Flora Loves Atlantic City

“Biracial, I think.”

Luciana glanced up into the mirror to see who had said it, but it was impossible to tell; the chatter of thirty-one, day-tripping blue hairs and silver tops muddled any trace of its origin. She guessed that after about two months of running them down to AC twice a week to lose their money in the penny slots she wouldn’t even need the mirror—she’d know them by their voices. She peeked over at Virgil in the jump seat just behind and to the right of her, wondering if he knew.

“Yeah, fourteen years was long enough,” he said. “It was a solid job, met a lot of nice people, but it was time to move on. I’ll be happy as a janitor. Midnight shift. They say custodian, but I say janitor.”

“Trading a bus for a brush,” she said, smiling.

“That’s pretty good. Yup, a bus for a brush. I’d like to think I could retire, live on Social Security, but I’ll have to work until they put me in the ground. Okay, now up here, the bowling alley parking lot is our last stop, then it’s on to the city.”

Luciana clicked on the blinker and angled toward the shoulder. Her thick fingers and beefy forearms secured the wheel as the bus bumped into the lot. The vehicle seemed magnetic as the small group of seniors drew together, gathering at the door, their eager cluster reminding her of ducklings huddling around their mother. She had to admit; they did look kind of cute.

“Ya gotta go real slow in approaching these older folks,” he said. “They startle easy. Look at me, older folks. But even at sixty-seven, I can still call them older. I know Flora is old enough to be Mama.”

She opened the door. The first woman in line stood about five feet tall, perhaps weighing a hundred pounds, wearing a clear plastic rain bonnet tied over a puffy reddish-orange perm, in spite of the sunny cloudless day. She started up the steps and stopped, her mouth dropping open.

“Oh, well, why hello there,” she said to Luciana. “Where’s Virgil?”

“I’m right here, Flora,” Virgil called out from the semi-seclusion of the jump seat. “All is well.”

Flora reached the top of the steps, nodded to Luciana, and leaned into Virgil, kissing his cheek. She pulled back and thumbed away a smudge of lipstick.

“How’s my girl today?” he asked.

“Ready to get rich, babe.”

Flora toddled toward the back of the bus in an osteoporotic stoop, touching hands with the other seniors on each side of the aisle like a campaigning politician. The others from the stop followed, filtering left and right into empty seats along the way.

Virgil scribbled some notations on his clipboard, and looked over his glasses at Luciana. “Thirty-seven. Good load. Perfect day to train on.”

That word—train. She understood many people viewed it as the first step to a new beginning, that hope of discovering a hidden passion in a job someone loved so much they’d show up every day for free, maybe like how professional athletes or musicians or fly-fishing guides must feel. But she was less than optimistic. To her the word always sounded so depressing, carrying with it not simply the implication of a greenhorn trying to catch on, but of outright newbie stupidity.

Still, she wasn’t new to driving, just to this company and the route, and in the quiet moments while thinking of her children found herself exhaling thankfully for having kept up her certifications even to qualify for the gig.

She had heard the stories from other military wives, of how their husbands would come back from Iraq or Afghanistan whole in body, but not mind. Moody. Angry. Cold. Unable to sleep, to be in crowds, to concentrate on a task, to act like those normal human beings called civilians. Brochures did as well as they could to warn of the unpredictable eruptions of PTSD, but neither friends nor pieces of paper told her that he could come home, be a candidate for father-of-the-year for three weeks, then disappear with their minivan and savings.

“Maybe Puerto Rican.”

Luciana ignored it this time. She looked into the side mirror for traffic and pulled from the parking lot. For the next several minutes Virgil was silent, reading from his clipboard with the gentle rock of the bus. He pushed up his shirt sleeve, scratched his pale upper arm, over the blurry green letters USMC, surely inked there a long time ago by someone who said they were a tattoo artist. Every so often she would catch him staring out the window, not really looking at anything, it seemed. She couldn’t help but feel something had settled in on him, maybe the last stop, maybe something else. There was no doubt: he was deep-thinking.

