from Night Bus

Thursday, 1 April 1993, 7:30 p.m.- Friday, 2 April 1993, 2:30 a.m.

Hearts do not grieve and can suffer Hour by hour, even for an entire life, Without any of us ever knowing, With too much certainty, what is happening. --Camilo José Cela, La Colmena

In the parabolic mirror, he sees the silhouette advancing. He holds his breath. Then the man takes another step, and Francesco breathes again, relaxing his shoulders. For an instant, he was afraid it was the Bear. But though the stranger is tall and robust, he's at least four inches shorter, has gray hair, and is wearing a herringbone jacket that the Bear wouldn't be caught dead in.

As the bus approaches the stop, the man makes his way among the other passengers until he reaches the driver's seat. When he leans toward him, Francesco notices an intense odor of aftershave.

"Excuse me," the man says, with a Roman accent. "Could you let me know when we reach the stop closest to the Teatro delle Celebrazioni?"

Francesco gives him an affirmative nod, while he presses the button that opens the pneumatic doors. People crowd on, permeating the bus with a smell of sweat, fried potatoes, and smoke.

"You have to get out at Arco del Meloncello, at the end of Via Saragozza. I'll let you know when we get close."

"Thanks. Then I'll wait here," the other says. He takes a step back and settles himself by a window.

Francesco closes the door and glances in the left hand mirror. He sees a scooter approaching, driven by an elegant-looking man in a brown overcoat that flies out behind him. He lets the man go by, then presses the accelerator and moves on again.

One of these days the Bear will present him with the bill, and, as always, he'll find himself without a penny in his pocket, inventing ridiculous excuses, looking out of the corner of his eye for a possible escape route.

He stops the bus at a pedestrian crossing. Among the people going by is a tall girl with a backpack, from which the head of a tiny infant sticks out. Passing in front of the bus, the newborn looks up, staring at him with an expression of astonishment.

Francesco leaves Strada Maggiore on the left and turns onto Via Castiglione. Opposite is the Palazzo della Mercanzia, with its tall gothic arcades and the white balcony that stands out against the dark brick.

The anxiety of this evening is a new sensation, which he can't explain. His life is a total disaster, obviously, but by now he should be used to it. How long has it been since he's had his head above water? And yet, one way or another, he has always got by.

His gaze detaches itself from the street and slides diagonally along the surface of the windscreen. The dark silhouettes of the passengers, slightly distorted by the convexity of the mirror, are reflected in the rectangular frame. Cold neon light rains on their heads and shoulders, but the bodies are immersed in a livid obscurity, where forms commingle. That mass of figures, swaying as they grip the support poles, has something spectral about it.

The grey-haired man, holding on to a pole, lets his eyes wander out the window. Sprawled on the seat beside him is an acne-faced kid who is picking his nose. Next to him, two women in their fifties chatter in loud voices.

"So, in the end she decided to dump him?"

"She told him to go to hell, I'm telling you. She packed her bags, threw them in the back of the Volkswagen and went off."

"Oh, so she took the Golf?"

"What do you think she did? Walk?"

From the compressed air tank comes a continuous hiss that grows in intensity until, every four or five minutes, it erupts, in a kind of elephant bellow. It must be that the discharge valve isn't properly calibrated.

The bus passes Piazza Galvani, which is swarming with kids. At the bus stop, the first to get on is a stiff legged old man, with a broad-brimmed hat and a cane. He hooks the cane over one arm and climbs up the steps, followed by a girl and boy entwined around each other, who get on without a pause in their kiss.

Francesco presses in sequence the three buttons that close the doors, lowers the turn-signal lever.

*

The man in the armchair has a thin, bony skull that looks like an insect's. His lips are rigidly set in a sad looking line. On the television in front of him the images of a movie rush by. Four police cars, sirens blaring, are following a big blue car with a good suspension system, which one way or another always manages to avoid being stopped.

The thin man is examining his fingers, looking for a possible cut, or even just a small superficial scratch. He pays closest attention to the area around the nails. It must be the twentieth time that he has completed this minute inspection, but still he's not satisfied. He rotates the hand an inch or so from his eyes, slowly, then lays it again on the arm of the chair and returns to the TV with his impenetrable expression.

