One spring evening as I m reading in bed, Marly calls and tells me that there
is a man sleeping on her porch.
I think he's moved in, Mom. The couch
on the porch is his new home base. He's planning to stay.
How long has he been there?
Three nights and three days. He's wandered off a few times, but he keeps coming back.
Where did he come from?
I don't know. Most likely the shelter or the rehab place. Or maybe he used to live at the liquor store.
The homeless shelter, the rehab center, and the liquor store are all located near Madison Manor, a Victorian mansion in Grand Rapids whose three stories and carriage house have been carved up into sixteen apartments. Marly has the first floor apartment on the right and in the front--two small rooms plus a tiny kitchen; high ceilings with carved wooden moldings; three tall bay windows that look out onto the wide, rickety porch. All that lies between the liquor store and the manor's porch is an alley and a parking lot, and the rehab center and the homeless shelter are just a few doors down the street. Because of this proximity, it isn't rare for homeless or at least wandering, lost men to stumble around and even upon Madison Manor.
Marly has related a few of these incidents to me. There was the morning not long after she moved in when she was sitting out on the porch drinking a smoothie straight from the blender jar. Suddenly a man rose up from the bushes, fumbling with his zipper.
Oh no, he's going to flash me, Marly thought,
and I'm going to have to hit him with this blender. But the man's hands drifted from his fly, and he stumbled away. He hadn't come to flash anyone but only
to urinate in the bushes. Another time a man stumbled into those same bushes and passed out. Marly figured drinking was most likely the cause, but she
wasn't sure; the man could have had a heart attack. She dialed 9-1-1, and, a half hour later, the police showed up, shook the man awake, and led him away.
The worst time was when a drunken man walked up onto the porch and then strode back and forth, talking loudly. Marly asked him to leave, and he shouted at her,
an American Indian. This is my land. Get off my fucking land! Marly shouted back,
Yeah, well I'm paying rent for this fucking porch, so you're the one who better
get off it. Then she went inside, feeling shaken. Later she told me,
He looked like he was an Indian, Mom. And what he said made some sense. But what was I supposed
to do? Go back to fucking Europe?
Now Marly says,
But I'm not really calling about the guy living on the porch. I'm calling to see if you can come up to Grand Rapids
for dinner tomorrow, rather than me coming down there. I have a paper I need to finish, and that will save me some time.
Sure, I say.
Do you want to go out to that Chinese place? There's a Chinese diner we like just around the corner, across the street from the liquor store.
Yes. I don't even feel like eating at home with that guy right outside.
Has he done anything threatening?
No. He's invited me to come out and share a bottle of wine, is all.
I don't have to ask to know that Marly declined. If she liked wine, she might have joined the man on the couch without first thinking it through. But the only liquor she ever drinks is Kahlua with cream.
How did the guy happen to choose your particular porch for camping out? I ask.
Well, Marly says,
it's partly my fault. I was sitting out on the picnic table on the porch with a bunch of my apartment mates a few nights ago, and the
homeless man was sleeping across the porch from us, on the couch. It was a cold night, even though it's spring, and there was this blanket--a really nice, warm comforter--
in the lobby that someone left there when they moved out. I didn't really think about the ramifications. I just thought that the guy must be really cold sleeping there without
a blanket, and that here was a comforter no one was using, and so I got up and fetched it and covered him up. He opened his eyes and said, 'Thanks, honey.' And he's been there,
pretty much, ever since. I didn't think of it when I covered him up, but the couch is right outside my living room windows--I mean right outside. I don't feel like I can even open
my window, let alone my curtains with him there. And my curtains don't quite close all the way--there's a gap.
Why was he sleeping on the couch in the first place? I ask.
I don't know. I guess because it was empty and he was tired.
The day after Marly tells me about the homeless man sleeping on her porch, I drive up to Grand Rapids and see him for myself. It's only six in the evening with plenty of daylight left, yet he is sound asleep, his head tucked under one arm, the thick, soft comforter wrapped around his long, skinny body. He's a black man, I notice, from the texture of his hair and the light-brown skin of his exposed hand, which is curled up like a child's. Marly buzzes me into the lobby, furnished with secondhand chairs and couches and dominated by a grand wooden staircase leading to the upper floors, and then she unlocks the door to her apartment, leaning down to prevent the younger of her two cats from running out past her feet.
