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And I'm the Obstacle You Never Expected

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I didn't want to move to Golden Vistas. I'd been looking after myself for seventy-seven years and didn't see why I should stop, not to mention that I wasn't keen on the idea of hanging around with a lot of other old ladies and gents, waiting for the Grim Reaper to swoop down and carry us all off one by one. But my nephew Justin was so worried - "Please, Auntie Peggy, I just don't want you to be alone" - that I finally gave in. And I have to admit, it hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be. True, there's about ninety percent more bingo than I'd prefer, and the movies they show in the community hall are enough to bore anyone to death, but sometimes interesting things happen too.

Take last Friday, for example.

Golden Vistas runs a bus to one of the local casinos on Fridays for those of us who are in good enough shape to go, which is most of us, even though some go stumping along with a walker or dragging an oxygen tank behind them. While I'm no great fan of gambling myself, I usually go along too, just to get out for a while. Once I won fifty dollars on the nickel slots. I keep it in an empty mayonnaise jar on my dresser, for emergencies. But I digress.

The casino bus leaves at nine, and that morning I was outside at eight-thirty, fortified with black coffee and buttered toast and ready for the day. Our driver was nowhere in sight, but the doors were open and the bus was empty, so I took the opportunity to climb on board and stake out a good seat for myself, next to a window where I could keep an eye on things. The early sun through the dirt-speckled glass warmed me up nicely, and I suppose I must have dozed a little, because next thing I knew, I felt the low rumble of the engine starting up, and we were off with a jolt and a wail of tires on asphalt. I heard startled exclamations from the other passengers, who had apparently boarded while I was - ahem - distracted, and opened my eyes just as we careened around a corner.

This is not right, I thought.

Our regular driver's name was Rupesh—nice young man, good at his job, although I could have done without him trying to help me up and down the bus steps as if I were made of glass. The man behind the wheel was not Rupesh. He was older, scruffier, with swept-back brownish hair, three days' worth of beard, and, bizarrely, a suit and tie. He looked like a washed-up actor who had mugged an accountant on his way to the local bar.

"I'm the incompetent bus driver!" he sang out, with a big, foolish grin that I could see in the rear-view mirror. 

"Oh, for goodness' sake," I said.

I sat up straight and poked Rosemary Franco, who was in the seat in front of mine, touching up her makeup as usual. No amount of foundation and powder was going to fill the cracks in the landscape of Rosemary's face, but I supposed old habits died hard.

"Who's that man behind the wheel?" I hissed at her.

"I don't know. He just showed up instead of Rupesh." She flinched as the bus split a lane between two cars. "He isn't a very good driver, is he?"

"That's an understatement," I said. I made sure my handbag was zipped shut and carefully laid it on my seat next to the window - I thought about taking it with me, because you can't trust old people any more than you can young ones, but decided that if someone was really desperate enough to steal my cough drops and tissues and half-used Chapstick, they could have them. Then I stood up, and holding onto the backs of seats for balance, I made my way forward. 

"Where are you going, Peggy?" quavered Hazel Williams as I passed her. 

"To talk to this damned fool before he kills us all," I said, and pressed on. Soon enough I got to the front, where there's a metal pole behind the driver's seat to hang onto. I grabbed it and leaned over the crazy man's shoulder. He smelled of dime-store aftershave, which seemed ordinary enough, and pickle relish, which didn't. I wondered if he'd eaten a hot dog for breakfast. I wouldn't have put it past him.

"Look here, Sonny Jim," I said. "I know I'm old, but I didn't get up this morning planning to die today, and neither did my friends back there, so suppose you slow down a bit?"

"But I'm Mayhem," he said. Our eyes met in the mirror—mine faded and surrounded by wrinkles, his wild and gleaming. "I'm supposed to drive this way. I hope your nursing home has good auto insurance."

"It's not a nursing home, it's a retirement village," I said tartly. "And whether they have good auto insurance or not is none of your business. Look out!"

Mayhem, if that was actually his name, saw where I was pointing and swerved, narrowly missing one of those big tank-like SUVs. Behind me, I heard scattered shrieks from those Golden Vistas residents whose eyesight was good enough to know they'd almost been in a wreck.

"See that?" I said. "You nearly got us all killed, and your silly self too. Pull over."

"What?"

"I said pull over!"

It was my best teacher-voice, the one few people can resist. Mayhem couldn't disobey it either, but he did manage to sneak in another swerve and an overenthusiastic stomp on the brakes as he stopped the bus at the curb. People gasped and moaned and lurched forward, and a voice that sounded like Rosemary's called out "Maniac!"

"Up," I said, waving an impatient hand at Mayhem, who stood up automatically.

"What are you going to do?"

"What do you think? I'm going to drive. At least then we'll have a chance of getting where we're going in one piece."

