207. At The Relief


Miss Flynn looked at Barker.
“Yes. When he was
Five,” his mother said.
James had tagged along, uneasy,
Eager: Riah would not let him
Near this place. His eyes
Swept the chairs, files, walls.

“We got to have more food.
They’re getting sick.”
“Father gone since ’34?”
“That’s right.” Barker’s mom
Seemed inattentive, eyes with
Dead calm on the desk.
James peered sharply:
Miss Flynn’s face expressed
No change.
“Them food slips….”
Barker’s mother plodded on,
“Sure don’t mean to sound ungrateful–”
“Well now!” Miss Flynn cut her off.
The other glanced at her,
Surprised: they liked that speech.

Miss Flynn drew some circles
With her pencil. One, two,
Three….James counted nine.
Then, “I don’t guess
It was scarlet fever?”:
Miss Flynn dropped her eyes.
Something’s up, James thought;
Her fingers smoothed a form.
Barker’s mom watched close,
Biding her time.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am?”

Miss Flynn skimmed a file.
She said, offhanded:
“I have extra funding,
Just came through, earmarked
For scarlet fever victims.
Specifically, for children under
Twelve. Channeled through this
Office, I suppose
It could be added to
The grocery order.”

Barker’s mother raised her head.
She was about to lie now,
That James knew, and yet
There was no look of lying,
Cunning, sly;
It was the face of truth–
Her eyes were clear, her cheeks
Flamed with conviction.
Her voice was vibrant, low, as she
Met Miss Flynn’s level gaze:
“You know, they never did
Explain it good.
I don’t catch those big words.
Nurse said meningitis.
Doctor, I remember, he come in,
He says, ‘Scarlet fever.'”
“Ah,” said Miss Flynn.
“Please sign your name,
With letters, or an X.”

As they rose, Miss Flynn
Walked up to Barker.
She crouched down. “If
He could hear till five, then,”
She commented, “he can talk.”
“Don’t come out right,” his mom said.
Miss Flynn considered.
“There’s a school in Austin.
He might go.”
“He got to stay here,
Right here with his mama,
Relief Lady”: James spoke up,
Shocked at himself.
“They all chop and pick here,
When it rains.
Takes care of his brother, too.
Told me he won’t go nowhere.”
“I see,” replied Miss Flynn.
She turned to Barker.
“Can you talk?”

          I TALK FINE I. SURE,
          YOU JUST DON’T HEAR.

James dragged out Barker by the hand,
Still signing fast, venomously–
“He says, thank you, ma’am”–
James tried a smile–
“Says he’s just a poor deaf boy,
He don’t know.”
She nodded, watching evenly,
And let them go.

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