Now the blue car seems done for. The police cars have increased in number and are pursuing the fugitives through an unpaved area that runs under a viaduct. A little farther ahead you can see there's a sudden drop. Meanwhile steep banks of earth rise up on both sides, keeping the car from making a U-turn. Now it's hemmed in and has to go straight toward the precipice.

The man with the face of an insect stares at the screen, thinks again of the job he's just done. He sees the informer again, in profile, while he's putting the key in the door of his car. He seems to feel again the pressure of the recoil in the palm of his hand. The informer pirouetted against the car and slid to the ground, his fingers searching for a hold; then he stiffened on the asphalt, dying, with his head stuck under the body of the car. To finish him off, he shot him in the chest. He sees again the two gashes opening in the man's shirt, the body jolting as if hit by electric shocks.

Now that there seems to be no way out, the pursued car suddenly accelerates and, with a sharp jerk of the wheel, swerves. It skids, slips neatly between two pylons and heads at top speed toward a truck trailer providentially abandoned on the edge of the cliff. The bed of the trailer creates a sort of trampoline. The girl next to the driver is screaming, covering her eyes with her hands.

Unfortunately it wasn't just a matter of getting rid of the man. He also had to retrieve an envelope. So, after murdering him, he had to search the corpse. And at that point he cursed himself for not having at least brought a pair of gloves. He shifted the edge of the jacket with the point of the silencer and stuck his hand under the blood-soaked material. At that moment there was a noisy rumbling from the dead man's intestines. It seems to him that he can still smell that sweetish stench and feel the warm wet material under his fingertips. After retrieving the envelope, he got away in a hurry, rubbing his sticky fingers together. Panic forced him to stop after barely twenty yards. The blood was already starting to coagulate. He wiped the blood off his fingers with his handkerchief, and then threw it into the first trashcan he saw.

The blue car hits the trampoline at full speed and, a moment before the inclined platform starts to sink under its weight, takes off toward the opposite bank of the precipice. The car is thrust upward, but the one pursuing car that tries the same maneuver finds itself with a much lower launching pad and ends up at the bottom of the ravine. Amid a roar of revving engines, wailing sirens, squealing brakes and the clash of crumpling metal, the television screen shows the blue car landing with a series of bounces on the opposite side of the ravine, while on the near side the six surviving vehicles are crashing into one another to avoid going over the edge.

The man with the face of an insect twists his mouth in a grimace of disgust.

"How idiotic!"

Then he looks at the clock and presses a button on the remote. In the room silence falls, while the images continue to flicker on the screen. The man puts on his slippers and gets up. He goes to a low glass table on which a telephone sits.

He dials a number. One ring. Two. Three. Four.

The man can still see the television from there. His lips are set in the usual bitter, suffering line. He is so still that his face seems cut in stone. In his right eyelid a tear has formed.

"Hello, signora? It's Diolaiti. Is your husband at home?"

While he waits, the receiver leaning against his ear, he takes a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, delicately wipes away the tear.

*

Well, yes, all in all not bad, thinks Leila, barefoot before the mirror. She rotates her body, inclines her head. Her dark hair, cut like a helmet, cascades from one side, covering part of her face. Not bad, but time is passing. She examines her legs, below the tight miniskirt. They are slender, well-formed legs. Her feet, too, are shapely. But Leila is in the mood for inspection. She lifts up the miniskirt, and with the index finger and thumb of both hands pinches the flesh on the outer part of the left thigh. Some small indentations appear on the skin. She squeezes harder, to see if the cellulite holes increase in number and depth. The skin turns red at the center, whitens along the edge of the pressure. The number of little indentations, however, remains the same. Leila lets the edge of her skirt fall. She takes a step forward, brings her face close to the mirror. No doubt about it: here, too, a few signs are starting to be visible. At the corners of her eyes, for instance, and around the mouth. Not really wrinkles. Rather, small superficial marks. But visible.

Time is passing, even if she doesn't show her thirty-three years.

She backs away again. There she is: slim, well proportioned, and sexy. That mini, then, is particularly flattering. It accentuates her shapely legs, with their narrow calves. Her legs are very good; her bosom, on the other hand, has always seemed to her too small, even if that's the reason it has remained high and firm. Five-five and 117 pounds, you can't complain. Especially since, until now, staying in shape hasn't taken much of an effort. Until now.

