236. Mr. Harlan

For a moment
Thomas’ eyes did not adjust.
The dark seemed so profound,
So unrelieved. But then–
A kerosene.
A bed. A chair.

They had seen this home, but not
Stripped bare. Inner
Doors ajar, and all revealing
Nothing. Every last
Belonging had been sold off,
Or used up. None,
Replaced. The shelves
With Mrs. Harlan’s china plates;
Her husband’s dad’s old guns;
Frames from off the pictures,
Sheets and headboard from the bed–
All was gone.
The kitchen, vacant.
Clothes-pegs, without clothes.

“Welcome!” Mrs. Harlan rose,
Waved them her chair.
“Rufe Guthrie! Sit down.
I’ll fix corn pone.
“No!” Mr. Guthrie winced:
To take her food!
But he spoke too quickly.
Her face fell.
She stood, washed-out, frail.

The wind howled,
And they stood.
“Truth is, Mrs. Harlan”–
Tom, surprised at his own voice–
“We’d best be home.
Wind’s high.”
He nodded north.
“But next time, though,
Sure thing.”
She smiled once more:
“At least–”

Flat on the mattress,
Mr. Harlan stirred.
He stared out a moment,
Seemed to wake.
He ain’t sick, thought Tom.
He’s had a stroke.

“Boys!” The old man’s
Face was radiant.
“Ain’t seen you in a coon’s age!
Where you been? And–”
Dazedly–“how come you
To stop by?”

They held their breath.
They looked at Mrs. Harlan.
“Husband,” she laughed lightly,
“Don’t you hear that ruckus out?
It’s black blizzard–
Boys drove in to plow.”

Then, the worst:
How Mr. Harlan’s face changed
As it slow came over him
What they had done.
There would be no pay-back,
On this one.
He knew it, too.

“Well,” said Mr. Harlan.
Mr. Guthrie spoke,
“Well, Hal,
We got to go–”
Seized the doorknob–
“We’ll see you,
Real soon.
By the Red and White,
Like used to be. You
Young ones here, you know
Him and me, we
Built it?”
He broke off,
No more to say.
They all nodded, murmured,
Filing out.

Last to leave,
His jacket in his hand,
Tom paused at the entrance,
Hanging back.
He frowned down at his kerchief,
Smoothed the knot.
“Mr. Harlan–”
Face to the wall, the old man
Turned his head.
“Sir, my tractor–
Might be slipping gears.
Makes the damnedest racket.
If I drove it here,
You’d take a listen for me?
Last spring, you said
Right off what was wrong.”

“Glad to, Tom!”
Tom almost shook his hand,
But then thought:
No, might can’t.
And shut the door.

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