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A Glass of Water

Here is a strange story. Years ago, at Caswell, I was out in the side yard by the street on a hot, sunny day, tending to a little flower bed I’d planted with dwarf zinnias, when a young woman approached me from the street, a stranger. She was of medium height and weight, dressed in shorts and a cotton blouse and sandals, and her honey-blond hair was very large and frizzy, in a style that was fashionable then.

Zinnia bedShe may have been pretty in an average way, but it was hard to say. Her face was very red, and although she was smiling, the smile was more like a wide, anguished grimace, and her eyes were teary and pleading. She was asking me a question, but I couldn’t make out what it was. She had to repeat it twice. Her voice was very faint, high and squeaky, as when a person is exhausted by the grip of racking sobs.

So it was hard for me to understand her, partly because her voice was so strained, partly because I was distracted by all these immediate observations, and also because what she said was so improbable. What she asked was, “Could I have a glass of water?”

I asked her if she was all right, and she said yes, she just needed a glass of water. I got her the water, and she drank it down. I asked again if she was okay and if she needed anything else. No, she just needed water.

I could see no car, no other person. She said she was walking and just got very thirsty and needed water. I repeated, doubtfully, “You’re all right? Is there something else that would help?” And she allowed that she would just like to sit and talk for a minute. I said okay, and we sat, right there on the grass.

She didn’t offer anything. Instead, she asked me about myself, basic questions, such as what did I do and where was I from. At the time, I was a philosophy professor. She said how interesting. We might have just been introduced at a casual party. After a few minutes, she got up and thanked me. She said, "Your students must really like you." I said I didn’t especially think so. Her face was still red and her voice weak, but she was relieved. She walked away, and I never saw her again.

I feel sure there was something more I could have or should have done. A person with any training or knack would have known. I am not good at that kind of thing. And who knows, maybe it would have turned out to be something I didn’t want anything to do with. All I can say is that I gave her what she said she wanted: a glass of water and a few minutes of ordinary company. But people so rarely ask for what they really need. She was in some sort of crisis. She evidently felt she could handle it if she could only collect herself. But don’t we always feel that way, and aren’t we often wrong.

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