‘Terrific,’ I thought. ‘My one morning off, a dozen errands to run and I’m going to waste 30 minutes of it with this derelict.’
It was a hot, sultry morning without a hint of a breeze. I sat down at the farthest edge of the second stair. The marble steps felt cool against my back. A cordon of ants made their way along one of the cracks.
‘See him?’ my companion inquired.
‘See whom?’ I replied in my iciest tone.
‘Muskrat,’ he said, pointing to the base of the tree on our right.
After a moment...‘Yes, yes I do see him!’
‘He lives here...comes out every morning to collect his secret stash of food...third bush on the right.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because -- that’s where I keep my stash.’
‘Why doesn’t he eat yours, too?’
‘Because mine is in a bottle with a cork stopper.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing to my legal pad.
‘It’s my to-do list.’
‘Don’t you know what to do without a list?’
‘Yes, of course, well, no, I just...How do you keep your daily appointments in order?’ I asked, making no effort to veil my sarcasm.
My companion just chuckled. ‘You never forget what’s really important to you. What are you reading? He pulled one of the books out of the top of my tote bag.
‘Now, really,’ I began to sputter, but he interrupted, ‘T. S. Eliot -- good man!’
‘You read T. S. Eliot?’ I asked incredulously.
‘You know, you’re a bit of a snob. Surely the similarities between Prufrock and myself have not escaped you!’
‘But I am most enamored of the ‘Four Quartets’: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.’
I just sat there, off balance and uncomfortable. I absently wiped the sweat off the back of my neck. He reached into the recesses of his pocket and offered me a small flat bottle of some unspeakable libation. I did not avail myself of his hospitality but it touched me. I knew he was offering what he had, all he had.
He shrugged and started down the stairs toward the street.
‘Wait!’ I started down the steps after him. As he turned, I offered my hand across the space between us. ‘Goodbye Mr....’
“Winn,’ he replied, taking my hand and raising it to his lips. Then he bowed slightly and strode off. Cary Grant never made a smoother exit.
Almighty and everlasting God, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon us, especially on one so blind of eye and callous of heart that she fails to see a child of God beaming in an unshaven face from the folds of a filthy overcoat.
I went back to the library several weeks later. The steps were empty. A landscaper was working in the front yard. The Muskrat chose not to appear. I’d brought some cookies, wrapped tightly in foil. I placed them under the third bush on the right alongside a small bottle. It was No. 7 on my to-do list. Mr. Winn would have been amused.