Lit Fest on the Lawn; Homeless

For three days poets read, under a big white tent,
on the Detroit Public Library lawn. We share a restroom
with the homeless. One sits on the steps, clinging to a bag
of nonsense, backpack weighing her shoulders,
head hanging, nodding in the sun. A second bumps me
as I enter the bathroom. I wonder where do they go
on Sundays when the library's closed. In the middle
of a reading, a short disheveled man sits down, right in front.
His hair sticks out at angles, something is wrong
with his balance, he's in a different world, but here too.
Agitated he walks up to the stage watching the poet
then leaves without being asked. Later, he returns,
lays a  wrapped Burger King on the seat next to him,
sits with his arms and elbows between his legs, his head
hanging down. When I ask him to leave, he never looks
at me, never says a word, weaves out of the tent. Up
on stage, I notice he's back, sitting in my chair, eating
my lunch. When the last poet is up on stage, when we're ready
to pack up the unsold books, along comes Paul, 20 or 30,
more able to blend into a crowd, unless you know what
to look for. He wears a headband and a hat, an extra shirt
hangs from his back jeans pocket, his eyes have a glassy shine,
at the edge of his mouth there's an inappropriate grin.
If he wasn't black, I'd think he was my son. If his hair
had some gray, I'd be confused. Not a poet, he's looking
for a group he can join.  I'm supposed to keep him out
of my boss's hair, so I ask him to pick up all the water bottles
laying around, the lemonade cups, the straws, the napkins,
the paper plates and plastic forks. Who would guess that poets
could be such slobs. He works away, fills a box, and returns.
More like my grandson than a man, he offers it to me
as a gift. I point to the street corner  and say, "Take it over there."
He is resting the box on his pot belly. It looks like my son's
stomach, weight gained from Lithium taken for twenty years.
"And bring the box back." Paul declares. "Just leave the whole thing,"
I say. In no time he's back, ready for more assignments,
I send him to retrieve chairs that people have hauled out
on the grass, to listen in a breeze.  He folds up twenty-five
and returns. My boss says, "Give him a five for a sandwich,
I'll get the van." Paul's eyes light up when I hand him the money.
I think of my son. I think of the shelter in San Francisco,
the Salvation Army Captain in Dallas, the jail in New Orleans.
Paul doesn't leave, he thinks we're all his friends.

Mary Ann Wehler

If you've any comments on this poem, Mary Ann Wehler would be pleased to hear from you.

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