She feels like smiling. She looks at herself in the mirror again, examines the marks of time on the geography of her skin, and starts to worry about the future. Thirty-three, the beginnings of cellulite in the upper part of the thighs, six million in cash hidden in the false bottom of a closet and another twenty-five in a bank account. Nothing solid on which to rely, apart from her ability to fend for herself. But security is not of this world, thinks Leila, trying to get rid of the sticky sensation that's caught her.

She bends over, puts on low, black-leather boots. She zips them up, and then stands and with her palms smoothes the creases in the miniskirt, which is tight across her hips. She pinches the material of her body stocking, to adjust the neckline. She opens the closet, chooses a short, very soft black suede jacket. While she's putting it on she thinks that what she'd really like, once and for all, is a good stroke of luck.

*

The large, squarish man sitting at the head of the table pounds his fist down a couple of inches from his plate.

"You'll do what I say, and that's it! Understand?"

His wife looks at him, frightened. She knows his rages, and knows that nothing good can be expected. Whereas the girl, it seems, couldn't care less about her father's shouting.

"You think you can tell everyone what to do," she says.

"Why don't you try instead to understand that I have my own life, and-"

"Your own life . . ." the man interrupts, with a threatening look, but his daughter won't let him continue.

"Yes, Papa, my own life! And you'd better not interfere with it!"

"You be careful what you say! If I order you . . ."

"Do you hear yourself talking?" cries the girl. "I order you! If you want to know, I don't give a damn about your orders!"

His daughter's words have a surprising effect on the man. He jumps to his feet with an agility that is surprising in such a heavyset person, and in an instant has come around the table. The girl, seeing him lunging toward her, tries to get up, but the man stops her, grabbing her wrist.

"Who do you think you're talking to? One of those imbecile friends of yours?"

The girl struggles, but the man tightens his grip.

"Ow, Papa, you're hurting me!"

"I'm hurting you? You have no idea how much I can hurt you!"

The wife, still sitting in her place, throws her napkin on the table.

"For heaven's sake, Guiseppe! Enough! What kind of behavior is this?"

The man turns his head, gives the woman an angry glance. The daughter takes advantage of this to free herself with a sudden tug, and, before he can manage to grab her again, is in the hallway. She runs to her room, the man follows but isn't in time. The door closes with a thud and the key turns rapidly in the lock.

"Elisabetta!" the man shouts, his nose an inch from the door. "There's no point locking yourself in. I can knock down this door if I feel like it!"

He stands there, panting, in the yellow glow of the ceiling light that reflects off his square, bald head, shiny with sweat. Rage builds up inside him like steam in a pressure cooker.

He raises one hand and slams the palm, hard, against the surface of the door.

"Get that clown out of your head! Either you stop going out with him or I'll throw you out of the house!"

"Go away!" the girl cries, from inside. "Leave me alone!"

His wife, behind him, says: "Do you think it's necessary to treat her like this?"

"You be quiet," he snarls at her, darkly. "It's your fault if our daughter is out of control."

"Things can't always go the way you want, Guiseppe."

"I told you to keep your mouth shut."

"Anyway, you'll get nowhere like this."

The man's shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows, revealing thick, muscular arms. His fingers fidget near his hips. He turns toward his wife and glares at her. She tries to meet his gaze, but there is something in his look that scares her. She and her daughter have always been afraid of him. The woman tries to remember if she felt that fear even before she married him, when they went out together and he'd take her to the movies, to a dancehall, a restaurant.

At that moment, the telephone rings, at the far end of the hall. The woman, glad to have a reason to leave, turns on her heels and heads toward the front entrance.

The man stands staring at his wife's back as she walks away.

"Hello? Oh, it's you. Yes, my husband is home. I'll get him right now."

The woman reappears.

"It's for you. That colleague of yours. Diolaiti."

He snatches the phone out of her hand.

"Is that you, Diolaiti? Yes, go on. What's up?"

At the other end of the line, the thin man with the face of an insect puts the handkerchief back in his pocket.

"What do you mean, what's up? We agreed that you would call me at dinnertime, don't you remember?"