“At the next light up ahead, make a left,” Virgil said.

As Luciana turned the bus, Flora spoke. “Why are we going this way? This is not the right way. This is not the normal route.”

“Flora,” Virgil said, twisting around in his seat, “we are going this way because Luciana needs to know different routes in case of an emergency.”

“Well, what’s faster than the Parkway? Go south and turn toward the ocean. I don’t like this way.”

“Yes, I know, but sometimes when there’s an accident, especially a bad one, if you know another way, you can come out beyond it and save time.”

“Couldn’t this be done while training? We want to make money.”

“Make money? Why start now? Flora, she already knows the Parkway, and, yes, we will still go on the Parkway, but there are several ways to get to the Parkway. We know what we’re doing. By the way, this is training.”

“It’s all right, Virgil,” Luciana said, quietly.

Miles later they were on the Parkway. The smooth asphalt and subtle vibration of the bus seemed to soothe the passengers, most of their voices now hushed. Some rested their eyes, while others gazed out at the expanse of wetlands, green and lush, the occasional white egret standing brightly among the cattails in the flashing shallows of the estuary; the blocky skyline of Atlantic City rising wide and spaced along in the distance.

“I never get tired of this part, and I know I’ll miss it,” Virgil said. “The transition from the wetlands to the city to the ocean beyond it. The city looks like it doesn’t belong, but, of course, somehow it completely belongs. Transition’s inevitable, I guess.”

“Sure seems that way, Virgil.”

“Luciana, you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Go right ahead.”

“You have kids?”

She smiled. “Yes, three beautiful children. Boys, ten and seven. And a four-year-old girl. You?”

“I had a son. He passed.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Craziest thing. When I was twenty in Vietnam, I did everything I could to stay alive. Never wanted to catch a bullet, loved life too much. At the same age, my son did just about everything to kill himself by putting that junk in his arm. Then one day, he succeeded. Divorced soon after that, so, it’s just me, nobody else. We’re Uptown, so we’ll be taking 30 East into the city.”

Luciana nodded silently.

Twenty minutes later she eased into the bus loop of the casino. Beyond the glass wall, in the corridor, tourists sat in rows of connected plastic chairs waiting for their ride out of town. A woman wearing a blouse and slacks in the casino’s colors with a shiny name tag stood smiling at the bus door. Virgil rose stiffly from his jump seat and took the mic.

“Alright everybody, we made it—despite the trauma of taking a different route.” The bus chuckled.

“Oh, you’re terrible,” Flora gushed, flipping her hand at him.

“I know most of you already know this, but bear with me. When you get off the bus, you will see a nice lady standing there to greet you. Give her your ticket and she will give you your voucher for the casino. We leave at 8:30 this evening, which means you should be here at 8:20, latest. That’s departure at 8:30, not 8:31 or 8:32. Good luck, eat some salt water taffy, and we’ll see you tonight.”

Luciana sat sideways behind the driver’s seat, the bus empty except for Virgil. She rolled out both ankles until she felt them click, moving her right leg back and forth, working her knee, the action reminding her of a rusty hinge freeing itself of burrs. This pain was familiar, and for a moment she felt sorry for herself, but when the image came to her of mother serving up dinner for the kids or sitting at the kitchen table playing a board game, the gang exploding with laughter when somebody got the bad card, any complaint about this minor discomfort faded with a small shame.

Virgil sat opposite her, across the aisle. He crumpled the bag their eggs rolls had come in, a quick snack, and held up her fortune cookie. She shook her head.

“Not a fan of those, you can have mine.”

He tore open the cellophane wrapper, cracked the cookie between his thumb and forefinger, and slipped out the message. He pulled down his glasses and read it.

“‘You will become a midnight shift janitor.’ Wow, they’re good.”

Luciana laughed. “And they used the word janitor instead of custodian? Better play those numbers on the other side.”

