Number 6 Bus Shelter sits on a bench, a bench in a park and nowhere near a bus. If she had, she would have walked the extra distance to 5 or 7. She is nothing if not humble. But she isn't nothing; at the very least she's wet. If she had been at a bus shelter, whether it be 5 or 7 or any other, she would not have been wet; but she is under a tree, and it dripdripdrips on her forehead, smoothing down her hair like a mother's hand. She is not alone.
And this is as much of what is and isn't true about Number 6 Bus Shelter as you need to know to form an accurate judgment, or at least, as good a glimpse as you would get passing any other person on a bench in the rain, dripdripdrip.
There is an old man sitting next to Number 6 Bus Shelter. You would not notice him; you would notice first his tweed hat, then his olive jacket, then the small beige dog. His feet are on either side of the dog like bookstands, and the dog ignores everything but the old man's feet, so you quickly lose interest. They have the usual sorts of names that old men in tweed hats and small beige dogs have, and they'd only be distracting. You wouldn't have asked him, and if he'd told you you would have forgotten, anyway.
Most people, and I can't say if you're one of them, would not have noticed very much about Number 6 Bus Shelter either. This is because she is the sort of person you avoid eye contact with so she can't ask you for money, the kind who floats in your gray peripheral vision. But she wouldn't ask for your money if she didn't do something for it, first. Number 6 Bus Shelter draws portraits for tourists, and she draws trees and buildings and secret things for herself, and she talks to people who talk to her. She lives in a flat with other people who live more or less the same way. The tourists like her quiet; she tells them her name is Shelly, and yes she's lived there all her life, and that's it.
What's your name? the old man in the tweed hat and olive jacket asks Number 6 Bus Shelter. He is reading a newspaper so runny and black from the rain, it looks like the walls of a medieval cathedral.
Number 6 Bus Shelter stares at the old man in the tweed hat. She knew it would rain today, looking at the sky, and rain meant no work. She has a canvas grocery bag with tomato soup and sliced bread and eggs and mixed berry jam and frozen mixed vegetables, and inside the canvas grocery bag is a brown paper bag folded over at the top with an everything bagel, no cream cheese. That morning she had eaten the last of her old sliced bread, spread it with store brand butter and white sugar and cinnamon and broiled it in the tiny oven. She had poured boiling water over the same PG Tips teabag for the third time and sat by the window watching the rain somersault to the busy streets, watched it bounce off the black trampoline surface of umbrellas and land ungainfully on the street. 10.0 from the East German judge. When the rain retreated to the benches for a regrouping, she had pulled on her shoes and left with her canvas bag and pocket full of silver change. Her umbrella sits at her feet and the beige dog isn't even interested. Number 6 Bus Shelter, she says.
I didn't ask where you were going, the old man says. Can't you hear?
I'm not going anywhere, she says. I'm done for today.
You don't live here, the old man says. Police'd catch you here.
Not right here, Number 6 Bus Shelter admits.
Not that bus shelter? the old man asks.
No, she says, that's just my name. Do I look like I live in a bus shelter?
Don't smell like it, the old man in the tweed hat admits. And I always take the bus from Number 6, and I've never seen you there before. Always take the bus from there.
Really? Number 6 Bus Shelter says. I haven't gone there in years. Maybe that's why we've never seen each other before.
So what's your name? the only man in the tweed hat and olive jacket asks.
Shelly, she admits.
Bullshit, the old man in the tweed hat says, I can tell you're lying by your eyes.
That's true, says Number 6 Bus Shelter. Would you like some of a bagel?
What kind? the old man asks, suspicious, water dripdripdripping from the brim of his cap.
Everything, she says, and reaches one hand into the canvas bag for the paper bag, and slowly and respectfully unwraps the top.
Can't stand them, the old man says, get stuck in your teeth. He shakes the newspaper like a charm against everything bagels.
They just smell so good, Number 6 Bus Shelter says. I always think of that afterwards, after I'm already out of the bagel shop. They just look so angry if you don't tell them what you want right away and the bagels just smell so good. I remind myself on days I have to work, though.
Onion breath is awful, the old man agrees. Have you met my dog?
I don't believe I have, Number 6 Bus Shelter admits.
His breath is awful, too, the old man in the tweed hat and olive coat confides.
Number 6 Bus Shelter carefully peels the skin from the bagel, like she is skinning a deer. She seems completely intent on the bagel, but after a while she says, Does your dog like everything bagels?
Nah, the old man says, shaking his head, scattering raindrops dripdripdrip. He only likes his own shit.
Number 6 Bus Shelter lives with three other people. They share margarine, and cutlery, and laundry detergent, but they do not share tinned food, or towels, or underwear.
