179. The Relief Lady

Leaning
By the window–
Watching Riah
Vanish down the street–
The Relief lady
In her office thought:
Hard one. At least
That one had her
Papers, and no tears.
When they cried,
What to do but
Wait?–and maybe
Offer coffee,
Straighten up the desk.
It was so much
Simpler all around,
When she and her
Clients played their part. But
They desired
Her to be their friend–
And to make these
Visits, morning teas.

But that would be,
Infinitely,
Worse. She
Could not leave them
Nameless–not with
All these forms–
So she left them
Faceless as she could,
Shielded as some
Rich man in a bank, from
Chatter, idle questions,
Stray opinions,
Hers or anyone’s.
Courteous and
Fair, she gave no speech.
Made her judgments,
Asking questions flat.
For her clients
She’d fight higher-ups,
Put off colleagues
With her pushing–
Clever, resolute.
When she asked for
Dollars or for
Coat or bread for
Mrs. So-and-so, then
So-and-so would
Get it in the end. She
Kept watch on their
Children, noting
Pain-dulled faces,
Charting failing
Weight: records, proof.
Argued with their
Landlords about
Rent. Foraged
For them, then left
Them alone. They
Hated her. Some
Screamed for more–
She bore their sharp
Words without complaint.

And me–she thought,
Standing by the window–
Won’t be me, my
Dear, that he will
Kill. Your man will
Take it out of
Your hide, when I’m
Gone. Or–maybe
Not this wife. With
Papers in her
Hand, and figures
In her head, this
One might hold her own.
Others came in
With their wrists bruised
Black, scabbed cuts near
Eyes–for having
Told their husbands:
Kids are starving,
And I called
Relief.
The men in her
Office could not
Face her–
Turned backs on her,
Could not face their
Wives. She’d heard them
on the street;
Those men mocked
The birthmark on her neck.

She leaned back now
In her office chair.
And now here I
Am, here at my
Desk: my job.
She thought back on
Her folks–immigrants. Back
In those days, her
Family had
Starved.
Starved in Boston,
Scrapped for food like
Dogs: nowhere to turn.

She stared off
Sharply:
This New Deal in
Its erratic,
Catch-as-catch-can,
Mad blunderbuss
Way–gave people
Bread.

Back in
College, down to
Eating once a day,
She had made her
Vow: to work for
Roosevelt.
Her dream had not
Faltered. True
At last.

At her desk,
She could now make
Bearable
The past.

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