“But they didn’t say if I’ll like it. Maybe that part of the fortune is for me to discover.” Virgil slung his loose wristwatch around his forearm. “It’s eight. I usually let ‘em start boarding in about five minutes. The seats in here are more comfortable than those chairs out there. And they’re old folks, so—”

“Older folks, Virgil. Older.”

She watched him lower his head, looking amused and embarrassed at the same time. She was certain his scalp blushed pink through his sparse white hair. Virgil looked over at the driver’s seat, seeming to let his eyes drift onto the steering wheel, dashboard, and controls.

“There’s only one thing with this new job I’m not so sure about,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“The midnights. I’ve heard others talk about them, even know from being in the service, that it can be a slow tick of the clock when you’re trapped with your thoughts. I figure if that’s the case, you better make sure those thoughts are as good as possible. Behind the wheel, driving can take you away from problems. Distraction can be a blessing. Change can too.”

“Isn’t that kind of what’s happening here?” Luciana said, nodding toward the lobby beyond the glass. “A few minutes ago while we were eating you said that many of these seniors live in housing subsidized by HUD. These trips down here to gamble are also a distraction from their regular lives. They don’t really believe they’re going to get rich and buy oceanfront out on the Island, but they can dream about it for a few hours.”

“True,” he said, trailing off. “I guess we can let them in now. Reality awaits.” Virgil stood, opened the door, and walked down the steps to the lobby, tossing the Chinese food bag into a trash receptacle. He motioned to the dozen or so passengers who were there.

By 8:28 Luciana sat behind the wheel and looked up into the mirror. The bus was loaded, with the talk more subdued, not so much it appeared from gambling losses or the disappointment of an overpriced lunch, as from pure tiredness. She understood that with most people who took bus trips there was a comfort in being on the bus, safely nestled in the seat, no chance of being stranded or forgotten. Virgil stood at the front with the mic.

“Okay, we got everybody?”

The crowd murmured a moment before someone called out, “Flora. Flora’s not here.”

“Did anyone see her in the lobby?” Virgil asked, turning around toward the seating area. There was no answer.

“Was she in the ladies’ room?” someone offered.

“I didn’t see her in there,” another person said.

“Does anyone know if she’s staying overnight?” Virgil asked. “Was she going to meet someone here?”

Luciana twisted around in her seat to see Virgil’s profile, his jaw set, teeth clenched. If she had to guess, she would say he was mildly insulted—and maybe not mildly.

Virgil glanced at his watch. “It’s 8:30. We should go.”

“Think we could wait a couple minutes?” Luciana said.

“Nah, she knows we leave now. She’s been on this run enough times.”

“She might be back in that area of the corridor we can’t see, working her way up.”

Virgil shook his head. “Let’s go. Everyone else found a way to be on time. Plus, Flora loves Atlantic City.”

Luciana put the bus into reverse, the backup alarm bleating, her head swiveling from mirror to mirror and back again. She shifted into drive and straightened the front tires. The bus glided slowly around the parking loop, its ratcheting hum increasing with speed.

She spotted the top of a reddish-orange perm encased in a rain bonnet trudging toward the lobby exit.

“By the way,” Virgil said, still standing, now steadying himself on a vertical grab bar. “This is Luciana. She is a commercial bus driver, fully-licensed by the State of New Jersey, with over nine years of experience. Yes, she is biracial. Yes, she is of Puerto Rican descent. Born and raised in Newark. She’s the mother of three great kids. She will be your new driver and she is the boss.”

Luciana glanced back at Virgil and grinned. She continued around the loop, circling back toward the lobby.

Virgil hitched a moment, confused, and was now looking back through the windshield. “What are you doing?”

“Picking up Flora. Luciana loves Atlantic City too.”

Paul Weidknecht is the author of Native to This Stream: Brief Writings About Fly-Fishing & the Great Outdoors, a chapbook collection of previously published short stories, essays, and poems. His work has also appeared in A Readable Feast: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for Every Taste by the Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC, Best New Writing 2015, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine Anthology, The MacGuffin, Potomac Review, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Structo, among others. He lives in New Jersey where he has completed a collection of short fiction.