185. Afterward

“Where’s your mama?”
James glanced up.
On the porch steps
He sat, squashing ants,
Bouncing a red
Ball: “She got
A headache.”
Louise frowned.
She peered at his
Face, then toward
The house. Louise
Squared her shoulders,
Mounting squeaking

Through the silent
House she walked.
The kitchen: at
The table, Riah
Sat. Face in her hands.
By her, a tin
Can, scrap of
Cellophane and
Mound of purplish
Fruit: dried prunes.
Louise’s skin
I know that she’s
Heard me, Louise thought.

She advanced,
On the floor her
High heels clicking
Sharply. She dropped
To a chair.
Riah’s hair was
Unpinned, down her
Back. “That dame
Visit at your
House yet?”
A pause.
Louise nodded
Sagely. “Decent
Grocery order?”
She spoke archly:
Keep the Relief
Lady in her place.
By the sink there
Lay a sack of flour,
Six potatoes,
Too: her question,

“This it for all
Week? Well, could be
Worse. I guess Tom
Had a fit?”
Nothing. Yes.
“Well–” Louise, peeved,
Curt–“I’m sorry
It’s so hard for you.
What has this world
Come to? Upright
Folks have got to
Ask for grocery orders–”
“Same as I been
Getting, all this year!
Same’s I do.
Bet Tom’s scared you’ll
Be true low-lifes now.
Now you got your
Few worm-ate potatoes,
You’ll be trash, like
From the table,
Riah: “You are

“Ought to shake you!–”
Louise stepped up,
Spreading out her
Palm on Riah’s head.
Suddenly she
Pictured her own house:
On the rare days
When a cat strayed
By, Louise poured precious
Milk, to lure it in.
She would catch it,
Pet it in her lap,
Its fur smooth as
Riah’s chestnut hair. She’d
Talk with it–
Talk and talk till
She became uneasy. Then
She would tease:
She would tie waxed
Paper to its paws,
Watch it stumble
As it slipped away, until
The paper ripped, cat
Riah’s hair now
Flowed beneath her hand, like
Loamy water
Spilling down the chair.

When Louise spoke
Next, her voice was
Low. “Do you
Think I wouldn’t
Share my grocery order?
Think it never
Hit me, I could
Bring some stuff and
Leave it here with you?”
No reply.
Louise, struck:
Riah’d not
Expected help, not
Hoped? She pressed on:
“Biscuits, cornmeal,
Something that would
Take that pinched look
Off?–sure, I’d have
Brought it!”–her fists
Clenched–“but it would
Never do!
Because you been
Fighting it–” she
Reached for words–
“And pretending,
Riah–and you
Hadn’t learned, not
For real, anyhow, that
You was poor!”
Riah, silent;
Then, “I know it

Louise waited.
She let out her
Breath: enough of this!
Gently her hand
Drew up Riah’s
Head. From
The table Louise
Picked up a dried prune.
She was smiling
Her old, tired-out smile,
As she touched
The fruit to Riah’s lips.
“Eat–” she said, “they’re
Riah, eyes fixed
On Louise’s face,
Held back briefly–
Then put out her
Tongue. The food,

Smiled more widely,
Patted the brown head.
“Amazing thing,”
She said. “See, no
Matter where it
Comes from–it
Goes down.”

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