"Oh yes, right, I'm sorry. I had something else on my mind just then. So, how did the job go?"

Diolaiti raises one hand and examines it.

"Done," he answers, while he studies the outlines of his nails, one by one. "I've already seen the boss, and he confirmed the Bologna job. Shall I come by and pick you up tomorrow morning?"

"Tomorrow morning? Yes, fine."

Diolaiti frowns.

"Tell me, Garofano, is something wrong?"

The heavyset man looks in the mirror above the shelf, to inspect his balding head.

"No, nothing in particular. The usual family problems. You want to know something, Diolaiti? You did well, not to get married and bring children into the world. They're nothing but a big pain in the neck!"

Diolaiti is silent for a couple of seconds. He stares at the figures moving across the screen of the television, on the other side of the room.

"So, I'll come by around nine tomorrow morning. OK?"

"Yes, of course. See you tomorrow," says Garofano, then he hangs up the phone and smoothes the lock of hair on his forehead with the palm of his hand.

Diolaiti puts down the receiver. He rubs one hand over his stomach. These damn burning sensations have come back to torture him.

He goes into the kitchenette, fills a glass under the tap, and drops an effervescent tablet into the water. He goes back to the living room, sits down on the sofa and stares again at the TV. He balances the glass on an arm of the sofa. A tiny sliver of the tablet, which by now is almost completely dissolved, eddies in the water in a swirl of bubbles.

*

What was it the instructor was always saying during the training course?

"The driver's true eyes are the rear-view mirrors. Never forget that, kids. It's the mirrors that allow you to keep an eye on the situation."

He must have repeated it a million times. Francesco recalls his oblong face, with the high forehead and dirty-blond eyebrows, inclining downward, that gave him the look of a whipped puppy. His name was Marchetti and he had a habit of sucking on mints.

"I'm telling you this for your own good. You have to pay more attention to what's going on behind you than to what is in front of you. Keeping an eye on the street is nothing. The hard part is not to be caught by surprise by what's happening behind you! It doesn't take much to crush a cyclist who's caught between the curb and the side of the bus."

He rolled one of his mints around in his mouth and leaned forward to smack the student who was driving at that moment.

"Did you hear what I said? Check the rear-view mirrors, damn it! Did you notice that scooter that's passing us?"

Francesco, in time, began to consider even more useful the inside rear-view mirror, the one that allows you to keep an eye on what is happening inside the bus. The eye in the back of your head, as many of his colleagues call it. It's the inside rear-view mirror that allows you to distinguish possible bores, old people with precarious balance, beautiful girls. And, above all, to intercept the pain in the ass. Cities are full of annoying people who get on the bus solely to find someone to torture with their confidences, complaints or misfortunes. And that someone is there, just within reach, all they have to do is settle in next to the driver and ignore the sign that forbids them to speak to him.

In big cities people end up feeling alone, and it's not easy to find someone to unburden themselves to. The psychiatrist's couch has a steep price, while a ticket for an hour's ride on a public bus is cheap and can be bought at any newsstand or tobacconist. For the most part, people don't really think they can improve their lives and, in fact, have no intention of making an effort to do so. They simply look for someone who will listen to them. A friend, a Mormon, a counterman in a deli, a bus driver. Understanding friends are extremely rare, Mormons have the downside of giving advice, and countermen are in a hurry to serve other customers. Bus drivers represent the best solution. That's why the inside rear-view mirror has a fundamental importance. It allows you to identify the pain in the ass before he goes into action and offers the possibility of beating him to the punch. Sometimes it's sufficient to appear to be in the middle of some maneuver or to grab the radio and pretend to be engaged in a conversation with the dispatcher. Francesco had taken the words of his instructor to heart, and looking behind him became one of his principal activities. Ever since troubles and creditors had begun to pursue him, this habit had been transformed into an obsession.

Francesco stops the bus at the signal at Porta Saragozza. The flower seller is carrying the plants inside the shop. The usual fifteen or twenty old ladies have gathered to say their prayers, sitting on chairs arranged on the broad pavement that separates the Porta from the boulevards, where at eight in the evening the traffic is beginning to thin out.