"You can't drive," he said, incredulous. "You're ancient. No one would give you coverage."

I snorted. “Young man, I learned to drive a pickup truck on my grandparents' farm when I was twelve years old. I've climbed mountains in Nepal and gone on safari in Africa. I think I can drive this bus five miles to the casino, and I know I can drive it better than you can. Now sit down and button your lip!”

Mayhem sat, looking like I'd slapped him. Smiling, I slid into the driver's seat and adjusted the mirrors.

"All right, everyone," I called. "Just a slight delay. We'll be on our way again in a moment."

I drove to the casino without incident, parked the bus horizontally across several spaces at the back of the lot, and then sat back and watched with satisfaction as a gaggle of shaky senior citizens disembarked. When the last one had clambered down, I got up to collect my things and follow, and that's when my eye fell on Mayhem again. Damn! What was I going to do about him? I couldn't very well leave him on the bus, where he'd surely wreak some sort of appalling havoc.

I sighed. "All right, on your feet. You're coming with me."

"To the casino?" Mayhem asked. A disturbing glint crept into his eye.

"Yes, to the casino. And you're to behave, understand?"

"Oh yes," he said. "I'm not the incompetent bus driver anymore. Now I'm the totally well-behaved casino visitor."

That boy was a lying liar. We were barely through the automatic doors before he was off, grabbing drinks from waitresses' trays, knocking over piles of poker chips, and generally making a nuisance of himself. I finally caught up with him near the ladies' powder room, where he'd pulled a fat black marker out of his pocket and was busy drawing underarm hair and a mustache on a plaster replica of the Venus de Milo. 

"Stop that!" I said, a little out of breath from hurrying after him.

"But I'm Mayhem," he said, almost pleadingly. "This is what I do." 

"Well, you're not going to do it here," I said. "Make yourself useful and carry my handbag." I slung it at his chest, right around the middle of his necktie, and he automatically caught it in his arms.

"You must have been a prison guard in a former life," he grumbled. 

"No, but I taught sixth grade for thirty-five years, so you're not far off," I said. "Come along. There's a nice buffet upstairs and I'll get you some ice cream if you behave." 

"With hot fudge?"

"We'll see," I said. 

"Do you think this casino has insurance?" he asked, slouching along beside me like an overgrown twelve-year-old.

"It has something better than insurance," I said. "It has me. Don't touch that! It's glass. And full of sharks."

"Oops," said Mayhem insincerely, as a series of sharp cracks filled the air and salt water and toothy fish swirled around his wingtips.

I felt myself aging by the minute.

The return bus from the casino leaves at three in the afternoon, to get the early birds back to Golden Vistas for their four o'clock dinner and five o'clock robe-and-slippers time. Not liking to let go of the day so soon, I usually hold on a few hours longer; sometimes get my nephew Justin to come over and take me out for a hamburger. But by two forty-five on Friday, I was done in from trying to keep Mayhem out of trouble. In addition to the shark tank incident, he'd stolen a casino cart and ridden it down the main staircase, nearly gotten into a fight when he deliberately jogged a huge man's elbow at the craps table, and knocked over a tower of pastries at the buffet - we were both still spattered with whipped cream and lemon filling from that one. The only reason we hadn't been thrown out or arrested was because I'd put on a sweet-little-grandma act and pleaded that my grandson was very sorry, truly, and certainly wouldn't do anything wrong again. Personally, I didn't care if Mayhem spent the rest of his life in the slammer, but I didn't want to go there with him. Who would have driven the bus home?

"Where are we going now?" asked Mayhem, trailing along at my elbow as we entered the casino's foyer.

"We are going nowhere," I said. "You are going to stand right there on that spot." I pointed to a black square on the checkerboard-tiled floor. "And you're not going to move until it's time to leave. Once everyone is on the bus, I will drive us back to Golden Vistas, and after that I don't care where you go. By the way, I hope you haven't hurt Rupesh. He has a wife and two children, you know. He's saving up to bring them here from India."

"I haven't hurt him," Mayhem said.

"Good."

"I'm sure someone's unlocked the supply closet door by now."

"What?"

"Nothing."

We stood quietly for a minute, listening to the song of slot machines and the clash of chips through the archway that led to the casino floor.

"Peggy?" Mayhem said.

"I didn't give you permission to use my first name, young man. You may call me Miss Matthews."

"It's been an exciting day, hasn't it?"

"Well," I said. "Yes. I suppose you could call it that."

"And it's not over yet."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I stole the keys to the bus," he said, holding up a jingling keyring.

"You what?" I clapped my hand over the pocket of my cardigan and found it empty.

"Give those back!" I shouted, but Mayhem was already running for it, long legs pumping, suit jacket flapping open in the breeze of his escape. His voice floated back to me as the automatic doors swooshed open.

"Mayhem is everywherrrrrrrre!"