We were talking about a random sampling of things. “I’m goin’ to the hospital tomorrow,” she said. “I got an abscess in my cheek. It hurts real bad. Do you know my sister, Charlene?”

I like Melody. She’s part of a crew of middle-aged Native Americans who log heavy hours in upper-middle Rainier Avenue, often at Mt. Baker or Martin Luther King, passing the days drinking and talking with the other locals. Cops don’t make arrests for public alcohol consumption in Rainier Valley. Bigger fish to fry. If most of these folks are happy– if unruly– drunks, Melody’s the happiest. You may get problems from others, but not her. She staggers about, mysteriously in excellent control of her manners, meek and mild as ever.

Tonight she’s uncharacteristically close to being sober. There’s an urgency in her voice, fueled by the pain in her jaw.

“Yeah, Charlene,” I was saying. “I haven’t seen her in a while either. Is her name Spupé?”
“Yeah, but her native name, is it Spupé? Am I saying that right?”
“Spupi. I gave her that name!”
“Oh, whatdaya know!”
“Yeah, Spupi. It means turtle woman.”
“Right on.”
“She walks kinda slow. Spupi means turtle. You know how she’s always kinda slower?”

We rambled together. There’s room in the late night for expansive conversations. She regaled me with her heritage, speaking of the Blackfeet Indians and her native Montana, where she hopes to travel soon. Her voice carried a childlike quality, vulnerable, someone’s daughter telling you their cherished truths. She seemed to appreciate a kind ear.

“What was my name again?”
“Your name’s Melody! Do you remember my name?”
“Is it Nathan?”
“It is Nathan! Wow!”
“It really hurts. My cheek.”
“I’m sorry. Well, in twenty-four hours it’ll be all better. Hope you can get to sleep tonight, you know?”
“Reading can help. Reading helps me fall asleep.”
“Yeah. Nathan, d’you think if I go to Swedish tomorrow they’ll do something about my pain?”
“I don’t know, Melody. Are you thinkin’ about going to Swedish, or Harborview…”
I was trying to distract her away from the pain, talking about different hospitals, but she was groaning. Tonight was hard. She was ready for tomorrow. “D’you have a stop by DESC?”
“Yeah, I’ll stop right up here at Yesler.”

At Yesler she stood to leave, but others scooted around her slow-moving form, eager to reach their destinations. A couple leaned in with questions for me. Somebody yelled thanks from the back doors… a lot was going on. One of the men rushing off my bus asked me to honk at the bus in front of me, and that noise added to the hubbub. Amidst all this movement, the ruffling of clothing and exchange of information, the exigent transferring of passengers between buses, doors opening and closing as I tried to acknowledge and address each individual, I heard her voice.

Melody was on the sidewalk by now, having painfully stepped each step, careful not to fall. She took the time to turn back and face me, waving through the still-open doors. In between my honking at the other bus, in and out of more people coming onboard, I heard her voice, plaintive, struggling to reach my distracted airs.

“Thanks Nathan,” she quietly cried out. “You’ll always be my friend.”

Of every noise I heard that night, every song, yell and murmur, hers was the most meaningful. You could see that her speaking up took effort, especially now, but some sounds cut right through the clutter. I had the image of a newborn bird, or the fragile “I love you” a spouse says after being yelled at: a lack of armor which stops you in your tracks. It was a bald and delicate sentiment she needed to express, naked though it was. Because on the street you never know when, or if, you’ll see someone again.

More crucial in that moment than any other concern was making sure she knew I heard her. “You too, Melody, good to see you,” I loudly exclaimed, leaning forward, practically yelling through the people who were in the way. They can be confused. I yelled after her with urgency, yelling in love.

I think she heard me.

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Article Author

Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.