Reliable

by Shelley Berg

Juice Baby gets on the bus before me. She always sits in the back and she always sits by the window. We take the 11 together. Sometimes she saves me a seat and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she doesn’t feel like sitting by anyone and she puts her bag down next to her. Then I don’t bother her and I sit up front behind the driver and count the people getting on and off. I see the same people every day, and I wave at them as they go by. Some days they look up and some days they don’t. I understand. My mom told me that people by nature—that means natural—are unreliable. But I’m special, my mom said. I’m reliable. And that’s what I call myself now: Reliable. Even though Momma named me Frances.

I can still see Juice Baby when I’m sitting up front. She’s tall and her hair sticks out of her head; her hair’s curly and brown. Juice Baby wears lip gloss, and it’s pink like her fingernails. It’s pink like her coat. My favorite color is pink. She puts her lip gloss on right before her stop. When I’m up front and the people are all there, I have to watch careful to see it. But I still do. I see her elbow and it sticks out and it goes up and down and then it doesn’t. She uses the finger with the rings, and she holds the other fingers down with her thumb. Juice Baby puts the lip gloss on her lip, but the bottom one, not the top, and then she squishes her lips together and makes them disappear. Just like my sister, Irene, used to do in her mirror when she and Paul went out on the town. Paul was Irene’s husband but he died. Juice Baby doesn’t use a mirror but it still works. When she’s done she pulls the cord that makes the bell ring. It looks like Christmas lights hanging around the ceiling. Then she puts her lip gloss in her bag, in the front pocket with the zipper. I look at the cap before she does. It says Juice Baby! And that’s what I call her.

* * *

The bus driver clicks the silver clicker she keeps on her belt every time someone puts their money in. I ask the driver where I can buy one of these clickers, but she says they are for bus drivers only. At dinner I tell Irene and my nephew, Boyd, that I want to be a bus driver. I have been practicing how I’m going to say it all day and then I forget and spill it in one long sentence. Irene shakes her head but her eyes are on me. I know, I tell her. You need strong arms and a mean face to be a bus driver. I have weak arms and a funny face, but I could change that. And I believe I can. Boyd’s grinning. He can get me strong and mean, he says. Irene stares at him. She’s pinching her lips together. She can be as mean and strong as she wants, Irene says, but she doesn’t know how to drive. I don’t talk back to Irene when she pinches her lips but Boyd does. He’s fifteen and he doesn’t even blink. You could teach her to drive, he tells her, and his grin is so wide it’s falling off his face. I want to tell Boyd not to make Irene mad. She doesn’t know the streets, Irenes starts in. She can’t remember the directions. She can’t take the money. She can barely get on the bus let alone drive it. I put my hand down. She can’t do it, Irene says. And I’m not sure if she’s saying this to me or Boyd, but she says it one more time to make sure we both hear. Boyd’s grin busts open. Then he laughs so hard that Irene tells him to leave the table. We sit and listen to Boyd laughing and then Irene gets up, too. She tries to be quiet but I hear her anyway. You think you can teach her to be strong and mean? Mean, maybe. What would your father think? You know better than that. You know better. When she comes out Boyd isn’t laughing anymore. After that I decide bus driving isn’t for me and I just click quietly to myself.

* * *

On Monday the bus driver lady starts talking. I’m sitting next to Juice Baby and we are still a long way from her stop. I don’t listen because I’m thinking of tartar sauce and fish sticks, crispy ones like Momma and me used to make, not the soggy ones Irene buys. Irene says we can’t afford the crispy ones and we can’t afford the tartar sauce, so we just use ketchup. I tell Irene I’ll pay for them, but when I dig out my pocket of change, she closes my hand around it and holds it there. Frances, she says. And she sounds like Momma, quiet. I keep my hand in a fist around my coins until it’s sweaty, in case Irene changes her mind. But she never does.

“What did the driver say?” Juice Baby asks me. She’s holding her earphones and she’s looking at me. I’m so surprised that I just sit for a while, and my mouth is moving but there’s no sound. Sometimes my mouth does that. It moves and it doesn’t make noise.

Juice Baby’s earphones are big and thick like the ones the DJs have on MTV. The ones Boyd likes. They don’t tell you when your favorite DJs are going to be on MTV so Boyd has to just watch and wait for them. When he’s waiting, I have to wait, too. Sometimes he goes to the bathroom and I turn it to my shows, like Three’s Company and Love Boat. Once I asked Juice Baby if she’s a DJ, but her music was loud and she didn’t hear me. She never hears when I ask her my questions, but I don’t mind. She smiles at me, and that’s how I know we’re friends.