Your homeless guy is asleep,I say.
That's all he does is sleep,Marly says, her neon-red hair glowing in the lobby's dimness.
Or else drink and stare out at the street. Except once I opened the curtains, and he was looking into my living room. And another time I walked up toward the front windows without opening the curtains, and I'm pretty sure I saw him there again, sitting up on the couch and looking in.
That's a little scary,I say.
I know. I've stopped walking up to the curtains, because it was freaky to see his face there, staring right at me. So, since I'm not checking up on him, who knows how often he's doing it. I asked Mitch to ask him to leave, and Mitch said he did, but it obviously hasn't done any good.
Where's Mitch now?I ask.
He's here--in the bedroom. He's about to go out.
I'm glad that Mitch, who lives with Marly, isn't coming to dinner with us. He seems to me not many steps above the homeless man. Jobless, he had been living temporarily with friends when he met Marly. At first he continued to spend his nights at the apartments of various friends, but then gradually he started living with Marly exclusively. It was impossible to tell exactly when that had happened, because he didn't have many belongings other than a few clothes.
Sometimes Marly seems to enjoy Mitch's company, and other times, to tolerate it. She says that they don't have an exclusive relationship. Considering that so far I've had sex with eight more men than my mother, who has only ever made love with her husband of nearly fifty years, I don't feel that I should or can say much to Marly about her sex life, unless I think her safety is being threatened. But sometimes when she mentions another guy, I will ask,
Is he a friend or a boyfriend?She has a lot of answers to that question:
Just a friend. Some of each. It depends. Oh, Mom, why do you always have to have a category?
While Marly rummages in a drawer for her extra set of keys, Mitch comes out of the bedroom, wearing his usual grubby jeans and a gray T-shirt with a band logo on it.
Hi, Mom,he says to me.
Hi, Mitch,I answer, trying to smile rather than grimace. He started calling me Mom the first time he met me. It threw me off balance--I couldn't tell if he was joking. And everything about him makes me uneasy--his smile is oily, his eyes seem insincere, and during the months he doesn't have a job, which is more months than not, he lives off Marly's meager wages and the money her dad and I give her for college.
You and Marly going out to dinner?Mitch asks.
Yes,I say. With any of Marly's other friends and boyfriends, I would add,
Want to come with us?I've taken Mitch out just once. He spent the entire dinner calling Marly affectionate names and telling her he loved her. Marly responded as if faintly charmed, yet as if trying to hide from herself that something was off kilter.
Well, I'm going out with a buddy of mine,Mitch says, slipping on his motorcycle jacket. He had to sell his bike, Marly told me, but he's held on to his jacket and his helmet.
I will.Mitch's lips stretch up tightly at the corners, and then he strolls over to Marly, tips up her chin with his hand, and kisses her on the lips.
I love you, darlin',he says.
Marly smiles appreciatively rather than answer in kind.
What time will you be back?she asks.
I'm not sure,Mitch says.
I haven't seen this buddy in a long time. Mind if I take the car?He is referring to my little gold Honda, which I gave Marly so that she could safe ly travel to work and school. Marly murmurs that he can use the car, and Mitch glances back at me.
Bye, Mom.He smiles again, with his face in the doorway. Then he pulls the door closed behind him, and I let out my breath.
Marly ties on her Converse All Stars and then, searching for her purse, paces around her apartment. It is a grand old faded place, with all kinds of nooks and odd angles, and still charming even though the floors have been covered in cheap brown carpeting. The high, cracked walls have been painted an elegant, creamy white, and the three bay windows that face out onto the porch are taller than a tall man, while the ill-fitting curtains that don't quite cover them are cheap and modern.
Marly finds her purse on the floor by the couch and then points at the front of her apartment where the heavy drapes are drawn.
See the gap?she says. There is a two-inch-wide space at the center where the two halves fail to meet.
The guy on the couch was looking in through there.
I can ask him to leave on our way out to dinner,I offer.
No, don't,Marly says quickly.
I don't know how he'll react. He might start shouting like that Indian man.
We leave for the restaurant. As we step out onto the porch, the homeless man sits up.
Hi, Beautiful!he sings out to Marly. His mouth breaks into a sunny, gap-toothed smile. Then he catches sight of me, beyond Marly.