The first person she lives with is called David. Number 6 Bus Shelter sometimes steals shirts from David; at first he objected, but after David took a second job doing the late shift at a bakery many of his old shirts do not fit, and since he is too embarrassed to throw them away he lets Number 6 Bus Shelter take them and pretends to be annoyed. He brings home doughnuts and yum yums and and petit fours and leaves them on the table for the others to eat. David only showers every other day, and as a result refuses to pay as much for utilities as the others, and keeps an egg timer in the bathroom and insists they use it. His showers average around three minutes. Instead of utilities, he spends most of his salary on buying new plaid shirts and herbs that are not oregano.
The second person who lives in her flat is not important. They found him on Craig's List after their friend Toni went on a pilgrimage west to can fruit and walk under very large trees. The second person in the flat has his own room, and he keeps the door closed and comes home very late at night. He refuses to use the egg timer, although they know his showers are longer than theirs by way of subtraction, and he keeps his groceries huddled tight on the left-hand side of the refrigerator and writes his initials on the tops of jars, JLK. He has his own margarine. The man whose margarine is initialed JLK is only staying for the summer, because he has an internship. He pays for his long showers in cheques with his name on them. Number 6 Bus Shelter pays with the envelopes of money she gets every month from her mother. She is being doled out her father's inheritance one envelope at a time because she won't go home and can't hire a lawyer and doesn't really care. She gives them to David and he sits down with the envelope and the egg timer, and uses whatever is left over to buy margarine and laundry detergent.
The third person who lives in her flat also lives in her room and shares the big mattress up against the wall. Kim keeps all her clothes folded in a metal-framed travel bag separate from Number 6 Bus Shelter's clothes, but she has lived in the room for a year. Kim cleans the room when Number 6 Bus Shelter is not around, and she cleans the rest of the flat when David is not on the couch watching television, even the microwave where he splatters his Hungry Man dinners. She takes the second-shortest showers but she is always very clean, which is unusual for a graduate student. Her books are stacked up next to her suitcase in four evenly spaced towers of Old French poetry. Number 6 Bus Shelter uses the money left over from the apartment and the margarine and the detergent to buy chocolate bars, which she hides behind the books and in the corners of the suitcase, and Kim eats them late at night as she reads while Number 6 Bus Shelter sleeps; Number 6 Bus Shelter draws small pictures when there are no tourists and she hides them behind David's messes for when Kim cleans. Kim keeps them pressed in the pages of her books like flowers.
Number 6 Bus Shelter chains her bicycle to the rack, looping the lock through the wheel and the body. Her knees are in the mud, and the canvas bag on the handle of the bag is unbalanced and knocks against her head like a pendulum. She hears the door and looks up. Kim, she says.
Oh, Kim says, freezing like a forest animal, I didn't see you down there. What're you doing kneeling in the water like that? Do you know how dirty that stuff is?
I can wash my pants in the sink, she says. David got new detergent today.
You have poppyseeds in your teeth, Kim says. She points at her teeth.
Everything bagel, Number 6 Bus Shelter explains, picking. I met a nice old man today.
Everything bagel? Those things give you onion breath.
Number 6 Bus Shelter nods patiently. Kim is from the frozen northern lands; she does not understand; she thinks bagels come frozen, too, like mixed vegetables. You love me anyway, she says.
Maybe, Kim dodges.
You'd kiss me anyway, she says.
I would not, Kim says. I have to meet my advisor today. You can't give me your onion breath.
They smell so good, she says, standing up slowly, shouldering the canvas bag. Everything else is so bland. One of these days I'll convert you. She climbs over the bar to the bicycle rack and puts her fingers around Kim's warm, dry wrist.
Knock it off, Onion Breath, Kim says, looking up at the window to their apartment, five floors up. Your hands are clammy, too. You'll get sick, you know.
Don't be a noodge, Number 6 Bus Shelter says, nudging her back towards the door. She looks up and down the street and kisses Kim on the mouth.
I'll see you when I get back, Kim says.
We can have soup and toast tonight, Number 6 Bus Shelter says. Doesn't that sound great on a rainy day? Toast with jam. The jam has blackcurrants, even.
Mmm, Kim reflects.
I'll see you when you get back, Number 6 Bus Shelter says.
I can't believe you gave me your onion breath, Kim says.
David is on the coach. His feet are up on the armrest, which he is only doing because he knows Kim isn't home. Today was not a showering day. He's watching the History Channel and rolling up herbs that are not oregano. The smoke detector dangles from the ceiling like a dead bat. Since it is a Saturday, the second man in the flat is in his room with the door closed, with music so faint they can't tell what it is.
My cousin's coming for the weekend, David says, finally.
Cousin, shmousin, Number 6 Bus Shelter says, dropping the groceries on the table, clonkclonk, cans on faux wood.
Don't worry, David says, I'll make sure she uses the egg timer. I'll pick up the extra utilities.
It's not my problem, she says, putting the cans away on a shelf, tucking the mixed vegetables into the freezer over Kim's Garden Burgers, He's the one that has to share a wall with you.
Hey, David says. Hey, hey.