“What did she say?” Juice Baby asks again.

The music from Juice Baby’s earphones has a fast beat and my toes want to start moving but I push them into the floor. Juice Baby starts to turn around when my mouth starts. “I like your music,” I say. She opens her eyes wide. I point to her earphones.

“Did you hear what the bus driver said?” she asks me.

I shake my head. She starts to turn around again but my mouth is still working. “My nephew likes that kind of music.” Her eyebrows almost touch her hair, they go so high.

I swallow and then blink. “He’s fifteen,” I tell her. “We watch MTV together.”

She nods. “That’s nice,” she says. Her voice sounds soft like Irene’s.

I shake my head. “He makes me watch it. Irene gave me his room and now he sleeps on the couch.” Juice Baby is still turned in her seat, and I don’t want her to talk to the man behind me, so I keep going. “I think he’s mad about sleeping on the couch. Irene keeps the TV in her room, so when she’s home we both have to watch what she wants. And when she isn’t, Boyd makes me watch his shows.” I stop for a breath. “I never get to watch my shows.”

The bus stops and some people get on and the bus driver talks again. I don’t listen but Juice Baby does, and then she turns back around, away from the man, and I don’t feel so worried.

“That’s terrible,” Juice Baby says, and she looks sad.

I nod. “He’s fifteen. He drives me crazy.” After I say the word crazy I put my hand on my head to smooth my hair down. I wish I am wearing a hat. My highlights at the beauty school didn’t turn out and Boyd’s been calling me skunk for a week. “He drives Irene crazy, too.” I cross my arms and tuck my hands in to keep them from waving around. Crazy people move around a lot, Boyd says, so I’m trying to be still.

“Teenagers can be tricky,” Juice Baby says.

I’m nodding. “I used to live with my mom. Then Boyd just visited and he had to watch what Momma and I watched. But Momma died and they sold her TV.” Juice Baby looks sad again. “Do you live with your mom?” I ask her.

Juice Baby shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I have my own place.”

“You do?” I think about this. “By the bus?”

She nods.

“With your own TV?”

She nods again.

I think about this, too. “After Momma died,” I tell her, “a lady came to visit. She asked me if I wanted my own place, with the Catholics, with my own TV. But Irene wanted me to live with her and Boyd and Irene’s husband, Paul. Only he wasn’t dead then.”

Juice Baby’s still looking at me.

“I didn’t think I should live with the Catholics,” I say.

“With the Catholics?” Juice Baby asks and I can tell she’s thinking about this because she looks like Irene when she is thinking about something. “At the Catholic Living Center?” she asks.

I nod. “With the Catholics. That’s where the lady was from. She was nice. Are you Catholic?”

She laughs. “Not really.”

“Oh.” I stop because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. But when I stop talking my hands start moving, so I start again. “You could be Catholic,” I say. “You’re nice.”

Juice Baby laughs again. “Thanks,” she says and I see her teeth. They are perfect. My teeth are yellow and I’m missing two, right in front. I lost them after Momma died, when I forgot to brush. Now I smile with my lips only—my zipper mouth. Irene has nice teeth, too, like Juice Baby. She only shows them when she flosses. When we were kids, she showed them all the time. We used to laugh and laugh. And when we weren’t laughing, we were smiling. I ask Irene why we don’t laugh anymore. She says she’s too tired. Boyd’s dad, Irene’s husband, was killed instantly. Instantly killed. He delivered papers and his paper truck was hit by a Suburban. I lived with Irene then and we lived in a house and she only had one job. We live in an apartment now and she’s got two jobs. All day she goes to people’s houses and teaches them on the piano. Then sometimes at night she goes to work at the restaurant. She’s too tired to show her teeth. She’s too tired to show her zipper mouth even.

“I should have told the Catholic lady that I wanted my own place,” I tell Juice Baby. “My nephew drives me crazy.” I put my hand to my hair. I am trying not to use that word, but it keeps coming out. “Do the Catholics live by the bus?” I ask Juice Baby. Because I like to ride the bus. I like to ride the bus with Juice Baby.

Juice Baby is putting on her lip gloss and she nods as she unscrews the cap. “The bus goes out there.”

“To the Catholics?” I ask.

“To the Catholic Living Center,” and she says it slow.

“To the Catholic Living Center,” I repeat.

The bus is stopping, then. My mom taught me that when you meet someone you tell them your name, so I do, even though I already know Juice Baby and even though you’re supposed to do it at the beginning and not at the end. “I’m Reliable,” I say.