In Via Saragozza the traffic is moving pretty well, and soon they come up to Villa delle Rose. As Francesco approaches the portico, he turns to get the attention of the gray-haired man.

"Here we are, get off here. That place opposite is the Teatro delle Celebrazioni."

"Thank you," says the man.

In the side mirror Francesco sees the acne-faced kid get out, followed by the old man in the broad-brimmed hat and the gray-haired man. As soon as they've got down from the last step he closes the doors and starts off again.

Tomorrow he's on the night shift, but tonight his shift ends at one-fifteen. He could make a stop at the bar, have a quick beer and see what's happening. Maybe sit at a table, just for a couple of hands.

He cracks the window to get a little air.

He has more or less 300,000 lire remaining. Ultimately, what's the risk? He doesn't have far to go, with 300,000 to get to the end of the month and a few dozen creditors hassling him for money.

The dark hills run by on his left. The yellow of a flashing traffic light pulses in the night. Francesco takes his foot off the accelerator. The fresh air hits his face and he breathes in deeply. Well, yes, all things considered, why not? With spring arriving, who knows, maybe tonight the cards will go his way.

*

Andrea sticks the card in the slot in the telephone, and then presses the numbers.

The voice of the Secretary answers.

"Who is it?"

"It's me," says Andrea. "I want the confirmation for tomorrow. Everything is set?"

"Of course. Exactly as you arranged it."

"I want to be sure, I don't want any surprises at the moment of the handover."

"Calm down, Fabbri. Everything will go as planned."

"That will be best. Otherwise you know what could happen."

"I've told you that you don't have to worry."

"Good, then I'll just say good-bye. Give my regards to the Minister."

Andrea hangs up, checks the time on his wristwatch. He takes a slow look around the place. He goes over to the bar and sits on a stool a little apart. After a few moments the bartender comes up to him.

"What can I get you?"

"A Coke," Andrea answers. "And put a slice of lemon in it."

*

The bus moves off, and the man in the herringbone jacket looks at the posters outside the theatre, on the other side of the street. Next to him an old man in a broad-brimmed hat walks slowly away, leaning on a cane. He checks his watch. It's still early. The concert begins at nine-thirty, there's plenty of time for a stroll and a cigarette. He takes a pack of Marlboros out of his jacket pocket.

He walks slowly under the portico, towards the Arco del Meloncello. His knee is hurting again. Who knows, maybe the weather is about to change.

It must be at least six years since he was in Bologna. And that time too it was a brief stay. He turns to the right, up the steps. One flight, and he is above the arch, suspended over Via Porrettana. The cars pass beneath him. From here, following the portico, one can reach the sanctuary of San Luca. He went up there often, many years ago. But not on a pilgrimage. He smiles, blowing the smoke out of his nose. He went to have sex with a student, on the backseat of the car, hidden behind a stand of bushes, in a small space littered with used condoms, cigarette butts and Kleenex. It was '75. The car was a blue Opel, fourth-hand. The girl was called Sonia, and she was studying literature; she was one of the hothead radicals who were around in those days. She was twenty-one and came from Pescara. He was fifteen years older, working for the secret service, and had been transferred to Bologna precisely to keep an eye on people like her. Not being Bolognese was perhaps the only thing they had in common.

The quarrels, the shouting, the insults return to mind. After they had talked a while, the blood would go to Sonia's head and she would say that he was a servant of the state, a watchdog in the service of power, that between them there could be nothing, and it was better to cut off that absurd relationship. He listened, but usually he didn't get mad, he could even understand the reasons for Sonia's protests. But mainly he was fascinated by the color her face got, by the Abruzzese accent that grew thicker, and by the odor of her skin when she was angry.

Now, thinking back, he can't believe there was a time when he was discussing politics with a girl who was a member of the radical left. One of the types the police would have shot.

He throws the cigarette stub on the ground, crushes it under his heel.

Good times, shit, yes. A student of the ultra-left being fucked by a cop from the secret service, on the backseat of a dilapidated car or in the toilet of a cinema.

He looks at his watch again. If this damn knee didn't hurt so much, he wouldn't mind climbing up to the top and seeing Bologna from on high. He puts his hands in his pockets. Maybe another time. In three quarters of an hour he will be comfortably seated, listening to the notes conjured by the magic fingers of Michel Petrucciani.

