On the redeye leaving Las Vegas a blonde hesitates at the head of the aisle. In her blouse and white slacks I would have pegged her for a reluctant stewardess if not for the fact we’re going Greyhound. She turns and asks about the empty seat next to mine. I offer her the seat though she needs no invitation. Sitting, she puts a large purse on the floor between her legs and rummages.
“It’s been years since I’ve taken a bus,” she says.
“It’s not that bad,” I say, “as long as you can sleep.”
I show her my silver flask.
She rolls her eyes. “God, I hate Vegas.”
The driver jumps into his seat, grabs the metal handle, shuts the door and the bus jerks forward. Across the aisle a heavyset biker with a faded tattoo on his forearm talks about marijuana reproduction with a greasy teenager. The kid has an electric guitar missing its pinkie string wedged between his legs and the seat.
“If you’re Hells Angel why aren’t you riding a fat hog down the Strip?” says the kid.
The biker snorts. “My license got revoked.” He eyes the kid. “Hey, aren’t you young to be traveling alone? You sure you’re not running away?”
The kid pauses. “I like to think I’m exploring my options.”
Megacasinos blaze through the windows. The yahoos in the back ooh and ahh and crack open more beers with a fttt. Meanwhile the blonde continues to sift through her purse. Exploring options seems to be name of the game.
“Did you lose something?” I say.
This stops her search and settles her in the chair. “I guess you could say I’ve had a string of bad luck.”
I could relate. Earlier that night I gambled the check from Uncle Sam. I offer her my flask. She eyes it a moment. Can she trust me? I don’t know why she would when I barely trust myself. But she’s not the cautious type. Taking the flask, she leans over and takes a nip as the bus plunges into darkness. When the driver kills the lights she flicks on her overhead, which hits her like a spotlight.
“I guess I don’t really hate Vegas,” she says. “It’s just been a rough couple days. I came for a conference with . . . let’s call him an associate who was under the false impression that I would sleep with him.”
“Men make a lot of assumptions about me based on my line of work.”
“Why, what do you do?”
“I set up lingerie shows.” I must have given her a look because she quickly adds in the tone of a head nun: “Our shows are clean. There’s no touching and no liquor. I preserve the integrity of my girls.”
“I’m sure you do,” I say.
“Anyway,” she says, “I booked a room with this associate of mine to cut down on expenses, you know. I didn’t think anything of it, but it must have meant something to him. When he realized I wasn’t going to bed with him, he kicked me out.”
Leaning over, she takes another shot, flinches and shakes her head. Out comes the whole story of her miserable childhood in Missoura. She was a prom baby. The state tore apart her family and she ran away to the big city, Wichita, with an older man. He sold bags of sugar until they had to skip town. When money got tight she danced. In Vegas he got jealous and beat her. She was homeless for three weeks until the state found her foster parents.
“And now look at me,” she says, holding up her arms. “I’m my own boss. I’m blessed a hundred times over.”
By this time the air conditioner has fogged the windows. The bus has gone silent, even the yahoos in the back. The bus is pitch black but for the spotlight hitting the blonde. The light shines on the silver flask.
Emptying the flask, she returns it. Reaching up, she shuts off the overhead. I settle into my chair and try to doze. Almost immediately I’m lost in a desert sandstorm, back on patrol. I’m lost until I think about the blonde. Why did I listen to her stories? Was it because she’s a survivor like me?
Eventually the hum of the air conditioner lulls me asleep. At some point during the night I feel the blonde against me, her head against my shoulder. I imagine us sharing a bed. I put my arm around her and draw her close.
But when the bus rattles into the LA terminal and I blink in the morning sun I realize I’ve been dreaming. I don’t have my arm around the blonde.
Awaking, she lifts her head slowly, smoothing her matted hair.
“Did I lean against you last night?” she says. “It was so cold. They really crank the A/C, don’t they?”
She seems slightly embarrassed. I feel a little embarrassed myself. I don’t even know her name. As I stand and gather my belongings I wish her good luck. She assumes I’m referring to her “associate.”
“Don’t worry,” she says, “Paybacks are a bitch. I’ll make some calls. He’ll never work in this city again.”
We say goodbye and I continue inside, where I buy a ticket to Hollywood at the counter. The bus doesn’t leave for an hour, so I take a seat in the waiting room.
A minute later the blonde walks by. She looks frazzled, a little lost. She doesn’t notice me.
“Are you okay?” I say.
This startles her. “Oh, it’s you,” she says. “Why are you still here?” Glancing over her shoulder, her voice drops to a whisper. “Can I tell you something? I met this trucker and let him buy me a cup of coffee. We were having a nice chat until he started talking about showing me his cab. I told him I need to freshen up in the ladies’ room but between you and me I’m out of here. You don’t want to be a bitch but when every sleazeball hits on you it doesn’t leave you much choice.”
Fitz Fitzgerald is the descendant of an encounter between Gertrude Stein and F. Scott when Bolton Hill was the “Gin Belt” of Baltimore. Work of his recently appeared in Open Letters, Artichoke Haircut, Everyday Genius, Espresso Ink, Boog City, Seltzer, and What Weekly.