She smiles and nods. “This is my stop.” She stands and waits for me to let her out. I don’t want to, but then I do. “I’m Reliable,” I say again in case she didn’t hear me. Even though her earphones aren’t on.

“Have a good day,” she says and she’s still smiling.

“Have a good day,” I say even though she’s almost to the back door of the bus.

* * *

After Juice Baby gets off, I remember that I wanted to ask her where she goes every day after the bus. I go to work and I wonder if she does, too. I work at the McDonald’s in the rich part of town by the hotels and big buildings. The people come out of the hotels and the buildings and go to the deli down the street. They’re supposed to eat at the McDonald’s so I stand in front and wear a sign with the lunch deals. Right now it’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches for fifty-nine cents. I ask my boss what’s at the deli that’s better than fish sandwiches and french fries and soda? My boss says he doesn’t know. I ask him if they know that the fish sandwiches come with real tartar sauce and they don’t even have to pay extra. He says that they probably don’t. He says that’s why my job is important.

The people are always busy and they walk past me, fast. I visualize I’m a street light so they don’t push me over. I stand hard with my feet apart, facing straight ahead. Street lights don’t have legs to put apart, and I wonder how they don’t get knocked down more. I learned about visualize on TV. You can visualize whatever you want to be. When I don’t visualize myself into a street light, I visualize myself with pretty teeth and my own TV. I tell Irene to do it, too. I tell her to visualize she’s not tired anymore. She smiles a little then.

I tell Irene and Boyd about the Filet-O-Fish and the free tartar sauce and how I help people get a deal. Boyd says nobody wants my deals. He says my hair’s crazy and I’m crazy, too. They color my hair for free at the beauty school. Sometimes they give me highlights, to bring out the orange or the green or gold in my eyes and I can’t believe I have all those colors in there, and sometimes they color the whole thing. They make it purply red or champagne blonde because don’t I think blondes have more fun anyway? When the girls are really new it turns out funny and I ask my boss if he thinks I should wear a hat. My boss tells me people are looking at my sign, not my hair. That’s why it’s painted bright yellow. I smile and he smiles back. I try hard to do a good job.

* * *

On Tuesday after the bus lady was talking I wake up and I can’t sleep any more because I’m thinking of the Catholic Living Center and Juice Baby and all the questions I have to remember to ask her. I hope she feels like talking again today. I get up and I get dressed right away because it’s not shower day. Irene is sitting at the table with her coffee and cereal. She’s in her bathrobe. She puts her eyebrows up when she sees me, but she isn’t being funny. They don’t go as high as Juice Baby’s. We eat together and we don’t talk. She takes a sip of her coffee and sighs. Once I asked Irene why she sighs so much. She said sometimes life presses down so hard that it pushes the air right out of her. I said that was pretty hard and she said that it was.

I wasn’t going to tell Irene about the Catholic Living Center because I don’t think Irene likes Catholics. I tell her that Juice Baby says if I live at the Catholic Living Center I can have my own room and my own TV. I tell her that Juice Baby says the Catholic Living Center is for people who want their own place so it’s okay that I’m Presbyterian. I tell Irene that Catholics like fish sticks and tartar sauce and that they’re nice. Irene says that I have my own room here and that we have a TV, too. She’s bending her lips funny, like she did when she was eight and I spilled juice all over her painting. I don’t want to make Irene cry so I take a bite of cereal. I won’t say anything else. Momma taught us not to talk with our mouths full. Irene holds up her spoon and says, Maybe I should live at the Catholic Living Center. She puts the spoon in her mouth, and it comes back empty. Her lips still look funny and I take another bite, fast.

* * *

Irene asks who’s Juice Baby? She asks me twice so I know she wants an answer. I finish chewing the food in my mouth and I swallow it and then I tell her Juice Baby’s my friend. We ride the bus together. She asks if Juice Baby works at the Catholic Living Center. I start to take another bite but Irene reaches across the table and puts her hand on my eating arm. I shake my head and then I shake it again because Irene won’t look away. I tell her that Juice Baby works someplace else. She asks if Juice Baby lives at the Catholic Living Center and I tell her that Juice Baby lives by the bus in her own apartment, all by herself. She has her own TV and she gets to watch all her shows anytime she wants. Irene takes her hand off my arm. That sounds nice, Irene says. I don’t think she means it. I say that maybe we can all live at the Catholic Living Center. Maybe we can all have our own place, and I mean Boyd and her and me.