Down at the corner there's a bar. He'll be able to order an espresso and smoke another cigarette, peacefully, as he waits for the concert to begin.

*

Leila opens the door of her Y10. She throws handbag and jacket on the right-hand seat, gets into the driver's seat and starts the car. At the intersection the signal is red. She takes advantage of it to shift her head to the side and glance at herself in the rear-view mirror. What she catches is the part of her face that goes from her dark bangs to the base of her nose. At the center of the rectangle, two gray-green eyes, vaguely oriental in shape. The mascara is perfect.

She opens the handbag, grabs a Gauloise Blonde, and puts it between her lips. She clicks the lighter. She inhales deeply, blows the smoke out toward the windscreen. She sticks her hand in the handbag to make sure once again that everything is there. The cloth for fingerprints, the folded-up nylon knapsack, the latex gloves. Behind her a horn beeps. She looks up, realizes the light has already changed. She goes into first and quickly releases the clutch.

At the end of Via Irnerio she turns right. While she goes along the tree-lined avenue, she lowers the window a couple of inches, to let out the smoke. Reaching Viale Gozzadini, she puts on the indicator and shifts left toward the centre strip. Red light. Then green. She turns into Via Castiglione and takes it past the Margherita gardens. The discotheque is at the top of the hill.

The tires squeal on the gravel of the car park. Leila parks her car in a spot far from the entrance. Before getting out she opens her lipstick and, looking at herself in the rear-view mirror, runs it over her lips.

*

Bobby, with his foot on the brake pedal, revs the motor of his Harley. Opaque black helmet, leather motorcycle jacket, black leather trousers, gloves, boots. When the light changes, he goes rapidly into first, second and third, leaving all the other vehicles standing. Fourth, fifth, a tight slalom between two cars, and the street is his alone. The headlight of the motorcycle cuts the air like the prow of a ship. The chrome of the handlebars gleams, reflecting the lights of street lamps and cars. He's a little late for the appointment, but Andrea will wait.

Arriving in front of the bar, he rides up onto the pavement with a soft spring in the shocks. With his heel, he lowers the kickstand so the bike is leaning to one side. He dismounts, takes off his helmet, and shakes his head. His hair falls over his shoulders.

As soon as he crosses the threshold he sees his friend sitting on a stool. In front of him is a glass, with a couple of drops of Coke in it and a soggy slice of lemon at the bottom. Bobby sits down next to him, puts his helmet on the bar, and nods to the bartender.

"A Ceres!" he calls out. Then, turning to Andrea: "So, how's it going?"

"Everything's set. I've had the confirmation. We finish up tomorrow night."

"Finally!" says Bobby, taking a handful of nuts from a little bowl. "Everything as planned?"

Andrea lowers his eyes to his glass.

"You just have to do what we decided. No more, no less. Do you want to go over the moves?"

"Like school? Come on, Andrea, that's unnecessary. I'm not a halfwit."

The bartender puts down a bottle of Ceres and a glass next to Bobby's black helmet.

Andrea waits for the man to move off.

"Good. So from here on the ball is in your hands. We'll meet tomorrow at the Porto di Mare with the key."

"Don't worry," Bobby says, pouring the beer slowly into the tilted glass. "You'll see, it'll all go fine."

*

He laughs a lot, drinks a lot and is wearing expensive clothes. Above all, Leila has enjoyed the casual way he takes the wallet out of his pocket, leaving a generous tip whenever he pays for something. After a few minutes of talking about nothing in particular he introduced himself.

"Mauro Breventani," he told her, offering his hand.

When he took his elbow off the bar, he swayed a little.

"Pleasure," Leila answered. "I'm Patricia."

He turned on her a broad smile, gripping her hand as if he would never give it back to her. He suggested a dance. So she found herself on the dance floor, in front of this guy who was moving out of time and with every new tune came a little bit closer. They kissed as they were returning to the bar. Leila didn't like the taste of his mouth. But now that the game had begun, she might as well keep going. Basically Breventani was nice, and the fact that he was drunk would simplify things. When he proposed leaving the discotheque, Leila accepted willingly, happy to speed things along and be able to breathe a little fresh air.