You must be her mom. Now I see where she gets being gorgeous from!He grins at me, and, before I can think, I smile back. I can't remember the last time anyone has inferred that I might be beautiful. My last, reluctant dating partner, whom I've come to think of as the cold fish, never complimented my appearance, and even when my earlier dates and boyfriends mentioned my looks, the words they used were
cute.Because of my recent dissatisfying dating experience, I've decided to steer clear of men for a while; and yet here I am lighting up at a few warm and flattering words from a drunken homeless man who has taken up occupancy outside my daughter's window. After my brief, inadvertent smile, I break eye contact with the man. But both Marly and I say
Hias we hurry down the steps.
We walk to the corner and cross, avoiding the liquor store's front entrance, and duck with relief into the little Chinese restaurant where the owners and employees are not conversant in English. We order our food by checking off items on a paper menu and turn the menu in, and, as we sit at a table to wait, I envision Marly getting up from the picnic table on the manor's porch, walking into the manor's lobby, returning with the blanket, unfolding it, and gently draping it over the sleeping man. She might have done this even if she had considered the ramifications. All her life, she's had a tender heart for strays.
The first were Uno and Dos, baby bunnies she and the neighborhood kids found whose nest had been destroyed by a dog. All six of the neighborhood kids took turns feeding the bunnies with an eyedropper, keeping them in a cardboard box that they moved from house to house. Uno died on the second day, but Dos lived long enough to be released. Marly also tended a string of stray cats that had hung around outside our door, putting out food and water, and a blanket, too, stuffed into a plastic bin. And then there was the baby possum.
I found it while taking a walk one afternoon before work. I came across its dead mother first, hit by a car, on the road near my house that winds by the Kalamazoo River. On my way back, returning along the same stretch of road, I saw that the dead possum had been flipped over--perhaps hit by another car--so that its belly was exposed. Also exposed, lying a foot from its mother, was a tiny, hairless, dead baby. And on the mother possum's belly, clinging to a nipple, was a second hairless baby, squirming and sucking ferociously on its dead motherís teat.
I considered taking the live baby home and caring for it. I considered pulling it from its mother and breaking a path through the undergrowth and drowning the pitiful little creature in the river. And I considered letting nature take its course. Possums have never been my favorite animals, and I've liked them even less ever since I rolled my car while trying to avoid one that charged my front tire like a kamikaze. As the tiny pink possum noisily sucked, I looked down at it and its dead mother and sibling, debating to myself. Then I returned to my car and drove to my afternoon shift.
Marly, who was sixteen then, stopped by my work in her dad's car, which she had borrowed for the afternoon. As we sat and chatted in the break room, I told her about the possums I'd found. Her eyes had widened in astonishment and horror.
The one baby was still alive?she asked.
And you just left it there?
I thought of taking it with me, but I decided to let nature take its course.
A car running over a baby's mother isn't nature, Mom.
I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn't really have an answer, so I just pulled in my breath and let it out.
If my mother were run over and I was a baby, would you just leave me there?
No, but you're not a possum.
Marly gave me a dirty look and rose from her chair.
I can't believe you just walked away. Where exactly was it?She pulled her car keys from her purse.
Are you going to go look for it?
Yes!she said, as if I'd asked a stupid question.
It's down by the river, where I always walk. Right after the first open stretch.
And how long ago was it?
I looked at my watch.
About an hour and a half.
Okay,she said, more to herself than to me, sounding determined.
When I got home from work that evening, Marly was holding the baby possum on the center of her palm, feeding it from an eyedropper. Naked and bright pink, it was lapping vigorously, clutching the eyedropper between its front paws. Marly told me she had found it a few feet from the bodies of its mother and sibling, thrashing and crying in the roadside weeds.
As I peel the paper from my chopsticks, I say to Marly,
I've been thinking about your predilection for taking in strays.
Marly frowns in an irritated yet friendly way and refrains from responding.
Like the two bunnies,I say.
Remember Uno and Dos? All the cats. And that baby possum.
I was right to take in that possum, Mom. I still can't believe how cruel and callous you were.She says this with a smile. Three years later, she remains proud of her good deed.
But I know what you're trying to say, Mom: stray animals, maybe okay--stray men, not so good.
Yes, exactly. Though I can see how the homeless man ended up out there.