She picks up her bowl even though there’s still cereal in it. “We live here,” she says. “And Mom would want us to be together.” She goes into the kitchen and runs the water, but she doesn’t come back after that. I stay until I have to go to the bus.

Juice Baby is saving my seat today. She’s looking out the window when I sit down. I smile at her even though she doesn’t see. I want to ask her about the Catholic Living Center before I forget my questions. I wait for her to take off her earphone like she did yesterday. I wait for a long time, until we get close to her stop, and then I can’t wait any more.

“I think I want to live at the Catholic Living Center,” I tell her. “Irene wants to live there, too,” I say.

Juice Baby sees me talking and she takes one earphone off. I can hear her music. It sounds far away. “Hmm?” Juice Baby says.

“I think I want to live at the Catholic Living Center,” I say. “Irene wants to live there, too.”

She smiles and I smile back. “Oh, that’s great,” she says. She pulls out her lip gloss and starts to put it on.

“How much longer till the Catholic Living Center,” I ask her.

She looks at me funny. She pulls the cord and puts her lip gloss away. I look at the cover. “You’ll have to ask the bus driver.” Then she stands up. I know this is when I’m supposed to stand up, too.

“Have a good day,” she says.

“Have a good day,” I say. She’s still smiling and I let her out and I sit down again. I get up at the next stop and go to the front. “How much longer until the Catholic Living Center,” I ask the bus driver. The bus driver hands me a schedule. It’s for the 38. I ask her how much longer on this bus, and she says she doesn’t go to the Catholic Living Center. I ask her if the 38 goes there and she says it does. I tell her that I don’t think the 38 goes to my house because I’ve never seen it before.

When I get off the bus, I go to the place where they have the big bus map. I find the 38, it’s blue, and then I find the 11, and it’s pink, but not the color of Juice Baby’s fingernails. It’s brighter. The 38 is on the other side of the map from the 11. They don’t even touch. At the end of the blue 38 line, there’s a dot with “Catholic Living Center” right next to it and it’s in blue, too. I stretch my whole hand out between the pink dot at the end of the 11 and the blue dot at the end of the 38. I can’t reach them both, so I know it’s far. I think Juice Baby didn’t know that it was all the way out there. She wouldn’t want me to live there; we wouldn’t take the bus together anymore.

When I get home after I work, Irene is doing the crossword. It’s the one from Monday, even though it’s Tuesday and there’s a new one in the paper if she wants to do that one instead. Tuesday is Irene Night, and Boyd and I aren’t supposed to bother her. She usually stays in her room and watches TV and shuts the door and Boyd and I have to stay out. She doesn’t even like to talk on Irene Night, so I’m surprised when she says that Boyd isn’t home yet and if I want to watch TV in her room for a while I can. I ask her what she’s going to do and she says, What does it look like? I take out the schedule the bus driver gave me and put it on the table. It was in my pocket all day and it doesn’t lie flat anymore. I tell Irene that the 11 bus doesn’t go to the Catholic Living Center, only the 38, and I want my own place but I want to keep taking the bus with Juice Baby. Irene says it’s okay if I keep living here and taking the 11. Then she says that I should hurry up and watch TV before she changes her mind.

* * *

I see Juice Baby as soon as I get on the bus the next morning, and I walk straight back there. When Juice Baby has her bag on the seat she doesn’t feel like talking to anyone, even me, but I sit down in the seat across from Juice Baby’s anyway. I don’t think she’ll take her earphones off but I watch just in case. When she stands up to get off, her bag is on her shoulder and I tug on the strap. She looks down and I wave. “The bus doesn’t go to the Catholic Living Center,” I say. “Only the 38.”

She doesn’t take her earphones off but she smiles.

“It’s this far,” I tell her. I stretch my hand out to show her.

She nods and then I know she thought the 11 went there, too.

“If I take the 38,” I tell her, “we won’t ride the bus together.”

She looks serious, like Irene when she’s doing the crossword. She puts her hand on her bag, up by her shoulder, and I can see her pink fingernails. She smiles again and then walks toward the front of the bus. I say Bye, Juice Baby, but she doesn’t hear.