Outside, Breventani takes her by the arm, guides her with shaky steps toward a gray Mercedes. As he opens the door for her, he staggers slightly, and his eyes are blurry.

Leila asks him, "Everything OK?"

"Mag-ni-fi-cent," he says thickly, syllable by syllable.

Then he gets into the driver's seat, slumps against the seatback.

"You have a nice big car," Leila says.

Now he hunches over the steering wheel, trying to insert the key into the ignition.

"The car?" he mumbles.

He stares at the dashboard and runs his hands over the steering wheel, as if he were caressing it.

"Yes. As long as they let me keep it."

From the way he concentrates on the gearshift, one would say that putting it in reverse is quite a complicated operation.

"Excuse me," Leila asks. "Why *Šñas long as they let me keep it'? You think it's going to be stolen?"

Breventani rolls his chest around and extends his arm over the seatback. He backs up a few feet. Then he turns around and puts it in first, stripping the gears.

"Steal?" He shakes his head. "No. I don't think anyone will be in time to steal it. The bailiff will get there first."

The Mercedes takes off suddenly. A burst of gravel sprays the underbody.

*

The sign outside the bar is off and the gate almost completely lowered. The usual clients know that in the back rooms a couple of tables are ready.

Francesco stops fifteen feet from the entrance. And if the Bear should be inside? He weighs the possibility of turning back, but an instant later he is crouching down to go under the steel gate.

In the room on the right are seven people. Bobo, the bartender, is chatting with two customers. Four other men are sitting at one of the small, round tables. The light from a cone-shaped lamp falls over the table, illuminating the dark-green cloth. The hands of three players are motionless. The fourth is shuffling the cards.

Francesco feels his fingers tingling. A kind of cramp grips his stomach. He knows there is only one way to relieve that bite. Bonetti, one of the men chatting with Bobo, nods in his direction. The bartender looks at him with a dubious expression, and then lifts his chin in greeting.

*

This business of the bailiff is bugging her. What's behind it? An overdue payment? A bad check? She asks him some questions, to try to get a clearer picture. Breventani's vague answers make her suspect that the car isn't even his.

"No, no," he explains, with a pasty mouth. "The Mercedes is mine, it's not that. It's that I'm about to drown in debt. Just a matter of days now."

So Breventani has decided to come clean. Leila listens to a complicated story of bad investments, unreliable partners, failed marriages, children to support, even a mother with Alzheimer's, staying in a nursing home at three million a month. In short, a catastrophe.

"I've got nothing. Not a single lira. Tonight I spent everything I had left. The last 10,000 lire went for a tip to the coat-check girl. Now I don't even have money for petrol. My bank credit has been blocked for weeks, my house has been seized, and my two ex-wives don't give a damn-vampires, they go on sucking my blood even though I'm already dead."

And he laughs, the fool.

"Why are you looking at me like that? Doesn't my story amuse you?"

His laughs become sobs, which shake him like a poisonous cough.

"I'm ruined," he laments. "Ruined. And there's no way to start over. Shit, if I had any balls I'd end it all."

Leila is paralyzed, her back rigid as an iron bar. Breventani's sobs slowly diminish.

"Anyway, you know what I say? I don't give a damn! I'm not the first to fail! One way or another I'll get back to the surface. Is it possible that things can continue to go wrong? For example, tonight I met you."

Leila can't even manage a smile. She lights a cigarette, tries to think up a good reason to persuade him to stop and take her back to the disco. Breventani reaches a hand over her thigh. Her muscles stiffen.

"Listen," she says to him. "Maybe it would be better if I went home."

Breventani looks at her darkly.

"Home? Why?"

"I don't feel very well. I've got a headache."

"Oh no, no," he says. "Shit, it's my fault. I didn't mean to depress you."

He slows down, heads for the side of the road, puts the car in neutral.

"Seriously," he says. "I don't even know why I started telling you my troubles. That's enough, let's not think about it anymore. Do you feel like going to my house?"

Leila wouldn't even think of it. But she realizes it won't be easy to get rid of him. Especially since from there to the discotheque is quite a ways. She has no intention of walking. Breventani, meanwhile, has attached his lips to hers and is trying to stick his tongue between her teeth. Leila gives in to the kiss, nauseated by the smell of alcohol.

