What Was Expected

It wasn’t his ugliness that startled me. It was mostly
that he hadn’t been expected, and when I flipped on the porch light,
he was eating from the cats’ bowl, and when I tapped
the frost-edged glass, he looked up, the way the cats do,
and then he waited through that moment
of not knowing what was next—
as if I were Peter at the Gate, and it could go either way.
I tried to squeeze his opossum shape, his oversized
head and pointed snout, his dull black eyes and wormy tail
into the tidy image of a cat that I’d brought to the door with me.

But even though we gave it our best,
we realized, almost right away, that it was impossible,
and we had to pool our efforts and do what was
expected: I had to pull the door open—even though
the threat it made at that point was less than a child’s bluff—
and once it had been done, he had to back away from the bowl,
giving up the incomprehensible gift he’d just come upon,
and slink down the steps—not quickly, mind you,
because he guessed, dumb beggar, I wouldn’t pursue him,
only leave him to his hunger and the dicey scraps of winter
as the stars did in December when he came.

But it wasn’t as if I could lift the kitchen window and throw
a nickel or a dime to him and watch him go away happy—
the way we did back in the City,
when the beggars—that’s what my mother
called them—would come in winter
to sing in the backyards below our apartment windows
with their clear bright faces and beautiful voices
and the mystery of the coins ringing down from above,
rolling and skipping, and them bending and scraping
and tipping their hats and going away,
even though we weren’t rich either.

No, he was more like the ones we’d come upon
in the places where we were forbidden to go,
the ones our mothers called bums—the wild-eyed
grizzled ones, lying on their slit cardboard boxes
under the bridge ramps even in winter,
or raving along the tracks with their hands down their pants
because of the lice, or pissing in an alley as we ran through
and slowly turning midstream to call after us—
Have you got a nickel or a dime?—the ugly
ones, the ones who had no songs, the ones
with nothing to give us.

– Joan Murray

from Swimming for the Ark