Henry sat across the table watching her devour his hamburger and fries. When he’d asked, she’d said she wasn’t hungry, but when his food arrived, she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of it.
The impromptu meal started when he’d asked if he could buy her a coffee. It seemed a small thing, seeing how she’d rescued him from an embarrassing predicament. He never should have tried to go after Joanne. He’d been a fool. She hadn’t just now decided to break up with him, it had been brewing for a while.
He’d found himself trapped in the door of her building, the sleeve of his overcoat caught when it slammed shut. He’d pulled and tugged, kicking at the door, but to no avail. He couldn’t even manage to take the damn thing off and the driving rain was soaking him anyway.
That’s when she’d appeared. “Are you stuck?” she’d called to him up the steps.
“No, I enjoy standing in the rain!” he’d fired back.
She’d shaken her head and bounded up the steps, pulling her soaked black fleece hoodie tighter around herself. “No reason to be an asshole,” she’d muttered. She’d begun pressing all of the buttons beside the door. “Let me in! It’s rainin’ out here!” The door had buzzed and he was free. She’d given an exaggerated bow and hurried down the steps, stopping under the awning of the building next door.
Sheepishly, Henry had followed, standing beside her under the awning. She’d glanced down at him then resumed looking out at the rain. “I’m sorry,” he’d said. “I didn’t mean to be an asshole.” She’d continued staring toward the street. “Can I buy you a coffee? My way of saying thanks.”
She’d looked back at him again seeming to think for a moment. Finally she’d sighed. “I guess I’m not goin’ anywhere until it stops rainin’ anyways,” she’d said. That was when he’d noticed her drawl. She certainly wasn’t from around here.
She must be homeless, he guessed. He figured her to be in her early twenties, twenty-three tops. She was pretty, too, as far as he could tell. Her long wet hair was plastered to her head, but it seemed to be red. She had huge blue eyes that were watchful, flitting all around the room as she ate. He’d never seen a woman eat like that. And she was skinny, too. “I’m Henry, by the way,” he told her.
She paused, french fry halfway to her mouth. “I’m Shelby.” She chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. “What were you doing stuck in that door, Henry?”
He looked down at his hands. “Acting like a fool, I suppose.”
She smiled knowingly. “It was a girl,” she said definitely. Henry declined to answer. “So what do you do, Henry?”
“I’m a professor of English Literature at Columbia,” he answered.
Shelby’s already large eyes grew bigger. “No shit?” she said softly, and she laughed to herself.
Henry felt his temper rising. Having been born with dwarfism, he’d faced ridicule all his life. “What, is it so unbelievable that someone like me could be a university professor?” he demanded.
Shelby stopped laughing. “That’s a hell of a chip on your shoulder, there. A chip that big ought to have its own name.” She shook her head.
“What I meant was, who would have thought that someone like me would ever meet a professor, let alone sit and have dinner with him?”
“What do you mean, someone like you?” he asked, realizing that he owed her another apology.
She shrugged. “I’m not very smart,” she said simply. “I never even finished the eighth grade. I don’t even know anybody who went to college, let alone anybody who teaches there.”
Henry let that thought sink in. I’m not very smart. “Where are you from, Shelby?”
She shook her head, grinning. “You never heard of it.”
“I’m from Pine Grove, West Virginia,” she said, watching him carefully.
Henry smiled slowly. “You’re right, I never heard of it.”
She laughed. “Count yourself lucky, then. It’s smack in the middle of nowhere. Everybody there works at the Hastings plant, processing natural gas. They actually have red lights to stop the cars about a mile away from the plant, just in case the shit hits the fan.”
Henry nodded. “Is that why you left? You didn’t want to work in the plant?”
Shelby looked him dead in the eye. “I left in the middle of eighth grade because I was tired of getting fucked by my mama’s boyfriends.” She paused. “I figured if I was going to be doing it anyway, I might as well be getting paid for it.”
Henry’s eyes widened. “You’re a…” he stopped.
She narrowed her eyes. “Now who’s judging?” she asked.
Henry backpedaled. “No, I mean, I just…”
“I don’t do that anymore. I quit three years ago. I have a new gig,” she said. “I take pictures.” Henry noticed that she pronounced it pitchers. “I have a friend who sells postcards and shit to the tourists. He sells my postcards and splits the profits with me.”
“Really?” Henry said thoughtfully.
“I have a nice camera,” she said, for the first time opening up her jacket to reveal a small camera bag. She placed it on the table, opening it carefully. “It’s mine, I bought it at a pawn shop,” she said, slightly defensively.
Henry looked over the camera appreciatively before handing it back to her. “It’s very nice,” he said.
“That’s why I came uptown. Somebody told me that I’d like to take pictures at Columbia. Said there’s cool buildings there. I was pissed off and not thinkin’ straight. It was dark by the time I got here. Plus I didn’t know it was going to rain. I wasted a whole damn trip for nothing.”
“Where do you live?” Henry wondered.
Shelby rolled her eyes. “Long story,” she said, “but when I’m in between places, I usually stay at Grand Central.” He thought of the train station. “It’s pretty clean, and you can leave your stuff in a locker for two weeks before you have to move it. There’s a guy who lets me clear tables for a few dollars. Plus, you can eat what people leave on the trays. You wouldn’t believe how much food people just waste.”
Henry listened, astounded. He’d never known a moment when he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. “So you came uptown to take pictures at the university?”
“Yeah,” she said around another mouthful. “Kind of stupid, I guess. It was too late to begin with and then when I came out of the subway the bottom just fell out of the sky.”
“So are you going to go back to Grand Central?” he probed.
Shelby shrugged. “I guess so. I’d better hurry, though. The good places get taken early.”
Henry sat back in his seat, picturing Shelby stalking through the train station dripping wet, trying to find a good place to settle down for the night. His own words surprised him. “You could stay with me for the night. I’ll take you to the university in the morning, give you a tour.”
Shelby’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t fuck for a place to sleep.”
Henry blushed furiously. “God, no! That’s not what I meant at all,” he stammered. “I just thought, you’re all the way here, you’re soaked, it’ll take you, what, another hour to get back to Grand Central. What if you can’t find a place?” He cleared his throat. “I’m just saying you could stay on my couch, go with me to work tomorrow. You can get your pictures and get back at a reasonable time.”
Shelby popped the last bite of hamburger into her mouth, gazing steadily at Henry. “Okay,” she finally said.