"Listen, Mauro," she says to him as soon as she manages to get free. "Don't be mad, but I really have a terrible migraine. It's better if we see each other some other time. Maybe when you're in better shape, too."

"Look here, I'm very well. Feel."

He grabs one hand and presses it against the bulge in his pants. It's not the hardest thing she's ever touched, but Breventani seems quite proud of it. Then, suddenly, his mood drops again. He stops smiling and relaxes his grip.

"It's obvious . . . I annoyed you with my whining."

"No, I swear. It's not that."

"Then why? Until ten minutes ago we seemed to be going full steam ahead!"

"Yes, but . . ."

"Forget it, I know the reason. I understand perfectly."

Leila stiffens.

"The stink of failure," Breventani states. "Nobody likes a failure. Not even you. Rather, especially you. You're so beautiful."

Breventani bows forward, as if deflated. Leila looks at him, undecided between pity and disgust. She hopes that at least he won't start crying again.

*

"Thirty thousand," says the guy with the blond beard.

The bald man in the brown shirt reflects a few seconds before sticking.

"Fifty." The big shot with the Rolex, his hair shiny with gel, raises it, throwing a creased bill into the middle of the table.

Francesco looks down at his cards. Three queens, an ace of spades and a seven of hearts. He has no desire to get out, with three of a kind, and even less to chicken out in front of that asshole. But is it better to raise it or see the fifty? He looks up at the guy with the Rolex, wonders what he's got in his hand.

"Hey, we're waiting for you," the other says, with an arrogant stare. "Do you intend to decide by morning?"

As his left thumb caresses the cards, Francesco feels his fingers tingle.

*

Leila presses the switch. A warm light illumines the fabric of the sofa, the television, the amber highlights of the dining table, the stainless steel of the kitchen. She closes the door behind her, leans her back against it. It's a relief to re-enter her lair and find the well-known smells. She turns the gas on under the kettle, and then goes into the bathroom. The light over the mirror falls onto her face, which seems to her much older and wearier than a few hours ago. She turns on the tap, rubs the soap between her hands. She holds them for a long time under the water. Then she takes off her makeup, washes her face, and brushes her teeth.

When she goes back to the living room, the clock says 2:25. She drops onto the couch, looks for the remote buried in the cushions. She pushes the button that turns on the TV, but immediately turns off the sound. Then she kicks off her shoes, folds her legs under her, sits watching the mute images jump around on the screen. She thinks again of Breventani, with his look of distress, his breath saturated with alcohol. In order to get rid of him she ended up masturbating him. A hand job is better than nothing, he must have thought. He made himself comfortable, leaned his neck on the seat back and let her do it, panting through half-closed lips.

The kettle whistles. Leila gets up and goes to the kitchen barefoot. She puts a lime tisane in a cup, pours the hot water over it. She rotates the bag slowly in the cup, watching, on the TV, two girls stripping as they dance on a deserted beach. One of the two, with curly hair, has an enormous bosom. When she takes off her T-shirt, her breasts burst out of her bra. The other, a thin blonde with a turned-up nose, bares her tiny, pointed, widely-spaced nipples. Leila drinks the infusion in small sips. Sooner or later she'll have to leave this city too. The longer you stay in the same place, the greater the risks become. The blonde whirls her hair in the air. The curly-headed one laughs, revealing a mouth with too many teeth. Getting ahead is hard for everyone. Who can say how much you might earn, appearing in a video like this?

In front of the discotheque, Breventani asked for her phone number. She recited some numbers at random, which he scribbled on the pack of Camels.

"One of these days I'll call you," he said to her. "As soon as I've settled a couple of things, I'll invite you to dinner in a nice restaurant."

Leila nodded assent and got out of the Mercedes, avoiding having to kiss him.

The fact is that the guy tonight isn't the first miss she's had lately. She has a feeling that a few years ago she would have managed to pick up something better. They all seemed to have a greater desire for fun and more money to spend.

Suddenly her eyelids feel heavy, and she has only a deep wish to go to bed. She gulps down the last mouthfuls of her tisane, while the images of a chewing-gum ad appear on the TV screen.

From Night Bus (London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Bitter Lemon Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.