28. A Lesson

The sewing club had been silent
That day. They sat and stitched,
Too tired to call or scold–
Though the children, noisy,
Played outside.

Riah, too, was quiet,
Feeling vexed:
One of James’ old shirts,
A month ago, she’d
Ripped into a rag.
Now it was stiff with grease.
I bet I could have saved it,
Holes or no. She blamed herself:
He needs a shirt.
More and more, these days,
She cast ahead,
Sitting at home, evenings,
In her chair.
There she sat
And counted out her change.
There she’d seen
Thread money was no more.
Poker-faced, today,
She plied her needle,
Ripping hems.
She pulled the curly threads
And laid them by, to use
Someday. She felt
Foolish; she felt poor.
And she worked quick,
Close to her lap.

“Ain’t it amazing,”
Mrs. Johns now spoke,
“How a body can make do.”
Old as Riah’s mother
Would have been, like all
The older women, she wore
Dark; she held up two
Men’s shirts. “These
Looked ‘most wasted, don’t they.
This one, holes in front,
That, thin in back.
But I’ll tell you what–”
Here she put the sleeves of one
Inside the other. “In ’93
My daddy’s running cattle,
The blizzard came, and froze
Most every head.
What was left we sold–
It’s like they say–
Butcher’s boy, he gets no
Meat. “Well,” she said,
“We had no coat,
Nor hide, nor how to buy.”
Riah, eyes on lap, had
Prepared to hear
Another blizzard tale–but
Looked up at “coat.”
“Well, I swan if my ma,
Didn’t take two shirts like these,
And sew one inside the other.
Sewed them extra
At the cuff, the neck, the hem.
They was Pa’s shirts,
But they made a jacket
For that clown, my brother,
Richard, kept him warm
Clear to his knees.
Who’d think of it?”
They lapsed to work again.

It haunted Riah
James now lacked a coat.
His old one he’d outgrown.
What grieved her worse,
This past winter, he’d never
Mentioned cold. Came home
Fast as he could,
Sat by the stove.
She worried that he thought
She didn’t know.
Now she reflected:
Mrs. Johns knew, certain,
Two shirts don’t make a coat–
But better than nothing,
Anyhow.

Home that night
She sewed two shirts together.
James kept coming by,
Hanging around.
“James?” She raised her face.
“The tenant-boys wear those
To school,” he offered.
She watched,
But his eyes were on
Her work. He was
Waiting. He’d been
Wanting one.

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