I don’t know, boss,” said Luigi.
“What don’t you know, Luigi?”
“Well – what about Queen Elizabeth?”
“Queen Elizabeth. The Queen of England that Bette Davis was in that movie. With Erroll Flynn.”
“Queen Elizabeth,” said Big Bart.
“Yeah,” said Luigi. “She was like the boss of her own mob, right? Except her mob was a whole country. England.”
Big Bart didn’t say anything.
“I’m just sayin’,” said Luigi.
Still Big Bart said nothing.
“You want me to go now, boss?” said Luigi.
Big Bart said nothing. He just smoked his cigar and stared out the window.
“Okay, I’ll go now, boss,” said Luigi. “I hear anything else about this new mob I’ll let you know, right away.”
Luigi backed out the door of the office and closed the door, gently.
From her bedroom window in her Auntie Margaret’s suite in the venerable Hotel St Crispian a twelve-year-old girl named Gwendolyn gazed out at the twinkling nighttime skyline of New York City.
“Greenwich Village and the Bowery are now ours, Marie-France,” she said. “Or at any rate the marijuana trade in those two districts are now ours. It’s true, we shall have to find replacements for those two idiotic grown-ups, ‘Sniffy’ and ‘Rooster’. After the beating they received from Jimmy Mazzaro’s goons they lost their nerve. But do you know what? Good riddance I say. From now on the people I recruit for our gang will be made of sterner stuff. And I will find them, you mark my words.
“But this – all this is only the beginning. Look at that great city, Marie-France! A city ripe for the taking. And do you know what? If all goes well I shall retire by my eighteenth birthday, perhaps just around the time I graduate from Miss Churchill’s. And then I shall buy a house in the country, a great big house with land and horses, and I will move Auntie Margaret and her friends Pierre and Serge in there, perhaps also my little friend Pippi, and, of course – fear not – you as well, chère Marie-France. And we shall live as country squires and ladies.
“What’s that, ma chérie? Won’t I find country life a bit shall we say ennuyeuse? Perhaps, my dear, perhaps. On se sait jamais ce que demain peut t’apporter. But we shall worry about that when the time comes, if it comes.
For now, it’s time for bed. We have a big day tomorrow. I give my presentation for Miss Barlowe’s Civics class on the ancient city-state of Sparta, and then after school I interview a new candidate for the gang, this older boy from the Falworthy School, a likely lad I’ve had my eye on. Tall enough to pass for a grown-up, quite well-spoken, and he has just gotten his driver’s license.”
Marie-France, being a doll, albeit a very life-like doll, of course said nothing to this, at least nothing anyone but Gwendolyn could hear.
Gwendolyn turned out the light, got in bed, kissed Marie-France on the cheek, and, soon, she was fast asleep.