* * *

Thursdays are fish stick days at our house, and when I get up in the morning I remember that I want to ask Juice Baby where she goes after the bus and what kind of fish sticks she likes. I practice my questions when I’m at the bus stop. When I get on I go all the way back to my seat before I see that Juice Baby’s not there. I walk to the front of the bus and look at the driver but it’s my driver so I know it’s my bus. I walk to the back again in case I missed her, but I didn’t, so I go to the front and ask the bus driver has she seen Juice Baby? The bus driver lady looks at me but she doesn’t answer. I sit down in the front because I think Juice Baby might get on later, but then I go and sit in my seat because Juice Baby would want me to save it for her. I try not to worry. When it’s time for her stop, I stand up like I’m letting her out, even though she’s not there, and then I sit back down again. It’s good to practice.

I work hard and when I get home at night the fish sticks are on the fish stick pan already and Irene’s sitting at the table. She has her purse out and her calculator and she’s writing on a piece of paper but she’s not doing the crossword. She’s wearing a purple scarf. Irene just dumps the fish sticks all over the pan but I like to put them in rows. I ask her if she wants me to put them straight. She says if I want to. I tell her that Juice Baby wasn’t on the bus today and that Juice Baby is always on the bus and I ask Irene why she thinks Juice Baby wasn’t there. Irene looks at me and says maybe Juice Baby’s sick. After Paul died Irene was sick for a long time and I ask her how long she thinks Juice Baby will be sick. She says she’ll probably be back tomorrow. I straighten out the rows of fish sticks and then I stand behind Irene and pull her hair back off her neck like I’m going to braid it only I don’t. I just hold it there in my hands and it feels thin. Irene sighs and pushes the paper away from her.

* * *

Juice Baby is still sick on Friday and there’s a lady in her seat that’s snoring and she smells like cabbage. I don’t like cabbage so I sit up front and talk to the bus driver. I ask the bus driver if she thinks Juice Baby is sick again and did she see her maybe, but she doesn’t answer and she points to the sign that says “No Talking to the Driver While the Bus Is in Motion.” I look out the window but Juice Baby is not out there. Friday night is popcorn night and I tell Irene that Juice Baby was sick again and does she think that she’ll be sick next week, too? Irene says she doesn’t know. She says maybe Juice Baby is on vacation and not sick. I ask Irene if she thinks Juice Baby will be back from her vacation on Monday and Irene says probably.

Irene is usually right except for this time because on Monday a man in a brown suit is sitting in the seat next to Juice Baby’s. He’s sitting in the seat where I like to sit. I want to tell him that but he is reading the paper and Irene says never to bother someone when they’re reading the paper, especially her. I wait for him to stop, but he doesn’t; he doesn’t even turn the page. And I don’t know where to sit then because I can’t talk to the bus driver and the man is reading the paper and not even the snoring woman that smells like cabbage is on and I end up just standing, even though there are plenty of open seats.

* * *

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday all go by again and it’s Irene night and fish stick night and every day Juice Baby isn’t on the bus. Every day I get on and every day I don’t see Juice Baby. I always save her seat, unless the newspaper man is sitting there or the snoring woman. And then five days are over and it’s Friday and I don’t like Friday anymore. Irene and I are doing dishes before we make popcorn and Irene is washing because she’s faster, and she’s not looking at me because she’s watching her hands scrub a pan. I ask Irene why Juice Baby doesn’t come back from vacation and Irene says maybe she’s not on vacation. She says sometimes people move or they get new jobs or they go back to school or they start taking a different bus. I tell Irene that Juice Baby has her own apartment by the bus and her own TV and she wouldn’t move without telling me. We always take the bus together. Juice Baby smiles at me and she’s my best friend.

Irene rinses the pan and she lets the water drain off it for a long time before she hands it to me to wipe. She says sometimes things change even when you don’t want them to, and I feel so sad that I forget to wipe the pan and I just hold it, dripping onto the floor. Momma said people by nature are unreliable, I say. But I’m Reliable. Irene says, I know. She takes the pan and the dish towel and she wipes the pan and puts it away in the cupboard. Maybe you can just be Reliable for me, Frances, she says. She takes the dish towel and wipes my face. Like I’m a dish, too.

Irene pulls the stopper from the sink and the water drains away. The suds pop like they do in my hair when the girls at the beauty school wash it, before they put the color in. I like the washing part the best. My hair’s all sudsed up, and I’m leaning back. My eyes are closed. I pretend I’m a movie star. The girls take a long time to wash because they’re practicing, and when they’re done I open my eyes and there’s a mirror right in front of me. It’s a movie star mirror with lights all around it. Sometimes I almost smile with my teeth. Maybe, I tell Irene. Maybe that would be okay.

Shelley Berg has been published in Phoebe. She worked in book publishing for more than a decade and now lives in Boston with her husband and two children.

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