102. Acquaintance

Once or twice he’d
Met her other times.
As he charged in,
Pushing the front door,
There she sat–
Ma nowhere in
Sight. “Your mom’s
Coming”: Louise
Crossed her legs.

James observed this
Grown-up in his home:
Unlike others,
This one fidgeted.
But then he liked
None of Riah’s
Friends. Miz
Hines, too fancy.
Too cranky, Miz Black.
Mrs. Kemp–his
Friends all called her
Names! James
Thought of leaving.
She glanced, miffed.
“What’s wrong? My slip
Show?”

James drew closer,
Circling round
About: what’s
Proper manners
Toward a bad adult?
How ought he to
Speak? He’d take a stab–
“Ma’am, I wonder–
May I ask
A question?” Louise
Shrugged. James
Coughed politely.
“Ma’am, are you–
A witch?”

Louise
Raised her eyes,
Taking time to
Measure his small
Face. She leaned
Forward: “May I
Ask you, boy,
A question?” His eyes
Widened. Louise, quick:
“You as smart as
Riah claims you are?”
He paused briefly–
Broke into a smile.
She thought: age don’t
Count, they’re all
The same.
Eyeing his tensed
Hands, she came alert:
Boy could be her
Ally in his house.
“What you holding?”,
Warming to her task:
Win him over.

James held paper.
He shrugged: “Just my quote.”
“A what? Quote?
What for?”
“For the Pageant.
At the fair, each one
Recites a quote.”
He offered it.
Louise waved it
Off–“No–see, I
Left my glasses.
Let’s hear it from
You!”
“Learned by heart.”
“Gee, that’s great”: she
Almost rolled her eyes. James
Took a breath.
         “Things base and vile, holding no quan-ti-ty,
          Love can transpose to form and dig-ni-ty.
          Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
          Therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

“Say,”
She said, “that’s first rate!
A quote! I know
Where it comes from,
Too! Do you?”
Peeved, James muttered, “No.”
“Why, it’s
Off a Valentine!” she said–
“Hey,” winningly,
“How’d you pick that
Quote?” James:
“Day they passed
The quotes out, I was
Sick. This one,
No one took. But–”
Brightening–“Stubbs’ is worse.”

“Who’s Stubbs?”
James paused,
Searching for
The words to do him
Justice–“Stubbs, same
Age as me.
Still can’t long
Divide. Can’t read
Boo. Just likes to
Fish.”
“So, what’s his quote?”
Louise was
Relaxing, leaning
Back. “They
Made him take
The shortest Bible verse. Shortest
One. You know
What that is?”–James,
Not to be outdone by her
This time.
“Hmm,” Louise reflected–
“‘Adam’s rib?'”
“Nope!” James triumphed:
“Very shortest
Verse is: “Jesus
Wept.”

“Yours is better,”
Louise said–“Yours
Rhymes. Mind, blind.
I love rhymes.
You heard this?”–she sang–
          “‘Gee, I’d like to
          See you looking swell, baby,
          Diamond bracelets
          Woolworth’s doesn’t sell, baby,
          Till that happy
          Day you know darn well, baby,
          I can’t give you–‘”

“Swell, sell,” James said–
He could find rhymes, too.
Then without
A warning, his eyes
Clouded–troubled, dark.
Louise watched his
Frown, and she was
Struck: Riah’s mouth.
“Got a question,” he said.
“That’s how come I
Asked if you’re a witch.”
Persistent, she thought.

“My ma’s dad,
Would have been my
Grampa. He’s
Dead.
Guess you heard. That
Fire.” James
Stopped here.
Louise, taken back:
“Yes? I know.”
“Well,” James frowned, “he’s
Buried. In the ground–
The cemetery.”
Louise waited.
Then prompted, impatient:
“So?”
“I mean–” his words, labored–
“I mean–
Down there, does he
Breathe? Is he
Asleep?”

Louise blinked.
“Asleep?
Asleep!
Lord have mercy,
No! The man is
Dead!”
“Yes,” said James, “well?”
“Well…dead….”
Louise stared, perplexed–
“You mean, what is
Dead?” She started
Pulling at her hair.
“Lawsy, this is
Crazy! Dead
Means no, he can’t
Breathe. No, and can’t
Move.”

James face was
Unquiet: “But
In his head he
Don’t talk to hisself?”
Louise squirmed, “No!
Dead! He can’t
Talk!
Not to you,
Can’t talk to hisself,
Can’t talk to God,
Can’t talk to his
Dog. No
Talking. That means
Dead.”
James pondered.

“And I’ll tell you
What else,” Louise offered,
In a noisy whisper,
Bending close: “From
What I hear, there
Wasn’t nothing
Left. Not a bone, after
You-know-what. No one’d
Seen such flames.
Just between us
He burned to
A crisp.” James’
Eyes on hers.

Louise in her
Most persuasive tone:
“You set fires,
Don’t you?”
James stepped back, not
About to answer.
Louise shrugged:
“Light a match,
It burns to black
Powder. Blows away.”
James sighed:
“Then what’s down there?
What’s inside
The box?”
“Nothing.
Reckon they
Pretended–for your ma.”
James appeared
Relieved. “And
Don’t you tell her
That I said that, neither.
She can’t stand this,
You know well as me. I–”

Through the front door
Riah stepped inside.
She stopped short.
“Your James
Has his quote here”:
Smooth as pie, Louise
Was all smiles.
James made note of
This, with high
Regard. Riah’d
Never guess,
From the blandness
Of Louise’s face:
“Taught the boy some
Rhymes. Riah,
Say–you ever
Heard this BurmaShave?
          ‘Dewhiskered
          Kisses
          Defrost
          The Misses.'”

Riah, looking
Skeptical, said
No.

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