We eat wonton soup, egg rolls, and chicken fried rice, and then return to Marly's apartment. The homeless man appears to be asleep. He looks as if he is sleeping lightly or else resting, maybe even faking. We tiptoe past him, and Marly turns the key in the lock to the lobby with a quiet click.
Still keeping quiet, we cross the lobby, and Marly lets us back into her apartment. She steps lightly across the living room to the kitchen, with me following, and makes us peppermint tea, and we sit down on the far-right side of the living room so as not to be exposed to the porch by the gap in the drapes.
I'm sick of hiding in my own apartment,Marly says, stroking Draven, a calico who was an outdoor cat at my house until last year, when Marly decided she was too old to live outside anymore.
You can report him to the apartment manager,I suggest.
Oh, Kirk is useless with things like that.She takes a sip of her tea.
I've been thinking of calling the police.
You probably should, Marly. He can go live at the shelter. It's not really safe for you to have him living out there.
I'm not worried about safe so much. All I have to do is give a shout, and my apartment mates will come running. But it's getting on my nerves. I feel like he's always watching me--or that he could be.
I stand and approach the curtain gap.
I hesitate, but then walk up to it and peek out. The couch is empty, the comforter scrunched like an abandoned cocoon.
For now,Marly says.
Probably went to go get some more booze.She drops her slender hand to her mug of tea and lifts it, closing her eyes to the warmth. We talk about her classes, and she strokes Draven, the old calico, who is settled on her lap. I stretch out my hand to Madison, the young pure-black cat, who appeared one morning mewling and with her ribs showing at Madison Manor; now she is sleek and happy and strolling across the back of the couch.
I wrote a poem a few days ago,Marly says.
Haven't written a poem since ninth grade. Want to see it?
Marly lifts old Draven as if she is a delicate treasure and sets her aside on the couch, then stands and walks to her bedroom and returns with a sheet of notebook paper.
I was supposed to write a poem for my English class. But I'm not going to turn this one in.
She holds out the paper. It rattles in the quiet; even though Marly takes anti-anxiety meds, her hands still often shake. The title is handwritten at the top: My Child's Soul. I read the poem, remembering Marly two years ago: seventeen and pregnant by her boyfriend, who accompanied her to the clinic. I had gone, too, in a separate car, even though Marly hadn't wanted me there. What if she changed her mind and needed me for support? Or what if the procedure went awry? In either case, I wanted to be in the next room, not forty-five minutes distant. While Marly was under sedation, I sat in the waiting room, paging through magazines, alert. But all had gone according to plan, and afterward Marly was sure she had made the right decision.
The poem is both naked and matter-of-fact, in some places wordy, in others clean and sharp as a bone. But beyond all that, it's my child's poem. I re-read the last lines:
If a person's soul is the same size as the person
My child's soul would fit on the palm of my hand.
Marly's living room has grown dim. The sun is beginning to set, and the curtains block the light slanting in from the windows.
It's beautiful,I say.
Don't get me wrong,Marly says.
I'm not sorry I had it done.
God, no. I wasn't ready for a kid. I'm still not ready for a kid. And it would have broken my heart to give her away to a pair of strangers. But I still feel a little sad about it sometimes.
I feel the same way about mine,I tell her. I'd had the same procedure--an early abortion--when I was nineteen, the age Marly is now.
We sit in silence for a minute, Marly's small hands stroking Draven, who lies curled up and purring. Then Marly says,
Well, I should get to work on my paper. And I have to write another poem. One I won't mind showing to my teacher and the class.
I stand up from the couch. As I bend to pick up my empty tea mug, I see a flash of something in the curtain gap. Maybe it is just the setting sun. But I walk to the gap and, from inches away, peek out into the eyes of the homeless man. I let out a little cry and step back.
What? Is he out there?
Yes, he is. Marly, he's looking in.I walk back over to Marly and lower my voice.
Did you know that the window is open? He was looking in through the screen.
Marly sits up straight.
That's it--I'm calling the police.She rummages in her purse for her phone.
That's happened before, but only in the daytime. He opened it to tell me that a delivery man had left a package.Instead of dialing, Marly sits holding the phone in her limp hand.
But maybe he didn't open it this time-- Mitch might have left the window open.
It doesn't matter who opened the window,I say.