Where'd you put the detergent? Number 6 Bus Shelter asks, placing the jam gently in the cupboard next to the cans.
You've got something in your teeth, David points, and, he has to share a wall with you, too.
Number 6 Bus Shelter pulls the detergent out from behind a fortress of Dinty Moore stew. What's this doing here?
Sshh! David hisses, I'm hiding it, geez.
Dear Lord, Number 6 Bus Shelter says, out of habit.
I think he's been using it, David confides.
Sshh! David's greasy head quivers towards the doors. Geez! He's perked up now; he sits up and kneels on the couch to face her, elbows on the back. I made a little mark with a Sharpie on the last one, he whispers. And when I used it again, some was missing.
Maybe Kim used it, Number 6 Bus Shelter says, filling up a glass with water from the tap. Maybe I used it.
Wasn't Kim, David says, derisively. Kim only does her laundry on Tuesdays, and this was between a Thursday and a Saturday. And you always make a mess in the sink and get water on the floor. I can tell. And anyway, he sniffs, Kim does most of yours.
What were you doing, doing your laundry twice in one week? She takes short sips.
Socks, he says evasively.
It's just detergent, Number 6 Bus Shelter says. Who cares? She carries it off with her towards the bathroom and leaves it on the edge of the sink.
Geez! David says, hurling himself back on the couch. Geez! It's your money. You should care. Using your fucking detergent.
She goes into her room and comes back wearing sweatpants, jeans over her elbow. Anyway, it's not my money.
Have it your way, man, David says. Just put it back when you're done with it. What's for dinner?
It's not for you, Number 6 Bus Shelter says, and scrubs at the knees of her jeans with her hands.
Kim does not come home until after midnight. By nine Number 6 Bus Shelter was sitting on the couch eating day-old doughnuts with David and watching a program about Civil War ghosts. She sat there eating doughnuts, first a cream-filled, then the center of a sticky bun, and a little of a jelly doughnut. David finished the outside of the sticky bun and most of the jelly doughnut, absently, as he watched. Watching your weight? he teased.
I don't like that kind of jam, Number 6 Bus Shelter said, stiffly. She washed her face on the first ads, changed into a pyjama shirt on the second, took out her contacts on the third, and finally brushed her teeth during the credits of the program on Civil War ghosts. She sat at the kitchen table and drew the flowers JLK brought home three days before. David lingered over her shoulder while he searched the refrigerator for a beer. Sonofabitch took my beer, he bitched.
He didn't and you know it, she said, drawing savagely.
Yeah? Where'd it fucking go, then?
I drank it. Her pencil carved at the paper. Stemen, pistol, petal, droop.
You don't drink beer, David whined. I knew he took it, sonofabitch.
You were probably high, David. Stemen, pistol, petal, droop.
David considered this. Yeah, maybe. Sonofabitch! He snatched his keys from the table like they might run away. I'll be back. He hesitated over her shoulder. Awful waste of four years of your life, doing what you're doing. You ever going back again?
I'm saving money, she said, stemen pistol, petal, droop.
Not on detergent, you ain't. He chuckled as the door closed behind him. Number 6 Bus Shelter stood and stormed across the room into the second man who lived in her apartment.
I'm sorry, she said. I didn't notice you.
That's all right, the second man with initials JLK said. The paper had crumpled against his chest. Sorry about that. Hey, that's really good. Did you go to art school?
She smoothed it out like a blanket. Oh, she said, I was going to recycle it anyway. Thanks for bringing in the flowers, by the way.
Recycle it? His eyebrows pinched. Could I have it?
Yeah, Number 6 Bus Shelter said, Yeah sure.
I was just getting a snack, he said, pulling the paper from her, reverently.
Oh, right. Well, good night, she said.
Good night, he said, smoothing the edges of the paper on the table.
Number 6 Bus Shelter curled up under the thin cotton summer sheets of her bed. They were only there for comfort, to keep the nightmares away like a primitive shield. She kept the door cracked and heard the second flatmate go back to his room and David shamble in and drop the cans of beer on the faux wood table, clonkclonk. She hears Kim come in and wads herself into a tight ball of scrap paper.
Kim slides into the bed like a foot into a sock, next to the hard rounded shell of Number 6 Bus Shelter's back. She can feel Kim's breath against the back of her neck, warm and moist and beery, and Kim's small arms come around her shoulder and sneak in the gap between her neck and the pillow. She's too stiff; she's obviously awake. Hey, Kim whispers in warm moist gusts, Hey-hey. What were you dreaming about?
Nothing yet, Number 6 Bus Shelter whispers back, evenly.
Sorry, Kim whispers.
Sorry I woke you up. She adjusts her arms around Number 6 Bus Shelter, who does not reply. Sweet dreams, she whispers with her warm breath, and kisses the soft corner at the base of Number 6 Bus Shelter's neck.
Number 6 Bus Shelter is trying not to cry.