Stuff

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One of my favorite books is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  I read with delight the entire series of 15 books (I can’t wait to read #16).  Wonderful, sweet-and-sour characters, with goodness abounding and mysteries to solve.  On a day off I wandered to the public library grounds and settled in on a park bench to read.  A homeless woman, living on the grounds, approached me, interrupted my reading, and made a request. This poem tells the story.  What would you have done?

STUFF

“Excuse me,
sir,” I heard,
but the slanting sun shone in my eyes,
and I could not see at first.
“Will you
be here for a few minutes?”
Here being my bench
on the public library grounds, a bench
made of steel slats curved
and painted green. “It’s so hot
and I’m very thirsty: would you
watch my stuff
while I get a refill?”
Stuff: two sleeping bags
neatly covering egg-carton foam
with plastic underneath, all tucked
into a corner room formed
by intersecting retaining
walls. “Sure,” I mumbled,
closing the book
I had been reading, fancifully,
about African ladies,
ladies who were detectives
and teachers of typing,
ladies who made an effort
to help, and who lied
only when necessary to prop up
their men, men who were good
and who worked hard but
who needed some propping up
now and again
by smart and guileless women.
“Thank you.
I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She shuffled away, hugging
two gallon-size mugs smashed
against unencumbered breasts.
Brittle yellow hair, sagging skin,
and an absence of teeth told
some of her story.
Watch her stuff. Stuff:
box stamped “This End Up”
with cups of dried noodles
in it; tube of toothpaste,
toothbrush, deodorant stick,
neatly arranged on the bed;
metal folding chair;
extra blankets, folded; winter coat.
I wondered what I would do
if someone took an unwarranted
interest in her stuff—like
a bicycle policeman;
a wizened tramp pushing
his own things
in a borrowed shopping cart;
a dog off its leash—
and I couldn’t say: Umm,
excuse me . . . that’s . . . not your stuff?
I hoped she would
come back soon, and turned
my eyes again to the stories
of good women and men
who helped each other
with troubles large and small
the best they knew how.
The woman returned
with her mugs refilled,
and with a friend,
a friend who waved her arms
wildly, bending and turning
at the waist, swinging her arms
up and around and down,
over her head, between her legs,
and I stood up to find another bench
on which to read.
“Thank you, sir,”
the stuff’s owner called
after.

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