He shouldn't be looking in.
But if the police come out here, they might arrest him.
Marly, you can't let this go on. Want me to call for you?
Well, what are you going to do?
She draws in her breath and exhales.
I'll call them myself, I guess.She flips open the phone and dials.
He hasn't hurt anyone, at all,she tells the operator.
All he's done is sleep on the couch on the porch and look in the window. Yeah, my boyfriend asked him to leave a couple of days ago.
Marly's kitchen is the size of a closet and lacks chairs, so we wait in the bedroom for the police to arrive. As we are sitting on Marly's bed, talking softly, we hear heavy footsteps thumping and creaking across the porch, voices, and then the homeless man shouting.
It's my friend who lives here! She lets me stay here! She's my friend!
Marly looks at me in dismay.
He thinks I'm his friend. Crap! I probably am his only friend.
We wait, listening to the lowered voices of the policemen, whose words we can't hear, and to the homeless man shouting,
Ask my friend! She lives right there!
God, I feel terrible,Marly says.
There is a rap at the door. We both jump and then get up from the bed to answer it. A policeman with hooded eyes and chubby cheeks fills the doorway.
Are you the girl who called about the vagrant?he asks.
but he hasn't done anything really wrong. Maybe I should have asked him to leave myself--maybe he would have listened to me.
Well, don't feel too bad about it,the policeman says.
You're not the first young lady whose window he's been looking in. We've had several other complaints from this neighborhood.
About that same guy?Marly asks.
Well, we don't know for sure. But he fits the description.
After the police leave, I ask Marly if she wants to spend the night at my house.
No. I'm fine. I mostly feel bad for the guy. I hope they don't keep him long. And I hope they don't tell him that I'm the one who called the police.
They won't tell him,I reassure her.
They don't give out information that might lead someone to retaliate.
I'm not worried about retaliation,Marly says.
I just don't want him thinking that it was his friend who turned him in.She gathers up our empty mugs.
Why do things have to get so complicated?she asks.
I resist repeating what my mother would say. But I can't think of what to say instead, so I quote my mom after all:
Your Grandma would say, 'That's life.'
Yeah, well sometimes life sucks.
It does,I agree.
But luckily it doesn't all the time.
Yeah, well I think it sucks way too often.
Less would be better,I say, trying to agree without being too negative.
Marly's lips are set in a thin line, and her eyes are dark and clouded. She carries the mugs out to the kitchen and sets them down. We talk about our schedules for the coming week. Then she walks me to the lobby, where she gives me her usual brief yet tight hug, her bony fingers pressing into my back. I kiss her on the side of her head, behind her right eye, wishing I had more to say.
On the drive home, I think of the possum that Marly held on her hand, on her open palm, as small as the soul of the child in her poem. Too young to exist outside its mother's pouch, the possum had died after a day and a half. And I remember the adult fox Marly found one day in the road, walking in circles, stumbling as if drunk. She wrapped it in her jacket, placed it on the floor of her car, drove home, and called the vet. The vet didn't want to treat the animal; he told Marly to call the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR employee who answered the phone said it sounded as if the fox had distemper and that Marly could drive it to their facility in Kalamazoo and they would euthanize it there, or she could put it down herself. Marly decided that rather than drive for over an hour with the sick fox in her car, she would put it to death.
It was so hard, Mom,she told me later. She had taken the fox into the furnace room--she was living at home then, and I was at work--and had pressed a pillow over its face.
I figured he was so weak, I could smother him easily,she told me.
But even though he could hardly stand up, he had a lot of life left in him. He struggled for a long time.
Marly was sixteen then. She was thirteen when she and the neighborhood kids rescued the bunnies they named Uno and Dos. As I drive toward home on the expressway from Marly's apartment, gliding past dark slopes and fields lying under the starred sky, I remember that rescue attempt. It was an attempt that worked, at least in part: one stray was saved, and then later released. Uno is buried under a bush or pine that the kids have forgotten. Dos is also dead--even if he managed to elude the neighborhood dogs and lived a long life and fathered many baby rabbits, he would be long dead by now of old age. But at least for a while, he thrived. He grew into a fast, supple, angular adolescent, and when the teenagers who raised him decided it was time to let him go, they whooped and laughed and cheered as he bounded off into the wild grass.